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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 22430

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Thought is free, as sages tells us-

Free to rove, and free to soar;

But affection lives in bondage,

That enthrals her more and more."


An old friend lived in the neighbourhood who remembered Fanny's father, and was very anxious to see her again, though not able to leave the house. So the first day that it was fine enough for Mrs. Curtis to venture out, she undertook to convey Fanny to call upon her, and was off with a wonderfully moderate allowance of children, only the two youngest boys outside with their maid. This drive brought more to light about Fanny's past way of life and feelings than had ever yet appeared. Rachel had never elicited nearly so much as seemed to have come forth spontaneously to the aunt, who had never in old times been Fanny's confidante.

Fanny's life had been almost a prolonged childhood. From the moment of her marriage with the kind old General, he and her mother had conspired to make much of her; all the more that she was almost constantly disabled by her state of health, and was kept additionally languid and helpless by the effects of climate. Her mother had managed her household, and she had absolutely had no care, no duty at all but to be affectionate and grateful, and to be pretty and gracious at the dinner parties. Even in her mother's short and sudden illness, the one thought of both the patient and the General had been to spare Fanny, and she had been scarcely made aware of the danger, and not allowed to witness the suffering. The chivalrous old man who had taken on himself the charge of her, still regarded the young mother of his children as almost as much of a baby herself, and devoted himself all the more to sparing her trouble, and preventing her from feeling more thrown upon her by her mother's death. The notion of training her to act alone never even occurred to him, and when he was thrown from his horse, and carried into a wayside-hut to die, his first orders were that no hurried message might be sent to her, lest she might be startled and injured by the attempt to come to him. All he could do for her was to leave her in the charge of his military secretary, who had long been as a son to him. Fanny told her aunt with loving detail all that she had heard from Major Keith of the brave old man's calm and resigned end-too full of trust even to be distressed with alarms for the helpless young wife and children, but committing them in full reliance to the care of their Father in heaven, and to the present kindness of the friend who stood by his pillow.

The will, which not only Rachel but her mother thought strangely unguarded, had been drawn up in haste, because Sir Stephen's family had outgrown the provisions of a former one, which had besides designated her mother, and a friend since dead, as guardians. Haste, and the conscious want of legal knowledge, had led to its being made as simple as possible, and as it was, Sir Stephen had scarcely had the power to sign it.

It was Major Keith who had borne the tidings to the poor little widow, and had taken the sole care of the boys during the sad weeks of care utter prostration and illness. Female friends were with her, and tended her affectionately, but if exertion or thought were required of her, the Major had to be called to her sofa to awaken her faculties, and she always awoke to attend to his wishes, as though he were the channel of her husband's. This state of things ended with the birth of the little girl, the daughter that Sir Stephen had so much wished for, coming too late to be welcomed by him, but awakening her mother to tearful joy and renewed powers of life. The nine months of little Stephana's life had been a tone of continual change and variety, of new interests and occupations, and of the resumption of a feeling of health which had scarcely been tasted since the first plunge into warm climates. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect to find Fanny broken down; and she talked in her own simple way with abundant overflowing affection of her husband; but even Mrs. Curtis thought it was to her more like the loss of her own father than of the father of her children; and though not in the least afraid of anything unbecoming in her gentle, retiring Fanny, still felt that it was more the charge of a girl than of a widow, dreaded the boys, dreaded their fate, and dreaded the Major more.

During this drive, Grace and Rachel had the care of the elder boys, whom Rachel thought safer in her keeping than in Coombe's. A walk along the cliffs was one resource for their amusement, but it resulted in Conrade's climbing into the most break-neck places, by preference selecting those that Rachel called him out of, and as all the others thought it necessary to go after him, the jeopardy of Leoline and Hubert became greater than it was possible to permit; so Grace took them by the hands, and lured them home with promises of an introduction to certain white rabbits at the lodge. After their departure, their brothers became infinitely more obstreperous. Whether it were that Conrade had some slight amount of consideration for the limbs of his lesser followers, or whether the fact were-what Rachel did not remotely imagine-that he was less utterly unmanageable with her sister than with herself, certain it is that the brothers went into still more intolerable places, and treated their guardian as ducklings treat an old hen. At last they quite disappeared from the view round a projecting point of rock, and when she turned it, she found a battle royal going on over an old lobster-pot-Conrade hand to hand with a stout fisher-boy, and Francis and sundry amphibious creatures of both sexes exchanging a hail of stones, water-smoothed brick-bats, cockle-shells, fishes' backbones, and other unsavoury missiles. Abstractedly, Rachel had her theory that young gentlemen had better scramble their way among their poor neighbours, and become used to all ranks; but when it came to witnessing an actual skirmish when she was responsible for Fanny's sons, it was needful to interfere, and in equal dismay and indignation she came round the point. The light artillery fled at her aspect, and she had to catch Francis's arm in the act of discharging after them a cuttlefish's white spine, with a sharp "For shame, they are running away! Conrade, Zack, have done!" Zack was one of her own scholars, and held her in respect.

He desisted at once, and with a touch of his rough forelock, looked sheepish, and said, "Please ma'am, he was meddling with our lobster-pot."

"I wasn't doing any harm," said Conrade. "I was just looking in, and they all came and shied stones at us."

"I don't care how the quarrel began," said Rachel. "You would not have run into it if you had been behaving properly. Zack was quite right to protect his father's property, but he might have been more civil. Now shake hands, and have done with it."

"Not shake hands with a low boy," growled Francis. But happily Conrade was of a freer spirit, and in spite of Rachel's interference, had sense enough to know himself in the wrong. He held out his hand, and when the ceremony had been gone through, put his hands in his pockets, produced a shilling, and said, "There, that's in case I did the thing any harm." Rachel would have preferred Zachary's being above its acceptance, but he was not, and she was thankful that a wood path offend itself, leading through the Homestead plantations away from the temptations and perils of the shore.

That the two boys, instead of listening to her remonstrance, took to punching and kicking one another, was a mitigated form of evil for which she willingly compounded, having gone through so much useless interference already, that she felt as if she had no spirit left to keep the peace, and that they must settle their little affairs between themselves. It was the most innocent diversion in which she could hope to see them indulge. She only desired that it might last them past a thrush's nest, in the hedge between the park and plantation, a somewhat treasured discovery of Grace's. No such good luck. Either the thrush's imprudence or Grace's visits had made the nest dangerously visible, and it was proclaimed with a shout. Rachel, in hot haste, warned them against taking birds'-nests in general, and that in particular.

"Nests are made to be taken," said Francis.

"I've got an egg of all the Australian birds the Major could get me," said Conrade, "and I mean to have all the English ones."

"Oh, one egg; there's no harm in taking that; but this nest has young birds."

The young birds must of course be seen, and Rachel stood by with despairing frowns, commands, and assurances of their mother's displeasure, while they peeped in, tantalized the gaping yellow throats, by holding up their fingers, and laid hands on the side of the nest, peeping at her with laughing, mischievous eyes, enjoying her distress. She was glad at last to find them coming away without the nest, and after crossing the park, arrived at the house, tired out, but with two hours of the boys still on her hands. They, however, were a little tired, too; and, further, Grace had hunted out the old bowls, much to the delight of the younger ones. This sport lasted a good while, but at last the sisters, who had relaxed their attention a little, perceived that Conrade and Hubert were both missing, and on Rachel's inquiry where they were, she received from Francis that elegant stock answer, "in their skins." However, they came to light in process of time, the two mothers returned home, and Mrs. Curtis and Grace had the conversation almost in their own hands. Rachel was too much tired to do anything but read the new number of her favourite "Traveller's Magazine," listening to her mother with one ear, and gathering additional impressions of Sir Stephen Temple's imprudence, and the need of their own vigilance. To make Fanny feel that she could lean upon some one besides the military secretary, seemed to be the great object, and she was so confiding and affectionate with her own kin, that there were great hopes. Those boys were an infliction, no doubt, but, thought Rachel, "there is always an ordeal at the beginning of one's mission. I am mastering them by degrees, and should do so sooner if I had them in my own hands, and no more worthy task can be done than training human beings for their work in this world, so I must be willing to go through a little while I bring them into order, and fit their mother for managing them."

She spent the time before breakfast the next morning in a search among the back numbers of the "Traveller's Magazine" for a paper upon "Educational Laws," which she thought would be very good reading for Fanny. Her search had been just completed when Grace returned home from church, looking a good deal distressed. "My poor thrushes have not escaped, Rachel," she said; "I came home that way to see how they were going on, and the nest is torn out, one poor little fellow lying dead below it."

"Well, that is much worse than I expected!" burst out Rachel. "I did think that boy Conrade would at least keep his promises." And she detailed the adventure of t

he previous day, whence the conclusion was but too evident. Grace, however, said in her own sweet manner that she believed boys could not resist a nest, and thought it mere womanhood to intercede for such lawful game. She thought it would be best to take no notice, it would only distress Fanny and make "the mother" more afraid of the boys than she was already, and she doubted the possibility of bringing it home to the puerile conscience.

"That is weak!" said Rachel. "I received the boy's word, and it is my business to deal with the breach of promise."

So down went Rachel, and finding the boys rushing about the garden, according to their practice, before her arrival, she summoned Conrade, and addressed him with, "Well, Conrade, I knew that you were violent and disobedient, but I never expected you to fail in your honour as a gentleman."

"I'll thrash any one who says I have," hotly exclaimed Conrade.

"Then you must thrash me. You gave your word to me not to take your Aunt Grace's thrush's nest."

"And I didn't," said Conrade, boldly.

But Rachel, used to flat denials at the village-school, was not to be thus set aside. "I am shocked at you, Conrade," she said. "I know your mamma will be exceedingly grieved. You must have fallen into very sad ways to be able to utter such a bold untruth. You had better confess at once, and then I shall have something to tell her that will comfort he."

Conrade's dark face looked set as iron.

"Come; tell me you are sorry you took the nest, and have broken your word, and told a falsehood."

Red colour flushed into the brown cheek, and the hands were clenched.

"There is not the smallest use in denying it. I know you took it when you and Hubert went away together. Your Aunt Grace found it gone this morning, and one of the poor little birds dead below. What have you done with the others?"

Not a word.

"Then I grieve to say I must tell all to your mother."

There was a sort of smile of defiance, and he followed her. For a moment she thought of preventing this, and preparing Fanny in private, but recollecting that this would give him the opportunity of preparing Hubert to support his falsehood, she let him enter with her, and sought Lady Temple in the nursery.

"Dear Fanny, I am very sorry to bring you so much vexation. I am afraid it will be a bitter grief to you, but it is only for Conrade's own sake that I do it. It was a cruel thing to take a bird's-nest at all, but worse when he knew that his Aunt Grace was particularly fond of it; and, besides, he had promised not to touch it, and now, saddest of all, he denies having done so."

"Oh, Conrade, Conrade!" cried Fanny, quite confounded, "You can't have done like this!"

"So, I have not," said Conrade, coming up to her, as she held out her hand, positively encouraging him, as Rachel thought, to persist in the untruth.

"Listen, Fanny," said Rachel. "I do not wonder that you are unwilling to believe anything so shocking, but I do not come without being only too certain." And she gave the facts, to which Fanny listened with pale cheeks and tearful eyes, then turned to the boy, whose hand she had held all the time, and said, "Dear Con, do pray tell me if you did it."

"I did not," said Conrade, wrenching his hand away, and putting it behind his back.

"Where's Hubert?" asked Rachel, looking round, and much vexed when she perceived that Hubert had been within hearing all the time, though to be sure there was some little hope to be founded upon the simplicity of five years old.

"Come here, Hubert dear," said his mother; "don't be frightened, only come and tell me where you and Con went yesterday, when the others were playing at bowls." Hubert hung his head, and looked at his brother.

"Tell," quoth Conrade. "Never mind her, she's only a civilian."

"Where did you go, Hubert?"

"Con showed me the little birds in their nest."

"That is right, Hubert, good little boy. Did you or he touch the nest?"

"Yes." Then, as Conrade started, and looked fiercely at him, "Yes you did, Con, you touched the inside to see what it was made of."

"But what did you do with it?" asked Rachel.

"Left it there, up in the tree," said the little boy.

"There, Rachel!" said the mother, triumphantly.

"I don't know what you mean," said Rachel, angrily, "only that Conrade is a worse boy than I had thought him, end has been teaching his little brother falsehood."

The angry voice set Hubert crying, and little Cyril, who was very soft-hearted, joined in chorus, followed by the baby, who was conscious of something very disagreeable going on in her nursery. Thereupon, after the apparently most important business of comforting Miss Temple had been gone through, the court of justice adjourned, Rachel opening the door of Conrade's little room, and recommending solitary imprisonment there till he should be brought to confession. She did not at all reckon on his mother going in with him, and shutting the door after her. It was not the popular notion of solitary confinement, and Rachel was obliged to retire, and wait in the drawing-room for a quarter of an hour before Fanny came down, and then it was to say-

"Do you know, Rachel dear, I am convinced that it must be a mistake. Conrade assures me he never touched the nest."

"So he persists in it?"

"And indeed, Rachel dear, I cannot help believing him. If it had been Francie, now; but I never knew Conrade tell an untruth in his life."

"You never knew, because you always believe him."

"And it is not only me, but I have often heard the Major say he could always depend on Conrade's word."

Rachel's next endeavour was at gentle argument. "It must be dreadful to make such a discovery, but it was far worse to let deceit go on undetected; and if only they were firm-" At that moment she beheld two knickerbocker boys prancing on the lawn.

"Didn't you lock the door? Has he broken out? How audacious!"

"I let him come out," said Fanny; "there was nothing to shut him up for. I beg your pardon, dear Rachel; I am very sony for the poor little birds and for Grace, but I am sure Conrade did not take it."

"How can you be so unreasonable, Fanny-the evidence," and Rachel went over it all again.

"Don't you think," said Fanny, "that some boy may have got into the park?"

"My dear Fanny, I am sorry for you, it is quite out of the question to think so; the place is not a stone's-throw from Randall's lodge. It will be the most fatal thing in the world to let your weakness be imposed on in this way. Now that the case is clear, the boy must be forced to confession, and severely punished."

Fanny burst into tears.

"I am very sorry for you, Fanny. I know it is very painful; I assure you it is so to me. Perhaps it would be best if I were to lock him up, and go from time to time to see if he is come to a better mind."

She rose up.

"No, no, Rachel!" absolutely screamed Fanny, starting up, "my boy hasn't done anything wrong, and I won't have him locked up! Go away! If anything is to be done to my boys, I'll do it myself: they haven't got any one but me. Oh, I wish the Major would come!"

"Fanny, how can you be so foolish?-as if I would hurt your boys!"

"But you won't believe Conrade-my Conrade, that never told a falsehood in his life!" cried the mother, with a flush in her cheeks and a bright glance in her soft eyes. "You want me to punish him for what he hasn't done."

"How much alike mothers are in all classes of life," thought Rachel, and much in the way in which she would have brought Zack's mother to reason by threats of expulsion from the shoe-club, she observed, "Well Fanny, one thing is clear, while you are so weak as to let that boy go on in his deceit, unrepentant and unpunished, I can have no more to do with his education."

"Indeed," softly said Fanny, "I am afraid so, Rachel. You have taken a great deal of trouble, but Conrade declares he will never say a lesson to you again, and I don't quite see how to make him after this."

"Oh, very well; then there's an end of it. I am sorry for you, Fanny."

And away walked Rachel, and as she went towards the gate two artificial jets d'eau, making a considerable curve in the air, alighted, the one just before her, the other, better aimed, in the back of her neck. She had too much dignity to charge back upon the offenders, but she went home full of the story of Fanny's lamentable weakness, and prognostications of the misery she was entailing on herself. Her mother and sister were both much concerned, and thought Fanny extremely foolish; Mrs. Curtis consoling herself with the hope that the boys would be cured and tamed at school, and begging that they might never be let loose in the park again. Rachel could not dwell much longer on the matter, for she had to ride to Upper Avon Park to hold council on the books to be ordered for the book-club; for if she did got go herself, whatever she wanted especially was always set aside as too something or other for the rest of the subscribers.

Mrs. Curtis was tired, and stayed at home; and Grace spent the afternoon in investigations about the harrying of the thrushes, but, alas! without coming a bit nearer the truth. Nothing was seen or heard of Lady Temple till, at half-past nine, one of the midges, or diminutive flies used at Avonmonth, came to the door, and Fanny came into the drawing-room-wan, tearful, agitated.

"Dear Rachel, I am so afraid I was hasty, I could not sleep without coming to tell you how sorry I am."

"Then you are convinced? I knew you would be."

"Oh, yes, I have just been sitting by him after he was gone to bed. He never goes to sleep till I have done that, and he always tells me if anything is on his mind. I could not ask him again, it would have been insulting him; but he went over it all of himself, and owned he ought not to have put a finger on the edge of the nest, but he wanted so to see what it was lined with; otherwise he never touched it. He says, poor boy, that it was only your being a civilian that made you not able to believe him, I am sure you must believe him now."

Mrs. Curtis began, in her gentle way, about the difficulty of believing one's children in fault, but Lady Temple was entirely past accepting the possibility of Conrade's being to blame in this particular instance. It made her bristle up again, so that even Rachel saw the impossibility of pressing it, and trusted to some signal confutation to cure her of her infatuation. But she was as affectionate as ever, only wanting to be forgiven for the morning's warmth, and to assure dear Aunt Curtis, dear Grace, and dearest Rachel in particular, that there was no doing without them, and it was the greatest blessing to be near them.

"Oh! and the squirting, dear Rachel! I was so sorry when I found it out, it was only Francie and Leo. I was very angry with them for it, and I should like to make them ask pardon, only I don't think Francie would. I'm afraid they are very rude boys. I must write to the Major to find me a governess that won't be very strict with them, and if she could be an officer's daughter, the boys would respect her so much more."

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