MoboReader > Literature > The Clever Woman of the Family

   Chapter 4 THE HERO.

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 19624

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"And which is Lucy's? Can it be

That puny fop, armed cap-a-pie,

Who loves in the saloon to show

The arms that never knew a foe."-SCOTT.

"My lady's compliments, ma'am, and she would he much obliged if you would remain till she comes home," was Coombe's reception of Alison. "She is gone to Avoncester with Master Temple and Master Francis."

"Gone to Avoncester!" exclaimed Rachel, who had walked from church to Myrtlewood with Alison.

"Mamma is gone to meet the Major!" cried three of the lesser boys, rushing upon them in full cry; then Leoline, facing round, "Not the major, he is lieutenant-colonel now-Colonel Keith, hurrah!"

"What-what do you mean? Speak rationally, Leoline, if you can."

"My lady sent a note to the Homestead this morning," explained Coombe. "She heard this morning that Colonel Keith intended to arrive to-day, and took the young gentlemen with her to meet him."

Rachel could hardly refrain from manifesting her displeasure, and bluntly asked what time Lady Temple was likely to be at home.

"It depended," Coombe said, "upon the train; it was not certain whether Colonel Keith would come by the twelve or the two o'clock train."

And Rachel was going to turn sharply round, and dash home with the tidings, when Alison arrested her with the question-

"And who is Colonel Keith?"

Rachel was too much wrapped up in her own view to hear the trembling of the voice, and answered, "Colonel Keith! why, the Major! You have not been here so long without hearing of the Major?"

"Yes, but I did not know. Who is he?" And a more observant person would have seen the governess's gasping effort to veil her eagerness under her wonted self-control.

"Don't you know who the Major is?" shouted Leoline. "He is our military secretary."

"That's the sum total of my knowledge," said Rachel, "I don't understand his influence, nor know where he was picked up."

"Nor his regiment?"

"He is not a regimental officer; he is on our staff," said Leoline, whose imagination could not attain to an earlier condition than "on our staff."

"I shall go home, then," said Rachel, "and see if there is any explanation there."

"I shall ask the Major not to let Aunt Rachel come here," observed Hubert, as she departed; it was well it was not before.

"Leoline," anxiously asked Alison, "can you tell me the Major's name?"

"Colonel Keith-Lieutenant-Colonel Keith," was all the answer.

"I meant his Christian name, my dear."

"Only little boys have Christian names!" they returned, and Alison was forced to do her best to tame herself and them to the duties of the long day of anticipation so joyous on their part, so full of confusion and bewildered anxiety on her own. She looked in vain, half stealthily, as often before, for a recent Army List or Peerage. Long ago she had lost the Honourable Colin A. Keith from among the officers of the -th Highlanders, and though in the last Peerage she had laid hands on he was still among the surviving sons of the late Lord Keith, of Gowanbrae, the date had not gone back far enough to establish that he had not died in the Indian war. It was fear that predominated with her, there were many moments when she would have given worlds to be secure that the newcomer was not the man she thought of, who, whether constant or inconstant, could bring nothing but pain and disturbance to the calm tenour of her sister's life. Everything was an oppression to her; the children, in their wild, joyous spirits and gladsome inattention, tried her patience almost beyond her powers; the charge of the younger ones in their mother's absence was burthensome, and the delay in returning to her sister became well-nigh intolerable, when she figured to herself Rachel Curtis going down to Ermine with the tidings of Colonel Keith's arrival, and her own discontent at his influence with her cousin. Would that she had spoken a word of warning; yet that might have been merely mischievous, for the subject was surely too delicate for Rachel to broach with so recent a friend. But Rachel had bad taste for anything! That the little boys did not find Miss Williams very cross that day was an effect of the long habit of self-control, and she could hardly sit still under the additional fret, when, just as tea was spread for the school-room party, in walked Miss Rachel, and sat herself down, in spite of Hubert, who made up a most coaxing, entreating face, as he said, "Please, Aunt Rachel, doesn't Aunt Grace want you very much!"

"Not at all. Why, Hubert?"

"Oh, if you would only go away, and not spoil our fun when the Major comes."

For once Rachel did laugh, but she did not take the hint, and Alison obtained only the satisfaction of hearing that she had at least not been in Mackarel Lane. The wheels sounded on the gravel, out rushed the boys; Alison and Rachel sat in strange, absolute silence, each forgetful of the other, neither guarding her own looks, nor remarking her companion's. Alison's lips were parted by intense listening; Rachel's teeth were set to receive her enemy. There was a chorus of voices in the hall, and something about tea and coming in warned both to gather up their looks before Lady Temple had opened the door, and brought in upon them not one foe, but two! Was Rachel seeing double? Hardly that, for one was tall, bald, and bearded, not dangerously young, but on that very account the more dangerously good-looking; and the other was almost a boy, slim and light, just of the empty young officer type. Here, too, was Fanny, flushed, excited, prettier and brighter than Rachel had seen her at all, waving an introduction with head and hand; and the boys hanging round the Major with deafening exclamations of welcome, in which they were speedily joined by the nursery detachment. Those greetings, those observations on growth and looks, those glad, eager questions and answers, were like the welcome of an integral part of the family; it was far more intimate and familiar than had been possible with the Curtises after the long separation, and it was enough to have made the two spectators feel out of place, if such a sensation had been within Rachel's capacity, or if Alison had not been engaged with the tea. Lady Temple made a few explanations, sotto voce, to Alison, whom she always treated as though in dread of not being sufficiently considerate. "I do hope the children have been good; I knew you would not mind; I could not wait to see you, or I should have been too late to meet the train, and then he would have come by the coach; and it is such a raw east wind. He must be careful in this climate."

"How warm and sunshiny it has been all day," said Rachel, by way of opposition to some distant echo of this whisper.

"Sunshiny, but treacherous," answered Colonel Keith; "there are cold gusts round corners. This must be a very sheltered nook of the coast."

"Quite a different zone from Avoncester," said the youth.

"Yes, delightful. I told you it was just what would suit you," added Fanny, to the colonel.

"Some winds are very cold here," interposed Rachel. "I always pity people who are imposed upon to think it a Mentone near home. They are choking our churchyard."

"Very inconsiderate of them," muttered the young man.

"But what made you come home so late, Fanny?" said Rachel.

Alison suspected a slight look of wonder on the part of both the officers at hearing their general's wife thus called to account; but Fanny, taking it as a matter of course, answered, "We found that the-th was at Avoncester. I had no idea of it, and they did not know I was here; so I went to call upon Mrs. Hammond, and Colonel Keith went to look for Alick, and we have brought him home to dine."

Fanny took it for granted that Rachel must know who Alick was, but she was far from doing so, though she remembered that the -th had been her uncle's regiment, and had been under Sir Stephen Temple's command in India at the time of the mutiny. The thought of Fanny's lapsing into military society was shocking to her. The boys were vociferating about boats, ponies, and all that had been deferred till the Major's arrival, and he was answering them kindly, but hushing the extra outcry less by word than sign, and his own lowered voice and polished manner-a manner that excessively chafed her as a sort of insult to the blunt, rapid ways that she considered as sincere and unaffected, a silkiness that no doubt had worked on the honest, simple general, as it was now working on the weak young widow. Anything was better than leaving her to such influence, and in pursuance of the intention that Rachel had already announced at home, she invited herself to stay to dinner; and Fanny eagerly thanked her, for making it a little less dull for Colonel Keith and Alick. It was so good to come down and help. Certainly Fanny was an innocent creature, provided she was not spoilt, and it was a duty to guard her innocence.

Alison Williams escaped to her home, sure of nothing but that her sister must not be allowed to share her uncertainties; and Lady Temple and her guests sat down to dinner. Rachel meant to have sat at the bottom and carved, as belonging to the house; but Fanny motioned the Colonel to the place, observing, "It is so natural to see you there! One only wants poor Captain Dent at the other end. Do you know whether he has his leave?"

Wherewith commenced a discussion of military friends-who had been heard of from Australia, who had been met in England, who was promoted, who married, who retired, &c., and all the quarters of the-th since its return from India two years ago; Fanny eagerly asking questions and making remarks, quite at home and all animation, absolutely a different being from the subdued, meek little creature that Rachel had hither

to seen. Attempts were made to include Miss Curtis in the conversation by addressing anecdotes to her, and asking if she knew the places named; but she had been to none, and the three old friends quickly fell into the swing of talk about what interested them. Once, however, she came down on them with, "What conclusion have you formed upon female emigration?"

"'His sister she went beyond the seas,

And died an old maid among black savagees.'

"That's the most remarkable instance of female emigration on record, isn't it?" observed Alick.

"What; her dying an old maid?" said Colonel Keith. "I am not sure. Wholesale exportations of wives are spoiling the market."

"I did not mean marriage," said Rachel, stoutly. "I am particularly anxious to know whether there is a field open to independent female labour."

"All the superior young women seemed to turn nurserymaids," said the Colonel.

"Oh," interposed Fanny, "do you remember that nice girl of ours who would marry that Orderly-Sergeant O'Donoghoe? I have had a letter from her in such distress."

"Of course, the natural termination," said Alick, in his lazy voice.

"And I thought you would tell me how to manage sending her some help," proceeded Fanny.

"I could have helped you, Fanny. Won't an order do it?"

"Not quite," said Fanny, a shade of a smile playing on her lip. "It is whether to send it through one of the officers or not. If Captain Lee is with the regiment, I know he would take care of it for her."

So they plunged into another regiment, and Rachel decided that nothing was so wearisome as to hear triflers talk shop.

There was no opportunity of calling Fanny to order after dinner, for she went off on her progress to all the seven cribs, and was only just returning from them when the gentlemen came in, and then she made room for the younger beside her on the sofa, saying, "Now, Alick, I do so want to hear about poor, dear little Bessie;" and they began so low and confidentially, that Rachel wondered if her alarms wore to be transfered from the bearded colonel to the dapper boy, or if, in very truth, she must deem poor Fanny a general coquette. Besides, a man must be contemptible who wore gloves at so small a party, when she did not.

She had been whiling away the time of Fanny's absence by looking over the books on the table, and she did not regard the present company sufficiently to desist on their account. Colonel Keith began to turn over some numbers of the "Traveller" that lay near him, and presently looked up, and said, "Do you know who is the writer of this?"

"What is it? Ah! one of the Invalid's essays. They strike every one; but I fancy the authorship is a great secret."

"You do not know it?"

"No, I wish I did. Which of them are you reading? 'Country Walks.' That is not one that I care about, it is a mere hash of old recollections; but there are some very sensible and superior ones, so that I have heard it sometimes doubted whether they are man's or woman's writing. For my part, I think them too earnest to be a man's; men always play with their subject."

"Oh, yes," said Fanny, "I am sure only a lady could have written anything so sweet as that about flowers in a sick-room; it so put me in mind of the lovely flowers you used to bring me one at a time, when I was ill at Cape Town."

There was no more sense to be had after those three once fell upon their reminiscences.

That night, after having betrayed her wakefulness by a movement in her bed, Alison Williams heard her sister's voice, low and steady, saying, "Ailie, dear, be it what it may, guessing is worse than certainty."

"Oh, Ermine, I hoped-I know nothing-I have nothing to tell."

"You dread something," said Ermine; "you have been striving for unconcern all the evening, my poor dear, but surely you know, Ailie, that nothing is so bad while we share it."

"And I have frightened you about nothing."

"Nothing! nothing about Edward?"

"Oh, no, no!"

"And no one has made you uncomfortable?"

"No."

"Then there is only one thing that it can be, Ailie, and you need not fear to tell me that. I always knew that if he lived I must be prepared for it, and you would not have hesitated to tell me of his death."

"It is not that, indeed it is not, Ermine, it is only this-that I found to-day that Lady Temple's major has the same name."

"But you said she was come home. You must have seen him."

"Yes, but I should not know him. I had only seen him once, remember, twelve years ago, and when I durst not look at him."

"At least," said Ermine, quickly, "you can tell me what you saw to-day."

"A Scotch face, bald head, dark beard, grizzled hair."

"Yes I am grey, and he was five years older; but he used not to have a Scotch face. Can you tell me about his eyes?"

"Dark," I think.

"They were very dark blue, almost black. Time and climate must have left them alone. You may know him by those eyes, Ailie. And you could not make out anything about him?"

"No, not even his Christian name nor his regiment. I had only the little ones and Miss Rachel to ask, and they knew nothing. I wanted to keep this from you till I was sure, but you always find me out."

"Do you think I couldn't see the misery you were in all the evening, poor child? But now you have had it out, sleep, and don't be distressed."

"But, Ermine, if you-"

"My dear, I am thankful that nothing is amiss with you or Edward. For the rest, there is nothing but patience. Now, not another word; you must not lose your sleep, nor take away my chance of any."

How much the sisters slept they did not confide to one another, but when they rose, Alison shook her head at her sister's heavy eyelids, and Ermine retorted with a reproachful smile at certain dark tokens of sleeplessness under Alison's eyes.

"No, not the flowered flimsiness, please," she said, in the course of her toilette, "let me have the respectable grey silk." And next she asked for a drawer, whence she chose a little Nuremberg horn brooch for her neck. "I know it is very silly," she said, "but I can't quite help it. Only one question, Ailie, that I thought of too late. Did he hear your name?"

"I think not, Lady Temple named nobody. But why did you not ask me last night?"

"I thought beginning to talk again would destroy your chance of sleep, and we had resolved to stop."

"And, Ermine, if it be, what shall I do?"

"Do as you feel right at the moment," said Ermine, after a moment's pause. "I cannot tell how it may be. I have been thinking over what you told me about the Major and Lady Temple."

"Oh, Ermine, what a reproof this is for that bit of gossip."

"Not at all, my dear, the warning may be all the better for me," said Ermine, with a voice less steady than her words. "It is not what, under the circumstances, I could think likely in the Colin whom I knew; but were it indeed so, then, Ailie, you had better say nothing about me, unless he found you out. We would get employment elsewhere."

"And I must leave you to the suspense all day."

"Much better so. The worst thing we could do would be to go on talking about it. It is far better for me to be left with my dear little unconscious companion."

Alison tried to comfort herself with this belief through the long hours of the morning, during which she only heard that mamma and Colonel Keith were gone to the Homestead, and she saw no one till she came forth with her troop to the midday meal.

And there, at sight of Lady Temple's content and calm, satisfied look, as though she were once more in an accustomed atmosphere, and felt herself and the boys protected, and of the Colonel's courteous attention to her and affectionate authority towards her sons, it was an absolute pang to recognise the hue of eye described by Ermine; but still Alison tried to think them generic Keith eyes, till at length, amid the merry chatter of her pupils, came an appeal to "Miss Williams," and then came a look that thrilled through her, the same glance that she had met for one terrible moment twelve years before, and renewing the same longing to shrink from all sight or sound. How she kept her seat and continued to attend to the children she never knew, but the voices sounded like a distant Babel; and she did not know whether she were most relieved, disappointed, or indignant when she left the dining-room to take the boys for their walk. Oh, that Ermine could be hid from all knowledge of what would be so much harder to bear than the death in which she had long believed!

Harder to bear? Yes, Ermine had already been passing through a heart sickness that made the morning like an age. Her resolute will had struggled hard for composure, cheerfulness, and occupation; but the little watchful niece had seen through the endeavour, and had made her own to the sleepless night and the headache. The usual remedy was a drive in a wheeled chair, and Rose was so urgent to be allowed to go and order one, that Ermine at last yielded, partly because she had hardly energy enough to turn her refusal graciously, partly because she would not feel herself staying at home for the vague hope and when the child was out of sight, she had the comfort of clasping her hands, and ceasing to restrain her countenance, while she murmured, "Oh, Colin, Colin, are you what you were twelve years back? Is this all dream, all delusion, and waste of feeling, while you are lying in your Indian grave, more mine than you can ever be living be as it may,-

"'Calm me, my God, and keep me calm

While these hot breezes blow;

Be like the night dew's cooling balm

Upon earth's fevered brow.

Calm me, my God, and keep me calm,

Soft resting on Thy breast;

Soothe me with holy hymn and psalm,

And bid my spirit rest.'"

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares