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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 40889

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"For as his hand the weather steers,

So thrive I best 'twixt joys and tears,

And all the year have some green ears."-H. VAUGHAN.

Alison had not been wrong in her presentiment that the second interview would be more trying than the first. The exceeding brightness and animation of Ermine's countenance, her speaking eyes, unchanged complexion, and lively manner-above all, the restoration of her real substantial self-had so sufficed and engrossed Colin Keith in the gladness of their first meeting that he had failed to comprehend her helpless state; and already knowing her to be an invalid, not entirely recovered from her accident, he was only agreeably surprised to see the beauty of face he had loved so long, retaining all its vivacity of expression. And when he met Alison the next morning with a cordial brotherly greeting and inquiry for her sister, her "Very well," and "not at all the worse for the excitement," were so hearty and ready that he could not have guessed that "well" with Ermine meant something rather relative than positive. Alison brought him a playful message from her, that since he was not going to Belfast, she should meet him with a freer conscience if he would first give her time for Rose's lessons, and, as he said, he had lived long enough with Messrs. Conrade and Co. to acknowledge the wisdom of the message. But Rose had not long been at leisure to look out for him before he made his appearance, and walked in by right, as one at home; and sitting down in his yesterday's place, took the little maiden on his knee, and began to talk to her about the lessons he had been told to wait for. What would she have done without them? He knew some people who never could leave the house quiet enough to hear one's-self speak if they were deprived of lessons. Was that the way with her? Rose laughed like a creature, her aunt said, "to whom the notion of noise at play was something strange and ridiculous; necessity has reduced her to Jacqueline Pascal's system with her pensionnaires, who were allowed to play one by one without any noise."

"But I don't play all alone," said Rose; "I play with you, Aunt Ermine, and with Violetta."

And Violetta speedily had the honour of an introduction, very solemnly gone through, in due form; Ermine, in the languid sportiveness of enjoyment of his presence and his kindness to the child, inciting Rose to present Miss Violetta Williams to Colonel Keith, an introduction that he returned with a grand military salute, at the same time as he shook the doll's inseparable fingers. "Well, Miss Violetta, and Miss Rose, when you come to live with me, I shall hope for the pleasure of teaching you to make a noise."

"What does he mean?" said Rose, turning round amazed upon her aunt.

"I am afraid he does not quite know," said Ermine, sadly.

"Nay, Ermine," said he, turning from the child, and bending over her, "you are the last who should say that. Have I not told you that there is nothing now in our way-no one with a right to object, and means enough for all we should wish, including her-? What is the matter?" he added, startled by her look.

"Ah, Colin! I thought you knew-"

"Knew what, Ermine?" with his brows drawn together.

"Knew-what I am," she said; "knew the impossibility. What, they have not told you? I thought I was the invalid, the cripple, with every one."

"I knew you had suffered cruelly; I knew you were lame," he said, breathlessly; "but-what-"

"It is more than lame," she said. "I should be better off if the fiction of the Queens of Spain were truth with me. I could not move from this chair without help. Oh, Colin! poor Colin! it was very cruel not to have prepared you for this!" she added, as he gazed at her in grief and dismay, and made a vain attempt to find the voice that would not come. "Yes, indeed it is so," she said; "the explosion, rather than the fire, did mischief below the knee that poor nature could not repair, and I can but just stand, and cannot walk at all."

"Has anything been done-advice?" he murmured.

"Advice upon advice, so that I felt at the last almost a compensation to be out of the way of the doctors. No, nothing more can be done; and now that one is used to it, the snail is very comfortable in its shell. But I wish you could have known it sooner!" she added, seeing him shade his brow with his hand, overwhelmed.

"What you must have suffered!" he murmured.

"That is all over long ago; every year has left that further behind, and made me more content. Dear Colin, for me there is nothing to grieve."

He could not control himself, rose up, made a long stride, and passed through the open window into the garden.

"Oh, if I could only follow him," gasped Ermine, joining her hands and looking up.

"Is it because you can't walk?" said Rose, somewhat frightened, and for the first time beginning to comprehend that her joyous-tempered aunt could be a subject for pity.

"Oh! this was what I feared!" sighed Ermine. "Oh, give us strength to go through with it." Then becoming awake to the child's presence-"A little water, if you please, my dear." Then, more composedly, "Don't be frightened, my Rose; you did not know it was such a shock to find me so laid by-"

"He is in the garden walking up and down," said Rose. "May I go and tell him how much merrier you always are than Aunt Ailie?"

Poor Ermine felt anything but merry just then, but she had some experience of Rose's powers of soothing, and signed assent. So in another second Colonel Keith was met in the hasty, agonized walk by which he was endeavouring to work off his agitation, and the slender child looked wistfully up at him from dark depths of half understanding eyes-"Please, please don't be so very sorry," she said. "Aunt Ermine does not like it. She never is sorry for herself-"

"Have I shaken her-distressed her?" he asked, anxiously.

"She doesn't like you to be sorry," said Rose, looking up. "And, indeed, she does not mind it; she is such a merry aunt! Please, come in again, and see how happy we always are-"

The last words were spoken so near the window that Ermine caught them, and said, "Yes, come in, Colin, and learn not to grieve for me, or you will make me repent of my selfish gladness yesterday."

"Not grieve!" he exclaimed, "when I think of the beautiful vigorous being that used to be the life of the place-" and he would have said more but for a deprecating sign of the hand.

"Well," she said, half smiling, "it is a pity to think even of a crushed butterfly; but indeed, Colin, if you can bear to listen to me, I think I can show you that it all has been a blessing even by sight, as well as, of course, by faith. Only remember the unsatisfactoriness of our condition-the never seeing or hearing from one another after that day when Mr. Beauchamp came down on us. Did not the accident win for us a parting that was much better to remember than that state of things? Oh, the pining, weary feel as if all the world had closed on me! I do assure you it was much worse than anything that came after the burn. Yes, if I had been well and doing like others, I know I should have fretted and wearied, pined myself ill perhaps, whereas I could always tell myself that every year of your absence might be a step towards your finding me well; and when I was forced to give up that hope for myself, why then, Colin, the never seeing your name made me think you would never be disappointed and grieved as you are now. It is very merciful the way that physical trials help one through those of the mind."

"I never knew," said the Colonel; "all my aunt's latter letters spoke of your slow improvement beyond hope."

"True, in her time, I had not reached the point where I stopped. The last time I saw her I was still upstairs; and, indeed, I did not half know what I could do till I tried."

"Yes," said he, brightened by that buoyant look so remarkable in her face; "and you will yet do more, Ermine. You have convinced me that we shall be all the happier together-"

"But that was not what I meant to convince you of-" she said, faintly.

"Not what you meant, perhaps; but what it did convince me was, that you-as you are, my Ermine-are ten thousand times more to me than even as the beautiful girl, and that there never can be a happier pair than we shall be when I am your hands and feet."

Ermine sat up, and rallied all her forces, choked back the swelling of her throat, and said, "Dear Colin, it cannot be! I trusted you were understanding that when I told you how it was with me."

He could not speak from consternation.

"No," she said; "it would be wrong in me to think of it for an instant. That you should have done so, shows-O Colin, I cannot talk of it; but it would be as ungenerous in me to consent, as it is noble of you to propose it."

"It is no such thing," he answered; "it has been the one object and thought of my life, the only hope I have had all these years."

"Exactly so," she said, struggling again to speak firmly; "and that is the very thing. You kept your allegiance to the bright, tall, walking, active girl, and it would be a shame in the scorched cripple to claim it."

"Don't call yourself names. Have I not told you that you are more than the same?"

"You do not know. You are pleased because my face is not burnt, nor grown much older, and because I can talk and laugh in the same voice still." (Oh, how it quivered!) "But it would be a wicked mockery in me to pretend to be the wife you want. Yes, I know you think you do, but that is just because my looks are so deceitful, and you have kept on thinking about me; but you must make a fresh beginning."

"You can tell me that," he said, indignantly.

"Because it is not new to me," she said; "the quarter of an hour you stood by me, with that deadly calm in your white face, was the real farewell to the young hopeful dream of that bright summer. I wish it was as calm now."

"I believed you dying then," answered he.

"Do not make me think it would have been better for you if I had been," she said, imploringly. "It was as much the end, and I knew it from the time my recovery stopped short. I would have let you know if I could, and then you would not have been so much shocked."

"So as to cut me off from you entirely?"

"No, indeed. The thought of seeing you again was too-too overwhelming to be indulged in; knowing, as I did, that if you were the same to me, it must be at this sad cost to you," and her eyes filled with tears.

"It is you who make it so, Ermine."

"No; it is the providence that has set me aside from the active work of life. Pray do not go on, Colin, it is only giving us both useless pain. You do not know what it costs me to deny you, and I feel that I must. I know you are only acting on the impulse of generosity. Yes, I will say so, though you think it is to please yourself," she added, with one of those smiles that nothing could drive far from her lips, and which made it infinitely harder to acquiesce in her denial.

"I will make you think so in time," he said. "Then I might tell you, you had no right to please yourself," she answered, still with the same air of playfulness; "you have got a brother, you know-and-yes, I hear you growl; but if he is a poor old broken man out of health, it is the more reason you should not vex him, nor hamper yourself with a helpless commodity."

"You are not taking the way to make me forget what my brother has done for us."

"How do you know that he did not save me from being a strong-minded military lady! After all, it was absurd to expect people to look favourably on our liking for one another, and you know they could not be expected to know that there was real stuff in the affair. If there had not been, we should have thought so all the same, you know, and been quite as furious."

He could not help smiling, recollecting fury that, in the course of these twelve years, he had seen evinced under similar circumstances by persons who had consoled themselves before he had done pitying them. "Still," he said gravely, "I think there was harshness."

"So do I, but not so much as I thought at that time, and-oh, surely that is not Rachel Curtis? I told her I thought you would call."

"Intolerable!" he muttered between his teeth. "Is she always coming to bore you?"

"She has been very kind, and my great enlivenment," said Ermine, "and she can't be expected to know how little we want her. Oh, there, the danger is averted! She must have asked if you were here."

"I was just thinking that she was the chief objection to Lady Temple's kind wish of having you at Myrtlewood."

"Does Lady Temple know?" asked Ermine, blushing.

"I could not keep it from one who has been so uniformly kind to me; but I desired her not to let it go further till I should hear your wishes."

"Yes, she has a right to know," said Ermine; "but please, not a word elsewhere."

"And will you not come to stay with her?"

"I? Oh, no; I am fit for no place but this. You don't half know how bad I am. When you have seen a little more of us, you will be quite convinced."

"Well, at least, you give me leave to come here."

"Leave? When it is a greater pleasure than I ever thought to have again; that is, while you understand that you said good-bye to the Ermine of Beauchamp Parsonage twelve years ago, and that the thing here is only a sort of ghost, most glad and grateful to be a friend-a sister."

"So," he said, "those are to be the terms of my admission."

"The only possible ones."

"I will consider them. I have not accepted them."

"You will," she said.

But she met a smile in return, implying that there might be a will as steadfast as her own, although the question might be waived for a time.

Meantime, Rachel was as nearly hating Colonel Keith as principle would allow, with "Human Reeds," newly finished, burning in her pocket, "Military Society" fermenting in her brain, and "Curatocult" still unacknowledged. Had he not had quite time for any rational visit? Was he to devour Mackarel Lane as well as Myrtlewood? She was on her way to the latter house, meeting Grace as she went, and congratulating herself that he could not be in two places at once, whilst Grace secretly wondered how far she might venture to build on Alison Williams's half confidence, and regretted the anxiety wasted by Rachel and the mother; though, to be sure, that of Mrs. Curtis was less uncalled for than her daughter's, since it was only the fear of Fanny's not being sufficiently guarded against misconstructions.

Rachel held up her hands in despair in the hall. "Six officers' cards!" she exclaimed.

"No, only six cards," said Grace; "there are two of each."

"That's enough," sighed Rachel; "and look there," gazing through the garden-door. "She is walking with the young puppy that dined here on Thursday, and they called Alick."

"Do you remember," said Grace, "how she used to chatter about Alick, when she first came to us, at six years old. He was the child of one of the officers. Can this be the same?"

"That's one of your ideas, Grace. Look, this youth could have been hardly born when Fanny came to us. No; he is only one of the idlers that military life has accustomed her to."

Rather against Grace's feeling, Rachel drew her on, so as to come up with Lady Temple and her friend in the midst of their conversation, and they heard the last words-

"Then you will give me dear Bessie's direction?"

"Thank you, it will be the greatest kindness-"

"Oh, Grace, Rachel, is it you?" exclaimed Fanny. "You have not met before, I think. Mr. Keith-Miss Curtis."

Very young indeed were both face and figure, fair and pale, and though there was a moustache, it was so light and silky as to be scarcely visible; the hair, too, was almost flaxen, and the whole complexion had a washed-out appearance. The eyes, indeed, were of the same peculiar deep blue as the Colonel's, but even these were little seen under their heavy sleepy lids, and the long limbs had in every movement something of weight and slowness, the very sight of which fretted Rachel, and made her long to shake him. It appeared that he was come to spend the Sunday at Avonmouth, and Grace tried to extract the comfort for her mother that two gentlemen were better than one, and Fanny need not be on their minds for chaperonage for that day.

A party of garden-chairs on the lawn invited repose, and there the ladies seated themselves; Fanny laying down her heavy crape bonnet, and showing her pretty little delicate face, now much fresher and more roseate than when she arrived, though her wide-spreading black draperies gave a certain dignity to her slight figure, contrasting with the summer muslins of her two cousins; as did her hot-house plant fairness, with their firm, healthy glow of complexion; her tender shrinking grace, with their upright vigour. The gentleman of the party leant hack in a languid, easy posture, as though only half awake, and the whole was so quiet that Grace, missing the usual tumult of children, asked after them.

"The boys have gone to their favourite cove under the plantation. They have a fort there, and Hubert told me he was to be a hero, and Miss Williams a she-ro."

"I would not encourage that description of sport," said Rachel, willing to fight a battle in order to avert maternal anecdotes of boyish sayings.

"They like it so much," said Fanny, "and they learn so much now that they act all the battles they read about."

"That is what I object to," said Rachel; "it is accustoming them to confound heroism with pugnacity."

"No, but Rachel dear, they do quarrel and fight among themselves much less now that this is all in play and good humour," pleaded Fanny.

"Yes, that may be, but you are cultivating the dangerous instinct, although for a moment giving it a better direction."

"Dangerous? Oh, Alick! do you think it can be?" said Fanny, less easily borne down with a supporter beside her.

"According to the Peace Society," he answered, with a quiet air of courteous deference; "perhaps you belong to it?"

"No, indeed," answered Rachel, rather indignantly, "I think war the great purifier and ennobler of nations, when it is for a good and great cause; but I think education ought to protest against confounding mere love of combat with heroism."

"Query, the true meaning of the word?" he said, leaning back.

"Heros, yes from the same root as the German herr," readily responded Rachel, "meaning no more than lord and master; but there can be no doubt that the progress of ideas has linked with it a much nobler association."

"Progress! What, since the heroes were half divine!"

"Half divine in the esteem of a people who thought brute courage godlike. To us the word maintains its semi-divinity, and it should be our effort to associate it only with that which veritably has the god-like stamp."

"And that is-?"

"Doing more than one's duty," exclaimed Rachel, with a glistening eye.

"Very uncomfortable and superfluous, and not at all easy," he said, half shutting his already heavy eyes.

"Easy, no, that's the beauty and the glory-"

"Major Sherborne and Captain Lester in the drawing room, my lady," announced Coombe, who had looked infinitely cheered since this military influx.

"You will come with me, Grace," said Fanny, rising. "I dare say you had rather not, Rachel, and it would be a pity to disturb you, Alick."

"Thank you; it would be decidedly more than my duty."

"I am quite sorry to go, you are so amusing," said Fanny, "but I suppose you will have settled about heroism by the time we come out again, and will tell me what the boys ought to play at."

Rachel's age was quite past the need of troubling herself at being left tete-a-tete with a mere lad like this; and, besides, it was an opportunity not to be neglected of giving a young carpet knight a lesson in true heroism. There was a pause after the other two had moved off. Rachel reflected for a few moments, and then, precipitated by the fear of her audience falling asleep, she exclaimed-

"No words have been more basely misused than hero and heroine. The one is the mere fighting animal whose strength or fortune have borne him through some more than ordinary danger, the other is only the subject of an adventure, perfectly irrespective of her conduct in i


"Bathos attends all high words," he said, as she paused, chiefly to see whether he was awake, and not like her dumb playfellow of old.

"This is not their natural bathos but their misuse. They ought to be reserved for those who in any department have passed the limits to which the necessity of their position constrained them, and done acts of self-devotion for the good of others. I will give you an instance, and from your own profession, that you may see I am not prejudiced, besides, the hero of it is past praise or blame."

Encouraged by seeing a little more of his eyes, she went on. "It was in the course of the siege of Delhi, a shell came into a tent where some sick and wounded were lying. There was one young officer among them who could move enough to have had a chance of escaping the explosion, but instead of that he took the shell up, its fuse burning as it was, and ran with it out of the tent, then hurled it to a distance. It exploded, and of course was his death, but the rest were saved, and I call that a deed of heroism far greater than mounting a breach or leading a forlorn hope."

"Killed, you say?" inquired Mr. Keith, still in the same lethargic manner.

"Oh yes, mortally wounded: carried back to die among the men he had saved."

"Jessie Cameron singing his dirge," mumbled this provoking individual, with something about the form of his cheek that being taken by Rachel for a derisive smile, made her exclaim vehemently, "You do not mean to undervalue an action like that in comparison with mere animal pugnacity in an advance."

"More than one's duty was your test," he said.

"And was not this more than duty? Ah! I see yours is a spirit of depreciation, and I can only say I pity you."

He took the trouble to lift himself up and make a little bow of acknowledgment. Certainly he was worse than the Colonel; but Rachel, while mustering her powers for annihilating him, was annoyed by all the party in the drawing-room coming forth to join them, the other officers rallying young Keith upon his luxurious station, and making it evident that he was a proverb in the regiment for taking his ease. Chairs were brought out, and afternoon tea, and the callers sat down to wait for Colonel Keith to come in; Grace feeling obliged to stay to help Fanny entertain her visitors, and Rachel to protect her from their follies. One thing Grace began to perceive, that Lady Temple had in her former world been a person of much more consideration than she was made here, and seeing the polite and deferential manner of these officers to her, could only wonder at her gentle content and submission in meeting with no particular attention from anybody, and meekly allowing herself to be browbeaten by Rachel and lectured by her aunt.

A lecture was brewing up for her indeed. Poor Mrs. Curtis was very much concerned at the necessity, and only spurred up by a strong sense of duty to give a hint-the study of which hint cost her a whole sleepless night and a very weary Sunday morning. She decided that her best course would be to drive to Myrtlewood rather early on her way to church, and take up Fanny, gaining a previous conference with her alone, if possible. "Yes, my dear," she said to Grace, "I must get it over before church, or it will make me so nervous all through the service." And Grace, loving her mother best, durst not suggest what it might do to Fanny, hoping that the service might help her to digest the hint.

Mrs. Curtis's regular habits were a good deal shocked to find Fanny still at the breakfast table. The children had indeed long finished, and were scattered about the room, one of them standing between Colonel Keith's knees, repeating a hymn; but the younger guest was still in the midst of his meal, and owned in his usual cool manner that he was to blame for the lateness, there was no resisting the charms of no morning parade.

Her aunt's appearance made Fanny imagine it much later than it really was, and she hurried off the children to be dressed, and proceeded herself to her room, Mrs. Curtis following, and by way of preliminary, asking when Colonel Keith was going to Ireland.

"Oh!" said Fanny, blushing most suspiciously under her secret, "he is not going to Ireland now."

"Indeed! I quite understood he intended it."

"Yes," faltered Fanny, "but he found that he need not."

"Indeed!" again ejaculated poor perplexed Mrs. Curtis; "but then, at least, he is going away soon."

"He must go to Scotland by-and-by, but for the present he is going into lodgings. Do you know of any nice ones, dear aunt?"

"Well, I suppose you can't help that; you know, my dear, it would never do for him to stay in this house."

"I never thought of that," said Fanny simply, the colour coming in a fresh glow.

"No, my dear, but you see you are very young and inexperienced. I do not say you have done anything the least amiss, or that you ever would mean it, only you will forgive your old aunt for putting you on your guard."

Fanny kissed her, but with eyes full of tears, and cheeks burning, then her candour drew from her-"It was he that thought of getting a lodging. I am glad I did not persuade him not; but you know he always did live with us."

"With us. Yes, my poor dear, that is the difference, and you see he feels it. But, indeed, my dear child, though he is a very good man, I dare say, and quite a gentleman all but his beard, you had better not encourage-You know people are so apt to make remarks."

"I have no fear," said Fanny, turning away her head, conscious of the impossibility of showing her aunt her mistake.

"Ah! my dear, you don't guess how ready people are to talk; and you would not like-for your children's sake, for your husband's sake-that-that-"

"Pray, pray aunt," cried Fanny, much pained, "indeed you don't know. My husband had confidence in him more than in any one. He told him to take care of me and look after the boys. I couldn't hold aloof from him without transgressing those wishes"-and the words were lost in a sob.

"My dear, indeed I did not mean to distress you. You know, I dare say-I mean-" hesitated poor Mrs. Curtis. "I know you must see a great deal of him. I only want you to take care-appearances are appearances, and if it was said you had all these young officers always coming about-"

"I don't think they will come. It was only just to call, and they have known me so long. It is all out of respect to my father and Sir Stephen," said Fanny, meekly as ever. "Indeed, I would not for the world do anything you did not like, dear aunt; but there can't be any objection to my having Mrs. Hammond and the children to spend the day to-morrow."

Mrs. Curtis did not like it; she had an idea that all military ladies were dashing and vulgar, but she could not say there was any objection, so she went on to the head of poor Fanny's offending. "This young man, my dear, he seems to make himself very intimate."

"Alick Keith? Oh aunt!" said Fanny, more surprised than by all the rest; "don't you know about him? His father and mother were our greatest friends always; I used to play with him every day till I came to you. And then just as I married, poor Mrs. Keith died, and we had dear little Bessie with us till her father could send her home. And when poor Alick was so dreadfully wounded before Delhi, Sir Stephen sent him up in a litter to the hills for mamma and me to nurse. Mamma was so fond of him, she used to call him her son."

"Yes, my dear, I dare say you have been very intimate; but you see you are very young; and his staying here-"

"I thought he would be so glad to come and be with the Colonel, who was his guardian and Bessie's," said Fanny, "and I have promised to have Bessie to stay with me, she was such a dear little thing-"

"Well, my dear, it may be a good thing for you to have a young lady with you, and if he is to come over, her presence will explain it. Understand me, my dear, I am not at all afraid of your-your doing anything foolish, only to get talked of is so dreadful in your situation, that you can't be too careful."

"Yes, yes, thank you, dear aunt," murmured the drooping and subdued Fanny, aware how much the remonstrance must cost her aunt, and sure that she must be in fault in some way, if she could only see how. "Please, dear aunt, help me, for indeed I don't know how to manage-tell me how to be civil and kind to my dear husband's friends without-without-"

Her voice broke down, though she kept from tears as an unkindness to her aunt.

In very fact, little as she knew it, she could not have defended herself better than by this humble question, throwing the whole guidance of her conduct upon her aunt. If she had been affronted, Mrs. Curtis could have been displeased; but to be thus set to prescribe the right conduct, was at once mollifying and perplexing.

"Well, well, my dear child, we all know you wish to do right; you can judge best. I would not have you ungrateful or uncivil, only you know you are living very quietly, and intimacy-oh! my dear, I know your own feeling will direct you. Dear child! you have taken what I said so kindly. And now let me see that dear little girl."

Rachel had not anticipated that the upshot of a remonstrance, even from her mother, would be that Fanny was to be directed by her own feeling!

That same feeling took Lady Temple to Mackarel Lane later in the day. She had told the Colonel her intention, and obtained Alison's assurance that Ermine's stay at Myrtlewood need not be impracticable, and armed with their consent, she made her timid tap at Miss Williams' door, and showed her sweet face within it.

"May I come in? Your sister and your little niece are gone for a walk. I told them I would come! I did want to see you!"

"Thank you," said Ermine, with a sweet smile, colouring cheek, yet grave eyes, and much taken by surprise at being seized by both hands, and kissed on each cheek.

"Yes, you must let me," said her visitor, looking up with her pretty imploring gesture, "you know I have known him so long, and he has been so good to me!"

"Indeed it is very kind in you," said Ermine, fully feeling the force of the plea expressed in the winning young face and gentle eyes full of tears.

"Oh, no, I could not help it. I am only so sorry we kept him away from you when you wanted him so much; but we did not know, and he was Sir Stephen's right hand, and we none of us knew what to do without him; but if he had only told-"

"Thank you, oh, thank you!" said Ermine, "but indeed it was better for him to be away."

Even her wish to console that pleading little widow could not make her say that his coming would not have been good for her. "It has been such a pleasure to hear he had so kind and happy a home all these years."

"Oh, you cannot think how Sir Stephen loved and valued him. The one thing I always did wish was, that Conrade should grow up to be as much help and comfort to his father, and now he never can! But," driving back a tear, "it was so hard that you should not have known how distinguished and useful and good he was all those years. Only now I shall have the pleasure of telling you," and she smiled. She was quite a different being when free from the unsympathizing influence which, without her understanding it, had kept her from dwelling on her dearest associations.

"It will be a pleasure of pleasures," said Ermine, eagerly.

"Then you will do me a favour, a very great favour," said Lady Temple, laying hold of her hand again, "if you and your sister and niece will come and stay with me." And as Ermine commenced her refusal, she went on in the same coaxing way, with a description of her plans for Ermine's comfort, giving her two rooms on the ground floor, and assuring her of the absence of steps, the immunity from all teasing by the children, of the full consent of her sister, and the wishes of the Colonel, nay, when Ermine was still unpersuaded of the exceeding kindness it would be to herself. "You see I am terribly young, really," she said, "though I have so many boys, and my aunt thinks it awkward for me to have so many officers calling, and I can't keep them away because they are my father's and Sir Stephen's old friends; so please do come and make it all right!"

Ermine was driven so hard, and so entirely deprived of all excuse, that she had no alternative left but to come to the real motive.

"I ought not," she said, "it is not good for him, so you must not press me, dear Lady Temple. You see it is best for him that nobody should ever know of what has been between us."

"What! don't you mean-?" exclaimed Fanny, breaking short off.

"I cannot!" said Ermine.

"But he would like it. He wishes it as much as ever."

"I know he does," said Ermine, with a troubled voice; "but you see that is because he did not know what a wretched remnant I am, and he never has had time to think about any one else."

"Oh no, no."

"And it would be very unfair of me to take advantage of that, and give him such a thing as I am."

"Oh dear, but that is very sad!" cried Fanny, looking much startled.

"But I am sure you must see that it is right."

"It may be right," and out burst Fanny's ready tears; "but it is very, very hard and disagreeable, if you don't mind my saying so, when I know it is so good of you. And don't you mean to let him even see you, when he has been constant so long?"

"No; I see no reason for denying myself that; indeed I believe it is better for him to grow used to me as I am, and be convinced of the impossibility."

"Well then, why will you not come to me?"

"Do you not see, in all your kindness, that my coming to you would make every one know the terms between us, while no one remarks his just coming to me here as an old friend? And if he were ever to turn his mind to any one else-"

"He will never do that, I am sure."

"There is no knowing. He has never been, in his own estimation, disengaged from me," said Ermine; "his brother is bent on his marrying, and he ought to be perfectly free to do so, and not under the disadvantage that any report of this affair would be to him."

"Well, I am sure he never will," said Fanny, almost petulantly; "I know I shall hate her, that's all."

Ermine thought her own charity towards Mrs. Colin Keith much more dubious than Lady Temple's, but she continued-

"At any rate you will be so very kind as not to let any one know of it. I am glad you do. I should not feel it right that you should not, but it is different with others."

"Thank you. And if you will not come to me, you will let me come to you, won't you? It will be so nice to come and talk him over with you. Perhaps I shall persuade you some of these days after all. Only I must go now, for I always give the children their tea on Sunday. But please let your dear little niece come up to-morrow and play with them; the little Hammonds will be there, she is just their age."

Ermine felt obliged to grant this at least, though she was as doubtful of her shy Rose's happiness as of the expedience of the intimacy; but there was no being ungracious to the gentle visitor, and no doubt Ermine felt rejoiced and elevated. She did not need fresh assurances of Colin's constancy, but the affectionate sister-like congratulations of this loving, winning creature, showed how real and in earnest his intentions were. And then Lady Temple's grateful esteem for him being, as it was, the reflection of her husband's, was no small testimony to his merits.

"Pretty creature!" said Ermine to herself, "really if it did come to that, I could spare him to her better than to any one else. She has some notion how to value him."

Alison and Rose had, in the meantime, been joined by Colonel Keith and the boys, whom Alick had early deserted in favour of a sunny sandy nook. The Colonel's purpose was hard on poor Alison; it was to obtain her opinion of her sister's decision, and the likelihood of persistence in it. It was not, perhaps, bad for either that they conversed under difficulties, the boys continually coming back to them from excursions on the rocks, and Rose holding her aunt's hand all the time, but to be sure Rose had heard nearly all the Colonel's affairs, and somehow mixed him up with Henry of Cranstoun.

Very tenderly towards Alison herself did Colin Keith speak. It was the first time they had ever been brought into close contact, and she had quite to learn to know him. She had regarded his return as probably a misfortune, but it was no longer possible to do so when she heard his warm and considerate way of speaking of her sister, and saw him only desirous of learning what was most for her real happiness. Nay, he even made a convert of Alison herself! She did believe that would Ermine but think it right to consent, she would be happy and safe in the care of one who knew so well how to love her. Terrible as the wrench would be to Alison herself, she thought he deserved her sister, and that she would be as happy with him as earth could make her. But she did not believe Ermine would ever accept him. She knew the strong, unvarying resolution by which her sister had always held to what she thought right, and did not conceive that it would waver. The acquiescence in his visits, and the undisguised exultant pleasure in his society, were evidences to Alison not of wavering or relenting, but of confidence in Ermine's own sense of impossibility. She durst not give him any hope, though she owned that he merited success. "Did she think his visits bad for her sister?" he then asked in the unselfishness that pleaded so strongly for him.

"No, certainly not," she answered eagerly, then made a little hesitation that made him ask further.

"My only fear," she said candidly, "is, that if this is pressed much on her, and she has to struggle with you and herself too, it may hurt her health. Trouble tells not on her cheerfulness, but on her nerves."

"Thank you," he said, "I will refrain."

Alison was much happier than she had been since the first apprehension of his return. The first pang at seeing Ermine's heart another's property had been subdued; the present state of affairs was indefinitely-prolonged, and she not only felt trust in Colin Keith's consideration for her sister, but she knew that an act of oblivion was past on her perpetration of the injury. She was right. His original pitying repugnance to a mere unknown child could not be carried on to the grave, saddened woman devoted to her sister, and in the friendly brotherly tone of that interview, each understood the other. And when Alison came home and said, "I have been walking with Colin," her look made Ermine very happy.

"And learning to know him."

"Learning to sympathize with him, Ermine," with steady eyes and voice. "You are hard on him."

"Now, Ailie," said Ermine, "once for all, he is not to set you on me, as he has done with Lady Temple. The more he persuades me, the better I know that to listen would be an abuse of his constancy. It would set him wrong with his brother, and, as dear Edward's affairs stand, we have no right to carry the supposed disgrace into a family that would believe it, though he does not. If I were ever so well, I should not think it right to marry. I shall not shun the sight of him; it is delightful to me, and a less painful cure to him than sending him away would be. It is in the nature of things that he should cool into a friendly kindly feeling, and I shall try to bear it. Or if he does marry, it will be all right I suppose-" but her voice faltered, and she gave a sort of broken laugh.

"There," she said, with a recovered flash of liveliness, "there's my resolution, to do what I like more than anything in the world as long as I can; and when it is over I shall be helped to do without it!"

"I can't believe-" broke out Alison.

"Not in your heart, but in your reason," said Ermine, endeavouring to smile. "He will hover about here, and always be kind, loving, considerate; but a time will come that he will want the home happiness I cannot give. Then he will not wear out his affection on the impossible literary cripple, but begin over again, and be happy. And, Alison, if your love for me is of the sound, strong sort I know it is, you will help me through with it, and never say one word to make all this less easy and obvious to him."

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