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   Chapter 9 THE NEW SPORT

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 22052

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"'Sire,' I replied, 'joys prove cloudlets,

Men are the merest Ixions.'

Here the King whistled aloud, 'Let's,

Heigho, go look at our lions!'

Such are the sorrowful chances

If you talk fine to King Francis."-R. BROWNING.

The day after Rachel's adventure with Don a card came into the drawing-room, and therewith a message that the gentleman had availed himself of Mrs. Curtis's kind permission, and was sketching the Spinster's Needles, two sharp points of red rock that stood out in the sea at the end of the peninsula, and were specially appropriated by Rachel and Grace.

The card was written, not engraved, the name "Rd. R. H. C. L. Mauleverer;" and a discussion ensued whether the first letters stood for Richard or for Reverend, and if he could be unconscionable enough to have five initials. The sisters had some business to transact at Villars's, the Avonmouth deposit of literature and stationery, which was in the hands of a somewhat aspiring genius, who edited the weekly paper, and respected Miss Rachel Curtis in proportion to the number of periodicals she took in, and the abstruseness of the publications she inquired after. The paper in its Saturday's dampness lay fresh on the counter, and glancing at the new arrivals, Grace had the desired opportunity of pointing to Mr. Mauleverer's name, and asking when he had come. About a week since, said the obliging Mr. Villars, he appeared to be a gentleman of highly literary and artistic tastes, a philanthropist; indeed, Mr. Villars understood him to be a clerical gentlemen who had opinions-

"Oh, Rachel, I am very sorry," said Grace.

"Sorry, what for?"

"Why, you and mamma seemed quite inclined to like him."

"Well, and what have we heard?"

"Not much that is rational, certainly," said Grace, smiling; "but we know what was meant."

"Granting that we do, what is proved against him? No, I will not say proved, but alleged. He is one of the many who have thought for themselves upon the perplexing problems of faith and practice, and has been sincere, uncompromising, self-sacrificing, in avowing that his mind is still in that state of solution in which all earnest and original minds must be ere the crystallizing process sets in. Observe, Grace, I am not saying for an instant that he is in the right. All I do say is, that when depth of thought and candour have brought misfortune upon a man, it is ungenerous, therefore, to treat him as if he had the leprosy."

"Indeed, Rachel, I think you have made more out of his opinions than I did."

"I was only arguing on your construction of his opinions."

"Take care-!" For they were at this moment reaching a gate of Myrtlewood, and the sound of hoofs came close behind them. They were those of the very handsome chestnut, ridden by Alexander Keith, who jumped off his horse with more alacrity than usual as they were opening the gate for him, and holding out his hand, eagerly said-

"Then I conclude there is nothing the matter?"

"Nothing at all," said Grace. "What did you hear?"

"Only a little drowning, and a compound fracture or two," said he, relapsing into his languid ease as he gave his bridle to a groom, and walked with them towards the house.

"There, how very annoying!" exclaimed Rachel, "though, of course, the smallest adventure does travel."

"I may venture to hope that neither are you drowned, nor my sister's leg broken, nor a celebrated professor and essayist 'in a high fever wi' pulling any of you out of the sea.'"

"There, Grace," exclaimed Rachel; "I told you he was something distinguished."

"My dear Rachel, if his celebrity be in proportion to the rest of the story."

"Then there really was a rescue!" exclaimed Captain Keith, now with much more genuine anxiety; and Rachel recollecting her desire that the right version should have the precedence, quickly answered, "There was no danger, only Don slipped down into that curved cove where we walked one day with the boys. I went down after him, but he had broken his leg. I could not get up with him in my arms, and Bessie called some one to help me."

"And why could not Bessie help you herself?"

"Oh! strangers can never climb on our slippery rocks as we can."

"Moreover, it would have spoilt the predicament," muttered the brother to himself; then turning round with a smile, "And is the child behaving herself?"

Grace and Rachel answered in a eager duet how she was charming every one, so helpful, so kind, so everything.

"Ah!" he said with real satisfaction, apparent in the eyes that were so pleasant when open wide enough to be visible; "I knew she always did better when I was not there."

They were by this time entering the hall, which, in the confident fashion of the sea-side, stood open; and at the moment Fanny came tripping downstairs with her dress looped up, and a shady hat on her head, looking fearfully girlish, thought her cousins, though her attire was still rigidly black.

"Oh, I am so glad to see you; Don is so much better, Rachel, and Conrade wants to thank you. He went up yesterday, and was so sorry you were out. Might it not have been dreadful, Alick? I have been so wanting to tell you how very delightful that dear sister of yours is. All the boys are distracted about her. Come out please. She has been teaching the boys such a delightful game; so much nicer than cricket, for I can play with them."

Alick and Rachel could not but exchange a glance, and at the same moment, emerging through the screen of shrubs on the lawn, Bessie Keith, Conrade, Francis, and Leoline, were seen each with a mallet in hand and a gay ball in readiness to be impelled through the hoops that beset the lawn.

"And you really are learning croquet!" exclaimed innocent Grace; "well, it makes a beautiful ground."

"Croquet!" exclaimed poor Lady Temple, with startled eyes; "you don't really mean that it is croquet! O Bessie, Bessie!"

"Ah! I didn't mean you to have come so soon," said the much amused Bessie, as she gave her hand in greeting. "I meant the prejudice to be first conquered. See, dear Lady Temple, I'm not ashamed; this whitey brown moustache is going to kiss me nevertheless and notwithstanding."

And so it certainly did, and smiled into the bargain, while the boys came clamouring up, and after thanks for Don's preservation, began loudly to beg mamma would come, they could not make up their sides without her, but mamma was distressed and unhappy.

"Not now, my dears-I must-I must. Indeed I did not know."

"Now, Alick, I trust to your generosity," said Bessie, finding that they must be pacified. "Coming, Con-Come, Grace, come and convince Lady Temple that the pastime is not too wicked for you."

"Indeed, Alick," Lady Temple was saying. "I am very sorry, I won't allow it one moment if you think it is objectionable."

"But I don't," said Alick, smiling. "Far from it. It is a capital game for you and your boys."

"I thought-I thought you disapproved and could not bear it," said Lady Temple, wondering and wistful.

"Can't bear is not disapprove. Indeed," seeing that gentle earnest alone could console her, "there is no harm in the game itself. It is a wholly personal distaste, arising from my having been bored with it when I was ill and out of spirits."

"But is not there something about it in 'Punch?'" she still asked, so anxiously, that it was impossible not to smile; but there was not a particle of that subdued mockery that was often so perplexing in him, as he replied, "Certainly there is about its abuse as an engine for flirtation, which, to tell you the truth, was what sickened me with the sight at Littleworthy; but that is not the line Con and Francie will take just yet. Why, my uncle is specially addicted to listening to croquet, and knows by the step and sound how each player is getting on, till he is quite an oracle in disputed hits."

"So Bessie told me," said Fanny, still feeling that she had been taken in and the brother unkindly used; "but I can't think how she could, when you don't like it."

"Nobody is bound to respect foolish prejudices," said Alick, still quite in earnest. "It would have been very absurd not to introduce it."

"Come, Alick," said Bessie, advancing, "have you absolved her, and may we begin? Would it not be a generous act of amnesty if all the present company united in a match?"

"Too many," said Alick, "odd numbers. I shall go down and call on Miss Williams. May I come back, Lady Temple, and have a holiday from the mess?"

"I shall be very glad; only I am afraid there is no dinner."

"So much the better. Only let me see you begin, or I shall never dare to express an opinion for the future."

"Mamma, do pray, pray begin; the afternoon is wasting like nothing!" cried Conrade of the much-tried patience. "And Aunt Rachel," he added, in his magnanimity, "you shall be my partner, and I'll teach you."

"Thank you, Conrade, but I can't; I promised to be at home at four," said Rachel, who had all this time been watching with curious interest which influence would prevail-whether Alick would play for Fanny's sake, or Fanny abstain for Alick's sake. She was best satisfied as it was, but she had still to parry Bessie Keith's persuasive determination. Why would she go home? it certainly was to inspect the sketches of the landscape-painter. "You heard, Alick, of the interesting individual who acted the part of Rachel's preserver," she added.

The very force of Rachel's resolution not to be put out of countenance served to cover her with the most uncomfortable blushes, all the more at the thought of her own unlucky exclamation. "I came here," said Alick, coolly, "to assist in recovering the beloved remains from a watery grave;" and then, as Bessie insisted on hearing the Avoncester version, he gave it; while Grace added the intelligence that the hero was a clergyman, sinking the opinions, as too vague to be mentioned, even had not the company been too flighty for a subject she thought serious and painful. "And he is at this moment sketching the Spinster's Needles!" said Bessie. "Well, I am consoled. With all your resolve to flatten down an adventure, fate is too strong for you. Something will come of it. Is not the very resolve that it shall not be an adventure a token?"

"If any one should wish to forget it, it is you, I think, Bessie," said Alick. "Your admirable sagacity seems to have been at fault. I thought you prided yourself on your climbing."

"Up a slippery perpendicular-"

"I know the place," he gravely answered.

"Well," exclaimed Bessie, recovering herself, "I am not a mermaid nor even a dear gazelle, and, in my humble opinion, there was far more grace in preventing heroism from being 'unwept, unnoticed, and unsung,' than in perilling my own neck, craning down and strangling the miserable beast, by pulling him up by the scrough of his neck! What an introduction would have been lost!"

"If you are going to play, Bessie," said her brother, "it would be

kind to take pity upon those boys."

"One achievement is mine," she said, dancing away backwards, her bright eyes beaming with saucy merriment, "the great Alexander has bidden me to croquet."

"I am afraid," said her brother, turning to Rachel as she departed, "that it was all her fault. Pray be patient with her, she has had many disadvantages."

His incomprehensible irony had so often perplexed Rachel, that she did not know whether his serious apologetic tone were making game of her annoyance, and she answered not very graciously, "Oh, never mind, it did not signify." And at the same time came another urgent entreaty from the boys that the two "aunts" would join the game, Conrade evidently considering that partnership with him would seal the forgiveness Aunt Rachel had won by the rescue of Don.

Grace readily yielded, but Rachel pleaded her engagement, and when the incorrigible Bessie declared that they perfectly understood that nothing could compete with the sketch of the Spinster's Needles, she answered, "I promised to write a letter for my mother on business before post time. The Burnaby bargain," she explained, to add further conviction.

"A business-like transaction indeed!" exclaimed Bessie, much diverted with the name.

"Only a bit of land in trust for apprenticing poor children," said Rachel. "It was left by a Curtis many generations ago, in trust to the rector of the parish and the lord of the manor; and poor Mr. Linton is so entirely effete, that it is virtually in our hands. It is one of the vexations of my life that more good cannot be done with it, for the fees are too small for superior tradespeople, and we can only bind them to the misery of lacemaking. The system belongs to a worn-out state of things."

The word system in Rachel's mouth was quite sufficient to send Bessie to her croquet, and the poor boys were at length rewarded for their unusual patience. Their mother had been enduring almost as much as they did in her dislike to see them tantalised, and she now threw herself into the game with a relish that proved that as yet, at least, Conrade's approbation was more to her than Captain Keith's. It was very pretty to see her so pleased with her instructions, so eager about her own game, and yet so delighted with every hit of her boys; while Bessie was an admirable general, playing everybody's game as well as her own, and with such life and spirit, such readiness and good nature, that a far duller sport would have been delicious under her management.

"Poor Alick," said she, meeting him when he again strolled into the garden, while the boys were collecting the mallets and balls; "he did think he had one lawn in the world undefiled by those horrible hoops!" then as she met his smile of amusement and pardon, "but it was so exactly what they wanted here. It is so good for Lady Temple and her boys to have something they can do together."

The pleased affectionate smile was gone.

"I object to nothing but its being for her good," he said gravely.

"But now, does not it make her very happy, and suit her excellently?"

"May be so, but that is not the reason you introduced it."

"You have a shocking habit of driving one up into corners, Alick, but it shall be purely, purely for my own selfish delight," and she clasped her hands in so droll an affectation of remorse, that the muscles round his eyes quivered with diversion, though the hair on his lip veiled what the corners of his mouth were about; "if only," she proceeded, "you won't let it banish you. You must come over to take care of this wicked little sister, or who knows what may be the consequences."

"I kept away partly because I was busy, and partly because I believe you are such a little ape as always to behave worse when you have the semblance of a keeper;" he said, with his arm fondly on her shoulder as they walked.

"And in the mean time fell out the adventure of the distinguished essayist."

"I am afraid," he returned, "that was a gratuitous piece of mischief, particularly annoying to so serious and thoughtful a person as Miss Rachel Curtis."

"Jealousy?" exclaimed Bessie in an ecstatic tone. "You see what you lost by not trusting me, to behave myself under the provocation of your presence."

"What! the pleasure of boxing your ears for a coward?"

"Of seizing the happy opening! I am very much afraid for you now, Alick," she proceeded with mock gravity. "What hope can a poor Captain of Highlanders, even if he does happen to be a wounded hero or two, have against a distinguished essayist and landscape painter; if it were a common case indeed, but where Wisdom herself is concerned-"

"Military frivolity cannot hope," returned Alick, with a shake of his head, and a calm matter-of-fact acquiescent tone.

"Ah, poor Alick," pursued his sister, "you always were a discreet youth; but to be connected with such a union of learning, social science, and homeaopathy, soared beyond my utmost ambition. I suppose the wedding tour-supposing the happy event to take place-will be through a series of model schools and hospitals, ending in Hanwell."

"No," said Alick, equally coolly, "to the Dutch reformatory, and the Swiss cretin asylum."

She was exceedingly tickled at his readiness, and proceeded in a pretended sentimental tone, "I am glad you have revealed the secrets of your breast. I saw there was a powerful attraction and that you were no longer your own, but my views were humbler. I thought the profound respect with which you breathed the name of Avonmouth, was due to the revival of the old predilection for our sweet little-"

"Hush, Bessie," said her brother, roused for the first time into sternness, "this is more than nonsense. One word more of this, and you will cut me off from my greatest rest and pleasure."

"From the lawn where croquet waits his approbation," was on Bessie's tongue, but she did not say it. There were moments when she stood in fear of her brother. He paused, and as if perceiving that his vehemence was in itself suspicious, added, "Remember, I never met her from seven years old till after her marriage. She has been the kindest of friends in right of our fathers' old friendship. You know how her mother nursed me, and the sister she was to me. And Bessie, if your selfishness-I wish I could call it thoughtlessness-involves her innocent simplicity in any scrape, derogatory to what is becoming her situation, I shall find it very hard to forgive you, and harder still to forgive myself for letting you come here."

Bessie pouted for a moment, but her sweetness and good humour were never away. "There, you have given your wicked little sister a screed," she said, looking insinuatingly up at him. "Just as if I did not think her a darling, and would not for the world do anything to spoil her. Have not I been leading the most exemplary life, talking systems and visiting cottages with Rachel and playing with the boys, and singing with the clergyman; and here am I pounced on, as if I were come to be the serpent in this anti-croquet paradise."

"Only a warning, Bessie."

"You'll be better now you have had it out. I've seen you suppressing it all this time, for fear of frightening me away."

Every one knows how the afternoon croquet match on the Myrtlewood Lawn became an institution, though with some variation in the observers thereof, owing to the exigencies of calls, rides, and Ermine Williams's drive, which Lady Temple took care should happen at least twice a week. The most constant votaries of the mallet and hoop were, of course, the two elder boys, the next pair being distant worshippers only now and then admitted by special favour, but the ardour of their mother even exceeded that of Bessie Keith, and it was always a disappointment to her if she were prevented from playing. Grace and Alison Williams frequently took their share with enjoyment, though not with the same devotion, and visitors, civil and military, also often did their part, but the most fervent of all these was Mr. Touchett. Ever since that call of his, when, after long impatience of his shy jerks of conversation and incapacity of taking leave, Miss Keith had exclaimed, "Did you ever play at croquet? do come, and we will teach you," he had been its most assiduous student. The first instructions led to an appointment for more, one contest to another, and the curate was becoming almost as regular a croquet player as Conrade himself, not conversing much but sure to be in his place; and showing a dexterity and precision that always made Lady Temple pleased to have him on her side, and exclaim with delight at his hits as a public benefit to the cause, or thank him with real gratitude when he croqued her or one of her sons out of a difficulty.

Indeed that little lawn at Myrtlewood was a battle-field, of which Alison used to carry her sister amusing and characteristic sketches. The two leading players were Miss Keith and Mr. Touchett, who alone had any idea of tactics; but what she did by intuition, sleight of hand or experience, he effected by calculation and generalship, and even when Conrade claimed the command of his own side, the suggestions of the curate really guided the party. Conrade was a sort of Murat on the croquet field, bold, dashing, often making wonderful hits, but uncertain, and only gradually learning to act in combination. Alison was a sure-handed, skilful hitter, but did not aspire to leadership. Mamma tried to do whatever her boys commanded, and often did it by a sort of dainty dexterity, when her exultation, was a very pretty sight, nor was Grace's lady-like skill contemptible, but having Francis as an ally was like giving a castle; and he was always placed on the other side from Conrade, as it was quite certain that he would do the very reverse of whatever his brother advised. Now and then invitations were given for Rose Williams to join the game, but her aunts never accepted them. Ermine had long ago made up her mind against intimacies between her niece and any pupils of Alison's, sure that though starts of pleasure might result, they would be at the cost of ruffling, and, perhaps, perturbing the child's even stream of happiness-even girl-friendships might have been of doubtful effect where circumstances were so unequal; but Lady Temple's household of boys appeared to Ermine by no means a desirable sphere for her child to be either teased or courted in. Violetta, Colinette, and Augustus were safer comrades, and Rose continued to find them sufficient, varied with the rare delight of now and then sharing her aunt's drive, and brightened by many a kind message in Colonel Keith's letters to her aunt, nay, occasionally a small letter to herself, or an enclosure of some pretty photograph for her much-loved scrap book, or some article for Colinette's use, sometimes even a new book! She was never forgotten in his letters, and Ermine smiled her strange pensive smile of amusement at his wooing of the unconscious Rose.

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