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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 25076

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"The pheasant in the falcon's claw,

He scarce will yield, to please a daw."-SCOTT.

Early in the afternoon of a warm October day, the brothers arrived at Avomnouth, and ten minutes after both were upon the lawn at Myrtlewood, where croquet was still in progress. Shouts of delight greeted the Colonel, and very gracefully did Bessie Keith come to meet him, with the frank confiding sweetness befitting his recent ward, the daughter of his friend. A reassuring smile and monosyllable had scarcely time to pass between him and the governess before a flood of tidings was poured on him by the four elder boys, while their mother was obliged to be mannerly, and to pace leisurely along with the elder guest, and poor Mr. Touchett waited a little aloof, hammering his own boot with his mallet, as if he found the enchanted ground failing him. But the boys had no notion of losing their game, and vociferated an inquiry whether the Colonel knew croquet. Yes, he had several times played with his cousins in Scotland. "Then," insisted Conrade, "he must take mamma's place, whilst she was being devoured, and how surprised she would be at being so helped on!"

"Not now, not to-day," he answered. "I may go to your sister, Ailie? Yes, boys, you must close up your ranks without me."

"Then please," entreated Hubert, "take him away," pointing to the engrosser of their mother.

"Do you find elder brothers so easily disposed of, Hubert?" said the Colonel. "Do you take Conrade away when you please?"

"I should punch him," returned Francis.

"He knows better," quoth Conrade in the same breath, both with infinite contempt for Hubert.

"And I know better," returned Colonel Keith; "never mind, boys, I'll come back in-in reasonable time to carry him off," and he waved a gay farewell.

"Surely you wish to go too," said Bessie to Alison, "if only to relieve them of the little girl! I'll take care of the boys. Pray go."

"Thank you," said Alison, surprised at her knowledge of the state of things, "but they are quite hardened to Rose's presence, and I think would rather miss her."

And in fact Alison did not feel at all sure that, when stimulated by Bessie's appreciation of their mischief, her flock might not in her absence do something that might put their mother in despair, and make their character for naughtiness irretrievable; so Leoline and Hubert were summoned, the one from speculations whether Lord Keith would have punched his brother, the other from amaze that there was anything our military secretary could not do, and Conrade and Francis were arrested in the midst of a significant contraction of the nostrils and opening of the mouth, which would have exploded in an "eehaw" but for Bessie's valiant undertaking to be herself and Lady Temple both at once.

Soon Colonel Keith was knocking at Ermine's door, and Rose was clinging to him, glowing and sparkling with shy ecstasy; while, without sitting down again after her greeting, Rachel resolutely took leave, and walked away with firm steps, ruminating on her determination not to encourage meetings in Mackarel Lane.

"Better than I expected!" exclaimed Colonel Keith, after having ushered her to the door in the fulness of his gratitude. "I knew it was inevitable that she should be here, but that she should depart so fast was beyond hope!"

"Yes," said Ermine, laughing, "I woke with such a certainty that she would be here and spend the first half hour in the F. U. E, E. that I wasted a great deal of resignation. But how are you, Colin? You are much thinner! I am sure by Mrs. Tibbie's account you were much more ill than you told me."

"Only ill enough to convince me that the need of avoiding a northern winter was not a fallacy, and likewise to make Tibbie insist on coming here for fear Maister Colin should not be looked after. It is rather a responsibility to have let her come, for she has never been farther south than Edinburgh, but she would not be denied. So she has been to see you! I told her you would help her to find her underlings. I thought it might be an opening for that nice little girl who was so oppressed with lace-making."

"Ah! she has gone to learn wood-cutting at the F. U. E. E.; but I hope we have comfortably provided Tibbie with a damsel. She made us a long visit, and told us all about Master Colin's nursery days. Only I am afraid we did not understand half."

"Good old body," said the Colonel, in tones almost as national as Tibbie's own. "She was nursery girl when I was the spoilt child of the house, and hers was the most homelike face that met me. I wish she may be happy here. And you are well, Ermine?"

"Very well, those drives are so pleasant, and Lady Temple so kind! It is wonderful to think how many unlooked-for delights have come to us; how good every one is;" and her eyes shone with happy tears as she looked up at him, and felt that he was as much her own as ever. "And you have brought your brother," she said; "you have been too useful to him to be spared. Is he come to look after you or to be looked after!"

"A little of both I fancy," said the Colonel, "but I suspect he is giving me up as a bad job. Ermine, there are ominous revivifications going on at home, and he has got himself rigged out in London, and had his hair cut, so that he looks ten years younger."

"Do you think he has any special views!"

"He took such pains to show me the charms of the Benorchie property that I should have thought it would have been Jessie Douglas, the heiress thereof, only coming here does not seem the way to set about it, unless be regards this place as a bath of youth and fashion. I fancy he has learnt enough about my health to make him think me a precarious kind of heir, and that his views are general. I hope he may not be made a fool of, otherwise it is the best thing that could happen to us."

"It has been a dreary uncomfortable visit, I much fear," said Ermine.

"Less so than you think. I am glad to have been able to be of use to him, and to have lived on something like brotherly terms. We know and like each other much better than we had a chance of doing before, and we made some pleasant visits together, but at home there are many things on which we can never be of one mind, and I never was well enough at Gowanbrae to think of living there permanently."

"I was sure you had been very unwell! You are better though?"

"Well, since I came into Avonmouth air," said he, "I fear nothing but cold. I am glad to have brought him with me, since he could not stay there, for it is very lonely for him."

"Yet you said his daughter was settled close by."

"Yes; but that makes it the worse. In fact, Ermine, I did not know before what a wretched affair he had made of his daughters' marriages. Isabel he married when she was almost a child to this Comyn Menteith, very young too at the time, and who has turned out a good-natured, reckless, dissipated fellow, who is making away with his property as fast as he can, and to whom Keith's advice is like water on a duck's back. It is all rack and ruin and extravagance, a set of ill-regulated children, and Isabel smiling and looking pretty in the midst of them, and perfectly impervious to remonstrance. He is better out of sight of them, for it is only pain and vexation, an example of the sort of match he likes to make. Mary, the other daughter, was the favourite, and used to her own way, and she took it. Keith was obliged to consent so as to prevent an absolute runaway wedding, but he has by no means forgiven her husband, and they are living on very small means on a Government appointment in Trinidad. I believe it would be the bitterest pill to him that either son-in-law should come in for any part of the estate."

"I thought it was entailed."

"Gowanbrae is, but as things stand at present that ends with me, and the other estates are at his disposal."

"Then it would be very hard on the daughters not to have them."

"So hard that the death of young Alexander may have been one of the greatest disasters of my life, as well as of poor Keith's. However, this is riding out to meet perplexities. He is most likely to outlive me; and, moreover, may marry and put an end to the difficulty. Meantime, till my charge is relieved, I must go and see after him, and try if I can fulfil Hubert's polite request that I would take him away. Rosie, my woman, I have hardly spoken to you. I have some hyacinth roots to bring you to-morrow."

In spite of these suspicions, Colonel Keith was not prepared for what met him on his return to Myrtlewood. On opening the drawing-room door, he found Lady Temple in a low arm-chair in an agony of crying, so that she did not hear his approach till he stood before her in consternation. Often had he comforted her before, and now, convinced that something dreadful must have befallen one of the children, he hastily, though tenderly, entreated her to tell him which, and what he could do.

"Oh, no, no!" she exclaimed, starting up, and removing her handkerchief, so that he saw her usually pale cheeks were crimson-"Oh, no," she cried, with panting breath and heaving chest. "It is all well with them as yet. But-but-it's your brother."

He was at no loss now as to what his brother could have done, but he stood confounded, with a sense of personal share in the offence, and his first words were-"I am very sorry. I never thought of this."

"No, indeed," she exclaimed, "who could? It was too preposterous to be dreamt of by any one. At his age, too, one would have thought he might have known better."

A secret sense of amusement crossed the Colonel, as he recollected that the disparity between Fanny Curtis and Sir Stephen Temple had been far greater than that between Lady Temple and Lord Keith, but the little gentle lady was just at present more like a fury than he had thought possible, evidently regarding what had just passed as an insult to her husband and an attack on the freedom of all her sons. In answer to a few sympathising words on the haste of his brother's proceeding, she burst out again with indignation almost amusing in one so soft-"Haste! Yes! I did think that people would have had some respect for dear, dear Sir Stephen," and her gush of tears came with more of grief and less of violence, as if she for the first time felt herself unprotected by her husband's name.

"I am very much concerned," he repeated, feeling sympathy safer than reasoning. "If I could have guessed his intentions, I would have tried to spare you this; at least the suddenness of it. I could not have guessed at such presumptuous expectations on so short an acquaintance."

"He did not expect me to answer at once," said Fanny. "He said he only meant to let me know his hopes in coming here. And, oh, that's the worst of it! He won't believe me, though I said more to him than I thought I could have said to anybody! I told him," said Fanny, with her hands clasped over her knee to still her trembling, "that I cared for my dear, dear husband, and always shall-always-and then he talked about waiting, just as if anybody could leave off loving one's husband! And then when he wanted me to consider about my children, why then I told him"-and her voice grew passionate again-"the more I considered, the worse it would be for him, as if I would have my boys know me without their father's name; and, besides, he had not been so kind to you that I should wish to let him have anything to do with them! I am afraid I ought not to have said that," she added, returning to something of her meek softness; "but indeed I was so angry, I did not know what I was about. I hope it will not make him angry with you."

"Never mind me," said Colonel Keith, kindly. "Indeed, Lady Temple, it is a wonderful compliment to you that he should have been ready to undertake such a family."

"I don't want such compliments! And, oh!" and here her eyes widened with fright, "what shall I do? He only said my feelings did me honour, and he would be patient and convince me. Oh, Colonel Keith, what shall I do?" and she looked almost afraid that fate and perseverance would master her after all, and that she should be married against her will.

"You need do nothing but go on your own way, and persist in your refusal," he said in the calm voice that always reassured her.

"Oh, but pray, pray never let him speak to me about it again!"

"Not if I can help it, and I will do my best. You are quite right, Lady Temple. I do not think it would be a

t all advisable for yourself or the children, and hardly for himself," he added, smiling. "I think the mischief must all have been done by that game at whist."

"Then I'll never play again in my life! I only thought he was an old man that wanted amusing-." Then as one of the children peeped in at the window, and was called back-"O dear! how shall I ever look at Conrade again, now any one has thought I could forget his father?"

"If Conrade knew it, which I trust he never will, he ought to esteem it a testimony to his mother."

"Oh, no, for it must have been my fault! I always was so childish, and when I've got my boys with me, I can't help being happy," and the tears swelled again in her eyes. "I know I have not been as sad and serious as my aunt thought I ought to be, and now this comes of it."

"You have been true, have acted nothing," said Colonel Keith, "and that is best of all. No one who really knew you could mistake your feelings. No doubt that your conduct agrees better with what would please our dear Sir Stephen than if you drooped and depressed the children."

"Oh, I am glad you say that," she said, looking up, flushed with pleasure now, and her sweet eyes brimming over. "I have tried to think what he would like in all I have done, and you know I can't help being proud and glad of belonging to him still; and he always told me not to be shy and creeping into the nursery out of every one's way."

The tears were so happy now that he felt that the wound was healed, and that he might venture to leave her, only asking first, "And now what would you like me to do? Shall I try to persuade my brother to come away from this place?"

"Oh, but then every one would find out why, and that would be dreadful! Besides, you are only just come. And Miss Williams-"

"Do not let that stand in your way."

"No, no. You will be here to take care of me. And his going now would make people guess; and that would be worse than anything."

"It would. The less disturbance the better; and if you upset his plans now, he might plead a sort of right to renew the attempt later. Quiet indifference will be more dignified and discouraging. Indeed, I little thought to what I was exposing you. Now I hope you are going to rest, I am sure your head is aching terribly."

She faintly smiled, and let him give her his arm to the foot of the stairs.

At first he was too indignant for any relief save walking up and down the esplanade, endeavouring to digest the unfairness towards himself of his brother's silence upon views that would have put their joint residence at Avonmouth on so different a footing; above all, when the Temple family were his own peculiar charge, and when he remembered how unsuspiciously he had answered all questions on the money matters, and told how all was left in the widow's own power. It was the more irritating, as he knew that his displeasure would be ascribed to interested motives, and regarded somewhat as he had seen Hubert's resentment treated when Francis teased his favourite rabbit. Yet not only on principle, but to avoid a quarrel, and to reserve to himself such influence as might best shield Lady Temple from further annoyance, he must school himself to meet his brother with coolness and patience. It was not, however, without strong effort that he was able to perceive that, from the outer point of view, one who, when a mere child, had become the wife of an aged general, might, in her early widowhood, be supposed open to the addresses of a man of higher rank and fewer years, and the more as it was not in her nature to look crushed and pathetic. He, who had known her intimately throughout her married life and in her sorrow, was aware of the quiet force of the love that had grown up with her, so entirely a thread in her being as to crave little expression, and too reverent to be violent even in her grief. The nature, always gentle, had recovered its balance, and the difference in years had no doubt told in the readiness with which her spirits had recovered their cheerfulness, though her heart remained unchanged. Still, retired as her habits were, and becoming as was her whole conduct, Colin began to see that there had been enough of liveliness about her to lead to Lord Keith's mistake, though not to justify his want of delicacy in the precipitation of his suit.

These reflections enabled him at length to encounter his brother with temper, and to find that, after all, it had been more like the declaration of an intended siege than an actual summons to surrender. Lord Keith was a less foolish and more courteous man than might have been gathered from poor Fanny's terrified account; and all he had done was to intimate his intention of recommending himself to her, and the view with which he had placed himself at Avonmouth; nor was he in the slightest degree disconcerted by her vehemence, but rather entertained by it, accepting her faithfulness to her first husband's memory as the best augury of her affection for a second. He did not even own that he had been precipitate.

"Let her get accustomed to the idea," he said with a shrewd smile. "The very outcry she makes against it will be all in my favour when the turn comes."

"I doubt whether you will find it so."

"All the world does not live on romance like you, man. Look on, and you will see that a pretty young widow like her cannot fail to get into scrapes; have offers made to her, or at least the credit of them. I'd lay you ten pounds that you are said to be engaged to her yourself by this time, and it is no one's fault but your own that you are not. It is in the very nature of things that she will be driven to shelter herself from the persecution, with whoever has bided his time."

"Oh, if you prefer being accepted on such terms-"

He smiled, as if the romance of the exclamation were beneath contempt, and proceeded-"A pretty, gracious, ladylike woman, who has seen enough of the world to know how to take her place, and yet will be content with a quiet home. It is an introduction I thank you for, Colin."

"And pray," said Colin, the more inwardly nettled because he knew that his elder brother enjoyed his annoyance, "what do you think of those seven slight encumbrances?"

"Oh, they are your charge," returned Lord Keith, with a twinkle in his eye. "Besides, most of them are lads, and what with school, sea, and India, they will be easily disposed of."

"Certainly it has been so in our family," said Colin, rather hoarsely, as he thought of the four goodly brothers who had once risen in steps between him and the Master.

"And," added Lord Keith, still without direct answer, "she is so handsomely provided for, that you see, Colin, I could afford to give you up the Auchinvar property, that should have been poor Archie's, and what with the farms and the moor, it would bring you in towards three hundred a year for your housekeeping."

Colin restrained himself with difficulty, but made quiet answer. "I had rather see it settled as a provision on Mary and her children."

Lord Keith growled something about minding his own concerns.

"That is all I desire," responded the Colonel, and therewith the conference ended. Nor was the subject recurred to. It was observable, however, that Lord Keith was polite and even attentive to Ermine. He called on her, sent her grouse, and though saying nothing, seemed to wish to make it evident that his opposition was withdrawn, perhaps as no longer considering his brother's affairs as his own, or else wishing to conciliate him. Lady Temple was not molested by any alarming attentions from him. But for the proclamation, the state of siege might have been unsuspected. He settled himself at the southern Gowanbrae as if he had no conquest to achieve but that of the rheumatism, and fell rapidly into sea-side habits-his morning stroll to see the fishing-boats come in, his afternoon ride, and evening's dinner party, or whist-club, which latter institution disposed of him, greatly to Colin's relief. The brothers lived together very amicably, and the younger often made himself helpful and useful to the elder, but evidently did not feel bound to be exclusively devoted to his service and companionship. All the winter residents and most of the neighbouring gentry quickly called at Gowanbrae, and Lord Keith, in the leisure of his present life, liked society where he was the man of most consequence, and readily accepted and gave invitations. Colin, whose chest would not permit him to venture out after sunset, was a most courteous assistant host, but necessarily made fewer acquaintances, and often went his own way, sometimes riding with his brother, but more frequently scarcely seeing him between breakfast and twilight, and then often spending a solitary evening, which he much preferred either to ecarte or to making talk.

The summer life had been very different from the winter one. There was much less intercourse with the Homestead, partly from Rachel being much engrossed with the F. U. E. E., driving over whenever the coachman would let her, to inspect progress, and spending much of her time in sending out circulars, answering letters, and writing a tale on the distresses of Woman, and how to help them, entitled "Am I not a Sister?" Tales were not much in Bachel's line; she despised reading them, and did not love writing them, but she knew that she must sugar the cup for the world, and so she diligently applied herself to the piece de resistance for the destined magazine, heavily weighting her slender thread of story with disquisitions on economy and charity, and meaning to land her heroines upon various industrial asylums where their lot should be far more beatific than marriage, which was reserved for the naughty one to live unhappy in ever after. In fact, Rachel, in her stern consistency, had made up her mind to avoid and discourage the Colonel, and to prevent her own heart from relenting in his favour, or him from having any opportunity of asking an explanation, and with this determination she absented herself both from Ermine's parlour and Lady Temple's croquet ground; and if they met on the esplanade or in a morning call, took care never to give the chance of a tete-a-tete, which he was evidently seeking.

The croquet practice still survived. In truth, Fanny was afraid to ride lest Lord Keith should join her, and was glad to surround herself with companions. She could not see the enemy without a nervous trepidation, and was eager to engross herself with anybody or thing that came to hand so as to avoid the necessity of attending to him. More than once did she linger among her boys "to speak to Mr. Touchett," that she might avoid a ten minutes' walk with his lordship; and for nothing was she more grateful than for the quiet and ever ready tact with which Bessie Keith threw herself into the breach. That bright damsel was claimed by Lord Keith as a kinswoman, and, accepting the relationship, treated him with the pretty playfulness and coquetry that elderly men enjoy from lively young girls, and thus often effected a diversion in her friend's favour, to the admiration both of the Colonel and of Lady Temple herself; all, however, by intuition, for not a word had been hinted to her of what had passed during that game at croquet. She certainly was a most winning creature; the Colonel was charmed with her conversation in its shades between archness and good sense, and there was no one who did not look forward with dread to the end of her visit, when after a short stay with one of her married cousins, she must begin her residence with the blind uncle to whose establishment she, in her humility, declared she should be such a nuisance. It was the stranger that she should think so, as she had evidently served her apprenticeship to parish work at Bishopsworthy; she knew exactly how to talk to poor people, and was not only at home in clerical details herself, but infused them into Lady Temple; so that, to the extreme satisfaction of Mr. Touchett, the latter organized a treat for the school-children, offered prizes for needlework, and once or twice even came to listen to the singing practice when anything memorable was going forward. She was much pleased at being helped to do what she felt to be right and kind, though hitherto she had hardly known how to set about it, and had been puzzled and perplexed by Rachel's disapproval, and semi-contempt of "scratching the surface" by the commonplace Sunday-school system.

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