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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 20929

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"What could presumptuous hope inspire."-Rokeby.

There had been the usual foretaste of winter, rather sharp for Avonmouth, and though a trifle to what it was in less sheltered places, quite enough to make the heliotropes sorrowful, strip the fig-trees, and shut Colonel Keith up in the library. Then came the rain, and the result was that the lawn of Myrtlewood became too sloppy for the most ardent devotees of croquet; indeed, as Bessie said, the great charm of the sport was that one could not play it above eight months in the year.

The sun came back again, and re-asserted the claim of Avonmouth to be a sort of English Mentone; but drying the lawn was past its power, and Conrade and Francis were obliged to console themselves by the glory of taking Bessie Keith for a long ride. They could not persuade their mother to go with them, perhaps because she had from her nursery-window sympathized with Cyril's admiration of the great white horse that was being led round to the door of Gowanbrae.

She said she must stay at home, and make the morning calls that the charms of croquet had led her to neglect, and in about half an hour from that time she was announced in Miss Williams' little parlour, and entered with a hurried, panting, almost pursued look, a frightened glance in her eyes, and a flush on her cheek, such as to startle both Ermine and the Colonel.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, as if still too much perturbed to know quite what she was saying, "I-I did not mean to interrupt you."

"I'm only helping Rose to change the water of her hyacinths," said Colonel Keith, withdrawing his eyes and attention to the accommodation of the forest of white roots within the purple glass.

"I did not know you were out to-day," said Lady Temple, recovering herself a little.

"Yes, I came to claim my walking companion. Where's your hat, Rosie?"

And as the child, who was already equipped all but the little brown hat, stood by her aunt for the few last touches to the throat of her jacket, he leant down and murmured, "I thought he was safe out riding."

"Oh no, no, it is not that," hastily answered Lady Temple, a fresh suffusion of crimson colour rustling over her face, and inspiring an amount of curiosity that rendered a considerable effort of attention necessary to be as supremely charming a companion as Rose generally found him in the walks that he made it his business to take with her.

He turned about long before Rose thought they had gone far enough, and when he re-entered the parlour there was such an expectant look on his face that Ermine's bright eyes glittered with merry mischief, when she sent Rose to take off her walking dress. "Well!" he said.

"Well? Colin, have you so low an opinion of the dignity of your charge as to expect her to pour out her secrets to the first ear in her way?"

"Oh, if she has told you in confidence."

"No, she has not told me in confidence; she knew better."

"She has told you nothing?"

"Nothing!" and Ermine indulged in a fit of laughter at his discomfiture, so comical that he could not but laugh himself, as he said, "Ah! the pleasure of disappointing me quite consoles you."

"No; the proof of the discretion of womanhood does that! You thought, because she tells all her troubles to you, that she must needs do so to the rest of the world."

"There is little difference between telling you and me."

"That's the fault of your discretion, not of hers."

"I should like to know who has been annoying her. I suspect-"

"So do I. And when you get the confidence at first hand, you will receive it with a better grace than if you had had a contraband foretaste."

He smiled. "I thought yours a more confidence-winning face, Ermine."

"That depends on my respect for the individual. Now I thought Lady Temple would much prefer my looking another way, and talking about Conrade's Latin grammar, to my holding out my arms and inviting her to pour into my tender breast what another time she had rather not know that I knew."

"That is being an honourable woman," he said, and Rose's return ended the exchange of speculations; but it must be confessed that at their next meeting Ermine's look of suppressed inquiry quite compensated for her previous banter, more especially as neither had he any confidence to reveal or conceal, only the tidings that the riders, whose coalition had justified Lady Temple's prudence, had met Mr. Touchett wandering in the lanes in the twilight, apparently without a clear idea of what he was doing there. And on the next evening there was quite an excitement, the curate looked so ill, and had broken quite down when he was practising with the choir boys before church; he had, indeed, gone safely through the services, but at school he had been entirely at a loss as to what Sunday it was, and had still more unfortunately forgotten that to be extra civil to Miss Villars was the only hope of retaining her services, for he had walked by her with less attention than if she had been the meanest scholar. Nay, when his most faithful curatolatress had offered to submit to him a design for an illumination for Christmas, he had escaped from her with a desperate and mysterious answer that he had nothing to do with illumination, he hoped it would be as sombre as possible.

No wonder Avonmouth was astonished, and that guesses were not confined to Mackarel Lane.

"Well, Colin," said Ermine, on the Tuesday, "I have had a first-hand confidence, though from a different quarter. Poor Mr. Touchett came to announce his going away."


"Yes. In the very nick of time, it seems, Alick Keith has had a letter from his uncle's curate, asking him to see if he could meet with a southern clergyman to exchange duties for the winter with a London incumbent who has a delicate wife, and of course. Mr. Touchett jumped at it."

"A very good thing-a great relief."

"Yes. He said he was very anxious for work, but he had lost ground in this place within the last few months, and he thought that he should do better in a fresh place, and that a fresh person would answer better here, at least for a time. I am very sorry for him, I have a great regard for him."

"Yes; but he is quite right to make a fresh beginning. Poor man! he has been quite lifted off his feet, and entranced all this time, and his recovery will be much easier elsewhere. It was all that unlucky croquet."

"I believe it was. I think there was at first a reverential sort of distant admiration, too hopeless to do any one any harm, and that really might have refined him, and given him a little of the gentleman-like tone he has always wanted. But then came the croquet, and when it grew to be a passion it was an excuse for intimacy that it would have taken a stronger head than his to resist."

"Under the infection of croquet fever."

"It is what my father used to say of amusements-the instant they become passions they grow unclerical and do mischief. Now he used, though not getting on with the Curtises, to be most successful with the second-rate people; but he has managed to offend half of them during this unhappy mania, which, of course, they all resent as mercenary, and how he is ever to win them back I don't know. After all, curatocult is a shallow motive-Rachel Curtis might triumph!"

"The higher style of clergyman does not govern by curatocult. I hope this one may be of that description, as he comes through Mr. Clare. I wonder if this poor man will return?"

"Perhaps," said Ermine, with a shade of mimicry in her voice, "when Lady Temple is married to the Colonel. There now, I have gone and told you! I did try to resolve I would not."

"And what did you say?"

"I thought it due to Lady Temple to tell him exactly how she regarded you."

"Yes, Ermine, and it is due to tell others also. I cannot go on on these terms, either here or at Myrtlewood, unless the true state of the case is known. If you will not let me be a married man, I must be an engaged one, either to you or to the little Banksia."

This periphrasis was needful, because Rose was curled up in a corner with a book, and her accessibility to outward impressions was dubious. It might be partly for that reason, partly from the tone of fixed resolve in his voice, that Ermine made answer, "As you please."

It was calmly said, with the sweet, grave, confiding smile that told how she trusted to his judgment, and accepted his will. The look and tone brought his hand at once to press hers in eager gratitude, but still she would not pursue this branch of the subject; she looked up to him and said gently, but firmly, "Yes, it may be better that the true state of the case should be known," and he felt that she thus conveyed that he must not press her further, so he let her continue, "At first I thought it would do him good, he began pitying us so vehemently; but when he found I did not pity myself, he was as ready to forget our troubles as-you are to forget his," she added, catching Colin's fixed eye, more intent on herself than on her narrative.

"I beg his pardon, but there are things that come more home."

"So thought he," said Ermine.

"Did you find out," said Colin, now quite recalled, "what made him take courage?"

"When he had once come to the subject, it seemed to be a relief to tell it all out, but he was so faltering and agitated that I did not always follow what he said. I gather, though, that Lady Temple has used him a little as a defence from other perils."

"Yes, I have seen that."

"And Miss Keith's fun has been more encouragement than she knew; constantly summoning him to the croquet-ground, and giving him to understand that Lady Temple liked to have him there. Then came that unlucky day, it seems, when he found Bessie mounting her horse at the door, and she called out that it was too wet for croquet, but Lady Temple was in the garden, and would be glad to see him. She was going to make visits, and he walked down with her, and somehow, in regretting the end of the croquet season, he was surprised into saying how much it had been to him. He says she was exceedingly kind, and regretted extremely that anything should have inspired the hope, said she should never marry again, and entreated him to forget it, then I imagine she fled in here to put an end to it."

"She must have been much more gentle this time than she was with Keith. I had never conceived her capable of being so furi

ous as she was then. I am very sorry, I wish we could spare her these things."

"I am afraid that can only be done in one way, which you are not likely at present to take," said Ermine with a serious mouth, but with light dancing in her eyes.

"I know no one less likely to marry again," he continued, "yet no one of whom the world is so unlikely to believe it. Her very gentle simplicity and tenderness tell against her! Well, the only hope now is that the poor man has not made his disappointment conspicuous enough for her to know that it is attributed to her. It is the beginning of the fulfilment of Keith's prediction that offers and reports will harass her into the deed!"

"There is nothing so fallacious as prophecies against second marriages, but I don't believe they will. She is too quietly dignified for the full brunt of reports to reach her, and too much concentrated on her children to care about them."

"Well, I have to see her to-morrow to make her sign some papers about her pension, so I shall perhaps find out how she takes it."

He found Fanny quite her gentle composed self, as usual uncomprehending and helpless about her business affairs, and throwing the whole burthen on him of deciding on her investments; but in such a gracious, dependent, grateful way that he could not but take pleasure in the office, and had no heart for the lesson he had been meditating on the need of learning to act for herself, if she wished to do without a protector. It was not till she had obediently written her "Frances Grace Temple" wherever her prime minister directed, that she said with a crimson blush, "Is it true that poor Mr. Touchett is going away for the winter?"

"I believe he is even going before Sunday."

"I am very glad-I mean I am very sorry. Do you think any one knows why it is?"

"Very few are intimate enough to guess, and those who are, know you too well to think it was otherwise than very foolish on his part."

"I don't know," said Fanny, "I think I must have been foolish too, or he never could have thought of it. And I was so sorry for him, he seemed so much distressed."

"I do not wonder at that, when he had once allowed himself to admit the thought."

"Yes, that is the thing. I am afraid I can't be what I ought to be, or people would never think of such nonsense," said Fanny, with large tears welling into her eyes. "I can't be guarding that dear memory as I ought, to have two such things happening so soon."

"Perhaps they have made you cherish it all the more."

"As if I wanted that! Please will you tell me how I could have been more guarded. I don't mind your knowing about this; indeed you ought, for Sir Stephen trusted me to you, but I can't ask my aunt or any one else. I can't talk about it, and I would not have them know that Sir Stephen's wife can't get his memory more respected."

She did not speak with anger as the first time, but with most touching sadness.

"I don't think any one could answer," he said.

"I did take my aunt's advice about the officers being here. I have not had them nearly as much as Bessie would have liked, not even Alick. I have been sorry it was so dull for her, but I thought it could not be wrong to be intimate with one's clergyman, and Rachel was always so hard upon him."

"You did nothing but what was kind and right. The only possible thing that could have been wished otherwise was the making a regular habit of his playing croquet here."

"Ah! but the boys and Bessie liked it so much. However, I dare say it was wrong. Alick never did like it."

"Not wrong, only a little overdone. You ladies want sometimes to be put in mind that, because a clergyman has to manage his own time, he is not a whit more really at liberty than a soldier or a lawyer, whose hours are fixed for him. You do not do him or his parish any kindness by engrossing him constantly in pastimes that are all very well once in a way, but which he cannot make habitual without detriment to his higher duties."

"But I thought he would have known when he had time."

"I am afraid curates are but bits of human nature after all."

"And what ought I to have done?"

"If you had been an exceedingly prudent woman who knew the world, you would have done just as you did about the officers, been friendly, and fairly intimate, but instead of ratifying the daily appointments for croquet, have given a special invitation now and then, and so shown that you did not expect him without one."

"I see. Oh, if I had only thought in time, I need not have driven him away from his parish! I hope he won't go on being unhappy long! Oh, I wish there may be some very nice young lady where he is going. If he only would come back married!"

"We would give him a vote of thanks."

"What a wedding present I would make her," proceeded Fanny, brightening perceptibly; "I would give her my best Indian table, only I always meant that for Ermine. I think she must have the emu's egg set in Australian gold."

"If she were to be induced by the bribe," said Colonel Keith, laughing, "I think Ermine would be sufficiently provided for by the emu's egg. Do you know," he added, after a pause, "I think I have made a great step in that direction."

She clasped her hands with delighted sympathy. "She has given me leave to mention the matter," he continued, "and I take that as a sign that her resistance will give way."

"Oh, I am very glad," said Fanny, "I have so wished them to know at the Homestead," and her deepened colour revealed, against her will, that she had not been insensible to the awkwardness of the secrecy.

"I should rather like to tell your cousin Rachel myself," said the Colonel; "she has always been very kind to Ermine, and appreciated her more than I should have expected. But she is not easily to be seen now."

"Her whole heart is in her orphan asylum," said Fanny. "I hope you will soon go with us and see it; the little girls look so nice."

The brightening of his prospects seemed to have quite consoled her for her own perplexities.

That Avonmouth should have no suspicion of the cause of the sudden change of pastor could hardly be hoped; but at least Lady Temple did not know how much talk was expended upon her, how quietly Lord Keith hugged himself, how many comical stories Bessie detailed in her letters to her Clare cousins, nor how Mrs. Curtis resented the presumption; and while she shrank from a lecture, more especially as she did not see how dear Fanny was to blame, flattered herself and Grace that, for the future, Colonel Keith and Rachel would take better care of her.

Rachel did not dwell much on the subject, it was only the climax of conceit, croquet, and mere womanhood; and she was chiefly anxious to know whether Mr. Mitchell, the temporary clergyman, would support the F. U. E. E., and be liberal enough to tolerate Mr. Mauleverer. She had great hopes from a London incumbent, and, besides, Bessie Keith knew him, and spoke of him as a very sensible, agreeable, earnest man.

"Earnest enough for you, Rachel," she said, laughing.

"Is he a party man?"

"Oh, parties are getting obsolete! He works too hard for fighting battles outside."

The Sunday showed a spare, vigorous face, and a voice and pronunciation far more refined than poor Mr. Touchett's; also the sermons were far more interesting, and even Rachel granted that there were ideas in it. The change was effected with unusual celerity, for it was as needful to Mrs. Mitchell to be speedily established in a warm climate, as it was desirable to Mr. Touchett to throw himself into other scenes; and the little parsonage soon had the unusual ornaments of tiny children with small spades and wheelbarrows.

The father and mother were evidently very shy people, with a great deal beneath their timidity, and were much delighted to have an old acquaintance like Miss Keith to help them through their introductions, an office which she managed with all her usual bright tact. The discovery that Stephana Temple and Lucy Mitchell had been born within two days of one another, was the first link of a warm friendship between the two mammas; and Mr. Mitchell fell at once into friendly intercourse with Ermine Williams, to whom Bessie herself conducted him for his first visit, when they at once discovered all manner of mutual acquaintance among his college friends; and his next step was to make the very arrangement for Ermine's church-going, for which she had long been wishing in secret, but which never having occurred to poor Mr. Touchett, she had not dared to propose, lest there should be some great inconvenience in the way.

Colonel Keith was the person, however, with whom the new comers chiefly fraternized, and he was amused with their sense of the space for breathing compared with the lanes and alleys of their own district. The schools and cottages seemed to them so wonderfully large, the children so clean, even their fishiness a form of poetical purity, the people ridiculously well off, and even Mrs. Kelland's lace-school a palace of the free maids that weave their thread with bones. Mr. Mitchell seemed almost to grudge the elbow room, as he talked of the number of cubic feet that held a dozen of his own parishioners; and needful as the change had been for the health of both husband and wife, they almost reproached themselves for having fled and left so many pining for want of pure air, dwelling upon impossible castles for the importation of favourite patients to enjoy the balmy breezes of Avonmouth.

Rachel talked to them about the F. U. E. E., and was delighted by the flush of eager interest on Mrs. Mitchell's thin face. "Objects" swarmed in their parish, but where were the seven shillings per week to come from? At any rate Mr. Mitchell would, the first leisure day, come over to St. Herbert's with her, and inspect. He did not fly off at the first hint of Mr. Mauleverer's "opinions," but said he would talk to him, and thereby rose steps untold in Rachel's estimation. The fact of change is dangerously pleasant to the human mind; Mr. Mitchell walked at once into popularity, and Lady Temple had almost conferred a public benefit by what she so little liked to remember. At any rate she had secured an unexceptionable companion, and many a time resorted to his wing, leaving Bessie to amuse Lord Keith, who seemed to be reduced to carry on his courtship to the widow by attentions to her guest.

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