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   Chapter 13 THE FOX AND THE CROW.

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 23309

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"She just gave one squall,

When the cheese she let fall,

And the fox ran away with his prize."

JANE TAYLOR.

"My dear," said Mrs. Curtis, one Monday morning, "I offered Colonel Keith a seat in the carriage to go to the annual book-club meeting with us. Mr. Spicer is going to propose him as a member of the club, you know, and I thought the close carriage would be better for him. I suppose you will be ready by eleven; we ought to set out by that time, not to hurry the horses."

"I am not going," returned Rachel, an announcement that electrified her auditors, for the family quota of books being quite insufficient for her insatiable appetite, she was a subscriber on her own account, and besides, this was the grand annual gathering for disposing of old books, when she was relied on for purchasing all the nuts that nobody else would crack. The whole affair was one of the few social gatherings that she really tolerated and enjoyed, and her mother gazed at her in amazement.

"I wrote to Mrs. Spicer a month ago to take my name off. I have no superfluous money to spend on my selfish amusement."

"But Rachel," said Grace, "did you not particularly want-oh! that fat red book which came to us uncut?"

"I did, but I must do without it."

"Poor Mr. Spicer, he reckoned on you to take it; indeed, he thought you had promised him."

"If there is anything like a promise, I suppose it must be done, but I do not believe there is. I trust to you, Grace, you know I have nothing to waste."

"You had better go yourself, my dear, and then you would be able to judge. It would be more civil by the society, too."

"No matter, indeed I cannot; in fact, Mr. Mauleverer is coming this morning to give his report and arrange our building plans. I want to introduce him to Mr. Mitchell, and fix a day for going over."

Mrs. Curtis gave up in despair, and consulted her eldest daughter in private whether there could have been any misunderstanding with Colonel Keith to lead Rachel to avoid him in a manner that was becoming pointed. Grace deemed it nothing but absorption into the F. U. E. E., and poor Mrs. Curtis sighed over this fleeting away of her sole chance of seeing Rachel like other people. Of Mr. Mauleverer personally she had no fears, he was in her eyes like a drawing or music-master, and had never pretended to be on equal terms in society with her daughters, and she had no doubts or scruples in leaving Rachel to her business interview with him, though she much regretted this further lapse from the ordinary paths of sociability.

Rachel, on the other hand, felt calmly magnanimous in the completion of a veritable sacrifice, for those books had afforded her much enjoyment, and she would much like to have possessed many of those that would be tossed aside at a cheap rate. But the constant small expenses entailed by the first setting on foot such an establishment as the F. U. E. E. were a heavy drain on her private purse, as she insisted on all accounts being brought to her, and then could not bear that these small nondescript matters should be charged upon the general fund, which having already paid the first half-year's rent in advance, and furnished the house, must be recruited by some extraordinary supply before she could build. The thing could not be done at all but by rigid economy, and she was ready to exercise it, and happy in so doing. And the Colonel? She thought the pain of her resolution was passing. After all, it was not so dreadful as people would have one believe, it was no such wrench as novels described to make up one's mind to prefer a systematically useful life to an agreeable man.

Mr. Mauleverer came, with a good report of the children's progress, and talking quite enthusiastically of Lovedy's sweetness and intelligence. Perhaps she would turn out a superior artist, now that chill penury no longer repressed her noble rage, and he further brought a small demand for drawing materials and blocks for engraving, to the amount of five pounds, which Rachel defrayed from the general fund, but sighed over its diminution.

"If I could only make the Barnaby bargain available," she said; "it is cruel to have it tied up to mere apprenticeships, which in the present state of things are absolutely useless, or worse."

"Can nothing be done?"

"You shall hear. Dame Rachel Curtis, in 1605, just when this place was taking up lace-making, an art learnt, I believe, from some poor nuns that were turned out of St. Mary's, at Avoncester, thought she did an immense benefit to the place by buying the bit of land known as Burnaby's Bargain, and making the rents go yearly to apprentice two poor girls born of honest parents. The rent is fourteen pounds, and so the fees are so small that only the small lace-makers here will accept them. I cannot get the girls apprenticed to anything better in the towns except for a much larger premium."

"Do I understand you that such a premium is at present to be bestowed?"

"No, not till next June. The two victims for this year have been sacrificed. But perhaps another time it might be possible to bind them to you as a wood engraver or printer!" cried Rachel, joyfully.

"I should be most happy. But who would be the persons concerned?"

"The trustees are the representative of our family and the rector of the parish-not Mr. Touchett (this is only a district), but poor old Mr. Linton at Avonbridge, who is barely able to sign the papers, so that practically it all comes to me."

"Extremely fortunate for the objects of the charity."

"I wish it were so; but if it could only be made available in such a cause as ours, I am sure my good namesake's intentions would be much better carried out than by binding these poor girls down to their cushions. I did once ask about it, but I was told it could only be altered by Act of Parliament."

"Great facilities have of late been given," said Mr. Mauleverer, "many old endowments have most beneficially extended their scope. May I ask where the land in question is?"

"It is the level bit of meadow just by the river, and all the slope down to the mouth; it has always been in our hands, and paid rent as part of the farm. You know how well it looks from the garden-seat, but it always grieves me when people admire it, for I feel as if it were thrown away."

"Ah! I understand. Perhaps if I could see the papers I could judge of the feasibility of some change."

Rachel gladly assented, and knowing where to find the keys of the strong box, she returned in a short space with a parcel tied up with, red tape, and labelled "Barnaby's Bargain."

"I have been thinking," she exclaimed, as she came in, "that that piece of land must have grown much more valuable since this rent was set on it! Fourteen pounds a year, why we never thought of it; but surely in such a situation, it would be worth very much more for building purposes."

"There can be no doubt. But your approach, Miss Curtis?"

"If it is a matter of justice to the charity, of course that could not be weighed a moment. But we must consider what is to be done. Get the land valued, and pay rent for it accordingly? I would give it up to its fate, and let it for what it would bring, but it would break my mother's heart to see it built on."

"Perhaps I had better take the papers and look over them. I see they will need much consideration."

"Very well, that will be the best way, but we will say nothing about it till we have come to some conclusion, or we shall only startle and distress my mother. After all, then, I do believe we have the real income of the F. U. E. E. within our very hands! It might be ten times what it is now."

Rachel was in higher spirits than ever. To oblige the estate to pay £140 a year to the F. U. E. E. was beyond measure delightful, and though it would be in fact only taking out of the family pocket, yet that was a pocket she could not otherwise get at. The only thing for which she was sorry was that Mr. Mauleverer had an appointment, and could not come with her to call on Mr. Mitchell; but instead of this introduction, as she had sworn herself to secrecy rather than worry her mother till the ways and means were matured, she resolved, by way of compensation, upon going down to impart to Ermine Williams this grave reformation of abuses, since this was an afternoon when there was no chance of meeting the Colonel.

Very happy did she feel in the hope that had come to crown her efforts at the very moment when she had actually and tangibly given up a pleasure, and closed a door opening into worldly life, and she was walking along with a sense of almost consecrated usefulness, to seek her companion in the path of maiden devotion, when in passing the gates of Myrtlewood, she was greeted by Captain Keith and his bright-eyed sister, just coming forth together.

A few words told that they were all bound for Mackarel Lane, actuated by the same probability of finding Miss Williams alone, the Colonel being absent.

"Wonderfully kind to her he is," said Rachel, glad to praise him to convince herself that she did not feel bitter; "he takes that little girl out walking with him every morning."

"I wonder if his constancy will ever be rewarded?" said Bessie, lightly; then, as Rachel looked at her in wonder and almost rebuke for so direct and impertinent a jest, she exclaimed, "Surely you are not in ignorance! What have I done? I thought all the world knew-all the inner world, that is, that revels in a secret."

"Knew what?" said Rachel, unavoidable intolerable colour rushing into her face.

"Why the romance of Colin and Ermine! To live on the verge of such a-a tragi-comedy, is it? and not be aware of it, I do pity you."

"The only wonder is how you knew it," said her brother, in a tone of repression.

"I! Oh, it is a fine thing to be a long-eared little pitcher when one's elders imagine one hears nothing but what is addressed to oneself. There I sat, supposed to be at my lessons, when the English letters came in, and I heard papa communicating to mamma how he had a letter from old Lord Keith-not this one but one older still-the father of him-about his son's exchange-wanted papa to know that he was exemplary and all that, and hoped he would be kind to him, but just insinuated that leave was not desirable-in fact it was to break off an affair at home. And then, while I was all on fire to see what a lover looked like, comes another letter, this time to mamma, from Lady Alison something, who could not help recommending to her kindness her dear nephew Colin, going out broken-hearted at what was feared would prove a fatal accident, to the dearest, noblest girl in the world, for so she must call Ermine Williams. Ermine was a name to stick in one's memory if Williams was not, and so I assumed sufficient certainty to draw it all out of dear Lady Temple."

"She knows then?" said Rachel, breathlessly, but on her guard.

"Know? Yes, or she could hardly make such a brother of the Colonel. In fact, I think it is a bit of treachery to us all to keep such an affair concealed, don't you?" with a vivid flash out of the corner of her eyes.

"Treachery not to post up a list of all one's-"

"One's conquests?" said Bessie, snatching the word out of her brother's mouth. "Did you ever hear a more ingenious intimation of the number one has to boast?"

"Only in character," calmly returned Alick.

"But do not laugh," said Rachel, who had by this time collected herself; "if this is so, it must be far too sad and melancholy to be laughed about."

"So it is," said Alick, with a tone of feeling. "

It has been a mournful business from the first, and I do not see how it is to end."

"Why, I suppose Colonel Colin is his own master now," said Bessie; "and if he has no objection I do not see who else can make any."

"There are people in the world who are what Tennyson calls 'selfless,'" returned Alick.

"Then the objection comes from her?" said Rachel, anxiously.

"So saith Lady Temple," returned Bessie.

They were by this time in Mackarel Lane. Rachel would have given much to have been able to turn back and look this strange news in the face, but consciousness and fear of the construction that might be put on her change of purpose forced her on, and in a few moments the three were in the little parlour, where Ermine's station was now by the fire. There could be no doubt, as Rachel owned to herself instantly, that there was a change since she first had studied that face. The bright colouring, and far more, the active intellect and lively spirit, had always obviated any expression of pining or invalidism; but to the air of cheerfulness was added a look of freshened health and thorough happiness, that rendered the always striking features absolutely beautiful; more so, perhaps, than in their earliest bloom; and the hair and dress, though always neat, and still as simply arranged as possible, had an indescribable air of care and taste that added to the effect of grace and pleasantness, and made Rachel feel convinced in a moment that the wonder would have been not in constancy to such a creature but in inconstancy. The notion that any one could turn from that brilliant, beaming, refined face to her own, struck her with a sudden humiliation. There was plenty of conversation, and her voice was not immediately wanted; indeed, she hardly attended to what was passing, and really dreaded outstaying the brother and sister. When Ermine turned to her, and asked after Lovedy Kelland in her new home, she replied like one in a dream, then gathered herself up and answered to the point, but feeling the restraint intolerable, soon rose to take leave.

"So soon?" said Ermine; "I have not seen you for a long time."

"I-I was afraid of being in the way," said Rachel, the first time probably that such a fear had ever suggested itself to her, and blushing as Ermine did not blush.

"We are sure to be alone after twilight," said Ermine, "if that is not too late for you, but I know you are much occupied now."

Somehow that invalid in her chair had the dignity of a queen appointing her levee, and Rachel followed the impulse of thanking and promising, but then quickly made her escape to her own thoughts.

"Her whole soul is in that asylum," said Ermine, smiling as she went. "I should like to hear that it is going on satisfactorily, but she does not seem to have time even to talk."

"The most wonderful consummation of all," observed Bessie.

"No," said Ermine, "the previous talk was not chatter, but real effervescence from the unsatisfied craving for something to do."

"And has she anything to do now?" said Bessie.

"That is exactly what I want to know. It would be a great pity if all this real self-devotion were thrown away."

"It cannot be thrown away," said Alick.

"Not on herself," said Ermine, "but one would not see it misdirected, both for the waste of good energy and the bitter disappointment."

"Well," said Bessie, "I can't bear people to be so dreadfully in earnest!"

"You are accountable for the introduction, are not you?" said Ermine.

"I'm quite willing! I think a good downfall plump would be the most wholesome thing that could happen to her; and besides, I never told her to take the man for her almoner and counsellor! I may have pointed to the gulf, but I never bade Curtia leap into it."

"I wish there were any one to make inquiries about this person," said Ermine; "but when Colonel Keith came it was too late. I hoped she might consult him, but she has been so much absorbed that she really has never come in his way."

"She would never consult any one," said Bessie.

"I am not sure of that," replied Ermine. "I think that her real simplicity is what makes her appear so opinionated. I verily believe that there is a great capability of humility at the bottom."

"Of the gulf," laughed Bessie; but her brother said, "Quite true. She has always been told she is the clever woman of the family, and what can she do but accept the position?"

"Exactly," said Ermine; "every one has given way to her, and, of course, she walks over their bodies, but there is something so noble about her that I cannot but believe that she will one day shake herself clear of her little absurdities."

"That is contrary to the usual destiny of strong-minded women," said Bessie.

"She is not a strong-minded woman, she only has been made to believe herself one," said Ermine, warmly.

With this last encounter, Bessie and her brother took leave, and the last at once exclaimed, in sentimental tones, "Generous rivals! I never saw so good a comedy in all my days! To disclose the fatal truth, and then bring the rival fair ones face to face!"

"If that were your belief, Bessie, the demon of teasing has fuller possession of you than I knew."

"Ah! I forgot," exclaimed Bessie, "it is tender ground with you likewise. Alas! Alick, sisterly affection cannot blind me to the fact of that unrequited admiration for your honourable rival."

"What, from the strong-minded Curtia?"

"Ah! but have we not just heard that this is not the genuine article, only a country-made imitation? No wonder it was not proof against an honourable colonel in a brown beard."

"So much the better; only unluckily there has been a marked avoidance of him."

"Yes; the Colonel was sacrificed with all other trivial incidents at the shrine of the F. U. L. E.-E. E., I mean. And only think of finding out that one has been sacrificing empty air after all-and to empty air!"

"Better than to sacrifice everything to oneself," said Alick.

"Not at all. The latter practice is the only way to be agreeable! By-the-bye, Alick, I wonder if she will deign to come to the ball?"

"What ball?"

"Your ball at Avoncester. It is what I am staying on for! Major McDonald all but promised me one; and you know you must give one before you leave this place."

"Don't you know that poor Fraser has just been sent for home on his sister's death?"

"But I conclude the whole regiment does not go into mourning?"

"No, but Fraser is the one fellow to whom this would be real enjoyment. Indeed, I particularly wish no hints may be given about it. Don't deny, I know you have ways of bringing about what you wish, and I will not have them used here. I know something of the kind must be done before we leave Avoncester, but to give one this autumn would be much sooner than needful. I believe there is hardly an officer but myself and Fraser to whom the expense would not be a serious consideration, and when I tell you my father had strong opinions about overdoing reciprocities of gaiety, and drawing heavily on the officers' purses for them, I do not think you will allow their regard for him to take that manifestation towards you."

"Of course not," said Bessie, warmly; "I will not think of it again. Only when the fate does overtake you, you will have me here for it, Alick?"

He readily promised, feeling gratified at the effect of having spoken to his sister with full recognition of her good sense.

Meantime Rachel was feeling something of what Bessie ascribed to her, as if her sacrifice had been snatched away, and a cloud placed in its stead. Mortification was certainly present, and a pained feeling of having been made a fool of, whether by the Colonel or herself, her candid mind could hardly decide; but she was afraid it was by herself. She knew she had never felt sure enough of his attentions to do more than speculate on what she would do if they should become more pointed, and yet she felt angry and sore at having been exposed to so absurd a blunder by the silence of the parties concerned. "After all," she said to herself, "there can be no great harm done, I have not been weak enough to commit my heart to the error. I am unscathed, and I will show it by sympathy for Ermine. Only-only, why could not she have told me?"

An ordeal was coming for which Rachel was thus in some degree prepared. On the return of the party from the book club, Mrs. Curtis came into Rachel's sitting-room, and hung lingering over the fire as if she had something to say, but did not know how to begin. At last, however, she said, "I do really think it is very unfair, but it was not his fault, he says."

"Who?" said Rachel, dreamily.

"Why, Colonel Keith, my dear," said good Mrs. Curtis, conceiving that her pronominal speech had "broken" her intelligence; "it seems we were mistaken in him all this time."

"What, about Miss Williams?" said Rachel, perceiving how the land lay; "how did you hear it?"

"You knew it, my dear child," cried her mother in accents of extreme relief.

"Only this afternoon, from Bessie Keith."

"And Fanny knew it all this time," continued Mrs. Curtis. "I cannot imagine how she could keep it from me, but it seems Miss Williams was resolved it should not be known. Colonel Keith said he felt it was wrong to go on longer without mentioning it, and I could not but say that it would have been a great relief to have known it earlier."

"As far as Fanny was concerned it would," said Rachel, looking into the fire, but not without a sense of rehabilitating satisfaction, as the wistful looks and tone of her mother convinced her that this semi-delusion had not been confined to herself.

"I could not help being extremely sorry for him when he was telling me," continued Mrs. Curtis, as much resolved against uttering the idea as Rachel herself could be. "It has been such a very long attachment, and now he says he has not yet been able to overcome her scruples about accepting him in her state. It is quite right of her, I can't say but it is, but it is a very awkward situation."

"I do not see that," said Rachel, feeling the need of decision in order to reassure her mother; "it is very sad and distressing in some ways, but no one can look at Miss Williams without seeing that his return has done her a great deal of good; and whether they marry or not, one can only be full of admiration and respect for them."

"Yes, yes," faltered Mrs. Curtis; "only I must say I think it was due to us to have mentioned it sooner."

"Not at all, mother. Fanny knew it, and it was nobody's concern but hers. Pray am I to have Owen's 'Palaeontology'?"

"No, Colonel Keith bought that, and some more of the solid books. My dear, he is going to settle here; he tells me he has actually bought that house he and his brother are in."

"Bought it!"

"Yes; he says, any way, his object is to be near Miss Williams. Well, I cannot think how it is to end, so near the title as he is, and her sister a governess, and then that dreadful business about her brother, and the little girl upon her hands. Dear me, I wish Fanny had any one else for a governess."

"So do not I," said Rachel. "I have the greatest possible admiration for Ermine Williams, and I do not know which I esteem most, her for her brave, cheerful, unrepining unselfishness, or him for his constancy and superiority to all those trumpery considerations. I am glad to have the watching of them. I honour them both."

Yes, and Rachel honoured herself still more for being able to speak all this freely and truly out of the innermost depths of her candid heart.

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