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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 26705

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Your honour's pardon,

I'd rather have my wounds to heal again,

Than hear say how I got them."-Coriolanus.

"Yes, I go the week after next."

"So soon? I thought you were to stay for our ball."

"Till this time next year! No, no, I can't quite do that, thank you."

"This very winter."

"Oh, no-no such thing! Why, half the beauty and fashion of the neighbourhood is not come into winter quarters yet. Besides, the very essence of a military ball is that it should be a parting-the brightest and the last. Good morning."

And Meg's head, nothing loth, was turned away from the wide view of the broad vale of the Avon, with the Avoncester Cathedral towers in the midst, and the moors rising beyond in purple distance. The two young lieutenants could only wave their farewells, as Bessie cantered merrily over the soft smooth turf of the racecourse, in company with Lord Keith, the Colonel, and Conrade.

"Do you not like dancing?" inquired Lord Keith, when the canter was over, and they were splashing through a lane with high hedges.

"I'm not so unnatural," returned Bessie, with a merry smile, "but it would never do to let the Highlanders give one now. Alick has been telling me that the expense would fall seriously on a good many of them."

"True," said Colonel Keith, "too many fetes come to be a heavy tax."

"That is more consideration than is common in so young a lad," added Lord Keith.

"Yes, but dear Alick is so full of consideration," said the sister, eagerly. "He does not get half the credit for it that he deserves, because, you know, he is so quiet and reserved, and has that unlucky ironical way with him that people don't like; especially rattlepates like those," pointing with her whip in the direction of the two young officers.

"It is a pity," said the Colonel, "it lessens his influence. And it is strange I never perceived it before his return to England."

"Oh! there's much owing to the habitual languor of that long illness. That satirical mumble is the only trouble he will take to lift up his testimony, except when a thing is most decidedly his duty, and then he does it as England expects."

"And he considered it his duty to make you decline this ball?" said Lord Keith.

"Oh, not his more than mine," said Bessie. "I don't forget that I am the Colonel's daughter."

No more was said on that occasion, but three days after cards were going about the county with invitations from Lord Keith to an evening party, with "Dancing." Lord Keith averred, with the full concurrence of his brother, that he owed many civilities to the ladies of the neighbourhood, and it was a good time to return them when he could gratify the young kinswoman who had showed such generous forbearance about the regimental ball. It was no unfavourable moment either, when he had his brother to help him, for the ordering of balls had been so much a part of Colin's staff duties, that it came quite naturally to him, especially with Coombe within reach to assist. There was some question whether the place should be the public rooms or Gowanbrae, but Bessie's vote decided on the latter, in consideration of the Colonel's chest. She was rather shocked, while very grateful, at the consequences of the little conversation on the hill top, but she threw herself into all the counsels with bright, ardent pleasure, though carefully refraining from any presumption that she was queen of the evening.

Lady Temple received an invitation, but never for one moment thought of going, or even supposed that any one could imagine she could. Indeed, if she had accepted it, it would have been a decisive encouragement to her ancient suitor, and Colin saw that he regarded her refusal, in its broad black edges, as a further clenching of the reply to his addresses.

Bessie was to be chaperoned by Mrs. Curtis. As to Rachel, she had resolved against youthful gaieties for this winter and all others, but she felt that to show any reluctance to accept the Keith invitation might be a contradiction to her indifference to the Colonel, and so construed by her mother, Grace, and Bessie. So all she held out for was, that as she had no money to spend upon adornments, her blue silk dinner dress, and her birthday wreath, should and must do duty; and as to her mother's giving her finery, she was far too impressive and decided for Mrs. Curtis to venture upon such presumption. She was willing to walk through her part for an evening, and indeed the county was pretty well accustomed to Miss Rachel Curtis's ball-room ways, and took them as a matter of course.

Gowanbrae had two drawing-rooms with folding doors between, quite practicable for dancing, and the further one ending in a conservatory, that likewise extended along the end of the entrance hall and dining-room. The small library, where Colonel Keith usually sat, became the cloak-room, and contained, when Mrs. Curtis and her daughters arrived, so large a number of bright cashmere cloaklets, scarlet, white, and blue, that they began to sigh prospectively at the crowd which, Mrs. Curtis would have encountered with such joyful valour save for that confidence on the way home from the book club.

They were little prepared for the resources of a practised staff-officer. Never had a ball even to them looked so well arranged, or in such thorough style, as a little dexterous arrangement of flowers, lights, and sofas, and rendered those two rooms. The two hosts worked extremely well. Lord Keith had shaken off much of his careless stoop and air of age, and there was something in his old-world polish and his Scotch accent that gave a sort of romance to the manner of his reception. His brother, with his fine brow, and thoughtful eyes, certainly appeared to Rachel rather thrown away as master of the ceremonies, but whatever he did, he always did in the quietest and best way, and receptions had been a part of his vocation, so that he infused a wonderful sense of ease, and supplied a certain oil of good breeding that made everything move suavely. Young ladies in white, and mothers in all the colours of the rainbow, were there in plenty, and, by Bessie's special command, the scene was enlivened by the Highland uniform, with the graceful tartan scarf fastened across the shoulder with the Bruce brooch.

Rachel had not been long in the room before she was seized on by Emily Grey, an enthusiastic young lady of the St. Norbert's neighbourhood, whom she met seldom, but was supposed to know intimately.

"And they say you have the hero here-the Victoria Cross man-and that you know him. You must show him to me, and get me introduced."

"There is no Victoria Cross man here," said Rachel, coldly. "Colonel Keith did not have one."

"Oh, no, I don't mean Colonel Keith, but Captain Alexander Keith, quite a young man. Oh, I am sure you remember the story-you were quite wild about it-of his carrying the lighted shell out of the hospital tent; and they told me he was always over here, and his sister staying with Lady Temple."

"I know Captain Alexander Keith," said Rachel, slowly; "but you must be mistaken, I am certain I should know if he had a Victoria Cross."

"It is very odd; Charlie told me it was the same," said Miss Grey, who, like all others, was forced to bend to Rachel's decisive manner.

"Scottish names are very common," said Rachel, and at that moment a partner came and carried Emily off.

But as Rachel stood still, an odd misgiving seized her, a certain doubt whether upon the tall lazy figure that was leaning against a wall nearly opposite to her, talking to another officer, she did not see something suspiciously bronze and eight-pointed that all did not wear. There was clearly a medal, though with fewer clasps than some owned; but what else was there? She thought of the lecture on heroism she had given to him, and felt hot all over. Behold, he was skirting the line of chaperons, and making his way towards their party. The thing grew more visible, and she felt more disconcerted than ever had been her lot before; but escape there was none, here he was shaking hands.

"You don't polk?" he said to her. "In fact, you regard all this as a delusion of weak minds. Then, will you come and have some tea?"

Rachel took his arm, still bewildered, and when standing before him with the tea-cup in her hand, she interrupted something he was saying, she knew not what, with, "That is not the Victoria Cross?"

"Then it is, like all the rest, a delusion," he answered, in his usual impassive manner.

"And gained," she continued, "by saving the lives of all those officers, the very thing I told you about!"

"You told me that man was killed."

"Then it was not you!"

"Perhaps they picked up the pieces of the wrong one."

"But if you would only tell me how you gained it."

"By the pursuit of conchology."

"Then it was yourself?" again said Rachel, in her confusion.

"If I be I as I suppose I be," he replied, giving her his arm again, and as they turned towards the conservatory, adding, "Many such things have happened, and I did not know whether you meant this."

"That was the reason you made so light of it."

"What, because I thought it was somebody else?"

"No, the contrary reason; but I cannot understand why you let me go on without telling me."

"I never interfere when a story is so perfect in itself."

"But is my story perfect in itself?" said Rachel, "or is it the contrary?"

"No one knows less of the particulars than I do," he answered. "I think your version was that it was an hospital tent that the shell came into. It was not that, but a bungalow, which was supposed to be out of range. It stood on a bit of a slope, and I thought I should have been able to kick the shell down before it had time to do mischief."

"But you picked it up, and took it to the door-I mean, did you?" said Rachel, who was beginning to discover that she must ask Alick Keith a direct question, if she wished to get an answer, and she received a gesture of assent.

"I was very blind," she said, humbly, "and now I have gone and insisted to poor Emily Grey that you never did any such thing."

"Thank you," he said; "it was the greatest kindness you could do me."

"Ah! your sister said you had the greatest dislike to hero worship."

"A natural sense of humbug," he said. "I don't know why they gave me this," he added, touching his cross, "unless it was that one of the party in the bungalow had a turn for glorifying whatever happened to himself. Plenty of more really gallant things happened every day, and were never heard of, and I, who absolutely saw next to nothing of the campaign, have little right to be decorated."

"Ah!" said Rachel, thoughtfully, "I have always wondered whether one would be happier for having accomplished an act of heroism."

"I do not know," said Alick, thoughtfully; then, as Rachel looked up with a smile of amazement, "Oh, you mean this; but it was mere self-preservation. I could hardly even have bolted, for I was laid up with fever, and was very shaky on my legs."

"I suppose, however," said Rachel, "that the vision of one's life in entering the army would be to win that sort of distinction, and so young."

"Win it as some have done," said Alick, "and deserve what is far better worth than distinction. That may be the dream, but, after all, it is the discipline and constant duty that make the soldier, and are far more really valuable than exceptional doings."

"People must always be ready for them, though," said Rachel

"And they are," said Alick, with grave exultation in his tone.

Then, after a pause, she led back the conversation to its personal character, by saying. "Do you mean that the reception of this cross was no gratification to you?"

"No, I am not so absurd," he replied, but he added sadly, "That was damped quite otherwise. The news that I was named for it came almost in the same breath with that of my father's death, and he had not heard I was to receive it."

"Ah! I can understand."

"And you can see how intolerable was the fuss my good relations made with me just when the loss was fresh on me, and with that of my two chief friends, among my brother officers, fellows beside whom I was nobody, and there was my uncle's blindness getting confirmed. Was not that enough to sicken one with being stuck up for a lion, and constantly poked up by the showwoman, under pretext of keeping up one's spirits!"

"And you were-I mean were you-too ill to escape?"

"I was less able to help myself than Miss Williams is. There had been a general smash of all the locomotive machinery on this side, and the wretched monster could do nothing but growl at his visitors."

"Should you growl very much if I introduced you to Emily Grey? You see it is a matter of justice and truth to tell her now, after having contradicted her so flatly. I will wait to let you get out of the way first if you like, but I think that would be unkind to her; and if you ever do dance, I wish you would dance with her."

"With all my heart," he answered.

"Oh, thank you," said Rachel, warmly.

He observed with some amusement Rachel's utter absence of small dexterities, and of even the effort to avoid the humiliation of a confession of her error. Miss Grey and a boy partner had wandered i

nto the conservatory, and were rather dismally trying to seem occupied with the camellias when Rachel made her way to them, and though he could not actually hear the words, he knew pretty well what they were. "Emily, you were right after all, and I was mistaken," and then as he drew near, "Miss Grey, Captain Keith wishes to be introduced to you."

It had been a great shock to Rachel's infallibility, and as she slowly began working her way in search of her mother, after observing the felicity of Emily's bright eyes, she fell into a musing on the advantages of early youth in its indiscriminating powers of enthusiasm for anything distinguished for anything, and that sense of self-exaltation in any sort of contact with a person who had been publicly spoken of. "There is genuine heroism in him," thought Rachel, "but it is just in what Emily would never appreciate-it is in the feeling that he could not help doing as he did; the half-grudging his reward to himself because other deeds have passed unspoken. I wonder whether his ironical humour would allow him to see that Mr. Mauleverer is as veritable a hero in yielding hopes of consideration, prospects, honours, to his sense of truth and uprightness. If he would only look with an unprejudiced eye, I know he would be candid."

"Are you looking for Mrs. Curtis?" said Colonel Keith. "I think she is in the other room."

"Not particularly, thank you," said Rachel, and she was surprised to find how glad she was to look up freely at him.

"Would it be contrary to your principles or practice to dance with me?"

"To my practice," she said smilingly, "so let us find my mother. Is Miss Alison Williams here? I never heard whether it was settled that she should come," she added, resolved both to show him her knowledge of his situation, and to let her mother see her at her ease with him.

"No, she was obstinate, though her sister and I did our utmost to persuade her, and the boys were crazy to make her go."

"I can't understand your wishing it."

"Not as an experience of life? Alison never went to anything in her girlhood, but devoted herself solely to her sister, and it would be pleasant to see her begin her youth."

"Not as a mere young lady!" exclaimed Rachel.

"That is happily not possible."

An answer that somewhat puzzled Rachel, whose regard for him was likely to be a good deal dependent upon his contentment with Alison's station in life.

"I must say young ladyhood looks to the greatest advantage there," Rachel could not help exclaiming, as at that moment Elizabeth Keith smiled at them, as she floated past, her airy white draperies looped with scarlet ribbons; her dark hair turned back and fastened by a snood of the same, an eagle's feather clasped in it by a large emerald, a memory of her father's last siege-that of Lucknow.

"She is a very pretty creature," said the Colonel, under the sparkle of her bright eyes.

"I never saw any one make the pursuits of young ladyhood have so much spirit and meaning," added Rachel. "Here you see she has managed to make herself sufficiently like other people, yet full of individual character and meaning."

"That is the theory of dress, I suppose," said the Colonel.

"If one chooses to cultivate it."

"Did you ever see Lady Temple in full dress?"

"No; we were not out when we parted as girls."

"Then you have had a loss. I think it was at our last Melbourne ball, that when she went to the nursery to wish the children good night, one of them-Hubert, I believe-told her to wear that dress when she went to heaven, and dear old Sir Stephen was so delighted that he went straight upstairs to kiss the boy for it."

"Was that Lady Temple?" said Alick Keith, who having found Miss Grey engaged many deep, joined them again, and at his words came back a thrill of Rachel's old fear and doubt as to the possible future.

"Yes," said the Colonel; "I was recollecting the gracious vision she used to be at all our chief's parties."

"Vision, you call her, who lived in the house with her? What do you think she was to us-poor wretches-coming up from barracks where Mrs. O'Shaughnessy was our cynosure? There was not one of us to whom she was not Queen of the East, and more, with that innocent, soft, helpless dignity of hers!"

"And Sir Stephen for the first of her vassals," said the Colonel.

"What a change it has been!" said Alick.

"Yes; but a change that has shown her to have been unspoilable. We were just agreeing on the ball-room perfections of her and your sister in their several lines."

"Very different lines," said Alick, smiling.

"I can't judge of Fanny's," said Rachel, "but your sister is almost enough to make one believe there can be some soul in young lady life."

"I did not bring Bessie here to convert you," was the somewhat perplexing answer.

"Nor has she," said Rachel, "except so far as I see that she can follow ordinary girls' pursuits without being frivolous in them." Alick bowed at the compliment.

"And she has been a sunbeam," added Rachel, "we shall all feel graver and cloudier without her."

"Yes," said Colonel Keith, "and I am glad Mr. Clare has such a sunbeam for his parsonage. What a blessing she will be there!" he added, as he watched Bessie's graceful way of explaining to his brother some little matter in behalf of the shy mother of a shy girl. Thinking he might be wanted, Colonel Keith went forward to assist, and Rachel continued, "I do envy that power of saying the right thing to everybody!"

"Don't-it is the greatest snare," was his answer, much amazing her, for she had her mind full of the two direct personal blunders she had made towards him.

"It prevents many difficulties and embarrassments."

"Very desirable things."

"Yes; for those that like to laugh, but not for those that are laughed at," said Rachel.

"More so; the worst of all misfortunes is to wriggle too smoothly through life."

This was to Rachel the most remarkable part of the evening; as to the rest, it was like all other balls, a weariness: Grace enjoying herself and her universal popularity, always either talking or dancing, and her mother comfortable and dutiful among other mothers; the brilliant figure and ready grace of Bessie Keith being the one vision that perpetually flitted in her dreams, and the one ever-recurring recollection that Captain Keith, the veritable hero of the shell, had been lectured by her on his own deed! In effect Rachel had never felt so beaten down and ashamed of herself; so doubtful of her own most positive convictions, and yet not utterly dissatisfied, and the worst of it was that Emily Grey was after all carried off without dancing with the hero; and Rachel felt as if her own opinionativeness had defrauded the poor girl.

Other balls sent her home in a state of weariness, disgust, and contempt towards every one, but this one had resulted in displeasure with herself, yet in much interest and excitement; and, oh, passing strange! through that same frivolous military society.

Indeed the military society was soon in better odour with her than the clerical. She had been making strenuous efforts to get to St. Herbert's, with Mr. Mitchell, for some time past, but the road was in a state of being repaired, and the coachman was determined against taking his horses there. As to going by train, that was equally impossible, since he would still less have driven her to the station, finally, Rachel took the resolute stop of borrowing Fanny's pony carriage, and driving herself and the clergyman to the station, where she was met by Mrs. Morris, the mother of one of the girls, to whom she had promised such a visit, as it had been agreed that it would be wisest not to unsettle the scholars by Christmas holidays.

The F. U. E. E. was in perfect order; the little girls sat upon a bench with their copies before them, Mrs. Rawlins in the whitest of caps presided over them, and Mr. Mauleverer was very urbane, conducting the visitors over the house himself, and expatiating on his views of cleanliness, ventilation, refinement, and equality of cultivation, while Mrs. Rawlins remained to entertain Mrs. Morris. Nothing could be more practical and satisfactory; some admirable drawings of the children's were exhibited, and their conduct was said to be excellent; except, Mr. Mauleverer remarked unwillingly, that there was a tendency about little Mary to fancy herself injured, and he feared that she was not always truthful; but these were childish faults, that he hoped would pass away with further refinement, and removal from the lower influences of her home.

After this, Rachel was not surprised that poor, ignorant, and always deplorable Mrs. Morris did not seem in raptures with the state of her child, but more inclined to lament not having seen more of her, and not having her at home. That was quite in accordance with peasant shortsightedness and ingratitude, but it was much more disappointing that Mr. Mitchell said little or nothing of approbation; asked her a few questions about her previous knowledge of Mr. Mauleverer and Mrs. Rawlins, and when she began to talk of arranging for some one or two of his London orphans, thanked her rather shortly, but said there was no way of managing it. It was evident that he was quite as prejudiced as others of his clerical brethren, and the more Rachel read of current literature, the more she became convinced of their bondage to views into which they durst not examine, for fear honesty should compel them to assert their conclusions.

She had hoped better things from the stranger, but she began to be persuaded that all her former concessions to the principles infused in her early days were vain entanglements, and that it was merely weakness and unwillingness to pain her mother that prevented her from breaking through them.

She could not talk this out with anybody, except now and then an utterance to the consenting Mr. Mauleverer, but in general she would have been shocked to put these surging thoughts into words, and Bessie was her only intimate who would avow that there could be anything to be found fault with in a clergyman. When alone together, Bessie would sometimes regretfully, sometimes in a tone of amusement, go over bits of narrow-minded folly that had struck her in the clergy, and more especially in her uncle's curate, Mr. Lifford, whose dryness was, she owned, very repulsive to her.

"He is a good creature," she said, "and most necessary to my uncle, but how he and I are to get through life together, I cannot tell. It must soon be tried, though! After my visit at Bath will come my home at Bishopsworthy!" And then she confided to Rachel all the parish ways, and took counsel on the means of usefulness that would not clash with the curate and pain her uncle. She even talked of a possible orphan for the F. U. E. E., only that unlucky prejudice against Mr. Mauleverer was sure to stand in the way.

So acceptable had Bessie Keith made herself everywhere, that all Avonmouth was grieved at her engagement to spend the winter at Bath with her married cousin, to whom she was imperatively necessary in the getting up of a musical party.

"And I must go some time or other," she said to Colonel Keith, "so it had better be when you are all here to make Myrtlewood cheerful, and I can be of most use to poor Jane! I do think dear Lady Temple is much more full of life and brightness now!"

Everybody seemed to consider Bessie's departure as their own personal loss: the boys were in despair for their playfellow, Ermine would miss those sunny visits; Colonel Keith many a pleasant discussion, replete with delicate compliments to Ermine, veiled by tact; and Lord Keith the pretty young clanswoman who had kept up a graceful little coquetry with him, and even to the last evening, went on walking on the esplanade with him in the sunset, so as to set his brother free to avoid the evening chill.

And, above all, Lady Temple regretted the loss of the cheery companion of her evenings. True, Bessie had lately had a good many small evening gaieties, but she always came back from them so fresh and bright, and so full of entertaining description and anecdote, that Fanny felt as if she had been there herself, and, said Bessie, "it was much better for her than staying at home with her, and bringing in no novelty."

"Pray come to me again, dearest! Your stay has been the greatest treat. It is very kind in you to be so good to me."

"It is you who are good to me, dearest Lady Temple."

"I am afraid I shall hardly get you again. Your poor uncle will never be able to part with you, so I won't ask you to promise, but if ever you can-"

"If ever I can! This has been a very happy time, dear Lady Temple," a confidence seemed trembling on her lips, but she suppressed it. "I shall always think of you as the kindest friend a motherless girl ever had! I will write to you from Bath. Good-bye-"

And there were all the boys in a row, little affectionate Hubert absolutely tearful, and Conrade holding up a bouquet, on which he had spent all his money, having persuaded Coombe to ride with him to the nursery garden at Avoncester to procure it. He looked absolutely shy and blushing, when Bessie kissed him and promised to dry the leaves and keep them for ever.

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