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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 17606

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given."

Timon of Athens.

Under the circumstances of the Curtis family, no greater penance could have been devised than the solemn dinner party which had to take place only an hour after the investigation was closed. Grace in especial was nearly distracted between her desire to calm her mother and to comfort her sister, and the necessity of attending to the Grey family, who repaid themselves for their absence from the scene of action by a torrent of condolences and questions, whence poor Grace gathered to her horror and consternation that the neighbourhood already believed that a tenderer sentiment than philanthropy had begun to mingle in Rachel's relations with the secretary of the F. U. E. E. Feeling it incumbent on the whole family to be as lively and indifferent as possible, Grace, having shut her friends into their rooms to perform their toilette, hurried to her sister, to find her so entirely engrossed with her patient as absolutely to have forgotten the dinner party. No wonder! She had had to hunt up a housemaid to make up a bed for Lovedy in a little room within her own, and the undressing and bathing of the poor child had revealed injuries even in a more painful state than those which had been shown to Mr. Grey, shocking emaciation, and most scanty garments. The child was almost torpid, and spoke very little. She was most unwilling to attempt to swallow; however, Rachel thought that some of her globules had gone down, and put much faith in them, and in warmth and sleep; but incessantly occupied, and absolutely sickened by the sight of the child's hurts, she looked up with loathing at Grace's entreaty that she would, dress for the dinner.

"Impossible," she said.

"You must, Rachel dear; indeed, you must."

"As if I could leave her."

"Nay, Rachel, but if you would only send-"

"Nonsense, Grace; if I can stay with her I can restore her far better than could an allopathist, who would not leave nature to herself. O Grace, why can't you leave me in peace? Is it not bad enough without this?"

"Dear Rachel, I am very sorry; but if you did not come down to dinner, think of the talk it would make."

"Let them talk."

"Ah, Rachel, but the mother! Think how dreadful the day's work has been to her; and how can she ever get through the evening if she is in a fright at your not coming down?"

"Dinner parties are one of the most barbarous institutions of past stupidity," said Rachel, and Grace was reassured. She hovered over Rachel while Rachel hovered over the sick child, and between her own exertions and those of two maids, had put her sister into an evening dress by the time the first carriage arrived. She then rushed to her own room, made her own toilette, and returned to find Rachel in conference with Mrs. Kelland, who had come home at last, and was to sit with her niece during the dinner. Perhaps it was as well for all parties that this first interview was cut very short, but Rachel's burning cheeks did not promise much for the impression of ease and indifference she was to make, as Grace's whispered reminders of "the mother's" distress dragged her down stairs among the all too curious glances of the assembled party.

All had been bustle. Not one moment for recollection had yet been Rachel's. Mr. Grey's words, "Accountable for all," throbbed in her ears and echoed in her brain-the purple bruises, the red stripes, verging upon sores, were before her eyes, and the lights, the flowers, the people and their greetings, were like a dizzy mist. The space before dinner was happily but brief, and then, as last lady, she came in as a supernumerary on the other arm of Grace's cavalier, and taking the only vacant chair, found herself between a squire and Captain Keith, who had duly been bestowed on Emily Grey.

Here there was a moment's interval of quiet, for the squire was slightly deaf, and, moreover, regarded her as a little pert girl, not to be encouraged, while Captain Keith was resigned to the implied homage of the adorer of his cross; so that, though the buzz of talk and the clatter of knives and forks roared louder than it had ever seemed to do since she had been a child, listening from the outside, the immediate sense of hurry and confusion, and the impossibility of seeing or hearing anything plainly, began to diminish. She could not think, but she began to wonder whether any one knew what had happened; and, above all, she perfectly dreaded the quiet sting of her neighbour's word and eye, in this consummation of his victory. If he glanced at her, she knew she could not bear it; and if he never spoke to her at all, it would be marked reprehension, which would be far better than sarcasm. He was evidently conscious of her presence; for when, in her insatiable thirst, she had drained her own supply of water, she found the little bottle quietly exchanged for that before him. It was far on in the dinner before Emily's attention was claimed by the gentleman on her other hand, and then there was a space of silence before Captain Keith almost made Rachel start, by saying-

"This has come about far more painfully than could have been expected."

"I thought you would have triumphed," she said.

"No, indeed. I feel accountable for the introduction that my sister brought upon you."

"It was no fault of hers," said Rachel, sadly.

"I wish I could feel it so."

"That was a mere chance. The rest was my own doing."

"Aided and abetted by more than one looker-on."

"No. It is I who am accountable," she said, repeating Mr. Grey's words.

"You accept the whole?"

It was his usual, cool, dry tone; but as she replied, "I must," she involuntarily looked up, with a glance of entreaty to be spared, and she met those dark, grey, heavy-lidded eyes fixed on her with so much concern as almost to unnerve her.

"You cannot," he answered; "every bystander must rue the apathy that let you be so cruelly deceived, for want of exertion on their part."

"Nay," she said; "you tried to open my eyes. I think this would have come worse, but for this morning's stroke."

"Thank you," he said, earnestly.

"I daresay you know more than I have been able to understand," she presently added; "it is like being in the middle of an explosion, without knowing what stands or falls."

"And lobster salad as an aggravation!" said he, as the dish successively persecuted them. "This dinner is hard on you."

"Very; but my mother would have been unhappy if I had stayed away. It is the leaving the poor child that grieves me. She is in a fearful state, between sore throat, starvation, and blows."

The picture of the effect of the blows coming before Rachel at that moment, perilled her ability even to sit through the dinner; but her companion saw the suddening whitening of her cheek, and by a dexterous signal at once caused her glass to be filled. Habit was framing her lips to say something about never drinking wine; but somehow she felt a certain compulsion in his look, and her compliance restored her. She returned to the subject, saying, "But it was only the woman that was cruel."

"She had not her Sepoy face for nothing."

"Did I hear that Miss Williams knew her?"

"Yes, it seems she was a maid who had once been very cruel to little Rose Williams. The Colonel seems to think the discovery may have important consequences. I hardly know how."

This conversation sent Rachel out of the dining-room more like herself than she had entered it; but she ran upstairs at once to Lovedy, and remained with her till disinterred by the desperate Grace, who could not see three people talking together without blushing with indignation at the construction they were certainly putting on her sister's scarlet cheeks and absence from the drawing-room. With all Grace's efforts, however, she could not bring her truant back before the gentlemen had come in. Captain Keith had seen their entrance, and soon came up to Rachel.

"How is your patient?" he asked.

"She is very ill; and the worst of it is, that it seems such agony to her to attempt to swallow."

"Have you had advice for her?"

"No; I have often treated colds, and I thought this a case, aggravated by that wicked treatment."

"Have you looked into her mouth?"

"Yes; the skin is frightfully brown and dry."

He leant towards her, and asked, in an under tone-

"Did you ever see diphtheria?"

"No!"-her brow contracting-"did you?"

"Yes; we had it through all the children of the regiment at Woolwich."

"You think this is it?"

He asked a few more questions, and his impression was evidently confirmed.

"I must send for Mr. Frampton," said Rachel, homeopathy succumbing to her terror; but then, with a despairing glance, she beheld all the male part o

f the establishment handing tea.

"Where does he live? I'll send him up."

"Thank you, oh! thank you. The house with the rails, under the east cliff."

He was gone, and Rachel endured the reeling of the lights, and the surges of talk, and the musical performances that seemed to burst the drum of her ear; and, after all, people went away, saying to each other that there was something very much amiss, and that poor dear Mrs. Curtis was very much to blame for not having controlled her daughters.

They departed at last, and Grace, without uttering the terrible word, was explaining to the worn-out mother that little Lovedy was more unwell, and that Captain Keith had kindly offered to fetch the doctor, when the Captain himself returned.

"I am sorry to say that Mr. Frampton is out, not likely to be at home till morning, and his partner is with a bad accident at Avonford. The best plan will be for me to ride back to Avoncester, and send out Macvicar, our doctor. He is a kind-hearted man, of much experience in this kind of thing."

"But you are not going back," said polite Mrs. Curtis, far from taking in the urgency of the case. "You were to sleep at Colonel Keith's. I could not think of your taking the trouble."

"I have settled that with the Colonel, thank you. My dog-cart will be here directly."

"I can only say, thank you," said Rachel, earnestly. "But is there nothing to be done in the meantime? Do you know the treatment?"

He knew enough to give a few directions, which revealed to poor Mrs. Curtis the character of the disease.

"That horrible new sore throat! Oh, Rachel, and you have been hanging over her all this time!"

"Indeed," said Alick Keith, coming to her. "I think you need not be alarmed. The complaint seems to me to depend on the air and locality. I have been often with people who had it."

"And not caught it?"

"No; though one poor little fellow, our piper's son, would not try to take food from any one else, and died at last on my knee. I do not believe it is infectious in that way."

And hearing his carriage at the door, he shook hands, and hurried off, Mrs. Curtis observing-

"He really is a very good young man. But oh, Rachel, my dear, how could you bring her here?"

"I did not know, mother. Any way it is better than her being in Mrs. Kelland's hive of children."

"You are not going back to her, Rachel, I entreat!"

"Mother, I must. You heard what Captain Keith said. Let that comfort you. It would be brutal cruelty and cowardice to stay away from her to night. Good night, Grace, make mother see that it must be so."

She went, for poor Mrs. Curtis could not withstand her; and only turned with tearful eyes to her elder daughter to say, "You do not go into the room again, Grace, I insist."

Grace could not bear to leave Rachel to the misery of such a vigil, and greatly reproached herself for the hurry that had prevented her from paying any heed to the condition of the child in her anxiety to make her sister presentable; but Mrs. Curtis was in a state of agitation that demanded all the care and tenderness of this "mother's child," and the sharing her room and bed made it impossible to elude the watchfulness that nervously guarded the remaining daughter.

It was eleven o'clock when Alexander Keith drove from the door. It was a moonlight night, and he was sure to spare no speed, but he could hardly be at Avoncester within an hour and a half, and the doctor would take at least two in coming out. Mrs. Kelland was the companion of Rachel's watch. The woman was a good deal subdued. The strangeness of the great house tamed her, and she was shocked and frightened by the little girl's state as well as by the young lady's grave, awe-struck, and silent manner.

They tried all that Captain Keith had suggested, but the child was too weak and spent to inhale the steam of vinegar, and the attempts to make her swallow produced fruitless anguish. They could not discover how long it was since she had taken any nourishment, and they already knew what a miserable pittance hers had been at the best. Mrs. Kelland gave her up at once, and protested that she was following her mother, and that there was death in her face. Rachel made an imperious gesture of silence, and was obeyed so far as voice went, but long-drawn sighs and shakes of the head continued to impress on her the aunt's hopelessness, throughout the endeavours to change the position, the moistening of the lips, the attempts at relief in answer to the choked effort to cough, the weary, faint moan, the increasing faintness and exhaustion.

One o'clock struck, and Mrs. Kelland said, in a low, ominous voice, "It is the turn of the night, Miss Rachel. You bad best leave her to me."

"I will never leave her," said Rachel impatiently.

"You are a young lady, Miss Rachel, you ain't used to the like of this."

"Hark!" Rachel held up her finger.

Wheels were crashing up the hill. The horrible responsibility was over, the immediate terror gone, help seemed to be coming at the utmost speed, and tears of relief rushed into Rachel's eyes, tears that Lovedy must have perceived, for she spoke the first articulate words she had uttered since the night-watch had begun, "Please, ma'am, don't fret, I'm going to poor mother."

"You will be better now, Lovedy, here is the doctor," said Rachel, though conscious that this was not the right thing, and then she hastened out on the stairs to meet the gaunt old Scotsman and bring him in. He made Mrs. Kelland raise the child, examined her mouth, felt her feet and hands, which were fast becoming chill, and desired the warm flannels still to be applied to them.

"Cannot her throat be operated on?" said Rachel, a tremor within her heart. "I think we could both be depended on if you wanted us."

"She is too far gone, poor lassie," was the answer; "it would be mere cruelty to torment her. You had better go and lie down, Miss Curtis; her mother and I can do all she is like to need."

"Is she dying?"

"I doubt if she can last an hour longer. The disease is in an advanced state, and she was in too reduced a state to have battled with it, even had it been met earlier."

"As it should have been! Twice her destroyer!" sighed Rachel, with a bursting heart, and again the kind doctor would have persuaded her to leave the room, but she turned from him and came back to Lovedy, who had been roused by what had been passing, and had been murmuring something which had set her aunt off into sobs.

"She's saying she've been a bad girl to me, poor lamb, and I tell her not to think of it! She knows it was for her good, if she had not been set against her work."

Dr. Macvicar authoritatively hushed the woman, but Lovedy looked up with flushed cheeks, and the blue eyes that had been so often noticed for their beauty. The last flush of fever had come to finish the work.

"Don't fret," she said, "there's no one to beat me up there! Please, the verse about the tears."

Dr. Macvicar and the child both looked towards Rachel, but her whole memory seemed scared away, and it was the old Scotch army surgeon that repeated-

"'The Lord God shall wipe off tears from all eyes.' Ah! poor little one, you are going from a world that has been full of woe to you."

"Oh, forgive me, forgive me, my poor child," said Rachel, kneeling by her, the tears streaming down silently.

"Please, ma'am, don't cry," said the little girl feebly; "you were very good to me. Please tell me of my Saviour," she added to Rachel. It sounded like set phraseology, and she knew not how to begin; but Dr. Macvicar's answer made the lightened look come back, and the child was again heard to whisper-"Ah! I knew they scourged Him-for me."

This was the last they did hear, except the sobbing breaths, ever more convulsive. Rachel had never before been present with death, and awe and dismay seemed to paralyse her whole frame. Even the words of hope and prayer for which the child's eyes craved from both her fellow-watchers seemed to her a strange tongue, inefficient to reach the misery of this untimely mortal agony, this work of neglect and cruelty-and she the cause.

Three o'clock had struck before the last painful gasp had been drawn, and Mrs. Kelland's sobbing cry broke forth. Dr. Macvicar told Rachel that the child was at rest. She shivered from head to foot, her teeth chattered, and she murmured, "Accountable for all."

Dr. Macvicar at once made her swallow some of the cordial brought for the poor child, and then summoning the maid whom Grace had stationed in the outer room, he desired her to put her young mistress to bed without loss of time. The sole remaining desire of which she was conscious was to be alone and in the dark, and she passively submitted.

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