MoboReader > Literature > The Clever Woman of the Family

   Chapter 20 THE SARACEN’S HEAD.

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 50752

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Alas, he thought, how changed that mien,

How changed those timid looks have been,

Since years of guilt and of disguise

Have steeled her brow and armed her eyes."


"Are you sleepy, Rose? What a yawn!"

"Not sleepy, Aunt Ailie; only it is such a tiresome long day when the Colonel does not come in."

"Take care, Rosie; I don't know what we shall be good for at this rate."

"We? O Aunt Ermine, then you think it tiresome too. I know you do-"

"What's that, Rose!"

"It is! it is! I'll open the door for him."

The next moment Rose led her Colonel in triumph into the lamp-light. There was a bright light in his eye, and yet he looked pale, grave, and worn; and Ermine's first observation was-

"How came Tibbie to let you out at this time of night?"

"I have not ventured to encounter Tibbie at all. I drove up to your door."

"You have been at St. Norbert's all this time," exclaimed Alison.

"Do you think no one can carry on a campaign at St. Norbert's but yourself and your generalissima, Miss Ailie?" he said, stroking down Rose's brown hair.

"Then, if you have not gone home, you have had nothing to eat, and that is the reason you look so tired," said Ermine.

"Yes; I had some luncheon at the Abbey."

"Then, at any rate, you shall have some tea. Rosie, run and fetch the little kettle."

"And the Beauchamp cup and saucer," added Rose, proudly producing the single relic of a well-remembered set of olden times. "And please, please, Aunt Ermine, let me sit up to make it for him. I have not seen him all day, you know; and it is the first time he ever drank tea in our house, except make-believe with Violetta and Colinette."

"No, Rose. Your aunt says I spoil that child, and I am going to have my revenge upon you. You must see the wild beast at his meals another time; for it just happens that I have a good deal to say to your aunts, and it is not intended for your ears."

Rose showed no signs of being spoilt, for she only entreated to be allowed "just to put the tea-things in order," and then, winking very hard, she said she would go.

"Here, Rose, if you please," said Ermine, clearing the space of table before her.

"Why, Aunt Ermine, I did not know you could make tea!"

"There are such things as extraordinary occasions, Rose. Now, good night, my sweet one."

"Good night, my Lady Discretion. We will make up for it one of these days. Don't stay away, pray, Ailie," as Alison was following the child. "I have nothing to say till you come back."

"I know it is good news," said Ermine; "but it has cost you something, Colin."

Instead of answering, he received his cup from her, filled up her tea-pot, and said-

"How long is it since you poured out tea for me, Ermine?"

"Thirteen years next June, when you and Harry used to come in from the cricket field, so late and hot that you were ashamed to present yourself in civilized society at the Great House."

"As if nobody from the Parsonage ever came down to look on at the cricket."

"Yes; being summoned by all the boys to see that nothing would teach a Scotchman cricket."

"Ah! you have got the last word, for here comes Ailie."

"Of course," said Alison, coming in; "Ermine has had the pith of the story, so I had better ask at once what it is."

"That the Beauchamp Eleven beat Her Majesty's -th Foot on Midsummer Day, 1846, is the pith of what I have as yet heard," said Ermine.

"And that Beauchamp ladies are every whit as full of mischief as they used to be in those days, is the sum of what I have told," added Colin.

"Yes," said Ermine, "he has most loyally kept his word of reserving all for you. He has not even said whether Mauleverer is taken."

"My story is grave and sad enough," said Colin, laying aside all his playfulness, and a serious expression coming over his features; but, at the same time, the landlady's sandy cat, which, like all other animals, was very fond of him, and had established herself on his knee as soon as Rose had left it vacant, was receiving a certain firm, hard, caressing stroking, which resulted in vehement purrs on her part, and was evidently an outlet of suppressed exaltation.

"Is he the same?" asked Alison.

"All in due time; unless, like Miss Rachel, you wish to tell me my story yourselves. By-the-bye, how is that poor girl to-day?"

"Thoroughly knocked down. There is a sort of feverish lassitude about her that makes them very anxious. They were hoping to persuade her to see Mr. Frampton when Lady Temple heard last."

"Poor thing! it has been a sad affair for her. Well, I told you I should go over this morning and see Mr. Grey, and judge if anything could be done. I got to the Abbey at about eleven o'clock, and found the policeman had just come back after serving the summons, with the news that Mauleverer was gone."


"Clean gone! Absconded from his lodgings, and left no traces behind him. But, as to the poor woman, the policeman reported that she had been left in terrible distress, with the child extremely ill, and not a penny, not a thing to eat in the house. He came back to ask Mr. Grey what was to be done; and as the suspicion of diphtheria made every one inclined to fight shy of the house, I thought I had better go down and see what was to be done. I knocked a good while in vain; but at last she looked out of window, and I told her I only wanted to know what could be done for her child, and would send a doctor. Then she told me how to open the door. Poor thing! I found her the picture of desolation, in the midst of the dreary kitchen, with the child gasping on her lap; all the pretence of widowhood gone, and her hair hanging loose about her face, which was quite white with hunger, and her great eyes looked wild, like the glare of a wild beast's in a den. I spoke to her by her own name, and she started and trembled, and said, 'Did Miss Alison tell you?' I said, 'Yes,' and explained who I was, and she caught me up half way: 'O yes, yes, my lady's nephew, that was engaged to Miss Ermine!' And she looked me full and searchingly in the face, Ermine, when I answered 'Yes.' Then she almost sobbed, 'And you are true to her;' and put her hands over her face in an agony. It was a very strange examination on one's constancy, and I put an end to it by asking if she had any friends at home that I could write to for her; but she cast that notion from her fiercely, and said she had no friend, no one. He had left her to her fate, because the child was too ill to be moved. And indeed the poor child was in such a state that there was no thinking of anything else, and I went at once to find a doctor and a nurse."

"Diphtheria again?"

"Yes; and she, poor thing, was in no state to give it the resolute care that is the only chance. Doctors could be easily found, but I was at my wit's end for a nurse, till I remembered that Mr. Mitchell had told me of a Sisterhood that have a Home at St. Norbert's, with a nursing establishment attached to it. So, in despair, I went there, and begged to see the Superior, and a most kind and sensible lady I found her, ready to do anything helpful. She lent me a nice little Sister, rather young, I thought; but who turned out thoroughly efficient, nearly as good as a doctor. Still, whether the child lives is very doubtful, though the mother was full of hope when I went in last. She insisted that I had saved it, when both she and it had been deserted by Maddox, for whom she had given up everything."

"Then she owned that he was Maddox?"

"She called him so, without my even putting the question to her. She had played his game long enough; and now his desertion has evidently put an end to all her regard for him. It was confusedly and shortly told; the child was in a state that prevented attention being given to anything else; but she knows that she had been made a tool of to ruin her master and you, and the sight of you, Ailie, had evidently stirred up much old affection, and remembrance of better days."

"Is she his wife?"

"No, or the evidence she promises could not be used against him. Do you know this, Ermine?" as he gave her a cover, with a seal upon it.

"The Saracen! the Saracen's head, Colin; it was made with the lost seal-ring!"

"The ring was taken from Edward's dressing-room the night when Rose was frightened with the phosphorus. Maria declares that she did not suspect the theft, or Maddox's purpose, till long after she had left her place. He effected his practices under pretence of attachment to her, and then could not shake her off. She went abroad with him after the settlement of affairs; but he could not keep out of gambling speculation, and lost everything. Then he seems to have larked about, obtaining means she knew not how-as artist, lecturer, and what not-till the notable F. U. E. E. was started. Most likely he would have collected the subscriptions and made off with them, if Rachel Curtis had not had just sense enough to trust him with nothing without seeing some result, so that he was forced to set the affair going with Maria at its head, as the only person who could co-operate with him. They kept themselves ready for a start whenever there should be symptoms of a discovery, but, in the meantime, he gambled away all that he got into his hands, and never gave her enough to feed the children. Thus she was absolutely driven to force work from them for subsistence; and she is a passionate creature, whom jealousy embittered more and more, so that she became more savage than she knew. Poor thing! She has her punishment. Maddox only came home, yesterday, too late for any train before the mail, and by that time the child was too ill to be moved. He must have thought it all up with him, and wished to be rid of both, for they quarrelled, and he left her to her misery."

"What, gone?"

"Yes, but she told us of his haunts-haunts that he thought she did not know-a fancy shop, kept by a Mrs. Dench at Bristol, where it seems that he plays the philanthropical lecturer, and probably has been trying to secure a snug berth for himself unknown, as he thought, to Maria; but she pried into his letters, and kept a keen watch upon him. He was to be inquired for there by his Mauleverer name, and, I have little doubt, will be captured."

"And then?"

"He will be committed for trial at the sessions; and, in the meantime, I must see Beauchamp and Dr. Long, and arrange that he should be prosecuted for the forgery, even though he should slip through our fingers at the sessions."

"Oh, could that be?"

"This Clever Woman has managed matters so sweetly, that they might just as well try her as him for obtaining money on false pretences; and the man seems to have been wonderfully sharp in avoiding committing himself. Mrs. Curtis's man of business has been trying all day to get up the case, but he has made out nothing but a few more debts such as that which turned up yesterday; and it is very doubtful how far a case can be made out against him."

"And then we should lose him."

"That is exactly what I wish to avoid. I want to bring up my forces at once, and have him laid hold of at once for the forgery of those letters of Edward's. How long would it take to hear from Ekaterinburg? I suppose Edward could travel as fast as a letter."

Alison fairly sprang to her feet.

"O, Colin, Colin! you do not think that Edward would be here by the next sessions."

"He ought," said Colin. "I hope to induce Dr. Long and Harry to write him such letters as to bring him home at once."

Self-restrained Alison was fairly overcome. She stretched out both hands, pressed Colin's convulsively, then turned away her face, and, bursting into tears, ran out of the room.

"Poor dear Ailie," said Ermine; "she has suffered terribly. Her heart is full of Edward. Oh, I hope he will come."

"He must. He cannot be so senseless as to stay away."

"There is that unfortunate promise to his wife; and I fear that he is become so much estranged from English ways that he will hardly care to set himself straight here, after the pain that the universal suspicion gave him."

"He cannot but care. For the sake of all he must care," vehemently repeated Colin, with the punctilious honour of the nobly-born soldier. "For his child's sake, this would be enough to bring him from his grave. If he refused to return to the investigation, it would be almost enough to make me doubt him."

"I am glad you said almost," said Ermine, trying to smile; but he had absolutely brought tears into her eyes.

"Dear Ermine," he said, gently, "you need not fear my not trusting him to the utmost. I know that he has been too much crushed to revive easily, and that it may not be easy to make him appreciate our hopes from such a distance; but I think such a summons as this must bring him."

"I hope it will," said Ermine. "Otherwise we should not deserve that you should have any more to do with us."

"Ermine, Ermine, do you not know that nothing can make any difference between us?"

Ermine had collected herself while he spoke.

"I know," she said, "that all you are doing makes me thank and bless you-oh! more than I can speak."

He looked wistfully at her, but, tearful as were her eyes, there was a resolution, about her face that impressed upon him that she trusted to his promise of recurring no more within the year to the subject so near his heart; and he could say no more than, "You forgive me, Ermine, you know I trust him as you do."

"I look to your setting him above being only trusted," said Ermine, trying to smile. "Oh! if you knew what this ray of hope is in the dreary darkness that has lasted so long!"

Therewith he was obliged to leave her, and she only saw him for a few minutes in the morning, when he hurried in to take leave, since, if matters went right at the magistrates' bench, he intended to proceed at once to make such representations in person to Mr. Beauchamp and Dr. Long, as might induce them to send an urgent recall to Edward in time for the spring sessions, and for this no time must be lost. Ermine remained then alone with Rose, feeling the day strangely long and lonely, and that, perhaps, its flatness might be a preparation for the extinction of all the brightness that had of late come into her life. Colin had said he would trust as she did, but those words had made her aware that she must trust as he did. If he, with his clear sense and kindly insight into Edward's character, became convinced that his absence proceeded from anything worse than the mere fainthearted indifference that would not wipe off a blot, then Ermine felt that his judgment would carry her own along with it, and that she should lose her undoubting faith in her brother's perfect innocence, and in that case her mind was made up; Colin might say and do what he would, but she would never connect him through herself with deserved disgrace. The parting, after these months of intercourse and increased knowlege of one another, would be infinitely more wretched than the first; but, cost her what it would-her life perhaps-the break should be made rather than let his untainted name be linked with one where dishonour justly rested. But with her constant principle of abstinence from dwelling on contingencies, she strove to turn away her mind, and to exert herself; though this was no easy task, especially on so solitary a day as this, while Alison was in charge at Myrtlewood in Lady Temple's absence, and Rachel Curtis was reported far too ill to leave her room, so that Ermine saw no one all day except her constant little companion; nor was it till towards evening that Alison at length made her appearance, bringing a note which Colin had sent home by Lady Temple.

All had so far gone well. Maria Hatherton had been committed to take her trial at the quarter sessions for the assault upon the children; but, as her own little girl was still living, though in extreme danger, and the Sisters promised to take charge of both for the present, Colonel Keith had thought it only common humanity to offer bail, and this had been accepted. Later in the day Mauleverer himself had been brought down, having been taken up at a grand meeting of his Bristol friends, who had all rallied round him, expressing strong indignation at the accusation, and offering evidence as to character. He denied any knowledge of the name of Maddox, and declared that he was able to prove that his own account of himself as a popular, philanthropical lecturer was perfectly correct; and he professed to be much amazed at the charges brought against him, which could only have arisen from some sudden alarm in the young lady's mind, excited by her friends, whom he had always observed to be prejudiced against him. He appealed strongly against the hardship of being imprisoned on so slight a charge; but, as he could find no one to take his part, he reserved his defence for the quarter sessions, for which he was fully committed. Colin thought, however, that it was so doubtful whether the charges against him could be substantiated, that it was highly necessary to be fully prepared to press the former forgery against him, and had therefore decided upon sleeping at St. Norbert's and going on by an early train to obtain legal advice in London, and then to see Harry Beauchamp. Meantime, Ermine must write to her brother as urgently as possible, backing up Colin's own representations of the necessity of his return.

Ermine read eagerly, but Alison seemed hardly able to command her attention to listen, and scarcely waited for the end of the letter before her own disclosure was made. Francis was sickening with diphtheria; he had been left behind in the morning on account of some outbreak of peevishness, and Alison, soon becoming convinced that temper was not solely in fault, had kept him apart from his brothers, and at last had sent for the doctor, who had at once pronounced it to be the same deadly complaint which had already declared itself in Rachel Curtis. Alison had of course devoted herself to the little boy till his mother's return from St. Norbert's, when she had been obliged to give the first intimation of what the price of the loving little widow's exploit might be. "I don't think she realizes the extent of the illness," said Alison; "say what I would, she would keep on thanking me breathlessly, and only wanting to escape to him. I asked if we should send to let Colin know, and she answered in her dear, unselfish way, 'By no means, it would be safer for him to be out of the way,' and, besides, she knew how much depended on his going."

"She is right," said Ermine; "I am thankful that he is out of reach of trying to take a share in the nursing, it is bad enough to have one in the midst!"

"Yes," said Alison. "Lady Temple cannot be left to bear this grievous trouble alone, and when the Homestead cannot help her. Yet, Ermine, what can be done? Is it safe for you and Rose?"

"Certainly not safe that you should come backwards and forwards," said Ermine. "Rose must not be put in danger; so, dear, dear Ailie, you had better take your things up, and only look in on us now and then at the window."

Alison entirely broke down. "Oh, Ermine, Ermine, since you began to mend, not one night have we been apart!"

"Silly child," said Ermine, straining her quivering voice to be cheerful, "I am strong, and Rose is my best little handmaid."

"I know it is right," said Alison, "I could not keep from my boys, and, indeed, now Colin is gone, I do not think any one at Myrtlewood will have the heart to carry out the treatment. It will almost kill that dear young mother to see it. No, they cannot be left; but oh, Ermine, it is like choosing between you and them."

"Not at all, it is choosing between right and wrong."

"And Ermine, if-if I should be ill, you must not think of coming near me. Rose must not be left alone."

"There is no use in talking of such things," said Ermine, resolutely, "let us think of what must be thought of, not of what is in the only Wise Hands. What has been done about the other children?"

"I have kept them away from the first; I am afraid for none of them but Conrade."

"It would be the wisest way to send them, nurses and all, to Gowanbrae."

"Wise, but cool," said Alison.

"I will settle that," returned Ermine. "Tibbie shall come and invite them, and you must make Lady Temple consent."

The sisters durst not embrace, but gazed at one another, feeling that it might be their last look, their hearts swelling with unspoken prayer, but their features so restrained that neither might unnerve the other. Then it was that Alison, for the first time, felt absolute relief in the knowledge, once so bitter, that she had ceased to be the whole world to her sister. And Ermine, for one moment, felt as if it would be a way out of all troubles and perplexities if the two sisters could die together, and leave little Rose to be moulded by Colin to be all he wished; but she resolutely put aside the future, and roused herself to send a few words in pencil, requesting Tibbie to step in and speak to her.

That worthy personage had fully adopted her, and entering, tall and stately, in her evening black silk and white apron, began by professing her anxiety to be any assistance in her power, saying, "she'd be won'erfu' proud to serve Miss Williams, while her sister was sae thrang waitin' on her young scholar in his sair trouble."

Emmie thanked her, and rejoiced that the Colonel was out of harm's way.

"Deed, aye, ma'am, he's weel awa'. He has sic a wark wi' thae laddies an' their bit bairn o' a mither, I'll no say he'd been easy keepit out o' the thick o' the distress, an' it's may be no surprisin', after a' that's come and gane, that he seeks to take siccan a lift of the concern. I've mony a time heard tell that the auld General, Sir Stephen, was as good as a faither to him, when he was sick an' lonesome, puir lad, in yon far awa' land o' wild beasts an' savages."

"Would it not be what he might like, to take in the children out of the way of infection?"

"'Deed, Miss Ermine," with a significant curtsey, "I'm thinkin' ye ken my maister Colin amaist as weel as I do. He's the true son of his forbears, an' Gowanbrae used to be always open in the auld lord's time, that's his grandfather Foreby, that he owes so much kindness to the General."

Ermine further suggested that it was a pity to wait for a letter from the Colonel, and Tibbie quite agreed. She "liked the nurse as an extraordinar' douce woman, not like the fine English madams that Miss Isabel-that's Mrs. Comyn Menteith-put about her bairns; and as to room, the sergeant and the tailor bodie did not need much, and the masons were only busy in the front parlour."

"Masons?" asked Ermine.

"On, aye? didna ye ken it's for the new room, that is to be built out frae the further parlour, and what they ca' the bay to the drawin'-room, just to mak' the house more conformable like wi' his name and forbears. I never thocht but that ye'd surely seen the plans and a', Miss Ermine, an' if so be it was Maister Colin's pleasure the thing suld be private, I'm real vext to hae said a word; but ye'll may be no let on to him, ma'am, that ye ken onything about it."

"Those down-stairs rooms so silently begun," thought Ermine. "How fixed his intention must be? Oh, how will it end? What would be best for him? And how can I think of myseif, while all, even my Ailie, are in distress and danger?"

Ermine had, however, a good deal to think of, for not only had she Colin's daily letter to answer, but she had Conrade, Leoline, and Hubert with her for several hours every day, and could not help being amused by Rose's ways with them, little grown-up lady as she was compared to them. Luckily girls were such uncommon beings with them as to be rather courted than despised, and Rose, having nothing of the tom-boy, did not forfeit the privileges of her sex. She did not think they compensated for her Colonel's absence, and never durst introduce Violetta to them; but she enjoyed and profited by the contact with childhood, and was a very nice little comforter to Conrade when he was taken with a fit of anxiety for the brother whom he missed every moment.

Quarantine weighed, however, most heavily upon poor Grace Curtis. Rachel had from the first insisted that she should be kept out of her room; and the mother's piteous entreaty always implied that saddest argument, "Why should I be deprived of you both in one day?" So Grace found herself condemned to uselessness almost as complete as Ermine's. She could only answer notes, respond to inquiries, without even venturing far enough from the house to see Ermine, or take out the Temple children for a walk. For indeed, Rachel's state was extremely critical.

The feverish misery that succeeded Lovedy's death had been utterly crushing, the one load of self-accusation had prostrated her, but with a restlessness of agony, that kept her writhing as it were in her wretchedness; and then came the gradual increase of physical suffering, bearing in upon her that she had caught the fatal disorder. To her sense of justice, and her desire to wreak vengeance on herself, the notion might be grateful; but the instinct of self-preservation was

far stronger. She could not die. The world here, the world to come, were all too dark, too confused, to enable her to bear such a doom. She saw her peril in her mother's face; in the reiterated visits of the medical man, whom she no longer spurned; in the calling in of the Avoncester physician; in the introduction of a professional nurse, and the strong and agonizing measures to which she had to submit, every time with the sensation that the suffering could not possibly be greater without exceeding the powers of endurance.

Then arose the thought that with weakness she should lose all chance of expressing a wish, and, obtaining pencil and paper, she began to write a charge to her mother and sister to provide for Mary Morris; but in the midst there came over her the remembrance of the papers that she had placed in Mauleverer's hands-the title-deeds of the Burnaby Bargain; an estate that perhaps ought to be bringing in as much as half the rental of the property. It must be made good to the poor. If the title-deeds had been sold to any one who could claim the property, what would be the consequence? She felt herself in a mist of ignorance and perplexity; dreading the consequences, yet feeling as if her own removal might leave her fortune free to make up for them. She tried to scrawl an explanation; but mind and fingers were alike unequal to the task, and she desisted just as fresh torture began at the doctor's hands-torture from which they sent her mother away, and that left her exhausted, and despairing of holding out through a repetition.

And then-and then! "Tell me of my Saviour," the dying child had said; and the drawn face had lightened at the words to which Rachel's oracles declared that people attached crude or arbitrary meanings; and now she hardly knew what they conveyed to her, and longed, as for something far away, for the reality of those simple teachings-once realities, now all by rote! Saved by faith! What was faith? Could all depend on a last sensation? And as to her life. Failure, failure through headstrong blindness and self-will, resulting in the agony of the innocent. Was this ground of hope? She tried to think of progress and purification beyond the grave; but this was the most speculative, insecure fabric of all. There was no habit of trust to it-no inward conviction, no outward testimony. And even when the extreme danger subsided, and Francis Temple was known to be better, Rachel found that her sorrow was not yet ended: for Conrade had been brought home with the symptoms of the complaint-Conrade, the most beloved and loving of Fanny's little ones, the only one who really remembered his father, was in exceeding, almost hopeless peril, watched day and night by his mother and Miss Williams.

The little Alice, Maria Hatherton's own child, had lingered and struggled long, but all the care and kindness of the good Sisters at St. Norbert's had been unavailing, she had sunk at last, and the mother remained in a dull, silent, tearless misery, quietly doing all that was required of her, but never speaking nor giving the ladies any opening to try to make an impression upon her.

Rachel gleaned more intelligence than her mother meant her to obtain, and brooded over it in her weakness and her silence.

Recovery is often more trying than illness, and Rachel suffered greatly. Indeed, she was not sure that she ought to have recovered at all, and perhaps the shock to her nerves and spirits was more serious than the effect of the sharp passing disorder, which had, however, so much weakened her that she succumbed entirely to the blow. "Accountable for all," the words still rang in her ears, and the all for which she was accountable continually magnified itself. She had tied a dreadful knot, which Fanny, meek contemned Fanny had cut, but at the cost of grievous suffering and danger to her boys, and too late to prevent that death which continually haunted Rachel; those looks of convulsive agony came before her in all her waking and sleeping intervals. Nothing put them aside, occupation in her weakness only bewildered and distracted her, and even though she was advancing daily towards convalescence, leaving her room, and being again restored to her sister, she still continued listless, dejected, cast down, and unable to turn her mind from this one dreary contemplation. Of Fanny and her sons it was hardly possible to think, and one of the strange perturbations of the mind in illness caused her to dwell far less on them than on the minor misery of the fate of the title-deeds of the Burnaby Bargain, which she had put into Mauleverer's hand. She fancied their falling into the hands of some speculator, who, if he did not break the mother's heart by putting up a gasometer, would certainly wring it by building hideous cottages, or desirable marine residences. The value would be enhanced so as to be equal to more than half that of the Homestead, the poor would have been cheated of it, and what compensation could be made? Give up all her own share? Nay, she had nothing absolutely her own while her mother lived, only £5,000 was settled on her if she married, and she tortured herself with devising plans that she knew to be impracticable, of stripping herself, and going forth to suffer the poverty she merited. Yes, but how would she have lived? Not like the Williamses! She had tried teaching like the one, and writing like the other, but had failed in both. The Clever Woman had no marketable or available talent. She knew very well that nothing would induce her mother and sister to let her despoil herself, but to have injured them would be even more intolerable; and more than all was the sickening uncertainty, whether any harm had been done, or what would be its extent.

Ignorant of such subjects at the best, her brain was devoid of force even to reason out her own conjectures, or to decide what must be impossible. She felt compelled to keep all to herself; to alarm her mother was out of the question, when Mrs. Curtis was distressed and shaken enough already, and to have told Grace would only have brought her soothing promises of sharing the burthen-exactly what she did not want-and would have led to the fact being known to the family man of business, Mr. Cox, the very last person to whom Rachel wished to confess the proceeding. It was not so much the humiliation of owning to him such a fatal act of piracy upon his province, as because she believed him to have been the cause that the poor had all this time been cheated of the full value of the estate. He had complacently consulted the welfare of the Curtis family, by charging them with the rent of the fields as ordinary grass land, and it had never dawned on him that it would be only just to increase the rent. Rachel had found him an antagonist to every scheme she had hatched, ever since she was fifteen years old, her mother obeyed him with implicit faith, and it was certain that if the question were once in his hands, he would regard it as his duty to save the Curtis funds, and let the charity sink or swim. And he was the only person out of the house whom Rachel had seen.

As soon as-or rather before-she could bear it, the first day that her presence was supposed not to be perilous to others, she was obliged to have an interview with him, to enable him to prepare the case for the quarter sessions. Nothing could be much worse for her nerves and spirits, but even the mother was absolutely convinced of the necessity, and Rachel was forced to tax her enfeebled powers to enable her to give accurate details of her relations with Mauleverer, and enable him to judge of the form of the indictment. Once or twice she almost sunk back from the exceeding distastefulness of the task, but she found herself urged on, and when she even asked what would happen if she were not well enough to appear, she was gravely told that she must be-it would be very serious if she did not make a great effort, and even her mother shook her head, looked unhappy, but confirmed the admonition. A little revenge or hatred would have been a great help to her, but she could not feel them as impulses. If it had been the woman, she could have gladly aided in visiting such cruelty upon her, but this had not been directly chargeable upon Mauleverer; and though Rachel felt acutely that he had bitterly abused her confidence, she drooped too much to feel the spirit of retort. The notion of being confronted with him before all the world at Avoncester, and being made to bring about his punishment, was simply dreadful to her, but when she murmured some word of this to her mother, Mrs. Curtis fairly started, and said quite fiercely, "My dear, don't let me hear you say any such thing. He is a very wicked man, and you ought to be glad to have him punished!"

She really spoke as if she had been rebuking some infringement of decorum, and Rachel was quite startled. She asked Grace why the mother was so bent on making her vindictive, but Grace only answered that every one must be very much shocked, and turned away the subject.

Prudent Grace! Her whole soul was in a tumult of wrath and shame at what she knew to be the county gossip, but she was aware that Rachel's total ignorance of it was the only chance of her so comporting herself in court as to silence the rumour, and she and her mother were resolutely discreet.

Mrs. Curtis, between nursing, anxiety, and worry, looked lamentably knocked up, and at last Grace and Rachel prevailed on her to take a drive, leaving Rachel on a sofa in her sitting-room, to what was no small luxury to her just at present-that of being miserable alone-without meeting any one's anxious eyes, or knowing that her listlessness was wounding the mother's heart. Yet the privilege only resulted in a fresh perturbation about the title-deeds, and longing to consult some one who could advise and sympathize. Ermine Williams would have understood and made her Colonel give help, but Ermine seemed as unattainable as Nova Zembla, and she only heard that the Colonel was absent. Her head as aching with the weary load of doubt, and she tried to cheat her woe by a restless movement to the windows. She saw Captain Keith riding to the door. It suddenly darted into her mind that here was one who could and would help her. He could see Mauleverer and ascertain what had become of the deeds; he could guess at the amount of danger! She could not forget his kindness on the night of Lovedy's illness, or the gentleness of his manner about the woodcuts, and with a sudden impulse she rang the bell and desired that Captain Keith might be shown in. She was still standing leaning on the table when he entered.

"This is very good in you," he said; "I met your mother and sister on my way up, and they asked me to leave word of Conrade being better, but they did not tell me I should see you."

"Conrade is better?" said Rachel, sitting down, unable to stand longer.

"Yes, his throat is better. Miss Williams's firmness saved him. They think him quite out of danger."

"Thank Heaven! Oh, I could never have seen his mother again! Oh, she has been the heroine!"

"In the truest sense of the word," he answered. And Rachel looked up with one moment's brightening at the old allusion, but her oppression was too great for cheerfulness, and she answered-

"Dear Fanny, yes, she will be a rebuke to me for ever! But," she added, before he had time to inquire for her health, "I wanted-I wanted to beg you to do me a service. You were so kind the other night."

His reply was to lean earnestly forward, awaiting her words, and she told him briefly of her grievous perplexity about the title-deeds.

"Then," he said, "you would wish for me to see the man and ascertain how he has disposed of them."

"I should be most grateful!"

"I will do my utmost. Perhaps I may not succeed immediately, as I believe visitors are not admitted every day, and he is said to be busy preparing his defence, but I will try, and let you know."

"Thanks, thanks! The doubt is terrible, for I know worry about it would distract my mother."

"I do not imagine," he said, "that much worse consequences than worry could ensue. But there are none more trying."

"Oh not none!"

"Do not let worry about this increase other ills," he said, kindly, "do not think about this again till you hear from me."

"Is that possible?"

"I should not have thought so, if I had not watched my uncle cast off troubles about his eye-sight and the keeping his living."

"Ah! but those were not of his own making."

"'There is a sparkle even in the darkest water.' That was a saying of his," said Alick, looking anxiously at her pale cheek and down-cast eye.

"Not when they are turbid."

"They will clear," he said, and smiled with a look of encouraging hope that again cheered her in spite of herself. "Meantime remember that in any way I can help you, it will be the greatest favour-" he checked himself as he observed the exceeding languor and lassitude apparent in her whole person, and only said, "My sister is too much at the bottom of it for me not to feel it the greatest kindness to me to let me try to be of the slightest use. I believe I had better go now," as he rose and looked at her wistfully; "you are too much tired to talk."

"I believe I am," she said, almost reluctantly, "but thank you, this has done me good."

"And you are really getting better?"

"Yes, I believe so. Perhaps I may feel it when this terrible day is over."

What a comfort it would be, she said to herself, when he was gone, if we had but a near relation like him, who would act for the mother, instead of our being delivered up, bound hand and foot, to Mr. Cox. It would have been refreshing to have kept him now, if I could have done it without talking; it really seemed to keep the horrible thoughts in abeyance, to hear that wonderfully gentle tone! And how kind and soft the look was! I do feel stronger for it! Will it really be better after next week? Alas! that will have undone nothing.

Yet even this perception of a possibility of hope that there would be relief after the ordeal, was new to Rachel; and it soon gave way to that trying feature of illness, the insurmountable dread of the mere physical fatigue. The Dean of Avoncester, a kind old friend of Mrs. Curtis, had insisted on the mother and daughters coming to sleep at the Deanery, on the Tuesday night, and remaining till the day after the trial; but Rachel's imagination was not even as yet equal to the endurance of the long drive, far less of the formality of a visit. Lady Temple was likewise asked to the Deanery, but Conrade was still too ill for her to think of leaving him for more than the few needful hours of the trial; nor had Alison been able to do more than pay an occasional visit at her sister's window to exchange reports, and so absorbed was she in her boys and their mother, that it was quite an effort of recollection to keep up to Ermine's accounts of Colonel Keith's doings.

It was on the Monday afternoon, the first time she had ventured into the room, taking advantage of Rose having condescended to go out with the Temple nursery establishment, when she found Ermine's transparent face all alive with expectation. "He may come any time now," she said; "his coming to-day or to-morrow was to depend on his getting his business done on Saturday or not."

And in a few minutes' time the well-known knock was heard, and Ermine, with a look half arch half gay, surprised her sister by rising with the aid of the arm of her chair, and adjusting a crutch that had been leaning against it.

"Why Ermine! you could not bear the jarring of that crutch-"

"Five or six years ago, Ailie, when I was a much poorer creature," then as the door opened, "I would make you a curtsey, Colonel Keith, but I am afraid I can't quite do that," though still she moved nearer to meet him, but perhaps there was a look of helplessness which made her exultation piteous, for he responded with an exclamation of alarm, put out his arm to support her, and did not relax a frown of anxiety till he had placed her safe in her chair again, while she laughed perhaps a little less freely, and said, "See what it is to have had to shift for oneself!"

"You met me with your eyes the first time, Ermine, and I never missed anything."

"Well, I think it is hard not to have been more congratulated on my great achievement! I thought I should have had at least as much credit as Widdrington, my favourite hero and model."

"When you have an arm to support you it may be all very well, and I shall never stand it without." Then, as Ermine subsided, unprepared with a reply, "Well, Ailie, how are your boys?"

"Both much better, Francis nearly well."

"You have had a terrible time! And their mother?"

"Dearer and sweeter than ever," said Alison, with her voice trembling; "no one who has not seen her now can guess half what she is!"

"I hope she has not missed me. If this matter had not been so pressing, I could not have stayed away."

"The one message she always gave me was, that you were not to think of coming home; and, indeed, those dear boys were so good, that we managed very well without you."

"Yes, I had faith in your discipline, and I think that matters are in train against Edward comes. Of course there is no letter, or you would have told me."

"He will be coming himself," said Ermine, resolved against again expressing a doubt; while Alison added that he hated letter-writing.

"Nothing could be more satisfactory than Beauchamp's letter," added Colin. "He was so thoroughly convinced, that he immediately began to believe that he had trusted Edward all along, and had only been overruled."

"I dare say," said Ermine, laughing; "I can quite fancy honest Harry completely persuaded that he was Edward's champion, while Maddox was turning him round his finger."

"And such is his good faith, that I hope he will make Edward believe the same! I told you of his sending his love to you, and of his hopes that you would some day come and see the old place. He made his wife quite cordial."

Alison did not feel herself obliged to accept the message, and Ermine could freely say, "Poor Harry! I should like to see him again! He would be exactly the same, I dare say. And how does the old place look?"

"Just what I do not want you to see. They have found out that the Rectory is unhealthy, and stuck up a new bald house on the top of the hill; and the Hall is new furnished in colours that set one's teeth on edge. Nothing is like itself but Harry, and he only when you get him off duty-without his wife! I was glad to get away to Belfast."

"And there, judging from Julia's letter, they must have nearly devoured you."

"They were very hospitable. Your sister is not so very unlike you, Ermine?"

"Oh, Colin!" exclaimed Alison, with an indignation of which she became ashamed, and added, by way of making it better, "Perhaps not so very."

"She was very gracious to me," said Colin, smiling, "and we had much pleasant talk of you."

"Yes," said Ermine, "it will be a great pleasure to poor Julia to be allowed to take us up again, and you thought the doctor sufficiently convinced."

"More satisfactorily so than Harry, for he reasoned out the matter, and seems to me to have gone more by his impression that a man could not be so imprudent as Edward in good faith than by Maddox's representation."

"That is true," said Alison, "he held out till Edward refused to come home, and then nothing would make him listen to a word on his behalf."

"And it will be so again," thought Ermine, with a throb at her heart. Then she asked, "Did you see whether there was a letter for you at home?"

"Yes, I looked in, and found only this, which I have only glanced at, from Bessie."

"From Paris?"

"Yes, they come home immediately after Easter. 'Your brother is resolved I should be presented, and submit to the whole season in style; after which he says I may judge for myself.' What people will do for pretty young wives! Poor Mary's most brilliant season was a winter at Edinburgh; and it must be his doing more than hers, for she goes on: 'Is it not very hard to be precluded all this time from playing the chieftainess in the halls of my forefathers? I shall have to run down to your Gowanbrae to refresh myself, and see what you are all about, for I cannot get the fragment of a letter from Alick; and I met an Avoncestrian the other day, who told me that the whole county was in a state of excitement about the F. U. etc.; that every one believed that the fascinating landscape-painter was on the high road to winning one of the joint-heiresses; but that Lady Temple-the most incredible part of the story-had blown up the whole affair, made her way into the penetralia of the asylum, and rescued two female 'prentices, so nearly whipped to death that it took an infinitesimal quantity of Rachel's homoeopathy to demolish one entirely, and that the virtuous public was highly indignant that there was no inquest nor trial for manslaughter; but that it was certain that Rachel had been extremely ill ever since. Poor Rachel, there must be some grain of truth in all this, but one would like to be able to contradict it. I wrote to ask Alick the rights of the story, but he has not vouchsafed me a line of reply; and I should take it as very kind in you to let me know whether he is in the land of the living or gone to Edinburgh-as I hear is to be the lot of the Highlanders-or pining for the uncroquetable lawn, to which I always told him he had an eye.'"

"She may think herself lucky he has not answered," said Ermine; "he has always been rather unreasonably angry with her for making the introduction."

"That is the reason he has not," added Alison, "for he is certainly not far off. He has been over almost every day to inquire, and played German tactics all Saturday afternoon with Francis to our great relief. But I have stayed away long enough."

"I will walk back with you, Ailie. I must see the good little heroine of the most incredible part of the story."

Lady Temple looked a good deal paler than when he had last seen her, and her eyelids still showed that they had long arrears of sleep to make up; but she came down with outstretched hands and a sunny smile. "They are so much better, and I am so glad you were not at home in the worst of it."

"And I am sorry to have deserted you."

"Oh, no, no, it was much better that you should be away. We should all have wanted you, and that would have been dangerous, and dear, dear Miss Williams did all that could be done. Do you know, it taught me that you were right when you told me I ought never to rest till the boys learnt to obey, for obedience' sake, at a word. It showed what a bad mother I am, for I am sure if dear Conrade had been like what he was last year, even she could not have saved him," said Fanny, her eyes full of tears.

Then came her details, to which he listened, as ever, like the brotherly friend he was, and there was a good deal said about restoring the little ones, who were still at Gowanbrae, to which he would by no means as yet consent, though Fanny owned herself to have time now to pine for her Stephana, and to "hear how dismal it is to have a silent nursery."

"Yes, it has been a fearful time. We little guessed how much risk you ran when you went to the rescue."

"Dear Con, when he thought-when we thought he could not get better, said I was not to mind that, and I don't," said Fanny. "I thought it was right, and though I did not know this would come of it, yet you see God has been very merciful, and brought both of my boys out of this dreadful illness, and I dare say it will do them good all their lives now it is over. I am sure it will to me, for I shall always be more thankful."

"Everything does you good," he said.

"And another thing," she added, eagerly, "it has made me know that dear Miss Williams so much better. She was so good, so wonderfully good, to come away from her sister to us. I thought she was quite gone the first day, and that I was alone with my poor Francie, and presently there she was by my side, giving me strength and hope by her very look. I want to have her for good, I want to make her my sister! She would teach the boys still, for nobody else could make them good, but if ever her sister could spare her, she must never go away again."

"You had better see what she says," replied the Colonel, with suppressed emotion.

That night, when Conrade and Francis were both fast asleep, their mother and their governess sat over the fire together, languid but happy, and told out their hearts to one another-told out more than Alison had ever put into words even to Ermine, for her heart was softer and more unreserved now than ever it had been since her sister's accident had crushed her youth. There was thenceforth a bond between her and Lady Temple that gave the young widow the strong-hearted, sympathizing, sisterly friend she had looked for in Rachel, and that filled up those yearnings of the affection that had at first made Alison feel that Colin's return made the world dreary to her. Her life had a purpose, though that purpose was not Ermine! But where were Edward and his letter?

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top