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   Chapter 22 THE AFTER CLAP

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 27781

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"I have read in the marvellous heart of man,

That strange and mystic scroll,

That an army of phantoms vast and wan

Beleaguer the human soul.

"Encamped beside life's rushing stream,

In Fancy's misty light,

Gigantic shapes and shadows gleam

Portentous through the night."

The Beleaguered City, LONGFELLOW.

A dinner party at the Deanery in the sessions week was an institution, but Rachel, lying on the sofa in a cool room, had thought herself exempt from it, and was conscious for the time of but one wish, namely, to be let alone, and to be able to shut her eyes, without finding the lids, as it were, lined with tiers of gazing faces, and curious looks turned on her, and her ears from the echo of the roar of fury that had dreadfully terrified both her and her mother, and she felt herself to have merited! The crush of public censure was not at the moment so overwhelming as the strange morbid effect of having been the focus of those many, many glances, and if she reflected at all, it was with a weary speculating wonder whether one pair of dark grey eyes had been among those levelled at her. She thought that if they had, she could not have missed either their ironical sting, or perchance some kindly gleam of sympathy, such as had sometimes surprised her from under the flaxen lashes.

There she had lain, unmolested and conscious of a certain relief in the exceeding calm; the grey pinnacle of the cathedral, and a few branches of an elm-tree alone meeting her eye through the open window, and the sole sound the cawing of the rooks, whose sailing flight amused and attracted her glance from time to time with dreamy interest. Grace had gone into court to hear Maria Hatherton's trial, and all was still.

The first break was when her mother and Miss Wellwood came in, after having wandered gently together round the warm, walled Deanery garden, comparing notes about their myrtles and geraniums. Then it was that amid all their tender inquiries after her headache, and their administration of afternoon tea, it first broke upon Rachel that they expected her to go down to dinner.

"Pray excuse me," she said imploringly, looking at her mother for support, "indeed, I don't know that I could sit out a dinner! A number of people together make me so dizzy and confused."

"Poor child!" said Miss Wellwood, kindly, but looking to Mrs. Curtis in her turn. "Perhaps, as she has been so ill, the evening might be enough."

"Oh," exclaimed Rachel, "I hope to be in bed before you have finished dinner. Indeed I am not good company for any one."

"Don't say that, my dear," and Miss Wellwood looked puzzled.

"Indeed, my dear," said Mrs. Curtis, evidently distressed, "I think the exertion would be good for you, if you could only think so."

"Yes, indeed," said Miss Wellwood, catching at the notion; "it is your mind that needs the distraction, my dear."

"I am distracted enough already," poor Rachel said, putting her hand up. "Indeed, I do not want to be disobliging," she said, interpreting her mother's anxious gestures to mean that she was wanting in civility; "it is very kind in you, Miss Wellwood, but this has been a very trying day, and I am sure I can give no pleasure to anybody, so if I might only be let off."

"It is not so much-" began Miss Wellwood, getting into a puzzle, and starting afresh. "Indeed, my dear, my brother and I could not bear that you should do anything you did not like, only you see it would never do for you to seem to want to shut yourself up."

"I should think all the world must feel as if I ought to be shut up for life," said Rachel, dejectedly.

"Ah! but that is the very thing. If you do not show yourself it will make such a talk."

Rachel had nearly said, "Let them talk;" but though she felt tormented to death, habitual respect to these two gentle, nervous, elderly women made her try to be courteous, and she said, "Indeed, I cannot much care, provided I don't hear them."

"Ah! but you don't know, my dear," said Mrs. Curtis, seeing her friend looked dismayed at this indifference. "Indeed, dear Miss Wellwood, she does not know; we thought it would be so awkward for her in court."

"Know what?" exclaimed Rachel, sitting upright, and putting down her feet. "What have you been keeping from me?"

"Only-only, my dear, people will say such things, and nobody could think it that knew you."

"What?" demanded Rachel.

"Yes," said Mrs. Curtis, perhaps, since her daughter was to have the shock, rather glad to have a witness to the surprise it caused her: "you know people will gossip, and some one has put it about that-that this horrid man was-"

Mrs. Curtis paused, Miss Wellwood was as pink as her cap strings. Rachel grasped the meaning at last. "Oh!" she said, with less reticence than her elders, "there must needs be a spice of flirtation to give piquancy to the mess of gossip! I don't wonder, there are plenty of people who judge others by themselves, and think that motive must underlie everything! I wonder who imagines that I am fallen so low?"

"There, I knew she would take it in that way," said Mrs. Curtis. "And so you understand us, my dear, we could not bear to ask you to do anything so distressing except for your own sake."

"I am far past caring for my own sake," said Rachel, "but for yours and Grace's, mother, I will give as much ocular demonstration as I can, that I am not pining for this hero with a Norman name. I own I should have thought none of the Dean's friends would have needed to be convinced."

"Oh, no! no! but-" Miss Wellwood made a great confusion of noes, buts, and my dears, and Mrs. Curtis came to the rescue. "After all, my love, one can't so much wonder! You have always been very peculiar, you know, and so clever, and you took up this so eagerly. And then the Greys saw you so unwilling to prosecute. And-and I have always allowed you too much liberty-ever since your poor dear papa was taken-and now it has come upon you, my poor child! Oh, I hope dear Fanny will take warning by me," and off went poor Mrs. Curtis into a fit of sobs.

"Mother-mother! this is worse than anything," exclaimed Rachel in an agony, springing to her feet, and flying after sal volatile, but feeling frightfully helpless without Grace, the manager of all Mrs. Curtis's ailments and troubles. Grace would have let her quietly cry it out. Rachel's remedies and incoherent protestations of all being her own fault only made things worse, and perhaps those ten minutes were the most overwhelming of all the griefs that Rachel had brought on herself. However, what with Miss Wellwood's soothing, and her own sense of the becoming, Mrs. Curtis struggled herself into composure again by the time the maid came to dress them for dinner; Rachel all the while longing for Grace's return, not so much for the sake of hearing the verdict, as of knowing whether the mother ought to be allowed to go down to dinner, so shaken did she look; for indeed, besides her distress for her daughter, no small ingredient in her agitation was this recurrence to a stated custom of her husband's magisterial days.

Persuasion was unavailing. At any cost the Curtis family must present an unassailable front to the public eye, and if Mrs. Curtis had forced forward her much tried and suffering daughter, far more would she persist in devoting herself to gaiety and indifference, but her nervousness was exceeding, and betrayed itself in a continual wearying for Grace, without whom neither her own dress nor Rachel's could be arranged to her satisfaction, and she was absolutely incapable of not worrying Rachel about every fold, every plait, every bow, in a manner that from any one else would have been unbearable; but those tears had frightened Rachel into a penitent submission that endured with an absolute semblance of cheerfulness each of these torments. The languor and exhaustion had been driven away, and feverish excitement had set in, not so much from the spirit of defiance that the two elder ladies had expected to excite, as from the having been goaded into a reckless determination to sustain her part. No matter for the rest.

It often happened in these parties that the ladies would come in from the country in reasonable time, while their lords would be detained much later in court, so when the cathedral clock had given notice of the half-hour, Mrs. Curtis began to pick up fan and handkerchief, and prepare to descend. Rachel suggested there would be no occasion so to do till Grace's return, since it was plain that no one could yet be released.

"Yes, my dear, but perhaps-don't you think it might be remarked as if you chose to keep out of sight?"

"Oh, very well."

Rachel followed her mother down, sustained by one hope, that Captain Keith would be there. No; the Deanery did not greatly patronize the barracks; there was not much chance of any gentleman under forty, except, perhaps, in the evening. And at present the dean himself and one canon were the entire gentleman element among some dozen ladies. Everybody knew that the cause of delay was the trial of the cruel matron, and added to the account of Rachel's iniquities their famished and weary state of expectation, the good Dean gyrating among the groups, trying to make conversation, which every one felt too fretful and too hungry to sustain with spirit. Rachel sat it out, trying to talk whenever she saw her mother's anxious eyes upon her, but failing in finding anything to say, and much doubting whether her neighbours liked talking to her.

At last gentlemen began to appear in twos and threes, and each made some confidence to the womankind that first absorbed him, but no one came in Rachel's way, and the girl beside her became too unfeignedly curious to support even the semblance of conversation, but listened for scraps of intelligence. Something was flying about respecting "a gentleman who came down by the train," and something about "Lady Temple" and "admirable," and the young lady seized the first opportunity of deserting Rachel, and plunging into the melee. Rachel sat on, sick with suspense, feeling utterly unable to quit her seat. Still they waited, the whole of the party were not arrived, and here was the curfew ringing, and that at the Deanery, which always felt injured if it were seven o'clock before people were in the dining-room! Grace must be upstairs dressing, but to reach her was impossible!

At last Mr. Grey was announced, and he had mercy upon Rachel; he came up to her as soon as he could without making her remarkable, and told her the cause of his delay had been the necessity of committing Mauleverer upon an accusation by a relation of Colonel Keith, of very extensive frauds upon Miss Williams's brother. Rachel's illness and the caution of the Williamses had prevented her from being fully aware of the complication of their affairs with her own, and she became paler and paler, as she listened to the partial explanation, though she was hardly able as yet to understand it.

"The woman?" she asked.

"Sentenced to a year's imprisonment with hard labour, and let me tell you, Rachel, you had a most narrow escape there! If that army doctor had not come in time to see the child alive, they could not have chosen but have an inquest, and no mortal can tell what might have been the decision about your homoeopathy. You might have been looking forward to a worse business than this at the next assizes."

Mr. Grey had done his work at last! The long waiting, the weary constraint, and at last the recurrence of Lovedy's sufferings and her own share in them, entirely overcame her. Mists danced before her eyes, and the very sensation that had been so studiously avoided was produced by her fainting helplessly away in her chair, while Mr. Grey was talking to her.

To be sure it brought deliverance from the multitude, and she awoke in the quiet of her room, upon her bed, in the midst of the despairing compunction of the mother, and the tender cares of Grace, but she was too utterly overdone for even this to be much relief to her; and downstairs poor Miss Wellwood's one desire was to hinder the spread of the report that her swoon had been caused by the tidings of Mauleverer's apprehension. It seemed as if nothing else had been wanting to make the humiliation and exposure complete. Rachel had despised fainting ladies, and had really hitherto been so superabundant in strength that she had no experience of the symptoms, or she might have escaped in time. But there she lay, publicly censured before the dignitaries of her county for moral folly, and entirely conquered before the rest of the world by the physical weakness she had most contemned.

Then the mother was so terrified and distressed that all sorts of comforting reassurances were required, and the chief object soon became to persuade her to go downstairs and leave Rachel to her bed. And at last the thought of civility and of the many Mrs. Grundys prevailed, and sent her downstairs, but there was little more comfort for Rachel even in being left to herself-that for which she had a few minutes before most ardently longed.

That night was perhaps the most painful one of her whole life. The earnest desire to keep her mother from uneasiness, and the longing to be unmolested, made her play her part well when the mother and Grace came up to see her before going to bed, and they thought she would sleep off her over-fatigue and excitement, and yielded to her desire that they should bid her good night, and leave her to rest.

But what sort of rest was it? Sometimes even her own personal identity was gone, and she would live over again in the poor children, the hunger and the blows, or she would become Mrs. Rawlins, and hear herself sentenced for the savage cruelty, or she would actually stand in court under sentence for

manslaughter. Her pulses throbbed up to fever pitch, head and cheeks burnt, the very power to lie still was gone, and whether she commanded her thoughts or lapsed into the land of dreams, they worked her equal woe.

Now it was the world of gazing faces, feverishly magnified, multiplied, and pressing closer and closer on her, till she could have screamed to dispel them; now it was her mother weeping over the reports to which she had given occasion, and accusing herself of her daughter's errors; and now it was Lovedy Kelland's mortal agony, now the mob, thirsting for vengeance, were shouting for justice on her, as the child's murderer, and she was shrieking to Alick Keith to leave her to her fate, and only save her mother.

It would hardly be too much to say that the positive wretchedness of actually witnessing the child's death was doubled in these its imaginary repetitions on that still more suffering night of waking dreams, when every solemn note of the cathedral clock, every resolute proclamation from its fellow in the town hall, every sharp reply from the domestic timepiece in the Deanery fell on her ears, generally recalling her at least to full consciousness of her identity and whereabouts, and dispelling the delusion.

But, then, what comfort was there? Veritably she had caused suffering and death; she had led to the peril of Fanny's children; she had covered her mother with shame and grief! Nay, in her exaggerated tone of feeling, she imagined that distress and poverty might have been entailed on that beloved mother. Those title deeds-no intelligence. Captain Keith had taken no notice. Perhaps he heard and believed those degrading reports! He had soul enough to pity and sympathize with the failure of extended views of beneficence; he despised the hypocrisy that had made charity a cloak for a credulous debasing attachment, and to such an object! He might well avoid her! His sister had always bantered her on what had seemed too absurd to be rebutted, and, at any rate, this fainting fit would clench his belief. No doubt he believed it. And if he did, why should not every one else whose opinion she cared for: Ermine, her Colonel, even gentle Fanny-no, she would never believe any harm, she had suffered too much in her cause.

Oh, for simple genuine charity like Fanny's, with eyes clear with innocence and humility! And now what was before her? should she ever be allowed to hide her head, or should she be forced again to brave that many-eyed world? Perhaps the title-deed business would prove utter ruin. It would have been acceptable to herself, but her mother and sister!

Chastisement! Yes, it was just chastisement for headstrong folly and conceit. She had heard of bending to the rod and finding it a cross, but here came the dreadful confusion of unreality, and of the broken habit of religious meditation except as matter of debate. She did not know till her time of need how deeply sneers had eaten into her heart. The only text that would come to her mind was, "And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea; and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof." Every effort at prayer or at calm recall of old thoughts still ended in that desolate verse. The first relief to these miserable dreams was the cool clear morning light, and by-and-by the early cathedral bells, then Grace's kind greeting made her quite herself; no longer feverish, but full of lassitude and depression. She would not listen to Grace's entreaties that she would remain in bed. No place was so hateful to her, she said, and she came down apparently not more unwell than had been the case for many days past, so that after breakfast her mother saw no reason against leaving her on the sofa, while going out to perform some commissions in the town, attended, of course, by Grace. Miss Wellwood promised that she should not be disturbed, and she found that she must have been asleep, for she was taken by surprise by the opening of the door, and the apologetic face of the butler, who told her that a gentleman had asked if she would see him, and presented the card of "Captain Alexander Keith."

Eagerly she desired that he should be admitted, tremulously she awaited his sentence upon her mother's peace, and, as she thought of all he must have heard, all he must believe, she felt as if she must flee; or, if that were impossible, cower in shrinking dread of the glance of his satirical eye!

Here he was, and she could not look or speak, nor did he; she only felt that his clasp of greeting was kind, was anxious, and he put forward the easy-chair, into which she sank, unable to stand. He said, "I saw your mother and sister going into the town. I thought you would like to hear of this business at once."

"Oh yes, thank you."

"I could not see the man till the day before yesterday," he said, "and I could get nothing satisfactory from him. He said he had taken the papers to a legal friend, but was not authorized to give his name. Perhaps his views may be changed by his present condition. I will try him again if you like."

"Thank you, thank you! Do you think this is true!"

"He is too cunning a scoundrel to tell unnecessary lies, and very likely he may have disposed of them to some Jew attorney; but I think nothing is to be feared but some annoyance."

"And annoyance to my mother is the one thing I most fear," sighed Rachel, helplessly.

"There might be a mode of much lessening it to her," he said.

"Oh, what? Tell me, and I would do it at any cost."

"Will you?" and he came nearer. "At the cost of yourself?"

She thrilled all over, and convulsively grasped the arm of her chair.

"Would not a son be the best person to shield her from annoyance," he added, trying for his usual tone, but failing, he exclaimed, "Rachel, Rachel, let me!"

She put her hands over her face, and cried, "Oh! oh! I never thought of this."

"No," he said, "and I know what you do think of it, but indeed you need not be wasted. Our women and children want so much done for them, and none of our ladies are able or willing. Will you not come and help me?"

"Don't talk to me of helping! I do nothing but spoil and ruin."

"Not now! That is all gone and past. Come and begin afresh."

"No, no, I am too disagreeable."

"May not I judge for myself?" he said, drawing nearer, and his voice falling into tremulous tenderness.

"Headstrong-overbearing."

"Try," and his smile overbore her.

"Oh no, no, nobody can bear me! This is more than you-you ought to do-than any one should," she faltered, not knowing what she said.

"Than any one to whom you were not most dear!" was the answer, and he was now standing over her, with the dew upon his eyelashes.

"Oh, that can't be. Bessie said you always took up whatever other people hated, and I know it is only that-"

"Don't let Bessie's sayings come between us now, Rachel. This goes too deep," and he had almost taken her hand, when with a start she drew it back, saying, "But you know what they say!"

"Have they been stupid enough to tell you?" he exclaimed. "Confute them then, Rachel-dolts that can't believe in self-devotion! Laugh at their beards. This is the way to put an end to it!"

"Oh no, they would only detest you for my sake. I can't," she said again, bowed down again with shame and dejection.

"I'll take care of that!" he said with the dry tone that perhaps was above all reassurance, and conquered her far enough to enable him to take possession of the thin and still listless hand.

"Then," he said, "you will let me take this whole matter in hand; and if the worst comes to the worst, we will make up to the charity out of the Indian money, without vexing the mother."

"I can't let you suffer for my miserable folly."

"Too late to say that!" he answered; and as her eyes were raised to him in startled inquiry, he said gravely, "These last weeks have shown me that your troubles must be mine."

A hand was on the door, and Rachel fled, in time to screen her flight from Miss Wellwood, whom Alick met with his usual undisturbed front, and inquiries for Mrs. Curtis.

That good lady was in the town more worried than flattered by the numerous inquiries after Rachel's health, and conscious of having gone rather near the wind in making the best of it. She had begun to dread being accosted by any acquaintance, and Captain Keith, sauntering near the archway of the close, was no welcome spectacle. She would have passed him with a curt salutation, but he grasped her hand, saying, "May I have a few words with you?"

"Not Fanny-not the children!" cried Mrs. Curtis in dismay.

"No indeed. Only myself," and a gleam of intelligence under his eyelashes and judicious pressure of his hand conveyed volumes to Grace, who had seen him often during Rachel's illness, and was not unprepared. She merely said that she would see how her sister was, substituted Captain Keith's arm for her own as her mother's support, and hurried away, to encounter Miss Wellwood's regrets that, in spite of all her precautions, dear Rachel had been disturbed by "a young officer, I believe. We see him often at the cathedral, and somebody said it was his sister whom Lord Keith married."

"Yes, we know him well, and he is a Victoria Cross man," said Grace, beginning to assume his reflected glory.

"So some one said, but the Dean never calls on the officers unless there is some introduction, or there would be no end to it. It was a mistake letting him in to disturb Rachel. Is your mother gone up to her, my dear?"

"No, I think she is in the cathedral yard. I just came in to see about Rachel," said Grace, escaping.

Miss Wellwood intended going out to join her old friend; but, on going to put on her bonnet, she saw from the window Mrs. Curtis, leaning on the intruder's arm, conversing so confidentially that the Dean's sister flushed with amazement, and only hoped she had mentioned him with due respect. And under that southern cathedral wall good Mrs. Curtis took the longest walk she had indulged in for the last twenty years, so that Grace, and even Rachel, beholding from the window, began to fear that the mother would be walked to death.

But then she had that supporting arm, and the moral support, that was infinitely more! That daughter, the spoilt pet of her husband, the subject of her pride, even when an enigma and an anxiety, whom she had lately been forced to think of as

"A maid whom there were few to praise

And very few to love,"

she now found loved by one at least, and praised in terms that thrilled through and through the mother's heart in their truth and simplicity, for that sincerity, generosity, and unselfishness. It was her own daughter, her real Rachel, no illusion, that she heard described in those grave earnest words, only while the whole world saw the errors and exaggerated them, here was one who sank them all in the sterling worth that so few would recognise. The dear old lady forgot all her prudence, and would hardly let him speak of his means; but she soon saw that Rachel's present portion would be more than met on his side, and that no one could find fault with her on the score of inequality of fortune. He would have been quite able to retire, and live at ease, but this he said at once and with decision he did not intend. His regiment was his hereditary home, and his father had expressed such strong wishes that he should not lightly desert his profession, that he felt bound to it by filial duty as well as by other motives. Moreover, he thought the change of life and occupation would be the best thing for Rachel, and Mrs. Curtis could not but acquiesce, little as she had even dreamt that a daughter of hers would marry into a marching regiment! Her surrender of judgment was curiously complete. "Dear Alexinder," as thenceforth she called him had assumed the mastery over her from the first turn they took under the cathedral, and when at length he reminded her that the clock was on the stroke of one, she accepted it on his infallible judgment, for her own sensations would have made her believe it not a quarter of an hour since the interview had begun.

Not a word had been granted on either side to the conventional vows of secrecy, always made to be broken, and perhaps each tacitly felt that the less secrecy the better for Rachel. Certain it is that Mrs. Curtis went into the Deanery with her head considerably higher, kissed Rachel vehemently, and, assuring her she knew all about it, and was happier than she had ever thought to be again, excused her from appearing at luncheon, and hurried down thereto, without giving any attention to a feeble entreaty that she would not go so fast. And when at three o'clock Rachel crept downstairs to get into the carriage for her return home, the good old Dean lay in wait for her, told her she must allow him an old friend's privilege, kissed her, congratulated her, and said he would beg to perform the ceremony.

"Oh, Mr. Dean, it is nothing like that."

He laughed, and handed her in.

"Mother, mother, how could you?" sighed Rachel, as they drove on.

"My dear, they were so kind; they could not help knowing!"

"But it can't be."

"Rachel, my child, you like him!"

"He does not know half about me yet. Mother, don't tell Fanny or any one till I have seen him again."

And the voice was so imperious with the wayward vehemence of illness that Mrs. Curtis durst not gainsay it. She did not know how Alick Keith was already silencing those who asked if he had heard of the great event at the Dean's party. Still less did she guess at the letter at that moment in writing:-

"My Dear Bessie,-Wish me joy. I have gone in for the uncroquetable lawn, and won it.-Your affectionate brother',

"A. C. Keith."

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