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   Chapter 25 THE HUNTSFORD CROQUET.

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 20871

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"Une femme egoiste, non seulement de coeur, mais d'esprit, ne pent

pas sortir d'elle-meme. Le moi est indelible chez elle. Une veritable

egoiste ne sait meme pas etre fausse."

-MME. E. DE GIRARDIN.

"I am come to prepare you," said Lady Keith, putting her arm into her brother's, and leading him into the peacock path. "Mrs. Huntsford is on her way to call and make a dead set to get you all to a garden party."

"Then we are off to the Earlsworthy Woods."

"Nay, listen, Alick. I have let you alone and defended you for a whole month, but if you persist in shutting up you wife, people won't stand it."

"Which of us is the Mahometan?"

"You are pitied! But you see it was a strong thing our appearing without our several incumbrances, and though an old married woman like me may do as she pleases, yet for a bridegroom of not three weeks' standing to resort to bazaars solus argues some weighty cause."

"And argues rightly."

"Then you are content to be supposed to have an unproduceably eccentric melancholy bride?"

"Better they should think so than that she should be so. She has been victimized enough already to her mother's desire to save appearances."

"You do not half believe me, Alick, and this is really a very kind, thoughtful arrangement of Mrs. Huntsford's. She consulted me, saying there were such odd stories about you two that she was most anxious that Rachel should appear and confute them; and she thought that an out-of-door party like this would suit best, because it would be early, and Rachel could get away if she found it too much for her."

"After being walked out to satisfy a curious neighbourhood."

"Now Alick, do consider it. This sort of thing could remind her of nothing painful; Uncle George would enjoy it."

"And fall over the croquet traps."

"No; if you wanted to attend to him, I could take care of Rachel."

"I cannot tell, Bessie, I believe it is pure goodnature on Mrs. Huntsford's part, but if we go, it must be from Rachel's spontaneous movement. I will not press her on any account. I had rather the world said she was crazy at once than expose her to the risk of one of the dreadful nights that haunted us till we came here to perfect quiet."

"But she is well now. She looks better and nicer than I ever saw her. Really, Alick, now her face is softer, and her eyes more veiled, and her chin not cocked up, I am quite proud of her. Every one will be struck with her good looks."

"Flattery, Bessie," he said, not ill pleased. "Yes, she is much better, and more like herself; but I dread all this being overthrown. If she herself wishes to go, it may be a good beginning, but she must not be persuaded."

"Then I must not even tell her that she won't be required to croquet, and that I'll guard her from all civil speeches."

"No, for indeed, Bessie, on your own account and Lord Keith's, you should hardly spend a long afternoon from home."

"Here's the war in the enemy's quarters! As to fatigue, dawdling about Mrs. Huntsford's garden, is much the same as dawdling about my own, and makes me far more entertaining."

"I cannot help thinking, Bessie, that Lord Keith is more ill than you suppose. I am sure he is in constant pain."

"So I fear," said Bessie, gravely; "but what can be done? He will see no one but his old surgeon in Edinburgh."

"Then take him there."

"Take him? You must know what it is to be in the hands of a clever woman before you make such a proposal."

"You are a cleverer woman than my wife in bringing about what you really wish."

"Just consider, Alick, our own house is uninhabitable, and this one on our hands-my aunt coming to me in a month's time. You don't ask me to do what is reasonable."

"I cannot tell, Bessie. You can be the only judge of what is regard of the right kind for your husband's health or for yourself; and see, there is Mrs. Huntsford actually arrived, and talking to my uncle."

"One moment, Alick: I am not going to insult myself so far as to suppose that poor Charlie Carleton's being at home has anything to do with your desire to deport me, but I want you to know that he did not come home till after we were settled here."

"I do not wish to enter into details, Bessie," and he crossed the lawn towards the window where Mr. Clare and Rachel had just received Mrs. Huntsford, a goodnatured joyous-looking lady, a favourite with every one. Her invitation was dexterously given to meet a few friends at luncheon, and in the garden, where the guests would be free to come and go; there might perhaps be a little dancing later, she had secured some good music which would, she knew, attract Mr. Clare, and she hoped he would bring Captain and Mrs. Keith. She knew Mrs. Keith had not been well, but she promised her a quiet room to rest in, and she wanted to show her a view of the Devon coast done by a notable artist in water-colours. Rachel readily accepted-in fact, this quiet month had been so full of restoration that she had almost forgotten her morbid shrinking from visitors; and Bessie infused into her praise and congratulations a hint that a refusal would have been much against Alick's reputation, so that she resolved to keep up to the mark, even though he took care that she should know that she might yet retract.

"You did not wish me to refuse, Alick," said she, struck by his grave countenance, when she found him lying on the slope of the lawn shortly after, in deep thought.

"No, not at all," he replied; "it is likely to be a pleasant affair, and my uncle will be delighted to have us with him. No," he added, seeing that she still looked at him inquisitively, "it is the old story. My sister! Poor little thing! I always feel as though I wore more unkind and unjust to her than any one else, and yet we are never together without my feeling as if she was deceiving herself and me; and yet it is all so fair and well reasoned that one is always left in the wrong. I regretted this marriage extremely at first, and I am not the less disposed to regret it now."

"Indeed! Every one says how attentive she is to him, and how nicely they go on together."

"Pshaw, Rachel! that is just the way. A few words and pretty ways pass with her and all the world for attention, when she is wherever her fancy calls her, all for his good. It is just the attention she showed my uncle. And now it is her will and pleasure to queen it here among her old friends, and she will not open her eyes to see the poor old man's precarious state."

"Do you think him so very ill, Alick?"

"I was shocked when I saw him yesterday. As to sciatica, that is all nonsense; the blow in his side has done some serious damage, and if it is not well looked-to, who knows what will be the end of it! And then, a gay young widow with no control over her-I hate to think of it."

"Indeed," said Rachel, "she is so warm and bright, and really earnest in her kindness, that she will be sure to see her own way right at home. I don't think we can guess how obstinate Lord Keith may be in refusing to take advice."

"He cut me off pretty short," said Alick. "I am afraid he will see no one here; and, as Bessie says, the move to Scotland would not be easy just now. As I said, she leaves one in the wrong, and I don't like the future. But it is of no use to talk of it; so let us come and see if my uncle wants to go anywhere."

It was Alick's fate never to meet with sympathy in his feeling of his sister's double-mindedness. Whether it were that he was mistaken, or that she really had the gift of sincerity for the moment in whatever she was saying, the most candid and transparent people in the world-his uncle and his wife-never even succeeded in understanding his dissatisfaction with Bessie's doings, but always received them at her own valuation. Even while he had been looking forward, with hope deferred, to her residence with him as the greatest solace the world could yet afford him, Mr. Clare had always been convinced that her constant absence from his Rectory, except when his grand neighbours were at home, had been unavoidable, and had always credited the outward tokens of zealous devotion to his church and parish, and to all that was useful or good elsewhere. In effect there was a charm about her which no one but her brother ever resisted, and even he held out by an exertion that made him often appear ungracious.

However, for the present the uneasiness was set aside, in the daily avocations of the Rectory, where Alick was always a very different person from what he appeared in Lady Temple's drawing-room, constantly engaged as he was by unobtrusive watchfulness over his uncle, and active and alert in this service in a manner that was a curious contrast to his ordinary sauntering ways. As to Rachel, the whole state of existence was still a happy dream. She floated on from day to day in the tranquil activity of the Rectory, without daring to look back on the past or to think out her present frame of mind; it was only the languor and rest of recovery after suffering, and her husband was heedfully watching her, fearing the experiment of the croquet party, though on many accounts feeling the necessity of its being made.

Ermine's hint, that with Rachel it rested to prevent her unpopularity from injuring her husband, had not been thrown away, and she never manifested any shrinking from the party, and even took some interest in arraying herself for it.

"That is what I call well turned out," exclaimed Alick, when she came down.

"Describe her dress, if you please," said Mr. Clare, "I like to hear how my nieces look."

Alick guided his hand. "There, stroke it down, a long white feather in a shady hat trimmed with dark green, velvet; she is fresh and rosy, you know, sir, and looks well in green, and then, is it Grace's taste, Rachel? for it is the prettiest thing you have worn-a pale buff sort of silky thing, embroidered all over in the same colour," and he put a fold of the dress into his uncle's hand.

"Indian, surely," said Mr. Clare, feeling the pattern, "it is too intricate and graceful for the West."

"Yes," said Alick, "I remember now, Grace showed it to me. It was one that Lady Temple brought from India, and never had made up. Poor Grace could get no sympathy from Rachel about the wedding clothes, so she was obliged to come to me."

"And I thought you did not know one of my things from anoth

er," said Rachel. "Do you really mean that you care?"

"Depend upon it, he does, my dear," said Mr. Clare. "I have heard him severely critical on his cousins."

"He has been very good in not tormenting me," said Rachel, nestling nearer to him.

"I apprehended the consequences," said Alick, "and besides, you never mounted that black lace pall, or curtain, or whatever you call it, upon your head, after your first attempt at frightening me away with it."

"A cap set against, instead of at," said Mr. Clare, laughing; and therewith his old horse was heard clattering in the yard, and Alick proceeded to drive the well-used phaeton about three miles through Earlsworthy Park, to a pleasant-looking demesne in the village beyond. As they were turning in at the gate, up came Lady Keith with her two brisk little Shetlands. She was one mass of pretty, fresh, fluttering blue and white muslin, ribbon, and lace, and looked particularly well and brilliant.

"Well met," she said, "I called at the Rectory to take up Rachel, but you were flown before me."

"Yes, we went through the Park."

"I wish the Duke would come home. I can't go that way now till I have called. I have no end of things to say to you," she added, and her little lively ponies shot ahead of the old rectorial steed. However, she waited at the entrance. "Who do you think is come? Colin Keith made his appearance this morning. He has safely captured his Ouralian bear, though not without plenty of trouble, and he could not get him on to Avonmouth till he had been to some chemical institution about an invention. Colin thought him safe there, and rushed down by the train to see us. They go on to-morrow."

"What did he think of Lord Keith?" said Alick, in the more haste because he feared something being said to remind Rachel that this was the assize week at Avoncester.

"He has settled the matter about advice," said Bessie, seriously; "you cannot think what a relief it is. I mean, as soon as I get home, to write and ask Mr. Harvey to come and talk to me to-morrow, and see if the journey to Edinburgh is practicable. I almost thought of sending an apology, and driving over to consult him this afternoon, but I did not like to disappoint Mrs. Huntsford, and I thought Rachel would feel herself lost."

"Thank you," said Rachel, "but could we not go away early, and go round by Mr. Harvey's?"

"Unluckily I have sent the ponies home, and told the close carriage to come for me at nine. It was all settled, and I don't want to alarm Lord Keith by coming home too soon."

Alick, who had hitherto listened with interest, here gave his arm to Rachel, as if recollecting that it was time to make their entree. Bessie took her uncle's, and they were soon warmly welcomed by their kind hostess, who placed them so favourably at luncheon that Rachel was too much entertained to feel any recurrence of the old associations with "company." Afterwards, Bessie took her into the cool drawing-room, where were a few ladies, who preferred the sofa to croquet or archery, and Lady Keith accomplished a fraternization between Rachel and a plainly dressed lady, who knew all about the social science heroines of whom Rachel had longed to hear. After a time, however, a little girl darted in to call "Aunt Mary" to the aid of some playfellow, who had met with a mishap, and Rachel then perceived herself to have been deserted by her sister-in-law. She knew none of the other ladies, and they made no approaches to her; an access of self-consciousness came on, and feeling forlorn and uncomfortable, she wandered out to look for a friend.

It was not long before she saw Alick walking along the terrace above the croquet players, evidently in quest of her. "How is it with you?" he anxiously asked; "you know you can go home in a moment if you have had enough of this."

"No, I want nothing, now I have found you. Where is your uncle?"

"Fallen upon one of his oldest friends, who will take care of him, and well out of the way of the croquet traps. Where's my Lady? I thought you were with her."

"She disappeared while I was talking to that good Miss Penwell! You must be pleased now, Alick, you see she is really going to see about going to Scotland."

"I should be better pleased if she had not left that poor old man alone till nine o'clock."

"She says that when he has his man Saunders to read to him-"

"Don't tell me what she says; I have enough of that at first hand."

He broke off with a start. The terrace was prolonged into a walk beyond the screen of evergreens that shut in the main lawn, and, becoming a shrubbery path, led to a smooth glade, on whose turf preparations had been made for a second field of croquet, in case there should have been too many players for the principal arena. This, however, had not been wanted, and no one was visible except a lady and gentleman on a seat under a tree about half-way down on the opposite side of the glade. The lady was in blue and white; the gentleman would hardly have been recognised by Rachel but for the start and thrill of her husband's arm, and the flush of colour on his usually pale cheek, but, ere he could speak or move, the lady sprang up, and came hastening towards them diagonally across the grass. Rachel saw the danger, and made a warning outcry, "Bessie, the hoop!" but it was too late, she had tripped over it, and fell prone, and entirely unable to save herself. She was much nearer to them than to her late companion, and was struggling to disengage herself when Alick reached her, lifted her up, and placed her on her feet, supporting her as she clung fast to him, while he asked if she were hurt.

"No, no," she cried. "Don't let him come; don't let him call any one, don't," she reiterated, as Mr. Carleton hovered near, evidently much terrified, but not venturing to approach.

Alick helped her to another garden chair that stood near. She had been entangled in her dress, which had been much torn by her attempt to rise, and hung in a festoon, impeding her, and she moved with difficulty, breathing heavily when she was first seated.

"I don't know if I have not twisted myself a little," she said, in answer to their anxious questions, "but it will go off. Rachel, how scared you look!"

"Don't laugh," exclaimed Rachel, in dread of hysterics, and she plunged her hand into Alick's pocket for a scent-bottle, which he had put there by way of precaution for her, and, while applying it, said, in her full, sedate voice, keeping it as steady as she could, "Shall I drive you home? Alick can walk home with his uncle when he is ready."

"Home! Thank you, Rachel, pray do. Not that I am hurt," she added in her natural voice, "only these rags would tell tales, and there would be an intolerable fuss."

"Then I will bring the carriage round to the road there," said Alick. "I told Joe to be in readiness, and you need not go back to the house."

"Thank you. But, oh, send him away!" she added, with a gasping shudder. "Only don't let him tell any one. Tell him I desire he will not."

After a few words with Mr. Carleton, Alick strode off to the stables, and Rachel asked anxiously after the twist.

"I don't feel it; I don't believe in it. My dear, your strong mind is all humbug, or you would not look so frightened," and again she was on the verge of hysterical laughing; "it is only that I can't stand a chorus of old ladies in commotion. How happy Alick must be to have his prediction verified by some one tumbling over a hoop!" Just then, however, seeing Mr. Carleton still lingering near, she caught hold of Rachel with a little cry, "Don't let him come, dear Rachel; go to him, tell him I am well, but keep him away, and mind he tells no one!"

Rachel's cold, repellent manner was in full force, and she went towards the poor little man, whose girlish face was blanched with fright.

She told him that Lady Keith did not seem to be hurt, and only wished to be alone, and to go home without attracting notice. He stammered out something about quite understanding, and retreated, while Rachel returned to find Bessie sitting upright, anxiously watching, and she was at once drawn down to sit beside her on the bench, to listen to the excited whisper. "The miserable simpleton! Rachel, Alick was right. I thought, I little thought he would forget how things stand now, but he got back to the old strain, as if-I shall make Lord Keith go to Scotland any way now. I was so thankful to see you and Alick." She proceeded with the agitated vehemence of one who, under a great shock, was saying more than she would have betrayed in a cooler and more guarded mood, "What could possess him? For years he had followed me about like a little dog, and never said more than I let him; and now what folly was in his head, just because I could not walk as far as the ruin with the others. When I said I was going to Scotland, what business had he to-Oh! the others will be coming back, Rachel, could we not go to meet the carriage?"

The attempt to move, however, brought back the feeling of the strain of which she had complained, but she would not give way, and by the help of Rachel's arm, proceeded across the grass to the carriage-drive, where Alick was to meet them. It seemed very far and very hot, and her alternately excited and shame-stricken manner, and sobbing breath, much alarmed Rachel; but when Alick met them, all this seemed to pass away-she controlled herself entirely, declaring herself unhurt, and giving him cheerful messages and excuses for her hostess. Alick put the reins into Rachel's hands, and, after watching her drive off, returned to the party, and delivered the apologies of the ladies; then went in search of his uncle. He did not, however, find him quickly, and then he was so happy with his old friend among a cluster of merry young people, that Alick would not say a word to hasten him home, especially as Rachel would have driven Bessie to Timber End, so that it would only be returning to an empty house. And such was Mr. Clare's sociableness and disability of detaching himself from pleasant conversation, that the uncle and nephew scarcely started for their walk across the park in time for the seven o'clock service. Mr. Clare had never been so completely belated, and, as Alick's assistance was necessary, he could only augur from his wife's absence that she was still at Timber End with his sister.

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