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The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 44902

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Where am I?

O vanity,

We are not what we deem,

The sins that hold my heart in thrall,

They are more real than all."-Rev. I. WILLIAMS.

As the uncle and nephew came out of church, and approached the yew-tree gate, Rachel came swiftly to meet them. "Oh, Alick! oh, uncle!" she said breathlessly. "Bessie says she is shocked to have turned your house upside down, but we could not go any further. And her baby is born!" Then in answer to exclamations, half-dismayed, half-wondering, "Yes, it is all right, so Nurse Jones says. I could not send to you, for we had to send everywhere at once. Mr. Harvey was not at home, and we telegraphed to London, but no one has come yet, and now I have just written a note to Lord Keith with the news of his son and heir. And, uncle, she has set her heart on your baptizing him directly."

There was some demur, for though the child had made so sudden a rush into the world, there seemed to be no ground for immediate alarm; and Mr. Clare being always at hand, did not think it expedient to give the name without knowing the father's wishes with regard to that hereditary Alexander which had been borne by the dead son of the first marriage. A message, however, came down to hasten him, and when-as he had often before done in cottages-he demanded of Nurse Jones whether private baptism were immediately necessary, she allowed that she saw no pressing danger, but added, "that the lady was in a way about it," and this both Rachel and her maid strongly corroborated. Rachel's maid was an experienced person, whom Mrs. Curtis had selected with a view to Rachel's weak state at the time of her marriage, and she showed herself anxious for anything that might abate Lady Keith's excitement, to which they at length yielded, feeling that resistance might be dangerous to her. She further insisted that the rite should be performed in her presence; nor was she satisfied when Rachel had brought in her uncle, but insisted on likewise calling in her brother, who vaguely anxious, and fully conscious of the small size of the room, had remained down-stairs.

Mr. Clare always baptized his infant parishioners, and no one was anxious about his manner of handling the little one, the touch of whose garments might be familiar, as being no other than his own parish baby linen. He could do no otherwise than give the child the name reiterated by the mother, in weak but impatient accents, "Alexander Clare," her brother's own name, and when the short service was concluded, she called out triumphantly, "Make Alick kiss him, Rachel, and do homage to his young chieftain."

They obeyed her, as she lay watching them, and a very pretty sight she was with her dark hair lying round her, a rosy colour on her cheeks, and light in her eyes; but Mr. Clare thought both her touch and voice feverish, and entreated Rachel not to let her talk. Indeed Alick longed to take Rachel away, but this was not at present feasible, since her maid was occupied with the infant, and Nurse Jones was so entirely a cottage practitioner that she was scarcely an available attendant elsewhere. Bessie herself would by no means have parted with her sister-in-law, nor was it possible to reduce her to silence. "Alexander!" she said joyfully, "I always promised my child that he should not have a stupid second son's name. I had a right to my own father's and brother's name, and now it can't be altered," then catching a shade of disapproval upon Rachel's face, "not that I would have hurried it on if I had not thought it right, poor little fellow, but now I trust he will do nicely, and I do think we have managed it all with less trouble than might have been expected."

Sure by this time that she was talking too much, Rachel was glad to hear that Mr. Harvey was come. He was a friendly, elderly man, who knew them all intimately, having attended Alick through his tedious recovery, and his first measure was to clear the room. Rachel thought that "at her age" he might have accepted her services, rather than her maid's, but she suspected Alick of instigating her exclusion, so eagerly did he pounce on her to make her eat, drink, and lie on the sofa, and so supremely scornful was he of her views of sitting up, a measure which might be the more needful for want of a bed.

On the whole, however, he was satisfied about her; alarm and excitement had restrung her powers, and she knew herself to have done her part, so that she was ready to be both cheerful and important over the evening meal. Mr. Clare was by no means annoyed at this vicissitude, but rather amused at it, and specially diverted at the thought of what would be Mr. Lifford's consternation. Lord Keith's servant had come over, reporting his master to be a good deal worn out by the afternoon's anxiety, and recommending that he should not be again disturbed that night, so he was off their minds, and the only drawback to the pleasantness of the evening was surprise at seeing and hearing nothing from Mr. Harvey. The London doctor arrived, he met him and took him up-stairs at once; and then ensued a long stillness, all attempts at conversation died away, and Alick only now and then made attempts to send his companions to bed. Mr. Clare went out to the hall to listen, or Rachel stole up to the extemporary nursery to consult Nurse Jones, whom she found very gruff at having been turned out in favour of the stranger maid.

It was a strange time of suspense. Alick made Rachel lie on the sofa, and she almost heard the beating of her own heart; he sat by her, trying to seem to read, and his uncle stood by the open window, where the tinkle of a sheep bell came softly in from the meadows, and now and then the hoot of the owl round the church tower made the watchers start. To watch that calm and earnest face was their great help in that hour of alarm; those sightless eyes, and broad, upraised spiritual brow seemed so replete with steadfast trust and peace, that the very sight was soothing and supporting to the young husband and wife, and when the long strokes of twelve resounded from the church tower, Mr. Clare, turning towards them, began in his full, musical voice to repeat Bishop Ken's noble midnight hymn-

"My God, now I from sleep awake,

The sole possession of me take;

From midnight terrors me secure,

And guard my soul from thoughts impure."

To Rachel, who had so often heard that hour strike amid a tumult of midnight miseries, there was something in these words inexpressibly gentle and soothing; the tears sprang into her eyes, as if she had found the spell to chase the grisly phantoms, and she clasped her husband's hand, as though to communicate her comfort.

"Oh may I always ready stand,

With my lamp burning in my hand;

May I in sight of Heaven rejoice,

Whene'er I hear the Bridegroom's voice."

Mr. Clare had just repeated this verse, when he paused, saying, "They are coming down," and moved quickly to meet them in the hall. Alick followed him to the door, but as they entered the dining-room, after a moment's hesitation, returned to Rachel, as she sat upright and eager. "After all, this may mean nothing," he said.

"Oh, we don't make it better by fancying it nothing," said Rachel. "Let us try to meet it like your uncle. Oh, Alick, it seemed all this time as if I could pray again, as I never could since those sad times. He seemed so sure, such a rock to help and lean on."

He drew her close to him. "You are praying for her!" he murmured, his soul so much absorbed in his sister that he could not admit other thoughts, and still they waited and watched till other sounds were heard. The London doctor was going away. Alick sprang to the door, and opened it as his uncle's hand was on the lock. There was a mournful, solemn expression on his face, as they gazed mutely up in expectation.

"Children," he said, "it is as we feared. This great sorrow is coming on us."

"Then there is danger," said Alick with stunned calmness.

"More than danger," said his uncle, "they have tried all that skill can do."

"Was it the fall?" said Alick.

"It was my bad management, it always is," said Rachel, ever affirmative.

"No, dear child," said Mr. Clare, "there was fatal injury in the fall, and even absolute stillness for the last few hours could hardly have saved her. You have nothing to reproach yourself with."

"And now!" asked Alick, hoarsely.

"Much more exhausted than when we were with her; sometimes faint, but still feverish. They think it may last many hours yet, poor dear child, she has so much youth and strength."

"Does she know?"

"Harvey thought some of their measures alarmed her, but they soothed and encouraged her while they saw hope, and he thinks she has no real fears."

"And how is it to be-" said Alick. "She ought-"

"Yes; Harvey thinks she ought, she is fully herself, and it can make no difference now. He is gone to judge about coming up at once; but Alick, my poor boy, you must speak to her. I have found that without seeing the face I cannot judge what my words may be doing."

Rachel asked about poor Lord Keith, and was told that he was to be left in quiet that night, unless his wife should be very anxious for him at once. Mr. Harvey came down, bringing word that his patient was asking urgently for Mrs. Keith.

"You had better let me go in first," said Alick, his face changed by the firm but tender awe-struck look.

"Not if she is asking for me," said Rachel, moving on, her heart feeling as if it would rend asunder, but her looks composed.

Bessie's face was in shade, but her voice had the old ring of coaxing archness. "I thought you would stay to see the doctors off. They had their revenge for our stealing a march on them, and have prowled about me till I was quite faint; and now I don't feel a bit like sleep, though I am so tired. Would Alick think me very wicked if I kept you a little while? Don't I see Alick's shadow? Dear old fellow, are you come to wish me good-night? That is good of you. I am not going to plague you any more, Alick, I shall be so good now! But what?" as he held back the curtain, and the light fell on his face, "Oh! there is nothing wrong with the baby?"

"No, dear Bessie, not with the baby," said Alick, with strong emphasis.

"What, myself?" she said quickly, turning her eyes from one face to the other.

Alick told her the state of the case. Hers was a resolute character, or perhaps the double nature that had perplexed and chafed her brother was so integral that nothing could put it off. She fully comprehended, but as if she and herself were two separate persons. She asked how much time might be left to her, and hearing the doctor's opinion, said, "Then I think my poor old Lord Keith had better have his night's rest in peace. But, oh! I should like to speak to Colin. Send for him, Alick; telegraph, Alick; he is at the Paddington Hotel. Send directly."

She was only tranquillised by her brother beginning to write a telegraphic message.

"Rachel," she said, presently, "Ermine must marry him now, and see to Lord Keith, and the little one-tell her so, please," then with her unfailing courtesy, "he will seem like your own child, dear Rachel, and you should have him; but you'll have a wandering home with the dear old Highlanders. Oh! I wonder if he will ever go into them, there must always be a Keith there, and they say he is sure of the Victoria Cross, though papa will not send up his name because of being his own son." Then passing her hand over her face, she exclaimed-"Wasn't I talking great nonsense, Rachel? I don't seem able to say what I mean."

"It is weakness, dearest," said Rachel, "perhaps you might gain a little strength if you were quite still and listened to my uncle."

"Presently. O Rachel! I like the sound of your voice; I am glad Alick has got you. You suit him better than his wicked little sister ever did. You have been so kind to me to-night, Rachel; I never thought I should have loved you so well, when I quizzed you. I did use you ill then, Rachel, but I think you won Alick by it just by force of contrast,"-she was verging into the dreamy voice, and Rachel requested her to rest and be silent.

"It can't make any difference," said Bessie, "and I'll try to be quiet and do all right, if you'll just let me have my child again. I do want to know who he is like. I am so glad it is not he that was hurt. Oh! I did so want to have brought him up to be like Alick."

The infant was brought, and she insisted on being lifted to see its face, which she declared to resemble her brother; but here her real self seemed to gain the mastery, and calling it a poor little motherless thing, she fell into a fit of violent convulsive weeping, which ended in a fainting fit, and this was a fearfully perceptible stage on her way to the dark valley.

She was, however, conscious when she revived, and sent for her uncle, whom she begged to let her be laid in his churchyard, "near the willow-tree; not next to my aunt, I'm not good enough," she said, "but I could not bear that old ruined abbey, where all the Keiths go, and Alick always wanted me to be here-Alick was right!"

The dreamy mist was coming on, nor was it ever wholly dispelled again. She listened, or seemed to listen, to her uncle's prayers, but whenever he ceased, she began to talk-perhaps sensibly at first, but soon losing the thread-sometimes about her child or husband, sometimes going back to those expressions of Charles Carleton that had been so dire a shock to her. "He ought not! I thought he knew better! Alick was right! Come away, Rachel, I'll never see him again. I have done nothing that he should insult me. Alick was right!"

Then would come the sobs, terrible in themselves, and ending in fainting, and the whole scene was especially grievous to Alick, even more than to either of the others, for as her perception failed her, association carried her back to old arguments with him, and sometimes it was, "Alick, indeed you do like to attribute motives," sometimes, "Indeed it is not all self-deception," or the recurring wail, "Alick is right, only don't let him be so angry!" If he told her how far he was from anger, she would make him kiss her, or return to some playful rejoinder, more piteous to hear than all, or in the midst would come on the deadly swoon.

Morning light was streaming into the room when one of these swoons had fallen on her, and no means of restoration availed to bring her back to anything but a gasping condition, in which she lay supported in Rachel's arms. The doctor had his hand on her pulse, the only sounds outside were the twittering of the birds, and within, the ticking of the clock, Alick's deep-drawn breaths, and his uncle's prayer. Rachel felt a thrill pass through the form she was supporting, she looked at Mr. Harvey, and understood his glance, but neither moved till Mr. Clare's voice finished, when the doctor said, "I feared she would have suffered much more. Thank God!"

He gently relieved Rachel from the now lifeless weight, and they knelt on for some moments in complete stillness, except that Alick's breath became more laboured, and his shuddering and shivering could no longer be repressed. Rachel was excessively terrified to perceive that his whole frame was trembling like an aspen leaf. He rose, however, bent to kiss his sister's brow, and steadying himself by the furniture, made for the door. The others followed him, and in a few rapid words Rachel was assured that her fears were ungrounded, it was only an attack of his old Indian fever, which was apt to recur on any shock, but was by no means alarming, though for the present it must be given way to. Indeed, his teeth were chattering too much for him to speak intelligibly, when he tried to tell Rachel to rest and not think of him.

This of course was impossible, and the sun had scarcely risen, before he was placed in his old quarters, the bed in the little inner study, and Rachel watched over him while Mr. Clare had driven off with the doctor to await the awakening of Lord Keith.

Rachel had never so much needed strength. It was hard to believe the assurances of Alick, the doctor, and the whole house, that his condition was not critical, for he was exceedingly ill for some hours, the ailment having been coming on all night, though it was forced back by the resolute will, and it was aggravated by the intensity of his grief, which on the other hand broke forth the more violently from the failure of the physical powers. The brother and sister had been so long alone in the world together, and with all her faults she had been so winning, that it was a grievous loss to him, coming too in the full bloom of her beauty and prosperity, when he was conscious of having dealt severely with her foibles. All was at an end-that double thread of brilliant good-nature and worldly selfishness, with the one strand of sound principle sometimes coming into sight. The life was gone from the earth in its incompleteness, without an unravelling of its complicated texture, and the wandering utterances that revealed how entirely the brother stood first with her, added poignancy to his regret for having been harsh with her. It could hardly be otherwise than that his censures, however just, should now recoil upon him, and in vain did Rachel try to point out that every word of his sister's had proved that her better sense had all along acquiesced-he only felt what it might have been if he had been more indulgent and less ironical, and gave himself infinitely harder measure than he ever could have shown to her. It was long before the suffering, either mental or bodily, by any means abated, and Rachel felt extremely lonely, deserted, and doubtful whether she were in any way ministering to his relief, but at last a gleam of satisfaction came upon her. He evidently did like her attendance on him, and he began to say something about Bessie's real love and esteem for her-softer grief was setting in, and the ailment was lessening.

The summer morning was advancing, and the knell rung out its two deep notes from the church tower. Rachel had been dreading the effect on him, but he lay still, as if he had been waiting for it, and was evidently counting the twenty-three strokes that told the age of the deceased. Then he said he was mending, and that he should fall asleep if Rachel would leave him, see after the poor child, and if his uncle should not come home within the next quarter of an hour take measures to silence the bell for the morning service; after which, he laid his injunctions on her to rest, or what should he say to her mother? And the approach to a smile with which these last words were spoken, enabled Rachel to obey in some comfort.

After satisfying herself that the child was doing well, Rachel was obliged to go into her former room, and there to stand face to face with the white, still countenance so lately beaming with life. She was glad to be alone. The marble calm above all counteracted and drove aside the painful phantom left by Lovedy's agony, and yet the words of that poor, persecuted, suffering child came surging into her mind full of peace and hope. Perhaps it was the first time she had entered into what it is for weak things to confound the wise, or how things hidden from the intellectual can be revealed to babes; and she hid her face in her hands, and was thankful for the familiar words of old, "That we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life."

The continued clang of the bell warned her. She looked round at the still uncleared room, poor Bessie's rings and bracelets lying mingled with her own on the toilet table, and her little clock, Bessie's own gift, standing ticking on as it had done at her peaceful rising only yesterday morning.

She took out her hat, and was on her way to silence the bell-ringer, when Mr. Clare was driven up to the churchyard gate.

Lord Keith had been greatly shocked, but not overpowered, he had spoken calmly, and made minute inquiries, and Mr. Clare was evidently a little disappointed, repeating that age and health made a difference, and that people showed their feelings in various ways. Colonel Keith had been met at the station, and was with his brother, but would come to make arrangements in the course of the day. Rachel begged to stop the bell, representing that the assembled congregation included no male person capable of reading the lessons; but Mr. Clare answered, "No, my dear, this is not a day to do without such a beginning. We must do what we can. Or stay, it is the last chapter of St. John. I could hardly fail in that. Sit near me, and give me the word if I do, unless you want to be with Alick."

As Rachel knelt that day, the scales of self-conceit seemed to have gone. She had her childhood's heart again. Her bitter remorse, her afterthoughts of perplexity had been lulled in the long calm of the respite, and when roused again, even by this sudden sorrow, she woke to her old trust and hope. And when she listened to the expressive though calm rehearsal of that solemn sunrise-greeting to the weary darkling fishers on the shore of the mountain lake, it was to her as if the form so long hidden from her by mists of her own raising, once more shone forth, smoothing the vexed waters of her soul, and she could say with a new thrill of recognition, "It is the Lord."

Once Mr. Clare missed a word, and paused for aid. She was crying too much to be ready, and, through her tears, could not recover the passage so as to prompt him before he had himself recalled the verse. Perhaps a sense of failure was always good for Rachel, but she was much concerned, and her apologies quite distressed Mr. Clare.

"Dear child, no one could be expected to keep the place when there was so much to dwell on in the very comfort of the chapter. And now if you are not in haste, would you take me to the place that dear Bessie spoke of, by the willow-tree. I am almost afraid little Mary Lawrence's grave may have left too little space."

Rachel guided him to a lovely spot, almost overhanging the stream, with the dark calm pools beneath the high bank, and the willow casting a long morning shadow over it. Her mind went back to the merry drive from Avoncester, when she had first seen Elizabeth Keith, and had little dreamt that in one short year she sh

ould be choosing the spot for her grave. Mr. Clare paced the green nook and was satisfied, asking if it were not a very pretty place.

"Yes," said Rachel, "there is such a quiet freshness, and the willow-tree seems to guard it."

"Is there not a white foxglove on the bank?"

"Yes, but with only a bell or two left at the top of the side spikes."

"Your aunt sowed the seed. It is strange that I was very near choosing this place nine years ago, but it could not be seen from my window, which was an object with me then."

Just then his quick ear detected that some one was at the parsonage door, and Rachel, turning round, exclaimed with horror, "It is that unhappy Mr. Carleton."

"Poor young fellow," said Mr. Clare, with more of pity than of anger, "I had better speak to him."

But they were far from the path, and it was not possible to guide the blind steps rapidly between the graves and head stones, so that before the pathway was reached young Carleton must have received the sad reply to his inquiries, for hurrying from the door he threw himself on his horse, and rode off at full speed.

By the afternoon, when Colonel Keith came to Bishopsworthy, Alick was lying on the sofa with such a headache that he could neither see nor spell, and Rachel was writing letters for him, both in the frame of mind in which the Colonel's genuine warm affection and admiration for Bessie was very comforting, assisting them in putting all past misgivings out of sight. He had induced his brother to see Mr. Harvey, and the result had been that Lord Keith had consented to a consultation the next day with an eminent London surgeon, since it was clear that the blow, not the sciatica, was answerable for the suffering which was evidently becoming severe. The Colonel of course intended to remain with his brother, at least till after the funeral.

"Can you?" exclaimed Alick. "Ought you not to be at Avoncester?"

"I am not a witness, and the case is in excellent hands."

"Could you not run down? I shall be available tomorrow, and I could be with Lord Keith."

"Thank you, Alick, it is impossible for me to leave him," said Colin, so quietly that no one could have guessed how keenly he felt the being deprived of bringing her brother to Ermine, and being present at the crisis to which all his thoughts and endeavours had so long been directed.

That assize day had long been a dream of dread to Rachel, and perhaps even more so to her husband. Yet how remote its interest actually seemed! They scarcely thought of it for the chief part of the day. Alick looking very pale, though calling himself well, went early to Timber End, and he had not long been gone before a card was brought in, with an urgent entreaty that Mrs. Keith would see Mrs. Carleton. Rachel longed to consult Mr. Clare, but he had gone out to a sick person, and she was obliged to decide that Alick could scarcely wish her to refuse, reluctant and indignant as she felt. But her wrath lessened as she saw the lady's tears and agitation, so great that for a moment no words were possible, and the first were broken apologies for intruding, "Nothing should have induced her, but her poor son was in such a dreadful state."

Rachel again became cold and stern, and did not relent at the description of Charlie's horror and agony; for she was wondering at the audacity of mentioning his grief to the wife of Lady Keith's brother, and thinking that this weak, indulgent mother was the very person to make a foolish, mischievous son, and it was on her tongue's end that she did not see to what she was indebted for the favour of such a visit. Perhaps Mrs. Carleton perceived her resentment, for she broke off, and urgently asked if poor dear Lady Keith had alluded to anything that had passed. "Yes," Rachel was is forced to say; and when again pressed as to the manner of alluding, replied, that "she was exceedingly distressed and displeased," with difficulty refraining from saying who had done all the mischief. Mrs. Carleton was in no need of hearing it. "Ah!" she said, "it was right, quite right. It was very wrong of my poor boy. Indeed I am not excusing him, but if you only knew how he blames himself."

"I am sure he ought," Rachel could not help saying. Mrs. Carleton here entreated her to listen, and seized her hand, so that there was no escape. The tale was broken and confused, but there could be little doubt of its correctness. Poor Bessie had been the bane of young Carleton's life. She had never either decidedly accepted or repelled his affection, but, as she had truly said, let him follow her like a little dog, and amused herself with him in the absence of better game. He was in his father's office, but her charms disturbed his application to business and kept him trifling among the croquet lawns of Littleworthy, whence his mother never had the resolution to banish her spoilt child. At last Miss Keith's refusal of him softened by a half-implied hope, sent him forth to his uncle at Rio, on the promise that if he did his utmost there, he should in three years be enabled to offer Miss Keith more than a competence. With this hope he had for the first time applied himself to business in earnest, when he received the tidings of her marriage, and like a true spoilt child broke down at once in resolution, capacity, and health, so that his uncle was only too glad to ship him off for England. And when Lady Keith made her temporary home in her old neighbourhood, the companionship began again, permitted by her in good nature, and almost contempt, and allowed by his family in confidence of the rectitude of both parties; and indeed nothing could be more true than that no harm had been intended. But it was perilous ground; ladies, however highly principled, cannot leave off self-pleasing habits all at once, and the old terms returned sufficiently to render the barrier but slightly felt. When Lady Keith had spoken of her intention of leaving Timber End, the reply had been the old complaint of her brother's harshness and jealousy of his ardent and lasting affection, and reproof had not at once silenced him. This it was that had so startled her as to make her hurry to her brother's side, unheeding of her steps.

As far as Rachel could make out, the poor young man's grief and despair had been poured out to his mother, and she, unable to soothe, had come to try to extract some assurance that the catastrophe had been unconnected with his folly. A very slight foundation would have served her, but this Rachel would not give, honestly believing him the cause of the accident, and also that the shock to the sense of duty higher than he could understand had occasioned the excitement which had destroyed the slender possibility of recovery. She pitied the unhappy man more than she had done at first, and she was much pained by his mother's endeavours to obtain a palliative for him, but she could not be untrue. "Indeed," she said, "I fear no one can say it was not so; I don't think anything is made better by blinking the reality."

"Oh, Mrs. Keith, it is so dreadful. I cannot tell my poor son. I don't know what might be the consequence."

Tears came into Rachel's eyes. "Indeed," she said, "I am very sorry for you. I believe every one knows that I have felt what it is to be guilty of fatal mischief, but, indeed, indeed I am sure that to realize it all is the only way to endure it, so as to be the better for it. Believe me, I am very sorry, but I don't think it would be any real comfort to your son to hear that poor Bessie had never been careful, or that I was inexperienced, or the nurse ignorant. It is better to look at it fairly. I hear Mr. Clare coming in. Will you see him?" she added suddenly, much relieved.

But Mrs. Carleton did not wish to see him, and departed, thinking Alick Keith's wife as bad as had ever been reported, and preparing an account of her mismanagement wherewith to remove her son's remorse.

She was scarcely gone, and Rachel had not had time to speak to Mr. Clare, before another visitor was upon her, no other than Lord Keith's daughter, Mrs. Comyn Menteith; or, as she introduced herself, "I'm Isabel. I came down from London to-day because it was so very shocking and deplorable, and I am dying to see my poor little brother and uncle Colin. I must keep away from poor papa till the doctors are gone, so I came here."

She was a little woman in the delicately featured style of sandy prettiness, and exceedingly talkative and good-natured. The rapid tongue, though low and modulated, jarred painfully on Rachel's feelings in the shaded staircase, and she was glad to shut the door of the temporary nursery, when Mrs. Menteith pounced upon the poor little baby, pitying him with all her might, comparing him with her own children, and asking authoritative questions, coupled with demonstrations of her intention of carrying him off to her own nursery establishment, which had been left in Scotland with a head nurse, whose name came in with every fourth word-that is, if he lived at all, which she seemed to think a hopeless matter.

She spoke of "poor dear Bessie," with such affection as was implied in "Oh, she was such a darling! I got on with her immensely. Why didn't you send to me, though I don't know that Donald would have let me come," and she insisted on learning the whole history, illustrating it profusely with personal experiences. Rachel was constantly hoping to be released from a subject so intensely painful; but curiosity prevailed through the chatter, and kept hold of the thread of the story. Mrs. Menteith decidedly thought herself defrauded of a summons. "It was very odd of them all not to telegraph for me. Those telegrams are such a dreadful shock. There came one just as I set out from Timber End, and I made sure little Sandie was ill at home, for you know the child is very delicate, and there are so many things going about, and what with all this dreadful business, I was ready to faint, and after all it was only a stupid thing for Uncle Colin from those people at Avoncester."

"You do not know what it was?"

"Somebody was convicted or acquitted, I forget which, but I know it had something to do with Uncle Colin's journey to Russia; so ridiculous of him at his age, when he ought to know better, and so unlucky for all the family, his engagement to that swindler's sister. By-the-bye, did he not cheat you out of ever so much money?"

"Oh, that had nothing to do with it-it was not Miss Williams's brother-it was not he that was tried."

"Wasn't he? I thought he was found guilty or something; but it is very unfortunate for the family, for Uncle Colin won't give her up, though she is a terrible cripple, too. And to tell you a secret, it was his obstinacy that made papa marry again; and now it is of no use, this poor little fellow will never live, and this sharper's sister will be Lady Keith after all! So unlucky! Papa says she is very handsome, and poor Bessie declares she is quite ladylike."

"The most superior person I ever knew," said Rachel, indignantly.

"Ah, yes, of course she must be very clever and artful if her brother is a swindler."

"But indeed he is not, he was cheated; the swindler was Maddox."

"Oh, but he was a glass-blower, or something, I know, and her sister is a governess. I am sure it is no fault of mine! The parties I gave to get him and Jessie Douglas together! Donald was quite savage about the bills. And after all Uncle Colin went and caught cold, and would not come! I would not have minded half so much if it had been Jessie Douglas; but to have her at Gowanbrae-a glass-blower's daughter-isn't it too bad?"

"Her father was a clergyman of a good Welsh family."

"Was he? Then her brother or somebody had something to do with glass."

Attempts at explanation were vain, the good lady had an incapacity of attention, and was resolved on her grievance. She went away at last because "those horrid doctors will be gone now, and I will be able to see poor papa, and tell him when I will take home the baby, though I don't believe he will live to be taken anywhere, poor dear little man."

She handled him go much more scientifically than Rachel could do, that it was quite humiliating, and yet to listen to her talk, and think of committing any child to her charge was sickening, and Rachel already felt a love and pity for her little charge that made her wretched at the thoughts of the prognostic about him.

"You are tired with your visitors my dear," said Mr. Clare, holding out his hand towards her, when she returned to him.

"How do you know?" she asked.

"By the sound of your move across the room, and the stream of talk I heard above must be enough to exhaust any one."

"She thinks badly of that poor child," said Rachel, her voice trembling.

"My dear, it would take a good deal to make me uneasy about anything I heard in that voice."

"And if he lives, she is to have the charge of him," added Rachel.

"That is another matter on which I would suspend my fears," said Mr. Clare. "Come out, and take a turn in the peacock path. You want air more than rest. So you have been talked to death."

"And I am afraid she is gone to talk Alick to death! I wonder when Alick will come home," she proceeded, as they entered on the path. "She says Colonel Keith had a telegram about the result of the trial, but she does not know what it was, nor indeed who was tried."

"Alick will not keep you in doubt longer than he can help," said Mr. Clare.

"You know all about it;" said Rachel. "The facts every one must know, but I mean that which led to them."

"Alick told me you had suffered very much."

"I don't know whether it is a right question, but if it is, I should much like to know what Alick did say. I begged him to tell you all, or it would not have been fair towards you to bring me here."

"He told me that he knew you had been blind and wilful, but that your confidence had been cruelly abused, and you had been most unselfish throughout."

"I did not mean so much what I had done as what I am-what I was."

"The first time he mentioned you, it was as one of the reasons that he wished to take our dear Bessie to Avonmouth. He said there was a girl there of a strong spirit, independent and thorough-going, and thinking for herself. He said, 'to be sure, she generally thinks wrong, but there's a candour and simplicity about her that make her wildest blunders better than parrot commonplace,' and he thought your reality might impress his sister. Even then I gathered what was coming."

"And how wrong and foolish you must have thought it."

"I hoped I might trust my boy's judgment."

"Indeed, you could not think it worse for him than I did; but I was ill and weak, and could not help letting Alick do what he would; but I have never understood it. I told him how unsettled my views were, and he did not seem to mind-"

"My dear, may I ask if this sense of being unsettled is with you still?"

"I don't know! I had no power to read or think for a long time, and now, since I have been here, I hope it has not been hypocrisy, for going on in your way and his has been very sweet to me, and made me feel as I used when I was a young girl, with only an ugly dream between. I don't like to look at it, and yet that dream was my real life that I made for myself."

"Dear child, I have little doubt that Alick knew it would come to this."

Rachel paused. "What, you and he think a woman's doubts so vague and shallow as to be always mastered by a husband's influence?"

Mr. Clare was embarrassed. If he had thought so he had not expected her to make the inference. He asked her if she could venture to look back on her dream so as to mention what had chiefly distressed her. He could not see her frowning effort at recollection, but after a pause, she said, "Things will seem to you like trifles, indeed, individual criticisms appear so to me; but the difficulty to my mind is that I don't see these objections fairly grappled with. There is either denunciation or weak argument; but I can better recollect the impression on my own mind than what made it."

"Yes, I know that feeling; but are you sure you have seen all the arguments?"

"I cannot tell-perhaps not. Whenever I get a book with anything in it, somebody says it is not sound."

"And you therefore conclude that a sound book can have nothing in it?" he asked, smiling.

"Well, most of the new 'sound' books that I have met are just what my mother and sister like-either dull, or sentimental and trashy."

"Perhaps those that get into popular circulation do deserve some of your terms for them. Illogical replies break down and carry off some who have pinned their faith to them; but are you sure that though you have read much, you have read deep?"

"I have read more deeply than any one I know-women, I mean-or than any man ever showed me he had read. Indeed, I am trying not to say it in conceit, but Ermine Williams does not read argumentative books, and gentlemen almost always make as if they knew nothing about them."

"I think you may be of great use to me, my dear, if you will help me. The bishop has desired me to preach the next visitation sermon, and he wishes it to be on some of these subjects. Now, if you will help me with the book work, it will be very kind in you, and might serve to clear your mind about some of the details, though you must be prepared for some questions being unanswered."

"Best so," replied Rachel, "I don't like small answers to great questions."

"Nor I. Only let us take care not to get absorbed in admiring the boldness that picks out stones to be stumbled over."

"Do you object to my having read, and thought, and tried?"

"Certainly not. Those who have the capability should, if they feel disturbed, work out the argument. Nothing is gained while it is felt that both sides have not been heard. I do not myself believe that a humble, patient, earnest spirit can go far wrong, though it may for a time be tried, and people often cry out at the first stumbling block, and then feel committed to the exclamations they have made."

The conversation was here ended by the sight of Alick coming slowly and wearily in from the churchyard, looking as if some fresh weight were upon him, and he soon told them that the doctors had pronounced that Lord Keith was in a critical state, and would probably have much to suffer from the formation that had begun where he had received the neglected bruise in the side. No word of censure of poor Bessie had been breathed, nor did Alick mention her name, but he deeply suffered under the fulfilment of his own predictions, and his subdued, dejected manner expressed far more than did his words. Rachel asked how Lord Keith seemed.

"Oh, there's no getting at his feelings. He was very civil to me-asked after you, Rachel-told me to give you his thanks, but not a single word about anything nearer. Then I had to read the paper to him-all that dinner at Liverpool, and he made remarks, and expected me to know what it was about. I suppose he does feel; the Colonel says he is exceedingly cut up, and he looks like a man of eighty, infinitely worse than last time I saw him, but I don't know what to make of him."

"And, Alick, did you hear the verdict?"

"What verdict?"

"That man at Avoncester. Mrs. Menteith said there had been a telegram."

Alick looked startled. "This has put everything out of my head!" he said. "What was the verdict?"

"That was just what she could not tell. She did not quite know who was tried."

"And she came here and harassed you with it," he said, looking at her anxiously. "As if you had not gone through enouqh already."

"Never mind that now. It seems so long ago now that I can hardly think much about it, and I have had another visitor," she added, as Mr. Clare left them to themselves, "Mrs. Carleton-that poor son of hers is in such distress."

"She has been palavering you over," he said, in a tone more like displeasure than he had ever used towards her.

"Indeed, Alick, if you would listen, you would find him very much to be pitied."

"I only wish never to hear of any of them again." He did not speak like himself, and Rachel was aghast.

"I thought you would not object to my letting her in," she began.

"I never said I did," he answered; "I can never think of him but as having caused her death, and it was no thanks to him that there was nothing worse."

The sternness of his manner would have silenced Rachel but for her strong sense of truth and justice, which made her persevere in saying, "There may have been more excuse than you believe."

"Do you suppose that is any satisfaction to me?" He walked decidedly away, and entered by the library window, and she stood grieved and wondering whether she had been wrong in pitying, or whether he were too harsh in his indignation. It was a sign that her tone and spirit had recovered, that she did not succumb in judgment, though she felt utterly puzzled and miserable till she recollected how unwell, weary, and unhappy he was, and that every fresh perception of his sister's errors was like a poisoned arrow to him; and then she felt shocked at having obtruded the subject on him at all, and when she found him leaning back in his chair, spent and worn out, she waited on him in the quietest, gentlest way she could accomplish, and tried to show that she had put the subject entirely aside. However, when they were next alone together, he turned his face away and muttered, "What did that woman say to you?"

"Oh, Alick, I am sorry I began! It only gives you pain."

"Go on-"

She did go on till she had told all, and he uttered no word of comment. She longed to ask whether he disapproved of her having permitted the interview; but as he did not again recur to the topic, it was making a real and legitimate use of strength of mind to abstain from tearing him on the matter. Yet when she recollected what worldly honour would once have exacted of a military man, and the conflicts between religion and public opinion, she felt thankful indeed that half a century lay between her and that terrible code, and even as it was, perceiving the strong hold that just resentment had taken on her husband's silently determined nature, she could not think of the neighbourhood of the Carleton family without dread.

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