MoboReader > Literature > The Clever Woman of the Family

   Chapter 29 AT LAST.

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 42674

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"I bid thee hail, not as in former days,

Not as my chosen only, but my bride,

My very bride, coming to make my house

A glorious temple." A. H. HALLAM.

"Timber End,

Littleworthy,

September 10th.

"Dear Miss Williams,-I must begin by entreating your forgiveness for addressing you in a manner for which perhaps you may be unprepared; but I trust you have always been aware, that any objections that I may have offered to my brother Colin's attachment to yourself have never been personal, or owing to anything but an unfortunate complication of circumstances. These difficulties are, as no doubt he will explain to you, in great measure removed by the present condition of my family, which will enable me to make such settlements as I could wish in the ease of one so nearly connected with me; so that I am enabled to entreat of you at length to reward the persevering constancy so well deserved. I have a further, and a personal cause for wishing that the event should not be deferred, as regard for my feelings might have led you to propose. You are aware of the present state of my health, and that it has become expedient to make immediate arrangements for the future guardianship of my little boy. His uncles are of course his natural guardians, and I have unbounded confidence in both; but Alexander Keith's profession renders it probable that he may not always be at hand, and I am therefore desirous of being able to nominate yourself, together with my brother, among the personal guardians. Indeed, I understand from Alexander Keith, that such was the express wish of his sister. I mention this as an additional motive to induce you to consent. For my own part, even without so stringent a cause, all that I have ever seen or known of yourself would inspire me with the desire that you should take a mother's place towards my son. But you must be aware that such an appointment could only be made when you are already one of the family, and this it is that leads me to entreat you to overlook any appearance of precipitancy on my brother's part, and return a favourable reply to the request, which with my complete sanction, he is about to address to you.

"Yes, Ermine Williams, forgive all that is past, and feel for an old, it may be, a dying man, and for a motherless infant. There is much to forget, but I trust to your overcoming any scruples, and giving me all the comfort in your power, in thinking of the poor child who has come into the world under such melancholy circumstances.

"Yours most truly,

"Keith of Gowanbrae"

"Poor Keith, he has given me his letter open, his real anxiety has been too much at last for his dignity; and now, my Ermine, what do you say to his entreaty? The state of the case is this. How soon this abscess may be ready for the operation is still uncertain, the surgeons think it will be in about three weeks, and in this interval he wishes to complete all his arrangements. In plain English, his strongest desire is to secure the poor little boy from falling into Menteith's hands. Now, mine is a precarious life, and Alick and Rachel may of course be at the ends of the earth, so the point is that you shall be 'one of the family,' before the will is signed. Alick's leave has been extended to the 1st of October, no more is possible, and he undertakes to nurse poor Keith for a fortnight from to-morrow, if you will consent to fulfil this same request within that time. After the 1st, I should have to leave you, but as soon as Keith is well enough to bear the journey, he wishes to return to Edinburgh, where he would be kindly attended to by Alick and Rachel all the winter. There, Ermine, your victory is come, your consent has been entreated at last by my brother, not for my sake, but as a personal favour to himself, because there is no woman in the world of whom he thinks so highly. For myself I say little. I grieve that you should be thus hurried and fluttered, and if Ailie thinks it would harm you, she must telegraph back to me not to come down, and I will try to teach myself patience by preaching it to Keith, but otherwise you will see me by four o'clock to-morrow. Every time I hear Rachel's name, I think it ought to have been yours, and surely in this fourteenth year, lesser objections may give way. But persuasions are out of the question, you must be entirely led by your own feeling. If I could have seen you in July, this should not have come so suddenly at last. "Yours, more than ever, decide as you may,

"Colin A Keith.

"P. S.-I am afraid Rose would hardly answer this purpose equally well."

Colonel Keith followed his letter at four o'clock, and entering his own study, found it in a cloud of smoke, in the midst of which he dimly discerned a long beard and thin visage absorbed in calculation.

"Edward! How is Ermine?"

"Oh?" (inquiringly) "Keith!" (as taken by surprise) "ah! you were to come home to-day. How are you?"

"How is she? Has she had my letter?"

"What letter? You write every day, I thought."

"The letter of yesterday. Have you heard nothing of it?"

"Not that I know of. Look here, Keith, I told you I was sure the platinum-"

"Your brain is becoming platinum. I must go," and the chemist remained with merely a general impression of having been interrupted.

Next the Colonel met Rose, watching at his own gate, and this time his answer was more explicit.

"Yes, Aunt Ermine said you were coming, and that I might meet you, but that I must let you come in alone, for she had not seen you so long, that she wanted you all to herself."

"And how is she; how has she been?"

"She is well now," said Rose, in the grave, grown-up way she always assumed when speaking of her aunt's health; "but she has been having a good deal of her nervous headache this summer, and Lady Temple wanted her to see Mr. Frampton, but Aunt Ailie said it was only excitement and wear of spirits. Oh, I am glad you have come back! We have so wearied after you."

Nevertheless Rose duteously loosed the hand to which she had been clinging till they came to the door; and as Colin Keith opened it, again he was met by the welcoming glances of the bright eyes. This time he did not pause till he was close to her, and kneeling on one knee beside her, he put his arm round her, and held her hands in his.

The first words that passed were, "You had the letters?"

"Colin, Colin, my one prayer has been, 'Make Thy way plain before my face.'"

"And now it is?"

"The suspicion is gone; the displeasure is gone; the doubts are gone; and now there is nothing-nothing but the lameness and the poverty; and if you like the old cinder, Colin, that is your concern;" and she hid her face, with a sort of sobbing laugh.

"And even the haste; you consent to that?"

"I don't feel it like haste," she said, looking up with a smile, and then crimsoning.

"And Ailie gives leave, and thinks the hurry will not harm you?"

"Ailie! O Colin, did you think I could tell any one of your letter, before you had had your answer?"

"Then Edward is not so moonstruck as I thought him! And when shall it be, dearest? Give me as much time as you can. I must go back this day fortnight."

"I suppose your expectations are not high in the matter of finery," said Ermine, with a certain archness of voice.

"Those eyes are all the finery I ever see."

"Then if you will not be scandalized at my natural Sunday dress, I don't see why this day week should not do as well as any other time."

"Ermine, you are the only woman I ever met totally free from nonsense."

"Take care, it is very unfeminine and disagreeable to be devoid of nonsense."

"Very, and therefore you are talking it now! Ermine, how shall I thank you? Not only for the sake of the ease of mind to my poor brother; but in the scenes we are going through, a drop of happiness is wanted as a stimulant. When I looked at the young couple at Bishopsworthy, I often felt as if another half-year of suspense was more than I could bear, and that I must ask you to help me through with at least a definite hope."

"Ah! you have gone through a great deal I am sure it has been a time of great trouble."

"Indeed it has. The suffering has become unceasing and often most severe, and there is grievous depression of spirits; I could not have left him even for a day, if he had not been so fervently bent on this."

"Is he feeling his loss more acutely than at first?"

"Not so much that, as for the poor little boy, who is a heavy burthen on his mind. He has lived in such a state of shrewd distrust that he has no power of confidence, and his complications for making all the boy's guardians check one another till we come to a dead lock, and to make provision for Isabel out of Menteith's reach, are enough to distract the brain of a man in health."

"Is he fond of the child?"

"It is an oppressive care to him, and he only once has made up his mind to see it, though it is never off his mind, and it is very curious how from the first he has been resolved on your taking charge of it. It is the most real testimony he could give you."

"It is very comfortable not to be brought in like an enemy in spite of him, as even a year ago I could have been proud to do."

"And I to have brought you," he answered, "but it is far better as it is. He is very cordial, and wants to give up the Auchinvar estate to me; indeed, he told me that he always meant me to have it as soon as I had washed my hands of you-you wicked syren-but I think you will agree with me that he had better leave it to his daughter Mary, who has nothing. We never reckoned on it."

"Nor on anything else," said Ermine, smiling.

"You have never heard my ways and means," he said, "and as a prudent woman you ought, you know. See," taking out his tablets, "here is my calculation."

"All that!"

"On the staff in India there were good opportunities of saving; then out of that sum I bought the house, and with my half-pay, our income will be very fair, and there would be a pension afterwards for you. This seems to me all we can reasonably want."

"Unless I became like 'die Ilsebill' in the German tale. After four years of living from hand to mouth, this will be like untold gold. To wish to be above strict economy in wheeled chairs has seemed like perilous discontent in Rose and me."

"I have ventured on the extravagance of taking the ponies and little carriage off my brother's hands, it is low enough for you, and I shall teach Rose to ride one of the ponies with me."

"The dear little Rose! But, Colin, there is a dreadful whisper about her going with her father, and Ailie too! You see now his character is cleared, he has been offered a really lucrative post, so that he could have them with him."

"Does he wish it?"

"I dare not ask. I must be passive or I shall be selfish. You are all my world, and Edward has no one. Make them settle it without me. Talk of something else! Tell me how your brother is to be taken care of."

"There cannot be a better nurse than Alick Keith; and Ferguson, the agent, is there, getting directions from Keith whenever he can bear it. I am best out of the way of all that. I have said once for all that I will do anything for them except live at Gowanbrae, and I am sick of demonstrating that the poor child's existence is the greatest possible relief to me; and I hope now not to go back till the whole is settled and done with."

"You look regularly worn out with the discussions!"

"It was an endless business! The only refreshment was in now and then getting over to Bishopsworthy."

"What? to Rachel?" said Ermine archly.

"Rachel is showing to great advantage. I did not think it was in her to be so devoted to the child, and it is beautiful to see her and Mr. Clare together."

"There's a triumph," said Ermine, smiling. "Do you grant that the happy medium is reached, that Alick should learn to open his eyes and Rachel to shut hers?"

"Well! Her eyes are better, but he, poor lad, has been in no spirits to open his very wide. The loss of his sister went very deep, and those aguish attacks, though they become much slighter, make him look wretchedly ill. I should have doubted about leaving him in charge in his present state, but that he was urgent on me, and he is spared all the night nursing. Any way, I must not leave him longer than I can help. I may have one week with you at home-at our home, Ermine."

"And let us make the most of that," said Ermine, quickly.

Meanwhile Alison, sore and sick at heart, wandered on the esplanade, foreboding that the blow was coming that she ought to rejoice at, if her love could only be more unselfish. At last the Colonel joined her, and, as usual, his tone of consideration cheered and supported her when in actual conference with him, and as he explained his plans, he added that he hoped there would be scarcely any interruption to her intercourse with her sister.

"You know," she said abruptly, "that we could go to Ekaterinburg."

"And what is your feeling about it? Remember, Ailie, that I am your brother too." And as she hesitated, "your feelings-no doubt you are in many minds!"

"Ah, yes; I never settled anything without Ermine, and she will not help me now. And she has been so worn with the excitement and anxiety of all this long detention of yours, that I don't dare to say a word that could prey on her."

"In fact, you would chiefly be decided by Edward's own wishes."

"If I were sure of them," sighed poor Alison; "but he lives on experiments, and can hardly detach himself from them even to attend to Ermine herself. I don't know whether we should be a comfort or a burthen, and he would be afraid to hurt our feelings by telling the truth. I have been longing to consult you who have seen him at that place in Russia."

"And indeed, Ailie, he is so wedded to smoke and calculations, and so averse to this sublunary world, that though your being with him might be beneficial, still I greatly question whether the risk of carrying poor little Rose to so remote a place in such a climate, would be desirable. If he were pining to have a home made for him, it would be worth doing; as it is, the sacrifice would be disproportioned."

"It would be no sacrifice if he only wanted us."

"Where you are wanted is here. Ermine wants you. I want you. The Temples want you."

"Now, Colin, tell me truly. Edward feels as I do, and Dr. Long spoke seriously of it. Will not my present position do you and Ermine harm among your friends?"

"With no friend we wish to make or keep!"

"If I do remain," continued Alison, "it must be as I am. I would not live upon you, even if you asked me, which you have too much sense to do; and though dear Lady Temple is everything to me, and wants me to forget that I am her governess, that would be a mere shuffle, but if it is best for you that I should give it up, and go out, say so at once."

"Best for me to have eight Temples thrown on my hands, all in despair! To have you at Myrtlewood is an infinite relief to me, both on their account and Ermine's. You should not suspect a penniless Scotsman of such airs, Ailie."

"Not you, Colin, but your family."

"Isabel Menteith thinks a glass-blower was your father, and Mauleverer your brother, so yours is by far the most respectable profession. No, indeed, my family might be thankful to have any one in it who could do as you have done."

Alison's scruples were thus disposed of, and when Edward's brain cleared itself from platinum, he showed himself satisfied with the decision, though he insisted on henceforth sending home a sum sufficient for his daughter's expenses, and once said something that could be construed into a hope of spending a quiet old age with her and his sister; but at present he was manifestly out of his element, and was bent on returning to Ekaterinburg immediately after the marriage.

His presence was but a qualified pleasure. Naturally shy and absent, his broken spirits and removal from domestic life, and from society, had exaggerated his peculiarities; and under the pressure of misfortune, caused in a great measure by his own negligence, he had completely given way, without a particle of his sister's patience or buoyancy, and had merely striven to drown his troubles in engrossing problems of his favourite pursuit, till the habit of abstraction had become too confirmed to be shaken off. When the blot on his name was removed, he was indeed sensible that he was no longer an exile, but he could not resume his old standing, friendships rudely severed could not be re-united; his absorption had grown by indulgence; old interests had passed away; needful conformity to social habits was irksome, and even his foreign manner and appearance testified to his entire unfitness for English life.

Tibbie was in constant dread of his burning the house down, so incalculable and preposterous were his hours, and the Colonel, longing to render the house a perfect shrine for his bride, found it hard to tolerate the fumes with which her brother saturated it. If he had been sure that opium formed no portion of Edward's solace, his counsel to Alison would have been less decisive. To poor little Rose, her father was an abiding perplexity and distress; she wanted to love him, and felt it absolute naughtiness to be constantly disappointed by his insensibility to her approaches, or else repelled and disgusted by that vice of the Russian sheep. And a vague hint of being transported to the Ural mountains, away from Aunt Ermine, had haunted her of late more dreadfully than even the lions of old; so that the relief was ineffable when her dear Colonel confided to her that she was to be his niece and Aunt Ermine's handmaid, sent her to consult with Tibbie on her new apartment, and invited Augustus to the most eligible hole in the garden. The grotto that Rose, Conrade, and Francis proceeded to erect with pebbles and shells, was likely to prove as alarming to that respectable reptile as a model cottage to an Irish peasant.

Ermine had dropped all scruples about Rose's intercourse with other children, and the feeling that she might associate with them on equal terms, perhaps, was the most complete assurance of Edward's restoration. She was glad that companionship should render the little maiden more active and childlike, for Edward's abstraction had made her believe that there might be danger in indulging the dreaminess of the imaginative child.

No one welcomed the removal of these restraints more warmly than Lady Temple. She was perhaps the happiest of the happy, for with her there was no drawback, no sorrow, no parting to fear. Her first impulse, when Colonel Keith came to tell her his plans, was to seize on hat and shawl, and rush down to Mackarel Lane to kiss Ermine with all her heart, and tell her that "it was the most delightful thing of her to have consented at last, for nobody deserved so well to be happy as that dear Colonel;" and then she clung to Alison, declaring that now she should have her all to herself, and if she would only come to Myrtlewood, she would do her very best to make her comfortable there, and it should be her home-her home always.

"In fact," said Ermine, afterwards to the Colonel, "when you go to Avoncester, I think you may as well get a licence for the wedding of Alison Williams and Fanny Temple at the same time. There has been quite a courtship on the lady's part."

The courtship had been the more ardent from Fanny's alarm lest the brother should deprive her of Alison; and when she found her fears groundless, she thanked him with such fervour, and talked so eagerly of his sister's excellences that she roused him into a lucid interval, in which he told Colonel Keith that Lady Temple might give him an idea of the style of woman that Lucy had been. Indeed, Colin began to think that it was as well that he was so well wrapped up in smoke and chemistry, otherwise another might have been added to the list of Lady Temple's hopeless adorers. The person least satisfied was Tibbie, who could not get over the speediness of the marriage, nor forgive the injury to Miss Williams, "of bringing her hame like any pleughman's wife, wantin' a honeymoon trip, forbye providin' hersel' with weddin' braws conformable. Gin folk tak' sic daft notions aff the English, they'd be mair wise like to bide at hame, an' that's my way o' thinkin'."

Crusty as she was, there was no danger of her not giving her warmest welcome, and thus the morning came. Tibbie had donned her cap, with white satin ribbons, and made of lace once belonging to the only heiress who had ever brought wealth to the Keiths. Edward Williams, all his goods packed up, had gone to join his sisters, and the Colonel, only perceptibly differing from his daily aspect in having a hat free from crape, was opening all the windows in hopes that a thorough draft would remove the last of the tobacco, when the letters were brought in, and among them one of the black bordered bulletins from Littleworthy, which ordinarily arrived by the second post. It was a hurried note, evidently dashed off to catch the morning mail.

My Dear Colonel,-Alick tells me to write in haste to catch the morning

post, and beg you to telegraph the instant

your wedding is over. The

doctors see cause to hasten their measures, but your brother will have

nothing done till the will is signed. He and Alick both desire you will

not come, but it is getting to be far too much for Alick. I would tell

you more if there were time before the post goes. Love to dear Ermine.

Very sincerely yours,

R. KEITH.

There was so shocked and startled a look on Colin's face, that Tibbie believed that his brother must be dead, and when in a few almost inaudible words he told her that he must start for Bishopsworthy by the afternoon train, she fairly began to scold, partly by way of working off the irritation left by her alarm. "The lad's clean demented! Heard ye ever the like, to rin awa' frae his new-made wife afore the blessin's been weel spoke; an' a' for the whimsie of that daft English lassie that made siccan a piece of work wi' her cantrips."

"I am afraid she is right now," said the Colonel, "and my brother must not be left any longer."

"Hout awa, Maister Colin, his lordship has come between you and your luve oft enough already, without partin' ye at the very church door. Ye would na have the English cast up to us, that one of your name did na ken better what was fittin by his bride!"

"My bride must be the judge, Tibbie. You shall see whether she bids me stay," said Colin, a little restored by his amusement at her anxiety for his honour among the English. "Now desire Smith to meet me at the church door, and ride at once from thence to Avoncester; and get your face ready to give a cheerful welcome, Tibbie. Let her have that, at least, whatever may come after."

Tibbie looked after him, and shook her head, understanding from her ain laddie's pallid check, and resolute lip, nay, in the very sound of his footfall, how sore was his trial, and with one-sided compassion she muttered, "Telegrafted awa on his vera weddin' day. His Lordship'll be the death o' them baith before he's done."

As it was in every way desirable that the wedding should be unexpected by Avonmonth in general, it was to take place at the close of the ordinary morning service, and Ermine in her usual seat within the vestry, was screened from knowing how late was Colin's entrance, or seeing the determined composure that would to her eyes have betrayed how much shaken he was. He was completely himself again by the time the congregation dispersed, leaving only Grace Curtis, Lady Temple, and the little best man, Conrade, a goodly sight in his grey suit and scarlet hose. Then came the slow movement from the vestry, the only really bridal-looking figure being Rose in white muslin and white ribbons; walking timidly and somewhat in awe beside her younger aunt; while her father upheld and guided the elder. Both were in quiet, soft, dark dresses, and straw bonnets, but over hers Ermine wore the small though exquisite Brussels lace veil that had first appeared at her mother's wedding; and thankful joy and peaceful awe looked so lovely on her noble brow, deep, soft dark eyes, and the more finely moulded, because somewhat worn, features; and so beauteously deepened was the carnation on her cheek, that Mr. Mitchell ever after maintained that he had never married any one to compare with that thirty-three years' old bride upon crutches, and, as he reported to his wife, in no dress at all.

Her brother, who supported her all the time she stood, was infinitely more nervous than she was. Her native grace and dignity, and absence of all false shame entirely covered her helplessness, and in her earnestness, she had no room for confusion; her only quivering of voice was caught for one moment from the tremulous intensity of feeling that Colin Keith could not wholly keep from thrilling in his tones, as he at last proclaimed his right to love and to cherish her for whom he had so long persevered.

Unobserved, he filled up the half-written despatch with the same pen with which he signed the register, and sent Conrade to the door with it to his already mounted messenger. Then assuming Edward's place as Ermine's supporter, he led her to the door, seated her in her wheeled chair, and silently handing Rachel's note as his explanation to Alison, he turned away, and walked alone by Ermine's side to his own house. Still silent, he took her into the bright drawing-room he had so long planned for her, and seated her in her own peculiar chair. Then his first words were, "Thank God for this!"

She knew his face. "Colin, your brother is worse?" He bent his head, he could not speak.

"And you have to go to him! This very day?"

"Ermine, you must decide. You are at last my first duty!"

"That means that you know you ought to go. Tell me what it is."

He told the substance of the note, ending with, "If you could come with me!"

"I would if I should not be a tie and hindrance. No, I must not do that; but here I am, Colin, here I am. And it is all true-it has all come right at last! All we waited for. Nothing has ever been like this."

She was the stronger. Tears, as much of loving thankfulness as of overflowing disappointment, rushed into his eyes at such a fulfilment of the purpose that he had carried with him by sea and land, in battle and sickness, through all the years of his manhood. And withal her one thought was to infuse in its strongest measure the drop of happiness that was to sustain him through the scenes that awaited him, to make him feel her indeed his wife, and to brighten him with the sunbeam face that she knew had power to cheer him. Rallying her playfulness, she took off her bonnet, and said as she settled her hair, "There, that is being at home! Take my shawl, yes, and these white gloves, and put them out of sight, that I may not feel like a visitor, and that you may see how I shall look when you come back. Do you know, I think your being out of the way will be rather a gain, for there will be a tremendous feminine bustle with the fitting of our possessions."

Her smile awoke a responsive look, and she began to gaze round and admire, feeling it safest to skim on the surface; and he could not but be gratified by her appreciation of the pains spent upon this, her especial home. He had recovered himself again by the time these few sentences had passed; they discussed the few needful arrangements required by his departure, and Tibbie presently found them so cheerful that she was quite scandalized, and when Ermine held out her hands, saying, "What Tibbie, won't you come and kiss me, and wish me joy?" she exclaimed-

"Wish ye joy! It's like me to wish ye joy an yer lad hurled awa frae yer side i' the blink o' an ee, by thae wild telegrams. I dinna see what joy's to come o't; it's clean again the Scripture!"

"I told you I had left it to her to decide, Tibbie," said the Colonel.

"Weel, an what wad ye hae the puir leddy say? She kens what sorts ye, when the head of yer name is sick an lyin' among thae English loons that hae brocht him to siccan a pass."

"Right, Tibbie," exclaimed Ermine, greatly amused at the unexpected turn, purely for the sake of putting Maister Colin in the wrong. "If a gentleman won't be content without a bride who can't walk, he must take the consequence, and take his wedding trip by himself! It is my belief, Tibbie, as I have just been telling him, that you and I shall get the house in all the better order for having him off our hands, just at first," she added, with a look of intelligence.

"Deed, an maybe we shall," responded Tibbie, with profound satisfaction. "He was aye a camsteary child when there was any wark on hand."

Colin could not help laughing, and when once this had been effected, Ermine felt that his depression had been sufficiently met, and that she might venture on deeper, and more serious sympathy, befitting the chastened, thankful feelings with which they hailed the crowning of their youthful love, the fulfilment of the hopes and prayers that the one had persisted in through doubt and change, the other had striven to resign into the All-wise Hands.

They had an early meal together, chiefly for the sake of his wheeling her to the head of his table, and "seeing how she looked there," and then the inexorable hour was come, and he left her, with the echo of her last words in his ear, "Goodbye, Colin, stay as long as you ought. It will make the meeting all the sweeter, and you have your wife to some back to now. Give a sister's love to your brother, and thanks for having spared you," and his last look at the door was answered with her sunshiny smile.

But when, a few minutes after, Edward came up with Alison for his farewell, they found her lying back in her chair, half fainting, and her startled look told almost too plainly that she had not thought of her brother. "Never mind," said Edward, affectionately, as much to console Alison as Ermine for this oblivion; "of course it must be so, and I don't deserve otherwise. Nothing brought me home but Colin Keith's telling me that he saw you would not have him till my character was cleared up; and now he has repaired so much of the evil I did you, all I can do is to work to make it up to you in other ways. Goodbye, Ermine, I leave you all in much better hands than mine ever were, you are right enough in feeling that a week of his absence outweighs a year of mine. Bless you for all that you and he have done for my child. She, at least, is a comfort to you."

Ermine's powers were absolutely exhausted; she could only answer him by embraces and tears; and all the rest of the day she was, to use her own expression, "good for nothing but to be let alone." Nor, though she exerted herself that she might with truth write that she was well and happy, was she good for much more on the next, and her jealous guardians allowed her to see no one but soft, fondling Lady Temple, who insisted on a relationship (through Rachel), and whose tender pensive quietness could not fail to be refreshment to the strained spirits, and wearied physical powers, and who better than anybody could talk of the Colonel, nay, who could understand, and even help Ermine herself to understand, that these ever-welling tears came from a source by no means akin to grief or repining.

The whole aspect of the rooms was full of tokens of his love and thought for her. The ground-floor had been altered for her accommodation, the furniture chosen in accordance with her known tastes or with old memories, all undemonstratively prepared while yet she had not decided on her consent. And what touched her above all, was the collection of treasures that he had year by year gathered together for her throughout the weary waiting, purchases at which Lady Temple remembered her mother's banter, with his quiet evasions of explanation. No wonder Ermine laid her head on her hand, and could not retain her tears, as she recalled the white, dismayed face of the youth, who had printed that one sad earliest kiss on her brow, as she lay fire-scathed and apparently dying; and who had cherished the dream unbroken and unwaveringly, had denied himself consistently, had garnered up those choice tokens when ignorant over whether she still lived; had relied on her trust, and come back, heart-whole, to claim and win her, undaunted by her crippled state, her poverty, and her brother's blotted name. "How can such love ever be met? Why am I favoured beyond all I could have dared to image to myself?" she thought, and wept again; because, as she murmured to Fanny, "I do thank God for it with all my heart, and I do long to tell him all. I don't think my married life ought to begin by being sillier than ever I was before, but I can't help it."

"And I do love you so much the better for it," said Fanny; a better companion to-day than the grave, strong Alison, who would have been kind, but would have had to suppress some marvel at the break-down, and some resentment that Edward had no greater share in it.

The morning's post brought her the first letter from her husband, and in the midst of all her anxiety as to the contents, she could not but linger a moment on the aspect of the Honourable Mrs. Colin Keith in his handwriting; there was a carefulness in the penmanship that assured her that, let him have to tell her what he would, the very inditing of that address had been enjoyment to him. That the border was black told nothing, but the intelligence was such as she had been fully prepared for. Colin had arrived to find the surgeon's work over, but the patient fast sinking. Even his recognition of his brother had been uncertain, and within twenty-four hours of the morning that had given Colin a home of his own, the last remnant of the home circle of his childhood had passed from him.

Still Ermine had to continue a widowed bride for full a fortnight, whilst the funeral and subsequent arrangements necessitated Colin's presence in Scotland. It was on a crisp, beautiful October evening that Rose, her chestnut hair flying about her brow, stood, lighted up by the sunbeams in the porch, with upraised face and outstretched hands, and as the Colonel bent down to receive her joyous embrace, said, "Aunt Ermine gave me leave to bring you to the door. Then I am going to Myrtlewood till bed-time. And after that I shall always have you."

The open door showed Ermine, too tremulous to trust to her crutch, but leaning forward, her eyes liquid with tears of thankfulness. The patient spirits had reached their home and haven, the earthly haven of loving hearts, the likeness of the heavenly haven, and as her head leant, at last, upon his shoulder, and his guardian arm encircled her, there was such a sense of rest and calm that even the utterance of their inward thanksgiving, or of a word of tenderness would have jarred upon them. It was not till a knock and message at the door interrupted them, that they could break the blessed stillness.

"And there you are, my Ermine!" said Colin, standing on the hearth-rug, and surveying her with satisfied eyes. "You are a queenly looking dame in your black draperies, and you look really well, much better than Rachel led me to expect."

"Ah! when she was here I had no fixed day to look forward to. And receiving our poor little orphan baby was not exactly like receiving his uncle, though Rachel seemed to think it ought to make up for anything."

"She was thoroughly softened by that child! It was a spirited thing her bringing him down here on the Monday when we started for Scotland, and then coming all the way alone with her maid. I did not think Alick would have consented, but he said she would always be the happier for having deposited her charge in your hands."

"It was a great wrench to her. I felt it like robbery when she put the little fellow down on my lap and knelt over him, not able to get herself away, but saying that she was not fit to have him; she could not bear it if she made him hate her as Conrade did! I am glad she has had his first smile, she deserves it."

"Is Tibbie in charity with him?"

"Oh, more than in charity! She did not take the first announcement of his coming very amiably; but when I told her she was to reign in the nursery, and take care the poor little chief know the sound of a Scots' tongue, she began to thaw; and when he came into the house, pity or loyalty, or both, flamed up hotly, and have quite relieved me; for at first she made a baby of me, and was a perfect dragon of jealousy at poor Ailie's doing anything for me. It was a rich scene when Rachel began giving her directions out of 'Hints for the Management of Infants,' just in the old voice, and Tibbie swept round indignantly, 'His Lordship, Lord Keith of Gowanbrae, suld hae the best tendance she could gie him. She did na lippen to thae English buiks, as though she couldna rear a wean without bulk learning.' Poor Rachel nearly cried, and was not half comforted by my promising to study the book as much as she pleased."

"It will never do to interfere with Tibbie, and I own I am much of her opinion, I had rather trust to her than to Rachel, or the book!"

"Well, the more Rachel talked book, the more amiable surprise passed between her mother and Lady Temple that the poor little follow should have lived at all, and I believe they were very angry with me for thinking her views very sensible. Lady Temple is so happy with him. She says it is so melancholy to have a house without a baby, that she comes in twice or three times a day to console herself with this one."

"Did you not tell me that she and the Curtises spent the evening with you?"

"Yes, it was rather shocking to receive them without you, but it was the only way of being altogether on Rachel's one evening here; and it was very amusing, Mrs. Curtis so happy with her daughter looking well and bright, and Rachel with so much to tell about Bishopsworthy, till at last Grace, in her sly odd way, said she thought dear Alexander had even taught Rachel curatolatry; whereupon Rachel fired up at such an idea being named in connexion with Mr. Clare, then came suddenly, and very prettily, down, and added, 'Living with Alick and Mr. Clare has taught me what nonsense I talked in those days.'"

"Well done, Rachel! It proves what Alick always said, that her great characteristic is candour!"

"I hope she was not knocked up by the long night journey all at one stretch. Mrs. Curtis was very uneasy about it, but nothing would move her; she owned that Alick did not expect her, for she had taken care he should not object, by saying nothing of her intention, but she was sure he would be ill on Wednesday morning, and then Mrs. Curtis not only gave in directly, but all we married women turned upon poor Grace for hinting that Alick might prefer a day's solitary illness to her being over-tired."

"She was extremely welcome! Alick was quite done for by all he had gone through; he was miserably ill, and I hardly knew what to do with him, and he mended from the moment his face lightened up at the sight of her."

"There's the use of strength of mind! How is Alick?"

"Getting better under M'Vicar and Edinburgh winds. It was hard on him to have borne the brunt of all the nursing that terrible last week, and in fact I never knew how much he was going through rather than summon me. His sauntering manner always conceals how much he is doing, and poor Keith was so fond of him, and liked his care so much that almost the whole fell upon him at last. And I believe he said more that was good for Keith, and brought in Mr. Clare more than perhaps I should ever have been able to do. So though I must regret having been away, it may have been the best thing."

"And it was by your brother's earnest wish," said Ermine; "it was not as if you had stayed away for your own pleasure."

"No! Poor Keith repeatedly said he could not die in peace till he had secured our having the sole charge of his son. It was a strong instinct that conquered inveterate prejudice! Did I tell you about the will?"

"You said I should hear particulars when you came."

"The personal guardianship is left to us first, then to Alick and Rachel, with £300 a year for the expenses. Then we have Auchinvar. The estate is charged with an equivalent settlement upon Mary, a better plan, which I durst not propose, but with so long a minority the estate will bear it. Alick has his sister's fortune back again, and the Menteith children a few hundreds; but Menteith is rabid about the guardianship, and would hardly speak to Alick."

"And you?"

"They always keep the peace with me. Isabel even made us a wedding present-a pair of miniatures of my father and mother, that I am very glad to rescue, though, as she politely told me, I was welcome to them, for they were hideously dressed, and she wanted the frames for two sweet photographs of Garibaldi and the Queen of Naples."

Then looking up as if to find a place for them-

"Why, Ermine, what have you done to the room? It is the old parsonage drawing-room!"

"Did not you mean it, when you took the very proportions of the bay window, and chose just such a carpet?"

"But what have you done to it?"

"Ailie and Rose, and Lady Temple and her boys, have done it. I have sat looking on, and suggesting. Old things that we kept packed up have seen the light, and your beautiful Indian curiosities have found their corners."

"And the room has exactly the old geranium scent!"

"I think the Curtises must have brought half their greenhouse down. Do you remember the old oak-leaf geranium that you used to gather a leaf of whenever you passed our old conservatory?"

"I have been wondering where the fragrance came from that made the likeness complete. I have smelt nothing like it since!"

"I said that I wished for one, and Grace got off without a word, and searched everywhere at Avoncester till she found one in a corner of the Dean's greenhouse. There, now you have a leaf in your fingers, I think you do feel at home."

"Not quite, Ermine. It still has the dizziness of a dream. I have so often conjured up all this as a vision, that now there is nothing to take me away from it, I can hardly feel it a reality."

"Then I shall ring. Tibbie and the poor little Lord upstairs are substantial witnesses to the cares and troubles of real life."

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

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares