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CHAPTER I. IN SEARCH OF A MISSION CHAPTER II. RACHEL'S DISCIPLINE CHAPTER III. MACKAREL LANE CHAPTER IV. THE HERO. CHAPTER V. MILITARY SOCIETY. CHAPTER VI. ERMINE'S RESOLUTION CHAPTER VII. WAITNG FOR ROSE CHAPTER VIII. WOMAN'S MISSION DISCOVERED. CHAPTER IX. THE NEW SPORT CHAPTER X. THE PHILANTHROPIST. CHAPTER XI. LADY TEMPLE'S TROUBLES. CHAPTER XII. A CHANGE AT THE PARSONAGE. CHAPTER XIII. THE FOX AND THE CROW. CHAPTER XIV. THE GOWANBRAE BALL. CHAPTER XV. GO AND BRAY CHAPTER XVI. AN APPARITION. CHAPTER XVII. THE SIEGE. CHAPTER XVIII. THE FORLORN HOPE. CHAPTER XIX. THE BREWST SHE BREWED. CHAPTER XX. THE SARACEN'S HEAD. CHAPTER XXI. THE QUARTER SESSIONS. CHAPTER XXII. THE AFTER CLAP CHAPTER XXIII. DEAR ALEXANDER. CHAPTER XXIV. THE HONEYMOON. CHAPTER XXV. THE HUNTSFORD CROQUET. CHAPTER XXVI. THE END OF CLEVERNESS. CHAPTER XXVII. THE POST BAG. CHAPTER XXVIII. VANITY OF VANITIES. CHAPTER XXIX. AT LAST. CHAPTER XXX. WHO IS THE CLEVER WOMAN?
"Thou didst refuse the daily round Of useful, patient love, And longedst for some great emprise Thy spirit high to prove."—C. M. N. "Che mi sedea con l'antica Rachele."—DANTE. "It is very kind in the dear mother."
"But—what, Rachel? Don't you like it! She so enjoyed choosing it for you."
"Oh yes, it is a perfect thing in its way. Don't say a word to her; but if you are consulted for my next birthday present, Grace, couldn't you suggest that one does cease to be a girl."
"Only try it on, Rachel dear, she will be pleased to see you in it."
"Oh yes, I will bedizen myself to oblige her. I do assure you I am not ungrateful. It is beautiful in itself, and shows how well nature can be imitated; but it is meant for a mere girl, and this is the very day I had fixed for hauling down the flag of youth."
"Ah, ha! If Rachel be an old maid, what is Grace? Come, my dear, resign yourself! There is nothing more unbecoming than want of perception of the close of young-ladyhood."
"Of course I know we are not quite young girls now," said Grace, half perplexed, half annoyed.
"Exactly, from this moment we are established as the maiden sisters of Avonmouth, husband and wife to one another, as maiden pairs always are."
"Then thus let me crown, our bridal," quoth Grace, placing on her sister's head the wreath of white roses.
"Treacherous child!" cried Rachel, putting up her hands and tossing her head, but her sister held her still.
"You know brides always take liberties. Please, dear, let it stay till the mother has been in, and pray don't talk, before her of being so very old."
"No, I'll not be a shock to her. We will silently assume our immunities, and she will acquiesce if they come upon her gradually."
Grace looked somewhat alarmed, being perhaps in some dread of immunities, and aware that Rachel's silence would in any one else have been talkativeness.
"Ah, mother dear, good morning," as a pleasant placid-looking lady entered, dressed in black, with an air of feeble health, but of comely middle age.
Birthday greetings, congratulations, and thanks followed, and the mother looked critically at the position of the wreath, and Rachel for the first time turned to the glass and met a set of features of an irregular, characteristic cast, brow low and broad, nose retrousse, with large, singularly sensitive nostrils quivering like those of a high-bred horse at any emotion, full pouting lips, round cheeks glowing with the freshest red, eyes widely opened, dark deep grey and decidedly prominent, though curtained with thick black lashes. The glossy chestnut hair partook of the redundance and vigour of the whole being, and the roses hung on it gracefully though not in congruity with the thick winter dress of blue and black tartan, still looped up over the dark petticoat and hose, and stout high-heeled boots, that like the grey cloak and felt hat bore witness to the early walk. Grace's countenance and figure were in the same style, though without so much of mark or animation; and her dress was of like description, but less severely plain.
"Yes, my dear, it looks very well; and now you will oblige me by not wearing that black lace thing, that looks fit for your grandmother."
"Poor Lovedy Kelland's aunt made it, mother, and it was very expensive, and wouldn't sell."
"No wonder, I am sure, and it was very kind in you to take it off their hands; but now it is paid for, it can't make much difference whether you disfigure yourself with it or not."
"Oh yes, dear mother, I'll bind my hair when you bid me do it and really these buds do credit to the makers. I wonder whether they cost them as dear in health as lace does," she added, taking off the flowers and examining them with a grave sad look.
"I chose white roses," proceeded the well-pleased mother, "because I thought they would suit either of the silks you have now, though I own I should like to see you in another white muslin."
"I have done with white muslin," said Rachel, rousing from her reverie. "It is an affectation of girlish simplicity not becoming at our age."
"Oh Rachel!" thought Grace in despair; but to her great relief in at that moment filed the five maids, the coachman, and butler, and the mother began to read prayers.
Breakfast over, Rachel gathered up her various gifts, and betook herself to a room on the ground floor with all the appliances of an ancient schoolroom. Rather dreamily she took out a number of copy-books, and began to write copies in them in large text hand.
"And this is all I am doing for my fellow-creatures," she muttered half aloud. "One class of half-grown lads, and those grudged to me! Here is the world around one mass of misery and evil! Not a paper do I take up but I see something about wretchedness and crime, and here I sit with health, strength, and knowledge, and able to do nothing, nothing—at the risk of breaking my mother's heart! I have pottered about cottages and taught at schools in the dilettante way of the young lady who thinks it her duty to be charitable; and I am told that it is my duty, and that I may be satisfied. Satisfied, when I see children cramped in soul, destroyed in body, that fine ladies may wear lace trimmings! Satisfied with the blight of the most promising buds! Satisfied, when I know that every alley and lane of town or country reeks with vice and corruption, and that there is one cry for workers with brains and with purses! And here am I, able and willing, only longing to task myself to the uttermost, yet tethered down to the merest mockery of usefulness by conventionalities. I am a young lady forsooth!—I must not be out late, I must not put forth my views; I must not choose my acquaintance, I must be a mere helpless, useless being, growing old in a ridiculous fiction of prolonged childhood, affecting those graces of so-called sweet seventeen that I never had—because, because why? Is it for any better reason than because no mother can bear to believe her daughter no longer on the lists for matrimony? Our dear mother does not tell herself that this is the reason, but she is unconsciously actuated by it. And I have hitherto given way to her wish. I mean to give way still in a measure; but I am five and twenty, and I will no longer be withheld from some path of usefulness! I will judge for myself, and when my mission has declared itself, I will not be withheld from it by any scruple that does not approve itself to my reason and conscience. If it be only a domestic mission—say the care of Fanny, poor dear helpless Fanny, I would that I knew she was safe,—I would not despise it, I would throw myself into it, and regard the training her and forming her boys as a most sacred office. It would not be too homely for me. But I had far rather become the founder of some establishment that might relieve women from the oppressive task-work thrown on them in all their branches of labour. Oh, what a worthy ambition!"
"Rachel!" called Grace. "Come, there's a letter, a letter from Fanny herself for you. Make haste, mamma is so nervous till you read it."
No exhortation was needed to make Rachel hurry to the drawing-room, and tear open the black-edged letter with the Australian stamp.
"All is right, mamma. She has been very ill, but is fast recovering, and was to sail by the Voluta. Why, she may be here any day."
"Any day! My dear Grace, see that the nurseries are well aired."
"No, mother, she says her party is too large, and wants us to take a furnished house for her to come into at once—Myrtlewood if possible. Is it let, Grace?"
"I think I saw the notice in the window yesterday."
"Then, I'll go and see about it at once."
"But, my dear, you don't really mean that poor dear Fanny thinks of coming anywhere but to us?" said her mother, anxiously.
"It is very considerate of her," said Grace, "with so many little children. You would find them too much for you, dear mother. It is just like Fanny to have thought of it. How many are there, Rachel?"
"Oh! I can't tell. They got past my reckoning long ago. I only know they are all boys, and that this baby is a girl."
"Baby! Ah, poor Fanny, I feared that was the reason the did not come sooner."
"Yes, and she has been very ill; she always is, I believe, but there is very little about it. Fanny never could write letters; she only just says: 'I have not been able to attempt a letter sooner, though my dear little girl is five weeks old to-day. Think of the daughter coming at last, too late for her dear father, who had so wished for one. She is very healthy, I am thankful to say; and I am now so much better, that the doctor says I may sail next week. Major Keith has taken our cabins, in the Voluta, and soon after you receive this, I hope to be showing you my dear boys. They are such good, affectionate fellows; but I am afraid they would be too much for my dear aunt, and our party is so large, so the Major and I both think it will be the best way for you to take a house for me for six months. I should like Myrtlewood best, if it is to be had. I have told Conrade all about it, and how pretty it is, and it is so near you that I think there I can be happy as ever I can be again in this world, and have your advice for the dear children.'"
"Poor darling! she seems but a child herself."
"My age—five and twenty," returned Rachel. "Well I shall go and ask about the house. Remember, mother, this influx is to bring no trouble or care on you; Fanny Temple is my charge from henceforth. My mission has come to seek me," she added as she quitted the room, in eager excitement of affection, emotion, and importance, for Fanny had been more like a sister than a cousin.
Grace and Rachel Curtis were the daughters of the squire of the Homestead; Fanny, of his brother, an officer in the army. Left at home for education, the little girl had spent her life, from her seventh to her sixteenth year, as absolutely one with her cousins, until she was summoned to meet her father at the Cape, under the escort of his old friend, General Sir Stephen Temple. She found Colonel Curtis sinking under fatal disease, and while his relations were preparing to receive, almost to maintain, his widow and daughter, they were electrified by the tidings that the gentle little Fanny, at sixteen, had become the wife of Sir Stephen Temple, at sixty.
From that time little had been known about her; her mother had continued with her, but the two Mrs. Curtises had never been congenial or intimate; and Fanny was never a full nor willing correspondent, feeling perhaps the difficulty of writing under changed circumstances. Her husband had been in various commands in the colonies, without returning to England; and all that was known of her was a general impression that she had much ill-health and numerous children, and was tended like an infant by her bustling mother and doting husband. More than half a year back, tidings had come of the almost sudden death of her mother; and about three months subsequently, one of the officers of Sir Stephen's staff had written to announce that the good old general had been killed by a fall from his horse, while on a round of inspection at a distance from home. The widow was then completely prostrated by the shock, but promised to write as soon as she was able, and this was the fulfilment of that promise, bringing the assurance that Fanny was coming back with her little ones to the home of her childhood.
Of that home, Grace and Rachel were the joint-heiresses, though it was owned by the mother for her life. It was an estate of farm and moorland, worth some three or four thousand a year, and the house was perched on a beautiful promontory, running out into the sea, and inclosing one side of a bay, where a small fishing-village had recently expanded into a quiet watering-place, esteemed by some for its remoteness from railways, and for the calm and simplicity that were yearly diminished by its increasing popularity. It was the family fashion to look down from their crag at the new esplanade with pity and contempt for the ruined loneliness of the pebbly beach; and as Mrs. Curtis had not health to go often into society, she had been the more careful where she trusted her daughters. They belonged to the county by birth and tradition, and were not to be mixed up with the fleeting residents of the watering-place, on whom they never called, unless by special recommendation from a mutual friend; and the few permanent inhabitants chanced to be such, that a visit to them was in some degree a condescension. Perhaps there was more of timidity and caution than of pride in the mother's exclusiveness, and Grace had always acquiesced in it as the natural and established state of affairs, without any sense of superiority, but rather of being protected. She had a few alarms as to the results of Rachel's new immunities of age, and though never questioning the wisdom of her clever sister's conclusions, dreaded the effect on the mother, whom she had been forbidden to call mamma. "At their age it was affecting an interesting childishness."
Rachel had had the palm of cleverness conceded to her ever since she could recollect, when she read better at three years old than her sister at five, and ever after, through the days of education, had enjoyed, and excelled in, the studies that were a toil to Grace. Subsequently, while Grace had contented herself with the ordinary course of unambitious feminine life, Rachel had thrown herself into the process of self-education with all her natural energy, and carried on her favourite studies by every means within her reach, until she considerably surpassed in acquirements and reflection all the persons with whom she came in frequent contact. It was a homely neighbourhood, a society well born, but of circumscribed interests and habits, and little connected with the great progressive world, where, however, Rachel's sympathies all lay, necessarily fed, however, by periodical literature, instead of by conversation or commerce with living minds.
She began by being stranded on the ignorance of those who surrounded her, and found herself isolated as a sort of pedant; and as time went on, the narrowness of interests chafed her, and in like manner left her alone. As she grew past girlhood, the cui bono question had come to interfere with her ardour in study for its own sake, and she felt the influence of an age eminently practical and sifting, but with small powers of acting. The quiet Lady Bountiful duties that had sufficed her mother and sister were too small and easy to satisfy a soul burning at the report of the great cry going up to heaven from a world of sin and woe. The examples of successful workers stimulated her longings to be up and doing, and yet the ever difficult question between charitable works and filial deference necessarily detained her, and perhaps all the more because it was not so much the fear of her mother's authority as of her horror and despair, that withheld her from the decisive and eccentric steps that she was always feeling impelled to take. Gentle Mrs. Curtis had never been a visible power in her house, and it was through their desire to avoid paining her that her government had been exercised over her two daughters ever since their father's death, which had taken place in Grace's seventeenth year. Both she and Grace implicitly accepted Rachel's superiority as an unquestionable fact, and the mother, when traversing any of her clever daughter's schemes, never disputed either her opinions or principles, only entreated that these particular developments might be conceded to her own weakness; and Rachel generally did concede. She could not act; but she could talk uncontradicted, and she hated herself for the enforced submission to a state of things that she despised.
This twenty-fifth birthday had long been anticipated as the turning-point when this submissive girlhood ought to close, and the privileges of acting as well as thinking for herself ought to be assumed. Something to do was her cry, and on this very day that something seemed to be cast in her way. It was not ameliorating the condition of the masses, but it was educating those who might ameliorate them; and Rachel gladly hailed the prospect of a vocation that might be conducted without pain to her mother.
Young children of her own class were not exactly what her dream of usefulness had devised; but she had already a decided theory of education, and began to read up with all her might, whilst taking the lead in all the details of house taking, servant hiring, &c., to which her regular occupations of night school in the evening and reading to the lacemakers by day, became almost secondary. In due time the arrival of the ship was telegraphed, a hurried and affectionate note followed, and, on a bright east-windy afternoon, Rachel Curtis set forth to take up her mission. A telegram had announced the arrival of the Voluta, and the train which would bring the travellers to Avonchester. The Homestead carriage was sent to meet them, and Rachel in it, to give her helpless cousin assistance in this beginning of English habits. A roomy fly had been engaged for nurses and children, and Mrs. Curtis had put under the coachman's charge a parcel of sandwiches, and instructed him to offer all the appliances for making her own into an invalid carriage.
Full of warm tenderness to those who were to be dependent on her exertions, led by her good sense, Rachel paced the platform till the engine rushed up, and she looked along the line of windows, suddenly bewildered. Doors opened, but gentlemen alone met her disappointed eye, until close to her a soft voice said, "Rachel!" and she saw a figure in deep black close to her; but her hand had been hardly clasped before the face was turned eagerly to a tall, bearded man, who was lifting out little boy after little boy, apparently in an endless stream, till at last a sleeping baby was brought out in the arms of a nurse.
"Good-bye. Thank you, oh, thank you. You will come soon. Oh, do come on now."
"Do come on now," was echoed by many voices.
"I leave you in good hands. Good-bye."
"Good-bye. Conrade dear, see what Cyril is doing; never mind, Wilfred, the Major will come and see us; run on with Coombe." This last was a respectable military-looking servant, who picked up a small child in one hand and a dressing-case in the other, and awaited orders.
There was a clinging to the Major by all the children, only ended by his finally precipitating himself into the carriage, and being borne off. Then came a chorus—"Mamma, let me go with you;" "I'll go with mamma;" "Me go with mamma;" according to the gradations of age.
While Coombe and mamma decided the question by lifting the lesser ones into the fly, Rachel counted heads. Her mission exceeded her expectations. Here was a pair of boys in knickerbockers, a pair in petticoats, a pair in pelisses, besides the thing in arms. When the fly had been nearly crammed, the two knickerbockers and one pelisse remained for the carriage, quite against Rachel's opinion, but "Little Wilfred can sit on my lap, he has not been well, poor little man," was quite conclusive; and when Rachel suggested lying back to rest, there was a sweet, low laugh, and, "Oh, no thank you, Wilfred never tires me."
Rachel's first satisfaction was in seeing the veil disclose the face of eight years back, the same soft, clear, olive skin, delicate, oval face, and pretty deep-brown eyes, with the same imploring, earnest sweetness; no signs of having grown older, no sign of wear and tear, climate, or exertion, only the widow's dress and the presence of the great boys enhancing her soft youthfulness. The smile was certainly changed; it was graver, sadder, tenderer, and only conjured up by maternal affection or in grateful reply, and the blitheness of the young brow had changed to quiet pensiveness, but more than ever there was an air of dependence almost beseeching protection, and Rachel's heart throbbed with Britomart's devotion to her Amoret.
"Why wouldn't the Major come, mamma?"
"He will soon come, I hope, my dear."
Those few words gave Rachel a strong antipathy to the Major.
Then began a conversation under difficulties, Fanny trying to inquire after her aunt, and Rachel to detail the arrangements made for her at Myrtlewood, while the two boys were each accommodated with a window; but each moment they were claiming their mother's attention, or rushing across the ladies' feet to each other's window, treating Rachel's knees as a pivot, and vouchsafing not the slightest heed to her attempts at intelligent pointing out of the new scenes.
And Fanny made no apology, but seemed pleased, ready with answers and with eyes, apparently ignorant that Rachel's toes were less insensible than her own, and her heavy three-years-old Wilfred asleep on her lap all the time.
"She feeble, helpless, sickly!" thought Rachel, "I should have been less tired had I walked the twenty miles!"
She gave up talking in despair, and by the time the young gentlemen had tired themselves into quiescence, and began to eat the provisions, both ladies were glad to be allowed a little silence.
Coming over the last hill, Conrade roused at his mother's summons to look out at "home," and every word between them showed how fondly Avonmouth had been remembered far away.
"The sea!" said Fanny, leaning forwards to catch sight of the long grey line; "it is hard to believe we have been on it so long, this seems so much more my own."
"Yes," cried Rachel, "you are come to your own home, for us to take care of you."
"I take care of mamma! Major Keith said so," indignantly exclaimed Conrade.
"There's plenty of care for you both to take," said Fanny, half-smiling, half-sobbing. "The Major says I need not be a poor creature, and I will try. But I am afraid I shall be on all your hands."
Both boys drummed on her knee in wrath at her presuming to call herself a poor creature—Conrade glaring at Rachel as if to accuse her of the calumny.
"See the church," said Lady Temple, glad to divert the storm, and eagerly looking at the slender spire surmounting the bell-turret of a small building in early-decorated style, new, but somewhat stained by sea-wind, without having as yet acquired the tender tints of time. "How beautiful!" was her cry. "You were beginning the collection for it when I went away! How we used to wish for it."
"Yes, we did," said Rachel, with a significant sigh; but her cousin had no time to attend, for they were turning in a pepper-box lodge. The boys were told that they were arrived, and they were at the door of a sort of overgrown Swiss cottage, where Mrs. Curtis and Grace stood ready to receive them.
There was a confusion of embraces, fondlings, and tears, as Fanny clung to the aunt who had been a mother to her—perhaps a more tender one than the ruling, managing spirit, whom she had hardly known in her childhood; but it was only for a moment, for Wilfred shrieked out in an access of shyness at Grace's attempt to make acquaintance with him; Francis was demanding, "Where's the orderly?" and Conrade looking brimful of wrath at any one who made his mother cry. Moreover, the fly had arrived, and the remainder had to be produced, named, and kissed—Conrade and Francis, Leoline and Hubert, Wilfred and Cyril, and little Stephana the baby. Really the names were a study in themselves, and the cousins felt as if it would be hopeless to endeavour to apply them.
Servants had been engaged conditionally, and the house was fully ready, but the young mother could hardly listen to her aunt's explanations in her anxiety that the little ones should be rested and fed, and she responded with semi-comprehending thanks, while moving on with her youngest in her arms, and as many hanging to her dress as could get hold of it. Her thanks grew more emphatic at the sight of cribs in inviting order, and all things ready for a meal.
"I don't drink tea with nurse," was Conrade's cry, the signal for another general outcry, untranquillized by soothings and persuasions, till the door was shut on the younger half of the family, and those who could not open it remained to be comforted by nurse, a soldier's widow, who had been with them from the birth of Conrade.
The Temple form of shyness seemed to consist in ignoring strangers, but being neither abashed nor silenced, only resenting or avoiding all attempts at intercourse, and as the boys rushed in and out of the rooms, exploring, exclaiming, and calling mamma, to the interruption of all that was going on, only checked for a few minutes by her uplifted hand and gentle hush, Grace saw her mother so stunned and bewildered that she rejoiced in the fear of cold that had decided that Rachel alone should spend the evening there. Fanny made some excuses; she longed to see more of her aunt, but when they were a little more settled,—and as a fresh shout broke out, she was afraid they were rather unruly,—she must come and talk to her at the dear Homestead. So kind of Rachel to stay—not that the boys seemed to think so, as they went racing in and out, stretching their ship-bound legs, and taking possession of the minute shrubbery, which they scorned for the want of gum-trees and parrots.
"You won't mind, Rachel dear, I must first see about baby;" and Rachel was left to reflect on her mission, while the boys' feet cantered up and down the house, and one or other of them would look in, and burst away in search of mamma.
Little more satisfactory was the rest of the evening, for the boys took a great deal of waiting on at tea, and then some of the party would not go to sleep in strange beds without long persuasions and comfortings, till Fanny looked so weary that it was plain that no conversation could have been hoped from her, even if the baby had been less vociferous. All that could be done for her was to wish her good-night, and promise to come down early.
Come early! Yes, Rachel might come, but what was the use of that when Fanny was at the mercy of so many claimants? She looked much better than the day before, and her sweet, soft welcome was most cordial and clinging. "Dear Rachel, it is like a dream to have you so near. I felt like the old life come back again to hear the surge of the sea all night, and know I should see you all so soon again."
"Yes, it is a great satisfaction to have you back in your old home, under our wing. I have a great deal to tell you about the arrangements."
"Oh yes; thank you—"
"Mamma!" roared two or three voices.
"I wanted to explain to you—" But Fanny's eye was roaming, and just then in burst two boys. "Mamma, nurse won't undo the tin box, and my ship is in it that the Major gave me."
"Yes, and my stuffed duck-bill, and I want it, mamma."
"My dear Con, the Major would not let you shout so loud about it, and you have not spoken to Aunt Rachel."
The boys did present their hands, and then returned to the charge. "Please order nurse to unpack it, mamma, and then Coombe will help us to sail it."
"Excuse me, dear Rachel," said Fanny, "I will first see about this."
And a very long seeing it was, probably meaning that she unpacked the box herself, whilst Rachel was deciding on the terrible spoiling of the children, and preparing a remonstrance.
"Dear Rachel, you have been left a long time."
"Oh, never mind that, but, Fanny, you must not give way to those children too much; they will be always—Hark! was that the door-bell?"
It was, and the visitor was announced as "Mr. Touchett;" a small, dark, thin young clergyman he was, of a nervous manner, which, growing more nervous as he shook hands with Rachel, became abrupt and hesitating.
"My call is—is early, Lady Temple; but I always pay my respects at once to any new parishioner—resident, I mean—in case I can be of any service."
"Thank you, I am very much obliged," said Fanny, with a sweet, gracious smile and manner that would have made him more at ease at once, if Rachel had not added, "My cousin is quite at home here, Mr. Touchett."
"Oh yes," he said, "so—so I understood."
"I know no place in England so well; it is quite a home to me, so beautiful it is," continued Fanny.
"And you see great changes here."
"Changes so much for the better," said Fanny, smiling her winning smile again.
"One always expects more from improvements than they effect," put in Rachel, severely.
"You have a large young party," said Mr. Touchett, looking uneasily towards Lady Temple.
"Yes, I have half a dozen boys and one little girl."
"Seven!" Mr. Touchett looked up half incredulous at the girlish contour of the gentle face, then cast down his eyes as if afraid he had been rude. "Seven! It is—it is a great charge."
"Yes, indeed it is," she said earnestly; "and I am sure you will be kind enough to give your influence to help me with them—poor boys."
"Oh! oh!" he exclaimed, "anything I can do—" in such a transport of eager helpfulness that Rachel coldly said, "We are all anxious to assist in the care of the children." He coloured up, and with a sort of effort at self-assertion, blurted out, "As the clergyman of the parish—," and there halted, and was beginning to look foolish, when Lady Temple took him up in her soft, persuasive way. "Of course we shall look to you so much, and you will be so kind as to let me know if there is any one I can send any broth to at anytime."
"Thank you; you are very good;" and he was quite himself again. "I shall have the pleasure of sending you down a few names."
"I never did approve the broken victual system," began Rachel, "it creates dependence."
"Come here, Hubert," said Fanny, beckoning a boy she saw at a distance, "come and shake hands with Mr. Touchett." It was from instinct rather than reason; there was a fencing between Rachel and the curate that made her uncomfortable, and led her to break it off by any means in her power; and though Mr. Touchett was not much at his ease with the little boy, this discussion was staged off. But again Mr. Touchett made bold to say that in case Lady Temple wished for a daily governess, he knew of a very desirable young person, a most admirable pair of sisters, who had met with great reverses, but Rachel snapped him off shorter than ever. "We can decide nothing yet; I have made up my mind to teach the little boys at present."
"It is very kind," said the perplexed Lady Temple.
"I beg your pardon, I only thought, in case you were wishing for some one, that Miss Williams will be at liberty shortly."
"I do not imagine Miss Williams is the person to deal with little boys," said Rachel. "In fact, I think that home teaching is always better than hired."
"I am so much obliged," said Fanny, as Mr. Touchett, after this defeat, rose up to take leave, and she held out her hand, smiled, thanked, and sent him away so much sweetened and gratified, that Rachel would have instantly begun dissecting him, but that a whole rush of boys broke in, and again engrossed their mother, and in the next lull, the uppermost necessity was of explaining about the servants who had been hired for the time, one of whom was a young woman whose health had given way over her lace pillow, and Rachel was eloquent over the crying evils of the system (everything was a system with Rachel) that chained girls to an unhealthy occupation in their early childhood, and made an overstocked market and underpaid workers—holding Fanny fast to listen by a sort of fascination in her overpowering earnestness, and great fixed eyes, which, when once their grasp was taken, would not release the victim; and this was a matter of daily occurrence on which Rachel felt keenly and spoke strongly.
"It is very sad. If you want to help the poor things, I will give anything I can."
"Oh, yes, thank you, but it is doleful merely to help them to linger out the remnant of a life consumed upon these cobwebs of vanity. It is the fountainhead that must be reached—the root of the system!"
Fanny saw, or rather felt, a boy making signs at the window, but durst not withdraw her eyes from the fascination of those eager ones. "Lace and lacemakers are facts," continued Rachel; "but if the middle men were exploded, and the excess of workers drafted off by some wholesome outlet, the price would rise, so that the remainder would be at leisure to fulfil the domestic offices of womanhood."
There was a great uproar above.
"I beg your pardon, dear Rachel," and away went Fanny.
"I do declare," cried Rachel, when Grace, having despatched her home-cares, entered the room a quarter of an hour after; "poor Fanny's a perfect slave. One can't get in a word edgeways."
Fanny at last returned, but with her baby; and there was no chance for even Rachel to assert herself while this small queen was in presence. Grace was devoted to infants, and there was a whole court of brothers vying with one another in picking up her constantly dropped toys, and in performing antics for her amusement. Rachel, desirous to be gracious and resigned, attempted conversation with one of the eldest pair, but the baby had but to look towards him, and he was at her feet.
On her departure, Rachel resumed the needful details of the arrangements respecting the house and servants, and found Lady Temple as grateful and submissive as ever, except that, when advised to take Myrtlewood for a term of seven years, she replied, that the Major had advised her not to bind herself down at once.
"Did you let him think we should quarrel?"
"Oh, no, my dear; but it might not agree with the children."
"Avonmouth! Grace, do you hear what heresy Fanny has been learning? Why, the proportion of ozone in the air here has been calculated to be five times that of even Aveton!"
"Yes, dearest," said poor Fanny, very humbly, and rather scared, "there is no place like Avonmouth, and I am sure the Major will think so when he has seen it."
"But what has he to do with your movements?"
"Sir Stephen wished—" murmured Fanny.
"The Major is military secretary, and always settles our head-quarters, and no one interferes with him," shouted Conrade.
Rachel, suspicious and jealous of her rival, was obliged to let Fanny pass on to the next item, where her eager acceptance of all that was prescribed to her was evidently meant as compensation for her refractoriness about the house.
Grace had meanwhile applied herself to keeping off the boys, and was making some progress in their good graces, and in distinguishing between their sallow faces, dark eyes, and crisp, black heads. Conrade was individualized, not only by superior height, but by soldierly bearing, bright pride glancing in his eyes, his quick gestures, bold, decided words, and imperious tone towards all, save his mother—and whatever he was doing, his keen, black eye was always turning in search of her, he was ever ready to spring to her side to wait on her, to maintain her cause in rough championship, or to claim her attention to himself. Francis was thick-set, round-shouldered, bullet-headed and dull-eyed, in comparison, not aggressive, but holding his own, and not very approachable; Leoline, thin, white-cheeked, large-eyed and fretful-lipped, was ready to whine at Conrade's tyranny and Francis's appropriations, but was grateful for Grace's protection, and more easy of access than his elders; and Hubert was a handsome, placid child, the good boy, as well as the beauty of the family. The pair in the nursery hardly came on the stage, and the two elders would be quite sufficient for Mrs. Curtis, with whom the afternoon was to be spent.
The mother, evidently, considered it a very long absence, but she was anxious to see both her aunt and her own home, and set out, leaning on Rachel's arm, and smiling pleased though sad recognition of the esplanade, the pebbly beach, bathing machines and fishing boats, and pointing them out to her sons, who, on their side, would only talk of the much greater extent of Melbourne.
Within the gates of the Homestead, there was a steep, sharp bit of road, cut out in the red sandstone rock, and after a few paces she paused to rest with a sigh that brought Conrade to her side, when she put her arm round his neck, and leant on his shoulder; but even her two supporters could not prevent her from looking pale and exhausted.
"Never mind," she said, "this salt wind is delightful. How like old times it is!" and she stood gazing across the little steep lawn at the grey sea, the line of houses following the curve of the bay, and straggling up the valley in the rear, and the purple headlands projecting point beyond point, showing them to her boys, and telling their names.
"It is all ugly and cold," said Francis, with an ungracious shiver. "I shall go home to Melbourne when I'm a man."
"And you will come, mamma?" added Conrade.
He had no answer, for Fanny was in her aunt's arms; and, like mother and daughter, they clung to each other—more able to sympathize, more truly one together, than the young widow could be with either of the girls.
As soon as Fanny had rested and enjoyed the home atmosphere downstairs, she begged to visit the dear old rooms, and carried Conrade through a course of recognitions through the scarcely altered apartments. Only one had been much changed, namely, the schoolroom, which had been stripped of the kindly old shabby furniture that Fanny tenderly recollected, and was decidedly bare; but a mahogany box stood on a stand on one side; there was a great accession of books, and writing implements occupied the plain deal table in the centre.
"What have you done to the dear old room—do you not use it still?" asked Fanny.
"Yes, I work here," said Rachel.
Vainly did Lady Temple look for that which women call work.
"I have hitherto ground on at after-education and self-improvement," said Rachel; "now I trust to make my preparation available for others. I will undertake any of your boys if you wish it."
"Thank you; but what is that box?"—in obedience to a curious push and pull from Conrade.
"It is her dispensary," said Grace.
"Yes," said Rachel, "you are weak and nervous, and I have just the thing for you."
"Is it homoeopathy?"
"Yes, here is my book. I have done great things in my district, and should do more but for prejudice. There, this globule is the very thing for your case; I made it out last night in my book. That is right, and I wanted to ask you some questions about little Wilfred."
Fanny had obediently swallowed her own globule, but little Wilfred was a different matter, and she retreated from the large eyes and open book, saying that he was better, and that Mr. Frampton should look at him; but Rachel was not to be eluded, and was in full career of elucidation to the meanest capacity, when a sharp skirmish between the boys ended the conversation, and it appeared that Conrade had caught Francis just commencing an onslaught on the globules, taking them for English sweetmeats of a minute description.
The afternoon passed with the strange heaviness well known to those who find it hard to resume broken threads after long parting. There was much affection, but not full certainty what to talk about, and the presence of the boys would have hindered confidence, even had they not incessantly occupied their mother. Conrade, indeed, betook himself to a book, but Francis was only kept out of mischief by his constantly turning over pictures with him; however, at dark, Coombe came to convey them home, and the ladies of the Homestead experienced a sense of relief. Rachel immediately began to talk of an excellent preparatory school.
"I was thinking of asking you," said Fanny, "if there is any one here who would come as a daily governess."
"Oh!" cried Rachel, "these two would be much better at school, and I would form the little ones, who are still manageable."
"Conrade is not eight years old yet," said his mother in an imploring tone, "and the Major said I need not part with him till he has grown a little more used to English ways."
"He can read, I see," said Grace, "and he told me he had done some Latin with the Major."
"Yes, he has picked up a vast deal of information, and on the voyage the Major used to teach him out of a little pocket Virgil. The Major said it would not be of much use at school, as there was no dictionary; but that the discipline and occupation would be useful, and so they were. Conrade, will do anything for the Major, and indeed so will they all."
Three Majors in one speech, thought Rachel; and by way of counteraction she enunciated, "I could undertake the next pair of boys easily, but these two are evidently wanting school discipline."
Lady Temple feathered up like a mother dove over her nest.
"You do not know Conrade. He is so trustworthy and affectionate, dear boy, and they are both always good with me. The Major said it often hurts boys to send them too young."
"They are very young, poor little fellows," said Mrs. Curtis.
"And if they are forward in some things they are backward in others," said Fanny. "What Major Keith recommended was a governess, who would know what is generally expected of little boys."
"I don't like half measures," muttered Rachel. "I do not approve of encouraging young women to crowd the overstocked profession of governesses."
Fanny opened her brown eyes, and awaited the words of wisdom.
"Is it not a flagrant abuse," continued Rachel, "that whether she have a vocation or not, every woman of a certain rank, who wishes to gain her own livelihood, must needs become a governess? A nursery maid must have a vocation, but an educated or half-educated woman has no choice; and educator she must become, to her own detriment, and that of her victims."
"I always did think governesses often much to be pitied," said Fanny, finding something was expected of her.
"What's the use of pity if one runs on in the old groove? We must prevent the market from being drugged, by diverting the supply into new lines."
"Are there any new lines?" asked Fanny, surprised at the progress of society in her absence.
"Homoeopathic doctresses," whispered Grace; who, dutiful as she was, sometimes indulged in a little fun, which Rachel would affably receive unless she took it in earnest, as in the present instance.
"Why not—I ask why not? Some women have broken through prejudice, and why should not others? Do you not agree with me, Fanny, that female medical men—I mean medical women—would be an infinite boon?"
"It would be very nice if they would never be nervous."
"Nerves are merely a matter of training. Think of the numbers that might be removed from the responsibility of incompetently educating! I declare that to tempt a person into the office of governess, instead of opening a new field to her, is the most short-sighted indolence."
"I don't want to tempt any one," said Fanny. "She ought to have been out before and be experienced, only she most be kind to the poor boys. I wanted the Major to inquire in London, but he said perhaps I might hear of some one here."
"That was right, my dear," returned her aunt. "A gentleman, an officer, could not do much in such a matter."
"He always does manage whatever one wants."
At which speech Rachel cast a glance towards her mother, and saw her look questioning and perplexed.
"I was thinking," said Grace, "that I believe the people at the Cliff Cottages are going away, and that Miss Williams might be at liberty."
"Didn't I know that Grace would come out with Miss Williams?" exclaimed Rachel. "A regular eruption of the Touchettomania. We have had him already advertising her."
"Miss Williams!" said Mrs. Curtis. "Yes, she might suit you very well. I believe they are very respectable young women, poor things! I have always wished that we could do more for them."
"Who?" asked Fanny.
"Certain pets of Mr. Touchett's," said Rachel; "some of the numerous ladies whose mission is that curatolatry into which Grace would lapse but for my strenuous efforts."
"I don't quite know why you call them his pets," said Grace, "except that he knew their antecedents, and told us about them."
"Exactly, that was enough, for me. I perfectly understand the meaning of Mr. Touchett's recommendations, and if what Fanny wants is a commonplace sort of upper nursemaid, I dare say it would do." And Rachel leant back, applied herself to her wood carving, and virtually retired from the discussion.
"One sister is a great invalid," said Grace, "quite a cripple, and the other goes out as a daily governess. They are a clergyman's daughters, and once were very well off, but they lost everything through some speculation of their brother. I believe he fled the country under some terrible suspicion of dishonesty; and though no one thought they had anything to do with it, their friends dropped them because they would not give him up, nor believe him guilty, and a little girl of his lives with them."
"Poor things!" exclaimed Lady Temple. "I should very much like to employ this one. How very sad."
"Mrs. Grey told me that her children had never done so well with any one," said Mrs. Curtis. "She wanted to engage Miss Williams permanently, but could not induce her to leave her sister, or even to remove her to London, on account of her health."
"Do you know her, Grace?" asked Fanny.
"I have called once or twice, and have been very much pleased with the sick sister; but Rachel does not fancy that set, you see. I meet the other at the Sunday school, I like her looks and manner very much, and she is always at the early service before her work."
"Just like a little mauve book!" muttered Rachel.
Fanny absolutely stared. "You go, don't you, Rachel? How we used to wish for it!"
"You have wished and we have tried," said Rachel, with a sigh.
"Yes, Rachel," said Grace; "but with all drawbacks, all disappointments in ourselves, it is a great blessing. We would not be without it."
"I could not be satisfied in relinquishing it voluntarily," said Rachel, "but I am necessarily one of the idle. Were I one of the occupied, laborare est orare would satisfy me, and that poor governess ought to feel the same. Think of the physical reaction of body on mind, and tell me if you could have the barbarity of depriving that poor jaded thing of an hour's sleep, giving her an additional walk, fasting, in all weathers, and preparing her to be savage with the children."
"Perhaps it refreshes her, and hinders her from being cross."
"Maybe she thinks so; but if she have either sense or ear, nothing would so predispose her to be cross as the squeaking of Mr. Touchett's penny-whistle choir."
"Poor Mr. Touchett," sighed Mrs. Curtis; "I wish he would not make such ambitious attempts."
"But you like the choral service," said Fanny, feeling as if everything had turned round. "When all the men of a regiment chant together you cannot think how grand it is, almost finer than the cathedral."
"Yes, where you can do it," said Rachel, "but not where you can't."
"I wish you would not talk about it," said Grace.
"I must, or Fanny will not understand the state of parties at Avonmouth."
"Parties! Oh, I hope not."
"My dear child, party spirit is another word for vitality. So you thought the church we sighed for had made the place all we sighed to see it, and ourselves too. Oh! Fanny is this what you have been across the world for?"
"What is wrong?" asked Fanny, alarmed.
"Do you remember our axiom? Build your church, and the rest will take care of itself. You remember our scraping and begging, and how that good Mr. Davison helped us out and brought the endowment up to the needful point for consecration, on condition the incumbency was given to him. He held it just a year, and was rich, and could help out his bad health with a curate. But first he went to Madeira, and then he died, and there we are, a perpetual curacy of £70 a year, no resident gentry but ourselves, a fluctuating population mostly sick, our poor demoralized by them, and either crazed by dissent, or heathenized by their former distance from church. Who would take us? No more Mr. Davisons! There was no more novelty, and too much smartness to invite self-devotion. So we were driven from pillar to post till we settled down into this Mr. Touchett, as good a being as ever lived, working as hard as any two, and sparing neither himself nor any one else."
Fanny looked up prepared to admire.
"But he has two misfortunes. He was not born a gentleman, and his mind does not measure an inch across."
"Rachel, my dear, it is not fair to prejudice Fanny; I am sure the poor man is very well-behaved."
"Mother! would you be calling the ideal Anglican priest, poor man?"
"I thought he was quite gentlemanlike," added Fanny.
"Gentlemanlike! ay, that's it," said Rachel, "just so like as to delight the born curatolatress, like Grace and Miss Williams."
"Would it hurt the children?" asked Fanny, hardly comprehending the tremendous term.
"Yes, if it infected you," said Rachel, intending some playfullness. "A mother of contracted mind forfeits the allegiance of her sons."
"Oh, Rachel, I know I am weak and silly," said the gentle young widow, terrified, "but the Major said if I only tried to do my duty by them I should be helped."
"And I will help you, Fanny," said Rachel. "All that is requisite is good sense and firmness, and a thorough sense of responsibility."
"That is what is so dreadful. The responsibility of all those dear fatherless boys, and if—if I should do wrong by them."
Poor Fanny fell into an uncontrollable fit of weeping at the sense of her own desolation and helplessness, and Mrs. Curtis came to comfort her, and tell her affectionately of having gone through the like feelings, and of the repeated but most comfortable words of promise to the fatherless and the widow—words that had constantly come before the sufferer, but which had by no means lost their virtue by repetition, and Fanny was soothed with hearing instances of the special Providence over orphaned sons, and their love and deference for their mother. Rachel, shocked and distressed at the effect of her sense, retired out of the conversation, till at the announcement of the carriage for Lady Temple, her gentle cousin cheered up, and feeling herself to blame for having grieved one who only meant aid and kindness, came to her and fondly kissed her forehead, saying, "I am not vexed, dear Rachel, I know you are right. I am not clever enough to bring them up properly, but if I try hard, and pray for them, it may be made up to them. And you will help me, Rachel dear," she added, as her readiest woe-offering for her tears, and it was the most effectual, for Rachel was perfectly contented as long as Fanny was dependent on her, and allowed her to assume her mission, provided only that the counter influence could be averted, and this Major, this universal referee, be eradicated from her foolish clinging habits of reliance before her spirits were enough recovered to lay her heart open to danger.
But the more Rachel saw of her cousin, the more she realized this peril. When she went down on Monday morning to complete the matters of business that had been slurred over on the Saturday, she found that Fanny had not the slightest notion what her own income was to be. All she knew was that her General had left everything unreservedly to herself, except £100 and one of his swords to Major Keith, who was executor to the will, and had gone to London to "see about it," by which word poor Fanny expressed all the business that her maintenance depended on. If an old general wished to put a major in temptation, could he have found a better means of doing so? Rachel even thought that Fanny's incapacity to understand business had made her mistake the terms of the bequest, and that Sir Stephen must have secured his property to his children; but Fanny was absolutely certain that this was not the case, for she said the Major had made her at once sign a will dividing the property among them, and appointing himself and her Aunt Curtis their guardians. "I did not like putting such a charge on my dear aunt," said Fanny, "but the Major said I ought to appoint a relation, and I had no one else! And I knew you would all be good to them, if they had lost me too, when baby was born."
"We would have tried," said Rachel, a little humbly, "but oh! I am glad you are here, Fanny!"
Nothing could of course be fixed till the Major had "seen about it." After which he was to come to let Lady Temple know the result; but she believed he would first go to Scotland to see his brother. He and his brother were the only survivors of a large family, and he had been on foreign service for twelve years, so that it would be very selfish to wish him not to take full time at home. "Selfish," thought Rachel; "if he will only stay away long enough, you shall learn, my dear, how well you can do without him!"
The boys had interrupted the conversation less than the previous one, because the lesser ones were asleep, or walking out, and the elder ones having learnt that a new week was to be begun steadily with lessons, thought it advisable to bring themselves as little into notice as possible; but fate was sure to pursue them sooner or later, for Rachel had come down resolved on testing their acquirements, and deciding on the method to be pursued with them; and though their mamma, with a curtain instinctive shrinking both for them and for herself, had put off the ordeal to the utmost by listening to all the counsel about her affairs, it was not to be averted.
"Now, Fanny, since it seems that more cannot be done at present, let us see about the children's education. Where are their books?"
"We have very few books," said Fanny, hesitating; "we had not much choice where we were."
"You should have written to me for a selection."
"Why—so we would, but there was always a talk of sending Conrade and Francis home. I am afraid you will think them very backward, dear Rachel, especially Francie; but it is not their fault, dear children, and they are not used to strangers," added Fanny, nervously.
"I do not mean to be a stranger," said Rachel.
And while Fanny, in confusion, made loving protestations about not meaning that, Rachel stepped out upon the lawn, and in her clear voice called "Conrade, Francis!" No answer. She called "Conrade" again, and louder, then turned round with "where can they be—not gone down on the beach?"
"Oh, dear no, I trust not," said the mother, flurried, and coming to the window with a call that seemed to Rachel's ears like the roar of a sucking dove.
But from behind the bushes forth came the two young gentlemen, their black garments considerably streaked with the green marks of laurel climbing.
"Oh, my dears, what figures you are! Go to Coombe and get yourselves brushed, and wash your hands, and then come down, and bring your lesson books."
Rachel prognosticated that these preparations would be made the occasion, of much waste of time; but she was answered, and with rather surprised eyes, that they had never been allowed to come into the drawing-room without looking like little gentlemen.
"But you are not living in state here," said Rachel; "I never could enter into the cult some people, mamma especially, pay to their drawing-room."
"The Major used to be very particular about their not coming to sit down untidy," said Fanny. "He said it was not good for anybody."
Martinet! thought Rachel, nearly ready to advocate the boys making no toilette at any time; and the present was made to consume so much time that, urged by her, Fanny once more was obliged to summon her boys and their books.
It was not an extensive school library—a Latin grammar an extremely dilapidated spelling-book, and the fourth volume of Mrs. Marcet's "Little Willie." The other three—one was unaccounted for, but Cyril had torn up the second, and Francis had thrown the first overboard in a passion. Rachel looked in dismay. "I don't know what can be done with these!" she said.
"Oh, then we'll have holidays till we have got books, mamma," said Conrade, putting his hands on the sofa, and imitating a kicking horse.
"It is very necessary to see what kind of books you ought to have," returned Rachel. "How far have you gone in this?"
"I say, mamma," reiterated Conrade, "we can't do lessons without books."
"Attend to what your Aunt Rachel says, my dear; she wants to find out what books you should have."
"Yes, let me examine you."
Conrade came most inconveniently close to her; she pushed her chair back; he came after her. His mother uttered a remonstrating, "My dear!"
"I thought she wanted to examine me," quoth Conrade. "When Dr. M'Vicar examines a thing, he puts it under a microscope."