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THE CLEVER WOMAN OF THE FAMILY

by Charlotte M. Yonge

From the 1880 edition published by MacMillan and Co., London.




CHAPTER I. IN SEARCH OF A MISSION



"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."

"Oh, Rachel."

"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.



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