Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman of the Family
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.'
'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,