The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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But Bee did not make any response. Her hands were cold and her head hot. She was wrapt in a strange passion and confusion of human chaos and bewilderment – everything gone wrong – all the elements of life twisted the perverse way; nothing open, nothing clear. She was incapable of any simple, unmingled feeling in that confusion and medley of everything going wrong.
Mrs. Leigh, a little disappointed, went into the inner room, the little library, to write a letter – no doubt to consult or summon her son – from which she was interrupted a few minutes later by a faint call, and Bee’s white face in the doorway.
“Mrs. Leigh, papa will come to-morrow, and he will take us away; at least he will take me away. I – I shan’t be any longer in anyone’s way. Oh, don’t keep him apart from you – don’t send anyone out of the house because of me!”
There was a great deal of commotion next morning in the house in Mayfair.
Bee was startled by having a tray brought to her bedroom with her breakfast when she was almost ready to go downstairs. “Mrs. Leigh thought, Miss, as you had been so tired last night, you might like to rest a little longer,” said the maid; and Bee divined with a sharp pang through all the trouble and confusion of her mind that she was not wanted – that probably Aubrey was coming to consult with his mother what was to be done. It may be imagined with what scrupulousness she kept within her room, her pride all up in arms though her heart she thought was broken. Though the precaution was so natural, though it was taken at what was supposed to be her desire, at what was really her desire – the only one she would have expressed – yet she resented it, in the contradiction and ferment of her being. If Mrs. Leigh supposed that she wanted to see Aubrey! He was nothing to her, he had no part in her life. When she had been brought here, against her will, it had been expressly explained that it was not for Aubrey, that he would rather go away to the end of the world than disturb her. And she had herself appealed to his mother – her last action on the previous night – to bring him back, not to banish him on account of the girl who was nothing to him, and whose part it was, not his, to go away. All this, however, did not make it seem less keen a wound to Bee that she should be, so to speak, imprisoned in her own room, because Aubrey was expected downstairs. She had never, she declared to herself vehemently, felt at ease under the roof that was his; nothing but Charlie’s supposed want of her would have induced her to subject herself to the chances of meeting him, and the still more appalling chance of being supposed to wish to meet him. And now this insult of imprisonment in her bedroom, lest she should by any chance come under his observation, offend his eye! – Bee was contradictory enough at all times, a rosebud set about with wilful thorns; but everything was in tumult about her, and all her conditions nothing but contradictions now.
Thus it happened that while Betty was setting out with much excitement, but that all pleasurable, walking lightly among undiscovered dangers, Bee was suddenly arrested, as she felt, imprisoned in the little room looking out upon roofs and backs of houses, thrust aside into a corner that she might not be seen or her presence known – imperceptibly the force of the description grew as she went on piling up agony upon agony.It was some time before, in the commotion of her feelings, she could bring herself to swallow her tea, and then she walked about the room, gazed out of the window from which, as it was at the back of the house, she saw nothing, and found the position more and more intolerable every minute. A prisoner! she who had been brought here against her will, on pretence that her presence might save her brother’s life, or something equally grandiose and impossible – save her brother’s life, bring him back from despair by the sight of some one that he loved. These were the sort of words that Mrs. Leigh had said. As if it mattered to Charlie one way or the other what Bee might think or do! As if he were to be consoled by her, or stimulated, or brought back to life! She had affected him involuntarily, undesirably, by her betrayal of the vicinity of that woman, that witch, who had warped his heart and being. But as for influencing in her own person her brother’s mind or life, Bee knew she was as little capable as baby, the little tyrant of the nursery. Oh! how foolish she had been to come at all, to yield to what was said, the flattering suggestion that she could do so much, when she knew all along in her inmost consciousness that she could do nothing! The only thing for her to do now was to go back to the dull life of which in her impatient foolishness she had grown so weary, the dull life in which she was indeed of some use after all, where it was clearly her duty to get the upper hand of baby, to preserve the discipline of the nursery, to train the little ones, and keep the big boys in order. These were the elder sister’s duties, with which nobody could interfere – not any ridiculous, sentimental, exaggerated idea, as Charlie had said, of what a woman’s ministrations could do. “Oh, woman, in our hours of ease!” that sort of foolish, foolish, intolerable, ludicrous kind of thing, which it used to be considered right to say, though people knew better now. Bee felt bitterly that to say of her that she was a ministering angel would be irony, contumely, the sort of thing people said when they laughed at women and their old-fashioned sham pretences. She had never made any such pretence. She had said from the beginning that Charlie would care for none of her ministrations. She had been brought here against her judgment, against her will, and now she was shut up as in a prison in order that Aubrey might not be embarrassed by the sight of her! As if she had wished to see Aubrey! As if it had not been on the assurance that she was not to see Aubrey that she had been beguiled here!
When a message came to her that she was to go to her brother, Bee did not know what to do. It seemed to her that Aubrey might be lurking somewhere on the stairs, that he might be behind Charlie’s sofa, or lying in wait on the other side of the curtain, notwithstanding her offence at the quite contradictory idea that she was imprisoned in her room to be kept out of his way. These two things were entirely contrary from each other, yet it was quite possible to entertain and be disturbed by both in the tumult and confusion of a perverse young mind. She stepped out of her room as if she were about to fall into an ambush, notwithstanding that she had been thrilling in every irritated nerve with the idea of being imprisoned there.
Charlie had insisted on getting up much earlier than usual. He had not waited for the doctor’s visit. He was better; well, he said, stimulated into nervous strength and capability, though his gaunt limbs tottered under him and his thin hand trembled. When he got into his sitting-room he flung away all his cushions and wrappings as soon as his nurse left him and went to the mirror over the mantel-piece and gazed at himself in the glass, smoothing down and stroking into their right place those irregular soft tufts growing here and there upon his chin, which he thought were the beginnings of a beard.
Would she think it was a beard, that sign of manhood? They were too downy, fluffy, unenergetic, a foolish kind of growth, like a colt’s, some long, some short, yet Charlie could not help being proud of them. He felt that they would come to something in time, and remembered that he had often heard it said that a beard which never had been shaved became the finest – in time. Would she think so? or would she laugh and tell him that this would not do, that he must get himself shaved?
He would not mind that she should laugh. She might do anything, all she did was delightful to poor Charlie, and there would be a compliment even in being told that he must get shaved. Charlie had stroked his upper lip occasionally with a razor, but it had never been necessary to suggest to him that he should get shaved before.
He had to be put back upon his sofa when nurse re-appeared, but he only remained there for the time, promising no permanent obedience. When Laura came he certainly should not receive her there.
“When did your letter go? When would Betty receive it?” he said, when Bee, breathless and pale, at last, under nurse’s escort, was brought downstairs.
“She must have got it last night. But there was a dinner party,” said Bee, after a pause, “last night at Portman Square.”
“What do I care for their dinner parties? I suppose the postman would go all the same.”
“But Betty could not do anything till this morning.”
“No,” said Charlie, “I suppose not. She would be too much taken up with her ridiculous dress and what she was to wear” – the knowledge of a young man who had sisters, pierced through even his indignation – “or with some nonsense about Gerald Lyon – that fellow! And to think,” he said, in an outburst of high, moral indignation “that one’s fate should be at the mercy of a little thing like Betty, or what she might say or do!”
“Betty is not so much younger than we are; to be sure,” said Bee, with reflective sadness, “she has never had anything to make her think of all the troubles that are in the world.”
Charlie turned upon her with scorn.
“And what have you had to make you think, and what do you suppose you know? A girl, always protected by everybody, kept out of the battle, never allowed to feel the air on your cheek! I must tell you, Bee, that your setting yourself up for knowing things is the most ridiculous exhibition in the world.”
Bee’s wounded soul could not find any words. She kept out of the battle! She setting up for knowing things! And what was his knowledge in comparison with hers? He had but been deluded like the rest by a woman whom Bee had always seen through, and never, never put any faith in; whereas she had lost what was most dear, all her individual hopes and prospects, and been obliged to sacrifice what she knew would be the only love of her life.
She looked at Charlie with eyes that were full of unutterable things. He was reckless with hope and expectation, self-deceived, thinking that all was coming right again; whereas Bee knew that things would never more be right with her. And yet he presumed to say that she knew nothing, and that to think she had suffered was a mere pretence! “How little, how little,” Bee thought, “other people know.”
The house seemed full that morning of sounds and commotions, unlike ordinary times. There were sounds of ringing bells, of doors opened and shut, of voices downstairs. Once both Charlie and Bee held their breath, thinking the moment had come, for a carriage stopped at the door, there was the sound of a noisy summons, and then steps coming upstairs.
Alas! it was nothing but the doctor, who came in, ushered by nurse, but not until she had held a private conference with him, keeping them both in the most tremendous suspense in the bedroom. It is true this was a thing which happened every morning, but they had both forgotten that in the tension of highly-wrought feeling.
And when the doctor came he shook his head. “There has been too much going on here,” he said. “You have been doing too much or talking too much. Miss Kingsward, you helped us greatly with our patient yesterday, but I am afraid you have been going too far, you have hurried him too much. We dare not press recovery at railway speed after so serious an illness as this.”
“Oh, I have not wished to do so,” said Bee. “It is some friends that we are expecting.”
“Friends? I never said he was to see friends,” the doctor said.
“Come doctor,” said Charlie, “you must not be too hard upon me. It’s – it’s my father and sister that are coming.”
“Your father and sister are different, but not too much even of them. Recollect, nurse, what I say, not too much even of the nearest and dearest. The machinery has been too much out of gear to come round all in a moment. And, Miss Kingsward, you are pale, too. You had better go out a little and take the air. There must not be too much conversation, not too much reading either. I must have quiet, perfect quiet.”
“Am I to do nothing but think?” said Charlie. “Is that the best thing for a fellow to do that has missed his schools and lost his time?”
“Be thankful that you are at a time of life when the loss of a few weeks doesn’t matter, and don’t think,” said the doctor, “or we shall have to stop even the father and sister, and send you to bed again. Be reasonable, be reasonable. A few days’ quiet and you will be out of my hands.”
“Oh, Charlie, then you have given up seeing anyone else,” said Bee, with a cry of relief as the doctor, attended by the nurse, went downstairs.
“I have done nothing of the kind,” he cried, jumping up from the sofa and going to the window. “And you had better tell that woman to go out for a walk and that you will look after me. Do you think when Laura comes that I will not see her if fifty doctors were to interfere? But if you want to save me a little you will send that woman out of the way. It is the worry and being contradicted that does me harm.”
“How can I, Charlie – oh, how can I, in the face of what the doctor said?”
He turned back upon her flaming with feverish rage and excitement.
“If you don’t I’ll go out. I’ll have a cab called, and get away from this prison,” he cried. “I don’t care what happens to me, but I shall see her if I die for it.”
“Perhaps,” said Bee to herself, trembling, “she will not come. Oh! perhaps she will not come!” But she felt that this was a very forlorn hope, and when the nurse came back the poor girl, faltering and ill at ease, obeyed the peremptory signs and frowns of Charlie, once more established on the sofa and seeming to take no part in the negotiation.
“Nurse, I have been thinking,” said Bee, with that talent for the circumstantial which women have, even when acting against their will, “that you have far more need of a walk and a little fresh air than I have, who have only been here for a day, and that if you will tell me exactly what to do, I could take care of him while you go out a little.”
“Shouldn’t think of leaving him,” said nurse, with her eyebrows working as usual and a mocking smile about her lips. “Too much talk; doctor not pleased.”
“But if I promise not to talk? I shall not talk. You don’t want to talk, do you, Charlie?”
Charlie launched a missile at her in his ingratitude, over his shoulder. “Not with you,” he said.
“You hear?” cried Bee, now intent upon gaining her point, and terrified lest other visitors might arrive before this matter were decided; “we shall not talk, and I will do all you tell me. Oh, only tell me what I am to do.”
“Nothing to do,” said the nurse, “not for the next hour; nothing, but keep him quiet. Well, if you think you can undertake that, just for half an hour – ”
“I will – I will – for as long as you please,” cried Bee. It was better, indeed, if there must be this interview with Laura, that there should be as few spectators as possible. She hurried the woman away with eagerness, though she had been alarmed at the first suggestion. But when she was alone with him, and nobody to stand by her, thinking at every sound she heard that this was the dreaded arrival, Bee crept close to him with a sudden panic of terror and dismay.
“Oh, Charlie, don’t listen to her, don’t believe her; oh, don’t be led astray by her again! I have done what you told me, but I oughtn’t to have done it. Oh, Charlie, stand fast, whatever she says, and don’t be led astray by her again.”
The only sign of Charlie’s gratitude that Bee received was to be hastily pushed away by his shoulder. “You little fool, what do you know about it?” her brother said.
But the nurse went out for her walk and came in again and nothing happened, and Charlie had his invalid dinner, which in his excitement he could not eat, and Bee was called downstairs to luncheon, and yet nobody came. The luncheon was a terrible ordeal for Bee. She attempted to eat, with an eye on the window, to watch for the arrival of the visitors, and an ear upon the subdued sounds of the house, through which she seemed to hear the distant step, the distant voice of someone whose presence was not acknowledged. She repeated with eagerness her little speech of the night before. “Something must have detained papa,” she said, “I cannot understand it, but he is sure to come, and he will take me away.”
“I don’t want you to be taken away, my dear,” said Mrs. Leigh. “I should not let you go if I could help it.”
“Oh, but I must, I must,” said Bee, trembling and agitated. She could not eat anything, any more than Charlie, and when the nurse came downstairs, indignantly carrying the tray from which scarcely anything had been taken, Bee could make no reply to her remonstrances. “The young lady had better not come upstairs again,” said nurse; “she has done him more harm than good, he will have a relapse if we don’t mind. It is as much as my character is worth.” She talked like other people when there was no patient present, and she was genuinely afraid.
“What are we to do?” said Mrs. Leigh. “If this lady comes he ought not to see her! But perhaps she will not come.”
“That is what I have hoped,” said Bee, “but if she doesn’t come he will go out, he will get to her somehow; he will kill himself with struggling – ”
At the suggestion of going out the nurse gave a shriek and thrust her tray into the servant’s hands who was waiting. “He will have to kill me first,” she said, rushing away.
And immediately upon this scene came Betty, fresh and shining in her white frock, with a smile like a little sunbeam, who announced at once that Miss Lance was coming.
“How is Charlie?” said Betty. “Oh, Mrs. Leigh, how good you have been! Papa is coming himself to thank you. What a trouble it must have been to have him ill here all the time. Mrs. Lyon, whom I am staying with, thinks it so wonderful of you – so kind, so kind! And Bee, she is coming, though it is rather a hard thing for her to do. She says you will not like to see her, Mrs. Leigh, and that it will be an intrusion upon you; but I said when you had been so good to poor Charlie all along, you would not be angry that she should come who is such a friend.”
“Any friend, of course, of Colonel Kingsward’s – ” Mrs. Leigh said stiffly, while little Betty stared. She thought they all looked very strange; the old lady so stiff, and Bee turning red and turning white, and a general air as if something had gone wrong.
“Is Charlie worse?” she said, with an anxious look.
And then Bee was suddenly called upstairs. “Can’t manage him any longer,” the nurse said on the landing. “I wash my hands of it. Your fault if he has a relapse.”
“Who is that?” said Charlie, from within, “Who is it? I will see her! Nobody shall interfere, no one – doctor, or nurse, or – the devil himself. Bee!”
“It is only Betty,” said Bee, upon which Charlie ceased his raging and flung himself again on his sofa.
“You want to torment me; you want to wear me out; you want to kill me,” he said, with tears of keen disappointment in his eyes.
“Charlie,” said Bee, “she is coming. Betty is here to say so; she is coming in about an hour or so. If you will eat your dinner and lie quite quiet and compose yourself you will be allowed to see her, and nurse will not object.”
“Oh, Miss Kingsward, don’t answer for me. It is as much as his life is worth.”
“But not unless you eat your dinner and keep perfectly quiet.”
“Give us that old dinner,” said Charlie, with a loud, unsteady laugh, and the tray was brought back and he performed his duty upon the half-cold dishes with an expedition and exuberance that gave nurse new apprehensions.
“He’ll have indigestion,” she said, “if he gobbles like that,” speaking once more inaudibly over Charlie’s shoulder. But afterwards all was quiet till the fated moment came.
I do not think if these girls had known the feelings that were within Miss Lance’s breast that they would have been able to retain their respective feelings towards her – Betty of adoration or Bee of hostility. She had lived a life of adventure, and she had come already on various occasions to the very eve of such a settled condition of life as would have made further adventure unnecessary and impossible – but something had always come in the way. Something so often comes in the way of such a career. The stolid people who are incapable of any skilful combinations go on and prosper, while those who have wasted so much cleverness or much wit, so much trouble – and disturbed the lives of others and risked their own – fail just at the moment of success. I am sometimes very sorry for the poor adventurers. Miss Lance went to Curzon Street with all her wits painfully about her, knowing that she was about to stand for her life. It seemed the most extraordinary spite of fate that this should have happened in the house of Aubrey Leigh. She would have had in any case a disagreeable moment enough between Charlie Kingsward and his father, but it was too much to have the other brought in. The man whom she had so wronged, the family (for she knew that his mother was there also) who knew all about her, who could tell everything, and stop her on the very threshold of the new life – that new life in which there would be no equivocal circumstances, nothing that she could be reproached with, only duty and kindness. So often she seemed to have been just within sight of that halcyon spot where she would need to scheme no more, where duty and every virtuous thing would be natural and easy. Was the failure to come all over again?
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