The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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She was little more than an adventuress, this troubled woman, and yet it was not without something of the exalted feeling of one who is about to stand for his life, for emancipation and freedom to do well and all that is best in existence, that she walked through the streets towards her fate. Truth alone was possible with the Leighs, who knew everything about her past, and could not be persuaded or turned from their certainty by any explanations. But poor Charlie! Bare truth was not possible with him, whom she had sacrificed lightly to the amusement of the moment, whom she could never have married or made the instrument of building up her fortune except in the way which, to do her justice she had not foreseen, through the access he had given her to his father. How was she to satisfy that foolish, hot-headed boy? – and how to stop the mouths of the others in the background? – and how to persuade Colonel Kingsward that circumstances alone were against her – that she herself was not to blame? She did not conceal from herself any of these difficulties, but she was too brave a woman to fly before them. She preferred to walk, and to walk alone, to this trial which awaited her, in order to subdue her nerves and get the aid of the fresh air and solitude to steady her being. She was going to stand for her life.
It seemed a good augury that she was allowed to enter the house without any interruption from the sitting-room below, where she had the conviction that her worst opponents were lying in wait. She thought even that she had been able to distinguish the white cap and shawl of Mrs. Leigh through the window, but it was Betty who met her in the hall – met her with a kiss and expression of delight.
“Oh, I am so glad you have come,” said Betty, “he is so eager to see you.” The people in ambush in the ground floor rooms must have heard the exclamation, but they made no sign. At the door upstairs they were met by the nurse, excited and laconic, speaking without any sound.
“No worry – don’t contradict. Much as life is worth,” she said, with emphatic, silent lips. Miss Lance, so composed, so perfect in her manner, so wound up to everything, laughed a little – she was so natural! – and nodded her head. And then she went in.
Charlie on the sofa was of course the chief figure. But he had jumped up, flinging his wrappings about, and stood in his gaunt and tremulous length, with his big hollow eyes and his ragged little beard, and his hands stretched out. “At last!” he said, “at last – Laura!” stumbling in his weakness as he advanced to her. Bee was standing up straight against the window in the furthest corner of the room, not making a movement. How real, how natural, how completely herself and ready for any emergency this visitor was! She took Charlie’s hands in hers, supporting him with that firm hold, and put him back upon his couch.
“Now,” she said, “the conditions of my visit are these: perfect quiet and obedience, and no excitement.If you rebel in any way I shall go. I know what nursing is, and I know what common-sense is – and I came here to help you, not to harm you. Move a toe or finger more than you ought, and I shall go!”
“I will not move, not an eyelid if you tell me not. I want to do nothing but look at you. Laura! oh, Laura! I have been dead, and now I am alive again,” Charlie said.
“Ill or well,” said Miss Lance, arranging his cushions with great skill, “you are a foolish, absurd boy. Partly it belongs to your age and partly to your temperament. I should not have considered you like your father at the first glance, but you are like him. Now, perfect quiet. Consider that your grandmother has come to see you, and that it does not suit the old lady to have her mind disturbed.”
He had seized her hand and was kissing it over and over again. Miss Lance took those caresses very quietly, but after a minute she withdrew her hand. “Now, tell me all about it,” she said; “you went off in such a commotion – so angry with me – ”
“Never angry,” he said, “but miserable, oh, more miserable – too miserable for words. I thought that you had cut me off for ever.”
“You were right so far as your foolish ideas of that moment went, but I hope you have learnt better since, and now tell me what did you do? I hoped you had gone home, and then that you had gone to Scotland, and then – . What did you do?”
“I don’t know,” said Charlie, “I can’t tell you. I suppose I must have been ill then. I came up to town, but I don’t know what I did. And I was brought here, and I’ve been ill ever since, and couldn’t seem to get better until I heard you had been speaking for me. You speaking for me, Laura! Thinking of me a little, trying to bring me back to life. I’ll come back to life, dear, for you – anything, Laura, for you!”
“My dear boy, it is a pity you should not have a better reason,” she said. The two girls had not gone away. Betty had retired to the corner where Bee was, and they stood close together holding each other, ashamed and scornful beyond expression of Charlie’s abandonment. Even Betty, who was almost as much in love with Miss Lance as Charlie was, was ashamed to hear him “going on” in this ridiculous way. What Miss Lance felt to have these words of devotion addressed to her in the presence of two such listeners I will not say. She was acutely sensible of their presence, and of what they were thinking, but she did not shrink from the ordeal. “And you must not call me Laura,” she said, “unless you can make it Aunt Laura, or Grandmother Laura, which are titles I shouldn’t object to. Anything else would be ridiculous between you and me.”
“Laura!” the young man said, raising himself quickly.
“Say Aunt Laura, my dear, and if you move another inch I will go away!”
“You are crushing me,” he cried, “you are driving me to despair!”
“Dear Charlie,” said Miss Lance, “all this, you know, is very great nonsense – between you and me; I have told you so all along. Now things have really become too serious to go on. I want to be kind to you, to help you to get well, and to see as much of you as possible; for you are a dear boy and I am fond of you. But this can’t be unless you will see things in their true light and acknowledge the real state of affairs. I am most willing and ready to be your friend, to be a mother to you. But anything else is ridiculous. Do you hear me, Charlie? – ridiculous! You don’t want to be laughed at, and you don’t want me to be laughed at, I suppose?” She took his hands with which he had covered his face and held them in hers. “Now, no nonsense, Charlie. Be a man! Will you have me for your friend, always ready to do anything for you, or will you have nothing to do with me? Come! I might be your mother, I have always told you so. And look here,” she said, with a tone of genuine passion in her voice and a half turn of her flexible figure towards the two girls, “I’m worth having for a mother; whatever you may think in your cruel youth, I am, I am!” Surely this was to them and not to him. The movement, the accent, was momentary. Her voice changed again into the softness of a caress. “Charlie, my dear boy, don’t make me ridiculous, don’t make people laugh at me. They call me an old witch, trying to entrap a young man. Will you let people – nay, will you make people call me so?”
“I make anyone call you – anything but what you are!” he cried. “Nobody would dare,” said the unfortunate fellow, “to do anything but revere you and admire you so long as I was there.”
“And then break out laughing the moment your back was turned,” she said. “‘What a hold the old hag has got upon him!’ is what they would say. And it would be quite true. Not that I am an old hag. No, I don’t think I am that, I am worse. I’m a very well preserved woman of my years. I’ve taken great care of myself to keep up what are called my personal advantages. I have never wished – I don’t wish now – to be thought older than I am, or ugly. I am just old enough – to be your mother, Charlie, if I had married young, as your mother did – ”
He drew his hands out of her cool and firm grasp, and once more covered his face with them. “Don’t torture me,” he cried.
“No, my dear boy, I don’t want to torture you, but you must not make me, nor yourself – whom I am proud of – ridiculous. I am going probably – for nothing is certain till it happens,” she said, with a mournful tone in her voice, slightly shaking her head, “and you may perhaps help to balk me – I am probably going to make a match with a reasonable person suited to my age.”
Poor Charlie started up, his hands fell from his face, his large miserable eyes were fixed upon hers. “And you come – you come – to tell me this!” he cried.
“It will be partly for you – to show how impossible your folly is – but most for myself, to secure my own happiness.” She said these words very slowly, one by one – “To secure my own happiness. Have I not the right to do that, because a young man, who should have been my son, has taken it into his foolish head to form other ideas of me? You would rather make me ridiculous and wretched than consider my dignity, my welfare, my happiness – and this is what you call love!” she said.
The girls listened to this conversation with feelings impossible to put into words, not knowing what to think. One of them loved the woman and the other hated her; they were equally overwhelmed in their young and simple ideas. She seemed to be speaking a language new to them, and to have risen into a region which they had never known.
She left Charlie’s room, having soothed him and reduced him to quiet in this inconceivable way, with a smile on her face and the look of one who was perfectly mistress of the situation. But when she had gone down half-a-dozen steps and reached the landing, she stood still and leaned against the wall, clasping her hands tight as if there was something in them to hold by. She had carried through this part of her ordeal with a high hand. She had made it look the kindest yet the most decisive interview in the world, crushing the foolish young heart, without remorse, yet tenderly, kindly, with such a force of sense and reason as could not be resisted – and all so naturally, with so much apparent ease, as if it cost her nothing. But she was after all, merely a woman, and she knew that only half, nay, not half, not the worst half of her trial was over. She lay back against the wall, having nothing else to rest upon, and closed her eyes for a moment. The two girls had followed her instinctively out of Charlie’s room, and stood on the stairs one above the other, gazing at her. The long lines of her figure seemed to relax, as if she might have fallen, and in their wonder and ignorance they might still have stood by and looked on letting her fall, without knowing what to do. But she did not do so. The corner of the walls supported her as if they had made a couch for her, and presently she opened her eyes with a vague smile at Betty, who was foremost. “I was tired,” she said, and then, “it isn’t easy” – drawing a long breath.
At this moment the trim figure of Mrs. Leigh’s maid appeared on the stairs below, so commonplace, so trim, so neat, the little apparition of ordinary life which glides through every tragedy, lifting its everyday voice in announcements of dinner, in inquiries about tea, in all the nothings of routine, in the midst of all tumults of misery and passion. “If you please, madam – my lady would be glad if you would step into the dining-room,” she said.
Miss Lance raised herself in a moment from that half-recumbent position against the wall. She recovered herself, got back her colour and the brightness of her eyes, and that look of being perfectly natural, at her ease, unstrained, spontaneous, which she had shown throughout the interview with Charlie. “Certainly,” she said. There did not seem to be time for the twinkling of an eyelid between the one mood and the other. She required no preparation or interval to pull herself together. She looked at the two sisters as if to call them to follow her, and then walked quietly downstairs to be tried for her life – like a martyr – oh, no, for she was not a martyr, but a criminal. She had no confidence of innocence about her. She knew what indictment was about to be brought against her, and she knew it was true. This knowledge, however, gives a certain strength. It gives courage such as the innocent who do not know what charge may be brought against them or how to meet it, do not possess. She had rehearsed the scene. She knew what she was going to be accused of, and had thought over, and set in order, all the pleas. She knew exactly what she had done and what she had not, which was a tower of strength to her, and she knew that on her power of fighting it out depended her life. It is difficult altogether to deny our sympathy to a brave creature fighting for bare life. However guilty he may be, human nature takes sides with him, hopes in the face of all justice that there may be a loophole of escape. Even Bee, coming slowly downstairs after her, already thrown into a curious tumult of feeling by that scene in Charlie’s room, began to feel her breath quicken with excitement even in the hostility of her heart.
There was one thing that Miss Lance had not foreseen, and that burst upon her at once when the maid opened the door – Colonel Kingsward, standing with his arm upon the mantel-piece and his countenance as if turned to stone. The shock which this sight gave her was very difficult to overcome or conceal, it struck her with a sudden dart as of despair; her impulse was to fling down her arms, to acknowledge herself vanquished, and to retreat, a defeated and ruined adventuress, but she was too brave and unalterably by nature too sanguine to do this. She gave him a nod and a smile, to which he scarcely responded, as she went towards Mrs. Leigh.
“How strange,” she said, “when I come to see a new friend to find so old a friend! I wondered if it could be Mr. Leigh’s house, but I was not sure – of the number.”
“I am afraid I cannot say I am glad to see you, Laura,” said Mrs. Leigh.
“No? Perhaps it would have been too much to expect. We were, so to speak, on different sides. Poor Amy, I know, was never satisfactory to you, and I don’t wonder. Of course you only thought of me as her friend.”
“If that were all!” Mrs. Leigh said.
“Was there more than that? May I sit down? I have had a long walk, and rather an exhaustive interview – and I did not expect to be put on my trial. But it is always best to know what one is accused of. I think it quite natural – quite natural that you should not like me, Mrs. Leigh. I was Amy’s friend and she was trying to you. She put me in a very false position which I ought never to have accepted. But yet – I understand your attitude, and I submit to it with respect – but, pardon me – sincerely, I don’t know what there was more.”
Miss Lance had taken a chair, a perfectly upright one, on which few people could have sat gracefully. She made it evident that it was mere fatigue which made her subside upon it momentarily, and lifted her fine head and limpid eyes with so candid and respectful an air towards Mrs. Leigh’s comfortable, unheroic face, that no contrast of the oppressed and oppressor could have been more marked. If anyone had suffered in the matter between these two ladies, it certainly was not the one with the rosy countenance and round, well-filled-out figure; or so, at least, any impartial observer certainly would have felt.
Mrs. Leigh, for her part, was almost speechless with excitement and anger. She had intended to keep perfectly calm, but the look, the tone, the appearance of this personage altogether, brought before her overpoweringly many past scenes – scenes in which, to tell the truth, Miss Lance had not been always in the wrong, in which the other figure, now altogether disappeared, of Aubrey’s wife was the foremost, an immovable gentle-mannered fool, with whom all reason and argument were unavailing, whom everybody had believed to be inspired by the companion to whom she clung. All Amy’s faults had been bound upon Laura’s shoulders, but this was not altogether deserved, and Miss Lance did not shrink from anything that could be said on that subject. It required more courage to say, “Was there anything more?”
“More!” cried Mrs. Leigh, choking with the remembrance. “More! My boy’s house was made unsafe for him, it was made miserable to him, he was involved in every kind of danger and scandal, and she asks me if there was more?”
“Poor Amy,” said Miss Lance, with a little pause on the name, shaking her head gently in compassion and regret. “Poor Amy put me in a very false position. I have already said so, I ought not to have accepted it, I ought not to have promised; but it was so difficult to refuse a promise to the dying. Let Colonel Kingsward judge. She was very unwise, but she had been my friend from infancy and clung to me more, much more than I wished. She exacted a promise from me on her death-bed that I would never leave her child – which was folly, and, perhaps more than folly, so far, at least, as I was concerned. You may imagine, Colonel Kingsward,” she added, steadfastly regarding him. He had kept his head turned away, not looking at her, but this gaze compelled him against his will to shift his position, to turn towards the appellant who made him the judge. He still kept his eyes away, but his head turned by an attraction which he could not withstand. “You may imagine, Colonel Kingsward – that I was the person who suffered most,” Miss Lance said after that pause, “compelled to stay in a house where I had never been welcome, except to poor Amy, who was dead; a sort of guardian, a sort of nurse, and yet with none of their rights, held fast by a promise which I had given against my will, and which I never ceased to regret. You are a man, Colonel Kingsward, but you have more understanding of a woman’s feelings than any I know. My position was a false one, it was cruel – but I was bound by my word.”
“No one ought to have given such a promise,” he said, coldly, with averted eyes.
“You are always right, I ought not to have done so; but she was dying, and I was fond of her, poor girl, though she was foolish – it is not always the wisest people one loves most – fond of her, very fond of her, and of her poor little child.”
The tears came to Miss Lance’s eyes. She shook her head a little as if to shake them from her eyelashes. “Why should I cry? They have been so long happy, happier far than we – ”
Mrs. Leigh, the prosecutor, the accuser, gave a gulp, a sob; the child was her grandchild, her only one – and besides anger in a woman is as prone to tears as sorrow. She gave a stifled cry, “I don’t deny you were good to the child; oh, Laura, I could have forgiven you everything! But not – not – ”
“What?” Miss Lance said.
Mrs. Leigh seized upon Bee by the arm and drew her forward – Aubrey’s mother wanted words, she wanted eloquence, her arguments had to be pointed by fact. She took Bee, who had been standing in proud yet excited spectatorship, and held her by her own side. “Aubrey,” she said, almost inarticulately, and stopped to recover her breath – “Aubrey – whom you had driven from his home – found at last this dear girl, this nice, good girl, who would have made him a new life. But you interfered, you wrote to her father, you went – I don’t know what you did – and said you had a claim, a prior claim. If you appeal to Colonel Kingsward, he is the best judge. You went to him – ”
“Not to me, I was not aware, I never even saw Miss Lance till long after; forgive me for interrupting you.”
Miss Lance turned towards him again with that full look of faith and confidence. “Always just!” she said. And this time for a tremulous moment their eyes met. He turned his away again hastily, but he had received that touch; an indefinable wavering came over his aspect of iron.
“Yes,” she said, “I do not deny it – it is quite true. Shall I now explain before every one who is here? I think,” she added, after a moment, “that my little Betty, who has nothing particular to do with it, may run away.”
“I!” said Betty, clinging to the back of a chair.
“Go,” said her father, impatiently, “go!”
“Yes, my dear, run away. Charlie must want some one. He will have got over me a little, and he will want some one. Dear little Betty, run away!”
Miss Lance rose from her seat – probably that too was a relief to her – and, with a smile and a kiss, turned Betty out of the room. She came back then and sat down again. It gained a little time, and she was at a crisis harder than she had ever faced before. She had gained a moment to think, but even now she was not sure what way there was out of this strait, the most momentous in which she had ever been. She looked round her at one after another with a look that seemed as secure and confident, as easy and natural, as before; but her brain was working at the most tremendous rate, looking for some clue, some indication. She looked round as with a pause of conscious power, and then her gaze fixed itself on Bee. Bee stood near Mrs. Leigh’s chair. She was standing firm but tremulous, a deeply concerned spectator, but there was on her face nothing of the eager attention with which a girl would listen to an explanation about her lover. She was not more interested than she had been before, not so much so as when Charlie was in question. When Mrs. Leigh, in her indictment, said, “You interfered,” Bee had made a faint, almost imperceptible movement of her head. The mind works very quickly when its fate hangs on the balance of a minute, and now, suddenly, the culprit arraigned before these terrible judges saw her way.
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