The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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“I interfered,” Miss Lance said, slowly, “but not because of any prior claim;” – she paused again for a moment – “that would have been as absurd as in the case Colonel Kingsward knows of. I interfered – because I had other reasons for believing that Aubrey Leigh was not the man to marry a dear, good, nice girl.”
“You had – other reasons, Laura! Mind what you are saying – you will have to prove your words,” cried Mrs. Leigh, rising in her wrath, with an astonished and threatening face.
“I do not ask his mother to believe me. It is before Colonel Kingsward,” said Miss Lance, “that I stand or fall.”
“Colonel Kingsward, make her speak out! You know it was because she claimed my son – she, a woman twice his age; and now she pretends – Make her speak out! How dare you? You said he had promised to marry you – that he was bound to you. Colonel Kingsward, make her speak out!”
“That was what I understood,” he said, looking out of the window, his head turned half towards the other speakers, but not venturing to look at them. “I did not see Miss Lance, but that was what I understood.”
Laura sat firm, as if she were made of marble, but almost as pale. Her nerves were so highly strung that if she had for a moment relaxed their tension, she would have fallen to the ground. She sat like a rock, holding herself together with the strong grasp of her clasped hands.
“You hear, you hear! You are convicted out of your own mouth. Oh, you are cruel, you are wicked, Laura Lance! If you have anything to say speak out, speak out!”
“I will say nothing,” said Miss Lance. “I will leave another, a better witness, to say it for me. Colonel Kingsward, ask your daughter if it was because of my prior claim, as his mother calls it, that she broke off her engagement with Aubrey Leigh.”
Colonel Kingsward turned, surprised, to his daughter, who, roused by the sound of her own name, looked up quickly – first at the seemingly composed and serious woman opposite to her, then at her father. He spoke to her angrily, abruptly.
“Do you hear? Answer the question that is put to you. Was it because of this lady, or any claim of hers, that you – how shall I say it? – a girl like you had no right to decide one way or the other – that you broke off – that your mind was changed towards Mr. Aubrey Leigh?”
It appeared to Bee suddenly as if she had become the culprit, and all eyes were fixed on her. She trembled, looking at them all. What had she done? She was surely unhappy enough, wretched enough, a clandestine visitor, keeping Aubrey out of his own house, and what had she to do with Aubrey? Nothing, nothing! Nor he with her – that her heart should now be snatched out of her bosom publicly in respect to him.
“That is long past,” she said, faltering, “it is an old story. Mr. Aubrey Leigh is – a stranger to me; it is of no consequence – now!”
“Bee,” her father thundered at her, “answer the question! Was it because of – this lady that you changed your mind?”
Colonel Kingsward had always the art, somehow, of kindling the blaze of opposition in the blue eyes which were so like his own.She looked at him almost fiercely in reply, fully roused.
“No!” she said, “no! It was not because of – that lady. It was another – reason of my own.”
“What was your reason?” cried Mrs. Leigh. “Oh, Bee, speak! What was it, what was it? Tell me, tell me, my dear, what was your reason? that I may prove to you it was not true.”
“Had it anything to do with – this lady?” asked Colonel Kingsward once more.
“I never spoke to that lady but once,” cried Bee, almost violently. “I don’t know her; I don’t want to know her. She has nothing to do with it. It was because of something quite different, something that we heard – I – and mamma.”
Miss Lance looked at him with a smile on her face, loosing the grip of her hands, spreading them out in demonstration of her acquittal. She rose up slowly, her beautiful eyes filled with tears. She allowed it to be seen for the first time how she was shaken with emotion.
“You have heard,” she said, “a witness you trust more than me – if I put myself into the breach to secure a pause, it was only such a piece of folly as I have done before. I hope now that you will let me withdraw. I am dreadfully tired, I am not fit for any more.”
She looked with that appeal upon her face, first at one of her judges, then at the other. “If you are satisfied, let me go.” It seemed as if she could not say a word more. They made no response, but she did not wait for that. “I take it for granted,” she added, “that by that child’s mouth I am cleared,” and then she turned towards the door.
Colonel Kingsward, with a little start, came from his place by the mantel-piece and opened it for her, as he would have done for any woman. She let it appear that this movement was unexpected, and went to her heart; she paused a moment looking up at him – her eyes swimming in tears, her mouth quivering.
“How kind you are!” she said, “even though you don’t believe in me any more! but I have done all I can. I am very tired, scarcely able to walk.” He stood rigid, and made no sign, and she, looking at him, softly shook her head – “Let me see you at least once,” she said, very low, in a pleading tone, “this evening, some time?”
Still he gave no answer, standing like a man of iron, holding the door open. She gave him another look, and then walked quietly, but with a slight quiver and half stumble, away. They all stood watching until her tall figure was seen to pass the window, disappearing in the street, which is the outer world.
“Colonel Kingsward – ” said Mrs. Leigh.
He started at the sound of his name, as if he had but just awakened out of a dream, and began to smooth his hat, which all this time he had held in his hands.
“Excuse me,” he said, “excuse me, another time. I have some pressing business to see to now.”
And he, too, disappeared into that street which led both ways, into the monotony of London, which is the world.
Those who were left behind were not very careful of what Colonel Kingsward did. They were not thinking of his concerns; in the strain of personal feeling the most generous of human creatures is forced to think first of their own. Neither of the women who were left in the room had any time to consider the matter, but if they had they would have made sure without hesitation that nothing which could happen to Colonel Kingsward could be half so important as that crisis in which his daughter was involved.
Mrs. Leigh turned round upon the girl by her side and seized her hands. “Bee,” she cried, “now we are alone and we can speak freely. Tell me what it was, there is nobody here to frighten you, to take the words from your mouth. What was it, what was it that made you turn from Aubrey? At last, at last, it can be cleared up whatever it was.”
Bee turned away, trying to disengage her hands. “It is of no consequence,” she said, “Oh, don’t make me go back to those old, old things. What does it matter to Mr. Leigh? And as for me – ”
“It matters everything to Aubrey. He will be able to clear himself if you will give him the chance. How could he clear himself when he was never allowed to speak, when he did not know? Bee, in justice, in mere justice! What was it? You said your mother – ”
“Yes, I had her then. We heard it together, and she felt it like me. But we had no time to talk of it after, for she was ill. If you would please not ask me, Mrs. Leigh! I was very miserable – mother dying, and nowhere, nowhere in all the world anything to trust to. Don’t, oh! don’t make me go back upon it! I am not – so very – happy, even now!”
The girl would not let herself be drawn into Mrs. Leigh’s arms. She refused to rest her head upon the warm and ample bosom which was offered to her. She drew away her hands. It was difficult, very difficult, to keep from crying. It is always hard for a girl to keep from crying when her being is so moved. The only chance for her was to keep apart from all contact, to stand by herself and persuade herself that nobody cared and that she was alone in the world.
“Bee, I believe,” said Mrs. Leigh, solemnly, “that you have but to speak a word and you will be happy. You have not your mother now. You can’t turn to her and ask her what you should do. But I am sure that she would say, ‘speak!’ If she were here she would not let you break a man’s heart and spoil his life for a punctilio. I have always heard she was a good woman and kind – kind. Bee,” the elder lady laid her hand suddenly on the girl’s shoulder, making her start, “she would say ‘speak’ if she were here.”
“Oh, mamma, if you were here!” said Bee, through her tears.
She broke down altogether and became inarticulate, sobbing with her face buried in her hands. The ordeal of the last two days had been severe. Charlie and his concerns and the appearance of Miss Lance, and the conflict only half understood which had been going on round her, had excited and disturbed her beyond expression, as everybody could see and understand. But, indeed, these were but secondary elements in the storm which had overwhelmed Bee, which was chiefly brought back by that sudden plunge into the atmosphere of Aubrey. The sensation of being in his house, which she might in other circumstances have shared with him, of sitting at his table, in his seat, under the roof that habitually sheltered him – here, where her own life ought to have been passed, but where the first condition now was that there should be nothing of him visible. In Aubrey’s house, but not for Aubrey! Aubrey banished, lest perhaps her eyes might fall upon him by chance, or her ears be offended by the sound of his voice! Even his mother did not understand how much this had to do with the passion and trouble of the girl, from whose eyes the innocent name of her mother, sweetest though saddest of memories, had let forth the salt and boiling tears. If Mrs. Leigh had been anybody in the world save Aubrey’s mother, Bee would have clung to her, accepting the tender support and consolation of the elder women’s arms and her sympathy, but from Aubrey’s mother she felt herself compelled to keep apart.
It was not until her almost convulsive sobbing was over that this question could be re-opened, and in the meantime Betty having heard the sound of the closing door came rushing downstairs and burst into the room: perhaps she was not so much disturbed or excited as Mrs. Leigh was by Bee’s condition. She gave her sister a kiss as she lay on the sofa where Mrs. Leigh had placed her, and patted her on the shoulder.
“She will be better when she has had it out,” said Betty. “She has worked herself up into such a state about Miss Lance. And oh, please tell me what has happened. You are her enemy, too, Mrs. Leigh – oh, how can you misjudge her so! As if she had been the cause of any harm! I was sent away,” said Betty, “and, of course, Bee could not speak – but I could have told you. Yes, of course, I knew! How could I help knowing, being her sister? I can’t tell whether she told me, I knew without telling; and, of course, she must have told me. This is how it was – ”
Bee put forth her hand and caught her sister by the dress, but Betty was not so easily stopped. She turned round quickly, and took the detaining hand into her own and patted and caressed it.
“It is far better to speak out,” she said, “it must be told now, and though I am young and you call me little Betty, I cannot help hearing, can I, what people say? Mrs. Leigh, this was how it was. Whatever happened about dear Miss Lance – whom I shall stick to and believe in whatever you say,” cried Betty, by way of an interlude, with flashing eyes, “that had nothing, nothing to do with it. That was a story – like Charlie’s, I suppose, and Bee no more made a fuss about it than I should do. It was after, when Bee was standing by Aubrey, like – like Joan of Arc; yes, of course I shall call him Aubrey – I should like to have him for a brother, but that has got nothing to do with it. A lady came to call upon mamma, and she told a story about someone on the railway who had met Aubrey on the way home after that scene at Cologne, after he was engaged to Bee, and was miserable because of papa’s opposition.” Betty spoke so fast that her words tumbled over each other, so to speak, in the rush for utterance. “Well, he was seen,” she resumed, pausing for breath, “putting a young woman with children into one of the sleeping carriages – a poor young woman that had no money or right to be there. He put her in, and when they got to London he was seen talking to her, and giving her money, as if she belonged to him. I don’t see any harm in that, for he was always kind to poor people. But these ladies did, and I suppose so did mamma, and Bee blazed up. That is just like her. She takes fire, she never waits to ask questions, she stops her ears. She thought it was something dreadful, showing that he had never cared for her, that he had cared for other people even when he was pretending, I should have done quite different. I should have said, ‘Now, look here, Aubrey, what does it mean?’ – or, rather, I should never have thought anything but that he was kind. He was always kind – silly, indeed, about poor people, as so many are.”
Mrs. Leigh had followed Betty’s rapid narrative with as much attention as she could concentrate upon it, but the speed with which the words flew forth, the little interruptions, the expressions of Betty’s matured and wise opinions, bewildered her beyond measure.
“What does it all mean?” she asked, looking from one to another when the story was done. “A sleeping carriage on the railway – a woman with children – as if she belonged to him? How could a woman with children belong to him?” Then she paused and grew crimson with an old woman’s painful blush. “Is it vice, horrible vulgar vice, this child is attributing to my boy?”
The two girls stared, confused and troubled. Bee got up from the sofa and put her hands to her head, her eyes fixed upon Mrs. Leigh with an appalled and horrified look. She had not asked herself of what Aubrey had been accused. She had fled from him before the dreadful thought of relationships she did not understand, of something which was the last insult to her, whatever it might be in itself. “Vulgar vice!” The girls were cowed as if some guilt had been imputed to themselves.
“You are not like anything I have known, you girls of the period,” cried the angry mother. “You are acquainted with such things as I at my age had never heard of. You make accusations! But now – he shall answer for himself,” she said, flaming with righteous wrath. Mrs. Leigh went to the bell and rang it so violently that the sound echoed all over the house.
“Go and ask your master to come here at once, directly; I want him this moment,” she said, stamping her foot in her impatience. And then there was a pause. The man went off and was seen from the window to cross the street on his errand. Then Bee rose, her tears hastily dried up, pushing back from her forehead her disordered hair.
“I had better go. If you have sent for Mr. Leigh it will be better that I should go.”
Mrs. Leigh was almost incapable of speech. She took Bee by the shoulders and put her back almost violently on the sofa. “You shall stay there,” she said, in a choked and angry voice.
What a horrible pause it was! The girls were silent, looking at each other with wild alarm. Betty, who had blurted out the story, but to whom the idea of repeating it before Aubrey – before a man – was unspeakable horror, made a step towards the door. Then she said, “No, I will not run away,” with tremendous courage. “It is not our fault,” she added, after a pause. “Bee, if I have got to say it again, give me your hand.”
“It is I who ought to say it,” said Bee, pale with the horror of what was to come. “Vulgar vice!” And she to accuse him, and to stand up before the world and say that was why!
It seemed a long time, but it was really only a few minutes, before Aubrey appeared. He came in quickly, breathless with haste and suspense. He expected, from what his mother had told him, to find Miss Lance and Colonel Kingsward there. He came into the agitated room and found, of all people in the world, Bee and Betty, terrified, and his mother, walking about the room sounding, as it were, a metaphorical lash about their ears, in the frank passion of an elder woman who has the most just cause of offence and no reason to bate her breath. There was something humorous in the tragic situation, but to them it was wholly tragic, and Aubrey, seeing for the first time after so long an interval the girl he loved, and seeing her in such strange circumstances, was by no means disposed to see any humorous side.
“Here, Aubrey!” said his mother, “I have called upon you to hear what you are accused of. You thought it was Laura Lance, but she has nothing to do with it. You are accused of travelling from Germany, that time when you were sent off from Cologne – the time those Kingswards turned upon you” – (the girls both started, and recovered themselves a little at the shock of this contemptuous description), – “travelling in sleeping carriages and I know not what with a woman and children, who were believed to belong to you! What have you to say?”
“That was not what I said, Mrs. Leigh.”
“What have you to say?” cried Mrs. Leigh, waving her hand to silence Betty; “the accused has surely the right to speak first.”
“What have I to say? But to what, mother? What is it? Was I travelling with a woman and children? I suppose I was travelling – with all the women and children that were in the same train. But otherwise, of course you know I was with nobody. What does it mean?”
Bee got up from the sofa like a ghost, her blue eyes wild, her face pale. “Oh, let us go, let us go! Do not torment us,” she said. “I will acknowledge that it was not true. Now that I see him I am sure that it was not true. I was mad. I was so stung to think – Mrs. Leigh, do not kill me! I did him no harm; do not, do not go over it any more!”
“Go over what?” cried Aubrey. “Bee! She can’t stand, she doesn’t see where she is going. Mother, what on earth does it matter what was against me if it is all over? Mother! How dare you torture my poor girl – ?”
This was naturally all the thanks Mrs. Leigh got for her efforts to unravel the mystery, which the reader knows was the most innocent mystery, and which had never been cleared up or thought of since that day. It came clear of itself the moment that Aubrey, only to support her, took Bee into his arms.
The Sorceress walked away very slowly down the street.
She had the sensation of having fallen from a great height, after the excitement of having fought bravely to keep her place there, and of having anticipated every step of a combat still more severe which yet had not come to pass after her previsions. It had been a fight lasting for hours, from the moment Betty, all unconscious, had told her of the house in which Charlie was. That was in the morning, and now it was late afternoon, and the work of the day, the common work of the day in which all the innocent common people about had been employed, was rounding towards its end. It seemed to her a long, long time that she had been involved, first in imagination, in severe thought, and then in actual conflict – in this struggle, fighting for her life. From the beginning she had made up her mind that she should fail. It was a consciously losing game that she had fought so gallantly, never giving in; and indeed she was not unaware, nor was she without a languid satisfaction in the fact that she had indeed carried off the honours of the field, that it would not be said that she had been beaten. But what did that matter? Argument she knew and felt had nothing to do with such affairs. She had known herself to have lost from the moment she saw Colonel Kingsward standing there against the mantelpiece in the dining-room. It had not been possible for her then to give in, to turn and go forth into the street flinging down her arms. On the contrary, it was her nature to fight to the last; and she had carried off an apparent victory. She had marched off with colours flying from the field of battle, leaving every enemy confounded. But she herself entertained no illusion in the matter. It was possible no doubt that her spell might yet be strong enough upon her middle-aged captive to make him ignore and pass over everything that told against her – but, after considering the situation with a keen and close survey of every likelihood, she dismissed that hope. No, her chance was lost – again; the battle was over – again. It had been so near being successful that the shock was greater perhaps than usual; but she had now been feeling the shock for hours; so that her actual fall was as much a relief as a pang, and her mind, full of resource, obstinately sanguine, was becoming ready to pass on to the next chance, and had already sprung up to think – What now?
I am sorry that in this story I have always been placed in natural opposition to this woman, who was certainly a creature full of interest, full of resource, and indomitable in her way. And she had a theory of existence, as, it is my opinion, we all must have, making out to ourselves the most plausible reasons and excuses for all we do. Her struggle – in which she would not have denied that she had sometimes been unscrupulous – had always been for a standing-ground on which, if once attained, she could have been good. She had always promised herself that she would be good when once she had attained – oh, excellent! kind, just, true! – a model woman. And what, after all, had been her methods? There had been little harm in them. Here and there somebody had been injured, as in the case of Aubrey Leigh, of Charlie Kingsward. To the first she had indeed done considerable harm, but then she had soothed the life of Amy, his little foolish wife, to whom she had been more kind than she had been unkind to him. She had not wanted to be the third person between that tiresome couple. She had stayed in his house from a kind of sense of duty, and had Aubrey Leigh indeed asked her to become his second wife she would, of course, have accepted him for the sake of the position, but with a grimace. She was not particularly sorry for having harmed him. It served him right for – well, for being Aubrey Leigh. And as for Bee Kingsward, she had triumphantly proved, much to her own surprise it must be said, that it was not she who had done Bee any harm. Then Charlie – poor Charlie, poor boy! He thought, of course, that he was very miserable and badly used. Great heavens! that a boy should have the folly to imagine that anything could make him miserable, at twenty-two – a man, and with all the world before him. Miss Lance at this moment was not in the least sorry for Charlie. It would do him good. A young fellow who had nothing in the world to complain of, who had everything in his favour – it was good for him to be unhappy a little, to be made to remember that he was only flesh and blood after all.
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