Margaret Oliphant.

The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3



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Thus she came to the conclusion, as she walked along, that really she had done no harm to other people. To herself, alas! she was always doing harm, and every failure made it more and more unlikely that she would ever succeed. She did not brood over her losses when she was thus defeated. She turned to the next thing that offered with what would have been in a better cause a splendid philosophy, but yet in moments like this she felt that it became every day more improbable that she would ever succeed. Instead of the large and liberal sphere in which she always hoped to be able to fulfil all the duties of life in an imposing and remarkable way, she would have probably to drop into – what? A governess’s place, for which she would already be thought too old, some dreadful position about a school, some miserable place as housekeeper – she with all her schemes, her hopes of better things, her power over others. This prospect was always before her, and came back to her mind at moments when she was at the lowest ebb, for she had no money at all. She had always been dependent upon somebody. Even now her little campaign in George Street, Hanover Square, was at the expense of the friend with whom she had lived in Oxford, and who believed Laura was concerting measures to establish herself permanently in some remunerative occupation. These accounts would have to be settled somehow, and some other expedient be found by which to try again. Well, one thing done with, another to come on – was not that the course of life? And there was a certain relief in the thought that it was done with. The suspense was over; there was no longer the conflict between hope and fear, which wears out the nerves and clouds the clearness of one’s mental vision. One down, another come on! She said this to herself with a forlorn laugh in the depths of her being, yet not so very forlorn. This woman had a kind of pleasure in the new start, even when she did not know what it was to be. There are a great many things in which I avow I have the greatest sympathy with her, and find her more interesting than a great many blameless people. Poetic justice is generally in books awarded to such persons. But that is, one is aware, not always the case in life.

While Miss Lance went on quietly along the long unlovely street, with those thoughts in her mind, walking more slowly than usual, a little languid and exhausted after her struggle, but as has been said frankly and without arriere pense? giving up the battle as lost, and accepting her defeat – she became suddenly aware of a quick firm footstep behind, sounding fast and continuous upon the pavement. A woman like this has all her wits very sharply about her, the ears and the sight of a savage, and an unslumbering habit of observation, or she could never carry on her career. She heard the step and instinctively noted it before her mind awoke to any sense of meaning and importance in it. Then, all at once, as it came just to that distance behind which made it apparent that this footstep was following someone who went before, it suddenly slackened without stopping, became slow when it had been fast.

At this, her thoughts flew away like a mist and she became all ears, but she was too wise to turn round, to display any interest. Perhaps it might be that he was only going his own way, not intending to follow, and that he had slackened his pace unconsciously without ulterior motives when he saw her in front of him – though this Miss Lance scarcely believed.

Perhaps – I will not affirm it – she threw a little more of her real languor and weariness into her attitude and movements when she made this exciting discovery. She was, in reality, very tired. She had looked so when she left the house; perhaps she had forgotten her great fatigue a little in the course of her walk, but it now came back again with double force, which is not unusual in the most matter of fact circumstances. As her pace grew slower, the footstep behind became slower also, but always followed on. Miss Lance proceeded steadily, choosing the quietest streets, pausing now and then at a shop window to rest. The climax came when she reached a window which had a rail round it, upon which she leaned heavily, every line of her dress expressing, with a faculty which her garments specially possessed, an exhaustion which could scarcely go further. Then she raised her head to look what the place was. It was full of embroideries and needlework, a woman’s shop, where she was sure of sympathy. She went in blindly, as if her very sight were clouded with her fatigue.

“I am very tired,” she said; “I want some silk for embroidery; but that is not my chief object. May I sit down a little? I am so very tired.”

“Certainly, ma’am, certainly,” cried the mistress of the shop, rushing round from behind the counter to place a chair for her and offer a glass of water. She sat down so as to be visible from the door, but still with her back to it. The step had stopped, and there was a shadow across the window – the tall shadow of a man looking in. A smile came upon Miss Lance’s face – of gratitude and thanks to the kind people – also perhaps of some internal satisfaction. But she did not act as if she were conscious of anyone waiting for her. She took the glass of water with many acknowledgments; she leant back on the chair murmuring, “Thanks, thanks,” to the exhortations of the shop-woman not to hurry, to take a good rest. She did not hurry at all. Finally, she was so much better as to be able to buy her silks, and, declaring herself quite restored, to go out again into the open air.

She was met by the shadow that had been visible through the window, and which, as she knew very well, was Colonel Kingsward, stiff and embarrassed, yet with great anxiety in his face. “I feared you were ill,” he said, with a little jerk, the words coming in spite of him. “I feared you were fainting.”

“Oh, Colonel Kingsward, you!”

“Yes – I feared you were fainting. It is – nothing, I hope?”

“Nothing but exhaustion,” she said, with a faint smile. “I was very tired, but I have rested and I am a little better now.”

“Will you let me call a cab for you? You don’t seem fit to walk.”

“Oh, no cab, thanks! I would much rather walk – the air and the slow movement does one a little good.”

She was pale, and her voice was rather faint, and every line of her dress, as I have said, was tired – tired to death – and yet not ungracefully tired.

“I cannot let you go like this alone.” His voice softened every moment; they went on for a step or two together. “You had better – take my arm, at least,” he said.

She took it with a little cry and a sudden clasp. “I think you are not a mere man, but an archangel of kindness and goodness,” she said, with a faint laugh that broke down, and tears in her eyes.

And I think for that moment, in the extraordinary revulsion of feeling, Miss Lance almost believed what she said.

CHAPTER XIX

What more is there to say? It is better, when one is able to deal poetic justice all round, to reward the good and punish the evil. Who are the good and who are the evil? We have not to do with murderers, with breakers of the law, with enemies of God or man. If Aubrey Leigh had not been exceedingly imprudent, if Bee had not been hot-headed and passionate, there would never have been that miserable breach between them. And the Sorceress, who destroyed for a time the peace of the Kingsward family, really never at any time meant that family any real harm. She meant them indeed, to her own consciousness, all the good in the world, and to promote their welfare in every way by making them her own. And as a matter of fact she did so, devoting herself to their welfare. She made Colonel Kingsward an excellent wife and adopted his children into her sedulous and unremitting care with a zeal which a mother could not have surpassed. Her translation from scheming poverty to abundance, and that graceful modest wealth which is almost the most beautiful of the conditions of life, was made in a way which was quite exquisite as a work of art. Nobody could ever have suspected that she had been once poor. She had all the habits of the best society. There was nowhere they could go, even into the most exalted regions, where the new Mrs. Kingsward was not distinguished. She extended the Colonel’s connections and interest, and made his house popular and delightful; and she was perfect for his children. Even the county people and near neighbours, who were the most critical, acknowledged this. The little girls soon learned to adore their step-mother; the big boys admired and stood in awe of her, submitting more or less to her influence, though a little suspicious and sometimes half hostile. As for baby, who had been in a fair way of growing up detestable and a little family tyrant, his father’s new marriage was the saving of him. He scarcely knew as he grew up that the former Miss Lance was not his mother, and he was said in the family to be her idol, but a very well disciplined and well behaved idol, and the one of the boys who was likely to have the finest career.

Charlie, poor Charlie, was not so fortunate, at least at first. The appointment which Colonel Kingsward declared he had been looking out for all along was got as soon as Charlie was able to accept it, and he left England when he was little more than convalescent. People said it was strange that a man with considerable influence, and in the very centre of affairs, should have sent his eldest son away to the ends of the earth, to a dangerous climate and a difficult post. But it turned out very well on the whole, for after a few years of languor and disgust with the world, there suddenly fell in Charlie’s way an opportunity of showing that there was, after all, a great deal of English pluck and courage in him. I do not think it came to anything more than that – but then that, at certain moments, has been the foundation and the saving of the British Empire in various regions of the world. There was not one of his relations who celebrated Charlie’s success with so much fervour as his step-mother, who was never tired of talking of it, nor of declaring that she had always expected as much, and known what was in him. Dear Charlie, she said, had fulfilled all her expectations, and made her more glad and proud than words could say. It was a poor return for this maternal devotion, yet a melancholy fact, that Charlie turned away in disgust whenever he heard of her, and could not endure her name.

Bee, whose little troubles have been so much the subject of this story, accomplished her fate by becoming Mrs. Aubrey Leigh in the natural course of events. There was no family quarrel kept up to scandalise and amuse society, but there never was much intercourse nor any great cordiality between the houses of Kingswarden and Forestleigh. I think, however, that it was against her father that Bee’s heart revolted most.

THE END

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