The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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“Come,” said Miss Lance, indicating a certain chair, “sit down here by me, Colonel Kingsward, and let us not talk commonplaces any longer. You have been obliged to stay longer than you intended. I had been thinking of you as in London to-day.”
“It was very kind to think of me at all.”
“Oh, don’t say so – that is one of the commonplaces too. Of course, I have been thinking of you with a great deal of interest, and with some rather rebellious, undutiful sort of thoughts.”
“What thoughts?” cried the Colonel, in surprise.
“Well,” she said, “it is a great blessing, no doubt, to have children – to women, perhaps, an unalloyed blessing; and yet, you know, an unattached person like myself cannot help a grudge occasionally. Here are you, for instance, in the prime of life; your thoughts about everything matured, your reason more important to the world than any of the escapades of youth, and yet you are depleted from your own grave path in life; your mind occupied, your thoughts distracted; really your use to your country interrupted by – by what are called the cares of a family,” she concluded, with a short laugh.
She spoke with much use of her hands in graceful movement that could scarcely be called gesticulation – clasping them together, spreading them out, making them emphasise everything. And they were very white and pretty hands, with a diamond on one, which sparkled at appropriate moments, and added its special emphasis too.
The Colonel was flattered with this description of himself and his capacities.
“There is great truth,” he said, “in what you say. I have felt it, but for a father at the head of a family to put forth such sentiments would shock many good people.”
“Fortunately there are no good people here, and if there were I might still express them freely. It is a thing that strikes me every day. In feeble specimens it destroys the individuality; in strong characters like yourself – ”
“You do me too much honour, Miss Lance. My position, you are aware, is doubly unfortunate, for I have all upon my shoulders. Still, one must do one’s duty at whatever cost.”
“That would be your feeling, of course,” said Miss Lance, with a sort of admiring and regretful expression. “For my part, I am the most dreadful rebel. I kick against duty. I think a man has a duty to himself. To stint a noble human being for the sake of nourishing some half-dozen secondary ones, is to me – Oh, don’t let us talk of it! Tell me, dear Colonel Kingsward, have you got everything satisfactorily settled, and heard of the arrival – ? Oh,” she cried, clasping those white hands, “how can I sit here calmly and ask, seeing that I have a share in causing all this trouble – though, heaven knows, how unintentionally on my part!”
“Don’t say so,” said the Colonel, putting his hands for a second on those clasped white hands. “I am sure that you can have done nothing but good to my foolish boy. To be admitted here at all was too much honour.”
“I shall never be able to take an interest in anyone again,” she said, drooping her head.“It is so strange, so strange to have one’s motives misunderstood, but you don’t do so. I am so thankful I had the courage to go to you. My friend dissuaded me strongly from taking such a step. She said that a parent would naturally blame anyone rather than his own son – ”
“My dear Miss Lance, who could blame you? I don’t know,” said the Colonel, “that I blame poor Charlie so much either. To be much in your company might well be dangerous for any man.”
“You must not speak so – indeed, indeed, you must not! I feel more and more ashamed! When a woman comes to a certain age – and has no children of her own. Surely, surely – ”
“Come!” he cried. “You said a parent’s cares destroyed one’s individuality – ”
“Not with a woman. What individuality has a woman? The only use of her is to sink that pride in a better – the pride of being of some use. What I regretted was for you – and such as you – if there are enough of such to make a class – . Yes, yes,” she added, looking up, “I acknowledge the inconsistency. I have not sense enough to see the pity of it in all cases – but my real principle, my deep belief is that to draw a man like you away from your career, to trouble and distress you about others, who are not of half your value – is a thing that ought to be prevented by Act of Parliament,” she cried, breaking off with a laugh. “But you have not told me yet how everything has finished,” she added, in a confidential low tone, after a pause.
Then he told her in some detail what he had done. It was delightful to tell her, a woman so sympathising, so quick to understand, with that approving, consoling, remonstrating action of her white hands which seemed at the same moment to applaud and deprecate, with a constant inference that he was too good, that really he ought not to be so good. She laughed at his description of the Don, adding a graphic touch or two to make the picture more perfect – till Colonel Kingsward was surprised at himself to think how cleverly he had done it, and was delighted with his own success. This gave a slightly comic character to his other sketches of poor Charlie’s tradesmen, and scout, and an unutterable cad of a young fellow who had met the Colonel leaving the college and had told him of a small sum which Charlie owed him.
“The little beast!” the Colonel said.
“Worse!” cried Miss Lance, “I would not slander any gentlemanly dog by calling him of the same species.”
Altogether, her interest and sympathy changed this not particularly lively occasion into one of the brightest moments of Colonel Kingsward’s life. He had not been used to a woman so clever, who took him up at half a word, and enhanced the interest of everything. Had he been asked, indeed, he would have said that he did not like clever women. But then Miss Lance had other qualities. She was very handsome, and she had an evident and undisguised admiration for him. She was so very frank and sure of her position as a woman of a certain age – a qualification which she appropriated to herself constantly, though most women thought it an insult – that she did not find it needful to conceal that admiration. When he thanked her for her kindness for the patient hearing of all his story, and the interest she had shown, to which he had so little claim, Miss Lance smiled and held out those white hands.
“I assure you,” she said, “the benefit is all on my side. Living here among very young men, you must think what it is to talk to, to be treated confidentially, by a man like yourself. It is like a glance into another life.” She sighed, and added, “The young are delightful. I am very fond of young people. Still, to meet now and then with someone of one’s own age, of one’s own species, if I may say so – ”
“You do me too much honour,” said Colonel Kingsward, feeling with a curious elation, how superior he was. She went with him to the garden gate, not afraid of the wintry air, showing no sense of the chill, and though she had given him her hand before, offered it again with the sweetest friendliness.
“And you promised,” she said, looking in his face while he held it, “that you would send me one line when you got home, to tell me how you find him – and that all is well – and forgiven.”
“I shall be too happy to be permitted to write,” Colonel Kingsward said.
“Forgiven,” she said, “and forgotten!” holding up a finger of the other hand, the hand with the diamond. She stood for a moment watching while he closed the low gate, and then, waving her hand to him, turned away. Colonel Kingsward had never been a finer fellow, in his own estimation, than when he walked slowly off from that closed door.
I will not repeat the often described scene of anxiety which existed in Kingswarden for some time after. Colonel Kingsward returned, as Bee had done, to find that nothing had been seen or heard of Charlie, whom both had expected to find defiant and wretched at home. It is astonishing how quickly in such circumstances the tables are turned, and the young culprit – whom parents and friends have been ready to crush the moment he appears with well-deserved rebuke – becomes, when he does not appear, the object of the most eager appeals; forgiveness, and advantages of every kind all ready to greet him if only he will come back. The girls were frightened beyond description by their brother’s disappearance, and conjured up every dreadful image of disaster and misery. They thought of Charlie in his despair going off to the ends of the earth and never being seen more. They thought of him as in some wretched condition on shipboard, sick and miserable, reduced to dreadful work and still more dreadful privations, he who had lain in the lilies and fed on the roses of life. They thought of him, Colonel Kingsward’s son, enlisted as a private soldier, in a crowded barrack-room. They thought of him wandering about the street, cold, perhaps hungry, without a shelter. The most dreadful images came before their inexperienced eyes. The old aunt who was their companion told them dreadful stories of family prodigals who disappeared and were never heard of again, and terror took hold of the girls’ minds.
Their constant walk was to the station, with the idea that he might perhaps come as far as the village, and that there his heart might fail him. Except for that melancholy indulgence, they would not be out of the house at any time together, lest at that moment Charlie might arrive, and no one be there to welcome him. There was always one who ran to the door at every sound, scandalising the servant, who could never get there so fast but one of the young ladies was before him. They had endless conversations and consultations on the subject, forming a hundred plans as to how they should go forth into the world to seek for him, all rendered abortive by the reflection that they knew not where to go. Bee and Betty were very unhappy during these lingering, chilly days of early spring. The tranquillity of the family life seemed to be destroyed in a moment. Where was Charlie? Was there any news of Charlie? This was the question that filled their minds day and night.
Colonel Kingsward was not less affectionate, but he was more practical and experienced. He knew that now and then it does happen that a young man disappears, sinks under the stream, and goes, as people say, to the dogs, and is heard of no more – or, at least, only in a shipwrecked condition, the shame and trouble of his friends. It did not seem to him, at first, that there could be any such danger for his son. He anticipated nothing more than a few days’ sullenness, perhaps in some friend’s house, who would make cautious overtures and intercede for the rebellious but shame-stricken boy. When, however, the time passed on, and a longer interval than any judicious friend would permit had elapsed, a deep anxiety arose also in Colonel Kingsward’s mind. The esclandre of an Oxford failure did not trouble him much, but, in view of Charlie’s future career, he could not employ detectives, or advertise in the papers, or take any steps which might lead to a paragraph as to the anxiety of a distinguished family on account of a son who had disappeared. Colonel Kingsward might not be a very tender parent, but he was fully alive to the advantage of his children, and would allow no stigma to be attached to them which he could prevent. He went a great deal about London in these days, going into many a spot where a man of his dignity was out of place, with an anxious and troubled eye upon the crowds of young men, the familiars of these confused regions, among whom, however, no trace was to be found of his son.
Nobody ever knew how much the Colonel undertook, in how many strange scenes he found himself, or half of what he really did to recover Charlie, and save him from the consequences of his folly. The most devoted father could scarcely have done more, and his mind was almost as full of the prodigal as were the minds of the girls, who thought of so many grievous dangers, yet did not think of those that filled their father’s mind. Colonel Kingsward went about everywhere, groping, saying not a word to betray his ignorance of Charlie’s whereabouts. To those who had any right to know his family affairs, he explained that he had decided not to press Charlie to undergo any examination beyond what was necessary, that he had given up the thought of taking his degree, and was studying modern languages and international law, which were so much more likely to be useful to him. “He is a steady fellow – he has no vices,” he said, “and I think it is wise to let him have his head.” Colonel Kingsward was by nature a despotic man, and his friends were very glad to hear that he was, in respect to Charlie, so amiable – they said to each other that his wife’s death had softened Kingsward, and what a good thing it was that he was behaving so judiciously about his son.
A pause like this in the life of a family – a period of darkness in which the life of one of its members is suspended, interrupted, as it were, in mid career, cut off, yet not with that touch of death which stills all anxieties – is always a difficult and miserable one. Some, and the number increases of these uncontrolled persons, cry out to earth and heaven, and make the lapse public and set all the world talking of their affairs. But Colonel Kingsward sternly put down even the tears of his young daughters.
“If you cannot keep a watch over yourselves before the servants, you had better leave the house,” he said, all the more stern to them that he was soft to Charlie; but indeed it was not so much that he was soft to Charlie as that he was concerned and anxious about Charlie’s career.
“Betty, I suppose, can go back to the Lyons’ in Portman Square, and Bee – ”
“If you think that I can go visiting, papa, and no one with the children, and poor Charlie – ”
“I think – and, indeed, I know, that you can and will do what I think best for you,” said Colonel Kingsward.
Bee looked up at him quickly and met her father’s eyes. The two looked at each other suspiciously, almost fiercely. Bee saw in her father’s look possibilities and dangers as yet undeveloped, mysteries which she divined and feared, yet neither could nor would have put into words, while he looked at her divining her divinations, defying unconsciously the suspicion which he could not have expressed any more than she.
“Let it be understood once for all,” he said, “that the children have their nurses and governess, and that your presence is by no means indispensable to them. You are their eldest sister, you are not the mistress of the house. Nothing will happen to the children. In considering what is best for you – ”
“Papa!” cried Bee, almost fiercely; but she did not pour out upon him that bitterness which had been collecting in her heart. She paused in time; but then added, “I have not asked you to consider what was best for me.”
“That is enough to show that it is time for me to consider it,” he said.
And then, once more their looks met, and clashed like the encounter of two armies. What did she suspect? What did he intend? They both breathed short, as if with the impulse of battle, but neither, even to themselves, could have answered that question. Colonel Kingsward cried “Take care, Bee!” as he went away, a by no means happy man, to his library, while she threw herself down upon a sofa, and – inevitable result in a girl of any such rising of passion – burst into tears.
“Bee,” said the sensible Betty, “you ought not to speak like that to papa.”
“I ought to be thankful that he has considered what was best for me, and spoilt my life!” cried Bee, through her tears. “Oh, it is very easy for you to speak. You are to go to the Lyons’, where you wish to go – to be free of all anxiety – for what is Charlie to you but only your brother, and you know that you can’t do him any good by making yourself miserable about him? And you will see Gerald Lyon, who is doing well at Cambridge, and listen to all the talk about him, and smile, and not hate him for being so smug and prosperous, while poor Charlie – ”
“How unjust you are!” cried Betty, growing red and then pale. “It is not Gerald Lyon’s fault that Charlie has not done well – even if I cared anything for Gerald Lyon.”
“It is you who ought to take care,” said Bee, “if papa thinks it necessary to consider what is best for you.”
“There is nothing to consider,” said Betty, with a little movement of her hands.
“But it can never be so bad for you,” said Bee, with a tone of regret. “Never! To think that my life should be ruined and all ended for the sake of a woman – a woman – who has now ruined Charlie, and whom papa – oh, papa!” she cried, with a tone indescribable of exasperation and scorn and contempt.
“What is it about papa? You look at each other, you and he, like two tigers. You have got the same dreadful eyes. Yes, they are dreadful eyes; they give out fire. I wonder often that they don’t make a noise like an explosion. And Bee, you said yourself that there was something else. You never would have given in to papa, but there was something of your own that parted you from Aubrey – for ever. You said so, Bee – when his mother – ”
“Is there any need for bringing in any gentleman’s name?” cried Bee, with the dignity of a dowager. And then, ignoring her own rule, she burst forth, “What I have got against him is nothing to anyone – but that Aubrey Leigh should be insulted and rejected and turned away from our door, and that my heart should be broken because of a woman whom papa and Charlie – whom papa – ! He writes to her, and she writes to him – he tells her everything – he consults her about us, us, my mother’s children! And yet it was on her account that Aubrey Leigh was turned from the door – Oh, if you think I can bear that, you must think me more than flesh and blood!” Bee cried, the tears adding to the fire and sparkle of her blazing eyes.
“It isn’t very nice,” said little Betty, sagely, “but I am not so sure that it was her fault, for if you had stuck to Aubrey as you meant to do at first, your heart would not have been broken, and if Charlie had not been very silly, a person of that age could not have done him any harm; and then papa – . What can she do to papa? I suppose he thinks as she is old he may write to her as a friend and ask her advice. There is not any harm that I can see in that.”
Bee was too much agitated to make any reply to this. She resumed again, after a pause, as if Betty had not spoken: “He writes to her, and she writes to him, just as she did to Charlie, for I have seen them both – long letters, with that ridiculous “Laura,” and a big L, as if she were a girl. You can see them, if you like, at breakfast, when he reads them instead of his papers, and smiles to himself when he is reading them, and looks – ridiculous” – cried Bee, in her indignation. “Ridiculous! as if he were young too; a man who is father of all of us; and not much more than a year ago – . Oh, if I were not to speak I think the very trees would, and the bushes in the shrubbery! It is more than anyone can bear.”
“You are making up a story,” said Betty, wonderingly. “I don’t know what you mean.” Then she cried, carrying the war into the enemy’s country, “Oh, Bee, if you had not given him up, if you had been faithful to him! – now we should have had somebody to consult with, somebody that could have gone and looked for poor Charlie; for we are only two girls, and what can we do?”
Bee did not make any reply, but looked at her sister with startled eyes.
“Mamma was never against Aubrey Leigh,” said Betty, pursuing her advantage. “She never would have wished you to give him up. And it is all your own doing, not papa’s doing, or anyone’s. If I had ever cared for him I never, never should have given him up; and then we should have had as good as another brother, that could have gone into the world and hunted everywhere and brought Charlie home.”
The argument was taken up at hazard, a chance arrow lying in the young combatant’s way, without intention – but it went straight to its mark.
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