The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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When he went into his private room at his office, Colonel Kingsward found a card upon his table which increased the uneasiness in his mind, though he could not have told why. He took it up with great surprise and anger. “Mr. Aubrey Leigh.” He supposed it must have been a card left long ago, when Aubrey Leigh was Bee’s suitor, and had come repeatedly, endeavouring to shake her father’s determination. He looked at it contemptuously, and then pitched it into the fire.
What a strange perversity there is in these inanimate things! It seemed as if some malicious imp must have replaced that card there on that very morning to disturb him.
Colonel Kingsward did not remember how it was that the name, the sacred name, of Miss Lance was associated with that of Aubrey Leigh. He had been much surprised, as well as angry, at the manner in which Bee repeated that name, when she heard it first, with a vindictive jealousy (these words came instinctively to his mind) which was not comprehensible. He had refused indignantly to allow that she had ever heard the name before. Nevertheless, her cry awakened a vague association in his mind. Something or other, he could not recollect what, of connection, of suggestion, was in the sound. He threw Aubrey’s card into the fire, and endeavoured to dismiss all thought on the subject. But it was a difficult thing to do. It is to be feared that during those morning hours the work which Colonel Kingsward usually executed with so much exactitude, never permitting, as he himself stated, private matters – even such as the death of his wife or the disappearance of his son – to interfere with it, was carried through with many interruptions and pauses for thought, and at the earliest possible moment was laid aside for that other engagement which had nothing to do either with the office or the Service, though it was, he flattered himself, a duty, and one of the most lofty kind.
To save a noble creature, if possible, from the over generosity of her own heart; to convince her that such proceedings were inappropriate, inconsistent with her dignity, as well as apt to give occasion for the adversary to blaspheme – this was the mission which inspired him. If he thought of a natural turning towards himself, the friend of friends, in respect to whom the precautions he enforced were unnecessary, in consequence of these remonstrances, he kept it carefully in the background of his thoughts. It was a duty. This beautiful, noble woman, all frankness and candour, had taken the part of an angel in endeavouring to help him in his trouble. Could he permit her to sully even the tip of a wing of that generous effort. Certainly not! On the contrary, it became doubly his duty to protect her in every way.
This time Miss Lance was in her drawing-room, seated in one of the pair of chairs which were arranged for intimate conversation. She did not rise, but held out her hand to him, with a soft impulse towards the other – in which Colonel Kingsward accordingly seated himself, with a solemnity upon his brow which she had no difficulty in interpreting, quick-witted as she was.She did not loose a shade upon that forehead, a note of additional gravity in his voice. She knew as well as he did the duty which he had come to perform. And she was a woman – not only quick-witted and full of a definite aim, but one who took real pleasure in her own dexterity, and played her r?le with genuine enjoyment. She allowed him to open the conversation with much dignified earnestness, and even to begin, “My dear Miss Lance,” his countenance charged with warning before she cut the ground from under his feet in the lightest, yet most complete way.
“I know you are going to say something very serious when you adopt that tone, so please let me discharge my mind first. Mrs. Revel kindly came to me after you left yesterday, and she has made every inquiry – indeed, as she compelled me to go back with her to dinner, I saw for myself – ”
“Mrs. Revel?” said the Colonel.
“Didn’t you know he was married? Oh, yes, to a great friend of mine, a dear little woman. It is in their house I meet my artists, whom I told you of. Tuesday is her night, and they were all there. I was able to make my investigations without any betrayal. But I am very, very sorry to say, dear Colonel Kingsward, equally without any effect.”
“Without any effect,” Colonel Kingsward repeated, confused. He was not so quick-witted as she was, and it took him some time to make his way through these mazes. Revel, the painter, was a name, indeed, that he had heard vaguely, but his wife, so suddenly introduced, and her “night,” and the people described as my artists, wound him in webs of bewilderment through which it was very difficult to guide his steps. It became apparent to him, however, after a moment, that whatever those things might mean, the ground had been cut from under his feet. “Does Mrs. Revel know?” he added after a moment, in his bewilderment.
“Know – our poor dear boy? Oh, yes; I took him there – in my foolish desire to do the best I could for him, and thinking that to see other circles outside of his own was good for a young man. I couldn’t take him the round of the studios, you know – could I? But I took him to the Revels. She is a charming little woman, a woman whom I am very fond of, and – more extraordinary still, don’t you think, Colonel Kingsward? – who is fond of me.”
The Colonel was not up to the mark in this emergency. He did not give the little compliment which is expected after such a speech. He sat dumb, a dull, middle-aged blush rising over his face. He had no longer anything to say; instead of the serious, even impassioned remonstrance which he was about to address to her, he could only murmur a faint assent, a question without meaning. And in place of the generous, imprudent creature, following her own hasty impulses, disregarding the opinion of the world, whom he had expected to find, here was female dignity in person, regulated by all the nicest laws of propriety. He was struck dumb – the ground was cut from beneath his feet.
“This is only an interruption on my part. You were going to say something to me? And something serious? I prize so much everything you say that I must not lose it. Pray say it now, dear Colonel Kingsward. Have I done something you don’t like? I am ready to accept even blame – though you know what women are in that way, always standing out that they are right – from you.”
Colonel Kingsward looked at her, helpless, still without a word to say. There was surely a laughing demon in her eyes which saw through and through him and knew the trouble in his mind; but her face was serious, appealing, a little raised towards him, waiting for his words as if her fate hung upon them. The colour rose over his middle-aged countenance to the very hair which was beginning to show traces of white over his high forehead.
“Blame!” he stammered, scarcely knowing what he said, “I hope you don’t think me quite a fool.”
“What,” she cried, picking him up as it were on the end of her lance, holding him out to the scorn – if not of the world, yet of himself. “Do you think so little of a woman, Colonel Kingsward, that you would not take the trouble to find fault with her? Ah! Don’t be so hard! You would not be a fool if you did that – you should find that I would take it with gratitude, accept it, be guided by it. Believe me, I am worthy, if you think me in the wrong, to be told so – I am, indeed I am!”
Were these tears in her fine eyes? She made them look as if they were, and filled him with a compunction and a shame of his own superficial judgment impossible to put into words.
“I – think you wrong!” he said, stammering and faltering. “I would as soon think that – heaven was wrong. I – blame you! Dear Miss Laura, how, how can you imagine such a thing? I should be a miserable idiot indeed if – ”
“Come,” she said, “I begin to think you didn’t mean – now that you have called me by my name.”
“I beg you a thousand pardons. I – I – It was a slip of the tongue. It was – from the signature to your letters – which is somehow so like you – ”
“Yes,” she said. “It pleases me very much that you should think so – more like me than Lance. Lance! What a name! My mother made a m?salliance. I don’t give up my father, poor dear, though he has saddled me with such a family – but Laura is me, whereas Lance is only – an accident.”
“An accident that may be removed,” he said, involuntarily. It was a thing that might be said to any unmarried woman, a conventional sort of half compliment, which custom would have permitted him to put in even stronger terms – but to her! When he had said it horror seized his soul.
“No,” she said, gently shaking her head. “No. At my age one does not recover from an accident like that; one must bear the scar all one’s days. And you really had nothing to find fault with me about?”
“How monstrous!” he cried, “to entertain such a thought.” Then, for he was really uneasy in his sense of guilt, he plunged into a new snare. “My little daughter, Betty,” he said, “is coming to town to-day to visit some friends in Portman Square. I wonder if I might bring her to see you.”
“Your daughter!” cried Miss Lance, clasping her hands, “a thing I did not venture to ask – the very first desire of my heart. Your daughter! I would go anywhere to see her. If you will be so nice, so sweet, so kind as to bring her, Colonel Kingsward!”
“I shall, indeed, to-morrow. It will do her good to see you. At her susceptible age the very sight of such a woman as you – ”
“No compliments,” she cried, “if I am not to be blamed I must not be praised either – and I deserve it much less. Is she the eldest?” There was a gleam under her half-dropped eyelids which the Colonel was vaguely aware of but did not understand.
“The second,” he said. “My eldest girl is Bee, in many respects a stronger character than her sister, but on the other hand – ”
“I know,” said Miss Lance, “a little wilful, fond of her own way and her own opinion. Oh, that is a good fault in a girl! When they are a little chastened they turn out the finest women. But I understand what a man must feel for this little sweet thing who has not begun to have a will of her own.”
It was not perhaps a very perfect characterisation of Betty, but still it flattered him to see how she entered into his thoughts. “I think you understand everything,” he said.
It was not with any intention, but solely to deliver himself from the dilemma in which he found himself – the inconceivable error he had made, imagining that it was necessary to censure, however gently, and warn against too much freedom of action, a woman so absolutely above reproach, and so full of ladylike dignity as Miss Lance – that Colonel Kingsward had named the name of Betty, his little daughter, just arrived in that immaculate stronghold of the correct and respectable Portman Square. He was a little uneasy about it when he thought of it afterwards. He was not sure that he desired even Betty to be aware of his intimacy with Miss Lance. He felt that her youthful presence would change, in some degree, the character of his relations with the enchantress who was stealing his wits away. The kind of conversation that had arisen so naturally between them, the sentiment, the confidences, the singular strain of mutual understanding which he felt, with mingled pride and bashfulness – bashfulness sat strangely upon the much-experienced Colonel, yet such was his feeling – to exist between Laura and himself, must inevitably sustain certain modifications under the sharp eyes of the child. She would not understand that subtle but strong link of friendship. He would require to be more distant, to treat his exquisite friend more like an ordinary acquaintance while under the inspection of Betty, even though he was perfectly assured that Betty knew nothing about such matters. And what, then, would Laura say? Confident as she was in her own perfect honour and candour, would she understand the subdued manner, the more formal address which would be necessary in the presence of the child? It was true that she understood everything without a word said; but then her own entire innocence of any motive but those of heavenly kindness and friendship might induce her to laugh at his precautions. Was it, perhaps, because he felt his motives to be not unmingled that the Colonel felt this? Anyhow, the introduction of Betty, whom he had snatched at in his haste to save him from the consequences of his own folly, would be a trouble to the intercourse which, as it was, was so consolatory and so sweet.
It must be added that Miss Lance, before he left her, had been very consolatory to him on the subject of Charlie, which, though always lying at the bottom of his thoughts, had begun in the midst of these new developments to weigh upon him less, perhaps, than it was natural it should have done. She had suggested that Charlie had friends in Scotland, that he had most probably gone there to avoid for a time his father’s wrath, that in all probability he was enjoying himself, and very well cared for, putting off from day to day the necessity of writing.
“He never was, I suppose, much of a correspondent?” she said.
“No,” Colonel Kingsward had replied, doubtfully; for indeed there never had been anything at all to call correspondence between him and his son. Charlie had written to his mother, occasionally to his sisters, but to his father, save when he wanted money, scarcely at all.
“Then this is what has happened,” said Laura; “he has gone off to be as far out of the way as possible. He is fishing in Loch Tay – or he is playing golf somewhere – you know his habits.”
“And so it seems do you,” said the Colonel, a little jealous of his son.
“Oh, you know how a boy chatters of everything he does and likes.”
Colonel Kingsward nodded his head gloomily. He did not know how boys chattered – no boy had ever chattered to him; but he accepted with a moderate satisfaction the fact that she, Laura, from whom he felt that he himself could have no secret, had taken, and did take, the trouble of turning the heart even – of a boy – outside in.
“Depend upon it,” said Miss Lance, “that is where he has gone, and he has not meant to make you anxious. Perhaps he thinks you have never discovered that he had left Oxford, and he has meant to write day by day. Don’t you know how one does that? It is a little difficult to begin, and one says, ‘To-morrow,’ and then ‘To-morrow’; and the time flies on. Dear Colonel Kingsward, you will find that all this time he is quite happy on Loch Tay.” She held out her hand to emphasise these words, and the Colonel, though all unaccustomed to such signs of enthusiasm, kissed that hand which held out comfort to him. It was a beautiful hand, so soft, like velvet, so yielding and flexible in his, and yet so firm in its delicate pressure. He went away with his head slightly turned, and the blood coursing through his veins. But when he thought of little Betty he dropped down, down into a blank of decorum and commonplace. Before Betty he certainly could not kiss any lady’s hand. He would have to shake hands with Laura as he did with old Mrs. Lyon in Portman Square, who, indeed, was a much older friend. This thought gave him a little feeling of contrariety and uneasiness in the contemplation of his promise to take his little girl to George Street, Hanover Square.
And next morning when he went into his office, Colonel Kingsward’s annoyance and indignation could not be expressed when he found once more upon his writing-table, placed in a conspicuous position so that he could not overlook it, the card of Mr. Aubrey Leigh. Who had fished it out of the waste paper basket and placed it there? He rang his bell hastily to overwhelm his attendant with angry reproof. He could not have told himself, why it made him so angry to see that card. It looked like some vulgar interference with his most private affairs.
“Where did you find this card?” he said, angrily, “and why is it replaced here? I threw it into the fire – or somewhere, yesterday – and here it is again as if the man had called to-day.”
“The gentleman did call, sir, yesterday.”
“What?” cried Colonel Kingsward, in a voice like a trumpet; but the man stood his ground.
“The gentleman did call, sir, yesterday. He has called two or three times; once when you were in the country. He seemed very anxious to see you. I said two o’clock for a general thing, but you have been leaving the office earlier for a day or two.”
“You are very impertinent to say anything of the kind, or to give anyone information of my private movements; see that it never occurs again. And as for this gentleman,” he held up his card for a moment, looked at it contemptuously and then pitched it once more into the fireplace, “be so good as to understand that I will not see him, whether he comes at two or at any other hour.”
“Am I to tell him so, sir?” said the man, annoyed.
“Of course you are to tell him so; and mind you don’t bring me any message or explanation. I will not see him – that is enough; now you can go.”
“Shall I – say you’re too busy, Colonel, or just going out, or engaged – ?”
“No!” shouted Colonel Kingsward, with a force of breath which blew the attendant away like a strong wind. The Colonel returned to his work and his correspondence with an irritation and annoyance which even to himself seemed beyond the occasion. Bee’s old lover, he supposed, had taken courage to make another attempt; but nothing would induce him to change his former decision. He would not hear a word, not a word! A kind of panic mingled in his hasty impulse of rage. He would not so much as see the fellow – give him any opportunity of renewing – Was it his suit to Bee? Was it something else indefinite behind? Colonel Kingsward did not very well know, but he was determined on one thing – not to allow the presence of this intruder, not to hear a word that he had to say.
And then about Betty – that was annoying too, but he had promised to do it, and to break his word to Laura was a thing he could not do. Laura – Miss Laura, if she pleased, though that is not a usual mode of address – but not Lance – how right she was! The name of Lance did not suit her at all, and yet how just and sweet all the same. Her mother had made a m?salliance, but there was no pettiness about her. She held by her father, though she was aware of his inferiority. And then he thought of her as she shook her head gently, and smiled at his awkward stumbling suggestion that the accident of the name was not irremediable. “At my age,” – what was her age? The most delightful, the most fascinating of ages, whatever it was. Not the silly girlhood of Bee and Betty, but something far more entrancing, far more charming. These thoughts interfered greatly with his correspondence, and made the mass of foreign newspapers, and the military intelligence from all over the world, which it was his business to look over, appear very dull, uninteresting and confused. He rose hastily after a while, and took his hat and sallied forth to Portman Square, where he was expected to luncheon. He was relieved, on the whole, to be thus legitimately out of the way in case that fellow should have the audacity to call again.
“I want you to come out with me, Betty,” he said, after that meal, which was very solemn, serious and prolonged, but very dull and not appetising. “I want to take you to see a friend – ” “Oh, papa! we are going to – Mrs. Lyon was going to take me to see Mr. Revel’s picture before he sends it in.”
“To-morrow will do, my dear, equally well, if your papa wants you to go anywhere.”
“Mr. Revel’s picture? He is precisely a friend of the friend I am going to take you to see.” For a moment Colonel Kingsward wavered thinking how much more agreeable it would be to have his interview with Laura undisturbed by the presence of this little chit with her sharp eyes. But he was a soldier and faithful to his consignee. “If it will do as well to-morrow, and will not derange Mrs. Lyon’s plans, I should like you to come now.”
“Run and get ready, Betty,” cried the old lady, to whom obedience was a great quality, “and there will still be time to go there, if you are not very long, when you come back.”
The Colonel felt as if his foot was upon more solid ground; not that any doubt of Laura had ever been in his mind – but yet – He had not suspected the existence of any link between her and Portman Square.
“Mr. Revel is a very good painter, I suppose?” he said.
“A great painter, we all think; and beginning to be really acknowledged in the art world,” said the old lady, who liked it to be known that she knew a great deal about pictures, and was herself considered to have some authority in that interesting sphere.
“And – hasn’t he a wife? I think I heard someone talking of his wife.”
“Yes, a dear little woman!” cried Mrs. Lyon. “Her Tuesdays are the most pleasant parties. We always go when we are able. Ah! here is Betty, like a little rose. Now, acknowledge you are proud to have a little thing like that, Colonel, to walk with you through the park on a fine day like this?”
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