Margaret Oliphant.

The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3





Colonel Kingsward looked at Betty. She was a pretty little blooming creature. He did not regard her with any enthusiasm, and yet she was a creditable creature enough to belong to one. He gave a little nod of approving indifference. Betty was very much admired at Portman Square from Gerald, who kept up an artillery of glances across the big table, to the old butler, who called her attention specially to any dish that was nicer than usual, and carried meringues to her twice, she was the object of everybodys regards. Her father did not, naturally, look at her from the same point of view, but he was sufficiently pleased with her appearance. He was pleased, too, exhilarated, he could scarcely tell why, by the fact that Mrs. Lyon knew the painters wife and spoke of her as a dear little woman, the very words Laura had used. Did he require any guarantee that Laura herself was of the same order, knew the same sort of people as his other friends? Had such a question been put to him, the Colonel would have knocked the man down who made it, as in days when duelling was possible he would have called him out But yet at all events it gave him much satisfaction that the British matron in the shape of Mrs. Lyon spoke no otherwise of the lady whom for one terrible moment of delusion he had intended to warn against intercourse, too little guarded, with such equivocal men as artists. He shuddered when he thought of that extraordinary aberration.

Who is it, papa, we are going to see? said Bettys little voice by his side.

It is a lady who has taken a great interest in your brother.

Oh, papa, that I should not have asked that the first thing! Have you any news?

Nothing that I can call news, but I think I may say I have reason to believe that Charlie has gone up to the north to the Mackinnons. That does not excuse him for having left us in this anxiety; but the idea, which did not occur to me till yesterday, has relieved my mind.

To the Mackinnons! said Betty, doubtfully, but then I heard She stopped herself suddenly, and added after a moment, How strange, papa, if he is there, that none of them should have written.

It is strange; but perhaps when you think of all things, not so very strange. He probably has not explained the circumstances to them, and they will think that he has written; they would not feel it necessary why should they? to let us know of his arrival. That, as a matter of course, they would expect him to have done. I dont think, on the whole, it is at all strange; on his part inexcusable, but not to be expected from them.

But, papa! cried Betty.

What is it? he said, almost crossly. I dont mind saying, he added, that even for him there may be excuses if such folly can ever be excused. He never writes to me in a general way, and it would not be a pleasant letter to write; and no doubt he has put it off from day to day, intending always to do it to-morrow and every day would naturally make it more difficult. Thus he went on repeating unconsciously all the suggestions that had been made to him.

Remember, Betty, he said, as soon as you see that you have done anything wrong, always make a clean breast of it at once; the longer you put it off the more difficult you will find it to do.

Yes, papa, said little Betty, with great doubt in her tone. She did not know what to think, for she had in her blotting book at Portman Square a letter lately received from one of these same Mackinnons in which not a word was said of Charlie. Why should not Helen have mentioned him had he been there? And yet, if papa thought so, and if it relieved his mind to think so, what was Betty to set up a different opinion? Her mind was still full of this thought when she found herself following her father up the narrow stairs into the little drawing-room. There she was met by a lady, who rose and came forward to her, holding out two beautiful hands. Such hands! Betty said afterwards. Her own were plump, reddish articles, small enough and not badly shaped, but scarcely free from the scars and smirches of gardening, wild-flower collecting, pony saddling, all the unnecessary pieces of work that a country girls, like a country boys, are employed for. She had at the moment a hopeless passion for white hands. And these drew her close, while the beautiful face stooped over her and gave her a soft lingering kiss. Was it a beautiful face? At least it was very, very handsome fine features, fine eyes, an imposing benignity, like a grand duchess at the very least.

So this is little Betty, the lady said, to whom she was presented by that title, just out of last century, with her grandmothers name, and the newest version of her grandmothers hat. How pretty! Oh, it is your hat, you know, not you, that I am admiring. Like a little rose!

Betty had no prejudices aroused in her mind by this ladys name, for Colonel Kingsward did not think it necessary to pronounce it. He said, My little Betty, introducing the girl, but he did not think it needful to make any explanations to her. And she thus fell, all unprotected, under the charm. Laura talked to her for full five minutes without taking any notice of the Colonel, and drew from her all she wanted to see, and the places to which she was going, making a complete conquest of the little girl. It was only when Colonel Kingswards patience was quite exhausted, and he was about to jump up and propose somewhat sullenly to leave his daughter with her new friend, that Miss Lance turned to him suddenly with an exclamation of pleasure.

Did you hear, Colonel Kingsward? She was going to see Arthur Revels picture this afternoon. And so was I! Will you come too? He is a great friend of mine, as I told you, and he knew dear Charlie, and, of course, he would be proud and delighted to see you. Shall we take Betty back to Portman Square to pick up her carriage and her old lady, and will you go humbly on foot with me? We shall meet them, and Mrs. Revel shall give us tea.

Oh, papa, do! Betty cried.

It was not perhaps what he would have liked best, but he yielded with a very good grace. He had not, perhaps, been so proud of little Betty by his side as the Lyons had expected, but Laura by his side was a different matter. He could not help remarking how people looked at her as they went along, and his mind was full of pride in the handsome, commanding figure, almost as tall as himself, and walking like a queen. Yet it made his head turn round a little when he saw Miss Lance seated by Mrs. Lyons side in the studio, talking intimately to her of the whole Kingsward family, while Betty clung to her new friend as if she had known her all her life. Old Mrs. Lyon was still more startled, and her head went round too. What a handsome woman! she said, in Colonel Kingswards ear. What a delightful woman! Who is she?

Miss Lance, he said, rather stupidly, feeling how little information these words conveyed. Miss Lance? Who was Miss Lance? If he had said Laura it might have been a different matter.

CHAPTER VII

While all these things were going on, Bee was left at Kingswarden alone. That is to say, she was so far from being alone that her solitude was absolute. She had all the children and was very busy among them. She had the two boys home for the Easter holidays; the house was full of the ordinary noise, mirth and confusion natural to a large young family under no more severe discipline than that exercised by a young elder sister. The big boys, were in their boyish way, gentlemen, and deferred to Bee more or less which set a good example to the younger ones; but she was enveloped in a torrent of talk, fun, games and jest, which raged round her from before she got up in the morning till at least the twilight, when the nursery children got tired, and the big boys having exhausted every method of amusement during the day, began to feel the burden of nothing to do, and retired into short-lived attempts at reading, or games of beggar-my-neighbour, or any other simple mode of possible recreation descending to the level of imaginary football with an old hat through the corridor before it was time to go to bed.

In the evening Bee was thus completely alone, listening to the distant bumps in the passage, and the voices of the players. The drawing-room was large, but it was indifferently lighted, which is apt to make a country drawing-room gloomy in the evening. There was one shaded lamp on a writing-table, covered at this moment with colour boxes and rough drawings of the boys, who had been constructing a hut in the grounds, and wasting much vermillion and Prussian blue on their plans for it; and near the fireplace, in which the chill of the Spring still required a little fire, was another lamp, shining silently upon Bees white dress and her hands crossed in her lap. Her face and all its thoughts were in the shade, nobody to share, nobody to care what they were.

Betty was in town. Her one faithful though not always entirely sympathetic companion, the aunt at all times not much more than a piece of still life was unwell and had gone to bed; Charlie was lost in the great depth and silence of the world; Bee was thus alone. She had been working for the children, making pinafores or some other necessary, as became her position as sister-mother; for where there are so many children there is always a great deal to do; but she had grown tired of the pinafores. If it were not a hard thing to say she was a little tired of the children too, tired of having to look after them perpetually, of the nurses complaints, and the naughtiness of baby who was spoilt and unmanageable tired of the bumping and laughing of the boys, and tired too of bidding them be quiet, not to rouse the children.

All these things had suddenly become intolerable to Bee. She had a great many times expressed her thankfulness that she had so much to do, and no time to think and probably to-morrow morning she would again be of that opinion; but in the meantime she was very tired of it all tired of a position which was too much for her age, and which she was not able to bear. She was only a speck in the long, empty drawing-room, her white skirts and her hands crossed in her lap being all that showed distinctly, betraying the fact that someone was there, but with her face hidden in the rosy shade, there was nobody to see that tears had stolen up into Bees eyes. Her hands were idle, folded in her lap. She was tired of being dutiful and a good girl, as the best of girls are sometimes. It seemed to her for the moment a dreary world in which she was placed, merely to take care of the children, not for any pleasure of her own. She felt that she could not endure for another moment the bumping in the passage, and the distant voices of the boys. Probably if they went on there would be a querulous message from Aunt Helen, or pipings from the nursery of children woke up, and a furious descent of nurse, more than insinuating that Miss Bee did not care whether babys sleep was broken or not. But even with this certainty before her, Bee did not feel that she had energy to get up from her chair and interfere; it was too much. She was too solitary, left alone to bear all the burden.

Then the habitual thought of Charlie returned to her mind. Poor Charlie! Where was he, still more alone than she. Perhaps hidden away in the silence of the seas, or tossing in a storm, going away, away where no one who cared for him would ever see him more. The tears which had come vaguely to her eyes dropped, making a mark upon her dress, legitimatised by this thought. Bee would have been ashamed had they fallen for herself; but for Charlie Charlie lost! none of his family knowing where he was she might indeed be allowed to cry. Where was he? Where was he? If he had been here he would have been sitting with her, making things more possible. Bee knew very well in her heart that if Charlie had been with her he would not have been much help to her, that he would have been grumbling over his own hard fate, and calling upon her to pity him; but the absent, if they are sometimes wronged, have, on the other hand, the privilege of being remembered in their best aspect. Then Bees thoughts glided on from Charlie to someone else whom she had for a long time refused to think of, or tried to refuse to think of. She was so solitary to-night, with all her doors open to recollections, that he had stolen in before she knew, and now there was quite a shower of round blots upon her white dress. Aubrey oh, Aubrey! who had betrayed her trust so, who had done her such cruel wrong! but yet, but yet

She was interrupted by the entrance of a servant with the evening post. Kingswarden was near enough to town to have an evening post, which is a privilege not always desirable. But any incident was a good thing for poor Bee. She drew the pinafore, at which she had been working, hastily over her knee to hide the spots of moisture, and dashed the tears from her eyes with a rapid hand. In the shade of the lamp not even the most keen eyes could see that she had been crying. She even paused as she took the letter to say, Will you please tell the boys not to make so much noise? There were three letters on the tray one for her father, one for her aunt, one Bettys usual daily rigmarole of little news and nonsense which she never failed to send when she was away. Bettys letter was very welcome to her sister. But as Bee read it her face began to burn. It became more and more crimson, so that the rose shade of the lamp was overpowered by a deeper and hotter colour. Betty to turn upon her, to take up the other side, to cast herself under that dreadful new banner of Fate! Bees breath came quickly, her heart beat with anger and trouble. She got up from her chair and began to walk quickly about the room, a sudden passion sweeping away all the forlorn sentiment of her previous thoughts. Betty! in addition to all the rest. Bee felt like the forlorn chatelaine of a besieged castle alone to defend the walls against the march of a destroying invader. The danger which had been far off was coming it was coming! And the castle had no garrison at all if it were not perhaps those dreadful boys making noise enough to bring down the house, who were precisely the partisans least to be depended upon, who would probably throw down their arms without striking a blow. And Bee was alone, the captain deserted of all her forces to defend the sacred hearth and the little children. The little children! Bee stamped her foot upon the floor in an appeal, not to heaven, but to all the powers of Indignation, Fury, War, War! She would defend those walls to her last gasp. She would not give way, she would fight it out step by step, to keep the invader from the children. The nursery should be her citadel. Oh, she knew what would happen, she cried to herself inconsequently! Baby, who was spoilt, would be twisted into rigid shape, the little girls would be subdued like little mice the boys

At this moment the old hat which served as a football came with a thump from the corridor into the hall, followed by a louder shout than ever from Arthur and Rex. Bee rushed forth upon them flinging the door open, with her blue eyes blazing.

Do you mean to bring down the house? she said, in a sudden outburst. Do you mean to break the vases and the mirror and wake up the whole nursery and bring Aunt Helen down upon us? For goodness sake try to behave like reasonable creatures, and dont drive me out of my senses! cried Bee.

The boys were so startled by this onslaught that Rex, with a final kick sent the wretched old hat flying to the end of the passage which led to the servants hall, as if it were that harmless object that was to blame while Arthur covered the retreat sulkily by a complaint that there was nothing to do in this beastly old hole, and that a fellow couldnt read books all the day long. Bee was so inspired and thrilling with the passion in her, that she went further than any properly constituted female creature knowing her own position ought to do.

You have a great deal more to do than I have, she said, far, far more to do and to amuse yourselves with. Why should you expect so much more than I do, because you are boys and I am a girl? Is it fair? Youre always talking of things being fair. It isnt fair that you should disturb the whole house, the little babies, and everyone for your pleasure; and Im not so very much older than you are, and what pleasure have I?

The boys were very much cast down by this fiery remonstrance. There had been a squall as of several babies from the upper regions, and they had already been warned of the consequence of their horseplay. But Bees representation touched them in their tenderest point. Was it fair? Well, no, perhaps it was not quite fair. They went back after her, humbled, into the drawing-room, and besought her to join them in a game. After they had finally retired, having finished the evening to their own partial content, Bee took out again Bettys letter and read it with less excitement than at first or at least with less demonstration of excitement; this was what it said

Bee, such a delightful woman, a friend of her papas! So handsome, so nice, so clever, so well dressed, everything you can think except young, which of course she is not nor anything silly. Papa told me to get ready to come out with him to see an old friend of his and I wasnt at all willing, didnt like it, I thought it must be some old image like old Mrs. Mackinnon or Nancy Eversfield, dont you know. Mrs. Lyon had settled to take me out to see some pictures, and Gerald was coming, and we were to have a turn in the park after, and I had put on my new frock and was looking forward to it, when papa came in with this order: Get on your things and come with me, I want to take you to see an old friend. Of course I had to go, for Mrs. Lyon will never allow me to shirk anything. But I was not in a very good humour, though they called me as fresh as a rose and all that to please papa; as if he cared how we look! He took me to George Street, Hanover Square, a horrid little lodging, such as people come to when they come up from the country. And I had to look as serious and as steady as possible for the sake of the old lady; when there rose up from the chair, oh, such a different person, tall, but as slight as you are, with such a handsome face and such a manner. She might have been let us say a nice, sweet aunt but aunt is not a name that means anything delightful; and mother I must not say, for there is only one mother in the whole world; oh, but something I cannot give a name, so understanding, so kind, so nice, for that means everything. She kissed me, and then she began to talk to me as if she knew everyone of us and was very fond of us all. And then about Charlie, whom she seemed to know very well. She called him dear Charlie, and I wonder if it is she who has persuaded papa that he is with the Mackinnons, in Scotland. But I know he is not with the Mackinnons however, I will tell you about this after.

Dear Bee, what will you say when I tell you that this delightful woman is Miss Lance? You will say I have no heart, or no spirit, and am not sticking to you through thick and thin as I ought; but you must hear first what I have got to say. Had I known it was Miss Lance I should have shut myself close up, and whatever she had done or however nice she had been, I should have had nothing to say to her. If she had been an angel under that name I should have remembered what you had said, and I should not have seen any good in her. But I never heard what her name was till we were all in Mr. Revels studio, quite a long time after. Papa did as he always does, introduced me to her, but not her to me. He said: My daughter Betty, as if I must have known by instinct who she was. And, dear Bee, though I acknowledge you have every reason not to believe it, she is delightful, she is, she is! She may have done wrong. I cant tell, of course; but I dont believe she ever meant it, or to harm you, or Charlie, or anyone. Everybody is delighted with her. Mrs. Lyon, who you know is very particular, says she has the manners of a duchess and that she is such a handsome, distinguished-looking woman. She is coming to dine here next Saturday. The only one who does not seem to be quite charmed with her is Gerald, who is prejudiced like you.

Do try to get over your prejudice, Bee, dear she is, she is, indeed delightful! You only want to know her. By the way, about the Mackinnons: papa has got it firmly into his head that Charlie is there; he says his mind is quite relieved about him, and that the more he thinks of it, the more he is certain it is so; now I know that it is not so. I got a letter from Helen Mackinnon the day I came here, and there is not a word about Charlie and she would have been certain to have mentioned him had he been there. I tried to say this to papa, but his head was so full of the other idea that he did not hear me at first, and I couldnt go on. I whispered to Miss Lance in the studio, and asked her what I should do? She was so troubled and distressed about Charlie that the tears came into her eyes, but, after thinking a moment, she said, Oh, dear child, dont say anything. Your young friend might have been in a hurry, she might not have thought it necessary to speak of your brother. Oh, dont let us worry him now! Bad news always comes soon enough, and, of course, he will find it out if it is so. Do you think she was right? But, oh Bee, dear Bee, I am afraid you will not think anything she says is right; and yet she is delightful. If only you knew her! Write directly, and tell me all you think.





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