The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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Bee was not excited on this second reading. She did not spring to her feet, nor stamp on the floor, or feel inclined to call upon all the infernal gods. But her heart sank down as if it would never rise again, and a great pain took possession of her. Who was this witch, this magician, that everyone who belonged to Bee should be drawn into her toils – even Betty. What could she want with Betty, who was only a little girl, who was her sister’s natural second and support? Bee sat a long time with her head in her hands, letting the fire go out, feeling cold and solitary and miserable, and frightened to death.
In the afternoon of the next day, Bee was again alone. The old aunt had come down for lunch, but gone up to her room again to rest after that meal. It was a little chilly outside. The children, of course, wrapped up in their warm things, and in the virtue of the English nursery, which shrinks from no east wind, were out for their various walks. The big boys, attended by such of the little boys as could be trusted with these athletes, were taking violent exercise somewhere, and Bee sat by the fire, alone. It is not a place for a girl of twenty. The little pinafore, half made, was on the table beside her. She had a book in her hand. Perhaps had she been a young wife looking for the return of her young husband in the evening, with all the air of the bigger world about him and an abundance of news, and plans, and life, a pretty enough picture might have been made of that cosy fireside retirement.
But even this ideal has ceased to be satisfactory to the present generation. And Bee’s spirits and heart were very low. She had despatched a fiery letter to Betty, and with this all her anger had faded away. She had no courage to do anything. She seemed to have come to an end of all possibilities. She had no longer anyone to fall back upon as a supporter and sympathiser – not even Betty. Even this closest link of nature seemed to have been broken by that enemy.
To have an enemy is not a very common experience in modern life. People may do each other small harms and annoyances, but to most of us the strenuous appeals and damnations of the Psalmist are quite beyond experience. But Bee had come back to the primitive state. She had an enemy who had succeeded in taking from her everything she cared for. Aubrey her betrothed, Charlie, her father, her sister, one after the other in quick succession. It was not yet a year and a half since she first heard this woman’s name, and in that time all these losses had happened. She was not even sure that her mother’s death was not the work of the same subtle foe; indeed, she brought herself to believe that it was at least accelerated by all the trouble and contention brought into the family by her own misery and rebellion – all the work of that woman! Why, why, had Bee been singled out for this fate? A little girl in an English house, like other girls – no worse, no better. Why should she alone in all England have this bitterness of an enemy to make her desolate and break her heart?
While she was thus turning over drearily those dismal thoughts, there was a messenger approaching to point more sharply still the record of these disasters and their cause.Bee had laid down her book in her lap; her thoughts had strayed completely from it and gone back to her own troubles, when the door of the drawing-room opened quietly and a servant announced “Mrs. Leigh.” Mrs. Leigh! It is not an uncommon name. A Mrs. Lee lived in the village, a Mrs. Grantham Lea was the clergyman’s wife in the next parish. Bee drew her breath quickly and composed her looks, but thought of no visitor that could make her heavy heart beat. Not even when the lady came in, a more than middle-aged matron, of solid form and good colour, dressed with the subdued fashionableness appropriate to her age. It was not Mrs. Lee from the village, nor Mrs. Grantham Lea, nor – Yet Bee had seen her before. She rose up a little startled and made a step or two forward.
“You do not know me, Miss Kingsward? I cannot wonder at it, since we met but once, and that in circumstances – Don’t start nor fly, though I see you have recognised me.”
“Indeed I did not think of flying. Will you – will you – sit down.”
“You need not be afraid of me, my poor child,” said Mrs. Leigh.
Aubrey’s mother seated herself and looked with a kind yet troubled look at the girl, who still stood up in the attitude in which she had risen from her chair. “I scarcely saw you the other time,” she said. “It was in the garden. You did not give me a good reception. I should like much, sometime or other, if you would tell me why. I have never made out why. But don’t be afraid; it is not on that subject I have come to you now.”
Bee seated herself. She kept her blue eyes, which seemed expanded and larger than usual, but had none of the former indignant blaze in them, fixed on the old lady’s face.
“Your father is not here, the servant tells me – ”
“No – he is in town,” she answered, faltering, almost too much absorbed by anticipation to reply.
“And you are alone – nobody with you to stand by you?”
“Mrs. Leigh,” said Bee, catching her breath, “I don’t know why you should ask me such questions, or – or be sorry for me. I don’t need anybody to be sorry for me.”
“Poor little girl! We needn’t go into that question. I am sorry for any girl who is motherless, who has to take her mother’s place. I would much rather have spoken to your father had he been here.”
“After all,” said Bee, “my father could say nothing. It is I who must decide for myself.”
She said this with an involuntary betrayal of her consciousness that there could be but one subject between them, and it was not in the power of Aubrey Leigh’s mother, however strongly aware she was of another theme on which she had come to speak, not to note how different was Bee’s reception of her from the other time, when the girl had fled from her presence and would not even hear what she had to say. Bee’s eyes were large and humid and full of an anxiety which was almost wistful. She had the air of refusing to hear with her lips, but eagerly expecting with her whole heart what was about to be said. And she looked so young, so solitary, in her mother’s chair, with a mother’s work lying about, the head of this silent house – that the heart of the elder woman was deeply touched. If little Betty had been like a rose, Bee was almost as white as the cluster of fragrant white narcissus that stood on the table. Poor little girl, so subdued and changed from the little passionate creature who would not hear a word, and whose indignation was stronger than even the zeal of the mother who had come to plead her son’s cause!
Mrs. Leigh drew a little nearer and took Bee’s hand. The girl did not resist, but kept her eyes upon her steadily, watching, her mind in a great turmoil, not knowing what to expect.
“My dear,” said the old lady, “don’t be alarmed. I have not come to speak about Aubrey. I cannot help hoping that one day you will do him justice; but, in the meantime, it is something else that has brought me here. Miss Kingsward – your brother – ”
Bee’s hand, in this lady’s clasp, betrayed her in spite of herself. It became limp and uninterested when she was assured that Aubrey was not in question; and then, at her brother’s name, was snatched suddenly away.
“My brother?” she cried, “Charlie!” Then, subduing herself, “What do you know about him? Oh,” clasping her hands as new light seemed to break upon her, “you have come to tell me some bad news?”
“I hope not. My son found him some time ago, disheartened and unhappy about leaving Oxford. He persuaded him to come and share his rooms. He has been with him more or less all the time, which I hope may be a comfort to you. And then he fell ill. My dear Aubrey has tried to see your father, but in vain, and poor Charlie is not anxious, I fear, to see his father. Yes, he has been ill, but not so seriously that we need fear anything serious. He has shaken off the complaint, but he wants rousing – he wants someone whom he loves. Aubrey sent for me a fortnight ago. He has been well taken care of, there is nothing really wrong. But we cannot persuade him to rouse himself. It is illness that is at the bottom of it all. He would not have left you without news of him, he would not shrink from his father if he were not ill. Bee, I will confess to you that it is Aubrey who has sent me; but don’t be afraid, it is for Charlie’s sake – only for Charlie’s sake. He thinks if you would but come to him – if you would have the courage to come – to your brother, Bee.”
“He – he thinks? Not Charlie – you don’t mean Charlie?” Bee cried.
“Charlie does not seem to wish for anything. We cannot rouse him. We think that the sight of someone he loves – ”
Bee was full of agitation. Her lips quivered; her hands trembled. “Oh, me!” she said; “I am no one. It is not for his sister a boy cares. I do not think I should do him any good. Oh, Charlie, Charlie! all this time that we have been blaming him so, thinking him so cruel, he has been lying ill! If I could do him any good!” she cried, wringing her hands.
“The sight of you would do him good. It is not that he wants a nurse – I have seen to that; but no nurse could rouse him as the sight of some of his own people would. Do not question, my dear, but come – oh, come! He thinks he is cut off from everybody, that his father will never see him, that you must all have turned against him. Words will not convince him, but to see you, that would do so. He would feel that he was not forsaken.”
“Oh, forsaken! How could he think it? He must know that we have been breaking our hearts. It was he who forsook us all.”
Bee had risen again, and stood leaning upon the mantelpiece, too much shaken and agitated to keep still. Though she had thought herself so independent, she had in reality never broken the strained band of domestic subjugation. She had never so much as gone, though it was little more than an hour’s journey, to London on her own authority. The thought of taking such a step startled her. And that she should do this on the word and in the company of Aubrey’s mother – Aubrey, for whom she had once been ready to abandon everything, from whom she had been violently separated, whom she had cast off, flung away from her without hearing a word he had to say! How could she put herself in his way again – go with his mother, accept his services? Bee had acted quickly on the impulse of passion in all that had happened to her before. But she had not known the conflict, the rending asunder of opposite emotions. In the whirl of her thoughts her lover, whom she had cast off, came between her and the brother whom he had succoured. It was to Aubrey’s house, to his very dwelling where he was, that she must go if she went to Charlie. And Charlie wanted her, or at least needed her, lying weak and despairing, waiting for a sign from home. It was difficult to realise her brother so, or to believe, indeed, that he could want her very much, that there was any yearning in his heart towards his own flesh and blood. But Mrs. Leigh thought so, and how could she refuse? How could she refuse? The problem was too much for her. She looked into Mrs. Leigh’s face with an appeal for help.
“My dear,” her companion said, leaving a calm and cool hand upon Bee’s arm, which trembled with nervous excitement, “If you are afraid of meeting Aubrey, compose yourself. Aubrey would rather go to the end of the world than give you any pain, or put himself in your way. We are laying no trap for you – I should not have come if the case had not been urgent. Never would I have come had it been a question of my son; I would not beguile you even for his sake. It is for your brother, Bee; not for Aubrey, not for Aubrey!”
Not for Aubrey! Was that any comfort, was there any strength in that assurance? At all events, these were the words that rang through Bee’s head, as she made her hurried preparations. She had almost repeated them aloud in the hasty explanations she made to Moss upstairs, who was now at the head of the nursery, and to the housekeeper below. To neither of these functionaries did it seem of any solemn importance that Bee should go away for a day or two. There was no objection on their part to being left at the head of affairs. And then Bee felt herself carried along by the whirl of strange excitement and feeling which rather than the less etherial methods of an express train seemed to sweep her through the air of the darkening spring night by Mrs. Leigh’s side. A few hours before she had felt herself the most helpless of dependent creatures, abandoned by all, incapable of doing anything. And now, what was she doing? Rushing into the heart of the conflict, assuming an individual part in it, acting on her own responsibility. She could scarcely believe it was herself who sat there by Mrs. Leigh’s side.
But not for Aubrey, not for Aubrey! This kept ringing in her ears, like the tolling of a bell, through all the other sounds. She sat in one corner of the carriage, and listened to Mrs. Leigh’s explanations, and to the clang of the engine and rush of the train, all mingled together in bewildering confusion. But the other voice filled all space, echoing through everything. Bee felt herself trembling on the edge of a crisis, such as her life had never known. All the world seemed to be set against her, her enemy, perhaps her father, and all the habitual authorities of her young and subject life, now suddenly rising into rebellion. She would have to do and say things which she would not have ventured so much as to think of a little time ago; but whatever she might have to encounter there was to be no renewal to Bee of her own story and meaning. It was not for Aubrey that she was called or wanted – for the succour of others, for sisterly help, for charity and kindness; but not for her own love or life.
It was to a house in one of the streets of Mayfair that Mrs. Leigh conveyed her young companion; one of those small expensive places where persons within the circle of what is called the world in London contrive to live with as little comfort and the greatest expenditure possible. It is dark and often dingy in Mayfair; nowhere is it more difficult to keep furniture, or even human apparel, clean; the rooms are small and the streets shabby; but it is one of the right places in which to live, not so perfect as it was once, indeed, but still furnishing an unimpeachable address.
It had half put on the aspect of the season by this time; some of the balconies were full of flowers, and the air of resuscitation which comes to certain quarters of London after Easter, as if, indeed, they too had risen from the dead, was vaguely visible. To be sure, little of this was apparent in the dim lamplight when the two ladies arrived at the door. Bee was hurried upstairs through the narrow passage, though she had been very keenly aware that someone in the lower room had momentarily lifted the blind to look out as they arrived – someone who did not appear, who made no sound, who had nothing to do with her or her life.
The rooms, which are usually the drawing-rooms of such a house, were turned evidently into the apartments of the sufferer. In the back room which they entered first was a nurse who greeted the ladies in dumb show, and whose white head-dress and apron had the strangest effect in the semi-darkness. She said, half by gesture, half with whispered words more visible than audible, “He is up – better – impatient – good sign – discontented with everything. Is this the lady?”
Mrs. Leigh answered in the same way, “His sister – shall I go with her? – you? – alone?”
“By herself,” said the nurse, laconic; and almost inaudible as this conversation was, it occasioned a stirring and movement in the inner room.
“What a noise you make,” cried a querulous, unsteady voice, “Who’s there – who’s there?”
The nurse took Bee’s hat from her head, with a noiseless swift movement, and relieved her of the little cloak she was wearing. She took her by the arm and pushed her softly forward. “Nothing to worry. Soothe him,” she breathed, holding up a curtain that Bee might pass. The room was but badly lighted, a single lamp on a table almost extinguished by the shade, a fire burning though the night was warm, and one of the long windows open, letting in the atmosphere and sounds of the London street. Bee stole in, an uncertain shadow into the shaded room, less eager than frightened and overawed by this sudden entrance into the presence of sickness and misery. She was not accustomed to associate such things with her brother. It did not seem anyone with whom she was acquainted that she was about to see.
“Oh, Charlie!” the little cry and movement she made, falling down on her knees beside him, raised a pale, unhappy face, half covered with the down of an irregular fledgling beard from the pillow.
“Hallo!” he said, and then in a tone of disappointment and disdain, “You!”
“Oh, Charlie, Charlie dear! You have been ill and we never knew.”
“How do you know now? They knew I never wanted you to know,” he said.
“Oh, Charlie – who ought to know but your own people? We have been wretched, thinking all sorts of dreadful things – but not this.”
“Naturally,” he said, “my own people might be trusted never to think the right thing. Now you do know you may as well take yourself off. I don’t want you – or anybody,” he added, with an impatient sigh.
“Charlie – oh, please let me stay with you. Who should be with you but your sister? And I know – a great deal about nursing. Mamma – ”
“I say – hold your tongue, can’t you? Who wants you to talk – of anything of that sort?”
Bee heard a slight stir in the curtains, and looking back hastily as she dried her streaming eyes saw the laconic nurse making signs to her. The sight of the stranger was more effectual even than her signs, and restored Bee’s self-command at once.
“Why did they bring you here?” said Charlie. “I didn’t want you; they know what I want, well enough.”
“What is it you want, oh, Charlie dear? Papa – and all of us – will do anything in the world you want.”
“Papa,” he said, and his weakened and irregular voice ran through the gamut from a high feeble tone of irritation to the quaver of that self-pity which is so strong in all youthful trouble. “Yes, he would be pleased to get me out of the way, and be done with me now.”
“Oh, Charlie! You know how wrong that is. Papa has been – miserable – ”
Charlie uttered a feeble laugh. He put his hand upon his chin, stroking down the irregular tufts of hair; even in his low state the poor boy had a certain pride in what he believed to be his beard.
“Not much,” he said. “I daresay you’ve made a fuss – Betty and you. The governor will crack up Arthur for the F.O. and let me drop like a stone.”
“No, Charlie, no. He has no such thought – he has taken such trouble not to let it be known. He would not advertise or anything.”
“Advertise!” A sudden hot flush came over the gaunt face. “For me!” It did not seem that such a thought had ever occurred to the young man. “Like the fellows in the newspapers that steal their master’s money – ’All is arranged and you can return to your situation.’ By George!”
There was again a faint rustle in the curtains. Bee sprang up with her natural impatience, and went straight to the spot whence this sound had come.
“If I am not to speak to my brother alone and in freedom, I will not speak to him at all,” she said.
The laconic nurse remonstrated violently with her lips and eyes.
“Don’t excite him. Don’t disturb him. He’ll not sleep all night,” she managed to convey, with much arching of the eyebrows and mouth, then disappeared silently out of the bedroom behind.
“What’s that?” said Charlie, sharply. He moved on his sofa, and turned his head round with difficulty. “Are there more of you to come?”
There seemed a kind of hope and expectation in the question, but when Bee answered with despondency, “There’s only me, Charlie,” he broke out harshly:
“I don’t want you – I want none of you; I told them so. You can go and tell my father, as soon as they let me get out I’m going off to New Zealand or somewhere – the furthest-off place I can get to.”
“Oh, Charlie!” cried Bee, taking every word as the sincerest utterance of a fixed intention, “what could you do there?”
“Die, I suppose,” he said, with again that quaver of self-compassion in his voice, “or go to the dogs, which will be easy enough. You may say, why didn’t I die here and be done with it? I don’t know – I’m sure I wanted to. It was that doctor fellow, and that woman that talks with her eyebrows, and that confounded cad, Leigh – they wouldn’t let me. And I’ve got so weak; if you don’t go away this moment I’ll cry like a dashed baby!” with a more piteous quaver than ever in the remnant of his once manly voice.
All that Bee could do was to throw her arms round his neck and draw his head upon her shoulder, which he resisted fiercely for a moment, then yielded to in the abandonment of his weakness. Poor Charlie felt, perhaps, a momentary sweetness in the relaxation of all the bonds of self-control, and all the well-meaning attempts to keep him from injuring himself by emotion; the unexpected outburst did him good, partly because it was a breach of all the discipline of the sick room. Presently he came to himself and pushed Bee away.
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