The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“What do you come bothering about?” he said; “you ought to have left me alone. I’ve made my bed, and I’ve got to lie on it. I don’t suppose that anyone has taken the trouble to – ask about me?” he added, after a little while, in what was intended for a careless tone. “Oh, Charlie, everyone who has known; but papa would let nobody know: except at Oxford. We – went to Oxford – ”
He got up on his pillow with his eyes shining out of their hollow sockets, his long limbs coming to the ground with a faint thump. Poor Charlie was young enough to have grown during his illness, and those gaunt limbs seemed unreasonably long.
“You went to Oxford!” he said, “and you saw – ”
“Dear Charlie, they will say I am exciting you – doing you harm – ”
“You saw?” he cried, bringing down his fist upon the table with a blow that made the very floor shake.
“Yes,” said Bee, trembling, “we saw – or rather papa saw – ”
He pushed up the shade of the lamp with his long bony fingers, and fixed his eyes, bright with fever, on her face.
“Oh, Charlie, don’t look at me so! – the lady whom you used to talk to me about – whom I saw in the academy – ”
“Yes?” – he grasped her hand across the table with a momentary hot pressure.
“She came and saw papa in the hotel. She told him about you, and that you had – oh, Charlie, and she so old – as old as – ”
“Hold your tongue!” he cried, violently, and then with a long-drawn breath, “What more? She told him – and he was rude, I suppose. Confound him! Confound – confound them all!”
“I will not say another word unless you are quiet,” said Bee, her spirit rising; “put up your feet on the sofa and be quiet, and remember all the risk you are running – or I will not say another word.”
He obeyed her with murmurs of complaint, but no longer with the languid gloom of his first accost. Hope seemed to have come into his heart. He subdued himself, lay back among his pillows, obeyed her in all she stipulated. The light from underneath the raised shade played on his face and gave it a tinge of colour, though it showed more clearly the emaciation of the outlines and the aspect of neglect, rather than, as poor Charlie hoped, of enhanced manly dignity, conveyed by the irregular sick man’s growth of the infant beard.
“Papa was not rude,” said Bee, “he is never rude; he is a gentleman. Worse than that – ”
“Worse – than what?”
“Oh, I cannot understand you at all, you and – the rest,” cried the girl; “one after another you give in to her, you admire her, you do what she tells you – that woman who has harmed me all she can, and you all she can, and now – Charlie!” Bee stopped with astonishment and indignation. Her brother had raised himself up again, and aimed a furious but futile blow at her in the air. It did not touch her, but the indignity was no less on that account.
“Well,” he cried, again bringing down that hand which could not reach her, on the table, “How dare you speak of one you’re not worthy to name? Ah! I might have known she wouldn’t desert me.It is she who has kept the way open, and subdued my father, and – ” An ineffable look of happiness came upon the worn and gaunt countenance, his eyes softened, his voice fell. “I might have known!” he said to himself, “I might have known!”
And what could Bee say? Though she did not believe in – though she hated and feared with a child’s intensity of terror the woman who had so often crossed her path – she could not contradict her brother’s faith, though she considered it an infatuation, a folly beyond belief; it seemed, after all, in a manner true that this woman had not deserted him. She had subdued his father’s displeasure somehow, made everything easier. Bee looked at him, the victim of those wiles, yet nevertheless indebted to them, with the same exasperation which her father’s subjugation had caused her. What could she say, what could she do, to reveal to them that enchantress in her true colours? But Bee knew that she could do nothing, and there began to rise in her heart a dreadful question. Was it so sure that she herself was right? Was this woman, indeed, an evil Fate, or was she, was she – ? And the first story of all, the story of Aubrey, was it perhaps true?
The nurse came in noiselessly, hurrying, while Bee’s mind ran through those thoughts – evidently with the conviction that she would find the patient worse. But Charlie was not worse. He turned his face towards his attendant, still with something of that dreamy rapture in it.
“Oh, you may speak out,” he said; “I don’t mind noises to-night. Supper? Yes, I’ll take some supper. Bring me a beefsteak or something substantial. I’m going to get well at once.”
Nurse nodded at Bee, with much uplifting of her eyelids. “Put no faith in you,” she said, working the machinery of her lips; “was wrong; done him no end of good. Beefsteak; not exactly; but soon, soon, if you’re good.”
Bee saw no more of Charlie that night. When she came out of his room, where there was a certain meaning in her presence, she seemed to pass into the region of dreams. She was taken upstairs to refresh herself and rest, into the smaller of two bedrooms which were over Charlie’s room, the other of which was occupied by Mrs. Leigh. And she was taken downstairs to dine with that lady t?te-a-t?te at the small shining table. There was something about the little house altogether, a certain conciseness, an absence of drapery, and of the small elegant litter which is so general nowadays, which gave it a masculine character – or, at least, Bee, not accustomed to ?sthetic young men, accustomed rather to big boys and their scorn of the decorative arts, thought so with a curious flutter of her being. This perhaps was partly because the ornamental part of the house was devoted to Charlie, and the little dining-room below seemed the sole room to live in. It had one or two portraits hung on the walls, pictures almost too much for its small dimensions. The still smaller room behind was clothed with books, and had for its only ornament a small portrait of Mrs. Leigh over the mantel-piece. Whose rooms were these? Who had furnished them so gravely, and left behind an impression of serious character which almost chilled the heart of Bee? He was nowhere visible, nor any trace of him. No allusion was made as to an absent master of the house, and yet it bore an air so individual that Bee’s sensitive being was moved by it, with all the might of something stranger than imagination. She stood trembling among the books, looking at the mother’s portrait over the mantel-piece, feeling as if the very mantel-shelf on which she rested her arm was warm with the touch of his. But not a word was said, not an allusion made to Aubrey.
What had she to do with Aubrey? Nothing – less than with any other man in the world – any stranger to whom she could speak with freedom, interchanging the common coin of ordinary intercourse. He was the only man in the world whom she must not talk of, must not see – the only one of whose presence it was necessary to obliterate every sign, and never to utter the name where she was. Poor Bee! Yet she felt him near, his presence suggested by everything, his name always latent in the air. She slept and waked in that strange atmosphere as in a dream. In Aubrey’s house, yet with Aubrey obliterated – the one person in existence with whom she had nothing, nothing to do.
It was late before she was allowed to see her brother next day, and Bee, in the meantime, left to her own devices, had not known what to do. She had taken pen and paper two or three times to let her father know that Charlie was found, but her mind revolted, somehow, from making that intimation. What would happen when he knew? He would come here immediately; he would probably attempt to remove Charlie; he would certainly order Bee away at once from a place so unsuitable for her. It was unsuitable for her, and yet – She scarcely saw even Mrs. Leigh after breakfast, but was left to herself, with the door open into that sanctuary which was Aubrey’s, with all his books and the newspapers laid out upon the table. Bee sat in the dining-room and looked into that other secluded place. In the light of day she dared not go into it. It seemed like thrusting herself into his presence who had no thought of her, who did not want her. Oh, not for Aubrey! Aubrey would not for the world disturb her, or bring any embarrassment into her mind. Aubrey would rather disappear from his own house, as if he had never existed, than remind her that he did exist, and perhaps sometimes thought of her still. Did he ever think of her? Bee knew that it would be wrong and unlike Aubrey if he kept in these rooms the poor little photograph of her almost childish face which he had once prized so much. It would have been indelicate, unlike a gentleman; and yet she made a hasty and furtive search everywhere to see if, perhaps, it might be somewhere, in some book or little frame. She would have been angry had she found it, and indignant; yet she felt a certain desolate sense of being altogether out of the question, steal into her heart, when she did not find it – in the inconsistencies of which the heart is full.
It was mid-day when she was called upstairs, to find Charlie established in the room which should have been the drawing-room, and round which she threw another wistful look as she came into it in full daylight. Oh, not a woman’s room in any way, with none of those little photograph frames about which strew a woman’s table – not one, and consequently none of Bee. She took this in at the first glance, as she made the three or four little steps between the door and Charlie’s couch. He was more hollow-eyed and worn in the daylight than he had been even on the night before, his appearance entirely changed from that of the commonplace young Oxford man to an eager, anxious being, with all the cares of a troubled soul concentrated in his eyes. Mrs. Leigh sat near him, and the nurse was busy with cushions and pillows arranging his couch.
“My dear, you will be thankful to hear that the doctor gives a very good report to-day. He says that, though he would not have sanctioned it, my remedy has done wonders. You are my remedy, Bee. I am proud of so successful an idea – though, to be sure, it was a very simple one. Now you must go on and complete the cure, and I give you carte blanche. Ask anyone here, anyone you please, so long as it is not too much for Charlie. He may see one or two people if nurse sanctions it. I am going out myself for the day. I shall not return till late in the afternoon, and you are mistress in the meantime – absolute mistress,” said Mrs. Leigh, kissing her. Bee felt that Aubrey’s mother would not even meet her eyes lest she should throw too much meaning into these words. Oh, there was no meaning in them, except so far as Charlie was concerned.
And then she was left alone with her brother, the most natural, the only suitable arrangement. Nurse gave the last pat to his cushions, the last twist to the coverlet, which was over his gaunt limbs, appealed to him the last time in dumb show whether he wanted anything, and then withdrew. It was most natural that his sister, whose appearance had done him so much good, should be left with him as his nurse; but she was frightened, and Charlie self-absorbed, and it was some time before either found a word to say. At last he said, “Bee!” calling her attention, and then was silent again for some time, speaking no more.
“Yes, Charlie!” There was a flutter in Bee’s voice as in her heart.
“I say, I wasn’t, perhaps, very nice to you last night; I couldn’t bear to be brought back; but they say I’m twice as well since you came. So I am. I’ve got something to keep me up. Bee, look here. Am I dreadful to look at? I know I haven’t an ounce of flesh left on my bones, but some don’t mind that; and then, my beard. I’ve heard it said that a beard that never was shaved was – was – an embellishment, don’t you know. Do you think I’m dreadful to look at, Bee?”
“Oh, Charlie,” said the girl, from the depths of her heart, “what does it matter how you look? The more ill you look the more need you have for your own people about you, who never would think twice of that.”
Charlie’s gaunt countenance was distorted with a grin of rage and annoyance. “I wish you’d shut up about my own people. The governor, perhaps, with his grand air, or Betty, as sharp as a needle – as if I wanted them! – or to be told that they would put up with me.”
“Charlie,” said Bee, trembling, “I don’t want to vex you, you are a little – but couldn’t you have a barber to come, and perhaps he could take it off.”
There came a flash of fire out of Charlie’s eyes; he put up his hand to his face, as if to protect that beard in which he at least believed – “I might have known,” he said, “that you were the last person! A fellow’s sister is always like that: just as we never think anything of a girl’s looks in our own families. Well, you’ve given your opinion on that subject. And you think that people who care for me wouldn’t think twice of that?”
“Oh, no,” said Bee, clasping her hands, “how should they? But only feel for you far, far more.”
Charlie took down his hand from his young beard. He looked at her with his hollow eyes full of anxiety, yet with a certain complacence. “Interesting?” – he said, “is that what you meant to say?”
“Oh, yes,” cried Bee, her eyes full of pity, “for they can see what you have gone through, and how much you have been suffering, – if there was any need of making you more interesting to us.”
Charlie stroked down his little tufts of wool for some time without speaking, and then he said in a caressing tone unusual to him, “I want you to do me a favour, Bee.”
“Anything – anything, whatever you wish, Charlie.”
“There is just one thing I wish, and one person I want to see. Sit down and write a note – you need not do more than say where I am,” said Charlie, speaking quickly. “Say I am here, and have been very ill, but that the hope she’d come, and to hear that she had forgiven me, was like new life. Well! what is the meaning of your ‘anything, anything,’ if you break down at the first thing I ask you? Look here, Bee, if you wish me to live and get well you’ll do what I say.”
“Oh, Charlie, how can I? – how can I? – when you know what I feel – about – ”
“What you feel – about? Who cares what you feel? You think perhaps it was you that did me all that good last night. That’s all conceit, like the nonsense in novels, where a woman near your bed when you’re ill makes all the difference. Girls,” said Charlie, “are puffed up with that folly and believe anything. You know I didn’t want you. It was what you told me about her that did me good. And your humbug, sitting there crying, ‘anything, anything!’ Well, here’s something! You need not write a regular letter, if you don’t like it. Put where I am – Charlie Kingsward very ill; will you come and see him? A telegram would do, and it would be quicker; send a telegram,” he cried.
“Give me the paper and pencil – I’m shaky, but I can do that much myself – ”
“Charlie, I’ll do it rather than vex you; but I don’t know where to send it.”
“Oh, I can tell you that – Avondale, near the Parks, Oxford.”
“She is not there now – she is in London,” said Bee, in a low tone.
“In London?” Again the long, gaunt limbs came to the ground with a thump. “Bee, if you could get me a hansom perhaps I could go.”
The nurse at this moment came in noiselessly, and Charlie shrank before her. She put him back on the sofa with a swift movement. “If you go on like this I’ll take the young lady away,” she said.
“I’ll not go on – I’ll be as meek as Moses; but, nurse, tell her she mustn’t contradict a man in my state. She must do what I say.”
Nurse turned her back upon the patient, and made the usual grimaces; “Humour him,” her lips and eyebrows said.
“Charlie, papa knows the address, and Betty – and I ought, oh, I ought to let them know at once that you are here.”
“Betty!” he said, with a grimace, “what does that little thing know?”
“She knows – better than you think I do; and papa – Papa is never happy but when he is with that lady. He goes to see her every day; she writes to him and he writes to her; they go out together,” cried Bee, thinking of that invitation to Portman Square which had seemed the last insult which she could be called on to bear.
Charlie smiled – the same smile of ineffable self-complacence and confidence which had replaced in a moment the gloom of the previous night; and then he grew grave. He was not such a fool, he said to himself, as to be jealous of his own father; but still he grudged that anyone but himself should have her company. He remembered what it was to go to see her every day, to write to her, to have her letters, to be privileged to give her his arm now and then, to escort her here or there. If it had been another fellow! But a man’s father – the governor! He was not a rival. Charlie imagined to himself the conversations with him for their subject, and how, perhaps for the first time, the governor would learn to do him justice, seeing him through Laura’s eyes. It was true that she had rejected him, had almost laughed at him, had sent him away so completely broken down and miserable that he had not cared what became of him. But hope had sprung within him, all the more wildly from that downfall. It was like her to go to the old gentleman (it was thus he considered his father) to explain everything, to set him right. She would not have done so if her heart had not relented – her heart was so kind. She must have felt what it was to drive a man to despair – and now she was working for him, soothing down the governor, bringing everything back.
“Eh?” he said, vaguely, some time after; he had in the meantime heard Bee’s voice going on vaguely addressing somebody, in the air, “are you speaking to me?”
“There is no one else to speak to,” cried Bee, almost angrily. And then she said, “Charlie – how can you ask her to come here?”
“Why not here? She’ll go anywhere to do a kind thing.”
“But not to this house – not here, not here!”
“Why not, I should like to know – what’s here?” Then Charlie stared at her for a moment with his hollow eyes, and broke into a low, feeble laugh.
“Oh,” he said, “I know what you’ve got in your head – because of that confounded cad, Aubrey Leigh? That is just why she will come, to show what a lie all that was – as if she ever would have looked twice at a fellow like Leigh.”
“He seems to have saved your life,” said Bee, confused, not knowing what to think.
“You mean he gave me house-room when I was ill, and sent for a doctor. Why, any shop-keeper would have done that. And now,” said Charlie, with a grin, “he shall be fully paid back.”
Betty Kingsward lived in what was to her a whirl of pleasure at Portman Square, where everybody was fond of her, and all manner of entertainments were devised for her pleasure. And her correspondence was not usually of an exciting character. Her morning letters, when she had any, were placed by her plate on the breakfast-table. If any came by other posts, she got them when she had a spare moment to look for them, and she had scarcely a spare moment at this very lively and very happy moment of her young career. Besides, that particular evening when Bee’s note arrived was a very important one to Betty. It was the evening on which Miss Lance was to dine with the Lyons. And it was not a mere quiet family dinner, but a party – a thing which in her newness and inexperience still excited the little girl, who was not to say properly “out,” in consequence of her mourning; still wearing black ribbons with her white frocks, and only allowed to accept invitations which were “quiet.” A dinner of twenty people is not exactly an entertainment for a girl of her years, but Betty’s excitement in the deb?t of Miss Lance was so great that no ball could have occupied her more. There was an unusual interest about it in the whole house, even Mrs. Lyon’s maid, the most staid of confidential persons, had begged Betty to point out to her over the baluster “the lady, Miss Betty, that is coming with your papa.”
“Oh, she’s not coming with papa,” Betty had cried, with a laugh at Hobbs’ mistake, “she is only a great, great friend, Hobbs. You will easily know her, for there is nobody else so handsome.”
“Handsome is as handsome does,” said the woman, and she patted Betty on the shoulder under pretence of arranging her ribbon.
Betty had not the least idea why Hobbs looked at her with such compassionate eyes.
Miss Lance, however, did come into the room, to Betty’s surprise, closely followed by Colonel Kingsward, as if they had arrived together. She was like a picture, in her black satin and lace, dressed not too young but rather too old for her age, as Mrs. Lyon pointed out, who was as much excited about her new guest as Betty herself; and the unknown lady had the greatest possible success in a party which consisted chiefly, as Betty did not remark, of old friends of Colonel Kingsward, with whom she had been acquainted all her life. Betty did not remark it, but Gerald Lyon did, who was more than ever her comrade and companion in this elderly company.
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî