Margaret Oliphant.

The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3





What do you come bothering about? he said; you ought to have left me alone. Ive made my bed, and Ive got to lie on it. I dont 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, dont 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 mans 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 youre not worthy to name? Ah! I might have known she wouldnt 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 childs intensity of terror the woman who had so often crossed her path she could not contradict her brothers 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 fathers 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 fathers 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 Bees 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 dont mind noises to-night. Supper? Yes, Ill take some supper. Bring me a beefsteak or something substantial. Im 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 youre good.

CHAPTER X

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 Charlies 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 Bees sensitive being was moved by it, with all the might of something stranger than imagination. She stood trembling among the books, looking at the mothers 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 Aubreys 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 Aubreys, 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 womans room in any way, with none of those little photograph frames about which strew a womans 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 Charlies 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 Aubreys 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 Bees voice as in her heart.

I say, I wasnt, perhaps, very nice to you last night; I couldnt bear to be brought back; but they say Im twice as well since you came. So I am. Ive got something to keep me up. Bee, look here. Am I dreadful to look at? I know I havent an ounce of flesh left on my bones, but some dont mind that; and then, my beard. Ive heard it said that a beard that never was shaved was was an embellishment, dont you know. Do you think Im 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.

Charlies gaunt countenance was distorted with a grin of rage and annoyance. I wish youd 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 dont want to vex you, you are a little but couldnt you have a barber to come, and perhaps he could take it off.

There came a flash of fire out of Charlies 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 fellows sister is always like that: just as we never think anything of a girls looks in our own families. Well, youve given your opinion on that subject. And you think that people who care for me wouldnt 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 shed 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 youll 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. Thats all conceit, like the nonsense in novels, where a woman near your bed when youre ill makes all the difference. Girls, said Charlie, are puffed up with that folly and believe anything. You know I didnt want you. It was what you told me about her that did me good. And your humbug, sitting there crying, anything, anything! Well, heres something! You need not write a regular letter, if you dont 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.

Oh, Charlie!

Give me the paper and pencil Im shaky, but I can do that much myself

Charlie, Ill do it rather than vex you; but I dont 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 Ill take the young lady away, she said.

Ill not go on Ill be as meek as Moses; but, nurse, tell her she mustnt 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 mans 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 Lauras 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 Bees 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? Shell go anywhere to do a kind thing.

But not to this house not here, not here!

Why not, I should like to know whats 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 youve 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.

CHAPTER XI

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 Bees 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 Bettys 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. Lyons 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, shes 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 Bettys 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.





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