Margaret Oliphant.

The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3

Why all these old fogies? he had asked irreverently, as the gentlemen with stars on their coats and the ladies in diamonds came in.

Betty perceived that it was an unusually solemn party, but thought no more of it. It was the evening of the first levee, and that, perhaps, was the reason why the old gentlemen wore their orders. Old gentlemen! They were the flower of the British army. Generals This and That, heads of departments; impossible to imagine more grand people in the flower of their age, like Colonel Kingsward. But eighteen has its own ideas very clearly marked on that subject. Betty and Gerald stood by, lighting up one corner with a blaze of undeniable youth, to see them come in. The young pair were like flowers in comparison with the substantial size and well worn complexions of their seniors, and they were the only little nobodies, the sole representatives of undistinguished and ordinary humanity round the table. They were not by any means daunted by that. On the contrary, they felt themselves, as it were, soaring over the heads of all those limited persons who had attained, spurning the level heights of realisation. They did not in the least know what was to become of them in life, but naturally they made light of the others who did know, who had done all they were likely to do, and had no more to look to. The dignity of accomplished success filled the young ones with impulses of laughter; their inferiority gave them an elevation over all the grizzled heads; they felt themselves, nobodies, to be almost ludicrously, dizzily above the heads of the rest. Only one of the company seemed to see this, however; to cast them an occasional look, even to make them the confidants of an occasional smile, a raising of the eyebrows, a sort of unspoken comment on the fine company, which made Betty still more lively in her criticisms. But this made almost a quarrel between the two.

Oh, I wish we were nearer to Miss Lance, to hear what she thinks of it all, Betty said.

I cant think what you see in that woman, cried Gerald. I, for one, have no desire to know her opinion.

Betty turned her little shoulder upon him with a glance of flame, that almost set the young man on fire.

You prejudiced, cynical, uncharitable, malicious, odious boy! And they did not say another word to each other for five minutes by the clock.

Miss Lance, however, there was no doubt, had a distinguished success. She captivated the gentlemen who were next to her at table, and, what was perhaps more difficult, she made a favourable impression upon the ladies in the drawing-room. Her aspect there, indeed, was of the most attractive kind. She drew Bettys arm within her own, and said with a laugh, You and I are the girls, little Betty, among all these grand married ladies; and then she added, Isnt it a little absurd that we shouldnt have some title to ourselves, we old maids? for Miss means eighteen, and its hard that it should mean forty-two.

Fancy the disappointment of hearing this juvenile title and then finding that it means a middle-aged woman.

She laughed so freely that some of the other ladies laughed too. The attention of all was directed towards the new comer, which Betty thought very natural, she was so much the handsomest of them all.

You mean the disappointment of a gentleman? said one of the guests.

Oh, no, of ladies too. Dont you think women are just as fond of youth as men are, and as much disgusted with an elderly face veiling itself in false pretences? Oh, more! We think more of beauty than the men do, said Miss Lance, raising her fine head as if to expose its features to the fire of all the glances bent upon her.

There was a little chorus of cries, Oh, no, no, and arguments against so novel a view.

But Miss Lance did not quail; her own beauty was done full justice to. She was so placed that more than one mirror in the old-fashioned room reflected her graceful and not unstudied pose.

I know it isnt a usual view, she said, but if youll think of it a little youll find its true. The common thing is to talk about women being jealous of each other. If we are it is because we are always the first to find out a beautiful face and usually we much exaggerate its power.

Do you know, said Mrs. Lyon in her quavering voice, I almost think Miss Lance is right? Mr. Lyon instantly says Humph! when I point out a pretty person to him. And Gerald tells me, You think every girl pretty, aunt.

That is because there is one little girl that he thinks the most pretty of all, said Miss Lance, with a sort of soft maternal coo in Bettys ear.

The subject was taken up and tossed about from one to another, while she who had originated it drew back a little, listening with an air of much attention, turning her head to each speaker, an attitude which was most effective. It will probably be thought the greatest waste of effort for a woman thus to exhibit what the newspapers call her personal advantages to a group of her own sex; but Miss Lance was a very clever woman, and she knew what she was about. After a time, when the first fervour of the argument was over, she returned to her first theme as to the appropriate title that ought to be invented for old maids.

I have thought of it a great deal, she said. I should have called myself Mrs. Laura Lance, to discriminate but for the American custom of calling all married ladies so, which is absurd.

I have a friend in New York who writes to me as Mrs. Mary Lyon, said the mistress of the house.

Yes, which is ridiculous, you know; for you are not Mrs. Mary Lyon, dear lady. You are Mrs. Francis Lyon, if it is necessary to have a Christian name, for Lyon is your husbands name, not yours. You are Mrs. Mary Howard by rights if in such a matter there are any rights.

What! cried old Mr. Lyon, coming in after the long array of gentlemen, are you going to divorce my wife from me, or give her another name, or what are you going to do? We thought it was we only who could change the ladies names, Kingsward, eh?

Colonel Kingsward had placed himself immediately in front of Miss Lance, and Betty, looking on all unsuspicious, saw a glance pass between them or rather, she saw Miss Lance look up into her fathers face. Betty did not know in the least what that look meant, but it gave her a little shock as if she had touched an electric battery. It meant something more than to Bettys consciousness had ever been put into words. She turned her eyes away for a moment to escape the curious thrill that ran through her, and in that moment met Gerald Lyons eyes, full of something malicious, mocking, disagreeable, which made Betty very angry. But she could not explain to herself what all these looks meant.

This curious sensation somehow spoiled the rest of the evening for Betty. Everybody it seemed to her after this meant something something more than they said. They looked at her father, they looked at Miss Lance, they looked even at Bettys little self, embracing all three, sometimes in one comprehensive glance. And all kinds of significant little speeches were made as the company went away. I am so glad to have seen her, one lady said in an undertone to Mrs. Lyon. One regrets, of course, but one is thankful it is no worse. I think, said another, it will do very well I think it will do very well; thank you for the opportunity. And Charming, my dear Mrs. Lyon, charming, said another. They all spoke low and in the most confidential tone. What was it they were all so interested about?

The last of the party to go were Miss Lance and Colonel Kingsward. They seemed to go away together as they had seemed to come together.

Your father is so kind as to see me home, Miss Lance said, by way of explanation. I am not a grand lady with a carriage. I am old enough to walk home by myself, and I always do it, but as Colonel Kingsward is so kind, of course I like company best.

She too had a private word with Mrs. Lyon, at the head of the stairs. Betty did not want to listen, but she heard by instinct the repeated Thank you, thank you! How can I ever express how much I thank you? Betty was so bewildered that she could not think. She paid no attention to her father, who put his hands on her shoulders when he said Good-night, and said, Betty, Ill see you to-morrow. Oh, of course, she should see him to-morrow or not, as circumstances might ordain. What did it matter? She was not anxious to see her father to-morrow, it could not be of the least importance whether they met or not; but what Betty would really have liked would have been to find out what all these little whisperings could mean.

Mrs. Lyon came up to her when the last, to wit, Colonel Kingsward following Miss Lance, had disappeared, and put her arms round the little girl. You are looking a little tired, she said, just this last hour. I did not think they would stay so late. It is all Miss Lance, I believe, setting us on to argue with her metaphysics. Well, everybody likes her very much, which will please you, my dear, as you are so fond of her. And now, Betty, you must run off to bed. Theres hardly time for your beauty sleep.

Mrs. Lyon, said Betty, very curious, was it to meet Miss Lance that all those grand people came?

I dont know what you call grand people. They are all great friends of ours and also of your fathers, and I think you know them every one. And they all know each other.

Except Miss Lance, said Gerald, who was always disagreeable always, when anyone mentioned Miss Lances name.

I know her, certainly, and better than any of them! And there is nobody so delightful, Betty cried, with fervour, partly because she believed what she said, and partly to be disagreeable in her turn to him.

And so they all seemed to think, said old Mr. Lyon, though Im not so fond of new people as the rest of you. Lay hands suddenly on no man is what I say.

And I say the same as my uncle, said Gerald, and its still more true of a woman than a man.

You are such an experienced person, said the old lady; they know so much better than we do, Betty. But never you mind, for your friend has made an excellent impression upon all these people the most tremendously respectable people, Mrs. Lyon said, none of your artists and light-minded persons! Make yourself comfortable with that thought, and good night, my little Betty. You must not stay up so late another night.

What nonsense that was of staying up late, when it was not yet twelve oclock! But Betty went off to her room with a little confusion and bewilderment of mind, happy on the whole, but feeling as if she had something to think about when she should be alone. What was it she had to think about? She could not think what it was when she sat down alone to study her problem. There was no problem, and what the departing guests had said to Mrs. Lyon was quite simple, and referred to something that was their own business, that had nothing to do with Betty. How could it have anything to do with Betty?

Around the corner of the Park, Bee, too, was sitting alone and thinking at the same time, and the two sets of thoughts, neither very clear, revolved round the same circle. But neither of the sisters knew, concerning this problem, whereabouts the other was.


And yet all this time there lay upon Bettys table, concealed under the pretty laced handkerchiefs which she had pulled out of their sachet to choose one for the party, Bees little tremulous letter, expressing a state of mind more agitated than that of Betty, and full of wonderings and trouble. It was found there by the maid who put things in order next morning, when she called the young visitor.

Heres a letter that came last night, and you have never opened it, said the maid, half reproachfully. She, at least, she was anxious to note, had not been to blame.

Betty took it with great sang froid. She saw by the writing it was only Bees and Bees news was never imperative. There could not be much to disclose to her of the state of affairs at Kingswarden that was new, since the night before last.

But the result was that Betty went downstairs in her hat and gloves, and that Mr. Lyon and Gerald, who were both sitting down to that substantial breakfast which is the first symbol of good health and a good conscience in England, had much ado to detain her long enough to share that meal.

Mrs. Lyon did not come downstairs in the morning, so that they used the argument of helplessness, professing themselves unable to pour out their own tea.

And what business can Betty have of such importance that she must run out without her breakfast? said the old gentleman.

Oh, it is news I have heard which I must take at once to papa!

The two gentlemen looked at each other, and Mr. Lyon shook his big, old head.

I would not trouble your papa, my dear, with anything you may have heard. Depend upon it, he will let you know anything he wishes you to know in his own time.

But it is news news, said Betty; news about Charlie!

Then she remembered that very little had been said even to the Lyons about Charlie, and stopped with embarrassment, and her friends could not but believe that this was a hasty expedient to conceal from them that she had heard something some flying rumour which had set her little impetuous being on fire. When she had escaped from their sympathetic looks and Geralds magnanimous proposal to accompany her without so much as an egg to fortify him for the labours of the day! Betty set out, crossing the Park in the early glory of the morning, which feels at nine oclock what six oclock feels in the country, to carry the news to her father.

Charlie found, and ill; and demanding to see Miss Lance, his health and recovery depending upon whether he should see her or not! Bettys first instinct had been to hasten at once to George Street, Hanover Square, but then she remembered that papa presumably was the one who was most anxious about Charlie and had the best right to know, and it was perhaps better not to explain to the friends in Portman Square why Miss Lance should go to Charlie. Indeed, when she had set out, a great many questions occurred to Betty, circulating through her lively little mind without any possibility of an answer to them. Why should Charlie be so anxious to see Miss Lance? Why had he been so long there, ill, and nobody come to tell his people of it? And what was Bee doing in Curzon Street, in Aubrey Leighs house, which was the last house in the world where she had any right to be? But she walked so fast, and the sunny air with all its movement and lightness so carried her on and filled her with pleasant sounds and images, that these thoughts, blowing like the wind through her little intelligence, had not much effect on Betty now though there was incipient trouble in them, as even she could see.

Colonel Kingsward was seated at his breakfast when his little girl burst in upon him in all the freshness of the morning. Her youth and her bloom, and her white frock, notwithstanding its black accoutrements, made a great show in the dark-coloured, solemn, official-looking room, with its Turkey carpets and morocco chairs. The Colonel was evidently startled by the sight of her. He said, Well? in that tone of self-defence, and almost defiance, with which a man prepares for being called upon to give an account of himself; as if anything so absurd could be possible as that Betty, little Betty, could call upon her father to give an account of himself! But then it is very true that when there is something to be accounted for, the strongest feel how conscience doth make cowards of us all.

Oh, she cried, breathless, Papa Charlie! Bee has found Charlie, and hes been very ill typhoid fever; hes getting better, and hes in London, and shes with him; and he wants but to see Miss Lance. Oh, papa, thats what I came about chiefly he wants to see Miss Lance.

Colonel Kingswards face changed many times during this breathless deliverance. He said first, Hes at Mackinnons, I know; then, In London! with no pleasure at all in his tone; and finally, Miss Lance! angrily, his face covered with a dark glow.

What is all this? he cried, when she stopped for want of breath. Charlie in town? You must be out of your senses. Why, he is in Scotland. I heard from , eh? Well, I dont know that I had any letter, but . And ill and Bee with him? What is the meaning of all this? Are you both mad, or in a conspiracy to make yourselves disagreeable to me?

Papa! cried Betty, very ready to take up the challenge; but on the whole the news was too important to justify a combat of self-defence. She produced Bees note out of its envelope, and placed it before him, running on with a report of it while the Colonel groped for his eyeglass and arranged it upon his nose.

A lady came and fetched her, cried Betty, hurriedly, to forestall the reading, and brought her up to town and took her to him oh, so bad where he had been for weeks; and she told him you had been to Oxford, and something about Miss Lance; and he wants to see Miss Lance, and calls and calls for her, and wont be satisfied. Oh, papa!

Colonel Kingsward had arranged his pince-nez very carefully; he had taken up Bees note, and went over it word by word while Betty made her breathless report. When he came to the first mention of Miss Lance he struck his hand upon the table like any other man in a passion, making all the cups and plates ring.

The little fool! he said, the little fool! What right had she to bring in that name? It was this that called forth Bettys exclamation, but no more was said by either till he read it out to the end. Then he flung the letter from him, and getting up, paced about the room in rage and dismay.

A long illness, said the Colonel, was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him to sweep all that had passed before out of his mind; and here does this infernal little idiot, this little demon full of spite and malice, get at the boy at his worst moment and bring everything back. What right had she, the spiteful, envious little fool, to bring in the name of a lady of a lady to whom you all owe the greatest respect?

Papa! cried Betty, overwhelmed, Bee couldnt have meant any harm.

Colonel Kingsward was out of himself and he uttered words which terrified his daughter, and which need not be recorded against him for he certainly did not in cold blood wish Bee to fall under any celestial malediction. He stormed about the room, saying much that Betty could not understand; that it was just the thing of all others that should not have happened, and the time of all others; that if it had been a little later, or even a little earlier, it would not have mattered; that it was enough to overturn every arrangement, increase every difficulty. He was not at all a man to give way to his feelings so. His children, indeed, until very lately, had never seen him excited at all, and it was an astonishment beyond description to little Betty to be a spectator of this scene. Indeed, Colonel Kingsward awoke presently to a sense of the self-exposure he had been making, and calmed down, or, at least, controlled himself, upon which Betty ventured to ask him very humbly what he thought she had better do.

May I go to Miss Lance and tell her? She is not angry now, nor unhappy about him like like us, said Betty, putting the best face upon it with instinctive capacity, and she might know what to do. She is so very kind and understanding, dont you know, papa? and she would know what to do.

For the first time Colonel Kingsward gave his agitated little visitor a smile. You seem to have some understanding, too, for a little girl, he said, and it looks as if you would be worthy of my confidence, Betty. When I see you this afternoon I shall, perhaps, have something to tell you that

There came over Colonel Kingswards fine countenance a smile, a consciousness, which filled Betty with amaze. She had seen her father look handsome, commanding, very serious. She had seen him wear an air which the girls in their profanity had been used in their mothers happy days to call that of the p?re noble. She had seen him angry, even in a passion, as to-day. She had heard him, alas! blaspheme, which had been very terrible to Betty. But she had never, she acknowledged to herself, seen him look silly before. Silly, in a girls phraseology, was what he looked now, with that fatuity which is almost solely to be attributed to one cause; but of this Betty was not aware. It came over his countenance, and for a moment Colonel Kingsward let himself go on the flood of complacent consciousness, which healed all his wounds. Then he suddenly braced himself up and turned to Betty again.

Perhaps, he said, in his most fatherly tone, for it seemed to the man in this crisis of his life that even little Bettys support was something to hold by, my dear child, your instinct is right. Go to Miss Lance and tell her how things are. Dont take this odious letter, however, he said, seizing Bees note and tearing it across with indignant vehemence, with all its prejudices and assumptions. Tell her in your own words; and where they are and Where are they, by the way? he said, groping for the fragments of the letter in his waste-paper basket. I hope you noted the address.

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