The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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He had not then, it was evident, noted the address, nor the name of Mrs. Leigh, nor in whose house Charlie was. Betty’s heart beat high with the question whether she should call his attention to these additional facts, but her courage failed her. He had cooled down, he was himself again: and after a moment he added, “I will write a little note which you can take,” with once more the smile that Betty thought silly floating across his face. She was standing close by the writing-table, and Betty was not aware that there was any harm in the natural glimpse which her keen eyes took, before she was conscious of it, of the note he was writing. It was not like a common note. It did not begin “Dear Miss Lance,” as would have been natural. In short, it had no beginning at all, nor any signature – or rather it was signed only with his initial “F.” How very extraordinary that papa should sign “F.” and should not put any beginning to his letter. A kind of wondering consternation enveloped the little girl. But still she did not in the least understand what it meant.
Betty walked away along Pall Mall and Piccadilly, and by the edge of the Park to George Street, Hanover Square. It is not according to the present fashion that a girl should shrink from walking along through those busy London streets, where nobody is in search of adventures, at least at that hour of the morning. Her white morning frock and her black ribbons, and her early bloom, like the morning, though delightful to behold, did not make all the passers by stand and stare as the movements of a pretty girl used to do, if we are to credit the novels, in the beginning of the century. People, perhaps, have too much to do nowadays to give to that not unusual sight the attention which the dandies and the macaroni bestowed upon it, and Betty was so evidently bent on her own little business, whatever it was, that nothing naturally occurred to detain her.
It was so unusual for her to have a grave piece of business in hand that she was a little elated by it, even though so sorry for Charlie who was so ill, and for Bee who was so perturbed about everything. Betty herself was not perturbed; she was full of the pleasure of the morning and the long, interesting walk, and the sense of her own importance as a messenger. If there did occasionally float across her mind the idea that her father’s demeanour was strange, or that it was odd that he should have signed his note to Miss Lance with an F., it was merely a momentary idea and she did not question it or detain it. And poor Charlie! Ill – not able to get out this fine weather; but he was getting better, so that there was really nothing to be troubled about.
Miss Lance was up, but had not yet appeared when Betty was shown into her little drawing-room. She was not an early riser. It was one of her vices, she frankly allowed. Betty had to wait, and had time to admire all her friend’s knick-knacks, of which there were many, before she came in, which she did at last, with her arms put out to take Betty maternally to her bosom.She looked in the girl’s face with a very intent glance before she took her into this embrace.
“My little Betty, so early,” she said, and kissed the girl, and then looked at her again, as if in expectation of something; but as Betty could not think of anything that Miss Lance would be expecting from her, she remained unconscious of any special meaning in this look.
“Yes, I am early,” she said; “it is because I have something to tell you, and something to ask of you, too.”
“Tell, my dear little girl, and ask. You may be sure I shall be at your service. But what is this in your hand – a note for me?”
“Yes, it is a note for you, but may I tell you first what it is about?” Betty went on quickly with her story, though Miss Lance, without waiting for it, took the note and opened it. “Miss Lance, Charlie is found; he has been very ill, and he wants to see you.”
“To see me?” Miss Lance looked with eyes of sympathy, yet great innocence, as if at an impossible proposal, at the breathless girl so anxious to get it out. “But, Betty, if he is with your friends, the Mackinnons, in Scotland – ?”
“Oh, Miss Lance, I told you he was not there, don’t you remember? He has never been anywhere all this time. He has had typhoid fever, and on Thursday Bee was sent for, and found him still ill, but mending. And when he heard you were in town he would give her no peace till she wrote and asked you to come and see him. And she did not know your address so she wrote to me. I went to tell papa first, and then I came on here. Oh, will you come and see Charlie? Bee said he wanted to get into a hansom and come to you as soon as he heard you were here.”
“What induced them to talk of me, and why did she tell him I was here?” Miss Lance cried, with a momentary cloud upon her face, such as Betty had never seen there before. She sat down suddenly in a chair, with a pat of her foot upon the carpet, which was almost a stamp of impatience, and then she read Colonel Kingsward’s note for the second time, with her brows drawn together and a blackness about her eyes which filled Betty with alarm and dismay. She looked up, however, next minute with her countenance cleared. “Your father says I am to use my own discretion,” she said, with a half laugh; “that is not much help to me, is it, in deciding what is best to do? So he has been ill – and not in Scotland at all?”
“I told you he was not in Scotland,” cried Betty, a little impatient in her turn. “Oh, Miss Lance, he has been ill, he is still ill, and won’t you come and see him when he wants you so? Oh, come and see him, please! He looks so ill and wretched, Bee says, and weak, and cannot get back his strength; and he thinks if he could see you – ”
“Poor boy – silly boy!” said Miss Lance; “why does he think it will do him good to see me? I doubt if it would do him any good; and your father says I am to use my discretion. I would do anything for any of you, Betty, but perhaps I should do him harm instead of good. Have you got your sister’s letter?”
“I left it with papa – that is, he threw it into the waste paper basket,” said the too truthful Betty, growing red.
“I understand,” said Miss Lance, “it was not a letter to show me. Bee has her prejudices, and perhaps she is right. I cannot expect that all the family should be as nice to me as you. Have they taken him to Kingswarden? Or where is he, poor boy?”
“He is at No. 1000, Curzon Street,” Betty said.
“What!” said Miss Lance. “Where?” Her brow curved over her eyes, her face grew dark as if the light had gone out of the morning, and she spoke the two monosyllables in a sharp imperative tone, so that they seemed to cut like a knife.
“At No. 1000; Curzon Street,” Betty repeated with great alarm, not knowing what to think.
Miss Lance rose quickly, as if there had been something that stung her in the innocent words. She looked as if she were about to pace the room from end to end, as Colonel Kingsward did when he was disturbed. But either she did not mean this, or she restrained herself, for what she did was to walk to her writing-table and put Colonel Kingsward’s note away in a drawer, and then she went to the window and looked out, and said it was a fine morning but dusty for walking – and then she returned to her chair and sat down again and looked at Betty. She was pale, and there were lines in her face that had not been there before. Her eyes were almost piteous as she looked at the surprised girl.
“I am in a very strait place,” she said, “and I don’t know what to do.” Something like moisture seemed to come up into her eyes. “This is always how it happens to me,” she said, “just at the moment, just at the moment! What am I to do?”
Bee had passed the whole day with Charlie, the Friday of the dinner party at Portman Square. She had resisted as long as she could writing the letter which had brought so much excitement to Betty, and the passion with which he had insisted upon this – the struggle between them, the vehemence with which he had declared that he cared for nothing in the world but to see Laura once again, to thank her for having pleaded for him with his father, to ask her forgiveness for his follies – had been bad for Charlie, who lay for the rest of the day upon the sofa, tossing from him one after the other the novels that were provided for his amusement, declaring them to be “rot” or “rubbish,” growling at his sister when she continued to speak to him, and reducing poor Bee to that state of wounded imbecility which is the lot of those who endeavour to please an unpleasable invalid, with the conviction that all the time they are doing more harm than good.
Bee was not maladroit by nature, and she had the warmest desire to be serviceable to her brother, but it appeared that she always did the wrong thing, not only in the eyes of Charlie, but in those of the nurse, who came in from time to time with swift movements, bringing subordination and quiet where there had been nothing but irritation and resistance. And in this house, where she had been brought entirely for the service of Charlie, Bee did not know what to do. She was afraid to leave the rooms that had been given up to him lest she should meet someone on the stairs, or be seen only to be avoided, as if her presence there was that of a ghost or an enemy. Poor Bee – wearing out the long hours of the spring afternoon with poor attempts to be useful to the invalid, to watch his looks – which he resented by frequent adjurations not to watch him as a cat watches a mouse – to anticipate his wishes – which immediately became the last thing in the world he wanted as soon as she found out the drink or got the paper for which he was looking, heard or thought she heard steps coming to the street door, subdued voices in the hall, comings and goings half stealthily, noises subdued lest she should hear. What did it matter whether she heard or not? Why should the master of the house be banished that she, so ineffectual as she had proved, should be brought to her brother’s side? She had not done, and could not do, any good to Charlie. All that she had done had been to remind him of Miss Lance, to be the medium of calling that disastrous person, who had done all the harm, back into Charlie’s life – nay, of bringing her back to this house, the inmates of which she had already harmed to the utmost of her power.
That was all that had been done by Bee, and now her presence kept at a distance the one individual in the world who had the best right to be here. He came almost secretly, she felt sure, to the door in the dusk to inquire after his patient, or to get his letters; or stole in, subduing his step, that she might not be disturbed.
Poor Bee! It was very bitter to her to think that Aubrey Leigh should leave his own house because she was there. Sometimes she wondered whether it was some remnant of old, almost-extinguished feeling in his breast which had made him think that the sight of Bee would do Charlie good – the sight of Bee, for which her brother did not care at all, not at all; which was an annoyance and a fatigue to him, except when she had betrayed what was the last thing in the world she should have betrayed, the possibility of seeing again that woman who had harmed them all. If Aubrey had thought so, with some remnant of the old romance, how mistaken he had been! And it was intolerable for the girl to think that for the sake of this unsuccessful experiment he had been sent away from his own house. She placed herself in the corner of the room in which Charlie (to whom she was supposed to do good and bring pleasure) could see her least, and bitterness filled her heart. There were times in which she thought of stealing away, leaving a word for Mrs. Leigh to the effect that she was doing Charlie no good, and that Betty, who would come to-morrow, might perhaps be of more use – and returning forlorn to Kingswarden to renew the life, where perhaps nobody wanted her very much, but where, at least, there were so many things which she and no one else was there to do.
She was still in this depressed state when Mrs. Leigh (who had evidently gone away that the brother and sister might be alone and happy together) came back, looking into Charlie’s room to ask how he was on her way upstairs to dress for dinner.
“Better,” the nurse said, with her eyebrows. “Peevish – young lady mustn’t cross him – must be humoured – things not gone quite so well to-day.”
“You will tell me about it at dinner,” said Mrs. Leigh, and Bee went downstairs with a heavy heart to be questioned. Aubrey’s mother looked cheerful enough; she did not seem to be unhappy about his absence or to dislike the society of the girl who had driven him away. And she was very considerate even in her questions about the patient.
“We must expect these fluctuations,” she said; “you must not be cast down if you are not quite so triumphantly successful to-day.”
“Oh, Mrs. Leigh, I am deceiving you. I have never been successful at all. He did not want me – he doesn’t care for me, and to stay here is dreadful, upsetting the house – doing no good.”
“My dear, this is a strange statement to make, and you must not expect me to believe you in the face of facts. He was much better after seeing you last night.”
“Doing no good,” said Bee, shaking her head, “but harm, oh, real harm! It was not I that did him good, it was telling him of someone, of a lady. Oh, Mrs. Leigh, how am I to tell you?”
“My dear child, anything that you yourself know can surely be told to me. We were afraid that something about a woman was at the bottom of it, but then that is always the thing that is said, and typhoid, you know, means bad drains and not a troubled mind – though the one may make you susceptible to the other. Don’t be so distressed, my dear. It seems more to your inexperience than it is in reality. He will get over that.”
“Mrs. Leigh,” said Bee, very pale, “he has made me write to ask her to come and see him here.”
It was now Mrs. Leigh’s turn to change colour. She grew red, looking astonished in the girl’s despairing face.
“A woman to come and see him, here! But your brother would never insult the house and you – I am talking nonsense,” she said, suddenly stopping herself, “and misconstruing him altogether. It is some lady who has jilted him – or something of that kind.”
Bee had not understood what Mrs. Leigh’s first idea was, and she did not see any cause for relief in the second.
“I don’t know what she did to him, or what she has done to them all,” the girl said, mournfully. “They are all the same. Papa, even, who does not care very much for ladies, generally – But Charlie, poor Charlie! Oh, I believe he is in love with her still, though she is twice as old as he is and has almost broken his heart.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Leigh, “this must be something very different to what we thought. We thought he had got into some very dreadful trouble about a – an altogether inferior person. But as it seems to be a lady, and one that is known to the family, and who can be asked to come here – if you can tell me a little more clearly what the story is, I shall be more able to give you my advice.”
Bee looked at her questioner helpless, half distracted, not knowing how to speak, and yet the story must be told. She had written that fatal invitation, and it could not be concealed who this possible visitor was. She began with a great deal of hesitation to talk of the lady whom Charlie had raved about at Oxford, and how he was to work to please her; and how he did not work, but failed in every way, and fled from Oxford; and how her father went to inquire into the story; and how the lady had come to Colonel Kingsward at the hotel, to explain to him, to excuse Charlie, to beg his father to forgive him.
“But, my dear, she can’t be so very bad,” said Mrs. Leigh, soothingly. “You must not judge her hardly; if she thought she had been to blame in the matter, that was really the right thing to do.”
“And since then,” resumed Bee, “I think papa has thought of nobody else; he writes to her and tells her everything. He goes to see her; he forgets about Charlie and all of us; he has taken Betty there, and Betty adores her too. And to-night,” cried Bee, the angry tears coming into her eyes, “she is dining in Portman Square, dining with the Lyons as a great friend of ours – in Portman Square.”
Mrs. Leigh drew Bee to her and gave her a kiss of consolation. I think it was partly that the girl in her misery should not see the smile, which Mrs. Leigh, thinking that she now saw through this not uncommon mystery, could not otherwise conceal.
“My poor child,” she said, “my dear girl! This is hard upon you since you dislike her so much, but I am afraid it is quite natural, and a thing that could not have been guarded against. And then you must consider that your father may probably be a better judge than yourself. I don’t see any harm this lady has done, except that perhaps it is not quite good taste to make herself so agreeable both to the father and son; but perhaps in Charlie’s case that was not her fault. And I see no reason, my dear – really and sincerely as your friend, Bee – why you should be so prejudiced against a poor woman whose only fault is that everybody else likes her. Now isn’t it a little unreasonable when you think of it calmly yourself?”
“Oh, Mrs. Leigh!” Bee cried. The situation was so intolerable, the passion of injury and misconception so strong in her that she could only gasp in insupportable anger and dismay.
“Bee! Bee! this feeling is natural but you must not let it carry you away. Have you seen her? Let me come in when she is here and give my opinion.”
“I have seen her three times,” said Bee, solemnly, “once at the Baths, and once at the Academy, and once at Oxford;” and then once more excitement mastered the girl. “Oh, when you know who she is! Don’t smile, don’t smile, but listen! She is Miss Lance.”
“Miss Lance!” Mrs. Leigh repeated the name with surprise, looking into Bee’s face. “You must compose yourself,” she said, “you must compose yourself. Miss – ? My dear, you have got over excited, you have mixed things up.”
“No, I am not over-excited! I am telling you only the truth. It is Miss Lance, and they all believe in her as if she were an angel, and she is coming here.”
Mrs. Leigh was very much startled, but yet she would not believe her ears. She had heard Charlie delirious in his fever not so long ago. Her mind gave a little leap to the alarming thought that there might be madness in the family, and that Bee had been seized like her brother. That what she said was actual fact seemed to her too impossible to be true. She soothed the excited girl with all her power. “Whoever it is, my dear, you shall not take any harm. There is nothing to be frightened about. I will take care of you, whoever it is.”
“I do not think you believe me,” said Bee. “I am not out of my mind, as you think. It is Miss Lance – Miss Laura Lance – the same, the very same, that – and I have written, and she will be coming here.”
“This is very strange,” said Mrs. Leigh. “It does not seem possible to believe it. The same – who came between Aubrey and you? Oh, I never meant to name him, I was never to name him; but how can I help it? Laura, who was the trouble of his house – who would not leave him – who went to your father? And now your father! I cannot understand it. I cannot believe that it is true.”
“It is true,” said Bee. “But, Mrs. Leigh, you forget that no one cared then, except myself; they have forgotten all that now, they have forgotten what happened. It was only my business, it was not their business. All that has gone from papa; he remembers nothing about it. And she is a witch, she is a magician, she is a devil – oh, please forgive me, forgive me – I don’t know what I am saying. It has all been growing, one thing after another – first me – and then Charlie – and then papa – and then Betty. And now, after bringing him almost to death and destruction, here is Charlie, in this house, calling for her, raging with me till I wrote to call her – me!” cried Bee, with a sort of indignant eloquence. “Me! Could it go further than that? Could anything be more than that? Me! – and in this house.”
“My dear child,” said Mrs. Leigh, “I don’t wonder, I don’t wonder – it is like something in a tragedy. Oh, Bee! Forgive me for what is first in my thoughts. Was she the reason, the only reason, for your breach with my poor Aubrey? For at first you stood by him – and then you turned upon him.”
“Do not ask me any more questions, please. I am not able to answer anything. Isn’t it enough that all these things have happened through this woman, and that she is coming here?”
Mrs. Leigh made no further question. She saw that the girl’s excitement was almost beyond her control, and that her young mind was strained to its utmost. She said, half to herself, “I must think. I cannot tell in a moment what to do. I must send for Aubrey. It is his duty and mine to let it go no further. You must try to compose yourself, my dear, and trust us. Oh, Bee,” there were tears in her eyes as she came up to the girl and kissed her, “if you could but have trusted us – in all things! I don’t think you ever would have repented.”
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