The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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It was perhaps a very good thing for Bee at this distracting and distracted moment of her life, that her mother’s illness came in to fill up every thought. Her own little fabric of happiness crumbled down about her ears like a house of cards, only as it was far more deeply founded and strongly built, the downfall was with a rumbling that shook the earth and a dust that rose up to the skies. Heaven was blurred out to her by the rising clouds, and all the earth was full of the noise, like an earthquake, of the falling walls. She could not get that sound out of her ears even in Mrs. Kingsward’s sick room, where the quiet was preternatural, and everybody spoke in the lowest tone, and every step was hushed. Even then it went on roaring, the stones and the rafters flying, the storms of dust and ruin blackening the air, so that Bee could not but wonder that nobody saw them, that the atmosphere was not thick and stifling with those debris that were continually falling about her own ears. For everything was coming down; not only the idol and the shrine he abode in, but heaven and earth, in which she felt that no truth, no faith, could dwell any longer. Who was there to believe in? Not any man if not Aubrey; not any goodness, any truth, if not his – not anything! For it was without object, without warning, for nothing at all, that he had deserted her, as if it had been of no importance: with the ink not dry on his letter, with her name still upon his lips. A great infidelity, like a great faith, is always something. It is tragic, one of the awful events of life in which there is, or may be, fate; an evil destiny, a terrible chastisement prepared beforehand. In such a case one can at least feel one’s self only a great victim, injured by God himself and the laws of the universe, though that was not the common fashion of thought then, as it is now-a-days. But Bee’s downfall did not mean so much as that it was not intended by anyone – not even by the chief worker in it. He had meant to hold Bee fast with one hand while he amused himself with the other. Amused himself – oh, heaven! Bee’s heart seemed to contract with a speechless spasm of anguish and rage. That she should be of no more account than that! Played with as if she were nobody – the slight creature of a moment. She, Bee! She, Colonel Kingsward’s daughter!
At first the poor girl went on in a mist of self-absorption, through which everything else pierced but dully, wrapped up and hidden in it as in the storm which would have arisen had the house actually fallen about her ears, perceiving her mother through it, and the doctor, and all the accessories of the scene – but dimly, not as if they were real. When, however, there began to penetrate through this, strange words, with strange meanings in them: “Danger” – danger to whom? – “Strength failing” – but whose strength? – a dull wonder came in, bringing her back to other thoughts.By-and-by, Bee began to understand a little that it was of her mother of whom these things were being said. Her mother? But it was not her mother’s house that had fallen; what did it mean? The doctor talked apart with Moulsey, and Moulsey turned her back, and her shoulders heaved, and her apron seemed to be put to her eyes. Bee, in her dream said, half aloud, “Danger?” and both the doctor and Moulsey turned upon her as if they would have killed her. Then she was beckoned out of the room, and found herself standing face to face with that grave yet kindly countenance which she had known all her life, in which she believed as in the greatest authority. She heard his voice speaking to her through all the rumbling and downfall.
“You must be very courageous,” it said, “You are the eldest, and till your father comes home – ”
What did it matter about her father coming home, or about her being the eldest? What had all these things to do with the earthquake, with the failure of truth, and meaning, and everything in life? She looked at him blankly, wondering if it were possible that he did not hear the sound of the great falling, the rending of the walls, and the tearing of the roof, and the choking dust that filled all earth and heaven.
“My dear Beatrice,” he said, for he had known her all his life, “you don’t understand me, do you, my poor child?”
Bee shook her head, looking at him wistfully. Could he know anything more about it, she wondered – anything that had still to be said?
He took her hand, and her poor little hand was very cold with emotion and trouble. The good doctor, who knew nothing about any individual cause little Bee could have for agitation, thought he saw that her very being was arrested by a terror which as yet her intelligence had not grasped; something dreadful in the air which she did not understand. He drew her into the dining-room, the door of which stood open, and poured out a little wine for her. “Now, Bee,” he said, “no fainting, no weakness. You must prove what is in you now. It is a dreadful trial for you, my dear, but you can do a great deal for your dear mother’s sake, as she would for yours.”
“I have never said it was a trial,” cried Bee, with a gasp. “Why do you speak to me so? Has mamma told you? No one has anything to do with it but me.”
He looked at her with great surprise, but the doctor was a man of too much experience not to see that here was something into which it was better not to inquire. He said, very quietly, “You, as the eldest, have no doubt the chief part to play; but the little ones will all depend upon your strength and courage. Your mother does not herself know. She is very ill. It will require all that we can do – to pull her through.”
Bee repeated the last words after him with a scared look, but scarcely any understanding in her face – “To pull her – through?”
“Don’t you understand me now? Your mother – has been ill for a long time. Your father is aware of it. I suppose he thought you were too young to be told. But now that he is absent, and your brother, I have no alternative. Your mother is in great danger. I have telegraphed for Colonel Kingsward, but in the meantime, Bee – child, don’t lose your head! Do you understand me? She may be dying, and you are the only one to stand by her, to give her courage.”
Bee did not look as if she had courage for anyone at that dreadful moment. She fell a-trembling from head to foot and fell back against the wall where she was standing. Her eyes grew large, staring at him yet veiled as if they did not see – and she stammered forth at length, “Mother, mother!” with almost no meaning, in the excess of misery and surprise.
“Yes, your mother; whatever else you may have to think of, she is the first consideration now.”
He went on speaking, but Bee did not hear him; everything floated around her in a mist. The scenes at the Bath, the agitations, Mrs. Kingsward’s sudden pallors and flushings, her pretence, which they all laughed at, of not being able to walk; her laziness, lying on the sofa, the giddiness when she made that one turn with Charlie, she who had always been so fond of dancing; the hurry of bringing her to Kingswarden when Bee had felt they would have been so much better in London, and her strange, strange new fancy, mutely condemned by Bee, of finding the children too much for her. Half of these things had been silently remarked and disapproved of by the daughters. Mamma getting so idle – self-indulgent almost, so unlike herself! Had they not been too busily engaged in their own affairs, Bee and Betty would both have been angry with mamma. All these things seem to float about Bee in a mist while she leaned against the wall and the doctor stood opposite to her talking. It was only perhaps about a minute after all, but she saw waving round her, passing before her eyes, one scene melting into another, or rather all visible at once, innumerable episodes – the whole course of the three months past which had contained so much. She came out of this strange whirl very miserable but very quiet.
“I think it is chiefly my fault,” she said, faltering, interrupting the doctor who was talking, always talking; “but how could I know, for nobody told me? Doctor, tell me what to do now? You said we should – pull her through.”
She gave him a faint, eager, conciliatory smile, appealing to him to do it. Of course he could do it! “Tell me – tell me only what to do.”
He patted her kindly upon the shoulder. “That is right,” he said. “Now you understand me, and I know I can trust you. There is not much to do. Only to be quiet and steady – no crying or agitation. Moulsey knows everything. But you must be ready and steady, my dear. Sit by her and look happy and keep up her courage – that’s the chief thing. If she gives in it is all over. She must not see that you are frightened or miserable. Come, it’s a great thing to do for a little girl that has never known any trouble. But you are of a good sort, and you must rise to it for your mother’s sake.”
Look happy! That was all she had to do. “Can’t I help Moulsey,” she asked. “I could fetch her what she wants. I could – go errands for her. Oh, doctor, something a little easier,” cried Bee, clasping her hands, “just at first!”
“All that’s arranged,” he said, hastily, “Come, we must go back to our patient. She will be wondering what I am talking to you about. She will perhaps take fright. No, nothing easier, my poor child – if you can do that you may help me a great deal; if you can’t, go to bed, my dear, that will be best.”
She gave him a look of great scorn, and moved towards her mother’s room, leading the way.
Mrs. Kingsward was lying with her face towards the door, watching, in a blaze of excitement and fever. Her eyes had never been so bright nor her colour so brilliant. She was breathing quickly, panting, with her heart very audible to herself, pumping in her ears, and almost audible in the room, so evident was it that every pulse was at fever speed. “What have you been telling Bee, doctor? What have you been telling Bee? What – ” When she had begun this phrase it did not seem as if she could stop repeating it again and again.
“I have been telling her that she may sit with you, my dear lady, on condition of being very quiet, very quiet,” said the doctor. “It’s a great promotion at her age. She has promised to sit very still, and talk very little, and hush her mamma to sleep. It is you who must be the baby to-night. If you can get a good long quiet sleep, it will do you all the good in the world. Yes, you may hold her hand if you like, my dear, and pat it, and smooth it – a little gentle mesmerism will do no harm. That, my dear lady, is what I have been telling Miss Bee.”
“Oh, doctor,” said Mrs. Kingsward, “don’t you know she has had great trouble herself, poor child? Poor little Bee! At her age I was married and happy; and here is she, poor thing, plunged into trouble. Doctor, you know, there is a – gentleman – ”
Mrs. Kingsward had raised herself upon her elbow, and the panting of her breath filled all the room.
“Another time – another time you shall tell me all about it. But I shall take Miss Bee away, and consign you to a dark room, and silence, if you say another word – ”
“Oh, don’t make my room dark! I like the light. I want my child. Let me keep her, let me keep her! Who should – comfort her – but her mother?”
“Yes, so long as you keep quiet. If you talk I will take her away. Not a word – not a word – till to-morrow.” In spite of himself there was a change in the doctor’s voice as he said that word – or Bee thought so – as if there might never be any to-morrow. The girl felt as if she must cry out, shriek aloud, to relieve her bursting brain, but did not, overborne by his presence and by the new sense of duty and self-restraint. “Come now,” he went on, “I am very kind to let you have your little girl by you, holding your hand – don’t you think so? Go to sleep, both of you. If you’re quite, quite, quiet you’ll both doze, and towards the morning I’ll look in upon you again. Now, not another word. Good-night, good-night.”
Bee, whose heart was beating almost as strongly as her mother’s, heard his measured step withdraw on the soft carpets with a sense of wild despair, as if the last hope was going from her. Her inexperienced imagination had leaped from complete ignorance and calm to the last possibilities of calamity. She had never seen death, and what if that awful presence were to come while she was alone, incapable of any struggle, of giving any help. She listened to the steps getting fainter in the distance with anguish and terror unspeakable. She clasped her mother’s hand tightly without knowing it. That only aid, the only man who could do anything, was going away – deserting them – leaving her alone in her ignorance to stand between her mother and death. Death! Every pulse sprang up and fluttered in mortal terror. And she was put there to be quiet – ready and steady, he had said – to look happy! Bee kept silent; kept sitting upon her chair; kept down her shriek after him with a superhuman effort. She could do no more.
“Listen – he’s talking to Moulsey now,” said Mrs. Kingsward, “about me; they’re always – whispering, about me – telling the symptoms – and how I am. That is the worst of nurses – ”
“Mamma! Oh, don’t talk, don’t talk!” cried Bee; though she was more comforted than words can tell by the sound of her mother’s voice.
“Whispering: can’t you hear them? About temperature – and things. I can bear talking – but whispering. Bee – don’t you hear ’em – whis – whispering – ”
“Oh, mamma,” cried Bee, “I love to hear you speak! But don’t, don’t, don’t, or they’ll make me go away.”
“My baby,” said the mother, diverted in her wandering and weakness to a new subject, “my little thing! He said we were to go to sleep. Put your head there – and I’ll sing you – I’ll sing you – to sleep – little Bee, little Bee, poor little Bee!”
This night was the strangest in Bee Kingsward’s life. She had never known what it was to remain silent and awake in the darkness and warmth of a sick room, which of itself is a strange experience for a girl, and shows the young spirit its own weakness, its craving for rest and comfort, the difficulty of overcoming the instincts of nature – with such a sense of humiliation as nothing else could give. Could you not watch with me one hour? She believed that she had lain awake crying all night when her dream of happiness had so suddenly been broken in upon at Cologne; but now, while she sat by her mother’s side, and the little soft crooning of the song, which Mrs. Kingsward supposed herself to be singing to put her child to sleep, sank into a soft murmur, and the poor lady succeeded in hushing herself into a doze by this characteristic method. Bee’s head dropped too, and her eyelids closed. Then she woke, with a little shiver, to see the large figure of Moulsey like a ghost by the bed, and struggled dumbly back to her senses, only remembering that she must not start nor cry to disturb Mrs. Kingsward, whose quick breathing filled the room with a sensation of danger and dismay to which the girl was sensible as soon as the film of sleep that had enveloped her was broken. Mrs. Kingsward’s head was thrown back on the pillow; now and then a faint note of the lullaby which she had been singing came from the parted lips, through which the hot, quick breath came so audibly. Now and then she stirred in her feverish sleep. Moulsey stood indistinguishable with her back to the light, a mass of solid shadow by the bedside. She shook her head. “Sleep’s best,” she said, in the whisper which the patient hated. “Sleep’s better than the best of physic.” Bee caught those solid skirts with a sensation of hope, to feel them so real and substantial in her hand. She did not care to speak, but lifted her face, pale with alarm and trouble, to the accustomed nurse. Moulsey shook her head again. It was all the communication that passed between them, and it crushed the hope that was beginning to rise in Bee’s mind. She had thought when she heard the doctor go away that death might be coming as soon as his back was turned. She had felt when her mother fell asleep as if the danger must be past. Now she sank into that second stage of hopelessness, when there is no longer any immediate panic, when the unaccustomed intelligence dimly realises that the sufferer may be better, and may live through the night, or through many nights, and yet there may be no real change. Very dim as yet was this consciousness in Bee’s heart, and yet the first dawning of it bowed her down.
In the middle of the night – after hours so long! – more like years, when Bee seemed to have sat there half her life, to have become used to it, to be uncertain about everything outside, but only that her mother lay there more ill than words could say – Mrs. Kingsward awoke. She opened her eyes without any change of position with the habit of a woman who has been long ill, without acknowledging her illness. It was Moulsey who saw a faint reflection of the faint light in the softly opening eyes, and detected that little change in the breathing which comes with returning consciousness. Bee, with her head leant back upon her chair and her eyes closed, was dozing again.
“You must take your cordial, ma’am, now you’re awake. You’ve had such a nice sleep.”
“Have I? I thought I was with the children and singing to baby. Who’s this that has my hand – Bee?”
“Mamma,” cried the girl, with a little start, and then, “Oh! I have waked her, Moulsey, I have waked her!”
“Is this her little hand? Poor little Bee! No, you have not waked me, love; but why, why is the child here?”
“The doctor said she might stay – to send for him if you wanted anything – and – and to satisfy her.”
“To satisfy her, why so, why so? Am I so bad? Did he think I would die – in the night?”
“No, no, no,” said Moulsey, standing by her, patting her shoulder, as if she had been a fretful child. “What a thing to fancy! As if he’d have sent the child here for that!”
“No,” said the poor lady, “he wouldn’t have sent the child, would he – not the child – for that – to frighten her! But Bee must go to bed. I’m so much better. Go to bed. Moulsey; poor Moulsey, never tires, she’s so good. But you must go to bed.”
“Oh, mother, let me stay. When you sleep, I sleep too; and I’m so much happier here.”
“Happier, are you? Well – but there was something wrong. Something had happened. What was it that happened? And your father away! It never does for anything to happen when – my husband is away. I’ve grown so silly. I never know what to do. What was it that happened, Bee?”
“There was – nothing,” said Bee, with a sudden chill of despair. She had forgotten everything but the dim bed-chamber, the faint light, the quick, quick breathing. And now there came a stab at her poor little heart. She scarcely knew what it was, but a cut like a knife going to the very centre of her being. Then there came the doctor’s words, as if they were written in light across the darkness of the room – “Ready, and steady.” She said in a stronger voice, “You have been dreaming. There was nothing, mamma.”
Mrs. Kingsward, who had raised herself on her elbow, sank back again on her pillow.
“Yes,” she said, “I must have been dreaming. I thought somebody came – and told us. Dreams are so strange. People say they’re things you’ve been – thinking of. But I was not thinking of that – the very last thing! Bee, it’s a pity – it’s a great pity – when a woman with so many children falls into this kind of silly, bad health.”
“Oh, mamma,” was all that poor Bee could say.
“Oh – let me alone, Moulsey – I want to talk a little. I’ve had such a good sleep, you said; sometimes – I want to talk, and Moulsey won’t let me – nor your father, and I have it all here,” she said, putting her hand to her heart, “or here,” laying it over her eyebrows, “and I never get it out. Let me talk, Moulsey – let me talk.”
Bee, leaning forward, and Moulsey standing over her by the bedside, there was a pause. Their eyes, accustomed to the faint light, saw her eyes shining from the pillow, and the flush of her cheeks against the whiteness of the bed. Then, after a while, there came a little faint laugh, and, “What was I saying?” Mrs. Kingsward asked. “You look so big, Moulsey, like the shadows I used to throw on the wall to please the children. You always liked the rabbit best, Bee. Look!” She put up her hands as if to make that familiar play upon the wall. “But Moulsey,” she added, “is so big. She shuts out all the light, and what is Bee doing here at this hour of the night? Moulsey, send Miss Bee to bed.”
“Oh, mother, let me stay. You were going to tell me something.”
“Miss Bee, you must not make her talk.”
“How like Moulsey!” said the invalid. “Make me talk! when I have wanted so much to talk. Bee, it’s horrid to go on in this silly ill way, when – when one has children to think of. Your father’s always good – but a man often doesn’t understand. About you, now – if I had been a little stronger, it might have been different. What was it we heard? I don’t think it was true what we heard.”
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