The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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And then there occurred the most wonderful incident, so strange, so unsuspected, so unaccountable, that Bee could scarcely suppress a cry of astonishment. Charlie had been “doing” the pictures in his way, going faster than his sister, and had been roaming down the whole side of the long gallery while Bee occupied herself with one or two favourites. He appeared now at a little distance, having made the round of the room, and Bee was the involuntary, much surprised witness of the effect produced upon Charlie by the sudden appearance which had so much excited herself. He stopped short, with it seemed a sudden exclamation, let the book in his hands drop in his amazement, then, cleaving the crowd, precipitated himself upon the group in which the lady stood. Bee watched with consternation the hurried, eager greeting, the illumination of his boyish face, even the gesture – both hands put forth, and the quiver of his whole eager figure. She even heard a little cry of surprise from the lady, who presently separated herself from her friends and went on with Charlie in the closest conversation. It seemed to Bee as she watched, following them as well as she could through the crowd which got between her and these two figures, that there were no two heads so close together in all the throng. They seemed to drift into a corner where the pictures were of no importance, where they were comparatively undisturbed as if for the most confidential talk. It was not mere acquaintanceship, a chance meeting with some one he knew, it was utter forgetfulness of everything else, complete absorption in this new interest that seemed to move her brother. For a time Bee formed no conclusion, thought of no explanation, but watched them only with all her faculties. The catalogue which Charlie had dropped was shuffled and kicked to her feet by the passers by, a visible sign that something unusual had happened. What was it? Who was she?
And then there darted into Bee’s mind a suggestion, an idea which she could not, would not entertain. Laura! Was it possible that this could be Laura? The thought sent a thrill through and through her. But no! no! no! she cried within herself; impossible! This lady was years older than Charlie – of another generation altogether – not a girl at all. She gazed through the crowd at the two heads in the corner of the room, standing as if they were looking at the pictures. They had their backs to Bee, and she could see nothing but occasionally a side glimpse of Charlie’s cheek and the lace bonnet, with the unusual accompaniment of a floating veil, which covered his companion’s head. She had remembered the veil at once – not primly fastened over her face, as most ladies wore them, but thrown back and falling behind, a head-dress such as nobody else wore. It distinguished from every other head that of the woman who, Bee now felt sure, was like somebody in a tragedy of Fate – somebody who had to do, she could not tell how, with the shipwreck of her own life – for had she not appeared mysteriously, from she knew not where, on the very eve of misery and ruin? – and now was overshadowing Charlie’s, bringing him some calamity.Bee shivered and trembled among all the crowding people on the seat which so many people envied her, and felt that she was retaining far longer than her share. She was too much frightened to do as she could have wished to do, to rush after them, to draw her brother away, to break the spell. Such a dark lady had been known in story long before Bee was born. Could it be true that hateful beings were permitted to stray about even in the brightest scenes, bringing evil augury and all kinds of trouble with them? Many a time had Bee thought of this lady – of her sudden appearance, and of her questions about the Leighs; of something in her look, an air of meaning which even at the moment had confused the unsuspicious, unalarmed girl. And now, What was she? Who was she? Laura? Oh, no, no; a hundred times no. If Bee could have supposed that her respectable father or any member of her innocent family could have wronged anyone, she would have thought it was a ghost-lady ominous of trouble. Oh, what a silly thought in broad daylight, in the Academy of all places in the world! There was very little that was visionary or superstitious in such a place.
Charlie came back to join his sister after a considerable time with a glowing face. “Oh, you are there!” he cried. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I couldn’t think where you could have gone – ”
“I should have seen you had you been looking for me,” said Bee.
“Well, never mind, now that I have found you. Have you seen as much as you wish? It’s time to be moving off if you mean to get to Portman Square in time for tea.”
“Charlie,” said Bee, very gravely, getting up and moving with him towards the door, “who is that lady you were talking to with the black lace about her head?”
“What lady?” said Charlie, with a very fictitious look of surprise, and the colour mounting all over his face. “Oh, the lady I met – that lady? Well, she is a lady – whom I have met elsewhere – ”
“I have met her, too,” cried Bee, breathless, “down at the Baths just before – Oh, who is she – who is she, Charlie? I think she is one of the Fates.”
“You little goose,” cried her brother, and then he laughed in an unsteady way. “Perhaps she is – if there was a good one,” he cried. “She is,” he added, in a different tone, and then paused again; “but I couldn’t tell you half what she is if I were to talk till next week – and never in such a noisy, vulgar place as this.”
Then Bee’s mind, driven from one thought to another, came suddenly back with a jar and strain of her nerves to the question about Laura; was it possible that this should be she? – for it was the tone sacred to Laura in which her brother now spoke. “Oh! tell me about her, tell me about her!” she cried, involuntarily clasping her hands – “she isn’t – is she? Oh, Charlie, you will have time to tell me when we get into the park. Didn’t she want to speak to me? Why didn’t you introduce me to her if she is such a great friend of yours?”
“Hush! for goodness’ sake, now; you are making people stare,” said Charlie. He hurried down the stairs and across the road outside, making her almost run to keep up with him. “I say, Bee,” he cried hurriedly, when he had signalled to a hansom, “should you mind going by yourself? I hate driving when I can walk. Why, you’ve been in a hansom by yourself before! You’re not going to be such a little goose as to make a fuss about it now.”
“Oh, but Charlie – I’d rather walk too, and then you can tell me – ”
“Oh, nonsense,” he cried, “you’re tired already. It would be too much for you. Portman Square, No. – . Good-bye, Bee. I’ll look up later,” he cried, as, to Bee’s consternation, the wheels of the hansom jarred upon the curb and she felt herself carried rapidly away.
Portman Square had seemed to Bee the first step into the world, after all that had happened, but when she was there this gentle illusion faded. It was not the world, but only another dry and faded corner out of the world, more silent and recluse than even Kingswarden had become, for there were no voices of children within, and no rustle of trees and singing of birds without. The meeting with Betty was sweet, but the air of the little old-fashioned tea-table, the long, solemn dinner, with the butler and the footman stealing like ghosts about the table, which was laid out with heavy silver and cut glass, with only one small bunch of flowers as a sacrifice to modern ideas in the middle, and the silence of the great drawing-room afterwards, half lighted and dreary, came with a chill upon the girl who had been afraid of being dazzled by too much brightness. There were only the old lady and the old gentleman, Betty and herself, around the big table, and only the same party without the old gentleman afterwards. Mrs. Lyon asked Bee questions about her excellent father, and she examined Bee closely about her dear mother, wishing to know all the particulars of Mrs. Kingsward’s illness.
“I can’t get a nice serious answer from Betty. She is such a little thing; and she tells me she was not at home through the worst,” Mrs. Lyon said.
It was not a subject to inspire Bee, or enable her to rise above the level of her home thoughts. Betty did not seem to feel it in the same way. She was in a white frock with black ribbons, for Mrs. Lyon did not like to see her in black, “such a little thing, you know.” Bee wondered vaguely whether she herself, only a year-and-a-half the elder, was supposed to be quite middle-aged and beyond all the happier surroundings of life. Mrs. Lyon gave her a great deal of advice as to what she ought to do, and talked much of the responsibilities of the elder sister. “You must teach them to obey you, my dear. You must not let down the habit of obedience, you must be very strict with them; a sister has more need even than a mother to be very strict, to keep them in a good way.” Bee sat very still, while the old lady prosed. It was so silent but for that voice, that the ticking of the clock became quite an important sound in the large dim room. And Bee strained her ears for the sound of a hansom drawing up, for Charlie’s step on the pavement. Many hansoms stopped at neighbouring houses, and footsteps sounded, but Charlie did not make his appearance. “My brother said he would look in later,” she had told Mrs. Lyon when she arrived. “Well, my dear, we shall hope he will,” the old lady had said, “but a young man in London finds a hundred engagements.” And Betty, who had been so serious, who had been so sweet, a perfect companion at the time of their mother’s death, more deeply penetrated by all the influences of the time than Bee herself, now flitted about in her white frock, with all her old brightness, and sang her little song without faltering, to show Bee what progress she had made since she had been taking lessons. Bee could scarcely yet sing the hymns in church without breaking down, though to be sure a girl who was having the best lessons would be obliged to get over that. After the long evening when they were at last alone together, Betty did not respond warmly to Bee’s suggestion that she should now be thinking of returning home. “You seem to think of nothing but the children,” she said; “you can’t want me,” to which Bee could only reply that there were more things than the children to think of, and that she was very lonely and had no one to talk to —
“But you have Charlie,” said Betty.
“Charlie is very full of his own concerns. He has not much sympathy with me. All that he wants is to get back to Oxford.”
“To Oxford in the vacation? What would he do there?”
“He says he would work,” said Bee.
“Oh, Bee, how nice of Charlie! I know they do sometimes, Gerald Lyon tells me; but I never thought that Charlie – ”
“No,” said Bee, “and I don’t feel very sure now, there is someone – to whom he writes such long letters – ”
“Oh, Bee! This is far, far more interesting than reading! Do you know who she is? Does he tell you about her?”
“Her name is Laura,” said Bee, “that is all I know.”
“Oh,” cried Betty, “Charlie too!” And then a flush came over the girl’s uplifted face. Bee, poor Bee, absorbed in the many things which had dawned upon her which were beyond Betty, did not observe the colour nor even that significant “too” which had come to Betty’s lips in spite of herself.
“I think he met her or someone belonging to her – at the Academy to-day; and that’s why he hasn’t come – Oh, Betty, I am not happy about it – I am not happy at all!”
Betty put her arms round Bee and kissed her. She thought it was the remembrance of her own disappointment and disaster which made her sister cry out in this heart-broken way. Betty looked very wistfully in Bee’s eyes. She was more sorry than words could say. If she could have done anything in the world “to make it all come right” she would have done so, and in the bottom of her heart she still had a conviction that all would “come right.” “Oh, Bee, Bee!” she cried, “cannot anything be done? If only – only you would have listened to his mother! – Bee – ”
Bee held up a warning finger. “Do you think it is myself I am thinking of?” she said, and then, wringing her hands, she added, “I don’t know what harm we have done to bring it on, but, oh! I think we are in the hands of fate.”
What did this mean? Betty thought her sister had gone out of her mind, and Bee would make no explanation. But I think this strange conversation made Betty rather less willing to return home. She was the darling of the house in Portman Square; though they did not go into society, they had all manner of indulgences for Betty, and took her to the Park, and encouraged the visits of their nephew, Gerald, who was a very merry companion for the girl. He was permitted to take her to see various sights, and the old people, as usual, did not perceive what was beginning to dawn under their very eyes. Betty was such a little thing. The consequence was that, though Bee thought Portman Square still duller than Kingswarden, her little sister was not of that opinion. Bee accordingly went back alone next day, Betty accompanying her to the railway station. Neither at Portman Square nor at the railway station did Charlie appear, and it was with a heavy heart that Bee went home. It seemed to her as she travelled alone, for, I think, the first time in her life – she was not yet quite twenty – that everyone was following his or her own way, and that only she was bearing the whole burden of the family. Her father had returned to his own world, his club, his dinners, official and otherwise. It was indispensable that he should do so. Bee had understood, it being impossible for a man in his position to withdraw from the world on account of any private feeling of his own. And Betty had flashed back again into her music, and her white frock, and was seeing everything as of old. And Charlie – oh, what was Charlie doing, drifting off into some tragic enchantment? The poor girl’s heart was very heavy. There seemed only herself to think of them all in their separate paths, one here and another there, going further and further off in so many different directions from the event which had broken the unity of the family, yet surely should have held them together in their common trouble. That event had gone into the regions of the past. The time of the mother was over, like a tale that is told. There were still the children in the nursery, and Bee, their guardian, watching over them – but the others all going off, each at their separate angle. It is hard enough to realise this, even when age has gained a certain insensibility, but to the girl, this breaking up of the family was terrible. “I – even I alone remain,” she was inclined to say with the prophet, and what could she do to stop the closing of these toils of Fate? Her mind gradually concentrated on that last and most alarming theme of all – the woman, the lady, without a name or history, or any evident link with the family, who had thus, for the second time, appeared in the path. Bee tried to fall back upon her reason, to represent to herself that she had no real cause for assuming that the stranger of whom she knew nothing, who might simply have been walking through that German wood, and have stopped by chance to speak to the little English girl with her stupid sketch, had anything to do with the disaster which so soon overtook that poor little English girl in the midst of her happy love. She had no reason, none, for thinking so. She tried to represent to herself how foolish she had been to entertain such a notion, how natural and without meaning the incident had been. And now again, for the second time, what reason had she to believe that anything fatal or even dangerous to Charlie was in this lady’s appearance now? She was a distinguished-looking woman, much older than Charlie. What was more likely than that such a woman, probably by her looks a married lady, a person of importance, should have a great deal of influence over a youth like Charlie if she took notice of him at all? All this was very reasonable. There was far more sense in it than in that foolish terror and alarm which had taken possession of her mind. She had almost persuaded herself that these apprehensions were foolish before she reached home, and yet the moment after she had succeeded in reasoning it all out, and convincing herself how foolish they had been, they had risen up in a crowd and seized her anxious mind again.
It was some days beyond the week which Charlie had been allowed in town when he came back. He was in agitated spirits, with a look of mingled excitement and exhaustion, which gave Bee many alarms, but which she was not sufficiently skilled or experienced to interpret. Colonel Kingsward had not come home in the interval, having gone somewhere else to spend his weekly holiday, and when he did come there were various colloquies between him and his son, which were evidently of a disturbing kind. Some of these were about money, as was to be made out by various allusions. Charlie had either been spending too much, or had set up a claim to more in the future, a claim which his father was reluctant to allow. But it seemed that he had come out triumphant in the end, to judge by their respective looks, when they issued from the library together, just before Colonel Kingsward left for town.
“I hope, at least, you’ll make good use of it,” were the father’s last words – and “you may trust me, sir,” said Charlie, with all the elation of victory.
He was in great spirits all day, teasing the children, and giving Bee half confidences as to the great things he meant to do.
“They shan’t put me off with any of their beastly Governorships at the end of the world,” said Charlie. “I shall play for high stakes, Bee, I can’t afford to be a mere attach? long, but they shan’t shelve me at some horrible African station, I can tell you. That’s not a kind of promotion that will suit me.”
“But you will have to go where you are sent,” said Bee.
“Oh, shall I?” cried Charlie, “that is all you know about it. Besides, when a man has a particularly charming wi – ” He stopped and coughed over the words, and laughed and grew red.
“Do you think your manners are so particularly charming?” said Bee, with familiar scorn, upon which Charlie laughed louder than ever and walked away.
Next day he left home hurriedly, saying he was going to make a run for a day or two to “see a man,” and came back in the same excited, exhausted state on Saturday morning, before his father returned – a process which was repeated almost every week, to the great consternation and trouble of Bee. For Charlie never mentioned these absences to his father, and Bee felt herself spell-bound, as if she were incapable of doing so. How could she betray her brother? And the letters to Laura ceased. He had no time now to write these long letters. Neither did he receive them as used to be the case. Had the correspondence ceased, or was there any other explanation? But Charlie talked but little to his sister now, and not at all on this subject, and thus the web of mystery seemed to be woven more and more about his feet – Bee alone suspecting or fearing anything, Bee alone entirely unable to make it clear.
The year went on in its usual routine, the boys came back from school, there was the usual move to the seaside, all mechanically performed under the impulse of use, and when the anniversary came round of the mother’s death, it passed, and the black dresses were gradually laid aside. And everything came back, and everybody referred to Bee as if there had always been a slim elder sister at the head of affairs. Betty came home at the end of the season with a sentiment in respect to Gerald Lyon, and with the prospect of many returns to Portman Square, but nothing final in her little case, nothing that prevented her from being one of the ringleaders in all the mischief which inevitably occurred when the family were gathered together. Bee had become so prematurely serious, so over-wrought with the cares of the family, that Betty, who was too energetic to be suppressed, gradually came to belong rather to the faction of the boys than to share the responsibilities of the elder sister, which might have been her natural place. The second Christmas, instead of being forlorn, like the first, was almost the gayest that had been known in Kingswarden for many years. For the boys were growing, and demanded invitations for their friends, and great skating while the frost lasted, which, as the pond at Kingswarden was the best for a great number of miles round, brought many cheerful youthful visitors about the house. Colonel Kingsward was nothing if not correct; he did not neglect the interests of any of his children. He perceived at once that to have Bee alone at the head of affairs, without any support, especially when his own time at home was so much broken by visits, would be bad at once for her “prospects,” and for the discipline of the family. He procured a harmless, necessary aunt accordingly, a permanent member of the household, yet only a visitor, who could be displaced at any time, to provide for all necessary proprieties, an arrangement which left him very free to go and come as he pleased. And thus life resumed its usual lightness, and youth triumphed, and things at Kingswarden went on as of old, with a little more instead of less commotion and company and entertainment as the young people developed and advanced.
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