The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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It was perhaps natural enough, too, in the circumstances that Charlie, though the oldest son, should be so little at home. He came for Christmas, but he did not throw himself into the festivities with the spirit he ought to have shown. He was in a fitful state of mind, sometimes in high spirits, sometimes overclouded and impatient, contemptuous of the boys, as having himself reached so different a line of development, and indifferent to all the family re-unions and pleasures. Sometimes it seemed to Bee, who was the only one in the family who concerned herself about Charlie’s moods, that he was anxious and unhappy, and that the air of being bored which he put on so readily, and the hurried way in which he rushed out and in, impatient of the family calls upon him, concealed a secret trouble. He complained to her of want of money, of his father’s niggardliness, of the unhappy lot of young men who never had any “margin,” who dared not spend an extra shilling without thinking where it was to come from. But whether this was the only trouble, or how it came about that he had discovered himself to be so poor, Bee, poor child, who knew so little, could not divine. How miserable it was that it was she who was in the mother’s place! Mamma would have divined, she would have understood, she would have helped him through that difficult passage, but what could Bee do, who knew nothing about life, who thought it very likely that she was making mountains out of molehills, and that all young men were bored and uneasy at home – oh, if people would only be all good, all happy with each other, all ready to do what pleased the whole, instead of merely what pleased themselves!
To Bee, so prematurely introduced into the midst of those jars and individual strivings of will and fancy, it seemed as if everything might be made so easy in life by this simple method. If only everybody would be good! The reader may think it was a nursery view of human life, and yet what a solution it would give to every problem! Colonel Kingsward then would have been more at home, would have been the real father who commanded his children’s confidence, instead of papa, whose peculiarities had to be studied, and in whose presence the children had to be hushed and every occasion of disturbance avoided, and of whom they were all more or less afraid. And Charlie would have been more or less a second to him, thoughtful of all, chivalrous to the girls, fond of home, instead of, as he was, pausing as it were on one foot while he was with his family, anxious only to get away. And Bee – well, Bee perhaps would have been different too had that new, yet old, golden rule come into full efficacy. Oh, if everybody, including always one’s own self, would only be good!
It makes the head go round to think what a wonderful revolution in the world generally the adoption of that simplest method would produce. But in poor Bee’s experience it was the last rule likely to be adopted in Kingswarden, where, more and more to the puzzled consciousness of the girl not able to cope with so many warring individualities, everyone was going his own way.
It was in the early spring that Colonel Kingsward came down from town to Kingswarden, looking less like the adoption of this method than ever before.The children were in the hall when he came, busy with some great game in which various skins which were generally laid out there were in use as properties, making, it must be allowed, a scene of confusion in that place. The Colonel was not expected. He had walked from the station, and the sound of his voice stopped the fun with a sudden horror of silence and fright, which, indeed, was not complimentary to a father. Instead of greetings, he asked why the children were allowed to make such a confusion in the place, with a voice which penetrated to the depths of the house and brought Bee and Betty flying from the drawing-room.
“Papa!” they both cried, in surprise, mingled with alarm. Colonel Kingsward walked into the room they had left, ordering peremptorily the children to the nursery, but finding certain friends of Betty’s there, in full enjoyment of talk and tea, retreated again to his library, Bee following nervously.
“Is your brother here?” he asked, harshly, establishing himself with his back to the fire.
“My brother?” echoed Bee, for indeed there were half-a-dozen, and how was she to know on the spur of the moment which he meant.
Colonel Kingsward looked, in the partial light (for a lamp which smoked had been brought in hurriedly, to make things worse), as if he would have liked to seize his daughter and wring her slender neck. He went on with additional irritation: “I said your brother. The others, I have no doubt, will provide trouble enough in their turn. For the moment it is, of course, Charlie I mean. Is he here?”
“Papa! Why, he is at Oxford, you know, in the schools – ”
Colonel Kingsward laughed harshly. “He was going in for honours, wasn’t he? Wanted to go up to read in the long vacation – was full of what he was going to do? Well, it has all ended in less than nothing, as I might have known it would. Read that!” he cried, tossing a letter on the table.
Bee, with her heart sick, took up and opened the letter, and struggled to read, in her agitation, an exceedingly bad hand by an indifferent light. She made out enough to see that Charlie had not succeeded in his “schools,” that he had not even secured a “pass,” that he had incurred the continual censure of his college authorities by shirking lectures, failing in engagements, and doing absolutely no work. So far as was known there was nothing against his moral character, but – Bee, to whom the censure of the college sounded like a sentence of death, put down the dreadful letter carefully, as if it might explode, and raised large eyes, widened with alarm and misery, to her father’s face.
“Oh, papa!” was all that she could say.
“I telegraphed to him to come home at once and meet me here. The fool,” said Colonel Kingsward, pacing about the room, “is capable of not doing that – of going away – of – ”
“Papa, they say there is nothing against his character. Oh! you couldn’t think that he would – do anything dreadful; not disappear, not – ” Bee said the rest in an anguish of suspicion and ignorance with her eyes.
“God knows what an idiot like that may do! Things are bad enough, but he will, of course, think them worse than they are. There is one thing we may be sure of,” he said, with a fierce laugh, “Charlie will do nothing to make himself uncomfortable. He knows how to take care of himself.” Colonel Kingsward walked up and down the room, gnawing the end of his moustache. The lamp smoked, but he took no notice of it. “There is one thing certain,” he said, “and that is, there’s a woman in it. I remember now, he was always thinking of something; like an ass, I supposed it was his studies. No doubt it was some Jezebel or other.”
“Papa,” said Bee.
“Speak out! Has he told you anything?” He stopped in front of her, and stood looking with threatening eyes into her face. “If you keep back anything from me,” he said, “your brother’s ruin will be on your head.”
“Papa,” said Bee, faltering, “it is not much I know. I know that there was a lady who lived in Oxford – ”
“Ah! The long vacation,” he exclaimed, with another angry laugh.
“He used to write long letters to her, and he told me her name.”
“That is something to the purpose. What was her name?”
“He said,” said Bee, in a horror of betraying her brother, yet impelled to speak, “he said that she was called – Laura, papa.”
“What?” he cried, for Bee’s voice had sunk very low; and then he turned away again with an impatient exclamation, calling her again a little fool. “Laura, confound her! What does that matter? I thought you had some real information to give.”
“Papa,” said Bee, timidly, “there is a little more, though perhaps it isn’t information. When he took me to the Academy in summer I saw him meet a lady. Oh, not a common person, a beautiful, grand-looking lady. But it could not be the same,” Bee added, after a pause, “for she was much older than Charlie – not a young lady at all.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this at the time?” cried Colonel Kingsward. “Can one never secure the truth even from one’s own children? I should have sent him off at once had I known. What do you mean by not young at all?”
“I should think,” said Bee, with diffidence and a great anxiety not to exaggerate such a dreadful statement, “that she might perhaps have been – thirty, papa.”
“You little idiot,” her father kindly replied.
Why was she a little idiot? But Bee had not time to go into that question. The evening was full of agitation and anxiety. The poor little girl, unused to such sensations, sat through dinner in a quiver of anxious abstraction, listening for every sound. There were several trains by which he might still come, and at any moment when the door opened Charlie might present himself, pale with downfall and distress, to meet his father’s angry look, whose eyes were fixed on the door whenever it opened with as much preoccupation as Bee’s – with this difference, that Bee’s eyes were soft with excuses and pity, while those brilliant steely eyes which shone from beneath her father’s dark brows, and which were the originals of her own, blazed with anger. When dinner was over, which he hurried through, disturbing the servants in their leisurely routine, Colonel Kingsward again called Bee to him into the library. She was the only person to whom he could talk of the subject of which his mind was full, which was the sole reason for this great distinction, for he had very little patience with Bee’s trembling remarks. “Don’t be a little fool,” was the answer he made to any timid suggestion upon which she ventured; but yet there was a necessity upon him to discuss it with someone, and Bee, however inadequate, had this burden to bear.
“If the woman is the kind you say, and if she thinks there’s anything to be made by it – why the fool may have married her,” he cried. “Heavens! Think of it; married at three and twenty, without a penny! But,” he added, colouring a little, “they are very knowing, these women. She would find out that he was not worth her while, and probably throw him off in time.”
“Oh, papa!” cried Bee, horrified by the thought that her brother might be deserted in the moment of his downfall.
“That is the best we can hope. He will have Kingswarden, of course, when I die, but not a penny – not a penny in the meantime to keep up any such ridiculous – Listen! Is that the train?”
There was a cutting near Kingswarden through which the thundering of the train was heard as it passed. This had been a great grievance at first, but it was not without its conveniences to the accustomed ears of the household now. They both listened with anxiety, knowing that by this time it must have stopped at the station and deposited any passenger, and for the next half-hour watched and waited; Bee, with all her being in her ears, listened with an intensity of attention such as she had never known before, holding her breath; while Captain Kingsward himself, though he kept walking up and down the room, did so with a softened step which made no sound on the thick carpet, not uttering a word, listening too. To describe all the sounds they heard, or thought they heard, how often the gate seemed to swing in the distance, and the gravel start under a quick foot, would be endless. It was the last train; if he did not come now it would be clear that he did not mean to come. And it was now too late for any telegram. When it was no longer possible to believe that he could have been detained on the way, Colonel Kingsward drew a long breath of that disappointment which, in the yielding of nervous tension, is almost for the moment a relief.
“If there is no letter to-morrow morning I shall go up to Oxford,” he said, “and, Bee, if you like, you can come with me. You might be of use. Don’t say anything to Betty or your aunt. Say you are going with me to town by the early train, and that you may possibly not return till next day. There is no need for saying any more.”
“Yes, papa,” said Bee, submissively. That was all he knew! No need for saying any more to Betty, who had known every movement her sister made since ever she was born! But, at all events, Bee made up her mind to escape explanation so far as she could to-night. She paused for a moment at the door of the drawing-room as she passed. No more peaceful scene could have been presented. Betty was at the piano singing one song after another, half for practice, half to amuse the aunt, who sat dozing in her chair by the fire. The others had gone to bed, and careless youth and still more careless age, knowing nothing of any trouble, pursued their usual occupations in perfect composure and calm. The aunt knitted mechanically, and dozed in the warmth and quiet which she loved, and Betty went on singing her songs, indifferent to her audience, yet claiming attention, breaking off now and then in the middle of a line to ask “Do you like that, Aunt Ellen? Are you paying any attention, Aunt Ellen?” “Yes, my dear, I like it very much,” the old lady said, and dozed again. Bee turned away with a suppressed sob. Where was Charlie? In disgrace, perhaps heart-broken, deserted by his love, afraid to meet his father! It was foolish to think that he was out in the night, wandering without shelter, without hope, for there was no need of any such tragic circumstances, but this was the picture that presented itself to Bee’s aching and inexperienced heart.
Charlie was not in his rooms at College, he had not been there for some days, and nobody could furnish any information as to where he was. Colonel Kingsward had left Bee in the hotel while he went on to make his inquiries. He was very guarded in the questions he asked, for though he was himself very angry with his son, he was still careful for Charlie’s reputation, explaining even to the college porter, who was very well acquainted with the eccentricities of the gentlemen, that he had no doubt his son had returned home, though they had unfortunately crossed each other on the way. The Colonel tried to keep up this fiction even with the sympathetic Don, who made matters so much worse by his compassion, but who was very full and detailed in his relation of poor Charlie’s backslidings, the heaviness of whose gate bill and the amount of whose sins and penalties were terrible to hear. He had attended no lectures, he had written no essays, he had been dumb and blank in every examination.
“Out of consideration to you, Colonel Kingsward, the College has been very forbearing, and shut its eyes as long as possible.”
“I wish, sir, the College had shown more common sense and let me know,” the Colonel cried, in wrath; but that did not throw any light upon the subject.
As it turned out, Charlie had not “gone in” for his “schools” at all. He had done nothing that he ought to have done. What things he had done which he ought not to have done remained to be discovered. His stern father did not doubt that a sufficient number of these actual offences would soon be found to add to the virtues omitted. He went back to the hotel where Bee had been spending a miserable morning, and they sat together in gloom and silence.
“You had better go home,” he said to her. “He may have got home by this time, and I don’t see what use you can be here.”
Bee was very submissive, yet begged hard to return as far as London, at least, with her father; to wait for another day, in case some trace of the prodigal might be found. Many such parties have occupied the dreary hotel rooms and stared in vain out of the windows, and watched with sick hearts the passing throng, the shoals of undergraduates, to their eyes all dutiful and well-doing, while the one in whom they are concerned is absent, in what evil ways they know not. Poor Bee was too young to feel the full weight of such alarms but she was as miserable as if she had known everything that could happen in the vagueness of her consciousness of despair and pain. What Charlie could have done, what would become of him, what his father would do or could do, were all hidden from Bee. But there was in it all a vague misery which was almost worse than clear perception. Colonel Kingsward, with all his knowledge of the world, was scarcely less vague. He did not know how to find out the secrets of an under-graduate. Charlie had friends, but all of them protested that they had seen very little of him of late. He had fallen off from sports and exercise as much as from study. He had scarcely been on the cricket ground all the summer; he had given up football; “boating on the river with ladies,” he had been seen, but not recently, for the floods were out and such amusements were no longer practicable. At night the Colonel knew almost as little about his son as when he had arrived full of certainty that the whole matter could be cleared up in a few hours.
Next day began gloomily with another visit to the Don, whom Colonel Kingsward hoped to have seen the last of on their former exasperating interview. As he had discovered nothing elsewhere, he went back again to the authority, who had also hoped on his side to be free from the anxious but impatient father, and they had another long talk, which ended like the first in nothing. The college potentate had no idea where the youth could have gone. Charlie had left most of his property still in his rooms; he had gone out with only a little bag, nobody suspecting him of an intention to “go down.” After they had gone over the question again, the Don being by no means as sympathetic as the first time, and contributing a good deal to Colonel Kingsward’s acquaintance with his son’s proceedings – a sudden light was for the first time thrown upon the question by a chance remark. “You know, of course, that he had friends in Oxford?”
“Like other young men, I suppose. I have seen several of them, and they can give me no information.”
“I don’t mean undergraduates: people living in the town – ladies,” said the Don, who was a young man, almost with a blush. And after sending for Charlie’s scout, and making other inquiries, Colonel Kingsward was furnished with an address. He went back to the hotel quickly, in some excitement, to inform Bee of the new clue he had obtained, but he scarcely reached the room where she was awaiting him when he was told that a lady had just asked for him downstairs. Bee was sent off immediately to her room while her father received this unexpected visitor. Bee had been watching at the window all the morning, looking down upon that world of young men, all going about their work or their pleasure, all in their fit place, while Charlie was no one knew where. The poor girl had been breaking her heart over that thought, wistfully watching the others among whom he ought to have been, feeling the pang of that comparison, sometimes imagining she saw a figure like his in the distance, and watching, as it approached, how every trace died away. Where was he? Bee’s young heart was very sore. The vacancy was appalling to her, filling itself with all kinds of visionary shapes of terror. She could not think of him only as wandering away in misery and despair, feeling himself to have failed, ashamed and afraid to look anyone in the face. She scarcely understood her father when he hurried her out of the sitting-room, but obeyed him with a sense of trouble and injury though without knowing why.
Bee spent a very forlorn hour in her room. She heard the sound of the voices next door. Her father’s well known tones, and a low voice which she felt must be a woman’s. She would have been much tempted to listen to what they said if it had been possible, but there was no door between the rooms, and she could only hear that a long and close conversation was going on, without making out a word of it. She was very restless in her anxiety, wandering from the window to the door, which she opened with a desire to hear better, which defeated itself – and to see better, though there was nothing to be seen. It seemed to Bee that half the day was over before the sound of movement in the sitting-room warned her that the conference was breaking up. Even after that there was a long pause, and the talking went on, though it moved closer to the door. Bee had gradually grown in excitement as those sounds went on. She stole to her own half-open door, as the one next to it was opened, and the visitor came forth attended with the greatest courtesy by Colonel Kingsward, who accompanied her to the stairs. There the lady turned round and gave him her hand, turning her face towards the spot where the unsuspected watcher stood gazing with eyes of wonder and terror.
“Not another step,” she said, with a sweet but decided voice. “The only thing I will ask from you, Colonel Kingsward, will be a line, a single line, to say that all is well.”
“You may rely upon that,” the Colonel said, bowing over the hand he held, “but may not I see you to your carriage, call your servant?”
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