The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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“I am walking,” she said, “and I am alone; come no further, please; one line to say that all is well.” He still held her hand and she gave it a little, significant pressure, adding in a low tone: “And happy – and forgiven!”
Bee stood as if she had been turned to stone; a little, clandestine figure within the shelter of the door. It was a beautiful face that was thus turned towards her for a minute, unconscious of her scrutiny, and the voice was sweet. Oh, not a woman like any other woman! She said to herself that she remembered the voice and would have known it anywhere; and the look, half kind, yet with a touch of ridicule, of mockery in it. This was evidently not what the Colonel felt. He descended a few of the stairs after her, until turning again with a smile and with her hands extended as if to drive him back, she forbade his further attendance. He returned to the sitting-room thoughtfully, yet with a curious, softened expression upon his face, and a few minutes afterwards, not at once, he came to the door again and called Bee. There was still a smile lingering about his lips, though his mouth had stiffened back into its usual somewhat stern composure.
“Come in,” he said, “I have something to tell you. I have had a very strange visit – a visit from a lady.”
“I saw her,” said Bee, under her breath, but her father was too much pre-occupied to hear.
“If this was, as I suppose, the lady whom you and your brother met, you are right, Bee, in thinking her very remarkable. She is one of the handsomest women I ever saw, and with a charm about her, which – . But, of course what you want to hear is about Charlie. I am glad to tell you that she has very much relieved my mind about Charlie, Bee.”
Bee stood before her father with her hands folded, with the most curious sense of revolt and opposition in her mind – looking at him, a spectator would have said, with something of the sternness that was habitual to him, but so very inappropriate on her soft brow. She made no reply to this. Her countenance did not relax. Relieved about Charlie? No! Bee did not believe it. Pity and terror for Charlie seemed to take stronger and stronger possession of her heart.
“It is a long story,” he said. “Sit down, you have got a way of standing staring, my dear. I wish you had more womanly models like the lady I have just been talking to – perfectly clear and straightforward in what she said, but with a feminine grace and sweetness. Well, it appears that Charlie had the good luck to get introduced to this lady about a year ago. Sit down, I tell you, I won’t have you staring at me in that rude way.”
There was a little pause, and Bee sat down abruptly, and not very gracefully. Colonel Kingsward could not but remark the difference. He followed her movements for a moment with his eyes, and then he began again —
“For all I can make out, he has been treated with a kindness which should have done everything for a young man.He has been invited to the house of these ladies – he has met all sorts of people who ought to be of use to him, whom it was a distinct advantage to meet – he has been kept out of the usual foolish diversions of young men. So far as I can make out, there is nothing against his character except what these Don-fellows call idleness – a thing that scarcely tells against a young man in after-life, unless he is a parson, or a schoolmaster, or something of that kind. Even the missing of his degree,” said the Colonel, pulling his moustache reflectively, “is of little importance among practical men. So long as he can get through in his modern languages, and so forth, of what importance are the classics? I am very much relieved in my mind about Charlie. She thinks he must have gone straight down to London, instead of going home.”
“Who is the lady, papa?”
Bee’s interest in Charlie seemed to have dropped, as the Colonel’s had done, for the moment. His advocate had made herself the first person on the horizon.
“The lady? So far as I can make out she is living here with some friends, up in the district called the Parks, where a great many people now live. She says she has always taken an interest in the undergraduates, who are left so sadly to themselves, and that, being of an age to make it possible, she has wished very much to devote herself to do what she could for these boys. Unfortunately, with her unusual personal attractions – .” The Colonel stopped short and bit his moustache. “After all her kindness to your brother, encouraging him in his work and setting his duty before him – and no elder sister, no mother, could have been kinder, from all she tells me – the foolish boy repaid her good offices by – what do you think? But you will never guess.”
“And I will never, never believe it,” cried Bee, “if it was anything – anything that was not nice on Charlie’s part!” Her voice was quite hoarse in her emotion, her secret fury against this woman, of whom she knew nothing, rising more and more.
“You little fool!” her father said, rising and standing up against the mantel-piece. He laughed angrily, and looked at her with his most contemptuous air. “One would think that even in their cradles women must begin to hate women,” he said.
Bee, who hated no one unless it was this woman whom she feared but did not know, grew angry red. Her blue eyes flashed and shone like northern lights. The cruel and contemptuous assumption which touched her pride of sex, added vehemence to the other emotion which was already strong enough, and roused her up into a kind of fury.
“If she says anything bad of Charlie I don’t believe it,” she cried, “not a word, not a word! Whatever he has done she has driven him to it!” Then Bee was suddenly silent, panting, terrified or afraid that her little outburst of passion would close all further revelations.
“It seems unnecessary to add another word in face of such fierce prejudice!”
“Oh, papa, forgive me. Tell me; I shall say nothing more.”
“You have said a great deal too much already. After this,” he said, sarcastically, “you will perhaps think that your brother – of three and twenty, without a penny or a prospect – did Miss Lance honour by forcing a proposal upon her, making love to her at the end of all – ”
“Miss Lance!” Bee said, with a sharp cry.
The Colonel took no notice of the interruption. He went on with a kind of disdainful comment to himself rather than to her.
“After all, there are things which a lady has to put up with, which we don’t take into consideration. A young fool whom she has been kind to, knowing he has nobody near to look after him, no mother” – his voice even grew a little tender at this point – “and by way of reward the idiot falls in love with her, asks a woman like that to share his insignificant little life! Jove! What a piece of impertinence!” the Colonel said, with an angry laugh.
“Did you say,” said Bee, with faltering lips, “Miss Lance, papa?”
He turned upon her with a look of extreme surprise.
“Why shouldn’t I have said Miss Lance? What is there unusual in the name?”
Bee looked at him with a dumb rebellion, an almost scorn and passion far greater than his own. He had forgotten the name – but Bee had not forgotten it. The fact that Bee’s own young life had suffered shipwreck had perhaps escaped from his memory altogether, though it was she who had done it. Bee looked at him with her blue eyes blazing, remembering everything that he had forgotten. Her brother had gone out of her mind, and all the history of his Laura, and the way in which he had been enfolded in this fatal web. She went back to her own wrongs – forgetting that she had keenly confirmed her father’s decision and rejected Aubrey on what she thought to be other and sufficient grounds. She thought only of the moment when sudden darkness had fallen upon her in the first sunshine of her life, and she had struggled against the rigid will of her father, who would listen to no explanations – who would not understand. And all for the sake of this woman – the spider who dragged fly after fly into her net; the witch, the enchantress of whom all poems and stories spoke! Her exasperation was so intense that she forgot all the laws of respect and obedience in which her very being had been bound, and looked at her father as at an equal, an enemy whom she scorned as well as feared.
“What is the meaning of these looks,” he said, “I am altogether at a loss to understand you, Bee. Why this fury at a name – which you have never heard before, so far as I know.”
“You think I have never heard it before?” said Bee, in her passion. “It shows how little you think of me, or care for anything that has happened to me. Oh, I have heard it before, and I shall hear it again, I know. I know I shall hear it again. And you don’t mind, though you are our father! You don’t remember!” Bee was still very young, and she had that fatal woman’s weakness which spoils every crisis with inevitable tears. Her exasperation was too great for words. “You don’t remember!” she cried, flinging the words at him like a storm; and then broke down in a passion of choking sobs, unable to say more.
To do Colonel Kingsward justice, he was taken entirely by surprise by Bee’s outburst. He had no remembrance of the name. The name had been wholly unimportant to him even at the time when it had come under his notice. The previous claimant to Aubrey Leigh’s affections had been “the woman,” no more, to his consciousness. He did not remember anything about the business now, except that there was a story about a woman, and that he would not permit his young daughter to marry a man concerning whom such a story existed. Even after Bee had left him, when he really made an effort to pursue into the recesses of his mind anything that was connected with that name, he could not make it out. Was it perhaps a tyrannical governess? but that would not explain the girl’s vehement outcry. He had not thought for a long time of Bee’s interrupted love, and broken-off engagement. Of what consequence is such an episode to so young a girl? And there were other matters in his mind of what seemed a great deal more importance. Whatever was the source of Bee’s previous knowledge of Miss Lance, she hated that singularly attractive woman, as it is usual for the sex – Colonel Kingsward thought – to hate instinctively every other woman who is endowed with unusual attractions.
What a magnificent creature that woman was! How finely she had talked of the undeveloped boy to whom she had hoped to be of service, and with what genuine feeling, half-abashed, distressed, yet not without a gleam of amusement, she had told him of the wonderful scene at the end, when Charlie had asked her to marry him.
“Me! A woman who might be his mother!” she had said, with beautiful candour; though it was not candour, it was more like jest, seeing that she was still young – young enough to turn any man’s head. And she had added hastily, “It must have been my fault. Somehow I must have led him astray, though I was so far from intending it. A boy like your son would not have done such a wild thing had he not supposed – ” She put up her hands to her face to hide a blush. “That is the worst of us, poor women,” she had said, “we cannot show an interest even in a boy but he supposes – oh, Colonel Kingsward, can’t you imagine what I felt, wishing solely to be of use to your son, who is such a good, ingenuous, nice boy – and finding in a moment, without the least warning, that he had mistaken me like that!”
Colonel Kingsward was of opinion, and so was everybody who knew him, that he was by no means an impressionable man; but it would be impossible to say how touched he had been by that explanation. And she was so sorry for Charlie. She avowed that, after what had happened, she would have considered herself inexcusable if she had not come to his father, however unpleasant it might be to herself, to show him how little, how very little, Charlie was to blame.
“You must not – must not be angry with him,” she had said, joining her hands in appeal. “Oh, forgive him; it is so much my fault. If I could but bear the penalty! But I cannot endure to think that the poor boy should be punished when all the time I, who am so much older than he is, am the one to blame. I ought to have known better. I am at your mercy, Colonel Kingsward. You cannot say anything worse to me than I have done to myself; but he, poor boy, is really not to blame.”
The Colonel had no wish to say anything to her that was uncomplimentary. He entered into her position with the most unusual sympathy. Perhaps he had never had so warm a feeling of understanding and affection for anyone before. The compassion and the appeal was something quite new and original to him. He was not a man to be sympathetic with the troubles of a middle-aged spinster – an elderly flirt, as he would probably have called her, had he heard the story at second hand; in such a case he would have denounced the mature siren in the terms usual to men of experience. But the presence of this lady made all the difference. She was not like anyone else. The usual phrases brought forward on such occasions were meaningless or worse in respect to her. He was softened to Charlie, too, by the story, though he could have raved at his son’s folly. The puppy! – to think a woman like that could care for him! And yet, as she said, there was no harm in the boy; only absurdity, presumption, the last depths of fatuity. Poor young fool! But it was a different thing from racing towards the bottomless pit for the mere indulgence of his own appetites, as so many young men did, and if this was the only reason of Charlie’s downfall it involved no loss of character and need make no breach in his career, which was the chief thing. He could make up his lost ground, and the F.O. would care very little for what the Dons said. The idleness of a boy in love (the puppy! inexcusable in his presumption, but yet with plenty of justification at least) could do him no more than temporary harm in any case.
These thoughts passed through the Colonel’s mind with a great sense of relief. It did not occur to him that Charlie, when he saw his folly, could have much difficulty in getting over such a misplaced sentiment. It must be done, and the boy must feel that such a hope was as much above him as was the moon in the skies. He must make up his mind to apply himself, to get through his examination, to begin his real life – which his father would certainly impress upon him was not mere amusement or happiness, if he liked to call it so, but work and a sharp struggle to secure his standing. As for his degree, that was a matter of complete indifference to Colonel Kingsward. The boy had his experience of Oxford life to talk of and fall back upon; he was a University man all the same, though he had not been crowned by any laurels he had made some friends, and he had gained the necessary familiarity with that phase of a young man’s existence. What did the details matter, and who would ever ask about his degree? An attach? does not put B.A. or M.A. (which was which, or if there was any difference, or on what occasion such vanities should be displayed the Colonel was quite unaware) to his name like a schoolmaster. Nothing could be of less importance than this. He dismissed Charlie from his mind accordingly with much relief. It was not at all unnatural that the boy should have gone to town instead of going to Kingswarden. No doubt by this time he had made his way home, and this reminded the Colonel that it would be as well to send his sister off at once to meet Charlie there. He called Bee again accordingly from her room, where she had taken refuge, and instructed her in what he desired.
“There is a train in an hour,” he said. “You had better get ready. I wish you to go home at once. Charlie will be there by this time, I have no doubt, and I should like you to let him know that if he is reasonable and drives all folly from his mind, and addresses himself at once to his preparation for the exam., he shall hear no more from me about the Oxford business. It depends upon himself whether it is ever alluded to again.”
“Papa,” said Bee, faltering a little, “am I to go alone?”
“Why shouldn’t you go alone? Are you afraid of getting into a cab at Paddington and driving to Victoria, the most ordinary everyday business? Why, I thought the girls of your period revolted against being protected, and were able to take care of themselves wherever they went?”
Now Colonel Kingsward had always insisted on surrounding his daughters with quite unnecessary care, being, as he prided himself, on all questions in respect to women, of the old school.
“Oh, no,” said Bee, very tremulous, looking at him with eyes full of meaning, “I am not afraid.”
“Then why do you make any fuss about it?” he said. “I shall stay behind for a few hours, perhaps for another night. I must see whether he has left any debts, and square accounts with the College, and – settle everything.” Bee was still looking at him with that troubled air of meaning, and he looked at her with a stern look, putting her down; but there was in his eyes a certain understanding of her meaning and a shrinking from her scrutiny all the same. “You have just time to get ready,” he said, pulling out his watch and holding it up to her. And Bee had nothing to do but to obey. It was not the drive from Paddington to Victoria, the change from one railway to another, which frightened her, though for a girl who had never done anything alone, that was not a pleasant thought; but the girl was deeply disturbed to leave her father there within the power of the woman whom more than ever she looked upon with terror as if she had been an embodied Fate. How ludicrous was the idea that a girl of twenty should be disturbed and anxious at the thought of leaving her father unprotected by her poor little guardianship – and such a father as Colonel Kingsward! Bee saw at once the folly and futility of such a notion, but she could not rid herself of the alarm. Her terror of this woman, now fully evident as the same who had wrecked her own life, was more than ever a superstitious panic.
Bee’s mind was wholly possessed with this idea. She thought of the beautiful, dreadful lady in Christabel. She thought of that other shuddering image in the poem, of “the angel, beautiful and bright,” who looked the hero in the face; “And how he knew it was a fiend, that miserable knight – ” Aubrey had not known she was a fiend, nor Charlie; and now papa! What could such a woman do to papa? He was old (Bee thought) beyond the reach of the influences which had moved the others. What could Fate do to him? She asked herself this question in her great alarm, trying to beat down the terror in her bosom, and persuade herself that it was foolishness. But the more she thought the more her heart beat with fright and apprehension. It seemed to her, somehow, as if the former dangers had been nothing in comparison with this, although she did not know what it was that she feared.
Colonel Kingsward walked with his daughter to the station, and he was very affable and kind to her, taking unusual pains to make her feel that there was nothing to fear. He selected carefully a carriage which was reserved for ladies, and put her into the charge of the guard, whom he desired to find a cab for her at Paddington, and look after her in every way. Nothing could be more fatherly, more thoughtful than he was; but all these precautions, instead of reassuring Bee, increased her sensation of danger. For the Colonel, though he had always insisted upon every precaution, had not been in the habit of personally seeing to the comfort of his children. She followed him with her eyes as he occupied himself with all these little cares, and explained to the guard what was to be done. And then he went to the bookstall and bought her illustrated papers and a book to amuse her on the journey, Bee watching all the time with growing wonder. She gave a hurried glance now and then around her, sweeping the station from one end to another, with a terror of seeing somewhere appear the woman who had brought such pain and trouble into her life – though this, too, was folly, as she was aware. And when at last the carriage door was closed, and the train almost in motion, Bee gave her father a last look, in which there were unutterable things. He had not met her eyes hitherto, whether by chance or precaution. But now he was off his guard and did so. Their looks encountered with a clash, as if they had been meeting swords, the same eyes, brilliant with that blue blaze, flashing like lightning. But it was the father’s fiery eyes which gave way. The girl’s look penetrated into his very being; his dropped, almost abashed. How did this strange change of position come about? It was anything but reassuring to Bee. It seemed to her as if already a new chapter of misery and dismay had opened in life, although her fears had taken no shape, and she could not tell what calamity was possible. The very vagueness made it all the more appalling to her inexperienced heart.
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