The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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“Oh, mamma, don’t think of that, now.”
“It is so silly, always being ill! And there’s nothing really the matter. Ask the doctor. They all say there’s nothing really the matter. Your father – but then he doesn’t know how a woman feels. I feel as if I were sinking, sinking down through the bed and the floor and everything, away, I don’t know where. So silly, for nothing hurts me – I’ve no pain – except that I always want more air. If you were to open the window, Moulsey; and Bee, give me your hand and hold me fast, that I mayn’t sink away. It’s all quite silly, you know, to think so,” she added, with again a faint laugh.
Bee’s eyes sought those of Moulsey with a terrified question in them; the great shadow only slightly shook its head.
“Do you remember, Bee, the picture – we saw it in Italy, and I’ve got a photograph – where there is a saint lying so sweetly in the air, with angels holding her up? They’re flying with her through the blue sky – two at her head, and other two – and her mantle so wrapped round her, and she lying, oh! so easy, resting, though there’s nothing but the air and the angels. Do you remember, Bee?”
“Yes, mamma. Oh, mamma, mamma!”
“That’s what I should like,” said Mrs. Kingsward; “it’s strange, isn’t it? The bed’s solid, and the house is solid, and Moulsey there, she’s very solid too, and air isn’t solid at all. But there never was anybody that lay so easy and looked so safe as that woman in the air. Their arms must be so soft under her, and yet so strong, you know; stronger than your father’s. He’s so kind, but he hurries me sometimes; and soft – you’re soft, Bee, but you’re not strong. You’ve got a soft little hand, hasn’t she, Moulsey? Poor little thing! And to think one doesn’t know what she may have to do with it before she is like me.”
“She’ll have no more to do with it, ma’am, than a lady should, no more than you’ve had. But you must be quiet, dear lady, and try and go to sleep.”
“I might never have such a good chance of talking to her again. The middle of the night and nobody here – her father not even in the house. Bee, you must try never to begin being ill in any silly way, feeling not strong and that sort of foolish thing, and say out what you think. Don’t be frightened. It’s – it’s bad for him as well as for you. He gets to think you haven’t any opinion. And then all at once they find out – And, perhaps, it’s too late – .”
“Mamma, you’re not very ill? Oh, no; you’re looking so beautiful, and you talk just as you always did.”
“She says am I very ill, Moulsey? Poor little Bee! I feel a great deal better. I had surely a nice sleep. But why should the doctor be here, and you made to sit up, you poor little thing. Moulsey, why is the doctor here?”
“I never said, ma’am, as he was here. He’s coming round first thing in the morning. He’s anxious – because the Colonel’s away.”
“Ah! you think I don’t know. I’m not so very bad; but he thinks – he thinks – perhaps I might die, Bee.”
“Don’t be frightened,” said Mrs.Kingsward, drawing the girl close to her. “That’s a secret; he doesn’t think I know. It would be a curious, curious thing, when people think you are only ill to go and die. It would surprise them so. And so strange altogether – instead of worries, you know, every day, to be all by yourself, lying so easy and the angels carrying you. No trouble at all then to think whether he would be pleased – or anything; giving yourself to be carried like that, like a little child.”
“But mamma,” cried Bee, “you could not, would not leave us – you wouldn’t, would you, mamma? – all the children, and me; and I with nobody else, no one to care for me. You couldn’t, mother, leave us; you wouldn’t! Say you wouldn’t! Oh! Moulsey! Moulsey! look how far away she is looking, as if she didn’t see you and me!”
“You forget, Bee,” said Mrs. Kingsward, “How easy it looked for that saint in the picture. I always liked to watch the birds floating down on the wind, never moving their wings. That’s what seems no trouble, so easy; not too hot nor too cold, nor tiring, neither to the breath nor anything. I shouldn’t like to leave you. No – But then:” she added, with a smile, “I should not require to leave you. I’d – I’d – What was I saying? Moulsey, will you please give me some – more – ”
She held out her hand again for the glass which Moulsey had just put down.
“It makes me strong – it makes me speak. I’m – sinking away again, Bee. Hold me – hold me tight. If I was to slip away – down – down – down to the cellars or somewhere.” The feeble laugh was dreadful for the listeners to hear.
“Run,” cried Moulsey, in Bee’s ear, “the doctor – the doctor! in the library.”
And then there was a strange phantasmagoria that seemed to fill the night, one scene melting into another. The doctor rousing from his doze, his measured step coming back; the little struggle round the bed; Moulsey giving place to the still darker shadow; the glow of Mrs. Kingsward’s flushed and feverish countenance between; then the quiet, and then again sleep – sleep broken by feeble movements, by the quick panting of the breath.
“She’ll be easier now,” the doctor said. “You must go to bed, my dear young lady. Moulsey can manage for the rest of the night.”
“Doctor,” said Bee, with something in her throat that stopped the words, “doctor – will she – must she? Oh, doctor, say that is not what it means? One of us, it would not matter, but mother – mother!”
“It is not in our hands,” the doctor said. “It is not much we can do. Don’t look at me as if I were God. It is little, little I can do.”
“They say,” cried poor Bee, “that you can do anything. It is when there is no doctor, no nurse that people – Oh, my mother – my mother! Doctor, don’t let it be.”
“You are but a child,” said the doctor, patting her kindly on the shoulder, “you’ve not forgotten how to say your prayers. That’s the only thing for you to do. Those that say such things of doctors know very little. We stand and look on. Say your prayers, little girl – if they do her no good, they’ll do you good. And now she’ll have a little sleep.”
Bee caught him by the arm. “Sleep,” she said, looking at him suspiciously. “Sleep?”
“Yes, sleep – that may give her strength for another day. Oh, ask no more, child. Life is not mine to give.”
What a night! Out of doors it was moonlight as serene as heaven – the moon departing in the west, and another faint light that was day coming on the other side, and the first birds beginning to stir in the branches; but not even baby moving in the house. All fast asleep, safe as if trouble never was, as if death could not be. Bee went upstairs to her chill, white room, where the white bed, unoccupied, looked to her like death itself – all cold, dreadful, full of suggestion. Bee’s heart was more heavy than could be told. She had nothing to fall back upon, no secret strength to uphold her. She had forgotten how wretched she had been, but she felt it, nevertheless, behind the present anguish. Nevertheless, she was only nineteen, and when she flung herself down to cry upon her white pillow – only to cry, to get her passion out – beneficent nature took hold of the girl and made her sleep. She did not wake for hours. Was it beneficent? For when she was roused by the opening of the door and sat up in her bed, and found herself still dressed in her evening frock, with her little necklace round her throat, there pressed back upon Bee such a flood of misery and trouble as she thought did not exist in the world.
“Miss Bee, Miss Bee! Master’s come home. He’s been travelling all night – and I dare not disturb Mrs. Moulsey in Missis’s room; and he wants to see you this minit, please. Oh, come, come, quick, and don’t keep the Colonel waiting,” the woman said.
Half awakened, but wholly miserable, Bee sprang up and rushed downstairs to her father. He came forward to meet her at the door, frowning and pale.
“What is this I hear?” he said. “What have you been doing to upset your mother? She was well enough when I went away. What have you been doing to your mother? You children are the plague of our lives!”
The week passed in the sombre hurry yet tedium of a house lying under the shadow of death – that period during which when it is night we long for morning, and when it is morning we long for night, hoping always for the hope that never comes, trembling to mark the progress which does go on silently towards the end.
Colonel Kingsward was rough and angry with Bee that first morning, to her consternation and dismay. She had never been the object of her father’s anger before, and this hasty and imperious questioning seemed to take all power of reply out of her. “What had she been doing to her mother?” She! to her mother! Bee was too much frightened by his threatening look, the cloud on his face, the fire in his eyes, to say anything. Her mind ran hurriedly over all that had happened, and that last terrible visit, which had changed the whole aspect of the earth to herself. But it was to herself that this stroke of misfortune had come, and not to her mother. A gleam of answering anger came into Bee’s eyes, sombre with the unhappiness which had been pushed aside by more immediate suffering, yet was still there like a black background, to frame whatever other miseries might come after. As for Colonel Kingsward, it was to him, as to so many men, a relief to blame somebody for the trouble which was unbearable. The blow was approaching which he had never allowed himself to believe in. He had blamed his wife instinctively, involuntarily, at the first hearing of every inconvenience in life; and it had helped to accustom him to the annoyance to think that it was her fault. He had done so in what he called this unfortunate business of Bee’s, concluding that but for Mrs. Kingsward’s weakness, Mr. Aubrey Leigh and his affairs would never have become of any importance to the family. He had blamed her, too, and greatly, for that weakening of health which he had so persistently endeavoured to convince himself did not mean half so much as the doctors said. Women are so idiotic in these respects. They will insist on wearing muslin and lace when they ought to wear flannel. They will put on evening dresses when they ought to be clothed warmly to the throat, and shoes made of paper when they ought to be solidly and stoutly shod, quite indifferent to the trouble and anxiety they may cause to their family. And now that Mrs. Kingsward’s state had got beyond the possibility of reproach, he turned upon his daughter. It must be her fault. Her mother had been better or he should not have left her. The quiet of the country was doing her good; if she had not been agitated all would have been well. But Bee, with all her declarations of devotion to her mother; Bee, the eldest, who ought to have had some sense; Bee had brought on this trumpery love business to overset the delicate equilibrium which he himself, a man with affairs so much more important in hand, had refrained from disturbing. It did him a little good, unhappy and anxious as he was, to pour out his wrath upon Bee. And she did not reply. She did not shed tears, as her mother had weakly done in similar circumstances, or attempt excuses. Even if he had been sufficiently at leisure to note it, an answering fire awoke in Bee’s eyes. He had not leisure to note, but he perceived it all the same.
Presently, however, every faculty, every thought, became absorbed in that sick chamber; things had still to be thought of outside of it, but they seemed strange, artificial things, having no connection with life. Then Charlie was summoned from Oxford, and the younger boys from school, which increased the strange commotion of the house, adding that restless element of young life which had no place there, nothing to do with itself, and which roused an almost frenzied irritation in Colonel Kingsward when he saw any attempt on the part of the poor boys to amuse themselves, or resume their usual occupations. “Clods!” he said; “young brutes! They would play tennis if the world were falling to pieces.” And again that glance of fire came into Bee’s eyes, marked unconsciously, though he did not know he had seen it, by her father. The boys hung about her when she stole out for a little air, one at each arm. “How is mother, Bee? She’s no worse? Don’t you think we might go over to Hillside for that tournament? Don’t you think Fred might play in the parish match with Siddemore? They’re so badly off for bowlers. Don’t you think – ”
“Oh, I think it would be much better for you to be doing something, boys; but, then, papa might hear, and he would be angry. If we could but keep it from papa.”
“We’re doing mother no good,” said Fred.
“How could we do mother good? Why did the governor send for us, Bee, only to kick our heels here, and get into mischief? A fellow can’t help getting into mischief when he has nothing to do.”
“Yes,” repeated Fred, “what did he send for us for? I wish mother was better. I suppose as soon as she’s better we’ll be packed off again.”
They were big boys, but they did not understand the possibility of their mother not getting better, and, indeed, neither did Bee. When morning followed morning and nothing happened, it seemed to her that getting better was the only conclusion to be looked for. If it had been Death that was coming, surely it must have come by this time. Her hopes rose with every new day.
But Mrs. Kingsward had been greatly agitated by the sight of Charlie when he was allowed to see her. “Why has Charlie come home?” she said. “Was he sent for? Was it your father that brought him? Charlie, my dear, what are you doing here? Why have you come back? You should have been going on with – Did your father send for you? Why – why did your father send for you, my boy?”
“I thought,” said Charlie, quite unmanned by the sight of her, and by this unexpected question, and by all he had been told about her state, “I thought – you wanted to see me, mother.”
“I always like to see you – but not to take you away from – And why was he sent for, Moulsey? Does the doctor think? – does my husband think? – ”
Her feverish colour grew brighter and brighter. Her eyes shone with a burning eagerness. She put her hot hand upon that of her son. “Was it to say good-bye to me?” she said, with a strange flutter of a smile.
At the same time an argument on the same subject was going on between the doctor and the Colonel.
“What can the children do in a sick room? Keep them away. I should never have sent for them if you had consulted me. It is bad enough to have let her see Charlie, summoned express – do you want to frighten your wife to death?”
“There can be no question,” said the Colonel, “if what you tell me is true, of frightening her to death. I think, Benson, that a patient in such circumstances ought to know. She ought to be told – ”
“What?” the doctor said, sharply, with a harsh tone in his voice.
“What? Do you need to ask? Of her state – of what is imminent – that she is going to – ”
Colonel Kingsward loved his wife truly, and he could not say those last words.
“Yes,” said the doctor, “going to – ? Well, we hope it’s to One who has called her, that knows all about it, Kingsward. Doctors are not supposed to take that view much, but I do. I’d tell her nothing of the sort. I would not agitate her either with the sight of the children or those heathenish thoughts about dying. Well, I suppose you’ll take your own way, if you think she’s in danger of damnation; but you see I don’t. I think where she’s going she’ll find more consideration and more understanding than ever she got here.”
“You are all infidels – every one of you,” said Colonel Kingsward; “you would let a soul rush unprepared into the presence of – ”
“Her Father,” said Doctor Benson. “So I would; if he’s her Father he’ll take care of that. And if he’s only a Judge, you know, a Judge is an extraordinarily considerate person. He leaves no means untried of coming to a right decision. I would rather trust my case in the hands of the Bench than make up my own little plea any day. And, anyhow you can put it, the Supreme Judge must be better than the best Bench that ever was. Leave her alone. She’s safer with Him than either with you or me.”
“It’s an argument I never would pardon – in my own case. I shudder at the thought of being plunged into eternity without the time to – to think – to – to prepare – ”
“But if your preparations are all seen through from the beginning? If it’s just as well known then, or better, what you are thinking, or trying to think, to make yourself ready for that event? You knew yourself, more or less, didn’t you, when you were in active service, the excuses a wretched private would make when he was hauled up, and how he would try to make the worse appear the better cause. Were you moved by that, Colonel Kingsward? Didn’t you know the man, and judge him by what you knew?”
“It seems to me a very undignified argument; there’s no analogy between a wretched private and my – and my – and one of us – at the Judgment Seat.”
“No – it’s more like one of your boys making up the defence – when brought before you – and the poor boy would need it too,” Dr. Benson added within himself. But naturally he made no impression with his argument, whether it was good or bad, upon his hearer. Colonel Kingsward was in reality a very unhappy man. He had nobody to blame for the dreadful misfortune which was threatening him except God, for whom he entertained only a great terror as of an overwhelming tyrannical Power ready to catch him at any moment when he neglected the observances or rites necessary to appease it. He was very particular in these observances – going to church, keeping up family prayers, contributing his proper and carefully calculated proportion to the charities, &c. Nobody could say of him that he was careless or negligent. And now how badly was his devotion repaid! – by the tearing away from him of the companion of his life. But he felt that there was still much more that the awful Master of the Universe might inflict, perhaps upon her if she was not prepared to meet her God. He was wretched till he had told her, warned her, till she had fulfilled everything that was necessary, seen a clergyman, and got herself into the state of mind becoming a dying person. He had collected all the children that she might take leave of them in a becoming way. He had, so far as he knew, thought of everything to make her exit from the world a right one in all the forms – and now to be told that he was not to agitate her, that the God whom he wished to prepare her to meet knew more of her and understood her better than he did! Agitate her! When the alternative might be unspeakable miseries of punishment, instead of the acquittal which would have to be given to a soul properly prepared. These arguments did not in the least change his purpose, but they fretted and irritated him beyond measure. At the bottom of all, the idea that anybody should know better than he what was the right thing for his own wife was an intolerable thought.
He went in and out of her room with that irritated, though self-controlled look, which she knew so well. He had never shown it to the world, and when he had demanded of her in his angry way why this was and that, and how on earth such and such things had happened, Mrs. Kingsward had till lately taken it so sweetly that he had not himself suspected how heavy it was upon her. And when she had begun to show signs of being unable to bear the responsibility of everything in earth and heaven, the Colonel had felt himself an injured man. There were signs that he might eventually throw that responsibility on Bee. But in the meantime he had nobody to blame, as has been said, and the burden of irritation and disturbance was heavy upon him.
The next morning after his talk with Dr. Brown he came in with that clouded brow to find Charlie by her bedside. The Colonel came up and stood looking at the face on the pillow, now wan in the reaction of the fever, and utterly weak, but still smiling at his approach.
“I have been telling Charlie,” she said, in her faint voice, “that he must go back to his college. Why should he waste his time here?”
“He will not go back yet,” said Colonel Kingsward; “are you feeling a little better this morning, my dear?”
“Oh, not to call ill at all,” said the sufferer. “Weak – a sort of sinking, floating away. I take hold of somebody’s hand to keep me from falling through. Isn’t it ridiculous?” she said, after a little pause.
“Your weakness is very great,” said the husband, almost sternly.
“Oh, no, Edward. It’s more silly than anything – when I am not really ill, you know. I’ve got Charlie’s hand here under the counterpane,” she said again, with her faint little laugh.
“You won’t always have Charlie’s hand, or anyone’s hand, Lucy.”
She looked at him with a little anxiety.
“No, no. I’ll get stronger, perhaps, Edward.”
“Do you feel as if you were at all stronger, my dear?”
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