The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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She loosed her son’s hand, giving him a little troubled smile. “Go away now, Charlie dear. I don’t believe you’ve had your breakfast. I want to speak to – papa.” Then she waited, looking wistfully in her husband’s face till the door had closed. “You have something to say to me, Edward. Oh, what is it? Nothing has happened to anyone?”
“No, nothing has happened,” he said. He turned away and walked to the window, then came back again, turning his head half-way from her as he spoke. “It is only that you are, my poor darling – weaker every day.”
“Does the doctor think so?” she said, with a little eagerness, with a faint suffusion of colour in her face.
He did not say anything – could not perhaps – but slightly moved his head.
“Weaker every day, and that means, Edward!” She put out her thin, hot hands. “That means – ”
The man could not say anything. He could do his duty grimly, but when the moment came he could not put it into words. He sank down on the chair Charlie had left, and put down his face on the pillow, his large frame shaken by sobs which he could not restrain.
These sobs made Mrs. Kingsward forget the meaning of this communication altogether. She put her hands upon him trying to raise his head. “Edward! Oh, don’t cry, don’t cry! I have never seen you cry in all my life. Edward, for goodness’ sake! You will kill me if you go on sobbing like that. Oh, Edward, Edward, I never saw you cry before.”
Moulsey had darted forward from some shadowy corner where she was and gripped him by the arm.
“Stop, sir – stop it,” she cried, in an authoritative whisper, “or you’ll kill her.”
He flung Moulsey off and raised his head a little from the pillow.
“You have never seen me with any such occasion before,” he said, taking her hands into his and kissing them repeatedly.
He was not a man of many caresses, and her heart was touched with a feeble sense of pleasure.
“Dear!” she said softly, “dear!” feebly drawing a little nearer to him to put her cheek against his.
Colonel Kingsward looked up as soon as he was able and saw her lying smiling at him, her hand in his, her eyes full of that wonderful liquid light which belongs to great weakness. The small worn face was all illuminated with smiles; it was like the face of a child – or perhaps an angel. He looked at first with awe, then with doubt and alarm. Had he failed after all in the commission which he had executed at so much cost to himself, and against the doctor’s orders? He had been afraid for the moment of the sight of her despair – and now he was frightened by her look of ease, the absence of all perturbations. Had she not understood him? Would it have to be told again, more severely, more distinctly, this dreadful news?
Mrs. Kingsward said nothing of the communication her husband had made to her. Did she understand it? He went about heavily all day, pondering the matter, going and coming to her room, trying in vain to make out what was in her mind.But he could not divine what was in that mind, hidden from him in those veils of individual existence which never seemed to him to have been so baffling before. In the afternoon she had heard, somehow, the voices of the elder boys, and had asked if they were there, and had sent for them. The two big fellows, with the mud on their boots and the scent of the fresh air about them, stood huddled together, speechless with awe and grief, by the bedside, when their father came in. They did not know what to say to their mother in such circumstances. They had never talked to her about herself, but always about themselves; and now they were entirely at a loss after they had said, “How are you, mamma? Are you very bad, mamma? Oh, I’m so sorry;” and “Oh, I wish you were better.” What could boys of twelve and fourteen say? For the moment they felt as if their hearts were broken; but they did not want to stay there; they had nothing to say to her. Their pang of sudden trouble was confused with shyness and awkwardness, and their consciousness that she was altogether in another atmosphere and another world. Mrs. Kingsward was not a clever woman, but she understood miraculously what was in those inarticulate young souls. She kissed them both, drawing each close to her for a moment, and then bade them run away. “Were you having a good game?” she said, with that ineffable, feeble smile. “Go and finish it, my darlings.” And they stumbled out very awkwardly, startled to meet their father’s look as they turned round, and greatly disturbed and mystified altogether, though consoled somehow by their mother’s look.
They said to each other after a while that she looked “jolly bad,” but that she was in such good spirits it must be all right.
Their father was as much mystified as they; but he was troubled in conscience, as if he had not spoken plainly enough, had not made it clear enough what “her state” was. She had not asked for the clergyman – she had not asked for anything. Was it necessary that he should speak again? There was one thing she had near her, but that so fantastic a thing! – a photograph – one of the quantities of such rubbish the girls and she had brought home – a woman wrapped in a mantle floating in the air.
“Take that thing away,” he said to Moulsey. It irritated him to see a frivolous thing like that – a twopenny-halfpenny photograph – so near his wife’s bed.
“Don’t take it away,” she said, in the whisper to which her voice had sunk; “it gives me such pleasure.”
“Pleasure!” he cried; even to speak of pleasure was wrong at such a moment. And then he added, “Would you like me to read to you? Would you like to see – anyone?”
“To see anyone? Whom should I wish to see but you, Edward, and the children?”
“We haven’t been – so religious, my dear, as perhaps we ought,” stammered the anxious man. “If I sent for – Mr. Baldwin perhaps, to read the prayers for the sick and – and talk to you a little?”
She looked at him with some wonder for a moment, and then she said, with a smile, “Yes, yes; by all means, Edward, if you like it.”
“I shall certainly like it, my dearest; and it is right – it is what we should all wish to do at the – ” He could not say at the last – he could not say when we are dying – it was too much for him; but certainly she must understand now. And he went away hurriedly to call the clergyman, that no more time might be lost.
“Moulsey,” said Mrs. Kingsward, “have we come then quite – to the end now?”
“Oh, ma’am! Oh, my dear lady!” Moulsey said.
“My husband – seems to think so. It is a little hard – to leave them all. Where is Bee?”
“I am here, mamma,” said a broken voice; and the mother’s hand was caught and held tight, as she liked it to be. “May Betty come too?”
“Yes, let Betty come. It is you I want, not Mr. Baldwin.”
“Mr. Baldwin is a good man, ma’am. He’ll be a comfort to them and to the Colonel.”
“Yes, I suppose so; he will be a comfort to – your father. But I don’t want anyone. I haven’t done very much harm – ”
“No! oh, no, ma’am, none!” said Moulsey, while Betty, thrown on her knees by the bedside, tried to smother her sobs; and Bee, worn out and feeling as if she felt nothing, sat and held her mother’s hand.
“But, then,” she said, “I’ve never, never, done any good.”
“Oh! my dear lady, my dear lady! And all the poor people, and all the children.”
“Hush! Moulsey. I never gave anything – not a bit of bread, not a shilling – but because I liked to do it. Never! oh, never from any good motive. I always liked to do it. It was my pleasure. It never cost me anything. I have done no good in my life. I just liked the poor children, that was all, and thought if they were my own – Oh, Bee and Betty, try to be better women – different from me.”
Betty, who was so young, crept nearer and nearer on her knees, till she came to the head of the bed. She lifted up her tear-stained face, “Mother! oh, mother! are you frightened?” she cried.
Mrs. Kingsward put forth her other arm and put it freely round the weeping girl. “Perhaps I ought to be, perhaps I ought to be!” she said, with a little thrill and quaver.
“Mother,” said Betty, pushing closer and closer, almost pushing Bee away, “if I had been wicked, ever so wicked, I shouldn’t be frightened for you.”
A heavenly smile came over the woman’s face. “I should think not, indeed.”
And then Betty, in the silence of the room, put her hands together and said very softly, “Our Father, which art in Heaven – ”
“Oh, children, children,” cried Moulsey, “don’t break our hearts! She’s too weak to bear it. Leave her alone.”
“Yes, go away, children dear – go away. I have to rest – to see Mr. Baldwin.” Then she smiled, and said in gasps, “To tell the truth – I’m – I’m not afraid; look – ” She pointed to the picture by her bedside. “So easy – so easy! Just resting – and the Saviour will put out his hand and take me in.”
Mr. Baldwin came soon after – the good Rector, who was a good man, but who believed he had the keys, and that what he bound on earth was bound in Heaven – or, at least, he thought he believed so – with Colonel Kingsward, who felt that he was thus fulfilling all righteousness, and that this was the proper way in which to approach the everlasting doors. He put away the little picture in which Catherine of Siena lay in the hold of the angels, in the perfect peace of life accomplished, the rest that was so easy and so sweet – hastily with displeasure and contempt. He did not wish the Rector to see the childish thing in which his wife had taken pleasure, nor even that she had been taking pleasure at all at such a solemn moment; even that she should smile the same smile of welcome with which she would have greeted her kind neighbour had she been in her usual place in the drawing-room disturbed her husband. So near death and yet able to think of that! He watched her face as the Rector read the usual prayers. Did she enter into them – did she understand them? He could scarcely join in them himself in his anxiety to make sure that she felt and knew what was her “state,” and was preparing – preparing to meet her God. That God was awaiting severely the appearance of that soul before him, the Colonel could not but feel. He would not have said so in words, but the instinctive conviction in his heart was so. When she looked round for the little picture it hurt him like a sting. Oh, if she would but think of the things that concerned her peace – not of follies, childish distractions, amusements for the fancy. On her side, the poor lady was conscious more or less of all that was going on, understood here and there the prayers that were going over her head, prayers of others for her, rather than anything to be said by herself. In the midst of them, she felt herself already like St. Catherine, floating away into ineffable peace, then coming back again to hear the sacred words, to see the little circle round her on their knees, and to smile upon them in an utter calm of weakness without pain, feeling only that they were good to her, thinking of her, which was sweet, but knowing little more.
It was the most serene and cloudless night after that terrible day. A little after Colonel Kingsward had left the room finally and shut himself up in his study, Moulsey took the two girls out into the garden, through a window which opened upon it. “Children, go and breathe the sweet air. I’ll not have you in a room to break your hearts. Look up yonder – yonder where she’s gone,” said the kind nurse who had done everything for their mother. And they stole out – the two little ghosts, overborne with the dreadful burden of humanity, the burden which none of us can shake off, and crept across the grass to the seat where she had been used to sit among the children. The night was peace itself – not a breath stirring, a young moon with something wistful in her light looking down, making the garden bright as with a softened ethereal day. A line of white cloud dimly detached from the softness of the blue lay far off towards the west amid the radiance, a long faint line as of something in the far distance. Bee and Betty stood and gazed at it with eyes and hearts over-charged, each leaning upon the other. Their young souls were touched with awe and an awful quiet. They were too near the departure to have fallen down as yet into the vacancy and emptiness of re-awakening life. “Oh,” they said, “if that should be her!” And why should it not be? Unless perhaps there was a quicker way. They watched it with that sob in the throat which is of all sounds and sensations the most overwhelming. It seemed to them as if they were watching her a little further on her way, to the very horizon, till the soft distance closed over, and that speck like a sail upon the sea could be seen no more. And when it was gone they sank down together upon her seat, under the trees she loved, where the children had played and tumbled on the grass about her, and talked of her in broken words, a little phrase now and then, sometimes only “Mother,” or “Oh, mamma, mamma,” now from one, now from another – in that first extraordinary exaltation and anguish which is not yet grief.
They did not know how long they had been there when something stirred in the bushes, and the two big boys, Arthur and Fred, came heavily into sight, holding each other by the arm. The boys were bewildered, heavy and miserable, not knowing what to do with themselves nor where to go. But they came up with a purpose, which was a little ease in the trouble. It cost them a little convulsion of reluctant crying before they could get out what they had to say. Then it came out in broken words from both together. “Bee, there’s someone wants to speak to you at the gate.”
“Oh! who could want to speak to me – to-night? I cannot speak to anyone; you might have known.”
“Bee,” said Arthur, the eldest, “it isn’t just – anyone; it’s – we thought you would perhaps – ”
“He told us,” said Fred, “who he was; and begged so hard – ”
Then there came back upon poor Bee all the other trouble that she had pushed away from her. Her heart seemed to grow hard and cold after all the softening and tenderness of this dreadful yet heavenly hour. “I will see no one – no one,” she said.
“Bee,” said the boys, “we shut the gate upon him; but he took hold of our hands, and – and cried, too.” They had to stop and swallow the sob before either could say any more. “He said she was his best friend. He said he couldn’t bear it no more than us. And if you would only speak to him.”
Bee got up from her mother’s seat; her poor little heart swelled in her bosom as if it would burst. Oh! how was she to bear all this – to bear it all – to have no one to help her! “No, no, I will not. I will not!” she said.
“Oh, Bee,” cried Betty, “if it is Aubrey – poor Aubrey! She was fond of him. She would not like him to be left out. Oh, Bee, come; come and speak to him. Suppose one of us were alone, with nobody to say mother’s name to!”
“No, I will not,” said Bee. “Oh! Betty, mother knows why; she knows.”
“What does she know?” cried Betty, pleading. “She was fond of him. I am fond of him, without thinking of you, for mother’s sake.”
“Oh, let me go! I am going in; I am going to her. I wish, I wish she had taken me with her! No, no, no! I will never see him more.”
“I think,” said Betty to the boys, pushing them away, “that she is not quite herself. Tell him she’s not herself. Say she’s not able to speak to anyone, and we can’t move her. And – and give poor Aubrey – oh, poor Aubrey! – my love.”
The boys turned away on their mission, crossing the gravel path with a commotion of their heavy feet which seemed to fill the air with echoes.
Colonel Kingsward heard it from his study, though that was closed up from any influence outside. He opened his window and came out, standing a black figure surrounded by the moonlight. “Who is there?” he said. “Are there any of you so lost to all feeling as to be out in the garden, of all nights in the world on this night?”
Aubrey Leigh had been living a troubled life during the time which had elapsed since the swallowing up in the country of the family in which he had become so suddenly interest, of which, for a short time, he had felt himself a member, and from which, as he felt, he could never be separated, whatever arbitrary laws might be made by hits head. When they disappeared from London, which was done so suddenly, he was much cast down for the moment, but, as he had the fullest faith in Bee, and was sustained by her independence of character and determined to stand by him whatever happened, he was, though anxious and full of agitation, neither despairing nor even in very low spirits. To be sure there were moments in which his heart sank, recalling the blank countenance of the father, and the too gentle and yielding disposition of the mother, and Bee’s extreme youth and habits of obedience to both. He felt how much there was to be said against himself – a man who had been forced into circumstances of danger which nobody but himself could fully understand, and against which his whole being had revolted, though he could say but little on the subject. And, indeed, who was to understand that a man might yield to a sudden temptation which he despised and hated, and that he could not even explain that this was so, laying the blackest blame upon another – to a man, and still less to a woman; which last was impossible, and not even to be thought of. He might tell it, perhaps, to his mother, and there was a possibility of help there; though even there a hundred difficulties existed. But he was not wound up to that last appeal, and he felt, at first, but little fear of the eventual result He was assured of Bee’s faithfulness, and how could any parent stand out against Bee? Not even, he tried to persuade himself, the stern Colonel, who had so crushed himself. And she had received his first letters, and had answered them, professing her determination never to be coerced in this respect.
He was agitated, his life was full of excitement, and speculation, and trouble. But this is nothing dreadful in a young man’s life. It was perhaps better, more enlivening, more vivid, than the delights of an undisturbed love-making, followed by a triumphant marriage. It is well sometimes that the course of true love should not run smooth. He thought himself unhappy in being separated from Bee; but the keen delight of her determination to stand by him for good or evil, her faith in him, her championship, and the conviction that this being so all must come right in the end, was like a stream of bright fresh water flowing through the somewhat sombre flat of his existence. It had been very sombre in the early days of what people thought his youthful happiness – very flat, monotonous, yet with ignoble contentions in it. Bee’s sunshiny nature, full of lights and shadows, had changed the whole landscape, and now the excitement of this struggle for her, changed it still more. It might be a hard battle, but they would win in the end. Whether he, a somewhat unlucky fellow, would have done so was very doubtful – but for her the stars would fight in their courses. Everything would be overturned in the world, rather than that Bee should be made miserable, and since she had set her dear heart on him, on his behalf too the very elements would fight, for how otherwise could Bee be made happy? The argument was without a flaw.
This was his reasoning, never put, I need not say, into any formula of words, yet vaguely believed in, and forming a source of the brightest exhilaration in his life, rousing all combative influences by the power of that hope of success which was a certainty in such a case. This exhilaration was crossed by the blackest of disappointments, and threatened to become despair when for days he had no sign of existence from Bee: but that after all was only a keener excitement – the sting of anxiety which makes after satisfaction more sweet. And then he was consoled to hear of Mrs. Kingsward’s illness, which explained everything. Not that Aubrey was selfish enough to rejoice in that poor lady’s suffering. He would have been shocked and horrified by the thought. But then it was no unusual thing for Mrs. Kingsward to be ill; it is not unusual, a young man so easily thinks, for any middle-aged person to be ill – and in so many cases it does not seem to do them much harm; whereas it did him much good – for it explained the silence of Bee!
And then it came to Aubrey’s ears that Mrs. Kingsward was very ill – worse than she had ever been before; and then that all the family had been summoned that she was dying. Such rumours spread like wildfire – they get into the air – nobody knows how they come. He went down to the village nearest Kingswarden, and found a lodging there, when this news reached him, and endeavoured to send a note to Bee, to let her know he was at hand. But in the trouble of the house this note, sent by a private hand – always in these days an unsafe method – was somehow lost and never reached her. He hung about the house in the evenings, avoiding on various occasions an encounter with Charlie, who was not friendly, and with the Colonel, who was his enemy. These two were the only members of the family visible outside the gates of Kingswarden – until he managed to identify the two boys, whose disconsolate wanderings about pointed them out to him, and who did not know, therefore had no hostility or suspicion of the stranger who inquired after their mother so anxiously. Everybody inquired after their mother. It was nothing strange to them to be stopped on the road with this question. It was thus at last, hearing the final blow had fallen, Aubrey had ventured to send a message, to ask for a word from Bee. The thought of what the girl must be suffering in her first grief, and to feel himself so near her – almost within hearing – yet altogether shut out, was more than he could bear. He pushed in within the gate, into the shelter of the shrubbery, and there he stopped short, bound by invisible restraints. It was the home of his love, and yet it was the house of his enemy. He could not take advantage of the darkness of the night and of the misery of the moment to violate the sanctuary of a man soul-stricken by such trouble. But from where he stood he could see the little group of shadows under the tree. And how could he go away and not say a word to her – not take her in his arms, tell her his heart was with her, and that he was a mourner too? “Ask Bee to speak to me. Ask her to speak to me – only for a moment. I am Aubrey Leigh,” he said to the two brothers, taking an arm of each, imploring them. The boys did not know much about Aubrey Leigh, but still they had heard the name. And they were overawed by his earnestness; the sound of his voice which, full of passion and feeling as it was, was strange to their undeveloped consciousness. They took his message, as we have seen, and then there came a mysterious moment which Aubrey could not understand. He could not hear what was said, but he was conscious of a resistance, of denial, and that Bee did not make a step towards him; that she recoiled rather than advanced. Though he could scarcely see anything distinctly, he could see that – that there was no impulse towards him, but rather the reverse; that Bee did not wish to come. And then the harsh voice of the Colonel broke the spell of the quiet, of the mournful, tranquil night, which it was so easy for a roused imagination to think was penetrated, too, by the sentiment of sorrow and of peace. The Colonel’s voice put every gentler vision to flight. “Is it possible that any of you are out here in the garden – of all nights in the world on this night?” Oh! the very night of all nights to be there – in the first awe and silence, watching her pass, as it were, to the very gates of Heaven! Perhaps, it was unawares from Bee’s mind that this idea came to his – “to watch her ascending, trailing clouds of glory,” as the poet said; but that was the spirit coming and not going. These thoughts flew through his mind in the shock and irritation of the Colonel’s voice. And then the shadows under the tree seemed to fly away and disperse, and silence fell upon all around, the great ghostly trees standing up immovable like muffled giants in the moonlight, their shadows making lines and heavy clumps of blackness on the turf, the late roses showing pale in the distance, the garden paths white and desolate. A moment more, and the harsh sound, almost angry, of the Colonel’s window shutting, of bolts and bars, and a final closing up of everything came unkindly upon the hushed air. And then the moonlight reached the shut up house, all unresponsive, with death in it, with one faint light burning in the large window upstairs, showing where the gentle inmate lay who needed light no more. Strange prejudice of humanity that put out all the lights for sleep, but surrounds death with them, that no careless spirit may mistake for a common chamber the place where that last majesty lies.
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