The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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Aubrey stood alone in this hushed and silent world. His heart was as heavy as a stone, heavy with grief for the friend who had passed for ever out of his life. He had not known perhaps till now what he too had lost – a friend, who would not have forsaken him not a very strong champion to fight for him; but a friend that never, whatever might be said, would have refused to hear him, refused to give him her sympathy. Had Bee, his own Bee, refused? The young man was bewildered beyond the power of thought. Was it his fault to have come too soon? Was it an outrage to be there on the night of the mother’s death? But there was no outrage in his thoughts, not even any selfishness. It was her he had been thinking of, not himself; that she might feel there was someone whose thoughts were all hers, who was herself, not another, feeling with her, mourning with her, her very own to take the half of her burden. He had felt that he could not be far away while Bee was in trouble – that even to stand outside would be something, would somehow lighten her load, would make her feel in the very air a consciousness of the mighty love that would
His heart, which had so gone out to her, seemed to come back confused, with all the life out of it, full of wonder and dismay. Had she rejected him and his sympathy? Was it the fault of the others, the boys who did not know what to say? Was she angry that he should come so soon? But it was now, immediately on the very stroke of the distress, that love should come. He stood for a long time silent, bewildered, not knowing what to think. Was it possible that she could have misunderstood him, have thought that he had come here only to beguile her into his arms, to take advantage of an opportunity? It pained poor Aubrey to the heart to think that she might have thought so. Ah! Mrs. Kingsward would not have done it, would not have let Bee do it. But she lay there, where the light was, never to say anything more: and Bee – Bee!
He got out of the little park that surrounded Kingswarden by the stile near the village, some time after, he did not know how long. He thought it was in the middle of the night. The moon had set, everything was dark, and all the cottagers asleep. But time is long to watchers unaccustomed to long vigils, and the lights were not out at the small inn in the village where he was lodging. He found the master of the house and his wife talking at the door in subdued tones, over the event of the evening. “She was always a weakly body, but she’ll be sore missed,” the woman said. “She kept everything going. The Colonel, he’ll not have a servant left as will put up with him in three months. You take my word. She kept all straight. Lord, that’s how women mostly is – no account as long as they’re living – and then you finds the want o’ them when they’re gone.”
“Here you are, mister,” said the landlord; “we thought as you was lost.It was a fine night, tempting for a walk. But it’s clouding over now.”
“Oh, no, sir, nought of the sort,” said the woman. “My master here, he never goes to bed afore the middle of the night, he don’t, and it’s an excuse for not getting up in the mornin'. But you’ll have to be early to-morrow, Gregg, you take my word, for there’ll be undertakers’ men and that sort down from London, and I’ll not be bothered with them, mind you that.”
“I suppose you’re right this time,” said the man. “They drinks a deal to keep up their spirits, being as it is a kind of depressing trade.”
“If I hear you laugh again like that! – and the missis lying in her coffin! Don’t you think, sir, as he’s got no feeling. He puts it off like with a laugh not to cry. I was kitchen-maid up there, and he was groom in the old days, and many and many’s the kindness she done to me and mine. Oh, and such a pretty lady and sweet – and a young family left just at the ages that most need a mother’s care.”
“They’re all ages, Molly, if you come to that.”
“Well, and don’t they want a mother’s care at all ages? What would you do with my children if I was took, John Gregg? And the Colonel, he’s just a helpless man like you are. The only hope is as Miss Bee will turn out like her mother. I always thought she favoured Missis, though some said it was the Colonel she was like. It’s a dreadful charge for her, poor thing, at her age; but if she takes after the Missis there will be some hope for them,” the woman said.
“I thought as Miss Bee was going to be married?” said the landlord.
“Oh, that’s all broken off,” she said, “and a good thing too, seeing what’s happened, for what could ever little Miss Betty do?”
Aubrey, who had lingered listening, went slowly up the narrow wooden stair to his shabby little room as the pair locked the door and put out their lights. He heard them carrying on the conversation in the kitchen underneath for a few minutes before they, too, in their turn clambered upstairs to bed. “Oh, that’s all broken off, and a good thing too.” He kept saying these words over and over miserably, as if they had been the chorus of some dreadful song of fate.
Aubrey stayed at the village public-house day after day, hoping for some sign or message. He wrote to Bee, this time by the post; but he had no better success. Was it only because of her grief that she took no notice? Terrible as that grief must be, and rigorous as evidently were the rules of the closed-up house, from which no one came forth, even for a mouthful of air, it did not seem to him that this was reason enough for putting him from her – he who was to share her life, and whose sympathy was so full and overflowing. Surely it was the moment when all who loved her should gather round her, when she most wanted solace and support. It could not be that her heart was so wrapped up in sorrow that she should push from her the man who had the best right to share her tears – whom her mother approved and liked, whose acceptance she had ratified and confirmed. It could not be that. He felt that, had he been in the same circumstances, his cry would have been for Bee to stand by him, to comfort him. Was she so different, or was she overwhelmed by what was before her – the charge of her father’s house, the dreadful suggestion that it was to him and the children she should dedicate herself henceforward, giving up her own happiness? It seemed to Aubrey, after long thinking, that this must be the cause of her silence; the burden which surely was not for her young shoulders, which never could be intended for her, must have come down upon her, crushing her. She was the eldest girl. She must have, like so many girls, an exaggerated sense of what was her duty. Her duty! Could anything be more fantastic, more impossible? To take her mother’s place – and her mother had been killed by it! – to humour the stern father – to take care of the tribe of children, to be their nurse, their ruler – everything that a creature of nineteen could not, should not be! And for this she would throw aside her own life – and him, whose life it was also. He would never, never consent to such a sacrifice, he said to himself. Bee was not soft and yielding, like their mother. She was a determined little thing. She would stand to it, and sacrifice him as she sacrificed herself, unless he made a bold stand from the first. No, no, no! Whatever was to be done, that must not be done. He would not have it – he must let her know from the very first – if it were not that she knew already, and that this was the reason why she was silent, feeling that if ever they met she could not hold out against him. Poor little Bee! Poor, poor little Bee! Her mother dead, and her father so stern; and thinking it her duty – her duty, God bless her! – to take all that household upon her little shoulders. The tears came into his eyes with a sudden softening. She thought it better to keep him at arm’s length, the darling, knowing that she never could stand against him, that he would never, never consent; the little, sublime, unreasonable girl! The things they took into their heads, these inexperienced, generous creatures! But, thank heaven, he was here; even though she held him at bay – here, to make all right.
The reader knows that poor Bee was not actuated by such lofty feelings, but then Aubrey had no knowledge in his mind of that strange story which had destroyed her faith in him. When a man is guilty he knows all that can be brought against him, in which, in its way, there is a certain advantage. He cannot be taken by surprise. He knows that this or that is lying ready like a secret weapon apt to be picked up by any man who may wish to do him harm. But the innocent man has not that safeguard. It is not likely to occur to him that harmless circumstances may be so twisted as to look like guilt. For his own part he had forgotten all about that little episode on the railway – or if he remembered it, it was with a smile and a glow of momentary pleasure, to think how, with a little money – so small a matter – he had been able to make comfort take the place of misery to the poor little family, whom perhaps he would never have noticed at all had not his thoughts been full of Bee. He had done that for her with the feeling with which he might have given her an ornament or a basket of flowers; the only drawback to the pleasure of it being that he could not tell her off-hand, and get the smile of thanks she would give him for it – far more than he deserved, for he liked doing it – kindness coming natural to this young man. It was hard on Aubrey in the complications of fate that this innocent, nay praiseworthy, incident should be made the occasion of his trouble. But he had no suspicion of it – forgot the fact, indeed, altogether – and would have laughed at the idea that such an accidental occurrence could in any way influence his fate.
He went to the funeral, unnoticed in the crowd of people who were there – some for love and some for conventional necessity, but almost all with a pang of natural sympathy to see the train of children who followed their mother to her last rest. The Colonel, rigid in all things, had insisted at last, that all, except the very youngest, should be there – having wavered for a moment whether it would not be more in order that the girls should remain at home, and only the boys be present at the melancholy ceremony. To see the little wondering faces two-and-two that followed the elder children up the aisle, and were installed in the mourners’ places, some of them scarcely tall enough to see over the edge of the pew, brought many a gush of tears to sympathetic eyes. Bee and Betty, the two inseparable “eldest,” – slim, black figures – drooping under the heavy veils that covered them from the daylight, almost touched Aubrey with their clinging black garments as they passed. Did they see him? He saw, wherever he was, at whatever distance, any movement they made. He saw that Bee never raised her head; but Betty was younger, and less self-restrained – that she had seen him at least he felt sure. And he felt the Colonel’s eyes upon him, penetrating the thickest of the crowd. Colonel Kingsward had a glance that saw everything. He was a man bereaved, the light of his eyes taken from him, and the comfort of his life – and yet he saw everything at his wife’s funeral, saw and noted the faces that were dull and tired of the tension, and those that were alive with sympathy – making notes for or against them in his memory, and, above all, he saw Aubrey Leigh. Charlie saw him more accidentally, without any conscious observation, and the boys who had cried all they were capable of, and now could not help their eyes straying a little, conscious of the spectacle, and of the important part they played in it, everybody looking at them. All of them saw him, but Bee. Was it only Bee who was so little in sympathy with him that she did not know he must be there?
He went back to his lodging a little angry through his emotion. It was too much. Even in the interval between her mother’s death and funeral he felt that a girl who loved him should not be so obdurate as that, and he listened with a very sombre face to all the landlady’s discussion of the proceedings. “It was a shame,” she said, “to bring those little children there, not much more than babies – what could they know? I’d have kept them safe in the nursery with some quiet game to play, the poor little innocents! And so would Missis. Missis would have thought what was best for them, not for making a display. But God knows what will become of them children now.”
“What should become of them?” said the husband. “They’ll get the best of everything and servants to wait on them hand and foot. The Colonel, he ain’t like a poor man who could do nothing for them. When the mother’s gone the children had better go too – in a poor man’s house.”
“It’s little you know about it,” said the woman with contempt. “Rich house or poor house, it don’t make no such great difference. Nurses is a long way different from mothers. Not as I’m saying a word against Sarah Langridge, as is a good honest woman, that would wrong her master not by a candle end or a boot lace, not she. But that’s not like being a mother. The Lord grant that if I die and there’s a baby it may go too, as you say. You’re more than a nurse, you’re their father, and you’re part of them; but Lord forbid that I should leave a poor little baby on your hands.”
The man turned on his heel with a tremulous laugh. “Well, I ain’t wishing it, am I?” he said.
“But,” said Aubrey, “there are the – elder sisters – the young ladies.”
“Miss Bee! Lord bless us, sir, do ye know the age that child is? Nineteen, and no more. Is that an age to take the charge of a nursery full of children? Why, her mother was but forty as has been laid in her grave to-day. I wish to goodness as that marriage hadn’t been broke off. He was a widower – and I don’t much hold with widowers – but I wish that I could give him a sign to come back, if he has any spirit in him, and try and get that poor young lady away.”
“If he has been sent about his business,” said Aubrey, forcing a smile, “he could have no right to come back.”
“I don’t know whose fault it was,” said the landlady. “None o’ missis’s, you take my word; but, Lord, if a gentleman loves a young lady, what’s to hinder him putting his pride in his pocket? A man does when he’s real fond of a woman in our rank of life.”
“I don’t know about that,” said her husband. “If I had been sent away with a cuff on the side of my head, blessed if I’d ever have come back.”
“You’re a poor lot, all of you,” the woman said.
Aubrey could not but smile at the end of the argument, but he asked himself when he was alone – Was he a poor lot? Was he unwilling to put his pride in his pocket? Walking about his little room, turning over and over the circumstances, remembering the glare from Colonel Kingsward’s eye, which had recognised him, he at last evolved out of his own troubled feelings and imagination the idea that it was his part to offer sympathy, to hold out an olive branch. Perhaps, after all, the stern man’s heart was really touched; perhaps it would soothe him in his grief to hear that “when the eye saw her, then it blessed her,” which was Aubrey’s sincere feeling at this moment in respect to Bee’s mother. It seemed to him that it was best to act upon this impulse before other arguments came in; before the sense of wounding and pain in Bee’s silence got the upper hand. He spent most of the afternoon in writing a letter, so carefully put together, copied over and over again, that there might be nothing in it to wound the most sensitive feelings; offering to Colonel Kingsward his profound sympathy, telling him with emotion of her kindness to himself, her sweetness, her beauty, with that heightening of enthusiastic admiration, which, if it is permissible anywhere, is so over a new-made grave. And at the end he asked, with all the delicacy he could, whether in these new circumstances he might not ask a hearing, a renewed consideration, for her dear sake who had been so good to him, and who was gone.
I am not sure that his judgment went fully with this renewed effort, and his landlady’s remarks were but a poor reason for any such step. But his heart was longing after Bee, angry with her, impatient beyond words, disturbed, miserable, not knowing how to support the silence and separation while yet so near. And to do something is always a relief, even though it may be the worst and not the best thing to do. In the evening after dark, when there was no one about, he went up to Kingswarden, and himself put his letter into the hands of the butler, who did not know him, and therefore knew no reason why the letter should either be carried in haste to his master or delayed. Aubrey heard that the young ladies were quite as well as could be expected, and the Colonel very composed, considering – and then he returned to the village. How silent the house was! Not a creature about, and how disturbing and painful to the anxious spirit even the simple noises and commotion of the village street.
Next morning a letter came, delivered by the postman, from Kingswarden. It contained only a few words.
Inside were the two or three notes which Aubrey on different occasions – twice by post and once by a private messenger – had sent to Bee. They had not been opened. The young man’s colour rose with a fiery indignation – his heart thumped in his ears. This was an explanation of which he had not thought. To keep back anyone’s letters had not occurred to him as a thing that in the end of the eighteenth century any man would dare to do. It seemed to bring him back face to face with old-fashioned, forgotten methods, of all sorts of antiquated kinds. He put down the papers on the table with a sort of awe. How was he to struggle against such ways of warfare? Bee might think he had not written at all – had shown no sympathy with her in her trouble. How likely that it was this that had made her angry, that kept her from saying a word, from vouchsafing a look! She might think it was he who was deficient, who showed no feeling. What was he to do? The landlady coming up with his breakfast broke in upon this distracting course of thought.
“I didn’t know, sir, as you were acquainted with the Colonel’s family,” the woman said.
“A little,” said poor Aubrey. The letters were all lying on the table, giving to a sharp observer a very good clue to the position. Mrs. Gregg had noted the unopened letters returned to him in the Colonel’s enclosure at the first glance.
“You didn’t ought to have let us talk. Why, we might have been saying, without thinking, some ill of the Colonel or of Miss Bee.”
He smiled, though with little heart. “You were once in their service,” he said, “do you ever go there now?”
“Oh, yes, now and again,” said Mrs. Gregg. “Sarah Langridge, as is in the nursery, is a cousin of mine, and I do go just to see them all now and again.”
“Would you venture to take a letter from me to – Miss Kingsward?”
“Sir,” said Mrs. Gregg, “is it about the marriage as was broke off? Is it?” she added quickly, as he answered her by nodding his head, “likely to come on again? That’s what I want to know.”
“If it does not,” said Aubrey, “it will not be my fault.”
“Then I will and welcome,” the landlady said. “It’s natural I should want to go the day after the funeral, to see about everything. Give me your letter, sir, and I’ll get it put safe into Miss Bee’s own hands.”
All that he sent was half-a-dozen words of appeal.
How long the woman was in getting ready – how long in going! Before she came back it was almost night again of the lingering, endless day. She brought him a little note, not returning the enclosures – that was always something – with a reproach. “Oh, sir, and you very near got me into terrible trouble! I’ll never, never carry anything from you again.” The note was still shorter than his own: —
“My own heart will tell me why! My heart tells me nothing – nothing!” poor Aubrey said to himself in the silence of his little room. But there was little use in repeating it to himself, and there was no other ear to hear.
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