The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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It was with a sort of stupified bewilderment that Aubrey read over and over the little letter of Bee’s. Letter! To call it a letter. Those straggling lines without any beginning, no name of him to whom they were addressed, nothing even of the most superficial courtesy, nothing that marked the link that had been – unless it were, perhaps, the abruptness, the harshness, which she would have used to no other. This was a kind of painful comfort in its way, when he came to think of it. To nobody but him would she have written so – this was the little gleam of light. And she had retained his letters, though she had forbidden him from sending more. These lights of consolation leaped into his mind with the first reading, but the more he repeated that reading, the darker grew the prospect, and the less comfort they gave him. “Not by my father’s will, but my own; and your own heart will tell you why.” What did she mean by his own heart? She had begun to write conscience, and then drew her pen through it. Conscience! What had he done? What had he done? The real trouble of his life Bee had forgiven. Her father had stood upon it, and nothing had changed his standing ground so far as the Colonel was concerned; but Bee, who did not understand – how should any girl understand? – had forgiven him, had flung his reproach away and accepted him as he was. How was it that she should thus go back on her decision now? “Not my father’s will, but mine. And your conscience will tell you why.” Aubrey’s conscience reproached him with nothing, with no thought of unfaithfulness to the young and spotless love which had re-created his being. He had never denied the old reproach. But what was it, what was it which she bid him to remember, which would explain the change in her? “Your heart will tell you why” – why his heart? and what was there that could be told him, which could explain this? He walked about his little room all night, shaking the little rickety little house with his tread, asking himself, “What was it, what was it?” and finding no answer anywhere.
When he got up from a troubled morning sleep, these disturbed and unrefreshing slumbers, full of visions which turn the appearance of rest into the most fatiguing of labour, Aubrey formed a resolution, which he said to himself he should perhaps have carried out from the first. He had an advocate who could take charge of his cause without any fear of betrayal, his mother, and to her he would go without delay. Of all things in the world to do, after the reception of Bee’s note, giving in was the last thing he could think of. To accept that strange and agitated decision, to allow that there was something in his own heart that would explain it to him, was what he would not and could not do. There was nothing in his own consciousness, in his heart or conscience, as she had said, that could explain it. Nothing! It was not to his credit to accept such a dismissal, even if he had been unaffected by it.He could not let a mystery fall over this, leaving it as one of those things unexplained which tear life in pieces. That would be mere weakness, not the mode of action of a man of sense who had no exposure to face. But if his letters were intercepted – miserable folly! – by the father, a man of the world who ought to have known that such proceedings were an anachronism – and rejected by herself, it was little use that he should continue writing. Against two such methods of silencing him no man could contend. But there was still one other great card to play. He went out and took a last view of the sheltered and flowery dwelling of Kingswarden, as it could be seen among the trees at one part of the road. The windows were open and all the blinds drawn up. The house had come back out of the shadow of death into the every-day composure of living. White curtains fluttered in the wind at the upper windows. The late climbing roses and pretty bunches of clematis seemed again to look in. It was still like summer, though the year was waning, and the sun still shone, notwithstanding all sorrow. Aubrey saw no one, however, but a housemaid, who paused as she passed to put up a window, and looked out for a moment. That was all. He had not the chance of seeing any face that he wished to see. In the village he met the two boys, who recognised him sheepishly with their eyes, and a look from one to another, but were about to shuffle past, Reginald on the heels of Arthur, to escape his notice – when he stopped them, which was a fact they were unprepared for, and had not calculated how to meet. He told them that he was going away, a definite fact upon which they seized eagerly. “Oh, so are we,” they said, both together, one of them adding the explanation that there was always something going on at school. “And there’s nothing to do here,” the other added. “I hope we’ll, sometime or other, know each other better,” said Aubrey, at which the boys hung their heads. “There is a good deal of shooting down at my little place,” he added. He was not above such a mean act; whereupon the two heads raised themselves by one impulse, as if they had been upon wires, and two pairs of eyes shone. “Try if you can do anything for me, and I’ll do everything I can for you,” this insidious plotter said. The boys shook hands with him with a warmth which they never expected to have felt for any such “spoon,” and said to each other that he didn’t seem such a bad fellow at bottom – as if they had searched his being through and through. Mr. Leigh met Charlie when on his way to the railway station, but he had no encouragement to say anything to Charlie. They passed each other with a nod, very surly on Charlie’s part, whose anger at the sight of him – as if that man had anything to do with our trouble – was perhaps not so unnatural. Charlie, too, was going back to Oxford next day, and thankful to be doing so, out of this dreary place, where there was nothing to do.
It was the afternoon of the next day when Aubrey arrived at his mother’s house. It was at some distance from his own house, much too far to drive, and only to be got at by cross-country railways, with an interval of an hour or two of waiting at several junctions, facts which he could not help remembering his poor little wife and her companion had congratulated themselves upon in those old, strange days, which had disappeared so entirely, like a tale that is told. He wondered whether she would equally think it an advantage – if she ever was the partner of his home. There seemed to him now something wrong in the thought, a mean sort of petty feeling, unworthy of a fine nature. He wondered if Bee – Bee! How unlikely it was that she would ever consider that question, or know anything further about his house or his ways of living – she who had thrust him away from her at the very moment when her heart ought to have been most soft – when love was most wanted to strengthen and uphold. Not her father’s will, but her own. And your own heart will explain it. His own heart! in which there was nothing but truth and devotion to her.
He arrived thus at his mother’s house very depressed in spirits. Mrs. Leigh was not the ordinary kind of mother for a young man like Aubrey Leigh. She was not one of those mothers wholly wrapped up in their children, who are so general. She had all along made an attempt at an independent life of her own. When Aubrey married she was still a comparatively young woman, by no means disposed to sink her identity in him or his household. Mrs. Aubrey Leigh might possess the first place in the family as the queen regnant, but Mrs. Leigh, in her personality a much more important person, had no idea of being swamped, and giving up her natural consequence. She was still a considerable person, though she was not rich, and inhabited only a sort of jointure-house, a “small place” capable of holding very few visitors. Aubrey was her only son, and she was, of course, very fond of him —of course, she was very fond of him – but she had no intention of sinking into insignificance or living only in the reflection of Aubrey, still less of his wife.
Hurstleigh, where Mrs. Leigh lived, was near the sea, and near also to the county town, which was a brisk and thriving seaport. It was an old house that had known many fluctuations, an ancient manor house, inhabited once by the Leighs when they were of humbler pretentions than now; then it became a farm-house, then was let to a hunting man, who greatly enlarged the stables; and now it was a jointure-house, the stables veiled by a new wing, the place in that trim order which denotes a careful master, and more particularly mistress; with large lattice windows, heavy mullions, and a terrace with stone balustrades running all the length of the house. Mrs. Leigh generally sat in a room opening upon this terrace, with the windows always open, except in the coldest weather, and there it was that Aubrey made his way, without passing through the house. His mother was sitting at one of her favourite occupations – writing letters. She was one of those women who maintain a large correspondence, chiefly for the reason that it amuses them to receive letters and to feel themselves a centre of lively and varied life; besides that, she was considered a very clever letter writer, which is a temptation to everyone who possesses, or is supposed to possess, that qualification. She rose quickly, with a cry of “Aubrey!” in great surprise.
“You are the last person I expected to see,” she said, when she had given him a warm welcome. “I saw the death in the papers, and I supposed, of course, you would be there.”
“I have just come from Kingswarden,” he said, with a little nod of his head in assent; “and yet I was not there.”
“Riddle me no riddles, Aubrey, for I never was good at guessing. You were there and yet you were not there?”
“I am afraid – I am no longer a welcome visitor, mother,” he said, with a faint smile.
“What!” Mrs. Leigh’s astonishment was so great that it seemed to disturb the afternoon quiet which reigned over the whole domain. “What! Why, Aubrey! It was only the other day I heard of your engagement.”
“It is quite true, and yet it has become ancient history, and nobody remembers it any more.”
“What do you mean?” she cried. “My dear Aubrey, I do not understand you. I thought you were dangling about after your young lady, and that this was the reason why I heard so little of you; and then I was much startled to see that announcement in the papers. But you said she was always delicate. Well, but what on earth is the meaning of this other change?”
“I told you, mother. For some time I was but half accepted, pending Colonel Kingsward’s decision.”
“Oh, yes; one knows what that sort of thing means! And then Colonel Kingsward generously consented – to one of the best matches in England – in your condition of life.”
“I am not a young duke, mother.”
“No, you are not a young duke. I said in your condition of life, and the Kingswards are nothing superior to that, I believe. Well – and then? That was where your last letter left me.”
“I am ashamed not to have written, mother; but it wasn’t pleasant news – and I always hoped to change their mind.”
“Well? I suppose there was some cause for it?” she said, after waiting a long minute or two for his next words.
He got up and walked to the window, which, as has been intimated, was also a door opening and leading out on to the terrace. “May I shut this window?” he said, turning his back on her; and then he added, still keeping that attitude, “it was of course because of that old affair.”
“What old affair?”
“You generally understand at half a word, mother; must I go into the whole nauseous business?”
She came up to him and laid her hand on his shoulder. “Miss Lance,” she said.
“What else? I haven’t had so many scandals in my life that you should stand in any doubt.”
“Scandals!” she exclaimed; and again was silent for a moment. “Aubrey, explain it to me a little. How did that business come to their ears?”
“Oh, in the easiest way, the simplest way!” he cried, “The injured woman called on the father of the girl who was going to be given to such a reprobate as me.” He laughed loudly and harshly, preserving the most tragic face all the time.
“The injured woman! Good heavens! And was the man such an ass – such an ass – ?”
“He is not an ass, mother; he is a model of every virtue. My engagement, if you like to call it so, lasted about a week, and then I was suddenly turned adrift.”
“Aubrey, when did all this happen?”
“I suppose about three weeks ago. Pardon me, mother, for not having written, but I had no heart to write. I left them at Cologne, and travelled home by myself, and the first thing I did, of course, was to go and see Colonel Kingsward.”
“No, it wasn’t well at all. He refused to listen to me. Of course, I got it out from my side as well as I could, but it made no difference. He would not hear me. He would understand no excuse.”
“And the ladies?”
“Mrs. Kingsward was too gentle and yielding. She never opposed him, and – ”
“Aubrey, the girl whom you loved, and had such faith in – Bee, don’t you call her? – ”
“Bee – stood by me, mother; never hesitated, gave me her hand, and stood by me.”
“Ah, well,” said Mrs. Leigh, with a little sigh of relief, “then that’s all right. The father will soon come round – ”
“So I should have said yesterday. I left them in that full faith. But since they came back to Kingswarden something has happened. I wrote to her, but I got no answer – I supposed it was her mother’s illness – now I have found that he stops my letters; but something far worse – wait a moment – she, Bee herself, wrote to me yesterday, dismissing me without a word of explanation – declaring she did it by her own will, not her father’s – and adding, my conscience would tell me why.”
Mrs. Leigh looked her son straight in the face for a full minute. “Aubrey – and does your conscience tell you why?”
“No, mother. I am too bewildered even to be able to think – I have not an idea what she means. She knew all there was to know – without understanding it in the least, it needn’t be said – and held fast to her word; and now I know no more what she means than you do. Mother, there’s only one thing to be done – you must take it in hand.”
“I – take your love affairs in hand!” she said.
But though Mrs. Leigh said this it is by no means certain that she meant it even at the first moment. It is only a very prudent woman who objects to being asked to interfere in a young man’s love affairs. Generally the request itself is a compliment, and not less, but perhaps more so, when made to a mother by her son. And Mrs. Leigh, though a sensible and prudent person enough in ordinary affairs, did not attain to the height of virtue above indicated. When she went upstairs to change her gown for dinner, after talking it over and over with Aubrey in every possible point of view, her mind, though she had not yet consented in words, had begun to turn over the best methods of opening the question with the Kingswards, and what it would be wisest in the circumstances to do. That Aubrey should be beaten, that he should have to give up the girl whom he loved, and of whom he gave so exalted a description, seemed the one thing that must not be permitted to be. Mrs. Leigh was very anxious that her son should marry, if it were only to wipe out the episode of that little, silly Amy, who was fonder of her friend than of her husband; and the half ludicrous, half tragic chapter of that woman, staying on, resisting all efforts to dislodge her for so long, until she had as she thought acquired rights over the poor young man, who was not strong-minded enough to turn her out of his house. To obliterate these circumstances from the mind of the county altogether, as could only be done by a happy and suitable marriage, Mrs. Leigh would have done much, and, to be sure, her son’s happiness was also dear to her. Poor Aubrey! His first adventure into life had not been a happy one, and his descriptions of Bee and all her belongings had been full of a young lover’s enthusiasm, not tame and tepid as she had always felt his sentiments towards Amy to be. What would it be best to do if I really undertake this business, she said to herself. Herself replied that it was not a business for her to meddle with, that she would do no good, and many other dissuasions of the conventional kind; but, when her imagination and feelings were once lit up, Mrs. Leigh was not a woman to be smothered in that way. After dinner, without still formally undertaking the mission, she talked with Aubrey of the best ways of carrying it out. If she did interfere, how should she set about it? “Mind, I don’t promise anything, but supposing – ” Should she write? Should she go? Which thing would it be best to do? If she made up her mind to go, should she write beforehand to warn them? What, on the whole, would it be most appropriate to do?
The method finally decided upon between them – “if I go – but I don’t say that I will go – ” was that Mrs. Leigh should first, without warning or preparation, endeavour to see Bee, and ascertain whether any new representations had been made to her to change her mind; and then, according to her success or non-success with Bee, decide whether she should ask an interview with her father. Aubrey slept under his mother’s roof with greater tranquility and refreshment than he had known for some time, and with something of the vague hope of his childhood that she could set everything right, do away with punishment or procure pleasure, when she took it in hand. It had always been so in the childish days, which seemed to come near him in the sight of the old furniture, the well-known pictures and ornaments and curiosities which Mrs. Leigh had brought with her when she settled in this diminished house. How well he remembered them all! – the old print of the little Samuel on his knees, the attitude of which he used half-consciously to copy when he said his prayers; the little old-fashioned books in blue and brown morocco on the shelves, the china ornaments on the mantel-piece. He smiled at their antiquity now-a-days, but he had thought them very grand and imposing once upon a time.
In the morning Mrs. Leigh coquetted a little, or else saw the whole subject in a colder light. “Don’t you think it is possible that I might do more harm than good,” she said; “things might settle of themselves if you only give them a little time. Colonel Kingsward would come to his senses, and Miss Bee – ”
“Mother,” cried Aubrey, pale with alarm, “on the contrary. Do you forget the circumstances? Mrs. Kingsward is dead, there is a large family of little children, and Bee is of the race of the Quixotes. Don’t you see what will happen? She will get it into her mind, and everybody will persuade her, that as the eldest daughter she is wanted at home. It will be impressed upon her on all sides, and unless there is a strong influence to counteract it, and at once, Bee is lost to me for ever.”
“My dear, don’t be so tragical. These dreadful things don’t happen in our days.”
“You may laugh, mother, but it is no laughing matter to me.”
“I don’t laugh,” she said. “I see the strength of your argument; but, my dear boy, nothing will be so effectual in showing your Bee the happiness that is awaiting her as a little trial of the troubles of a large family on her shoulders. I know what it is.”
Aubrey sprang from his seat though it was in the middle of his breakfast. “Mother,” he said, “there is one thing that I believe you will never know – and that is, Bee. The burden is exactly what will hold her fast beyond any argument – the sense of duty – the feeling that she is bound to take her mother’s place.”
What was in Mrs. Leigh’s mind was the thought: Ah, that’s all very well at first, till she has tried it. But what she said was: “I beg your pardon, Aubrey. Of course, that is a much more elevated feeling. Sit down, my dear, and take your breakfast. It is not my fault that I don’t know Bee.”
Upon which Aubrey had to beg her pardon and sit down, commiserating her for that deficiency, which was indeed her misfortune and not her fault.
At the end Mrs. Leigh was wound up to take the strongest step possible. She joined her son in London after about a week had elapsed. He chafed at the delay, but allowed that to leave Bee in quiet for a few days after all the storms that had gone over her head was necessary. Mrs. Leigh went down early on a bright October morning to Kingswarden with much more excitement than she had expected to feel. She was herself inclined to take a lighter view, to laugh at the idea of interrupted letters or parental cruelty, and to believe that poor Bee was worn out, her nerves all wrong, and possibly her temper affected by the irritability which is so apt to accompany unaccustomed grief, and that in a little time she would of herself come round. Seeing, however, that these suggestions only made Aubrey angry, she had given them up, and was in fact more influenced than she cared to show by his emotion and anxiety when she thus sallied forth into the unknown to plead her son’s cause. They had ascertained that Colonel Kingsward had returned to his office, so the coast was clear. Only the two girls and the little children were at home. Mrs. Leigh said to herself as she walked to the gate that it was a shame to take the little girl, poor little thing, thus unprotected, with nobody to stand by her. If it were not that it was entirely for her good – nobody that knew Aubrey would deny that he would make the best husband in the world, and surely to have a good house of her own, and a good husband, and distinct place in the world was better than to grow to maturity a harassed woman at the head of her father’s house, acting mother to a troop of children who would not obey her, nor even be grateful for her kindness to them. Surely there could not be two opinions as to what it would be best for the girl to do. Yet she felt a little like a wolf going down into the midst of the lambkins when she opened the unguarded gate.
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