The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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Mrs. Leigh was a clever woman, and a woman of the world. She had a great deal of natural understanding, and a considerable knowledge of life, but she was not unlike in appearance the ordinary British matron, who is not much credited with these qualities. That is to say, she was stout – which is a calamity common with the kind. She had white hair, considerably frizzed on the top of the forehead, as it is becoming to white hair to be, and dark eyes and good complexion. These things were in her favour; still, it is impossible to deny that when Bee and Betty saw coming towards them, following the footman across the lawn, a stout figure, not very tall, nor distinguishable from various ladies in both country and town whom they knew, and with the natural impertinence of youth set down as bores, they had both a strong revolt in their minds against their visitor. “Oh, who is it – who is it?” they said to each other. “Why did James let her in? Why did he let anyone in?”
It was a warm morning, though the season was far advanced, and they were seated again on that bench under the tree where they had watched the white cloud floating away on the night of their mother’s death. They went there instinctively whenever they went out. “Mother’s tree,” they began to call it, and sat as she had been used to do, with the children playing near, and nurse walking up and down with the baby in her arms. They had been talking more that morning than ever before. It was little more than a week since Mrs. Kingsward’s funeral, but they were so young that their hearts now and then for a moment burst the bondage of their sorrow, and escaped the length of a smile or two. It was not much; and, to be sure, for the children’s sake it was indispensable that they should not be crying and miserable always, as at first they had felt as if they must continually be. But it was another thing to receive visitors and have perhaps to answer questions about the circumstances of their loss.
“Mrs. – ? what did James say?” Neither of them were sure, though a thrill ran through Bee’s veins. It was a stranger. Who could it be?
“I have to apologise for coming – without knowing you – and at such a time,” said Mrs. Leigh, making a little pause till the nurse had got to the end of the gravel walk with the baby, and James was out of hearing. “It is you who are Bee, is it not?” she said, suddenly taking the girl’s hands. “I am the mother of Aubrey Leigh.”
All the colour went out of Bee’s face; she drew away her hands hurriedly, and dropped upon her mother’s seat. She felt that she had no power to say a word.
“Oh, I thought it was Mrs. Leigh he said,” cried Betty, “but I could not suppose – oh, Mrs. Leigh, whatever Bee may say, I am so glad, so glad to see you – perhaps you will be able to make things right.”
“I hope I shall,” said Mrs. Leigh, “and I shall always be obliged to you, my dear, for giving me your countenance. But your sister does not look as if she meant to let me put things right.”
“I am sorry if I seem rude,” said Bee, gathering herself together, “but – I don’t think that papa would like us to receive visitors.”
“I am not a common visitor,” said Mrs.Leigh. “I hope you will do me the credit to think that it is with a very different feeling I come. I am very, very sorry for you, so young as you are – more sorry than I can say. And, Bee, if indeed I am to hope to be one day your mother – ”
Bee did not speak; but she fixed her blue eyes upon her visitor with a sort of entreaty to be left alone, and mournfully shook her head.
“We can’t think just now of that name,” said little Betty, with the tears standing in her eyes.
“My dear children, I came to try to comfort you, not to open your wounds. Dear,” she said, putting her hand on Bee’s shoulder, “you would not see Aubrey, nor let him have a word from you. But he said you had heard everything an evil woman could say, and did not give him up for that – and he is heart-broken. He thought perhaps you would tell me if he had done anything to displease you – or if it was only the effect of your grief, to which he would be submissive at once. All he wanted was to share your trouble, my dear child.”
This was not at all what Mrs. Leigh intended to say. She had meant to represent her visit as one of sympathy solely, without at first referring to the hard case of Aubrey; but Bee’s looks had confused even this experienced woman. The girl’s pale face put on an expression of determined decision, or rather of that blank of resistance to entering upon the question, which is a kind of defence which it is almost impossible to break down.
“I would rather, if you please, not say anything of Mr. Leigh.”
“Dear child! Do not take that tone. If he has done anything that does not please you, how is he ever to clear himself if you will not tell him what it is.”
“She is like this all the time,” cried Betty; “she will not say what is wrong – and yet she is just as miserable herself as anyone could be.”
Bee gave her sister a look in which Mrs. Leigh, closely watching, saw the lightening of the glance, the brilliancy and splendour of the blue eyes of which Aubrey had raved. Poor little Betty was illuminated as if with a great flame. It was all that she could do to restrain a very inappropriate smile. “You know nothing, and how do you dare to say anything?” Bee said.
“I am sure that Bee is just,” said the older lady. “She would not condemn anyone unheard. Aubrey Leigh is my son, but we have been separated for many years, and I think I judge him impartially. He does not always please me, and I am sure that at some time or other he has much displeased you. Your eyes tell me, though you have not said a word. But, my dear, I have never, since he was a child, found him out in anything except the one thing you know, in which he was so sorely, sorely tried. He has always been kind. He gets into trouble by his kindness as other men do by ill-behaviour. I don’t know what you have against him, but I feel sure that he will clear himself if you will let him speak. Bee – ”
“I do not want,” cried Bee, “to seem rude. Oh, I don’t want to be rude! I am sure, quite sure, that you are kind; but I have nothing to say, oh! nothing to say to anyone. I am not able to discuss any subject, or enter into things. I have a great deal to think of, for I am the eldest and it will not do for me to – to break down, or to have any more to bear. I am very, very sorry – and you are so kind. But I must go in now – I must go in now.”
“Bee, Bee – ”
“You can stay, Betty, and talk to the lady. You can stay, but – oh, forgive me – I cannot – cannot help it! I must go in now.”
This was the end of Mrs. Leigh’s embassy. She had a long talk with Betty, who was but too glad to pour into this kind woman’s bosom all her troubles. Betty could not tell what had happened to Bee. She was not the Bee of old, and she did not know what it was that had happened about Aubrey, or if Bee had heard anything against him. She was as much in the dark as Mrs. Leigh herself. But she made it very evident that Bee had a grievance, a real or supposed ground of complaint which made her very angry, and which she resented bitterly. What was it? But this Betty did not know.
Mrs. Leigh went back to her son with a sense of humiliation which was rare in her consciousness. She had been completely unsuccessful, which was a thing which had very rarely happened to her. She had expected if she got admission at all that anything which so young a girl might have on her mind must have burst forth and all have been made clear. She had expected at once to overawe and to soothe a young creature who loved Aubrey, and who had some untold grievance against Aubrey. But she was not prepared for the dual personality, so to speak, of Bee, or the power she had of retreating, herself, and leaving her little sister as her representative to fulfil all necessary civilities without the power of betraying anything that the visitor wanted to know. She went back to town very angry with Bee; turned against her; very little disposed to sympathise with Aubrey, which she had so freely done before. “My dear boy,” she said, “you have made a mistake, that’s all. The elder sister has a temper like her father. Everybody will tell you that Colonel Kingsward is a sharp-tempered man. But Betty is a little darling. It is she that should have been the mistress of Forest-leigh.”
In answer to this, Aubrey simply turned his back upon his mother. He was deeply disappointed, but this speech turned his disappointment into a kind of rage. She had mismanaged the whole matter. That was as clear as daylight, and such a suggestion was an added insult. Betty! a child – a little girl – a nobody. His Bee seemed to tower over her in his imagination, so different, so high above her, another species. It was some minutes before he could trust himself to speak.
“Of course, you think me a fool,” said Mrs. Leigh, “and so I am, to tell a young man that there is another in the world equal to the object of his fancy.”
“Mother,” said Aubrey, in a choked voice, “you mistake the matter altogether. That is not what is in question. What I want to know is, what has been said against me, what new thing she has heard, or in what new light she has been taught to see me. You might as well suggest,” he cried, angrily, “that another person might have been better in your place – as in hers.”
“If that is all I don’t mind allowing it,” said Mrs. Leigh, with an aggravation peculiar to mothers. “You might have had some one who would have been, all round, of more use to you as a mother – only it’s a little late to think of that. However, without any persiflage, here is one thing evident, that she has some grievance against you, something new, something definite, which she believes you to be conscious of, which she is too proud to discuss – I suppose?” said Mrs. Leigh, looking at him with the look of the too-profoundly experienced, never sure how far human weakness may go.
“Mother!” Aubrey cried. He was as indignant as she was unassured.
“Well, my dear, don’t be angry. I am not imagining anything. I only ask whether you are quite sure that there is nothing which might be twisted into a new accusation against you? There might be many incidents, in which you were quite blameless, which an enemy might twist – ”
“You need not be melo-dramatic, mother. I have nothing in the world that could be an enemy – so far as I know.”
“Oh, as for that, there are people who make up stories out of pure devilry. And I had no intention of being melo-dramatic,” said Mrs. Leigh with displeasure. She added, after a moment, “Examine – I don’t say your conscience, which probably has nothing to do with it – but what has occurred for the last six months? See if there is anything which admits of a wrong interpretation, which could be, as I say, twisted.”
Aubrey paused a moment to attempt to do as she said, but the little episode of the railway station, the poor woman and her babies, he did not think of. If truth must be told, he thought that incident was one of the most creditable things in his life. He felt a little pleased with himself when he thought of it. It was one of those things which to mention might seem like a brag of his own generosity. He felt that it was really one of the few incidents in his life which modesty kept him from telling, one of the things in which the right hand should not know what the left hand did. Had he thought of it that would have been his feeling; but when he was asked suddenly to endeavour to recollect something which might be twisted to his disadvantage, naturally this good deed – a deed of charity if ever one was – did not come into his mind at all. He shook his head. “You know whether I am that kind of man, mother.”
“Don’t refer it to me, Aubrey – a young man’s mother probably is the very last person to know. I know you, my dear, au fond. I know a great deal about you; but I know, too, that you have done many things which I never could have supposed you would have done: consult your own recollection. Probably it is something so insignificant that you will have difficulty in recalling it. One can never calculate what trifle may move a young girl’s imagination. A grain of sand is enough to put a watch all wrong.”
Thus it will be seen that Mrs. Leigh’s long experience was after all good for something. She divined the character of the dreadful obstacle which had come in her son’s way and shattered all his hopes. If he had recounted to her that incident which it would have seemed ostentation to him to refer to, probably she would have pierced the imbroglio at once – or could she have seen into his life and his memory, she would, no doubt, have put her finger at once on that place. But there they stood, two human creatures in the closest relation to each other that nature can make, anxious to find out between them the key to a puzzle which neither of them could divine, but the secret of which lay certainly between them, could they but find it – and could make out nothing. A word from the son might have set the keen-witted mother, better acquainted than he with the manner in which scandals arise, on the scent. But it never occurred to him to say that word. They looked into each other’s faces and made out nothing. Strange veil of individuality which is between two human creatures, as the sea is between two worlds, and more confusing, more impenetrable still than any distance! Aubrey made the most conscientious efforts to lay bare his heart, to discover something that might be twisted, as she said; but he found nothing. His thoughts since he met the Kingswards first had been full of nothing but Bee – his very dreams had been full of her. He wandered vaguely through his own recollections, not knowing what to look for – what was there? There was nothing. His mother sat by, and, notwithstanding her anxiety, could scarcely refrain from smiling at his puzzled, troubled endeavour to find out something against himself. But there was nothing to find out. He shook his head at last, with a sort of appeal to her out of his troubled eyes. He was distressed not to find what he sought. “I know nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “One never does anything very good indeed – but not very bad either. I have just been as I always am – not much to brag of – but nothing to be ashamed of, between one man and another.”
“The question is between one man and one woman, Aubrey, which is different.”
“Then,” he cried, with a short laugh, “I defy discovery. There has been nothing in all my thoughts that need have been hidden. You do me grievous wrong, mother, if you can think – even if I had been inclined that way.”
“I don’t think. I have the most complete faith in you, Aubrey. I say – anything that could be twisted by a malign interpretation?”
He shook his head again. “And who would take the trouble to make a malign interpretation? I assure you, I have no enemy.”
“Colonel Kingsward is enemy enough.”
“Ah! Colonel Kingsward. I have no reason, however, to think that he would do a dishonourable action.”
“What do you call intercepting letters, Aubrey?”
“It is very antiquated and out of date, but I don’t know that it need be called dishonourable; and he has a high idea of his authority; but to make a false representation of another man – ”
“Aubrey, these distinctions are too fine for me. There is only one thing that I can do. I will now go and interview Colonel Kingsward. If he knows of anything new, he will soon reveal it to me. If he goes only over the old ground, then we may be sure that your fianc?e has been told something in her own ear – something apart from her father – which she has betrayed to no one. Unless, perhaps, it was got from the mother – ”
“Not a word about the mother. She is dead, and she is sacred; and besides she was the last, the very last – ”
“You have yourself said she was very weak, Aubrey.”
“Weak so far as resisting her husband was concerned, but incapable of an unkind word; incapable of any treachery or falsehood; a creature, both in body and soul, whom you could almost see through.”
Mrs. Leigh shook her head a little.
“I know those transparent people,” she said. “They are not always so – But never mind; I am going to interview Colonel Kingsward now.”
Colonel Kingsward was very courteous to his visitor. He received her visit of sympathy with polite gratitude, accepting her excuse that so nearly connected as the families had been about to be, she could not be in town without coming to express her great regret and feeling for his family left motherless. Colonel Kingsward was very digne. He had the fullest sense of what was expected in his position, and he did not allow any other feeling to come in the way of that. He thanked Mrs. Leigh for her sympathy, and exaggerated his sense of her goodness in coming to express it. It was more, much more, than he had any right to expect. If there was any alleviation to his grief it was in the sense of the great kindness of friends – “and even of strangers,” he said, with a grave bow, which seemed to throw Mrs. Leigh indefinitely back into the regions of the unknown. This put her on her mettle at once.
“I do not feel like a stranger,” she said. “I have heard so much of your family – every member of it – through my son, Aubrey. I regret greatly that the connection which seemed to be so suitable should hang at all in doubt – ”
“It does not hang in doubt,” said Colonel Kingsward, “I am sorry if you have got that impression. It is quite broken off – once for all.”
“That is a hard thing to say to Aubrey Leigh’s mother,” she said; “such a stigma should not be put upon a young man lightly.”
“I am sorry to discuss such matters with a lady. But I don’t know what you call lightly, Mrs. Leigh. I do not believe for a moment that you would give a daughter of your own – I do not know whether you have daughters of your own – ”
“Two – happily married, thank heaven, and off my hands.”
“You will understand me so much the better. (Colonel Kingsward knew perfectly well all about Mrs. Leigh’s two daughters). I do not believe that you would have given one of them to a man – to whom another lady put forth a prior claim.”
“I am not at all sure of that. I should have ascertained first what kind of person put forth the claim – ”
“We need not go into these details,” said Colonel Kingsward, waving his hand.
“It is most important to go into these details. I can give you every particular about this lady, Colonel Kingsward; and so can a dozen people, at least, who have no interest in the matter except to tell the truth.”
“The question is closed in my mind, Mrs. Leigh. I have no intention of opening it again.”
“And this is the sole ground upon which my son is rejected?” she said, fixing her keen eyes upon his face.
“It is the sole ground; it is quite enough, I believe. Supposing even that the lady was everything you allege, an intimacy between a woman of that character and your son is quite enough to make him unsuitable for my daughter.”
“Who is not of your opinion, however,” Mrs. Leigh said.
Colonel Kingsward was confused by this speech. He got up and stood before the fire. He avoided meeting her eye. “My daughter is very young and very inexperienced,” he said. “She is at present more moved by her feelings than her reason. I believe that with an increase of maturer judgment she will fully adopt my view.”
Colonel Kingsward believed that he had altogether crushed his visitor, but he was not so right as he thought. Mrs. Leigh went back to her son with triumph in her eyes. “He knows nothing more,” she said. “He does not know that she has turned against you. Whatever is her reason, it is something different from his, and she has not confided it to him. I thought as much when you told me of the letters stopped. A man does not intercept a girl’s letters when he knows she has come round to his way of thinking. Now you have got to find out what she has heard, and to set her right about it whatever it may be.”
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