The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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To set oneself to find out without any clue or guidance what it is which has affected the thoughts of a girl for or against her lover – without any knowledge of her surroundings, or from what quarter an adverse influence, an ill report, could have come – who could have spoken to her on the subject of Aubrey, or what kind of story to his disadvantage (for this was what Mrs. Leigh convinced herself must have happened) she had heard – to discover everything and counteract it, was a mission that might well have frightened anyone who undertook it. And I don’t doubt that Mrs. Leigh, to encourage her son, spoke a great deal more confidently than she felt, and that she really intended to give herself up to this discovery, and to take no rest until she had made it, and cleared up the matter which threatened to separate these two young people for ever, and make havoc in both their lives.
Aubrey himself shook his head and declared himself to have little hope; but he was not really more hopeless than his mother was the reverse. While he shook his head there was a warm sensation of comfort at his heart. That she should have undertaken to find it out seemed like half the battle. When a man retains any confidence in his mother at all, which is by no means always the case, he is apt to be influenced more than he is aware by the old prejudice of childhood that she can do anything that is wanted. She by no means felt herself to be so powerful as he did, though she professed her certainty of success, and he was much more held up and supported by her supposed convictions than he himself allowed to appear. Thus they separated, Aubrey remaining in town, ready to take advantage of any occasion that might present itself, while she returned to her home, to make every exertion to discover the cause of Bee’s estrangement. Very easy words to say – but how to do it? She had not a notion even what kind of story had been told to Bee. She did not know any special point of weakness on the part of Aubrey which could have been exaggerated or made to appear worse than it was. There was no inclination towards dissipation about him; he did not gamble; he was not addicted to bad company. What was there to say about him? The episode of Miss Lance – and that was all. And it was not the episode of Miss Lance which had revolted Bee. Had Mrs. Leigh ever heard of Aubrey’s adventure at the railway station, it is possible that her mind, excited in that direction, would have been keen enough to have divined that the mystery was somehow connected with that; for it was certainly Quixotic of a young man to put a poor woman and her children into a sleeping-carriage – the most expensive mode of travelling, and wholly beyond her condition – by a mere charitable and kindly impulse. And the world, which believes that nothing is given without an equivalent, might easily have made a story out of it. But then, Mrs. Leigh was quite ignorant on this point, which, as has been said, had never occurred again to Aubrey himself, except as one of the few actions in his life which he could look back upon with entire satisfaction and even a little complacence.And thus the only way of setting things right was hermetically closed.
Mrs. Leigh went back to her jointure-house. It was near the sea, as has been said, and near a lively seaside town, where, in the summer, there were many visitors and a great deal going on, strangers appearing and disappearing from all parts of the country. But in winter there was nothing of the kind; the world closed up without, leaving only the residents, the people who were indigenous, the contracted society of neighbours who knew all about each other, and were acquainted with the same pieces of news, and, excepting by long intervals, heard but little of the outside gossip, or the doings of other circles. Mrs. Leigh returned to her natural surroundings, which knew no more of Colonel Kingsward and his family than people in what is called “a certain position” know of each other – something of his name, something of his connections, but nothing of his immediate circumstances. There were indeed many questions about Aubrey’s marriage which she had to answer as she could. The news of his engagement had been received with many congratulations. Everybody felt that poor Aubrey’s first essay at matrimony had been a very unfortunate one. The sooner he brings a nice wife to Forest-leigh the better, everybody had said. And when Mrs. Leigh returned after her brief absence, the many callers whom she received daily were full of inquiries about the marriage. It was generally supposed that his mother’s hasty expedition had been in some way connected with it. She had gone about the refurnishing, about the household linen, which perhaps wanted renewing, and which was not in a man’s sphere – about something in the settlements; at all events, whatever it was, her object must have been connected with the approaching marriage. They came down upon her full of the most eager questions. “I suppose the day is fixed? I suppose all the arrangements are made? How nice it will be to see the house opened, and a new, lively, young married couple to put a little life in everything” – matrons and little maids all concurred in this speech.
“You have not heard then?” said Mrs. Leigh, with a very grave countenance – “everything, alas, is postponed for the moment. Mrs. Kingsward, a most charming woman, adored by her family, died last week.”
“I told you it was those Kingswards!” one of the ladies said to another.
“There are no other Kingswards that I know of,” said Mrs. Leigh, who always held her head so high. “I went up with Aubrey to pay them a visit of sympathy. There is a very large young family. I found them quite broken down with grief. Of course we had not the heart, either Aubrey or I, to press an arrangement in these dreadful circumstances. I confess I am rather down about it altogether. Poor little Bee, my future daughter-in-law, is the eldest. I am quite terrified to hear that she has taken some tragic resolution, such as girls are so apt to do now-a-days, and think it her duty to dedicate herself to her little brothers and sisters.”
“Oh, but surely she would not be permitted to do that – when everything was settled!”
“I hope not. I most sincerely hope not,” said Mrs. Leigh. “Naturally, I have not said a word to Aubrey. But girls now-a-days are so full of their ideas, their missions, and their duty, and all that!”
“Not when they are engaged to be married,” said a scoffing lady.
“I wish I could be sure of that. Miss Kingsward is only nineteen, just the self-sacrificing age. I wish I could be sure – . There was something in her eye. But, however, not a word, not a word about this. I still hope that as soon as a reasonable time has passed – ”
“It is such a pity,” said another, “where unnecessary delays are made. I am sure no mother would wish her daughter’s marriage to be put off – things are so apt to happen. I think it’s tempting Providence when there is unnecessary delay.”
“Colonel Kingsward is a very particular man. He will allow nothing to be done that the most punctilious could object to. He will not have anything spoken of even. All the arrangements are in abeyance. It is most trying. Of course, I am very sorry for the family, and for him, who has lost so excellent a wife. But, at the same time, I can’t help thinking of my own son kept hanging in suspense, and all his plans broken up.”
There was a chorus of regrets from all the visitors, one party after another; but from more than one group of ladies as they drove away there arose the most gloomy auguries, spoken amid much shaking of heads. “I don’t believe it will ever come to a marriage after all,” some said, “if Colonel Kingsward is so very particular a man, and if he hears of all that took place at Forest-leigh in the first wife’s time.” “Whatever took place,” said another, “it was her fault, as everybody knows.” “Ah, yes,” said the first speaker, who represented more or less the common voice, “I know the first wife was a little fool, and whatever happened, brought it all on herself. But there is never any business of that sort without blame on both sides.” Thus the world generally judges, having half forgotten what the facts of the case were, though most of the individuals who constitute the world could have recalled them very easily with an effort of memory. Still, the blurred general view is the one that prevails after a time, and works out great injustices without any evil intention at all.
It was thus that Mrs. Leigh thought it prudent to forestall all remarks as to the postponement of her son’s marriage. She succeeded well enough, perhaps too well. Mrs. Kingsward’s death accounted for everything. Still, the impression got abroad that Aubrey Leigh, that unlucky fellow, had somehow broken down again. And as the days went on and silence closed around, further and further did Aubrey’s mother find herself from making any discovery. Indeed, she did not try, strong as her resolves to do so had been. For, indeed, she did not know what to do. How was she to clear up such a mystery? Had she known the neighbours about Kingswarden, and heard their talk among themselves, she might have been able to form some plan of action. But her own neighbours, who did not even know of Mrs. Kingsward’s death – how could she find out anything from them? She thought it over a great deal, and when any friend of her son’s drifted near her expended a great deal of ingenuity in endeavouring to ascertain whether there was anything in Aubrey’s life which could have injured him in Bee’s estimation. But Mrs. Leigh was perfectly aware, even while cautiously making these inquiries, that whatever his friends might know against him, his mother was the last person who was likely to be told. As a matter of fact, however, there was nothing to tell, and gradually this very fruitless quest died from her mind, and she did not even dream of pursuing it any more.
And Aubrey remained in town disconsolately getting through the winter as best he could, neglecting all his duties of hospitality, keeping his house shut up, and leaving his game to be shot by the gamekeepers – indifferent to everything. He could not bear the place with which he had so many painful associations, sharpened now by the loss of all the hopes that had fallen so quickly of taking Bee to it, and beginning a real life of happiness and usefulness. What he wanted most in life was to fulfil all his duties – in the happiest way in which such duties can be fulfilled, after the methods of an English country gentleman with sufficient, but not too great position, money, and all that accompanies them. He was not an enrag? foxhunter, or sportsman, but he was quite disposed to follow all the occupations and recreations of country life, to maintain a hospitable house, to take his part of everything that was going on in the county, and above all, to efface the recollection of that first chapter of his life which had not been happy. But all these hopes and intentions seemed to have been killed in him by the cutting off of his new hopes. He kept up his confidence in his mother until he went to her at Christmas to spend with her those days of enforced family life which, when they are not more, are so much less happy than the ordinary course of life. He went down still full of hope, and though Mrs. Leigh received him with professions of unimpaired confidence, he was quick to see that she had in reality done nothing – for that best of all reasons, that there was nothing to do. “You don’t seem to have made progress, however,” he said, on the first night.
“No, perhaps I have not made much progress. I don’t know that I expected to make much progress – at this time of the year. You know in winter one only sees one’s neighbours, who know nothing. Later on, when the weather improves, when there is more coming and going, when I have more opportunities – ”
This did not sound very cheerful, but it was still less cheerful when he saw how little even his mother’s mind was occupied with his affairs. It was not her fault; all the thinking in the world could not make Bee’s motives more clear to a woman living at a distance of three or four broad counties from Bee. And one of Aubrey’s married sisters was in some family difficulty which occupied all her mother’s thoughts. Aubrey did not refuse to be interested in his sister. He was willing to give anything he could, either of sympathy or help, to the solving of her problem; but, conscious of so much in his own fate that was harder than could fall to the lot of any comfortable, middle-aged person, it must be allowed that he got very tired of hearing of Mary’s troubles. He answered rather curtly on one or two occasions, and chilled his mother, whose heart was full of Mary, and who was already disposed to blame herself in respect to Aubrey, yet to be irritated by any suspicion of blame from him. On the last morning of his stay he had begged her, if she could abstract her thoughts for a moment from Mary, to think of him. “I don’t want to trouble you further, mother. I only want you to tell me if you think my whole business so hopeless that I had better give every expectation up?”
“Think your business hopeless, Aubrey? Oh, no; I don’t think that.”
“But we know just as much now as we did in October. I do not think we have advanced a step – ”
“If you mean to reproach me with my want of success, Aubrey!”
“No – I don’t mean to reproach you with anything, mother. But I think it seems just as hopeless as ever – and not a step nearer.”
“Things cannot be done in a moment,” she said, hurriedly. “I never expected – When the summer comes round, when one sees more people, when one can really pursue one’s inquiries – .” Mrs. Leigh was very conscious that she had pursued few inquiries, and the thought made her angry. “Rome,” she added, “was not built in a day.”
Aubrey Leigh said no more – but he went back to London feeling that he was a beaten man, and the battle once more lost.
There is nothing more curious in life than the way in which it closes over those great incidents that shape its course. Like a stone disappearing in a pool, the slow circles of commotion widen and melt away, the missile sinks into the depths of the water, and tranquility comes back to its surface. Every ripple is gone, and yet the stone is always there.
This curious calm came into the life of Bee Kingsward after the incidents related above. The man with whom she had expected to share everything disappeared from her existence as if he had never entered into it, and a dead peace fell over her, and all things around her. It was at once better for Bee and worse that the mourning for her mother swept her away out of all the coming and going of ordinary life for a time – better because she was saved the torment of a perpetual struggle with her trouble, and worse because it shut her up to a perpetual recollection of that trouble. The Kingsward family remained at Kingswarden for the whole of that winter and spring. When the season began there was some question of removing to town, which Bee opposed strongly. “I have no wish to go out,” she said. “I could not, papa, so soon – And we have no one to take us.”
“You will find plenty of people ready to take you,” he said.
And then Bee took refuge in tears. “Nobody – that we could endure to go with – so soon, so soon! – not yet a year,” she said. Betty followed her sister dubiously. It was natural that she should always echo what Bee said, but this time she was not quite so sure as usual. Not to balls? Oh, not to balls! was Betty’s secret comment, but – Betty felt that to speak occasionally to some one who was not of her own family – not the Rector or the Rector’s wife, the Curate or the Doctor – would be an advantage; but she did not utter that sentiment. After all, what was one season to the measureless horizon of eighteen? Bee renounced her season eagerly, and uttered exclamations of content when Colonel Kingsward announced that, in those circumstances, he had let their house in town. But I am not sure that she was so completely satisfied as she professed to be. She had dismissed Aubrey “for ever” – and yet, when the deed was done, a longing seized her sometimes to hear his name, that someone should speak of him in her presence, that she should hear accidentally where he was, and what he was doing. She had imagined little scenes to herself in which she had heard strangers saying to each other that Aubrey Leigh had soon got over his disappointment, that he was going to be married to So-and-So; or that he was going to make the tour of the world, or to shoot big game in Africa; or, anything in short, so long as it was about him. Even when she had been so determined against going out, there had been a hope in her mind that somehow, she did not know how, some news of him and what he was doing might be wafted her way accidentally. She did not want, she said to herself passionately, ever to hear his name again! Yet she had calculated on hearing as much as that, hearing quite accidentally, at the Royal Academy, perhaps, or somewhere where she might happen to be calling, that he was going to the ends of the earth, or that he was going to be married – things which the speakers might suppose were not of the slightest interest to her. She said all the same that she was delighted when Colonel Kingsward informed them that he had let the house in town – very glad! before it had time to get shabby, the poor old house; yet, when she retired to her room for the night, Bee cried, shedding many salt tears.
But nothing of this was apparent in her life. The circles had all melted away from the still bosom of the pool. The household resumed its former regularity, quickened a little, perhaps, by the energetic sweeping of the new broom. Mrs. Kingsward had been an easy mistress about many trifles, which Bee, new to authority, and more enterprising than her mother, exacted a rigid account of. At the beginning she set all the servants by the ears, each of them being anxious to show that their own conscientiousness was perfect, and their desire to consider their master’s interests; but, by degrees, matters settled down with an increased strictness of order. “As mamma would have wished it,” Bee said; and she herself changed in a way that would be almost miraculous were it not a transformation commonly visible from time to time, from a light-hearted girl, full of little amusing misdemeanours and mistakes, into that sweet serious figure of the eldest daughter, the mother-sister, so often visible in England when the mistress of the household has been removed in early life. There is no more beautiful or more tender vision; it is fine at all ages, but in the first bloom of youth it has a pathetic grace which goes to the heart. Bee underwent this change quite suddenly, after a period of trouble and agitation and over activity. It might not perhaps have come but for the letting for the season of the town house, which seemed to make so complete a severance between her and the ordinary current of life.
It was perhaps this that opened what might almost be called a new relationship between Bee and her brother Charlie, who was the nearest to her in the family, though there had not been hitherto an unusual sympathy between them. For one thing, Betty feeling herself a little forlorn in the country with all the echoes of London, which occasionally came to her ears, had been permitted to accept an invitation to Portman Square to visit a quiet elderly family, not likely to lead her into any dissipation out of keeping with her black frock, and Bee was virtually alone with the children, to whom she gave herself up with a devotion which was the very quintessence of motherhood. Colonel Kingsward also was in town – a man cannot shut himself up (this was what he said) whatever his private griefs may be. He must keep a calm face before the world, he must not allow himself to be hustled out of the way. For this reason, he remained in London, living in chambers, to which he had an official right, in the dingy official grandeur of Pall Mall, and coming to Kingswarden only now and then from Saturday to Monday. This sundered Bee still more completely from the world. And when Charlie came back from Oxford she was more eager to meet him, more pleased with his company than ever before. This was not perhaps entirely the young man’s mind. That he should choose to shut himself up in the country in June was perhaps scarcely to be expected. According to the curious rule which prevails in England he “did not mind” the country in January. But in June! However, it was soon apparent that there were other things than the season in Charlie’s mind. He began a series of lamentations to Bee upon the situation of the family and things in general, by the usual complaint of a young man in the country of having “nothing to do.”
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