The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3
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“A man cannot sit at home and dot up the accounts like you,” he said, “though I don’t say but that it’s hard upon you, too. Still, women like to tie up children’s sashes and that sort of thing, and calculate how much their boots cost in a year. I say, mother can’t have had half such an easy life as we all thought.”
“I never thought she had an easy life,” said Bee, which was perhaps not exactly true, but the things that Bee had thought a year ago were so unlike the things she thought now that she did not believe life had ever appeared to her in a different light.
“Well,” said Charlie, “she had a way of making it appear so. Do you remember that last time at the Baths? What a little thing you seemed then, Bee, and now here I am talking to you quite seriously, as if you were mother. Look here, I want you to speak to the governor for me. I am doing no good here. In fact, there’s nothing to do – unless I am to drop into drinking and that sort of thing in the village.”
“Well,” he said, “I can’t sit and sew strings on pinafores like you. A man must do something at my age.”
“And what should you do at Oxford? And why do you want to go there when everybody is away?”
“Everybody away! That is all you know. The dons are away, if that is what you mean. There are no lectures going on. But lectures are a mere loss of time. There are lots of fellows up there reading. If you want to read hard, now is the best time.”
“How curious,” said Bee, in genuine surprise, “when all the people who teach are away! And I never knew that you wanted to read hard.”
“No. I never was made to think that I ought to,” said Charlie, with rising colour. “In this house nobody thinks of anything more than just getting through.”
Bee was a little angry as well as surprised by this censure upon the family. She said, “The rest of us may not be clever – but everybody says there are few men that know as much as papa.”
“Oh, in his special subjects, I suppose, but I am not going in for the army, Bee,” said Charlie, the colour rising higher on his young face, which was still an ingenuous face, though not of a very high order. “It is such a wonderful thing to have your duty set before you, and how you ought to make the best of your life. I, for one, never thought of it before. I was always quite satisfied to get through and to have plenty of time to amuse myself; but if you come to think of it that’s a very poor sort of ideal for a life.”
Bee looked up at Charlie with more and more surprise. He was pulling his young moustache nervously, and there was a great deal of emotion in his face. It seemed amazing to his sister that Charlie – Charlie who had always been on the unemotional side, should take this heroic tone, or do anything but laugh at the suggestion of an ideal in life. She gazed at him in some bewilderment. “What are you going to read?” she asked, with doubt and wonder in her voice.
“It is just like a girl to ask a man what he is going to read! Why, everything.I just pushed through my mods., you know – a pass – which it covers me with shame to think of now. I must do something better than that. I don’t know that I’m very good at anything, but work, after all, steady work, is the great thing; and if work can do it – !” cried Charley, breaking off, a little breathless, with a strange light in his eyes.
“You almost frighten me, Charlie. You were never meant for honours or a high degree, were you? Papa said you need not go in for honours, it would lose time; and you thought so, too.”
“I have changed my mind,” said Charlie, nervously. “I thought, like other asses, that in diplomacy you don’t want much; but now I think differently. How are you to understand how to conduct national affairs and all that, and reconcile conflicting claims, and so forth, and settle the real business of the world – ”
“But Charlie, I thought it was languages, and great politeness, and – and even dancing, and that sort of thing, that was wanted in an attach? – ”
“Attach?s,” said the young man, with a gravity which, serious as she also was, almost made Bee laugh, “are the material out of which ambassadors are made. Of course, it takes time – ”
Here Bee burst, without meaning it, into a nervous laugh.
“You are so dreadfully serious about it,” she cried.
“And what should a man be serious about, if not that?” the young man replied.
Here for the moment, in great impatience on his part, and in the call of some little household necessity on hers, the conversation closed; but it was resumed as soon as the brother and sister were together again. The big boys were still at school, the little ones engaged with their lessons, and baby walking up and down in his nurse’s arms, did not interrupt the talk which went on between the elders of the family. And there is nothing with which it is so easy to indoctrinate a girl than enthusiasm about an ideal, whatever that may be, or sympathy in a lofty view of duty such as this, which had dawned, it seemed, upon her brother. Bee took fire, as was so natural. She said to herself, that in the utter downfall of her own life, it would be a fine thing to be able to further his, and kept to the idea of Charlie as ambassador, settling all sorts of difficulties and deciding the fortunes of the world for war or for peace, as easily as if the question had been one of leading a cotillion. How splendid it would be! She thought of herself as an old lady, white-haired, in a cap and shawl – for, in an imagination of twenty, there are few gradations between youth and that pathetic, yet satisfactory ultimate period – seated in a particular corner of a magnificent room at the Embassy, looking on at her brother’s triumph. These sort of reflected successes were the only ones she thought that would ever come to Bee.
“Charlie wishes to go up to Oxford to read. Why does he wish to go up to Oxford to read? And what reading is it necessary to do there?”
“He says, papa, that it is easier to get on when you have all your books about you – and when you can arrange all your way of living for that, instead of the interruptions at home.”
“Oh, there are too many interruptions at home? I should have thought you were quiet enough here. I hope you have not thrown yourself into lawn tennis parties, and tea parties, and that sort of thing – so soon, Bee.”
Her father looked at her with a seriously reproachful air. He had begun to dine out pretty freely, though only in serious houses, and where, he explained, it would be prejudicial to him in his profession not to appear.
The undeserved reproach brought quick tears to Bee’s eyes. “I have thrown myself into no parties,” she said, hastily. “Nobody has been here. What Charlie means is the meal times, and hours for everything, and all the children about. I have often heard you say that you couldn’t work when the children were playing about.”
“My work and Charlie’s are rather different,” Colonel Kingsward said, with a smile.
“Well, papa! but to read for a good degree, so that you may distinguish yourself, must want a great deal of application – ”
“Oh, he wants a good degree, does he? He should have thought of it a little earlier. And what use will that be to him in the Foreign Office? Let him learn French and German – that’s what he has got to do.”
“But even for French and German,” said Bee. “German is dreadfully difficult, and Charlie does not pick up a language easily; and, besides,” she added, “he has nobody to teach him at home – ”
“And who would he have at Oxford? Why, in the Long, even the shopkeepers go away!”
“But that is just the time for good, hard reading,” said Bee, acting on her instructions, “when there are no lectures or anything formal to interrupt you.”
“He means, I suppose, when he can do whatever he likes, and there are no proctors nor gate bills to keep him right.”
“Papa,” said Bee, earnestly, “I don’t think that is at all what Charlie means. I am sure that he has a real desire to get on. He says that he feels he has been wasting his time, and – and not – not responding properly to all you have done for him. He wants to make himself fit for anything that may happen. If you will think, papa,” she added, with the deepest gravity, “what a great deal of study and reading an ambassador must require – ”
“An ambassador!” Colonel Kingsward was not given to laughter, but he laughed now. “He may think himself fortunate if he is anything but an unpaid attach? for the next ten years – which is an office which does not require a great deal of study.”
“But, papa – ”
“Nonsense, Bee. He wants, I suppose, complete freedom, and to amuse himself as he pleases, with no control. I know what it means to stay up at Oxford to read during the Long. Oh, yes. I don’t doubt men who know how to grind, grind, but Charlie is not one of them. Let him stay at home. You are a great deal sharper than he is at languages; you can help him with his German as well as anyone.”
“Oh,” cried Bee, from the bottom of her heart, “not with German, not with German, papa!”
And there came over her a sudden vision of the gardens at the Baths, the murmur of talk in the air, the German officers with their spurs, and one Englishman coming forward among them, an Englishman without spurs, without uniform, so much more distinguished, it had been Bee’s pride to think, in his simplicity, than all these bedizened warriors – and now! A gush of hot tears came to her eyes. There was reason enough for them without Aubrey Leigh, and Colonel Kingsward, whose heart was still tender to every recollection of his wife, did not think of the other memory that thrilled poor Bee’s heart. He walked up and down through the room for a moment saying nothing, and then he paused by her side and put his hand with an unusual caress upon his daughter’s bowed head.
“You are right, you are right,” he said. “I could not ask that of you, Bee.”
Oh! if I had but known! Bee felt not only miserable, but guilty, when her father’s touch came upon her hair. To think how little the dear mother’s presence told in that picture, and how much, how much! that of the man – who had been vulgarly untrue to her, a man without sense of purity or honour! One whose name she never desired to hear again. She could hardly accept the imputation of so much higher and nobler feeling which her father’s touch conveyed. The dear mother! who never condemned, who was always kind. She was moved to cry out in self-abasement, “It was not mamma I was thinking of, it was him! him!” But she did not do this. She raised her head and took up her work again with a trembling hand.
“I suppose,” said Colonel Kingsward, as anxious as his daughter was to get away from a subject which was too moving for discussion, “that Charlie finds Kingswarden dull. It is not unnatural at his age, and I shall not object if he wishes to come to town for a week or so. His own good feeling, I hope, would keep him from anything unbecoming in the circumstances. But I must hear no more of this going to Oxford. It is quite out of the question. If he had shown any desire to go in for honours at the right time – . But now it is worse than folly. He must get through as quickly as he can, and take advantage of his nomination at once. Who can tell how soon it may be of no value? The Foreign Office may be thrown open, like all the rest, to every costermonger in the country, in a year or two, for anything one knows.”
Charlie received this conclusion with disappointment, rapidly turning into rage and rebellion. “I should have thought the most old-fashioned old fogey in the world would have known better,” he cried. “What, prevent a man from reading when he is at the University! Did you ever hear of such a thing, Bee? Why, even a military man, though they are the most obstinate in the world, must know that to be really educated is everything in these days. A week in town! What do I care for a week in town? It is exactly like the man in the Bible who, being asked for bread, gave a stone.”
Bee was greatly impressed by her brother’s anxiety to continue his studies. It filled her with a respect and admiration which up to this time she had never entertained for Charlie, and occupied her mind much with the question how, if her father were obdurate, he might be aided at home in those studies. She remembered suddenly that Mr. Burton’s curate had been spoken of as a great scholar when he came first to the parish. He had taken tremendous honours she had heard. And why might not he be secured as an aid to Charlie in his most laudable ambition? She thought this over a great deal as she moved about her household duties. Bee as a housekeeper was much more anxious than her mother had been for many years. She thought that everything that was done required her personal attention. She had prolonged interviews every morning with the cook, who had been more or less the housekeeper for a long time, and who (with a secret sense of humour) perplexed Bee with technicalities which she would not allow that she did not understand. The girl ordered everything minutely for dinner and lunch and breakfast, and decided what was to be for the nursery as if she knew all about it, and reproved cook gravely when she found that certain alterations had been made in the menu when those meals were served. “I assure you as that is what you ordered, miss,” cook said, with a twinkle in her eye. All this Bee did, not only because of her strong determination to do her duty, but also because preoccupation with all these details was her great salvation from thoughts which, do what she would, claimed her attention more than nursery puddings and the entr?es that pleased papa. But while she pursued these labours there was still time for other thoughts, and she occupied herself very much with this question about Charlie. Why could not Mr. Delaine come to read with him? Mr. Delaine had shown an inclination to flirt with Betty, but Betty was now absent, so that no harm could be done in that direction. She thought it all out during the somewhat gloomy days which Colonel Kingsward spent with his family in the country. It rained all the Sunday, which is a doleful addition to the usual heaviness of a day in which all usual occupations are put away. Colonel Kingsward himself wrote letters, and was very fully occupied on Sunday afternoon, after the Church parade on Sunday morning, which was as vigorously maintained as if the lessening rows of little ones all marshalled for morning service had been a regiment – but he did not like to see Bee doing anything but “reading a book” on Sunday. And it had always been a rule in that well-ordered house that the toys should be put away on Saturday evening, so that the day hung rather heavily, especially when it rained, on the young ones’ heads. Colonel Kingsward did not mean to be a gloomy visitor. He was always kind to his children, and willing to be interested in what they did and said; but, as a matter of fact, those three days were the longest and the most severe of any that passed over the widowed and motherless house. When Bee came downstairs from the Sunday lesson, which she gave in the nursery, she found her brother at the writing-table in the drawing-room, composing what seemed a very long letter. His pen was hurrying over the page; he was at the fourth side of a sheet of large paper – and opened out on the table before him were several sheets of a very long, closely-written letter, to which he was evidently replying. When Bee appeared, Charlie snatched up this letter, and hastily folding it, thrust it into its envelope, which he placed in his breast pocket. He put the blotting paper hastily over the letter which he was himself writing, and the colour mounted to his very forehead as he turned half round. It was not any colour of guilt, but a glow of mingled enthusiasm and shamefacedness, beautiful upon the face of a youth. Bee was too young herself to admire and appreciate this flush of early feeling, but she was so far sympathetic in her own experience, that she divined something at least of what it meant.
“Oh, Charlie!” she said, “you are writing to someone – ”
“Most assuredly, I am writing to someone,” he said, with the half pride, half shame of a young lover.
“Who is she?” cried Bee. “Oh, Charlie, tell me! Oh, tell me! Do I know who it is?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “what you are making such a fuss about. I am writing to – a friend.” He paused a moment, and then said with fervour – “the best friend that ever man had.”
“A friend,” cried Bee, a little disappointed. “But isn’t it a lady?” she asked.
“I hope,” he said, with a haughty air, “that you are not one of those limited people that think there can be no friendship between a man and a woman, for if that’s so I’ve got nothing to say.”
Bee was scarcely philosophical enough to take up this challenge. She looked at him, bewildered, for a moment, and then said, “Oh, tell me about her, Charlie! It would do me good – it would, indeed, to hear about somebody whom there could not be any objection to, who would be, perhaps, happier than me,” cried poor little Bee, the tears coming to her eyes.
“Happier than you? And why shouldn’t you be happy?” said the elder brother. He made an effort to turn away in dignified silence, but the effort was too much for the young man, longing to talk of the new thing in his life. “There is no comparison at all between a little thing like you and – and the lady I was writing to,” he said, holding his head high. “If you think it is any sort of nonsense you are very much mistaken. Why, she – she is as much above me as heaven is from earth. That she should take the trouble to show any interest in me at all, just proves what an angel she is. I, an idle, ordinary sort of fellow, and she! – the sort of woman that one dreams of. Bee, you can’t think what she has done for me already,” Charlie cried, forgetting his first defiance. “I’m another fellow ever since she began to take notice of me.”
Bee stole to her brother’s side and gave him a sympathetic stroke upon his shoulder. “Oh! Charlie! what is her name?”
“You wouldn’t know her name if I were to tell you,” he said. And then, after a moment’s hesitation: “Her name,” he went on, “her real name as I call it, is Laura, like Petrarch’s Laura, don’t you know, Bee? But I don’t suppose you do know.”
“Yes, indeed, I do,” said Bee, eagerly. She added in her turn, “I shouldn’t have thought you would know anything like that.”
“No; I’m not up to it,” said Charlie, with unexpected humility; “but I read it all up as soon as she said it. Don’t you think it’s a beautiful name?”
“Yes,” said Bee, yet not with enthusiasm. “But, oh!” she added, “I hope she is not married, Charlie; for that would not be nice at all.”
“Married!” cried Charlie. “I wish you were not such a horrid little – Philistine. But she is not married, if that is any satisfaction to you.”
“And is she – beautiful, Charlie? and are you very, very fond of her? Oh, Charlie!” Bee clasped his arm in both her hands and sobbed. It made her feel wretched, yet filled her with a delicious tender sense of fellow-feeling. If he would only tell her all! It would be hard upon her, and yet it would be a sort of heavenly pang to hear another, and, oh! surely, this time, a happy love tale. Bee sat down close by him, and clasped his arm, and sometimes leaned her head upon it in the warmth of her tenderness and sympathy. And Charlie was persuaded, by degrees, to speak. But his tale was not like Bee’s. It was a tale of a lady who had stooped as from her throne to the young fellow of no account – the ordinary young man, who could not understand how she had come to think of him at all. It was she who had inspired him with his new ambition, who had made him so anxious to distinguish himself, to make something of his life. She had taken the trouble to write to him, to keep him up to it since he had come “down.” She had promised to let him come to see her when he came “up” again, to inspire him and encourage him. “One look at her is better than a dozen coaches,” Charlie cried, in the fervour of his heart.
“Do you mean that you are going to see her – in town?” asked Bee, doubtfully.
“In town? No. She detests town. It’s all so vain and so hollow, and such a rush. She came to live in Oxford at the beginning of last term,” Charlie said.
“Oh,” said Bee, and she found no more to say. She did not herself understand how it was that a little chill came upon her great sympathy with Charlie and this unknown lady of his – friendship, if not love.
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