Margaret Oliphant.

The Sorceress. Volume 2 of 3





CHAPTER XIII

Colonel Kingsward, however, could not be moved either by Bees representations or by anything said by his son to grant to Charlie the permission, and the funds necessary, to pursue his studies in Oxford by going up to read in the Long. It was indeed very little that Charlie said to his father on the subject. He responded somewhat sullenly to the Colonels questions.

So I hear you want to go back to Oxford to read?

Yes, said the young man.

You have generally found before this that by the end of the term you had had too much reading.

No reply.

I suppose you want to be free of supervision and do exactly what you please. And you find it dull at home?

I have never said so, said Charlie.

You ought to feel that in the circumstances it was appropriate that it should be dull. Good heavens! Were you contemplating amusing yourself, rioting with your comrades, when your poor mother

I have never thought of rioting with comrades, said Charlie, with averted head.

One knows what that means going up to read in the Long: boats and billiards and hotels, bands of young men in flannels lounging about, and every decorum thrown to the winds.

The Colonel looked severely at his son, who stood before him turning over the pages of a book in his hand, with lowering brows and closed mouth.

You think I dont know, he said, sharply; but you are mistaken. What would have been best for you would have been the discipline of a regiment. I always thought so, but at least Im not going to permit every decent bond to be broken through.

I think, sir, said Charlie, that its enough to say No, without accusing me of things I never thought of.

I am the best judge of what is enough, said the angry father. If you want a week or so in town, I dont object; but Oxford in the Long No. I only hope, he added severely, that theres no woman in the case.

Charlies countenance flushed crimson. He gave his father a furious glance. If thats all, he said, I may now go, perhaps?

Yes, go, said the Colonel, angrily. He was himself sorry for that last insinuation as soon as his son had left the room. His angry suspiciousness had carried him too far. Not that he blamed himself for the suspicion, but he was aware that to speak of it was a false step and could do no good. If there was a woman in the case, that flying dart would not move the young man to penitence or turn him from any dangerous way. Colonel Kingsward, however, quickly forgave himself for this inadvertence, and reflected with satisfaction that, at least, he had prevented the young fool from making an ass of himself for this summer. And in such cases absence is the best remedy and hinders much mischief. Charlie rejected with indignation the week in town which his father offered. A week in town! he said to Bee, contemptuously, to waste my time and debase all my ideas! What does he think I want with a week in town? Thats the way a fellows father encourages him to do the best he can.

Cuts off all inspiration, and throws one on the dregs of life! Its enough to make a man kick over the traces altogether.

But, Charlie, said Bee, with timidity, dont you think its very, very quiet here. We have nothing to disturb us. If you were to try to do your work at home? you would have the library to sit in all the week while papa is in town.

Out of reach of books, out of reach of any coach its like telling a mason to build a wall without any stone.

The library is full of books, said Bee, with a little indignation.

What kind of books? Military books, and travels, and things for reference old peerages, and so forth and some of the heavy old reviews, and a few novels. Much good a man who is going in for real reading would get out of those!

But you have your own books all those that you carry about with you, Charlie.

Oh! he said, with impatience, What are they? Horrible cribs and things, that I promised not to use any more.

Does Laura, said Bee, with a little awe, say you are not to use cribs?

And as for the quiet, said Charlie, continuing his strain of complaint, if you call that quiet! When you never know that next moment there may not be a rush down the nursery stairs like wild horses let loose, and shrieks all over the house for Bee or for nurse, sending every idea out of a mans head; or else baby screaming fit to bring down the house. You know nothing about it, to be sure; it is like talking to the wind to talk to a little thing like you. A man cant work unless hes in the right place for working. If any difficulty arises in a passage, for instance, what do you think I am to do here?

Do you go to Laura, when there is a difficulty about a passage, Charlie?

No, you little fool! With a flush of anger and shame he begged her pardon next minute. But it is so hard to explain things to you, Bee. You are so ignorant naturally, for, of course, you never were taught anything. Dont you know that Oxford is full of coaches? he said.

That was just what I was thinking of, Charlie if you will not be angry, but let me speak.

Speak away, he said. This was on Monday, after Colonel Kingsward had left. The days which he spent at Kingswarden were the heaviest, as has been said, to the young party; nevertheless when he went away the blank of that long world of a week, without any communication to speak of from without, closed down alarmingly upon the elders of the family. Even when papa was cross, when he was dissatisfied with his dinner or found fault with the noise of the children, it was more or less an event. But when he departed there was a sense of being cut off from all events, separated from the world altogether, shut out from the news and the hum of society, which was very blank and deadening. Bee and Charlie dined alone, and it was dreary; they spent the evening together, or else one in the library, one in the garden, where the beauty of the summer evening was terrible to the one poor little girl with her recollections, incapable of shutting them out in that utter stillness, and trying very ineffectually not to be unhappy. When Charlie threw open the window of the library and strolled forth to join her, as he generally did, it was a little better. Bee had just done very conscientiously all her duties in the nursery had heard the children say their prayers, in which they still, with a little pause of awe, prayed God to bless dear mother and had made all the valorous little efforts she could to keep down the climbing sorrow. When she heard the sound of the library window she quickly dried her eyes and contrived to smile. And she was a very good listener. She suffered Charlie to talk about himself as much as he pleased, and was interested in all he said. She made those little allusions to Laura which pleased him, though he generally answered with a scornful word, as who should say that a little thing like you was incapable of comprehending that lady. But this was the sole diversion of these young people in the evening. People called in the afternoon, and there was occasionally a game of tennis. But in the evening they were almost invariably alone.

They were strolling about the garden on this occasion when the young man bewailed himself. Bee, though she made those allusions to Laura, had never got over that little chill in respect to her which had arisen in the most capricious, causeless way when she knew that Laura lived in Oxford. Nothing could be more unreasonable, but yet it was so. It suggested something fictitious in her brothers eagerness to get back, and in his supposed devotion to his work. Had his Egeria been anywhere else Bee would not have felt this; but she did feel it, though she could not tell why. She was very anxious to please him, to content him, if possible, with his present life, to make her sympathy sweet to him, seeing that he had nobody but herself to console him, and must be separated from Laura until October. Poor Charlie! It was hard indeed that this should be the case, that he should have so dull a home and no companion but his sister. But it could not be helped; his sister, at least, must do what she could.

You must not be angry, said Bee, very humbly. It is only an idea that has come into my head there may be nothing at all in it but dont please shut me up as you do sometimes hear me out. Charlie! there is Mr. Delaine.

Mister what? said Charlie, which indeed did not show a very complaisant frame of mind but a curate in the country is of less importance in the horizon of the son of a house who is at Oxford than he is in that of the daughter at home.

Mr. Delaine, repeated Bee. You dont remember him, perhaps, at all. He is the curate. When he came first he was said to be a great scholar. He took a first class. You need not say, pooh! Everybody said so, and it is quite true.

A first in theology, I suppose, said Charlie, disdainfully.

No, not that thats not what people call a first. Mr. Burton, I have always heard, is a good scholar himself, and he said a first; of course you know better than I do what that means.

Well, said Charlie, and supposing for the sake of argument that he took a first what then?

Why, Charlie dear! He is an Oxford man too; he must know all the things you want to know difficult passages and all that. Dont you think, perhaps

Oh, a coach! cried Charlie. Then he paused, and with withering satire, added No doubt, for little boys your curate might do very well, Bee.

He is not my curate, said Bee, with indignation; but I have always heard he was a great scholar. I thought that was what you wanted.

It is not to be expected, said her brother, loftily, that you should know what I want. It is not a coach that is everything. If that were all, there need be no such things as universities. What a man needs is the whole machinery, the ways of thinking, the arrangements, the very atmosphere.

He strolled along the walk with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders up to his ears.

I do not think it is possible, he added, turning to her with a softened tone, that I could make you understand; for it is so different from anything you have ever known.

I hope I am not so dreadfully stupid! said Bee, incensed. If Laura understands, why should it be so impossible for me?

Oh, for goodness sake talk of things you can know something about; as if there was any comparison between her and you.

I think you are very uncivil, said Bee, ready to weep. I may not be clever, but yet I am your sister, and it is only because I wanted to help you that I took the trouble to speak at all.

You are very well meaning, Bee, I am sure, said Charlie, with condescension; I do full justice to your good intentions. Another fellow might think you wanted to have Delaine here for yourself.

Me! cried Bee, with a wild pang of injured feeling and a sense of the injustice, and inappropriateness, the cruel wrong of such a suggestion. And that Charlie could speak like that who knew everything! It was almost more than she could bear.

But I dont say that, he went on in his lofty tones. I know you mean well. It is only that you dont that you cant understand. How should she? he said to himself with amusing superiority, and a nod of his head as if agreeing to the impossibility. Bee resented the tone, the assumption, the comparison that was implied in every word.

I wonder, she cried, if you ever tell Laura that she doesnt and cant understand?

He stopped short opposite to her, and grasped her arm. Bee, he said almost solemnly, Dont! If you knew her you would know what folly it is and presumption to compare yourself for one moment! and do me the favour not to profane that name, as if it were only a girls name like your own.

Is she a princess, then? cried Bee, or an angel? Or what is she?

She is both, I think, said Charlie, in a voice full of awe, at least to me. I wish you wouldnt talk of her in that way. I am sorry I ever told you her name. And please just let my affairs alone. You havent been able to do anything for me with my father, which is the only thing you might have done and I dont want to discuss other things with you. So please just let my concerns alone from this day.

It was not I that ever wished to interfere! cried Bee, with great mortification and resentment, and after a few minutes silent walk together in much gloom and stateliness the brother and sister bade each other an offended and angry good-night.

CHAPTER XIV

This made, however, but a very temporary breach between Bee and her brother. They were a little stiff next morning at breakfast, and elaborately refrained from talking on any but the most trivial things, but by noon this reserve had broken down, and in the evening, though Bee proudly refrained from any reference to Laura, they were as confidential as ever. Bees mind had passed through various vicissitudes in respect to the object of Charlies adoration. Her first overwhelming interest had given way to a little doubt, and this was naturally strengthened by the overweaning estimate of the unknown which Charlie thrust upon her. A girl is very willing to admire at second-hand her brothers love, but when she is told that it is presumption to compare herself with that divinity, her sympathy is strained too far. Bee began to have an uneasy feeling about this unknown Laura. It was one thing to stimulate Charlie to work, to stir up all that was best in him, to urge him to distinguish himself, for Charlies sake or for their joint sakes, if they married and became one which was the only thing that could happen in Bees idea but it was quite another thing to pretend an enthusiasm for this in order that Charlie should be kept within her reach and at her feet during that quiet time of the long vacation. Bee knew enough to know that severe work is not compatible with much love-making. She imagined her brother strolling away from his books to take Laura out on the river, or lie at her feet in the garden, which had become the habit of his life, as he betrayed to her accidentally. Bee thought, with a little indignation, that the lofty intentions which would probably end in these proceedings were of the nature of false pretences, and that the girl whom Charlie endowed with the most superlative qualities should not attempt to take him from his home for such reason; or, at least, if she did should do it frankly for loves sake which was always a thing to be forgiven and not on any fictitious pretence.

For Charlie, being refused that heroic way of working, going up to read, did not read at all, as was apparent to his sisters keen eyes. He did not attempt to do the best he could, being prevented from doing what he desired. He settled himself, it is true, in the library after breakfast, with his books, as if with the intention of working, but before Bee got through the little lesson which she gave every morning to the little ones, Charlie was out strolling about the garden, or lying on the grass in the shade with a book, which was usually a novel, or one which lay closed by his side while he abandoned himself to thought to thought, not about his books it was to be feared, for Bee, with tremors of sympathy in her heart, recognised too well the dreamy look, the drooped eyelids, the air astray from anything going on around. From questions of study, as far as Bee had perceived in her short experience, the merest footstep on a path, the dropping of a leaf, was enough to rouse the student. Charlies thoughts were of a far more absorbing kind.

Colonel Kingsward suggested once more the week in town, when he came on another Saturday evening to Kingswarden. He was a man not very open to a perception of the wants of others, but as time went on, and he himself became more and more sensible of the ameliorating influences of society and occupation, the stagnant atmosphere at home, where his two elder children were vegetating, so much against all their previous habits, struck him with a sensation which he could not wholly get the better of. It was only right that Bee, at least, should remain in the country and in retirement the first summer after her mothers death. It would have been most unbecoming had she been in town seeing people, and necessarily, more or less, been seen by the world. But yet he felt the stillness close round him like a sensible chill, and was aware of the great quiet aggravated by his own presence, though of this he was scarcely aware as if it had been a blight in the air. It made him angry for the moment. In other times his house in the country had always been refreshing and delightful to him. Now, the air, notwithstanding that it was full summer, chilled him to the bone.

When you are escaping from the atmosphere of grief, anything that draws you back to it feels like an injury. He was very cross, very impatient with the silence at table, the subdued looks of the young people, and that they had nothing to say. Was it not worse for him than for them? He was the one who had lost the most, and to whom all ministrations were due, to soften the smart of sorrow. But afterwards his thoughts towards his children softened. It was very dull for them. On the Sunday evening he took the trouble to press that week in town upon Charlie. Theres a spare closet you can have at my rooms at the office, he said. Its very central if not much else, and I daresay your friends will ask you out quietly as they do me. I think even you might bring up Bee for the day to see the pictures. She could stay the night with the Hammonds and see Betty.

Oh, dont think of me, papa, cried Bee. I would rather, far rather, stay at home. I dont care for the pictures this year.

That is foolish, my dear, said the Colonel. There is nothing in the least unbecoming to your mourning in going there. Indeed, I wish you to go. You ought not to miss the pictures, and it will be a little change. Of course, I cannot go with you myself, but Charlie will take you, and you can go to Portman Square to sleep. You will see Betty, who must be thinking of coming home about now; indeed, it is quite necessary you should settle that with her. She cant stay there all the season, and it is rather heartless leaving you like this alone.

Oh, no, papa. It is I that wish her to stay. She would have come back long ago but for me.

Bees generous assumption of the blame, if there was any blame, excited her fathers suspicion rather than admiration. He looked at her somewhat severely. I cannot conceive what object you can have in preferring to be alone, he said. It is either morbid, or In either case it makes it more desirable that Betty should come back. You can arrange that. We will say Wednesday. I suppose you will not be nervous about returning home alone?

But, papa

I consider the question settled, Bee, said Colonel Kingsward, and after that there was nothing more to be said.

Poor Bee wept many tears over this compulsory first step back into the world without her mother, without She did not mean (as she said in her inmost thoughts) anyone else; but it made the whole world vacant around her to think that neither on one side nor the other was there anyone to walk by her side, to take her hand, to make her feel that she was not alone. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, in the morning, this was the first thought that came into her mind, with a faint expansion of her young being. The change, though it was not joyful, was still something; and when she set out with Charlie on Wednesday morning her heart, in spite of herself, rose a little. To see the pictures! The pictures are not generally very exciting, and there was not, as it happened, a sensation in any one of them in this particular year, even had Bee been capable of it, which she was not. But yet she had a sensation, and one of the most startling description. As she was going languidly along, looking at one picture after another, mechanically referring to the catalogue, which conveyed very little idea to her mind, her attention was suddenly attracted by a lady standing in front of one of the chief pictures of the year. She was talking with great animation to some friends who surrounded her, pointing out the qualities and excellencies (or non-excellencies, for Bee was not near enough to hear) of the picture. She was picturesquely dressed in black, a tall and commanding figure, with a great deal of lace about her, and a fine profile, clearly cut and impressive. Bees whole attention was called to her as by a charm. Where had she seen her before? She seemed acquainted with every detail of her figure, and penetrated by a vague reminiscence as of someone who had been of personal importance to herself, though she could not tell when or how. Who is she? Oh, who is she? Bee asked herself. She was very handsome indeed Bee thought her a beautiful woman; not young, which is a thing always noted with a certain pain and compassion by a young girl but full of grace and interest. While Bee gazed, open-eyed, forgetful of herself a young figure, very interesting, too, to behold, in her deep mourning, and with the complete forgetfulness of herself involved in that wistful, inquiring, and admiring gaze the lady turned round, presenting her full face to the girls troubled vision. Bee felt her breath come short, her heart beat. She fell back hurriedly upon a vacant place on one of the benches which someone had charitably left empty. Bee did not know who the woman was, nor what possible connections she could have with her own fate, and yet there was a conviction in the girls heart that she had to do with it, that somehow or other her life was in this womans hands. It was the lady whom she had met that autumn morning last year in the firwoods round the Baths, where Bee had gone to finish her sketch the lady who had appeared suddenly from among the trees, who had sat down by her, and pointed out the errors in the little picture, and advised her how to put them right. The black lace which was so conspicuous in the strangers dress, seemed to sweep over Bee as she passed, with the same faint, penetrating odour, the same thrill of unaccountable sensation. Bee could not take her eyes from this figure as it moved slowly along, pausing here and there with the air of a connoisseur. Who was she? Who was she? Bee turned as she turned, following her with her eyes.





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