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Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science Volume 17, No. 097, January, 1876 online

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mamma to tell her what to do. She was sure she would show her in time
how to prevent that wicked woman from living here, bearing her name,
taking her place: mamma could trust her to take care of her, now that
she could not take care of herself. As she had said to papa, if all
the world, the saints, and God himself deserted hers she, her child,
would not.

She would not tell these thoughts, even to Alick. They were a secret,
sacred between her and mamma, and no one must share them. If, then,
she went with this bird-like, insistent woman, she would talk to her
and not let her think: she and Alick would stand between herself and
mamma's spirit, and then mamma would perhaps leave her again, and go
back to heaven angry with her. No, she would not go, and she lifted up
her eyes to say so.

As she looked up Alick whispered softly, "Come."

Feverish, excited, her brain clouded by her false fancies, Leam did
not recognize his voice. To her it was her mother sighing through the
sunny stillness, bidding her go with them, perhaps to find some method
of hinderance or revenge which she could not devise for herself. They
were clever and knew more than she did; perhaps her mother and the
saints had sent them as her helpers.

It seemed almost an eternity during which these thoughts passed
through her brain, while she stood looking at Mrs. Corfield so
intently that the little woman was obliged to lower her eyes. Not that
Leam saw her. She was thinking, listening, but not seeing, though her
tragic eyes seemed searching Mrs. Corfield's very soul. Then, glancing
upward to the sky, she said with an air of self-surrender, which Alick
understood if his mother did not, "Yes, I will go with you: mamma says
I may."

"It is my belief, Alick," said Mrs. Corfield, when she had left them
to prepare for her visit, "that poor child is going crazy, if she is
not so already. She always was queer, but she is certainly not in her
right mind now. What a shame of Sebastian Dundas to bring her up as he
has done, and now to leave her like this! How glad I am I thought of
having her at Steel's Corner!"

"Yes, mother, it was a good thing. Just like you, though," said Alick
affectionately.

"You must help me with her, Alick," answered his mother. "I have done
what I know I ought to do, but she will be an awful nuisance all the
same. She is so odd and cold and impertinent, one does not know how to
take her."

Alick flushed and turned away his head. "I will take her off your
hands as much as I can," he said in a constrained voice.

"That's my dear boy - do," was his mother's unsuspecting rejoinder as
Leam came down stairs ready to go.

Steel's Corner was a place of unresting intellectual energies. Dr.
Corfield, a man shut up in his laboratory with piles of
extracts, notes, arguments, never used, but always to be used, an
experimentalist deep in many of the toughest problems of chemical
analysis, but neither ambitious nor communicative, was the one
peaceable element in the house. To be sure, Alick would have been both
broader in his aims and more concentrated in his objects had he been
left to himself. As it was, the incessant demands made on him by his
mother kept him too in a state of intellectual nomadism; and no one
could weary of monotony where Mrs. Corfield set the pattern, unless
it was of the monotony of unrest. This perpetual taking up of
new subjects, new occupations, made thoroughness the one thing
unattainable. Mrs. Corfield was a woman who went in for everything.
She was by turns scientific and artistic, a student and a teacher, but
she was too discursive to be accurate, and she was satisfied with a
proficiency far below perfection. In philosophy she was what might be
called a woman of antepenultimates, referring all the more intricate
moral and intellectual phenomena to mind and spirit; but she was
intolerant of any attempt to determine the causation of her favorite
causes, and she derided the modern doctrines of evolution and inherent
force as atheistic because materialistic. The two words meant the same
thing with her; and the more shadowy and unintelligible people made
the _causa causarum_ the more she believed in their knowledge and
their piety. The bitterest quarrel she had ever had was with an old
friend, an unimaginative anatomist, who one day gravely proved to her
that spirits must be mere filmy bags, pear-shaped, if indeed they
had any visual existence at all. Bit by bit he eliminated all the
characteristics and circumstances of the human form on the principle
of the non-survival of the useless and unadaptable. For of what use
are shapes and appliances if you have nothing for them to do? - if you
have no need to walk, to grasp, nor yet to sit? Of what use organs
of sense when you have no brain to which they lead? - when you are
substantially all brain and the result independent of the method?
Hence he abolished by logical and anatomical necessity, as well as the
human form, the human face with eyes, ears, nose and mouth, and by
the inexorable necessities of the case came down to a transparent bag,
pear-shaped, for the better passage of his angels through the air.

"A fulfillment of the old proverb that extremes meet," he said by
way of conclusion. "The beginning of man an ascidian - his ultimate
development as an angel, a pear-shaped, transparent bag."

Mrs. Corfield never forgave her old friend, and even now if any one
began a conversation on the theory of development and evolution she
invariably lost her temper and permitted herself to say rude things.
Her idea of angels and souls in bliss was the good orthodox notion of
men and women with exactly the same features and identity as they had
when in the flesh, but infinitely more beautiful; retaining the Ego,
but the Ego refined and purified out of all trace of human weakness,
all characteristic passions, tempers and proclivities; and the
pear-shaped bag was as far removed from the truth, as she held it, on
the one side as Leam's materialistic conception was on the other. The
character and condition of departed souls was one of the subjects on
which she was very positive and very aggressive, and Leam had a hard
fight of it when her hostess came to discuss her mother's present
personality and whereabouts, and wanted to convince her of her
transformation.

All the same, the little woman was kind-hearted and conscientious, but
she was not always pleasant. She wanted the grace and sweetness known
genetically as womanliness, as do most women who hold the doctrine of
feminine moral supremacy, with base man, tyrant, enemy and inferior,
holding down the superior being by force of brute strength and
responsible for all her faults. And she wanted the smoothness of
manner known as good breeding. Though a gentlewoman by birth, she gave
one the impression of a pert chambermaid matured into a tyrannical
landlady.

But she meant kindly by Leam when she took her from the loneliness of
her father's house, and her very sharpness and prickly spiritualism
were for the child's enduring good. Her attempts, however, to make
Leam regard mamma in heaven as in any wise different from mamma on
earth were utterly abortive. Leam's imagination could not compass the
thaumaturgy tried to be inculcated. Mamma, if mamma at all, was
mamma as she had known her; and if as she had known her, then she was
unhappy and desolate, seeing what a wicked thing this was that papa
had done. She clung to this point as tenaciously as she clung to
her love; and nothing that Mrs. Corfield, or even Alick, could say
weakened by one line her belief in mamma's angry sorrow and the
saints' potent and sometimes peccant humanity.

Among other scientific appliances at Steel's Corner was a small
off-kind of laboratory for Alick and his mother, to prevent their
troubling the doctor and to enable them to help him when necessary: it
was an auxiliary fitted up in what was rightfully the stick-house. The
sticks had had to make way for retorts and crucibles, and as yet no
harm had come of it, though the servants said they lived in terror of
their lives, and the neighbors expected daily to hear that the inmates
of Steel's Corner had been blown into the air. Into this evil-smelling
and unbeautiful place Leam was introduced with infinite reluctance
on her own part. The bad smell made her sick, she said, turning round
disdainfully on Alick, and she did not wonder now at anything he might
say or do if he could bear to live in such a horrid place as this.

When he showed off a few simple experiments to amuse her - made crystal
trees, a shower of snow, a heavy stone out of two empty-looking
bottles, spilt mercury and set her to gather it up again, showed her
prisms, and made her look through a bit of tourmaline, and in every
way conceivable to him strewed the path of learning with flowers - then
she began to feel a little interest in the place and left off making
wry faces at the dirt and the smells.

One day when she was there her eye caught a very small phial with a
few letters like a snake running spirally round it.

"What is that funny little bottle?" she asked, pointing it out. "What
does it say?"

"Poison," said Alick.

"What is poison?" she asked.

"Do you mean what it is? or what it does?" he returned.

"Both. You are stupid," said Leam.

"What it does is to kill people, but I cannot tell you all in a breath
what it is, for it is so many things."

"How does it kill people?" At her question Leam turned suddenly round
on him, her eyes full of a strange light.

"Some poisons kill in one way and some in another," answered Alick.

Leam pondered for a few moments; then she asked, "How much poison is
there in the world?"

"An immense deal," said Alick: "I cannot possibly tell you how much."

"And it all kills?"

"Yes, it all kills, else it is not poison."

"And every one?"

"Yes, every one if enough is taken."

"What is enough?" she asked, still so serious, so intent.

Alick laughed. "That depends on the material," he said. "One grain of
some and twenty of others."

"Don't laugh," said Leam with her Spanish dignity: "I am serious. You
should not laugh when I am serious."

"I did not mean to offend you," faltered Alick humbly. "Will you
forgive me?"

"Yes," said Leam superbly, "if you will not laugh again. Tell me about
poison."

"What can I tell you? I scarcely know what it is you want to hear."

"What is poison?"

"Strychnine, opium, prussic acid, belladonna, aconite - oh, thousands
of things."

"How do they kill?"

"Well, strychnine gives awful pain and convulsions - makes the back
into an arch; opium sends you to sleep; prussic acid stops the action
of the heart; and so on."

"What is that?" asked Leam, pointing to the small phial with its
snake-like spiral label.

"Prussic acid - awfully strong. Two drops of that would kill the
strongest man in a moment."

"In a moment?" asked Learn.

"Yes: he would fall dead directly."

"Would it be painful?"

"No, not at all, I believe."

"Show it me," said Learn.

He took the bottle from the shelf. It was a sixty-minim bottle, quite
full, stoppered and secured.

She held out her hand for it, and he gave it to her. "Two drops!"
mused Leam.

"Yes, two drops," returned Alick.

"How many drops are here?"

"Sixty."

"Is it nasty?"

"No - like very strong bitter almonds or cherry-water; only in excess,"
he said. "Here is some cherry-water. Will you have a little in some
water? It is not nasty, and it will not hurt you."

"No," said Leam with an offended air: "I do not want your horrid
stuff."

"It would not hurt you, and it is really rather nice," returned Alick
apologetically.

"It is horrid," said Learn.

"Well, perhaps you are better without it," Alick answered, quietly
taking the bottle of prussic acid from her hands and replacing it on
the shelf, well barricaded by phials and pots.

"You should not have taken it till I gave it you," said Leam proudly.
"You are rude."

From this time the laboratory had the strangest fascination for Leam.
She was never tired of going there, never tired of asking questions,
all bearing on the subject of poisons, which seemed to have possessed
her. Alick, unsuspecting, glad to teach, glad to see her interest
awakened in anything he did or knew, in his own honest simplicity
utterly unable to imagine that things could turn wrong on such a
matter, told her all she asked and a great deal more; and still Leam's
eyes wandered ever to the shelf where the little phial of thirty
deaths was enclosed within its barricades.

One day while they were there Mrs. Corfield called Alick.

"Wait for me, I shall not be long," he said to Leam, and went out to
his mother.

As he turned Learnm's eyes went again to that small phial of death on
the shelf.

"Take it, Leama! take it, my heart!" she heard her mother whisper.

"Yes, mamma," she said aloud; and leaping like a young panther on the
bench, reached to the shelf and thrust the little bottle in her hair.
She did not know why she took it: she had no motive, no object. It was
mamma who told her - so her unconscious desire translated itself - but
she had no clear understanding why. It was instinct, vague but
powerful, lying at the back of her mind, unknown to herself that it
was there; and all of which she was conscious was a desire to possess
that bottle of poison, and not to let them know here that she had
taken it.

This was on the afternoon of her last day at the Corfields. She was
to go home to-night in preparation for the arrival of her father and
madame to-morrow, and in a few hours she would be away. She did not
want Alick to come back to the laboratory. She was afraid that he
would miss the bottle which she had secured so almost automatically
if so superstitiously: Alick must not come back. She must keep that
bottle. She hurried across the old-time stick-house, locked the door
and took the key with her, then met Alick coming back to finish his
lesson on the crystallization of alum, and said, "I am tired of your
colored doll's jewelry. Come and tell me about flowers," leading the
way to the garden.

Doubt and suspicion were qualities unknown to Alick Corfield. It never
occurred to him that his young queen was playing a part to hide the
truth, befooling him for the better concealment of her misdeeds. He
was only too happy that she condescended to suggest how he should
amuse her; so he went with her into the garden, where she sat on the
rustic chair, and he brought her flowers and told her the names and
the properties as if he had been a professor.

At last Leam sighed. "It is very tiresome," she said wearily. "I
should like to know as much as you do, but half of it is nonsense, and
it makes my head ache to learn. I wish I had my dolls here, and that
you could make them talk as mamma used. Mamma made them talk and go
to sleep, but you are stupid: you can speak only of flowers that
don't feel, and about your silly crystals that go to water if they
are touched. I like my zambomba and my dolls best. They do not go to
water; my zambomba makes a noise, and my dolls can be beaten when they
are naughty."

"But you see I am not a girl," said Alick blushing.

"No," said Leam, "you are only a boy. What a pity!"

"I am sorry if you would like me better as a girl," said Alick.

She looked at him superbly. Then her face changed to something that
was almost affection as she answered in a softer tone, "You would be
better as a girl, of course, but you are good for a boy, and I like
you the best of every one in England now. If only you had been an
Andalusian woman!" she sighed, as, in obedience to Mrs. Corfield's
signal, she got up to prepare for dinner, and then home for her father
and madame to-morrow.


CHAPTER XX.

IN HER MOTHER'S PLACE.


Whatever madame's past life had been - and it had been such as a
handsome woman without money or social status, fond of luxury and to
whom work was abhorrent, with a clear will and very distinct knowledge
of her own desires, clever and destitute of moral principle, finds
made to her hand - whatever ugly bits were hidden behind the veil of
decent pretence which she had worn with such grace during her sojourn
at North Aston, she did honestly mean to do righteously now.

She had deceived the man who had married her in such adoring good
faith - granted; but when he had reconciled himself to as much of the
cheat as he must know, she meant to make him happy - so happy that he
should not regret what he had done. Though she was no marquise, only
plain Madame de Montfort - so far she must confess for policy's sake,
and to forestall discovery by ruder means, but what remained beyond
she must keep secret as the grave, trusting to favorable fortune and
man's honor for her safety - though the story of the fraudulent trustee
was untrue, and she never had more money than the three hundred pounds
brought in her box wherewith to plant her roots in the North Aston
soil - though all the Lionnet bills were yet to be paid, and her
husband must pay them, with awkward friends in London occasionally
turning up to demand substantial sops, else they would show their
teeth unpleasantly, - still, she would get his forgiveness, and she
would make him happy.

And she would be good to Leam. She would be so patient, forbearing,
tender, she would at last force the child to love her. It was a new
luxury to this woman, who had knocked about the world so long and so
disreputably, to feel safe and able to be good. She wondered what it
would be like as time went on - if the rest which she felt now at the
cessation of the struggle and the consciousness of her security would
become monotonous or be always restful. At all events, she knew
that she was happy for the day, and she trusted to her own tact and
management to make the future as fair as the present.

The home-coming was triumphant. Because the rector was inwardly
grieved at the loss of his ewe-lamb - for he had lost her in that
special sense of spiritual proprietorship which had been his - he was
determined to make a demonstration of his joy. He and Mrs. Birkett
meant to stand by Mrs. Dundas as they had stood by Madame la Marquise
de Montfort, and to publish their partisanship broadly. When,
therefore, the travelers returned to North Aston, they found the
rector and his wife waiting to receive them at their own door.
Over the gate was an archway of evergreens with "Welcome!" in white
chrysanthemums, and the posts were wreathed with boughs and ribbons,
but leaving "Virginia Cottage" in its glossy evidence of the new
regime. The drive was bordered all through with flowers from the
rectory garden, and Lionnet too had been ransacked, and the hall was
festooned from end to end with garlands, like a transformation-scene
in a pantomime. One might have thought it the home-coming of a young
earl with his girl-bride, rather than that of a middle-aged widower of
but moderate means with his second wife, one of whose past homes had
been in St. John's Wood, and one of her many names Mrs. Harrington.

But it pleased the good souls who thus displayed their sympathy, and
it gratified those for whom it had all been done; and both husband and
wife expressed their gratitude warmly, and lived up to the occasion in
the emotion of the moment.

When their effusiveness had a little calmed, down, when Mrs. Dundas
had caressed her child - which poor Mrs. Birkett gave up to her with
tears - and Mr. Dundas had also taken it in his arms and called it
"Little Miss Dundas" and "My own little Fina" tenderly - when, the
servants had been spoken to prettily and the bustle had somewhat
subsided, Mrs. Dundas looked round for something missing. "And where
is dear Leam?" she asked with her gracious air and sweet smile.

It was very nice of her to be the first to miss the girl. The father
had forgotten her, friends had overlooked her, but the stepmother, the
traditional oppressor, was thoughtful of her, and wanted to include
her in the love afloat. This little circumstance made a deep
impression on the three witnesses. It was a good omen for Leam, and
promised what indeed her new mother did honestly design to perform.

"Even that little savage must be tamed by such persistent sweetness,"
said Mr. Birkett to his wife, while she, with a kindly half-checked
sigh, true to her central quality of maternity and love of peace all
round, breathed "Poor little Leam!" compassionately.

Leam, however, was no more to the fore at the home-coming than she had
been at the marriage, and much searching went on before she was found.
She was unearthed at last. The gardener had seen her shrink away into
the shrubbery when the carriage-wheels were heard coming up the road,
and he gave information to the cook, by whom the truant was tracked
and brought to her ordeal.

Mrs. Birkett went out by the French window to meet her as she came
slowly up the lawn draped in the deep mourning which for the very
contrariety of love she had made deeper since the marriage, her young
head bent to the earth, her pale face rigid with despair, her heart
full of but one feeling, her brain racked with but one thought, "Mamma
is crying in heaven: mamma must not cry, and this stranger must be
swept from her place."

She did not know how this was to be done; she only knew that it must
be done. She had all along expected the saints to work some miracle
of deliverance for her, and she looked hourly for its coming. She had
prayed to them so passionately that she could not understand why they
had not answered. Still, she trusted them. She had told them she was
angry, and that she thought them cruel for their delay; and in her
heart she believed that they knew they had done wrong, and that the
miracle would be wrought before too late. It was for mamma, not for
herself. Madame must be swept like a snake out of the house, that
mamma might no longer be pained in heaven. Personally, it made no
difference whether she had to see madame at Lionnet or here at home,
but it made all the difference to mamma, and that was all for which
she cared.

Thinking these things, she met Mrs. Birkett midway on the lawn, the
kind soul having come out to speak a soothing word before the poor
child went in, to let her feel that she was sympathized with, not
abandoned by them all. Fond as she was of madame, the new Mrs, Dundas,
and little as she knew of Leam, the facts of the case were enough for
her, and she saw Adelaide and herself in the child's sorrow and poor
Pepita's successor. "My dear," she said affectionately as she met the
girl walking so slowly up the lawn, "I dare say this is a trial to
you, but you must accept it for your good. I know what you must feel,
but it is better for you to have a good kind stepmother, who will be
your friend and instructress, than to be left with no one to guide
you."

Leam's sad face lifted itself up to the speaker. "It cannot be good
for me if it is against mamma," she said.

"But, Leam, dear child, be reasonable. Your mamma, poor dear! is dead,
and, let us trust, in heaven." The good soul's conscience pricked her
when she said this glib formula, of which in this present instance
she believed nothing. "Your father has the most perfect right to marry
again. Neither the Church nor the Bible forbids it; and you cannot
expect him to remain single all his life - when he needs a wife so
much, too, on your account - because he was married to your dear mamma
when she was alive. Besides, she has done with this life and all the
things of the earth by now; and even if she has not, she will be happy
to see you, her dear child, well cared for and kindly mothered."

Leam raised her eyes with sorrowful skepticism, melancholy contempt.
It was the old note of war, and she responded to it. "I know mamma,"
she said; "I know what she is feeling."

She would have none of their spiritual thaumaturgy - none of that
unreal kind of transformation with which they had tried to modify
their first teaching. There was no satisfaction in imagining mamma
something different from her former self - no more the real, fervid,
passionate, jealous Pepita than those pear-shaped transparent bags,
so logically constructed by Mrs. Corfield's philosopher, are like the
ideal angels of loving fancy. If mamma saw and knew what was going
on here at this present moment - and Mrs. Birkett was not the bold
questioner to doubt this continuance of interest - she felt as she
would have felt when alive, and she would be angry, jealous, weeping,
unhappy.

Mrs. Birkett was puzzled what to say for the best to this
uncomfortable fanatic, this unreasonable literalist. When believers
have to formularize in set words their hazy notions of the feelings


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Online LibraryVariousLippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science Volume 17, No. 097, January, 1876 → online text (page 14 of 20)