Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

Captain Winstanley.

Two years later, and Vixen was sitting with the same faithful Argus nestling beside her, by the fireside of a spacious Brighton drawing-room, a large, lofty, commonplace room, with tall windows facing seawards. Miss McCroke was there too, standing at one of the windows taking up a dropped stitch in her knitting, while Mrs. Tempest walked slowly up and down the expanse of Brussels carpet, stopping now and then at a window to look idly out at the red sunset beyond the low-lying roofs and spars of Shoreham. Those two years had changed Violet Tempest from a slender girl to a nobly-formed woman; a woman whom a sculptor would have worshipped as his dream of perfection, whom a painter would have reverenced for her glow and splendour of colouring; but about whose beauty the common run of mankind, and more especially womankind, had not quite made up their minds. The pretty little women with eighteen-inch waists opined that Miss Tempest was too big.

“She’s very handsome, you know, and all that,” they said deprecatingly, “and her figure is quite splendid; but she’s on such a very large scale. She ought to be painted in fresco, you know, on a high cornice. As Autumn, or Plenty, or Ceres, or something of that kind, carrying a cornucopia. But in a drawing-room she looks so very massive.”

The amber-haired women — palpably indebted to auricomous fluids for the colour of their tresses — objected to the dark burnished gold of Violet Tempest’s hair. There was too much red in the gold, they said, and a colour so obviously natural was very unfashionable. That cream-white skin of hers, too, found objectors, on the score of a slight powdering of freckles; spots which the kindly sun leaves on the fruit he best loves. In fact, there were many reservations made by Miss Tempest’s pretended admirers when they summed up her good looks; but when she rode her pretty bay horse along the King’s Road, strangers turned to look at her admiringly; when she entered a crowded room she threw all paler beauties in the shade. The cabbage-rose is a vulgar flower perhaps, but she is queen of the garden notwithstanding.

Lest it should be supposed, after this, that Vixen was a giantess, it may be as well to state that her height was five feet six, her waist twenty-two inches at most, her shoulders broad but finely sloping, her arms full and somewhat muscular, her hands not small, but exquisitely tapering, her foot long and narrow, her instep arched like an Arab’s, and all her movements instinct with an untutored grace and dignity. She held her head higher than is common to women, and on that score was found guilty of pride.

“I think we ought to go back before Christmas, Violet,” said Mrs. Tempest, continuing a discussion that had been dragging itself slowly along for the last half-hour.

“I am ready, mamma,” answered Vixen submissively. “It will break our hearts afresh when we go home, but I suppose we must go home some day.”

“But you would like to see the dear old house again, surely, Violet?”

“Like to see the frame without the picture? No, no, no, mamma. The frame was very dear while the picture was in it — but — yes,” cried Vixen passionately, “I should like to go back. I should like to see papa’s grave, and carry fresh flowers there every day. It has been too much neglected.”

“Neglected, Violet! How can you say such thing? When Manotti’s bill for the monument was over nine hundred pounds.”

“Oh, mamma, there is more love in a bunch of primroses that my own hand gathers and carries to the grave than in all the marble or granite in Westminster Abbey.”

“My dear, for poor people wild flowers are very nice, and show good feeling — but the rich must have monuments. There could be nothing too splendid for your dear papa,” added the widow tearfully.

She was always tearful when she spoke of her dear Edward, even now; though she was beginning to find that life had some savour without him.

“No,” said Vixen, “but I think papa will like the flowers best.”

“Then if all is well, Miss McCroke,” pursued Mrs. Tempest, “we will go back at the end of November. It would be a pity to lose the season here.”

Vixen yawned despondently.

“What do we care about the season, mamma?” she exclaimed. “Can it matter to us whether there are two or three thousand extra people in the place? It only makes the King’s Road a little more uncomfortable.”

“My dear Violet, at your age gaiety is good for you,” said Mrs. Tempest.

“Yes, and, like most other things that are good, it’s very disagreeable,” retorted Vixen.

“And now, about this ball,” pursued Mrs. Tempest, taking up a dropped stitch in the previous argument; “I really think we ought to go, if it were only on Violet’s account. Don’t you, Maria?”

Mrs. Tempest always called her governess Maria when she was anxious to conciliate her.

“Violet is old enough to enter society, certainly,” said Miss McCroke, with some deliberation; “but whether a public ball ——”

“If it’s on my account, mamma, pray don’t think of going,” protested Vixen earnestly. “I hate the idea of a ball — I hate ——”

“Captain Winstanley,” announced Forbes, in the dusky end of the drawing-room by the door.

“He has saved me the trouble of finishing my sentence,” muttered Vixen.

The visitor came smiling though the dusk into the friendly glow of the fire. He shook hands with Mrs. Tempest with the air of an old friend, went over to the window to shake hands with Miss McCroke, and then came back to Vixen, who gave him a limp cold hand, with an indifference that was almost insolent, while Argus lifted his head an inch or so from the carpet and saluted him with a suppressed growl. Whether this arose from a wise instinct in the animal, or from a knowledge that his mistress disliked the gentleman, would be too nice a point to decide.

“I was that moment thinking of you, Captain Winstanley,” said the widow.

“An honour and a happiness for me,” murmured the Captain.

Mrs. Tempest seated herself in her own particular chair, beside which was her own particular table with one of those pretty tea-services which were her chief delight — a miniature silver tea-kettle with a spirit-lamp, a cosy little ball-shaped teapot, cups and saucers of old Battersea.

“You’ll take a cup of tea?” she said insinuatingly.

“I shall be delighted. I feel as if I ought to go home and write verses or smart paragraphs for the society papers after drinking your tea, it is so inspiring. Addison ought to have drunk just such tea before writing one of his Spectators, but unfortunately his muse required old port.”

“If the Spectator came out nowadays I’m afraid we should think it stupid.” suggested Mrs. Tempest.

“Simply because the slipshod writers of the present day have spoiled our taste for fine English,” interjected Miss McCroke severely.

“Well, I fear we should find Addison a little thin,” said Captain Winstanley; “I can’t imagine London society existing for a week on such literary pabulum as ‘The Vision of Mirza.’ We want something stronger than that. A little scandal about our neighbours, a racy article on field sports, some sharpish hits at the City, a libel or two upon men we know, a social article sailing very near the wind, and one of Addison’s papers on cherry-coloured hoods, or breast-knots, patches or powder, thrown in by the way of padding. Our dear Joseph is too purely literary for the present age.”

“What monsters newspapers have grown,” remarked Mrs. Tempest. “It’s almost impossible to get through them.”

“Not if you read anything else,” answered the captain. “The majority do not.”

“We were talking about the ball just as you came in,” said Mrs. Tempest. “I really think Vixen ought to go.”

“I am sure she ought,” said the Captain.

Vixen sat looking at the fire and patting Argus. She did not favour the Captain with so much as a glance; and yet he was a man upon whom the eyes of women were apt to dwell favourably. He was not essentially handsome. The most attractive men rarely are. He was tall and thin, with a waist as small as a woman’s, small hands, small feet — a general delicacy of mould that was accounted thoroughbred. He had a long nose, a darkly-pale complexion, keen gray eyes under dark brows, dark hair, cropped close to his small head; thin lips, white teeth, a neat black moustache, and a strictly military appearance, though he had sold out of a line regiment three years ago, and was now a gentleman at large, doing nothing, and living in a gentleman-like manner on a very small income. He was not in debt, and was altogether respectable. Nothing could be said against him, unless it were some dark hint of a gambling transaction at a fast and furious club, some vague whisper about the mysterious appearance of a king at écarté— the kind of a rumour which is apt to pursue a man who, like Bulwer’s Dudley Smooth, does not cheat but always wins.

Despite those vague slanders, which are generally baseless — the mere expression of society’s floating malice, the scum of ill-nature on the ocean of talk — Captain Winstanley was a universal favourite. He went everywhere, and was liked wherever he went. He was gifted with that adaptability and hardiness which is, of all cleverness, most valuable in polite society. Of him, as of Goldsmith, it might be said that he touched nothing he did not adorn. True, that the things he touched were for the most part small things, but they were things that kept him before the eye of society, and found favour in that eye.

He was a good horseman, a good oarsman, a good swimmer, a good cricketer. He played and sang; he was a first-rate amateur actor; he was great at billiards and all games of skill; he could talk any language society wanted him to talk — society not requiring a man to excel in Coptic or Chinese, or calling upon him suddenly for Japanese or Persian; he dressed with perfect taste, and without the slightest pretence of dandyism; he could write a first-rate letter, and caricature his dearest friends of last year in pen and ink for the entertainment of his dearest friends of this year; he was known to have contributed occasionally to fashionable periodicals, and was supposed to have a reserve of wit and satire which would quite have annihilated the hack writers of the day had he cared to devote himself to literature.

Mrs. Tempest and her daughter had met the Captain early in the previous spring among the Swiss mountains. He knew some of Mrs. Tempest’s Hampshire friends, and with no other credentials had contrived to win her friendship. Vixen took it into her obstinate young head to detest him. But then, Vixen, at seventeen and a half, was full of ridiculous dislikes and irrational caprices. Mrs. Tempest, in her lonely and somewhat depressed condition, considered the Captain a particularly useful acquaintance. Miss McCroke was dubious, but finding any expression of her doubts ungraciously received, took the safer line of silence.

The ball in question was a charity ball at the Pavilion, a perfectly unobjectionable ball. The list of patronesses bristled with noble names. There was nothing to be said against Vixen’s appearance there, except Miss McCroke’s objection that Squire Tempest’s daughter and heiress ought not to make her début in society at any public ball whatever; ought, in a manner, hardly to be seen by the human eye as a grown-up young lady, until she had been presented to her gracious sovereign. But Mrs. Tempest had set her heart upon Vixen’s going to the ball; or, in other words, she had set her heart upon going herself. On her way through Paris, in September, she had gone to Worth’s — out of curiosity, just to see what the great man’s salons were like — and there she had been tempted into the purchase of an artistic arrangement in black silk and jet, velvet and passementerie. She did not require the costume, but the thing in itself was so beautiful that she could not help buying it. And having spent a hundred guineas on this masterpiece, there arose in her mind a natural craving to exhibit it; to feel that she was being pointed out as one of the best-dressed women in the crowded room; to know that women were whispering to each other significantly, “Worth,” as the nocturn in velvet and silk and glimmering jet swept by them.

There was a good deal more discussion, and it was ultimately settled that Vixen should go to the ball. She had no positive objection. She would have liked the idea of the ball well enough perhaps, if it had not been for Captain Winstanley. It was his advocacy that made the subject odious.

“How very rudely you behaved to Captain Winstanley, Violet,” said Mrs. Tempest, when her visitor had departed.

“Did I, mamma?” inquired Vixen listlessly. “I thought I was extraordinarily civil. If you knew how I should have liked to behave to him, you would think so too.”

“I can not imagine why you are so prejudiced against him,” pursued Mrs. Tempest fretfully.

“It is not prejudice, mamma, but instinct, like Argus’s. That man is destined to do us some great wrong, if we do not escape out of his clutches.”

“It is shameful of you to say such things,” cried the widow, pale with anger. “What have you to say against him? What fault can you find with him? You cannot deny that he is most gentlemanlike.”

“No, mamma; he is a little too gentlemanlike. He makes a trade of his gentlemanliness. He is too highly polished for me.”

“You prefer a rough young fellow, like Roderick Vawdrey, who talks slang, and smells of the stables.”

“I prefer anyone who is good and true,” retorted Vixen. “Roderick is a man, and not to be named in the same breath with your fine gentleman.”

“I admit that the comparison would be vastly to his disadvantage,” said the widow. “But it’s time to dress for dinner.”

“And we are to dine with the Mortimers,” yawned Vixen. “What a bore!”

This young lady had not that natural bent for society which is symptomatic of her age. The wound that pierced her young heart two years ago had not healed so completely that she could find pleasure in inane conversation across a primeval forest of sixpenny ferns, and the factitious liveliness of a fashionable dinner-table.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31