Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

“It shall be Measure for Measure.”

The night of the ball came, and, in spite of her aversion for Captain Winstanley, and general dislike of the whole thing, Violet Tempest began the evening by enjoying herself. She was young and energetic, and had an immense reserve of animal spirits after her two years of sadness and mourning. She danced with the partners her friends brought her — some of the most eligible men in the room — and was full of life and gaiety; yet the festival seemed to her in somewise horrible all the time.

“If papa could know that we are dancing and smiling at each other, as if all life was made up of gladness, when he is lying in his cold grave!” thought Vixen, after joining hands with her mother in the ladies’ chain.

The widow looked as if she had never known a care. She was conscious that Worth’s chef-d’oeuvre was not thrown away. She saw herself in the great mirrors which once reflected George and his lovely Fitzherbert in their days of gladness — which reflected the same George later, old, and sick, and weary.

“That French grande dame was right,” thought Mrs. Tempest, “who said, ‘Le noir est si flattant pour les blondes.’”

Black was flattering for Vixen’s auburn hair also. Though her indifferent eye rarely glanced at the mirrored walls, she had never looked lovelier. A tall graceful figure, in billowy black tulle, wreathed with white chrysanthemums; a queen-like head, with a red-gold coronal; a throat like an ivory pillar, spanned with a broad black ribbon, fastened with a diamond clasp; diamond stars in her ears, and a narrow belt of diamonds round each white arm.

“How many waltzes have you kept for me?” Captain Winstanley asked presently, coming up to Vixen.

“I have not kept waltzes for anyone,” she answered indifferently.

“But surely you were under a promise to keep some for me? I asked you a week ago.”

“Did you? I am sure I never promised anything of the kind.”

“Here is only one little shabby waltz left,” said the Captain, looking at her programme. “May I put my name down for that?”

“If you like,” answered Vixen indifferently; and then, with the faintest suspicion of malice, she added, “as mamma does not dance round dances.”

She was standing up for the Lancers presently, and her partner had just led her to her place, when she saw that she had her mother and Captain Winstanley again for her vis-à-vis. She grew suddenly pale, and turned away.

“Will you let me sit this out?” she said. “I feel awfully ill.”

Her partner was full of concern, and carried her off at once to a cooler room.

“It is too bad!” she muttered to herself. “The Lancers! To go romping round with a lot of wild young men and women. It is as bad as the Queen in Hamlet.”

This was the last dance before supper. Vixen went in to the supper-room presently with her attentive partner, who had kept by her side devotedly while the lively scramble to good old English tunes was going on in the dancing-room.

“Are you better?” he asked tenderly, fanning her with her big black fan, painted with violets and white chrysanthemums. “The room is abominably hot.”

“Thanks. I’m quite well now. It was only a momentary faintness. But I rather hate the Lancers, don’t you?”

“Well, I don’t know. I think, sometimes, you know, with a nice partner, they’re good fun. Only one can’t help treading on the ladies’ trains, and they wind themselves round one’s legs like snakes. I’ve seen fellows come awful croppers, and the lady who has done it look so sweetly unconcerned. But if one tears a lace flounce, you know, they look daggers. It’s something too dreadful to feel oneself walking into honiton at ten guineas a yard, and the more one tries to extricate oneself the more harm one does.”

Vixen’s supper was the merest pretence. Her mother sat opposite her, with Captain Winstanley still in attendance. Vixen gave them one scathing look, and then sat like an image of scorn. Her partner could not get a word from her, and when he offered her the fringed end of a cracker bonbon, she positively refused to have anything to do with it.

“Please don’t,” she said. “It’s too inane. I couldn’t possibly pretend to be interested in the motto.”

When she went back to the ball-room Captain Winstanley followed her and claimed his waltz. The band was just striking up the latest love-sick German melody, “Weit von dir!” a strain of drawling tenderness.

“You had better go and secure your supper,” said Vixen coldly.

“I despise all ball-suppers. This one most particularly, if it were to deprive me of my waltz.”

Vixen shrugged her shoulders, and submitted to take those few preliminary steps which are like the strong swimmer’s shiverings on the bank ere he plunges in the stream. And then she was whirling round to the legato strains, “Weit von dir! Weit von dir! Wo ist mein Lebens Lust? — Weit von dir — Weit von dir!

Captain Winstanley’s waltzing was simple perfection. It was not the Liverpool Lurch, or the Scarborough Scramble, the Bermondsey Bounce, or the Whitechapel Wiggle; it was waltzing pure and simple, unaffected, graceful; the waltzing of a man with a musical ear, and an athlete’s mastery of the art of motion. Vixen hated the Captain, but she enjoyed the waltz. They danced till the last bar died away in a tender diminuendo.

“You look pale,” said the Captain, “let us go into the garden.” He brought her cloak and wrapped it round her, and she took his offered arm without a word. It was one of those rare nights in late October, when the wind is not cold. There was hardly the flutter of a leaf in the Pavilion garden. The neighbouring sea made the gentlest music — a melancholy ebb and flow of sound, like the murmuring of some great imprisoned spirit.

In the searching light of day, when its adjacent cab-stands and commonesses are visible, and its gravelled walks are peopled with nursemaids and small children, the Pavilion garden can hardly be called romantic. But by this tender moonlight, in this cool stillness of a placid autumn midnight, even the Pavilion garden had its air of romance and mystery. The various roofs and chimneys stood up against the sky, picturesque as a city of old time. And, after all, this part of Brighton has a peculiar charm which all the rest of Brighton lacks. It speaks of the past, it tells its story of the dead. They were not great or heroic, perhaps, those departed figures, whose ghosts haunt us in the red and yellow rooms, and in the stiff town garden; but they had their histories. They lived, and loved, and suffered; and, being dead so long, come back to us in the softened light of vanished days, and take hold of our fancy with their quaint garments and antique head-gear, their powder, and court-swords, and diamond shoe-buckles, and little loves and little sorrows.

Vixen walked slowly along the shining gravel-path with her black and gold mantle folded round her, looking altogether statuesque and unapproachable. They took one turn in absolute silence, and then Captain Winstanley, who was not inclined to beat about the bush when he had something particular to say, and a good opportunity for saying it, broke the spell.

This was perhaps the first time, in an acquaintance of more than six months, that he had ever found himself alone with Violet Tempest, without hazard of immediate interruption.

“Miss Tempest,” he began, with a firmness of tone that startled her, “I want to know why you are so unkind to me.”

“I hardly know what you mean by unkindness. I hope I have never said anything uncivil?”

“No; but you have let me see very plainly that you dislike me.”

“I am sorry nature has given me an unpleasantly candid disposition.”

Those keen gray eyes of the Captain’s were watching her intently. An angry look shot at her from under the straight dark brows — swift as an arrow.

“You admit then that you do not like me?” he said.

Vixen paused before replying. The position was embarrassing.

“I suppose if I were ladylike and proper, I should protest that I like you immensely; that there is no one in the world, my mother excepted, whom I like better. But I never was particularly proper or polite, Captain Winstanley, and I must confess there are very few people I do like, and ——”

“And I am not one of them,” said the Captain.

“You have finished the sentence for me.”

“That is hard upon me — no, Violet, you can never know how hard. Why should you dislike me? You are the first woman who ever told me so” (flushing with an indignant recollection of all his victories). “I have done nothing to offend you. I have not been obtrusive. I have worshipped at a distance — but the Persian’s homage of the sun is not more reverent ——”

“Oh, pray don’t talk about Persians and the sun,” cried Violet. “I am not worthy that you should be so concerned about my likes and dislikes. Please think of me as an untaught inexperienced girl. Two years ago I was a spoiled child. You don’t know how my dearest father spoiled me. It is no wonder I am rude. Remember this, and forgive me if I am too truthful.”

“You are all that is lovely,” he exclaimed passionately, stung by her scorn and fired by her beauty, almost beside himself as they stood there in the magical moonlight — for once in his life forgetting to calculate every move on life’s chessboard. “You are too lovely for me. From the very first, in Switzerland, when I was so happy —— no, I will not tell you. I will not lay down my heart to be trampled under your feet.”

“Don’t,” cried Violet, transfixing him with the angry fire of her eyes, “for I’m afraid I should trample on it. I am not one of those gentle creatures who go out of their way to avoid treading on worms — or other reptiles.”

“You are as cruel as you are lovely,” he said, “and your cruelty is sweeter than another woman’s kindness. Violet, I laugh at your dislike. Yes, such aversion as that is often the beginning of closest liking. I will not be disheartened. I will not be put off by your scornful candour. What if I were to tell you that you are the only woman I ever loved?”

“Pray do not. It would transform passive dislike into active hatred. I should be sorry for that, because,” looking at him deliberately, with a slow scorn, “I think my mother likes you.”

“She has honoured me with her confidence, and I hope I shall not prove unworthy of the trust. I rarely fail to repay any benefit that is bestowed upon me.”

“October nights are treacherous,” said Vixen, drawing her cloak closer around her. “I think we had better go back to the ball-room.”

She was shivering a little with agitated feeling, in spite of that mantle of scorn in which she had wrapped herself. This was the first man who had ever called her lovely, who had ever talked to her of love with manhood’s strong passion.

The Captain gave her his arm, and they went back to the glare and heat of the yellow dragons and scarlet griffins. Another Lancer scramble was in full progress, to the old-fashioned jigging tunes, but Mrs. Tempest was sitting among the matrons in a corner by an open window.

“Are we ever going home any more, mamma?” inquired Vixen.

“My dear Violet, I have been waiting for you ever so long.”

“Why should you leave so early?” exclaimed Captain Winstanley. “There are half-a-dozen more dances, and you are engaged for them all, I believe, Miss Tempest.”

“Then I will show mercy to my partners by going away,” said Violet. “Are all balls as long as this? We seem to have been here ages; I expect to find my hair gray to-morrow morning.”

“I really think we had better go,” said Mrs. Tempest, in her undecided way.

She was a person who never quite made up her mind about anything, but balanced every question gently, letting somebody else turn the scale for her — her maid, her governess, her daughter; she was always trying to have her own way, but never quite knew what her own way was, and just managed things skillfully enough to prevent other people having theirs.

“If you are determined, I will see you to your carriage, and then the ball is over for me,” said the Captain gallantly.

He offered Mrs. Tempest his arm, and they went put into the vestibule, where the Captain left them for a few minutes, while he went into the porch to hasten the arrival of the carriage.

“Where were you and Captain Winstanley all that time, Violet?” asked Mrs. Tempest.

“In the garden.”

“How imprudent!”

“Indeed, dear mamma, it wasn’t cold.”

“But you were out there so long. What could you find to talk about all that time?”

“We were not talking all the time, only enjoying the cool air and the moonlight.”

“Mrs. Tempest’s carriage!” roared one of the door-keepers, as if it had been his doing that the carriage had appeared so quickly.

Captain Winstanley was ready to hand them to their brougham.

“Come and take a cup of tea to-morrow afternoon, and let as talk over the ball,” said the widow.

“With infinite pleasure.”

“Shall we drop you at your house?”

“A thousand thanks — no — my lodgings are so close, I’ll walk home.”

He went back for his overcoat, and then walked slowly away, without another glance at the crowded ball-room, or the corridors where the ladies who were waiting for their carriages were contriving to improve the time by a good deal of quiet, or even noisy, flirtation. His lodgings were on the Old Steine, close by. But he did not go home immediately. There are times in a man’s life when four walls are to small too hold the bigness of his thoughts. Captain Winstanley paced the Marine Parade for half-an-hour or so before he went home.

Va pour la mère,” he said to himself, at the close of that half hour’s meditations; “she is really very nice, and the position altogether advantageous, perhaps as much as one has the right to expect in the general decadence of things. But, good heavens, how lovely that girl is! She is the first woman who ever looked me in the face and told me she disliked me; the first woman who ever gave me contemptuous looks and scornful words. And yet — for that very reason, perhaps — I——”

The dark brows contracted over the keen eyes, which seemed closer than usual to the hawk nose.

“Look to yourself, my queen, in the time to come,” he said, as he turned his back on the silvery sea and moonlight sky. “You have been hard to me and I will be hard to you. It shall be measure for measure.”

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