Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 13

“He belongs to the Tame–Cat Species.”

Life went on smoothly enough at the Abbey House after that evening. Violet tried to make herself happy among the surroundings of her childhood, petted the horses, drove her basket-carriage with the favourite old pony, went among the villagers, rode her thoroughbred bay for long wild explorations of the Forest and neighbouring country, looked with longing eyes, sometimes, at the merry groups riding to the meet, and went her lonely way with a heavy heart. No more hunting for her. She could not hunt alone, and she had declined all friendly offers of escort. It would have seemed a treason against her beloved dead to ride across country by anyone else’s side.

Everyone had called at the Abbey House and welcomed Mrs. Tempest and her daughter back to Hampshire. They had been asked to five-o’clock at Ellangowan Park, to see the marvellous orchid. They had been invited to half-a-dozen dinner-parties.

Violet tried her utmost to persuade her mother that it was much too soon after her father’s death to think of visiting.

“My dear Violet,” cried the widow, “after going to that ball at Brighton, we could not possibly decline invitations here. It would be an insult to our friends. If we had not gone to the ball ——”

“We ought not to have gone,” exclaimed Vixen.

“My love, you should have said so at the time.”

“Mamma, you know I was strongly against it.”

Mrs. Tempest shrugged her shoulders as who should say, “This is too much!”

“I know your dress cost a small fortune, and that you danced every waltz, Violet,” she answered, “that is about all I do know.”

“Very well, mamma, let us accept all the invitations. Let us be as merry as grigs. Perhaps it will make papa more comfortable in Paradise to know how happy we are without him. He won’t be troubled by any uneasy thoughts about our grief, at all events,” added Vixen, with a stifled sob.

“How irreverently you talk. Mr. Scobel would be dreadfully shocked to hear you.” said Mrs. Tempest.

The invitations were all accepted, and Mrs. Tempest for the rest of the winter was in a flutter about her dresses. She was very particular as to the exact shade of silver-gray or lavender which might be allowed to relieve the sombre mass of black; and would spend a whole morning in discussing the propriety of a knot of scarlet ribbon, or a border of gold passementerie.

They went to Ellangowan Park and did homage to the wonderful orchid, and discussed Roderick’s engagement to the Duke’s only daughter. Everybody said that it was Lady Jane’s doing, and there were some who almost implied that she had died on purpose to bring about the happy conjuncture. Violet was able to talk quite pleasantly about the marriage, and to agree with everybody’s praises of Lady Mabel’s beauty, elegance, good style, and general perfection.

Christmas and the New Year went by, not altogether sadly. It is not easy for youth to be full of sorrow. The clouds come and go, there are always glimpses of sunshine. Violet was grateful for the kindness that greeted her everywhere among her old friends, and perhaps a little glad of the evident admiration accorded to her beauty in all circles. Life was just tolerable, after all. She thought of Roderick Vawdrey as of something belonging to the past; something which had no part, never would have any part, in her future life. He too was dead and passed away, like her father. Lady Mabel’s husband, the master of Briarwood in esse, and of Ashbourne in posse, was quite a different being from the rough lad with whom she had played at battledore and shuttlecock, billiards, croquet, and rounders.

Early in February Mrs. Tempest informed her daughter that she was going to give a dinner.

“It will seem very dreadful without dearest Edward,” she said; “but of course having accepted hospitalities, we are bound to return them.”

“Do you really think we ought to burst out into dinner-parties so soon, mamma?”

“Yes, dear, as we accepted the dinners. If we had not gone it would have been different.”

“Ah,” sighed Vixen, “I suppose it all began with that ball at Brighton, like ‘Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit ——’”

“I shall miss poor McCroke to fill in the invitation cards.”

“Let me do it, mamma. I can write a decent hand. That is one of the few ladylike accomplishments I have been able to master; and even that is open to objection as being too masculine.”

“If you would slope more, Violet, and make your up-strokes finer, and not cross your T’s so undeviatingly,” Mrs. Tempest murmured amiably. “A lady’s T ought to be less pronounced. There is something too assertive in your consonants.”

Violet wrote the cards. The dinner was to be quite a grand affair, three weeks’ notice, and a French cook from The Dolphin at Southampton to take the conduct of affairs in the kitchen; whereby the Abbey House cook declared afterwards that there was nothing that Frenchman did which she could not have done as well, and that his wastefulness was enough to make a Christian woman’s hair stand on end.

Three days before the dinner, Vixen riding Arion home through the shrubbery, after a long morning in the Forest, was startled by the vision of a dog-cart a few yards in front of her, a cart, which, at the first glance, she concluded must belong to Roderick Vawdrey. The wheels were red, the horse had a rakish air, the light vehicle swung from side to side as it spun around the curve.

No, that slim figure, that neat waist, that military air did not belong to Roderick Vawdrey.

“He here!” ejaculated Vixen inwardly, with infinite disgust. “I thought we had seen the last of him.”

She had been out for two hours and a half, and felt that Arion had done quite enough, or she would have turned her horse’s head and gone back to the Forest, in order to avoid this unwelcome visitor.

“I only hope mamma won’t encourage him to come here,” she thought; “but I’m afraid that smooth tongue of his has too much influence over her. And I haven’t even poor Crokey to stand by me. I shall feel like a bird transfixed by the wicked green eyes of a velvet-pawed murdering cat.”

“And I have not a friend in the world,” she thought. “Plenty of pleasant acquaintance, ready to simper at me and pay me compliments, because I am Miss Tempest of the Abbey House, but not one honest friend to stand by me, and turn that man out of doors. How dare he come here? I thought I spoke plainly enough that night at Brighton.”

She rode slowly up to the house, slipped lightly out of her saddle, and led her horse round to the stables, just as she had led the pony in her happy childish days. The bright thoroughbred bay was as fond of her as if he had been a dog, and as tame. She stood by his manger caressing him while he ate his corn, and feeling very safe from Captain Winstanley’s society in the warm clover-scented stable.

She dawdled away half-a-hour in this manner, before she went back to the house, and ran up to her dressing-room.

“If mamma sends for me now, I shan’t be able to go down,” she thought. “He can hardly stay more than an hour. Oh, horror! he is a tea-drinker; mamma will persuade him to stop till five o’clock.”

Violet dawdled over her change of dress as she had dawdled in the stable. She had never been more particular about her hair.

“I’ll have it all taken down, Phoebe,” she told her Abigail; “I’m in no hurry.”

“But really, miss, it’s beautiful ——”

“Nonsense after a windy ride; don’t be lazy, Phoebe. You may give my hair a good brushing while I read.”

A tap at the door came at this moment, and Phoebe ran to open it.

“Mrs. Tempest wishes Miss Tempest to come down to the drawing-room directly,” said a voice in the corridor.

“There now, miss,” cried Phoebe, “how lucky I didn’t take your hair down. It never was nicer.”

Violet put on her black dress, costly and simple as the attire Polonius recommended to his son. Mrs. Tempest might relieve her costume with what bright or delicate hues she liked. Violet had worn nothing but black since her father’s death. Her sole ornaments were a pair of black earrings, and a large black enamel locket, with one big diamond shining in the middle of it, like an eye. This locket held the Squire’s portrait, and his daughter wore it constantly.

The Louis Quatorze clock on the staircase struck five as Violet went down.

“Of course he is staying for tea,” she thought, with an impatient shrug of her shoulders. “He belongs to the tame-cat species, and has an inexhaustible flow of gossip, spiced with mild malevolence. The kind of frivolous ill-nature which says: ‘I would not do anyone harm for the world, but one may as well think the worst of everybody.’”

Yes, kettledrum was in full swing. Mrs. Scobel had come over from her tiny Vicarage for half-an-hour’s chat, and was sitting opposite her hostess’s fire, while Captain Winstanley lounged with his back to the canopied chimneypiece, and looked benignantly down upon the two ladies. The Queen Anne kettle was hissing merrily over its spirit-lamp, the perfume of the pekoe was delicious, the logs blazed cheerily in the low fireplace, with its shining brass andirons. Not a repulsive picture, assuredly; yet Vixen came slowly towards this charming circle, looking black as thunder.

Captain Winstanley hurried forward to receive her.

“How do you do?” she said, as stiffly as a child brought down to the drawing-room, bristling in newly-brushed hair and a best frock, and then turning to her mother, she asked curtly: “What did you want with me, mamma?”

“It was Captain Winstanley who asked to see you, my dear. Won’t you have some tea?”

“Thanks, no,” said Vixen, seating herself in a corner between Mrs. Scobel and the mantelpiece, and beginning to talk about the schools.

Conrad Winstanley gave her a curious look from under his dark brows, and then went on talking to her mother. He seemed hardly disconcerted by her rudeness.

“Yes, I assure you, if it hadn’t been for the harriers, Brighton would have been unbearable after you left,” he said. “I ran across to Paris directly the frost set in. But I don’t wonder you were anxious to come back to such a lovely old place as this.”

“I felt it a duty to come back,” said Mrs. Tempest, with a pious air. “But it was very sad at first. I never felt so unhappy in my life. I am getting more reconciled now. Time softens all griefs.”

“Yes,” said the Captain, in a louder tone than before, “Time is a clever horse. There is nothing he won’t beat if you know how to ride him.”

“You’ll take some tea?” insinuated Mrs. Tempest, her attention absorbed by the silver kettle, which was just now conducting itself as spitfireishly as any blackened block-tin on a kitchen hob.

“I can never resist it. And perhaps after tea you will be so good as to give me the treat you talked about just now.”

“To show you the house?” said Mrs. Tempest. “Do you think we shall have light enough?”

“Abundance. An old house like this is seen at its best in the twilight. Don’t you think so, Mrs. Scobel?”

“Oh, yes,” exclaimed Mrs. Scobel, with a lively recollection of her album. “‘They who would see Melrose aright, should see it’— I think, by-the-bye, Sir Walter Scott says, ‘by moonlight.’”

“Yes, for an ancient Gothic abbey; but twilight is better for a Tudor manor-house. Are you sure it will not fatigue you?” inquired the Captain, with an air of solicitude, as Mrs. Tempest rose languidly.

“No; I shall be very pleased to show you the dear old place. It is full of sad associations, of course, out I do not allow my mind to dwell upon them more than I can help.”

“No,” cried Vixen bitterly. “We go to dinner-parties and kettledrums, and go into raptures about orchids and old china, and try to cure our broken hearts that way.”

“Are you coming, Violet?” asked her mother sweetly.

“No, thanks, mamma. I am tired after my ride. Mrs. Scobel will help you to play cicerone.”

Captain Winstanley left the room without so much as a look at Violet Tempest. Yet her rude reception had galled him more than any cross that fate had lately inflicted upon him. He had fancied that time would have softened her feeling towards him, that rural seclusion and the society of rustic nobodies would have made him appear at an advantage, that she would have welcomed the brightness and culture of metropolitan life in his person. He had hoped a great deal from the lapse of time since their last meeting. But this sullen reception, this silent expression of dislike, told him that Violet Tempest’s aversion was a plant of deep root.

“The first woman who ever disliked me,” he thought. “No wonder that she interests me more than other women. She is like that chestnut mare that threw me six times before I got the better of her. Yet she proved the best horse I ever had, and I rode her till she hadn’t a leg to stand upon, and than sold her for twice the money she cost me. There are two conquests a man can make over a woman, one to make her love him, the other ——”

“That suit of chain-armour was worn by Sir Gilbert Tempest at Acre,” said the widow. “The plate-armour belonged to Sir Percy, who was killed at Barnet. Each of them was knighted before he was five-and-twenty years old, for prowess in the field. The portrait over the chimneypiece is the celebrated Judge Tempest, who was famous for —— Well, he did something wonderful, I know. Perhaps Mrs. Scobel remembers,” concluded Mrs. Tempest, feebly.

“It was at the trial of the seven bishops,” suggested the Vicar’s wife.

“In the time of Queen Elizabeth,” assented Mrs. Tempest. “That one with the lace cravat and steel breastplate was an admiral in Charles the Second’s reign, and was made a baronet for his valiant behaviour when the Dutch fleet were at Chatham. The baronetcy died with his son, who left only daughters. The eldest married a Mr. Percival, who took the name of Tempest, and sat for the borough of —— Perhaps Mrs. Scobel knows. I have such a bad memory for these things; though I have heard my dear husband talk about them often.”

Captain Winstanley looked round the great oak-panelled hall dreamily, and heard very little of Mrs. Tempest’s vague prattling about her husband’s ancestors.

What a lovely old place, he was thinking. A house that would give a man importance in the land, supported, as it was, by an estate bringing in something between five and six thousand a year. How much military distinction, how many battles must a soldier win before he could make himself master of such a fortune?

“And it needed but for that girl to like me, and a little gold ring would have given me the freehold of it all,” thought Conrad Winstanley bitterly.

How many penniless girls, or girls with fortunes so far beneath the measure of a fine gentleman’s needs as to be useless, had been over head and ears in love with the elegant Captain; how many pretty girls had tempted him by their beauty and winsomeness to be false to his grand principle that marriage meant promotion. And here was an obstinate minx who would have realised all his aims, and whom he felt himself able to love to distraction into the bargain; and, behold, some adverse devil had entered into her mind, and made Conrad Winstanley hateful to her.

“It’s like witchcraft,” he said to himself. “Why should this one woman be different from all other women? Perhaps it’s the colour. That ruddy auburn hair, the loveliest I ever saw, means temper. But I conquered the chestnut, and I’ll conquer Miss Tempest — or make her smart for it.”

“A handsome music-gallery, is it not?” said the widow. “The carved balustrade is generally admired.”

Then they went into the dining-room, and looked cursorily at about a dozen large dingy pictures of the Italian school, which a man who knew anything about art would have condemned at a glance. Fine examples of brown varnish, all of them. Thence to the library, lined with its carved-oak dwarf bookcases, containing books which nobody had opened for a generation — Livy, Gibbon, Hume, Burke, Smollett, Plutarch, Thomson. These sages, clad in shiny brown leather and gilding, made as good a lining for the walls as anything else, and gave an air of snugness to the room in which the family dined when there was no company.

They came presently to the Squire’s den, at the end of a corridor.

“That was my dear husband’s study,” sighed Mrs. Tempest. “It looks south, into the rose garden, and is one of the prettiest rooms in the house. But we keep it locked, and I think Violet has the key.”

“Pray don’t let Miss Tempest be disturbed,” said Captain Winstanley. “I have seen quite enough to know what a delightful house you have — all the interest of days that are gone, all the luxuries of to-day. I think that blending of past and present is most fascinating. I should never be a severe restorer of antiquity, or refuse to sit in a chair that wasn’t undeniably Gothic.”

“Ah,” sighed the Vicar’s wife, who was an advanced disciple in the school of Eastlake, “but don’t you think everything should be in harmony? If I were as rich as Mrs. Tempest, I wouldn’t have so much as a teapot that was not strictly Tudor.”

“Then I’m afraid you’d have to go without a teapot, and drink your tea out of a tankard,” retorted Captain Winstanley.

“At any rate, I would be as Tudor as I could be.”

“And not have a brass bedstead, a spring mattress, a moderator lamp, or a coal-scuttle in your house,” said the captain. “My dear madam, it is all very well to be mediaeval in matters ecclesiastic, but home comforts must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of the aesthetic, or a modern luxury discarded because it looks like an anachronism.”

Mrs. Scobel was delighted with Captain Winstanley. He was just the kind of man to succeed in a rustic community. His quiet self-assurance set other people at their ease. He carried with him an air of life and movement, as if he were the patentee of a new pleasure.

“My husband would be so pleased to see you at the Vicarage, if you are staying any time in the neighbourhood,” she said.

But after this little gush of friendliness, she reflected that there could not be much sympathy between the man of society and her Anglican parson; and that it was she, and not Ignatius Scobel, who would be glad to see Captain Winstanley at the Vicarage.

“I shall be charmed,” he replied. “I never was so delighted with any place as your Forest. It is a new world to me. I hate myself for having lived in England so long without knowing this beautiful corner of the land. I am staying with my old chief, Colonel Pryke, at Warham Court, and I’m only here for a few days.”

“But you are coming to my dinner-party?” said Mrs. Tempest.

“That is a pleasure I cannot deny myself.”

“And you will come and see our church and schools?” said Mrs. Scobel.

“I shall be more than pleased. I passed your pretty little church, I think, on my way here. There was a tin tea-ket — a bell ringing ——”

“For vespers,” exclaimed Mrs. Scobel.

The exploration of the house took a long time, conducted in this somewhat desultory and dawdling manner; but the closing in of night and the sound of the dinner-gong gave the signal for Captain Winstanley’s departure.

Mrs. Tempest would have liked to ask him to dinner; but she had an idea that Violet might make herself objectionable, and refrained from this exercise of hospitality. He was coming to the great dinner. He would see her dress with the feather trimming, which was really prettier than Worth’s masterpiece, or, at any rate, newer; though it only came from Madame Theodore, of Bruton Street. Sustained by this comforting reflection, she parted with him quite cheerfully.

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