Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

“He was worthy to be loved a Lifetime.”

Conrad Winstanley had come to the New Forest with his mind resolved upon one of two things. He meant to marry Violet Tempest or her mother. If the case was quite hopeless with the daughter, he would content himself with winning the lesser prize; and though Vanity whispered that there was no woman living he might not win for himself if he chose to be sufficiently patient and persevering, instinct told him that Violet frankly detested him.

“After all,” argued Worldly Wisdom, “the alternative is not to be despised. The widow is somewhat rococo; an old-fashioned jewel kept in cotton-wool, and brought out on occasions to shine with a factitious brilliancy, like old Dutch garnets backed with tinfoil; but she is still pretty. She is ductile, amiable, and weak to a degree that promises a husband the sovereign dominion. Why break your heart for this fair devil of a daughter, who looks capable, if offended, of anything in the way of revenge, from a horsewhip to slow poison? Are a pair of brown eyes and a coronal of red gold hair worth all this wasted passion?”

“But the daughter is the greater catch,” urged Ambition. “The dowager’s jointure is well enough, and she has the Abbey House and gardens for her life, but Violet will be sole mistress of the estate when she comes of age. As Violet’s husband, your position would be infinitely better than it could be as her stepfather. Unhappily, the cantankerous minx has taken it into her head to dislike you.”

“Stay,” interjected the bland voice of Vanity; “may not this dislike be only an assumption, a mask for some deeper feeling? There are girls who show their love in that way. Do not be in a hurry to commit yourself to the mother until you have made yourself quite sure about the daughter.”

Mrs. Tempest’s dinner-party was a success. It introduced Captain Winstanley to all that was best in the surrounding society; for although in Switzerland he had seemed very familiar with the best people in the Forest, in Hampshire he appeared almost a stranger to them. It was generally admitted, however, that the Captain was an acquisition, and a person to be cultivated. He sang a French comic song almost as well as Monsieur de Roseau, recited a short Yankee poem, which none of his audience had ever heard before, with telling force. He was at home upon every subject, from orchids to steam-ploughs, from ordnance to light literature. A man who sang so well, talked so well, looked so well, and behaved so well, could not be otherwise than welcome in county society. Before the evening was over, Captain Winstanley had been offered three hunters for the next day’s run, and had been asked to write in four birthday-books.

Violet did not honour him with so much as a look, after her one cold recognition of his first appearance in the drawing-room. It was a party of more than twenty people, and she was able to keep out of his way without obvious avoidance of him. He was stung, but had no right to be offended.

He took Mrs. Scobel in to dinner, and Mrs. Scobel played the accompaniment of his song, being a clever little woman, able to turn her hand to any thing. He would have preferred to be told off to some more important matron, but was not sorry to be taken under Mrs. Scobel’s wing. She could give him the carte du pays, and would be useful to him, no doubt, in the future; a social Iris, to fetch and carry for him between Beechdale and the Abbey House.

“Do you know that I am quite in love with your Forest?” he said to Mrs. Tempest, standing in front of the ottoman where that lady sat with two of her particular friends; “so much so, that I am actually in treaty for Captain Hawbuck’s cottage, and mean to stay here till the end of the hunting.”

Everybody knew Captain Hawbuck’s cottage, a verandahed box of a house, on the slope of the hill above Beechdale.

“I’m afraid you’ll find the drawing-room chimney smokes,” said a matter-of-fact lady in sea-green; “poor Mrs. Hawbuck was a martyr to that chimney.”

“What does a bachelor want with a drawing-room? If there is one sitting-room in which I can burn a good fire, I shall be satisfied. The stable is in very fair order.”

“The Hawbucks kept a pony-carriage,” assented the sea-green lady.

“If Mrs. Hawbuck accepts my offer, I shall send for my horses next week,” said the Captain.

Mrs. Tempest blushed. Her life had flowed in so gentle and placid a current, that the freshness of her soul had not worn off, and at nine-and-thirty she was able to blush. There was something so significant in Captain Winstanley’s desire to establish himself at Beechdale, that she could not help feeling fluttered by the fact. It might be on Violet’s account, of course, that he came; yet Violet and he had never got on very well together.

“Poor fellow!” she thought blandly, “if he for a moment supposes that anything would tempt me to marry again, he is egregiously mistaken.”

And then she looked round the lovely old room, brightened by a crowd of well-dressed people, and thought that next to being Edward Tempest’s wife, the best thing in life was to be Edward Tempest’s widow.

“Dear Edward!” she mused, “how strange that we should miss him so little to-night.”

It had been with everyone as if the squire had never lived. Politeness exacted this ignoring of the past, no doubt; but the thing had been so easily done. The noble presence, the jovial laugh, the friendly smile were gone, and no one seemed conscious of the void — no one but Violet, who looked round the room once when conversation was liveliest, with a pale indignant face, resenting this forgetfulness.

“I wish papa’s ghost would come in at that door and scare his hollow-hearted friends,” she said to herself; and she felt as if it would hardly have been a surprise to her to see the door open slowly and that familiar figure appear.

“Well, Violet,” Mrs. Temple said sweetly, when the guests were gone, “how do you think it all went off?”

“It,” of course, meant the dinner-party.

“I suppose, according to the nature of such things, it was all right and proper,” Vixen answered coldly; “but I should think it must have been intensely painful to you, mamma.”

Mrs. Tempest sighed. She had always a large selection of sighs in stock, suitable to every occasion.

“I should have felt it much worse if I had sat in my old place at dinner,” she said; “but sitting at the middle of the table instead of at the end made it less painful. And I really think it’s better style. How did you like the new arrangement of the glasses?”

“I didn’t notice anything new.”

“My dear Violet, you are frightfully unobservant.”

“No, I am not,” answered Vixen quickly. “My eyes are keen enough, believe me.”

Mrs. Tempest felt uncomfortable. She began to think that, after all, it might be a comfortable thing to have a companion — as a fender between herself and Violet. A perpetually present Miss Jones or Smith would ward off these unpleasantnesses.

There are occasions, however, on which a position must be faced boldly — in proverbial phrase, the bull must be taken by the horns. And here, Mrs. Tempest felt, was a bull which must be so encountered. She knew that her poor little hands were too feeble for the office; but she told herself that she must make the heroic attempt.

“Violet, why have you such a rooted dislike to Captain Winstanley?”

“Why is my hair the colour it is, mamma, or why are my eyes brown instead of blue? If you could answer my question, I might be able to answer yours. Nature made me what I am, and nature has implanted a hatred of Captain Winstanley in my mind.”

“Do you not think it wrong to hate anyone — the very word hate was considered unladylike when I was a girl — without cause?”

“I have cause to hate him, good cause, sufficient cause. I hate all self-seekers and adventurers.”

“You have no right to call him one or the other.”

“Have I not? What brings him here, but the pursuit of his own interest? Why does he plant himself at our door as if he were come to besiege a town? Do you mean to say, mamma, that you can be so blind as not to see what he wants?”

“He has come for the hunting.”

“Yes, but not to hunt our foxes or our stags. He wants a rich wife, mamma. And he thinks that you or I will be foolish enough to marry him.”

“There would be nothing unnatural in his entertaining some idea of that kind about you,” replied Mrs. Tempest, with a sudden assertion of matronly dignity. “But for him to think of me in that light would be too absurd. I must be some years, perhaps four or five years, his senior, to begin with.”

“Oh, he would forgive you that; he would not mind that.”

“And he ought to know that I should never dream of marrying again.”

“He ought, if he had any idea of what is right and noble in a woman,” answered Vixen. “But he has not. He has no ideas that do not begin and end in himself and his own advantage. He sees you here with a handsome house, a good income, and he thinks that he can persuade you to marry him.”

“Violet, you must know that I shall never marry.”

“I hope I do know it. But the world ought to know it too. People ought not to be allowed to whisper, and smile, and look significant; as I saw some of them do to-night when Captain Winstanley was hanging over your chair. You ought not to encourage him, mamma. It is a treason against my father to have that man here.”

Here was a bull that required prompt and severe handling, but Mrs. Tempest felt her powers inadequate to the effort.

“I am surprised at you, Violet!” she exclaimed; “as if I did not know, as well as you, what is due to my poor Edward; as if I should do anything to compromise my own dignity. Is it to encourage a man to ask him to a dinner-party, when he happens to be visiting in the neighbourhood? Can I forbid Captain Winstanley to take the Hawbucks’ cottage?”

“No, you have gone too far already. You gave him too much encouragement in Switzerland, and at Brighton. He has attached himself to us, like a limpet to a rock. You will not easily get rid of him; unless you let him see that you understand and despise him.”

“I see nothing despicable in him, and I am not going to insult him at your bidding,” answered the widow, tremulous with anger. “I do not believe him to be a schemer or an adventurer. He is a gentleman by birth, education, profession. It is a supreme insolence on your part to speak of him as you do. What can you know of the world? How can you judge and measure a man like Captain Winstanley? A girl like you, hardly out of the nursery! It is too absurd. And understand at once and for ever, Violet, that I will not be hectored or lectured in this manner, that I will not be dictated to, or taught what is good taste, in my own house. This is to be my own house, you know, as long as I live.”

“Yes; unless you give it a new master,” said Violet gravely. “Forgive me if I have been too vehement, mamma. It is my love that is bold. Whom have I in this world to love now, except you? And when I see you in danger — when I see the softness of your nature —— Dear mother, there are some instincts that are stronger than reason. There are some antipathies which are implanted in us for warnings. Remember what a happy life you led with my dear father — his goodness, his overflowing generosity, his noble heart. There is no man worthy to succeed him, to live in his house. Dear mother, for pity’s sake ——”

She was kneeling at her mother’s feet, clinging to her hands, her voice half-choked with sobs. Mrs. Tempest began to cry too.

“My dearest Violet, how can you be so foolish? My love, don’t cry. I tell you that I shall never marry again — never. Not if I were asked to become a countess. My heart is true to your dear father; it always will be. I am almost sorry that I consented to these scarlet bows on my dress, but the feather trimming looked so heavy without them, and Theodore’s eye for colour is perfect. My dear child, be assured I shall carry his image with me to my grave.”

“Dear mother, that is all I ask. Be as happy as you can; but be true to him. He was worthy to be loved for a lifetime; not to be put off with half a life, half a heart.”

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