Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

Lady Southminster’s Ball.

Captain Winstanley closed with Mrs. Hawbuck for the pretty little verandah-surrounded cottage on the slope of the hill above Beechdale. Captain Hawbuck, a retired naval man, to whom the place had been very dear, was in his grave, and his wife was anxious to try if she and her hungry children could not live on less money in Belgium than they could in England. The good old post-captain had improved and beautified the place from a farm-labourer’s cottage into a habitation which was the quintessence of picturesque inconvenience. Ceilings which you could touch with your hand; funny little fireplaces in angles of the rooms; a corkscrew staircase, which a stranger ascended or descended at peril of life or limb; no kitchen worth mentioning, and stuffy little bedrooms under the thatch. Seen from the outside the cottage was charming; and if the captain and his family could only have lived over the way, and looked at it, they would have had full value for the money invested in its improvement. Small as the rooms were, however, and despite that dark slander which hung over the chimneys, Captain Winstanley declared that the cottage would suit him admirably.

“I like the situation,” he said, discussing his bargain in the coffee-room at The Crown, Lyndhurst.

“I should rather think you did!” cried Mr. Bell, the local surgeon. “Suits you down to the ground, doesn’t it?”

Whereby it will be seen that there was already a certain opinion in the neighbourhood as to the Captain’s motive for planting himself at Beechdale — so acute is a quiet little community of this kind in divining the intentions of a stranger.

Captain Winstanley took up his quarters at Beechdale Cottage in less than a week after Mrs. Tempest’s dinner-party. He sent for his horses, and began the business of hunting in real earnest. His two hunters were unanimously pronounced screws; but it is astonishing how well a good rider can get across country on a horse which other people call a screw. Nobody could deny Captain Winstanley’s merits as a horseman. His costume and appointments had all the finish of Melton Mowbray, and he was always in the first flight.

Before he had occupied Captain Hawbuck’s cottage a month the new-comer had made friends for himself in all directions. He was as much at home in the Forest as if he had been native and to the manner born. His straight riding, his good looks, and agreeable manners won him everybody’s approval. There was nothing dissipated or Bohemian about him. His clothes never smelt of stale tobacco. He was as punctual at church every Sunday morning as if he had been a family man, bound to set a good example. He subscribed liberally to the hounds, and was always ready with those stray florins and half-crowns by which a man purchases a cheap popularity among the horse-holding and ragged-follower class.

Having distinctly asserted her intention of remaining a widow to Violet, Mrs. Tempest allowed herself the privilege of being civil to Captain Winstanley. He dropped in at afternoon tea at least twice a week; he dined at the Abbey House whenever the Scobels or any other intimate friends were there “in a quiet way.” He generally escorted Mrs. Tempest and her daughter from church on Sunday morning, Violet persistently loitering twenty yards or so behind them on the narrow woodland path that led from Beechdale to the Abbey House.

After walking home from church with Mrs. Tempest, it was only natural that the Captain should stop to luncheon, and after luncheon — the Sabbath afternoon being, in a manner, a legitimate occasion for dawdling — it was equally natural for him to linger, looking at the gardens and greenhouses, or talking beside the drawing-room fire, till the appearance of the spitfire Queen Anne tea-kettle and Mrs. Tempest’s infusion of orange pekoe.

Sometimes the Scobels were present at these Sunday luncheons, sometimes not. Violet was with her mother, of course, on these occasions; but, while bodily present, she contrived to maintain an attitude of aloofness which would have driven a less resolute man than Conrad Winstanley to absent himself. A man more sensitive to the opinions of others could hardly have existed in such an atmosphere of dislike; but Captain Winstanley meant to live down Miss Tempest’s aversion, or to give her double cause for hating him.

“Why have you given up hunting, Miss Tempest?” he asked one Sunday afternoon, when they had gone the round of the stables, and Arion had been fondled and admired — a horse as gentle as an Italian greyhound in his stable, as fiery as a wild-cat out of it.

“Because I have no one I care to hunt with, now papa is gone.”

“But here in the Forest, where everybody knows you, where you might have as many fathers as the Daughter of the Regiment ——”

“Yes, I have many kind friends. But there is not one who could fill my father’s place — for an hour.”

“It is a pity,” said the Captain sympathetically. “You were so fond of hunting, were you not?”

“Passionately.”

“Then it is a shame you should forego the pleasure. And you must find it very dull, I should think, riding alone in the forest.”

“Alone! I have my horse.”

“Surely he does not count as a companion.”

“Indeed he does. I wish for no better company than Arion, now papa is gone.”

“Violet is so eccentric!” Mrs. Tempest murmured gently.

Captain Winstanley had taken Mrs. Hawbuck’s cottage till the first of May. The end of April would see the last of the hunting, so this arrangement seemed natural enough. He hunted in good earnest. There was no pretence about him. It was only the extra knowing ones, the little knot of choice spirits at The Crown, who saw some deeper motive than a mere love of sport for his residence at Beechdale. These advanced minds had contrived to find out all about Captain Winstanley by this time — the date of his selling out, his ostensible and hidden reasons for leaving the army, the amount of his income, and the general complexion of his character. There was not much to be advanced against him. No dark stories; only a leading notion that he was a man who wanted to improve his fortunes, and would not be over-scrupulous as to the means. But as your over-scrupulous man is one in a thousand, this was ranking Captain Winstanley with the majority.

The winter was over; there were primroses peeping out of the moss and brambles, and a shy little dog-violet shining like a blue eye here and there. The flaunting daffodils were yellow in every glade, and the gummy chestnut buds were beginning to swell. It was mid-March, and as yet there had been no announcement of home-coming from Roderick Vawdrey or the Dovedales. The Duke was said to have taken a fancy to the Roman style of fox-hunting; Lady Mabel was studying art; the Duchess was suspected of a leaning to Romanism; and Roderick was dancing attendance upon the family generally.

“Why should he not stay there with them?” said Mr. Scobel, sipping his pekoe in a comfortable little circle of gossipers round Mrs. Tempest’s gipsy table. “He has very little else to do with his life. He is a young man utterly without views or purpose. He is one of our many Gallios. You could not rouse him to an interest in those stirring questions that are agitating the Catholic Church to her very foundation. He has no mission. I have sounded him, and found him full of a shallow good-nature. He would build a church if people asked him, and hardly know, when it was finished, whether he meant it for Jews or Gentiles.”

Vixen sat in her corner and said nothing. It amused her — rather with a half-bitter sense of amusement — to hear them talk about Roderick. He had quite gone out of her life. It interested her to know what people thought of him in his new world.

“If the Duke doesn’t bring them all home very soon the Duchess will go over to Rome,” said Mrs. Scobel, with conviction. “She has been drifting that way for ever so long. Ignatius isn’t high enough for her.”

The Reverend Ignatius sighed. He hardly saw his way to ascending any higher. He had already, acting always in perfect good faith and conscientious desire for the right, made his pretty little church obnoxious to many of the simple old Foresters, to whom a pair of brazen candlesticks on an altar were among the abominations of Baal, and a crucifix as hateful as the image of Ashtaroth; obstinate old people of limited vision, who wanted Mr. Scobel to stick to what they called the old ways, and read the Liturgy as they had heard it when they were children. In the minds of these people, Mr. Scobel’s self-devotion and hard service were as nothing, while he cut off the ten commandments from the Sunday morning service, and lighted his altar candles at the early celebration.

It was in this month of March that an event impended which caused a considerable flutter among the dancing population of the Forest. Lord Southminster’s eldest daughter, Lady Almira Ringwood, was to marry Sir Ponto Jones, the rich ironmaster — an alliance of ancient aristocracy and modern wealth which was considered one of the grandest achievements of the age, like the discovery of steam or the electric telegraph; and after the marriage, which was to be quietly performed in the presence of about a hundred and fifty blood relations, there was to be a ball, to which all the county families were bidden, with very little more distinction or favouritism than in the good old fairy-tale times, when the king’s herald went through the streets of the city to invite everybody, and only some stray Cinderella, cleaning boots and knives in a back kitchen, found herself unintentionally excluded. Lady Southminster drew the line at county families, naturally, but her kindly feelings allowed a wide margin for parsons, doctors, and military men — and among these last Captain Winstanley received a card.

Mrs. Scobel declared that this ball would be a grand thing for Violet. “You have never properly come out, you know, dear,” she said; “but at Southminster you will be seen by everybody; and, as I daresay Lady Ellangowan will take you under her wing, you’ll be seen to the best advantage.”

“Do you think Lady Ellangowan’s wing will make any difference — in me?” inquired Vixen.

“It will make a great deal of difference in the Southminster set,” replied Mrs. Scobel, who considered herself an authority upon all social matters.

She was a busy good-natured little woman, the chosen confidante of all her female friends. People were always appealing to her on small social questions, what they ought to do or to wear on such and such an occasion. She knew the wardrobes of her friends as well as she knew her own. “I suppose you’ll wear that lovely pink,” she would say when discussing an impending dinner-party. She gave judicious assistance in the composition of a menu. “My love, everyone has pheasants at this time of year. Ask your poulterer to send you guinea-fowls, they are more distingué,” she would suggest. Or: “If you have dessert ices, let me recommend you coffee-cream. We had it last week at Ellangowan Park.”

Vixen made no objection to the Southminster ball. She was young, and fond of waltzing. Whirling easily round to the swing of some German melody, in a great room garlanded with flowers, was a temporary cessation of all earthly care, the idea of which was in no wise unpleasant to her. She had enjoyed her waltzes even at that charity-ball at the Pavilion, to which she had gone so unwillingly.

The March night was fine, but blustery, when Mrs. Tempest and her daughter started for the Southminster ball. The stars were shining in a windy sky, the tall forest trees were tossing their heads, the brambles were shivering, and a shrill shriek came up out of the woodland every now and then like a human cry for help.

Mrs Tempest had offered to take Mrs. Scobel and Captain Winstanley in her roomy carriage. Mr. Scobel was not going to the ball. All such entertainments were an abhorrence to him; but this particular ball, being given in Lent, was more especially abhorrent.

“I shouldn’t think of going for my own amusement,” Mrs. Scobel told her husband, “but I want to see Violet Tempest at her first local ball dance. I want to see the impression she makes. I believe she will be the belle of the ball.”

“That would mean the belle of South Hants,” said the parson. “She has a beautiful face for a painted window — there is such a glow of colour.”

“She is absolutely lovely, when she likes,” replied his wife; “but she has a curious temper; and there is something very repellent about her when she does not like people. Strange, is it not, that she should not like Captain Winstanley?”

“She would be a very noble girl under more spiritual influences,” sighed the Reverend Ignatius. “Her present surroundings are appallingly earthly. Horses, dogs, a table loaded with meat in Lent and Advent, a total ignoring of daily matins and even-song. It is sad to see those we like treading the broad path so blindly. I feel sorry, my dear, that you should go to this ball.”

“It is only on Violet’s account,” repeated Mrs. Scobel. “Mrs. Tempest will be thinking of nothing but her dress; there will be nobody interested in that poor girl.”

Urged thus, on purely benevolent grounds, Mr. Scobel could not withhold his consent; more especially as he had acquired the habit of letting his wife do what she liked on most occasions — a marital custom not easily broken through. So Mrs. Scobel, who was an economical little woman, “did up” her silver-gray silk dinner-dress with ten shillings’ worth of black tulle and pink rosebuds, and felt she had made a success that Madame Elise might have approved. Her faith in the silver-gray and the rosebuds was just a little shaken by her first view of Mrs. Tempest and Violet; the widow in black velvet, rose-point, and scarlet — Spanish as a portrait by Velasquez; Violet in black and gold, with white stephanotis in her hair.

The drive was a long one, well over ten miles, along one of those splendid straight roads which distinguish the New Forest. Mrs. Tempest and Mrs. Scobel were in high spirits, and prattled agreeably all the way, only giving Captain Winstanley time to get a word in edgeways now and then. Violet looked out of the window and held her peace. There was always a charm for her in that dark silent forest, those waving branches and flitting clouds, stars gleaming like lights on a stormy sea. She was not much elated at the idea of the ball, and “that small, small, imperceptibly small talk” of her mother’s and Mrs. Scobel’s was beyond measure wearisome to her.

“I hope we shall get there after the Ellangowans,” said Mrs. Scobel, when they had driven through the little town of Ringwood, and were entering a land of level pastures and fertilising streams, which seemed wonderfully tame after the undulating forest; “it would be so much nicer for Violet to be in the Ellangowan set from the first.”

“I beg to state that Miss Tempest has promised me the first waltz,” said Captain Winstanley. “I am not going to be ousted by any offshoot of nobility in Lady Ellangowan’s set.”

“Oh, of course, if Violet has promised —— What a lot of carriages! I am afraid there’ll be a block presently.”

There was every prospect of such a calamity. A confluence of vehicles had poured into a narrow lane bounded on one side by a treacherous water-meadow, on the other by a garden-wall. They all came to a standstill, as Mrs. Scobel had prophesied. For a quarter of an hour there was no progress whatever, and a good deal of recrimination among coachmen, and then the rest of the journey had to be done at a walking pace.

The reward was worth the labour when, at the end of a long winding drive, the carriage drew up before the Italian front of Southminster House; a white marble portico, long rows of tall windows brilliantly lighted, a vista of flowers, and statues, and lamps, and pictures, and velvet hangings, seen through the open doorway.

“Oh, it is too lovely!” cried Violet, fresh as a schoolgirl in this new delight; “first the dark forest and then a house like this — it is like Fairyland.”

“And you are to be the queen of it — my queen,” said Conrad Winstanley in a low voice. “I am to have the first waltz, remember that. If the Prince of Wales were my rival I would not give way.”

He detained her hand in his as she alighted from the carriage. She snatched it from him angrily.

“I have a good mind not to dance at all,” she said.

“Why not?”

“It is paying too dearly for the pleasure to be obliged to dance with you.”

“In what school did you learn politeness, Miss Tempest?”

“If politeness means civility to people I despise, I have never learned it,” answered Vixen.

There was no time for further skirmishing. He had taken her cloak from her, and handed it to the attendant nymph, and received a ticket; and now they were drifting into the tea-room, where a row of ministering footmen were looking at the guests across a barricade of urns and teapots, with countenances that seemed to say, “If you want anything, you must ask for it. We are here under protest, and we very much wonder how our people could ever have invited such rabble!”

“I always feel small in a tea-room when there are only met in attendance,” whispered Mr. Scobel, “they are so haughty. I would sooner ask Gladstone or Disraeli to pour me out a cup of tea than one of those supercilious creatures.”

Lady Southminster was stationed in the Teniers room — a small apartment at the beginning of the suite which ended in the picture-gallery or ball-room. She was what Joe Gargery called a “fine figure of a woman,” in ruby velvet and diamonds, and received her guests with an in discriminating cordiality which went far to heal the gaping wounds of county politics.

The Ellangowans had arrived, and Lady Ellangowan, who was full of good-nature, was quite ready to take Violet under her wing when Mrs. Scobel suggested that operation.

“I can find her any number of partners,” she said. “Oh, there she goes — off — already with Captain Winstanley.”

The Captain had lost no time in exacting his waltz. It was the third on the programme, and the band were beginning to warm to their work They were playing a waltz by Offenbach —“Les Traîneaux”— with an accompaniment of jingling sleigh-bells — music that had an almost maddening effect on spirits already exhilarated.

The long lofty picture-gallery made a magnificent ball-room — a polished floor of dark wood — a narrow line of light under the projecting cornice, the famous Paul Veronese, the world-renowned Rubens, the adorable Titian — ideal beauty looking down with art’s eternal tranquillity upon the whisk and whirl of actual life — here a calm Madonna, contemplating, with deep unfathomable eyes, these brief ephemera of a night — there Judith with a white muscular arm holding the tyrant’s head aloft above the dancers — yonder Philip of Spain frowning on this Lenten festival.

Violet and Captain Winstanley waltzed in a stern silence. She was vexed with herself for her loss of temper just now. In his breast there was a deeper anger. “When would my day come?” he asked himself. “When shall I be able to bow this proud head, to bend this stubborn will?” It must be soon — he was tired of playing his submissive part — tired of holding his cards hidden.

They held on to the end of the waltz — the last clash of the sleigh-bells.

“Who’s that girl in black and gold?” asked a Guardsman of Lady Ellangowan; “those two are the best dancers in the room — it’s a thousand to nothing on them.”

That final clash of the bells brought the Captain and his partner to anchor at the end of the gallery, which opened through an archway into a spacious palm-house with a lofty dome. In the middle of this archway, looking at the dancers, stood a figure at sight of which Violet Tempest’s heart gave a great leap, and then stood still.

It was Roderick Vawdrey. He was standing alone, listlessly contemplating the ball-room, with much less life and expression in his face than there was in the pictured faces on the walls.

“That was a very nice waltz thanks,” said Vixen, giving the captain a little curtsey.

“Shall I take you back to Mrs. Tempest?”

Roderick had seen her by this time, and was coming towards her with a singularly grave and distant countenance, she thought; not at all like the Rorie of old times. But of course that was over and done with. She must never call him Rorie any more, not even in her own thoughts. A sharp sudden memory thrilled her, as they stood face to face in that brilliant gallery — the memory of their last meeting in the darkened room on the day of her father’s funeral.

“How do you do?” said Roderick, with a gush of originality. “Your mamma is here, I suppose.”

“Haven’t you seen her?”

“No; we’ve only just come.”

“We,” no doubt, meant the Dovedale party, of which Mr. Vawdrey was henceforth a part.

“I did not know you were to be here,” said Vixen, “or then that you were in England.”

“We only came home yesterday, or I should have called at the Abbey House. We have been coming home, or talking about it, for the last three weeks. A few days ago the Duchess took it into her head that she ought to be at Lady Almira’s wedding — there’s some kind of relationship, you know, between the Ashbournes and the Southminsters — so we put on a spurt, and here we are.”

“I am very glad,” said Vixen, not knowing very well what to say; and then seeing Captain Winstanley standing stiffly at her side, with an aggrieved expression of countenance, she faltered: “I beg your pardon; I don’t think you have ever met Mr. Vawdrey. Captain Winstanley — Mr. Vawdrey.”

Both gentlemen acknowledged the introduction with the stiffest and chilliest of bows; and then the Captain offered Violet his arm, and she, having no excuse for refusing it, submitted quietly to be taken away from her old friend. Roderick made no attempt to detain her.

The change in him could hardly have been more marked, Vixen thought. Yes, the old Rorie — playfellow, scapegoat, friend of the dear old childish days — was verily dead and gone.

“Shall we go and look at the presents?” asked Captain Winstanley.

“What presents?”

“Lady Almira’s wedding presents. They are all laid out in the library. I hear they are very splendid. Everybody is crowding to see them.”

“I daresay mamma would like to go, and Mrs. Scobel,” suggested Vixen.

“Then we will all go together.”

They found the two matrons side by side on a settee, under a lovely girlish head by Greuze. They were both delighted at the idea of seeing the presents. It was something to do. Mrs. Tempest had made up her mind to abjure even square dances this evening. There was something incongruous in widowhood and the Lancers; especially in one’s own neighbourhood.

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