Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 17

Where the Red King was slain.

May had come. The red glow of the beech-branches had changed to a tender green; the oaks were amber; the winding forest-paths, the deep inaccessible glades where the cattle led such a happy life, were blue with dog-violets and golden with primroses. Whitsuntide was close at hand, and good Mr. Scobel had given up his mind to church decoration, and the entertainment of his school-children with tea and buns in that delightful valley, where an iron monument, a little less artistic than a pillar post-office marks the spot where the Red King fell.

Vixen, though not particularly fond of school-feasts, had promised to assist at this one. It was not to be a stiff or ceremonious affair. There was to be no bevy of young ladies, oppressively attentive to their small charges, causing the children to drink scalding tea in a paroxysm of shyness. The whole thing was to be done in an easy and friendly manner; with no aid but that of the school-mistress and master. The magnates of the land were to have no part in the festival.

“The children enjoy themselves so much more when there are no finely-dressed people making believe to wait upon them,” said Mrs. Scobel; “but I know they’ll be delighted to have you, Violet. They positively adore you!”

“I’m sure I can’t imagine why they should,” answered Violet truthfully.

“Oh, but they do. They like to look at you. When you come into the school-room they’re all in a flutter; and they point at you awfully, don’t they, Miss Pierson?” said Mrs. Scobel, appealing to the school-mistress.

“Yes, ma’am. I can’t cure them of pointing, do what I will.”

“Oh, they are dear little children,” exclaimed Violet, “and I don’t care how much they point at me if they really like me. They make me such nice little bob-curtsies when I meet them in the Forest, and they all seem fond of Argus. I’m sure you have made them extremely polite, Miss Pierson. I shall be very pleased to come to your school-feast, Mrs. Scobel; and I’ll tell our good old Trimmer to make no end of cakes.”

“My dear Violet, pray don’t think of putting Mrs. Trimmer to any trouble. Your dear mamma might be angry.”

“Angry at my asking for some cakes for the school-children, after being papa’s wife for seventeen years! That couldn’t be.”

The school-feast was fixed, three weeks in advance, for the Wednesday in Whitsun week, and during the interval there were many small meteorologists in Beechdale school intent upon the changes of the moon, and all those varied phenomena from which the rustic mind draws its auguries of coming weather. The very crowing of early village cocks was regarded suspiciously by the school children at this period; and even the harmless domestic pussy, sitting with his back to the fire, was deemed a cat of evil omen.

It happened that the appointed Wednesday was a day on which Mrs. Tempest had chosen to invite a few friends in a quiet way to her seven o’clock dinner; among the few Captain Winstanley, who had taken Mrs. Hawbuck’s cottage for an extended period of three months. Mrs. Tempest had known all about the school-feast a fortnight before she gave her invitations, but had forgotten the date at the moment when she arranged her little dinner. Yet she felt offended that Violet should insist upon keeping her engagement to the Scobels.

“But, dear mamma, I am of no use to you at our parties,” pleaded Vixen; “if I were at all necessary to your comfort I would give up the school-feast.”

“My dear Violet, it is not my comfort I am considering; but I cannot help feeling annoyed that you should prefer to spend your evening with a herd of vulgar children — playing Oranges and Lemons, or Kiss in the Ring, or some other ridiculous game, and getting yourself into a most unbecoming perspiration — to a quiet home evening with a few friends.”

“You see, mamma, I know our quiet home evenings with a few friends so well. I could tell you beforehand exactly what will happen, almost the very words people will say — how your jardinières will be admired, and how the conversation will glance off from your ferns and pelargoniums to Lady Ellangowan’s orchids, and then drift back to your old china; after which the ladies will begin to talk about dress, and the wickedness of giving seven guineas for a summer bonnet, as Mrs Jones, or Green, or Robinson has just done; from which their talk will glide insensibly to the iniquities of modern servants; and when those have been discussed exhaustively, one of the younger ladies will tell you the plot of the last novel she has had from Mudie’s, with an infinite number of you knows and you sees, and then perhaps Captain Winstanley — he is coming, I suppose — will sing a French song, of which the company will understand about four words in every verse, and then you will show Mrs. Carteret your last piece of art needlework —”

“What nonsense you talk, Violet. However, if you prefer the children at Stony Cross to the society of your mother and your mother’s friends, you must take your own way.”

“And you will forgive me in advance, dear mamma?”

“My love, I have nothing to forgive. I only deplore a bent of mind which I can but think unladylike.”

Vixen was glad to be let off with so brief a lecture. In her heart of hearts she was not at all sorry that her mother’s friendly dinner should fall on a day which she had promised to spend elsewhere. It was a treat to escape the sameness of that polite entertainment. Yes, Captain Winstanley was to be there of course, and prolonged acquaintance had not lessened her dislike to that gentleman. She had seen him frequently during his residence at the Hawbuck cottage, not at her mother’s house only, but at all the best houses in the neighbourhood. He had done nothing to offend her. He had been studiously polite; and that was all. Not by one word had he reminded Violet of that moonlight walk in the Pavilion garden; not by so much as a glance or a sigh had he hinted at a hidden passion. So far she could make no complaint against him. But the attrition of frequent intercourse did not wear off the sharp edge of her dislike.

Wednesday afternoon came, and any evil auguries that had been drawn from the noontide crowing of restless village cocks was set at naught, for the weather was peerless: a midsummer sky and golden sunlight shone upon all things; upon white-walled cottages and orchards, and gardens where the pure lilies were beginning to blow, upon the yellow-green oak leaves and deepening bloom of the beech, and the long straight roads cleaving the heart of the Forest.

Violet had arranged to drive Mr. and Mrs. Scobel in her pony-carriage. She was at the door of their snug little Vicarage at three o’clock; the vivacious Titmouse tossing his head and jingling his bit in a burst of pettishness at the aggravating behaviour of the flies.

Mrs. Scobel came fluttering out, with the Vicar behind her. Both carried baskets, and behind them came an old servant, who had been Mrs. Scobel’s nurse, a woman with a figure like a hogshead of wine, and a funny little head at the top, carrying a third basket.

“The buns and bread have gone straight from the village,” said the Vicar’s wife. “How well you are looking, Violet. I hope dear Mrs. Tempest was not very angry at your coming with us.”

“Dear Mrs. Tempest didn’t care a straw,” Vixen answered, laughing. “But she thinks me wanting in dignity for liking to have a romp with the school-children.”

All the baskets were in by this time, and Titmouse was in a paroxysm of impatience; so Mr. and Mrs. Scobel seated themselves quickly, and Vixen gave her reins a little shake that meant Go, and off went the pony at a pace which was rather like running away.

The Vicar looked slightly uneasy.

“Does he always go as fast as this?” he inquired.

“Sometimes a good deal faster. He’s an old fencer, you know, and hasn’t forgotten his jumping days. But of course I don’t let him jump with the carriage.”

“I should think not,” ejaculated the Vicar; “unless you wanted to commit murder and suicide. Don’t you think you could make him go a little steadier? He’s going rather like a dog with a tin kettle at his tail, and if the kettle were to tip over ——”

“Oh, he’ll settle down presently,” said Vixen coolly. “I don’t want to interfere with him; it makes him ill-tempered. And if he were to take to kicking ——”

“If you’ll pull him up, I think I’ll get out and walk,” said Mr. Scobel, the back of whose head was on a level with the circle which the pony’s hoofs would have been likely to describe in the event of kicking.

“Oh, please don’t!” cried Vixen. “If you do that I shall think you’ve no confidence in my driving.”

She pulled Titmouse together, and coaxed him into an unobjectionable trot; a trot which travelled over the ground very fast, without giving the occupants of the carriage the uncomfortable sensation of sitting behind a pony intent on getting to the sharp edge of the horizon and throwing himself over.

They were going up a long hill. Halfway up they came to the gate of the kennels. Violet looked at it with a curious half-reluctant glance that expressed the keenest pain.

“Poor papa,” she sighed. “He never seemed happier than when he used to take me to see the hounds.”

“Mr. Vawdrey is to have them next year,” said Mrs. Scobel. “That seems right and proper. He will be the biggest man in this part of the country when the Ashbourne and Briarwood estates are united. And the Duke cannot live very long — a man who gives his mind to eating and drinking, and is laid up with the gout twice a year.”

“Do you know when they are to be married?” asked Vixen, with an unconcerned air.

“At the end of this year, I am told. Lady Jane died last November. They would hardly have the wedding before a twelvemonth was over. Have you seen much of Mr. Vawdrey since he came back?”

“I believe I have seen him three times: once at Lady Southminster’s ball; once when he came to call upon mamma; once at kettledrum at Ellangowan, where he was in attendance upon Lady Mabel. He looked rather like a little dog at the end of a string; he had just that meekly-obedient look, combined with an expression of not wanting to be there, which you see in a dog. If I were engaged, I would not take my fiancée to kettledrums.”

“Ah, Violet, when are you going to be engaged?” cried Mrs. Scobel, in a burst of playfulness. “Where is the man worthy of you?”

“Nowhere; unless Heaven would make me such a man as my father.”

“You and Mr. Vawdrey were such friends when you were girl and boy. I used sometimes to fancy that childish friendship of yours would lead to a lasting attachment.”

“Did you? That was a great mistake. I am not half good enough for Mr. Vawdrey. I was well enough for a playfellow, but he wants something much nearer perfection in a wife.”

“But your tastes are so similar.”

“The very reason we should not care for each other.”

“‘In joining contrasts lieth love’s delight.’ That’s what a poet has said, yet I can’t quite believe that, Violet.”

“But you see the event proves the poet’s axiom true. Here is my old playfellow, who cares for nothing but horses and hounds and a country life, devotedly attached to Lady Mabel Ashbourne, who reads Greek plays with as much enjoyment as other young ladies derive from a stirring novel, and who hasn’t an idea or an attitude that is not strictly aesthetic.”

“Do you know, Violet, I am very much afraid that this marriage is rather the result of calculation than of genuine affection?” said Mrs. Scobel solemnly.

“Oh, no doubt it will be a grand thing to unite Ashbourne and Briarwood, but Roderick Vawdrey is too honourable to marry a girl he could not love. I would never believe him capable of such baseness,” answered Violet, standing up for her old friend.

Here they turned out of the Forest and drove through a peaceful colony consisting of half-a-dozen cottages, a rustic inn where reigned a supreme silence and sleepiness, and two or three houses in old-world gardens.

Vixen changed the conversation to buns and school-children, which agreeable theme occupied them till Titmouse had walked up a tremendously steep hill, the Vicar trudging through the dust beside him; and then the deep green vale in which Rufus was slain lay smiling in the sunshine below their feet.

Perhaps the panorama to be seen from the top of that hill is absolutely the finest in the Forest — a vast champaign, stretching far away to the white walls, tiled roofs, and ancient abbey-church of Romsey; here a glimpse of winding water, there a humble village — nameless save for its inhabitants — nestling among the trees, or basking in the broad sunshine of a common.

At the top of the hill, Bates, the gray-headed groom, who had attended Violet ever since her first pony-ride, took possession of Titmouse and the chaise, while the baskets were handed over to a lad, who had been on the watch for their arrival. Then they all went down the steep path into the valley, at the bottom of which the children were swarming in a cluster, as thick as bees, while a pale flame and a cloud of white smoke went up from the midst of them like the fire beneath a sacrifice. This indicated the boiling of the kettle, in true gipsy fashion.

For the next hour and a half tea-drinking was the all-absorbing business with everybody. The boiling of the kettle was a grand feature in the entertainment. Cups and saucers were provided by a little colony of civilised gipsies, who seem indigenous to the spot, and whose summer life is devoted to assisting at picnics and tea-drinkings, telling fortunes, and selling photographs. White cloths were spread upon the short sweet turf, and piles of bread-and-butter, cake and buns, invited the attention of the flies.

Presently arose the thrilling melody of a choral grace, with the sweet embellishment of a strong Hampshire accent. And then, with a swoop as of eagles on their quarry, the school-children came down upon the mountains of bread-and-butter, and ate their way manfully to the buns and cake.

Violet had never been happier since her return to Hampshire than she felt that sunny afternoon, as she moved quickly about, ministering to these juvenile devourers. The sight of their somewhat bovine contentment took her thoughts away from her own cares and losses; and presently, when the banquet was concluded — a conclusion only arrived at by the total consumption of everything provided, whereby the hungry-eyed gipsy attendants sunk into despondency — Vixen constituted herself Lord of Misrule, and led off a noisy procession in the time-honoured game of Oranges and Lemons, which entertainment continued till the school-children were in a high fever. After this they had Kiss in the Ring; Vixen only stipulating, before she began, that nobody should presume to drop the handkerchief before her. Then came Touchwood — a game charmingly adapted to that wooded valley, where the trees looked as if they had been planted at convenient distances on purpose for this juvenile sport.

“Oh, I am so tired,” cried Violet at last, when church clocks — all out of earshot in this deep valley — were striking eight, and the low sun was golden on the silvery beech-boles, and the quiet half-hidden water-pools under the trees yonder; “I really don’t think I can have anything to do with the next game.”

“Oh, if you please, miss,” cried twenty shrill young voices, “oh, if you please, miss, we couldn’t play without you — you’re the best on us!”

This soothing flattery had its effect.

“Oh, but I really don’t think I can do more than start you,” sighed Vixen, flushed and breathless, “what is it to be?”

“Blindman’s Buff,” roared the boys.

“Hunt the Slipper,” screamed the girls.

“Oh, Blindman’s Buff is best,” said Vixen. “This little wood is a splendid place for Blindman’s Buff. But mind, I shall only start you. Now then, who’s to be Blindman?”

Mr. Scobel volunteered. He had been a tranquil spectator of the sports hitherto; but this was the last game, and he felt that he ought to do something more than look on. Vixen blindfolded him, asked him the usual question about his father’s stable, and then sent him spinning amongst the moss-grown beeches, groping his way fearfully, with outstretched arms, amidst shrillest laughter and noisest delight.

He was not long blindfold, and had not had many bumps against the trees before he impounded the person of a fat and scant-of-breath scholar, a girl whose hard breathing would have betrayed her neighbourhood to the dullest ear.

“That’s Polly Sims, I know,” said the Vicar.

It was Polly Sims, who was incontinently made as blind as Fortune or Justice, or any other of the deities who dispense benefits to man. Polly floundered about among the trees for a long time, making frantic efforts to catch the empty air, panting like a human steam-engine, and nearly knocking out what small amount of brains she might possess against the gray branches, outstretched like the lean arms of Macbeth’s weird women across her path. Finally Polly Sims succeeded in catching Bobby Jones, whom she clutched with the tenacity of an octopus; and then came the reign of Bobby Jones, who was an expert at the game, and who kept the whole party on the qui vive by his serpentine windings and twistings among the stout old trunks.

Presently there was a shrill yell of triumph. Bobby had caught Miss Tempest.

“I know’d her by her musling gownd, and the sweet-smelling stuff upon her pocket-handkercher,” he roared.

Violet submitted with a good grace.

“I’m dreadfully tired,” she said, “and I’m sure I shan’t catch anyone.”

The sun had been getting lower and lower. There were splashes of ruddy light on the smooth gray beech-boles, and that was all. Soon these would fade, and all would be gloom. The grove had an awful look already. One would expect to meet some ghostly Druid, or some witch of eld, among the shadowy tracks left by the forest wildings. Vixen went about her work languidly. She was really tired, and was glad to think her day’s labours were over. She went slowly in and out among the trees, feeling her way with outstretched arms, her feet sinking sometimes into deep drifts of last year’s leaves, or gliding noiselessly over the moss. The air was soft and cool and dewy, with a perfume of nameless wild flowers — a faint aromatic odour of herbs, which the wise women had gathered for medicinal uses in days of old, when your village sorceress was your safest doctor. Everywhere there was the hush and coolness of fast-coming night. The children’s voices were stilled. This last stage of the game was a thing of breathless interest.

Vixen’s footsteps drifted lower down into the wooded hollow; insensibly she was coming towards the edge of the treacherously green bog which has brought many a bold rider to grief in these districts, and still she had caught no one. She began to think that she had roamed ever so far away, and was in danger of losing herself altogether, or at least losing everybody else, and being left by herself in the forest darkness. The grassy hollow in which she was wandering had an atmosphere of solitude.

She was on the point of taking off the handkerchief that Mr. Scobel had bound so effectually across her eyes, when her outstretched hands clasped something — a substantial figure, distinctly human, clad in rough cloth.

Before she had time to think who it was she had captured, a pair of strong arms clasped her; she was drawn to a broad chest; she felt a heart beating strong and fast against her shoulder, while lips that seemed too familiar to offend kissed hers with all the passion of a lover’s kiss.

“Don’t be angry,” said a well-known voice; “I believe it’s the rule of the game. If it isn’t I’m sure it ought to be.”

A hand, at once strong and gentle, took off the handkerchief, and in the soft woodland twilight she looked up at Roderick Vawdrey’s face, looking down upon her with an expression which she presumed must mean a brotherly friendliness — the delight of an old friend at seeing her after a long interval.

She was not the less angry at that outrageous unwarrantable kiss.

“It is not the rule of the game amongst civilised people; though it possibly may be among plough-boys and servant-maids!” she exclaimed indignantly. “You are really a most ungentlemanlike person! I wonder Lady Mabel Ashbourne has not taught you better manners.”

“Is that to be my only reward for saving you from plunging — at least ankle-deep — in the marshy ground yonder? But for me you would have been performing a boggy version of Ophelia by this time.”

“How did you come here?”

“I have been to Langley Brook for a day’s fly-fishing, and was tramping home across country in a savage humour at my poor sport, when I heard the chatter of small voices, and presently came upon the Scobels and the school-children. The juveniles were in a state of alarm at having lost you. They had been playing the game in severe silence, and at a turn in the grove missed you altogether. Oh, here comes Scobel, with his trencher on the back of his head.”

The Vicar came forward, rejoicing at sight of Violet’s white gown.

“My dear, what a turn you have given us!” he cried; “those silly children, to let you out of their sight! I don’t think a wood is a good place for Blindman’s Buff.”

“No more do I,” answered Vixen, very pale.

“You look as if you had been frightened, too,” said the Vicar.

“It did feel awfully lonely; not a sound, except the frogs croaking their vespers, and one dismal owl screaming in the distance. And how cold it has turned now the sun has gone down; and how ghostly the beeches look in their green mantles; there is something awful in a wood at sunset.”

She ran on in an excited tone, masking her agitation under an unnatural vivacity. Roderick watched her keenly. Mr. and Mrs. Scobel went back to their business of getting the children together, and the pots, pans, and baskets packed for the return-journey. The children were inclined to be noisy and insubordinate. They would have liked to make a night of it in this woody hollow, or in the gorse-clothed heights up yonder by Stony Cross. To home after such a festival, and be herded in small stuffy cottages, was doubtless trying to free-born humanity, always more or less envious of the gipsies.

“Shall we walk up the hill together?” Roderick asked Violet humbly, “while the Scobels follow with their flock?”

“I am going to drive Mr. and Mrs. Scobel,” replied Vixen curtly.

“But here is your carriage?”

“I don t know. I rather think it was to meet us at the top of the hill.”

“Then let us go up together and find it — unless you hate me too much to endure my company for a quarter of an hour — or are too angry with me for my impertinence just now.”

“It is not worth being serious about,” answered Vixen quietly, after a little pause. “I was very angry at the moment, but after all — between you and me — who were like brother and sister a few years ago, it can’t matter very much. I daresay you may have kissed me in those days, though I have forgotten all about it.”

“I think I did — once or twice,” admitted Rorie with laudable gravity.

“Then let your impertinence just now go down to the old account, which we will close, if you please, to-night. But,” seeing him drawing nearer her with a sudden eagerness, “mind, it is never to be repeated. I could not forgive that.”

“I would do much to escape your anger,” said Rorie softly.

“The whole situation just now was too ridiculous,” pursued Vixen, with a spurious hilarity. “A young woman wandering blindfold in a wood all alone — it must have seemed very absurd.”

“It seemed very far from absurd — to me,” said Rorie.

They were going slowly up the grassy hill, the short scanty herbage looking gray in the dimness. Glow-worms were beginning to shine here and there at the foot of the furze-bushes. A pale moon was rising above the broad expanse of wood and valley, which sank with gentle undulations to the distant plains, where the young corn was growing and the cattle were grazing in a sober agricultural district. Here all was wild and beautiful — rich, yet barren.

“I’m afraid when we met last — at Lady Southminster’s ball — that I forgot to congratulate you upon your engagement to your cousin,” said Violet by-and-by, when they had walked a little way in perfect silence.

She was trying to carry out an old determination. She had always meant to go up to him frankly, with outstretched hand, and wish him joy. And she fancied that at the ball she had said too little. She had not let him understand that she was really glad. “Believe me, I am very glad that you should marry someone close at home — that you should widen your influence among us.”

“You are very kind,” answered Rorie, with exceeding coldness. “I suppose all such engagements are subjects for congratulation, from a conventional point of view. My future wife is both amiable and accomplished, as you know. I have reason to be very proud that she has done me so great an honour as to prefer me to many worthier suitors; but I am bound to tell you — as we once before spoke of this subject, at the time of your dear father’s death, and I then expressed myself somewhat strongly — I am bound to tell you that my engagement to Mabel was made to please my poor mother. It was when we were all in Italy together. My mother was dying. Mabel’s goodness and devotion to her had been beyond all praise; and my heart was drawn to her by affection, by gratitude; and I knew that it would make poor mother happy to see us irrevocably bound to each other — and so — the thing came about somehow, almost unawares, and I have every reason to be proud and happy that fate should have favoured me so far above my deserts.”

“I am very glad that you are happy,” said Violet gently.

After this there was a silence which lasted longer than the previous interval in their talk. They were at the top of the ill before either of them spoke.

Then Vixen laid her hand lightly upon her old playfellow’s arm, and said, with extreme earnestness:

“You will go into Parliament by-and-by, no doubt, and have great influence. Do not let them spoil the Forest. Do not let horrid grinding-down economists, for the sake of saving a few pounds or gaining a few pounds, alter and destroy scenes that are so beautiful and a delight to so many. England is a rich country, is she not? Surely she can afford to keep something for her painters and her poets, and even for the humble holiday-folks who come to drink tea at Rufus’s stone. Don’t let our Forest be altered, Rorie. Let all things be as they were when we were children.”

“All that my voice and influence can do to keep them so shall be done, Violet,” he answered in tones as earnest. “I am glad that you have asked me something to-night. I am glad, with all my heart, that you have given me something to do for you. It shall be like a badge in my helmet, by-and-by, when I enter the lists. I think I shall say: ‘For God and for Violet,’ when I run a tilt against the economic devastators who want to clear our woods and cut off our commoners.”

He bent down and kissed her hand, as in token of knightly allegiance. He had just time to do it comfortably before Mr. and Mrs. Scobel, with the children and their master and mistress, came marching up the hill, singing, with shrill glad voices, one of the harvest-home processional hymns.

“All good gifts around us

Are sent from heaven above,

Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord,

For all His love.”

“What a delicious night!” cried Mr. Scobel. “I think we ought all to walk home. It would be much nicer than being driven.”

This he said with a lively recollection of Titmouse’s performances on the journey out, and a lurking dread that he might behave a little worse on the journey home. A lively animal of that kind, going home to his stable, through the uncertain lights and shadows of woodland roads, and driven by such a charioteer as Violet Tempest, was not to be thought of without a shudder.

“I think I had better walk, in any case,” said Mr. Scobel thoughtfully. “I shall be wanted to keep the children together.”

“Let us all walk home,” suggested Roderick. “We can go through the plantations. It will be very jolly in the moonlight. Bates can drive your pony back, Violet.”

Vixen hesitated.

“It’s not more than four miles through the plantations,” said Roderick.

“Do you think I am afraid of a long walk?”

“Of course not. You were a modern Atalanta three years ago. I don’t suppose a winter in Paris and a season at Brighton have quite spoiled you.”

“It shall be as you like, Mrs. Scobel,” said Vixen, appealing to the Vicar’s wife.

“Oh, let us walk by all means,” replied Mrs. Scobel, divining her husband’s feelings with respect to Titmouse.

“Then, you may drive the pony home, Bates,” said Violet; “and be sure you give him a good supper.”

Titmouse went rattling down the hill at a pace that almost justified the Vicar’s objection to him. He gave a desperate shy in the hollow at sight of a shaggy donkey, with a swollen appearance about the head, suggestive, to the equine mind, of hobgoblins. Convulsed at this appalling spectre. Titmouse stood on end for a second or two, and then tore violently off, swinging his carriage behind him, so that the groom’s figure swayed to and fro in the moonlight.

“Thank God we’re not sitting behind that brute!” ejaculated the Vicar devoutly.

The pedestrians went off in the other direction, along the brow of the hill, by a long white road that crossed a wide sweep of heathy country, brown ridges and dark hollows, distant groups of firs standing black against the moonlit sky, here and there a solitary yew that looked as if it were haunted — just such a landscape as that Scottish heath upon which Macbeth met the three weird women at set of sun, when the battle was lost and won. Vixen and Rorie led the way; the procession of school-children followed, singing hymns as they went with a vocal power that gave no token of diminution.

“Their singing is very melodious when the sharp edge is taken off by distance,” said Rorie; and he and Violet walked at a pace which soon left the children a good way behind them.

Mellowed by a quarter of a mile or so of interesting space, the music lent a charm to the tranquil, perfumed night.

By-and-by they came to the gate of an enclosure which covered a large extent of ground, and through which there was a near way to Beechdale and the Abbey House. They walked along a grassy track through a plantation of young pines — a track which led them down into a green and mossy bottom, where the trees were old and beautiful, and the shadows fell darker. The tall beech-trunks shone like silver, or like wonderful frozen trees in some region of eternal ice and snow. It was a wilderness in which a stranger would incontinently lose himself; but every foot of the way was familiar to Vixen and Rorie. They had followed the hounds by these green ways, and ridden and rambled here in all seasons.

For some time they walked almost in silence, enjoying the beauty of the night, the stillness only broken by the distant chorus of children singing their pious strains — old hymn-tunes that Violet had known and loved all her life.

“Doesn’t it almost seem as if our old childish days had come back?” said Roderick by-and-by. “Don’t you feel as if you were a little girl again, Vixen, going for a ramble with me — fern-hunting or primrose-gathering?”

“No,” answered Vixen firmly. “Nothing can ever bring the past back for me. I shall never forget that I had a father — the best and dearest — and that I have lost him.”

“Dear Violet,” Roderick began, very gently, “life cannot be made up of mourning for the dead. We may keep their images enshrined in our hearts for ever, but we must not shut our youth from the sunshine. Think how few years of youth God gives us; and if we waste those upon vain sorrow ——”

“No one can say that I have wasted my youth, or shut myself from the sunshine. I go to kettle-drums and dancing-parties. My mother and I have taken pains to let the world see how happy we can be without papa.”

“The dear old Squire!” said Rorie tenderly; “I think he loved me.”

“I am sure he did,” answered Vixen.

“Well, you and I seem to have entered upon a new life since last we rode through these woods together. I daresay you are right, and that it is not possible to fancy oneself back in the past, even for a moment. Consciousness of the present hangs so heavily upon us.”

“Yes,” assented Vixen.

They had come to the end of the enclosure, and stood leaning against a gate, waiting for the arrival of the children.

“And after all, perhaps, it is better to live in the present, and look back at the past, as at an old picture which we shall sooner or later turn with its face to the wall.”

“I like best to think of my old self as if it were someone else,” said Violet. “I know there was a little girl whom her father called Vixen, who used to ride after the hounds, and roam about the Forest on her pony; and who was herself almost as wild as the Forest ponies. But I can’t associate her with this present me,” concluded Violet, pointing to herself with a half-scornful gesture.

“And which is the better, do you think,” asked Rorie, “the wild Violet of the past, or the elegant exotic of the present?”

“I know which was the happier.”

“Ah,” sighed Rorie, “happiness is a habit we outgrow when we get out of our teens. But you, at nineteen, ought to have a year or so to the good.”

The children came in sight, tramping along the rutty green walk, singing lustily, Mr. Scobel walking at their head, and swinging his stick in time with the tuneful choir.

“He only is the Maker

Of all things near and far;

He paints the wayside flower,

He lights the evening star.”

END OF VOL. I.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/vixen/v1.17.html

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