Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

“I Want a Little Serious Talk with You.”

It was only half-past nine when the brougham drove up to the pillared porch at Briarwood. The lighted drawing-room windows shone out upon the vaporous autumn darkness — a row of five tall French casements — and the sound of a piano caught Roderick’s ear as he tossed the end of his cigar in the shrubbery, and mounted the wide stone door-steps.

“At it again,” muttered Rorie with a shrug of disgust, as he entered the hall, and heard, through the half-open drawing-room door, an interlacement of pearly runs. At this stage of his existence, Rorie had no appreciation of brilliant pianoforte playing. The music he liked best was of the simplest, most inartificial order.

“Are the Duke and Duchess here?” he asked the butler.

“Her Grace and Lady Mabel is here, sir; not the Dook.”

“I suppose I must dress before I face the quality,” muttered Rorie sulkily, and he went leaping upstairs — three steps at a time — to exchange his brown shooting-clothes and leather gaiters for that dress-suit of his which was continually getting too small for him. Rorie detested himself in a dress-suit and a white tie.

“You beast,” he cried, addressing his reflection in the tall glass door of his armoire, “you are the image of a waiter at The Clarendon.”

The Briarwood drawing-room looked a great deal too vast and too lofty for the three women who were occupying it this evening. It was a finely-proportioned room, and its amber satin hangings made a pleasing background for the white and gold furniture. White, gold, and amber made up the prevailing tone of colour. Clusters of wax lights against the walls and a crystal chandelier with many candles, filled the room with a soft radiance. It was a room without shadow. There were no recesses, no deep-set windows or doors. All was coldly bright, faultlessly elegant. Rorie detested his mother’s drawing-room almost as much as he detested himself in a dress-coat that was too short in the sleeves.

The matrons were seated on each side of the shining gold and steel fireplace, before which there stretched an island of silky white fur. Lady Jane Vawdrey’s younger sister was a stout, comfortable-looking woman in gray silk, who hardly realised one’s preconceived notion of a duchess. Lady Jane herself had dignity enough for the highest rank in the “Almanach de Gotha.” She wore dark green velvet and old rose-point, and looked like a portrait of an Austrian princess by Velasquez. Years had not impaired the purity of her blonde complexion. Her aquiline nose, thin lips, small firm chin, were the features of one born to rule. Her light brown hair showed no streak of gray. An admirable woman, no doubt, for anybody else’s mother, as Rorie so often said to himself.

The young lady was still sitting at the piano, remote from the two elders, her slim white fingers running in and out and to and fro in those wondrous intricacies and involutions which distinguish modern classical music. Rorie hated all that running about the piano to no purpose, and could not perceive his cousin’s merit in having devoted three or four hours of her daily life for the last seven years to the accomplishment of this melodious meandering. She left off playing, and held out her small white hand to him as he came to the piano, after shaking hands with his aunt.

What was she like, this paragon formed by a mother’s worshipping love and ceaseless care, this one last pearl in the crown of domestic life, this child of so many prayers and hopes, and fears, and deep pathetic rejoicings?

She was very fair to look upon — complete and beautiful as a pearl — with that outward purity, that perfect delicacy of tint and harmony of detail which is in itself a charm. Study her as captiously as you would, you could find no flaw in this jewel. The small regular features were so delicately chiselled, the fair fine skin was so transparent, the fragile figure so exquisitely moulded, the ivory hand and arm so perfect — no, you could discover no bad drawing or crude colouring in this human picture. She lifted her clear blue eyes to Rorie’s face, and smiled at him in gentle welcome; and though he felt intensely cross at having been summoned home like a school-boy, he could not refuse her a responsive smile, or a gentle pressure of the taper fingers.

“And so you have been dining with those horrid people!” she exclaimed with an air of playful reproach, “and on your last night in Hampshire — quite too unkind to Aunt Jane.”

“I don’t know whom you mean by horrid people, Mabel,” answered Rorie, chilled back into sulkiness all at once; “the people I was with are all that is good and pleasant.”

“Then you’ve not been at the Tempests’ after all?”

“I have been at the Tempests’. What have you to say against the Tempests?”

“Oh, I have nothing to say against them,” said Lady Mabel, shrugging her pretty shoulders in her fawn-coloured silk gown. “There are some things that do not require to be said.”

“Mr. Tempest is the best and kindest of men; his wife is — well, a nonentity, perhaps, but not a disagreeable one; and his daughter ——”

Here Rorie came to a sudden stop, which Lady Mabel accentuated with a silvery little laugh.

“His daughter is charming,” she cried, when she had done laughing; “red hair, and a green habit with brass buttons, a yellow waistcoat like her papa’s, and a rose in her button-hole. How I should like to see her in Rotten Row!”

“I’ll warrant there wouldn’t be a better horse-woman or a prettier girl there,” cried Rorie, scarlet with indignation.

His mother looked daggers. His cousin gave another silvery laugh, clear as those pearly treble runs upon the Erard; but that pretty artificial laugh had a ring which betrayed her mortification.

“Rorie is thorough,” she said; “when he likes people he thinks them perfection. You do think that little red-haired girl quite perfection, now don’t you, Rorie?” pursued Lady Mabel, sitting down before the piano again, and touching the notes silently as she seemed to admire the slender diamond hoops upon her white fingers — old-fashioned rings that had belonged to a patrician great-grandmother. “You think her quite a model young lady, though they say she can hardly read, and makes her mark — like William the Conqueror — instead of signing her name, and spends her life in the stables, and occasionally, when the fox gets back to earth — swears.”

“I don’t know who they may be,” cried Roderick, savagely, “but they say a pack of lies. Violet Tempest is as well educated as — any girl need be. All girls can’t be paragons; or, if they could, this earth would be intolerable for the rest of humanity. Lord deliver us from a world overrun with paragons. Violet Tempest is little more than a child, a spoiled child, if you like, but she has a heart of gold, and a firmer seat in her saddle than any other woman in Hampshire.”

Roderick had turned from scarlet to pale by the time he finished this speech. His mother had paled at the first mention of poor Vixen. That young lady’s name acted upon Lady Jane’s feelings very much as a red rag acts on a bull.

“I think, after keeping you away from your mother on the last night of your vacation, Mr. Tempest might at least have had the good taste to let you come home sober,” said Lady Jane, with suppressed rage.

“I drank a couple of glasses of still hock at dinner, and not a drop of anything else from the time I entered the Abbey till I left it; and I don’t think, considering how I’ve seasoned myself with Bass at Oxford, that two glasses of Rudesheimer would floor me,” explained Rorie, with recovered calmness.

“Oh, but you were drinking deep of a more intoxicating nectar,” cried Lady Mabel, with that provokingly distinct utterance of hers. She had been taught to speak as carefully as girls of inferior rank are taught to play Beethoven — every syllable studied, every tone trained and ripened to the right quality. “You were with Violet Tempest.”

“How you children quarrel!” exclaimed the Duchess; “you could hardly be worse if you were lovers. Come here, Rorie, and tell me all that has happened to you since we saw you at Lord’s in July. Never mind these Tempest people. They are of the smallest possible importance. Of course, Rorie must have somebody to amuse himself with while we are away.”

“And now we are come back, he is off to Oxford,” said Mabel with an aggrieved air.

“You shouldn’t have stayed so long in Switzerland then,” retorted Rorie.

“Oh, but it was my first visit, and everything is so lovely. After all the Swiss landscapes I have done in chalk, and pencil, and water-colours, I was astonished to find what a stranger I was to the scenery. I blushed when I remembered those dreadful landscapes of mine. I was ashamed to look at Mont Blanc. I felt as if the Matterhorn would fall and crush me.”

“I think I shall do Switzerland next long,” said Rorie patronisingly, as if it would be a good thing for Switzerland.

“You might have come this year while we were there,” said Lady Mabel.

“No, I mightn’t. I’ve been grinding. If you knew what a dose of Aristotle I’ve had, you’d pity me. That’s where you girls have the best of it. You learn to read a story-book in two or three modern languages, to meander up and down the piano, and spoil Bristol board, or Whatman’s hot-pressed imperial, and then you call yourselves educated; while we have to go back to the beginning of civilisation, and find out what a lot of old Greek duffers were driving at when they sat in the sunshine and prosed like old boots.”

Lady Mabel looked at him with a serene smile.

“Would you be surprised to hear that I know a little Greek,” she said, “just enough to struggle through the Socratic dialogues with the aid of my master?”

Roderick started as if he had been stung.

“What a shame!” he cried. “Aunt Sophia, what do you mean by making a Lady Jane Grey or an Elizabeth Barrett Browning of her?”

“A woman who has to occupy a leading position can hardly know too much,” answered the Duchess sententiously.

“Ah, to be sure, Mabel will marry some diplomatic swell, and be entertaining ambassadors by-and-by. And when some modern Greek envoy comes simpering up to her with a remark about the weather, it will be an advantage for her to know Plato. I understand. Wheels within wheels.”

“The Duchess of Dovedale’s carriage,” announced the butler, rolling out the syllables as if it were a personal gratification to announce them.

Mabel rose at once from the piano, and came to say good-night to her aunt.

“My dear child, it’s quite early,” said Lady Jane; “Roderick’s last night, too. And your mamma is in no hurry.”

Mabel looked at Roderick, but that young gentleman was airing himself on the hearth-rug, and gazing absently up at the ceiling. It evidently signified very little to him whether his aunt and cousin went or stayed.

“You know you told papa you would be home soon after ten,” said Lady Mabel, and the Duchess rose immediately.

She had a way of yielding to her only daughter which her stronger-minded sister highly disapproved. The first duty of a mother, in Lady Jane’s opinion, was to rule her child, the second, to love it. The idea was no doubt correct in the abstract; but the practice was not succeeding too well with Roderick.

“Good-night and good-bye,” said Lady Mabel, when the maid had brought her wraps, and Rorie had put them on.

“Not good-bye,” said the good-natured Duchess; “Rorie must come to breakfast to-morrow, and see the Duke. He has just bought some wonderful short-horns, and I am sure he would like to show them to you, Rorie, because you can appreciate them. He was too tired to come out to-night, but I know he wants to see you.”

“Thanks, I’ll be there,” answered Rorie, and he escorted the ladies to their carriage; but not another word did Mabel speak till the brougham had driven away from Briarwood.

“What a horrid young man Roderick has grown, mamma!” she remarked decisively, when they were outside the park-gates.

“My love, I never saw him look handsomer.”

“I don’t mean his looks. Good looks in a man are a superfluity. But his manners — I never saw anything so underbred. Those Tempest people are spoiling him.”

“Roderick,” said Lady Jane, just as Rorie was contemplating an escape to the billiard-room and his cigar, “I want a little serious talk with you.”

Rorie shivered in his shoes. He knew too well what his mother’s serious talk meant. He shrugged his shoulders with a movement that indicated a dormant resistance, and went quietly into the drawing-room.

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