Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

How she took the News.

It was past midnight when the Tempest carriage drove through the dark rhododendron shrubberies up to the old Tudor porch. There was a great pile of logs burning in the hall, giving the home-comers cheery welcome. There was an antique silver spirit stand with its accompaniments on one little table for the Squire, and there was another little table on the opposite side of the hearth for Mrs. Tempest, with a dainty tea-service sparkling and shining in the red glow.

A glance at these arrangements would have told you that there were old servants at the Abbey House, servants who knew their master’s and mistress’s ways, and for whom service was more or less a labour of love.

“How nice,” said the lady, with a contented sigh. “Pauline has thought of my cup of tea.”

“And Forbes has not forgotten my soda-water,” remarked the Squire.

He said nothing about the brandy, which he was pouring into the tall glass with a liberal hand.

Pauline came to take off her mistress’s cloak, and was praised for her thoughtfulness about the tea, and then dismissed for the night.

The Squire liked to stretch his legs before his own fireside after dining out; and with the Squire, as with Mr. Squeers, the leg-stretching process involved the leisurely consumption of a good deal of brandy and water.

Mr. and Mrs. Tempest talked over the Briarwood dinner-party, and arrived — with perfect good nature — at the conclusion that it had been a failure.

“The dinner was excellent,” said the Squire, “but the wine went round too slow; my glasses were empty half the time. That’s always the way when you’ve a woman at the helm. She never fills her cellars properly, or trusts her butler thoroughly.”

“The dresses were lovely,” said Mrs. Tempest, “but everyone looked bored. How did you like my dress, Edward? I think it’s rather good style. Theodore will charge me horribly for it, I daresay.”

“I don’t know much about your dress, Pam, but you were the prettiest woman in the room.”

“Oh Edward, at my age!” exclaimed Mrs. Tempest, with a pleased look, “when there was that lovely Lady Mabel Ashbourne.”

“Do you call her lovely? — I don’t. Lips too thin; waist too slim; too much blood, and too little flesh.”

“Oh, but surely, Edward, she is grace itself; quite an ethereal creature. If Violet had more of that relined air ——”

“Heaven forbid. Vixen is worth twenty such fine-drawn misses. Lady Mabel has been spoiled by over-training.”

“Roderick is evidently in love with her,” suggested Mrs. Tempest, pouring out another cup of tea.

The clocks had just struck two, the household was at rest, the logs blazed and cracked merrily, the red light shining on those mail-clad effigies in the corners, lighting up helm and hauberk, glancing on greaves and gauntlets. It was an hour of repose and gossip which the Squire dearly loved.

Hush! what is this creeping softly down the old oak staircase? A slender white figure with cloudy hair; a small pale face, and two dark eyes shining with excitement; little feet in black velvet slippers tripping lightly upon the polished oak.

Is it a ghost? No; ghosts are noiseless, and those little slippers descend from stair to stair with a gentle pit-a-pit.

“Bless my soul and body!” cried the Squire; “what’s this?”

A gush of girlish laughter was his only answer.

“Vixen!”

“Did you take me for a ghost, papa?” cried Violet, descending the last five stairs with a flying leap, and then, bounding across the hall to perch, light as a bird, upon her father’s knee. “Did I really frighten you? Did you think the good old Abbey House was going to set up a family ghost; a white lady, with a dismal history of a broken heart? You darling papa! I hope you took me for a ghost!”

“Well, upon my word, you know, Vixen, I was just the least bit staggered. Your little white figure looked like something uncanny against the black oak balustrades, half in light, half in shadow.”

“How nice!” exclaimed Violet.

“But, my dear Violet, what can have induced you to come downstairs at such an hour?” ejaculated Mrs. Tempest in an aggrieved voice.

“I want to hear all about the party, mamma,” answered Vixen coaxingly. “Do you think I could sleep a wink on the night of Rorie’s coming of age? I heard the joy-bells ringing in my ears all night.”

“That was very ridiculous.” said Mrs. Tempest, “for there were no joy-bells after eleven o’clock yesterday.”

“But they rang all the same, mamma. It was no use burying my head in the pillows; those bells only rang the louder. Ding-dong, ding-dong, dell, Rorie’s come of age; ding-dong, dell, Rorie’s twenty-one. Then I thought of the speeches that would be made, and I fancied I could hear Rorie speaking. Did he make a good speech, papa?”

“Capital, Vix; the only one that was worth hearing!”

“I am so glad! And did he look handsome while he was speaking? I think the Swiss sunshine has rather over-cooked him, you know; but he is not unbecomingly brown.”

“He looked as handsome a young fellow as you need wish to set eyes on.”

“My dear Edward,” remonstrated Mrs. Tempest, languidly, too thoroughly contented with herself to be seriously vexed about anything, “do you think it is quite wise of you to encourage Violet in that kind of talk?”

“Why should she not talk of him? She never had a brother, and he stands in the place of one to her. Isn’t Rorie the same to you as an elder brother, Vix?”

The girl’s head was on her father’s shoulder, one slim arm round his neck, her face hidden against the Squire’s coat-collar. He could not see the deep warm flush that dyed his daughter’s cheek at this home question.

“I don’t quite know what an elder brother would be like, papa. But I’m very fond of Rorie — when he’s nice, and comes to see us before anyone else, as he did to-day.”

“And when he stays away?”

“Oh, then I hate him awfully,” exclaimed Vixen, with such energy that the slender figure trembled faintly as she spoke. “But tell me all about the party, mamma. Your dress was quite the prettiest, I am sure?”

“I’m not certain of that, Violet,” answered Mrs. Tempest with grave deliberation, as if the question were far too serious to be answered lightly. “There was a cream-coloured silk, with silver bullion fringe, that was very striking. As a rule, I detest gold or silver trimmings; but this was really elegant. It had an effect like moonlight.”

“Was that Lady Mabel Ashbourne’s dress?” asked Vixen eagerly.

“No; Lady Mabel wore blue gauze — the very palest blue, all puffings and ruchings — like a cloud.”

“Oh mamma! the clouds have no puffings and ruchings.”

“My dear, I mean the general effect — a sort of shadowiness which suits Lady Mabel’s ethereal style.”

“Ethereal!” repeated Violet thoughtfully; “you seem to admire her very much, mamma.”

“Everybody admires her, my dear.”

“Because she is a duke’s only daughter.”

“No; because she is very lovely, and extremely elegant, and most accomplished. She played and sang beautifully to-night.”

“What did she play, mamma?”

“Chopin!”

“Did she!” cried Vixen. “Then I pity her. Yes, even if she were my worst enemy I should still pity her.”

“People who are fond of music don’t mind difficulties,” said Mrs. Tempest.

“Don’t they? Then I suppose I’m not fond of it, because I shirk my practice. But I should be very fond f music if I could grind it on a barrel organ.”

“Oh, Violet, when will you be like Lady Mabel Ashbourne?”

“Never, I devoutly hope,” said the Squire.

Here the Squire gave his daughter a hug which might mean anything.

“Never, mamma,” answered Violet with conviction. “First and foremost, I never can be lovely, because I have red hair and a wide mouth. Secondly, I can never be elegant — much less ethereal — because it isn’t in me. Thirdly, I shall never be accomplished, for poor Miss McCroke is always giving me up as the baddest lot in the shape of pupils that ever came in her way.”

“If you persist in talking in that horrible way, Violet ——”

“Let her talk as she likes, Pam,” said the fond father. “I won’t have her bitted too heavily.”

Mrs. Tempest breathed a gentle sigh of resignation. The Squire was all that is dear and good as husband and father, but refinement was out of his line.

“Do go on about the party, mamma. Did Rorie seem to enjoy himself very much ——”

“I think so. He was very devoted to his cousin all the evening. I believe they are engaged to be married.”

“Mamma!” exclaimed Vixen, starting up from her reclining attitude upon her father’s shoulder, and looking intently at the speaker; “Rorie engaged to Lady Mabel Ashbourne!”

“So I am told,” replied Mrs. Tempest. “It will be a splendid match for him.”

The pretty chestnut head dropped back into its old place upon the Squire’s shoulder, and Violet answered never a word.

“Past two o’clock,” cried her mother. “This is really too dreadful. Come, Violet, you and I must go upstairs at any rate.”

“We’ll all go,” said the Squire, finishing his second brandy and soda.

So they all three went upstairs together. Vixen had grown suddenly silent and sleepy. She yawned dolefully, and kissed her mother and father at the end of the gallery, without a word; and then scudded off, swift as a scared rabbit, to her own room.

“God bless her!” exclaimed the Squire; “she grows prettier and more winning every day.”

“If her mouth were only a little smaller,” sighed Mrs. Tempest.

“It’s the prettiest mouth I ever saw upon woman — bar one,” said the Squire.

What was Vixen doing while the fond father was praising her?

She had locked her door, and thrown herself face downwards on the carpet, and was sobbing as if her heart would break.

Rorie was going to be married. Her little kingdom had been overturned by a revolution: her little world had crumbled all to pieces. Till to-night she had been a queen in her own mind; and her kingdom had been Rorie, her subjects had begun and ended in Rorie. All was over. He belonged to some one else. She could never tyrannise over him again — never scold him and abuse him and patronise him and ridicule him any more. He was her Rorie no longer.

Had she ever thought that a time might come when he would be something more to her than playfellow and friend? No, never. The young bright mind was too childishly simple for any such foresight or calculation. She had only thought that he was in somewise her property, and would be so till the end of both their lives. He was hers, and he was very fond of her, and she thought him a rather absurd young fellow, and looked down upon him with airs of ineffable superiority from the altitude of her childish womanliness.

And now he was gone. The earth had opened all at once and swallowed him, like that prophetic gentleman in the Greek play, whose name Vixen could never remember — chariot and horses and all. He belonged henceforth to Lady Mabel Ashbourne. She could never be rude to him any more. She could not take such a liberty with another young lady’s lover.

“And to think that he should never have told me he was going to be engaged to her,” she said. “He must have been fond of her from the very beginning; and he never said a word; and he let me think he rather liked me — or at least tolerated me. And how could he like two people who are the very antipodes of each other? If he is fond of her, he must detest me. If he respects her, he must despise me.”

The thought of such treachery rankled deep in the young warm heart. Vixen started up to her feet, and stood in the midst of the firelit room, with clinched fists, like a young fury. The light chestnut tresses should have been Medusa’s snakes to have harmonised with that set white face. God had given Violet Tempest a heart to feel deeply, too deeply for perfect peace, or that angelic softness which seems to us most worthy in woman — the power to suffer and be patient.

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