Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

Something like a Ride.

It was impossible to go on hating Lord Mallow for ever. He was a man whose overflowing good-nature would have conciliated the direst foe, could that enemy have been exposed long enough to its softening influence. He came upon the dull daily life of the Abbey House like a burst of sudden sunshine on a gloomy plain. The long winter evenings, when there was no company, had been sorely oppressive to Vixen. Out of respect to her mother she had kept her place in the drawing-room, reading, or working at some uninteresting strip of point-lace, which she had no hope of ever finishing, though it had been promised to Mr. Scobel for his church. Captain Winstanley read the newspapers or the quarterlies, and paced the room thoughtfully at intervals. He talked to his wife just enough to escape the charge of neglect, but rarely spoke to or noticed Violet. Sometimes Mrs. Winstanley asked for a little music; whereupon Violet went to the piano and played her scanty recollections of Mozart or Beethoven — all “tuney” bits, remembered out of the sonatas or symphonies Miss McCroke had taught her; or, if asked to sing, the girl sang a ballad or two, to order, in her full round mezzo-soprano, which had a thrilling expression at times, when feeling got the better of her proud reserve, and all the pent-up sorrow of her heart broke loose into her song. But Captain Winstanley took no notice of these efforts, and even her mother’s praises were not enthusiastic.

“Very sweet, very nice,” was the most Vixen ever heard from those maternal lips as she closed the piano.

But here was Lord Mallow, passionately fond of music and singing, and the beauties of nature, and all things that appeal to the sensitive Hibernian character. It seemed a new thing to Violet to have someone standing by the piano, turning over the leaves, applauding rapturously, and entreating for another and yet another Irish melody. When she sang “The Minstrel Boy,” he joined in with a rich baritone that harmonised finely with her full ripe notes. The old room vibrated with the strong gush of melody, and even Captain Winstanley was impelled to praise.

“How well your voices harmonise,” he said. “You ought to try some duets. I remember that fine baritone of yours in days of old, Mallow.”

Thereupon Lord Mallow asked Miss Tempest if she had any duets, and Vixen produced her small stock of vocal music. They tried one or two of Mendelssohn’s, “I would that my love,” and “Greeting,” and discovered that they got on wonderfully well together. Vixen fell asleep that night wondering at her own amiability.

“To think that I should sing sentimental duets with him,” she said to herself. “The man who has Bullfinch!”

Lord Mallow’s presence at the Abbey House had a marked effect upon Captain Winstanley’s treatment of his stepdaughter. Hitherto there had been a veiled bitterness in all his speeches, a constrained civility in his manners. Now he was all kindness, all expansion. Even his wife, who admired him always, and thought him the soul of wisdom in all he did, could not be blind to the change, and a new sense of peacefulness stole into her feeble mind. It was so pleasant to see dear Conrad so sweetly kind to Violet.

“What are we going to do with Lord Mallow this morning, Violet?” asked the Captain at breakfast, the day after the Irishman’s arrival. “We must try to amuse him somehow.”

“I don’t think I have much to do with it,” Vixen answered coldly. “You will find plenty of amusement. I daresay, in the billiard-room, in the stables, or in showing Lord Mallow your improvements.”

“That would do very well for a wet morning, but it would be a profligate waste of fine weather. No; I propose that you should show Mallow some of the prettiest bits in the Forest. I am not half so accomplished a guide as you; but we’ll all go. I’ll order the horses at once if you like my plan, Mallow,” said Captain Winstanley, turning to his friend, and taking Violet’s consent for granted.

“I shall be quite too delighted, if Miss Tempest will honour us with her company,” replied the Irishman, with a pleasant look at Vixen’s fresh morning face, rosy-red with vexation.

It was the first time her stepfather had ever asked her to ride with him, and she hated doing it. It was the first time she had ever been asked to ride with anyone but her father or Roderick Vawdrey. Yet to refuse would have been impossible, without absolute discourtesy to her mother’s husband and her mother’s guest. So she sat in her place and said nothing; and Lord Mallow mistook the angry carnation for the warm red of happy girlhood, which blushes it knows not wherefore.

Captain Winstanley ordered the horses to be at the door in half-an-hour: and then he took Lord Mallow off to look at the stables, while Violet went upstairs to put on her habit. Why was the Captain so unusually amiable? she speculated. Was his little soul so mean that he put on better manners to do honour to an Irish peer?

She came tripping down the wide old staircase at the end of the half-hour, in habit and hat of Lincoln green, with a cock’s feather in the neat little hat, and a formidable hooked hunting-crop for opening gates, little feet daintily shod in patent leather, but no spur. She loved her horse too well to run a needle into his sleek hide at the slightest provocation.

There were three horses, held by Bates and Lord Mallow’s groom. Bullfinch, looking as if he had just taken a prize at Islington and was inclined to be bumptious about it. Arion, tossing his delicately modelled Greek head, and peering furtively after bogies in the adjacent shrubbery. Captain Winstanley’s well-seasoned hunter, Mosstrooper, nodding his long bony head, and swaying his fine-drawn neck up and down in a half-savage half-scornful manner, as if he were at war with society in general, like the Miller of Dee.

Vixen, who had looked the picture of vexation at the breakfast-table, was now all gaiety. Her hazel eyes sparkled with mischief. Lord Mallow stood in the porch, watching her as she came down the shining oak staircase, glorious in the winter sunlight. He thought her the perfection of a woman — nay, more than a woman, a goddess. Diana, the divine huntress, must have looked so, he fancied. He ran forward to mount her on the fidgety Arion; but honest old Bates was too quick for him; and she was looking down at Lord Mallow graciously from her perch on the well-worn doeskin saddle before he had time to offer his services.

She leaned over to pat Bullfinch’s massive crest.

“Dear old horse,” she murmured tenderly, remembering those winter mornings of old when he had stood before the porch as he stood to-day, waiting for the noble rider who was never more to mount him.

“Yet life goes on somehow without our beloved dead,” thought Violet.

Her changeful face saddened at the idea, and she rode along the shrubberied drive in silence.

“Where are you going to take us?” asked the Captain, when they had emerged from the Abbey House grounds, crossed the coach-road, and made their plunge into the first cart-track that offered itself.

“Everywhere,” answered Vixen, with a mischievous laugh. “You have chosen me for your guide, and all you have to do is to follow.”

And she gave Arion a light touch with her hunting-crop, and cantered gaily down the gently sloping track to a green lawn, which looked, to Captain Winstanley’s experienced eye, very much like a quaggy bog.

“Steer towards your left!” he cried anxiously to Lord Mallow.

If there was danger near Vixen managed to avoid it; she made a sweeping curve, skirted the treacherous-looking lawn, and disappeared in another cart-track, between silvery trunks of veteran beeches, self-sown in the dark ages, with here and there a gnarled old oak, rugged and lichen-mantled, with feathery tufts of fern nestling in the hollow places between his gaunt limbs.

That was a ride! Lord Mallow could remember nothing like it, and he was destined to carry this in his memory for a lifetime. The ghostly trees; the silver-shining bark of the beeches, varying with a hundred indescribable shades of green, and purple, and warmest umber; the rugged gray of the grand old oaks; the lichens and mosses, the mysterious wintry growths of toadstool and weed and berry; that awful air of unearthliness which pervaded the thicker portions of the wood, as of some mystic underworld — half shadow and half dream. No, Lord Mallow could never forget it; nor yet the way that flying figure in Lincoln green led them by bog and swamp, over clay and gravel — through as many varieties of soil as if she had been trying to give them a practical lesson in geology; across snaky ditches and pebbly fords; through furze-bushes and thickets of holly; through everything likely to prove aggravating to the temper of a wellbred horse; and finally, before giving them breathing-time, she led them up the clayey side of a hill, as steep as a house, on the top of which she drew rein, and commanded them to admire the view.

“This is Acres Down, and there are the Needles,” she said, pointing her whip at the dim blue horizon. “If it were a clear day, and your sight were long enough, I daresay you would see Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark. But, I think, to-day you must be content with the Needles. Can you see them?” she asked Lord Mallow.

“See them!” exclaimed the Irishman. “I can see well enough to thread one of them if I wanted.”

“Now, you’ve seen the Isle of Wight,” said Vixen. “That’s a point accomplished. The ardent desire of everyone in the Forest is to see the Isle of Wight. They are continually mounting hills and gazing into space, in order to get a glimpse at that chalky little island. It seems the main object of everybody’s existence.”

“They might as well go and live there at once, if they’re so fond of it,” suggested Lord Mallon.

“Yes; and then they would be straining their eyes in the endeavour to see the Great Horse — that’s a group of firs on the top of a hill, and one of our Forest seamarks. That frantic desire to behold distant objects has always seemed to me to be one of the feeblest tendencies of the human mind. Now you have seen the Needles, we have accomplished a solemn duty, and I may show you our woods.”

Vixen shook her rein and trotted recklessly down a slippery path, jumped a broad black ditch, and plunged into the recesses of the wood, Bullfinch and Mosstrooper following meekly.

They went a wonderful round, winding in and out of Bratley Wood, piercing deep into the wintry glories of Mark Ash; through mud and moss and soft pitfalls, where the horses sank up to their hocks in withered leaves; avoiding bogs by a margin of a yard or so; up and down, under spreading branches, where the cattle line but just cleared the heads of the riders; across the blackened bracken; by shining hollies, whose silvery trunks stood up like obelisks out of a thicket of dwarf bushes: through groves, where the tall beech-trunks had a solemn look like the columns of some gigantic temple; then into wondrous plantations of Scotch firs, where the air was balmy as in summer, and no breath of the December wind penetrated the dense wall of foliage. Then to higher ground, where the wintry air blew keen again, and where there were a soft green lawn, studded with graceful conifers — cypress, deodora, Douglas fir — tall with a growth of thirty years; the elegant importations of an advanced civilisation. Anon by the gray lichened walls of a deserted garden, which had a strangely-romantic look, and was as suggestive of a dreamy idyllic world as a poem by Tennyson; and so down into the green-and-gray depths of Mark Ash again, but never returning over the same ground; and then up the hill to Vinny Ridge and the Heronry, where Captain Winstanley cracked his whip to scare the herons, and had the satisfaction of scaring his own and the other two horses, while the herons laughed him to scorn from their cradles in the tree-tops, and would not stir a feather for his gratification. Then by a long plantation to a wild stretch of common, where Vixen told her companions that they were safe for a good while, and set them an example by starting Arion across the short smooth turf at a hand-gallop. They pulled up just in time to escape a small gulf of moss and general sponginess, waded a stream or two, splashed through a good deal of spewy ground, and came to Queen’s Bower; thence into the oak plantations of New Park; then across Gretnam Wood; and then at a smart trot along the road towards home.

“I hope I haven’t kept you out too long?” said Vixen politely.

“We’ve only been five hours,” answered the Captain with grim civility; “but if Mallow is not tired, I shall not complain.”

“I never enjoyed anything so much in my life, never,” protested Lord Mallow.

“Well, to-morrow we can shoot the pheasants. It will be a rest for us after this.”

“It will be dull work after the enchantments of to-day,” said the Irishman.

Captain Winstanley rode homewards a few paces in the rear of the other two, smiling to himself grimly, and humming a little song of Heine’s:

“Es ist eine alte Geschichte,

Doch bleibt sie immer neu.”

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