Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

Rorie objects to Duets.

Mrs. Winstanley’s little dinner went off smoothly and pleasantly, as all such entertainments had done under the new régime. The Captain knew how to select his guests, as well as he knew how to compose a menu. People felt pleased with themselves and with their neighbours at his table. There was nothing heavy in the dinner or in the conversation; there were no long sittings over old port or particular claret. The wines were of the first quality; but there was no fuss made about them. Colonel Carteret remembered how he and the Squire had sat prosing over their port or Château Lafitte, and felt as if he were living in a new world — a world in which full-blooded friendship and boisterous hospitality were out of fashion. People whose talk had hitherto been intensely local — confined, for the most part to petty sessions, commoners’ rights, hunting, and the parish church and schools — found themselves discussing the widest range of topics, from the prospect of a European war — that European war which has been impending more or less distinctly for the last twenty years — to the latest social scandal in the upper currents of London society. Captain and Mrs. Winstanley’s country friends, inspired by one or two clever young men just imported from the London clubs, were surprised to discover how well they were able to criticise the latest productions in literature, art, and the drama; the newest results of scientific investigation; or the last record of African or Central Asian exploration. It was quite delightful to quiet country people, who went to London on an average once in three years, to find themselves talking so easily about the last famous picture, the latest action for libel in artistic circles, or the promised adaptation of Sardou’s last comedy at a West End theatre, just as glibly as if they knew all about art, and had read every play of Sardou’s.

Roderick Vawdrey enjoyed himself wonderfully at this particular dinner-party, so long as the dinner lasted; for Captain Winstanley, by an oversight which made him inwardly savage all dinner-time, had placed Mr. Vawdrey and Miss Tempest side by side. There had been some confusion in his mind as he finished his plan of the table; his attention having been called away at the last moment, or this thing could not have happened — for nothing was farther from Captain Winstanley’s intention than that Violet and her old playfellow should be happy in each other’s society. And there they sat, smiling and sparkling at each other in the exuberance of youth and high spirits, interchanging little confidential remarks that were doubtless to the disparagement of some person or persons in the assembly. If dark electric glances shot from the covert of bent brows could have slain those two happy triflers, assuredly neither of them would have lived to the end of that dinner.

“How do you like him?” asked Rorie, stooping to sniff at the big Maréchal Niel bud, in the specimen glass by his plate.

“Whom?”

“The man who has Bullfinch.”

Lord Mallow was in the place of honour next his hostess. Involuntarily Violet glanced in that direction, and was startled to find the Irishman’s good-humoured gaze meeting hers, just as if he had been watching her for the last half-hour.

“How do I like him? Well, he seems very good-natured.”

“Seems good-natured. You ought to be able to give me a more definite answer by this time. You have lived in the same house with him — let me see, is it three or four days since he came?”

“He has been here nearly a week.”

“A week! Why then you must know him as well as if he were your brother. There is no man living who could keep himself dark for a week. No; I don’t believe the most inscrutable of men, born and bred in diplomatic circles, could keep the secret of a solitary failing from the eyes of those who live under the same roof with him for seven days. It would leak out somehow — if not at breakfast, at dinner. Man is a communicative animal, and so loves talking of himself that if he has committed murder he must tell somebody about it sooner or later. And as to that man,” continued Rorie, with a contemptuous glance at the single-minded Lord Mallow, “he is a creature whom the merest beginner in the study of humanity would know by heart in half-an-hour.”

“What do you know about him?” asked Vixen laughing. “You have had more than half-an-hour for the study of his character.”

“I know ever so much more than I want to know.”

“Answered like a Greek oracle.”

“What, have you taken to reading Greek?”

“No; but I know the oracles were a provoking set of creatures who answered every inquiry with an enigma. But I won’t have you abuse Lord Mallow. He has been very kind to Bullfinch, and has promised me that he will never part with him. The dear old horse is to have a comfortable stable and kindly treatment to his dying day — not to be sent out to grass in his old age, to shiver in a dreary solitude, or to be scorched by the sun and tormented by the flies.”

“He has promised all that, has he? He would promise a good deal more, I daresay,” muttered Rorie, stooping over his rosebud. “Do you think him handsome? Do women admire a fresh complexion and black whiskers, and that unmistakable air of a hairdresser’s wax model endowed with animation?”

“I see you consider him an idiot,” said Vixen laughing. “But I assure you he is rather clever. He talks wonderfully about Ireland, and the reforms he is going to bring about for her.”

“Of course. Burke, and Curran, and Castlereagh, and O’Connell, and fifty more have failed to steer that lumbering old vessel off the mudbank on which she stranded at some time in the dark ages; in fact, nobody except Oliver Cromwell ever did understand how to make Ireland prosperous and respectable, and he began by depopulating her. And here is a fresh-coloured young man, with whiskers à la côtelette de mouton, who thinks he was born to be her pilot, and to navigate her into a peaceful haven. He is the sort of man who will begin by being the idol of a happy tenantry, and end by being shot from behind one of his own hedges.”

“I hope not,” said Vixen, “for I am sure he means well. And I should like him to outlive Bullfinch.”

Roderick had been very happy all dinner-time. From the soups to the ice-puddings the moments had flown for him. It seemed the briefest dinner he had ever been at; and yet when the ladies rose to depart the silvery chime of the clock struck the half-hour after nine. But Lord Mallow’s hour came later, in the drawing-room, where he contrived to hover over Violet, and fence her round from all other admirers for the rest of the evening. They sang their favourite duets together, to the delight of everyone except Rorie, who felt curiously savage at “I would that my love,” and icily disapproving at “Greeting;” but vindictive to the verge of homicidal mania at “Oh, wert thou in the cauld blast!”

“His ‘plaidie,’ indeed,” he ejaculated inwardly. “The creature never possessed anything so comfortable or civilised. How preposterous it is to hear an Irishman sing Scotch songs. If an Irishman had a plaidie, he would pawn it for a dhrop o’ the cratur.”

Later Violet and Lord Mallow sang a little duet by Masini, “O, que la mer est belle!” the daintiest, most bewitching music — such a melody as the Loreley might have sung when the Rhine flowed peacefully onward below mountain-peaks shining in the evening light, luring foolish fishermen to their doom. Everybody was delighted. It was just the kind of music to please the unlearned in the art. Mrs. Carteret came to the piano to compliment Violet.

“I had no idea you could sing so sweetly,” she said. “Why have you never sung to us before?”

“Nobody ever asked me,” Vixen answered frankly. “But indeed I am no singer.”

“You have one of the freshest, brightest voices I ever had the happiness of hearing,” Lord Mallow exclaimed enthusiastically.

He would have liked to go on singing duets for an indefinite period. He felt lifted into some strange and delightful region — a sphere of love and harmony — while he was mingling his voice with Violet’s. It made the popular idea of heaven, as a place where there is nothing but singing — an eternal, untiring choir — clearer and more possible to him than it had ever seemed before. Paradise would be quite endurable if he and Violet might stand side by side in the serried ranks of choristers. There was quite a little crowd round the piano, shutting in Violet and Lord Hallow, and Roderick Vawdrey was not in it. He felt himself excluded, and held himself gloomingly apart, talking hunting talk with a man for whom he did not care twopence. Directly his carriage was announced —sotto voce by the considerate Forbes, so as not to wound anybody’s feelings by the suggestion that the festivity was on its last legs — Mr. Vawdrey went up to Mrs. Winstanley and took leave. He would not wait to say good-night to Violet. He only cast one glance in the direction of the piano, where the noble breadth of Mrs. Carteret’s brocaded amber back obscured every remoter object, and then went away moodily, denouncing duet-singing as an abomination.

When Lady Mabel asked him next day what kind of an evening he had had at the Abbey House, in a tone which implied that any entertainment there must be on a distinctly lower level as compared with the hospitalities of Ashbourne, he told her that it had been uncommonly slow.

“How was that? You had some stupid person to take into dinner, perhaps?”

“No; I went in with Violet.”

“And you and she are such old friends. You ought to get on very well together.”

Rorie reddened furiously. Happily he was standing with his back to the light in one of the orchid-houses, enjoying the drowsy warmth of the atmosphere, and Mabel was engrossed with the contemplation of a fine zygopetalum, which was just making up its mind to bloom.

“Oh, yes, that was well enough; but the evening was disgustingly slow. There was too much music.”

“Classical?”

“Lord knows. It was mostly French and German. I consider it an insult to people to ask them to your house, and then stick them down in their chairs, and say h — sh — h! every time they open their months. If people want to give amateur concerts, let them say so when they send out their invitations, and then one would know what one has to expect.”

“I am afraid the music must have been very bad to make you so cross,” said Lady Mabel, rather pleased that the evening at the Abbey House should have been a failure. “Who were the performers?”

“Violet, and an Irish friend of Captain Winstanley’s — a man with a rosy complexion and black whiskers — Lord Mallow.”

“Lord Mallow! I think I danced with him once or twice last season. He is rather distinguished as a politician, I believe, among the young Ireland party. Dreadfully radical.”

“He looks it,” answered Rorie. “He has a loud voice and a loud laugh, and they seem to be making a great deal of him at the Abbey House.”

“‘Tommy loves a lord,’” says Lady Mabel brightly. Rorie hadn’t the faintest idea whence the quotation came. “I daresay the Winstanleys are rather glad to have Lord Mallow staying with them.”

“The Squire would have kicked him out of doors,” muttered Rorie savagely.

“But why? Is he so very objectionable? He waltzes beautifully, if I remember right; and I thought him rather a well-meaning young man.”

“Oh, there’s nothing serious against him that I know of; only I don’t think Squire Tempest would have liked a singing man any more than he would have liked a singing mouse.”

“I didn’t know Miss Tempest sang,” said Lady Mabel. “I thought she could do nothing but ride.”

“Oh, she has a very pretty voice, but one may have too much of a good thing, you know. One doesn’t go out to dinner to hear people sing duets.”

“I’m afraid they must have given you a very bad dinner, or you would hardly be so cross. I know that is the way with papa. If the dinner is bad he abuses everything, and declares the ladies were all ugly.”

“Oh, the dinner was excellent, I believe. I’m not a connoisseur, like my uncle. People might give me the most wonderful dinner in the world, and I would hardly be the wiser; or they might give me a wretched one, and I should not feel particularly angry with them.”

The next day was Tuesday, and, as the Duchess and her daughter happened to be driving within a mile or so of the Abbey House, Lady Mabel suggested that they should call upon Mrs. Winstanley.

“I am rather anxious to see the wild Irishman they have captured lately — Lord Mallow. We met him at Lady Dumdrum’s, if you remember, mamma. I danced with him twice.”

“My dear Mabel, do you think I can remember all your partners?”

“But Lord Mallow is rather celebrated. He makes very good speeches. Papa read one of them to us the other day when there was a great debate going on upon the Irish land question.”

The Duchess remembered being read to one evening after dinner, but the debates, as delivered by the Duke, had generally a somnolent effect upon his wife. She had a faint idea of the beginning, and struggled heroically to discover what the speakers were talking about; then came a soft confusion of sound, like the falling of waters; and the middle and end of the debate was dreamland. Lady Mabel was of a more energetic temper, and was interested in everything that could enlarge her sphere of knowledge, from a parliamentary debate to a Greek play.

The Duchess had never in her life refused compliance with any wish of her daughter’s, so the horses’ heads were turned towards the Abbey House, along a smooth hard road through a pine wood, then through a lodge-gate into a forest of rhododendrons.

“This is really a nicer place than Ashbourne, mamma,” remarked Lady Mabel disapprovingly.

It appeared to her quite a mistake in the arrangement of the universe that Violet Tempest should be heiress to a more picturesque estate than that which she, the Duke of Dovedale’s only daughter, was to inherit.

“My dear, Ashbourne is perfect. Everyone says so. The stables, the offices, the way the house is lighted and heated, the ventilation.”

“Yes, mamma; but those are details which nobody thinks about except an architect or a house-agent. Ashbourne is so revoltingly modern. It smells of stucco. It will take a century to tone it down. Now this fine old place is like a dream of the past; it is a poem in wood and stone. Ashbourne would be very well for a hunting-box for anyone who had three or four other places, as my father has; but when my time comes, and I have only Ashbourne, I’m afraid I shall hate it.”

“But you will have a choice of places by-and-by,” said the Duchess consolingly “You will have Briarwood.”

“Briarwood is a degree uglier than Ashbourne,” sighed Lady Mabel, leaning back in the carriage, wrapped to the chin in Russian sable, the image of discontent.

There are moments in every life, as in Solomon’s, when all seems vanity. Lady Mabel Ashbourne’s life had been cloudless — a continual summer, an unchangeable Italian sky; and yet there were times when she was weary of it, when some voice within her murmured, “This is not enough.” She was pretty, she was graceful, accomplished, gifted with a self-confidence that generally passed for wit; all the blood in her veins was the bluest of the blue, everybody bowed down to her, more or less, and paid her homage; the man she liked best in the world, and had so preferred from her childhood, was to be her husband; nobody had ever contradicted her, or hinted that she was less than perfect; and yet that mysterious and rebellious voice sometimes repeated, “It is not enough.” She was like the woman in the German fairy tale, who, beginning as the wife of a half-starved fisherman, came, by fairy power, to be king, and then emperor, and then pope: and still was not contented, but languished for something more, aye, even to have the ordering of the sun and moon.

The rebellious voice expostulated loudly this winter afternoon, as Lady Mabel’s languid eyes scanned the dark shining rhododendron bushes, rising bank above bank, a veritable jungle, backed by tall beeches and towerlike Douglas firs. A blackbird was whistling joyously amongst the greenery, and a robin was singing on the other side of the drive. The sunlit sky was soft and pearly. It was one of those mild winters in which Christmas steals unawares upon the footprints of a lovely autumn. The legendary oak was doubtless in full bud at Cadenham, like its miraculous brother, the Glastonbury thorn.

“I don’t think any of my father’s places can compare with this,” Lady Mabel said irritably.

She would not have minded the beauty of the grounds so much had they been the heritage of any other heiress than Violet Tempest.

The old hall was full of people and voices when the Duchess and her daughter were announced. There was a momentary hush at their entrance, as at the advent of someone of importance, and Mrs. Winstanley came smiling put of the firelight to welcome them, in Theodore’s last invention, which was a kind of skirt that necessitated a peculiar gliding motion in the wearer, and was built upon the lines of a mermaid’s tail.

“How good of you!” exclaimed Mrs. Winstanley.

“We were coming through Lyndhurst, and could not resist the temptation of coming in to see you,” said the Duchess graciously. “How do you do, Miss Tempest? Were you out with the hounds this morning? We met some people riding home.”

“I have never hunted since my father’s death,” Violet answered gravely; and the Duchess was charmed with the answer and the seriously tender look that accompanied it.

Lord Mallow was standing before the hearth, looking remarkably handsome in full hunting costume. The well-worn scarlet coat and high black boots became him. He had enjoyed his first day with the Forest hounds, had escaped the bogs, and had avoided making an Absalom of himself among the spreading beechen boughs. Bullfinch had behaved superbly over his old ground.

Mr. and Mrs. Scobel were among those dusky figures grouped around the wide firelit hearth, where the piled-up logs testified to the Tempest common of estovers. Mr. Scobel was talking about the last advance movement of the Ritualists, and expatiating learnedly upon the Ornaments Rubric of 1559, and its bearing upon the Advertisements of 1566, with a great deal more about King Edward’s first Prayer-book, and the Act of Uniformity, to Colonel Carteret, who, from an antique conservative standpoint, regarded Ritualists, Spirit-rappers, and Shakers in about the same category; while Mrs. Scobel twittered cheerily about the parish and the schools to the Colonel’s bulky wife, who was a liberal patroness of all philanthropic institutions in her neighbourhood.

Lord Mallow came eagerly forward to recall himself to the memories of Lady Mabel and her mother.

“I hope your grace has not forgotten me,” he said; and the Duchess, who had not the faintest recollection of his face or figure, knew that this must be Lord Mallow. “I had the honour of being introduced to you at Lady Dumdrum’s delightful ball.”

The Duchess said something gracious, and left Lord Mallow free to talk to Lady Mabel. He reminded her of that never to be, by him, forgotten waltz, and talked, in his low-pitched Irish voice, as if he had lived upon nothing but the recollection of it ever since.

It was idiosyncratic of Lord Mallow that he could not talk to any young woman without seeming to adore her. At this very moment he thought Violet Tempest the one lovable and soul-entrancing woman the world held for him; yet at sight of Lady Mabel he behaved as if she and no other was his one particular star.

“It was a nice dance, wasn’t it? but there were too many people for the rooms,” said Lady Mabel easily; “and I don’t think the flowers were so prettily arranged as the year before. Do you?”

“I was not there the year before.”

“No? I must confess to having been at three balls at Lady Dumdrum’s. That makes me seem very old, does it not? Some young ladies in London make believe to be always in their first season. They put on a hoydenish freshness, and pretend to be delighted with everything, as if they were just out of the nursery.”

“That’s a very good idea up to thirty,” said Lord Mallow. “I should think it would hardly answer after.”

“Oh, after thirty they begin to be fond of horses and take to betting. I believe young ladies after thirty are the most desperate — what is that dreadful slang word? — plungers in society. How do you like our hunting?”

“I like riding about the Forest amazingly; but I should hardly call it hunting, after Leicestershire. Of course that depends in a measure upon what you mean by hunting. If you only mean hounds pottering about after a fox, this might pass muster; but if your idea of hunting includes hard riding and five-barred gates, I should call the kind of thing you do here by another name.”

“Was my cousin, Mr. Vawdrey, out to-day?”

“The M. F. H.? In the first flight. May I get you some tea?”

“If you please. Mrs. Winstanley’s tea is always so good.”

Mrs. Winstanley was supremely happy in officiating at her gipsy table, where the silver tea-kettle of Queen Anne’s time was going through its usual sputtering performances. To sit in a fashionable gown — however difficult the gown might be to sit in — and dispense tea to a local duchess, was Mrs. Winstanley’s loftiest idea of earthly happiness. Of course there might be a superior kind of happiness beyond earth; but to appreciate that the weak human soul would have to go through a troublesome ordeal in the way of preparation, as the gray cloth at Hoyle’s printing-works is dashed about in gigantic vats, and whirled round upon mighty wheels, before it is ready for the reception of particular patterns and dyes.

Lady Mabel and Lord Mallow had a longish chat in the deep-set window where Vixen watched for Rorie on his twenty-first birthday. The conversation came round to Irish politics somehow, and Lord Mallow was enraptured at discovering that Lady Mabel had read his speeches, or had heard them read. He had met many young ladies who professed to be interested in his Irish politics; but never before had he encountered one who seemed to know what she was talking about. Lord Mallow was enchanted. He had found his host’s lively step-daughter stonily indifferent to the Hibernian cause. She had said “Poor things” once or twice, when he dilated on the wrongs of an oppressed people; but her ideas upon all Hibernian subjects were narrow. She seemed to imagine Ireland a vast expanse of bog chiefly inhabited by pigs.

“There are mountains, are there not?” she remarked once; “and tourists go there? But people don’t live there, do they?’

“My dear Miss Tempest, there are charming country seats; if you were to see the outskirts of Waterford, or the hills above Cork, you would find almost as many fine mansions as in England.”

“Really?” exclaimed Vixen, with most bewitching incredulity; “but people don’t live in them? Now I’m sure you cannot tell me honestly that anyone lives in Ireland. You, for instance, you talk most enthusiastically about your beautiful country, but you don’t live in it.”

“I go there every year for the fishing.”

“Yes; but gentlemen will go to the most uncomfortable places for fishing — Norway, for example. You go to Ireland just as you go to Norway.”

“I admit that the fishing in Connemara is rather remote from civilisation ——”

“Of course. It is at the other end of everything. And then you go into the House of Commons, and rave about Ireland, just as if you loved her as I love the Forest, where I hope to live and die. I think all this wild enthusiasm about Ireland is the silliest thing in the world when it comes from the lips of landowners who won’t pay their beloved country the compliment of six months’ residence out of the twelve.”

After this Lord Mallow gave up all hope of sympathy from Miss Tempest. What could be expected from a young lady who could not understand patriotism in the abstract, but wanted to pin a man down for life to the spot of ground for which his soul burned with the ardour of an orator and a poet? Imagine Tom Moore compelled to live in a humble cot in the Vale of Avoca! He infinitely preferred his humdrum cottage in Wiltshire. Indeed, I believe it has been proved against him that he had never seen the Meeting of the Waters, and wrote about that famous scene from hearsay. Ireland has never had a poet as Irish as Burns and Scott were Scottish. Her whole-hearted, single-minded national bard has yet to be born.

It was a relief, therefore, to Lord Mallow’s active mind to find himself in conversation with a young lady who really cared for his subject and understood him. He could have talked to Lady Mabel for ever. The limits of five-o’clock tea were far too narrow. He was delighted when the Duchess paused as she was going away, and said:

“I hope you will come and see us at Ashbourne, Lord Mallow; the Duke will be very pleased to know you.”

Lord Mallow murmured something expressive of a mild ecstasy, and the Duchess swept onward, like an Australian clipper with all sails set, Lady Mabel gliding like a neat little pinnace in her wake.

Lord Mallow was glad when the next day’s post brought him a card of invitation to the ducal dinner on December the 31st. He fancied that he was indebted to Lady Mabel for this civility.

“You are going, of course,” he said to Violet, twisting the card between his fingers meditatively.

“I believe I am asked.”

“She is,” answered Mrs. Winstanley, from her seat behind the urn; “and I consider, under the circumstances, it is extremely kind of the Duchess to invite her.”

“Why?” asked Lord Mallow, intensely mystified.

“Why, the truth is, my dear Lord Mallow, that Violet is in an anomalous position. She has been to Lady Southminster’s ball, and a great many parties about here. She is out and yet not out, if you understand.”

Lord Mallow looked as if he was very far from understanding.

“She has never been presented,” explained Mrs. Winstanley. “It is too dreadful to think of. People would call me the most neglectful of mothers. But the season before last seemed too soon alter dear Edward’s death, and last season, well”— blushing and hesitating a little —“my mind was so much occupied, and Violet herself was so indifferent about it, that somehow or other the time slipped by and the thing was not done. I feel myself awfully to blame — almost as much so as if I had neglected her confirmation. But early next season — at the very first drawing-room, if possible — she must be presented, and then I shall feel a great deal more comfortable in my mind.”

“I don’t think it matters one little bit,” said Lord Mallow, with appalling recklessness.

“It would matter immensely if we were travelling. Violet could not be presented at any foreign court, or invited to any court ball. She would be an outcast. I shall have to be presented myself, on my marriage with Captain Winstanley. We shall go to London early in the spring. Conrad will take a small house in Mayfair.”

“If I can get one,” said the captain doubtfully. “Small houses in Mayfair are as hard to get nowadays as black pearls — and as dear.”

“I am charmed to think you will be in town,” exclaimed Lord Mallow; “and, perhaps, some night when there is an Irish question on, you and Miss Tempest might be induced to come to the Ladies’ Gallery. Some ladies rather enjoy a spirited debate.”

“I should like it amazingly,” cried Violet. “You are awfully rude to one another, are you not? And you imitate cocks and hens; and do all manner of dreadful things. It must be capital fun.”

This was not at all the kind of appreciation Lord Mallow desired.

“Oh, yes; we are excruciatingly funny sometimes, I daresay, without knowing it,” he said, with a mortified air.

He was getting on the friendliest terms with Violet. He was almost as much at home with her as Rorie was, except that she never called him by his christian-name, nor flashed at him those lovely mirth-provoking glances which he surprised sometimes on their way to Mr. Vawdrey. Those two had a hundred small jokes and secrets that dated back to Vixen’s childhood. How could a new-comer hope to be on such delightful terms with her? Lord Mallow felt this, and hated Roderick Vawdrey as intensely as it was possible for a nature radically good and generous to hate even a favoured rival. That Roderick was his rival, and was favoured, were two ideas of which Lord Mallow could not dispossess himself, notwithstanding the established fact of Mr. Vawdrey’s engagement to his cousin.

“A good many men begin life by being engaged to their cousins,” reflected Lord Mallow. “A man’s relations take it into their heads to keep an estate in the family, and he is forthwith set at his cousin like an unwilling terrier at a rat. I don’t at all feel as if this young man were permanently disposed of, in spite of all their talk; and I’m very sure Miss Tempest likes him better than I should approve of were I the cousin.”

While he loitered over his second cup of coffee, with the ducal card of invitation in his hand, it seemed to him a good opportunity for talking about Lady Mabel.

“A very elegant girl, Lady Mabel,” he said; “and remarkably clever. I never talked to a young woman, or an old one either, who knew so much about Ireland. She’s engaged to that gawky cousin, isn’t she?”

Vixen shot an indignant look at him, and pouted her rosy underlip.

“You mean young Vawdrey. Yes; it is quite an old engagement. They were affianced to each other in their cradles, I believe,” answered Captain Winstanley.

“Just what I should have imagined,” said Lord Mallow.

“Why?”

“Because they seem to care so little for each other now.”

“Oh but, dear Lord Mallow, remember Lady Mabel Ashbourne is too well-bred to go about the world advertising her affection for her future husband,” remonstrated Mrs. Winstanley. “I’m sure, if you had seen us before our marriage, you would never have guessed from our manner to each other that Conrad and I were engaged. You would not have a lady behave like a housemaid with her ‘young man.’ I believe in that class of life they always sit with their arms round each other’s waists at evening parties.”

“I would have a lady show that she has a heart, and is not ashamed to acknowledge its master,” said Lord Mallow, with his eyes on Vixen, who sat stolidly silent, pale with anger. “However, we will put down Lady Mabel’s seeming coldness to good-breeding. But as to Mr. Vawdrey, all I can say about him is, that he may be in love with his cousin’s estate, but he is certainly not in love with his cousin.”

This was more than Vixen could brook.

“Mr. Vawdrey is a gentleman, with a fine estate of his own!” she cried. “How dare you impute such meanness to him?”

“It may be mean, but it is the commonest thing in life.”

“Yes, among adventurers who have no other road to fortune than by marrying for money; but do you suppose it can matter to Roderick whether he has a thousand acres less or more, or two houses instead of one? He is going to marry Lady Mabel because it was the dearest wish of his mother’s heart, and because she is perfect, and proper, and accomplished, and wonderfully clever — you said as much yourself — and exactly the kind of wife that a young man would be proud of. There are reasons enough, I should hope,” concluded Vixen indignantly.

She had spoken breathlessly, in gasps of a few words at a time, and her eyes flashed their angriest light upon the astounded Irishman.

“Not half a reason if he does not love her,” he answered boldly. “But I believe young Englishmen of the present day marry for reason and not for love. Cupid has been cashiered in favour of Minerva. Foolish marriages are out of fashion. Nobody ever thinks of love in a cottage. First, there are no more cottages; and secondly, there is no more love.”

Christmas was close at hand: a trying time for Vixen, who remembered the jolly old Christmas of days gone by, when the poor from all the surrounding villages came to receive the Squire’s lavish bounty, and not even the tramp or the cadger was sent empty-handed away. Under the new master all was done by line and rule. The distribution of coals and blankets took place down in Beechdale under Mr. and Mrs. Scobel’s management. Vixen went about from cottage to cottage, in the wintry dusk, giving her small offerings out of her scanty allowance of pocket-money, which Captain Winstanley had put at the lowest figure he decently could.

“What can Violet want with pocket-money?” he asked, when he discussed the subject with his wife. “Your dressmaker supplies all her gowns, and bonnets, and hats. You give her gloves — everything. Nobody calls upon her for anything.”

“Her papa always gave her a good deal of money,” pleaded Mrs. Winstanley. “I think she gave it almost all away to the poor.”

“Naturally. She went about pauperising honest people because she had more money than she knew what to do with. Let her have ten pounds a quarter to buy gloves and eau-de-cologne, writing-paper, and postage-stamps, and trifles of that kind. She can’t do much harm with that, and it is quite as much as you can afford, since we have both made up our minds to live within our incomes.”

Mrs. Winstanley sighed and assented, as she was wont to do. It seemed hard that there should be this need of economy, but it was in a manner Violet’s fault that they were all thus restricted, since she was to take so much, and to reduce her mother almost to penury by-and-by.

“I don’t know what would become of me without Conrad’s care,” thought the dutiful wife.

Going among her poor this Christmas, with almost empty hands, Violet Tempest discovered what it was to be really loved. Honest eyes brightened none the less at her coming, the little children flocked as fondly to her knee. The changes at the Abbey House were very well understood. They were all put down to Captain Winstanley’s account; and many a simple heart burned with indignation at the idea that the Squire’s golden-haired daughter was being “put upon.”

One bright afternoon in the Christmas holidays Vixen consented, half reluctantly, to let Lord Mallow accompany her in her visits among the familiar faces. That was a rare day for the Squire’s old pensioners. The Irishman’s pockets were full of half-crowns and florins and sixpences for the rosy-faced, bare-footed, dirty, happy children.

“It puts me in mind of the old country,” he said, when he had made acquaintance with the interior of half-a-dozen cottages. “The people seem just as kind and friendly, and improvident, and idle, and happy-go-lucky as my friends at home. That old Sassenach Forester, now, that we saw sitting in the winter sun, drinking his noon-day pint, on a bench outside a rustic beer-shop, looking the very image of rustic enjoyment — what Irishman could take life more lightly or seem better pleased with himself? a freeborn child of the sun and wind, ready to earn his living anyhow, except by the work of his hands. Yes, Miss Tempest, I feel a national affinity to your children of the Forest. I wish I were Mr. Vawdrey, and bound to spend my life here.”

“Why, what would life be to you if you had not Ould Ireland to fight for?” cried Vixen, smiling at him.

“Life would be simply perfect for me if I had ——”

“What?” asked Vixen, as he came to a sudden stop.

“The dearest wish of my heart. But I dare not tell you what that is yet awhile.”

Vixen felt very sorry she had asked the question. She looked wildly round for another cottage. They had just done the last habitation in a straggling village in the heart of the woods. There was nothing human in sight by which the conversation might be diverted from the uncomfortable turn it had just taken. Yes; yonder under the beechen boughs Vixen descried a small child with red legs, like a Jersey partridge, dragging a smaller child by the arm, ankle-deep in the sodden leaves. To see them, and to dart across the wet grass towards them were almost simultaneous.

“Tommy,” cried Vixen, seizing the red-legged child, “why do you never come to the Abbey House?”

“Because Mrs. Trimmer says there’s nothing for me,” lisped the infant. “The new master sells the milk up in Lunnun.”

“Laudable economy,” exclaimed Vixen to Lord Mallow, who had followed her into the damp woodland and heard the boy’s answer. “The poor old Abbey House can hardly know itself under such admirable management.”

“There is as big a house where you might do what you liked; yes, and give away the cows as well as the milk, if you pleased, and none should say you nay,” said Lord Mallow in a low voice, full of unaffected tenderness.

“Oh, please don’t!” cried Vixen; “don’t speak too kindly. I feel sometimes as if one little kind word too much would make me cry like a child. It’s the last straw, you know, that crushes the camel; and I hate myself for being so weak and foolish.”

After this Vixen walked home as if she had been winning a match, and Lord Mallow, for his life, dared not say another tender word.

This was their last tête-à-tête for some time. Christmas came with its festivities, all of a placid and eminently well-bred character, and then came the last day of the year and the dinner at Ashbourne.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/vixen/v2.11.html

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