Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Wedding Garments.

After that night Vixen held her peace. There were no more bitter words between Mrs. Tempest and her daughter, but the mother knew that there was a wellspring of bitterness — a Marah whose waters were inexhaustible — in her daughter’s heart; and that domestic happiness, under one roof, was henceforth impossible for these two.

There were very few words of any kind between Violet and Mrs. Tempest at this time. The girl kept herself as much a possible apart from her mother. The widow lived her languid drawing-room life, dawdling away long slow days that left no more impression behind them than the drift of rose-leaves across the velvet lawn before her windows. A little point-lace, deftly worked by slim white fingers flashing with gems; a little Tennyson; a little Owen Meredith; a little Browning — only half understood at best; a little scandal; a great deal of orange pekoe, sipped out of old Worcester teacups of royal blue or flowered Swansea; an hour’s letter-writing on the last fashionable note-paper; elegantly-worded inanity, delicately penned in a flowing Italian hand, with long loops to the Y’s and G’s, and a serpentine curve at the end of every word.

No life could well have been more useless or vapid. Even Mrs. Tempest’s charities — those doles of wine and soup, bread and clothing, which are looked for naturally from the mistress of a fine old mansion — were vicarious. Trimmer, the housekeeper, did everything. Indeed, in the eyes of the surrounding poor, Mrs. Trimmer was mistress of the Abbey House. It was to her they looked for relief; it was her reproof they feared; and to her they louted lowest. The faded beauty, reclining in her barouche, wrapped in white raiment of softest China crape, and whirling past them in a cloud of dust, was as remote as a goddess. They could hardly have realised that she was fashioned out of the same clay that made themselves.

Upon so smooth and eventless an existence Captain Winstanley’s presence came like a gust of north wind across the sultry languor of an August noontide. His energy, his prompt, resolute manner of thinking and acting upon all occasions, impressed Mrs. Tempest with an extraordinary sense of his strength of mind and manliness. It seemed to her that she must always be safe where he was. No danger, no difficulty could assail her while his strong arm was there to ward it off. She felt very much as Mary Stuart may have done about Bothwell; when, moved to scornful aversion by the silken boy-profligate Darnley, her heart acknowledged its master in the dark freebooter who had slain him. There had been no Darnley in Pamela Tempest’s life; but this resolute, clear-brained soldier was her Bothwell. She had the Mary Stuart temperament, the love of compliments and fine dresses, dainty needlework and luxurious living, without the Stuart craft. In Conrad Winstanley she had found her master, and she was content to be so mastered; willing to lay down her little sum of power at his feet, and live henceforward like a tame falcon at the end of a string. Her position, as a widow, was an excellent one. The Squire’s will had been dictated in fullest confidence in his wife’s goodness and discretion; and doubtless also with the soothing idea common to most hale and healthy men, that it must be a long time before their testamentary arrangements can come into effect. It was a holograph will, and the Squire’s own composition throughout. “He would have no lawyer’s finger in that pie,” he had said. The disposal of his estate had cost him many hours of painful thought before he rang the bell for his bailiff and his butler, and executed it in their presence.

Mrs. Tempest was mistress of the Abbey House for her life; and at her death it was to become Violet’s property. Violet was not to come of age until she was twenty-five, and in the meantime her mother was to be her sole guardian, and absolute mistress of everything. There was no question of an allowance for the maintenance of the heiress, no question as to the accumulation of income. Everything was to belong to Mrs. Tempest till Violet came of age. She had only to educate and maintain her daughter in whatever manner she might think fit. At Violet’s majority the estate was to pass into her possession, charged with an income of fifteen hundred a year, to be paid to the widow for her lifetime. Until her twenty-fifth birthday, therefore, Violet was in the position of a child, entirely dependent on her mother’s liberality, and bound to obey her mother as her natural and only guardian. There was no court of appeal nearer than the Court of Chancery. There was no one to whom the two women could make their complaints or refer their differences.

Naturally, Captain Winstanley had long before this made himself acquainted with the particulars of the Squire’s will. For six years he saw himself sole master of a very fine estate, and at the end of six years reduced to an income which seemed, comparatively, a pittance, and altogether inadequate for the maintenance of such a place as the Abbey House. Still, fifteen hundred a year and the Abbey House were a long way on the right side of nothing: and Captain Winstanley felt that he had fallen on his feet.

That was a dreary June for Vixen. She hugged her sorrow, and lived in a mental solitude which was almost awful in so young a soul. She made a confidante of no one, not even of kind-hearted Mrs. Scobel, who was quite ready to pity her and condole with her, and who was secretly indignant at the widow’s folly.

The fact of Mrs. Tempest’s intended marriage had become known to all her friends and neighbours, with the usual effect of such intelligence. Society said sweet things to her; and praised Captain Winstanley; and hoped the wedding would be soon; and opined that it would be quite a nice thing for Miss Tempest to have such an agreeable stepfather, with whom she could ride to hounds as she had done with the dear Squire. And the same society, driving away from the Abbey House in its landaus and pony-carriages, after half-an-hour’s pleasant gossip and a cup of delicately flavoured tea, called Mrs. Tempest a fool, and her intended husband an adventurer.

Vixen kept aloof from all the gossip and tea-drinking. She did not even go near her old friends the Scobels, in these days of smothered wrath and slow consuming indignation. She deserted the schools, her old pensioners, even the little village children, to whom she had loved to carry baskets of good things, and pocketfuls of halfpence, and whose queer country dialect had seemed as sweet to her as the carolling of finches and blackbirds in the woods. Everything in the way of charity was left to Mrs. Trimmer now. Vixen took her long solitary rides in the Forest, roaming wherever there was a footway for her horse under the darkening beeches, dangerously near the swampy ground where the wet grass shone in the sunlight, the green reedy patches that meant peril; into the calm unfathomable depths of Mark Ash, or Queen’s Bower; up to the wild heathy crest of Boldrewood; wherever there was loneliness and beauty.

Roderick had gone to London for the season, and was riding with Lady Mabel in the Row, or dancing attendance at garden-parties, exhibitions, and flower-shows.

“I wonder how he likes the dusty days, and the crowded rooms, the classical music, and high-art exhibitions?” thought Vixen savagely. “I wonder how he likes being led about like a Pomeranian terrier? I don’t think I could endure it if I were a man. But I suppose when one is in love ——”

And then Vixen thought of their last talk together, and how little of the lover’s enthusiasm there was in Roderick’s mention of his cousin.

“In the bottom of my heart I know that he is going to marry her for the sake of her estate, or because his mother wished it and urged it, and he was too weak-minded to go on saying No. I would not say it for the world, or let anyone else say it in my hearing, but, in my heart of hearts, I know he does not love her.”

And then, after a thoughtful silence, she cried to the mute unresponsive woods:

“Oh, it is wicked, abominable, mad, to marry without love!”

The woods spoke to her of Roderick Vawdrey. How often she had ridden by his side beneath these spreading beech-boughs, dipping her childish head, just as she dipped it to-day, under the low branches, steering her pony carefully between the prickly holly-bushes, plunging deep into the hollows where the dry leaves crackled under his hoofs.

“I fancied Rorie and I were to spend our lives together — somehow,” she said to herself. “It seems very strange for us to be quite parted.”

She saw Mr. Vawdrey’s name in the fashionable newspapers, in the lists of guests at dinners and drums. London life suited him very well, no doubt. She heard that he was a member of the Four-in-hand Club, and turned out in splendid style at Hyde Park Corner. There was no talk yet of his going into Parliament. That was an affair of the future.

Since that evening on which Mrs. Tempest announced her intention of taking a second husband, Violet and Captain Winstanley had only met in the presence of other people. The Captain had tried to infuse a certain fatherly familiarity into his manner; but Vixen had met every attempt at friendliness with a sullen disdain, which kept even Captain Winstanley at arm’s length.

“We shall understand each other better by-and-by,” he said to himself, galled by this coldness. “It would be a pity to disturb these halcyon days by anything in the way of a scene. I shall know how to manage Miss Tempest — afterwards.”

He spoke of her, and to her, always as Miss Tempest. He had never called her Violet since that night in the Pavilion garden.

These days before her wedding were indeed a halcyon season for Mrs. Tempest. She existed in an atmosphere of millinery and pretty speeches. Her attention was called away from a ribbon by the sweet distraction of a compliment, and oscillated between tender whispers and honiton lace. Conrad Winstanley was a delightful lover. His enemies would have said that he had done the same kind of thing so often, that it would have been strange if he had not done it well. His was assuredly no ‘prentice hand in the art. Poor Mrs. Tempest lived in a state of mild intoxication, as dreamily delicious as the effects of opium. She was enchanted with her lover, and still better pleased with herself. At nine-and-thirty it was very sweet to find herself exercising so potent an influence over the Captain’s strong nature. She could not help comparing herself to Cleopatra, and her lover to Antony. If he had not thrown away a world for her sake, he was at least ready to abandon the busy career which a man loves, and to devote his future existence to rural domesticity. He confessed that he had been hardened by much contact with the world, that he did not love now for the first time; but he told his betrothed that her influence had awakened feelings which had never before been called into life, that this love which he felt for her was to all intents and purposes a first love, the first pure and perfect affection that had subjugated and elevated his soul.

After that night in Mrs. Tempest’s boudoir, it was only by tacit avoidance of her mother that Vixen showed the intensity of her disapproval. If she could have done any good by reproof or entreaty, by pleading or exhortation, she would assuredly have spoken; but she saw the Captain and her mother together every day, and she knew that, opposed to his influence, her words were like the idle wind which bloweth where it listeth. So she held her peace, and looked on with an aching angry heart, and hated the intruder who had come to steal her dead father’s place. To take her father’s place; that in Violet’s mind was the unpardonable wrong. That any man should enter that house as master, and sit in the Squire’s seat, and rule the Squire’s servants, and ride the Squire’s horses, was an outrage beyond endurance. She might have looked more leniently on her mother’s folly, had the widow chosen a second husband with a house and home of his own, who would have carried off his wife to reign over his own belongings, and left the Abbey House desolate — a temple dedicated to the dead.

Mrs. Tempest’s manner towards her daughter during this period was at once conciliatory and reproachful. She felt it a hard thing that Violet should have taken up such an obnoxious position. This complaint she repeated piteously, with many variations, when she discussed Violet’s unkindness with her lover. She had no secrets from the Captain, and she told him all the bitter things Violet had said about him.

He heard her with firmly-set lips and an angry sparkle in his dark eyes, but his tone was full of paternal indulgence presently, when Mrs. Tempest had poured out all her woes.

“Is it not hard upon me, Conrad?” she asked in conclusion.

“My dear Pamela, I hope you are too strong-minded to distress yourself seriously about a wilful girl’s foolishness. Your daughter has a noble nature, but she has been spoiled by too much indulgence. Even a race-horse — the noblest thing in creation — has to be broken in; not always without severe punishment. Miss Tempest and I will come to understand each other perfectly by-and-by.”

“I know you will be a second father to her,” said Mrs. Tempest tearfully.

“I will do my duty to her, dearest, be assured.”

Still Mrs. Tempest went on harping upon the cruelty of her daughter’s conduct. The consciousness of Violet’s displeasure weighed heavily upon her.

“I dare not even show her my trousseau,” she complained, “all confidence is at an end between us. I should like to have had her opinion about my dresses — though she is sadly deficient in taste, poor child! and has never even learnt to put on her gloves perfectly.”

“And your own taste is faultless, love,” replied the Captain soothingly. “What can you want with advice from an inexperienced girl, whose mind is in the stable?”

“It is not her advice I want, Conrad; but her sympathy. Fanny Scobel is coming this afternoon. I can show her my things. I really feel quite nervous about talking to Violet of her own dress. She must have a new dress for the wedding, you know; though she cannot be a bridesmaid. I think that is really unfair. Don’t you, Conrad?”

“What is unfair, dearest?” asked the Captain, whose mind had scarcely followed the harmless meanderings of his lady’s speech.

“That a widow is not allowed to have bridesmaids or orange-blossoms. It seems like taking the poetry out of a wedding, does it not?”

“Not to my mind, Pamela. The poetry of wedlock does not lie in these details — a sugared cake, and satin favours; a string of carriages, and a Brussels veil. The true poetry of marriage is in the devotion and fidelity of the two hearts it binds together.”

Mrs Tempest sighed gently, and was almost resigned to be married without bridesmaids or orange-blossoms.

It was now within a month of the wedding, which was to be solemnised on the last day of August — a convenient season for a honeymoon tour in Scotland. Mrs. Tempest liked to travel when other people travelled. Mountain and flood would have had scarcely any charm for her “out of the season.” The time had come when Violet’s dress must be talked about, as Mrs. Tempest told the Vicar’s wife solemnly. She had confided the secret of her daughter’s unkindness to Mrs. Scobel, in the friendly hour of afternoon tea.

“It is very hard upon me,” she repeated —“very hard that the only drawback to my happiness should come from my own child.”

“Violet was so fond of her father,” said Mrs. Scobel excusingly.

“But is that any reason she should treat me unkindly? Who could have been fonder of dear Edward than I was? I studied his happiness in everything. There never was an unkind word between us. I do not think anyone could expect me to go down to my grave a widow, in order to prove my affection for my dearest Edward. That was proved by every act of my married life. I have nothing to regret, nothing to atone for. I feel myself free to reward Captain Winstanley’s devotion. He has followed me from place to place for the last two years; and has remained constant, in spite of every rebuff. He proposed to me three times before I accepted him.”

Mrs. Scobel had been favoured with the history of these three separate offers more than once.

“I know, dear Mrs. Tempest,” she said somewhat hurriedly, lest her friend should recapitulate the details. “He certainly seems very devoted. But, of course, from a worldly point of view, you are an excellent match for him.”

“Do you think I would marry him if I thought that consideration had any weight with him?” demanded Mrs. Tempest indignantly. And Mrs. Scobel could say no more.

There are cases of physical blindness past the skill of surgery, but there is no blindness more incurable than that of a woman on the verge of forty who fancies herself beloved.

“But Violet’s dress for the wedding,” said Mrs. Scobel, anxious to get the conversation upon safer ground. “Have you really said nothing to her about it?”

“No. She is so headstrong and self-willed. I have been absolutely afraid to speak. But it must be settled immediately. Theodore is always so busy. It will be quite a favour to get the dress made at so short a notice, I daresay.”

“Why not speak to Violet this afternoon?”

“While you are here? Yes, I might do that,” replied Mrs. Tempest eagerly.

She felt she could approach the subject more comfortably in Mrs. Scobel’s presence. There would be a kind of protection in a third person. She rang the bell.

“Has Miss Tempest come home from her ride?”

“Yes, ma’am. She has just come in.”

“Send her to me at once then. Ask her not to stop to change her dress.”

Mrs. Tempest and Mrs. Scobel were in the drawing-room, sitting at a gipsy table before an open window; the widow wrapped in a China-crape shawl, lest even the summer breeze should be too chill for her delicate frame, the Worcester cups and saucers, and antique silver tea pot and caddy and kettle set out before her, like a child’s toys.

Violet came running in, flushed after her ride, her habit muddy.

“Bogged again!” cried Mrs. Tempest, with ineffable disgust. “That horse will be the death of you some day.”

“I think not, mamma. How do you do, Mrs. Scobel?”

“Violet,” said the Vicar’s wife gravely, “why do you never come to our week-day services now?”

“I— I— don’t know. I have not felt in the humour for coming to church. It’s no use to come and kneel in a holy place with rebellious thoughts in my heart. I come on Sundays for decency’s sake; but I think it is better to keep away from the week-day services till I am in a better temper.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the way to recover your temper, dear.”

Violet was silent, and there was a rather awkward pause.

“Will you have a cup of tea, dear?” asked Mrs. Tempest.

“No, thanks, mamma. I think, unless you have something very particular to say to me, I had better take my muddy habit off your carpet. I feel rather warm and dusty. I shall be glad to change my dress.”

“But I have something very particular to say, Violet. I won’t detain you long. You’d better have a cup of tea.”

“Just as you please, mamma.”

And forgetful of her clay-bespattered habit, Violet sank into one of the satin-covered chairs, and made a wreck of an antimacassar worked in crewels by Mrs. Tempest’s own hands.

“I am going to write to Madame Theodore by this evening’s post, Violet,” said her mother, handing her a cup of tea, and making believe not to see the destruction of that exquisite antimacassar; “and I should like to order your dress — for — the wedding. I have been thinking that cream-colour and pale blue would suit you to perfection. A cream-coloured hat — the Vandyck shape — with a long blue ostrich ——”

“Please don’t take any trouble about it, mamma,” said Vixen, whose cheek had paled at the word “wedding,” and who now sat very erect in her chair, holding her cup and saucer firmly. “I am not going to be present at your wedding, so I shall not want a dress.”

“Violet!” cried Mrs. Tempest, beginning to tremble. “You cannot mean what you say. You have been very unkind, very undutiful. You have made me perfectly miserable for the last seven weeks; but I cannot believe that you would — grossly insult me — by refusing to be present at my wedding.”

“I do not wish to insult you, mamma. I am very sorry if I have pained you; but I cannot and will not be present at a marriage the very idea of which is hateful to me. If my presence could give any sanction to this madness of yours, that sanction shall not be given.”

“Violet, have you thought what you are doing? Have you considered what will be said — by the world?”

“I think the world — our world — must have made up its mind about your second marriage already, mamma,” Vixen answered quietly. “My absence from your wedding can make very little difference.”

“It will make a very great difference; and you know it!” cried Mrs. Tempest, roused to as much passion as she was capable of feeling. “People will say that my daughter sets her face against my marriage — my daughter, who ought to sympathise with me, and rejoice that I have found a true friend and protector.”

“I cannot either sympathise or rejoice, mamma. It is much better that I should stop away from your wedding. I should look miserable, and make other people uncomfortable.”

“Your absence will humiliate and lower me in the sight of my friends. It will be a disgrace. And yet you take this course on purpose to wound and injure me. You are a wicked undutiful daughter.”

“Oh, mamma!” cried Vixen, with grave voice and reproachful eyes — eyes before whose steady gaze the tearful widow drooped and trembled, “is duty so one-sided? Do I owe all to you, and you nothing to me? My father left us together, mother and daughter, to be all the world to each other. He left us mistresses of the dear old home we had shared with him. Do you think he meant a stranger to come and sit in his place — to be master over all he loved? Do you think it ever entered his mind that in three little years his place would be filled by the first-comer — his daughter asked to call another man father?”

“The first-comer!” whimpered Mrs. Tempest. “Oh, this it too cruel!”

“Violet!” exclaimed Mrs. Scobel reprovingly, “when you are calmer you will be sorry for having spoken so unkindly to your dear mamma.”

“I shall not be sorry for having spoken the truth,” said Violet. “Mamma has heard the truth too seldom in her life. She will not hear it from Captain Winstanley — yet awhile.”

And after flinging this last poisoned dart, Vixen took up the muddy skirt of her habit and left the room.

“It was rather a pity that Arion and I did not go to the bottom of that bog and stay there,” she reflected. “I don’t think anybody wants us above ground.”

“Did you ever know anything so humiliating, so shameful, so undutiful?” demanded Mrs. Tempest piteously, as the door closed on her rebellious daughter. “What will people say if Violet is not at my wedding?”

“It would be awkward, certainly; unless there were some good reason for her absence.”

“People are so ill-natured. Nobody would believe in any excuse that was made. That cruel girl will disgrace me.”

“She seems strongly prejudiced against Captain Winstanley. It is a great pity. But I daresay she will relent in time. If I were you, dear Mrs. Tempest, I should order the dress.”

“Would you really, Fanny?”

“Yes; I should order the dress, and trust in Providence for the result. You may be able to bring her round somehow between now and the wedding.”

“But I am not going to humiliate myself. I am not going to be trampled on by my daughter.”

“Of course not; but you must have her at your wedding.”

“If I were to tell Captain Winstanley what she has said this afternoon ——”

“He would be very angry, no doubt. But I would not tell him if I were you.”

“No, I shall not say anything about it.”

Yet, before night, Captain Winstanley had heard every syllable that Vixen had said; with some trifling and unconscious exaggerations, hardly to be avoided by a woman of Mrs. Tempest’s character, in the narration of her own wrongs.

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