Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

“I shall look like the wicked Fairy.”

Nothing in Captain Winstanley’s manner during the sultry summer days which went before his marriage betrayed his knowledge of Violet Tempest’s rebellious spirit. He would not see that he was obnoxious to her. He spoke to her and looked at her as sweetly as if there had been the friendliest understanding between them. In all his conduct, in any act of his which approached the assumption of authority, he went to work with supreme gentleness. Yet he had his grip upon everything already, and was extending his arms in every direction, like an octopus. There were alterations being made in the garden which Violet knew were his, although Mrs. Tempest was supposed to have originated them. He had, in some measure, assumed dominion over the stables. His two hunters were already quartered there. Vixen saw them when she went her morning round with a basket of bread. They were long-bodied, hungry-looking animals; and the grooms reported them ravenous and insatiable in their feeding.

“When they’ve eat their corn they eats their ‘ay, and when they’ve eat their ‘ay they eats their bed, and then they takes and gnaws the wooden partitions. They’ll eat up all the woodwork in the stable, before they’ve done. I never see such brutes,” complained Bates, the head-groom.

Vixen fancied these animals were in some wise typical of their owner.

One morning when Vixen was leaning upon the half-door of Arion’s loose-box, giving herself up to a quarter of an hour’s petting of that much-beloved animal, Captain Winstanley came into the stable.

“Good-morning, Miss Tempest. Petting that pretty little bay of yours? I’m afraid you’ll spoil him. You ought to hunt him next October.”

“I shall never hunt again.”

“Pshaw! At your age there’s no such word as never. He’s the neatest little hunter in the Forest. And on his by-days you might ride one of mine.”

“Thanks,” said Vixen, with a supercilious glance at the most leggy of the two hunters, “I shouldn’t care to be up there. I should feel myself out of everything.”

“Oh, by-the-way,” said Captain Winstanley, opening the door of another loose-box, “what are we to do with this fellow?”

“This fellow” was a grand-looking bay, with herculean quarters, short legs, and a head like a war-horse. He snorted indignantly as the Captain slapped his flank, and reared his splendid crest, and seemed as if he said “Ha, ha!”

“I don’t quite know of whom you are speaking when you say ‘we,’” said Vixen, with an unsmiling countenance.

“Naturally of your mother and myself. I should like to include you in all our family arrangements, present or future; but you seem to prefer being left outside.”

“Yes,” replied Vixen, “I prefer to stand alone.”

“Very well then. I repeat my question — though, as you decline to have any voice in our arrangements, it’s hardly worth while to trouble you about it — what are we to do with this fellow?”

“Do with him? My father’s horse!” exclaimed Vixen; “the horse he rode to his dying day! Why, keep him, of course!”

“Don’t you think that is rather foolish? Nobody rides or drives him. It takes all one man’s time to groom him and exercise him. You might just as well keep a white elephant in the stables.”

“He was my father’s favourite horse,” said Vixen, with indignant tears clouding the bright hazel of her eyes; “I cannot imagine mamma capable of parting with him. Yet I ought not to say that, after my experience of the last few months,” she added in an undertone.

“Well, my dear Miss Tempest, family affection is a very charming sentiment, and I can quite understand that you and your mamma would be anxious to secure your father’s horse a good home and a kind master; but I cannot comprehend your mamma being so foolish as to keep a horse which is of no use to any member of her family. If the brute were of a little lighter build, I wouldn’t mind riding him myself, and selling one of mine. But he’s too much of a weight-carrier for me.”

Vixen gave Arion a final hug, drying her angry tears upon his soft neck, and left the stable without another word. She went straight to her mother’s morning-room, where the widow was sitting at a table covered with handkerchiefs-cases and glove-boxes, deeply absorbed in the study of their contents, assisted by the faithful Pauline, otherwise Polly, who had been wearing smarter gowns and caps ever since her mistress’s engagement, and who was getting up a trousseau on her own account, in order to enter upon her new phase of existence with due dignity.

“We shall keep more company, I make no doubt, with such a gay young master as the Captain,” she had observed in the confidences of Mrs. Trimmer’s comfortable parlour.

“I can never bring myself to think Swedish gloves pretty,” said Mrs. Tempest, as Vixen burst into the room, “but they are the fashion, and one must wear them.”

“Mamma,” cried Vixen, “Captain Winstanley wants you to sell Bullfinch. If you let him be sold, you will be the meanest of women.”

And with this startling address Vixen left the room as suddenly as she had entered it, banging the door behind her.

Time, which brings all things, brought the eve of Mrs. Tempest’s wedding. The small but perfect trousseau, subject of such anxious thoughts, so much study, was completed. The travelling-dresses were packed in two large oilskin-covered baskets, ready for the Scottish tour. The new travelling-bag, with monograms in pink coral on silver-gilt, a wedding present from Captain Winstanley, occupied the place of honour in Mrs. Tempest’s dressing-room. The wedding-dress, of cream-coloured brocade and old point-lace, with a bonnet of lace and water-lilies, was spread upon the sofa. Everything in Mrs. Tempest’s apartment bore witness to the impending change in the lady’s life. Most of all, the swollen eyelids and pale cheeks of the lady, who, on this vigil of her wedding-day, had given herself up to weeping.

“Oh mum, your eyes will be so red to-morrow,” remonstrated Pauline, coming into the room with another dainty little box, newly-arrived from the nearest railway-station, and surprising her mistress in tears. “Do have some red lavender. Or let me make you a cup of tea.”

Mrs. Tempest had been sustaining nature with cups of tea all through the agitating day. It was a kind of drama drinking, and she was as much a slave of the teapot as the forlorn drunken drab of St. Giles’s is a slave of the gin-bottle.

“Yes, you may get me another cup of tea, Pauline. I feel awfully low to-night.”

“You seem so, mum. I’m sure if I didn’t want to marry him, I wouldn’t, if I was you. It’s never too late for a woman to change her mind, not even when she’s inside the church. I’ve known it done. I wouldn’t have him, mum, if you feel your mind turn against him at the last,” concluded the lady’s-maid energetically.

“Not marry him, Pauline, when he is so good and noble, so devoted, so unselfish!”

Mrs. Tempest might have extended this list of virtues indefinitely, if her old servant had not pulled her up rather sharply.

“Well, mum, if he’s so good and you’re so fond of him, why cry?”

“You don’t understand, Pauline. At such a time there are many painful feelings. I have been thinking, naturally, of my dear Edward, the best and most generous of husbands. Twenty years last June since we were married. What a child I was, Pauline, knowing nothing of the world. I had a lovely trousseau; but I daresay if we could see the dresses now we should think them absolutely ridiculous. And one’s ideas of under-linen in those days were very limited. Those lovely satin-stitch monograms only came in when the Princess of Wales was married. Dear Edward! He was one of the handsomest men I ever saw. How could Violet believe that I should sell his favourite horse?”

“Well, mum, hearing Captain Winstanley talk about it, she naturally ——”

“Captain Winstanley would never wish me to do anything I did not like.”

The Captain had not said a word about Bullfinch since that morning in the stable. The noble brute still occupied his loose-box, and was fed and petted daily by Vixen, and was taken for gallops in the dry glades of the Forest, or among the gorse and heath of Boldrewood.

Mrs. Tempest had dined — or rather had not dined — in her own room on this last day of her widowhood. Captain Winstanley had business in London, and was coming back to Hampshire by the last train. There had been no settlements. The Captain had nothing to settle, and Mrs. Tempest confided in her lover too completely to desire to fence herself round with legal protections and precautions. Having only a life interest in the estate, she had nothing to leave, except the multifarious ornaments, frivolities, and luxuries which the Squire had presented to her in the course of their wedded life.

It had been altogether a trying day, Mrs. Tempest complained: in spite of the diversion to painful thought which was continually being offered by the arrival of some interesting item of the trousseau, elegant trifles, ordered ever so long ago, which kept dropping in at the last moment. Violet and her mother had not met during the day, and now night was hurrying on. The owls were hooting in the Forest. Their monotonous cry sounded every now and then through the evening silence like a prophesy of evil. In less than twelve hours the wedding was to take place; and as yet Vixen had shown no sign of relenting.

The dress had come from Madame Theodore’s. Pauline had thrown it over a chair, with an artistic carelessness which displayed the tasteful combination of cream colour and pale azure.

Mrs. Tempest contemplated it with a pathetic countenance.

“It is simply perfect!” she exclaimed. “Theodore has a most delicate mind. There is not an atom too much blue. And how exquisitely the drapery falls! It looks as if it had been blown together. The Vandyke hat too! Violet would look lovely in it. I do not think if I were a wicked mother I should take so much pains to select an elegant costume for her. But I have always studied her dress. Even when she was in pinafores I took care that she should be picturesque. And she rewards my care by refusing to be present at my wedding. It is very cruel.”

The clock struck twelve. The obscure bird clamoured a little louder in his woodland haunt. The patient Pauline, who had packed everything and arranged everything, and borne with her mistress’s dolefulness all day long, began to yawn piteously.

“If you’d let me brush your hair now, ma’am,” she suggested at last, “I could get to bed. I should like to be fresh to-morrow morning.”

“Are you tired?” exclaimed Mrs. Tempest, wonderingly.

“Well, mum, stooping over them dress-baskets is rather tiring, and it’s past twelve.”

“You can go. I’ll brush my hair myself.”

“No, mum, I wouldn’t allow that anyhow. It would make your arms ache. You ought to get to bed as soon as ever you can, or you’ll look tired and ‘aggard to-morrow.”

That word haggard alarmed Mrs. Tempest. She would not have objected to look pale and interesting on her wedding-day, like one who had spent the previous night in tears; but haggardness suggested age; and she wanted to look her youngest when uniting herself to a husband who was her junior by some years.

So Pauline was allowed to hurry on the evening toilet. The soft pretty hair, not so abundant as it used to be, was carefully brushed; the night-lamp was lighted; and Pauline left her mistress sitting by her dressing-table in her flowing white raiment, pale, graceful, subdued in colouring, like a classic figure in a faded fresco.

She sat with fixed eyes, deep in thought, for some time after Pauline had left her, then looked uneasily at the little gem of a watch dangling on its ormolu and jasper stand. A quarter to one. Violet must have gone to bed hours ago; unless, indeed, Violet were like her mother, too unhappy to be able to sleep. Mrs. Tempest was seized with a sudden desire to see her daughter.

“How unkind of her never to come near me to say good-night, on this night of all others!” she thought, “What has she been doing all day, I wonder? Riding about the Forest, I suppose, like a wild girl, making friends of dogs and horses, and gipsies, and fox-cubs, and charcoal-burners, and all kinds of savage creatures.”

And then, after a pause, she asked herself, fretfully:

“What will people say if my own daughter is not at my wedding?”

The idea of possible slander stung her sharply. She got up and walked up and down the room, inwardly complaining against Providence for using her so badly. To have such a rebellious daughter! It was sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

The time had not been allowed to go by without some endeavour being made to bring Violet to a better state of feeling. That was the tone taken about her by Mrs. Tempest and the Vicar’s wife in their conferences. The headstrong misguided girl was to be brought to a better state of mind. Mrs. Scobel tackled her, bringing all her diplomacy to bear, but without avail. Vixen was rock. Then Mr. Scobel undertook the duty, and, with all the authority of his holy office, called upon Violet to put aside her unchristian prejudices, and behave as a meek and dutiful daughter.

“Is it unchristian to hate the man who has usurped my father’s place?” Violet asked curtly.

“It is unchristian to hate anyone. And you have no right to call Captain Winstanley a usurper. You have no reason to take your mother’s marriage so much to heart. There is nothing sinful, or even radically objectionable in a second marriage; though I admit that, to my mind, a woman is worthier in remaining faithful to her first love; like Anna the prophetess, who had been a widow fourscore-and-four years. Who shall say that her exceptional gift of prophecy may not have been a reward for the purity and fidelity of her life?”

Mr. Scobel’s arguments were of no more effect than his wife’s persuasion. His heart was secretly on Violet’s side. He had loved the Squire, and he thought this marriage of Mrs. Tempest’s a foolish, if not a shameful thing. There was no heartiness in the feeling with which he supervised the decoration of his pretty tittle church for the wedding.

“If she were only awake,” thought Mrs. Tempest, “I would make a last appeal to her feelings, late as it is. Her heart cannot be stone.”

She took her candle, and went through the dark silent house to Violet’s room, and knocked gently.

“Come in,” said the girl’s clear voice with a wakeful sound.

“Ah!” thought Mrs. Tempest triumphantly, “obstinate as she is, she knows she is doing wrong. Conscience won’t let her sleep.”

Vixen was standing at her window, leaning with folded arms upon the broad wooden ledge, looking out at the dim garden, over which the pale stars were shining. There was a moon, but it was hidden by drifting clouds.

“Not in bed, Violet?” said her mother sweetly.

“No, mamma.”

“What have you been doing all these hours?”

“I don’t know — thinking,”

“And you never came to wish me good-night.”

“I did not think you would want me. I thought you would be busy packing — for your honeymoon.”

“That was not kind, Violet. You must have known that I should have many painful thoughts to-night.”

“I did not know it. And if it is so I can only say it is a pity the painful thoughts did not come a little sooner.”

“Violet, you are as hard as iron, as cold as ice!” cried Mrs. Tempest, with passionate fretfulness.

“No, I am not, mamma; I can love very warmly, where I love deeply. I have given this night to thoughts of my dead father, whose place is to be usurped in this house from to-morrow.”

“I never knew anyone so obstinately unkind. I could not have believe it possible in my own daughter. I thought you had a good heart, Violet; and yet you do not mind making me intensely wretched on my wedding-day.”

“Why should you be wretched, mamma, because I prefer not to be present at your wedding? If I were there, I should be like the bad fairy at the princess’s christening. I should look at everything with a malevolent eye.”

Mrs. Tempest flung herself into a chair and burst into tears.

The storm of grief which had been brooding over her troubled mind all day, broke suddenly in a tempest of weeping. She could have given no reason for her distress; but all at once, on the eve of that day which was to give a new colour to her life, panic seized her, and she trembled at the step she was about to take.

“You are very cruel to me, Violet,” she sobbed. “I am a most miserable woman.”

Violet knelt beside her and gently took her hand, moved to pity by wretchedness so abject.

“Dear mamma, why miserable?” she asked. “This thing which you are doing is your own choice. Or, if it is not — if you have yielded weakly to over-persuasion — it is not too late to draw back. No, dear mother, even now it is not too late. Indeed, it is not. Let us run away as soon as it is light, you and I, and go off to Spain, or Italy, anywhere, leaving a letter for Captain Winstanley, to say you have changed your mind. He could not do anything to us. You have a right to draw back, even at the last.”

“Don’t talk nonsense, Violet,” cried Mrs. Tempest peevishly. “Who said I had changed my mind? I am as devoted to Conrad as he is to me. I should be a heartless wretch if I could throw him over at the last moment. But this has been a most agitating day. Your unkindness is breaking my heart.”

“Indeed, mamma, I have no wish to be unkind — not to you. But my presence at your wedding would be a lie. It would seem to give my approval to an act I hate. I cannot bring myself to do that.”

“And you will disgrace me by your absence? You do not care what people may say of me.”

“Nobody will care about my absence. You will be the queen of the day.”

“Everybody will care — everybody will talk. I know how malicious people are, even one’s most intimate friends. They will say my own daughter turned her back upon me on my wedding-day.”

“They can hardly say that, when I shall be here in your house!”

Mrs. Tempest went on weeping. She had reduced herself to a condition in which it was much easier to cry than to leave off crying. The fountain of her tears seemed inexhaustible.

“A pretty object I shall look to-morrow!” she murmured plaintively, and this was all she said for some time.

Violet walked up and down the room, sorely distressed, sorely perplexed. To see her mother’s grief, and to be able to give comfort, and to refuse. That must be undutiful, undaughterly, rebellious. But had not her mother forfeited all right to her obedience? Were not their hearts and lives completely sundered by this marriage of to-morrow? To Violet’s stronger nature it seemed as if she were the mother — offended, outraged by a child’s folly and weakness. There sat the child, weeping piteously, yearning to be forgiven. It was a complete reversal of their positions.

Her heart was touched by the spectacle of her mother’s weakness, by the mute appeal of those tears.

“What does it matter to me, after all, whether I am absent or present?” she argued at last. “I cannot prevent this man coming to take possession of my father’s house. I cannot hinder the outrage to my father’s memory. Mamma has been very kind to me — and I have no one else in the world to love.”

She took a few more turns, and then stopped by her mother’s chair.

“Will it really make you happier, mamma, if I am at your wedding?”

“It will make me quite happy.”

“Very well then; it shall be as you please. But, remember, I shall look like the wicked fairy. I can’t help that.”

“You will look lovely. Theodore has sent you home the most exquisite dress. Come to my room and try it on,” said Mrs. Tempest, drying her tears, and as quickly comforted as a child who has obtained its desire by means of copious weeping.

“No, dear mamma; not to-night, I’m too tired,” sighed Violet.

“Never mind, dear. Theodore always fits you to perfection. Go to bed at once, love. The dress will be a pleasant surprise for you in the morning. Good-night, pet. You have made me so happy.”

“I am glad of that, mamma.”

“I wish you were going to Scotland with us.” (Vixen shuddered.) “I’m afraid you’ll be dreadfully dull here.”

“No, mamma; I shall have the dogs and horses. I shall get on very well.”

“You are such a curious girl. Well, good-night, darling. You are my own Violet again.”

And with this they parted; Mrs. Tempest going back to her room with restored peace of mind.

She looked at the reflection of her tear-blotted face anxiously as she paused before the glass.

“I’m afraid I shall look an object to-morrow,” she said, “The morning sunshine is so searching.”

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