Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

The Vow is vowed.

Only a chosen few had been bidden to Mrs. Tempest’s wedding. She had told all her friends that she meant everything to be done very quietly.

“There is so much that is saddening in my position,” she said pensively. But she was resolved that those guests who were asked to lend their countenance to her espousals should be the very best people.

Lord and Lady Ellangowan had been asked, and had accepted, and their presence alone would lend dignity to the occasion. Colonel and Mrs. Carteret, from Copse Hall; the Chopnells, of Chopnell Park; and about half-a-dozen other representative landowners and commoners made up the list.

“There is such a satisfaction in knowing they are all the best people,” Mrs. Tempest said to Captain Winstanley, when they went over the list together.

His own friends were but two, Major Pontorson, his best man, and a clerical cousin, with a portly figure and a portwiney nose, who was to assist Mr. Scobel in the marriage service.

It was a very pretty wedding, the neighbourhood declared unanimously; despite the absence of that most attractive feature in more youthful bridals — a string of girlish bridesmaids. The little church at Beechdale was a bower of summer flowers. The Abbey House conservatories had been emptied — the Ellangowans had sent a waggon-load of ferns and exotics. The atmosphere was heavy with the scent of yellow roses and stephanotis.

Violet stood among the guests, no gleam of colour on her cheeks except the wavering hues reflected from the painted windows in the low Gothic chancel — the ruddy gold of her hair shining under the Vandyke hat with its sweeping azure feather. She was the loveliest thing in that crowded church, whither people had come from ten miles off to see Squire Tempest’s widow married; but she had a spectral look in the faint light of the chancel, and seemed as strange an image at this wedding as the ghost of Don Ramiro at Donna Clara’s bridal dance, in Heine’s ghastly ballad.

Violet did not look like the malevolent fairy in the old story, but she had a look and air which told everyone that this marriage was distasteful to her.

When all was over, and the register had been signed in the vestry, Captain Winstanley came up to her, with both hands extended, before all the company.

“My dear Violet, I am your father now,” he said. “You shall not find me wanting in my duty.”

She drew back involuntarily; and then, seeing herself the focus of so many eyes, suffered him to touch the tips of her fingers.

“You are very kind,” she said. “A daughter can have but one father, and mine is dead. I hope you will be a good husband to my mother. That is all I can desire of you.”

All the best people heard this speech, which was spoken deliberately, in a low clear voice, and they decided inwardly that whatever kind of wife Captain Winstanley might have won for himself, he had found his match in his stepdaughter.

Now came the ride to the Abbey House, which had put on a festive air, and where smartly-dressed servants were lending their smiles to a day which they all felt to be the end of a peaceful and comfortable era, and the beginning of an age of uncertainty. It was like that day at Versailles when the Third Estate adjourned to the Tennis Court, and the French Revolution began. People smiled, and were pleased at the new movement and expectancy in their lives, knowing not what was coming.

“We are bound to be livelier, anyhow, with a military master,” said Pauline.

“A little more company in the house wouldn’t come amiss, certainly,” said Mrs. Trimmer.

“I should like to see our champagne cellar better stocked,” remarked Forbes the butler. “We’re behind the times in our sparkling wines.”

Captain Winstanley entered the old oak-panelled hall with his wife on his arm, and felt himself master of such a house as a man might dream of all his life and never attain. Money could not have bought it. Taste could not have created it. The mellowing hand of time, the birth and death of many generations, had made it beautiful.

The wedding breakfast was as other wedding feasts. People ate and drank and made believe to be intensely glad, and drank more sparkling wine than was good for them at that abnormal hour, and began to feel sleepy before the speeches, brief as they were, had come to an end. The August sun shone in upon the banquet, the creams and jellies languished and collapsed in the sultry air. The wedding-cake was felt to be a nuisance. The cracker-cake exploded faintly in the languid hands of the younger guests, and those ridiculous mottoes, which could hardly amuse anyone out of Earlswood Asylum, were looked at a shade more contemptuously than usual. The weather was too warm for enthusiasm. And Violet’s pale set face was almost as disheartening as the skeleton at an Egyptian banquet. When Mrs. Tempest retired to put on her travelling-dress Violet went with her, a filial attention the mother had in no wise expected.

“Dear girl,” she said, squeezing her daughter’s hand, “to-day is not to make the slightest difference.”

“I hope not, mamma,” answered Violet gravely; “but one can never tell what is in the future. God grant you may be happy!”

“I’m sure it will be my own fault if I am not happy with Conrad,” said the wife of an hour, “and oh, Violet! my constant prayer will be to see you more attached to him.”

Violet made no reply, and here happily Pauline brought the fawn-coloured travelling-dress, embroidered with poppies and cornflowers in their natural colours, after the style of South Kensington, a dress so distractingly lovely that it instantly put an end to serious conversation. The whole costume had been carefully thought out, a fawn-coloured parasol, edged with ostrich feathers, a fawn-coloured bonnet, fawn-coloured Hessian boots, fawn-coloured Swedish gloves with ten buttons — all prepared for the edification of railway guards and porters, and Scotch innkeepers and their valetaille.

Verily there are some games which seem hardly worth the candle that lights the players. And there was once upon a time an eccentric nobleman who was accounted maddest in that he made his wife dress herself from head to foot in one colour. Other times, other manners.

Violet stayed with her mother to the last, receiving the last embrace — a fond and tearful one — and watched the carriage drive away from the porch amidst a shower of rice. And then all was over. The best people were bidding her a kindly good-bye. Carriages drove up quickly, and in a quarter of an hour everyone was gone except the Vicar and his wife. Vixen found herself standing between Mr. and Mrs. Scobel, looking blankly at the hearth, where an artistic group of ferns and scarlet geraniums replaced the friendly winter fire.

“Come and spend the evening with us, dear,” said Mrs. Scobel kindly; “it will be so lonely for you here.”

But Violet pleaded a headache, a plea which was confirmed by her pale cheeks and the dark rings round her eyes.

“I shall be better at home,” she said. “I’ll come and see you in a day or two, if I may.”

“Come whenever you like, dear. I wish you would come and stay with us altogether. Ignatius and I have been so pleased with your conduct to-day; and we have felt for you deeply, knowing what a conquest you have made over yourself.”

The Reverend Ignatius murmured his acquiescence.

“Poor mamma!” sighed Violet, “I am afraid I have been very unkind.”

And then she looked absently round the old familiar hall, and her eye lighted on the Squire’s favourite chair, which still stood in its place by the hearth. Her eyes filled with sudden tears. She fancied she could see a shadowy figure sitting there. The Squire in his red coat, his long hunting whip across his knee, his honest loving face smiling at her.

She squeezed Mrs. Scobel’s friendly hand, bade her and the Vicar a hurried good-bye, and ran out of the room, leaving them looking after her pityingly.

“Poor girl,” said the Vicar’s wife, “how keenly she feels it!”

“Ah!” sighed the Vicar, “I have never been in favour of second marriages. I can but think with St. Paul that the widow is happy if she so abide.”

Vixen called Argus and went up to her room, followed by that faithful companion. When she had shut and locked the door, she flung herself on the ground, regardless of Madame Theodore’s masterpiece, and clasped her arms round the dog’s thick neck, and buried her face in his soft hide.

“Oh, Argus, I have not a friend in the world but you!” she sobbed.

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