Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

War to the Knife.

A strange stillness came upon the Abbey House after Mrs. Tempest’s wedding. Violet received a few invitations and morning calls from friends who pitied her solitude; but the best people were for the most part away from home in August and Septernber; some no farther than Bournemouth or Weymouth; others roaming the mountainous districts of Europe in search of the picturesque or the fashionable.

Violet did not want society. She made excuses for refusing all invitations. The solitude of her life did not afflict her. If it could have continued for ever, if Captain Winstanley and her mother could have wandered about the earth, and left her in peaceful possession of the Abbey House, with the old servants, old horses, old dogs, all things undisturbed as in her father’s time, she would have been happy. It was the idea of change, a new and upstart master in her father’s place, which tortured her. Any delay which kept off that evil hour was a blessed relief; but alas! the evil hour was close at hand, inevitable. That autumn proved exceptionally fine. Scotland cast aside her mantle of mist and cloud, and dressed herself in sunshine. The Trosachs blossomed as the rose. Gloomy gray glens and mountains put on an apparel of light. Mrs. Tempest wrote her daughter rapturous letters about the tour.

“We move about very slowly,” she said, “so as not to fatigue me. Conrad’s attention is more than words can describe. I can see that even the waiters are touched by it. He telegraphs beforehand to all the hotels, so that we have always the best rooms. He thinks nothing too good for me. It is quite saddening to see a herd of travellers sent away, houseless, every evening. The fine weather is bringing crowds to the Highlands. We could not have travelled at a more favourable time. We have had only a few showers, but in one, on Loch Katrine, my poor fawn-coloured dress suffered. The scarlet of the poppies ran into the blue of the cornflowers. Is it not a pity? I was quite unconscious of what was going on at the time; and afterwards, when I discovered it, I could have shed tears.

“I hope when you marry, darling, you will come to Scotland for your honeymoon. The mountains seem to appeal to one’s highest feelings. There are ponies, too, for the ascent; which is a great comfort if one is wearing pretty boots. And you know, Violet, my idea that a woman should be essentially feminine in every detail. I never could bring myself to wear the horrid clump-soles which some women delight in. They seem to me to indicate that strong-minded and masculine character which I detest. Such women would want the suffrage, and to have the learned professions thrown open to them. I meet ladies or, at least, persons calling themselves such — in horrid waterproof costumes and with coarse cloth hats. Hideousness could go no farther. And though I regret the wreck of my fawn-colour, I can but remember with satisfaction what Theodore always says to me when she shows me one of her chef-d’oeuvres: ‘Mrs. Tempest, it is a dress fit for a lady.’ There are ill-natured people who declare that Theodore began life as kitchen-maid in an Irish inn, but I, for one, will never believe it. Such taste as hers indicates a refined progeniture.”

With such letters as these did Mrs. Winstanley comfort her absent daughter. Vixen replied as best she might, with scraps of news about the neighbours, rich and poor, the dogs, horses, and gardens. It was hateful to her to have to direct her letters to Mrs. Winstanley.

The days went on. Vixen rode from early morning till noon, and rambled in the Forest for the best part of the afternoon. She used to take her books there, and sit for hours reading on a mossy bank under one of the boughy beeches, with Argus at her feet. The dog was company enough for her. She wanted no one better. At home the old servants were more or less — their faces always pleasant to see. Some of them had lived with her grandfather; most of them had served her father from the time he had inherited his estate. The Squire had been the most conservative and indulgent of masters; always liking to see the old faces. The butler was old, and even on his underling’s bullet-head the gray hairs were beginning to show. Mrs. Trimmer was at least sixty, and had been getting annually bulkier for the last twenty years. The kitchen-maid was a comfortable-looking person of forty. There was an atmosphere of domestic peace in the offices of the Abbey House which made everybody fat. It was only by watchfulness and tight-lacing that Pauline preserved to herself that grace of outline which she spoke of in a general way as “figure.”

“And what a mite of a waist I had when I first went out to service,” she would say pathetically.

But Pauline was now in Scotland, harassed by unceasing cares about travelling-bags, bonnet-boxes, and extra wraps, and under-valuing Ben Nevis as not worth half the trouble that was taken to go and look at him.

The gardeners were gray-headed, and remembered potting the first fuchsia-slips that ever came to the Forest. They had no gusto for new-fangled ideas about cordon fruit-trees or root-pruning. They liked to go their own way, as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them; and, with unlimited supplies of manure, they were able to produce excellent cucumbers by the first of May, or a fair dish of asparagus by about the same time. If their produce was late it was because nature went against them. They could not command the winds, or tell the sun that he must shine. The gardens at the Abbey House were beautiful, but nature had done more for them than the Squire’s old gardeners. The same rose-trees budded and bloomed year after year; the same rhododendrons and azaleas opened their big bunches of bloom. Eden could have hardly owed less to culture. The noble old cedars, the mediaeval yews, needed no gardener’s hand. There was a good deal of weeding, and mowing, and rolling done from week’s end to week’s end; and the borders were beautified by banks of geranium and golden calceolaria, and a few other old-fashioned flowers; but scientific horticulture there was none. Some alterations had been begun under Captain Winstanley’s directions; but the work languished in his absence.

It was the twentieth of September, and the travellers were expected to return within a few days — the exact date of their arrival not being announced. The weather was glorious, warmer than it had been all through the summer; and Vixen spent her life out of doors. Sad thoughts haunted her less cruelly in the great wood. There was a brightness and life in the Forest which cheered her. It was pleasant to see Argus’s enjoyment of the fair weather; his wild rushes in among the underwood; his pursuit of invisible vermin under the thick holly-bushes, the brambles, and bracken; his rapturous rolling in the dewy grass, where he flung himself at full length, and rolled over and over, and leaped as if he had been revelling in a bath of freshest water; pleasant to see him race up to a serious-minded hog, and scrutinise that stolid animal closely, and then leave him to his sordid researches after edible roots, with open contempt, as who should say: “Can the same scheme of creation include me and that vulgar brute?”

All things had been set in order for the return of the newly-married couple. Mrs. Trimmer had her dinner arranged and ready to be put in hand at a moment’s notice. Violet felt that the end of her peaceful life was very near. How would she bear the change? How would she be able to behave herself decently? Well, she would try her best, Heaven giving her strength. That was her last resolve. She would not make the poor frivolous mother unhappy.

“Forgive me, beloved father, if I am civil to the usurper.” she said. “It will be for my mother’s sake. You were always tender and indulgent to her; you would not like to see her unhappy.”

These were Vixen’s thoughts this bright September morning, as she sat at her lonely little breakfast-table in the sunny window of her den, with Argus by her side, intensely watchful of every morsel of bread-and-butter she ate, though he had already been accommodated with half the loaf.

She was more amiably disposed than usual this morning. She had made up her mind to make the best of a painful position.

“I shall always hate him,” she told herself, meaning Captain Winstanley; “but I will begin a career of Christianlike hypocrisy, and try to make other people believe that I like him. No, Argus,” as the big paw tugged her arm pleadingly, “no; now really this is sheer greediness. You can’t be hungry.”

A piteous whine, as of a dog on the brink of starvation, seemed to gainsay her. Just then the door opened, and the middle-aged footman entered.

“Oh, if you please, miss, Bates says would you like to see Bullfinch?”

“To see Bullfinch,” echoed Vixen. “What’s the matter? Is he ill? Is he hurt?”

“No, miss; but Bates thought as how maybe you’d like to see ’un before he goes away. He’s sold.”

Vixen turned very pale. She started up, and stood for a few moments silent, with her strong young hands clenched, just as she gripped them on the reins sometimes when Arion was running away with her and there were bogs in front.

“I’ll come,” she said in a half-suffocated voice.

“He has sold my father’s horse, after all,” she said to herself, as she went towards the stables. “Then I shall hate him openly all my life. Yes, everybody shall know that I hate him.”

She found the stables in some commotion. There were two strangers, groomy-looking men, standing in front of Bullfinch’s loose-box, and all the stablemen had come out of their various holes, and were standing about.

Bates looked grave and indignant.

“There isn’t a finer horse in the county,” he muttered; “it’s a shame to send him out of it.”

Vixen walked straight up to the strange men, who touched their caps, and looked at her admiringly; her dark blue cloth dress fitted her like a riding-habit, her long white throat was bare, her linen collar tied loosely with a black ribbon, her chestnut hair wound into a crown of plaits at the top of her head. The severe simplicity of her dress set off her fresh young beauty.

“She’s the prettiest chestnut filly I’ve seen for a long time.” one of the grooms said of her afterwards. “Thoroughbred to the tips of her ears.”

“Who has bought this horse?” she asked authoritatively.

“My master, Lord Mallow, miss,” answered the superior of the men. “You needn’t be anxious about him; he’ll have a rare good home.”

“Will you let me see the order for taking him away?”

“Your groom has got it, miss.”

Bates showed her a sheet of paper on which Captain Winstanley had written:

“Trosachs Hotel, September 12.

“The bay horse, Bullfinch, is to be delivered, with clothing, &c., to Lord Mallow’s groom.

“C. WINSTANLEY.”

Vixen perused this paper with a countenance full of suppressed rage.

“Does your master give much money for this horse?” she asked, turning to the strange groom.

“I haven’t heard how much, miss.” Of course the man knew the sum to a penny. “But I believe it’s a tidyish lot.”

“I don’t suppose I have as much money in the world,” said Vixen, “or I’d buy my father’s horse of Captain Winstanley, since he is so badly in want of money, and keep him at a farm.”

“I beg your pardon, miss,” said the groom, “but the hoss is sold. My master has paid his money. He is a friend of Captain Winstanley’s. They met somewhere in Scotland the other day and my lord bought the hoss on hearsay; and I must say I don’t think he’ll be disappointed in him.”

“Where are you going to take him?”

“Well, it’s rather an awkward journey across country. We’re going to Melton. My lord is going to hunt the hoss in October, if he turns out to my lord’s satisfaction.”

“You are going to take him by rail?”

“Yes, miss.”

“He has never been by rail in his life. It will kill him!” cried Vixen, alarmed.

“Oh no it won’t, miss. Don’t be frightened about him. We shall have a padded box, and everything tip-top. He’ll be as snug and as tight as a sardine in its case. We’ll get him to Leicestershire as fresh as paint.”

Vixen went into the loose-box, where Bullfinch, all regardless of his doom, was idly munching a mouthful of upland meadow hay. She pulled down his noble head, and laid her cheek against his broad forehead, and let her tears rain on him unheeded. There was no one to see her in that dusky loose-box. The grooms were clustered at the stable-door, talking together. She was free to linger over her parting with the horse that her father had loved. She wound her arms about his arched neck, and kissed his velvet nose.

“Oh, Bullfinch, have you a memory? Will you be sorry to find yourself in a strange stable?” she asked, looking into the animal’s full soft eyes with a pathetic earnestness in her own.

She dried her tears presently; she was not going to make herself a spectacle for the scornful pity of stablemen. She came out of the loose-box with a serene countenance, and went up to Lord Mallow’s groom. “Please be kind to him,” she said, dropping a sovereign into the man’s ready hand.

“No fear of that, miss,” he said; “there are very few Christians that have as good a time of it as our hosses.”

That sovereign, taken in conjunction with the donor’s beauty, quite vanquished Lord Mallow’s stud-groom, and very nearly bought Violet Tempest a coronet.

Bullfinch was led out presently, looking like a king; but Violet did not stop to see him go away. She could hardly have borne that. She ran back to the house, put on her hat and jacket, called Argus, and set out for along ramble, to walk down, if possible, the angry devil within her.

No; this she would never forgive — this sale of her father’s favourite horse. It was as if some creature of her own flesh and blood had been sold into slavery. Her mother was rich, would squander hundreds on fine dresses, and would allow her dead husband’s horse to be sold.

“Is Captain Winstanley such a tyrant that mamma can not prevent this shameful thing?” she asked herself. “She talks about his attention, his devotion, as if he were at her feet; and yet she suffers him to disgrace her by this unparalleled meanness!”

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