Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

A Bad Beginning.

That walk through the Forest was very pleasant to Violet. It was a day on which mere existence was a privilege; and now that her spirits had been soothed by her confidential talk with Rorie, Vixen could enjoy those sights and sounds and sweet wild scents of the woodland that had ever been a rapture to her.

This Forest-born girl loved her native woods as Wordsworth loved his lakes and mountains, as Byron loved the bleak bare landscape round the city of Aberdeen. Their poetry and beauty filled her heart with a deep contentment. To walk or ride alone through pathless forest glades, or in the scented darkness of fir plantations, was enough for happiness. But it was comforting to-day — on this day when her heart had been so cruelly wounded — to have Roderick Vawdrey by her side. It was like a leaf out of the closed volume of the past.

They talked freely and happily during that long homewards walk, and their conversation was chiefly of bygone days. Almost every speech began with “Do you remember?” Vixen was gayer than she had been for a long time, save once or twice, when a pang shot through her heart at the idea that Bullfinch was being shaken about in a railway-box, oscillating helplessly with every vibration of the train, and panic-stricken in every tunnel.

The sun had declined from his meridian; he had put on his sober afternoon glory, and was sending shafts of mellower gold along the green forest aisles, when Miss Tempest and her companion drew near the Abbey House. They went in at the gate by the keeper’s cottage, the gate which Titmouse had jumped so often in the days when he carried his childish mistress. They went through the wood of rhododendrons, and past the old archway leading to the stables, and round by the shrubbery to the porch. The door stood open as usual, and the Squire’s old pointer was lying on the threshold; but within all was commotion. Dress-baskets, hat-cases, bonnet-boxes, gun-cases, travelling-bags, carriage-rugs, were lying about in every direction. Mrs. Winstanley was leaning back in the large chair by the fireplace, fanning herself with her big black fan; Pauline was standing by in attendance; and the silver tray, with the Swansee tea-set, was being brought in by Forbes the butler, whose honest old face wore a troubled aspect.

Captain Winstanley was standing with his back to the hearth, his countenance and whole figure wearing the unmistakable air of the master of a house who has returned to his domicile in an execrable temper.

Violet ran to Mrs. Winstanley, every other thought forgotten in the pleasure of seeing her mother again. These three weeks were the longest parting mother and daughter had ever known; and after all, blood is thicker than water; and there is a natural leaning in a child’s mind even to the weakest of parents.

Mr. Vawdrey stood in the background, waiting till those affectionate greetings natural to such an occasion should be over.

But to his surprise there were no such greetings. Mrs. Winstanley went on fanning herself vehemently, with a vexed expression of countenance, while Violet bent over and kissed her. Captain Winstanley swayed himself slowly backwards and forwards upon the heels of his boots, and whistled to himself sotto voce, with his eyes fixed upon some lofty region of empty air. He vouchsafed not the faintest notice of his stepdaughter or Mr. Vawdrey.

“It’s really too bad of you, Violet,” the mother exclaimed at last.

“Dear mamma,” cried Vixen, in blank amazement, “what have I done?”

“To go roaming about the country,” pursued Mrs. Winstanley plaintively, “for hours at a stretch, nobody knowing where to find you or what had become of you. And my telegram lying there unattended to.”

“Did you telegraph, mamma?”

“Did I telegraph? Should I come home without telegraphing? Should I be so mad as to expose myself knowingly to the outrage which has been offered to me to-day?”

“Dearest mamma, you alarm me. What has happened?”

“One of the deepest humiliations I ever had to endure. But you were roaming about the Forest. You were following the instincts of your wild nature. What do you care for my mortification? If I had telegraphed to my housekeeper, it would not have happened. But I trusted in my daughter.”

“Dear mamma,” pleaded Vixen, looking anxious and bewildered, “if you would only explain. You make me miserable. What has happened?”

“Violet, your stepfather and I had to drive home from the station in a fly!”

“Oh, mamma!” cried Vixen, with a gasp. “Is that all?”

“Is that all? Do you think that is not enough? Do you understand, child? — a fly — a common innkeeper’s fly — that anybody may have for half-a-guinea; a fly with a mouldy lining, smelling of — other people! And on such an occasion, when every eye was upon us! No; I was never so degraded. And we had to wait — yes, a quarter of an hour, at least, and it seemed ages, while Pycroft’s fly was got ready for us; yes, while a rough forest pony was dragged out of his wretched stable, and a man, whose face had not been washed for a week, shuffled himself into an old coachman’s coat. And there were all the porters staring at me, and laughing inwardly, I know. And, as a last drop in the cup, Colonel Carteret drove up in his phaeton to catch the up-train just as we were getting into that disgraceful looking vehicle, and would stop to shake hands with us both, and insisted upon handing me into the horrid thing.”

“Dear mamma, I am more sorry than I can say,” said Vixen gently; “but I was afraid it was something much worse.”

“Nothing could be worse, Vixen.”

“Then the telegram was to order the carriage to meet you, I suppose?”

“Of course. We telegraphed from the Grosvenor at nine o’clock this morning. Who would imagine that you would be out of doors at such an hour?”

“I am not often out so early. But something happened this morning to put me out of temper, and I went for a ramble.”

“A ramble lasting from ten in the morning till half-past four in the afternoon,” remarked Captain Winstanley, with his gaze still fixed upon empty space. “Rather a long walk for a solitary young lady.”

Vixen appeared unconscious that anyone had spoken. Roderick Vawdrey felt a burning desire to kick the new master of the Abbey House.

“Shall I pour out your tea, mamma?” asked Vixen meekly.

“If you like. I am utterly prostrate. To have no carriage to meet me on such an occasion! I daresay everybody in the Forest knows all about it by this time. When I came home from my honeymoon with your poor papa, the joy-bells rang all the afternoon, and the road was lined with people waiting to get a glimpse of us, and there were floral arches ——”

“Ah, mamma, those things cannot happen twice in a lifetime,” said Vixen, with irrepressible bitterness. “One happy marriage is as much as any woman can expect.”

“A woman has the right to expect her own carriage,” said Captain Winstanley.

“I am afraid I have paid my visit at rather at unfortunate moment,” said Roderick, coming forward and addressing himself solely to Mrs. Winstanley; “but I could not go without saying How do you do? I hope you had a pleasant journey from Scotland — bar the fly.”

“How do you do, Roderick? Yes; it was all pleasant except that last contretemps. Imagine the Duchess of Dovedale’s feelings if she arrived at the station adjoining her own estate, and found no carriage to meet her!”

“My aunt would tuck up her petticoats and trudge home,” answered Roderick, smiling. “She’s a plucky little woman.”

“Yes, perhaps on an ordinary occasion. But to-day it was so different. Everybody will talk about our return.”

“Most people are still away,” suggested Rorie, with a view to comfort.

“Oh, but their servants will hear it, and they will tell their masters and mistresses. All gossip begins that way. Besides, Colonel Carteret saw us, and what he knows everybody knows.”

After this, Roderick felt that all attempts at consolation were hopeless. He would have liked to put Mrs. Winstanley into a better temper, for Violet’s sake. It was not a pleasant home atmosphere in which he was obliged to leave his old playfellow on this the first day of her new life. Captain Winstanley maintained a forbidding silence; Mrs. Winstanley did not even ask anyone to have a cup of tea; Violet sat on the opposite side of the hearth, pale and quiet, with Argus at her knee, and one arm wound caressingly round his honest head.

“I’ve been inspecting the kennels this morning,” said Roderick, looking at the new master of the Abbey House with a cheerful assumption that everything was going on pleasantly. “We shall begin business on the first. You’ll hunt, of course?”

“Well, yes; I suppose I shall give myself a day occasionally.”

“I shall not have a happy moment while you are out,” said Mrs. Winstanley. “I used to be miserable about poor dear Edward.”

Vixen winced. These careless references to the dead hurt her more than the silence of complete oblivion. To remember, and to be able to speak so lightly. That seemed horrible.

“I doubt if I shall hunt much this season,” pursued Captain Winstanley, as much as to say that he was not going to be grateful to the new master of the foxhounds as a public benefactor, however many hundreds that gentleman might disburse in order to make up the shortcomings of a scanty subscription. “I shall have a great deal to occupy me. This place has been much neglected — naturally — within the last few years. There is no end of work to be done.”

“Are you going to pull down the Abbey House and build an Italian villa on its site?” asked Vixen, her upper lip curling angrily. “That would be rather a pity. Some people think it a fine old place, and it has been in my father’s family since the reign of Henry the Eighth.”

To the Captain’s ear this speech had a covert insolence. The Abbey House was to belong to Violet in the future. Neither he nor his wife had a right to touch a stone of it. Indeed, it was by no means clear to him that there might not be ground for a Chancery suit in his cutting down a tree.

“I hope I shall do nothing injudicious,” he said politely.

“My aunt will be back in a week or two, Mrs. Winstanley,” said Roderick. “I shall bring her over to see you directly she settles down at Ashbourne. And now I think I’d better be off; I’ve a long walk home, and you must be too tired to care about talking or being talked to.”

“I am very tired,” answered Mrs. Winstanley languidly; “but I should have liked to hear all your news.”

“I’m afraid that’s not much. I only came home last night; I have been shooting grouse in Renfrew.”

“Plenty of birds this year?” inquired the Captain, with a languid interest.

“Pretty fair. The rainy spring killed a good many of the young birds.”

“Do you remember any year in which that complaint was not made?” retorted Captain Winstanley.

Rorie took his departure after this, and contrived to give Violet’s hand an encouraging squeeze at parting, accompanied with a straight steady look, which said as plainly as words: “You have one friend who will be stanch and true, come what may.”

Vixen understood him, and sudden tears welled up to her eyes — the first that had clouded them since her parting with Bullfinch. She brushed them away hurriedly, but not so quickly as to escape Captain Winstanley’s observation.

“If you’ll excuse me, mamma. I’ll run and dress for dinner,” she said, “unless there is anything I can do for you. Your rooms are quite ready.”

“I’m glad of that,” replied Mrs. Winstanley fretfully; “for really after our reception at the railway-station, I expected to find everything at sixes and sevens.”

“Dear mamma, you must know that was quite an accident.”

“An accident very likely to occur when a young lady indulges in tête-à-tête forest rambles with an old friend, instead of waiting at home for her mother’s letters and telegrams,” remarked Captain Winstanley, caressing his neat whisker with his irreproachable hand.

“What do you mean?” said Vixen, turning sharply upon him. “I went out alone this morning. Mr. Vawdrey and I met at the kennels by accident.”

“A chapter of accidents,” sneered the Captain. “I have no objection to make, Miss Tempest, if your mamma has none. But I am rather sorry for the young lady Mr. Vawdrey is going to marry.”

“Mr. Vawdrey was my father’s friend, and will never cease to be mine,” said Vixen, with flashing eyes. “There can be nothing offensive to Lady Mabel Ashbourne in our friendship.”

She was gone before her stepfather could reply, or her mother reprove her want of respect for that new relative.

“I suppose I had better go and dress too,” said Mrs. Winstanley, “and in the evening we can talk about our first dinner-party. I daresay we shall have a great many people calling to-morrow afternoon. It will be rather trying. There is such a painful feeling in being a bride and not a bride, as it were. People’s congratulations hardly sound hearty.”

“I daresay they have rather a vapid flavour, like a warmed-up dinner,” said the Captain. “That is the result of living in a neighbourhood where your first husband was known and popular. If we went among strangers, their congratulations would be a great deal heartier. But I hope you don’t begin to repent already, my dear Pamela.”

“Conrad! How can you imagine such a thing? — after your delicate attentions, your devoted care of me during our tour. What dress shall I wear this evening? Do you like me best in blue or amber?”

“To my eye all colours suit you. But I think a woman”— he was going to say “of your age,” but checked himself and substituted —“in the maturity of her beauty looks best in velvet, or some rich and heavy material that falls in massive folds, like the drapery in a portrait by Velasquez. A border of fur, too, is an artistic introduction in a woman’s dress — you see it often in Velasquez. Heavy old laces are, of course, always admirable. And for colour I like the warmer hues best — wine-dark purples or deep glowing reds; rich ruddy browns, with a knot of amber now and then for relief.”

“How beautifully you talk,” cried Mrs. Winstanley, delighted. “I only wish Theodore could hear you. It would give her new ideas; for, after all, the best dressmakers are bornées. It is too early in the year for velvet. I shall put on my dark green brocade with the old Flanders lace. I am so glad you like lace. It is my chief weakness. Even dear Edward, who was so generous, thought me a little extravagant in the matter of lace. But when one once begins to collect, the study is so interesting. One is led on.”

“Good Heavens! is my wife a collector?” thought Captain Winstanley, horrified. “That must be put a stop to, or she will ruin me.”

And then he wont off to his dressing-room rather wearily, to put on full-dress for a home dinner, a sacrifice to his new state of existence which he found very irksome. He would have liked to dine in a shooting-jacket, and smoke all the evening. But his smoking now, instead of pervading the whole house, as it had done in his snug bachelor quarters, was an indulgence to be taken out of doors, or in a room appointed for the purpose. He was not even to smoke in the fine old hall, for it was one of the family sitting-rooms, and Mrs. Winstanley could not endure smoke.

“I am not at all fanciful or capricious,” she told her husband early in the honeymoon, “but smoking is one of my horrors. I hope, dear Conrad, it is not too much to ask you never to smoke in any room I use.”

Captain Winstanley pledged himself to respect this and every other wish of his wife’s. It was his policy to be subservient in small matters, in order to be master in essentials. But that daily dressing for dinner was something of a bore; and the dinners themselves —tête-à-tête dinners, in which he had to take as much trouble to be amusing as at a dinner-party, had been apt to hang heavily upon him. He had even proposed dining at the table-d’hôte, while they were on their Scotch travels, but this idea Mrs. Winstanley rejected with horror.

“I have never dined at a table-d’hôte in my life, Conrad,” she exclaimed, “and I certainly should not begin during my wedding tour.”

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