Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

On Half Rations.

Captain Winstanley entered upon his new position with a fixed determination to make the best of it, and with a very clear view of its advantages and disadvantages. For seven years he was to be master of everything — or his wife was to be mistress, which, in his mind, was exactly the same. No one could question his use of the entire income arising from Squire Tempest’s estates during that period. When Violet came of age — on her twenty-fifth birthday — the estates were to be passed over to her in toto; but there was not a word in the Squire’s will as to the income arising during her minority. Nor had the Squire made any provision in the event of his daughter’s marriage. If Violet were to marry to-morrow, she would go to her husband penniless. He would not touch a sixpence of her fortune until she was twenty-five. If she were to die during her minority the estate would revert to her mother.

It was a very nice estate, taken as a sample of a country squire’s possessions. Besides the New Forest property, there were farms in Wiltshire and Dorsetshire; the whole yielding an income of between five and six thousand a year. With such a revenue, and the Abbey House and all its belongings rent free, Captain Winstanley felt himself in a land of Canaan. But then there was the edict that seven years hence he was to go forth from this land of milk and honey; or, at any rate, was to find himself living at the Abbey House on a sorely restricted income. Fifteen hundred a year in such a house would mean genteel beggary, he told himself despondently. And even this genteel beggary would be contingent on his wife’s life. Her death would rob him of everything.

He had a mind given to calculation, and he entered upon the closest calculations as to his future. He meant to enjoy life, of course. He had always done that to the best of his ability. But he saw that the chief duty he owed to himself was to save money; and to lay by against the evil inevitable day when Violet Tempest would despoil him of power and wealth. The only way to do this was by the cutting down of present expenses, and an immediate narrowing of the lines on which the Abbey House was being conducted; for the Captain had discovered that his wife, who was the most careless and incompetent of women as regards money matters, had been spending the whole of her income since her husband’s death. If she had not spent her money on society, she had spent it on travelling, on lace, on old china, on dress, on hothouse flowers, on a stable which was three times larger than she could possibly require, on a household in which there were a good many more cats than were wanted to catch mice, on bounties and charities that were given upon no principle, not even from inclination, but only because Squire Tempest’s widow had never been able to say No.

Captain Winstanley’s first retrenchment had been the sale of Bullfinch, for which noble animal Lord Mallow, a young Irish viscount, had given a cheque for three hundred guineas. This money the Captain put on deposit at his banker’s, by way of a nest-egg. He meant his deposit account to grow into something worth investing before those seven fat years were half gone.

He told his wife his views on the financial question one morning when they were breakfasting tête-à-tête in the library, where the Squire and his family had always dined when there was no company. Captain and Mrs. Winstanley generally had the privilege of breakfasting alone, as Violet was up and away before her mother appeared. The Captain also was an early riser, and had done half his day’s work before he sat down to the luxurious nine-o’clock breakfast with his wife.

“I have been thinking of your ponies, pet,” he said, in a pleasant voice, half careless, half caressing, as he helped himself to a salmon cutlet. “Don’t you think it would be a very wise thing to get rid of them?”

“Oh, Conrad!” cried his wife, letting the water from the urn overflow the teapot in her astonishment; “you can’t mean that! Part with my ponies?”

“My dear love, how often do you drive them in a twelvemonth?”

“Not very often, perhaps. I have felt rather nervous driving lately — carts and great waggon-loads of hay come out upon one so suddenly from cross-roads. I don’t think the waggoners would care a bit if one were killed. But I am very fond of my gray ponies. They are so pretty. They have quite Arabian heads. Colonel Carteret says so, and he has been in Arabia.”

“But, my dear Pamela, do you think it worth while keeping a pair of ponies because they are pretty, and because Colonel Carteret, who knows about as much of a horse as I do of a megalosaurus says they have Arabian heads? Have you ever calculated what those ponies cost you?”

“No, Conrad; I should hate myself if I were always calculating the cost of things.”

“Yes, that’s all very well in the abstract. But if you are inclined to waste money, it’s just as well to know how much you are wasting. Those ponies are costing yon at the least one hundred and fifty pounds a year, for you could manage with a man less in the stables if you hadn’t got them.”

“That’s a good deal of money certainly,” said Mrs. Winstanley, who hated driving, and had only driven her ponies because other people in her position drove ponies, and she felt it was a right thing to do.

Still the idea of parting with anything that appertained to her state wounded her deeply.

“I can’t see why we should worry ourselves about the cost of the stables,” she said; “they have gone on in the same way ever since I was married. Why should things be different now?”

“Don’t you see that you have the future to consider, Pamela. This handsome income which you are spending so lavishly ——”

“Edward never accused me of extravagance,” interjected Mrs. Winstanley tearfully, “except in lace. He did hint that I was a little extravagant in lace.”

“This fine income is to be reduced seven years hence to fifteen hundred a year an income upon which — with mine added to it — you could not expect to be able to carry on life decently in such a house as this. So you see, Pamela, unless we contrive between us to put by a considerable sum of money before your daughter’s majority, we shall be obliged to leave the Abbey House, and live in a much smaller way than we are living now.”

“Leave the Abbey House!” cried Mrs. Winstanley with a horrified look. “Conrad, I have lived in this house ever since I was married.”

“Am I not aware of that, my dear love? But, all the same, you would have to let this place, and live in a much smaller house, if you had only fifteen hundred a year to live upon.”

“It would be too humiliating! At the end of one’s life. I should never survive such a degradation.”

“It may be prevented if we exercise reasonable economy during the next seven years.”

“Sell my ponies, then, Conrad; sell them immediately. Why should we allow them to eat us out of house and home. Frisky shies abominably if she is in the least bit fresh, and Peter has gone so far as to lie down in the road when he has had one of his lazy fits.”

“But if they are really a source of pleasure to you, my dear Pamela, I should hate myself for selling them,” said the Captain, seeing he had gained his point.

“They are not a source of pleasure. They have given me some awful frights.”

“Then we’ll send them up to Tattersall’s immediately, with the carriage.”

“Violet uses the carriage with Titmouse.” objected Mrs. Winstanley. “We could hardly spare the carriage.”

“My love, if I part with your ponies from motives of economy, do you suppose I would keep a pony for your daughter?” said the Captain with a grand air. “No; Titmouse must go, of course. That will dispose of a man and a boy in the stables. Violet spends so much of her life on horseback, that she cannot possibly want a pony to drive.”

“She is very fond of Titmouse,” pleaded the mother.

“She has a tendency to lavish her affection on quadrupeds — a weakness which hardly needs fostering. I shall write to Tattersall about the three ponies this morning; and I shall send up that great raking brown horse Bates rides at the same time. Bates can ride one of my hunters. That will bring down the stable to five horses — my two hunters, Arion, and your pair of carriage-horses.”

“Five horses,” sighed Mrs. Winstanley pensively; “I shall hardly know those great stables with only five horses in them. The dear old place used to look so pretty and so full of life when I was first married, and when the Squire used to coax me to go with him on his morning rounds. The horses used to move on one side, and turn their heads so prettily at the sound of his voice — such lovely, sleek, shining creatures, with big intelligent eyes.”

“You would be a richer woman if it had not been for those lovely, sleek, shining creatures,” said Captain Winstanley. “And now, love, let us go round the gardens, and you will see the difference that young able-bodied gardeners are making in the appearance of the place.”

Mrs. Winstanley gave a plaintive little sigh as she rose and rang the bell for Pauline. The good old gray-haired gardeners — the men who had seemed to her as much a part of the gardens as the trees that grew in them — these hoary and faithful servants had been cashiered, to make room for two brawny young Scotchmen, whose dialect was as Greek to the mistress of the Abbey House. It wounded her not a little to see these strangers at work in her grounds. It gave an aspect of strangeness to her very life out of doors. She hardly cared to go into her conservatories, or to loiter on her lawn, with those hard unfamiliar eyes looking at her. And it wrung her heart to think of the Squire’s old servants thrust out in their old age, unpensioned, uncared for. Yet this was a change that had come about with her knowledge, and, seemingly, with her consent. That is to say, the Captain had argued her into a corner, where she stood, like the last forlorn king in a game of draughts, fenced round and hemmed in by opponent kings. She had not the strength of mind to assert herself boldly, and say: “I will not have it so. This injustice shall not be.”

A change had come over the spirit of the Abbey House kitchen, which was sorely felt in Beechdale and those half-dozen clusters of cottages within a two-mile radius, which called themselves villages, and all of which had turned to the Abbey House for light and comfort, as the sunflower turns to the sun. Captain Winstanley had set his face against what he called miscellaneous charity. Such things should be done and no other. His wife should subscribe liberally to all properly organised institutions — schools, Dorcas societies, maternity societies, soup-kitchens, regulated dole of bread or coals, every form of relief that was given systematically and by line and rule; but the good Samaritan business — the picking up stray travellers, and paying for their maintenance at inns — was not in the Captain’s view of charity. Henceforward Mrs. Winstanley’s name was to appear with due honour upon all printed subscription-lists, just as it had done when she was Mrs. Tempest; but the glory of the Abbey House kitchen had departed. The beggar and the cadger were no longer sure of a meal. The villagers were no longer to come boldly asking for what they wanted in time of trouble — broth, wine, jelly, for the sick, allowances of new milk, a daily loaf when father was out of work, broken victuals at all times. It was all over. The kitchen-doors were to be closed against all intruders.

“My love, I do not wonder that you have spent every sixpence of your income,” said Captain Winstanley. “You have been keeping an Irish household. I can fancy an O’Donoghue or a Knight of Glyn living in this kind of way; but I should hardly have expected such utter riot and recklessness in an English gentleman’s house.”

“I am afraid Trimmer has been rather extravagant,” assented Mrs. Winstanley. “I have trusted everything to her entirely, knowing that she is quite devoted to us, poor dear soul.”

“She is so devoted, that I should think in another year or so, at the rate she was going, she would have landed you in the bankruptcy court. Her books for the last ten years — I have gone through them carefully — show an expenditure that is positively ruinous. However, I think I have let her see that her housekeeping must be done upon very different lines in future.”

“You made her cry very bitterly, poor thing,” said his wife. “Her eyes were quite red when she came out of your study.”

“Made her cry!” echoed the Captain contemptuously. “She is so fat that the slightest emotion liquefies her. It isn’t water, but oil that she sheds when she makes believe to weep.”

“She has been a faithful servant to me for the last twenty years,” moaned Mrs. Winstanley.

“And she will be a much more faithful servant to you for the next twenty years, if she lives so long. I am not going to send her away. She is an admirable cook, and now she knows that she is not to let your substance run out at the back door. I daresay she will be a fairly good manager. I shall look after her rather sharply, I assure you. I was caterer for our mess three years, and I know pretty well what a household ought to cost per head.”

“Oh, Conrad!” cried his wife piteously, “you talk as if we were an institution, or a workhouse, or something horrid.”

“My love, a man of sense ought to be able to regulate a private establishment at least as well as a board of thick-headed guardians can regulate a workhouse.”

Poor Mrs. Trimmer had left her new master’s presence sorely bowed down in spirit. She was so abased that she could only retire to her own snug sitting-room, a panelled parlour, with an ancient ivy-wreathed casement looking into the stable-yard, and indulge herself with what she called “a good cry.” It was not until later that she felt equal to communicating her grief to Forbes and Pauline, over the one-o’clock dinner.

She had had a passage of arms, which she denominated “a stand further,” with the Captain; but it appeared that her own stand had been feeble. He had been going over the housekeeping accounts for the last ten years — accounts which neither the Squire nor his wife had ever taken the trouble to examine — accounts honestly, but somewhat carelessly and unskillfully made out. There had been an expenditure that was positively scandalous, Captain Winstanley told Mrs. Trimmer.

“If you’re dissatisfied, sir, perhaps I’d better go,” the old woman said, tremulous with indignation. “If you think there’s anything dishonest in my accounts, I wouldn’t sleep under this roof another night, though it’s been my home near upon forty year — I was kitchen-maid in old Squire Tempest’s time — no, I wouldn’t stay another hour — not to be doubted.”

“I have not questioned your honesty, Trimmer. The accounts are honest enough, I have no doubt, but they show a most unjustifiable waste of money.”

“If there’s dissatisfaction in your mind, sir, we’d better part. It’s always best for both parties. I’m ready to go at an hour’s notice, or to stay my month, if it’s more convenient to my mistress.”

“You are a silly old woman,” said the Captain. “I don’t want you to go. I am not dissatisfied with you, but with the whole system of housekeeping. There has been a great deal too much given away.”

“Not a loaf of bread without my mistress’s knowledge,” cried Trimmer. “I always told Mrs. Tempest every morning who’d been for soup, or wine, or bread — yes, even to broken victuals — the day before. I had her leave and license for all I did. ‘I’m not strong enough to see to the poor things myself, Trimmer,’ she used to say, ‘but I want them cared for. I leave it all to you.’”

“Very well, Trimmer. That kind of thing must cease from this very hour. Your mistress will contribute to all the local charities. She will give the Vicar an allowance of wine to be distributed by him in urgent cases; but this house will no longer be the village larder — no one is to come to this kitchen for anything.

“What, sir? — not in case of sickness?”

“No. Poor people are always sick. It is their normal state, when there is anything to be got by sickness. There are hospitals and infirmaries for such cases. My house is not to be an infirmary. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir; I understand that everything is to be different from what it was in my late master’s time.”

“Precisely. Expenses are to be kept within a certain limit. They are not to fluctuate, as they do in these books of yours. You must get rid of two or three women-servants. There are at least three too many. I am always seeing strange faces about upstairs. One might as well live in a hotel. Think it over, Trimmer, and make up your mind as to which you can best spare, and give them a month’s wages, and pack them off. I don’t care to have servants about me who are under notice to quit. They always look sulky.”

“Is that all, sir?” inquired the housekeeper, drying her angry tears upon her linen apron.

“Well, yes, that is all at present. Stay. What wages has my wife given you?”

“Sixty pounds a year,” replied Trimmer, quite prepared to be told that her stipend was to be reduced.

“Then I shall give you seventy.”

At this unexpected grace Trimmer began to tremble with an excess of indignation. She saw in this bounty a bribe to meanness.

“Thank you, sir; but I have never asked to have my wages raised, and I am quite contented to remain as I am,” she answered with dignity. “Perhaps, if the ways of the house are to be so much altered, I may not feel myself comfortable enough to stay.”

“Oh, very well, my good soul; please yourself,” replied the Captain carelessly; “but remember what I have told you about cadgers and interlopers; and get rid of two or three of those idle young women. I shall examine your housekeeping accounts weekly, and pay all the tradespeople weekly.”

“They have not been used to it, sir.”

“Then they must get used to it. I shall pay every account weekly — corn-merchant, and all of them. Bring me up your book on Saturday morning at ten, and let me have all other accounts at the same time.”

Here was a revolution. Trimmer and Forbes and Pauline sat long over their dinner, talking about the shipwreck of a fine old house.

“I knew that things would be different,” said Pauline, “but I didn’t think it would be so bad as this. I thought it would be all the other way, and that there’d be grand doings and lots of company. What awful meanness! Not a drop of soup to be given to a poor family; and I suppose, if I ask my aunt and uncle to stop to tea and supper, anywhen that they call to ask how I am, it will be against the rules.”

“From what I gather, there’s not a bit nor a sup to be given to mortal,” said Mrs. Trimmer solemnly.

“Well, thank Providence, I can afford to buy a bit of tea and sugar and a quart loaf when a friend drops in,” said Pauline, “but the meanness isn’t any less disgusting. He’ll want her to sell her cast-off dresses to the secondhand dealers, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“And he’ll be asking for the keys of the cellars, perhaps,” said Forbes, “after I’ve kept them for five-and-twenty years.”

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