Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

The Owner of Bullfinch.

Captain Winstanley had been master of the Abbey House three months, and there had been no open quarrel between him and Violet Tempest. Vixen had been cold as marble, but she had been civil. For her mother’s sake she had held her peace. She remembered what Roderick Vawdrey had said about her duty, and had tried to do it, difficult as that duty was to the girl’s undisciplined nature. She had even taken the loss of Titmouse very quietly — her father’s first gift, the pony that had carried her when she was a seven-year-old huntress with tawny hair flowing loose under her little velvet toque. She gave no expression to her indignation at the sale of this old favourite, as she had done in the case of Bullfinch. If she wept for him, her tears were shed in secret. She took the sale of her pet almost as a matter of course.

“The Captain thinks we have too many horses and ponies, dear; and you know dear papa was a little extravagant about his stables,” said her mother apologetically, when she announced the fate of Titmouse; “but of course Arion will always be kept for you.”

“I am glad of that, mamma,” Vixen answered gravely. “I should be sorry to part with the last horse papa gave me as well as with the first.”

To the Captain himself Vixen said no word about her pony, and he made no apology for or explanation of his conduct, He acted as if Heaven had made him lord of the Abbey House and all its belongings in his cradle, and as if his wife and her daughter were accidental and subordinate figures in the scene of his life.

Despite the era of retrenchment which the new master had inaugurated, things at the Abbey House had never been done with so much dignity and good style. There had been a slipshod ease, an old-fashioned liberality in the housekeeping during the Squire’s reign, which had in some measure approximated to the popular idea of an Irish household. Now all was done by line and rule, and according to the latest standard of perfection. There was no new fashion in Belgravia — from a brand of champagne to the shape of a menu-holder — which Captain Winstanley had not at his finger’s ends. The old-style expensive heavy dinners at the Abbey House: the monster salmon under whose weight the serving man staggered; the sprawling gigantic turbot, arabesqued with sliced lemon and barberries; the prize turkey, too big for anything but a poultry show; these leviathans and megatheria of the market were seen no more. In their stead came the subdued grace of the dîner à la Russe, a well-chosen menu, before composing which Captain Winstanley studied Gouffé‘s artistic cookery-book as carefully as a pious Israelite studies the Talmud. The new style was as much more economical than the old as it was more elegant. The table, with the Squire’s old silver, and fine dark blue and gold Worcester china, and the Captain’s picturesque grouping of hothouse flowers and ferns, was a study worthy of a painter of still life. People exclaimed at the beauty of the picture. The grave old dining-room was transformed from its heavy splendour to a modern grace that delighted everybody. Mrs. Winstanley’s bosom thrilled with a gentle pride as she sat opposite her husband — he and she facing each other across the centre of the oval table — at their first dinner-party.

“My love, I am delighted that you are pleased,” he said afterwards, when she praised his arrangements. “I think I shall be able to show you that economy does not always mean shabbiness. Our dinners shall not be too frequent, but they shall be perfect after their kind.”

The Captain made another innovation in his wife’s mode of existence. Instead of a daily dropping in of her acquaintance for tea and gossip, she was to have her afternoon, like Lady Ellangowan. A neat copper-plate inscription on her visiting-card told her friends that she was at home on Tuesdays from three to six, and implied that she was not at home on any other day. Mrs. Winstanley felt her dignity enhanced by this arrangement, and the Captain hoped thereby to put a stop to a good deal of twaddling talk, and to lessen the consumption of five-shilling tea, pound-cake, and cream.

The Duke and Duchess returned to Ashbourne with Lady Mabel a short time before Christmas, and the Duchess and her daughter came to one of Mrs. Winstanley’s Tuesday afternoons, attended by Roderick Vawdrey. They came with an evident intention of being friendly, and the Duchess was charmed with the old oak hall, the wide hearth and Christmas fire of beech-logs, the light flashing upon the men in armour, and reflected here and there on the beeswaxed panels as on dark water. In this wintry dusk the hall looked its best, dim gleams of colour from the old painted glass mixing with the changeful glow of the fire.

“It reminds me a little of our place in Scotland,” said the Duchess, “only this is prettier. It has a warmer homelier air. All things in Scotland have an all-pervading stoniness. It is a country overgrown with granite.”

Mrs. Winstanley was delighted to be told that her house resembled one of the ducal abodes.

“I daresay your Scotch castle is much older than this,” she said deprecatingly. “We only date from Henry the Eighth. There was an abbey, built in the time of Henry the First; but I am afraid there is nothing left of that hut the archway leading into the stables.”

“Oh, we are dreadfully ancient at Dundromond; almost as old as the mountains, I should think,” answered the Duchess. “Our walls are ten feet thick, and we have an avenue of yew trees said to be a thousand years old. But all that does not prevent the Duke getting bronchitis every time he goes there.”

Vixen was in attendance upon her mother, dressed in dark green cloth. Very much the same kind of gown she had on that day at the kennels, Rorie thought, remembering how she looked as she stood with quickened breath and tumbled hair, encircled by those eager boisterous hounds.

“If Landseer could have lived to paint her, I would have given a small fortune for the picture,” he thought regretfully.

Lady Mabel was particularly gracious to Violet. She talked about dogs and horses even, in her desire to let herself down to Miss Tempest’s level; praised the Forest; made a tentative remark about point lace; and asked Violet if she was fond of Chopin.

“I’m afraid I’m not enlightened enough to care so much for him as I ought.” Vixen answered frankly.

“Really! Who is your favourite composer?”

Violet felt as if she were seated before one of those awful books which some young ladies keep instead of albums, in which the sorely-tormented contributor is catechised as to his or her particular tastes, distastes, and failings.

“I think I like Mozart best.”

“Do you, really?” inquired Lady Mabel, looking as if Violet had sunk fathoms lower in her estimation by this avowal. “Don’t you think that he is dreadfully tuney?”

“I like tunes,” retorted Vixen, determined not to be put down. “I’d rather have written ‘Voi che sapete,’ and ‘Batti, batti,’ than all Chopin’s nocturnes and mazurkas.”

“I think you would hardly say that if you knew Chopin better,” said Lady Mabel gravely, as if she had been gently reproving some one for the utterance of infidel opinions. “When are you coming to see our orchids?” she asked graciously. “Mamma is at home on Thursdays. I hope you and Mrs. Winstanley will drive over and look at my new orchid-house. Papa had it built for me with all the latest improvements. I’m sure you must be fond of orchids, even if you don’t appreciate Chopin.”

Violet blushed. Rorie was looking on with a malicious grin. He was sitting a little way off in a low Glastonbury chair, with his knees up to his chin, making himself an image of awkwardness.

“I don’t believe Violet cares twopence for the best orchid you could show her,” he said. “I don’t believe your Dendrobium Formosum would have any more effect upon her than it has upon me.”

“Oh, but I do admire them; or, at least, I should admire them immensely,” remonstrated Vixen, “if I could see them in their native country. But I don’t know that I have ever thoroughly appreciated them in a hothouse, hanging from the roof, and tumbling on to one’s nose, or shooting off their long sprays at a tangent into awkward corners. I’m afraid I like the bluebells and foxgloves in our enclosures ever so much better. I have seen the banks in New Park one sheet of vivid blue with hyacinths, one blaze of crimson with foxgloves; and then there are the long green swamps, where millions of marsh marigolds shine like pools of liquid gold. If I could see orchids blooming like that I should be charmed with them.”

“You paint of course,” said Lady Mabel. “Wild flowers make delightful studies, do they not?”

Vixen blushed violently.

“I can’t paint a little bit,” she said. “I am a dreadfully unaccomplished person.”

“That’s not true,” remonstrated Rorie. “She sketches capitally in pen and ink — dogs, horses, trees, you and me, everything, dashed off with no end of spirit.”

Here the Duchess, who had been describing the most conspicuous costumes at the German baths, to the delight of Mrs. Winstanley, rose to go, and Lady Mabel, with her graceful, well-drilled air, rose immediately.

“We shall be so glad to see you at Ashbourne,” she murmured sweetly, giving Violet her slim little hand in its pearl-gray glove.

She was dressed from head to foot in artistically blended shades of gray — a most unpretending toilet. But to Violet’s mind the very modesty of her attire seemed to say: “I am a duke’s only daughter, but I don’t want to crush you.”

Vixen acknowledged her graciousness politely, but without any warmth; and it would hardly have done for Lady Mabel to have known what Miss Tempest said to herself when the Dovedale barouche had driven round the curve of the shrubbery, with Roderick smiling at her from his place as it vanished.

“I am afraid I have a wicked tendency to detest people,” said Vixen inwardly. “I feel almost as bad about Lady Mabel as I do about Captain Winstanley.”

“Are they not nice?” asked Mrs. Winstanley gushingly, when she and Violet were alone.

“Trimmer’s drop-cakes?” said Vixen, who was standing by the tea-table munching a dainty little biscuit. “Yes, they are always capital.”

“Nonsense, Violet; I mean the Duchess and her daughter.”

Vixen yawned audibly.

“I’m glad you do not find the Duchess insupportably dreary,” she said. “Lady Mabel weighed me down like a nightmare.”

“Oh Violet! when she behaved so sweetly — quite caressingly, I thought. You really ought to cultivate her friendship. It would be so nice for you to visit at Ashbourne. You would have such opportunities ——”

“Of doing what, mamma? Heading polonaises and mazurkas in seven double flats; or seeing orchids with names as long as a German compound adjective.”

“Opportunities of being seen and admired by young men of position, Violet. Sooner or later the time must come for you to think of marrying.”

“That time will never come, mamma. I shall stay at home with you till you are tired of me, and when you turn me out I will have a cottage in the heart of the Forest — upon some wild ridge topped with a hat of firs — and good old McCroke to take care of me; and I will spend my days botanising and fern-hunting, riding and walking, and perhaps learn to paint my favourite trees, and live as happily and as remote from mankind as the herons in their nests at the top of the tall beeches on Vinny Ridge.”

“I am very glad there is no one present to hear you talk like that, Violet,” Mrs. Winstanley said gravely.

“Why, mamma?’

“Because anybody hearing you might suppose you were not quite right in your mind.”

The Duchess’s visit put Mrs. Winstanley in good-humour with all the world, but especially with Roderick Vawdrey. She sent him an invitation to her next dinner, and when her husband seemed inclined to strike his name out of her list, she defended her right of selection with a courage that was almost heroic.

“I can’t understand your motive for asking this fellow,” the Captain said, with a blacker look than his wife had ever before seen on his countenance.

“Why should I not ask him, Conrad? I have known him ever since he was at Eton, and the dear Squire was very fond of him.”

“If you are going to choose your acquaintance in accordance with the taste of your first husband, it will be rather a bad look out for your second,” said the Captain.

“What objection can you have to Roderick?”

“I can have, and I have, a very strong objection to him. But I am not going to talk about it yet awhile.”

“But, Conrad, if there is anything I ought to know ——” began Mrs. Winstanley, alarmed.

“When I think you ought to know it you will be told, my dear Pamela. In the meantime, allow me to have my own opinion about Mr. Vawdrey.”

“But, Conrad, in dear Edward’s time he used to come to this house whenever he liked, as if he had been a near relation. And he is the Duchess’s nephew, remember; and when he marries Lady Mabel, and the Duke dies, he will be one of the largest landowners in South Hampshire.”

“Very well, let him come to your dinner. It can make very little difference.”

“Now you are offended, Conrad,” said Mrs. Winstanley, with a deprecating air.

“No, I am not offended; but I have my own opinion as to your wisdom in giving any encouragement to Mr. Vawdrey.”

This sounded mysterious, and made Mrs. Winstanley uncomfortable. But she was determined not to offend the Duchess, who had been so particularly gracious, and who had sent Captain and Mrs. Winstanley a card for a dinner to be given on the last day of the year.

So Roderick got his invitation, and accepted it with friendly promptitude. He was master of the hounds now, and a good many of his days were given up to the pleasures of the hunting-field. He was an important person in his way, full of business; but he generally found time to drop in for an hour on Mrs. Winstanley’s Tuesday afternoons, to lounge with his back against the massive oaken chimney-breast and talk to Violet, or pat Argus, while the lady-visitors gossiped and tittered over their tea-cups.

This last dinner of Mrs. Winstanley was to take place a few days before Christmas, and was to be given in honour of a guest who was coming to spend the holidays at the Abbey House. The guest was Captain Winstanley’s Irish friend, Lord Mallow, the owner of Bullfinch.

Vixen’s heart gave an indignant bound when she heard that he was coming.

“Another person for me to hate,” she said to herself, almost despairingly. “I am becoming a mass of envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness.”

Lord Mallow had spent the early morning of life in the army, it appeared, with no particular expectations. He and Captain Winstanley had been brother-officers. But the fell sergeant Death had promoted Patrick Hay to his elder brother’s heritage, and he had surrendered a subaltern’s place in a line regiment to become Viscount Mallow, and the owner of a fine stretch of fertile hill and valley in County Cork. He had set up at once as the model landlord, eager for his tenantry’s welfare, full of advanced ideas, a violent politician, liberal to the verge of radicalism. If the Irish Church had not been disestablished before Lord Mallow went into Parliament, he would have gripped his destructive axe and had a chop or two at the root of that fine old tree. Protestant, and loyal to the Church of England in his own person — so far as such loyalty may be testified by regular attendance at divine service every Sunday morning, and a gentlemanlike reverence for bishops — it seemed to him not the less an injustice that his native land should be taxed with the maintenance of an alien clergy.

The late Lord Mallow had been a violent Tory, Orange to the marrow of his bones. The new Lord Mallow was violently progressive, enthusiastic in his belief in Hibernian virtues, and his indignation at Hibernian wrongs. He wanted to disestablish everything. He saw his country as she appears in the eyes of her poets and song-writers — a fair dishevelled female, oppressed by the cruel Sassenach, a lovely sufferer for whose rescue all true men and leal would fight to the death. He quoted the outrages of Elizabeth’s reign, the cruelties of Cromwell’s soldiery, the savagery of Ginkell, as if those wrongs had been inflicted yesterday, and the House of Commons of to-day were answerable for them. He made fiery speeches which were reported at length in the Irish newspapers. He was a fine speaker, after a florid pattern, and had a great command of voice, and a certain rugged eloquence that carried his hearers along with him, even when he was harping upon so hackneyed a string as the wrongs of “Ould Ireland.”

Lord Mallow was not thirty, and he looked younger than his years. He was tall and broad-shouldered, robust, and a trifle clumsy in figure, and rode fourteen stone. He had a good-looking Irish face, smiling blue eyes, black hair, white teeth, bushy whiskers, and a complexion inclining to rosiness.

“He is the perfection of a commonplace young man,” Vixen said, when she talked him over with her mother on the day of his arrival at the Abbey House.

“Come, Violet, you must admit that he is very handsome,” remonstrated Mrs. Winstanley, who was sitting before her dressing-room fire, with her feet on a fender-stool of her own crewel-work, waiting for Pauline to commence the important ceremony of dressing for dinner. “I think I never saw a finer set of teeth, and of course at his age they must all be real.”

“Unless he has had a few of the original ones knocked out in the hunting-field, mamma. They go over a good many stone walls in Ireland, you know, and he may have come to grief.”

“If you would only leave off talking in that horrid way, Violet. He is a very agreeable young man. How he enjoyed a cup of tea after his journey, instead of wanting soda-water and brandy. Conrad tells me he has a lovely place near Mallow — on the slope of a hill, sheltered on the north with pine woods; and I believe it is one of the prettiest parts of Ireland — so green, and fertile, and sweet, and such a happy peasantry.”

“I think I’d better leave you to dress for dinner, mamma. You like a clear hour, and it’s nearly half-past six.”

“True, love; you may ring for Pauline. I have been wavering between my black and maize and my amethyst velvet, but I think I shall decide upon the velvet. What are you going to wear?”

“I? oh, anything. The dress I wore last night.”

“My love, it is positively dowdy. Pray wear something better in honour of Lord Mallow. There is the gown you had for my wedding,” suggested Mrs. Winstanley, blushing. “You look lovely in that.”

“Mamma, do you think I’m going to make a secondhand bridesmaid of myself to oblige Lord Mallow? No; that dress too painfully bears the stamp of what it was made for. I’m afraid it will have to rot in the wardrobe where it hangs. If it were woolen, the moths would inevitably have it; but, I suppose, as it is silk it will survive the changes of time; and some clay it will be made into chair-covers, and future generations of Tempests will point to it as a relic of my great-aunt Violet.”

“I never heard anything so absurd,” cried Mrs. Winstanley fretfully. “It was Theodore’s chef-d’oeuvre, and no doubt I shall have to pay an awful price for it.”

“Ah, mamma, we are continually doing things for which we have to pay an awful price,” said Vixen, with one of her involuntary bursts of bitter sadness.

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