Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

A Fool’s Paradise.

At Ashbourne preparations had already begun for the wedding in August. It was to be a wedding worthy a duke’s only daughter, the well-beloved and cherished child of an adoring father and mother. Kinsfolk and old friends were coming from far and wide to assist at the ceremony, for whom temporary rooms were to be arranged in all manner of places. The Duchess’s exquisite dairy was to be transformed into a bachelor dormitory. Lodges and gamekeepers’ cottages were utilised. Every nook and corner in the ducal mansion would be full.

“Why not rig up a few hammocks in the nearest pine plantation?” Rorie asked, laughing, when he heard of all these doings. “One couldn’t have a better place to sleep on a sultry summer night.”

There was to be a ball for the tenantry in the evening of the wedding-day, in a marquee on the lawn. The gardens were to be illuminated in a style worthy of the château of Vaux, when Fouquet was squandering a nation’s revenues on lamps and fountains and venal friends. Lady Mabel protested against all this fuss.

“Dear mamma, I would so much rather have been married quietly,’ she said.

“My dearest, it is all your papa’s doing. He is so proud of you. And then we have only one daughter; and she is not likely to be married more than once, I hope. Why should we not have all our friends round us at such a time?”

Mabel shrugged her shoulders, with an air of repugnance to all the friends and all the fuss.

“Marriage is such a solemn act of one’s life,” she said. “It seems dreadful that it should be performed in the midst of a gaping, indifferent crowd.”

“My love, there will not be a creature present who can feel indifferent about your welfare,” protested the devoted mother. “If our dear Roderick had been a more distinguished person, your papa would have had you married in Westminster Abbey. There of course there would have been a crowd of idle spectators.”

“Poor Roderick,” sighed Mabel. “It is a pity he is so utterly aimless. He might have made a career for himself by this time, if he had chosen.”

“He will do something by-and-by, I daresay,” said the Duchess, excusingly. “You will be able to mould him as you like, pet.”

“I have not found him particularly malleable hitherto,” said Mabel.

The bride elect was out of spirits, and inclined to look despondently upon life. She was suffering the bitter pain of disappointed hopes. “The Tragedy of a Sceptic Soul,” despite its depth of thought, its exquisite typography and vellumlike paper, had been a dire and irredeemable failure. The reviewers had ground the poor little aristocratic butterfly to powder upon the wheel of ridicule. They had anatomised Lady Mabel’s involved sentences, and laughed at her erudite phrases. Her mild adaptations of Greek thought and fancy had been found out, and held up to contempt. Her petty plagiarisms from French and German poets had been traced to their source. The whole work, no smooth and neatly polished on the outside, had been turned the seamy side without, and the knots and flaws and ravelled threads had been exposed without pity.

Happily the book was anonymous: but Mabel writhed under the criticism. There was the crushing disappointment of expectations that had soared high as the topmost throne on Parnassus. She had a long way to descend. And then there was the sickening certainty that in the eyes of her own small circle she had made herself ridiculous. Her mother took those cruel reviews to heart, and wept over them. The Duke, a coarse-minded man, at best, with a soul hardly above guano and chemical composts, laughed aloud at his poor little girl’s failure.

“It’s a sad disappointment, I daresay,” he said, “but never mind, my pet, you’ll do better next time, I’ve no doubt. Or if you don’t, it doesn’t much matter. Other people have fancied themselves poets, and have been deceived, before to-day.”

“Those horrid reviewers don’t understand her poetry,” protested the Duchess, who would have been hard pushed to comprehend it herself, but who thought it was a critic’s business to understand everything.

“I’m afraid I have written above their heads,” Lady Mabel said piteously.

Roderick Vawdrey was worst of all.

“Didn’t I tell you ‘The Sceptic Soul’ was too fine for ordinary intellects, Mab?” he said. “You lost yourself in an ocean of obscurity. You knew what you meant, but there’s no man alive who could follow you. You ought to have remembered Voltaire’s definition of a metaphysical discussion, a conversation in which the man who is talked to doesn’t understand the man who talks, and the man who talks doesn’t understand himself. You must take a simpler subject and use plainer English if you want to please the multitude.”

Mabel had told her lover before that she did not aspire to please the multitude, that she would have esteemed such cheap and tawdry success a humiliating failure. It was almost better not to be read at all than to be appreciated only by the average Mudie subscriber. But she would have liked someone to read her poems. She would have liked critics to praise and understand her. She would have liked to have her own small world of admirers, an esoteric few, the salt of the earth, literary Essenes, holding themselves apart from the vulgar herd. It was dreadful to find herself on a height as lonely as one of those plateaux in the Tyrolean Alps where the cattle crop a scanty herbage in summer, and where the Ice King reigns alone through the long winter.

“You are mistaken, Roderick,” Mabel said with chilling dignity; “I have friends who can understand and admire my poetry, incomprehensible and uninteresting as it may be to you.”

“Dear Mabel, I never said it was uninteresting,” Roderick cried humbly; “everything you do must be interesting to me. But I frankly own I do not understand your verses as clearly as I think all verse should be understood. Why should I keep all my frankness till after the first of August? Why should the lover be less sincere than the husband? I will be truthful even at the risk of offending you.”

“Pray do,” cried Mabel, with ill-suppressed irritation. “Sincerity is such a delightful thing. No doubt my critics are sincere. They give me the honest undisguised truth.”

Rorie saw that his betrothed’s literary failure was a subject to be carefully avoided in future.

“My poor Vixen,” he said to himself, with oh! what deep regret, “perhaps it was not one of the least of your charms that you never wrote poetry.”

Lord Mallow was coming to Ashbourne for the fortnight before the wedding. He had made himself wondrously agreeable to the Duke, and the Duke had invited him. The House would be up by that time. It was a delightful season for the Forest. The heather would be in bloom on all the open heights, the glades of Mark Ash would be a solemn world of greenery and shadow, a delicious place for picnics, flirtation, and gipsy tea-drinkings. Lord Mallow had only seen the Forest in the winter. It would be a grand opportunity for him.

He came, and Lady Mabel received him with a sad sweet smile. The reviews had all appeared by this time: and, except in the West Dulmarsh Gazette and the Ratdiff Highway Register, there had not been one favourable notice.

“There is a dreadful unanimity about my critics, is there not?” said the stricken poetess, when she and Lord Mallow found themselves alone together in one of the orchid-houses, breathing a perfumed atmosphere at eighty degrees, vaporous, balmy, slumberous.

“You have made a tremendous mistake, Lady Mabel,” said Lord Mallow.

“How do you mean?”

“You have given the world your great book without first educating your public to receive and understand it. If Browning had done the same thing — if Browning had burst at once upon the world with ‘The Ring and the Book’ he would have been as great a failure as — as — you at present imagine yourself to be. You should have sent forth something smaller. You should have made the reading world familiar with a style, too original, and of too large a power and scope, to please quickly. A volume of ballads and idyls — a short story in simple verse — would have prepared the way for your dramatic poem. Suppose Goethe had begun his literary career with the second part of ‘Faust’! He was too wise for that, and wrote himself into popularity with a claptrap novel.”

“I could not write a claptrap novel, or claptrap verses,” sighed Lady Mabel. “If I cannot soar above the clouds, I will never spread my poor little wings again.”

“Then you must be content to accept your failure as an evidence of the tendencies of an essentially Philistine age — an age in which people admire Brown, and Jones, and Robinson.”

Here Lord Mallow gave a string of names, sacrificing the most famous reputations of the age to Mabel Ashbourne’s vanity.

This brief conversation in the orchid-house was the first healing balm that had been applied to the bleeding heart of the poetess. She was deeply grateful to Lord Mallow. This was indeed sympathy. How different from Roderick’s clumsy advice and obtrusive affectation of candour. Mabel determined that she would do her best to make Lord Mallow’s visit pleasant. She gave him a good deal of her society, in fact all she could spare from Roderick, who was not an exacting lover. They were so soon to be married that really there was no occasion for them to be greedy of tête-à-tête companionship. They would have enough of each other’s company among the Norwegian fjords.

Lord Mallow did not care about riding under an almost tropical sun, nor did he care to expose his horse to the exasperating attacks of forest-flies; so he went about with the Duchess and her daughter in Lady Mabel’s pony carriage — he saw schools and cottages — and told the two ladies all the grand things he meant to do on his Irish estate when he had leisure to do them.

“You must wait till you are married,” said the Duchess good-naturedly. “Ladies understand these details so much better than gentlemen. Mabel more than half planned those cottages you admired just now. She took the drawings out of the architect’s hands, and altered them according to her own taste.”

“And as a natural result, the cottages are perfection!” exclaimed Lord Mallow.

That visit to Ashbourne was one of the most memorable periods in Lord Mallow’s life. He was an impressible young man, and he had been unconsciously falling deeper in love with Lady Mabel every day during the last three months. Her delicate beauty, her culture, her elegance, her rank, all charmed and fascinated him; but her sympathy with Erin was irresistible. It was not the first time that he had been in love, by a great many times. The list of the idols he had worshipped stretched backwards to the dim remoteness of boyhood. But to-day, awakening all at once to a keen perception of his hapless state, he told himself that he had never loved before as he loved now.

He had been hard hit by Miss Tempest. Yes, he acknowledged that past weakness. He had thought her fairest and most delightful among women, and he had left the Abbey House dejected and undone. But he had quickly recovered from the brief fever: and now, reverentially admiring Lady Mabel’s prim propriety, he wondered that he could have ever seriously offered himself to a girl of Vixen’s undisciplined and unbroken character.

“I should have been a miserable man by this time if she had accepted me,” he thought. “She did not care a straw about the People of Ireland.”

He was deeply, hopelessly, irrecoverably in love; and the lady he loved was to be married to another man in less than a week. The situation was too awful. What could such a woman as Mabel Ashbourne see in such a man as Roderick Vawdrey. That is a kind of question which has been asked very often in the history of men and women. Lord Mallow could find no satisfactory answer thereto. Mr. Vawdrey was well enough in his way — he was good-looking, sufficiently well-bred; he rode well, was a first-rate shot, and could give an average player odds at billiards. Surely these were small claims to the love of a tenth muse, a rarely accomplished and perfect woman. If Lord Mallow, in his heart of hearts, thought no great things of Lady Mabel’s poetic effusions, he not the less respected her for the effort, the high-souled endeavour. A woman who could read Euripides, who knew all that was best in modern literature, was a woman for a husband to be proud of.

In this desperate and for the most part unsuspected condition of mind, Lord Mallow hung upon Lady Mabel’s footsteps during the days immediately before the wedding. Roderick was superintending the alterations at Briarwood, which were being carried on upon rather an extravagant scale, to make the mansion worthy of the bride. Lord Mallow was always at hand, in the orchid-houses, carrying scissors and adjusting the hose, in the library, in the gardens, in the boudoir. He was drinking greedily of the sweet poison. This fool’s paradise of a few days must end in darkness, desolation, despair — everything dreadful beginning with d; but the paradise was so delicious an abode that although an angel with a flaming sword, in the shape of conscience, was always standing at the gate, Lord Mallow would not be thrust out. He remained; in defiance of conscience, and honour, and all those good sentiments that should have counselled his speedy departure.

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