Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

“It might have been.”

“They are the most curious pair of lovers I ever saw in my life,” said one of the visitors at Ashbourne, a young lady who had been engaged to be married more than once, and might fairly consider herself an authority upon such matters. “One never sees them together.”

“They are cousins,” replied her companion. “What can you expect from a courtship between cousins? It must be the most humdrum affair possible.”

“All courtships are humdrum, unless there is opposition from parents, or something out of the common order to enliven them,” said somebody else.

The speakers were a party of young ladies, who were getting through an idle hour after breakfast in the billiard-room.

“Lady Mabel is just the sort of girl no man could be desperately in love with,” said another. “She is very pretty, and elegant, and accomplished, and all that sort of thing — but she is so overpoweringly well satisfied with herself that it seems superfluous for anyone to admire her.’

“In spite of that I know of someone in this house who does immensely admire her,” asserted the young lady who had spoken first. “Much more than I should approve if I were Mr. Vawdrey.”

“I think I know ——” began somebody, and then abruptly remarked: “What a too ridiculous stroke! And I really thought I was going to make a cannon.”

This sudden change in the current of the talk was due to the appearance of the subject of this friendly disquisition. Lady Mabel had that moment entered, followed by Lord Mallow, not intent on billiards, like the frivolous damsels assembled round the table. There were book-cases all along one side of the billiard-room, containing the surplus books that had overrun the shelves in the library; and Mabel had come to look for a particular volume among these. It was a treatise upon the antiquities of Ireland. Lord Mallow and Lady Mabel had been disputing about the Round Towers.

“Of course you are right,” said the Irishman, when she had triumphantly exhibited a page which supported her side of the argument. “What a wonderful memory you have! What a wife you would make for a statesman! You would be worth half-a-dozen secretaries!”

Mabel blushed, and smiled faintly, with lowered eyelids.

“Do you remember that concluding picture in ‘My Novel,’” she asked, “where Violante tempts Harley Lestrange from his idle musing over Horace, to toil through blue-books; and, when she is stealing softly from the room, he detains her and bids her copy an extract for him? ‘Do you think I would go through this labour,’ he says, ‘if you were not to halve this success? Halve the labour as well.’ I have always envied Violante that moment in her life.”

“And who would not envy Harley such a wife as Violante,” returned Lord Mallow, “if she was like — the woman I picture her?”

Three hours later Lord Mallow and Lady Mabel met by accident in the garden. It was an afternoon of breathless heat and golden sunlight, the blue ether without a cloud — a day on which the most restless spirit might be content to yield to the drowsiness of the atmosphere, and lie at ease upon the sunburnt grass and bask in the glory of summer. Lord Mallow had never felt so idle, in the whole course of his vigorous young life.

“I don’t know what has come to me,” he said to himself; “I can’t settle to any kind of work; and I don’t care a straw for sight-seeing with a pack of nonentities.”

A party had gone off in a drag, soon after breakfast, to see some distant ruins; and Lord Mallow had refused to be of that party, though it included some of the prettiest girls at Ashbourne. He had stayed at home, on pretence of writing important letters, but had not, so far, penned a line. “It must be the weather,” said Lord Mallow.

An hour or so after luncheon he strolled out into the gardens, having given up all idea of writing those letters, There was a wide lawn, that sloped from the terrace in front of the drawing-room windows, a lawn encircled by a belt of carefully-chosen timber. It was not very old timber, but it was sufficiently umbrageous. There were tulip-trees, and copper-beeches, and Douglas pines, and deodoras. There were shrubs of every kind, and winding paths under the trees, and rustic benches here and there to repose the wearied traveller.

On one of these benches, placed in a delicious spot, shaded by a group of pines, commanding the wide view of valley and distant hill far away towards Ringwood, Lord Mallow found Lady Mabel seated reading. She was looking delightfully cool amidst the sultry heat of the scene, perfectly dressed in soft white muslin, with much adornment of delicate lace and pale-hued ribbon: but she was not looking happy. She was gazing at the open volume on her knee, with fixed and dreamy eyes that saw not the page; and as Lord Mallow came very near, with steps that made no sound on the fallen pine-needles, he saw that there were tears upon her drooping eyelids.

There are moments in every man’s life when impulse is stronger than discretion. Lord Mallow gave the reins to impulse now, and seated himself by Lady Mabel’s side, and took her hand in his, with an air of sympathy so real that the lady forgot to be offended.

“Forgive me for having surprised your tears,” he murmured gently.

“I am very foolish,” she said, blushing deeply as she became aware of the hand clasping hers, and suddenly withdrawing her own; “but there are passages of Dante that are too pathetic.”

“Oh, it was Dante!” exclaimed Lord Mallow, with a disappointed air.

He looked down at the page on her lap.

“Yes, naturally.”

She had been reading about Paolo and Francesca — that one episode, in all the catalogue of sin and sorrow, which melts every heart; a page at which the volume seems to open of its own accord.

Lord Mallow leaned down and read the lines in a low voice, slowly, with considerable feeling; and then he looked softly up at Mabel Ashbourne, and at the landscape lying below them, in all the glow and glory of the summer light, and looked back to the lady, with his hand still on the book.

The strangeness of the situation: they two alone in the garden, unseen, unheard by human eye or ear; the open book between them — a subtle bond of union — hinting at forbidden passion.

“They were deeply to be pitied,” said Lord Mallow, meaning the guilty lovers.

“It was very sad,” murmured Lady Mabel.

“But they were neither the first nor the last who have found out too late that they were created to be happy in each other’s love, and had by an accident missed that supreme chance of happiness,” said Lord Mallow, with veiled intention.

Mabel sighed, and took the book from the gentleman’s hand, and drew a little farther off on the bench. She was not the kind of young woman to yield tremblingly to the first whisper of an unauthorised love. It was all very well to admire Francesca, upon strictly aesthetic grounds, as the perfection of erring womanhood, beautiful even in her guilt. Francesca had lived so long ago — in days so entirely mediaeval, that one could afford to regard her with indulgent pity. But it was not to be supposed that a modern duke’s daughter was going to follow that unfortunate young woman’s example, and break plighted vows. Betrothal, in the eyes of so exalted a moralist as Lady Mabel, was a tie but one degree less sacred than marriage.

“Why did you not go to see the ruins?” she asked, resuming her society tone.

“Because I was in a humour in which ruins would have been unutterably odious. Indeed, Lady Mabel, I am just now very much of Macbeth’s temper, when he began to be a-weary of the sun.”

“Has the result of the session disappointed you?”

“Naturally. When was that ever otherwise? Parliament opens full of promise, like a young king who has just ascended the throne, and everybody is to be made happy; all burdens are to be lightened, the seeds of all good things that have been hidden deep in earth through the slow centuries are to germinate all at once, and blossom, and bear fruit. And the session comes to an end; and, lo! a great many good things have been talked about, and no good thing has been done. That is in the nature of things. No, Lady Mabel, it is not that which makes me unhappy.”

He waited for her to ask him what his trouble was, but she kept silence.

“No,” he repeated, “it is not that.”

Again there was no reply; and he went on awkwardly, like an actor who has missed his cue.

“Since I have known you I have been at once too happy and too wretched. Happy — unspeakably happy in your society; miserable in the knowledge that I could never be more to you than an unit in the crowd.”

“You were a great deal more to me than that,” said Mabel softly. She bad been on her guard against him just now, but when he thus abased himself before her she took pity upon him, and became dangerously amiable. “I shall never forget your kindness about those wretched verses.”

“I will not hear you speak ill of them,” cried Lord Mallow indignantly. “You have but shared the common fate of genius, in having a mind in advance of your age.”

Lady Mabel breathed a gentle sigh of resignation.

“I am not so weak as to think myself a genius,” she murmured; “but I venture to hope my poor verses will be better understood twenty years hence than they are now.”

“Undoubtedly!” cried Lord Mallow, with conviction. “Look at Wordsworth; in his lifetime the general reading public considered him a prosy old gentleman, who twaddled pleasantly about lakes and mountains, and pretty little peasant girls. The world only awakened ten years ago to the fact of his being a great poet and a sublime philosopher; and I shouldn’t be very much surprised,” added Lord Mallow meditatively, “if in ten years more the world were to go to sleep again and forget him.”

Lady Mabel looked at her watch.

“I think I will go in and give mamma her afternoon cup of tea,” she said.

“Don’t go yet,” pleaded Lord Mallow, “it is only four, and I know the Duchess does not take tea till five. Give me one of your last hours. A lady who is just going to be married is something like Socrates after his sentence. Her friends surround her; she is in their midst, smiling, serene, diffusing sweetness and light; but they know she is going from them — they are to lose her, yes, to lose her almost as utterly as if she were doomed to die.”

“That is taking a very dismal view of marriage,” said Mabel, pale, and trifling nervously with her watch-chain.

This was the first time Lord Mallow had spoken to her of the approaching event.

“Is it not like death? Does it not bring change and parting to old friends? When you are Lady Mabel Vawdrey, can I ever be with you as I am now? You will have new interests, you will be shut in by a network of new ties. I shall come some morning to see you amidst your new surroundings, and shall find a stranger. My Lady Mabel will be dead and buried.”

There is no knowing how long Lord Mallow might have meandered on in this dismal strain, if he had not been seasonably interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Vawdrey, who came sauntering along the winding shrubbery-walk, with his favourite pointer Hecate at his heels. He advanced towards his betrothed at the leisurely pace of a man whose courtship is over, whose fate is sealed, and from whom society exacts nothing further, except a decent compliance with the arrangements other people make for him.

He seemed in no wise disconcerted at finding his sweetheart and Lord Mallow seated side by side, alone, in that romantic and solitary spot. He pressed Mabel’s hand kindly, and gave the Irishman a friendly nod.

“What have you been doing with yourself all the morning, Roderick?” asked Lady Mabel, with that half-reproachful air which is almost the normal expression of a betrothed young lady in her converse with her lover.

“Oh, pottering about at Briarwood. The workmen are such fools. I am making some slight alterations in the stables, on a plan of my own — putting in mangers, and racks, and pillars, and partitions, from the St. Pancras Ironworks, making sanitary improvements and so on — and I have to contend with so much idiocy in our local workmen. If I did not stand by and see drain-pipes put in and connections made, I believe the whole thing would go wrong.”

“It must be very dreadful for you,” exclaimed Lady Mabel.

“It must be intolerable!” cried Lord Mallow; “what, when the moments are golden, when ‘Love takes up the glass of Time, and turns it in his glowing hands,’ when ‘Love takes up the harp of life, and smites on all the chords with might,’ you have to devote your morning to watching the laying of drain-pipes and digging of sewers! I cannot imagine a more afflicted man.”

Lady Mabel saw the sneer, but her betrothed calmly ignored it.

“Of course it’s a nuisance,” he said carelessly; “but I had rather be my own clerk of the works than have the whole thing botched. I thought you were going to Wellbrook Abbey with the house party, Mabel?”

“I know every stone of the Abbey by heart. No, I have been dawdling about the grounds all the afternoon. It is much too warm for riding or driving.”

Lady Mabel strangled an incipient yawn. She had not yawned once in all her talk with Lord Mallow. Rorie stifled another, and Lord Mallow walked up and down among the pine-needles, like a caged lion. It would have been polite to leave the lovers to themselves, perhaps. They might have family matters to discuss, settlements, wedding presents, Heaven knows what. But Lord Mallow was not going to leave them alone. He was in a savage humour, in which the petty rules and regulations of a traditionary etiquette were as nothing to him. So he stayed, pacing restlessly, with his hands in his pockets, and inwardly delighted at the stupid spectacle presented by the affianced lovers, who had nothing to say to each other, and were evidently bored to the last degree by their own society.

“This is the deplorable result of trying to ferment the small beer of cousinly affection into the Maronean wine of passionate love,” thought Lord Mallow. “Idiotic parents have imagined that these two people ought to marry, because they were brought up together, and the little girl took kindly to the little boy. What little girl does not take kindly to anything in the shape of a boy, when they are both in the nursery? Hence these tears.”

“I am going to pour out mamma’s tea,” Lady Mabel said presently, keenly sensible of the stupidity of her position. “Will you come, Roderick? Mamma will be glad to know that you are alive. She was wondering about you all the time we were at luncheon.”

“I ought not to have been off duty so long,” Mr. Vawdrey answered meekly; “but if you could only imagine the stupidity of those bricklayers! The day before yesterday I found half-a-dozen stalwart fellows sitting upon a wall, with their hands in their corduroy pockets, smoking short pipes, and, I believe, talking politics. They pretended to be at a standstill because their satellites — their âmes damnées, the men who hold their hods and mix their mortar — had not turned up. ‘Don’t disturb yourselves, gentlemen,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing like taking things easy. It’s a time-job. I’ll send you the morning papers and a can of beer.’ And so I did, and since that day, do you know, the fellows have worked twice as hard. They don’t mind being bullied; but they can’t stand chaff.”

“What an interesting bit of character,” said Lady Mabel, with a faintly perceptible sneer. “Worthy of Henri Constant.”

“May I come to the Duchess’s kettledrum?’ asked Lord Mallow humbly.

“By all means,” answered Mabel. “How fond you gentlemen pretend to be of afternoon tea, nowadays. But I don’t believe it is the tea you really care for. It is the gossip you all like. Darwin has found out that the male sex is the vain sex: but I don’t think he has gone so far as to discover another great truth. It is the superior sex for whom scandal has the keenest charm.”

“I have never heard the faintest hiss of the serpent slander at the Duchess’s tea-table,” said Lord Mallow.

“No; we are dreadfully behind the age,” assented Lady Mabel. “We continue to exist without thinking ill of our neighbours.”

They all three sauntered towards the house, choosing the sheltered ways, and skirting the broad sunny lawn, whose velvet sward, green even in this tropical July, was the result of the latest improvements in cultivation, ranging from such simple stimulants as bone-dust and wood-ashes to the last development of agricultural chemistry. Lady Mabel and her companions were for the most part silent during this leisurely walk home, and, when one of them hazarded an observation, the attempt at conversation had a forced air, and failed to call forth any responsive brilliancy in the others.

The Duchess looked provokingly cool and comfortable in her morning-room, which was an airy apartment on the first-floor, with a wide window opening upon a rustic balcony, verandahed and trellised, garlanded with passion-flowers and Australian clematis, and altogether sheltered from sun and wind. The most reposeful sofas, the roomiest arm-chairs in all the house were to be found here, covered with a cool shining chintz of the good old-fashioned sort, apple-blossoms and spring-flowers on a white ground.

A second window in a corner opened into a small fernery, in which there was a miniature water-fall that trickled with a slumberous sound over moss-grown rockwork. There could hardly have been a better room for afternoon tea on a sultry summer day; and afternoon tea at Ashbourne included iced coffee, and the finest peaches and nectarines that were grown in the county; and when the Duke happened to drop in for a chat with his wife and daughter, sometimes went as far as sherry and Angustura bitters.

The Duchess received her daughter with her usual delighted air, as if the ethereal-looking young lady in India muslin had verily been a goddess.

“I hope you have not been fatiguing yourself in the orchid-houses on such an afternoon as this, my pet,” she said anxiously.

“No, indeed, mamma; it is much too warm for the orchid-houses. I have been in the shrubbery reading, or trying to read, but it is dreadful sleepy weather. We shall all be glad to get some tea. Oh, here it comes.”

A match pair of footmen brought a pair of silver trays: caddy, kettle, and teapot, and cups and saucers on one; and a lavish pile of fruit, such as Lance would have loved to paint, on the other.

Lady Mabel took up the quaint little silver caddy and made the tea. Roderick began to eat peaches. Lord Mallow, true to his nationality, seated himself by the Duchess, and paid her a compliment.

“There are some more parcels for you, Mabel,” said the fond mother presently, glancing at a side-table, where sundry neatly-papered packets suggested jewellery.

“More presents, I suppose,” the young lady murmured languidly. “Now I do hope people have not sent me any more jewellery. I wear so little, and I—”

Have so much, she was going to say, but checked herself on the verge of a remark that savoured of vulgar arrogance.

She went on with the tea-making, uncurious as to the inside of those dainty-looking parcels. She had been surfeited with presents before she left her nursery. A bracelet or a locket more or less could not make the slightest difference in her feelings. She entertained a condescending pity for the foolish people who squandered their money in buying her such things, when they ought to know that she had a superfluity of much finer jewels than any they could give her.

“Don’t you want to see your presents?” asked Rorie, looking at her, in half-stupid wonder at such calm superiority.

“They will keep till we have done tea. I can guess pretty well what they are like. How many church-services have people sent me, mamma?”

“I think the last made fourteen,” murmured the Duchess, trifling with her tea-spoon.

“And how many ‘Christian Years’?”

“Nine.”

“And how many copies of Doré‘s ‘Idylls of the King’?”

“One came this morning from Mrs. Scobel. I think it was the fifth.”

“How many lockets inscribed with A. E. I. or ‘Mizpah’?”

“My darling, I could not possibly count those. There were three more by post this morning.”

“You see there is rather a sameness in these things,” said Lady Mabel; “and you can understand why I am not rabidly curious about the contents of these parcels. I feel sure there will be another ‘Mizpah’ among them.”

She had received Lord Mallow’s tribute, an Irish jaunting-car, built upon the newest lines, and altogether a most perfect vehicle for driving to a meet in, so light and perfectly balanced as to travel safely through the ruttiest glade in Mark Ash.

Rorie’s gifts had all been given, so Lady Mabel could afford to make light of the unopened parcels without fear of wounding the feelings of anyone present.

They were opened by-and-by, when the Duke came in from his farm, sorely disturbed in his mind at the serious indisposition of a six-hundred-guinea cart-horse, which hapless prize animal had been fatted to such an inflammatory condition that in his case the commonest ailment might prove deadly. Depressed by this calamity, the Duke required to be propped up with sherry and Angustura bitters, which tonic mixture was presently brought to him by one of the match footmen, who looked very much as if he were suffering from the same plethoric state that was likely to prove fatal to the cart-horse. Happily, the footman’s death would be but a temporary inconvenience. The Duke had not given six hundred guineas for him.

Lady Mabel opened her parcels, in the hope of distracting her father from the contemplation of his trouble.

“From whom can this be?” she asked wonderingly, “with the Jersey post-mark? Do I know anyone in Jersey?”

Roderick grew suddenly crimson, and became deeply absorbed in the business of peeling a nectarine.

“I surely cannot know anyone in Jersey,” said Lady Mabel, in languid wonderment. “It is an altogether impossible place. Nobody in society goes there. It sounds almost as disreputable as Boulogne.”

“You’d better open the packet,” said Rorie, with a quiver in his voice.

“Perhaps it is from some of your friends,” speculated Mabel.

She broke the seal, and tore the cover off a small morocco case.

“What a lovely pair of earrings!” she exclaimed.

Each eardrop was a single turquoise, almost as large, and quite as clear in colour, as a hedge-sparrow’s egg. The setting was Roman, exquisitely artistic.

“Now I can forgive anyone for sending me such jewellery as that,” said Lady Mabel. “It is not the sort of thing one sees in every jeweller’s shop.”

Rorie looked at the blue stones with rueful eyes. He knew them well. He had seen them contrasted with ruddy chestnut hair, and the whitest skin in Christendom — or at any rate the whitest he had ever seen, and a man’s world can be but the world he knows.

“There is a letter,” said Lady Mabel. “Now I shall find out all about my mysterious Jersey friend.”

She read the letter aloud.

“Les Tourelles, Jersey, July 25th.

“Dear Lady Mabel — I cannot bear that your wedding-day should go by without bringing you some small token of regard from your husband’s old friend. Will you wear these earrings now and then, and believe that they come from one who has nothing but good wishes for Rorie’s wife? — Yours very truly,

“VIOLET TEMPEST.”

“Why, they are actually from your old playfellow!” cried Mabel, with a laugh that had not quite a genuine ring in its mirth. “The young lady who used to follow the staghounds, in a green habit with brass buttons, ever so many years ago, and who insisted on calling you Rorie. She does it still, you see. How very sweet of her to send me a wedding-present. I ought to have remembered. I heard something about her being sent off to Jersey by her people, because she had grown rather incorrigible at home.”

“She was not incorrigible, and she was not sent off to Jersey,” said Roderick grimly. “She left home of her own free will; because she could not hit it with her stepfather.”

“That is another way of expressing it, but I think we both mean pretty much the same thing,” retorted Mabel. “But I don’t want to know why she went to Jersey. She has behaved very sweetly in sending me such a pretty letter; and when she is at home again I shall be very happy to see her at my garden-parties.”

Lord Mallow had no share in this conversation, for the Duke had buttonholed him, and was giving him a detailed account of the cart-horse’s symptoms.

The little party dispersed soon after this, and did not foregather again until just before dinner, when the people who had been to see the ruins were all assembled, full of their day’s enjoyment, and of sundry conversational encounters which they had had with the natives of the district. They gave themselves the usual airs which people who have been laboriously amusing themselves inflict upon those wiser individuals who prefer the passive pleasure of repose, and made a merit of having exposed themselves to the meridian sun, in the pursuit of archaeological knowledge.

Lady Mabel looked pale and weary all that evening. Roderick was so evidently distrait that the good-natured Duke thought that he must be worrying himself about the cart-horse, and begged him to make his mind easy, as it was possible the animal might even yet recover.

Later on in the evening Lady Mabel and Lord Mallow sat in the conservatory and talked Irish politics, while Rorie and the younger members of the house party played Nap. The conservatory was deliciously cool on this summer evening, dimly lighted by lamps that were half hidden among the palms and orange-trees. Lady Mabel and her companion could see the stars shining through the open doorway, and the mystical darkness of remote woods. Their voices were hushed; there were pauses of silence in their talk. Never had the stirring question of Home Rule been more interesting.

Lady Mabel did not go back to the drawing-room that evening. There was a door leading from the conservatory to the hall; and, while Rorie and the young people were still somewhat noisily engaged in the game of Napoleon, Lady Mabel went out to the hall with Lord Mallow in attendance upon her. When he had taken her candle from the table and lighted it, he paused for a moment or so before he handed it to her, looking at her very earnestly all the while, as she stood at the foot of the staircase, with saddened face and downcast eyes, gravely contemplative of the stair-carpet.

“Is it — positively — too late?” he asked.

“You must feel and know that it is so,” she answered.

“But it might have been?”

“Yes,” she murmured with a faint sigh, “it might have been.”

He gave her the candlestick, and she went slowly upstairs, without a word of good-night. He stood in the hall, watching the slim figure as it ascended, aerial and elegant in its palely-tinted drapery.

“It might have been,” he repeated to himself: and then he lighted his candle and went slowly up the staircase. He was in no humour for billiards, cigars, or noisy masculine talk to-night. Still less was he inclined to be at ease and to make merry with Roderick Vawdrey.

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