The moon had newly risen, a late October moon, a pale almost imperceptible crescent, above the dark pine spires in the thicket through which Roderick Vawdrey came, gun in hand, after a long day’s rabbit-shooting. It was not his nearest way home, but he liked the broad clearing in the pine wood, which had a ghostly look at dusk, and was so still and lonely that the dart of a squirrel through the fallen leaves was a startling event. Here and there a sturdy young oak that had been newly stripped of its bark lay among the fern, like the naked corpse of a giant. Here and there a tree had been cut down and slung across the track, ready for barking. The ground was soft and spongy, slippery with damp dead leaves, and inclined in a general way to bogginess; but it was ground that Roderick Vawdrey had known all his life, and it seemed more natural to him than any other spot upon mother earth.
On the edge of this thicket there was a broad ditch, with more mud and dead fern in it than water, a ditch strongly suspected of snakes, and beyond the ditch the fence that enclosed Squire Tempest’s domain — an old manor house in the heart of the New Forest. It had been an abbey before the Reformation, and was still best known as the Abbey House.
“I wonder whether I’m too late to catch her,” speculated Roderick, shifting his bag from one shoulder to the other; “she’s no end of fun.”
In front of the clearing there was a broad five-barred gate, and beside the gate a keeper’s cottage. The flame of a newly-lighted candle flashed out suddenly upon the autumn dusk, while Roderick stood looking at the gate.
“I’ll ask at the lodge,” he said; “I should like to say good-bye to the little thing before I go back to Oxford.”
He walked quickly on to the gate. The keeper’s children were playing at nothing particular just inside it.
“Has Miss Tempest gone for her ride this afternoon?” he asked.
“Ya-ase,” drawled the eldest shock-headed youngster.
“And not come back yet?”
“Noa. If she doant take care her’ll be bogged.”
Roderick hitched his bag on to the top of the gate, and stood at ease waiting. It was late for the little lady of Tempest Manor to be out on her pony; but then it was an understood thing within a radius of ten miles or so that she was a self-willed young person, and even at fifteen years of age she had a knack of following her own inclination with that noble disregard of consequences which characterises the heaven-born ruler.
Mr. Vawdrey had not waited more than ten minutes when there came the thud of hoofs upon the soft track, a flash of gray in the distance, something flying over those forky branches sprawling across the way, then a half-sweet, half-shrill call, like a bird’s, at which the keeper’s children scattered themselves like a brood of scared chickens, and now a rush, and a gray pony shooting suddenly into the air and coming down on the other side of the gate, as if he were a new kind of skyrocket.
“What do you think of that, Rorie?” cried the shrill sweet voice of the gray pony’s rider!
“I’m ashamed of you, Vixen,” said Roderick, “you’ll come to a bad end some of these days.”
“I don’t care if I do, as long as I get my fling first,” replied Vixen, tossing her tawny mane.
She was a slim young thing, in a short Lincoln-green habit. She had a small pale face, brown eyes that sparkled with life and mischief, and a rippling mass of reddish-auburn hair falling down her back under a coquettish little felt hat.
“Hasn’t your mamma forbidden jumping, Vixen?” remonstrated Roderick, opening the gate and coming in.
“Yes, that she has, sir,” said the old groom, riding up at a jog-trot on his thickset brown cob. “It’s quite against Mrs. Tempest’s orders, and it’s a great responsibility to go out with Miss Violet. She will do it.”
“You mean the pony will do it, Bates,” cried Vixen. “I don’t jump. How can I help it if papa has given me a jumping pony? If I didn’t let Titmouse take a gate when he was in the humour, he’d kick like old boots, and pitch me a cropper. It’s an instinct of self-preservation that makes me let him jump. And as for poor dear, pretty little mamma,” continued Vixen, addressing herself to Roderick, and changing her tone to one of patronising tenderness, “if she had her way, I should be brought up in a little box wrapped in jeweller’s wool, to keep me safe. But you see I take after papa, Rorie; and it comes as natural to me to fly over gates as it does to you to get ploughed for smalls. There, Bates,” jumping off the pony, “you may take Titmouse home, and I’ll come presently and give him some apples, for he has been a dear, darling, precious treasure of a ponykins.”
She emphasised this commendation with a kiss on Titmouse’s gray nose, and handed the bridle to Bates.
“I’m going to walk home with Mr. Vawdrey,” she said.
“But, Vixen, I can’t, really,” said Roderick; “I’m due at home at this moment, only I couldn’t leave without saying good-bye to little Vix.”
“And you’re over due at Oxford, too, aren’t you?” cried Vixen, laughing; “you’re always due somewhere — never in the right place. But whether you are due or not, you’re coming up to the stables with me to give Titmouse his apples, and then you’re coming to dine with us on your last night at home. I insist upon it; papa insists; mamma insists — we all insist.”
“My mother will be as angry as ——”
“Old boots!” interjected Vixen. “That’s the best comparison I know.”
“Awfully vulgar for a young lady.”
“You taught it me. How can I help being vulgar when I associate with you? You should hear Miss McCroke preach at me sermons so long”— here Vixen extended her arms to the utmost —“and I’m afraid they’d make as much impression on Titmouse as they do upon me. But she’s a dear old thing, and I love her immensely.”
This was Vixen’s usual way, making up for all shortcomings with the abundance of her love. The heart was always atoning for the errors of the head.
“I wouldn’t be Miss McCroke for anything. She must have a bad time of it with you.”
“She has,” assented Vixen, with a remorseful sigh; “I fear I’m bringing her sandy hairs with sorrow to the grave. That hair of hers never could be gray, you know, it’s too self-opinionated in its sandiness. Now come along, Rorie, do. Titmouse will be stamping about his box like a maniac if he doesn’t get those apples.”
She gave a little tug with both her small doeskin-covered hands at Roderick’s arm. He was still standing by the gate irresolute, inclination drawing him to the Abbey House, duty calling him home to Briarwood, five miles off, where his widowed mother was expecting his return.
“My last night at home, Vix,” he said remonstrantly; “I really ought to dine with my mother.”
“Of course you ought, and that’s the very reason why you’ll dine with us. So ‘kim over, now,’ as Bates says to the horses; I don’t know what there is for dinner,” she added confidentially, “but I feel sure it’s something nice. Dinner is papa’s particular vanity, you know. He’s very weak about dinner.”
“Not so weak as he is about you, Vixen.”
“Do you really think papa is as fond of me as he is of his dinner?”
“I’m sure of it!”
“Then he must be very fond of me,” exclaimed Vixen, with conviction. “Now, are you coming?”
Who could resist those little soft hands in doeskin? Certainly not Rorie. He resigned himself to the endurance of his mother’s anger in the future as a price to be paid for the indulgence of his inclination in the present, gave Vixen his arm, and turned his face towards the Abbey House.
They walked through shrubberies that would have seemed a pathless wilderness to a stranger, but every turn in which was familiar to these two. The ground was undulating, and vast thickets of rhododendron and azalea rose high above them, or sank in green valleys below their path. Here and there a group of tall firs towered skyward above the dark entanglement of shrubs, or a great beech spread its wide limbs over the hollows; here and there a pool of water reflected the pale moonshine.
The house lay low, sheltered and shut in by those rhododendron thickets, a long, rambling pile of building, which had been added to, and altered, and taken away from, and added to again, like that well-known puzzle in mental arithmetic which used to amuse us in our childhood. It was all gables, and chimney-stacks, and odd angles, and ivy-mantled wall, and richly-mullioned windows, or quaint little diamond-paned lattices, peeping like a watchful eye from under the shadow of a jutting cornice. The stables had been added in Queen Elizabeth’s time, after the monks had been routed from their snug quarters, and the Abbey had been bestowed upon one of the Tudor favourites. These Elizabethan stables formed the four sides of a quadrangle, stone-paved, with an old marble basin in the centre — a basin which the Vicar pronounced to be an early Saxon font, but which Squire Tempest refused to have removed from the place it had occupied ever since the stables were built. There were curious carvings upon the six sides, but so covered with mosses and lichens that nobody could tell what they meant; and the Squire forbade any scraping process by officious antiquarians, which might lead to somebody’s forcible appropriation of the ancient basin.
The Squire was not so modern in his ideas as to set up his own gasometer, so the stables were lighted by lanterns, with an oil-lamp fixed here and there against the wall. Into this dim uncertain light came Roderick and Vixen, through the deep stone archway which opened from the shrubbery into the stable-yard, and which was solid enough for the gate of a fortified town.
Titmouse’s stable was lighted better then the rest. The door stood open, and there was Titmouse, with the neat little quilted doeskin saddle still on his back, waiting to be fed and petted by his young mistress. It was a pretty picture, the old low-ceiled stable, with its wide stalls and roomy loose-boxes and carpet of plaited straw, golden against the deep brown of the woodwork.
Vixen ran into the box, and took off Titmouse’s bridle, he holding down his head, like a child submitting to be undressed. Then, with many vigorous tugs at straps and buckles, and a good deal of screwing up of her rosy lips in the course of the effort, Vixen took off her pony’s saddle.
“I like to do everything I can for him,” she explained, as Rorie watched her with an amused smile; “I’d wisp him down if they’d let me.”
She left the leather panel on Titmouse’s back, hung up saddle and bridle, and skipped off to a corn-chest to hunt for apples. Of these she brought half-a-dozen or so in the skirt of her habit, and then, swinging herself lightly into a comfortable corner of the manger, began to carry out her system of reward for good conduct, with much coquetry on her part and Titmouse’s, Rorie watching it all from the empty stall adjoining, his folded inns resting on the top of the partition. He said not another word about his mother, or the duty that called him home to Briarwood, but stood and watched this pretty horsebreaker in a dreamy contentment.
What was Violet Tempest, otherwise Vixen, like, this October evening, just three months before her fifteenth birthday? She made a lovely picture in this dim light, as she sat in the corner of the old manger, holding a rosy-cheeked apple at a tantalising distance from Titmouse’s nose: yet she was perhaps not altogether lovely. She was brilliant rather than absolutely beautiful. The white skin was powdered with freckles. The rippling hair was too warm an auburn to escape an occasional unfriendly remark from captious critics; but it was not red hair for all that. The eyes were brownest of the brown, large, bright, and full of expression. The mouth was a thought too wide, but it was a lovely mouth notwithstanding. The lips were full and firmly moulded — lips that could mean anything, from melting tenderness to sternest resolve. Such lips, a little parted to show the whitest, evenest teeth in Hampshire, seemed to Rorie lovely enough to please the most critical connoisseur of feminine beauty. The nose was short and straight, but had a trick of tilting itself upward with a little impatient jerk that made it seem retroussé; the chin was round and full and dimpled; the throat was full and round also, a white column supporting the tawny head, and indicated that Vixen was meant to be a powerful woman, and not one of those ethereal nymphs who lend themselves most readily to the decorative art of a court milliner.
“I’m afraid Violet will be a dreadfully large creature,” Mrs. Tempest murmured plaintively, as the girl grew and flourished; that lady herself being ethereal, and considering her own appearance a strictly correct standard of beauty. How could it be otherwise, when she had been known before her marriage as “the pretty Miss Calthorpe?”
“This is very nice, you know, Vixen,” said Roderick critically, as Titmouse made a greedy snap at an apple, and was repulsed with a gentle pat on his nose, “but it can’t go on for ever. What’ll you do when you are grown up?”
“Have a horse instead of a pony,” answered Vixen unhesitatingly.
“And will that be all the difference?”
“I don’t see what other difference there can be. I shall always love papa, I shall always love hunting, I shall always love mamma — as much as she’ll let me. I shall always have a corner in my heart for deal old Crokey; and, perhaps,” looking at him mischievously, “even an odd corner for you. What difference can a few more birthdays make in me? I shall be too big for Titmouse, that’s the only misfortune; but I shall always keep him for my pet, and I’ll have a basket-carriage and drive him when I go to see my poor people. Sitting behind a pony is an awful bore when one’s natural place is on his back, but I’d sooner endure it than let Titmouse fancy himself superannuated.”
“But when you’re grown up you’ll have to come out, Vixen. You’ll be obliged to go to London for a season, and be presented, and go to no end of balls, and ride in the Row, and make a grand marriage, and have a page all to yourself in the Court Journal.”
“Catch me — going to London!” exclaimed Vixen, ignoring the latter part of the sentence. “Papa hates London, and so do I. And as to riding in Rotten Row, je voudrais bien me voir faisant cela,” added Vixen, whose study of the French language chiefly resulted in the endeavour to translate English slang into that tongue. “No, when I grow up I shall take papa the tour of Europe. We’ll see all those places I’m worried about at lessons — Marathon, Egypt, Naples, the Peloponnesus, tout le tremblement— and I shall say to each of them, ‘Oh, this is you, is it? What a nuisance you’ve been to me on the map.’ We shall go up Mount Vesuvius, and the Pyramids, and do all sorts of wild things; and by the time I come home I shall have forgotten the whole of my education.”
“If Miss McCroke could hear you!”
“She does, often. You can’t imagine the wild things I say to her. But I love her — fondly.”
A great bell clanged out with a vigorous peal, that seemed to shake the old stable.
“There’s the first bell. I must run and dress. Come to the drawing-room and see mamma.”
“But, Vixen, how can I sit down to dinner in such a costume,” remonstrated Rorie, looking down at his brown shooting-suit, leather gaiters, and tremendous boots — boots which, instead of being beautified with blacking, were suppled with tallow; “I can’t do it, really.”
“Nonsense,” cried Vixen, “what does it matter? Papa seldom dresses for dinner. I believe he considers it a sacrifice to mamma’s sense of propriety when he washes his hands after coming in from the home farm. And you are only a boy — I beg pardon — an undergraduate. So come along.”
“But upon my word, Vixen, I feel too much ashamed of myself.”
“I’ve asked you to dinner, and you’ve accepted,” cried Vixen, pulling him out of the stable by the lapel of his shooting-jacket.
He seemed to relish that mode of locomotion, for he allowed himself to be pulled all the way to the hall-door, and into the glow of the great beech-wood fire; a ruddy light which shone upon many a sporting trophy, and reflected itself on many a gleaming pike and cuirass, belonging to days of old, when gentlemanly sport for the most part meant man-hunting.
It was a fine old vaulted hall, a place to love and remember lovingly when far away. The walls were all of darkly bright oak panelling, save where here and there a square of tapestry hung before a door, or a painted window let in the moonlight. At one end there was a great arched fireplace, the arch surmounted with Squire Tempest’s armorial bearings, roughly cut in freestone. A mailed figure of the usual stumpy build, in helm and hauberk, stood on each side of the hearth; a large three-cornered chair covered with stamped and gilded leather was drawn up to the fireside, the Squire’s favourite seat on an autumn or winter afternoon. The chair was empty now, but, stretched at full length before the blazing logs, lay the Squire’s chosen companion, Nip, a powerful liver-coloured pointer; and beside him in equally luxurious rest, reclined Argus, Vixen’s mastiff. There was a story about Vixen and the mastiff, involving the only incident in that young lady’s life the recollection whereof could make her blush.
The dog, apparently coiled in deepest slumber, heard the light footsteps on the hall floor, pricked up his tawny ears, sprang to his feet, and bounded over to his young mistress, whom he nearly knocked down in the warmth of his welcome. Nip, the pointer, blinked at the intruders, yawned desperately, stretched himself a trifle longer, and relapsed into slumber.
“How fond that brute is of you,” said Rorie; “but it’s no wonder, when one considers what you did for him.”
“If you say another word I shall hate you,” cried Vixen savagely.
“Well, but you know when a fellow fights another fellow’s battles, the other fellow’s bound to be fond of him; and when a young lady pitches into a bird-boy with her riding-whip to save a mastiff pup from ill-usage, that mastiff pup is bound ——”
“Mamma,” cried Vixen, flinging aside a tapestry portière, and bouncing into the drawing-room, “here’s Roderick, and he’s come to dinner, and you must excuse his shooting-dress, please. I’m sure pa will.”
“Certainly, my dear Violet,” replied a gentle, traînante voice from the fire-lit dimness near the velvet-curtained hearth. “Of course I am always glad to see Mr. Vawdrey when your papa asks him. Where did you meet the Squire, Roderick?”
“Upon my word, Mrs. Tempest,” faltered Rorie, coming slowly forward into the ruddy glow, “I feel quite awfully ashamed of myself; I’ve been rabbit-shooting, and I’m a most horrid object. It wasn’t the Squire asked me to stay. It was Vixen.”
Vixen made a ferocious grimace at him — he could just see her distorted countenance in the fire-light — and further expressed her aggravation by a smart crack of her whip.
“Violet, my love, you have such startling ways,” exclaimed Mrs. Tempest, with a long-suffering air. “Really, Miss McCroke, you ought to try and correct her of those startling ways.”
On this Roderick became aware of a stout figure in a tartan dress, knitting industriously on the side of the hearth opposite Mrs. Tempest’s sofa. He could just see the flash of those active needles, and could just hear Miss McCroke murmur placidly that she had corrected Violet, and that it was no use.
Rorie remembered that plaid poplin dress when he was at Eton. It was a royal Stuart, too brilliant to be forgotten. He used to wonder whether it would ever wear out, or whether it was not made of some indestructible tissue, like asbestos — a fabric that neither time nor fire could destroy.
“It was Rorie’s last night, you see, mamma,” apologised Vixen, “and I knew you and papa would like him to come, and that you wouldn’t mind his shooting-clothes a bit, though they do make him look like the under-keeper, except that the under-keeper’s better looking than Rorie, and has finished growing his whiskers, instead of living in the expectation of them.”
And with this Parthian shot, Vixen made a pirouette on her neat little morocco-shod toes, and whisked herself out of the room; leaving Roderick Vawdrey to make the best of his existence for the next twenty minutes with the two women he always found it most difficult to get on with, Mrs. Tempest and Miss McCroke.
The logs broke into a crackling blaze just at this moment, and lighted up that luxurious hearth and the two figures beside it.
It was the prettiest thing imaginable in the way of a drawing-room, that spacious low-ceiled chamber in the Abbey House.
The oak panelling was painted white, a barbarity on the part of those modern Goths the West End decorators, but a charming background for quaint Venetian mirrors, hanging shelves of curious old china, dainty little groups of richly-bound duodecimos, brackets, bronzes, freshest flowers in majolica jars; water-colour sketches by Hunt, Prout, Cattermole, and Edward Duncan; sage-green silk curtains; black and gold furniture, and all the latest prettinesses of the new Jacobean school. The mixture of real medievalism and modern quaintness was delightful. One hardly knew where the rococo began or the mediaeval left off. The good old square fireplace, with its projecting canopy, and columns in white and coloured marbles, was as old as the days of Inigo Jones; but the painted tiles, with their designs from the Iliad and Odyssey after Dante Rossetti, were the newest thing from Minton’s factory.
Even Rorie felt that the room was pretty, though he did above all things abhor to be trapped in it, as he found himself this October evening.
“There’s a great lot of rubbish in it,” he used to say of Mrs. Tempest’s drawing-room, “but it’s rather nice altogether.”
Mrs. Tempest, at five-and-thirty, still retained the good looks which had distinguished Miss Calthorpe at nineteen. She was small and slim, with a delicate complexion. She had large soft eyes of a limpid innocent azure, regular features, rosebud lips, hands after Velasquez, and an unexceptionable taste in dress, the selection of which formed one of the most onerous occupations of her life. To attire herself becomingly, and to give the Squire the dinners he best liked, in an order of succession so dexterously arranged as never to provoke satiety, were Mrs. Tempest’s cardinal duties. In the intervals of her life she read modern poetry, unobjectionable French novels, and reviews. She did a little high-art needle-work, played Mendelssohn’s Lieder, sang three French chansons which her husband liked, slept, and drank orange pekoe. In the consumption of this last article Mrs. Tempest was as bad as a dram-drinker. She declared her inability to support life without that gentle stimulant, and required to be wound up at various hours of her languid day with a dose of her favourite beverage.
“I think I’ll take a cup of tea,” was Mrs. Tempest’s inevitable remark at every crisis of her existence.
“And so you are going back to Oxford, Roderick?” the lady began with a languid kindness.
Mrs. Tempest had never been known to be unkind to anyone. She regarded all her fellow-creatures with a gentle tolerance. They were there, a necessary element of the universe, and she bore with them. But she had never attached herself particularly to anybody except the Squire. Him she adored. He took all the trouble of life off her hands, and gave her all good things. She had been poor, and he had made her rich; nobody, and he had elevated her into somebody. She loved him with a canine fidelity, and felt towards him as a dog feels towards his master — that in him this round world begins and ends.
“Yes,” assented Rorie, with a sigh, “I’m going up to-morrow.”
“Why up?” inquired Miss McCroke, without lifting her eyes from her needles. “It isn’t up on the map.”
“I hope you are going to get a grand degree,” continued Mrs. Tempest, in that soft conciliatory voice of hers; “Senior Wrangler, or something.”
“That’s the other shop,” exclaimed Rorie; “they grow that sort of timber at Cambridge. However, I hope to pull myself through somehow or other this time, for my mother’s sake. She attaches a good deal of importance to it, though for my own part I can’t see what good it can do me. It won’t make me farm my own land better, or ride straighter to hounds, or do my duty better to my tenants.”
“Education,” said Miss McCroke sententiously, “is always a good, and we cannot too highly estimate its influence upon ——”
“Oh yes, I know,” answered Rorie quickly, for he knew that when the floodgates of Miss McCroke’s eloquence were once loosened the tide ran strong, “when house and lands are gone and spent a man may turn usher in an academy, and earn fifty pounds a year and his laundress’s bill by grinding Caesar’s Commentaries into small boys. But I shouldn’t lay in a stock of learning with that view. When my house and lands are gone I’ll go after them — emigrate, and go into the lumber trade in Canada.”
“What a dreadful idea,” said Mrs. Tempest; “but you are not going to lose house and lands, Roderick — such a nice place as Briarwood.”
“To my mind it’s rather a commonplace hole,” answered the young man carelessly, “but the land is some of the best in the county.”
It must be nearly seven by this time, he thought. He was getting through this period of probation better than he had expected. Mrs. Tempest gave a little stifled yawn behind her huge black fan, upon which Cupids and Graces, lightly sketched in French gray, were depicted dancing in the airiest attitudes, after Boucher. Roderick would have liked to yawn in concert, but at this juncture a sudden ray of light flashed upon him and showed him a way of escape.
“I think I’ll go to the gentleman’s room, and make myself decent before the second bell rings,” he said.
“Do,” assented Mrs. Tempest, with another yawn; and the young man fled.
He had only time to scramble through a hurried toilet, and was still feeling very doubtful as to the parting of his short crisp hair, when the gong boomed out its friendly summons. The gentleman’s room opened from the hall, and Rorie heard the Squire’s loud and jovial voice uplifted as he raised the tapestry curtain.
Mr. Tempest was standing in front of the log fire, pulling Vixen’s auburn hair. The girl had put on a picturesque brown velvet frock. A scarlet sash was tied loosely round her willowy waist, and a scarlet ribbon held back the rippling masses of her bright hair.
“A study in red and brown,” thought Rorie, as the fire-glow lit up the picture of the Squire in his hunting-dress, and the girl in her warm velvet gown.
“Such a run, Rorie,” cried the Squire; “we dawdled about among the furze from twelve till four doing nothing, and just as it was getting dark started a stag up on the high ground this side of Pickett’s Post, and ran him nearly into Ringwood. Go in and fetch my wife, Rorie. Oh, here she is”— as the portière was lifted by a white hand, all a-glitter with diamonds —“you must excuse me sitting down in pink to-day, Pamela; I only got in as the gong began to sound, and I’m as hungry as the proverbial hunter.”
“You know I always think you handsomest in your scarlet coat, Edward,” replied the submissive wife, “but I hope you’re not very muddy.”
“I won’t answer for myself; but I haven’t been actually up to my neck in a bog.”
Rorie offered his arm to Mrs. Tempest, and they all went in to dinner, the squire still playing with his daughter’s hair, and Miss McCroke solemnly bringing up the rear.
The dining-room at the Abbey House was the ancient refectory, large enough for a mess-room; so, when there were no visitors, the Tempests dined in the library — a handsome square room, in which old family portraits looked down from the oak panelling above the bookcases, and where the literary element was not obtrusively conspicuous. You felt that it was a room quite as well adapted for conviviality as for study. There was a cottage piano in a snug corner by the fireplace. The Squire’s capacious arm-chair stood on the other side of the hearth, Mrs. Tempest’s low chair and gipsy table facing it. The old oak buffet opposite the chimney-piece was a splendid specimen of Elizabethan carving, and made a rich background for the Squire’s racing-cups, and a pair of Oliver Cromwell tankards, plain and unornamental as that illustrious Roundhead himself.
It was a delightful room on a chill October evening like this: the logs roaring up the wide chimney, a pair of bronze candelabra lighting buffet and table, Mrs. Tempest smiling pleasantly at her unbidden guest, and the squire stooping, red-faced and plethoric, over his mulligatawny; while Vixen, who was at an age when dinner is a secondary consideration, was amusing herself with the dogs, gentlemanly animals, too wellbred to be importunate in their demands for an occasional tid-bit, and content to lie in superb attitudes, looking up at the eaters patiently, with supplication in their great pathetic brown eyes.
“Rorie is going up to-morrow — not in a balloon, but to Magdalen College, Oxford — so, as this was his last night, I made him come to dinner,” explained Vixen presently. “I hope I didn’t do wrong.”
“Rorie knows he’s always welcome. Have some more of that mulligatawny, my lad, it’s uncommonly good.”
Rorie declined the mulligatawny, being at this moment deeply engaged in watching Vixen and the dogs. Nip, the liver-coloured pointer, was performing his celebrated statue feat. With his forelegs stiffly extended, and his head proudly poised, he simulated a dog of marble; and if it had not been for the occasional bumping of his tail upon the Persian carpet, in an irresistible wag of self-approbation, the simulation would have been perfect.
“Look, papa! isn’t it beautiful? I went out of the room the other day, while Nip was doing the statue, after I’d told him not to move a paw, and I stayed away quite five minutes, and then stole quietly back; and there he was, lying as still as if he’d been carved out of stone. Wasn’t that fidelity?”
“Nonsense!” cried the Squire. “How do you know that Nip didn’t wind you as you opened the door, and get himself into position? What are these?” as the old silver entrée dishes came round. “Stewed eels? You never forget my tastes, Pamela.”
“Stewed eels, sir; sole maître d’hôtel,” said the butler, in the usual suppressed and deferential tone.
Rorie helped himself automatically, and went on looking at Vixen.
Her praises of Nip had kindled jealous fires in the breast of Argus, her own particular favourite; and the blunt black muzzle had been thrust vehemently under her velvet sleeve.
“Argus is angry.” said Rorie.
“He’s a dear old foolish thing to be jealous,” answered Vixen, “when he knows I’d go through fire and water for him.”
“Or even fight a big boy,” cried the Squire, throwing himself back in his chair with the unctuous laughter of a man who is dining well, and knows it.
Vixen blushed rosiest red at the allusion.
“Papa, you oughtn’t to say such things,” she cried; “I was a little bit of a child then.”
“Yes, and flew at a great boy of fourteen and licked him,” exclaimed the Squire, rapturously. “You know the story, don’t you, Rorie?”
Rorie had heard it twenty times, but looked the picture of ignorant expectancy.
“You know how Vixen came by Argus? What, you don’t? Well, I’ll tell you. This little yellow-haired lass of mine was barely nine years old, and she was riding through the village on her pony, with young Stubbs behind her on the sorrel mare — and, you know, to her dying day, that sorrel would never let anyone dismount her quietly. Now what does Vixen spy but a lubberly lad and a lot of small children ill-using a mastiff pup. They’d tied a tin-kettle to the brute’s tail, and were doing their best to drown him. There’s a pond just beyond Mrs. Farley’s cottage, you know, and into that pond they’d pelted the puppy, and wouldn’t let him get out of it. As fast as the poor little brute scrambled up the muddy bank they drove him back into the water.”
“Papa darling,” pleaded Vixen despairingly, “Rorie has heard it all a thousand times before. Haven’t you now, Rorie?”
“It’s as new to me as to-morrow’s Times,” said Roderick with effrontery.
“Vixen was off the pony before you could say ‘Jack Robinson.’ She flew into the midst of the dirty little ragamuffins, seized the biggest ruffian by the collar, and trundled him backwards into the pond. Then she laid about her right and left with her whip till the wretches scampered off, leaving Vixen and the puppy masters of the situation; and by this time the sorrel mare had allowed Stubbs to get off her, and Stubbs rushed to the rescue. The young ringleader had been too much surprised by his ducking to pull himself together again before this, but he came up to time now, and had it out with Stubbs, while the sorrel was doing as much damage as she conveniently could to Mrs. Farley’s palings. ‘Don’t quite kill him, please, Stubbs,’ cried Vixen, ‘although he richly deserves it;’ and then she took the muddy little beast up in her arms and ran home, leaving her pony to fate and Stubbs. Stubbs told me the whole story, with tears in his eyes. ‘Who’d ha’ thought, Squire, the little lady would ha’ been such a game ’un?’ said Stubbs.”
“It’s very horrid of you, papa, to tell such silly old stories,” remonstrated Vixen. “That was nearly seven years ago, and Dr. Dewsnap told us the other day that everybody undergoes a complete change of — what is it? — all the tissues — in seven years. I’m not the same Vixen that pushed the boy into the pond. There’s not a bit of her left in me.”
And so the dinner went on and ended, with a good deal of distraction, caused by the dogs, and a mild little remark now and then from Mrs. Tempest, or an occasional wise interjection from Miss McCroke, who in a manner represented the Goddess of Wisdom in this somewhat frivolous family, and came in with a corrective and severely rational observation when the talk was drifting towards idiocy.
The filberts, bloomy purple grapes, and ruddy pippins, and yellow William pears had gone their rounds — all home produce — and had been admired and praised, and the Squire’s full voice was mellowing after his second glass of port, when the butler came in with a letter on a salver, and carried it, with muffled footfall and solemn visage, as of one who entrusted with the delivery of a death-warrant, straight to Roderick Vawdrey.
The young man looked at it as if he had encountered an unexpected visitor of the adder tribe.
“My mother,” he faltered.
It was a large and handsome letter with a big red seal.
“May I?” asked Rorie, with a troubled visage, and having received his host and hostess’s assent, broke the seal.
“Dear Roderick — Is it quite kind of you to absent yourself on this your last night at home? I feel very sure that this will find you at the Abbey House, and I send the brougham at a venture. Be good enough to come home at once. The Dovedales arrived at Ashbourne quite unexpectedly this afternoon, and are dining with me on purpose to see you before you go back to Oxford. If your own good feeling did not urge you to spend this last evening with me, I wonder that Mr. and Mrs. Tempest were not kind enough to suggest to you which way your duty lay. — Yours anxiously,
Roderick crumpled the letter with an angry look. That fling at the Tempests hit him hard. Why was it that his mother was always so ready to find fault with these chosen friends of his?
“Anything wrong, Rorie?” asked the Squire.
“Nothing; except that the Dovedales are dining with my mother; and I’m to go home directly.”
“If you please, ma’am, Master Vawdrey’s servant has come for him,” said Vixen, mimicking the style of announcement at a juvenile party. “It’s quite too bad, Rorie,” she went on, “I had made up my mind to beat you at pyramids. However I daresay you’re very glad to have the chance of seeing your pretty cousin before you leave Hampshire.”
But Rorie shook his head dolefully, made his adieux, and departed.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05