Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

Rorie asks a Question.

The library was one of the finest rooms at Southminster. It was not like the library at Althorpe — a collection for a nation to be proud of. There was no priceless Decameron, no Caxton Bible, no inestimable “Book of Hours,” or early Venetian Virgil; but as a library of reference, a library for all purposes of culture or enjoyment, it left nothing to be desired. It was a spacious and lofty room, lined from floor to ceiling with exquisitely bound books; for, if not a collector of rare editions, Lord Southminster was at least a connoisseur of bindings. Creamy vellum, flowered with gold, antique brown calf, and russia in every shade of crimson and brown, gave brightness to the shelves, while the sombre darkness of carved oak made a background for this variety of colour.

Not a mortal in the crowded library this evening thought of looking at the books. The room had been transformed into a bazaar. Two long tables were loaded with the wedding gifts which rejoicing friends and aspiring acquaintances had lavished upon Lady Almira. Each gift was labelled with the name of the giver; the exhibition was full of an intensely personal interest. Everybody wanted to see what everybody had given. Most of the people looking at the show had made their offerings, and were anxious to see if their own particular contribution appeared to advantage.

Here Mrs. Scobel was in her element. She explained everything, expatiated upon the beauty and usefulness of everything. If she had assisted at the purchase of all these gifts, or had actually chosen them, she could not have been more familiar with their uses and merits.

“You must look at the silver candelabra presented by Sir Ponto’s workpeople, so much more sensible than a bracelet. I don’t think Garrard — yes, it is Garrard — ever did anything better; so sweetly mythological — a goat and a dear little chubby boy, and ever so many savage-looking persons with cymbals.”

“The education of Jupiter, perhaps,” suggested Captain Winstanley.

“Of course. The savage persons must be teaching him music. Have you seen this liqueur cabinet, dear Mrs. Tempest? The most exquisite thing, from the servants at Southminster. Could anything be nicer?”

“Looks rather like a suggestion that Lady Almira may be given to curaçoa on the quiet,” said the Captain.

“And this lovely, lovely screen in crewels, by the Ladies Ringwood, after a picture by Alma Tadema,” continued Mrs. Scobel. “Was there ever anything so perfect? And to think that our poor mothers worked staring roses and gigantic lilies in Berlin wool and glass beads, and imagined themselves artistic!”

The ladies went the round of the tables, in a crush of other ladies, all rapturous. The Louis Quatorze fans, the carved ivory, the Brussels point, the oxydised silver glove-boxes, and malachite blotting-books, the pearls, opals, ormolu; the antique tankards and candlesticks, Queen–Anne teapots; diamond stars, combs, tiaras; prayer-books, and “Christian Years.” The special presents which stood out from this chaos of common place were — a rivière of diamonds from the Earl of Southminster, a cashmere shawl from Her Majesty, a basket of orchids, valued at five hundred guineas, from Lady Ellangowan, a pair of priceless crackle jars, a Sèvres dinner-service of the old bleu-du-roi, a set of knives of which the handles had all been taken from stags slaughtered by the Southminster hounds.

“This is all very well for the wallflowers,” said Captain Winstanley to Violet, “but you and I are losing our dances.”

“I don’t much care about dancing,” answered Vixen wearily.

She had been looking at this gorgeous display of bracelets and teacups, silver-gilt dressing-cases, and ivory hairbrushes, without seeing anything. She was thinking of Roderick Vawdrey, and how odd a thing it was that he should seem so utter a stranger to her.

“He has gone up into the ducal circle,” she said to herself. “He is translated. It is almost as if he had wings. He is certainly as far away from me as if he were a bishop.”

They struggled back to the picture-gallery, and here Lady Ellangowan took possession of Violet, and got her distinguished partners for all the dances till supper-time. She found herself receiving a gracious little nod from Lady Mabel Ashbourne in the ladies’ chain. Neither the lapse of two years nor the experience of foreign travel had made any change in the hope of the Dovedales. She was still the same sylph-like being, dressed in palest green, the colour of a duck’s egg, with diamonds in strictest moderation, and pearls that would have done honour to a princess.

“Do you think Lady Mabel Ashbourne very beautiful?” Vixen asked Lady Ellangowan, curious to hear the opinion of experience and authority.

“No; she’s too shadowy for my taste,” replied her ladyship, who was the reverse of sylph-like. “Wasn’t there someone in Greek mythology who fell in love with a cloud? Lady Mabel would just suit that sort of person. And then she is over-educated and conceited; sets up for a modern Lady Jane Grey, quotes Greek plays, I believe, and looks astounded if people don’t understand her. She’ll end by establishing a female college, like Tennyson’s princess.”

“Oh, but she is engaged to be married to Mr. Vawdrey.”

“Her cousin? Very foolish! That may go off by-and-by. First engagements seldom come to anything.”

Violet thought herself a hateful creature for being inwardly grateful to Lady Ellangowan for this speech.

She had seen Roderick spinning round with his cousin. He was a good waltzer, but not a graceful one. He steered his way well, and went with a strong swing that covered a great deal of ground; but there was a want of finish. Lady Mabel looked as if she were being carried away by a maelstrom. And now people began to move towards the supper-rooms, of which there were two, luxuriously arranged with numerous round tables in the way that was still a novelty when “Lothair” was written. This gave more room for the dancers. The people for whom a ball meant a surfeit of perigord pie, truffled turkey, salmon mayonnaise, and early strawberries, went for their first innings, meaning to return to that happy hunting-ground as often as proved practicable. Violet was carried off by a partner who was so anxious to take her to supper that she felt sure he was dying to get some for himself.

Her cavalier found her a corner at a snug little table with three gorgeous matrons. She ate a cutlet and a teaspoonful of peas, took three sips from a glass of champagne, and wound up with some strawberries, which tasted as if they had been taken by mistake out of the pickle-jar.

“I’m afraid you haven’t had a very good supper.” said her partner, who had been comfortably wedged between two of the matrons, consuming mayonnaise and pâté to his heart’s content.

“Excellent, thanks. I shall be glad to make room for someone else.” Whereat the unfortunate young man was obliged to stand up, leaving the choicest morsel of truffled goose-liver on his plate.

The crowd in the picture-gallery was thinner when Violet went back. In the doorway she met Roderick Vawdrey.

“Haven’t you kept a single dance for me, Violet?” he asked.

“You didn’t ask me to keep one.”

“Didn’t I? Perhaps I was afraid of Captain Winstanley’s displeasure. He would have objected, no doubt.”

“Why should he object, unless I broke an engagement to him?”

“Would he not? Are you actually free to be asked by anyone? If I had known that two hours ago! And now, I suppose your programme is full. Yes, to the very last galop; for which, of course, you won’t stop. But there’s to be an extra waltz presently. You must give me that.”

She said neither yes nor no, and he put her hand through his arm and led her up the room.

“Have you seen mamma?”

“Yes. She thinks I am grown. She forgets that I was one-and-twenty when we last met. That does not leave much margin for growing, unless a man went on getting taller indefinitely, like Lord Southminster’s palms. He had to take the roof off his palm-house last year, you know. What a dreadful thing if I were to become a Norfolk giant — giants are indigenous to Norfolk, aren’t they? — and were obliged to take the roof off Briarwood. Have you seen the Duchess?”

“Only in the distance. I hardly know her at all, you know.”

“That’s absurd. You ought to know her very well. You must be quite intimate with her by-and-by, when we are all settled down as steady-going married people.”

The little gloved hand on his arm quivered ever so slightly. This was a distinct allusion to his approaching marriage.

“Lovely room, isn’t it? Just the right thing for a ball. How do you like the Rubens? Very grand — a magnificent display of carmines — beautiful, if you are an admirer of Rubens. What a draughtsman! The Italian school rarely achieved that freedom of pencil. Isn’t that Greuze enchanting? There is an innocence, a freshness, about his girlish faces that nobody has ever equalled. His women are not Madonnas, or Junos, or Helens — they are the incarnation of girlhood; girlhood without care or thought; girlhood in love with a kitten, or weeping over a wounded robin-redbreast.”

How abominably he rattled on. Was it the overflow of joyous spirits? No doubt. He was so pleased with life and fate, that he was obliged to give vent to his exuberance in this gush of commonplace.

“You remind me of Miss Bates, in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma,’” said Vixen, laughing.

The band struck up “Trauriges Herz,” a waltz like a wail, but with a fine swing in it.

“Now for the old three-time,” said Roderick; and the next minute they were sailing smoothly over the polished floor, with all the fair pictured faces, the crimson draperies, the pensive Madonnas, Dutch boors, Italian temples, and hills, and skies, circling round them like the figures in a kaleidoscope.

“Do you remember our boy-and-girl waltzes in the hall at the Abbey House?” asked Rorie.

Happily for Vixen her face was so turned that he could not see the quiver on her lips, the sudden look of absolute pain that paled her cheeks.

“I am not likely to forget any part of my childhood,” she answered gravely. “It was the one happy period of my life.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that the last two years have been altogether unhappy.”

“You may believe what you like. You who knew my father, ought to know ——”

“The dear Squire! do you think I am likely to undervalue him, or to forget your loss? No, Violet, no. But there are compensations. I heard of you at Brighton. You were very happy there, were you not?”

“I liked Brighton pretty well. And I had Arion there all the while. There are some capital rides on the Downs.”

“Yes, and you had agreeable friends there.”

“Yes, we knew a good many pleasant people, and went to a great many concerts. I heard all the good singers, and Madame Goddard ever so many times.”

They went on till the end of the waltz, and then walked slowly round the room, glancing at the pictures as they went by. The Duchess was not in sight.

“Shall we go and look at the palms?” asked Roderick, when they came to the archway at the end of the gallery.

“If you like.”

“This was the roof that had to be taken off, you know. It is a magnificent dome, but I daresay the palms will outgrow it within Lord Southminster’s time.”

It was like entering a jungle in the tropics; if one could fancy a jungle paved with encaustic tiles, and furnished with velvet-covered ottomans for the repose of weary sportsmen.

There was only a subdued light, from lamps thinly sprinkled among the ferns and flowers. There were four large groups of statuary, placed judiciously, and under the central dome there was a fountain, where, half hidden by a veil of glittering spray, Neptune was wooing Tyro, under the aspect of a river-god, amongst bulrushes, lilies, and water-plants.

Violet and her companion looked at the tropical plants, and admired, with a delightful ignorance of the merits of these specimens. The tall shafts and the thick tufts of huge leaves were not Vixen’s idea of beauty.

“I like our beeches and oaks in the Forest ever so much better,” she exclaimed.

“Everything in the Forest is dear,” said Rorie.

Vixen felt, with a curious choking sensation, that this was a good opening for her to say something polite. She had always intended to congratulate him, in a straightforward sisterly way, upon his engagement to Lady Mabel.

“I am so glad to hear you say that,” she began. “And how happy you must be to think that your fate is fixed here irrevocably; doubly fixed now; for you can have no interest to draw you away from us, as you might if you were to marry a stranger. Briarwood and Ashbourne united will make you the greatest among us.”

“I don’t highly value that kind of greatness, Violet — a mere question of acreage; but I am glad to think myself anchored for life on my native soil.”

“And you will go into Parliament and legislate for us, and take care that we are not disforested. They have taken away too much already, with their horrid enclosures.”

“The enclosures will make splendid pine-woods by-and-by.”

“Yes, when we are all dead and gone.”

“I don’t know about Parliament. So long as my poor mother was living I had an incentive to turn senator, she was so eager for it. But now that she is gone, I don’t feel strongly drawn that way. I suppose I shall settle down into the approved pattern of country squire: breed fat cattle — the aristocratic form of cruelty to animals — spend the best part of my income upon agricultural machinery, talk about guano, like the Duke, and lecture delinquents at quarter-sessions.”

“But Lady Mabel will not allow that. She will be ambitious for you.”

“I hope not. I can fancy no affliction greater than an ambitious wife. No. My poor mother left Mabel her orchids. Mabel will confine her ambition to orchids and literature. I believe she writes poetry, and some day she will be tempted to publish a small volume, I daresay. ‘AEolian Echoes,’ or ‘Harp Strings,’ or ‘Broken Chords,’ ‘Consecutive Fifths,’ or something of that kind.”

“You believe!” exclaimed Vixen. “Surely you have read some of Lady Mabel’s poetry, or heard it read. She must have read some of her verses to you.”

“Never. She is too reserved, and I am too candid. It would be a dangerous experiment. I should inevitably say something rude. Mabel adores Shelley and Browning; she reads Greek, too. Her poetry is sure to be unintelligible, and I should expose my obtuseness of intellect. I couldn’t even look as if I understood it.”

“If I were Lady Mabel, I think under such circumstances I should leave off writing poetry.”

“That would be quite absurd. Mabel has a hundred tastes which I do not share with her. She is devoted to her garden and hot-houses. I hardly know one flower from another, except the forest wildlings. She detests horses and dogs. I am never happier than when among them. She reads AEschylus as glibly as I can read a French newspaper. But she will make an admirable mistress for Briarwood. She has just that tranquil superiority which becomes the ruler of a large estate. You will see what cottages and schools we shall build. There will not be a weed in our allotment gardens, and our farm-labourers will get all the prizes at cottage flower-shows.”

“You will hunt, of course?”

“Naturally; don’t you know that I am to have the hounds next year? It was all arranged a few days ago. Poor Mabel was strongly opposed to the plan. She thought it was the first stage on the road to ruin; but I think I convinced her that it was the natural thing for the owner of Briarwood; and the Duke was warmly in favour of it.”

“The dear old kennels!” said Vixen, “I have never seen them since — since I came home. I ride by the gate very often, but I have never had the courage to go inside. The hounds wouldn’t know me now.”

“You must renew your friendship with them. You will hunt, of course, next year?”

“No, I shall never hunt again!”

“Oh, nonsense; I hear that Captain Winstanley is a mighty Nimrod — quite a Leicestershire man. He will wish you to hunt.”

“What can Captain Winstanley have to do with it?” asked Vixen, turning sharply upon him.

“A great deal, I should imagine, by next season.”

“I haven’t the least idea what you mean.”

It was Roderick Vawdrey’s turn to look astonished. He looked both surprised and angry.

“How fond young ladies are of making mysteries about these things,” he exclaimed impatiently; “I suppose they think it enhances their importance. Have I made a mistake? Have my informants misled me? Is your engagement to Captain Winstanley not to be talked about yet — only an understood thing among your own particular friends? Let me at least be allowed the privilege of intimate friendship. Let me be among the first to congratulate you.”

“What folly have you been listening to?” cried Vixen; “you, Roderick Vawdrey, my old play-fellow — almost an adopted brother — to know me so little.”

“What could I know of you to prevent my believing what I was told? Was there anything strange in the idea that you should be engaged to Captain Winstanley? I heard that he was a universal favourite.”

“And did you think that I should like a universal favourite?”

“Why should you not? It seemed credible enough, and my informant was positive; he saw you together at a picnic in Switzerland. It was looked upon as a settled thing by all your friends.”

“By Captain Winstanley’s friends, you mean. They may have looked upon it as a settled thing that he should marry someone with plenty of money, and they may have thought that my money would be as useful as anyone else’s.”

“Violet, are you mystifying me? are you trying to drive me crazy? or is this the simple truth?”

“It is the simple truth.”

“You are not engaged to this man? — you never have been? — you don’t care for him, never have cared for him?”

“Never, never, never, never!” said Violet, with unmistakable emphasis.

“Then I have been the most consummate ——”

He did not finish his sentence, and Violet did not ask him to finish it. The ejaculation seemed involuntary. He sat staring at the palms, and said nothing for the next minute and a half, while Vixen unfurled her great black and gold fan, and looked at it admiringly, as if she had never seen it before.

“Do you really think those palms will break through the roof again in the present Lord Southminster’s time?” Roderick inquired presently, with intense interest.

Vixen did not feel herself called upon to reply to a question so purely speculative.

“I think I had better go and look for mamma and Mrs. Scobel,” she said; “they must have come back from the supper-room by this time.”

Roderick rose and offered her his arm. She was surprised to see how pale he looked when they came out of the dusk into the brilliant light of the gallery. But in a heated room, and between two and three o’clock in the morning, a man may naturally be a little paler than usual.

Roderick took Violet straight to the end of the room, where his quick eye had espied Mrs. Tempest in her striking black and scarlet costume. He said nothing more about the Duchess or Lady Mabel; and, indeed, took Violet past the elder lady, who was sitting in one of the deep-set windows with Lady Southminster, without attempting to bring about any interchange of civilities.

“Captain Winstanley has been kind enough to go and look for the carriage, Violet,” said Mrs. Tempest. “I told him we would join him in the vestibule directly I could find you. Where have you been all this time? You were not in the Lancers. Such a pretty set. Oh, here is Mrs. Scobel!” as the Vicar’s wife approached them on her partner’s arm, in a piteous state of dilapidation — not a bit of tulle putting left, and all her rosebuds crushed as flat as dandelions.

“Such a delightful set!” she exclaimed gaspingly.

“I’m afraid your dress has suffered,” said her partner.

“Not in the least.” protested Mrs. Scobel, with the fortitude of that ladylike martyr to a clumsy carver, celebrated by Sydney Smith, who, splashed from head to foot, and with rills of brown gravy trickling down her countenance, vowed that not a drop had reached her.

“This,” says the reverend wit, “I esteem the highest triumph of civilisation.”

“Your carriage will be the third,” the captain told Mrs. Tempest, while Roderick was putting Violet’s cloak round her in the vestibule; “there are a good many people leaving already.”

Roderick went with them to the carriage door, and stayed in the porch till they were gone. The last object Vixen saw under the Southminster lamps was the pale grave face of her old playfellow.

He went straight from the porch to the supper-room, not to find himself a place at one of the snug little tables, but to go to the buffet and pour out a glass of brandy, which he drank at a draught. Yet, in a general way, there was no man more abstemious than Roderick Vawdrey.

A quarter of an hour afterwards he was waltzing with Lady Mabel — positively the last dance before their departure.

“Roderick,” she said in an awe-stricken undertone, “I am going to say something very dreadful. Please forgive me in advance.”

“Certainly,” he said, with a somewhat apprehensive look.

“Just now, when you were talking to me, I fancied you had been drinking brandy.”

“I had.”

“Absolute undiluted brandy!”

“Neat brandy, sometimes denominated ‘short.’”

“Good heavens! were you ill?”

“I had had what people call ‘a turn.’”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50