“Bless my soul!” cried the Squire; “it’s a vixen, after all.”
This is how Squire Tempest greeted the family doctor’s announcement of the his baby’s sex. He had been particularly anxious for a son to inherit the Abbey House estate, succeed to his father’s dignities as master of the fox-hounds, and in a general way sustain the pride and glory of the family name; and, behold! Providence had given him a daughter.
“The deuce is in it,” ejaculated the Squire; “to think that it should be a vixen!”
This is how Violet Tempest came by her curious pet name. Before she was short-coated, she had contrived to exhibit a very spirited, and even vixenish temper, and the family doctor, who loved a small joke, used to ask after Miss Vixen when he paid his professional visits. As she grew older, her tawny hair was not unlike a red fox’s brush in its bright golden-brown hue, and her temper proved decidedly vixenish.
“I wish you wouldn’t call Violet by that dreadful nickname, dear,” Mrs. Tempest remonstrated mildly.
“My darling, it suits her to a nicety,” replied the Squire, and he took his own way in this as in most things.
The earth rolled round, and the revolving years brought no second baby to the Abbey House. Every year made the Squire fonder of his little golden-haired girl. He put her on a soft white ball of a pony as soon as she could sit up straight, and took her about the Forest with a leading-rein. No one else was allowed to teach Vixen to ride. Young as she was, she soon learnt to do without the leading-rein, and the gentle white pony was discarded as too quiet for little Miss Tempest. Before her eleventh birthday she rode to hounds, rose before the sun to hunt the young fox-cubs in early autumn, and saw the stag at bay on the wild heathery downs above the wooded valleys that sink and fall below Boldrewood with almost Alpine grandeur. She was a creature full of life, and courage, and generous impulses, and spontaneous leanings to all good thoughts; but she was a spoiled child, liked her own way, and had no idea of being guided by anybody else’s will — unless it had been her father’s, and he never thwarted her.
Him she adored with the fondest love that child ever gave to parent: a blind worshipping love, that saw in him the perfection of manhood, the beginning and end of earthly good. If anyone had dared to say in Vixen’s hearing that her father could, by any possible combination of circumstances, do wrong, act unjustly, or ungenerously, it would have been better for that man to have come to handy grips with a tiger-cat than with Violet Tempest. Her reverence for her father, and her belief in him, were boundless.
There never, perhaps, was a happier childhood than Violet’s. She was daughter and heiress to one of the most popular men in that part of the country, and everybody loved her. She was not much given to visiting in a methodical way among the poor, and it had never entered into her young mind that it was her mission to teach older people the way to heaven; but if there was trouble in the village — a sick child, a husband in prison for rabbit snaring, a dead baby, a little boy’s pinafore set fire — Vixen and her pony were always to the fore; and it was an axiom in the village that, where Miss Tempest did “take,” it was very good for those she took to. Violet never withdrew her hand’ when she had put it to the plough. If she made a promise, she always kept it. However long the sickness, however dire the poverty, Vixen’s patience and benevolence lasted to the end.
The famous princess in the story, whose sleep was broken because there was a pea under her seven feather-beds, had scarcely a more untroubled life than Vixen. She had her own way in everything. She did exactly what she liked with her comfortable, middle-aged governess, Miss McCroke, learnt what she pleased, and left what she disliked unlearned. She had the prettiest ponies in Hampshire to ride, the prettiest dresses to wear. Her mother was not a woman to bestow mental culture upon her only child, but she racked her small brain to devise becoming costumes for Violet: the coloured stockings which harmonised best with each particular gown, the neat little buckled shoes, the fascinating Hessian boots. Nothing was too beautiful or too costly for Violet. She was the one thing her parents possessed in the world, and they lavished much love upon her; but it never occurred to Mr. and Mrs. Tempest, as it had occurred to the Duchess of Dovedale — to make their daughter a paragon.
In this perpetual sunshine Violet grew up, fair as most things are that grow in the sunshine. She loved her father with all her heart, and mind, and soul; she loved her mother with a lesser love; she had a tolerant affection for Miss McCroke; she loved her ponies, and the dog Argus; she loved the hounds in the kennels; she loved every honest familiar face of nurse, servant, and stable-man, gardener, keeper, and huntsman, that had looked upon her with friendly, admiring eyes, ever since she could remember.
Not to be loved and admired would have been the strangest thing to Violet. She would hardly have recognised herself in an unappreciative circle. If she could have heard Lady Mabel talking about her, it would have been like the sudden revelation of an unknown world — a world in which it was possible for people to dislike and misjudge her.
This is one of the disadvantages of being reared in a little heaven of domestic love. The outside world seems so hard, and black, and dreary afterwards, and the inhabitants thereof passing cruel.
Miss Tempest looked upon Roderick Vawdrey as her own particular property — a person whom she had the right to order about as she pleased. Rorie had been her playfellow and companion in his holiday-time for the last five years. All their tastes were in common. They had the same love for the brute creation, the same wild delight in rushing madly through the air on the backs of unreasoning animals; widely different in their tastes from Lady Mabel, who had once been run away with in a pony-carriage, and looked upon all horses as incipient murderers. They had the same love of nature, and the same indifference to books, and the same careless scorn of all the state and ceremony of life.
Vixen was “rising fifteen,” as her father called it, and Rorie was just five years her senior. The Squire saw them gay and happy together, without one serious thought of what might come of their childish friendship in the growth of years. That his Vixen could ever care for anyone but her “old dad,” was a notion that had not yet found its way into the Squire’s brain. She seemed to him quite as much his own property, his own to do what he liked with, singly and simply attached to him, as his favourite horse or his favourite dog. So there were no shadowings forth in the paternal mind as to any growth and development which the mutual affection of these two young people might take in the future.
It was very different with Lady Jane Vawdrey, who never saw her son and his cousin Mabel together without telling herself how exactly they were suited to each other, and what a nice thing it would be for the Briarwood and Ashbourne estates to be united by their marriage.
Rorie went back to college, and contrived to struggle through his next examinations with an avoidance of actual discredit; but when Christmas came he did not return to the Forest, though Violet had counted on his coming, and had thought that it would be good fun to have his help in the decorations for the little Gothic church in the valley — a pretty little new church, like a toy, which the Squire had built and paid for, and endowed with a perpetual seventy pounds a year out of his own pocket. It would have been fun to see poor Rorie prick his clumsy fingers with the holly. Vixen laughed at his awkwardness in advance, when she talked to Miss McCroke about him, and drew upon himself that lady’s mild reproval.
But Christmas came and brought no Rorie. He had gone off to spend his Christmas at the Duke of Dovedale’s Scotch castle. Easter came, and still no Rorie. He was at Putney, with the ‘Varsity crew, or in London with the Dovedales, riding in the Row, and forgetting dear old Hampshire and the last of the hunting, for which he would have been just in time.
Even the long vacation came without Rorie. He had gone for that promised tour in Switzerland, at his mother’s instigation, and was only to come back late in the year to keep his twenty-first birthday, which was to be honoured in a very subdued and unhilarious fashion at Briarwood.
“Mamma,” said Violet, at breakfast-time one August morning, with her nose scornfully tilted, “what is Mr. Vawdrey like — dark or fair?”
“Why Violet, you can’t have forgotten him,” protested her mother, with languid astonishment.
“I think he has been away long enough for me to forget even the colour of his hair, mamma; and as he hasn’t written to anybody, we may fairly suppose he has forgotten us.”
“Vixen misses her old playfellow,” said the Squire, busy with the demolition of a grouse. “But Rorie is a young man now, you know, dear, and has work to do in the world — duties, my pet — duties.”
“And is a young man’s first duty to forget his old friends?” inquired Vixen naïvely.
“My pet, you can’t expect a lad of that kind to write letters. I am a deuced bad hand at letter-writing myself, and always was. I don’t think a man’s hand was ever made to pinch a pen. Nature has given us a broad strong grasp, to grip a sword or a gun. Your mother writes most of my letters, Vixen, you know, and I shall expect you to help her in a year or two. Let me see; Rorie will be one-and-twenty in October, and there are to be high jinks at Briarwood, I believe, so there’s something for you to look forward to, my dear.”
“Edward!” exclaimed Mrs. Tempest reproachfully; “you forget that Violet is not out. She will not be sixteen till next February.”
“Bless her!” cried the Squire, with a tender look at his only child, “she has grown up like a green bay-tree. But if this were to be quite a friendly affair at Briarwood, she might go, surely.”
“It will not be a friendly affair,” said Mrs. Tempest; “Lady Jane never gives friendly parties. There is nothing friendly in her nature, and I don’t think she likes us — much. But I daresay we shall be asked, and if we go I must have a new dress,” added the gentle lady with a sigh of resignation. “It will be a dinner, no doubt; and the Duke and Duchess will be there, of course.”
The card of invitation came in due course, three weeks before the birthday. It was to be a dinner, as Mrs. Tempest had opined. She wrote off to her milliner at once, and there was a passage of letters and fashion-plates and patterns of silk to and fro, and some of Mrs. Tempest’s finest lace came out of the perfumed chest in which she kept her treasures, and was sent off to Madame Theodore.
Poor Vixen beheld these preparations with an aching heart. She did not care about dinner-parties in the least, but she would have liked to be with Roderick on his birthday. She would have liked it to have been a hunting-day, and to have ridden for a wild scamper across the hills with him — to have seen the rolling downs of the Wight blue in the distance — to have felt the soft south wind blowing in her face, and to have ridden by his side, neck and neck, all day long; and then to have gone home to the Abbey House to dinner, to the snug round table in the library, and the dogs, and papa in his happiest mood, expanding over his port and walnuts. That would have been a happy birthday for all of them, in Violet’s opinion.
The Squire and his daughter had plenty of hunting in this merry month of October, but there had been no sign of Rorie and his big raking chestnut in the field, nor had anyone in the Forest heard of or seen the young Oxonian.
“I daresay he is only coming home in time for the birthday,” Mrs. Tempest remarked placidly, and went on with her preparations for that event.
She wanted to make a strong impression on the Duchess, who had not behaved too well to her, only sending her invitations for indiscriminate afternoon assemblies, which Mrs. Tempest had graciously declined, pleading her feeble health as a reason for not going to garden-parties.
Vixen was in a peculiar temper during those three weeks, and poor Miss McCroke had hard work with her.
“Der, die, das,” cried Vixen, throwing down her German grammar in a rage one morning, when she had been making a muddle of the definite article in her exercise, and the patient governess had declared that they really must go back to the very beginning of things. “What stupid people the Germans are! Why can’t they have one little word for everything, as we have? T, h, e, the. Any child can learn that. What do they mean by chopping up their language into little bits, like the pieces in a puzzle? Why, even the French are more reasonable — though they’re bad enough, goodness knows, with their hes and shes — feminine tables, and masculine beds. Why should I be bothered to learn all this rubbish? I’m not going to be a governess, and it will never be any use to me. Papa doesn’t know a single sentence in French or German, and he’s quite happy.”
“But if your papa were travelling on the Continent, Violet, he would find his ignorance of the language a great deprivation.”
“No, he wouldn’t. He’d have a courier.”
“Are you aware, my dear, that we have wasted five minutes already in this discursive conversation?” remarked Miss McCroke, looking at a fat useful watch, which she wore at her side in the good old fashion. “We will leave the grammar for the present, and you can repeat Schiller’s Song of the Bell.”
“I’d rather say the Fight with the Dragon,” said Vixen; “there’s more fire and life in it. I do like Schiller, Crokey dear. But isn’t it a pity he didn’t write it in English?”
And Vixen put her hands behind her, and began to recite the wonderful story of the knight who slew the dragon, and very soon her eyes kindled and her cheeks were aflame, and the grand verses were rolled out rapidly, with a more or less faulty pronunciation, but plenty of life and vehemence. This exercise of mind and memory suited Vixen a great deal better than dull plodding at the first principles of grammar, and the perpetual der, die, das.
This day was the last of October, and Roderick Vawdrey’s birthday. He had not been seen at the Abbey House yet. He had returned to Briarwood before this, no doubt, but had not taken the trouble to come and see his old friends.
“He’s a man now, and has duties, and has done with us,” thought Vixen savagely.
She was very glad that it was such a wretched day — a hideous day for anyone’s twenty-first birthday, ominous of all bad things, she thought. There was not a rift in the dull gray sky; the straight fine rain came down persistently, soaking into the sodden earth, and sending up an odour of dead leaves. The smooth shining laurels in the shrubbery were the only things in nature that seemed no worse for the perpetual downpour. The gravel drives were spongy and sloppy. There was no hunting, or Vixen would have been riding her pony through rain and foul weather, and would have been comparatively independent of the elements. But to be at home all day, watching the rain, and thinking what a horrid, ungrateful young man Rorie was! That was dreary.
Mrs. Tempest went to her room to lie down directly after luncheon. She wanted to keep herself fresh for the evening. She made quite a solemn business of this particular dinner-party. At five precisely, Pauline was to bring her a cup of tea. At half-past five she was to begin to dress. This would give her an hour and a half for her toilet, as Briarwood was only half-an-hour’s drive from the Abbey House. So for the rest of that day — until she burst upon their astonished view in her new gown — Mrs. Tempest would be invisible to her family.
“What a disgusting birthday!” cried Vixen, sitting in the deep embrasure of the hall window, with Argus at her side, dog and girl looking out at the glistening shrubbery.
Miss McCroke had gone to her room to write letters, or Vixen would have hardly been allowed to remain peacefully in such an inelegant position, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms embracing her legs, her back against the stout oak shutter. Yet the girl and dog made rather a pretty picture, despite the inelegance of Vixen’s attitude. The tawny hair, black velvet frock, and careless amber sash, amber stockings, and broad-toed Cromwell shoes; the tawny mastiff curled in the opposite corner of the deep recess; the old armorial bearings, sending pale shafts of parti-coloured light across Vixen’s young head; — these things made a picture full framed of light and colour, in the dark brown oak.
“What an abominable birthday!” ejaculated Vixen; “if it were such weather as this on my twenty-first birthday, I should think Nature had taken a dislike to me. But I don’t suppose Rorie cares. He is playing billiards with a lot of his friends, and smoking, and making a horror of himself, I daresay, and hardly knows whether it rains or shines.”
Drip, drip, drip, came the rain on the glistening leaves, berberis and laurel, bay and holly, American oaks of richest red and bronze, copper beeches, tall rhododendrons, cypress of every kind, and behind them a dense black screen of yew. The late roses looked miserable. Vixen would have liked to have brought them in and put them by the hall fire — the good old hearth with its pile of blazing logs, before which Nip the pointer was stretched at ease, his muscular toes stiffening themselves occasionally, as if he was standing at a bird in his dreams.
Vixen went on watching the rain. It was rather a lazy way of spending the afternoon certainly, but Miss Tempest was out of humour with her little world, and did not feel equal to groping out the difficulties, the inexorable double sharps and odious double flats, in a waltz of Chopin’s. She watched the straight thin rain, and thought about Rorie — chiefly to the effect that she hated him, and never could, by any possibility, like him again.
Gradually the trickle of the rain from an overflowing waterpipe took the sound of a tune. No berceuse by Gounod was ever more rest-compelling. The full white lids drooped over the big brown eyes, the little locked hands loosened, the soft round chin fell forward on the knees; Argus gave a snort of satisfaction, and laid his heavy head on the velvet gown. Girl and dog were asleep. There was no sound in the wide old hall except the soft falling of wood ashes, the gentle breathing of girl and dogs.
Too pretty a picture assuredly to be lost to the eye of mankind.
Whose footstep was this sounding on the wet gravel half-an-hour later? Too quick and light for the Squire’s. Who was this coming in softly out of the rain, all dripping like a water god? Who was this whose falcon eye took in the picture at a glance, and who stole cat-like to the window, and bending down his dark wet head, gave Violet’s sleeping lips the first lover’s kiss that had ever saluted them?
Violet awoke with a faint shiver of surprise and joy. Instinct told her from whom that kiss came, though it was the first time Roderick had kissed her since he went to Eaton. The lovely brown eyes opened and looked into the dark gray ones. The ruddy brown head rested on Rorie’s shoulder. The girl — half child, half woman, and all loving trustfulness, looked up at him with a glad smile. His heart was stirred with a new feeling as those softly bright eyes looked into his. It was the early dawn of a passionate love. The head lying on his breast seemed to him the fairest thing on earth.
“Rorie, how disgracefully you have behaved, and how utterly I detest you!” exclaimed Vixen, giving him a vigorous push, and scrambling down from the window-seat. “To be all this time in Hampshire and never come near us.”
A moment ago, in that first instant of a newly awakened delight, she was almost betrayed into telling him that she loved him dearly, and had found life empty without him. But having had just time enough to recover herself, she drew herself up as straight as a dart, and looked at him as Kate may have looked at Petruchio during their first unpleasant interview in which they made each other’s acquaintance.
“All this time!” cried Rorie. “Do you know how long I have been in Hampshire?”
“Haven’t the least idea,” retorted Vixen haughtily.
“Just half-an-hour — or, at least it is exactly half-an-hour since I was deposited with all my goods and chattels at the Lyndhurst Road Station.”
“You are only just home from Switzerland?”
“Within this hour!”
“And you have not even been to Briarwood?”
“My honoured mother still awaits my duteous greetings.”
“And this is your twenty-first birthday, and you came here first of all.”
And, almost uninvited, the tawny head dropped on to his shoulder again, and the sweet childish lips allowed themselves to be kissed.
“Rorie, how brown you have grown.’”
The gray eyes were looking into the brown ones admiringly, and the conversation was getting a trifle desultory.
Swift as a flash Violet recollected herself. It dawned upon her that it was not quite the right thing for a young lady “rising sixteen” to let herself be kissed so tamely. Besides, Rorie never used to do it. The thing was a new development, a curious outcome of his Swiss tour. Perhaps people did it in Switzerland, and Rorie had acquired the habit.
“How dare you do such a thing?” exclaimed Vixen, shaking herself free from the traveller’s encircling arm.
“I didn’t think you minded,” said Rorie innocently; “and when a fellow comes home from a long journey he expects a warm welcome!”
“And I am glad to see you,” cried Vixen, giving him both her hands with a glorious frankness; “but you don’t know how I have been hating you lately.”
“For being always away. I thought you had forgotten us all — that you did not care a jot for any of us.”
“I had not forgotten any of you, and I did care — very much — for some of you.”
This, though vague, was consoling.
The brown became Roderick. Dark of visage always, he was now tanned to a bronze as of one born under southern skies. Those deep gray eyes of his looked black under their black lashes. His black hair was cut close to his well-shaped head. An incipient moustache shaded his upper lip, and gave manhood to the strong, firm mouth. A manly face altogether, Roderick’s, and handsome withal. Vixen’s short life had shown her none handsomer.
He was tall and strongly built, with a frame that had been developed by many an athletic exercise — from throwing the hammer to pugilism. Vixen thought him the image of Richard Coeur de Lion. She had been reading “The Talisman” lately, and the Plantagenet was her ideal of manly excellence.
“Many happy returns of the day, Rorie,” she said softly. “To think that you are of age to-day. Your own master.”
“Yes, my infancy ceased and determined at the last stroke of midnight yesterday. I wonder whether my anxious mother will recognise that fact?”
“Of course you know what is going to happen at Briarwood. There is to be a grand dinner-party.”
“And you are coming? How jolly!”
“Oh, no, Rorie. I am not out yet, you know. I shan’t be for two years. Papa means to give me a season in town. He calls it having me broken to harness. He’ll take a furnished house, and we shall have the horses up, and I shall ride in the Row, You’ll be with us part of the time, won’t you, Rorie?”
“Ca se peut. If papa will invite me.”
“Oh, he will, if I wish it. It’s to be my first season, you know, and I’m to have everything my own way.”
“Will that be a novelty?” demanded Roderick, with intention.
“I don’t know. I haven’t had my own way in anything lately.”
“How is that?”
“You have been away.”
At this naïve flattery, Roderick almost blushed.
“How you’ve grown. Vixen,” he remarked presently.
“Have I really? Yes, I suppose I do grow. My frocks are always getting too short.”
“Like the sleeves of my dress-coats a year or two ago.”
“But now you are of age, and can’t grow any more. What are you going to be, Rorie? What are you going to do with your liberty? Are you going into Parliament?”
Mr. Vawdrey indulged in a suppressed yawn.
“My mother would like it,” he said, “but upon my word I don’t care about it. I don’t take enough interest in my fellow-creatures.”
“If they were foxes, you’d be anxious to legislate for them,” suggested Vixen.
“I would certainly try to protect them from indiscriminate slaughter. And in fact, when one considers the looseness of existing game-laws, I think every country gentleman ought to be in Parliament.”
“And there is the Forest for you to take care of.”
“Yes, forestry is a subject on which I should like to have my say. I suppose I shall be obliged to turn senator. But I mean to take life easily — you may be sure of that, Vixen; and I intend to have the best stud of hunters in Hampshire. And now I think I must be off.”
“No, you mustn’t,” cried Violet. “The dinner is not till eight. If you leave here at six you will have no end of time for getting home to dress. How did you come?”
“On these two legs.”
“You shall have four to take you to Briarwood. West shall drive you home in papa’s dog-cart, with the new mare. You don’t know her, do you? Papa only bought her last spring. She is such a beauty, and goes — goes — oh, like a skyrocket. She bolts occasionally; but you don’t mind that, do you?”
“Not in the least. It would be rather romantic to be smashed on one’s twenty-first birthday. Will you tell them to order West to get ready at once.”
“Oh, but you are to stop to tea with Miss McCroke and me — that’s part of our bargain. No kettledrum, no Starlight Bess! And you’d scarcely care about walking to Briarwood under such rain as that!”
“So be it, then; kettledrum and Starlight Bess, at any hazard of maternal wrath. But really now I’m doing a most ungentlemanly thing, Vixen, to oblige you!”
“Always be ungentlemanly then for my sake — if it’s ungentlemanly to come and see me,” said Vixen coaxingly.
They were standing side by side in the big window looking out at the straight thin rain. The two pairs of lips were not very far away from each other, and Rorie might have been tempted to commit a third offence against the proprieties, if Miss McCroke had not fortunately entered at this very moment. She was wonderfully surprised at seeing Mr. Vawdrey, congratulated him ceremoniously upon his majority, and infused an element of stiffness into the small assembly.
“Rorie is going to stay to tea,” said Vixen. “We’ll have it here by the fire, please, Crokey dear. One can’t have too much of a good fire this weather. Or shall we go to my den? Which would you like best, Rorie?”
“I think we had better have tea here, Violet,” interjected Miss McCroke, ringing the bell.
Her pupil’s sanctum sanctorum— that pretty up-stairs room, half schoolroom, half boudoir, and wholly untidy — was not, in Miss McCroke’s opinion, an apartment to be violated by the presence of a young man.
“And as Rory hasn’t had any luncheon, and has come ever so far out of his way to see me, please order something substantial for him,” said Vixen.
Her governess obeyed. The gipsy table was wheeled up to the broad hearth, and presently the old silver tea-pot and kettle, and the yellow cups and saucers, were shining in the cheery firelight. The old butler put a sirloin and a game-pie on the sideboard, and then left the little party to shift for themselves, in pleasant picnic fashion.
Vixen sat down before the hissing tea-kettle with a pretty important air, like a child making tea out of toy tea-things. Rorie brought a low square stool to a corner close to her, and seated himself with his chin a little above the tea-table.
“You can’t eat roast beef in that position,” said Vixen.
“Oh yes I can — I can do anything that’s mad or merry this evening. But I’m not at all sure that I want beef, though it is nearly three months since I’ve seen an honest bit of ox beef. I think thin bread and butter — or roses and dew even — quite substantial enough for me this evening.”
“You’re afraid of spoiling your appetite for the grand dinner,” said Vixen.
“No, I’m not. I hate grand dinners. Fancy making a fine art of eating, and studying one’s menu beforehand to see what combination of dishes will harmonise best with one’s internal economy. And then the names of the things are always better than the things themselves. It’s like a show at a fair, all the best outside. Give me a slice of English beef or mutton, and a bird that my gun has shot, and let all the fine-art dinners go hang.”
“Cut him a slice of beef, dear Miss McCroke,” said Vixen.
“Not now, thanks; I can’t eat now. I’m going to drink orange pekoe.”
Argus had taken up his position between Violet and her visitor. He sat bolt upright, like a sentinel keeping guard over his mistress; save that a human sentinel, unless idiotic or intoxicated, would hardly sit with jaws wide apart, and his tongue hanging out of one side of his mouth, as Argus did. But this lolloping attitude of the canine tongue was supposed to indicate a mind at peace with creation.
“Are you very glad to come of age, Rorie?” asked Vixen, turning her bright brown eyes upon him, full of curiosity.
“Well, it will be rather nice to have as much money as I want without asking my mother for it. She was my only guardian, you know. My father had such confidence in her rectitude and capacity that he left everything in her hands.”
“Do you find Briarwood much improved?” inquired Miss McCroke.
Lady Jane had been doing a good deal to her orchid-houses lately.
“I haven’t found Briarwood at all yet,” answered Rorie, “and Vixen seems determined I shan’t find it.”
“What, have you only just returned?”
“And you have not seen Lady Jane yet?” exclaimed Miss McCroke with a horrified look.
“It sounds rather undutiful, doesn’t it? I was awfully tired, after travelling all night; and I made this a kind of halfway house.”
“Two sides of a triangle are invariable longer than anyone side,” remarked Vixen, gravely. “At least that’s what Miss McCroke has taught me.”
“It was rather out of my way, of course. But I wanted to see whether Vixen had grown. And I wanted to see the Squire.”
“Papa has gone to Ringwood to look at a horse; but you’ll see him at the grand dinner. He’ll be coming home to dress presently.”
“I hope you had an agreeable tour, Mr. Vawdrey?” said Miss McCroke.
“Oh, uncommonly jolly.”
“And you like Switzerland?”
“Yes; it’s nice and hilly.”
And then Roderick favoured them with a sketch of his travels, while they sipped their tea, and while Vixen made the dogs balance pieces of cake on their big blunt noses.
It was all very nice — the Tête Noire, and Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn. Rorie jumbled them all together, without the least regard to geography. He had done a good deal of climbing, had worn out and lost dozens of alpenstocks, and had brought home a case of Swiss carved work for his friends.
“There’s a clock for your den, Vixen — I shall bring it to-morrow — with a little cock-robin that comes out of his nest and sings — no end of jolly.”
“How lovely!” cried Violet.
The tall eight-day clock in a corner of the hall chimed the half-hour.
“Half-past five, and Starlight Bess not ordered,” exclaimed Roderick.
“Let’s go out to the stables and see about her,” suggested Vixen. “And then I can show you my pony. You remember Titmouse, the one that would jump?”
“Violet!” ejaculated the aggrieved governess. “Do you suppose I would permit you to go out of doors in such weather?”
“Do you think it’s still raining?” asked Vixen innocently. “It may have cleared up. Well, we’d better order the cart,” she added meekly, as she rang the bell. “I’m not of age yet, you see, Rorie. Please, Peters, tell West to get papa’s dog-cart ready for Mr. Vawdrey, and to drive Starlight Bess.”
Rorie looked at the bright face admiringly. The shadows had deepened; there was no light in the great oak-panelled room except the ruddy fire-glow, and in this light Violet Tempest looked her loveliest. The figures in the tapestry seemed to move in the flickering light — appeared and vanished, vanished and appeared, like the phantoms of a dream. The carved bosses of the ceiling were reflected grotesquely on the oaken wall above the tapestry. The stags’ heads had a goblin look. It was like a scene of enchantment, and Violet, in her black frock and amber sash, looked like the enchantress — Circe, Vivien, Melusine, or somebody of equally dubious antecedents.
It was Miss McCroke’s sleepiest hour. Orange pekoe, which has an awakening influence upon most people, acted as an opiate upon her. She sat blinking owlishly at the two young figures.
Rorie roused himself with a great effort.
“Unless Starlight Bess spins me along the road pretty quickly, I shall hardly get to Briarwood by dinner-time,” he said; “and upon my honour, I don’t feel the least inclination to go.”
“Oh, what fun if you were absent at your coming-of-age dinner!” cried Vixen, with her brown eyes dancing mischievously. “They would have to put an empty chair for you, like Banquo’s.”
“It would be a lark,” acquiesced Rorie, “but it wouldn’t do; I should hear too much about it afterwards. A fellow’s mother has some kind of claim upon him, you know. Now for Starlight Bess.”
They went into the vestibule, and Rorie opened the door, letting in a gust of wind and rain, and the scent of autumn’s last ill-used flowers.
“Oh, I so nearly forgot,” said Violet, as they stood on the threshold, side by side, waiting for the dog-cart to appear. “I’ve got a little present for you — quite a humble one for a grand young land-owner like you — but I never could save much of my pocket-money; there are so many poor children always having scarlet-fever, or tumbling into the fire, or drinking out of boiling tea-kettles. But here it is, Rorie. I hope you won’t hate it very much.”
She put a little square packet into his hand, which he proceeded instantly to open.
“I shall love it, whatever it is.”
“It’s a portrait.”
“You darling! The very thing I should have asked for.”
“The portrait of someone you’re fond of.”
“Someone I adore,” said Rorie.
He had extracted the locket from its box by this time. It was a thick oblong locket of dead gold, plain and massive; the handsomest of its kind that a Southampton jeweller could supply.
Rorie opened it eagerly, to look at the portrait.
There was just light enough from the newly-kindled vestibule lamp to show it to him.
“Why it’s a dog,” cried Rorie, with deep-toned disgust. “It’s old Argus.”
“Who did you think it was?”
“You, of course.”
“What an idea! As if I should give anyone my portrait. I knew you were fond of Argus. Doesn’t his head come out beautifully? The photographer said he was the best sitter he had had for ever so long. I hope you don’t quite detest the locket, Rorie.”
“I admire it intensely, and I’m deeply grateful. But I feel inexpressibly sold, all the same. And I am to go about the world with Argus dangling at my breast. Well, for your sake, Vixen, I’ll submit even to that degradation.”
Here came the cart, with two flaming lamps, like angry eyes flashing through the shrubberies. It pulled up at the steps. Rorie and Vixen clasped hands and bade good-night, and then the young man swung himself lightly into the seat beside the driver, and away went Starlight Bess making just that soft of dashing and spirited start which inspires the timorous beholder with the idea that the next proceeding will be the bringing home of the driver and his companion upon a brace of shutters.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50