The morning of the Briarwood Meet dawned fairly. Roderick watched the first lifting of the darkness from his bed-room window, and rejoiced in the promise of a fine weather. The heavens, which had been so unpropitious upon his birthday, seemed to promise better things to-day. He did not desire the traditional hunting morning — a southerly wind and a cloudy sky. He cared very little about the scent lying well, or the actual result of the day’s sport. He wanted rather to see the kind familiar faces round him, the autumn sunshine lighting up all the glow and colour of the picture, the scarlet coats, the rich bay and brown of the horses, the verdant background of lawn and shrubberies. Two huge marquees had been erected for the commonalty — one for the school-children, the other for the villagers. There were long tables in the billiard-room for the farming class; and for the quality there was the horse-shoe table in the dining-room, as at Roderick’s birthday dinner. But on this occasion the table was decorated only with hardy ferns and flowers. The orchids were not allowed to appear.
Roderick noticed the omission.
“Why, where are the thing-um-tites, mother?” he asked, with some surprise; “the pitcher-plants and tropical what’s-its-names?”
“I did not think there was any occasion to have them brought out of the houses, Roderick,” Lady Jane answered quietly; “there is always a risk of their being killed, or some of your sporting friends might be picking my prize blossoms to put in their button-holes. Men who give their minds to horses would hardly appreciate orchids.”
“All right, mother. As long as there is plenty to eat, I don’t suppose it much matters,” answered Rorie.
He had certainly no cause for complaint upon this score. Briarwood had been amply provisioned for an unlimited hospitality. The red coats and green coats, and blue coats and brown coats, came in and out, slashed away at boar’s head and truffled turkey, sent champagne corks flying, and added more dead men to the formidable corps of tall hock bottles, dressed in uniform brown, which the astonished butler ranged rank and file in a lobby outside the dining-room. He had never seen this kind of thing at Briarwood since he had kept the keys of the cellars; and he looked upon this promiscuous hospitality with a disapproving eye.
The Duke supported his nephew admirably, and was hail-fellow-well-met with everybody. He had always been popular at Ashbourne. It was his own place, his particular selection, bought with his own money, improved under his own eye, and he liked it better than any of his hereditary seats.
“If I had only had a son like you, Rorie,” he said, as he stood beside the young man, on the gravel sweep before the hall-door, welcoming the new-comers, “I should have been a happy man. Well, I suppose I must be satisfied with a grandson; but it’s a hard thing that the title and estates are to go to that scamp of a cousin of mine.”
Roderick, on this particular morning, was a nephew whom any uncle might be proud to own. His red coat and buckskins became him; so did his position as host and master at Briarwood. His tall erect figure showed to advantage amidst the crowd. His smile lit up the dark sunburnt face like sunshine. He had a kind word, a friendly hand-clasp for everybody — even for gaffers and goodies who had hobbled from their village shanties to see the sport, and to get their share of cold sirloin and old October. He took the feeble old creatures into the tent, and saw that they found a place at the board.
Squire Tempest and his daughter were among the later arrivals. The meet was to be at one, and they only rode into the grounds at half-past twelve, when everyone else had breakfasted. Mrs. Tempest had not come. The entertainment was much too early for a lady who never left her rooms till after noon.
Vixen looked lovely in her smart little habit. It was not the Lincoln green with the brass buttons, which Lady Mabel had laughed at a year ago. To-day Miss Tempest wore a dark brown habit, moulded to the full erect figure, with a narrow rim of white at the throat, a little felt hat of the same dark brown with a brown feather, long white gauntlets, and a whip with a massive ivory handle.
The golden bay’s shining coat matched Violet’s shining hair. It was the prettiest picture in the world, the little rider in dark brown on the bright bay horse, the daintily quilted saddle, the gauntleted hands playing so lightly with the horse’s velvet mouth — horse and rider devotedly attached to each other.
“How do you like him?” asked Vixen, directly she and Rorie had shaken hands. “Isn’t he absolutely lovely?’
“Absolutely lovely,” said Rorie, patting the horse’s shoulder and looking at the rider.
“Papa gave him to me on my last birthday. I was to have ridden Titmouse another year; but I got the brush one day after a hard run when almost everybody else was left behind, and papa said I should have a horse. Poor Titmouse is put into a basket-chaise. Isn’t it sad for him?’
Lady Mabel was close by on her chestnut thoroughbred, severely costumed in darkest blue and chimney-pot hat.
“I don’t think you’ve ever met my cousin?” said Rorie. “Mabel, this is Miss Tempest, whom you’ve heard me talk about. Miss Tempest, Lady Mabel Ashbourne.”
Violet Tempest gave a startled look, and blushed crimson. Then the two girls bowed and smiled: a constrained smile on Vixen’s part, a prim and chilly smile from Lady Mabel.
“I want you two to be awful good friends,” said Rorie; “and when you come out, Vixen, Lady Mabel will take you under her wing. She knows everybody, and the right thing to be done on every occasion.”
Vixen turned from red to pale, and said nothing. Lady Mabel looked at the distant blue line of the Wight, and murmured that she would be happy to be of use to Miss Tempest if ever they met in London. Rorie felt, somehow, that it was not encouraging. Vixen stole a glance at her rival. Yes, she was very pretty — a delicate patrician beauty which Vixen had never seen before. No wonder Rorie was in love with her. Where else could he have seen anything so exquisite? It was the most natural thing in the world that these cousins should be fond of each other, and engaged to be married. Vixen wondered that the thing had never occurred to her as inevitable — that it should have come upon her as a blow at the last.
“I think Rorie ought to have told me,” she said to herself. “He is like my brother; and a brother would not hide his love affairs from his sister. It was rather mean of Rorie.”
The business of the day began presently. Neither Vixen nor the Squire dismounted. They had breakfasted at home; and Vixen, who did not care much for Lady Jane Vawdrey, was glad to escape with no further communication than a smile and a bow. At a quarter-past one they were all riding away towards the Forest, and presently the serious business began.
Vixen and her father were riding side by side.
“You are so pale, papa. Is your head bad again to-day?”
“Yes, my dear. I’m afraid I’ve started a chronic headache. But the fresh air will blow it away presently, I daresay. You’re not looking over-well yourself, Vixen. What have you done with your roses?”
“I— I— don’t care much about hunting to-day, papa,” said Violet, sudden tears rushing into her eyes. “Shall we go home together? You’re not well, and I’m not enjoying myself. Nobody wants us, either; so why should we stay?”
Rorie was a little way behind them, taking care of Lady Mabel, whose slim-legged chestnut went through as many manoeuvres as if he had been doing the manège business in a circus, and got over the ground very slowly.
“Nonsense, child! Go back! I should think not! Jack Purdy may do all the work, but people like to see me to the fore. We shall find down in Dingley Bottom, I daresay, and get a capital run across the hills to Beaulieu.”
They found just as the Squire had anticipated, and after that there was a hard run for the next hour and a quarter. Roderick was at the heel of the hunt all the time, opening gates, and keeping his cousin out of bogs and dangers of all kinds. They killed at last on a wild bit of common near Beaulieu, and there were only a few in at the death, amongst them Vixen on her fast young bay, flushed with excitement and triumph by this time, and forgetting all her troubles in the delight of winning one of the pads. Mrs Millington, the famous huntress from the shires, was there to claim the brush.
“How tired you look, papa,” said Vixen, as they rode quietly homewards.
“A little done up, my dear, but a good dinner will set me all right again. It was a capital run, and your horse behaved beautifully. I don’t think I made a bad choice for you. Rorie and his cousin were miles behind, I daresay. Pretty girl, and sits her horse like a picture — but she can’t ride. We shall meet them going home, perhaps.”
A mile or two farther on they met Roderick alone. His cousin had gone home with her father.
“It was rather a bore losing the run,” he said, as he turned his horse’s head and rode by Vixen, “but I was obliged to take care of my cousin.”
One of the Squire’s tenants, a seventeen-stone farmer, on a stout gray cob, overtook them presently, and Mr. Tempest rode on by his side, talking agricultural talk about over-fed beasts and cattle shows, the last popular form of cruelty to animals.
Roderick and Violet were alone, riding slowly side by side in the darkening gray, between woods where solitary robins carolled sweetly, or the rare gurgle of the thrush sounded now and then from thickets of beech and holly.
A faint colour came back to Vixen’s cheek. She was very angry with her playfellow for his want of confidence, for his unfriendly reserve. Yet this was the one happy hour of her day. There had been a flavour of desolateness and abandonment in all the rest.
“I hope you enjoyed the run,” said Rorie.
“I don’t think you can care much whether we did or didn’t,” retorted Vixen, shrouding her personality in a vague plural. “If you had cared you would have been with us. Sultan,” meaning the chestnut “must have felt cruelly humiliated by being kept so far behind.”
“If a man could be in two places at once, half of me, the better half of me, would have been with you, Vixen; but I was bound to take care of my cousin. I had insisted upon her coming.”
“Of course,” answered Vixen, with a little toss of her head; “it would have been quite wrong if she had been absent.”
They rode on in silence for a little while after this. Vixen was longing to say: “Rorie, you have treated me very badly. You ought to have told me you were going to be married.” But something restrained her. She patted her horse’s neck, listened to the lonely robins, and said not a word. The Squire and his tenant were a hundred yards ahead, talking loudly.
Presently they came to a point at which their roads parted, but Rorie still rode on by Vixen.
“Isn’t that your nearest way?” asked Vixen, pointing down the cross-road with the ivory handle of her whip.
“I am not going the nearest way. I am going to the Abbey House with you.”
“I wouldn’t be so rude as to say Don’t, but I think poor Sultan must be tired.”
“Sultan shall have a by-day to-morrow.”
They went into an oak plantation, where a broad open alley led from one side of the enclosure to the other. The wood had a mysterious look in the late afternoon, when the shadows were thickening under the tall thin trees. There was an all-pervading ghostly grayness as in a shadowy under-world. They rode silently over the thick wet carpet of fallen leaves, the horses starting a little now and then at the aspect of a newly-barked trunk lying white across the track. They were silent, having, in sooth, very little to say to each other just at this time. Vixen was nursing her wrathful feelings; Rorie felt that his future was confused and obscure. He ought to do something with his life, perhaps, as his mother had so warmly urged. But his soul was stirred by no ambitious promptings.
They were within two hundred yards of the gate at the end of the enclosure, when Vixen gave a sudden cry:
“Did papa’s horse stumble?” she asked; “look how he sways in his saddle.”
Another instant, and the Squire reeled forward, and fell headforemost across his horse’s shoulder. The fall was so sudden and so heavy, that the horse fell with him, and then scrambled up on to his feet again affrighted, swung himself round, and rushed past Roderick and Vixen along the plashy track.
Vixen was off her horse in a moment, and had flown to her father’s side. He lay like a log, face downwards upon the sodden leaves just inside the gate. The farmer had dismounted and was stooping over him, bridle in hand, with a frightened face.
“Oh, what is it?” cried Violet frantically. “Did the horse throw him? — Bullfinch, his favourite horse. Is he much hurt? Oh, help me to lift him up — help me — help me!”
Rorie was by her side by this time, kneeling down with her beside the prostrate Squire, trying to raise the heavy figure which lay like lead across his arm.
“It wasn’t the horse, miss,” said the farmer. “I’m afraid it’s a seizure.”
“A fit!” cried Vixen. “Oh, papa, papa —— darling — darling ——”
She was sobbing, clinging to him, trembling like a leaf, and turning a white, stricken face up towards Roderick.
“Do something to help him — for God’s sake — do something,” she cried; “you won’t let him lie there and die for want of help. Some brandy — something,” she gasped, stretching out her trembling hand.
The farmer had anticipated her thought. He had taken his flask from the saddle pocket, and was kneeling down by the Squire. Roderick had lifted the heavy head, and turned the ghastly face to the waning light. He tried to force a little brandy between the livid lips — but vainly.
“For God’s sake get her away,” he whispered to John Wimble, the farmer. “It’s all over with him.”
“Come away with me, my dear Miss Tempest,” said Wimble, trying to raise Violet from her knees beside the Squire. She was gazing into that awful face distractedly — half divining its solemn meaning — yet watching for the kind eyes to open and look at her again. “Come away with me, and we’ll get a doctor. Mr. Vawdrey will take care of your father.”
“You go for the doctor,” she answered firmly. “I’ll stay with papa. Take my horse, he’s faster than yours. Oh, he’ll carry you well enough. You don’t know how strong he is — go, quick — quick — Dr. Martin, at Lyndhurst — it’s a long way, but you must get him. Papa will recover, and be able to ride home, perhaps, before you can get back to us, but go, go.”
“You go for the doctor, miss; your horse will carry you fast enough. He’d never carry such a heavy weight as me, and my cob is dead beat. You go, and Mr. Vawdrey will go with you. I’ll take care of the Squire.”
Violet looked from one to the other helplessly.
“I’d rather stay with papa,” she said. “You go — yes — go, go. I’ll stay with papa.”
She crouched down beside the prostrate figure on the damp marshy ground, took the heavy head on her lap, and looked up at the two men with a pale set face which indicated a resolve that neither of them was strong enough to overrule. They tried their utmost to persuade her, but in vain. She was fixed as a new Niobe — a stony image of young despair. So Roderick mounted his horse and rode off towards Lyndhurst, and honest Jack Wimble tied the other two horses to the gate, and took his stand beside them, a few paces from those two motionless figures on the ground, patiently waiting for the issue of this bitter hour.
It was one of the longest, weariest, saddest hours that ever youth and hope lived through. There was an awful heart-sickening fear in Violet’s mind, but she gave it no definite shape. She would not say to herself, “My father is dead.” The position in which he was lying hampered her arms so that she could not reach out her hand to lay it upon his heart. She bent her face down to his lips.
Oh God! not a flutter stirred upon her soft cheek as she laid it against those pallid lips. The lower jaw had fallen in an awful-looking way; but Violet had seen her father look like that sometimes as he slept, with open mouth, before the hall fire. It might be only a long swoon, a suspension of consciousness. Dr. Martin would come presently — oh, how long, how long the time seemed — and make all things right.
The crescent moon shone silver pale above that dim gray wood. The barked trunks gleamed white and spectral in the gathering dark. Owls began to hoot in the distance, frogs were awaking near at band, belated rabbits flitted ghost-like across the track. All nature seemed of one gray or shadowy hue — silvery where the moonbeams fell.
The October air was chill and penetrating. There was a dull aching in Violet’s limbs from the weight of her burden, but she was hardly conscious of physical pain. It seemed to her that she had been sitting there for hours waiting for the doctor’s help. She thought the night must have nearly worn itself out.
“Dr. Martin could not have been at home,” she said, speaking for the first time since Roderick rode away. “Mr. Vawdrey would fetch someone else, surely.”
“My dear young lady, he hasn’t had time to ride to Lyndhurst yet.”
“Not yet,” cried Vixen despairingly, “not yet! And it has been so long. Papa is getting so cold. The chill will be so bad for him.”
“Worse for you, miss. I do wish you’d let me take you home.”
“And leave papa here — alone — unconscious! How can you be so cruel as to think of such a thing?”
“Dear Miss Tempest, we’re not doing him any good, and you may be getting a chill that wilt be nigh your death. If you would only go home to your mamma, now — it’s hard upon her not to know — she’ll be fretting about you, I daresay.”
“Don’t waste your breath talking to me,” cried Vixen indignantly; “I shall not leave this spot till papa goes with me.”
They waited for another quarter of an hour in dismal silence. The horses gnawed the lower branches of the trees, and gave occasional evidence of their impatience. Bullfinch had gone home to his stable no doubt. They were only about a mile-and-a-half from the Abbey House.
Hark! what was that? The splish-splash of horses’ hoofs on the soft turf. Another minute and Rorie rode up to the gate with a stranger.
“I was lucky enough to meet this gentleman,” he said, “a doctor from Southampton, who was at the hunt to-day. Violet dear, will you let me take you home now, and leave the doctor and Mr. Wimble with your father?”
“No,” answered Vixen decisively.
The strange doctor knelt down and looked at his patient. He was a middle-aged man, grave-looking, with iron-gray hair — a man who impressed Vixen with a sense of power and authority. She looked at him silently, with a despairing appealing look that thrilled him, familiar as he was with such looks. He made his examination quietly, saying not a word, and keeping his face hidden. Then he turned to the two men who were standing close by, watching him anxiously.
“You must get some kind of litter to carry him home,” he whispered.
And then with gentle firmness, with strong irresistible hands, he separated the living from the dead, lifted Violet from the ground and led her towards her horse.
“You must let Mr. Vawdrey take you home, my dear young lady,” he said. “You can do nothing here.”
“But you — you can do something,” sobbed Violet, “you will bring him back to life — you ——”
“I will do all that can be done,” answered the doctor gently.
His tone told her more than his words. She gave one wild shriek, and threw herself down beside her dead father. A cloud came over the distracted brain, and she lay there senseless. The doctor and Rorie lifted her up and carried her to the gate where her horse was waiting. The doctor forced a little brandy through the locked lips, and between them Rorie and he placed her in the saddle. She had just consciousness enough by this time to hold the bridle mechanically, and to sit upright on her horse; and thus led by Roderick, she rode slowly back to the home that was never any more to be the same home that she had known and lived in through the joyous sixteen years of her life. All things were to be different to her henceforward. The joy of life was broken short off, like a flower snapped from its stem.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05