Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

A House of Mourning.

There was sorrow at the Abbey House deeper and wilder than had entered within those doors for many a year. To Mrs. Tempest the shock of her husband’s death was overwhelming. Her easy, luxurious, monotonous life had been very sweet to her, but her husband had been the dearest part of her life. She had taken little trouble to express her love for him, quite willing that he should take it for granted. She had been self-indulgent and vain; seeking her own ease, spending money and care on her own adornment; but she had not forgotten to make the Squire’s life pleasant to him also. Newly-wedded lovers in the fair honeymoon-stage of existence could not have been fonder of each other than the middle-aged Squire and his somewhat faded wife. His loving eyes had never seen Time’s changes in Pamela Tempest’s pretty face, the lessening brightness of the eyes, the duller tints of the complexion, the loss of youth’s glow and glory. To him she had always appeared the most beautiful woman in the world.

And now the fondly-indulged wife could do nothing but lie on her sofa and shed a rain of incessant tears, and drink strong tea, which had lost its power to comfort or exhilarate. She would see no one. She could not even be roused to interest herself in the mourning, though, with a handsome widow, Pauline thought that ought to be all important.

“There are so many styles of widows’ caps now, ma’am. You really ought to see them, and choose for yourself,” urged Pauline, an honest young Englishwoman, who had begun life as Polly, but whom Mrs. Tempest had elevated into Pauline.

“What does it matter, Pauline? Take anything you like. He will not be there to see.”

Here the ready tears flowed afresh. That was the bitterest of all. That she should look nice in her mourning, and Edward not be there to praise her. In her feebleness she could not imagine life without him. She would hear his step at her door surely, his manly voice in the corridor. She would awake from this awful dream, in which he was not, and find him, and fall into his arms, and sob out her grief upon his breast, and tell him all she had suffered.

That was the dominant feeling in this weak soul. He could not be gone for ever.

Yet the truth came back upon her in hideous distinctness every now and then — came back suddenly and awfully, like the swift revelation of a desolate plague-stricken scene under a lightning flash. He was gone. He was lying in his coffin, in the dear old Tudor hall where they had sat so cosily. Those dismal reiterated strokes of the funeral-bell meant that his burial was at hand. They were moving the coffin already, perhaps. His place knew him no more.

She tottered to the darkened window, lifted the edge of the blind, and looked out. The funeral train was moving slowly along the carriage sweep, through the winding shrubberied road. How long, and black, and solemnly splendid the procession looked. Everybody had loved and respected him. It was a grand funeral. The thought of this general homage gave a faint thrill of comfort to the widow’s heart.

“My noble husband,” she ejaculated. “Who could help loving you?”

It seemed to her only a little while ago that she had driven up to the Tudor porch for the first time after her happy honeymoon, when she was in the bloom of youth and beauty, and life was like a schoolgirl’s happy dream.

“How short life is,” she sobbed; “how cruelly short for those who are happy!”

With Violet grief was no less passionate; but it did not find its sole vent in tears. The stronger soul was in rebellion against Providence. She kept aloof from her mother in the time of sorrow. What could they say to each other? They could only cry together. Violet shut herself in her room, and refused to see anyone, except patient Miss McCroke, who was always bringing her cups of tea, or basins of arrowroot, trying to coax her to take some kind of nourishment, dabbing her hot forehead with eau-de-Cologne — doing all those fussy little kindnesses which are so acutely aggravating in a great sorrow.

“Let me lie on the ground alone, and think of him, and wail for him.”

That is what Violet Tempest would have said, if she could have expressed her desire clearly.

Roderick Vawdrey went back to the Abbey House after the funeral, and contrived to see Miss McCroke, who was full of sympathy for everybody.

“Do let me see Violet, that’s a dear creature,” he said. “I can’t tell you how unhappy I am about her. I can’t get her face out of my thoughts, as I saw it that dreadful night when I led her horse home — the wild sad eyes, the white lips.”

“She is not fit to see anyone,” said Miss McCroke; “but perhaps it might rouse her a little to see you.”

Miss McCroke had an idea that all mourners ought to be roused; that much indulgence in grief for the dead was reprehensible.

“Yes,” answered Rorie eagerly, “she would see me, I know. We are like brother and sister.”

“Come into the schoolroom,” said the governess, “and I’ll see what I can do.”

The schoolroom was Vixen’s own particular den, and was not a bit like the popular idea of a schoolroom.

It was a pretty little room, with a high wooden dado, painted olive green, and a high-art paper of amazing ugliness, whereon brown and red storks disported themselves on a dull green ground. The high-art paper was enlivened with horsey caricatures by Leech, and a menagerie of pottery animals on various brackets.

A pot or a pan had been stuck into every corner that would hold one. There were desks, and boxes, and wickerwork baskets of every shape and kind, a dwarf oak bookcase on either side of the fireplace, with the books all at sixes and sevens, leaning against each other as if they were intoxicated. The broad mantelpiece presented a confusion of photographs, cups and saucers, violet jars, and Dresden shepherdesses. Over the quaint old Venetian glass dangled Vixen’s first trophy, the fox’s brush, tied with a scarlet ribbon. There were no birds, or squirrels, or dormice, for Vixen was too fond of the animal creation to shut her favourites up in cages; but there was a black bearskin spread in a corner for Argus to lie upon. In the wide low windows there were two banks of bright autumn flowers, pompons and dwarf roses, mignonette and veronica.

Miss McCroke drew up the blind, and stirred the fire.

“I’ll go and ask her to come,” she said.

“Do, like a dear,” said Rorie.

He paced the room while she was gone, full of sadness. He had been very fond of the Squire, and that awfully sudden death, an apopleptic seizure, instantaneous as a thunderbolt, had impressed him very painfully. It was his first experience of the kind, and it was infinitely terrible to him. It seemed to him a long time before Vixen appeared, and then the door opened, and a slim black figure came in, a white fixed face looked at him piteously, with tearless eyes made big by a great grief. She came leaning on Miss McCroke, as if she could hardly walk unaided. The face was stranger to him than an altogether unknown face. It was Violet Tempest with all the vivid joyous life gone out of her, like a lamp that is extinguished.

He took her cold trembling hands and drew her gently to a chair, and sat down beside her.

“I wanted so much to see you, dear,” he said, “to tell you how sorry we all are for you — my mother, my aunt, and cousin”— Violet gave a faint shiver —“all of us. The Duke liked your dear father so much. It was quite a shock to him.”

“You are very good,” Violet said mechanically.

She sat by him, pale and still as marble, looking at the ground. His voice and presence impressed her but faintly, like something a long way off. She was thinking of her dead father. She saw nothing but that one awful figure. They had laid him in his grave by this time. The cold cruel earth had fallen upon him and hidden him for ever from the light; he was shut away for ever from the fair glad world; he who had been so bright and cheerful, whose presence had carried gladness everywhere.

“Is the funeral quite over?” she asked presently, without lifting her heavy eyelids.

“Yes, dear. It was a noble funeral. Everybody was there — rich and poor. Everybody loved him.”

“The poor most of all,” she said. “I know how good he was to them.”

Somebody knocked at the door and asked something of Miss McCroke, which obliged the governess to leave her pupil. Roderick was glad at her departure, That substantial figure in its new black dress had been a hinderance to freedom of conversation.

Miss McCroke’s absence did not loosen Violet’s tongue. She sat looking at the ground, and was dumb. That silent grief was very awful to Roderick.

“Violet, why don’t you talk to me about your sorrow?” he said. “Surely you can trust me — your friend — your brother!”

That last word stung her into speech. The hazel eyes shot a swift angry glance at him.

“You have no right to call yourself that,” she said, “you have not treated me like a sister.”

“How not, dear?”

“You should have told me about your engagement — that you were going to marry Lady Mabel Ashbourne.”

“Should I?” exclaimed Rorie, amazed. “If I had I should have told you an arrant falsehood. I am not engaged to my cousin Mabel. I am not going to marry her.”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter in the least whether you are or not,” returned Vixen, with a weary air. “Papa is dead, and trifles like that can’t affect me now. But I felt it unkind of you at the time I heard it.”

“And where and how did you hear this wonderful news, Vixen?” asked Rorie, very pleased to get her thoughts away from her grief, were it only for a minute.

“Mamma told me that everybody said you were engaged, and that the fact was quite obvious.”

“What everybody says, and I what is quite obvious, is very seldom true, Violet. You may take that for a first principle in social science. I am not engaged to anyone. I have no thought of getting married — for the next three years.”

Vixen received this information with chilling silence. She would have been very glad to hear it, perhaps, a week ago — at which time she had found it a sore thing to think of her old playfellow as Lady Mabel’s affianced husband — but it mattered nothing now. The larger grief had swallowed up all smaller grievances. Roderick Vawdrey had receded into remote distance. He was no one, nothing, in a world that was suddenly emptied of all delight.

“What are you going to do, dear?” asked Roderick presently. “If you shut yourself up in your room and abandon yourself to grief, you will make yourself very ill. You ought to go away somewhere for a little while.”

“For ever!” exclaimed Vixen passionately. “Do you think I can ever endure this dear home without papa? There is not a thing I look at that doesn’t speak to me of him. The dogs, the horses. I almost hate them for reminding me so cruelly. Yea, we are going away at once, I believe. Mamma said so when I saw her this morning.”

“Your poor mamma! How does she bear her grief?”

“Oh, she cries, and cries, and cries,” said Vixen, rather contemptuously. “I think it comforts her to cry. I can’t cry. I am like the dogs. If I did not restrain myself with all my might I should howl. I should like to lie on the ground outside his door — just as his dog does — and to refuse to eat or drink till I died.”

“But, dear Violet, you are not alone in the world. You have your poor mamma to think of.”

“Mamma — yes. I am sorry for her, of course. But she is only like a lay-figure in my life. Papa was everything.”

“Do you know where your mamma is going to take you?”

“No; I neither know nor care. It will be to a house with four walls and a roof, I suppose. It will be all the same to me wherever it is.”

What could Roderick say? It was too soon to talk about hope or comfort. His heart was rent by this dull silent grief; but he could do nothing except sit there silently by Vixen’s side with her cold unresponsive hands held in his.

Miss McCroke came back presently, followed by a maid carrying a pretty little Japanese tea-tray.

“I have just been giving your poor mamma a cup of tea, Violet,” said the governess. “Mr. Clements has been telling her about the will, and it has been quite too much for her. She was almost hysterical. But she’s better now, poor dear. And now we’ll all have some tea. Bring the table to the fire, Mr. Vawdrey, please, and let us make ourselves comfortable,” concluded Miss McCroke, with an assumption of mild cheerfulness.

Perhaps there is not in all nature so cheerful a thing as a good sea-coal fire, with a log of beechwood on the top of the coals. It will be cheerful in the face of affliction. It sends out its gushes of warmth and brightness, its gay little arrowy flames that appear and disappear like elves dancing their midnight waltzes on a barren moor. It seems to say: “Look at me and be comforted! Look at me and hope! So from the dull blackness of sorrow rise the many coloured lights of new-born joy.”

Vixen suffered her chair to be brought near that cheery fire, and just then Argus crept into the room and nestled at her knee. Roderick seated himself at the other side of the hearth — a bright little fire-place with its border of high-art tiles, illuminated with the story of “Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” after quaintly mediaeval designs, by Mr. Stacey Marks. Miss McCroke poured out the tea in the quaint old red and blue Worcester cups, and valiantly sustained that assumption of cheerfulness. She would not have permitted herself to smile yesterday; but now the funeral was over, the blinds were drawn up, and a mild cheerfulness was allowable.

“If you would condescend to tell me where you are going, Vixen, I might contrive to come there too, by-and-by. We could have some rides together. You’ll take Arion, of course.”

“I don’t know that I shall ever ride again,” answered Violet with a shudder.

Could she ever forget that awful ride? Roderick hated himself for his foolish speech.

“Violet will have to devote herself to her studies very assiduously for the next two years,” said Miss McCroke. “She is much more backwards than I like a pupil of mine to be at sixteen.”

“Yes, I am going to grind at three or four foreign grammars, and to give my mind to latitude and longitude, and fractions, and decimals,” said Vixen, with a bitter laugh. “Isn’t that cheering?”

“Whatever you do, Vixen,” cried Roderick earnestly, “don’t be a paradigm.”

“What’s that?”

“An example, a model, a paragon, a perfect woman nobly planned, &c. Be anything but that, Vixen, if you love me.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of any of us being perfect,” said Miss McCroke severely. “Imperfection is more in the line of humanity.”

“Do you think so?” interrogated Rorie. “I find there is a great deal too much perfection in this world, too many faultless people — I hate them.”

“Isn’t that a confession of faultiness on your side?” suggested Miss McCroke.

“It may be. But it’s the truth.”

Vixen sat with dry hollow eyes staring at the fire. She had heard their talk as if it had been the idle voices of strangers sounding in the distance, ever so far away. Argus nestled closer and closer at her knee, and she patted his big blunt head absently, with a dim sense of comfort in this brute love, which she had not derived from human sympathy.

Miss McCroke went on talking and arguing with Rorie, with a view to sustaining that fictitious cheerfulness which might beguile Vixen into brief oblivion of her griefs. But Vixen was not so to be beguiled. She was with them, but not of them. Her haggard eyes stared at the fire, and her thoughts were with the dear dead father, over whose newly-filled grave the evening shadows were closing.

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