“Mrs. Winstanley, on her marriage, by the Duchess of Dovedale.”
That was the sentence that went on repeating itself like a cabalistic formula in Pamela Winstanley’s mind, as her carriage drove through the dark silent woods to Ashbourne on the last night of the year.
A small idea had taken possession of her small mind. The Duchess was the fittest person to present her to her gracious mistress, or her gracious mistress’s representative, at the first drawing-room of the coming season. Mrs. Winstanley had old friends, friends who had known her in her girlhood, who would have been happy to undertake the office. Captain Winstanley had an ancient female relative, living in a fossil state at Hampton Court, and vaguely spoken of as “a connection,” who would willingly emerge from her aristocratic hermitage to present her kinsman’s bride to her sovereign, and whom the Captain deemed the proper sponsor for his wife on that solemn occasion. But what social value had a fossilised Lady Susan Winstanley, of whom an outside world knew nothing, when weighed in the balance with the Duchess of Dovedale? No; Mrs. Winstanley felt that to be presented by the Duchess was the one thing needful to her happiness.
It was a dinner of thirty people; quite a state dinner. The finest and newest orchids had been brought out of their houses, and the dinner-table looked like a tropical forest in little. Vixen went in to dinner with Lord Ellangowan, which was an unappreciated honour, as that nobleman had very little to say for himself, except under extreme pressure, and in his normal state could only smile and look good-natured. Roderick Vawdrey was ever so far away, between his betrothed and an enormous dowager in sky-blue velvet and diamonds.
After dinner there was music. Lady Mabel played a dreary minor melody, chiefly remarkable for its delicate modulation from sharps to flats and back again. A large gentleman sang an Italian buffo song, at which the company smiled tepidly; a small young lady sighed and languished through “Non e ver;” and then Miss Tempest and Lord Mallow sang a duet.
This was the success of the evening. They were asked to sing again and again. They were allowed to monopolise the piano; and before the evening was over everyone had decided that Lord Mallow and Miss Tempest were engaged. Only the voices of plighted lovers could be expected to harmonise as well as that.
“They must have sung very often together,” said the Duchess to Mrs. Winstanley.
“Only within the last fortnight. Lord Mallow never stayed with us before, you know. He is my husband’s friend. They were brother-officers, and have known each other a long time. Lord Mallow insists upon Violet singing every evening. He is passionately fond of music.”
“Very pleasant,” murmured the Duchess approvingly: and then she glided on to shed the sunshine of her presence upon another group of guests.
Carriages began to be announced at eleven — that is to say, about half-an-hour after the gentlemen had left the dining-room — but the Duke insisted that people should stop till twelve.
“We must see the old year out,” he said. “It is a lovely night. We can go out on the terrace and hear the Ringwood bells.”
This is how Violet and Lord Mallow happened to sing so many duets. There was plenty of time for music during the hour before midnight. After the singing, a rash young gentleman, pining to distinguish himself somehow — a young man with a pimply complexion, who had said with Don Carlos, “Three-and-twenty years of age, and nothing done for immortality”— recited Tennyson’s “Farewell to the Old Year,” in a voice which was like anything but a trumpet, and with gesticulation painfully suggestive of Saint Vitus.
The long suite of rooms terminated in the orangery, a substantial stone building with tesselated pavement, and wide windows opening on the terrace. The night was wondrously mild. The full moon shed her tender light upon the dark Forest, the shining water-pools, the distant blackness of a group of ancient yew-trees on the crest of a hill. Ashbourne stood high, and the view from the terrace was at all times magnificent, but perhaps finest of all in the moonlight.
The younger guests wandered softly in and out of the rooms, and looked at the golden oranges glimmering against their dark leaves, and put themselves into positions that suggested the possibility of flirtation. Young ladies whose study of German literature had never gone beyond Ollendorff gazed pensively at the oranges, and murmured the song of Mignon. Couples of maturer growth whispered the details of unsavoury scandals behind perfumed fans.
Vixen and Rorie were among these roving couples. Violet had left the piano, and Roderick was off duty. Lady Mabel and Lord Mallow were deep in the wrongs of Ireland. Captain Winstanley was talking agriculture with the Duke, whose mind was sorely exercised about guano.
“My dear sir, in a few years we shall have used up all the guano, and then what can become of us?” demanded the Duke. “Talk about our exhausting our coal! What is that compared with the exhaustion of guano? We may learn to exist without fires. Our winters are becoming milder; our young men are going in for athletics; they can keep themselves warm upon bicycles. And then we have the gigantic coal-fields of America, the vast basin of the Mississippi to fall back upon, with ever-increasing facilities in the mode of transport. But civilisation must come to a deadlock when we have no more guano. Our grass, our turnips, our mangel, must deteriorate, We shall have no more prize cattle. It is too awful to contemplate.”
“But do you really consider such a calamity at all probable, Duke?” asked the Captain.
“Probable, sir? It is inevitable. In 1868 the Chincha Islands were estimated to contain about six million tons of guano. The rate of exportation had at that time risen to four hundred thousand tons per annum. At this rate the three islands will be completely exhausted by the year 1888, and England will have to exist without guano. The glory of the English people, as breeders of prize oxen, will have departed.”
“Chemistry will have discovered new fertilisers by that time,” suggested the Captain, in a comforting tone.
“Sir,” replied the Duke severely, “the discoveries of modern science tend to the chimerical rather than the practical. Your modern scientists can liquefy oxygen, they can light a city with electricity, but they cannot give me anything to increase the size and succulence of my turnips. Virgil knew as much about agriculture as your modern chemist.”
While the Duke was holding forth about guano, Vixen and Rorie were on the terrace, in the stillness and moonlight. There was hardly a breath of wind. It might have been a summer evening. Vixen was shrouded from head to foot in a white cloak which Rorie had fetched from the room where the ladies had left their wraps. She looked all white and solemn in the moonlight, like a sheeted ghost.
Although Mr. Vawdrey had been civil enough to go in quest of Violet’s cloak, and had seemed especially desirous of bringing her to the terrace, he was by no means delightful now he had got her there. They took a turn or two in silence, broken only by a brief remark about the beauty of the night, and the extent of the prospect.
“I think it is the finest view in the Forest,” said Vixen, dwelling on the subject for lack of anything else to say. “You must be very fond of Ashbourne.”
“I don’t exactly recognise the necessity. The view is superb, no doubt; but the house is frightfully commonplace. It is a little better than Briarwood. That is about all which an enthusiastic admirer could advance in its favour. How much longer does Lord Mallow mean to take up his abode with you?”
Vixen shrugged her cloaked shoulders with an action that seemed to express contemptuous carelessness.
“I haven’t the least idea. That is no business of mine, you know.”
“I don’t know anything of the kind,” retorted Rorie captiously. “I should have thought it was very much your business.”
“Should you, really?” said Vixen mockingly.
If the gentleman’s temper was execrable, the lady’s mood was not too amiable.
“Yes. Are not you the load-star? It is your presence that makes the Abbey House pleasant to him. Who can wonder that he protracts his stay?”
“He has been with us a little more than a fortnight.”
“He has been with you an age. Mortals who are taken up to Paradise seldom stay so long. Sweet dreams are not so long. A fortnight in the same house with you, meeting with you at breakfast, parting with you at midnight, seeing you at noontide and afternoon, walking with you, riding with you, singing with you, kneeling down to family prayer at your side, mixing his ‘Amen’ with yours; why he might as well be your husband at once. He has as much delight in your society.”
“You forget the hours in which he is shooting pheasants and playing billiards.”
“Glimpses of purgatory, which make his heaven all the more divine,” said Rorie. “Well, it is none of my business, as you said just now. There are people born to be happy, I suppose; creatures that come into the world under a lucky star.”
“Undoubtedly, and among them notably Mr. Vawdrey, who has everything that the heart of a reasonable man can desire.”
“So had Solomon, and yet he made his moan.”
“Oh, there is always a crumpled rose-leaf in everybody’s bed. And if the rose-leaves were all smooth, a man would crumple one on purpose, in order to have something to grumble about. Hark, Rorie!” cried Vixen, with a sudden change of tone, as the first silvery chime of Ringwood bells came floating over the woodland distance — the low moon-lit hills; “don’t be cross. The old year is dying. Remember the dear days that are gone, when you and I used to think a new year a thing to be glad about. And now, what can the new years bring us half so good as that which the old ones have taken away?”
She had slipped her little gloved hand through his arm, and drawn very near to him, moved by tender thoughts of the past. He looked clown at her with eyes from which all anger had vanished. There was only love in them — deep love; love such as a very affectionate brother might perchance give his only sister — but it must be owned that brothers capable of such love are rare.
“No, child,” he murmured sadly. “Years to come can bring us nothing so good or so dear as the past. Every new year will drift us farther.”
They were standing at the end of the terrace farthest from the orangery windows, out of which the Duchess and her visitors came trooping to hear the Ringwood chimes. Rorie and Vixen kept quite apart from the rest. They stood silent, arm-in-arm, looking across the landscape towards the winding Avon and the quiet market-town, hidden from them by intervening hill. Yonder, nestling among those grassy hills, lies Moyles Court, the good old English manor-house where noble Alice Lisle sheltered the fugitives from Sedgemoor; paying for that one act of womanly hospitality with her life. Farther away, on the banks of the Avon, is the quiet churchyard where that gentle martyr of Jeffreys’s lust for blood takes her long rest. The creeping spicenwort thrives amidst the gray stones of her tomb. To Vixen these things were so familiar, that it was as if she could see them with her bodily eyes, as she looked across the distance, with its mysterious shadows, its patches of silver light.
The bells chimed on with their tender cadence, half joyous, half sorrowful. The shallower spirits among the guests chattered about the beauty of the night, and the sweetness of the bells. Deeper souls were silent, full of saddest thoughts. Who is there who has not lost something in the years gone by, which earth’s longest future cannot restore? Only eternity can give back the ravished treasures of the dead years.
Violet’s lips trembled and were dumb. Roderick saw the tears rolling down her pale cheeks, and offered no word of consolation. He knew that she was thinking of her father.
“Dear old Squire,” he murmured gently, after an interval of silence. “How good he was to me, and how fondly I loved him.”
That speech was the sweetest comfort he could have offered. Vixen gave his arm a grateful hug.
“Thank God there is someone who remembers him, besides his dogs and me!” she exclaimed; and then she hastily dried her tears, and made herself ready to meet Lord Mallow and Lady Mabel Ashbourne, who were coming along the terrace towards them, talking gaily. Lord Mallow had a much wider range of subjects than Mr. Vawdrey. He had read more, and could keep pace with Lady Mabel in her highest flights; science, literature, politics, were all as one to him. He had crammed his vigorous young mind with everything which it behoved a man panting for parliamentary distinction to know.
“Where have you two people been hiding yourselves for the last half hour?” asked Lady Mabel. “You were wanted badly just now for ‘Blow, Gentle Gales.’ I know you can manage the bass, Rorie, when you like.”
“‘Lo, behold a pennant waving!’” sang Rorie in deep full tones. “Yes, I can manage that much, at a push. You seem music mad to-night, Mabel. The old year is making a swan-like end — fading in music.”
Rorie and Vixen were still standing arm-in-arm; rather too much as if they belonged to each other, Lady Mabel thought. The attitude was hardly in good taste, according to Lady Mabel’s law of taste, which was a code as strict as Draco’s.
The bells rang on.
“The new year has come!” cried the Duke. “Let us all shake hands in the friendly German fashion.”
On this there was a general shaking of hands, which appeared to last a long time. It seemed rather as if the young people of opposite sexes shook hands with each other more than once. Lord Mallow would hardly let Violet’s hand go, once having got it in his hearty grasp.
“Hail to the first new year we greet together,” he said softly. “May it not be the last. I feel that it must not, cannot be the last.”
“You are wiser than I, then,” Vixen answered coldly; “for my feelings tell me nothing about the future — except”— and here her face beamed at him with a lovely smile —“except that you will be kind to Bullfinch.”
“If I were an emperor I would make him a consul,” answered the Irishman.
He had contrived to separate Roderick and Vixen. The young man had returned to his allegiance, and was escorting Lady Mabel back to the house. Everybody began to feel chilly, now that the bells were silent, and there was a general hurrying off to the carriages, which were standing in an oval ring round a group of deodoras in front of the porch on the other side of the house.
Rorie and Vixen met no more that night. Lord Mallow took her to her carriage, and sat opposite her and talked to her during the homewards drive. Captain Winstanley was smoking a cigar on the box. His wife slumbered peacefully.
“I think I may be satisfied with Theodore,” she said, as she composed herself for sleep; “my dress was not quite the worst in the room, was it, Violet?”
“It was lovely, mamma. You can make yourself quite happy,” answered Vixen truthfully; whereupon the matron breathed a gentle sigh of content, and lapsed into slumber.
They had the Boldrewood Road before them, a long hilly road cleaving the very heart of the Forest; a road full of ghosts at the best of times, but offering a Walpurgis revel of phantoms on such a night as this to the eye of the belated wanderer. How ghostly the deer were, as they skimmed across the road and flitted away into dim distances, mixing with and melting into the shadows of the trees. The little gray rabbits, sitting up on end, were like circles of hobgoblins that dispersed and vanished at the approach of mortals. The leafless old hawthorns, rugged and crooked, silvered by the moonlight, were most ghostlike of all. They took every form, from the most unearthly to the most grotesquely human.
Violet sat wrapped in her furred white mantle, watching the road as intently as if she had never seen it before. She never could grow tired of these things. She loved them with a love which was part of her nature.
“What a delightful evening, was it not?” asked Lord Mallow.
“I suppose it was very nice,” answered Violet coolly; “but I have no standard of comparison. It was my first dinner at Ashbourne.”
“What a remarkably clever girl Lady Mabel is. Mr. Vawdrey ought to consider himself extremely fortunate.”
“I have never heard him say that he does not so consider himself.”
“Naturally. But I think he might be a little more enthusiastic. He is the coolest lover I ever saw.”
“Perhaps you judge him by comparison with Irish lovers. Your nation is more demonstrative than ours.”
“Oh, an Irish girl would cashier such a fellow as Mr. Vawdrey. But I may possibly misjudge him. You ought to know more about him than I. You have known him ——”
“All my life,” said Violet simply. “I know that he is good, and stanch and true, that he honoured his mother, and that he will make Lady Mabel Ashbourne a very good husband. Perhaps if she were a little less clever and a little more human, he might be happier with her; but no doubt that will all come right in time.”
“Any way it will be all the same in a century or so,” assented Lord Mallow. “We are going to have lovely weather as long as this moon lasts, I believe. Will you go for a long ride to-morrow — like that first ride of ours?”
“When I took you all over the world for sport?” said Vixen laughing. “I wonder you are inclined to trust me, after that. If Captain Winstanley likes I don’t mind being your guide again to-morrow.”
“Captain Winstanley shall like. I’ll answer for that. I would make his life unendurable if he were to refuse.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05