Despite the glorious moonlight night which ushered in the new-born year, the first day of that year was abominable; a day of hopeless, incessant rain, falling from a leaden sky in which there was never a break, not a stray gleam of sunshine from morn till eve.
“The new year is like Shakespeare’s Richard,” said Lord Mallow, when he stood in the porch after breakfast, surveying the horizon. “‘Tetchy and wayward was his infancy.’ I never experienced anything so provoking. I was dreaming all night of our ride.”
“Were you not afraid of being like that dreadful man in ‘Locksley Hall’? —
Like a dog, he hunts in dreams,”
asked Vixen mockingly.
She was standing on the threshold, playing with Argus, looking the picture of healthful beauty, in her dark green cloth dress and plain linen collar. All Vixen’s morning costumes were of the simplest and neatest; a compact style of dress which interfered with none of her rural amusements. She could romp with her dog, make her round of the stables, work in the garden, ramble in the Forest, without fear of dilapidated flounces or dishevelled laces and ribbons.
“Violet’s morning-dresses are so dreadfully strong-minded,” complained Mrs. Winstanley. “To look at her, one would almost think that she was the kind of girl to go round the country lecturing upon woman’s rights.”
“No ride this morning,” said Captain Winstanley, coming into the hall, with a bundle of letters in his hand. “I shall go to my den, and do a morning’s letter-writing and accountancy — unless you want me for a shy at the pheasants, Mallow?”
“Let the pheasants be at rest for the first day of the year,” answered Lord Mallow. “I am sure you would rather be fetching up your arrears of correspondence than shooting at dejected birds in a damp plantation; and I am luxurious enough to prefer staying indoors, if the ladies will have me. I can help Miss Tempest to wind her wools.”
“Thanks, but I never do any wool-work. Mamma is the artist in that line.”
“Then I place myself unreservedly at Mrs. Winstanley’s feet.”
“You are too good,” sighed the fair matron, from her arm-chair by the hearth; “but I shall not touch my crewels to-day. I have one of my nervous headaches. It is a penalty I too often have to pay for the pleasures of society. I’m afraid I shall have to lie down for an hour or two.”
And with a languid sigh Mrs. Winstanley wrapped her China crape shawl round her, and went slowly upstairs, leaving Violet and Lord Mallow in sole possession of the great oak-panelled hall; the lady looking at the rain from her favourite perch in the deep window-seat, the gentleman contemplating the same prospect from the open door. It was one of those mild winter mornings when a huge wood fire is a cheerful feature in the scene, but hardly essential to comfort.
Vixen thought of that long rainy day, years ago, the day on which Roderick Vawdrey came of age. How well she remembered sitting in that very window, watching the ceaseless rain, with a chilly sense of having been forgotten and neglected by her old companion. And then, in the gloaming, just when she had lost all hope of seeing him, he had come leaping in out of the wet night, like a lion from his lair, and had taken her in his arms and kissed her before she knew what he was doing.
Her cheeks crimsoned even to-day at the memory of that kiss. It had seemed a small thing then. Now it seemed awful — a burning spot of shame upon the whiteness of her youth.
“He must have thought I was very fond of him, or he would not have dared to treat me so,” she told herself. “But then we had been playfellows so long. I had teased him, and he had plagued me; and we had been really like brother and sister. Poor Rorie! If we could have always been young we should have been better friends.”
“How thoughtful you seem this morning, Miss Tempest,” said a voice behind Vixen’s shoulder.
“Do I?” she asked, turning quickly round. “New Year’s Day is a time to make one thoughtful. It is like beginning a new chapter in the volume of life, and one cannot help speculating as to what the chapter is to be about.”
“For you it ought to be a story full of happiness.”
“Ah, but you don’t know my history. I had such a happy childhood. I drained my cup of bliss before I was a woman, and there is nothing left for me but the dregs, and they — they are dust and ashes.”
There was an intensity of bitterness in her tone that moved him beyond his power of self-control. That she — so fair, so lovely, so deeply dear to him already; she for whom life should be one summer-day of unclouded gladness — that she should give expression to a rooted sorrow was more than his patience could bear.
“Violet, you must not speak thus; you wound me to the heart. Oh, my love, my love, you were born to be the giver of gladness, the centre of joy and delight. Grief should never touch you; sorrow and pain should never come near you. You are a creature of happiness and light.”
“Don’t!” cried Vixen vehemently. “Oh, pray don’t. It is all vain — useless. My life is marked out for me. No one can alter it. Pray do not lower yourself by one word more. You will be sorry — angry with yourself and me — afterwards.”
“Violet, I must speak.”
“To what end? My fate is as fixed as the stars. No one can change it.”
“No mortal perhaps, Violet. But Love can. Love is a god. Oh, my darling, I have learnt to love you dearly and fondly in this little while, and I mean to win you. It shall go hard with me if I do not succeed. Dear love, if truth and constancy can conquer fate, I ought to be able to win you. There is no one else, is there, Violet?” he asked falteringly, with his eyes upon her downcast face.
A burning spot glowed and faded on her cheek before she answered him.
“Can you not see how empty my life is?” she asked with a bitter laugh. “No; there is no one else. I stand quite alone. Death took my father from me; your friend has robbed me of my mother. My old playfellow, Roderick Vawdrey, belongs to his cousin. I belong to nobody.”
“Let me have you then, Violet. Ah, if you knew how I would cherish you! You should be loved so well that you would fancy yourself the centre of the universe, and that all the planets revolved in the skies only to please you. Love, let me have you — priceless treasure that others know not how to value. Let me keep and guard you.”
“I would not wrong you so much as to marry you without loving you, and I shall never love any more,” said Vixen, with a sad steadfastness that was more dispiriting than the most vehement protestation.
“Because I spent all my store of love while I was a child. I loved my father — ah, I cannot tell you how fondly. I do not think there are many fathers who are loved as he was. I poured out all my treasures of affection at his feet. I have no love left for a husband.”
“What, Violet, not if your old friend Roderick Vawdrey were pleading?” asked Lord Mallow.
It was an unlucky speech. If Lord Mallow had had a chance which he had not, that speech would have spoiled it. Violet started to her feet, her cheeks crimson, her eyes flashing.
“It is shameful, abominable of you to say such a thing!” she cried, her voice tremulous with indignation. “I will never forgive you for that dastardly speech. Come, Argus.”
She had mounted the broad oak stairs with light swift foot before Lord Mallow could apologise. He was terribly crestfallen.
“I was a brute,” he muttered to himself. “But I hit the bull’s-eye. It is that fellow she loves. Hard upon me, when I ask for nothing but to be her slave and adore her all the days of my life. And I know that Winstanley would have been pleased. How lovely she looked when she was angry — her tawny hair gleaming in the firelight, her great brown eyes flashing. Yes, it’s the Hampshire squire she cares for, and I’m out of it. I’ll go and shoot the pheasants,” concluded Lord Mallow savagely; “those beggars shall not have it all their own way to-day.”
He went off to get his gun, in the worst humour he had ever been in since he was a child and cried for the moon.
He spent the whole day in a young oak plantation, ankle-deep in oozy mud, moss, and dead fern, making havoc among the innocent birds. He was in so bloodthirsty a temper, that he felt as if he could have shot a covey of young children, had they come in his way, with all the ferocity of a modern Herod.
“I think I’ve spoiled Winstanley’s coverts for this year, at any rate,” he said to himself, as he tramped homewards in the early darkness, with no small hazard of losing himself in one of those ghostly plantations, which were all exactly alike, and in which a man might walk all day long without meeting anything nearer humanity than a trespassing forest pony that had leapt a fence in quest of more sufficing food than the scanty herbage of the open woods.
Lord Mallow got on better than might have been expected. He went east when he ought to have gone west, and found himself in Queen’s Bower when he fancied himself in Gretnam Wood; but he did not walk more than half-a-dozen miles out of his way, and he got home somehow at last, which was much for a stranger to the ground.
The stable clock was chiming the quarter before six when he went into the hall, where Vixen had left him in anger that morning. The great wood fire was burning gaily, and Captain Winstanley was sitting in a Glastonbury chair in front of it. “Went for the birds after all, old fellow,” he said, without looking round, recognising the tread of Lord Mallow’s shooting-boots. “You found it too dismal in the house, I suppose? Consistently abominable weather, isn’t it? You must be soaked to the skin.”
“I suppose I am,” answered the other carelessly. “But I’ve been soaked a good many times before, and it hasn’t done me much harm. Thanks to the modern inventions of the waterproof-makers, the soaking begins inside instead of out. I should call myself parboiled.”
“Take off your oilskins and come and talk. You’ll have a nip, won’t you?” added Captain Winstanley, ringing the bell. “Kirschenwasser, curaçoa, Glenlivat — which shall it be?”
“Glenlivat,” answered Lord Mallow, “and plenty of it. I’m in the humour in which a man must either drink inordinately or cut his throat.”
“Were the birds unapproachable?” asked Captain Winstanley, laughing; “or were the dogs troublesome?”
“Birds and dogs were perfect; but —— Well, I suppose I’d better make a clean breast of it. I’ve had a capital time here —— Oh, here comes the whisky. Hold your hand, old fellow!” cried Lord Mallow, as his host poured the Glenlivat somewhat recklessly into a soda-water tumbler. “You mustn’t take me too literally. Just moisten the bottom of the glass with whisky before you put in the soda. That’s as much as I care about.”
“All right. You were saying ——”
“That my visit here has been simply delightful, and that I must go to London by an early train to-morrow.”
“Paradoxical!” remarked the Captain. “That sounds like your well-bred servant, who tells you that he has nothing to say against the situation, but he wishes to leave you at the end of his month. What’s the matter, dear boy? Do you find our Forest hermitage too dull?”
“I should ask nothing kinder from Fate than to be allowed to spend my days in your Forest. Yes, I would say good-bye to the green hills and vales of County Cork, and become that detestable being, an absentee, if — if — Fortune smiled on me. But she doesn’t, you see, and I must go. Perhaps you may have perceived, Winstanley — perhaps you may not have been altogether averse from the idea — in a word, I have fallen over head and ears in love with your bewitching stepdaughter.”
“My dear fellow, I’m delighted. It is the thing I would have wished, had I been bold enough to wish for anything so good. And of course Violet is charmed. You are the very man for her.”
“Am I? So I thought myself till this morning. Unfortunately the young lady is of a different opinion. She has refused me.”
“Refused you! Pshaw, they all begin that way. It’s one of the small diplomacies of the sex. They think they enhance their value by an assumed reluctance. Nonsense, man, try again. She can’t help liking you.”
“I would try again, every day for a twelvemonth, if there were a scintilla of hope. My life should be a series of offers. But the thing is decided. I know from her manner, from her face, that I have no chance. I have been in the habit of thinking myself rather a nice kind of fellow, and the women have encouraged the idea. But I don’t answer here, Winstanley. Miss Tempest will have nothing to say to me.”
“She’s a fool,” said Captain Winstanley, with his teeth set, and that dark look of his which meant harm to somebody. “I’ll talk to her.”
“My dear Winstanley, understand I’ll have no coercion. If I win her, I must do it off my own bat. Dearly as I love her, if you were to bring her to me conquered and submissive, like Iphigenia at the altar, I would not have her. I love her much too well to ask any sacrifice of inclination from her. I love her too well to accept anything less than her free unfettered heart. She cannot give me that, and I must go. I had much rather you should say nothing about me, either to her or her mother.”
“But I shall say a great deal to both,” exclaimed the Captain, desperately angry. “I am indignant. I am outraged by her conduct. What in Heaven’s name does this wilful girl want in a husband? You have youth, good looks, good temper, talent, tastes that harmonise with her own. You can give her a finer position than she has any right to expect. And she refuses you. She is a spoiled child, who doesn’t know her own mind or her own advantage. She has a diabolical temper, and is as wild as a hawk. Egad, I congratulate you on your escape, Mallow. She was not born to make any man happy.”
“Small thanks for your congratulations,” retorted the Irishman. “She might have made me happy if she had chosen. I would have forgiven her tempers, and loved her for her wildness. She is the sweetest woman I ever knew; as fresh and fair as your furzy hill-tops. But she is not for me. Fate never meant me to be so blessed.”
“She will change her mind before she is many months older,” said Captain Winstanley. “Her father and mother have spoilt her. She is a creature of whims and fancies, and must be ridden on the curb.”
“I would ride her with the lightest snaffle-bit that ever was made,” protested Lord Mallow. “But there’s no use in talking about it. You won’t think me discourteous or ungrateful if I clear out of this to-morrow morning, will you, Winstanley?”
“Certainly not,” answered his host; “but I shall think you a confounded ass. Why not wait and try your luck again?”
“Simply because I know it would be useless. Truth and candour shine in that girl’s eyes. She has a soul above the petty trickeries of her sex. No from her lips means No, between this and eternity. Oh, thrice blessed will that man be to whom she answers Yes; for she will give him the tenderest, truest, most generous heart in creation.”
“You answer boldly for her on so short an acquaintance.”
“I answer as a man who loves her, and who has looked into her soul,” replied Lord Mallow. “You and she don’t hit it over well, I fancy.”
“No. We began by disliking each other, and we have been wonderfully constant to our first opinions.”
“I can’t understand ——”
“Can’t you? You will, perhaps, some day: if you ever have a handsome stepdaughter who sets up her back against you from the beginning of things. Have you ever seen a sleek handsome tabby put herself on the defensive at the approach of a terrier, her back arched, her eyes flashing green lightnings, her tail lashing itself, her whiskers bristling? That’s my stepdaughter’s attitude towards me, and I daresay before long I hall feel her claws. There goes the gong, and we must go too. I’m sorry Miss Tempest has been such a fool, Mallow; but I must repeat my congratulations, even at the risk of offending you.”
There were no duets that evening. Vixen was as cold as ice, and as silent as a statue. She sat in the shadow of her mother’s arm-chair after dinner, turning over the leaves of Doré‘s “Tennyson,” pausing to contemplate Elaine with a half-contemptuous pity — a curious feeling that hurt her like a physical pain.
“Poor wretch!” she mused. “Are there women in our days so weak as to love where they can never be loved again, I wonder? It is foolish enough in a man; but he cures himself as quickly as the mungoose that gets bitten by a snake, and runs away to find the herb which is an antidote to the venom, and comes back ready to fight the snake again.”
“Are we not going to have any music?” asked Mrs. Winstanley languidly, more interested in the picots her clever needle was executing on a piece of Italian point than in the reply. “Lord Mallow, cannot you persuade Violet to join you in one of those sweet duets of Mendelssohn’s?”
“Indeed, mamma, I couldn’t sing a note. I’m as husky as a raven.”
“I’m not surprised to hear it,” said the Captain, looking up from his study of The Gardener’s Chronicle. “No doubt you managed to catch cold last night, while you were mooning upon the terrace with young Vawdrey.”
“How very incautious of you, Violet!” exclaimed Mrs. Winstanley, in her complaining tone.
“I was not cold, mamma; I had my warm cloak.”
“But you confess you have caught cold. I detest colds; they always go through a house. I shall be the next victim, I daresay; and with me a cold is martyrdom. I’m afraid you must find us very dull, Lord Mallow, for New Year’s Day, when people expect to be lively. We ought to have had a dinner-party.”
“My dear Mrs. Winstanley, I don’t care a straw about New Year’s Day, and I am not in a lively vein. This quiet evening suits me much better than high jinks, I assure you.”
“It’s very good of you to say so.”
“Come and play a game of billiards,” said Captain Winstanley, throwing down his paper.
“Upon my honour, I’d rather sit by the fire and watch Mrs. Winstanley at her point-lace. I’m in an abominably lazy mood after my tramp in those soppy plantations.” answered Lord Mallow, who felt a foolish pleasure — mingled with bitterest regrets — in being in the same room with the girl he loved.
She was hidden from him in her shadowy corner; shrouded on one side by the velvet drapery of the fireplace, on the other by her mother’s chair. He could only catch a glimpse of her auburn plaits now and then as her head bent over her open book. He never heard her voice, or met her eyes. And yet it was sweet to him to sit in the same room with her.
“Come, Mallow, you can sing us something, at any rate,” said the Captain, suppressing a yawn. “I know you can play your own accompaniment, when you please. You can’t be too idle to give us one of Moore’s melodies.”
“I’ll sing, if you like, Mrs. Winstanley,” assented Lord Mallow, “but I’m afraid you must be tired of my songs. My répertoire is rather limited.”
“Your songs are charming,” said Mrs. Winstanley.
The Irishman seated himself at the distant piano, struck a chord or two, and began the old melody, with its familiar refrain:
Oh, there’s nothing half so sweet in life
As love’s young dream.
Before his song was finished Violet had kissed her mother and glided silently from the room, Lord Mallow saw her go, and there was a sudden break in his voice as the door closed upon her, a break that sounded almost like a suppressed sob.
When Vixen came down to breakfast next morning she found the table laid only for three.
“What has become of Lord Mallow,” she asked Forbes, when he brought in the urn.
“He left by an early train, ma’am. Captain Winstanley drove him to Lyndhurst.”
The old servants of the Abbey House had not yet brought themselves to speak of their new lord as “master.” He was always “Captain Winstanley.”
The Captain came in while Violet knelt by the fire playing with Argus, whom even the new rule had not banished wholly from the family sitting-rooms.
The servants filed in for morning prayers, which Captain Winstanley delivered in a cold hard voice. His manual of family worship was of concise and businesslike form, and the whole ceremony lasted about seven minutes. Then the household dispersed quickly, and Forbes brought in his tray of covered dishes.
“You can pour out the tea, Violet. Your mother is feeling a little tired, and will breakfast in her room.”
“Then I think, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have my breakfast with her,” said Vixen. “She’ll be glad of my company, I daresay.”
“She has a headache and will be better alone. Stop where you are, if you please, Violet. I have something serious to say to you.”
Vixen left off pouring out the tea, clasped her hands in her lap, and looked at Captain Winstanley with the most resolute expression he had ever seen in a woman’s face.
“Are you going to talk to me about Lord Mallow?” she asked.
“Then spare yourself the trouble. It would be useless.”
“I cannot conceive that you should be so besotted as to refuse a man who offers so much. A man who has wealth, rank, youth, good looks ——”
“Spare me the catalogue of your friend’s merits. I think him a most estimable person. I acknowledge his rank and wealth. But I have refused him.”
“You will change your mind.”
“I never change my mind.”
“You will live to repent your folly then, Miss Tempest: and all I hope is that your remorse may be keen. It is not one woman in a thousand who gets such a chance. What are you that you should throw it away?”
“I am a woman who would sooner cut my throat than marry a man I cannot honestly love,” answered Vixen, with unblenching firmness.
“I think I understand your motive,” said Captain Winstanley. “Lord Mallow never had a chance with you. The ground waft occupied before he came. You are a very foolish girl to reject so good an offer for the sake of another woman’s sweetheart.”
“How dare you say that to me?” cried Vixen. “You have usurped my father’s place; you have robbed me of my mother’s heart. Is not that cause enough for me to hate you? I have only one friend left in the world, Roderick Vawdrey. And you would slander me because I cling to that old friendship, the last remnant of my happy childhood.”
“You might have a dozen such friends, if friendship is all you want, and be Lady Mallow into the bargain,” retorted Captain Winstanley scornfully. “You are a simpleton to send such a man away despairing. But I suppose it is idle to ask you to hear reason. I am not your father, and even if I were, I daresay you would take your own way in spite of me.”
“My father would not have asked me to marry a man I did not love,” answered Vixen proudly, her eyes clouding with tears even at the thought of her beloved dead; “and he would have valued Lord Mallow’s rank and fortune no more than I do. But you are so fond of a bargain,” she added, her eye kindling and her lip curving with bitterest scorn. “You sold Bullfinch, and now you want to sell me.”
“By Heaven, madam, I pity the man who may be fool enough to buy you!” cried the Captain, starting up from his untasted breakfast, and leaving Vixen mistress of the field.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05