They were all back at the Abbey House again early in June, and Vixen breathed more freely in her sweet native air. How dear, how doubly beautiful, everything seemed to her after even so brief an exile. But it was a grief to have missed the apple-bloom and the bluebells. The woods were putting on their ripe summer beauty; the beeches had lost the first freshness of their tender green, the amber glory of the young oak-leaves was over, the last of the primroses had paled and faded among the spreading bracken; masses of snowy hawthorn bloom gleamed white amidst the woodland shadows; bean-fields in full bloom filled the air with delicate odours; the summer winds swept across the long lush grass in the meadows, beautiful with ever-varying lights and shadows; families of sturdy black piglings were grubbing on the waste turf beside every road, and the forest-fly was getting strong upon the wing. The depths of Mark Ash were dark at noontide under their roof of foliage.
Vixen revelled in the summer weather. She was out from morning till evening, on foot or on horseback, sketching or reading a novel, in some solitary corner of the woods, with Argus for her companion and guardian. It was an idle purposeless existence for a young woman to lead, no doubt; but Violet Tempest knew of no better thing that life offered her to do.
Neither her mother nor Captain Winstanley interfered with her liberty. The Captain had his own occupations and amusements, and his wife was given up to frivolities which left no room in her mind for anxiety about her only daughter. So long as Violet looked fresh and pretty at the breakfast-table, and was nicely dressed in the evening, Mrs. Winstanley thought that all was well; or at least as well as it ever could be with a girl who had been so besotted as to refuse a wealthy young nobleman. So Vixen went her own way, and nobody cared. She seemed to have a passion for solitude, and avoided even her old friends, the Scobels, who had made themselves odious by their championship of Lord Mallow.
The London season was at its height when the Winstanleys went back to Hampshire. The Dovedales were to be at Kensington till the beginning of July, with Mr. Vawdrey in attendance upon them. He had rooms in Ebury Street, and had assumed an urban air which in Vixen’s opinion made him execrable.
“I can’t tell you how hateful you look in lavender gloves and a high hat,” she said to him one day in Clarges Street.
“I daresay I look more natural dressed like a gamekeeper,” he answered lightly; “I was born so. As for the high hat, you can’t hate it more than I do; and I have always considered gloves a foolishness on a level with pigtails and hair-powder.”
Vixen had been wandering in her old haunts for something less than a fortnight, when, on one especially fine morning, she mounted Arion directly after breakfast and started on one of her rambles, with the faithful Bates in attendance, to open gates or to pull her out of bogs if needful. Upon this point Mrs. Winstanley was strict. Violet might ride when and where she pleased — since these meanderings in the Forest were so great a pleasure to her — but she must never ride without a groom.
Old Bates liked the duty. He adored his mistress, and had spent the greater part of his life in the saddle. There was no more enjoyable kind of idleness possible for him than to jog along in the sunshine on one of the Captain’s old hunters; called upon for no greater exertion than to flick an occasional fly off his horse’s haunch, or to bend down and hook open the gate of a plantation with his stout hunting-crop. Bates had many a brief snatch of slumber in those warm enclosures, where the air was heavy with the scent of the pines, and the buzzing of summer flies made a perpetual lullaby. There was a delicious sense of repose in such a sleep, but it was not quite so pleasant to be jerked suddenly into the waking world by a savage plunge of the aggravated hunter’s hindlegs, goaded to madness by a lively specimen of the forest-fly.
On this particular morning Vixen was in a thoughtful mood, and Arion was lazy. She let him walk at a leisurely pace under the beeches of Gretnam Wood, and through the quiet paths of the New Park plantations. He came slowly out into Queen’s Bower, tossing his delicate head and sniffing the summer air. The streamlets were rippling gaily in the noontide sun; far off on the yellow common a solitary angler was whipping the stream — quite an unusual figure in the lonely landscape. A delicious slumberous quiet reigned over all the scene. Vixen was lost in thought, Bates was dreaming, when a horse’s hoofs came up stealthily beside Arion, and a manly voice startled the sultry stillness.
“I’ve got rid of the high hat for this year, and I’m my own man again,” said the voice; and then a strong brown hand was laid upon Vixen’s glove, and swallowed up her slender fingers in its warm grasp.
“When did you come back?” she asked, as soon as their friendly greetings were over, and Arion had reconciled himself to the companionship of Mr. Vawdrey’s hack.
“Late last night.”
“And have the Duchess and her people come back to Ashbourne?”
“Pas si bête. The Duchess and her people — meaning Mabel — have engagements six deep for the next month — breakfasts, lawn-parties, music, art, science, horticulture, dancing, archery, every form of labourious amusement that the genius of man has invented. One of our modern sages has said that life would be tolerable but for its amusements. I am of that wise man’s opinion. Fashionable festivities are my aversion. So I told Mabel frankly that I found my good spirits being crushed out of me by the weight of too much pleasure, and that I must come home to look after my farm. The dear old Duke recognised that duty immediately, and gave me all sorts of messages and admonitions for his bailiff.”
“And you are really free to do what you like for a month?” exclaimed Vixen naïvely. “Poor Rorie! How glad you must be!”
“My liberty is of even greater extent. I am free till the middle of August, when I am to join the Dovedales in Scotland. Later, I suppose, the Duke will go to Baden, or to some newly-discovered fountain in the Black Forest. He could not exist for a twelvemonth without German waters.”
“And after that there will be a wedding, I suppose?” said Violet.
She felt as if called upon to say something of this kind. She wanted Rorie to know that she recognised his position as an engaged man. She hated talking about the business, but she felt somehow that this was incumbent upon her.
“I suppose so,” answered Rorie; “a man must be married once in his life. The sooner he gets the ceremony over the better. My engagement has hung fire rather. There is always a kind of flatness about the thing between cousins, I daresay. Neither of us is in a hurry. Mabel has so many ideas and occupations, from orchids to Greek choruses.”
“She is very clever,” said Vixen.
“She is clever and good, and I am very proud of her,” answered Rorie loyally.
He felt as if he were walking on the brink of a precipice, and that it needed all his care to steer clear of the edge.
After this there was no more said about Lady Mabel. Vixen and Rorie rode on happily side by side, as wholly absorbed in each other as Launcelot and Guinevere — when the knight brought the lady home through the smiling land, in the glad boyhood of the year, by tinkling rivulet and shadowy covert, and twisted ivy and spreading chestnut fans — and with no more thought of Lady Mabel than those two had of King Arthur.
It was the first of many such rides in the fair June weather. Vixen and Rorie were always meeting in that sweet pathless entanglement of oak and beech and holly, where the cattle-line of the spreading branches were just high enough to clear Vixen’s coquettish little hat, or in the long straight fir plantations, where the light was darkened even at noonday, and where the slumberous stillness was broken only by the hum of summer flies. It was hardly possible, it seemed to Violet, for two people to be always riding in the Forest without meeting each other very often. Various as the paths are they all cross somewhere: and what more natural than to see Rorie’s brown horse trotting calmly along the grass by the wayside, at the first bend of the road? They made no appointments, or were not conscious of making any; but they always met. There was a fatality about it: yet neither Rorie nor Violet ever seemed surprised at this persistence of fate. They were always glad to see each other; they had always a world to tell each other. If the earth had been newly made every day, with a new set of beings to people it, those two could hardly have had more to say.
“Darned if I can tell what our young Miss and Muster Vawdrey can find to talk about,” said honest old Bates, over his dish of tea in the servants’ hall; “but their tongues ha’ never done wagging.”
Sometimes Miss Tempest and Mr. Vawdrey went to the kennels together, and idled away an hour with the hounds; while their horses stood at ease with their bridles looped round the five-barred gate, their heads hanging lazily over the topmost bar, and their big soft eyes dreamily contemplating the opposite pine wood, with that large capacity for perfect idleness common to their species. Bates was chewing a straw and swinging his hunting-crop somewhere in attendance. He went with his young mistress everywhere, and played the part of the “dragon of prudery placed within call;” but he was a very amiable dragon, and nobody minded him. Had it come into the minds of Rorie and Vixen to elope, Bates would not have barred their way. Indeed he would have been very glad to elope with them himself. The restricted license of the Abbey House had no charm for him.
Whither were those two drifting in the happy summer weather, lulled by the whisper of forest leaves faintly stirred by the soft south wind, or by the low murmur of the forest river, stealing on its stealthy course under overarching boughs, mysterious as that wondrous river in Kubla Khan’s dream, and anon breaking suddenly out into a clamour loud enough to startle Arion as the waters came leaping and brawling over the shining moss-green boulders? Where were these happy comrades going as they rode side by side under the glancing lights and wavering shadows? Everybody knows what became of Launcelot and Guinevere after that famous ride of theirs. What of these two, who rode together day after day in sun and shower, who loitered and lingered in every loveliest nook in the Forest, who had the same tastes, the same ideas, the same loves, the same dislikes? Neither dared ask that question. They took the happiness fate gave them, and sought not to lift the veil of the future. Each was utterly and unreasonably happy, and each knew very well that this deep and entire happiness was to last no longer than the long summer days and the dangling balls of blossom on the beechen boughs. Before the new tufts on the fir-branches had lost their early green, this midsummer dream would be over. It was to be brief as a schoolboy’s holiday.
What was the good of being so happy, only to be so much more miserable afterwards? A sensible young woman might have asked herself that question, but Violet Tempest did not. Her intentions were pure as the innocent light shining out of her hazel eyes — a gaze frank, direct, and fearless as a child’s. She had no idea of tempting Roderick to be false to his vows. Had Lady Mabel, with her orchids and Greek plays, been alone in question, Violet might have thought of the matter more lightly: but filial duty was involved in Rorie’s fidelity to his betrothed. He had promised his mother on her death-bed. That was a promise not to be broken.
One day — a day for ever to be remembered by Vixen and Rorie — a day that stood out in the foreground of memory’s picture awfully distinct from the dreamy happiness that went before it, these two old friends prolonged their ride even later than usual. The weather was the loveliest that had ever blessed their journeyings — the sky Italian, the west wind just fresh enough to fan their cheeks, and faintly stir the green feathers of the ferns that grew breast-high on each side of the narrow track. The earth gave forth her subtlest perfumes under the fire of the midsummer sun. From Boldrewood the distant heights and valleys had an Alpine look in the clear bright air, the woods rising line above line in the far distance, in every shade of colour, from deepest umber to emerald green, from the darkest purple to translucent azure, yonder, where the farthest line of verdure met the sunlit sky. From Stony Cross the vast stretch of wood and moor lay basking in the warm vivid light, the yellow of the dwarf furze flashing in golden patches amidst the first bloom of the crimson heather. This southern corner of Hampshire was a glorious world to live in on such a day as this. Violet and her cavalier thought so, as their horses cantered up and down the smooth stretch of turf in front of The Forester’s Inn.
“I don’t know what has come to Arion,” said Vixen, as she checked her eager horse in his endeavour to break into a mad gallop. “I think he must be what Scotch people call ‘fey.’”
“And pray what may that mean?” asked Rorie, who was like the young lady made famous by Sydney Smith: what he did not know would have made a big book.
“Why, I believe it means that in certain moments of life, just before the coming of a great sorrow, people are wildly gay. Sometimes a man who is doomed to die breaks out into uproarious mirth, till his friends wonder at him. Haven’t you noticed that sometimes in the accounts of suicides, the suicide’s friends declare that he was in excellent spirits the night before he blew out his brains?”
“Then I hope I’m not ‘fey,’” said Rorie, “for I feel uncommonly jolly.”
“It’s only the earth and sky that make us feel happy,” sighed Violet, with a sudden touch of seriousness. “It is but an outside happiness after all.”
“Perhaps not; but it’s very good of its kind.”
They went far afield that day; as far as the yews of Sloden; and the sun was low in the west when Vixen wished her knight good-bye, and walked her horse down the last long glade that led to the Abbey House. She was very serious now, and felt that she had transgressed a little by the length of her ride. Poor Bates had gone without his dinner, and that dismal yawn of his just now doubtless indicated a painful vacuity of the inner man. Rorie and she were able to live upon air and sunshine, the scent of the clover, and the freshness of the earth; but Bates was of the lower type of humanity, which requires to be sustained by beef and beer; and for Bates this day of sylvan bliss had been perhaps a period of deprivation and suffering.
Violet had been accustomed to be at home, and freshly dressed, in time for Mrs. Winstanley’s afternoon tea. She had to listen to the accumulated gossip of the day — complaints about the servants, praises of Conrad, speculations upon impending changes of fashion, which threatened to convulse the world over which Theodore presided; for the world of fashion seems ever on the verge of a crisis awful as that which periodically disrupts the French Chamber.
To have been absent from afternoon tea was a breach of filial duty which the mild Pamela would assuredly resent. Violet felt herself doomed to one of those gentle lectures, which were worrying as the perpetual dropping of rain. She was very late — dreadfully late — the dressing-bell rang as she rode into the stable-yard. Not caring to show herself at the porch, lest her mother and the Captain should be sitting in the hall, ready to pronounce judgment upon her misconduct, she ran quickly up to her dressing-room, plunged her face into cold water, shook out her bright hair, brushed and plaited the long tresses with deft swift fingers, put on her pretty dinner-dress of pale blue muslin, fluttering all over with pale blue bows, and went smiling down to the drawing-room like a new Hebe, dressed in an azure cloud.
Mrs. Winstanley was sitting by an open window, while the Captain stood outside and talked to her in a low confidential voice. His face had a dark look which Vixen knew and hated, and his wife was listening with trouble in her air and countenance. Vixen, who meant to have marched straight up to her mother and made her apologies, drew back involuntarily at the sight of those two faces.
Just at this moment the dinner-bell rang. The Captain gave his wife his arm, and the two passed Vixen without a word. She followed them to the dining-room, wondering what was coming.
The dinner began in silence, and then Mrs. Winstanley began to falter forth small remarks, feeble as the twitterings of birds before the coming storm. How very warm it had been all day, almost oppressive: and yet it had been a remarkably fine day. There was a fair at Emery Down — at least not exactly a fair, but a barrow of nuts and some horrid pistols, and a swing. Violet answered, as in duty bound; but the Captain maintained his ominous silence. Not a word was said about Violet’s long ride. It seemed hardly necessary to apologise for her absence, since her mother made no complaint. Yet she felt that there was a storm coming.
“Perhaps he is going to sell Arion,” she thought, “and that’s why the dear thing was ‘fey.’”
And then that rebellious spirit of hers arose within her, ready for war.
“No, I would not endure that. I would not part with my father’s last gift. I shall be rich seven years hence, if I live so long. I’ll do what the young spendthrifts do. I’ll go to the Jews. I will not be Captain Winstanley’s helot. One slave is enough for him, I should think. He has enslaved poor mamma. Look at her now, poor soul; she sits in bodily fear of him, crumbling her bread with her pretty fingers, shining and sparkling with rings. Poor mamma! it is a bad day for her when fine dresses and handsome jewels cannot make her happy.”
It was a miserable dinner. Those three were not wont to be gay when they sat at meat together; but the dinner of to-day was of a gloomier pattern than usual. The strawberries and cherries were carried round solemnly, the Captain filled his glass with claret, Mrs. Winstanley dipped the ends of her fingers into the turquois-coloured glass, and disseminated a faint odour of roses.
“I think I’ll go and sit in the garden, Conrad,” she said, when she had dried those tapering fingers on her fringed doiley. “It’s so warm in the house.”
“Do, dear. I’ll come and smoke my cigar on the lawn presently,” answered the Captain.
“Can’t you come at once, love?”
“I’ve a little bit of business to settle first. I won’t be long!”
Mrs. Winstanley kissed her hand to her husband, and left the room, followed by Vixen.
“Violet,” she said, when they were outside, “how could you stay out so long? Conrad is dreadfully angry.”
“Your husband angry because I rode a few miles farther to-day than usual? Dear mother, that is too absurd. I was sorry not to be at home in time to give you your afternoon tea, and I apologise to you with all my heart; but what can it matter to Captain Winstanley?”
“My dearest Violet, when will you understand that Conrad stands in the place of your dear father?”
“Never, mamma, for that is not true. God gave me one father, and I loved and honoured him with all my heart. There is no sacrifice he could have asked of me that I would not have made; no command of his, however difficult, that I would not have obeyed. But I will obey no spurious father. I recognise no duty that I owe to Captain Winstanley.”
“You are a very cruel girl,” wailed Pamela, “and your obstinacy is making my life miserable.”
“Dear mother, how do I interfere with your happiness? You live your life, and I mine. You and Captain Winstanley take your own way, I mine. Is it a crime to be out riding a little longer than usual, that you should look so pale and the Captain so black when I come home?”
“It is worse than a crime, Violet; it is an impropriety.”
Vixen blushed crimson, and turned upon her mother with an expression that was half startled, half indignant.
“What do you mean, mamma?”
“Had you been riding about the Forest all those hours alone, it would have been eccentric — unladylike — masculine even. You know that your habit of passing half your existence on horseback has always been a grief to me. But you were not alone.”
“No, mamma, I was not alone. I had my oldest friend with me; one of the few people in this big world who care for me.”
“You were riding about with Roderick Vawdrey, Lady Mabel Ashbourne’s future husband.”
“Why do you remind me of his engagement, mamma? Do you think that Roderick and I have even forgotten it? Can he not be my friend as well as Lady Mabel’s husband? Am I to forget that he and I played together as children, that we have always thought of each other and cared for each other as brother and sister, only because he is engaged to Lady Mabel Ashbourne?”
“Violet, you must know that all talk about brother and sister is sheer nonsense. Suppose I had set up brother and sister with Captain Winstanley! What would you — what would the world have thought?”
“That would have been different,” said Vixen. “You did not know each other as babies. In fact you couldn’t have done so, for you had left off being a baby before he was born,” added Vixen naïvely.
“You will have to put a stop to these rides with Roderick. Everybody in the neighbourhood is talking about you.”
“Colonel Carteret to begin with.”
“Colonel Carteret slanders everybody. It is his only intellectual resource. Dearest mother, be your own sweet easy-tempered self, not a speaking-tube for Captain Winstanley. Pray leave me my liberty. I am not particularly happy. You might at least let me be free.”
Violet left her mother with these words. They had reached the lawn before the drawing-room windows. Mrs. Winstanley sank into a low basket-chair, like a hall-porter’s, which a friend had sent her from the sands of Trouville; and Vixen ran off to the stables to see if Arion was in any way the worse for his long round.
The horses had been littered down for the night, and the stable-yard was empty. The faithful Bates, who was usually to be found at this hour smoking his evening pipe on a stone bench beside the stable pump, was nowhere in sight. Vixen went into Arion’s loose-box, where that animal was nibbling clover lazily, standing knee-deep in freshly-spread straw, his fine legs carefully bandaged. He gave his mistress the usual grunt of friendly greeting, allowed her to feed him with the choicest bits of clover, and licked her hands in token of gratitude.
“I don’t think you’re any the worse for our canter over the grass, old pet,” she cried cheerily, as she caressed his sleek head, “and Captain Winstanley’s black looks can’t hurt you.”
As she left the stable she saw Bates, who was walking slowly across the court-yard, wiping his honest old eyes with the cuff of her drab coat, and hanging his grizzled head dejectedly.
Vixen ran to him with her cheeks aflame, divining mischief. The Captain had been wreaking his spite upon this lowly head.
“What’s the matter, Bates?”
“I’ve lived in this house, Miss Voylet, man and boy, forty year come Michaelmas, and I’ve never wronged my master by so much as the worth of a handful o’ wuts or a carriage candle. I was stable-boy in your grandfeyther’s time, miss, as is well-beknown to you; and I remember your feyther when he was the finest and handsomest young squire within fifty mile. I’ve loved you and yours better than I ever loved my own flesh and blood: and to go and pluck me up by the roots and chuck me out amongst strangers in my old age, is crueller than it would be to tear up the old cedar on the lawn, which I’ve heard Joe the gardener say be as old as the days when such-like trees was fust beknown in England. It’s crueller, Miss Voylet, for the cedar ain’t got no feelings — but I feel it down to the deepest fibres in me. The lawn ‘ud look ugly and empty without the cedar, and mayhap nobody’ll miss me — but I’ve got the heart of a man, miss, and it bleeds.”
Poor Bates relieved his wounded feelings with this burst of eloquence. He was a man who, although silent in his normal condition, had a great deal to say when he felt aggrieved. In his present state of mind his only solace was in many words.
“I don’t know what you mean, Bates,” cried Vixen, very pale now, divining the truth in part, if not wholly. “Don’t cry, dear old fellow, it’s too dreadful to see you. You don’t mean — you can’t mean — that — my mother has sent you away?”
“Not your ma, miss, bless her heart. She wouldn’t sack the servant that saddled her husband’s horse, fair weather and foul, for twenty years. No, Miss Voylet, it’s Captain Winstanley that’s given me the sack. He’s master here, now, you know, miss.”
“But for what reason? What have you done to offend him?”
“Ah, miss, there’s the hardship of it! He’s turned me off at a minute’s notice, and without a character too. That’s hard, ain’t it, miss? Forty years in one service, and to leave without a character at last! That do cut a old feller to the quick.”
“Why don’t you tell me the reason, Bates? Captain Winstanley must have given you his reason for such a cruel act.”
“He did, miss; but I ain’t going to tell you.”
“Why not, in goodness’ name?”
“Because it’s an insult to you, Miss Voylet; and I’m not going to insult my old master’s granddaughter. If I didn’t love you for your own sake — and I do dearly love you, miss, if you’ll excuse the liberty — I’m bound to love you for the sake of your grandfeyther. He was my first master, and a kind one. He gave me my first pair o’ tops. Lor, miss, I can call to mind the day as well as if it was yesterday. Didn’t I fancy myself a buck in ’em.”
Bates grinned and sparkled at the thought of those first top-boots. His poor old eyes, dim with years of long service, twinkled with the memory of those departed vanities.
“Bates,” cried Vixen, looking at him resolutely, “I insist upon knowing what reason Captain Winstanley alleged for sending you away.”
“He didn’t allege nothing, miss: and I ain’t agoing to tell you what he said.”
“But you must. I order you to tell me. You are still my servant, remember. You have always been a faithful servant, and I am sure you won’t disobey me at the last. I insist upon knowing what Captain Winstanley said; however insulting his words may have been to me, they will not surprise or wound me much. There is no love lost between him and me. I think everybody knows that. Don’t be afraid of giving me pain, Bates. Nothing the Captain could say would do that. I despise him too much.”
“I’m right down glad ‘o that, miss. Go on a-despising of him. You can’t give it him as thick as he deserves.”
“Now, Bates, what did he say?”
“He said I was a old fool, miss, or a old rogue, he weren’t quite clear in his mind which. I’d been actin’ as go-between with you and Mr. Vawdrey, encouragin’ of you to meet the young gentleman in your rides, and never givin’ the Cap’en warnin’, as your stepfeather, of what was goin’ on behind his back. He said it was shameful, and you were makin’ yourself the talk of the county, and I was no better than I should be for aidin’ and abettin’ of you in disgracin’ yourself. And then I blazed up a bit, miss, and maybe I cheeked him: and then he turned upon me sharp and short and told me to get out of the house this night, bag and baggage, and never to apply to him for a character; and then he counted out my wages on the table, miss, up to this evening, exact to a halfpenny, by way of showing me that he meant business, perhaps. But I came away and left his brass upon the table, staring at him in the face. I ain’t no pauper, praise be to God! I’ve had a good place and I’ve saved money: and I needn’t lower myself by taking his dirty half-pence.”
“And you’re going away, Bates, to-night?” exclaimed Vixen, hardly able to realise this calamity.
That Captain Winstanley should have spoken insultingly of her and of Rorie touched her but lightly. She had spoken truly just now when she said that she scorned him too much to be easily wounded by his insolence. But that he should dismiss her father’s old servant as he had sold her father’s old horse; that this good old man, who had grown from boyhood to age under her ancestral roof, who remembered her father in the bloom and glory of early youth; that this faithful servant should be thrust out at the bidding of an interloper — a paltry schemer, who, in Vixen’s estimation, had been actuated by the basest and most mercenary motives when he married her mother; — that these things should be, moved Violet Tempest with an overwhelming anger.
She kept her passion under, so far as to speak very calmly to Bates. Her face was white with suppressed rage, her great brown eyes shone with angry fire, her lips quivered as she spoke, and the rings on one clinched hand were ground into the flesh of the slender fingers.
“Never mind, Bates,” she said very gently; “I’ll get you a good place before ten o’clock to-night. Pack up your clothes, and be ready to go where I tell you two hours hence. But first saddle Arion.”
“Bless yer heart, Miss Voylet, you’re not going out riding this evening? Arion’s done a long day’s work.”
“I know that; but he’s fresh enough to do as much more — I’ve just been looking at him. Saddle him at once, and keep him ready in his stable till I come for him. Don’t argue, Bates. If I knew that I were going to ride him to death I should ride him to-night all the same. You are dismissed without a character, are you?” cried Vixen, laughing bitterly. “Never mind, Bates, I’ll give you a character; and I’ll get you a place.”
She ran lightly off and was gone, while Bates stood stock still wondering at her. There never was such a young lady. What was there in life that he would not have done for her — were it to the shedding of blood? And to think he was no more to serve and follow her; no longer to jog contentedly through the pine-scented Forest — watching the meteoric course of that graceful figure in front of him, the lively young horse curbed by the light and dexterous hand, the ruddy brown hair glittering in the sunlight, the flexible form moving in unison with every motion of the horse that carried it! There could be no deeper image of desolation in Bates’s mind than the idea that this rider and this horse were to be henceforth severed from his existence. What had he in life save the familiar things and faces among which he had grown from youth to age? Separate him from these beloved surroundings, and he had no standpoint in the universe. The reason of his being would be gone. Bates was as strictly local in his ideas as the zoophyte which has clung all its life to one rock.
He went to the harness-room for Miss Tempest’s well-worn saddle, and brought Arion out of his snug box, and wisped him and combed him, and blacked his shoes, and made him altogether lovely — a process to which the intelligent animal was inclined to take objection, the hour being unseemly and unusual. Poor Bates sighed over his task, and brushed away more than one silent tear with the back of the dandy-brush. It was kind of Miss Violet to think about getting him a place; but he had no heart for going into a new service. He would rather have taken a room in one of the Beechdale cottages, and have dragged out the remnant of his days within sight of the chimney-stacks beneath which he had slept for forty years. He had money in the bank that would last until his lees of life were spilt, and then he would be buried in the churchyard he had crossed every Sunday of his life on his way to morning service. His kindred were all dead or distant — the nearest, a married niece, settled at Romsey, which good old humdrum market-town was — except once a week or so by carrier’s cart — almost as unapproachable as the Bermudas. He was not going to migrate to Romsey for the sake of a married niece; when he could stop at Beechdale, and see the gables and chimneys of the home from which stern fate had banished him.
He had scarcely finished Arion’s toilet when Miss Tempest opened the stable-door and looked, in ready to mount. She had her hunting-crop, with the strong horn hook for opening gates, her short habit, and looked altogether ready for business.
“Hadn’t I better come with you, miss?” Bates asked, as he lifted her into her saddle.
“No, Bates. You are dismissed, you know. It wouldn’t do for you to take one of Captain Winstanley’s horses. He might have you sent to prison for horse-stealing.”
“Lord, miss, so he might!” said Bates, grinning. “I reckon he’s capable of it. But I cheeked him pretty strong, Miss Voylet. The thought o’ that’ll always be a comfort to me. You wouldn’t ha’ knowed me for your feyther’s old sarvant if you’d heard me. I felt as if Satan had got hold o’ my tongue, and was wagging it for me. The words came so pat. It seemed as if I’d got all the dictionary at the tip of my poor old tongue.”
“Open the gate,” said Vixen. “I am going out by the wilderness.”
Bates opened the gate under the old brick archway, and Vixen rode slowly away, by unfrequented thickets of rhododendron and arbutus, holly and laurel, with a tall mountain-ash, or a stately deodora, rising up among them, here and there, dark against the opal evening sky.
It was a lovely evening. The crescent moon rode high above the tree-tops; the sunset was still red in the west. The secret depths of the wood gave forth their subtle perfume in the cool, calm air. The birds were singing in suppressed and secret tones among the low branches. Now and then a bat skimmed across the open glade, and melted into the woodland darkness, or a rabbit flitted past, gray and ghostlike. It was an hour when the woods assumed an awful beauty. Not to meet ghosts seemed stranger than to meet them. The shadows of the dead would have been in harmony with the mystic loveliness of this green solitude — a world remote from the track of men.
Even to-night, though her heart was swelling with indignant pain, Violet felt all the beauty of these familiar scenes. They were a part of her life, and so long as she lived she must love and rejoice in them. To-night as she rode quietly along, careful not to hurry Arion after his long day’s work, she looked around her with eyes full of deep love and melancholy yearning. It seemed to her to-night that out of all that had been sweet and lovely in her life only these forest scenes remained. Humanity had not been kind to her. The dear father had been snatched away: just when she had grown to the height of his stout heart, and had fullest comprehension of his love, and greatest need of his protection. Her mother was a gentle, smiling puppet, to whom it were vain to appeal in her necessities. Her mother’s husband was an implacable enemy. Rorie, the friend of her childhood — who might have been so much — had given himself to another. She was quite alone.
“The charcoal-burner in Mark Ash is not so solitary as I am,” thought Vixen bitterly. “Charcoal-burning is only part of his life. He has his wife and children in his cottage at home.”
By-and-by she came out of the winding forest ways into the straight high-road that led to Briarwood, and now she put her horse at a smart trot, for it was growing dark already, and she calculated that it must be nearly eleven o’clock before she could accomplish what she had to do and get back to the Abbey House. And at eleven doors were locked for the night, and Captain Winstanley made a circuit of inspection, as severely as the keeper of a prison. What would be said if she should not get home till after the gates were locked, and the keys delivered over to that stern janitor?
At last Briarwood came in sight above the dark clumps of beach and oak, a white portico, shining lamplit windows. The lodge-gate stood hospitably open, and Violet rode in without question, and up to the pillared porch.
Roderick Vawdrey was standing in the porch smoking. He threw away his cigar as Vixen rode up, and ran down the steps to receive her.
“Why, Violet, what has happened?” he asked, with an alarmed look.
It seemed to him, that only sudden death or dire calamity could bring her to him thus, in the late gloaming, pale, and deeply moved. Her lips trembled faintly as she looked at him, and for the moment she could find no words to tell her trouble.
“What is it, Violet?” he asked again, holding her gloved hand in his, and looking up at her, full of sympathy and concern.
“Not very much, perhaps, in your idea of things: but it seems a great deal to me. And it has put me into a tremendous passion. I have come to ask you to do me a favour.”
“A thousand favours if you like; and when they are all granted, the obligation shall be still on my side. But come into the drawing-room and rest — and let me get you some tea — lemonade — wine — something to refresh you after your long ride.”
“Nothing, thanks. I am not going to get off my horse. I must not lose a moment. Why it must be long after nine already, and Captain Winstanley locks up the house at eleven.”
Rorie did not care to tell her that it was on the stroke of ten. He called in a stentorian voice for a servant, and told the man to get Blue Peter saddled that instant.
“Where’s your groom, Violet?” he asked, wondering to see her unattended.
“I have no groom. That’s just what I came to tell you. Captain Winstanley has dismissed Bates, at a minute’s warning, without a character.”
“Dismissed old Bates, your father’s faithful servant! But in Heaven’s name what for?”
“I would rather not tell you that. The alleged reason is an insult to me. I can tell you that it is not for dishonesty, or lying, or drunkenness, or insolence, or any act that a good servant need be ashamed of. The poor old man is cast off for a fault of mine; or for an act of mine, which Captain Winstanley pleases to condemn. He is thrust out of doors, homeless, without a character, after forty years of faithful service. He was with my grandfather, you know. Now, Rorie, I want you to take Bates into your service. He is not so ornamental as a young man, perhaps; but he is ever so much more useful. He is faithful and industrious, honest and true. He is a capital nurse for sick horses; and I have heard my dear father say that he knows more than the common run of veterinary surgeons. I don’t think you would find him an incumbrance. Now, dear Rorie,” she concluded coaxingly, with innocent childish entreaty, almost as if they had still been children and playfellows, “I want you to do this for me — I want you to take Bates.”
“Why, you dear simple-minded baby, I would take a regiment of Bateses for your sake. Why this is not a favour ——”
“”Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,’” cried Vixen, quoting Desdemona’s speech to her general.
Rorie’s ready promise had revived her spirit. She felt that, after all, there was such a thing as friendship in the world. Life was not altogether blank and dreary. She forgot that her old friend had given himself away to another woman. She had a knack of forgetting that little fact when she and Rorie were together. It was only in her hours of solitude that the circumstance presented itself distinctly to her mind.
“I am so grateful to you for this, Rorie,” she cried. “I cannot tell you what a load you have taken off my mind. I felt sure you would do me this favour. And yet, if you had said No ——! It would have been too dreadful to think of. Poor old Bates loafing about Beechdale, living upon his savings! I shall be able to pension him by-and-by, when I am of age; but now I have only a few pounds in the world, the remains of a quarter’s pocket-money, according to the view and allowance of the forester,” added Vixen, quoting the Forest law, with a little mocking laugh. “And now good-night; I must go home as fast as I can.”
“So you must, but I am coming with you,” answered Rorie; and then he roared again in his stentorian voice in the direction of the stables, “Where’s that Blue Peter?”
“Indeed, there is no reason for you to come,” cried Vixen. “I know every inch of the Forest.”
“Very likely; but I am coming with you all the same.”
A groom led out Blue Peter, a strong useful-looking hack, which Mr. Vawdrey kept to do his dirty work, hunting in bad weather, night-work, and extra journeys of all kinds. Rorie was in the saddle and by Vixen’s side without a minute’s lost time, and they were riding out of the grounds into the straight road.
They rode for a considerable time in silence. Vixen had seldom seen her old friend so thoughtful. The night deepened, the stars shone out of the clear heaven, at first one by one: and then, suddenly in a multitude that no tongue could number. The leaves whispered and rustled with faint mysterious noises, as Violet and her companion rode slowly down the long steep hill.
“What a beast that Winstanley is!” said Rorie, when they got to the bottom of the hill, as if he had been all this time arriving at an opinion about Violet’s stepfather. “I’m afraid he must make your life miserable.”
“He doesn’t make it particularly happy,” answered Vixen quietly; “but I never expected to be happy after mamma married. I did not think there was much happiness left for me after my father’s death; but there was at least peace. Captain Winstanley has made an end of that.”
“He is a wretch, and I should like to shoot him,” said Rorie vindictively. “Dear little Vixen — yes, I must call you by the old pet name — to think that you should be miserable, you whom I remember so bright and happy, you who were born for happiness! But you are not always wretched, dear,” he said, leaning over to speak to her in closer, more confidential tones, as if the sleepy birds and the whispering forest leaves could hear and betray him. “You were happy — we were happy — this morning.”
He had laid his hand on hers. That useful Blue Peter needed no guidance. They were just leaving the road, and entering a long glade that led through a newly-opened fir plantation, a straight ride of a mile and a half or so. The young moon was gleaming cool and clear above the feathering points of the firs.
“Yes,” she answered recklessly, involuntarily, with a stifled sob, “I am always happy with you. You are all that remains to me of my old life.”
“My dearest, my loveliest, then be happy for ever!” he cried, winding his arm round her slim waist, and leaning over her till his head almost rested on her shoulder. Their horses were close together, walking at a foot-pace, Blue Peter in nowise disconcerted by this extraordinary behaviour of his rider.
“My love, if you can be happy at so small a price, be happy always!” said Rorie, his lips close to the girl’s pale cheek, his arm feeling every beat of the passionate heart. “I will break the toils that bind me. I will be yours, and yours only. I have never truly loved anyone but you, and I have loved you all my life — I never knew how dearly till of late. No, dearest love, never did I know how utterly I loved you till these last summer days which we have lived together, alone and supremely happy, in the forest that is our native land. My Violet, I will break with Mabel to-morrow. She and I were never made for one other. You and I were. Yes, love, yes: we have grown up together side by side, like the primroses and violets in the woods. It is my second nature to love you. Why should we be parted? Why should I go on acting a dismal farce, pretending love to Mabel, pretending a friendship to you — alike false to both? There is no reason, Violet, none — except ——”
“Except your promise to your dying mother,” said Violet, escaping from his arm, and looking at him steadily, bravely, through the dim light. “You shall not break that for my sake — you ought not, were I ten times a better woman than I am. No, Rorie, you are to do your duty, and keep your word. You are to marry Lady Mabel, and be happy ever after, like the prince in a fairy tale. Depend upon it, happiness always comes in the long run to the man who does his duty.”
“I don’t believe it,” cried Roderick passionately; “I have seen men who have done right ail through life — men who have sacrificed feeling to honour, and been miserable. Why should I imitate them? I love you. I loved you always; but my mother worried and teased me, vaunting Mabel’s perfections, trying to lessen you in my esteem. And then, when she was dying, and it seemed a hard thing to oppose her wishes, or to refuse her anything, were it even the happiness of my life, I was weak, and let myself be persuaded, and sold myself into bondage. But it is not too late, Violet. I will write Mabel an honest letter to-morrow, and tell her the truth for the first time in my life.”
“You will do nothing of the kind!” cried Violet resolutely. “What, do you think I have no pride — no sense of honour? Do you think I would let it be said of me, that I, knowing you to be engaged to your cousin, set myself to lure you away from her; that we rode together, and were seen together, happy in each other’s company, and as careless of slander as if we had been brother and sister; and that the end of all was that you broke your faith to your promised wife in order to marry me? No, Rorie, that shall never be said. If I could stoop so low I should be worthy of the worst word my mother’s husband could say of me.”
“What does it matter what people say — your mother’s husband above all? Malice can always find something evil to say of us, let us shape our lives how we may. What really matters is that we should be happy: and I can be happy with no one but you, Violet. I know that now. I will never marry Mabel Ashbourne.”
“And you will never marry me,” answered Vixen, giving Arion a light touch of her whip which sent him flying along the shadowy ride.
Blue Peter followed as swiftly. Rorie was by Violet’s side again in a minute, with his hand grasping hers.
“You mean that you don’t love me?” he exclaimed angrily. “Why could you not have said so at the first; why have you let me live in a fool’s paradise?”
“The paradise was of your own making,” she answered. “I love you a little for the past, because my father loved you — because you are all that remains to me of my happy childhood. Yes, if it were not for you, I might look back and think those dear old days were only a dream. But I hear your voice, I look at you, and know that you are real, and that I once was very happy. Yes, Rorie, I do love you — love you — yes, with all my heart, dearer, better than I have ever loved anyone upon this earth, since my father was laid in the ground. Yes, dear.” Their horses were walking slowly now; and her hand was locked in his as they rode side by side. “Yes, dear, I love you too well, and you and I must part. I had schooled myself to believe that I loved you only as I might have loved a brother; that you could be Lady Mabel’s husband and my true friend. But that was a delusion — that can never be. You and I must part, Rorie. This night-ride in the Forest must be our last. Never any more, by sun or moon, must you and I ride together. It is all over, Rorie, the old childish friendship. I mean to do my duty, and you must do yours.”
“I will never marry a woman I do not love.”
“You will keep your promise to your mother; you will act as a man of honour should. Think, Rorie, what a shameful thing it would be to do, to break off an engagement which has been so long publicly known, to wound and grieve your good aunt and uncle.”
“They have been very kind to me,” sighed Rorie. “It would hurt me to give them pain.”
His conscience told him she was right, but he was angry with her for being so much wiser than himself.
Then, in a moment, love — that had slumbered long, idly happy in the company of the beloved, and had suddenly awakened to know that this summer-day idlesse meant a passion stronger than death — love got the better of conscience, and he cried vehemently:
“What need I care for the Duke and Duchess! They can have their choice of husbands for their daughter; an heiress like Mabel has only to smile, and a man is at her feet. Why should I sacrifice myself, love, truth, all that makes life worth having? Do you think I would do it for the sake of Ashbourne, and the honour of being a duke’s son-in-law?”
“No, Rorie, but for the sake of your promise. And now look, there is Lyndhurst steeple above the woods. I am near home, and we must say good-night.”
“Not till you are at your own gate.”
“No one must see you. I want to ride in quietly by the stables. Don’t think I am ashamed of my errand to-night. I am not; but I want to save my mother trouble, and if Captain Winstanley and I were to discuss the matter there would be a disturbance.”
Roderick Vawdrey seized Arion by the bridle.
“I shall not let you go so easily,” he said resolutely. “Vixen, I have loved you ever since I can remember you. Will you be my wife?”
“Why did you say that you loved me?”
“Because I cannot tell a lie. Yes, I love you, Rorie; but I love your honour, and my own, better than the chance of a happiness that might fade and wither before we could grasp it. I know that your mother had a very poor opinion of me while she was alive; I should like her to know, if the dead know anything, that she was mistaken, and that I am not quite unworthy of her respect. You will marry Lady Mabel Ashbourne, Rorie: and ten years hence, when we are sober middle-aged people, we shall be firm friends once again, and you will thank and praise me for having counselled you to cleave to the right. Let go the bridle, Rorie, there’s no time to lose. There’s a glorious gallop from Queen’s Bower to the Christchurch Road.”
It was a long grassy ride, safe only for those who knew the country well, for it was bordered on each side by treacherous bogs. Violet knew every inch of the way. Arion scented his stable afar off, and went like the wind; Blue Peter stretched his muscular limbs in pursuit. It was a wild ride along the grassy track, beside watery marshes and reedy pools that gleamed in the dim light of a new moon. The distant woods showed black against the sky. There was no light to mark a human habitation within ken. There was nothing but night and loneliness and the solemn beauty of an unpeopled waste. A forest pony stood here and there — pastern-deep in the sedges — and gazed at those two wild riders, grave and gay, like a ghost. A silvery snake glided across the track; a water-rat plunged, with a heavy splash, into a black pool as the horses galloped by. It was a glorious ride. Miserable as both riders were, they could not but enjoy that wild rush through the sweet soft air, under the silent stars.
Vixen gave a long sigh presently, when they pulled up their horses on the hard road.
“I think I am ‘fey’ now,” she said. “I wonder what is going to happen to me?”
“Whatever misfortunes come to you henceforth will be your own fault,” protested Rorie savagely. “You won’t be happy, or make me so.”
“Don’t be angry with me, Rorie,” she answered quite meekly. “I would rather be miserable in my own way than happy in yours.”
Arion, having galloped for his own pleasure, would now have liked to crawl. He was beginning to feel the effects of unusual toil, and hung his head despondently; but Vixen urged him into a sharp trot, feeling that matters were growing desperate.
Ten minutes later they were at the lodge leading to the stables. The gate was locked, the cottage wrapped in darkness.
“I must go in by the carriage-drive,” said Vixen. “It’s rather a bore, as I am pretty sure to meet Captain Winstanley. But it can’t be helped.”
“Let me go in with you.”
“No, Rorie; that would do no good. If he insulted me before you, his insolence would pain me.”
“And I believe I should pain him,” said Rorie. “I should give him the sweetest horsewhipping he ever had in his life.”
“That is to say you would bring disgrace upon me, and make my mother miserable. That’s a man’s idea of kindness. No, Rorie, we part here. Good-night, and — good-bye.”
“Fiddlesticks!” cried Rorie. “I shall wait for you all to-morrow morning at the kennels.”
Vixen had ridden past the open gate. The lodge-keeper stood at his door waiting for her. Roderick respected her wishes and stayed outside.
“Good-night,” she cried again, looking back at him; “Bates shall come to you to-morrow morning.”
The hall-door was wide open, and Captain Winstanley stood on the threshold, waiting for his stepdaughter. One of the underlings from the stable was ready to take her horse. She dismounted unaided, flung the reins to the groom, and walked up to the Captain with her firmest step. When she was in the hall he shut the door, and bolted and locked it with a somewhat ostentatious care. She seemed to breathe less freely when that great door had shut out the cool night. She felt as if she were in a jail.
“I should like half-a-dozen words with you in the drawing-room before you go upstairs,” Captain Winstanley said stiffly.
“A hundred, if you choose,” answered Vixen, with supreme coolness.
She was utterly fearless. What risks or hazards had life that she need dread? She hoped nothing — feared nothing. She had just made the greatest sacrifice that fate could require of her: she had rejected the man she fondly loved. What were the slings and arrows of her stepfather’s petty malice compared with such a wrench as that?
She followed Captain Winstanley to the drawing-room. Here there was more air; one long window was open, and the lace curtains were faintly stirred by the night winds. A large moderator lamp burned upon Mrs. Winstanley’s favourite table — her books and basket of crewels were there, but the lady of the house had retired.
“My mother has gone to bed, I suppose?” inquired Vixen.
“She has gone to her room, but I fear she is too much agitated to get any rest. I would not allow her to wait here any longer for you.”
“Is it so very late?” asked Vixen, with the most innocent air.
Her heart was beating violently, and her temper was not at its best. She stood looking at the Captain, with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, and her whip tightly clenched.
She was thinking of that speech of Rorie’s about the “sweetest horsewhipping.” She wondered whether Captain Winstanley had ever been horsewhipped; whether that kind of chastisement was numbered in the sum of his experiences. She opined not. The Captain was too astute a man to bring himself in the way of such punishment. He would do things that deserved horsewhipping, and get off scot free.
“It is a quarter-past eleven. I don’t know whether you think that a respectable hour for a young lady’s evening ride. May I ask the motive of this nocturnal expedition?”
“Certainly. You deprived Bates of a comfortable place — he has only been in the situation forty years — and I went to get him another. I am happy to say that I succeeded.”
“And pray who is the chivalrous employer willing to receive my dismissed servant without a character?”
“A very old friend of my father’s — Mr. Vawdrey.”
“I thought as much,” retorted the Captain. “And it is to Mr. Vawdrey you have been, late at night, unattended?”
“It is your fault that I went unattended. You have taken upon yourself to dismiss my groom — the man who broke my first pony, the man my father gave me for an attendant and protector, just as he gave me my horse. You will take upon yourself to sell my horse next, I suppose?”
“I shall take a great deal more upon myself, before you and I have done with each other, Miss Tempest,” answered the Captain, pale with passion.
Never had Vixen seen him so strongly moved. The purple veins stood out darkly upon his pale forehead, his eyes had a haggard look; he was like a man consumed inwardly by some evil passion that was stronger than himself, like a man possessed by devils. Vixen looked at him with wonder. They stood facing each other, with the lamplit table between them, the light shining on both their faces.
“Why do you look at me with that provoking smile?” he asked. “Do you want to exasperate me? You must know that I hate you.”
“I do,” answered Vixen; “but God only knows why you should do so.”
“Do you know no reason?”
“Can’t you guess one?”
“No; unless it is because my father’s fortune will belong to me by-and-by, if I live to be five-and-twenty, and your position here will be lessened.”
“That is not the reason; no, I am not so base as that. That its not why I hate you, Violet. If you had been some dumpy, homely, country lass, with thick features and a clumsy figure, you and I might have got on decently enough. I would have made you obey me; but I would have been kind to you. But you are something very different. You are the girl I would have perilled my soul to win — the girl who rejected me with careless scorn. Have you forgotten that night in the Pavilion Garden at Brighton? I have not. I never look up at the stars without remembering it; and I can never forgive you while that memory lives in my mind. If you had been my wife, Violet, I would have been your slave. You forced me to make myself your stepfather; and I will be master instead of slave. I will make your life bitter to you if you thwart me. I will put a stop to your running after another woman’s sweetheart. I will come between you and your lover, Roderick Vawdrey. Your secret meetings, your clandestine love-making, shall be stopped. Such conduct as you have been carrying on of late is a shame and disgrace to your sex.”
“How dare you say that?” cried Vixen, beside herself with anger.
She grasped the lamp with both her hands, as if she would have hurled it at her foe. It was a large moon-shaped globe upon a bronze pedestal — a fearful thing to fling at one’s adversary. A great wave of blood surged up into the girl’s brain. What she was going to do she knew not; but her whole being was convulsed by the passion of that moment. The room reeled before her eyes, the heavy pedestal swayed in her hands, and then she saw the big moonlike globe roll on to the carpet, and after it, and darting beyond it, a stream of liquid fire that ran, and ran, quicker than thought, towards the open window.
Before she could speak or move, the flame had run up the lace curtain, like a living thing, swift as the flight of a bird or the gliding motion of a lizard. The wide casement was wreathed with light. They two — Vixen and her foe — seemed to be standing in an atmosphere of fire.
Captain Winstanley was confounded by the suddenness of the catastrophe. While he stood dumb, bewildered, Vixen sprang through the narrow space between the flaming curtains, as if she had plunged into a gulf of fire. He heard her strong clear voice calling to the stablemen and gardeners. It rang like a clarion in the still summer night.
There was not a moment lost. The stablemen rushed with pails of water, and directly after them the Scotch gardener with his garden-engine, which held several gallons. His hose did some damage to the drawing-room carpet and upholstery, but the strong jet of water speedily quenched the flames. In ten minutes the window stood blank, and black, and bare, with Vixen standing on the lawn outside, contemplating the damage she had done.
Mrs. Winstanley rushed in at the drawing-room door, ghostlike, in her white peignoir, pale and scared.
“Oh, Conrad, what has happened?” she cried distractedly, just able to distinguish her husband’s figure standing in the midst of the disordered room.
“Your beautiful daughter has been trying to set the house on fire,” he answered. “That is all.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50