Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

“That must end at once.”

A quarter of an hour later, when all the confusion was over, Violet was kneeling by her mother’s chair, trying to restore tranquillity to Mrs. Winstanley’s fluttered spirits. Mother and daughter were alone together in the elder lady’s dressing-room, the disconsolate Pamela sitting, like Niobe, amidst her scattered fineries, her pomade-pots and powder-boxes, fan-cases and jewel-caskets, and all the arsenal of waning beauty.

“Dear mother,” pleaded Violet, with unusual gentleness, “pray don’t give way to this unnecessary grief. You cannot surely believe that I tried to set this dear old home on fire — that I could be so foolish — granting even that I were wicked enough to do it — as to destroy a place I love — the house in which my father was born! You can’t believe such a thing, mother.”

“I know that you are making my life miserable,” sobbed Mrs. Winstanley, feebly dabbing her forehead with a flimsy Valenciennes bordered handkerchief, steeped in eau-de-cologne, “and I am sure Conrad would not tell a falsehood.”

“Perhaps not,” said Vixen with a gloomy look. “We will take it for granted that he is perfection and could not do wrong. But in this case he is mistaken. I felt quite capable of killing him, but not of setting fire to this house.”

“Oh,” wailed Pamela distractedly, “this is too dreadful! To think that I should have a daughter who confesses herself at heart a murderess.”

“Unhappily it is true, mother,” said Vixen, moodily contrite. “For just that one moment of my life I felt a murderous impulse — and from the impulse to the execution is a very short step. I don’t feel myself very superior to the people who are hanged at Newgate, I assure you.”

“What is to become of me?” inquired Mrs. Winstanley in abject lamentation. “It is too hard that my own daughter should be a source of misery in my married life, that she should harden her heart against the best of stepfathers, and try, yes, actually try, to bring discord between me and the husband I love. I don’t know what I have done that I should be so miserable.”

“Dear mother, only be calm and listen to me,” urged Violet, who was very calm herself, with a coldly resolute air which presently obtained ascendency over her agitated parent. “If I have been the source of misery, that misery cannot too soon come to an end. I have long felt that I have no place in this house — that I am one too many in our small family. I feel now — yes, mamma, I feel and know that the same roof cannot cover me and Captain Winstanley. He and I can no longer sit at the same board, or live in the same house. That must end at once.”

“What complaint can you have to make against him, Violet?” cried her mother hysterically, and with a good deal more dabbing of the perfumed handkerchief upon her fevered brow. “I am sure no father could be kinder than Conrad would be to you if you would only let him. But you have set yourself against him from the very first. It seems as if you grudged me my happiness.”

“It shall seem so no longer, mamma. I will cease to be a thorn in your garland of roses,” replied Vixen, with exceeding bitterness. “I will leave the Abbey House directly any other home can be found for me. If dear old McCroke would take care of me I should like to go abroad, somewhere very far, to some strange place, where all things would be different and new to me,” continued Vixen, unconsciously betraying that aching desire for forgetfulness natural to a wounded heart. “Sweden, or Norway, for instance. I think I should like to spend a year in one of those cold strange lands, with good old McCroke for my companion. There would be nothing to remind me of the Forest,” she concluded with a stifled sob.

“My dear Violet, you have such wild ideas,” exclaimed her mother with an injured air. “It is just as Conrad says. You have no notion of the proprieties. Sweden or Norway, indeed! Was there ever anything so outlandish? What would people say, I wonder?”

“Ah, what indeed, mamma. Perhaps, they might for once say what is true: that I could not get on with Captain Winstanley, and so was forced to find another home.”

“And what a reproach that would be to me,” cried her mother. “You are so selfish, Violet; you think of no one but yourself.”

“Perhaps that is because nobody else thinks of me, mother.”

“How can you say such abominable things, Violet? Am I not thinking of you this moment? I am sure I have thought of you this evening until my head aches. You force one to think about you, when you behave in such a disgraceful manner.”

“What have I done that is disgraceful, mamma? I have ridden out at an unusual hour to get a place for an old servant — a man who has served in this house faithfully for forty years. That is what I have done, and I should not be ashamed if it were known to everybody in Hampshire. Yes, even to Lady Mabel Ashbourne, that pattern of chilly propriety. The disgrace is Captain Winstanley’s. It is he who ought to be ashamed of turning off my father and grandfather’s old servant. What you have to be sorry for, mamma, is that you have married a man capable of such an action.”

“How dare you speak against him!” cried the offended wife. “He has done everything for the best. It was your own foolish conduct that obliged him to dismiss Bates. To think that a daughter of mine should have so little self-respect as to go roaming about the Forest with an engaged man! It is too dreadful.”

“You need not make yourself unhappy about the engaged man, mamma,” said Vixen scornfully. “He is out of danger. Rorie and I need never see each other again. I should be more than content that it should be so. Only arrange with Captain Winstanley for some allowance to be made me — just money enough to enable me to live abroad with dear old McCroke. I want no gaieties, I want no fine dresses, The simplest mode of life, in a strange country, will suit me best.”

“I can’t bear the idea of your going away,” whimpered Mrs. Winstanley. “People will talk so. A stepfather’s is such a delicate position. People are sure to say cruel things about Conrad. And it is all your fault, Violet. We might have lived so happily together if you had liked.”

“We might, perhaps, mamma; but I don’t think any of us knew the way. Captain Winstanley could hardly expect that to sell my father’s favourite horse was the shortest way to my liking; and that’s how he began his reign in this house. Don’t let us talk any more, my dear mother. Words are useless to heal such wounds as ours. Good-night. Sleep well, and forget all about me. To-morrow you and the Captain can give me my liberty.”

“I thought you were so fond of the Abbey House,” moaned her mother.

“So I was when it was home. It has ceased to be my home, and I shall be glad to leave it.”

“Oh, Violet, you have a hard heart.”

“Good-night, mamma.”

She was gone, leaving Mrs. Winstanley feebly moaning, and vaguely dabbing her forehead, feeling that the Fates had not been kind to her. Life seemed to have gone all askew. It was as if Theodore had taken to sending home misfits. Nothing was smooth or pleasant in an existence whose halcyon calm had once been undisturbed by so much as a crumpled rose-leaf.

Vixen went straight to her room, accompanied by Argus, who had followed her from the hall to the door of her mother’s dressing-room, and had waited patiently for her in the corridor, with his head leaning against the closed door, as if he scented trouble within.

When girl and dog were alone together, Violet flung herself on the ground, threw her arms round the mastiff’s thick neck, and let her tears flow freely against that faithful head.

“Oh, Argus,” she cried piteously, “you are the only friend left me in this wide world!”


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