It was a fresh sunny morning, a soft west wind blowing up all the sweetness of the woods and leas. The cattle were grouped in lazy stillness on the dewy grass; the year’s pigs, grown to the hobbledehoy stage of existence, were grubbing about contentedly among the furze-bushes; by the roadside, a matronly sow lay stretched flat upon her side in the sunshine, just where carriage-wheels must pass over her were carriages frequent in those parts.
Even the brightness of the morning had no charm for Vixen. There was no delight for her in the green solemnity of the forest glades, where the beechen pillars led the eye away into innumerable vistas, each grandly mysterious as a cathedral aisle. The sun shot golden arrows through dark boughs, patching the moss with translucent lights, vivid and clear as the lustre of emeralds. The gentle plash of the forest stream, rippling over its pebbly bed, made a tender music that was wont to seem passing sweet to Violet Tempest’s ear. To-day she heard nothing, saw nothing. Her brain was clouded with angry thoughts.
She left the Forest by-and-by, following one of the familiar cart-tracks, and came out into the peaceful little colony of Beechdale, where it was a chance if the noonday traveller saw anything alive except a youthful family of pigs enjoying an oasis of mud in a dry land, or an intrusive dog rushing out of a cottage to salute the wayfarer with an inquiring bark. The children were still in school. The hum or their voices was wafted from the open windows. The church door stood open. The village graves upon the sunward-fronting slope were bright with common flowers; the dead lying with their feet to the west, ready to stand up and see their Lord at the resurrection morning.
Vixen hurried through the little village, not wanting to see Mrs. Scobel, or anyone she knew, this morning. There was a long rustic lane opposite the church, that led straight to the kennels.
“I will go and see the foxhounds,” said Vixen. “They are true and faithful. But perhaps all those I love best have been sold, or are dead by this time.”
It seemed to her ages since she had been to the kennels with her father. It had been his favourite walk, out of the hunting season, and he had rarely suffered a week to pass without making his visit of inspection. Since her return Violet had carefully avoided the well-known spot; but to-day, out of the very bitterness of her heart, came a desire to renew past associations. Bullfinch was gone for ever, but the hounds at least remained; and her father had loved them almost as well as he had loved Bullfinch.
Nothing was changed at the kennels. The same feeder in corduroy and fustian came out of the cooking-house when Vixen opened the five-barred gate. The same groom was lounging in front of the stables, where the horses were kept for the huntsman and his underlings. The whole place had the same slumberous out-of-season look she remembered so well of old in the days when hunting was over.
The men touched their caps to Miss Tempest as she passed them. She went straight to the kennels. There were the three wooden doors, opening into three square stone-paved yards, each door provided with a small round eye-hole, through which the authorities might scrutinise the assembly within. A loud yelping arose as Vixen’s footsteps drew near. Then there were frantic snuffings under the doors, and a general agitation. She looked through the little eye-hole into the middle yard. Yes; there they were, fourteen or fifteen couple, tumultuously excited, as if they knew she was there: white and black and tan, pointed noses, beautiful intelligent eyes, bright tan spots upon marked brows, some with a streak of white running down the long sharp noses, some heavy in the jowl, some with muzzles sharp as a greyhound’s, thirty tails erect and agitated.
The feeder remembered Miss Tempest perfectly, though it was more than three years since her last visit.
“Would you like to go in and see ’em, miss?” he said.
“Yes, if you please, Dawson. You have Gauntlet still, I see. That is Gauntlet, isn’t it? And Dart, and Juno, and Ringlet, and Artful?”
“Yes, miss. There ain’t many gone since you was here. But there’s a lot o’ poppies. You’d like to see the poppies, wouldn’t you, miss? They be in the next kennel, if you’ll just wait five minutes.”
Cleanliness was the order of the day at the kennels, but to do the late master’s daughter more honour, Dawson the feeder called a bright-looking lad, his subordinate, and divers pails of water were fetched, and the three little yards washed out vigorously before Miss Tempest was invited to enter. When she did go in, the yard was empty and clean as a new pin. The hounds had been sent into their house, where they were all grouped picturesquely on a bench littered with straw, looking as grave as a human parliament, and much wiser. Nothing could be more beautiful than their attitudes, or more intelligent than their countenances.
Vixen looked in at them through the barred window.
“Dear things,” she exclaimed; “they are as lovely as ever. How fond papa was of them.”
And then the kennel-huntsman, who had appeared on the scene by this time, opened the door and smacked his whip; and the fifteen couple came leaping helter-skelter out into the little yard, and made a rush at Vixen, and surrounded her, and fawned upon her, and caressed her as if their recognition of her after long years was perfect, and as if they had been breaking their hearts for her in the interval. Perhaps they would have been just as affectionate to the next comer, having a large surplus stock of love always on hand ready to be lavished on the human race; but Vixen took these demonstrations as expressive of a peculiar attachment, and was moved to tears by the warmth of this canine greeting.
“Thank God! there are some living things that love me,” she exclaimed.
“Something that loves you!” cried a voice from the door of the yard. “Does not everything noble or worthy love you, as it loves all that is beautiful?”
Turning quickly, with a scared look, Violet saw Roderick Vawdrey standing in the doorway.
He stood quietly watching her, his dark eyes softened with a look of tender admiration. There could hardly have been a prettier picture than the tall girlish figure and bright chestnut head, the fair face bending over the upturned noses of the hounds as they clustered round her, some standing up with their strong white paws upon her shoulder, some nestling at her knees. Her hat had fallen off, and was being trampled under a multitude of restless feet.
Rorie came into the little yard. The huntsman cracked his whip, and the hounds went tumbling one over the other into their house, where they leaped upon their straw bed, and grouped themselves as if they had been sitting for their portraits to Sir Edwin Landseer. Two inquisitive fellows stood up with their paws upon the ledge of the barred window, and looked out at Violet and the new master.
“I did not know you were at Briarwood,” she said, as they shook hands.
“I only came home last night. My first visit was naturally here. I wanted to see if everything was in good order.”
“When do you begin to hunt?”
“On the first of October. You are going to be amongst us this year, of course.”
“No. I have never followed the hounds since papa’s death. I don’t suppose I ever shall again.”
“What, not with your stepfather?”
“Certainly not with Captain Winstanley.”
“Then you must marry a hunting-man,” said Rorie gaily. “We can’t afford to lose the straightest rider in the Forest.”
“I am not particularly in love with hunting — for a woman. There seems something bloodthirsty in it. And Bates says that if ladies only knew how their horses’ backs get wrung in the hunting season, they would hardly have the heart to hunt. It was very nice to ride by papa’s side when I was a little girl. I would have gone anywhere with him — through an Indian jungle after tigers — but I don’t care about it now.”
“Well, perhaps you are right; though I should hardly have expected such mature wisdom from my old playfellow, whose flowing locks used once to be the cynosure of the hunting-field. And now, Violet — I may call you Violet, may I not, as I did in the old days? — at least, when I did not call you Vixen.”
“That was papa’s name,” she said quickly. “Nobody ever calls me that now.”
“I understand; I am to call you Violet. And we are to be good friends always, are we not, with a true and loyal friendship?”
“I have not so many friends that I can afford to give up one who is stanch and true,” answered Violet sadly.
“And I mean to be stanch and true, believe me; and I hope, by-and-by, when you come to know Mabel, you and she will be fast friends. You may not cotton to her very easily at first, because, you see, she reads Greek, and goes in for natural science, and has a good many queer ways. But she is all that is pure-minded and noble. She has been brought up in an atmosphere of adulation, and that has made her a little self-opinionated. It is the only fault she has.”
“I shall be very glad if she will let me like her,” Violet said meekly.
They had strolled away from the kennels into the surrounding forest, where the free horses of the soil were roaming from pasture to pasture, and a few vagabond pigs were stealing a march on their brethren, for whom the joys of pannage-time had not yet begun. They walked along idly, following a cart-track that led into the woody deeps where the earliest autumn leaves were dropping gently in the soft west wind. By-and-by they came to a fallen oak, lying by the side of the track, ready for barking, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to sit down side by side on this rustic seat, and talk of days gone by, lazily watching the flickering shadows and darting sunrays in the opposite thicket, or along the slanting stretch of open turf — that smooth emerald grass, so inviting to the eye, so perilous to the foot of man or beast.
“And now, Violet, tell me all about yourself, and about this second marriage of your mother’s,” Roderick began earnestly; “I hope you have quite reconciled yourself to the idea of it by this time.”
“I have not reconciled myself; I never shall,” answered Violet, with restrained anger. “I know that mamma has heaped up sorrow for herself in the days to come, and I pity her too much to be angry with her. Yes; I, who ought to look up to and respect my mother, can only look down upon her and pity her. That is a hard thing, is it not, Rorie? She has married a bad man — mean, and false — and tyrannical. Shall I tell you what he has done within these last few days?”
“Do. I hope it is not anything very bad.”
Violet told how Bullfinch had been sold.
“It looks mean, certainly,” said Mr. Vawdrey; “but I daresay to Captain Winstanley, as a man of the world, it might seem a foolish thing to keep a horse nobody rode; especially such a valuable horse as Bullfinch. Your father gave two hundred and fifty for him at Andover, I remember. And you really have too many horses at the Abbey House.”
“Arion will be the next to be sold, I daresay.”
“Oh, no, no. He could not be such an insolent scoundrel as to sell your horse. That would be too much. Besides, you will be of age in a year or two, and your own mistress.”
“I shall not be of age for the next seven years. I am not to come of age till I am five-and-twenty.”
“Phew!” whistled Rorie, “That’s a long shot off. How is that?”
“Papa left it so in his will. It was his care of me, no doubt. He never would have believed that mamma would marry again.”
“And for the next seven years you are to be in a state of tutelage, dependent on your mother for everything?”
“For everything. And that will really mean dependent upon Captain Winstanley; because I am very sure that as long as he lets mamma wear pretty dresses and drink orange pekoe out of old china, she will be quite contented to let him be master of everything else.”
“But if you were to marry ——”
“I suppose that would entangle or disentangle matters somehow. But I am not likely to marry.”
“I don’t see that,” said Rorie. “I should think nothing was more likely.”
“Allow me to be the best judge of my own business,” exclaimed Vixen, looking desperately angry. “I will go so far as to say that I never shall marry.”
“Oh, very well, if you insist upon it, let it be understood so. And now, Vix —— Violet, don’t you think if you could bring yourself to conciliate Captain Winstanley — to resign yourself, in fact, to the inevitable, and take things pleasantly, it would make your life happier for the next seven years? I really would try to do it, if I were you.”
“I had made up my mind to an existence of hypocrisy before he sold Bullfinch,” replied Vixen, “but now I shall hate him frankly.”
“But, Violet, don’t you see that unless you can bring yourself to live pleasantly with that man your life will be made miserable? Fate condemns you to live under the same roof with him.”
“I am not sure about that. I could go out as a governess. I am not at all clever, but I think I could teach as much as would be good value for twenty pounds a year; or at the worst I might give my services in exchange for a comfortable home, as the advertisements say. How I wish I could read Greek and play Chopin, like Lady Mabel Ashbourne. I’ll write to dear old McCroke, and ask her to get me a place.”
“My dear Violet, how can you talk so absurdly. You, the future mistress of the Abbey House — you, with your youth and beauty and high spirit — to go meandering about the world teaching buttermen’s or tea-dealers’ children to spell B a, ba, and A b, ab?”
“It might be better than sitting at meat with a man I detest,” said Vixen. “Am I to value the flesh-pots of Egypt more than, my liberty and independence of mind?”
“You have your mother to think of,” urged Roderick. “You owe duty and obedience to her, even if she has offended you by this foolish marriage. If you have so bad an opinion of Captain Winstanley, you are all the more bound to stand by your mother.”
“That is an argument worth listening to,” said Vixen. “It might be cruel to leave poor mamma quite at his mercy. I don’t suppose he would actually ill-treat her. He knows his own interest too well for that. He would not lock her up in a cellar, or beat, or starve her. He will be content with making himself her master. She will have no more will of her own than if she were a prettily dressed doll placed at the head of the table for show. She will be lulled into a state of childish bliss, and go smiling through life, believing she has not a wish ungratified. Everybody will think her the happiest of women, and Captain Winstanley the best of husbands.”
Vixen said all this with prophetic earnestness, looking straight forward into the green glade before her, where the beech-nuts and acorns were dropping in a gentle rain of plenty.
“I hope things won’t be quite so bad as you anticipate. I hope you will be able to make yourself happy, in spite of Captain Winstanley. And we shall see each other pretty often, I hope, Violet, as we used in old times. The Dovedales are at Wiesbaden; the Duke only holds existence on the condition of deluging himself with German waters once a year; but they are to be back early in November. I shall make the Duchess call on Mrs. Winstanley directly she returns.”
“Thanks; mamma will be very pleased. I wonder you are not with them.”
“Oh, I had to begin my duties as M. F. H. I wouldn’t have been away for the world.”
Violet looked at her watch. It was a good deal later than she had supposed. Time goes quickly when one is talking over a new grievance with an old friend. She was a long way from the Abbey House.
“I must go home,” she said; “mamma and Captain Winstanley may arrive at any moment. There is no time named in mamma’s last telegram; she said only that they are moving gently homewards.”
“Let us go then,” said Rorie, rising from his rugged seat.
“But I am not going to take you out of your way. Every step of my journey home takes you further from Briarwood.”
“Never mind if it does. I mean to walk to the Abbey House with you. I daresay, if I were very tired, Bates would lend me a mount home.”
“You can have Arion, if you like.”
“No, thanks. Arion shall not have my thirteen stone; I want a little more timber under me.”
“You ought to have had Bullfinch,” said Vixen regretfully.
“I would have had him, if I had known he was in the market. The writing of a figure or so more or less on a cheque should not have hindered me.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05