For some days Violet’s return seemed to have a happy effect upon the invalid. Never had daughter been more devoted, more loving, fuller of sweet cares and consolations for a dying mother, than this daughter. Seeing the mother and child together in this supreme hour, no onlooker could have divined that these two had been ever less fondly united than mother and child should be. The feeble and fading woman seemed to lean on the strong bright girl, to gain a reflected strength from her fulness of life and vigour. It was as if Vixen, with her shining hair and fair young face, brought healthful breezes into the sickly perfumed atmosphere of the invalid’s rooms.
Roderick Vawdrey had a hard time of it during these days of sadness and suspense. He could not deny the right of his betrothed to devote all her time and thought to a dying mother; and yet, having but newly won her for his very own, after dreary years of constraint and severance, he longed for her society as lover never longed before; or at least he thought so. He hung about the Abbey House all day, heedless of the gloomy looks he got from Captain Winstanley, and of the heavy air of sadness that pervaded the house, and was infinitely content and happy when he was admitted to Mrs. Winstanley’s boudoir to take an afternoon cup of tea, and talk for half-an-hour or so, in subdued tones, with mother and daughter.
“I am very glad that things have happened as they have, Roderick,” Mrs. Winstanley said languidly; “though I’m afraid it would make your poor mamma very unhappy if she could know about it. She had so set her heart on your marrying Lady Mabel.”
“Forgetting that it was really my heart which was concerned in the business,” said Rorie. “Dear Mabel was wise enough to show us all the easiest way out of our difficulties. I sent her my mother’s emerald cross and earrings, the day before yesterday, with as pretty a letter as I could write. I think it was almost poetical.”
“And those emeralds of Lady Jane Vawdrey’s are very fine,” remarked Mrs. Winstanley. “I don’t think there is a feather in one of the stones.”
“It was almost like giving away your property, wasn’t it, Vixen?” said Rorie, looking admiringly at his beloved. “But I have a lot of my mother’s jewels for you, and I wanted to send Mabel something, to show her that I was not ungrateful.”
“You acted very properly, Rorie; and as to jewellery, you know very well I don’t care a straw for it.”
“It is a comfort to me to know you will have Lady Jane’s pearl necklace,” murmured Mrs. Winstanley. “It will go so well with my diamond locket. Ah, Rorie, I wish I had been strong enough to see to Violet’s trousseau. It is dreadful to think that it may have to be made by a provincial dressmaker, and with no one to supervise and direct.”
“Dearest mother, you are going to supervise everything,” exclaimed Vixen. “I shall not think of being married till you are well and strong again.”
“That will be never,” sighed the invalid.
Upon this point she was very firm. They all tried — husband, daughter, and friends — to delude her with false hopes, thinking thus to fan the flame of life and keep the brief candle burning a little longer. She was not deceived. She felt herself gradually, painlessly sinking. She complained but little; much less than in the days when her ailments had been in some part fanciful; but she knew very surely that her day was done.
“It is very sweet to have you with me, Violet,” she said. “Your goodness, and Conrad’s loving attentions, make me very happy. I feel almost as if I should like to live a few years longer.”
“Only almost, mother darling?” exclaimed Violet reproachfully.
“I don’t know, dear. I have such a weary feeling; as if life at the very best were not worth the trouble it cost us. I shouldn’t mind going on living if I could always lie here, and take no trouble about anything, and be nursed and waited upon, and have you or Conrad always by my side — but to get well again, and to have to get up, and go about among other people, and take up all the cares of life — no dear, I am much too weary for that. And then if I could get well to-morrow, old age and death would still be staring me in the face. I could not escape them. No, love, it is much better to die now, before I am very old, or quite hideous; even before my hair is gray.”
She took up one of the soft auburn tresses from her pillow, and looked at it, half sadly.
“Your dear papa used to admire my hair, Violet,” she said. “There are a few gray hairs, but you would hardly notice them; but my hair is much thinner than it used to be, and I don’t think I could ever have made up my mind to wear false hair. It never quite matches one’s own. I have seen Lady Ellangowan wearing three distinct heads of hair; and yet gentlemen admire her.”
Mrs. Winstanley was always at her best during those afternoon tea-drinkings. The strong tea revived her; Roderick’s friendly face and voice cheered her. They took her back to the remote past, to the kind Squire’s day of glory, which she remembered as the happiest time of her life; even now, when her second husband was doing all things possible to prove his sincerity and devotion. She had never been completely happy in this second marriage. There had always been a flavour of remorse mingled with her cup of joy; the vague consciousness that she had done a foolish thing, and that the world — her little world within a radius of twenty miles — was secretly laughing at her.
“Do you remember the day we came home from our honeymoon, Conrad,” she said to her husband, as he sat by her in the dusk one evening, sad and silent, “when there was no carriage to meet us, and we had to come home in a fly? It was an omen, was it not?”
“An omen of what, dearest?”
“That all things were not to go well with us in our married life; that we were not to be quite happy.”
“Have you not been happy, Pamela? I have tried honestly to do my duty to you.”
“I know you have, Conrad. You have been all goodness; I always have said so to Violet — and to everyone. But I have had my cares. I felt that I was too old for you. That has preyed upon my mind.”
“Was that reasonable, Pamela, when I have never felt it?”
“Perhaps not at first; and even if you had felt the disparity in our ages you would have been too generous to let me perceive the change in your feelings. But I should have grown an old woman while you were still a young man. It would have been too dreadful. Indeed, dear, it is better as it is. Providence is very good to me.”
“Providence is not very good to me, in taking you from me,” said the Captain, with a touch of bitterness.
It seemed to him passing selfish in his wife to be so resigned to leaving life, and so oblivious of the fact that her income died with her, and that he was to be left out in the cold. One evening, however, when they were sitting alone together, this fact presented itself suddenly to her mind.
“You will lose the Abbey House when I am gone, Conrad.”
“My love, do you think I could live in this house without you?”
“And my income, Conrad; that dies with me, does it not?”
“That is hard for you.”
“I can bear that, Pamela, if I am to bear the loss of you.”
“Dearest love, you have always been disinterested. How could I ever doubt you? Perhaps — indeed I am sure — if I were to ask Violet, she would give you the fifteen hundred a year that I was to have had after she came of age.”
“Pamela, I could not accept any favour from your daughter. You would deeply offend me if you were to suggest such a thing.”
This was true. Much as he valued money, he would have rather starved than taken sixpence from the girl who had scorned him; the girl whose very presence gave rise to a terrible conflict in his breast — passionate love, bitterest antagonism.
“There are the few things that I possess myself — jewels, books, furniture — special gifts of dear Edward’s. Those are my own, to dispose of as I like. I might make a will leaving them to you, Conrad. They are trifles, but ——”
“They will be precious souvenirs of our wedded life,” murmured the Captain, who was very much of Mr. Wemmick’s opinion, that portable property of any kind was worth having.
A will was drawn up and executed next day, in which Mrs. Winstanley left her diamonds to her daughter, her wardrobe to the faithful and long-suffering Pauline — otherwise Mary Smith — and all the rest of her belongings to her dearly-beloved husband, Conrad Winstanley. The Captain was a sufficient man of business to take care that this will was properly executed.
In all this time his daily intercourse with Violet was a source of exceeding bitterness. She was civil, and even friendly in her manner to him — for her mother’s sake. And then, in the completeness of her union with Rorie, she could afford to be generous and forgiving. The old spirit of antagonism died out: her foe was so utterly fallen. A few weeks and the old home would be her own — the old servants would come back, the old pensioners might gather again around the kitchen-door. All could be once more as it had been in her father’s lifetime; and no trace of Conrad Winstanley’s existence would be left; for, alas! it was now an acknowledged fact that Violet’s mother was dying. The most sanguine among her friends had ceased to hope. She herself was utterly resigned. She spent some part of each day in gentle religious exercises with kindly Mr. Scobel. Her last hours were as calm and reasonable as those of Socrates.
So Captain Winstanley had to sit quietly by, and see Violet and her lover grouped by his fading wife’s sofa, and school himself, as he best might, to endure the spectacle of their perfect happiness in each other’s love, and to know that he — who had planned his future days so wisely, and provided, like the industrious ant, for the winter of his life — had broken down in his scheme of existence, after all, and had no more part in this house which he had deemed his own than a traveller at an inn.
It was hard, and he sat beside his dying wife, with anger and envy gnawing his heart — anger against fate, envy of Roderick Vawdrey, who had won the prize. If evil wishes could have killed, neither Violet nor her lover would have outlived that summer. Happily the Captain was too cautious a man to be guilty of any overt act of rage or hatred. His rancorous feelings were decently hidden under a gentlemanly iciness of manner, to which no one could take objection.
The fatal hour came unawares, one calm September afternoon, about six weeks after Violet’s return from Jersey. Captain Winstanley had been reading one of Tennyson’s idyls to his wife, till she sank into a gentle slumber. He left her, with Pauline seated at work by one of the windows, and went to his study to write some letters. Five o’clock was the established hour for kettledrum, but of late the invalid had been unable to bear even the mild excitement of two or three visitors at this time. Violet now attended alone to her mother’s afternoon tea, kneeling by her side as she sipped the refreshing infusion, and coaxing her to eat a waferlike slice of bread-and-butter, or a few morsels of sponge-cake.
This afternoon, when Violet went softly into the room, carrying the little Japanese tray and tiny teapot, she found her mother lying just as the Captain had left her an hour before.
“She’s been sleeping so sweetly, miss,” whispered Pauline. “I never knew her sleep so quiet since she’s been ill.”
That stillness which seemed so good a thing to the handmaid frightened the daughter. Violet set her tray down hastily on the nearest table, and ran to her mother’s sofa. She looked at the pale and sunken cheek, just visible in the downy hollow of the pillows; she touched the hand lying on the silken coverlet. That marble coldness, that waxen hue of the cheek, told her the awful truth. She fell on her knees beside the sofa, with a cry of sharp and sudden sorrow.
“Oh mother, mother! I ought to have loved you better all my life!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05