Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

The Bluebeard Chamber.

The day before the funeral Captain Winstanley received a letter from his stepdaughter, offering to execute any deed he might choose to have prepared, settling upon him the income which his wife was to have had after Violet’s majority.

“I know that you are a heavy loser by my mother’s death,” she wrote, “and I shall be glad to do anything in my power to lessen that loss. I know well that it was her earnest wish that your future should be provided for. I told her a few days before she died that I should make you this offer. I do it with all my heart; and I shall consider myself obliged by your acceptance of it.”

The Captain’s reply was brief and firm.

“I thank you for your generous offer,” he said, “which I feel assured is made in good faith; but I think you ought to know that there are reasons why it is impossible I should accept any benefit from your hand. I shall not re-enter the Abbey House after my wife’s funeral. You will be sole and sovereign mistress of all things from that hour.”

He kept his word. He was chief mourner at the quiet but stately burial under the old yew-tree in Beechdale churchyard. When all was over he got into a fly, and drove to the station at Lyndhurst Road, whence he departed by the first train for London. He told no one anything about his plans for the future; he left no address but his club. He was next heard of six months later, in South America.

Violet had telegraphed to her old governess directly after Mrs. Winstanley’s death; and that good and homely person arrived on the day after the funeral, to take up her abode with her old pupil, as companion and chaperon, until Miss Tempest should have become Mrs. Vawdrey, and would have but one companion henceforward in all the journey of life. Rorie and Vixen were to be married in six months. Mrs. Winstanley had made them promise that her death should delay their marriage as little as possible.

“You can have a very quiet wedding, you know, dear,” she said. “You can be married in your travelling-dress — something pretty in gray silk and terry velvet, or with chinchilla trimming, if it should be winter. Chinchilla is so distinguished-looking. You will go abroad, I suppose, for your honeymoon. Pau, or Monaco, or any of those places on the Mediterranean.”

It had pleased her to settle everything for the lovers. Violet remembered all these speeches with a tender sorrow. There was comfort in the thought that her mother had loved her, according to her lights.

It had been finally settled between the lovers that they were to live at the Abbey House. Briarwood was to be let to any wealthy individual who might desire a handsome house, surrounded by exquisitely arranged gardens, and burdened with glass that would cost a small fortune annually to maintain. Before Mr. Vawdrey could put his property into the hands of the auctioneers, he received a private offer which was in every respect satisfactory.

Lady Mallow wished to spend some part of every year near her father and mother, who lived a good deal at Ashbourne, the Duke becoming yearly more devoted to his Chillingham oxen and monster turnips. Lord Mallow, who loved his native isle to distraction, but always found six weeks in a year a sufficient period of residence there, was delighted to please his bride, and agreed to take Briarwood, furnished, on a seven-years’ lease. The orchid-houses were an irresistible attraction, and by this friendly arrangement Lady Mallow would profit by the alterations and improvements her cousin had made for her gratification, when he believed she was to be his wife.

Briarwood thus disposed of, Rorie was free to consider the Abbey House his future home; and Violet had the happiness of knowing that the good old house in which her childhood had been spent would be her habitation always, till she too was carried to the family vault under the old yew-tree. There are people who languish for change, for whom the newest is ever the best; but it was not thus with Violet Tempest. The people she had known all her life, the scenes amidst which she had played when a child, were to her the dearest people and the loveliest scenes upon earth. It would be pleasant to her to travel with her husband, and see fair lands across the sea: but pleasanter still would be the home-coming to the familiar hearth beside which her father had sat, the old faces that had looked upon him, the hands that had served him, the gardens he had planted and improved.

“I should like to show you Briarwood before it is let, Vixen,” Mr. Vawdrey said to his sweetheart, one November morning. “You may at least pay my poor patrimony the compliment of looking at it before it becomes the property of Lord and Lady Mallow. Suppose you and Miss McCroke drive over and drink tea with me this afternoon? I believe my housekeeper brews pretty good tea.”

“Very well, Rorie, we’ll come to tea. I should rather like to see the improvements you made for Lady Mabel, before your misfortune. I think Lord Mallow must consider it very good of you to let him have the benefit of all the money you spent, instead of bringing an action for breach of promise against his wife, as you might very well have done.”

“I daresay. But you see I am of a forgiving temper. Well, I shall tell my housekeeper to have tea and buns, and jam, and all the things children — and young ladies — like, at four o’clock. We had better make it four instead of five, as the afternoons are so short.”

“If you are impertinent we won’t come.”

“Oh yes you will. Curiosity will bring you. Remember this will be your last chance of seeing the Bluebeard chamber at Briarwood.”

“Is there a Bluebeard chamber?”

“Of course. Did you ever know of a family mansion without one?”

Vixen was delighted at the idea of exploring her lover’s domain, now that he and it were her own property. How well she remembered going with her father to the meet on Briarwood lawn. Yet it seemed a century ago — the very beginning of her life — before she had known sorrow.

Miss McCroke, who was ready to do anything her pupil desired, was really pleased at the idea of seeing the interior of Briarwood.

“I have never been inside the doors, you know, dear,” she said, “often as I have driven past the gates with your dear mamma. Lady Jane Vawdrey was not the kind of person to invite a governess to go and see her. She was a strict observer of the laws of caste. The Duchess has much less pride.”

“I don’t think Lady Jane ever quite forgave herself for marrying a commoner,” said Vixen. “She revenged her own weakness upon other people.”

Violet had a new pair of ponies, which her lover had chosen for her, after vain endeavours to trace and recover the long-lost Titmouse. These she drove to Briarwood, Miss McCroke resigning herself to the will of Providence with a blind submission worthy of a Moslem; feeling that if it were written that she was to be flung head foremost out of a pony-carriage, the thing would happen sooner or later. Staying at home to-day would not ward off to-morrow’s doom. So she took her place in the cushioned valley by Violet’s side, and sat calm and still, while the ponies, warranted quiet to drive in single or double harness, stood up on end and made as if they had a fixed intention of scaling the rhododendron bank.

“They’ll settle down directly I’ve taken the freshness out of them,” said Vixen, blandly, as she administered a reproachful touch of the whip.

“I hope they will,” replied Miss McCroke; “but don’t you think Bates ought to have seen the freshness taken out of them before we started?”

They were soon tearing along the smooth Roman road at a splendid pace, “the ponies going like clockwork,” as Vixen remarked approvingly; but poor Miss McCroke thought that any clock which went as fast as those ponies would be deemed the maddest of timekeepers.

They found Roderick standing at his gates, waiting for them. There was a glorious fire in the amber and white drawing-room, a dainty tea table drawn in front of the hearth, the easiest of chairs arranged on each side of the table, an urn hissing, Rorie’s favourite pointer stretched upon the hearth, everything cosy and homelike. Briarwood was not such a bad place after all, Vixen thought. She could have contrived to be happy with Roderick even here; but of course the Abbey House was, in her mind, a hundred times better, being just the one perfect home in the world.

They all three sat round the fire, drinking tea, poured out by Vixen, who played the mistress of the house sweetly. They talked of old times, sometimes sadly, sometimes sportively, glancing swiftly from one old memory to another. All Rorie’s tiresome ways, all Vixen’s mischievous tricks, were remembered.

“I think I led you a life in those days, didn’t I, Rorie?” asked Vixen, leaving the teatray, and stealing softly behind her lover’s chair to lean over his shoulder caressingly, and pull his thick brown beard. “There is nothing so delightful as to torment the person one loves best in the world. Oh, Rorie, I mean to lead you a life by-and-by!”

“Dearest, the life you lead me must needs be sweet, for it will be spent with you.”

After tea they set out upon a round of inspection, and admired the new morning-room that had been devised for Lady Mabel, in the very latest style of Dutch Renaissance — walls the colour of muddy water, glorified ginger-jars, ebonised chairs and tables, and willow-pattern plates all round the cornice; curtains mud-colour, with a mediaeval design in dirty yellow, or, in upholsterer’s language, “old gold.”

“I should like to show you the stables before it is quite dark,” said Rorie presently. “I made a few slight improvements there while the builders were about.”

“You know I have a weakness for stables,” answered Vixen. “How many a lecture I used to get from poor mamma about my unfortunate tastes. But can there be anything in the world nicer than a good old-fashioned stable, smelling of clover and newly-cut hay?”

“Stables are very nice indeed, and very useful, in their proper place,” remarked Miss McCroke sententiously.

“But one ought not to bring the stables into the drawing-room,” said Vixen gravely. “Come, Rorie, let us see your latest improvements in stable-gear.”

They all went out to the stone-paved quadrangle, which was as neatly kept as a West–End livery-yard. Miss McCroke had an ever-present dread of the ubiquitous hind-legs of strange horses: but she followed her charge into the stable, with the same heroic fidelity with which she would have followed her to the scaffold or the stake.

There were all Rorie’s old favourites — Starlight Bess, with her shining brown coat, and one white stocking; Blue Peter, broad-chested, well-ribbed, and strong of limb; Pixie, the gray Arab mare, which Lady Jane used to drive in a park-phaeton — quite an ancient lady; Donald, the iron-sinewed hunter.

Vixen knew them all, and went up to them and patted their graceful heads, and made herself at home with them.

“You are all coming to the Abbey House to live, you dear things,” she said delightedly.

There was a loose-box, shut off by a five-foot wainscot partition, surmounted by a waved iron rail, at one end of the stable, and on approaching this enclosure Vixen was saluted with sundry grunts and snorting noises, which seemed curiously familiar.

At the sound of these she stopped short, turning red, and then pale, and looked intently at Rorie, who was standing close by, smiling at her.

“That is my Bluebeard chamber,” he said gaily. “There’s something too awful inside.”

“What horse have you got there?” cried Vixen eagerly.

“A horse that I think will carry you nicely, when we hunt together.”

“What horse? Have I ever seen him? Do I know him?”

The grunts and snortings were continued with a crescendo movement; an eager nose was rattling the latch of the door that shut off the loose-box.

“If you have a good memory for old friends, I think you will know this one,” said Rorie, withdrawing a bolt.

A head pushed open the door, and in another moment Vixen’s arms were round her old favourite’s sleek neck, and the velvet nostrils were sniffing her hair and cheek, in most loving recognition.

“You dear, dear old fellow!” cried Vixen; and then turning to Rorie: “You told me he was sold at Tattersall’s!” she exclaimed.

“So he was, and I bought him.”

“Why did you not tell me that?”

“Because you did not ask me.”

“I thought you so unkind, so indifferent about him.”

“You were unkind when you could think it possible I should let your favourite horse fall into strange hands. But perhaps you would rather Lord Mallow had bought him?”

“To think that you should have kept the secret all this time!” said Vixen.

“You see I am not a woman, and can keep a secret. I wanted to have one little surprise for you, as a reward when you had been especially good.

“You are good,” she said, standing on tiptoe to kiss him. “And though I have loved you all my life, I don’t think I have loved you the least little bit too much.”

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