Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Chiefly Financial.

Violet was gone. Her rooms were empty; her faithful little waiting-maid was dismissed; her dog’s deep-toned thunder no longer sounded through the house, baying joyous welcome when his mistress came down for her early morning ramble in the shrubberies. Arion had been sent to grass, and was running wild in fertile pastures, shoeless and unfettered as the South American mustang on his native prairie. Nothing associated with the exiled heiress was left, except the rooms she had inhabited; and even they looked blank and empty and strange without her. It was almost as if a whole family had departed. Vixen’s presence seemed to have filled the house with youth and freshness, and free joyous life. Without her all was silent as the grave.

Mrs. Winstanley missed her daughter sorely. She had been wont to complain fretfully of the girl’s exuberance; but the blank her absence made struck a chill to the mother’s heart. She had fancied that life would be easier without Violet; that her union with her husband would be more complete; and now she found herself looking wistfully towards the door of her morning-room, listening vaguely for a footstep; and the figure she looked for at the door, and the footsteps she listened for in the corridor were not Conrad Winstanley’s. It was the buoyant step of her daughter she missed; it was the bright frank face of her daughter she yearned for.

One day the captain surprised her in tears, and asked the reason of her melancholy.

“I daresay it’s very weak of me, Conrad,” she said piteously, “but I miss Violet more and more every day.”

“It is uncommonly weak of you,” answered the Captain with agreeable candour, “but I suppose it’s natural. People generally get attached to their worries; and as your daughter was an incessant worry, you very naturally lament her absence. I am honest enough to confess that I am very glad she is gone. We had no domestic peace while she was with us.”

“But she is not to stay away for ever, Conrad. I cannot be separated from my only daughter for ever. That would be too dreadful.”

“‘For ever’ is a long word,” answered the Captain coolly. “She will come back to us — of course.”

“When, dear?”

“When she is older and wiser.”

This was cold comfort. Mrs. Winstanley dried her tears, and resumed her crewel-work. The interesting variety of shades in green which modern art has discovered were a source of comfort to the mother’s troubled mind. Moved to emulation by the results that had been achieved in artistic needle-work by the school at South Kensington and the Royal Tapestry Manufactory at Windsor, Pamela found in her crewel-work an all-absorbing labour. Matilda of Normandy could hardly have toiled more industriously at the Bayeux tapestry than did Mrs. Winstanley, in the effort to immortalise the fleeting glories of woodland blossom or costly orchid upon kitchen towelling.

It was a dull and lonely life which the mistress of the Abbey House led in these latter days of glowing summer weather; and perhaps it was only the distractions of crewels and point-lace which preserved her from melancholy madness. The Captain had been too long a bachelor to renounce the agreeable habits of a bachelor’s existence. His amusements were all masculine, and more or less solitary. When there was no hunting, he gave himself up to fishing, and found his chief delight in the persecution of innocent salmon. He supplied the Abbey House larder with fish, sent an occasional basket to a friend, and dispatched the surplus produce of his rod to a fishmonger in London. He was an enthusiast at billiards, and would play with innocent Mr. Scobel rather than not play at all. He read every newspaper and periodical of mark that was published. He rode a good deal, and drove not a little in a high-wheeled dog-cart; quite an impossible vehicle for a lady. He transacted all the business of house, stable, gardens, and home-farm, and that in the most precise and punctual manner. He wrote a good many letters, and he smoked six or seven cigars every day. It must be obvious, therefore, that he had very little time to devote to his pretty middle-aged wife, whose languid airs and vapourish graces were likely to pall upon an ardent temper after a year of married life. Yet, though she found her days lonely, Mrs. Winstanley had no ground for complaint. What fault could a woman find in a husband who was always courteous and complimentary in his speech, whose domestic tastes were obvious, who thought it no trouble to supervise the smallest details of the household, who could order a dinner, lay out a garden, stock a conservatory, or amend the sanitary arrangements of a stable with equal cleverness; who never neglected a duty towards wife or society?

Mrs. Winstanley could see no flaw in the perfection of her husband’s character; but it began about this time slowly to dawn upon her languid soul that, as Captain Winstanley’s wife, she was not so happy as she had been as Squire Tempest’s widow.

Her independence was gone utterly. She awoke slowly to the comprehension of that fact. Her individuality was blotted out, or absorbed into her husband’s being. She had no more power or influence in her own house, than the lowest scullion in her kitchen. She had given up her banking account, and the receipt of her rents, which in the days of her widowhood had been remitted to her half-yearly by the solicitor who collected them. Captain Winstanley had taken upon himself the stewardship of his wife’s income. She had been inclined to cling to her cheque-book and her banking account at Southampton; but the Captain had persuaded her of the folly of such an arrangement.

“Why two balances and two accounts, when one will do?” he argued. “You have only to ask me for a cheque when you want it, or to give me your bills.”

Whereupon the bride of six weeks had yielded graciously, and the balance had been transferred from the Southampton bank to Captain Winstanley’s account at the Union.

But now, with Theodore’s unsettled account of four years’ standing hanging over her head by the single hair of the penny post, and likely to descend upon her any morning, Mrs. Winstanley regretted her surrendered banking account, with its balance of eleven hundred pounds or so. The Captain had managed everything with wondrous wisdom, no doubt. He had done away with all long credits. He paid all his bills on the first Saturday in the month, save such as could be paid weekly. He had reduced the price of almost everything supplied to the Abbey House, from the stable provender to the wax candles that lighted the faded sea-green draperies and white panelling of the drawing-room. The only expenditure over which he had no control was his wife’s private disbursement; but he had a habit of looking surprised when she asked him for a cheque, and a business-like way of asking the amount required, which prevented her applying to him often. Still, there was that long-standing account of Madame Theodore’s in the background, and Mrs. Winstanley felt that it was an account which must be settled sooner or later. Her disinclination to ask her husband for money had tended to swell Theodore’s bill. She had bought gloves, ribbons, shoes, everything from that tasteful purveyor, and had even obtained the somewhat expensive material for her fancy work through Madame Theodore; a temporary convenience which she could hardly hope to enjoy gratis.

Like all weak women she had her occasional longings for independence, her moments of inward revolt against the smooth tyrant. The income was hers, she argued with herself sometimes, and she had a right to spend her own money as she pleased. But then she recalled her husband’s grave warnings about the future and its insecurity. She had but a brief lease of her present wealth, and he was labouring to lay by a provision for the days to come.

“It would be wicked of me to thwart him in such a wise purpose,” she told herself.

The restriction of her charities pained the soft-hearted Pamela not a little. To give to all who asked her had been the one unselfish pleasure of her narrow soul. She had been imposed upon, of course; had fed families whose fathers squandered their weekly wages in the cosy taproom of a village inn; had in some wise encouraged idleness and improvident living; but she had been the comforter of many a weary heart, the benefactor of many a patient care-oppressed mother, the raiser-up of many a sickly child drooping on its bed of pain.

Now, under the Captain’s rule, she had the pleasure of seeing her name honourably recorded in the subscription list of every local charity: but her hand was no longer open to the surrounding poor, her good old Saxon name of Lady had lost its ancient significance. She was no longer the giver of bread to the hungry. She sighed and submitted, acknowledging her husband’s superior wisdom.

“You would not like to live in a semi-detached villa on the Southampton Road, would you, my dear Pamela?” asked the Captain.

“I might die in a semi-detached house, Conrad. I’m sure I could not live in one,” she exclaimed piteously.

“Then, my love, we must make a tremendous effort and save all we can before your daughter comes of age, or else we shall assuredly have to leave the Abbey House. We might go abroad certainly, and live at Dinan, or some quiet old French town where provisions are cheap.”

“My dear Conrad, I could not exist in one of those old French towns, smelling perpetually of cabbage-soup.”

“Then, my dear love, we must exercise the strictest economy, or life will be impossible six years hence.”

Pamela sighed and assented, with a sinking of her heart. To her mind this word economy was absolutely the most odious in the English language. Her life was made up of trifles; and they were all expensive trifles. She liked to be better dressed than any woman of her acquaintance. She liked to surround herself with pretty things; and the prettiness must take the most fashionable form, and be frequently renewed. She had dim ideas which she considered aesthetic, and which involved a good deal of shifting and improving of furniture.

Against all these expensive follies Captain Winstanley set his face sternly, using pretty words to his wife at all times, but proving himself as hard as rock when she tried to bend him to her will. He had not yet interfered with her toilet, for he had yet to learn what that cost.

This knowledge came upon him like a thunder-clap one sultry morning in July — real thunder impending in the metallic-tinted sky — about a month after Vixen’s departure.

Theodore’s long-expected bill was among the letters in the morning’s bag — a bulky envelope which the Captain handed to his wife with his usual politeness. He never opened her letters, but he invariably asked to see them, and she always handed her correspondence over to him with a childlike meekness. To-day she was slow to hand the Captain her letter. She sat looking at the long list of items with a clouded brow, and forgot to pour out her husband’s coffee in the abstraction of a troubled mind.

“I’m afraid your letters of this morning are not of a very pleasant character, my love,” said the Captain, watchful of his wife’s clouded countenance. “Is that a bill you are examining? I thought we paid ready money for everything.”

“It is my dressmaker’s bill,” faltered Mrs. Winstanley.

“A dressmaker’s bill! That can’t be very alarming. You look as awful, and the document looks as voluminous, as if it were a lawyer’s bill, including the costs of two or three unlucky Chancery suits, or half-a-dozen conveyances. Let me have the account, dear, and I’ll send your dressmaker a cheque next Saturday.”

He held out his hand for the paper, but Pamela did not give it to him.

“I’m afraid you’ll think it awfully high, Conrad,” she said, in a deprecating tone. “You see it has been running a long time — since the Christmas before dear Edward’s death, in fact. I have paid Theodore sums on account in the meanwhile, but those seem to go for very little against the total of her bill. She is expensive, of course. All the West End milliners are; but her style is undeniable, and she is in direct association with Worth.”

“My dear Pamela, I did not ask you for her biography, I asked only for her bill. Pray let me see the total, and tell me if you have any objections to make against the items.”

“No,” sighed Mrs. Winstanley, bending over the document with a perplexed brow, “I believe — indeed, I am sure — I have had all the things. Many of them are dearer than I expected; but there is no rule as to the price of anything thoroughly Parisian, that has not been seen in London. One has to pay for style and originality. I hope you won’t be vexed at having to write so large a cheque, Conrad, at a time when you are so anxious to save money. Next year I shall try my best to economise.”

“My dearest Pamela, why beat about the bush? The bill must be paid, whatever its amount. I suppose a hundred pounds will cover it?”

“Oh, Conrad, when many women give a hundred pounds for a single dress!”

“When they do I should say that Bedlam must be their natural and fitting abode,” retorted the Captain, with suppressed ire. “The bill is more than a hundred then? Pray give it me, Pamela, and make an end of this foolishness.”

This time Captain Winstanley went over to his wife, and took the paper out of her hand. He had not seen the total, but he was white with rage already. He had made up his mind to squeeze a small fortune out of the Abbey House estate during his brief lease of the property; and here was this foolish wife of his squandering hundreds upon finery.

“Be kind enough to pour me out a cup of coffee,” he said, resuming his seat, and deliberately spreading out the bill.

“Great Heaven!” he cried, after a glance at the total. “This is too preposterous. The woman must be mad.”

The total was seventeen hundred and sixty-four pounds fourteen and sixpence. Mrs. Winstanley’s payments on account amounted to four hundred pounds; leaving a balance of thirteen hundred and sixty-four pounds for the Captain to liquidate.

“Indeed, dear Conrad, it is not such a very tremendous account,” pleaded Pamela, appalled by the expression of her husband’s face. “Theodore has customers who spend two thousand a year with her.”

“Very laudable extravagance, if they are wives of millionaires, and have their silver-mines, or cotton-mills, or oil-wells to maintain them. But that the widow of a Hampshire squire, a lady who six years hence will have to exist upon a pittance, should run up such a bill as this is to my mind an act of folly that is almost criminal. From this moment I abandon all my ideas of nursing your estate, of providing comfortably for our future. Henceforward we must drift towards insolvency, like other people. It would be worse than useless for me to go on racking my brains in the endeavour to secure a given result, when behind my back your thoughtless extravagance is stultifying all my efforts.”

Here Mrs. Winstanley dissolved into tears.

“Oh Conrad! How can you say such cruel things?” she sobbed. “I go behind your back! I stultify you! When I have allowed myself to be ruled and governed in everything! When I have even parted with my only child to please you!”

“Not till your only child had tried to set the house on fire.”

“Indeed, Conrad, you are mistaken there. She never meant it.”

“I know nothing about her meaning,” said the Captain moodily. “She did it.”

“It is too cruel, after all my sacrifices, that I should be called extravagant — and foolish — and criminal. I have only dressed as a lady ought to dress — out of mere self-respect. Dear Edward always liked to see me look nice. He never said an unkind word about my bills. It is a sad — sad change for me.”

“Your future will be a sadder change, if you go on in the way you are going,” retorted the Captain. “Let me see: your income, after Violet comes of age, is to fifteen hundred a year. You have been spending six hundred a year upon millinery. That leaves nine hundred for everything else — stable, garden, coals, taxes, servants’ wages, wine — to say nothing of such trifling claims as butcher and baker, and the rest of it. You will have to manage with wonderful cleverness to make both ends meet.”

“I am sure I would sacrifice anything rather than live unhappily with you, Conrad,” Mrs. Winstanley murmured piteously, drinking much strong tea in her agitation, the cup shaking in her poor little white weak hand. “Nothing could be so dreadful to me as to live on bad terms with you. I have surrendered so much for your love, Conrad. What would become of me, if I lost that? I will give up dealing with Theodore, if you like — though it will be a hard trial, after she has worked for me so many years, and has studied my style and knows exactly what suits me. I will dress ever so plainly, and even have my gowns made by a Southampton dressmaker, though that will be too dreadful. You will hardly recognise me. But I will do anything — anything, Conrad, rather than hear you speak so cruelly.”

She went over to him and laid her hand tremulously on his shoulder, and looked down at him with piteous, pleading eyes. No Circassian slave, afraid of bowstring and sack, could have entreated her master’s clemency with deeper self-abasement.

Even Conrad Winstanley’s hard nature was touched by the piteousness of her look and tone. He took the hand gently and raised it to his lips.

“I don’t mean to be cruel, Pamela,” he said. “I only want you to face the truth, and to understand your future position. It is your own money you are squandering, and you have a right to waste it, if it pleases you to do so. But it is a little hard for a man who has laboured and schemed for a given result, suddenly to find himself out in his calculations by so much as thirteen hundred and sixty-four pounds. Let us say no more about it, my dear. Here is the bill, and it must be paid. We have only to consider the items, and see if the prices are reasonable.”

And then the Captain, with bent brow and serious aspect, began to read the lengthy record of an English lady’s folly. Most of the items he passed over in silence, or with only a sigh, keeping his wife by his side, looking over his shoulder.

“Point out anything that is wrong,” he said; but as yet Mrs. Winstanley had found no error in the bill.

Sometimes there came an item which moved the Captain to speech. “A dinner-dress, pain brûlé brocade, mixed poult de soie, manteau de cour, lined ivory satin, trimmed with hand-worked embroidery of wild flowers on Brussels net, sixty-three pounds.”

“What in the name of all that’s reasonable is pain brûlé?” asked the Captain impatiently.

“It’s the colour, Conrad. One of those delicate tertiaries that have been so much worn lately.”

“Sixty guineas for a dinner-dress! That’s rather stiff. Do you know that a suit of dress-clothes costs me nine pounds, and lasts almost as many years?”

“My dear Conrad, for a man it is so different. No one looks at your clothes. That dress was for Lady Ellangowan’s dinner. You made me very happy that night, for you told me I was the best-dressed woman in the room.”

“I should not have been very happy myself if I had known the cost of your gown,” answered the Captain grimly. “Fifteen guineas for a Honiton fichu!” he cried presently. “What in mercy’s name is a fichu? It sounds like a sneeze.”

“It is a little half-handkerchief that I wear to brighten a dark silk dress when we dine alone, Conrad. You know you have always said that lace harmonises a woman’s dress, and gives a softness to the complexion and contour.”

“I shall be very careful what I say in future,” muttered the Captain, as he went on with the bill. “French cambric peignoir, trimmed real Valenciennes, turquoise ribbon, nineteen guineas,” he read presently. “Surely you would never give twenty pounds for a gown you wear when you are having your hair dressed?”

“That is only the name, dear. It is really a breakfast-dress. You know you always like to see me in white of a morning.”

The Captain groaned and said nothing.

“Come,” he said, by-and-by, “this surely must be a mistake. ‘Shooting dress, superfine silk corduroy, trimmed and lined with cardinal poult de soie, oxydised silver buttons, engraved hunting subjects, twenty-seven guineas.’ Thank Heaven you are not one of those masculine women who go out shooting, and jump over five-barred gates.”

“The dress is quite right, dear, though I don’t shoot. Theodore sent it to me for a walking-dress, and I have worn it often when we have walked in the Forest. You thought it very stylish and becoming, though just a little fast.”

“I see,” said the Captain, with a weary air, “your not shooting does not hinder your having shooting-dresses. Are there any fishing-costumes, or riding-habits, in the bill?”

“No, dear. It was Theodore’s own idea to send me the corduroy dress. She thought it so new and recherché, and even the Duchess admired it. Mine was the first she had ever seen.”

“That was a triumph worth twenty-seven guineas, no doubt,” sighed the Captain. “Well, I suppose there is no more to be said. The bill to me appears iniquitous. If you were a duchess or a millionaire’s wife, of course it would be different. Such women have a right to spend all they can upon dress. They encourage trade. I am no Puritan. But when a woman dresses beyond her means — above her social position — I regret the wise old sumptuary laws which regulated these things in the days when a fur coat was a sign of nobility. If you only knew, Pamela, how useless this expensive finery is, how little it adds to your social status, how little it enhances your beauty! Why, the finest gown this Madame Theodore ever made cannot hide one of your wrinkles.”

“My wrinkles!” cried Pamela, sorely wounded. “That is the first time I ever heard of them. To think that my husband should be the first to tell me I am getting an old woman! But I forgot, you are younger than I, and I daresay in your eyes I seem quite old.”

“My dear Pamela, be reasonable. Can a woman’s forehead at forty be quite as smooth as it was at twenty? However handsome a woman is at that age — and to my mind it is almost the best age for beauty, just as the ripe rich colouring of a peach is lovelier than the poor little pale blossom that preceded it — however attractive a middle-aged woman may be there must be some traces to show that she has lived half her life; and to suppose that pain brûlé brocade, and hand-worked embroidery, can obliterate those, is extreme folly. Dress in rich and dark velvets, and old point-lace that has been twenty years in your possession, and you will be as beautiful and as interesting as a portrait by one of the old Venetian masters. Can Theodore’s highest art make you better than that? Remember that excellent advice of old Polonius’s,

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not expressed in fancy.

It is the fancy that swells your milliner’s bill, the newly-invented trimmings, the complex and laborious combinations.”

“I will be dreadfully economical in future, Conrad. For the last year I have dressed to please you.”

“But what becomes of all these gowns?” asked the Captain, folding up the bill; “what do you do with them?”

“They go out.”

“Out where? To the colonies?”

“No, dear; they go out of fashion; and I give them to Pauline.”

“A sixty-guinea dress flung to your waiting-maid! The Duchess of Dovedale could not do things in better style.”

“I should be very sorry not to dress better than the Duchess,” said Mrs. Winstanley, “she is always hideously dowdy. But a duchess can afford to dress as badly as she likes.”

“I see. Then it is we only who occupy the border-land of society who have to be careful. Well, my dear Pamela, I shall send Madame Theodore her cheque, and with your permission close her account; and, unless you receive some large accession of fortune I should recommend you not to reopen it.”

His wife gave a heart-breaking sigh.

“I would sacrifice anything for your sake, Conrad,” she said, “but I shall be a perfect horror, and you will hate me.”

“I fell in love with you, my dear, not with your gown.”

“But you fell in love with me in my gown, dear; and you don’t know how different your feelings might have been if you had seen me in a gown cut by a country dressmaker.”

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