Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

“With weary Days thou shalt be clothed and fed.”

Captain Winstanley never again alluded to the dressmaker’s bill. He was too wise a man to reopen old wounds or to dwell upon small vexations. He had invested every penny that he could spare, leaving the smallest balance at his banker’s compatible with respectability. He had to sell some railway shares in order to pay Madame Theodore. Happily the shares had gone up since his purchase of them, and he lost nothing by the transaction; but it galled him sorely to part with the money. It was as if an edifice that he had been toilfully raising, stone by stone, had begun to crumble under his hands. He knew not when or whence the next call might come. The time in which he had to save money was so short. Only six years, and the heiress would claim her estate, and Mrs. Winstanley would be left with the empty shell of her present position — the privilege of occupying a fine old Tudor mansion, with enormous stables, and fifteen acres of garden and shrubberies, and an annuity that would barely suffice to maintain existence in a third-rate London square.

Mrs. Winstanley was slow to recover from the shock of her husband’s strong language about Theodore’s bill. She was sensitive about all things that touched her own personality, and she was peculiarly sensitive about the difference between her husband’s age and her own. She had married a man who was her junior; but she had married him with the conviction that, in his eyes at least, she had all the bloom and beauty of youth, and that he admired and loved her above all other women. That chance allusion to her wrinkles had pierced her heart. She was deeply afflicted by the idea that her husband had perceived the signs of advancing years in her face. And now she fell to perusing her looking-glass more critically than she had ever done before. She saw herself in the searching north light; and the north light was more cruel and more candid than Captain Winstanley. There were lines on her forehead — unmistakable, ineffaceable lines. She could wear her hair in no way that would hide them, unless she had hidden her forehead altogether under a bush of frizzy fluffy curls. There was a faded look about her complexion, too, which she had never before discovered — a wanness, a yellowness. Yes, these things meant age! In such a spirit, perchance, did Elizabeth of England survey the reflection in her mirror, until all the glories of her reign seemed as nothing to her when weighed against this dread horror of fast-coming age. And luckless Mary, cooped up in the narrow rooms at Fotheringay, may have deemed captivity, and the shadow of doom, as but trifling ills compared with the loss of youth and beauty. Once to have been exquisitely beautiful, the inspiration of poets, the chosen model of painters, and to see the glory fading — that, for a weak woman, must be sorrow’s crown of sorrow.

Anon dim feelings of jealousy began to gnaw Pamela’s heart. She grew watchful of her husband’s attentions to other women, suspicious of looks and words that meant no more than a man’s desire to please. Society no longer made her happy. Her Tuesday afternoons lost their charm. There was poison in everything. Lady Ellangowan’s flirting ways, which had once only amused her, now tortured her. Captain Winstanley’s devotion to this lively matron, which had heretofore seemed only the commoner’s tribute of respect to the peeress, now struck his wife as a too obvious infatuation for the woman. She began to feel wretched in the society of certain women — nay, of all women who were younger, or possibly more attractive, than herself. She felt that the only security for her peace would be to live on a desert island with the husband she had chosen. She was of too weak a mind to hide these growing doubts and ever-augmenting suspicions. The miserable truth oozed out of her in foolish little speeches; those continual droppings that wear the hardest stone, and which wore even the adamantine surface of the Captain’s tranquil temper. There was a homoeopathic admixture of this jealous poison in all the food he ate. He could rarely get through a tête-à-tête breakfast or dinner undisturbed by some invidious remark.

One day the Captain rose up in his strength, and grappled with this jealous demon. He had let the little speeches, the random shots, pass unheeded until now; but on one particularly dismal morning, a bleak March morning, when the rain beat against the windows, and the deodoras and cypresses were lashed and tormented by the blusterous wind, and the low sky was darkly gray, the captain’s temper suddenly broke out.

“My dear Pamela, is it possible that these whimpering little speeches of yours mean jealousy?” he asked, looking at her severely from under bent brows.

“I’m sure I never said that I was jealous,” faltered Pamela, stirring her tea with a nervous movement of her thin white band.

“Of course not; no woman cares to describe herself in plain words as an idiot; but of late you have favoured me with a good many imbecile remarks, which all seem to tend one way. You are hurt and wounded when I am decently civil to the women I meet in society. Is that sensible or reasonable, in a woman of your age and experience?”

“You used not to taunt me with my age before we were married, Conrad.”

“Do I taunt you with it now? I only say that a woman of forty,”— Mrs. Winstanley shuddered —“ought to have more sense than a girl of eighteen; and that a woman who had had twenty years’ experience of well-bred society ought not to put on the silly jealousies of a school-girl trying to provoke a quarrel with her first lover.”

“It is all very well to pretend to think me weak and foolish, Conrad. Yes, I know I am weak, ridiculously weak, in loving you as intensely as I do. But I cannot help that. It is my nature to cling to others, as the ivy clings to the oak. I would have clung to Violet, if she had been more loving and lovable. But you cannot deny that your conduct to Lady Ellangowan yesterday afternoon was calculated to make any wife unhappy.”

“If a wife is to be unhappy because her husband talks to another woman about her horses and her gardens, I suppose I gave you sufficient cause for misery,” answered the Captain sneeringly. “I can declare that Lady Ellangowan and I were talking of nothing more sentimental.”

“Oh, Conrad, it is not what you talked about, though your voice was so subdued that it was impossible for anyone to know what you were saying ——”

“Except Lady Ellangowan.”

“It was your manner. The way you bent over her, your earnest expression.”

“Would you have had me stand three yards off and bawl at the lady? Or am I bound to assume that bored and vacuous countenance which some young men consider good form? Come, my dear Pamela, pray let us be reasonable. Here are you and I settled for life beside the domestic hearth. We have no children. We are not particularly well off — it will be as much as we shall be able to do, by-and-by, to make both ends meet. We are neither of us getting younger. These things are serious cares, and we have to bear them. Why should you add to these an imaginary trouble, a torment that has no existence, save in your own perverse mind? If you could but know my low estimate of the women to whom I am civil! I like society: and to get on in society a man must make himself agreeable to influential women. It is the women who have the reins in the social race, and by-and-by, if I should go into Parliament ——”

“Parliament!” cried his wife affrightedly. “You want to become a Member of Parliament, and to be out at all hours of the night! Our home-life would be altogether destroyed then.”

“My dear Pamela, if you take such pains to make our home-life miserable, it will be hardly worth preserving,” retorted the Captain.

“Conrad, I am going to ask you a question — a very solemn question.”

“You alarm me.”

“Long ago — before we were married — when Violet was arguing with me against our marriage — you know how vehemently she opposed it —”

“Perfectly. Go on.”

“She told me that you had proposed to her before you proposed to me. Oh, Conrad, could that be true?”

The heart-rending tone in which the question was asked, the pathetic look that accompanied it, convinced Captain Winstanley that, if he valued his domestic peace, he must perjure himself.

“It had no more foundation than many other assertions of that young lady’s,” he said. “I may have paid her compliments, and praised her beauty; but how could I think of her for a wife, when you were by? Your soft confiding nature conquered me before I knew that I was hit.”

He got up and went over to his wife and kissed her kindly enough, feeling sorry for her as he might have done for a wayward child that weeps it scarce knows wherefore, oppressed by a vague sense of affliction.

“Let us try to be happy together, Pamela,” he pleaded, with a sigh, “life is weary work at best.”

“That means that you are not happy, Conrad.”

“My love, I am as happy as you will let me be.”

“Have I ever opposed you in anything?”

“No, dear; but lately you have indulged in covert upbraidings that have plagued me sorely. Let us have no more of them. As for your daughter”— his face darkened at the mention of that name —“understand at once and for ever that she and I can never inhabit the same house. If she comes, I go. If you cannot live without her you must learn to live without me.”

“Conrad, what have I done that you should talk of such a thing? Have I asked you to let Violet come home?”

“No, but you have behaved mopishly of late, as if you were pining for her return.”

“I pine for nothing but your love.”

“That has always been yours.”

With this assurance Mrs. Winstanley was fain to content herself, but even this assurance did not make her happy. The glory and brightness had departed from her life somehow; and neither kind words nor friendly smiles from the Captain could lure them back. There are stages in the lives of all of us when life seems hardly worth living: not periods of great calamity, but dull level bits of road along which the journey seems very weary. The sun has hidden himself behind gray clouds, cold winds are blowing up from the bitter east, the birds have left off singing, the landscape has lost its charm. We plod on drearily, and can see no Pole Star in life’s darkening sky.

It had been thus of late with Pamela Winstanley. Slowly and gradually the conviction had come to her that her second marriage had been a foolish and ill-advised transaction, resulting inevitably in sorrow and unavailing remorse. The sweet delusion that it had been a love-match on Captain Winstanley’s side, as well as on her own, abandoned her all at once, and she found herself face to face with stern common-sense.

That scene about Theodore’s bill had exercised a curious effect upon her mind. To an intellect so narrow, trifles were important, and that the husband who had so much admired and praised the elegance of her appearance could grudge the cost of her toilet galled her sorely. It was positively for her the first revelation of her husband’s character. His retrenchments in household expenses she had been ready to applaud as praiseworthy economies; but when he assailed her own extravagance, she saw in him a husband who loved far too wisely to love well.

“If he cared for me, if he valued my good looks, he could never object to my spending a few pounds upon a dress,” she told herself.

She could not take the Captain’s common-sense view of a subject so important to herself. Love in her mind meant a blind indulgence like the Squire’s. Love that could count the cost of its idol’s caprices, and calculate the chances of the future, was not love. That feeling of poverty, too, was a new sensation to the mistress of the Abbey House, and a very unpleasant one. Married very young to a man of ample means, who adored her, and never set the slightest restriction upon her expenditure, extravagance had become her second nature. To have to study every outlay, to ask herself whether she could not do without a thing, was a hard trial; but it had become so painful to her to ask the Captain for money that she preferred the novel pain of self-denial to that humiliation. And then there was the cheerless prospect of the future always staring her in the face, that dreary time after Violet’s majority, when it would be a question whether she and her husband could afford to go on living at the Abbey House.

“Everybody will know that my income is diminished,” she thought. “However well we may manage, people will know that we are pinching.”

This was a vexatious reflection. The sting of poverty itself could not be so sharp as the pain of being known to be poor.

Captain Winstanley pursued the even tenor of his way all this time, and troubled himself but little about his wife’s petty sorrows. He did his duty to her according to his own lights, and considered that she had no ground for complaint. He even took pains to be less subdued in his manner to Lady Ellangowan, and to give no shadow of reason for the foolish jealousy he so much despised. His mind was busy about his own affairs. He had saved money since his marriage, and he employed himself a good deal in the investment of his savings. So far he had been lucky in all he touched, and had contrived to increase his capital by one or two speculative ventures in foreign railways. If things went on as well for the next six years he and his wife might live at the Abbey House, and maintain their station in the county, till the end of the chapter.

“I daresay Pamela will outlive me,” thought the Captain; “those fragile-looking invalid women are generally long lived. And I have all the chances of the hunting-field, and vicious horses, and other men’s blundering with loaded guns, against me. What can happen to a woman who sits at home and works crewel antimacassars and reads novels all day, and never drinks anything stronger than tea, and never eats enough to disturb her digestion? She ought to be a female Methuselah.”

Secure in this idea or his wife’s longevity, and happy in his speculations, Captain Winstanley looked forward cheerfully to the future: and the evil shadow of the day when the hand of fate should thrust him from the good old house where he was master had never fallen across his dreams.

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