Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Love and AEsthetics.

Spring had returned, primroses and violets were being sold at the street-corners, Parliament was assembled, and London had reawakened from its wintry hibernation to new life and vigour. The Dovedales were at their Kensington mansion. The Duchess had sent forth her cards for alternate Thursday evenings of a quasi-literary and scientific character. Lady Mabel was polishing her poems with serious thoughts of publication, but with strictest secrecy. No one but her parents and Roderick Vawdrey had been told of these poetic flights. The book would be given to the world under a nom de plume. Lady Mabel was not so much a Philistine as to suppose that writing good poetry could be a disgrace to a duke’s daughter; but she felt that the house of Ashbourne would be seriously compromised were the critics to find her guilty of writing doggerel; and critics are apt to deal harshly with the titled muse. She remembered Brougham’s savage onslaught upon the boy Byron.

Mr. Vawdrey was in town. He rode a good deal in the Row, spent an hour or so daily at Tattersall’s, haunted three or four clubs of a juvenile and frivolous character, drank numerous bottles of Apolinaris, and found the task of killing time rather hard labour. Of course there were certain hours in which he was on duty at Kensington. He was expected to eat his luncheon there daily, to dine when neither he nor the ducal house had any other engagement, and to attend all his aunt’s parties. There was always a place reserved for him at the dinner-table, however middle-aged and politically or socially important the assembly might me.

He was to be married early in August. Everything was arranged. The honeymoon was to be spent in Sweden and Norway — the only accessible part of Europe which Lady Mabel had not explored. They were to see everything remarkable in the two countries, and to do Denmark as well, if they had time. Lady Mabel was learning Swedish and Norwegian, in order to make the most of her opportunities.

“It is so wretched to be dependent upon couriers and interpreters,” she said. “I shall be a more useful companion for you, Roderick, if I thoroughly know the language of each country.”

“My dear Mabel, you are a most remarkable girl,” exclaimed her betrothed admiringly. “If you go on at this rate, by the time you are forty you will be as great a linguist as Cardinal Wiseman.”

“Languages are very easy to learn when one has the habit of studying them, and a slight inclination for etymology,” Lady Mabel replied modestly.

Now that the hour of publication was really drawing nigh, the poetess began to feel the need of a confidante. The Duchess was admiring but somewhat obtuse, and rarely admired in the right place. The Duke was out of the question.

If a new Shakespeare had favoured him with the first reading of a tragedy as great as “Hamlet,” the Duke’s thoughts would have wandered off to the impending dearth of guano, or the probable exhaustion of Suffolk punches, and the famous breed of Chillingham oxen. So, for want of anyone better, Lady Mabel was constrained to read her verses to her future husband; just as Molière reads his plays to his housekeeper, for want of any other hearer, the two Béjarts, aunt and niece, having naturally plays enough and to spare in the theatre.

Now, in this crucial hour of her poetic career, Mabel Ashbourne wanted something more than a patient listener. She wanted a critic with a fine ear for rhythm and euphony. She wanted a judge who could nicely weigh the music of a certain combination of syllables, and who could decide for her when she hesitated between two epithets of equal force, but varying depths of tone.

To this nice task she invited her betrothed sometimes on a sunny April afternoon, when luncheon was over, and the lovers were free to repair to Lady Mabel’s own particular den — an airy room on an upper floor, with quaint old Queen Anne casements opening upon a balcony crammed with flowers, and overlooking the umbrageous avenues of Kensington Garden, with a glimpse of the old red palace in the distance.

Rorie did his best to be useful, and applied himself to his duty with perfect heartiness and good-temper; but luncheon and the depressing London atmosphere made him sleepy, and he had sometimes hard work to stifle his yawns, and to keep his eyes open, while Lady Mabel was deep in the entanglement of lines which soared to the seventh heaven of metaphysics. Unhappily Rorie knew hardly anything about metaphysics. He had never read Victor Cousin, or any of the great German lights; and a feeling of despair took possession of him when his sweetheart’s poetry degenerated into diluted Hegelism, or rose to a feeble imitation of Browning’s obscurest verse.

“Either I must be intensely stupid or this must be rather difficult to understand,” he thought helplessly, when Mabel had favoured him with the perusal of the first act of a tragedy or poetic dialogue, in which the hero, a kind of milk-and-watery Faustus, held converse, and argued upon the deeper questions of life and faith, with a very mild Mephisto.

“I’m afraid you don’t like the opening of my ‘Tragedy of the Sceptic Soul’,” Lady Mabel said with a somewhat offended air, as she looked up at the close of the act, and saw poor Rorie gazing at her with watery eyes, and an intensely despondent expression of countenance.

“I’m afraid I’m rather dense this afternoon,” he said with hasty apology, “I think your first act is beautifully written — the lines are full of music; nobody with an ear for euphony could doubt that; but I— forgive me, I fancy you are sometimes a shade too metaphysical — and those scientific terms which you occasionally employ, I fear will be a little over the heads of the general public ——”

“My dear Roderick, do you suppose that in an age whose highest characteristic is the rapid advance of scientific knowledge, there can be anybody so benighted as not to understand the terminology of science?”

“Perhaps not, dear. I fear I am very much behind the times. I have lived too much in Hampshire. I frankly confess that some expressions in your — er — Tragedy of — er — Soulless Scept — Sceptic Soul — were Greek to me.”

“Poor dear Roderick, I should hardly take you as the highest example of the Zeitgeist; but I won’t allow you to call yourself stupid. I’m glad you like the swing of the verse. Did it remind you of any contemporary poet?”

“Well, yes, I think it dimly suggested Browning.”

“I am glad of that. I would not for worlds be an imitator; but Browning is my idol among poets.”

“Some of his minor pieces are awfully jolly,” said the incorrigible Rorie. “That little poem called ‘Youth and Art,’ for instance. And ‘James Lee’s Wife’ is rather nice, if one could quite get at what it means. But I suppose that is too much to expect from any great poet?”

“There are deeper meanings beneath the surface — meanings which require study,” replied Mabel condescendingly. “Those are the religion of poetry ——”

“No doubt,” assented Rorie hastily; “but frankly, my dear Mabel, if you want your book to be popular ——”

“I don’t want my book to be popular. Browning is not popular. If I had wanted to be popular, I should have worked on a lower level. I would even have stooped to write a novel.”

“Well then I will say, if you want your poem to be understood by the average intellect, I really would sink the scientific terminology, and throw overboard a good deal of the metaphysics. Byron has not a scientific or technical phrase in all his poems.”

“My dear Roderick, you surely would not compare me to Byron, the poet of he Philistines. You might as well compare me with the author of ‘Lalla Rookh,’ or advise me to write like Rogers or Campbell.”

“I beg your pardon, my dear Mabel. I’m afraid I must be an out and out Philistine, for to my mind Byron is the prince of poets. I would rather have written ‘The Giaour’ than anything that has ever been published since it appeared.”

“My poor Roderick!” exclaimed Mabel, with a pitying sigh. “You might as well say you would be proud of having written ‘The Pickwick Papers’.”

“And so I should!” cried Rorie heartily. “I should think no end of myself if I had invented Winkle. Do you remember his ride from Rochester to Dingley Dell? — one of the finest things that was ever written.”

And this incorrigible young man flung himself back in the low arm-chair, and laughed heartily at the mere recollection of that episode in the life of the famous Nathaniel. Mabel Ashbourne closed her manuscript volume with a sigh, and registered an oath that she would never read any more of her poetry to Roderick Vawdrey. It was quite useless. The poor young man meant well, but he was incorrigibly stupid — a man who admired Byron and Dickens, and believed Macaulay the first of historians.

“In the realm of thought we must dwell apart all our lives,” Mabel told herself despairingly.

“The horses are ordered for five,” she said, as she locked the precious volume in her desk; “will you get yours and come back for me?”

“I shall be delighted,” answered her lover, relieved at being let off so easily.

It was about this time that Lord Mallow, who was working with all his might for the regeneration of his country, made a great hit in the House by his speech on the Irish land question. He had been doing wonderful things in Dublin during the winter, holding forth to patriotic assemblies in the Round Room of the Rotunda, boldly declaring himself a champion of the Home Rulers’ cause, demanding Repeal and nothing but Repeal. He was one of the few Repealers who had a stake in the country, and who was likely to lose by the disruption of social order. If foolish, he was at least disinterested, and had the courage of his opinions. This was in the days when Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister, and when Irish Radicals looked to him as the one man who could and would give them Home Rule.

In the House of Commons Lord Mallow was not ashamed to repeat the arguments he had used in the Round Room. If his language was less vehement at Westminster than it had been in Dublin, his opinions were no less thorough. He had his party here, as well as on the other side of the Irish Channel; and his party applauded him. Here was a statesman and a landowner willing to give an ell, where Mr. Gladstone’s Land Act gave only an inch. Hibernian newspapers sung his praises in glowing words, comparing him to Burke, Curran, and O’Connell. He had for some time been a small lion at evening parties; he now began to be lionised at serious dinners. He was thought much of in Carlton Gardens, and his name figured at official banquets in Downing Street. The Duchess of Dovedale considered it a nice trait in his character that, although he was so much in request, and worked so hard in the House, he never missed one of her Thursday evenings. Even when there was an important debate on he would tear up Birdcage Walk in a hansom, and spend an hour in the Duchess’s amber drawing-rooms, enlightening Lady Mabel as to the latest aspect of the Policy of Conciliation, or standing by the piano while she played Chopin.

Lord Mallow had never forgotten his delight at finding a young lady thoroughly acquainted with the history of his native land, thoroughly interested in Erin’s struggles and Erin’s hopes; a young lady who knew all about the Protestants of Ulster, and what was meant by Fixity of Tenure. He came to Lady Mabel naturally in his triumphs, and he came to her in his disappointments. She was pleased and flattered by his faith in her wisdom, and was always ready to lend a gracious ear. She, whose soul was full of ambition, was deeply interested in the career of an ambitious young man — a man who had every excuse for being shallow and idle, and yet was neither.

“If Roderick were only like him there would be nothing wanting in my life,” she thought regretfully. “I should have felt much a pride in a husband’s fame, I should have worked so gladly to assist him in his career. The driest blue-books would not have been too weary for me — the dullest drudgery of parliamentary detail would have been pleasant work, if it could have helped him in his progress to political distinctions.”

One evening, when Mabel and Lord Mallow were standing in the embrasure of a window, walled in by the crowd of aristocratic nobodies and intellectual eccentricities, talking earnestly of poor Erin and her chances of ultimate happiness, the lady, almost unawares, quoted a couplet of her own which seemed peculiarly applicable to the argument.

“Whose lines are those?” Lord Mallow asked eagerly; “I never heard them before.”

Mabel blushed like a schoolgirl detected in sending a valentine.

“Upon my soul,” cried the Irishman, “I believe they are your own! Yes, I am sure of it. You, whose mind is so high above the common level, must sometimes express yourself in poetry. They are yours, are they not?”

“Can you keep a secret?” Lady Mabel asked shyly.

“For you? Yes, on the rack. Wild horses should not tear it out of my heart; boiling lead, falling on me drop by drop, should not extort it from me.”

“The lines are mine. I have written a good deal — in verse. I am going to publish a volume, anonymously, before the season is over. It is quite a secret. No one — except mamma and papa, and Mr. Vawdrey — knows anything about it.”

“How proud they — now especially proud Mr. Vawdrey must be of your genius,” said Lord Mallow. “What a lucky fellow he is.”

He was thinking just at that moment of Violet Tempest, to whose secret preference for Roderick Vawdrey he attributed his own rejection. And now here — where again he might have found the fair ideal of his youthful dreams — here where he might have hoped to form an alliance at once socially and politically advantageous — this young Hampshire’s squire was before him.

“I don’t think Mr. Vawdrey is particularly interested in my poetical efforts,” Lady Mabel said with assumed carelessness. “He doesn’t care for poetry. He likes Byron.”

“What an admirable epigram!” cried the Hibernian, to whom flattery was second nature. “I shall put that down in my commonplace book when I go home. How I wish you would honour me — but it is to ask too much, perhaps — how proud I should be if you would let me hear, or see, some of your poems.”

“Would you really lik ——?” faltered Lady Mabel.

“Like! I should deem it the highest privilege your friendship could vouchsafe.”

“If I felt sure it would not bore you, I should like much to have your opinion, your candid opinion,” (Lord Mallow tried to look the essense of candour) “upon some things I have written. But it would be really to impose too much upon your good-nature.”

“It would be to make me the proudest, and — for that one brief hour at least — the happiest of men,” protested Lord Mallow, looking intensely sentimental.

“And you will deal frankly with me? You will not flatter? You will be as severe as an Edinburgh reviewer?”

“I will be positively brutal,” said Lord Mallow. “I will try to imagine myself an elderly feminine contributor to the ‘Saturday,’ looking at you with vinegar gaze through a pair of spectacles, bent upon spotting every fleck and flaw in your work, and predetermined not to see anything good in it.”

“Then I will trust you!” cried Lady Mabel, with a gush. “I have longed for a listener who could understand and criticise, and who would be too honourable to flatter. I will trust you, as Marguerite of Valois trusted Clement Marot.”

Lord Mallow did not know anything about the French poet and his royal mistress, but he contrived to look as if he did. And, before he ran away to the House presently, he gave Lady Mabel’s hand a tender little pressure which she accepted in all good faith as a sign manual of the compact between them.

They met in the Row next morning, and Lord Mallow asked — as earnestly as if the answer involved vital issues — when he might be permitted to hear those interesting poems.

“Whenever you can spare time to listen,” answered Lady Mabel, more flattered by his earnestness than by all the adulatory nigar-plums which had been showered upon her since her début. “If you have nothing better to do this afternoon ——”

“Could I have anything better to do?”

“We won’t enter upon so wide a question,” said Lady Mabel, laughing prettily. “If committee-rooms and public affairs can spare you for an hour or two, come to tea with mamma at five. Ill get her to deny herself to all the rest of the world, and we can have an undisturbed hour in which you can deal severely with my poor little efforts.”

Thus it happened that, in the sweet spring weather, while Roderick was on the stand at Epsom, watching the City and Suburban winner pursue his meteor course along the close-cropped sward, Lord Mallow was sitting at ease in a flowery fauteuil in the Queen Anne morning-room at Kensington, sipping orange-scented tea out of eggshell porcelain, and listening to Lady Mabel’s dulcet accents, as she somewhat monotonously and inexpressively rehearsed “The Tragedy of a Sceptic Soul.”

The poem was long, and, sooth to say, passing dreary; and, much as he admired the Duke’s daughter, there were moments when Lord Mallow felt his eyelids drooping, and heard a buzzing, as of summer insects, in his ears.

There was no point of interest in all this rhythmical meandering whereon the hapless young nobleman could fix his attention. Another minute and his sceptic soul would be wandering at ease in the flowery fields of sleep. He pulled himself together with an effort, just as the eggshell cup and saucer were slipping from his relaxing grasp. He asked the Duchess for another cup of that delicious tea. He gazed resolutely at the fair-faced maiden, whose rosy lips moved graciously, discoursing shallowest platitudes clothed in erudite polysyllables, and then at the first pause — when Lady Mabel laid down her velvet-bound volume, and looked timidly upward for his opinion — Lord Mallow poured forth a torrent of eloquence, such as he always had in stock, and praised “The Sceptic Soul” as no poem and no poet had ever been praised before, save by Hibernian critic.

The richness, the melody, the depth, colour, brilliance, tone, variety, far-reaching thought, &c., &c., &c.

He was so grateful to Providence for having escaped falling asleep that he could have gone on for ever in this strain. But if anyone had asked Lord Mallow what “The Tragedy of a Sceptic Soul” was about, Lord Mallow would have been spun.

When a strong-minded woman is weak upon one particular point she is apt to be very weak. Lady Mabel’s weakness was to fancy herself a second Browning. She had never yet enjoyed the bliss of having her own idea of herself confirmed by independent evidence. Her soul thrilled as Lord Mallow poured forth his praises; talking of “The Book and the Ring,” and “Paracelsus,” and a great deal more, of which he knew very little, and seeing in the expression of Lady Mabel’s eyes and mouth that he was saying exactly the right thing, and could hardly say too much.

They were tête-à-tête by this time, for the Duchess was sleeping frankly, her crewel-work drooping from the hands that lay idle in her lap; her second cup of tea on the table beside her, half-finished.

“I don’t know how it is,” she was wont to say apologetically, after these placid slumbers. “There is something in Mabel’s voice that always sends me to sleep. Her tones are so musical.”

“And do you really advise me to publish?” asked Lady Mabel, fluttered and happy.

“It would be a sin to keep such verses hidden from the world.”

“They will be published anonymously, of course. I could not endure to be pointed at as the author of ‘The Sceptic Soul.’ To feel that every eye was upon me — at the opera — in the Row — everywhere! It would be too dreadful. I should be proud to know that I had influenced my age — given a new bent to thought — but no one must be able to point at me.”

“‘Thou canst not say I did it,’” quoted Lord Mallow. “I entirely appreciate your feelings. Publicity of that sort must be revolting to a delicate mind. I should think Byron would have enjoyed life a great deal better if he had never been known as the author of ‘Childe Harold.’ He reduced himself to a social play-actor — and always had to pose in his particular rôle — the Noble Poet. If Bacon really wrote the plays we call Shakespeare’s, and kept the secret all his life, he was indeed the wisest of mankind.”

“You have done nothing but praise me,” said Lady Mabel, after a thoughtful pause, during which she had trifled with the golden clasp of her volume; “I want you to do something more than that. I want you to advise — to tell me where I am redundant — to point out where I am weak. I want you to help me in the labour of polishing.”

Lord Mallow pulled his whisker doubtfully. This was dreadful. He should have to go into particulars presently, to say what lines pleased him best, which of the various meters into which the tragedy was broken up — like a new suburb into squares and crescents and streets — seemed to him happiest and most original.

“Can you trust me with that precious volume?” he asked. “If you can, I will spend the quiet hours of the night in pondering over its pages, and will give you the result of my meditations to-morrow.”

Mabel put the book into his hand with a grateful smile.

“Pray be frank with me,” she pleaded. “Praise like yours is perilous.”

Lord Mallow kissed her hand this time, instead of merely pressing it, and went away radiant, with the velvet-bound book under his arm.

“She’s a sweet girl,” he said to himself, as he hailed a cab. “I wish she wasn’t engaged to that Hampshire booby, and I wish she didn’t write poetry. Hard that I should have to do the Hampshire booby’s work! If I were to leave this book in a hansom now — there’d be an awful situation!”

Happily for the rising statesman, he was blest with a clever young secretary, who wrote a good many letters for him, read blue-books, got up statistics, and interviewed obtrusive visitors from the Green Isle. To this young student Lord Mallow, in strictest secrecy, confided Lady Mabel’s manuscript.

“Read it carefully, Allan, while I’m at the house, and make a note of everything that’s bad on one sheet of paper, and of everything that’s good on another. You may just run your pencil along the margin wherever you think I might write ‘divine!’ ‘grandly original!’ ‘what pathos!’ or anything of that sort.”

The secretary was a conscientious young man, and did his work nobly. He sat far into the small hours, ploughing through “The Sceptic Soul.” It was tough work; but Mr. Allan was Scotch and dogged, and prided himself upon his critical faculty. This autopsy of a fine lady’s poem was a congenial labour. He scribbled pages of criticism, went into the minutest details of style, found a great deal to blame and not much to praise, and gave his employer a complete digest of the poem before breakfast next morning.

Lord Mallow attended the Duchess’s kettledrum again that afternoon, and this time he was in no wise at sea. He handled “The Sceptic Soul” as if every line of it had been engraven on the tablet of his mind.

“See here now,” he cried, turning to a pencilled margin; “I call this a remarkable passage, yet I think it might be strengthened by some trifling excisions;” and then he showed Lady Mabel how, by pruning twenty lines off a passage of thirty-one, a much finer effect might be attained.

“And you really think my thought stands out more clearly?” asked Mabel, looking regretfully at the lines through which Lord Mallow had run his pencil — some of her finest lines.

“I am sure of it. That grand idea of yours was like a star in a hazy sky. We have cleared away the fog.”

Lady Mabel sighed. “To me the meaning of the whole passage seemed so obvious,” she said.

“Because it was your own thought. A mother knows her own children however they are dressed.”

This second tea-drinking was a very serious affair. Lord Mallow went at the poem like a professional reviewer, and criticised without mercy, yet contrived not to wound the author’s vanity.

“It is because you have real genius that I venture to be brutally candid,” he said, when, by those slap-dash pencil-marks of his — always with the author’s consent — he had reduced the “Tragedy of the Sceptic Soul” to about one-third of its original length. “I was carried away yesterday by my first impressions; to-day I am coldly critical. I have set my heart upon your poem making a great success.”

This last sentence, freely translated, might be taken to mean: “I should not like such an elegant young woman to make an utter fool of herself.”

Mr. Vawdrey came in while critic and poet were at work, and was told what they were doing. He evinced no unworthy jealousy, but seemed glad that Lord Mallow should be so useful.

“It’s a very fine poem,” he said, “but there’s too much metaphysics in it. I told Mabel so the other day. She must alter a good deal of it if she wants to be understanded of the people.”

“My dear Roderick, my poem is metaphysical or it is nothing,” Mabel answered pettishly.

She could bear criticism from Lord Mallow better than criticism from Roderick. After this it became an established custom for Lord Mallow to drop in every day to inspect the progress of Lady Mabel’s poems in the course of their preparation for the press. The business part of the matter had been delegated to him, as much more au fait in such things than homely rustic Rorie. He chose the publisher and arranged the size of the volume, type, binding, initials, tail-pieces, every detail. The paper was to be thick and creamy, the type mediaeval, the borders were to be printed in carmine, the initials and tail-pieces specially drawn and engraved, and as quaint as the wood-cuts in an old edition of “Le Lutrin.” The book was to have red edges, and a smooth gray linen binding with silver lettering. It was to be altogether a gem of typographic art, worthy of Firmin Didot.

By the end of May, Lady Mabel’s poems were all in type, and there was much discussion about commas and notes of admiration, syllables too much or too little, in the flowery morning-room at Kensington, what time Roderick Vawdrey — sorely at a loss for occupation — wasted the summer hours at races or regattas within easy reach of London, or went to out-of-the-way places, to look at hunters of wonderful repute, which, on inspection, were generally disappointing.

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