Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Crumpled Rose–Leaves.

Violet Tempest had been away from home nearly a year, and to the few old servants remaining at the Abbey House, and to the villagers who had known and loved her, it seemed as if a light had gone out.

“It’s like it was after the Squire’s death, when miss and her ma was away,” said one gossip to another; “the world seems empty.”

Mrs. Winstanley and her husband had been living as became people of some pretension to rank and fashion. They saw very little of each other, but were seen together on all fitting occasions. The morning service in the little church at Beechdale would not have seemed complete without those two figures. The faded beauty in trailing silken draperies and diaphanous bonnet, the slim, well-dressed Captain, with his bronzed face and black whiskers. They were in everybody’s idea the happiest example of married bliss. If the lady’s languid loveliness had faded more within the last year or so than in the ten years that went before it, if her slow step had grown slower, her white hand more transparent, there were no keen loving eyes to mark the change.

“That affectation of valetudinarianism is growing on Mrs. Winstanley,” Mrs. Scobel said one day to her husband. “It is a pity. I believe the Captain encourages it.”

“She has not looked so well since Violet went away,” answered the kindly parson. “It seems an unnatural thing for mother and daughter to be separated.”

“I don’t know that, dear. The Bible says a man should leave mother and father and cleave to his wife. Poor Violet was a discordant element in that household. Mrs. Winstanley must feel much happier now she is away.”

“I can’t tell how she feels,” answered the Vicar doubtfully; “but she does not look so happy as she did when Violet was at home.”

“The fact is she gives way too much,” exclaimed active little Mrs. Scobel, who had never given way in her life. “When she has a head-ache she lies in bed, and has the venetian blinds kept down, just as if she were dying. No wonder she looks pale and ——”

“Etiolated,” said the Vicar; “perishing for want of light. But I believe it’s moral sunshine that is wanted there, my dear Fanny, say what you will.”

Mr. Scobel was correct in his judgment. Pamela Winstanley was a most unhappy woman — an unhappy woman without one tangible cause of complaint. True that her daughter was banished; but she was banished with the mother’s full consent. Her personal extravagances had been curtailed; but she was fain to admit that the curtailment was wise, necessary, and for her own future benefit. Her husband was all kindness; and surely she could not be angry with him if he seemed to grow younger every day — rejuvenated by regular habits and rustic life — while in her wan face the lines of care daily deepened, until it would have needed art far beyond the power of any modern Medea to conceal Time’s ravages. Your modern Medeas are such poor creatures — loathsome as Horace’s Canidia, but without her genius or her power.

“I am getting an old woman,” sighed Mrs. Winstanley. “It is lucky I am not without resources against solitude and age.”

Her resources were a tepid appreciation of modern idyllic poetry, as exemplified in the weaker poems of Tennyson, and the works of Adelaide Proctor and Jean Ingelow, a talent for embroidering conventional foliage and flowers on kitchen towelling, and for the laborious conversion of Nottingham braid into Venetian point-lace.

She had taken it into her head of late to withdraw herself altogether from society, save from such friends who liked her well enough, or were sufficiently perplexed as to the disposal of their lives, to waste an occasional hour over gossip and orange pekoe. She had now permanently assumed that rôle of an invalid which she had always somewhat affected.

“I am really not well enough to go to dinner-parties, Conrad,” she said, when her husband politely argued against her refusal of an invitation, with just that mild entreaty which too plainly means, “I don’t care a jot whether you go with me or stay at home.”

“But, my dear Pamela, a little gaiety would give you a fillip.”

“No, it would not, Conrad. It would worry me to go to Lady Ellangowan’s in one of last season’s dresses; and I quite agree with you that I must spend no more money with Theodore.”

“Why not wear your black velvet?”

“Too obvious a pis aller. I have not enough diamonds to carry off black velvet.”

“But your fine old lace — rose-point, I think you call it — surely that would carry off black velvet for once in a way.”

“My dear Conrad, Lady Ellangowan knows my rose-point by heart. She always compliments me about it — an artful way of letting me know often she has seen it. ‘Oh there is that rose-point of yours, dear Mrs. Winstanley; it is too lovely.’ I know her! No, Conrad; I will not go to the Ellangowans in a dress made last year; or in any réchauffé of velvet and lace. I hope I have a proper pride that would always preserve me from humiliation of that kind. Besides, I am not strong enough to go to parties. You may not believe me, Conrad, but I am really ill.”

The Captain put on an unhappy look, and murmured something sympathetic: but he did not believe in the reality of his wife’s ailments. She had played the invalid more or less ever since their marriage; and he had grown accustomed to the assumption as a part of his wife’s daily existence — a mere idiosyncrasy, like her love of fine dress and strong tea. If at dinner she ate hardly enough for a bird, he concluded that she had spoiled her appetite at luncheon, or by the consumption of sweet biscuits and pound-cake at five o’clock. Her refusal of all invitations to dinners and garden-parties he attributed to her folly about dress, and to that alone. Those other reasons which she put forward — of weakness, languor, low spirits — were to Captain Winstanley’s mind mere disguises for temper. She had not, in her heart of hearts, forgiven him for closing Madame Theodore’s account.

Thus, wilfully blind to a truth which was soon to become obvious to all the world, he let the insidious foe steal across his threshold, and guessed not how soon that dark and hidden enemy was to drive him from the hearth by which he sat, secure in self-approval and sagacious schemes for the future.

Once a week, through all the long year, there had come a dutiful letter from Violet to her mother. The letters were often brief — what could the girl find to tell in her desert island? — but they were always kind, and they were a source of comfort to the mother’s empty heart. Mrs. Winstanley answered unfailingly, and her Jersey letter was one of the chief events of each week. She was fonder of her daughter at a distance than she had ever been when they were together. “That will be something to tell Violet,” she would say of any inane bit of gossip that was whispered across the afternoon tea-cups.

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