Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Wedding Bells.

Vixen had been more than a year in the island of Jersey. She had lived her lonely and monotonous existence, and made no moan. It was a dreary exile; but it seemed to her that there was little else for her to do in life but dawdle through the long slow days, and bear the burden of living; at least until she came of age, and was independent, and could go where she pleased. Then there would be the wide world for her to wander over, instead of this sea-girdled garden of Jersey. She had reasons of her own for so quietly submitting to this joyless life. Mrs. Winstanley kept her informed of all that was doing in Hampshire, and even at the Queen Anne house at Kensington. She knew that Roderick Vawdrey’s wedding-day was fixed for the first of August. Was it not better that she should be far away, hidden from her small world; while those marriage bells were ringing across the darkening beech-woods?

Her sacrifice had not been in vain. Her lover had speedily forgotten that brief madness of last midsummer, and had returned to his allegiance. There had been no cloud upon the loves of the plighted cousins — no passing gust of dissension. If there had been, Mrs. Winstanley would have known all about it. Her letters told only of harmonious feeling and perpetual sunshine.

“Lady Mabel is looking prettier than ever,” she wrote, in the last week of July, “that ethereal loveliness which I so much admire. Her waist cannot be more than eighteen inches. I cannot find out who makes her dresses, but they are exquisitely becoming to her; though, for my own part, I do not think the style equal to Theodore’s. But then I always supplemented Theodore’s ideas with my own suggestions.

“I hear that the trousseau is something wonderful. The lingerie is in quite a new style; a special make of linen has been introduced at Bruges on purpose for the occasion, and I have heard that the loom is to be broken and no more made. But this is perhaps exaggeration. The lace has all been made in Buckinghamshire, from patterns a hundred years old — very quaint and pretty. There is an elegant simplicity about everything, Mrs. Scobel tells me, which is very charming. The costumes for the Norwegian tour are heather-coloured water-proof cloth, with stitched borders, plain to the last degree, but with a chic that redeems their plainness.

“Conrad and I received an early invitation to the wedding. He will go; but I have refused, on the ground of ill-health. And, indeed, my dear Violet, this is no idle excuse. My health has been declining ever since you left us. I was always a fragile creature, as you know, even in your dear papa’s time; but of late the least exertion has made me tremble like a leaf. I bear up, for Conrad’s sake. He is so anxious and unhappy when he sees me suffer, and I am glad to spare him anxiety.

“Your old friend, Mr. Vawdrey, looks well and happy, but I do not see much of him. Believe me, dear, you acted well and wisely in leaving home when you did. It would have been a dreadful thing if Lady Mabel’s engagement had been broken off on account of an idle flirtation between you and Rorie. It would have left a stain upon your name for life. Girls do not think of these things. I’m afraid I flirted a little myself when I was first out, and admiration was new to me; but I married so young that I escaped some of the dangers you have had to pass through.

“Roderick is making considerable improvements and alterations at Briarwood. He is trying to make the house pretty — I fear an impossible task. There is a commonplace tone about the building that defies improvement. The orchid-houses at Ashbourne are to be taken down and removed to Briarwood. The collection has been increasing ever since Lady Jane Vawdrey’s death, and is now one of the finest in England. But to my mind the taste is a most foolish one. Dear Conrad thinks me extravagant for giving sixty guineas for a dress — what might he not think if I gave as much for a single plant? Lord Mallow is staying at Ashbourne for the wedding. His success in the House of Commons has made him quite a lion. He called and took tea with me the other day. He is very nice. Ah, my dearest Violet, what a pity you could not like him. It would have been such a splendid match for you, and would have made Conrad and me so proud and happy.”

Vixen folded the letter with a sigh. She was sitting in her favourite spot in the neglected garden, the figs ripening above her among their broad ragged leaves, and the green slopes and valleys lying beneath her — orchards and meadows and pink homesteads, under a sultry summer haze.

The daughter was not particularly alarmed by her mother’s complaint of declining health. It was that old cry of “wolf,” which Violet had heard ever since she could remember.

“Poor mamma!” she said to herself, with a half-pitying tenderness, “it has always been her particular vanity to fancy herself an invalid; and yet no doctor has ever been able to find out anything amiss. She ought to be very happy now, poor dear; she has the husband of her choice, and no rebellious daughter to make the atmosphere stormy. I must write to Mrs. Scobel, and ask if mamma is really not quite so well as when I left home.”

And then Vixen’s thoughts wandered away to Rorie, and the alterations that were being made at Briarwood. He was preparing a bright home for his young wife, and they would be very happy together, and it would be as if Violet had never crossed his path.

“But he was fond of me, last midsummer twelvemonth,” thought Vixen, half seated half reclining against a grassy bank, with her hands clasped above her head, and her open book flung aside upon the long grass, where the daisies and dandelions grew in such wild abundance. “Yes, he loved me dearly then, and would have sacrificed interest, honour, all the world for my sake. Can he forget those days, when they are thus ever present to my mind? He seemed more in love than I: yet, a little year, and he is going to be married. Have men no memories? I do not believe that he loves Lady Mabel any better than he did a year ago, when he asked me to be his wife. But he has learnt wisdom; and he is going to keep his word, and to be owner of Briarwood and Ashbourne, and a great man in the county. I suppose it is a glorious destiny.”

In these last days of July a strange restlessness had taken possession of Violet Tempest. She could not read or occupy herself in any way. Those long rambles about the island, to wild precipices looking down on peaceful bays, to furzy hills where a few scattered sheep were her sole companions, to heathery steeps that were craggy and precipitous and dangerous to climb, and so had a certain fascination for the lonely wanderer — these rambles, which had been her chief resource and solace until now, had suddenly lost their charm. She dawdled in the garden, or roamed restlessly from the garden to the orchard, from the orchard to the sloping meadow, where Miss Skipwith’s solitary cow, last representative of a once well-stocked farm, browsed in a dignified seclusion. The days were slow, and oh, how lengthy! and yet there was a fever in Vixen’s blood which made it seem to her as if time were hurrying on at a breathless break-neck pace.

“The day after to-morrow he will be married,” she said to herself, on the morning of the thirtieth. “By this time on the day after to-morrow, the bride will be putting on her wreath of orange blossoms, and the church will be decorated with flowers, and there will be a flutter of expectation in all the little villages, from one end of the Forest to the other. A duke’s daughter is not married every day in the year. Ah me! there will not be an earthquake, or anything to prevent the wedding, I daresay. No, I feel sure that all things are going smoothly. If there had been a hitch of any kind, mamma would have written to tell me about it.”

Miss Skipwith was not a bad person to live with in a time of secret trouble such as this. She was so completely wrapped up in her grand scheme of reconciliation for all the creeds, that she was utterly blind to any small individual tragedy that might be enacted under her nose. Those worn cheeks and haggard eyes of Vixen’s attracted no attention from her as they sat opposite to each other at the sparely-furnished breakfast-table, in the searching summer light.

She had allowed Violet perfect liberty, and had been too apathetic to be unkind. Having tried her hardest to interest the girl in Swedenborg, or Luther, or Calvin, or Mahomet, or Brahma, or Confucius, and having failed ignominiously in each attempt, she had dismissed all idea of companionship with Violet from her mind, and had given her over to her own devices.

“Poor child,” she said to herself, “she is not unamiable, but she is utterly mindless. What advantages she might have derived from intercourse with me, if she had possessed a receptive nature! But my highest gifts are thrown away upon her. She will go through life in lamentable ignorance of all that is of deepest import in man’s past and future. She has no more intellect than Baba.”

Baba was the Persian cat, the silent companion of Miss Skipwith’s studious hours.

So Violet roamed in and out of the house, in this languid weather, and took up a book only to throw it down again, and went out to the court-yard to pat Argus, and strolled into the orchard and leaned listlessly against an ancient apple-tree, with her loose hair glistening in the sunshine — just as if she were posing herself for a pre-Raphaelite picture — and no one took any heed of her goings and comings.

She was supremely lonely. Even looking forward to the future — when she would be of age and well off, and free to do what she liked with her life — she could see no star of hope. Nobody wanted her. She stood quite alone amidst a strange, unfriendly world.

“Except poor old McCroke, I don’t think there is a creature who cares for me; and even her love is tepid,” she said to herself.

She had kept up a regular correspondence with her old governess, since she had been in Jersey, and had developed to Miss McCroke the scheme of her future travels. They were to see everything strange and rare and beautiful, that was to be seen in the world.

“I wonder if you would much mind going to Africa?” she wrote, in one of her frank girlish letters. “There must be something new in Africa. One would get away from the beaten ways of Cockney tourists, and one would escape the dreary monotony of a table d’hôte. There is Egypt for us to do; and you, who are a walking encyclopaedia, will be able to tell me all about the Pyramids, and Pompey’s Pillar, and the Nile. If we got tired of Africa we might go to India. We shall be thoroughly independent. I know you are a good sailor; you are not like poor mamma, who used to suffer tortures in crossing the Channel.”

There was a relief in writing such letters as these, foolish though they might be. That idea of distant wanderings with Miss McCroke was the one faint ray of hope offered by the future — not a star, assuredly, but at least a farthing candle. The governess answered in her friendly matter-of-fact way. She would like much to travel with her dearest Violet. The life would be like heaven after her present drudgery in finishing the Misses Pontifex, who were stupid and supercilious. But Miss McCroke was doubtful about Africa. Such a journey would be a fearful undertaking for two unprotected females. To have a peep at Algiers and Tunis, and even to see Cairo and Alexandria, might be practicable; but anything beyond that Miss McCroke thought wild and adventurous. Had her dear Violet considered the climate, and the possibility of being taken prisoners by black people, or even devoured by lions? Miss McCroke begged her dear pupil to read Livingstone’s travels and the latest reports of the Royal Geographical Society, before she gave any further thought to Africa.

The slowest hours, days the most wearisome, long nights that know not sleep, must end at last. The first of August dawned, a long streak of red light in the clear gray east. Vixen saw the first glimmer as she lay wide awake in her big old bed, staring through the curtainless windows to the far sea-line, above which the morning sky grew red.

“Hail, Rorie’s wedding-day!” she cried, with a little hysterical laugh; and then she buried her face in the pillow and sobbed aloud — sobbed as she had not done till now, through all her weary exile.

There had been no earthquake; this planet we live on had not rolled backwards in space; all things in life pursued their accustomed course, and time had ripened into Roderick Vawdrey’s wedding-day.

“I did think something would happen,” said Vixen piteously. “It was foolish, weak, mad to think so. But I could not believe he would marry anyone but me. I did my duty, and I tried to be brave and steadfast. But I thought something would happen.”

A weak lament from the weak soul of an undisciplined girl. The red light grew and glowed redder in the east, and then the yellow sun shone through gray drifting clouds, and the new day was born. Slumber and Violet had parted company for the last week. Her mind had been too full of images; the curtain of sleep would not hide them. Frame and mind were both alike worn out, as she lay in the broadening light, lonely, forsaken, unpitied, bearing her great sorrow, just as she must have borne the toothache, or any other corporal pain.

She rose at seven, feeling unspeakably tired, dressed herself slowly and dawdlingly, thinking of Lady Mabel. What an event her rising and dressing would be this morning — the flurried maids, the indulgent mother; the pure white garments, glistening in the tempered sunlight; the luxurious room, with its subdued colouring, its perfume of freshly-cut flowers; the dainty breakfast-tray, on a table by an open window; the shower of congratulatory letters, and the last delivery of wedding gifts. Vixen could imagine the scene, with its every detail.

And Roderick, what of him? She could not so easily picture the companion of her childhood on this fateful morning of his life. She could not imagine him happy: she dared not fancy him miserable. It was safer to make a great effort and shut that familiar figure out of her mind altogether.

Oh, what a dismal ceremony the eight — o’clock breakfast, tête-à-tête with Miss Skipwith, seemed on this particular morning! Even that preoccupied lady was constrained to notice Violet’s exceeding pallor.

“My dear, you are ill!” she exclaimed. “Your face is as white as a sheet of paper, and your eyes have dark rings around them.”

“I am not ill, but I have been sleeping badly of late.”

“My dear child, you need occupation; you want an aim. The purposeless life you are leading must result badly. Why can you not devise some pursuit to fill your idle hours? Far be it from me to interfere with your liberty; but I confess that it grieves me to see youth, and no doubt some measure of ability, so wasted. Why do you not strive to continue your education? Self-culture is the highest form of improvement. My books are at your disposal.”

“Dear Miss Skipwith, your books are all theological,” said Vixen wearily, “and I don’t care for theology. As for my education, I am not utterly neglecting it. I read Schiller till my eyes ache.”

“One shallow German poet is not the beginning and end of education,” replied Miss Skipwith. “I should like you to take larger views of woman’s work in the world.”

“My work in the world is to live quietly, and not to trouble anyone,” said Vixen, with a sigh.

She was glad to leave Miss Skipwith to her books, and to wander out into the sunny garden, where the figs were ripening or dropping half-ripened amongst the neglected grass, and the clustering bloom of the hydrangeas was as blue as the summer sky. There had been an unbroken interval of sultry weather — no rain, no wind, no clouds — only endless sunshine.

“If it would hail, or blow, or thunder,” sighed Vixen, with her hands clasped above her head, “the change might be some small relief to my feelings; but this everlasting brightness is too dreadful. What a lying world it is, and how Nature smiles at us when our hearts are aching. Well, I suppose I ought to wish the sunshine to last till after Rorie’s wedding; but I don’t, I don’t, I don’t! If the heavens were to darken, and forked lightnings to cleave the black vault, I should dance for joy. I should hail the storm, and cry, ‘This is sympathy!’”

And then she flung herself face downwards on the grass and sobbed, as she had sobbed on her pillow that morning.

“It rends my heart to know we are parted for ever,” she said. “Oh why did I not say Yes that night in the fir plantation? The chance of lifelong bliss was in my hand, and I let it go. It would have been less wicked to give way then, and accept my happy fate, than to suffer these evil feelings that are gnawing at my heart to-day — vain rage, cruel hatred of the innocent!”

The wedding bells must be ringing by this time. She fancied she could hear them. Yes, the summer air seemed alive with bells. North, south, east, west, all round the island, they were ringing madly, with tuneful marriage peal. They beat upon her brain. They would drive her mad. She tried to stop her ears, but then those wedding chimes seemed ringing inside her head. She could not shut them out. She remembered how the joybells had haunted her ears on Rorie’s twenty-first birthday — that day which had ended so bitterly, in the announcement of the engagement between the cousins. Yes, that had been her first real trouble, How well she remembered her despair and desolation that night, the rage that possessed her young soul.

“And I was little more than a child, then,” she said to herself. “Surely I must have been born wicked. My dear father was living then; and even the thought of his love did not comfort me. I felt myself abandoned and alone in the world. How idiotically fond I must have been of Rorie. Ever so many years have come and gone, and I have not cured myself of this folly. What is there in him that I should care for him?”

She got up from the grass, plucked herself out of that paroxysm of mental pain which came too near lunacy, and began to walk slowly round the garden-paths, reasoning with herself, calling womanly pride to the rescue.

“I hate myself for this weakness,” she protested dumbly. “I did not think I was capable of it. When I was a child, and was taken to the dentist, did I ever whine and howl like vulgar-minded children? No; I braced myself for the ordeal, and bore the pain, as my father’s child ought.”

She walked quickly to the house, burst into the parlour, where Miss Skipwith was sitting at her desk, the table covered with open volumes, over which flowers of literature the student roved, beelike, collecting honey for her intellectual hive.

“Please, Miss Skipwith, will you give me some books about Buddha?” said Vixen, with an alarming suddenness. “I am quite of your opinion: I ought to study. I think I shall go in for theology.”

“My dearest child!” cried the ancient damsel, enraptured. “Thank Heaven! the seed I have sown has germinated at last. If you are once inspired with the desire to enter that vast field of knowledge, the rest will follow. The flowers you will find by the wayside will lure you onward, even when the path is stony and difficult.”

“I suppose I had better begin with Buddha,” said Vixen, with a hard and resolute manner that scarcely seemed like the burning desire for knowledge newly kindled in the breast of a youthful student. “That is beginning at the beginning, is it not?”

“No, my dear. In comparison with the priesthood of Egypt, Buddha is contemptibly modern. If we want the beginning of things, we must revert to Egypt, that cradle of learning and civilisation.”

“Then let me begin with Egypt!” cried Vixen impatiently. “I don’t care a bit how I begin. I want occupation for my mind.”

“Did I not say so?” exclaimed Miss Skipwith, full of ardent welcome for the neophyte whose steps had been so tardy in approaching the shrine. “That pallor, those haggard eyes are indications of a troubled mind; and no mind can be free from trouble when it lacks an object. We create our own sorrows.”

“Yes, we are wretched creatures!” cried Vixen passionately, “the poorest examples of machinery in all this varied universe. Look at that cow in your orchard, her dull placid life, inoffensive, useful, asking nothing but a fertile meadow and a sunny day to fill her cup of happiness. Why did the great Creator make the lower animals exempt from sorrow, and give us such an infinite capacity for grief and pain? It seems hardly fair.”

“My dear, our Creator gave us minds, and the power of working out our own salvation,” replied Miss Skipwith. “Here are half-a-dozen volumes. In these you will find the history of Egyptian theology, from the golden age of the god Râ to the dark and troubled period of Persian invasion. Some of these works are purely philosophical. I should recommend you to read the historical volumes first. Make copious notes of what you read, and do not hesitate to refer to me when you are puzzled.”

“I am afraid that will be very often,” said Vixen, piling up the books in her arms with a somewhat hopeless air. “I am not at all clever; but I want to employ my mind.”

She carried the books up to her bedroom, and arranged them on a stout old oak table, which Mrs. Doddery had found for her accommodation. She opened her desk, and put a quire of paper ready for any notes she might be tempted to make, and then she began, steadily and laboriously, with a dry-as-dust history of ancient Egypt.

Oh, how her poor head ached as the summer noontide wore on, and the bees hummed in the garden below, and the distant waves danced gaily in the sunlight; and the knowledge that the bells were really ringing at Ashbourne could not be driven from her mind. How the Shepherd Kings, and the Pharaohs, and the comparatively modern days of Joseph and his brethren, and the ridiculously recent era of Moses, passed, like dim shifting shadows, before her mental vision. She retraced her steps in that dreary book, again and again, patiently, forcing her mind to the uncongenial task.

“I will not be such a slave as to think of him all this long summer day,” she said to herself. “I will think of the god Râ, and lotus flowers, and the Red Nile, and the Green Nile, and all this wonderful land where I am going to take dear old McCroke by-and-by.”

She read on till dinner-time, only pausing to scribble rapid notes of the dates and names and facts which would not stand steadily in her whirling brain; and then she went down to the parlour, no longer pale, but with two hectic spots on her cheeks, and her eyes unnaturally bright.

“Ah,” ejaculated Miss Skipwith, delightedly. “You look better already. There is nothing like severe study for bracing the nerves.”

Violet talked about Egypt all dinner-time, but she ate hardly anything, and that hectic flush upon her cheeks grew more vivid as she talked.

“To think that after the seed lying dormant all this time, it should have germinated at last with such sudden vigour,” mused Miss Skipwith. “The poor girl is talking a good deal of nonsense; but that is only the exuberance of a newly awakened intellect.”

Vixen went back to the Egyptians directly after dinner. She toiled along the arid road with an indomitable patience. Her ideas of Egypt had hitherto been of the vaguest. Vast plains of barren sand, a pyramid or two, Memnon’s head breathing wild music in the morning sunshine, crocodiles, copper-coloured natives, and Antony and Cleopatra. These things were about as much as Miss McCroke’s painstaking tuition had implanted in her pupil’s mind. And here, without a shadow of vocation, this poor ignorant girl was poring over the driest details that ever interested the scholar. The mysteries of the triple language, the Rosetta Stone, Champollion —tout le long de la rivière. Was it any wonder that her head ached almost to agony, and that the ringing of imaginary wedding bells sounded distractingly in her ears?

She worked on till tea-time, and was too engrossed to hear the bell, which clanged lustily for every meal in the orderly household: a bell whose clamour was somewhat too much for the repast it heralded.

This evening Vixen did not hear the bell, inviting her to weak tea and bread-and-butter. The ringing of those other bells obscured the sound. She was sitting with her book before her, but her eyes fixed on vacancy, when Miss Skipwith, newly interested in her charge, came to inquire the cause of her delay. The girl looked at her languidly, and seemed slow to understand what she said.

“I don’t care for any tea,” she replied at last. “I would rather go on with the history. It is tremendously interesting, especially the hieroglyphics. I have been trying to make them out. It is so nice to know that a figure like a chopper means a god, and that a goose with a black ball above his hack means Pharaoh, son of the sun. And then the table of dynasties: can anything be more interesting than those? It makes one’s head go round just a little at first, when one has to grope backwards through so many centuries, but that’s nothing.”

“My dear, you are working too hard. It is foolish to begin with such impetuosity. A fire that burns so fiercely will soon exhaust itself. Festina lente. We must hasten slowly, if we want to make solid progress. Why, my poor child, your fore-head is burning. You will read yourself into a fever.”

“I think I am in a fever already,” said Vixen.

Miss Skipwith was unusually kind. She insisted upon helping her charge to undress, and would not leave her till she was lying quietly in bed. She was going to draw down the blinds, but against this Vixen protested vehemently.

“Pray leave me the sky,” she cried; “it is something to look at through the long blank night. The stars come and go, and the clouds are always changing. I believe I should go mad if it were not for the sky.”

Poor Miss Skipwith felt seriously uneasy. The first draught from the fountain of knowledge had evidently exercised an intoxicating effect upon Violet Tempest. It was as if she had been taking opium or hashish. The girl’s brain was affected.

“You have studied too long,” she said. “This must not occur again. I feel myself responsible to your parents for your health.”

“To my parents,” echoed Vixen, with a sudden sigh; “I have only one, and she is happier in my absence than when I was with her. You need not be uneasy about me if I fall ill. No one will care. If I were to die, no one would be sorry. I have no place in the world. No one would miss me.”

“My dear, it is absolutely wicked to talk in this strain; just as you are developing new powers, an intellect which may make you a pillar and a landmark in your age.”

“I don’t want to be a pillar or a landmark,” said Vixen impatiently. “I don’t want to have my name associated with ‘movements,’ or to write letters to The Times. I should like to have been happy my own way.”

She turned her back upon Miss Skipwith, and lay so still that the excellent lady supposed she was dropping off to sleep.

“A good night’s rest will restore her, and she will awake with renewed appetite for knowledge,” she murmured benevolently as she went back to her Swedenborgian studies.

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