Too pretty a picture assuredly to be lost to the eye of mankind.
Whose footstep was this sounding on the wet gravel half-an-hour later? Too quick and light for the Squire's. Who was this coming in softly out of the rain, all dripping like a water god? Who was this whose falcon eye took in the picture at a glance, and who stole cat-like to the window, and bending down his dark wet head, gave Violet's sleeping lips the first lover's kiss that had ever saluted them?
Violet awoke with a faint shiver of surprise and joy. Instinct told her from whom that kiss came, though it was the first time Roderick had kissed her since he went to Eaton. The lovely brown eyes opened and looked into the dark gray ones. The ruddy brown head rested on Rorie's shoulder. The girl—half child, half woman, and all loving trustfulness, looked up at him with a glad smile. His heart was stirred with a new feeling as those softly bright eyes looked into his. It was the early dawn of a passionate love. The head lying on his breast seemed to him the fairest thing on earth.
"Rorie, how disgracefully you have behaved, and how utterly I detest you!" exclaimed Vixen, giving him a vigorous push, and scrambling down from the window-seat. "To be all this time in Hampshire and never come near us."
A moment ago, in that first instant of a newly awakened delight, she was almost betrayed into telling him that she loved him dearly, and had found life empty without him. But having had just time enough to recover herself, she drew herself up as straight as a dart, and looked at him as Kate may have looked at Petruchio during their first unpleasant interview in which they made each other's acquaintance.
"All this time!" cried Rorie. "Do you know how long I have been in Hampshire?"
"Haven't the least idea," retorted Vixen haughtily.
"Just half-an-hour—or, at least it is exactly half-an-hour since I was deposited with all my goods and chattels at the Lyndhurst Road Station."
"You are only just home from Switzerland?"
"Within this hour!"
"And you have not even been to Briarwood?"
"My honoured mother still awaits my duteous greetings."
"And this is your twenty-first birthday, and you came here first of all."
And, almost uninvited, the tawny head dropped on to his shoulder again, and the sweet childish lips allowed themselves to be kissed.
"Rorie, how brown you have grown.'"
The gray eyes were looking into the brown ones admiringly, and the conversation was getting a trifle desultory.
Swift as a flash Violet recollected herself. It dawned upon her that it was not quite the right thing for a young lady "rising sixteen" to let herself be kissed so tamely. Besides, Rorie never used to do it. The thing was a new development, a curious outcome of his Swiss tour. Perhaps people did it in Switzerland, and Rorie had acquired the habit.
"How dare you do such a thing?" exclaimed Vixen, shaking herself free from the traveller's encircling arm.
"I didn't think you minded," said Rorie innocently; "and when a fellow comes home from a long journey he expects a warm welcome!"
"And I am glad to see you," cried Vixen, giving him both her hands with a glorious frankness; "but you don't know how I have been hating you lately."
"For being always away. I thought you had forgotten us all—that you did not care a jot for any of us."
"I had not forgotten any of you, and I did care—very much—for some of you."
This, though vague, was consoling.
The brown became Roderick. Dark of visage always, he was now tanned to a bronze as of one born under southern skies. Those deep gray eyes of his looked black under their black lashes. His black hair was cut close to his well-shaped head. An incipient moustache shaded his upper lip, and gave manhood to the strong, firm mouth. A manly face altogether, Roderick's, and handsome withal. Vixen's short life had shown her none handsomer.
He was tall and strongly built, with a frame that had been developed by many an athletic exercise—from throwing the hammer to pugilism. Vixen thought him the image of Richard Coeur de Lion. She had been reading "The Talisman" lately, and the Plantagenet was her ideal of manly excellence.
"Many happy returns of the day, Rorie," she said softly. "To think that you are of age to-day. Your own master."
"Yes, my infancy ceased and determined at the last stroke of midnight yesterday. I wonder whether my anxious mother will recognise that fact?"
"Of course you know what is going to happen at Briarwood. There is to be a grand dinner-party."
"And you are coming? How jolly!"
"Oh, no, Rorie. I am not out yet, you know. I shan't be for two years. Papa means to give me a season in town. He calls it having me broken to harness. He'll take a furnished house, and we shall have the horses up, and I shall ride in the Row, You'll be with us part of the time, won't you, Rorie?"
"Ca se peut. If papa will invite me."
"Oh, he will, if I wish it. It's to be my first season, you know, and I'm to have everything my own way."
"Will that be a novelty?" demanded Roderick, with intention.
"I don't know. I haven't had my own way in anything lately."
"How is that?"
"You have been away."
At this naive flattery, Roderick almost blushed.
"How you've grown. Vixen," he remarked presently.
"Have I really? Yes, I suppose I do grow. My frocks are always getting too short."
"Like the sleeves of my dress-coats a year or two ago."
"But now you are of age, and can't grow any more. What are you going to be, Rorie? What are you going to do with your liberty? Are you going into Parliament?"
Mr. Vawdrey indulged in a suppressed yawn.
"My mother would like it," he said, "but upon my word I don't care about it. I don't take enough interest in my fellow-creatures."
"If they were foxes, you'd be anxious to legislate for them," suggested Vixen.
"I would certainly try to protect them from indiscriminate slaughter. And in fact, when one considers the looseness of existing game-laws, I think every country gentleman ought to be in Parliament."
"And there is the Forest for you to take care of."
"Yes, forestry is a subject on which I should like to have my say. I suppose I shall be obliged to turn senator. But I mean to take life easily—you may be sure of that, Vixen; and I intend to have the best stud of hunters in Hampshire. And now I think I must be off."
"No, you mustn't," cried Violet. "The dinner is not till eight. If you leave here at six you will have no end of time for getting home to dress. How did you come?"
"On these two legs."
"You shall have four to take you to Briarwood. West shall drive you home in papa's dog-cart, with the new mare. You don't know her, do you? Papa only bought her last spring. She is such a beauty, and goes—goes—oh, like a skyrocket. She bolts occasionally; but you don't mind that, do you?"
"Not in the least. It would be rather romantic to be smashed on one's twenty-first birthday. Will you tell them to order West to get ready at once."
"Oh, but you are to stop to tea with Miss McCroke and me—that's part of our bargain. No kettledrum, no Starlight Bess! And you'd scarcely care about walking to Briarwood under such rain as that!"
"So be it, then; kettledrum and Starlight Bess, at any hazard of maternal wrath. But really now I'm doing a most ungentlemanly thing, Vixen, to oblige you!"
"Always be ungentlemanly then for my sake—if it's ungentlemanly to come and see me," said Vixen coaxingly.
They were standing side by side in the big window looking out at the straight thin rain. The two pairs of lips were not very far away from each other, and Rorie might have been tempted to commit a third offence against the proprieties, if Miss McCroke had not fortunately entered at this very moment. She was wonderfully surprised at seeing Mr. Vawdrey, congratulated him ceremoniously upon his majority, and infused an element of stiffness into the small assembly.
"Rorie is going to stay to tea," said Vixen. "We'll have it here by the fire, please, Crokey dear. One can't have too much of a good fire this weather. Or shall we go to my den? Which would you like best, Rorie?"
"I think we had better have tea here, Violet," interjected Miss McCroke, ringing the bell.
Her pupil's sanctum sanctorum—that pretty up-stairs room, half schoolroom, half boudoir, and wholly untidy—was not, in Miss McCroke's opinion, an apartment to be violated by the presence of a young man.
"And as Rory hasn't had any luncheon, and has come ever so far out of his way to see me, please order something substantial for him," said Vixen.
Her governess obeyed. The gipsy table was wheeled up to the broad hearth, and presently the old silver tea-pot and kettle, and the yellow cups and saucers, were shining in the cheery firelight. The old butler put a sirloin and a game-pie on the sideboard, and then left the little party to shift for themselves, in pleasant picnic fashion.
Vixen sat down before the hissing tea-kettle with a pretty important air, like a child making tea out of toy tea-things. Rorie brought a low square stool to a corner close to her, and seated himself with his chin a little above the tea-table.
"You can't eat roast beef in that position," said Vixen.
"Oh yes I can—I can do anything that's mad or merry this evening. But I'm not at all sure that I want beef, though it is nearly three months since I've seen an honest bit of ox beef. I think thin bread and butter—or roses and dew even—quite substantial enough for me this evening."
"You're afraid of spoiling your appetite for the grand dinner," said Vixen.
"No, I'm not. I hate grand dinners. Fancy making a fine art of eating, and studying one's menu beforehand to see what combination of dishes will harmonise best with one's internal economy. And then the names of the things are always better than the things themselves. It's like a show at a fair, all the best outside. Give me a slice of English beef or mutton, and a bird that my gun has shot, and let all the fine-art dinners go hang."
"Cut him a slice of beef, dear Miss McCroke," said Vixen.
"Not now, thanks; I can't eat now. I'm going to drink orange pekoe."
Argus had taken up his position between Violet and her visitor. He sat bolt upright, like a sentinel keeping guard over his mistress; save that a human sentinel, unless idiotic or intoxicated, would hardly sit with jaws wide apart, and his tongue hanging out of one side of his mouth, as Argus did. But this lolloping attitude of the canine tongue was supposed to indicate a mind at peace with creation.
"Are you very glad to come of age, Rorie?" asked Vixen, turning her bright brown eyes upon him, full of curiosity.
"Well, it will be rather nice to have as much money as I want without asking my mother for it. She was my only guardian, you know. My father had such confidence in her rectitude and capacity that he left everything in her hands."
"Do you find Briarwood much improved?" inquired Miss McCroke.
Lady Jane had been doing a good deal to her orchid-houses lately.
"I haven't found Briarwood at all yet," answered Rorie, "and Vixen seems determined I shan't find it."
"What, have you only just returned?"
"And you have not seen Lady Jane yet?" exclaimed Miss McCroke with a horrified look.
"It sounds rather undutiful, doesn't it? I was awfully tired, after travelling all night; and I made this a kind of halfway house."
"Two sides of a triangle are invariable longer than anyone side," remarked Vixen, gravely. "At least that's what Miss McCroke has taught me."
"It was rather out of my way, of course. But I wanted to see whether Vixen had grown. And I wanted to see the Squire."
"Papa has gone to Ringwood to look at a horse; but you'll see him at the grand dinner. He'll be coming home to dress presently."
"I hope you had an agreeable tour, Mr. Vawdrey?" said Miss McCroke.
"Oh, uncommonly jolly."
"And you like Switzerland?"
"Yes; it's nice and hilly."
And then Roderick favoured them with a sketch of his travels, while they sipped their tea, and while Vixen made the dogs balance pieces of cake on their big blunt noses.
It was all very nice—the Tete Noire, and Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn. Rorie jumbled them all together, without the least regard to geography. He had done a good deal of climbing, had worn out and lost dozens of alpenstocks, and had brought home a case of Swiss carved work for his friends.
"There's a clock for your den, Vixen—I shall bring it to-morrow—with a little cock-robin that comes out of his nest and sings—no end of jolly."
"How lovely!" cried Violet.
The tall eight-day clock in a corner of the hall chimed the half-hour.
"Half-past five, and Starlight Bess not ordered," exclaimed Roderick.
"Let's go out to the stables and see about her," suggested Vixen. "And then I can show you my pony. You remember Titmouse, the one that would jump?"
"Violet!" ejaculated the aggrieved governess. "Do you suppose I would permit you to go out of doors in such weather?"
"Do you think it's still raining?" asked Vixen innocently. "It may have cleared up. Well, we'd better order the cart," she added meekly, as she rang the bell. "I'm not of age yet, you see, Rorie. Please, Peters, tell West to get papa's dog-cart ready for Mr. Vawdrey, and to drive Starlight Bess."
Rorie looked at the bright face admiringly. The shadows had deepened; there was no light in the great oak-panelled room except the ruddy fire-glow, and in this light Violet Tempest looked her loveliest. The figures in the tapestry seemed to move in the flickering light—appeared and vanished, vanished and appeared, like the phantoms of a dream. The carved bosses of the ceiling were reflected grotesquely on the oaken wall above the tapestry. The stags' heads had a goblin look. It was like a scene of enchantment, and Violet, in her black frock and amber sash, looked like the enchantress—Circe, Vivien, Melusine, or somebody of equally dubious antecedents.
It was Miss McCroke's sleepiest hour. Orange pekoe, which has an awakening influence upon most people, acted as an opiate upon her. She sat blinking owlishly at the two young figures.
Rorie roused himself with a great effort.
"Unless Starlight Bess spins me along the road pretty quickly, I shall hardly get to Briarwood by dinner-time," he said; "and upon my honour, I don't feel the least inclination to go."
"Oh, what fun if you were absent at your coming-of-age dinner!" cried Vixen, with her brown eyes dancing mischievously. "They would have to put an empty chair for you, like Banquo's."
"It would be a lark," acquiesced Rorie, "but it wouldn't do; I should hear too much about it afterwards. A fellow's mother has some kind of claim upon him, you know. Now for Starlight Bess."
They went into the vestibule, and Rorie opened the door, letting in a gust of wind and rain, and the scent of autumn's last ill-used flowers.
"Oh, I so nearly forgot," said Violet, as they stood on the threshold, side by side, waiting for the dog-cart to appear. "I've got a little present for you—quite a humble one for a grand young land-owner like you—but I never could save much of my pocket-money; there are so many poor children always having scarlet-fever, or tumbling into the fire, or drinking out of boiling tea-kettles. But here it is, Rorie. I hope you won't hate it very much."
She put a little square packet into his hand, which he proceeded instantly to open.
"I shall love it, whatever it is."
"It's a portrait."
"You darling! The very thing I should have asked for."
"The portrait of someone you're fond of."
"Someone I adore," said Rorie.
He had extracted the locket from its box by this time. It was a thick oblong locket of dead gold, plain and massive; the handsomest of its kind that a Southampton jeweller could supply.
Rorie opened it eagerly, to look at the portrait.
There was just light enough from the newly-kindled vestibule lamp to show it to him.
"Why it's a dog," cried Rorie, with deep-toned disgust. "It's old Argus."
"Who did you think it was?"
"You, of course."
"What an idea! As if I should give anyone my portrait. I knew you were fond of Argus. Doesn't his head come out beautifully? The photographer said he was the best sitter he had had for ever so long. I hope you don't quite detest the locket, Rorie."
"I admire it intensely, and I'm deeply grateful. But I feel inexpressibly sold, all the same. And I am to go about the world with Argus dangling at my breast. Well, for your sake, Vixen, I'll submit even to that degradation."
Here came the cart, with two flaming lamps, like angry eyes flashing through the shrubberies. It pulled up at the steps. Rorie and Vixen clasped hands and bade good-night, and then the young man swung himself lightly into the seat beside the driver, and away went Starlight Bess making just that soft of dashing and spirited start which inspires the timorous beholder with the idea that the next proceeding will be the bringing home of the driver and his companion upon a brace of shutters.
Rorie makes a Speech.
Somewhat to his surprise, and much to his delight, Roderick Vawdrey escaped that maternal lecture which he was wont undutifully to describe as a "wigging." When he entered the drawing-room in full dress just about ten minutes before the first of the guests was announced, Lady Jane received him with a calm affectionateness, and asked him no questions about his disposal of the afternoon. Perhaps this unusual clemency was in honour of his twenty-first birthday, Rorie thought. A man could not come of age more than once in his life. He was entitled to some favour.
The dinner-party was as other dinners at Briarwood; all the arrangements perfect; the menu commendable, if not new; the general result a little dull.
The Ashbourne party were among the first to arrive; the Duke portly and affable; the Duchess delighted to welcome her favourite nephew; Lady Mabel looking very fragile, flower-like, and graceful, in her pale blue gauze dinner-dress. Lady Mabel affected the palest tints, half-colours, which were more like the shadows in a sunset sky than any earthly hues.
She took possession of Rorie at once, treating him with a calm superiority, as if he had been a younger brother.
"Tell me all about Switzerland," she said, as they sat side by side on one of the amber ottomans. "What was it that you liked best?"
"The climbing, of course," he answered.
"But which of all the landscapes? What struck you most? What impressed you most vividly? Your first view of Mont Blanc, or that marvellous gorge below the Tete Noire,—or——?"
"It was all uncommonly jolly. But there's a family resemblance in Swiss mountains, don't you know? They're all white—and they're all peaky. There's a likeness in Swiss lakes, too, if you come to think of it. They're all blue, and they're all wet. And Swiss villages, now—don't you think they are rather disappointing?—such a cruel plagiarism of those plaster chalets the image-men carry about the London streets, and no candle-ends burning inside to make 'em look pretty. But I liked Lucerne uncommonly, there was such a capital billiard-table at the hotel."
"Roderick!" cried Lady Mabel, with a disgusted look. "I don't think you have a vestige of poetry in your nature."
"I hope I haven't," replied Rorie devoutly.
"You could see those sublime scenes, and never once feel your heart thrilled or your mind exalted—you can come home from your first Swiss tour and talk about billiard-tables!"
"The scenery was very nice," said Rorie thoughtfully. "Yes; there were times, perhaps, when I was a trifle stunned by all that grand calm beauty, the silence, the solitude, the awfulness of it all; but I have hardly tune to feel the thrill when I came bump up against a party of tourists, English or American, all talking the same twaddle, and all patronising the scenery. That took the charm out of the landscape somehow, and I coiled up, as the Yankees say. And now you want me to go into second-hand raptures, and repeat my emotions, as if I were writing a tourist's article for a magazine. I can't do it, Mabel."
"Well, I won't bore you any more about it," said Lady Mabel, "but I confess my disappointment. I thought we should have such nice long talks about Switzerland."
"What's the use of talking of a place? If it's so lovely that one can't live without it, one had better go back there."
This was a practical way of putting things which was too much for Lady Mabel. She fanned herself gently with a great fan of cloudy looking feathers, such as Titania might have used that midsummer night near Athens. She relapsed into a placid silence, looking at Rorie thoughtfully with her calm blue eyes.
His travels had improved him. That bronze hue suited him wonderfully well. He looked more manly. He was no longer a beardless boy, to be patronised with that gracious elder-sister air of Lady Mabel's. She felt that he was further off from her than he had been last season in London.
"How late you arrived this evening," she said, after a pause. "I came to five-o'clock with my aunt, and found her quite anxious about you. If it hadn't been for your telegram from Southampton, she would have fancied there was something wrong."
"She needn't have fidgeted herself after three o'clock," answered Rorie coolly; "my luggage must have come home by that time."
"I see. You sent the luggage on before, and came by a later train?"
"No, I didn't. I stopped halfway between here and Lyndhurst to see some old friends."
"Flattering for my aunt," said Mabel. "I should have thought she was your oldest friend."
"Of course she has the prior claim. But as I was going to hand myself over to her bodily at seven o'clock, to be speechified about and rendered generally ridiculous, after the manner of young men who come of age, I felt I was entitled to do what I liked in the interval."
"And therefore you went to the Tempests'," said Mabel, with her blue eyes sparkling. "I see. That is what you do when you do what you like."
"Precisely. I am very fond of Squire Tempest. When I first rode to hounds it was under his wing. There's my mother beckoning me; I am to go and do the civil to people."
And Roderick walked away from the ottoman to the spot where his mother stood, with the Duke of Dovedale at her side, receiving her guests.
"It was a very grand party, in the way of blue blood, landed estate, diamonds, lace, satin and velvet, and self-importance. All the magnates of the soil, within accessible distance of Briarwood, had assembled to do honour to Rorie's coming of ago. The dining-tables had been arranged in a horse-shoe, so as to accommodate fifty people in a room which, in its every-day condition, would not have been too large for thirty. The orchids and ferns upon this horse-shoe table made the finest floricultural show that had been seen for a long time. There were rare specimens from New Granada and the Philippine Islands; wondrous flowers lately discovered in the Sierra Madre; blossoms of every shape and colour from the Cordilleras; richest varieties of hue—golden yellow, glowing crimson, creamy white; rare eccentricities of form and colour beside which any other flower would have looked vulgar; butterfly flowers and pitcher-shaped flowers, that had cost as much money as prize pigeons, and seemed as worthless, save to the connoisseur in the article. The Vawdrey racing-plate, won by Roderick's grandfather, was nowhere by comparison with those marvellous tropical blossoms, that fairy forest of fern. Everybody talked about the orchids, confessed his or her comparative ignorance of the subject, and complimented Lady Jane.
"The orchids made the hit of the evening," Rorie said afterwards. "It was their coming of age, not mine."
There was a moderate and endurable amount of speechifying by-and-by, when the monster double-crowned pines had been cut, and the purple grapes, almost as big as pigeons' eggs, had gone round.
The Duke of Dovedale assured his friends that this was one of the proudest moments of his life, and that if Providence had permitted a son of his own to attain his majority, he, the Duke, could have hardly felt a deeper interest in the occasion than he felt to-day. He had—arra—arra—known this young man from childhood, and had—er—um—never found him guilty of a mean action—or—arra—discovered in him a thought unworthy of an English gentleman.
This last was felt to be a strong point, as it implied that an English gentleman must needs be much better than any other gentleman.
A continental gentleman might, of course, be guilty of an unworthy thought and yet pass current, according to the loose morality of his nation. But the English article must be flawless.
And thus the Duke meandered on for five minutes or so, and there was a subdued gush of approval, and then an uncomfortable little pause, and then Rorie rose in his place, next to the Duchess, and returned thanks.
He told them all how fond he was of them and the soil that bred them. How he meant to be a Hampshire squire, pure and simple, if he could. How he had no higher ambition than to be useful and to do good in this little spot of England which Providence had given him for his inheritance. How, if he should go into Parliament by-and-by, as he had some thoughts of attempting to do, it would be in their interests that he would join that noble body of legislators; that it would be they and their benefit he would have always nearest his heart.
"There is not a tree in the Forest that I do not love," cried Rorie, fired with his theme, and forgetting to stammer; "and I believe there is not a tree, from the Twelve Apostles to the Knightwood Oak, or a patch of gorse from Picket Post to Stony Cross, that I do not know as well as I know the friends round me to-night. I was born in the Forest, and may I live and die and be buried here. I have just come back from seeing some of the finest scenery in Europe; yet, without blushing for my want of poetry, I will confess that the awful grandeur of those snow-clad mountains did not touch my heart so deeply as our beechen glades and primrose-carpeted bottoms close at home." There was a burst of applause after Rorie's speech that made all the orchids shiver, and nearly annihilated a thirty-guinea Odontoglossum Vexillarium. His talk about the Forest, irrelevant as it might be, went home to the hearts of the neighbouring landowners. But, by-and-by, in the drawing-room, when he rejoined his cousin, he found that fastidious young lady by no means complimentary.
"Your speech would have been capital half a century ago, Rorie," she said, "and you don't arra—arra—as poor papa does, which is something to be thankful for; but all that talk about the Forest seemed to be an anachronism. People are not rooted in their native soil nowadays, as they used to be in the old stage-coach times, when it was a long day's journey to London. One might as well be a vegetable at once if one is to be pinned down to one particular spot of earth. Why, the Twelve Apostles," exclaimed Mabel, innocent of irreverence, for she meant certain ancient and fast-decaying oaks so named, "see as much of life as your fine old English gentleman. Men have wider ideas nowadays. The world is hardly big enough for their ambition."
"I would rather live in a field, and strike my roots deep down like one of those trees, than be a homeless nomad with a world-wide ambition," answered Rorie. "I have a passion for home."
"Then I wonder you spend so little time in it."
"Oh, I don't mean a home inside four walls. The Forest is my home, and Briarwood is no dearer to me than any other spot in it."
"Not so dear as the Abbey House, perhaps?"
"Well, no. I confess that fine old Tudor mansion pleases me better than this abode of straight lines and French windows, plate glass and gilt mouldings."
They sat side by side upon the amber ottoman, Rorie with Mabel's blue feather fan in his hand, twirling and twisting it as he talked, and doing more damage to that elegant article in a quarter of an hour than a twelvemonth's legitimate usage would have done. People, looking at the pretty pair, smiled significantly, and concluded that it would be a match, and went home and told less privileged people about the evident attachment between the Duke's daughter and the young commoner. But Rorie was not strongly drawn towards his cousin this evening. It seemed to him that she was growing more and more of a paragon; and he hated paragons.
She played presently, and afterwards sang some French chansons. Both playing and singing were perfect of their kind. Rorie did not understand Chopin, and thought there was a good deal of unnecessary hopping about the piano in that sort of thing—nothing concrete, or that came to a focus; a succession of airy meanderings, a fairy dance in the treble, a goblin hunt in the bass. But the French chansons, the dainty little melodies with words of infantile innocence, all about leaves and buds, and birds'-nests and butterflies, pleased him infinitely. He hung over the piano with an enraptured air; and again his friends made note of his subjugation, and registered the fact for future discussion.
How she took the News.
It was past midnight when the Tempest carriage drove through the dark rhododendron shrubberies up to the old Tudor porch. There was a great pile of logs burning in the hall, giving the home-comers cheery welcome. There was an antique silver spirit stand with its accompaniments on one little table for the Squire, and there was another little table on the opposite side of the hearth for Mrs. Tempest, with a dainty tea-service sparkling and shining in the red glow.
A glance at these arrangements would have told you that there were old servants at the Abbey House, servants who knew their master's and mistress's ways, and for whom service was more or less a labour of love.
"How nice," said the lady, with a contented sigh. "Pauline has thought of my cup of tea."
"And Forbes has not forgotten my soda-water," remarked the Squire.
He said nothing about the brandy, which he was pouring into the tall glass with a liberal hand.
Pauline came to take off her mistress's cloak, and was praised for her thoughtfulness about the tea, and then dismissed for the night.
The Squire liked to stretch his legs before his own fireside after dining out; and with the Squire, as with Mr. Squeers, the leg-stretching process involved the leisurely consumption of a good deal of brandy and water.
Mr. and Mrs. Tempest talked over the Briarwood dinner-party, and arrived—with perfect good nature—at the conclusion that it had been a failure.
"The dinner was excellent," said the Squire, "but the wine went round too slow; my glasses were empty half the time. That's always the way when you've a woman at the helm. She never fills her cellars properly, or trusts her butler thoroughly."
"The dresses were lovely," said Mrs. Tempest, "but everyone looked bored. How did you like my dress, Edward? I think it's rather good style. Theodore will charge me horribly for it, I daresay."
"I don't know much about your dress, Pam, but you were the prettiest woman in the room."
"Oh Edward, at my age!" exclaimed Mrs. Tempest, with a pleased look, "when there was that lovely Lady Mabel Ashbourne."
"Do you call her lovely?—I don't. Lips too thin; waist too slim; too much blood, and too little flesh."
"Oh, but surely, Edward, she is grace itself; quite an ethereal creature. If Violet had more of that relined air——"
"Heaven forbid. Vixen is worth twenty such fine-drawn misses. Lady Mabel has been spoiled by over-training."
"Roderick is evidently in love with her," suggested Mrs. Tempest, pouring out another cup of tea.
The clocks had just struck two, the household was at rest, the logs blazed and cracked merrily, the red light shining on those mail-clad effigies in the corners, lighting up helm and hauberk, glancing on greaves and gauntlets. It was an hour of repose and gossip which the Squire dearly loved.
Hush! what is this creeping softly down the old oak staircase? A slender white figure with cloudy hair; a small pale face, and two dark eyes shining with excitement; little feet in black velvet slippers tripping lightly upon the polished oak.
Is it a ghost? No; ghosts are noiseless, and those little slippers descend from stair to stair with a gentle pit-a-pit.
"Bless my soul and body!" cried the Squire; "what's this?"
A gush of girlish laughter was his only answer.
"Did you take me for a ghost, papa?" cried Violet, descending the last five stairs with a flying leap, and then, bounding across the hall to perch, light as a bird, upon her father's knee. "Did I really frighten you? Did you think the good old Abbey House was going to set up a family ghost; a white lady, with a dismal history of a broken heart? You darling papa! I hope you took me for a ghost!"
"Well, upon my word, you know, Vixen, I was just the least bit staggered. Your little white figure looked like something uncanny against the black oak balustrades, half in light, half in shadow."
"How nice!" exclaimed Violet.
"But, my dear Violet, what can have induced you to come downstairs at such an hour?" ejaculated Mrs. Tempest in an aggrieved voice.
"I want to hear all about the party, mamma," answered Vixen coaxingly. "Do you think I could sleep a wink on the night of Rorie's coming of age? I heard the joy-bells ringing in my ears all night."
"That was very ridiculous." said Mrs. Tempest, "for there were no joy-bells after eleven o'clock yesterday."
"But they rang all the same, mamma. It was no use burying my head in the pillows; those bells only rang the louder. Ding-dong, ding-dong, dell, Rorie's come of age; ding-dong, dell, Rorie's twenty-one. Then I thought of the speeches that would be made, and I fancied I could hear Rorie speaking. Did he make a good speech, papa?"
"Capital, Vix; the only one that was worth hearing!"
"I am so glad! And did he look handsome while he was speaking? I think the Swiss sunshine has rather over-cooked him, you know; but he is not unbecomingly brown."
"He looked as handsome a young fellow as you need wish to set eyes on."
"My dear Edward," remonstrated Mrs. Tempest, languidly, too thoroughly contented with herself to be seriously vexed about anything, "do you think it is quite wise of you to encourage Violet in that kind of talk?"
"Why should she not talk of him? She never had a brother, and he stands in the place of one to her. Isn't Rorie the same to you as an elder brother, Vix?"
The girl's head was on her father's shoulder, one slim arm round his neck, her face hidden against the Squire's coat-collar. He could not see the deep warm flush that dyed his daughter's cheek at this home question.
"I don't quite know what an elder brother would be like, papa. But I'm very fond of Rorie—when he's nice, and comes to see us before anyone else, as he did to-day."
"And when he stays away?"
"Oh, then I hate him awfully," exclaimed Vixen, with such energy that the slender figure trembled faintly as she spoke. "But tell me all about the party, mamma. Your dress was quite the prettiest, I am sure?"
"I'm not certain of that, Violet," answered Mrs. Tempest with grave deliberation, as if the question were far too serious to be answered lightly. "There was a cream-coloured silk, with silver bullion fringe, that was very striking. As a rule, I detest gold or silver trimmings; but this was really elegant. It had an effect like moonlight."
"Was that Lady Mabel Ashbourne's dress?" asked Vixen eagerly.
"No; Lady Mabel wore blue gauze—the very palest blue, all puffings and ruchings—like a cloud."
"Oh mamma! the clouds have no puffings and ruchings."
"My dear, I mean the general effect—a sort of shadowiness which suits Lady Mabel's ethereal style."
"Ethereal!" repeated Violet thoughtfully; "you seem to admire her very much, mamma."
"Everybody admires her, my dear."
"Because she is a duke's only daughter."
"No; because she is very lovely, and extremely elegant, and most accomplished. She played and sang beautifully to-night."
"What did she play, mamma?"
"Did she!" cried Vixen. "Then I pity her. Yes, even if she were my worst enemy I should still pity her."
"People who are fond of music don't mind difficulties," said Mrs. Tempest.
"Don't they? Then I suppose I'm not fond of it, because I shirk my practice. But I should be very fond f music if I could grind it on a barrel organ."
"Oh, Violet, when will you be like Lady Mabel Ashbourne?"
"Never, I devoutly hope," said the Squire.
Here the Squire gave his daughter a hug which might mean anything.
"Never, mamma," answered Violet with conviction. "First and foremost, I never can be lovely, because I have red hair and a wide mouth. Secondly, I can never be elegant—much less ethereal—because it isn't in me. Thirdly, I shall never be accomplished, for poor Miss McCroke is always giving me up as the baddest lot in the shape of pupils that ever came in her way."
"If you persist in talking in that horrible way, Violet——"
"Let her talk as she likes, Pam," said the fond father. "I won't have her bitted too heavily."
Mrs. Tempest breathed a gentle sigh of resignation. The Squire was all that is dear and good as husband and father, but refinement was out of his line.
"Do go on about the party, mamma. Did Rorie seem to enjoy himself very much——"
"I think so. He was very devoted to his cousin all the evening. I believe they are engaged to be married."
"Mamma!" exclaimed Vixen, starting up from her reclining attitude upon her father's shoulder, and looking intently at the speaker; "Rorie engaged to Lady Mabel Ashbourne!"
"So I am told," replied Mrs. Tempest. "It will be a splendid match for him."
The pretty chestnut head dropped back into its old place upon the Squire's shoulder, and Violet answered never a word.
"Past two o'clock," cried her mother. "This is really too dreadful. Come, Violet, you and I must go upstairs at any rate."
"We'll all go," said the Squire, finishing his second brandy and soda.
So they all three went upstairs together. Vixen had grown suddenly silent and sleepy. She yawned dolefully, and kissed her mother and father at the end of the gallery, without a word; and then scudded off, swift as a scared rabbit, to her own room.
"God bless her!" exclaimed the Squire; "she grows prettier and more winning every day."
"If her mouth were only a little smaller," sighed Mrs. Tempest.
"It's the prettiest mouth I ever saw upon woman—bar one," said the Squire.
What was Vixen doing while the fond father was praising her?
She had locked her door, and thrown herself face downwards on the carpet, and was sobbing as if her heart would break.
Rorie was going to be married. Her little kingdom had been overturned by a revolution: her little world had crumbled all to pieces. Till to-night she had been a queen in her own mind; and her kingdom had been Rorie, her subjects had begun and ended in Rorie. All was over. He belonged to some one else. She could never tyrannise over him again—never scold him and abuse him and patronise him and ridicule him any more. He was her Rorie no longer.
Had she ever thought that a time might come when he would be something more to her than playfellow and friend? No, never. The young bright mind was too childishly simple for any such foresight or calculation. She had only thought that he was in somewise her property, and would be so till the end of both their lives. He was hers, and he was very fond of her, and she thought him a rather absurd young fellow, and looked down upon him with airs of ineffable superiority from the altitude of her childish womanliness.
And now he was gone. The earth had opened all at once and swallowed him, like that prophetic gentleman in the Greek play, whose name Vixen could never remember—chariot and horses and all. He belonged henceforth to Lady Mabel Ashbourne. She could never be rude to him any more. She could not take such a liberty with another young lady's lover.
"And to think that he should never have told me he was going to be engaged to her," she said. "He must have been fond of her from the very beginning; and he never said a word; and he let me think he rather liked me—or at least tolerated me. And how could he like two people who are the very antipodes of each other? If he is fond of her, he must detest me. If he respects her, he must despise me."
The thought of such treachery rankled deep in the young warm heart. Vixen started up to her feet, and stood in the midst of the firelit room, with clinched fists, like a young fury. The light chestnut tresses should have been Medusa's snakes to have harmonised with that set white face. God had given Violet Tempest a heart to feel deeply, too deeply for perfect peace, or that angelic softness which seems to us most worthy in woman—the power to suffer and be patient.
Rorie has Plans of his own.
Roderick Vawdrey's ideas of what was due to a young man who attains his majority were in no wise satisfied by his birthday dinner-party. It had been pleasant enough in its way, but far too much after the pattern of all other dinner-parties to please a young man who hated all common and hackneyed things, and all the beaten tracks of life—or who, at any rate, fancied he did, which comes to nearly the same thing.
"Mother," he began at breakfast next morning, in his loud cheery voice, "we must have something for the small tenants, and shopkeepers, and cottagers."
"What do you mean, Roderick?"
"Some kind of entertainment to celebrate my majority. The people will expect it. Last night polished off the swells very nicely. The whole thing did you credit, mother."
"Thank you," said Lady Jane, with a slight contraction of her thin lips.
This October morning, so pleasant for Rorie, was rather a bitter day for his mother. She had been reigning sovereign at Briarwood hitherto; henceforth she could only live there on sufferance. The house was Rorie's. Even the orchid-houses were his. He might take her to task if he pleased for having spent so much money on glass.
"But I must have my humble friends round me," continued Rorie. "The young people, too—the boys and girls. I'll tell you what, mother. We must have a lawn meet. The hounds have never met here since my grandfather's time—fifty years ago. The Duke's stud-groom was telling me about it last year. He's a Hampshire man, you know, born and bred in the Forest. We'll have a lawn meet and a hunting breakfast; and it shall be open house for everyone—high and low, rich and poor, gentle and simple. Don't be frightened, mother," interjected Rorie, seeing Lady Jane's look of horror; "we won't do any mischief. Your gardens shall be respected."
"They are your gardens now, Roderick. You are sole master here, and can do what you please."
"My dear mother, how can you talk like that? Do you suppose I shall ever forget who made the place what it is? The gardens have been your particular hobby, and they shall be your gardens to the end of time."
"That is very generous of you, my dear Roderick; but you are promising too much. When you marry, your wife will be mistress of Briarwood, and it will be necessary for me to find a new home."
"I am in no hurry to get married. It will be half-a-dozen years before I shall even think of anything so desperate."
"I hope not, Roderick. With your position and your responsibilities you ought to marry young. Marriage—a suitable marriage, that is to say—would give you an incentive to earnestness and ambition. I want to see you follow your father's footsteps; I want you to make a name by-and-by."
"I'm afraid it will be a distant by-and-by," said Rorie, with a yawn. "I don't feel at all drawn towards the senate. I love the country, my dogs, my horses, the free fresh air, the stir and movement of life too well to pen myself up in a study and pore over blue-books, or to waste the summer evenings listening to the member for Little Peddlington laying down the law about combination drainage, or the proposed loop-line that is intended to connect his borough with the world in general. I'm afraid it isn't in me, mother, and that you'll be sorely disappointed if you set your heart upon my making a figure as a senator."
"I should like to see you worthy of your father's name," Lady Jane said, with a regretful sigh.
"Providence hasn't made me in the same pattern," answered Rorie. "Look at my grandfather's portrait over the mantelpiece, in pink and mahogany tops. What a glorious fellow he must have been. You should hear how the old people talk of him. I think I inherit his tastes, instead of my father's. Hereditary genius crops up in curious ways, you know. Perhaps, if I have a son, he will be a heaven-born statesman, and you may have your ambition gratified by a grandson. And now about the hunting breakfast. Would this day week suit you?"
"This is your house, Roderick. It is for you to give your orders."
"Bosh!" exclaimed the son impatiently. "Don't I tell you that you are mistress here, and will be mistress——"
"My dear Roderick, let us look things straight in the face," said Lady Jane. "If I were sole mistress here there would be no hunting breakfast. It is just the very last kind of entertainment I should ever dream of giving. I am not complaining, mind. It is natural enough for you to like that kind of thing; and, as master of this house, it is your right to invite whomsoever you please. I am quite happy that it should be so, but let there be no more talk about my being mistress of this house. That is too absurd."
Rorie felt all his most generous impulses turned to a sense of constraint and bitterness. He could say no more.
"Will you give me a list of the people you would like to be asked?" said his mother, after rather an uncomfortable silence.
"I'll go and talk it over with the Duke," answered Rorie. "He'll enter into the spirit of the thing."
Rorie found the Duke going the round of the loose-boxes, and uncle and nephew spent an hour together pleasantly, overhauling the fine stud of hunters which the Duke kept at Ashbourne, and going round the paddocks to look at the brood-mares and their foals; these latter being eccentric little animals, all head and legs, which nestled close to the mother's side for a minute, and then took fright at their own tails, and shot off across the field, like a skyrocket travelling horizontally, or suddenly stood up on end, and executed a wild waltz in mid air.
The Duke and Roderick decided which among these leggy little beasts possessed the elements of future excellence; and after an hour's perambulation of the paddocks they went to the house, where they found the Duchess and Lady Mabel in the morning-room; the Duchess busy making scarlet cloth cloaks for her school-children, Lady Mabel reading a German critic on Shakespeare.
Here the hunt breakfast was fully discussed. Everybody was to be asked. The Duchess put in a plea for her school-children. It would be such a treat for the little things to see the hounds, and their red cloaks and hoods would look so pretty on the lawn.
"Let them come, by all means," said Roderick; "your school—half-a-dozen schools. I'll have three or four tents rigged up for refreshments. There shall be plenty to eat and drink for everybody. And now I'm off to the Tempests' to arrange about the hounds. The Squire will be pleased, I know."
"Of course," said Lady Mabel, "and the Squire's daughter."
"Dear little thing!" exclaimed Rorie, with an elder brother's tenderness; "she'll be as pleased as Punch. You'll hunt, of course, Mabel?"
"I don't know. I don't shine in the field, as Miss Tempest does."
"Oh, but you must come, Mab. The Duke will find you a safe mount."
"She has a hunter I bred on purpose for her," said the Duke; "but she'll never be such a horsewoman as her mother."
"She looks lovely on Mazeppa," said Rorie; "and she must come to my hunting breakfast."
"Of course, Rorie, if you wish I shall come."
Rorie stayed to luncheon, and then went back to Briarwood to mount his horse to ride to the Abbey House.
The afternoon was drawing in when Rorie rode up to the old Tudor porch—a soft, sunless, gray afternoon. The door stood open, and he saw the glow of the logs on the wide hearth, and the Squire's stalwart figure sitting in the great arm-chair, leaning forward with a newspaper across his knee, and Vixen on a stool at his feet, the dogs grouped about them.
"Shall I send my horse round to the stables, Squire?" asked Rorie.
"Do, my lad," answered Mr. Tempest, ringing the bell, at which summons a man appeared and took charge of Roderick's big chestnut.
"Been hunting to-day, Squire?" asked Rorie, when he had shaken hands with Mr. Tempest and his daughter, and seated himself on the opposite side of the hearth.
"No," answered the Squire, in a voice that had a duller sound than usual. "We had the hounds out this morning at Hilberry Green, and there was a good muster, Jack Purdy says; but I felt out of sorts, and neither Vixen nor I went. It was a loss for Vixen, poor little girl."
"It was a grief to see you ill, papa," said Violet, nestling closer to him.
She had hardly taken any notice of Roderick to-day, shaking hands with him in an absent-minded way, evidently full of anxiety about her father. She was very pale, and looked older and more womanly than when he saw her yesterday, Roderick thought.
"I'm not ill, my dear," said the Squire, "only a little muddled and queer in my head; been riding too hard lately, perhaps. I don't get lighter, you know, Rorie, and a quick run shakes me more than it used. Old Martin, our family doctor, has been against my hunting for a long time; but I should like to know what kind of life men of my age would lead if they listened to the doctors. They wouldn't let us have a decent dinner."
"I'm so sorry!" said Rorie. "I came to ask you a favour, and now I feel as it I hardly ought to say anything about it."
And then Roderick proceeded to tell the Squire his views about a lawn meet at Briarwood, and a hunting breakfast for rich and poor.
"It shall be done, my boy," answered the Squire heartily. "It's just the sort of thing you ought to do to make yourself popular. Lady June is a charming woman, you know, thoroughbred to the finger-nails; but she has kept herself a little too much to herself. There are people old enough to remember what Briarwood was in your grandfather's time. This day week you say. I'll arrange everything. We'll have such a gathering as hasn't been seen for the last twenty years."
"Vixen must come with you," said Rorie.
"If papa is well and strong enough to hunt."
"My love, there is nothing amiss with me—nothing that need trouble me this day week. A man may have a headache, mayn't he, child, without people making any fuss about it?"
"I should like you to see Dr. Martin, papa. Don't you think he ought to see the doctor, Rorie? It's not natural for him to be ill."
"I'm not going to be put upon half-rations, Vixen. Martin would starve me. That's his only idea of medical treatment. Yes, Vixen shall come, Rorie."
Glas ist der Erde Stolz und Glueck.
The morning of the Briarwood Meet dawned fairly. Roderick watched the first lifting of the darkness from his bed-room window, and rejoiced in the promise of a fine weather. The heavens, which had been so unpropitious upon his birthday, seemed to promise better things to-day. He did not desire the traditional hunting morning—a southerly wind and a cloudy sky. He cared very little about the scent lying well, or the actual result of the day's sport. He wanted rather to see the kind familiar faces round him, the autumn sunshine lighting up all the glow and colour of the picture, the scarlet coats, the rich bay and brown of the horses, the verdant background of lawn and shrubberies. Two huge marquees had been erected for the commonalty—one for the school-children, the other for the villagers. There were long tables in the billiard-room for the farming class; and for the quality there was the horse-shoe table in the dining-room, as at Roderick's birthday dinner. But on this occasion the table was decorated only with hardy ferns and flowers. The orchids were not allowed to appear.
Roderick noticed the omission.
"Why, where are the thing-um-tites, mother?" he asked, with some surprise; "the pitcher-plants and tropical what's-its-names?"
"I did not think there was any occasion to have them brought out of the houses, Roderick," Lady Jane answered quietly; "there is always a risk of their being killed, or some of your sporting friends might be picking my prize blossoms to put in their button-holes. Men who give their minds to horses would hardly appreciate orchids."
"All right, mother. As long as there is plenty to eat, I don't suppose it much matters," answered Rorie.
He had certainly no cause for complaint upon this score. Briarwood had been amply provisioned for an unlimited hospitality. The red coats and green coats, and blue coats and brown coats, came in and out, slashed away at boar's head and truffled turkey, sent champagne corks flying, and added more dead men to the formidable corps of tall hock bottles, dressed in uniform brown, which the astonished butler ranged rank and file in a lobby outside the dining-room. He had never seen this kind of thing at Briarwood since he had kept the keys of the cellars; and he looked upon this promiscuous hospitality with a disapproving eye.
The Duke supported his nephew admirably, and was hail-fellow-well-met with everybody. He had always been popular at Ashbourne. It was his own place, his particular selection, bought with his own money, improved under his own eye, and he liked it better than any of his hereditary seats.
"If I had only had a son like you, Rorie," he said, as he stood beside the young man, on the gravel sweep before the hall-door, welcoming the new-comers, "I should have been a happy man. Well, I suppose I must be satisfied with a grandson; but it's a hard thing that the title and estates are to go to that scamp of a cousin of mine."
Roderick, on this particular morning, was a nephew whom any uncle might be proud to own. His red coat and buckskins became him; so did his position as host and master at Briarwood. His tall erect figure showed to advantage amidst the crowd. His smile lit up the dark sunburnt face like sunshine. He had a kind word, a friendly hand-clasp for everybody—even for gaffers and goodies who had hobbled from their village shanties to see the sport, and to get their share of cold sirloin and old October. He took the feeble old creatures into the tent, and saw that they found a place at the board.
Squire Tempest and his daughter were among the later arrivals. The meet was to be at one, and they only rode into the grounds at half-past twelve, when everyone else had breakfasted. Mrs. Tempest had not come. The entertainment was much too early for a lady who never left her rooms till after noon.
Vixen looked lovely in her smart little habit. It was not the Lincoln green with the brass buttons, which Lady Mabel had laughed at a year ago. To-day Miss Tempest wore a dark brown habit, moulded to the full erect figure, with a narrow rim of white at the throat, a little felt hat of the same dark brown with a brown feather, long white gauntlets, and a whip with a massive ivory handle.
The golden bay's shining coat matched Violet's shining hair. It was the prettiest picture in the world, the little rider in dark brown on the bright bay horse, the daintily quilted saddle, the gauntleted hands playing so lightly with the horse's velvet mouth—horse and rider devotedly attached to each other.
"How do you like him?" asked Vixen, directly she and Rorie had shaken hands. "Isn't he absolutely lovely?'
"Absolutely lovely," said Rorie, patting the horse's shoulder and looking at the rider.
"Papa gave him to me on my last birthday. I was to have ridden Titmouse another year; but I got the brush one day after a hard run when almost everybody else was left behind, and papa said I should have a horse. Poor Titmouse is put into a basket-chaise. Isn't it sad for him?'
Lady Mabel was close by on her chestnut thoroughbred, severely costumed in darkest blue and chimney-pot hat.
"I don't think you've ever met my cousin?" said Rorie. "Mabel, this is Miss Tempest, whom you've heard me talk about. Miss Tempest, Lady Mabel Ashbourne."
Violet Tempest gave a startled look, and blushed crimson. Then the two girls bowed and smiled: a constrained smile on Vixen's part, a prim and chilly smile from Lady Mabel.
"I want you two to be awful good friends," said Rorie; "and when you come out, Vixen, Lady Mabel will take you under her wing. She knows everybody, and the right thing to be done on every occasion."
Vixen turned from red to pale, and said nothing. Lady Mabel looked at the distant blue line of the Wight, and murmured that she would be happy to be of use to Miss Tempest if ever they met in London. Rorie felt, somehow, that it was not encouraging. Vixen stole a glance at her rival. Yes, she was very pretty—a delicate patrician beauty which Vixen had never seen before. No wonder Rorie was in love with her. Where else could he have seen anything so exquisite? It was the most natural thing in the world that these cousins should be fond of each other, and engaged to be married. Vixen wondered that the thing had never occurred to her as inevitable—that it should have come upon her as a blow at the last.
"I think Rorie ought to have told me," she said to herself. "He is like my brother; and a brother would not hide his love affairs from his sister. It was rather mean of Rorie."
The business of the day began presently. Neither Vixen nor the Squire dismounted. They had breakfasted at home; and Vixen, who did not care much for Lady Jane Vawdrey, was glad to escape with no further communication than a smile and a bow. At a quarter-past one they were all riding away towards the Forest, and presently the serious business began.
Vixen and her father were riding side by side.
"You are so pale, papa. Is your head bad again to-day?"
"Yes, my dear. I'm afraid I've started a chronic headache. But the fresh air will blow it away presently, I daresay. You're not looking over-well yourself, Vixen. What have you done with your roses?"
"I—I—don't care much about hunting to-day, papa," said Violet, sudden tears rushing into her eyes. "Shall we go home together? You're not well, and I'm not enjoying myself. Nobody wants us, either; so why should we stay?"
Rorie was a little way behind them, taking care of Lady Mabel, whose slim-legged chestnut went through as many manoeuvres as if he had been doing the manege business in a circus, and got over the ground very slowly.
"Nonsense, child! Go back! I should think not! Jack Purdy may do all the work, but people like to see me to the fore. We shall find down in Dingley Bottom, I daresay, and get a capital run across the hills to Beaulieu."
They found just as the Squire had anticipated, and after that there was a hard run for the next hour and a quarter. Roderick was at the heel of the hunt all the time, opening gates, and keeping his cousin out of bogs and dangers of all kinds. They killed at last on a wild bit of common near Beaulieu, and there were only a few in at the death, amongst them Vixen on her fast young bay, flushed with excitement and triumph by this time, and forgetting all her troubles in the delight of winning one of the pads. Mrs Millington, the famous huntress from the shires, was there to claim the brush.
"How tired you look, papa," said Vixen, as they rode quietly homewards.
"A little done up, my dear, but a good dinner will set me all right again. It was a capital run, and your horse behaved beautifully. I don't think I made a bad choice for you. Rorie and his cousin were miles behind, I daresay. Pretty girl, and sits her horse like a picture—but she can't ride. We shall meet them going home, perhaps."
A mile or two farther on they met Roderick alone. His cousin had gone home with her father.
"It was rather a bore losing the run," he said, as he turned his horse's head and rode by Vixen, "but I was obliged to take care of my cousin."
One of the Squire's tenants, a seventeen-stone farmer, on a stout gray cob, overtook them presently, and Mr. Tempest rode on by his side, talking agricultural talk about over-fed beasts and cattle shows, the last popular form of cruelty to animals.
Roderick and Violet were alone, riding slowly side by side in the darkening gray, between woods where solitary robins carolled sweetly, or the rare gurgle of the thrush sounded now and then from thickets of beech and holly.
A faint colour came back to Vixen's cheek. She was very angry with her playfellow for his want of confidence, for his unfriendly reserve. Yet this was the one happy hour of her day. There had been a flavour of desolateness and abandonment in all the rest.
"I hope you enjoyed the run," said Rorie.
"I don't think you can care much whether we did or didn't," retorted Vixen, shrouding her personality in a vague plural. "If you had cared you would have been with us. Sultan," meaning the chestnut "must have felt cruelly humiliated by being kept so far behind."
"If a man could be in two places at once, half of me, the better half of me, would have been with you, Vixen; but I was bound to take care of my cousin. I had insisted upon her coming."
"Of course," answered Vixen, with a little toss of her head; "it would have been quite wrong if she had been absent."
They rode on in silence for a little while after this. Vixen was longing to say: "Rorie, you have treated me very badly. You ought to have told me you were going to be married." But something restrained her. She patted her horse's neck, listened to the lonely robins, and said not a word. The Squire and his tenant were a hundred yards ahead, talking loudly.
Presently they came to a point at which their roads parted, but Rorie still rode on by Vixen.
"Isn't that your nearest way?" asked Vixen, pointing down the cross-road with the ivory handle of her whip.
"I am not going the nearest way. I am going to the Abbey House with you."
"I wouldn't be so rude as to say Don't, but I think poor Sultan must be tired."
"Sultan shall have a by-day to-morrow."
They went into an oak plantation, where a broad open alley led from one side of the enclosure to the other. The wood had a mysterious look in the late afternoon, when the shadows were thickening under the tall thin trees. There was an all-pervading ghostly grayness as in a shadowy under-world. They rode silently over the thick wet carpet of fallen leaves, the horses starting a little now and then at the aspect of a newly-barked trunk lying white across the track. They were silent, having, in sooth, very little to say to each other just at this time. Vixen was nursing her wrathful feelings; Rorie felt that his future was confused and obscure. He ought to do something with his life, perhaps, as his mother had so warmly urged. But his soul was stirred by no ambitious promptings.
They were within two hundred yards of the gate at the end of the enclosure, when Vixen gave a sudden cry:
"Did papa's horse stumble?" she asked; "look how he sways in his saddle."
Another instant, and the Squire reeled forward, and fell headforemost across his horse's shoulder. The fall was so sudden and so heavy, that the horse fell with him, and then scrambled up on to his feet again affrighted, swung himself round, and rushed past Roderick and Vixen along the plashy track.
Vixen was off her horse in a moment, and had flown to her father's side. He lay like a log, face downwards upon the sodden leaves just inside the gate. The farmer had dismounted and was stooping over him, bridle in hand, with a frightened face.
"Oh, what is it?" cried Violet frantically. "Did the horse throw him?—Bullfinch, his favourite horse. Is he much hurt? Oh, help me to lift him up—help me—help me!"
Rorie was by her side by this time, kneeling down with her beside the prostrate Squire, trying to raise the heavy figure which lay like lead across his arm.
"It wasn't the horse, miss," said the farmer. "I'm afraid it's a seizure."
"A fit!" cried Vixen. "Oh, papa, papa——darling—darling——"
She was sobbing, clinging to him, trembling like a leaf, and turning a white, stricken face up towards Roderick.
"Do something to help him—for God's sake—do something," she cried; "you won't let him lie there and die for want of help. Some brandy—something," she gasped, stretching out her trembling hand.
The farmer had anticipated her thought. He had taken his flask from the saddle pocket, and was kneeling down by the Squire. Roderick had lifted the heavy head, and turned the ghastly face to the waning light. He tried to force a little brandy between the livid lips—but vainly.
"For God's sake get her away," he whispered to John Wimble, the farmer. "It's all over with him."
"Come away with me, my dear Miss Tempest," said Wimble, trying to raise Violet from her knees beside the Squire. She was gazing into that awful face distractedly—half divining its solemn meaning—yet watching for the kind eyes to open and look at her again. "Come away with me, and we'll get a doctor. Mr. Vawdrey will take care of your father."
"You go for the doctor," she answered firmly. "I'll stay with papa. Take my horse, he's faster than yours. Oh, he'll carry you well enough. You don't know how strong he is—go, quick—quick—Dr. Martin, at Lyndhurst—it's a long way, but you must get him. Papa will recover, and be able to ride home, perhaps, before you can get back to us, but go, go."
"You go for the doctor, miss; your horse will carry you fast enough. He'd never carry such a heavy weight as me, and my cob is dead beat. You go, and Mr. Vawdrey will go with you. I'll take care of the Squire."
Violet looked from one to the other helplessly.
"I'd rather stay with papa," she said. "You go—yes—go, go. I'll stay with papa."
She crouched down beside the prostrate figure on the damp marshy ground, took the heavy head on her lap, and looked up at the two men with a pale set face which indicated a resolve that neither of them was strong enough to overrule. They tried their utmost to persuade her, but in vain. She was fixed as a new Niobe—a stony image of young despair. So Roderick mounted his horse and rode off towards Lyndhurst, and honest Jack Wimble tied the other two horses to the gate, and took his stand beside them, a few paces from those two motionless figures on the ground, patiently waiting for the issue of this bitter hour.
It was one of the longest, weariest, saddest hours that ever youth and hope lived through. There was an awful heart-sickening fear in Violet's mind, but she gave it no definite shape. She would not say to herself, "My father is dead." The position in which he was lying hampered her arms so that she could not reach out her hand to lay it upon his heart. She bent her face down to his lips.
Oh God! not a flutter stirred upon her soft cheek as she laid it against those pallid lips. The lower jaw had fallen in an awful-looking way; but Violet had seen her father look like that sometimes as he slept, with open mouth, before the hall fire. It might be only a long swoon, a suspension of consciousness. Dr. Martin would come presently—oh, how long, how long the time seemed—and make all things right.
The crescent moon shone silver pale above that dim gray wood. The barked trunks gleamed white and spectral in the gathering dark. Owls began to hoot in the distance, frogs were awaking near at band, belated rabbits flitted ghost-like across the track. All nature seemed of one gray or shadowy hue—silvery where the moonbeams fell.
The October air was chill and penetrating. There was a dull aching in Violet's limbs from the weight of her burden, but she was hardly conscious of physical pain. It seemed to her that she had been sitting there for hours waiting for the doctor's help. She thought the night must have nearly worn itself out.
"Dr. Martin could not have been at home," she said, speaking for the first time since Roderick rode away. "Mr. Vawdrey would fetch someone else, surely."
"My dear young lady, he hasn't had time to ride to Lyndhurst yet."
"Not yet," cried Vixen despairingly, "not yet! And it has been so long. Papa is getting so cold. The chill will be so bad for him."
"Worse for you, miss. I do wish you'd let me take you home."
"And leave papa here—alone—unconscious! How can you be so cruel as to think of such a thing?"
"Dear Miss Tempest, we're not doing him any good, and you may be getting a chill that wilt be nigh your death. If you would only go home to your mamma, now—it's hard upon her not to know—she'll be fretting about you, I daresay."
"Don't waste your breath talking to me," cried Vixen indignantly; "I shall not leave this spot till papa goes with me."
They waited for another quarter of an hour in dismal silence. The horses gnawed the lower branches of the trees, and gave occasional evidence of their impatience. Bullfinch had gone home to his stable no doubt. They were only about a mile-and-a-half from the Abbey House.
Hark! what was that? The splish-splash of horses' hoofs on the soft turf. Another minute and Rorie rode up to the gate with a stranger.
"I was lucky enough to meet this gentleman," he said, "a doctor from Southampton, who was at the hunt to-day. Violet dear, will you let me take you home now, and leave the doctor and Mr. Wimble with your father?"
"No," answered Vixen decisively.
The strange doctor knelt down and looked at his patient. He was a middle-aged man, grave-looking, with iron-gray hair—a man who impressed Vixen with a sense of power and authority. She looked at him silently, with a despairing appealing look that thrilled him, familiar as he was with such looks. He made his examination quietly, saying not a word, and keeping his face hidden. Then he turned to the two men who were standing close by, watching him anxiously.
"You must get some kind of litter to carry him home," he whispered.
And then with gentle firmness, with strong irresistible hands, he separated the living from the dead, lifted Violet from the ground and led her towards her horse.
"You must let Mr. Vawdrey take you home, my dear young lady," he said. "You can do nothing here."
"But you—you can do something," sobbed Violet, "you will bring him back to life—you——"
"I will do all that can be done," answered the doctor gently.
His tone told her more than his words. She gave one wild shriek, and threw herself down beside her dead father. A cloud came over the distracted brain, and she lay there senseless. The doctor and Rorie lifted her up and carried her to the gate where her horse was waiting. The doctor forced a little brandy through the locked lips, and between them Rorie and he placed her in the saddle. She had just consciousness enough by this time to hold the bridle mechanically, and to sit upright on her horse; and thus led by Roderick, she rode slowly back to the home that was never any more to be the same home that she had known and lived in through the joyous sixteen years of her life. All things were to be different to her henceforward. The joy of life was broken short off, like a flower snapped from its stem.
A House of Mourning.
There was sorrow at the Abbey House deeper and wilder than had entered within those doors for many a year. To Mrs. Tempest the shock of her husband's death was overwhelming. Her easy, luxurious, monotonous life had been very sweet to her, but her husband had been the dearest part of her life. She had taken little trouble to express her love for him, quite willing that he should take it for granted. She had been self-indulgent and vain; seeking her own ease, spending money and care on her own adornment; but she had not forgotten to make the Squire's life pleasant to him also. Newly-wedded lovers in the fair honeymoon-stage of existence could not have been fonder of each other than the middle-aged Squire and his somewhat faded wife. His loving eyes had never seen Time's changes in Pamela Tempest's pretty face, the lessening brightness of the eyes, the duller tints of the complexion, the loss of youth's glow and glory. To him she had always appeared the most beautiful woman in the world.
And now the fondly-indulged wife could do nothing but lie on her sofa and shed a rain of incessant tears, and drink strong tea, which had lost its power to comfort or exhilarate. She would see no one. She could not even be roused to interest herself in the mourning, though, with a handsome widow, Pauline thought that ought to be all important.
"There are so many styles of widows' caps now, ma'am. You really ought to see them, and choose for yourself," urged Pauline, an honest young Englishwoman, who had begun life as Polly, but whom Mrs. Tempest had elevated into Pauline.
"What does it matter, Pauline? Take anything you like. He will not be there to see."
Here the ready tears flowed afresh. That was the bitterest of all. That she should look nice in her mourning, and Edward not be there to praise her. In her feebleness she could not imagine life without him. She would hear his step at her door surely, his manly voice in the corridor. She would awake from this awful dream, in which he was not, and find him, and fall into his arms, and sob out her grief upon his breast, and tell him all she had suffered.
That was the dominant feeling in this weak soul. He could not be gone for ever.
Yet the truth came back upon her in hideous distinctness every now and then—came back suddenly and awfully, like the swift revelation of a desolate plague-stricken scene under a lightning flash. He was gone. He was lying in his coffin, in the dear old Tudor hall where they had sat so cosily. Those dismal reiterated strokes of the funeral-bell meant that his burial was at hand. They were moving the coffin already, perhaps. His place knew him no more.
She tottered to the darkened window, lifted the edge of the blind, and looked out. The funeral train was moving slowly along the carriage sweep, through the winding shrubberied road. How long, and black, and solemnly splendid the procession looked. Everybody had loved and respected him. It was a grand funeral. The thought of this general homage gave a faint thrill of comfort to the widow's heart.
"My noble husband," she ejaculated. "Who could help loving you?"
It seemed to her only a little while ago that she had driven up to the Tudor porch for the first time after her happy honeymoon, when she was in the bloom of youth and beauty, and life was like a schoolgirl's happy dream.
"How short life is," she sobbed; "how cruelly short for those who are happy!"
With Violet grief was no less passionate; but it did not find its sole vent in tears. The stronger soul was in rebellion against Providence. She kept aloof from her mother in the time of sorrow. What could they say to each other? They could only cry together. Violet shut herself in her room, and refused to see anyone, except patient Miss McCroke, who was always bringing her cups of tea, or basins of arrowroot, trying to coax her to take some kind of nourishment, dabbing her hot forehead with eau-de-Cologne—doing all those fussy little kindnesses which are so acutely aggravating in a great sorrow.
"Let me lie on the ground alone, and think of him, and wail for him."
That is what Violet Tempest would have said, if she could have expressed her desire clearly.
Roderick Vawdrey went back to the Abbey House after the funeral, and contrived to see Miss McCroke, who was full of sympathy for everybody.
"Do let me see Violet, that's a dear creature," he said. "I can't tell you how unhappy I am about her. I can't get her face out of my thoughts, as I saw it that dreadful night when I led her horse home—the wild sad eyes, the white lips."
"She is not fit to see anyone," said Miss McCroke; "but perhaps it might rouse her a little to see you."
Miss McCroke had an idea that all mourners ought to be roused; that much indulgence in grief for the dead was reprehensible.
"Yes," answered Rorie eagerly, "she would see me, I know. We are like brother and sister."
"Come into the schoolroom," said the governess, "and I'll see what I can do."
The schoolroom was Vixen's own particular den, and was not a bit like the popular idea of a schoolroom.
It was a pretty little room, with a high wooden dado, painted olive green, and a high-art paper of amazing ugliness, whereon brown and red storks disported themselves on a dull green ground. The high-art paper was enlivened with horsey caricatures by Leech, and a menagerie of pottery animals on various brackets.
A pot or a pan had been stuck into every corner that would hold one. There were desks, and boxes, and wickerwork baskets of every shape and kind, a dwarf oak bookcase on either side of the fireplace, with the books all at sixes and sevens, leaning against each other as if they were intoxicated. The broad mantelpiece presented a confusion of photographs, cups and saucers, violet jars, and Dresden shepherdesses. Over the quaint old Venetian glass dangled Vixen's first trophy, the fox's brush, tied with a scarlet ribbon. There were no birds, or squirrels, or dormice, for Vixen was too fond of the animal creation to shut her favourites up in cages; but there was a black bearskin spread in a corner for Argus to lie upon. In the wide low windows there were two banks of bright autumn flowers, pompons and dwarf roses, mignonette and veronica.
Miss McCroke drew up the blind, and stirred the fire.
"I'll go and ask her to come," she said.
"Do, like a dear," said Rorie.
He paced the room while she was gone, full of sadness. He had been very fond of the Squire, and that awfully sudden death, an apopleptic seizure, instantaneous as a thunderbolt, had impressed him very painfully. It was his first experience of the kind, and it was infinitely terrible to him. It seemed to him a long time before Vixen appeared, and then the door opened, and a slim black figure came in, a white fixed face looked at him piteously, with tearless eyes made big by a great grief. She came leaning on Miss McCroke, as if she could hardly walk unaided. The face was stranger to him than an altogether unknown face. It was Violet Tempest with all the vivid joyous life gone out of her, like a lamp that is extinguished.
He took her cold trembling hands and drew her gently to a chair, and sat down beside her.
"I wanted so much to see you, dear," he said, "to tell you how sorry we all are for you—my mother, my aunt, and cousin"—Violet gave a faint shiver—"all of us. The Duke liked your dear father so much. It was quite a shock to him."
"You are very good," Violet said mechanically.
She sat by him, pale and still as marble, looking at the ground. His voice and presence impressed her but faintly, like something a long way off. She was thinking of her dead father. She saw nothing but that one awful figure. They had laid him in his grave by this time. The cold cruel earth had fallen upon him and hidden him for ever from the light; he was shut away for ever from the fair glad world; he who had been so bright and cheerful, whose presence had carried gladness everywhere.
"Is the funeral quite over?" she asked presently, without lifting her heavy eyelids.
"Yes, dear. It was a noble funeral. Everybody was there—rich and poor. Everybody loved him."
"The poor most of all," she said. "I know how good he was to them."
Somebody knocked at the door and asked something of Miss McCroke, which obliged the governess to leave her pupil. Roderick was glad at her departure, That substantial figure in its new black dress had been a hinderance to freedom of conversation.
Miss McCroke's absence did not loosen Violet's tongue. She sat looking at the ground, and was dumb. That silent grief was very awful to Roderick.
"Violet, why don't you talk to me about your sorrow?" he said. "Surely you can trust me—your friend—your brother!"
That last word stung her into speech. The hazel eyes shot a swift angry glance at him.
"You have no right to call yourself that," she said, "you have not treated me like a sister."
"How not, dear?"
"You should have told me about your engagement—that you were going to marry Lady Mabel Ashbourne."
"Should I?" exclaimed Rorie, amazed. "If I had I should have told you an arrant falsehood. I am not engaged to my cousin Mabel. I am not going to marry her."
"Oh, it doesn't matter in the least whether you are or not," returned Vixen, with a weary air. "Papa is dead, and trifles like that can't affect me now. But I felt it unkind of you at the time I heard it."
"And where and how did you hear this wonderful news, Vixen?" asked Rorie, very pleased to get her thoughts away from her grief, were it only for a minute.
"Mamma told me that everybody said you were engaged, and that the fact was quite obvious."
"What everybody says, and I what is quite obvious, is very seldom true, Violet. You may take that for a first principle in social science. I am not engaged to anyone. I have no thought of getting married—for the next three years."
Vixen received this information with chilling silence. She would have been very glad to hear it, perhaps, a week ago—at which time she had found it a sore thing to think of her old playfellow as Lady Mabel's affianced husband—but it mattered nothing now. The larger grief had swallowed up all smaller grievances. Roderick Vawdrey had receded into remote distance. He was no one, nothing, in a world that was suddenly emptied of all delight.
"What are you going to do, dear?" asked Roderick presently. "If you shut yourself up in your room and abandon yourself to grief, you will make yourself very ill. You ought to go away somewhere for a little while."
"For ever!" exclaimed Vixen passionately. "Do you think I can ever endure this dear home without papa? There is not a thing I look at that doesn't speak to me of him. The dogs, the horses. I almost hate them for reminding me so cruelly. Yea, we are going away at once, I believe. Mamma said so when I saw her this morning."
"Your poor mamma! How does she bear her grief?"
"Oh, she cries, and cries, and cries," said Vixen, rather contemptuously. "I think it comforts her to cry. I can't cry. I am like the dogs. If I did not restrain myself with all my might I should howl. I should like to lie on the ground outside his door—just as his dog does—and to refuse to eat or drink till I died."
"But, dear Violet, you are not alone in the world. You have your poor mamma to think of."
"Mamma—yes. I am sorry for her, of course. But she is only like a lay-figure in my life. Papa was everything."
"Do you know where your mamma is going to take you?"
"No; I neither know nor care. It will be to a house with four walls and a roof, I suppose. It will be all the same to me wherever it is."
What could Roderick say? It was too soon to talk about hope or comfort. His heart was rent by this dull silent grief; but he could do nothing except sit there silently by Vixen's side with her cold unresponsive hands held in his.
Miss McCroke came back presently, followed by a maid carrying a pretty little Japanese tea-tray.
"I have just been giving your poor mamma a cup of tea, Violet," said the governess. "Mr. Clements has been telling her about the will, and it has been quite too much for her. She was almost hysterical. But she's better now, poor dear. And now we'll all have some tea. Bring the table to the fire, Mr. Vawdrey, please, and let us make ourselves comfortable," concluded Miss McCroke, with an assumption of mild cheerfulness.
Perhaps there is not in all nature so cheerful a thing as a good sea-coal fire, with a log of beechwood on the top of the coals. It will be cheerful in the face of affliction. It sends out its gushes of warmth and brightness, its gay little arrowy flames that appear and disappear like elves dancing their midnight waltzes on a barren moor. It seems to say: "Look at me and be comforted! Look at me and hope! So from the dull blackness of sorrow rise the many coloured lights of new-born joy."
Vixen suffered her chair to be brought near that cheery fire, and just then Argus crept into the room and nestled at her knee. Roderick seated himself at the other side of the hearth—a bright little fire-place with its border of high-art tiles, illuminated with the story of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary," after quaintly mediaeval designs, by Mr. Stacey Marks. Miss McCroke poured out the tea in the quaint old red and blue Worcester cups, and valiantly sustained that assumption of cheerfulness. She would not have permitted herself to smile yesterday; but now the funeral was over, the blinds were drawn up, and a mild cheerfulness was allowable.
"If you would condescend to tell me where you are going, Vixen, I might contrive to come there too, by-and-by. We could have some rides together. You'll take Arion, of course."
"I don't know that I shall ever ride again," answered Violet with a shudder.
Could she ever forget that awful ride? Roderick hated himself for his foolish speech.
"Violet will have to devote herself to her studies very assiduously for the next two years," said Miss McCroke. "She is much more backwards than I like a pupil of mine to be at sixteen."
"Yes, I am going to grind at three or four foreign grammars, and to give my mind to latitude and longitude, and fractions, and decimals," said Vixen, with a bitter laugh. "Isn't that cheering?"
"Whatever you do, Vixen," cried Roderick earnestly, "don't be a paradigm."
"An example, a model, a paragon, a perfect woman nobly planned, &c. Be anything but that, Vixen, if you love me."
"I don't think there is much fear of any of us being perfect," said Miss McCroke severely. "Imperfection is more in the line of humanity."
"Do you think so?" interrogated Rorie. "I find there is a great deal too much perfection in this world, too many faultless people—I hate them."
"Isn't that a confession of faultiness on your side?" suggested Miss McCroke.
"It may be. But it's the truth."
Vixen sat with dry hollow eyes staring at the fire. She had heard their talk as if it had been the idle voices of strangers sounding in the distance, ever so far away. Argus nestled closer and closer at her knee, and she patted his big blunt head absently, with a dim sense of comfort in this brute love, which she had not derived from human sympathy.
Miss McCroke went on talking and arguing with Rorie, with a view to sustaining that fictitious cheerfulness which might beguile Vixen into brief oblivion of her griefs. But Vixen was not so to be beguiled. She was with them, but not of them. Her haggard eyes stared at the fire, and her thoughts were with the dear dead father, over whose newly-filled grave the evening shadows were closing.
Two years later, and Vixen was sitting with the same faithful Argus nestling beside her, by the fireside of a spacious Brighton drawing-room, a large, lofty, commonplace room, with tall windows facing seawards. Miss McCroke was there too, standing at one of the windows taking up a dropped stitch in her knitting, while Mrs. Tempest walked slowly up and down the expanse of Brussels carpet, stopping now and then at a window to look idly out at the red sunset beyond the low-lying roofs and spars of Shoreham. Those two years had changed Violet Tempest from a slender girl to a nobly-formed woman; a woman whom a sculptor would have worshipped as his dream of perfection, whom a painter would have reverenced for her glow and splendour of colouring; but about whose beauty the common run of mankind, and more especially womankind, had not quite made up their minds. The pretty little women with eighteen-inch waists opined that Miss Tempest was too big.
"She's very handsome, you know, and all that," they said deprecatingly, "and her figure is quite splendid; but she's on such a very large scale. She ought to be painted in fresco, you know, on a high cornice. As Autumn, or Plenty, or Ceres, or something of that kind, carrying a cornucopia. But in a drawing-room she looks so very massive."
The amber-haired women—palpably indebted to auricomous fluids for the colour of their tresses—objected to the dark burnished gold of Violet Tempest's hair. There was too much red in the gold, they said, and a colour so obviously natural was very unfashionable. That cream-white skin of hers, too, found objectors, on the score of a slight powdering of freckles; spots which the kindly sun leaves on the fruit he best loves. In fact, there were many reservations made by Miss Tempest's pretended admirers when they summed up her good looks; but when she rode her pretty bay horse along the King's Road, strangers turned to look at her admiringly; when she entered a crowded room she threw all paler beauties in the shade. The cabbage-rose is a vulgar flower perhaps, but she is queen of the garden notwithstanding.
Lest it should be supposed, after this, that Vixen was a giantess, it may be as well to state that her height was five feet six, her waist twenty-two inches at most, her shoulders broad but finely sloping, her arms full and somewhat muscular, her hands not small, but exquisitely tapering, her foot long and narrow, her instep arched like an Arab's, and all her movements instinct with an untutored grace and dignity. She held her head higher than is common to women, and on that score was found guilty of pride.
"I think we ought to go back before Christmas, Violet," said Mrs. Tempest, continuing a discussion that had been dragging itself slowly along for the last half-hour.
"I am ready, mamma," answered Vixen submissively. "It will break our hearts afresh when we go home, but I suppose we must go home some day."
"But you would like to see the dear old house again, surely, Violet?"
"Like to see the frame without the picture? No, no, no, mamma. The frame was very dear while the picture was in it—but—yes," cried Vixen passionately, "I should like to go back. I should like to see papa's grave, and carry fresh flowers there every day. It has been too much neglected."
"Neglected, Violet! How can you say such thing? When Manotti's bill for the monument was over nine hundred pounds."
"Oh, mamma, there is more love in a bunch of primroses that my own hand gathers and carries to the grave than in all the marble or granite in Westminster Abbey."
"My dear, for poor people wild flowers are very nice, and show good feeling—but the rich must have monuments. There could be nothing too splendid for your dear papa," added the widow tearfully.
She was always tearful when she spoke of her dear Edward, even now; though she was beginning to find that life had some savour without him.
"No," said Vixen, "but I think papa will like the flowers best."
"Then if all is well, Miss McCroke," pursued Mrs. Tempest, "we will go back at the end of November. It would be a pity to lose the season here."
Vixen yawned despondently.
"What do we care about the season, mamma?" she exclaimed. "Can it matter to us whether there are two or three thousand extra people in the place? It only makes the King's Road a little more uncomfortable."
"My dear Violet, at your age gaiety is good for you," said Mrs. Tempest.
"Yes, and, like most other things that are good, it's very disagreeable," retorted Vixen.
"And now, about this ball," pursued Mrs. Tempest, taking up a dropped stitch in the previous argument; "I really think we ought to go, if it were only on Violet's account. Don't you, Maria?"
Mrs. Tempest always called her governess Maria when she was anxious to conciliate her.
"Violet is old enough to enter society, certainly," said Miss McCroke, with some deliberation; "but whether a public ball——"
"If it's on my account, mamma, pray don't think of going," protested Vixen earnestly. "I hate the idea of a ball—I hate——"
"Captain Winstanley," announced Forbes, in the dusky end of the drawing-room by the door.
"He has saved me the trouble of finishing my sentence," muttered Vixen.
The visitor came smiling though the dusk into the friendly glow of the fire. He shook hands with Mrs. Tempest with the air of an old friend, went over to the window to shake hands with Miss McCroke, and then came back to Vixen, who gave him a limp cold hand, with an indifference that was almost insolent, while Argus lifted his head an inch or so from the carpet and saluted him with a suppressed growl. Whether this arose from a wise instinct in the animal, or from a knowledge that his mistress disliked the gentleman, would be too nice a point to decide.