"I was that moment thinking of you, Captain Winstanley," said the widow.
"An honour and a happiness for me," murmured the Captain.
Mrs. Tempest seated herself in her own particular chair, beside which was her own particular table with one of those pretty tea-services which were her chief delight—a miniature silver tea-kettle with a spirit-lamp, a cosy little ball-shaped teapot, cups and saucers of old Battersea.
"You'll take a cup of tea?" she said insinuatingly.
"I shall be delighted. I feel as if I ought to go home and write verses or smart paragraphs for the society papers after drinking your tea, it is so inspiring. Addison ought to have drunk just such tea before writing one of his Spectators, but unfortunately his muse required old port."
"If the Spectator came out nowadays I'm afraid we should think it stupid." suggested Mrs. Tempest.
"Simply because the slipshod writers of the present day have spoiled our taste for fine English," interjected Miss McCroke severely.
"Well, I fear we should find Addison a little thin," said Captain Winstanley; "I can't imagine London society existing for a week on such literary pabulum as 'The Vision of Mirza.' We want something stronger than that. A little scandal about our neighbours, a racy article on field sports, some sharpish hits at the City, a libel or two upon men we know, a social article sailing very near the wind, and one of Addison's papers on cherry-coloured hoods, or breast-knots, patches or powder, thrown in by the way of padding. Our dear Joseph is too purely literary for the present age."
"What monsters newspapers have grown," remarked Mrs. Tempest. "It's almost impossible to get through them."
"Not if you read anything else," answered the captain. "The majority do not."
"We were talking about the ball just as you came in," said Mrs. Tempest. "I really think Vixen ought to go."
"I am sure she ought," said the Captain.
Vixen sat looking at the fire and patting Argus. She did not favour the Captain with so much as a glance; and yet he was a man upon whom the eyes of women were apt to dwell favourably. He was not essentially handsome. The most attractive men rarely are. He was tall and thin, with a waist as small as a woman's, small hands, small feet—a general delicacy of mould that was accounted thoroughbred. He had a long nose, a darkly-pale complexion, keen gray eyes under dark brows, dark hair, cropped close to his small head; thin lips, white teeth, a neat black moustache, and a strictly military appearance, though he had sold out of a line regiment three years ago, and was now a gentleman at large, doing nothing, and living in a gentleman-like manner on a very small income. He was not in debt, and was altogether respectable. Nothing could be said against him, unless it were some dark hint of a gambling transaction at a fast and furious club, some vague whisper about the mysterious appearance of a king at ecarte—the kind of a rumour which is apt to pursue a man who, like Bulwer's Dudley Smooth, does not cheat but always wins.
Despite those vague slanders, which are generally baseless—the mere expression of society's floating malice, the scum of ill-nature on the ocean of talk—Captain Winstanley was a universal favourite. He went everywhere, and was liked wherever he went. He was gifted with that adaptability and hardiness which is, of all cleverness, most valuable in polite society. Of him, as of Goldsmith, it might be said that he touched nothing he did not adorn. True, that the things he touched were for the most part small things, but they were things that kept him before the eye of society, and found favour in that eye.
He was a good horseman, a good oarsman, a good swimmer, a good cricketer. He played and sang; he was a first-rate amateur actor; he was great at billiards and all games of skill; he could talk any language society wanted him to talk—society not requiring a man to excel in Coptic or Chinese, or calling upon him suddenly for Japanese or Persian; he dressed with perfect taste, and without the slightest pretence of dandyism; he could write a first-rate letter, and caricature his dearest friends of last year in pen and ink for the entertainment of his dearest friends of this year; he was known to have contributed occasionally to fashionable periodicals, and was supposed to have a reserve of wit and satire which would quite have annihilated the hack writers of the day had he cared to devote himself to literature.
Mrs. Tempest and her daughter had met the Captain early in the previous spring among the Swiss mountains. He knew some of Mrs. Tempest's Hampshire friends, and with no other credentials had contrived to win her friendship. Vixen took it into her obstinate young head to detest him. But then, Vixen, at seventeen and a half, was full of ridiculous dislikes and irrational caprices. Mrs. Tempest, in her lonely and somewhat depressed condition, considered the Captain a particularly useful acquaintance. Miss McCroke was dubious, but finding any expression of her doubts ungraciously received, took the safer line of silence.
The ball in question was a charity ball at the Pavilion, a perfectly unobjectionable ball. The list of patronesses bristled with noble names. There was nothing to be said against Vixen's appearance there, except Miss McCroke's objection that Squire Tempest's daughter and heiress ought not to make her debut in society at any public ball whatever; ought, in a manner, hardly to be seen by the human eye as a grown-up young lady, until she had been presented to her gracious sovereign. But Mrs. Tempest had set her heart upon Vixen's going to the ball; or, in other words, she had set her heart upon going herself. On her way through Paris, in September, she had gone to Worth's—out of curiosity, just to see what the great man's salons were like—and there she had been tempted into the purchase of an artistic arrangement in black silk and jet, velvet and passementerie. She did not require the costume, but the thing in itself was so beautiful that she could not help buying it. And having spent a hundred guineas on this masterpiece, there arose in her mind a natural craving to exhibit it; to feel that she was being pointed out as one of the best-dressed women in the crowded room; to know that women were whispering to each other significantly, "Worth," as the nocturn in velvet and silk and glimmering jet swept by them.
There was a good deal more discussion, and it was ultimately settled that Vixen should go to the ball. She had no positive objection. She would have liked the idea of the ball well enough perhaps, if it had not been for Captain Winstanley. It was his advocacy that made the subject odious.
"How very rudely you behaved to Captain Winstanley, Violet," said Mrs. Tempest, when her visitor had departed.
"Did I, mamma?" inquired Vixen listlessly. "I thought I was extraordinarily civil. If you knew how I should have liked to behave to him, you would think so too."
"I can not imagine why you are so prejudiced against him," pursued Mrs. Tempest fretfully.
"It is not prejudice, mamma, but instinct, like Argus's. That man is destined to do us some great wrong, if we do not escape out of his clutches."
"It is shameful of you to say such things," cried the widow, pale with anger. "What have you to say against him? What fault can you find with him? You cannot deny that he is most gentlemanlike."
"No, mamma; he is a little too gentlemanlike. He makes a trade of his gentlemanliness. He is too highly polished for me."
"You prefer a rough young fellow, like Roderick Vawdrey, who talks slang, and smells of the stables."
"I prefer anyone who is good and true," retorted Vixen. "Roderick is a man, and not to be named in the same breath with your fine gentleman."
"I admit that the comparison would be vastly to his disadvantage," said the widow. "But it's time to dress for dinner."
"And we are to dine with the Mortimers," yawned Vixen. "What a bore!"
This young lady had not that natural bent for society which is symptomatic of her age. The wound that pierced her young heart two years ago had not healed so completely that she could find pleasure in inane conversation across a primeval forest of sixpenny ferns, and the factitious liveliness of a fashionable dinner-table.
"It shall be Measure for Measure."
The night of the ball came, and, in spite of her aversion for Captain Winstanley, and general dislike of the whole thing, Violet Tempest began the evening by enjoying herself. She was young and energetic, and had an immense reserve of animal spirits after her two years of sadness and mourning. She danced with the partners her friends brought her—some of the most eligible men in the room—and was full of life and gaiety; yet the festival seemed to her in somewise horrible all the time.
"If papa could know that we are dancing and smiling at each other, as if all life was made up of gladness, when he is lying in his cold grave!" thought Vixen, after joining hands with her mother in the ladies' chain.
The widow looked as if she had never known a care. She was conscious that Worth's chef-d'oeuvre was not thrown away. She saw herself in the great mirrors which once reflected George and his lovely Fitzherbert in their days of gladness—which reflected the same George later, old, and sick, and weary.
"That French grande dame was right," thought Mrs. Tempest, "who said, 'Le noir est si flattant pour les blondes.'"
Black was flattering for Vixen's auburn hair also. Though her indifferent eye rarely glanced at the mirrored walls, she had never looked lovelier. A tall graceful figure, in billowy black tulle, wreathed with white chrysanthemums; a queen-like head, with a red-gold coronal; a throat like an ivory pillar, spanned with a broad black ribbon, fastened with a diamond clasp; diamond stars in her ears, and a narrow belt of diamonds round each white arm.
"How many waltzes have you kept for me?" Captain Winstanley asked presently, coming up to Vixen.
"I have not kept waltzes for anyone," she answered indifferently.
"But surely you were under a promise to keep some for me? I asked you a week ago."
"Did you? I am sure I never promised anything of the kind."
"Here is only one little shabby waltz left," said the Captain, looking at her programme. "May I put my name down for that?"
"If you like," answered Vixen indifferently; and then, with the faintest suspicion of malice, she added, "as mamma does not dance round dances."
She was standing up for the Lancers presently, and her partner had just led her to her place, when she saw that she had her mother and Captain Winstanley again for her vis-a-vis. She grew suddenly pale, and turned away.
"Will you let me sit this out?" she said. "I feel awfully ill."
Her partner was full of concern, and carried her off at once to a cooler room.
"It is too bad!" she muttered to herself. "The Lancers! To go romping round with a lot of wild young men and women. It is as bad as the Queen in Hamlet."
This was the last dance before supper. Vixen went in to the supper-room presently with her attentive partner, who had kept by her side devotedly while the lively scramble to good old English tunes was going on in the dancing-room.
"Are you better?" he asked tenderly, fanning her with her big black fan, painted with violets and white chrysanthemums. "The room is abominably hot."
"Thanks. I'm quite well now. It was only a momentary faintness. But I rather hate the Lancers, don't you?"
"Well, I don't know. I think, sometimes, you know, with a nice partner, they're good fun. Only one can't help treading on the ladies' trains, and they wind themselves round one's legs like snakes. I've seen fellows come awful croppers, and the lady who has done it look so sweetly unconcerned. But if one tears a lace flounce, you know, they look daggers. It's something too dreadful to feel oneself walking into honiton at ten guineas a yard, and the more one tries to extricate oneself the more harm one does."
Vixen's supper was the merest pretence. Her mother sat opposite her, with Captain Winstanley still in attendance. Vixen gave them one scathing look, and then sat like an image of scorn. Her partner could not get a word from her, and when he offered her the fringed end of a cracker bonbon, she positively refused to have anything to do with it.
"Please don't," she said. "It's too inane. I couldn't possibly pretend to be interested in the motto."
When she went back to the ball-room Captain Winstanley followed her and claimed his waltz. The band was just striking up the latest love-sick German melody, "Weit von dir!" a strain of drawling tenderness.
"You had better go and secure your supper," said Vixen coldly.
"I despise all ball-suppers. This one most particularly, if it were to deprive me of my waltz."
Vixen shrugged her shoulders, and submitted to take those few preliminary steps which are like the strong swimmer's shiverings on the bank ere he plunges in the stream. And then she was whirling round to the legato strains, "Weit von dir! Weit von dir! Wo ist mein Lebens Lust?—Weit von dir—Weit von dir!"
Captain Winstanley's waltzing was simple perfection. It was not the Liverpool Lurch, or the Scarborough Scramble, the Bermondsey Bounce, or the Whitechapel Wiggle; it was waltzing pure and simple, unaffected, graceful; the waltzing of a man with a musical ear, and an athlete's mastery of the art of motion. Vixen hated the Captain, but she enjoyed the waltz. They danced till the last bar died away in a tender diminuendo.
"You look pale," said the Captain, "let us go into the garden." He brought her cloak and wrapped it round her, and she took his offered arm without a word. It was one of those rare nights in late October, when the wind is not cold. There was hardly the flutter of a leaf in the Pavilion garden. The neighbouring sea made the gentlest music—a melancholy ebb and flow of sound, like the murmuring of some great imprisoned spirit.
In the searching light of day, when its adjacent cab-stands and commonesses are visible, and its gravelled walks are peopled with nursemaids and small children, the Pavilion garden can hardly be called romantic. But by this tender moonlight, in this cool stillness of a placid autumn midnight, even the Pavilion garden had its air of romance and mystery. The various roofs and chimneys stood up against the sky, picturesque as a city of old time. And, after all, this part of Brighton has a peculiar charm which all the rest of Brighton lacks. It speaks of the past, it tells its story of the dead. They were not great or heroic, perhaps, those departed figures, whose ghosts haunt us in the red and yellow rooms, and in the stiff town garden; but they had their histories. They lived, and loved, and suffered; and, being dead so long, come back to us in the softened light of vanished days, and take hold of our fancy with their quaint garments and antique head-gear, their powder, and court-swords, and diamond shoe-buckles, and little loves and little sorrows.
Vixen walked slowly along the shining gravel-path with her black and gold mantle folded round her, looking altogether statuesque and unapproachable. They took one turn in absolute silence, and then Captain Winstanley, who was not inclined to beat about the bush when he had something particular to say, and a good opportunity for saying it, broke the spell.
This was perhaps the first time, in an acquaintance of more than six months, that he had ever found himself alone with Violet Tempest, without hazard of immediate interruption.
"Miss Tempest," he began, with a firmness of tone that startled her, "I want to know why you are so unkind to me."
"I hardly know what you mean by unkindness. I hope I have never said anything uncivil?"
"No; but you have let me see very plainly that you dislike me."
"I am sorry nature has given me an unpleasantly candid disposition."
Those keen gray eyes of the Captain's were watching her intently. An angry look shot at her from under the straight dark brows—swift as an arrow.
"You admit then that you do not like me?" he said.
Vixen paused before replying. The position was embarrassing.
"I suppose if I were ladylike and proper, I should protest that I like you immensely; that there is no one in the world, my mother excepted, whom I like better. But I never was particularly proper or polite, Captain Winstanley, and I must confess there are very few people I do like, and——"
"And I am not one of them," said the Captain.
"You have finished the sentence for me."
"That is hard upon me—no, Violet, you can never know how hard. Why should you dislike me? You are the first woman who ever told me so" (flushing with an indignant recollection of all his victories). "I have done nothing to offend you. I have not been obtrusive. I have worshipped at a distance—but the Persian's homage of the sun is not more reverent——"
"Oh, pray don't talk about Persians and the sun," cried Violet. "I am not worthy that you should be so concerned about my likes and dislikes. Please think of me as an untaught inexperienced girl. Two years ago I was a spoiled child. You don't know how my dearest father spoiled me. It is no wonder I am rude. Remember this, and forgive me if I am too truthful."
"You are all that is lovely," he exclaimed passionately, stung by her scorn and fired by her beauty, almost beside himself as they stood there in the magical moonlight—for once in his life forgetting to calculate every move on life's chessboard. "You are too lovely for me. From the very first, in Switzerland, when I was so happy——no, I will not tell you. I will not lay down my heart to be trampled under your feet."
"Don't," cried Violet, transfixing him with the angry fire of her eyes, "for I'm afraid I should trample on it. I am not one of those gentle creatures who go out of their way to avoid treading on worms—or other reptiles."
"You are as cruel as you are lovely," he said, "and your cruelty is sweeter than another woman's kindness. Violet, I laugh at your dislike. Yes, such aversion as that is often the beginning of closest liking. I will not be disheartened. I will not be put off by your scornful candour. What if I were to tell you that you are the only woman I ever loved?"
"Pray do not. It would transform passive dislike into active hatred. I should be sorry for that, because," looking at him deliberately, with a slow scorn, "I think my mother likes you."
"She has honoured me with her confidence, and I hope I shall not prove unworthy of the trust. I rarely fail to repay any benefit that is bestowed upon me."
"October nights are treacherous," said Vixen, drawing her cloak closer around her. "I think we had better go back to the ball-room."
She was shivering a little with agitated feeling, in spite of that mantle of scorn in which she had wrapped herself. This was the first man who had ever called her lovely, who had ever talked to her of love with manhood's strong passion.
The Captain gave her his arm, and they went back to the glare and heat of the yellow dragons and scarlet griffins. Another Lancer scramble was in full progress, to the old-fashioned jigging tunes, but Mrs. Tempest was sitting among the matrons in a corner by an open window.
"Are we ever going home any more, mamma?" inquired Vixen.
"My dear Violet, I have been waiting for you ever so long."
"Why should you leave so early?" exclaimed Captain Winstanley. "There are half-a-dozen more dances, and you are engaged for them all, I believe, Miss Tempest."
"Then I will show mercy to my partners by going away," said Violet. "Are all balls as long as this? We seem to have been here ages; I expect to find my hair gray to-morrow morning."
"I really think we had better go," said Mrs. Tempest, in her undecided way.
She was a person who never quite made up her mind about anything, but balanced every question gently, letting somebody else turn the scale for her—her maid, her governess, her daughter; she was always trying to have her own way, but never quite knew what her own way was, and just managed things skillfully enough to prevent other people having theirs.
"If you are determined, I will see you to your carriage, and then the ball is over for me," said the Captain gallantly.
He offered Mrs. Tempest his arm, and they went put into the vestibule, where the Captain left them for a few minutes, while he went into the porch to hasten the arrival of the carriage.
"Where were you and Captain Winstanley all that time, Violet?" asked Mrs. Tempest.
"In the garden."
"Indeed, dear mamma, it wasn't cold."
"But you were out there so long. What could you find to talk about all that time?"
"We were not talking all the time, only enjoying the cool air and the moonlight."
"Mrs. Tempest's carriage!" roared one of the door-keepers, as if it had been his doing that the carriage had appeared so quickly.
Captain Winstanley was ready to hand them to their brougham.
"Come and take a cup of tea to-morrow afternoon, and let as talk over the ball," said the widow.
"With infinite pleasure."
"Shall we drop you at your house?"
"A thousand thanks—no—my lodgings are so close, I'll walk home."
He went back for his overcoat, and then walked slowly away, without another glance at the crowded ball-room, or the corridors where the ladies who were waiting for their carriages were contriving to improve the time by a good deal of quiet, or even noisy, flirtation. His lodgings were on the Old Steine, close by. But he did not go home immediately. There are times in a man's life when four walls are to small too hold the bigness of his thoughts. Captain Winstanley paced the Marine Parade for half-an-hour or so before he went home.
"Va pour la mere," he said to himself, at the close of that half hour's meditations; "she is really very nice, and the position altogether advantageous, perhaps as much as one has the right to expect in the general decadence of things. But, good heavens, how lovely that girl is! She is the first woman who ever looked me in the face and told me she disliked me; the first woman who ever gave me contemptuous looks and scornful words. And yet—for that very reason, perhaps—I——"
The dark brows contracted over the keen eyes, which seemed closer than usual to the hawk nose.
"Look to yourself, my queen, in the time to come," he said, as he turned his back on the silvery sea and moonlight sky. "You have been hard to me and I will be hard to you. It shall be measure for measure."
"I have no Wrong, where I can claim no Right."
Going home again. That was hard to bear. It reopened all the old wounds. Violet Tempest felt as if her heart must really break, as if this new grief were sharper than the old one, when the carriage drove in through the familiar gates, in the December dusk, and along the winding shrubberied road, and up to the Tudor porch, where the lion of the Tempests stood, passant regardant, with lifted paw and backwards gaze, above the stone shield. The ruddy firelight was shining across the wide doorway. The old hearth looked as cheerful as of old. And there stood the empty chair beside it. That had been Vixen's particular wish.
"Let nothing be disturbed, dear mamma," she had said ever so many times, when her mother was writing her orders to the housekeeper. "Beg them to keep everything just as it was in papa's time."
"My dear, it will only make you grieve more."
"Yes; but I had rather grieve for him than forget him. I am more afraid of forgetting him than of grieving too much for him," said Vixen.
And now, as she stood on the hearth after her journey, wrapped in black furs, a little black fur toque crowning her ruddy gold hair, fancy filled the empty chair as she gazed at it. Yes, she could see her father sitting there in his hunting-clothes, his whip across his knee.
The old pointer, the Squire's favourite, came whining to her feet. How old he looked! Old, and broken, and infirm, as if from much sorrow.
"Poor Nip! poor Nip!" she said, patting him. "The joy of your life went with papa, didn't it?"
"It's all very sad," murmured Mrs. Tempest, loosening her wraps. "A sad, sad home-coming. And it seems only yesterday that I came here as a bride. Did I ever tell you about my travelling-dress, Violet? It was a shot-silk—they were fashionable then, you know—bronze and blue—the loveliest combination of colour!"
"I can't imagine a shot-silk being anything but detestable," said Vixen curtly. "Poor Nip! How faithful dogs are! The dear thing is actually crying!"
Tears were indeed running from the poor old eyes, as the pointer's head lay in Vixen's lap; as if memory, kindled by her image, brought back the past too keenly for that honest canine heart.
"It is very mournful," said Mrs. Tempest. "Pauline, let us have a cup of tea."
She sank into an arm-chair opposite the fire. Not the squire's old carved oak-chair, with its tawny leather cushions. That must needs be sacred evermore—a memento of the dead, standing beside the hearth, revered as the image of an honoured ancestor in a Roman citizen's home.
"I wonder if anyone is alive that we knew here?" said Vixen, lying back in her low chair, and idly caressing the dogs.
"My dear Violet, why should people be dead? We have only been away two years."
"No; but it seems so long. I hardly expect to see any of the old faces. He is not here," with a sudden choking sob. "Why should all be left—except him?"
"The workings of Providence are full of mystery," sighed the widow. "Dear Edward! How handsome he looked that day he brought me home. And he was a noble-looking man to the last. Not more than two spoonfuls of pekoe, Pauline. You ought to know how I like it by this time."
This to the handmaiden, who was making tea at the gipsy table in front of the fire—the table at which Vixen and Rorie had drunk tea so merrily on that young man's birthday.
After tea mother and daughter went the round of the house. How familiar, how dear, how strange, how sad all things looked! The faithful servants had done their duty. Everything was in its place. The last room they entered was the Squire's study. Here were all his favourite books. The "Sporting Magazine" from its commencement, in crimson morocco. "Nimrod" and "The Druid," "Assheton Smith's Memoirs," and many others of the same class. Books on farming and farriery, on dogs and guns. Here were the Squire's guns and whips, a motley collection, all neatly arranged by his own hands. The servants had done nothing but keep them free from dust. There, by the low and cosy fireplace, with its tiled hearth, stood the capacious crimson morocco chair, in which the master of the Abbey House had been wont to sit when he held audience with his kennel-huntsman, or gamekeeper, his farm-bailiff, or stud-groom.
"Mamma, I should like you to lock the door of this room and keep the key, so that no one may ever come here," said Vixen.
"My dear, that is just the way to prolong your grief; but I will do it if you like."
"Do, dear mamma. Or, if you will let me keep the key, I will come in and dust the room every day. It would be a pleasure for me, a mournful one, perhaps, but still a pleasure."
Mrs. Tempest made no objection, and, when they left the room, Vixen locked the door and put the key in her pocket.
Christmas was close at hand. The saddest time for such a home-coming, Vixen thought. The gardeners brought in their barrows of holly, and fir, and laurel; but Vixen would take no part in the decoration of hall and corridors, staircase and gallery—she who in former years had been so active in the labour. The humble inhabitants of the village rejoiced in the return of the family at the great house, and Vixen was pleased to see the kind faces again, the old men and women, the rosy-cheeked children, and careworn mothers, withered and wrinkled before their time with manifold anxieties. She had a friendly word for everyone, and gifts for all. Home was sweet to her after her two years' absence, despite the cloud of sadness that overhung all things. She went out to the stables and made friends with the old horses, which had been out at grass all through the summer, and had enjoyed a paradise of rest for the last two years. Slug and Crawler, Mrs. Tempest's carriage horses, sleek even-minded bays, had been at Brighton, and so had Vixen's beautiful thorough-bred, and a handsome brown for the groom; but all the rest had stayed in Hampshire. Not one had been sold, though the stud was a wasteful and useless one for a widow and her daughter. There was Bullfinch, the hunter Squire Tempest had ridden in his last hour of life. Violet went into his box, and caressed him, and fed him, and cried over him with bitterest tears. This home-coming brought back the old sorrow with overwhelming force. She ran out of the stables to hide her tears, and ran up to her own room, and abandoned herself to her grief, almost as utterly as she had done on those dark days when her father's corpse was lying in the house.
There was no friendly Miss McCroke now to be fussy and anxious, and to interpose herself between Violet Tempest and her grief. Violet was supposed to be "finished," or, in other words, to know everything under the sun which a young lady of good birth and ample fortune can be required to know. Everything, in this case, consisted of a smattering of French, Italian, and German, a dubious recollection of the main facts in modern history, hazy images of Sennacherib, Helen of Troy, Semiramis, Cyrus, the Battle of Marathon, Romulus and Remus, the murder of Jules Caesar, and the loves of Antony and Cleopatra flitting dimly athwart the cloudy background of an unmapped ancient world, a few vague notions about astronomy, some foggy ideas upon the constitution of plants and flowers, sea-weeds and shells, rocks and hills—and a general indifference for all literature except poetry and novels.
Miss McCroke, having done her duty conscientiously after her lights, had now gone to finish three other young ladies, the motherless daughters of an Anglo-Indian colonel, over whom she was to exercise maternal authority and guidance, in a tall narrow house in Maida Vale. She had left Mrs. Tempest with all honours, and Violet had lavished gifts upon her at parting, feeling fonder of her governess in the last week of their association than at any other period of her tutelage. To-day, in her sorrow, it was a relief to Violet to find herself free from the futile consolations of friendship. She flung herself into the arm-chair by the fire and sobbed out her grief.
"Oh, kindest, dearest, best of fathers," she cried, "what is home without you!"
And then she remembered that awful day of the funeral when Roderick Vawdrey had sat with her beside this hearth, and had tried to comfort her, and remembered how she had heard his voice as a sound far away, a sound that had no meaning. That was the last time she had seen him.
"I don't suppose I thanked him for his pity or his kindness," she thought. "He must have gone away thinking me cold and ungrateful; but I was like a creature at the bottom of some dark dismal pit. How could I feel thankful to someone looking down at me and talking to me from the free happy world at the top?"
Her sobs ceased gradually, she dried her tears, and that unconscious pleasure in life which is a part of innocent youth came slowly back. She looked round the room in which so much of her childhood had been spent, a room full of her own fancies and caprices, a room whose prettiness had been bought with her own money, and was for the most part the work of her own hands.
In spite of home's sorrowful association she was glad to find herself at home. Mountains, and lakes, and sunny bays, and dark pathless forests, may be ever so good to see, but there is something sweet in our return to the familiar rooms of home; some pleasure in being shut snugly within four walls, surrounded by one's own belongings.
The wood-fire burnt merrily, and sparkled on the many-coloured pots and pans upon the panelled wall; here an Etruscan vase of India red, there a Moorish water-jar of vivid amber. Outside the deep mullioned windows the winter blast was blowing, with occasional spurts of flying snow. Argus crept in presently, and stretched himself at full length upon the fleecy rug. Vixen lay back in her low chair, musing idly in the glow of the fire, and by-and-by the lips which had been convulsed with grief parted in a smile, the lovely brown eyes shone with happy memories.
She was thinking of her old playfellow and friend, Rorie.
"I wonder if he will come to-day?" she mused. "I think he will. He is sure to be at home for the hunting. Yes, he will come to-day. What will he be like, I wonder? Handsomer than he was two years ago? No, that could hardly be. He is quite a man now. Three-and-twenty! I must not laugh at him any more."
The thought of his coming thrilled her with a new joy. She seemed to have been living an artificial life in the two years of her absence, to have been changed in her very self by change of surroundings. It was almost as if the old Vixen had been sent into an enchanted sleep, while some other young lady, a model of propriety and good manners, went about the world in Vixen's shape. Her life had been made up, more or less, of trifles and foolishness, with a background of grand scenery. Tepid little friendships with agreeable fellow-travellers at Nice; tepid little friendships of the same order in Switzerland; well-dressed young people smiling at each other, and delighting in each other's company; and parting, probably for ever, without a pang.
But now she had come back to the friends, the horses, the dogs, the rooms, the gardens, the fields, the forests of youth, and was going to be the real Vixen again; the wild, thoughtless, high-spirited girl whom Squire Tempest and all the peasantry round about had loved.
"I have been ridiculously well-behaved," she said to herself, "quite a second edition of mamma. But now I am back in the Forest my good manners may go hang. 'My foot's on my native heath, and my name is McGregor.'"
Somehow in all her thoughts of home—after that burst of grief for her dead father—Roderick Vawdrey was the central figure. He filled the gap cruel death had made.
Would Rorie come soon to see her? Would he be very glad to have her at home again? What would he think of her? Would he fancy her changed? For the worse? For the better?
"I wonder whether he would like my good manners or the original Vixen best?" she speculated.
The morning wore on, and still Violet Tempest sat idly by the fire. She had made up her mind that Roderick would come to see her at once. She was sufficiently aware of her own importance to feel sure that the fact of her return had been duly chronicled in the local papers. He would come to-day—before luncheon, perhaps, and they three, mamma, Rorie, and herself, would sit at the round table in the library—the snug warm room where they had so often sat with papa. This thought brought back the bitterness of her loss.
"I can bear it better if Rorie is with us," she thought, "and he is almost sure to come. He would not be so unkind as to delay bidding welcome to such poor lonely creatures as mamma and I."
She looked at her little watch—a miniature hunter in a case of black enamel, with a monogram in diamonds, one of her father's last gifts. It was one o'clock already, and luncheon would be at half-past.
"Only half-an-hour for Rorie," she thought.
The minute-hand crept slowly to the half-hour, the luncheon-gong sounded below, and there had been no announcement of Mr. Vawdrey.
"He may be downstairs with mamma all this time," thought Vixen. "Forbes would not tell me, unless he were sent."
She went downstairs and met Forbes in the hall.
"Oh, if you please, ma'am, Mrs. Tempest does not feel equal to coming down to luncheon. She will take a wing of chicken in her own room."
"And I don't feel equal to sitting in the library alone, Forbes," said Violet; "so you may tell Phoebe to bring me a cup of tea and a biscuit. Has nobody called this morning?"
Vixen went back to her room, out of spirits and out of temper. It was unkind of Rorie, cold, neglectful, heartless.
"If he had come home after an absence of two years—absence under such sad circumstances—how anxious I should be to see him," she thought. "But I don't suppose there is frost enough to stop the hunting, and I daresay he is tearing across the heather on some big raw-boned horse, and not giving me a thought. Or perhaps he is dancing attendance upon Lady Mabel. But no, I don't think he cares much for that kind of thing."
She moved about the room a little, rearranging things that were already arranged exactly as she had left them two years ago. She opened a book and flung it aside; tried the piano, which sounded muffled and woolly.
"My poor little Broadwood is no better for being out at grass," she said.
She went to one of the windows, and stood there looking out, expecting every instant to see a dog-cart with a rakish horse, a wasp-like body, and high red wheels, spin round the curve of the shrubbery. She stood thus for a long time, as she had done on that wet October afternoon of Rorie's home-coming; but no rakish horse came swinging round the curve of the carriage-drive. The flying snow drifted past the window; the winter sky looked blue and clear between the brief showers, the tall feathery fir-trees and straight slim cypresses stood up against the afternoon light, and Vixen gazed at them with angry eyes, full of resentment against Roderick Vawdrey.
"The ground is too hard for the scent to lie well, that's one comfort," she reflected savagely.
And then she thought of the dear old kennels given over to a new master; the hounds whose names and idiosyncrasies she had known as well as if they had been human acquaintances. She had lost all interest in them now. Pouto and Gellert, Lightfoot, Juno, Ringlet, Lord Dundreary—they had forgotten her, no doubt.
Here was someone at last, but not the one for whom she was watching. A figure clothed in a long loose black cloak and slouched felt hat, and carrying a weedy umbrella, trudged sturdily around the curve, and came briskly towards the porch. It was Mr. Scobel, the incumbent of the pretty little Gothic church in the village—a church like a toy.
He was a good man and a benevolent, this Mr. Scobel; a hard-worker, and a blessing in the neighbourhood. But just at this moment Violet Tempest did not feel grateful to him for coming.
"What does he want?" she thought. "Blankets and coals and things, I suppose."
She turned sullenly from the window, and went back to her seat by the fire, and threw on a log, and gave herself up to disappointment. The blue winter sky had changed to gray; the light was fading behind the feathery fir-tops.
"Perhaps he will come to afternoon tea," she thought; and then, with a discontented shrug of her shoulders: "No, he is not coming at all. If he cared about us, he would have been the first to bid us welcome; knowing, as he must, how miserable it was for me to come home at all—without papa!"
She sat looking at the fire.
"How idle I am!" she mused; "and poor Crokey did so implore me to go on with my education, and read good useful books and enlarge my mind. I don't think my poor little mind would bear any more stretching, or that I should be much happier if I knew all about Central Africa, and the nearest way from Hindostan to China, or old red sandstone, and tertiary, and the rest of them. What does it matter to me what the earth is made of, if I can but be happy upon it? No, I shall never try to be a highly cultivated young woman. I shall read Byron, and Tennyson, and Wordsworth, and Keats, and Bulwer, and Dickens, and Thackeray, and remain an ignoramus all the days of my life. I think that would be quite enough for Rorie, if he and I were to be much together; for I don't believe he ever opens a book at all. And what would be the use of my talking to him about old red sandstone or the centre of Africa?"
Phoebe, Miss Tempest's fresh-faced Hampshire maid, appeared at this moment.
"Oh, if you please, miss, your ma says would you go to the drawing-room? Mr. Scobel is with her, and would like to see you."
Violet rose with a sigh.
"Is my hair awfully untidy, Phoebe?"
"I think I had better arrange the plaits, miss."
"That means that I'm an object. It's four o'clock; I may as well change my dress for dinner. I suppose I must go down to dinner?"
"Lor' yes, miss; it will never do to shut yourself up in your own room and fret. You're as pale as them there Christmas roses already."
Ten minutes later Vixen went down to the drawing-room, looking very stately in her black Irish poplin, whose heavy folds became the tall full figure, and whose dense blackness set off the ivory skin and warm auburn hair. She had given just one passing glance at herself in the cheval-glass, and Vanity had whispered:
"Perhaps Rorie would have thought me improved; but he has not taken the trouble to come and see. I might be honeycombed by the small-pox, or bald from the effects of typhus, for aught he cares."
The drawing-room was all aglow with blazing logs, and the sky outside the windows looking pale and gray, when Violet went in. Mrs. Tempest was in her favourite arm-chair by the fire, Tennyson's latest poem on the velvet-coloured gipsy table at her side, in company with a large black fan and a smelling-bottle. Mr. Scobel was sitting in a low chair on the other side of the hearth, with his knees almost up to his chin and his trousers wrinkled up ever so far above his stout Oxford shoes, leaving a considerable interval of gray stocking. He was a man of about thirty, pale, and unpretending of aspect, who fortified his native modesty with a pair of large binoculars, which interposed a kind of barrier between himself and the outer world.
He rose as Violet came towards him, and turned the binoculars upon her, glittering in the glow of the fire.
"How tall you have grown," he cried, when they had shaken hands. "And how——" here he stopped, with a little nervous laugh; "I really don't think I should have known you if we had met elsewhere."
"Perhaps Rorie would hardly know me," thought Vixen.
"How are all the poor people?" she asked, when Mr. Scobel had resumed his seat, and was placidly caressing his knees, and blinking, or seeming to blink, at the fire with his binoculars.
"Oh, poor souls!" he sighed. "There has been a great deal of sickness and distress, and want of work. Yes, a very great deal. The winter began early, and we have had some severe weather. James Parsons is in prison again for rabbit-snaring. I'm really afraid James is incorrigible. Mrs. Roper's eldest son, Tom—I daresay you remember Tom, an idle little ruffian, who was always birdnesting—has managed to get himself run over by a pair of Lord Ellangowan's waggon-horses, and now Lady Ellangowan is keeping the whole family. An aunt came from Salisbury to sit up with the boy, and was quite angry because Lady Ellangowan did not pay her for nursing him."
"That's the worst of the poor," said Mrs. Tempest languidly, the firelight playing upon her diamond rings, as she took her fan from the velvet table and slowly unfolded it, to protect her cheek from the glare, "they are never satisfied."
"Isn't it odd they are not," cried Vixen, coming suddenly out of a deep reverie, "when they have everything that can make life delightful?"
"I don't know about everything, Violet; but really, when they have such nice cottages as your dear papa built for them, so well-drained and ventilated, they ought to be more contented."
"What a comfort good drainage and ventilation must be, when there is no bread in the larder!" said Violet.
"My dear, it is ridiculous to talk in that way; just in the style of horrid Radical newspapers. I am sure the poor have an immense deal done for them. Look at Mr. Scobel, is he not always trying to help them."
"I do what I can," said the clergyman modestly; "but I only wish it were more. An income of sixteen shillings a week for a family of seven requires a good deal of ekeing out. If it were not for the assistance I get here, and in one or two other directions, things would be very bad in Beechdale."
Beechdale was the name of the village nearest the Abbey House, the village to which belonged Mr. Scobel's toy-church.
"Of course, we must have the usual distribution of blanket and wearing apparel on Christmas Eve," said Mrs. Tempest. "It will seem very sad without my dear husband. But we came home before Christmas on purpose."
"How good of you! It was very sad last year when the poor people came up to the Hall to receive your gifts, and there were no familiar faces, except the servants. There were a good many tears shed over last year's blankets, I assure you."
"Poor dear things!" sighed Mrs. Tempest, not making it too clear whether she meant the blankets, or the recipients thereof.
Violet said nothing after her little ironical protest about the poor. She sat opposite the fire, between her mother and Mr. Scobel, but at some distance from both. The ruddy light glowed on her ruddy hair, and lit up her pale cheeks, and shone in her brilliant eyes. The incumbent of Beechdale thought he had never seen anything so lovely. She was like a painted window; a Madonna, with the glowing colour of Rubens, the divine grace of Raffaelle. And those little speeches about the poor had warmed his heart. He was Violet's friend and champion from that moment.
Mrs. Tempest fanned herself listlessly.
"I wish Forbes would bring the tea," she said.
"Shall I ring, mamma?"
"No, dear. They have not finished tea in the housekeeper's room, perhaps. Forbes doesn't like to be disturbed. Is there any news, Mr. Scobel? We only came home yesterday evening, and have seen no one."
"News! Well, no, I think not much. Lady Ellangowan has got a new orchid."
"And there has been a new baby, too, hasn't there?"
"Oh yes. But nobody talks about the baby, and everybody is in raptures with the orchid."
"What is it like?"
"Rather a fine boy. I christened him last week."
"I mean the orchid."
"Oh, something really magnificent; a brilliant blue, a butterfly-shaped blossom that positively looks as if it were alive. They say Lord Ellangowan gave five hundred guineas for it. People come from the other side of the county to see it."
"I think you are all orchid mad," exclaimed Mrs. Tempest. "Oh, here comes the tea!" as Forbes entered with the old silver tray and Swansea cups and saucers. "You'll take some, of course, Mr. Scobel. I cannot understand this rage for orchids—old china, or silver, or lace, I can understand, but orchids—things that require no end of trouble to keep them alive, and which I daresay are as common as buttercups and daisies in the savage places where they grow. There is Lady Jane Vawdrey now, a perfect slave to the orchid-houses."
Violet's face flamed crimson at this mention of Lady Jane. Not for worlds would she have asked a question about her old playfellow, though she was dying to hear about him. Happily no one saw that sudden blush, or it passed for a reflection of the fire-glow.
"Poor Lady Jane!" sighed the incumbent of Beechdale, looking very solemn, "she has gone to a land in which there are fairer flowers than ever grew on the banks of the Amazon."
"What do you mean?"
"Surely you have heard——"
"Nothing," exclaimed Mrs. Tempest. "I have corresponded with nobody but my housekeeper while I have been away. I am a wretched correspondent at the best of times, and, after dear Edward's death, I was too weary, too depressed, to write letters. What is the matter with Lady Jane Vawdrey?"
"She died at Florence last November of bronchitis. She was very ill last winter, and had to be taken to Cannes for the early part of the year; but she came back in April quite well and strong, as everyone supposed, and spent the summer at Briarwood. Her doctors told her, however, that she was not to risk another winter in England, so in September she went to Italy, taking Lady Mabel with her."
"And Roderick?" inquired Vixen, "He went with them of course."
"Naturally," replied Mr. Scobel. "Mr. Vawdrey was with his mother till the last."
"Very nice of him," murmured Mrs. Tempest approvingly; "for, in a general way, I don't think they got on too well together. Lady Jane was rather dictatorial. And now, I suppose, Roderick will marry his cousin as soon as he is out of mourning."
"Why should you suppose so, mamma?" exclaimed Violet. "It is quite a mistake of yours about their being engaged. Roderick told me so himself. He was not engaged to Lady Mabel. He had not the least idea of marrying her."
"He has altered his mind since then, I conclude," said Mr. Scobel cheerily—those binoculars of his could never have seen through a stone-wall, and were not much good at seeing things under his nose—"for it is quite a settled thing that Mr. Vawdrey and Lady Mabel are to be married. It will be a splendid match for him, and will make him the largest landowner in the Forest, for Ashbourne is settled on Lady Mabel. The Duke bought it himself, you know, and it is not in the entail," added the incumbent, explaining a fact that was as familiar as the church catechism to Violet, who sat looking straight at the fire, holding her head as high as Queen Guinevere after she had thrown the diamonds out of window.
"I always knew that it would be so," said Mrs. Tempest, with the air of a sage. "Lady Jane had set her heart upon it. Worldly greatness was her idol, poor thing! It is sad to think of her being snatched away from everything. What has become of the orchids?"
"Lady Jane left them to her niece. They are building houses to receive them at Ashbourne."
"Rather a waste of money, isn't it?" suggested Violet, in a cold hard voice. "Why not let them stay at Briarwood till Lady Mabel is mistress there?"
Mr. Scobel did not enter into this discussion. He sat serenely gazing at the fire, and sipping his tea, enjoying this hour of rest and warmth after a long day's fatigue and hard weather. He had an Advent service at seven o'clock that evening, and would but just have time to tramp home through the winter dark, and take a hurried meal, before he ran across to his neat little vestry and shuffled on his surplice, while Mrs. Scobel played her plaintive voluntary on the twenty-guinea harmonium.
"And where is young Vawdrey now?" inquired Mrs. Tempest blandly.
She could only think of the Squire of Briarwood as the lad from Eton—clumsy, shy, given to breaking teacups, and leaving the track of his footsteps in clay or mud upon the Aubusson carpets.
"He has not come home yet. The Duke and Duchess went to Florence just before Lady Jane's death, and I believe Mr. Vawdrey is with them in Rome. Briarwood has been shut up since September."
"Didn't I tell you, mamma, that somebody would be dead," cried Violet. "I felt when we came into this house yesterday evening, that everything in our lives was changed."
"I should hardly think mourning can be very becoming to Lady Mabel," ruminated Mrs. Tempest. "Those small sylph-like figures rarely look well in black."
Mr. Scobel rose with an effort to make his adieux. The delicious warmth of the wood-fire, the perfume of arbutus logs, had made him sleepy.
"You'll come and see our new school, I hope," he said to Violet, as they shook hands. "You and your dear mamma have contributed so largely to its erection that you have a right to be critical; but I really think you will be pleased."
"We'll come to-morrow afternoon, if it's fine," said Mrs. Tempest graciously. "You must bring Mrs. Scobel to dinner at seven, and then we can talk over all we have seen."
"You are very kind. I've my young women's scripture-class at a quarter-past eight; but if you will let me run away for an hour——"
"I can come back for Mrs. Scobel. Thanks. We shall be delighted."
When he was gone, Violet walked towards the door without a word to her mother.
"Violet, are you going away again? Pray stop, child, and let us have a chat."
"I have nothing to talk about, mamma."
"Nonsense. You have quite deserted me since we came home. And do you suppose I don't feel dull and depressed as well as you? It is not dutiful conduct, Violet. I shall really have to engage a companion if you go on so. Miss McCroke was dreary, but she was not altogether uncompanionable. One could talk to her."
"You had better have a companion, mamma. Someone who will be lively, and talk pleasantly about nothing particular all day long. No doubt a well-trained companion can do that. She has an inexhaustible well-spring of twaddle in her own mind. I feel as if I could never be cheerful again."
"We had better have stopped at Brighton——"
"I hate Brighton!"
"Where we knew so many nice people——"
"I detest nice people!"
"Violet, do you know that you have an abominable temper?"
"I know that I am made up of wickedness!" answered Vixen vehemently.
She left the room without another word, and went straight to her den upstairs, not to throw herself on the ground, and abandon herself to a childish unreasoning grief, as she had done on the night of Roderick's coming of age, but to face the situation boldly. She walked up and down the dim fire-lit room, thinking of what she had just heard.
"What does it matter to me? Why should I be so angry?" she asked herself. "We were never more than friends and playfellows. And I think that, on the whole, I rather disliked him. I know I was seldom civil to him. He was papa's favourite. I should hardly have tolerated bun but for that."
She felt relieved at having settled this point in her mind. Yet there was a dull blank sense of loss, a vague aching in her troubled heart, which she could not get rid of easily. She walked to and fro, to and fro, while the fire faded out and the pale windows darkened.
"I hate myself for being so vexed about this," she said, clasping her hands above her head with a vehemence that showed the intensity of her vexation. "Could I—I—Violet Tempest—ever be so despicable a creature as to care for a man who does not care for me; to be angry, sorry, broken-hearted, because a man does not want me for his wife? Such a thing is not possible; if it were, I think I would kill myself. I should be ashamed to live. I could not look human beings in the face. I should take poison, or turn Roman Catholic and go into a convent, where I should never see the face of a man again. No; I am not such an odious creature. I have no regard for Rorie except as my old playfellow, and when he comes home I will walk straight up to him and give him my hand, and congratulate him heartily on his approaching marriage. Perhaps Lady Mabel will ask me to be one of her bridesmaids. She will have a round dozen, I daresay. Six in pink, and six in blue, no doubt, like wax dolls at a charity-fair. Why can't people be married without making idiots of themselves?"
The half-hour gong sounded at this moment, and Vixen ran down to the drawing-room, where the candles and lamps were lighted, and where there was plenty of light literature lying about to distract the troubled mind. Violet went to her mother's chair and knelt beside it.
"Dear mamma, forgive me for being cross just now," she said gently; "I was out of spirits. I will try to be better company in future—so that you may not be obliged to engage a companion."
"My dear, I don't wonder at your feeling low-spirited," replied Mrs. Tempest graciously. "This place is horribly dull. How we ever endured it, even in your dear papa's time, is more than I can understand. It is like living on the ground-floor of one of the Egyptian pyramids. We must really get some nice people about us, or we shall both go melancholy mad."
"He belongs to the Tame-Cat Species."
Life went on smoothly enough at the Abbey House after that evening. Violet tried to make herself happy among the surroundings of her childhood, petted the horses, drove her basket-carriage with the favourite old pony, went among the villagers, rode her thoroughbred bay for long wild explorations of the Forest and neighbouring country, looked with longing eyes, sometimes, at the merry groups riding to the meet, and went her lonely way with a heavy heart. No more hunting for her. She could not hunt alone, and she had declined all friendly offers of escort. It would have seemed a treason against her beloved dead to ride across country by anyone else's side.
Everyone had called at the Abbey House and welcomed Mrs. Tempest and her daughter back to Hampshire. They had been asked to five-o'clock at Ellangowan Park, to see the marvellous orchid. They had been invited to half-a-dozen dinner-parties.
Violet tried her utmost to persuade her mother that it was much too soon after her father's death to think of visiting.
"My dear Violet," cried the widow, "after going to that ball at Brighton, we could not possibly decline invitations here. It would be an insult to our friends. If we had not gone to the ball——"
"We ought not to have gone," exclaimed Vixen.
"My love, you should have said so at the time."
"Mamma, you know I was strongly against it."
Mrs. Tempest shrugged her shoulders as who should say, "This is too much!"
"I know your dress cost a small fortune, and that you danced every waltz, Violet," she answered, "that is about all I do know."
"Very well, mamma, let us accept all the invitations. Let us be as merry as grigs. Perhaps it will make papa more comfortable in Paradise to know how happy we are without him. He won't be troubled by any uneasy thoughts about our grief, at all events," added Vixen, with a stifled sob.
"How irreverently you talk. Mr. Scobel would be dreadfully shocked to hear you." said Mrs. Tempest.
The invitations were all accepted, and Mrs. Tempest for the rest of the winter was in a flutter about her dresses. She was very particular as to the exact shade of silver-gray or lavender which might be allowed to relieve the sombre mass of black; and would spend a whole morning in discussing the propriety of a knot of scarlet ribbon, or a border of gold passementerie.
They went to Ellangowan Park and did homage to the wonderful orchid, and discussed Roderick's engagement to the Duke's only daughter. Everybody said that it was Lady Jane's doing, and there were some who almost implied that she had died on purpose to bring about the happy conjuncture. Violet was able to talk quite pleasantly about the marriage, and to agree with everybody's praises of Lady Mabel's beauty, elegance, good style, and general perfection.
Christmas and the New Year went by, not altogether sadly. It is not easy for youth to be full of sorrow. The clouds come and go, there are always glimpses of sunshine. Violet was grateful for the kindness that greeted her everywhere among her old friends, and perhaps a little glad of the evident admiration accorded to her beauty in all circles. Life was just tolerable, after all. She thought of Roderick Vawdrey as of something belonging to the past; something which had no part, never would have any part, in her future life. He too was dead and passed away, like her father. Lady Mabel's husband, the master of Briarwood in esse, and of Ashbourne in posse, was quite a different being from the rough lad with whom she had played at battledore and shuttlecock, billiards, croquet, and rounders.
Early in February Mrs. Tempest informed her daughter that she was going to give a dinner.
"It will seem very dreadful without dearest Edward," she said; "but of course having accepted hospitalities, we are bound to return them."
"Do you really think we ought to burst out into dinner-parties so soon, mamma?"
"Yes, dear, as we accepted the dinners. If we had not gone it would have been different."
"Ah," sighed Vixen, "I suppose it all began with that ball at Brighton, like 'Man's first disobedience, and the fruit——'"
"I shall miss poor McCroke to fill in the invitation cards."
"Let me do it, mamma. I can write a decent hand. That is one of the few ladylike accomplishments I have been able to master; and even that is open to objection as being too masculine."
"If you would slope more, Violet, and make your up-strokes finer, and not cross your T's so undeviatingly," Mrs. Tempest murmured amiably. "A lady's T ought to be less pronounced. There is something too assertive in your consonants."
Violet wrote the cards. The dinner was to be quite a grand affair, three weeks' notice, and a French cook from The Dolphin at Southampton to take the conduct of affairs in the kitchen; whereby the Abbey House cook declared afterwards that there was nothing that Frenchman did which she could not have done as well, and that his wastefulness was enough to make a Christian woman's hair stand on end.
Three days before the dinner, Vixen riding Arion home through the shrubbery, after a long morning in the Forest, was startled by the vision of a dog-cart a few yards in front of her, a cart, which, at the first glance, she concluded must belong to Roderick Vawdrey. The wheels were red, the horse had a rakish air, the light vehicle swung from side to side as it spun around the curve.
No, that slim figure, that neat waist, that military air did not belong to Roderick Vawdrey.
"He here!" ejaculated Vixen inwardly, with infinite disgust. "I thought we had seen the last of him."
She had been out for two hours and a half, and felt that Arion had done quite enough, or she would have turned her horse's head and gone back to the Forest, in order to avoid this unwelcome visitor.
"I only hope mamma won't encourage him to come here," she thought; "but I'm afraid that smooth tongue of his has too much influence over her. And I haven't even poor Crokey to stand by me. I shall feel like a bird transfixed by the wicked green eyes of a velvet-pawed murdering cat."
"And I have not a friend in the world," she thought. "Plenty of pleasant acquaintance, ready to simper at me and pay me compliments, because I am Miss Tempest of the Abbey House, but not one honest friend to stand by me, and turn that man out of doors. How dare he come here? I thought I spoke plainly enough that night at Brighton."
She rode slowly up to the house, slipped lightly out of her saddle, and led her horse round to the stables, just as she had led the pony in her happy childish days. The bright thoroughbred bay was as fond of her as if he had been a dog, and as tame. She stood by his manger caressing him while he ate his corn, and feeling very safe from Captain Winstanley's society in the warm clover-scented stable.
She dawdled away half-a-hour in this manner, before she went back to the house, and ran up to her dressing-room.
"If mamma sends for me now, I shan't be able to go down," she thought. "He can hardly stay more than an hour. Oh, horror! he is a tea-drinker; mamma will persuade him to stop till five o'clock."
Violet dawdled over her change of dress as she had dawdled in the stable. She had never been more particular about her hair.
"I'll have it all taken down, Phoebe," she told her Abigail; "I'm in no hurry."
"But really, miss, it's beautiful——"
"Nonsense after a windy ride; don't be lazy, Phoebe. You may give my hair a good brushing while I read."
A tap at the door came at this moment, and Phoebe ran to open it.
"Mrs. Tempest wishes Miss Tempest to come down to the drawing-room directly," said a voice in the corridor.
"There now, miss," cried Phoebe, "how lucky I didn't take your hair down. It never was nicer."
Violet put on her black dress, costly and simple as the attire Polonius recommended to his son. Mrs. Tempest might relieve her costume with what bright or delicate hues she liked. Violet had worn nothing but black since her father's death. Her sole ornaments were a pair of black earrings, and a large black enamel locket, with one big diamond shining in the middle of it, like an eye. This locket held the Squire's portrait, and his daughter wore it constantly.
The Louis Quatorze clock on the staircase struck five as Violet went down.
"Of course he is staying for tea," she thought, with an impatient shrug of her shoulders. "He belongs to the tame-cat species, and has an inexhaustible flow of gossip, spiced with mild malevolence. The kind of frivolous ill-nature which says: 'I would not do anyone harm for the world, but one may as well think the worst of everybody.'"
Yes, kettledrum was in full swing. Mrs. Scobel had come over from her tiny Vicarage for half-an-hour's chat, and was sitting opposite her hostess's fire, while Captain Winstanley lounged with his back to the canopied chimneypiece, and looked benignantly down upon the two ladies. The Queen Anne kettle was hissing merrily over its spirit-lamp, the perfume of the pekoe was delicious, the logs blazed cheerily in the low fireplace, with its shining brass andirons. Not a repulsive picture, assuredly; yet Vixen came slowly towards this charming circle, looking black as thunder.
Captain Winstanley hurried forward to receive her.
"How do you do?" she said, as stiffly as a child brought down to the drawing-room, bristling in newly-brushed hair and a best frock, and then turning to her mother, she asked curtly: "What did you want with me, mamma?"
"It was Captain Winstanley who asked to see you, my dear. Won't you have some tea?"
"Thanks, no," said Vixen, seating herself in a corner between Mrs. Scobel and the mantelpiece, and beginning to talk about the schools.
Conrad Winstanley gave her a curious look from under his dark brows, and then went on talking to her mother. He seemed hardly disconcerted by her rudeness.
"Yes, I assure you, if it hadn't been for the harriers, Brighton would have been unbearable after you left," he said. "I ran across to Paris directly the frost set in. But I don't wonder you were anxious to come back to such a lovely old place as this."
"I felt it a duty to come back," said Mrs. Tempest, with a pious air. "But it was very sad at first. I never felt so unhappy in my life. I am getting more reconciled now. Time softens all griefs."
"Yes," said the Captain, in a louder tone than before, "Time is a clever horse. There is nothing he won't beat if you know how to ride him."
"You'll take some tea?" insinuated Mrs. Tempest, her attention absorbed by the silver kettle, which was just now conducting itself as spitfireishly as any blackened block-tin on a kitchen hob.
"I can never resist it. And perhaps after tea you will be so good as to give me the treat you talked about just now."
"To show you the house?" said Mrs. Tempest. "Do you think we shall have light enough?"
"Abundance. An old house like this is seen at its best in the twilight. Don't you think so, Mrs. Scobel?"
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Mrs. Scobel, with a lively recollection of her album. "'They who would see Melrose aright, should see it'—I think, by-the-bye, Sir Walter Scott says, 'by moonlight.'"
"Yes, for an ancient Gothic abbey; but twilight is better for a Tudor manor-house. Are you sure it will not fatigue you?" inquired the Captain, with an air of solicitude, as Mrs. Tempest rose languidly.
"No; I shall be very pleased to show you the dear old place. It is full of sad associations, of course, out I do not allow my mind to dwell upon them more than I can help."
"No," cried Vixen bitterly. "We go to dinner-parties and kettledrums, and go into raptures about orchids and old china, and try to cure our broken hearts that way."
"Are you coming, Violet?" asked her mother sweetly.
"No, thanks, mamma. I am tired after my ride. Mrs. Scobel will help you to play cicerone."
Captain Winstanley left the room without so much as a look at Violet Tempest. Yet her rude reception had galled him more than any cross that fate had lately inflicted upon him. He had fancied that time would have softened her feeling towards him, that rural seclusion and the society of rustic nobodies would have made him appear at an advantage, that she would have welcomed the brightness and culture of metropolitan life in his person. He had hoped a great deal from the lapse of time since their last meeting. But this sullen reception, this silent expression of dislike, told him that Violet Tempest's aversion was a plant of deep root.
"The first woman who ever disliked me," he thought. "No wonder that she interests me more than other women. She is like that chestnut mare that threw me six times before I got the better of her. Yet she proved the best horse I ever had, and I rode her till she hadn't a leg to stand upon, and than sold her for twice the money she cost me. There are two conquests a man can make over a woman, one to make her love him, the other——"
"That suit of chain-armour was worn by Sir Gilbert Tempest at Acre," said the widow. "The plate-armour belonged to Sir Percy, who was killed at Barnet. Each of them was knighted before he was five-and-twenty years old, for prowess in the field. The portrait over the chimneypiece is the celebrated Judge Tempest, who was famous for——Well, he did something wonderful, I know. Perhaps Mrs. Scobel remembers," concluded Mrs. Tempest, feebly.
"It was at the trial of the seven bishops," suggested the Vicar's wife.
"In the time of Queen Elizabeth," assented Mrs. Tempest. "That one with the lace cravat and steel breastplate was an admiral in Charles the Second's reign, and was made a baronet for his valiant behaviour when the Dutch fleet were at Chatham. The baronetcy died with his son, who left only daughters. The eldest married a Mr. Percival, who took the name of Tempest, and sat for the borough of——Perhaps Mrs. Scobel knows. I have such a bad memory for these things; though I have heard my dear husband talk about them often."
Captain Winstanley looked round the great oak-panelled hall dreamily, and heard very little of Mrs. Tempest's vague prattling about her husband's ancestors.
What a lovely old place, he was thinking. A house that would give a man importance in the land, supported, as it was, by an estate bringing in something between five and six thousand a year. How much military distinction, how many battles must a soldier win before he could make himself master of such a fortune?
"And it needed but for that girl to like me, and a little gold ring would have given me the freehold of it all," thought Conrad Winstanley bitterly.
How many penniless girls, or girls with fortunes so far beneath the measure of a fine gentleman's needs as to be useless, had been over head and ears in love with the elegant Captain; how many pretty girls had tempted him by their beauty and winsomeness to be false to his grand principle that marriage meant promotion. And here was an obstinate minx who would have realised all his aims, and whom he felt himself able to love to distraction into the bargain; and, behold, some adverse devil had entered into her mind, and made Conrad Winstanley hateful to her.
"It's like witchcraft," he said to himself. "Why should this one woman be different from all other women? Perhaps it's the colour. That ruddy auburn hair, the loveliest I ever saw, means temper. But I conquered the chestnut, and I'll conquer Miss Tempest—or make her smart for it."
"A handsome music-gallery, is it not?" said the widow. "The carved balustrade is generally admired."
Then they went into the dining-room, and looked cursorily at about a dozen large dingy pictures of the Italian school, which a man who knew anything about art would have condemned at a glance. Fine examples of brown varnish, all of them. Thence to the library, lined with its carved-oak dwarf bookcases, containing books which nobody had opened for a generation—Livy, Gibbon, Hume, Burke, Smollett, Plutarch, Thomson. These sages, clad in shiny brown leather and gilding, made as good a lining for the walls as anything else, and gave an air of snugness to the room in which the family dined when there was no company.
They came presently to the Squire's den, at the end of a corridor.
"That was my dear husband's study," sighed Mrs. Tempest. "It looks south, into the rose garden, and is one of the prettiest rooms in the house. But we keep it locked, and I think Violet has the key."
"Pray don't let Miss Tempest be disturbed," said Captain Winstanley. "I have seen quite enough to know what a delightful house you have—all the interest of days that are gone, all the luxuries of to-day. I think that blending of past and present is most fascinating. I should never be a severe restorer of antiquity, or refuse to sit in a chair that wasn't undeniably Gothic."
"Ah," sighed the Vicar's wife, who was an advanced disciple in the school of Eastlake, "but don't you think everything should be in harmony? If I were as rich as Mrs. Tempest, I wouldn't have so much as a teapot that was not strictly Tudor."
"Then I'm afraid you'd have to go without a teapot, and drink your tea out of a tankard," retorted Captain Winstanley.
"At any rate, I would be as Tudor as I could be."
"And not have a brass bedstead, a spring mattress, a moderator lamp, or a coal-scuttle in your house," said the captain. "My dear madam, it is all very well to be mediaeval in matters ecclesiastic, but home comforts must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of the aesthetic, or a modern luxury discarded because it looks like an anachronism."
Mrs. Scobel was delighted with Captain Winstanley. He was just the kind of man to succeed in a rustic community. His quiet self-assurance set other people at their ease. He carried with him an air of life and movement, as if he were the patentee of a new pleasure.
"My husband would be so pleased to see you at the Vicarage, if you are staying any time in the neighbourhood," she said.
But after this little gush of friendliness, she reflected that there could not be much sympathy between the man of society and her Anglican parson; and that it was she, and not Ignatius Scobel, who would be glad to see Captain Winstanley at the Vicarage.
"I shall be charmed," he replied. "I never was so delighted with any place as your Forest. It is a new world to me. I hate myself for having lived in England so long without knowing this beautiful corner of the land. I am staying with my old chief, Colonel Pryke, at Warham Court, and I'm only here for a few days."
"But you are coming to my dinner-party?" said Mrs. Tempest.
"That is a pleasure I cannot deny myself."
"And you will come and see our church and schools?" said Mrs. Scobel.
"I shall be more than pleased. I passed your pretty little church, I think, on my way here. There was a tin tea-ket—a bell ringing——"
"For vespers," exclaimed Mrs. Scobel.
The exploration of the house took a long time, conducted in this somewhat desultory and dawdling manner; but the closing in of night and the sound of the dinner-gong gave the signal for Captain Winstanley's departure.
Mrs. Tempest would have liked to ask him to dinner; but she had an idea that Violet might make herself objectionable, and refrained from this exercise of hospitality. He was coming to the great dinner. He would see her dress with the feather trimming, which was really prettier than Worth's masterpiece, or, at any rate, newer; though it only came from Madame Theodore, of Bruton Street. Sustained by this comforting reflection, she parted with him quite cheerfully.
"He was worthy to be loved a Lifetime."
Conrad Winstanley had come to the New Forest with his mind resolved upon one of two things. He meant to marry Violet Tempest or her mother. If the case was quite hopeless with the daughter, he would content himself with winning the lesser prize; and though Vanity whispered that there was no woman living he might not win for himself if he chose to be sufficiently patient and persevering, instinct told him that Violet frankly detested him.
"After all," argued Worldly Wisdom, "the alternative is not to be despised. The widow is somewhat rococo; an old-fashioned jewel kept in cotton-wool, and brought out on occasions to shine with a factitious brilliancy, like old Dutch garnets backed with tinfoil; but she is still pretty. She is ductile, amiable, and weak to a degree that promises a husband the sovereign dominion. Why break your heart for this fair devil of a daughter, who looks capable, if offended, of anything in the way of revenge, from a horsewhip to slow poison? Are a pair of brown eyes and a coronal of red gold hair worth all this wasted passion?"
"But the daughter is the greater catch," urged Ambition. "The dowager's jointure is well enough, and she has the Abbey House and gardens for her life, but Violet will be sole mistress of the estate when she comes of age. As Violet's husband, your position would be infinitely better than it could be as her stepfather. Unhappily, the cantankerous minx has taken it into her head to dislike you."
"Stay," interjected the bland voice of Vanity; "may not this dislike be only an assumption, a mask for some deeper feeling? There are girls who show their love in that way. Do not be in a hurry to commit yourself to the mother until you have made yourself quite sure about the daughter."
Mrs. Tempest's dinner-party was a success. It introduced Captain Winstanley to all that was best in the surrounding society; for although in Switzerland he had seemed very familiar with the best people in the Forest, in Hampshire he appeared almost a stranger to them. It was generally admitted, however, that the Captain was an acquisition, and a person to be cultivated. He sang a French comic song almost as well as Monsieur de Roseau, recited a short Yankee poem, which none of his audience had ever heard before, with telling force. He was at home upon every subject, from orchids to steam-ploughs, from ordnance to light literature. A man who sang so well, talked so well, looked so well, and behaved so well, could not be otherwise than welcome in county society. Before the evening was over, Captain Winstanley had been offered three hunters for the next day's run, and had been asked to write in four birthday-books.
Violet did not honour him with so much as a look, after her one cold recognition of his first appearance in the drawing-room. It was a party of more than twenty people, and she was able to keep out of his way without obvious avoidance of him. He was stung, but had no right to be offended.
He took Mrs. Scobel in to dinner, and Mrs. Scobel played the accompaniment of his song, being a clever little woman, able to turn her hand to any thing. He would have preferred to be told off to some more important matron, but was not sorry to be taken under Mrs. Scobel's wing. She could give him the carte du pays, and would be useful to him, no doubt, in the future; a social Iris, to fetch and carry for him between Beechdale and the Abbey House.
"Do you know that I am quite in love with your Forest?" he said to Mrs. Tempest, standing in front of the ottoman where that lady sat with two of her particular friends; "so much so, that I am actually in treaty for Captain Hawbuck's cottage, and mean to stay here till the end of the hunting."
Everybody knew Captain Hawbuck's cottage, a verandahed box of a house, on the slope of the hill above Beechdale.
"I'm afraid you'll find the drawing-room chimney smokes," said a matter-of-fact lady in sea-green; "poor Mrs. Hawbuck was a martyr to that chimney."
"What does a bachelor want with a drawing-room? If there is one sitting-room in which I can burn a good fire, I shall be satisfied. The stable is in very fair order."
"The Hawbucks kept a pony-carriage," assented the sea-green lady.
"If Mrs. Hawbuck accepts my offer, I shall send for my horses next week," said the Captain.
Mrs. Tempest blushed. Her life had flowed in so gentle and placid a current, that the freshness of her soul had not worn off, and at nine-and-thirty she was able to blush. There was something so significant in Captain Winstanley's desire to establish himself at Beechdale, that she could not help feeling fluttered by the fact. It might be on Violet's account, of course, that he came; yet Violet and he had never got on very well together.
"Poor fellow!" she thought blandly, "if he for a moment supposes that anything would tempt me to marry again, he is egregiously mistaken."
And then she looked round the lovely old room, brightened by a crowd of well-dressed people, and thought that next to being Edward Tempest's wife, the best thing in life was to be Edward Tempest's widow.
"Dear Edward!" she mused, "how strange that we should miss him so little to-night."
It had been with everyone as if the squire had never lived. Politeness exacted this ignoring of the past, no doubt; but the thing had been so easily done. The noble presence, the jovial laugh, the friendly smile were gone, and no one seemed conscious of the void—no one but Violet, who looked round the room once when conversation was liveliest, with a pale indignant face, resenting this forgetfulness.
"I wish papa's ghost would come in at that door and scare his hollow-hearted friends," she said to herself; and she felt as if it would hardly have been a surprise to her to see the door open slowly and that familiar figure appear.
"Well, Violet," Mrs. Temple said sweetly, when the guests were gone, "how do you think it all went off?"
"It," of course, meant the dinner-party.
"I suppose, according to the nature of such things, it was all right and proper," Vixen answered coldly; "but I should think it must have been intensely painful to you, mamma."
Mrs. Tempest sighed. She had always a large selection of sighs in stock, suitable to every occasion.
"I should have felt it much worse if I had sat in my old place at dinner," she said; "but sitting at the middle of the table instead of at the end made it less painful. And I really think it's better style. How did you like the new arrangement of the glasses?"
"I didn't notice anything new."
"My dear Violet, you are frightfully unobservant."
"No, I am not," answered Vixen quickly. "My eyes are keen enough, believe me."
Mrs. Tempest felt uncomfortable. She began to think that, after all, it might be a comfortable thing to have a companion—as a fender between herself and Violet. A perpetually present Miss Jones or Smith would ward off these unpleasantnesses.
There are occasions, however, on which a position must be faced boldly—in proverbial phrase, the bull must be taken by the horns. And here, Mrs. Tempest felt, was a bull which must be so encountered. She knew that her poor little hands were too feeble for the office; but she told herself that she must make the heroic attempt.
"Violet, why have you such a rooted dislike to Captain Winstanley?"
"Why is my hair the colour it is, mamma, or why are my eyes brown instead of blue? If you could answer my question, I might be able to answer yours. Nature made me what I am, and nature has implanted a hatred of Captain Winstanley in my mind."
"Do you not think it wrong to hate anyone—the very word hate was considered unladylike when I was a girl—without cause?"
"I have cause to hate him, good cause, sufficient cause. I hate all self-seekers and adventurers."
"You have no right to call him one or the other."
"Have I not? What brings him here, but the pursuit of his own interest? Why does he plant himself at our door as if he were come to besiege a town? Do you mean to say, mamma, that you can be so blind as not to see what he wants?"
"He has come for the hunting."
"Yes, but not to hunt our foxes or our stags. He wants a rich wife, mamma. And he thinks that you or I will be foolish enough to marry him."
"There would be nothing unnatural in his entertaining some idea of that kind about you," replied Mrs. Tempest, with a sudden assertion of matronly dignity. "But for him to think of me in that light would be too absurd. I must be some years, perhaps four or five years, his senior, to begin with."
"Oh, he would forgive you that; he would not mind that."
"And he ought to know that I should never dream of marrying again."
"He ought, if he had any idea of what is right and noble in a woman," answered Vixen. "But he has not. He has no ideas that do not begin and end in himself and his own advantage. He sees you here with a handsome house, a good income, and he thinks that he can persuade you to marry him."
"Violet, you must know that I shall never marry."
"I hope I do know it. But the world ought to know it too. People ought not to be allowed to whisper, and smile, and look significant; as I saw some of them do to-night when Captain Winstanley was hanging over your chair. You ought not to encourage him, mamma. It is a treason against my father to have that man here."
Here was a bull that required prompt and severe handling, but Mrs. Tempest felt her powers inadequate to the effort.
"I am surprised at you, Violet!" she exclaimed; "as if I did not know, as well as you, what is due to my poor Edward; as if I should do anything to compromise my own dignity. Is it to encourage a man to ask him to a dinner-party, when he happens to be visiting in the neighbourhood? Can I forbid Captain Winstanley to take the Hawbucks' cottage?"
"No, you have gone too far already. You gave him too much encouragement in Switzerland, and at Brighton. He has attached himself to us, like a limpet to a rock. You will not easily get rid of him; unless you let him see that you understand and despise him."
"I see nothing despicable in him, and I am not going to insult him at your bidding," answered the widow, tremulous with anger. "I do not believe him to be a schemer or an adventurer. He is a gentleman by birth, education, profession. It is a supreme insolence on your part to speak of him as you do. What can you know of the world? How can you judge and measure a man like Captain Winstanley? A girl like you, hardly out of the nursery! It is too absurd. And understand at once and for ever, Violet, that I will not be hectored or lectured in this manner, that I will not be dictated to, or taught what is good taste, in my own house. This is to be my own house, you know, as long as I live."
"Yes; unless you give it a new master," said Violet gravely. "Forgive me if I have been too vehement, mamma. It is my love that is bold. Whom have I in this world to love now, except you? And when I see you in danger—when I see the softness of your nature—— Dear mother, there are some instincts that are stronger than reason. There are some antipathies which are implanted in us for warnings. Remember what a happy life you led with my dear father—his goodness, his overflowing generosity, his noble heart. There is no man worthy to succeed him, to live in his house. Dear mother, for pity's sake——"
She was kneeling at her mother's feet, clinging to her hands, her voice half-choked with sobs. Mrs. Tempest began to cry too.