"My dearest Violet, how can you be so foolish? My love, don't cry. I tell you that I shall never marry again—never. Not if I were asked to become a countess. My heart is true to your dear father; it always will be. I am almost sorry that I consented to these scarlet bows on my dress, but the feather trimming looked so heavy without them, and Theodore's eye for colour is perfect. My dear child, be assured I shall carry his image with me to my grave."
"Dear mother, that is all I ask. Be as happy as you can; but be true to him. He was worthy to be loved for a lifetime; not to be put off with half a life, half a heart."
Lady Southminster's Ball.
Captain Winstanley closed with Mrs. Hawbuck for the pretty little verandah-surrounded cottage on the slope of the hill above Beechdale. Captain Hawbuck, a retired naval man, to whom the place had been very dear, was in his grave, and his wife was anxious to try if she and her hungry children could not live on less money in Belgium than they could in England. The good old post-captain had improved and beautified the place from a farm-labourer's cottage into a habitation which was the quintessence of picturesque inconvenience. Ceilings which you could touch with your hand; funny little fireplaces in angles of the rooms; a corkscrew staircase, which a stranger ascended or descended at peril of life or limb; no kitchen worth mentioning, and stuffy little bedrooms under the thatch. Seen from the outside the cottage was charming; and if the captain and his family could only have lived over the way, and looked at it, they would have had full value for the money invested in its improvement. Small as the rooms were, however, and despite that dark slander which hung over the chimneys, Captain Winstanley declared that the cottage would suit him admirably.
"I like the situation," he said, discussing his bargain in the coffee-room at The Crown, Lyndhurst.
"I should rather think you did!" cried Mr. Bell, the local surgeon. "Suits you down to the ground, doesn't it?"
Whereby it will be seen that there was already a certain opinion in the neighbourhood as to the Captain's motive for planting himself at Beechdale—so acute is a quiet little community of this kind in divining the intentions of a stranger.
Captain Winstanley took up his quarters at Beechdale Cottage in less than a week after Mrs. Tempest's dinner-party. He sent for his horses, and began the business of hunting in real earnest. His two hunters were unanimously pronounced screws; but it is astonishing how well a good rider can get across country on a horse which other people call a screw. Nobody could deny Captain Winstanley's merits as a horseman. His costume and appointments had all the finish of Melton Mowbray, and he was always in the first flight.
Before he had occupied Captain Hawbuck's cottage a month the new-comer had made friends for himself in all directions. He was as much at home in the Forest as if he had been native and to the manner born. His straight riding, his good looks, and agreeable manners won him everybody's approval. There was nothing dissipated or Bohemian about him. His clothes never smelt of stale tobacco. He was as punctual at church every Sunday morning as if he had been a family man, bound to set a good example. He subscribed liberally to the hounds, and was always ready with those stray florins and half-crowns by which a man purchases a cheap popularity among the horse-holding and ragged-follower class.
Having distinctly asserted her intention of remaining a widow to Violet, Mrs. Tempest allowed herself the privilege of being civil to Captain Winstanley. He dropped in at afternoon tea at least twice a week; he dined at the Abbey House whenever the Scobels or any other intimate friends were there "in a quiet way." He generally escorted Mrs. Tempest and her daughter from church on Sunday morning, Violet persistently loitering twenty yards or so behind them on the narrow woodland path that led from Beechdale to the Abbey House.
After walking home from church with Mrs. Tempest, it was only natural that the Captain should stop to luncheon, and after luncheon—the Sabbath afternoon being, in a manner, a legitimate occasion for dawdling—it was equally natural for him to linger, looking at the gardens and greenhouses, or talking beside the drawing-room fire, till the appearance of the spitfire Queen Anne tea-kettle and Mrs. Tempest's infusion of orange pekoe.
Sometimes the Scobels were present at these Sunday luncheons, sometimes not. Violet was with her mother, of course, on these occasions; but, while bodily present, she contrived to maintain an attitude of aloofness which would have driven a less resolute man than Conrad Winstanley to absent himself. A man more sensitive to the opinions of others could hardly have existed in such an atmosphere of dislike; but Captain Winstanley meant to live down Miss Tempest's aversion, or to give her double cause for hating him.
"Why have you given up hunting, Miss Tempest?" he asked one Sunday afternoon, when they had gone the round of the stables, and Arion had been fondled and admired—a horse as gentle as an Italian greyhound in his stable, as fiery as a wild-cat out of it.
"Because I have no one I care to hunt with, now papa is gone."
"But here in the Forest, where everybody knows you, where you might have as many fathers as the Daughter of the Regiment——"
"Yes, I have many kind friends. But there is not one who could fill my father's place—for an hour."
"It is a pity," said the Captain sympathetically. "You were so fond of hunting, were you not?"
"Then it is a shame you should forego the pleasure. And you must find it very dull, I should think, riding alone in the forest."
"Alone! I have my horse."
"Surely he does not count as a companion."
"Indeed he does. I wish for no better company than Arion, now papa is gone."
"Violet is so eccentric!" Mrs. Tempest murmured gently.
Captain Winstanley had taken Mrs. Hawbuck's cottage till the first of May. The end of April would see the last of the hunting, so this arrangement seemed natural enough. He hunted in good earnest. There was no pretence about him. It was only the extra knowing ones, the little knot of choice spirits at The Crown, who saw some deeper motive than a mere love of sport for his residence at Beechdale. These advanced minds had contrived to find out all about Captain Winstanley by this time—the date of his selling out, his ostensible and hidden reasons for leaving the army, the amount of his income, and the general complexion of his character. There was not much to be advanced against him. No dark stories; only a leading notion that he was a man who wanted to improve his fortunes, and would not be over-scrupulous as to the means. But as your over-scrupulous man is one in a thousand, this was ranking Captain Winstanley with the majority.
The winter was over; there were primroses peeping out of the moss and brambles, and a shy little dog-violet shining like a blue eye here and there. The flaunting daffodils were yellow in every glade, and the gummy chestnut buds were beginning to swell. It was mid-March, and as yet there had been no announcement of home-coming from Roderick Vawdrey or the Dovedales. The Duke was said to have taken a fancy to the Roman style of fox-hunting; Lady Mabel was studying art; the Duchess was suspected of a leaning to Romanism; and Roderick was dancing attendance upon the family generally.
"Why should he not stay there with them?" said Mr. Scobel, sipping his pekoe in a comfortable little circle of gossipers round Mrs. Tempest's gipsy table. "He has very little else to do with his life. He is a young man utterly without views or purpose. He is one of our many Gallios. You could not rouse him to an interest in those stirring questions that are agitating the Catholic Church to her very foundation. He has no mission. I have sounded him, and found him full of a shallow good-nature. He would build a church if people asked him, and hardly know, when it was finished, whether he meant it for Jews or Gentiles."
Vixen sat in her corner and said nothing. It amused her—rather with a half-bitter sense of amusement—to hear them talk about Roderick. He had quite gone out of her life. It interested her to know what people thought of him in his new world.
"If the Duke doesn't bring them all home very soon the Duchess will go over to Rome," said Mrs. Scobel, with conviction. "She has been drifting that way for ever so long. Ignatius isn't high enough for her."
The Reverend Ignatius sighed. He hardly saw his way to ascending any higher. He had already, acting always in perfect good faith and conscientious desire for the right, made his pretty little church obnoxious to many of the simple old Foresters, to whom a pair of brazen candlesticks on an altar were among the abominations of Baal, and a crucifix as hateful as the image of Ashtaroth; obstinate old people of limited vision, who wanted Mr. Scobel to stick to what they called the old ways, and read the Liturgy as they had heard it when they were children. In the minds of these people, Mr. Scobel's self-devotion and hard service were as nothing, while he cut off the ten commandments from the Sunday morning service, and lighted his altar candles at the early celebration.
It was in this month of March that an event impended which caused a considerable flutter among the dancing population of the Forest. Lord Southminster's eldest daughter, Lady Almira Ringwood, was to marry Sir Ponto Jones, the rich ironmaster—an alliance of ancient aristocracy and modern wealth which was considered one of the grandest achievements of the age, like the discovery of steam or the electric telegraph; and after the marriage, which was to be quietly performed in the presence of about a hundred and fifty blood relations, there was to be a ball, to which all the county families were bidden, with very little more distinction or favouritism than in the good old fairy-tale times, when the king's herald went through the streets of the city to invite everybody, and only some stray Cinderella, cleaning boots and knives in a back kitchen, found herself unintentionally excluded. Lady Southminster drew the line at county families, naturally, but her kindly feelings allowed a wide margin for parsons, doctors, and military men—and among these last Captain Winstanley received a card.
Mrs. Scobel declared that this ball would be a grand thing for Violet. "You have never properly come out, you know, dear," she said; "but at Southminster you will be seen by everybody; and, as I daresay Lady Ellangowan will take you under her wing, you'll be seen to the best advantage."
"Do you think Lady Ellangowan's wing will make any difference—in me?" inquired Vixen.
"It will make a great deal of difference in the Southminster set," replied Mrs. Scobel, who considered herself an authority upon all social matters.
She was a busy good-natured little woman, the chosen confidante of all her female friends. People were always appealing to her on small social questions, what they ought to do or to wear on such and such an occasion. She knew the wardrobes of her friends as well as she knew her own. "I suppose you'll wear that lovely pink," she would say when discussing an impending dinner-party. She gave judicious assistance in the composition of a menu. "My love, everyone has pheasants at this time of year. Ask your poulterer to send you guinea-fowls, they are more distingue," she would suggest. Or: "If you have dessert ices, let me recommend you coffee-cream. We had it last week at Ellangowan Park."
Vixen made no objection to the Southminster ball. She was young, and fond of waltzing. Whirling easily round to the swing of some German melody, in a great room garlanded with flowers, was a temporary cessation of all earthly care, the idea of which was in no wise unpleasant to her. She had enjoyed her waltzes even at that charity-ball at the Pavilion, to which she had gone so unwillingly.
The March night was fine, but blustery, when Mrs. Tempest and her daughter started for the Southminster ball. The stars were shining in a windy sky, the tall forest trees were tossing their heads, the brambles were shivering, and a shrill shriek came up out of the woodland every now and then like a human cry for help.
Mrs Tempest had offered to take Mrs. Scobel and Captain Winstanley in her roomy carriage. Mr. Scobel was not going to the ball. All such entertainments were an abhorrence to him; but this particular ball, being given in Lent, was more especially abhorrent.
"I shouldn't think of going for my own amusement," Mrs. Scobel told her husband, "but I want to see Violet Tempest at her first local ball dance. I want to see the impression she makes. I believe she will be the belle of the ball."
"That would mean the belle of South Hants," said the parson. "She has a beautiful face for a painted window—there is such a glow of colour."
"She is absolutely lovely, when she likes," replied his wife; "but she has a curious temper; and there is something very repellent about her when she does not like people. Strange, is it not, that she should not like Captain Winstanley?"
"She would be a very noble girl under more spiritual influences," sighed the Reverend Ignatius. "Her present surroundings are appallingly earthly. Horses, dogs, a table loaded with meat in Lent and Advent, a total ignoring of daily matins and even-song. It is sad to see those we like treading the broad path so blindly. I feel sorry, my dear, that you should go to this ball."
"It is only on Violet's account," repeated Mrs. Scobel. "Mrs. Tempest will be thinking of nothing but her dress; there will be nobody interested in that poor girl."
Urged thus, on purely benevolent grounds, Mr. Scobel could not withhold his consent; more especially as he had acquired the habit of letting his wife do what she liked on most occasions—a marital custom not easily broken through. So Mrs. Scobel, who was an economical little woman, "did up" her silver-gray silk dinner-dress with ten shillings' worth of black tulle and pink rosebuds, and felt she had made a success that Madame Elise might have approved. Her faith in the silver-gray and the rosebuds was just a little shaken by her first view of Mrs. Tempest and Violet; the widow in black velvet, rose-point, and scarlet—Spanish as a portrait by Velasquez; Violet in black and gold, with white stephanotis in her hair.
The drive was a long one, well over ten miles, along one of those splendid straight roads which distinguish the New Forest. Mrs. Tempest and Mrs. Scobel were in high spirits, and prattled agreeably all the way, only giving Captain Winstanley time to get a word in edgeways now and then. Violet looked out of the window and held her peace. There was always a charm for her in that dark silent forest, those waving branches and flitting clouds, stars gleaming like lights on a stormy sea. She was not much elated at the idea of the ball, and "that small, small, imperceptibly small talk" of her mother's and Mrs. Scobel's was beyond measure wearisome to her.
"I hope we shall get there after the Ellangowans," said Mrs. Scobel, when they had driven through the little town of Ringwood, and were entering a land of level pastures and fertilising streams, which seemed wonderfully tame after the undulating forest; "it would be so much nicer for Violet to be in the Ellangowan set from the first."
"I beg to state that Miss Tempest has promised me the first waltz," said Captain Winstanley. "I am not going to be ousted by any offshoot of nobility in Lady Ellangowan's set."
"Oh, of course, if Violet has promised—— What a lot of carriages! I am afraid there'll be a block presently."
There was every prospect of such a calamity. A confluence of vehicles had poured into a narrow lane bounded on one side by a treacherous water-meadow, on the other by a garden-wall. They all came to a standstill, as Mrs. Scobel had prophesied. For a quarter of an hour there was no progress whatever, and a good deal of recrimination among coachmen, and then the rest of the journey had to be done at a walking pace.
The reward was worth the labour when, at the end of a long winding drive, the carriage drew up before the Italian front of Southminster House; a white marble portico, long rows of tall windows brilliantly lighted, a vista of flowers, and statues, and lamps, and pictures, and velvet hangings, seen through the open doorway.
"Oh, it is too lovely!" cried Violet, fresh as a schoolgirl in this new delight; "first the dark forest and then a house like this—it is like Fairyland."
"And you are to be the queen of it—my queen," said Conrad Winstanley in a low voice. "I am to have the first waltz, remember that. If the Prince of Wales were my rival I would not give way."
He detained her hand in his as she alighted from the carriage. She snatched it from him angrily.
"I have a good mind not to dance at all," she said.
"It is paying too dearly for the pleasure to be obliged to dance with you."
"In what school did you learn politeness, Miss Tempest?"
"If politeness means civility to people I despise, I have never learned it," answered Vixen.
There was no time for further skirmishing. He had taken her cloak from her, and handed it to the attendant nymph, and received a ticket; and now they were drifting into the tea-room, where a row of ministering footmen were looking at the guests across a barricade of urns and teapots, with countenances that seemed to say, "If you want anything, you must ask for it. We are here under protest, and we very much wonder how our people could ever have invited such rabble!"
"I always feel small in a tea-room when there are only met in attendance," whispered Mr. Scobel, "they are so haughty. I would sooner ask Gladstone or Disraeli to pour me out a cup of tea than one of those supercilious creatures."
Lady Southminster was stationed in the Teniers room—a small apartment at the beginning of the suite which ended in the picture-gallery or ball-room. She was what Joe Gargery called a "fine figure of a woman," in ruby velvet and diamonds, and received her guests with an in discriminating cordiality which went far to heal the gaping wounds of county politics.
The Ellangowans had arrived, and Lady Ellangowan, who was full of good-nature, was quite ready to take Violet under her wing when Mrs. Scobel suggested that operation.
"I can find her any number of partners," she said. "Oh, there she goes—off—already with Captain Winstanley."
The Captain had lost no time in exacting his waltz. It was the third on the programme, and the band were beginning to warm to their work They were playing a waltz by Offenbach—"Les Traineaux"—with an accompaniment of jingling sleigh-bells—music that had an almost maddening effect on spirits already exhilarated.
The long lofty picture-gallery made a magnificent ball-room—a polished floor of dark wood—a narrow line of light under the projecting cornice, the famous Paul Veronese, the world-renowned Rubens, the adorable Titian—ideal beauty looking down with art's eternal tranquillity upon the whisk and whirl of actual life—here a calm Madonna, contemplating, with deep unfathomable eyes, these brief ephemera of a night—there Judith with a white muscular arm holding the tyrant's head aloft above the dancers—yonder Philip of Spain frowning on this Lenten festival.
Violet and Captain Winstanley waltzed in a stern silence. She was vexed with herself for her loss of temper just now. In his breast there was a deeper anger. "When would my day come?" he asked himself. "When shall I be able to bow this proud head, to bend this stubborn will?" It must be soon—he was tired of playing his submissive part—tired of holding his cards hidden.
They held on to the end of the waltz—the last clash of the sleigh-bells.
"Who's that girl in black and gold?" asked a Guardsman of Lady Ellangowan; "those two are the best dancers in the room—it's a thousand to nothing on them."
That final clash of the bells brought the Captain and his partner to anchor at the end of the gallery, which opened through an archway into a spacious palm-house with a lofty dome. In the middle of this archway, looking at the dancers, stood a figure at sight of which Violet Tempest's heart gave a great leap, and then stood still.
It was Roderick Vawdrey. He was standing alone, listlessly contemplating the ball-room, with much less life and expression in his face than there was in the pictured faces on the walls.
"That was a very nice waltz thanks," said Vixen, giving the captain a little curtsey.
"Shall I take you back to Mrs. Tempest?"
Roderick had seen her by this time, and was coming towards her with a singularly grave and distant countenance, she thought; not at all like the Rorie of old times. But of course that was over and done with. She must never call him Rorie any more, not even in her own thoughts. A sharp sudden memory thrilled her, as they stood face to face in that brilliant gallery—the memory of their last meeting in the darkened room on the day of her father's funeral.
"How do you do?" said Roderick, with a gush of originality. "Your mamma is here, I suppose."
"Haven't you seen her?"
"No; we've only just come."
"We," no doubt, meant the Dovedale party, of which Mr. Vawdrey was henceforth a part.
"I did not know you were to be here," said Vixen, "or then that you were in England."
"We only came home yesterday, or I should have called at the Abbey House. We have been coming home, or talking about it, for the last three weeks. A few days ago the Duchess took it into her head that she ought to be at Lady Almira's wedding—there's some kind of relationship, you know, between the Ashbournes and the Southminsters—so we put on a spurt, and here we are."
"I am very glad," said Vixen, not knowing very well what to say; and then seeing Captain Winstanley standing stiffly at her side, with an aggrieved expression of countenance, she faltered: "I beg your pardon; I don't think you have ever met Mr. Vawdrey. Captain Winstanley—Mr. Vawdrey."
Both gentlemen acknowledged the introduction with the stiffest and chilliest of bows; and then the Captain offered Violet his arm, and she, having no excuse for refusing it, submitted quietly to be taken away from her old friend. Roderick made no attempt to detain her.
The change in him could hardly have been more marked, Vixen thought. Yes, the old Rorie—playfellow, scapegoat, friend of the dear old childish days—was verily dead and gone.
"Shall we go and look at the presents?" asked Captain Winstanley.
"Lady Almira's wedding presents. They are all laid out in the library. I hear they are very splendid. Everybody is crowding to see them."
"I daresay mamma would like to go, and Mrs. Scobel," suggested Vixen.
"Then we will all go together."
They found the two matrons side by side on a settee, under a lovely girlish head by Greuze. They were both delighted at the idea of seeing the presents. It was something to do. Mrs. Tempest had made up her mind to abjure even square dances this evening. There was something incongruous in widowhood and the Lancers; especially in one's own neighbourhood.
Rorie asks a Question.
The library was one of the finest rooms at Southminster. It was not like the library at Althorpe—a collection for a nation to be proud of. There was no priceless Decameron, no Caxton Bible, no inestimable "Book of Hours," or early Venetian Virgil; but as a library of reference, a library for all purposes of culture or enjoyment, it left nothing to be desired. It was a spacious and lofty room, lined from floor to ceiling with exquisitely bound books; for, if not a collector of rare editions, Lord Southminster was at least a connoisseur of bindings. Creamy vellum, flowered with gold, antique brown calf, and russia in every shade of crimson and brown, gave brightness to the shelves, while the sombre darkness of carved oak made a background for this variety of colour.
Not a mortal in the crowded library this evening thought of looking at the books. The room had been transformed into a bazaar. Two long tables were loaded with the wedding gifts which rejoicing friends and aspiring acquaintances had lavished upon Lady Almira. Each gift was labelled with the name of the giver; the exhibition was full of an intensely personal interest. Everybody wanted to see what everybody had given. Most of the people looking at the show had made their offerings, and were anxious to see if their own particular contribution appeared to advantage.
Here Mrs. Scobel was in her element. She explained everything, expatiated upon the beauty and usefulness of everything. If she had assisted at the purchase of all these gifts, or had actually chosen them, she could not have been more familiar with their uses and merits.
"You must look at the silver candelabra presented by Sir Ponto's workpeople, so much more sensible than a bracelet. I don't think Garrard—yes, it is Garrard—ever did anything better; so sweetly mythological—a goat and a dear little chubby boy, and ever so many savage-looking persons with cymbals."
"The education of Jupiter, perhaps," suggested Captain Winstanley.
"Of course. The savage persons must be teaching him music. Have you seen this liqueur cabinet, dear Mrs. Tempest? The most exquisite thing, from the servants at Southminster. Could anything be nicer?"
"Looks rather like a suggestion that Lady Almira may be given to curacoa on the quiet," said the Captain.
"And this lovely, lovely screen in crewels, by the Ladies Ringwood, after a picture by Alma Tadema," continued Mrs. Scobel. "Was there ever anything so perfect? And to think that our poor mothers worked staring roses and gigantic lilies in Berlin wool and glass beads, and imagined themselves artistic!"
The ladies went the round of the tables, in a crush of other ladies, all rapturous. The Louis Quatorze fans, the carved ivory, the Brussels point, the oxydised silver glove-boxes, and malachite blotting-books, the pearls, opals, ormolu; the antique tankards and candlesticks, Queen-Anne teapots; diamond stars, combs, tiaras; prayer-books, and "Christian Years." The special presents which stood out from this chaos of common place were—a riviere of diamonds from the Earl of Southminster, a cashmere shawl from Her Majesty, a basket of orchids, valued at five hundred guineas, from Lady Ellangowan, a pair of priceless crackle jars, a Sevres dinner-service of the old bleu-du-roi, a set of knives of which the handles had all been taken from stags slaughtered by the Southminster hounds.
"This is all very well for the wallflowers," said Captain Winstanley to Violet, "but you and I are losing our dances."
"I don't much care about dancing," answered Vixen wearily.
She had been looking at this gorgeous display of bracelets and teacups, silver-gilt dressing-cases, and ivory hairbrushes, without seeing anything. She was thinking of Roderick Vawdrey, and how odd a thing it was that he should seem so utter a stranger to her.
"He has gone up into the ducal circle," she said to herself. "He is translated. It is almost as if he had wings. He is certainly as far away from me as if he were a bishop."
They struggled back to the picture-gallery, and here Lady Ellangowan took possession of Violet, and got her distinguished partners for all the dances till supper-time. She found herself receiving a gracious little nod from Lady Mabel Ashbourne in the ladies' chain. Neither the lapse of two years nor the experience of foreign travel had made any change in the hope of the Dovedales. She was still the same sylph-like being, dressed in palest green, the colour of a duck's egg, with diamonds in strictest moderation, and pearls that would have done honour to a princess.
"Do you think Lady Mabel Ashbourne very beautiful?" Vixen asked Lady Ellangowan, curious to hear the opinion of experience and authority.
"No; she's too shadowy for my taste," replied her ladyship, who was the reverse of sylph-like. "Wasn't there someone in Greek mythology who fell in love with a cloud? Lady Mabel would just suit that sort of person. And then she is over-educated and conceited; sets up for a modern Lady Jane Grey, quotes Greek plays, I believe, and looks astounded if people don't understand her. She'll end by establishing a female college, like Tennyson's princess."
"Oh, but she is engaged to be married to Mr. Vawdrey."
"Her cousin? Very foolish! That may go off by-and-by. First engagements seldom come to anything."
Violet thought herself a hateful creature for being inwardly grateful to Lady Ellangowan for this speech.
She had seen Roderick spinning round with his cousin. He was a good waltzer, but not a graceful one. He steered his way well, and went with a strong swing that covered a great deal of ground; but there was a want of finish. Lady Mabel looked as if she were being carried away by a maelstrom. And now people began to move towards the supper-rooms, of which there were two, luxuriously arranged with numerous round tables in the way that was still a novelty when "Lothair" was written. This gave more room for the dancers. The people for whom a ball meant a surfeit of perigord pie, truffled turkey, salmon mayonnaise, and early strawberries, went for their first innings, meaning to return to that happy hunting-ground as often as proved practicable. Violet was carried off by a partner who was so anxious to take her to supper that she felt sure he was dying to get some for himself.
Her cavalier found her a corner at a snug little table with three gorgeous matrons. She ate a cutlet and a teaspoonful of peas, took three sips from a glass of champagne, and wound up with some strawberries, which tasted as if they had been taken by mistake out of the pickle-jar.
"I'm afraid you haven't had a very good supper." said her partner, who had been comfortably wedged between two of the matrons, consuming mayonnaise and pate to his heart's content.
"Excellent, thanks. I shall be glad to make room for someone else." Whereat the unfortunate young man was obliged to stand up, leaving the choicest morsel of truffled goose-liver on his plate.
The crowd in the picture-gallery was thinner when Violet went back. In the doorway she met Roderick Vawdrey.
"Haven't you kept a single dance for me, Violet?" he asked.
"You didn't ask me to keep one."
"Didn't I? Perhaps I was afraid of Captain Winstanley's displeasure. He would have objected, no doubt."
"Why should he object, unless I broke an engagement to him?"
"Would he not? Are you actually free to be asked by anyone? If I had known that two hours ago! And now, I suppose your programme is full. Yes, to the very last galop; for which, of course, you won't stop. But there's to be an extra waltz presently. You must give me that."
She said neither yes nor no, and he put her hand through his arm and led her up the room.
"Have you seen mamma?"
"Yes. She thinks I am grown. She forgets that I was one-and-twenty when we last met. That does not leave much margin for growing, unless a man went on getting taller indefinitely, like Lord Southminster's palms. He had to take the roof off his palm-house last year, you know. What a dreadful thing if I were to become a Norfolk giant—giants are indigenous to Norfolk, aren't they?—and were obliged to take the roof off Briarwood. Have you seen the Duchess?"
"Only in the distance. I hardly know her at all, you know."
"That's absurd. You ought to know her very well. You must be quite intimate with her by-and-by, when we are all settled down as steady-going married people."
The little gloved hand on his arm quivered ever so slightly. This was a distinct allusion to his approaching marriage.
"Lovely room, isn't it? Just the right thing for a ball. How do you like the Rubens? Very grand—a magnificent display of carmines—beautiful, if you are an admirer of Rubens. What a draughtsman! The Italian school rarely achieved that freedom of pencil. Isn't that Greuze enchanting? There is an innocence, a freshness, about his girlish faces that nobody has ever equalled. His women are not Madonnas, or Junos, or Helens—they are the incarnation of girlhood; girlhood without care or thought; girlhood in love with a kitten, or weeping over a wounded robin-redbreast."
How abominably he rattled on. Was it the overflow of joyous spirits? No doubt. He was so pleased with life and fate, that he was obliged to give vent to his exuberance in this gush of commonplace.
"You remind me of Miss Bates, in Jane Austen's 'Emma,'" said Vixen, laughing.
The band struck up "Trauriges Herz," a waltz like a wail, but with a fine swing in it.
"Now for the old three-time," said Roderick; and the next minute they were sailing smoothly over the polished floor, with all the fair pictured faces, the crimson draperies, the pensive Madonnas, Dutch boors, Italian temples, and hills, and skies, circling round them like the figures in a kaleidoscope.
"Do you remember our boy-and-girl waltzes in the hall at the Abbey House?" asked Rorie.
Happily for Vixen her face was so turned that he could not see the quiver on her lips, the sudden look of absolute pain that paled her cheeks.
"I am not likely to forget any part of my childhood," she answered gravely. "It was the one happy period of my life."
"You don't expect me to believe that the last two years have been altogether unhappy."
"You may believe what you like. You who knew my father, ought to know——"
"The dear Squire! do you think I am likely to undervalue him, or to forget your loss? No, Violet, no. But there are compensations. I heard of you at Brighton. You were very happy there, were you not?"
"I liked Brighton pretty well. And I had Arion there all the while. There are some capital rides on the Downs."
"Yes, and you had agreeable friends there."
"Yes, we knew a good many pleasant people, and went to a great many concerts. I heard all the good singers, and Madame Goddard ever so many times."
They went on till the end of the waltz, and then walked slowly round the room, glancing at the pictures as they went by. The Duchess was not in sight.
"Shall we go and look at the palms?" asked Roderick, when they came to the archway at the end of the gallery.
"If you like."
"This was the roof that had to be taken off, you know. It is a magnificent dome, but I daresay the palms will outgrow it within Lord Southminster's time."
It was like entering a jungle in the tropics; if one could fancy a jungle paved with encaustic tiles, and furnished with velvet-covered ottomans for the repose of weary sportsmen.
There was only a subdued light, from lamps thinly sprinkled among the ferns and flowers. There were four large groups of statuary, placed judiciously, and under the central dome there was a fountain, where, half hidden by a veil of glittering spray, Neptune was wooing Tyro, under the aspect of a river-god, amongst bulrushes, lilies, and water-plants.
Violet and her companion looked at the tropical plants, and admired, with a delightful ignorance of the merits of these specimens. The tall shafts and the thick tufts of huge leaves were not Vixen's idea of beauty.
"I like our beeches and oaks in the Forest ever so much better," she exclaimed.
"Everything in the Forest is dear," said Rorie.
Vixen felt, with a curious choking sensation, that this was a good opening for her to say something polite. She had always intended to congratulate him, in a straightforward sisterly way, upon his engagement to Lady Mabel.
"I am so glad to hear you say that," she began. "And how happy you must be to think that your fate is fixed here irrevocably; doubly fixed now; for you can have no interest to draw you away from us, as you might if you were to marry a stranger. Briarwood and Ashbourne united will make you the greatest among us."
"I don't highly value that kind of greatness, Violet—a mere question of acreage; but I am glad to think myself anchored for life on my native soil."
"And you will go into Parliament and legislate for us, and take care that we are not disforested. They have taken away too much already, with their horrid enclosures."
"The enclosures will make splendid pine-woods by-and-by."
"Yes, when we are all dead and gone."
"I don't know about Parliament. So long as my poor mother was living I had an incentive to turn senator, she was so eager for it. But now that she is gone, I don't feel strongly drawn that way. I suppose I shall settle down into the approved pattern of country squire: breed fat cattle—the aristocratic form of cruelty to animals—spend the best part of my income upon agricultural machinery, talk about guano, like the Duke, and lecture delinquents at quarter-sessions."
"But Lady Mabel will not allow that. She will be ambitious for you."
"I hope not. I can fancy no affliction greater than an ambitious wife. No. My poor mother left Mabel her orchids. Mabel will confine her ambition to orchids and literature. I believe she writes poetry, and some day she will be tempted to publish a small volume, I daresay. 'AEolian Echoes,' or 'Harp Strings,' or 'Broken Chords,' 'Consecutive Fifths,' or something of that kind."
"You believe!" exclaimed Vixen. "Surely you have read some of Lady Mabel's poetry, or heard it read. She must have read some of her verses to you."
"Never. She is too reserved, and I am too candid. It would be a dangerous experiment. I should inevitably say something rude. Mabel adores Shelley and Browning; she reads Greek, too. Her poetry is sure to be unintelligible, and I should expose my obtuseness of intellect. I couldn't even look as if I understood it."
"If I were Lady Mabel, I think under such circumstances I should leave off writing poetry."
"That would be quite absurd. Mabel has a hundred tastes which I do not share with her. She is devoted to her garden and hot-houses. I hardly know one flower from another, except the forest wildlings. She detests horses and dogs. I am never happier than when among them. She reads AEschylus as glibly as I can read a French newspaper. But she will make an admirable mistress for Briarwood. She has just that tranquil superiority which becomes the ruler of a large estate. You will see what cottages and schools we shall build. There will not be a weed in our allotment gardens, and our farm-labourers will get all the prizes at cottage flower-shows."
"You will hunt, of course?"
"Naturally; don't you know that I am to have the hounds next year? It was all arranged a few days ago. Poor Mabel was strongly opposed to the plan. She thought it was the first stage on the road to ruin; but I think I convinced her that it was the natural thing for the owner of Briarwood; and the Duke was warmly in favour of it."
"The dear old kennels!" said Vixen, "I have never seen them since—since I came home. I ride by the gate very often, but I have never had the courage to go inside. The hounds wouldn't know me now."
"You must renew your friendship with them. You will hunt, of course, next year?"
"No, I shall never hunt again!"
"Oh, nonsense; I hear that Captain Winstanley is a mighty Nimrod—quite a Leicestershire man. He will wish you to hunt."
"What can Captain Winstanley have to do with it?" asked Vixen, turning sharply upon him.
"A great deal, I should imagine, by next season."
"I haven't the least idea what you mean."
It was Roderick Vawdrey's turn to look astonished. He looked both surprised and angry.
"How fond young ladies are of making mysteries about these things," he exclaimed impatiently; "I suppose they think it enhances their importance. Have I made a mistake? Have my informants misled me? Is your engagement to Captain Winstanley not to be talked about yet—only an understood thing among your own particular friends? Let me at least be allowed the privilege of intimate friendship. Let me be among the first to congratulate you."
"What folly have you been listening to?" cried Vixen; "you, Roderick Vawdrey, my old play-fellow—almost an adopted brother—to know me so little."
"What could I know of you to prevent my believing what I was told? Was there anything strange in the idea that you should be engaged to Captain Winstanley? I heard that he was a universal favourite."
"And did you think that I should like a universal favourite?"
"Why should you not? It seemed credible enough, and my informant was positive; he saw you together at a picnic in Switzerland. It was looked upon as a settled thing by all your friends."
"By Captain Winstanley's friends, you mean. They may have looked upon it as a settled thing that he should marry someone with plenty of money, and they may have thought that my money would be as useful as anyone else's."
"Violet, are you mystifying me? are you trying to drive me crazy? or is this the simple truth?"
"It is the simple truth."
"You are not engaged to this man?—you never have been?—you don't care for him, never have cared for him?"
"Never, never, never, never!" said Violet, with unmistakable emphasis.
"Then I have been the most consummate——"
He did not finish his sentence, and Violet did not ask him to finish it. The ejaculation seemed involuntary. He sat staring at the palms, and said nothing for the next minute and a half, while Vixen unfurled her great black and gold fan, and looked at it admiringly, as if she had never seen it before.
"Do you really think those palms will break through the roof again in the present Lord Southminster's time?" Roderick inquired presently, with intense interest.
Vixen did not feel herself called upon to reply to a question so purely speculative.
"I think I had better go and look for mamma and Mrs. Scobel," she said; "they must have come back from the supper-room by this time."
Roderick rose and offered her his arm. She was surprised to see how pale he looked when they came out of the dusk into the brilliant light of the gallery. But in a heated room, and between two and three o'clock in the morning, a man may naturally be a little paler than usual.
Roderick took Violet straight to the end of the room, where his quick eye had espied Mrs. Tempest in her striking black and scarlet costume. He said nothing more about the Duchess or Lady Mabel; and, indeed, took Violet past the elder lady, who was sitting in one of the deep-set windows with Lady Southminster, without attempting to bring about any interchange of civilities.
"Captain Winstanley has been kind enough to go and look for the carriage, Violet," said Mrs. Tempest. "I told him we would join him in the vestibule directly I could find you. Where have you been all this time? You were not in the Lancers. Such a pretty set. Oh, here is Mrs. Scobel!" as the Vicar's wife approached them on her partner's arm, in a piteous state of dilapidation—not a bit of tulle putting left, and all her rosebuds crushed as flat as dandelions.
"Such a delightful set!" she exclaimed gaspingly.
"I'm afraid your dress has suffered," said her partner.
"Not in the least." protested Mrs. Scobel, with the fortitude of that ladylike martyr to a clumsy carver, celebrated by Sydney Smith, who, splashed from head to foot, and with rills of brown gravy trickling down her countenance, vowed that not a drop had reached her.
"This," says the reverend wit, "I esteem the highest triumph of civilisation."
"Your carriage will be the third," the captain told Mrs. Tempest, while Roderick was putting Violet's cloak round her in the vestibule; "there are a good many people leaving already."
Roderick went with them to the carriage door, and stayed in the porch till they were gone. The last object Vixen saw under the Southminster lamps was the pale grave face of her old playfellow.
He went straight from the porch to the supper-room, not to find himself a place at one of the snug little tables, but to go to the buffet and pour out a glass of brandy, which he drank at a draught. Yet, in a general way, there was no man more abstemious than Roderick Vawdrey.
A quarter of an hour afterwards he was waltzing with Lady Mabel—positively the last dance before their departure.
"Roderick," she said in an awe-stricken undertone, "I am going to say something very dreadful. Please forgive me in advance."
"Certainly," he said, with a somewhat apprehensive look.
"Just now, when you were talking to me, I fancied you had been drinking brandy."
"Absolute undiluted brandy!"
"Neat brandy, sometimes denominated 'short.'"
"Good heavens! were you ill?"
"I had had what people call 'a turn.'"
Where the Red King was slain.
May had come. The red glow of the beech-branches had changed to a tender green; the oaks were amber; the winding forest-paths, the deep inaccessible glades where the cattle led such a happy life, were blue with dog-violets and golden with primroses. Whitsuntide was close at hand, and good Mr. Scobel had given up his mind to church decoration, and the entertainment of his school-children with tea and buns in that delightful valley, where an iron monument, a little less artistic than a pillar post-office marks the spot where the Red King fell.
Vixen, though not particularly fond of school-feasts, had promised to assist at this one. It was not to be a stiff or ceremonious affair. There was to be no bevy of young ladies, oppressively attentive to their small charges, causing the children to drink scalding tea in a paroxysm of shyness. The whole thing was to be done in an easy and friendly manner; with no aid but that of the school-mistress and master. The magnates of the land were to have no part in the festival.
"The children enjoy themselves so much more when there are no finely-dressed people making believe to wait upon them," said Mrs. Scobel; "but I know they'll be delighted to have you, Violet. They positively adore you!"
"I'm sure I can't imagine why they should," answered Violet truthfully.
"Oh, but they do. They like to look at you. When you come into the school-room they're all in a flutter; and they point at you awfully, don't they, Miss Pierson?" said Mrs. Scobel, appealing to the school-mistress.
"Yes, ma'am. I can't cure them of pointing, do what I will."
"Oh, they are dear little children," exclaimed Violet, "and I don't care how much they point at me if they really like me. They make me such nice little bob-curtsies when I meet them in the Forest, and they all seem fond of Argus. I'm sure you have made them extremely polite, Miss Pierson. I shall be very pleased to come to your school-feast, Mrs. Scobel; and I'll tell our good old Trimmer to make no end of cakes."
"My dear Violet, pray don't think of putting Mrs. Trimmer to any trouble. Your dear mamma might be angry."
"Angry at my asking for some cakes for the school-children, after being papa's wife for seventeen years! That couldn't be."
The school-feast was fixed, three weeks in advance, for the Wednesday in Whitsun week, and during the interval there were many small meteorologists in Beechdale school intent upon the changes of the moon, and all those varied phenomena from which the rustic mind draws its auguries of coming weather. The very crowing of early village cocks was regarded suspiciously by the school children at this period; and even the harmless domestic pussy, sitting with his back to the fire, was deemed a cat of evil omen.
It happened that the appointed Wednesday was a day on which Mrs. Tempest had chosen to invite a few friends in a quiet way to her seven o'clock dinner; among the few Captain Winstanley, who had taken Mrs. Hawbuck's cottage for an extended period of three months. Mrs. Tempest had known all about the school-feast a fortnight before she gave her invitations, but had forgotten the date at the moment when she arranged her little dinner. Yet she felt offended that Violet should insist upon keeping her engagement to the Scobels.
"But, dear mamma, I am of no use to you at our parties," pleaded Vixen; "if I were at all necessary to your comfort I would give up the school-feast."
"My dear Violet, it is not my comfort I am considering; but I cannot help feeling annoyed that you should prefer to spend your evening with a herd of vulgar children—playing Oranges and Lemons, or Kiss in the Ring, or some other ridiculous game, and getting yourself into a most unbecoming perspiration—to a quiet home evening with a few friends."
"You see, mamma, I know our quiet home evenings with a few friends so well. I could tell you beforehand exactly what will happen, almost the very words people will say—how your jardinieres will be admired, and how the conversation will glance off from your ferns and pelargoniums to Lady Ellangowan's orchids, and then drift back to your old china; after which the ladies will begin to talk about dress, and the wickedness of giving seven guineas for a summer bonnet, as Mrs Jones, or Green, or Robinson has just done; from which their talk will glide insensibly to the iniquities of modern servants; and when those have been discussed exhaustively, one of the younger ladies will tell you the plot of the last novel she has had from Mudie's, with an infinite number of you knows and you sees, and then perhaps Captain Winstanley—he is coming, I suppose—will sing a French song, of which the company will understand about four words in every verse, and then you will show Mrs. Carteret your last piece of art needlework—"
"What nonsense you talk, Violet. However, if you prefer the children at Stony Cross to the society of your mother and your mother's friends, you must take your own way."
"And you will forgive me in advance, dear mamma?"
"My love, I have nothing to forgive. I only deplore a bent of mind which I can but think unladylike."
Vixen was glad to be let off with so brief a lecture. In her heart of hearts she was not at all sorry that her mother's friendly dinner should fall on a day which she had promised to spend elsewhere. It was a treat to escape the sameness of that polite entertainment. Yes, Captain Winstanley was to be there of course, and prolonged acquaintance had not lessened her dislike to that gentleman. She had seen him frequently during his residence at the Hawbuck cottage, not at her mother's house only, but at all the best houses in the neighbourhood. He had done nothing to offend her. He had been studiously polite; and that was all. Not by one word had he reminded Violet of that moonlight walk in the Pavilion garden; not by so much as a glance or a sigh had he hinted at a hidden passion. So far she could make no complaint against him. But the attrition of frequent intercourse did not wear off the sharp edge of her dislike.
Wednesday afternoon came, and any evil auguries that had been drawn from the noontide crowing of restless village cocks was set at naught, for the weather was peerless: a midsummer sky and golden sunlight shone upon all things; upon white-walled cottages and orchards, and gardens where the pure lilies were beginning to blow, upon the yellow-green oak leaves and deepening bloom of the beech, and the long straight roads cleaving the heart of the Forest.
Violet had arranged to drive Mr. and Mrs. Scobel in her pony-carriage. She was at the door of their snug little Vicarage at three o'clock; the vivacious Titmouse tossing his head and jingling his bit in a burst of pettishness at the aggravating behaviour of the flies.
Mrs. Scobel came fluttering out, with the Vicar behind her. Both carried baskets, and behind them came an old servant, who had been Mrs. Scobel's nurse, a woman with a figure like a hogshead of wine, and a funny little head at the top, carrying a third basket.
"The buns and bread have gone straight from the village," said the Vicar's wife. "How well you are looking, Violet. I hope dear Mrs. Tempest was not very angry at your coming with us."
"Dear Mrs. Tempest didn't care a straw," Vixen answered, laughing. "But she thinks me wanting in dignity for liking to have a romp with the school-children."
All the baskets were in by this time, and Titmouse was in a paroxysm of impatience; so Mr. and Mrs. Scobel seated themselves quickly, and Vixen gave her reins a little shake that meant Go, and off went the pony at a pace which was rather like running away.
The Vicar looked slightly uneasy.
"Does he always go as fast as this?" he inquired.
"Sometimes a good deal faster. He's an old fencer, you know, and hasn't forgotten his jumping days. But of course I don't let him jump with the carriage."
"I should think not," ejaculated the Vicar; "unless you wanted to commit murder and suicide. Don't you think you could make him go a little steadier? He's going rather like a dog with a tin kettle at his tail, and if the kettle were to tip over——"
"Oh, he'll settle down presently," said Vixen coolly. "I don't want to interfere with him; it makes him ill-tempered. And if he were to take to kicking——"
"If you'll pull him up, I think I'll get out and walk," said Mr. Scobel, the back of whose head was on a level with the circle which the pony's hoofs would have been likely to describe in the event of kicking.
"Oh, please don't!" cried Vixen. "If you do that I shall think you've no confidence in my driving."
She pulled Titmouse together, and coaxed him into an unobjectionable trot; a trot which travelled over the ground very fast, without giving the occupants of the carriage the uncomfortable sensation of sitting behind a pony intent on getting to the sharp edge of the horizon and throwing himself over.
They were going up a long hill. Halfway up they came to the gate of the kennels. Violet looked at it with a curious half-reluctant glance that expressed the keenest pain.
"Poor papa," she sighed. "He never seemed happier than when he used to take me to see the hounds."
"Mr. Vawdrey is to have them next year," said Mrs. Scobel. "That seems right and proper. He will be the biggest man in this part of the country when the Ashbourne and Briarwood estates are united. And the Duke cannot live very long—a man who gives his mind to eating and drinking, and is laid up with the gout twice a year."
"Do you know when they are to be married?" asked Vixen, with an unconcerned air.
"At the end of this year, I am told. Lady Jane died last November. They would hardly have the wedding before a twelvemonth was over. Have you seen much of Mr. Vawdrey since he came back?"
"I believe I have seen him three times: once at Lady Southminster's ball; once when he came to call upon mamma; once at kettledrum at Ellangowan, where he was in attendance upon Lady Mabel. He looked rather like a little dog at the end of a string; he had just that meekly-obedient look, combined with an expression of not wanting to be there, which you see in a dog. If I were engaged, I would not take my fiancee to kettledrums."
"Ah, Violet, when are you going to be engaged?" cried Mrs. Scobel, in a burst of playfulness. "Where is the man worthy of you?"
"Nowhere; unless Heaven would make me such a man as my father."
"You and Mr. Vawdrey were such friends when you were girl and boy. I used sometimes to fancy that childish friendship of yours would lead to a lasting attachment."
"Did you? That was a great mistake. I am not half good enough for Mr. Vawdrey. I was well enough for a playfellow, but he wants something much nearer perfection in a wife."
"But your tastes are so similar."
"The very reason we should not care for each other."
"'In joining contrasts lieth love's delight.' That's what a poet has said, yet I can't quite believe that, Violet."
"But you see the event proves the poet's axiom true. Here is my old playfellow, who cares for nothing but horses and hounds and a country life, devotedly attached to Lady Mabel Ashbourne, who reads Greek plays with as much enjoyment as other young ladies derive from a stirring novel, and who hasn't an idea or an attitude that is not strictly aesthetic."
"Do you know, Violet, I am very much afraid that this marriage is rather the result of calculation than of genuine affection?" said Mrs. Scobel solemnly.
"Oh, no doubt it will be a grand thing to unite Ashbourne and Briarwood, but Roderick Vawdrey is too honourable to marry a girl he could not love. I would never believe him capable of such baseness," answered Violet, standing up for her old friend.
Here they turned out of the Forest and drove through a peaceful colony consisting of half-a-dozen cottages, a rustic inn where reigned a supreme silence and sleepiness, and two or three houses in old-world gardens.
Vixen changed the conversation to buns and school-children, which agreeable theme occupied them till Titmouse had walked up a tremendously steep hill, the Vicar trudging through the dust beside him; and then the deep green vale in which Rufus was slain lay smiling in the sunshine below their feet.
Perhaps the panorama to be seen from the top of that hill is absolutely the finest in the Forest—a vast champaign, stretching far away to the white walls, tiled roofs, and ancient abbey-church of Romsey; here a glimpse of winding water, there a humble village—nameless save for its inhabitants—nestling among the trees, or basking in the broad sunshine of a common.
At the top of the hill, Bates, the gray-headed groom, who had attended Violet ever since her first pony-ride, took possession of Titmouse and the chaise, while the baskets were handed over to a lad, who had been on the watch for their arrival. Then they all went down the steep path into the valley, at the bottom of which the children were swarming in a cluster, as thick as bees, while a pale flame and a cloud of white smoke went up from the midst of them like the fire beneath a sacrifice. This indicated the boiling of the kettle, in true gipsy fashion.
For the next hour and a half tea-drinking was the all-absorbing business with everybody. The boiling of the kettle was a grand feature in the entertainment. Cups and saucers were provided by a little colony of civilised gipsies, who seem indigenous to the spot, and whose summer life is devoted to assisting at picnics and tea-drinkings, telling fortunes, and selling photographs. White cloths were spread upon the short sweet turf, and piles of bread-and-butter, cake and buns, invited the attention of the flies.
Presently arose the thrilling melody of a choral grace, with the sweet embellishment of a strong Hampshire accent. And then, with a swoop as of eagles on their quarry, the school-children came down upon the mountains of bread-and-butter, and ate their way manfully to the buns and cake.
Violet had never been happier since her return to Hampshire than she felt that sunny afternoon, as she moved quickly about, ministering to these juvenile devourers. The sight of their somewhat bovine contentment took her thoughts away from her own cares and losses; and presently, when the banquet was concluded—a conclusion only arrived at by the total consumption of everything provided, whereby the hungry-eyed gipsy attendants sunk into despondency—Vixen constituted herself Lord of Misrule, and led off a noisy procession in the time-honoured game of Oranges and Lemons, which entertainment continued till the school-children were in a high fever. After this they had Kiss in the Ring; Vixen only stipulating, before she began, that nobody should presume to drop the handkerchief before her. Then came Touchwood—a game charmingly adapted to that wooded valley, where the trees looked as if they had been planted at convenient distances on purpose for this juvenile sport.
"Oh, I am so tired," cried Violet at last, when church clocks—all out of earshot in this deep valley—were striking eight, and the low sun was golden on the silvery beech-boles, and the quiet half-hidden water-pools under the trees yonder; "I really don't think I can have anything to do with the next game."
"Oh, if you please, miss," cried twenty shrill young voices, "oh, if you please, miss, we couldn't play without you—you're the best on us!"
This soothing flattery had its effect.
"Oh, but I really don't think I can do more than start you," sighed Vixen, flushed and breathless, "what is it to be?"
"Blindman's Buff," roared the boys.
"Hunt the Slipper," screamed the girls.
"Oh, Blindman's Buff is best," said Vixen. "This little wood is a splendid place for Blindman's Buff. But mind, I shall only start you. Now then, who's to be Blindman?"
Mr. Scobel volunteered. He had been a tranquil spectator of the sports hitherto; but this was the last game, and he felt that he ought to do something more than look on. Vixen blindfolded him, asked him the usual question about his father's stable, and then sent him spinning amongst the moss-grown beeches, groping his way fearfully, with outstretched arms, amidst shrillest laughter and noisest delight.
He was not long blindfold, and had not had many bumps against the trees before he impounded the person of a fat and scant-of-breath scholar, a girl whose hard breathing would have betrayed her neighbourhood to the dullest ear.
"That's Polly Sims, I know," said the Vicar.
It was Polly Sims, who was incontinently made as blind as Fortune or Justice, or any other of the deities who dispense benefits to man. Polly floundered about among the trees for a long time, making frantic efforts to catch the empty air, panting like a human steam-engine, and nearly knocking out what small amount of brains she might possess against the gray branches, outstretched like the lean arms of Macbeth's weird women across her path. Finally Polly Sims succeeded in catching Bobby Jones, whom she clutched with the tenacity of an octopus; and then came the reign of Bobby Jones, who was an expert at the game, and who kept the whole party on the qui vive by his serpentine windings and twistings among the stout old trunks.
Presently there was a shrill yell of triumph. Bobby had caught Miss Tempest.
"I know'd her by her musling gownd, and the sweet-smelling stuff upon her pocket-handkercher," he roared.
Violet submitted with a good grace.
"I'm dreadfully tired," she said, "and I'm sure I shan't catch anyone."
The sun had been getting lower and lower. There were splashes of ruddy light on the smooth gray beech-boles, and that was all. Soon these would fade, and all would be gloom. The grove had an awful look already. One would expect to meet some ghostly Druid, or some witch of eld, among the shadowy tracks left by the forest wildings. Vixen went about her work languidly. She was really tired, and was glad to think her day's labours were over. She went slowly in and out among the trees, feeling her way with outstretched arms, her feet sinking sometimes into deep drifts of last year's leaves, or gliding noiselessly over the moss. The air was soft and cool and dewy, with a perfume of nameless wild flowers—a faint aromatic odour of herbs, which the wise women had gathered for medicinal uses in days of old, when your village sorceress was your safest doctor. Everywhere there was the hush and coolness of fast-coming night. The children's voices were stilled. This last stage of the game was a thing of breathless interest.
Vixen's footsteps drifted lower down into the wooded hollow; insensibly she was coming towards the edge of the treacherously green bog which has brought many a bold rider to grief in these districts, and still she had caught no one. She began to think that she had roamed ever so far away, and was in danger of losing herself altogether, or at least losing everybody else, and being left by herself in the forest darkness. The grassy hollow in which she was wandering had an atmosphere of solitude.
She was on the point of taking off the handkerchief that Mr. Scobel had bound so effectually across her eyes, when her outstretched hands clasped something—a substantial figure, distinctly human, clad in rough cloth.
Before she had time to think who it was she had captured, a pair of strong arms clasped her; she was drawn to a broad chest; she felt a heart beating strong and fast against her shoulder, while lips that seemed too familiar to offend kissed hers with all the passion of a lover's kiss.
"Don't be angry," said a well-known voice; "I believe it's the rule of the game. If it isn't I'm sure it ought to be."
A hand, at once strong and gentle, took off the handkerchief, and in the soft woodland twilight she looked up at Roderick Vawdrey's face, looking down upon her with an expression which she presumed must mean a brotherly friendliness—the delight of an old friend at seeing her after a long interval.
She was not the less angry at that outrageous unwarrantable kiss.
"It is not the rule of the game amongst civilised people; though it possibly may be among plough-boys and servant-maids!" she exclaimed indignantly. "You are really a most ungentlemanlike person! I wonder Lady Mabel Ashbourne has not taught you better manners."
"Is that to be my only reward for saving you from plunging—at least ankle-deep—in the marshy ground yonder? But for me you would have been performing a boggy version of Ophelia by this time."
"How did you come here?"
"I have been to Langley Brook for a day's fly-fishing, and was tramping home across country in a savage humour at my poor sport, when I heard the chatter of small voices, and presently came upon the Scobels and the school-children. The juveniles were in a state of alarm at having lost you. They had been playing the game in severe silence, and at a turn in the grove missed you altogether. Oh, here comes Scobel, with his trencher on the back of his head."
The Vicar came forward, rejoicing at sight of Violet's white gown.
"My dear, what a turn you have given us!" he cried; "those silly children, to let you out of their sight! I don't think a wood is a good place for Blindman's Buff."
"No more do I," answered Vixen, very pale.
"You look as if you had been frightened, too," said the Vicar.
"It did feel awfully lonely; not a sound, except the frogs croaking their vespers, and one dismal owl screaming in the distance. And how cold it has turned now the sun has gone down; and how ghostly the beeches look in their green mantles; there is something awful in a wood at sunset."
She ran on in an excited tone, masking her agitation under an unnatural vivacity. Roderick watched her keenly. Mr. and Mrs. Scobel went back to their business of getting the children together, and the pots, pans, and baskets packed for the return-journey. The children were inclined to be noisy and insubordinate. They would have liked to make a night of it in this woody hollow, or in the gorse-clothed heights up yonder by Stony Cross. To home after such a festival, and be herded in small stuffy cottages, was doubtless trying to free-born humanity, always more or less envious of the gipsies.
"Shall we walk up the hill together?" Roderick asked Violet humbly, "while the Scobels follow with their flock?"
"I am going to drive Mr. and Mrs. Scobel," replied Vixen curtly.
"But here is your carriage?"
"I don t know. I rather think it was to meet us at the top of the hill."
"Then let us go up together and find it—unless you hate me too much to endure my company for a quarter of an hour—or are too angry with me for my impertinence just now."
"It is not worth being serious about," answered Vixen quietly, after a little pause. "I was very angry at the moment, but after all—between you and me—who were like brother and sister a few years ago, it can't matter very much. I daresay you may have kissed me in those days, though I have forgotten all about it."
"I think I did—once or twice," admitted Rorie with laudable gravity.
"Then let your impertinence just now go down to the old account, which we will close, if you please, to-night. But," seeing him drawing nearer her with a sudden eagerness, "mind, it is never to be repeated. I could not forgive that."
"I would do much to escape your anger," said Rorie softly.
"The whole situation just now was too ridiculous," pursued Vixen, with a spurious hilarity. "A young woman wandering blindfold in a wood all alone—it must have seemed very absurd."
"It seemed very far from absurd—to me," said Rorie.
They were going slowly up the grassy hill, the short scanty herbage looking gray in the dimness. Glow-worms were beginning to shine here and there at the foot of the furze-bushes. A pale moon was rising above the broad expanse of wood and valley, which sank with gentle undulations to the distant plains, where the young corn was growing and the cattle were grazing in a sober agricultural district. Here all was wild and beautiful—rich, yet barren.
"I'm afraid when we met last—at Lady Southminster's ball—that I forgot to congratulate you upon your engagement to your cousin," said Violet by-and-by, when they had walked a little way in perfect silence.
She was trying to carry out an old determination. She had always meant to go up to him frankly, with outstretched hand, and wish him joy. And she fancied that at the ball she had said too little. She had not let him understand that she was really glad. "Believe me, I am very glad that you should marry someone close at home—that you should widen your influence among us."
"You are very kind," answered Rorie, with exceeding coldness. "I suppose all such engagements are subjects for congratulation, from a conventional point of view. My future wife is both amiable and accomplished, as you know. I have reason to be very proud that she has done me so great an honour as to prefer me to many worthier suitors; but I am bound to tell you—as we once before spoke of this subject, at the time of your dear father's death, and I then expressed myself somewhat strongly—I am bound to tell you that my engagement to Mabel was made to please my poor mother. It was when we were all in Italy together. My mother was dying. Mabel's goodness and devotion to her had been beyond all praise; and my heart was drawn to her by affection, by gratitude; and I knew that it would make poor mother happy to see us irrevocably bound to each other—and so—the thing came about somehow, almost unawares, and I have every reason to be proud and happy that fate should have favoured me so far above my deserts."
"I am very glad that you are happy," said Violet gently.
After this there was a silence which lasted longer than the previous interval in their talk. They were at the top of the ill before either of them spoke.
Then Vixen laid her hand lightly upon her old playfellow's arm, and said, with extreme earnestness:
"You will go into Parliament by-and-by, no doubt, and have great influence. Do not let them spoil the Forest. Do not let horrid grinding-down economists, for the sake of saving a few pounds or gaining a few pounds, alter and destroy scenes that are so beautiful and a delight to so many. England is a rich country, is she not? Surely she can afford to keep something for her painters and her poets, and even for the humble holiday-folks who come to drink tea at Rufus's stone. Don't let our Forest be altered, Rorie. Let all things be as they were when we were children."
"All that my voice and influence can do to keep them so shall be done, Violet," he answered in tones as earnest. "I am glad that you have asked me something to-night. I am glad, with all my heart, that you have given me something to do for you. It shall be like a badge in my helmet, by-and-by, when I enter the lists. I think I shall say: 'For God and for Violet,' when I run a tilt against the economic devastators who want to clear our woods and cut off our commoners."
He bent down and kissed her hand, as in token of knightly allegiance. He had just time to do it comfortably before Mr. and Mrs. Scobel, with the children and their master and mistress, came marching up the hill, singing, with shrill glad voices, one of the harvest-home processional hymns.
"All good gifts around us Are sent from heaven above, Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord, For all His love."
"What a delicious night!" cried Mr. Scobel. "I think we ought all to walk home. It would be much nicer than being driven."
This he said with a lively recollection of Titmouse's performances on the journey out, and a lurking dread that he might behave a little worse on the journey home. A lively animal of that kind, going home to his stable, through the uncertain lights and shadows of woodland roads, and driven by such a charioteer as Violet Tempest, was not to be thought of without a shudder.
"I think I had better walk, in any case," said Mr. Scobel thoughtfully. "I shall be wanted to keep the children together."
"Let us all walk home," suggested Roderick. "We can go through the plantations. It will be very jolly in the moonlight. Bates can drive your pony back, Violet."
"It's not more than four miles through the plantations," said Roderick.
"Do you think I am afraid of a long walk?"
"Of course not. You were a modern Atalanta three years ago. I don't suppose a winter in Paris and a season at Brighton have quite spoiled you."
"It shall be as you like, Mrs. Scobel," said Vixen, appealing to the Vicar's wife.
"Oh, let us walk by all means," replied Mrs. Scobel, divining her husband's feelings with respect to Titmouse.
"Then, you may drive the pony home, Bates," said Violet; "and be sure you give him a good supper."
Titmouse went rattling down the hill at a pace that almost justified the Vicar's objection to him. He gave a desperate shy in the hollow at sight of a shaggy donkey, with a swollen appearance about the head, suggestive, to the equine mind, of hobgoblins. Convulsed at this appalling spectre. Titmouse stood on end for a second or two, and then tore violently off, swinging his carriage behind him, so that the groom's figure swayed to and fro in the moonlight.
"Thank God we're not sitting behind that brute!" ejaculated the Vicar devoutly.
The pedestrians went off in the other direction, along the brow of the hill, by a long white road that crossed a wide sweep of heathy country, brown ridges and dark hollows, distant groups of firs standing black against the moonlit sky, here and there a solitary yew that looked as if it were haunted—just such a landscape as that Scottish heath upon which Macbeth met the three weird women at set of sun, when the battle was lost and won. Vixen and Rorie led the way; the procession of school-children followed, singing hymns as they went with a vocal power that gave no token of diminution.
"Their singing is very melodious when the sharp edge is taken off by distance," said Rorie; and he and Violet walked at a pace which soon left the children a good way behind them.
Mellowed by a quarter of a mile or so of interesting space, the music lent a charm to the tranquil, perfumed night.
By-and-by they came to the gate of an enclosure which covered a large extent of ground, and through which there was a near way to Beechdale and the Abbey House. They walked along a grassy track through a plantation of young pines—a track which led them down into a green and mossy bottom, where the trees were old and beautiful, and the shadows fell darker. The tall beech-trunks shone like silver, or like wonderful frozen trees in some region of eternal ice and snow. It was a wilderness in which a stranger would incontinently lose himself; but every foot of the way was familiar to Vixen and Rorie. They had followed the hounds by these green ways, and ridden and rambled here in all seasons.
For some time they walked almost in silence, enjoying the beauty of the night, the stillness only broken by the distant chorus of children singing their pious strains—old hymn-tunes that Violet had known and loved all her life.
"Doesn't it almost seem as if our old childish days had come back?" said Roderick by-and-by. "Don't you feel as if you were a little girl again, Vixen, going for a ramble with me—fern-hunting or primrose-gathering?"
"No," answered Vixen firmly. "Nothing can ever bring the past back for me. I shall never forget that I had a father—the best and dearest—and that I have lost him."
"Dear Violet," Roderick began, very gently, "life cannot be made up of mourning for the dead. We may keep their images enshrined in our hearts for ever, but we must not shut our youth from the sunshine. Think how few years of youth God gives us; and if we waste those upon vain sorrow——"
"No one can say that I have wasted my youth, or shut myself from the sunshine. I go to kettle-drums and dancing-parties. My mother and I have taken pains to let the world see how happy we can be without papa."
"The dear old Squire!" said Rorie tenderly; "I think he loved me."
"I am sure he did," answered Vixen.
"Well, you and I seem to have entered upon a new life since last we rode through these woods together. I daresay you are right, and that it is not possible to fancy oneself back in the past, even for a moment. Consciousness of the present hangs so heavily upon us."
"Yes," assented Vixen.
They had come to the end of the enclosure, and stood leaning against a gate, waiting for the arrival of the children.
"And after all, perhaps, it is better to live in the present, and look back at the past, as at an old picture which we shall sooner or later turn with its face to the wall."
"I like best to think of my old self as if it were someone else," said Violet. "I know there was a little girl whom her father called Vixen, who used to ride after the hounds, and roam about the Forest on her pony; and who was herself almost as wild as the Forest ponies. But I can't associate her with this present me," concluded Violet, pointing to herself with a half-scornful gesture.
"And which is the better, do you think," asked Rorie, "the wild Violet of the past, or the elegant exotic of the present?"
"I know which was the happier."
"Ah," sighed Rorie, "happiness is a habit we outgrow when we get out of our teens. But you, at nineteen, ought to have a year or so to the good."
The children came in sight, tramping along the rutty green walk, singing lustily, Mr. Scobel walking at their head, and swinging his stick in time with the tuneful choir.
"He only is the Maker Of all things near and far; He paints the wayside flower, He lights the evening star."
END OF VOL. I.
PRINTING OFFICE OF THE PUBLISHER.
Transcriber's note: Typographical errors silently corrected:
volume 1 XI. "It shall be Measure for Measure replaced by XI. "It shall be Measure for Measure"
volume 1 chapter 1: trainante replaced by trainante
volume 1 chapter 4: I I shan't be for two years replaced by I shan't be for two years
volume 1 chapter 12: with the orchid? replaced by with the orchid.
volume 1 chapter 12: hade made him sleepy replaced by had made him sleepy
volume 1 chapter 13: cat species. replaced by cat species."
volume 1 chapter 15: Les Traineaux replaced by Les Traineaux
volume 1 chapter 17: children together. replaced by children together."