The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 1

The Articled Pupil.

‘Where is Miss Palliser?’ inquired Miss Pew, in that awful voice of hers, at which the class-room trembled, as at unexpected thunder. A murmur ran along the desks, from girl to girl, and then some one, near that end of the long room which was sacred to Miss Pew and her lieutenants, said that Miss Palliser was not in the class-room.

‘I think she is taking her music lesson, ma’am,’ faltered the girl who had ventured diffidently to impart this information to the schoolmistress.

‘Think?’ exclaimed Miss Pew, in her stentorian voice. ‘How can you think about an absolute fact? Either she is taking her lesson, or she is not taking her lesson. There is no room for thought. Let Miss Palliser be sent for this moment.’

At this command, as at the behest of the Homeric Jove himself, half a dozen Irises started up to carry the ruler’s message; but again Miss Pew’s mighty tones resounded in the echoing class-room.

‘I don’t want twenty girls to carry one message. Let Miss Rylance go.’

There was a grim smile on the principal’s coarsely-featured countenance as she gave this order. Miss Rylance was not one of the six who had started up to do the schoolmistress’s bidding. She was a young lady who considered her mission in life anything rather than to carry a message — a young lady who thought herself quite the most refined and elegant thing at Mauleverer Manor, and so entirely superior to her surroundings as to be absolved from the necessity of being obliging. But Miss Pew’s voice, when fortified by anger, was too much even for Miss Rylance’s calm sense of her own merits, and she rose at the lady’s bidding, laid down her ivory penholder on the neatly written exercise, and walked out of the room quietly, with the slow and stately deportment imparted by a long course of instruction from Madame Rigolette, the fashionable dancing-mistress.

‘Rylance won’t much like being sent on a message,’ whispered Miss Cobb, the Kentish brewer’s daughter, to Miss Mullins, the Northampton carriage-builder’s heiress.

‘And old Pew delights in taking her down a peg,’ said Miss Cobb, who was short, plump, and ruddy, a picture of rude health and unrefined good looks — a girl who bore ‘beer’ written in unmistakable characters across her forehead, Miss Rylance had observed to her own particular circle. ‘I will say that for the old lady,’ added Miss Cobb, ‘she never cottons to stuckupishness.’

Vulgarity of speech is the peculiar delight of a schoolgirl off duty. She spends so much of her life under the all-pervading eye of authority, she is so drilled, and lectured, and ruled and regulated, that, when the eye of authority is off her, she seems naturally to degenerate into licence. No speech so interwoven with slang as the speech of a schoolgirl — except that of a schoolboy.

There came a sudden hush upon the class-room after Miss Rylance had departed on her errand. It was a sultry afternoon in late June, and the four rows of girls seated at the two long desks in the long bare room, with its four tall windows facing a hot blue sky, felt almost as exhausted by the heat as if they had been placed under an air-pump. Miss Pew had a horror of draughts, so the upper sashes were only lowered a couple of inches, to let out the used atmosphere. There was no chance of a gentle west wind blowing in to ruffle the loose hair upon the foreheads of those weary students.

Thursday afternoons were devoted to the study of German. The sandy-haired young woman at the end of the room furthest from Miss Pew’s throne was Fräulein Wolf, from Frankfort, and it was Fräulein Wolf’s mission to go on eternally explaining the difficulties of her native language to the pupils at Mauleverer Manor, and to correct those interesting exercises of Ollendorff’s which ascend from the primitive simplicity of golden candlesticks and bakers’ dogs, to the loftiest themes in romantic literature.

For five minutes there was no sound save the scratching of pens, and the placid voice of the Fräulein demonstrating to Miss Mullins that in an exercise of twenty lines, ten words out of every twenty were wrong, and then the door was opened suddenly — not at all in the manner so carefully instilled by the teacher of deportment. It was flung back, rather, as if with an angry hand, and a young woman, taller than the generality of her sex, walked quickly up the room to Miss Pew’s desk, and stood before that bar of justice, with head erect, and dark flashing eyes, the incarnation of defiance.

’Was für ein Mädchen.‘ muttered the Fräulein, blinking at that distant figure, with her pale gray-green eyes.

Miss Pew pretended not to see the challenge in the girl’s angry eyes. She turned to her subordinate, Miss Pillby, the useful drudge who did a little indifferent teaching in English grammar and geography, looked after the younger girls’ wardrobes, and toadied the mistress of the house.

‘Miss Pillby, will you be kind enough to show Ida Palliser the state of her desk?’ asked Miss Pew, with awe-inspiring politeness.

‘She needn’t do anything of the kind, ‘said Ida coolly. ‘I know the state of my desk quite as well as she does. I daresay it’s untidy. I haven’t had time to put things straight.’

‘Untidy!’ exclaimed Miss Pew, in her appalling baritone; ‘untidy is not the word. It’s degrading. Miss Pillby, be good enough to call over the various articles which you have found in Ida Palliser’s desk.’

Miss Pillby rose to do her employer’s bidding. She was a dull piece of human machinery to which the idea of resistance to authority was impossible. There was no dirty work she would not have done meekly, willingly even, at Miss Pew’s bidding. The girls were never tired of expatiating upon Miss Pillby’s meanness; but the lady herself did not even know that she was mean. She had been born so.

She went to the locker, lifted the wooden lid, and proceeded in a flat, drawling voice to call over the items which she found in that receptacle.

‘A novel, “The Children of the Abbey,” without a cover.’

‘Ah!’ sighed Miss Pew.

‘One stocking with a rusty darning-needle sticking in it. Five apples, two mouldy. A square of hardbake. An old neck-ribbon. An odd cuff. Seven letters. A knife, with the blade broken. A bundle of pen-and-ink — well, I suppose they are meant for sketches.’

‘Hand them over to me,’ commanded Miss Pew.

She had seen some of Ida Palliser’s pen-and-ink sketches before to-day — had seen herself represented in every ridiculous guise and attitude by that young person’s facile pen. Her large cheeks reddened in anticipation of her pupil’s insolence. She took the sheaf of crumpled paper and thrust it hastily into her pocket.

A ripple of laughter swept over Miss Palliser’s resolute face; but she said not a word.

‘Half a New Testament — the margins shamefully scribbled over,’ pursued Miss Pillby, with implacable monotony. ‘Three Brazil nuts. A piece of slate-pencil. The photograph of a little boy —’

‘My brother,’ cried Ida hastily. ‘I hope you are not going to confiscate that, Miss Pew, as you have confiscated my sketches.’

‘It would be no more than you deserve if I were to burn everything in your locker, Miss Palliser,’ said the schoolmistress.

‘Burn everything except my brother’s portrait. I might never get another. Papa is so thoughtless. Oh, please, Miss Pillby, give me back the photo.’

‘Give her the photograph,’ said Miss Pew, who was not all inhuman, although she kept a school, a hardening process which is supposed to deaden the instincts of womanhood. ‘And now, pray, Miss Palliser, what excuse have you to offer for your untidiness?’

‘None,’ said Ida, ‘except that I have no time to be tidy. You can’t expect tidiness from a drudge like me.’

And with this cool retort Miss Palliser turned her back upon her mistress and left the room.

‘Did you ever see such cheek?’ murmured the irrepressible Miss Cobb to her neighbour.

‘She can afford to be cheeky,’ retorted the neighbour. ‘She has nothing to lose. Old Pew couldn’t possibly treat her any worse than she does. If she did, it would be a police case.’

When Ida Palliser was in the little lobby outside the class room, she took the little boy’s photograph from her pocket, and kissed it passionately. Then she ran upstairs to a small room on the landing, where there was nothing but emptiness and a worn-out old square piano, and sat down for her hour’s practice. She was always told off to the worst pianos in the house. She took out a book of five-finger exercises, by a Leipsic professor, placed it on the desk, and then, just as she was beginning to play, her whole frame was shaken like a bulrush in a sudden gust of wind; she let her head fall forward on the desk, and burst into tears, hot, passionate tears, that came like a flood, in spite of her determination not to cry.

What was the matter with Ida Palliser? Not much, perhaps. Only poverty, and poverty’s natural corollary, a lack of friends. She was the handsomest girl in the school, and one of the cleverest — clever in an exceptional way, which claimed admiration even from the coldest. She occupied the anomalous position of a pupil teacher, or an articled pupil. Her father, a military man, living abroad on his half pay, with a young second wife, and a five-year old son, had paid Miss Pew a lump sum of fifty pounds, and for those fifty pounds Miss Pew had agreed to maintain and educate Ida Palliser during the space of three years, to give her the benefit of instruction from the masters who attended the school, and to befit her for the brilliant and lucrative career of governess in a gentleman’s family. As a set-off against these advantages, Miss Pew had full liberty to exact what services she pleased from Miss Palliser, stopping short, as Miss Green had suggested, of a police case.

Miss Pew had not shown herself narrow in her ideas of the articled pupil’s capacity. It was her theory that no amount of intellectual labour, including some manual duties in the way of assisting in the lavatory on tub-nights, washing hair-brushes, and mending clothes, could be too much for a healthy young woman of nineteen. She always talked of Ida as a young woman. The other pupils of the same age she called girls; but of Ida she spoke uncompromisingly as a ‘young woman.’

‘Oh, how I hate them all!’ said Ida, in the midst of her sobs. ‘I hate everybody, myself most of all!’

Then she pulled herself together with an effort, dried her tears hurriedly, and began her five-finger exercises, tum, tum, tum, with the little finger, all the other fingers pinned resolutely down upon the keys.

‘I wonder whether, if I had been ugly and stupid, they would have been a little more merciful to me?’ she said to herself.

Miss Palliser’s ability had been a disadvantage to her at Mauleverer Manor. When Miss Pew discovered that the girl had a knack of teaching she enlarged her sphere of tuition, and from taking the lowest class only, as former articled pupils had done, Miss Palliser was allowed to preside over the second and third classes, and thereby saved her employers forty pounds a year.

To teach two classes, each consisting of from fifteen to twenty girls, was in itself no trifling labour. But besides this Ida had to give music lessons to that lowest class which she had ceased to instruct in English and French, and whose studies were now conducted by Miss Pillby. She had her own studies, and she was eager to improve herself, for that career of governess in a gentleman’s family was the only future open to her. She used to read the advertisements in the governess column of the Times supplement, and it comforted her to see that an all-accomplished teacher demanded from eighty to a hundred a year for her services. A hundred a year was Ida’s idea of illimitable wealth. How much she might do with such a sum! She could dress herself handsomely, she could save enough money for a summer holiday in Normandy with her neglectful father and her weak little vulgar step-mother, and the half-brother, whom she loved better than anyone else in the world.

The thought of this avenue to fortune gave her fortitude. She braced herself up, and set herself valourously to unriddle the perplexities of a nocturne by Chopin.

‘After all I have only to work on steadily,’ she told herself; ‘there will come an end to my slavery.’

Presently she began to laugh to herself softly:

‘I wonder whether old Pew has looked at my caricatures,’ she thought, ‘and whether she’ll treat me any worse on account of them?’

She finished her hour’s practice, put her music back into her portfolio, which lived in an ancient canterbury under the ancient piano, and went to the room where she slept, in company with seven other spirits, as mischievous and altogether evilly disposed as her own.

Mauleverer Manor had not been built for a school, or it would hardly have been called a manor. There were none of those bleak, bare dormitories, specially planned for the accommodation of thirty sleepers — none of those barrack-like rooms which strike desolation to the soul. With the exception of the large classroom which had been added at one end of the house, the manor was very much as it had been in the days of the Mauleverers, a race now as extinct as the Dodo. It was a roomy, rambling old house of the time of the Stuarts, and bore the date of its erection in many unmistakable peculiarities. There were fine rooms on the ground floor, with handsome chimney-pieces and oak panelling. There were small low rooms above, curious old passages, turns and twists, a short flight of steps here, and another flight there, various levels, irregularities of all kinds, and, in the opinion of every servant who had ever lived in the house, an unimpeachable ghost. All Miss Pew’s young ladies believed firmly in that ghost; and there was a legend of a frizzy-haired girl from Barbados who had seen the ghost, and had incontinently gone out of one epileptic fit into another, until her father had come in a fly — presumably from Barbados — and carried her away for ever, epileptic to the last.

Nobody at present located at Mauleverer Manor remembered that young lady from Barbados, nor had any of the existing pupils ever seen the ghost. But the general faith in him was unshaken. He was described as an elderly man in a snuff-coloured, square-cut coat, knee-breeches, and silk stockings rolled up over his knees. He was supposed to be one of the extinct Mauleverers; harmless and even benevolently disposed; given to plucking flowers in the garden at dusk; and to gliding along passages, and loitering on the stairs in a somewhat inane manner. The bolder-spirited among the girls would have given a twelve-month’s pocket money to see him. Miss Pillby declared that the sight of that snuff-coloured stranger would be her death.

‘I’ve a weak ‘art, you know,’ said Miss Pillby, who was not mistress of her aspirates — she managed them sometimes, but they often evaded her — ‘the doctor said so when I was quite a little thing.’

‘Were you ever a little thing, Pillby?’ asked Miss Rylance with superb disdain, the present Pillby being long and gaunt.

And the group of listeners laughed, with that frank laughter of school girls keenly alive to the ridiculous in other people. There was as much difference in the standing of the various bedrooms at Mauleverer Manor as in that of the London squares, but in this case it was the inhabitants who gave character to the locality. The five-bedded room off the front landing was occupied by the stiffest and best behaved of the first division, and might be ranked with Grosvenor Square or Lancaster Gate. There were rooms on the second floor where girls of the second and third division herded in inelegant obscurity, the Bloomsbury and Camden Town of the mansion. On this story, too, slept the rabble of girls under twelve — creatures utterly despicable in the minds of girls in their teens, and the rooms they inhabited ranked as low as St. Giles’s.

Ida Palliser was fortunate enough to have a bed in the butterfly-room, so called on account of a gaudy wall paper, whereon Camberwell Beauties disported themselves among roses and lilies in a strictly conventional style of art. The butterfly-room was the most fashionable and altogether popular dormitory at the Manor. It was the May Fair — a district not without a shade of Bohemianism, a certain fastness of tone. The wildest girls in the school were to be found in the butterfly-room.

It was a pleasant enough room in itself, even apart from its association with pleasant people. The bow window looked out upon the garden and across the garden to the Thames, which at this point took a wide curve between banks shaded by old pollard willows. The landscape was purely pastoral. Beyond the level meadows came an undulating line of low hill and woodland, with here and there a village spire dark against the blue.

Mauleverer Manor lay midway between Hampton and Chertsey, in a land of meadows and gardens which the speculating builder had not yet invaded.

The butterfly-room was furnished a little better than the common run of boarding-school bedchambers. Miss Pew had taken a good deal of the Mauleverer furniture at a valuation when she bought the old house; and the Mauleverer furniture being of a rococo and exploded style, the valuation had been ridiculously low. Thus it happened that a big wainscot wardrobe, with doors substantial enough for a church, projected its enormous bulk upon one side of the butterfly-room, while a tall narrow cheval glass stood in front of a window. That cheval was the glory of the butterfly-room. The girls could see how their skirts hung, and if the backs of their dresses fitted. On Sunday mornings there used to be an incursion of outsiders, eager to test the effect of their Sabbath bonnets, and the sets of their jackets, by the cheval.

And now Ida Palliser came into the butterfly-room, yawning wearily, to brush herself up a little before tea, knowing that Miss Pew and her younger sister, Miss Dulcibella — who devoted herself to dress and the amenities of life generally — would scrutinize her with eyes only too ready to see anything amiss.

The butterfly-room was not empty. Miss Rylance was plaiting her long flaxen hair in front of the toilet table, and another girl, a plump little sixteen-year-old, with nut-brown hair, and a fresh complexion, was advancing and retiring before the cheval, studying the effect of a cherry-coloured neck-ribbon with a gray gown.

‘Cherry’s a lovely colour in the abstract,’ said this damsel, ‘but it reminds one too dreadfully of barmaids.’

‘Did you ever see a barmaid?’ asked Miss Rylance, languidly, slowly winding the long flaxen plait into a shining knob at the back of her head, and contemplating her reflection placidly with large calm blue eyes which saw no fault in the face they belonged to.

With features so correctly modelled, and a complexion so delicately tinted, Miss Rylance ought to have been lovely. But she had escaped loveliness by a long way. There was something wanting, and that something was very big.

‘Good gracious, yes; I’ve seen dozens of barmaids,’ answered Bessie Wendover, with her frank voice. ‘Do you suppose I’ve never been into an hotel, or even into a tavern? When I go for a long drive with papa he generally wants brandy and soda, and that’s how I get taken into the bar and introduced to the barmaid.’

‘When you say introduced, of course you don’t mean it,’ said Miss Rylance, fastening her brooch. ‘Calling things by their wrong names is your idea of wit.’

‘I would rather have a mistaken idea of wit than none at all,’ retorted Miss Wendover, and then she pirouetted on the tips of her toes, and surveyed her image in the glass from head to foot, with an aggravated air. ‘I hope I’m not vulgar-looking, but I’m rather afraid I am,’ she said. ‘What’s the good of belonging to an old Saxon family if one has a thick waist and large hands?’

‘What’s the good of anything at Mauleverer Manor?’ asked Ida, coming into the room, and seating herself on the ground with a dejected air.

Bessie Wendover ran across the room and sat down beside her.

‘So you were in for it again this afternoon, you poor dear thing,’ she murmured, in a cooing voice. ‘I wish I had been there. It would have been “Up, guards, and at ’em!” if I had. I’m sure I should have said something cheeky to old Pew. The idea of overhauling your locker! I should just like her to see the inside of mine. It would make her blood run cold.’

‘Ah!’ sighed Ida, ‘she can’t afford to make an example of you. You mean a hundred and fifty pounds a year. I am of no more account in her eyes than an artist’s lay figure, which is put away in a dark closet when it isn’t in use. She wanted to give you girls a lesson in tidiness, so she put me into her pillory. Fortunately I’m used to the pillory.’

‘But you are looking white and worried, you dear lovely thing,’ exclaimed Bessie, who was Ida Palliser’s bosom friend. ‘It’s too bad the way they use you. Have this neck-ribbon,’ suddenly untying the bow so carefully elaborated five minutes ago. ‘You must, you shall; I don’t want it; I hate it. Do, dear.’

And for consolation Miss Wendover tied the cherry-coloured ribbon under her friend’s collar, patted Ida’s pale cheeks, and kissed and hugged her.

‘Be happy, darling, do,’ she said, in her loving half-childish way, while Miss Rylance looked on with ineffable contempt. ‘You are so clever and so beautiful; you were born to be happy.’

‘Do you think so, pet?’ asked Ida, with cold scorn; ‘then I ought to have been born with a little more money.’

‘What does money matter?’ cried Bessie.

‘Not very much to a girl like you, who has never known the want of it.’

‘That’s not true, darling. I never go home for the holidays that I don’t hear father grumble about his poverty. The rents are so slow to come in; the tenants are always wanting drain-pipes and barns and things. Last Christmas his howls were awful. We are positive paupers. Mother has to wait ages for a cheque.’

‘Ah, my pet, that’s a very different kind of poverty from mine. You have never known what it is to have only three pairs of wearable stockings.’

Bessie looked as if she were going to cry.

‘If you were not so disgustingly proud, you horrid thing, you need never feel the want of stockings,’ she said discontentedly.

‘If it were not for what you call my disgusting pride, I should degenerate into that loathsome animal a sponge,’ said Ida, rising suddenly from her dejected attitude, and standing up before her admiring little friend,

‘A daughter of the gods, divinely tall And most divinely fair.’

That fatal dower of beauty had been given to Ida Palliser in fullest measure. She had the form of a goddess, a head proudly set upon shoulders that were sloping but not narrow, the walk of a Moorish girl, accustomed to carrying a water-jug on her head, eyes dark as night, hair of a deep warm brown rippling naturally across her broad forehead, a complexion of creamiest white and richest carnation. These were but the sensual parts of beauty which can be catalogued. But it was in the glorious light and variety of expression that Ida shone above all compeers. It was by the intellectual part of her beauty that she commanded the admiration — enthusiastic in some cases, in others grudging and unwilling — of her schoolfellows, and reigned by right divine, despite her shabby gowns and her cheap ready-made boots, the belle of the school.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31