The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 12

The Sword of Damocles.

And now began for Ida a life of exceeding peacefulness, comfort, happiness even; for how could a girl fail to be happy among people who were so friendly and kind, who so thoroughly respected her, and so warmly admired her for gifts altogether independent of fortune — who never, by word or look, reminded her that she was in anywise of less importance than themselves?

Nor had the girl any cause to fear that she was a useless member of Miss Wendover’s household. That lady found plenty of occupation for her young companion — varied and pleasant duties, which made the days seem too short, and the leisure of the long winter evenings an agreeable relief from the busy hours of daylight.

That exquisite neatness which gave such a charm to Wendover’s house was not attained without labour. The polished surface of the old Chippendale bureaus, the inlaid Sheraton chairs and tables, could only be maintained by daily care. A housemaid’s perfunctory dusting was not sufficient here; and Miss Wendover, gloved and aproned, and armed with leathers and brushes, gave at least half an hour every morning to the care of her old furniture. Another half hour was devoted to china; and the floral arrangements indoors, even in this wintry season, occupied half an hour more. This was all active work, about which Aunt Betsy and Ida went merrily, talking tremendously as they polished and dusted, and upon all possible subjects, for Miss Wendover’s lonely evenings had enabled her to read almost as much as Southey, and she delighted in telling Ida the curious out-of-the-way facts that were stored up in her memory.

Sometimes there was an hour or so given to culinary matters — new dishes, new kickshaws, hors d’oeuvres, savouries — to be taught the young, teachable cook-maid; for whenever Miss Wendover went to a great dinner, her eagle eye was on the alert to discover some modern improvement in the dishes or the table arrangements.

Then there was gardening, which absorbed a good deal of time in fine weather; for Aunt Betsy held that no gardener, however honestly inclined, would long feel interested in a garden to which its owner was indifferent. Miss Wendover knew every flower that grew — could bud, and graft, and pot, and prune, and do everything that her youthful gardeners could do, beside being ever so much more learned in the science of gardening.

Then there were inspections of piggery and poultry-yard, medicines and particular foods to be prepared for the poultry, hospitals to be established and looked after in odd corners of the orchard, and the propagation of species to be carried on by mechanical contrivances.

On wet days there was art needlework, for which Miss Wendover had what artists would call a great deal of feeling, without being very skilful as an executant. Under her direction, Ida began a mauresque border for a tawny plush curtain which was to be a triumph of art when completed, and which was full of interest in progress. She worked at this of an evening, while Miss Wendover, who had a fine full voice, and a perfect enunciation, read aloud to her. Then, when Miss Wendover was tired, Ida went to the piano and played for an hour or so, while the elder lady gave herself up to rare idleness and dreamy thought.

These were home duties only. The two ladies had occupations abroad of a more exacting nature. Miss Wendover until now had given two botany lessons, and one physical science lesson, every week in the village school. The botany lessons she now handed over to Ida, whom she coached for that purpose. Summer or winter these lessons were always given out of doors, in the course of an hour’s ramble in field, lane, or wood. Then Miss Wendover had a weekly class for domestic economy, a class attended by all the most promising girls, from thirteen years old upwards, within five miles. This class was held in the kitchen or housekeeper’s room at the Homestead; and many were the savoury messes of broth or soup, cheap stews and meat puddings, and the jellies and custards compounded at these lessons, to be fleut off next day to the sick poor upon Miss Wendover’s list.

Then there was house to house visiting all over the widely-scattered parish, much talk with gaffers and goodies, in all of which Ida assisted. She would have hated the work had Miss Wendover been a person of the Pardiggle stamp; but as love was the governing principle of all Aunt Betsy’s work, her presence was welcome as sunshine or balmy air; so welcome that her sharpest lectures (and she could lecture when there was need) were received with meekness and even gratitude. In these visits Ida learned to know a great deal about the ways and manners of the agricultural poor, all the weakness and all the nobility of the rural nature.

Every Saturday or half-holiday at the village school — blessed respite which gave the hard-worked mistress time to mend her clothes, and make herself bright and trim for Sunday, and opened for the master brilliant possibilities in the way of a jaunt to Bomsey or Winchester — Miss Wendover gave a dinner to all the school children under twelve. She had taken up Victor Hugo’s theory that a substantial meat dinner, even on one day out of seven, will do much to build up the youthful constitution and to prevent scrofulous diseases. Moved by these considerations, she had fitted up a disused barn as a rustic dining-hall, the walls plastered and whitewashed, or buff-washed, the massive cross timbers painted a dark red, a long deal table and a few forms the only furniture. Here every Saturday, at half-past one o’clock, she provided a savoury meat dinner; and very strong must be that temptation or that necessity which would induce Aunt Betsy to abandon her duties as hostess at this weekly feast. It was she who said grace before and after meat — save when some suckling parson was admitted to the meal; it was she who surveyed and improved the manners of her guests by sarcastic hints or friendly admonitions; and it was she who furnished intellectual entertainment in the shape of anecdote, historical story, or excruciating conundrum.

Ida was allowed to assist at these banquets, and there was nothing in her new life which she enjoyed more than the sight of all those glad young faces round the board, or the sound of that frank, rustic laughter. Some there were naturally of a bovine dullness, in whom even Miss Wendover could not awaken a ray of intelligence; but these were few. The generality of the children were far above the average rustic in brightness of intellect, and this superiority might fairly be ascribed to Aunt Betsy’s influence.

A fortnight before Christmas, by which time Ida had been at the Homestead more than a month, Miss Wendover suggested a drive to Winchester, and before starting she handed Ida a ten-pound note. ‘You may want some additional finery for Christmas,’ she said kindly. ‘Girls generally do. So you may as well buy it to-day.’

‘But, dear Aunt Betsy, I have only been with you a month.’

‘Never mind that, my dear. We will not be particular as to quarter-days. When I think you want money I shall give it to you, and we can make up our accounts at the end of the year.’

‘You are ever so much too good to me,’ said Ida, with a loving look that said a good deal more than words.

There was a light frost that whitened the hills, and the keen freshness of the air stimulated Brimstone to conduct of a somewhat riotous character, but Miss Wendover’s firm hand held his spirits in check. Treacle was a sagacious beast, who never did more work than he was absolutely obliged to do, and who allowed Brimstone to drag the phaeton while he trotted complacently on the other side of the pole. But Miss Wendover would stand no nonsense, even from the amiable Treacle. She sent the pair across the hills at a splendid pace, and drove them under the old archway and down the stony street with a style which won the admiration of every experienced eye.

They drew up at the chief draper’s of the town; and here Miss Wendover retired to hold a solemn conference with the head milliner, a judicious and accomplished person who made Aunt Betsy’s gowns and bonnets — all of a solid and substantial architecture, as if modelled on the adjacent cathedral. Ida, left alone amidst all the fascinations of the chief shop in a smart county town, and feeling herself a Croesus, had much need of fortitude and coolness of temper. Happily she remembered what a little way that five-pound note had gone in preparing her for her summer visit to The Knoll, and this brought wisdom. Before spending sixpence upon herself she bought a gown — an olive merino gown, and velvet to trim it withal — for her stepmother.

‘I don’t think she gets a new gown much oftener than I do,’ she thought; ‘and even if this costs four or five shillings for carriage it will be worth the money, as a Christmas surprise.’

The gown left only trifling change out of two sovereigns, so that by the time Ida had bought herself a dark brown cloth jacket and a brown cashmere gown there were only four sovereigns left out of the ten. She spent one of these upon some pale pink cashmere for an evening dress, and half a sovereign on gloves, as she knew Miss Wendover liked to see people neatly gloved. Ten shillings more were spent upon calico, and another sovereign went by-and-by at the bootmaker’s, leaving the damsel with just twenty shillings out of her quarter’s wage; but as the need of pocket-money at Kingthorpe, except for the Sunday offertory, was nil, she felt herself passing rich in the possession of that last remaining sovereign. She would have liked to spend it all upon Christmas gifts for her young friends at The Knoll; but this fond wish she relinquished with a sigh. Paupers could not be givers of gifts. Whatever she gave must be the fruit of her own labour — some delicate piece of handiwork made out of cheap materials.

‘They are all too good to think meanly of me because I can only show my gratitude in words,’ she told herself.

As Christmas drew near Ida listened anxiously for any allusion to Brian Walford as a probable visitor; and to her infinite relief, just three days before the festival, she heard that he was not coming. He had been invited, and he had left his young cousins in suspense as to his intentions till the last moment, and then had written to say that he had accepted an invitation to Norfolk, where there would be shooting, and a probability of a stag-hunt on foot.

‘Which I call horridly mean of him,’ protested Horatio, who had come across the fields expressly to announce this fact to Ida. ‘Why can’t he come and shoot here? I don’t mean to say that there is anything particular to shoot, but he and I could go out together and try our luck. Our hills are splendid for hares.’

‘Do you mean that there are plenty of hares?’ inquired Ida.

‘No, not exactly that. But it would be capital ground for them, don’t you know, if there were any.’

‘And where is your other cousin Brian?’ asked Ida, merely for the sake of conversation.

All interest, all idle dreaming about the unknown Brian was over with her since the fatal mistake which had marred her life. She could not conceive that anything save evil could ever arise to her henceforward out of that hated name.

‘Oh, he is in Sweden, or Turkey, or Russia, or somewhere,’ replied Horatio, with a disgusted air; ‘always on the move, instead of keeping up the Abbey in proper style, and cultivating his cousins. A man with such an income is bound in duty to his fellow-creatures to keep a pack of foxhounds. What else was he sent into the world for, I should like to know?’

‘Perhaps to cultivate the knowledge of his fellow-creatures in distant countries, and to improve his mind.’

‘Rot!’ exclaimed Horatio, who was not choice in his language. ‘What does he want with mind? or to make a walking Murray or Baedeker of himself? Society requires him to lay out his money to the local advantage. Here we are, with no foxhounds nearer than the New Forest, when we ought to have a pack at our door!’

Ida could not enter into the keen sense of deprivation caused by a dearth of foxhounds, so she went on quietly with her work, shading the wing of the inevitable swallow flitting across the inevitable bulrushes which formed the design for a piano back.

Presently Bessie came bouncing in, her sealskin flung on anyhow, and the most disreputable thing in hats perched sideways on her bright brown curls.

‘Mother is going to let us have a dance,’ she burst forth breathlessly, ‘on Twelfth Night! Won’t that be too jolly? A regular party, don’t you know, with a crumb-cloth, and a pianiste from Winchester, and perhaps a cornet. It’s only another guinea, and if father’s in a good temper he’s sure to say yes. You must come over to The Knoll every evening to practise your waltzing. We shall have nothing but round dances in the programme. I’ll take care of that!’

‘But if there are any matrons who like to have a romp in the Lancers or the Caledonians, ain’t it rather a shame to leave them out in the cold?’ suggested Horatio. ‘You’re so blessed selfish, Bess.’

‘We are not going to have any matrons. Mother will matronize the whole party. We are going to have the De Travers, and the Pococks, and the Ducies, and the Bullinghams over from Bournemouth.’

‘And where the deuce are you going to put ’em?’

‘Oh, we can put up at least twenty — on spare mattresses, don’t you know, in the old nursery, and in the dressing-rooms and bath-room; and as for us, why, of course, we can sleep anywhere.’

‘Thank you,’ replied Horatio; ‘I hope you don’t suppose I am going to turn out of my den, or to allow a pack of girls to ransack my drawers and smoke my favourite pipe.’

‘I don’t suppose any decent-minded girl would consent to sleep in such a loathsome hole,’ retorted Bessie. ‘She would prefer a pillow and a rug on the landing.’

‘My den is quite as tidy as that barrack of yours,’ said the Wykhamiste, ‘though I haven’t yet risen to disfiguring my walls with kitchen plates and fourpenny fans. The cheap aesthetic is not my line.

‘Don’t pretend to be cantankerous, Horatio,’ said Ida, looking at him with the loveliest eyes, twinkling a little at his expense; ‘we all know that you are brimming over with good-humour.

Perhaps Aunt Betsy will take in some of your visitors, Bess. I am sure they shall be welcome to my room, if I have to sleep in the poultry yard.’

‘Happy thought,’ cried Bessie; ‘I’ll sound the dear creature as to her views on the subject this very day.’

Aunt Betsy was all goodness, and offered to accommodate half a dozen young ladies of neat and cleanly habits. She protested that she would have no candle-grease droppers or door-mat despisers in her house.

‘The Homestead is the only toy I have,’ she said,’ and I won’t have it ill-used.’

So six irreproachable young women, the pride of careful mothers, were billeted on Miss Wendover, while the more Bohemian damsels were to revel in the improvised accommodation of The Knoll.

That particular Christmas-tide at Kingthorpe was a time of innocent mirth and youthful happiness which might have banished black care, for the nonce, from the oldest, weariest breast. For Ida, still young and fresh, loving and lovable, the contagion of that youthful mirth was irresistible.

She forgot by how fine a hair hung the sword that dangled over her guilty head — or began to think that the hair was tough enough to hold good for ever. And what mattered the existence of the sword provided it was never to fall? Sometimes it seemed to her in the pure and perfect happiness of this calm rural home, this useful, innocent life, as if that ill-advised act of hers had never been acted — as if that autumn morning, that one half-hour in the modern Gothic church, still smelling of mortar and pitch-pine, set in flat fields, from which October mists were rising ghostlike, was no more than a troubled dream — a dream that she had dreamed and done with for ever. Could it be that such an hour — so dim, so shadowy to look back upon from the substantial footing of her present existence — was to give colour to all the rest of her life? No, it was the dark dream of a troubled past, and she had nothing to do but to forget it as soon as possible.

Forgetfulness — or at least a temporary kind of forgetfulness — was tolerably easy while Brian Walford was civil enough to stay away from Kingthorpe; but the problem of life would be difficult were he to appear in the midst of that cordial circle — difficult to impossibility.

‘It is evident that he doesn’t mean to come while I am here,’ she told herself, ‘and that at least is kind. But in that case I must not stay here too long. It is not fair that I should shut him out of his uncle’s house. It is I who am the interloper.’

She thought with bitterest grief of any change from this peaceful life among friends who loved her, to service in the house of a stranger; but her conscience recognised the necessity for such a change.

She had no right to squat upon the family of the man she had married — to exclude him from his rightful heritage, she who refused to acknowledge his right as her husband. He had done her a deep wrong; he had deceived her cruelly; and she deemed that she had a right to repudiate a bond tainted by fraud; but she knew that she had no right to banish him from his family circle — to dwell, under false pretences, by the hearth of his kindred.

‘I did wrong in coming here,’ she thought; ‘it was a mean thing to do. Yet how could I resist the temptation, when no other place offered, and when I knew I was such a burden at home?’

In the very midst of her happiness, therefore, there was always this corroding care, this remorseful sense of wrong-doing. This present life of hers was all blissful, but it was bliss which could not, which must not, last. Yet what fortitude would be needed ere she could break this flowery bondage, loosen these dear fetters which love had laid upon her!

Once, during that jovial Christmas season, she hinted at a possible change in the future.

‘What a happy day this has been!’ she said as she walked across the wintry fields with Miss Wendover on the verge of midnight, after a Christmas dinner and a long evening of Christmas games at The Knoll, Needham marching in front of them with an unnecessary lantern, and all the stars of heaven shining in blue frosty brilliance above their heads, ‘and what a happy home! I feel it is a privilege to have seen so much of it; and by-and-by, when I am among strangers —’

‘What do you mean?’ exclaimed Aunt Betsy, sharply; ‘there is to be no such by-and-by; or, if there ever be such a time, it will be your making, not mine. You suit me capitally, and I mean to keep you as long as ever I can, without absolute selfishness. If an eligible husband should want to carry you off, I must let you go; but I will part with you to no one less than a husband — unless, indeed,’ and here Betsy Wendover’s voice took a colder and graver tone, ‘unless you should want to better yourself, as the servants say, and get more money than I can afford to give you. I know your accomplishments are worth much more; but it is not everybody to whom you would be as their own flesh and blood.’

‘Oh, Aunt Betsy, can you think that I should ever set money in the scale against your kindness — your infinite goodness to me?’

‘When you talk of a change by-and-by, you set me thinking. Perhaps you are already beginning to tire of this rustic dullness.’

‘No, no, no; I never was so happy in my life — never since I was a child playing about on board the ship that brought my mother and me to England. Everybody were kind to me, and made much of me. My mother and I adored each other; and I did not know that she was dying. Soon after we landed she grew dangerously ill, and lay for weeks in a darkened room, which I was not allowed to enter. It was a dreary, miserable time; a lonely, friendless child pining in a furnished lodging, with no one but a servant and a sick-nurse to speak to; and then, one dark November morning, the black hearse and coaches came to the door, and I stood peeping behind a corner of the parlour blind, and saw my mother’s coffin carried out of the house. No; from the time we left the ship till I came to The Knoll I had never known what perfect happiness meant.’

‘Surely you must have had some happy days with your father?’ said Aunt Betsy.

‘Very few. There was always a cloud. Papa is not the kind of man who can be cheerful under difficulties. Besides, I have seen so little of him, poor dear. He did not come home from India till I was thirteen, and then he fell in love with my stepmother, and married her, and took her to France, where he fancies it is cheaper to live than in England. Yet I cannot help thinking there are corners of dear old England where he might find a prettier home and live quite as cheaply.’

‘Of course, if he were a sensible man; but I gather from all you have told me that there is a gentlemanlike helplessness about him — as of a person who ought to have inherited a handsome income, and is out of his element as a struggler.’

‘That is quite true,’ answered Ida; ‘my father was not born to wrestle with Fate.’

They were at the glass door which opened into the morning-room by this time. The room was steeped in rosy light — such a pretty room, with chintz curtains and chintz-covered easy-chairs, low, luxurious, inviting; the only ponderous piece of furniture an old Japanese cabinet, rich in gold work upon black lacquer. On the dainty little octagon table there was a large shallow brown glass vase full of Christmas roses; and there was an odour of violets from the celadon china jars on the chimney-piece. Aunt Betsy’s favourite Persian cat, a marvel of fluffy whiteness, rose from the hearth to welcome them. It was a delightful picture of home life.

Miss Wendover seemed in no hurry to go to bed. She seated herself in the low arm-chair by the fire, and allowed the Persian to rub its white head and arch its back against her dark brocade skirt. No one within twenty miles of Winchester wore such brocades or such velvets as Miss Wendover’s. They were supposed to be woven on purpose for her. Her gowns were gowns of the old school, and lasted for years, smelling of the sandal or camphor wood chests in which they reposed for months at a stretch, yet, by virtue of some wonderful tact in the wearer, never looked dowdy or out of date.

‘Now,’ said Miss Wendover, with a resolute air, ‘let us understand each other, my dear Ida. I don’t quite like what you said just now; and I want to hear for certain that you are satisfied with your life here.’

‘I am utterly happy here, dear Aunt Betsy. Is that a sufficient answer? Only, when I came here, I felt that it was charity — an impulse of kindness for a friendless girl — that prompted you to offer me a home; that, in accepting your kindness, I had no right to become an encumbrance; that, having enjoyed your genial hospitality for a space, I ought to move on upon my journey, to go where I could be of more use.’

‘You too ridiculous girl, can you suppose that you are not useful to me?’ exclaimed Aunt Betsy, impatiently. ‘Is there a single hour of your day unoccupied? Granted that my original motive was a desire to give a comfortable home to a dear girl who seemed in need of new surroundings, but that idea would hardly have occurred to me unless I had begun to feel the want of some energetic helpmate to lighten the load of my daily duties. The experiment has answered admirably, so far as I am concerned. But it is just possible you feel otherwise. You may think that you could make better use of your powers — earn double my poor salary, win distinction by your fine playing, dress better, see more of the world. I daresay to a girl of your age Kingthorpe seems a kind of living death.’

‘So far from that, I love Kingthorpe with all my heart, so much that I almost hate myself for not having been born here, for not being able to say these are my native fields, I was cradled among these hills.’

‘So be it. If you love Kingthorpe and love me, you have nothing to do but to stay here till the hero of your life-story comes to carry you off.’

‘There will be no such hero.’

‘Oh, yes, there will! Every story, however humble, has its hero; but yours is going to be a very magnificent personage, I hope.’

The little clock on the chimney-piece chimed the half-hour after midnight, whereupon Aunt Betsy started up and called for her candle. She and Ida kissed as they wished each other good night on the threshold of the elder lady’s room.

After this conversation, how could Ida ever again broach the subject of departure? and yet she felt that sooner or later she must depart. Honour, conscience, womanly feeling, forbade that she should remain at the cost of Brian Walford’s banishment.

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