The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

Mr. Wendover Plans an Excursion.

The happy summer glided by — the season of roses and butterflies, strawberries and cream, haymaking, lawn tennis, picnics, gipsy teas — an idle, joyous life under blue skies. The Knoll family gave themselves up heart and soul to summer pleasures — simple joys which were at once innocent and inexpensive — and Ida Palliser found herself a sharer in all these holiday rambles. Conscience told her that she had no right to be there, that she was an impostor sailing under false colours. Conscience, speaking more loudly, told her that she had no right to accept Brian Wendover’s quiet homage, no right to be so happy in his company day after day; for there were few of their summer joys in which he was not among them. Bessie was warm in her praises of him, full of wonder at his having developed into such a companionable being.

‘Norway has done him good,’ she said. ‘He used to be such a reserved creature, dawdling away day after day in his library, poring over Greek and Latin, and now he is almost as companionable as Brian Walford.’

‘He’ll have to live a good many years before he’s up to B. W.,’ said Horace, who had walked across the hills for an afternoon at home and the chance of a tip, ‘B. W. knows every music-hall in London, and can sing a topical song as well as men who get their sixty pounds a week.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t put on that knowing air. What do you know of men who get sixty pounds a week?’ exclaimed Bessie, contemptuously.

‘As much as you do, anyhow,’ answered her brother.

Ida made many faint efforts to keep aloof from the summer revelries, but Miss Wendover insisted upon her enjoying herself with the others. She had been such a conscientious and devoted coadjutor in all Aunt Betsy’s good works, she had been so thoroughly energetic and industrious, never relaxing her efforts or growing weary of labour, that it seemed only right and fair that she should enjoy the summer holiday-time, the blessed season when every day was full of temptations.

‘Enjoy yourself to your heart’s content, my dear,’ said Aunt Betsy. ‘Our English summers are so short that if we do not make the most of the bright warm days while they are with us, we have to endure all the pangs of remorse through a rainy autumn and a cold winter.’

Not only did Miss Wendover give this generous advice, but she herself joined in many of their expeditions, and her presence was always a source of pleasure. She was so genial, so hearty, so thoroughly well-informed, and yet so modest in the use of her knowledge, that the young people loved to have her with them. Her enjoyment of the free, roving life was almost as keen as theirs, while her capacity for planning an agreeable day, and her foresight in the commissariat department, far exceeded that of youth. And so, and so, June and July drifted by, and it was the beginning of August, and Ida felt as if she had known Mr. Wendover of the Abbey all her life.

What did she know of him after two months of almost daily association? She knew that no unworthy thought ever found utterance upon his lips; that no vulgar instinct ever showed itself in his conduct; that he was essentially to the very core of his heart a gentleman; that without any high-flown affectation of chivalry he was as chivalrous as Bayard; that without any languid airs and graces of the modern aesthetic school he was a man of the highest and broadest culture; and that — oh, rara avis among modern scholars and young laymen — he was honestly and unaffectedly religious, a staunch Anglican of the school of Pusey, and not ashamed to confess his faith at all times and seasons. In this day, when the majority of young men affect to regard the services of their church as an intolerable bore, only endured as a concession to the weaklings of the inferior sex, it was pleasant to see the master of the Abbey a regular attendant at his parish church, an earnest and frequent worshipper at the altar at which his parents and progenitors had knelt before him.

This much and a great deal more had Ida Palliser discovered of the man whom nearly a year ago her fancy had exalted into an ideal character. It was strange to find her most romantic visions realised; strange, but a strangeness not without pain. He was full of kindness and friendliness for her whenever they met; but she told herself that his manner to her involved no more than kindly feeling and friendliness. To imagine anything beyond this was foolhardiness and vanity. And yet there were times when she felt she had no right to be in his society — that every day she spent at Kingthorpe was an offence against honour and right feeling.

One August afternoon Ida had, for once in a way, succeeded in making her domestic occupations an excuse for absenting herself from what Bessie called a ‘barrow-hunt’ on the downs. Brian Wendover being a great authority upon this ancient form of sepulture, and discoursing eloquently on those widely different races whose funeral chambers are hidden under the long and the round barrow.

The day, closely as Ida had been occupied, had seemed just a little dreary, certainly much duller than such days had been wont to seem before Brian’s return to the Abbey: yet she was glad to be alone; it was a relief even to be a trifle melancholy, rather than to enjoy that happiness which was always blended with a faint consciousness of wrong-doing. And now the slow day was nearly over: she had worked at the village girls’-school in the morning; she had lectured upon domestic economy to a class of incipient house-maids and scullery maids after luncheon; and now at five o’clock she was sitting in a basket chair in the rose-wreathed verandah working at the swallows and bulrushes upon that elaborate design which she had begun before Christmas for the adornment of Miss Wendover’s piano.

It was a deliciously drowsy afternoon, but Ida’s active brain was not prone to slumber. She sat working diligently and thinking deeply, when a shadow came between her and the sunshine and on looking up she saw Mr. Wendover standing before her.

‘How do you do? Have they all come home?’ she asked, laying aside her work on the convenient basket table and preparing to welcome Aunt Betsy.

‘I have not been with them — at least not since the morning, answered Brian. ‘I left Bessie to hunt out her own barrows; she is so lazy-minded that as long as I do all the pointing she will never know the true barrow from the natural lumpiness of the soil. Besides, she has Aunt Betsy, a tower of strength in all things.’

‘And Miss Rylance, I suppose?’

‘No, Miss Rylance thought there would be too much walking for her or for Pinet. I have been at the Abbey all day, getting up my arrears of correspondence. This fine weather has made me incorrigibly idle. After I had written about a score of letters I thought myself entitled to a little rest and refreshment, so I strolled over here to tell you some news and to ask you for a cup of tea.’

‘You shall have some tea directly,’ said Ida, going indoors to ring the bell, an act in which she was naturally anticipated by her guest. ‘What news can you possibly have that concerns me?’ she asked, when they had come back to the verandah. ‘I know by your face that it is not bad news.’

‘God forbid I should ever have to tell you that. I think it would hurt me more than you,’ said Brian, with an earnestness which brought the crimson glow into Ida’s cheeks, and made her bend a little lower over the swallows in her crewel-work. ‘No, this is pleasant news I hope. I wrote to Vernon Palliser more than a month ago to propose that I should drive you and a lot of people over to luncheon. He was in Switzerland, as usual, and I had no answer to my letter till the second post to-day, when I received a most hearty invitation to bring my party immediately. But you shall hear your cousin’s own words.’

Mr. Wendover produced the letter and read as follows:—

‘I shall be delighted to make my cousin’s acquaintance. She was in England when I last saw her father at his retreat near Dieppe. Bring her as soon as you can, and with as large a party as you like — the larger the better, and the sooner the better — as Peter and I will most likely be on the wing again for Scotland soon after the twelfth. We shall come back for the partridges, which I hear are abundant. The road is rather intricate, so you had better bring your ordnance map, but pretty fair in dry weather like this; and you’ll come through some lovely scenery. Telegraph your time, and Peter and I will be in the way to welcome you!’

‘What do you say to our going to-morrow? I waited to know what you would like before I telegraphed.’

‘You are very good: but there are others to be consulted,’ replied Ida, with her head still bent over her work.

Good manners demanded that she should look at him, but at this particular moment she felt it quite impossible to be mannerly. He had said nothing of a thrilling nature, yet his whole tone and expression, his air of deferential regard, stirred a new feeling in her mind — the conviction that he cared for her more than it was well for either of them that he should care.

‘You are the first person to be consulted,’ he said; ‘would you like to go to-morrow?’

‘I will go whenever the others like,’ answered Ida, still intent upon the shading of her swallow’s wing; ‘but I really think you had better leave me out of your party — I have wasted so much time roaming about — and there are so many things I want to finish before the summer is over.’

‘That elaborate arrangement in swallows and rushes, for instance,’ said Brian, laughingly: ‘you are working at it as if for a wager. Perhaps it is a wager — so many stitches in so many consecutive days — is that it? No, Miss Palliser, your swallows must wait. The party has been planned on your account, and to leave you at home would be like leaving Hamlet out of the play. Besides, I thought you would like to see your cousins and your ancestral halls.’

‘I shall be very glad to see my cousins, for my father likes them very much; but I do not feel any thrilling interest in the ancestral halls.’

‘And yet your father was born there.’

‘Yes, that is a reason for being interested in Wimperfield. But my father has so seldom talked about his birthplace. He speaks a great deal more of India. That life in a strange far-away land seems to have blotted out the memory of his childhood. He talks of Addiscomb sometimes but hardly ever of Wimperfield.’

She laid aside her work as the youthful butler brought out the tea-table. It was no new thing for her to pour out Mr. Wendover’s tea, since it was his custom to drop in at his aunt’s very often at this hour, when the day had not been given up to excursionising; but it was new for her to be alone with him at this social meal, and she found herself longing ardently for Aunt Betsy’s return.

She who could have found so much to talk about had her mind been at ease, was curiously silent as she handed Mr. Wendover his tea, and offered the cake and fruit, which always accompanied the meal at the Homestead. Her heart was beating much faster than it should have done, and she was considering whether it was worth while to place herself in the way of feeling the pain, the hidden shame, the sense of falsehood which oppressed her at this moment; whether it would not be better to run any risk, even the hazard of offending Betsy Wendover, the kindest friend she had in the world, rather than remain in her present position.

One thing she could have done which would have given her immediate extrication, and that which seemed the most natural thing to do. She could have told the truth — told Betsy Wendover all about her unlucky marriage. But she would rather have killed herself than do this one righteous thing; for she thought that if her marriage were once known to Brian’s relations she would be compelled to assume her natural position as his wife. So long as the marriage remained a secret to all the world except those two whom it most concerned they were free to ignore the tie. They could live their lives apart; and to the end of time it might be as if such a marriage had never been. Her husband being consentient to this life-long separation, her lot might be fairly happy. She had never tried to penetrate the future. Perhaps to-day for the first time there had flashed into her mind the thought of what a bright and glorious future might have been hers had she not so forfeited her freedom.

Voices, at least half a dozen, all talking at once, told her that the barrow-hunt was winding homewards; gleams of colour athwart the hedges told her that the hunters were in the lane; and in a minute or two Miss Wendover and her young kins-folk appeared, all more or less sunburnt and towzled by their tramp across the downs.

‘Found a splendid long barrow,’ said Bessie, ‘on a lovely point, one of the finest views in the county. What clever corpses they must have been to pick such glorious spots! Long barrow, long-headed race, dolichocephalic skulls, men of the stone age, eh?’ she said, looking at Brian. ‘You see I know my lesson; but it was very mean of you not to come with us, all the same.’

‘I wanted you to exercise your own acumen, to cultivate the antiquarian flair. Besides, I had a heap of letters to write.’

‘You only found that out after we had started. You never have letters to write when Ida is with us,’ said Bessie; a remark which made two people blush. ‘To think that I had known that spot all my life and never suspected a barrow,’ she continued. ‘I thought it was only a convenient bank which Providence had thrown up ready for picnics.’

Ida had enough to do now in providing for the wants of half a dozen hungry people. Blanche of the short petticoats was at an age when girls are ogres, distinguished for nothing but the rapidity of their digestion and the length of their legs. There was a demand for jam, and the unsophisticated half-gallon loaf instead of the conventional thin bread and butter.

‘Eat as much as you like, dears,’ said Aunt Betsy, ‘but remember that your father will expect you to have some appetite at seven.’

‘We won’t disappoint him,’ said Bessie; ‘seven is an hour and half from now. Blanche can do wonders in an hour and a half.’

Blanche’s appetite was one of the stock family jokes, like Urania’s tight boots; so there was a laugh, and the others went on eating.

Brian Wendover told them about to-morrow’s excursion. ‘I shall put four horses into the wagonette,’ he said. ‘I almost wish I had a drag to do honour to the occasion; but we must resign ourselves to a wagonette. You will go, of course, Aunt Betsy? and Bessie must come; and I suppose we ought to invite Miss Rylance. She has joined in most of our excursions, and it would be invidious to leave her out of this. And I dare-say Bessie would think the whole thing flat without Mr. Jardine?’

‘It’s very kind of you to think of him; but I don’t believe he’ll be able to spare the day,’ said Bessie.

‘We’ll ask him, at any rate, and then you can’t say we’ve used you badly. That makes a party of six. I’ll go and telegraph to Sir Vernon.’

‘Will there be lawn-tennis after lunch?’ asked Blanche, with a very long face.

‘I shouldn’t wonder if there were,’ answered Brian: ‘does that mean that you want to go?’

‘I shall not have a creature to speak to at home, and I never go anywhere,’ said Blanche, despairingly.

Both statements were obvious untruths, but no doubt the damsel herself believed them.

‘Have you a gown that covers your knees?’ asked Aunt Betsy, severely.

‘My new frock is awfully long. It only came from the dress-maker’s last week.’

‘Then you have hardly had time to grow out of it,’ said Brian.

‘Suppose we strain a point, Aunt Betsy, and take her. It will enable us to say, “we are seven.”’

‘We shall be a tremendous party,’ said Miss Wendover. ‘I hope Sir Vernon is a hospitable, easy-going man, and that your intimacy with him warrants such an intrusion.’

‘I am taking him a cousin,’ answered Brian, stealing an admiring glance at Ida; ‘surely that ought to secure our welcome.’

‘I hope his housekeeper has large ideas about luncheon,’ said Bessie, ‘or Blanche’s appetite will throw her out in her calculations. If she is the sort of person who thinks a pair of ducklings and a dish of rissoles substantial fare for a large party, I pity her.’

‘You’re vastly witty,’ said Blanche, preparing her final slice of bread and jam; ‘one would think you lived upon roses and lilies, like the ascetics.’

‘The poor child means aesthetes,’ explained Bessie.

‘Bother the pronunciation! But if people had seen you eating rabbit-pie on the barrow — why a wolf wouldn’t have been in it,’ concluded Blanche, who acquired her flowers of speech from the Wintonians.

‘I’ll go and despatch my telegram,’ said Brian, taking up his hat.

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