The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

Thicker than Water.

The weather was altogether favourable for the thirty-mile drive. The wagonette with its scratch team and a couple of smart grooms, was at the Homestead gate at ten o’clock, and after picking up Miss Wendover and her companion, went on to The Knoll for Bessie and Blanche, and then to Dr. Rylance’s for Urania, who had accepted the invitation most graciously. Kingthorpe was unwontedly excited by this gorgeous apparition, and the inhabitants remained at garden gates and cottage doors while so much as a horse’s tail was visible. Everybody was pleased to see the young squire driving four-in-hand. It had been supposed that as a bookish young man, given over to Greek and Latin, he must needs be a poor hand with horses. But this morning’s exhibition gave rise to more hopeful views.

‘We shall see the squire setting up his coach, and settling down at the Abbey,’ said one.

‘Ay, when he gets married,’ said another; ‘that’s what’ll settle he. I believes as him is sweet on that young ‘ooman at the Homestead. Her be a clipper, her be.’

Over the hills and far away went the scratch team — a little fresh, but behaving beautifully. Aunt Betsy sat beside her nephew, and watched his coachmanship with a jealous eye, conscious that she could have kept the team better in hand herself, but still with moderate approval. The girls and the grooms were in the back of the vehicle — Bessie, Blanche, and Ida full of talk and merriment, Urania thoughtful. This day’s entertainment was too much in Ida’s honour to be pleasant to Miss Rylance; yet she could not deny herself the painful privilege of being there. She wanted to see what happened — how far Mr. Wendover was disposed to make an idiot of himself. She saw more than enough in the glances of the charioteer, when he turned to talk to the girls behind him — now to point out some feature in the landscape, now to ask some idle question, but always with looks that lingered upon one face, and that face was Ida Palliser’s.

It was a long cross country drive, by rustic lanes and dubious roads, but Mr. Wendover took things easily. He had sent forward a second scratch team over night to a village half way, and here they changed horses, while he and his party spent half an hour pleasantly enough exploring an old gray church and humble graveyard, where the tombstones all bore record of unrenowned lives that had slowly rusted away in a pastoral solitude, Blanche, whose schoolroom appetite was wont to damp its keen edge upon bread and butter at this hour, felt it rather a hard thing that no one proposed a light refection at the lowly inn; but she bore her inward gnawings in silence, conscious of the dignity of a frock which almost reached her ankles, and desirous to prove that she was worthy to be the associate of grown-up.

Half way between this village inn and Wimperfield they met a couple of horsemen. These were no other than Sir Vernon and his brother Peter, who had come to meet their guests, and show them the nearest way, which from this point became especially intricate.

Brian walked his team gently up a gentle hill, while Sir Vernon and his brother walked their horses beside him, and during this ascent all necessary introductions were duly made, everybody being properly presented except Blanche, who felt that she was being treated with contumely.

‘I am very glad to see you at last, cousin Ida,’ said Sir Vernon, pleasantly. ‘I have been hearing of you all my life, but we seemed fated not to meet.’

He was a fine, broad-shouldered young fellow, with a frank, fresh-coloured countenance, auburn whiskers, and curly brown hair. His brother was after the same pattern, hair a little lighter, no whiskers, eyes rather a brighter blue. They were as much alike as brothers can be without being mistaken for each other. There was nothing romantic looking about either of them, Bessie thought, regretfully. She would have liked Sir Vernon to have resembled her favourite hero in fiction (the man she always put in confession books), and to have fallen desperately in love with Ida at first sight. And here he was, a most matter-of-fact looking young man, riding behind the wagonette in a provokingly matter-of-fact way.

Yet perhaps there was a providence in this; for if Brian of the Abbey were in love with Ida, as Bessie shrewdly suspected, it would have been a terrible thing for him to have found a rival in a titled cousin. If Ida were ambitious, the title might have turned the scale.

‘And I have so set my heart upon having her for my cousin, thought Bessie. ‘The other Brian was a failure, but this Brian may win the prize.’

Mr. Jardine had not been able to leave his parish for a long day; so Bessie had plenty of leisure to speculate upon the possible loves of other people, instead of enjoying the blissfulness of her own love affair.

Wimperfield was a mansion built in the Italian manner which prevailed about a century ago, a style about as uninteresting as any order of domestic architecture, but which makes a house a good feature in a fine landscape. The Corinthian façade of Wimperfield stood boldly out against the verdant slope of a hill, backed and sheltered on either side by woods. Behind that classic portico there was the usual prim range of windows, and there were the usual barrack-like rooms. The furniture was of the same heavy and substantial character, rich dark rosewood, amber satin hangings faded by a quarter of a century; Spanish mahogany in dining-rooms and bedrooms; Gillow’s fine workmanship everywhere, but the style dating back to the very infancy of that ancient house.

The large, finely-lighted hall, which looked like the vestibule of some learned institute, was adorned with four Carrara marble statues, placid gods and goddesses smirking at vacancy, on pedestals of verde antico. The only pictures in the reception-rooms were family portraits, and a few of those large Dutch landscapes, battle scenes, sea-pieces and fruit-pieces, which cry aloud that they are furniture pictures, and have been bought to fit the panelling of the rooms.

But for its noble situation this temple of English domestic life would have been utterly without charm; but the situation was superb, the gardens were in beautiful order, and the stables, as Aunt Betsy declared after personal inspection, were perfect.

Sir Vernon did the honours of his house in a frank, friendly manner. He took his guests round the gardens and stables, showed Ida the old nursery in which his father and her father had spent their infancy; the gun-room in which their first guns were carefully preserved; the very rocking-horse on which they had ridden, and which now occupied a recess in an obscure lobby opening into the garden.

‘Peter and I didn’t care to ride him,’ said Sir Vernon. ‘We had Shelties when we were three-year-olds; but I know when I began Virgil I used to think the wooden horse that got into Troy was an exaggerated copy of this one.

He showed his cousin the room in which her grandfather and grandmother died — an immense apartment, wherein stood, grim and tall, a gigantic mahogany four-poster, draped with dark green velvet.

‘I can’t fancy anybody doing anything else in such a room,’ said Ida, to whom the spacious chamber looked as gloomy as a charnel-house. ‘I beg your pardon. I hope you don’t sleep here.’

‘No, my diggings are at the other end of the house, looking into the stable-yard. I like to be able to put my head out of window and order my horse — saves time and trouble. We keep the rooms at this end for visitors.’

The gong boomed loud and long, much to the relief of poor Blanche, whose spirits had been slowly sinking, in unison with her inward cravings, and who had begun to think that the promised luncheon was a delusion and a snare, which would end in the fashionable frivolity of afternoon tea.

Sir Vernon offered his arm to Miss Wendover, and asked Brian to take Miss Palliser, while Peter was told off to Miss Rylance, leaving Bessie and the clinging Blanche like twin cherries on one stem. It was curious for Ida to find herself seated presently beside the wealthy cousin of whom she had heard as a far-off and almost mythical personage, of very little account in her life; since it was so improbable that any of his wealth would ever come her way.

The luncheon was of the old-fashioned and ponderous order, excellent of its kind: the orchard-houses had given up their finest peaches and nectarines and their earliest grapes to do honour to the occasion. Miss Rylance contemplated the table decorations with mute scorn, which she hardly cared to disguise. No Venetian wine-flasks, no languorous lilies swooning in Salviati goblets, no pottery of the new green and yellow school, but massive silver, and heavy diamond-cut glass — gaudy Staffordshire china of ‘too utterly quite’ the worst period of art. Everything essentially Philistine.

Sir Vernon had placed his cousin on his left hand, and he talked to her a good deal during luncheon — asking questions as to her past life, which she answered with perfect candour. It was only when he spoke of her future that the fair brow clouded, and the cheeks reddened with a painful glow.

‘I hope, now that the ice has been broken, that we are not going to be strangers any more,’ said Vernon, pleasantly. ‘To think that you should be such a near neighbour of mine, and that I should know nothing about it! You have been at Kingthorpe since last November, you say? How long are you going to stay there?’

‘For a good many Novembers, I hope,’ said Aunt Betsy, ‘unless she gets tired of rural solitude, or unless a husband steals her away from me.’

‘Ah, that is what all young ladies anticipate. They never are but always to be blest,’ replied Vernon, laughing. He was one of those open-hearted souls who always appreciate their own mild jokelets.

Brian, who saw Ida’s pained expression, made haste to change the conversation, by an inquiry about Sir Vernon’s plans for the autumn, which set that gentleman on a sporting tack, and spared Miss Palliser all further trouble.

After luncheon they went to look at the hot-houses, and dawdled away the time very agreeably until afternoon tea, Miss Rylance doing her best to improve the occasion with Peter, who was not educated up to the standard of metropolitan or South Kensingtonian young ladyhood, and who came out very badly under the process of development; for when talked to about Ruskin he was at first altogether vacuoous, but, on being pushed har believed there was a biggish swell of some such name among the Oxford dons, about whom he could not fairly be expected to know anything, as he and his brother were Cantabs: while on being languidly asked his opinion of Swinburne’s last tragedy, he grew cheerful, and said he had seen him play the King to Irving’s Hamlet, and that it was a very fine performance, the actor in question being a good stayer.

The thing was hopeless, and Miss Rylance felt she was wasting herself upon a dolt. After this she hardly took the trouble to suppress her yawns; yet if she had condescended to question Peter about his Alpine adventures, or to talk about his horses, guns, and dogs, she would have found him lively enough as a companion; but an education of musical ‘at homes’ and afternoon teas had tuned Miss Rylance’s slender pipe to one particular strain, which did not suit everybody’s dancing. She was heavy at heart, feeling that the whole business of the day had conduced to Ida Palliser’s glorification. To be the daughter of a man born in that substantial family mansion — scion of a respectable old county family — was in itself a distinction far beyond anything Miss Rylance could boast, her grandfather having been a chemist and druggist in an obscure market town, and her father the architect of his own fortunes. She had done her best to forget this fact hitherto, but it was brought home to her mind unpleasantly to-day, when she saw the articled pupil, whose three pairs of stockings had moved her to scornful wonder, strolling about her ancestral home by the side of her first cousin, and that first cousin a baronet of Charles II’s creation.

Sir Vernon and his brother were full of cordiality for their cousin, full of anticipations of future meetings, and of hopes that Captain Palliser would come to them in October for what they called a ‘shy’ at the pheasants.

Ida had good cause to remember that parting in front of the classic portico in the warm afternoon sunlight, the two brothers standing side by side, with frank, bright faces, looking up at their departing guests, all smiles and cheerful pleasure in this world’s pleasantest things — a Dandie Dinmont and a big black-and-tan colley looking on at their master’s knees — the beau idéal of young English manhood — frank, generous, outspoken, fearless — the men who can do and die when the need comes. Her eyes lingered affectionately on that picture as the wagonette drove away by the broad gravel sweep towards the avenue; and those two figures in the sunlight haunted her memory in the days to come.

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