The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 17

Ought she to Stay?

A week after the drive to Wimperfield Miss Wendover received a very big box of peaches and grapes, enclosing a very brief letter from Vernon Palliser to his cousin Ida.

‘My dear Ida — I venture to send Miss Wendover some of our fruit,’ he wrote, ‘for I understood her to say she has not much glass, and grows only flowers. Peter and I are just off to Scotland, where I suppose we shall do a little shooting, and I hope a good deal of yachting and fishing. I wish you and that nice plump little friend of yours — Bessie, I think you called her — were coming to us. Such a jolly life, bobbing about between the islands and the mainland, with the chance of an occasional storm. But I shall look forward to seeing you again in October, when I hope Miss Wendover will bring you over to stay for a week or two. What splendid ideas she has about summering hunters! — never met a more sensible woman. Always your affectionate cousin, VERNON PALLISER.’

Aunt Betsy was pleased with the tribute of hothouse fruit, and even more gratified by that remark about summering horses.

‘Your cousin is a fine thoroughbred young fellow,’ she said. ‘If I had not been fully satisfied you came from a good stock, by my knowledge of your own organisation, I should be sure of the fact now I have seen those two young men. They are all that Englishmen ought to be.’

Ida was silent, for to her mind there was one Englishman who more completely realised her ideal of manhood — one who was no less generous and outspoken than her kind young cousins, but whose intellectual gifts, whose highly cultivated mind, and passionate love of all that is most beautiful in life, made him infinitely their superior.

And now came, perhaps, the most bitter trial of a young life which had already seen more cloud than sunshine. The hour had come when Ida told herself that she must no longer dawdle along the flowery path of sin, no longer palter with fate. Stern duty must be obeyed, She must leave Kingthorpe. It was no longer a question of feeling, but a question of conscience — right against wrong, truth against falsehood, honour against dishonour; for she knew in her heart of hearts that Brian loved her, and that she gave him back his love, measure for measure. He had said nothing definite; she had contrived to ward off anything like a declaration; but she had not been able to prevent his absorbing her society on all possible occasions, taking possession of her, as it were, as of one who belonged to him in the present and the future, deferring to her lightest wish as only a lover defers to his mistress, studying her preferences in everything, and hardly taking the trouble to hide his comparative indifference to the society of other people. It had come to this, and she knew that there must be no further delay.

One evening, when she and Aunt Betsy had been dining alone, and had returned to the drawing-room, where it was Ida’s custom at this hour to play her kind patroness to sleep with all the dreamiest and most pensive melodies in her extensive répertoire, the girl suddenly faltered in her playing, wandered from one air into another, and with a touch so uncertain that Aunt Betsy, who was fast lapsing into dreamland, became broad awake again all at once, and wanted to know the reason why.

‘Is anything the matter? Are you ill, child?’ she asked, abruptly.

Ida rose from the piano, where her tears had been dropping on the keys, and came out of the shadowy corner to the verandah, where Aunt Betsy sat among her roses, wrapped in a China crape shawl, one of the gifts of that Indian warrior, Colonel Wendover, August was nearly over, but the weather was still warm enough for sitting out of doors in the twilight.

‘What is the matter, Ida? What has happened?’ repeated Miss Wendover, with her hand on the girl’s shoulder, as she bent to listen to her.

Ida was kneeling by Aunt Betsy’s side, her head leaning against the arm of her chair, her face hidden.

‘Nothing, nothing that you can help or cure, dearest friend,’ she answered in a broken voice. ‘You must know how good you have been to me. Yes, even you must know that, although it is your nature to make light of your goodness. I think you know I love you and am grateful. Tell me that you believe that before I say another word.’

‘I do believe it. Your whole conduct since you have been with me has shown as much,’ answered Miss Wendover, calmly. She saw that Ida was powerfully moved, and she wanted to tranquillise her. ‘What is the meaning of this preface?’

‘Only that I must ask you to let me leave you.’

‘Leave me! Oh, you want a holiday, I suppose? — that is natural enough. We needn’t be tragic about that. You want to go over to Dieppe to see your people?’

‘I want to go away from Kingthorpe for ever.’

‘For ever? Ah, now we are really tragic!’ said Miss Wendover, lightly, her broad, firm white hand tenderly smoothing the girl’s hair and brow. ‘My dear child, what has gone amiss with you? Something has, I can see. Have you and Miss Rylance quarrelled? I know she is a viper; but I did not think she would play any of her viperish tricks with my property.’

‘Miss Rylance has done nothing. I have quarrelled with nobody. I love and honour you and the whole house of Wendover with all my heart and mind. But there is a reason — a reason which I implore you to refrain from asking — why I ought never to have come into your house, as I did come — why I ought to leave it — must leave it for ever!’

‘This is very mysterious,’ said Aunt Betsy, thinking deeply. ‘I could understand a reason — which might exist in a girl’s romantic mind — a mistaken generosity, or a mistaken pride — the outcome of late events — which might urge you to run away — like that always wrong-headed and misguided young person, the heroine of a novel: but what reason there could have been when you came to me last winter against your coming — no — that is more than I can comprehend.’

‘You are not to comprehend. It is my secret — my burden — which I must bear. I want you to believe me, that is all — only to believe me when I say that I love you dearly, and that I have been unspeakably happy in your house — and just quietly let me go and seek my fortune elsewhere — without saying anything to anybody until I am gone.’

‘And a nice weeping and wailing there will be from Bessie and her brothers and sisters when you are gone!’ exclaimed Miss Wendover; ‘a pleasant time I shall have of it, with all of them — to say nothing of my own feelings. Do you think it is fair, Ida, to treat me like this; to make yourself pleasant to me, useful, necessary to me — to wind yourself into my heart — and then all at once, with a sudden wrench, to pluck yourself out again, and leave me to do without you? Do you call that fair play?’

‘I know that it must seem like base ingratitude,’ answered Ida, calm now, with a despairing calmness; ‘but I cannot help myself. I am more proud than I can say that you should care for me — that my loving services have not been unwelcome. I know that you took me out of charity; and it is a delight to know that I have not been altogether a bad bargain. But I must go away.’

‘I begin to see light,’ said Miss Wendover, who had been thinking all this time. ‘It’s your father’s doing. He thinks you are not making a profitable use of your education and talents. He has ordered you to go where you will get a larger salary. But don’t let his needs separate us, my dear. I love you better than a few pounds a quarter. I will give you seventy, or even eighty pounds a year, if that will satisfy Captain Palliser.’

‘No, no, dear Aunt Betsy. Thank God, my father is not that kind of man. He knows how happy I have been, he is grateful to you for all your goodness to me, and more than content that I should be happy without being a burden to him.’

‘Then why do you want to leave me?’ asked Miss Wendover, with her hands on the girl’s shoulders, her eyes reading the white agonised face looking up at her in the thickening twilight. There was just light enough for her to see the look of intense pain in that pallid countenance.

Why do you want to go away?’ she repeated. ‘What kind of reason can that be which you fear to tell me? It must be an unworthy reason; and yet I cannot believe that you could have such a reason. Is it on account of my nephew Brian? Have you found out what I have suspected for a long time? Have you discovered that he is in love with you, and do you fancy yourself an ineligible match for him, because he is rich and you are poor, and do you think that you ought to run away in order to give him a chance of doing better for himself? If you have any such high-flown idea, abandon it. The Wendovers are not a mercenary tribe. We shall welcome Brian’s bride, whoever she be, for her own sake, and not for her dowry.’

‘It is no such reason. I cannot tell you. You must forgive me, and let me go.’

‘Then I forgive you, and you can go,’ replied Miss Wendover, coldly. ‘I am deeply disappointed in you. If you cared for me as you say you do, you would trust me. Love without faith is an impossibility. However, I don’t want to distress you. If you are to leave me I will make your departure as pleasant as I can. When do you want to go?’

‘Immediately. As soon as you can spare me.’

‘I cannot spare you at all; a few weeks or days more or less will make no difference to me. Do you want to go among strangers, to be a governess? or do you wish to go back to your people?’

‘I want to earn my own living. The harder I have to work the better I shall like it. I would not mind even going into a school, though my experience of Mauleverer is hateful.’

‘You shall not go into a school. I will send an advertisement to the Times.’

‘Would it not be better for me to go to Winchester and apply at some agency for servants and governesses? When I advertised in the Times there was not a single answer.’

‘You may have better luck this time,’ replied Miss Wendover, in a business-like tone. She was too proud to show any further indications of sorrow, or even to reveal how deeply she was wounded. ‘I will do what I can to help you, though —’

‘Though I do not deserve it,’ said Ida.

‘You know best about that. Yes,’ after some moments of silent thought, ‘it may not be too late even now. When I lunched with the Trevors, at Romsey, the day of Brian’s return, Mrs. Trevor’s sister, Lady Micheldever, was in a state of anxiety about governesses. Her old governess was to be married in a few weeks, such an inestimable treasure that Lady Micheldever thought it would be impossible to replace her, so sweet, so ladylike, so accomplished. Now, if the situation is not yet filled, I think it would suit you exactly. They are people who would give you a liberal salary — you would be able to help your father.’

‘I should be glad of that. Do the Micheldevers live near here?’ faltered Ida. ‘I want to go quite away.’

‘They have property near here, but their place is close to Savernake Forest, and they spend their winters in Italy. Sir George has a weak chest, and all the children are delicate. If you go to them, nearly half your life will be spent abroad.’

‘I should like that very much,’ said Ida.

‘Nothing so pleasant as variety of scenery and people,’ replied Miss Wendover, with a touch of irony in her voice.

She began to think Ida cold-hearted and hypocritical. It was evident to her that this feverish longing for change was mere selfish ambition, a desire to be better placed in the world. She had met with the same kind of feeling too often in her rustic protégées of the cook and house-maid class, who, when they had learnt all she could teach them, were eager to spread their wings and soar to the servants’ halls of Mayfair, and the society of powdered footmen.

‘Nine o’clock,’ said Miss Wendover, wrapping her shawl round her, and rising to go into the drawing-room as the church clock chimed silver-sweet across the elm tops and the misty meadows. ‘Too late for this evening’s post; but I will write to Lady Micheldever to-night, and my letter will be ready for the midday mail to-morrow. I hope she has not found anybody yet.’

‘You are too good,’ faltered Ida, as they went into the lamplit room.

‘I am only doing my duty,’ replied Miss Wendover. ‘“Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest!”’

‘You will not tell Bessie, or anyone, till I am gone?’ pleaded Ida, earnestly.

‘Certainly not — if that is your wish.’

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