The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

After a Storm Comes a Calm.

While Ida Palliser was thus planning her escape from that earthly paradise where she was dangerously happy, Brian Wendover was thinking of her and dreaming of her, and building the whole fabric of his life on a happy future to be shared with her, cherishing the sweet certainty that she loved him, and that he had only to say the word which was to unite them for ever. He had been in no haste to say that fateful word; life was so sweet to him in its present stage — he was so confident of the future. He had closely and carefully studied the character of the woman he loved, in the beginning of their acquaintance, before his judgment had lost its balance, before affection had got the better of the critical faculty. He had been in somewise impressed by what Urania had told him about Ida. The slanderer’s malice was obvious; but the slander might have some element of truth. He watched Ida narrowly during the first month of their acquaintance, expecting to find the serpent-trail somewhere; but no trace of the evil one had appeared. She was frank, straightforward, intelligent to a high degree, and with that eager thirst for knowledge which is generally accompanied by a profound humility. He could see in her no base worship of wealth for its own sake, no craving for splendour or fashionable pleasures. She found delight in all the simplest things, in rustic scenery, in hill and down and wood, in dogs and horses, and birds and flowers, music and books. A girl who could be happy in such a life as Ida Palliser lived at Kingthorpe must be in a manner independent of fortune; her pleasures were not those that cost money.

‘If she is the kind of girl Miss Rylance describes her she will set her cap at me,’ he thought. ‘If she wants to be mistress of Wendover Abbey, one mistake and one failure will not daunt her.’

But there was no such setting of caps. For a long time Ida treated Mr. Wendover of the Abbey with the perfect frankness of friendship. Then, as his love grew, showing itself by every delicate and unobtrusive token, there came a change, and a subtle one, in her conduct; and the lover told himself with triumphant heart that he was beloved. Her sweet shyness, her careful avoidance of every possible tête-à-tête, her evident embarrassment on those rare occasions when she found herself alone with him — surely these things meant love, and love only! There could be no other meaning. He was no coxcomb, ready to believe every woman in love with him. He had gone through the world very quietly, admiring many women, but never till now having found one who seemed to him worth the infinite anxieties, and fevers, and agues of love. And now he had found that pearl above price, the one woman predestinate to be adored by him.

He was happily placed in life for a lover, since a lover should always be an orphan. Fathers and mothers are sore clogs upon the fiery wheel of love. He was rich; in every way his own master. His kindred were kindly, simple-minded people, who would give gracious welcome to any virtuous woman whom he might choose for his wife. There was no impediment to his happiness, provided always that Ida Palliser loved him; and he believed that she did love him. This sense of security had made him less eager to declare himself. He was content to wait for his opportunity.

And now summer was waning, though it was summer still. The days were no less lovely; not a leaf had fallen in the woods; red roses flushed the gardens with bloom, yellow roses hung in luxuriant clusters on arches and walls; but the days were shortening, the sunsets were earlier, coming inconveniently before dinner was over at The Knoll; and the Wykehamists began to be weighed down by a sense of impending doom, in the direful necessity of going back to school.

Bessie’s birthday had come round again — that date so fatal to Ida Palliser — and there was much cheerfulness at The Knoll in honour of the occasion. This year the event was not to be signalised by a picnic. They had been picnicking all the summer, and it was felt that the zest of novelty would be wanting to that form of entertainment; so it was decided in family counsel that a friendly dinner at home, with a little impromptu dancing, and perhaps a charade or two afterwards, would be an agreeable substitute for the usual outdoor feast. Brian, Mr. Jardine Dr. and Miss Rylance, Aunt Betsy, and Ida Palliser were to be the only guests; but these with the family made a good sized party. Blanche undertook to play as many waltzes as might be required of her, and also took upon herself the arrangement and decoration of the dessert, which was to be something gorgeous. More boxes of peaches and grapes had been sent over from Wimperfield in the absence of Sir Vernon and his brother, who were still in Scotland.

Bessie’s anniversary was heralded somewhat inauspiciously by a tremendous gale which swept across the Hampshire Downs, after doing no small mischief in the Channel, and wrecking a good many fine old oaks and beeches in the New Forest. It was only the tail of a storm which had been blowing furiously in Scotland and the north of England, and no one as yet knew the extent of its destructive force.

The morning after that night of howling winds was dull and blustery, with frequent gusts of rain.

‘How lucky we didn’t go in for a picnic!’ said Horatio, as the slanting drops lashed the windows at breakfast time. ‘It may rain and blow as hard as it likes between now and six o’clock, for all we need care. A wet day will give us time to get up our charades, and for Blanche to thump at her waltzes. Be sure you give us the Blue Danube.’

‘The Blue Danube is out,’ said Blanche, tossing up her pointed chin.

‘Out of what? Out of time?’

‘Out of fashion.’

‘Hang fashion! What do I care for fashion?’ cried the Wykehamist. ‘Fashion means other people’s whims and fancies. People who are led by fashion have no ideas of their own. Byron is out of fashion, but he’s my poet,’ added Horatio, as who should say, ‘and that ought to be a sufficient set-off against any lessening of his European renown.’

‘Think of the poor creatures at sea!’ murmured kind-hearted Mrs. Wendover, as a sharp gust shook the casement nearest to her.

‘Very sad for them, poor beggars!’ said Reginald; ‘but it would have been sadder for us if we’d been starting for a picnic. Travellers by sea must expect bad weather; it’s an important factor in the sum of their risk, and their minds are prepared for the contingency; but when one has planned a picnic party on the downs a wet day throws out all one’s calculations.’

The rain came and went in fitful showers, the wind blustered a little, and then died away in sobs, while the young Wendovers spent their morning noisily and excitedly, in laborious industries of the most frivolous kind, the end and aim of which was to make a gorgeous display in the evening.

Before luncheon the wind was at rest, and the gardens were smiling in the sunlight under the hot blue sky of summer, and after luncheon the Wendover girls and boys were rushing all over the garden cutting flowers.

‘I only wish Dr. Rylance were not coming,’ said Blanche, stopping to pant and wipe her crimson countenance, when her two baskets were nearly full. ‘He’ll impart his own peculiar starchiness to the whole business.’

‘Oh, hang it, he’ll give the thing a grown-up flavour, anyhow,’ replied Reginald. ‘Besides, the man can talk — though he’s deuced shallow — and that is more than anyone else can in these parts.’

‘Brian will be the hero of this evening’s festivity, just as Brian Walford was of the last. Don’t you remember how nice he looked?’ said Blanche, as they went back to the house loaded with roses, heliotrope, geranium, and ferns.

‘Poor fellow!’ sighed Bessie, who was so sentimental that she could but suppose her favourite cousin a martyr to blighted love.

‘If Brian of the Abbey proposes to Ida, as I feel convinced he will, and if she accepts him, as she is sure to do, it will simply break Brian Walford’s heart.’

‘Not a little bit,’ said Reginald. ‘If he did spoon her last year, is that any reason, do you think, that he should care for her now? If she be not fair to me, what the deuce care I how fair she be? And do you suppose I am going to waste in despair, and all that kind of thing? Not if I know it.’

‘Say what you like, I believe Brian Walford was deeply in love with Ida, and that he has never been here since that time, because he can’t bear to see her, knowing she doesn’t care for him.’

‘That’s skittles!’ exclaimed the youthful sceptic, using a favourite expression of his father’s to express incredulity. ‘The reason Brian doesn’t come to Kingthorpe is, that he has other fish to fry elsewhere. As if anybody would come to Kingthorpe who wasn’t obliged!’

‘Brian used to come.’

‘Yes, when he was young and verdant; and I daresay my father used to tip him. He knows better now: he is enjoying himself in Paris — under the pretence of studying law and modern languages — dancing at the jardin Bullier, and going on no end, I daresay. I know what Paris is.’

‘How can you?’ exclaimed Bessie; ‘you were never there!’

‘I was never in the moon, but I’m pretty well acquainted with the geography of that planet. We have fellows in the Upper Sixth who think no more of going to Paris than you do of going to Winchester; and a nice life they lead there. Why, a man who thoroughly knows Paris can steep himself in dissipation for a five-pound note!’

Loud exclamations of horror concluded the conversation.

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