The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 21

Taking Life Quietly.

It was the second week in October, and the woods were changing their green liveries of summer for tawny and amber tints, so various and so harmonious in their delicate gradations that the eye of the artist was gladdened by their decay. The hawthorns in Wimperfield Park glowed in the distance like patches of crimson flame, and the undulating sweeps of bracken showed golden-brown against the green-sward; while the oaks-symbolic of all that is solid, ponderous, and constant in woodland nature, slow to bloom and slow to die — had hardly a faded leaf to murk the coming of winter.

A fine domain, this Wimperfield Park, with its hill and vale, its oaks and beeches, and avenue of immemorial elms, to be owned by the man who six weeks ago had no better shelter than a lath and plaster villa in a French village, and who had found it a hard thing to pay the rent of that trumpery tenement; and yet Sir Reginald Palliser accepted the change in his circumstances as tranquilly as if it had been but a migration from the red room to the blue. He took good fortune with the same easy indolent air with which he had endured evil fortune. He had the Horatian temperament, uneager to anticipate the future, content if the present were fairly comfortable, sighing for no palatial halls over-arched with gold and ivory, no porphyry columns, or marble terraces encroaching upon the sea. He was a man to whom it had been but a slight affliction to live in a small house, and to be deprived of all pomp and state, nay, even of the normal surroundings of gentle birth, so long as he had those things which were absolutely necessary to his own personal comfort. He was honestly sorry for the untimely fate of his young kinsmen; but he slipped into his nephew’s vacant place with an ease which filled his wife and daughter with wonder.

To poor little Fanny Palliser, who had never known the sensation of a spare five-pound note, nay, of even a sovereign which she might squander on the whim of the moment, this sudden possession of ample means was strange even to bewilderment. Not to have to cut and contrive any more, not to have to cook her husband’s dinners, or to run about from morning till twilight, supplementing the labours of an incompetent maid-of-all-work, was to enter upon a new phase of life almost as surprising as if she, Fanny Palliser, had died and been buried, and been resolved back into the elements, to be born again as a princess of the blood royal. She kept on repeating feebly that it was all like a dream — she had not been able to realise the change yet.

To Reginald Palliser the inheritance of Wimperfield was only a return to the home of his childhood. To his lowly-born little helpmeet it was the beginning of a new life. It was a new sensation to Fanny Palliser to live in large rooms, to walk about a house in which the long corridors, the wide staircase, the echoing stone hall, the plenitude of light and space, seemed to her to belong to a public institution rather than to a domestic dwelling — a new sensation, and not altogether a pleasant one. She was awe-stricken by the grandeur — the largeness and airiness of her new surroundings.

There was not one of the sitting-rooms at Wimperfield in which, even after a month’s residence, she could feel thoroughly at home. She envied Mrs. Moggs, the housekeeper, her parlour looking into the stable-yard, which seemed to Sir Reginald’s wife the only really snug room within the four walls of that respectable mansion. Mrs. Moggs’ old-fashioned grate and brass fender, little round table, tea-tray, and kettle singing on the hob, reminded Fanny Palliser of her own girlhood, when her mother’s sitting room had worn just such an air of humble comfort. Those white and gold drawing-rooms, with their amber satin curtains and Georgian furniture, had a scenic and altogether artificial appearance to the unaccustomed eyes of one born and reared amidst the narrow surroundings of poverty.

And then, again, how terrible was that highly respectable old butler, who knew the ways of gentle folks so much better than his new mistress did; and who put her to shame, in a quiet unconscious way, a hundred times a day by his superior knowledge and experience. How often she asked for things that were altogether wrong; how continually she exposed her ignorance, both to Rogers the butler, and to Moggs, the housekeeper; and what a feeble creature she felt herself in the presence of Jane Dyson, her own maid, who had come to her fresh from the sainted presence of an archbishop’s wife, and who was inclined to be slightly dictatorial in consequence, always quoting and referring to that paragon of women, her late mistress, whose only error in life had been the leaving it before Jane Dyson had saved enough to justify her retirement from service. Those highly-educated retainers were a terror to poor little Fanny Palliser. There were times when she would have been glad to be impecunious again, and running after her faithful Lizette, who had every possible failing except that of being superior to her mistress. These Wimperfield servants were models; but they did not disguise their quiet contempt for a lady who was evidently a stranger in that sphere where powdered footmen and elaborate dinners are among the indispensables of existence.

Only six weeks, and Sir Reginald and his family were established in the place that had been Sir Vernon’s, and the old servants waited on their new lord, and all the mechanical routine of life went on as smoothly as if there had been no change of masters. Ida found herself wondering which was the reality and which the dream — the past or the present. There had been a few days of excitement, hurry, and confusion at Les Fontaines after the awful news of the wreck: and then Sir Reginald had come to London with his wife and boy, and had put up at the Grosvenor Hotel while the lawyers settled the details of his inheritance. Sir Vernon had left no will. Everything went to the heir-at-law — pictures, plate, horses and carriages, and those wonderful cellars of old wine which had been slowly accumulated by Sir Reginald’s father and grandfather.

Reginald Palliser passed from the pittance of a half-pay captain, eked out by the desultory donations of his open-handed nephew, to the possession of a fine income and a perfectly-appointed establishment. There was nothing for him to do, no trouble of furnishing, or finding servants. He came into his kingdom, and everything was ready for him. Yet in this house where he was born, in which every stone was familiar to him, how little that was mortal was left of those vanished days of his youth! Among all these old servants there was only one who remembered the new master’s boyhood; and that was a deaf old helper in the garden, a man who seemed past all labour except the sweeping up of dead leaves, being himself little better than a withered leaf. This man remembered wheeling the present baronet about the gardens in his barrow, forty years ago — his function even then being to collect the fallen leaves — and was a little offended with Sir Reginald for having forgotten the man and the fact.

At the Grosvenor Hotel, calm even in the dawn of his altered fortunes, Brian Walford found his father-in-law, and told, with the pleasantest, most plausible air, the story of Ida’s clandestine marriage, slurring over every detail that reflected on himself, and making very light of Ida’s revulsion of feeling, which he represented as a girlish whim, rather than a woman’s bitter anger against the husband who had allowed her to marry him under a delusion as to his social status.

Sir Reginald was at first inclined to be angry. The whole thing was a mystification — absurd, discreditable. His daughter had grossly deceived him. It needed all the stepmother’s gentle influence to soften the outraged father’s feelings. But Lady Palliser said all that was kindly about Ida’s youth and inexperience, her impulsive nature; and a man who has just dropped into £7,000 a year is hardly disposed to be inflexible. Sir Reginald was too generous even to question Brian closely as to his capability of supporting a wife. The man was a gentleman — young, good-looking, with winning manners, and a member of a family in which his daughter had found warm and generous friends. Ida’s father could not be uncivil to a Wendover.

‘Well, my good fellow, it is altogether a foolish business,’ he said; ‘but what’s done cannot be undone. I am sorry my daughter did not ask my leave before she plunged into matrimony; but I suppose I must forgive her, and her husband into the bargain. You have both acted like a pair of children, falling in love and marrying, and quarrelling, and making friends again, without rhyme or reason; but the best thing you can do is to bring your wife — your wife? my little Ida a wife? — Good God, how old I am getting! — yes, you had better bring her to Wimperfield next week, and then we can get better acquainted with you, and I shall see what I can do for you both.’

This no doubt meant a handsome allowance. Brian Walford felt, for the first time in his life, that he had fallen on his feet. He hated the country, and Wimperfield would be only a shade better than Kingthorpe; but it was essential that he should please his easy-tempered father-in-law.

‘If he wanted me to live in the moon I should have to go there!’ he said to himself. And then Lady Palliser went into an adjoining chamber and brought forth little Vernon, to exhibit him, as a particular favour and privilege, to Ida’s husband; and Brian, who detested children, had to appear grateful, and to address himself to the irksome task of making friends with the little man. This was not easy, for the boy, though frank and bright enough in a general way, did not take to his new connexion: and it was only when Brian spoke of Ida that his young brother-in-law became friendly. ‘Where is she? why haven’t you brought her? Take me to her directly-minute,’ said the child, whose English savoured rather of the lower than the upper strata of society.

Brian snapped at the opportunity, and carried the boy off instanter in a Hansom cab to that hotel near Fleet Street where his young wife was pining in her second-floor sitting-room, like a wild woodland bird behind the bars of a cage. The young man thought the little fellow might be a harbinger of peace — nor was he mistaken, for Ida melted at sight of him, and seemed quite happy when they three sat down to a dainty little luncheon, she waiting upon and petting her young brother all the while.

‘This is partridge, isn’t it?’ asked Vernie. ‘I like partridge. We always have nice dinners now — jellies, and creams, and wine that goes fizz; and we all have the same as pa. We didn’t in France, you know,’ explained the boy, unconscious of any reason for suppressing facts in the presence of the waiter.

‘Mamma and I used to have any little bits — it didn’t matter for us, you know — we could pinch. Mamma was used to it, and it was good for me, you know, because I’m often bilious — and it’s better to go without rich things than to take Gregory’s powder, isn’t it?’

‘Decidedly,’ said Brian, who was not too old to remember that bugbear of the Edinburgh pharmacopoeia.

‘And now we have dessert every day,’ continued Vernie; ‘lovely dessert — almonds and raisins, and pears, and nuts, and things, just like Christmas Day. I thought that kind of dessert was only meant for Christmas Day. And we have men to wait upon us, dressed like clergymen, just like him,’ added the child, pointing to the waiter.

‘Oh, Vernie, it’s so rude to point,’ murmured Ida.

‘Not for me; I can’t be rude,’ replied the boy, with conviction. ‘I’m a baronet’s son. I shall be a baronet myself some day. Mamma told me. I may do what I like.’

‘No, pet, you must be a gentleman. If you were a king’s son you would have to be that.’

‘Then I wouldn’t. What’s the use of being rich if you can’t do what you like?’ demanded Vernie, who already began to have ideas, and who was as sharp for his age as the chicken which begins to catch flies directly its head is out of the shell.

‘What’s the good of being somebody if you have to behave just as well as if you were nobody?’ said Brian. ‘Little Vernon has the feudal idea strongly developed; no doubt; in evolution from some long-departed ancestor, who lived in the days when there were different laws for the knight and the villain. Now, how are we going to amuse this young gentleman? I have leave to keep him till half-past seven, when we are all three to dine with Sir Reginald and Lady Palliser at the Grosvenor.’

Vernie, who was half way through his second glass of sparkling moselle, burst out laughing.

‘Lady Palliser!’ he exclaimed, ‘it’s so funny to hear mamma called Lady: because she isn’t a lady, you know. She used to run about the house all day with her sleeves tucked up, and she used to cook; and Jane, our English servant, said no lady ever did that. Jane and mamma used to quarrel,’ explained the infant, calmly.

‘Jane knew very little about what makes a lady or not a lady,’ said Ida, grieved to find a want of elevation in the little man’s ideas. ‘Some of the truest and noblest ladies have worked hard all their lives.’

‘But not with their sleeves tucked up,’ argued the boy; ‘no lady would do that. Papa told mamma so one day, and he must know. He told her she was cook, slush, and bottle-washer. Wasn’t that funny? You worked hard too, didn’t you, Ida?’ interrogated Vernon. ‘Papa paid you were a regular drudge at Miss Pew’s. He said it was a hard thing that such a handsome girl as you should be a drudge, but his poverty and not his will consented.’

‘Vernie quotes Shakespeare,’ exclaimed Brian, trying to take the thing lightly, but painfully conscious of the head waiter, who was deliberately removing crumbs with a silver scraper. It could not matter to any one what the waiter — a waif from Whitechapel or the Dials most likely — knew or did not know of Mr. and Mrs. Wendover’s family affairs; but there is an instinctive feeling that any humiliating details of life should be kept from these menials. They should be maintained in the delusion that the superior class which employs them has never known want or difficulty. Perhaps the maintenance of this great sham is not without its evil, as it is apt to make the waiter class rapacious and exacting, and ready to impute meanness to that superior order which has wallowed in wealth from the cradle.

‘Suppose we go to the Tower?’ inquired Brian. ‘Perhaps Vernie has never seen the Tower?’

Neither Vernon nor Ida had seen that stony page of feudal history, and Vernon had to be informed what manner of building it was, his sole idea of a tower being Babel, which he had often tried to reproduce with his wooden bricks, with no happier result than was obtained in the original attempt. So another Hansom was chartered, and they all went off to the Tower, Vernon sitting between them, perky and loquacious, and intensely curious about every object they passed on their way.

Interested in the associations of the grim old citadel, amused and pleaded by little Vernon’s prattle as he trotted about holding his sister’s hand, Ida forgot to be unhappy upon that particular afternoon. The whole history of her marriage was a misery to her; the marriage itself was a mistake; but there are hours of respite in the saddest life, and she was brave enough to try and make the best of hers. Above all, she was too generous to wish her husband to be painfully conscious of the change in their relative positions, that he was now in a manner dependent upon her father. Her own proud nature, which would have profoundly felt the humiliation of such a position as that which Brian Walford now occupied, was moved to pity for those feelings of shame and degradation which he might or might not experience, and she was kinder to him on this account than she would have been otherwise.

The dinner at the Grosvenor went off with as much appearance of goodwill and proper family feeling as if there had been no flaw in Ida’s matrimonial bliss. Sir Reginald was full of kindness for his new son-in-law: as he would have been for any other human creature whom he had asked to dinner. Hospitality was a natural instinct of his being, and he invited Brian Wendover to take up his abode at Wimperfield as easily as he would have offered him a cigar.

‘There are no end of rooms. It is a regular barrack,’ he said. ‘You and Ida can be very comfortable without putting my little woman or me out of the way.’

This had happened just six weeks ago, and now Ida and her half-brother were wandering about among the ferny hollows and breezy heights of the park, or roving off to adjacent heaths and hills, and it seemed almost as if they had lived there all their lives. Vernon had been quick to make himself at home in the stately old house, rummaging and foraging in every room, routing out all manner of forgotten treasures, riding his father’s old rocking-horse, exploring stables and lofts, saddle-rooms, and long-disused holes and corners, going up ladders, climbing walls, and endangering life and limbs in every possible way which infantine ingenuity could suggest.

‘Mamma, however could we live so long in that horrid little house in France?’ he demanded one day, as he prowled about his mother’s spacious morning-room in the autumn dusk, dragging fine old folios out of a book shelf in his search for picture-books, while Lady Palliser and her stepdaughter sat at tea by the fire.

The lady of the house gave a faint sigh.

‘I don’t know, Vernie,’ she said. ‘I almost think I was happier there than I am here. It was a poor little place, but I felt it was my own house, and I never feel that here.’

‘It will be my house when papa’s dead,’ replied Vernon, cheerfully, seating himself on the ground in front of the broad bay window and turning over Gell’s ‘Pompeiianai’; ‘everything will be mine. Is that why you don’t feel as if it was yours now?’

‘No, Vernie, that’s not it. I hope it will be a great many years before your father is taken away.’

‘But you don’t think so,’ argued Vernon. ‘You told him the other day that if he did not walk more, and take less champagne, he would soon kill himself.’

‘But I didn’t mean it, darling. I only spoke for his good. The doctor says he must take no champagne, or only the dryest of the dry.’

‘What a silly that doctor must be!’ interrupted Vernon; ‘all wine is wet.’

‘The doctor meant wine that is not sweet, dear.’

‘Then he should have said so,’ remarked Vernon, sententiously. He had lived all his little life in grown-up society, and had been allowed to hear everything, and to talk about everything, whereby he had come to consider himself an oracle.

‘The doctor thinks your poor papa has a lym — lym —’

‘Lymphatic temperament?’ suggested Ida.

‘Yes, dear, that’s the name of his complaint,’ replied Lady Palliser, who was not scientific. ‘He has a — well, that particular disease,’ continued the little woman, breaking down again, ‘and he ought to diet himself and take regular exercise; and he won’t diet himself, and he won’t walk or ride; and I lay awake at nights thinking of it,’ she concluded, piteously.

‘You can’t lay awake,’ said the boy; ‘Ida says you can’t. You can lay down your hat or your umbrella, but you can’t lay. It’s impossible.

‘But I tell you I do, Vernie; I lay awake night after night,’ protested Lady Palliser, not seeing the grammatical side of the question. ‘Oh, Vernie!’ as the folio plates gave an alarming crackle, ‘you are tearing that beautiful big book which cost your grandfather so much money.’

‘It’s a nasty book,’ said Vernon, ‘all houses and posts and things. Show me some nice books, Ida; please, do.’

Ida was sitting on the carpet beside him in the next minute and together they went through a bulky quarto Shakespeare with awe-inspiring illustrations by Fuseli. She told him what the pictures meant, and this naturally compelled her to tell the stories of the plays, and in this manner she kept him amused till it was time to dress for dinner, and almost bedtime for the little man. The happiest hours of her life were those in which she devoted herself mentally and bodily to her young brother. If he had loved her in adversity a year ago, he loved her still better in prosperity, when she was able to do so much more for his comfort and amusement. He was rarely out of her sight, the companion of all her rides and rambles, the exacting charge of her life. Brian Walford was not slow to perceive that the boy took precedence of him in all his wife’s thoughts, that the boy’s society was more agreeable to her than that of her husband, and his health and happiness of more importance. As a wife she was amiable, submissive, dutiful; but it needed no hypersensitiveness on the husband’s part to warn him that she gave him duty without love, submission without reverence or esteem The consciousness of his wife’s indifference made Mr. Wendover less agreeable than he had been during that brief courtship among the willows and rushes by the river. He was inclined to be captious, and did not conceal his jealousy of the boy from Ida, although he set a watch upon his tongue in the presence of Vernon’s father and mother.

After all it was a rather pleasant thing to have free quarters at Wimperfield, to have hunters to ride, and covers to shoot over which were almost as much his own as if they had belonged to him. Sir Reginald Palliser had a large way of conferring benefits, which was instinctive in a man of his open and careless temper. Having given Brian Wendover what he called the run of his teeth at Wimperfield, he had no idea of limiting the privileges of residence there. Even when the stud-groom grumbled at the laming of a fine horse by injudicious bucketting up hill and down hill in a lively run with the Petersfield Harriers Sir Reginald made light of the injury, and sent Pepperbox into the straw-yard to recover at his leisure. His own use of the stable was restricted to an occasional ride on an elderly brown cob, of aristocratic lineage and manners that would have been perfect but for the old-gentleman-like habit of dropping asleep over his work. The new baronet was too lazy to hunt, too liberal to put down the hunting stable established by his predecessor. The horses were there — let Ida and Brian ride them. Of those good things which the blind goddess had flung into his lap nothing was too good for his daughter or his daughter’s husband in Sir Reginald’s opinion.

Happily for the domestic peace, Lady Palliser was able to get on harmoniously with her stepdaughter’s husband, and was not disposed to grudge him the luxuries of Wimperfield.

Brian Walford had been quick to take that good-hearted little woman’s intellectual measure. He flattered her small vanities, and made her so pleased with herself that she was naturally pleased with him. His shallow and frivolous nature made him livelier company than a man of profounder thought and deeper feeling. He sang light and lively music from the comic operas of the day, nay, would even stoop to some popular strain from the music-halls. He was clever at all round games and drawing-room amusements. He enlivened conversation with puns, which ranged from the utterly execrable to the tolerably smart. He quoted all the plays and burlesques that had been acted in London during the last five years; he could imitate all the famous actors; and he was a past master of modern slang. There was not much society within an easy drive of Wimperfield, but the few jog-trot county people who dined, or lunched, or afternoon-tea’d with the Pallisers were enlivened by Mr. Wendover’s social gifts, and talked of him afterwards as a talented young man.

So far Mr. Wendover had taken the goods the gods provided with a placid acceptance, and had shown no avidity for independence. He was silent as to his professional prospects, although Sir Reginald had told him in the beginning of things that if he wanted to make his way at the Bar any money required for the smoothing of his path should be provided.

‘You are too good,’ Brian answered lightly; ‘but it isn’t a question of money — it’s a question of time. The Bar is a horribly slow profession. A man has to eat his heart out waiting for briefs.’

‘Yes, I have always heard as much,’ said Sir Reginald; ‘but will it do as well for you to eat your heart out down here as in the Temple? Will the briefs follow you to Wimperfield when the propitious time comes?’

‘I believe they are about as likely to find me here as anywhere else,’ answered Brian, moodily — he was apt to turn somewhat sullen at any suggestion of hard work —‘and in the meanwhile I am not wasting my time. I can go on writing for the magazines.’

That writing for the magazines was an unknown quantity. The young man occasionally shut himself in a little upstairs study on a wet day, smoked excessively, and was supposed to be writing laboriously, his intellect being fed and sustained by tobacco. Sometimes the result of the day was a fat package of manuscript despatched to the post-office; sometimes there was no result except a few torn sheets of foolscap in the waste-paper basket Sometimes the manuscript came back to the writer after a considerable interval; and at other times Mr. Wendover informed his wife vaguely that ‘those fellows’ had accepted his contribution. Whatever honorarium he received for his work was expended upon his menus plaisirs— or may be said rather to have dribbled from his waistcoat pocket in a series of trivial ex-travagances which won him a reputation for generosity among grooms and such small deer. To his wife he gave nothing: she was amply provided with money by her father, who would have lavished his newly-acquired wealth upon her if she had been disposed to spend it; but she was not. Her desires were no more extravagant now than when she was receiving ten pounds a quarter from Miss Wendover. Sooth to say, the temptations to extravagance at Wimperfield were not manifold. Ida’s only need for money was that she might give it to the poor, and that, according to Jeremy Taylor, is to send one’s cash straight to heaven.

The few old-established inhabitants of the neighbourhood, mostly sons of the soil, who attended the village church, were very plain in their raiment, knowing that they occupied a position in the general regard which no finery of velvets or satins could modify. Did not everybody about Wimperfield know everybody else’s income, how much or how little the various estates were encumbered, the poverty or richness of the soil, and the rent of every farm upon it? It was only when Lady Pontifex of Heron Court came down from town, bringing gowns and cloaks and bonnets from Regent Street or the Rue de la Paix, that a transitory flash of splendour lighted up the shadowy old nave with the glow of newly-invented hues and the sheen of newly-woven fabrics. But the natives only gazed and admired. There was nobody adventurous enough to imitate the audacities of a lady of fashion. Miss Emery, of Petersfield, was quite good enough for the landed gentry of this quiet region. She had the fashions direct from Paris in the gaily-coloured engravings of Le Follet, and what could anyone want more fashionable than Paris fashions? True that Miss Emery’s conscientious cutting and excellent workmanship imparted a certain heaviness to Parisian designs; but who would care to have a gown blown together, as it were, by girls who were not allowed to sit down at their work?

The life at Wimperfield was a pleasant life, albeit exceedingly quiet. There were times when Brian Walford felt the dulness of this rustic existence somewhat oppressive; but if life indoors was monotonous and uneventful, he had a good deal of amusement out of doors — hunting, shooting, football, and an occasional steeple-chase within a day’s drive. And a grand point was that nobody asked him to work hard. He could make a great show of industry with books and foolscap, and nobody pryed too closely into the result.

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