The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 23

‘All Our Life is Mixed with Death.’

Four years and more had gone, and there were changes at Wimperfield — changes at Kingthorpe. Death had come to the Georgian mansion among the wood-crowned hills. The easy-going master of that good old house had taken life a little too easily, had disregarded the warnings of wife and doctor, had dined and slept, and drunk his favourite wines — not immoderately, but with utter disregard of medical regimen — had neither walked, nor ridden, but had let life slip by him in a placid, plethoric self-indulgence — shunning all exertion, all pleasure even, if it were allied with activity of any kind. So, in an existence almost as sleepy as the spell-bound slumber in Beauty’s enchanted palace, Ida’s father had left the door of his mansion ajar to the fell visitor Death, and the fatal day had come suddenly, with no more warning than Sir Reginald heard Sunday after Sunday in church, or read any evening in his favourite Horace, as he turned the carmine-bordered leaves of one of Firmin Didot’s exquisite duodecimos, and mused pleasantly over the poet’s perpetual variations upon the old theme —

‘Brother, we must all die.’

The guest came like a thief in the night, and snatched his prey, in the midst of the family circle, in the leisurely lamplit hour after dinner, with the sound of gay voices and light laughter in the air. The senseless body breathed and throbbed for another day and another light: and then all was over — and Ida and her stepmother knelt side by side, clasped in each other’s arms, by the clay which both had fondly loved.

They were alone in their sorrow. Brian was in London. Vernon was with Mr. and Mrs. Jardine, at their parsonage on Salisbury Plain, being prepared for Eton. The two women grieved together in a mournful solitude for the first day on which the house was darkened, and the presence of death was palpable in their midst.

Brian hurried down to Wimperfield directly the news reached him. He was agitated by the event, which had happened without any note of warning. He was not given to forecasting the future, and it had seemed to him that life at Wimperfield was to go on for ever in the same groove — immutable as the course of the planets; that he was always to have a luxurious home there — a fine stable — an indulgent father-in-law. He had been really fond of Sir Reginald, after his manner, and his sudden death shocked and grieved him. And then it gave a shade of uncertainty to his own future. He did not know how the estate might be left — how tied up and hedged round by executors and trustees, shutting him out of his present almost proprietorial enjoyment of the place. Some smug London lawyer, perhaps, would put his sleek paw upon everything during the boy’s minority. Sir Reginald had never talked to Brian of his will.

The smug town lawyer came down, but not to impound Wimperfield — only to read the late baronet’s will, which was entirely in harmony with the dead man’s easy and generous temper.

He left his widow an annuity of fifteen hundred pounds, and the privilege of occupying Wimperfield until his son should come of age, and on leaving Wimperfield she was to receive the sum of two thousand pounds, to enable her to furnish any house she might choose to rent for herself. To his daughter he left any two horses she might select from the existing stud, and seven hundred a year in the Three per Cents, the principal to be divided among her children, if of age at the date of her death, or to be held in trust for them if under age. In the event of Vernon dying unmarried, Ida was to inherit everything; in the event of his marrying but having no children, his widow was to take the same annuity as that bequeathed to Lady Palliser, and the estate was to go to Ida, with reversion to her eldest son, or, in the event of no son, to her eldest daughter, whose husband was to take the name of Palliser. In this manner had short-lived man endeavoured to make his name live after him.

Ida and her stepmother were left joint guardians of the boy, Vernon.

To Brian Walford Wendover, Sir Reginald bequeathed only his favourite hunter, a leash of chumber spaniels, and fifty pounds for a memorial ring. Mr. Wendover could not find fault with a will which left his wife seven hundred a year; but he felt that his position was diminished by his father-in-law’s death, and he was morbidly jealous of the boy, who had absorbed so much of his wife’s care and affection from the first hour of their coming to Wimperfield.

‘I suppose we are to turn out now,’ he said to Ida the night after the funeral, when they two were slowly and sadly pacing the terrace, in front of the drawing-room windows. It was the beginning of December — bleak, cheerless weather — and the woods looked black against a dull gray sky. There was only one feeble streak of pale yellow light in the west Bonder, behind gaunt patriarchal oaks.

‘Your father’s will is a very handsome will,’ continued Brian, ‘but it leaves no provision for our living on here, and I suppose we shall have to clear out.’

‘Leave Wimperfield! Oh, no, I’m sure Lady Palliser has no idea of such a thing. Leave Wimperfield, and Vernon? He has a double claim upon me now, my fatherless darling.’

‘Of course, Vernon is your first thought,’ sneered Brian. ‘But wouldn’t it be just as well to think of ways and means! Who is to keep up Wimperfield? Lady Palliser, on her fifteen hundred a year; or you, on your seven hundred?’

‘I can help mamma. She can have all my income, except just enough to buy my clothes; and my father gave me gowns enough to last for the next five years. But I heard the lawyer say that the place would be kept up for Vernie. Lady Palliser would hardly have any occasion to spend her income, except in paying for actual personal expenses, her own servants, and so on.’

‘Good for Lady Palliser; but that doesn’t make our position any more secure, if she should want to get rid of us?’

‘I’m sure she will want us to stay. You ought to know her better than to suggest such a thing. You must know her affectionate nature, and how fond she is of us both.’

‘I never presume to know anything of any woman. She seems to like us; but who can tell what may lurk under that seeming. She may marry again, and want to make a clean sweep of old associations.’

‘Mamma! How can you think of such a horrid thing? No, she is as true as steel; she has been a good and loyal wife to my father.’

‘That doesn’t prevent her being good and loyal to a second husband; nay, her very virtues — affectionateness, a soft clinging nature — point to the probability of a second marriage. It is just such women who fail into the adventurer’s trap. However, we won’t quarrel about her, and so long as she is cordial, and likes to have us here, Wimperfield can be our country house.’

This was a somewhat loose way of sneaking, for Wimperfield had been Ida’s only house during her married life. Brian had his chambers in the Temple at a rent of a hundred and twenty-five pounds a year, his sitting-room furnished with none of that Spartan ruggedness which so well became George Warrington, of Pump Court, but in the willow-pattern and peacock-feather style of art; the dingy old walls glorified by fine photographs of Gerôme’s Roman Gladiators, Phryne before her judges, Socrates searching for Alcibiades at the house of Aspasia, and enlarged carbonized portraits of the reigning beauties in London society. But these chambers, though supposed to be devoted to days of patient work and much consumption of midnight oil, had served chiefly as a basis for late breakfasts, club-dinners, and theatre-going, while the midnight oil had been mostly associated with lobster salad at snug little suppers after the play. Ida had never been at these chambers, although she had been invited there frequently during the first few months of her husband’s tenancy. As time went by Mr. Wendover found it was more convenient that his town and country residences should be completely distinct; and it had gradually become an accepted fact at Wimperfield that Temple Chambers were a kind of habitation which a man’s wife could hardly visit without violating the first principles of legal etiquette.

Brian Walford was speedily reassured as to his position at Wimperfield. Lady Palliser clung to her stepdaughter in her widowhood with a still warmer affection than she had shown during her husband’s lifetime. Ida was her adviser, her strong rock, her resource in all difficulties and perplexities, social or domestic. Nor would she allow her stepdaughter or her stepdaughter’s husband to share the expenses of housekeeping at Wimperfield. The allowance for the young baronet’s maintenance during his minority was large enough to cover all expenses of the very quiet household, likely to be even more quiet now that Sir Reginald Palliser, a man of particularly social habits, was gone.

Lady Palliser had never been able to feel thoroughly at home among the county people. Their language was not her language, nor their habits her habits. She could have got on ever so much better with them had they been less homely and free and easy in their ways. She had schooled herself in a politeness of line and rule, had learnt good manners by rote; and to find all her theories continually ignored or traversed was a perplexity and a trouble to her. If the county people had only treated her with the rigid stiffness enjoined in a three-and-sixpenny manual, she could have met them upon equal ground. She could have remembered the social laws made and provided for her guidance as guest or hostess — how to enter and leave a room, in what attitude to stand or sit, with the fitting use of every item of table furniture, from the fish knife and fork to the salver of rose water. But when she beheld the county people doing outrageous things with their legs, and altogether heterodox in their way of eating and drinking, when she heard them talk very much as the ‘lady friends’ of her girlhood had talked over their washtubs, or kitchen ranges, yet with an indescribable difference, and never by any chance realising her own innate ideas of company manners, Lady Palliser felt herself more and more at sea in this new world of hers. Thus it was that she fell into the way of letting Ida manage everything for her, and of meekly accepting such friends as Ida brought round her, and making much of those mothers whose boys were of an age to be play-fellows for her own beloved son.

And now the master of the house, the central figure in the family picture, was gone, and the two women had to face life for the most part alone. Brian had grown fonder of London lately. He had held a few briefs during the last twelve months and could plead business in the metropolitan law-courts as a reason for being very little at Wimperfield out of the hunting season. The boy was with the Jardines at Hopsley Vicarage, except during the happy interval of holidays. He was always glad to come home, but he was generally tired of home before the holiday was over, and went back to the Jardines with a keen delight which made his mother’s heart ache.

Ida’s character had ripened and strengthened in the years which were gone, years of quiet, submissive performance of duty. She had been a fond and obedient daughter, an almost adoring sister, a good and faithful wife. If she had not given her husband the love he had hoped to inspire, she had been more considerate, more sympathetic than many a wife who has married for love. She had never wounded him by hard words, had never exacted sacrifices from him, never pursued her own pleasure when it was at variance with his. She had long ago gauged his shallow nature — she knew but too well that he was a reed, and not a rock, and that in all the trials of life she would have to stand alone; but if she sometimes inwardly scorned him, she never betrayed her scorn, either to him or to the world after she had once made up her mind as to the nature of the bond between them, and the duties attached to that bond. With ripening years and growing wisdom she had atoned nobly for the errors of impulse and reckless anger.

Brian knew that she was good and loyal; but although he admired and respected her, he could not forgive her for that innate superiority which made him all the more conscious of his own shortcomings, for that growing strength of character which accentuated his own weakness. When the charm of novelty had departed, when the triumph of having won her in spite of herself was over, Brian Walford’s love for his beautiful wife wore to a very thin thread. The tie was not broken, but it was sorely attenuated. He had never ceased to be jealous of the brother whom she loved so much more fondly than she had ever loved, or even pretended to love, her husband; but he had left off expressing that jealousy in open unbraiding. Once he had been in the habit of saying, ‘You will have a boy of your own some day, and then Master Vernie will be nowhere;’ but that hoped-for son had never come, and Vernon was still all in all to his sister. Brian knew that it was so, and submitted to his lot in sullen acquiescence. After all, his marriage had brought him much that was good — had smoothed his pathway in life; and if — if, by-and-by, some such fatality as that which had cleared the way for Reginald Palliser, should clear the way for Ida, his wife would be the owner of one of the finest estates in Sussex. He wished no evil to the young baronet, he bore no grudge against him for Ida’s idiotic fondness; but the fact remained that the boy’s death would make Brian Walford Wendover’s wife a rich woman. It is not in the nature of a man living among sharp-witted lawyers and men about town to ignore a fact of this kind. His friends had talked to him about it after the publication of Sir Reginald Palliser’s will.

‘A fine thing for you if that young gentleman were to go off the hooks,’ said they; but Brian protested that he had no desire for such promotion. He was fond of the boy, and was very well satisfied with his own position.

‘I daresay you do like the little beggar,’ answered his particular friend, who was loafing away the earlier half of the afternoon in Mr. Wendover’s chambers, smoking Mr. Wendover’s cigarette, and sipping Mr. Wendover’s Apollinaris slightly coloured with brandy — a very modest form of entertainment surely, and yet the cigarettes and the superfine cognac, which were always on tap in Elm Court, made no small appearance in the accounts of tobacconist and wine merchant. ‘You would be sorry if anything were to happen to him, no doubt; just as I shall be sorry when the governor bursts up — poor old fellow! But I know I want his money very badly; and I think you could spend a good deal more than your present income.’

Brian admitted with a light laugh that his capacity for expenditure was considerably in excess of his resources,

‘You know how quietly I live,’ he began.

’Comme çi, comme ça,‘ muttered his friend.

‘And yet even now I am in debt.’

‘And have been ever since I first knew you, and would be if you had fifty thousand a year!’

‘Oh, that’s inevitable,’ said Brian. ‘A man with an income of that kind must always be in debt. He never can know when he comes to the boundary line. When a man starts in life by believing he is enormously rich, and can have everything he wants, he is pretty sure to go to the dogs. That’s the way the sons of millionaires so often drift towards the gutter.’

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