The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 28

An Englishman’s House is His Castle.

Ida felt a strange relief to her spirits, despite the absolute blackness of her domestic horizon, when the carriage drove away from Wimperfield. She had left the house very seldom of late, feeling that duty chained her to the joyless scene of home; and there was an infinite relief in turning her back upon that stately white building in which was embodied all the misery of her blighted life. No charnel-house could be fuller of ghastly, unspeakable horrors than Wimperfield had become to her since that long, never-to-be-forgotten night when she had listened to her husband’s ravings, and when all the loathsome objects his distracted fancy had conjured into being, and his never-resting tongue had described, had been only a little less real to her mind than they had been to his. Could she ever again know peace and rest in those rooms; ever tread those corridors without shuddering and dread, ever know happiness again in all the days of her life? She leaned back in the carriage as they drove along the avenue, and rested with half-closed eyes, her soul heavy within her, her body weighed down by the soreness and weariness of her mind. If life could but end now! She felt that she could be of no more use in the world. She could do nothing to help her wretched husband. He had chosen to go his own way to destruction, and he was too near the edge of the pit now to be snatched back by any friendly hand. She felt that his fate had passed beyond the regions of hope. God might pity the self-destroyer, and deal lightly with him at the great audit; but on this earth there was no hope of cure. Brian Wendover was going down to the pit.

Bessie sat by Ida’s side tenderly watching her worn white face, while Lady Palliser was entirely absorbed by the delight of administering fussily to her boy, who was well enough to laugh her shawls and comforters and motherly precautions to scorn, and to jump about in the carriage, as at each break in the wood some new object of interest caught his eye — a rabbit, a squirrel, a hawk high up in the blue, invisible to any gaze less eager than his own. He was in wild spirits at being out of doors again, a restless eager soul, not to be restrained by any medical ordinances or maternal anxieties.

They went for a long drive, the horses, very fresh after the little exercise of the last month, devouring the ground under them — the summer breeze brisk and inspiring — the country beautiful beyond measure — an ever-varying landscape of hill and wood and valley, green pastures and golden grain.

Bessie chatted gaily in her desire to distract Ida’s mind, and the boy’s vivacity never flagged; but Ida sat silent, feeling the blessedness of this brief respite from the horror of home, but quite unable to talk of indifferent subjects. She was haunted by the image of her husband as she had seen him that morning — his ashen countenance, the perpetual movement of his eyes, those nervous attenuated hands, almost transparent in their bloodlessness, for ever pushing aside the formless horrors that crowded round him — pictures painted on the empty air, pictures for ever changing, yet hideously real to that disorganised brain pictures that spoke and gibbered at him, shadows with which he carried on conversations.

With this awful image fresh in her mind, Ida could not even pretend to be cheerful, or interested in common things.

‘Don’t be unhappy about me, dear,’ she said once when Bessie squeezed her hand, and looked at her with tender anxiety; ‘I must bear my burden. Nobody can help me.’

‘Except God,’ whispered the Vicar’s faithful wife. ‘He lightens all burdens, in His good time.’

On the homeward road they wound near the base of Blackman’s Hanger, and at this point Vernon got up and ordered the coachman to drive as near as he could to the old gamekeeper’s cottage.

‘We can walk the rest of the way,’ said the boy.

‘Walk!’ shrieked Lady Palliser. ‘Oh, Vernie, what are you dreaming about? Mr. Fosbroke never said you might walk.’

‘Very likely not,’ retorted the boy; ‘but you don’t suppose I’m going to ask old Fosbroke’s leave before I use my legs. Look here, mother dear, I’m as well as ever I was, and I’m not going to be mollicoddled any more.’

‘But Vernie —’

‘I am not going to be mollicoddled any more, and I’m going to see old Jack.’

‘Nonsense, Vernie.’

‘He came to see me, and I’m going to see him,’ said Vernon, resolutely. ‘Remember what your favourite author, the Countess of Seven Stars, says about the necessity of returning a call —“and if the person calling happen to be your inferior in social status, the obligation to return the visit within a reasonable time will be so much the stronger.” There, mother; there are the very words of your “Crême de la Crême” for you.’

‘But, Vernon, the countess would never have imagined such a person as a Cheap Jack calling upon anyone for whom her book was intended.’

‘The book was intended for a parcel of stuck-up cads,’ said Vernon. ‘Get on, Jackson.’

This to the coachman, who was driving slowly, perfectly conscious of the squabble going on behind him, and anticipating the reversal of Sir Vernon’s order. But Lady Palliser said nothing, so Jackson quickened his pace a little, and drove along the rough winding road which skirted the base of the hill.

Directly he drew up his horses Vernon leapt out, and the three women followed him. After all, the mother inwardly argued, it were a pity to thwart her darling. He was in such high spirits, and seemed so thoroughly himself again. His very wilfulness was delightful, for it told of renewed vigour.

They all climbed the hill together, by a cork-screw track which was not too distressing. The atmosphere was cool and fresh at this altitude, the odour of the pines ambrosial.

‘I suppose we had better wait a little way off, Vernie,’ said Ida, when they were within a dozen yards of the hut. ‘Your friend is so very uncivil to ladies.’

‘Yes, you’d better rest yourselves on that fir tree,’ answered Vernon, pointing to prostrate giant of the grove which had been Lilely felled,’ while I run on and see him.’

They obeyed, but in less than five minutes Vernon came back.

‘Jack is out, but his house is open,’ he said, eagerly, ‘and I want you all to come and see it. I want you to see the house that my Jack built.’

‘But would it be right to go into his cottage when he is away?’ asked Ida.

‘Of course it would,’ cried her brother, dancing along before them. ‘You must come — there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I can tell you. Mother will see that my Jack isn’t a vulgar person, that he can read and write, and has the ways of a gentleman.’

‘I should certainly like to see what kind of person my son associates with,’ said Lady Palliser, who, in common with the non-studious class of mankind, was a keen inquirer into the details of daily life.

She liked to know where her acquaintance had their gowns made, and what wages they gave their cooks, and to be the first to hear of matrimonial engagements and dangerous illnesses.

The cottage door stood wide open, and as there was neither hall nor passage, the moment the three Fatimas had crossed the threshold they were standing in the innermost sanctuary of Mr. Cheap Jack’s private life, and the character of the man stood revealed to them, so far as surroundings can reveal a man’s character.

He was a smoker, for the room, albeit the lattice stood wide open, smelt strongly of tobacco, and over the narrow wooden mantelpiece were slung three pipes, one a long cherry-wood tube of decidedly Oriental appearance.

‘Quite gentlemanly looking pipes,’ said Lady Palliser.

The room was in perfect order, everything arranged with an exquisite neatness. The floor was covered with a coarse, substantial matting, spotlessly clean. The furniture consisted of a clumsy old walnut-wood table, evidently picked up at some farmhouse or cottage in the neighbourhood, a heavy piece of cabinet work of the same order, half secretaire half bookcase, a couple of substantial arm-chairs, and a ponderous old oak chest — also the relic of some dismantled homestead. There was a brass clock on the chimney-piece, and there were a number of rather dingy-looking volumes in the bookcase, while the floor under the table was piled with quartos and thick octavos, which looked like books of reference. An old leathern despatch box, much the worse for wear, stood on the table. Ornaments, pictures, or photographs there were none.

‘It really looks like a gentleman’s room,’ said Lady Palliser, after her eyes had devoured every detail.

‘It is a gentleman’s room,’ answered Vernon, decisively. ‘Didn’t I tell you my friend Jack is a gentleman?’

‘Vernie dear, a man who goes about the country in a cart selling things can’t be a gentleman!’ said his mother.

‘I don’t quite see that, Lady Palliser,’ exclaimed Bessie, who was inspecting the book-shelves. ‘A gentleman may fall upon evil days, and have to earn his living somehow, don’t you know; and why shouldn’t he have a cart, and go about selling things? There’s nothing disreputable in it, though he could hardly go into society, perhaps, while he was driving the cart, because the mass of mankind are such fools. Why shouldn’t Vernie’s instinct be right, and this Cheap Jack be a reduced gentleman? Froude says that in the colonies Oxford men may be seen mending the roads. Why shouldn’t one man in the world have the courage to do humble work in his own country? This Jack is a University man.’

‘How do you know that?’ asked Lady Palliser, eagerly. She was ready to bow down before a University man as a necessarily superior being. There had never been such a person of her own blood.

‘Here is a volume of AEschylus — the Clarendon Press — with his college arms. He is a Balliol man, the same college as my cousin Brian’s.’

‘That proves nothing,’ said Lady Palliser, contemptuously. ‘He may have bought the book at a stall. All his furniture is second-hand, why not his books?’

‘Oh, but here are more books with the Balliol arms — Pindar, Theocritus, Catullus, Horace, Virgil.’

‘Can’t you find his name in any of them?’

‘No; that has been erased in some of the books, and has never been written in the others. Poor fellow! I daresay he would not like his real name to be known.’

‘Didn’t I tell you he was a gentleman, mother?’ exclaimed Vernon, triumphantly.

Lady Palliser was almost convinced. The neat, substantially furnished room — so free from frippery or foppishness — the queer Oriental pipes — the well-used books in sober calf bindings, which had once been splendid — the college arms on almost every volume — these details impressed her in spite of herself.

‘Poor young man! I should like to send him some money,’ she said.

‘He would not take it; he would scorn your money,’ said Vernon. ‘What does he want with pounds, shillings, and pence? He told me that so long as he has his books to read, his pipe to smoke, and a fine country to roam about, he cares for nothing else. Your money wouldn’t buy him anything.’

‘You don’t understand, Vernie dear. We might do something substantial for him — set him up in a nice little shop at Petersfield, perhaps a stationer’s, or,’ with a glance at the rack of pipes, ‘a tobacconist’s.’

‘My Jack keeping a shop! my Jack behind a counter!’ cried Vernon: ‘if you knew anything about him you would never talk of such a thing. Why he likes to be as free as the birds of the air — to roam about all day — and sit up reading half the night.’

They were all clustered in front of the bookcase, Bessie and Ida looking at the books, Lady Palliser and her boy intent on their own talk, when the door was flung open, and the master of the house suddenly appeared amidst them — a tall, broad-shouldered figure, roughly clad in shooting jacket, corduroy, and leather, like a gamekeeper — a dark bearded face under a slouched hat. But the intruders had only the briefest time in which to observe his appearance. At sight of the group by the bookcase, Jack tilted his felt hat further over his brows, and strode across the room to that corner whence a cork-screw stair led to the upper story. He went up these stairs in three or four bounds, banged and bolted the door of the upper chamber; and his unbidden guests were left looking at each other in bewildered silence.

Lady Palliser, after a gasp or two, was the first to speak.

‘Did you ever see such manner?’ she exclaimed; ‘such a perfect brute? Vernie, you must never speak to that horrid feature again. I never want to have anything more to do with University men if this is a specimen of their manners! Never so much as to take off his hat to us!’

‘We had no right to come crowding into his room,’ said Bessie, who could seldom find it in her heart to be angry with anyone. ‘I daresay the poor thing feels the change in his position. When Brian, of the Abbey, comes home — if ever he does come home — I’ll ask him to hunt this poor fellow out, and help him in some way. One Balliol man ought to help another.’

‘Let us go back to the carriage instantly,’ said Lady Palliser, almost shouting the substantive, in order that Jack might be reminded what kind of people he had insulted by his ruffianly bearing. ‘I feel that I am bemeaning myself every moment I stay in this house.’

They hurried down the sandy hill path to the road where they had left the carriage, and Lady Palliser hustled them into it, breathless, with the combined effect of the rapid descent and her indignation.

‘Why, Ida, how deadly pale you are!’ exclaimed Bessie. ‘I hope you are not ill. Have we walked too fast for you?’

‘No, dear — only — that man’s face reminded me —’

‘Of Brian’s when he first came home from Norway, and was so dreadfully sunburnt?’ said Bessie; ‘so it did me. The idea flashed upon me, as the rude wretch rushed past us, that he had a sort of look of Brian. Just the way he carried his head, you know, and something in the shape of his shoulders — not a real resemblance.’

‘Of course not.’

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