The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 29

‘As One Dead in the Bottom of a Tomb.’

Dr. Mallison came to Wimperfield at the same hour as on the occasion of his first visit. He was with the patient for nearly half-an-hour, and he confabulated with Mr. Fosbroke for at least another half hour, so it could not be said that he performed the physician’s duty in a careless or perfunctory manner. But his opinion was not hopeful; and there was a gravity in his manner when he talked to Ida and her stepmother which was evidently intended to prepare them for the worst. He gave a peremptory order for a second nurse, an able-bodied experienced woman, who could relieve Towler in his now most onerous duties — duties growing hourly more painful, since the last development of the patient’s delirium was a violent hatred of his attendant, who, as he believed, was always lying in wait to do him some injury. Dr. Mallison also advised that Mrs. Wendover should no longer occupy the bedroom adjoining her husband’s. Upon this point he was very firm, when Ida urged her anxiety to forego no duty which she owed to her husband.

‘I am so sorry for him,’ she said. ‘I would do anything in the world to help or to comfort him.’

‘Unhappily, dear madam, you can do neither. ‘When these paroxysms are upon him he will mistake his best friend for his worst enemy — he was quite violent to Towler just now. You can do absolutely nothing, and your presence is even likely to irritate him. He must be given over entirely to his nurses. Towler will obey my directions implicitly, and the female attendant — Mr. Fosbroke tells me he can find a thoroughly competent person — will assist him in carrying them out. If we can stimulate the patient’s vital power, which is just now at the lowest ebb, and if we can induce natural sleep, why, there may still be a favourable result. But I do not conceal from you that Mr. Wendover’s condition is critical — very critical. Lady Palliser, you will insist, I hope, that your daughter removes to an apartment at some distance from her husband’s for the present. A few days hence, when the delirium is subjugated, as I trust it may be, by — ahem — the removal of the exciting cause, Mrs. Wendover may resume her attendance upon her husband. Just at present the less she sees of him the better for both.’

Ida could not disobey this injunction, especially as Lady Palliser and Mrs. Jardine took the matter into their own hands. Jane Dyson was ordered to convey all Mrs. Wendover’s belongings to a room on the second and topmost floor of the mansion, exactly over that she now occupied — a fine airy apartment, with a magnificent view, but less lofty, and less ponderously furnished than the apartments of the first floor. Bessie vowed that this upper chamber, with its French bedstead, and light chintz draperies, and maple furniture, was a much prettier room than the one below. She ran up and down stairs carrying flowers, Japanese fans, tea-tables, and other frivolities, until she made the new room a perfect bower, and then carried Ida off triumphantly to inspect her new quarters.

‘Isn’t it lovely,’ she said, ‘such a nice change? Do let us have our tea up here, if that good Dyson won’t mind bringing it. Nearly six o’clock, and we haven’t had a cup of tea! I do so enjoy thoroughly new surroundings. We’ll have the table just in front of this window. What a sweet architect to give this room windows down to the ground, and a lovely balcony! You must have some large Japanese vases in the balcony, Ida. That lovely deep red, or orange tawny. Oh, you poor pet, how wretched you look!’

‘I have just been talking to the new nurse, Bessie. She seems a good, honest creature. She has nursed other people in the same complaint, and — and — she thinks Brian is desperately ill.’

‘Oh, but he may get over it dear! The London doctor did not give him up; and there is no good in your making yourself ill with worry and fear. If you do, you won’t be able to wait upon Brian when he begins to get better; and convalescents want so much attention, don’t you know.’

The tea came, and Bessie persuaded her friend to take some, prattling on all the time in the hope of diverting Ida from the silent contemplation of her trouble. But the horror of the case had taken too stern a hold upon Ida’s brain. It was the dominant idea; as with the somnambulist whose perceptions are dead to every other subject save the one absorbing thought, and all subsidiary ideas linked with it by the subtle chain of association. Ida smiled a wan smile, and pretended to be interested in Bessie’s parochial anecdotes — the idiosyncrasies of the new curate, the fatuity of every young woman in the parish in running after him.

‘He is such a perfect stick; but then certainly there is no other single man in the parish under forty. He is like Robinson Crusoe. It is an awfully deceptive position for a young man to occupy. I know he is beginning to think himself quite handsome, while as for pimples — well, his face is like a Wiltshire meadow before it has been bush-harrowed.’

Ida did not go down to dinner that evening. She felt utterly unequal to the effort of pretended cheerfulness, and she did not want to inflict a countenance of stony gloom upon Mr. and Mrs. Jardine, or on Vernie, who was going to dine late for the first time since his illness. So she sat by the open window overlooking the woods, gray in the universal twilight grayness, and she read Victor Cousin’s ‘History of Philosophy,’ which was a great deal more comforting than fiction or poetry wou’d have been, as it carried her into regions of abstract thought where human troubles entered not.

For the next three days things went on quietly enough. Brian never left his own apartments, now an ample range, since Ida’s bedroom had been thrown into the suite, so as to give him space and verge enough for his roaming when the restless fit was on him: and, alas! how seldom did he cease from his restlessness. He now saw scarcely anyone but his nurses and Mr. Fosbroke, who called three times a day, and was altogether devoted in his watchfulness of the case.

Ida had not ceased from visiting the invalid until it became too obvious that her presence was irritating to him. He recalled the most painful scenes of their past experience, raved about his marriage, and accused his wife of cruelty and greed of wealth, wept, stormed, blasphemed, until Ida rushed shuddering from the room. To the nurses this wild talk was only part and parcel of the patient’s hallucinations; to Ida it was too real.

Mr. Jardine and his wife stayed till the end of the week, but on Saturday the Vicar was compelled to go back to his parishioners; and although Bessie wanted to remain at Wimperfield, separating herself from her husband for the first time in her wedded life, Ida would not consent to such a sacrifice. Vernon, who was pronounced thoroughly convalescent, was to go back to Salisbury Plain with the Jardines, everybody being agreed that Wimperfield Park was no place for him under existing circumstances. If Brian’s malady were doomed to end fatally, it was well that the boy should be gone before the dreaded guest crossed the threshold.

Ida saw her friends depart with a sense of despair too deep for words. She hugged Vernie with the passionate fervour of one who never hoped to see him more. She felt as if it were she whose hours were numbered, she for whom the thin thread of life was gradually dwindling to nothingness. The very atmosphere was charged with the odour of death. The light was shadowed by the gloom of the grave. Again and again in troubled dreams she had recalled that dreadful scene in the church with Brian; and she had seen the worms crawling out through the mouldering timbers of the church-floor — she had smelt the sickening taint of corruption.

She stood in the portico in the early summer morning, watching Mr. Jardine’s phaeton dwindle to a speck in the distance of the avenue, and then she went slowly back to the house, feeling as if she were quite alone in her misery. It was not that Fanny Palliser was wanting in kindness or sympathy, but she was wanting in comprehension of Ida’s feelings, and the stronger nature could not lean upon the weaker; and then the mother would be absorbed in her grief at the loss of her boy, who had become doubly precious since his illness. No, Ida felt that now John Jardine was gone she must bear her burden alone. Help for her, strength outside her own courageous nature, there was none.

She longed on this exquisite morning to be roaming about the park and woods, or riding far afield; but she had made up her mind that, so long as her husband remained in his present critical condition, it was her duty to stay close at hand, within call, lest at any moment there might be a return to reason, and she might again have power to soothe and support him, as she had done many a time in the long down-hill progress of his malady.

With this idea she spent the greater part of her day in the bedroom which Bessie had made so bright and so comfortable. Here she was within easy reach of the nurse in the rooms below, and could be summoned to her husband without a minute’s delay. Here she had her favourite books, and the view of park and woods in all their summer glory. She could sit out in her balcony, reading, or looking idly at the wide expanse of hill and valley, brooding sadly over days that were gone, full of fear for the immediate present, and not daring to face the dreaded future.

‘Don’t think me unsociable,’ she said to Lady Palliser, before going back to her room after a hasty breakfast; ‘but I am too completely miserable to put on the faintest show of cheerfulness, and I should only make you wretched if I were with you. Go out for a drive, and pay a few visits, mamma. You have had a trying time, and you must want a little change of scene.’

‘I believe I do, Ida,’ replied Lady Palliser, gravely. ‘I feel that I am below par, and that I really want sea air. What should you think of our going to Bournemouth directly after the funeral?’

‘The funeral!’ murmured Ida, pale as death.

‘Yes, dear. Mr. Fosbroke has quite given up all hope, I know; and after the funeral you will want a change as badly as I do. I thought it would be as well to write to the Bournemouth agent to secure nice apartments, for I shouldn’t care about staying at an hotel.’

‘Oh, mamma, don’t make your plans so much beforehand! Wait till he is dead,’ said Ida, bitterly.

There seemed to her something ghoulish and stony-hearted in this prevision of coming doom, this arrangement for making the best of life and being comfortable when the sufferer upstairs should have ceased from the struggle with man’s last foe.

Lady Palliser contrived to get on without her step-daughter’s society. She had Jane Dyson, who was a person of considerable conversational powers, and who had an inexhaustible well-spring of interesting discourse in her recollections of the Archbishop’s wife’s lingering illness. The mistress and maid spent the morning not unpleasantly in conversation of the charnel house order, and in looking over Lady Palliser’s wardrobe, with a view to discovering what new mourning she would require in the event of Brian’s death. She had liked him, and had been kind to him in life, and she was not going to stint him in death by any false economy in crape or bugles.

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