The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

At the Knoll.

Between Winchester and Romsey there lies a region of gentle hills and grassy slopes shadowed by fine old yew trees, a land of verdure, lonely and exceeding fair; and in a hollow of this undulating district nestles the village of Kingthorpe, with its half-dozen handsome old houses, its richly cultivated gardens, and quaint old square-towered church. It is a prosperous, well-to-do little settlement, where squalor and want are unknown. Its humbler dwellings belong chiefly to the labourers on the Wendover estate, and those are liberally paid and well cared for. An agricultural labourer’s wages at Kingthorpe might seem infinitely small to a London mechanic; but when it is taken into account that the tiller of the fields has a roomy cottage and an acre of garden for sixpence a-week, his daily dole of milk from the home farm, as much wood as he can burn, blankets and coals at Christmas, and wine and brandy, soup and bread from the great house, in all emergencies, he is perhaps not so very much worse off than his metropolitan brother.

There was an air of comfort and repose at Kingthorpe which made the place delightful to the eye of a passing wanderer — a spot where one would gladly have lain down the burden of life and rested for awhile in one of those white cottages that lay a little way back from the high road, shadowed by a screen of tall elms. There was a duck-pond in front of a low red-brick inn which reminded one of Birkett Foster, and made the central feature of the village; a spot of busy life where all else was stillness. There were accommodation roads leading off to distant farms, above which the tree-tops interlaced, and where the hedges were rich in blackberry and sloe, dog-roses and honeysuckle, and the banks in spring-time dappled with violet and primrose, purple orchids and wild crocus, and all the flowers that grow for the delight of village children.

Ida Palliser sat silent in her corner of the large landau which was taking Miss Wendover and her schoolfellows from Winchester station to Kingthorpe. Miss Rylance had accepted a seat in the Wendover landau at her father’s desire; but she would have preferred to have had her own smart little pony-carriage to meet her at the station. To drive her own carriage, were it ever so small, was more agreeable to Urania’s temper than to sit behind the over-fed horses from The Knoll, and to be thus, in some small measure, indebted to Bessie Wendover.

Ida Palliser’s presence made the thing still more odious. Bessie was radiant with delight at taking her friend home with her. She watched Ida’s eyes as they roamed over the landscape. She understood the girl’s silent admiration.

‘They are darling old hills, aren’t they, dear?’ she asked, squeezing Ida’s hand, as the summer shadows and summer lights went dancing over the sward like living things.

‘Yes, dear, they are lovely,’ answered Ida, quietly.

She was devouring the beauty of the scene with her eyes. She had seen nothing like it in her narrow wanderings over the earth — nothing so simple, so beautiful, and so lonely. She was sorry when they left that open hill country and came into a more fertile scene, a high road, which was like an avenue in a gentleman’s park, and then the village duck-pond and red homestead, the old gray church, with its gilded sun-dial, marking the hour of six, the gardens brimming over with roses, and as full of sweet odours as those spicy islands which send their perfumed breath to greet the seaman as he sails to the land of the Sun.

The carriage stopped at the iron gate of an exquisitely kept garden, surrounding a small Gothic cottage of the fanciful order of architecture — a cottage with plate-glass windows, shaded by Spanish blinds, a glazed verandah sheltering a tesselated walk, sloping banks and terraces, on a very small scale, stone vases full of flowers, a tiny fountain sparkling in the afternoon sun.

This was Dr. Rylance’s country retreat. It had been a yeoman’s cottage, plain, substantial and homely as the yeoman and his household. The doctor had added a Gothic front, increased the number of rooms, but not the general convenience of the dwelling. He had been his own architect, and the result was a variety of levels and a breakneck arrangement of stairs at all manner of odd corners, so ingenious in their peril to life and limb that they might be supposed to have been designed as traps for the ignorant stranger.

‘Don’t say good-bye, Ranie,’ said Bessie, when Miss Rylance had alighted, and was making her adieux at the carriage door; ‘you’ll come over to dinner, won’t you, dear? Your father won’t be down till Saturday. You’ll be dreadfully dull at home.’

‘Thanks, dear, no; I’d rather spend my first evening at home. I’m never dull,’ answered Urania, with her air of superiority.

‘What a queer girl you are!’ exclaimed Bessie, frankly. ‘I should be wretched if I found myself alone in a house. Do run over in the evening, at any rate. We are going to have lots of fun.’

Miss Rylance shuddered. She knew what was meant by lots of fun at The Knoll; a romping game at croquet, or the newly-established lawn-tennis, with girls in short petticoats and boys in Eton jackets; a raid upon the plum-trees on the crumbling red brick walls of the fine old kitchen-garden; winding up with a boisterous bout at hide-and-seek in the twilight; and finally a banquet of sandwiches, jam tarts, and syllabub in the shabby old dining-room.

‘I’ll come over to see Mrs. Wendover, if I am not too tired,’ she said, with languid politeness, and then she closed the gate, and the carriage drove on to The Knoll.

Colonel Wendover’s house was a substantial dwelling of the Queen Anne period, built of unmixed red brick, with a fine pediment, a stone shell over the entrance, four long narrow windows on each side of the tall door, and nine in each upper story, a house that looked all eyes, and was a blaze of splendour when the western sun shone upon its many windows. The house stood on a bit of rising ground at the end of the village, and dominated all meaner habitations. It was the typical squire’s house, and Colonel Wendover was no bad representative of the typical squire.

A fine old iron gate opened upon a broad gravel drive, which made the circuit of a well-kept parterre, where the flowers grew as they only grow for those who love them dearly. This gate stood hospitably open at all times, and many were the vehicles which drove up to the tall door of The Knoll, and friendly the welcome which greeted all comers.

The door, like the gate, stood open all day long — indeed, open doors were the rule at Kingthorpe. Ida saw a roomy old hall, paved with black and white marble, a few family portraits, considerably the worse for wear, against panelled walls painted white, a concatenation of guns, fishing-rods, whips, canes, cricket-bats, croquet-mallets, and all things appertaining to the out-door amusements of a numerous family. A large tiger skin stretched before the drawing-room door was one memorial of Colonel Wendover’s Indian life; a tiger’s skull gleaming on the wall, between a pair of elephant’s ears, was another. One side of the wall was adorned with a collection of Indian arms, showing all those various curves with which oriental ingenuity has improved upon the straight simplicity of the western sword.

It was not a neatly kept hall. There had been no careful study of colour in the arrangement of things — hats and caps were flung carelessly on the old oak chairs — there was a licentious mixture of styles in the furniture — half Old English, half Indian, and all the worse for wear: but Ida Palliser thought the house had a friendly look, which made it better than any house she had ever seen before.

Through an open door at the back of the hall she saw a broad gravel walk, long and straight, leading to a temple or summer-house built of red brick, like the mansion itself. On each side of the broad walk there was a strip of grass, just about wide enough for a bowling-green, and on the grass were orange-trees in big wooden tubs, painted green. Slowly advancing along the broad walk there came a large lady.

‘Is that you mother?’ asked Ida.

‘No, it’s Aunt Betsy. You ought to have known Aunt Betsy at a glance. I’m sure I’ve described her often enough. How good of her to be here to welcome us!’ and Bessie flew across the hall and rushed down the broad walk to greet her aunt.

Ida followed at a more sober pace. Yes, she had heard of Aunt Betsy — a maiden aunt, who lived in her own house a little way from The Knoll. A lady who had plenty of money and decidedly masculine tastes, which she indulged freely; a very lovable person withal, if Bessie might be believed. Ida wondered if she too would be able to like Aunt Betsy.

Miss Wendover’s appearance was not repulsive. She was a woman of heroic mould, considerably above the average height of womankind, with a large head nobly set upon large well-shaped shoulders. Bulky Miss Wendover decidedly was, but she carried her bulkiness well. She still maintained a waist, firmly braced above her expansive hips. She walked well, and was more active than many smaller women. Indeed, her life was full of activity, spent for the most part in the open air, driving, walking, gardening, looking after her cows and poultry, and visiting the labouring-classes round Kingthorpe, among whom she was esteemed an oracle.

Bessie hung herself round her large aunt like ivy on an oak, and the two thus united came up the broad walk to meet Ida, Bessie chattering all the way.

‘So this is Miss Palliser,’ said Aunt Betsy heartily, and in a deep masculine voice, which accorded well with her large figure. ‘I have heard a great deal about you from this enthusiastic child — so much that I was prepared to be disappointed in you. It is the highest compliment I can pay you to say I am not.’

‘Where’s mother?’ asked Bessie.

‘Your father drove her to Romsey to call on the new vicar. There’s the phaeton driving in at the gate.’

It was so. Before Ida had had breathing time to get over the introduction to Aunt Betsy, she was hurried off to see her host and hostess.

They were very pleasant people, who did not consider themselves called on to present an icy aspect to a new acquaintance.

The Colonel was the image of his sister, tall and broad of figure, with an aquiline nose and a commanding eye, thoroughly good-natured withal, and a man whom everybody loved. Mrs. Wendover was a dumpy little woman, who had brought dumpiness and a handsome fortune into the family. She had been very pretty in girlhood, and was pretty still, with a round-faced innocent prettiness which made her look almost as young as her eldest daughter. Her husband loved her with a fondly protecting and almost paternal affection, which was very pleasant to behold; and she held him in devoted reverence, as the beginning and end of all that was worth loving and knowing in the Universe. She was not an accomplished woman, and had made the smallest possible use of those opportunities which civilization affords to every young lady whose parents have plenty of money; but she was a lady to the marrow of her bones — benevolent, kindly. thinking no evil, rejoicing in the truth — an embodiment of domestic love.

Such a host and hostess made Ida feel at home in their house in less than five minutes. If there had been a shade of coldness in their greeting her pride would have risen in arms against them, and she would have made herself eminently disagreeable. But at their hearty welcome she expanded like a beautiful flower which opens its lovely heart to the sunshine.

‘It is so good of you to ask me here,’ she said, when Mrs. Wendover had kissed her, ‘knowing so little of me.’

‘I know that my daughter loves you,’ answered the mother, ‘and it is not in Bessie’s nature to love anyone who isn’t worthy of love.’

Ida smiled at the mother’s simple answer.

‘Don’t you think that in a heart so full of love some may run over and get wasted on worthless objects?’ she asked.

‘That’s very true,’ cried a boy in an Eton jacket, one of a troop that had congregated round the Colonel and his wife since their entrance. ‘You know there was that half-bred terrier you doted upon, Bess, though I showed you that the roof of his mouth was as red as sealing-wax.’

‘I hope you are not going to compare me to a half-bred terrier,’ said Ida, laughing.

‘If you were a terrier, the roof of your mouth would be as black as my hat,’ said the boy decisively. It was his way of expressing his conviction that Ida was thoroughbred.

The ice being thus easily broken, Ida found herself received into the bosom of the family, and at once established as a favourite with all. There were two boys in Eton jackets, answering to the names of Reginald and Horatio, but oftener to the friendly abbreviations Reg and Horry. Both had chubby faces, liberally freckled, warts on their hands, and rumpled hair; and it was not easy for a new comer to distinguish Horatio from Reginald, or Reginald from Horatio. There was a girl of fourteen with flowing hair, who looked very tall because her petticoats were very short, and who always required some one to hug and hang upon. If she found herself deprived of human support she lolled against a wall.

This young person at once pounced upon Ida, as a being sent into the world to sustain her.

‘Do you think you shall like me?’ she asked, when they had all swarmed up to the long corridor, out of which numerous bedrooms opened.

‘I like you already,’ answered Ida.

‘Do thoo like pigs?’ asked a smaller girl, round and rosy, in a holland pinafore, putting the question as if it were relevant to her sister’s inquiry.

‘I don’t quite know,’ said Ida doubtfully.

”Cos there are nine black oneths, tho pwutty. Will thoo come and thee them?’

Ida said she would think about it: and then she received various pressing invitations to go and see lop-eared rabbits, guinea-pigs, a tame water-rat in the rushes of the duck-pond, a collection of eggs in the schoolroom, and the new lawn-tennis ground which father had made in the paddock.

‘Now all you small children run away!’ cried Bessie, loftily. ‘Ida and I are going to dress for dinner.’

The crowd dispersed reluctantly, with low mutterings about rabbits, pigs, and water-rats, like the murmurs of a stage mob; and then Bessie led her friend into a large sunny room fronting westward, a room with three windows, cushioned window-seats, two pretty white-curtained beds, and a good deal of old-fashioned and heterogeneous furniture, half English, half Indian.

‘You said you wouldn’t mind sleeping in my room,’ said Bessie, as she showed her friend an exclusive dressing-table, daintily draperied, and enlivened with blue satin bows, for the refreshment of the visitor’s eye.

While the girls were contemplating this work of art the door was suddenly opened and Blanche’s head was thrust in.

‘I did the dressing-table, Miss Palliser, every bit, on purpose for you.’

And the door then slammed to, and Bessie rushed across the room and drew the bolt.

‘We shall have them all one after another,’ she said.

‘Don’t shut them out on my account.’

‘Oh, but I must. You would have no peace. I can see they are going to be appallingly fond of you.’

‘Let them like me as much as they can. Do you know, Bessie, this is my first glimpse into the inside of a home!’

‘Oh, Ida, dear, but your father,’ remonstrated Bessie.

‘My father has never been unkind to me, but I have had no home with him. When my mother brought me home from India — she died very soon after we got home, you know’— Ida strangled a sob at this point —‘I was placed with strangers, two elderly maiden ladies, who reared me very well, no doubt, in their stiff business-like way, and who really gave me a very good education. That went on for nine years — a long time to spend with two old maids in a dull little house at Turnham Green — and then I had a letter from my father to say he had come home for good. He had sold his commission and meant to settle down in some quiet spot abroad. His first duty would be to make arrangements for placing me in a high-class school, where I could finish my education; and he told me, quite at the end of his letter, that he had married a very sweet young lady, who was ready to give me all a mother’s affection, and who would be able to receive me in my holidays, when the expense of the journey to France and back was manageable.’

‘Poor darling!’ sighed Bessie. ‘Did your heart warm to the sweet young lady?’

‘No, Bess; I’m afraid it must be an unregenerate heart, for I took a furious dislike to her. Very unjust and unreasonable, wasn’t it? Afterwards, when my father took me over to his cottage, near Dieppe, to spend my holidays, I found that my stepmother was a kind-hearted, pretty little thing, whom I might look down upon for her want of education, but whom I could not dislike. She was very kind to me; and she had a baby boy. I have told you about him, and how he and I fell in love with each other at first sight.’

‘I am horribly jealous of that baby boy,’ protested Bessie. ‘How old is he now?’

‘Nearly five. He was two years and a half old when I was at Les Fontaines, and that was before I went to Mauleverer Manor.’

‘And you have been at Mauleverer Manor more than two years without once going home for the holidays,’ said Bessie. ‘That seems hard.’

‘My dear, poverty is hard. It is all of a piece. It means deprivation, humiliation, degradation, the severance of friends. My father would have had me home if he could have afforded it; but he couldn’t. He has only just enough to keep himself and his wife and boy. If you were to see the little box of a house they inhabit in that tiny French village, you would wonder that anybody bigger than a pigeon could live in so small a place. They have a narrow garden, and there is an orchard on the slope of a hill behind the cottage, and a long white road leading to nowhere in front. It is all very nice in the summer, when one can live half one’s life out of doors, but I am sure I don’t know how they manage to exist through the winter.’

‘Poor things!’ sighed Bessie, who had a large stock of compassion always on hand.

And then she tied a bright ribbon at the back of Ida’s collar, by way of finishing touch to the girl’s simple toilet, which had been going on while they talked, and then, Bessie in white and Ida in black, like sunlight and shadow, they went downstairs to the drawing-room, where Colonel Wendover was stretched on his favourite sofa, reading a county paper. Since his retirement from active service into domestic idleness the Colonel had required a great deal of rest, and was to be found at all hours of the day extended at ease on his own particular sofa. During his intervals of activity he exhibited a large amount of energy. When he was indoors his stentorian voice penetrated from garret to cellar; when he was out of doors the same deep-toned thunder could be heard across a couple of paddocks. He pervaded the gardens and stables, supervised the home farm, and had a finger in every pie.

Mrs. Wendover was sitting in her own particular arm-chair, close to her husband’s sofa — they were seldom seen far apart — with a large basket of crewel-work beside her, containing sundry squares of kitchen towelling and a chaos of many-coloured wools, which never seemed to arrive at any result.

The impression which Mrs. Wendover’s drawing-room conveyed to a stranger was a general idea of homeliness and comfort. It was not fine, it was not aesthetic, it was not even elegant. A great bay window opened upon the garden, a large old-fashioned fireplace, with carved wooden chimney-piece faced the bay. The floor was polished oak, with only an island of faded Persian carpet in the centre, and Indian prayer rugs lying about here and there. There were chairs and tables of richly carved Bombay blackwood, Japanese cabinets in the recesses beside the fire-place, a five-leaved Indian screen between the fire-place and the door. There was just enough Oriental china to give colour to the room, and to relieve by glowing reds and vivid purples the faded dead-leaf tint of curtains and chair covers.

The gong began to boom as the two girls came into the room, and the rest of the family dropped in through the open windows at the same moment, Aunt Betsey bringing up the rear. There was no nursery dinner at The Knoll. Colonel Wendover allowed his children to dine with him from the day they were able to manage their knives and forks. Save on state occasions, the whole brood sat down with their father and mother to the seven o’clock dinner; as the young sprigs of the House of Orleans used to sit round good King Louis Philippe in his tranquil retirement at Claremont. Even the lisping girl who loved pigs had her place at the board, and knew how to behave herself. There was a subdued struggle for the seat next Ida, whom the Colonel had placed on his right, but Reginald, the elder of the Winchester boys, asserted his claim with a quiet firmness that proved irresistible. Grace was said with solemn brevity by the Colonel, whose sum total of orthodoxy was comprised in that brief grace, and in regular attendance at church on Sunday mornings; and then there came a period of chatter and laughter which might have been a little distracting to a stranger. Each of the boys and girls had some wonderful fact, usually about his or her favourite animal, to communicate to the father. Aunt Betsy broke in with her fine manly voice at every turn in the conversation. Ripples of laughter made a running accompaniment to everything. It was a new thing to Ida Palliser to find herself in the midst of so much happiness.

After dinner they all rushed off to play lawn tennis, carrying Ida along with them.

‘It’s a shame,’ protested Bessie. ‘I know you’re tired, darling. Come and rest in a shady corner of the drawing-room.’

This sounded tempting, but it was not to be.

‘No she’s not,’ asserted Blanche, boldly. ‘You’re not tired, are you, Miss Palliser?’

‘Not too tired for just one game,’ replied Ida. ‘But you are never to call me Miss Palliser.’

‘May I really call you Ida? That’s too lovely.’

‘May we all call you Ida?’ asked Horatio. ‘Don’t begin by making distinctions. Blanche is no better than the rest of us.’

‘Don’t be jealous,’ said Miss Palliser, laughing. ‘I am going to be everybody’s Ida.’

On this she was borne off to the garden as in a whirlwind.

There were some bamboo chairs and sofas on the grass in front of the bay window, and here the elder members of the family established themselves.

‘I like that schoolfellow of Bessie’s,’ said Aunt Betsy, with her decided air, whereupon the Colonel and his wife assented, as they always did to any proposition of Miss Wendover’s.

‘She is remarkably handsome,’ said the Colonel.

‘She is good and thorough, and that’s of much more consequence,’ said his sister.

‘She takes to the children, and that is so truly nice in her’ murmured Mrs. Wendover.

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