The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 31

‘Sole Partner and Sole Part of All These Joys.’

More than a year had gone by since that awful night, and a new Wimperfield House was slowly rising from the ashes of the Bath stone mansion with the Grecian portico. Only the walls and the portico had remained intact after the fire, and these had been pulled down to make room for a spacious edifice in the Early English manner, the heavy insurances on the old building providing for the cost of this newer and more beautiful Wimperfield. But Ida was not near to watch the new Wimperfield in the progress of erection. She had spent the greater part of the last year at the Homestead with Miss Wendover, and the residue with her stepmother at Bournemouth, where Lady Palliser had taken and furnished for herself one of the pretty villas on the Boscomb estate, a pleasant home for the placid joys of widowhood, and a nice place for Vernon’s holidays, were he contented to spend them there, which he was not, greatly preferring the more rustic life of Kingthorpe. Here he was a welcome guest both at the Knoll and at the Homestead; while there was a third house open to him within a walk of the village, for Mr. Wendover had returned from his distant wanderings, and he and Vernie were on very friendly terms.

Ida had as yet seen but little of the master of the Abbey, albeit she heard of him almost daily from some of The Knoll family. He had returned at Easter, unexpectedly, as usual, and much to the surprise of a neighbourhood which had grown accustomed to the idea of his never coming back at all. But although he had settled himself at the Abbey, declaring that he had made an end of his wanderings, seen all he wanted to see, and never meant to go far afield any more, he had taken no share in the picnics and rustic festivities with which the Knoll family celebrated their worship of the great god Pan; whereupon Blanche informed her cousin frankly that he was not half so nice as he had been seven years ago, when he had joined in their fungus hunts and barrow hunts and blackberry gatherings, just as if he had been one of themselves.

‘Seven years ago I was seven years younger, Blanche. We were all children then.’

Blanche sighed, and shook her head despondently.

‘As for me, I feel centuries old,’ she said; ‘but that is only natural in such a dead-and-alive hole as Kingthorpe.’

Which speech being interpreted meant that Miss Wendover had not had a new frock or an invitation to a garden party for the last fortnight.

‘Still,’ she argued,’ one ought to make the best of one’s life even at Kingthorpe, and picnics and rambles help one to endure existence. You used to be such a delightful companion, and now no one but little Vernie ever seems to get any fun out of you. He is always talking of the larks he has at the Abbey.’

‘Sir Vernon is good enough to call the mildest form of diversion a lark!’ said Brian Wendover, smiling at her.

‘Come now, I will make a bargain with you,’ said Blanche.

‘John Jardine and Bess are coming over next week to spend Bessie’s birthday with us, which, as you know, is a family festival that we never allow to be celebrated anywhere else. Bess and John and the babies are coming to us, and Vernon Palliser is going to the Homestead, and his mother is coming over from Bournemouth to stay a few days with Aunt Betsy; so you see it will be a grand family gathering of Wendovers and Pallisers. Now, if you are anything like the man you were seven years ago, prove it by joining us on this occasion.’

‘I cannot refuse; and I will try my uttermost to forget that I have lived seven lonely years since that happy summer.’

‘Ah, it was a happy summer!’ sighed Blanche, who affected to be weighed down by the burden of mature years. ‘I wasn’t out in those days, and I hadn’t a care.’

‘What form does your festival take this year? and where do you mean to celebrate it?’

‘Oh, a picnic, of course, if this lovely weather only holds out. We have not had one really proper picnic this year.’

‘But don’t you think the seventh of September is just a little late for an al fresco feast? Suppose we were to make it luncheon and afternoon tea at the Abbey, with unlimited tennis in the afternoon.’

‘That would be simply delicious,’ said Blanche, concluding that Mr. Wendover intended to invite all the eligible young men of his acquaintance to be found within twenty miles.

‘Then it is agreed. You need give yourself no further trouble. You have only to bring your people — the Knoll party, and the Homestead party.’

‘Precisely. Of course you can ask as many as you like.’

The year which was gone had been one of perfect peace for Ida, peace overshadowed by the memories of pain and horror; but those memories had been lightened, and her mind had been comforted, and soothed, and fortified by Aunt Betsy’s loving companionship, by that common-sense and broad way of thinking which was as a tower of strength in the day of trouble. Yet for months after that awful time at Wimperfield her nights had been broken by dreadful dreams or too vivid reminiscences of her husband’s evil fate, that terrible decay of mind and body, that gradual annihilation of the energies and powers of manhood which it had been her painful lot to witness.

Aunt Betsy took care that the young widow’s days should be too busy for much thought. She found constant occupation for her. She sent her about to the remotest corners of the parish to minister to the sorrows of others; she gave her the sick to nurse, and the old and feeble to care for, and the young to teach; so that there should be no leisure left from dawn to sunset for futile lamenting over the irrevocable past. But in the silence of night those dreaded memories crept out of their hiding-places, as other vermin creep out of their holes under cover of darkness, and it was long before they began to grow less vivid and let a terrible.

From the moment Miss Wendover appeared at Wimperfield on the afternoon after the fire, coming as quickly after the receipt of the news as horses could convey her, Ida had been sheltered and protected by her love. No sooner was Brian laid at rest in his grave in Wimperfield churchyard than Aunt Betsy carried off the hopeless, broken-down widow to the Homestead, where Ida resumed all her old duties; so that there were times when it seemed as if all the years of her married life were but a dream from which she had awakened, a dream which had subdued and saddened her whole nature, and had made her feel old and weary.

But there was much of happiness in her life, so much that she was fain to put aside all signs and tokens of grief except her dense black gowns and crape bonnets, and to rejoice with those who rejoiced; for here was Aunt Betsy, the most cheery and unselfish of women, whose life ought to be all sunshine, inasmuch as she spent so large a portion of it in brightening the lives of others; and here were the boys and girls from the Knoll, always in uproarious spirits, and wanting Ida’s sympathy in all their delights; and here was Vernon coming over from the Vicarage on Salisbury Plain, at all times and seasons, for a few days’ holiday, rosier and stronger and more sporting every time she saw him, great upon hawking and hunting, and full of grand schemes for his future life at the new Wimperfield. He had forgotten Brian’s melancholy doom, as easily as youth is apt to forget everything, in the hurry and ardour of life’s morning; but his love for his sister knew no abatement. He wanted her to share in all his future joys.

‘You are not going to stay at the Homestead all your life, are you?’ he asked one day. ‘Of course you are going back to Wimperfield directly the new house is finished?’

‘No, dear, I could never live at Wimperfield again — it would recall too many sad scenes. When Aunt Betsy is tired of me I shall go abroad. I have seen so little of the world, you know.’

‘Oh, if you want to travel, you can go with me when I come of age; but in the meantime you must help mother to keep house at Wimperfield. It will be quite a new place — everything new — nothing to remind you of father or Brian. And then in a few years I shall be of age, and then we can go off to the Rockies together.’

‘With Cheap Jack for our guide, philosopher and friend.’ said Ida.

‘Well, no; I’m afraid Cheap Jack won’t go with us!’ answered Vernon, laughing.

‘I have such a reason to be grateful to him that I could hardly object to his company,’ said Ida; ‘and I am quite unhappy at never having been able to thank him or reward him for saving my life.’

‘He didn’t want to be thanked or rewarded. Didn’t I tell you that he was not that kind of man?’

‘But why should any man go through life doing good to others, and never getting thanks or praise for his goodness,’ said Ida. ‘It is a most unpleasant form of misanthropy. I feel quite uncomfortable under the burden of my obligations to Mr. Jack; and though I have made every effort to put myself in communication with him, through Mr. Mason and others, I have not been able to find out where he is or anything about him.’

‘Odd, isn’t it?’ said Vernon. ‘He left the cottage on the day after the fire, didn’t he? shut it up, and took the key to Lord Pontifex’s steward, and drove off with his books and things packed in his cart, goodness knows where, after having made a free gift of his stock to the villagers.’

‘Not a very profitable way of carrying on business,’ said Ida. ‘He must have had means independent of his trade.’

‘Well, I don’t suppose we shall ever see him again,’ returned Vernon, cheerfully, somewhat to Ida’s disgust; for this indifference to the sudden close of a once enthusiastic friendship argued a lightness and fickleness of disposition in Sir Vernon Palliser.

And now it was again the eve of Bessie’s birthday, that day which had twice been fraught with fatal influences for Bessie’s friend; and Ida could not put away the feeling that this seventh of September, finding her once again on the scene of past fatalities, must needs bring her some new evil, some undreamed of crisis in her life. Yet what would happen to her now? She asked herself. The play was played out. She had lived her life. For her tragedy and comedy were alike over and done with.

The morning of the seventh dawned fair and bright. If there were any omen in those pinky clouds which flecked the tender gray of early morning, surely it must be a portent of good and not of evil; although Lady Palliser, who was not given to over-cheerful views, declared at breakfast that such roseate hues in early morning meant bad weather before noon.

‘Let the weather be never so unkind, we’ll find a way of enjoying ourselves at the Abbey,’ said Aunt Betsy, who was in tremendous spirits —‘Won’t we, Vernie?’

‘Of course,’ answered Vernon. ‘Mother has a new bonnet, and is afraid of getting it spoiled. The weather won’t interfere with us. We can play hide-and-seek in the Abbey cellars.’

‘Oh, Vernie! and get shut behind a secret panel or in a chest, like that poor girl in the poem Ida used to read to us.’

‘Don’t be afraid, mother. If I get into a chest, you may depend I shall know how to get out of it. That girl in the poem was a duffer for not having made more row; and her lover was a beastly sneak for not ferreting out her hiding-place.’

‘They ought to have had a detective down from London,’ remarked Lady Palliser, ignoring both the scene and the date of the story.

Her reading had lain much among novels in which the private detective was omnipotent, the unraveller of all mysteries, the avenger of every wrong.

Miss Wendover drove Lady Palliser to the Abbey in her phaeton, and the party from the Knoll went in the roomy family waggonette; but Vernon and his sister walked across the fields and the common, by that path which Ida had trodden on the day she first saw the master of the Abbey. How vividly she recalled her feelings on that day — the pain and embarrassment she felt in Brian Wendover’s presence, the agony of humiliation! And then had followed the too happy, too perilous days in which he had been her familiar friend, the fatal night on which he had declared himself her lover.

Well, she was free now. She could meet him and think of him without sin; but since his return she had met him at most half a dozen times, and then always in the company of other people. He had greeted her cordially, as friend should greet friend, but he had not sought her society. He knew that she was living in his aunt’s house, but he had only been to that house once since his return.

‘Time was, time is, time’s past,’ said the brazen oracle. Ida began to tell herself that for her time was verily past. Life, and youth, and love had been hers; but fate had been adverse, and she had wasted them, and they were over and gone.

She had some time for pensive reverie, as she walked to the Abbey, Vernon being as usual more occupied by the inhabitants of the hedges and ditches than by his companion; but once arrived at the Abbey, there was no time for sadness. Bessie was on the threshold to welcome her, and the whole Knoll family were swarming in the great hall, where Brian, standing under the picture of the famous Sir Tristram, was giving cordial welcome to everyone.

How handsome he looked under the likeness of his ancestor! and how vividly the modern face recalled the ancestral lineaments! Time had only deepened the noble lines of his countenance, and added dignity to his figure and bearing. He looked happy, too, like a man upon whom the future smiles assuringly. The fancy flashed across Ida’s mind that he was engaged to be married, and that he meant to announce the fact to his family to-day, perhaps, and to introduce the lady. She looked hastily round the hall, almost expecting to see some new face, young, lovely, beaming with smiles — the face of the chosen one. But there was no one except Lady Palliser and the house of Wendover.

‘I have not asked any strangers, Blanche,’ said Brian. ‘I thought we should all have more fun if we had the old place to ourselves.’

‘How good of you!’ replied the matronly Bess. ‘I’m sure we shall all enjoy ourselves ever so much more.’

Blanche was disappointed. Lawn-tennis among relations was all very well, but she had plenty of that at the Knoll. She felt sorry she had put on her best hat and Indian silk frock, elaborately frilled with twine-coloured lace. A cotton gown, and the oldest thing in garden hats, would have been good enough for such an assembly.

The Colonel and Mrs. Wendover had driven over with their children. It was quite a family party — Bessie’s babies, a girl able to toddle, and a boy in the nurse’s arms, were the great features of the entertainment, the grandmother openly worshipping them, the grandfather condescending to occasional patronage of this third generation, but evidently anxious to dissemble his pride.

‘Bessie makes such a preposterous fuss about her babies,’ said Blanche, after declining lawn-tennis with Eva and her two brothers. ‘I hope if ever I am deluded into marrying, I shall not degenerate into an upper nurse.’

The Abbey had been swept and garnished in honour of the occasion, every room brightened with flowers — even that sacred apartment, Brian’s study, thrown open to the public. After luncheon it happened somehow — Ida could hardly have explained how — that she and Brian were alone together in this very room, the afternoon sunlight shining on them — for in spite of Lady Palliser’s prophecy the day had been lovely — the scent of stocks and mignonette and sweet-peas blowing in upon them from the old-fashioned garden at the back of the Abbey. They had strayed to this spot with the others; and the others had strayed off and left them, Ida looking absently at the backs of the Greek dramatists, Brian looking intently at her.

‘I don’t think you have been in this house since the day we first met in the hall below?’ he said, interrogatively.

‘No, I have never been here since.’

‘And yet you were once fond of the Abbey. You used to like wandering about the old house and gardens. You would sit reading in the library. The housekeeper has often talked to me about you.’

She stood before him with lowered eyelids, pale and dumb, shrinking from him almost as she had shrunk from him seven years ago by the old sundial in the moonlit garden, when it was a sin to listen to his ardent avowal.

‘Ida, why are you silent? Why will you not speak of the past?’

‘The past is past!’ she said, falteringly. ‘It was full of grief and shame for me. I want to forget it if I can.’

‘Forget all that is bitter, remember all that is sweet!’ he pleaded, drawing nearer to her. ‘There is much of that old time which is unspeakably dear to me — the happy time in which I first loved you, deeming you were free to be loved and won. You are free now, Ida, sole mistress of your fate and mine; and I love you as dearly now as I loved you seven years ago. More I could not love you, for I loved you then with all my heart and mind. Ida, you once talked of being mistress of Wendover Abbey. Its master is at your feet, your faithful slave to the end of his life. Will you have this old house for your own, Ida, and thus, and thus only, make it home for me?

His arm was round her, gently, experimentally, the answer not being quite certain, even yet.

She slowly lifted the dark-fringed lids, looked at him with adoring eyes — eyes which never before had looked thus upon the face of man.

‘Can you be in earnest?’ she asked, in a low sweet voice. ‘Can you lift me so high — I, that had fallen so low?’

He clasped her to his heart, and sealed the promise of their unclouded future with a passionate kiss.

‘At last, at last, I hold you in my arms!’ he said, fondly; ‘but not for the first time, my angel!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Who was it carried you out of the burning house last year?’ he asked, smiling at her.

‘Cheap Jack.’

‘I was Cheap Jack.’

‘You!’

‘Yes. I lived far from the sight of this dear face, as long as I could bear my life, and then after five years of exile in far lands, where my soul sickened for the sight of you, I came back to England, heard in London that your husband was an idler and a drunkard, and foresaw evil days for my darling. I could be nothing to her; but at least I could watch over her, near at hand, yet unknown. So I took up my abode on the Hanger within a mile or so of her dwelling. Don’t pity me, dearest. It was not a hard life after all. I had my books and Nature for my companions, all the joy I could have, not having you.’

‘However shall I repay you?’

‘Only look up to me as you looked just now, and let me feel you are my own for ever.’

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