The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

Wendover Abbey.

The next day was fine. The children had all been praying for fine weather, that they might entertain Miss Palliser with an exploration of the surrounding neighbourhood. Loud whoops of triumph and sundry breakdown dances were heard in the top story soon after five o’clock, for the juvenile Wendovers were early risers, and when in high spirits made themselves distinctly audible.

The eight o’clock breakfast in the old painted dining-room — all oak panelling, but painted stone colour by generations of Goths and Vandals — was even more animated than the seven o’clock dinner.

Such a breakfast, after the thick bread and butter and thin coffee at Mauleverer. Relays of hot buttered cakes, and eggs and bacon, fish, honey, fresh fruit from the garden, a picturesque confusion of form and colour on the lavishly-furnished table, and youthful appetites ready to do justice to the good cheer.

‘What are you going to do with Miss Palliser?’ asked the Colonel. ‘Am I to take her for a drive?’

‘No, father, you can’t have Miss Palliser to-day. She’s going in the jaunting-car,’ said Reginald, talking of the lady as if she were a horse. ‘We’re going to take her over to the Abbey.’

The Abbey was the ancestral home of the Wendovers, now in possession of Brian Wendover, only son of the Colonel’s eldest brother, and head of the house.

‘Well, don’t upset her oftener than you can help,’ replied the father. ‘I suppose you don’t much mind being spilt off an outside car, Miss Palliser? I believe young ladies of your age rather relish the excitement.’

‘She needn’t be afraid,’ said Reginald; ‘I am going to drive.’

‘Then we are very likely to find ourselves reposing in a ditch before the day is over,’ retorted Bessie. ‘I hope you — or the pony — will choose a dry one.’

‘I’ll risk it, ditches and all,’ said Ida, good-naturedly. ‘I am longing to see the Abbey.’

‘The rich Brian’s Abbey,’ said Bessie, laughing. ‘What a pity he is not at home for you to see him too! Do you think Brian will be back before Ida’s holidays are over, father?’

‘I never know what that young man is going to do,’ answered the Colonel. ‘When last I heard from him he was fishing in Norway. He doesn’t care much about the sport, he tells me; indeed, he was never a very enthusiastic angler; but he likes the country and the people. He ought to stay at home, and stand for the county at the next election. A young man in his position has no business to be idle.’

‘Is he clever?’ asked Ida.

‘Too clever for my money,’ answered the Colonel. ‘He has too much book-learning, and too little knowledge of men and things. What is the good of a man being a fine Greek scholar if he knows nothing about the land he owns, or the cattle that graze upon it, and has not enough tact to make himself popular in his own neighbourhood? Brian is a man who would starve if his bread depended on his own exertions.’

‘He’s a jolly kind of cousin for a fellow to have,’ suggested Horry, looking up from his eggs and bacon. ‘He lets us do what we like at the Abbey. By the way, Blanche, have you packed the picnic basket?’

‘Yes.’

‘What have you put in?’

‘That’s my secret,’ answered Blanche. ‘Do you think I am going to tell you what you are to have for lunch? That would spoil all the fun.’

‘Blanche isn’t half a bad caterer,’ said Reg. ‘I place myself in her hands unreservedly; I will only venture to hint that I hope she hasn’t forgotten the chutnee, Tirhoot, and plenty of it. What’s the good of having a father who was shoulder to shoulder with Gough in the Punjab, if we are to run short of Indian condiments?’

At nine o’clock the young people were all ready to start. The jaunting-car held five, including the driver; Bessie and her friend were to occupy one side, Eva, the round child who loved pigs, was to have a seat, and a place was to be kept for Miss Rylance, who was to be invited to join the exploration party, much to the disgust of the Winchester lads, who denounced her as a stuck-up minx, and distinguished her with various other epithets of an abusive character selected from a vocabulary known only to Wyckhamists. Blanche and Horatio and a smaller boy, called Ernest, who was dressed like a gillie, and had all the wildness of a young Highlander, were to walk, with the occasional charity of a lift.

The jaunting-car was drawn by a large white pony, fat and pampered, overfed with dainties from the children’s tables, and petted and played with until he had become almost human in his intelligence, and a match for his youthful masters in cunning and mischief. This impish animal had been christened Robin Goodfellow, a name that was shortened for convenience to Robin. Robin’s eagerness to depart was now made known to the family by an incessant rattling of his bit.

Reginald took the reins, and got into his seat with the quiet grandeur of a celebrity in the four-in-hand club. Ida and Bessie were handed to their places by Horatio, the chubby Eva scrambled into her seat, with a liberal display of Oxford blue stocking, under the shortest of striped petticoats; and off they drove to the cottage, Dr. Rylance’s miniature dwelling, where the plate-glass windows were shining in the morning sun, and the colours of the flower-beds were almost too bright to be looked at.

Bessie found Miss Rylance in the dainty little drawing-room, all ebonized wood and blue china, as neat as an interior by Mieris. The fair Urania was yawning over a book of travels — trying to improve a mind which was not naturally fertile — and she was not sorry to be interrupted by an irruption of noisy Wendovers, even though they left impressions of their boots on the delicate tones of the carpet, and made havoc of the cretonne chair-covers.

Miss Rylance had no passion for country life. Fields and trees, hills and winding streams, even when enlivened by the society of the lower animals, were not all-sufficient for her happiness. It was all very well for her father to oscillate between Cavendish Square and Kingthorpe, avoiding the expense and trouble of autumn touring, and taking his rest and his pleasure in this rustic retreat. But her summer holidays for the last three years had been all Kingthorpe, and Miss Rylance detested the picturesque village, the busy duck-pond, the insignificant hills, which nobody had ever heard of, and the monotonous sequence of events.

‘We are going to the Abbey for a nice long day, taking our dinner with us, and coming round to Aunt Betsy’s to tea on our way home,’ said Bessie, as if she were proposing an entirely novel excursion; ‘and we want you to come with us, Ranie.’

Miss Rylance stifled a yawn. She had been trying to pin her thoughts to a particular tribe of Abyssinians, who fought all the surrounding tribes, and always welcomed the confiding stranger with a shower of poisoned arrows. She did not care for the Wendover children, but they were better than those wearisome Abyssinians.

‘You are very kind, but I know the Abbey so well,’ she said, determined to yield her consent as a favour.

‘Never mind that. Ida has never seen it. We are going to show her everything. We want her to feel one of us.’

‘We shall have a jolly lunch,’ interjected Blanche. ‘There are some lemon cheesecakes that I made myself yesterday afternoon. Cook was in a good temper, and let me do it.’

‘I hope you washed your hands first,’ said Horatio. ‘I’d sooner cook had made the cheesecakes.’

‘Of course I washed my hands, you too suggestive pig. But I should-hope that in a general way my hands are cleaner than cook’s. It is only schoolboys who luxuriate in dirt.’

‘You’ll come, Ranie?’ pleaded Bess.

‘If you really wish it.’

‘I do, or I shouldn’t be here. But I hope you wish it too. You ought to be longing to get out of doors on such a lovely morning. Houses were never intended for such weather as this Come and join the birds and butterflies, and all the happiest things in creation.’

‘I must go for my hat and sunshade. I wasn’t born full-dressed, like the birds and butterflies,’ replied Urania.

She ran away, leaving Bessie and Ida in the drawing-room. The younger children having rushed in and left their mark upon the room, had now rushed out again to the jaunting-car.

‘A pretty drawing-room, isn’t it?’ asked Bess. ‘It looks so neat and fresh and bright after ours.’

‘It doesn’t look half so much like home,’ said Ida.

‘Perhaps not. But I believe it is just the exact thing a drawing-room ought to be in this latter part of the nineteenth century; or, at least, so Dr. Rylance says. How do you like the blue china? Dr. Rylance is an amateur of blue china. He will have no other. Dresden and Sevres have no existence for him. He recognizes nothing beyond his own particular breed of ginger-jars.’

Miss Rylance came back, dressed as carefully as if she had been going for a morning lounge in Hyde Park, hat and feather, pongee sunshade, mousquetaire gloves. The Wendovers all wore their gloves in their pockets, and cultivated blisters on the palms of their hands, as a mark of distinction, which implied great feats in rowing, or the pulling in of desperate horses.

Now they were all mounted on the car, just as the church clock struck ten. Reginald gave the reins a shake, cracked his whip, and Robin, who always knew where his young friends wanted to go, twisted the vehicle sharply round a corner and started at an agreeable canter, expressive of good spirits.

Robin carried them joltingly along a lovely lane till they came to a gentle acclivity, by which time, having given vent to his exuberance, the pony settled down into a crawl. Vainly did Reginald crack his whip — vain even stinging switches on Robin’s fat sides. Out of that crawl nothing could move him. The sun was gaining power with every moment, and blazing down upon the occupants of the car; but Robin cared not at all. He was an animal of tropical origin, and had no apprehension of sunshine; his eyes were so constructed as to accommodate themselves to a superfluity of light.

‘I think we shall be tolerably well roasted by the time we get to the Abbey,’ said Bessie. ‘Don’t you think if we were all to get down and push the back of the car, Robin might go a little faster?’

‘He’ll go fast enough when he has blown a bit,’ said Reg. ‘Can’t you admire the landscape?’

‘We could, if we were not being baked,’ replied Ida.

Miss Rylance sat silent under her pongee umbrella, and wished herself in Cavendish Square; even though western London were as empty and barren as the great wilderness.

They were on the ridge of a hill, overlooking undulating pastures and quiet sheep-walks, fair hills on which the yew-trees cast their dark shadows, a broad stretch of pastoral country with sunny gleams of water shining low in the distance.

Suddenly the road dipped, and Robin was going downhill with alarming speed.

‘This means that we shall all be in the ditch presently,’ said Bessie. ‘Never mind. It’s only a dry bed of dock and used-up stinging nettles. We shan’t be much hurt.’

After two or three miraculous escapes they landed at the bottom of the hill, and Ida beheld the good old gates of Kingthorpe Abbey, low iron gates that stood open, between tall stone pillars supporting the sculptured escutcheon of the Wendovers. There was a stone lodge on each side of the gate, past which the car drove in triumph into an avenue of ancient yew-trees, low and wide-spreading, with a solemn gloom that would better have become a churchyard than a gentleman’s park.

It was a noble old park, richly timbered with oaks as old as those immemorial trees that make the glory of Stoneleigh. There was a lake in a wooded hollow in front of the Abbey, a long low pile of stone, the newest part of which was as old as the days of the last Tudor. Nor had much money been spent on the restoration or decorative repair of that fine old house. It had been kept wind and weather proof. It had been protected against the injuries of time; and that was all. There it stood, a brave and solid monument of the remote past, grand in its stern simplicity and its historic associations.

‘Oh, what a dear old house!’ cried Ida, clasping her hands, as the car came out of the yew-tree avenue into the open space in front of the Abbey; a wide lawn, where four mighty cedars of Lebanon spread their dense shadows — grave old trees — which were in somewise impostors, as they looked older than the house, and yet had been saplings in the days of Queen Anne. ‘What a sweet old place!’ repeated Ida; ‘and how I envy the rich Brian!’

‘Don’t you think the rich Brian’s wife will be still more enviable sneered Miss Rylance.

‘That depends. She may be a Vere-de-Vereish kind of person, and pine amongst her halls and towers,’ said Ida.

‘Not if she had been brought up in poverty. She would revel in the advantages of her position as Mrs. Wendover of the Abbey,’ asserted Miss Rylance.

‘Would she? The Earl of Burleigh’s wife had been poor, and yet did not enjoy being rich and great,’ said Bessie. ‘It killed her, poor thing. And yet she had married for love, and had no remorse of conscience to weigh her down.’

‘She was a sensitive little fool,’ said Ida; ‘I have no patience with her.’

‘Modern young ladies are not easily crushed,’ remarked Miss Rylance; ‘they make marrying for money a profession.’

‘Is that your idea of life?’ asked Ida.

‘No; but I understand it is yours. I heard you say you meant to marry for money.’

‘Then you must have been listening to a conversation in which you had no concern,’ Ida answered coolly. ‘I never said as much to you.’

The three girls, and the chubby Eva, had alighted from the car, which was being conveyed to the stables at a hand-gallop, and this conversation was continued on the broad gravel sweep in front of the Abbey. Just as the discussion was intensifying in unpleasantness, the arrival of the pedestrians made an agreeable diversion. Blanche and her two brothers had come by a short cut, across fields and common, had given chase to butterflies, experimented with tadpoles, and looked for hedge-birds’ eggs in the course of their journey, and were altogether in a state of dilapidation — perspiration running down their sunburnt faces — their hats anyhow — their hands embellished with recent scratches — their boots coated with clay.

‘Did ever anyone see such objects?’ exclaimed Bessie, who had imbibed certain conventional ideas of decency at Mauleverer Manor: ‘you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.’

‘I daresay we ought, but we aren’t,’ retorted Horatio. ‘I found a tadpole in an advanced stage of transmutation, Miss Palliser, and it has almost converted me to Darwinism. Given a single step and you may accept the whole ladder. If from tadpoles frogs, why not from monkeys man?’

‘Go and be a Darwinian, and don’t prose,’ said Blanche, impatiently. ‘We are going to show Ida the Abbey. How do you like the outside, darling?’ asked the too-affectionate girl, favouring Miss Palliser with the full weight of her seven stone and three-quarters.

‘I adore it. It is like a page out of an old chronicle.’

‘Isn’t it?’ gasped Blanche; ‘and you can fancy the fat old monks sitting on those stone benches, nodding in the sunshine. The house is hardly altered a bit since it was an actual abbey, except that half a dozen cells have been knocked into one comfortable bedroom. The long dark passages are just the same as they were when those sly old monks went gliding up and down them — such dear old passages, smelling palpably of ghosts.’

‘Mice,’ said Horatio.

‘No, sir, ghosts. Do you suppose my sense of smell is of such inferior quality that I can’t distinguish a ghost from a mouse?’

‘Now, how about luncheon?’ demanded Horatio. ‘I propose that we all go and sit under that prime old cedar and discuss the contents of the picnic basket before we discuss the Abbey.’

‘Why, it isn’t half-past eleven,’ said Bessie.

‘Ah,’ sighed Blanche, ‘I’m afraid it’s too early for lunch. We should have nothing left to look forward to all the rest of the day.’

‘There’d be afternoon tea at Aunt Betsy’s to build upon, said Horry. ‘I gave her to understand we were to have something good: blue gages from the south wall, cream to a reckless extent.’

‘Strawberry jam and pound-cake,’ suggested Eva.

‘If you go on like that you’ll make me distracted with hunger,’ said Blanche, a young person who at the seaside wanted twopence to buy buns directly after she had swallowed her dinner.

Bessie and Miss Rylance had been walking up and down the velvet sward beside the beds of dwarf roses and geraniums, with a ladylike stateliness which did credit to their training at Mauleverer. Ida was the centre of the juvenile group.

‘Come and see the Abbey,’ exclaimed Horry, putting his arm through Miss Palliser’s, ‘and at the stroke of one we will sit down to lunch under the biggest of the cedars — the tree which according to tradition was planted by John Evelyn himself, when he came on a visit to Sir Tristram Wendover.’

They all trooped into the Abbey, the hall door standing open, as in a fairy tale. Bessie and Urania followed at a more sober pace; but Ida had given herself over to the children, and they did what they liked with her, Blanche hanging on her bodily all the time.

They were now joined by Reginald, who appeared mysteriously from the back premises, where he had been seeing Robin eat his corn, having a fixed idea that it was in the nature of all grooms and stablemen to cheat horses.

The Abbey was furnished with a sober grandeur, in perfect tone with its architecture. Everything was solid and ponderous, save here and there, where in some lady’s bower there appeared the spindle-legged tables and inlaid cabinets of the Chippendale period, which had an air of newness where all else was so old. The upper rooms were low and somewhat dark, the heavily mullioned windows being designed to exclude rather than to admit light. There was much tapestry, subdued in hue, but in good condition, and as frankly uninteresting in subject as the generality of old English needlework.

Below, the rooms were large and lofty, rich in carved chimney pieces, well preserved panelling, and old oak furniture. There were some fine pictures, from Holbein downwards, and the usual array of family portraits, which the boys and girls explained and commented upon copiously.

‘There’s my favourite ancestor, Sir Tristram,’ cried Blanche pointing to a dark-eyed cavalier, with strongly-marked brow and bronzed visage. ‘He was middle-aged when that picture was painted, but I know he was handsome in his youth. The face is still in the family.’

‘Of course it is,’ said Horatio —‘on my shoulders.’

‘Your shoulders!’ ejaculated Blanche, contemptuously. ‘As if my Sir Tristram ever resembled you. He fought in all the great battles, from Edgehill to Worcester,’ continued the girl; ‘and he was wounded seven times; and he was true to his master through every trial; and he had all the Wendover plate melted down; and he followed Charles the Second into exile; he mortgaged his estate to raise money for the king; and he married a very lovely French woman, who introduced turned-up noses into the family,’ concluded Blanche, giving her tip-tilted nose a complacent toss.

‘I thought it was a mercy that we were spared the old housekeeper,’ said Urania, ‘but really Blanche is worse.’

‘Ida doesn’t know all about our family, if you do,’ protested Blanche. ‘It is all new to her.’

‘Yes, dear, it is all new and interesting to me,’ said Ida.

‘How much more deeply you would have been interested if Mr. Wendover had been here to expatiate upon his family tree,’ said Urania.

‘That might have made it still more interesting,’ admitted Ida, with a frankness which took the sting out of Miss Rylance’s remark.

The young Wendovers had shown Ida everything. They had opened cabinets, peered into secret drawers, sniffed at the stale pot-pourri in old crackle vases; they had dragged their willing victim through all the long slippery passages, by all the mysterious stairs and by-ways; they had obliged her to look at the interior of ghostly closets, where the ladies of old had stored their house linen or hung their mantuas and farthingales; they had made her look out of numerous windows to admire the prospect; they had introduced her to the state bedroom in which the heads of the Wendover race made a point of being born; they made her peep shuddering into the death-chamber where the family were laid in their last slumber. The time thus pleasantly occupied slipped away unawares; and the chapel clock was striking one as they all went trooping down the broad oak staircase for about the fifteenth time.

A gentleman was entering the hall as they came down. They could only see the top of his hat.

‘It’s father,’ cried Eva.

‘You little idiot; did you ever see my father in a stove-pipe hat on a week-day?’ cried Reg, with infinite scorn.

‘Then it’s Brian.’

‘Brian is in Norway.’

The gentleman looked up and greeted them all with a comprehensive smile. It was Dr. Rylance.

‘So glad I have found you, young people,’ he said blandly.

‘Papa,’ exclaimed Urania, in a tone which did not express unmitigated pleasure, ‘this is a surprise. You told me you would not be down till late in the evening.’

‘Yes, my dear: but the fine morning tempted me. I found my engagements would stand over till Monday or Tuesday, so I put myself into the eight o’clock train, and arrived at The Cottage just an hour after you and your friends had left for your picnic. So I walked over to join you. I hope I am not in the way.’

‘Of course not,’ said Bessie. ‘I’m afraid you’ll find us hardly the kind of company you are accustomed to; but if you will put up with our roughness and noise we shall feel honoured.’

‘We are going to get lunch ready,’ said Blanche. ‘You grown-ups will find us under Evelyn’s tree when you’re hungry, and you’d better accommodate yourselves to be hungry soon.’

‘Or you may find a dearth of provisions,’ interjected Reg. ‘I feel in a demolishing humour.’

The troop rushed off, leaving the three elder girls and Dr. Rylance standing in the hall, listlessly contemplative of Sir Tristram’s dinted breast-plate, hacked by Roundhead pikes at Marston Moor.

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