The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Dr. Rylance Asserts Himself.

The luncheon under Evelyn’s tree took a cooler shade from Dr. Rylance’s presence than from the far-reaching branches of the cedar. His politeness made the whole business different from what it would have been without him.

Blanche and the boys, accustomed to abandon themselves to frantic joviality at any outdoor feast of their own contriving, now withdrew into the background, and established themselves behind the trunk of the tree, in which retirement they kept up an insane giggling, varied by low and secret discourse, and from which shelter they issued forth stealthily, one by one, to pounce with crafty hands upon the provisions. These unmannerly proceedings were ignored by the elders, but they exercised a harassing influence upon poor little Eva, who had been told to sit quietly by Bessie, and who watched her brothers’ raids with round-eyed wonder, and listened with envious ears to that distracting laughter behind the tree.

‘Did you see Horry take quite half the cake, just now?’ she whispered to Bessie, in the midst of a polite conversation about nothing particular.

And anon she murmured in horrified wonder, after a stolen peep behind the tree,’ Reg is taking off Dr. Rylance.’

The grown-up luncheon party was not lively. Tongue and chicken, pigeon-pie, cheese-cakes, tarts, cake, fruit — all had been neatly spread upon a tablecloth laid on the soft turf. Nothing had been forgotten. There were plates and knives and forks enough for everybody — picnicking being a business thoroughly well understood at The Knoll; but there was a good deal wanting in the guests.

Ida was thoughtful, Urania obviously sullen, Bessie amiably stupid; but Dr. Rylance appeared to think that they were all enjoying themselves intensely.

‘Now this is what I call really delightful,’ he said, as he poured out the sparkling Devonshire cider with as stately a turn of his wrist as if the liquor had been Cliquot or Roederer. ‘An open-air luncheon on such a day as this is positively inspiring, and to a man who has breakfasted at seven o’clock on a cup of tea and a morsel of dry toast — thanks, yes, I prefer the wing if no one else, will have it — such an unceremonious meal is doubly welcome. I’m so glad I found you. Lucky, wasn’t it, Ranie?’

He smiled at his daughter, as if deprecating that stolid expression of hers, which would have been eminently appropriate to the funeral of an indifferent acquaintance — a total absence of all feeling, a grave nullity.

‘I don’t see anything lucky in so simple a fact,’ answered Urania. ‘You were told we had come here, and you came here after us.’

‘You might have changed your minds at the last moment and gone somewhere else. Might you not, now, Miss Palliser?’

‘Yes, if we had been very frivolous people; but as to-day’s exploration of the Abbey was planned last night, it would have indicated great weakness of mind if we had been tempted into any other direction,’ answered Ida, feeling somewhat sorry for Dr. Rylance.

The coldest heart might compassionate a man cursed in such a disagreeable daughter.

‘I am very glad you were not weak-minded, and that I was so fortunate as to find you,’ said the doctor, addressing himself henceforward exclusively to Ida and her friend.

Bessie took care of his creature-comforts with a matronly hospitality which sat well upon her. She cut thin slices of tongue, she fished out savouriest bits of pigeon and egg, when he passed, by a natural transition, from chicken to pie. She was quite distressed because he did not care for tarts or cake. But the doctor’s appetite, unlike that of the young people on the other side of the cedar, had its limits. He had satisfied his hunger long before they had, and was ready to show Miss Palliser the gardens.

‘They are fine old gardens,’ he said, approvingly. ‘Perhaps their chief beauty is that they have not a single modern improvement. They are as old-fashioned as the gardens of Sion Abbey, before the good queen Bess ousted the nuns to make room for the Percies.’

They all rose and walked slowly away from the cedar, leaving the fragments of the feast to Blanche and her three brothers. Eva stayed behind, to make one of that exuberant group, and to see Reg ‘take off’ Urania and her father. His mimicry was cordially admired, though it was not always clear to his audience which was the doctor and which was his daughter. A stare, a strut, a toss, an affected drawl were the leading features of each characterization.

‘I had no opportunity of congratulating you on your triumphs the other day, Miss Palliser,’ said Dr. Rylance, who had somehow managed that Ida and he should be side by side, and a little in advance of the other two. ‘But, believe me, I most heartily sympathized with you in the delight of your success.’

‘Delight?’ echoed Ida. ‘Do you think there was any real pleasure for me in receiving a gift from the hands of Miss Pew, who has done all she could do to make me feel the disadvantages of my position, from the day I first entered her house to the day I last left it? The prizes gave me no pleasure. They have no value in my mind, except as an evidence that I have made the most of my opportunities at Mauleverer, in spite of my contempt for my schoolmistress.’

‘You dislike her intensely, I see.’

‘She has made me dislike her. I never knew unkindness till I knew her. I never felt the sting of poverty till she made me feel all its sharpness. I never knew that I was steeped in sinful pride until she humiliated me.’

‘Your days of honour and happiness will come, said the doctor, ‘days when you will think no more of Miss Pew than of an insect which once stung you.’

‘Thank you for the comforting forecast,’ answered Ida, lightly. ‘But it is easy to prophesy good fortune.’

‘Easy, and safe, in such a case as yours. I can sympathize with you better than you may suppose, Miss Palliser. I have had to fight my battle. I was not always Dr. Rylance, of Cavendish Square; and I did not enter a world in which there was a fine estate waiting for me, like the owner of this place.’

‘But you have conquered fortune, and by your own talents,’ said Ida. ‘That must be a proud thought.’

Dr. Rylance, who was not utterly without knowledge of himself, smiled at the compliment. He knew it was by tact and address, smooth speech and clean linen, that he had conquered fortune, rather than by shining abilities. Yet he valued himself not the less on that account. In his mind tact ranked higher than genius, since it was his own peculiar gift: just as blue ginger-jars were better than Sevres, because he, Dr. Rylance, was a collector of ginger-jars. He approved of himself so completely that even his littlenesses were great in his own eyes.

‘I have worked hard,’ he said, complacently, ‘and I have been patient. But now, when my work is done, and my place in the world fixed, I begin to find life somewhat barren. A man ought to reap some reward — something fairer and sweeter than pounds, shillings, and pence, for a life of labour and care.’

‘No doubt,’ assented Ida, receiving this remark as abstract philosophy, rather than as having a personal meaning. ‘But I think I should consider pounds, shillings, and pence a very fair reward, if I only had enough of them.’

‘Yes, now, when you are smarting under the insolence of a purse-proud schoolmistress; but years hence, when you have won independence, you will feel disappointed if you have won nothing better.’

‘What could be better?’

‘Sympathetic companionship — a love worthy to influence your life.’

Ida looked up at the doctor with naïve surprise. Good heavens, was this middle-aged gentleman going to drop into sentiment, as Silas Wegg dropped into poetry? She glanced back at the other two. Happily they were close at hand.

‘What have you done with the children, Bessie?’ asked Ida, as if she were suddenly distracted with anxiety about their fate.

‘Left them to their own devices. I hope they will not quite kill themselves. We are all to meet in the stable yard at four, so that we may be with Aunt Betsy at five.’

‘Don’t you think papa and I had better walk gently home?’ suggested Urania; ‘I am sure it would be cruel to inflict such an immense party upon Miss Wendover.’

‘Nonsense,’ exclaimed Bessie. ‘Why, if all old Pew’s school was to march in upon her, without a moment’s notice Aunt Betsy would not be put out of the way one little bit. If Queen Victoria were to drop in unexpectedly to luncheon, my aunt would be as cool as one of her own early cucumbers, and would insist on showing the Queen her stables, and possibly her pigs.’

‘How do you know that?’ asked Ida.

‘Because she never had a visitor yet whom she did not drag into her stables, from archbishops downwards; and I don’t suppose she’d draw the line at a queen,’ answered Bessie, with conviction.

‘I am going to drink tea with Miss Wendover, whatever Urania may do,’ said Dr. Rylance, who felt that the time had come when he must assert himself. ‘I am out for a day’s pleasure, and I mean to drink the cup to the dregs.’

Urania looked at her father with absolute consternation. He was transformed; he had become a new person; he was forgetting himself in a ridiculous manner; letting down his dignity to an alarming extent. Dr. Rylance, the fashionable physician, the man whose nice touch adjusted the nerves of the aristocracy, to disport himself with unkempt, bare-handed young Wendovers! It was an upheaval of things which struck horror to Urania’s soul. Easy, after beholding such a moral convulsion, to believe that the Wight had once been part of the mainland; or even that Ireland had originally been joined to Spain.

They all roamed into the rose-garden, where there were alleys of standard rose-trees, planted upon grass that was soft and springy under the foot. They went into the old vineries, where the big bunches of grapes were purpling in the gentle heat. Dr. Rylance went everywhere, and he contrived always to be near Ida Palliser.

He did not again lapse into sentiment, and he made himself fairly agreeable, in his somewhat stilted fashion. Ida accepted his attention with a charming unconsciousness; but she was perfectly conscious of Urania’s vexation, and that gave a zest to the whole thing.

‘Well, Ida, what do you think of Kingthorpe Abbey?’ asked Bessie, when they had seen everything, even to the stoats and weasles, and various vermin nailed flat against the stable wall, and were waiting for Robin to be harnessed.

‘It is a noble old place. It is simply perfect. I wonder your cousin can live away from it.’

‘Oh, Brian’s chief delight is in roaming about the world. The Abbey is thrown away upon him. He ought to have been an explorer or a missionary. However, he is expected home in a month, and you will be able to judge for yourself whether he deserves to be master of this old place. I only wish it belonged to the other Brian.’

‘The other Brian is your favourite.’

‘He is ever so much nicer than his cousin — at least, the children and I like him best. My father swears by the head of the house.’

‘I think I would rather accept the Colonel’s judgment than yours, Bess,’ said Ida. ‘You are so impulsive in your likings.’

‘Don’t say that I am wanting in judgment,’ urged Bessie, coaxingly, ‘for you know how dearly I love you. You will see the two Brians, I hope, before your holidays are over; and then you can make your own selection. Brian Walford will be with us for my birthday picnic, I daresay, wherever he may be now. I believe he is mooning away his time in Herefordshire, with his mother’s people.’

‘Is his father dead?’

‘Yes, mother and father both, ages ago, in the days when I was a hard-hearted little wretch, and thought it a treat to go into mourning, and rather nice to be able to tell everybody, “Uncle Walford’s dead. He had a fit, and he never speaked any more.” It was news, you know, and in a village that goes for something.’

After a lengthy discussion, and some squabbling, it was decided that the children were to have the benefit of the jaunting-car for the homeward journey, and that Dr. Rylance and the three young ladies were to walk, attended by Reginald, who insisted upon attaching himself to their service, volunteering to show them the very nearest way through a wood, and across a field, and over a common, and down a lane, which led straight to the gate of Aunt Betsy’s orchard.

Urania wore fashionable boots, and considered walking exercise a superstition of medical men and old-fashioned people; yet she stoutly refused a seat in the car.

‘No, thanks, Horatio; I know your pony too well. I’d rather trust myself upon my own feet.’

‘There’s more danger in your high heels than in my pony, retorted Horatio. ‘I shouldn’t wonder if you dropped in for a sprained ankle before you got home.’

Urania risked the sprained ankle. She began to limp before she had emerged from the wood. She hobbled painfully along the rugged footpath between the yellow wheat. She was obliged to sit down and rest upon a furzy hillock on the common, good-natured Bess keeping her company, while Ida and Reginald were half a mile ahead with Dr. Rylance. Her delicate complexion was unbecomingly flushed by the time she and Bessie arrived wearily at the little gate opening into Miss Wendover’s orchard.

There were only some iron hurdles between Aunt Betsy’s orchard and the lawn before Aunt Betsy’s drawing-room. The house was characteristic of the lady. It was a long red-brick cottage, solid, substantial, roomy, eschewing ornament, but beautified in the eyes of most people by an air of supreme comfort, cleanliness, and general well-being. In all Kingthorpe there were no rooms so cool as Aunt Betsy’s in summer — none so warm in winter. The cottage had originally been the homestead of a small grass-farm, which had been bequeathed to Betsy Wendover by her father, familiarly known as the Old Squire, the chief landowner in that part of the country. With this farm of about two hundred and fifty acres of the most fertile pasture land in Hampshire and an income of seven hundred a year from consols, Miss Wendover found herself passing rich. She built a drawing-room with wide windows opening on to the lawn, and a bed-room with a covered balcony over the drawing-room. These additional rooms made the homestead all-sufficient for a lady of Aunt Betsy’s simple habits. She was hospitality itself, receiving her friends in a large-hearted, gentleman-like style, keeping open house for man and beast, proud of her wine, still prouder of her garden and greenhouses, proudest of her stables; fond of this life, and of her many comforts, yet without a particle of selfishness; ready to leave her cosy fireside at a moment’s notice on the bitterest winter night, to go and nurse a sick child, or comfort a dying woman; religious without ostentation, charitable without weakness, stern to resent an injury, implacable against an insult.

A refreshing sight, yet not altogether a pleasant one for Miss Rylance, met the eyes of the two young ladies as they neared the little iron gate opening from the orchard to the lawn. A couple of tea-tables had been brought out upon the grass before the drawing-room window. The youngsters were busily engaged at one table, Blanche pouring out tea, while her brothers and small sister made havoc with cake and fruit, home-made bread and butter, and jams of various hues. At the other table, less lavishly but more elegantly furnished, sat Miss Wendover and Ida Palliser, with Dr. Rylance comfortably established in a Buckinghamshire wickerwork chair between them.

‘Does not that look a picture of comfort?’ exclaimed Bessie.

‘My father seems to be making himself very comfortable,’ said Urania.

She hobbled across the lawn, and sank exhausted into a low chair, near her parent.

‘My poor child, how dilapidated you look after your walk,’ said Dr. Rylance; ‘Miss Palliser and I enjoyed it immensely.’

‘I cannot boast of Miss Palliser’s robust health,’ retorted Urania contemptuously, as if good health were a sign of vulgarity. ‘I had my neuralgia all last night.’

Whenever the course of events proved objectionable, Miss Rylance took refuge in a complaint which she called her neuralgia, indicating that it was a species of disorder peculiar to herself, and of a superior quality to everybody else’s neuralgia.

‘You should live in the open air, like my sunburnt young friends yonder,’ said the doctor, with a glance at the table where the young Wendovers were stuffing themselves; ‘I am sure they never complain of neuralgia.’

Urania looked daggers but spoke none.

It was a wearisome afternoon for that injured young lady. Dr. Rylance dawdled over his tea, handed teacups and bread and butter, was assiduous with the sugar basin, devoted with the cream jug, talked and laughed with Miss Palliser, as if they had a world of ideas in common, and made himself altogether objectionable to his only child.

By-and-by, when there was a general adjournment to the greenhouses and stables, Urania contrived to slip her arm through her father’s.

‘I thought I told you that Miss Palliser was my favourite aversion, papa,’ she said, tremulous with angry feeling.

‘I have some faint idea that you did express yourself unfavourably about her,’ answered the doctor, with his consulting-room urbanity, ‘but I am at a loss to understand your antipathy. The girl is positively charming, as frank as the sunshine, and full of brains.’

‘I know her. You do not,’ said Urania tersely.

‘My dear, it is the speciality of men in my profession to make rapid judgments.’

‘Yes, and very often to make them wrong. I was never so much annoyed in my life. I consider your attention to that girl a deliberate insult to me; a girl with whom I never could get on — who has said the rudest things to me.’

‘Can I be uncivil to a friend of your friend Bessie?’

‘There is a wide distance between being uncivil and being obsequiously, ridiculously attentive.’

‘Urania,’ said the doctor in his gravest voice, ‘I have allowed you to have your own way in most things, and I believe your life has been a pleasant one.’

‘Of course, papa. I never said otherwise.’

‘Very well, my dear, then you must be good enough to let me take my own way of making life pleasant to myself, and you must not take upon yourself to dictate what degree of civility I am to show to Miss Palliser, or to any other lady.’

Urania held her peace after this. It was the first deliberate snub she had ever received from her father, and she added it to her lengthy score against Ida.

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