The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

A Birthday Feast.

Ida Palliser’s holidays were coming to an end, like a tale that is told. There was only one day more left, but that day was to be especially glorious; for it was Bessie Wendover’s birthday, a day which from time immemorial — or, at all events, ever since Bessie was ten years old — had been sacred to certain games or festivities — a modernized worship of the great god Pan.

Sad was it for Bessie and all the junior Wendovers when the seventh of September dawned with gray skies, or east winds, rain, or hail. It was usually a brilliant day. The clerk of the weather appeared favourably disposed to the warm-hearted Bessie.

On this particular occasion the preparations for the festival were on a grander scale than usual, in honour of Ida, who was on the eve of departure. A cruel, cruel car was to carry her off to Winchester at six o’clock on the morning after the birthday; the railway station was to swallow her up alive; the train was to rush off with her, like a fiery dragon carrying off the princess of fairy tale; and the youthful Wendovers were to be left lamenting.

In six happy weeks their enthusiasm for their young guest had known no abatement. She had realized their fondest anticipations. She had entered into their young lives and made herself a part of them. She had given herself up, heart and soul, to childish things and foolish things, to please these devoted admirers; and the long summer holiday had been very sweet to her. The open-air life — the balmy noontides in woods and meadows, beside wandering trout streams — on the breezy hill-tops — the afternoon tea-drinking in gardens and orchards — the novels read aloud, seated in the heart of some fine old tree, with her auditors perched on the branches round about her, like gigantic birds — the boating excursions on a river with more weeds than water in it — the jaunts to Winchester, and dreamy afternoons in the cathedral — all had been delicious. She had lived in an atmosphere of homely domestic love, among people who valued her for herself, and did not calculate the cost of her gowns, or despise her because she had so few. The old church was lovely in her eyes; the old vicar and his wife had taken a fancy to her. Everything at Kingthorpe was delightful, except Urania. She certainly was a drawback; but she had been tolerably civil since the first day at the Abbey.

Ida had spent many an hour at the Abbey since that first inspection. She knew every room in the house — the sunniest windows — the books in the long library, with its jutting wings between the windows, and cosy nooks for study. She knew almost every tree in the park, and the mild faces of the deer looking gravely reproachful, as if asking what business she had there. She had lain asleep on the sloping bank above the lake on drowsy afternoons, tired by wandering far a-field with her young esquires. She knew the Abbey by heart — better than even Urania knew it; though she had used that phrase to express utter satiety. Ida Palliser had a deeper love of natural beauty, a stronger appreciation of all that made the old place interesting. She had a curious feeling, too, about the absent master of that grave, gray old house — a fond, romantic dream, which she would not for the wealth of India have revealed to mortal ear, that in the days to come Brian’s life would be in somewise linked with hers. Perhaps this foolish thought was engendered of the blankness of her own life, a stage on which the players had been so few that this figure of an unknown young man assumed undue proportions.

Then, again, the fact that she could hear very little about Mr. Wendover from his cousins, stimulated her curiosity about him, and intensified her interest in him. Brian’s merits were a subject which the Wendover children always shirked, or passed over so lightly that Ida was no wiser for her questioning; and maidenly reserve forbade her too eager inquiry.

About Brian Walford, the son of Parson Wendover, youngest of the three brothers, for seven years vicar of a parish near Hereford, and for the last twelve years at rest in the village churchyard, the young Wendovers had plenty to say. He was good-looking, they assured Ida. She would inevitably fall in love with him when they met. He was the cleverest young man in England, and was certain to finish his career as Lord Chancellor, despite the humility of his present stage of being.

‘He has no fortune, I suppose?’ hazarded Ida, in a conversation with Horatio.

She did not ask the question from any interest in the subject. Brian Walford was a being whose image never presented itself to her mind. She only made the remark for the sake of saying something.

‘Not a denarius,’ said Horry, who liked occasionally to be classical. ‘But what of that? If I were as clever as Brian I shouldn’t mind how poor I was. With his talents he is sure to get to the top of the tree.’

‘What can he do?’ asked Ida.

‘Ride a bicycle better than any man I know.’

‘What else?’

‘Sing a first-rate comic song.’

‘What else?’

‘Get longer breaks at billiards than any fellow I ever played with.’

‘What else?’

‘Pick the winner out of a score of race-horses in the preliminary canter.’

‘Those are great gifts, I have no doubt,’ said Ida. ‘But do eminent lawyers, in a general way, win their advancement by riding bicycles and singing comic songs?’

‘Don’t sneer, Ida. When a fellow is clever in one thing he is clever in other things. Genius is many-sided, universal. Carlyle says as much. If Napoleon Bonaparte had not been a great general, he would have been a great writer like Voltaire — or a great lawyer like Thurlow.’

From this time forward Ida had an image of Brian Walford in her mind. It was the picture of a vapid youth, fair-haired, with thin moustache elaborately trained, and thinner whiskers — a fribble that gave half its little mind to its collar, and the other half to its boots. Such images are photographed in a flash of lightning on the sensitive brain of youth, and are naturally more often false guesses than true ones.

There was delightful riot in the house of the Wendovers on the night before the picnic. The Colonel had developed a cold and cough within the last week, so he and his wife had jogged off to Bournemouth, in the T-cart, with one portmanteau and one servant, leaving Bessie mistress of all things. It was a grief to Mrs. Wendover to be separated from home and children at any time, and she was especially regretful at being absent on her eldest daughter’s birthday; but the Colonel was paramount. If his cough could be cured by sea air, to the sea he must go, with his faithful wife in attendance upon him.

‘Don’t let the children turn the house quite out of windows, darling,’ said Mrs. Wendover, at the moment of parting.

‘No, mother dear, we are all going to be goodness itself.’

‘I know, dears, you always are. And I hope you will all enjoy yourselves.’

‘We’re sure to do that, mother,’ answered Reginald, with a cheerfulness that seemed almost heartless.

The departing parent would not have liked them to be unhappy, but a few natural tears would have been a pleasing tribute. Not a tear was shed. Even the little Eva skipped joyously on the doorstep as the phaeton drove away. The idea of the picnic was all-absorbing.

The Colonel and his wife were to spend a week, at Bournemouth. Ida would see them no more this year.

‘You must come again next summer, Mrs. Wendover said heartily, as she kissed her daughter’s friend.

‘Of course she must,’ cried Horry. ‘She is coming every summer. She is one of the institutions of Kingthorpe. I only wonder how we ever managed to get on so long without her.’

All that evening was devoted to the packing of hampers, and to general skirmishing. The picnic was to be held on the highest hill-top between Kingthorpe and Winchester, one of those little Lebanons, fair and green, on which the yew-trees flourished like the cedars of the East, but with a sturdy British air that was all their own.

The birthday dawned with the soft pearly gray and tender opal tints which presage a fair noontide. Before six o’clock the children had all besieged Bessie’s door, with noisy tappings and louder congratulations. At seven, they were all seated at breakfast, the table strewn with birthday gifts, mostly of that useless and semi-idiotic character peculiar to such tributes-ormolu inkstands, holding a thimbleful of ink — penholders warranted to break before they have been used three times — purses with impossible snaps — photograph frames and pomatum-pots.

Bessie pretended to be enraptured with everything. The purse Horry gave her was ‘too lovely.’ Reginald’s penholder was the very thing she had been wanting for an age. Dear little Eva’s pomatum-pot was perfection. The point-lace handkerchief Ida had worked in secret was exquisite. Blanche’s crochet slippers were so lovely that their not being big enough was hardly a fault. They were much too pretty to be worn. Urania contributed a more costly gift, in the shape of a perfume cabinet, all cut-glass, walnut-wood, and ormolu.

‘Urania’s presents are always meant to crush one,’ said Blanche disrespectfully; ‘they are like the shields and bracelets those rude soldiers flung at poor Tarpeia.’

Urania was to be one of the picnic party. She was to be the only stranger present. There had been a disappointment about the two cousins. Neither Brian had accepted the annual summons. One was supposed to be still in Norway, the other had neglected to answer the letter which had been sent more than a week ago to his address in Herefordshire.

‘I’m afraid you’ll find it dreadfully like our every-day picnics,’ Bessie said to Ida, as they were starting.

‘I shall be satisfied if it be half as pleasant.’

‘Ah, it would have been nice enough if the two Brians had been with us. Brian Walford is so amusing.’

‘He would have sung comic songs, I suppose?’ said Ida rather contemptuously.

‘Oh, no; you must not suppose that he is always singing comic songs. He is one of those versatile people who can do anything.’

‘I don’t want to be rude about your own flesh and blood Bess, but in a general way I detest versatile people,’ said Ida.

‘What a queer girl you are, Ida! I’m afraid you have taken a dislike to Brian Walford,’ complained Bessie.

‘No,’ said Ida, deep in thought — the two girls were standing at the hall-door, waiting for the carriage — ‘it is not that.’

‘You like the idea of the other Brian better?’

Ida’s wild-rose bloom deepened to a rich carnation.

‘Oh, Ida,’ cried Bessie; ‘do you remember what you said about marrying for money?’

‘It was a revolting sentiment; but it was wrung from me by the infinite vexations of poverty.’

‘Wouldn’t it be too lovely if Brian the Great were to fall in love with you, and ask you to be mistress of that dear old Abbey which you admire so much?

‘Don’t be ecstatic, Bessie. I shall never be the mistress of the Abbey. I was not born under a propitious star. There must have been a very ugly concatenation of planets ruling the heavens at the hour of my birth. You see, Brian the Great does not even put himself in the way of falling captive to my charms.’

This was said half in sport, half in bitterness; indeed, there was a bitter flavour in much of Ida Palliser’s mirth. She was thinking of the stories she had read in which a woman had but to be young and lovely, and all creation bowed down to her. Yet her beauty had been for the most part a cause of vexation, and had made people hate her. She had been infinitely happy during the last six weeks; but embodied hatred had been close at hand in the presence of Miss Rylance; and if anyone had fallen in love with her during that time, it was the wrong person.

The young ladies were to go in the landau, leaving the exclusive enjoyment of Robin’s variable humours to Horatio and the juveniles. There was a general idea that Robin, in conjunction with a hilly country, might be sooner or later fatal to the young Wendovers; but they went on driving him, nevertheless, as everybody knew that if he did ultimately prove disastrous to them it would be with the best intentions and without loss of temper.

Bessie and Ida took their seats in the roomy carriage, Reginald mounted to the perch beside the coachman, and they drove triumphantly through the village to the gate of Dr. Rylance’s cottage, where Urania stood waiting for them.

‘I hope we haven’t kept you long?’ said Bessie.

‘Not more than a quarter of an hour,’ answered Urania, meekly; ‘but that seems rather long in a broiling sun. You always have such insufferably hot weather on your birthdays, Bessie.’

‘It will be cool enough on the hills by-and-by,’ said Bess, apologetically.

‘I daresay there will be a cold wind,’ returned Urania, who wore an unmistakable air of discontent. ‘There generally is on these unnatural September days.’

‘One would think you bore a grudge against the month of September because I was born in it,’ retorted Bessie. And then, remembering her obligations, she hastened to add, ‘How can I thank you sufficiently for that exquisite scent-case? It is far too lovely.’

‘I am very glad you like it. One hardly knows what to choose.’

Miss Rylance had taken her seat in the landau by this time, and they were bowling along the smooth high road at that gentle jog-trot pace affected by a country gentleman’s coachman.

The day was heavenly; the wind due south; a day on which life — mere sensual existence — is a delight. The landscape still wore its richest summer beauty — not a leaf had fallen. They were going upward, to the hilly region between Kingthorpe and Winchester, to a spot where there was a table-shaped edifice of stones, supposed to be of Druidic origin.

The young Wendovers were profoundly indifferent to the Druids, and to that hypothetical race who lived ages before the Druids, and have broken out all over the earth in stony excrescences, as yet vaguely classified. That three-legged granite table, whose origin was lost in the remoteness of past time, seemed to the young Wendovers a thing that had been created expressly for their amusement, to be climbed upon or crawled under as the fancy moved them. It was a capital rallying-point for a picnic or a gipsy tea-drinking.

‘We are to have no grown-ups to-day,’ said Reginald, looking down from his place beside the coachman. ‘The pater and mater are away, and Aunt Betsy has a headache; so we can have things all our own way.’

‘You are mistaken, Reginald,’ said Urania; ‘my father is going to join us by-and-by. I hope he won’t be considered an interloper. I told him that it was to be a young party, and that I was sure he would be in the way; but he wouldn’t take my advice. He is going to ride over in the broiling sun. Very foolish, I think.’

‘I thought Dr. Rylance was in London?’

‘He was till last night. He came down on purpose to be at your picnic.’

‘I am sure I feel honoured,’ said Bessie.

‘Do you? I don’t think you are the attraction,’ answered Urania, with a cantankerous glance at Miss Palliser.

Ida’s dark eyes were looking far away across the hills. It seemed as if she neither heard Miss Rylance’s speech nor saw the sneer which emphasized it.

Dr. Rylance’s substantial hunter came plodding over the turfy ridge behind them five minutes afterwards, and presently he was riding at a measured trot beside the carriage door, congratulating Bessie on the beauty of the day, and saying civil things to every one.

‘I could not resist the temptation to give myself a day’s idleness in the Hampshire air,’ he said.

Reginald felt an utterably savage. What a trouble-feast the man was. They would have to adapt the proceedings of the day to his middle-aged good manners. There could be no wild revelry, no freedom. Dr. Rylance was an embodiment of propriety.

Half-an-hour after dinner they were all scattered upon the hills.

Reginald, who cherished a secret passion for Ida, which was considerably in advance of his years, and who had calculated upon being her guide, philosopher, and friend all through the day, found himself ousted by the West End physician, who took complete possession of Miss Palliser, under the pretence of explaining the history — altogether speculative — of the spot. He discoursed eloquently about the Druids, expatiated upon the City of Winchester, dozing in the sunshine yonder, among its fat water meadows. He talked of the Saxons and the Normans, of William of Wykeham, and his successors, until poor Ida felt sick and faint from very weariness. It was all very delightful talk, no doubt — the polished utterance of a man who read his Saturday Review and Athenaeum diligently, saw an occasional number of Fors Clavigera, and even skimmed the more aesthetic papers in the Architect; but to Ida this expression of modern culture was all weariness. She would rather have been racing those wild young Wendovers down the slippery hill-side, on which they were perilling their necks; she would rather have been lying beside the lake in Kingthorpe Park, reading her well-thumbed Tennyson, or her shabby little Keats.

Her thoughts had wandered ever so far away when she was called back to the work-a-day world by finding that Dr. Rylance’s conversation had suddenly slipped from archaeology into a more personal tone.

‘Are you really going away to-morrow?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ answered Ida, sadly, looking at one of the last of the butterflies, whose brief summertide of existence was wearing to its close, like her own.

‘You are going back to Mauleverer Manor?’

‘Yes. I have another half-year of bondage, I am going back to drudgery and self-contempt, to be brow-beaten by Miss Pew, and looked down upon by most of her pupils. The girls in my own class are very fond of me, but I’m afraid their fondness is half pity. The grown-up girls with happy homes and rich fathers despise me. I hardly wonder at it. Genteel poverty certainly is contemptible. There is nothing debasing in a smock-frock or a fustian jacket. The labourers I see about Kingthorpe have a glorious air of independence, and I daresay are as proud, in their way, as if they were dukes. But shabby finery — genteel gowns worn threadbare: there is a deep degradation in those.’

‘Not for you,’ answered Dr. Rylance, earnestly, with an admiring look in his blue-gray eyes. They were somewhat handsome eyes when they did not put on their cruel expression. ‘Not for you. Nothing could degrade, nothing could exalt you. You are superior to the accident of your surroundings.’

‘It’s very kind of you to say that; but it’s a fallacy, all the same,’ said Ida. ‘Do you think Napoleon at St. Helena, squabbling with Sir Hudson Lowe, is as dignified a figure as Napoleon at the Tuileries, in the zenith of his power? But I ought not to be grumbling at fate. I have been happy for six sunshiny weeks. If I were to live to be a century old, I could never forget how good people at Kingthorpe have been to me. I will go back to my old slavery, and live upon the memory of that happiness.’

‘Why should you go back to slavery?’ asked Dr. Rylance, taking her hand in his and holding it with so strong a grasp that she could hardly have withdrawn it without violence. ‘There is a home at Kingthorpe ready to receive you. If you have been happy there in the last few weeks, why not try if you can be happy there always? There is a house in Cavendish Square whose master would be proud to make you its mistress. Ida, we have seen very little of each other, and I may be precipitate in hazarding this offer; but I am as fond of you as if I had known you half a lifetime, and I believe that I could make your life happy.’

Ida Palliser’s heart thrilled with a chill sense of horror and aversion. She had talked recklessly enough of her willingness to marry for money, and, lo! here was a prosperous man laying two handsomely furnished houses at her feet — a man of gentlemanlike bearing, good-looking, well-informed, well-spoken, with no signs of age in his well-preserved face and figure; a man whom any woman, friendless, portionless, a mere waif upon earth’s surface, at the mercy of all the winds that blow, ought proudly and gladly to accept for her husband.

No, too bold had been her challenge to fate. She had said that she would marry any honest man who would lift her out of the quagmire of poverty: but she was not prepared to accept Dr. Rylance’s offer, generous as it sounded. She would rather go back to the old treadmill, and her old fights with Miss Pew, than reign supreme over the dainty cottage at Kingthorpe and the house in Cavendish Square. Her time had not come.

Dr. Rylance had not risen to eloquence in making his offer; and Ida’s reply was in plainest words.

‘I am very sorry,’ she faltered. ‘I feel that it is very good of you to make such a proposal; but I cannot accept it.’

‘There is some one else,’ said the doctor. ‘Your heart is given away already.’

‘No,’ she answered sadly; ‘my heart is like an empty sepulchre.’

‘Then why should I not hope to win you? I have been hasty, no doubt: but I want if possible to prevent your return to that odious school. If you would but make me happy by saying yes, you could stay with your kind friends at The Knoll till the day that makes you mistress of my house. We might be married in time to spend November in Italy. It is the nicest month for Rome. You have never seen Italy, perhaps?’

‘No. I have seen very little that is worth seeing.’

‘Ida, why will you not say yes? Do you doubt that I should try my uttermost to make you happy?’

‘No,’ she answered gravely, but I doubt my own capacity for that kind of happiness.’

Dr. Rylance was deeply wounded. He had been petted and admired by women during the ten years of his widowhood, favoured and a favourite everywhere. He had made up his mind deliberately to marry this penniless girl. Looked at from a worldling’s point of view, it would seem, at the first glance, an utterly disadvantageous alliance: but Dr. Rylance had an eye that could sweep over horizons other than are revealed to the average gaze, and he told himself that so lovely a woman as Ida Palliser must inevitably become the fashion in that particular society which Dr. Rylance most affected: and a wife famed for her beauty and elegance Would assuredly be of more advantage to a fashionable physician than a common-place wife with a fortune. Dr. Rylance liked money; but he liked it only for what it could buy. He had no sons, and he was much too fond of himself to lead laborious days in order to leave a large fortune to his daughter. He had bought a lease of his London house, which would last his time; he had bought the freehold of the Kingthorpe cottage; and he was living up to his income. When he died there would be two houses of furniture, plate, pictures, horses and carriages, and the Kingthorpe cottage, to be realized for Urania. He estimated these roughly as worth between six and seven thousand pounds, and he considered seven thousand pounds an ample fortune for his only daughter. Urania was in happy ignorance of the modesty of his views. She imagined herself an heiress on a much larger scale.

To offer himself to a penniless girl of whose belongings he knew absolutely nothing, and to be peremptorily refused! Dr. Rylance could hardly believe such a thing possible. The girl must be trifling with him, playing her fish, with the fixed intention of landing him presently. It was in the nature of girls to do that kind of thing. ‘Why do you reject me?’ he asked seriously ‘is it because I am old enough to be your father?’

‘No, I would marry a man old enough to be my grandfather if I loved him,’ answered Ida, with cruel candour.

‘And I am to understand that your refusal is irrevocable? he urged.

‘Quite irrevocable. But I hope you believe that I am grateful for the honour you have done me.’

‘That is the correct thing to say upon such occasions, answered Dr. Rylance, coldly; ‘I wonder the sentence is not written in your copy books, among those moral aphorisms which are of so little use in after life.’

‘The phrase may seem conventional, but in my case it means much more than usual,’ said Ida; ‘a girl who has neither money nor friends has good reason to be grateful when a gentleman asks her to be his wife.’

‘I wish I could be grateful for your gratitude,’ said Dr. Rylance, ‘but I can’t. I want your love, and nothing else. Is it on Urania’s account that you reject me?’ he urged. ‘If you think that she would be a hindrance to your happiness, pray dismiss the thought. If she did not accommodate herself pleasantly to my choice her life would have to be spent apart from us. I would brook no rebellion.’

The cruel look had come into Dr. Rylance’s eyes. He was desperately angry. He was surprised, humiliated, indignant. Never had the possibility of rejection occurred to him. It had been for him to decide whether he would or would not take this girl for his wife; and after due consideration of her merits and all surrounding circumstances, he had decided that he would take her.

‘Is my daughter the stumbling-block?’ he urged.

‘No,’ she answered, ‘there is no stumbling-block. I would marry you to-morrow, if I felt that I could love you as a wife ought to love her husband. I said once — only a little while ago — that I would marry for money. I find that I am not so base as I thought myself.’

‘Perhaps the temptation is not large enough,’ said Dr. Rylance. ‘If I had been Brian Wendover, and the owner of Kingthorpe Abbey, you would hardly have rejected me so lightly.’

Ida crimsoned to the roots of her hair. The shaft went home. It was as if Dr. Rylance had been inside her mind and knew all the foolish day-dreams she had dreamed in the idle summer afternoons, under the spreading cedar branches, or beside the lake in the Abbey grounds. Before she had time to express her resentment a cluster of young Wendovers came sweeping down the greensward at her side, and in the next minute Blanche was hanging upon her bodily, like a lusty parasite strangling a slim young tree.

‘Darling,’ cried Blanche gaspingly, ‘such news. Brian has come — cousin Brian — after all, though he thought he couldn’t. But he made a great effort, and he has come all the way as fast as he could tear to be here on Bessie’s birthday. Isn’t it too jolly?’

‘All the way from Norway?’ asked Ida.

‘Yes,’ said Urania, who had been carried down the hill with the torrent of Wendovers, ‘all the way from Norway. Isn’t it nice of him?’

Blanche’s frank face was brimming over with smiles. The boys were all laughing. How happy Brian’s coming had made them!

Ida looked at them wonderingly.

‘How pleased you all seem!’ she said. ‘I did not know you were so fond of your cousin. I thought it was the other you liked.’

‘Oh, we like them both,’ said Blanche, ‘and it is so nice of Brian to come on purpose for Bessie’s birthday. Do come and see him. He is on the top of the hill talking to Bess; and the kettle boils, and we are just going to have tea. We are all starving.’

‘After such a dinner!’ exclaimed Ida.

‘Such a dinner, indeed! — two or three legs of fowls and a plate or so of pie!’ ejaculated Reginald, contemptuously. ‘I began to be hungry a quarter of an hour afterwards. Come and see Brian.’

Ida looked round her wonderingly, feeling as if she was in a dream.

Dr. Rylance had disappeared. Urania was smiling at her sweetly, more sweetly than it was her wont to smile at Ida Palliser.

‘One would think she knew that I had refused her father,’ mused Ida.

They all climbed the hill, the children talking perpetually, Ida unusually silent. The smoke of a gipsy fire was going up from a hollow near the Druid altar, and two figures were standing beside the altar; one, a young man, with his arm resting on the granite slab, and his head bent as he talked, with seeming earnestness, to Bessie Wendover. He turned as the crowd approached, and Bessie introduced him to Miss Palliser. ‘My cousin Brian — my dearest friend Ida,’ she said.

‘She is desperately fond of the Abbey,’ said Blanche; ‘so I hope she will like you. “Love me, love my dog,” says the proverb, so I suppose one might say, “Love my house, love me.”’

Ida stood silent amidst her loquacious friends, looking at the stranger with a touch of wonder. No, this was not the image which she had pictured to herself. Mr. Wendover was very good-looking — interesting even; he had the kind of face which women call nice — a pale complexion, dreamy gray eyes, thin lips, a well-shaped nose, a fairly intellectual forehead. But the Brian of her fancies was a man of firmer mould, larger features, a more resolute air, an eye with more fire, a brow marked by stronger lines. For some unknown reason she had fancied the master of the Abbey like that Sir Tristram Wendover who had been so loyal a subject and so brave a soldier, and before whose portrait she had so often lingered in dreamy contemplation.

‘And you have really come all the way from Norway to be at Bessie’s picnic?’ she faltered at last, feeling that she was expected to say something.

‘I would have come a longer distance for the sake of such a pleasant meeting,’ he answered, smiling at her.

‘Bessie,’ cried Blanche, who had been grovelling on her knees before the gipsy fire, ‘the kettle will go off the boil if you don’t make tea instantly. If it were not your birthday I should make it myself.’

‘You may,’ said Bessie, ‘although it is my birthday.’

She had walked a little way apart with Urania, and they two were talking somewhat earnestly.

‘Those girls seem to be plotting something,’ said Reginald; ‘a charade for to-night, perhaps. It’s sure to be stupid if Urania’s in it.’

‘You mean that it will be too clever,’ said Horatio.

‘Yes, that kind of cleverness which is the essence of stupidity.’

While Bessie and Miss Rylance conversed apart, and all the younger Wendovers devoted their energies to the preparation of a tremendous meal, Ida and Brian Wendover stood face to face upon the breezy hill-top, the girl sorely embarrassed, the young man gazing at her as if he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.

‘I have heard so much about you from Bessie,’ he said after a silence which seemed long to both. ‘Her letters for the last twelve months have been a perpetual paean — like one of the Homeric hymns, with you for the heroine. I had quite a dread of meeting you, feeling that, after having my expectations strung up to such a pitch, I must be disappointed. Nothing human could justify Bessie’s enthusiasm.’

‘Please don’t talk about it. Bessie’s one weak point is her affection for me. I am very grateful. I love her dearly, but she does her best to make me ridiculous.’

‘I am beginning to think Bessie a very sensible girl,’ said Brian, longing to say much more, so deeply was he impressed by this goddess in a holland gown, with glorious eyes shining upon him under the shadow of a coarse straw hat.

‘Have you come back to Hampshire for good?’ asked Ida, as they strolled towards Bessie and Urania.

‘For good! No, I never stay long.’

‘What a pity that lovely old Abbey should be deserted!’

‘Yes, it is rather a shame, is it not? But then no one could expect a young man to live there except in the hunting season — or for the sake of the shooting.’

‘Could anyone ever grow tired of such a place?’ asked Ida.

She was wondering at the young man’s indifferent air, as if that solemn abbey, those romantic gardens, were of no account to him. She supposed that this was in the nature of things. A man born lord of such an elysium would set little value upon his paradise. Was it not Eve’s weariness of Eden which inclined her ear to the serpent?

And now the banquet was spread upon the short smooth turf, and everybody was ordered to sit down. They made a merry circle, with the tea-kettle in the centre, piles of cake, and bread and butter, and jam-pots surrounding it. Blanche and Horatio were the chief officiators, and were tremendously busy ministering to the wants of others, while they satisfied their own hunger and thirst hurriedly between whiles. The damsel sat on the grass with a big crockery teapot in her lap, while her brother watched and managed the kettle, and ran to and fro with cups and saucers. Bessie, as the guest of honour, was commanded to sit still and look on.

‘Dreadfully babyish, isn’t it?’ said Urania, smiling with her superior air at Brian, who had helped himself to a crust of home-made bread, and a liberal supply of gooseberry jam.

‘Uncommonly jolly,’ he answered gaily. ‘I confess to a weakness for bread and jam. I wish people always gave it at afternoon teas.’

‘Has it not a slight flavour of the nursery?’

‘Of course it has. But a nursery picnic is ever so much better than a swell garden-party, and bread and jam is a great deal more wholesome than salmon-mayonaise and Strasbourg pie. You may despise me as much as you like, Miss Rylance. I came here determined to enjoy myself.’

‘That is the right spirit for a picnic,’ said Ida, ‘People with grand ideas are not wanted.’

‘And I suppose in the evening you will join in the dumb charades, and play hide-and-seek in the garden, all among spiders and cockchafers.’

‘I will do anything I am told to do,’ answered Brian, cheerily. ‘But I think the season of the cockchafer is over.’

‘What has become of Dr. Rylance?’ asked Bessie, looking about her as if she had only that moment missed him.

‘I think he went back to the farm for his horse,’ said Urania. ‘I suppose he found our juvenile sports rather depressing.’

‘Well, he paid us a compliment in coming at all,’ answered Bessie, ‘so we must forgive him for getting tired of us.’

The drive home was very merry, albeit Bessie and her friend were to part next morning — Ida to go back to slavery. They were both young enough to be able to enjoy the present hour, even on the edge of darkness.

Bessie clasped her friend’s hand as they sat side by side in the landau.

‘You must come to us at Christmas,’ she whispered: ‘I shall ask mother to invite you.’

Brian was full of talk and gaiety as they drove home through the dusk. He was very different from that ideal Brian of Ida’s girlish fancy — the Brian who embodied all her favourite attributes, and had all the finest qualities of the hero of romance. But he was an agreeable, well-bred young man, bringing with him that knowledge of life and the active world which made his talk seem new and enlightening after the strictly local and domestic intellects of the good people with whom she had been living.

With the family at The Knoll conversation had been bounded by Winchester on one side, and Romsey on the other. There was an agreeable freshness in the society of a young man who could talk of all that was newest in European art and literature, and who knew how the world was being governed.

But this fund of information was hinted at rather than expressed. To-night Mr. Wendover seemed most inclined to mere nonsense talk — the lively nothings that please children. Of himself and his Norwegian adventures he said hardly anything.

‘I suppose when a man has travelled so much he gets to look upon strange countries as a matter of course,’ speculated Ida. ‘If I had just come from Norway, I should talk of nothing else.’

The dumb-charades and hide-and-seek were played, but only by the lower orders, as Bessie called her younger brothers and sisters.

Ida strolled in the moonlit garden with Mr. Wendover, Bessie Urania, and Mr. Ratcliffe, a very juvenile curate, who was Bessie’s admirer and slave. Urania had no particular admirer She felt that every one at Kingthorpe must needs behold her with mute worship; but there was no one so audacious as to give expression to the feeling; no one of sufficient importance to be favoured with her smiles. She looked forward to her first season in London next year, and then she would be called upon to make her selection.

‘She is worldly to the tips of her fingers,’ said Ida, as she and Bessie talked apart from the others for a few minutes: ‘I wonder she does not try to captivate your cousin.’

‘What — Brian? Oh, he is not at all in her line. He would not suit her a bit.’

‘But don’t you think it would suit her to be mistress of the Abbey?’

Bessie gave a little start, as if the idea were new.

‘I don’t think she has ever thought of him in that light,’ she said.

‘Don’t you? If she hasn’t she is not the girl I think her.’

‘Oh, I know she is very worldly; but I don’t think she’s so bad as that.’

‘Not so bad as to be capable of marrying for money — no, I suppose not,’ said Ida, thoughtfully.

‘I’m sure you would not, darling, said Bessie. ‘You talked about it once, when you were feeling bitter; but I know that in your heart of hearts you never meant it. You are much too high-minded.’

‘I am not a bit high-minded. All my high-mindedness, if I ever had any, has been squeezed out of me by poverty. My only idea is to escape from subjection and humiliation — a degrading bondage to vulgar-minded people.’

‘But would the escape be worth having at the cost of your own degradation?’ urged Bessie, who felt particularly heroic this evening, exalted by the moonlight, the loveliness of the garden, the thought of parting with her dearest friend. ‘Marry for love, dearest. Sacrifice everything in this world rather than be false to yourself.’

‘You dear little enthusiast, I may never be asked to make any such sacrifice. I have not much chance of suitors at Mauleverer, as you know — and as for falling in love —’

‘Oh, you never know when the fatal moment may come. How do you like Brian?’

‘He is very gentlemanlike; he seems very well informed.’

‘He is immensely clever,’ answered Bessie, almost offended at this languid praise; ‘he is a man who might succeed in any line he chose for himself. Do you think him handsome?’

‘He is certainly nice looking.’

‘How cool you are! I had set my heart upon your liking him.’

‘What could come of my liking?’ asked Ida with a touch of bitterness. ‘Is there a portionless girl in all England who would not like the master of Wendover Abbey?’

‘But for his own sake,’ urged Bessie, with a vexed air; ‘surely he is worthy of being liked for his own sake, without a thought of the Abbey.’

‘I cannot dissociate him from that lovely old house and gardens. Indeed, to my mind he rather belongs to the Abbey than the Abbey belongs to him. You see I knew the Abbey first.’

Here they were interrupted by Brian and Urania, and presently Ida found herself walking in the moonlight in a broad avenue of standard roses, at the end of the garden, with Mr. Wendover by her side, and the voices of the other three sounding ever so far away. On the other side of a low quickset hedge stretched a wide expanse of level meadow land, while in the farther distance rose the Wiltshire hills, and nearer the heathy highlands of the New Forest. The lamp-lit windows of Miss Wendover’s cottage glimmered a little way off, across gardens and meadows.

‘And so you are really going to leave us to-morrow morning?’ said Brian, regretfully.

‘By the eight o’clock train from Winchester. To-morrow evening I shall be sitting on a form in a big bare class-room, listening to the babble of a lot of girls pretending to learn their lessons.’

‘Are you fond of teaching?’

‘Just imagine to yourself the one occupation which is most odious to you, and then you may know how fond I am of teaching; and of school-girls; and of school-life altogether.’

‘It is very hard that you should have to pursue such an uncongenial career.’

‘It seems so to me; but, perhaps, that is my selfishness. I suppose half the people in this world have to live by work they hate.’

‘Allowing for the number of people to whom all kind of work is hateful, I dare say you are right. But I think, in a general way, congenial work means successful work. No man hates the profession that brings him fame and money; but the doctor without patients, the briefless barrister, can hardly love law or medicine.’

He beguiled Ida into talking of her own life, with all its bitterness. There was something in his voice and manner which tempted her to confide in him. He seemed thoroughly sympathetic.

‘I keep forgetting what strangers we are,’ she said, apologizing for her unreserve.

‘We are not strangers. I have heard of you from Bessie so much that I seem to have known you for years. I hope you will never think of me as a stranger.’

‘I don’t think I ever can, after this conversation. I am afraid you will think me horribly egotistical.’

She had been talking of her father and stepmother, the little brother she loved so fondly, dwelling with delight upon his perfections.

‘I think you all that is good and noble. How I wish this were not your last evening at the Knoll!’

‘Do you think I do not wish it? Hark, there’s Bessie calling us.’

They went back to the house, and to the drawing-room, which wore quite a festive appearance, in honour of Bessie’s birthday; ever so many extra candles dotted about, and a table laid with fruit and sandwiches, cake and claret-cup, the children evidently considering a superfluity of meals indispensable to a happy birthday. Blanche and her juniors were sitting about the room, in the last stage of exhaustion after hide-and-seek.

‘This has been a capital birthday,’ said Horatio, wiping the perspiration from his brow, and then filling for himself a bumper of claret-cup; ‘and now we are going to dance. Blanche, give us the Faust Waltz, and go on playing till we tell you to leave off.’

Blanche, considerably blown, and with her hair like a mop, sat down and began to touch the piano with resolute fingers and forcible rhythm. ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three. The boys pushed the furniture into the corners. Brian offered himself to Ida; Bessie insisted upon surrendering the curate to Urania, and took one of her brothers for a partner; and the three couples went gliding round the pretty old room, the cool night breezes blowing in upon them from wide-open windows.

They danced and played, and sang and talked, till midnight chimed from the old eight-day clock in the hall — a sound which struck almost as much consternation to Bessie’s soul as if she had been Cinderella at the royal ball.

‘TWELVE O’CLOCK! and the little ones all up!’ she exclaimed, looking round the circle of towzled heads with remorseful eyes. ‘What would mother say? And she told me she relied on my discretion! Go to bed, every one of you, this instant!’

‘Oh, come, now,’ remonstrated Blanche, ‘there’s no use in hustling us off like that, after letting us sit up hours after our proper time. I’m going to have another sandwich; and there’s not a bit of good in leaving all those raspberry tarts. The servants won’t thank us. They have as many jam tarts as they like.’

‘You greedy little wretches; you have been doing nothing but eat all day,’ said Ida. ‘When I am back at Mauleverer I shall remember you only as machines for the consumption of pudding and jam. Obey your grown-up sister, and go to bed directly.’

‘Grown up, indeed! How long has she been grown up, I should like to know!’ exclaimed Blanche vindictively. ‘She’s only an inch and a quarter taller than me, and she’s a mere dumpling compared with Horry.’

The lower orders were got rid of somehow — driven to their quarters, as it were, at the point of the bayonet; and then the grown-ups bade each other good-night; the curate escorting Miss Rylance to her home, and Brian going up to the top floor to a bachelor’s room.

‘Who is going to drive Miss Palliser to the station?’ he asked, as they stood, candlestick in hand, at the foot of the stairs.

‘I am, of course,’ answered Reginald. ‘Robin will spin us over the hills in no time. I’ve ordered the car for seven sharp.’

There was very little sleep for either Bessie or her guest that night. Both girls were excited by memories of the day that was past, and by thoughts of the day that was coming. Ida was brooding a little upon her disappointment in Brian Wendover. He had very pleasant manners, he seemed soft-hearted and sympathetic, he was very good-looking — but he was not the Brian of her dreams. That ideal personage had never existed outside her imagination. It was a shock to her girlish fancy. There was a sense of loss in her mind.

‘I must be very silly,’ she told herself, ‘to make a fancy picture of a person, and to be vexed with him because he does not resemble my portrait.’

She was disappointed, and yet she was interested in this new acquaintance. He was the first really interesting young man she had ever met, and he was evidently interested in her. And then she pictured him at the Abbey, in the splendid solitude of those fine old rooms, leading the calm, studious life which Bessie had talked of — an altogether enviable life, Ida thought.

Mr. Wendover was in the dining-room at half-past six when the two girls went down to breakfast. All the others came trooping down a few minutes afterwards, Reginald got up to the last degree of four-in-handishness which the resources of his wardrobe allowed, and with a flower in his buttonhole. There was a loud cry for eggs and bacon, kippered herrings, marmalade, Yorkshire cakes; but neither Ida nor Bessie could eat.

‘Do have a good breakfast,’ pleaded Blanche affectionately; ‘you will be having bread and scrape to-morrow. We have got a nice hamper for you, with a cake and a lot of jam puffs and things; but those will only last a short time.’

‘You dear child, I wouldn’t mind the bread and scrape, if there were only a little love to flavour it,’ answered Ida softly.

The jaunting-car came to the door as the clock struck seven. Ida’s luggage was securely bestowed, then, after a perfect convulsion of kissing, she was banded to her place, Reginald jumped into his seat and took the reins, and Brian seated himself beside Ida.

‘You are not going with them?’ exclaimed Bessie.

‘Yes I am, to see that Miss Palliser is not spilt on the hills.’

‘What rot!’ cried Reginald. ‘I should be rather sorry for myself if I were not able to manage Robin.’

‘This is a new development in you, who are generally the laziest of living creatures,’ said Bessie to Brian, and before he could reply, Robin was bounding cheerily through the village, making very little account of the jaunting-car and its occupants. Urania was at her garden gate, fresh and elegant-looking in pale blue cambric. She smiled at Ida, and waved her a most gracious farewell.

‘I don’t think I ever saw Miss Rylance look so amiable,’ said Ida. ‘She does not often favour me with her smiles.’

‘Are you enemies?’ asked Brian.

‘Not open foes; we have always maintained an armed neutrality. I don’t like her, and she doesn’t like me, and we both know it. But perhaps I ought not to be so candid. She may be a favourite of yours.’

‘She might be, but she is not. She is very elegant, very lady-like — according to her own lights — very viperish.’

It was a lovely drive in the crisp clear air, across the breezy hills. Ida could not help enjoying the freshness of morning, the beauty of earth, albeit she was going from comfort to discomfort, from love to cold indifference or open enmity.

‘How I delight in this landscape!’ she exclaimed. ‘Is it not ever so much better than Norway?’ appealing to Brian.

‘It is a milder, smaller kind of beauty,’ he answered. ‘Would you not like to see Norway?’

‘I would like to see all that is lovely on earth; yet I think I could be content to spend, a life-time here. This must seem strange to you, who grow weary of that beautiful Abbey.’

‘It is not of his house, but of himself, that a man grows weary,’ answered Brian.

Robin was in a vivacious humour, and rattled the car across the hills at a good pace. They had a quarter of an hour to wait at the busy little station. Brian and Ida walked up and down the platform talking, while Reginald looked after the pony and the luggage. They found so much to say to each other, that the train seemed to come too soon.

They bade each other good-bye with a tender look on Brian’s part, a blush on Ida’s. Reginald had to push his cousin away from the carriage window, in order to get a word with the departing guest.

‘We shall all miss you awfully,’ he said; ‘but mind, you must come back at Christmas.’

‘I shall be only too glad, if Mrs. Wendover will have me. Good-bye.’

The train moved slowly forward, and she was gone.

‘Isn’t she a stunner?’ asked Reginald of his cousin, as they stood on the platform looking at each other blankly.

‘She is the handsomest girl I ever saw, and out and away the nicest,’ answered Brian.

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