The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

A Solemn League and Covenant.

The sun shone upon Ida’s wedding morn. She was dressed and down before seven — her shabby cashmere gown carefully brushed, her splendid hair neatly arranged, her linen collar and cuffs spotlessly clean. This was all she could do in the way of costume in honour of this solemn day. She had not even a new pair of gloves. Mrs. Topman, who was to go to church with her in a fly from Chertsey, was gorgeous in purple silk and a summer bonnet — a grand institution, worn only on Sundays. Breakfast was ready in the neat little parlour, but Ida would only take a cup of tea. She wandered out to the river-side, and looked at the weir and the little green island round which the shining blue water twined itself like a caress. All things looked lovely in the pure freshness of morning.

‘What a sweet spot it is!’ said Ida to Mrs. Topman, who stood at her gate, watching for the fly, which was not due for half an hour; ‘I should almost like to spend my life here.’

‘Almost, but not quite,’ answered the matron. ‘Young folks like you wants change. But I hope you and Mr. Wendover will come here sometimes in the boating season, in memory of old times.’

‘We’ll come often,’ said Ida; ‘I hope I shall always remember how kind you have been to me.’

A distant church clock struck the half hour.

‘Only half-past seven,’ exclaimed Mrs. Topman, ‘and Simmons’s fly is not to be here till eight. Well, we are early.’

Ida strolled a little way along the bank, glad to be alone. It was an awful business, this marriage, when she came to the very threshold of Hymen’s temple. Yesterday it had seemed to her that she and Brian Wendover were familiar friends; to-day she thought of him almost as a stranger.

‘How little we know of each other, and yet we are going to take the most solemn vow that ever was vowed,’ she thought, as she read the marriage service in a Prayer-book which Mrs. Topman had lent her for that purpose.

‘It’s as well to read it over and understand what you’re going to bind yourself to,’ said the matron; ‘I did before I married Topman. It made me feel more comfortable in my mind to know what I was doing. But I must say it’s high time there was a change made in the service. It never can have been intended by Providence for all the obedience to be on the wife’s side, or God Almighty wouldn’t have made husbands such fools. If Topman hadn’t obeyed me he’d have died in a workhouse; and if I’d obeyed his I shouldn’t have a stick of furniture belonging to me.’

Ida was not deeply interested in the late Mr. Topman’s idiosyncrasies, but she was interested in the marriage bond, which seemed to her a very solemn league and covenant, as she read the service beside the quietly flowing river.

‘For better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.’

Yes, those were awful words — words to be pronounced by her presently, binding her for the rest of her life. She who was marrying a rich man for the sake of his wealth was to swear to be true to him in poverty. She who was marrying youth and good spirits was to swear to be true to sickness and feeble age. A terrible covenant! And of this man for whom she was to undertake so much she knew so little.

The fly drove along the towing-path, and drew up in front of Mrs. Topman’s garden gate as the Chertsey clocks struck the hour, and Mrs. Topman and her charge took their places in that vehicle, and were jolted off at a jog-trot pace towards the town, and then on by a dusty high road towards that new church in the fields at which the Mauleverer girls deemed it such a privilege to worship.

It was about forty minutes’ drive from the lock to the church, and Matins were only just over when the fly drew up at the Gothic door.

The incumbent was hovering near in his surplice, and the pew-opener was all in a fluster at the idea of a runaway marriage. Brian came out of the dusky background — the daylight being tempered by small painted windows in heavy stone mullions — as Ida entered the church. Everything was ready. Before she knew how it came to pass, she was standing before the altar, and the fatal words were being spoken.

‘Brian Walford, wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife?’

‘Brian Walford!’ she heard the words as in a dream. Surely Walford was the second name of Bessie’s other cousin, the poor cousin! Ida had heard Bessie so distinguish him from the master of the Abbey. But no doubt Walford was some old family name borne by both cousins.

Brian Walford! She had not much time to think about this, when the same solemn question was asked of her.

And then in a low and quiet voice the priest read the rest of the time-hallowed ceremonial, and Brian and Ida, glorified by a broad ray of morning sunshine streaming through an open window, stood up side by side man and wife.

Then came the signing of the register in the snug little vestry, Mrs. Topman figuring largely as witness.

‘I did not know your name was Walford,’ said Ida, looking over her husband’s shoulder as he wrote.

‘Didn’t you? Second names are of so little use to a man, unless he has the misfortune to be Smith or Jones, and wants to borrow dignity from a prefix. Wendover is good enough for me.’

The young couple bade Mrs. Topman good-bye at the churchdoor. The fly was to take them straight to the station, on the first stage of their honeymoon trip.

‘You know where to send my luggage,’ Brian said to his landlady at parting.

‘Yes, sir, I’ve got the address all right;’ and the fly drove along another dusty high road, still within sight of the river, till it turned at right angles into a bye road leading to the station.

At that uncongenial place they had to wait a quarter of an hour, walking up and down the windy platform, where the porter abandoned himself to the contemplation of occasional rooks, and was sometimes surprised by the arrival of a train for which he had waited so long as to have become sceptical as to the existence of such things as trains in the scheme of the universe. The station was a terminus, and the line was a loop, for which very few people appeared to have any necessity.

‘Would you mind telling me where we are going, Brian?’ Ida asked her husband presently, when they had discussed the characteristics of the station, and Brian had been mildly facetious about the porter.

She had grown curiously shy since the ceremonial. Her lover seemed to her transformed into another person by those fateful words. He was now the custodian of her life, the master of her destiny.

‘Would I mind telling you, my dearest? What a question! You proposed Dieppe for our honeymoon, and we are going to Dieppe.’

‘Does this train go to Newhaven?’

‘Not exactly. Nothing in this life is so convenient as that. This train will deposit us at Waterloo Station. The train for Newhaven leaves London Bridge at seven, in time for the midnight boat. We will go to my chambers and have some lunch.’

‘Chambers!’ exclaimed Ida, wonderingly. ‘Have you really chambers in London?’

‘Yes.’

‘What a strange man you are!’

‘That hardly indicates strangeness. But here at last is our train.’

A train had come slowly in and deposited its handful of passengers about ten minutes ago, and the same train was now ready to start in the opposite direction.

Ida and her husband got into an empty first-class compartment and the train moved slowly off. And now that they were alone, as it were within four walls, she summoned up courage to say something that had been on her mind for the last quarter of an hour — a very hard thing for a bride of an hour old to say, yet which must be said somehow.

‘Would you mind giving me a little money, while we are in London, to buy some clothes?’ she began hesitatingly. ‘It is a dreadful thing to have to ask you, when, if I were not like the beggar girl in the ballad, I should have a trousseau. But I don’t know when I may get my box from Mauleverer, and when I do most of the things in it are too shabby for your wife; and in the meantime I have nothing, and I should not like to disgrace you, to make you feel ashamed of me while we are on our honeymoon tour.’

She sat with downcast eyes and flaming cheeks, deeply humiliated by her position, hating her poverty more than she had ever hated it in her life before. She felt that this rich husband of hers had not been altogether kind to her — that he might by a little forethought have spared her this shame. He must have known that she had neither clothes nor money. He who had such large means had done nothing to sweeten her poverty. On this her wedding morning he had brought her no gift save the ring which the law prescribed. He had not brought her so much as a flower by way of greeting; yet she knew by the gossip of her schoolfellows that it was the custom for a lover to ratify his engagement by some splendid ring, which was ever afterwards his betrothed’s choicest jewel. The girls had talked of their elder sisters’ engagement-rings: how one had diamonds, another rubies, another catseyes, more distinguished and artistic than either.

And now she sat with drooping eyelids, expecting her lover-husband to break into an outburst of self-reproach, then pour a shower of gold into her lap. But he did neither. He rattled some loose coins in his pocket, just as he had done yesterday when he talked of the honeymoon; and he answered hesitatingly, with evident embarrassment.

‘Yes, you’ll want some new clothes, I daresay. All girls do when they marry, don’t they? It’s a kind of unwritten law — new husband, new gowns. But I’m sure you can’t look better than you do in that gray gown, and it looks to me just the right thing for travelling. And for any other little things you may want for the moment, if a couple of sovereigns will do’— producing those coins —‘you can get anything you like as we drive to my chambers. We could stop at a draper’s on our way.’

Ida was stricken dumb by this reply. Her cheeks changed from crimson to pale. Her wealthy husband — the man whose fortune was to give her all those good things she had ever pictured to herself in the airy visions of a splendid future — offered her, with a half-reluctant air, as if offering his life’s blood, two sovereigns with which to purchase a travelling outfit. What could she buy for two sovereigns? Not all the economy of her girlhood could screw half the things she wanted out of that pitiful sum.

She thought of all those descriptions of weddings which were so eagerly devoured at Mauleverer, whenever a fashionable newspaper fell in the way of those eager neophytes. She recalled the wonderful gifts which the bridegroom and the bridegroom’s friends showered on the bride — the glorious gown and bonnet in which the bride departed on her honeymoon journey. And she was offered two sovereigns, wherewith to supply herself with all things needful for comfort and respectability.

Pride gave her strength to refuse the sordid boon. She had the contents of her small travelling bag, and she was going to her father’s house, where her step-mother would, perhaps, contrive to provide what was absolutely necessary. Anything was better than to be under an obligation to this rich husband who so little understood her needs.

Could she have married that most detestable of all monsters, a miser? No, she could hardly believe that. It was not in a Wendover to be mean. And all that she had observed hitherto of Brian’s way of acting and thinking rather indicated a recklessness about money than an undue care of pounds, shillings, and pence.

‘If you don’t object to this gown and hat, I can manage very well till we get to my father’s house,’ she said quietly.

‘I adore you in that hat and gown,’ replied Brian, eagerly, dropping the sovereigns back into his pocket; and so the question was settled.

An elderly lady came into the carriage at the next station, and there was no renewal of confidences between bride and bridegroom till they came to Waterloo, nor even then, for there is not much opportunity for confidential utterances in a hansom, and it was that convenient vehicle which carried Brian and his bride to the Temple.

They alighted at a gate on the Embankment, and made their way by a garden to a row of grave old houses, with a fine view of the river. Brian led his wife into one of these houses and up the uncarpeted stair to the third floor, where he ushered her into a room with two old-fashioned windows looking out upon grass, and trees, and old-fashioned buildings, all grave and gray, and having an air of sober peacefulness, as of a collegiate or monastic seclusion, while beyond the broad green lawn shone the broad blue river.

‘What a nice old place!’ said Ida, looking down at the garden. ‘How quiet, how grave, how learned-looking! I don’t wonder you like this pied-à-terre in London, as a change from your grand old Abbey.’

Brian gave a little nervous cough, as if something were choking him. He came to the window, and put his arm round his wife’s waist.

‘Ida,’ he began, somewhat huskily, ‘I am going to tell you a secret.’

‘What is that?’ she asked, turning and looking at him.

‘The Abbey does not belong to me!’

‘What?’ she cried, with wide-open eyes.

‘You have been rather fond of talking about the Abbey; but I hope your heart is not too much set upon it. You told me the other day, you know, that you did not value me upon account of the Abbey or my position as its owner. I hope that was the truth, Ida; for Wendover Abbey belongs to my cousin. You have married the poor Brian and not the rich one!’

‘What?’ she cried. ‘You have lied to me all this time — you have fooled and deluded me!’

She turned and faced him with eyes that flamed indignant fire, lips that quivered with unrestrained passion.

‘It was not my doing,’ he faltered, shrinking before her like the veriest craven; ‘it was the girls — Urania and Bessie — who started the notion as a practical joke, just to see what you would think of me, believing me to be my cousin. And when you seemed to like me — a little — Bessie, who is fond of me and who adores you, urged me to follow up my advantage.’

‘But not to cheat me into a marriage. No; it is not in Bessie to suggest such falsehood.’

‘She hardly contemplated an immediate marriage. I was to win your heart, and when I was sure of that —’

‘You were to tell me the truth,’ said Ida, looking him straight in the eyes.

His head drooped upon his breast.

‘And you did not tell me. You knew that I saw in you Brian Wendover, the head of the family, the owner of a great estate; that I was proud of being loved and sought by a man who stooped from such a high position to love me, who renounced the chance of a brilliant marriage to marry me, a penniless body! You knew that it was in that character I admired you and respected you, and was grateful to you! Not as the briefless barrister — the man without means or position!’

‘You harped a good deal upon the Abbey. But I had some right to suppose you liked me for my own sake, and that you would forgive me for a stratagem which was prompted by my love for you. How could I know that you looked upon marriage as a matter of exchange and barter?’

‘No,’ said Ida, bitterly. ‘You are right. You could not know how mean I am. I did not know it myself till now. And now,’ she pursued, with flashing eyes, with a look in her splendid face that seemed to blight and wither him, with all her beauty, all her womanhood, up in arms against him, ‘and now to punish you for having kept the truth from me, I will tell you the truth — plainly. I have never cared one straw for you. I thought I did while I still believed you Brian Wendover of the Abbey. I was dazzled by your position; I was grateful in advance for all the good things that your wealth was to bring me. I tried to delude myself into the belief that I really loved you; but the voice of my conscience told me that it was not so, that I was, in sober truth, the basest of creatures — a woman who marries for money. And now, standing here before you, I know what a wretch I seem — what a wretch I am.’

‘You are my wife,’ said Brian, trying to take her hand; ‘and we must both make the best of a bad bargain.’

‘Your wife?’ she echoed, in a mocking voice.

‘Yes, my very wife, Ida. The knot that was tied to-day can only be loosened by death — or dishonour.’

‘You have married me under a false name.’

‘No, I have not. You married Brian Walford Wendover. There is no other man of that name.’

‘You have cheated me into a miserable marriage. I will never forgive that cheat. I will never acknowledge you as my husband. I will never bear your name, or be anything to you but a stranger, except that I shall hate you all the days of my life. That will be the only bond between us,’ she added, with a bitter laugh.

‘Come, Ida,’ said Brian, soothingly, feeling himself quite able to face the situation now the first shock was over, ‘I was prepared for you to be disappointed — to be angry, even; but you are carrying matters a little too far. Even your natural disappointment can hardly excuse such language as this. I am the same man I was yesterday morning when I asked you to marry me.’

‘No, you are not. I saw you in a false light — glorified by attributes that never belonged to you.’

‘In plain words, you thought me the owner of a big house and a fine income. I am neither; but I am the same Brian Wendover, for all that — a briefless barrister, but with some talent; not without friends; and with as fair a chance of success as most young men of my rank.’

‘You are an idler — I have heard that from your uncle — self-indulgent, fond of trivial pleasures. Such men never succeed in life. But if you were certain to be Lord Chancellor — if you could this moment prove yourself possessed of a splendid fortune — my feelings would be unchanged. You have lied to me as no gentleman would have lied. I will own no husband who is not a gentleman.’

‘You carry things with a high hand,’ said Brian, with sullen wrath; and then love prevailed over anger, and he flung himself on his knees at her feet, clasping her reluctant hands, urging every impassioned argument which young lips could frame; but to all such prayers she was marble. ‘You are my wife,’ he pleaded; ‘you are my snared bird; your wings are netted, darling. Do you think I will let you go? Yes, I was false, but it was love made me deceive you. I loved you so well that I dared not risk losing you.’

‘You have lost me for ever,’ she cried, breaking from him and moving towards the door; ‘perhaps, had you been loyal and true, you might have taught me to love you for your own sake. Women are easier won by truth than falsehood.’

‘It seems to me they are easier won by houses and lands,’ answered Brian, with a sneer.

And then he followed her to the door, caught her in his arms, and held her against his passionately beating heart, covering her angry face with kisses.

‘Let me go!’ she cried, tearing herself from his arms, with a shriek of horror; ‘your kisses are poison to me. I hate you — I hate you!’

He recoiled a few paces, and stood looking at her with a countenance in which the passionate love of a moment ago gave place to gloomy anger.

‘So be it,’ he said; ‘if we cannot be friends we must be enemies. You reveal your character with an admirable candour. You did not mind marrying a man who was absolutely repulsive to you — whose kisses are poison — so long as you thought he was rich. But directly you are told he is poor you inform him of your real sentiments with a delightful frankness. Suppose this confession of mine were a hoax, and that I really were the wealthy Brian after all — playing off a practical joke to test your feelings — what a sorry figure you would cut!’

‘Despicable,’ said Ida, with her hand on the handle of the door. ‘Yes, I know that. I despise and loathe myself as much as I despise and loathe you. I have drained the cup of poverty to the dregs, and I languished for the elixir of wealth. When you asked me to marry you, I thought Fate had thrown prosperity in my way — that it would be to lose the golden chance of a lifetime if I refused you.’

‘Not much gold about it,’ said Brian, lightly.

He had one of those shallow natures to which the tragedy of life is impossible. He was disappointed — angry at the turn which affairs had taken; but he was not reduced to despair. To take things easily had been his complete code of morals and philosophy from earliest boyhood. He was not going to break his heart for any woman, were she the loveliest, the cleverest, the noblest that ever the gods endowed with their choicest gifts. She might be ever so fair, but if she were not fair for him she was, in a manner, non-existent. Life, in his philosophy, was too short to be wasted in following phantoms.

‘You must have thought me a mean cad this morning, when I offered you a couple of sovereigns,’ he said; ‘yet they constituted a third of my worldly possessions, and I was sorely puzzled how we were to get to Dieppe on less than four pounds. I have been living from hand to mouth ever since I left the university, picking up a few pounds now and then by literature, writing criticisms for a theatrical journal, and so on — by no means a brilliant living. Perhaps, after all, it is as well you take things so severely,’ he added, with a sneer. ‘If we had been well disposed towards each other, we must have starved.’

‘I could have lived upon a crust with a husband whom I loved and respected; but not with a man who could act a lie, as you did,’ said Ida.

She took her bag from the chair where Brian had thrown it as they entered the room, and went out on the landing.

‘Good-bye, Mrs. Wendover,’ he called after her; ‘let me know if I can ever be of any use to you.’

She was going downstairs by this time, and he was looking down at her across the heavy old banister rail.

‘I suppose you are going straight to your father’s?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hadn’t you better stop and have some lunch? The train doesn’t go for hours.’

‘No, thanks.’

The gray gown fluttered against the sombre brown panelling as his wife turned the corner of the lower landing and disappeared from his view — perhaps for ever.

Brian went back to his room, and stood in the middle of it, looking round him with a contemplative air. It was a pleasant room, arranged with rather a dandified air — pipes, walking-sticks, old engravings, bric-à-brac— the relics of his college life.

‘Well, if she had been more agreeable, I should have had to get new rooms, and that would have been a bore,’ he said to himself; and then he sank into a chair, gave a laugh that was half a sob, and wiped a mist of tears from his eyes.

‘What fools we have both been!’ he muttered to himself, ‘I knew she was in love with the Abbey; but I don’t believe a word she says about hating me!’

And yet — and yet — she had seemed very much in earnest when she tore herself from his arms with that agonized shriek.

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