Ida made her way back to the Embankment somehow, hardly knowing where she was going or what she was going to do. The airy castle which she had built for herself had fallen about her ears, and she was left standing amidst the ruins. Wendover Abbey, wealth, position, independence, the world’s respect, were all as far from her as they had been a month ago. Her sense of disappointment was keen, but not so keen as the sense of her self-abasement. Her own character stood revealed, to herself in all its meanness — its sordid longing for worldly wealth — its willingness to stoop to falsehood in the pursuit of a woman’s lowest aim, a good establishment. Seen in the light of abject failure, the scheme of her life seemed utterly detestable. Success would have gilded everything. As the wife of the rich Brian she would have done her duty in all wifely meekness and obedience, and would have gone down to the grave under the comforting delusion that she had in no wise forfeited honour or self-respect. Cheated, duped, degraded, she now felt all the infamy implied in her willingness to marry a man for whom she cared not a straw.
‘Oh, it was cruel, iniquitous,’ she said to herself, as she hurried along the dusty pavement, impelled by agitated thoughts, ‘to trade upon my weakness — my misery — to see me steeped to the lips in odious poverty, and to tempt me with the glitter of wealth. I never pretended to love him — never — thank God for that! I let him tell me that he loved me, and I consented to be his wife; but I pretended no love on my side. Thank God for that! He cannot say that I lied to him.’
She hurried along, citywards, following the stream of people, and found herself presently in broad, busy Queen Victoria Street, with all the traffic hastening by her, staring helplessly at the cabs, and omnibuses, waggons, carriages streaming east and west under the murky London sky, vaguely wondering what she was to do next.
He — her husband — had asked her if she were going back to her father, and she had said ‘Yes.’ Indeed it was the only course open to her. She must go home and face the situation, and accept any paternal reproof that might be offered her. She had lost a day. No doubt Miss Pew’s indictment would have arrived before her; and she would have to explain her conduct to father and step-mother. But the little white-walled house near Dieppe was the only shelter the universe held for her, and she must go there.
‘Wendover Abbey!’ she repeated to herself. I the mistress of Wendover Abbey! That was too good a joke, ‘Why did I not see the folly of such a dream? But it was just like other dreams. When one dreams one is a queen, or that one can fly, there is no consciousness of the absurdity of the thing.’
She stood staring at the omnibuses till the conductor of one that was nearly empty murmured invitingly in her ear, ‘London Bridge?’
It was the place to which she wanted to go. She nodded to the man, who opened his door and let her in.
She was at the station at a quarter to four, and the train for Newhaven did not leave till seven — a long dismal stretch of empty time to be lived through. But she could not improve her situation by going anywhere else. The station, with its dingy waiting-rooms and garish refreshment-room, was as good an hotel for her as any other. She was faint for want of food, having taken nothing since her apology for breakfast at seven o’clock.
‘Can one get a cup of tea here?’ she asked of the dry-as-dust matron in charge of the waiting-room; whereupon the matron good-naturedly offered to fetch her some tea.
‘If you would be so kind,’ she faltered, too exhausted to speak above a whisper; ‘I don’t like going into that crowded refreshment-room.’
‘No, to be sure — not much used to travelling alone, I daresay. You will be better when you’ve had a cup of tea.’
The tea, with a roll and butter, revived exhausted nature. Ida paid for this temperate refreshment, went to the booking-office, made some inquiries about her ticket, and bought herself a book at the stall, wherewith to beguile the time and to distract her mind from brooding on its own miseries.
She felt it was a frightful extravagance as she paid away two of Miss Cobb’s shillings for Bulwer’s ‘Caxtons;’ but she felt also that to live through those three tedious hours without such aid would be a step on the road to a lunatic asylum.
Armed with her book, she went back to the waiting-room, settled herself in a corner of the sofa, and remained there absorbed, immovable; while travellers came and went, all alike fussy, flurried, and full of their own concerns — not one of them stopping to notice the pale, tired-looking girl reading in the remotest corner of the spacious room.
A somewhat stormy passage brought the boat which carried Ida and her fortunes to straggling, stony, smelly Dieppe, now abandoned to its native population, and deprived of that flavour of fashion which pervades its beach in the brighter months of August and September. The town looked gray, cold, and forbidding in the bleak October morning, when Ida found herself alone amidst its stoniness, the native population only just beginning to bestir itself in the street above the quay, and making believe, by an inordinate splashing and a frantic vehemence in the use of birch-brooms, to be the cleanest population under the sun; an assertion of superiority somewhat belied by an all-pervading odour of decomposed vegetable matter, a small heap of which refuse, including egg-shells and fishy offal — which the town in the matutinal cleansing process offered up to the sun-god as incense upon an altar — lay before every door, to be collected by the local scavenger at his leisure, or to be blown about and disseminated by the winds of heaven.
Alone upon the stony quay, in the freshness and chilliness of early morning, Ida took temporary refuge in the humblest café she could find, where a feeble old woman was feebly brooming the floor, and where there was no appearance of any masculine element. Here she expended another of Miss Cobb’s shillings upon a cup of coffee and a roll. She had spent five and twenty shillings for her second-class ticket. The debt to Miss Cobb now amounted to a sovereign and a half; and Ida Palliser thought of it with an aching sense of her own helplessness to refund so large a sum. Yesterday morning, believing herself about to become the wife of a rich man, she had thought what fun it would be to send ‘Cobby’ a five-pound note in the prettiest of ivory purses from one of those shops in the street yonder.
She drank her coffee slowly, not anxious to hasten the hour of a home-coming which could not be altogether pleasant. She was as fond of her father as adverse circumstances had allowed her to be; she adored her half-brother, and was not unkindly disposed towards her step-mother. But to go back to them penniless, threadbare, disgraced — go back to be a burden upon their genteel poverty. That was bitter.
She had made up her mind to walk to Les Fontaines rather than make any further inroad upon Miss Cobb’s purse for coach-hire. What was she that she should be idle or luxurious, or spare the labour of her young limbs? She went along the narrow stony street where the shops were only now being opened, past the wide market where the women were setting out their stalls in front of the fine old church, and where Duguesclin, heroic and gigantic, defied the stormy winds that had ruffled his sculptured hair.
Two years and a half ago it had been a treat to her to walk in that market-place, hanging on her father’s arm, to stand in the sombre stillness of that solemn cathedral, while the organ rolled its magnificent music along the dusky aisles. They two had chaffered for fruit at those stalls, laughing gaily with the good-tempered countrywomen. They had strolled on the beach and amused themselves economically, from the outside, with the diversions of the établissement. An afternoon in Dieppe had meant fun and holiday-making. Now she looked at the town with weary eyes, and thought how dull and shabby it had grown.
The walk to Les Fontaines, along a white dusty road, seemed interminable. If she had not been told again and again that it was only four miles from the town to the village, she would have taken the distance for eight — so long, so weary, seemed the way. There were hills in the background, hills right and left of her, orchards, glimpses of woodland — here and there a peep of sea — pretty enough road to be whirled along in a comfortable carriage with a fast horse, but passing flat, stale, and unprofitable to the heavy-hearted pedestrian.
At last the little straggling village, the half-dozen new houses — square white boxes, which seemed to have been dropped accidentally in square enclosures of ragged garden — white-walled penitentiaries on a small scale, deriving an air of forced liveliness from emerald-green shutters, here a tree, and there a patch of rough grass, but never a flower — for the scarlet geraniums in the plaster vases on the wall of the grandest of the mansions had done blooming, and beyond scarlet geraniums on the wall the horticultural taste of Les Fontaines had never risen. The old cottages, with heavy thatched roofs and curious attic windows, with fruit trees sprawling over the walls, and orchards in the rear, were better than the new villas; but even these lacked the neatness and picturesque beauty of an English cottage in a pastoral landscape. There was a shabby dustiness, a barren, comfortless look about everything; and the height of ugliness was attained in the new church, a plastered barn, with a gaudily painted figure of our Blessed Lady in a niche above the door, all red and blue and gold, against the white-washed wall.
Ida thought of Kingthorpe — the rustic inn with its queer old gables, shining lattices, quaint dovecots, the green, the pond, with its willowy island, the lovely old Gothic church — solid, and grave, and gray — calm amidst the shade of immemorial yews. The country about Les Fontaines was almost as pretty as that hilly region between Winchester and Romsey; but the English village was like a gem set in the English landscape, while the French village was a wart on the face of a smiling land.
‘Why call it Les Fontaines?’ Ida wondered, in her parched and dusty weariness. ‘It is the dryest village I ever saw; and I don’t believe there is anything like a fountain within a mile.’
Her father’s house was one of the white boxes with green shutters. It enjoyed a dignified seclusion behind a plaster wall, which looked as if anyone might knock it down in very wantonness. The baby-boy had varied the monotony of his solitary sports by picking little bits out of it. There was a green door opening into this walled forecourt or garden, but the door was not fastened, so Ida pushed it open and went in. The baby-boy, now a sturdy vagabond of five years old, was digging an empty flower-bed. He caught sight of his sister, and galloped off into the house before she could take him in her arms, shouting, ‘Maman, une dame — une dame! lady, lady, lady!’ exercising his lungs upon both those languages which were familiar to his dawning intelligence.
His mother came out at his summons, a pretty, blue-eyed woman with an untidy gown and towzley hair, aged and faded a little since Ida had seen her.
‘Oh, Ida,’ she said, kissing her step-daughter heartily enough, despite her reproachful tone, ‘how could you go on so! We have had such a letter from Miss Pew. Your father is awfully cut up. And we were expecting you all yesterday. He went to Dieppe to meet the afternoon boat. Where have you been since Tuesday?’
‘I slept at the lock-house with a nice civil woman, who gave me a night’s lodging,’ said Ida, somewhat embarrassed by this question.
‘But why not have come home at once, dear?’ asked the step-mother mildly. She always felt herself a poor creature before her Juno-like daughter.
‘I was flurried and worried — hardly knew what I was doing for the first few hours after I left Mauleverer; and I let the time slip by till it was too late to think of travelling yesterday,’ answered Ida. ‘Old Pew is a demon.’
‘She seems to be a nasty, unkind old thing,’ said Mrs. Palliser; ‘for, after all, the worst she can bring against you is flirting with your friend’s cousin. I hope you are engaged to him, dear; for that will silence everybody.’
‘No, I am not engaged to him — he is nothing to me,’ answered Ida, crimsoning; ‘I never saw him, except in Fräulein’s company. Neither you nor my father would like me to marry a man without sixpence.’
‘But in Miss Pew’s letter she said you declared you were engaged to Mr. Wendover of the Abbey, a gentleman of wealth and position. She was wicked enough to say she did not believe a word you said; but still, Ida, I do hope you were not telling falsehoods.’
‘I hardly knew what I said,’ replied Ida, feeling the difficulties of her position rising up on every side and hemming her in. She had never contemplated this kind of thing when she repudiated her marriage and turned her face homewards. ‘She maddened me by her shameful attack, talking to me as if I were dirt, degrading me before the whole school. If you had been treated as I was you would have been beside yourself.’
‘I might have gone into hysterics,’ said Mrs. Palliser, ‘but I don’t think I should have told deliberate falsehoods: and to say that you were engaged to a rich man when you were not engaged, and the man hasn’t a sixpence, was going a little too far. But don’t fret, dear,’ added the step-mother, soothingly, as the tears of shame and anger — anger against fate, life, all things — welled into Ida’s lovely eyes. ‘Never mind. We’ll say no more about it. Come upstairs to your own room — it’s Vernie’s day-nursery now, but you won’t mind that, I know — and take off your hat. Poor thing, how tired and ill you look!’
‘I feel as if I was going to be ill and die, and I hope I am,’ said Ida, petulantly.
‘Don’t, dear; it’s wicked to say such a thing as that. You needn’t be afraid of your poor pa; he takes everything easily.’
‘Yes, he is always good. Where is he?’
‘Not up yet. He comes down in time for his little déjeûner à la fourchette. Poor fellow, he had to get up so early in India.’
Captain Palliser had for the last seven years been trying to recover those arrears of sleep incurred during his Eastern career. He had been active enough under a tropical sky, when his mind was kept alive by a modicum of hard work and a very wide margin of sport — pig-sticking, peacock-shooting, paper-chases, all the delights of an Indian life. But now, vegetating on a slender pittance in the semi-slumberous idleness of Les Fontaines, he had nothing to do and nothing to think about; and he was glad to shorten his days by dozing away the fresher hours of the morning, while his wife toiled at the preparation of that elaborate meal which he loved to talk about as tiffin.
Poor little Mrs. Palliser made strenuous efforts to keep the sparsely furnished dusty house as clean and trim as it could be kept; but her life was a perpetual conflict with other people’s untidiness.
The house was let furnished, and everything was in the third-rate French style — inferior mahogany and cheap gilding, bare floors with gaudy little rugs lying about here and there, tables with flaming tapestry covers, chairs cushioned with red velvet of the commonest kind, sham tortoiseshell clock and candelabra on the dining-room chimney-piece, alabaster clock and candelabra in the drawing-room. There was nothing home-like or comfortable in the house to atone for the smallness of the rooms, which seemed mere cells to Ida after the spaciousness of Mauleverer Manor and The Knoll. She wondered how her father and mother could breathe in such rooms.
That bed-chamber to which Mrs. Palliser introduced her step-daughter was even a shade shabbier than the rest of the house. The boy had run riot here, had built his bricks in one corner, had stabled a headless wooden horse and cart in another, and had scattered traces of his existence everywhere. There were his little Windsor chair, the nurse-girl’s rocking chair, a battered old table, a heap of old illustrated newspapers, and torn toy-books.
‘You won’t mind Vernon’s using the room in the day, dear, will you?’ said Mrs. Palliser, apologetically. ‘It shall be tidied for you at night.’
This meant that in the daytime Ida would have no place for retreat, no nook or corner of the house which she might call her own. She submitted meekly even to this deprivation, feeling that she was an intruder who had no right to be there.
‘I should like to see my father soon,’ she said, with a trembling lip, stooping down to caress Vernon, who had followed them upstairs.
He was a lovely, fair-haired boy, with big candid blue eyes, a lovable, confiding child, full of life and spirits and friendly feeling towards all mankind and the whole animal creation, down to its very lowest forms.
‘You shall have your breakfast with him,’ said Mrs. Palliser, feeling that she was conferring a great favour, for the Captain’s breakfast was a meal apart. ‘I don’t say but what he’ll be a little cross to you at first; but you must put up with that. He’ll come round afterwards.’
‘He has not seen me for two years and a half,’ said Ida, thinking that fatherly affection ought to count for something under such circumstances.
‘Yes, it’s only two years and a half,’ sighed Mrs. Palliser, ‘and you were to have stayed at Mauleverer Manor three years. Miss Pew is a wicked old woman to cheat your father out of six months’ board and tuition. He paid her fifty pounds in one lump when he articled you — fifty pounds — a heap of money for people in our position; and here you are, come back to us like a bad penny.’
‘I am very sorry,’ faltered Ida, reddening at that unflattering comparison. ‘But I worked very hard at Mauleverer, and am tolerably experienced in tuition. I must try to get a governess’s situation directly, and then I shall be paid a salary, and shall be able to give you back the fifty pounds by degrees.’
‘Ah, that’s the dreadful part of it all,’ sighed Mrs. Palliser, who was very seldom in the open air, and had that despondent view of life common to people who live within four narrow walls. ‘Goodness knows how you are ever to get a situation without references. Miss Pew says you are not to refer to her; and who else is there who knows anything of you or your capacity?’
‘Yes, there is some one else. Bessie Wendover and her family.’
‘The people you went to visit in Hampshire. Ah! there went another five pounds in a lump. You have been a heavy expense to us, Ida. I don’t know whether anyone wanting to employ you as a governess would take such a reference as that. People are so particular. But we must hope for the best, and in the meantime you can make yourself useful at home in taking care of Vernon and teaching him his letters. He is dreadfully backward.’
‘He is an angel,’ said Ida, lifting the cherub in her arms, and letting the fair, curly head nestle upon her shoulder. ‘I will wait upon him like a slave. You do love me, don’t you, pet?’
‘Ess, I love ‘oo, but I don’t know who ‘oo is. Connais pas,’ said Vernon, shaking his head vehemently.
‘I am your sister, darling, your only sister.’
‘My half-sister,’ said Vernon. ‘Maman said I had a half-sister, and she was naughty. Dites donc, would a whole sister be twice as big as you?’
Thus in his baby language, which may be easier imagined than described, gravely questioned the boy.
‘I am your sister, dearest, heart and soul. There is no such thing as half-love or half-sisterhood between us. You should not have talked to him like that, mother,’ said Ida, turning her reproachful gaze upon her step-mother, who was melted to tears.
‘Your father was so upset by Miss Pew’s letter,’ she murmured apologetically. ‘To pay fifty pounds for you, and for it to end in such humiliation as that. You must own that it was hard for us.’
‘It was harder for me,’ said Ida; ‘I had to stand up and face that wicked woman, who knew that I had done no wrong, and who wreaked her malignity upon me because I am cleverer and better-looking than ever she was in her life.’
‘I must go and make your father’s omelette,’ said the stepmother, ‘while you tidy yourself for breakfast. I think there’s some water on the washstand, and Vernon shall bring you a clean towel.’
The little fellow trotted out after his mother, and trotted back presently with the towel — one towel, which was about in proportion to the water-jug and basin. Ida shuddered, remembering the plentitude of water and towels at The Knoll. She made her toilet as well as she could, with the scantiest materials, as she might have done on board ship; shook and brushed the shabby gray cashmere — her wedding gown, she thought, with a bitter smile — before she put it on again, and then went down the bare narrow deal staircase, superb in all the freshness of her youth and beauty, which neither care nor poverty could spoil.
Captain Palliser was pacing up and down his little dining parlour, looking flurried and anxious. He turned suddenly as Ida entered, and stood staring at her.
‘By Jove, how handsome you have grown!’ he said, and then he look her in his arms and kissed her. ‘But you know, my dear, this is really too bad,’ he went on in a fretful tone,’ to come back upon us like a bad penny.’
‘That is what my step-mother said just now.’
‘My dear, how can one help saying it, when it’s the truth? After my paying fifty pounds, don’t you know, and thinking that you were comfortably disposed of for the next three years, and that at the expiry of the term Miss Pew would place you in a gentleman’s family, where you would receive from sixty to a hundred per annum, according to your acquirements — those were her very words — to have you sent back to us like this, in disgrace, and to be told that you had been carrying on in an absurd way with a young man on the bank of a river. It is most humiliating. And now my wife tells me the young man has not a sixpence which makes the whole thing so very culpable.’
‘Please let me tell you the extent of my iniquity, father, and then you can judge what right Miss Pew had to expel me.’
Whereupon Ida quietly described her afternoon promenades upon the river-path, with the Fräulein always in her company, and how her friend’s cousin had been permitted to walk up and down with them.
‘Nobody supposes there was any actual harm,’ replied Captain Palliser, ‘but you must have been perfectly aware that you were acting foolishly — that this kind of thing was a violation of the school etiquette. Come, now, you knew Miss Pew would disapprove of such goings on, did you not?’
‘Well, yes, no doubt I knew old Pew would be horrified. Perhaps it was the idea of that which gave a zest to the thing.’
‘Precisely! and you never thought of my fifty pounds, and you ran this risk for the sake of a young man without a penny, who never could be your husband.’
Ida grew scarlet and then deadly pale.
‘There, don’t look so distressed, child. I must try to forget my fifty pounds, and to think of your future career. It is a deuced awkward business — here come the omelette and the coffee — an escapade of this kind is always cropping up against a girl in after life — sit down and make yourself comfortable — capital dish of kidneys — the world is so small; and of course every pupil at Mauleverer Manor will gabble about this business. No mushrooms! — what is the little woman thinking about?’
Captain Palliser seated himself, and arranged his napkin under his chin, French fashion. His features were of that aquiline type which seems to have been invented on purpose for army men. His eyes were light blue, like his boy’s — Ida’s dark eyes were a maternal inheritance — his hair was auburn, sprinkled with gray, his moustache straw-colour and with a carefully trained cavalry droop. His clothes and boots were perfect of their kind, albeit they had seen good wear. He had been heard to declare that he had rather wear feathers and war-paint, like a red Indian, than a coat made by a third-rate tailor. He was tall and inclining to stoutness, broad-shouldered, and with an easy carriage and a nonchalant air, which were not without their charm. He had what most people called a patrician look — that is to say the air of never having done anything useful in the whole course of his existence — not such a patrician as a Palmerston, a Russell, a Derby, or a Salisbury, but the ideal lotus-eating aristocrat, who dresses, drives, and dines and gossips through a languid existence.
The Captain’s career in the East had not been particularly brilliant. His lines had not lain in great battles or stirring campaigns. Except during the awful episode of the Mutiny, when he was still a young man, he had seen little active service. His life, since his return from India, had been a blank.
His mind, never vigorous, had rusted slowly in the slow monotony of his days. He had come to accept the rhythmical ebb and flow of life’s river as all-sufficient for content. Breakfast and dinner were the chief events of his life — if it was well with these it was well with him.
There was a rustic tavern where in summer a good many people came to dine, either in the house or the garden, and in a room adjoining the kitchen there was a small French billiard-table with very big balls. Here the Captain played of an evening with the habitués of the place, and was much looked up to for his superior skill. An occasional drive into Dieppe on the banquette of the diligence, and a saunter by the sea, was his only other amusement.
His daughter poured out his coffee, and ministered to his various wants as he breakfasted, eating with but little appetite herself, albeit the fare was excellent.
Captain Palliser talked in a desultory way as he ate, not often looking up from his plate, but meandering on. Happily for Ida, who had been reduced to the lowest stage of self-abasement by her welcome, he said no more about Miss Pew or his daughter’s gloomy prospects. It was not without a considerable mental effort that he was able to bring his thoughts to bear upon other people’s business. He had strained his mind a good deal during the last twenty-four hours, and he was very glad to relax the tension of the bow.
‘Rather a dull kind of life for a man who has been used to society — eh, Ida?’ he murmured, as he ate his omelette; ‘but we contrive to rub on somehow. Your step-mother likes it, and the boy likes it — wonderful healthy air, don’t you know — no smoke — no fogs — only three miles from the sea, as the crow flies. It suits them, and it’s cheap — a paramount consideration with a poor devil on half-pay; and in the season there are some of the best people in Europe to be seen at the établissement.’
‘I suppose you go to Dieppe often in the season, father?’ said Ida, pleased to find he had dropped Miss Pew and the governess question.
‘Well, yes; I wander in almost every fine day.’
‘You don’t walk?’ exclaimed Ida, surprised at such activity in a man of his languid temper.
‘Oh, no; I never walk. I just wander in — on the diligence-or in, a return fly. I wander in and look about me a little, and perhaps take a cup of coffee with a friend at the Hôtel des Bains. There is generally some one I know at the Bains or the Royal. Ah, by-the-bye whom, do you think I saw there a fortnight ago?’
‘I haven’t the least idea,’ answered Ida; ‘I know so few of your friends.’
‘No, of course not. You never saw Sir Vernon Palliser, but you’ve heard me talk about him.’
‘Your rich brother, the wicked old baronet in Sussex, who never did you a kindness in his life?’
‘My dear, old Sir Vernon has been dead two years.’
‘I never heard of his death.’
‘No, by-the-bye. It wasn’t worth while worrying you about it, especially as we could not afford to go into mourning. Your step-mother fretted about that dreadfully, poor little woman; as if it could matter to her, when she had never seen the man in her life. She said if one had a baronet in one’s family one ought to go into mourning for him. I can’t understand the passion some women have for mourning. They are eager to smother themselves in crape at the slightest provocation, and for a mean old beggar like Vernon, who never gave me a sixpence. But as I was saying, these two young fellows turned up the other day in front of the Hôtel des Bains.’
‘Which two young fellows, my dear father? I haven’t the faintest idea of whom you are talking,’ protested Ida, who found her father’s conversation very difficult to follow.
‘Why, Sir Vernon, of course — the present Sir Vernon and his brother Peter: ugly name, isn’t it, Ida? but there has always been a Peter in the family; and as a rule,’ added Captain Palliser, growing slower and dreamier of speech as he fell into reminiscences of the past —‘as a rule the Peter Pallisers have gone to the dogs. There was Major Palliser — fought in the Peninsula — knew George the Fourth — married a very pretty woman and beat her — died in the Bench.’
‘Tell me about the present Sir Vernon,’ asked Ida, more interested in the moving, breathing life of to-day than in memories of the unknown dead. ‘Is he nice?’
‘He is a fine, broad-shouldered young fellow — seven or eight and twenty. No, not handsome — my brother Vernon was never distinguished for beauty, though he had all the markings of race. There is nothing like race, Ida; you see it in a man’s walk; you hear it in every tone of a man’s voice.’
‘Dear father, I was asking about this particular Sir Vernon,’ urged Ida, with a touch of impatience, unaccustomed to this slow meandering talk.
‘And I was telling you about him,’ answered the Captain, slightly offended. His little low-born wife never hurried and hustled his thoughts in this way. She was content to sit at his feet, and let him meander on for hours. True that she did not often listen, but she was always respectful. ‘I was remarking that Sir Vernon is a fine young fellow, and likely to live to see himself a great-grandfather. His brother, too, is nearly as big and healthy — healthy to a degree. The breakfast I saw those two young men devour at the hotel would have made your hair stand on end. But, thank heaven, I have never been the kind of man to wait for dead men’s shoes.’
‘I see,’ said Ida. ‘If these boys had been sickly and had died young, you would have succeeded to the baronetcy.’
‘To the baronetcy and to the estate in Sussex, which is a very fine estate, worth eight thousand a year.’
‘Then, of course, they are strong, and likely to live to the age of Methuselah!’ exclaimed Ida, with a laugh of passing bitterness. ‘Who ever heard of luck coming our way? It is not in our race to be fortunate.’
The shame and agony of her own failure to win fortune were still strong upon her.
‘Who knows what might happen?’ said the Captain, with amiable listlessness. ‘I have never allowed my thoughts to dwell upon the possibilities of the future; yet it is a fact that, so long as those young men remain unmarried, there are only two lives between me and wealth. They feel the position themselves; for when Sir Vernon came over here to lunch, he patted my boy on the head and said, in his joking way, “If Peter and I had fallen down a crevasse the other day in the Oberland, this little chap would have been heir to Wimperfield.”’
‘No doubt Sir Vernon and his brother will marry and set up nurseries of their own within the next two or three years,’ said Ida, carelessly. Eager as she had been to be rich during those two and a half bitter years in which she had so keenly felt the sting of poverty, she was not capable of seeing her way to fortune through the dark gate of death.
‘Yes, I daresay they will both marry,’ replied Captain Palliser, gravely, folding his napkin and whisking an accidental crumb off his waistcoat. ‘Young men always get drifted into matrimony. If they are rich all the women are after them, If they are poor — well, there is generally some woman weak enough to prefer dual starvation to bread and cheese and solitude. Vernon told me he had no idea of marriage. He and his brother are both rovers — fond of mountain-climbing, yachting, every open-air amusement.’
‘Did you see much of them while they were at Dieppe?’
‘They only stayed three days. They walked over here to lunch, put the poor little woman in a fluster — although they were very pleasant and easy about everything — invited me to dinner, tipped the boy munificently, and went off by the night-boat, bound straight for Wimperfield and the partridges. Very fine partridge shooting at Wimperfield! Vernon asked me to go across with him and stay at the old place for a week or two; but my sporting days are over. I can’t get up early; and I can’t walk in shooting-boots. Besides, the little woman would have fretted if I had left her alone so long.’
‘But the change would have done you good, father.’
‘No, my dear; any change of habits would worry me. I have dropped into my groove and I must stay in it. What a pity you were not here when your cousins called! Who knows what might have happened? Vernon might have fallen over head and ears in love with you.’
‘Don’t, father!’ cried Ida, with absolute pain in her voice. ‘Don’t talk about marrying for money. There is nothing in life so revolting, so degrading. Be sure, it is a sin which always brings its own punishment.’
‘My dear,’ said the Captain, gravely, ‘there are so many love-matches which bring their own punishment, that I am inclined to believe that marrying for money is a virtue which ought to ensure its own reward. You may depend, if we could get statistics upon the subject, one would find that after ten years’ marriage the couples who were drawn together by prudential motives are just as fond of each other as those more romantic pairs who wedded for love. A decade of matrimony rounds a good many sharp angles, and dispels a good many illusions.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50