Now began for Ida a life of supreme dullness — an empty, almost hopeless, life, waiting upon fortune. Her father was kind to her in his easy-going, lymphatic way, liking well enough to have her about him, pleased with her affection for his boy, proud of her beauty and her talents, but with no earnest care for her welfare in the present or the future. What was to become of wife, son and daughter when he was dead and gone, was a question which Captain Palliser dared not ask himself. For the widow there would be a pittance, for son and daughter nothing. It was therefore vital that Ida should either marry well or become a money-earning personage. Of marriage at Les Fontaines there seemed not the faintest probability, since the experiences of the past afford so few instances of wandering swains caught and won by a face at a window, or the casual appearance of a beautiful girl on a country road.
Of friends or acquaintance, in his present abode, Captain Palliser had none. The only people he had ever cared for were the men and women he had known in India; and he had lost sight of those since his marriage. They were scattered; and he was too proud to expose his fallen fortunes to those who had known him in his happier days, those days when the careless expenditure of his modest capital had given him a false air of easy circumstances.
His life at Les Fontaines suited him well enough, individually. It was a kind of hibernation. He slept a good deal, and ate a good deal, and smoked incessantly, and took very little exercise. For all that is best and noblest in life, Captain Palliser might just as well have been dead. He had outlived hope and ambition, thought, invention. He exercised no influence upon the lives of others, except upon the little homely wife, who was a slave to him. He was no possible good in the world. Yet his daughter was fond of him, and pleased to bear him company when he would have her; and under her influence his sluggish intellect brightened a little.
For the first few weeks of her residence at Les Fontaines, Ida was tortured by a continually recurring fear of Brian Wendover’s pursuit. He had let her go coolly enough; but what if he were to change his mind and follow and claim her? She belonged to him. She was his goods, his chattels — to have and to hold till death did them part. Her life was no longer her own to dispose of as she pleased. Would he let her alone? — he who had held her in his arms with passionate force, who had entreated her to stay with him, and had surrendered her reluctantly in sullen anger.
What if anger, which had been stronger with him than love at that last moment, should urge him to denounce her — to tell the world how base a thing she was — a woman who had been eager to marry a rich man and had been trapped by a pauper! She glanced with a sickening dread at every letter which her father received, lest it should be from Brian, telling her shameful story. She counted the days as they went by, saying to herself, ‘A fortnight since we were married; surely if he had meant to claim me he would have come before now.’ ‘Three weeks! now I must be safe!’ And then came the dull November morning which completed the calendar month since her wedding-day, and her husband had made no sign. She began to feel easier, to believe that he repented his marriage as deeply as she did, and that he was very glad to be free from its bondage.
And now she was able to think more seriously of her future. She had answered a great many advertisements in the Times, wherein paragons were demanded for the tuition of youth or the companionship of age; but as she saw the papers only on the day after their publication, other paragons, on the spot, were beforehand with her. She did not receive a single answer to those carefully written letters, setting forth her qualifications and her willingness to work hard.
‘I shall waste a small fortune in postage-stamps, father,’ she said at last, ‘and shall be no nearer the mark. My only chance is to advertise. Will you give me the money for an advertisement? I am sorry to ask you, but —’
‘My dear, you are always asking me for money,’ replied Captain Palliser, peevishly; which was hardly fair, as she had asked him nothing since her return, except the sum of thirty shillings, being the exact amount of which she stood indebted to kind-hearted Miss Cobb. ‘However, I suppose you must have it.’ He produced a half sovereign from his meagrely-furnished purse. ‘It is only right you should do something; indeed, anything is better than wasting your life in such a hole as this. But what if you do get any answers to your advertisement? Who is to give you a character, since that old witch at Mauleverer Manor has chosen to put up her back against you?’
‘That must be managed somehow,’ answered Ida, moodily. ‘Will it not be enough for the people to know who you are, and that I have never been in a situation before? Why should they apply to the schoolmistress who finished my education?’
‘People are so suspicious,’ said the Captain, ‘and the handsomer a girl is the more questions they ask. They seem to think she has no right to be so handsome. However you must risk it’
Ida wrote her advertisement, an unvarnished statement of her qualifications as a teacher, and of her willingness to be useful; not a word about references. The advertisement appeared a few days later, and the little family at Les Fontaines anxiously awaited the result, even little Vernon eagerly expressing himself on the subject, his youthful ears being open to every topic discussed in his presence, and his youthful mind quick to form opinions.
‘You shan’t go away!’ he exclaimed. ‘Ma, she shan’t go, shall she? lady shan’t have her; I want her always; you mustn’t go, sissie,’ all in baby language, with a curious perversion of consonants. He had climbed on her knee, and had his arms round her neck — energetic young arms which almost throttled her. She had been his chief companion and playfellow for the last five weeks, had read him all his favourite fairy-tales over and over again, had sat with him of an evening till he fell asleep, an invincible defence against bogies and vague fears of darkness. She had taken him for long rural rambles, over breezy downs towards the sea, had dug and delved with him on the lonely beach below the great white lighthouse, warmly coated and shawled, and working hard in the November wind; and now, just when he had grown fonder of her than anyone else in the world, she was going to leave him. He lifted up his head and howled, and refused all comfort from mother or father. Ida cried with him. ‘My pet, I can’t bear to leave you, but I must; my darling, I shall come back,’ she protested, clasping him to her breast, kissing his fair tearful face, soft round cheeks, lovely blue eyes swimming in tears.
‘To-morrow?’ inquired Vernon, with a strangled sob.
‘No, darling, not to-morrow; there would be no use in my going just for one day; but I am not going yet — I don’t know when I am going — Vernon must not cry. See how unhappy he is making poor mamma.’
Mrs. Palliser put her hands before her face, and made a bohooing noise to keep up the illusion; whereupon the affectionate little fellow slipped off his sister’s knee, and ran to his mother to administer comfort.
‘I am not going away yet, Vernon; indeed, I hardly know whether I am ever going at all. I have come back like a bad penny, and I seem likely to be as difficult to get rid of as other bad pennies,’ said Ida, despondingly, for three posts had gone by since the insertion of her advertisement, and had brought her nothing. The market was evidently overstocked with young ladies knowing French and German, able to play and sing, and willing to be useful.
After this Vernon would hardly let his sister out of his sight. He had a suspicion that she would leave him unawares — slip out of the door some day, and be gone without a moment’s warning. That is how joy flees.
‘My pet, be reasonable,’ said Ida; ‘I can’t go away without my trunk.’
This comforted him a little, and he made a point of sitting upon one of Ida’s trunks, when they two were alone in that barely furnished chamber which served for her bed-room and his day-nursery.
She contrived to tell him fairy-tales, and to keep him amused; albeit she was now busy at carefully overhauling, patching, and repairing her scanty wardrobe — trying to make neat mending do duty for new clothes, and getting ready against any sudden summons. She could not bring herself to ask her father for money, sadly as she wanted new garments. He had given her five pounds in August, and two sovereigns since her return, and the way he had doled out those sums indicated the low state of his funds. No, the gown that had been new at The Knoll must still be her best gown. Last winter’s jacket, albeit threadbare in places, must do duty for this winter. Before the next summer she might be in the receipt of a salary and able to clothe herself decently, and to send presents to this beloved boy, who was not much better clad than herself.
But the days wore on, and brought no answer to her advertisement.
‘I shouldn’t wonder if it were the foreign address,’ said Captain Palliser, when they were all speculating upon the cause of this dismal silence. ‘People are suspicious of anyone living abroad. If you had been able to advertise from a rectory in Lincolnshire, or even an obscure street at the west end of London, they’d have thought better of you. But Boulogne, Calais, Dieppe, they all hint at impecuniosity and enforced exile. It’s very unlucky.’
The postman stopped at the little green gate next morning, and Ida flew to receive his packet. It was a letter for her — a bulky letter — in a hand she knew well, and her heart seemed to stop beating as she looked at the address.
The hand was Bessie Wendover’s. Who could tell what new trouble the letter might announce? Brian might have told his family the whole history of his marriage and her unworthy conduct. Oh, what shame, what agony, if this were so! And how was she to face her father when he asked her the contents of the letter? She ran out into the garden — the little bare, joyless garden — to read her letter alone, and to gain time.
This is how the dreaded epistle ran:—
‘My dear darling, ill-used, cruel thing —
‘However could you treat me so badly? What is friendship worth, if you set no higher value upon it than this? I don’t believe you know what friendship means, or you never could act so. How miserable you have made me! how wretched you must have been yourself! you proud, noble-minded darling — under the sting of such vile treatment.
‘I wrote to you three times last month, and could not imagine why my letters were unanswered. Brian had told me that you were perfectly well, and looking splendid when he saw you in October, so I did not think it could be illness that kept you silent; and at last I began to feel angry, and to fancy you had forgotten me, and were ungrateful. No, I don’t mean that, dearest. What reason had you for gratitude? The obligation was all on my side.
‘Towards the end of October I wrote to Brian, telling him of your silence, and asking if he could find out if you were well. He answered with one of his short, unsatisfactory scrawls that he had reason to know you were quite well. After this I felt really offended; for I thought you must have deceived me all along, and that you had never cared a straw about me; so I coiled myself up in my dignity, and, although I felt very unhappy, I resolved never to write you another line till you wrote to me. I was very miserable, but still I felt that I owed a duty to my own self-respect, don’t you know; and just at thistimall went to Bournemouth, where we were very gay. Father and mother knew no end of people there, and I began to feel what it really is to be out, which no girl ever could at Kingthorpe, where there are about three parties in a twelvemonth.
‘Well, darling, so I went on leading a frivolous life among people I did not care twopence for, and hardening my heart against my dearest friend, when, on the day we came home, I happened to take up the Times in the railway carriage. I hate newspapers in a common way, but one reads such things when one is travelling, and out of mere idleness I amused myself skimming the advertisements, which I found ever so much more interesting than the leading articles. What should my eye light upon but an advertisement from a young lady wanting to go out as a governess — address I.P., Le Rosier, Les Fontaines, near Dieppe — and the whole murder was out. You must have left old Pew’s and be living with your father. I was horribly indignant with you — as, indeed, I am still — for not having told me anything about it; but directly I got home I telegraphed to Polly Cobb, as the best-natured girl I knew at Mauleverer, asking where you were, and why you had left. I had such a letter from her next day — spelling bad, but full of kind feeling — giving me a full account of the row, and old Pew’s detestable conduct. She told me that Fräulein vouched for your having behaved with the most perfect propriety, and never having seen Brian out of her presence; but Brian’s meanness in not having told me about the trouble he had brought upon you is more than I can understand.
‘Well, darling, I went off to Aunt Betsy, who is always my confidante in all delicate matters, because she’s ever so much cleverer than dear warm-hearted mother, who never could keep a secret in her life, sweet soul, and is no better than a speaking-tube for conveying information to the Colonel. I told Aunt Betsy everything — how it was all Brian’s fault, and how I adore you, and how miserable I felt about you, and how you were trying to get a situation as governess, in spite of that malignant old Pew — she must be a lineal descendant of the wicked fairy — having said she would give you no certificate of character or ability.
‘Now, what do you think that sweetest and best of aunties said? “Let her come to me,” she said; “I am getting old and dull, and I want something bright and clever about me, to cheer me and rouse me when I feel depressed. Let her come to me as a companion and amanuensis, help me to look after my cottagers, who are getting too much for me, and play to me of an evening. I like that girl, and I should like to have her in my house.”
‘I was enchanted at the thought of your being always near us, and I fancied you wouldn’t altogether dislike it; although Kingthorpe certainly is the dullest, sleepiest old hole in the universe. So I begged Aunt Betsy to write to you instanter; said I knew you would be charmed to accept such a situation, and that she would secure a treasure; and, in all probability, you’ll have a letter from her to-morrow.
‘And now, dear, I must repeat that you have treated me shamefully. Why did you not write to me directly you left Mauleverer? Could you think that I could believe you had really done wrong — that I could possibly be influenced by the judgment of that old monster, Pew? If you could think so, you are not worthy to be loved as I love you. However, come to us, sweetest, directly you get auntie’s letter, and all shall be forgiven and forgotten, as the advertisements say.’
Ida kissed the loving letter. So far, therefore, Brian had not betrayed her; and, having kept her secret so long, it might be supposed he would keep it for all time.
Poor little warm-hearted Bessie! Was not she by her foolish falsification — a piece of mild jocosity, no doubt — the prime author of all the evil that had followed? And yet Ida could not feel angry with her, any more than she could have been angry with Vernon for some piece of sportive mischief.
‘Thank God, he has kept our wretched secret,’ she thought, as she folded Bessie’s long letter, and went back to the house. ‘I am grateful to him for that.’
She went in radiant, gladdened at the thought of being able to relieve her father and step-mother of the burden of her maintenance; for the fact that she was a burden had not been hidden from her. They had been kind; they had given her to eat and to drink of their best, and had admired her talents and accomplishments; but they had let her know at the same time that she was a failure, and that her future was a dark problem still far from solution — a problem which troubled them in the silent watches of the night. Nor did they forget to remind her from time to time that by her imprudence — pardonable although that imprudence might be — she had forfeited six months’ board and lodging, together with those educational advantages the Captain’s fifty pounds had been intended to purchase for her. These facts had been reiterated, not altogether unkindly, but in a manner that made life intolerable; and she felt that were she to continue at Les Fontaines for the natural term of her existence, the same theme would still furnish the subject for parental harpings.
‘Father,’ she said, going behind Captain Palliser’s chair, as he smoked his after-breakfast cigar, and read yesterday’s Times, ‘I want you to read this letter. It is a foolish schoolgirl letter, perhaps; but it will show you that my friends are not going to discard me on account of Miss Pew.’
The Captain laid down his paper, and slowly made his way through Bessie’s lengthy epistle, which, although prettily written, with a good deal of grace in the slopes and curves of the penmanship, gave him considerable trouble to decipher. It was only when he had discovered that all the B’s looked like H’s, and that all the G’s were K’s, and all the L’s S’s, and had, as it were, made a system for himself, that he was able to get on comfortably.
‘Bless my soul,’ he murmured, ‘why cannot girls write legibly?’
‘It is the real Mauleverer hand, papa, and is generally thought very pretty,’ said Ida.
‘Pretty, yes; you might have a zigzag pattern over the paper that would be just as pretty. One wants to be able to read a letter. This is almost as bad as Arabic. However, the girl seems a good, warm-hearted creature, and very fond of you; and I should think you could not do better than accept her aunt’s offer. It will be a beginning.’
‘It is Hobson’s choice, papa; but I am sure I shall be happy with Miss Wendover,’ said Ida; and then she gave a faint sigh, and her heart sank at the thought of that Damoclesian sword always hanging over her head — the possibility of her husband claiming her.
Mrs. Palliser was much more rapturous when she heard the contents of the letter — much more interested in all details about Ida’s future home. She wanted to know what Miss Wendover was like — how many servants she kept — whether carriage or no carriage — what kind of a house she lived in, and how it was furnished.
‘You will be quite a grand lady,’ she said, with a touch of envy, when Ida had described the cosy red-brick cottage, the verandahed drawing-room and conservatory added by Miss Wendover, the pair of cobs which that lady drove, the large well-kept gardens; ‘you will look down upon us with our poor ways, and this house, in which all the rooms smell of whitewash.’
‘No, indeed, mamma, I shall always think of you with affection; for you have been very kind to me, although I know I have been a burden.’
‘Everything is a burden when one is poor,’ sighed her stepmother; ‘even one extra in the washing-bills makes a difference; and we shall feel it awfully when Vernon grows up. Boys are so extravagant; and one cannot talk to them as one can to girls.’
‘But I hope you will be better off then, mamma.’
‘My dear, you might as well hope we should be dukes and duchesses. What chance is there of any improvement? Your poor papa has no idea of earning money. I’m sure I have said to him, often and often, “Reginald, do something. Write for the magazines! Surely you can do that? Other men in your position do it.” “Yes,” he growled, “and that’s why the magazines are so stupid.” No, Ida, your father’s circumstances will never improve; and when the time comes for giving Vernon a proper education we shall be paupers.’
‘Poor papa!’ sighed Ida; ‘I am afraid he is not strong enough to make any great effort.’
‘He has given way, my dear; that is the root of it all. We shall never be better off, unless those two healthy, broad-shouldered young men were to go and get themselves swallowed up by an earthquake; and that is rather too much for anyone to expect.’
‘What young men?’ asked Ida, absently.
‘Your two cousins.’
‘Oh, Sir Vernon and his brother. No, I don’t suppose they will die to oblige us poor creatures.’
‘They went up the what’s-its-name Horn, in Switzerland,’ said Mrs. Palliser, plaintively. ‘It made my blood run cold to hear them talk about it. “By Jove, Peter, I thought it was all over with you,” said Sir Vernon, when he told us how foolhardy his brother had been. But you see they got to the bottom all safe and sound, though ever so many people have been killed on that very mountain.’
‘I’m glad they did, mamma. We may want their money very badly, but we are not murderers, even in thought.’
‘God forbid!’ sighed the little woman. ‘They are fine-grown, gentlemanly young men, too. Sir Vernon gave my Vernie a sovereign, and promised him a pony next year; but, good gracious! how could we afford to keep a pony, even if we had a stable? “You had better make it the other kind of pony,” says your father, and then they all burst out laughing.’
‘So little makes a man laugh!’ said Ida, somewhat contemptuously. That picture of her father making sport of his poverty irritated her. ‘Well, dear mamma,’ she said presently, moved by one of those generous impulses which were a part of her frank, unwise nature, ‘if ever I can earn a hundred a year-and there are many governesses who get as much — you shall have fifty to help pay Vernon’s schooling.’
‘You are a dear generous ‘arted girl,’ exclaimed the stepmother, and the two women kissed again with tears, an operation which they usually performed in the hour of domestic trouble.
Miss Wendover’s letter came next day, a hearty, frank, affectionate letter, offering a home that was really meant to be like home, and a salary of forty pounds a year, ‘just to buy your gowns,’ Miss Wendover said. ‘I know it is not sufficient remuneration for such accomplishments as yours, but I want you rather than your accomplishments and I am not rich enough to give as much as you are worth. But you will, at least, stave off the drudgery of a governess’s life till you are older, and better able to cope with domineering mothers and insolent pupils.’
Such a salary was a long way off that hundred per annum which Ida had set before her eyes as the golden goal to be gained by laborious pianoforte athletics and patient struggles with the profundities of German grammar; but, as Captain Palliser paid, it was a beginning; and Ida was very glad so to begin. She wrote to Miss Wendover gratefully accepting her offer, and in a very humble spirit.
‘I fear it is pity that prompts your kind offer,’ she wrote, ‘and that you take me because you know I left Mauleverer Manor in disgrace, and that nobody else would have me. I am a bad penny. That is what my father called me when I came home to him. And now I am to go back to Kingthorpe as a bad penny. But, please God, I will try to prove to you that I am not altogether worthless; and, whatever may happen, I shall love you and be grateful to you till the end of my life.
‘As you are so kind as to say I may come as soon as I like, I shall be with you on the day after you receive this letter.’
Ida’s preparations for departure were not elaborate. Her scanty wardrobe had been put in the neatest possible order. A few hours sufficed for packing trunk and bonnet-box. On the last afternoon Mrs. Palliser came to her highly elated, and proposed a walk to Dieppe, and a drive home in the diligence which left the Market Place at five o’clock.
‘I am going to give you a new hat,’ she said, triumphantly. ‘You must have a new hat.’
‘But, dear mamma, I know you can’t afford it.’
‘I will afford it, Ida. You will have to go to church at Kingthorpe’— Mrs. Palliser regarded church-going as an oppressive condition of prosperous respectability. One of the few privileges of being hard up and quite out of society was that one need not go to church —‘and I should like you to appear like a lady. You owe it to your pa and I. A hat you must ‘ave. I can pay for it out of the housekeeping money, and your pa will never know the difference.’
‘No, mamma, but you and Vernon will have to pinch for it,’ said Ida, knowing that there was positively no margin to that household’s narrow means of existence.
‘A little pinching won’t hurt us. Vernie is as bilious as he can be; he eats too many compots and little fours. I shall keep him to plain bread and butter for a bit, and it will do him a world of good. There’s no use talking, Ida, I mean you to ‘ave a ‘at; and if you won’t come and choose it I must choose it myself,’ concluded the little woman, dropping more aspirates as she grew more excited.
So mother and daughter walked to Dieppe in the dull November afternoon, Vernon trudging sturdily by his sister’s side. They bought the hat, a gray felt with partridge plumage, which became Ida’s rich dark bloom to perfection; and then they went to the Cathedral, and knelt in the dusky aisle, and heard the solemn melody of the organ, and the subdued voices of the choir, in the plaintive music of Vesper Psalms, monotonous somewhat, but with a sweet soothing influence, music that inspired gentle thoughts.
Then they went back to the Market–Place, and were in time to get good places on the banquette of the diligence, before the big white Norman horses trotted and ambled noisily along the stony street.
Ida left Dieppe late on the following evening, by the same steamer that had brought her from Newhaven. The British stewardess recognised her.
‘Why, you was only across the other day, miss!’ she said; ‘what a gad-about you must be!’
She arrived in London by ten o’clock next morning, and left Waterloo at a quarter-past eleven, reaching Winchester early in the day. How different were her feelings this time, as the train wound slowly over those chalky hills! how full of care was her soul! And yet she was no longer a visitor going among strangers — this time she went to an assured home, she was to be received among friends. But the knowledge that her liberty was forfeited for ever, that she was a free-agent only on sufferance, made her grave and depressed. Never again could she feel as glad and frank a creature as she had been in the golden prime of the summer that was gone, when she and Bessie and Urania Rylance came by this same railway, over those green English hill-sides, to the city that was once the chief seat of England’s power and splendour.
A young man in a plain gray livery and irreproachable top-boots stood contemplatively regarding the train as it came into the station. He touched his hat at sight of Miss Palliser, and she remembered him as Miss Wendover’s groom.
‘Any luggage, ma’am?’ he asked, as she alighted; as if it were as likely as not that she had come without any.
‘There is one box, Needham. That is all besides these things.’
Her bonnet-box — frail ark of woman’s pride — was in the carriage, with a wrap and an umbrella, and her dressing bag.
‘All right, ma’am. If you’ll show me which it is I’ll tell the porter to bring it. I’ve got the cobs outside.’
‘Oh, I am so sorry — how good of Miss Wendover!’
‘They wanted exercise, ‘um. They was a bit above themselves, and the drive has done ’em good.’
Miss Wendover’s cherished brown cobs, animals which in the eyes of Kingthorpe were almost as sacred as that Egyptian beast whose profane slaughter was more deeply felt than the nation’s ruin — to think that these exalted brutes should have been sent to fetch that debased creature, a salaried companion. But then Aunt Betsy was never like anyone else.
Needham took the cobs across the hills at a pace which he would have highly disapproved in any other driver. Had Miss Wendover so driven them, he would have declared she was running them off their legs. But in his own hands, Brimstone and Treacle — so called to mark their difference of disposition — could come to no harm. ‘They wanted it,’ he told Miss Palliser, when she remarked upon their magnificent pace, ‘they never got half work enough.’
The hills looked lovely, even in this wintry season — yew trees and grass gave no token of November’s gloom. The sky was bright and blue, a faint mist hung like a veil over the city in the valley, the low Norman tower of the cathedral, the winding river, and flat fertile meadows — a vision very soon left far in the rear of Brimstone and Treacle.
‘How handsome they look!’ said Ida, admiring their strong, bold crests, like war-horses in a Ninevite picture, their shining black-brown coats. ‘Is Brimstone such a very vicious horse?’
‘Vicious, mum? no, not a bit of vice about him,’ answered Needham promptly, ‘but he’s a rare difficult horse to groom. There ain’t none but me as dares touch him. I let the boy try it once, and I found the poor lad half an hour afterwards standing in the middle of the big loose box like a statter, while Brimstone raced round him as hard as he could go, just like one of them circus horses. The boy dursn’t stir. If he’d moved a limb, Brimstone ‘ud have ‘molished him.’
‘What an awful horse! But isn’t that viciousness?’
‘Lor’, no mum. That ain’t vice,’ answered the groom smiling amusedly at the lady’s ignorance. Vice is crib-biting, or jibbing, or boring or summat o’ that kind. Brimstone is a game hoss, and he’s got a bit of a temper, but he ain’t got no vice.’
Here was Kingthorpe, looking almost as pretty as it had looked when she gazed upon it with tearful eyes in her sad farewell at the close of summer. The big forest trees were bare, but there were flowers in all the cottage gardens, even late lingering roses on southern walls, and the clipped yew-tree abominations — dumb-waiters, peacocks, and other monstrosities — were in their pride of winter beauty. The ducks were swimming gaily in the village pond, and the village inn was still glorious with red geraniums, in redder pots. The Knoll stood out grandly above all other dwellings — the beds full of chrysanthemums, and a bank of big scarlet geraniums on each side of the hall door.
It seemed strange to be driven swiftly past the familiar carriage-drive, and round into the lane leading to Miss Wendover’s cottage. It was only an accommodation lane — or a back-out lane, as the boys called it, since no two carriages could pass each other in that narrow channel — and in bad weather the approach to the Homestead was far from agreeable. A carriage and horses had been known to stick there, with wheels hopelessly embedded in the clay, while Miss Wendover’s guests picked their footsteps through the mud.
But the Homestead, when attained, was such a delightful house that one forgot all impediments in the way thither. The red brick front — old red brick, be it noted, which has a brightness and purity of colour never retained for above a twelvemonth by the red brick of to-day — glowing, athwart its surrounding greenery, like the warm welcome of a friend; the exquisite neatness of the garden, where every flower that could be coaxed into growing in the open air bloomed in perfection; the spick-and-span brightness of the windows; the elegant order that prevailed within, from cellar to garret; the old, carefully-chosen furniture, which had for the most part been collected from other old-world homesteads; the artistic colouring of draperies and carpets — all combined to make Miss Wendover’s house delightful.
‘My house had need be orderly,’ she said, when her friends waxed rapturous; ‘I have so little else to think about.’
Yet the sick and poor, within a radius of ten miles, might have testified that Miss Wendover had thought and care for all who needed them, and that she devoted the larger half of her life to other people’s interests.
It was a clear, balmy day, one of those lovely autumn days which hang upon the edge of winter, and Miss Wendover was pacing her garden walks bare-headed, armed with gardening scissors and formidable brown leather gauntlets, nipping a leaf here, or a withered rosebud there, with eyes whose eagle glance not so much as an aphis could escape. From the slope of her lawn Aunt Betsy saw the cobs turn into the lane, and she was standing at the gate to welcome the traveller when the carriage drew up.
There was no carriage-drive on this side of the house, only a lawn with a world of flower-beds. Those visitors who wanted to enter in a ceremonious manner had to drive round by shrubbery and orchard to the back, where there were an old oak door and an entrance-hall. On this garden front there were only glass doors and long French windows, verandahs, and sunny parlours, opening one out of another.
‘How do you do, my dear?’ said the spinster heartily, as Ida alighted; ‘I am very glad to see you. Why, how bright and blooming you look — not a bit like a sea-sick traveller.’
‘Dear Miss Wendover, I ought to look bright when I am so glad to come to you; and, as to the other thing, I am never sea-sick.’
‘What a splendid girl! That unhappy little Bessie can’t cross to the Wight without being a martyr. But, Ida, I am not going to be called Miss Wendover. Only bishops and county magnates, and people of that kind, call me by that name. To you I am to be Aunt Betsy, as I am to the children at The Knoll.’
‘Is not that putting me too much on a level —’
‘With my own flesh and blood? Nonsense! I mean you to be as my own flesh and blood. I could not bear to have anyone about me who was not.’
‘You are too good,’ faltered Ida. ‘How can I ever repay you?’
‘You have only to be happy. It is your nature to be frank and truthful, so I will say nothing about that.’
Ida blushed deepest scarlet. Frank and truthful — she — whose very name was a lie! And yet there could be no wrong done to Miss Wendover, she told herself, by her suppression of the truth. It was a suppression that concerned only Brian Walford and herself. No one else could have any interest in the matter.
Betsy Wendover herself led the way to the bed-chamber that had been prepared for the new inmate. It was a dear old room, not spacious, but provided with two most capacious closets, in each of which a small gang of burglars could have hidden — dear old closets, with odd little corner cupboards inside them, and a most elaborate system of shelves. One closet had a little swing window at the top for ventilation, and this, Miss Wendover told Ida, was generally taken for a haunted corner, as the ventilating window gave utterance to unearthly noises in the dead watches of the night, and sometimes gave entrance to a stray cat from adjacent tiles. A cat less agile than the rest of his species had been known to entangle himself in the little swing window, and to hang there all the night, sending forth unearthly caterwaulings, to the unspeakable terror of Miss Wendover’s guest, unfamiliar with the mechanism of the room, and wondering what breed of Hampshire demon or afrit was thus making night hideous.
There was a painted wooden dado halfway up the wall, and a florid rose and butterfly paper above it. There was a neat little brass bedstead on one side of the room, a tall Chippendale chest of drawers, with writing-table and pigeon-holes on the other side; the dearest, oldest dressing-table and shield-shaped glass in front of the broad latticed window; while in another window there was a cushioned seat, such as Mariana of the Moated Grange sat upon when she looked across the fens and bewailed her dead-and-gone joys. There were old cups and saucers on the high, narrow chimney-piece, below which a cosy fire burned in a little old basket grate. Altogether the room was the picture of homely comfort.
‘Oh, what a lovely room!’ cried Ida, inwardly contrasting this cheery chamber with that white-washed den at Lea Fontaines, with its tawdry mahogany and brass fittings, its florid six feet of carpet on a deal floor stained brown, its alabaster clock and tin candelabra — a cheap caricature of Parisian elegance.
‘I’m glad you like it, my dear, ‘answered Miss Wendover. ‘Bessie said it would suit you; and all I ask you is to keep it tidy. I hope I am not a tyrant; but I am an old maid. Of course, I shall never pry into your room; but I warn you that I have an eye which takes in everything at a flash; and if I happen to go past when your door is open, and see a bonnet and shawl on your bed, or a gown sprawling on your sofa, my teeth will be set on edge for the next half-hour.’
‘Dear Miss Wen — dear Aunt Betsy,’ said Ida, corrected by a frown, ‘I hope you will come into my room every day, and give me a good scolding if it is not exactly as you like. Everything in this house looks lovely. I want to learn your nice neat ways.’
‘Well, my love, you might learn something worse,’ replied Miss Wendover, with innocent pride. ‘And now come down to luncheon; I kept it back on purpose for you, and I am sure you must be starving.’
The luncheon was excellent, served with a tranquil perfection only to be attained by careful training; and yet Miss Wendover’s youthful butler three years ago had been a bird boy; while her rosy-cheeked parlour-maid was only eighteen, and had escaped but two years from the primitive habits of cottage life. Aunt Betsy had a genius for training young servants.
‘You had better unpack your boxes directly after luncheon, said Miss Wendover, when Ida had eaten with very good appetite, ‘and arrange your things in your drawers. That will take you an hour or so, I suppose — say till five o’clock, when Bessie is coming over to afternoon tea.’
‘Oh, I am so glad! I am longing to see Bessie. Is she as lovable and pretty as ever?’
‘Well, yes,’ replied Aunt Betsy, with a critical air; ‘I think she has rather improved. She is plump enough still, in all conscience, but not quite so stumpy as she was last summer. Her figure is a little less like a barrel.’
‘I hope she was very much admired at Bournemouth.’
‘Yes, strange to say, she had a good many admirers,’ answered Miss Wendover coolly. ‘She made a point of never being enthusiastic about her relations. She had always partners at the dances, I am told, even when there was a paucity of dancing men; and she was considered rather remarkable at lawn tennis. No doubt she will tell you all about it this afternoon. I have some work to do in the village, and I shall leave you two girls together.’
This was a delicacy which touched Ida. She was very anxious to see Bessie, and to talk to her as they could only talk when they were alone. She wanted to know her faithful friend’s motive for that cruel deception about Brian Walford. That the frank, tender-hearted Bessie could have so deceived her from any unworthy motive was impossible.
Five o’clock struck, and Ida was sitting alone in the drawing-room, waiting to receive her friend, just as if she were the daughter of the house, instead of a salaried dependent. The pretty carved Indian tea-table — a gem in Bombay blackwood — was wheeled in front of the fire-place, which was old, as regarded the high wooden mantel-piece and capacious breadth of the hearth, but essentially new in its glittering tiles and dainty brass fire-irons.
The clock had hardly finished striking when Bessie bounced into the room, rosy and smiling, in sealskin jacket and toque.
‘Oh, you darling! isn’t this lovely?’ she exclaimed, hugging Ida. ‘You are to live here for ever and ever, and never, never, never to leave us again, and never to marry, unless you marry one of the Brians. Don’t shudder like that, pet, they are both nice! And I’m sure you like Brian Walford, though, perhaps, not quite so much as he liked you. You do like him now, don’t you, darling?’ urged Bess.
Ida had withdrawn from her embrace, and was seated before the low Bombay table, occupied with the tea pot. There was no light but the fire and one shaded lamp on a distant table. The curtains were not yet drawn, and white mists were rising in the garden outside, like a sea.
‘Bessie,’ Ida began, gravely, as her old schoolfellow sat on a low stool in front of the fire, ‘how could you deceive me like that? What could put such a thing in your head —you, so frank, so open?’
‘I am sure I hardly know,’ answered Bess, innocently. ‘It was my birthday, don’t you know, and we were all wild. Perhaps the champagne had something to do with it, though I didn’t take any. But that sort of excitement communicates itself; and running up and down hill gets into one’s head. We all thought it would be such fun to pass off penniless B. W. for his wealthy cousin — and just to see how you liked him, with that extra advantage. But there was no harm in it, was there, dear? Of course, he told you afterwards, when you saw him at Mauleverer?
‘Yes, he told me — afterwards.’
‘Naturally; and having begun to like him as the rich Brian, you didn’t leave off liking him because of his poverty — did you, darling? The man himself was the same.’
Ida was silent, remembering how, with the revelation of the fraud that had been practised upon her, the very man himself had seemed to undergo a transformation — as if a disguise, altering his every characteristic, had been suddenly flung aside.
She did not answer Bessie’s question, but, looking down at her with grave, searching eyes, she said — ‘Dear Bessie, it was a very foolish jest. I know it is not in your nature to mean unkindly to anyone, least of all to me, to whom you have been an angel of light; but all practical jokes of that kind are liable to inflict pain and humiliation upon the victim — however innocently meant. Whose idea was it, Bess? Not yours, I think?’
‘No; it was Urania who proposed it. She said it would be such fun.’
‘Miss Rylance is not usually so — funny.’
‘No; but she was particularly jolly that day, don’t you remember? in positively boisterous spirits — for her.’
‘And the outcome of her amiability was this suggestion?’
‘Yes, darling. She had noticed that you had a kind of romantic fancy about Brian of the Abbey — that you had idealised his image, as it were — and set him up as a kind of demi-god. Not because of his wealth, darling — don’t suppose that we supposed that — but on account of that dear old Abbey and its romantic associations, which gave a charm to the owner. And so she said what fun it would be to pass off Brian Walford as his cousin, and see if you fell in love with him. ‘I know she is ready to lay her heart at the feet of the owner of the Abbey,’ Urania said; and I thought it would be too delicious if you were to fall in love with Brian Walford, who could not help falling in love with you, for of course it would end in your marrying him, and his getting on splendidly at the Bar; for, with his talents, he must do well. He only wants a motive for industry. And then you would be our very own cousin! I hope it wasn’t a very wicked idea, Ida, and that you will find it in your heart to forgive me,’ pleaded Bess, kneeling by her friend’s chair, with clasped bands upon Ida’s knees, and sweet, half-tearful face looking up, ‘My darling, I have never been angry with you,’ answered Ida, clasping the girl to her heart, with a stifled sob. ‘But I don’t think Miss Rylance meant so kindly. Her idea sprang from a malevolent heart. She wanted to humiliate me — to drag my most sordid characteristics into the light of day — to make me more abject than poverty had made me already. That was the motive of her joke.’
‘Never mind her motive, dear. All I am interested in is your opinion of Brian. I hope he behaved nicely at Mauleverer.’
‘Cobb says that Fräulein positively raves about him — declares he is quite the most gentlemanly young man she ever saw — a godly young man she called him, in her funny English. And, she says, that he was madly in love with you. Of course he made you an offer?’
‘How could he do that when I was always with the Fräulein?’
‘Oh, nonsense. Brian is not the kind of young man to be kept at bay by a mild nonentity like the Fräulein. He told me before he left that he was desperately in love with you, and that he meant to win you for his wife. I asked him how he intended to keep a wife, and he said he should write for the magazines, and do theatrical criticisms for the newspapers, till briefs began to drop in. He was determined to win you if you were to be won. So I feel sure that he made you an offer, unless, indeed, that horrid old Pew spoiled all by her venomous conduct.’
‘That is it, dear. Miss Pew brought matters to an abrupt close.’
‘And you are not engaged to Brian?’ said Bess, dolefully.
‘And he didn’t follow you to Dieppe?’
‘Then he is not half so fine a fellow as I thought him.’
‘Suppose, Bessie, that after a little mild flirtation, with Fräulein Wolf for an audience, we both discovered that our liking for each other was of the very coolest order, and that it was wiser to let the acquaintance end?’
‘You might feel that; but I would never believe it of Brian. Why, he raved about you; he was passionately in love. He told me there was no sacrifice he would not make to call you his wife.’
‘He had so much to sacrifice,’ said Ida, with a cynical air.
‘Don’t be unkind, Ida. Of course I know that he has his fortune to make; but he is so thoroughly nice — so full of fun.’
‘Did you ever know him do anything good or great, anything worth being remembered — anything that proved the depth and nobility of his nature?’ asked Ida, earnestly.
‘Good gracious! no, not that I can remember. He is always nice, and amusing. He doesn’t like carrying a basket, or skates, and things; but of course, where there are younger boys one couldn’t expect him to do that; and he hates plain girls and old women; but I suppose that is natural, for even father does it, in his secret soul, though he is always so utterly sweet to the poor things. But I am sure Brian Walford has a tender heart, because he is so fond of kittens.’
‘I didn’t mean to insinuate that he was a modern Domitian,’ answered Ida, smiling at Bessie’s childish earnestness. ‘What I mean is that there is no depth in his nature, no nobility in his character. He is shallow, and, I fear, selfish. But, Bessie, my pet, I am going to ask you a favour.’
‘Ask away,’ cried Bessie, cheerfully; ‘I can’t give you the moon, but anything which I really do possess is yours this instant.’
‘Don’t let us ever talk of Brian Walford. I can never get over the feeling of humiliation which Miss Rylance’s practical joke caused me; and my only chance of forgetting it is to forget your cousin’s existence.’
‘Oh, but he will come to The Knoll, I hope, at Christmas, and then you will think better of him.’
‘If he should come I— I hope I shall not see him.’
‘Has he offended you so deeply?’
‘Don’t let us talk about him, Bess. Tell me all about your Bournemouth triumphs. I hear you were the belle of the place.’
‘Then you have heard a most egregious fib. There were dozens of girls with nineteen-inch waists, before whom I felt myself a monster of dumpiness. But I got on pretty well. I don’t pretend to be a good dancer, but I can generally adapt myself to the badness of other people’s steps, and that goes for something.’
And now having got away from all painful subjects, Bessie rattled on at a tremendous pace, describing girls and gowns, and partners, and tennis tournaments, and yachting excursions, all in a breath, as she sat in front of the fire sipping her tea, and devouring a particular kind of buttered bun for which Miss Wendover’s cook was famous.
‘Aunt Betsy’s tea is always nicer than any one else’s; and so are her buns and her butter; in fact everything in this house is nicer than it is anywhere else,’ said Bessie, pausing in her reminiscences. ‘You are in clover here, Ida.’
‘Thanks to your goodness, Bess.’
‘To mine? But I have positively nothing to do with it.’
‘Yes, you have. It is from the wish to please her warm-hearted little niece that Miss Wendover has been so good to me.’
‘But if you had been plain or stupid she would have only been kind to you at a distance. Aunt Betsy has her idiosyncrasies, and one of them is a liking for beauty in individuals, as well as in chairs and tables and cups and saucers. You will see that all her servants are pretty. She picks them for their good looks, I believe, and trains them afterwards. She would not have so much as a bad-looking stable boy.’
‘Hard upon ugliness to be shut out of this paradise,’ said Ida.
‘Oh, but she finds places for the ugly boys and girls, with people whose teeth are not so easily set on edge, she says herself. And now I must be off, to change my frock for dinner. You know the back way to The Knoll — across the fields to the little door in the kitchen-garden. You will always come that way, of course. When are you coming to see us? To-morrow?’
‘You forget that my time is not my own. I will come whenever Miss Wendover can best spare me.’
‘Oh, you will have plenty of spare time, I am sure.’
‘I hope not too much, or I shall be too sharply reminded that Miss Wendover has taken me out of charity.’
‘Charity fiddlestick! A prize-winner like you! And now good-bye, pet, or I shall be late for dinner, which offends the Colonel beyond measure.’
Bessie scampered off, Ida following her to the glass door, only in time to see her running across the lawn as fast as her feet could carry her. It was characteristic of Bessie to cut everything very fine in the way of time.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47