The dinner-party was a success. Bessie beamed radiantly, with her plump arms and shoulders set off by a white gown, and a good deal of rather incongruous trinketry in the way of birthday presents, every item of which she felt bound to wear, lest the givers should be wounded by her neglect. Thus, dear mother’s amber necklace did not exactly accord with Mr. Jardine’s neat gold and sapphire locket; while the family subscription gift of pink coral earrings hardly harmonised with either. Yet earrings, locket, and necklace were all displayed, and the round white arms were coiled from wrist to elbow with various monstrosities of the bangle breed.
There was a flavour of happiness in the whole feast which could not be damped by any ceremonious stiffness on the part of Dr. Rylance and his daughter. The physician was all sweetness, all geniality; yet a very close observer might have perceived that his sentiments about Miss Palliser were of no friendly nature He had tried that young lady, and had found her wanting — wanting in that first principle of admiration and reverence for himself, the lack of which was an unpardonable fault.
He had been willing to pardon her for her first rejection of him; telling himself that he had spoken too soon; that he had scared her by his unwise suddenness; that she was wild and wilful, and wanted more gentling before she was brought to the lure. But after a prolonged period of gentle treatment, after such courtesies and flatteries as Dr. Rylance had never before lavished upon anybody under a countess, it galled him to find Ida Palliser growing always colder and more distant, and obviously anxious to avoid his distinguished company. Then came the appearance of Brian Wendover on the scene, and Dr. Rylance was keen enough to see that Mr. Wendover of the Abbey had acquired more influence over Miss Palliser in a week than he had been able to obtain in nearly a year’s acquaintance. And then Dr. Rylance decided that this girl was incorrigible: she was beyond the pale: she was a kind of monster, a being of imperfect development, a blunder of nature — like the sloth and his fellow tardigrades: a psychological mystery: inasmuch as she did not care for him.
So having made up his mind to have done with her, Dr. Rylance found that the end of love is the beginning of hate.
It happened, rather by lack of arrangement than by any special design, that Brian sat next to Ida. Dr. Rylance had taken Mrs. Wendover in to dinner, but Brian was on his aunt’s left hand, and Ida was on Brian’s left. He talked to her all dinner time, leaving his aunt, who loved to get hold of a medical man, to expatiate to her heart’s content on all the small ailings and accidents which had affected her children during the last six months, down to that plague of warts which had lately afflicted Reginald, and which she would be glad to get charmed away by an old man in the village, who was a renowned wart-charmer, if Dr. Rylance did not think the warts might strike inward.
‘Our own medical man is a dear good creature, but so very matter-of-fact,’ Mrs. Wendover explained; ‘I don’t like to ask him these scientific questions.’
Brian and Ida talked to each other all through the dinner, and, although their conversation was of indifferent things, they talked as lovers talk — all unconsciously on Ida’s part, who knew not how deeply she was sinning. It was to be in all probability their last meeting. She let herself be happy in spite of fate. What could it matter? In a few days she would have left Kingthorpe for ever — never to see him again. For ever, and never, are very real words to the heart of youth, which has no faith in time and mutability.
After dinner the young people all went straying out into the garden, in the lovely interval between day and darkness. There had been a glorious sunset, and red and golden lights shone over the low western sky, while above them was that tender opalescent green which heralds the mellow splendour of the moon. The atmosphere was exquisitely tranquil after last night’s storm, not a breath stirring the shrubberies or the tall elms which divided the garden from adjacent paddocks.
Ida scarcely could have told how it was that Brian and she found themselves alone. The boys and girls had all left the house together. A minute ago Bessie and Urania were close to them, Urania laying down the law about some distinction between the old Oxford high-church party and the modern ritualists, and Bessie very excited and angry, as became the intended wife of an Anglican priest.
They were alone — alone at the end of the long, straight gravel walk — and the garden around them lay wrapped in shadow and mystery; all the flowers that go to sleep had folded their petals for the night, and the harvest moon was rising over church-tower and churchyard yews, trees and tower standing out black against the deep purple of that perfect sky. On this same night last year Ida and the other Brian had been walking about this same garden, talking, laughing, full of fun and good spirits, possibly flirting; but in what a different mood and manner! To-night her heart was overcharged with feeling, her mind weighed down by the consciousness that all this sweet life, which she loved so well, was to come to a sudden end, all this tender love, given her so freely, was to be forfeited by her own act. Already, as she believed, she had forfeited Miss Wendover’s affection. Soon all the rest of the family would think of her as Aunt Betsy thought — as a monster of ingratitude; and Urania Rylance would toss up her sharp chin, and straighten her slim waist, and say, ‘Did I not tell you so?’
Close to where she was standing with Brian there was an old, old stone sundial, supposed to be almost as ancient as the burial-places of the long-headed men of the stone age; and against this granite pillar Brian planted himself, as if prepared for a long conversation.
The voices of the others were dying away in the distance, and they were evidently all hastening back to the house, which was something less than a quarter of a mile off. Brian and Ida had been silent for some moments — moments which seemed minutes to Ida, who felt silence much more embarrassing than speech. She had nothing to say — she wanted to follow the others, but felt almost without power or motion.
‘I think we — I— ought to go back,’ she faltered, looking helplessly towards the lighted windows at the end of the long walk. ‘There is going to be dancing. They will want us.’
‘They can do without us, Ida,’ he said, laying his hand upon her arm; ‘but I cannot do without telling you my mind any longer. Why have you avoided me so? Why have you made it so difficult for me to speak to you of anything but trivialities — when you must know — you must have known — what I was longing to say?’
The passion in his lowered voice — that voice of deep and thrilling tone — which had a power over her that no other voice had ever possessed, the expression of his face as he looked at her in the moonlight, told her much more than his words. She put up her hands entreatingly to stop him.
‘For God’s sake, not another word,’ she cried,’ if — if you are going to say you care for me, ever so little, even. Not one more word. It is a sin. I am the most miserable, most guilty, among women, even to be here, even to have heard so much.’
‘What do you mean? What else should I say? What can I say, except that I love you devotedly, with all my heart and mind? that I will have no other woman for my wife? You can’t be surprised. Ida, don’t pretend that you are surprised. I have never hidden my love, I have let you see that I was your slave all along. My darling, my beloved, why should you shrink from me? What can part us for an instant, when I love you so dearly, and know — yes, dearest, I know that you love me? That is a question upon which no man ever deceived himself, unless he were a fool or a coxcomb. Am I a fool, Ida?’
‘No, no, no. For pity’s sake, say no more. You ought not to have spoken. I am going away from Kingthorpe to-morrow, perhaps for ever. Yes, for ever. How could I know, how could I think you would care for me? Let me go!’ she cried, struggling away from him as he clasped her hand, as he tried to draw her towards him. ‘It is hopeless, mad, wicked to talk to me of love: some day you will know why, but not now. Be merciful to me; forget that you have ever known me.’
‘Ida, Ida,’ shrieked shrill voices in the distance. White figures came flying down the broad gravel-walk, ghost-like in the moonlight.
It was a blessed relief. Ida broke from Brian, and ran to meet Blanche and Bessie.
‘Ida, Ida, such fun, such a surprise!’ shrieked Blanche, as the flying white figures came nearer, wavered, and stopped.
‘Only think of his coming on my birthday again!’ exclaimed Bessie, ‘and at this late hour — just as if he had dropped from the moon!’
‘Who — who has come?’ cried Ida, looking from one to the other, with a scared white face.
It seemed to her as if the moonlit garden was moving away in a thick white cloud, spots of fire floated before her eyes, and then all the world went round like a fiery wheel.
‘Brian — the other Brian — Brian Walford! Isn’t it sweet of him to come to-night?’ said Bessie.
Ida reeled forward, and would have fallen but for the strong arm that caught her as she sank earthwards, the grip which would have held her and sustained her through all life’s journey had fate so willed it.
She had not quite lost consciousness, but all was hazy and dim. She felt herself supported in those strong arms, caressed and borne up on the other side by Bessie, and thus upheld she half walked, and was half carried along the smooth gravel-path to the house, whence sounds of music came faintly on her ear. She had almost recovered by the time they came to the threshold of the lighted drawing-room; but she had a curious sensation of having been away somewhere for ages, as if her soul had taken flight to some strange dim world and dwelt there for a space, and were slowly coming back to this work-a-day life.
The drawing-room was cleared ready for dancing. Urania was sitting at the piano playing the Swing Song, with dainty mincing touch, ambling and tripping over the keys with the points of her carefully trained fingers. She had given up Beethoven and all the men of might, and had cultivated the niminy-piminy school, which is to music as sunflowers and blue china are to art.
Brian Walford was standing in the middle of the big empty room, talking to his uncle the Colonel. Mrs. Wendover and her sister-in-law were sitting on a capacious old sofa in conversation with Dr. Rylance.
‘Oh, you have come at last,’ said Brian Walford, as Ida came slowly through the open window, pale as death, and moving feebly.
He went to meet her, and took her by the hand; then turning to the Colonel he said quietly and seriously,
‘Uncle Wendover, it is just a year to-night since this young lady and I met for the first time. From the hour I first saw her I loved her, and I had reason to hope that she returned my love. We were married at a little church near Mauleverer Manor, on the ninth of October last. After our marriage my wife — finding that I was not quite so rich as she supposed me to be — fearful, I suppose, for the chances of our future — refused to live with me — told me that our marriage was to be as if it had never been — and left me, within three hours of our wedding, for ever, as she intended.’
Ida was standing in the midst of them all — alone. She had taken her hand from her husband’s — she stood before them, pale as a corpse, but erect, ready to face the worst.
Brian of the Abbey, that Brian who would have given his life to save her this agony of humiliation, stood on the threshold of the window watching her. Could it be that she was false as fair — she whom he had so trusted and honoured?
Urania had left off playing, and was watching the scene with a triumphant smile. She looked at Mr. Wendover of the Abbey with a look that meant, ‘Perhaps now you can believe what I told you about this girl?’
Aunt Betsy was the first to speak,
‘Ida,’ she said, standing up, ‘is there any truth in this statement?’
‘That question is not very complimentary to your nephew!’ said Brian Walford.
‘I am not thinking of my nephew — I am thinking of this girl, whom I have loved and trusted.’
‘I was unworthy of your love and your trust,’ answered Ida, looking at Miss Wendover with wide, despairing eyes. ‘It is quite true — I am his wife — but he has no right to claim me. It was agreed between us that we should part — for ever — that our marriage was to be as if it had never been. It was our secret — nobody was ever to know.’
‘And pray, after having married him, why did you wish to cancel your marriage?’ asked Colonel Wendover, in a freezing voice. ‘You married him of your own free will I suppose?’
‘Of my own free will — yes.’
‘Then why repent all of a sudden?’
She stood for a few moments silent, enduring such an agony of shame as all her sad experiences of life had not yet given her. The bitter, galling truth must be told — and in his hearing. He must be suffered to know how sordid and vile she had been.
‘Because I had been deceived,’ she faltered at last, her eyelids drooping over those piteous eyes.
Brian of the Abbey had advanced into the room by this time. He was standing by his uncle’s side, his hand upon his uncle’s arm. He wanted, if it were possible, to save Ida from further questioning, to restrain his uncle’s wrath.
‘I married your nephew under a delusion,’ she said. ‘I believed that I was marrying wealth and station. I had been told that the Brian Wendover I knew — the man who asked me to be his wife — was the owner of Wendover Abbey.’
‘I see,’ said the Colonel; ‘you wanted to marry Wendover Abbey.’
Miss Rylance gave a little silvery laugh — the most highly cultivated thing in laughs — but the scowl she got from Brian of the Abbey checked her vivacity in a breath.
‘Oh, I know what a wretch I must seem to you all,’ said Ida, looking up at the Colonel with pleading eyes. ‘But you have never known what it is to be poor — a genteel pauper — to have your poverty flung into you face like a handful of mud at every hour of your life; to have the instincts, the needs of a lady, but to be poorer and lower in status than any servant; to see your schoolfellows grinning at your shabby boots, making witty speeches about your threadbare gown; to patch, and mend, and struggle, yet never to be decently clad; to have the desire to help others, but nothing to give. If any of you — if you, Miss Rylance, with that exquisite sneer of yours, you who invented the plot that wrecked me — if you had ever endured what I have borne, you would have been as ready as I was to thank Providence for having sent me a rich lover, and to accept him gratefully as my husband.’
‘Brian Walford,’ interrogated the Colonel, looking severely at his nephew, ‘am I to understand that you married this girl without undeceiving her as to the children’s, or rather Miss Rylance’s, most ill-judged practical joke — that you stood before the altar in God’s House, the temple of truth and holiness, and won her by a lie?’
‘I never lied to her,’ answered Brian Walford, sulkily. ‘My cousins chose to have their joke, but there was no joke in my love for Ida. I loved her, and was ready to marry her, and take my chance of the future, as another young man in my position would have done. I never bragged about the Abbey, or told her that it belonged to me. She never asked me who I was.’
‘Because she had been told a wicked, shameful falsehood, and believed it, poor darling,’ cried Bessie, running to her friend and embracing her. ‘Oh, forgive me, dear — pray, pray do. It was all my fault. But as you have married him, darling, and it can’t be helped, do try and be happy with him, for indeed, dear, he is very nice.’
Ida stood silent, with lowered eyelids.
‘My daughter is right, Miss Palliser — Mrs. Brian Walford,’ said the Colonel, in a less severe tone than he had employed before. ‘It is quite true that you have been hardly used. Any deception is bad, worst of all a cheat that is maintained as far as the steps of the altar. But after all, in spite of your natural disappointment at finding you had married a poor man instead of a rich one, my nephew is the same man after marriage as he was before, the man you were willing to marry. And I cannot think so badly of you as to believe that you would marry a man you did not love, for the sake of his wealth and position. No, I cannot think that of you. I take it, therefore, that you liked my nephew for his own sake; and that it was only pique and natural indignation at having been duped which made you cast him off and agree to cancel your marriage. And I say that there is only one course open to you, as a good and honourable young woman, and that is to take your husband by the hand, as you took him in the house of God, for better for worse, and face the difficulties of life honestly and fearlessly. Heaven is always on the side of true-hearted young couples.’
Ida lifted her drooping eyelids and looked, not at the Colonel, not at her husband, not at her staunch friend Aunt Betsy, but at that other Brian — at him who this night only had declared his love. She looked at him with despair in her eyes, humbly beseeching him to stand between her and this loathed wedlock. But there was no sign in his sad countenance, no indication except of deepest sorrow, no ray of light to guide her on her path. The Colonel had spoken with such perfect common sense and justice, he had so clearly right on his side, that Brian Wendover, as a man of principle, could say nothing. Here was this woman he loved, and she was another man’s wife, and that other man claimed her. If the King of Terrors himself had stretched forth his bony hand and clasped her, she could not be more utterly lost to the man who loved her than she was by this pre-existing tie. Brian of the Abbey was not the man to woo his cousin’s wife.
‘Do, dearest, be happy,’ pleaded Bessie. ‘I’m sure father is right. And you are our cousin, our own flesh and blood now, as it were. And you know I always wanted you to belong to us. And we shall all be fonder of you than ever. And you and Mr. Jardine will be cousins, later on,’ she whispered, as a conclusive argument, as if for the sake of so high a privilege a girl might fairly make some sacrifice of inclination.
‘Is it my duty to do as Colonel Wendover tells me?’ asked Ida, looking round at them all with piteous appeal. ‘Is it really my duty?’
‘In the sight of God, yes,’ said the Colonel and John Jardine.
‘Yes, my dear, yes, there can be no doubt of it,’ said the Colonel’s wife and Aunt Betsy.
Brian of the Abbey said not a word, and Dr. Rylance looked on in silence, with a diabolical sneer.
What a fate for the girl who had refused a house in Cavendish square, one of the prettiest victorias in London, and a matchless collection of old hawthorn blue!
‘Then I will do my duty,’ said Ida; and then, before Brian Walford could take her in his arms, or make any demonstration of delight, she threw herself upon Miss Betsy Wendover’s broad bosom, sobbing hysterically, and crying, ‘Take me away, take me out of this house, for pity’s sake!’
‘I’ll take her home with me. She will be calm, and quiet, and happy to-morrow,’ said Aunt Betsy. And then, as Brian Walford was following them, ‘Stay where you are, Brian,’ she said authoritatively. ‘She shall see no one but me till to-morrow. You will drive her crazy among you all, if you are not careful.’
Miss Wendover took the girl away almost in her arms, and Brian Walford disappeared at the same time without further speech.
‘And now that the bride and bridegroom are gone, I suppose the wedding party can have their dance,’ sneered Urania, playing the first few bars of ‘Sweethearts.’
But Brian of the Abbey had vanished immediately after his cousin, and no one was disposed for dancing; so, after a good deal of talk, Bessie’s birthday party broke up.
‘What a dismal failure it has been, though it began so well!’ said Bessie, as she and the other juveniles went upstairs to bed.
‘What! still you are not happy,’ quoted Horatio. ‘Why, I thought you wanted Brian Walford to marry Ida Palliser?’
‘So I did once,’ sighed Bessie; ‘but I would rather she had married Brian of the Abbey; and I know he’s over head and ears in love with her.’
‘Ah, then he’ll have to put his love in his pipe and smoke it! That kind of thing won’t do out of a French novel,’ said Horatio, whose personal knowledge of French romancers was derived from the Philosophe sous les toils, as published wish grammatical notes for the use of schools; but he liked to talk large.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47