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The Golden Calf: A Novel, a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 13. Kingthorpe Society

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On New Year's Eve Miss Wendover gave one of her famous dinner-parties; famous because it was always said that her dinners were, on their scale, better than anybody else's--yea, even that Dr. Rylance's, although that gentleman spared no expense, and had been known to induce the French cook from the Dolphin at Southampton to come over and prepare the feast for him.

Miss Wendover's dinner was an excuse for the bringing forth of rich stores of old china, old glass, and older silver--the accumulations of aunts and uncles for past generations, and in some part of the lady herself, who had the true spirit of a collector, that special gift which the French connoisseur calls _le flair_. Ida and the lady of the house worked diligently all the morning in papering and polishing these treasures; and the dinner table, with its antique silver, Derby china, heavy diamond-cut glass, and white and scarlet exotics, was a picture to gladden the eyes of Aunt Betsy's guests.

The party consisted of Colonel and Mrs. Wendover, with their daughter Bessie, admitted to this sacred function for the first time in her young life, and duly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion; the Vicar and his wife; the new curate, an Oxford M.A., and a sprig of a good old family tree, altogether something very superior in the way of curates; Mr. and Mrs. Hildrop Havenant, the great people of a neighbouring settlement, with their eldest son, also an Oxonion; and Dr. and Miss Rylance.

'Be sure you two girls look your best to-night,' said Miss Wendover, as she sat before the fire with Bessie and Ida, enjoying the free and easy luxury of a substantial afternoon tea, which would enable them all to be gracefully indifferent to the more solid features of dinner, and duly on the alert, to make conversation. 'We shall have three eligible men.'

'How do you make three, Aunt Betsy?' inquired her niece. 'Of course we all know that young Hildrop Havenant is heir to nearly all the land between Havenant and Romsey; but he is such a mass of affectation that I can't imagine anybody wanting to marry him. And as for Mr. Jardine--'

'Is he a mass of affectation, too, Bess?' inquired Aunt Betsy with intention, for Mr. Jardine, the curate, was supposed to have impressed the damsel's fancy more deeply than she would care to own. 'He is an Oxford man.'

'There is Oxford and Oxford,' said Bess. 'If all the Oxford men were like young Havenant, the only course open to the rest of the world would be to burn Oxford, just as Oxford burned the martyrs.'

'Well, we may count Mr. Jardine as an eligible, I suppose?'

'But that only makes two. Who is your third?' asked Bessie.

'Dr. Rylance.'

'Dr. Rylance an eligible?' cried Bessie, with girlhood's frank laughter at the absurd idea of middle age coming into the market to bid for youth. 'Why, auntie, the man must be fifty.'

'Five-and-forty at most, and very young-looking for his age; very polished, very well off. There are many girls who would be proud to win such a husband,' said Miss Wendover, glancing at Ida in the firelight.

She wanted to test the girl's temper--to find out, were it possible, whether this girl, whom she so inclined to love, tried in the fierce furnace of poverty, had acquired mercenary instincts. She had heard from Urania of that reckless speech about marrying for money, and she wanted to know how much or how little that speech had implied.

Ida was silent. She had never told anyone of Dr. Rylance's offer. She would have deemed it dishonourable to let anyone into the secret of his humiliation--to let his little world know that he, so superior a person, could offer himself and be rejected.

'What do you think now, Bess,' pursued Miss Wendover; 'would it not be rather a nice thing if Dr. Rylance were to marry Ida? We all know how much he admires her.'

'It would be a very horrid thing!' cried the impetuous Bess. 'I would ever so much rather Ida married poor Brian, although they had to pig in furnished lodgings for the first ten years of their life. Crabbed age and youth cannot dwell together.'

'But Dr. Rylance is not crabbed, and he is not old.'

'Let him marry a lady of the same doubtful age, which seems old to me, but young to you, and then no one will find fault with him,' said Bess, savagely. 'I feel an inward and spiritual conviction that Ida is doomed to marry Brian Walford. The poor fellow was so hopelessly in love with her when he left this place, that, if she had not a stone inside her instead of a heart, she would have accepted him; but _magno est amor et praevalebit!_' concluded Bess, with a mighty effort; 'I'm sure I hope that's right.'

'I think it must be time for you to go home and dress, if you really wish to look nice to-night,' said Ida, severely. 'You know you generally find yourself without frilling, or something wrong, at the last moment.'

'Heavens!' exclaimed Bessie, starting up and upsetting the petted Persian, which had been reposing in her lap, and which now skulked off resentfully, with a swollen tail, to hide its indignation under a chair, 'you are as bad as an oracle. I have yards and yards of frilling to sew on before I dress--my sleeves--my neck--my sweeper.'

'Shall I run over and sew the frills on for you?' asked Ida.

'You! when you are going to wear that lovely pink gown. You will want hours to dress. No: Blanche must make herself useful for once in her ridiculous life. _Au revoir_, auntie darling. Go, lovely rose'--to Ida--'and make yourself still lovelier in order to captivate Dr. Rylance.'

The dinner was over. It had passed without a hitch, and the gentlemen were now enjoying their claret and conversation in a comfortable semicircle in front of Miss Wendover's roomy hearth.

The conversation was for the most part strictly local, Colonel Wendover and Mr. Hildrop Havenant leading, and the Vicar a good second; but now and then there was a brief diversion from the parish to European politics, when Dr. Rylance--who secretly abhorred parochial talk--dashed to the fore and talked with an authority which it was hard for the others to keep under. He spoke of the impending declaration of war--there is generally some such thing--as if he had been at the War Office that morning in confidential converse with the chief officials; but this was more than Squire Havenant could endure, and he flatly contradicted the physician on the strength of his morning's correspondence. Mr. Havenant always talked of his letters as if they contained all the law and the prophets. His correspondents were high in office, unimpeachable authorities, men who had the ear of the House, or who pulled the strings of the Government.

'I am told on the best authority that there will be no war,' he said, swelling, or seeming to swell, as he spoke.

He was a large man, with a florid complexion and gray mutton-chop whiskers.

Dr. Rylance shrugged his shoulders and smiled blandly. It was the calm, incredulous smile with which he encountered any rival medico who was bold enough to question his treatment.

'That is not the opinion of the War Office,' he said quietly.

'But it is the opinion of men who dictate to the War Office,' replied Mr. Havenant.

'We couldn't have a better place for the working men's club than old Parker's cottage,' said the Vicar, addressing himself to Colonel Wendover.

'If Russia advances a foot farther, there must be war in Beloochistan,' said Dr. Rylance; 'and if England is blind to the exigencies of the situation, I should like to know how you are going to get your troops through the Bolan Pass.'

'A single line to Romsey would send up the value of land fifty per cent,' said the Colonel, who cared much more about Hampshire than Hindostan, although the best years of his life had been spent under Indian skies.

Hildrop Havenant pricked up his ears, and forgot all about the War Office.

'If the railway company had the pluck they ought to get that Bill through next Session,' he said, meaning a Bill for a loop between Winchester and Romsey.

While the elder gentlemen prosed over their wine the two younger men had found their way, first to the garden, for a cigar under the frosty moon, then back to Miss Wendover's pretty drawing room, where Ida was playing Schumann's 'Traeumerei' at one end of the room with Bessie for her only audience, while Miss By lance, Miss Wendover, and the three matrons made a stately group around and about the fire-place.

Urania was providing the greater part of the conversation. She had spent a delightful fortnight in Cavendish Square at the end of November, and had been everywhere and seen everything--winter exhibitions--new plays.

'I had no idea there could be so many nice people in town out of the season,' she said with a grand air. 'But then my father knows all the nicest people; he cultivates no Philistines.'

The Vicar's wife required to have this last remark explained to her. She only knew the Philistines of Scripture, an unfortunate people who seem always to have been in the wrong.

'And you saw some good pictures?' inquired Aunt Betsy.

'A few good ones and acres of daubs,' replied Urania. 'Why will so many people paint? There are pictures which are an affliction to the eye--an outrage upon common sense. Instead of a huge gallery lined from floor to ceiling with commonplace, why cannot we have a Temple with a single Watts, or Burne Jones, or Dante Bossetti, which one could go in and worship quietly in a subdued light?'

'That is a horridly expensive way of seeing pictures,' said the Vicar's wife; 'I hate paying a shilling for seeing a single picture. If it is ever so good one feels one has had so little for one's money. Now at the Academy there are always at least fifty pictures which delight me.'

'You must be very easy to please,' said Urania.

'I am,' replied the Vicar's wife, curtly, 'and that is one of the blessings for which I am thankful to God. I hate your _nil admiraris_,' added the lady, as if it were the name of a species.

After this Urania became suddenly interested in Schumann, and glided across the room to see what the music meant.

'That is very sweet,' she murmured, sinking into a seat by Bessie; 'classical, of course?'

'Schumann,' answered Ida, briefly.

'I thought so. It has that delicious vagueness one only finds in German music--a half-developed meaning--leaving wide horizons of melodious uncertainty.'

This was a conversational style which Miss Rylance had cultivated since her entrance into the small world of Kingthorpe, and the larger world of Cavendish Square, as a grown-up young woman. She had seen a good deal of a semi-artistic, quasi-literary circle, in which her father was the medical oracle, attending actresses and singers without any more substantial guerdon than free admittance to the best theatres on the best nights; prescribing for newspaper-men and literary lions, who sang his praises wherever they went.

Urania had fallen at once into all the tricks and manners of the new school. She had taken to short waists and broad sashes, and a style of drapery which accentuated the elegant slimness of her figure. She affected out-of-the-way colours, and quaint combinations--pale pinks and olive greens, tawny yellow and faded russet--and bought her gowns at a Japanese warehouse, where limp lengths of flimsy cashmere were mixed in artistic confusion with sixpenny teapots and paper umbrellas. In a word, Miss Rylance had become a disciple of the peacock-feather school of art, and affected to despise every other development of intellect, or beauty.

This was the first time that she and Ida had met since the latter's return to Kingthorpe, except indeed for briefest greetings in the churchyard after morning service. Ida had not yet upbraided her for the trick of which she was the author and originator, but Urania was in no wise grateful for this forbearance. She had acted with deliberate maliciousness; and she wanted to know that her malice had given pain. The whole thing was a failure if it had not hurt the girl who had been audacious enough to outshine Miss Rylance, and to fascinate Miss Rylance's father. Urania had no idea that the physician had offered himself and his two houses to Ida Palliser, nay, had even pledged himself to sacrifice his daughter at the shrine of his new love. She knew that he admired Miss Palliser more than he had ever admired anyone else within her knowledge, and this was more than enough to make Ida hateful.

Ida was particularly obnoxious this evening, in that pale pink cashmere gown, with a falling collar of fine old Brussels point, a Christmas gift from Mrs. Wendover. The gown might not be the highest development of the Grosvenor Gallery school, but it was at once picturesque and becoming, and Ida was looking her loveliest.

'Why have you never come to see me since your return?' inquired Urania, with languid graciousness.

'I did not think you wanted me,' Ida answered, coolly.

'I am always glad to see my friends. I stop at home on Thursday afternoons on purpose; but perhaps you have not quite forgiven Bess and me for that little bit of fun we indulged in last September,' said Urania.

'I have quite forgiven Bess her share of the joke,' answered Ida, scanning Miss Rylance's smiling countenance with dark, scornful eyes, 'because I know she had no idea of giving me pain.'

'But won't you forgive me too? Are you going to leave me out in the cold?'

'I don't think you care a straw whether I forgive or do not forgive you. You wanted to wound me--to humiliate me--and you succeeded--to a certain degree. But you see I have survived the humiliation. You did not hurt me quite so much as you intended, perhaps.'

'What a too absurd view to take of the thing!' cried Urania, with an injured air. 'An innocent practical joke, not involving harm of any kind; a little girlish prank played on the spur of the moment. I thought you were more sensible than to be offended--much less seriously angry--at any such nonsense.'

Ida contemplated her enemy silently for a few moments, as her hands wandered softly through one of those Kinder-scenen which she knew by heart.

'If I am mistaken in your motives it is I who have to apologize,' she said, quietly. 'Perhaps I am inclined to make too much of what is really nothing. But I detest all practical jokes, and I should have thought you were the very last person to indulge in one, Miss Rylance. Sportiveness is hardly in your line.'

'Nobody is always wise,' murmured Urania, with her disagreeable simper.

'Not even Miss Rylance?' questioned Ida, without looking up from the keys.

'Please don't quarrel,' pleaded Bessie, piteously; 'such a bad use for the last night of the year. It was more my fault than anyone else's, though the suggestion did certainly come from Urania--but no harm has come of it--nor good either, I am sorry to say--and I have repented in sackcloth and ashes. Why should the dismal failure be raked up to-night?'

'I should not have spoken of it if Miss Rylance had been silent,' said Ida; and here, happily, the two young men came in, and made at once for the group of girls by the piano, whereupon Urania had an opportunity of parading her newest ideas, all second, third, or even fourth-hand, before the young Oxonians. One young Oxonian was chillingly indifferent to the later developments of modern thought, and had eyes for no one but Bessie, whose childish face beamed with smiles as he talked to her, although his homely theme was old Sam Jones's rheumatics, and the Providence which had preserved Martha Morris's boy from instant death when he tumbled into the fire. It was only parish talk, but Bessie felt as happy as if one of the saints of old had condescended to converse with her--proud and pleased, too, when Mr. Jardine told her how grateful old Jones was for her occasional visits, and how her goodness to Mrs. Morris had made a deep impression upon that personage, commonly reported to have 'a temper' and to be altogether a difficult subject.

The conversation drifted not unnaturally from parochial to more personal topics, and Mr. Jardine showed himself interested in Bessie's pursuits, studies, and amusements.

'I hear so much of you from those two brothers of yours,' said the Curate--'fine, frank fellows. They often join me in my walks.'

'I'm sure it is very good of you to have anything to say to them,' replied Bessie, feeling, like other girls of eighteen, that there could hardly be anything more despicable--from a Society point of view--than her two brothers.' They are laboriously idle all through the holidays.'

'Well, I daresay they might work a little more, with ultimate advantage,' said Mr. Jardine, smiling; 'but it is pleasant to see boys enjoy life so thoroughly. They are fond of all open air amusements, and they are keen observers, and I find that they think a good deal, which is a stage towards work.'

'They are not utterly idiotic,' sighed Bessie; 'but they never read, and they break things in a dreadful way. The legs of our chairs snap under those two boys as if old oak were touchwood; and Blanche and Eva, who ought to know better, devote all their energies to imitating them.'

The other gentlemen had come in by this time, and Dr. Rylance came gliding across the room with his gentlemanly but somewhat catlike tread, and planted himself behind Ida, bending down to question her about her music, and letting her see that he admired her as much as ever, and had even forgiven her for refusing him. But she rose as soon as she decently could, and left the piano.

'Miss Rylance will sing, I hope,' she said, politely. Miss Wendover came over to make the same request, and Urania sane the last fashionable ballad, 'Blind Man's Holiday,' in a hard chilly voice which was as unpleasant as a voice well could be without being actually out of tune.

After this Bessie sang 'Darby and Joan,' in a sweet contralto, but with a doleful slowness which hung heavily upon the spirits of the company, and a duly dismal effect having been produced, the young ladies were cordially thanked for--leaving off.

A pair of whist-tables were now started for the elders, while the three girls and the two Oxonians still clustered round the piano, and seemed to find plenty to talk about till sweetly and suddenly upon the still night air came the silver tones of the church bells.

Miss Wendover started up from the card-table with a solemn look, as the curate opened a window and let in a flood of sound. A silent hush fell upon everyone.

'The New Year is born,' said Aunt Betsy; 'may it spare us those we love, and end as peacefully for us as the year that is just dead.'

And then they all shook hands with each other and parted.

The dance at The Knoll was a success, and Ida danced with the best men in the room, and was as much courted and admired as if she had been the greatest heiress in that part of Hampshire. Urania Rylance went simpering about the room telling everybody, in the kindest way, who Miss Palliser was, and how she had been an ill-used drudge at a suburban finishing school, before that dear good Miss Wendover took her as a useful companion; but even that crushing phrase, 'useful companion,' did not degrade Ida in the eyes of her admirers.

'Palliser's a good name,' said one youth. 'There's a Sir Vernon Palliser--knew him and his brother at Cambridge--members of the Alpine Club--great athletes. Any relation?'

'Very distant, I should think, from what I know of Miss Palliser's circumstances;' answered Miss Rylance, with an incredulous sneer.

But Urania failed in making youth and beauty contemptible, and was fain to admit to herself that Ida Palliser was the belle of the room. Dr. Rylance, who had not been invited, but who looked so well and so young that no one could be angry with him for coming, hung upon Miss Palliser's steps, and tortured her with his politeness.

For Ida the festivity was not all happiness. She would have been happier at the Homestead, sitting by the fire reading aloud to Miss Wendover--happier almost anywhere--for she had not only to endure a kind of gentlemanly persecution from Dr. Rylance, but she was tormented by an ever-present dread of Brian Walford's appearance. Bessie had sent him a telegram only that morning, imploring him, as a personal favour, to be present at her ball, vowing that she would be deeply offended with him if he did not come; and more than once in the course of the evening Bessie had told Ida that there was still time, there was a train now just due at Winchester, and that might have brought him. Ida breathed more freely after midnight, when it was obviously too late for any one else to arrive.

'It is your fault,' said Bessie, pettishly. 'If you had not treated him very unkindly at Mauleverer he would be here to-night. He never failed me before.'

Ida reddened, and then grew very pale.

'I see,' she said, 'you think I deprive you of your cousin's society. I will ask Miss Wendover to let me go back to France.'

'No, no, no, you inhuman creature! how can you talk like that? You know that I love you ever so much better than Brian, though he is my own kith and kin. I would not lose you for worlds. I don't care a straw about his coming, for my own sake. Only I should so like you to marry him, and be one of us. Oh, here's that odious Dr. Rylance stealing after you. Aunt Betsy is quite right--the man would like to marry you--but you won't accept him, will you, darling?--not even to have your own house in Cavendish Square, a victoria and brougham, and all those blessings we hear so much about from Urania. Remember, you would have her for a stepdaughter into the bargain.'

'Be assured, dear Bess, I shall never be Urania's stepmother. And now, darling, put all thoughts of matrimony out of your head; for me, at least.'

That brief flash of Christmas and New Year's gaiety was soon over. The Knoll resumed its wonted domestic calm. Dr. Rylance went back to Cavendish Square, and only emerged occasionally from the London vortex to spend a peaceful day or two at Kingthorpe. His daughter was not installed as mistress of his town house, as she had fondly hoped would be the case. She was permitted to spend an occasional week, sometimes stretched to ten days or a fortnight, in Cavendish Square; but the cook-housekeeper and the clever German servant, half valet half butler, still reigned supreme in that well-ordered establishment; and Urania felt that she had no more authority than a visitor. She dared not find fault with servants who had lived ten years in her father's service, and who suited him perfectly--even had there been any legitimate reason for fault-finding, which there was not.

Dr. Rylance having got on so comfortably during the last twelve years of his life without a mistress for his town house, was disinclined to surrender his freedom to a daughter who had more than once ventured to question his actions, to hint that he was not all-wise. He considered it a duty to introduce his daughter into the pleasant circles where he was petted and made much of; and he fondly hoped she would speedily find a husband sufficiently eligible to be allowed the privilege of taking her off her father's hands. But in the meanwhile, Urania in London was somewhat of a bore; and Dr. Rylance was never more cheerful than when driving her to Waterloo Station.

Miss Rylance's life, therefore, during this period alternated between rural seclusion and London gaiety. She came back to the pastoral phase of her existence with the feelings and demeanour of a martyr; and her only consolation was found in those calm airs of superiority which seemed justified by her intimate acquaintance with society, and her free use of a kind of jargon which she called modern thought.

'How you can manage to exist here all the year round without going out of your mind is more than I can understand,' she told Bessie.

'Well, I know Kingthorpe is dull,' replied Bess, meekly, 'but it's a dear old hole, and I never find the days too long, especially when those odious boys are at home.'

'But really now, Bessie, don't you think it is time you should leave off playing with boys, and begin wearing gloves?' sneered Urania.

'I did wear gloves at Bournemouth, religiously--mousquetaires, up to my elbows; never went out without them. No, Ranie, I am never dull at old Kingthorpe; and then there is always a hope of Bournemouth.'

'Bournemouth is worse than this!' exclaimed Urania. 'There is nothing so laboriously dismal as a semi-fashionable watering-place.'

Talk as she might, Miss Rylance could not sour Bessie's happy disposition with the vinegar of discontent. Hers was a sweet, joyous soul; and just now, had she dared to speak the truth, she would have said that this pastoral village of Kingthorpe, this cluster of fine old houses and comfortable cottages, grouped around an ancient parish church, was to her the central point of the universe, to leave which would be as Eve's banishment from Eden. The pure and tender heart had found its shrine, and laid down its offering of reverent devotion. Mr. Jardine had said nothing as yet, but he had sedulously cultivated Bessie Wendover's society, and had made himself eminently agreeable to her parents, who could find no fault with a man who was at once a scholar and a gentleman, and who had an income which made him comfortably independent of immediate preferment.

He was enthusiastic, and he could afford to give his enthusiasm full scope. Kingthorpe suited him admirably. It was a parish rich in sweet associations. The present Vicar was a good, easy-going man, a High Churchman of the old school rather than the new, yet able to sympathize with men of more advanced opinions and fiercer energies.

Thus it was that while Miss Rylance found her bower at Kingthorpe a place of dullness and discontent, Bessie rose every morning to a new day of joy and gladness, which began, oh! so sweetly, in the early morning service, in which John Jardine's deep musical voice gave new force and meaning to the daily lessons, new melody to the Psalms. Ida was always present at this morning service, and the two girls used to walk home together through the dewy fields, sometimes one, sometimes the other going out of her way to accompany her friend. Bessie poured all her innocent secrets into Ida's ear, expatiating with sweet girlish folly upon every look and tone of Mr. Jardine's, asking Ida again and again if she thought that he cared, ever so little, for her.

'You never tell me any of your secrets, Ida,' she said, reproachfully, after one of these lengthy discussions. 'I am always prosing about my affairs, until I must seem a lump of egotism. Why don't you make me listen sometimes? I should be deeply interested in any dream of yours, if it were ever so wild.'

'My darling, I have no dreams, wild or tame,' said Ida. She could not say that she had no secret, having that one dreadful secret hanging over her and overshadowing her life.

'And have you never been in love?'

'Never. I once thought--almost thought--that I was in love. It was like drifting away in a frail, dancing little boat over an unknown sea--all very well while the sun shone and the boat went gaily--suddenly the boat fell to pieces, and I found myself in the cold, cruel water.'

'Horrid!' cried Bess, with a shudder. 'That could not have been real love.'

'No, dear, it was a will-o'-the-wisp, not the true light.'

'And you have got over it?'

'Quite. I am perfectly happy in the life I lead now.'

This was the truth. There are these calm pauses in most lives--blessed intervals of bliss without passion--a period in which heart and mind are both at rest, and yet growing and becoming nobler and purer in the time of repose, just as the body grows during sleep.

And thus Ida's life, full and useful, glided on, and the days went by only too swiftly; for it was never out of her mind that these days of tranquil happiness were numbered, that she was bound in honour to leave Kingthorpe before Brian Walford could feel the oppression of banishment from his kindred. At present Brian Walford was living in Paris, with an old college friend, both these youths being supposed to be studying the French language and literature, with a view to making themselves more valuable at the English bar. He had given up his chambers in the Temple, as too expensive for a man living from hand to mouth. He was understood to be contributing to the English magazines, and to be getting his living decently, which was better than languishing under the cognizance of the Lamb and Flag, with no immediate prospect of briefs. _

Read next: Chapter 14. The True Knight

Read previous: Chapter 12. The Sword Of Damocles

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