Court Royal/Chapter IX

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter IX. Lord Ronald
CHAPTER IX.
LORD RONALD.

Lord Ronald Eveleigh, K.C.B., was a widower. He had lost both his wife and his children. His wife, a very sweet and beautiful woman, whom he had tenderly loved, had died of consumption, after having given him two children, a boy and a girl. He, as a soldier, had tried to harden his little ones by exposure, convinced that all delicacy is due to ‘molly-coddling.’ The consequence was that just as he was congratulating himself that his theory was successful, his children died of congestion of the lungs. They had inherited their mother’s delicacy, and injudicious treatment precipitated the inevitable end. Left a widower, and childless, the old General had accepted his brother’s invitation, and had settled for the rest of his days at Court Royal, a spot dear to him as no other spot on earth, because associated with his childhood.

He had inherited all the Eveleigh pride of birth, and though he cared nothing for his comfort, and despised luxury, yet he believed the state maintained at Court Royal to be indispensable to the dignity of the family, and respected it accordingly. His own rooms were plainly furnished. Their arrangements were stiff and tasteless. Over the chimney hung his sabre; at the side, on a level with his eye, as he sat in his arm-chair, were three medallion portraits of his wife and his two children.

In manner he somewhat lacked the polish of his brothers and nephew, and in features he was more rugged. His mind was simple, and his heart tender. The ambition of his life ended when the earth fell on his boy’s coffin, but not its pride: that would remain as long as the family lasted. When Lord Ronald came to settle at Court Royal, he had no idea of the financial conditions of the Duke. There had been hitches in the payment of his annuity, which was charged on the estates; eventually the money had come, though it came irregularly. He recollected the splendour of the house when he was a boy, under the splendid Duke Frederick Augustus, his father—the annual season in town at Kingsbridge House, Piccadilly, the balls, the round of dinners, the whirl of entertainments, the drawing-rooms, the concerts, the carriages, the stables, the army of domestics. Now the Duke never went to town. The doctors forbade his travelling by rail. Lord Ronald chafed at this banishment to the country, not because he liked a season in town, but because he thought the presence of the family in London during the season comported with its dignity and duty to society. The retirement of the Duke had synchronised with the entry of the Marquess into the army. A residence in town was requisite only for Lady Grace, and Lady Grace least of all desired it. At Court Royal the customary state was kept up, but then, a palace on the south coast of Devon, ten miles from a railway, is not the place where many people can be found to be impressed by that state.

After a while his eyes opened to the real condition of affairs, and he was fain to admit to himself that it was a happy thing for the family it had an excuse for not spending the season in town. The General tried to shut his eyes to the truth, tried to disbelieve what he could hardly credit. Without being remarkably sharp-sighted, Lord Ronald had a sound judgment. The future began to alarm him. He was much attached to his nephew, but he was angry with him.

‘Why the deuce does he not marry an heiress?’ he muttered to himself, as he sat smoking, oppressed with low spirits. ‘It is high time that the wretched affair which came to an end at Palermo should be forgotten, and the consequences effaced. The creature was not worth fretting over. It was a bad job, but it is done with, and the volume containing that romance should be shut and put away. Is the title to become extinct, the family to die out, because of that piece of damaged goods? What is Saltcombe waiting for? There is nothing to expect. Why is he not man enough to shake himself free of the recollection as he shook himself free of the entanglement? The hope of the family hangs on him. Upon my soul, Saltcombe is enough to drive one mad.’

Heated by his reflections, Lord Ronald had attacked his nephew on the subject more than once, and had been repelled with such coldness that he had retired each time without effecting anything, and thoroughly disconcerted. He lost patience, but did not know what to do. He spoke to the Duke, and his Grace once or twice addressed his son on the advisability of his marrying. But that led to no alteration in his conduct.

Lord Ronald suspected more than he knew. As there was a constantly recurring difficulty about the payment of his annuity, he allowed it to fall into arrears, content if he had enough to defray his ordinary trifling expenses. The Marquess, who was supposed to see to business for his father, apologised to him for the delay, but the General always passed the matter over with a joke about his having no wants in a house where his wishes were forestalled. As his annuity was in arrear he forbore making inquiries, lest he should seem wanting in delicacy. He was told by the steward that the years were bad, the value of land was depreciated, rents were reduced 20 per cent., the farmers could not pay, farms were thrown on hand. He was, moreover, not a man of business, had no idea of balancing accounts, and never could distinguish between creditor and debtor in a ledger. The uneasiness of the steward, his running to and fro to consult with the Marquess, the periodical invocations of the Archdeacon to advise, the troubled face of Lord Saltcombe at times, the difficulty in meeting pressing payments, the appearance, finally, of that hard, practical-looking lawyer at dinner on the Duke’s birthday, like Banquo’s spectre at the table, had made him very uneasy.

‘What the devil keeps Saltcombe from marrying, and relieving the situation? It is his duty. Sometimes we go at the enemy in direct charge, at others sweep round and take them in rear. We can’t dislodge those who hold the mortgages with the bayonet. Saltcombe must execute a flank movement, with an heiress. Years slip away, the cloud grows denser, debts become heavier, creditors more pressing. Saltcombe is forty, the age is passing at which he can pick and choose. He will soon have to take whom he can get.’

The General was thinking this, when he heard the steps of Beavis, and opened the door.

‘Come in, my boy, come in,’ he said. ‘Saltcombe will not be ready to see you for another hour. What do you want with him?’

Beavis hesitated. He did not know what to say. His heart was full, he could think of nothing but what troubled him. He considered a moment, and then resolved to be plain with the General. It could do no harm, it might do good.

‘I want to see Lord Saltcombe on business.’

‘What?—connected with that lawyer fellow here last night?’

‘Yes, Lord Ronald. I have no message from him, but I have asked him to postpone meeting my father and the Marquess till I have had an interview with the latter.’

‘What is the matter? Is there a secret?’

‘No secret—at least, none to be kept from you, my Lord. It concerns the family affairs.’

‘Family affairs!’ groaned the General; ‘then I want to hear nothing about them. I am an old soldier, and not a steward, or a lawyer, or an accountant.’

‘For all that,’ said the young man, ‘I wish greatly to talk the matter over with you. It seems to me that you, Lord Ronald, may do here that which no one else can effect.’

‘What is that? I can do nothing. I am the last in the house.’

‘You can do much if you will make the attempt, my Lord. Excuse me if I am presumptuous, but I am in earnest.’

‘I am sure you are. You are a good boy. Go on. Speak out.’

‘It is a very unpleasant thing to speak words that cut the ear they enter; however, in this case it is a duty. I suppose you know that, what with bad years, and the heavy burdens on the property that have been accumulating, and with the inaction of the Marquess, the state of affairs is about as bad as it can be. My dear father will not realise it. His Grace knows, and, I suppose, must know nothing of it. The Marquess is aware, but does not take the initiative, and you, Lord Ronald——’

‘I shut my eyes,’ interrupted the General. ‘No, that is not altogether the case. I see, and am bewildered. I cannot move in the matter. I am awkwardly situated. In fact, the Duke is behindhand with me—not that I want the money, I have my half-pay, but the fact ties my hands, I cannot interfere. I have touched on the subject indeed to the Duke, but he supposes I refer to the losses sustained by the family in my grandfather’s time. He was a sad rake. I do not like speaking about it to Saltcombe for certain reasons of my own. He is reserved with me; he never invites my confidence. So we go on in faith. Times will mend. Something will turn up. Legacies will rain gold. We don’t eat our soup as scalding as it is served.’

‘Expenses ought to be cut down in every way at once.’

‘It has been done. The Duke no longer goes to town for the season. How any further economy is to be practised here I do not see. The house must be kept up, the gardens and grounds maintained in order,—the stables—where would you begin? A Duke cannot live like a curate, in furnished lodgings, on chops alternating with cutlets and steaks, and a maid-of-all-work to cook and dust, and make the beds.’

‘Would it not be advisable,’ asked Beavis in a low tone, with his eyes on the carpet—‘would it not be well to make an effort, and put up with inconveniences, rather than allow the avalanche to rush down on your head?’

Lord Ronald took Beavis by the arm, and paced the room with him, before he replied. The old General’s face was pale, and his lips quivered.

‘My dear boy, you imagine matters worse than they really are. You have allowed your mind to prey on your fears, and they have assumed the appearance and weight of a nightmare. It is impossible for such a catastrophe to overtake us. Think what we are, what our family is, and has been! Think what magnificent estates we have owned—and, indeed, we are not denuded yet.’

Beavis looked up, and saw that the old man was trying to silence his own convictions. Beavis was pained to have made him suffer, but it was necessary for every individual member of the family to be roused to face the danger.

‘Dear Lord Ronald, I am not frightened by fancied dangers. The danger is knocking at the door. Would to God it were not so, but I cannot deceive myself. It is. I see you all here lulled in unconsciousness, losing time, letting slip opportunities of recovery which may never return, and delaying retrenchment, whilst retrenchment is availing.’

The General sighed. ‘There is a God over all,’ he said; ‘we must trust to Providence.’

‘And do nothing?’ asked Beavis.

‘What is to be done? I dare not speak to the Duke. Saltcombe would not listen to me, or, if he did listen, would shrug his shoulders and go his way.’ After a pause, during which he smoked hard, he asked, ‘What was that lawyer lugged in here for yesterday? What has he come to Court Royal about?’

‘He has come concerning a transfer of the mortgage held by the Messrs. Stephens to a certain Emmanuel, who has already his hand on the home estate, with park and house, and has negotiated a loan or two besides.’

‘What of that?’

‘And there is to be another loan of five thousand.’

‘That is not much. A trifle.’

‘A trifle! but there have been so many of these trifles accumulated, and now they are an intolerable burden. A pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of lead. Lord Saltcombe should be roused to look into the debts of the family, and form some decision as to what is to be done.’

‘You want me to stir him up? I do not relish the task, and I doubt my ability to wake him.’

‘He must be shaken out of his apathy.’

‘I do not believe it is possible,’

‘Then everything remains in statu quo—captain, pilot, crew, all must have their sleep out whilst the vessel fills. It is cruel to wake them. They need repose. It is impossible to rouse some, they sleep so sound. All at once the ship gives a lurch, and the waves engulf her, as all wake up and rub their eyes, and ask where they are?’

The General’s pipe was out. He turned his face to the window to hide the emotion painted on it. Beavis had spoken strongly—possibly too strongly; the words had poured scalding from his heart. He was a young man. He was not called in by the family to consult on its affairs. He had assumed the office unsolicited. Perhaps he was troubling the old man in vain.

The silence remained unbroken for some while.

Lord Ronald struck a match, but could not relight his pipe; his hand shook, so did the pipe between his lips. He threw the match away, and laid his pipe on the chimney-piece. Then he held out his hand to Beavis, without looking him in the face, and said, ‘God bless you, dear boy! You are acting as your honourable and kind heart prompts. At a time when everyone thinks of self, it is pleasant to meet with one who cares for the fortunes of others.’ He sighed. ‘You are all of you good, true, all of you,—your worthy father, your dear sister, whom we love as our own child, and yourself. You have spoken to me sharply, and I know what it has cost you to do so—you who have been reared in reverence for the family. You have acted as a man of principle should act, but then, what is the good? The transfer will be executed, the fresh loan contracted, in another hour. It is too late to prevent that.’

‘Yes,’ answered Beavis, ‘it is too late to prevent that, but it is not too late to say, “This shall be the last. We have let matters slide their downward way, now we will put on the drag. And the first step towards stopping will be to find out where we stand.”’

‘You are quite right, but I am no accountant. Your father has the books. Saltcombe is supposed to audit them.’

‘Lord Saltcombe must not only look over the accounts, but take an interest in them.’

‘Beavis,’ said the old General, ‘my debt against the estate shall be cancelled; but that is nothing, as it would not be exacted. Let it go. What is this five thousand for?’

‘Current household expenses, I presume; but I do not know for certain.’

‘Let me find the money. Decline this five thousand. It will be a relief to my mind that I have stopped one additional loan. I have my half-pay, and am able to put aside some money. I have more than I want. If I drop this into the gulf it is only a drop. I know I am robbing my heirs without benefiting the house; but then—the house is my heir. I should leave everything to my dear niece, except a little remembrance to Lucy and yourself. When that hard-faced lawyer comes, tell him the five thousand is not wanted. Damn it, Beavis, I have a mind to throw all my savings into the same hole, but then——’

‘No, my Lord, you must not do this. It will only prolong the agony, and rob Lady Grace, as you say, of what in the end she may need. We must get a clear view of the situation before anything further is done.’

A tap sounded at the door, and Lord Saltcombe entered.

‘You here, Beavis! Good morning, Uncle Ronald. I heard that Worthivale had been rampaging after me, and suspected you had trapped him. I overslept myself. I sat up very late last night.’

‘Doing nothing, I suppose,’ said the General, dryly.

‘Exactly—doing nothing,’ answered the Marquess, slightly colouring.

‘We have been discussing family affairs,’ said Lord Ronald; ‘family embarrassments, I had better say.’

‘Then I am in the way. I will withdraw.’

‘Stay, Saltcombe, we want you to look into matters.’

‘My dear uncle, I am at Mr. Worthivale’s service every morning, whenever he calls me, to sign leases, audit accounts, and consent to the reduction of rent. I limit him to an hour; I cannot allow more time than that. The office exercises a soporific influence on my brain.’

‘You really must be serious. Matters are desperate. Do you know that a lawyer is coming here to-day about a transfer?’

‘Well! a transfer is not a nitro-glycerine bomb. I am impatient to make it. I am going to take Grace and Lucy out in the yacht. We must catch the tide. The Sheepwashes are going to meet us at Portsmouth. We are bound for Eddystone.’

‘Saltcombe, you do not know how in earnest I am,’ said the General; ‘I entreat you to stay. I have much to talk to you about, and Beavis here has more.’

Young Worthivale was vexed. The old man wanted tact, and he was doing mischief.

‘Beavis is coming with us,’ said Lord Saltcombe. ‘He wants a whiff of sea-breeze to take the office-dust out of his lungs, and blow the cobwebs from his brain.’

Beavis seized the opportunity to turn the conversation. He saw that the General irritated his nephew, without advancing the cause he had at heart. But the old man could not understand his tactics.

‘What a man you are, Worthivale!’ he said. Two minutes ago you were crying, “House on fire!” and now you are agog to be junketing with the girls. I will not be put off like this. You have stirred me up. I will have it out with Saltcombe.’

‘My time, then, is yours,’ said the Marquess, stiffly.

‘Very well,’ said the General, hotly. ‘You must marry.’

‘Whom?’

Lord Ronald did not answer; the question was not an easy one to answer.

‘You remind me of the magistrates of the old German towns, who had the bachelors before them on attaining their majority, and bade them marry within six weeks, or forfeit their rights of citizenship.’

‘There was sense in that. You must marry, Saltcombe.’

‘Uncle, I will contemplate the five Misses Sheepwash to-day with that view.’

‘Do not be absurd. You must marry money.’

‘Beavis,’ said the Marquess, aside, ‘you will be at the pier at half-past twelve.’

The General was angered by his nephew’s coolness.

‘Saltcombe,’ he said, ‘time enough has elapsed since that Palermo affair——’

‘For you to have learned, Uncle Ronald, that I will endure no allusion to it,’ said the Marquess, gravely, whilst his colour went.

The old man looked him full in the face, and Lord Saltcombe met his eye firmly. He said not another word, but turned with a sigh to the window. The Marquess beckoned to Beavis, and they left the room together.