Court Royal/Chapter V

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter V. Crudge, Solicitor

One evening, after Mr. Lazarus had shut up shop, his private door-bell was rung sharply. Joanna answered it, but opened only so much of the door as allowed a portion of her face to appear, whilst she inquired the name and business of the visitor at so unwonted an hour.

‘Crudge,’ answered the caller; ‘Crudge, solicitor. Come, open, and let me in. Here is my card.’

‘Crudge, is it?’ exclaimed Lazarus, who was behind the girl. ‘Let in Mr. Crudge, Joanna, and don’t keep him there under the drip of the door. Can’t you see that it is raining, and that he has on his best hat? Joanna, be careful, lock and chain after the gentleman.’

Lazarus backed, bowing before his visitor, till he backed against a wall; then he stood hesitating, looking about him, doubtful whither to conduct Mr. Crudge.

‘Really, sir,’ said the Jew, ‘I am sorry to see you in so unworthy a den; but a shop is not the rose-garden of Gulistan, and the seat of business is not the lap of luxury. Where shall we go? Will you condescend to step into the kitchen?’

‘Anywhere you like,’ answered the lawyer. ‘No ceremony with me. Give me a chair to sit on, and a light by which to find one. I want no more.’

‘There is a nice easy arm-chair, leather covered, with springs in the seat; but it is upstairs. It would take a quarter of an hour to get it down. Besides, Inchball’s “British Theatre,” in twenty-five vols. half-bound, the rest in paper parts, occupy the seat. Time, Mr. Crudge, is too precious a commodity with you to let us think of that thin buoyant-seated chair.’

‘I will content myself with one that is cane-bottomed,’ said Mr. Crudge.

‘I’m afraid I must ask you to take one that was cane-bottomed, but is now sat through, but will be re-caned in a fortnight,’ said the Jew, apologetically. ‘If you don’t mind taking a place between the præterite and the future tenses, nothing can be better. It is not so far gone that you will slip through. I will put a baking-tray from the oven over the hole, and then you will run no risk. Don’t be afraid of grease. Nothing fatty ever goes into my oven. If you shirk it, take the dustpan.’

Mr. Crudge did not, however, relish the appearance of the chair offered him, or the kitchen into which he was introduced. He remained standing. Joanna entered after barring the door.

‘I want to see you in private,’ he said; ‘I have come on business. We may need a table, and pens and ink. Besides,’ he added, ‘the place is full of feathers, and I don’t want my coat covered with down.’

Mr. Lazarus laughed. ‘Joanna has been plucking geese. Roast goose for dinner to-morrow. I would invite you to partake, Mr. Crudge, but your time is precious, and my house ill-suited as a place of entertainment. Plenty of goose-plucking done in this establishment, my dear sir, I assure you.’

No goose was visible, not even a fowl, but bolsters and pillows strewed the floor, and Mr. Crudge had to step over them by the light of a tallow candle stuck in the neck of a broken brandy bottle.

‘If I might be allowed to propose,’ said Lazarus, ‘I would suggest your following me into my sanctum sanctorum. There we can talk together alone. Not that Joanna is to be considered. Step this way, Mr. Crudge. Joanna, let me have the light. You must sit in the dark, and pluck the goose after the gentleman is gone. Take care, Mr. Crudge, solicitor, there is a broken slate in the floor. Kick that bolster aside, it lies in your way. Don’t strike your head against this butcher’s steel-yard. Mind the floor; there is a dozen of mineral water ranged along the wall. You may notice an unpleasant savour. It is occasioned by nothing more than a dead rat. Overrun with them; so near the water; and I have poisoned them. They die in their holes, and under floors and behind wainscots. In a fortnight the smell will be gone. Here, sir, is my little room. You will excuse the bed being in it. Here is a seat for you, Mr. Crudge. It may be peculiar, but it is not uncomfortable. In fact, it is an old sedan-chair with the front knocked out. If you will look round the room you will see sedan-chairs let in between the presses. I got a stock of them, when they went out of fashion, and lay rotting in a yard. They came in handy, fitted with shelves for keeping sundries, my papers, and poor valuables. One I use as a chair. I sit on it at the table. The sides cut off draughts. I’ll turn it round. I can seat myself on the bed, if you will condescend to occupy the sedan-chair.’

Mr. Crudge looked about him. The room was small, lighted by day through a window, half of which was blocked up. Under the window was a table strewn with strips of paper, numbered—tickets to be affixed to pledges. Ink was in a broken liqueur-glass stuck into a cup full of shot. In an old dirty marmalade-pot was paste, and a brush. The paste was sour and watery. Against the wall on one side was a bedstead with a straw mattress on it, and a feather-bed to which hung a ticket. The bolster was labelled 145, the coverlet 374. Probably there were tickets to the blankets, but these Mr. Crudge did not see. Apparently no sheets were on the bed. Out of economy Lazarus used pledged goods; it saved the wear of what was his own. In the recesses on each side of the chimney were sedan-chairs, converted into cupboards. One was filled with bottles—laudanum, ipecacuanha, castor-oil, &c.

‘Ah!’ said Lazarus, marking the direction of his guest’s eye. ‘That was a bad bargain. Never able to dispose of this lot. Taken from a chemist. If either Joanna or I had been ill, and could have used some of them, the loss would not have been so dead. I keep ’em here, safe, as some of the lot may be poison.’

On the tops of the presses and sedan-chairs were boots, bottles, and crockery. On the chimneypiece were Chelsea figures. On a stool beside the table lay a scrap of newspaper, in which were a couple of onions and some salt.

Mr. Lazarus put the candle on the table, turned the chair about, and insisted on ensconcing the solicitor in it. Then he seated himself on the bed opposite his visitor.

Mr. Crudge was a tall, well-dressed man, of middle age, with reddish-brown hair. He wore whiskers and a moustache, but had his chin and jaw shaven below the moustache. He had grey eyes and a pair of bushy reddish eyebrows. His face expressed intelligence without imagination; it was a strong, practical, business face. His manner was that of a gentleman, easy and possessed. He took his place in the sedan-chair without a twitch of the muscles of his mouth. He was as insensible to the ludicrous as he was to poetry. Yet the situation was eminently grotesque. The sedan-chair had a roof and glass windows at the sides. It was open only in front, and Mr. Crudge was planted, as in a sentry-box, face to face with the Jew, sitting on the bed, with his legs folded like those of a Turk.

‘Now,’ said Mr. Lazarus, ‘let us proceed to business. Something of importance must have occurred to bring you here at such a time.’

‘Not at all,’ answered Mr. Grudge. ‘Nothing of vital importance that I am aware.’

‘Then why have you come?’ exclaimed Lazarus, dropping his legs over the side of the bed. ‘Surely a letter would have sufficed. I could have run up to town to see you. You have travelled first class; I would have gone third. You are not going to charge me for your time and trainage?’

‘Make yourself easy,’ said the lawyer. ‘I had to come to Plymouth on other business than yours, and as I was here, I thought best to give you a call at a time when I knew you would be disengaged. I am staying at the Royal. I did my business during the afternoon, had my dinner, and then strolled down here.’

Lazarus breathed freely. ‘You gave me a scare,’ he said. ‘What an expense I should have been put to! Staying at the Royal! Wouldn’t a commercial inn have done as well? However, the other client pays, so it does not matter.’

‘Not at all to you,’ said Mr. Crudge with composure. ‘I know your idiosyncrasies, and accommodate myself to them.’

‘Quite so. When you act for bloated plutocrats, make them pay. Letting off blood does them good. When you act for poor hard-working labourers like myself, cut the expenses down. Our blood is watery.’

‘Enough on a topic that leads to nothing,’ said Mr. Crudge. ‘You can guess what has brought me hither.’

‘I am afraid to guess. Is it the affairs of the Duke?’

Crudge nodded.

‘How do matters stand?’

‘That depends on the point of view from which the coup d’œil is taken. From yours, excellent; from theirs, desperate. The family are constantly in want of money—renewing, mortgaging, and there must be a crash shortly. Now they want about five thousand towards finishing them.’

‘Finishing them! Finishing for ever the great Kingsbridge family! Breaking down his most noble and exalted mightiness the Marquess of Saltcombe! Sweeping away, clearing away, and utterly effacing’—he jumped off the bed, and with the tail of his dirty coat brushed the table—‘clearing away and utterly effacing the most gracious and ancient Eveleighs!’

‘Mr. Lazarus,’ said the solicitor coldly, craning his neck out of the box to watch the proceedings of the pawnbroker, ‘pray observe that you have upset the ink and paste over the table in your effort to clean it. Instead of mending, you have messed the table.’

‘I do not care. My fancy ran away with me. I am an Oriental, a child of the sun, with a rich imagination that flashes into poetry. What care I about these noble mushrooms? They date from the Conquest, but what is the Conquest to us? An affair of yesterday. I have done. Go on. They want more money, do they?’ He reascended the bed, and sat on it with legs depending over the side.

‘The end must come; it is inevitable,’ said the solicitor. ‘Everything is in your hands. You may bring the walls about their ears when you will. If you choose, we can proceed to extremities at once. Nothing can save them. You are practically the sole creditor, for you have got the home mortgages into your own hands. You have no rivals to contend against. The estate must be sold, and if you choose to become possessor of Court Royal you may.’

Lazarus rubbed his hands, and crowed, rather than laughed.

‘I—I have the estates! What good would they do to me? I set up as a grand English squire! Not I. That is not my ambition. I have Court Royal! I could not keep it up.’

‘Well, there is no accounting for tastes. For the coup de grâce we must have five thousand pounds. As usual, I suppose, the money is to go through a third party, so that your name may not appear? I will manage that. I suppose some debts are pressing, and the usual annual expense is becoming burdensome—that is the occasion of this fresh demand.’

‘Mr. Crudge,’ said the Jew, ‘you seem confident that the end is near. I do not share your confidence. A great house like that of the Duke of Kingsbridge will not go to pieces all at once. It has its supports, on all sides, in rich and powerful families. When the rumour spreads that the Kingsbridge house is trembling, the noble relations from all parts will hasten to uphold it. There are a thousand means to which such a family may have recourse, inaccessible to such as us. They are like a tent pegged all round into the soil, and if this or that guy snaps, what does it matter?—the rest will hold.’

‘Who are to help them? The central pole of your tent is sawn through, and the guys will not uphold a fallen and flapping mass of rag. They stay it while upright, but are worthless when it is down.’

‘But the house is not down yet. Why, Lord Edward is rector of a fat Somersetshire living, an archdeacon, and Canon of Glastonbury.’

‘He may be worth some twelve hundred at the outside. He cannot help. Besides, he is already in debt. Lord Ronald, the general, has only his half-pay.’

‘But the family of the late Duchess?’

‘They will do nothing. However, I do not see in what way their fall can concern you, so long as you save your shekels. Whether the survivors of the wreck come to land or sink—that is nothing to you or me.’

‘Nothing to me!’ exclaimed the Jew, jumping off the bed and pacing the room. ‘Nothing to me! It is everything to me. What do I care for money except as a means whereby I may lever them over, and throw them in the dirt under my feet?’ He stopped abruptly, thinking he had said too much, and looked at the solicitor out of the corners of his eyes; but Mr. Crudge was leaning back in the sedan-chair, and Lazarus could see only his profile in shadow through the glass side.

‘You speak as though you entertained a spite against the family,’ he said—‘as though you were moving in this matter, actuated by revenge for some personal wrong. But that is impossible. What can you, the mole that burrows at the root of the social tree, have against the purple emperor butterfly who flutters about its very top on shining wing? The distance between you is too great for you ever to have come in contact.’

‘To be sure, I have expressed myself over-strongly. My feeling is not personal, it is political.’

‘Oh!’ said the lawyer. ‘Now I understand.’

‘Of course you understand. Political feelings fire the passions as surely as personal wrongs.’

‘To be sure they do,’ said Crudge, with indifference.

After a pause, Lazarus got off his bed and said, ‘If five thousand more is necessary, you shall have the sum. I have waded too deep into the morass to think of retreat; I must wade on. Tell me candidly: in your opinion, is there no salvation for them?’

‘That I will not say. There is a desperate resource. The Marquess may marry an heiress, and with her fortune disencumber the property.’

‘He is capable of doing it,’ cried Lazarus in great excitement. ‘He will do it; curses be upon him! Why, any American plutocrat, or Liverpool merchant, or London corn-factor would throw his millions into the Kingsbridge chat-moss to make a way over it for his daughter to win a coronet. The Marquess is only forty, is a handsome man—that will be the checkmate they will play!’

‘The Marquess is forty, as you say, or thereabouts. He has been languidly looking out for heiresses these ten years, but heiresses don’t fly into your mouth like roast partridges in the land of Cockaigne. He must stalk them. He must make efforts to find them. However, that is no concern of mine. All I have to look to is your pecuniary interest in the Kingsbridge estates.’

‘Five thousand will nigh upon finish them up, will it?’ said the Jew. ‘They take a deal of finishing, like a painting by Meissonier. I thought the last loan would have done that. What is the property worth? Have you an idea? What are the old mortgages on the other estates?’

‘That is more than I can say. I know what is owing to you. You have the mortgage on the manor of Court Royal, the sun and centre of the whole system.’

Lazarus considered, then drew a key from his pocket, opened an iron box walled into tho side of the house, and drew from it an account-book and his cheque-book.

‘Now,’ said Mr. Crudge, ‘see the result of getting excited. You upset the ink, and now you want to use it.’

‘If you do not mind being left a moment in the dark, I will fetch some ink,’ answered the Jew. ‘I see that what lies on the table is useless; it is a flux of coalash, ink, and paste; a picture of our social system, eh, Mr. Crudge!—a mixture of messes.’

Lazarus withdrew with the candle.

Mr. Crudge sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. A very little grey light stole in through the upper part of the window.

‘Bah!’ said he to himself. ‘This sort of people object to fresh air. What with the onions, and the sour paste, and the dead rats, and the pervading Levitical savour, I am asphyxiated. No washing apparatus in the room, I perceive. I should have perceived it without a light.’ Then he heard soft steps approach. The door was thrown open and feet entered the room. In another moment a match was struck and flared. Mr. Crudge, who had turned his head, saw through the window of the sedan-chair that the girl stood in the room. Joanna came forward and held the match before his face, studying him intently. She said nothing. Mr. Crudge was too surprised to speak. He looked at her. She was a girl of about seventeen, tall, slightly built, with olive complexion, very dark hair, and large shrewd eyes. The match flame repeated itself in them as red stars. She had outgrown her garments, which were too tight and too short. Her arms were bare. She was in her stocking-soles. Her lips were compressed; she remained immovable till the match burnt to her fingers; then, instead of throwing the red end on the ground, she extinguished it in her mouth. She said not a word, but turned in the dark and went away as softly as she had come.

Presently Lazarus came back with the candle in one hand and a bottle of ink in the other.

‘I could not remember where I had put it,’ he said; ‘at last I found the ink in the howdah.’

‘In the what?’

‘There was an elephant brought over from India for a showman a few years back, and the howdah was brought over with it. Sixpence a ride, children half price, would soon have recouped the howdah and the beast. But it was not to be. It was to be dead loss. Such is life! The elephant died on board ship, and the howdah was sold. I bought it, but have not yet been able to dispose of it. Do you happen to want a howdah?’

‘Certainly not?’

‘You needn’t pay cash down,’ said the Jew. ‘You’d deduct the howdah from your bill. Perhaps you’ll consult your missus about it when you get home.’

The Jew put candle and ink on the table.

‘I’ve been considering,’ he said, ‘that it would be well for you to go down to Court Royal and have a look at the place and the people. Then you will be able to give me an account of how the land lies. I can’t go myself; I have my loan office, as well as the shop, and I can’t leave the girl to manage both.’

‘A queer piece of goods she seems,’ said the lawyer.

‘That she is; queer here,’ said the Jew, touching his head; ‘an idle minx with an egregious appetite. Eats everything, even the candle-ends. But enough of her; she has nothing to do with Court Royal, and never will have. What do you say to my proposal?’

‘I can’t travel and spend valuable time without proper remuneration.’

‘You shall be paid,’ answered the Jew. ‘I will not grudge a small sum in this instance. I shall be easier in my mind when you have been down to the place and taken stock of what is there. You see, I’ve had myself to lean on friends to find all the money I wanted; if they pay me—they at Court Royal—it is not all profit. I have to pay interest also for what I took up to help me to get hold of the main mortgages. There,’ he continued, ‘is the difference between us Jews and you Christians. We hang together like a swarm of bees, one holding on by another; and you are like a hive of wasps, stinging each other, and when one gathers honey the other eats it, so that their combs are always empty. Will you go to Court Royal?’

‘I will. Indeed, it is as well that I should have a personal interview with the steward, as the negotiations are carried on through him.’

‘You will travel second class, not first,’ entreated Lazarus. ‘Money spent on the railway in comfort is waste. From Kingsbridge Road there is a coach. You will travel outside. The inside places are secured several days in advance. If you return the next day you need not tip the driver two shillings; eighteenpence will suffice.’

‘Very well; I will go to-morrow.’