Court Royal/Chapter VII
‘I really think,’ said Mr. Crudge, as he stood in the hall, being helped into his overcoat, and while the fly was at the door to take him to his inn—‘I really think, as it is dry underfoot, that I will walk to Kingsbridge. The night is lovely, the moon is full, and I have a pair of goloshes in my greatcoat pocket.’
‘I will accompany you, if you have no objection,’ said Beavis Worthivale. ‘I also would enjoy the walk. My father can return in your fly. He is without an overcoat, and he will not lock up till I reappear.’
‘Is Miss Worthivale coming?’
‘Lucy? Oh, no! She lives at the Court, and only visits at the Lodge,’ answered Mr. Worthivale. ‘We see little of her. She is always with the Lady Grace.’
‘If you are ready,’ said Mr. Crudge to the young man, ‘I am at your service.’
The night was indeed lovely. The moon hung unclouded over the sea, which gleamed in vistas opened among the trees of the park. Myrtles, magnolia, geraniums luxuriated in the warm, equable climate of the south coast, uncut by east winds, unchecked by late frosts. Above, the silver moon, walking in brightness; below, Mr. Crudge, walking in his goloshes. Mr. Crudge turned and looked back at Court Royal. The moon was on the front of the mansion. It was a noble pile of buildings, worthy of the residence of a duke. Behind rose hills covered with oak and beech woods, interspersed with Scottish fir and silver pines. In the moonlight, with the lighted windows, and the bank of park trees behind, it resembled a beautiful ivory sculpture, studded with golden points, reposing in a bed of black velvet.
But Mr. Crudge had no thought of the loveliness of the scene. ‘To live in a place like this,’ said he, ‘and in this style, a man should have forty or fifty thousand, and the family have not that—clear. It is the poorest ducal house in England. You seem to me down here to go by contraries. You have an estuary without a river, a Kingsbridge without a bridge, a ducal state kept up without a ducal estate on which to keep it up.’
Beavis did not reply. Crudge turned and looked at him. The moon was full on the young man’s face; it was clouded, and his eyes were on the ground.
‘You and I belong to the law alike,’ said Crudge; ‘you are peeling your potato and I am eating at the floury ball, that is the difference. Hope you’ll soon get your teeth in.’
‘I am in the office of the Duke’s lawyer in town; but I am not to continue in a solicitor’s office.’
‘Why not? The affairs of the family will give you plenty of occupation. Believe me, my boy, there are more pickings to be got out of tottering than standing houses.’
Young Worthivale walked on without answering. He struck a match and lighted a cigar.
‘The parrots in Jamaica used to eat nuts,’ said Crudge, ‘in the days of their ignorance. They have learned to do better for themselves now. They put their claws into the wool of a sheep and swing themselves, bob, bob, bob, against the side of the creature till with their beaks they get at the fat about the kidney, and they make their repast off that. Better than nuts that, eh? You’ve your hold on a fat wether; I wish I had your place. All I can say is, bob, bob, bob, till you get at the fat!’
Beavis said nothing, but set his lips tight on his cigar and puffed rapidly.
‘I must confess,’ said Crudge, ‘that what I have seen to-day will remain with me as long as I live. What a remarkable family! The dignity, stateliness, old-worldishness of the lot makes them interesting. They belong to the past. I seem to have come out of Madame Tussaud’s, and to have seen waxwork notabilities. I hope you are not offended; I mean no offence. Do you remember the story in the “Arabian Nights” of the man—a Kalendar, I dare say—who got into a palace where everyone was petrified except a prince, who was semi-petrified? I feel like that Kalendar. I am not sure that you are not half-fossilised also. I do not see how anyone can live in this enchanted atmosphere and not be enchanted.’
‘I see what you mean,’ said young Worthivale. ‘You are right, the atmosphere in Court Royal is not that of the nineteenth century, but of the last.’
‘There are different atmospheres at different levels,’ said Crudge. ‘Theirs is too exalted for me. At the top of Mont Blanc men’s ears and noses bleed; and I have had great oppression there aloft. I breathe freer now I am down again with you. But you—you belong to the upper crust, after a fashion!’
‘Yes,’ said Beavis, laughing, ‘after the fashion of the pigeon in the pie; it has its feet there, but the feet only, I was at table to-day, but not one of the family. My father and sister belong to this exclusive world; they have been like sponges, they have sucked in the surrounding element. They share the views, the prejudices, the delusions of the family and class. To you, what you have seen this day is amusing; to me it is depressing.’
‘Exactly so. I am reminded to-day of what is said in Scripture of the world before the Flood. They were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the flood came and swept them all away.’
‘You are not far wrong. The flood is surely rising which will sweep them all away. According to popular tradition, the inlet where now the blue waters roll up to Kingsbridge was once a fertile valley, with towns and churches and mansions. The ocean broke in one stormy night and swept them clean away—no, I am wrong—buried them deep, deep in mud. Where was once waving corn is now mud—nothing but mud, and mud that stinks. First the age of gold, then of silver, then of iron, then of clay mingled with iron, and now we are on the threshold of the age of vulgar mud. Sea-wrack for corn, barnacles for men, winkle-shells for palaces!’
‘I see you also have a hankering after what is death-doomed!’
‘I regret the decay of what is noble and generous; but it is inevitable. Out of the clay God made men, and out of the coming mud He will mould a new order. When the flat-fish are in the deep sea they have their deep-sea flavour. When they come into our creek their flesh assimilates itself to the flavour of our slime. We shall have to accommodate ourselves to be vulgar, commonplace, to think mud, to taste mud, to have muddy aspirations.’
‘I see,’ said Crudge impatiently, ‘you belong to the upper crust more fully than by the feet. I don’t, and I don’t want to! However, the upper crust will have to go under shortly and get sodden in the gravy.’
‘Yes,’ said Beavis, sadly, ‘it will go down. Everyone outside can tell the time better than the man in the clock-case. I am in the office of the Duke’s lawyer, and am son of his steward: I have plenty of opportunity of noting the tendency of affairs. What, I ask myself, will become of these people, accustomed to the state of a ducal mansion, to the respect and consideration that surrounds them, when cast out, encumbered with a title and a history, reared in one world, hurled into another? To me the scene to-day was one of infinite pathos.’
‘The end is not so near as you suppose,’ said Crudge.
‘It cannot be very distant,’ exclaimed Beavis. ‘I would give my best heart’s blood to save them from ruin, for they are the worthiest people in the world. But I am not blind to their faults. Look there’—he pointed to a row of handsome alms-houses in the ‘cottage-Gothic’ style, each with its pretty garden before it—‘Here live superannuated servants of the family rent-free, on pensions. Yonder is the school, entirely supported by his Grace.’
‘Almshouses are mischievous institutions; they superinduce a habit of improvidence.’
‘That may be true. According to modern doctrine, charity impoverishes. To give to the poor is to harm them, and should be made penal. The survivals of the old world do not see his.’
‘Why should the Duke maintain a school? He should throw the cost on the rates and have a Board.’
‘So he should; but he thinks it his duty and privilege to provide the children of all who live on his land with education free of cost, and with religious instruction on the principles of the Established Church. He belongs to a past order of ideas, and that is his view. We who belong to the new order object to gratuitous and to denominational education. The Duke is a patriarch, full of patriarchal notions of obligation to and care for all who belong to him. He would provide for everyone born on his estates if he were able, like the Incas of old Peru.’
‘That interferes with individualism,’ said Crudge.
‘Of course it does; but he belongs to the old school of moral responsibilities. The General, Lord Ronald, belongs to the old school in military ideas; and the Archdeacon, Lord Edward, belongs to the old school in theology. The Marquess has an honourable soul, but he belongs to the old school of Laissez faire. Lady Grace belongs to the old school of sweet womanly culture. Not one of them has any idea how near the edge of the precipice they stand. They look on political dangers as the rocks in their course, and not on financial breakers among which they are running and in which they will go to pieces. It is true that they know they have not the wealth which once belonged to the family; but they sigh over the past without bestirring themselves for the present. What is to be done for these blind people? To rob them of their illusion is impossible. It circulates in their blood. To save them in spite of themselves—how is that to be done?’
The solicitor listened attentively. He said, with a smile, ‘Before the Flood they married, and that did not arrest the tide. Before this flood it may do wonders. The Marquess may make a marriage which will save the property.’
‘He may do so,’ answered Beavis, ‘but then he must go about the country heiress-hunting, and this he will not do. He is too proud. Heiresses will not come in troops to be marched past him, as were maidens in the days of Ahasuerus the king. The Marquess postpones marriage to the Greek Kalends. He reads, smokes, hunts, fishes, yachts, shoots, plants rare pines, believes in his family, and is glued to Court Royal.’
‘But has not your father done something to rouse them to a sense of their danger?’
‘My father sees with their eyes, hears with their ears, thinks with their brains. To him, the ruin of the Kingsbridge family is impossible; Providence cannot allow it, and reign above the spheres as a moral power.’ He turned sharply round to Mr. Crudge, and said, in a voice that trembled with emotion, ‘Why are you here? No doubt you have not come here for change of scene, and air, and society?’
‘Oh dear, no,’ answered Mr. Crudge; ‘I cannot afford that. I am here on business—Kingsbridge business. Here we are at my inn. Good-night.’
‘May I come in? I will detain you from your bed only a few minutes longer; but I cannot return till I am satisfied.’
‘Satisfied!’ echoed Mr. Crudge. ‘What satisfaction can I give you? However, come in, and take a glass of something.’
‘You must excuse me that,’ said Beavis, entering the coffee-room with the solicitor. ‘You understand my position, my relation to the family. I hope I am committing no indiscretion when I ask you for light on your object in coming here. You say that the end is not so near at hand as I anticipate. You speak, then, with some authority. You know the circumstances. I am warmly attached to the whole family. I have been reared in the tradition and reverence for it. My father and grandfather have been stewards for more years than I can tell. If the Kingsbridge family goes to pieces, some of the blame will attach to my father. Is it not possible that something can be done to save them? I have no right to appeal to your sympathy, but I cannot bring myself to believe that you desire the ruin of one of the grandest names among the English aristocracy.’
‘I really care little or nothing about them; the name of Eveleigh has no more merit with me than that of Smith,’ answered Mr. Crudge. ‘But you must not expect of me to confide to you matters concerning my clients, and to assist you with advice which may thwart their interests, which I am here to advance.’
‘Of course not. I merely ask your purpose in coming here,’ said Beavis.
‘That is no secret,’ answered the solicitor. ‘Among other debts weighing on the property is a mortgage on the Kingsbridge estate, held by the Stephens Brothers, which has been called in. The Duke finds a difficulty in raising the money, and he further wishes to raise a trifle of a few thousand. I have a client who will advance the entire sum. There is nothing extraordinary in this, nor is the Duke threatened in any way.’
‘What is the name of your client?’
‘Emmanuel. The transfer of the mortgage will not affect the Duke in the least. The debt remains, and the interest will be paid to Mr. Emmanuel instead of to Messrs. Stephens.’
‘I do not like this,’ said Beavis. ‘An Emmanuel, I suppose the same man, has the mortgage on the home estate, with park and mansions. Does this fellow, Emmanuel, know the condition we are in?’
‘I know his thoughts as little as yourself,’ answered Crudge, who wished to bring this conversation to an end.
‘This is the third time the name of Emmanuel has turned up in the affairs of the Duke.’
‘It is possible.’
‘I see,’ said Beavis; ‘you will say no more. Well, good-night. At what time will you be at my father’s office tomorrow?’
‘At half-past ten or eleven.’
‘Say eleven. Allow me time to have an interview first with the Marquess. Good-night.’
When Beavis was gone, Crudge shrugged his shoulders. ‘No good in that fellow. Bitten with the aristocratic craze. Wouldn’t I only like to have my claws as firm as himself in the wool! Bob, bob, bob—till I fed on the fat of the dying wether.’
On Beavis’s return, he saw that there was a light in the study. His father had not gone to bed. Beavis was glad of it, as he felt in no mood for sleep, so he knocked at the door and went in.
Mr. Worthivale was sitting over the fire, with a slipperless foot against each jamb of the mantelpiece, smoking and looking dreamily into the coals.
‘Well, Beavis, seen your friend tucked in between the sheets?’
‘No friend of mine,’ answered the son. ‘I never saw him before you introduced him to Court Royal.’
‘Look here,’ said Mr. Worthivale, pointing with the mouthpiece of his pipe at a book that lay open on the table, page downwards, to mark the place. ‘I’ve been reading Ouida’s last. What do you think of the story, Beavis? I rather like it.’
‘Never read anything of Ouida’s in my life,’ answered the young man. ‘Don’t care if I never do. Now I want a word with you on business, father, if you can spare me ten minutes.’
‘Business!’ sighed the steward. ‘Eternally business. After I had done my work for the day, as I hoped, in dropped that solicitor, Crudge, to badger me; and now that I thought to drowse over my pipe and Ouida, in you come, blowing a blast of business cold in my face to rouse me. No, I’ll talk no business to-night. Pour yourself out a glass of cold whisky and water, and smoke a cigar, and then to bed. You will have to find a tumbler for yourself. There are plenty in the pantry, with thumb-marks imprinted on their rims. I told Emily to put out two whilst you are here, but the girl’s head is like a sieve. She is courting, I presume. The sugar-bowl is empty; the housekeeper has forgotten to fill that. When I say empty, I am wrong; there is a cake of brown moist sugar at the bottom, solid as pie-crust. The lumps of white had been tumbled in on top—to save trouble, I suppose.’
‘I really must have a word on business with you to-night, father. The solicitor from Exeter will be here to-morrow morning.’
‘Well, what of that?’
‘He will come about the mortgage; and what I want to say concerns the family we alike love, and would save from ruin.’
‘Ruin! Fiddlestick’s ends!’
‘My dear father, the situation is desperate.’
‘My dear Beavis,’ answered Mr. Worthivale testily, ‘I am steward, and I ought to know the state of affairs better than anyone else, and I refuse to have it spoken of as desperate.’
‘You may refuse, father, to allow their affairs to be called desperate, but desperate they are.’
‘You forget yourself, Beavis. You take too much upon you. A raw hand lays on the paint too thick.’
‘Their affairs have got into such a condition that nothing save a miracle can stave off ruin; and the age of miracles is past.’
‘Now, Beavis, you impeach my administration of their property. If they come to ruin, I shall be blamed.’
‘Of course you will, father,’ said the young man. ‘I do not for a moment dispute your devotion to the Duke, your readiness to do all you can to promote his interests; you have looked at the sun so long, father, that you are dazzled, and cannot see the specks—specks!—the total eclipse that is stealing on.’
Mr. Worthivale was both surprised and offended at his son’s plain speaking. He who is dissatisfied with himself is readiest offended. He smoked without speaking, then took a sip at his cold whisky and water.
‘Who asked you to interfere? What right have you to meddle?’ he asked grumblingly.
‘No one has asked me to interfere; but my love for the family, and the long chain of obligations which binds me to it, forces me to break silence, and bark when burglars menace the house.’
‘Menace! What cock-and-bull story have you got hold of now?’
‘For heaven’s sake, father, be serious. I am down here for a short while, and I cannot in conscience allow matters to proceed without raising my voice to arrest them.’
‘Go on!’ said his father ill-humouredly. ‘Lord bless me. It seems to me that you were in petticoats only a few days ago, and I whipped you over my knee with the back of the hair-brush, and now you are grown so old that you stand up in judgment against your father, and put me on the rack.’
‘I entreat you to listen to me,’ said the young man. ‘No one will free you from blame when the crash comes.’
‘What crash?’ asked his father doggedly.
‘Open your eyes, your ears. I am not steward, but for all that, I can perceive the ripple and the run of the water before Niagara. Consider, what are the estates valued at?’
‘That is more than I can say now. With these bad years the land has depreciated one-half. In some places there is no sale at all for it.’
‘Let me see—no, hang it, I can’t tell. We only value for succession duty, and, thank God, the Duke is still alive.’
‘What are the annual receipts?’
‘There I can meet you. In good years forty thousand; now about thirty, perhaps not as much—but this is temporary, temporary depression, only. The seasons have been against us, and American competition. Farmers, again, will not now put up with the outbuildings and the dwelling-houses that contented their fathers. Everything must be new. I assure you we have been forced, literally forced, to spend some thirteen or fourteen thousand on the property of late.’
‘What are the debts?’
‘You know that the old Duke was an extravagant man. He spent a great deal on the turf—more on the green baize. When the present Duke came of age, he consented to a mortgage on the Loddiswell estate and on the Awton property, to relieve his father from pressing difficulties, to the tune of four hundred thousand pounds. I know we have to pay sixteen thousand per annum on it, which is an awful pull. Then there was the house, which was begun by Duke Frederick Augustus. ’Pon my word, what with building, and new furniture, and ornamental laying out of the grounds, I believe seventy thousand would be under the mark. Then, when the Duke’s three sisters were married, they were given fifteen thousand each, which was little enough. That had to be raised by a mortgage on the Kingsbridge manor. The Marquess got among a wild set when he was in the army, and was thrown on the Jews. I wish we could clear off his embarrassments. The sum is not, in itself, much; say ten thousand, but the interest is extortionate.’
‘Stay,’ said Beavis; ‘the items you have mentioned come to nigh on five hundred thousand.’
‘Yes,’ said his father, ‘you won’t be under the mark when you say six hundred thousand. There is the mortgage on Court Royal to Mr. Emmanuel, and there are other matters. You understate at six hundred thousand.’
‘Why, that makes an outleak of twenty-four thousand per annum on a nominal income of forty thousand.’
‘I dare say. Then the charities of the Duke—subscriptions, pensions, and the like—come to something under twelve hundred. And Lady Grace has her pin-money, and the Marquess his allowance, and both the General and the Archdeacon have something—no, I wrong Lord Edward, he has abandoned his claim.’
‘What is the expenditure on the house and grounds, the household expenses, wages, and the like?’
‘I cannot tell you, offhand, the items are so many.’
‘Now, father, if, as you say, thirty thousand be nearer the present income of the Duke than forty thousand, and twenty-four thousand goes out in mortgages, that leaves but six thousand for everything.’
‘These are exceptionally bad times; forty thousand is the true income.’
‘The rate at which they are living is beyond even sixteen thousand. You have deducted nothing for all the outs that bleed a property in land. For five or six years the income has not been forty thousand, but there has been no reduction in the style of expenditure. Whence comes the money? Not a burden has been shaken off, fresh are annually heaped on. Let but one of the larger mortgages be called up, and the crisis has arrived.’
His father put his hands to his head. ‘You exaggerate. Things are not as bad as you represent them.’
‘They are as bad as they well can be. Is there a single estate that is not mortgaged? There must be a sale of some of the property. On the death of the Duke it will not be possible.’
‘Sell!’ exclaimed the steward, ‘sell the estates! Impossible. Neither the Duke nor the Marquess will consent. One would not dare to make the suggestion to his Grace, it would kill him.’
‘If not done voluntarily, it will be done compulsorily.’
‘The Marquess will marry an heiress, and clear the property with her money. That is simple enough. How can you be so pig-headed, Beavis? Do you not see that all we want is time. With time everything will come right.’
‘What have you to say to this?’ asked his father triumphantly. ‘Have I the last trump?’
‘I have nothing, nothing more to say,’ answered the young man; ‘I will trouble you no further, father.’