Court Royal/Chapter XXIV
Never within man’s memory had there been such a succession of gaieties at Court Royal as at this Christmas season. The weather was favourable, bright and mild, as is so frequent in these days, when the seasons, as the world of men and manners, are out of joint. The climate of the south coast of Devon, especially of that favoured portion about the Kingsbridge estuary and the mouths of the Erme, the Avon, and the Yealm, is like that of Penzance. Oranges, myrtles, geraniums grow in the open air, and frosts do not fall sharply on the vegetation in winter.
With an ebbing tide the Marquess took a party down the creek in his yacht to Bolt Head. The sun was brilliant, and under the rocks on the sands the air was so soft and summery that luncheon was spread and taken out of doors. They returned by moonlight. The yacht was illuminated with coloured lanterns; an awning was spread on deck to cut off the falling dews; a band played, and the party danced. The villagers along the shore turned out to watch the glittering vessel as she ran up with the flowing tide, and listen to the strains of music wafted over the water.
Miss Rigsby caught cold on this expedition, and could not appear for a few days. Lord Saltcombe inquired after her health formally two or three times every day, and secretly felt relieved that he was off duty for a while.
When Dulcina reappeared in public her nose was red and glistening—red because it had been much rubbed, glistening because glycerine had been applied to reduce the soreness of the organ. Miss Rigsby’s temper had not been at its prime whilst she was unwell, and Miss Stokes’ patience and good nature were tried. Dulcina was not even pleased with the Marquess. The trip in the yacht had been planned by him. ‘Who ever heard of such nonsense,’ she said, ‘as a picnic and a dance al fresco at Christmas! Did the creature want to kill me? Is he tired of me already?’
‘Oh, dearest Dullie,’ answered the aunt, ‘forgive him. He has become delirious with love. He cannot do enough to please you. He is always inventing some excuse to be with you. If he acted foolishly, forgive; you have driven the wits out of him. I never saw devotion so delicate, and at the same time so passionate, in all my experience.’
‘That is not saying much,’ snapped Dulcina. ‘You haven’t had much experience of love, aunt, I will be bound.’
Never was Mr. Rigsby in finer feather than at Court Royal. At dinner he worked the conversation into the groove of coffee-planting, in which he could run for hours. Then, when he had got it on his subject, he poured forth his experience on coffee, and absorbed the entire conversation till coffee itself came in on a silver tray and stopped his mouth. He talked also a good deal on Indian affairs, and pretended intimacy with all the viceroys, lieutenant-governors, chief commissioners, and British Residents and native princes for the last quarter of a century. He knew the secret history of all that had been done and neglected. He had in his hands the clue to all the tangles, financial and political, of the empire. What might he not expect, when father-in-law to a Marquess, with the influence of a great Duke to back him? Surely, he might aspire to the viceroyalty! He would take nothing less. So he talked long and loud, and made himself a general bore, in the firm belief that he was stamping on the minds of the Duke, the Earl of Stratton, Lord Dawlish, Lord Pomeroy, and all the distinguished guests at the table, that he, Rigsby, was the man England wanted to do in India everything that ought to be done, and to undo every muddle made by every preceding governor. Mr. Rigsby was not a vulgar man, but he was a man without tact; preoccupied with his own ideas, he regarded no one else. This was the secret of his success in life. He had gone forward with the one idea of making money, and he had made it. Now he had got hold of the notion that he was about to make himself a name in Eastern politics, and he therefore talked down and contradicted everyone who attempted to turn the conversation or to dispute his views.
The Marquess played his part in the Comedy of Love with resolution and patience. He was devoted in his attention to Miss Rigsby; he did his utmost to draw out her better qualities. These were few; she had read little, observed little, associated little with superior persons. She regarded her father, though she tyrannised over him. She ruled as a despot over her feeble aunt, a person of inferior culture, and no mind. There was some kindness of heart in her, but most of her thoughts were on herself. Her taste was detestable, uncultivated and originally defective. Here Lady Grace came to the aid of her brother; she ingratiated herself into the confidence of Dulcina, and advised her how to dress; she did so with such delicate adroitness that Miss Rigsby had no idea she was receiving and obeying advice.
Mr. Worthivale was radiant. The cloud that had hung over the house was rolling away; the golden age was returning. His spirits bounded with the hopeful prospects. Not within his memory could Beavis recall a time when he was so extravagantly magnificent in his building of cloud-castles and in throwing golden bridges over Sloughs of Despond. Court Royal was itself again. The old splendour revived; the old hospitality extended on all sides. Not for one moment did the thought cross the steward's horizon and trouble it, that this revival was due to Lucy's fortune. Nor was his daughter more concerned than he. Generous, self-sacrificing, devoted heart and soul to the family, she was ready to give everything without demanding a return, without grudging if it were lost.
It was other with Beavis. He knew exactly how matters stood. He knew the extent of the peril. He knew whose money paid for all these gaieties and stopped the mouths of the clamorous creditors. For himself he did not care, but for his sister he cared a great deal. A sense of uneasiness that he could not shake off oppressed his spirits. He looked on at the festivities; he partook of them with perception of their hollowness and without enjoying them.
On the evening of the ball he was present, standing in a recessed window, half screened by the blue silk curtains, looking on in a dreamy state—the cloud of apprehension hanging over him—conscious at the moment, however, only of irritation at the dance strains of Strauss, which seemed to his fastidious ear as music full of unclean double-entendre unsuitable for such a place and such company.
The ball-room, built by Frederick Augustus, Duke of Kingsbridge, was a noble hall, lighted by two cut-glass lustres of great size. It was painted in panels with pastoral subjects, divided by pilasters of white and gold. The ceiling was of plaster flower-work containing paintings; walls and ceiling were the work of French artists, brought eager for the purpose by the art- and splendour-loving Frederick Augustus.
The Duke appeared for a short while, but his delicate condition of health did not permit a long stay. He was surrounded on his appearance by a cluster of ladies, eager for a word and one of his charming speeches full of old-world courtesy and wit.
Beavis did not go to him. For a while, on his appearance, the music ceased, then the doors were flung open, and two Highland pipers entered, one an immense man with sandy hair. They strode up the ball-room to the Duke's chair, stood there a moment playing, then turned sharply and strode down the room still playing, made a second circuit, and disappeared. They were the pipers of a Highland regiment stationed at Exeter.
After this diversion the Duke retired with an apology, and the dancing recommenced with vigour. Then it was, whilst teased by a waltz of Strauss, that Beavis was startled by a voice at his elbow—a soft, low voice, a voice not to be mistaken. He turned and saw Lady Grace.
‘Mr. Beavis,’ she said, ‘how have I offended you? You have not asked me to dance with you once to-night; but see’—she held out her tablet to him—‘I have put you down, unsolicited, for the next quadrille.’
His eye caught a single B on the place indicated. He coloured with pleasure, and looked his gratitude without speaking.
‘We have not had a confidential talk together for an age,’ she said in her gentle tones, so soft, yet quite distinct; ‘and I want it. Dear Lucy has been engaged night and day, and could spare me none of her precious time. Besides, she is reserved with me on the subject of all others that occupies my thoughts. I have no one to speak to but yourself, and I can only speak with you in the midst of a ball. You will be candid with me, will you not? You are a crystal moorstream, and when I look in I see the spars and the sparkling mica, even the grains of black hornblende. Now I want to look in and find what is the gravel over which your clear thoughts run.’
She smiled. The look of her sweet eyes, the dimple on her delicate cheek, the flutter of the throat, the intonation of the voice, were full of pleading.
‘Dear Lady Grace,’ answered Beavis, ‘you know that I am devoted to your service. I can deny you nothing.’
‘Then, Mr. Beavis, be frank with me. I know how kind and good you and all your family are. You are too kind, if I may dare say that. I mean that to spare me a moment’s pain you would cover up from my eyes all the little black grains. But, I pray you, let me have the very truth. Hide nothing; let me see all I ask to see. Will you not trust me? Am I a coward to turn pale and fly at the sight of a spider? I am stronger than you think. I can bear more than you give me credit for. That which tortures me most of all is uncertainty. You will trust me—do, pray!’
She put her fingers to her fan beseechingly, and looked at him.
‘What do you desire to know, Lady Grace?’ he asked with restraint. There were things he could not tell her, however suppliantly and sweetly she might plead.
‘I cannot understand my brother’s engagement. Does he love her? Does he admire her? I have tried my best. I have done all I can to find out what there is admirable in her, and I cannot like her; I can only endure her, and that only for a little while. I thought that I knew Herbert so well; what he likes I like, and what I fancy he fancies; in that we are almost as tied as twins, but in this one matter I have no sympathy with him. You do not know, Mr. Beavis, how I have striven to regard her as a sister. I cannot; I cannot do it! But it is not that that troubles me. I would never let her suppose I could not love her, but I am not sure that Herbert loves her. I cannot think they will be happy together. What is the attraction in her?’
She looked round to make sure that she was not overheard.
‘I had a battle with myself; at last I plucked up sufficient courage to approach the subject with him. You know that she has had a bad cold, and has kept her room. During this time I have been able to talk to my brother and walk with him, with my hand through his arm, on the terrace, whilst he smokes, just as before this—this affair. I have crept very near to the question that perplexes me, but he will not allow me to touch it. He glances aside and bids me keep at arm’s length. He turns the conversation to indifferent subjects, and then my heart sinks. Only once did I wring anything like an answer from him, and that was “Beavis approves.” That was referring me to you, was it not? That is why I speak now. O prithee tell me the truth! Why do you approve?
Beavis looked down. What could he answer?
‘I have not had much conversation with Saltcombe since his engagement,’ he answered in a low tone. He blushed as he spoke, for it was an evasion, but he could not help himself.
‘Oh, Mr. Beavis!’ she exclaimed, with pain and discouragement in her expressive voice, ‘you are playing with me. I ask for the truth, and you throw up a soap-bubble!’
‘Lady Grace,’ he said gravely, ‘this is not the place, nor have we now the time, for speaking on this matter. I must, unworthy as I may seem, ask you to do that which I appear unwilling to do to you. I must ask you to trust me. I do approve of Saltcombe’s engagement—I may add, I advised it. This latter was a responsibility—a terrible one; nevertheless, I took it upon me. I did advise this engagement.’‘So did Uncle Edward, I know, and Aunt Elizabeth as well,’ said Lady Grace sadly. ‘I am treated like a child. I am given no reasons. I can hardly bear it. I am no longer a child; I am growing into the old woman.’
‘Never, never, Lady Grace! with a heart as fresh and a spirit as bright as a May morning.’
She smiled very faintly, almost imperceptibly, slight dimples forming at the corners of her mouth. The tears were very near the surface.
‘I must trust you,’ she said. Then, thinking she had spoken grudgingly and ungenerously, she looked up and said, ‘I trust you frankly, freely, from the bottom of my soul. Excuse my petulance, my curiosity. From the days of Eve woman has wanted to know what she had better not know!’
Beavis was uneasy. He felt that she was hurt by his want of confidence—hurt and disappointed. He knew that this disappointment would cost her tears when alone. He could not do otherwise. He could not tell her that this marriage was de convenance, one for money, and money only. Her healthy, pure mind would recoil from such a truth. She would think such a union unholy, dishonouring. But it was necessary. She did not know the bankrupt condition of the family. If told it, she would not realise it. If she did realise it, she would refuse to sanction escape from it by such means. Beavis knew this. He could see into that transparent soul better far than she could look into his.
‘The quadrille is forming,’ she said; ‘let us take our places.’
They did so under one of the great chandeliers.
How beautiful was the scene: the background of old paintings and white and gold, the brilliant light from above, the brightly polished floor of inlaid woods, the figures in gay colours—the turquoise blue, the eschscholtzia yellow, the carnation pink, the lily white—flickering in and out like pieces in a kaleidoscope. The beautiful faces, bright eyes, the various hairs—golden, chestnut brown, black—the flash of diamonds, the flowers—how lovely was the scene! Yet, lovely above every person and every object there, incomparable in every way, Beavis thought Lady Grace—not wrongly, not with any exaggeration. Incomparable she was in white and the palest blue satin, so pale as to be scarcely blue at all, with aquamarine parure, and a cross of the same hanging from her necklet and resting on her pure bosom. The delicate blue veins in her temples and on her throat and bosom showed through her transparent skin. Her eyes were of deep violet blue—the only dark colour about her. In her cheeks was the faintest tinge of rose. Lady Grace, as has been said before, was not a young girl; she was sliding out of youth. But age as it drew on, added sweetness to her face; it gave expression where it withdrew bloom.
Miss Rigsby flared by in yellow and red; the Misses Sheepwash were in the same quadrille, hot with dancing, their cheeks aflame, and their fans working vigorously; they were bouncing girls.
Beavis turned his eyes away. He looked at his partner, moving easily, without exertion, full of grace in every undulation. It was a delight to the eye to rest on her.
She did not look at Beavis during the dance. When he had the chance he said, ‘I have offended you—’
‘No, you cannot do that; only disappointed me.’
‘I cannot help myself. I am obliged to say, Trust me. I can do no other. Rely on me that I advise nothing which is not best for your brother and your family; best attainable, I mean, not ideally best.’
He had to lead her across in the dance. She slightly pressed his hand. It was to say, ‘I trust.’
When she returned to his side she said, ‘Do me a favour. Poor Miss Stokes is sitting yonder, the picture of woebegonedness. Please me by dancing once with her. You do not know how dreadful the world seems to a young lady who has been a wallflower one whole night. A single round alters the aspect of life.’
In the country there is generally a preponderance of ladies at a ball. It was not so on this occasion at Court Royal. Officers had been invited from Plymouth and Exeter, so that every young lady—except Miss Stokes, who was not young, but refused to consider herself old—found a partner, and every young lady said afterwards that this was the most perfect ball she had ever attended. Even Miss Stokes said it was a nice ball. She danced twice with Beavis. Beavis was not obliged to dance. He preferred looking on. He watched Miss Rigsby, and he saw that she was flattered with the attentions of the Marquess, and that, so far as her cold nature could feel affection, she loved him. Her eyes followed him when he danced with another, with an expression in them much like jealousy. Lucy had been compulsorily relieved of her superintendentship of preparations for, and conduct of the ball, by Lady Elizabeth Eveleigh, who on her arrival took everything upon herself. Lady Elizabeth was full of system, and Lucy was obliged to admit that everything went more smoothly; the servants became more prompt under the rule of Lady Elizabeth than under herself. She would have kept in the background in the ballroom had she been allowed, but she who had thought of others was thought of by them. The Marquess insisted on her dancing with him, then Lady Grace introduced officers to her. Lord Ronald would not be refused her hand in the lancers. Lord Edward, the Archdeacon, did not dance, but he drew Lucy into a window and talked with her for half-an-hour in an affectionate manner. Whenever Lady Grace passed her in valse, or quadrille, or cotillon, she smiled, and if possible gave her a kindly word. In spite of her efforts to escape, for she was not in good spirits, Lucy was not allowed to retire. She danced as often as any young girl in the room. Her partners liked her. She was unaffected, full of good sense and modesty. About three o’clock in the morning Beavis told his sister he was going home.
‘Papa has the key,’ said she. ‘Our maid, Emily, is here helping. She and that other, Joanna, could not both come tomorrow, so they arranged between them that one should be here to-night and the other be at the tenants’ ball. Papa said she was to go to bed, and that he and you would let yourselves in.’
‘I’ll get the key,’ answered Beavis; ‘then I will sit and smoke in the study till our father comes. I do not suppose he will leave yet.’
‘Oh dear no! not till the last moment; he enjoys the ball as much as a girl does her first coming out.’
Beavis got the key and walked home.
When he left the house, and was in the park, he turned and looked back at the illuminated mansion; the strains of music came to him faintly through the trees. Then the sense of oppression, which had hung over him all the evening in the glitter of the ballroom, descended heavily on his spirits.
Was it possible that the Marquess would continue in the same resolution and marry Miss Rigsby? If he did not, then the earthquake would follow, and engulf not only the Kingsbridge family, but his own. As yet Lord Saltcomhe had shown no token of wavering. He was too honourable a man to shrink from an engagement when once he had passed his word. On this Beavis assured himself that he could rely. As far as he could see the marriage would certainly take place. That which troubled him was not the doubt of its accomplishment, but the probable result afterwards. Was there any prospect of happiness to the Marquess in such an union? There was none—none at all. The characters were incompatible. The marriage must lead to mutual estrangement. It would end Saltcombe’s friendship for Beavis, whom he would always regard as the evil adviser who had brought him into hateful bonds. Beavis opened his house door noiselessly, and as noiselessly entered the hall. He wore goloshes over his patent leather boots, and his steps were soundless on the kamptulicon floorcloth. To his surprise he saw that the office door was ajar, and that there was a light within.
He walked down the passage and entered.
He saw the girl Joanna at his father’s writing-desk, seated on the stool asleep, her head reposing on her arm upon the desk. A candle was burning beside her. The book-cupboard or press, in which the ledgers were kept, was unlocked and open. The bunch of his father’s keys was there, hanging in the lock. On the desk were some of the ledgers, open.
Beavis stepped up to the girl in great surprise, and saw that under her hand was a small account-book, in which, as far as he could see, without removing her hand, was a series of extracts from the ledger; of particulars of rents, payments, incumbrances, neatly written, not in his father’s hand.
‘Joanna!’ he called, and laid his hand on her shoulder. Instantly she sprang to her feet, looked at him in a bewildered manner, gathering her senses with difficulty, put her hand firmly on the account-book, and with the other knocked the candle over. It was instantly extinguished on the floor.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ asked Beavis, confronting her in the dark.
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ answered the girl; ‘I am sorry. I fell asleep whilst sitting up to open when you came home. I thought you might want some hot water and sugar and the whisky. I’m sorry the light has gone out. If you’ll please to excuse me a moment, I will fetch a candle from the kitchen.’
She was fumbling with her hands whilst speaking.
‘What are you about?’ asked Beavis sharply.
‘Please, sir, I can’t find the candle where it has fallen.’
‘Never mind the candle. Go fetch another.’
She slipped away, but not at once, as bidden. Presently she returned, holding a bedroom candle alight. She looked sleepy, her eyes were dull, her hair tangled.
‘Joanna,’ said Beavis, looking at the desk, ‘I must know the meaning of this.’
‘I told you I was sitting up,’ she answered. ‘In the kitchen I might not have heard, and I made so bold as to come in here, where I’d be sure, I thought, to hear when you were at the front door. I’m sorry I was that bold to do so.’
‘What has become of the note-book I saw on the desk a moment ago?’
‘What note-book, sir?’
‘One I saw beneath your hand as you lay asleep.’
Joanna shrugged her shoulders. ‘There are a power of books of all sorts here,’ she answered. ‘Which would you please to want, sir?’
‘I insist on your producing the book.’
‘I have none to produce,’ she answered, stupidly or doggedly.
‘Joanna, how came the cabinet open, and the books about?’
‘I suppose the master left them so.’
‘And the cabinet unlocked?’
She shrugged her shoulders, then yawned. ‘I beg pardon, sir, but I am that sleepy I can neither think nor speak. Do you want some hot water and tumblers, and the sugar, and the whisky?’
‘Go along—to bed at once,’ said Beavis. ‘I’ll inquire into this to-morrow.’
‘And the whisky, and the sugar, and the hot water?’
‘Go along,’ said Beavis, stamping. ‘I want nothing but an explanation of your conduct, and that I will have from you to-morrow.’
‘Yes, sir.’ She looked at him. In that quick glance there was neither stupidity nor sleep.
Before he could speak again she had stolen away.