Court Royal/Chapter XXV
Beavis remained up, smoking and musing in the study till his father returned. He did not speak to him about Joanna that night, as the old man looked tired. He gave him his candle, made a joke about a midday breakfast and lunch rolled into one, at which they would meet, and retired to rest.Neither Beavis nor his father came down till late next morning, and then only, over their breakfast, was Joanna’s behaviour discussed.
‘I never take tea with meat. What is it this morning? Kidneys? Kidneys above all. No tea, Beavis, coffee for me; less tannin in it. Can you conceive anything more calculated to give dyspepsia than to immerse meat in a fluid charged with tannin? You convert it at one stroke into leather, and make demands on the gastric juice which it is not qualified to perform. No, tea is poison; give me coffee.’
‘Certainly, my dear father,’ said Beavis with a smile. ‘I fear I have something to communicate which will disagree with you more than tea.’
‘Then reserve it.’
‘I must not. We must act upon it at once.’
Mr. Worthivale sighed. ‘I enjoyed myself so greatly last night. Indeed, I do not think I have spent such a happy ten days as these last since I was a boy. Well, what is it?’
Then Beavis told his father what he had seen that morning early on his return from Court Royal. Mr. Worthivale was annoyed. ‘One cannot get along a week without unpleasantnesses,’ he said peevishly. ‘Really, at my time of life I expect relief from worries.’
‘Where did you leave your keys?’
‘I cannot say for certain. Yes, I can. I am positive: that is, I think I locked everything up as usual, and put the keys in my trousers pocket. I generally—I may say always—do so on principle. But yesterday I was in such a hurry about the ball. My time and thoughts were in such requisition that I may have committed the oversight of leaving them in the bookcase. I was not at the office at all after half-past three, and then I was there for an hour only. There was no money in the drawers.’
‘No, but there was information concerning the Duke’s affairs worth to some people a good deal of money.’
‘It would certainly be annoying if stupid gossip got about concerning the family embarrassments.’
‘I do not allude to gossip.’
‘I’ll tell you what I will do, Beavis. I’ll ring for the girl, and then we will examine her together. I see no cause for alarm. She can neither read nor write.’
‘Who told you so?’
‘A Mrs. Delany, in whose service she was before she came to us. Touch the bell, Beavis.’
In response to the summons Emily appeared.
‘Look here,’ said the steward; ‘send the other girl to me. I mean Joan or Joanna, whichever she is called, I cannot remember. I want a word with her.’
‘Please, sir,’ answered Emily, ‘she is gone.’
‘Gone!’ exclaimed father and son in a breath.
‘Yes, sir. She went by the first coach this morning, when you were asleep. She said as how the young master had given her notice to be off at once. She took her box out into the road herself. She was in a pretty take on too, sir, because, as she said—to use her very words—she was chiselled out of a dance. She’d set her heart on going to the tenants’ ball to-night. Her and I had a regular breeze because we could not both go, and it ended in the usual way. She got her way, and made me go last night just to look on and help. She was crying with vexation because she could not be at the dance. When she went away she said, What would Lady Grace think, who had been so kind to her, and Miss Lucy, who’d taught her to dance!’
‘I did not give her notice,’ said Beavis in a low tone to his father.
‘She has not had her wage,’ said the steward aloud to Beavis and Emily.
‘Well, now, that is queer,’ began the maid, when the young man cut her short with,
‘You may go.’
As soon as the girl was gone Beavis said, ‘This makes matters more suspicious. I told Joanna that I would examine her with you to-day, and rather than subject herself to interrogation she takes herself off without warning.’
‘She forfeits her wages,’ said Mr. Worthivale. ‘But I dare be bound she misunderstood you. Beavis, you speak rather sharp with servants. I dare say Emily would have talked on for half an hour if you had not cut her over the knuckles so sharp.’
‘I have no doubt whatever she would.’
‘She might have told us a good deal,’ said his father. ‘I have no doubt in my mind that a misapprehension lies at the bottom of this unfortunate affair. Of course, Joan had no right to be in the office, but perhaps she was dusting and tidying. You know yourself how neat she keeps that room, which of old was always in a litter. Once I never knew where to lay my hand on anything. I shall miss her; she had her good points. I dare say you snapped off her head when you came in and found the poor creature dozing over her work. No doubt she was tired. You are too hasty, Beavis, too hasty by far. No question she has left her address with Emily. I will ring and inquire.’
Beavis stayed his father. ‘I am sure she has not. This is a more serious matter than you suppose. I never liked the looks of the girl; she was too clever.’
‘That comes of education; the over-education of this nineteenth century.’
‘But she can neither read nor write.’
‘Oh! I beg your pardon. I mean the reverse. She is clever because not overtaxed by Board School masters straining poor, underfed brains to reach standards that are far above their level.’
‘Whence did she come?’
‘From Plymouth, from Colonel Delany’s—a very respectable family. He is connected by marriage with the Pomeroys. I do not know who Mrs. Delany was, but of course she is a lady, and she wrote in highest commendation of the girl.’
‘Let me see the letter.’
‘It is somewhere in the office; I think I can find it; follow me. But mind, Beavis,’ said the steward, stopping at the door, and holding up his finger; remember what I have said about drinking tea with meat. You deliberately tan your food, and yet you expect to digest it. As well eat sole-leather.’
The old man fumbled in his drawers.
‘I thought I had put it in this pigeon-hole, among sundries. It seems to have made itself wings and gone.’
‘I have little doubt Joanna has taken it.’
‘She could not read or write,’ said Mr. Worthivale.
‘If she does not read, why did she pull out the ledgers? If she does not write, who made a précis of the debts and income of the family in the little note-book I saw?’
‘It may have been in my handwriting. I often take odd scraps of paper and figure on them the revenue of the Kingsbridge estates, and the outgoings, and try to extract some comfort from them. I dare say you will find a score of such balances in the wastepaper basket.’
‘They ought not to be there.’
‘Who is the wiser? I put initials to the debts.’
‘What I saw was not in your handwriting, and was done very clearly and systematically. It was done by some one experienced in bookkeeping—that is the only point that shakes my conviction that the girl has bled your books.’‘What was the back of the account-book like?’
‘I did not see it. Joanna knocked the candle over, as I am convinced, deliberately, and in the dark secreted the notes and put away the ledgers. I heard her do the latter, and when she returned with the candle, everything was in place, and the account-book nowhere that I could see.’
‘We will overhaul the cabinet.’
‘I should like to overhaul her room.’
‘I will call Emily.’
The maid conducted Beavis upstairs.
He looked round. The bed had not been slept in. Some scraps of paper lay scattered on the floor; a saucer with water in it stood in the window.
‘Ah!’ said Emily, ‘never was nobody so stuck up as Joanna over nothing as she was over the pot of lily of the valley her ladyship gave her. She went off on the top of the coach, hugging it like a baby, and I seed her kiss her hand and wave it, right away over the woods towards Court Royal; and she was crying. I reckon she was sorry to go. She was so taken with Lady Grace, she nigh worshipped the ground she trod on; and the last thing I heard her say was, “Oh, what will Lady Grace think!” Why, sir, I reckon her ladyship won’t cast a thought after her.’
Beavis shook his head.
‘Joanna has not left a pin that was her own. She looked about the room a score of times to make sure she had everything. She carried away her pink silk as she minded to have worn at the tenants’ ball, had it not been spoiled with mineral water.’
‘Did she give you her address?’
‘No, sir, her and me wasn’t over-good friends. She was one that would have all her own way, she was that over-bearing. I did think it was not fair that she should go to the dance to-night and not I, who am the longest in the place, but she was that set on it, I reckon there was no withstanding her. Lady Grace and Miss Lucy had taught her to dance for the purpose—she brought this up on me, and what was I to say?’
‘That will do,’ said Beavis. ‘I asked a simple question and required a simple answer.’
‘And after all, sir,’ said the unabashed Emily, ‘she won’t go to the ball neither. That’s sweet comfort.’
The tenants’ ball began at seven, and by tacit understanding was to be over at two in the morning. The hours were very much earlier than at the grand ball of the evening before. Mr. Worthivale and Beavis were there, as a matter of course, and all the Ducal family appeared. His Grace remained in the ball-room longer than on the former occasion, talking to the young farmers’ sons and daughters, showing that he knew them all by name, took an interest in their welfare, and was delighted to have them about him enjoying themselves. He was obstinate on this evening, he would not go when his daughter thought advisable.
‘No, dear,’ he said, ‘it refreshes me to see all their happy faces. How hearty they are; how well they behave; they are so courteous and kindly! I do like our English peasantry; there is a gentility of feeling about them I meet with nowhere else—good hearts and clear heads.’
The Duke knew nearly everyone. He had the happy faculty of never forgetting a face, and of remembering the circumstances of every family. He had the tact of enquiring after absent members, by name, with such real or well-simulated interest, as to gratify those he addressed, and convince them of his sincerity and friendship.
‘What! Mrs. Prowse! You here? This is an unexpected pleasure. How many years ago was it that you were pretty Mary Eastlake, with whom I opened the ball? The belle of Aveton Gifford.’
‘Well, your Grace, my daughter has come for her first dance, and as I’ve no other children—you’ll excuse me, your Grace—I thought I’d come with her and see her safe home.’
‘Bring her to me. If she is like you in old days, she will kill many hearts this evening.’
‘Well, Richard Palmer! I hope you have brought your voice and will favour us with a song, when the dancers give over for a moment. How is poor Jane? Is she still suffering from her spine? I was so grieved to hear of her accident—I had counted on her presence this evening.’
‘How are you, Mr. Newberry? Last time I saw you, your wife was bent on the great ash being cut down in front of the gate. It went to my heart to deny her, the tree was so fine, but I learnt a lesson; the gale of last October tore the tree to pieces and pelted your roof with the boughs.’
‘Broke the roof through and through, your Grace.’
‘That is a lesson never to deny the ladies anything; I dare say your own experience teaches you the same.’
‘How do you do, Mr. Nesbitt?’ to a schoolmaster; ‘glad I secured your services for the new school at Wooley. I read your account of your misadventures—that you sent to Blackwood—with great amusement. Never laughed so much in my life. It was smartly written—very. You will do something with your pen some day.’
‘Oh, Lucy, dear,’ said Lady Grace, ‘do go to papa and persuade him to retire. He is so happy when he gets with the young people that he will stay on here longer than is judicious. He will suffer for it to-morrow, and I am sure that they will dance with more ease when the restraint of his presence is removed. Look! there are only three circling round the room now, to the strains of the whole marine band, and they are blushing and disposed to give it up. Where is Joanna? What has become of that odd girl? I see her nowhere.’
‘I do not know; I will ask my father, or Beavis.’
‘Do, Lucy, go to the Duke. He will listen to you when he will not obey me or Uncle Ronald—not even the Archdeacon. You have such a coaxing way, and yet you are so resolute, he will not refuse to go. Dear old man! it is always “Where is Lucy?” with him. Nothing goes right unless under your hands.’
Then Lady Grace caught the eye of Beavis, and beckoned him to her. ‘Where is your maid Joanna?’ she asked. ‘Do see how shy the young folk are. These couples are only dancing because I have set them spinning, and they do it out of duty, not because they enjoy themselves. Joanna has no shyness, I will get her a partner and set her off.’
‘She is not here, Lady Grace.’
‘Not here! But how is this? Could you not spare her? I am sorry; Lucy and I have been teaching her to dance, and she had so set her heart on this evening.’
‘She is a perplexing, queer girl.’
‘She is a girl worth studying, a girl from whom a great deal may be learnt; delightfully fresh and yet terribly worn out, if you can understand such a compound of opposites. Is not that the sum of Hegel’s philosophy, the conciliation of antagonisms? Well, that is Joanna. I am so sorry she is not here. I should have delighted to see how she profited by my teaching.’
‘She is gone, Lady Grace.’
‘Yes, gone without warning.’