Court Royal/Chapter XXVI

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXVI. Unstable as Water
CHAPTER XXVI.
UNSTABLE AS WATER.

Three days after the grand ball the Rigsbys left. Miss Rigsby had not appeared at the tenants’ ball; she was tired, and did not feel well. The rumour of the projected marriage had got about, and the tenants would have liked to have seen their future Duchess, but she was ungracious; she disliked vulgar people and would not appear, to the disappointment of the tenants and of the Duke, who thought that, in this matter, she did not act with the consideration proper to her position.

The Marquess and she had seen a good deal of each other, and everything seemed favourable to a marriage. Mr. Rigsby held long conferences with the Duke, and came away greatly impressed with his urbanity, and still more impressed with the conviction that he had made his own wisdom and importance clear to the Duke. Miss Rigsby had convinced herself that she was in love with the Marquess. Miss Stokes assured her of the passion that consumed the bosom of her lover. Lord Saltcombe did not in any way vary in his behaviour; always courteous and considerate, ready to be with her on every occasion, conversing on her reminiscences of Ceylon, and attracting her attention to what was interesting in the country that was shortly to be her home. She had no appreciation of what was good in art, and he amused himself and her in endeavouring to instil into her some of the first principles of taste.

The day after the departure of the Rigsbys Beavis went to his friend’s rooms. He found the Marquess in his arm-chair among a heap of papers that he had torn up and cast about him on the floor. He was so deep in his thoughts, which were of a painful nature, that he did not notice the entrance of Beavis. At his first word he started and sprang up bewildered, unable at once to recognise the speaker.

‘You are, I hear, going to Plymouth, Saltcombe?’

‘I—Plymouth!—oh yes, I forgot. To be sure, yes, Beavis, I am going there for a while. How hot it is in the room!’

The Marquess went to the window and threw it open, drew a long breath, passed his red silk handkerchief over his brow, and then returning to his chair, said, ‘Oh, Beavis! you have no conception of the strain on one’s powers to keep up the appearance of being a lover.’

‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed Beavis; ‘speak lower, or say nothing on the matter.’

‘I must speak. I have no one but yourself to whom I can give vent to my feelings. This is your doing; you have put me on the rack.’

‘I have advised for the best.’

‘I know you have,’ answered the Marquess with a bitter laugh. ‘I will go through with it now, my honour is engaged, so do not fear. Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes. You must excuse me if, at times, my courage gives way.’

Beavis had never before seen Lord Saltcombe so excited. He was usually composed and cool.

‘The Duke wants a word with you,’ said Beavis. ‘I have come to tell you that he wishes to speak to you in the rose boudoir.’

The Marquess nodded. ‘One moment, Beavis, before I go.’

‘I am at your service.’

‘Tell me, how is it that we are spending money right and left just now, and that there is not the ever-recurring worry of a deficit?’

Beavis hesitated.

‘I insist on knowing,’ said Lord Saltcombe.

‘The necessary sums have been lent.’

‘What! a fresh loan to crush us! At what rate of interest now? Who is the lender? Another Jew?’

‘No Jew,’ answered Beavis. ‘No interest is asked, as all will be repaid as soon as your marriage takes place.’

‘Who is the Good Samaritan that has flown to the rescue?’

‘There is nothing of the Good Samaritan in this. It is but a temporary accommodation.’

‘But who is this most accommodating party?’

‘My father.’

The Marquess stood still and looked at Beavis. He put his hand to his chin; it shook. ‘Good God!’ he exclaimed. ‘You—you dear good friends! You again helping us!’ He was greatly moved. He took Beavis’ hand and held it tightly in his whilst he looked out of the window. ‘Oh, Beavis! how kind, how noble you are! I insist on the whole truth. What is the sum advanced?’

‘Four thousand.’

‘Is that your father’s money?’

‘No.’

‘Whose is it then?’

Beavis did not reply. He looked down.

‘I insist on being told.’

‘Lucy’s.’

‘What!’ exclaimed the Marquess, colouring; ‘indebted to dear Lucy more deeply still. Oh, Beavis, never, never, can we repay the debt we owe your house. So Lucy finds the money to wreath the ox for the sacrifice.’ He was silent, he let go his friend’s hand and stood before the fire, looking down and kicking the hearth. ‘It shall all be repaid,’ he said at last; ‘I mean the money. The good intent, the self-sacrifice, that can only be treasured in our hearts, a priceless possession. Beavis, do not fear. The marriage will take place, and that speedily. I cannot bear to be indebted so deeply to you.’

‘Your father is awaiting you,’ said Beavis, anxious to cut short a scene painful to both.

The Marquess left the room, and sought his father.

The Duke led a very regular life, regulated to the smallest details. He suffered from sleeplessness, and therefore did not rise till late. He breakfasted at half-past ten, after which he was visited by his son and daughter, and occasionally by Lord Ronald. The General was up at half-past six, and took a constitutional till eight, when he came in and had a cup of coffee. He breakfasted with the rest at nine. The Duke read his letters whilst dressing, and arranged them in three piles; those he must himself reply to, those that might be answered by his daughter or son, and those on business, which he passed over to the steward. Mr. Worthivale called daily—or almost daily—at noon, and sat with him for an hour. The Duke partook of a light luncheon at half-past one, and when the weather permitted he took a drive; if the weather was unfavourable he walked in his conservatories.

He generally dined with the family, and sat with them for a couple of hours after dinner. Then he retired for the night. On Sundays he breakfasted half-an-hour earlier, in order that he might attend church.

Sometimes after dinner he took a hand at whist, or played chess with the Vicar, who was frequently invited to Court Royal. In former years he had spent the season in town, but his health no longer permitted his travelling by rail, and his children had accommodated themselves to a country life.

The Duke had pretended to pass over the care of the property to his son, and he no longer enquired into the balance; that the Marquess was expected to see to; but he amused himself with details, the complaints of the farmers, their demands for fresh buildings, their applications for drainage operations. These he took up, and it gave a zest to his drives to inspect the farms and see the proposed improvements. This was a little vexatious to the steward, who endeavoured to cut down expenses. The tenants knew that they were sure of a favourable answer from his Grace, and therefore applied direct to him.

The Duke had his private account at the bank; a modest sum of a thousand pounds was always paid in to this account, on which he drew independently of the house. The cost of keeping up Court Royal, the wages, the housekeeping, the gardens, belonged to a separate account, with which he did not concern himself. That was under the control of Lucy and her father; subject, of course, to Lady Grace, if she chose to supervise it, but this she never did.

The general accounts, the rent roll, the receipts, the outlay on the estates, the charges on the property, the interest on the mortgages and loans, these the Marquess was supposed to examine every half-year; but he did so in a careless, impatient manner, and refused to take an interest in the property. Time enough, he thought, when forced to do so, on his succession to the estates.

‘Sit down, Herbert,’ said the Duke, when Lord Saltcombe entered. ‘We must have a little quiet conversation together. You are going to Plymouth; it is well, you must be with your fiancée as much as you can to learn each other’s characters and habits. I confess to a little surprise. I had thought you would have been guided in your choice less by caprice. Still—you are the judge of what is best for yourself. In the matter of fortune everything is satisfactory, and perhaps that is not a point to be disregarded, as our fortunes are not exactly what they were. The property was heavily burdened when it came to me; still, I have lived very quietly of late, and a margin must be left to turn over and extinguish such debts as were formerly contracted.’

The Marquess looked down.

‘You have been shut out from the world for some years, Herbert. That has not met with my approval. Your place was in London, and you ought to have been in Parliament. Now that you are about to be married I expect you will take your proper position in the social and political constellations. I hope this union is one of genuine affection.’

‘I trust it meets with your approval.’

‘I have nothing against it. The young lady has been properly educated, the family is respectable. The Rigsbys of Lincolnshire are known; they have been settled in that most dismal of counties for several centuries. They have a Baronet in the family—a late creation. Well, in these days one must not be too nice.’ After a pause, the Duke went on: ‘You are quite right to go to Plymouth. I wish you there to take a good suite of rooms in the Royal Hotel, and live up to your station. Take some of your own servants with you; your valet, and your own riding and driving horses, and your groom. I should advise a dog-cart and a drag. I am not one to encourage extravagance, indeed I hate display, it is vulgar; but your position demands a certain amount of appearance. You are the representative of the house, now that I am a poor broken creature, and cannot show in public. An Eveleigh must always maintain his dignity. I beg you to remember this. Never let yourself down.’

Lord Saltcombe, not knowing what answer to make, bowed. His father accepted this movement as a sign of submission to his will.

‘One thing more. I believe you have not as yet made your fiancée a present. This, of course, you must do. I have looked through the family jewels, but see nothing that quite answers the purpose. I should like you to spare no expense; run up to town and choose out a suitable present, a diamond necklet or tiara. It is possible you may not have the sum sufficient at your command. I have therefore drawn you a blank cheque on my private account. Fill in the sum when you know what you want.’

‘I cannot—my father.’

‘You must, Herbert. It is my desire. I shall be annoyed if you give your betrothed a present unworthy of a future Duchess of Kingsbridge.’

Lord Saltcombe was too agitated to speak.

‘Herbert,’ continued the old Duke, ‘I give my full consent to this union, and I ask the Almighty on my knees to shower His richest blessing upon it. May you be happy as I was happy with your dear, never-to-be-forgotten mother. You deserve it. A blessing is attached to filial obedience, and you have always been a dutiful and loving son; you have never caused me an hour’s pain, never given me occasion to blush to think that a son of mine has stained the hereditary honour.’

Lord Saltcombe returned to his apartments in a condition of confusion and distress that made him thankful Beavis was not there to see him. He threw himself in his chair, covered his face with his hands, and a sob broke from his bosom and relieved the immediate tension.

He sat thus thinking, hiding his face from no one, for he was alone, for a quarter of an hour. Then, as though fired by a sudden resolution, he took a key from his pocket and opened his cabinet. He drew forth a drawer and took from it a bundle of faded letters. He set his lips closely, and his brows were contracted.

The fire was low. He took the tongs and raked it together, and put on a billet of wood. Then, to brisk it up, cast on it the scraps of paper from the floor. Now the fire flamed, and the dry wood caught and crackled.

Lord Saltcombe leaned back in his chair, and untied the bundle of letters. He drew the notes from their envelopes, and looked at one, then another. His face relaxed; an expression of pain of a different sort settled on it. He made an effort to recover his firmness and to carry out his resolution. He threw one, two, three envelopes on the flames, and sighed as they flared. He knelt down, and placed the letters on the hearth. Then he drew from the cabinet the little miniature already described, and looked at it long, with face that twitched with suffering. He put it towards his lips—as about to kiss it, then recovered himself, and placed it on the little pyre of old letters.

‘They must all go together now,’ he said, and put his hand to the billet of wood to bring it to the little pile. But the wood was hot and burnt his fingers. Then he took the tongs, and picked up a coal, and laid it on one of the papers. The coal died out, and Lord Saltcombe took the paper, and brushed away the charred fragments. He struck a vesta match, but his hand trembled and he was unable to fire with it the old letters.

Then he stood up, and leaning his elbow on the chimney-piece, rested his head against his hand, and looked down on the miniature on the hearth. How lovely that face was! The great dark eyes seemed to plead for pity. ‘Why should I?’ asked the Marquess. ‘It must be done before I am married. Then I must utterly destroy all memories of the past—but not yet! surely not yet!’ He stooped, picked up the miniature, tied the letters together again, and replaced them and the picture in their old drawer.

The resolution of Lord Saltcombe had led him to burn three envelopes.