Court Royal/Chapter XXXII

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXXII. A Drop of Comfort
CHAPTER XXXII.
A DROP OP COMFORT.

Mr. Rigsby started from his seat, threw on his overcoat, pulled on his boots, took his hat and stick, and sallied forth. He had a vague hope of coming to some decision if he walked. He could come to none seated in his snuggery. At one moment he flared up with anger and resentment, then he grew cold with apprehension. How would his dear Dulcina bear to be parted from the Marquess with whom she was so much in love? It would break her heart, which was as frail as her constitution. It would bring on an attack of jaundice. Strong emotion, a great shock, congested the liver; the breaking off of her engagement would certainly congest her liver. Would it be wise to prepare her for the news with calomel? He would consult a doctor. Podophyllin! since he had come to England he had been told that podophyllin touched the liver, and was milder than calomel! He did not believe in podophyllin. He knew better; as an old Indian he ought to know what the liver is, and what touches it. No podophyllin for him; no, thank you. He had heard of a spectre who, when fired at, opened his hand and showed the bullets that had been innocuously discharged at him. His liver would, so to speak, open its hand and scoffingly roll back the podophyllin pills shot at it. But before calomel its powers would quail, it would shake in its shoes and beat a retreat. Still podophyllin might answer for Dulcina, whose liver was not as enlarged as his own. He would consult a doctor.

So he swung his stick and marched into Plymouth. ‘Good Heavens!’ he muttered. ‘The rascal about to take my daughter for her money and then cast her aside, treat her with indifference and insult! I won’t have it.’

When he came to the bridge leading to Plymouth, and halted to change a sovereign to pay the halfpenny toll, he was confronted by a gentleman in a light grey suit, with a white hat.

‘Bless my soul!’ exclaimed the gentleman, ‘Rigsby! you here? Let me lend you a halfpenny for old lang syne.’

Rigsby stared. ‘What, Captain Ottley! Never! Very glad to see you.’

‘A little louder, I am deaf of an ear, this confounded relaxing climate. The bands always find a difficulty with their drums, the parchment becomes limp in the Devonshire damp; it is ditto with the drums of my ears. You must thump to be heard.’

‘Come on the Hoe,’ said Mr. Rigsby, ‘It is a pleasure to meet an old Indian. So well preserved, too! You look as young as ever.’

‘Spirits does it,’ answered Captain Ottley. ‘I mean natural spirits. I have a cheerful disposition, which even the vapour-bath atmosphere of Devon don’t damp. Take my arm, old boy. Lord bless me! time flies! It seems only the other day we met, and it must be five years ago. Brown and tanned you are with Oriental suns. Never mind, look at me. Autumn roses come blooming in my cheeks. This Devonshire climate is like a bath in Jordan. You go in sunburnt with all the blazes of India, and your flesh comes out as the flesh of a little child.’

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Mr. Rigsby.

‘Doing! doing nothing. Nobody ever does anything but talk in this enervating Devonshire climate. It relaxes everything, the moral stamina and the tongue. I eat lotus. I have come like Ulysses to the land of the lotus-eaters, where, according to the Laureate, it always seems afternoon. I lounge about on the seats of the Hoe, looking out at the Breakwater; it always seems after dinner here.’

‘Do you know many people?’ asked the planter.

‘Heaps—women mostly. They swarm here. Here in Plymouth there are very few others to know. You see their husbands and brothers are away at sea, or in the army abroad, and the place simply swarms with women.’

‘Are you married?’

‘Oh, dear me, no! I wouldn’t be so well preserved if I were. I can’t afford it. Besides, the climate is against it. You want more ozone in the air to stimulate the resolution to proposing point.’

‘I should like to know your opinion upon podophyllin.’

‘I beg your pardon.’

‘Podophyllin,’ shouted Rigsby; he had lowered his voice to a confidential tone, forgetful of his friend’s infirmity.

Captain Ottley stood still, put the silver head of his cane to his mouth, which he pursed, contracted his brows, and then shook his head. ‘I don’t think much of it,’ he said. ‘I’ve tried it; but I don’t give my faith to it. Half-measures don’t suit us old Indians. Give me calomel.’

‘Calomel—ah!’ The sun came out on both their faces, they laughed like children. ‘Calomel, old boy!’

‘Blue pill, old fellow, shake hands.’ In their mutual enthusiasm they clasped fists.

‘But it may do for women?’ suggested Rigsby.

Virginibus puerisque, yes,’ answered Captain Ottley. ‘Let us sit down here. One’s limbs fail one in this damned Devonshire air.’

‘Have you been long here?’

‘Four or five years soaking in this steam, and expanding. It suits us Indians. We come here dry and shrivelled, and swell, taking in moisture at every pore.’

‘Then you know about the country people, the nobility and so on?’

‘Of course I do. I know everything about everybody.’

‘Do you know the Kingsbridge family?’

‘I can’t say I do. I know of them; no one meets them. I have a grievance. There was a superb ball at Court Royal the other day, and a special train full of officers went down. I was not invited. A plague upon them, say I. Why was not I invited? I am on half pay, was that the reason? I hear it was a splendid affair.’

‘I was there,’ said Mr. Rigsby. ‘So was my daughter, Dulcina. Did you not see our names in the paper?’

‘I may have done so, but did not notice them. Mine was not there, and that stirred my bile. Talking of bile, what do you drink, Rigsby?’

‘I have been so long out of England that I cannot satiate myself on bottled ale.’

‘You must not do it. Beer is bilious; fatal in this confounded climate, where the liver simply goes to sleep. You have to goad it to do its work. It is like Pickwick’s fat boy. I don’t approve of claret. Sherry is poison. Whisky and water is what I recommend.’

‘We must talk of something else,’ said the planter.

‘Well, I suppose you are right, but somehow the liver is common ground on which all old Indians meet for a cosy gossip; old asperities are rubbed off, old grudges forgotten. It is a sort of bond, binding us into brotherhood. Tear us away to other scenes and pastures new, sweep us along in the eddy of politics, or any other eddy you like to mention, we always come back to liver, touch ground there, and are thankful. We may differ in politics, religion, in pursuits, we are one in liver.’

‘I should like a word with you in the strictest confidence.’

‘Certainly, no one is here to overhear us. Remember; let whisky and water be your drink—cold, and no sugar.’

Mr. Rigsby looked about him; no one was within earshot. ‘We must not sit longer here,’ he said, ‘it is chilly; let us stroll up and down, and I will speak to you about my affairs, with the understanding that it goes no further.’

‘Good Heavens!’ gasped Captain Ottley. ‘Not money! Don’t say you want to borrow money. My liver will not stand it. Anything but that!’

‘I am abundantly well off,’ said the planter. ‘I am, I may say, in affluent circumstances. It is precisely my wealth which has drawn me into an affair from which I do not see my way out. By some fatality I have been brought into rather intimate relations with the Duke of Kingsbridge and his family.’

‘Does he want to borrow money? I have heard that his head is under water.’

‘I knew his brother, Lord Edward Eveleigh, at college. I happened to be in Somersetshire, at Glastonbury, and I called on him. He and Lady Elizabeth were very kind, they invited me and my daughter to their house, and there we met Lord Saltcombe, the eldest—no, the only son of the Duke. He seemed to take a fancy to my child, and she, poor thing, completely lost her heart to him. Of course I gave my consent. I was proud to think that my Dulcina would be a marchioness, and eventually a duchess. One loves title; it is born in one, I suppose; it is a weakness, but it is a weakness common to the whole human race.’

‘I congratulate you with all my heart. What can a father desire for his daughter better than the eight strawberry leaves?’

‘But—I consented in all simplicity, believing that a ducal coronet was a rock on which sure prosperity could be built, and now I find——’ He sighed, took off his hat, brushed his brow, and said, ‘My dear Ottley, for God’s sake tell me the truth about the family. Give me your advice. I am so perplexed, I do not know what to do.’

‘What am I to tell you? I have not my Peerage with me. I have it at home, and will lend it you, or we will put our heads together over it. The Marquess is here, in Plymouth, at the “Royal.”’

‘I know that. I want to know nothing that the Peerage can tell me. I have learned that by heart. I want to know about their circumstances.’

‘Oh, they are dipped, but so is every respectable old family. Have you ever been at Saint Jean de Luz? There the bathers spend hours in the water, only their heads emerging, and take their meals and their naps bathing. I have seen the whole bay full of heads, and heads only. It is so with all the landed gentry—with most families of distinction—they are all under water, only their heads out, but they do not drown.’

‘The Kingsbridge family are utterly ruined.’

‘I do not believe that. It takes gigantic efforts to ruin a duke. The great nobility stick in the social jaw in spite of ache and decay; they are fast by four or five fangs. As for you or me, we are only one-fang people, out, and our places taken by porcelain imitations, and no one cares. But your four and five-fanged people are different.’

‘You do not think the Duke ruined?’

‘I know nothing about him, more than that he lives quietly, never goes to town, and does good on all sides.’

‘You think that he is not in overwhelming difficulties?’

‘I should not suppose so, but I cannot tell.’

‘There is one thing more. What do you know about the Marquess of Saltcombe, who is engaged to my daughter?’

‘Not much either; of late nothing at all.’

‘Of late? Did you hear much of him formerly?’

‘I heard something.’

‘What was it? I want to know.’

‘Young men will be young men,’ said Captain Ottley. ‘It is not till their livers have grown that they become sedate and reliable. You may depend upon it, my dear old fellow, the liver is the fly-wheel of the system.’

‘My daughter is engaged to the Marquess. I have heard a story about him which has made me very uneasy.’

‘Fiddlesticks! I tell you what it is, Rigsby: this cursed depressing Devonshire climate has begun to act on your liver and make it torpid. Why, bless my soul! any man out of Devonshire would be shrieking with delight at the prospect of marrying his daughter to a marquess, and here you are looking as blue over it as a calomel pill.’

‘My daughter’s happiness is dearer to me than life. Unless I am assured that she will be treated with kindness and respect, be made much of and valued, I shall not consent to the union. What I have heard affects the Marquess’s moral character.’

‘I heard something about him when first I came to Plymouth. He had been wild and extravagant, and had run away with a Jewess.’

‘The wife of another.’

‘Yes, I remember that. But all that is past, and he has been sober since; not a scandal about him for many years. Besides, consider the temptations which beset a young man here, and that young man the heir to a dukedom. Unless he had a very old head on young shoulders he would be certain to get into a scrape. You must not make too much of this old scandal. It is with the dead. I dare say there are incidents in your past which you are thankful are buried.’

‘I do not know any,’ said Mr. Rigsby. ‘I have always been steady. You see I have made a fortune. That is the seal of approval Heaven has set on my conduct. Always respectable, always. That is why I have no sympathy with a man who has sown his wild oats. I never sowed anything but coffee.’

‘How have you come to hear this now?’

Mr. Rigsby told his friend of the visit of Lazarus.

‘Lazarus,’ exclaimed Captain Ottley, and pulled a long face. ‘Confound the man, he has his fingers in every pie and pocket. He has even dipped into mine.’

‘What is to be done?’ asked Mr. Rigsby.

‘Nothing,’ answered Captain Ottley. ‘Let matters take their course. Things are never as black as they are painted. The Jew exaggerated the financial condition of the family. He does not want to have the mortgage paid because the investment is too profitable for him to care to lose it. Do not excite yourself about the Marquess, either. I have always heard that he is a man of honour, and if he did transgress once, it was for the only and the last time.’

The Captain succeeded in calming Rigsby’s agitation. The planter began to hope that matters had been presented to him in a worse aspect than they really were. He was resolved to question Lord Saltcombe on them, on both, and to hear the truth from him. The Marquess was expected to dinner that evening. Scarce a day passed without his visiting the house, and driving or walking with his betrothed. This day he did not call, nor did he appear at dinner. Mr. Rigsby became uneasy. He rose early from his wine, lit a cigar, and walked into Plymouth to inquire after the Marquess.

He was told that Lord Saltcombe was at home, but not well, and desired that he might not be disturbed. Mr. Rigsby was dissatisfied with the answer. He sent up his name, and asked if he might see the Marquess for a moment. Then only was he shown to his room. He found him seated in his arm-chair, without a light.

‘Shall I bring candles, my lord?’ asked the servant.

‘Thank you.—Sit down, Mr. Rigsby. I am out of sorts.’

When the candles came in, Rigsby saw that his face was deadly pale, his eyes sunken and bright.

‘You desired to see me particularly?’ he asked.

‘Yes; but you seem hardly well enough for what I wish to discuss.’

‘I also wanted to see you. I must speak openly with you,’ said the Marquess.

‘My dear Saltcombe,’ said Mr. Rigsby, ‘I am a blunt man, and I ask questions in a blunt way. You must excuse me.’

The Marquess bowed.

‘You must understand that what I live for is the happiness of my daughter. I have toiled for her. My fortune is hers, and I am desirous that it should be secured to her, to be inalienably hers. Again, I would not have her marry anyone, however high his position in the social scale, unless I were sure that he would love her.’

‘Do not distress yourself,’ said the Marquess, quietly. ‘I will spare you the pain of asking questions. You are quite right in desiring to secure the happiness of your daughter. I obeyed the wishes of my family, and proposed to Miss Rigsby, satisfied in my mind that, having taken on me sacred responsibilities, I should honourably fulfil them. Of this you may be certain: if Miss Rigsby become my wife, never will I show her the slightest want of courtesy and deference.’

‘She must have more than that. Do you love her?’

‘Mr. Rigsby,’ said the Marquess, ‘I do not press my pretensions to your daughter’s hand. I tell you that I am resolved to do my duty; there is no other living woman who has any share in my affections, always excepting my sister.’

The planter was uneasy. He did not know how to approach the delicate questions he wanted to put. He fumbled with his hat and grew dark red in the face.

‘I beg your pardon, Saltcombe,’ he said, ‘if I touch on subjects that are tender. I am very much shocked—very, so is Dulcina, by the dreadful incident at the theatre. I thought at the time you seemed overcome. I was not then aware of the—of the——

Lord Saltcombe could hardly become paler than he was before, but the shadows in his face became deeper. He rose from his chair, and said with the greatest composure, ‘Mr. Rigsby, I will not require you to continue. If you doubt me, we had better part. I am returning to Court Royal. Pray excuse the abruptness of my departure to Miss Rigsby and Miss Stokes. I offer them the humblest apologies.’

Mr. Rigsby could hardly believe his ears. He was still sitting. He got up without his hat, then stooped, picked it up, let it fall, and picked it up again. Instead of taking his future son-in-law to task, he was being shown the door with cool politeness. The Marquess was proud and dignified; he shook Dulcina off as if she were not worth having. Mr. Rigsby had not intended to quarrel with the Marquess, he had desired the allaying of his own anxieties. A word of regret for past follies, an assurance that the fortunes of the family were not completely wrecked, would have sufficed. He believed that Dulcina was so much in love with Lord Saltcombe that a disappointment would half kill her. He was ready to meet the Marquess halfway, to accept an assurance of repentance, and to pay off one or two of the mortgages at once, and secure the rest of his property to his daughter.

But Lord Saltcombe would make no advance. He took umbrage at the implied suspicions. Father and daughter must accept him on his own terms, or not at all.

‘Am I to understand,’ said he ‘that you refuse to give me any explanations as to your conduct with regard to that actress, and to relieve my mind with reference to the embarrassments of the Duke?’

Lord Saltcombe bowed.

‘Then I suppose your engagement to my daughter is at an end?’

‘I allow no liberties to be taken with me,’ said Lord Saltcombe. ‘I have rung for a cab.’

When Mr. Rigsby was out of the hotel, driving home to Stoke, ‘Lord bless me!’ he exclaimed, ‘how testy these aristocrats are! Impracticable people. Time the country were rid of them. I wish I were back in Ceylon!’