Court Royal/Chapter XXXIII
On reaching home, Mr. Rigsby told his man to ask Miss Stokes to do him the civility of speaking with him in the study.
Miss Stokes came sailing in with great dignity, wondering what Mr. Rigsby could want to say to her at that time of the evening in private. Sisters-in-law cannot be kept for ever in the cold, she argued with herself.
‘Would you mind shutting the door behind you?’ asked Mr. Rigsby, as Miss Stokes had left it modestly ajar, and stood near it herself.
‘Please come nearer. I have something I want very particularly to say to you.’
‘I am at your service, James,’ said Miss Stokes, shutting the door and advancing one step.
‘My dear Eliza,’ began the planter, standing on the hearth with his back to the fire, ‘the matter I wish to speak to you upon is a delicate one; between you and me, a very delicate one.’
‘I have been a widower for some years.’
‘Oh, James, you have, you have!’
‘And I have had only my daughter to solace me in my loneliness. And now that daughter——’
‘Is about to be translated to a loftier sphere.’
‘In matters of the heart, Eliza—in matters of the heart—I mean—I am confused. I have had much to think of. I did not intend to speak now, but I thought it best to do so to-night instead of delaying longer.’ Miss Stokes looked down. ‘Won’t you take a chair, my dear Eliza?’ She gracefully sank into one near the table. ‘You have been so good and devoted to Dulcina, my dear Eliza, that I have considered I could not do better than take you—ahem!—take you——’
‘Oh, James! I never, never dreamed of the happiness.’
‘Take you into confidence before breaking the news to Dulcina. How she will bear it I tremble to think.’
‘Do not tremble, dear James. She is cordially attached to me, I may say she regards me—she has regarded me, though our respective ages hardly admit it, as a second mother.’
‘Then I can trust you to break the painful news to her, can I not?’
‘Not painful—do not say painful, James.’
‘Indeed, I hope and trust it will not be painful, but I greatly fear. Such deception, such heartlessness.’
‘What deception? What heartlessness, James? Not on my side; I have been all frankness—too much heart.’
‘I have been horribly deceived. It is all up with the engagement.’
‘Up! which engagement?’
‘Which? There has been only one. Dulcina must forget Lord Saltcombe.’
‘What—what?’ exclaimed Miss Stokes, pushing her chair back and looking blank. ‘I thought, James—but never mind what I thought.’
‘If you thought anything else you thought wrong,’ said he. ‘It is all up with the engagement. We have been grossly imposed upon. The Marquess was hunting Dulcina for her money; the family of the Duke are in desperate straits, and at any moment the creditors may be down on them, turn them out of Court Royal, and sell house and lands.’
Miss Stokes stared.
‘They were reckoning on paying their debts with my money—a pack of coroneted beggars! Lord Saltcombe does not care a snap of the fingers for Dulcina—he wanted only her money, and then when he had got that he would have deserted her. Bless my soul! Did I plant coffee, and slave for all these years away from my native land, sacrificing my life and disorganising my liver, to find money for a parcel of needy noblemen?’ Am I to send my dear Dulcina among wolves, who will tear from her the flesh and leave only the bones?’
‘This is not possible, James.’
‘It not only is possible, but it is so. I charged Lord Saltcombe with the beggarly trick to his face, and he was unable to answer me. He slunk from my presence like a whipped dog. Now, Eliza, how do you think my darling will bear the disappointment?’
‘My dear James, you need not fear. That sweet Dulcina possesses so sound a judgment and so cool a head that I am sure, when all the circumstances have been placed before her, she will bear the loss like a martyr.’
‘My poor dear! like a martyr. O my child! my child!’
‘Do not be uneasy, James. I exercise great influence over Dulcina. I will break to her the news you have so graciously favoured me with. Perhaps you will talk to her yourself about it to-morrow, after breakfast.’
‘I fear it will be a cruel disappointment.’
‘Disappointments meet us poor women wherever we tread,’ said Miss Stokes, with a sigh.
Next day at breakfast Mr. Rigsby was uncomfortable. He had not slept much, troubled with the thought of the distressing duty awaiting execution. At breakfast he crumbled his toast, upset his egg, and dawdled over his coffee. Dulcina looked limp and lachrymose.
When breakfast was over Miss Stokes went into the conservatory, so as to be out of hearing, yet near at hand. The time had arrived for the dreaded disclosure. How much had Miss Stokes already told Dulcina? The father wished he knew.
‘Come and sit by me on the sofa, darling child,’ he said. ‘You are not looking well, I am sure you have been suffering. And now I have to increase your trouble by speaking on a most unsatisfactory subject.’ He looked round at his daughter. Her face expressed no emotion. ‘I am not a father who would stand in the way if his child desired something very much; the happiness of you, Dulcina, is paramount to every consideration. I do not know to what extent your affections have been engaged, whether your heart would break should Lord Saltcombe not—not—excuse the expression—come to the scratch. I have favoured your acquaintance with him because I have believed him an admirable match. But, my dear, all is not gold that glitters. It is, as the Latin grammar tells us, human to err. I have learned circumstances which have altered my view of Lord Saltcombe’s character, and made me doubt whether the engagement is to your advantage. I am a plain business man, and I look to the business side of everything. I have made inquiries, and my inquiries have dissatisfied me. The connection with the Kingsbridge family, the title, the position, that seemed so splendid that I was dazzled. But there are spots in the sun, craters in the moon, blots on ducal escutcheons.’
Miss Rigsby became uneasy; she looked at her father, then at the breakfast-table, then on the floor.
‘I have learned, to my surprise, that the Kingsbridge family are bankrupt; they are living on the very verge of ruin. Only the hesitation of their creditors saves from a fall which will be a scandal throughout England.’
‘Papa! I cannot think it.’
‘I assure you, my darling, it is true. I have seen the list of mortgages. I know precisely the condition of their affairs. They are in the hands of the Jews. You saw the splendour in which they live. That is all paid for out of other people’s money. They put on a glittering mask to cover ruin. The Marquess is penniless. If you marry him he will look to you for his pocket-money, for cigars, and tailor’s bill—go to you whenever he wants a new pair of boots or a handkerchief. It is true you will receive his title, but in return you will maintain him like a poor relation.’
Mr. Rigsby kept his eyes fixed on his daughter whilst he spoke. He was afraid of her fainting, and he was ready to call Miss Stokes to his aid. But Dulcina listened to him with composure; she bit her lip and frowned, and ripped the binding off a cushion on the sofa, but said nothing.
‘A handsome sum which I was prepared to pay over on your marriage would have gone at once to the Jews, to stop their greedy jaws and stave off the fall of the house. The Duke, the Marquess, Lord Ronald, and Lord Edward are calculating on my death, when they may use up the whole of my—that is, your fortune in washing clean the family estates. What those estates are likely to be worth in a few years, with bad seasons, and American corn and frozen meat coming in on all sides, I cannot say. I suppose about two per cent. You have now five or six on your capital. If your money goes into the land you are likely to lose half your income.’
He was silent. Presently Miss Rigsby said, ‘Did they tell you this?’
‘Bless my soul, no! The fine thing is that they are all so cavalier in their aristocratic ideas, that they regard the marriage of Saltcombe with you as a great condescension on their part. They will pocket your money and tolerate you.
‘Then they wanted to swindle us?’ said Dulcina.
‘I wouldn’t call it exactly a swindle. I believe they are far too grand to go into accounts. I dare say they do not know their desperate situation, but have a vague idea that they must have money to make them comfortable, and as you have money they will take you for the sake of your gold.’
Dulcina’s lips became pasty. She drew them together, and her hard eyes glittered like steel beads in the sun.
‘Lord Saltcombe has never shown me much love. He has been civil, that is all. But Aunt Eliza said that in high society great people loved stiffly. It was against etiquette to be ardent.’
‘Lord Saltcombe has not loved you. I asked him point blank if he did, only last night, and he could not say he did.’
‘Lord Saltcombe has not loved me!’ exclaimed Dulcina, with a vicious flash in her face. ‘Do you mean to tell me he has not cared for me—that he has not admired me—that he has not courted me—that he has been peering into my pocket instead of my face all this while, thinking of my money, not of myself?’
‘It is so.’
‘Then I will have nothing to do with him.’ Instead of Dulcina fainting the tears sprang to her eyes, tears of offended vanity, not of pain. ‘I’ll have it out with Aunt Eliza, I will; she vowed he was frantic with love, and hardly knew how to control his passion. Oh, what a liar she is!’