Court Royal/Chapter XXXIV

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At Court Royal everything had settled down to the ordinary routine after the Rigsbys had gone. The Duke was glad that the stir was over, he liked to be quiet. Lord Edward had returned to his living in Somersetshire, to relieve the exemplary curate in the labour of blowing bubbles, and insisting on the via media as the way of salvation. Lord Ronald resumed his early walks and his simple amusements. He had a turning lathe at which he took exercise on rainy days, and turned out hideous wooden candlesticks and boxes covered with spirals. Of late he had taken to turning flower-pot stands for all his friends, stands that started and split and had to be thrown away after having been in use a week. His grandest achievement was hat-stands, frightful objects that stood six feet high, and bristled with sticks ending in knobs. These hat-stands were to be seen and were sold at all bazaars in the neighbourhood, and were bought by people out of consideration for the General—it would hurt his feelings, it was thought, if his hat-stands remained undisposed of. Every door leading to the open air in Court Royal, every bedroom, was provided with one of these erections. In the rooms they were serviceable, he argued, for ladies to hang their gowns on, for gentlemen to suspend their coats.

Lady Grace had one, of course, in her room, and used it with great conscientiousness. ‘It is not pretty,’ she said to Lucy, ‘but it is well-intentioned. It must be good—dear Uncle Roland made it. Things get rather dusty on it though.’

‘Do you not think, dear, that if chintz were hung round it like a tent, the ugliness might be disguised, and the dust kept off?’

Acting on Lucy’s suggestion the hat-stand was enclosed in a structure designed and executed for it by the General himself, who turned the head and turned the foot, and tacked the chintz on it himself. Then Lady Grace took his grey head between her hands and kissed both his cheeks.

‘That,’ said Lord Ronald, ‘is over-payment.’

Lord Ronald was vigorously engaged at his lathe turning two such hat and cloak stands out of rosewood, as a present for his nephew on his marriage. Each required twelve knobs for the bristles and four knobs for the feet, and a big knob for the top, seventeen knobs in all; two stands, therefore, demanded thirty-four knobs. Lord Ronald had turned nineteen, which were ranged on the floor in strict order like cannon balls; he was engaged on knob number twenty when he heard a tap at the door, and, before he could answer, in came Mr. Worthivale, hot and frightened looking.

‘What is the matter, Worthivale? Is Court Royal a-fire?’

‘Oh, my Lord, what is to be done? We are in a worse predicament than ever.’

‘It would be difficult to reach that.’

‘Really,’ exclaimed the excited steward, ‘I am driven wild. Has any news come from the Marquess? When will the marriage take place?’

‘I do not think the day is fixed.’

‘Has he written?’

‘He wrote once after reaching Plymouth. I have not seen the Duke this morning, so I cannot say whether his Grace has received a letter to-day. It is all right, don’t alarm yourself. The wedding must not be pressed on too hastily. My niece has had a note or two from Miss Rigsby, but they contained no news.’

‘I wish the wedding were to take place at once. I do not see how we are to hold on much longer without it.’

‘What is the matter now?’

‘The creditors and mortgagees are unreasonable. The Court Royal and Kingsbridge mortgages held by Mr. Emmanuel are called in. He will file a bill against us. We cannot possibly meet the call. It is as much as we can do to meet current expenses. Where are we to raise a penny? Bless my heart,’ said the steward, throwing himself into a chair, ‘here we were so happy and content, with the prospect before us of getting everything squared at our leisure, the Marquess marrying, and the more pressing calls stilled, when down on our heads comes this thunderbolt. File a bill against us in Chancery! Merciful heavens! What is the world coming to, with Radicalism, and democracy, and socialism, and American competition, cutting the throats of our farmers, and Fenian plots, and Nihilist desperadoes—and actually a request from Farmer Thomas to build him a silo that will contain sixty tons of ensilage. Why, my lord, it can’t be done under three to four hundred pounds, even if we use galvanised iron for the roof. Where are the four hundred pounds to come from at the present moment, I should like to know? I have said we will think of it after the Marquess is married.’

‘Who has threatened a bill in Chancery?’

‘Crudge—Crudge, solicitor. He acts, apparently, for all those holding our mortgages. It is a plot, a wicked plot as desperate as any devised by Fenians.’

‘Do not alarm yourself, Worthivale. The people have heard that Saltcombe is going to be married, and they are putting in their claims so as to be sure of their money.’

‘But we must pay. The time is limited—three months—six months. Before a certain day the money must be forthcoming.’

‘Well, Saltcombe will be married before that, and then he can easily get help from old Rigsby. There is no occasion for alarm. For Heaven’s sake don’t rush in on the Duke in the way you tumbled in upon me. Don’t frighten him. He has no idea of the state of affairs. He is under the impression that a great deal of money has been saved by the quiet life we have been leading here for the last seven or eight years.’

‘No money whatever has been saved. Before that the family was in a galloping consumption, now it is suffering from slow paralysis. When the Duke went to town every year the outlay was enormous, and debts accumulated annually at a rate that makes my head spin. Now we live up to our income—that is, to an income unburdened on every shoulder and joint of the spine. There is nothing saved. You cannot save on a deficit.’

‘Well, whatever you do, take care not to trouble his Grace. He cannot bear it.’

‘But, my lord, what am I to do?’

‘Nothing; wait, and keep your counsel. Let the marriage take place, and all will be right. I’ll manage matters with Mr. Rigsby.’

‘But,’ said the steward—‘you will excuse the question—does Mr. Rigsby know the state of affairs?’

‘I believe a word was said about some money being forthcoming at the marriage. I can’t say that he was told everything. I did not have much talk with him. He saw a good deal of the Duke, but then the Duke knows nothing about this unfortunate matter. Leave the affair to arrange itself. If you like I will write to Saltcombe to press on the marriage.’

The confidence of the General partly reassured Mr. Worthivale.

‘You think, then, that we need not be anxious?’

‘Not in the least. I will manage matters with Rigsby. The old fellow will be flattered and proud to let us have the money. What are the mortgages called in?

‘All—all without exception. What can have taken the people I cannot conceive; what can they all want their money for simultaneously? It looks like a plot. If only two or three had given notice I should not have minded, but all—and all together! I cannot get over it. And Crudge acting for the lot—that is strange, is it not?’

‘Well, never mind,’ answered the General; ‘we know the worst. It is best to swallow a pill whole, not to take it in bits.’

‘But what is the sum to be paid over with Miss Rigsby? Will it suffice?’

‘No matter if it does not. It will stop a gap. I tell you the old fellow will be pleased to be asked to let us have the money we want. Those sort of people are flattered by having favours asked of them. Besides, it will be for his own daughter. He cannot refuse. I will make all right with him.’

‘If I may offer a suggestion, my lord, I would propose that you should see Mr. Rigsby at once. It is true we have been remiss about the payment of interest on the mortgages, and that may have frightened the holders. If we could pay off one or two at once it might allay the alarm of the rest, and they could be brought to withdraw their demands.’

‘There is three months’ grace,’ said Lord Ronald—‘plenty of time. Put the matter in the hands of our solicitor, let him write to this Crudge.’

‘No solicitor in the world can save us. We must have money.’

‘It really is too bad!’ exclaimed Lord Ronald, losing his temper. ‘It is your fault, Worthivale. You should not have allowed things to come to this pass. You have had the management of the estates; they are extensive. You should have drawn the purse-strings tighter.’

‘My lord,’ said the steward, hurt, ‘I beg you to remember that I have preached retrenchment to deaf ears.’

‘We have retrenched. We no longer go to town.’

‘That was not enough.’

‘Good Heaven! What would you have had us do, then?’

‘Could not his Grace have gone abroad and shut up the Court?’

‘Gone abroad!—to Boulogne, and herded with all the clipped and pinched wretches who hover there, like the spirits on the banks of Lethe, unable to come over because short of an obolus. No, thank you. There are limits below which we cannot descend.’

‘What is to be done? Nothing can be done now. It is too late. Some years ago—perhaps. Now all is hopeless.’

‘This is rank nonsense. Mr. Rigsby is rolling in money.’

‘But can we be sure of getting him to apply it to our necessity?’

‘Of course we can. I know we can.’

‘What is he worth? We want a very large sum.’

‘I do not know his income. Be at ease. He has plenty.’

Mr. Worthivale put his hands to his head. ‘If it were not wicked and cowardly,’ he said, ‘I would blow out my brains.’

‘If there is immediate pressure,’ said the General, ‘I will write to Edward—to Lord Edward; he is canon and archdeacon, and proctor in Convocation, and enjoys a fat rectory. I have no doubt he will help.’

‘He has helped us already.’

‘When? How?’

‘Over and over again, but he wished me not to mention it to any of the family.’

‘Bless my soul!’ exclaimed Lord Ronald, ‘I had no idea of that. Can I sell my interest in anything—my annuity?’

‘If you sell your annuity, my lord, it must be paid, and now it is not.’

‘I can sell my half-pay of General.’

‘A drop into a bottomless gulf.’

‘Then we must wait in patience for the marriage-bells. Now—not another word. I am going to the Duke.’

The steward sighed and withdrew.

‘Stay a moment,’ called the General as he was passing through the door. ‘I hope, I trust, not a word of this has reached the ears of Lady Grace. I do suppose that you have not spoken of these painful matters to Lucy.’

‘She does know something,’ said Mr. Worthivale.

‘Who? Lucy or Grace?’

‘Lucy has been told that no unnecessary expense must be incurred. Remember she manages the housekeeping, and has the accounts in her charge. But, as she says, it is impossible to keep down the enormous outlay. The servants think it their duty to blaze abroad the splendour of the house by lavish waste. The requirements of the establishment are very great.’

‘I do hope Lucy will not by hint even let Grace suppose that there is trouble in the air.’

‘Rely on her.’

‘Then no one need know of this confounded worry except myself and Saltcombe. There, there, be of good cheer, the cloud is passing.’

Lord Ronald went to the Duke’s apartments. He found his brother disturbed, his face was wanting in its wonted serenity.

‘Ronald,’ said the Duke, ‘no letter again this morning from that provoking boy. I cannot understand it. In my day no son would have dreamed of leaving his father without notice of his proceedings. Can it be that love has turned his head? If so, the sooner he is married and brought to a sober mind and sense of his obligations, the better.’

‘You see, brother,’ said the General, ‘ladies are exacting. No doubt Miss Dulcina is not happy without Herbert about her, and love-making is one of the labours of Hercules. When he comes home he is fagged, and fain to throw himself in a chair and go to sleep. Take my word for it—that is it. Miss Rigsby has only written twice to Grace, once a line of thanks for her reception here, the other a mere half-page of nothing, that took her one minute by the clock to write.’

‘Nothing can excuse neglect of duty to a parent,’ said the Duke. ‘When I was young I was taught to discharge duty first, and take pleasure after. The spirit of this age is other; duties are blown away as feathered seeds, and only pleasure is regarded. I thought better of Herbert.’

‘My dear Duke, you must excuse him. Love-making demoralises a man. It is like an election, it upsets everything. No doubt, now that Saltcombe has emerged from his chrysalis, he is flying about.’

‘It would not take him ten minutes to write me a line. I am not exacting. I do not require four sides crossed, but I expect the recognition of what is due from a son to a father. I am put out.’

Lord Ronald had nothing to say to this.

‘Hitherto,’ continued the Duke, ‘I have had no reason to complain of Herbert; he has been a respectful, obedient son. He was extravagant some years ago, and I have no doubt spent more money than was judicious, but it runs in the family. I was extravagant at one time; my father—as you may remember, Ronald—never stopped to consider what a thing cost if it took his fancy; and my grandfather went to extremes in munificence. I should have been pained to see a mean, calculating spirit in Herbert. A gentleman must be open-handed.’

‘He has lived too quietly for some years. I am glad to see our comet run into sunlight again.’

‘Yes. Because I am too poorly to take my proper place in society, that is no reason why Saltcombe should live as a hermit. I shall insist, when he is married, on his being in town for the season.’

‘His wife will take care of that.’

‘I trust she will. I have been considering that he must have a residence of his own.’

‘Will he not live here?’

‘Certainly not. I should like it, but it would hardly do. The Marquess and Marchioness must have their own country house, with no divided authority in it. I would not have Grace the guest of my daughter-in-law, nor my daughter-in-law the guest of Grace in Court Royal. No, Ronald, I have been thinking of Fowelscombe. The house is out of repair, but it is a fine place. The grounds are delightful, that glorious drive down through an avenue of beeches for over a mile, and then the charming old house below, nestling among trees—what can be more suitable for the young couple? The house has been uninhabited for so long, and the grounds so neglected, that it will want a great deal doing to it. Still, some ten thousand pounds spent judiciously would make it comfortable.’

‘I am sure that Saltcombe would not wish it.’

‘Ronald,’ said the Duke, with some indignation, ‘unless the poisonous spirit of the age has infected Saltcombe more deeply than I anticipate, he will approve of whatever I ordain. I have written to an architect to examine and report on the condition of Fowelscombe, and I have requested a distinguished landscape gardener to look over the grounds and suggest improvements.’

‘But—my dear Duke.’

‘There is no but in the case—that is, no but is admissible. I wish it. That suffices.’

Lord Ronald looked down at his boots.

‘There is another thing,’ continued the Duke, ‘I wished to consult you about. I hear that the Revelstoke estates of the Stretchleighs are to be sold. Our great-grandmother was a Stretchleigh, and it is unendurable to me to think that some brewer, or builder, or successful army tailor should come down and buy the property, and inhabit the house once the home of gentlemen. I am thinking of buying it.’

‘Merciful powers!’ exclaimed Lord Ronald.

‘Why do you exclaim in this way? Is there anything exaggerated in this sentiment of respect for the home of our ancestors on the female side? Surely, Ronald, you are not touched with the utilitarian spirit of the age?’

‘But—where is the money to come from?’

‘Money can always be found for what is needful.’

‘But this is hardly a necessity, brother.’

‘Not a necessity, exactly, but almost a duty. All the country is invaded by rich tradesmen, and engineers who have been knighted for building bridges, and manufacturers out of the North. Our old country gentry are becoming extinct, I do my best to keep our neighbourhood select. There is no knowing what mischief a new man might do coming into our proximity. He would flood the country with nineteenth-century ideas, and subvert our tenants.’

‘Have you spoken to Worthivale about this?’

‘Not yet. I saw no need. He would combat it, of course. He is a good man, but narrow; pettifogging in his ideas, no breadth of view, always after reduction of outlay; never disposed to deal liberally with the tenants.’

‘You have taken no step in the matter, I trust.’

‘I cannot say that I have taken no step, but I have not yet bought the property. I have opened negotiations.’

‘Do nothing, I entreat you—do nothing till after the marriage.’

‘It may then be too late. The property may have passed into most objectionable hands.’

‘Consult Saltcombe. Consult Edward. For Heaven’s sake move no further without consideration.’

‘I have considered. You are very strange this morning, Ronald. I do not understand your manner or your mood.’

‘I am out of sorts. I am bewildered. Spend ten thousand on Fowelscombe and buy Revelstoke. Lord bless me!’ He recovered his composure. ‘Excuse me, Duke, you take me by surprise. Do nothing till I have had another talk with you about it.’

‘My dear Ronald, what does it concern you whether I buy Revelstoke or not? I am buying to suit my own notions, and, though I value your opinions, I am not bound to submit to them. Now I really must attack my letters. I will detain you no longer. My conscience reproaches me for having taken up so much of your precious time; pray return to your turning of knobs.’