Court Royal/Chapter XXXV

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXXV. A Card Castle

Lord Ronald returned to his room and spent the rest of the day in turning. The days were short, and he made the most of the little light. His hand wanted its usual steadiness, or his mind wandered to other matters; for he spoiled several of the knobs he worked at that afternoon.

He was engaged on the twenty-sixth in the gathering dusk when he heard a step behind him, and looked round. ‘Mercy on me!’ he exclaimed, and cut into and spoiled the twenty-sixth knob. ‘What is the meaning of this?’

He saw the Marquess before him, worn, white, hollow-eyed. ‘Good Heavens, Saltcombe! How come you here? What has happened? What is the matter with you? Have you been ill?’

‘Do not overwhelm me with questions, uncle,’ answered Lord Saltcombe. ‘I can answer but one at a time.’

‘But this is amazing. Why have you not written? What do you mean by dropping on one from the sky without warning?’

‘There, uncle, leave the lathe. I want a word with you. I have matters of importance to communicate. Come out of your workshop into the other room.’

‘I am at your service. Merciful powers! what a pack of troubles and bewilderments come upon one all at once! First, Worthivale bursts in on me, then the Duke drops down on me, and now you spring on me like a ghost—my senses are stupefied or scared away. No bad news, I hope? Take that chair by the fire. How pale, how ill you look! Tell me the truth, Herbert, have you been sick?’

Lord Saltcombe shook his head.

‘Your father is put out at your not writing. I thought that sickness might account for the neglect.’

‘I have not been ill.’

‘Then why have you not written? I found the Duke this morning in a tantrum about it. He will call you sharply to task. What have you been doing with yourself?’

‘I am sorry if I have given my father pain. I would spare him every annoyance. What I have to communicate now is likely to disturb him. Miss Rigsby and I have not succeeded in liking each other more, the more we have seen of each other.’

‘What? How? You don’t mean to say——you!—you surely are not going to tell me——

‘That the engagement is at an end.’

Lord Ronald started. ‘At an end! Herbert, you are out of your senses, or I am dreaming.’

‘It is true. The engagement has been broken off. Mr. Rigsby must have picked up exaggerated reports of the state of our pecuniary affairs, and he began impertinently to catechise me about them. I could do no other than refuse to answer his questions.’

The General clasped his hands on his knees, wrung them, and groaned. ‘Saltcombe! do you know that we have been building on your marriage? Do you know that without it we are hopelessly lost? Your marriage was the one cord to which we clung. That gone, we sink. There is no salvation anywhere.’

‘I know it,’ answered the Marquess, gloomily. ‘I know more than that. We drag others who have trusted us into ruin along with us. But it cannot be helped. I have done my utmost. I am not to blame—not in this matter, at least. I did what was required of me. I constrained myself to be civil and play the lover to a girl I could not like, to one with whom I could not associate with any pleasure. I proposed to her. I never betrayed my feelings by a look, a gesture, or a word. I was prepared to make her my wife, and when she was my wife you may rely on me I would have failed in no duty towards her. But I could not endure to be treated with impertinence—not by such as Rigsby.’

‘Rigsby treat you with impertinence! It is inconceivable, you have misunderstood him. I will go post-haste to Plymouth and explain matters, and effect a reconciliation. You must marry the girl, you must.’

‘I cannot do so. Mr. Rigsby does not wish it. He has been frightened by gossip about our difficulties, and he thinks we will involve him and throw away his daughter’s fortune.’

‘But he ought to be proud, happy to contribute——

‘Perhaps he ought, but he is not. On the contrary, he declines the honour.’

‘Heaven help us, we are lost! Do you know, Saltcombe, that some of the mortgages are called up, and unless we find the money we shall be compelled to sell? It is too dreadful!’

‘I have done what I could. To bear to be taken to task by that Mr. Rigsby exceeded my endurance.’

‘Did you break with him, or he with you?’

‘He came to me, as I believe, with the express purpose of bringing about a rupture. He charged us with being ruined, and wanting to stave off ruin with his money.’

‘That is true.’

‘It may be true, but it is impertinence to say it.’

‘So you flared up and upset the salt?’

‘I declined to be cross-questioned.’

‘What is to be done about conveying this news to the Duke? It must be done gently, lest it excite him and affect his heart.’

‘If you think best, uncle, that I should take all the blame on myself, I will do so. Let my father suppose me capricious, he will be annoyed, but it will pass. He did not look cordially on this engagement. He did not care for the connection. If he thinks that the planter broke it off his pride will be hurt, he will feel it as an insult, and that will agitate him profoundly. No; best let me bear the blame.’

Lord Ronald put his hand to his head. He was too bewildered to think; he looked at the Marquess, then at the fire, almost stupidly. Both were silent for some time.

‘I came in quietly, without being observed,’ said Lord Saltcombe. ‘I wished to have a word with you before I saw anyone else. I had rather not meet Grace to-night.’

‘The Duke must be prepared for this. You have shaken me, I cannot collect my thoughts. We must telegraph for the Archdeacon. We shall want his advice. What a card castle we have been erecting, Saltcombe! and now with a puff it is down in ruins.’

‘I will go and sleep at the lodge. Beavis will give me a shakedown. I do not wish to meet Grace till I am more composed, and I do not want the news of my return to be carried to my father till you have prepared him.’

‘What am I to say? What can I say?’

‘Tell him that you have heard unpleasant tidings from Plymouth, and that you expect me to be back to-morrow.’

‘I will do so. Good Heavens, Saltcombe! will you believe it? the Duke, in sublime unconsciousness, is planning the outlay of ten thousand pounds on Fowelscombe and the purchase of Revelstoke. The only possible good I see in your return is that it will render the outlay on Fowelscombe unnecessary, and you must dissuade him from buying an acre at Revelstoke. There is no money—not one penny; and the mortgages on Court Royal and Kingsbridge are called up. What are we to do? Now go quietly and get Beavis to telegraph to the Archdeacon. My head is not clear enough in this whirl. He is a business man, and always knows what should be done.’

He paced the room. ‘There is the first bell,’ he said; ‘I must dress for dinner. I will do what I can to prepare the Duke. Merciful powers! how much is demanded of me! I would rather command in an engagement with Afghans.’

When Lord Saltcombe had gone he dressed hastily, but was late when he came down. The second bell had rung. The Duke disliked unpunctuality. The General had never failed in this particular before.

‘Why, Ronald,’ he said, ‘is the weather going to change? Are the heavens about to fall, that you come lagging after the time? Will you give your arm to Grace? I take in my little friend Lucy. What a small party we are! How is it the vicar and Mrs. Townley have not been invited, or Beavis, or the Sheepwashes, or some one? I dislike an empty table. Now Saltcombe is away the party is reduced so low that conversation flags. With the best intentions and the most brilliant wits we must suffer from exhaustion of topics. Grace, have you heard from that tiresome brother of yours who is too enamoured to write?’

The brilliantly lighted dining-room, the fire of oak on the hearth burning merrily, the glittering silver and glass on the table, the flowers that adorned it, yellow alamandas and maiden-hair fern laid on the white cloth; the buff and scarlet footmen—the general brightness, comfort, beauty, struck the General as it had never struck him before, conscious as he was of the desperate situation of affairs. He was out of spirits. He had not dressed with his usual care, his tie was twisted, one of his cuffs was minus a stud, and slipped over his hand. The Duke observed his troubled looks, but said nothing. He thought he had been too short with his brother in the forenoon, and regretted it. This, no doubt, was distressing Lord Ronald. Lady Grace was always quiet; she could talk pleasantly, but lacked the power of originating and keeping up a conversation. Lucy threw herself into the gap; she was skilful to maintain a conversation, and give it a fillip when it flagged. An invaluable person at table when spirits were low.

‘You good little maid,’ said the Duke, ‘you are to me an unfailing source of admiration. Always lively, with your dark eyes sparkling, and your fresh cheek blooming, and your tongue never lacking a happy speech.’

‘It could not be otherwise, your Grace, when you are always flattering,’ said Lucy.

When Lady Grace and Miss Worthivale retired the Duke passed the port to his brother. ‘You never touch claret, I think?’ Then, noticing that Lord Ronald’s hand shook as he filled his glass, he asked, ‘What ails you, Ronald, to-day? You look out of sorts.’

‘I have received unpleasant news from Plymouth.’

‘From Plymouth!’ repeated the Duke. ‘Not a letter from Saltcombe, surely?’

‘No, Saltcombe has not written to me, but I have heard something affecting him which I do not like.’

‘What do you mean? Is he ill?’

‘No, not that.’

‘What is it, then?’

‘I don’t fancy his love-making is proceeding smoothly.’

‘The course of true love never did run smooth,’ said the Duke. ‘Lovers always fall out, and make up their quarrels next day. That is a commonplace in Cupid’s maxims.’

‘I don’t mean that,’ said the General. He was uneasy: strict in his ideas of right and wrong, he was unskilled to act a part and speak half the truth. He turned hot, then cold.

‘What is it, then?’

‘I believe Dulcina Rigsby dresses very badly.’

‘I did not like her taste here, but that is a matter for ladies to consider, not men. For my part, I think the modern fashions detestable.’

‘I hear she makes herself ridiculous by her outrageous style.’

The Duke frowned.

‘Of course Saltcombe does not like his future wife to become the laughing-stock of Plymouth.’

The Duke pushed his glass from him. ‘Ronald,’ he said, ‘this is intolerable. A future Marchioness of Saltcombe the—the laughing-stock—do you know what you are saying?’

The General crossed his legs, then uncrossed them, leaned back in his chair, filled his glass again, took some candied angelica, and said, looking uncomfortable and nervous, ‘Saltcombe is sensitive. He cannot stand that sort of thing. I hear he will be home to-morrow,’

‘Saltcombe—here! Do you mean to hint that the engagement is off?’

‘I know nothing definitely. I can’t say absolutely off, past all patching up. You can understand that if Miss Dulcina Rigsby gives herself airs unbecoming a lady, Saltcombe will feel it. The old father, too, the coffee-planter, is a rough stick, and perhaps does not know how far liberties are allowed on the footing on which he stands.’

The Duke looked grave. He picked some grapes and ate them. Then he said, ‘Saltcombe knows what befits his position. She who is to be Duchess of Kingsbridge when I am gone must not be an object of ridicule. If she were a princess of blood royal, and failed in tact, she would be unworthy to wear our strawberries. Not for the world would I do what is wrong, not for ten thousand worlds would I excite a jeer.’ He paused. ‘You think Herbert will return. Very well. He will do what is right. I shall be glad to see him. You think the match is broken off. I am content. The house of Kingsbridge does not want Rigsbys to prop it up. Let us rejoin the ladies.’

In the meantime Lady Grace and Lucy were sitting side by side on the sofa in the drawing-room. Grace had her arm round Lucy’s waist, and Lucy held a screen to cut off the red firelight from her friend’s face.

‘How lively you are to-day, Lucy!’ said Lady Grace. ‘I do not know what it was at dinner that put my father and uncle out of spirits, and observing them I lost the desire to talk; but you flew to the rescue, and rattled on, and forced us all to laugh; and now I feel your heart; you are quivering with animation. What is it, Lucy? I have not found you in such buoyant humour for many a day.’

‘Shall I tell you a secret?’

‘If pleasant.’

‘It is excellent. I am sure it will rejoice you.

‘Then do tell me.’

‘What will you pay me for it?’

‘I will give you a kiss.’

‘I will pour out my whole heart’s contents for that.’

‘Then do not tantalise me. What is it?’

‘What do you wish best of all?’

Lady Grace slightly coloured.

‘You do not like Miss Rigsby, do you?’ asked Lucy.

‘Oh, Lucy! don’t ask such a question.’

‘I do not. I detest her, a nasty, spoiled, conceited piece of goods, without fresh feeling, without good taste, without healthy brains.’

‘You must not say that,’ said Lady Grace.

‘I must and I will. I could not do so before. I can now.’ Her eyes danced, the dimples came in her pretty rosy cheeks, and her lips quivered. ‘Only think! Lord Saltcombe is home. It is all off.’

‘Herbert home!’ exclaimed Lady Grace. ‘What is off?’

‘The engagement. Broken off, and a good thing too. I am heartily glad, and could dance for joy. So could you. You never liked her. You never thought her worthy of Lord Saltcombe.’

‘Oh, Lucy!’ Lady Grace stood up. She was nervous with excitement. ‘Oh, dear Lucy, is this so? How do you know it?’

‘It is quite true. Are you not glad?’

Lady Grace hesitated and looked into the fire. ‘I do not know what to say. I hope he has not behaved badly. I cannot think that he has. Yet the breaking off of the engagement can hardly come from her. She seemed very fond of him.’

‘You may be quite sure Lord Saltcombe would not do what is wrong. I know nothing about how it came about, I only know that it is so. You never liked her, did you?’

‘No. I did my utmost to become attached to her, but I could not. How did you hear of this?’

‘Through my father.’

‘Did Lord Saltcombe write to him? Herbert has not deigned to send me a line since he left.’

‘Lord Saltcombe is at our house.’

‘Oh, Lucy!’

‘He did not like to appear here till Lord Ronald had prepared the Duke’s mind.’

‘Oh, Lucy! I wonder how he bears it. Do you think he was fond of her?’

‘I cannot believe it.’

‘Lucy! Nor do I. What is the meaning of this? I am like a deaf person at a play, or as one who comes in at the second act and sees much movement, but is unable to lay hold of the threads of the plot. Uncle Edward, Aunt Elizabeth, Uncle Ronald, all seemed to me bent on this marriage. Beavis advised it. What made it so desirable? I asked Beavis at the ball, but he would tell me nothing. I am afraid this rupture will disappoint them. Uncle Ronald’s face and cuff at dinner showed me he was disturbed. Why is he disturbed? What is there so attractive in Dulcina Rigsby?’

Instead of answering these questions Lucy said, ‘My father says that Lord Saltcombe is looking wretchedly ill, so white, and hollow under the eyes.’

‘Lucy! I must see him. Amuse the Duke whilst I run to the lodge. I cannot bear that my brother should be there unhappy and unwell, and I not see him and know the reason of his distress and sickness. I shall not be gone long. Make some excuse for my absence.’

In a very few minutes Lady Grace was in the park. She was in pale blue silk evening dress; she had thrown a cloak over her shoulders, and a light knitted woollen shawl over her head. The deer started as she passed, but when they heard her voice they came after her, thrusting their noses against her hand. She walked quickly, and when she reached the steward’s lodge a little colour was in her delicate cheeks.

‘Emily,’ she said to the maid who opened the door, ‘is Lord Saltcombe here?’

‘Yes, my lady. He is in the study with Mr. Beavis.’

‘They will excuse my interrupting them,’ she said, passed down the passage, lightly tapped at the door, and in another moment was in her brother’s arms. Beavis withdrew, but not before Lady Grace, who never forgot what was due to every one, had put her hand into his and thanked him with her eyes. Her heart was too full to speak. The fine lips were quivering, and tears were trembling in her eyes like dew in the calyx of a flower.

She made her brother stand away from her at arm’s length and looked at him.

‘Oh, Herbert!’ she said, in a low plaintive voice, ‘you have suffered. Oh, my dear, dear brother, I must know all. You cannot conceive the pain it is to me to be shut out from all the mysteries that surround you. You have no one but me, I none but you, who can perfectly understand and feel for each other. Tell me everything. You have not been ill in body. You have been ill in mind. Lucy will not be candid with me, and she knows more than I. Beavis only bids me trust him. My uncle Roland is unapproachable. I must come to you. I cannot bear it. I cannot. Dear Herbert! as you love me, tell me everything.’

‘Sit down, Grace.’

‘No, I cannot; I must not stay. I can rest neither here nor anywhere, not on my bed, till the key is put in my hands. I lie awake thinking and puzzling till I fear I shall go mad. Anything is better than this uncertainty. Why are you unhappy? Why have you all made such a point of this marriage? Why is Uncle Roland so upset because it is broken off? What did Beavis see in her to urge you to make her your wife?’

‘I cannot tell you, Grace.’

‘You must, Herbert. I will no longer be left in doubt.’

‘Even the Duke does not know.’

‘So I perceive. He alone has been indifferent.’

‘You must be spared what would give you pain.’

‘I do not ask to be spared. If you have a cross laid on your shoulder which is weighing you down, shift one arm to my shoulder and give me your hand, we will carry it together. I am brave, Herbert. I can bear anything. Only one thing at a time, Herbert: first tell me—did you love Dulcina?’

‘I was determined to do so; I did my best, but I could not. Love will not be forced.’

‘I am glad to hear you say that. Your conduct is made doubly inexplicable now. Why did you propose to her?’

Lord Saltcombe hesitated. After a while, during which she waited with patience, he said, looking down, ‘Very well, Grace, know all. We are ruined. The marriage was arranged in the hopes of saving us from going to pieces. The Rigsbys are very rich.’

‘Is that all?’ asked Lady Grace, with a sigh of relief.

‘All!’ echoed Lord Saltcombe. ‘Ruin—our ruin proclaimed by every newspaper throughout England, the loss of our property, the sale of Court Royal.’

‘It will kill papa.’