Court Royal/Chapter XXXVI

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXXVI. The Council of Court Royal
CHAPTER XXXVI.
THE COUNCIL OF COURT ROYAL.

The first council of which we have given the acts was of a private nature. It had no pretentions to œcumenicity. It was a synod, not a council. It had been convoked in the interests of the Kingsbridge House, but had been attended by the Worthivale family only.

The aspect of affairs was now so desperate that a council was summoned to meet as soon as Lord Edward arrived from Sleepy Hollow.

The steward had called his son to his aid, and Beavis had gone carefully through the accounts—not an easy task, for his father was unsystematic.

‘What we want,’ said Mr. Worthivale, ‘is to gain time. Give us a little space in which to look about, and we will find another wealthy heiress for Lord Saltcombe. There are as good fish in the sea as they that come out of it.’ He clung to this forlorn hope.

Beavis spent several days over the accounts. He examined all the mortgages, the notes of hand; he investigated the expenditure in its several branches, and brought all into form. His time in a lawyer’s office stood him in good stead. He had acquired system, and a power of analysis lacking in his father.

Lord Edward arrived. To her great regret, Lady Elizabeth was unable to accompany him. Lent was approaching, and she had to arrange the services and appoint the preachers. Moreover, it was thought unadvisable for her to be away just then. A faint and hectic tinge of opinion had manifested itself in the pellucid brain of the excellent curate.

Whilst Beavis was at work his father continually interrupted him with explanations that were unnecessary, apologies for his own conduct that were uncalled for, and proposals that were inadmissible.

‘Lord Ronald spoke rather sharply to me the other day,’ he said. ‘He almost laid the blame on me for having got the family into such a condition.’

‘You have no occasion for self-reproach,’ said Beavis. ‘If it had been possible to effect anything, you would have done it. You have, indeed, done for them more than you should. Lucy’s money——'

‘Now, no more on that point,’ interrupted his father. ‘We shall have it again, certainly.’

‘The only thing that could have saved the family was a plain and bald statement of its difficulties and desperate condition, and that they would have refused to listen to. They buoy themselves up on hopes that are fallacious, and trust to a Providence to save them that expects every man to take the first steps towards saving himself.’

‘Heaven knows I have preached retrenchment, but my words have been unheeded. Now take the books under your arm and come with me. They will be assembled by this time.’

Father and son walked through the park to Court Royal. Neither spoke; their thoughts depressed them. They entered the General’s private sitting-room, and saw there Lord Edward, Lord Ronald, and the Marquess. At the door was Lady Grace. She put up her hand to stay Beavis. ‘Please let me in also. Saltcombe has told me a little, I want now to know all.’

He hesitated, but without waiting for a refusal she passed in.

‘Grace!’ exclaimed Lord Ronald, ‘this may not be. It is rude to show a lady the door, but I cannot help myself when business is in consideration.’

‘I know what the business is,’ she answered, ‘and I am interested in it as well as you.’ She ran to the Archdeacon, and nestled on a stool at his side, took his right arm and put it over her shoulder. ‘Uncle Edward, speak a word for me.’

‘Let her stay,’ said the Archdeacon. ‘A woman’s wit is sometimes worth more than a man’s wisdom.’

‘Thank you, uncle!’ She pressed his hand.

The General occupied a hard chair with a straight back. He had crossed his legs and folded his arms. His face was grave and set. The Archdeacon sat in a lounging chair and kept his arm round his niece, sometimes raising his wrinkled hand to stroke her smooth hair. Lord Saltcombe stood in the window looking out. The steward opened proceedings by describing the condition of the finances. Two mortgages had been already called up, and another he feared every day would be so. Those already noted were on Court Royal and Kingsbridge. Rumour had no doubt been busy with their name, for bills had poured in from all quarters, tradesmen’s bills pressing for immediate payment. Probably the bad times, the fall in the value of land, and threatened legislation menacing land, had alarmed the mortgagees. As he went on he became confused, repeated himself, appealed to figures and read them wrong, and involved the case to such an extent that when he sat down none who had heard him were wiser than when he stood up.

Beavis had his chair near his father. He was distressed at the old man’s inability to put clearly what he had to say, due to his inability to think clearly. He listened with patience, and when he had done he said, ‘I have gone most carefully through all the accounts, have drawn up a table of debts, and a list of the mortgages and bills. I know exactly what the expenditure has been in every department during the last three years, also what the assets have been. Everything is here, en précis, on the table, in so simple a form that a child can understand it. The situation is one from which extrication is only possible by having recourse to heroic methods. If the family difficulties had been considered in time, salvation might not have been so difficult as it is now.’

‘Come, come!’ said the Archdeacon, sharply, ‘don’t exaggerate.’

‘I am not exaggerating, my lord. May I pass these papers to you? You can convince yourself that I am speaking within the mark.’

‘What is the amount absolutely necessary?’ asked Lady Grace in a calm, low tone.

‘Oh, Lady Grace,’ said Beavis, hastily, ‘you ought not to be here. You unnerve me.’

‘Let my presence rather brace you to declare the whole truth. Deal plainly with us. The surgeon’s hand must not tremble when he touches the wound.’

‘I need not enumerate all the mortgages,’ continued Beavis. ‘The heaviest is that of four hundred thousand on the Loddiswell property, the annual interest on which is sixteen thousand. That is just six thousand above what we are now drawing from the estates thus charged. This is in the hands of an Insurance Company, and is not called in. Seventy thousand was raised for the building of Court Royal. We have a little mortgage on Charlecombe. Neither of these is notified.’

‘Of course not,’ interrupted the steward.

‘There is a smaller, much smaller mortgage on the manor of Kingsbridge of four thousand five hundred. As you may know, though his Grace is Lord of the Manor of Kingsbridge, he has very little property in the place itself. A higher mortgage could not be got on that. This is at four and three quarters. So is that for forty-six thousand pounds on Court Royal itself. These two are in the hands of a Mr. Emmanuel, and he has given notice that they must be paid within three months. There is another, on Alvington, which we fear will also have to be met. It is not in the same hands, but in those of another Jew.’

‘Well,’ said Lord Ronald, ‘fifty-five thousand pounds is not so prodigious a sum. I suppose these two mortgages can be transferred.’

‘I do not think it. Remember that Court Royal is nearly all park—park and pleasure-ground bring in no rents.’

‘Then some other mortgages must be imposed. If Court Royal and Kingsbridge be relieved, what matter?’

‘We cannot afford to do that; besides, investments of this sort are looked shyly at now.’

‘What is the total of the annual charges on the property?’ asked the Archdeacon.

‘Twenty-four to twenty-five thousand.’

‘And the income?’

‘At present under thirty-five thousand.’

‘Then—living on ten thousand.’

‘No—dying on it, my lord.’

A dead silence ensued. Lady Grace’s eyes were fixed on Beavis. Lord Saltcombe looked through the glass into the park, where the rooks were wheeling and dancing round their nests, which they were repairing with twigs, and stopping with tufts of pine shoots.

‘I have not deducted the annual cost of the property, the rates, taxes—nor the Duke’s thousand.’

‘It is the deuce of a mischief that the marriage has fallen through,’ said the General. ‘That would have set us on our feet again.’

Lord Saltcombe still said nothing.

‘If no one has a suggestion to make,’ said Beavis, ‘I will venture to make one. No one can doubt that I am heart and soul devoted to the cause of your illustrious house. I beg you to listen to me with patience if I am forced to say what is unpleasant. I know the pride, the legitimate pride, of the family. It is this pride which has allowed it to slip into such straits. With a little more readiness to look at facts, and accommodate itself to circumstances, the financial position of the family would have been convalescent, and we should not now be wondering whether life or death is heavier in the scale of fate. Love of splendour, reckless improvidence, have made the deficit grow in geometrical proportions. Firmness—excuse my saying it—courage to grapple with the evil, have been wanting, and the evil has grown to such a head that it is almost past grappling with.’

‘Really, Mr. Beavis Worthivale,’ said the General, testily, ‘you forget our grey hairs. You are a young man, and you are lecturing men old enough to be your grandfathers.’

‘I think, Mr. Beavis, you are too strong in your expressions,’ said the Archdeacon.

His father, shocked beyond power of speech, seized him by the arms, and held up his hand in warning to be cautious.

‘He is right,’ said Lady Grace. ‘Uncle Ronald, do not be angry. He speaks the truth because he is too true a friend to withhold it from us.’

Beavis slightly bowed to her, and went on, ‘Safety may yet be had, but at a price. The only possible way out of the labyrinth of debt is for the Duke and the Marquess to resolve on the sale of some of the estates. Unfortunately, a worse time for the sale of land could not have befallen us. I believe that good properties do not now fetch five-and-twenty years’ purchase, and some are put up to auction and find no buyers. Still, let us hope for the best. Fowelscombe is worth two thousand a year; at thirty years’ purchase that would be sixty thousand; add another ten thousand for the house and timber and exceptionally beautiful situation, that makes seventy thousand. With that you can pay off Mr. Emmanuel and one of the other smaller mortgages. I should advise, sell also the manorial rights in Kingsbridge. The town will buy those, and give a good price for them.’

‘Really! really!’ exclaimed the General, ‘I cannot endure this. Sell the manor from which the Duke takes his title! What next?’

‘Expenses will have to be cut down at least a half, the number of servants reduced, and the Marquess must make up his mind to continue living in the country, and keeping Kingsbridge House, Piccadilly, closed.’

‘Put a bill in the window, “To be let furnished,” and so make a few guineas,’ gasped the General.

Lady Grace got up from her stool and put her arm through that of Lord Ronald, and remained at his side, holding his hand. Her touch soothed him and allayed his irritation.

‘The Duke will never consent to this,’ said Lord Edward.

‘It will not do even to suggest it to him. So much of the family property has been thrown away by our ancestors, that he is particularly tenacious on this point. Nothing will induce him to part with an acre.’

‘He is talking of buying Revelstoke, not of selling,’ said Lord Ronald.

‘Remember,’ said Beavis, ‘if he will not voluntarily part with Fowelscombe, he will have Court Royal taken from under his feet and over his head. There is a power of sale in all mortgages.’

‘They will not dare to do it,’ exclaimed the General; ‘the whole country would rise up and cry shame.’

‘What do a parcel of Jew money-lenders care about the feelings of the country?’ said Beavis. ‘Besides, you mistake. The country would approve. It would cry shame on the house of Eveleigh for not making a voluntary effort to pay its debts.’

Lord Ronald’s fingers nipped the hand of Lady Grace convulsively, and so sharply as to cause her pain. His face quivered, and he prepared to say an angry word, when she laid her other hand on his lips.

‘Mr, Beavis is quite right,’ she said; ‘I feel that he is. We should do everything in our power to pay our debts, and not lie, curled up in our pride like hedgehogs, for the dogs to worry.’

The General turned to his brother. ‘Edward,’ he said, ‘we look to you for advice. These hot-headed, rash young folk would fire the stack to expel the mice. You are a man of experience, with a business head. What do you propose?’

‘There is nothing like moderation,’ said the Archdeacon. ‘I object to all extremes, doctrinal or practical. Let us be via media in all we do and propose. I agree with you, Mr. Beavis, that something must be done. I think with you, Ronald, that his proposal is too drastic. My suggestion is quite other. Let Mr. Worthivale write to the mortgagees or their agents—I mean those who are pressing, and those likely to be troublesome—and ask for delay. It would not be wise to sell land just now, Mr. Beavis said as much. The present depression cannot last. The wheat-producing area in America is rapidly being taken up, and the soil is becoming exhausted, at the same time that the population of America is increasing, and therefore the home consumption is greater. We want nothing but delay. Invite the two or three disagreeable mortgagees to a meeting at the lodge, and we shall see what will be the result. I shall make a point of being there.’

Beavis gathered the papers together. His cheeks were flushed.

‘Saltcombe has not spoken,’ exclaimed Lord Roland, ‘yet he is the one most concerned.’

‘I bow to the superior wisdom of my uncles,’ answered the Marquess, ‘though I agree with Beavis. I do not, however, see any chance of persuading the Duke to a sale.’

‘I think with you, Herbert, in this as in all things,’ said Lady Grace. ‘Let us have amputation before mortification sets in.’

At that moment a tap at the door, and the Duke’s valet entered hastily, looking frightened.

‘My lords,’ he said, ‘his Grace is not well! Something has happened!’