Court Royal/Chapter XXXVII

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXXVII. A Sister of Mercy
CHAPTER XXXVII.
A SISTER OF MERCY.

The brothers of the Duke, his son and daughter, hurried to his apartment in alarm. The Worthivales, father and son, remained where they were, anxious to know the cause of alarm, but unwilling to intrude.

The Archdeacon turned faint; he also suffered from the heart, and the Marquess was obliged to lend him an arm. The General and Lady Grace were the first to enter the Duke’s morning sitting-room.

We must explain the cause of the Duke’s excitement.

He had been taking his breakfast when the valet informed him that a lady—a Sister of Mercy—had called and desired very particularly to see his Grace, if he would generously allow her an interview of five minutes.

‘A Sister of Mercy!’ exclaimed the Duke. ‘What—Thompson, in the hall. Kept her waiting?—Excellent people—most certainly I will see her. Some subscription wanted to an orphanage, or a refuge, or a laundry. Show her up at once—of course, of course.’

A lady entered in black, closely veiled.

‘Take a chair, my dear madam,’ said the Duke, rising. ‘Thompson, put a chair. That will do. Pray be seated, madam.’

‘Thank your Grace,’ said the Sister, waiting till the valet had left the room; ‘I had rather stand. I will not detain you five minutes.’

‘No detention at all, except as a pleased captive,’ said the Duke. ‘It does an old worthless fellow like me, shelved from all useful work, good to see one whose life is devoted to doing deeds of charity, to care and toil for others. The Sister of Mercy sums up in her little self the whole duty of man, as a proverb condenses the experience of ages.’

‘Your Grace must excuse me. I do no deeds of charity. I owe no duties to my fellows. I am not a Sister. I am a nobody. I am only Joanna.’ She threw back her veil. The Duke looked at her with mingled surprise and admiration; surprise, because he did not understand her words, admiration at her beauty.

‘You have not heard of me,’ said Joanna. ‘I do not suppose you have; but I know about you, and I know more concerning your affairs than do you yourself. I dressed in this disguise to come here, because I did not wish the servants to recognise and stop me. I determined to see your Grace. I am only a small mouse, and you a great lion, but you are fallen into a net, and I can bite the threads and free you.’

‘You must excuse me, Miss Joanna—but I really do not see your drift, and understand to what I owe the honour of this visit.’ The Duke put his hand to his head.

‘Your Grace is in the hands of Jews.’ Joanna opened a little handbag, and threw some deeds on the table. ‘Look there—the mortgages my master holds. I have taken them. I bring them to you. Tear them up and burn them, and Lazarus cannot touch you. I am with Lazarus. I would have allowed myself to be hacked to pieces rather than hurt him, but he dealt falsely by me. He sent me here to pry into and discover for him your affairs. Lord Saltcombe and Lady Grace have been kind to me. I will not help to bring them down. I will show them that I am grateful. I love—I dearly love Lady Grace.’

‘My good Miss Joanna,’ said the Duke, ‘I am perplexed beyond measure. I cannot understand——

‘Those deeds will explain all,’ said Joanna, interrupting him. ‘I have not many minutes to spare, I have come here from Plymouth, and must return whilst my master is absent. All lies in a nutshell. There are your mortgages. Destroy them.’

‘I cannot touch them,’ said the Duke. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you have abstracted them from the holder?’

‘Yes, I took them from his strong box.’

‘You have acted very wrongly. You have committed a crime. You are liable to be tried for this and imprisoned. This is robbery.’

‘I do not care. I want to do something for Lady Grace. I am the Jew’s heir, and if I steal the money I rob myself. There is no harm in that. Besides, he used me unfairly in sending me here, and I will pay him out for it.’

‘You must go back at once and replace these documents where you found them.’

‘You will not destroy them?’

‘Most certainly not.’

‘But I will tear them to shreds.’

‘That will not relieve me. I am morally bound by them. I should meet my liabilities just the same whether the deeds existed or were destroyed. I hold their counterparts, and will act on them. There—child—take them back, and never, never again act in so rash a manner. Your motives may be good, but your conduct has been most reprehensible.’

‘Your Grace does not know all. The truth is kept from you. Ask Lord Saltcombe, ask Lord Ronald, to tell you the truth. Or there—look at this Society paper. There is a paragraph in it about you. My master put it in, and was paid for the information. No—do not look at it till I am gone. I tell you that you are ruined, and the world knows it now. Your last hope was in the marriage of Lord Saltcombe, and that is taken from you. Will you have the mortgages?’

‘Certainly, certainly not,’ said the Duke, uneasy, offended, bewildered. He could not understand who Joanna was, why she addressed him, what her interest in him was, and his pride was hurt at her offer, at her daring to talk of his embarrassments to his face.

‘And really,’ he continued, after a pause, ‘I am at a loss to explain this visit; though I feel flattered that my family, or any members in it, should have inspired——

Joanna again interrupted him. ‘Your Grace, my time is precious. I must be off. I have made you the offer, and you have refused it. I can do no more. There is the paper. I have marked the paragraph with blue pencil.’

She thrust the deeds back in her bag, and, before the Duke had put his hand to the bell, left the room.

The Duke sat for some moments, rubbing his brow, trying to gather his thoughts. The visit was so short, Joanna’s manner so extraordinary, her offer so outrageous, that the old man was completely thrown out of his usual train by it. He shook his head and took up the Society paper. His eye was caught at once by the paragraph Joanna had pencilled. It was to the effect that the projected marriage between the Marquess of S———, heir to the most embarrassed Duke in the three kingdoms, and the daughter of a wealthy planter from the East Indies, was broken off owing to the ruinous condition of the Duke’s affairs, and to the fact that the father of the lady declined to allow his hard-won savings to be thrown away in washing the Duke’s hands. The editor added that it was satisfactory to know that some birds were sufficiently old not to be caught with Salt!

The state of excitement into which reading this threw the Duke alarmed Thompson, and he ran to summon aid. Mrs. Probus, on hearing that the Duke was ill, ordered one of the grooms to ride for the doctor, a hot bath to be got ready, a couple of bricks to be put into the kitchen fire for application to his Grace’s soles, and to direct that spirits and cordials should be taken at once to the Duke’s apartment.

When the General entered, followed by Lady Grace, he found Lucy already by the chair of the old man, vainly endeavouring to pacify him. The Duke tried to speak, but words failed him. He held the newspaper and waved it impatiently, and pointed to it with the other hand. Lucy had a glass of water, and entreated him to drink it, but he shook his head angrily.

Then the Archdeacon came in, leaning on Lord Saltcombe’s arm.

‘What is it? What is the matter? Is it a fit?’ he asked. ‘Bathe his temples with vinegar, give him sal volatile. The action of the heart must be stimulated.’

The Duke was irritated at the attempts to doctor him with cold water and compresses, with vinegar and cordials. After a moment of struggle he gasped forth, ‘Take this trash away. I am not ill. I am insulted. Get along with you, Thompson. Turn the servants out. I don’t want all the world here.—Please leave my chair, Lucy.—Grace, I had rather you were not in the room. What have you all come tumbling in on me for in this fashion? I am not dying. The room is not in flames. I pray you—leave me alone with my brothers.’

‘Please let me stay by you, papa,’ said Lady Grace.

He made an impatient gesture with his head, but she would take no denial. She stepped back behind his chair, and Lucy left the room.

When the Duke saw that he had only his son and brothers before him, he recovered himself, and, holding out the paper, exclaimed, ‘I have been insulted—grossly insulted. Look at this!’

The Archdeacon took the paper from his hand, and read it.

‘What is it, Edward?’ asked the General.

‘Hand him the paper, Edward, when you have done reading the precious production. What do you think it dares—actually dares to say? Upon my word, the temerity of the press is inconceivable. It has the audacity to declare that we are ruined; that I—I, the Duke of Kingsbridge, am living on the forbearance of my creditors. Bless my soul! where are the lightnings of heaven, that they do not flash on heads that dare think, and tongues and hands that dare speak and write, such outrages?’

The General turned white and looked down. The Archdeacon folded the paper with trembling hands, and laid it on the table.

‘I wish,’ said Lord Ronald, ‘that the old times were back, when I might call the editor out and put a pistol-shot through his head.’

‘That cannot be. It is impossible now. A gentleman cannot redress a wrong,’ said the Duke. ‘If he takes a horsewhip and touches a dog that has snarled at him, he has to endure the indignity of being summoned for assault. You have not read the paragraph, Ronald. You had better not. It will fire your blood, and you will be committing some indiscretion. It dares to insinuate that we sent the Marquess hunting that girl for her money wherewith to buy off our creditors and secure prolongation of days to ourselves.’

Lord Ronald was too confused to speak, his temples became spotted red. He took the paper and read it.

‘What has occasioned this?’ asked his Grace. ‘Is it possible that gossip is at work upon us—groundless gossip? Who has started it? How far has it gone? I know well enough that our fortunes are not as magnificent as they were in the reigns of the first Georges, and that the property is encumbered, but that is all. What is the meaning of this calumny starting to life?’

The Archdeacon looked at the Marquess, but as the General and Lord Saltcombe looked at him—the mainstay of the family—he answered, ‘Do not put yourself out, Duke. There is no accounting for the origin and progress of tittle-tattle. It springs out of nothing, and swells to portentous size on nothing.’

‘But, Edward, it kills like the fluke in the sheep. That also springs from an imperceptible nothing, but its effects are felt, not by the sheep only, but by the farmer, the landowner, and the parson. A germ of microscopic smallness disturbs the social system; no rents, no tithe, no trade.’

‘Of course there are mortgages and debts,’ said the Archdeacon.

‘Of course there are,’ exclaimed the Duke. ‘There always have been. What landed estate is unencumbered? But what of that? Every oak bears oak-apples as well as acorns.’

‘Put the paper in the fire,’ said Lord Ronald, ‘and its contents out of your mind.’

‘The one is done more easily than the other,’ answered the Duke. ‘Indeed, the one is possible, the other is not; a bullet may be extracted, but the wound remains to ache and fester. But are things in a bad state here—so bad, I mean?’ He turned to the Marquess. ‘Saltcombe,’ he said, ‘since I have been ill you have had the charge of everything. I hope you have done your duty, and can answer to the point when I ask, is there occasion for this impertinence?’ The Marquess hesitated. He was afraid of alarming his father; he could not dissemble. Whilst he hesitated Lady Grace stepped forward, knelt down at her father’s feet, and leaning her hands on his knees, whilst she looked up fearlessly into his eyes, said, ‘Papa, we are quite wrong in regarding you as too weak to bear bad news. You are a rock, and can stand the storm as well as the sunshine, is it not so? Well, dearest papa, it is quite true we are ruined. We do not know where to turn for money. The mortgagees are calling in their mortgages. There is nothing for it but to sell some of the property.’ She paused, then turned with a smile to her uncles. ‘There,’ she said, ‘see how brave the dear old man is! how erect the silver head is held! He is no coward; he is not afraid to hear the truth, however dreadful the truth may be.’

The Duke was flattered. He bent forward and kissed his daughter on her brow. Then he leaned back in his chair, and looked from one to another. ‘She exaggerates, no doubt.’

‘It is too true, father,’ said the Marquess, ‘we have got into almost inextricable confusion. Still—there is hope. Worthivale is going to write to the troublesome mortgagees, and arrange for a delay.’

‘Worthivale should never have allowed things to come to this pass. But I see exactly how it is. Worthivale is an alarmist, excellent fellow though he be. He is always crying out that there is no money for anything, and it has become a habit with him to hold up his hands and eyes in despair. He has persuaded himself that we are ruined, and you have been weak enough to listen to him and believe all he says. I know why he is crying out now. He is scared at the idea of my buying Revelstoke. You may tell him that I give it up; thereupon his sky will be set with a triple rainbow.’

‘I agree with you,’ said Lord Edward. ‘Mr. Worthivale has taken his son Beavis into confidence, and the new broom sweeps up a dust. In a little while the dust will settle, and all go on as before.’

‘Oh, Beavis!’ exclaimed the Duke, ‘this is Beavis’s cry of wolf, is it?’

‘Papa,’ said Lady Grace in urgent tones, ‘when the wolf did come the cry was disregarded.’

‘Do not you meddle in those matters, my pretty,’ said the Duke. ‘It was cruel of them to disturb your mind with these false alarms. You should live above all sordid money cares. Go back to your flowers.’ Then turning to the others: ‘Worthivale is a good man of business, he will manage all.’

‘But, papa,’ said Lady Grace, ‘how came you to get this wicked paper? Was it sent you by post?’

‘No, dear. I received a call this morning from a lady, a Sister of Mercy, and she left it.’

‘What! a Sister of Mercy read a Society paper!’

‘Yes—I suppose so—even a Sister of Mercy—that is—but, upon my word, I am so bewildered; I hardly know who she really was. I rather incline to think she was a maniac.’