‘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