Tancred/Chapter VIII


The Decision

THE duke returned rather late from Bellamont, and went immediately to his dressing-room. A few minutes before dinner the duchess knocked at his door and entered. She seemed disconcerted, and reminded him, though with great gentleness, that he had gone out to-day without first bidding her adieu; she really believed it was the only time he had done so since their marriage. The duke, who, when she entered, anticipated something about their son, was relieved by her remark, embraced her, and would have affected a gaiety which he did not really feel.

'I am glad to hear that Brace dines here to-day, Kate, for I particularly wanted to see him.'

The duchess did not reply, and seemed absent; the duke, to say something, tying his cravat, kept harping upon Brace.

'Never mind Brace, George,' said the duchess; 'tell me what is this about Tancred? Why is his coming into Parliament put off?'

The duke was perplexed; he wished to know how far at this moment his wife was informed upon the matter; the feminine frankness of the duchess put him out of suspense. 'I have been walking with Tancred,' she continued, 'and intimated, but with great caution, all our plans and hopes. I asked him what he thought of his cousin; he agrees with us she is by far the most charming girl he knows, and one of the most agreeable. I impressed upon him how good she was. I wished to precipitate nothing. I never dreamed of their marrying until late in the autumn. I wished him to become acquainted with his new life, which would not prevent him seeing a great deal of Katherine in London, and then to visit them in Ireland, as you visited us, George; and then, when I was settling everything in the most delightful manner, what he was to do when he was kept up very late at the House, which is the only part I don't like, and begging him to be very strict in making his servant always have coffee ready for him, very hot, and a cold fowl too, or something of the sort, he tells me, to my infinite astonishment, that the vacancy will not immediately occur, that he is not sorry for it, as he thinks it may be as well that he should go abroad. What can all this mean? Pray tell me; for Tancred has told me nothing, and, when I pressed him, waived the subject, and said we would all of us consult together.'

'And so we will, Kate,' said the duke, 'but hardly at this moment, for dinner must be almost served. To be brief,' he added, speaking in a light tone, 'there are reasons which perhaps may make it expedient that Hungerford should not resign at the present moment; and as Tancred has a fancy to travel a little, it may be as well that we should take it into consideration whether he might not profitably occupy the interval in this manner.'

'Profitably!' said the duchess. 'I never can understand how going to Paris and Rome, which young men always mean when they talk of travelling, can be profitable to him; it is the very thing which, all my life, I have been endeavouring to prevent. His body and his soul will be both imperilled; Paris will destroy his constitution, and Rome, perhaps, change his faith.'

'I have more confidence in his physical power and his religious principle than you, Kate,' said the duke, smiling. 'But make yourself easy on these heads; Tancred told me this morning that he had no wish to visit either Rome or Paris.'

'Well!' exclaimed the duchess, somewhat relieved, 'if he wants to make a little tour in Holland, I think I could bear it; it is a Protestant country, and there are no vermin. And then those dear Disbrowes, I am sure, would take care of him at The Hague.'

'We will talk of all this to-night, my love,' said the duke; and offering his arm to his wife, who was more composed, if not more cheerful, they descended to their guests.

Colonel Brace was there, to the duke's great satisfaction. The colonel had served as a cornet in a dragoon regiment in the last campaign of the Peninsular war, and had marched into Paris. Such an event makes an indelible impression on the memory of a handsome lad of seventeen, and the colonel had not yet finished recounting his strange and fortunate adventures.

He was tall, robust, a little portly, but, well buckled, still presented a grand military figure. He was what you call a fine man; florid, with still a good head of hair though touched with grey, splendid moustaches, large fat hands, and a courtly demeanour not unmixed with a slight swagger. The colonel was a Montacute man, and had inherited a large house in the town and a small estate in the neighbourhood. Having sold out, he had retired to his native place, where he had become a considerable personage. The duke had put him in the commission, and he was the active magistrate of the district; he had reorganised the Bellamont regiment of yeomanry cavalry, which had fallen into sad decay during the late duke's time, but which now, with Brace for its lieutenant-colonel, was second to none in the kingdom. Colonel Brace was one of the best shots in the county; certainly the boldest rider among the heavy weights; and bore the palm from all with the rod, in a county famous for its feats in lake and river.

The colonel was a man of great energy, of good temper, of ready resource, frank, a little coarse, but hearty and honest. He adored the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont. He was sincere; he was not a parasite; he really believed that they were the best people in the world, and I am not sure that he had not some foundation for his faith. On the whole, he might be esteemed the duke's right-hand man. His Grace generally consulted the colonel on county affairs; the command of the yeomanry alone gave him a considerable position; he was the chief also of the militia staff; could give his opinion whether a person was to be made a magistrate or not; and had even been called into council when there was a question of appointing a deputy-lieutenant. The colonel, who was a leading member of the corporation of Montacute, had taken care to be chosen mayor this year; he had been also chairman of the Committee of Management during the celebration of Tancred's majority; had had the entire ordering of the fireworks, and was generally supposed to have given the design, or at least the leading idea, for the transparency.

We should notice also Mr. Bernard, a clergyman, and recently the private tutor of Lord Montacute, a good scholar; in ecclesiastical opinions, what is called high and dry. He was about five-and-thirty; well-looking, bashful. The duke intended to prefer him to a living when one was vacant; in the meantime he remained in the family, and at present discharged the duties of chaplain and librarian at Montacute, and occasionally assisted the duke as private secretary. Of his life, one third had been passed at a rural home, and the rest might be nearly divided between school and college.

These gentlemen, the distinguished and numerous family of the Montacute Mountjoys, young Hunger-ford, whom the duke had good-naturedly brought over from Bellamont for the sake of the young ladies, the duke and duchess, and their son, formed the party, which presented rather a contrast, not only in its numbers, to the series of recent banquets. They dined in the Montacute chamber. The party, without intending it, was rather dull and silent. The duchess was brooding over the disappointment of the morning; the duke trembled for the disclosures of the morrow. The Misses Mountjoy sang better than they talked; their mother, who was more lively, was seated by the duke, and confined her powers of pleasing to him. The Honourable and Reverend Montacute himself was an epicure, and disliked conversation during dinner. Lord Montacute spoke to Mr. Hungerford across the table, but Mr. Hungerford was whispering despairing nothings in the ear of Arabella Mountjoy, and replied to his question without originating any in return, which of course terminates talk.

When the second course had arrived, the duke, who wanted a little more noise and distraction, fired off in despair a shot at Colonel Brace, who was on the left hand of the duchess, and set him on his yeomanry charger. From this moment affairs improved. The colonel made continual charges, and carried all before him. Nothing could be more noisy in a genteel way. His voice sounded like the bray of a trumpet amid the din of arms; it seemed that the moment he began, everybody and everything became animated and inspired by his example. All talked; the duke set them the fashion of taking wine with each other; Lord Montacute managed to entrap Arminta Mountjoy into a narrative in detail of her morning's ride and adventures; and, affecting scepticism as to some of the incidents, and wonder at some of the feats, produced a considerable addition to the general hubbub, which he instinctively felt that his father wished to encourage.

'I don't know whether it was the Great Western or the South Eastern,' continued Colonel Brace; 'but I know his leg is broken.'

'God bless me!' said the duke; 'and only think of my not hearing of it at Bellamont to-day!'

'I don't suppose they know anything about it,' replied the colonel. 'The way I know it is this: I was with Roby to-day, when the post came in, and he said to me, "Here is a letter from Lady Malpas; I hope nothing is the matter with Sir Russell or any of the children." And then it all came out. The train was blown up behind; Sir Russell was in a centre carriage, and was pitched right into a field. They took him into an inn, put him to bed, and sent for some of the top-sawyers from London, Sir Benjamin Brodie, and that sort of thing; and the moment Sir Russell came to himself, he said, "I must have Roby, send for Roby, Roby knows my constitution." And they sent for Roby. And I think he was right. The quantity of young officers I have seen sent rightabout in the Peninsula, because they were attended by a parcel of men who knew nothing of their constitution! Why, I might have lost my own leg once, if I had not been sharp. I got a scratch in a little affair at Almeidas, charging the enemy a little too briskly; but we really ought not to speak of these things before the ladies——'

'My dear colonel,' said Lord Montacute, 'on the contrary, there is nothing more interesting to them. Miss Mountjoy was saying only yesterday, that there was nothing she found so difficult to understand as the account of a battle, and how much she wished to comprehend it.'

'That is because, in general, they are not written by soldiers,' said the colonel; 'but Napier's battles are very clear. I could fight every one of them on this table. That's a great book, that history of Napier; it has faults, but they are rather omissions than mistakes. Now that affair of Almeidas of which I was just speaking, and which nearly cost me my leg, it is very odd, but he has omitted mentioning it altogether.'

'But you saved your leg, colonel,' said the duke.

'Yes, I had the honour of marching into Paris, and that is an event not very easy to be forgotten, let me tell your Grace. I saved my leg because I knew my constitution. For the very same reason by which I hope Sir Russell Malpas will save his leg. Because he will be attended by a person who knows his constitution. He never did a wiser thing than sending for Roby. For my part, if I were in garrison at Gibraltar to-morrow, and laid up, I would do the same; I would send for Roby. In all these things, depend upon it, knowing the constitution is half the battle.'

All this time, while Colonel Brace was indulging in his garrulous comments, the Duke of Bellamont was drawing his moral. He had a great opinion of Mr. Roby, who was the medical attendant of the castle, and an able man. Mr. Roby was perfectly acquainted with the constitution of his son; Mr. Roby must go to the Holy Sepulchre. Cost what it might, Mr. Roby must be sent to Jerusalem. The duke was calculating all this time the income that Mr. Roby made. He would not put it down at more than five hundred pounds per annum, and a third of that was certainly afforded by the castle. The duke determined to offer Roby a thousand and his expenses to attend Lord Montacute. He would not be more than a year absent, and his practice could hardly seriously suffer while away, backed as he would be, when he returned, by the castle. And if it did, the duke must guarantee Roby against loss; it was a necessity, absolute and of the first class, that Tancred should be attended by a medical man who knew his constitution. The duke agreed with Colonel Brace that it was half the battle.