The Song of the Butcher Bird | 13 Chiddington Park
William Saltwood drove the Panhard furtively round the house into the stable yard and left it with the chauffeurs, using the servants’ entrance at the back of the house in a last-ditch effort to postpone the inevitable interview with his father.
He had timed his arrival just after lunch hoping that this was a moment when it was least likely he would be noticed. But he had been in the house less than a minute before a footman spotted him at the head of the stairs leading to the kitchens, and informed him that Lord Saltwood had given instructions that he wished to see his younger son immediately William arrived.
This was not an encouraging sign, and William’s stomach tightened involuntarily. He reminded himself of the possible outcomes that he had listed mentally the previous day in Grosvenor Square, braced himself, and strolled into the great hall to discover from Lightowler, the stately Park butler, were he might find his father. Ominously, Lord Saltwood had given orders that William was to be directed to his Lordship’s business quarters.
William stood outside the oak door to his father’s offices for a few seconds, straightened his silk tie, smoothed a hand over his hair, took a deep breath and knocked. There was a pause, and then the door was opened by Charlton, who smiled sympathetically and stood to one side to allow William to walk into his father’s lair. Lord Saltwood was seated at his desk near the window, writing, and his secretary moved quietly past the big desk without a word, opened the book-door, and disappeared into the inner office, shutting the door softly behind him. The phlegmatic resolve William had been nurturing up to this point began to congeal in the pit of his stomach into an altogether more unpleasant sense of foreboding.
Lord Saltwood continued to annotate the document in front of him, but even though William knew this was deliberately belittling on his father’s part, he also knew better than to speak. Then at exactly the moment when William’s frustration and anger had reached the point where he felt he would have to speak or explode, his father stopped writing, replaced the cap on his fountain pen, closed the file, pushed it to one side of his desk and placed the pen precisely on top of it. He pulled a much bulkier file across the desk until it was in front of him and stood up. Lord Saltwood was at least two inches shorter than his son, but to a young man who could remember his father towering over him for the first dozen years of his life, he would always cast a giant and unnerving shadow.
”I gather you stayed at Grosvenor Square last night?” Lord Saltwood spoke matter of factly, but the look in his eye was chilling. William agreed that he had indeed stayed at Grosvenor Square.
“You should have been up at Oxford, of course. But the university has informed me that your presence there is no longer welcome. You have been sent down. Dismissed. Permanently.”
“Yes, sir,” said William. “I am afraid I have.”
“You are therefore no longer an undergraduate.”
“No sir, I am not.” The last of William’s resolve had evaporated in the cold anger of his father’s words. This very definitely did not have the feeling of a storm that would blow over easily or quickly.
“And instead of coming here as soon as you discovered we had left London, and telling me this in person, you made a damned nuisance of yourself in Grosvenor Square and put the household to a great deal of unnecessary trouble.” Lord Saltwood regarded his son as though he was one of the under-gardeners caught kissing a tweeny, and William looked down at the file on his father’s desk. With devastating impersonality, the typewritten label on the front of the file said merely W.M.G. Saltwood.
“So now I would like to know what you are planning to do next,” said Lord Saltwood. “I would like to know how you intend to support yourself. I would like to know where you are going to live.”
William’s mouth opened, but he was still grappling with the implications of what his father had just said, and he closed it again without a word. Lord Saltwood continued to stare at him in the ensuing silence, then he looked down at the desk, flicked open the buff file, picked up the top sheet of paper inside it and dropped it onto his son’s side of the desk.
“This was delivered to me yesterday morning.”
William tilted his head and recognised Police Inspector Walby’s report on his arrest two days previously.
Lord Saltwood picked up the next sheet of headed paper from the pile, and dropped it onto the police report. ‘I understand that this incident followed a dinner you attended in the town with Brockenden and some of his friends.’ He did not explain how he had come to know that, or how he had received a copy of the police report so quickly, and William did not ask. He simply nodded.
Lord Saltwood gestured at the second sheet of paper. ‘I understand that the landlord of the Rose & Crown inn where you shared this dinner holds you responsible for the bill for the dinner and rooms for two persons.’ William reluctantly agreed that this was his understanding, too. ‘I would like to know how you intend to pay that account,’ said Lord Saltwood. ‘It comes to twenty pounds, six shillings and eight pence. I would also like to know how you intend to pay twenty-eight pounds for the replacement of a plate glass shop window.’
Lord Saltwood dropped a third sheet on top of the first two, and then more in rapid succession. ‘I would like to know how you intend to pay this tailor’s bill for one hundred and forty-two pounds, and this wine merchant’s account for eighty-six pounds. And this for repairs to a motorcar you drove through a wall near Didcot last term.’
A vivid image of the Panhard in the Park stableyard released another sudden flash of adrenaline into William’s system. He had promised Brockenden that he would buy the car from him when his allowance was paid in January. ‘And then there is a dinner for twelve people at the Lion at Hoppley, still unpaid. How do you intend to pay these debts? And how will you pay the balance of your unpaid account at the college?’
William thought that he was certainly going to have to trespass again on his mother’s love and generosity, but as if he had read his son’s mind, Lord Saltwood picked up half a dozen more sheets from the file and dropped them onto the desk. ‘How will you pay these debts now that I have stopped your allowance and forbidden your mother to advance you any more money?’ Lord Saltwood was looking down at the bills on his desk as he said this.
William raised both his hands, palms forward, in a placatory gesture. ‘Sir, I can explain…’
Lord Saltwood cut him short simply by lifting his head and fixing him with a look of glacial contempt that could reduce an entire boardroom to shuffling silence.
‘No, you cannot,’ he said. ‘This is a copy of a bill from The Unicorn in Littledean for nearly fifty pounds in damages incurred during the course of a private dinner you hosted in May Week. A copy of the unpaid bill for the dinner is also attached. In May, you had already overdrawn your account by nearly eighty per cent, and had been made aware of that fact by my secretary.’
‘Sir!’ protested William, ‘I…’ His voice petered out into the wasteland of Lord Saltwood’s stony gaze.
‘These bills and accounts have been submitted to me because you have failed to deal with them. I do not believe you have the faintest idea how much money you now owe to your creditors. I will tell you. According to the bills I have here, your debts amount to very nearly twice as much as your total annual allowance, and your next half-yearly remittance does not fall due for payment for another four months.’ Lord Saltwood had been looking down at the file while he spoke. He looked up at William again. ‘You make a mockery of me,’ he said icily. ‘You make a mockery of your name and your position. You have done it yet again despite my warnings and you appear to do it without any regard for the distress it causes your mother or the embarrassment it causes me.’
‘But sir!’ William took another half step forwards, but recoiled again at his father’s furious response.
‘Be silent!’ Lord Saltwood himself took a step forwards and glared across the desk at his son. ‘You have nothing to say. I have dealt with matters like these repeatedly for the past three years or more. I have paid your bills and protected you from the law. I have cleaned up the mess you have left behind like a nursemaid chasing after a spoiled and thoughtless brat. You have repaid me with more bills, more failures and more embarrassment. You have twice been rusticated and now you have been sent down from the university, you will not complete your degree, you are twenty-two years of age and you have no means whatsoever of paying your debts now or supporting yourself in the future.’
Lord Saltwood resumed his normal, brisk, businesslike tone, but the anger behind his next words was like another blow. ‘You are a disgrace to this family. You have been given every advantage and every opportunity, and you have persistently abused them. You defy me deliberately and I will not tolerate it any longer’
Lord Saltwood looked away from his son for a few moments, but his face was still tight and his eyes when they returned to William’s were iron hard. ‘I do not expect you to act responsibly at all times or to live like a monk. But I will not have you flaunting your spendthrift stupidity in my face.’ A slow tide of colour rose to William’s own face above his starched white collar, but in his eyes there was also a glimmer of anger, and Lord Saltwood noticed it. He leaned further forward menacingly over the desk. ‘Was my warning to you last time not clear enough? Did you not believe me?’
William’s face was now flushed, and he spoke with a heat that made Lord Saltwood’s eyes narrow into an expression that under other circumstances would have warned his son to shut his mouth again. ‘I know my finances are in arrears, sir, but you say yourself I have a position to keep up in society. Chaps like Tom Bingleigh and Polly Brockenden have two or three thousand a year of their own and I have less than one!’
Lord Saltwood’s voice dropped another ten degrees. ‘Brockenden? Brockenden is a disgusting sodomite and I have warned you to avoid him on many occasions before this.’ He lifted the pile of bills, then dropped them again on the desk. ‘If Brockenden had two or three thousand I would send these to him to settle. I suspect that a great deal of this expenditure is incurred at his instigation. Brockenden cannot pay his own way because he is already mortgaged to the last penny and at his present rate will be bankrupt within twelve months.’ He glanced down again at the bills on his desk. ‘Brockenden may throw away thirty-two guineas he does not have on a new suit, or thirty-eight guineas on three dozen bottles of vintage champagne for his drunken toadies to guzzle at a May Week dinner, but I’m damned if I will pay for you to do the same. Your allowance comes from the money I make, whether you like that or not, and I will not have you throwing it away on the worthless company you keep. Neither will I pay Maxwells thirty-two guineas for a new pair of top-boots. You will not be needing new top-boots since I will not be keeping your hunters this winter.’ Lord Saltwood turned to the window again, and looked out at the sweep of beautifully kept lawns and the park beyond, dotted with mature trees, dappled with the almost invisible forms of fallow deer grazing slowly westwards in the afternoon sunshine.
He half turned back to the desk, and towards the young man who now stood looking at him with a mixture of defiance and apprehension. “You will inherit none of this,” said Lord Saltwood flatly, gesturing at the view through the window. ‘Nevertheless, until now it has always been my intention to continue to provide you with a suitable income that would allow you to live like a gentleman, even if you cannot behave like one.’
He turned to face his son. ‘As of today I am suspending your allowance in its entirety. You can find your own way to satisfy your creditors, because I will not and neither will your mother. I doubt very much indeed if any of the cretinous wastrels you call your friends will have the means or the inclination to help you, but that is for you to find out for yourself. And you will find your own establishment. I will not have publicans and bailiffs calling for their money on my doorstep, here or in London.’
William Saltwood had endured his father’s disapproval many times in his life before. He had been beaten at school and laughed it off, arrested in both Oxford and London and dined out on those stories. But when he closed the oak door behind him after this interview, his hand was shaking.
Before dismissing him, Lord Saltwood had told his younger son that he would speak to him again on this matter on the following Monday. So there was more to come, and William had enough presence of mind to realise that his father therefore had something else up his sleeve. He had no idea what it might be, but it suggested that he was not to be simply kicked out onto the Chiddington road to fend for himself.
His father had also told him that he would be expected to help entertain the guests now staying at the Park, to meet them at tea with Lady Saltwood, and to attend dinner, dressed appropriately.
Standing safely on the outside of the huge oak door, William Saltwood pulled the white lawn handkerchief out of his top pocket and wiped his damp hands. He took a deep breath and set off again along the gallery with more purpose. He needed to talk to his mother.