Monday 11 March 2019

A Grandee

by David Deanshaw

fine cognac

Rupert Montague reached for the cut glass decanter and poured another generous measure of Remy Martin Grand Cru. He relaxed in his leather wing-backed Chesterfield chair and returned to the review of his future options. He was particularly pleased with his new Chesterfield; it added an additional touch of elegance to his study.

A Yule log crackled contentedly in the grate as he let the cognac trickle onto his tongue. The new decade would bring even more changes. The 1960s had shown that the aristocracy no longer ruled the roost.

Rupert was the last in a line of country bankers, his wife long dead and with no offspring, banking had been his life. It was therefore his duty to plot the next decade of the 1970s. There was after all no family to whom he could pass on the fruits of the family’s years of activity. Certainly, he had executives he trusted, but they were not family. A major City institution had now acquired a sizeable shareholding and would, ultimately, complete the purchase of the remainder. By the end of the decade he would have secured his retirement. Perhaps he would write a detailed history of the family. He would also travel, not a luxury he had allowed himself during his working life

The family’s wealth had come from the usual number of sources; patronage, marriage, land and of course hard work. Earlier generations had initially supported the Cromwellian cause and later been involved in the discussions leading to the Restoration in the 1660s. Hence their reward had been land and a title which had subsequently died out. Later generations had inter-married with other gentry, thus developing sizeable estates which had later been put to work producing food initially, then factories, along with cottages for the workforce. In short, a typical upper class English method of country style aggrandisement.

The main family home was a large estate on the edge of the Fens of some 15,000 acres on which carrots and kale were produced. Later, cattle were introduced.

This patrician life style was natural to Rupert who took care to understand the needs of his staff. His father’s advice had been clear and unequivocal:-

“Always remember, Rupert, whilst the servants will always know their place, it is difficult these days to replace good staff. They are essential to maintaining our way of life”.

Even as late as the dawn of the 1970s he kept a staff of five to run the house and a further six to run the estate.

The incremental increase in the family fortunes had led to the next stage of the enhancement of their hold on their community. It was a natural development therefore to fund developments for others rather than soil one’s own hands. Thus the family had started a bank in East Anglia in 1764. Indeed their headquarters building was a grand edifice in the centre of one the beautiful cities of East Anglia. It was originally the family’s “town house”, now still used as bank premises. Following this initial success, a number of branches across the region were developed. This expansion into the towns of East Anglia had been driven by their greed to dominate their locality. Rupert’s grandfather had decreed that the family should balance their domination by becoming associated with philanthropy and a number of bursaries for the children of “worthy” employees were established. It was also decided that a large tract of green space near the centre of the city would be endowed for the “benefit of the populace at large”.

The fine quality cognac helped the musing process, the warmth of his fire and the comfort of his chair, all contributed to a sense of wellbeing. It also fostered a notion of creativity. It was then that he decided that he would set up a history scholarship to study the origins of their city. He already knew that an abbey had been founded in the 7th century and subsequently destroyed by Danish invaders a couple of hundred years later.

Despite his education at Charterhouse, an environment surrounded by wealth and privilege, it had been his time at Brasenose College in the 1930s which had opened his eyes to the inequalities in society.

At the start of the Second World War his bank had responded to the call for troops by the “careful selection” and release of some of the “less valuable” employees. At the same time he had agreed that only a certain number of his personal staff could leave and form the Montague Detachment as part of the East Anglian Rifles. The same decision was taken in respect of staff at the branches of his bank, assuring them all that their jobs would still be there at the end of hostilities.

Donald Burbage was one such conscript. He was a tall, intelligent man, from humble stock, who had worked hard at his matriculation in the 1930s. His reward had been a junior position in Montague’s bank. He was not a wealthy man but he had scrimped to save enough money to spend most of his savings on a special ring for his childhood sweetheart. She in turn agreed to wait for him on his return from the war. She had not really wanted him to volunteer, but his sense of duty and patriotism has been one of the reasons she had fallen in love with him.

Burbage was retained as Montague’s batman for the first part of the war until he was wounded, repatriated and later discharged. The damage had been caused when he had flung his body on top of Montague during an exchange of fire. In saving the life of a senior officer he was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Medal. On his return home, he took some time to recover but nevertheless volunteered to serve in the Home Guard. He had married his boyhood sweetheart and settled in a humble Council house in Ely town. He had re-joined the bank at its headquarters branch and was put in charge of securities – the ancient and musty world of wills, land charges held as security for loans and deeds etc. Rupert, although away on military duty, knew that of all people, Burbage would be discreet in dealing with such confidential matters, besides he owed his life to the peasant.

Burbage carried out these duties punctiliously. However, he suffered frequent periods of pain from the impact of the shellfire. Clearly this would render a truly successful career in banking problematical. He realised that he needed to be philosophical about the problem, accept it and live life as well as he could.

Montague, being aware of the damage his rescue had caused his employee, had given instructions that the staff should recognise that Burbage would suffer these occasional searing flashbacks which meant that he would need to leave the building until the memory had been erased, albeit temporarily.

Later during the war, Montague had also been invalided out and returned to the family business of banking. His time in the forces made him aware that society was changing. No longer did the ordinary resident in the street tug his forelock in his presence, despite his superior rank in society. A tradition had long been established that the staff would always stand up when he spoke to them during his branch visits. Before the war they had even been given clear instructions, “Yes Mr Montague” at first and then “sir”. With a “Thank you for asking sir” at the end of each conversation.

On his most recent visit, he called at the main branch in the city which was on the ground floor of the very building in which he had been born nearly 60 years earlier.

He spoke with the manager first of all. Later he would speak with others usually based on seniority. He always left Burbage to last so he could spend some time with him.

Eventually he reached the desk at which Donald Burbage worked. He approached him and placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “How are you today, Burbage?” he asked with his usual genuine concern for his former batman. Burbage made a move to stand up, but Montague insisted; “Please do not get up old friend.”

“Well Mr Rupert, we are both very upset today.” He replied, his voice quaking with emotion.

“How so, my old friend?” inquired Montague.

“Well last night whilst we were watching Coronation Street we thought we heard a noise upstairs, but thought no more of it. When we retired to bed we discovered that the bedroom window was open and that my wife’s engagement ring was missing. She cannot wear it now because of her arthritis but she is of course sentimentally attached to it.”

“My dear fellow – I am so sorry, but did the servants not hear anything?"

About the author

David is an associate member  of the Society of Auhtors 

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