A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter I. The Poor Man's Child.
Two worn travellers, a young man and a fair girl about four years old, sat on the towing-path by the side of the Trent.
The young man had his coat off, by which you might infer it was very hot; but no, it was a keen October day, and an east wind sweeping down the river. The coat was wrapped tightly round the little girl, so that only her fair face with blue eyes and golden hair peeped out; and the young father sat in his shirt sleeves, looking down on her with a loving but anxious look. Her mother, his wife, had died of consumption, and he was in mortal terror lest biting winds and scanty food should wither this sweet flower too, his one remaining joy.
William Hope was a man full of talent; self-educated, and wonderfully quick at learning anything: he was a linguist, a mechanic, a mineralogist, a draughtsman, an inventor. Item, a bit of a farrier, and half a surgeon; could play the fiddle and the guitar; could draw and paint and drive a four-in-hand. Almost the only thing he could not do was to make money and keep it.
Versatility seldom pays. But, to tell the truth, luck was against him; and although in a long life every deserving man seems to get a chance, yet Fortune does baffle some meritorious men for a limited time. Generally, we think, good fortune and ill fortune succeed each other rapidly, like red cards and black; but to some ill luck comes in great long slices; and if they don't drink or despair, by-and-by good luck comes continuously, and everything turns to gold with him who has waited and deserved.
Well, for years Fortune was hard on William Hope. It never let him get his head above-water. If he got a good place, the employer died or sold his business. If he patented an invention, and exhausted his savings to pay the fees, no capitalist would work it, or some other inventor proved he had invented something so like it that there was no basis for a monopoly.
At last there fell on him the heaviest blow of all. He had accumulated L50 as a merchant's clerk, and was in negotiation for a small independent business, when his wife, whom he loved tenderly, sickened.
For eight months he was distracted with hopes and fears. These gave way to dismal certainty. She died, and left him broken-hearted and poor, impoverished by the doctors, and pauperized by the undertaker. Then his crushed heart had but one desire--to fly from the home that had lost its sunshine, and the very country which had been calamitous to him.
He had one stanch friend, who had lately returned rich from New Zealand, and had offered to send him out as his agent, and to lend him money in the colony. Hope had declined, and his friend had taken the huff, and had not written to him since. But Hope knew he was settled in Hull, and too good-hearted at bottom to go from his word in his friend's present sad condition. So William Hope paid every debt he owed in Liverpool, took his child to her mother's tombstone, and prayed by it, and started to cross the island, and then leave it for many a long day.
He had a bundle with one brush, one comb, a piece of yellow soap, and two changes of linen, one for himself, and one for his little Grace--item, his fiddle, and a reaping hook; for it was a late harvest in the north, and he foresaw he should have to work his way and play his way, or else beg, and he was too much of a man for that. His child's face won her many a ride in a wagon, and many a cup of milk from humble women standing at their cottage doors.
Now and then he got a day's work in the fields, and the farmer's wife took care of little Grace, and washed her linen, and gave them both clean straw in the barn to lie on, and a blanket to cover them. Once he fell in with a harvest-home, and his fiddle earned him ten shillings, all in sixpences. But on unlucky days he had to take his fiddle under his arm, and carry his girl on his back: these unlucky days came so often that still as he travelled his small pittance dwindled. Yet half-way on this journey fortune smiled on him suddenly. It was in Derbyshire. He went a little out of his way to visit his native place--he had left it at ten years old. Here an old maid, his first cousin, received Grace with rapture, and Hope pottered about all day, reviving his boyish recollections of people and places. He had left the village ignorant; he returned full of various knowledge; and so it was that in a certain despised field, all thistles and docks and every known weed, which field the tenant had condemned as a sour clay unfit for cultivation, William Hope found certain strata and other signs which, thanks to his mineralogical studies and practical knowledge, sent a sudden thrill all through his frame. "Here's luck at last!" said he. "My child! my child! our fortune is made."
The proprietor of this land, and indeed of the whole parish, was a retired warrior, Colonel Clifford. Hope knew that very well, and hurried to Clifford Hall, all on fire with his discovery.
He obtained an interview without any difficulty. Colonel Clifford, though proud as Lucifer, was accessible and stiffly civil to humble folk. He was gracious enough to Hope; but, when the poor fellow let him know he had found signs of coal on his land, he froze directly; told him that two gentlemen in that neighborhood had wasted their money groping the bowels of the earth for coal, because of delusive indications on the surface of the soil; and that for his part, even if he was sure of success, he would not dirty his fingers with coal. "I believe," said he, "the northern nobility descend to this sort of thing; but then they have not smelled powder, and seen glory, and served her Majesty. I have."
Hope tried to reason with him, tried to get round him. But he was unassailable as Gibraltar, and soon cut the whole thing short by saying: "There, that's enough. I am much obliged to you, sir, for bringing me information you think valuable. You are travelling--on foot--short of funds perhaps. Please accept this trifle, and--and--good-morning." He retreated at marching pace, and the hot blood burned his visitor's face. An alms!
But on second thoughts he said: "Well, I have offered him a fortune, and he gives me ten shillings. One good turn deserves another." So he pocketed the half-sovereign, and bought his little Grace a neck-handkerchief, blue with white spots; and so this unlucky man and his child fought their way from west to east, till they reached that place where we introduced them to the reader.
That was an era in their painful journey, because until then Hope's only anxiety was to find food and some little comfort for his child. But this morning little Grace had begun to cough, a little dry cough that struck on the father's heart like a knell. Her mother had died of consumption: were the seeds of that fatal malady in her child? If so, hardship, fatigue, cold, and privation would develop them rapidly, and she would wither away into the grave before his eyes. So he looked down on her in an agony of foreboding, and shivered in his shirt sleeves, not at the cold, but at the future. She, poor girl, was, like the animals, blessed with ignorance of everything beyond the hour; and soon she woke her father from his dire reverie with a cry of delight.
"Oh, what's they?" said she, and beamed with pleasure. Hope followed the direction of her blue eyes, open to their full extent; and lo! there was a little fleet of swans coming round a bend of the river. Hope told her all about the royal birds, and that they belonged to sovereigns in one district, to cities in another. Meantime the fair birds sailed on, and passed stately, arching their snowy necks. Grace gloated on them, and for a day or two her discourse was of swans.
At last, when very near the goal, misfortunes multiplied. They came into a town on a tidal river, whence they could hope to drift down to their destination for a shilling or two; but here Hope spent his last farthing on Grace's supper at an eating-house, and had not wherewithal to pay for bed or breakfast at the humble inn. Here, too, he took up the local paper, praying Heaven there might be some employment advertised, however mean, that so he might feed his girl, and not let the fiend Consumption take her at a gift.
No, there was nothing in the advertising column, but in the body of the paper he found a paragraph to the effect that Mr. Samuelson, of Hull, had built a gigantic steam vessel in that port, and was going out to New Zealand in her on her trial trip, to sail that morning at high tide, 6.45 A.M., and it was now nine.
How a sentence in a newspaper can blast a man! Bereavement, Despair, Lost Love--they come like lightning in a single line. Hope turned sick at these few words, and down went his head and his hands, and he sat all of a heap, cold at heart. Then he began to disbelieve in everything, especially in honesty. For why? If he had only left Liverpool in debt and taken the rail, he would have reached Hull in ample time, and would have gone out to New Zealand in the new ship with money in both pockets.
But it was no use fretting. Starvation and disease impended over his child. He must work, or steal, or something. In truth he was getting desperate. He picked himself up and went about, offering his many accomplishments to humble shop-keepers. They all declined him, some civilly. At last he came to a superior place of business. There were large offices and a handsome house connected with it in the rear. At the side of the offices were pulleys, cranes, and all the appliances for loading vessels, and a yard with horses and vans, so that the whole frontage of the premises was very considerable. A brass plate said, "R. Bartley, ship-broker and commission agent"; but the man was evidently a ship-owner and a carrier besides; so this miscellaneous shop roused hopes in our versatile hero. He rapidly surveyed the outside, and then cast hungry glances through the window of the man's office. It was a bow-window of unusual size, through which the proprietor or his employees could see a long way up and down the river. Through this window Hope peered. Repulses had made him timid. He wanted to see the face he had to apply to before he ventured.
But Mr. Bartley was not there. The large office was at present occupied by his clerks; one of these was Leonard Monckton, a pale young man with dark hair, a nose like a hawk, and thin lips. The other was quite a young fellow, with brown hair, hazel eyes, and an open countenance. "Many a hard rub puts a point on a man." So Hope resolved at once to say nothing to that pale clerk so like a kite, but to interest the open countenance in him and his hungry child.
There were two approaches to the large office. One, to Hope's right, through a door and a lobby. This was seldom used except by the habitues of the place. The other was to Hope's left, through a very small office, generally occupied by an inferior clerk, who kept an eye upon the work outside. However, this office had also a small window looking inward; this opened like a door when the man had anything to say to Mr. Bartley or the clerks in the large office.
William Hope entered this outer office, and found it empty. The clerk happened to be in the yard. Then he opened the inner door and looked in on the two clerks, pale and haggard, and apprehensive of a repulse. He addressed himself to the one nearest him; it was the one whose face had attracted him.
"Sir, can I see Mr. Bartley?"
The young fellow glanced over the visitor's worn garments and dusty shoes, and said, dryly, "Hum! if it is for charity, this is the wrong shop."
"I want no charity," said Hope, with a sigh; "I want employment. But I do want it very badly; my poor little girl and I are starving."
"Then that is a shame," said the young fellow, warmly. "Why, you are a gentleman, aren't you?"
"I don't know for that," said Hope. "But I am an educated man, and I could do the whole business of this place. But you see I am down in the world."
"You look like it," said the clerk, bluntly. "But don't you be so green as to tell old Bartley that, or you are done for. No, no; I'll show you how to get in here. Wait till half past one. He lunches at one, and he isn't quite such a brute after luncheon. Then you come in like Julius Caesar, and brag like blazes, and offer him twenty pounds' worth of industry and ability, and above all arithmetic, and he will say he has no opening (and that is a lie), and offer you fifteen shillings, perhaps."
"If he does, I'll jump at it," said Hope, eagerly. "But whether I succeed with him or not, take my child's blessing and my own."
His voice faltered, and Bolton, with a young man's uneasiness under sentiment, stopped him. "Oh, come, old fellow, bother all that! Why, we are all stumped in turn." Then he began to chase a solitary coin into a corner of his waistcoat pocket. "Look here, I'll lend you a shilling--pay me next week--it will buy the kid a breakfast. I wish I had more, but I want the other for luncheon. I haven't drawn my screw yet. It is due at twelve."
"I'll take it for my girl," said Hope, blushing, "and because it is offered me by a gentleman and like a gentleman."
"Granted, for the sake of argument," said this sprightly youth; and so they parted for the time, little dreaming, either of them, what a chain they were weaving round their two hearts, and this little business the first link.