A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter X. The Gordian Knot.
Walter, however, would not despair until he had laid the alternative before his father. He did so, firmly but coolly.
His father, irritated by the scene with Bartley, treated Walter's proposal with indignant scorn.
Walter continued to keep his temper, and with some reluctance asked him whether he owed nothing, not even a sacrifice of his prejudices, to a son who had never disobeyed him, and had improved his circumstances.
"Come, sir," said he; "when the happiness of my life is at stake I venture to lay aside delicacy, and ask you whether I have not been a good son, and a serviceable one to you?"
"Yes, Walter," said the Colonel, "with this exception."
"Then now or never give me my reward."
"I'll try," said the grim Colonel; "but I see it will be hard work. However, I'll try and save you from a mesalliance."
"A mesalliance, sir? Why, she is a Clifford."
"The deuce she is!"
"As much a Clifford as I am."
"That is news to me."
"Why, one of her parents was a Clifford, and your own sister. And one of mine was an Irish woman."
"Yes; an O'Ryan; not a trader; not a small-coal man."
"Like the Marquis of Londonderry, sir, and the Earl of Durham. Come, father, don't sacrifice your son, and his happiness and his love for you, to notions the world has outlived. Commerce does not lower a gentleman, nor speculation either, in these days. The nobility and the leading gentry of these islands are most of them in business. They are all shareholders, and often directors of railways, and just as much traders as the old coach proprietors were. They let their land, and so do you, to the highest bidder, not for honor or any romantic sentiment, but for money, and that is trade. Mr. Bartley is his own farmer; well, so was Mr. Coke, of Norfolk, and the Queen made him a peer for it--what a sensible sovereign! Are Rothschild and Montefiore shunned for their speculations by the nobility? Whom do their daughters marry? Trade rules the world, and keeps it from stagnation. Genius writes, or paints, or plays Hamlet--for money; and is respected in exact proportion to the amount of money it gets. Charity holds bazars, and sells at one hundred per cent. profit, and nearly every new church is a trade speculation. Is my happiness and hers to be sacrificed to the chimeras and crotchets that everybody in England but you has outlived?"
"All this," replied the unflinching sire, "I have read in the papers, and my son shall not marry the daughter of a trader and cad who has insulted me grossly; but that, I presume, you don't object to."
This stung Walter so that he feared to continue the discussion.
"I will not reply," said he. "You drive me to despair. I leave you to reflect. Perhaps you will prize me when you see me no more."
With this he left the room, packed up his clothes, went to the nearest railway, off to London, collected his funds, crossed the water, and did not write one word to Clifford Hall, except a line to Julia. "Left England heart-broken, the victim of two egotists and my sweet Mary's weak conscientiousness. God forgive me, I am angry even with her, but I don't doubt her love."
This missive and the general consternation at Clifford Hall brought Julia full gallop to Mary Bartley.
They read the letter together, and Julia was furious against Colonel Clifford. But Mary interposed.
"I am afraid," said she, "that I am the person who was most to blame."
"Why, what have you done?"
"He said our case was desperate, and waiting would not alter it; and he should leave the country unless--"
"Unless what? How can I advise you if you have any concealments from me?"
"Well, then, it was unless I would consent to a clandestine marriage."
"And you refused--very properly."
"And I refused--very properly one would think--and what is the consequence? I have driven the man I love away from his friends, as well as from me, and now I begin to be very sorry for my properness."
"But you don't blush for it as you would for the other. The idea! To be married on the sly and to have to hide it from everybody, and to be found out at last, or else be suspected of worse things."
"What worse things?"
"Never you mind, child; your womanly instinct is better than knowledge or experience, and it has guided you straight. If you had consented, I should have lost my respect for you."
And then, as the small view of a thing is apt to enter the female head along with the big view, she went on, with great animation:
"And then for a young lady to sneak into a church without her friends, with no carriages, no favors, no wedding cake, no bishop, no proper dress, not even a bridal veil fit to be seen! Why, it ought to be the great show of a girl's life, and she ought to be a public queen, at all events for that one day, for ten to one she will be a slave all the rest of her life if she loves the fellow."
She paused for breath one moment.
"And it isn't as if you were low people. Why, it reminds me of a thing I read in some novel: a city clerk, or some such person, took a walk with his sweetheart into the country, and all of a sudden he said, 'Why, there is something hard in my pocket. What is it, I wonder? A plain gold ring. Does it fit you? Try it on, Polly. Why, it fits you, I declare; then keep it till further orders.' Then they walked a little further. 'Why, what is this? Two pairs of white gloves. Try the little pair on, and I will try the big ones. Stop! I declare here's a church, and the bells beginning to ring. Why, who told them that I've got a special license in my pocket? Hallo! there are two fellows hanging about; best men, witnesses, or some such persons, I should not wonder. I think I know one of them; and here is a parson coming over a stile! What an opportunity for us now just to run in and get married! Come on, old girl, lend me that wedding ring a minute, I'll give it you back again in the church.' No, thank you, Mr. Walter; we love you very dearly, but we are ladies, and we respect ourselves."
In short, Julia confirmed Mary Bartley in her resolution, but she could not console her under the consequences. Walter did not write a line even to her; she couldn't but fear that he was really in despair, and would cure himself of his affection if he could. She began to pine; the roses faded gradually out of her cheeks, and Mr. Bartley himself began at last to pity her, for though he did not love her, he liked her, and was proud of her affection. Another thing, Hope might come home now any day, and if he found the girl sick and pining, he might say this is a breach of contract.
He asked Mary one day whether she wouldn't like a change. "I could take you to the sea-side," said he, but not very cordially.
"No, papa," said Mary; "why should you leave your mine when everything is going so prosperously? I think I should like to go to the lakes, and pay my old nurse a visit."
"And she would talk to you of Walter Clifford?"
"Yes, papa," said Mary, firmly, "she would; and that's the only thing that can do me any good."
"Well, Mary," said Bartley, "if she could be content with praising him, and regretting the insuperable obstacles, and if she would encourage you to be patient--There, let me think of it."
Things went hard with Colonel Clifford. He felt his son's desertion very bitterly, though he was too proud to show it; he now found out that universally as he was respected, it was Walter who was the most beloved both in the house and in the neighborhood.
One day he heard a multitude shouting, and soon learned the reason. Bartley had struck a rich vein of coal, and tons were coming up to the surface. Colonel Clifford would not go near the place, but he sent old Baker to inquire, and Baker from that day used to bring him back a number of details, some of them especially galling to him. By degrees, and rapid ones, Bartley was becoming a rival magnate; the poor came to him for the slack, or very small coal, and took it away gratis; they flattered him, and to please him, spoke slightingly of Colonel Clifford, which they had never ventured to do before. But soon a circumstance occurred which mortified the old soldier more than all. He was sole proprietor of the village, and every house in it, with the exception of a certain beer-house, flanked by an acre and a half of ground. This beer-house was a great eye-sore to him; he tried to buy this small freeholder out; but the man saw his advantage, and demanded L1500--nearly treble the real value. Walter, however, by negotiating in a more friendly spirit, had obtained a reduction, and was about to complete the purchase for L1150. But when Walter left the country the proprietor never dreamed of going again to the haughty Colonel. He went to Bartley, and Bartley bought the property in five minutes for L1200, and paid a deposit to clinch the contract. He completed the purchase with unheard-of rapidity, and set an army of workmen to raise a pit village, or street of eighty houses. They were ten times better built than the Colonel's cottages; not one of them could ever be vacant, they were too great a boon to the miners; nor could the rent be in arrears, with so sharp a hand as the mine-owner; the beer-house was to be perpetuated, and a nucleus of custom secured from the miners, partly by the truck system, and partly by the superiority of the liquor, for Bartley announced at once that he should brew the beer.
All these things were too much for a man with gout in his system; Colonel Clifford had a worse attack of that complaint than ever; it rose from his feet to other parts of his frame, and he took to his bed.
In that condition a physician and surgeon visited him daily, and his lawyer also was sent for, and was closeted with him for a long time on more than one occasion.
All this caused a deal of speculation in the village, and as a system of fetch and carry was now established by which the rival magnates also received plenty of information, though not always accurate, about each other, Mr. Bartley heard what was going on, and put his own construction upon it.
* * * * *
Just when Mr. Hope was expected to return came a letter to Mary to say that he should be detained a day or two longer, as he had a sore throat and fever, but nothing alarming. Three or four days later came a letter only signed by him, to say he had a slight attack of typhoid fever, and was under medical care.
Mary implored Mr. Bartley to let her go to him. He refused, and gave his reasons, which were really sufficient, and now he became more unwilling than ever to let her visit Mrs. Easton.
This was the condition of affairs when one day an old man with white hair, dressed in black, and looking almost a gentleman, was driven up to the farm by Colonel Clifford's groom, and asked, in an agitated voice, if he might see Miss Mary Bartley.
Her visitors were so few that she was never refused on speculation, so John Baker was shown at once into her drawing-room. He was too much agitated to waste time.
"Oh, Miss Bartley," said he, "we are in great distress at the Hall. Mr. Walter has gone, and not left his address, and my poor master is dying!"
Mary uttered an unfeigned exclamation of horror.
"Ah, miss," said the old man, "God bless you; you feel for us, I'm not on the old man's side, miss; I'm on Mr. Walter's side in this as I was in the other business, but now I see my poor old master lying pale and still, not long for this world, I do begin to blame myself. I never thought that he would have taken it all to heart like this. But, there, the only thing now is to bring them together before he goes. We don't know his address, miss; we don't know what country he is in. He sent a line to Miss Clifford a month ago from Dover, but that is all; but, in course, he writes to you--that stands to reason; you'll give me his address, miss, won't you? and we shall all bless you."
Mary turned pale, and the tears streamed down her eyes. "Oh, sir," said she, "I'd give the world if I could tell you. I know who you are; my poor Walter has often spoken of you to me, Mr. Baker. One word from you would have been enough; I would have done anything for you that I could. But he has never written to me at all. I am as much deserted as any of you, and I have felt it as deeply as any father can, but never have I felt it as now. What! The father to die, and his son's hand not in his; no looks of love and forgiveness to pass between them as the poor old man leaves this world, its ambitions and its quarrels, and perhaps sees for the first time how small they all are compared with the love of those that love us, and the peace of God!" Then this ardent girl stretched out both her hands. "O God, if my frivolous life has been innocent, don't let me be the cause of this horrible thing; don't let the father die without comfort, nor the son without forgiveness, for a miserable girl who has come between them and meant no harm!"
This eloquent burst quite overpowered poor old John Baker. He dropped into a chair, his white head sunk upon his bosom, he sobbed and trembled, and for the first time showed his age.
"What on earth is the matter?" said Mr. Bartley's voice, as cold as an icicle, at the door. Mary sprang toward him impetuously. "Oh, papa!" she cried, "Colonel Clifford is dying, and we don't know where Walter is; we can't know."
"Wait a little," said Bartley, in some agitation. "My letters have just come in, and I thought I saw a foreign postmark." He slipped back into the hall, brought in several letters, selected one, and gave it to Mary, "This is for you, from Marseilles."
He then retired to his study, and without the least agitation or the least loss of time returned with a book of telegraph forms.
Meanwhile Mary tore the letter open, and read it eagerly to John Baker.
"GRAND HOTEL, NOAILLES, MARSEILLES, May 16.
"MY OWN DEAR LOVE,--I have vowed that I will not write again to tempt you to anything you think wrong; but it looks like quarrelling to hide my address from you. Only I do beg of you, as the only kindness you can do me now, never to let it be known by any living creature at Clifford Hall.
"Yours till death, WALTER."
Mr. Bartley entered with the telegraph forms, and said to Mary, sharply, "Where is he?" Mary told him. "Well, write him a telegram. It shall be at the railway in half an hour, at Marseilles theoretically in one hour, practically in four."
Mary sat down and wrote her telegram: "Pray come to Clifford Hall. Your father is dangerously ill."
"Show it to me," said Bartley. And on perusing it: "A woman's telegram. Don't frighten him too much; leave him the option to come or stay."
He tore it up, and said, "Now write a business telegram, and make sure of the thing you want."
"Come home directly--your father is dying."
Old Baker started up. "God bless you, sir," says he, "and God bless you, miss, and make you happy one day. I'll take it myself, as my trap is at the door." He bustled out, and his carriage drove away at a great rate.
Mr. Bartley went quietly to his study to business without another word, and Mary leaned back a little exhausted by the scene, but a smile almost of happiness came and tarried on her sweet face for the first time these many days; as for old John Baker, he told his tale triumphantly at the Hall, and not without vanity, for he was proud of his good judgment in going to Mary Bartley.
To the old housekeeper, a most superior woman of his own age, and almost a lady, he said something rather remarkable which he was careful not to bestow on the young wags in the servants' hall: "Mrs. Milton," says he, "I am an old man, and have knocked about at home and abroad, and seen a deal of life, but I've seen something to-day that I never saw before."
"Ay, John, surely; and what ever was that?"
"I've seen an angel pray to God, and I have seen God answer her."
From that day Mary had two stout partisans in Clifford Hall.
* * * * *
Mr. Bartley's views about Mary now began to waver. It occurred to him that should Colonel Clifford die and Walter inherit his estates, he could easily come to terms with the young man so passionately devoted to his daughter. He had only to say: "I can make no allowance at present, but I'll settle my whole fortune upon Mary and her children after my death, if you'll make a moderate settlement at present," and Walter would certainly fall into this, and not demand accounts from Mary's trustee. So now he would have positively encouraged Mary in her attachment, but one thing held him back a little: he had learned by accident that the last entail of Clifford Hall and the dependent estates dated two generations back, so that the entail expired with Colonel Clifford, and this had enabled the Colonel to sell some of the estates, and clearly gave him power now to leave Clifford Hall away from his son. Now the people who had begun to fetch and carry tales between the two magnates told him of the lawyer's recent visits to Clifford Hall, and he had some misgivings that the Colonel had sent for the lawyer to alter his will and disinherit, in whole or in part, his absent and rebellious son. All this taken together made Mr. Bartley resolve to be kinder to Mary in her love affair than he ever had been, but still to be guarded and cautious.
"Mary, my dear," said he, "I am sure you'll be on thorns till this young man comes home; perhaps now would be a good time to pay your visit to Mrs. Easton."
"Oh, papa, how good of you! but it's twenty miles, I believe, to where she is staying at the lakes."
"No, no," said Mr. Bartley; "she's staying with her sister Gilbert; quite within a drive."
"Are you sure, papa?"
"Quite sure, my dear; she wrote to me yesterday about her little pension; the quarter is just due."
"What! do you allow her a pension?"
"Certainly, my dear, or rather I pay her little stipend as before: how surprised you look, Mary! Why, I'm not like that old Colonel, intolerant of other people's views, when they advance them civilly. That woman helped me to save your life in a very great danger, and for many years she has been as careful as a mother, and we are not, so to say, at daggers drawn about Walter Clifford. Why, I only demand a little prudence and patience both from you and from her. Now tell me. Is there proper accommodation for you in Mrs. Gilbert's house?"
"Oh yes, papa; it is a farm-house now, but it was a grand place. There's a beautiful spare room with an oriel-window."
"Well, then, you secure that, and write to-day to have a blazing fire, and the bed properly aired as well as the sheets, and you shall go to-morrow in the four-wheel; and you can take her her little stipend in a letter."
This sudden kindness and provision for her health and happiness filled Mary's heart to overflowing, and her gratitude gushed forth upon Mr. Bartley's neck. The old fox blandly absorbed it, and took the opportunity to say, "Of course it is understood that matters are to go no further between you and Walter Clifford. Oh, I don't mean that you're to make him unhappy, or drive him to despair; only insist upon his being patient like yourself. Everything comes sooner or later to those that can wait."
"Oh, papa," cried Mary, "you've said more to comfort me than Mrs. Easton or anybody can; but I feel the change will do me good. I am, oh, so grateful!"
So Mary wrote her letter, and went to Mrs. Easton next day. After the usual embraces, she gave Mrs. Easton the letter, and was duly installed in the state bedroom. She wrote to Julia Clifford to say where she was, and that was her way of letting Walter Clifford know.
Walter himself arrived at Clifford Hall next day, worn, anxious, and remorseful, and was shown at once to his father's bedside. The Colonel gave him a wasted hand, and said:
"Dear boy, I thought you'd come. We've had our last quarrel, Walter."
Walter burst into tears over his father's hand, and nothing was said between them about their temporary estrangement.
The first thing Walter did was to get two professional nurses from Derby, and secure his father constant attention night and day, and, above all, nourishment at all hours of the night when the patient would take it. On the afternoon after his arrival the Colonel fell into a sound sleep. Then Walter ordered his horse, and in less than an hour was at Mrs. Gilbert's place.