A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XI. The Knot Cut.--Another Tied.
The farm-house the Gilberts occupied had been a family mansion of great antiquity with a moat around it. It was held during the civil war by a stout royalist, who armed and garrisoned it after a fashion with his own servants. This had a different effect to what he intended. It drew the attention of one of Cromwell's generals, and he dispatched a party with cannon and petards to reduce the place, whilst he marched on to join Cromwell in enterprises of more importance. The detachment of Roundheads summoned the place. The royalist, to show his respect for their authority, made his kitchen wench squeak a defiance from an upper window, from which she bolted with great rapidity as soon as she had thus represented the valor of the establishment, and when next seen it was in the cellar, wedged in between two barrels of beer. The men went at it hammer and tongs, and in twenty-four hours a good many cannon-balls traversed the building, a great many stuck in the walls like plums in a Christmas pudding, the doors were blown in with petards, and the principal defenders, with a few wounded Roundheads, were carried off to Cromwell himself; whilst the house itself was fired, and blazed away merrily.
Cromwell threatened the royalist gentleman with death for defending an untenable place.
"I didn't know it was untenable," said the gentleman. "How could I till I had tried?"
"You had the fate of fortified places to instruct you," said Cromwell, and he promised faithfully to hang him on his own ruins.
The gentleman turned pale and his lips quivered, but he said, "Well, Mr. Cromwell, I've fought for my royal master according to my lights, and I can die for him."
"You shall, sir," said Mr. Cromwell.
About next morning Mr. Cromwell, who had often a cool fit after a hot one, and was a very big man, take him altogether, gave a different order. "The fool thought he was doing his duty; turn him loose."
The fool in question was so proud of his battered house that he left it standing there, bullets and all, and built him a house elsewhere.
King Charles the Second had not landed a month before he made him a baronet, and one tenant after another occupied a portion of the old mansion. Two state-rooms were roofed and furnished with the relics of the entire mansion, and these two rooms the present baronet's surveyor occupied at rare intervals when he was inspecting the large properties connected with the baronet's estate.
Mary Bartley now occupied these two rooms, connected by folding-doors, and she sat pensive in the oriel-window of her bedroom. Young ladies cling to their bedrooms, especially when they are pretty and airy. Suddenly she heard a scurry and patter of a horse's hoof, reined up at the side of the house. She darted from the window and stood panting in the middle of the room. The next minute Mrs. Easton entered the sitting-room all in a flutter, and beckoned her. Mary flew to her.
"He is here."
"I thought he would be."
"Will you meet him down-stairs?"
Mrs. Easton acquiesced, rapidly closed the folding-doors, and went out, saying, "Try and calm yourself, Miss Mary."
Miss Mary tried to obey her, but Walter rushed in impetuously, pale, worn, agitated, yet enraptured at the first sight of her, and Mary threw herself round his neck in a moment, and he clasped her fluttering bosom to his beating heart, and this was the natural result of the restraint they had put upon a passionate affection: for what says the dramatist Destouches, improving upon Horace, so that in England his immortal line is given to Moliere. "Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop."
The next thing was, they held each other at arm's-length, and mourned over each other.
"Oh, my poor Mary, how ill you look!"
"Oh, my poor Walter, how pale and worn!"
"It's all my fault," said Mary.
"No; it's all mine," said Walter.
And so they blamed themselves, and grieved over each other, and vowed that come what might they would never part again. But, lo and behold! Walter went on from that to say:
"And that we may never part again let us marry at once, and put our happiness out of the reach of accidents."
"What!" said Mary. "Defy your father upon his dying bed."
"Oh no," said Walter, "that I could not do. I mean marry secretly, and announce it after his decease, if I am to lose him."
"And why not wait till after his decease?" said Mary.
"Because, then, the laws of society would compel us to wait six months, and in that six months some infernal obstacle or other would be sure to occur, and another would be sure to follow. I am a great deal older than you, and I see that whoever procrastinates happiness, risks it; and whoever shilly-shallies with it deserves to lose it, and generally does."
Where young ladies are concerned, logic does not carry all before it, and so Mary opposed all manner of feminine sentiments, and ended by saying she could not do such a thing.
Then Walter began to be mortified and angry; then she cunningly shifted the responsibility, and said she would consult Mrs. Easton.
"Then consult her in my presence," said Walter.
Mary had not bargained for that; she had intended to secure Mrs. Easton on her side, and then take her opinion. However, as Walter's proposal was fair, she called Mrs. Easton, and they put the case to her, and asked her to give her candid opinion.
Mrs. Easton, however, took alarm at the gravity of the proposal, and told them both she knew things that were unknown to both of them, and it was not so easy for her to advise.
"Well, but," said Walter, "if you know more than we do, you are the very person that can advise. All I know is that if we are not married now, I shall have to wait six months at least, and if I stay here Mr. Bartley and I shall quarrel, and he will refuse me Mary; and if I go abroad again I shall get knocked on the head, or else Mary will pine away again, and Bartley will send her to Madeira, and we shall lose our happiness, as all shilly-shallying fools do."
Mrs. Easton made no reply to this, though she listened attentively to it. She walked to the window and thought quietly to herself; then she came back again and sat down, and after a pause she said, very gravely, "Knowing all I know, and seeing all I see, I advise you two to marry at once by special license, and keep it secret from every one who knows you--but myself--till a proper time comes to reveal it; and it's borne in upon me that that time will come before long, even if Colonel Clifford should not die this bout, which everybody says he will."
"Oh, nurse," said Mary, faintly, "I little thought that you'd be against me."
"Against you, Miss Mary!" said Mrs. Eastern, with much feeling. "I admire Mr. Walter very much, as any woman must with eyes in her head, and I love him for loving of you so truly, and like a man, for it does not become a man to shilly-shally, but I never saw him till he was a man, but you are the child I nursed, and prayed over, and trembled for in sickness, and rejoiced over in health, and left a good master because I saw he did not love you so well as I did."
These words went to Mary's heart, and she flew to her nurse, and hung weeping round her neck. Her tears made the manly but tender-hearted Walter give a sort of gulp. Mary heard it, and put her white hand out to him. He threw himself upon his knees, and kissed it devotedly, and the coy girl was won.
From this hour Walter gave her no breathing-time; he easily talked over old Baker, and got him to excuse his short absence; he turned his hunters into roadsters, and rode them very hard; he got the special license; he squared a clergyman at the head of the lake, who was an old friend of his and fond of fees, and in three days after her consent, Mary and Mrs. Easton drove a four-wheeled carriage Walter had lent them to the little hotel at the lakes. Walter had galloped over at eleven o'clock, and they all three took a little walk together. Walter Clifford and Mary Bartley returned from that walk MAN AND WIFE.