A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XII. The Clandestine Marriage.
Walter Clifford and Mary sat at a late breakfast in a little inn that looked upon a lake, which appeared to them more lovely than the lake of Thun or of Lucerne. He beamed steadily at her with triumphant rapture; she stole looks at him of wonder, admiration, and the deepest love.
As they had nothing now to argue about, they only spoke a few words at a time, but these were all musical with love.
To them, as we dramatists say, entered Mrs. Easton, with signs of hurry.
"Miss Mary--" said she.
"Mrs. Mary," suggested Walter, meekly.
Mrs. Mary blew him a kiss.
"Ay, ay," said Mrs. Easton, smiling. "Of course you will both hate me, but I have come to take you home, Mistress Mary."
"Home!" said Mary; "why, this feels like home."
"No doubt," said Mrs. Easton, "but, for all that, in half an hour we must start."
The married couple remonstrated with one accord, but Mrs. Easton was firm. "I dreamed," said she, "that we were all found out--and that's a warning. Mr. Walter, you know that you'll be missed at Clifford Hall, and didn't ought to leave your father another day. And you, Miss Mary, do but think what a weight I have taken upon my shoulders, and don't put off coming home, for I am almost shaking with anxiety, and for sure and certain my dream it was a warning, and there's something in the wind."
They were both so indebted to this good woman that they looked at each other piteously, but agreed. Walter rang the bell, and ordered the four-wheeler and his own nag.
"Mary, one little walk in that sweet garden."
"Yes, dear," said Mary, and in another moment they were walking in the garden, intertwined like the ivy and the oak, and purring over their present delights and glowing prospects.
In the mean time Mrs. Easton packed up their things: Walter's were enrolled in a light rug with straps, which went upon his saddle. They left the little inn, Mary driving. When they had gone about two miles they came to cross-roads.
"Please pull up," said Mrs. Easton; then turning to Walter, who was riding ridiculously close to Mary's whip hand, "Isn't that the way to Clifford Hall?"
"It's one way," said he; "but I don't mean to go that way. How can I? It's only three miles more round by your house."
"Nurse," said Mary, appealingly.
"Ay, ay, poor things," said Mrs. Easton. "Well, well, don't loiter, anyway. I shall not be my own woman again till we're safe at the farm."
So they drove briskly on, and in about an hour more they got to a long hill, whence they could see the Gilberts' farm.
"There, nurse," said Mary, pouting a little, "now I hope you're content, for we have got safe home, and he and I shall not have a happy day together again."
"Oh yes, you will, and many happy years," said Mrs. Easton. "Well, yes, I don't feel so fidgety now."
"Oh!" cried Mary, all of a sudden. "Why, there's our gray mare coming down the hill with the dog-cart! Who's that driving her? It's not papa. I declare it's Mr. Hope, come home safe and sound. Dear Mr. Hope! Oh, now my happiness is perfect!"
"Mr. Hope!" screamed Mrs. Easton. "Drive faster, for Heaven's sake! Turn your horse, sir, and gallop away from us as hard as you can!"
"Well, but, Mrs. Easton--" objected Walter.
Mrs. Easton stood up in the carriage. "Man alive!" she screamed, "you know nothing, and I know a deal; begone, or you are no friend of mine: you'll make me curse the hour that I interfered."
"Go, darling," said Mary, kindly, and so decidedly that he turned his horse directly, gave her one look of love and disappointment, and galloped away.
Mary looked pale and angry, and drove on in sullen silence.
Mrs. Easton was too agitated to mind her angry looks. She kept wiping the perspiration from her brow with her handkerchief, and speaking in broken sentences: "If we could only get there first--fool not to teach my sister her lesson before we went, she's such a simpleton!--can't you drive faster?"
"Why, nurse," said Mary, "don't be so afraid of Mr. Hope. It's not him I'm afraid of; it's papa."
"Yon don't know what you're talking about, child. Mr. Bartley is easily blinded; I won't tell you why. It isn't so with Mr. Hope. Oh, if I could only get in to have one word with my simple sister before he turns her inside out!"
This question was soon decided. Hope drove up to the door whilst Mary and Mrs. Eastern were still some distance off and hidden by a turn in the road. When they emerged again into sight of the farm they just caught sight of Hope's back, and Mrs. Gilbert curtseying to him and ushering him into the house.
"Drive into the stable-yard," said Mrs. Easton, faintly. "He mustn't see your travelling basket, anyway."
She told the servant to put the horse into the stable immediately, and the basket into the brew-house. Then she hurried Mary up the back stairs to her room, and went with a beating heart to find Mr. Hope and her sister.
Mrs. Gilbert, though a simple and unguarded woman, could read faces like the rest, and she saw at once that her sister was very much put out by this visit of Mr. Hope, and wanted to know what had passed between her and him. This set the poor woman all in a flutter for fear she should have said something injudicious, and there-upon she prepared to find out, if possible, what she ought to have said.
"What! Mr. Hope!" said Mrs. Easton. "Well, Mary will be glad. And have you been long home, sir?"
"Came last night," said Hope. "She hasn't been well, I hear. What is the matter?" And he looked very anxious.
"Well, sir," said Mrs. Easton, very guardedly, "she certainly gave me a fright when she came here. She looked quite pale; but whether it was that she wanted a change--but whatever it was, it couldn't be very serious. You shall judge for yourself. Sister, go to Miss Mary's room, and tell her."
Mrs. Easton, in giving this instruction, frowned at her sister as much as to say, "Now don't speak, but go."
When she was gone, the next thing was to find out if the woman had made any foolish admission to Mr. Hope; so she waited for him.
She had not long to wait.
Hope said: "I hardly expected to see you; your sister said you were from home."
"Well, sir," said Mrs. Easton, "we were not so far off, but we did come home a little sooner than we intended, and I am rare glad we did, for Miss Mary wouldn't have missed you for all the views in the county."
With that she made an excuse, and left him. She found her sister in Mary's room: they were comparing notes.
"Now," said she to Mrs. Gilbert, "you tell me every word you said to Mr. Hope about Miss Mary and me."
"Well, I said you were not at home, and that is every word; he didn't give me time to say any more for questioning of me about her health."
"That's lucky," said Mrs. Easton, dryly. "Thank Heaven, there's no harm done; he sha'n't see the carriage."
"Dear me, nurse," said Mary, "all this time I'm longing to see him."
"Well, you shall see him, if you won't own to having been a night from home."
Mary promised, and went eagerly to Mr. Hope. It did not come natural to her to be afraid of him, and she was impatient for the day to come when she might tell him the whole story. The reception he gave her was not of a nature to discourage this feeling; his pale face--for he had been very ill--flushed at sight of her, his eyes poured affection upon her, and he held out both hands to her. "This the pale girl they frightened me about!" said he. "Why, you're like the roses in July."
"That's partly with seeing of you, sir," said Mrs. Easton, quietly following, "but we do take some credit to ourselves too; for Miss Mary was rather pale when she came here a week ago; but la, young folks want a change now and then."
"Nurse," said Mary, "I really was not well, and you have done wonders for me, and I hope you won't think me ungrateful, but I must go home with Mr. Hope."
Hope's countenance flushed with delight, and Mrs. Easton saw in a moment that Mary's affection was co-operating with her prudence. "I thought that would be her first word, sir," said she. "Why, of course you will, miss. There, don't you take any trouble; we'll pack up your things and put them in the dog-cart; but you must eat a morsel both of you before you go. There's a beautiful piece of beef in the pot, not oversalted, and some mealy potatoes and suet dumplings. You sit down and have your chat, whilst Polly and I get everything ready for you."
Then Mary asked Mr. Hope so many questions with such eager affection that he had no time to ask her any, and then she volunteered the home news, especially of Colonel Clifford's condition, and then she blushed and asked him if he had said anything to her father about Walter Clifford.
"Not much," said Mr. Hope. "You are very young, Mary, and it's not for me to interfere, and I won't interfere. But if you want my opinion, why, I admire the young man extremely. I always liked him; he is a straightforward, upright, manly, good-hearted chap, and has lots of plain good sense--Heaven knows where he got it!"
This eulogy was interrupted by Mary putting a white hand and a perfect nose upon Hope's shoulder, and kissing the cloth thereon.
"What," said Hope, tenderly, and yet half sadly--for he knew that all middle-aged men must now be second--"have I found the way to your heart?"
"You always knew that, Mr. Hope," said Mary, softly; "especially since my escapade in that horrid brook."
Their affectionate chat was interrupted by a stout servant laying a snowy cloth, and after her sailed in Mrs. Gilbert, with a red face, and pride unconcealed and justifiable, carrying a grand dish of smoking hot boiled beef, set in a very flower bed, so to speak, of carrots, turnips, and suet dumplings; the servant followed with a brown basin, almost as big as a ewer, filled with mealy potatoes, whose jackets hung by a thread. Around this feast the whole party soon collected, and none of them sighed for Russian soups or French ragouts; for the fact is that under the title of boiled beef there exist two things, one of which, without any great impropriety, might be called junk; but this was the powdered beef of our ancestors, a huge piece just slightly salted in the house itself, so that the generous juice remained in it, but the piquant slices, with the mealy potatoes, made a delightful combination. The glasses were filled with home-brewed ale, sparkling and clear and golden as the finest Madeira. They all ate manfully, stimulated by the genial hostess. Even Mary outshone all her former efforts, and although she couldn't satisfy Mrs. Gilbert, she declared she had never eaten so much in all her life. This set good Mrs. Gilbert's cheeks all aglow with simple, honest satisfaction.
Hope drove Mary home in the dog-cart. He was a happy man, but she could hardly be called a happy woman. She was warm and cold by turns. She had got her friend back, and that was a comfort, but she was not treating him with confidence; indeed, she was passively deceiving him, and that chilled her; but then it would not be for long, and that comforted her, and yet even when the day should come for the great doors of Clifford Hall to fly open to her, would not a sad, reproachful look from dear Mr. Hope somewhat imbitter her cup of happiness? Deceit, and even reticence, did not come so natural to her as they do to many women: she was not weak, and she was frank, though very modest.
Mr. Bartley met them at the door, and, owing to Hope's presence, was more demonstrative than usual. He seemed much pleased at Mary's return, and delighted at her appearance.
"Well," said he, "I am glad I sent you away for a week. We have all missed you, my dear, but the change has set you up again, I never saw you look better. Now you are well, we must try and keep you well."
* * * * *
We must leave the reader to imagine the mixed feelings with which Mrs. Walter Clifford laid her head upon the pillow that night, and we undertake to say that the female readers, at all events, will supply this blank in our narrative much better than we could, though we were to fill a chapter with that subject alone.
* * * * *
Passion is a terrible enemy to mere affection. Walter Clifford loved his father dearly, yet for twenty-four hours he had almost forgotten him. But the moment he turned his horse's head toward Clifford Hall, uneasiness and something very like remorse began to seize him. Suppose his father had asked for him, and wondered where he was, and felt himself deserted and abandoned in his dying moments. He spurred his horse to a gallop, and soon reached Clifford Hall. As he was afraid to go straight to his father's room, he went at once to old Baker, and said, in an agitated voice,
"One word, John--is he alive?"
"Yes, sir, he is," said John, gravely, and rather sternly.
"Has he asked for me?"
"More than once or twice, sir."
Walter sank into a chair, and covered his face with his hands. This softened the old servant, whose manner till then had been sullen and grim.
"You need not fret, Mr. Walter," said he; "it's all right. In course I know where you have been."
Walter looked up alarmed.
"I mean in a general way," said the old man. "You have been a-courting of an angel. I know her, sir, and I hope to be her servant some day; and if you was to marry any but her, I'd leave service altogether, and so would Rhoda Milton; but, Mr. Walter, sir, there's a time for everything: I hope you'll forgive me for saying so. However you are here now, and I was wide-awake, and I have made it all right, sir."
"That's impossible," said Walter. "How could you make it right with my poor dear father, if in his last moments he felt himself neglected?"
"But he didn't feel himself neglected."
"I don't understand you," said Walter.
"Well, sir," said old Baker, "I'm an old servant, and I have done my duty to father and son according to my lights: I told him a lie."
"A lie, John!" said Walter.
"A thundering lie," said John, rather aggressively. "I don't know as I ever told a greater lie in all my life. I told him you was gone up to London to fetch a doctor."
Walter grasped John Baker's hand. "God bless you, old man," said he, "for taking that on your conscience! Well, you sha'n't have yourself to reproach for my fault. I know a first-class gout doctor in London; he has cured it more than once. I'll wire him down this minute; you'll dispatch the message, and I'll go to my father."
The message was sent, and when the Colonel awoke from an uneasy slumber he saw his son at the foot of the bed, gazing piteously at him.
"My dear boy," said he, faintly, and held out a wasted hand. Walter was pricked to the heart at this greeting: not a word of remonstrance at his absence.
"I fear you missed me, father," said he, sadly.
"That I have," said the old man; "but I dare say you didn't forget me, though you weren't by my side."
The high-minded old soldier said no more, and put no questions, but confided in his son's affection, and awaited the result of it. From that hour Walter Clifford nursed his father day and night. Dr. Garner arrived next day. He examined the patient, and put a great many questions as to the history and progress of the disorder up to that date, and inquired in particular what was the length of time the fits generally endured. Here he found them all rather hazy. "Ah," said he, "patients are seldom able to assist their medical adviser with precise information on this point, yet it's very important. Well, can you tell me how long this attack has lasted?"
They told him that within a day or two.
"Then now," said he, "the most important question of all: What day did the pain leave his extremities?"
The patient and John Baker had to compare notes to answer this question, and they made it out to be about twenty days.
"Then he ought to be as dead as a herring," whispered the doctor.
After this he began to walk the room and meditate, with his hands behind him.
"Open those top windows," said he. "Now draw the screen, and give his lungs a chance; no draughts must blow upon him, you know." Then he drew Walter aside. "Do you want to know the truth? Well, then, his life hangs on a thread. The gout is creeping upward, and will inevitably kill him if we can't get it down. Nothing but heroic remedies will do that, and it's three to five against them. What do you say?"
"I dare not--I dare not. Pray put the question to him."
"I will," said the doctor; and accordingly he did put it to him with a good deal of feeling and gentleness, and the answer rather surprised him.
Weak as he was, Colonel Clifford's dull eye flashed, and he half raised himself on his elbow. "What a question to put to a soldier!" said he. "Why, let us fight, to be sure. I thought it was twenty to one--five to three? I have often won the rubber with five to three against me."
"Ah!" said Dr. Garner, "these are the patients that give the doctor a chance." Then he turned to Baker. "Have you any good champagne in the house--not sweet, and not too dry, and full of fire?"
"Irroy's Carte d'Or," suggested the patient, entering into the business with a certain feeble alacrity that showed his gout had not always been unconnected with imprudence in diet.
Baker was sent for the champagne. It was brought and opened, and the patient drank some of it fizzing. When he had drank what he could, his eyes twinkled, and he said,
"That's a hair of a dog that has often bitten me."
The wine soon got into his weakened head, and he dropped asleep.
"Another draught when he wakes," said the doctor, "but from a fresh bottle."
"We'll finish this one to your health in the servants' hall," said honest John Baker.
Dr. Garner staid there all night, keeping up the patient's strength with eggs and brandy, and everything, in short, except medicine; and he also administered champagne, but at much longer intervals.
At one o'clock next day the patient gave a dismal groan; Walter and the others started up in alarm.
"Good!" said the doctor, calmly; "now I'll go to bed. Call me if there's any fresh symptom."
At six o'clock old Baker burst in the room: "Sir, sir, he have swore at me twice. The Lord be praised!"
"Excellent!" said the doctor. "Now tell me what disagrees with him most after champagne?"
"Why, Green Chartreuse, to be sure," said old Baker.
"Then give him a table-spoonful," said the doctor. "Get me some hot water."
"Which first?" inquired Baker.
"The patient, to be sure," said Dr. Garner.
Soon after this the doctor stood by his patient's side, and found him writhing, and, to tell the truth, he was using bad language occasionally, though he evidently tried not to.
Dr. Garner looked at his watch. "I think there's time to catch the evening train."
"Why," said Walter, "surely you would not desert us; this is the crisis, is it not?"
"It's something more than that," said the doctor; "the disease knows its old place; it has gone back to the foot like a shot; and if you can keep it there, the patient will live; he's not the sort of patient that strikes his colors while there's a bastion left to defend."
These words pleased the old Colonel so that he waved a feeble hand above his head, then groaned most dismally, and ground his teeth to avoid profanity.
The doctor, with exquisite gentleness, drew the clothes off his feet, and sent for a lot of fleecy cotton or wool, and warned them all not to touch the bed, nor even to approach the lower part of it, and then he once more proposed to leave, and gave his reasons.
"Now, look here, you know, I have done my part, and if I give special instructions to the nurses, they can do the rest. I'm rather dear, and why should you waste your money?"
"Dear!" said Walter, warmly; "you're as cheap as dirt, and as good as gold, and the very sight of you is a comfort to us. There's a fast train at ten; I'll drive you to the station after breakfast myself. Your fees--they are nothing to us. We love him, and we are the happiest house in Christendom; we, that were the saddest."
"Well," said the doctor, "you north countrymen are hearty people. I'll stay till to-morrow morning--indeed, I'll stay till the afternoon, for my London day will be lost anyway."
He staid accordingly till three o'clock, left his patient out of all present danger, and advised Walter especially against allowing colchicum to be administered to him until his strength had recovered.
"There is no medicinal cure for gout," said he; "pain is a mere symptom, and colchicum soothes that pain, not by affecting the disease, but by stilling the action of the heart. Well, if you still the action of that heart there, you'll kill him as surely as if you stilled it with a pistol bullet. Knock off his champagne in three or four days, and wheel him into the sun as soon as you can with safety, fill his lungs with oxygen, and keep all worry and disputes and mental anxiety from him, if you can. Don't contradict him for a month to come."
The Colonel had a terrible bout of it so far as pain was concerned, but after about a fortnight the paroxysms intermitted, the appetite increased. Everybody was his nurse; everybody, including Julia Clifford, humored him; Percy Fitzroy was never mentioned, and the name of Bartley religiously avoided. The Colonel had got a fright, and was more prudent in his diet, and always in the open air.
Walter left him only at odd times, when he could hope to get a hasty word with Mary, and tell her how things were going, and do all that man could do to keep her heart up, and reconcile her to the present situation.
Returning from his wife one day, and leaving her depressed by their galling situation, though she was never peevish, but very sad and thoughtful, he found his father and Julia Clifford in the library. Julia had been writing letters for him; she gave Walter a deprecatory look, as much as to say, "What I am doing is by compulsion, and you won't like it." Colonel Clifford didn't leave the young man in any doubt about the matter. He said: "Walter, you heard me speak of Bell, the counsel who leads this circuit. I was once so fortunate as to do him a good turn, and he has not forgotten it; he will sleep here the day after to-morrow, and he will go over that black-guard's lease: he has been in plenty of mining cases. I have got a sort of half opinion out of him already; he thinks it contrary to the equity of contracts that minerals should pass under a farm lease where the surface of the soil is a just equivalent to the yearly payment; but the old fox won't speak positively till he has read every syllable of the lease. However, it stands to reason that it's a fraud; it comes from a man who is all fraud; but thank God I am myself again."
He started up erect as a dart. "I'll have him off my lands; I'll drag him out of the bowels of the earth, him and all his clan."
With this and other threats of the same character he marched out of the room, striking the floor hard with his stick as he went, and left Julia Clifford amazed, and Walter Clifford aghast, at his vindictive fury.