A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XIV. The Serpent.
Monckton slipped away at the dawn, and was off to Derby to prepare first-rate disguises.
At Derby, going through the local papers, he found lodgings offered at a farm-house to invalids, fresh milk and eggs, home-made bread, etc. The place was within a few miles of Clifford Hall. Monckton thought this would suit him much better than being too near. When his disguises were ready, he hired a horse and dog-cart by the month, and paid a deposit, and drove to the place in question. He put some shadow under his eyes to look more like an invalid. He had got used to his own cadaverous tint, so that seemed insufficient.
The farmer's wife looked at him, and hesitated.
"Well, sir," said she, with a blush, "we takes 'em in to cure, not to--"
"Not to bury," said Monckton. "Don't you be alarmed. I have got no time to die; I'm too busy. Why, I have been much worse than this. I am convalescent now."
"Ye don't say so, sir!" said she. "Well, I see your heart is good" (the first time he had ever been told that), "and so I've a mind to risk it."
Then she quickly clapped on ten shillings a week more for color, and he was installed. He washed his face, and then the woman conceived hopes of him, and expressed them in rustic fashion. "Well," said she, "dirt is a disguise. Now I look at you, you have got more mischief to do in the world yet, I do believe."
"A deal more, I hope," said he.
It now occurred to him, all of a sudden, that really he was not in good health, and that he had difficulties before him which required calm nerves, and that nerves are affected by the stomach. So, not to throw a chance away, he had the sense and the resolution to devote a few days to health and unwholesome meditation.
This is a discordant world: even vices will not always pull the same way. Here was a sinister villain distracted between avarice and revenge, and sore puzzled which way to turn. Of course he could expose the real parentage of Mary Bartley, and put both Bartley and Hope to shame, and then the Cliffords would make Bartley disgorge the L20,000. But he, Monckton, would not make a shilling by that, and it would be a weak revenge on Bartley, who could now spare L20,000, and no revenge at all on Hope, for Hope was now well-to-do, and would most likely be glad to get his daughter back. Then, on the other hand, he could easily frighten Bartley into giving him L5000 to keep dark, but in that case he must forego his vengeance on Hope.
This difficulty had tormented Monckton all along; but now Mrs. Dawson had revealed another obstacle. Young Clifford and Mary in love with each other. What Mrs. Easton saw as a friend, with her good mother-wit, this man saw in a moment as an enemy, viz., that this new combination dwarfed the L20,000 altogether. Monckton had no idea that his unknown antagonist Nurse Easton had married the pair, but the very attachment, as the chatter-box of the Dun Cow described it, was a bitter pill to him. "Who could have foreseen this?" said he. "It's devilish." We did not ourselves intend our readers to feel it so, or we would not have spent so much time over it. But as regards that one adjective, Mr. Monckton is a better authority than we are. He had a document with him that, skillfully used, might make mischief for a time between these lovers. But he foresaw there could be no permanent result without the personal assistance of Mrs. Braham. That he could have commanded fourteen years ago, but now he felt how difficult it would be. He would have to threaten and torment her almost to madness before she would come down to Derbyshire and declare that this Walter Clifford was the Walter Clifford of the certificate, and that she was his discarded wife. But Monckton was none the less resolved she should come if necessary. Leaving him varius distractum vitiis, and weighing every scheme, with its pros and cons, and, like a panther crouching and watching before he would make his first spring, we will now bring our other characters up to the same point, and that will not take us long, for during the months we have skipped there were not many events, and Mrs. Dawson has told the readers some of them, and the rest were only detached incidents.
The most important in our opinion were:
1. That Colonel Clifford resumed his determination to marry Julia Clifford to Walter, and pooh-poohed Fitzroy entirely, declaring him to be five feet nothing, and therefore far below the military standard.
2. That Hope rented a cottage of Walter about three hundred yards from the mine, and not upon the land that was leased to Bartley; that there was a long detached building hard by, which Walter divided for him, and turned into an office with a large window close to the ground, and a workshop with a doorway and an aperture for a window, but no window nor door.
3. That Hope got more and more uneasy about the L20,000, and observed to Bartley that they must be robbing somebody of it without the excuse they once had. He, for his part, would work to disgorge his share. Bartley replied that the money would have gone to a convent if he had not saved it from so vile a fate. This said the astute Bartley because one day Hope, who had his opinions on everything, inveighed against a convent, and said no private prisons ought to exist in a free country. So Bartley's ingenious statement stunned Hope for a minute, but did not satisfy his conscience.
4. Hope went to London for a week, and Mary spent four days with her husband at a hotel near the lake; but not the one held by Mrs. Easton's sister. This change was by advice of Mrs. Easton. On this occasion Mary played the woman. She requested Walter to get her some orange blossoms, and she borrowed a diamond bracelet of Julia, and sat down to dinner with her husband in evening dress, and dazzled him with her lovely arms and bust, and her diamond bracelet and eyes that outshone it. She seemed ever so much larger as well as lovelier, and Walter gazed at her with a sort of loving awe, and she smiled archly at him, and it was the first time she had really enjoyed her own beauty, or even troubled her head much about it. They condensed a honey-moon into these four days, and came home compensated for their patience, and more devoted than ever. But whilst they were away Colonel Clifford fired his attorney at Mr. Bartley, and when Mary came home, Bartley, who had lately connived at the love affair, told Mary this, and forbade her strictly to hold any more intercourse with Walter Clifford.
This was the state of things when "the hare with many friends," and only one enemy, returned to his cottage late in the afternoon. But before night everybody knew he had come home, and next morning they were all at him in due order. No sooner was he seated in his workshop, studying the lines of a new machine he was trying to invent, than he was startled from intense thought into the attitude of Hogarth's enraged musician by cries of "Mr. Hope! Mr. Hope! Mr. Hope!" and there was a little lot of eager applicants. First a gypsy boy with long black curls and continuous genuflections, and a fiddle, and doleful complaints that he could not play it, and that it was the fiddle's fault.
"Well, it is for once," said Hope. "Why, you little duffer, don't you see the bridge is too low?"
He slackened the string, removed the bridge, fitted on a higher one, tuned it, and handed it over.
"There," said he, "play us one of the tunes of Egypt. 'The Rogue's March,' eh? and mizzle."
The supple Oriental grinned and made obeisances, pretended not to know "The Rogue's March" (to the hen-house), and went off playing "Johnny Comes Marching Home." (Bridewell to wit.)
Then did Miss Clifford's French maid trip forward smirking with a parasol to mend: Desolee de vous deranger, Monsieur Hope, mais notre demoiselle est au desespoir: oh, ces parasols Anglais!
"Connu," said Hope, "voyons ca;" and in a minute repaired the article, and the girl spread it, and went off wriggling and mincing with it, so that there was a pronounced horse-laugh at her minauderies.
Then advanced a rough young English nurse out of a farm-house with a child that could just toddle. She had left an enormous doll with Hope for repairs, and the child had given her no peace for the last week. Luckily the doll was repaired, and handed over. The mite, in whose little bosom maternal feelings had been excited, insisted on carrying her child. The consequence was that at about the third step they rolled over one another, and to spectators at a little distance it was hard to say which was the parent and which the offspring. Them the strapping lass in charge seized roughly, and at the risk of dislocating their little limbs, tossed into the air and caught, one on each of her own robust arms, and carried them off stupidly irritated--for want of a grain of humor--at the good-natured laugh this caused, and looking as if she would like to knock their little heads together.
Under cover of this an old man in a broad hat, and seemingly infirm, crept slowly by and looked keenly at Hope, but made no application. Only while taking stock of Hope his eyes flashed wickedly, and much too brightly for so old a man as he appeared. He did not go far; he got behind a tree, and watched the premises. Then a genuine old man and feeble came and brought Hope his clock to mend. Hope wound it up, and it went to perfection. The old man had been a stout fellow when Hope was a boy, but now he was weak, especially in the upper story. Hope saw at once that the young folk had sent him there for a joke, and he did not approve it.
"Gaffer," said he, "this will want repairing every eight days; but don't you come here any more; I'll call on you every week, and repair it for auld lang syne."
Whilst he toddled away, and Hope retired behind his lathe to study his model in peace, Monckton raged at the sight of him and his popularity.
"Ay," said he, "you are a genius. You can model a steam-engine or mend a doll, and you outwitted me, and gave me fourteen years. But you will find me as ingenious as you at one thing, and that's revenge."
And now a higher class of visitors began to find their way to the general favorite. The first was a fair young lady of surpassing beauty. She strolled pensively down the green turf, cast a hasty glance in at the workshop, and not seeing Hope, concluded he was a little tired after his journey, and had not yet arrived. She strolled slowly down then, and seated herself in a large garden chair, stuffed, that Hope had made, and placed there for Colonel Clifford. That worthy frequented the spot because he had done so for years, and because it was a sweet turfy slope; and there was a wonderful beech-tree his father had made him plant when he was five years old. It had a gigantic silvery stem, and those giant branches which die crippled in a beech wood but really belong to the isolated tree, as one Virgil discovered before we were born. Mary Bartley then lowered her parasol, and settled into the Colonel's chair under the shade patulae fagi--of the wide-spreading beech-tree.
She sat down and sighed. Monckton eyed her from his lurking-place, and made a shrewd guess who she was, but resolved to know.
Presently Hope caught a glimpse of her, and came forward and leaned out of the window to enjoy the sight of her. He could do that unobserved, for he was a long way behind her at a sharp angle.
He was still a widower and this his only child, and lovely as an angel; and he had seen her grow into ripe loveliness from a sick girl. He had sinned for her and saved her; he had saved her again from a more terrible death. He doted on her, and it was always a special joy to him when he could gloat on her unseen. Then he had no need to make up an artificial face and hide his adoration from her.
But soon a cloud came over his face and his paternal heart. He knew she had a lover; and she looked like a girl who was waiting pensively for him. She had not come there for him whom she knew only as her devoted friend. At this thought the poor father sighed.
Mary's quick senses caught that, and she turned her head, and her sweet face beamed.
"You are there, after all, Mr. Hope."
Hope was delighted. Why, it was him she had come to see, after all. He came down to her directly, radiant, and then put on a stiff manner he often had to wear, out of fidelity to Bartley, who did not deserve it.
"This is early for you to be out, Miss Bartley."
"Of course it is," said she. "But I know it is the time of day when you are kind to anybody that comes, and mend all their rubbish for them, and I could kill them for their impudence in wasting your time so. And I am as bad as the rest. For here I am wasting your time in my turn. Yes, dear Mr. Hope, you are so kind to everybody and mend their things, I want you to be kind to me and mend--my prospects for me."
Hope's impulse was to gather into his arms and devour with kisses this sweet specimen of womanly tenderness, frank inconsistency, naivete, and archness.
As he could not do that, he made himself extra stiff.
"Your prospects. Miss Bartley! Why, they are brilliant. Heiress to all the growing wealth and power around you."
"Wealth and power!" said the girl. "What is the use of them, if our hearts are to be broken? Oh, Mr. Hope, papa is so unkind. He has forbidden me to speak to him." Then, gravely, "That command comes too late."
"I fear it does," said Hope. "I have long suspected something."
"Suspected?" said Mary, turning pale. "What?"
"That you and Walter Clifford--"
"Yes," said Mary, trembling inwardly, but commanding her face.
Mary drew a long breath. "What makes you think so?" said she, looking down.
"Well, there is a certain familiarity--no, that is too strong a word; but there is more ease between you than there was. Ever since I came back from Belgium I have seen that the preliminaries of courtship were over, and you two looked on yourselves as one."
"Mr. Hope," said this good, arch girl, and left off panting, "you are a terrible man. Papa is eyes and no eyes. You frighten me; but not very much, for you would not watch me so closely if you did not love me--a little."
"Not a little, Miss Bartley."
"Mary. I have seen you a sickly child; I have been anxious--who would not? I have seen you grow in health and strength, and every virtue."
"And seen me tumble into the water and frighten you out of your senses, and there's nothing one loves like a downright pest, especially if she loves us; and I do love you, Mr. Hope, dearly, dearly, and I promise to be a pest to you all your days. Ah, here he comes at last." She made two eager steps to meet him, then she said, "Oh! I forgot," and came back again and looked prodigiously demure and innocent.
Walter came on with his usual rush, crying, "Mary, how good of you!"
Mary put her fingers in her ears. "No, no, no; we are forbidden to communicate." Then, imitating a stiff man of business--for she was a capital mimic when she chose--"any communication you may wish to honor me with must be addressed to this gentleman, Mr. Hope; he will convey it to me, and it shall meet with all the attention it deserves."
Walter laughed, and said, "That's ingenious."
"Of course it is ingenuous," said Mary, subtly. "That's my character to a fault."
"Well, young people," said Hope, "I am not sure that I have time to repeat verbal communications to keen ears that heard them. And I think I can make myself more useful to you. Walter, your father has set his lawyer on to Mr. Bartley, and what is the consequence? Mr. Bartley forbids Mary to speak to you, and the next thing will be a summons, lawsuit, and a great defeat, and loss to your father and you. Mr. Bartley sent me the lawyer's letter. He hopes to get out of a clear contract by pleading a surprise. Now you must go to the lawyer--it is no use arguing with your father in his present heat--and you must assure him there has been no surprise. Why, I called on Colonel Clifford years ago, and told him there was coal on that farm; and I almost went on my knees to him to profit by it."
"You don't say that, Mr. Hope?"
"I do say it, and I shall have to swear it. You may be sure Mr. Bartley will subpoena me, if this wretched squabble gets into court."
"But what did my father say to you?"
"He was kind and courteous to me. I was poor as a rat, and dusty with travel--on foot; and he was a fine gentleman, as he always is, when he is not in too great a passion. He told me more than one land-owner had wasted money in this county groping for coal. He would not waste his money nor dirty his fingers. But he thanked me for my friendly zeal, and rewarded me with ten shillings."
"Oh!" cried Walter, and hid his face in his hands. As for Mary, she put her hand gently but quietly on Hope's shoulder, as if to protect him from such insults.
"Why, children," said Hope, pleased at their sympathy, but too manly to hunt for it, "it was more than he thought the information worth, and I assure you it was a blessed boon to me. I had spent my last shilling, and there I was trapesing across the island on a wild-goose chase with my reaping-hook and my fiddle; and my poor little Grace, that I--that I--"
Mary's hand went a moment to his other shoulder, and she murmured through her tears, "You have got me."
Then Hope was happy again, and indeed the simplest woman can find in a moment the very word that is balm of Gilead to a sorrowful man.
However, Hope turned it off and continued his theme. The jury, he said, would pounce on that ten shillings as the Colonel's true estimate of his coal, and he would figure in the case as a dog in the manger who grudged Bartley the profits of a risky investment he had merely sneered at and not opposed, until it turned out well; and also disregarded the interests of the little community to whom the mine was a boon. "No," said Hope; "tell your lawyer that I am Bartley's servant, but love equity. I have proposed to Bartley to follow a wonderful seam of coal under Colonel Clifford's park. We have no business there. So if the belligerents will hear reason I will make Bartley pay a royalty on every ton that comes to the surface from any part of the mine; and that will be L1200 a year to the Cliffords. Take this to the lawyer and tell him to unfix that hero's bayonet, or he will charge at the double and be the death of his own money--and yours."
Walter threw up his hands with amazement and admiration. "What a head!" said he.
"Fiddledee!" said Mary; "what a heart!"
"In a word, a phoenix," said Hope, dryly. "Praise is sweet, especially behind one's back. So pray go on, unless you have something better to say to each other;" and Hope retired briskly into his office. But when the lovers took him at his word, and began to strut up and down hand in hand, and murmur love's music into each other's ears, he could not take his eyes off them, and his thoughts were sad. She had only known that young fellow a few months, yet she loved him passionately, and he would take her away from her father before she even knew all that father had done and suffered for her. When the revelation did come she would perhaps be a wife and a mother, and then even that revelation would fall comparatively flat.
Besides his exceptional grief, he felt the natural pang of a father at the prospect of resigning her to a husband. Hard is the lot of parents; and, above all, of a parent with one child whom he adores. Many other creatures love their young tenderly, and their young leave them. But then the infancy and youth of those creatures are so short. In a few months the young shift for themselves, forgetting and forgotten. But with our young the helpless periods of infancy and youth are so long. Parental anxiety goes through so many trials and so various, and they all strike roots into the parent's heart. Yet after twenty years of love and hope and fear comes a handsome young fellow, a charming highwayman to a parent's eye, and whisks her away after two months' courtship. Then, oh, ye young, curb for a moment your blind egotism, and feel a little for the parents who have felt so much for you! You rather like William Hope, so let him help you to pity your own parents. See his sad face as he looks at the love he is yet too unselfish to discourage. To save that tender root, a sickly child, he transplanted it from his own garden, and still tended it with loving care for many a year. Another gathers the flower. He watched and tended and trembled over the tender nestling. The young bird is trying her wings before his eyes; soon she will spread them, and fly away to a newer nest and a younger bosom.
In this case, however, the young people had their troubles too, and their pretty courtship was soon interrupted by an unwelcome and unexpected visitor, who, as a rule, avoided that part, for the very reason that Colonel Clifford frequented it. However, he came there to-day to speak to Hope. Mr. Bartley, for he it was, would have caught the lovers if he had come silently; but he was talking to a pitman as he came, and Mary's quick ears heard his voice round the corner.
"Papa!" cried she. "Oh, don't let him see us! Hide!"
"Anywhere--in here--quick!" and she flew into Hope's workshop, which indeed offered great facilities for hiding. However, to make sure, they crouched behind the lathe and a huge plank of beautiful mahogany Hope was very proud of.
As soon as they were hidden, Mary began to complain in a whisper. "This comes of our clandestine m--. Our very life is a falsehood; concealment is torture--and degradation."
"I don't feel it. I call this good fun."
"Oh, Walter! Good fun! For shame! Hush!"
Bartley bustled on to the green, called Hope out, and sat down in Colonel Clifford's chair. Hope came to him, and Bartley, who had in his hand some drawings of the strata in the coal mine, handed the book to Hope, and said, "I quite agree with you. That is the seam to follow: there's a fortune in it."
"Then you are satisfied with me?"
"More than satisfied."
"I have something to ask in return."
"I am not likely to say no, my good friend," was the cordial reply.
"Thank you. Well, then, there is an attachment between Mary and young Clifford."
Bartley was on his guard directly.
"Her happiness is at stake. That gives me a right to interfere, and say, 'be kind to her.'"
"Am I not kind to her? Was any parent ever kinder? But I must be wise as well as kind. Colonel Clifford can disinherit his son."
At this point the young people ventured to peep and listen, taking advantage of the circumstance that both Hope and Bartley were at some distance, with their backs turned to the workshop.
So they both heard Hope say,
"Withdraw your personal opposition to the match, and the other difficulty can be got over. If you want to be kind to a young woman, it is no use feeding her ambition and her avarice, for these are a man's idols. A woman's is love."
Mary wafted the speaker a furtive kiss.
"To enrich that dear child after your death, thirty years hence, and break her heart in the flower of her youth, is to be unkind to her; and if you are unkind to her, our compact is broken."
"Unkind to her," said Bartley. "What male parent has ever been more kind, more vigilant? Sentimental weakness is another matter. My affection is more solid. Can I oblige you in anything that is business?"
"Mr. Bartley," said Hope, "you can not divert me from the more important question: business is secondary to that dear girl's happiness. However, I have more than once asked you to tell me who is the loser of that large sum, which, as you and I have dealt with it, has enriched you and given me a competence."
"That's my business," said Bartley, sharply, "for you never fingered a shilling of it. So if the pittance I pay you for conducting my business burns your pocket, why, send it to Rothschild."
And having made this little point, Bartley walked away to escape further comment, and Hope turned on his heel and walked into his office, and out at the back door directly, and proceeded to his duties in the mine; but he was much displeased with Bartley, and his looks showed it.
The coast lay clear. The lovers came cautiously out, and silently too, for what they had heard puzzled them not a little.
Mary came out first, and wore a very meditative look. She did not say a word till they got to some little distance from the workshop. Then she half turned her head toward Walter, who was behind her, and said, "I suppose you know we have done a contemptible thing--listening?"
"Well," said Walter, "it wasn't good form; but," added he, "we could hardly help it."
"Of course not," said Mary. "We have been guilty of a concealment that drives us into holes and corners, and all manner of meannesses must be expected to follow. Well, we have listened, and I am very glad of it; for it is plain we are not the only people who have got secrets. Now tell me, please, what does it all mean?"
"Well, Mary," said Walter, "to tell the truth, it is all Greek to me, except about the money. I think I could give a guess where that came from."
"There, now!" cried Mary; "that is so like you gentlemen. Money--money--money! Never mind the money part; leave that to take care of itself. Can you explain what Mr. Hope said to papa about me? Mr. Hope is a very superior man, and papa's adviser in business. But, after all, he is in papa's employment. Papa pays him. Then how comes he to care more about my happiness than papa does--and say so?"
"Why, you begged him to intercede."
"Yes," said Mary, "but not to threaten papa; not to say, 'If you are unkind to Mary, our compact is broken.'"
Then she pondered awhile; then she turned to Walter, and said:
"What sort of compact is that? A compact between a father and another gentleman that a father shall not be unkind to his own daughter? Did you ever hear of such a thing?"
"I can't say I ever did."
"Did you ever hear tell of such a thing?"
"Well, now you put it to me, I don't think I ever did."
"And yet you could run off about money. What's money! This compact is a great mystery. It's my business from this hour to fathom that mystery. Please let me think."
Mary's face now began to show great power and intensity; her eyes seemed to veil themselves, and to turn down their glances inward.
Walter was struck with the intensity of that fair brow, those remarkable eyes, and that beautiful face; they seemed now to be all strung up to concert pitch. He kept silent and looked at his wife with a certain reverence, for to tell the truth she had something of the Pythian priestess about her, when she concentrated her whole mind on any one thing in this remarkable manner. At last the oracle spoke:
"Mr. Hope has been deceiving me with some good intention. He pretends to be subservient to papa, but he is the master. How he comes to be master I don't know, but so it is, Walter. If it came to a battle royal, Mr. Hope would side, not with papa, but with me."
"That's important, if true," said Walter, dryly.
"It's true," said Mary, "and it's important." Then she turned suddenly round on him. "How did you feel when you ran into that workshop, and we both crouched, and hid like criminals or slaves?"
"Well," said Walter, hanging his head, "to tell the truth, I took a comic view of the business."
"I can't do that," said Mary. "I respect my husband, and can't bear him to hide from the face of any mortal man; and I am proud of my own love, and indignant to think that I have condescended to hide it."
"It is a shame," said Walter, "and I hope we sha'n't have to hide it much longer. Oh, bother, how unfortunate! here's my father. What are we to do?"
"I'll tell you," said Mary, resolutely. "You must speak to him at once, and win him over to our side. Tell him Julia is going to marry Percy Fitzroy on the first of next month, then tell him all that Mr. Hope said you were to tell the lawyer, and then tell him what you have made me believe, that you love me better than your life, and that I love you better still; and that no power can part us. If you can soften him, Mr. Hope shall soften papa."
"But if he is too headstrong to be softened?" faltered Walter.
"Then," said Mary, "you must defy my papa, and I shall defy yours."
After a moment's thought she said: "Walter, I shall stay here till he sees me and you together; then he won't be able to run off about his mines, and his lawsuits, and such rubbishy things. His attention will be attracted to our love, and so you will have it out with him, whilst I retire a little way--not far--and meditate upon Mr. Hope's strange words, and ponder over many things that have happened within my recollection."
True to this policy, the spirited girl waited till Colonel Clifford came on the green, and then made Walter as perfect a courtesy as ever graced a minuet at the court of Louis le Grand.
Walter took off his hat to her with chivalric grace and respect. Colonel Clifford drew up in a stiff military attitude, which flavored rather of the parade or the field of battle than the court either of the great monarch or of little Cupid.