A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XV. The Secret in Danger.
"Hum!" said the Colonel, dryly; "a petticoat!"
"Et cetera," suggested Walter, meekly; and we think he was right, for a petticoat has never in our day been the only garment worn by females, nor even the most characteristic: fishermen wear petticoats, and don't wear bonnets.
"Who is she, sir?" asked the grim Colonel.
"Your niece, father," said Walter, mellifluously, "and the most beautiful girl in Derbyshire."
The Colonel snorted, but didn't condescend to go into the question of beauty.
"Why did my niece retire at sight of me?" was his insidious inquiry.
"Well," said Walter, meekly, "the truth is, some mischief-making fool has been telling her that you have lost all natural affection for your dead sister's child."
The stout Colonel staggered for a moment, snorted, and turned it off. "You and she are very often together, it seems."
"All the better for me," said Walter, stoutly.
"And all the worse for me," retorted the Colonel. And as men gravitate toward their leading grievance, he went off at a tangent, "What do you think my feelings must be, to see my son, my only son, spooning the daughter of my only enemy; of a knave who got on my land on pretense of farming it, but instead of that he burrowed under the soil like a mole, sir; and now the place is defiled with coal dust, the roads are black, the sheep are black, the daisies and buttercups are turning black. There's a smut on your nose, Walter. I forbid you to spoon his daughter, upon pain of a father's curse. My real niece, Julia, is a lady and an heiress, and the beauty of the county. She is the girl for you."
"And how about the seventh commandment?" inquired Walter, putting his hands in his pockets.
"Oh," said the Colonel, indifferently, "you must mind your eye, like other husbands. But in our walk of life it's the man's fault if the woman falls out of the ranks."
"That's not what I mean," said Walter.
"What do you mean, then, if you mean anything at all?"
"I mean this, father. She marries Percy Fitzroy in three weeks; so if I fix my affections on her up to the date of the wedding, shall I not be tempted to continue, and will not a foolish attachment to another man's sweetheart end in a vicious attachment to another man's wife?"
Once more was the Colonel staggered for a moment, and, oh--as the ladies say--is it not gratifying to find that where honest reasons go for nothing, humbug can obtain a moment's hearing? The Colonel admitted there was something in that; but even humbug could not divert him long from his mania. "The only thing to be done," said he, "is to cut him out between this and then. Why, he stands five feet nothing."
"That's the advantage he has over me," suggested Walter; "she is five feet eight or thereabouts, so he is just the height of her heart."
The Colonel burst out laughing. "You are no fool," said he; "that's the second good thing you have said these three years. I forget what the other was, but I remember it startled me at the time. You are a wit, and you will cut out that manikin or you are no son of mine."
"Don't say that, father," said Walter; "and cutting out, why, that's a naval operation, not military. I am not the son of an admiral."
"No equivocation, sir; the forces assist one another at a pinch."
"How can I cut him out?--there's no room, he is tied to her apron strings."
"Untie him, then."
At this moment, whether because Hope attracted everybody in the course of the day, or because talking about people draws them to the place by some subtle agency, who should appear in sight but Miss Julia Clifford, and little Fitzroy wooing her so closely that really he did seem tied to her apron strings.
"There," said Walter, "now use your eyes, father; look at this amorous pair. Do you really think it possible for a fellow to untie those two?"
"Quite possible," said the Colonel. "Walter," said he, sententiously, "there's a little word in the English language which is one of the biggest. I will spell it to you, T--R--Y. Nobody knows what he can do till he gives that word a fair trial. It was far more impossible to scale the rock of Gibraltar; but our infantry did it; and there we are, with all Europe grinding their teeth at us. What's a woman compared with Gibraltar? However, as you seem to be a bit of a muff, I'll stand sentinel whilst you cut him out."
The Colonel then retired into a sort of ambuscade--at least he mingled with a small clump of three Scotch firs, and stood amongst them so rectilinear he might have passed for the fourth stump. Walter awaited the arrival of the foe, but in a spirit which has seldom conducted men to conquest and glory, for if the English infantry had deviated so far from their insular habits as to admire the Spaniards, you may be sure that Gibraltar rock at this day would be a part of the Continent, and not a detached fragment of Great Britain. In a word, Walter, at sight of the lovers, was suddenly seized with sentimental sympathy; they both seemed to him so beautiful in their way. The man was small, but his heart was not; he stuck to the woman like a man, and poured hot love into her ears, and almost lost the impediment in his speech. The woman pretended to be cooler, but she half turned her head toward him, and her half-closed eyes and heightened color showed she was drinking every word. Her very gayety, though it affected nonchalance, revealed happiness to such as can read below the surface of her sex. The Colonel's treacherous ally, after gazing at them with marked approval, and saying, "I couldn't do it better myself," which was surely a great admission for a lover to make, slipped quietly into Hope's workshop not to spoil sport--a juvenile idea which we recommend to older persons, and to such old maids as have turned sour. The great majority of old maids are match-makers, whatever cant may keep saying and writing to the contrary.
"No wonder at all," said Percy, who was evidently in the middle of some amorous speech; "you are the goddess of my idolatry."
"What ardent expressions you do use!" said Julia, smiling.
"Of c-course I do; I'm over head and ears in love."
Julia surveyed his proportions, and said, "That's not very deep."
But Percy had got used to this kind of wit, and did not mind it now. He replied with dignity: "It's as deep--as the ocean, and as imp-per-t-t-tur-bable. Confound it! there's your cousin."
"You are not jealous of him, Mr. Imperturbable, are you?" asked Julia, slyly.
"Jealous?" said Percy, changing color rather suspiciously; "certainly not. Hang him!"
Walter, finding he was discovered, and feeling himself in the way, came out at the back behind them, and said, "Never mind me, you two; far be it from me to deprive the young of their innocent amusements."
Whilst making this little speech he was going off on the points of his toes, intending to slip off to Clifford Hall, and tell his father that both cutting out and untying had proved impossible, but, to his horror, the Colonel emerged from his ambuscade and collared him. Then took place two short contemporaneous dialogues:
Julia. "I'd never marry a jealous man."
Percy. "I never could be jealous. I'm above it. Impossible for a nature like mine to be jealous."
Colonel Clifford. "Well, why don't you cut him out?"
Walter. "They seem so happy without it."
Colonel Clifford. "You are a muff. I'll do it for you. Forward!"
Colonel Clifford then marched down and seated himself in the chair Hope had made for him.
Julia saw him, and whispered Percy: "Ah! here's Uncle Clifford. He is going to marry me to Walter. Never mind--you are not jealous."
Percy turned yellow.
"Well," said Colonel Clifford to all whom it might concern, "this certainly is the most comfortable chair in England. These fools of upholsterers never make the bottom of the chair long enough, but Mr. Hope has made this to run under a gentleman's knees and support him. He's a clever fellow. Julia, my dear, there's a garden chair for you; come and sit down by me."
Julia gave a sly look at Percy, and went to Colonel Clifford. She kissed him on the forehead to soften the coming negative, and said: "To tell you the truth, dear uncle, I have promised to go down a coal mine. See! I'm dressed accordingly."
"Go down a coal mine!" said the Colonel, contemptuously. "What fool put that idea in your head?"
Fitzroy strutted forward like a bantam-cock. "I did, sir. Coal is a very interesting product."
"Ay, to a cook."
"To every English g-gentleman."
"I disown that imputation for one."
"Of being an English g-gentleman?"
There was a general titter at this sly hit.
"No, sir," said the Colonel, angrily--"of taking an interest in coal."
"Well, but," said Percy, with a few slight hesitations, "not to t-take an interest in c-coal is not to take an interest in the n-nation, for this n-nation is g-great, not by its p-powerful fleet, nor its little b-b-bit of an army--"
A snort from the Colonel.
"--nor its raw m-militia, but by its m-m-manufactures; these depend on machines that are driven by steam-power, and the steam-engines are coal-fed, and were made in coal-fed furnaces; our machines do the work of five hundred million hands, and you see coal keeps them going. The machinery will be imitated by other nations, but those nations can not create coal-fields. Should those ever be exhausted, our ingenuity will be imitated by larger nations, our territory will remain small, and we shall be a second-rate power; so I say that every man who reads and thinks about his own c--country ought to be able to say, 'I have been d--d--down a coal mine.'"
"Well," said the Colonel, loftily, "and can't you say you have been down a coal mine? I could say that and sit here. Well, sir, you have been reading the newspapers, and learning them off by heart as if they were the Epistle and Gospel; of course you must go down a coal mine; but if you do, have a little mercy on the fair, and go down by yourself. In the mean while, Walter, you can take your cousin and give her a walk in the woods, and show her the primroses."
Now Julia was surprised and pleased at Percy's good sense, and she did not care whether he got it from the newspapers or where he got it from; it was there; so she resisted, and said, coldly and firmly, "Thank you, uncle, but I don't want the primroses, and Walter does not want me. Come, Percy dear;" and so she marched off; but she had not gone many steps before, having a great respect for old age, she ordered Percy, in a whisper, to make some apology to her uncle.
Percy did not much like the commission. However, he went back, and said, very civilly, "This is a free country, but I am afraid I have been a little too free in expressing my opinion; let me hope you are not annoyed with me."
"I am never annoyed with a fool," said the implacable Colonel.
This was too much for any little man to stand.
"That is why you are always on such good terms with yourself," said Percy, as red as a turkey-cock.
The Colonel literally stared with amazement. Hitherto it had been for him to deliver bayonet thrusts, not to receive them.
Julia pounced on her bantam-cock, and with her left hand literally pulled him off the premises, and shook her right fist at him till she got him out of sight of the foe; then she kissed him on both cheeks, and burst out laughing; and, indeed, she was so tickled that she kept laughing at intervals, whether the immediate subject of the conversation was grave or gay. It is hard not to laugh when a very little fellow cheeks a very big one. Even Walter, though he admired as well as loved his father, hung his head, and his shoulders shook with suppressed risibility. Colonel Clifford detected him in this posture, and in his wrath gave his chair a whack with his staff that brought Master Walter to the position of a private soldier when the drill-sergeant cries "ATTENTION!"
"Did you hear that, sir?" said he.
"I did," said Walter: "cheeky little beggar. But you know, father, you were rather hard upon him before his sweetheart, and a little pot is soon hot."
"There was nothing to be hot about," said the Colonel, naively; "but that is neither here nor there. You are ten times worse than he is. He is only a prating, pedantic puppy, but you are a muff, sir, a most unmitigated muff, to stand there mum-chance and let such an article as that carry off the prize."
"Oh, father," said Walter, "why will you not see that the prize is a living woman, a woman with a will of her own, and not a French eagle, or the figure-head of a ship? Now do listen to reason."
"Not a word," said the Colonel, marching off.
"But excuse me," said Walter, "I have another thing far more important to speak to you about: this unhappy lawsuit."
"That's no business of yours, and I don't want your opinion of it; there is no more fight in you than there is in a hen-sparrow. I decline your company and your pacific twaddle; I have no patience with a muff;" and the Colonel marched off, leaving his son planted there, as the French say.
Walter, however, was not long alone; the interview had been watched from a distance by Mary. She now stole noiselessly on the scene, and laid her white hand upon her husband's shoulder before he was aware of her. The sight of her was heaven to him, but her first question clouded his happy face.
"Well, dear, have you propitiated him?"
Walter hung his head sorrowfully, and said hardly anything.
"He has been blustering at me all the time, and insists upon my cutting out Percy whether I can or not, and marrying Julia whether she chooses or not."
"Then we must do what I said. Indeed there is no other course. We must own the truth; concealment and deceit will not mend our folly."
"Oh, hang it, Mary, don't call it folly."
"Forgive me, dear, but it was the height of folly. Not that I mean to throw the blame on you--that would be ungenerous; but the truth is you had no business to marry me, and I had no business to marry you. Only think--me--Mary Bartley--a clandestine marriage, and then our going to the lakes again, and spending our honey-moon together just like other couples--the recklessness--the audacity! Oh, what happiness it was!"
Walter very naturally pounced upon this unguarded and naive conclusion of Mary's self-reproaches. "Yes," said he, eagerly; "let us go there again next week."
"Not next week, not next month, not next year, nor ever again until we have told all the world."
"Well, Mary," said Walter, "it's for you to command and me to obey. I said so before, and I say so now, if you are not ashamed of me, how can I be ashamed of you; you say the word, and I will tell my father at dinner-time, before Julia Clifford and John Baker, and request them to tell everybody they know, that I am married to a woman I adore, and there is nobody I care for on earth as I do for her, and nothing I value compared with her love and her esteem."
Mary put her arm tenderly around her husband's neck; and now it was with her as it is often with generous and tender-hearted women, when all opposition to their wishes is withdrawn, they begin to see the other side.
"My dearest," said Mary, "I couldn't bear you to sacrifice your prospects for me."
"Why, Mary," said Walter, "what would my love be worth if it shrank from self-sacrifice? I really think I should feel more pleasure than pain if I gave up friends, kindred, hope, everything that is supposed to make life pleasant for you."
"And so would I for you," said Mary; "and oh, Walter, women have presentiments, and something tells me that fate has great trials in store for you or for me, perhaps for both. Yes, you are right, the true measure of love must be self-sacrifice, and if there is to be self-sacrifice, oh, let the self-sacrifice fall on me; for I can not think any man can love a woman quite so deeply as I love you--my darling."
He had only time to draw her sweet forehead to his bosom, whilst her arm encircled his neck, when in came an ordinary love by way of contrast.
Julia Clifford and Percy came in, walking three yards apart: Percy had untied the apron strings without Walter's assistance.
"Ah," said she, "you two are not like us. I am ashamed to interrupt you; but they would not let us go down the mine without an order from Mr. Hope. Really, I think Mr. Hope is king of this country. Not that we have wasted our time, for he has been quarrelling with me all the way there and back."
"Oh, Mr. Fitzroy!" said Mary Bartley.
"Miss Bartley," said Percy, very civilly, "I never q-q-quarrel, I merely dis-distin-guished between right and wrong. I shall make you the judge. I gave her a di-dia-mond br-bracelet which came down from my ancestors; she did me the honor to accept it, and she said it should never leave her day nor night."
"Oh," cried Julia, "that I never did. I can not afford to stop my circulation altogether; it's much too little." Then she flew at him suddenly. "Your ancestors were pigmies."
Percy drew himself up to his full height, and defied the insinuation. "They were giants, in chain armor," said he.
"What," said Julia, without a moment's hesitation, "the ladies? Or was it the knights that wore bracelets?"
Some French writer says, "The tongue of a woman is her sword," and Percy Fitzroy found it so. He could no more answer this sudden thrust than he could win the high leap at Lillie Bridge. He stood quivering as if a polished rapier had really been passed clean through him.
Mary was too kind-hearted to laugh in his face, but she could not help turning her head away and giggling a little.
At last Percy recovered himself enough to say,
"The truth is you have gone and given it to somebody else."
"Oh, you wicked--bad-hearted--you that couldn't be jealous!"
By this time Percy was himself again, and said, with some reason, that "invectives were not arguments. Produce the bracelet."
"And so I can," said Julia, stoutly. "Give me time."
"Oh," said Percy, "if it's a mere question of time, there is no more to be said. You'll find the bracelet in time, and in time I shall feel once more that confidence in you which induced me to confide to you as to another self that precious family relic, which I value more than any other material object in the world." Then Percy, whose character seemed to have changed, retired with stiff dignity and an air of indomitable resolution.
Neither Julia nor Mary had ever seen him like that before. Julia was unaffectedly distressed.
"Oh, Mary, why did I ever lend it to you?"
Now Mary knew very well where the bracelet was, but she was ashamed to say; she stammered and said, "You know, dear, it is too small, much too small, and my arm is bigger than yours."
"There!" said Julia; "you have broken the clasp!"
Mary colored up to the eyes at her own disingenuousness, and said, hastily, "But I'll have it mended directly; I'll return it to-morrow at the latest."
"I shall be wretched till you do," said Julia, eagerly. "I suppose you know what I want it for now?"
"Why," said Mary, "of course I do: to soothe his wounded feelings."
"Soothe his feelings!" cried Julia, scornfully; "and how about mine? No; the only thing I want it for now is to fling it in his face. His soul is as small as his body: he's a little, mean, suspicious, jealous fellow, and I'm very glad to have lost him." She flounced off all on fire, looking six feet high, and got quite out of sight before she began to cry.
Then the truth came out. Mary, absorbed in conjugal bliss, had left it at the hotel by the lakes. She told Walter.
"Oh, hang it!" said Walter; "that's unlucky; you will never see it again."
"Oh yes, I shall," said Mary; "they are very honest people at that inn; and I have written about it, and told them to keep it safe, unless they have an opportunity of sending it."
Walter reflected a moment. "Take my advice, Mary," said he. "Let me gallop off this afternoon and get it."
"Oh yes, Walter," said Mary. "Thank you so much. That will be the best way."
At this moment loud and angry voices were heard coming round the corner, and Mary uttered a cry of dismay, for her discriminating ear recognized both those voices in a moment. She clutched Walter's shoulder.
"Oh, Walter, it's your father and mine quarrelling. How unfortunate that they should have met! What shall we do?"
"Hide in Hope's office. The French window is open."
"Quick, then!" cried Mary, and darted into the office in a moment. Walter dashed in after her.
When she got safe into cover she began to complain.
"This comes of concealment--we are always being driven into holes and corners."
"I rather like them with you," said the unabashed Walter.
It matters little what had passed out of sight between Bartley and Colonel Clifford, for what the young people heard now was quite enough to make what Sir Lucius O'Trigger calls a very pretty quarrel. Bartley, hitherto known to Mary as a very oily speaker, shouted at the top of his voice in arrogant defiance, "You're not a child, are you? You are old enough to read papers before you sign them."
The Colonel shouted in reply, "I am old, sir, but I am old in honor. I did not expect that any decent tradesman would slip a clause into a farm lease conveying the minerals below the surface to a farmer. It was a fraud, sir; but there's law for fraud. My lawyer shall be down on you to-morrow. Your chimneys disgorge smoke all over my fields. You shall disgorge your dishonest gains. I'll have you off my land, sir; I'll tear you out of the bowels of the earth. You are a sharper and a knave."
At this Bartley roared at him louder still, so that both the young people winced as they crouched in the recess of the window. "You foul-mouthed slanderer, I'll indict you for defamation, and give you twelve months in one of her Majesty's jails."
"No, you won't," roared the Colonel; "I know the law. My comments on your character are not written and signed like your knavish lease; it's a privileged communication--VILLAIN! there are no witnesses--SHARPER! By Jupiter, there are, though!"
He had caught sight of a male figure just visible at the side of the window.
"Who is it? MY SON!"
"My DAUGHTER!" cried Bartley, catching sight of Mary.
"Come out, sir," said the Colonel, no longer loudly, but trembling with emotion.
"Come here, Mary," said Bartley, sternly.
At this moment who should open the back door of the office but William Hope!
"Walter," said the Colonel, with the quiet sternness more formidable than all his bluster, "have not I forbidden you to court this man's daughter?"
Said Bartley to Mary: "Haven't I forbidden you to speak to this ruffian's son?"
Then, being a cad who had lost his temper, he took the girl by the wrist and gave her a rough pull across him that sent her effectually away from Walter. She sank into the Colonel's seat, and burst out crying with shame, pain, and fright.
"Brute!" said the Colonel. But the thing was not to end there. Hope strode in amongst them, with a pale cheek and a lowering brow as black as thunder; his first words were, "Do YOU CALL YOURSELF A FATHER?" Not one of them had ever seen Hope like that, and they all stood amazed, and wondered what would come next.