A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XVI. Reminiscences.--The False Accuser.--The Secret Exploded.
The secret hung on a thread. Hope, after denouncing Bartley, as we have described, was rushing across to Mary, and what he would have said or done in the first impulse of his wrath, who can tell?
But the quick-witted Bartley took the alarm, and literally collared him. "My good friend," said he, "you don't know the provocation. It is the affront to her that has made me forget myself. Affronts to myself from the same quarter I have borne with patience. But now this insolent man has forbidden his son to court her, and that to her face; as if we wanted his son or him. Haven't I forbidden the connection?"
"We are agreed for once," said the Colonel, and carried his son off bodily, sore against his will.
"Yes," shrieked Bartley after him; "only I did it like a gentleman, and did not insult the young man to his face for loving my daughter."
"Let me hear what Mary says," was Hope's reply.
"Mr. Hope," said Mary, "did you ever know papa to be hard on me before? He is vexed because he feels I am lowered. We have both been grossly insulted, and he may well be in a passion. But I am very unhappy." And she began to cry again.
"My poor child," said Bartley, coaxingly, "talk it all over with Mr. Hope. He may be able to comfort you, and, indeed, to advise me. For what can I do when the man calls me a sharper, a villain, and a knave, before his son and my daughter?"
"Is it possible?" said Hope, beginning to relent a little.
"It is true," replied Mary.
Bartley then drew Hope aside, and said, "See what confidence I place in you. Now show me my trust is not misplaced." Then he left them together.
Hope came to Mary and said, tenderly, "What can I say or do to comfort you?"
Mary shook her head. "I asked you to mend my prospects; but you can't do that. They are desperate. You can do nothing for me now but comfort me with your kind voice. And mend my poor wrist--ha! ha! ha! oh! oh!" (Hysterical.)
"What?" cried Hope, in sudden alarm; "is it hurt? Is it sprained?"
Mary recovered her composure. "Oh no," said she; "only twisted a little. Papa was so rough."
Hope went into a rage again. "Perdition!" cried he. "I'll go and end this once for all."
"You will do nothing of the kind," said the quick-witted girl. "Oh, Mr. Hope, would you break my heart altogether, quarrelling with papa? Be reasonable. I tell you he couldn't help it, that old monster insulted him so. It hurts, for all that," said she, naively, and held him out a lovely white wrist with a red mark on it.
Hope inspected it. "Poor little wrist," said he. "I think I can cure it." Then he went into his office for something to bind it with.
But he had spoken those few words as one speaks to an afflicted child. There was a mellow softness and an undisguised paternity in his tones--and what more natural, the girl being in pain?
But Mary's ear was so acute that these tones carried her out of the present situation, and seemed to stir the depths of memory. She fell into a little reverie, and asked herself had she not heard a voice like that many years ago.
She was puzzling herself a little over this when Hope returned with a long thin band of white Indian cotton, steeped in water, and, taking her hand gently, began to bind her wrist with great lightness and delicacy. And as he bound it he said, "There, the pain will soon go."
Mary looked at him full, and said, slowly, "I believe it will." Then, very thoughtfully, "It did--before."
These three simple words struck Hope as rather strange.
"It did before?" said he, and stared at her. "Why, when was that?"
Mary said, in a hopeless sort of way, "I don't know when, but long before your time."
"Before my time, Mary? What, are you older than me?" And he smiled sweetly on her.
"One would think not. But let me ask you a question, Mr. Hope?"
"Have you lived two lives?"
Said Hope, solemnly, "I have lived through great changes, but only one life."
"Well, then," said Mary, "I have lived two; or more likely it was one life, only some of it in another world--my other world, I mean."
Hope left off binding her wrist, and said, "I don't understand you." But his heart began to pant.
The words that passed between them were now so strange that both their voices sank into solemnity, and had an acute observer listened to them he would have noticed that these two mellow voices had similar beauties, and were pitched exactly in the same key, though there was, of course, an octave between them.
"Understand me? How should you? It is all so strange, so mysterious: I have never told a soul; but I will tell you. You won't laugh at me?"
"Laugh at you? Only fools laugh at what they don't understand. Why, Mary, I hang on every word you say with breathless interest."
"Dear Mr. Hope! Well, then, I will tell you. Sometimes in the silent night, when the present does not glare at one, the past comes back to me dimly, and I seem to have lived two lives: one long, one short--too short. My long life in a comfortable house, with servants and carriages and all that. My short life in different places; not comfortable places, but large places; all was free and open, and there was always a kind voice in my ear--like yours; and a tender touch--like yours."
Hope was restraining himself with difficulty, and here he could not help uttering a faint exclamation.
To cover it he took her wrist again, and bending his head over it, he said, almost in a whisper, "And the face?"
Mary's eyes turned inward, and she seemed to scan the past.
"The face?" said she--"the face I can not recall. But one thing I do remember clearly. This is not the first time my wrist--yes--and it was my right wrist too--has been bound up so tenderly. He did it for me in that other world, just as you do in this one."
Hope now thrilled all over at this most unexpected revelation. But though he glowed with delight and curiosity, he put on a calm voice and manner, and begged her to tell him everything else she could remember that had happened in that other life.
Finding him so serious, so sympathetic, and so interested, put this remarkable girl on her mettle. She began to think very hard, and show that intense power of attention she had always in reserve for great occasions.
"Then you must not touch me nor speak to me," said she. "The past is such a mist."
He obeyed, and left off binding her wrist; and now he literally hung upon her words.
Then she took one step away from him; her bright eyes veiled themselves, and seemed to see nothing external, but looked into the recesses of the brain. Her forehead, her hand, her very body, thought, and we must try, though it is almost hopeless, to convey some faint idea of her manner and her words.
Then she paused.
"I remember--WHITE SWANS."
"Were they swans?"
"They floated down the river to the sea."
"And the kind voice beside me said, 'Darling!' Papa never calls me 'darling.'"
"Yes, yes," whispered Hope, almost panting.
"'Darling, we must go with them to some other land, for we are poor.'" She paused and thought hard. "Poor we must have been; very poor. I can see that now that I am rich." She paused and thought hard. "But all was peace and love. There were two of us, yet we seemed one."
Then in a moment Mary left the past, her eyes resigned the film of thought, and shone with the lustre of her great heart, and she burst at once into that simple eloquence which no hearer of hers from John Baker to William Hope ever resisted. "Ah! sweet memories, treasures of the past, why are you so dim and wavering, and this hard world so clear and glaring it seems cut out of stone? Oh, if I had a fairy's wand, I'd say, 'Vanish fine house and servants--vanish wealth and luxury and strife; and you come back to me, sweet hours of peace--and poverty--and love.'"
Her arms were stretched out with a grace and ardor that could embellish even eloquence, when a choking sob struck her ear. She turned her head swiftly, and there was William Hope, his hands working, his face convulsed, and the tears running down his cheeks like the very rain.
It was no wonder. Think of it! The child he adored, yet had parted with to save her from dire poverty, remembered that sad condition to ask for it back again, because of his love that made it sweet to her after all these years of comfort. And of late he had been jealous, and saw, or thought, he had no great place in her heart, and never should have.
Ah, it is a rarity to shed tears of joy! The thing is familiarly spoken of, but the truth is that many pass through this world of tears and never shed one such tear. The few who have shed them can congratulate William Hope for this blissful moment after all he had done and suffered.
But the sweet girl who so surprised that manly heart, and drew those heavenly tears, had not the key. She was shocked, surprised, distressed. She burst out crying directly from blind womanly sympathy; and then she took herself to task. "Oh, Mr. Hope! what have I done? Ah! I have touched some chord of memory. Wicked, selfish girl, to distress you with my dreams."
"Distress me!" cried Hope. "These tears you have drawn from me are pearls of memory and drops of balm to my sore, tried heart. I, too, have lived and struggled in a by-gone world. I had a lovely child; she made me rich in my poverty, and happy in my homelessness. She left me--"
"Poor Mr. Hope!"
"Then I went abroad, drudged in foreign mines, came home and saw my child again in you. I need no fairy's wand to revive the past; you are my fairy--your sweet words recall those by-gone scenes; and wealth, ambition, all I live for now, vanish into smoke. The years themselves roll back, and all is once more peace--and poverty--and love."
"Dear Mr. Hope!" said Mary, and put her forehead upon his shoulder.
After a while she said, timidly, "Dear Mr. Hope, now I feel I can trust you with anything." Then she looked down in charming confusion. "My reminiscences--they are certainly a great mystery. But I have another secret to confide to you, if I am permitted."
"Is the consent of some other person necessary?"
"Not exactly necessary, Mr. Hope."
Mary nodded her head.
"Then take your time," said Hope. He took out his watch, and said: "I want to go to the mine. My right-hand man reports that a ruffian has been caught lighting his pipe in the most dangerous part after due warning. I must stop that game at once, or we shall have a fatal accident. But I will be back in half an hour. You can rest in my office if you are here first. It is nice and cool."
Hope hurried away on his errand, and Mary was still looking after him, when she heard horses' feet, and up came Walter Clifford, escaped from his father. He slipped off his horse directly at sight of Mary, and they came together like steel and magnet.
"Oh, Walter," said Mary, "we are not so unfortunate as we were just now. We have a powerful friend. Where are you going in such hurry?"
"That is a good joke. Why, did you not order me to the lakes?"
"Oh yes, for Julia's bracelet. I forgot all about that."
"Very likely; but it is not my business to forget your orders."
"Dear Walter! But, dearest, things of more importance have happened since then. We have been insulted. Oh, how we have been insulted!"
"That we have," said Walter.
"And nobody knows the truth."
"And our secret oppresses me--torments me--degrades me."
"Pray don't say that."
"Forgive me. I can't help saying it, I feel it so bitterly. Now, dear, I will walk a little way with you, and tell you what I want you to do this very day; and you will be a darling, as you always are, and consent."
Then Mary told how Mr. Hope had just shown her singular affection; next she reminded him of the high tone Mr. Hope had taken with her father in their hearing. "Why," said she, "there is some mysterious compact about me between papa and him. I don't think I shall ever have the courage to ask him about that compact, for then I must confess that I listened; but it is clear we can depend upon Mr. Hope, and trust him. So now, dear, I want you to indulge your little wife, and let me take Mr. Hope into our confidence."
To Mary's surprise and disappointment, Walter's countenance fell.
"I don't know," said he, after a pause. "Unfortunately it's not Mr. Bartley only that's against us."
"Well, but, dear," said Mary, "the more people there are against us, the more we need one powerful friend and champion. Now you know Mr. Hope is a man that everybody loves and respects, even your father."
Walter just said, gloomily, "I see objections, for all that; but do as you please."
Mary's tender heart and loving nature couldn't accept an unwilling assent. She turned her eyes on Walter a little reproachfully. "That's the way to make me do what you please."
"I don't intend it so," said Walter. "When a husband and wife love each other as we do, they must give in to each other."
"That's not what we said at the altar."
"Oh, the marriage service is rather one-sided. I promised very different things to get you to marry me, and I mean to stand by them. If you are impatient at all of this secrecy, tell Mr. Hope."
"I can't now," said Mary, a little bitterly.
"Why not, since I consent?"
"An unwilling consent is no consent."
"Mary, you are too tyrannical. How can I downright like a thing I don't like? I yield my will to yours; there's a certain satisfaction in that. I really can say no more."
"Then say no more," said Mary, almost severely.
"At all events give me a kiss at parting."
Mary gave him that directly, but it was not a warm one.
He galloped away upon his errand, and as she paced slowly back toward Mr. Hope's office she was a good deal put out. What should she say to Mr. Hope now? She could not defy Walter's evident wishes, and make a clean breast of the matter. Then she asked herself what was Walter's objection; she couldn't conceive why he was afraid to trust Mr. Hope. It was a perfect puzzle to her.
Indeed this was a most unfortunate dialogue between her and Walter, for it set her mind speculating and guessing at Walter's mind, and thinking all manner of things just at the moment when an enemy, smooth as the old serpent, was watching for an opportunity to make mischief and poison her mind. Leonard Monckton, who had long been hanging about, waiting to catch her alone, met her returning from Walter Clifford, and took off his hat very respectfully to her, and said:
"Miss Bartley, I think."
Mary lifted her eyes, and saw an elderly man with a pale face and dark eyebrows and a cast of countenance quite unlike that of any of her friends. His face repelled her directly, and she said, very coldly:
"Yes, sir; but I have not the pleasure of knowing you."
And she quietly passed on.
Monckton affected not to see that she was declining to communicate with him. He walked on quietly, and said:
"And I have not seen you since you were a child, but I had the honor of knowing your mother."
"You knew my mother, sir?"
"Knew her and respected her."
"What was she like, sir?"
"She was tall and rather dark, not like you."
"So I have heard," said Mary. "Well, sir," said she, for his voice was ingratiating, and had modified the effect of his criminal countenance, "as you knew my mother, you are welcome to me."
The artist in deceit gave a little sigh, and said, "That's more than I dare hope. For I am here upon a most unpleasant commission; but for my respect for your mother I would not have undertaken it, for really my acquaintance with the other lady is but slight."
Mary looked a little surprised at this rigmarole, and said, "But this commission, what is it?"
"Miss Bartley," said he, solemnly, yet gravely, "I have been requested to warn you against a gentleman who is deceiving you."
"Who is that?" said Mary, on her guard directly.
"It is a Mr. Walter Clifford."
"Walter Clifford!" said Mary. "You are a slanderer; he is incapable of deceit."
The rogue pretended to brighten up.
"Well, I hope so," said he, "and I told the lady as much; he comes from a most honorable stock. So then he has told you about Lucy Monckton?"
"Lucy Monckton!" cried Mary. "No; who is she?"
"Miss Bartley," said the villain, very gravely and solemnly, "she is his wife."
"His wife, sir?" cried Mary, contemptuously--"his wife? You must be mad. I'll hear no more against him behind his back." Then, threatening her tormentor: "He will be home again this evening; he has only ridden to the Lake Hotel; you shall repeat this to his face, if you dare."
"It will be my painful duty," said the serpent, meekly.
"His wife!" said Mary, scornfully, but her lips trembled.
"His wife," replied Monckton, calmly; "a respectable woman whom, it seems, he has deserted these fourteen years. My acquaintance with her is slight, but she is in a good position, and, indeed, wealthy, and has never troubled him. However, she heard somehow he was courting you, and as I often visit Derby upon business, she requested me to come over here and warn you in time."
"And do you think," said Mary, scornfully, "I shall believe this from a stranger?"
"Hardly," said Monckton, with every appearance of candor. "Mrs. Walter Clifford directed me to show you his marriage certificate and hers."
"The marriage certificate!" cried Mary, turning pale.
"Yes," said Monckton; "they were married at the Registry Office on the 11th June, 1868," and he put his hand in his breast pocket to search for the certificate. He took this opportunity to say, "You must not fancy that there is any jealousy or ill feeling after fourteen years' desertion, but she felt it her duty as a woman--"
"The certificate!" said Mary--"the certificate!"
He showed her the certificate; she read the fatal words, "Walter Clifford." The rest swam before her eyes, and to her the world seemed at an end. She heard, as in a dream, the smooth voice of the false accuser, saying, with a world of fictitious sympathy, "I wish I had never undertaken this business. Mrs. Walter Clifford doesn't want to distress you; she only felt it her duty to save you. Don't give way. There is no great harm done, unless you were to be deluded into marrying him."
"And what then?" inquired Mary, trembling.
Monckton appeared to be agitated at this question.
"Oh, don't speak of it," said he. "You would be ruined for life, and he would get seven years' penal servitude; and that is a sentence few gentlemen survive in the present day when prisons are slaughter-houses. There, I have discharged the most disagreeable office I ever undertook in my life; but at all events you are warned in time."
Then he bowed most respectfully to her, and retired, exhaling his pent-up venom in a diabolical grin.
She, poor victim, stood there stupefied, pierced with a poisoned arrow, and almost in a state of collapse; then she lifted her hands and eyes for help, and saw Hope's study in front of her. Everything swam confusedly before her; she did not know for certain whether he was there or not; she cried to that true friend for help.
"Mr. Hope--I am lost--I am in the deep waters of despair--save me once more, save me!" Thus speaking she tottered into the office, and sank all limp and powerless into a chair, unable to move or speak, but still not insensible, and soon her brow sank upon the table, and her hands spread themselves feebly out before her.
It was all villainous spite on Monckton's part. He did not for a moment suppose that his lie could long outlive Walter Clifford's return; but he was getting desperate, and longing to stab them all. Unfortunately fate befriended the villain's malice, and the husband and wife did not meet again till that diabolical poison had done its work.
Monckton retired, put off his old man's disguise behind the fir-trees, and went toward another of his hiding-places, an enormous oak-tree which stood in the hedge of Hope's cottage garden. The subtle villain had made this hollow tree an observatory, and a sort of sally-port, whence he could play the fiend.
The people at the hotel were, as Mary told Julia Clifford, very honest people.
They showed Percy Fitzroy's bracelet to one or two persons, and found it was of great value. This made them uneasy, lest something should happen to it under their charge; so the woman sent her husband to the neighborhood of Clifford Hall to try and find out if there was a lady of that name who had left it. The husband was a simple fellow, very unfit to discharge so delicate a commission. He went at first, as a matter of course, to the public-house; they directed him to the Hall, but he missed it, and encountered a gentleman, whose quick eye fell upon the bracelet, for the foolish man had shown it to so many people that now he was carrying it in his hand, and it blazed in the meridian sun. This gentleman said, "What have you got there?"
"Well, sir," said the man, "it was left at our hotel by a young couple from these parts. Handsome couple they were, sir, and spending their honey-moon."
"Let me see it," said Mr. Bartley, for he was the gentleman. He had come back in some anxiety to see whether Hope had pacified Mary, or whether he must exert himself to make matters smooth with her again. Whilst he was examining the bracelet, who should appear but Percy Fitzroy, the owner. Not that he came after the bracelet; on the contrary, that impetuous young gentleman had discovered during the last two hours that he valued Miss Clifford's love a great deal more than all the bracelets in the world, for all that he was delighted at the unexpected sight of his property.
"Why, that's mine," said he. "It's an heirloom. I lent it to Miss Julia Clifford, and when I asked her for it to-day she could not produce it."
"Oho!" said Mr. Bartley. "What, do the ladies of the house of Clifford go in for clandestine marriages?"
"Certainly not, sir," said Fitzroy. "Don't you know the difference between a wedding ring and a bracelet?" Then he turned to the man, "Here is a sovereign for your trouble, my man. Now give me my bracelet."
To his surprise the hotel-keeper put it behind his back instead of giving it to him.
"Nay," said he, shaking his head knowingly, "you are not the gentleman that spent the honey-moon with the lady as owns it. My mistress said I was not to give it into no hands but hers."
This staggered Percy dreadfully, and he looked from one to another to assist him in solving the mystery.
Bartley came to the assistance of his understanding, but with no regard to the feelings of his heart. "It's clear enough what it means, sir; your sweetheart is playing you false."
That went through the true-lover's heart like a knife, and poor little Percy leaned in despair against Hope's workshop window transfixed by the poisoned arrow of jealousy.
At this moment the voice of Colonel Clifford was heard, loud and ringing as usual. Julia Clifford had decoyed him there in hopes of falling in with Percy and making it up; and to deceive the good Colonel as to her intentions she had been running him down all the way; so the Colonel was heard to say, in a voice for all the village to hear, "Jealous is he, and suspicious? Then you take my advice and give him up at once. You will easily find a better man and a bigger." After delivering this, like the word of command upon parade, the Colonel was crossing the turf, a yard or two higher up than Hope's workshop, when the spirit of revenge moved Bartley to retort upon his insulter.
"Hy, Colonel Clifford!"
The Colonel instantly halted, and marched down with Julia on his arm, like a game-cock when another rooster crows defiance.
"And what can you have to say to me, sir?" was his haughty inquiry.
"To take you down a peg. You rode the high horse pretty hard to-day. The spotless honor of the Cliffords, eh?"
Then it was fixed bayonets and no quarter.
"Have the Cliffords ever dabbled in trade or trickery? Coal merchants, coal heavers, and coal whippers may defile our fields with coal dust and smoke, but they can not defile our honor."
"The men are brave as lions, and the women as chaste as snow?" sneered Bartley.
"I don't know about lions and snow. I have often seen a lion turn tail, and the snow is black slush wherever you are. But the Cliffords, being gentlemen, are brave, and being ladies, are chaste."
"Oh, indeed!" hissed Bartley. "Then how comes it that your niece there--whose name is Miss Clifford, I believe--spent what this good man calls a honey-moon, with a young gentleman, at this good man's inn?"
Here the good man in question made a faint endeavor to interpose, but the gentlefolks by their impetuosity completely suppressed him.
"It's a falsehood!" cried Julia, haughtily.
"You scurrilous cad!" roared the Colonel, and shook his staff at him, and seemed on the point of charging him.
But Bartley was not to be put down this time. He snatched the bracelet from the man, and held it up in triumph.
"And left this bracelet there to prove it was no falsehood."
Then Julia got frightened at the evidence and the terrible nature of the accusation. "Oh!" cried she, in great distress, "can any one here believe that I am a creature so lost? I have not seen the bracelet these two months. I lent it--to--ah, here she is! Mary, save me from shame; you know I am innocent."
Mary, who was standing at the window in Hope's study, came slowly forward, pale as death with her own trouble, to do an act of womanly justice. "Miss Clifford," said she, languidly, as one to whom all human events were comparatively indifferent--"Miss Clifford lent the bracelet to me, and I left it at that man's inn." This she said right in the middle of them all.
The hotel-keeper took the bracelet from the unresisting hand of Bartley, touched his hat, and gave it to her.
"There, mistress," said he. "I could have told them you was the lady, but they would not let a poor fellow get a word in edgeways." He retired with an obeisance.
Mary handed the bracelet to Julia, and then remained passive.
A dead silence fell upon them all, and a sort of horror crept over Mary Bartley at what must follow; but come what might, no power should induce her to say the word that should send Walter Clifford to jail for seven years.
Bartley came to her; she trembled, and her hands worked.
"What are you saying, you fool?" he whispered. "The lady that left the bracelet was there with a gentleman."
Then Bartley said, sternly, "Who was your companion?"
"I must not say."
"You will say one thing," said Bartley, "or I shall have no mercy on you. Are you secretly married?"
Then a single word flashed across Mary's almost distracted mind--SELF-SACRIFICE. She held her tongue.
"Can't you speak? Are you a wife?" He now began to speak so loud in his anger that everybody heard it.
Mary crouched a little and worked her hands convulsively under the torture, but she answered with such a doggedness that evidently she would have let herself be cut to pieces sooner than said more.
"You don't know?" roared Bartley.
Mary paused, and then, with iron doggedness, "I--don't--know."
This apparent insult to his common-sense drove Bartley almost mad. "You have given these cursed Cliffords a triumph over me," he cried; "you have brought shame to my door; but it shall never pass the threshold." Here the Colonel uttered a contemptuous snort. This drove Bartley wild altogether; he rushed at the Colonel, and shook his fist in his face. "You stand there sneering at my humiliation; now see the example I can make." Then he was down upon Mary in a moment, and literally yelled at her in his fury. "Go to your paramour, girl; go where you will. You never enter my door again." And he turned his back furiously upon her.
This terrible denunciation overpowered poor Mary's resolution; she clung to him in terror. "Oh, mercy, mercy, papa! I'll explain to you, have pity on your child!"
Bartley flung her so roughly from him that she nearly fell, "You are my child no more."
But at that moment in strode William Hope, looking seven feet high, and his eyes blazing. "Liar and hypocrite," he roared, "she never was your child!" Then, changing to a tone of exquisite love, and stretching out both his hands to Mary, "SHE IS MINE!"
Mary, being now between the two men, turned swiftly first to one, then to the other, and with woman's infallible eye knew her own flesh and blood in that half-moment. She uttered a cry of love and rapture that went through every heart that heard it; and she flung herself in a moment upon her father's bosom.
He whirled her round like a feather on to his right arm, then faced both her enemies, Clifford and Bartley, with haughty defiance, head thrown back, and eyes that flashed black lightning in defense of his child.