A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XVII. Lovers' Quarrels.
It was a living picture. The father protecting his child like an eagle; Bartley cooled in a moment, and hanging his head apart, gloomy and alarmed at the mad blunder rage had betrayed him into; Colonel Clifford amazed and puzzled, and beginning to see the consequences of all this; Julia clasping her hands in rapture and thrilling interest at so romantic an incident; Fitzroy beaming with delight at his sweetheart being cleared; and, to complete the picture, the villainous face of Leonard Monckton, disguised as an old man, showed itself for a moment sinister and gloomy; for now all hope of pecuniary advantage to him was gone, and nothing but revenge was on the cards, and he could not see his way clear to that.
But Hope was no posture-maker; he turned the next moment and said a word or two to all present.
"Yes, this is Grace Hope, my daughter. We were very poor, and her life was in danger; I saw nothing else but that; my love was stronger than my conscience; I gave her to that man upon a condition which he has now broken. He saved her life and was kind to her. I thanked him; I thank him still, and I did my best to repay him. But now he has trusted to appearances, and not to her; he has belied and outraged her publicly. But I am as proud of her as ever, and don't believe appearances against her character and her angel face and--"
"No more do I," cried Julia Clifford, eagerly. "I know her. She's purity itself, and a better woman than I shall ever be."
"Thank you, Miss Clifford," said Hope, in a broken voice; "God bless you. Come, Grace, and share my humble home. At all events, it will shelter you from insult."
And so the pair went lovingly away, Grace clinging to her father, comforted for the moment, but unable to speak, and entered Hope's little cottage. It was but a stone's-throw from where they stood.
This broke up the party.
"And my house is yours," said Colonel Clifford to Julia. "I did not believe appearances against a Clifford." With these words he took two steps toward his niece and held out his arm. She moved toward him. Percy came forward radiant to congratulate her. She drew up with a look of furious scorn that made him recoil, and she marched proudly away with her uncle. He bestowed one parting glance of contempt upon the discomfited Bartley, and marched his niece proudly off, more determined than ever that she should be his daughter. But for once he was wise enough not to press that topic: he let her indignation work alone. Moreover, though he was a little wrong-headed and not a little pig-headed, he was a noble-minded man, and nothing noble passed him unobserved or unappreciated.
"That Bartley's daughter!" said he to Julia. "Ay, when roses spring from dunghills, and eagles are born of sparrow-hawks. Brave girl!--brave girl!"
"Oh, uncle," said Julia, "I am so glad you appreciate her!"
"Appreciate her!" said the Colonel; "what should I be worth if I did not? Why, these are the women that win Waterloo in the persons of their sons. That girl could never breed a coward nor a cheat." Then his incisive voice mellowed suddenly. "Poor young thing," said he, with manly emotion, "I saw her come out of that room pale as death to do another woman justice. She's no fool, though that ruffian called her one. She knew what she was doing, yet for all her woman's heart she faced disgrace as unflinchingly as if it was, only death. It was a great action, a noble action, a just action, and a manly action, but done like a very woman. Where the two sexes meet like that in one brave deed it's grand. I declare it warms an old soldier's heart, and makes him thank God there are a few creatures in the world that do humanity honor."
As the Colonel was a man that stuck to a topic when he got upon it, this was the main of his talk all the way to Clifford Hall. He even remarked to his niece that, so far as his observations of the sex extended, great love of justice was not the leading feature of the female mind; other virtues he ventured to think were more prominent.
"So everybody says," was Julia's admission.
"Everybody is right for once," said the Colonel.
They entered the house together, and Miss Clifford went up to her room; there she put on a new bonnet and a lovely shawl, recently imported from Paris. Who could this be for? She sauntered upon the lawn till she found herself somehow near the outward boundary, where there was a gate leading into the Park. As she walked to and fro by this gate she observed, out of the tail of her eye of course, the figure of a devoted lover creeping toward her. Whether this took her by surprise, or whether the lovely creature was playing the part of a beautiful striped spider waiting for her fly, the reader must judge for himself.
Percy came to the gate; she walked past him twice, coming and going with her eyes fixed upon vacancy. She passed him a third time. He murmured in a pleading voice,
She neither saw nor heard, so attractive had the distant horizon become.
Percy opened the gate and came inside, and stood before her the next time she passed. She started with surprise.
"What do you want here?" said she.
"To speak to you."
"How dare you speak to me after your vile suspicions?"
"Well, but, Julia--"
"How dare you call me Julia?"
"Well, Miss Clifford, won't you even hear me?"
"Not a word. It's through you poor dear Mary and I have both been insulted by that wretch of a father of hers."
"I said wretch. To whom does that term apply except to Mr. Bartley, and" (with sudden vigor) "to you."
"Then you think I am as bad as old Bartley," said Percy, firing up.
"No, I don't."
"Ah," said Percy, glad to find there was a limit.
But Julia explained: "I think you are a great deal worse. You pretend to love me, and yet without the slightest reason you doubt me."
"What did I doubt? I thought you had parted with my bracelet to another person, and so you had. I never doubted your honor."
"Oh yes, you did; I saw your face."
"I am not r--r--responsible for my face."
"Yes, you are; you had no business to look broken-hearted, and miserable, and distrustful, and abominable. It was your business, face and all, to distrust appearances, and not me."
"Ap--pear--ances were so strong that not to look m--miserable would have been to seem indifferent; there is no love where there is no jealousy."
"Oh," said Julia, "he has let that out at last, after denying it a hundred times. Now I say there is no true love without respect and confidence, and this doesn't exist where there is jealousy, and all about a trumpery bracelet."
"Anything but tr--ump--ump--umpery; it came down from my ancestors."
"You never had any; your behavior shows that."
"I tell you it is an heirloom. It was given to my mother by--"
"Oh, we know all about that," said Julia. "'This bracelet did an Egyptian to my mother give.' But you are not going to play Othello with me."
"I shouldn't have a very gentle Desdemona."
"No, you wouldn't, candidly. No man shall ever bully and insult me, and then wake me out of my first sleep to smother me because my maid has lost one of his handkerchiefs at the wash."
He burst out laughing at this, and tried to inveigle her into good-humor.
"Say no more about it," said he, "and I'll forgive you."
"Forgive me, you little wretch!" cried Julia. "Why, haven't you the sense to see that it is serious this time, and my patience is exhausted, and that our engagement is broken off, and I never mean to see you again--except when you come to my wedding?"
"Your wedding!" cried Percy, turning pale. "With whom?"
"That's my business; you leave that to me, sir. Hold out your hand--both hands; here is the ancestral bracelet--it shall pinch me no longer, neither my wrist nor my heart; here's the brooch you gave me--I won't be pinned to it any longer, nor to you neither; and there is your bunch of charms; and there is your bundle of love-letters--stupid ones they are;" and she crammed all the aforesaid treasures into his hands one after the other. So this was what she went to her room for.
Percy looked down on his handful ruefully. "My very letters! There was no jealousy in them; they were full of earnest love."
"Fuller of bad spelling," said the relentless girl. Then she went into details: "You spell abominable with two m's--and that's abominable; you spell ridiculous with a k--and that's ridicklous. So after this don't you presume to speak to me, for I shall never speak to you again."
"Very well, then," said Percy. "I, too, will be silent forever."
"Oh, I dare say," said Julia; "a chatter-box like you."
"Even chatter-boxes are silent in the grave," suggested Percy; "and if we are to part like this forever to-day, to-morrow I shall be no more."
"Well, you could not be much less," said Julia, but with a certain shame-faced change of tone that perhaps, if Percy had been more experienced, might have given him a ray of hope.
"Well," said he, "I know one lady that would not treat these presents with quite so much contempt."
"Oh, I have seen her," said Julia, spitefully. "She has been setting her cap at you for some time; it's Miss Susan Beckley--a fine conquest--great, fat, red-haired thing."
"Yes, all-burn, scarlet, carrots, flamme d'enfer. Well, go and give her my leavings, yourself and your ancestral--paste."
"Well," said Percy, gloomily, "I might do worse. You never really loved me; you were always like an enemy looking out for faults. You kept postponing our union for something to happen to break it off. But I won't be any woman's slave; I'll use one to drive out the other. None of you shall trample on me." Then he burst forth into singing. Nobody stammers when he sings.
"Shall I, wasting in despair, Sigh because a woman's fair? Shall my cheeks grow pale with care Because another's rosy are? If she be not kind to me, What care I how fair she be?"
This resolute little gentleman passed through the gate as he concluded the verse, waved his hand jauntily by way of everlasting adieu, and went off whistling the refrain with great spirit, and both hands in his pockets.
"You impudent!" cried Julia, almost choking; then, authoritatively, "Percy--Mr. Fitzroy;" then, coaxingly, "Percy dear."
Percy heard, and congratulated himself upon his spirit. "That's the way to treat them," said he to himself.
"Well?" said he, with an air of indifference, and going slowly back to the gate. "What is it now?" said he, a little arrogantly.
She soon let him know. Directly he was quite within reach she gave him a slap in the face that sounded like one plank falling upon another, and marched off with an air of royal dignity, as if she had done the most graceful and lady-like thing in all the world.
How happy are those choice spirits who can always preserve their dignity!
Percy retired red as fire, and one of his cheeks retained that high color for the rest of the day.