A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XVIII. Apologies.
We must now describe the place to which Hope conducted his daughter, and please do not skip our little description. It is true that some of our gifted contemporaries paint Italian scenery at prodigious length a propos de bottes, and others show in many pages that the rocks and the sea are picturesque objects, even when irrelevant. True that others gild the evening clouds and the western horizon merely to please the horizon and the clouds. But we hold with Pope that
"The proper study of mankind is man,"
and that authors' pictures are bores, except as narrow frames to big incidents. The true model, we think, for a writer is found in the opening lines of "Marmion," where the castle at even-tide, its yellow lustre, its drooping banner, its mail-clad warders reflecting the western blaze, the tramp of the sentinel, and his low-hummed song, are flung on paper with the broad and telling touch of Rubens, not from an irrelevant admiration of old castles and the setting sun, but because the human figures of the story are riding up to that sun-gilt castle to make it a scene of great words and deeds.
Even so, though on a much humbler scale, we describe Hope's cottage and garden, merely because it was for a moment or two the scene of a remarkable incident never yet presented in history or fiction.
This cottage, then, was in reality something between a villa and a cottage; it resembled a villa in this, that the rooms were lofty, and the windows were casements glazed with plate glass and very large. Walter Clifford had built it for a curate, who proved a bird of passage, and the said Walter had a horror of low rooms, for he said, "I always feel as if the ceiling was going to flatten me to the floor." Owing to this the bedroom windows, which looked westward on the garden, were a great height from the ground, and the building had a Gothic character.
Still there was much to justify the term cottage. The door, which looked southward on the road, was at the side of the building, and opened, not into a hall, but into the one large sitting-room, which was thirty feet long and twenty-five feet broad, and instead of a plaster ceiling there were massive joists, which Hope had gilded and painted till they were a sight to behold. Another cottage feature: the walls were literally clothed with verdure and color; in front, huge creeping geraniums, jasmine, and Virginia creepers hid the brick-work; and the western walls, to use the words of a greater painter than ourselves, were
"Quite overcanopied with lush woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine."
In the next place, the building stood in a genuine cottage garden. It was close to the road. The southern boundary was plain oak paling, made of upright pieces which Hope had varnished so that the color was now a fine amber; the rest of the boundary was a quick-set hedge, in the western division of which stood an enormous oak-tree, hollow at the back. And the garden was fair with humble flowers--pinks, sweet-williams, crimson nasturtiums, double daisies, lilies, and tulips; but flower beds shared the garden with friendly cabbages, potatoes, onions, carrots, and asparagus.
To this humble but pleasant abode Hope conducted his daughter, and insisted upon her lying down on the sofa in the sitting-room. Then he ordered the woman who kept the house for him to prepare the spare bedroom, which looked into the garden, and to cut some of the sweet-smelling flowers. He himself had much to say to his daughter, and, above all, to demand her explanation of the awkward circumstances that had been just revealed. But she had received a great shock, and, like most manly men, he had a great consideration for the weakness of women, and his paternal heart said, "Let her have an hour or two of absolute repose before I subject her to any trial whatever." So he opened the window to give her air, enjoining her most strictly not to move, and even to go to sleep if she could; and then he put on his shooting coat, with large inside pocket, to go and buy her a little wine--a thing he never touched himself--and what other humble delicacies the village afforded. He walked briskly away from his door without the least idea that all his movements were watched from a hiding-place upon his own premises, no other than the great oak-tree, hollow and open at the back, in which Leonard Monckton had bored two peep-holes, and was now ensconced there watching him.
Hope had not gone many yards from his own door when he was confronted by one of those ruffians who, by their way of putting it, are the eternal butt of iniquitous people and iniquitous things, namely, honest men, curse them! and the law, confound it! This was no other than that Ben Burnley, who, being a miner, had stuck half-way between Devonshire and Durham, and had been some months in Bartley's mine. He opened on Hope in a loud voice, and dialect which we despair of conveying with absolute accuracy.
"Mr. Hope, sir, they won't let me go down t' mine."
"No; you're discharged."
"For smoking in the mine, in spite of three warnings."
"Me smoking in t' mine! Who telt you yon lie?"
"You were seen to pick the lock of your Davylamp, and that put the mine in danger. Then you were seen to light your pipe at the bare light, and that put it in worse peril."
"That's a lie. What mak's yer believe my skin's nowt to me? It's all one as it is to them liars that would rob me of my bread out of clean spite."
"It's the truth, and proved by four honest witnesses. There are a hundred and fifty men and twenty ponies in that mine, and their lives must not be sacrificed by one two-legged brute that won't hear reason. You are discharged and paid; so be good enough to quit the premises and find work elsewhere; and Lord help your employer, whoever he is!"
Hope would waste no more time over this fellow. He turned his back, and went off briskly on his more important errand.
Burnley shook his fist at him, and discharged a volley of horrible curses after him. Whilst he was thus raging after the man that had done his duty he heard a satirical chuckle. He turned his head, and, behold! there was the sneering face of his fellow jail-bird Monckton. Burnley started.
"Yes, mate," said Monckton, "it is me. And what sort of a pal are you, that couldn't send me a word to Portland that you had dropped on to this rascal Hope? You knew I was after him. You might have saved me the trouble, you selfish brute."
Burnley submitted at once to the ascendency of Monckton; he hung his head, and muttered, "I am no scholard to write to folk."
"You grudged a joey to a bloke to write for you. Now I suppose you expect me to be a good pal to you again, all the same?"
"Why not?" said Burnley. "He is poison to you as well as to me. He gave you twelve years' penal; you told me so at Portland; let's be revenged on him."
"What else do you think I am here for, you fool? But empty revenge, that's child's play. The question is, can you do what you are told?"
"Ay, if I see a chance of revenge. Why, I always did what you told me."
"Very well, then; there's nothing ripe yet."
"Yer don't mean I am to wait a year for my revenge."
"You will have to wait an opportunity. Revenge is like other luxuries, there's a time for it. Do you think I am such a fool as to go in for blindfold revenge, and get lagged or stretched? Not for Joseph, nor for you, either, Benjamin. I'll tell you what, though, I think this will be a busy day; it must be a busy day. That old fox Bartley has found out his blunder before now, and he'll try something on; then the Cliffords, they won't go to sleep on it."
"I don't know what yer talking about," says Burnley.
"Remain in your ignorance, Ben. The best instrument is a blind instrument; you shall have your revenge soon or late."
"Let it be soon, then."
"In the meantime," said Monckton, "have you got any money?"
"Got my wages."
"That will do for you to-day. Go to the public-house and get half-drunk."
"Half-drunk! Don't I speak plain?"
"Miners," said Burnley, candidly, "never get half-drunk in t' county Durham; they are that the best part of their time."
"Then you get half-drunk, neither more nor less, or I'll discharge you as Hope has done, and that will be the worst discharge of the two for you. When you are half-drunk come here directly, and hang about this place. No; you had better be under that tree in the middle of the field there, and pretend to be sleeping off your liquor. Come, mizzle!"
When he had packed off Burnley, he got back into his hiding-place, and only just in time, for Hope came back again upon the wings of love, and Grace, whose elastic nature had revived, saw him coming, and came out to meet him. Hope scolded her urgently: why had she got off the sofa when repose was so necessary for her?
"You are mistaken, dear father," said she. "I am wonderfully strong and healthy; I never fainted away in my life, and my mind will not let me rest at present--I have been longing so for my father."
"Ah, precious word!" murmured Hope. "Keep saying that word to me, darling. Oh, the years that I have pined for it!"
"Dear father, we will make up for all those years. Oh, papa, let us not part again, never, never, not even for a day."
"My child, we never will. What am I saying? I shall have to give you back to one who has a stronger claim than I--to your husband."
"My husband?" said Mary, turning pale.
"Yes," said Hope; "for you know you have a husband. Oh, I heard a few words there before I interfered; but it is not to me you'll say 'I don't know.' That was good enough for Bartley and a lot of strangers. Come, Grace dear, take my arm; have no concealments from me. Trust to a father's infinite love, even if you have been imprudent or betrayed; but that's a thing I shall never believe except from your lips. Take a turn with me, my child, since you can not lie down and rest; a little air, and gentle movement on your father's arm, and close to your father's heart, will be the next best thing for you." Then they walked to and fro like lovers.
"Why, Grace, my child," said he, "of course I understand it all. No doubt you promised to keep your marriage secret, or had some powerful reason for withholding it from strangers; and, indeed, why should you reveal such a secret to insolence or to mere curiosity. But you will tell the truth to me, your father and your best friend; you will tell me you are a wife."
"Father," said Mary, trembling, and her eyes roved as if she was looking out for the means of flight.
Hope saw this look, and it made him sick at heart, for he had lived too long, and observed too keenly, not to know that innocence and purity are dangers, and are more often protected by the safeguards of society than by themselves.
"Oh, my child," said he, "anything is better than this suspense; why do you not answer me? Why do you torture me? Are you Walter Clifford's wife?"
Mary began to pant and sob. "Oh papa, have patience with me. You do not know the danger. Wait till he comes back. I dare not; I can not."
"Then, by Heaven, he shall!"
He dropped her arm, and his countenance became terrible. She clung to him directly.
"No, no; wait till I have seen him. He will be back this very evening. Do not judge hastily; and oh, papa, as you love your child, do not act rashly."
"I shall act firmly," was Hope's firm reply. "You have come from a sham father to a real one, and you will be protected as well as loved. This lover has forbidden you to confide in your father (he did not know that I was your father, but that makes no difference); it looks very ugly, and if he has wronged you he shall do you justice, or I will have his life."
"Oh, papa," screamed Mary, "his life? Why, mine is bound up with it."
"I fear so," said Hope. "But what's our life to us without our honor, especially to a woman? He is the true Cain that destroys a pure virgin."
Then he put both his hands on her shoulder, and said, "Look at me, Grace." She looked at him full with eyes as brave as a lion's and as gentle as a gazelle's.
In a moment his senses enlightened him beyond the power of circumstances to deceive. "It's a lie," said he; "men are always lying and circumstances deceiving; there is no blush of shame upon these cheeks, no sin nor frailty in these pure eyes. You are his wife?"
"I am!" cried Grace, unable to resist any longer.
"Thank God!" cried Hope, and father and daughter were locked that moment in a tender embrace.
"Yes, papa, you shall know all, and then I shall have to fall on my knees and ask you not to punish one I love--for--a fault committed years ago. You will have pity on us both. Walter and I were married at the altar, and I am his wife in the eyes of Heaven. But, oh, papa, I fear I am not his lawful wife."
"Not his lawful wife, child! Why, what nonsense!"
"I would to Heaven it was; but this morning I learned for the first time that he had been married before. Oh, it was years ago; but she is alive."
"Impossible! He could not be so base."
"Papa," said Mary, very gravely, "I have seen the certificate."
"The certificate!" said Hope, in dismay. "What certificate?"
"Of the Registry Office. It was shown me by a gentleman she sent expressly to warn me; she had no idea that Walter and I were married, but she had heard somehow of our courtship. I try to thank her, and I tried, and always will, to save him from a prison and his family from disgrace."
"And sacrifice yourself?" cried Hope, in agony.
"I love him," said Mary, "and you must spare him."
"I will have justice for my child."
Grace was in such terror lest her father should punish Walter that she begged him to consider whether in sacrificing herself she really had not been unintentionally wise. What could she gain by publishing that she had married another woman's husband "I have lost my husband," said she "but I have found my father. Oh take me away and let me rest my broken heart upon yours far from all who know me. Every wound seems to be cured in this world, and if time won't cure this my wound, even with my father's help, the grave will."
"Oh, misery!" cried Hope; "do I hear such words as these from my child just entering upon life and all its joys?"
"Hush, papa," said Grace; "there is that man."
That man was Mr. Bartley. He looked very much distressed, and proceeded at once to express his penitence.