A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter II. The Rich Man's Child.
The world is very big, and contains hundreds of millions who are strangers to each other. Yet every now and then this big world seems to turn small; so many people whose acquaintance we make turn out to be acquaintances of our acquaintances. This concatenation of acquaintances is really one of the marvels of social life, if one considers the chances against it, owing to the size and population of the country. As an example of this phenomenon, which we have all observed, William Hope was born in Derbyshire, in a small parish which belonged, nearly all of it, to Colonel Clifford; yet in that battle for food which is, alas! the prosaic but true history of men and nations, he entered an office in Yorkshire, and there made friends with Colonel Clifford's son, Walter, who was secretly dabbling in trade and matrimony under the name of Bolton; and this same Hope was to come back, and to apply for a place to Mr. Bartley; Mr. Bartley was brother-in-law to that same Colonel Clifford, though they were at daggers drawn, the pair.
Miss Clifford, aged thirty-two, had married Bartley, aged thirty-seven. Each had got fixed habits, and they soon disagreed. In two years they parted, with plenty of bitterness, but no scandal. Bartley stood on his rights, and kept their one child, little Mary. He was very fond of her, and as the mother saw her whenever she liked, his love for his child rather tended to propitiate Mrs. Bartley, though nothing on earth would have induced her to live with him again.
Little Mary was two months younger than Grace Hope, and, like her, had blue eyes and golden hair. But what a difference in her condition! She had two nurses and every luxury. Dressed like a princess, and even when in bed smothered in lace; some woman's eye always upon her, a hand always ready to keep her from the smallest accident.
Yet all this care could not keep out sickness. The very day that Grace Hope began to cough and alarm her father, Mary Bartley flushed and paled, and showed some signs of feverishness.
The older nurse, a vigilant person, told Mr. Bartley directly; and the doctor was sent for post-haste. He felt her pulse, and said there was some little fever, but no cause for anxiety. He administered syrup of poppies, and little Mary passed a tranquil night.
Next day, about one in the afternoon, she became very restless, and was repeatedly sick. The doctor was sent for, and combated the symptoms; but did not inquire closely into the cause. Sickness proceeds immediately from the stomach; so he soothed the stomach with alkaline mucilages, and the sickness abated. But next day alarming symptoms accumulated, short breathing, inability to eat, flushed face, wild eyes. Bartley telegraphed to a first-rate London physician. He came, and immediately examined the girl's throat, and shook his head; then he uttered a fatal word--Diphtheria.
They had wasted four days squirting petty remedies at symptoms, instead of finding the cause and attacking it, and now he told them plainly he feared it was too late--the fatal membrane was forming, and, indeed, had half closed the air-passages.
Bartley in his rage and despair would have driven the local doctor out of the house, but this the London doctor would not allow. He even consulted him on the situation, now it was declared, and, as often happens, they went in for heroic remedies since it was too late.
But neither powerful stimulants nor biting draughts nor caustic applications could hinder the deadly parchment from growing and growing.
The breath reduced to a thread, no nourishment possible except by baths of beef tea, and similar enemas. Exhaustion inevitable. Death certain.
Such was the hopeless condition of the rich man's child, surrounded by nurses and physicians, when the father of the poor man's child applied to the clerk Bolton for that employment which meant bread for his child, and perhaps life for her.
William Hope returned to his little Grace with a loaf of bread he bought on the road with Bolton's shilling, and fresh milk in a soda-water bottle.
He found her crying. She had contrived, after the manner of children, to have an accident. The room was almost bare of furniture, but my lady had found a wooden stool that could be mounted upon and tumbled off, and she had done both, her parent being away. She had bruised and sprained her little wrist, and was in the depths of despair.
"Ah," said poor Hope, "I was afraid something or other would happen if I left you."
He took her to the window, and set her on his knee, and comforted her. He cut a narrow slip off his pocket handkerchief, wetted it, and bound it lightly and deftly round her wrist, and poured consolation into her ear. But soon she interrupted that, and flung sorrow to the winds; she uttered three screams of delight, and pointed eagerly through the window.
"Here they be again, the white swans!"
Hope looked, and there were two vessels, a brig and a bark, creeping down the river toward the sea, with white sails bellying to a gentle breeze astern.
It is experience that teaches proportion. The eye of childhood is wonderfully misled in that matter. Promise a little child the moon, and show him the ladder to be used, he sees nothing inadequate in the means; so Grace Hope was delighted with her swans.
But Hope, who made it his business to instruct her, and not deceive her as some thoughtless parents do, out of fun, the wretches, told her, gently, they were not swans, but ships.
She was a little disappointed at that, but inquired what they were doing.
"Darling," said he, "they are going to some other land, where honest, hard-working people can not starve, and, mark my words, darling," said he--she pricked her little ears at that--"you and I shall have to go with them, for we are poor."
"Oh," said little Grace, impressed by his manner as well as his words, and nodded her pretty head with apparent wisdom, and seemed greatly impressed.
Then her father fed her with bread and milk, and afterward laid her on the bed, and asked her whether she loved him.
"Dearly, dearly," said she.
"Then if you do," said he, "you will go to sleep like a good girl, and not stir off that bed till I come back."
"No more I will," said she.
However, he waited until she was in an excellent condition for keeping her promise, being fast as a church.
Then he looked long at her beautiful face, wax-like and even-tinted, but full of life after her meal, and prayed to Him who loved little children, and went with a beating heart to Mr. Bartley's office.
But in the short time, little more than an hour and a half, which elapsed between Hope's first and second visit, some most unexpected and remarkable events took place.
Bartley came in from his child's dying bed distracted with grief; but business to him was the air he breathed, and he went to work as usual, only in a hurried and bitter way unusual to him. He sent out his clerk Bolton with some bills, and told him sharply not to return without the money; and whilst Bolton, so-called, was making his toilette in the lobby, his eye fell on his other clerk, Monckton.
Monckton was poring over the ledger with his head down, the very picture of a faithful servant absorbed in his master's work.
But appearances are deceitful. He had a small book of his own nestled between the ledger and his stomach. It was filled with hieroglyphics, and was his own betting book. As for his brown-study, that was caused by his owing L100 in the ring, and not knowing how to get it. To be sure, he could rob Mr. Bartley. He had done it again and again by false accounts, and even by abstraction of coin, for he had false keys to his employer's safe, cash-box, drawers, and desk. But in his opinion he had played this game often enough, and was afraid to venture it again so soon and on so large a scale.
He was so absorbed in these thoughts that he did not hear Mr. Bartley come to him; to be sure, he came softly, because of the other clerk, who was washing his hands and brushing his hair in the lobby.
So Bartley's hand, fell gently, but all in a moment, on Monckton's shoulder, and they say the shoulder is a sensitive part in conscious rogues. Anyway, Monckton started violently, and turned from pale to white, and instinctively clapped both hands over his betting book.
"Monckton," said his employer, gravely, "I have made a very ugly discovery."
Monckton began to shiver.
"Periodical errors in the balances, and the errors always against me."
Monckton began to perspire. Not knowing what to say, he faltered, and at last stammered out, "Are you sure, sir?"
"Quite sure. I have long seen reason to suspect it, so last night I went through all the books, and now I am sure. Whoever the villain is, I will send him to prison if I can only catch him."
Monckton winced and turned his head away, debating in his mind whether he should affect indignation and sympathy, and pretend to court inquiry, or should wait till lunch-time, and then empty the cash-box and bolt.
Whilst thus debating, these words fell unexpectedly on his ear:
"And you must help me."
Then Monckton's eyes turned this way and that in a manner that is common among thieves, and a sardonic smile curled his pale thin lip.
"It is my duty," said the sly rogue, demurely. Then, after a pause, "But how?"
Then Mr. Bartley glanced at Bolton in the lobby, and not satisfied with speaking under his breath, drew this ill-chosen confidant to the other end of the office.
"Why, suspect everybody, and watch them. Now there's this clerk Bolton: I know nothing about him; I was taken by his looks. Have your eye on him."
"I will, sir," said Monckton, eagerly. He drew a long breath of relief. For all that, he was glad when a voice in the little office announced a visitor.
It was a clear, peremptory voice, short, sharp, incisive, and decisive. The clerk called Bolton heard it in the lobby, and scuttled into the street with a rapidity that contrasted drolly enough with the composure and slowness with which he had been brushing his hair and titivating his nascent whiskers.
A tall, stiff military figure literally marched into the middle of the office, and there stood like a sentinel.
Mr. Bartley could hardly believe his senses.
"Colonel Clifford!" said he, roughly.
"You are surprised to see me here?"
"Of course I am. May I ask what brings you?"
"That which composes all quarrels and squares all accounts--Death."
Colonel Clifford said this solemnly, and with less asperity. He added, with a glance at Monckton, "This is a very private matter."
Bartley took the hint, and asked Monckton to retire into the inner office.
As soon as he and Colonel Clifford were alone, that warrior, still standing straight as a dart, delivered himself of certain short sentences, each of which seemed to be propelled, or indeed jerked out of him, by some foreign power seated in his breast.
"My sister, your injured wife, is no more."
"Dead! This is very sudden. I am very, very sorry. I--"
Colonel Clifford looked the word "Humbug," and continued to expel short sentences.
"On her death-bed she made me promise to give you my hand. There it is."
His hand was propelled out, caught flying by Bartley, released, and drawn back again, all by machinery it seemed.
"She leaves you L20,000 in trust for the benefit of her child and yours--Mary Bartley."
"Poor, dear Eliza."
The Colonel looked as less high-bred people do when they say "Gammon," but proceeded civilly though brusquely.
"In dealing with the funds you have a large discretion. Should the girl die before you, or unmarried, the money lapses to your nephew, my son, Walter Clifford. He is a scapegrace, and has run away from me; but I must protect his just interests. So as a mere matter of form I will ask you whether Mary Bartley is alive."
Bartley bowed his head.
Colonel Clifford had not heard she was ill, so he continued: "In that case"--and then, interrupting himself for a moment, turned away to Bartley's private table, and there emptied his pockets of certain documents, one of which he wanted to select.
His back was not turned more than half a minute, yet a most expressive pantomime took place in that short interval.
The nurse opened a door of communication, and stood with a rush at the threshold: indeed, she would have rushed in but for the stranger. She was very pale, and threw up her hands to Bartley. Her face and her gesture were more expressive than words.
Then Bartley, clinging by mere desperate instinct to money he could not hope to keep, flew to her, drove her out by a frenzied movement of both hands, though he did not touch her, and spread-eagled himself before the door, with his face and dilating eyes turned toward Colonel Clifford.
The Colonel turned and stepped toward him with the document he had selected at the table. Bartley went to meet him.
The Colonel gave it to him, and said it was a copy of the will.
Bartley took it, and Colonel Clifford expelled his last sentences.
"We have shaken hands. Let us forget our past quarrels, and respect the wishes of the dead."
With that he turned sharply on both heels, and faced the door of the little office before he moved; then marched out in about seven steps, as he had marched in, and never looked behind him for two hundred miles.
The moment he was out of sight, Bartley, with his wife's will in his hand and ice at his heart, went to his child's room. The nurse met him, crying, and said, "A change"--mild but fatal words that from a nurse's lips end hope.
He came to the bedside just in time to see the breath hovering on his child's lips, and then move them as the summer air stirs a leaf.
Soon all was still, and the rich man's child was clay.
The unhappy father burst into a passion of grief, short but violent. Then he ordered the nurse to watch there, and let no one enter the room; then he staggered back to his office, and flung himself down at his table and buried his head. To do him justice, he was all parental grief at first, for his child was his idol.
The arms were stretched out across the table; the head rested on it; the man was utterly crushed.
Whilst he was so, the little office door opened softly, and a pale, worn, haggard face looked in. It was the father of the poor man's child in mortal danger from privation and hereditary consumption. That haggard face was come to ask the favor of employment, and bread for his girl, from the rich man whose child was clay.