A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXII. Remorse.
In a work of this kind not only the external incidents should be noticed, but also what may be called the mental events. We have seen a calamity produce a great revulsion in the feelings of Colonel Clifford; but as for Robert Bartley his very character was shaken to the foundation by his crime and its terrible consequences. He was now like a man who had glided down a soft sunny slope, and was suddenly arrested at the brink of a fathomless precipice. Bartley was cunning, selfish, avaricious, unscrupulous in reality, so long as he could appear respectable, but he was not violent, nor physically reckless, still less cruel. A deed of blood shocked him as much as it would shock an honest man. Yet now through following his natural bent too far, and yielding to the influence of a remorseless villain, he found his own hands stained with blood--the blood of a man who, after all, had been his best friend, and had led him to fortune; and the blood of an innocent girl who had not only been his pecuniary benefactress for a time, but had warmed and lighted his house with her beauty and affection.
Busy men, whose views are all external, are even more apt than others to miss the knowledge of their own minds. This man, to whom everything was business, had taken for granted he did not actually love Grace Hope. Why, she was another man's child. But now he had lost her forever, he found he had mistaken his own feelings. He looked round his gloomy horizon and realized too late that he did love her; it was not a great and penetrating love like William Hope's; he was incapable of such a sentiment; but what affection he had to bestow, he had given to this sweet creature. His house was dark without her; he was desolate and alone, and, horrible to think of, the instrument of her assassination. This thought drove him to frenzy, and his frenzy took two forms, furious excitement and gloomy despair; this was now his life by night and day, for sleep deserted him. At the mine his measures were all wise, but his manner very wild; the very miners whispered amongst themselves that he was going mad. At home, on the contrary, he was gloomy, with sullen despair. He was in this latter condition the evening after the explosion, when a visitor was announced. Thinking it was some one from the mine, he said, faintly, "Admit him," and then his despondent head dropped on his breast; indeed, he was in a sort of lethargy, worn out with his labors, his remorse and his sleeplessness.
In that condition his ear was suddenly jarred by a hard, metallic voice, whose tone was somehow opposed to all the voices with which goodness and humanity have ever spoken.
"Well, governor, here's a slice of luck."
Bartley shivered. "Is that the devil speaking to me?" he muttered, without looking up.
"No," said Monckton, jauntily, "only one of his servants, and your best friend."
"My friend," said Bartley, turning his chair and looking at him with a sort of dull wonder.
"Ay," said Monckton, "your friend; the man that found you brains and resolution, and took you out of the hole, and put Hope and his daughter in it instead; no, not his daughter, she did that for us, she was so clever."
"Yes," said Bartley, wildly, "it was you who made me an assassin. But for you, I should only have been a knave; now I am a murderer--thanks to you."
"Come, governor," said Monckton, "no use looking at one side of the picture. You tried other things first. You made him liberal offers, you know; but he would have war to the knife, and he has got it. He is buried at the bottom of that shaft."
"And you are all right."
"I am in hell," shrieked Bartley.
"Well, come out of it," said Monckton, "and let's talk sense. I--I read the news at Derby, just as I was starting for London. I have been as near the mine as I thought safe. They seem to be very busy clearing out both shafts--two steam-engines, constant relays of workmen. Who has got the job in hand?"
"I have," said Bartley.
"Well, that's clever of you to throw dust in their eyes, and put our little game off your own shoulders. You want to save appearances? You know you can not save William Hope."
"I can save him, and I will save him. God will have mercy on a penitent assassin, as he once had upon a penitent thief."
Monckton stared at him and smiled.
"Who has been talking to you--the parson?"
"My own conscience. I abhor myself as much as I do you, you black villain."
"Ah!" said Monckton, with a wicked glance, "that's how a man patters before he splits upon his pals, to save his own skin. Now, look here, old man, before you split on me ask yourself who had the greatest interest in this job. You silenced a dangerous enemy, but what have I gained? you ought to square with me first, as you promised. If you split upon me before that, you will put yourself in the hole and leave me out of it."
"Villain and fool!" said Bartley, "these trifles do not trouble me now. If Hope and my dear Mary are found dead in that mine, I'll tell how they came by their death, and I'll die by my own hand."
Monckton said nothing, but looked at him keenly, and began at last to feel uneasy.
"A shaft is but a narrow thing," Bartley rejoined; "why should they be buried alive? let's get to them before they are starved to death. We may save them yet."
"Why, you fool, they'll denounce us!"
"What do I care? I would save them both to-night if I was to stand in the dock to-morrow."
"And swing on the gallows next week, or end your days in a prison."
"I'd take my chance," said Bartley, desperately. "I'll undo my crime if I can. No punishment can equal the agony I am in now, thanks to you, you villain."
Then turning on him suddenly, and showing him the white of his eyes like a maniac, or a dangerous mastiff, he hissed out, "You think nothing of the lives of better men; perhaps you don't value your own?"
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Monckton. "That's a very different thing."
"Oh, you do value your own foul life?"
"At any amount of money," said Monckton.
"Then why do you risk it?"
"Excuse me, governor, that's a thing I make a point of not doing. I risk my instruments, not my head, Ben Burnley to wit."
"You are risking it now," said Bartley, looking still more strangely at him.
"How so, pray?" said Monckton, getting a little uneasy, for this was not the Bartley he had known till then.
Bartley took the poker in his hand and proceeded to poke the fire; but somehow he did not look at the fire. He looked askant at Monckton, and he showed the white of his eyes more and more. Monckton kept his eye upon him and put his hand upon the handle of the door.
"I'll tell you," said Bartley--"by coming here to tempt, provoke, and insult the wretch whose soul you destroyed, by forcing me to assassinate the best man and the sweetest girl in England, when there were vipers and villains about whom it's a good action to sweep off God's earth. Villain! I'll teach you to come like a fool and madden a madman. I was only a rogue, you have made me a man of blood. All the worse for you. I have murdered them, I'll execute you," and with these words he bounded on him like a panther.
Monckton tore the doors open, and dashed out, but a furious blow fell before he was quite clear of the doorway. With such force was it delivered that the blunt metal cut into the edge of the door like a sword; the jamb was smashed, and even Monckton, who received but one-fourth of the blow, fell upon his hands and knees into the hall and was stunned for a moment, but fearing worse, staggered out of the hall door, which, luckily for him, was open, and darting into a little grove of shrubs, that was close by, grovelled there in silence, bleeding like a pig, and waiting for his chance to escape entirely; but the quaking reptile ran no further risk.
Bartley never followed him beyond his own room; he had been goaded into a maniacal impulse, and he returned to his gloomy sullenness.
* * * * *
Walter's declaration, made so suddenly before four persons, startled them greatly for a moment--but only for a moment. Julia was the first to speak.
"We might have known it," she said, "Mary Bartley is a young lady incapable of misconduct; she is prudence, virtue, delicacy, and purity in person; the man she was with at that place was sure to be her husband, and who should that be but Walter, whom she loved?"
Then the servants looked anxiously at their master to see how he took this startling revelation. Well, the Colonel stood firm as if he was at the head of a column in the field. He was not the man to retreat from any position, he said, "All we have to do is to save her; then my house and arms are open to my son's wife."
"God bless you, father!" cried Walter, in a broken voice; "and God bless you, dear cousin. Yes, it's no time for words." And he was gone in a moment.
"Now Milton," said the Colonel, "he won't sleep here till the work is done, and he won't sleep at all if we don't get a bed for him near the mine. You order the break out, and go to the Dun Cow and do what you can for him."
"That I will, sir; I'll take his own sheets and bedding with me. I won't trust that woman--she talks too much; and, if you please, sir, I'll stay there a day or two myself, for maybe I shall coax him to eat a morsel of my cooking, and to lie down a bit, when he would not listen to a stranger."
"You're a faithful creature," said the Colonel, rather aggressively, not choosing to break down, "so are you, John; and it is at these moments we find out our friends in the house; and, confound you, I forbid you both to snivel," said he, still louder. Then, more gravely, "How do we know? many a stormy day ends well; this calamity may bring happiness and peace to a divided house."
Colonel Clifford prophesied right. Walter took the lead of a working gang and worked night and day, resting two hours only in the twenty-four, and even that with great reluctance. Outside the scene was one of bustle and animation. Little white tents, for the strange workmen to sleep in, dotted the green, and two snowy refreshment tents were pitched outside the Dun Cow. That establishment had large brick ovens and boilers, and the landlady, and the women she had got to help her, kept the tables always groaning under solid fare that never once flagged, being under the charge of that old campaigner, Colonel Clifford. The landlady tried to look sad at the occasion which called forth her energy and talents; but she was a woman of business, and her complacency oozed through her. Ah, it was not so at the pit mouth; the poor wives whose husbands were entombed below, alive or dead, hovered and fluttered about the two shafts with their aprons to their eyes, and eager with their questions. Deadly were their fears, their hopes fainter and fainter, as day after day went by, and both gangs, working in so narrow a space, made little progress, compared with their own desires, and the prayers of those who trembled for the result. It was a race and a struggle of two gallant parties, and a short description of it will be given; but as no new incidents happened for six days we shall preserve the chronological order of events, and now relate a daring project which was revived in that interval.
Monckton and Bartley were now enemies. Sin had united, crime and remorse had disunited them. Monckton registered a vow of future vengeance upon his late associate, but in the meantime, taking a survey of the present circumstances, he fell back upon a dark project he had conceived years ago on the very day when he was arrested for theft in Bartley's office.
Perhaps our readers, their memory disturbed by such a number of various matters as we have since presented to them, may have forgotten that project, but what is about to follow will tend to revive their recollection. Monckton then wired to Mrs. Braham's lawyer demanding an immediate interview with that lady; he specified the hour.
The lawyer went to her directly, the matter being delicate. He found her in great distress, and before he could open his communication she told him her trouble. She said that her husband, she feared, was going out of his mind; he groaned all night and never slept, and in the daytime never spoke.
There had been just then some surprising falls and rises in foreign securities, and the shrewd lawyer divined at once that the stock-broker had been doing business on his own account, and got pinched; so he said, "My dear madam, I suspect it is business on the Exchange; he will get over that, but there is something that is immediately pressing," and he then gave her Monckton's message.
Now her nerves were already excited, and this made matters worse. She cried and trembled, and became hysterical, and vowed she would never go near Leonard Monckton again; he had never loved her, had never been a friend to her as Jonathan Braham had. "No," said she; "if he wants money, take and sell my jewels; but I shall stay with my husband in his trouble."
"He is not your husband," said the lawyer, quietly; "and this man is your husband, and things have come to my knowledge lately which it would be imprudent at present to disclose either to him or you; but we are old friends. You can not doubt that I have your interest at heart."
"No, I don't doubt that," said Lucy, hastily, and held out her hand to him.
"Well, then," said he, "be persuaded and meet the man."
"No, I will not do that," said she. "I am not a good woman, I know; but it is not for want of the wish. I will not play double any more." And from that nothing he could say could move her.
The lawyer returned to his place, and when Monckton called next day he told him he was sorry to say Mr. Braham was ill and in trouble, and the lady couldn't meet him. She would make any reasonable sacrifice for his convenience except that.
"And I," said Monckton, "insist upon that, and nothing else."
The lawyer endeavored to soften him, and hinted that he would advance money himself sooner than his client should be tormented.
But Monckton was inflexible. He said, "It is about a matter that she can not communicate to you, nor can I. However, I am obliged to you for your information. She won't leave her stock-broker, eh? Well, then I know where to find her;" and he took up his hat to go.
"No, pray don't do that," said Mr. Middleton, earnestly. "Let me try her again. She has had time to sleep over it."
"Try her," said Monckton, sternly, "and if you are her friend, take her husband's side in this one thing; it's the last time I shall trouble her."
"I am her friend," said the lawyer. "And if you must know, I rather wish her to meet you and get it over. Will you come here again at five o'clock?"
"All right," said Monckton.
Monckton was struck with lawyer Middleton's manner, and went away puzzling over it.
"What's his little game, I wonder?" said he.
The lawyer went post-haste to his client's house. He found her in tears. She handed him an open letter.
Braham was utterly ruined, and besides that had done something or other he did not care to name; he was off to America, leaving her what money she could find in the house and the furniture, which he advised her to sell at once before others claimed it; in short, the man was wild with fear, and at present thought but little of anybody but himself.
Then the lawyer set himself to comfort her as well as he could, and renewed his request that she would give Monckton a meeting.
"Yes," said she, wearily--"it is no use trying to resist him; he can come here."
The lawyer demurred to that. "No," said he, "keep your own counsel, don't let him know you are deserted and ruined; make a favor of coming, but come: and a word in your ear--he can do more for you than Braham can, or will ever do again. So don't you thwart him if you can help."
She was quick enough to see there was something weighty behind, and she consented. He took her back with him; only she was such a long time removing the traces of tears, and choosing the bonnet she thought she should look best in, that she made him twenty minutes late and rather cross. It is a way women have of souring that honeycomb, a man.
When the trio met at the office the husband was pale, the wife dull and sullen.
"It's the last time I shall trouble you, Lucy," said Monckton.
"As you please, Leonard."
"And I want you to make my fortune."
"You have only to tell me how." (Quite incredulously.)
"You must accompany me to Derbyshire, or else meet me at Derby, whichever you please. Oh, don't be alarmed. I don't ask you to travel with me as man and wife."
"It doesn't much matter, I suppose," said Lucy, doggedly.
"Well, you are accommodating; I'll be considerate."
"No doubt you will," said Lucy; then turning her glorious eyes full upon him, "WHAT'S THE CRIME?"
"The crime!" said Monckton, looking all about the room to find it. "What crime?"
"The crime I'm wanted for; all your schemes are criminal, you know."
"Well, you're complimentary. It's not a crime this time; it's only a confession."
"Ah! What am I to confess--bigamy?"
"The idea! No. You are to confess--in a distant part of England, what you can deny in London next day--that on a certain day you married a gentleman called Walter Clifford."
"I'll say that on the eleventh day of June, 1868, I married a gentleman who was called Walter Clifford."
This was Lucy's reply, and given very doggedly.
"Bravo! and will you stand to it if the real Walter Clifford says it is a lie?"
Lucy reflected. "No, I will not."
"Well, well, we shall have time to talk about that: when can you start?"
"Give me three days."
"You won't keep me there long after I have done this wicked thing?"
"No, no. I will send you home with flying colors, and you shall have your share of the plunder."
"I'd rather go into service again and work my fingers to the bone."
"Since you have such a contempt for money, perhaps you'll stand fifty pounds?"
"I have no money with me, but I'll ask Mr. Middleton to advance me some."
She opened the door, and asked one of the clerks if she could see the principal for a moment. He came to her directly. She then said to him, "He wants fifty pounds; could you let me have it for him?"
"Oh," said the lawyer, cheerfully, "I shall be happy to lend Mr. Monckton fifty or a hundred pounds upon his own note of hand."
They both stared at him a little; but a blank note of hand was immediately produced, drawn and signed at six months' date for L52 10s., and the lawyer gave Monckton his check for L50. Husband and wife then parted for a time. Monckton telegraphed to his lodgings to say that his sister would come down with him for country air, and would require good accommodation, but would pay liberally.
In most mining accidents the shafts are clear, and the debris that has to be picked through to get to the entombed miners is attacked with this advantage, that a great number of men have room to use their arms and pickaxes, and the stuff has not to be sent up to the surface. But in this horrible accident both gangs of workers were confined to a small area and small cages, and the stuff had to be sent up to the surface.
Bartley, who seemed to live only to rescue the sufferers by his own fault, provided miles of rope, and had small cages knocked together, so that the debris was continually coming up from both the shafts, and one great source of delay was averted. But the other fatal cause of delay remained, and so daylight came and went, and the stars appeared and disappeared with incredible rapidity to poor Walter and the other gallant workers, before they got within thirty feet of the pit: those who worked in the old shafts, having looser stuff to deal with, gained an advance of about seven feet upon the other working party, and this being reported to Walter he went down the other shaft to inspire the men by words and example. He had not been down two hours when one of the miners cried, "Hold hard, they are working up to us," and work was instantly suspended for a moment. Then sure enough the sounds of pickaxes working below were just audible.
There was a roar of exultation from the rescuing party, and a man was sent up with his feet in a bucket, and clinging to a rope, to spread the joyful tidings; but the work was not intermitted for more than a moment, and in a few hours it became necessary to send the cage down and suspend the work to avoid another accident. The thin remaining crust gave way, the way was clear, lamps were sent down, and the saving party were soon in the mine, with a sight before them never to be forgotten.
The few men who stood erect with picks in their hands were men of rare endurance; and even they began to fall, exhausted with fatigue and hunger. Five times their number lay dotted about the mine, prostrated by privation, and some others, alas! were dead. None of the poor fellows were in a condition to give a rational answer, though Walter implored them to say where Hope was and his daughter. These poor pale wretches, the shadows of their former selves, were sent up in the cages with all expedition, and received by Bartley, who seemed to forget nothing, for he had refreshment tents ready at the pit mouth.
Meantime, Walter and others, whose hearts were with him, ran wildly through the works, and groped on their knees with their lamps to find Hope and his daughter, but they were not to be found, and nine miners beside them were missing, including Ben Burnley. Then Walter came wildly up to the surface, wringing his hands with agony, and crying, "they are lost! they are lost!"
"No," cried Bartley, "they must not be lost; they shall not be lost. One man has come to himself. I gave him port-wine and brandy." Then he dragged the young man into the tent. There was stout Jim Davies propped up and held, but with a great tumbler of brandy and port in his hand.
"Now, my man," said, or rather screamed, Bartley, "tell him where Hope is, and Mary--that I--Oh, God! oh, God!"
"Master," said Jim, faintly, "I was in the hall with Mr. Hope and the lady when the first explosion came. Most of us ran past the old shaft and got clear. A few was caught by the falling shaft, for I looked back and saw it. But I never saw Master Hope among them. If he was, he is buried under the shaft; but I do really think that he was that taken up with his girl, and that darned villain that fired the mine, as he's like to be in the hall either alive or dead."
He could say no more, but fell into a sort of doze, the result of the powerful stimulant on his enfeebled frame and empty stomach. Then Bartley, with trembling hands, brought out a map of the mine and showed Walter where the second party had got to.
"See," said he, "they are within twenty feet of the bottom, and the hall is twenty-three feet high. Hope measured it. Give up working downward, pick into the sides of that hall, for in that hall I see them at night; sometimes they are alive, sometimes they are dead, sometimes they are dying. I shall go mad, I shall go mad!"
With this he went raging about, giving the wildest orders, with the looks and tones of a madman. In a minute he had a cage ready for Walter, and twenty fresh-lit lamps, and down went Walter with more men and pickaxes. As soon as he got out of the cage he cried, wildly, "Stop that, men, and do as I do."
He took a sweep with his pick, and delivered a horizontal blow at the clay on that side of the shaft Bartley had told him to attack. His pickaxe stuck in it, and he extricated it with difficulty.
"Nay, master," cried a miner who had fallen in love with him, "drive thy pick at t' coal."
Walter then observed that above the clay there was a narrow seam of coal; he heaved his pick again, but instead of striking it half downward, as he ought to have done, he delivered a tremendous horizontal blow that made the coal ring like a church bell, and jarred his own stout arms so terribly that the pick fell out of his numbed hand.
Then the man who had advised him saw that he was disabled for a time, and stepped into his place.
But in that short interval an incident occurred so strange and thrilling that the stout miners uttered treble cries, like women, and then one mighty "Hah!" burst like a diapason from their manly bosoms.