A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXIV. Strange Complications.
Exert all the powers of your mind, and conceive, if you can, what that mother felt whose only son sickened, and, after racking her heart with hopes and fears, died before her eyes, and was placed in his coffin and carried to his rest. Yet One in the likeness of a man bade the bearers stand still, then, with a touch, made the coffin open, the dead come back, blooming with youth and health, and handed him to his mother.
That picture no mortal mind can realize; but the effort will take you so far as this: you may imagine what Walter Clifford felt when, almost at the climax of despair, he received from that living tomb the good and beautiful creature who was the light of his eyes and the darling of his heart.
How he gloated on her! How he murmured words of comfort and joy over her as the cage carried her and Hope and him up again into the blessed sunshine! And there, what a burst of exultation and honest rapture received them!
Everybody was there. The news of Hope's signal had been wired to the surface. An old original telegraph had been set up by Colonel Clifford, and its arms set flying to tell him. That old campaigner was there, with his spring break and mattresses, and an able physician. Bartley was there, pale and old, and trembling, and crying. He fell on his knees before Hope and Grace. She drew back from him with repulsion; but he cried out, "No matter! no matter! They are saved! they are saved!"
Walter carried her to his father, and left Bartley kneeling. Then he dashed back for Hope, who did not move, and found him on his knees insensible. A piece of coal, driven by one of the men's picks, had struck him on the temple. The gallant fellow had tried to hide his hurt with his handkerchief, but the handkerchief was soaked with blood, and the man, exhausted by hunger, violent emotions, and this last blow, felt neither his trouble nor his joy. He was lifted with tender pity into the break, and the blood stanched, and stimulants applied by the doctor. But Grace would have his head on her bosom, and her hand in Walter's. Fortunately, the doctor was no other than that physician who had attended Colonel Clifford in his dangerous attack of internal gout. We say fortunately, for patients who have endured extremities of hunger have to be treated with very great skill and caution. Gentle stimulants and mucilages must precede solid food, and but a little of anything be taken at a time. Doctor Garner began his treatment in the very break. The first spoonful of egg and brandy told upon Grace Hope. Her deportment had been strange. She had seemed confused at times, and now and then she would cast a look of infinite tenderness upon Walter, and then again she would knit her brow and seem utterly puzzled.
But now she gave Walter a look that brought him nearer to her, and she said, with a heavenly smile, "You love me best; better than the other." Then she began to cry over her father.
"Better than the other," said Walter, aloud. "What other?"
"Be quiet," said the doctor. "Do you really think her stomach can be empty for six days, and her head be none the worse? Come, my dear, another spoonful. Good girl! Now et me look at you, Mr. Walter."
"Why, what is the matter with him?" said the Colonel. "I never saw him look better in all my life."
"Indeed! Red spots on his cheek-bones, ditto on his temples, and his eyes glaring."
"Excitement and happiness," said Walter.
The doctor took no notice of him. "He has been outraging nature," said he, "and she will have her revenge. We are not out of the wood yet, Colonel Clifford, and you had better put them all three under my command."
"I do, my good friend; I do," said Colonel Clifford, eagerly. "It is your department, and I don't believe in two commanders."
They drew up at the great door of Clifford Hall. It seemed to open of itself, and there were all the servants drawn up in two lines.
They all showed eager sympathy, but only John Baker and Mrs. Milton ventured to express it. "God bless you all!" said Colonel Clifford. "But it is our turn now. They are all in the doctor's hands. My whole household obey him to the letter. It is my order. Doctor Garner, this is Mrs. Milton, my housekeeper. You will find her a good lieutenant."
"Mrs. Milton," said the doctor, sharply, "warm baths in three rooms, and to bed with this lot. Carry Mr. Hope up; he is my first patient. Bring me eggs, milk, brandy, new port-wine. Cook!"
"Hammer three chickens to pieces with your rolling-pin, then mince them; then chuck them into a big pot with cold water, stew them an hour, and then boil them to a jelly, strain, and serve. Meantime, send up three slices of mutton half raw; we will do a little chewing, not much."
The patients submitted like lambs, only Walter grumbled a little, but at last confessed to a headache and sudden weariness.
Julia Clifford took special charge of Grace Hope, the doctor of William Hope, and Colonel Clifford sat by Walter, congratulating, soothing, and encouraging him, until he began to doze.
* * * * *
Doctor Garner's estimate of his patients proved correct. The next day Walter was in a raging fever.
Hope remained in a pitiable state of weakness, and Grace, who in theory was the weaker vessel, began to assist Julia in nursing them both. To be sure, she was all whip-cord and steel beneath her delicate skin, and had always been active and temperate. And then she was much the youngest, and the constitutions of such women are anything but weak. Still, it was a most elastic recovery from a great shock.
But the more her body recovered its strength, and her brain its clearness, the more was her mind agitated and distressed.
Her first horrible anxiety was for Walter's life. The doctor showed no fear, but that might be his way.
It was a raging fever, with all the varieties that make fever terrible to behold. He was never left without two attendants; and as Hope was in no danger now, though pitiably weak and slowly convalescent, Grace was often one of Walter's nurses. So was Julia Clifford. He sometimes recognized them for a little while, and filled their loving hearts with hope. But the next moment he was off into the world of illusions, and sometimes could not see them. Often he asked for Grace most piteously when she was looking at him through her tears, and trying hard to win him to her with her voice. On these occasions he always called her Mary. One unlucky day that Grace and Julia were his only attendants he became very restless and wild, said he had committed a great crime, and the scaffold was being prepared for him. "Hark!" said he; "don't you hear the workmen? Curse their hammers; their eternal tip-tapping goes through my brain. The scaffold! What would the old man say? A Clifford hung! Never! I'll save him and myself from that."
Then he sprang out of bed and made a rush at the window. It was open, unluckily, and he had actually got his knee through when Grace darted to him and seized him, screaming to Julia to help her. Julia did her best, especially in the way of screaming. Grace's muscle and resolution impeded the attempt no more; slowly, gradually, he got both knees upon the window-sill. But the delay was everything. In came a professional nurse. She flung her arms round Walter's waist and just hung back with all her weight. As she was heavy, though not corpulent, his more active strength became quite valueless; weight and position defeated him hopelessly; and at last he sank exhausted into the nurse's arms, and she and Grace carried him to bed like a child.
Of course, when it was all over, half a dozen people came to the rescue. The woman told what had happened, the doctor administered a soothing draught, the patient became very quiet, then perspired a little, then went to sleep, and the cheerful doctor declared that he would be all the better for what he called this little outbreak. But Grace sat there quivering for hours, and Colonel Clifford installed two new nurses that very evening. They were pensioners of his--soldiers who had been invalided from wounds, but had long recovered, and were neither of them much above forty. They had some experience, and proved admirable nurses--quiet, silent, vigilant as sentinels.
That burst of delirium was the climax. Walter began to get better after that. But a long period of convalescence was before him; and the doctor warned them that convalescence has its very serious dangers, and that they must be very careful, and, above all, not irritate nor even excite him.
All this time torments of another kind had been overpowered but never suppressed in poor Grace's mind; and these now became greater as Walter's danger grew less and less.
What would be the end of all this? Here she was installed, to her amazement, in Clifford Hall, as Walter's wife, and treated, all of a sudden, with marked affection and respect by Colonel Clifford, who had hitherto seemed to abhor her. But it was all an illusion; the whole house of cards must come tumbling down some day.
Some days before the event last described Hope had said to her,
"My child, this is no place for you and me."
"No more it is, papa," said Grace. "I know that too well."
"Then why did you let them bring us here?"
"Papa," said Grace, "I forgot all about that."
"It seems incredible, does it not? But what I saw and felt thrust what I had only heard out of my mind. Oh, papa! you were insensible, poor dear; but if you had only seen Walter Clifford when he saved us! I took him for some giant miner. He seemed ever so much bigger than the gentleman I loved--ay, and I shall love him to my dying day, whether or not he has--But when he sprang to my side, and took me with his bare, bleeding arms to his heart, that panted so, I thought his heart would burst, and mine, too, could I feel another woman between us. All that might be true, but it was unreal. That he loved me, and had saved me, that was real. And when we sat together in the carriage, your poor bleeding head upon my bosom, and his hand grasping mine, and his sweet eyes beaming with love and joy, what could I realize except my father's danger and my husband's mighty love? I was all present anxiety and present bliss. His sin and my alarms seemed hundreds of miles off, and doubtful. And even since I have been here, see how greater and nearer things have overpowered me. Your deadly weakness--you, who were strong, poor dear--oh, let me kiss you, dear darling--till you had saved your child; Walter's terrible danger. Oh, my dear father, spare me. How can a poor, weak woman think of such different woes, and realize and suffer them all at once? Spare me, dear father, spare me! Let me see you stronger; let me see him safe, and then let us think of that other cruel thing, and what we ought to say to Colonel Clifford, and what we ought to do, and where we are to go."
"My poor child," said Hope, faintly, with tears in his eyes, "I say no more. Take your own time."
Grace did not abuse this respite. So soon as the doctor declared Walter out of immediate danger, and indeed safe, if cautiously treated, she returned of her own accord to the miserable subject that had been thrust aside.
After some discussion, they both agreed that they must now confide their grief to Colonel Clifford, and must quit his home, and make him master of the situation, and sole depository of the terrible secret for a time.
Hope wished to make the revelation, and spare his daughter that pain. She assented readily and thankfully.
This was a woman's first impulse--to put a man forward.
But by-and-by she had one of her fits of hard thinking, and saw that such a revelation ought not to be made by one straightforward man to another, but with all a woman's soothing ways. Besides, she had already discovered that the Colonel had a great esteem and growing affection for her; and, in short, she felt that if the blow could be softened by anybody, it was by her.
Her father objected that she would encounter a terrible trial, from which he could save her; but she entreated him, and he yielded to her entreaty, though against his judgment.
When this was settled, nothing remained but to execute it.
Then the woman came uppermost, and Grace procrastinated for one insufficient reason and another.
However, at last she resolved that the very next day she would ask John Baker to get her a private interview with Colonel Clifford in his study.
This resolution had not been long formed when that very John Baker tapped at Mr. Hope's door, and brought her a note from Colonel Clifford asking her if she could favor him with a visit in his study.
Grace said, "Yes, Mr. Baker, I will come directly."
As soon as Baker was gone she began to bemoan her weak procrastination, and begged her father's pardon for her presumption in taking the matter out of his hands. "You would not have put it off a day. Now, see what I have done by my cowardice."
Hope did not see what she had done, and the quick-witted young lady jumping at once at a conclusion, opened her eyes and said,
"Why, don't you see? Some other person has told him what it was so important he should hear first from me. Ah! it is the same gentleman that came and warned me. He has heard that we are actually married, for it is the talk of the place, and he told me she would punish him if he neglected her warning. Oh, what shall I do?"
"You go too fast, Grace, dear. Don't run before trouble like that. Come, go to Colonel Clifford, and you will find it is nothing of the kind."
Grace shook her head grandly. Experience had given her faith in her own instincts, as people call them--though they are subtle reasonings the steps of which are not put forward--and she went down to the study.
"Grace, my dear," said the Colonel, "I think I shall have a fit of the gout."
"Oh no," said Grace. "We have trouble enough."
"It gets less every day, my dear; that is one comfort. But what I meant was that our poor invalids eclipse me entirely in your good graces. That is because you are a true woman, and an honor to your sex. But I should like to see a little more of you. Well, all in good time. I didn't send for you to tell you that. Sit down, my girl; it is a matter of business."
Grace sat down, keenly on her guard, though she did not show it in the least. Colonel Clifford resumed,
"You may be sure that nothing has been near my heart for some time but your danger and my dear son's. Still, I owe something to other sufferers, and the poor widows whose husbands have perished in that mine have cried to me for vengeance on the person who bribed that Burnley. I am a magistrate, too, and duty must never be neglected. I have got detectives about, and I have offered five hundred guineas reward for the discovery of the villain. One Jem Davies described him to me, and I put the description on the placard and in the papers. But now I learn that Davies's description is all second-hand. He had it from you. Now, I must tell you that a description at second-hand always misses some part or other. As a magistrate, I never encourage Jack to tell me what Jill says when I can get hold of Jill. You are Jill, my dear, so now please verify Jack's description or correct it. However, the best way will be to give me your own description before I read you his."
"I will," said Grace, very much relieved. "Well, then, he was a man not over forty, thin, and with bony fingers; an enormous gold ring on the little finger of his right hand. He wore a suit of tweed, all one color, rather tight, and a vulgar neck-handkerchief, almost crimson. He had a face like a corpse, and very thin lips. But the most remarkable things were his eyes and his eyebrows. His eyes were never still, and his brows were very black, and not shaped like other people's; they were neither straight, like Julia Clifford's, for instance, nor arched like Walter's; that is to say, they were arched, but all on one side. Each brow began quite high up on the temple, and then came down in a slanting drop to the bridge of the nose, and lower than the bridge. There, if you will give me a pencil I will draw you one of his eyebrows in a minute."
She drew the eyebrow with masterly ease and rapidity.
"Why, that is the eyebrow of Mephistopheles."
"And so it is," said Grace, naively. "No wonder it did not seem human to me."
"I am sorry to say it is human. You can see it in every convict jail. But," said he, "how came this villain to sit to you for his portrait?"
"He did not, sir. But when he was struggling with me to keep me from rescuing my father--"
"What! did the ruffian lay hands on you?"
"That he did, and so did Mr. Bartley. But the villain was the leader of it all; and while he was struggling with me--"
"You were taking stock of him? Well, they talk of a Jew's eye; give me a woman's. My dear, the second-hand description is not worth a button. I must write fresh notices from yours, and, above all, instruct the detectives. You have given me information that will lead to that man's capture. As for the gold ring and the tweed suit, they disappeared into space when my placard went up, you may be sure of that, and a felon can paint his face. But his eyes and eyebrows will do him. They are the mark of a jail-bird. I am a visiting justice, and have often noticed the peculiarity. Draw me his eyebrows, and we will photograph them in Derby; and my detectives shall send copies to Scotland Yard and all the convict prisons. We'll have him."
The Colonel paused suddenly in his triumphant prediction, and said, "But what was that you let fall about Bartley? He was no party to this foul crime. Why, he has worked night and day to save you and Hope. Indeed, you both owe your lives to him."
"Yes. He set the men on to save you within ten minutes of the explosion. He bought rope by the mile, and great iron buckets to carry up the debris that was heaped up between you and the working party. He raved about the pit day and night lamenting his daughter and his friend; and why I say he saved you, 'twas he who advised Walter. I had this from Walter himself before his fever came on. He advised and implored him not to attempt to clear the whole shaft, but to pick sideways into the mine twenty feet from the ground. He told Walter that he never really slept at night, and in his dreams saw you in a part of the mine he calls the hall. Now, Walter says that but for this advice they would have been two days more getting to you."
"We should have been dead," said Grace, gravely. Then she reflected.
"Colonel Clifford," said she, "I listened to that villain and Mr. Bartley planning my father's destruction. Certainly every word Mr. Bartley said was against it. He spoke of it with horror. Yet, somehow or other, that wretched man obtained from him an order to send the man Burnley down the mine, and what will you think when I tell you that he assisted the villain to hinder me from going to the mine?" Then she told him the whole scene, and how they shut her up in the house, and she had to go down a curtain and burst through a quick-set hedge. But all the time she was thinking of Walter's bigamy and how she was to reveal it; and she related her exploits in such a cold, languid manner that it was hardly possible to believe them.
Colonel Clifford could not help saying, "My dear, you have had a great shock; and you have dreamt all this. Certainly you are a fine girl, and broad-shouldered. I admire that in man or woman--but you are so delicate, so refined, so gentle."
Grace blushed and said, languidly, "For all that, I am an athlete."
"An athlete, child?"
"Yes, sir. Mr. Bartley took care of that. He would never let me wear a corset, and for years he made me do calisthenics under a master."
"That is a fine word for gymnastics." Then, with a double dose of languor, "I can go up a loose rope forty feet, so it was nothing to me to come down one. The hedge was the worst thing; but my father was in danger, and my blood was up." She turned suddenly on the Colonel with a flash of animation, "You used to keep race-horses, Walter told me." The Colonel stared at this sudden turn.
"That I did," said he, "and a pretty penny they cost me."
"Well, sir, is not a race-horse a poor mincing thing until her blood gets up galloping?"
"By Jove! you are right," said he, "she steps like a cat upon hot bricks. But the comparison is not needed. Whatever statement Mrs. Walter Clifford makes to me seriously is gospel to me, who already know enough of her to respect her lightest word. Pray grant me this much, that Bartley is a true penitent, for I have proof of it in this drawer. I'll show it you."
"No, no, please not," said Grace, in no little agitation. "Let me take your word for that, as you have taken mine. Oh, sir, he is nothing to me compared with what I thought you wished to say to me. But it is I who must find the courage to say things that will wound you and me still more. Colonel Clifford, pray do not be angry with me till you know all, but indeed your house is not the place for my father or for me."
"Why not, madam," said the Colonel, stiffly, "since you are my daughter-in-law?"
She did not reply.
"Ah!" said he, coloring high and rising from his chair. He began to walk the room in some agitation. "You are right," said he; "I once affronted you cruelly, unpardonably. Still, pray consider that you passed for Bartley's daughter; that was my objection to you, and then I did not know your character. But when I saw you come out pale and resolved to sacrifice yourself to justice and another woman, that converted me at once. Ask Julia what I said about you."
"I must interrupt you," said Grace. "I can not let such a man as you excuse yourself to a girl of eighteen who has nothing but reverence for you, and would love you if she dared."
"Then all I can say is that you are very mysterious, my dear, and I wish you would speak out."
"I shall speak out soon enough," said Grace, solemnly, "now I have begun. Colonel Clifford, you have nothing to reproach yourself with. No more have I, for that matter. Yet we must both suffer." She hesitated a moment, and then said, firmly, "You do me the honor to approve my conduct in that dreadful situation. Did you hear all that passed? did you take notice of all I said?"
"I did," said Colonel Clifford. "I shall never forget that scene, nor the distress, nor the fortitude of her I am proud to call my daughter."
Grace put her hands before her face at these kind words, and he saw the tears trickle between her white fingers. He began to wonder, and to feel uneasy. But the brave girl shook off her tears, and manned herself, if we may use such an expression.
"Then, sir," said she, slowly and emphatically, though quietly, "did you not think it strange that I should say to my father, 'I don't know?' He asked me before you all, 'Are you a wife?' Twice I said to my father--to him I thought was my father--'I don't know.' Can you account for that, sir?"
The Colonel replied, "I was so unable to account for it that I took Julia Clifford's opinion on it directly, as we were going home."
"And what did she say?"
"Oh, she said it was plain enough. The fellow had forbidden you to own the marriage, and you were an obedient wife; and, like women in general, strong against other people, but weak against one."
"So that is a woman's reading of a woman," said Grace. "She will sacrifice her honor, and her father's respect, and court the world's contempt, and sully herself for life, to suit the convenience of a husband for a few hours. My love is great, but it is not slavish or silly. Do you think, sir, that I doubted for one moment Walter Clifford would own me when he came home and heard what I had suffered? Did I think him so unworthy of my love as to leave me under that stigma? Hardly. Then why should I blacken Mrs. Walter Clifford for an afternoon, just to be unblackened at night?"
"This is good sense," said the Colonel, "and the thing is a mystery. Can you solve it?"
"You may be sure I can--and woe is me--I must."
She hung her head, and her hands worked convulsively.
"Sir," said she, after a pause, "suppose I could not tell the truth to all those people without subjecting the man I loved--and I love him now dearer than ever--to a terrible punishment for a mere folly done years ago, which now has become something much worse than folly--but how? Through his unhappy love for me!"
"These are dark words," said the Colonel. "How am I to understand them?"
"Dark as they are," said Grace, "do they not explain my conduct in that bitter trial better than Julia Clifford's guesses do, better than anything that has occurred since?"
"Mrs. Walter Clifford," said the Colonel, with a certain awe, "I see there is something very grave here, and that it affects my son. I begin to know you. You waited till he was out of danger; but now you do me the honor to confide something to me which the world will not drag out of you. So be it; I am a man and a soldier. I have faced cavalry, and I can face the truth. What is it?"
"Colonel Clifford," said Grace, trembling like a leaf, "the truth will cut you to the heart, and will most likely kill me. Now that I have gone so far, you may well say, 'Tell it me;' but the words once past my lips can never be recalled. Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?"
The struggle overpowered her, and almost for the first time in her life she turned half faint and yet hysterical; and such was her condition that the brave Colonel was downright alarmed, and rang hastily for his people. He committed her to the charge of Mrs. Milton. It seemed cruel to demand any further explanation from her just then; so brave a girl, who had gone so far with him, would be sure to tell him sooner or later. Meantime he sat sombre and agitated, oppressed by a strange sense of awe and mystery, and vague misgiving. While he brooded thus, a footman brought him in a card upon a salver: "The Reverend Alleyn Meredith." "Do I know this gentleman?" said the Colonel.
"I think not, sir," said the footman.
"What is he like?"
"Like a beneficed clergyman, sir."
Colonel Clifford was not in the humor for company; but it was not his habit to say not at home when he was at home; and being a magistrate, he never knew when a stranger sent in his card, that it might not be his duty to see him; so he told the footman to say, "that he was in point of fact engaged, but was at this gentleman's service for a few minutes."
The footman retired, and promptly ushered in a clergyman who seemed the model of an archdeacon or a wealthy rector. Sleek and plump, without corpulence, neat boots, clothes black and glossy, waistcoat up to the throat, neat black gloves, a snowy tie, a face shaven like an egg, hair and eyebrows grizzled, cheeks rubicund, but not empurpled, as one who drank only his pint of port, but drank it seven days in the week.
Nevertheless, between you and us, this sleek, rosy personage, archdeacon or rural dean down to the ground was Leonard Monckton, padded to the nine, and tinted as artistically as any canvas in the world.
* * * * *
The first visit Monckton had paid to this neighborhood was to the mine. He knew that was a dangerous visit, so he came at night as a decrepit old man. He very soon saw two things which discouraged farther visits. One was a placard describing his crime in a few words, and also his person and clothes, and offering 500 guineas reward. As his pallor was specified, he retired for a minute behind a tent, and emerged the color of mahogany; he then pursued his observations, and in due course fell in with the second warning. This was the body of a man lying upon the slack at the pit mouth; the slack not having been added to for many days was glowing very hot, and fired the night. The body he recognized immediately, for the white face stared at him; it was Ben Burnley undergoing cremation. To this the vindictive miners had condemned him; they had sat on his body and passed a resolution, and sworn he should not have Christian burial, so they managed to hide his corpse till the slack got low, and then they brought him up at night and chucked him like a dog on to the smouldering coal; one-half of him was charred away when Monckton found him, but his face was yet untouched. Two sturdy miners walked to and fro as sentinels, armed with hammers, and firmly resolved that neither law nor gospel should interfere with this horrible example.
Even Monckton, the man of iron nerves, started back with a cry of dismay at the sight and the smell.
One of the miners broke into a hoarse, uneasy laugh. "Yow needn't to skirl, old man." he cried. "Yon's not a man; he's nobbut a murderer. He's fired t' mine and made widows and orphans by t' score," "Ay," said the other, "but there's a worse villain behoind, that found t' brass for t' job and tempted this one. We'll catch him yet; ah, then we'll not trouble judge, nor jury, nor hangman neether."
"The wretches!" said Monckton. "What! fire a mine! No punishment is enough for them." With this sentiment he retired, and never went near the mine again. He wired for a pal of his and established him at the Dun Cow. These two were in constant communication. Monckton's friend was a very clever gossip, and knew how to question without seeming curious, and the gossiping landlady helped him. So, between them, Monckton heard that Walter was down with a fever and not expected to live, and that Hope was confined to his bed and believed to be sinking. Encouraged by this state of things, Monckton made many artful preparations, and resolved to levy a contribution upon Colonel Clifford.
At this period of his manoeuvres fortune certainly befriended him wonderfully; he found Colonel Clifford alone, and likely to be alone; and, at the same time, prepared by Grace Clifford's half revelation, and violent agitation, to believe the artful tale this villain came to tell him.