A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXV. Retribution.
Monckton, during his long imprisonment at Dartmoor, came under many chaplains, and he was popular with them all; because when they inquired into the state of his soul he represented it as humble, penitent, and purified. Two of these gentlemen were High-Church, and he noticed their peculiarities: one was a certain half-musical monotony in speaking which might be called by a severe critic sing-song. Perhaps they thought the intoning of the service in a cathedral could be transferred with advantage to conversation.
So now, to be strictly in character, this personage not only dressed High-Church, but threw a sweet musical monotony into the communication he made to Colonel Clifford.
And if the reader will compare this his method of speaking with the matter of his discourse, he will be sensible of a singular contrast.
After the first introduction, Monckton intoned very gently that he had a communication to make on the part of a lady which was painful to him, and would be painful to Colonel Clifford; but, at all events, it was confidential, and if the Colonel thought proper, would go no further.
"I think, sir, you have a son whose name is Walter?"
"I have a son, and his name is Walter," said the Colonel, stiffly.
"I think, sir," said musical Monckton, "that he left your house about fourteen years ago, and you lost sight of him for a time?"
"That is so, sir."
"He entered the service of a Mr. Robert Bartley as a merchant's clerk."
"I doubt that, sir."
"I fear, sir," sighed Monckton, musically, "that is not the only thing he did which has been withheld from you. He married a lady called Lucy Muller."
"Who told you that?" cried the Colonel. "It's a lie!"
"I am afraid not," said the meek and tuneful ecclesiastic. "I am acquainted with the lady, a most respectable person, and she has shown me the certificate of marriage."
"The certificate of marriage!" cried the Colonel, all aghast.
"Yes, sir, and this is not the first time I have given this information in confidence. Mrs. Walter Clifford, who is a kind-hearted woman, and has long ceased to suffer bitterly from her husband's desertion, requested me to warn a young lady, whose name was Miss Mary Bartley, of this fact. I did so, and showed her the certificate. She was very much distressed, and no wonder, for she was reported to be engaged to Mr. Walter Clifford; but I explained to Miss Bartley that there was no jealousy, hostility, or bitterness in the matter; the only object was to save her from being betrayed into an illegal act, and one that would bring ruin upon herself, and a severe penalty upon Mr. Walter Clifford."
Colonel Clifford turned very pale, but he merely said, in a hoarse voice, "Go on, sir."
"Well, sir," said Monckton, "I thought the matter was at an end, and, having discharged a commission which was very unpleasant to me, I had at all events saved an innocent girl from tempting Mr. Walter Clifford to his destruction and ruining herself. I say, I thought and hoped so. But it seems now that the young lady has defied the warning, and has married your son after all. Mrs. Walter Clifford has heard of it in Derby, and she is naturally surprised, and I am afraid she is now somewhat incensed."
"Before we go any further, sir," said Colonel Clifford, "I should like to see the certificate you say you showed to Miss Bartley."
"I did, sir," said Monckton, "and here it is--that is to say, an attested copy; but of course sooner or later you will examine the original."
Colonel Clifford took the paper with a firm hand, and examined it closely. "Have you any objection to my taking a copy of this?" said he, keenly.
"Of course not," said Monckton; "indeed, I don't see why I should not leave this document with you; it will be in honorable hands."
The Colonel bowed. Then he examined the document.
"I see, sir," said he, "the witness is William Hope. May I ask if you know this William Hope?"
"I was not present at the wedding, sir," said Monckton, "so I can say nothing about the matter from my own knowledge; but if you please, I will ask the lady."
"Why didn't she come herself instead of sending you?" asked the Colonel, distrustfully.
"That's just what I asked her. And she said she had not the heart nor the courage to come herself. I believe she thought as I was a clergyman, and not directly interested, I might be more calm than she could be, and give a little less pain."
"That's all stuff! If she is afraid to come herself, she knows it's an abominable falsehood. Bring her here with whatever evidence she has got that this Walter Clifford is my son, and then we will go into this matter seriously."
Monckton was equal to the occasion.
"You are quite right, sir," said he. "And what business has she to put me forward as evidence of a transaction I never witnessed? I shall tell her you expect to see her, and that it is her duty to clear up the affair in person. Suppose it should be another Mr. Walter Clifford, after all? When shall I bring her, supposing I have sufficient influence?"
"Bring her to-morrow, as early as you can."
"Well, you know ladies are not early risers: will twelve o'clock do?"
"Twelve o'clock to-morrow, sir," said the Colonel.
The sham parson took his leave, and drove away in a well-appointed carriage and pair. For we must inform the reader that he had written to Mr. Middleton for another L100, not much expecting to get it, and that it had come down by return of post in a draft on a bank in Derby.
* * * * *
Stout Colonel Clifford was now a very unhappy man. The soul of honor himself, he could not fully believe that his own son had been guilty of perfidy and crime. But how could he escape doubts, and very grave doubts too? The communication was made by a gentleman who did not seem really to know more about it than he had been told, but then he was a clergyman, with no appearance of heat or partiality. He had been easily convinced that the lady herself ought to have come and said more about it, and had left an attested copy of the certificate in his (Colonel Clifford's) hands with a sort of simplicity that looked like one gentleman dealing with another. One thing, however, puzzled him sore in this certificate--the witness being William Hope. William Hope was not a very uncommon name, but still, somehow, that one and the same document should contain the names of Walter Clifford and William Hope, roused a suspicion in his mind that this witness was the William Hope lying in his own house so weak and ill that he did not like to go to him, and enter upon such a terrible discussion as this. He sent for Mrs. Milton, and asked her if Mrs. Walter Clifford was quite recovered.
Mrs. Milton reported she was quite well, and reading to her father. The Colonel went upstairs and beckoned her out.
"My child," said he, "I am sorry to renew an agitating subject, but you are a good girl, and a brave girl, and you mean to confide in me sooner or later. Can you pity the agitation and distress of a father who for the first time is compelled to doubt his son's honor?"
"I can," said Grace. "Ah, something has happened since we parted; somebody has told you: that man with a certificate!"
"What, then," said the Colonel, "is it really true? Did he really show you that certificate?"
"And warned you not to marry Walter?"
"He did, and told me Walter would be put into prison if I did, and would die in prison, for a gentleman can not live there nowadays. Oh, sir, don't let anybody know but you and me and my father. He won't hurt him for my sake; he has wronged me cruelly, but I'll be torn to pieces before I'll own my marriage, and throw him into a dungeon."
"Come to my arms, you pearl of goodness and nobility and unselfish love!" cried Colonel Clifford. "How can I ever part with you now I know you? There, don't let us despair, let's fight to the last. I have one question to submit to you. Of course you examined the certificate very carefully?"
"I saw enough to break my heart. I saw that on a certain day, many years ago, one Lucy Muller had married Walter Clifford."
"And who witnessed the marriage?" asked the Colonel, eyeing her keenly.
"Oh, I don't know that," said Grace. "When I came to Walter Clifford, everything swam before my eyes; it was all I could do to keep from fainting away. I tottered into my father's study, and, as soon as I came to myself, what had I to do? Why, to creep out again with my broken heart, and face such insults--All! it is a wonder I did not fall dead at their feet."
"My poor girl!" said Colonel Clifford. Then he reflected a moment. "Have you the courage to read that document again, and to observe in particular who witnessed it?"
"I have," said she.
He handed it to her. She took it and held it in both hands, though they trembled.
"Who is the witness?"
"The witness," said Grace, "is William Hope."
"Is that your father?"
"It's my father's name," said Grace, beginning to turn her eyes inward and think very hard.
"But is it your father, do you think?"
"No, sir, it is not."
"Was he in that part of the world at the time? Did he know Bartley? the clergyman who brought me this certificate--"
"Yes, my dear, it was a clergyman, apparently a rector, and he told me--"
"Are you sure he was a clergyman?"
"Quite sure; he had a white tie, a broad-brimmed hat, a clergyman all over; don't go off on that. Did your father and my son know each other in Hull?"
"That they did. You are right," said Grace, "this witness was my father; see that, now. But if so--Don't speak to me; don't touch me; let me think--there is something hidden here;" and Mrs. Walter Clifford showed her father-in-law that which we have seen in her more than once, but it was quite new and surprising to Colonel Clifford. There she stood, her arms folded, her eyes turned inward, her every feature, and even her body, seemed to think. The result came out like lightning from a cloud. "It's all a falsehood," said she.
"A falsehood!" said Colonel Clifford.
"Yes, a falsehood upon the face of it. My father witnessed this marriage, and therefore if the bridegroom had been our Walter he would never have allowed our Walter to court me, for he knew of our courtship all along, and never once disapproved of it."
"Then do you think it is a mistake?" said the Colonel, eagerly.
"No, I do not," said Grace. "I think it is an imposture. This man was not a clergyman when he brought me the certificate; he was a man of business, a plain tradesman, a man of the world; he had a colored necktie, and some rather tawdry chains."
"Did he speak in a kind of sing-song?"
"Not at all; his voice was clear and cutting, only he softened it down once or twice out of what I took for good feeling at the time. He's an impostor and a villain. Dear sir, don't agitate poor Walter or my dear father with this vile thing (she handed him back the certificate). It has been a knife to both our hearts; we have suffered together, you and I, and let us get to the bottom of it together."
"We shall soon do that," said the Colonel, "for he is coming here to-morrow again."
"All the better."
"With the lady."
"The lady that calls herself Mrs. Walter Clifford."
"Indeed!" said Grace, quite taken aback. "They must be very bold."
"Oh, for that matter," said the Colonel, "I insisted upon it; the man seemed to know nothing but from mere hearsay. He knew nothing about William Hope, the witness, so I told him he must bring the woman; and, to be just to the man, he seemed to think so too, and that she ought to do her own business."
"She will not come," said Grace, rather contemptuously. "He was obliged to say she would, just to put a face upon it. To-morrow he'll bring an excuse instead of her. Then have your detectives about, for he is a villain; and, dear sir, please receive him in the drawing-room; then I will find some way to get a sight of him myself."
"It shall be done," said the Colonel. "I begin to think with you. At all events, if the lady does not come, I shall hope it is all an imposture or a mistake."
With this understanding they parted, and waited in anxiety for the morrow, but now their anxiety was checkered with hope.
* * * * *
To-morrow bade fair to be a busy day. Colonel Clifford, little dreaming the condition to which his son and his guest would be reduced, had invited Jem Davies and the rescuing parties to feast in tents on his own lawn and drink his home-brewed beer, and they were to bring with them such of the rescued miners as might be in a condition to feast and drink copiously. When he found that neither Hope nor his son could join these festivities, he was very sorry he had named so early a day; but he was so punctilious and precise that he could not make up his mind to change one day for another. So a great confectioner at Derby who sent out feasts was charged with the affair, and the Colonel's own kitchen was at his service too. That was not all. Bartley was coming to do business. This had been preceded by a letter which Colonel Clifford, it may be remembered, had offered to show Grace Clifford. The letter was thus worded:
"COLONEL CLIFFORD,--A penitent man begs humbly to approach you, and offer what compensation is in his power. I desire to pay immediately to Walter Clifford the sum of L20,000 I have so long robbed him of, with five per cent, interest for the use of it. It has brought me far more than that in money, but money I now find is not happiness.
"The mine in which my friend has so nearly been destroyed--and his daughter, who now, too late, I find is the only creature in the world I love--that mine is now odious to me. I desire by deed to hand it over to Hope and yourself, upon condition that you follow the seams wherever they go, and that you give me such a share of the profits during my lifetime as you think I deserve for my enterprise. This for my life only, since I shall leave all I have in the world to that dear child, who will now be your daughter, and perhaps never deign again to look upon the erring man who writes these lines.
"I should like, if you please, to retain the farm, or at all events a hundred acres round about the house to turn into orchards and gardens, so that I may have some employment, far from trade and its temptations, for the remainder of my days."
* * * * *
In consequence of this letter a deed was drawn and engrossed, and Bartley had written to say he would come to Clifford Hall and sign it, and have it witnessed and delivered.
About nine o'clock in the evening one of the detectives called on Colonel Clifford to make a private communication; his mate had spotted a swell mobsman, rather a famous character, with the usual number of aliases, but known to the force as Mark Waddy; he was at the Dun Cow; and possessing the gift of the gab in a superlative degree, had made himself extremely popular. They had both watched him pretty closely, but he seemed not to be there for a job, but only on the talking lay, probably soliciting information for some gang of thieves or other. He had been seen to exchange a hasty word with a clergyman; but as Mark Waddy's acquaintances were not amongst the clergy, that would certainly be some pal that was in something or other with him.
"What a shrewd girl that must be!" said the Colonel.
"I beg your pardon, Colonel," said the man, not seeing the relevancy of this observation.
"Oh, nothing," said the Colonel, "only I expect a visit to-morrow at twelve o'clock from a doubtful clergyman; just hang about the lawn on the chance of my giving you a signal."
Thus while Monckton was mounting his batteries, his victims were preparing defenses in a sort of general way, though they did not see their way so clear as the enemy did.
Colonel Clifford's drawing-room was a magnificent room, fifty feet long and thirty feet wide. A number of French windows opened on to a noble balcony, with three short flights of stone steps leading down to the lawn. The central steps were broad, the side steps narrow. There were four entrances to it: two by double doors, and two by heavily curtained apertures leading to little subsidiary rooms.
At twelve o'clock next day, what with the burst of color from the potted flowers on the balcony, the white tents, and the flags and streamers, and a clear sunshiny day gilding it all, the room looked a "palace of pleasure," and no stranger peeping in could have dreamed that it was the abode of care, and about to be visited by gloomy Penitence and incurable Fraud.
The first to arrive was Bartley, with a witness. He was received kindly by Colonel Clifford and ushered into a small room.
He wanted another witness. So John Baker was sent for, and Bartley and he were closeted together, reading the deed, etc., when a footman brought in a card, "The Reverend Alleyn Meredith," and written underneath with a pencil, in a female hand, "Mrs. Walter Clifford."
"Admit them," said the Colonel, firmly.
At this moment Grace, who had heard the carriage drive up to the door, peeped in through one of the heavy curtains we have mentioned.
"Has she actually come?" said she.
"She has, indeed," said the Colonel, looking very grave. "Will you stay and receive her?"
"Oh no," said Grace, horrified; "but I'll take a good look at her through this curtain. I have made a little hole on purpose." Then she slipped into the little room and drew the curtain.
The servant opened the door, and the false rector walked in, supporting on his arm a dark woman, still very beautiful; very plainly dressed, but well dressed, agitated, yet self-possessed.
"Be seated, madam," said the Colonel. After a reasonable pause he began to question her.
"You were married on the eleventh day of June, 1868, to a gentleman of the name of Walter Clifford?"
"I was, sir."
"May I ask how long you lived with him?"
The lady buried her face in her hands. The question took her by surprise, and this was a woman's artifice to gain time and answer cleverly.
But the ingenious Monckton gave it a happy turn. "Poor thing! Poor thing!" said he.
"He left me the next day," said Lucy, "and I have never seen him since."
Here Monckton interposed; he fancied he had seen the curtain move. "Excuse me," said he, "I think there is somebody listening!" and he went swiftly and put his head through the curtain. But the room was empty; for meantime Grace was so surprised by the lady's arrival, by her beauty, which might well have tempted any man, and by her air of respectability, that she changed her tactics directly, and she was gone to her father for advice and information in spite of her previous determination not to worry him in his present condition. What he said to her can be briefly told elsewhere; what he ordered her to do was to return and watch the man and not the woman.
During Lucy's hesitation, which was somewhat long, a clergyman came to the window, looked in, and promptly retired, seeing the Colonel had company. This, however, was only a modest curate, alias a detective. He saw in half a moment that this must be Mark Waddy's pal; but as the police like to go their own way he would not watch the lawn himself, but asked Jem Davies, with whom he had made acquaintance, to keep an eye upon that with his fellows, for there was a jail-bird in the house; then he went round to the front door, by which he felt sure his bird would make his exit. He had no earthly right to capture this ecclesiastic, but he was prepared if the Colonel, who was a magistrate, gave him the order, and not without.
But we are interrupting Colonel Clifford's interrogatories.
"Madam, what makes you think this disloyal person was my son?"
"Indeed, sir, I don't know," said the lady, and looking around the room with some signs of distress. "I begin to hope it was not your son. He was a tall young man, almost as tall as yourself. He was very handsome, with brown hair and brown eyes, and seemed incapable of deceit."
"Have you any letters of his?" asked the Colonel.
"I had a great many, sir," said she, "but I have not kept them all."
"Have you one?" said the Colonel, sternly.
"Oh yes, sir," said Lucy, "I think I must have nearer twenty; but what good will they be?" said she, affecting simplicity.
"Why, my dear madam," said Monckton, "Colonel Clifford is quite right; the handwriting may not tell you anything, but surely his own father knows it. I think he is offering you a very fair test. I must tell you plainly that if you don't produce the letters you say you possess, I shall regret having put myself forward in this matter at all."
"Gently, sir," said the Colonel; "she has not refused to produce them."
Lucy put her hand in her pocket and drew out a packet of letters, but she hesitated, and looked timidly at Monckton, after his late severity. "Am I bound to part with them?"
"Certainly not," said Monckton, "but you can surely trust them for a minute to such a man as Colonel Clifford. I am of opinion," said he, "that since you can not be confronted with this gentleman's son (though that is no fault of yours), these letters (by-the-bye, it would have been as well to show to me,) ought now at once to be submitted to Colonel Clifford, that he may examine both the contents and the handwriting; then he will know whether it is his son or not; and probably as you are fair with him he will be fair with you and tell you the truth."
Colonel Clifford took the letters and ran his eye hastily over two or three; they were filled with the ardent protestations of youth, and a love that evidently looked toward matrimony, and they were written and signed in a handwriting he knew as well as his own.
He said, solemnly, "These letters are written and were sent to Miss Lucy Muller by my son, Walter Clifford." Then, almost for the first time in his life, he broke down, and said, "God forgive him; God help him and me. The honor of the Cliffords is an empty sound."
Lucy Monckton rose from her chair in genuine agitation. Her better angel tugged at her heartstrings.
"Forgive me, sir, oh, forgive me!" she cried, bursting into tears. Then she caught a bitter, threatening glance of her bad angel fixed upon her, and she said to Monckton, "I can say no more, I can do no more. It was fourteen years ago--I can't break people's hearts. Hush it up amongst you. I have made a hero weep; his tears burn me. I don't care for the man; I'll go no further. You, sir, have taken a deal of trouble and expense. I dare say Colonel Clifford will compensate you; I leave the matter with you. No power shall make me act in it any more."
Monckton wrote hastily on his card, and said, quite calmly, "Well, I really think, madam, you are not fit to take part in such a conference as this. Compose yourself and retire. I know your mind in the matter better than you do yourself at this moment, and I will act accordingly."
She retired, and drove away to the Dun Cow, which was the place Monckton had appointed when he wrote upon the card.
"Colonel Clifford," said Monckton, "all that is a woman's way. When she is out of sight of you, and thinks over her desertion and her unfortunate condition--neither maid, wife, nor widow--she will be angry with me if I don't obtain her some compensation."
"She deserves compensation," said the Colonel, gravely.
"Especially if she holds her tongue," said Monckton.
"Whether she holds her tongue or not," said the Colonel. "I don't see how I can hold mine, and you have already told my daughter-in-law. A separation between her and my son is inevitable. The compensation must be offered, and God help me, I'm a magistrate, if only to compound the felony."
"Surely," said Monckton, "it can be put upon a wider footing than that; let me think," and he turned away to the open window; but when he got there he saw a lot of miners clustering about. Now he had no fear of their recognizing him, since he had not left a vestige of the printed description. But the very sight of them, and the memory of what they had done to his dead accomplice, made him shudder at them. Henceforth he kept away from the window, and turned his back to it.
"I think with you, sir," said he, mellifluously, "that she ought to have a few thousands by way of compensation. You know she could claim alimony, and be a very blister to you and yours. But on the other hand I do think, as an impartial person, that she ought to keep this sad secret most faithfully, and even take her maiden name again."
Whilst Monckton was making this impartial proposal Bartley opened the door, and was coming forward with his deed, when he heard a voice he recognized; and partly by that, partly by the fellow's thin lips, he recognized him, and said, "Monckton! That villain here!"
"Monckton," said Colonel Clifford, "that is not his name. It is Meredith. He is a clergyman." Bartley examined him very suspiciously, and Monckton, during this examination, looked perfectly calm and innocent. Meantime a note was brought to Colonel Clifford from Grace: "Papa was the witness. He is quite sure the bridegroom was not our Walter. He thinks it must have been the other clerk, Leonard Monckton, who robbed Mr. Bartley, and put some of the money into dear Walter's pockets to ruin him, but papa saved him. Don't let him escape."
Colonel Clifford's eye flashed with triumph, but he controlled himself.
"Say I will give it due attention," said he; "I'm busy now."
And the servant retired.
"Now, sir," said he, "is this a case of mistaken identity, or is your name Leonard Monckton?"
"Colonel Clifford," said the hypocrite, sadly, "I little thought that I should be made to suffer for the past, since I came here only on an errand of mercy. Yes, sir, in my unregenerate days I was Leonard Monckton. I disgraced the name. But I repented, and when I adopted the sacred calling of a clergyman I parted with the past, name and all. I was that man's clerk; and so," said he, spitefully, and forgetting his sing-song, "was your son Walter Clifford. Was that not so, Mr. Bartley?"
"Don't speak to me, sir," said Bartley. "I shall say nothing to gratify you nor to affront Colonel Clifford."
"Speak the truth, sir," said Colonel Clifford; "never mind the consequences."
"Well, then," said Bartley, very unwillingly, "they were clerks in my office, and this one robbed me."
"One thing at a time," said Monckton. "Did I rob you of twenty thousand pounds, as you robbed Mr. Walter Clifford?"
His voice became still more incisive, and the curtain of the little room opened a little and two eyes of fire looked in.
"Do you remember one fine day your clerk, Walter Clifford, asking you for leave of absence--to be married?"
Bartley turned his back on him contemptuously.
But Colonel Clifford insisted on his replying.
"Yes, he did," said Bartley, sullenly.
"But," said the Colonel, quietly, "he thought better of it, and so--you married her yourself."
This bayonet thrust was so keen and sudden that the villain's self-possession left him for once. His mouth opened in dismay, and his eyes, roving to and fro, seemed to seek a door to escape.
But there was worse in store for him. The curtains were drawn right and left with power, and there stood Grace Clifford, beautiful, but pale and terrible. She marched toward him with eyes that rooted him to the spot, and then she stopped.
"Now hear me; for he has tortured me, and tried to kill me. Look at his white face turning ghastly beneath his paint at the sight of me; look at his thin lips, and his devilish eyebrows, and his restless eyes. THIS IS THE MAN THAT BRIBED THAT WRETCH TO FIRE THE MINE!"
These last words, ringing from her lips like the trumpet of doom, were answered, as swiftly as gunpowder explodes at a lighted torch, by a furious yell, and in a moment the room seemed a forest of wild beasts. A score of raging miners came upon him from every side, dragging, tearing, beating, kicking, cursing, yelling. He was down in a moment, then soon up again, then dragged out of the room, nails, fists, and heavy boots all going, stripped to the shirt, screaming like a woman. A dozen assailants rolled down the steps, with him in the midst of them. He got clear for a moment, but twenty more rushed at him, and again he was torn and battered and kicked. "Police! police!" he cried; and at last the detectives who came to seize him rushed in, and Colonel Clifford, too, with the voice of a stentor, cried, "The law! Respect the law, or you are ruined men."
And so at last the law he had so dreaded raised what seemed a bag of bones: nothing left on him but one boot and fragments of a shirt, ghastly, bleeding, covered with bruises, insensible, and to all appearance dead.
After a short consultation, they carried him, by Colonel Clifford's order, to the Dun Cow, where Lucy, it may be remembered, was awaiting his triumphant return.