A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXVI. Strange Turns.
And yet this catastrophe rose out of a mistake. When the detective asked Jem Davies to watch the lawn, he never suspected that the clergyman was the villain who had been concerned in that explosion. But Davies, a man of few ideas and full of his own wrong, took for granted, as such minds will, that the policeman would not have spoken to him if this had not been his affair; so he and his fellows gathered about the steps and watched the drawing-room. They caught a glimpse of Monckton, but that only puzzled them. His appearance was inconsistent with the only description they had got--in fact opposed to it. It was Grace Clifford's denunciation, trumpet-tongued, that let loose savage justice on the villain. Never was a woman's voice so fatal, or so swift to slay. She would have undone her work. She screamed, she implored; but it was all in vain. The fury she had launched she could not recall. As for Bartley, words can hardly describe his abject terror. He crouched, he shivered, he moaned, he almost swooned; and long after it was all over he was found crouched in a corner of the little room, and his very reason appeared to be shaken. Judge Lynch had passed him, but too near. The freezing shadow of Retribution chilled him.
Colonel Clifford looked at him with contemptuous pity, and sent him home with John Baker in a close carriage.
* * * * *
Lucy Monckton was in the parlor of the Dun Cow waiting for her master. The detectives and some outdoor servants of Clifford Hall brought a short ladder and paillasses, and something covered with blankets, to the door. Lucy saw, but did not suspect the truth.
They had a murmured consultation with the landlady. During this Mark Waddy came down, and there was some more whispering, and soon the battered body was taken up to Mark Waddy's room and deposited on his bed. The detectives retired to consult, and Waddy had to break the calamity to Mrs. Monckton. He did this as well as he could; but it little matters how such blows are struck. Her agony was great, and greater when she saw him, for she resisted entirely all attempts to keep her from him. She installed herself at once as his nurse, and Mark Waddy retired to a garret.
A surgeon came by Colonel Clifford's order and examined Monckton's bruised body, and shook his head. He reported that there were no bones broken, but there were probably grave internal injuries. These, however, he could not specify at present, since there was no sensibility in the body; so pressure on the injured parts elicited no groans. He prescribed egg and brandy in small quantities, and showed Mrs. Monckton how to administer it to a patient in that desperate condition.
His last word was in private to Waddy. "If he ever speaks again, or even groans aloud, send for me. Otherwise--" and he shrugged his shoulders.
Some hours afterward Colonel Clifford called as a magistrate to see if the sufferer had any deposition to make. But he was mute, and his eyes fixed.
As Colonel Clifford returned, one of the detectives accosted him and asked him for a warrant to arrest him.
"Not in his present condition," said Colonel Clifford, rather superciliously. "And pray, sir, why did not you interfere sooner and prevent this lawless act?"
"Well, sir, unfortunately we were on the other side of the house."
"Exactly; you had orders to be in one place, so you must be in another. See the consequence. The honest men have put themselves in the wrong, and this fellow in the right. He will die a sort of victim, with his guilt suspected only, not proved."
Having thus snubbed the Force, the old soldier turned his back on them and went home, where Grace met him, all anxiety, and received his report. She implored him not to proceed any further against the man, and declared she should fly the country rather than go into a court of law as witness against him.
"Humph!" said the Colonel; "but you are the only witness."
"All the better for him," said she; "then he will die in peace. My tongue has killed the man once; it shall never kill him again."
About six next morning Monckton beckoned Lucy. She came eagerly to him; he whispered to her, "Can you keep a secret?"
"You know I can," said she.
"Then never let any one know I have spoken."
"No, dear, never. Why?"
"I dread the law more than death;" and he shuddered all over. "Save me from the law."
"Leonard, I will," said she. "Leave that to me."
She wired for Mr. Middleton as soon as possible.
The next day there was no change in the patient. He never spoke to anybody, except a word or two to Lucy, in a whisper, when they were quite alone.
In the afternoon down came Lawyer Middleton. Lucy told him what he knew, but Monckton would not speak, even to him. He had to get hold of Waddy before he understood the whole case.
Waddy was in Monckton's secret, and, indeed, in everybody's. He knew it was folly to deceive your lawyer, so he was frank. Mr. Middleton learned his client's guilt and danger, but also that his enemies had flaws in their armor.
The first shot he fired was to get warrants out against a dozen miners, Jem Davies included, for a murderous assault; but he made no arrests, he only summoned. So one or two took fright and fled. Middleton had counted on that, and it made the case worse for those that remained. Then, by means of friends in Derby, he worked the Press.
An article appeared headed, "Our Savages." It related with righteous indignation how Mr. Bartley's miners had burned the dead body of a miner suspected of having fired the mine, and put his own life in jeopardy as well as those of others; and then, not content with that monstrous act, had fallen upon and beaten to death a gentleman in whom they thought they detected a resemblance to some person who had been, or was suspected of being that miner's accomplice; "but so far from that," said the writer, "we are now informed, on sure authority, that the gentleman in question is a large and wealthy landed proprietor, quite beyond any temptation to crime or dishonesty, and had actually visited this part of the world only in the character of a peace-maker, and to discharge a very delicate commission, which it would not be our business to publish even if the details had been confided to us."
The article concluded with a hope that these monsters "would be taught that even if they were below the standard of humanity they were not above the law."
Middleton attended the summonses, gave his name and address, and informed the magistrate that his client was a large landed proprietor, and it looked like a case of mistaken identity. His client was actually dying of his injuries, but his wife hoped for justice.
But the detectives had taken care to be present, and so they put in their word. They said that they were prepared to prove, at a proper time, that the wounded man was really the person who had been heard by Mrs. Walter Clifford to bribe Ben Burnley to fire the mine.
"We have nothing to do with that now," said the magistrate. "One thing at a time, please. I can not let these people murder a convicted felon, far less a suspected criminal that has not been tried. The wounded man proceeds, according to law, through a respectable attorney. These men, whom you are virtually defending, have taken the law into their own hands. Are your witnesses here, Mr. Middleton?"
"Not at present, sir; and when I was interrupted, I was about to ask your worship to grant me an adjournment for that purpose. It will not be a great hardship to the accused, since we proceed by summons. I fear I have been too lenient, for two or three of them have absconded since the summons was served."
"I am not surprised at that," said the magistrate; "however, you know your own business."
Then the police applied for a warrant of arrest against Monckton.
"Oh!" cried Middleton, with the air of a man thoroughly shocked and scandalized.
"Certainly not," said the magistrate; "I shall not disturb the course of justice; there is not even an exparte case against this gentleman at present. Such an application must be supported by a witness, and a disinterested one." So all the parties retired crest-fallen except Mr. Middleton; as for him, he was imitating a small but ingenious specimen of nature--the cuttle-fish. This little creature, when pursued by its enemies, discharges an inky fluid which obscures the water all around, and then it starts off and escapes.
One dark night, at two o'clock in the morning, there came to the door of the Dun Cow an invalid carriage, or rather omnibus, with a spring-bed and every convenience. The wheels were covered thick with India-rubber; relays had been provided, and Monckton and his party rolled along day and night to Liverpool. The detectives followed, six hours later, and traced them to Liverpool very cleverly, and, with the assistance of the police, raked the town for them, and got all the great steamers watched, especially those that were bound westward, ho! But their bird was at sea, in a Liverpool merchant's own steamboat, hired for a two months' trip. The pursuers found this out too, but a fortnight too late.
"It's no go, Bill," said one to the other. "There's a lawyer and a pot of money against us. Let it sleep awhile."
The steamboat coasted England in beautiful weather; the sick man began to revive, and to eat a little, and to talk a little, and to suffer a good deal at times. Before they had been long at sea Mr. Middleton had a confidential conversation with Mrs. Monckton. He told her he had been very secret with her for her good. "I saw," said he, "this Monckton had no deep regard for you, and was capable of turning you adrift in prosperity; and I knew that if I told you everything you would let it out to him, and tempt him to play the villain. But the time is come that I must speak, in justice to you both. That estate he left your son half in joke is virtually his. Fourteen years ago, when he last looked into the matter, there were eleven lives between it and him; but, strange to say, whilst he was at Portland the young lives went one after the other, and there were really only five left when he made that will. Now comes the extraordinary part: a fortnight ago three of those lives perished in a single steamboat accident on the Clyde; that left a woman of eighty-two and a man of ninety between your husband and the estate. The lady was related to the persons who were drowned, and she has since died; she had been long ailing, and it is believed that the shock was too much for her. The survivor is the actual proprietor, Old Carruthers; but I am the London agent to his solicitor, and he was reported to me to be in extremis the very day before I left London to join you. We shall run into a port near the place, and you will not land; but I shall, and obtain precise information. In the meantime, mind, your husband's name is Carruthers. Any communication from me will be to Mrs. Carruthers, and you will tell that man as much, or as little, as you think proper; if you make any disclosure, give yourself all the credit you can; say you shall take him to his own house under a new name, and shield him against all pursuers. As for me, I tell you plainly, my great hope is that he will not live long enough to turn you adrift and disinherit your boy."
To cut short for the present this extraordinary part of our story, Lewis Carruthers, alias Leonard Monckton, entered a fine house and took possession of eleven thousand acres of hilly pasture, and the undivided moiety of a lake brimful of fish. He accounted for his change of name by the favors Carruthers, deceased, had shown him. Therein he did his best to lie, but his present vein of luck turned it into the truth. Old Carruthers had become so peevish that all his relations disliked him, and he disliked them. So he left his personal estate to his heir-at-law simply because he had never seen him. The personality was very large. The house was full of pictures, and China, and cabinets, etc. There was a large balance at the banker's, a heavy fall of timber not paid for, rents due, and as many as two thousand four hundred sheep upon that hill, which the old fellow had kept in his own hands. So, when the new proprietor took possession as Carruthers, nobody was surprised, though many were furious. Lucy installed him in a grand suite of apartments as an invalid, and let nobody come near him. Waddy was dismissed with a munificent present, and could be trusted to hold his tongue. By the advice of Middleton, not a single servant was dismissed, and so no enemies were made. The family lawyer and steward were also retained, and, in short, all conversation was avoided. In a month or two the new proprietor began to improve in health, and drive about his own grounds, or be rowed on his lake, lying on soft beds.
But in the fifth month of his residence local pains seized him, and he began to waste. For some time the precise nature of the disorder was obscure; but at last a rising surgeon declared it to be an abscess in the intestines (caused, no doubt, by external violence).
By degrees the patient became unable to take solid food, and the drain upon his system was too great for a mere mucilaginous diet to sustain him. Wasted to the bone, and yellow as a guinea, he presented a pitiable spectacle, and would gladly have exchanged his fine house and pictures, his heathery hills dotted with sheep, and his glassy lake full of spotted trout, for a ragged Irishman's bowl of potatoes and his mug of buttermilk--and his stomach.