A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXVII. Curtain.
Striking incidents will draw the writer; but we know that our readers would rather hear about the characters they can respect. It seems, however, to be a rule in life, and in fiction, that interest flags when trouble ceases. Now the troubles of our good people were pretty well over, and we will put it to the reader whether they had not enough.
Grace Clifford made an earnest request to Colonel Clifford and her father never to tell Walter he had been suspected of bigamy. "Let others say that circumstances are always to be believed and character not to be trusted; but I, at least, had no right to believe certificates and things against my Walter's honor and his love. Hide my fault from him, not for my sake but for his; perhaps when we are both old people I may tell him."
This was Grace Clifford's petition, and need we say she prevailed?
Walter Clifford recovered under his wife's care, and the house was so large that Colonel Clifford easily persuaded his son and daughter-in-law to make it their home. Hope had also two rooms in it, and came there when he chose; he was always welcome; but he was alone again, so to speak, and not quite forty years of age, and he was ambitious. He began to rise in the world, whilst our younger characters, contented with their happiness and position, remained stationary. Master of a great mine, able now to carry out his invention, member of several scientific associations, a writer for the scientific press, etc., he soon became a public and eminent man; he was consulted on great public works, and if he lives will be one of the great lights of science in this island. He is great on electricity, especially on the application of natural forces to the lighting of towns. He denounces all the cities that allow powerful streams to run past them and not work a single electric light. But he goes further than that. He ridicules the idea that it is beyond the resources of science to utilize thousands of millions of tons of water that are raised twenty-one feet twice in every twenty-four hours by the tides. It is the skill to apply the force that is needed; not the force itself, which exceeds that of all the steam-engines in the nation. And he says that the great scientific foible of the day is the neglect of natural forces, which are cheap and inexhaustible, and the mania for steam-engines and gas, which are expensive, and for coal, which is not to last forever. He implores capital and science to work in this question. His various schemes for using the tides in the creation of motive power will doubtless come before the world in a more appropriate channel than a work of fiction. If he succeeds it will be a glorious, as it must be a difficult, achievement.
His society is valued on social grounds; his well-stored mind, his powers of conversation, and his fine appearance, make him extremely welcome at all the tables in the county; he also accompanies his daughter with the violin, and, as they play beauties together, not difficulties, they ravish the soul and interrupt the torture, whose instrument the piano-forte generally is.
Bartley is a man with beautiful silvery hair and beard; he cultivates, nurses, and tends fruit-trees and flowers with a love little short of paternal. This sentiment, and the contemplation of nature, have changed the whole expression of his face; it is wonderfully benevolent and sweet, but with a touch of weakness about the lips. Some of the rough fellows about the place call him a "softy," but that is much too strong a word; no doubt he is confused in his ideas, but he reads all the great American publications about fruit and flowers, and executes their instructions with tact and skill. Where he breaks down--and who would believe this?--is in the trade department. Let him succeed in growing apple-trees and pear-trees weighed down to the ground with choice fruit; let him produce enormous cherries by grafting, and gigantic nectarines upon his sunny wall, and acres of strawberries too large for the mouth. After that they may all rot where they grow; he troubles his head no more. This is more than his old friend Hope can stand; he interferes, and sends the fruit to market, and fills great casks with superlative cider and perry, and keeps the account square, with a little help from Mrs. Easton, who has returned to her old master, and is a firm but kind mother to him.
Grace Clifford for some time could not be got to visit him. Perhaps she is one of those ladies who can not get over personal violence; he had handled her roughly, to keep her from going to her father's help. After all, there may have been other reasons; it is not so easy to penetrate all the recesses of the female heart. One thing is certain: she would not go near him for months; but when she did go with her father--and he had to use all his influence to take her there--the rapture and the tears of joy with which the poor old fellow received her disarmed her in a moment.
She let him take her through hot-houses and show her his children--"the only children I have now," said he--and after that she never refused to visit this erring man. His roof had sheltered her many years, and he had found out too late that he loved her, so far as his nature could love at that time.
* * * * *
Percy Fitzroy had an elder sister. He appealed to her against Julia Clifford. She cross-questioned him, and told him he was very foolish to despair. She would hardly have slapped him if she was quite resolved to part forever.
"Let me have a hand in reconciling you," said she.
"You shall have b-b-both hands in it, if you like," said he; "for I am at my w-w-wit's end."
So these two conspired. Miss Fitzroy was invited to Percy's house, and played the mistress. She asked other young ladies, especially that fair girl with auburn hair, whom Julia called a "fat thing." That meant, under the circumstances, a plump and rounded model, with small hands and feet; a perfect figure in a riding habit, and at night a satin bust and sculptured arms.
The very first ride Walter took with Grace and Julia they met the bright cavalcade of Percy and his sister, and this red-haired Venus.
Percy took off his hat with profound respect to Julia and Grace, but did not presume to speak.
"What a lovely girl!" said Grace.
"Do you think so?" said Julia.
"Yes, dear; and so do you."
"What makes you fancy that?"
"Because you looked daggers at her."
"Because she is setting her cap at that little fool."
"She will not have him without your consent, dear."
And this set Julia thinking.
The next day Walter called on Percy, and played the traitor.
"Give a ball," said he.
Miss Fitzroy and her brother gave a ball. Percy, duly instructed by his sister, wrote to Julia as meek as Moses, and said he was in a great difficulty. If he invited her, it would, of course, seem presumptuous, considering the poor opinion she had of him; if he passed her over, and invited Walter Clifford and Mrs. Clifford, he should be unjust to his own feelings, and seem disrespectful.
"DEAR MR. FITZROY,--I am not at all fond of jealousy, but I am very fond of dancing. I shall come.
And she did come with a vengeance. She showed them what a dark beauty can do in a blaze of light with a red rose, and a few thousand pounds' worth of diamonds artfully placed.
She danced with several partners, and took Percy in his turn. She was gracious to him, but nothing more.
Percy asked leave to call next day.
She assented, rather coldly.
His sister prepared Percy for the call. The first thing he did was to stammer intolerably.
"Oh," said Julia, "if you have nothing more to say than that, I have--Where is my bracelet?"
"It's here," said Percy, producing it eagerly. Julia smiled.
"My specimens of your spelling? Love spells, eh?"
"No, they are not," said Julia, snatching them, "they are here." And she stuffed both her pockets with them.
"And the engaged ring," said Percy, radiant now, and producing it, "d-d-don't forget that."
Julia began to hesitate. "If I put that on, it will be for life."
"Yes, it will," said Percy.
"Then give me a moment to think."
After due consideration she said what she had made up her mind to say long before.
"Percy, you're a man of honor. I'll be yours upon one solemn condition--that from this hour till death parts us, you promise to give your faith where you give your love."
"I'll give my faith where I give my love," said Percy, solemnly.
Next month they were married, and he gave his confidence where he gave his love, and he never had reason to regret it.
* * * * *
"You had better mind what you are about, or you'll get fonder of her than of Walter himself."
"Never, Colonel, never! And so will you."
Then, after a moment's reflection, John Baker inquired how they were to help it. "Look here, Colonel," said he, "a man's a man, but a woman's a woman. It isn't likely as Master Walter will always be putting his hand round your neck and kissing of you when you're good, and pick a white hair off your coat if he do but see one when you're going out, and shine upon you in-doors more than the sun does on you out-of-doors; and 'taint to be supposed as Mr. Walter will never meet me on the stairs without breaking out into a smile to cheer an old fellow's heart, and showing L2000 worth of ivory all at one time; and if I've a cold or a bit of a headache he won't send his lady's maid to see after me and tell me what I am to do, and threaten to come and nurse me himself if I don't mend."
"Well," said the Colonel, "there's something in all this."
"For all that," said John Baker, candidly, "I shall make you my confession, sir. I said to Mr. Walter myself, said I, 'Here's a pretty business,' said I; 'I've known and loved you from a child, and Mrs. Walter has only been here six months, and now I'm afraid she'll make me love her more than I do you.'"
"Why, of course she will," said Mr. Walter. "Why, I love her better than I do myself, and you've got to follow suit, or else I'll murder you."
So that question was settled.
* * * * *
The five hundred guineas reward rankled in the minds of those detectives, and, after a few months, with the assistance of the ordinary police in all the northern towns, they got upon a cold scent, and then upon a warm scent, and at last they suspected their bird, under the alias of Carruthers. So they came to the house to get sight of him, and make sure before applying for a warrant. They got there just in time for his funeral. Middleton was there and saw them, and asked them to attend it, and to speak to him after the reading of the will.
"Proceedings are stayed," said he; "but, perhaps, having acted against me, you might like to see whether it would not pay better to act with me."
"And no mistake," said one of them; so they were feasted with the rest, for it was a magnificent funeral, and after that Middleton squared them with L50 apiece to hold their tongues--and more, to divert all suspicion from the house and the beautiful woman who now held it as only trustee for her son.
Remembering that he had left the estate to another man's child, Monckton, one fine day, bequeathed his personal estate on half a sheet of note-paper to Lucy. This and the large allowance Middleton obtained from the Court for her, as trustee and guardian to the heir, made her a rich woman. She was a German, sober, notable, and provident; she kept her sheep, and became a sort of squire. She wrote to her husband in the States, and, by the advice of Middleton, told him the exact truth instead of a pack of fibs, which she certainly would have done had she been left to herself. Poverty had pinched Jonathan Braham by this time; and as he saw by the tone of her letter she did not care one straw whether he accepted the situation or not, he accepted it eagerly, and had to court her as a stranger, and to marry her, and wear the crown matrimonial; for Middleton drew the settlements, and neither Braham nor his creditors could touch a half-penny. And then came out the better part of this indifferent woman. Braham had been a good friend to her in time of need, and she was a good and faithful friend to him now. She was generally admired and respected; kind to the poor; bountiful, but not lavish; an excellent manager, but not stingy.
In vain shall we endeavor, with our small insight into the bosoms of men and women, to divide them into the good and the bad. There are mediocre intellects; there are mediocre morals. This woman was always more inclined to good than evil, yet at times temptation conquered. She was virtuous till she succumbed to a seducer whom she loved. Under his control she deceived Walter Clifford, and attempted an act of downright villainy; that control removed, she returned to virtuous and industrious habits. After many years, solitude, weariness, and a gloomy future unhinged her conscience again: comfort and affection offered themselves, and she committed bigamy. Deserted by Braham, and once more fascinated by the only man she had ever greatly loved, she joined him in an abominable fraud, broke down in the middle of it by a sudden impulse of conscience, and soon after settled down into a faithful nurse. She is now a faithful wife, a tender mother, a kind mistress, and nearly everything that is good in a medium way; and so, in all human probability, will pass the remainder of her days, which, as she is healthy, and sober in eating and drinking, will perhaps be the longer period of her little life.
Well may we all pray against great temptations; only choice spirits resist them, except when they are great temptations to somebody else, and somehow not to the person tempted.
It has lately been objected to the writers of fiction--especially to those few who are dramatists as well as novelists--that they neglect what Shakespeare calls "the middle of humanity," and deal in eccentric characters above or below the people one really meets. Let those who are serious in this objection enjoy moral mediocrity in the person of Lucy Monckton.
For our part we will never place Fiction, which was the parent of History, below its child. Our hearts are with those superior men and women who, whether in History or Fiction, make life beautiful, and raise the standard of Humanity. Such characters exist even in this plain tale, and it is these alone, and our kindly readers, we take leave of with regret.