A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter IV. An Old Servant.
Walter Clifford returned home pretty well weaned from trade, and anxious to propitiate his father, but well aware that on his way to reconciliation he must pass through jobation.
He slipped into Clifford Hall at night, and commenced his approaches by going to the butler's pantry. Here he was safe, and knew it; a faithful old butler of the antique and provincial breed is apt to be more unreasonably paternal than Pater himself.
To this worthy, then, Walter owed a good bed, a good supper, and good advice: "Better not tackle him till I have had a word with him first."
Next morning this worthy butler, who for seven years had been a very good servant, and for the next seven years rather a bad one, and would now have been a hard master if the Colonel had not been too great a Tartar to stand it, appeared before his superior with an air slightly respectful, slightly aggressive, and very dogged.
"There is a young gentleman would be glad to speak to you, if you will let him."
"Who is he?" asked the Colonel, though by old John's manner he divined.
"Can't ye guess?"
"Don't know why I should. It is your business to announce my visitors."
"Oh, I'll announce him, when I am made safe that he will be welcome."
"What! isn't he sure of a welcome--good, dutiful son like him?"
"Well, sir, he deserves a welcome. Why, he is the returning prodigal."
"We are not told that he deserved a welcome."
"What signifies?--he got one, and Scripture is the rule of life for men of our age, now we are out of the army."
"I think you had better let him plead his own cause, John; and if he takes the tone you do, he will get turned out of the house pretty quick; as you will some of these days, Mr. Baker."
"We sha'n't go, neither of us," said Mr. Baker, but with a sudden tone of affectionate respect, which disarmed the words of their true meaning. He added, hanging his head for the first time, "Poor young gentleman! afraid to face his own father!"
"What's he afraid of?" asked the Colonel, roughly.
"Of you cursing and swearing at him," said John.
"Cursing and swearing!" cried the Colonel--"a thing I never do now. Cursing and swearing, indeed! You be ----!"
"There you go," said old John. "Come, Colonel, be a father. What has the poor boy done?"
"He has deserted--a thing I have seen a fellow shot for, and he has left me a prey to parental anxieties."
"And so he has me, for that matter. But I forgive him. Anyway, I should like to hear his story before I condemn him. Why, he's only nineteen and four months, come Martinmas. Besides, how do we know?--he may have had some very good reason for going."
"His age makes that probable, doesn't it?"
"I dare say it was after some girl, sir."
"Call that a good reason?"
"I call it a strong one. Haven't you never found it?" (the Colonel was betrayed into winking). "From sixteen to sixty a woman will draw a man where a horse can't."
"Since that is so," said the Colonel, dryly, "you can tell him to come to breakfast."
"Am I to say that from you?"
"No; you can take that much upon yourself. I have known you presume a good deal more than that, John."
"Well, sir," said John, hanging his head for a moment, "old servants are like old friends--they do presume a bit; but then" (raising his head proudly) "they care for their masters, young and old. New servants, sir--why, this lot that we've got now, they would not shed a tear for you if you was to be hanged."
"Why should they?" said the Colonel. "A man is not hanged for building churches. Come, beat a retreat. I've had enough of you. See there's a good breakfast."
"Oh," said John, "I've took care of that."
When the Colonel came down he found his son leaning against the mantel-piece; but he left it directly and stood erect, for the Colonel had drilled him with his own hands.
"Ugh!" said the Colonel, giving a snort peculiar to himself, but he thought, "How handsome the dog is!" and was proud of him secretly, only he would not show it. "Good-morning, sir," said the young man, with civil respect.
"Your most obedient, sir," said the old man, stiffly.
After that neither spoke for some time, and the old butler glided about like a cat, helping both of them, especially the young one, to various delicacies from the side table. When he had stuffed them pretty well, he retired softly and listened at the door. Neither of the gentlemen was in a hurry to break the ice; each waited for the other.
Walter made the first remark--"What delicious tea!"
"As good as where you come from?" inquired Colonel Clifford, insidiously.
"A deal better," said Walter.
"By-the-bye," said the Colonel, "where do you come from?"
Walter mentioned the town.
"You astonish me," said the Colonel. "I made sure you had been enjoying the pleasures of the capital."
"My purse wouldn't have stood that, sir."
"Very few purses can," said Colonel Clifford. Then, in an off-hand way, "Have you brought her along with you?"
"Certainly not," said Walter, off his guard. "Her? Who?"
"Why, the girl that decoyed you from your father's roof."
"No girl decoyed me from here, sir, upon my honor."
"Whom are we talking about, then? Who is her?"
"Her? Why, Lucy Monckton."
"And who is Lucy Monckton?"
"Why, the girl I fell in love with, and she deceived me nicely; but I found her out in time."
"And so you came home to snivel?"
"No, sir, I didn't; I'm not such a muff. I'm too much your son to love any woman long when I have learned to despise her. I came home to apologize, and to place myself under your orders, if you will forgive me, and find something useful for me to do."
"So I will, my boy; there's my hand. Now out with it. What did you go away for, since it wasn't a petticoat?"
"Well, sir, I am afraid I shall offend you."
"Not a bit of it, after I've given you my hand. Come, now, what was it?"
Walter pondered and hesitated, but at last hit upon a way to explain.
"Sir," said he, "until I was six years old they used to give me peaches from Oddington House; but one fine day the supply stopped, and I uttered a small howl to my nurse. Old John heard me, and told me Oddington was sold, house, garden, estate, and all."
Colonel Clifford snorted.
Walter resumed, modestly but firmly:
"I was thirteen; I used to fish in a brook that ran near Drayton Park. One day I was fishing there, when a brown velveteen chap stopped me, and told me I was trespassing. 'Trespassing?' said I. 'I have fished here all my life; I am Walter Clifford, and this belongs to my father.' 'Well,' said the man, 'I've heerd it did belong to Colonel Clifford onst, but now it belongs to Muster Mills; so you must fish in your own water, young gentleman, and leave ourn to us as owns it.' Till I was eighteen I used to shoot snipes in a rushy bottom near Calverley Church. One day a fellow in black velveteen, and gaiters up to his middle, warned me out of that in the name of Muster Cannon."
Colonel Clifford, who had been drumming on the table all this time, looked uneasy, and muttered, with some little air of compunction: "They have plucked my feathers deucedly, that's a fact. Hang that fellow Stevens, persuading me to keep race-horses; it's all his fault. Well, sir, proceed with your observations."
"Well, I inquired who could afford to buy what we were too poor to keep, and I found these wealthy purchasers were all in trade, not one of them a gentleman."
"You might have guessed that," said Colonel Clifford: "it is as much as a gentleman can do to live out of jail nowadays."
"Yes, sir," said Walter. "Cotton had bought one of these estates, tallow another, and lucifer-matches the other."
"Plague take them all three!" roared the Colonel.
"Well, then, sir," said Walter, "I could not help thinking there must be some magic in trade, and I had better go into it. I didn't think you would consent to that. I wasn't game to defy you; so I did a meanish thing, and slipped away into a merchant's office."
"And made your fortune in three months?" inquired the Colonel.
"No, I didn't; and don't think trade is the thing for me. I saw a deal of avarice and meanness, and a thief of a clerk got his master to suspect me of dishonesty; so I snapped my fingers at them all, and here I am. But," said the poor young fellow, "I do wish, father, you would put me into something where I can make a little money, so that when this estate comes to be sold, I may be the purchaser."
Colonel Clifford started up in great emotion.
"Sell Clifford Hall, where I was born, and you were born, and everybody was born! Those estates I sold were only outlying properties."
"They were beautiful ones," said Walter. "I never see such peaches now."
"As you did when you were six years old," suggested the Colonel. "No, nor you never will. I've been six myself. Lord knows when it was, though!"
"But, sir, I don't see any such trout, and no such haunts for snipe."
"Do you mean to insult me?" cried the Colonel, rather suddenly. "This is what we are come to now. Here's a brat of six begins taking notes against his own father; and he improves on the Scotch poet--he doesn't print 'em. No, he accumulates them cannily until he is twenty, but never says a word. He loads his gun up to the muzzle, and waits, as the years roll on, with his linstock in his hand, and one fine day at breakfast he fires his treble charge of grape-shot at his own father."
This was delivered so loudly that John feared a quarrel, and to interrupt it, put in his head, and said, mighty innocently:
"Did you call, sir? Can I do anything for you, sir?"
"Yes: go to the devil!"
John went, but not down-stairs, as suggested--a mere lateral movement that ended at the keyhole.
"Well, but, sir," said Walter, half-reproachfully, "it was you elicited my views."
"Confound your views, sir, and--your impudence! You're in the right, and I am in the wrong" (this admission with a more ill-used tone than ever). "It's the race-horses. Ring the bell. What sawneys you young fellows are! it used not to take six minutes to ring a bell when I was your age."
Walter, thus stimulated, sprang to the bell-rope, and pulled it all down to the ground with a single gesture.
The Colonel burst out laughing, and that did him good; and Mr. Baker answered the bell like lightning; he quite forgot that the bell must have rung fifty yards from the spot where he was enjoying the dialogue.
"Send me the steward, John; I saw him pass the window."
Meantime the Colonel marched up and down with considerable agitation. Walter, who had a filial heart, felt very uneasy, and said, timidly, "I am truly sorry, father, that I answered your questions so bluntly."
"I'm not, then," said the Colonel. "I hold him to be less than a man who flies from the truth, whether it comes from young lips or old. I have faced cavalry, sir, and I can face the truth."
At this moment the steward entered. "Jackson," said the Colonel, in the very same tone he was speaking in, "put up my race-horses to auction by public advertisement."
"But, sir, Jenny has got to run at Derby, and the brown colt at Nottingham, and the six-year-old gelding at a handicap at Chester, and the chestnut is entered for the Syllinger next year."
"Sell them with their engagements."
"And the trainer, sir?"
"Give him his warning."
"And the jockey?"
"Discharge him on the spot, and take him by the ear out of the premises before he poisons the lot. Keep one of the stable-boys, and let my groom do the rest."
"But who is to take them to the place of auction, sir?"
"Nobody. I'll have the auction here, and sell them where they stand. Submit all your books of account to this young gentleman."
The steward looked a little blue, and Walter remonstrated gently. "To me, father?"
"Why, you can cipher, can't ye?"
"Rather; it is the best thing I do."
"And you have been in trade, haven't ye?"
"Then you will detect plenty of swindles, if you find out one in ten. Above all, cut down my expenditure to my income. A gentleman of the nineteenth century, sharpened by trade, can easily do that. Sell Clifford Hall? I'd rather live on the rabbits and the pigeons and the blackbirds, and the carp in the pond, and drive to church in the wheelbarrow."
So for a time Walter administered his father's estate, and it was very instructive. Oh! the petty frauds--the swindles of agency--a term which, to be sure, is derived from the Latin word "agere," to do--the cobweb of petty commissions--the flat bribes--the smooth hush-money!
Walter soon cut the expenses down to the income, which was ample, and even paid off the one mortgage that encumbered this noble estate at five per cent., only four per cent. of which was really fingered by the mortgagee; the balance went to a go-between, though no go-between was ever wanted, for any solicitor in the country would have found the money in a week at four per cent.
The old gentleman was delighted, and engaged his own son as steward at a liberal salary; and so Walter Clifford found employment and a fair income without going away from home again.