A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter VI. Sharp Practice.
Hope paid a visit to his native place in Derbyshire, and his poor relations shared his prosperity, and blessed him, and Mr. Bartley upon his report; for Hope was one of those choice spirits who praise the bridge that carries them safe over the stream of adversity.
He returned to Sussex with all the news, and, amongst the rest, that Colonel Clifford had a farm coming vacant. Walter Clifford had insisted on a higher rent at the conclusion of the term, but the tenant had demurred.
Bartley paid little attention at the time; but by-and-by he said, "Did you not see signs of coal on Colonel Clifford's property?"
"That I did, and on this very farm, and told him so. But he is behind the age. I have no patience with him. Take one of those old iron ramrods that used to load the old musket, and cover that ramrod with prejudices a foot and a half deep, and there you have Colonel Clifford."
"Well, but a tenant would not be bound by his prejudices."
"A tenant! A tenant takes no right to mine, under a farm lease; he would have to propose a special contract, or to ask leave, and Colonel Clifford would never grant it."
There the conversation dropped. But the matter rankled in Bartley's mind. Without saying any more to Hope, he consulted a sharp attorney.
The result was that he took Mary Bartley with him into Derbyshire.
He put up at a little inn, and called at Clifford Hall.
He found Colonel Clifford at home, and was received stiffly, but graciously. He gave Colonel Clifford to understand that he had left business.
"All the better," said Colonel Clifford, sharply.
"And taken to farming."
"Ugh!" said the other, with his favorite snort.
At this moment, who should walk into the room but Walter Clifford.
Bartley started and stared. Walter started and stared.
"Mr. Bolton," said Bartley, scarcely above a whisper.
But Colonel Clifford heard it, and said, brusquely: "Bolton! No. Why, this is Walter Clifford, my son, and my man of business.--Walter, this is Mr. Bartley."
"Proud to make your acquaintance, sir," said the astute Bartley, ignoring the past.
Walter was glad he took this line before Colonel Clifford: not that he forgave Mr. Bartley that old affront the reader knows of.
The judicious Bartley read his face, and, as a first step toward propitiation, introduced him to his daughter. Walter was amazed at her beauty and grace, coming from such a stock. He welcomed her courteously, but shyly. She replied with rare affability, and that entire absence of mock-modesty which was already a feature in her character. To be sure, she was little more than fifteen, though she was full grown, and looked nearer twenty.
Bartley began to feel his way with Colonel Clifford about the farm. He told him he was pretty successful in agriculture, thanks to the assistance of an experienced friend, and then he said, half carelessly, "By-the-bye, they tell me you have one to let. Is that so?"
"Walter," said Colonel Clifford, "have you a farm to let?"
"Not at present, sir; but one will be vacant in a month, unless the present tenant consents to pay thirty per cent. more than he has done."
"Might I see that farm, Mr. Walter?" asked Bartley.
"Certainly," said Walter; "I shall be happy to show you over it." Then he turned to Mary. "I am afraid it would be no compliment to you. Ladies are not interested in farms."
"Oh, but I am, since papa is, and Mr. Hope: and then on our farm there are so many dear little young things: little calves, little lambs, and little pigs. Little pigs are ducks--very little ones, I mean; and there is nearly always a young colt about, that eats out of my hand. Not like a farm? The idea!"
"Then I will show you all over ours, you and your papa," said Walter, warmly. He then asked Mr. Bartley where he was to be found; and when Bartley told him at the "Dun Cow," he looked at Mary and said, "Oh!"
Mary understood in a moment, and laughed and said: "We are very comfortable, I assure you. We have the parlor all to ourselves, and there are samplers hung up, and oh! such funny pictures, and the landlady is beginning to spoil me already."
"Nobody can spoil you, Mary," said Mr. Bartley.
"You ought to know, papa, for you have been trying a good many years."
"Not very many, Miss Bartley," said Colonel Clifford, graciously. Then he gave half a start and said: "Here am I calling her miss when she is my own niece, and, now I think of it, she can't be half as old as she looks. I remember the very day she was born. My dear, you are an impostor."
Bartley changed color at this chance shaft. But Colonel Clifford explained:
"You pass for twenty, and you can't be more than--Let me see."
"I am fifteen and four months," said Mary, "and I do take people in--cruelly."
"Well," said Colonel Clifford, "you see you can't take me in. I know your date. So come and give your old ruffian of an uncle a kiss."
"That I will," cried Mary, and flew at Colonel Clifford, and flung both arms round his neck and kissed him. "Oh, papa," said she, "I have got an uncle now. A hero, too; and me that is so fond of heroes! Only this is my first--out of books."
"Mary, my dear," said Bartley, "you are too impetuous. Please excuse her, Colonel Clifford. Now, my dear, shake hands with your cousin, for we must be going."
Mary complied; but not at all impetuously. She lowered her long lashes, and put out her hand timidly, and said, "Good-by, Cousin Walter."
He held her hand a moment, and that made her color directly. "You will come over the farm. Can you ride? Have you your habit?"
"No, cousin; but never mind that. I can put on a long skirt."
"A skirt! But, after all, it does not matter a straw what you wear."
Mary was such a novice that she did not catch the meaning of this on the spot, but half-way to the inn, and in the middle of a conversation, her cheeks were suddenly suffused with blushes. A young man had admired her and said so. Very likely that was the way with young men. No doubt they were bolder than young women; but somehow it was not so very objectionable in them.
That short interview was a little era in Mary's young life. Walter had fixed his eyes on her with delight, had held her hand some seconds, and admired her to her face. She began to wonder a little, and flutter a little, and to put off childhood.
Next day, punctual to the minute, Walter drove up to the door in an open carriage drawn by two fast steppers. He found Mr. Bartley alone, and why? because, at sight of Walter, Mary, for the first time in her life, had flown upstairs to look at herself in the glass before facing the visitor, and to smooth her hair, and retouch a bow, etc., underrating, as usual, the power of beauty, and overrating nullities. Bartley took this opportunity, and said to young Clifford:
"I owe you an apology, and a most earnest one. Can you ever forgive me?"
Walter changed color. Even this humble allusion to so great an insult was wormwood to him. He bit his lip, and said:
"No man can do more than say he is sorry. I will try to forget it, sir."
"That is as much as I can expect," said Bartley, humbly. "But if you only knew the art, the cunning, the apparent evidence, with which that villain Monckton deluded me--"
"That I can believe."
"And permit me one observation before we drop this unhappy subject forever. If you had done me the honor to come to me as Walter Clifford, why, then, strong and misleading as the evidence was, I should have said, 'Appearances are deceitful, but no Clifford was ever disloyal.'"
This artful speech conquered Walter Clifford. He blushed, and bowed a little haughtily at the compliment to the Cliffords. But his sense of justice was aroused.
"You are right," said he. "I must try and see both sides. If a man sails under false colors, he mustn't howl if he is mistaken for a pirate. Let us dismiss the subject forever. I am Walter Clifford now--at your service."
At that moment Mary Bartley came in, beaming with youth and beauty, and illumined the room. The cousins shook hands, and Walter's eyes glowed with admiration.
After a few words of greeting he handed Mary into the drag. Her father followed, and he was about to drive off, when Mary cried out, "Oh, I forgot my skirt, if I am to ride."
The skirt was brought down, and the horses, that were beginning to fret, dashed off. A smart little groom rode behind, and on reaching the farm they found another with two saddle-horses, one of them, a small, gentle Arab gelding, had a side-saddle. They rode all over the farm, and inspected the buildings, which were in excellent repair, thanks to Walter's supervision. Bartley inquired the number of acres and the rent demanded. Walter told him. Bartley said it seemed to him a fair rent; still, he should like to know why the present tenant declined.
"Perhaps you had better ask him," said Walter. "I should wish you to hear both sides."
"That is like you," said Bartley; "but where does the shoe pinch, in your opinion?"
"Well, he tells me, in sober earnest, that he loses money by it as it is; but when he is drunk he tells his boon companions he has made seven thousand pounds here. He has one or two grass fields that want draining, but I offer him the pipes; he has only got to lay them and cut the drains. My opinion is that he is the slave of habit; he is so used to make an unfair profit out of these acres that he can not break himself of it and be content with a fair one."
"I dare say you have hit it," said Bartley. "Well, I am fond of farming; but I don't live by it, and a moderate profit would content me."
Walter said nothing. The truth is, he did not want to let the farm to Bartley.
Bartley saw this, and drew Mary aside.
"Should not you like to come here, my child?"
"Yes, papa, if you wish it; and you know it's dear Mr. Hope's birth-place."
"Well, then, tell this young fellow so. I will give you an opportunity."
That was easily managed, and then Mary said, timidly, "Cousin Walter, we should all three be so glad if we might have the farm."
"Three?" said he. "Who is the third?"
"Oh, somebody that everybody likes and I love. It is Mr. Hope. Such a duck! I am sure you would like him."
"Hope! Is his name William?"
"Yes, it is. Do you know him?" asked Mary, eagerly.
"I have reason to know him: he did me a good turn once, and I shall never forget it."
"Just like him!" cried Mary. "He is always doing people good turns. He is the best, the truest, the cleverest, the dearest darling dear that ever stepped, and a second father to me; and, cousin, this village is his birth-place, and he didn't say much, but it was he who told us of this farm, and he would be so pleased if I could write and say, 'We are to have the farm--Cousin Walter says so.'"
She turned her lovely eyes, brimming with tenderness, toward her cousin Walter, and he was done for.
"Of course you shall have it," he said, warmly. "Only you will not be angry with me if I insist on the increased rent. You know, cousin, I have a father, too, and I must be just to him."
"To be sure, you must, dear," said Mary, incautiously; and the word penetrated Walter's heart as if a woman of twenty-five had said it all of a sudden and for the first time.
When they got home, Mary told Mr. Bartley he was to have the farm if he would pay the increased rent.
"That is all right," said Bartley. "Then to-morrow we can go home."
"So soon!" said Mary, sorrowfully.
"Yes," said Bartley, firmly; "the rest had better be done in writing. Why, Mary, what is the use of staying on now? We are going to live here in a month or two."
"I forgot that," said Mary, with a little sigh. It seemed so ungracious to get what they wanted, and then turn their backs directly. She hinted as much, very timidly.
But Bartley was inexorable, and they reached home next day.
Mary would have liked to write to Walter, and announce their safe arrival, but nature withheld her. She was a child no longer.
Bartley went to the sharp solicitor, and had a long interview with him. The result was that in about ten days he sent Walter Clifford a letter and the draft of a lease, very favorable to the landlord on the whole, but cannily inserting one unusual clause that looked inoffensive.
It came by post, and Walter read the letter, and told his father whom it was from.
"What does the fellow say?" grunted Colonel Clifford.
"He says: 'We are doing very well here, but Hope says a bailiff can now carry out our system; and he is evidently sweet on his native place, and thinks the proposed rent is fair, and even moderate. As for me, my life used to be so bustling that I require a change now and then; so I will be your tenant. Hope says I am to pay the expense of the lease, so I have requested Arrowsmith & Cox to draw it. I have no experience in leases. They have drawn hundreds. I told them to make it fair. If they have not, send it back with objections.'"
"Oh! oh!" said Colonel Clifford. "He draws the lease, does he? Then look at it with a microscope."
"I should not like to encounter him on his own ground. But here he is a fish out of water; he must be. However, I will pass my eye over it. Where the farmer generally over-reaches us, if he draws the lease, is in the clauses that protect him on leaving. He gets part possession for months without paying rent, and he hampers and fleeces the incoming tenant, so that you lose a year's rent or have to buy him out. Now, let me see, that will be at the end of the document--No; it is exceedingly fair, this one."
"Show it to our man of business, and let him study every line. Set an attorney to catch an attorney."
"Of course I shall submit it to our solicitor," said Walter.
This was done, and the experienced practitioner read it very carefully. He pronounced it unusually equitable for a farmer's lease.
"However," said he, "we might suggest that he does all the repairs and draining, and that you find the materials; and also that he insures all the farm buildings. But you can hardly stand out for the insurance if he objects. There's no harm trying. Stay! here is one clause that is unusual: the tenant is to have the right to bore for water, or to penetrate the surface of the soil, and take out gravel or chalk or minerals, if any. I don't like that clause. He might quarry, and cut the farm in pieces. Ah, there's a proviso, that any damage to the surface or the agricultural value shall be fully compensated, the amount of such injury to be settled by the landlord's valuer or surveyor. Oh, come, if you can charge your own price, that can't kill you."
In short, the draft was approved, subject to certain corrections. These were accepted. The lease was engrossed in duplicate, and in due course signed and delivered. The old tenant left, abusing the Cliffords, and saying it was unfair to bring in a stranger, for he would have given all the money.
Bartley took possession.
Walter welcomed Hope very warmly, and often came to see him. He took a great interest in Hope's theories of farming, and often came to the farm for lessons. But that interest was very much increased by the opportunities it gave him of seeing and talking to sweet Mary Bartley. Not that he was forward or indiscreet. She was not yet sixteen, and he tried to remember she was a child.
Unfortunately for that theory she looked a ripe woman, and this very Walter made her more and more womanly. Whenever Walter was near she had new timidity, new blushes, fewer gushes, less impetuosity, more reserve. Sweet innocent! She was set by Nature to catch the man by the surest way, though she had no such design.
Oh, it was a pretty, subtle piece of nature, and each sex played its part. Bold advances of the man, with internal fear to offend, mock retreats of the girl, with internal throbs of complacency, and life invested with a new and growing charm to both. Leaving this pretty little pastime to glide along the flowery path that beautifies young lives to its inevitable climax, we go to a matter more prosaic, yet one that proved a source of strange and stormy events.
Hope had hardly started the farm when Bartley sent him off to Belgium--TO STUDY COAL MINES.