A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter VII. The Course of True Love.
Mr. Hope left his powerful opera-glass with Mary Bartley. One day that Walter called she was looking through it at the landscape, and handed it to him. He admired its power. Mary told him it had saved her life once.
"Oh," said he, "how could that be?"
Then she told him how Hope had seen her drowning, a mile off, with it, and ridden a bare-backed steed to her rescue.
"God bless him!" cried Walter. "He is our best friend. Might I borrow this famous glass?"
"Oh," said Mary, "I am not going into any more streams; I am not so brave now as I used to be."
"Please lend it me, for all that."
"Of course I will, if you wish it."
Strange to say, after this, whether Mary walked out or rode out, she very often met Mr. Walter Clifford. He was always delighted and surprised. She was surprised three times, and said so, and after that she came to lower her lashes and blush, but not to start. Each meeting was a pure accident, no doubt, only she foresaw the inevitable occurrence.
They talked about everything in the world except what was most on their minds. Their soft tones and expressive eyes supplied that little deficiency.
One day he caught her riding on her little Arab. The groom fell behind directly. After they had ridden some distance in silence, Walter broke out:
"How beautifully you ride!"
"Me!" cried Mary. "Why, I never had a lesson in my life."
"That accounts for it. Let a lady alone, and she does everything more gracefully than a man; but let some cad undertake to teach her, she distrusts herself and imitates the snob. If you could only see the women in Hyde Park who have been taught to ride, and compare them with yourself!"
"I should learn humility."
"No; it would make you vain, if anything could."
"You seem inclined to do me that good turn. Come, pray, what do these poor ladies do to offend you so?"
"I'll tell you. They square their shoulders vulgarly; they hold the reins in their hands as if they were driving, and they draw the reins to their waists in a coarse, absurd way. They tighten both these reins equally, and saw the poor devil's mouth with the curb and the snaffle at one time. Now you know, Mary, the snaffle is a mild bit, and the curb is a sharp one; so where is the sense of pulling away at the snaffle when you are tugging at the curb? Why, it is like the fellow that made two holes at the bottom of the door--a big one for the cat to come through and a little one for the kitten. But the worst of all is they show the caddess so plainly."
"Caddess! What is that; goddess you mean, I suppose?"
"No; I mean a cad of the feminine gender. They seem bursting with affectation and elated consciousness that they are on horseback. That shows they have only just made the acquaintance of that animal, and in a London riding-school. Now you hold both reins lightly in the left hand, the curb loose, since it is seldom wanted, the snaffle just feeling the animal's mouth, and you look right and left at the people you are talking to, and don't seem to invite one to observe that you are on a horse: that is because you are a lady, and a horse is a matter of course to you, just as the ground is when you walk upon it."
The sensible girl blushed at his praise, but she said, dryly, "How meritorious! Cousin Walter, I have heard that flattery is poison. I won't stay here to be poisoned--so." She finished the sentence in action; and with a movement of her body she started her Arab steed, and turned her challenging eye back on Walter, and gave him a hand-gallop of a mile on the turf by the road-side. And when she drew bridle her cheeks glowed so and her eyes glistened, that Walter was dazzled by her bright beauty, and could do nothing but gaze at her for ever so long.
If Hope had been at home, Mary would have been looked after more sharply. But if she was punctual at meals, that went a long way with Robert Bartley.
However, the accidental and frequent meetings of Walter and Mary, and their delightful rides and walks, were interfered with just as they began to grow into a habit. There arrived at Clifford Hall a formidable person--in female eyes, especially--a beautiful heiress. Julia Clifford, great-niece and ward of Colonel Clifford; very tall, graceful, with dark gray eyes, and black eyebrows the size of a leech, that narrowed to a point and met in finer lines upon the bridge of a nose that was gently aquiline, but not too large, as such noses are apt to be. A large, expressive mouth, with wonderful rows of ivory, and the prettiest little black down, fine as a hair, on her upper lip, and a skin rather dark but clear, and glowing with the warm blood beneath it, completed this noble girl. She was nineteen years of age.
Colonel Clifford received her with warm affection and old-fashioned courtesy; but as he was disabled by a violent fit of gout, he deputed Walter to attend to her on foot and horseback.
Miss Clifford, accustomed to homage, laid Walter under contribution every day. She was very active, and he had to take her a walk in the morning, and a ride in the afternoon. He winced a little under this at first; it kept him so much from Mary. But there was some compensation. Julia Clifford was a lady-like rider, and also a bold and skillful one.
The first time he rode with her he asked her beforehand what sort of a horse she would like.
"Oh, anything," said she, "that is not vicious nor slow."
"A hack or a hunter?"
"Oh, a hunter, if I may."
"Perhaps you will do me the honor to look at them and select."
"You are very kind, and I will."
He took her to the stables, and she selected a beautiful black mare, with a coat like satin.
"There," said Walter, despondingly. "I was afraid you would fix on her. She is impossible, I can't ride her myself."
"Not in the least."
Here an old groom touched his hat, and said, curtly, "Too hot and fidgety, miss. I'd as lieve ride of a boiling kettle."
Walter explained: "The poor thing is the victim of nervousness."
"Which I call them as rides her the victims," suggested the ancient groom.
"Be quiet, George. She would go sweetly in a steeple-chase, if she didn't break her heart with impatience before the start. But on the road she is impossible. If you make her walk, she is all over lather in five minutes, and she'd spoil that sweet habit with flecks of foam. My lady has a way of tossing her head, and covering you all over with white streaks."
"She wants soothing," suggested Miss Clifford.
"Nay, miss. She wants bleeding o' Sundays, and sweating over the fallows till she drops o' week-days. But if she was mine I'd put her to work a coal-cart for six months; that would larn her."
"I will ride her," said Miss Clifford, calmly; "her or none."
"Saddle her, George," said Walter, resignedly. "I'll ride Goliah. Black Bess sha'n't plead a bad example. Goliah is as meek as Moses, Miss Clifford. He is a gigantic mouse."
"I'd as lieve ride of a dead man," said the old groom.
"Mr. George," said the young lady, "you seem hard to please. May I ask what sort of animal you do like to ride?"
"Well, miss, summat between them two. When I rides I likes to be at peace. If I wants work, there's plenty in the yard. If I wants fretting and fuming, I can go home: I'm a married man, ye know. But when I crosses a horse I looks for a smart trot and a short stepper, or an easy canter on a bit of turf, and not to be set to hard labor a-sticking my heels into Goliah, nor getting a bloody nose every now and then from Black Bess a-throwing back her uneasy head when I do but lean forward in the saddle. I be an old man, miss, and I looks for peace on horseback if I can't get it nowhere else."
All this was delivered whilst saddling Black Bess. When she was ready, Miss Clifford asked leave to hold the bridle, and walk her out of the premises. As she walked her she patted and caressed her, and talked to her all the time--told her they all misunderstood her because she was a female; but now she was not to be tormented and teased, but to have her own way.
Then she asked George to hold the mare's head as gently as he could, and Walter to put her up. She was in the saddle in a moment. The mare fidgeted and pranced, but did not rear. Julia slackened the reins, and patted and praised her, and let her go. She made a run, but was checked by degrees with the snaffle. She had a beautiful mouth, and it was in good hands at last.
When they had ridden a few miles they came to a very open country, and Julia asked, demurely, if she might be allowed to try her off the road. "All right," said Walter; and Miss Julia, with a smart decision that contrasted greatly with the meekness of her proposal, put her straight at the bank, and cleared it like a bird. They had a famous gallop, but this judicious rider neither urged the mare nor greatly checked her. She moderated her. Black Bess came home that day sweating properly, but with a marked diminution of lather and foam. Miss Clifford asked leave to ride her into the stable-yard, and after dismounting talked to her, and patted her, and praised her. An hour later the pertinacious beauty asked for a carrot from the garden, and fed Black Bess with it in the stable.
By these arts, a very light hand, and tact in riding, she soothed Black Bess's nerves, so that at last the very touch of her habit skirt, or her hand, or the sound of her voice, seemed to soothe the poor nervous creature; and at last one day in the stable Bess protruded her great lips and kissed her fair rider on the shoulder after her manner.
All this interested and amused Walter Clifford, but still he was beginning to chafe at being kept from Miss Bartley, when one morning her servant rode over with a note.
"DEAR COUSIN WALTER,--Will you kindly send me back my opera glass? I want to see what is going on at Clifford Hall.
Walter wrote back directly that he would bring it himself, and tell her what was going on at Clifford Hall.
So he rode over and told her of Julia Clifford's arrival, and how his father had deputed him to attend on her, and she took up all his time. It was beginning to be a bore.
"On the contrary," said Mary, "I dare say she is very handsome."
"That she is," said Walter.
"Please describe her."
"A very tall, dark girl, with wonderful eyebrows; and she has broken in Black Bess, that some of us men could not ride in comfort."
Mary changed color. She murmured, "No wonder the Hall is more attractive than the farm!" and the tears shone in her eyes.
"Oh, Mary," said Walter, reproachfully, "how can you say that? What is Julia Clifford to me?"
"I can't tell," said Mary, dryly. "I never saw you together through my glasses, you know."
Walter laughed at this innuendo.
"You shall see us together to-morrow, if you will bless one of us with your company."
"I might be in the way."
"That is not very likely. Will you ride to Hammond Church to-morrow at about ten, and finish your sketch of the tower? I will bring Miss Clifford there, and introduce you to each other."
This was settled, and Mary was apparently quite intent on her sketch when Walter and Julia rode up, and Walter said:
"That is my cousin, Mary Bartley. May I introduce her to you?"
"Of course. What a sweet face!"
So the ladies were introduced, and Julia praised Mary's sketch, and Mary asked leave to add her to it, hanging, with pensive figure, over a tombstone. Julia took an admirable pose, and Mary, with her quick and facile fingers, had her on the paper in no time. Walter asked her, in a whisper, what she thought of her model.
"I like her," said Mary. "She is rather pretty."
"Rather pretty! Why, she is an acknowledged beauty."
"A beauty? The idea! Long black thing!"
Then they rode all together to the farm. There Mary was all innocent hospitality, and the obnoxious Julia kissed her at parting, and begged her to come and see her at the Hall.
Mary did call, and found her with a young gentleman of short stature, who was devouring her with his eyes, but did not overflow in discourse, having a slight impediment in his speech. This was Mr. Percy Fitzroy. Julia introduced him.
"And where are you staying, Percy?" inquired she.
"At the D--D--Dun Cow."
"What is that?"
Walter explained that it was a small hostelry, but one that was occasionally honored by distinguished visitors. Miss Bartley staid there three days.
"I h--hope to st--ay more than that," said little Percy, with an amorous glance at Julia.
Miss Clifford took Mary to her room, and soon asked her what she thought of him; then, anticipating criticism, she said there was not much of him, but he was such a duck.
"He dresses beautifully," was Mary's guarded remark.
However, when Walter rode home with her, being now relieved of his attendance on Julia, she was more communicative. Said she: "I never knew before that a man could look like fresh cambric. Dear me! his head and his face and his little whiskers, his white scarf, his white waistcoat, and all his clothes, and himself, seem just washed and ironed and starched. I looked round for the bandbox."
"Never mind," said Walter. "He is a great addition. My duties devolve on him. And I shall be free to--How her eyes shone and her voice mellowed when she spoke to him! Confess, now, love is a beautiful thing."
"I can not say. Not experienced in beautiful things." And Mary looked mighty demure.
"Of course not. What am I thinking of? You are only a child."
"A little more than that, please."
"At all events, love beautified her."
"I saw no difference. She was always a lovely girl."
"Why, you said she was 'a long black thing.'"
"Oh, that was before--she looked engaged."
After this young Fitzroy was generally Miss Clifford's companion in her many walks, and Walter Clifford had a delightful time with Mary Bartley.
Her nurse discovered how matters were going. But she said nothing. From something Bartley let fall years ago she divined that Bartley was robbing Walter Clifford by substituting Hope's child for his own, and she thought the mischief could be repaired and the sin atoned for if he and Mary became man and wife. So she held her tongue and watched.
The servants at the Hall watched the whole game, and saw how the young people were pairing, and talked them over very freely.
The only person in the dark was Colonel Clifford. He was nearly always confined to his room. However, one day he came down, and found Julia and Percy together. She introduced Percy to him. The Colonel was curt, but grumpy, and Percy soon beat a retreat.
The Colonel sent for Walter to his room. He did not come for some time, because he was wooing Mary Bartley.
Colonel Clifford's first word was, "Who was that little stuttering dandy I caught spooning your Julia?"
"Only Percy Fitzroy."
"Only Percy Fitzroy! Never despise your rivals, sir. Always remember that young women are full of vanity, and expect to be courted all day long. I will thank you not to leave the field open a single day till you have secured the prize."
"What prize, sir?"
"What prize, you ninny? Why, the beautiful girl that can buy back Oddington and Drayton, peaches and fruit and all. They are both to be sold at this moment. What prize? Why, the wife I have secured for you, if you don't go and play the fool and neglect her."
Walter Clifford looked aghast.
"Julia Clifford!" said he. "Pray don't ask me to marry her."
"Not ask you?--but I do ask you; and what is more, I command you. Would you revolt again against your father, who has forgiven you, and break my heart, now I am enfeebled by disease? Julia Clifford is your wife, or you are my son no more."