A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter VIII. The Course of True Love.
The next time Walter Clifford met Mary Bartley he was gloomy at intervals. The observant girl saw he had something on his mind. She taxed him with it, and asked him tenderly what it was.
"Oh, nothing," said he.
"Don't tell me!" said she. "Mind, nothing escapes my eye. Come, tell me, or we are not friends."
"Oh, come, Mary. That is hard."
"Not in the least. I take an interest in you."
"Bless you for saying so!"
"And so, if you keep your troubles from me, we are not friends, nor cousins."
"Nor anything else."
"Well, dear Mary, sooner than not be anything else to you I will tell you, and yet I don't like. Well, then, if I must, it is that dear old wrong-headed father of mine. He wants me to marry Julia Clifford."
Mary turned pale directly. "I guessed as much," said she. "Well, she is young and beautiful and rich, and it is your duty to obey your father."
"But I can't."
"Oh yes, you can, if you try."
"But I can't try."
"Can't you guess?"
"Well, then, I love another girl. As opposite to her as light is to darkness."
Mary blushed and looked down. "Complimentary to Julia," she said. "I pity her opposite, for Julia is a fine, high-minded girl."
"Ah, Mary, you are too clever for me; of course I mean the opposite in appearance."
"As ugly as she is pretty?"
"No; but she is a dark girl, and I don't like dark girls. It was a dark girl that deceived me so heartlessly years ago."
"And made me hate the whole sex."
"Or only the brunettes?"
"The whole lot."
"Cousin Walter, I thank you in the name of that small company."
"Until I saw you, and you converted me in one day."
"Only to the blondes?"
"Only to one of them. My sweet Mary, the situation is serious. You, whose eye nothing escapes--you must have seen long ago how I love you."
"Never mind what I have seen, Walter," said Mary, whose bosom was beginning to heave.
"Very well," said Walter; "then I will tell you as if you didn't know it. I admired you at first sight; every time I was with you I admired you, and loved you more and more. It is my heaven to see you and to hear you speak. Whether you are grave or gay, saucy or tender, it is all one charm, one witchcraft. I want you for my wife, and my child, and my friend. Mary, my love, my darling, how could I marry any woman but you? and you, could you marry any man but me, to break the heart that beats only for you?"
This and the voice of love, now ardent, now broken with emotion, were more than sweet, saucy Mary could trifle with; her head drooped slowly upon his shoulder, and her arm went round his neck, and the tremor of her yielding frame and the tears of tenderness that flowed slowly from her fair eyes told Walter Clifford without a word that she was won.
He had the sense not to ask her for words. What words could be so eloquent as this? He just held her to his manly bosom, and trembled with love and joy and triumph.
She knew, too, that she had replied, and treated her own attitude like a sentence in rather a droll way. "But for all that," said she, "I don't mean to be a wicked girl if I can help. This is an age of wicked young ladies. I soon found that out in the newspapers; that and science are the two features. And I have made a solemn vow not to be one of them"--(query, a science or a naughty girl)--"making mischief between father and son."
"No more you shall, dear," said Walter. "Leave it to me. We must be patient, and all will come right."
"Oh, I'll be true to you, dear, if that is all," said Mary.
"And if you would not mind just temporizing a little, for my sake, who love you?"
"Temporize!" said Mary, eagerly. "With all my heart. I'll temporize till we are all dead and buried."
"Oh, that will be too long for me," said Walter.
"Oh, never do things by halves," said the ready girl.
If his tongue had been as prompt as hers, he might have said that "temporizing" was doing things by halves; but he let her have the last word. And perhaps he lost nothing, for she would have had that whether or no.
So this day was another era in their love. Girls after a time are not content to see they are beloved; they must hear it too; and now Walter had spoken out like a man, and Mary had replied like a woman. They were happy, and walked hand in hand purring to one another, instead of sparring any more.
On his return home Walter found Julia marching swiftly and haughtily up and down upon the terrace of Clifford Hall, and he could not help admiring the haughty magnificence of her walk. The reason soon appeared. She was in a passion. She was always tall, but now she seemed lofty, and to combine the supple panther with the erect peacock in her ireful march. Such a fine woman as Julia really awes a man with her carriage at such a time. The poor soul thinks he sees before him the indignation of the just; when very likely it is only what in a man would be called Petulance.
"Anything the matter, Miss Clifford?" said he, obsequiously.
"No, sir" (very stiffly).
"Can I be of any service?"
"No, you can not." And then, swifter than any weather-cock ever turned: "You are a good creature: why should I be rude to you? I ought to be ashamed of myself. It is that little wretch."
"Not our friend Fitzroy?"
"Why, what other little wretch is there about? We are all Grenadiers and May-poles in this house except him. Well, let him go. I dare say somebody else--hum--and Uncle Clifford has told me more than once I ought to look higher. I couldn't well look lower than five feet nothing. Ha! ha! ha! I told him so."
"That was cruel."
"Don't scold me. I won't be lectured by any of you. Of course it was, dear. Poor little Percy. Oh! oh! oh!"
And after all this thunder there was a little rain, by a law that governs Atmosphere and Woman impartially.
Seeing her softened, and having his own reasons for wishing to keep Fitzroy to his duty, Walter begged leave to mediate, if possible, and asked if she would do him the honor to confide the grievance to him.
"Of course I will," said Julia. "He is angry with Colonel Clifford for not wishing him to stay here, and he is angry with me for not making Uncle Clifford invite him. As if I could! I should be ashamed to propose such a thing. The truth is, he is a luxurious little fellow, and my society out-of-doors does not compensate him for the cookery at the Dun Cow. There! let him go."
"But I want him to stay."
"Then that is very kind of you."
"Isn't it?" said Walter, slyly. "And I must make him stay somehow. Now tell me, isn't he a little jealous?"
"A little jealous! Why, he is eaten up with it; he is petrie de jalousie."
"Then," said Walter, timidly, and hesitating at every word, "you can't be angry if I work on him a little. Would there be any great harm if I were to say that nobody can see you without admiring you; that I have always respected his rights, but that if he abandons them--"
Julia caught it in a moment. She blushed, and laughed heartily. "Oh, you good, sly Thing!" said she; "and it is the truth, for I am as proud as he is vain; and if he leaves me I will turn round that moment and make you in love with me."
Walter looked queer. This was a turn he had not counted on.
"Do you think I couldn't, sir?" said she, sharply.
"It is not for me to limit the power of beauty," said Walter, meekly.
"Say the power of flattery. I could cajole any man in the world--if I chose."
"Then you are a dangerous creature, and I will make Fitzroy my shield. I'm off to the Dun Cow."
"You are a duck," said this impetuous beauty. "So there!" She took him round the neck with both hands, and gave him a most delicious kiss.
"Why, he must be mad," replied the recipient, bluntly. She laughed at that, and he went straight to the Dun Cow. He found young Fitzroy sitting rather disconsolate, and opened his errand at once by asking him if it was true that they were to lose him.
Percy replied stiffly that it was true.
"What a pity!" said Walter.
"I d--don't think I shall be m--much m--missed," said Percy, rather sullenly.
"I know two people who will miss you."
"I d--don't know one."
"Two, I assure you--Miss Clifford and myself. Come, Mr. Fitzroy, I will not beat about the bush. I am afraid you are mortified, and I must say, justly mortified, at the coolness my father has shown to you. But I assure you that it is not from any disrespect to you personally."
"Oh, indeed!" said Percy, ironically.
"No; quite the reverse--he is afraid of you."
"That is a g--g--good joke."
"No; let me explain. Fathers are curious people. If they are ever so disinterested in their general conduct, they are sure to be a little mercenary for their children. Now you know Miss Clifford is a beauty who would adorn Clifford Hall, and an heiress whose money would purchase certain properties that join ours. You understand?"
"Yes," said the little man, starting up in great wrath. "I understand, and it's a--bom--inable. I th--thought you were my friend, and a m--man of h--honor."
"So I am, and that is why I warn you in time. If you quarrel with Miss Clifford, and leave this place in a pet, just see what risks we both run, you and I. My father will be always at me, and I shall not be able to insist on your prior claim; he will say you have abandoned it. Julia will take the huff, and you know beautiful women will do strange things--mad things--when once pique enters their hearts. She might turn round and marry me."
"You forget, sir, you are a man of honor."
"But not a man of stone. Now, my dear Fitzroy, be reasonable. Suppose that peerless creature went in for female revenge; why, the first thing she would do would be to make me love her, whether I chose or no. She wouldn't give me a voice in the matter. She would flatter me; she would cajole me; she would transfix my too susceptible heart with glances of fire and bewitching languor from those glorious eyes."
"D--d----! Ahem!" cried Percy, turning green.
Walter had no mercy. "I heard her say once she could make any man love her if she chose."
"So she could," said Percy, ruefully. "She made me. I had an awful p--p--prejudice against her, but there was no resisting."
"Then don't subject me to such a trial. Stick to her like a man."
"So I will; b--but it is a m--m--mortifying position. I'm a man of family. We came in with the C--Conquest, and are respected in our c--county; and here I have to meet her on the sly, and live at the D--Dun Cow."
"Where the cuisine is wretched."
Having thus impregnated his mind with that soothing sentiment, jealousy, Walter told him he had a house to let on the estate--quite a gentleman's house, only a little dilapidated, with a fine lawn and garden, only neglected into a wilderness. "But all the better for you," said he. "You have plenty of money, and no occupation. Perhaps that is what leads to these little quarrels. It will amuse you to repair the crib and restore the lawn. Why, there is a brook runs through it--it isn't every lawn has that--and there used to be water-lilies floating, and peonies nodding down at them from the bank: a paradise. She adores flowers, you know. Why not rent that house from me? You will have constant occupation and amusement. You will become a rival potentate to my governor. You will take the shine out of him directly; you have only to give a ball, and then all the girls will worship you, Julia Clifford especially, for she could dance the devil to a stand-still."
Percy's eyes flashed. "When can I have the place?" said he, eagerly.
"In half an hour. I'll draw you a three months' agreement. Got any paper? Of course not. Julia is so near. What are those? Playing-cards. What do you play? 'Patience,' all by yourself. No wonder you are quarrelsome! Nothing else to bestow your energy on."
Percy denied this imputation. The cards were for pistol practice. He shot daily at the pips in the yard.
"It is the fiend Ennui that loads your pistols, and your temper too. Didn't I tell you so?"
Walter then demanded the ace of diamonds, and on its face let him the house and premises on a repairing lease for three years, rent L5 a year: which was a good bargain for both parties, since Percy was sure to lay out a thousand pounds or two on the property, and to bind Julia more closely to him, who was worth her weight in gold ten times over.
Walter had brought the keys with him, so he drove Percy over at once and gave him possession, and, to do the little fellow justice, the moisture of gratitude stood in his eyes when they parted.
Walter told Julia about it the same night, and her eyes were eloquent too.
The next day he had a walk with Mary Bartley, and told her all about it. She hung upon him, and gazed admiringly into his eyes all the time, and they parted happy lovers.
Mr. Bartley met her at the gate, "Mary," said he, gravely, "who was that I saw with you just now?"
"I feared so. You are too much with him."
Mary turned red and white by turns, but said nothing.
Bartley went on: "You are a good child, and I have always trusted you. I am sure you mean no harm. But you must be more discreet. I have just heard that you and that young man are looked upon as engaged lovers. They say it is all over the village. Of course a father is the last to hear these things. Does Mrs. Easton know of this?"
"Oh yes, papa, and approves it."
"Stupid old woman! She ought to be ashamed of herself."
"Oh, papa!" said Mary, in deep distress; "why, what objection can there be to Cousin Walter?"
"None whatever as a cousin, but every objection to intimacy. Does he court you?"
"I don't know, papa. I suppose he does."
"Does he seek your love?"
"He does not say so exactly."
"Come, Mary, you have never deceived me. Does he love you?"
"I am afraid he does; and if you reject him he will be very unhappy. And so shall I."
"I am truly sorry to hear it, Mary, for there are reasons why I can not consent to an engagement between him and you."
"What reasons, papa?"
"It would not be proper to disclose my reasons; but I hope, Mary, that it will be enough to say that Colonel Clifford has other views for his son, and I have other views for my daughter. Do you think a blessing will attend you or him if you defy both fathers?"
"No, no," said poor Mary. "We have been hasty and very foolish. But, oh, papa, have you not seen from the first? Oh, why did you not warn me in time? Then I could have obeyed you easily. Now it will cost me the happiness of my life. We are very unfortunate. Poor Walter! He left me so full of hope. What shall I do? what shall I do?"
It was Mary Bartley's first grief. She thought all chance of happiness was gone forever, and she wept bitterly for Walter and herself.
Bartley was not unmoved, but he could not change his nature. The sum he had obtained by a crime was dearer to him than all his more honest gains. He was kind on the surface, but hard as marble.
"Go to your room, my child," said he, "and try and compose yourself. I am not angry with you. I ought to have watched you. But you are so young, and I trusted to that woman."
Mary retired, sobbing, and he sent for Mrs. Easton.
"Mrs. Easton," said he, "for the first time in all these years I have a fault to find with you."
"What is that, sir, if you please?"
"Young Clifford has been courting that child, and you have encouraged it."
"Nay, sir," said the woman, "I have not done that. She never spoke to me, nor I to her."
"Well, then, you never interfered."
"No, sir; no more than you did."
"Because I never observed it till to-day."
"How could I know that, sir? Everybody else observed it. Mr. Hope would have been the first to see it, if he had been in your place." This sudden thrust made Bartley wince, and showed him he had a tougher customer to deal with than poor Mary.
"You can't bear to be found fault with, Easton," said he, craftily, "and I don't wonder at it, after fourteen years' fidelity to me."
"I take no credit for that," said the woman, doggedly. "I have been paid for it."
"No doubt. But I don't always get the thing I pay for. Then let by-gones be by-gones; but just assist me now to cure the girl of this folly."
"Sir," said the woman, firmly, "it is not folly; it is wisest and best for all; and I can't make up my mind to lift a finger against it."
"Do you mean to defy me, then?"
"No, sir. I don't want to go against you, nor yet against my own conscience, what's left on't. I have seen a pretty while it must come to this, and I have written to my sister Sally. She keeps a small hotel at the lakes. She is ready to have me, and I'm not too old to be useful to her. I'm worth my board. I'll go there this very day, if you please. I'm as true to you as I can be, sir. For I see by Miss Mary crying so you have spoken to her, and so now she is safe to come to me for comfort; and if she does, I shall take her part, you may be sure, for I love her like my own child." Here the dogged voice began to tremble; but she recovered herself, and told him she would go at once to her sister Gilbert, that lived only ten miles off, and next day she would go to the little hotel at the lakes, and leave him to part two true lovers if he could and break both their hearts; she should wash her hands of it.
Bartley asked a moment to consider.
"Shall we be friends still if you leave me like that? Surely, after all these years, you will not tell your sister? You will not betray me?"
"Never, sir," said she. "What for? To bring those two together? Why, it would part them forever. I wonder at you, a gentleman, and in business all your life, yet you don't seem to see through the muddy water as I do that is only a plain woman."
She then told him her clothes were nearly all packed, and she could start in an hour.
"You shall have the break and the horses," said he, with great alacrity.
Everything transpires quickly in a small house, and just as she had finished packing, in came Mary in violent distress. "What, is it true? Are you going to leave me, now my heart is broken? Oh, nurse! nurse!"
This was too much even for stout-hearted Nancy Easton.
"Oh, my child! my child!" she cried, and sat down on her box sobbing violently, Mary infolded in her arms, and then they sat crying and rocking together.
"Papa does not love me as I do him," sobbed Mary, turning bitter for the first time. "He breaks my heart, and sends you away the same day, for fear you should comfort me."
"No, my dear," said Mrs. Easton; "you are wrong. He does not send me away; I go by my own wish."
"Oh, nurse, you desert me! then you don't know what has happened."
"Oh yes, I do; I know all about it; and I'm leaving because I can't do what he wishes. You see it is this way, Miss Mary--your father has been very good to me, and I am his debtor. I must not stay here and help you to thwart him--that would be ungrateful--and yet I can't take his side against you. Master has got reasons why you should not marry Walter Clifford, and--"
"He told me so himself," said Mary.
"Ah, but he didn't tell you his reasons."
"No more must I. But, Miss Mary, I'll tell you this. I know his reasons well; his reasons why you should not marry Walter Clifford are my reasons why you should marry no other man."
"Oh, nurse! oh, you dear, good angel!"
"So when friends differ like black and white, 'tis best to part. I'm going to my sister Gilbert this afternoon, and to-morrow to my sister Sally, at her hotel."
"Oh, nurse, must you? must you? I shall have not a friend to advise or console me till Mr. Hope comes back. Oh, I hope that won't be long now."
Mrs. Easton dropped her hands upon her knees and looked at Mary Bartley.
"What, Miss Mary, would you go to Mr. Hope in such a matter as this? Surely you would not have the face?"
"Not take my breaking heart to Mr. Hope!" cried Mary, with a sudden flood of tears. "You might as well tell me not to lay my trouble before my God. Dear, dear Mr. Hope, who saved my life in those deep waters, and then cried over me, darling dear! I think more of that than of his courage. Do you think I am blind? He loves me better than my own father does; and it is not a young man's love; it is an angel's. Not cry to him when I am in the deep waters of affliction? I could not write of such a thing to him for blushing, but the moment he returns I shall find some way to let him know how happy I have been, how broken-hearted I am, and that papa has reasons against him, and they are your reasons for him, and that you are both afraid to let me know these curious reasons--me, the poor girl whose heart is being made a foot-ball of in this house. Oh! oh! oh!"
"Don't cry, Miss Mary," said Nurse Easton, tenderly; "and pray don't excite yourself so. Why, I never saw you like this before."
"Had I ever the same reason? You have only known the happy, thoughtless child. They have made a woman of me now, and my peace is gone. I must not defy my father, and I will not break poor Walter's heart--the truest heart that ever beat. Not tell dear Mr. Hope? I'll tell him everything, if I'm cut in pieces for it." And her beautiful eyes flashed lightning through her tears.
"Hum!" said Mrs. Easton, under her breath, and looking down at her own feet.
"And pray what does 'hum' mean?" asked Mary, fixing her eyes with prodigious keenness on the woman's face.
"Well, I don't suppose 'hum' means anything," said Mrs. Easton, still looking down.
"Doesn't it?" said Mary. "With such a face as that it means a volume. And I'll make it my business to read that volume."
"And Mr. Hope shall help me."