The Old Secretaire - Fred M. White - ebook

The Old Secretaire ebook

Fred M White



In Woodside Manor, there was an old servant – a terrible man, almost ninety years old, with thick white eyebrows and sharp black eyes – who recalled the tragedy – Silas Brooks, the valet of the unfortunate Arundel Secretan. But even he never spoke about it, but only listened when the story was mentioned with suspicion and hatred, flashing in his evil dark eyes. The servants said he was crazy – that the recollection had turned his brain. One day, many years ago, he told this story, and never heard of mentioning it again. Arundel Secretan had too much of a swashbuckler in his blood...

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THERE had been a Secretan at Woodside Manor for three hundred years, from the time of Norman Secretan the Catholic, down to that of Myles Secretan, the present representative of the race, who thought as a man of the world of the family dignity, and scoffed openly at the family ghost. A wing of the great house, now fallen partly into disuse, contained the Haunted Chamber, a wing which Myles Secretan vowed to have restored to its pristine glory some day when the fortunes of Woodside should mend; for, three generations of wild Secretans–Walter, with a taste for gambling; Arundel, friend and boon-companion of Edgar Warren of Normanton Grange, a neighbouring great house, for the Warrens and Secretans had ever been closest of friends; and lastly, Clive, who had been one of the Pavilion intimates, and a prime favourite with ‘the first gentleman in Europe’–had brought the resources of Woodside to a very low ebb indeed. The favour of kings is proverbially a fickle thing, unless one happens to be a Brummell, as Clive Secretan had found to his cost; and thus it was that the west wing remained in its half-dismantled state, and the ghost walked o’ nights, to the awe and terror of the neighbourhood.

It was not such a very old story, or a very ancient spectre either, as it only dated back as far as the present possessor’s grandfather. There was one old servant in the house–a dreadful man, nearly ninety years of age, with white bushy eyebrows and keen black eyes–who remembered the tragedy–Silas Brookes, the unfortunate Arundel Secretan’s valet. But even he never spoke about it, and only listened when the story was mentioned with suspicion and hatred glowering out of his evil dark eyes. The servants said he was mad–that the recollection had turned his brain. Once, years ago, he had told the story, and was never heard to mention it again.

He was perhaps the wildest of them all, this friend of Edgar Warren’s, with his handsome face and soft effeminate manner; his carefully paraded vices, and mad love of gambling. For a time, Walter Secretan, the father, had been proud to hear of his son’s social success, of his conquests and his gaming exploits in connection with the most famous men in Europe; of the tales which came down to the world-worn old roué in the peaceful Kentish village, and reflected, as it were, a lustre upon himself. There was some one else, too, who heard these tales, and went over them in secret–pretty Mistress Alice Mayford, the vicar’s daughter, who wore on her finger a rose diamond in a quaint setting, and something warmer in her heart. She heard all these things, watching and praying for the time when such vicious pleasures should pall and ‘the king come home again,’ which he did at length; and the stalled ox was killed, and presently there was a quiet wedding at the little church under the hill.

But Arundel Secretan had too much of the swashbuckler in his blood to settle down at twenty-six, even with a beautiful wife to bear him company, and a doting father at his beck and call. For hardly had the cherry orchards bloomed again, ere Warren, fresh from a continental tour, was in town, hunting high and low for his fidus Achates, and at last found him out. There was a new actress to see, he wrote, a score of new amusements; for the sake of old times, a week, only a short week, and then he might return to his peaches and Ashford ale for ever. Arundel hesitated, and finally fell. For three whole years they saw nothing of him, but they heard much–tales from the Levant came, filtered through gossips from town; sad stories from Rome, and Venice, and Florence, yet nothing from the wanderer save the constant cry for money. Old Walter Secretan grew grayer and grimmer; he was harsh and hard to all save Alice, and what they suffered together, no one ever knew. The master of Woodside wrote at length refusing to send further funds; and then the heir came home–home one night when they least expected him, clanking with whip and spur into the great dining-hall, where injured father and outraged wife were seated, as if his absence had only been for an hour. Oh, but he was changed–three years of vice and unbridled license had set their mark upon his face, had clouded the open forehead and bleared the eye. His wife, poor child, would have risen and fallen at his feet for very joy, but that Walter Secretan motioned her back, and called for another cover with a coolness that astonished the trembling old seneschal, and struck him with a presentiment of coming evil. It was a strange meal, with no word spoken on either side.

‘On my honour, your modern husband but a strange fashion of showing love and devotion to his bride,’ said Walter Secretan, when the cloth had been drawn, and the wine set in great coolers, and Mistress Alice had gone tremblingly to her chamber. ‘Odds-fish, but you take the matter coolly. In my time it would have gone hard if––’

‘In your time,’ Secretan the younger answered languidly, as he brushed a crumb from his velvet skirts. ‘You kept your vices closer at home. With our greater regard for the proprieties, we take them abroad–not quite so dutiful, perhaps, but a great deal more wholesome–for Woodside.’

‘And now, forsooth, that my patience is exhausted, the supplies have stopped, you come home to “eschew sack and live cleanly?”’

‘We both seem to be labouring under a mistake, sir; and I will be perfectly candid with you. I have no intention of assuming the part of the prodigal son–a character which, pardon me, would as ill become your unworthy servant as the other character would befit you.’

‘Fore George, your elegant tropes go clean over my head,’ the father said with some show of anger. ‘Leave your fine phrases where you seem to have left your heart and your manhood. You come down here neither to seek forgiveness nor to be forgiven. Why do you come at all?’

Arundel helped himself to another glass of claret, and crossed his elegant legs in an attitude of utter nonchalance. ‘Most honoured sir, what is the one thing that should bring me from the sweet shady side of Pall Mall to such an inferno as Woodside?’

‘And that one thing? omitting such trifling circumstances as love and duty, for which I humbly ask your pardon for recalling to your mind,’ said Walter Secretan sardonically. ‘I am all ears.’

‘Need I say that I am alluding to money?’

For the first time during the interview, a smile broke out upon the listener’s dark handsome features. ‘I am heartily glad to hear it,’ he returned; ‘and all the more so that you will not get it. No, if you go down on your knees to me and swear reformation by all the saints in the calendar, not another guinea do you get from me; no, not even if it would save you from starvation. If my son is a heartless profligate, I will take care that yours does not suffer for his father’s sins.’

For the first time the younger man showed signs of agitation and alarm. ‘There is more than one way of suffering for a father’s sins,’ he said.

‘I know it–who better?–as well as I know by your manner that you have brought dishonour on the house. And so yonder innocent lad’s patrimony is to be the price of your absolution. Why not go to your fine friends for money? Is it a greater sin to rob them than rob an indulgent father? Go to your faithful friend from Normanton yonder, the immaculate Edgar, who would prate of love and honour, whilst the doors of all honest men are shut in his face–ask him for the money.’

‘This is vulgar prejudice,’ Arundel exclaimed, stung into retort by these bitter words. ‘If the man you speak of was in England, I should not be here to ask this favour of you now.’

‘I believe that,’ said Secretan. ‘You would not come unless you were forced to do so.’

‘Edgar would help me cheerfully enough, only he is away, no one knows where, upon one of his mad expeditions. It is a matter of life and death with me–a debt of honour to be met–a debt so large that I have arranged for three months in which to raise the money.’

‘On my honour, you have been sustaining the family reputation! And who is the fortunate individual who has been astute enough to get the better of so accomplished a dicer and card-player as Arundel Secretan?’

‘Lord St Devereux–a name, I believe, known to you.’

‘Known to me in years gone by as a disgraced blackleg and notorious roué. By the blood of my ancestors, but you have been figuring in noble company!–And the amount?’

‘Nearly thirty thousand pounds, so far as I can recollect.’

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