The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

The Sale of Porthgenna Tower.

“How charming! how pastoral! how exquisitely soothing!” said Mr. Phippen, sentimentally surveying the lawn at the back of the vicarage-house, under the shadow of the lightest umbrella he could pick out of the hall. “Three years have passed, Chennery, since I last stood on this lawn. There is the window of your old study, where I had my attack of heart-burn last time — in the strawberry season; don’t you remember? Ah! and there is the school-room! Shall I ever forget dear Miss Sturch coming to me out of that room — a ministering angel with soda and ginger — so comforting, so sweetly anxious about stirring it up, so unaffectedly grieved that there was no sal-volatile in the house! I do so enjoy these pleasant recollections, Chennery; they are as great a luxury to me as your cigar is to you. Could you walk on the other side, my dear fellow? I like the smell, but the smoke is a little too much for me. Thank you. And now about the story? What was the name of the old place — I am so interested in it — it began with a P, surely?”

“Porthgenna Tower,” said the vicar.

“Exactly,” rejoined Mr. Phippen, shifting the umbrella tenderly from one shoulder to the other. “And what in the world made Captain Treverton sell Porthgenna Tower?”

“I believe the reason was that he could not endure the place after the death of his wife,” answered Doctor Chennery. “The estate, you know, has never been entailed; so the Captain had no difficulty in parting with it, except, of course, the difficulty of finding a purchaser.”

“Why not his brother?” asked Mr. Phippen. “Why not our eccentric friend, Andrew Treverton?”

“Don’t call him my friend,” said the vicar. “A mean, groveling, cynical, selfish old wretch! It’s no use shaking your head, Phippen, and trying to look shocked. I know Andrew Treverton’s early history as well as you do. I know that he was treated with the basest ingratitude by a college friend, who took all he had to give, and swindled him at last in the grossest manner. I know all about that. But one instance of ingratitude does not justify a man in shutting himself up from society, and railing against all mankind as a disgrace to the earth they walk on. I myself have heard the old brute say that the greatest benefactor to our generation would be a second Herod, who could prevent another generation from succeeding it. Ought a man who can talk in that way to be the friend of any human being with the slightest respect for his species or himself?”

“My friend!” said Mr. Phippen, catching the vicar by the arm, and mysteriously lowering his voice — “My dear and reverend friend! I admire your honest indignation against the utterer of that exceedingly misanthropical sentiment; but — I confide this to you, Chennery, in the strictest secrecy — there are moments — morning moments generally — when my digestion is in such a state that I have actually agreed with that annihilating person, Andrew Treverton! I have woke up with my tongue like a cinder — I have crawled to the glass and looked at it — and I have said to myself, ‘Let there be an end of the human race rather than a continuance of this!’”

“Pooh! pooh!” cried the vicar, receiving Mr. Phippen’s confession with a burst of irreverent laughter. “Take a glass of cool small beer next time your tongue is in that state, and you will pray for a continuance of the brewing part of the human race, at any rate. But let us go back to Porthgenna Tower, or I shall never get on with my story. When Captain Treverton had once made up his mind to sell the place, I have no doubt that, under ordinary circumstances, he would have thought of offering it to his brother, with a view, of course, to keeping the estate in the family. Andrew was rich enough to have bought it; for, though he got nothing at his father’s death but the old gentleman’s rare collection of books, he inherited his mother’s fortune, as the second son. However, as things were at that time (and are still, I am sorry to say), the Captain could make no personal offers of any kind to Andrew; for the two were not then, and are not now, on speaking, or even on writing terms. It is a shocking thing to say, but the worst quarrel of the kind I ever heard of is the quarrel between those two brothers.”

“Pardon me, my dear friend,” said Mr. Phippen, opening his camp-stool, which had hitherto dangled by its silken tassel from the hooked handle of the umbrella. “May I sit down before you go any further? I am getting a little excited about this part of the story, and I dare not fatigue myself. Pray go on. I don’t think the legs of my camp-stool will make holes in the lawn. I am so light — a mere skeleton, in fact. Do go on!”

“You must have heard,” pursued the vicar, “that Captain Treverton, when he was advanced in life, married an actress — rather a violent temper, I believe; but a person of spotless character, and as fond of her husband as a woman could be; therefore, according to my view of it, a very good wife for him to marry. However, the Captain’s friends, of course, made the usual senseless outcry, and the Captain’s brother, as the only near relation, took it on himself to attempt breaking off the marriage in the most offensively indelicate way. Failing in that, and hating the poor woman like poison, he left his brother’s house, saying, among many other savage speeches, one infamous thing about the bride, which — which, upon my honor, Phippen, I am ashamed to repeat. Whatever the words were, they were unluckily carried to Mrs. Treverton’s ears, and they were of the kind that no woman — let alone a quick-tempered woman like the Captain’s wife — ever forgives. An interview followed between the two brothers — and it led, as you may easily imagine, to very unhappy results. They parted in the most deplorable manner. The Captain declared, in the heat of his passion, that Andrew had never had one generous impulse in his heart since he was born, and that he would die without one kind feeling toward any living soul in the world. Andrew replied that, if he had no heart, he had a memory, and that he should remember those farewell words as long as he lived. So they separated. Twice afterward the Captain made overtures of reconciliation. The first time when his daughter Rosamond was born; the second time when Mrs. Treverton died. On each occasion the elder brother wrote to say that, if the younger would retract the atrocious words he had spoken against his sister-in-law, every atonement should be offered to him for the harsh language which the Captain had used, in the hastiness of anger, when they last met. No answer was received from Andrew to either letter; and the estrangement between the two brothers has continued to the present time. You understand now why Captain Treverton could not privately consult Andrew’s inclinations before he publicly announced his intention of parting with Porthgenna Tower.”

Although Mr. Phippen declared, in answer to this appeal, that he understood perfectly, and although he begged with the utmost politeness that the vicar would go on, his attention seemed, for the moment, to be entirely absorbed in inspecting the legs of his camp-stool, and in ascertaining what impression they made on the vicarage lawn. Doctor Chennery’s own interest, however, in the circumstances that he was relating, seemed sufficiently strong to make up for any transient lapse of attention on the part of his guest. After a few vigorous puffs at his cigar (which had been several times in imminent danger of going out while he was speaking), he went on with his narrative in these words:

“Well, the house, the estate, the mine, and the fisheries of Porthgenna were all publicly put up for sale a few months after Mrs. Treverton’s death; but no offers were made for the property which it was possible to accept. The ruinous state of the house, the bad cultivation of the land, legal difficulties in connection with the mine, and quarter-day difficulties in the collection of the rents, all contributed to make Porthgenna what the auctioneers would call a bad lot to dispose of. Failing to sell the place, Captain Treverton could not be prevailed on to change his mind and live there again. The death of his wife almost broke his heart — for he was, by all accounts, just as fond of her as she had been of him — and the very sight of the place that was associated with the greatest affliction of his life became hateful to him. He removed, with his little girl and a relative of Mrs. Treverton, who was her governess, to our neighborhood, and rented a pretty little cottage across the church fields. The house nearest to it was inhabited at that time by Leonard Frankland’s father and mother. The new neighbors soon became intimate; and thus it happened that the couple whom I have been marrying this morning were brought up together as children, and fell in love with each other almost before they were out of their pinafores.”

“Chennery, my dear fellow, I don’t look as if I was sitting all on one side, do I?” cried Mr. Phippen, suddenly breaking into the vicar’s narrative, with a look of alarm. “I am shocked to interrupt you; but surely your grass is amazingly soft in this part of the country. One of my camp-stool legs is getting shorter and shorter every moment. I’m drilling a hole! I’m toppling over! Gracious Heavens! I feel myself going — I shall be down, Chennery; upon my life, I shall be down!”

“Stuff!” cried the vicar, pulling up first Mr. Phippen, and then Mr. Phippen’s camp stool, which had rooted itself in the grass, all on one side. “Here, come on to the gravel walk; you can’t drill holes in that. What’s the matter now?”

“Palpitations,” said Mr. Phippen, dropping his umbrella, and placing his hand over his heart, “and bile. I see those black spots again — those infernal, lively black spots dancing before my eyes. Chennery, suppose you consult some agricultural friend about the quality of your grass. Take my word for it, your lawn is softer than it ought to be. — Lawn!” repeated Mr. Phippen to himself, contemptuously, as he turned round to pick up his umbrella. “It isn’t a lawn — it is a bog!”

“There, sit down,” said the vicar, “and don’t pay the palpitations and the black spots the compliment of bestowing the smallest attention on them. Do you want anything to drink? Shall it be physic, or beer, or what?”

“No, no! I am so unwilling to give trouble,” answered Mr. Phippen. “I would rather suffer — rather, a great deal. I think if you would go on with your story, Chennery, it would compose me. I have not the faintest idea of what led to it, but I think you were saying something interesting on the subject of pinafores!”

“Nonsense!” said Doctor Chennery. “I was only telling you of the fondness between the two children who have now grown up to be man and wife. And I was going on to tell you that Captain Treverton, shortly after he settled in our neighborhood, took to the active practice of his profession again. Nothing else seemed to fill up the gap that the loss of Mrs. Treverton had made in his life. Having good interest with the Admiralty, he can always get a ship when he applies for one; and up to the present time, with intervals on shore, he has resolutely stuck to the sea — though he is getting, as his daughter and his friends think, rather too old for it now. Don’t look puzzled, Phippen; I am not going so wide of the mark as you think. These are some of the necessary particulars that must be stated first. And now they are comfortably disposed of, I can get round at last to the main part of my story — the sale of Porthgenna Tower. — What is it now? Do you want to get up again?”

Yes, Mr. Phippen did want to get up again, for the purpose of composing the palpitations and dispersing the black spots, by trying the experiment of a little gentle exercise. He was most unwilling to occasion any trouble, but would his worthy friend Chennery give him an arm, and carry the camp-stool, and walk slowly in the direction of the school-room window, so as to keep Miss Sturch within easy hailing distance, in case it became necessary to try the last resource of taking a composing draught? The vicar, whose inexhaustible good nature was proof against every trial that Mr. Phippen’s dyspeptic infirmities could inflict on it, complied with all these requests, and went on with his story, unconsciously adopting the tone and manner of a good-humored parent who was doing his best to soothe the temper of a fretful child.

“I told you,” he said, “that the elder Mr. Frankland and Captain Treverton were near neighbors here. They had not been long acquainted before the one found out from the other that Porthgenna Tower was for sale. On first hearing this, old Frankland asked a few questions about the place, but said not a word on the subject of purchasing it. Soon after that the Captain got a ship and went to sea. During his absence old Frankland privately set off for Cornwall to look at the estate, and to find out all he could about its advantages and defects from the persons left in charge of the house and lands. He said nothing when he came back, until Captain Treverton returned from his first cruise; and then the old gentleman spoke out one morning, in his quiet, decided way.

“‘Treverton,’ said he, ‘if you will sell Porthgenna Tower at the price at which you bought it in, when you tried to dispose of it by auction, write to your lawyer, and tell him to take the title-deeds to mine, and ask for the purchase-money.’

“Captain Treverton was naturally a little astonished at the readiness of this offer; but people like myself, who knew old Frankland’s history, were not so surprised. His fortune had been made by trade, and he was foolish enough to be always a little ashamed of acknowledging that one simple and creditable fact. The truth was, that his ancestors had been landed gentry of importance before the time of the Civil War, and the old gentleman’s great ambition was to sink the merchant in the landed grandee, and to leave his son to succeed him in the character of a squire of large estate and great county influence. He was willing to devote half his fortune to accomplish this scheme; but half his fortune would not buy him such an estate as he wanted, in an important agricultural county like ours. Rents are high, and land is made the most of with us. An estate as extensive as the estate at Porthgenna would fetch more than double the money which Captain Treverton could venture to ask for it, if it was situated in these parts. Old Frankland was well aware of that fact, and attached all possible importance to it. Besides, there was something in the feudal look of Porthgenna Tower, and in the right over the mine and fisheries, which the purchase of the estate included, that flattered his notions of restoring the family greatness. Here he and his son after him could lord it, as he thought, on a large scale, and direct at their sovereign will and pleasure the industry of hundreds of poor people, scattered along the coast, or huddled together in the little villages inland. This was a tempting prospect, and it could be secured for forty thousand pounds — which was just ten thousand pounds less than he had made up his mind to give, when he first determined to metamorphose himself from a plain merchant into a magnificent landed gentleman. People who knew these facts were, as I have said, not much surprised at Mr. Frankland’s readiness to purchase Porthgenna Tower; and Captain Treverton, it is hardly necessary to say, was not long in clinching the bargain on his side. The estate changed hands; and away went old Frankland, with a tail of wiseacres from London at his heels, to work the mine and the fisheries on new scientific principles, and to beautify the old house from top to bottom with bran-new mediæval decorations under the direction of a gentleman who was said to be an architect, but who looked, to my mind, the very image of a Popish priest in disguise. Wonderful plans and projects were they not? And how do you think they succeeded?”

“Do tell me, my dear fellow!” was the answer that fell from Mr. Phippen’s lips. — “I wonder whether Miss Sturch keeps a bottle of camphor julep in the family medicine-chest?” was the thought that passed through Mr. Phippen’s mind.

“Tell you!” exclaimed the vicar. “Why, of course, every one of his plans turned out a complete failure. His Cornish tenantry received him as an interloper. The antiquity of his family made no impression upon them. It might be an old family, but it was not a Cornish family, and, therefore, it was of no importance in their eyes. They would have gone to the world’s end for the Trevertons; but not a man would move a step out of his way for the Franklands. As for the mine, it seemed to be inspired with the same mutinous spirit that possessed the tenantry. The wiseacres from London blasted in all directions on the profoundest scientific principles, and brought about sixpennyworth of ore to the surface for every five pounds spent in getting it up. The fisheries turned out little better. A new plan for curing pilchards, which was a marvel of economy in theory, proved to be a perfect phenomenon of extravagance in practice. The only item of luck in old Frankland’s large sum of misfortunes was produced by his quarreling in good time with the mediæval architect, who was like a Popish priest in disguise. This fortunate event saved the new owner of Porthgenna all the money he might otherwise have spent in restoring and redecorating the whole suite of rooms on the north side of the house, which had been left to go to rack and ruin for more than fifty years past, and which remain in their old neglected condition to this day. To make a long story short, after uselessly spending more thousands of pounds at Porthgenna than I should like to reckon up, old Frankland gave in at last, left the place in disgust to the care of his steward, who was charged never to lay out another farthing on it, and returned to this neighborhood. Being in high dudgeon, and happening to catch Captain Treverton on shore when he got back, the first thing he did was to abuse Porthgenna and all the people about it a little too vehemently in the Captain’s presence. This led to a coolness between the two neighbors, which might have ended in the breaking off of all intercourse, but for the children on either side, who would see each other just as often as ever, and who ended, by dint of willful persistency, in putting an end to the estrangement between the fathers by making it look simply ridiculous. Here, in my opinion, lies the most curious part of the story. Important family interests depended on those two young people falling in love with each other; and, wonderful to relate, that (as you know, after my confession at breakfast-time) was exactly what they did. Here is a case of the most romantic love-match, which is also the marriage, of all others, that the parents on both sides had the strongest worldly interest in promoting. Shakespeare may say what he pleases, the course of true love does run smooth sometimes. Never was the marriage service performed to better purpose than when I read it this morning. The estate being entailed on Leonard, Captain Treverton’s daughter now goes back, in the capacity of mistress, to the house and lands which her father sold. Rosamond being an only child, the purchase-money of Porthgenna, which old Frankland once lamented as money thrown away, will now, when the Captain dies, be the marriage-portion of young Frankland’s wife. I don’t know what you think of the beginning and middle of my story, Phippen, but the end ought to satisfy you, at any rate. Did you ever hear of a bride and bridegroom who started with fairer prospects in life than our bride and bridegroom of to-day?”

Before Mr. Phippen could make any reply, Miss Sturch put her head out of the school-room window; and seeing the two gentlemen approaching, beamed on them with her invariable smile. Then addressing the vicar, said in her softest tones:

“I regret extremely to trouble you, Sir, but I find Robert very intractable this morning with his multiplication table.”

“Where does he stick now?” asked Doctor Chennery.

“At seven times eight, Sir,” replied Miss Sturch.

“Bob!” shouted the vicar through the window. “Seven times eight?”

“Forty-three,” answered the whimpering voice of the invisible Bob.

“You shall have one more chance before I get my cane,” said Doctor Chennery. “Now, then, look out! Seven times — ”

“My dear, good friend,” interposed Mr. Phippen, “if you cane that very unhappy boy he will scream. My nerves have been tried once this morning by the camp-stool. I shall be totally shattered if I hear screams. Give me time to get out of the way, and allow me also to spare dear Miss Sturch the sad spectacle of correction (so shocking to sensibilities like hers) by asking her for a little camphor julep, and so giving her an excuse for getting out of the way like me. I think I could have done without the camphor julep under any other circumstances; but I ask for it unhesitatingly now, as much for Miss Sturch’s sake as for the sake of my own poor nerves. — Have you got camphor julep, Miss Sturch? Say yes, I beg and entreat, and give me an opportunity of escorting you out of the way of the screams.”

While Miss Sturch — whose well-trained sensibilities were proof against the longest paternal caning and the loudest filial acknowledgment of it in the way of screams — tripped upstairs to fetch the camphor julep, as smiling and self-possessed as ever, Master Bob, finding himself left alone with his sisters in the school-room, sidled up to the youngest of the two, produced from the pocket of his trowsers three frowsy acidulated drops looking very much the worse for wear, and, attacking Miss Amelia on the weak, or greedy side of her character, artfully offered the drops in exchange for information on the subject of seven times eight. “You like ’em?” whispered Bob. “Oh, don’t I!” answered Amelia. “Seven times eight?” asked Bob. “Fifty-six,” answered Amelia. “Sure?” said Bob. “Certain,” said Amelia. The drops changed hands, and the catastrophe of the domestic drama changed with them. Just as Miss Sturch appeared with the camphor julep at the garden doom, in the character of medical Hebe to Mr. Phippen, her intractable pupil showed himself to his father at the school-room window, in the character, arithmetically speaking, of a reformed son. The cane reposed for the day; and Mr. Phippen drank his glass of camphor julep with a mind at ease on the twin subjects of Miss Sturch’s sensibilities and Master Bob’s screams.

“Most gratifying in every way,” said the Martyr to Dyspepsia, smacking his lips with great relish, as he drained the last drops out of the glass. “My nerves are spared, Miss Sturch’s feelings are spared, and the dear boy’s back is spared. You have no idea how relieved I feel, Chennery. Whereabouts were we in that delightful story of yours when this little domestic interruption occurred?”

“At the end of it, to be sure,” said the vicar. “The bride and bridegroom are some miles on their way by this time to spend the honeymoon at St. Swithin’s -on-Sea. Captain Treverton is only left behind for a day. He received his sailing orders on Monday, and he will be off to Portsmouth to-morrow morning to take command of his ship. Though he won’t admit it in plain words, I happen to know that Rosamond has persuaded him to make this his last cruise. She has a plan for getting him back to Porthgenna, to live there with her husband, which I hope and believe will succeed. The west rooms at the old house, in one of which Mrs. Treverton died, are not to be used at all by the young married couple. They have engaged a builder — a sensible, practical man, this time — to survey the neglected north rooms, with a view to their redecoration and thorough repair in every way. This part of the house cannot possibly be associated with any melancholy recollections in Captain Treverton’s mind, for neither he nor anyone else ever entered it during the period of his residence at Porthgenna. Considering the change in the look of the place which this project of repairing the north rooms is sure to produce, and taking into account also the softening effect of time on all painful recollections, I should say there was a fair prospect of Captain Treverton’s returning to pass the end of his days among his old tenantry. It will be a great chance for Leonard Frankland if he does, for he would be sure to dispose the people at Porthgenna kindly toward their new master. Introduced among his Cornish tenants under Captain Treverton’s wing, Leonard is sure to get on well with them, provided he abstains from showing too much of the family pride which he has inherited from his father. He is a little given to overrate the advantages of birth and the importance of rank — but that is really the only noticeable defect in his character. In all other respects I can honestly say of him that he deserves what he has got — the best wife in the world. What a life of happiness, Phippen, seems to be awaiting these lucky young people! It is a bold thing to say of any mortal creatures, but, look as far as I may, not a cloud can I see anywhere on their future prospects.”

“You excellent creature!” exclaimed Mr. Phippen, affectionately squeezing the vicar’s hand. “How I enjoy hearing you! how I luxuriate in your bright view of life!”

“And is it not the true view — especially in the ease of young Frankland and his wife?” inquired the vicar.

“If you ask me,” said Mr. Phippen, with a mournful smile, and a philosophic calmness of manner, “I can only answer that the direction of a man’s speculative views depends — not to mince the matter — on the state of his secretions. Your biliary secretions, dear friend, are all right, and you take bright views. My biliary secretions are all wrong, and I take dark views. You look at the future prospects of this young married couple, and say there is no cloud over them. I don’t dispute the assertion, not having the pleasure of knowing either bride or bridegroom. But I look up at the sky over our heads — I remember that there was not a cloud on it when we first entered the garden — I now see, just over those two trees growing so close together, a cloud that has appeared unexpectedly from nobody knows where — and I draw my own conclusions. Such,” said Mr. Phippen, ascending the garden steps on his way into the house, “is my philosophy. It may be tinged with bile, but it is philosophy for all that.”

“All the philosophy in the world,” said the vicar, following his guest up the steps, “will not shake my conviction that Leonard Frankland and his wife have a happy future before them.”

Mr. Phippen laughed, and, waiting on the steps till his host joined him, took Doctor Chennery’s arm in the friendliest manner.

“You have told a charming story, Chennery,” he said, “and you have ended it with a charming sentiment. But, my dear friend, though your healthy mind (influenced by an enviably easy digestion) despises my bilious philosophy, don’t quite forget the cloud over the two trees. Look up at it now — it is getting darker and bigger already.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29