MoboReader> Literature > A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3)

   Chapter 2 THE HARMERS OF HARMER PLACE.

A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 21922

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The Harmers of Harmer Place, although of ancient descent, could yet hardly be ranked among the very old Kentish families, for they could trace back their history very little beyond the commencement of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, of pious and Protestant memory. About that period it is ascertained that they were small landed proprietors, probably half gentry, half farmers. All documentary and traditional history goes to prove that the Harmers of those days were a stiff-necked race, and that their consciences were by no means of the same plastic nature as those of the great majority of their neighbours. They could not, for the life of them, see why-because the Royal family had all of a sudden come to the conclusion that the old Roman religion, in which their fore-fathers had for so many centuries worshipped, was after all wrong, that therefore the whole nation was bound to make the same discovery at the same moment.

So the Harmers clung to the old faith, and were looked upon with grievous disfavour in consequence by the authorities for the time being. Many were the domiciliary visits paid them, and grievous were the fines inflicted upon them for nonconformity. Still, whether from information privately sent to them previous to these researches, or whether from the superior secrecy and snugness of their "Priest's chamber," certain it is, that although frequently denounced and searched, no priest or emissary of papacy was ever found concealed there; and so, although constantly harassed and vexed, they were suffered to remain in possession of their estate.

As generation of Harmers succeeded generation, they continued the same stiff-necked race, clinging to their old tenets, and hardening their hearts to all inducements to desert them. Over and over again they went through "troublous times," especially when those God-fearing and enlightened Puritans domineered it over England. In after reigns difficulties arose, but the days of persecution were over then, and they had nothing to undergo comparable to their former trials.

It would have been naturally supposed that as at the commencement of the reign of Elizabeth the Harmers were by no means a wealthy race, they would speedily have been shorn of all the little property they then possessed. But it was not so. The more they were persecuted so much the more they flourished, and from mere farmers they speedily rose to the rank of county families.

One reason, doubtless, for their immunity from more than comparatively petty persecutions, such as fines and imprisonments, was, that the Harmers never took any part in political affairs; neither in plots, nor risings, nor civil wars, were they ever known actively to interfere.

As the Harmers were in other respects an obstinate, quarrelsome race, stubborn in will, strong in their likes and dislikes, it was singular that they should never have actively bestirred themselves in favour of the cause which they all had so strongly at heart. The popular belief on the matter was, that a settled and traditional line of policy had been recommended, and enforced upon the family, by their priests; namely, to keep quite neutral in politics, in order that there might be at least one house in the country-and that, from its proximity to the sea-coast, peculiarly suitable to the purpose,-where, in cases of necessity, a secure hiding-place could be relied on. Mother Church is very good to her obedient children; and if the Harmers gave up their personal feelings for her benefit, and sheltered her ministers in time of peril, she no doubt took care that in the long run they should not be losers. And so, while their Roman Catholic neighbours threw themselves into plots and parties, and lost house and land, and not uncommonly life, the Harmers rode quietly through the gale, thriving more and more under the small persecutions they suffered for the faith's sake. And thus it happened that going into troubles as small proprietors in the reign of Elizabeth, they came out of them in that of George, owners of a large estate and a rambling old mansion in every style of architecture.

After that date, persecution having ceased, and "Priests' chambers" being no longer useful, the Harmers ceased to enlarge their boundaries, and lived retired lives on their property, passing a considerable portion of their time on the Continent.

Robert Harmer had, contrary to the usual custom of his ancestors, six children-four sons and two daughters. Edward was, of course, intended to inherit the family property, and was brought up in accordance with the strictest traditions of his race; Robert was also similarly educated, in order to be fitted to take his brother's place should Edward not survive his father, or die leaving no heirs; Gregory was intended for the priesthood; and Herbert, the youngest of all, was left to take his chance in any position which the influence of his family or Church might obtain for him.

Herbert Harmer, however, was not so ready as the rest of his family to submit his judgment without question to that of others; and having, when about sixteen, had what he conceived an extremely heavy and unfair penance imposed upon him for some trifling offence, he quitted his home, leaving a letter behind him stating his intention of never returning to it. Herbert Harmer was not of the stuff of which a docile son of Holy Church is made; of a warm and affectionate disposition, and a naturally buoyant, joyous frame of mind, the stern and repressive discipline to which he was subjected, and the monotonous existence he led in his father's house, seemed to him the height of misery.

The lad, when he turned his back on home, knew little of the world. He had lived the life almost of a recluse, never stirring beyond the grounds of the mansion except to attend mass at the Roman Catholic chapel at Canterbury, and this only upon grand occasions, as the family confessor, who acted also as his tutor, resided in the village, and ordinarily performed the service at the chapel attached to the place.

Companions he had none. Gregory, the brother next to him in age, was away in Italy studying for the priesthood; Cecilia and Angela he had seen but seldom, as they also were abroad, being educated in a convent; Edward and Robert were young men nearly ten years older than himself, and were when at home his father's companions rather than his, and both were of grave taciturn disposition, ascetic and bigoted even beyond the usual Harmer type.

Thrown therefore almost entirely upon his own resources, Herbert had sought what companionship he best could. Books, first and best; but of these his stock was limited. Religious and controversial treatises, church histories, and polemical writings formed the principal part of the library, together with a few volumes of travel and biography which had somehow found their way there. On a library so limited as this the boy could not employ his whole time, but had to seek amusement and exercise out of doors, and the only companion he had there, was perhaps of all others the very one with whom he would have been most strictly forbidden to associate, had their intimacy been guessed at.

Robert Althorpe was the son of a tenant on the estate, and was a man of thirty or thereabouts. Originally a wild, reckless lad, he had, as many an English boy has done before and since, ran away to sea, and, after nearly fifteen years absence, had lately returned with only one arm, having lost the other in a naval engagement. On his return he had been received with open arms by his father, as at that time (that is, in the year 1795) all England was wild with our naval glory. And now Robert Althorpe passed his time, sitting by the fire smoking, or wandering about to relate his tales of adventure among the farmhouses of the country, at each of which he was received as a welcome guest.

The sailor took a particular fancy to young Herbert Harmer, whose ignorance of the world and eager desire to hear something of it, and whose breathless attention to his yarns, amused and gratified him. On many a summer afternoon, then, when Herbert had finished his prescribed course of study, he would slip quietly away to meet Robert Althorpe, and would sit for hours under the trees listening to tales of the world and life of which he knew so little. Robert had in his period of service seen much; for those were stirring times. He had taken part in the victories of Howe and Jervis, and in the capture of the numerous West Indian isles. He had fought, too, under the invincible Nelson at the Nile, in which battle he had lost his arm. He had been stationed for two years out on the Indian coast, and Herbert above all loved to hear of that wonderful country, then the recent scene of the victories of Clive and Hastings.

When therefore he left his home, the one fixed idea in Herbert Harmer's mind was, that first of all he would go to sea, and that then he would some day visit India; both which resolutions he carried into effect.

It was some ten years after, when the memory of the young brother of whom they had seen so little had nearly faded from the minds of his family, that a letter arrived from him, addressed to his father, but which was opened by his brother Edward as the head of the house, the old man having been three years before laid in the family vault. Gregory too was dead, having died years previously of a fever contracted among the marshes near Rome. The contents of the letter, instead of being hailed with the delight with which news from a long lost prodigal is usually greeted, were received with unmingled indignation and horror.

A solemn family conclave was held in the old library, Edward Harmer at the head of the table, Father Paul at the foot, and the contents of the letter were taken into formal consideration. A joint answer was then drawn up, stating the horror and indignation with which his communication had been received-that the anathema had been passed against him, that to them he was dead for ever, and that they regretted that he had ever been born at all.

All this was expressed at great length, and with that exceedingly complicated bitterness of cursing, which is a characteristic of the Roman Church when roused. At the end, each of the family signed his or her name, and the priest added his, with a cross affixed there to, as a token for ever against him.

The contents of the letter which had caused all this commotion of spirit, were briefly as follows.

Herbert had gone to sea, and had for two years voyaged to different parts of the world. At the end of that time he had arrived in India, and there leaving his ship, had determined to cast his lot. After various employments, he had finally obtained a situation as a clerk to a planter up the country, whose daughter he had three years afterwards married; he was now doing well, and hoped that his father would forgive his having r

an away from home.

So far the letter was satisfactory enough, it was the final paragraph which had caused the explosion of family wrath against him-namely, that his wife was a Protestant, and that having carefully examined the Bible with her, he had come to the conclusion that the Reformed Church more closely carried out the precepts and teachings of that book than his own. That he was afraid this would prove a serious annoyance to his father; but that, as he was so far away, and should never be likely to return to obtrude the new religion he had adopted upon them, he hoped that it would be no bar to his continuing an amicable correspondence with them.

This hope was, as has been seen, not destined to be realized. The answer was sealed and duly sent off, and henceforth Herbert Harmer, as far as his family was concerned, ceased to have any existence. It was nearly twenty years before they again heard of him, and then the news came that he had returned to England, a widower, bringing his only son, a young man of about twenty-one years old, with him; that he had purchased a house in the neighbourhood of London, and that he did not intend to return to India.

Very shortly after his return, a letter from him was received by his elder brother, but immediately it was opened, and the first line showed from whom it came, it was closed unread, resealed, and returned to the writer.

During the thirty years which Herbert Harmer had been absent, the old place had certainly not improved. Edward and Robert had both been married, but were, like their brother, widowers. Edward never had children. Robert had several born to him, but all had died quite young. The sisters had remained single.

It was a gloomy house in those days. They all lived together there. Father Paul was long since dead, and Father Gabriel literally reigned in his stead-a man even more gloomy and bigoted than his predecessors-chosen probably on that account, as being in keeping with the character of the people to whom he ministered. An unhappy family; unhappy in their lives and dispositions, unhappy in the view they had taken of religion and its duties, very unhappy-and this was the only count to which they themselves would have pleaded guilty-very unhappy because the old line of Harmer would die with them, and that there was none of the name to inherit after them; for that Herbert the apostate should succeed them, that a Protestant Harmer should dwell where his Catholic ancestors had so long lived, was never even for a moment discussed as a possibility: the very idea would have been a desecration, at which their dead fathers would have moved in their graves. Better, a thousand times better, that the old place should go to strangers. And so Edward's will was made; everything was done that could be done, and they dwelt in gloomy resignation, waiting for the end.

That end was to come to some of them sooner than they expected.

Edward and Robert Harmer had one interest, one worldly amusement, in which they indulged. As young men they had been for some time together at Genoa, and in that town of mariners they had become passionately attached to the sea. This taste they had never lost, and they still delighted occasionally to go out for a day's sailing, in a small pleasure yacht, which they kept at the little fishing-village of Herne Bay. She was an open boat, of about eight tons, and was considered a good sea-boat for her size. In this, with two men to sail her, under the command of an old one-armed sailor, whom they employed because he had once lived on the estate, they would go out for hours, once a week or so; not on fine sunny days-in them they had no pleasure-but when the wind blew fresh, and the waves broke a tawny yellow on the sand, and the long banks off the coast were white with foaming breakers. It was a strange sight in such weather, to see the two men, now from fifty to sixty years old, and very similar in face and figure, taking their places in the stern of their little craft, while the boatmen, in their rough-weather coats and fearnought hats, hoisted the sails and prepared for sea.

Very quiet they would sit, while the spray dashed over them, and the boat tore across the surface of the water, with a smile half glad, half defiant, on their dark features, till the one-armed captain would say, touching his hat, "It is getting wilder, your honours; I think we had better put about." Then they would give an assenting gesture, and the boat's head would be turned to shore, where they would arrive, wet through and storm-beaten, but with a deep joy in their hearts, such as they experienced at no other time.

But once they went out, and came back alive no more. It happened thus. It was the 3rd of March, and the morning was overcast and dull; there was wind, though not strong, coming in short sudden puffs, and then dying away again. The brothers started early, and drove over, through the village of Herne, to the little fishing-hamlet in the bay, and stopped at the cottage of the captain, as he termed himself, of their little yacht. The old sailor came out to the door.

"You are not thinking of going out to-day, your honours, are you?"

"Why not?" Edward Harmer asked; "don't you think there will be wind enough?"

"Aye, aye, your honour, wind enough, and more than enough before long; there is a gale brewing up there;" and the old man shaded his eyes with his remaining hand, and looked earnestly at the clouds.

"Pooh, pooh, man!" Robert Harmer said; "there is no wind to speak of yet, although I think with you that it may come on to blow as the sun goes down. What then? It is nearly easterly, so if we sail straight out we can always turn and run back again before the sea gets up high enough to prevent us. You know we are always ready to return when you give the word."

The old sailor made no further remonstrance, but summoning the two young men who generally accompanied them, he busied himself in carrying down the oars, and making preparations to launch the little boat which was to carry them to where the yacht was moored about a hundred yards out, with many quiet disapproving shakes of his head as he did so. They were soon in, and launched through the waves, which were breaking with a long, heavy, menacing roar. It was not rough yet, but even in the quarter of an hour which had elapsed between their arrival at the village, and reaching the side of the yacht, the aspect of the weather had changed much; the gusts of wind came more frequently, and with far greater force, whitening the surface of the water, and tearing off the tops of the waves in sheets of spray. The dull heavy clouds overhead were beginning to break up suddenly, as if stirred by some mighty force within themselves, great openings and rents seemed torn asunder in the dark curtain, and then as suddenly closed up again; but through these momentary openings, the scud could be seen flying rapidly past in the higher regions of the air.

On reaching the side of the yacht, which was rolling heavily on the rising waves, the one-armed sailor again glanced at the brothers to see if they noticed these ominous signs, and if they made any change in their determination; but they gave no signs of doing so. Their faces were both set in that expression of stern pleasure which they always wore on occasions like this, and with another disapproving shake of his head, even more decided than those in which he had before indulged, he turned to assist the men in fastening the boat they had come in to the moorings to await their return, in loosing the sails, and taking a couple of reefs in them, and preparing for a start.

In another five minutes the little craft was far out at sea, ploughing her way through the ever increasing waves, dashing them aside from her bows in sheets of spray, and leaving a broad white track behind her.

The wind was getting up every minute, and blew with a hoarse roar across the water.

Before they had been gone fifteen minutes, the old sailor felt that it was indeed madness to go farther. He saw that the force of the wind was already more than the boat could bear, and was momentarily increasing, and that the sea was fast getting up under its power.

But as his counsel had been already once disregarded, he determined to let the first order for return come from the brothers, and he glanced for a moment from the sails and the sea to the two men sitting beside him. There was no thought of turning back there. Their lips were hard set, yet half smiling; their eyes wide open, as if to take in the tumultuous joy of the scene; their hands lay clenched on their knees. They had evidently no thought of danger, no thought of anything but deep, wild pleasure.

The old sailor bit his lips. He looked again over the sea, he looked at the sails, and at the lads crouched down in the bow with consternation strongly expressed on their faces; he glanced at the dark green water, rushing past the side, and sometimes as she lay over combing in over the gunwale; he felt the boat quiver under the shock as each succeeding wave struck her, and he knew she could bear no more. He therefore again turned round to the impassive figures beside him, and made his usual speech.

"Your honours, it is time to go about."

But this time so absorbed were they in their sensations, that they did not hear him, and he had to touch them to attract their notice, and to shout in their ears, "Your honours, we must go about."

They started at the touch, and rose like men waked suddenly from a dream. They cast a glance round, and seemed to take in for the first time the real state of things, the raging wind, the flying scud, the waves which rose round the boat, and struck her with a force that threatened to break her into fragments. And then Edward said, "Yes! by all means, if indeed it is not already too late. God forgive us for bringing you out into it; peccavi, culpa mea." And then the brothers, influenced not by fear for themselves, but for the lives of those whom they had brought into danger, commenced rapidly uttering, in a low voice, the prayers of their Church for those in peril.

The prayer was never to be finished. The men sprang with alacrity to the ropes when the order was given, "Prepare to go about;" but whether their fingers were numb, or what it was which went wrong, no one will ever know. The boat obeyed her rudder, and came up into the wind. There was a momentary lull, and then as her head payed round towards the shore, a fresh gust struck her with even greater force than ever. Some rope refused to run, it was but for an instant, but that instant sealed the fate of the boat; over she lay till her sail all but touched the water, and the sea poured in over her side. For a moment she seemed to try to recover herself, and then a wild cry went up to heaven, and the boat lay bottom upwards in the trough of the waves.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares