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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 26977

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Mr. Herbert Harmer was sitting at breakfast reading the Times,-a tall, slight man, of from forty-five to fifty, with a benevolent expressive face, very sunburnt; a broad forehead, a well-defined mouth, and a soft, thoughtful eye-careless as to attire, as most Anglo-Indians are, and yet, in appearance as in manner, an unmistakable gentleman.

Opposite to him sat his son, good-looking, but not so prepossessing a man as his father. He was about twenty-two, and looked, contrary to what might have been expected from his birth and bringing up in a hot climate, younger than he really was. His complexion was very fair, an inheritance probably from his mother, as all the Harmers were dark: his face, too, was much less bronzed than his father's, the year he had spent in England having nearly effaced the effects of the Indian sun. He was of about middle height, and well formed; but he had a languid, listless air, which detracted much from the manliness of his appearance. His face was a good-looking, almost a handsome one, and yet it gave the impression of there being something wanting. That something was character. The mouth and chin were weak and indecisive-not absolutely bad, only weak,-but it was sufficient to mar the general effect of his face.

He was toying with a spoon, balancing it on the edge of an empty coffee cup, when a sudden exclamation from his father startled him, and the spoon fell with a crash.

"What is the matter?"

Mr. Harmer gave no answer for some time, but continued to read in silence the paragraph which had so strangely excited him. He presently laid the paper down on his knees, seemed lost for some time in deep thought, and then took out his handkerchief and blew his nose violently.

"My dear father," the young man said, for once fairly roused by all this emotion and mystery, "what in the name of goodness is the matter? You quite alarm me. The bank has not broken, has it? or anything terrible happened?"

"A very sad affair, Gerald; a very sad affair. Your uncles are both drowned."

"By Jove!"

This being the only appropriate remark that occurred to Gerald Harmer, there was silence again; and then, seeing that his father was not disposed to say more, the young man stretched out his hand for the paper, and read the paragraph which contained the intelligence.

"Appalling Accident On The Kentish Coast.-The neighbourhood of Canterbury has been thrown into a state of consternation by an accident which has deprived one of the oldest and most highly-respected families in the county of its heads. The two Messrs. Harmer, of Harmer Place, near Canterbury, had rashly ventured out from Herne Bay, with three boatmen, in a small yacht belonging to them, just before the awful tempest, which while we write is still raging, broke upon the coast. The storm came on so rapidly that it is supposed that they were unable to return. At present nothing certain is known concerning the catastrophe; but late in the afternoon, a small black object was observed by one of the Whitstable coast-guard men, drifting past at a considerable distance from shore. A telescope being brought to bear upon it, it was at once seen to be either a large spar or a boat bottom upwards, with a human figure still clinging to it. In spite of the fury of the gale, a band of noble fellows put off in one of the large fishing-boats, and succeeded in bringing off the only survivor of the five men who had embarked in the ill-fated craft. He proved to be the sailor who generally managed Mr. Harmer's little yacht. He is a one-armed man, and this fact, singularly enough, was the means of his life being saved; for he had succeeded in fastening the hook at the end of his wooden arm so firmly in the keel of the yacht, that, even after his strength had failed, and he could no longer have clung on, this singular contrivance remained secure, and kept him in his place, in spite of all the violence of the waves. He was nearly insensible when first rescued, and still lies in a precarious state, and has not yet been able to give any details of the mournful catastrophe. The bodies of the elder Mr. Harmer, and of one of the boatmen, were washed ashore this morning, and experienced sailors anticipate that the remaining bodies will come ashore with this evening's tide. Several men are on the look-out for them. The Harmers of Harmer Place are one of the oldest of the Kentish families, and were strict adherents to the Romish persuasion. It is believed that no male heir remains, and it is confidently stated that the large property will go eventually towards the aggrandisement of the Church to which they belonged."

"Is that last part true?" Gerald asked. "Do we get the property, or does it go to the priests?"

"We shall have none of it, Gerald: of that you may be quite sure. The priests have taken good care of that point. They would never allow the property to fall into Protestant hands if they could help it; and my poor brothers were, as far as I can hear, mere puppets in their hands. No, there is not the least chance of that. I do not say that it would not have been useful had it been otherwise; for, as you know, owing to the troubles and riots I lost a good deal of money the last three years we were in India; and although I have enough left for us to live upon comfortably, Harmer Place would have been no bad addition. However, that was not to be. I have always known that there was not be the slightest probability of such a thing, so I shall feel no disappointment about the matter."

"Do you mean to go down to the funeral?" Gerald asked.

"Yes. Yes, I shall go, certainly. My poor brothers and I have never been friends; have not seen each other for thirty years; indeed, even as a boy I saw next to nothing of them; however, the least I can do is to follow them to the grave. I shall go down to-morrow." After a pause, Mr. Harmer added, "I shall get Ransome to go down with me to be present at the reading of the will. I know it is of no use, as everything is sure to be done in legal form; still, as I have no desire to lose even the remotest chance of saving from the priests a property that has been in the hands of the family for centuries, I will take every possible precaution. I shall therefore take Ransome down with me. I think you may as well stay here until I return: it will be a painful and unpleasant business."

Gerald had not the least wish to go. "He saw no advantage in putting himself in the way of being snubbed, perhaps insulted, and only to see a fine property that ought to come to them handed over to found monasteries and convents."

So on the next morning Herbert Harmer, or Mr. Harmer, as he should now be called, took his seat on the top of the Canterbury coach, with Mr. Ransome, his solicitor, a shrewd man of business, beside him.

It was late in the evening when the coach drew up at the "Fountain," at that time one of the most famous posting-inns in England.

"You stop here to-night, gentlemen?" the landlord asked.

"This gentleman will stop here," Mr. Harmer answered. "I want a conveyance in half an hour's time to take me on to Harmer Place."

The two gentlemen entered the hotel, and had some dinner, and then when the vehicle which was to convey him was announced to be in readiness, Mr. Harmer prepared to start, saying, "I am afraid I shall meet no warm welcome, Ransome. I think you may as well order a bed-room for me; very likely I shall return here to-night. If I do not, come over early to-morrow morning."

Mr. Harmer leaned gloomily back in the carriage as it passed out through the town on to the road to Sturry, and mused sadly about old times. How different, and yet in some respects how similar, was his position now to what it was when he last trod that road thirty years back. Then, no one had loved him; his absence would be little missed, and even less regretted. And now, when he returned to his old home after so long an absence, he could assuredly expect to be received with no pleasure, with no warm welcome. His sisters he remembered but faintly; he had not seen them more than three or four times, and they were then slim, pale girls, unnaturally constrained in manner, with thin pinched lips and downcast eyes. It was a short drive: in a quarter of an hour or so they passed through the lodge-gates, the gravel crunched under the wheels for another minute or two, and then there was a stop. Mr. Harmer alighted. The front of the house was dark, not a single light gleamed in any of the windows, all was hushed and quiet. He pulled at the great bell; it sounded with a loud empty clang, which seemed to grate unnaturally in the still night air.

"Stop here," he said to the driver. "I may return in a quarter of an hour."

The door was opened and a faint light streamed out. "Who is it?" a voice asked.

"Mr. Herbert Harmer," he said, entering. There was a slight exclamation of astonishment, and then the door closed behind him. Mr. Harmer looked round; the old hall, seen by the faint light which the servant carried in his hand, was even blacker and more gloomy than he remembered it as a boy. He followed the man, who in silence led the way across it to a small sitting-room, and who, lighting some candles standing on the mantlepiece, then withdrew, saying he would inform his mistresses that Mr. Harmer was here.

It was some minutes before Herbert Harmer heard any other sound than the ticking of a clock against the wall, then the door opened and his two sisters entered, not quite so tall as he had expected to see them, not perhaps so old, and yet with faces which disappointed him, faces which no human love had ever brightened, no loving fingers caressingly stroked, no lover's lips ever kissed. Faces expressing an abnegation of self, indeed, but without that love and charity for others which should have taken the place of self. Faces thin and pale, as by long vigil and fasting; and eyes which seemed at times to reach your very thoughts, and then to droop to avoid the answering glance which might seek to fathom theirs. Habitually, perhaps from a long residence in convents abroad, their heads were slightly bent, and their eyes fixed on the ground, while their arms lay usually folded one on the other. Both were singular instances of the manner in which natures, naturally fiery and wilful, can be completely subdued and kept down by severe discipline and long training, and of how a warm and perhaps affectionate disposition can be warped and constrained by the iron trammels of an ascetic and joyless life.

When they had entered and the door was closed, they stood side by side in exactly the same attitude, apparently not looking at their brother, but waiting for him to speak. As he did not, Cecilia the eldest broke the silence in a harsh, monotonous voice, speaking like one who has learnt a lesson, and who only delivers what she has got by rote.

"So you have come back at last, Herbert Harmer, to the house you have disgraced, to the home you have forfeited. We expected you; what would you have?"

"Nothing," Mr. Harmer answered. "I want nothing; I am come only to attend the funeral of my dead brothers."

"And would you, Herbert Harmer-apostate to the faith of your ancestors-would you dare to follow those who died faithful to their God? They cast you off in their life, and their dead bodies would bleed if you approached them."

"Cecilia," Mr. Harmer said, much shocked, "to what end these useless recriminations? I have trodden my path; those who are gone have followed theirs. We shall each answer before our Maker. Why should we make earthly quarrels about heavenly matters? Rather let us be friends, let us forget the long unfortunate past, let us be as brother and sisters to each other, and let me try to fill to you the place of those who are gone."

For the space of a minute there was no answer, and then the elder sister again spoke, but in a changed tone, and a voice in which some natural feeling struggled.

"It cannot be, Herbert. We have chosen, as you say, opposite paths, and we must keep them to the end. I do not-we do not-wish to think unkindly of you; we will try and forget what cause we have for doing so. Even you must feel sorrow to know that the old walls which have held the Harmers so long, will, at our death, hold them no longer. For I tell you, brother, that it will be so. He who has gone has left us a life interest in part of the property, as trustees only for the good cause, and at our death it all goes to support the glory and power of the true Church. I tell you this that you may cherish no false hopes of what is not to be."

"I did not, sister. Knowing the Harmers as I know them, I was sure that neither I nor mine would ever dwell here. Still, I owe it to myself and my son to be present when that will is read. It is better to know for certain that the matter is final and irrevocable."

"The will will be opened and read after the funeral, which will take place at half-past eleven to-morrow. You are perfectly welcome to be present: indeed, it is better so."

"I have my legal adviser with me; I should wish him to accompany me."

"Certainly; he will see that everything has been done in perfectly legal form. Is there anything else you would say?"

"Nothing," Mr. Harmer said; and preparing to take leave, he approached the door, near which they were standing. He stopped before them, and then, with a sudden impulse, held

out a hand to each.

"Oh, sisters, why should this be? Why, after so many years, should we meet and part thus? Can we not be friends? Can we not yet love each other? Can we not be happy together, and worship God in our own ways?"

Touched by the voice and manner, and by the warm, loving tone-such as for years had not fallen upon their ears-perhaps at that moment, for nearly the first time in their lives, they obtained a glimpse of what life might have been to them, but was not and now never could be; the floodgates of the hearts of those two cold, self-restrained women were all at once broken down, as never before they had been, and, with a passion of tears, they threw themselves simultaneously on their brother's neck.

It was not for long. Training and habit soon reasserted their power, and they stood before him again, calm, but still tearful and shaken.

"We have been wrong, brother; but no, not so. It has been good for us to have met you. I believe you to be a good man. I believe now that you are sincere, although grievously mistaken. If, as will probably be the case, after to-morrow we should not see you again-for our present intention is at once to retire from the world-we shall always think of you with kindness, as of the only being in it in whom we have an interest; we shall remember you with prayers to God, that you may yet see your errors and be saved; and now, good-bye."

"I shall see you to-morrow?" Mr. Harmer asked.

"Yes, after the funeral." And they were gone.

Mr. Harmer again took his place in the carriage, and returned sad and thoughtful to Canterbury.

At a quarter after eleven the next day, Mr. Harmer and his solicitor alighted from a carriage at the lodge gates, and, sending the vehicle back to the town, entered the grounds.

"I think you were wrong to come so early, Ransome. The service will last at least two hours. You had much better have taken my advice, and come on by yourself later."

"I shall do very well, Mr. Harmer. I can walk about the grounds. I see there are a good many people about, and I am sure to find some one to talk to till it is time for me to come in."

There were several other persons walking the same way as themselves towards the house; but they presently met a man coming in the opposite direction,-an old man, in a rough sailor's suit, with only one arm. When he came up to them he stopped, looked Mr. Harmer full in the face, and then took off his hat, saying, "God bless your honour! it's many a long year since I saw you. Do you not remember Robert Althorpe?"

"Bless me!" Mr. Harmer exclaimed, shaking the old sailor warmly by the hand. "I am indeed glad to see you, old friend. This, Mr. Ransome, is a very old friend of mine; I may say the first I ever had. So you are still here?"

"Aye, aye, your honour; but I live at Herne now. I came over here late last night, and heard you had been up at the house in the evening; so I thought you would be coming to the funeral this morning, and made bold to wait here in hopes of seeing you."

"You did quite right, and I am very glad that I met you. But there, the time is getting on, and I must not wait. Come down to the 'Fountain' this afternoon, and ask for me; we must have a long talk over old times, and I will see what can be done to make you comfortable for the future. This is a dreadful business," he added, as he turned to go up to the house.

"Aye, your honour, it is. God knows, I would have saved them if I could."

"You!" Mr. Harmer said, stopping suddenly. "What, were you with them? I remember now that the account said it was a one-armed sailor, but of course I never thought for a moment of its being you."

"Aye, your honour, it were me sure enough; but don't let me keep you now. I will tell you the whole yarn this afternoon."

Mr. Harmer walked away leaving the old sailor with the solicitor, who had, from the instant when the man said he had been present at the accident, regarded him with the most lively interest.

"So you were there, my man," he said. "Well, the day is very cold, I have some time to wait, and I daresay you have nothing particular to do, so walk down with me to the village; we shall be able, I have no doubt, to get a snug room with a good fire, and you shall tell me the whole story over a glass of grog."

When Mr. Harmer entered the house, he found the hall, and indeed the whole dwelling, thronged with the priests and assistants of the Romish Church, in the full robes of their office. All seemed engaged, and no one paid much attention to him. In a few minutes a procession was formed; in the rear of this he took his place, and it then moved with low chanting through the long passages of the house to the chapel which adjoined, and indeed formed part of it. Herbert Harmer followed mechanically, mechanically he took the place assigned to him there, and listened to the solemn service. As in a dream he saw the chapel hung with black, and the catafalque containing the coffins of his dead brothers, and the two black figures kneeling beside them; as if it were some strange thing in which he had no part or share. His thoughts went far back, through long years, to the time when he had last heard those solemn chants and smelt the faint odour of the incense, the tears welled up in his eyes, and his thoughts were still of the days of his childhood, when a stir around him roused him, and he saw that the service was over. In a few minutes the chapel was emptied, and all returned into the dwelling. Here a servant informed him that a gentleman was awaiting him in the library. Opening the door, he beckoned to Mr. Ransome to follow him, and together they went into the drawing-room. Here he found his sisters, and several of the higher clergy who had assisted at the ceremonial, assembled.

On his entrance his sisters rose to meet him, and greeted him with formal ceremony; but Mr. Harmer thought that, under their impassive exterior, he could perceive that they were much moved; and that, although thoroughly agreeing as they did in the propriety and justice of the deed, they were yet sorry at heart for the coming sentence which was to cut off their only surviving brother from all share in the old family property. Miss Harmer then shortly introduced her brother to those present, who received him courteously, being far too well bred men of the world to betray the least exultation over a conquered enemy who could no longer be dangerous, and towards whom, therefore, a generous magnanimity might be safely displayed.

A few general remarks suitable to the occasion were exchanged, and then at a sign from Miss Harmer, all took seats round the room, and a quiet business-looking man, evidently a solicitor, approached the table with a legal document in his hand. It was the will of the late Edward Harmer, which he opened and proceeded to read. Divested of all legal technicalities, the contents were briefly as follows:-

After leaving his sisters a life interest in a considerable sum, he bequeathed the whole remainder to his brother Robert. In the event, however, of Robert not surviving him, he ordered that the estate should be sold, and that the proceeds, together with all other property whatsoever of which he should be possessed-and the amount was large, as the Harmers had not for years lived up to their income-should be paid into the hands of two well-known dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church, to be expended by them in accordance with an enclosed document.

When the lawyer had finished, he folded up the will, and, addressing Mr. Harman, said,-

"Have you any question you would like to ask? If so I shall be happy to answer you. This will was drawn up by me some years since at the request of the testator, who was in good health, mentally and bodily. I was myself one of the witnesses of his signature; the other witness can be produced."

"I have no question to ask," Mr. Harmer said, gravely; "the contents of the will are precisely such as I had anticipated they would be."

There was a pause, and the lawyer remarked,-

"In that case I do not know that there is anything further to be said at present."

Mr. Harmer turned towards his sister with the intention of saying farewell, when he was surprised by Mr. Ransome stepping forward and saying-

"I have a remark or two to make on behalf of Mr. Harmer in reference to the document which has just been read."

There was a little movement of surprise, Mr. Harmer being more astonished than any one present, and all listened with anxiety for what was to follow.

"I admit on behalf of Mr. Harmer that the document which has just been read is the last testament of the late Mr. Edward Harmer; of that no question can I suppose arise. By the terms of that will he bequeathes the whole of his property to his brother Robert, subject to the payment of the legacies to the Misses Harmer. In the event of Robert not surviving him, he makes other dispositions of his property. These it is not necessary to enter into, as that contingency has not arisen. For, gentlemen, I am in a position to prove to you that Mr. Robert Harmer did survive his brother; he, therefore, under the will, came into possession of the property, and as Mr. Robert Harmer has unfortunately died intestate, at least so I presume, Mr. Herbert Harmer, as heir-at-law, of course inherits the estate."

As Mr. Ransome spoke he moved to the door, opened it and called to some one who was waiting in the hall, and Robert Althorpe entered with his hat in his hand. No one moved, no one spoke, a stupor of blank dismay had fallen upon all present. Their faces, which when the will was read, were bright with irrepressible exultation, now expressed the deepest consternation. They could hardly believe that the prize which they had made so sure of was about to be snatched from their grasp.

"This," Mr. Ransome said, "is Robert Althorpe, the sailor who had charge of the little yacht belonging to the late Mr. Harmer, and who was the sole survivor of those who embarked in her. Miss Harmer knows that this is correct. Be so good, my man, will you, as to tell these ladies and gentlemen what you told me relative to the death of the Mr. Harmers.

"Well ladies, and your honours," the sailor said, "when I felt the boat go over I stuck to her, and never left go. I soon got my head above water, and clambered on to her bottom. I had hardly got my breath, before I saw a head come out of the water close by me. I held on to the keel with my hook, leaned over, and caught him by the hair, and helped him on to the boat beside me. That was Mr. Robert Harmer. I looked round again, and thought I saw an arm come up for a moment, but that was all I saw of any of them, and I don't think one of them ever came up after she upset. Mr. Robert Harmer was very weak, but he clung with me for nigh ten minutes, sometimes washed nearly off, and getting weaker and weaker every minute, and I saw he could not last long. We did not speak, the waves and the wind were too high, and we were half the time under water; but I could see the poor gentleman was praying very hard. At last a big wave came over all, and nearly carried me off, and I had a hard fight to get back again. When I had time to look round, Mr. Robert Harmer was gone, and that was the last I ever saw of him. Which I am ready to take my davy."

When the sailor had done there was another long silence, and then Mr. Ransome said,-

"This, gentlemen, is perfectly conclusive proof that Mr. Robert Harmer survived his brother, and would be held so in any court of law. It is, I have no question, a surprise to you, as it is to my client, Mr. Harmer; indeed, it is only within the last hour that I have been put in possession of the fact; I am sure, therefore, that Mr. Harmer will not wish to force upon you any sudden decision; but I would submit to you that no question can arise either in the point of law or fact. I would suggest to him that he should retire for an hour and then return for your answer. In the meantime, merely as a matter of form, I have placed a person in the hall to keep possession of the place in the name of Mr. Herbert Harmer, as heir-at-law to his brother the late Mr. Robert Harmer. The sailor will remain here, and you can interrogate him further on the subject."

So saying, and bowing to those present, who had not yet recovered sufficiently from their dismay to utter a word, he took the almost stupefied Mr. Harmer by the arm and left the room.

After they had gone there was a long and animated debate; but the conclusion at which they most reluctantly arrived, under the advice of the lawyer who had drawn up the will, was, that there was at present nothing to do, but to leave Mr. Herbert Harmer in possession, and then, if upon deliberation and further advice it should be thought right to bring the case to trial, to do so. And so they all went away, and Mr. Harmer took possession of the home of his father; but not immediately, for his sisters asked him to leave them a week to make their arrangements. He begged them to stay there as long as they wished, and indeed pressed them to make it their home. This, however, they refused to do. By the will of their brother they were amply provided for, and they intended to travel, and perhaps finally to enter a religious house on the Continent.

So in a week the old house was empty, and Herbert Harmer entered it as undisputed master.

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