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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 32142

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

And so in spite of all human precautions and care, the property of the old Roman Catholic family was not disposed of for the benefit and glory of Mother Church; but passed into the hands of the Protestant and apostate younger brother, under whose ownership and care it changed not a little.

Not externally; there no great alteration was possible, unless the whole place had been pulled down and rebuilt, but the thick trees which had crowded it in, and made it dark and gloomy, were thinned out, so that the air and light could come in upon it; bright flower-beds took the place of the masses of shrubbery on the lawn in front, and as far as could be done, the whole place was cleared and brightened. Inside, much greater changes were made-there, indeed, the old house was completely remodelled, new paper, new paint, new furniture and fittings of every description. Modern windows were put in where practicable, that is, wherever they could be inserted without violent incongruity with the style of architecture; part of the house indeed-that part containing the principal apartments-was entirely modernized, party walls were pulled away, small rooms thrown into large ones, the ceilings and roofs raised, bow windows thrown out, and a bright, cheerful air given to it.

In the chapel adjoining the house great alterations were made. Coloured glass windows took the place of the plain ones formerly there; these had been inserted after a visit of inspection paid by a party of Puritan cavalry, who, not having succeeded in finding the man of Belial of whom they were in search, consoled themselves under their disappointment by the holy amusement of smashing the beautiful stained-glass windows, and destroying the decoration and carvings of the little chapel. The seats were now removed, and the shrines, hangings, pictures, and other emblems of the Romish Church were taken down. The grand stone altar was retained, and a large cross in black marble was placed over it, taking the place of the wooden crucifix which had so long hung there. At the foot of the steps leading up to the altar, and where they had so often knelt in prayer, a beautiful monument of white marble was erected to the dead brothers, on which the sun threw strange, solemn lights as it streamed in through the coloured windows.

All these changes and alterations were carried on under the personal care and inspection of Mr. Harmer, who, with his son, came down at once to Canterbury, taking up their residence for the first two months at the "Fountain," but spending most of their time over at the "Place." And although when masons and decorators once take possession of a house they generally contrive to make their stay nearly interminable, yet, money, energy, and personal supervision will occasionally work wonders, and in this case, in three months after taking possession-that is, by the end of June-Mr. Harmer had the satisfaction of seeing the work completed, and the little army of men engaged upon it fairly out of the house.

As soon as they had gone into residence, the neighbouring gentry called almost in a body. To them it possessed the charm of a new discovery; they knew the place existed, but all they had seen of it was the lodge gate, and the twisted chimneys of the house as they rose among the trees which shut it in from the view; that was all. They hardly knew what it was like, even from tradition; neither their fathers or grandfathers had ever called there; not that the religion of its owner had constituted any serious objection to their so doing, but the Harmers led too secluded and recluse a life to care about knowing any one. With only a very few among the county families of their own creed had they any visiting acquaintance whatever, and this was confined to an exchange of formal calls, or of stately dinners once or so in the course of a year. Their only intimate acquaintances were chosen among foreigners, ecclesiastics or others, generally Italian, whom they had known during their long absences on the Continent; of these there had been usually one or two staying in the house when the family were at home; beyond this they had no friends. But now all this was to change, and the carriages of the neighbouring gentry dashed in quick succession up the drive where once the green moss had grown undisturbed, and gay talk and merry laughter were heard where formerly silence had reigned almost unbroken.

The visits afforded great satisfaction to those who paid them. The father and son were both much liked, and pronounced great acquisitions to the county society.

These visits were shortly returned, and invitations to dinner speedily followed. But not to dinner-parties alone was the festivity confined; picnics were got up, balls given, and it was unanimously agreed for once to overlook the fact that there was no lady head to Harmer Place, but that mothers and daughters should accept Mr. Harmer's lavish hospitality regardless of that fact. Indeed, the Harmers' accession to the property gave rise to a series of feasting and festivity such as had not been known in that part of the county for years previously.

Into all this Mr. Harmer entered with a fresh pleasure, and a frank joyous spirit which charmed and attracted all. With the ladies he was an especial favourite; to them his manners and address were so singularly different to those of the men with whom they were accustomed to associate, that they could not fail to be greatly impressed by it. Herbert Harmer had seen little or nothing of women, for-with the exception only of his wife, who had always been a great invalid, and whom he had nursed for years with almost devotional care and kindness-he had been thrown in contact with very few English women, and he regarded the whole sex with an almost chivalrous devotion and respect which in a man of his age was very strange and touching. Although a very well-read man-for in his distant home he had kept himself well supplied with the current English literature, and with scientific works of every description-he knew very little of real life. Of commanding intellect, had he been placed in different circumstances where his mind could have had fair scope for its exercise, Herbert Harmer would have made a conspicuous figure for himself; as it was, although all found in him a charming companion and a sympathizer in their various tastes, few would have suspected how great were the stores of knowledge which the simple-hearted childlike man had stored up in all those years of solitary reading.

It was this general sympathy for the tastes of others, together with the reverence for the sex, which led him to treat the young girl of seventeen with a deference not inferior to that which he would have exhibited for her white-haired grandmother, which made him so universally liked by women; and had Herbert Harmer, although a man of forty-seven, and looking older than he was, wished to marry again, he might have nearly taken his choice among the fair young Kentish maidens who surrounded him.

Women, especially young women, appreciate a character such as this far better than men can do. Their purity of heart recognizes instinctively its goodness and childlike wisdom; and very many would own to themselves that, without entertaining any passionate love for him, they could yet entrust their happiness to such a one with a confidence far more serene and implicit than that which they would experience in the case of a younger man.

Perhaps a thought as to the possibility of Mr. Harmer marrying again may have entered into the calculations of some of the matrons with grown-up families, and who would not have unwillingly have seen one of their daughters holding sway as mistress at Harmer Place. But if so, it was not for long; for Mr. Harmer, upon one occasion-when the possibility of such an event as a new mistress for his house being forthcoming when the alterations were completed, was laughingly suggested-resented the idea in quite a serious manner. From this it was quite evident that the future mistress of Harmer Place, whomsoever she might be, would enter it as the wife of Gerald rather than of Herbert Harmer.

Gerald was by no means so great a favourite as his father; nor, although he earnestly desired to be popular, could he altogether succeed in his object. He could not overcome the listless manner which his long residence in India had rendered part of his nature; he could not acquire an interest in all the chit-chat and gossip of country society, or manifest more than a most languid interest in the agricultural conversations and disquisitions which formed the large staple of the country gentleman's talk. Of the price of corn he knew nothing. Malt and hops were mysteries, into which, beyond drinking the resulting compound, he had no desire to penetrate. And yet he was a sensible, good-hearted young fellow enough. His misfortune was that he had not strength of mind to adapt himself to the life and people he was thrown among.

Mr. Harmer was extremely anxious that his son should marry early and well; not well in a worldly point of view, but to some true woman, to whom he could look up, and who would in time correct the faults of his character. Those faults his father saw and understood; and he feared much that his weak and facile disposition would render him liable to fall into serious errors and faults, and would be not unlikely to lead him to be entrapped into some hasty marriage, the evil consequences of which might be incalculable to him. Mr. Harmer therefore watched with anxiety to see to which, among the various young girls of the neighbourhood, Gerald was most attracted, and at first he gave his father some little trouble. New to female society, it possessed an infinite charm to him; but he seemed to admire too generally to devote himself to any one in particular, and although he at once commenced a series of active flirtations, he appeared quite unable to single out any one for especial preference. Les absents ont toujours tort; and the converse of the proverb seemed to him to be equally true-the present are always right. Whosoever might chance to be in his society would assuredly, for the time being, appear to approach the nearest to perfection. Gerald Harmer was certainly a much greater favourite with the girls than he was with their fathers and brothers. That languid, indolent way of his, as if he rather thought that it was the duty of other people to devote themselves to his amusement, and which made the men vote him a puppy, was to them quite new and very amusing. Girls, too, rather like occasionally reversing positions, and bestowing homage instead of receiving it; and so the lively country girls enjoyed these languid flirtations with Gerald, and entered into them with great spirit, laughing in their sleeves, perhaps, at him while they did so, and not being in the least likely to become the victims of any very ardent passion.

When the shooting season commenced, however, a great change came over him, for he threw himself into the sport with an ardour that astonished his father. At last he really seemed to have found something worth caring for, and in a short time, by his devotion for field sports, he rose many degrees in the estimation of the young squires, who agreed that Gerald Harmer had turned out a capital fellow after all, in spite of his airs and nonsense. It is probable that he sank in the sisters' estimation as he rose in the brothers', for he now no longer cared for female society, and spent the whole of his time either in shooting over his own or other estates, with parties of their young owners, or sometimes alone, with no other companion than Long William, the keeper-or else in hunting, to which also he took with great ardour. His sporting tastes rapidly developed; dogs, horses, and guns occupied his whole thoughts; and few would have recognized in the figure in shooting-jacket and gaiters, returning splashed to the head, after a hard day's work, the indolent lounger who had considered it almost too great a trouble to think for himself. His father observed this change with pleasure, as he had noticed with pain his son's increasing listlessness, although he was personally a loser by it; for Gerald had been hitherto his constant companion in his walks over his estate, and his visits of kindness at his labourers' cottages, which, under his care, assumed a very different and far more comfortable aspect than that which they had worn under the old régime. Still, he felt that it might do him much good; he thought it natural that the young man should be fond of sport, and should seek the companionship of men of his own age; and though he missed the former familiar intercourse with his son, he assented with a little sigh of regret to the new state of things, and told himself that it was much better so, and was very right and proper. Even of an evening it was seldom now that Gerald accompanied his father to the houses of the neighbouring gentry, always pleading fatigue, or some other excuse, for not doing so. On these occasions, when his father had started alone, he would be sure to find some pretext, some forgotten order, or question which must be asked, as a reason for strolling down in the course of the evening to smoke a pipe with his inseparable ally, Long William, the keeper.

Of this his father of course knew nothing; but the people of the village soon noticed these visits, and shook their heads when they saw the young squire go in at the cottage door, for William's character stood by no means high, and such companionship could do no good. Sometimes, too, Long William would not have returned from his duties when Gerald sauntered down, and then the task of entertaining him till his return would fall on William's pretty sister, Madge, who kept house for her brother. Altogether it would have been far better for Gerald to have accompanied his father, than to spend the evening sitting there smoking, and occasionally drinking; not truly that he was fond of drink for its own sake, but as he felt obliged to send Long William out for a bottle of spirits, he felt equally bound to keep him in countenance while he drank it.

So things went on into the spring, and then the shooting and hunting being over, Gerald, to his father's great annoyance, subsided into his former listless state; indeed, into a much worse condition than he was in before. He no longer was Mr. Harmer's companion in his rambles over the estate; he took no interest in his plans for the improvement of the houses of their poorer neighbours; he had no pleasure in society, which before he had so enjoyed; indeed, so entirely without aim or object did his life seem to have become, that Mr. Harmer felt that some change was absolutely necessary for him, and proposed to him that he should go for a few months' ramble on the Continent.

This proposition Gerald embraced with eagerness, and in a few days started on his tour.

Mr. Harmer had at first thought of accompanying him, but finally decided against doing so, as he judged it better that Gerald should have to think and act entirely for himself; for being forced to do this, and to make new acquaintances and friends-which in travelling he could only do by exerting himself to be agreeable-he would be far more likely to shake off his listless apathy, than if he had some one ever with him, to arrange matters, and take all necessity of thought or exertion off his hands.

And so Gerald went alone, and, as far as could be gleaned from his letters, he certainly seemed improving. At first he wrote without much interest in what he saw, but gradually the tone of his letters became more healthy, and when he reached Switzerland, he wrote in quite enthusiastic terms. He had joined a party who intended to stay there two or three months, and thoroughly wander over the various lakes and valleys of that lovely country. He enjoyed the life immensely, was becoming a first-rate mountaineer, and altogether he appeared to

have entirely recovered his life and spirits.

Mr. Harmer remained quietly at home, passing his time between his books, the management of his estates, and the pleasures of social intercourse with his neighbours; and few days passed without his riding out into the country, or into Canterbury, for a visit to some among them.

Everywhere he continued to gain golden opinions, and became so popular that he was requested to allow himself to be put in nomination as member for that division of the county at the next election. This offer, although very gratifying, Mr. Harmer declined. He was very happy and contented with his present mode of life, and had not the least wish to take upon himself the care and responsibility of a seat in Parliament.

In autumn, soon after the shooting began, Gerald returned, looking sunburnt and healthy; full of life and of his adventures and travels, and, seemingly, permanently cured of his listless, indolent ways. His father was much pleased with the change, and was now quite satisfied with him; and yet at times he fancied-but it might be only fancy-that in the pauses of conversation he would fall into short reveries of something unpleasant; a quick, gloomy, anxious look seemed to pass across his face, and although it would be instantly dispelled, still Mr. Harmer could not help thinking that he had something on his mind. But if it was so, he said no word to his father; and Herbert Harmer, even had he been sure that such a secret had existed, which he was far from being, was of too delicate a disposition to make the least advance towards a confidence which his son did not seek to repose in him.

At last the hunting season began again, to which Gerald had been looking forward eagerly, as he preferred it even to shooting, perhaps because it was a much greater change, as the meets were seldom held near Canterbury, and he would have to send his hunter on the night before, and drive over perhaps fifteen or twenty miles in the morning. However, it happened that one of the first meets of the season was appointed to take place near Canterbury, about three miles out on the old Dover Road, and Gerald started off, after an early breakfast, in unusually high spirits.

Mr. Harmer, late in the afternoon, was in his library, which was in the front of the house, and the windows of which commanded a view down the drive.

He had been reading, but the fast-closing shades of a wintry afternoon-it was the 12th of November, had rendered that difficult, and he had laid down his book and walked to the window, to look out at the still trees and the quiet hush of the thickening twilight.

Suddenly there came on his ear a low confused sound, as of many people moving and speaking; and then a horse's footsteps came fast up the drive.

He strained his eyes for the first sight of the rider, as he came round the turn of the drive into sight.

It was not Gerald-it was one of his most intimate friends.

What could it be? He threw open the window and listened again; between the strokes of the horses' feet in the still evening air, he could hear the confused sound of voices and the trampling of feet coming nearer. What could it be? A nameless terror blanched his cheek, a dim vision of the truth flashed across him. In an instant he was at the hall-door, which he opened and went out on to the steps. The horseman had alighted, and now stood looking pale and anxious at the door. When it opened, and he saw Mr. Harmer himself, he shrank back as a man might, who, knowing that he had something very painful to go through, is suddenly confronted with it before he had quite nerved himself to undergo it. Recovering himself, however, although his usually hearty, jovial face was blanched white, he prepared to speak. Herbert Harmer waved him back, he could tell him nothing that could be new to him now. He had seen his face, and hope had died with the look, and the father stood listening with suspended breath to the irregular trampling now rapidly approaching up the avenue.

"Is he dead?" he asked with his eyes, for no sound came from the lips. "Not dead-but--" The eyes closed for a moment in answer that they understood-not dead, but dying; and then he stood rigid and immovable, his eyes open but seeing nothing, his whole senses merged in the effort of hearing.

The gentleman who had brought the news, seeing that at present he could do nothing there, quietly entered the house and ordered the affrighted servants instantly to get a bed-room ready, with hot water, sponges, and everything that could be required.

Mr. Harmer moved not till he saw appear round the turn of the drive the head of a sad procession: carried on the shoulders of six men, on a door hastily taken from a cottage for the purpose, was something in red covered with a cloak; riding by the side were several horsemen in scarlet, most of whom, on seeing Mr. Harmer standing on the steps, reined back their horses and returned into the village, there to wait for news. Not that they expected any news, save one; for the man in green riding by the head of the little procession was the doctor. He was on the field at the time of the accident, he had already examined the injured man, had shaken his head sadly over him, and the word had gone round-no hope.

His horse, a young hunter which he had only purchased a few days before, had struck the top bar in leaping a gate, and had come down headlong on its rider, fearfully crushing and mangling him. They carried him up to his room and laid him on the bed; his father walking beside speechless and tearless. The only question he asked was, "Will he ever recover his consciousness?"

The doctor replied, "He may at the last."

The last did not come till next morning, when, just as the grey light was breaking, he opened his eyes. For some time they wandered confusedly about the room, as if endeavouring to comprehend what had happened; then he tried to move, and a slight groan of pain broke from him, and by the change in his expression it was evident he remembered all. His eyes met those of his father, and fixed there with a look of deep affection, then a sudden recollection of pain seemed to occur to him, and he closed his eyes again and lay for sometime quite still.

The doctor who had his finger on his wrist motioned to the father that the end was fast approaching. Again the eyes opened and he was evidently rallying his strength to speak. The doctor withdrew a few paces, and the father placed his ear to the dying man's mouth. The lips moved, but all that the hearer could catch was-"Dear father-kind to Madge-my sake-God forgive;" then the lips ceased moving, and the spirit was gone for ever.

Ten days had passed since then, Gerald Harmer had been laid in the quiet graveyard of the village church, and his father was sitting thoughtful and alone in his library. A knock at the door, and Mr. Brandon, the rector of the place, was announced, and by Mr. Harmer's manner as he rose to meet him, it was evident that he was an expected visitor.

"I am much obliged to you for calling so speedily," he said, after they had seated themselves. "I have a question which weighs much upon my mind, and which is to me an inexpressibly painful one. Yet it is one which I must ask, and you are the only person of whom I can ask it. I may be mistaken altogether. I may be agitating myself under some wretched misconception; God grant it may be so; and yet I must arrive at the truth. Do you know any young person in the village by the name of Madge? how old is she, who are her parents, and what character does she bear?"

The clergyman's face became very serious as Mr. Harmer addressed him, and the latter saw at once by his unmistakable start of surprise, and by the look of distress which came across his face, that he not only knew such a person, but that he was very well aware why the question was asked.

Mr. Harmer laid his face in his hands and groaned; this was almost harder to bear than his son's death. It was some time before he looked up again. When he did so, the clergyman said in a tone of deep feeling and commiseration-

"It is a truly sad affair, my dear sir; indeed, I question if you yet know how sad. The name of the young girl of whom you ask was Madge Needham; she lived with her brother, one of your keepers. I hardly know how to tell you what has occurred. She had been for some time in delicate health, and was standing at the door of her cottage when she saw a little crowd coming down the village street. She carelessly asked a lad who was running past what it was, and was told that they were carrying home your unfortunate son who had been killed out hunting. The boy ran on; she said nothing, but closed the door of the cottage. The shock had struck home. That night a little child was born into the world, who before morning had lost both father and mother."

Mr. Brandon ceased, his voice faltered as he spoke, and the tears fell from his eyes. Mr. Harmer hid his face in his hands, and sobbed unrestrainedly; he was inexpressibly shocked and grieved. At last he said-

"Is the child alive?"

"Yes; a young married woman in the village who had just lost a baby of her own has taken it for the present. She consulted me about it only this morning, and I told her that in a short time when I could approach the subject with you, I would do so, although I did not expect that the opportunity would have occurred so soon. Still, I thought it right, painful as it must be to you, that you should know the truth. I believe from what I have heard that there can be no question as to the paternity of the infant, as I heard, late in the spring, rumours of your son being frequently down at the cottage. But it did not reach my ears until after he had gone abroad, consequently I could do nothing in the matter but hope for the best, and trust that rumour was mistaken."

After another short silence, Mr. Harmer said-

"Mr. Brandon, I am very much indebted to you for what you have already done in the matter; will you further oblige me by acting for me in it? If the woman who has now charge of the child is a respectable and proper person, and is willing to continue the care of it, so much the better. If not, will you seek some one who will do so? Make any arrangements in the way of money you may think fit. By the way, the east lodge, which is the one farthest from the village, is at present unoccupied; let them move in there. I will give orders that it shall be made comfortable. Will you see to this for me? So much for the present; we can make other arrangements afterwards."

And so it was carried out. Mrs. Green, the woman who had first taken care of the child, with her husband, a steady working carpenter, moved into the east lodge. They had no other children, and soon took to the little orphan, and loved her as their own. To them, indeed, the adoption of the child proved of great benefit. The lodge was made comfortable; a piece of ground was added to it, and put in order for a garden; a handsome yearly sum was paid; and the husband had steady work upon the estate.

Long William, the keeper, had a sufficient sum of money given him, to enable him to emigrate to Australia.

Upon the death of his son, Mr. Harmer went abroad for three or four years, and then returned again to the old place. The shock which he had undergone had aged him much, and at fifty-one he looked as old as many men of sixty. He still kept up the acquaintance of his former friends; but although fond of quiet social intercourse, he ceased altogether to enter into general society, and devoted himself entirely to study and scientific pursuits.

It was a little before Mr. Harmer's return, that Dr. Ashleigh established himself at Canterbury, having purchased a practice there. They met accidentally at a friend's house, and soon became very intimate with each other. They were mutually attracted by the similarity of their tastes and pursuits, and by each other's intellectual superiority and goodness of heart. They were indeed kindred spirits, and their society became a source of the greatest mutual pleasure and gratification. Whenever Dr. Ashleigh could find time from his professional pursuits, he would drive over to pass a few hours of scientific research and experiment with his friend; and if anything should occur to prevent the visit being paid for a few days, Mr. Harmer would, in turn, come over for an evening to the doctor's, at Canterbury.

In the mean time little Sophy Needham was growing up. She was not a pretty child, but had an intelligent face, with large thoughtful grey eyes.

It was some time after his return from abroad before Mr. Harmer trusted himself to ride out at the east gate. At last, one day-it was the anniversary of his son's death-he did so, and stopping there, fastened up his horse, and went in to see the child, then exactly four years old.

At first she was inclined to be distant and shy; but when once she had recovered sufficiently to fix her large grey inquiring eyes upon him, she went to him readily, and in five minutes they were fast friends; for indeed he was one of those men whom children instinctively feel to be good, and take to as if by intuition.

After this he would frequently go down to see her, and take her little presents of toys and dolls. Until she was ten years old she went to the village school, and then he sent her to London to a good school, to be educated as he said, for a governess. When she came home for the holidays, he would frequently have her up for a day to the house, and would interest himself greatly in her talk and growing knowledge.

It was some little time after his return from abroad that Mr. Harmer received a letter from his sisters, who had since they left been travelling and living abroad, saying, that if he were still of the same mind, and would repeat his invitation, they would be glad to come and stay with him for a time, as they longed to see the old place where they had lived so long. Although much surprised, Mr. Harmer willingly assented, and his two sisters soon afterwards arrived. Their visit, at first intended only to last for a few weeks, lengthened into months; then they went away for a time, but soon returned, and took up their abode there permanently.

Whatever their motives may have been originally in returning to the place, they unquestionably became very much attached to their brother, and were far happier than they had ever before been during their lives: they pursued their religious exercises, he his scientific pursuits, without interference from each other, and as the genial intercourse and kindness of their brother brightened their days, so did their affection and interest soothe his. Their presence was a relief to the previous silence and monotony of the house, and their management took all household cares off his hands.

On one subject alone had any disagreement arisen, and that was the presence of Sophy; but here their brother at once so decidedly, and even sternly, stated that his wishes on that point were to be considered as law, and that no interference with them would be for a moment tolerated, that they were obliged at once to acquiesce, although they still, as much as they dare, kept up by their manner a protest against her presence.

Sophy now, during her holidays, stopped entirely at the house, occupying a position something between that of visitor and humble companion. The girl accepted her lot with rare tact for one of her age. She felt her anomalous position, for she had, at Mr. Harmer's wish, been made acquainted with her history, as he was sure that, sooner or later, she was certain to be informed of it. She was of a quiet, retiring manner, self-contained, and thoughtful, and manifested a quiet deference for the Miss Harmers-with which, however much they might have wished it, they could have found no fault-and a warm, though subdued, affection for Mr. Harmer.

And thus matters stood when this story began.

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