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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 25767

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

All this history of the Harmers I have told nearly as I heard it, passing briefly over such parts as were not essential to the understanding of the story, and retaining all that was necessary to be told in order that the relative position of the various inmates of Harmer Place may be quite understood by any one who may hereafter read this story of mine. And having done so, I can now proceed with the regular course of my journal.

That visit of ours to Harmer Place was a very memorable one, and exercised not a little influence upon my fortunes, although certainly I little dreamt at the time of our return that evening, that it had done so. To Polly and I it had been simply an extremely pleasant day. We had rambled about the garden with Sophy Needham, and had taken tea in the summer-house, while papa and Mr. Harmer were at dinner. We had then gone into desert, and, that over, had again rambled out, leaving the gentlemen over their wine. It was while thus engaged, that a conversation took place, which I did not hear of for more than a year afterwards, but which entirely altered my worldly prospects. It was began by Mr. Harmer, who had been for some time sitting rather silent and abstracted.

"I think it is high time, my dear doctor, for me to speak to you frankly and openly, of what my intentions are in reference to the disposal of my property. I mentioned somewhat of this to you four or five years since, but I should like now to speak explicitly. I am aware that such matters are not usually gone into; but I think in many cases, of which this is one, it is right and better that it should be so. I have no relations whatever in the world, with the exception of my sisters, who have an ample life provision, and Sophy Needham, my son's child. My property is very large; I have the Harmer estates, my own savings in India, and the accumulation of my brothers, who never lived up to their income for very many years. In all about seven thousand a year. As I have said, Sophy Needham is my only connection in the world-you my only friend. To Sophy I have left half my fortune, the other half I have bequeathed to your children. Do not start, my dear Ashleigh, or offer any fruitless objection, my decision is fixed and immovable. For the last thirteen years my existence has been brightened by your friendly intercourse, in you I have found a scientific guide and friend; indeed, I may say that my life as far as this world is concerned, has been entirely made what it is, tranquil, contented, and happy by your friendship. Ten years ago you will remember I begged you to retire from practice, and to take up your abode here with your family, upon any terms you might name, but in fact as my adopted family. This offer you, from motives I could not but respect, declined. You loved your profession, and considered it incompatible with your duty to leave a career of active usefulness. Things, therefore, went on as before. Towards Sophy my intentions were not fixed, but she has turned out a very good girl, and I shall therefore leave her half my fortune, about seventy-five thousand pounds. Had I any other relation, or any person who could have the smallest claim upon me, you might hesitate; as it is, not even the most morbid feeling of delicacy can tell you that you are depriving others of their expectations. Being so, let the matter be tacitly understood, and say nothing whatever about it; you ought not to have known of it till my death, just suppose that you do not know of it now. You will ask me why have I then told you. For this reason. I wish to benefit your children. My life is uncertain; but I may live for many years yet, and my money might come too late to do good. Your son may have spent the best years of his life struggling in some profession which he does not like; your daughters may have suffered too. I therefore wish at once to place Harry with the best man in the profession he wishes to enter, which I have heard him say is that of a civil engineer, and I shall allow him a hundred and fifty pounds a year for the present. Your daughters I should wish sent to some good school in London to finish their education; and when the time shall come, when such an event may be considered probable, I should wish it to be publicly known that they will each have upon their wedding day ten thousand pounds. Your son shall have a like sum when the time comes for him to enter into a partnership, or start in business for himself. These sums to be deducted from their moiety of my fortune at my death. And now, doctor, let us shake hands and not mention the matter again, and as you do not seem to be drinking your wine, let us go out and join the young ladies in the garden."

It was not until after several further discussions upon the subject of Mr. Harmer's kind intentions towards us that papa agreed to accept his offer. When he at last consented to do so, no time was lost in carrying out the plans, and in a month or two Harry went up to London to be articled to a well-known engineer. As for us, it was settled that Miss Harrison should remain with us until Christmas, and that after the holidays we should go up to a school near London. How delighted we were at the prospect, and how very slowly that autumn seemed to pass; however, at last the time came, and we started under papa's charge for London. When we were once there, and were fairly in a cab on our way to school, we felt a little nervous and frightened. However, there was a great comfort in the thought that there would, at any rate, be one face we knew, that of Clara Fairthorne, who came from our part of the country we had met her at some of our Christmas parties, and it was by her parents the school had been recommended to papa. But although we felt rather nervous, it was not until we were in sight of the school that our spirits really fell; and even at the lapse of all these years, I do think that its aspect was enough to make any girl's heart sink, who was going to school for the first time.

Any one who has passed along the road from Hyde Park Corner to Putney Bridge may have noticed Grendon House, and any one who has done so, must have exclaimed to himself "a girls' school." Palpably a girls' school, it could be nothing else. With the high wall surrounding it, to keep all passers-by from even imagining what was going on within, with the trees which grew inside it, and almost hid the house from view, with its square stiff aspect when one did get a glimpse of it, and with its small windows, each furnished with muslin curtains of an extreme whiteness and primness of arrangement, and through which no face was ever seen to glance out,-certainly it could be nothing but a girls' school.

On the door in the wall were two brass plates, the one inscribed in stiff Roman characters "Grendon House;" the other "The Misses Pilgrim," in a running flourishing handwriting. I remember after we had driven up to the door, and were waiting for the bell to be answered, wondering whether the Misses Pilgrim wrote at all like that, and if so, what their character would be likely to be. In the door, by the side of the plate, was a small grating, or grille, through which a cautious survey could be made of any applicant for admission within those sacred precincts.

On passing through the door, and entering the inclosure, one found oneself in a small, irregular piece of ground, dignified by the name of the garden, although, from its appearance, it would be supposed that this was a mere pleasantry; but it was not so. Indeed, no such thing as a pleasantry ever was or could be attempted about anything connected with "Grendon House." Certain it is that nothing in the way of a flower was ever acclimatized there. The gloom and frigidity of the place would have been far too much for any flower known in temperate climates to have supported.

I remember, indeed, Constance Biglow, who had a brother who had just started on an Arctic expedition, lamented that she had forgotten to ask him to bring home some of the plants from those regions, as an appropriate present for the Misses Pilgrim, for their garden. I know at the time we considered it to be a very good, although a dreadfully disrespectful, joke towards those ladies.

In spring, indeed, a few crocuses (Miss Pilgrim spoke of them as croci) ventured to come up and show their heads, but they soon faded away again in such an uncongenial atmosphere. The only thing which really flourished there was the box edging to the borders, which grew luxuriantly, and added somehow to the funereal aspect of the place. It was no wonder nothing grew there, for the house, and the high walls, and the trees within them, completely shaded it, and cut it off from all light and air. Round the so-called flower-beds the gravel path was wider, and was dignified by the name of the carriage drive, though how any coachman was to have turned a carriage in that little confined space, even had he got through the impassable gate, was, and probably ever will remain, a mystery.

Behind the house was the playground, a good-sized triangular-shaped gravelled yard, for Grendon House was situated at the junction of two roads, and the house itself stood across the base of the triangle they formed. This playground was several times larger than the garden, and was indeed quite extensive enough for such games as we indulged in. It was, of course, surrounded by the high wall, with its belt of trees, underneath which was a narrow strip of border, divided into regular portions; and here the girls were permitted to prove the correctness of the axiom, that plants will not live without light or air.

So much for the exterior; inside, if the sensation of gloom and propriety which pervaded the very atmosphere could have been got rid of, it would have been really a fine house.

The hall, which was very large, extended up to the top of the house; from it, on the ground floor, led off the dining and schoolrooms, large, well-proportioned rooms, but very cold and bare-looking, especially the former; for the schoolroom walls were nearly covered with maps of different countries, some rolled up and out of use, others hanging down open; beside them hung genealogized trees of the various monarchies of Europe; while in the corner was a large stand with a black board for drawing diagrams in chalk. Nothing else in either of them but bare walls, and equally bare forms and tables.

There was another little room opening from the great hall: this was the cloak-room, where the girls put on their bonnets and shawls before going out for their walks. It was here that, when they were able to slip out from the schoolroom, they would meet to talk in English for a change, and interchange those little confidences about nothing in which school-girls delight. This room looked into the garden; and to prevent the possibility of any one who might be-which nobody ever was-wandering there, looking in at the window, white silver paper, with coloured flowers under it, was stuck on to the glass, something in the manner of decalcomanie, only that extraordinary and difficult name was not at that time invented.

Upstairs was the drawing-room. It was here that the Misses Pilgrim received visitors to the girls, and here that the lady professors, who came twice a week to teach music, imparted lessons in singing and on the pianoforte to the pupils.

This room was a model of propriety and frigidity-if there be such a word, for no other will describe the effect produced. The curtains were of white muslin, so stiff and carefully arranged that they might have been cut out of marble. The chairs were of some light wood, with gilding on them, and so extremely fragile, that it was only with the greatest caution and care that any one could venture to sit down upon them; there were couches too, here and there, but these as seats were altogether out of the question, being so covered with Berlin work of every kind, and antimacassars of such stiffness and intricacy of pattern, that no one would ever have thought of assuming a sitting position even upon the extreme edge of them.

The room was literally crowded with tables of every imaginable shape and form, generally on twisted legs, and looking as if a breath would upset them. On these tables were placed works of art and industry of every description. Vases of wax flowers and fruit, Berlin wool mats of every colour and pattern, inkstands of various shapes and sizes, books of engravings, stuffed birds under glass shades; in short, knicknacks of every sort and kind, and on a great majority of them were inscribed, "Presented to Miss Pilgrim, or Miss Isabella Pilgrim, by her attached pupils on her birth-day;" or, "Presented to the Misses Pilgrim by their attached pupil so-and-so on the occasion of her leaving school."

Through all this it

was next to impossible to move without the greatest risk of bringing some of the little fragile tables down with a crash, and visitors would generally, after a vague glance of perplexity round, drop, or rather lower themselves carefully, into one of the little minikin chairs, as near as possible to the door.

So chilling was the effect of this room, so overwhelming its atmosphere of propriety, that many fathers and brothers who have come up from the country to see their daughters or sisters after a long absence, men with big voices and hearty manner, have felt so constrained and overpowered by it, that in place of taking them into their arms with a loud-sounding kiss, they have been known to hold out their hand in a most formal manner and to inquire almost in a whisper as to their state of health. In this drawing-room the elder girls used to practise, and if any visitor was shown up there the proper form to be observed was to rise from the music-stool, walk to the door, and then, making a deep curtsey, to leave the room-a performance not unfrequently completely astounding any one strange to the ceremonies inculcated at young ladies' schools as being suitable to occasions like this.

It will be judged from all this that "Grendon House" was a model academy, and indeed it was. The only wonder is that it did not turn us all into the stiffest pieces of prim propriety possible; but somehow it did not; for I think, on looking back, that a merrier and more lively set of girls it would be difficult to have found, and yet we most certainly had not much to be merry about. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." It may be so, but it decidedly did not have that effect upon Jack's sisters. We certainly did work very hard. I suppose it was necessary in order to cram all the accomplishments girls are expected to know into our heads; but however it was, I am quite sure that in those two years I was at school, I worked more hours and steadier at them, than Harry ever did in four; he allows it himself, and I am sure it is generally the case, that girls work infinitely harder than their brothers, and certainly have no amusement or recreation at all in proportion. I suppose it is all right, but yet I do think that if we worked a good deal less, and played a great deal more, we should know quite as much, and be far more healthy and natural than we are.

However, I am not writing an essay, or I should have a great deal more to say on this point; as it is I must leave it for abler hands, and go back to my story.

When we first caught sight of Grendon House our spirits fell many degrees, and when we entered its solemn portals we felt terribly awed and uncomfortable. We were, of course, shown up into that dreadful drawing-room, and I think papa was as much affected by it as we were; he certainly was not a bit like himself, and he stayed a very short time talking to Miss Pilgrim, who came up in great state, and in a very stiff silk dress, which rustled alarmingly as she walked, to receive us. Miss Pilgrim was small but stately, almost overpoweringly so. Her hair was arranged in little stiff ringlets on each temple; her nose was very prominent; her lips thin and rather pinched; her eyes bright and searching; she was, on the whole, in good keeping with the room, and yet I thought that, although she looked so sharp, and spoke so shortly and decidedly, that she was kind at heart, and that I should like her. And I may say I did; she was, although strict and sharp with us girls-as indeed she had need to be-kind-hearted and thoughtful, and I parted with her when I left school with regret. Her sister Isabella was so exactly the counterpart of herself that one description will do for the two; and, except that she wore her hair in flat braids instead of in ringlets, and that she was not quite so sharp and decided, although equally kind, she might have been easily mistaken for her elder sister.

When papa got up to go away, I could not help crying a little; for, though I was fifteen, I had never been away from home before. However, I soon came round after he was once fairly gone. Polly was longer recovering herself; but she, too, soon got over it, when I told her that if we cried the girls would be sure to call us cry-babies.

Presently Miss Pilgrim, who had considerately left us for a few minutes to let us have our cry out, came back again, and took us up to show us our room, where we could take off our things. She also kindly sent for Clara Fairthorne, so that we might go down into the schoolroom with some one we knew. It was rather an ordeal going in there, and seeing all the faces lifted up from their work to look at the new comers. However, it was not so bad as we had expected; they did not stare at us disagreeably, nor did they, when we went out into the playground afterwards, ask us so many questions as papa had warned us they would. Indeed, there was no occasion for their doing so, as they had heard all about us from Clara. One or two of them took us under their special protection, as it were, for the first few days, and we felt at home very much sooner than I had expected that we should do. We were about twenty in all, from Annie Morgan and Selma Colman, the two parlour boarders, down to Julia Jackson, a West-Indian child of eleven years old, the darling and pet of the whole school.

I am not going to write a long account of my schooldays. The daily routine of one girl's school is so much like that of another, that there is nothing new to be told of it; the little disputes, the rivalries, the friendships sworn to last for life, but which seldom survive a year or two of occasional correspondence,-all these things have been so frequently told, that I shall not repeat them, but shall only mention briefly such incidents as had an effect upon my after life.

The account of one day's work is a description of all. Breakfast at eight; school from half-past eight until twelve; then a walk for three-quarters of an hour. Dinner at one; play for half an hour; school from two till half-past five; another half-hour's play; tea at six; school till eight; then to bed.

Looking back upon it now, I wonder how I, and all the countless girls who go through such slavery as this, keep their health and spirits. Our walk was no recreation to us; we went, two and two, through the streets, or into Kensington Gardens-the same walks week after week-till we knew every stone on the pavement we walked on. It was a dreadfully formal affair, and I think I would rather have been in school. The only play we really had was the half-hour after dinner and the half-hour after tea, and also on Saturday afternoons. Then, indeed, we made up for all the day's repression,-running, jumping, skipping, laughing, and shouting like mad girls, till I am sure sometimes we scandalized the whole neighbourhood, and that passers by on the other side of the high wall paused in astonishment at such an outburst of joyous cries and laughter. Even at this time, as at all others during the day, we had to speak French, not a word of English being allowed to be spoken in "Grendon House;" and I remember congratulating myself that French girls laughed the same way as we did, for we should certainly have been obliged to laugh in French, had such a thing been possible. I was very good friends with all my schoolfellows, and, indeed, there was very little quarrelling among us,-just a sharp word or two, and a little extra stateliness and ceremony for a day or so; but even this was uncommon, for we had neither time nor opportunity to quarrel. My greatest favourite was Ada Desborough, who was a month or two younger than myself. Ada was tall, slight, with a very pretty figure, and a particularly easy, graceful carriage. She was lively, talkative, full of fun,-indeed inclined, to be almost too noisy, and it was easy to see she would turn out a perfect flirt.

Ada and I would sometimes quarrel, and she would take up with some one else for three weeks or a month, and then come back to me all of a sudden, and be as affectionate as ever. She was such a warm-hearted girl it was impossible to be angry with her; and, on the whole, she was by far my greatest friend all the time I was at Grendon House. It was through Ada that the only break which ever occurred in the monotony of our life at Grendon House took place. Ada's mother, Lady Eveline Desborough, lived in Eaton Square, and Ada generally went home from Saturday afternoon till Sunday evening. Sometimes, perhaps twice in a half-year, she would bring an invitation from her mamma for three or four of us to go there to spend the next Saturday afternoon with her. I was always of the number, as being Ada's particular friend. We looked forward to these little parties as a change; but there was not any great amusement in them.

Lady Desborough was the widow of General Sir William Desborough, and moved in quite the extreme fashionable world. She was a tall, elegant woman, with a haughty, aristocratic face. She used, I really think, to try and unbend to us girls; but her success was not great: she was so tall and haughty-looking, so splendidly dressed, and her attempt at cordiality was so very distant that we were all quite awed by it.

The programme of the afternoon's amusement was generally as follows. We would go first either to the Polytechnic or the Zoological Gardens, or, in fact, wherever we chose, under the escort of Lady Desborough's housekeeper, a respectable middle-aged woman, who used to let us wander about and do just as we liked. This part of the day was really enjoyable; when we got back to Eaton Square, we had our tea together in the small room behind the dining-room, where Lady Desborough dined in solitary state. This was great fun. Ada made tea with a vast affectation of ceremony, and the laughing and noise we made were prodigious, and would have scandalized Miss Pilgrim, could she have heard us; and we should not have ventured to indulge in it, had not Ada assured us that the partition was so thick that it was quite impossible for our voices to penetrate to the next room. When tea was over, we quieted down gradually at the thought of what was in store for us, for when Lady Desborough had finished her dinner, and gone up into the drawing-room, we were sent for, and went up-stairs, putting on our best company manners, as inculcated at "Grendon House," and seated ourselves on the edges of the chairs, in the primest of attitudes, with our feet perfectly straight, and our hands folded before us. We would first have a little frigid conversation, and Lady Desborough would then ask us to oblige her by playing on the piano, and as we always, by Miss Pilgrim's order, brought a piece of music each with us, there was no possibility of evading the infliction, but each had in turn to perform her piece; and then we sat stiff and uncomfortable, till the welcome intelligence came that Miss Pilgrim's servant was at the door with a cab.

After the first year I was at school had passed, and when we were about sixteen, the stiffness of these visits wore away, but we never were quite comfortable with Lady Desborough; and, indeed, did not enjoy our visit as much even as we had done the year before, for we were too old to go now sightseeing under the housekeeper's care, and our merry teas were exchanged for stiff dinners with Lady Desborough.

Ada had one brother, whom I have not yet spoken of. He was five years older than she was, and she always spoke of him in enthusiastic terms; but I never saw him except the twice I went to Eaton Square, in my first half-year. He was then rather more than twenty, and seemed a quiet young man, and I thought a little shy, and out of his element with us five girls. He was tall, and dark like his sister, but with a thoughtful, studious face, very unlike hers. Ada said that at ordinary times he was full of fun. All I can say is at these two visits I saw nothing of it. He had, I believe, entered the Guards, but after a short time determined to see some active service, and accordingly exchanged into the Lancers, I understood from Ada, very much to his mother's dissatisfaction.

I have now briefly told all the events which occurred in my two years at school, which had in any way a bearing upon my after-life. I have told them all at once, in order that I may not have to go back to my schooldays again, which, indeed, were monotonous enough. I have read and heard that in some schools the girls engage in all sorts of fun and flirtation and adventures. It may be so; I do not know. I can only say we had no such goings on at "Grendon House," but, although naturally lively and full of fun enough, were certainly a quiet, well-conducted, ladylike set of girls, and no such nonsense, as far as I ever heard, entered into any one of our heads.

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