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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 26043

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

For upwards of a year after Mr. Harmer had spoken to papa relative to the intended disposition of his property, the matter was not mentioned to any one, but was known only to Dr. and Mrs. Ashleigh, my brother Harry, himself, and his sisters. At the end of that time he made public his intentions, and spoke of them openly. He did this for reasons connected with Sophy Needham, for whom he was desirous of obtaining suitable society. At the time the matter gave papa a good deal of annoyance. Much as he was generally liked and esteemed, there were people found, as there always are found upon every occasion, who made ill-natured remarks upon our good fortune, and who really seemed by their talk to be personally aggrieved at Mr. Harmer's kind intentions towards us. Had they been asked why they were so, they probably could not have replied; for as Mr. Harmer had-with the exception of his sisters, who were amply provided for-no relation in the world, it was evident that there was no one who could be considered as wronged or injured by this disposition of his property. However, so it was; and, although papa received the sincere congratulations of all his old friends, I think he felt a good deal the ill-natured remarks, which came to his ears, of people for whose opinion I should have thought he would have cared nothing whatever. I was rather surprised at this; for if there was one person more than another who had by his whole life and conduct showed that he did not care for money, it was papa. He might, therefore, have well afforded to laugh at such accusations as this; but I suppose no one, however conscious of rectitude, likes to be spoken ill of, even by people whom he despises, and whose opinion about others he would treat with contempt.

This was not, however, of long continuance, for, as far as we were concerned, the talk and wonder soon died away, and things settled down into their usual state; but it was not so as regarded Sophy Needham. The announcement that she was to be the heiress of half of Mr. Harmer's large fortune, elicited the greatest reprobation and disgust among the very portion of the population who had been most cordial in their congratulations as to the destination of the other half; namely, among the country gentry, the clergy-a very numerous and powerful body in Canterbury,-the professional men, and respectabilities of the place.

"To think that that girl,-that--[and they called poor Sophy very hard names],-that young person, should be raised up into one of the richest heiresses of that part of the country, was a scandal to morality and an outrage to public decency. Her elevation was offering a premium to immorality among the lower orders. Did Mr. Harmer suppose that a person of that kind, however wealthy, would be received into society? No, indeed; the thing was quite out of the question."

This was the first outburst of opinion among the upper two hundred of Canterbury.

By degrees, finding that Mr. Harmer did not concern himself greatly with what was said about him, and that he showed no sign of changing his declared intentions in deference to the popular voice, society gave up talking so much about it; but its opinion was, it declared, unchangeable as to the objectionable nature of his conduct.

I think it likely that Mr. Harmer, who loved peace and quiet above all things, would have suffered matters to remain as they were; but papa had a serious talk with him on the subject. He pointed out that Sophy was now eighteen years old, that the mere declaration of Mr. Harmer's intentions towards her had not been of any use in procuring her friends of her own age, and that, for her sake, he ought to again re-enter society. She was growing up knowing nothing of the world; and should anything happen to Mr. Harmer, she, being left entirely unprotected and alone, would fall an easy prey to some fortune-hunter of the worst kind, and her fortune would thus, instead of a benefit, turn out a positive evil to her.

Mr. Harmer acknowledged the truth of all this, and agreed with the doctor, that reluctant as he felt to change his present studious and retired mode of life, he ought still, for her sake, to make an effort to re-enter society.

Accordingly, the next day he ordered his carriage, and made a long round of visits to his old friends in the town and precincts; for, although he had ceased to visit, he had still kept up a casual acquaintance with those he had before known, and indeed had met many of them during his frequent visits to papa.

Mr. Harmer's calls were everywhere received with pleasure, and his frank, winning manner seemed at once to place him upon a familiar footing with those of his friends with whom he had once been such a favourite. He apologized for the hermit life he had so long led; said that circumstances had induced him to determine to abandon it, and that he hoped that they, their wives, and daughters would show that they forgave him by calling at Harmer Place. But at the end of the day, if well satisfied with the reception he had personally met with, he was unable to persuade himself that he had made the slightest progress, as far as Sophy-who was the real object of his visits-was concerned. A cordial invitation had been in each instance given him to repeat his calls, but in no case had more than an evasive answer been returned in reply to his invitation to the ladies of the family.

On the day succeeding these visits the interchange of calls which took place at Canterbury was quite without precedent. The great question which every one had to ask was, "Should they go over to Harmer Place to call upon Sophy Needham?" It would hardly have been supposed necessary to have asked a question upon which they had, three months before, decided unanimously in the negative; but then it is so easy to say you will not do a thing before you have been asked-so very difficult to refuse when you are. Indeed, many of the Canterbury ladies were now sorry that they had spoken so very decidedly, and were ready to admit that there was really a good deal to be said in favour of calling upon the poor girl.

However, fortunately for these vaccillating creatures, and happily for the propriety and strict respectability of the town, the heads of the society, from whose dicta there was no appeal, sternly said that such a thing was, of course, out of the question; and society in general naturally followed suit, repressed a little sigh of regret, and agreed that it was quite out of the question. Had the population of Canterbury been differently proportioned to what it was, the answer might have been otherwise. Had there been young men in the place, who might have won the heiress, their mothers might have rebelled against the edict of exclusion, and for their sons' sake have called upon Sophy Needham; but, as I shall explain in its proper place, there were no young men in Canterbury, and therefore no motive for any one to rebel against constituted authority, or to outrage propriety by calling at Harmer Place.

Papa, when informed of this decision, was very indignant and angry-much more so than he had been by the recent aspersions on himself. He even went so far as to say, that if this were Christian charity, he would rather fall among heathens. He exerted himself to the utmost to bring matters about, but the other ladies would not call unless the ladies of the precincts did, and the ladies of the precincts would not. However, it was not papa's way to give up anything he had once undertaken, and he accordingly one day sat down and wrote as follows:-

"My dear old Friend,

"Although our correspondence has been pretty regular, it is now three years since we met, and I want you, your wife, and daughter to come down and stay a week with us, either before or after Christmas, as may suit you best. Your diocese can, I am sure, do without you for a little while, and I know you will be glad to see again the old place, where you lived so long; and it would give us all great pleasure to enjoy your society once more. At the same time, I tell you frankly that it is in your power to confer a great favour and benefit both upon myself and upon another old friend of yours, Herbert Harmer.

"You will remember he brought up the child his son left behind him, that he sent her to school, and, in fact, adopted her as his own. All this happened when you were here. In my last letter I told you that he intended to leave her half his fortune, about £75,000. He is now naturally anxious to introduce her into society, in order that she may see the world, and make some suitable match, as otherwise the poor girl would, at his death, be nearly certain to be snapped up by some worthless fortune-hunter. Now you will hardly believe me when I tell you that the Christian matrons of this town shake their garments at the poor child, and insist that her presence would be a contamination to the pure atmosphere they breathe.

"Sophy is a quiet, modest, ladylike girl, and I am greatly interested in her. But here I can do nothing. I am sure that the great proportion of the ladies would be willing enough to call upon her, but they are like society in general-a mere flock of sheep, who will only follow where the bell-wethers lead them. Now, the two or three ladies who act in that capacity to Canterbury society consider that this poor little lamb will taint the whole flock, and therefore pronounce her infect and excommunicated.

"My dear old friend, I rely upon you and your kind wife to take off the ban these Pharisees have lain upon her. If you will both go over, during your stay here, to call upon her, Canterbury will be only too glad to do the same. If a bishop and his lady pronounce her visitable, who shall say them nay? I know, old friend, that in the eyes of yourself and your wife the sin of this poor girl's parents will not affect her. She is not to blame, and why should their faults be visited upon her? But I know that upon this head I need say nothing. Your wide views of Christian love and charity are so well known, that any word upon the subject would be superfluous. If you will do this, my dear bishop, you will confer an inestimable benefit upon Herbert Harmer and his grand-daughter; and you will very greatly oblige,

"Yours, very truly,

"Alfred Ashleigh."

All turned out as papa had hoped. The bishop, with his wife and daughter, came down to spend a week with us. The day after they arrived we had a perfect levee of visitors; and when the room was at its fullest, Mr. Harmer came in, being, of course, in complete ignorance that the visit had been principally brought about for his especial benefit. The bishop greeted him warmly, for they mutually esteemed and liked each other.

"I am very glad, Mr. Harmer, to hear from our friend, the doctor, that you have given up your hermit-mode of life, and are going out into the world again. I suppose all these years you have been hoarding up treasures: your house must be a perfect scientific museum by this time; and the doctor tells me that your library is nearly perfect, of its kind. I must really come over some day before I leave and inspect your collection."

Mr. Harmer expressed the gratification the visit would afford him.

"I shall certainly come," the bishop went on; "it will give me great pleasure. Let me see. To-morrow I shall be engaged in calls upon my friends in the town; suppose we say the day after. What do you say, my dear?" he asked, raising his voice, to his wife, who was sitting on the other side of the room, "I am going over the day after to-morrow to see Mr. Harmer's museum and library; will you and Gertude accompany me? Your adopted daughter," he added, turning to Mr. Harmer, "must be growing quite a young woman by this time."

"Certainly, my dear," his wife answered, "I should like it very much."

Mr. Harmer's face flushed with pleasure, and he wrung the bishop's hand. It was easy to see that he felt the kindness, and saw the true motive of the offer to brings his wife and daughter to Harmer Place. As to the remainder of those present, they were simply astounded. The buzz of conversation ceased throughout the room, and a dead silence ensued. As for myself, I should certainly have laughed out loud-had not the silence been so great that I dared not do so-at the general look of dismay in the female faces, and of rather amusement on the part of the gentlemen, who I could guess had been vainly urging their wives to call. The conversation presently became general again, but the effort was too great to be continued long; and in a very few minutes most of those present took their leave, only to be succeeded by fresh callers, until half-past four, after which hour it was the strict etiquette of Canterbury that no visits were permissible.

On the appointed day the visit was paid. I accompanied them in the carriage, and papa rode on horseback.

The Miss Harmers were away, as, indeed, had been the case since Sophy

had left school and taken up her permanent residence there. Sophy was pale, and evidently very nervous; and in her manifest desire to please it was easy to see that she was much affected, and deeply grateful for the kindness which would be the means of removing the disadvantages under which she had laboured, and which had weighed much upon her mind. However, before the visit, which lasted some time, as the library and collection of scientific apparatus had to be inspected, was over, she had recovered her usual placid demeanour.

This visit had the consequences which papa had predicted from it. Society unanimously agreed that although certainly it was a strange, a very strange step for the bishop and his lady to have taken, still as they had done so, there could be no harm in every one else doing the same; in fact that it would only be what was right and proper. The ladies whom papa had rather irreverently spoken of in his letter as the bell-wethers of the flock, held out to the last and declared that they could not reconcile it to their conscience, or to their sense of what was due to their husbands' position. But the flock were no longer obedient to their lead, and indeed whispered amongst themselves, that a bishop's lady, who was moreover the daughter of a peeress, must know a good deal better what was proper and right than a mere canon's wife could do; and the consequence was that from that moment the influence of these ladies over Canterbury society waned much, and the opposition to poor Sophy recoiled upon the heads of those who had made it. In a short time every one in Canterbury and the neighbourhood called at Harmer Place, and the general verdict upon Sophy was decidedly satisfactory. She was pronounced quiet, self-composed, and ladylike; and indeed Sophy evinced none of that nervousness which she had shown upon the occasion of the bishop's visit. To him she felt she owed all; to these people nothing. So, although perfectly polite and courteous, she was yet composed and tranquil; and some of the ladies who had called, quite prepared to be very patronizing and kind, found any such line of conduct completely out of the question. There was a quiet dignity and self possession about her which became her much. She was the well-bred hostess receiving her grandfather's guests, and few girls enacting such a part for the first time could have played it so well.

For three or four months after the bishop's visit had given the signal for society to admit Sophy Needham within its circle, the intercourse was restricted to morning calls of an extremely formal nature, which seemed by no means likely to bring about the result, to obtain which Mr. Harmer had emerged from his solitude; he made up his mind, therefore, to break the ice, which again seemed setting over the surface of the Canterbury society, by giving a series of picnics and open air fêtes. The first of these took place early in June, when I was away at school; but I heard full particulars of it upon my return. The whole of the inhabitants of Canterbury and the neighbourhood whose position rendered them eligible were invited, together with the officers of the garrison, a very necessary addition at Canterbury, where dancing young men are almost unknown. A large marquee was erected and boarded for dancing, a quadrille band brought down from London, and the military band engaged for the afternoon. Archery butts were set up, bowling-greens mowed and rolled, and coloured lamps placed in all the walks, to be illuminated after dusk. People met at between three and four, had a substantial tea at six, and a magnificent supper at eleven. Nothing, in short, which taste and an unlimited purse could do, was neglected, and the result was a splendid success. And yet early in the evening a difference had arisen which would have marred the pleasure of the whole scene had it not been for the firmness of Mr. Harmer. It seemed that soon after nine o'clock when it began to get dusk, some of the ladies of the precincts had objected strongly to the coloured lamps which had just been lighted, and which began to sparkle in the trees and grass by the side of the various walks. Not in themselves, for they allowed the effect to be very pretty; but as offering inducements and pretexts for isolated couples to stroll away, and get entirely beyond maternal supervision. Two of the ladies waited upon Mr. Harmer as a sort of deputation from the others, and it happened that one of them was the chief of the party who had opposed Sophy Needham's introduction into society, but who had at last come to the conclusion that, as others were going, it would be showing a want of Christian feeling to refuse to do as others did. These ladies recited to Mr. Harmer the objections they entertained, and concluded-

"The lighted walks will tempt the young people to stroll away and get quite out of our sight, and as all these thoughtless officers are sure to persuade them to walk there, it will lead to all sorts of silly nonsense and flirtation."

"My dear ladies," Mr. Harmer said, "as to the result I entirely agree with you, and as I, although I am an old fellow now, do like to see young people enjoying themselves, it is precisely for the very reason that you have alleged that I have had the garden lighted up."

There was nothing to reply to this, but one of the ladies said rather angrily-

"Of course, Mr. Harmer, you can do as you like, but we shall forbid our daughters to walk there."

"My dear madam," Mr. Harmer said, gently, "you can equally of course do as you please; but it appears to me, and it will appear to every one else, if you issue such an order, that you can have but a very poor opinion of, and very slight confidence in, the principles of your daughters. You show, in fact, that you cannot trust them to stroll for a few minutes, with gentlemen they have never met before, in well-lighted walks, where there will be dozens of other couples similarly enjoying themselves. Were I in your place, I should hesitate greatly before I laid such a serious imputation upon my children."

The deputation retired greatly crestfallen, and the result was that for that evening the young Canterbury girls were for the first time in their lives nearly emancipated from maternal supervision, and enjoyed the evening proportionately, flirting with a zest all the greater for its being an amusement indulged in for the first time, and making their mothers' hearts swell, and their mothers' hair figuratively stand on end at such unheard of goings on. Another consequence of the lighted walks was that many families of girls who had never hitherto been allowed to dance except in quadrilles, now found themselves allowed to waltz as they pleased. Not that their mothers' views of the extreme impropriety of such dances had undergone any change; but that of two evils they chose the least, and thought it better to have their daughters waltzing under their eyes, than that they should be wandering away altogether beyond their ken.

Why is it that mothers are so much stricter than fathers? It is certain that it is so, and upon this occasion, while the mothers were inwardly bewailing the conduct of their daughters, the fathers, although many of them clergymen, were looking on with beaming faces on the young people enjoying themselves so thoroughly; and more than one would have been delighted, could such a thing have been permitted, to have put his clerical dignity aside, and his clerical white neckcloth into his pocket, and to have joined heartily in the fun.

They did what they could to add to the general enjoyment, and several times some of them gathered into a little knot, with two or three of their wives, and sung some old glees-"Five times by the taper's light," "The winds whistle cold," and "The chough and crow;" and splendidly they sang them too. They had some famous voices among them, and I do not think I have ever heard those fine old glees better sung than I have heard them at Canterbury.

Sophy, of course, attracted much attention throughout the evening, and was constantly the centre of a little group of officers, not a few of whom would have been very willing to have turned their swords into ploughshares for her sake, and to have devoted their lives to the care of her and her possessions.

Sophy, however, by no means appeared to reciprocate their feelings in her favour. She was naturally of a quiet and retiring disposition, and did not care for dancing; and therefore, under the excuse of attending to her guests, she danced very little; when she did so, her conversation was so simple and straightforward, that any attempt at flirting upon the part of her partners was out of the question. Altogether, although the success of the fête was brilliant, as the officers agreed on their way back to barracks, and that nothing could have been better done, still, as far as Sophy was concerned-and several of them had previously announced their intention of going in for the heiress, and had even exchanged bets upon the subject-the affair was a failure. However, they consoled themselves that there was plenty of time yet, especially as Mr. Harmer had announced at supper, that another fête would take place that day six weeks, upon the 28th of July, to which he invited all friends.

This fête completely roused Canterbury from its usual lethargy, as Mr. Harmer's return to the abode of his father had done twenty years before. Every one gave parties; picnics upon a large scale were organized to different places in the neighbourhood, and the officers of the garrison gave a ball.

At the second of Mr. Harmer's fêtes Polly and I were present, as it came off just at the end of our holidays. I need not describe it, as it was in most respects similar to the first, and was just as great a success. I enjoyed myself very much, and danced a great deal with the officers, who did not seem to consider my being a schoolgirl any bar to me as a partner, as I had expected that they would have done. When not dancing I amused myself in watching Sophy. I knew that Mr. Harmer wished her to marry, and I was interested to see with what sort of a man she was likely to be taken. But Sophy was so quiet, that she did not seem to care in the least with whom she danced, or to evince the slightest preference for any one. There was, however, one thing I noticed, and that puzzled me a good deal at the time. I never spoke to any one about it, but as events turned out, I afterwards bitterly regretted that I had not done so. I noticed early in the evening a remarkably handsome man, standing by himself, and watching Sophy as she danced. I did not know him, and asked a lady next to me, who he was.

"That is Robert Gregory, my dear, the son of Mr. Gregory, the hop-factor, who died about two years ago. He was thought to have been a wealthy man, but he died worth next to nothing. It was supposed that this son of his-who is, I am told, one of the most idle and worthless young men in the country-squandered it all away. He was absent some years in London, and went on terribly there, and it is said that his poor old father was silly and weak enough to ruin himself paying the worthless fellow's debts. I am surprised to meet such a person in respectable society; but I suppose Mr. Harmer knew nothing about him, and only invited him as the son of a man who stood well in the town."

Robert Gregory was certainly a very handsome man, of a powerful build, about twenty eight years old. But as I watched him, his face seemed to me, not to be a pleasant one, but to have a bold and defiant expression. It might be merely the effect of what I had just heard; but certainly the more I looked at the man the more I felt repelled by him. He was still watching Sophy, and as I mechanically followed the direction of his gaze, I distinctly observed her, to my intense surprise, glance two or three times in his direction, not mere ordinary glances, which might fall upon any one, but positive stolen looks, which rested upon him, and were unmistakably in answer to his. After this I could not help watching them whenever I was not dancing, and I observed her once or twice in the course of the evening, as she passed by where he stood, exchange a word or two with him, not naturally and openly, but speaking as she walked past, so that no one, not watching as I was doing, would have noticed it.

I thought, as I have said, a good deal about it at the time. I did not like to speak to papa upon such a subject, as it might seem like prying, and, had there been nothing in it, it would have caused a great deal of unpleasantness; still, I do think that I should finally have done so, under promise of secrecy, had I not started for school next day. Before Christmas came round, when I left school and came back for good, I had forgotten all about the circumstance, and even had I not done so, should certainly not have mentioned it after all that lapse of time.

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