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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 20629

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

About three months after I left school for good I received an invitation to go up to London and stay for a month with Ada Desborough. This was a great event. Ada told me that her mother was going to give a grand ball, at which she was to come out, and that I should be formally introduced to the world upon the same occasion; and she remarked that she flattered herself that society in general ought to rejoice at the advent of two such charming votaries at its shrine. She added, in a postscript, that her brother Percy would be at home on leave.

I was, of course, delighted at the prospect of a month of real London life, with its balls and operas, and looked forward to my visit as if going into fairy-land. Mr. Harmer, when he heard of my invitation, made me a very handsome present to buy myself dresses fitted for the occasion. I had, therefore, a fortnight of excitement and preparation, as my morning and walking dresses were made at Canterbury; but my ball-dresses were ordered of a London dressmaker, as mamma thought that Canterbury fashions would not do for me at Lady Desborough's.

At last all was ready, and I started for town. Papa put me in charge of a lady of his acquaintance, who was also going to London, and then said good-bye, with many comic injunctions as to my behaviour in good society.

Nothing particular happened on our journey to London, and when I got out at the station, a tall footman, whose face I remembered, came up and touched his hat, and asked what luggage I had.

Lady Desborough had sent her carriage to meet me, and I began to realize the fact that I had all at once become a young woman.

I felt a little flurried when we drew up at the house in Eaton Square, and the tall footman knocked at the door, in a way I thought unnecessarily loud and important.

However, I soon felt at home when Ada came flying downstairs into the hall, and kissed me as warmly as she had done three months before when we parted at Miss Pilgrim's.

"Come along, Agnes, dear; never mind your things; they will be all brought up safe. Your room is next to mine, with a door between, so we shall be able to talk as much as we like. Mamma is not very well, and is lying down, and you will not see her till dinner-time, so I have got you all to myself for three hours. There, that is your room, and this is mine."

Very snug and comfortable they looked, with two large fires blazing in the grates, which gave a cosy look to the rooms, and caused me to forget the unusual grandeur of the furniture; for I should, I think, have otherwise felt not a little awe-struck, it was all so very different from my quiet old-fashioned low-ceiled room, with its white hangings, down in Canterbury.

However, I had no time to notice much then, for Ada, in her impulsive way, was already occupied in taking off my wraps; this done, she again kissed me, and then made me seat myself in a chair in front of the fire, while she nestled down on a low stool beside me.

"There, Agnes, now you will get warm again. Do you know you are looking very well after your journey, and are certainly even prettier than when I saw you last. I begin to think I was very foolish to have you here at all: you will quite eclipse poor little me."

I laughed at the nonsense she was talking, for Ada was one of the loveliest girls I ever saw, and I-well, I believe I was pretty, but certainly nothing to compare to Ada. We chatted merrily over old times, and then Ada gave me the list of our engagements, which quite frightened me, at the number of titled people I was going to visit. At last it was time to get ready for dinner; so I went into my own room, where I found Ada's maid had already unpacked my boxes, and put all my things away ready for use into the drawers and wardrobes. I was therefore able to take my time dressing, talking to Ada the while through the open door.

When we went down into the drawing-room ready for dinner, we found Percy sitting reading by the light of the bright fire. He must have heard the rustle of our dresses as we entered, but he continued reading to the last moment; then closing his book, reluctantly as it were, rose to speak to us. As he did so he gave quite a start; he had evidently expected to meet the schoolgirl he had seen nearly two years before, looking demure and half frightened at his mamma's presence, and I certainly felt flattered at the evident surprise and admiration his face expressed when his eyes fell upon me. It was my first effect, and I could not help colouring up and feeling gratified.

"I need not say how do you do, Miss Ashleigh," he said, coming forward to shake hands with me. "Your looks speak for themselves. I should hardly have known you; how you have grown, and how very pretty you have become."

I coloured high in laughing confusion, and Ada said, coming to my relief, "Really, Percy, how sadly gauche and unpolished you are in your way of paying compliments: the idea of telling a young lady just come out, that she has grown very pretty; just the sort of thing you might have said to a little child, or a milkmaid. You might have conveyed the idea, which in itself is true and unexceptionable, in some delicate way in which it would have been acceptable. Grown pretty, indeed! You never had much manners, Percy, but the Lancers certainly have not improved you."

"I really beg your pardon, Miss Ashleigh," he said, colouring almost as much as I had done, "but I felt so much surprised for a moment at the change in you, that I was obliged to express myself in the most straightforward way: had what I said been less true, I should have put it into some different form."

"That is better, Percy," Ada said, approvingly.

"Agnes, make one of your best Grendon House curtsies."

I swept to the ground in a deep reverence, and then having quite recovered my confusion by seeing Percy embarrassed by Ada's attack, I was able to take my own part in the conversation; and-accustomed as I was to wordy skirmishes with papa and Harry-with Ada on my side, we soon completely silenced Percy, who, indeed, in a war of words, was no match for either of us alone.

Percy Desborough was, in my opinion, a handsome man; and yet, perhaps, as I am prejudiced in his favour, my opinion may not be worth much, and I do not think girls in general would have thought him so. He was now nearly twenty-three, about middle height, rather slight, with a lithe, sinewy figure: very upright. His brown hair was brushed back with a wave from his forehead, for in the year of grace, 1848, young men had not taken to cutting their hair like convicts, or charity boys. He had a thoughtful and yet a quick eye, a firm, resolute mouth, and a white and thin, but very nervous hand. He looked a soldier every inch, of the type of which our Indian heroes are made; thoughtful, studious men, with warm hearts, and iron resolutions, with manners quiet and gentle, but with the fiery courage of a Bayard. He was as far removed from the ordinary drawing-room soldier as can well be; men who, doubtless, when necessity comes, are, as every English gentleman must be, brave as far as personal courage goes, but who care little for their military duties, contenting themselves with going through the daily routine, reserving all their best energies for the evening. Men with a rather supercilious smile, and languid air, with a great flow of small talk and compliments: men much given to stroking their moustache and whiskers, and with an amazing idea of their own powers of fascination; not, indeed, that I blame them for that, for we girls do make such fools of them, that it is no wonder they should consider that as far as we are concerned they are invincible. Percy was, on the other hand, almost shy with women, and was very studious, especially in all matters relating to his profession. He expected, Ada told me, to embark for India with his regiment in about a year's time, and he was working very hard at Hindostanee and the other Eastern languages, in order to qualify himself for a staff appointment.

Lady Desborough presently came down. She was extremely gracious and cordial, and, although it was not more than six months since she had seen me, she assured me that I had very much improved, especially in figure and carriage,-the points, she observed, in which young girls generally fail; and she said she should be quite proud of two such belles as Ada and myself to introduce into society.

We dined earlier than usual, and did not sit so long at the table. This was a great relief to me, as I hardly felt enough at home to have quite recovered from my old sense of oppression at the extreme stateliness of the meal. The reason for this change was, that we were going to the opera in the evening. We had dressed for it before dinner, so that there was no time lost, and we entered Lady Desborough's box a little before the overture began. Lady Desborough insisted on us girls taking the front seats. She sat between us, but rather farther back, while Percy stood sometimes behind Ada, sometimes behind me.

While the overture was going on, Ada told me to look down upon the sea of heads below. It was wonderful, but yet a little confusing, there were so many men looking up with opera-glasses, and a great many of them seemed gazing right into our box.

"How very rude they are, Ada!"

Ada laughed. She had often been there before, and was accustomed to it.

"My dear, it is the greatest possible compliment to us. All these lorgnettes turned to our box proclaim us indisputable belles. Men would not take the trouble to look at us if we were not pretty. There, child, don't colour up so; the only way is to look perfectly indifferent, as if you were quite unconscious of it."

It was easy advice to give, and I followed it to the best of my power; but I felt very hot and uncomfortable till the curtain drew up, and then I was too entirely absorbed in the music to have noticed it, even if the whole house had been looking at me.

It was to me an evening of enchantment. The opera was "Lucrezia Borgia," with Alboni as Orsini, and I had never before conceived it possible that the human voice was capable of producing such exquisite full liquid notes as those which poured from her, seemingly without the slightest effo

rt. It was marvellous, and I was literally enchanted; and even between the acts I did not recover sufficiently from the effect it produced on me to listen to Ada, who wanted to talk, and tell me who every one was in the different boxes.

When we reached home, Lady Desborough said it was quite a treat going with any one who enjoyed herself as thoroughly as I did. The first time Ada went she did not seem to care in the least about the music, and only occupied herself in asking who all the people were.

The next day we went for a drive in the park, and I was quite astonished and delighted at the number and beauty of the carriages and horses; for in our walks at school, we had only kept in the secluded parts of the park and gardens, and had never been allowed to go near the fashionable quarters. It was quite a new pleasure to me. But whatever I felt, I knew it was right and proper to sit quite still, and to look passive and quiet as Ada did, especially as numbers of ladies in carriages bowed to Lady Desborough, and men on horseback lifted their hats, or sometimes rode up to the carriage and spoke. Ada knew most of them by name, but very few to speak to, as her mamma had not been in the habit of taking her out to drive with her, or of introducing her to any one, as she was not yet out. But now as we were to appear the next evening in public, Lady Desborough introduced several of the gentlemen to us, and some of them rode for a little way by the side of the carriage, talking to her ladyship, and sometimes exchanging a few words with Ada and myself. That evening we were a quiet little party, and after Ada and I had played some of our old school duets together, we went to bed quite early, in order to be fresh for the next day's fatigues.

What an exciting day that was! Early in the morning Gunter's men came and took possession of the dining-room, turning it completely upside down. A large cartload of benches and tressels came at the same time, and they took the dining-table away, and erected a large horse-shoe table in its place. In the mean time the upholsterer's men were hard at work in the drawing-room. First they removed all the furniture from it; then they took out the window-sashes, and erected a most lovely little tent over the whole balcony, lined with white and blue muslin, and furnished with couches, forming a most charming place to go out into between the dances. Having done this, they stretched a drugget over both drawing-rooms, and placed forms round the room. As soon as they were gone, Ada and I came into it, and performed a waltz on the drugget, which was pronounced stretched to perfection. About this time Percy arrived from Covent Garden, where he had been to see that the flowers which had been previously ordered were coming. Scarcely had he arrived when two carts drove up to the door full of them. We thereupon formed ourselves into a council of taste, and the flowers were distributed under our supervision in the hall, in the room behind the dining-room-which was to be for tea and ices-on the landings of the staircase, and in the grates of the drawing-rooms. The conservatory had been filled the day before, and a perfumed fountain from Rimmel's, placed there to play during the evening. When all was done, we pronounced the effect to be charming. Lady Desborough, at Ada's request, came down from her room, where she had been all the morning, to inspect the arrangements, which she pronounced exceedingly good. Indeed it looked extremely well, for the drawing-rooms, which were very large and handsome, had been repapered specially for the occasion, Lady Desborough being determined that nothing should be wanting, and their effect, with the pretty tent outside, and the large boudoir opening from the farther end, was really lovely. When she had inspected everything, she said that she particularly wished us to lie down for a time in the afternoon, and to get a short sleep if possible, if not to take a book, but at all events to keep quiet, in order that we might be fresh in the evening. This advice we of course had to follow, but it was very unpalatable to us both, as we were girls enough to enjoy all the bustle immensely; still there was no help for it; and so we went up to our rooms, where lunch, by Lady Desborough's orders, was brought up to us. After that we lay down, but I don't think either of us closed our eyes. I am sure I was far too excited at the thought of the evening before me. Presently Ada came into my room, and said that lying down was out of the question, so we wheeled two easy chairs before the fire, and sat there and chatted quietly.

By six o'clock the supper was all laid, under the superintendence of Gunter's managing man himself, and the effect, when we went in to see it on our way down to dinner in the back dining-room, was certainly superb. Even Lady Desborough condescended to express her conviction to Gunter's managing man, that nothing could be better.

After this, the house subsided into quiet, and soon after seven we went up to dress. We had thus nearly three hours before us, as it was quite certain no one would come before ten; and I confess I did not see how we could possibly occupy all that, and was half inclined to side with Percy in his remarks as to the absurdity of our being so long at our toilet. However, Ada paid no attention to what he said, and, of course, I went up-stairs with her. It was very pleasant up there, and we chatted a long time, sitting before Ada's fire, before we made any signs of beginning to dress.

Presently a knock at the door interrupted us, and we were told that the hairdresser was below.

"I will go down first, Agnes; you get on with your dressing. I shall not be twenty minutes at most."

While I was dressing a small parcel was brought up, which had been left at the door for me. It contained a note and a small jewel-box. The note was from Messrs. Hunt and Roskell, saying, "That they had received orders from Mr. Harmer, of Canterbury, to send me a cross, the choice of which he had left with them, and a small chain to suspend it round my neck. That they trusted the jewel would give me satisfaction; but that, if I wished, they would exchange it for any other in their shop, if I would favour them with a call." The contents of the case were a small cross, composed entirely of very large diamonds, of the value of which I had no idea, but which looked very lovely, and a small chain to hang it round my neck. I said nothing to Ada, although the door was open, as I wished to surprise her.

Ada's maid seemed a long time to me putting the finishing touches to my dress; for I was not accustomed to all these little minuti?; but at last it was done, and I turned round to go into Ada's room-she having been dressed by Lady Desborough's own maid-when she came into the room to me, and as she did so we uttered an exclamation of mutual admiration. Ada certainly looked lovely; she was dressed in white silk, with white tulle over it, which was looped up with scarlet flowers, and she had a wreath of the same, with green leaves in her dark hair; round her neck was a beautiful necklace of pearls of great value, which was, I believe, a family heirloom.

My dress, like hers, was of white silk, with a skirt of lovely Brussels lace, a present from Mr. Harmer, over it. This was slightly looped up with blue forget-me-nots, and I had a wreath of the same flowers in my hair.

"Oh Agnes," Ada exclaimed, after our first burst of mutual congratulations was over, "Oh, Agnes, what a lovely diamond cross; where did you get it from? you never showed it me before."

I explained to her the manner in which I had just received it.

"Well, Agnes, that Mr. Harmer of yours is a trump, as Percy would say. What a beautiful thing. Have you any idea of the value of it?"

I knew nothing of the value of diamonds, and suggested twenty pounds.

"Twenty pounds, you silly child," Ada said; "you don't deserve to have presents made you. If I know anything of diamonds, it is worth two hundred."

"You don't mean that, Ada," I exclaimed, quite frightened at the idea of carrying such a valuable thing round my neck; "you are only laughing at me."

"I can assure you I am in earnest, Agnes; they are quite worth that; they are splendid diamonds, and the cross looks quite a blaze of light on your neck."

We were down stairs by a quarter to ten. Percy was already there, and paid us both many nonsensical compliments. Lady Desborough soon came down, and also expressed herself highly pleased with our appearance. She fully endorsed what Ada had said as to the value of the cross, and said that it was worth more than Ada had put it at, perhaps nearly twice as much.

"Now," she said, when Percy had gone out of the room to fetch something he had forgotten, "I wish to give you a last piece of advice. I give it to you, Miss Ashleigh, as much as I do to Ada, for as you come out under my charge, I consider myself as responsible for you equally. To you, Ada, I say be very careful you do not let your high spirits run away with you; above all, do not become noisy: I know well what your tendency is. This does not apply to you, Miss Ashleigh, for although you have good spirits, I know you are not likely to let them run away with you as Ada is. Do not either of you, I beg, dance more than once, or at most twice with any gentleman. This applies equally to you, Miss Ashleigh, as the heiress to a considerable fortune. It is incumbent on you both to be very careful with whom you dance,-I mean, dance frequently: there is nothing more damaging to a girl than that her name should be mentioned as seen flirting with any but a most eligible party; and as at present you do not know who is who, you cannot be too careful."

Here Percy's return interrupted any further advice which Lady Desborough might have been disposed to have tendered us; and in a few minutes the visitors began to arrive, and my first ball began.

I may here mention, with reference to Lady Desborough's remark about my being an heiress, that Clara Fairthorne had brought the news to school, when Mr. Harmer's intentions with respect to us were publicly announced, and from that time we were generally known there by the nickname of the "heiresses."

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