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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 21767

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Although I had enjoyed my trip to London immensely, yet I was very, very glad to get back to my dear old home again; happier even than before, for now, in addition to all my former home-pleasures, I had a secret source of happiness to muse over when alone. How bright life appeared to me, how thankful I felt for all my deep happiness, and how my heart seemed to open to all created things!

I had only one cause for sorrow, and that one which had for years been seen as a dim shadow in the far distance, but which had been for the last two or three years past increasing in magnitude, growing from vague ill-defined dread, to the sad certainty of coming grief. I mean the rapidly failing health of mamma.

From my farthest back remembrance of her she had never been strong. Not, perhaps, suffering from any decided pain or illness, but weak and languid, and unequal to any unusual exertion. For years the great part of her time had been spent on the sofa, but during the last few months she had been unmistakably failing; on my return home after my visit in London I found that there was a marked change in her appearance, and that she had grown decidedly thinner and weaker in that short time.

Papa, I could see, was very anxious about her; he was a good deal more at home now, and spent as much time as he could spare in the room with her, bringing his books in there, and sitting to study where she could see his face, and so close that she could exchange a few words with him occasionally without having to raise her voice. Ill as mamma was, I think she was never so happy in her married life as she was at that time. She now no longer troubled herself with domestic arrangements, but left all that to me, and was content to lie, holding a book in her wasted hands, and looking fondly across at her husband at his reading. When papa was there she liked, I think, best being alone with him and her thoughts; but when he was out, I used to take my work and sit beside her, and talk when she felt inclined, which was not often. Indeed, I had only one long conversation with her, which was about a month after I came back.

She had been lying very quiet one day, not speaking at all, but watching me while I worked, when she said:

"You have told us all about your trip to London, Agnes, and about your gaieties and amusements; but I do not think you have told all. As you sit there I can see sometimes the colour come up over your face, and your lips part a little, and your eyes soften, while your fingers lie idle on your work. Have you not some pleasant thoughts, dearest-some sweet hope for the future which you have not yet spoken of? Tell me, darling. I have not much longer to be with you, and it would make my last time more happy to be able to think of your future as somewhat secured, and to picture you to myself as mistress of some happy home. Am I right, my child? Have you some such hope?"

Kneeling down beside her, when my tears suffered me to speak, I told her all that had passed between me and Percy, and that, although not yet actually engaged, we should be when he came down, if papa and she approved of him; and I explained to her the reason why I had not at once told them about it was, that I wished them to see him with unbiased eyes first of all, and to like him for his own sake, before they did for mine. Mamma asked me several questions about Percy's dispositions and habits, which I answered as minutely and fairly as I could; when I had done she said:

"I think from what you say, my darling, he will make you very happy, and I shall be able to trust you to him. I shall look forward to seeing him. I am very glad you have told me, my child; I shall have pleasant thoughts of the future now, in addition to all my happy memories of the past."

From this time mamma grew fonder than ever of having me with her, and would watch me as she watched papa. She liked me best to sit on a low stool beside her, so close that without exertion she could softly stroke my hair, and let her poor thin hand rest on my head. I did not go out anywhere, except over to Sturry. There I went as often as I could; for I liked Sophy, and loved Mr. Harmer, as indeed I had good reason to do. About him papa was very uneasy; he had had a rather severe stroke of paralysis when I was away in London, and, although he had greatly recovered from it, he still felt its effects, and papa said that he must be kept very quiet, for that any excitement might bring on another and fatal attack.

The first time I went over to see Mr. Harmer, I was quite shocked at the change which had taken place since I had last seen him, little more than two months before. He rose to meet me when I went into the library where he was sitting, with quite his old smile of welcome, and I did not so much notice the change till he was fairly on his feet. Then indeed I saw how great it was. His old free, erect bearing was gone, and he stood upright with difficulty, and when he tried to walk, it was in a stiff and jointless sort of way, very painful to see. But the greatest alteration was in his voice; formerly he spoke in such a frank, hearty, joyous way, and now each word seemed to come out slowly and with difficulty. Although papa had warned me that I should see a great change in him, I had no idea of such a terrible alteration as this, and it was so great a shock to me, that I could not help breaking down and crying.

"You must not do that," Mr. Harmer said, placing me in a chair at one side of him, while Sophy, who had gone in with me, sat on the other, and he took my hand in his own, and held it there the whole time I was with him. "You must not cry, Agnes; I am getting an old man, and could not, in the ordinary course of nature, have expected to have lived many years more. I have led a very happy life, and have innumerable blessings to be thankful for; not the least, although that may seem selfish on my part, that there are some who care for me in my age, and who will be sorry when I am taken away. There, my dear, dry your eyes, and give me a full description of all your gaieties in London."

I told him all about what I had been doing, where I had gone, and everything I could think of likely to amuse him, and was still in the middle of my story when Miss Harmer came in.

"I am very sorry to have to disturb you Miss Ashleigh," she said, after shaking hands with me, "for I know how much my brother enjoys a talk with you; but your papa's orders were so very strict, that on no account should he be allowed to talk for long at a time, that I really must put a stop to your conversation."

I had not seen Miss Harmer for some time, for she and her sister had been away on the Continent for two years previously, and had returned only on receipt of the news of their brother's illness.

When Miss Harmer spoke, I got up at once to leave, feeling a little ashamed of my own thoughtlessness, for papa had particularly warned me before I started, not to talk long; but I had quite forgotten his injunction, in the pleasure Mr. Harmer had evidently felt in listening to me.

"You see, my dear," he said, "I must do as I am told now; but you will come again soon to see me, will you not?"

I promised to come as soon as I could, and from that time whenever mamma could spare me, I went over for half an hour's chat with Mr. Harmer, very often at first, but as he got better, and mamma became weaker, of course my visits became very much less frequent.

During my visits at this time, I was a good deal puzzled about Sophy. There was something in her manner, which I could not at all understand. She was evidently extremely attached to her grandfather, and was unwearied in her constant attention to him; and yet at times it appeared to me that her thoughts were far off from what was passing before her, and that after one of these fits of abstraction she would rouse herself with almost a start, and then glance furtively at Mr. Harmer, as if afraid that he had noticed it. When he praised her too, which he often did to me, for her care and kindness to him, I fancied that she almost shrank from his praise in a sort of pained way, as if she felt that his commendation was undeserved. I daresay at any other time I might have thought a great deal about this; but as it was I had so much to occupy me. What with my mother's almost daily increasing weakness; what with the rapidly approaching visit of Ada and Percy; what with my own grief and my own happiness, I had no thoughts to give to Sophy. Perhaps on my walk home from Sturry, I wondered and puzzled as to her conduct; but once past my own doors, all thought of her and her mysterious ways, were laid aside till I started for my next visit to Harmer Place.

I have not mentioned that after I had told mamma about Percy, I suppose she must have hinted something to papa; at any rate he wrote to Percy, saying that hearing from his daughter that he proposed accompanying his sister Ada on a visit to Lady Dashwood's, he should be very glad if, like her, Percy would take Canterbury on his way, and stay for a week with us. Percy answered the letter in the affirmative. Papa's eyes rather twinkled with amusement as he one day at breakfast told me in a casual sort of way that he had written to Mr. Desborough, asking him to stay with us while his sister did, and that he had heard that morning that his invitation was accepted.

I know I tried to look unconscious, but finally had to go round the table and rumple papa's hair all over, and tell him that he was a dear old goose.

It was about two months after my return from London that I received a letter from Ada, saying that her brother had obtained leave of absence again, and that the season was now quite over, and London dreadfully hot; that she longed to be out of it and in the country again, and that if convenient she would come on that day week, and that Percy would accompany her. I had been expecting this news for some time, still, now that it had come-now that I knew for certain that in another week Percy would be with me-it was very difficult to realize, and very hard, indeed, to go about looking tranquil and unconcerned under sister Polly's watchful eye and sly remarks. Polly was now at home for the holidays, and during the week I many times wished her back at school again, for she was really a serious plague to me. She had somehow guessed, or fancied she guessed, the state of things between Percy and me, and she was constantly making remarks about their coming visit, and then slyly watching me to see the colour which would, on the mention of his name, mount up into my cheeks. I had, as a girl, a dreadful habit of blushing, which, do what I would, I could not break myself of. It was very tiresome, and I would have given anything to have cured myself of the trick.

So now, what with Polly

's mischievous hints and my ridiculous habit of blushing, I was made quite uncomfortable for that week. At last I had to tell her she was annoying me very much, and that if she did it when they came down I should be seriously angry with her. When she saw I was quite in earnest, she pretended to be very penitent, although I am sure she was only amused; however, she gave it up as much as she could for the time.

At last the day came for them to arrive, and I went down to the train to meet them with papa and Polly. I proposed this myself, as it was much less embarrassing to meet in all that bustle and confusion than in the quiet of our hall.

Presently the train came up, and I saw Ada's face at the window. We were soon at the door and helped her out. When I had kissed her I shook hands with Percy and introduced him to papa, and they went off together to look after the luggage, leaving us three girls talking on the platform. Altogether it had been much less embarrassing than I had feared. Papa ordered a man to take the boxes round to our house, and we started to walk, retaining the same order; we girls together in front, and papa and Percy behind. So down Westgate, across the bridge over the Stour, and under the noble old gate, which, so many centuries back, frowned down upon the haughty priest à Becket, as he passed under it upon that last journey to Canterbury from which he returned alive no more. It was an old gateway then, but still capable of a sturdy defence against the weapons of the time; for on either side the city walls stretched away, lofty and strong. Now, at this point they are gone, and the old gateway stands isolated and alone; but it is still strong and well preserved, and looks as if, unless disturbed by the hand of man, it could bid defiance to the action of time for many a century yet to come. Under this we walked, and then down the High Street, with its quaint, high-gabled, overhanging houses, and up the narrow lane which led to our house. After we had lunched, we went up into the drawing-room, to mamma, who was very pleased to see Ada again, with her bright face and happy laugh,-for I did not mention in its proper place that Ada had spent one of her Christmas holidays with us. Mamma looked very earnestly at Percy, as if she could read his character at a glance, and listened very attentively to all he said. As we went out of the room-which we did in about a quarter of an hour, for mamma could not bear so many in the room for long together-she kissed me, as I lingered behind the others, and pressed my hand lovingly, and I could see she was quite satisfied.

I did not see much of Percy for the next two days, at which I was very glad, for I could not help feeling a little awkward; and although I endeavoured to soothe my conscience by telling myself that had I not put him off he would have proposed to me when I was staying in London, yet I could not help feeling that somehow I had invited him down here on purpose for him to ask me to be his wife. For these two days he was as much as he could be with papa, accompanying him in his drives and rides, and I could see by papa's manner that he really liked him very much. To me he was very nice, not at all showing me any marked attention so as to be perceptible to any one else; and yet I could feel there was something different in his tone of voice and manner when he addressed me to what he used when he spoke to others. Ada and I found lots to talk about when we were alone; for although she had written very often, and given me very full accounts, still there was an immense deal to tell me about all the different balls she had been to since, and what engagements had been made during the season; I found, too, although this was a subject Ada was very chary of speaking of, that she herself had refused one very good offer, and that she was rather under the ban of her lady-mother's displeasure in consequence. "She consoles herself, however," Ada said, "with the conclusion, that there are even better matches to be made than the one I refused, and that I must have set my mind on being a duchess; for that any idea of love is necessary for a marriage, is a matter which never entered her mind." Ada was a little bitter upon the subject, and I was sorry to see she was likely to have disputes with her mother upon the point; for there was no doubt that Lady Desborough was a very worldly woman, and I was quite sure that Ada, although at times thoughtless and fond of admiration, would never marry any one, however high his rank, to whom she had not given her heart.

The third morning of their visit I was up early, and went for my usual little stroll in the garden before breakfast. I had not been there many minutes before Percy joined me, and when we went in together we were engaged. I do not tell how it came about, what he said, or how I answered him. There is very little in the words thus spoken to interest others, although so unutterably sweet to listen to. To me there is something almost sacred in the thought of that time; far too sacred to be told to any one; and even now, eight years after, my cheeks flush, my eyes fill with tears, and my fingers quiver at the thought of those few words, and of the kiss by which our engagement was sealed. Oh Percy, Percy, could we but have seen the future then! But, perhaps, better not-better, certainly, for I have at least the pleasure left me of looking back upon that short space of intense happiness-a memory which is all my own, and which nothing can take away from me. I do not know how I made breakfast that morning-I am sure I must have made all sorts of blunders; but Ada, who at once saw what had happened, and Polly, who I think guessed, chattered away so incessantly, that I was not obliged to take any part in the conversation. Ada afterwards told me that in the first cup of tea I gave her no milk, and that she saw me put no less than eight pieces of sugar into the second. I only hope the others were better, but I have serious doubts on the subject. After breakfast was over, papa went into the study, and Percy at once followed him in there. As soon as the door closed upon them, Ada came round, and kissed me very warmly and lovingly; and Polly, as soon as she saw by our manner that her suspicions were correct, and that Percy and I were engaged, first nearly suffocated me with the violence of her embraces, and then performed a wild and triumphant pas seul round the breakfast-table, in a manner directly opposed to the injunction and teaching of the Misses Pilgrim and "Grendon House." Altogether she was quite wild, and I had the greatest difficulty in sobering her down, especially as Ada was rather inclined to abet her in her folly.

I shall pass very briefly over the remaining ten days that Percy and Ada stayed with us, for indeed that happy time is more than even now I can write about calmly. Papa's and mamma's consent was warmly given, and they were very much pleased with Percy. The only drawback to papa's satisfaction at the match, was the fact of Percy being in the army, and the thought of my going abroad. Percy, indeed, offered to leave the service, but this I would not hear of. I knew how much he was attached to his profession, and I had no objection to the thought of going abroad; and my money, with his pay and allowance from his mother, would enable us to live in luxury in any part of the world.

Two days after our engagement took place I received a very nice letter from Lady Desborough, saying how pleased she was to hear of Percy's choice, and its success. She said a good many kind and complimentary things, to which I did not, even at the time, attach much importance, for I knew well that it was only the fact of her son choosing, greatly against her wishes, an active military life, which made her regard with approval his engagement with myself. However, I did not fret seriously about that; she gave her consent, and that was all that was required, while I had the hearty approval of my own dear parents in my choice. I believed Percy loved me with all his heart, and I certainly did him with all mine. So the time they stopped with us went over very happily and quickly. Nothing was said before they went away about our marriage; indeed, mamma was so very ill, that it was a question which could not be discussed, as of course I could not have left her in the state she was in, and how long she might remain as she was no one could tell.

However, it was willed that her stay with us should be even more brief than our worst fears had whispered. Percy and Ada had not left us much more than a month, when papa said at breakfast one morning: "Agnes, I wrote yesterday to Harry to come home; write to-day to Miss Pilgrim, asking her to send Polly home to-morrow." It did not need for me to look in his face; the quiver of his voice told me his meaning: they were to come home to see mamma before she died. What a dreadful shock it was. I had long known mamma must leave us soon, but she had so long been ill, and she changed so gradually, that, until papa spoke that morning, I had never realized that her time was so near at hand. Yet, when I recovered from that terrible fit of crying, I remembered how I could count back from week to week, and see how the change, gradual as it seemed, had yet been strongly marked, and that the last two months had wrought terrible havoc with her little remaining strength.

At the beginning of that time she had been up nearly all day, lying on the sofa. As time went on, she got up later and went to bed earlier; at the end of the month, papa had taken to carrying her in, and now, for the last ten days, her visits to the drawing-room had ceased altogether. She was wonderfully calm and patient, and through all those long months of illness, I never heard a murmur or word of complaint pass her lips.

Polly arrived the day after I wrote, and was, poor child, in a dreadful state of grief. Harry came the day after: to him the shock was greater than to any of us. He had not seen her fading gradually away as we had, and although from our letters, he knew how ill she was, he had never until he came back completely realized it.

I pass over the week which mamma lived after Harry's return, as also the week after her death. These solemn griefs are too sacred to be described. Do we not all know them? For are not these great scenes common to every one? Have we not all of us lost our darlings, our loves? Is there not an empty chair in every household; a place in every heart where one lives who is no longer seen on earth; a secret shrine whence, in the dead of the night, the well-known figure steps gently out, and communes with us over happy times that are gone, and bids us hope and wait for that happier meeting to come, after which there will be no more parting and tears?

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