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   Chapter 11 LAYING A TRAIN.

A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 17687

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

It was not for three weeks after mamma's death that I again saw Mr. Harmer, and then he came over in his carriage to say good-bye to me, as he would not see me again for some little time, for I was going away for a month with papa to Ramsgate for a change.

In truth we both needed it. I was pale and nervous; all the scenes and emotions of the last three months had shaken me very much, and I think that had I not gone to the sea-side I should have had a serious illness of some sort. Papa, too, looked ill and worn. He had felt mamma's loss very much; and, indeed, the long watching and the constant noting the signs of her rapid decay, all so clear to his medical eye, must have been a terrible trial.

The house, too, was now so dreadfully lonely and dull that I became quite affected by it, and began to feel my old childish terrors of the dark passages, and the midnight sounds of the old house grew upon me again: in fact, I became sadly nervous and out of sorts, and a change was absolutely necessary.

Harry had gone back to his work in the North, and Polly to Grendon House, so papa and I had only ourselves and each other to think of.

When Mr. Harmer called, I found him very much better than when I had seen him last. His difficulty of utterance had quite passed off, and he was able to walk again nearly as firmly and freely as he had before. He was very kind to me, as, indeed, he always was; and sympathized with me so gently and feelingly upon the great loss I had sustained, that he soothed rather than opened the recent wounds. Altogether, his visit did me good; and I was very glad to find him so much better than I had expected, for, although papa had told me that he was getting round wonderfully, and was likely, unless he had another seizure, to live for many years, I had not hoped to see him as well as he was. He did not at all mind papa's going away, for he had promised to come up twice a week from Ramsgate to see him, and he could be telegraphed for at any moment should anything occur to render such a step necessary.

So papa and I went down to Ramsgate for a month, and a very great deal of good it did us. The fresh air and sea-bathing soon cured my nervousness, and the change of scene and the variety and life of the place-so different from the quiet sleepiness of Canterbury-gradually softened the bitterness of my grief; while nearly every day I had letters from Percy-long, loving letters, very cheering and dear to me-painting our future life together, and making me feel very happy; so happy, that I sometimes blamed myself for feeling so, so soon after my dear mother's death. It was a tranquil, quiet life, and I rapidly recovered my health and strength again. I had no acquaintances down there, for Ramsgate is too near to Canterbury for the people from there to visit it. Besides, Canterbury is a great deal too genteel to patronize so exceedingly vulgar a place as Ramsgate. I had a chatting acquaintance with several of the boatmen, and papa was very fond of sitting of an evening at the end of the pier, on the great stone posts to which the steamers are fastened, and talking to the fishermen of the wrecks they had known on those terrible Goodwins, and of the vessels which had been lost in trying to make the entrance to the Harbour. I also struck up a great acquaintance with the old bathing-woman-not, certainly, from any use that she was to me, for I would never let her take me by the hands and plunge me under water as I saw some girls do, but I used to talk to her of an evening when her work was done, and she was hanging up the towels to dry. She was a very worthy old body, and not so frightfully ugly as she looked in her bathing-costume, with her draggled clothes and weather-beaten bonnet, but was a quiet respectable-looking old woman. She had been a bathing-woman there for years and years; and had, I have no doubt, saved up a snug little sum of money. She told me that she had a married daughter who lived near London, and who had a very nice cottage down at Putney, and who let part of it to lodgers; and she hoped that if I were ever going near London, I would patronize her. I told her that there was not the remotest probability of such a thing; but she suggested that I might know some one who might one day go, and, accordingly, to please her, I took the address down in my pocket-book, but certainly without the remotest idea that it would ever turn out of the slightest use to me.

Papa, on his return from his visits to Canterbury twice a week, always brought back some fresh topics for conversation. He was at all times fond of talking over his day's visits, and told me so much about his patients that I grew quite interested in his accounts of the improvement or otherwise of those who were seriously ill, and was pleased or sorry as his report of their state was good or the reverse. This had always been papa's habit, partly because he felt so much interested in his work that his patients were constantly in his thoughts, and partly because when we were at home he always had soups, jellies, and other strengthening food made for those among his poorer patients as required such treatment.

One evening when papa came back, he looked vexed and thoughtful; however, I asked no questions for I knew that if he thought right he would tell me presently what it was. When we had finished our dinner we strolled out on to the esplanade in front of our house. He lit his cigar, and we leant on the rail and looked down upon the shipping in the harbour, in the gathering twilight, and at the light on the Goodwin which was as yet but just visible. For some time papa did not speak; at last he took his cigar out of his mouth, and said, "I am vexed, Agnes; or rather troubled. I will tell you why: you are a discreet little woman now, and so I can trust you with what I have seen."

He again paused, and took two or three quick puffs at his cigar, as if in angry thought of how he should begin, and then went on.

"There lives near Canterbury, Agnes, a lazy, bad, dissolute man, named Robert Gregory. I do not suppose you have noticed him, although you may have possibly met him casually. He is, as I have said, a bad man, and bears a character of the worst description. Some eight or ten years since, when he was a very young man, he went up to London, and by his extravagance and bad habits there, he ruined the old man, his father, and brought him prenaturely to the grave.

"This man, Agnes, is good-looking, and yet with a bad face. It is rather coarse perhaps, more so than it was ten years since when I first saw him, for that sort of face, when it once begins to go off, loses its beauty rapidly; still, I allow, much as I object to the man, that he is handsome. It is just the sort of face likely to attract a young girl who is new to the world. A face apparently frank and good-natured, and yet with something-imperious and even defiant about it; very taking to the young, who cannot help feeling flattered by seeing that the man, who looks as if he neither cared for nor feared any other living thing, should yet bow to them; that the fierce eye should soften, and the loud voice become gentle when he addresses them. Altogether a dangerous man for a young girl to know, a very dangerous one for her to love. To a man like myself, accustomed from habit and profession to study character, he is peculiarly repulsive. His face to me is all bad. The man is not only a blackguard, and a handsome blackguard, but he is a clever and determined one; his face is marked with lines of profligacy and drunkenness, and there is a passionate, dangerous flash about his eye. He has, too, seen the world, although only a bad side of it; but he can, when he chooses, lay aside his roughness and rampant blackguardism, and assume a tolerably gentlemanly, quiet demeanour, which would very well pass muster with an inexperienced girl. In short, my dear, if I were asked to select the man of all others, of those with whom I am acquainted, whom I would least rather meet in any society where my daughter, or any young girl might see him, I should unhesitatingly say-Robert Gregory. Fortunately for society here, the man, by his well-known drunken and bad character, has placed himself beyond its pale, and so he can do it no great harm. It was only the last time that I was in Canterbury that I heard, and I acknowledge that I heard with great pleasure, that Robert Gregory was so deeply in debt that writs were out against him; and that unless he went away he would in a short time be consigned to a debtor's prison, so that Canterbury, at any rate for some time, might hope to be free of him. Well, my dear, I daresay you are wondering what all this long story about a person of whom you know nothing can be going to end in, but you will see that it is al

l very much to the point. To-day I was rather earlier than usual in my visit to Mr. Harmer. I was driving fast, and as I turned the corner of the road where the plantation in Mr. Harmer's ground begins, I saw a man getting over the hedge into the road. Probably the noise he was making breaking through the twigs, together with the turn of the road, prevented his seeing or hearing the gig until he was fairly over; for as he jumped into the road and looked round I was not twenty yards off, and could hear him swear a deep oath, as he pulled his hat down over his eyes, and turned his back to me as I drove past to prevent my seeing his face; but it was too late, for I had recognized Robert Gregory. Of course I said nothing; but as I drove up to the house, looking over the grounds, I saw Sophy Needham coming up through the trees from the very direction from which I had seen him come out. She was at some distance off, and I was almost at the door, so I could not have stopped to speak to her without being noticed, even had I wished it. She did not come into the room while I was there, so that I had no opportunity of questioning her about it, even had I made up my mind to do so; indeed it was so delicate a matter that I could not have spoken to her without previous reflection.

"Altogether the affair has a very curious and ugly look. It could hardly be a mere coincidence, that he should be getting over the hedge from the plantation-where he could have no possible reason for going except to see her-at the very time of her coming away from that part of the grounds. It looks very like a secret meeting, but how such a thing could have been brought about is more than I can imagine. But if it is so, it is a dreadful business."

We were both silent for some time, and then I said,-

"Do you know, papa, I remember meeting the man you speak of at the fête at Mr. Harmer's last year."

"Now you mention it, Agnes, I recollect that he was there. I wondered at the time at his being invited, but I supposed Mr. Harmer had known his father as a respectable man, and had asked the son, knowing nothing of his character, or the disrepute in which he was held. I did not notice him much, nor did I see him dance with Sophy; had I done so I should have warned Mr. Harmer of his real character."

"He did not dance with her, papa," I said, rather timidly, for I was frightened at the thought of what dreadful mischief had resulted, which might have been averted had I spoken of the matter at the time. "He did not dance with her, but he had some sort of secret understanding with her; at least I thought so;" and I then told him all I had observed that evening at the fête. "I should have mentioned it at the time, papa, for it perplexed me a good deal, but I went back to school next day, and never thought of it from that day to this."

"Do you know, Agnes," papa said, throwing away his cigar, and taking three or four turns up and down in extreme perplexity, "this is very serious; I am quite frightened to think of it. What on earth is to be done?" and papa took off his hat and rubbed his hair back from his forehead. "How very unfortunate that you did not speak of what you noticed at the time. I am not blaming you; going off to school, as you say, of course put it out of your head; besides, you did not know the man as I do, and could not guess what terrible results might be growing out of what you saw; you could not, as a mere girl, tell how bad it is for a young woman to have a secret understanding of that sort with any man-how fatal, when with such a man as Robert Gregory.

"Had I known it at that time, I might have done something to put a stop to it. It would, in any case, have been a delicate matter to have interfered in, merely on the grounds of what you noticed, and which Sophy would, of course, have disputed; still I might have warned Mr. Harmer against allowing such a man to enter his doors, and I would have spoken when Sophy was present, and said how bad his character was, so as to have opened her eyes to the real nature of the man. It might have done no good. A girl is very slow to believe anything against a man she loves. Still it would have been something; and had there been any opportunity, I could have related some stories about him, which I knew to be true, which must have convinced her that he was a thorough blackguard.

"It might have been quite ineffectual; still it might possibly have done good. But now-really, Agnes," he said, stopping short, "I don't know what to do: it is a dreadful affair. There, don't distress yourself, my child"-for I was crying now-"matters may not be as bad as we fancy, although I confess that I do not see any possible interpretation which can put the affair in a better light. The only question is, what is to be done?

"To begin with, we are, you see, placed in a peculiarly delicate position in respect to Sophy. In case of any scandal being discovered through our means, and Mr. Harmer altering his will in consequence, you might benefit from it, and it would place my conduct and motive for interfering in a very false and unpleasant light. In the next place, in Mr. Harmer's present state of health, the agitation such a disclosure would produce, would not improbably-indeed, would be very likely to-bring on another paralytic fit, and cost him his life. The only thing I can at present think of is to appeal to Sophy herself.

"I fear that would hardly be successful, as the secret understanding between them must have gone on for more than a year, to our knowledge, and we dare not even think in what relation they may now stand to each other. Still it must be tried. Should that fail, as I feel it is quite certain to do, an appeal must be made to him. He may be bought off. Of course, with him it is a mere question of time. If he waits till Mr. Harmer's death, which may not occur for years yet, Sophy is sure to be a wealthy heiress; if he marries her before that, Mr. Harmer will infallibly alter his will. He would, no doubt, still leave her something, for he loves her too much to leave her a beggar even in a moment of anger.

"So you see it is quite a matter of calculation. Robert Gregory has waited until now, but he must be getting desperate. This writ, of which I spoke, may induce him to come to some sudden decision-no one can say what. It is altogether a very bad business, and a difficult matter for any one, far more for myself, to meddle in. However, something must be done: that much is certain. To-day is Wednesday. I had not intended to go into Canterbury again till Saturday, but now I shall go on Friday. So we shall have to-morrow to talk over what is the best thing to be done, and how I am to set about it. It is getting late, Agnes: it is time to be going in."

I shall never forget that evening, as we turned and strolled along the edge of the cliffs towards home. I thought I had never seen such a beautiful night. The tide was high, and the sea was very calm, and hardly moved under the warm autumnal breeze, but broke on the beach far below our feet with a gentle plash. Out at sea the lights on the Goodwin shone clear and bright; while far away to the right, looking like a star near the horizon, we could plainly see the Deal light. Below us lay the harbour, with its dark shipping, and its bright lamps reflected in the still waters within it. Sometimes, from the sea, came up faint snatches of songs from parties in boats enjoying the lovely evening.

Above it was most beautiful of all. The sky was a very deep blue, and I do not think I ever saw so many stars as were visible that lovely September night. The heavens seemed spangled with them, and they shone out clear and bright, with none of the restless, unquiet twinkle they usually have, but still and tranquil, seeming-as they never do seem except on such nights as this-to hang suspended from the deep blue above them. The moon was up, but it was only a thin crescent, and was lovely in itself without outshining the glory of the stars. It was a glorious night, and, absorbed as we were with our own thoughts, and troubled by what had occurred, we could not help feeling soothed and elevated by the wondrous beauty of the scene we looked upon.

Had papa known all that had passed at that interview between Sophy Needham and Robert Gregory, he would not have ridden out to Ramsgate with his news, but would have acted upon it there and then, and perhaps I should never have written this story; or, if I had done so, it would have been very different to what it is.

Long afterwards I learnt the history of that interview, and of many others which had gone before it; and so I shall again have the pleasure of dropping that first personal pronoun of which I am so tired, and of relating the story as it was told to me.

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