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   Chapter 13 A BAD BUSINESS.

A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 20593

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Mr. Harmer is dead! Sophy Needham is missing!"

Such was the news a groom, riding into Canterbury for a doctor, brought; such was the telegram which a friend at once sent down to us at Ramsgate.

Mr. Harmer dead! Sophy Needham missing! It flashed like wildfire through Canterbury, and the quiet old town was again shaken out of its lethargy by the intelligence. Mr. Harmer, during his lifetime, had been a standing topic of conversation; he had on several occasions quite roused it from the even tenor of its way, but this last sensation was greater and more astounding than any of its predecessors, and Canterbury enjoyed it with proportionate gusto.

"Sophy Needham eloped with that notorious reprobate, Robert Gregory"-for the Misses Harmer, by their invectives on reading the letter, at once had told those round them with whom Sophy had fled- "and poor Mr. Harmer gone off in a fit in consequence!!" It was indeed a terrible affair, and it was not mended in the telling. By the time the tale had made its round, it had swollen to extraordinary proportions-fresh additions were made by each mouth through which it passed, until at last it was extremely difficult to find out what the truth of the matter was.

From the simple report that Sophy Needham had eloped with Robert Gregory, and that it had killed poor Mr. Harmer, the transition was easy to-"and he had killed poor Mr. Harmer;" and details of the supposed murder grew till it became a tragedy of the most coldblooded description.

The groom's statement that the Misses Harmer were in a dreadful state about it, soon lost the last two words, and grew into,-"The Misses Harmer were also attacked, and were lying in a dreadful state."

Altogether, although Robert Gregory and Sophy were undoubtedly much to blame, and had acted very wrongly, I believe they would hardly have recognised themselves or their doings, in the two fiends in human shape, whose deeds were commented upon in Canterbury that afternoon.

The next day the real truth of the story became known, and there was some feeling of disappointment that things were not as bad as had been reported; but even then the opinion in respect to Sophy and her lover were hardly modified;-give a dog a bad name and you may as well hang him.

This couple had been accused of murder and violence, and, although the charge was now disproved, yet it was universally agreed that these crimes might, and in all probability would have been perpetrated, had the fugitives been detected at the time of their flight. Sophy's conduct was so atrocious, her ingratitude to Mr. Harmer so base, that there was no question that a nature so depraved would hesitate at nothing. The ladies of the Canterbury society were the more inclined to insist upon this, as it justified the views they had originally entertained of the impropriety of calling upon the young person at Harmer Place, and the doubts, they now affirmed they had always experienced of the possibility of such a person ever turning out otherwise than badly. They felt, therefore, that they had attained a great triumph over their husbands, who had been, on the whole, inclined to differ from their opinions. They had always, they said, predicted something of the kind from the time when they had heard of Mr. Harmer's intention towards her, and it really appeared to them to be almost a judgment upon him, for his infatuation, and for his venturing to fly in the face of the public feelings of morality and propriety in the way he had done.

Some of the husbands, indeed, even now ventured to offer excuses for Sophy, and to point out that a good deal might be urged in her behalf-her lonely position, her ignorance of the world, and of the character of the man she had gone off with; and, still more, the temptation to which she would be exposed by such an unprincipled blackguard as Robert Gregory. But these suggestions were contemptuously put aside. The bad character of the man, in place of being a palliation, was an aggravation of the offence, and this was satisfactorily proved by that argumentum ad hominem in which women so delight.

"You know very well, my dear, that if your own daughter had gone off with such a man, you would have considered it a very much worse business, and have been far more angry about it, than if she had run away with some gentleman of position and character; so how can you now talk such nonsense as to say that the man's bad character is a palliation of her fault?"

I have often wondered why it is that we women are so much more severe upon offenders of our own sex than men are. Is it that men know so much more of life and human nature than we do? Is it that they know how comparatively few women ever are seriously thus tempted during their lives, and how hard it is to withstand great trials of this kind? Is it because they know, too, that very few of us who are so loud and so bitter in our contempt for those who fall, but would, if placed under the same circumstances, and exposed to the same temptation, have acted precisely in the same way? I think it must be that; and when I hear women so loud and bitter in their denunciations, and when I see men look grieved and sorry, but say nothing, I cannot help thinking sometimes, that it would be better if we judged not so harshly and scornfully of those who have fallen under a temptation to which we, through God's mercy, have never been exposed.

Of course, next to the startling events which had taken place, the great question upon which the interest of Canterbury was fixed, was whether Mr. Harmer had destroyed his will or not before he died. But this was a point upon which no one could enlighten them, and all awaited with intense interest the day of the funeral, after which it would, of course, be known all about it.

To us at Ramsgate the news came with a terrible shock. Papa, who had settled to have gone over on that day, had, from some reason or other, postponed it to the next; consequently, he was with me when the boy arrived from the station with the telegram at about twelve o'clock.

It happened to be a wet day, so that, contrary to our usual habit, we were indoors when the boy came up with the note. Papa signed the receipt, and the lad left before he opened it. When he did so, he glanced at the contents, and dropped it on the table with almost a groan.

"What is it, papa?" I asked, dreadfully alarmed; "may I read it?" Papa motioned assent, and my heart almost stood still as I read the terrible tidings-

"Mr. Harmer is dead; Sophy Needham is missing."

It was a dreadful shock; and yet we had talked and thought so much the last two days of Sophy and Robert Gregory, and of the consequences the discovery of their connection might have upon Mr. Harmer, that it could be hardly said to come upon us as a surprise. For some time we were too shocked to speak at all. At last I said-

"Poor Mr. Harmer! how dreadful!"

"Rather poor Sophy," papa said. "Unfortunate, misguided girl, how bitterly she will repent this! What a life-long remorse hers will be! She has sacrificed the happiness of her own life by joining it to that of Robert Gregory, and she has caused her benefactor's death; and whatever be the folly, whatever the terrible fault of Sophy's conduct now, undoubtedly she loved him dearly."

While papa was speaking, another telegram arrived, and this time from Miss Harmer, for the former one was sent by a friend who had heard the news, and knowing our interest in it, had at once forwarded it to us, while the groom who brought it in, was searching for a doctor to go over at once. Miss Harmer's message was only-

"Please come at once. My brother is dead."

On the receipt of this, we consulted a timetable, found a train would start in half an hour, and in a few minutes papa started, leaving me to cry over the news I had heard-to cry as much for Sophy as for Mr. Harmer-(for, from what papa said, she was indeed to be pitied), and to look forward anxiously to his return with full particulars of the terrible event.

I shall tell the story of his visit to Harmer Place, and its results, as he told it to me; and I may here mention that in future, in this narrative of mine, I shall always drop the first person when I am telling of events at which I was not myself present, and shall relate them in the order in which they happened, and not when they were told to me, which was not, in some cases, till years after.

When Dr. Ashleigh arrived at Harmer Place, he was shown at once into the drawing-room, where in a few minutes he was joined by the Misses Harmer.

As nothing has been said of the personal appearance of the Misses Harmer from the time when their brother met them, twenty-one years before this date, and as they will in future play a far more important part in this narrative than they have hitherto done, it is proper to say what they were like at this period.

The Misses Harmer, when their brother left England in the year 1795, a boy of sixteen, were aged respectively twenty and twenty-one, and were consequently at the time of his death, in the year 1848, seventy-three and seventy-four. At the time when they were last described they were extremely similar in appearance, and, indeed, might almost have been mistaken one for the other, but there was now a great and marked difference between them: the younger sister looked the elder of the two by at least ten years. The ascetic life, the severe self-repressive discipline to which they had subjected themselves, seemed to have worn out the one sister while it had but hardened the other-hardened her till her impassive face had a stony and petrified appearance. Of the two, she had, perhaps, been originally the woman of the stronger passions and the more determined will; and yet her more vigorous constitution had enabled her to support that lonely, hard, loveless life, and to come through it harder and sterner than before, while her weaker sister was fast succumbing to the long and weary struggle.

Angela's bended head was more bowed now than of yore, her look more mild and gentle; the light of that peace which was to her fast approaching-when watching, and penance, and tears should be all over-seemed to shine already on her face, and to soften its ha

rd, unhappy outlines.

Cecilia was more upright than before. The comparatively cheerful life she had led at her brother's house for nearly twenty years, had, to a certain extent, worn off the look and habit of repression and humility which she had gained from her early residence in a convent, and afterwards with her stern elder brothers. She had too, for all these last twenty years, been working with a purpose-a vague one indeed, and, seemingly, a hopeless one, but yet to her a holy purpose, worthy of her dedicating her life to attain-namely, the hope that her brother might yet return to the old faith, or that, if he died before them, he might leave them his property; so that, in either of these cases, the Roman Church might reap the rich harvest which her elder brothers had intended for it. This hope had been to a great extent defeated by the declared intentions of Herbert Harmer, and yet she clung desperately to it.

The Bishop of Ravenna had cheered them all this time with his letters and his counsel; but even he had almost given up all hope of ever winning their rich property for the Church; but Cecilia never despaired, and when she had hurried back again on the news of Mr. Harmer's first paralytic seizure, it was with the strong hope and conviction that he would yet on his deathbed alter his will, abjure the errors of the faith he had adopted, and be received and forgiven by Mother Church. However, events had not turned out as she had hoped. Herbert Harmer had died a member of his new faith, and the estate was certainly not willed to the sisters, and Cecilia, while she endured a true sense of sorrow for her brother's loss, yet mingled with it a deep feeling of disappointment and rage, and a stern determination that the labour of her life should not be frustrated.

Doctor Ashleigh, when they entered the room, saw at once that both sisters were much agitated, and yet in a different way. Both had evidently been crying; but Miss Harmer seemed endeavouring to keep down her grief by a fierce, angry determination; while Angela's sorrow was mingled with a strange, timid, anxious manner, which Dr. Ashleigh could not understand.

"You received our message, Dr. Ashleigh, and are aware of the terrible event which has taken place here?"

"I am, Miss Harmer, and am indeed shocked to hear it."

"You have heard that our brother was murdered?"

"Murdered!" Dr. Ashleigh said aghast; for he had heard some of the floating rumours as he passed through the town, but had quite disbelieved them.

"Yes, Dr. Ashleigh, my brother was murdered-killed by the conduct of that wretched, ungrateful woman; murdered as much as if she had stabbed him to the heart."

"Really, Miss Harmer," the Doctor said, "you alarmed me for a moment into believing that my old friend had met his end by foul play. Sophy's conduct is inexcusable, and I do not wish to enter into any defence of it; but still she can hardly be termed a murderess."

"I can see no distinction, Dr. Ashleigh," Miss Harmer said; and as she spoke her tall figure seemed to gain additional height, her eyes flashed, and her colour rose angrily. "My brother, Dr. Ashleigh, was on the fair way to perfect recovery-you, yourself, told me so-and that only some sudden shock would be likely to throw him back again, but that another attack would probably be fatal. That shock, this wretched girl deliberately and knowingly gave him, and I say she is as wilfully the murderess of the man who had picked her from the kennel where she was born, as if she had given him poison. I pray that her sin may be punished by divine law, if it cannot be by human. I pray that the man for whom she has murdered my brother may turn out a constant retribution and curse to her. May she never know happiness again. May her children, if she bear them, cause her the misery she has brought on us. May--"

"Hold, Miss Harmer!" Dr. Ashleigh said sternly, stepping forward and laying his hand impressively on the excited woman's arm. "Forbear! Blessings and curses proceed from God alone. At present your grief at this sad affair urges you to say things which in your calmer moments you would be, I am sure, the first to regret. This unhappy girl has assuredly grievously erred, and grievous have been the consequences; and she will, undoubtedly, have to expiate it by a life-long sorrow and repentance-and her bitterest enemy need wish her no worse punishment than her own thoughts and the husband she has chosen."

"We need not discuss the question, Dr. Ashleigh!" Miss Harmer said, angrily. "Nothing will ever alter my feelings towards this wretched girl! Nothing can ever soften the horror and loathing I feel towards her! Nothing shall ever induce me to see her face again! She may be beyond human law, but in my sight she is a murderess!"

Dr. Ashleigh saw that in Miss Harmer's present state of nervous and excited feeling, any argument which he could urge would be only vain, and would, indeed, tend to heighten her anger. He therefore remained silent.

Angela Harmer had not yet spoken, but it was evident that she-as far as her milder nature could go-sympathized with her sister's anger, and yet sorrow was with her predominant. She had seated herself in a large arm-chair by the fire, on entering; and most of the time she sat with her face hidden in her hands, and the Doctor could see the tears trickle through her withered fingers. Sometimes, however, when her sister was speaking she looked up with an anxious deprecating glance, but Cecilia heeded her not; but, when she had done speaking, walked up and down the room with her hands tightly clenched, her eyes flashing with anger-even through the tears of sorrow which rolled unheeded down her cheek;-her whole form so inspired by her emotion, that Dr. Ashleigh could hardly believe her to be the quiet self-contained woman he had known so long.

At last she became more calm, stopped before him, and said, "Dr. Ashleigh, you were our brother's greatest friend; may I ask you to see to all arrangements connected with his funeral. We should wish him to be buried in such state as is becoming to the last of an old race. Alas! that he cannot be laid where his fore-fathers have been! Will you see to all this?"

"I will, Miss Harmer, willingly. I do not know whether you have any particular wishes as to where he should be laid? I have heard him express a preference for the village churchyard here. I do not know whether he has mentioned his wishes in his will."

"I know nothing of the will whatever!" Miss Harmer said positively, and Dr. Ashleigh noticed her sister cast one of the frightened glances towards her which he had before perceived. "I know nothing whatever of the will," she repeated steadily; "but if he expressed any preference for Sturry, let it be so. And now, Dr. Ashleigh," and here her voice softened, "I do not know that we have any more to say: you will wish, of course, to go up to see our poor brother. We shall see you, I hope, to-morrow or next day." So saying, the Misses Harmer took their leave of Dr. Ashleigh, and retired to their own rooms, while he took the well-known way to his old friend's bed-room.

As he went up-stairs he met Mary-the girl who had been Sophy Needham's maid-coming down. Her eyes were red with crying. She curtsied to the Doctor as he passed-for they all loved him, and he had ever a kind word for all he met. "This is a sad affair, Mary!" he said.

"Dreadful, Sir," the girl answered. "Will you please to tell me what has become of Miss Sophy? We are all so anxious to know the real truth."

"I am afraid she has eloped with Mr. Gregory," the Doctor said, gravely; "there is no secret about it."

"I was afraid she was gone, Sir, when I went into her room this morning, and found the bed had not been slept in, and the letter for Mr. Harmer on the table. It gave me such a turn, Sir; you might have knocked me down with a breath."

"Did Mr. Harmer say anything when you gave him the letter?" the Doctor asked, anxiously.

"No, Sir! I gave him the letter and went straight out, for I was frightened; he was sitting at the table just as he was when we found him dead-just the same. He was a kind, good master, Sir, as ever lived-never angry or put out; and he forgived Miss Sophy with his dying breath." And the girl began to cry again.

"How do you know he forgave Miss Sophy?" Dr. Ashleigh asked, stopping, for he was just continuing his way up-stairs. "How do you know he forgave Miss Sophy?"

"This way. Sir. When the Misses Harmer went into the room, I went and stood at the door to listen, for we all wanted to hear what had become of poor Miss Sophy. They went up to the table and leant over him, and gave a cry; and I ran in, and they were lifting him up, and on the table before him was a letter he had just begun to write, it was only five or six words, but I saw it began 'My dearest Sophy;' I did not read anything else, but the last two words were 'I forgive.' They were writ very large indeed, and I could not help seeing them, Sir, as I helped to lift him up. After he had been carried up-stairs I went into the library to get that letter, Sir-for I knew it would be a great comfort to poor Miss Sophy-but when I got there it was gone. I asked the servants but none of them had seen it, so I suppose one of the Misses Harmer had taken care of it."

"I am very glad you told me this, Mary, very glad! It will indeed be a great comfort to your poor young mistress." So saying the Doctor went into the dead man's room.

Mr. Harmer lay on his bed, and the warm light of the afternoon sun streamed bright and full upon his face. It was tranquil and peaceful as in life, and his lips were parted in a calm smile-a smile as of the peace and forgiveness he felt as he died.

The Doctor looked into his old friend's face, and the tears welled up into his eyes. "He died as he lived," he said to himself, "forgiving as he also would be forgiven. Dear old friend, we have spent many a happy hour together; yet, dying as you died, how can I grieve for you?"

The Doctor stood for some time sadly musing by the bed-side; and then turning softly away, was soon on his way back to Canterbury, where he gave the necessary orders and then returned to Ramsgate.

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