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   Chapter 14 MISSING!

A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 27702

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Mr. Harmer died on Friday morning, and it was arranged that his funeral should take place on that day week. On the day preceding Dr. Ashleigh left Ramsgate early, and went direct to his own house, to see several patients who were to call upon him there prior to his going out on his rounds. Most of those he expected had called, and he was sitting alone in his library when the door opened and the servant announced "Mr. Gregory."

Dr. Ashleigh rose from his seat, with a cold, haughty look on his face, such as had not for many years been seen upon it. Robert Gregory's face wore a mingled air of anxiety and triumph, slightly veiled under an expression of gravity and decorum which he had assumed as suitable to the occasion. He was evidently much embarrassed how to begin, and the extremely repellant and hostile expression of Dr. Ashleigh's face did not assist him in his difficulty.

"May I ask," the Doctor said, "to what I owe this visit?"

"I have called, Dr. Ashleigh," Robert Gregory began, in a voice to which he in vain attempted to give its usual loud, careless tone. "I have called from my wife to ask you-you to whom she alone could apply at the present time-to give her some intelligence respecting the death of her grandfather."

"If the unfortunate girl who has become your wife will call upon me herself, I will give her every information and assistance in my power. With you I will hold no communication whatever."

Robert Gregory bit his lips angrily, and his eye flashed: he was a man but little accustomed to be thwarted. However, as he felt that any outburst of anger would only injure his cause, and could do him no good, after a momentary, but fierce struggle with himself, he went on quietly.

"You are naturally indignant with me, Dr. Ashleigh. I know that after the sad consequences which have ensued you cannot be otherwise, and am aware that it is useless my making any excuses or protestations. I know that the only way in which I can ever justify the course I have taken will be by making Sophy happy, and by proving that her love and confidence in me are not so greatly misplaced, and that, after all, I am not so utter a scamp as the world gives me credit for."

Undoubtedly the man had carefully thought over beforehand what he intended to say, and yet he spoke earnestly, for he really meant what he said, and Dr. Ashleigh, a shrewd observer of men, saw that he did so, and his face rather softened in its expression. Robert Gregory observed the change, and went on.

"I myself should never have come on this errand could she have done so. But the truth is a friend telegraphed the news to me, and the message reached me only on Monday morning, as I was returning leisurely from the north. Sophy is nearly out of her mind, and the doctor I called in to see her fears that she will have an attack of brain fever. I should not have left, but her cry was unceasing to know the details of his death, and whether he said a word of forgiveness to her. I came down by this morning's train, and return by the one o'clock to London."

Dr. Ashleigh was softened now; he saw by the man's anxious face and changed voice that he was truly in earnest, and that although he had unquestionably wooed and married Sophy for her money, yet that he did really care for herself, and the Doctor thought that her chance of happiness was, after all, better than he had imagined it.

"I am sorry to hear what you say about your wife," he said, in quite a different tone to that which he had previously adopted, "although I cannot say I am surprised. The knowledge that the news of her flight had caused Mr. Harmer's death must of necessity be a terrible grief and sorrow to her. On that head, however, I truly rejoice that I can give her some consolation and alleviate her remorse. Mr. Harmer forgave her. Her letter was taken in to him, and he was found dead with it before him, and a sheet of paper on which he had begun a letter to her. The last words he ever wrote were: 'I forgive.' Tell her this from me."

Robert Gregory's face lit up with pleasure, and this time the emotion was not purely of a selfish kind. He was glad, very glad for Sophy's sake to hear that Mr. Harmer had forgiven her before he died; indeed, even for his own sake he felt the news to be a relief. Hardened as he was, he could not have felt easy with the knowledge that that good old man had died invoking a curse upon him with his last breath. But although for both these reasons he received the news with pleasure, it was as nothing to the satisfaction he felt at the account which had been given him of Mr. Harmer's death; for it was quite evident from it that he had died leaving his will unaltered-he had died a few minutes after finding Sophy was gone, with his unfinished letter of forgiveness before him-had probably never even risen from his chair, and had certainly taken no steps towards altering or cancelling his will. Gratified as he felt, however, he speedily repressed all show of his feelings, for he felt that Dr. Ashleigh was watching him, and he knew that his good will and countenance would be of great service at this time; besides which, for Sophy's sake, he wished to stand well with him, for Sophy, he knew, esteemed and loved Dr. Ashleigh more than any other man, now Mr. Harmer was dead. He, therefore, after a minute's silence, said with an air of frankness:

"I am, indeed, glad to hear what you tell me, Dr. Ashleigh. It will be an immense relief to poor Sophy, and even to myself, for it is not pleasant to lie under the curse of a dead man; besides which, it would be idle of me to pretend that I am not very gratified to hear that Mr. Harmer took no steps towards altering his will. As you, a man of the world, will naturally suppose, Sophy's wealth was the great inducement to me, when I first sought her; and although I trust to prove to her and to you, that I have now learnt to love her truly for herself, I am still, of course, very glad to hear that her property is not forfeited. It is now time that I should return to the train, and I hope that my news may have a good effect upon Sophy's health. I shall be down again the day after to-morrow, not to attend the funeral, but to be present at the reading of the will, which will, I suppose, take place afterwards."

"It will," Dr. Ashleigh said. "Miss Harmer wrote to the solicitor in London yesterday, informing him of her brother's death, and begging him to be down at the funeral, which takes place at two o'clock. And now, Mr. Gregory, will you say to Sophy, that her grandfather forgave her freely and at once, and that it is not for me, whom she has not injured, to judge more severely than he has done; will you tell her from me, that in my daughter and myself she will find friends glad to welcome her back, and to forget the past. For yourself, Mr. Gregory, it would be folly to say that a strong prejudice does not exist, you best know whether justly or not. However, these days are past, and it is now, according as you treat Sophy, that you will be received, at any rate by us. Make her happy; try and dry the tears which the consequences of her love for you have caused to flow, and you will find that we shall be glad to know you as Sophy's husband."

So saying, Dr. Ashleigh held out his hand to the man before him, and Robert Gregory, as he grasped it, experienced a feeling of real gratification. He knew that this was a truly good man, and that his course towards Sophy was in no way altered by the fact of her being an heiress, but because she had been forgiven by his old friend Mr. Harmer, and for the sake of the many years of affectionate intercourse he had had with herself. He was gratified, too, by what the Doctor had said respecting himself, for the countenance and friendship of a good man can be appreciated even by the worst character. And so Robert Gregory took his leave of Dr. Ashleigh and returned to town with a softened, although exultant heart. The Doctor then went over to Harmer Place and saw the sisters. They passed most of their time in their own rooms, engaged in earnest prayer for the benefit of their brother's soul; and once, when the Doctor had been there, they spoke to him in glowing terms of the power which their church possessed to forgive all sins, even the greatest. While they thus spoke their eyes lit up with a strange, passionate fervour of religious zeal-that fierce, burning zeal, which has for so many centuries made men equally ready to martyrize others or to die martyrs themselves-that zeal which has led some to give up all worldly goods, and live the life of wandering beggars, and others to allow no scruple to interfere with any deed which can enrich and benefit the church to which they belong. To these remarks Dr. Ashleigh returned no answer; he was at all times indisposed to enter into religious arguments, and with women in the exalted state of mind in which the Misses Harmer were, it would have been worse than useless. On this occasion, however, he found them both in a calmer state, and he mentioned to them that he had seen Robert Gregory, and that he spoke of coming up on the part of his wife after the funeral. For a minute or so they were silent, and then Miss Harmer said, with stern vehemence,-

"Let him come-I presume it is his right; but never again while I live shall the murderer of my brother darken this door."

The Doctor half smiled at the idle threat, while Angela Harmer glanced up at her sister from under her drooping eyelids.

"I should, perhaps, rather say," Miss Harmer corrected herself, "as long as I am in this house; if he enter, I leave it. Harmer Place shall never hold together for one day the sisters of Herbert Harmer and his murderers."

The Doctor was silent, for he thought that what she said would certainly turn out correct, for he did not deem it probable that Robert Gregory, when he came into possession, was at all the man to invite the two Misses Harmer to take up their abode with him.

The next night Dr. Ashleigh did not return to Ramsgate. Harry was to arrive by the late train from the North, and after the funeral they were to go down to Ramsgate, where it was arranged they should stop for a week or two. After that, as we should be well able to afford it, papa had settled to go on to the Continent for the winter with me.

Accordingly, the next day Herbert Harmer was laid in his grave in the quiet churchyard of Sturry. Agreeably to Miss Harmer's wishes, the funeral was celebrated with a pomp which he who had gone had never desired for himself while alive. The hearse and mourning-coaches, each with their four horses and tossing feathers, the man in front with the tray of sable plumes, the mutes in long array-all was done in the best style, and people came in from quite a long distance to see it. A good many of his old Canterbury friends sent their carriages to join the procession, but there were not many real mourners among those who followed. The first mourning-coach contained Dr. Ashleigh, his son, and the solicitor, who had arrived just as the cortège was starting; the other coaches contained the principal tenants, who had liked their late landlord, and who had always found him compliant and kind in the extreme; they had, however, very seldom seen him, as since his son's death he had gone very little himself among his tenants, although he had always kept himself well informed concerning the affairs of each of them. As the procession wound through the village many a blessing and prayer was murmured for the dead man; there, indeed, he had been a benefactor; many a sick bed, many an aching heart had his bounty relieved; and they blessed his memory, blessed him as thousands had done before them-thousands lying in agony in London hospitals, some never to go out again alive, many more to be restored in health and strength to their families; these had poured out countless prayers for the unknown benefactor who had endowed this ward, added that comfort, or whose munificent donations had enabled the hospital largely to extend its benefits; and doubtless their prayers were not the less heard that no name was uttered, and that they went up for their unknown friend.

And so Herbert Harmer slept the sleep of the blessed in the quiet churchyard, and the funeral cortège went back to Harmer Place.

The doctor had been much affected by the service over his old friend. Harry, too, was much moved, but in his case it was more the thought of the grave he had last stood beside, and her over whom he had heard the service read two months before.

Mr. Petersfield, the solicitor, was calm. With him it was a pure matter of business. He had hardly ever seen the dead man; he knew him only as one of the wealthiest and most eccentric of his clients; he had heard from his partner that he was a man of sterling worth; but Mr. Ransome had always managed Mr. Harmer's business, and he himself knew nothing about it. Mr. Ransome had died six months before, and it would have been his duty, in a short time, to have made himself thoroughly acquainted with Mr. Harmer's affairs; as it was, he knew very little about them.

During the short ride to and from the church there was hardly a word exchanged in the carriage, as Dr. Ashleigh was an entire stranger to the solicitor. When they reached the house they were shown into the drawing-room; into which, a few minutes later, Robert Gregory was ushered.

"How is your wife, Mr. Gregory?" the doctor asked, as he shook hands.

"She is very ill, doctor, but I left her certainly calmer and more tranquil, and I trust, from what the medical man said last night, that she will escape any serious attack of brain fever. The news you sent her was a very great consolation to her, but she is still in terribly low spirits."

Here

the conversation was interrupted by the entrance of the Misses Harmer, who bowed to Dr. Ashleigh, his son, and the solicitor, all of whom they had seen before, but who took no notice whatever of the presence of Robert Gregory.

The Misses Harmer were accompanied, or rather followed into the room by a gentleman, whom it was easy to see by his dress was an ecclesiastic of the Romish Church, and who was an entire stranger to Dr. Ashleigh.

"This gentleman," Miss Harmer said, introducing him, "is Father Eustace, a friend of ours for many years, and who, having heard of our loss, has come over from abroad to assist and comfort us with his presence and advice."

Father Eustace was a pale, ascetic looking man, with large, eager bright eyes; his complexion was dark and swarthy, and he looked every inch what he was-an Italian. He spoke English with a strong foreign accent, but still grammatically and pretty distinctly. He bowed courteously to those present, and then took his seat, and during what followed occupied himself in closely scrutinizing their countenances, especially those of Dr. Ashleigh and Robert Gregory, as if desirous to judge for himself how nearly they tallied with the description he had received of them.

The Misses Harmer were very pale, but had a quiet, fixed look about them, in which Dr. Ashleigh thought he read their determination to listen with composure to the reading of the will, which would place the hated Robert and Sophy Gregory in the position of master and mistress of Harmer Place.

For some little time after they had taken their seats there was a dead silence, as if each were waiting for the other to begin. At last Mr. Petersfield said-

"With your permission, Miss Harmer, I will at once proceed to read the will of my late client, Mr. Herbert Harmer. Will you be good enough to hand it to me?"

"I have not any will of my brother in my possession," Miss Harmer answered, coldly.

"Not in your possession, madam? But you are doubtless aware where your late brother was in the habit of keeping his important documents?"

"I have looked, Mr. Petersfield, among his papers, but I have found no will among them."

There was a pause of blank astonishment.

"How is it, Mr. Petersfield," Dr. Ashleigh said, gravely, "that you have not Mr. Harmer's will in your custody?"

"It was in our hands, doctor, until about two months ago, when Mr. Harmer wrote to me, saying that he was desirous of making some slight alterations in it, and requesting me to forward it. I did so, in charge of one of my clerks. On the day he came down here, some friend of Mr. Harmer's died-I understood it was Mrs. Ashleigh-and he told my clerk that he did not feel equal to attend to business, but that if he would leave the document with him, he would look it over, and write to me to send down again in a short time to make the alterations he required. I did not hear any further from him, and therefore supposed that he had either changed his mind in reference to the alteration, or had forgotten the matter altogether. I remember, when my clerk came back, he told me that he had ventured to suggest that so valuable a document ought to be kept in a safe place, and that Mr. Harmer had smiled, and answered, 'You need not be afraid on that score. I have a place to put it in where all the burglars in the world could not get at it."

There was again a blank silence, and then the solicitor went on-

"In any case, madam, I think it but right that we should search Mr. Harmer's library thoroughly."

"Certainly, Mr. Petersfield; you are quite at liberty to search where you like. Father Eustace, will you do me the kindness to accompany these gentlemen."

Father Eustace at once rose, and preceded the others to the library.

"This looks a very strange business, Mr. Petersfield," Dr. Ashleigh said, on their way thither.

"Very-very much so indeed, doctor, and I do not think our search here is likely to be attended with any success."

The library was thoroughly ransacked. Every drawer was pulled out and examined for secret hiding-places; the books were all taken down from their shelves to look behind them; every place, possible and impossible, was searched, but, as the lawyer had predicted, without the slightest result. Harry and Robert Gregory performed the active portion of the work, the doctor and Mr. Petersfield directing their operations, and examining the piles of papers which came to light during the search. All were very silent: they were too interested and excited to talk. From time to time Robert Gregory muttered savage execrations between his teeth; but, with that exception, the search was conducted in silence.

The priest sat quietly and watched them-watched them, and not their proceedings: in these he seemed to have no curiosity, his attention being directed entirely to the way in which they each bore their disappointment.

The search lasted for an hour. By that time the place had been completely ransacked, and every possible place examined; and the whole floor of the room was closely covered with books, papers, scientific apparatus, and the accumulated litter of years. When all was done, and it was evident that no corner remained unexplored, the searchers rested from their work, wiped the perspiration from their foreheads, and looked at their leader for further instructions.

Dr. Ashleigh drew the solicitor to a door which led into the garden, opened it, and went out with him, so that they could converse without restraint from the presence of the priest.

"This is an extraordinary business, Mr. Petersfield," Dr. Ashleigh said; "what do you think of it?"

"Do you consult me professionally, Dr. Ashleigh?" the lawyer asked, in return.

"Certainly I do," Dr. Ashleigh said vehemently. "Mr. Harmer was one of my oldest and my dearest friends; and even were I not so deeply interested in the discovery of the will as I am, I would spend every penny I have in the world in seeing his wishes carried out. You are aware of the nature of the will?"

"In a general way I am. My late partner, Mr. Ransome, who has managed Mr. Harmer's business ever since he came to England, some twenty-three years ago, told me that Mr. Harmer had left all his property, with the exception of some comparatively small legacies, between your children and his illegitimate grandchild, Miss Needham-now, as I understand, Mrs. Gregory."

"Precisely," Dr. Ashleigh said. "This is the disposition he publicly announced that he had made of his property; and in the event of this will not being found, I presume the Misses Harmer, as his only relations, will inherit everything?"

"Clearly so, doctor. It is a most awkward business. However, we cannot now determine what steps to take: we shall have plenty of time for that hereafter. Is there any other place you can suggest as worth searching-his bed-room, for instance?"

"None at all," the doctor answered. "Mr. Harmer was a man of the simplest personal habits. His bed-room is furnished just as it was in India-a plain French bedstead without hangings, an India matting on the floor, a few cane chairs, and a small chest of drawers. No, it is no use searching there."

"Or anywhere, I believe, frankly," Mr. Petersfield said. "Wherever the will may be, we shall never find it."

So saying, they returned into the library. Father Eustace was sitting unmoved in the chair where they had left him. Harry was pacing up and down that portion of the floor which remained free from the books and instruments, sometimes stopping and looking out of the window, and drumming on the panes with his fingers in a state of angry impatience; he was anxious and uneasy, but he could not believe that the will was more than mislaid for a time.

Robert Gregory had cast himself sullenly into an arm chair, and sat with his elbows on the arms, and his chin resting on his hands. His face was flushed, his eyes wide open, and his lips set hard. A deadly sensation of despair was stealing over him, which he in vain strove against. Was it possible that, after all these years of scheming and watchfulness, his prize was to be snatched from him in the moment of success? He could not and would not believe it, and yet he had a hopeless feeling in him which told him that the will was either lost or destroyed, and that it would never be found or heard of again. When Mr. Petersfield said, "We can do no good here-let us return to the drawing-room," he rose, and followed the others mechanically.

The Misses Harmer were sitting as they had left them, stiff and composed, the stern look upon their faces, a red spot in the centre of their cheeks, and a strange light in their eyes.

"You have not found my brother's will?" Miss Harmer asked, as they came in.

"As you are probably pretty well aware, Miss Harmer, we have not found it. And now let me ask you distinctly, do you, or do you not, know where your late brother's will is?"

Miss Harmer paused for a moment, and Mr. Petersfield and the doctor saw that she glanced towards Father Eustace, who was looking on the ground.

"I do not know where my brother was in the habit of keeping his various documents."

"I said nothing about various documents, Miss Harmer," Dr. Ashleigh said, sternly. "I asked you, do you, or do you not, know where the will is?"

"I do not," Miss Harmer said, steadily. "Should you find the will, you will, I presume, let us know?"

"Should I find it, I will do so."

"It is not easy to find what has never been lost," Robert Gregory said, bitterly.

Miss Harmer faced round at once upon this new antagonist, as if glad to turn her face from the stern, searching look of the doctor. She and her sister had risen from their seats now, and none of the others had seated themselves. Father Eustace had moved across and taken his place by them, as if to support them by his presence; the others stood in a group together, with Dr. Ashleigh slightly in advance.

"As for you, sir," Miss Harmer broke out, addressing Robert Gregory-"as for you, as I have already told Dr. Ashleigh, I look upon you and the woman you call your wife, as the murderers of my brother; and now, having struck him down, and seeing him laid in his grave, you would fain come here to grasp at his property. Why do you come here to ask for his will? What is so likely as that, when he heard of that ungrateful girl's conduct, that conduct which gave him his deathblow, he tore his will into fragments?"

"But, Miss Harmer," Dr. Ashleigh said, in his quiet, firm voice, motioning Robert Gregory, who had advanced to reply to the attack upon him, to be silent. "But, Miss Harmer, we know that such was not the case; we know that he was found in the same position in which he was sitting when he received Sophy's letter. We know that he did not leave the room, and that no one entered it. We know that there were no fragments of paper scattered about, as there would in all probability have been had he destroyed the will in the way you suggest; and lastly, Miss Harmer," and here the doctor advanced a step nearer and spoke even more impressingly, "lastly, we know that such an intention was farthest from Mr. Harmer's mind; for that he began a letter, which is, or has been in your possession, a letter to Sophy expressing his full forgiveness. So that in your bitter anger against the poor girl, you are acting in direct contradiction to the dying words of your brother."

The two Misses Harmer and Father Eustace were evidently staggered by this attack. Miss Harmer's cheek, which had flushed up when she attacked Robert Gregory, turned deadly pale again, and she shrank back as if she had received a blow. She was a little time before she answered, and then the change of her voice showed how much she was unnerved:

"How do you know what you say, Dr. Ashleigh? Have you been enquiring about among my servants?"

"I should think, Miss Harmer, you must by this time know me well enough to be aware that I am not a man given to enquiring among servants. I was simply told the matter, the truth of which you do not and cannot deny; and for Sophy's sake I was delighted to hear it. I was glad, also, for the sake of him who is gone to know that he died with words of forgiveness on his lips; a forgiveness which you have taken upon yourself to conceal and to refuse."

Miss Harmer evidently quailed before Dr. Ashleigh's words. He saw his advantage, and continued solemnly, pointing with his finger towards her as he spoke-

"And now listen to me, Miss Harmer. I believe, I more than believe, that will to be concealed, and that you know its place of concealment. Now I, your dead brother's greatest friend, warn you solemnly. I speak in his name and my own, and I warn you not to destroy that document. It is your dead brother's will, and if you destroy it may his curse light upon you."

"Cease, sir," Father Eustace said, interposing himself between Dr. Ashleigh and the sister, now pale and almost gasping for breath; "cease these impious insults!"

Dr. Ashleigh waved him aside, and seeing the effect he was producing, continued in the same earnest voice, never removing his eyes from the sisters' faces-

"I warn you if you destroy it, your dead brother's voice will cry from the grave. There will be no more peace for you in this world or the next. His curse will follow you here, and plead against you at the judgment-seat of God."

"Come," he said, turning to his companions; for Angela Harmer had sunk nearly lifeless in a chair, and Cecilia would have fallen had not the priest, who had in vain endeavoured to check the doctor's solemn denunciation, supported her. "Come, let us leave this;" and the four men in silence went out, entered Dr. Ashleigh's carriage, which was in waiting, and drove off.

END OF VOL. I.

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