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Title: A Search For A Secret, a Novel, Vol. 1
Author: Henty, G. A. (George Alfred), 1832-1902
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Search For A Secret, a Novel, Vol. 1" ***

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                        A SEARCH FOR A SECRET.

                               A Novel.

                            BY G. A. HENTY.


    IN THREE VOLUMES.

    VOL. I.

    LONDON:
    TINSLEY BROTHERS, 18, CATHERINE ST., STRAND.
    1867.

    LONDON:
    WYMAN AND SONS, PRINTERS, GREAT QUEEN STREET,
    LINCOLN'S-INN FIELDS, W.C.



CONTENTS OF VOL. I.


CHAPTER I. EARLY DAYS

CHAPTER II. THE HARMERS OF HARMER PLACE

CHAPTER III. "L'HOMME PROPOSE, DIEU DISPOSE"

CHAPTER IV. THE LAST OF THE HARMERS

CHAPTER V. TESTAMENTARY INTENTIONS

CHAPTER VI. THE BISHOP OF RAVENNA

CHAPTER VII. SOCIETY GRACIOUSLY CONDESCENDS

CHAPTER VIII. INTRODUCED TO THE WORLD

CHAPTER IX. THE OLD STORY

CHAPTER X. SUNSHINE AND SHADOW

CHAPTER XI. LAYING A TRAIN

CHAPTER XII. THE EXPLOSION

CHAPTER XIII. A BAD BUSINESS

CHAPTER XIV. MISSING!



CHAPTER I.

EARLY DAYS.


There are towns over which time seems to exercise but little power, but
to have passed them by forgotten, in his swift course. Everywhere else,
at his touch, all is changed. Great cities rise upon the site of fishing
villages; huge factories, with their smoky chimneys grow up and
metamorphose quiet towns into busy hives of industry; while other
cities, once prosperous and flourishing, sink into insignificance; and
the passer by, as he wanders through their deserted streets, wonders and
laments over the ruin which has fallen upon them.

But the towns of which I am speaking--and of which there are but few now
left in England, and these, with hardly an exception, cathedral
towns--seem to suffer no such change. They neither progress nor fall
back. If left behind, they are not beaten in the race, for they have
never entered upon it; but are content to rest under the shelter of
their tall spires and towers; to seek for no change and to meet with
none; but to remain beloved, as no other towns are loved, by those who
have long known them--assimilating, as it were, the very natures of
those who dwell in them, to their own sober, neutral tints.

In these towns, a wanderer who has left them as a boy, returning as an
old, old man, will see but little change--a house gone here, another
nearly similar built in its place; a greyer tint upon the stone; a tree
fallen in the old close; the ivy climbing a little higher upon the
crumbling wall;--these are all, or nearly all, the changes which he will
see. The trains rush past, bearing their countless passengers, who so
rarely think of stopping there, that the rooks, as they hold their grave
conversations in their nests in the old elm-trees, cease to break off,
even for a moment, at the sound of the distant whistle. The very people
seem, although this is but seeming, to have changed as little as the
place: the same names are over the shop doors--the boy who was at school
has taken his grand-sire's place, and stands at his door, looking down
the quiet street as the old man used to do before him; the dogs are
asleep in the sunny corners they formerly loved; and the same horses
seem to be lazily drawing the carts, with familiar names upon them, into
the old market-place. The wanderer may almost fancy that he has awoke
from a long, troubled dream. It is true that if he enters the little
churchyard, he will see, beneath the dark shadows of the yew-trees, more
gravestones than there were of old; but the names are so similar, that
it is only upon reading them over, that he will find that it is true
after all, and that the friends and playfellows of his childhood, the
strong, merry boys, and the fair girls with sunny ringlets, sleep
peacefully there. But it is not full yet; and he may hope that, when his
time shall come, there may be some quiet nook found, where, even as a
child, he may have fancied that he would like some day to rest.

Among these cities pre-eminent, as a type of its class, is the town in
which I now sit down to recount the past events of my life, and of the
lives of those most dear to me--not egotistically, I hope, nor thrusting
my own story, in which, indeed, there is little enough, into view; but
telling of those I have known and lived with, as I have noted the events
down in my journal, and at times, when the things I speak of are related
merely on hearsay, dropping that dreadful personal pronoun which will
get so prominent, and telling the story as it was told to me.

Although not born at Canterbury, I look upon it as my native town, my
city of adoption. My earliest remembrances are of the place; my
childhood and youth were spent there; and, although I was then for a few
years absent, it was for that stormy, stirring time, when life is
wrapped up in persons and not in places, when the mere scene in which
the drama is played out leaves barely an impression upon the mind, so
all-absorbing is the interest in the performers. That time over, I
returned to Canterbury as to my home, and hope, beneath the shadow of
its stately towers, to pass tranquilly down the hill of life, whose
ascent I there made with such eager, strong young steps.

Dear old Canterbury! It is indeed a town to love with all one's heart,
as it lies, sleeping, as it were, amidst its circle of smiling
hop-covered hills, with its glorious cathedral looking so solemnly down
upon it, with its quiet courts, its shady, secluded nooks and corners,
its quaint, old-fashioned houses, with their many gables and projecting
eaves, and its crumbling but still lofty walls, it gives me somehow the
idea of a perfect haven of rest and peace. It, like me, has seen its
stormy times: Briton, Dane, and Saxon have struggled fiercely before its
walls. It, too, has had its proud dreams, its lofty aspirations; but
they are all over now, and it is, like myself, contented to pass its
days in quiet, resting upon its old associations, and with neither wish
nor anticipation of change in the tranquil tenour of its way.

I was not, as I have said, born in the town, but went there very
young--so young that I have no remembrance of any earlier time.

We lived in a large, rambling, old-fashioned house in a back lane. In a
little court before it stood some lime-trees, which, if they helped to
make the front darker and more dismal than it would otherwise have been,
had the good effect of shutting it out from the bad company into which
it had fallen.

It had at one time been a place of great pretension, and belonged,
doubtless, to some country magnate, and before the little houses in the
narrow lane had sprung up and hemmed it in, it may have had a cheerful
appearance; but, at the time I speak of, the external aspect was
undeniably gloomy. But behind it was very different. There was a lawn
and large garden, at the end of which the Stour flowed quietly along,
and we children were never tired of watching the long streamer-like
green weeds at the bottom waving gently in the current, and the trout
darting here and there among them, or lying immovable, apparently
watching us, until at the slightest noise or motion they would dart away
too quickly for the eye to follow them.

Inside, it was a glorious home for us, with its great old-fashioned hall
with dark wainscoting and large stags' heads all round it, which seemed
to be watching us children from their eyeless sockets; and its vast
fireplace, with iron dogs, where, in the old days, a fire sufficient for
the roasting of a whole bullock, might have been piled up; with its
grand staircase, with heavy oak balustrades, lit by a great window large
enough for an ordinary church; with its long passages and endless
turnings and backstairs in unexpected places; with all its low, quaint
rooms of every shape except square, and its closets nearly as large as
rooms.

Oh, it was a delightful house! But very terrible at dusk. Then we would
not have gone along alone those long, dark passages for worlds; for we
knew that the bogies, and other strange things of which our old nurse
told us, would be sure to be lurking and upon the watch.

It was a wonderful house for echoes, and at night we would steal from
our beds and creep to the top of the grand staircase, and listen, with
hushed breath, to the almost preternaturally loud tick of the old clock
in the hall, which seemed to us to get louder and louder, till at last
the terrors of the place would be almost too much for us, and, at the
sound of some mouse running behind the wainscoting, we would scamper off
to our beds, and bury our heads beneath the clothes, falling into a
troubled sleep, from which we woke, with terrified starts, until the
welcome approach of day, when, as the sun shone brightly in, we would
pluck up courage and laugh at our night's fright.

Of my quite young days I have not much to say. My brother Harry, who was
two years older than I, went to the King's School; and Polly--who was as
much my junior--and I were supposed to learn lessons from our mother.
Poor mamma! not much learning, I think, did we get from her. She was
always weak and ailing, and had but little strength or spirits to give
to teaching us. When I was twelve, and Polly consequently ten, we had a
governess in of a day, to teach us and keep us in order; but I am afraid
that she found it hard work, for we were sadly wild, noisy girls--at
least, this was the opinion of our unmarried aunts, who came to stay
periodically with us.

I have not yet spoken of my father, my dear, dear father. How we loved
him, and how he loved us, I cannot even now trust myself to write. As I
sit at my desk his portrait hangs on the wall before me, and he seems to
be looking down with that bright genial eye, that winning smile which he
wore in life. Not only by us was he loved, almost adored, but all who
came in contact with him were attracted in a similar way. To rich or
poor, ill or in health, to all with whom he was in any way associated,
he was friend and adviser. A large man and somewhat portly, with
iron-grey hair, cut short, and brushed upright off his forehead, a
rather dark complexion, a heavy eyebrow, a light-blue eye, very clear
and penetrating, and the whole face softened and brightened by his
genial smile. Very kind and sympathetic to the poor, the sick, and the
erring; pitilessly severe upon meanness, hypocrisy, and vice. He was a
man of great scientific attainments, and his study was crowded with
books and instruments which related to his favourite pursuits. Upon the
shelves were placed models of steam-engines, electrical machines,
galvanic batteries, air-pumps, microscopes, chemical apparatus, and
numberless other models and machinery of which we could not even guess
the uses. Thick volumes of botanical specimens jostled entomological
boxes and cases, butterfly-nets leant in the corner with telescopes,
retorts stood beneath the table, the drawers of which were filled with a
miscellaneous collection indescribable.

With us children he was firm, yet very kind, ever ready to put aside his
work to amuse us, especially of a winter's evening, when, dinner over,
he always went into his study, to which we would creep, knock gently at
the door, and when allowed to enter, would sit on stools by his side,
looking into the fire, while he told us marvellous tales of enchanters
and fairies. It was at these times, when we had been particularly
good--or at least when he, who was as glad of an excuse to amuse us as
we were to be amused, pretended that we had been so--that he would take
down his chemicals, or electrical apparatus, and show us startling or
pretty experiments, ending perhaps by entrapping one of us into getting
an unexpected electric shock, and then sending us all laughing up to
bed.

We always called papa Dr. Ashleigh in company. It was one of mamma's
fancies: she called him so herself, and was very strict about our doing
the same upon grand occasions. We did not like it, and I don't think
papa did either, for he would often make a little funny grimace, as he
generally did when anything rather put him out; but as mamma set her
mind upon it so much, he never made any remark or objection. He was
very, very kind to her, and attentive to her wishes, and likes and
dislikes; but their tastes and characters were as dissimilar as it was
possible for those of any two persons to be.

She was very fond of papa, and was in her way proud to see him so much
looked up to and admired by other people; but I do not think that she
appreciated him for himself as it were, and would have been far happier
had he been a common humdrum country doctor. She could not understand
his devotion to science, his eager inquiry into every novelty of the
day, and his disregard for society in the ordinary sense of the word;
still less could she understand his untiring zeal in his profession. Why
he should be willing to be called up in the middle of a winter's night,
get upon his horse, and ride ten miles into the country on a sudden
summons to some patient, perhaps so poor that to ask payment for his
visit never even entered into the Doctor's mind, was a thing she could
not understand. Home, and home cares occupied all her thoughts, and it
was to her inexpressibly annoying, when, after taking extreme care to
have the nicest little dinner in readiness for his return from work, he
would come in an hour late, be perfectly unconcerned at his favourite
dish being spoilt, and, indeed, be so completely absorbed in the
contemplation of some critical case in his day's practice, as not even
to notice what there was for dinner, but to eat mechanically whatsoever
was put before him.

Mamma must have been a very pretty woman when she married Dr. Ashleigh.
Pretty is exactly the word which suits her style of face. A very fair
complexion, a delicate colour, a slight figure, light hair, which then
fell in curls, but which she now wore in bands, with a pretty apology
for a cap on the back of her head. She had not much colour left when I
first remember her, unless it came in a sudden flush; but she was still,
we thought, very pretty, although so delicate-looking. She lay upon the
sofa most of the day, and would seldom have quitted it, had she not been
so restlessly anxious about the various household and nursery details,
that every quarter of an hour she would be off upon a tour of inspection
and supervision through the house. She was very particular about our
dress and manners, and I am sure loved us very much; but from her weak
state of health she could not have us long with her at a time.

It was one bright summer afternoon, I remember well, when I was rather
more than fourteen years old, we had finished our early dinner, Harry
had started for school, and we had taken our books and gone out to
establish ourselves in our favourite haunt, the summer-house at the end
of the garden. This summer-house was completely covered with creepers,
which climbed all over the roof, and hung in thick festoons and
clusters, almost hiding the woodwork, and making it a perfect leafy
bower; only towards the river we kept it clear. It was so charming to
sit there with our toys or our work and watch the fish, the drifting
weeds and fallen leaves, to wonder which would get out of sight first,
and whether they would catch in the wooden piles of the bridge,--for
there was a bridge over from our garden into the fields beyond, where
our cow Brindle was kept, and where our horses were sometimes turned out
to graze, and make holiday. It was a very happy and peaceful spot. When
we were little, the summer-house was our fairy bower; here we could play
with our dolls, and be queens and princesses without fear of
interruption, and sometimes when Harry was with us, we would be Robinson
Crusoes wrecked on a desert island; here we would store up provisions,
and make feasts, here we would find footprints in the sand, and here
above all we would wage desperate battles with imaginary fleets of
canoes full of savages endeavouring to cross the stream. Harry would
stand courageously in front, and we girls carefully concealing ourselves
from the enemy, would keep him supplied with stones from the magazine,
with which he would pour volleys into the water, to the imaginary terror
of the savages, and the real alarm of our friends the fish. With what
zeal did we throw ourselves into these fights, with what excited shouts
and cries, and what delight we felt when Harry proclaimed the victory
complete and the enemy in full flight!

As time went on, and the dolls were given up, and we could no longer
believe in savages, and began to think romping and throwing stones
unladylike, although at times very pleasant, the summer-house became our
reading-room, and at last, after we had a governess, our schoolroom in
fine weather. This was not obtained without some opposition upon the
part of mamma, who considered it as an irregular sort of proceeding; but
we coaxed papa into putting in a good word for us, and then mamma, who
was only too glad to see us happy, gave in at once. We had but just gone
out, and after a look down at the river and the fish, and across at the
pretty country beyond, had opened our books with a little sigh of
regret, when we heard a footstep coming down the garden and to our
surprise found it was papa.

"Now girls," he said, "put on your things as quickly as you can. I am
going over to Mr. Harmer at Sturry, and will take you with me. First
though, we must ask mamma's leave. I have no doubt Miss Harrison here,
will be as glad of a holiday as you are."

Mamma, however, although she seldom opposed any of papa's plans for our
amusement, raised many objections. Indeed, I had for some time past
noticed that she did not like our visiting at Harmer Place. Upon this
occasion she was particularly averse to our going, and said that I "was
getting too old to associate with a person of such extraordinary
antecedents as----."

We did not hear who the person was, for papa broke in more sternly than
I had ever before heard him speak to mamma, and said that "he differed
from her entirely: for his part he could see no harm whatever in our
going, and that, at any rate until we were of an age to judge for
ourselves, no question of the sort could arise."

Mamma, directly she saw he was in earnest, said no more, and we set out
soon afterwards, with the understanding that we should most probably not
be back until evening.

Although neither Polly nor I ever made any remark to each other about
that conversation, we--or at least I can answer for myself--were not the
less astonished at it. It seemed perfectly inexplicable to me. What
objection could there be to our going to the Harmers? I was, as I have
said, past fourteen, and was beginning to think and reason about all
sorts of things, and this was a problem which I tried in vain for a long
time to solve to my satisfaction. How I pondered the matter over in
every light, but ever without success. Mamma had said it was a person.
Now, person generally means a woman, and the only women at Harmer Place
were the two Miss Harmers. Had it been a principle mamma objected to, I
could have understood it, for the Miss Harmers were bigoted Catholics.
Not that that would have made any difference with papa, who looked at
these matters with a very latitudinarian eye. "In my opinion," I have
heard him say, "the sect to which a man belongs makes but little
difference, if he does but do his best according to his belief."

And I remember that in after years, when we had suffered much, he warned
us not to blame a creed for the acts of its professors. "History has
shown," he would say, "that a bigot, whether he be Catholic, Protestant,
or Mussulman, will be equally a cruel persecutor of others, equally
ready to sacrifice everything which he believes to stand in the way of
his Church."

I mention this here because I should be very sorry that the feelings of
any one who may ever come to read this story of mine should be hurt, or
that it should be taken to be an attack or even an implication against a
particular form of worship.

I knew then that although papa objected to the extreme opinions which
the Miss Harmers held, and which had been caused by the exceptional life
which they had led, still the antecedents, to which mamma alluded, could
be no question of religion. And yet the only other female at Harmer
Place was Sophy Needham, the pretty girl we so often met there. She was
an orphan village child, to whom Mr. Harmer had taken such a fancy that
he had sent her, at his own expense, to a London school, and had her
constantly staying at the house with him. But, of course, it could not
be Sophy; for I was quite sure that the fact of her having been a
village girl would not make the slightest difference in either papa's or
mamma's eyes, so far as our associating with her went; and in other
respects there could be no objection, for she was a particularly quiet,
retiring girl, and was two years older than myself.

The objection, then, did not appear to apply to any one at Harmer Place,
and I puzzled myself in vain upon the subject; and indeed it was not for
some years afterwards that the mystery was solved, or that I found out
that it was indeed Sophy Needham to whom mamma had alluded. There is no
reason why I should make a mystery of it in this journal of mine, which
will be more easily understood by making the matter clear at once, and I
will therefore, before I go on with my own story, relate the history of
the Harmers as nearly as I can as it was told to me.



CHAPTER II.

THE HARMERS OF HARMER PLACE.


The Harmers of Harmer Place, although of ancient descent, could yet
hardly be ranked among the very old Kentish families, for they could
trace back their history very little beyond the commencement of the
reign of Queen Elizabeth, of pious and Protestant memory. About that
period it is ascertained that they were small landed proprietors,
probably half gentry, half farmers. All documentary and traditional
history goes to prove that the Harmers of those days were a stiff-necked
race, and that their consciences were by no means of the same plastic
nature as those of the great majority of their neighbours. They could
not, for the life of them, see why--because the Royal family had all of
a sudden come to the conclusion that the old Roman religion, in which
their fore-fathers had for so many centuries worshipped, was after all
wrong, that therefore the whole nation was bound to make the same
discovery at the same moment.

So the Harmers clung to the old faith, and were looked upon with
grievous disfavour in consequence by the authorities for the time being.
Many were the domiciliary visits paid them, and grievous were the fines
inflicted upon them for nonconformity. Still, whether from information
privately sent to them previous to these researches, or whether from the
superior secrecy and snugness of their "Priest's chamber," certain it
is, that although frequently denounced and searched, no priest or
emissary of papacy was ever found concealed there; and so, although
constantly harassed and vexed, they were suffered to remain in
possession of their estate.

As generation of Harmers succeeded generation, they continued the same
stiff-necked race, clinging to their old tenets, and hardening their
hearts to all inducements to desert them. Over and over again they went
through "troublous times," especially when those God-fearing and
enlightened Puritans domineered it over England. In after reigns
difficulties arose, but the days of persecution were over then, and they
had nothing to undergo comparable to their former trials.

It would have been naturally supposed that as at the commencement of the
reign of Elizabeth the Harmers were by no means a wealthy race, they
would speedily have been shorn of all the little property they then
possessed. But it was not so. The more they were persecuted so much the
more they flourished, and from mere farmers they speedily rose to the
rank of county families.

One reason, doubtless, for their immunity from more than comparatively
petty persecutions, such as fines and imprisonments, was, that the
Harmers never took any part in political affairs; neither in plots, nor
risings, nor civil wars, were they ever known actively to interfere.

As the Harmers were in other respects an obstinate, quarrelsome race,
stubborn in will, strong in their likes and dislikes, it was singular
that they should never have actively bestirred themselves in favour of
the cause which they all had so strongly at heart. The popular belief on
the matter was, that a settled and traditional line of policy had been
recommended, and enforced upon the family, by their priests; namely, to
keep quite neutral in politics, in order that there might be at least
one house in the country--and that, from its proximity to the sea-coast,
peculiarly suitable to the purpose,--where, in cases of necessity, a
secure hiding-place could be relied on. Mother Church is very good to
her obedient children; and if the Harmers gave up their personal
feelings for her benefit, and sheltered her ministers in time of peril,
she no doubt took care that in the long run they should not be losers.
And so, while their Roman Catholic neighbours threw themselves into
plots and parties, and lost house and land, and not uncommonly life, the
Harmers rode quietly through the gale, thriving more and more under the
small persecutions they suffered for the faith's sake. And thus it
happened that going into troubles as small proprietors in the reign of
Elizabeth, they came out of them in that of George, owners of a large
estate and a rambling old mansion in every style of architecture.

After that date, persecution having ceased, and "Priests' chambers"
being no longer useful, the Harmers ceased to enlarge their boundaries,
and lived retired lives on their property, passing a considerable
portion of their time on the Continent.

Robert Harmer had, contrary to the usual custom of his ancestors, six
children--four sons and two daughters. Edward was, of course, intended
to inherit the family property, and was brought up in accordance with
the strictest traditions of his race; Robert was also similarly
educated, in order to be fitted to take his brother's place should
Edward not survive his father, or die leaving no heirs; Gregory was
intended for the priesthood; and Herbert, the youngest of all, was left
to take his chance in any position which the influence of his family or
Church might obtain for him.

Herbert Harmer, however, was not so ready as the rest of his family to
submit his judgment without question to that of others; and having, when
about sixteen, had what he conceived an extremely heavy and unfair
penance imposed upon him for some trifling offence, he quitted his home,
leaving a letter behind him stating his intention of never returning to
it. Herbert Harmer was not of the stuff of which a docile son of Holy
Church is made; of a warm and affectionate disposition, and a naturally
buoyant, joyous frame of mind, the stern and repressive discipline to
which he was subjected, and the monotonous existence he led in his
father's house, seemed to him the height of misery.

The lad, when he turned his back on home, knew little of the world. He
had lived the life almost of a recluse, never stirring beyond the
grounds of the mansion except to attend mass at the Roman Catholic
chapel at Canterbury, and this only upon grand occasions, as the family
confessor, who acted also as his tutor, resided in the village, and
ordinarily performed the service at the chapel attached to the place.

Companions he had none. Gregory, the brother next to him in age, was
away in Italy studying for the priesthood; Cecilia and Angela he had
seen but seldom, as they also were abroad, being educated in a convent;
Edward and Robert were young men nearly ten years older than himself,
and were when at home his father's companions rather than his, and both
were of grave taciturn disposition, ascetic and bigoted even beyond the
usual Harmer type.

Thrown therefore almost entirely upon his own resources, Herbert had
sought what companionship he best could. Books, first and best; but of
these his stock was limited. Religious and controversial treatises,
church histories, and polemical writings formed the principal part of
the library, together with a few volumes of travel and biography which
had somehow found their way there. On a library so limited as this the
boy could not employ his whole time, but had to seek amusement and
exercise out of doors, and the only companion he had there, was perhaps
of all others the very one with whom he would have been most strictly
forbidden to associate, had their intimacy been guessed at.

Robert Althorpe was the son of a tenant on the estate, and was a man of
thirty or thereabouts. Originally a wild, reckless lad, he had, as many
an English boy has done before and since, ran away to sea, and, after
nearly fifteen years absence, had lately returned with only one arm,
having lost the other in a naval engagement. On his return he had been
received with open arms by his father, as at that time (that is, in the
year 1795) all England was wild with our naval glory. And now Robert
Althorpe passed his time, sitting by the fire smoking, or wandering
about to relate his tales of adventure among the farmhouses of the
country, at each of which he was received as a welcome guest.

The sailor took a particular fancy to young Herbert Harmer, whose
ignorance of the world and eager desire to hear something of it, and
whose breathless attention to his yarns, amused and gratified him. On
many a summer afternoon, then, when Herbert had finished his prescribed
course of study, he would slip quietly away to meet Robert Althorpe, and
would sit for hours under the trees listening to tales of the world and
life of which he knew so little. Robert had in his period of service
seen much; for those were stirring times. He had taken part in the
victories of Howe and Jervis, and in the capture of the numerous West
Indian isles. He had fought, too, under the invincible Nelson at the
Nile, in which battle he had lost his arm. He had been stationed for two
years out on the Indian coast, and Herbert above all loved to hear of
that wonderful country, then the recent scene of the victories of Clive
and Hastings.

When therefore he left his home, the one fixed idea in Herbert Harmer's
mind was, that first of all he would go to sea, and that then he would
some day visit India; both which resolutions he carried into effect.

It was some ten years after, when the memory of the young brother of
whom they had seen so little had nearly faded from the minds of his
family, that a letter arrived from him, addressed to his father, but
which was opened by his brother Edward as the head of the house, the old
man having been three years before laid in the family vault. Gregory too
was dead, having died years previously of a fever contracted among the
marshes near Rome. The contents of the letter, instead of being hailed
with the delight with which news from a long lost prodigal is usually
greeted, were received with unmingled indignation and horror.

A solemn family conclave was held in the old library, Edward Harmer at
the head of the table, Father Paul at the foot, and the contents of the
letter were taken into formal consideration. A joint answer was then
drawn up, stating the horror and indignation with which his
communication had been received--that the anathema had been passed
against him, that to them he was dead for ever, and that they regretted
that he had ever been born at all.

All this was expressed at great length, and with that exceedingly
complicated bitterness of cursing, which is a characteristic of the
Roman Church when roused. At the end, each of the family signed his or
her name, and the priest added his, with a cross affixed there to, as a
token for ever against him.

The contents of the letter which had caused all this commotion of
spirit, were briefly as follows.

Herbert had gone to sea, and had for two years voyaged to different
parts of the world. At the end of that time he had arrived in India, and
there leaving his ship, had determined to cast his lot. After various
employments, he had finally obtained a situation as a clerk to a planter
up the country, whose daughter he had three years afterwards married; he
was now doing well, and hoped that his father would forgive his having
ran away from home.

So far the letter was satisfactory enough, it was the final paragraph
which had caused the explosion of family wrath against him--namely, that
his wife was a Protestant, and that having carefully examined the Bible
with her, he had come to the conclusion that the Reformed Church more
closely carried out the precepts and teachings of that book than his
own. That he was afraid this would prove a serious annoyance to his
father; but that, as he was so far away, and should never be likely to
return to obtrude the new religion he had adopted upon them, he hoped
that it would be no bar to his continuing an amicable correspondence
with them.

This hope was, as has been seen, not destined to be realized. The answer
was sealed and duly sent off, and henceforth Herbert Harmer, as far as
his family was concerned, ceased to have any existence. It was nearly
twenty years before they again heard of him, and then the news came that
he had returned to England, a widower, bringing his only son, a young
man of about twenty-one years old, with him; that he had purchased a
house in the neighbourhood of London, and that he did not intend to
return to India.

Very shortly after his return, a letter from him was received by his
elder brother, but immediately it was opened, and the first line showed
from whom it came, it was closed unread, resealed, and returned to the
writer.

During the thirty years which Herbert Harmer had been absent, the old
place had certainly not improved. Edward and Robert had both been
married, but were, like their brother, widowers. Edward never had
children. Robert had several born to him, but all had died quite young.
The sisters had remained single.

It was a gloomy house in those days. They all lived together there.
Father Paul was long since dead, and Father Gabriel literally
reigned in his stead--a man even more gloomy and bigoted than his
predecessors--chosen probably on that account, as being in keeping with
the character of the people to whom he ministered. An unhappy family;
unhappy in their lives and dispositions, unhappy in the view they had
taken of religion and its duties, very unhappy--and this was the only
count to which they themselves would have pleaded guilty--very unhappy
because the old line of Harmer would die with them, and that there was
none of the name to inherit after them; for that Herbert the apostate
should succeed them, that a Protestant Harmer should dwell where his
Catholic ancestors had so long lived, was never even for a moment
discussed as a possibility: the very idea would have been a desecration,
at which their dead fathers would have moved in their graves. Better, a
thousand times better, that the old place should go to strangers. And so
Edward's will was made; everything was done that could be done, and they
dwelt in gloomy resignation, waiting for the end.

That end was to come to some of them sooner than they expected.

Edward and Robert Harmer had one interest, one worldly amusement, in
which they indulged. As young men they had been for some time together
at Genoa, and in that town of mariners they had become passionately
attached to the sea. This taste they had never lost, and they still
delighted occasionally to go out for a day's sailing, in a small
pleasure yacht, which they kept at the little fishing-village of Herne
Bay. She was an open boat, of about eight tons, and was considered a
good sea-boat for her size. In this, with two men to sail her, under the
command of an old one-armed sailor, whom they employed because he had
once lived on the estate, they would go out for hours, once a week or
so; not on fine sunny days--in them they had no pleasure--but when the
wind blew fresh, and the waves broke a tawny yellow on the sand, and the
long banks off the coast were white with foaming breakers. It was a
strange sight in such weather, to see the two men, now from fifty to
sixty years old, and very similar in face and figure, taking their
places in the stern of their little craft, while the boatmen, in their
rough-weather coats and fearnought hats, hoisted the sails and prepared
for sea.

Very quiet they would sit, while the spray dashed over them, and the
boat tore across the surface of the water, with a smile half glad, half
defiant, on their dark features, till the one-armed captain would say,
touching his hat, "It is getting wilder, your honours; I think we had
better put about." Then they would give an assenting gesture, and the
boat's head would be turned to shore, where they would arrive, wet
through and storm-beaten, but with a deep joy in their hearts, such as
they experienced at no other time.

But once they went out, and came back alive no more. It happened thus.
It was the 3rd of March, and the morning was overcast and dull; there
was wind, though not strong, coming in short sudden puffs, and then
dying away again. The brothers started early, and drove over, through
the village of Herne, to the little fishing-hamlet in the bay, and
stopped at the cottage of the captain, as he termed himself, of their
little yacht. The old sailor came out to the door.

"You are not thinking of going out to-day, your honours, are you?"

"Why not?" Edward Harmer asked; "don't you think there will be wind
enough?"

"Aye, aye, your honour, wind enough, and more than enough before long;
there is a gale brewing up there;" and the old man shaded his eyes with
his remaining hand, and looked earnestly at the clouds.

"Pooh, pooh, man!" Robert Harmer said; "there is no wind to speak of
yet, although I think with you that it may come on to blow as the sun
goes down. What then? It is nearly easterly, so if we sail straight out
we can always turn and run back again before the sea gets up high enough
to prevent us. You know we are always ready to return when you give the
word."

The old sailor made no further remonstrance, but summoning the two young
men who generally accompanied them, he busied himself in carrying down
the oars, and making preparations to launch the little boat which was to
carry them to where the yacht was moored about a hundred yards out, with
many quiet disapproving shakes of his head as he did so. They were soon
in, and launched through the waves, which were breaking with a long,
heavy, menacing roar. It was not rough yet, but even in the quarter of
an hour which had elapsed between their arrival at the village, and
reaching the side of the yacht, the aspect of the weather had changed
much; the gusts of wind came more frequently, and with far greater
force, whitening the surface of the water, and tearing off the tops of
the waves in sheets of spray. The dull heavy clouds overhead were
beginning to break up suddenly, as if stirred by some mighty force
within themselves, great openings and rents seemed torn asunder in the
dark curtain, and then as suddenly closed up again; but through these
momentary openings, the scud could be seen flying rapidly past in the
higher regions of the air.

On reaching the side of the yacht, which was rolling heavily on the
rising waves, the one-armed sailor again glanced at the brothers to see
if they noticed these ominous signs, and if they made any change in
their determination; but they gave no signs of doing so. Their faces
were both set in that expression of stern pleasure which they always
wore on occasions like this, and with another disapproving shake of his
head, even more decided than those in which he had before indulged, he
turned to assist the men in fastening the boat they had come in to the
moorings to await their return, in loosing the sails, and taking a
couple of reefs in them, and preparing for a start.

In another five minutes the little craft was far out at sea, ploughing
her way through the ever increasing waves, dashing them aside from her
bows in sheets of spray, and leaving a broad white track behind her.

The wind was getting up every minute, and blew with a hoarse roar across
the water.

Before they had been gone fifteen minutes, the old sailor felt that it
was indeed madness to go farther. He saw that the force of the wind was
already more than the boat could bear, and was momentarily increasing,
and that the sea was fast getting up under its power.

But as his counsel had been already once disregarded, he determined to
let the first order for return come from the brothers, and he glanced
for a moment from the sails and the sea to the two men sitting beside
him. There was no thought of turning back there. Their lips were hard
set, yet half smiling; their eyes wide open, as if to take in the
tumultuous joy of the scene; their hands lay clenched on their knees.
They had evidently no thought of danger, no thought of anything but
deep, wild pleasure.

The old sailor bit his lips. He looked again over the sea, he looked at
the sails, and at the lads crouched down in the bow with consternation
strongly expressed on their faces; he glanced at the dark green water,
rushing past the side, and sometimes as she lay over combing in over the
gunwale; he felt the boat quiver under the shock as each succeeding wave
struck her, and he knew she could bear no more. He therefore again
turned round to the impassive figures beside him, and made his usual
speech.

"Your honours, it is time to go about."

But this time so absorbed were they in their sensations, that they did
not hear him, and he had to touch them to attract their notice, and to
shout in their ears, "Your honours, we must go about."

They started at the touch, and rose like men waked suddenly from a
dream. They cast a glance round, and seemed to take in for the first
time the real state of things, the raging wind, the flying scud, the
waves which rose round the boat, and struck her with a force that
threatened to break her into fragments. And then Edward said, "Yes! by
all means, if indeed it is not already too late. God forgive us for
bringing you out into it; _peccavi, culpa mea_." And then the brothers,
influenced not by fear for themselves, but for the lives of those whom
they had brought into danger, commenced rapidly uttering, in a low
voice, the prayers of their Church for those in peril.

The prayer was never to be finished. The men sprang with alacrity to the
ropes when the order was given, "Prepare to go about;" but whether their
fingers were numb, or what it was which went wrong, no one will ever
know. The boat obeyed her rudder, and came up into the wind. There was a
momentary lull, and then as her head payed round towards the shore, a
fresh gust struck her with even greater force than ever. Some rope
refused to run, it was but for an instant, but that instant sealed the
fate of the boat; over she lay till her sail all but touched the water,
and the sea poured in over her side. For a moment she seemed to try to
recover herself, and then a wild cry went up to heaven, and the boat lay
bottom upwards in the trough of the waves.



CHAPTER III.

"L'HOMME PROPOSE, DIEU DISPOSE."


Mr. Herbert Harmer was sitting at breakfast reading the _Times_,--a
tall, slight man, of from forty-five to fifty, with a benevolent
expressive face, very sunburnt; a broad forehead, a well-defined mouth,
and a soft, thoughtful eye--careless as to attire, as most Anglo-Indians
are, and yet, in appearance as in manner, an unmistakable gentleman.

Opposite to him sat his son, good-looking, but not so prepossessing a
man as his father. He was about twenty-two, and looked, contrary to what
might have been expected from his birth and bringing up in a hot
climate, younger than he really was. His complexion was very fair, an
inheritance probably from his mother, as all the Harmers were dark: his
face, too, was much less bronzed than his father's, the year he had
spent in England having nearly effaced the effects of the Indian sun. He
was of about middle height, and well formed; but he had a languid,
listless air, which detracted much from the manliness of his appearance.
His face was a good-looking, almost a handsome one, and yet it gave the
impression of there being something wanting. That something was
character. The mouth and chin were weak and indecisive--not absolutely
bad, only weak,--but it was sufficient to mar the general effect of his
face.

He was toying with a spoon, balancing it on the edge of an empty coffee
cup, when a sudden exclamation from his father startled him, and the
spoon fell with a crash.

"What is the matter?"

Mr. Harmer gave no answer for some time, but continued to read in
silence the paragraph which had so strangely excited him. He presently
laid the paper down on his knees, seemed lost for some time in deep
thought, and then took out his handkerchief and blew his nose violently.

"My dear father," the young man said, for once fairly roused by all this
emotion and mystery, "what in the name of goodness is the matter? You
quite alarm me. The bank has not broken, has it? or anything terrible
happened?"

"A very sad affair, Gerald; a very sad affair. Your uncles are both
drowned."

"By Jove!"

This being the only appropriate remark that occurred to Gerald Harmer,
there was silence again; and then, seeing that his father was not
disposed to say more, the young man stretched out his hand for the
paper, and read the paragraph which contained the intelligence.

     "APPALLING ACCIDENT ON THE KENTISH COAST.--The neighbourhood
     of Canterbury has been thrown into a state of consternation by
     an accident which has deprived one of the oldest and most
     highly-respected families in the county of its heads. The two
     Messrs. Harmer, of Harmer Place, near Canterbury, had rashly
     ventured out from Herne Bay, with three boatmen, in a small
     yacht belonging to them, just before the awful tempest, which
     while we write is still raging, broke upon the coast. The storm
     came on so rapidly that it is supposed that they were unable to
     return. At present nothing certain is known concerning the
     catastrophe; but late in the afternoon, a small black object
     was observed by one of the Whitstable coast-guard men, drifting
     past at a considerable distance from shore. A telescope being
     brought to bear upon it, it was at once seen to be either a
     large spar or a boat bottom upwards, with a human figure still
     clinging to it. In spite of the fury of the gale, a band of
     noble fellows put off in one of the large fishing-boats, and
     succeeded in bringing off the only survivor of the five men who
     had embarked in the ill-fated craft. He proved to be the sailor
     who generally managed Mr. Harmer's little yacht. He is a
     one-armed man, and this fact, singularly enough, was the means
     of his life being saved; for he had succeeded in fastening the
     hook at the end of his wooden arm so firmly in the keel of the
     yacht, that, even after his strength had failed, and he could
     no longer have clung on, this singular contrivance remained
     secure, and kept him in his place, in spite of all the violence
     of the waves. He was nearly insensible when first rescued, and
     still lies in a precarious state, and has not yet been able to
     give any details of the mournful catastrophe. The bodies of the
     elder Mr. Harmer, and of one of the boatmen, were washed ashore
     this morning, and experienced sailors anticipate that the
     remaining bodies will come ashore with this evening's tide.
     Several men are on the look-out for them. The Harmers of Harmer
     Place are one of the oldest of the Kentish families, and were
     strict adherents to the Romish persuasion. It is believed that
     no male heir remains, and it is confidently stated that the
     large property will go eventually towards the aggrandisement of
     the Church to which they belonged."

"Is that last part true?" Gerald asked. "Do we get the property, or does
it go to the priests?"

"We shall have none of it, Gerald: of that you may be quite sure. The
priests have taken good care of that point. They would never allow the
property to fall into Protestant hands if they could help it; and my
poor brothers were, as far as I can hear, mere puppets in their hands.
No, there is not the least chance of that. I do not say that it would
not have been useful had it been otherwise; for, as you know, owing to
the troubles and riots I lost a good deal of money the last three years
we were in India; and although I have enough left for us to live upon
comfortably, Harmer Place would have been no bad addition. However, that
was not to be. I have always known that there was not be the slightest
probability of such a thing, so I shall feel no disappointment about the
matter."

"Do you mean to go down to the funeral?" Gerald asked.

"Yes. Yes, I shall go, certainly. My poor brothers and I have never been
friends; have not seen each other for thirty years; indeed, even as a
boy I saw next to nothing of them; however, the least I can do is to
follow them to the grave. I shall go down to-morrow." After a pause, Mr.
Harmer added, "I shall get Ransome to go down with me to be present at
the reading of the will. I know it is of no use, as everything is sure
to be done in legal form; still, as I have no desire to lose even the
remotest chance of saving from the priests a property that has been in
the hands of the family for centuries, I will take every possible
precaution. I shall therefore take Ransome down with me. I think you may
as well stay here until I return: it will be a painful and unpleasant
business."

Gerald had not the least wish to go. "He saw no advantage in putting
himself in the way of being snubbed, perhaps insulted, and only to see a
fine property that ought to come to them handed over to found
monasteries and convents."

So on the next morning Herbert Harmer, or Mr. Harmer, as he should now
be called, took his seat on the top of the Canterbury coach, with Mr.
Ransome, his solicitor, a shrewd man of business, beside him.

It was late in the evening when the coach drew up at the "Fountain," at
that time one of the most famous posting-inns in England.

"You stop here to-night, gentlemen?" the landlord asked.

"This gentleman will stop here," Mr. Harmer answered. "I want a
conveyance in half an hour's time to take me on to Harmer Place."

The two gentlemen entered the hotel, and had some dinner, and then when
the vehicle which was to convey him was announced to be in readiness,
Mr. Harmer prepared to start, saying, "I am afraid I shall meet no warm
welcome, Ransome. I think you may as well order a bed-room for me; very
likely I shall return here to-night. If I do not, come over early
to-morrow morning."

Mr. Harmer leaned gloomily back in the carriage as it passed out through
the town on to the road to Sturry, and mused sadly about old times. How
different, and yet in some respects how similar, was his position now to
what it was when he last trod that road thirty years back. Then, no one
had loved him; his absence would be little missed, and even less
regretted. And now, when he returned to his old home after so long an
absence, he could assuredly expect to be received with no pleasure, with
no warm welcome. His sisters he remembered but faintly; he had not seen
them more than three or four times, and they were then slim, pale girls,
unnaturally constrained in manner, with thin pinched lips and downcast
eyes. It was a short drive: in a quarter of an hour or so they passed
through the lodge-gates, the gravel crunched under the wheels for
another minute or two, and then there was a stop. Mr. Harmer alighted.
The front of the house was dark, not a single light gleamed in any of
the windows, all was hushed and quiet. He pulled at the great bell; it
sounded with a loud empty clang, which seemed to grate unnaturally in
the still night air.

"Stop here," he said to the driver. "I may return in a quarter of an
hour."

The door was opened and a faint light streamed out. "Who is it?" a voice
asked.

"Mr. Herbert Harmer," he said, entering. There was a slight exclamation
of astonishment, and then the door closed behind him. Mr. Harmer looked
round; the old hall, seen by the faint light which the servant carried
in his hand, was even blacker and more gloomy than he remembered it as a
boy. He followed the man, who in silence led the way across it to a
small sitting-room, and who, lighting some candles standing on the
mantlepiece, then withdrew, saying he would inform his mistresses that
Mr. Harmer was here.

It was some minutes before Herbert Harmer heard any other sound than the
ticking of a clock against the wall, then the door opened and his two
sisters entered, not quite so tall as he had expected to see them, not
perhaps so old, and yet with faces which disappointed him, faces which
no human love had ever brightened, no loving fingers caressingly
stroked, no lover's lips ever kissed. Faces expressing an abnegation of
self, indeed, but without that love and charity for others which should
have taken the place of self. Faces thin and pale, as by long vigil and
fasting; and eyes which seemed at times to reach your very thoughts, and
then to droop to avoid the answering glance which might seek to fathom
theirs. Habitually, perhaps from a long residence in convents abroad,
their heads were slightly bent, and their eyes fixed on the ground,
while their arms lay usually folded one on the other. Both were singular
instances of the manner in which natures, naturally fiery and wilful,
can be completely subdued and kept down by severe discipline and long
training, and of how a warm and perhaps affectionate disposition can be
warped and constrained by the iron trammels of an ascetic and joyless
life.

When they had entered and the door was closed, they stood side by side
in exactly the same attitude, apparently not looking at their brother,
but waiting for him to speak. As he did not, Cecilia the eldest broke
the silence in a harsh, monotonous voice, speaking like one who has
learnt a lesson, and who only delivers what she has got by rote.

"So you have come back at last, Herbert Harmer, to the house you have
disgraced, to the home you have forfeited. We expected you; what would
you have?"

"Nothing," Mr. Harmer answered. "I want nothing; I am come only to
attend the funeral of my dead brothers."

"And would you, Herbert Harmer--apostate to the faith of your
ancestors--would you dare to follow those who died faithful to their
God? They cast you off in their life, and their dead bodies would bleed
if you approached them."

"Cecilia," Mr. Harmer said, much shocked, "to what end these useless
recriminations? I have trodden my path; those who are gone have followed
theirs. We shall each answer before our Maker. Why should we make
earthly quarrels about heavenly matters? Rather let us be friends, let
us forget the long unfortunate past, let us be as brother and sisters to
each other, and let me try to fill to you the place of those who are
gone."

For the space of a minute there was no answer, and then the elder sister
again spoke, but in a changed tone, and a voice in which some natural
feeling struggled.

"It cannot be, Herbert. We have chosen, as you say, opposite paths, and
we must keep them to the end. I do not--we do not--wish to think
unkindly of you; we will try and forget what cause we have for doing so.
Even you must feel sorrow to know that the old walls which have held the
Harmers so long, will, at our death, hold them no longer. For I tell
you, brother, that it will be so. He who has gone has left us a life
interest in part of the property, as trustees only for the good cause,
and at our death it all goes to support the glory and power of the true
Church. I tell you this that you may cherish no false hopes of what is
not to be."

"I did not, sister. Knowing the Harmers as I know them, I was sure that
neither I nor mine would ever dwell here. Still, I owe it to myself and
my son to be present when that will is read. It is better to know for
certain that the matter is final and irrevocable."

"The will will be opened and read after the funeral, which will take
place at half-past eleven to-morrow. You are perfectly welcome to be
present: indeed, it is better so."

"I have my legal adviser with me; I should wish him to accompany me."

"Certainly; he will see that everything has been done in perfectly legal
form. Is there anything else you would say?"

"Nothing," Mr. Harmer said; and preparing to take leave, he approached
the door, near which they were standing. He stopped before them, and
then, with a sudden impulse, held out a hand to each.

"Oh, sisters, why should this be? Why, after so many years, should we
meet and part thus? Can we not be friends? Can we not yet love each
other? Can we not be happy together, and worship God in our own ways?"

Touched by the voice and manner, and by the warm, loving tone--such as
for years had not fallen upon their ears--perhaps at that moment, for
nearly the first time in their lives, they obtained a glimpse of what
life might have been to them, but was not and now never could be; the
floodgates of the hearts of those two cold, self-restrained women were
all at once broken down, as never before they had been, and, with a
passion of tears, they threw themselves simultaneously on their
brother's neck.

It was not for long. Training and habit soon reasserted their power, and
they stood before him again, calm, but still tearful and shaken.

"We have been wrong, brother; but no, not so. It has been good for us to
have met you. I believe you to be a good man. I believe now that you are
sincere, although grievously mistaken. If, as will probably be the case,
after to-morrow we should not see you again--for our present intention
is at once to retire from the world--we shall always think of you with
kindness, as of the only being in it in whom we have an interest; we
shall remember you with prayers to God, that you may yet see your errors
and be saved; and now, good-bye."

"I shall see you to-morrow?" Mr. Harmer asked.

"Yes, after the funeral." And they were gone.

Mr. Harmer again took his place in the carriage, and returned sad and
thoughtful to Canterbury.

At a quarter after eleven the next day, Mr. Harmer and his solicitor
alighted from a carriage at the lodge gates, and, sending the vehicle
back to the town, entered the grounds.

"I think you were wrong to come so early, Ransome. The service will last
at least two hours. You had much better have taken my advice, and come
on by yourself later."

"I shall do very well, Mr. Harmer. I can walk about the grounds. I see
there are a good many people about, and I am sure to find some one to
talk to till it is time for me to come in."

There were several other persons walking the same way as themselves
towards the house; but they presently met a man coming in the opposite
direction,--an old man, in a rough sailor's suit, with only one arm.
When he came up to them he stopped, looked Mr. Harmer full in the face,
and then took off his hat, saying, "God bless your honour! it's many a
long year since I saw you. Do you not remember Robert Althorpe?"

"Bless me!" Mr. Harmer exclaimed, shaking the old sailor warmly by the
hand. "I am indeed glad to see you, old friend. This, Mr. Ransome, is a
very old friend of mine; I may say the first I ever had. So you are
still here?"

"Aye, aye, your honour; but I live at Herne now. I came over here late
last night, and heard you had been up at the house in the evening; so I
thought you would be coming to the funeral this morning, and made bold
to wait here in hopes of seeing you."

"You did quite right, and I am very glad that I met you. But there, the
time is getting on, and I must not wait. Come down to the 'Fountain'
this afternoon, and ask for me; we must have a long talk over old times,
and I will see what can be done to make you comfortable for the future.
This is a dreadful business," he added, as he turned to go up to the
house.

"Aye, your honour, it is. God knows, I would have saved them if I
could."

"You!" Mr. Harmer said, stopping suddenly. "What, were you with them? I
remember now that the account said it was a one-armed sailor, but of
course I never thought for a moment of its being you."

"Aye, your honour, it were me sure enough; but don't let me keep you
now. I will tell you the whole yarn this afternoon."

Mr. Harmer walked away leaving the old sailor with the solicitor, who
had, from the instant when the man said he had been present at the
accident, regarded him with the most lively interest.

"So you were there, my man," he said. "Well, the day is very cold, I
have some time to wait, and I daresay you have nothing particular to do,
so walk down with me to the village; we shall be able, I have no doubt,
to get a snug room with a good fire, and you shall tell me the whole
story over a glass of grog."

When Mr. Harmer entered the house, he found the hall, and indeed the
whole dwelling, thronged with the priests and assistants of the Romish
Church, in the full robes of their office. All seemed engaged, and no
one paid much attention to him. In a few minutes a procession was
formed; in the rear of this he took his place, and it then moved with
low chanting through the long passages of the house to the chapel which
adjoined, and indeed formed part of it. Herbert Harmer followed
mechanically, mechanically he took the place assigned to him there, and
listened to the solemn service. As in a dream he saw the chapel hung
with black, and the catafalque containing the coffins of his dead
brothers, and the two black figures kneeling beside them; as if it were
some strange thing in which he had no part or share. His thoughts went
far back, through long years, to the time when he had last heard those
solemn chants and smelt the faint odour of the incense, the tears welled
up in his eyes, and his thoughts were still of the days of his
childhood, when a stir around him roused him, and he saw that the
service was over. In a few minutes the chapel was emptied, and all
returned into the dwelling. Here a servant informed him that a gentleman
was awaiting him in the library. Opening the door, he beckoned to Mr.
Ransome to follow him, and together they went into the drawing-room.
Here he found his sisters, and several of the higher clergy who had
assisted at the ceremonial, assembled.

On his entrance his sisters rose to meet him, and greeted him with
formal ceremony; but Mr. Harmer thought that, under their impassive
exterior, he could perceive that they were much moved; and that,
although thoroughly agreeing as they did in the propriety and justice of
the deed, they were yet sorry at heart for the coming sentence which was
to cut off their only surviving brother from all share in the old family
property. Miss Harmer then shortly introduced her brother to those
present, who received him courteously, being far too well bred men of
the world to betray the least exultation over a conquered enemy who
could no longer be dangerous, and towards whom, therefore, a generous
magnanimity might be safely displayed.

A few general remarks suitable to the occasion were exchanged, and then
at a sign from Miss Harmer, all took seats round the room, and a quiet
business-looking man, evidently a solicitor, approached the table with a
legal document in his hand. It was the will of the late Edward Harmer,
which he opened and proceeded to read. Divested of all legal
technicalities, the contents were briefly as follows:--

After leaving his sisters a life interest in a considerable sum, he
bequeathed the whole remainder to his brother Robert. In the event,
however, of Robert not surviving him, he ordered that the estate should
be sold, and that the proceeds, together with all other property
whatsoever of which he should be possessed--and the amount was large, as
the Harmers had not for years lived up to their income--should be paid
into the hands of two well-known dignitaries of the Roman Catholic
Church, to be expended by them in accordance with an enclosed document.

When the lawyer had finished, he folded up the will, and, addressing Mr.
Harman, said,--

"Have you any question you would like to ask? If so I shall be happy to
answer you. This will was drawn up by me some years since at the request
of the testator, who was in good health, mentally and bodily. I was
myself one of the witnesses of his signature; the other witness can be
produced."

"I have no question to ask," Mr. Harmer said, gravely; "the contents of
the will are precisely such as I had anticipated they would be."

There was a pause, and the lawyer remarked,--

"In that case I do not know that there is anything further to be said at
present."

Mr. Harmer turned towards his sister with the intention of saying
farewell, when he was surprised by Mr. Ransome stepping forward and
saying--

"I have a remark or two to make on behalf of Mr. Harmer in reference to
the document which has just been read."

There was a little movement of surprise, Mr. Harmer being more
astonished than any one present, and all listened with anxiety for what
was to follow.

"I admit on behalf of Mr. Harmer that the document which has just been
read is the last testament of the late Mr. Edward Harmer; of that no
question can I suppose arise. By the terms of that will he bequeathes
the whole of his property to his brother Robert, subject to the payment
of the legacies to the Misses Harmer. In the event of Robert not
surviving him, he makes other dispositions of his property. These it is
not necessary to enter into, as that contingency has not arisen. For,
gentlemen, I am in a position to prove to you that Mr. Robert Harmer did
survive his brother; he, therefore, under the will, came into possession
of the property, and as Mr. Robert Harmer has unfortunately died
intestate, at least so I presume, Mr. Herbert Harmer, as heir-at-law, of
course inherits the estate."

As Mr. Ransome spoke he moved to the door, opened it and called to some
one who was waiting in the hall, and Robert Althorpe entered with his
hat in his hand. No one moved, no one spoke, a stupor of blank dismay
had fallen upon all present. Their faces, which when the will was read,
were bright with irrepressible exultation, now expressed the deepest
consternation. They could hardly believe that the prize which they had
made so sure of was about to be snatched from their grasp.

"This," Mr. Ransome said, "is Robert Althorpe, the sailor who had charge
of the little yacht belonging to the late Mr. Harmer, and who was the
sole survivor of those who embarked in her. Miss Harmer knows that this
is correct. Be so good, my man, will you, as to tell these ladies and
gentlemen what you told me relative to the death of the Mr. Harmers.

"Well ladies, and your honours," the sailor said, "when I felt the boat
go over I stuck to her, and never left go. I soon got my head above
water, and clambered on to her bottom. I had hardly got my breath,
before I saw a head come out of the water close by me. I held on to the
keel with my hook, leaned over, and caught him by the hair, and helped
him on to the boat beside me. That was Mr. Robert Harmer. I looked round
again, and thought I saw an arm come up for a moment, but that was all I
saw of any of them, and I don't think one of them ever came up after she
upset. Mr. Robert Harmer was very weak, but he clung with me for nigh
ten minutes, sometimes washed nearly off, and getting weaker and weaker
every minute, and I saw he could not last long. We did not speak, the
waves and the wind were too high, and we were half the time under water;
but I could see the poor gentleman was praying very hard. At last a big
wave came over all, and nearly carried me off, and I had a hard fight to
get back again. When I had time to look round, Mr. Robert Harmer was
gone, and that was the last I ever saw of him. Which I am ready to take
my davy."

When the sailor had done there was another long silence, and then Mr.
Ransome said,--

"This, gentlemen, is perfectly conclusive proof that Mr. Robert Harmer
survived his brother, and would be held so in any court of law. It is, I
have no question, a surprise to you, as it is to my client, Mr. Harmer;
indeed, it is only within the last hour that I have been put in
possession of the fact; I am sure, therefore, that Mr. Harmer will not
wish to force upon you any sudden decision; but I would submit to you
that no question can arise either in the point of law or fact. I would
suggest to him that he should retire for an hour and then return for
your answer. In the meantime, merely as a matter of form, I have placed
a person in the hall to keep possession of the place in the name of Mr.
Herbert Harmer, as heir-at-law to his brother the late Mr. Robert
Harmer. The sailor will remain here, and you can interrogate him further
on the subject."

So saying, and bowing to those present, who had not yet recovered
sufficiently from their dismay to utter a word, he took the almost
stupefied Mr. Harmer by the arm and left the room.

After they had gone there was a long and animated debate; but the
conclusion at which they most reluctantly arrived, under the advice of
the lawyer who had drawn up the will, was, that there was at present
nothing to do, but to leave Mr. Herbert Harmer in possession, and then,
if upon deliberation and further advice it should be thought right to
bring the case to trial, to do so. And so they all went away, and Mr.
Harmer took possession of the home of his father; but not immediately,
for his sisters asked him to leave them a week to make their
arrangements. He begged them to stay there as long as they wished, and
indeed pressed them to make it their home. This, however, they refused
to do. By the will of their brother they were amply provided for, and
they intended to travel, and perhaps finally to enter a religious house
on the Continent.

So in a week the old house was empty, and Herbert Harmer entered it as
undisputed master.



CHAPTER IV.

THE LAST OF THE HARMERS.


And so in spite of all human precautions and care, the property of the
old Roman Catholic family was not disposed of for the benefit and glory
of Mother Church; but passed into the hands of the Protestant and
apostate younger brother, under whose ownership and care it changed not
a little.

Not externally; there no great alteration was possible, unless the whole
place had been pulled down and rebuilt, but the thick trees which had
crowded it in, and made it dark and gloomy, were thinned out, so that
the air and light could come in upon it; bright flower-beds took the
place of the masses of shrubbery on the lawn in front, and as far as
could be done, the whole place was cleared and brightened. Inside, much
greater changes were made--there, indeed, the old house was completely
remodelled, new paper, new paint, new furniture and fittings of every
description. Modern windows were put in where practicable, that is,
wherever they could be inserted without violent incongruity with the
style of architecture; part of the house indeed--that part containing
the principal apartments--was entirely modernized, party walls were
pulled away, small rooms thrown into large ones, the ceilings and roofs
raised, bow windows thrown out, and a bright, cheerful air given to it.

In the chapel adjoining the house great alterations were made. Coloured
glass windows took the place of the plain ones formerly there; these had
been inserted after a visit of inspection paid by a party of Puritan
cavalry, who, not having succeeded in finding the man of Belial of whom
they were in search, consoled themselves under their disappointment by
the holy amusement of smashing the beautiful stained-glass windows, and
destroying the decoration and carvings of the little chapel. The seats
were now removed, and the shrines, hangings, pictures, and other emblems
of the Romish Church were taken down. The grand stone altar was
retained, and a large cross in black marble was placed over it, taking
the place of the wooden crucifix which had so long hung there. At the
foot of the steps leading up to the altar, and where they had so often
knelt in prayer, a beautiful monument of white marble was erected to the
dead brothers, on which the sun threw strange, solemn lights as it
streamed in through the coloured windows.

All these changes and alterations were carried on under the personal
care and inspection of Mr. Harmer, who, with his son, came down at once
to Canterbury, taking up their residence for the first two months at the
"Fountain," but spending most of their time over at the "Place." And
although when masons and decorators once take possession of a house they
generally contrive to make their stay nearly interminable, yet, money,
energy, and personal supervision will occasionally work wonders, and in
this case, in three months after taking possession--that is, by the end
of June--Mr. Harmer had the satisfaction of seeing the work completed,
and the little army of men engaged upon it fairly out of the house.

As soon as they had gone into residence, the neighbouring gentry called
almost in a body. To them it possessed the charm of a new discovery;
they knew the place existed, but all they had seen of it was the lodge
gate, and the twisted chimneys of the house as they rose among the trees
which shut it in from the view; that was all. They hardly knew what it
was like, even from tradition; neither their fathers or grandfathers had
ever called there; not that the religion of its owner had constituted
any serious objection to their so doing, but the Harmers led too
secluded and recluse a life to care about knowing any one. With only a
very few among the county families of their own creed had they any
visiting acquaintance whatever, and this was confined to an exchange of
formal calls, or of stately dinners once or so in the course of a year.
Their only intimate acquaintances were chosen among foreigners,
ecclesiastics or others, generally Italian, whom they had known during
their long absences on the Continent; of these there had been usually
one or two staying in the house when the family were at home; beyond
this they had no friends. But now all this was to change, and the
carriages of the neighbouring gentry dashed in quick succession up the
drive where once the green moss had grown undisturbed, and gay talk and
merry laughter were heard where formerly silence had reigned almost
unbroken.

The visits afforded great satisfaction to those who paid them. The
father and son were both much liked, and pronounced great acquisitions
to the county society.

These visits were shortly returned, and invitations to dinner speedily
followed. But not to dinner-parties alone was the festivity confined;
picnics were got up, balls given, and it was unanimously agreed for once
to overlook the fact that there was no lady head to Harmer Place, but
that mothers and daughters should accept Mr. Harmer's lavish hospitality
regardless of that fact. Indeed, the Harmers' accession to the property
gave rise to a series of feasting and festivity such as had not been
known in that part of the county for years previously.

Into all this Mr. Harmer entered with a fresh pleasure, and a frank
joyous spirit which charmed and attracted all. With the ladies he was an
especial favourite; to them his manners and address were so singularly
different to those of the men with whom they were accustomed to
associate, that they could not fail to be greatly impressed by it.
Herbert Harmer had seen little or nothing of women, for--with the
exception only of his wife, who had always been a great invalid, and
whom he had nursed for years with almost devotional care and
kindness--he had been thrown in contact with very few English women, and
he regarded the whole sex with an almost chivalrous devotion and respect
which in a man of his age was very strange and touching. Although a very
well-read man--for in his distant home he had kept himself well supplied
with the current English literature, and with scientific works of every
description--he knew very little of real life. Of commanding intellect,
had he been placed in different circumstances where his mind could have
had fair scope for its exercise, Herbert Harmer would have made a
conspicuous figure for himself; as it was, although all found in him a
charming companion and a sympathizer in their various tastes, few would
have suspected how great were the stores of knowledge which the
simple-hearted childlike man had stored up in all those years of
solitary reading.

It was this general sympathy for the tastes of others, together with the
reverence for the sex, which led him to treat the young girl of
seventeen with a deference not inferior to that which he would have
exhibited for her white-haired grandmother, which made him so
universally liked by women; and had Herbert Harmer, although a man of
forty-seven, and looking older than he was, wished to marry again, he
might have nearly taken his choice among the fair young Kentish maidens
who surrounded him.

Women, especially young women, appreciate a character such as this far
better than men can do. Their purity of heart recognizes instinctively
its goodness and childlike wisdom; and very many would own to themselves
that, without entertaining any passionate love for him, they could yet
entrust their happiness to such a one with a confidence far more serene
and implicit than that which they would experience in the case of a
younger man.

Perhaps a thought as to the possibility of Mr. Harmer marrying again may
have entered into the calculations of some of the matrons with grown-up
families, and who would not have unwillingly have seen one of their
daughters holding sway as mistress at Harmer Place. But if so, it was
not for long; for Mr. Harmer, upon one occasion--when the possibility of
such an event as a new mistress for his house being forthcoming when the
alterations were completed, was laughingly suggested--resented the idea
in quite a serious manner. From this it was quite evident that the
future mistress of Harmer Place, whomsoever she might be, would enter it
as the wife of Gerald rather than of Herbert Harmer.

Gerald was by no means so great a favourite as his father; nor, although
he earnestly desired to be popular, could he altogether succeed in his
object. He could not overcome the listless manner which his long
residence in India had rendered part of his nature; he could not acquire
an interest in all the chit-chat and gossip of country society, or
manifest more than a most languid interest in the agricultural
conversations and disquisitions which formed the large staple of the
country gentleman's talk. Of the price of corn he knew nothing. Malt and
hops were mysteries, into which, beyond drinking the resulting compound,
he had no desire to penetrate. And yet he was a sensible, good-hearted
young fellow enough. His misfortune was that he had not strength of mind
to adapt himself to the life and people he was thrown among.

Mr. Harmer was extremely anxious that his son should marry early and
well; not well in a worldly point of view, but to some true woman, to
whom he could look up, and who would in time correct the faults of his
character. Those faults his father saw and understood; and he feared
much that his weak and facile disposition would render him liable to
fall into serious errors and faults, and would be not unlikely to lead
him to be entrapped into some hasty marriage, the evil consequences of
which might be incalculable to him. Mr. Harmer therefore watched with
anxiety to see to which, among the various young girls of the
neighbourhood, Gerald was most attracted, and at first he gave his
father some little trouble. New to female society, it possessed an
infinite charm to him; but he seemed to admire too generally to devote
himself to any one in particular, and although he at once commenced a
series of active flirtations, he appeared quite unable to single out any
one for especial preference. _Les absents ont toujours tort_; and the
converse of the proverb seemed to him to be equally true--the present
are always right. Whosoever might chance to be in his society would
assuredly, for the time being, appear to approach the nearest to
perfection. Gerald Harmer was certainly a much greater favourite with
the girls than he was with their fathers and brothers. That languid,
indolent way of his, as if he rather thought that it was the duty of
other people to devote themselves to his amusement, and which made the
men vote him a puppy, was to them quite new and very amusing. Girls,
too, rather like occasionally reversing positions, and bestowing homage
instead of receiving it; and so the lively country girls enjoyed these
languid flirtations with Gerald, and entered into them with great
spirit, laughing in their sleeves, perhaps, at him while they did so,
and not being in the least likely to become the victims of any very
ardent passion.

When the shooting season commenced, however, a great change came over
him, for he threw himself into the sport with an ardour that astonished
his father. At last he really seemed to have found something worth
caring for, and in a short time, by his devotion for field sports, he
rose many degrees in the estimation of the young squires, who agreed
that Gerald Harmer had turned out a capital fellow after all, in spite
of his airs and nonsense. It is probable that he sank in the sisters'
estimation as he rose in the brothers', for he now no longer cared for
female society, and spent the whole of his time either in shooting over
his own or other estates, with parties of their young owners, or
sometimes alone, with no other companion than Long William, the
keeper--or else in hunting, to which also he took with great ardour. His
sporting tastes rapidly developed; dogs, horses, and guns occupied his
whole thoughts; and few would have recognized in the figure in
shooting-jacket and gaiters, returning splashed to the head, after a
hard day's work, the indolent lounger who had considered it almost too
great a trouble to think for himself. His father observed this change
with pleasure, as he had noticed with pain his son's increasing
listlessness, although he was personally a loser by it; for Gerald had
been hitherto his constant companion in his walks over his estate, and
his visits of kindness at his labourers' cottages, which, under his
care, assumed a very different and far more comfortable aspect than that
which they had worn under the old _régime_. Still, he felt that it might
do him much good; he thought it natural that the young man should be
fond of sport, and should seek the companionship of men of his own age;
and though he missed the former familiar intercourse with his son, he
assented with a little sigh of regret to the new state of things, and
told himself that it was much better so, and was very right and proper.
Even of an evening it was seldom now that Gerald accompanied his father
to the houses of the neighbouring gentry, always pleading fatigue, or
some other excuse, for not doing so. On these occasions, when his father
had started alone, he would be sure to find some pretext, some forgotten
order, or question which must be asked, as a reason for strolling down
in the course of the evening to smoke a pipe with his inseparable ally,
Long William, the keeper.

Of this his father of course knew nothing; but the people of the village
soon noticed these visits, and shook their heads when they saw the young
squire go in at the cottage door, for William's character stood by no
means high, and such companionship could do no good. Sometimes, too,
Long William would not have returned from his duties when Gerald
sauntered down, and then the task of entertaining him till his return
would fall on William's pretty sister, Madge, who kept house for her
brother. Altogether it would have been far better for Gerald to have
accompanied his father, than to spend the evening sitting there smoking,
and occasionally drinking; not truly that he was fond of drink for its
own sake, but as he felt obliged to send Long William out for a bottle
of spirits, he felt equally bound to keep him in countenance while he
drank it.

So things went on into the spring, and then the shooting and hunting
being over, Gerald, to his father's great annoyance, subsided into his
former listless state; indeed, into a much worse condition than he was
in before. He no longer was Mr. Harmer's companion in his rambles over
the estate; he took no interest in his plans for the improvement of the
houses of their poorer neighbours; he had no pleasure in society, which
before he had so enjoyed; indeed, so entirely without aim or object did
his life seem to have become, that Mr. Harmer felt that some change was
absolutely necessary for him, and proposed to him that he should go for
a few months' ramble on the Continent.

This proposition Gerald embraced with eagerness, and in a few days
started on his tour.

Mr. Harmer had at first thought of accompanying him, but finally decided
against doing so, as he judged it better that Gerald should have to
think and act entirely for himself; for being forced to do this, and to
make new acquaintances and friends--which in travelling he could only do
by exerting himself to be agreeable--he would be far more likely to
shake off his listless apathy, than if he had some one ever with him, to
arrange matters, and take all necessity of thought or exertion off his
hands.

And so Gerald went alone, and, as far as could be gleaned from his
letters, he certainly seemed improving. At first he wrote without much
interest in what he saw, but gradually the tone of his letters became
more healthy, and when he reached Switzerland, he wrote in quite
enthusiastic terms. He had joined a party who intended to stay there two
or three months, and thoroughly wander over the various lakes and
valleys of that lovely country. He enjoyed the life immensely, was
becoming a first-rate mountaineer, and altogether he appeared to have
entirely recovered his life and spirits.

Mr. Harmer remained quietly at home, passing his time between his books,
the management of his estates, and the pleasures of social intercourse
with his neighbours; and few days passed without his riding out into the
country, or into Canterbury, for a visit to some among them.

Everywhere he continued to gain golden opinions, and became so popular
that he was requested to allow himself to be put in nomination as member
for that division of the county at the next election. This offer,
although very gratifying, Mr. Harmer declined. He was very happy and
contented with his present mode of life, and had not the least wish to
take upon himself the care and responsibility of a seat in Parliament.

In autumn, soon after the shooting began, Gerald returned, looking
sunburnt and healthy; full of life and of his adventures and travels,
and, seemingly, permanently cured of his listless, indolent ways. His
father was much pleased with the change, and was now quite satisfied
with him; and yet at times he fancied--but it might be only fancy--that
in the pauses of conversation he would fall into short reveries of
something unpleasant; a quick, gloomy, anxious look seemed to pass
across his face, and although it would be instantly dispelled, still Mr.
Harmer could not help thinking that he had something on his mind. But if
it was so, he said no word to his father; and Herbert Harmer, even had
he been sure that such a secret had existed, which he was far from
being, was of too delicate a disposition to make the least advance
towards a confidence which his son did not seek to repose in him.

At last the hunting season began again, to which Gerald had been looking
forward eagerly, as he preferred it even to shooting, perhaps because it
was a much greater change, as the meets were seldom held near
Canterbury, and he would have to send his hunter on the night before,
and drive over perhaps fifteen or twenty miles in the morning. However,
it happened that one of the first meets of the season was appointed to
take place near Canterbury, about three miles out on the old Dover Road,
and Gerald started off, after an early breakfast, in unusually high
spirits.

Mr. Harmer, late in the afternoon, was in his library, which was in the
front of the house, and the windows of which commanded a view down the
drive.

He had been reading, but the fast-closing shades of a wintry
afternoon--it was the 12th of November, had rendered that difficult, and
he had laid down his book and walked to the window, to look out at the
still trees and the quiet hush of the thickening twilight.

Suddenly there came on his ear a low confused sound, as of many people
moving and speaking; and then a horse's footsteps came fast up the
drive.

He strained his eyes for the first sight of the rider, as he came round
the turn of the drive into sight.

It was not Gerald--it was one of his most intimate friends.

What could it be? He threw open the window and listened again; between
the strokes of the horses' feet in the still evening air, he could hear
the confused sound of voices and the trampling of feet coming nearer.
What could it be? A nameless terror blanched his cheek, a dim vision of
the truth flashed across him. In an instant he was at the hall-door,
which he opened and went out on to the steps. The horseman had alighted,
and now stood looking pale and anxious at the door. When it opened, and
he saw Mr. Harmer himself, he shrank back as a man might, who, knowing
that he had something very painful to go through, is suddenly confronted
with it before he had quite nerved himself to undergo it. Recovering
himself, however, although his usually hearty, jovial face was blanched
white, he prepared to speak. Herbert Harmer waved him back, he could
tell him nothing that could be new to him now. He had seen his face, and
hope had died with the look, and the father stood listening with
suspended breath to the irregular trampling now rapidly approaching up
the avenue.

"Is he dead?" he asked with his eyes, for no sound came from the lips.
"Not dead--but----" The eyes closed for a moment in answer that they
understood--not dead, but dying; and then he stood rigid and immovable,
his eyes open but seeing nothing, his whole senses merged in the effort
of hearing.

The gentleman who had brought the news, seeing that at present he could
do nothing there, quietly entered the house and ordered the affrighted
servants instantly to get a bed-room ready, with hot water, sponges, and
everything that could be required.

Mr. Harmer moved not till he saw appear round the turn of the drive the
head of a sad procession: carried on the shoulders of six men, on a door
hastily taken from a cottage for the purpose, was something in red
covered with a cloak; riding by the side were several horsemen in
scarlet, most of whom, on seeing Mr. Harmer standing on the steps,
reined back their horses and returned into the village, there to wait
for news. Not that they expected any news, save one; for the man in
green riding by the head of the little procession was the doctor. He was
on the field at the time of the accident, he had already examined the
injured man, had shaken his head sadly over him, and the word had gone
round--no hope.

His horse, a young hunter which he had only purchased a few days before,
had struck the top bar in leaping a gate, and had come down headlong on
its rider, fearfully crushing and mangling him. They carried him up to
his room and laid him on the bed; his father walking beside speechless
and tearless. The only question he asked was, "Will he ever recover his
consciousness?"

The doctor replied, "He may at the last."

The last did not come till next morning, when, just as the grey light
was breaking, he opened his eyes. For some time they wandered confusedly
about the room, as if endeavouring to comprehend what had happened; then
he tried to move, and a slight groan of pain broke from him, and by the
change in his expression it was evident he remembered all. His eyes met
those of his father, and fixed there with a look of deep affection, then
a sudden recollection of pain seemed to occur to him, and he closed his
eyes again and lay for sometime quite still.

The doctor who had his finger on his wrist motioned to the father that
the end was fast approaching. Again the eyes opened and he was evidently
rallying his strength to speak. The doctor withdrew a few paces, and the
father placed his ear to the dying man's mouth. The lips moved, but all
that the hearer could catch was--"Dear father--kind to Madge--my
sake--God forgive;" then the lips ceased moving, and the spirit was gone
for ever.

Ten days had passed since then, Gerald Harmer had been laid in the quiet
graveyard of the village church, and his father was sitting thoughtful
and alone in his library. A knock at the door, and Mr. Brandon, the
rector of the place, was announced, and by Mr. Harmer's manner as he
rose to meet him, it was evident that he was an expected visitor.

"I am much obliged to you for calling so speedily," he said, after they
had seated themselves. "I have a question which weighs much upon my
mind, and which is to me an inexpressibly painful one. Yet it is one
which I must ask, and you are the only person of whom I can ask it. I
may be mistaken altogether. I may be agitating myself under some
wretched misconception; God grant it may be so; and yet I must arrive at
the truth. Do you know any young person in the village by the name of
Madge? how old is she, who are her parents, and what character does she
bear?"

The clergyman's face became very serious as Mr. Harmer addressed him,
and the latter saw at once by his unmistakable start of surprise, and by
the look of distress which came across his face, that he not only knew
such a person, but that he was very well aware why the question was
asked.

Mr. Harmer laid his face in his hands and groaned; this was almost
harder to bear than his son's death. It was some time before he looked
up again. When he did so, the clergyman said in a tone of deep feeling
and commiseration--

"It is a truly sad affair, my dear sir; indeed, I question if you yet
know how sad. The name of the young girl of whom you ask was Madge
Needham; she lived with her brother, one of your keepers. I hardly know
how to tell you what has occurred. She had been for some time in
delicate health, and was standing at the door of her cottage when she
saw a little crowd coming down the village street. She carelessly asked
a lad who was running past what it was, and was told that they were
carrying home your unfortunate son who had been killed out hunting. The
boy ran on; she said nothing, but closed the door of the cottage. The
shock had struck home. That night a little child was born into the
world, who before morning had lost both father and mother."

Mr. Brandon ceased, his voice faltered as he spoke, and the tears fell
from his eyes. Mr. Harmer hid his face in his hands, and sobbed
unrestrainedly; he was inexpressibly shocked and grieved. At last he
said--

"Is the child alive?"

"Yes; a young married woman in the village who had just lost a baby of
her own has taken it for the present. She consulted me about it only
this morning, and I told her that in a short time when I could approach
the subject with you, I would do so, although I did not expect that the
opportunity would have occurred so soon. Still, I thought it right,
painful as it must be to you, that you should know the truth. I believe
from what I have heard that there can be no question as to the paternity
of the infant, as I heard, late in the spring, rumours of your son being
frequently down at the cottage. But it did not reach my ears until after
he had gone abroad, consequently I could do nothing in the matter but
hope for the best, and trust that rumour was mistaken."

After another short silence, Mr. Harmer said--

"Mr. Brandon, I am very much indebted to you for what you have already
done in the matter; will you further oblige me by acting for me in it?
If the woman who has now charge of the child is a respectable and proper
person, and is willing to continue the care of it, so much the better.
If not, will you seek some one who will do so? Make any arrangements in
the way of money you may think fit. By the way, the east lodge, which is
the one farthest from the village, is at present unoccupied; let them
move in there. I will give orders that it shall be made comfortable.
Will you see to this for me? So much for the present; we can make other
arrangements afterwards."

And so it was carried out. Mrs. Green, the woman who had first taken
care of the child, with her husband, a steady working carpenter, moved
into the east lodge. They had no other children, and soon took to the
little orphan, and loved her as their own. To them, indeed, the adoption
of the child proved of great benefit. The lodge was made comfortable; a
piece of ground was added to it, and put in order for a garden; a
handsome yearly sum was paid; and the husband had steady work upon the
estate.

Long William, the keeper, had a sufficient sum of money given him, to
enable him to emigrate to Australia.

Upon the death of his son, Mr. Harmer went abroad for three or four
years, and then returned again to the old place. The shock which he had
undergone had aged him much, and at fifty-one he looked as old as many
men of sixty. He still kept up the acquaintance of his former friends;
but although fond of quiet social intercourse, he ceased altogether to
enter into general society, and devoted himself entirely to study and
scientific pursuits.

It was a little before Mr. Harmer's return, that Dr. Ashleigh
established himself at Canterbury, having purchased a practice there.
They met accidentally at a friend's house, and soon became very intimate
with each other. They were mutually attracted by the similarity of their
tastes and pursuits, and by each other's intellectual superiority and
goodness of heart. They were indeed kindred spirits, and their society
became a source of the greatest mutual pleasure and gratification.
Whenever Dr. Ashleigh could find time from his professional pursuits, he
would drive over to pass a few hours of scientific research and
experiment with his friend; and if anything should occur to prevent the
visit being paid for a few days, Mr. Harmer would, in turn, come over
for an evening to the doctor's, at Canterbury.

In the mean time little Sophy Needham was growing up. She was not a
pretty child, but had an intelligent face, with large thoughtful grey
eyes.

It was some time after his return from abroad before Mr. Harmer trusted
himself to ride out at the east gate. At last, one day--it was the
anniversary of his son's death--he did so, and stopping there, fastened
up his horse, and went in to see the child, then exactly four years old.

At first she was inclined to be distant and shy; but when once she had
recovered sufficiently to fix her large grey inquiring eyes upon him,
she went to him readily, and in five minutes they were fast friends; for
indeed he was one of those men whom children instinctively feel to be
good, and take to as if by intuition.

After this he would frequently go down to see her, and take her little
presents of toys and dolls. Until she was ten years old she went to the
village school, and then he sent her to London to a good school, to be
educated as he said, for a governess. When she came home for the
holidays, he would frequently have her up for a day to the house, and
would interest himself greatly in her talk and growing knowledge.

It was some little time after his return from abroad that Mr. Harmer
received a letter from his sisters, who had since they left been
travelling and living abroad, saying, that if he were still of the same
mind, and would repeat his invitation, they would be glad to come and
stay with him for a time, as they longed to see the old place where they
had lived so long. Although much surprised, Mr. Harmer willingly
assented, and his two sisters soon afterwards arrived. Their visit, at
first intended only to last for a few weeks, lengthened into months;
then they went away for a time, but soon returned, and took up their
abode there permanently.

Whatever their motives may have been originally in returning to the
place, they unquestionably became very much attached to their brother,
and were far happier than they had ever before been during their lives:
they pursued their religious exercises, he his scientific pursuits,
without interference from each other, and as the genial intercourse and
kindness of their brother brightened their days, so did their affection
and interest soothe his. Their presence was a relief to the previous
silence and monotony of the house, and their management took all
household cares off his hands.

On one subject alone had any disagreement arisen, and that was the
presence of Sophy; but here their brother at once so decidedly, and even
sternly, stated that his wishes on that point were to be considered as
law, and that no interference with them would be for a moment tolerated,
that they were obliged at once to acquiesce, although they still, as
much as they dare, kept up by their manner a protest against her
presence.

Sophy now, during her holidays, stopped entirely at the house, occupying
a position something between that of visitor and humble companion. The
girl accepted her lot with rare tact for one of her age. She felt her
anomalous position, for she had, at Mr. Harmer's wish, been made
acquainted with her history, as he was sure that, sooner or later, she
was certain to be informed of it. She was of a quiet, retiring manner,
self-contained, and thoughtful, and manifested a quiet deference for the
Miss Harmers--with which, however much they might have wished it, they
could have found no fault--and a warm, though subdued, affection for Mr.
Harmer.

And thus matters stood when this story began.



CHAPTER V.

TESTAMENTARY INTENTIONS.


All this history of the Harmers I have told nearly as I heard it,
passing briefly over such parts as were not essential to the
understanding of the story, and retaining all that was necessary to be
told in order that the relative position of the various inmates of
Harmer Place may be quite understood by any one who may hereafter read
this story of mine. And having done so, I can now proceed with the
regular course of my journal.

That visit of ours to Harmer Place was a very memorable one, and
exercised not a little influence upon my fortunes, although certainly I
little dreamt at the time of our return that evening, that it had done
so. To Polly and I it had been simply an extremely pleasant day. We had
rambled about the garden with Sophy Needham, and had taken tea in the
summer-house, while papa and Mr. Harmer were at dinner. We had then gone
into desert, and, that over, had again rambled out, leaving the
gentlemen over their wine. It was while thus engaged, that a
conversation took place, which I did not hear of for more than a year
afterwards, but which entirely altered my worldly prospects. It was
began by Mr. Harmer, who had been for some time sitting rather silent
and abstracted.

"I think it is high time, my dear doctor, for me to speak to you frankly
and openly, of what my intentions are in reference to the disposal of my
property. I mentioned somewhat of this to you four or five years since,
but I should like now to speak explicitly. I am aware that such matters
are not usually gone into; but I think in many cases, of which this is
one, it is right and better that it should be so. I have no relations
whatever in the world, with the exception of my sisters, who have an
ample life provision, and Sophy Needham, my son's child. My property is
very large; I have the Harmer estates, my own savings in India, and the
accumulation of my brothers, who never lived up to their income for very
many years. In all about seven thousand a year. As I have said, Sophy
Needham is my only connection in the world--you my only friend. To Sophy
I have left half my fortune, the other half I have bequeathed to your
children. Do not start, my dear Ashleigh, or offer any fruitless
objection, my decision is fixed and immovable. For the last thirteen
years my existence has been brightened by your friendly intercourse, in
you I have found a scientific guide and friend; indeed, I may say that
my life as far as this world is concerned, has been entirely made what
it is, tranquil, contented, and happy by your friendship. Ten years ago
you will remember I begged you to retire from practice, and to take up
your abode here with your family, upon any terms you might name, but in
fact as my adopted family. This offer you, from motives I could not but
respect, declined. You loved your profession, and considered it
incompatible with your duty to leave a career of active usefulness.
Things, therefore, went on as before. Towards Sophy my intentions were
not fixed, but she has turned out a very good girl, and I shall
therefore leave her half my fortune, about seventy-five thousand pounds.
Had I any other relation, or any person who could have the smallest
claim upon me, you might hesitate; as it is, not even the most morbid
feeling of delicacy can tell you that you are depriving others of their
expectations. Being so, let the matter be tacitly understood, and say
nothing whatever about it; you ought not to have known of it till my
death, just suppose that you do not know of it now. You will ask me why
have I then told you. For this reason. I wish to benefit your children.
My life is uncertain; but I may live for many years yet, and my money
might come too late to do good. Your son may have spent the best years
of his life struggling in some profession which he does not like; your
daughters may have suffered too. I therefore wish at once to place Harry
with the best man in the profession he wishes to enter, which I have
heard him say is that of a civil engineer, and I shall allow him a
hundred and fifty pounds a year for the present. Your daughters I should
wish sent to some good school in London to finish their education; and
when the time shall come, when such an event may be considered probable,
I should wish it to be publicly known that they will each have upon
their wedding day ten thousand pounds. Your son shall have a like sum
when the time comes for him to enter into a partnership, or start in
business for himself. These sums to be deducted from their moiety of my
fortune at my death. And now, doctor, let us shake hands and not mention
the matter again, and as you do not seem to be drinking your wine, let
us go out and join the young ladies in the garden."

It was not until after several further discussions upon the subject of
Mr. Harmer's kind intentions towards us that papa agreed to accept his
offer. When he at last consented to do so, no time was lost in carrying
out the plans, and in a month or two Harry went up to London to be
articled to a well-known engineer. As for us, it was settled that Miss
Harrison should remain with us until Christmas, and that after the
holidays we should go up to a school near London. How delighted we were
at the prospect, and how very slowly that autumn seemed to pass;
however, at last the time came, and we started under papa's charge for
London. When we were once there, and were fairly in a cab on our way to
school, we felt a little nervous and frightened. However, there was a
great comfort in the thought that there would, at any rate, be one face
we knew, that of Clara Fairthorne, who came from our part of the country
we had met her at some of our Christmas parties, and it was by her
parents the school had been recommended to papa. But although we felt
rather nervous, it was not until we were in sight of the school that our
spirits really fell; and even at the lapse of all these years, I do
think that its aspect was enough to make any girl's heart sink, who was
going to school for the first time.

Any one who has passed along the road from Hyde Park Corner to Putney
Bridge may have noticed Grendon House, and any one who has done so, must
have exclaimed to himself "a girls' school." Palpably a girls' school,
it could be nothing else. With the high wall surrounding it, to keep all
passers-by from even imagining what was going on within, with the trees
which grew inside it, and almost hid the house from view, with its
square stiff aspect when one did get a glimpse of it, and with its small
windows, each furnished with muslin curtains of an extreme whiteness and
primness of arrangement, and through which no face was ever seen to
glance out,--certainly it could be nothing but a girls' school.

On the door in the wall were two brass plates, the one inscribed in
stiff Roman characters "Grendon House;" the other "The Misses Pilgrim,"
in a running flourishing handwriting. I remember after we had driven up
to the door, and were waiting for the bell to be answered, wondering
whether the Misses Pilgrim wrote at all like that, and if so, what their
character would be likely to be. In the door, by the side of the plate,
was a small grating, or grille, through which a cautious survey could be
made of any applicant for admission within those sacred precincts.

On passing through the door, and entering the inclosure, one found
oneself in a small, irregular piece of ground, dignified by the name of
the garden, although, from its appearance, it would be supposed that
this was a mere pleasantry; but it was not so. Indeed, no such thing as
a pleasantry ever was or could be attempted about anything connected
with "Grendon House." Certain it is that nothing in the way of a flower
was ever acclimatized there. The gloom and frigidity of the place would
have been far too much for any flower known in temperate climates to
have supported.

I remember, indeed, Constance Biglow, who had a brother who had just
started on an Arctic expedition, lamented that she had forgotten to ask
him to bring home some of the plants from those regions, as an
appropriate present for the Misses Pilgrim, for their garden. I know at
the time we considered it to be a very good, although a dreadfully
disrespectful, joke towards those ladies.

In spring, indeed, a few crocuses (Miss Pilgrim spoke of them as croci)
ventured to come up and show their heads, but they soon faded away again
in such an uncongenial atmosphere. The only thing which really
flourished there was the box edging to the borders, which grew
luxuriantly, and added somehow to the funereal aspect of the place. It
was no wonder nothing grew there, for the house, and the high walls, and
the trees within them, completely shaded it, and cut it off from all
light and air. Round the so-called flower-beds the gravel path was
wider, and was dignified by the name of the carriage drive, though how
any coachman was to have turned a carriage in that little confined
space, even had he got through the impassable gate, was, and probably
ever will remain, a mystery.

Behind the house was the playground, a good-sized triangular-shaped
gravelled yard, for Grendon House was situated at the junction of two
roads, and the house itself stood across the base of the triangle they
formed. This playground was several times larger than the garden, and
was indeed quite extensive enough for such games as we indulged in. It
was, of course, surrounded by the high wall, with its belt of trees,
underneath which was a narrow strip of border, divided into regular
portions; and here the girls were permitted to prove the correctness of
the axiom, that plants will not live without light or air.

So much for the exterior; inside, if the sensation of gloom and
propriety which pervaded the very atmosphere could have been got rid of,
it would have been really a fine house.

The hall, which was very large, extended up to the top of the house;
from it, on the ground floor, led off the dining and schoolrooms, large,
well-proportioned rooms, but very cold and bare-looking, especially the
former; for the schoolroom walls were nearly covered with maps of
different countries, some rolled up and out of use, others hanging down
open; beside them hung genealogized trees of the various monarchies of
Europe; while in the corner was a large stand with a black board for
drawing diagrams in chalk. Nothing else in either of them but bare
walls, and equally bare forms and tables.

There was another little room opening from the great hall: this was the
cloak-room, where the girls put on their bonnets and shawls before going
out for their walks. It was here that, when they were able to slip out
from the schoolroom, they would meet to talk in English for a change,
and interchange those little confidences about nothing in which
school-girls delight. This room looked into the garden; and to prevent
the possibility of any one who might be--which nobody ever
was--wandering there, looking in at the window, white silver paper, with
coloured flowers under it, was stuck on to the glass, something in the
manner of decalcomanie, only that extraordinary and difficult name was
not at that time invented.

Upstairs was the drawing-room. It was here that the Misses Pilgrim
received visitors to the girls, and here that the lady professors, who
came twice a week to teach music, imparted lessons in singing and on the
pianoforte to the pupils.

This room was a model of propriety and frigidity--if there be such a
word, for no other will describe the effect produced. The curtains were
of white muslin, so stiff and carefully arranged that they might have
been cut out of marble. The chairs were of some light wood, with gilding
on them, and so extremely fragile, that it was only with the greatest
caution and care that any one could venture to sit down upon them; there
were couches too, here and there, but these as seats were altogether out
of the question, being so covered with Berlin work of every kind, and
antimacassars of such stiffness and intricacy of pattern, that no one
would ever have thought of assuming a sitting position even upon the
extreme edge of them.

The room was literally crowded with tables of every imaginable shape and
form, generally on twisted legs, and looking as if a breath would upset
them. On these tables were placed works of art and industry of every
description. Vases of wax flowers and fruit, Berlin wool mats of every
colour and pattern, inkstands of various shapes and sizes, books of
engravings, stuffed birds under glass shades; in short, knicknacks of
every sort and kind, and on a great majority of them were inscribed,
"Presented to Miss Pilgrim, or Miss Isabella Pilgrim, by her attached
pupils on her birth-day;" or, "Presented to the Misses Pilgrim by their
attached pupil so-and-so on the occasion of her leaving school."

Through all this it was next to impossible to move without the greatest
risk of bringing some of the little fragile tables down with a crash,
and visitors would generally, after a vague glance of perplexity round,
drop, or rather lower themselves carefully, into one of the little
minikin chairs, as near as possible to the door.

So chilling was the effect of this room, so overwhelming its atmosphere
of propriety, that many fathers and brothers who have come up from the
country to see their daughters or sisters after a long absence, men with
big voices and hearty manner, have felt so constrained and overpowered
by it, that in place of taking them into their arms with a loud-sounding
kiss, they have been known to hold out their hand in a most formal
manner and to inquire almost in a whisper as to their state of health.
In this drawing-room the elder girls used to practise, and if any
visitor was shown up there the proper form to be observed was to rise
from the music-stool, walk to the door, and then, making a deep curtsey,
to leave the room--a performance not unfrequently completely astounding
any one strange to the ceremonies inculcated at young ladies' schools as
being suitable to occasions like this.

It will be judged from all this that "Grendon House" was a model
academy, and indeed it was. The only wonder is that it did not turn us
all into the stiffest pieces of prim propriety possible; but somehow it
did not; for I think, on looking back, that a merrier and more lively
set of girls it would be difficult to have found, and yet we most
certainly had not much to be merry about. "All work and no play makes
Jack a dull boy." It may be so, but it decidedly did not have that
effect upon Jack's sisters. We certainly did work very hard. I suppose
it was necessary in order to cram all the accomplishments girls are
expected to know into our heads; but however it was, I am quite sure
that in those two years I was at school, I worked more hours and
steadier at them, than Harry ever did in four; he allows it himself, and
I am sure it is generally the case, that girls work infinitely harder
than their brothers, and certainly have no amusement or recreation at
all in proportion. I suppose it is all right, but yet I do think that if
we worked a good deal less, and played a great deal more, we should know
quite as much, and be far more healthy and natural than we are.

However, I am not writing an essay, or I should have a great deal more
to say on this point; as it is I must leave it for abler hands, and go
back to my story.

When we first caught sight of Grendon House our spirits fell many
degrees, and when we entered its solemn portals we felt terribly awed
and uncomfortable. We were, of course, shown up into that dreadful
drawing-room, and I think papa was as much affected by it as we were; he
certainly was not a bit like himself, and he stayed a very short time
talking to Miss Pilgrim, who came up in great state, and in a very stiff
silk dress, which rustled alarmingly as she walked, to receive us. Miss
Pilgrim was small but stately, almost overpoweringly so. Her hair was
arranged in little stiff ringlets on each temple; her nose was very
prominent; her lips thin and rather pinched; her eyes bright and
searching; she was, on the whole, in good keeping with the room, and yet
I thought that, although she looked so sharp, and spoke so shortly and
decidedly, that she was kind at heart, and that I should like her. And I
may say I did; she was, although strict and sharp with us girls--as
indeed she had need to be--kind-hearted and thoughtful, and I parted
with her when I left school with regret. Her sister Isabella was so
exactly the counterpart of herself that one description will do for the
two; and, except that she wore her hair in flat braids instead of in
ringlets, and that she was not quite so sharp and decided, although
equally kind, she might have been easily mistaken for her elder sister.

When papa got up to go away, I could not help crying a little; for,
though I was fifteen, I had never been away from home before. However, I
soon came round after he was once fairly gone. Polly was longer
recovering herself; but she, too, soon got over it, when I told her that
if we cried the girls would be sure to call us cry-babies.

Presently Miss Pilgrim, who had considerately left us for a few minutes
to let us have our cry out, came back again, and took us up to show us
our room, where we could take off our things. She also kindly sent for
Clara Fairthorne, so that we might go down into the schoolroom with some
one we knew. It was rather an ordeal going in there, and seeing all the
faces lifted up from their work to look at the new comers. However, it
was not so bad as we had expected; they did not stare at us
disagreeably, nor did they, when we went out into the playground
afterwards, ask us so many questions as papa had warned us they would.
Indeed, there was no occasion for their doing so, as they had heard all
about us from Clara. One or two of them took us under their special
protection, as it were, for the first few days, and we felt at home very
much sooner than I had expected that we should do. We were about twenty
in all, from Annie Morgan and Selma Colman, the two parlour boarders,
down to Julia Jackson, a West-Indian child of eleven years old, the
darling and pet of the whole school.

I am not going to write a long account of my schooldays. The daily
routine of one girl's school is so much like that of another, that there
is nothing new to be told of it; the little disputes, the rivalries, the
friendships sworn to last for life, but which seldom survive a year or
two of occasional correspondence,--all these things have been so
frequently told, that I shall not repeat them, but shall only mention
briefly such incidents as had an effect upon my after life.

The account of one day's work is a description of all. Breakfast at
eight; school from half-past eight until twelve; then a walk for
three-quarters of an hour. Dinner at one; play for half an hour; school
from two till half-past five; another half-hour's play; tea at six;
school till eight; then to bed.

Looking back upon it now, I wonder how I, and all the countless girls
who go through such slavery as this, keep their health and spirits. Our
walk was no recreation to us; we went, two and two, through the streets,
or into Kensington Gardens--the same walks week after week--till we knew
every stone on the pavement we walked on. It was a dreadfully formal
affair, and I think I would rather have been in school. The only play we
really had was the half-hour after dinner and the half-hour after tea,
and also on Saturday afternoons. Then, indeed, we made up for all the
day's repression,--running, jumping, skipping, laughing, and shouting
like mad girls, till I am sure sometimes we scandalized the whole
neighbourhood, and that passers by on the other side of the high wall
paused in astonishment at such an outburst of joyous cries and laughter.
Even at this time, as at all others during the day, we had to speak
French, not a word of English being allowed to be spoken in "Grendon
House;" and I remember congratulating myself that French girls laughed
the same way as we did, for we should certainly have been obliged to
laugh in French, had such a thing been possible. I was very good friends
with all my schoolfellows, and, indeed, there was very little
quarrelling among us,--just a sharp word or two, and a little extra
stateliness and ceremony for a day or so; but even this was uncommon,
for we had neither time nor opportunity to quarrel. My greatest
favourite was Ada Desborough, who was a month or two younger than
myself. Ada was tall, slight, with a very pretty figure, and a
particularly easy, graceful carriage. She was lively, talkative, full of
fun,--indeed inclined, to be almost too noisy, and it was easy to see
she would turn out a perfect flirt.

Ada and I would sometimes quarrel, and she would take up with some one
else for three weeks or a month, and then come back to me all of a
sudden, and be as affectionate as ever. She was such a warm-hearted girl
it was impossible to be angry with her; and, on the whole, she was by
far my greatest friend all the time I was at Grendon House. It was
through Ada that the only break which ever occurred in the monotony of
our life at Grendon House took place. Ada's mother, Lady Eveline
Desborough, lived in Eaton Square, and Ada generally went home from
Saturday afternoon till Sunday evening. Sometimes, perhaps twice in a
half-year, she would bring an invitation from her mamma for three or
four of us to go there to spend the next Saturday afternoon with her. I
was always of the number, as being Ada's particular friend. We looked
forward to these little parties as a change; but there was not any great
amusement in them.

Lady Desborough was the widow of General Sir William Desborough, and
moved in quite the extreme fashionable world. She was a tall, elegant
woman, with a haughty, aristocratic face. She used, I really think, to
try and unbend to us girls; but her success was not great: she was so
tall and haughty-looking, so splendidly dressed, and her attempt at
cordiality was so very distant that we were all quite awed by it.

The programme of the afternoon's amusement was generally as follows. We
would go first either to the Polytechnic or the Zoological Gardens, or,
in fact, wherever we chose, under the escort of Lady Desborough's
housekeeper, a respectable middle-aged woman, who used to let us wander
about and do just as we liked. This part of the day was really
enjoyable; when we got back to Eaton Square, we had our tea together in
the small room behind the dining-room, where Lady Desborough dined in
solitary state. This was great fun. Ada made tea with a vast affectation
of ceremony, and the laughing and noise we made were prodigious, and
would have scandalized Miss Pilgrim, could she have heard us; and we
should not have ventured to indulge in it, had not Ada assured us that
the partition was so thick that it was quite impossible for our voices
to penetrate to the next room. When tea was over, we quieted down
gradually at the thought of what was in store for us, for when Lady
Desborough had finished her dinner, and gone up into the drawing-room,
we were sent for, and went up-stairs, putting on our best company
manners, as inculcated at "Grendon House," and seated ourselves on the
edges of the chairs, in the primest of attitudes, with our feet
perfectly straight, and our hands folded before us. We would first have
a little frigid conversation, and Lady Desborough would then ask us to
oblige her by playing on the piano, and as we always, by Miss Pilgrim's
order, brought a piece of music each with us, there was no possibility
of evading the infliction, but each had in turn to perform her piece;
and then we sat stiff and uncomfortable, till the welcome intelligence
came that Miss Pilgrim's servant was at the door with a cab.

After the first year I was at school had passed, and when we were about
sixteen, the stiffness of these visits wore away, but we never were
quite comfortable with Lady Desborough; and, indeed, did not enjoy our
visit as much even as we had done the year before, for we were too old
to go now sightseeing under the housekeeper's care, and our merry teas
were exchanged for stiff dinners with Lady Desborough.

Ada had one brother, whom I have not yet spoken of. He was five years
older than she was, and she always spoke of him in enthusiastic terms;
but I never saw him except the twice I went to Eaton Square, in my first
half-year. He was then rather more than twenty, and seemed a quiet young
man, and I thought a little shy, and out of his element with us five
girls. He was tall, and dark like his sister, but with a thoughtful,
studious face, very unlike hers. Ada said that at ordinary times he was
full of fun. All I can say is at these two visits I saw nothing of it.
He had, I believe, entered the Guards, but after a short time determined
to see some active service, and accordingly exchanged into the Lancers,
I understood from Ada, very much to his mother's dissatisfaction.

I have now briefly told all the events which occurred in my two years at
school, which had in any way a bearing upon my after-life. I have told
them all at once, in order that I may not have to go back to my
schooldays again, which, indeed, were monotonous enough. I have read and
heard that in some schools the girls engage in all sorts of fun and
flirtation and adventures. It may be so; I do not know. I can only say
we had no such goings on at "Grendon House," but, although naturally
lively and full of fun enough, were certainly a quiet, well-conducted,
ladylike set of girls, and no such nonsense, as far as I ever heard,
entered into any one of our heads.



CHAPTER VI.

THE BISHOP OF RAVENNA.


The autumn sun was blazing down upon the ancient city of Ravenna, and,
over the flat pestilential country around it, an unwholesome malarious
vapour hung thick and heavy. Perhaps in all Italy there is no more
unhealthy spot than is the neighbourhood of Ravenna. The whole country
is a swamp, the water oozes up in the fields at the very foot of its
walls, and the agriculturist has but to sink a bottomless tub in the
ground and he will have a well full to the brim, which no amount of
drawing upon will exhaust. The city itself sits lonely and deserted
amongst her green rice-grounds and swamps; her wide streets are empty,
her churches without worshippers, her aspect mournful and desolate in
the extreme. And yet this was once a mighty city, second only to
imperial Rome in magnitude and importance, the seat of Emperors, and the
cradle of Christianity. The swamps then were not in existence, but the
bright waves of the Adriatic broke close to its walls, and the Roman
galleys lay moored in the port of Classis within bow-shot range. The sea
is far off now, and the rice-grounds stretch away level and flat where
the waves broke. Classis has disappeared, and has left no sign; the
hungry morasses have swallowed every stone and vestige, and the ancient
church of St. Apollinarius alone marks where the place once stood;
while, where the galleys anchored, the thick groves of the pine forest
extend for miles in an unbroken shade. The emperors and exarchs, the
Gothic and Frank monarchs, the conquerors innumerable who in turns
lorded it there; the great family of Polenta, the patrons of art, who
for centuries were her masters;--all these are gone, and their tombs
alone tell that they ever existed: and now it lies forgotten and alone,
visited only for the sake of its early Christian churches, with their
glorious mosaics.

Perhaps in all Italy there was at that time no city which, for its size,
contained so large a number of priests; probably its hush and quiet
suited them; but nearly every other person in the streets was an
ecclesiastic, and the clang of the bells calling to prayer from their
picturesque round campaniles never ceased. It was past mid-day, and mass
was over in most of the churches, when two aged women, in black dresses
and thick veils, which entirely concealed their faces, rang at the bell
of the Bishop's palace. The door was opened by a man in a sort of
semi-clerical attire. On giving their names, he bowed respectfully, and
saying "His lordship is expecting you," led the way up some wide stairs,
through a long corridor, and then signing to them to wait a moment, he
entered the room; returning in a few seconds, he requested them to
enter, and closed the door behind them. It was a very large room,
although its length was comparatively greater than its width. A range of
bookshelves, extending from the floor to a height of about five feet,
ran completely round it, and upon the dark-panelled walls were hung a
long series of portraits, probably those of the bishop's predecessors in
office. Above, the ceiling was divided by a richly-gilt framework into a
number of irregular partitions, in which were inserted a fine series of
paintings by ancient masters, the subjects of which were not all so
strictly Scriptural as might have been expected in the palace of a
Church dignitary. The light entered by a very large window at the end of
the apartment, the panes of which were of the small diamond pattern.
With his back to this window, by the side of a large chair, in which he
had apparently been sitting reading when his visitors were announced,
stood the Bishop of Ravenna. Although he had returned from mass some
quarter of an hour, he still wore a part of the robes in which he had
officiated. It is probable that as he expected the ladies who had just
entered, and as he was particularly anxious upon this occasion to
impress their minds strongly, he had purposely retained these insignia
of his office to add to the power which he had for many years been
accustomed to exercise over them. Not, indeed, that the bishop needed
any adventitious aids to his personal appearance. He was a tall, stately
figure, but little bent with the weight of the seventy years which had
passed over him. His hair was silver white, but the lines of the face
were still strong and marked. His manner was very variable,--at times
commanding, even harsh; at other moments mild and persuasive. As an
orator he had few equals in his Church,--the varying modulations of his
voice alternately awing and melting his audience. He advanced to meet
the two women, who, their veils raised now, hurried towards him, and
knelt at his feet to receive the blessing which he impressively bestowed
upon them. That done, he raised them, and placed them in chairs facing
the one he himself occupied.

"My dear sisters," he began, in Italian, "I received your note before I
went out this morning, telling me that you were here, and would call
upon me after mass. I was indeed glad to hear of your coming. It is
three years now since I last saw you. It was in a humbler lodging than
this that you then visited me."

"My sister and myself were indeed glad to learn that your services to
the Church had met the reward so richly deserved," the elder of the two
women said.

The bishop waved his hand deprecatingly.

"The Church has far too highly honoured my poor services," he said; "and
indeed I should have been well content to have remained in the sphere in
which I had so long worked; but it was not for me to oppose my will to
that of those who know far better than I can do what is best for our
holy Church. And you, sisters, how has it fared with you these three
years? Not badly in health, I should say, for you are in no way changed
since I saw you last."

"Our health is good, truly, father, but our minds fare but badly. We are
weary of this long struggle, which has ended only in defeat, as our
letters have told you; and now we hope that you will grant the prayer we
have so often made, and allow us to retire into a convent for the rest
of our days."

"But your struggle has not ended in a defeat," the bishop said, ignoring
the request contained in the last part of the speech. "No defeat can
come until the end of a battle. It is true that the news which you send
me is very bad. It is bad that the apostate who wrongfully holds Harmer
Place is still impenitent, still more bad that he should have determined
to will the property which rightfully belongs to the Church away to
other hands. But that I know that in this you are weak, that your hearts
turn towards him who is unworthy of it, I should long since have called
down the anger of an offended God upon him."

"No, no, father," the younger of the two women, who had not as yet
spoken, said; "he is mistaken, grievously mistaken indeed, and we lament
it with tears, while we pray for him continually; but in other respects
he is very good, very kind to all, most of all to us."

"That may be, sister Angela," the bishop said, sternly. "It is easy to
be kind in manner when all goes well with you in the world; it is easier
and more pleasant, but it is mere outside. What avails this if within
all is rotten, if the vital point of all is wanting? Such a man is but a
whited sepulchre. However," he continued, more mildly, "for your sake,
my sisters, the Church has been content to wait; for your sake it has
forborne to use the power of cursing and anathema which is confided to
her, here upon earth; for your sake it is content to remain tranquil
under the privation of the worldly goods which in her hands would have
done such incalculable good, but which are now devoted to far different
purposes."

Here the bishop paused, and there was silence for a little, and then the
elder sister again asked,--

"And our request, father; will you grant us now that we may retire to a
convent? Our task is done here."

"Your task is not done," the bishop said, sternly, "and may not be
relinquished. Our path in this life must be regulated by our duty, not
our wishes. Your duty is plain,--to endeavour to restore to the Church
that property of which it has been unjustly defrauded. No one can
perform this but you; and although at present things have worked but
ill, yet no one can say what may yet occur. You have already, in your
brother's present position, a striking instance of the unexpected way in
which the events of this world occur, and how little we can foresee the
intentions of God. Who can say, therefore, that in time this great wrong
may not be rectified, and that the will of your dead brothers, those
true children of the Church, may not yet be carried into effect? Events
have indeed turned out badly, but there is no ground for losing hope;
and you, who have hitherto worked so well for the good cause, I little
looked to see shrink from your allotted task; I expected better things
of you, sister Cecilia and sister Angela,--you, of all women, having
once put your hands to the plough, I did not think to see turn back from
the labour."

"But we have tried hard, father, very hard for many long years," Cecilia
Harmer said, "and it is only because we find that our work has come to
nothing, that it is over, as it were, that we would gladly retire to die
in peace and quietness. It is eighteen years since we left the convent
we had entered, when the news came of our nephew's death. You bade us
go, and we went. For eighteen years we have worked and hoped. Hope and
work are over now; let us rest."

"It has been so long, father, such weary years, almost without hope all
the while; we are so tired--so, so sick of the world. Oh, father, let us
go back to our convent!" the younger sister almost wailed, plaintively.

"My dear sister," the bishop said, and this time his voice was soft and
persuasive, "we have all our trials; life is no rosy path, but is paved
with the sharp stones of duty; but yet we must all tread it as
unflinchingly as we may, looking for strength where only it can be
found. To you has been confided a great and important mission. You have
the opportunity of doing great things for the Holy Church. You have that
great and glorious object in view, and you are, moreover, filled with
the pious hope of saving a lost soul, and that the soul of your erring
brother. It is a task which the angels themselves might be glad to
perform. To the Church is given all power here, to bind and to loose,
and, for your sakes, I have promised you that your brother's errors
shall be passed over. Prayers are offered up that he may be forgiven;
and when the time comes, rest assured that at least no testimony shall
be made against him; and that if the Church cannot bless, it will at
least not curse the mistaken one. Every allowance has been and will be
made for his youth at the time he forsook the right path, and the strong
influences brought to bear upon him; his life has been, as you have
testified in your letters, save as to this grievous falling off, an
exemplary one; and I trust that, when at last stricken with illness, he
will turn back as a wandering sheep to the fold. These, my sisters, are
the inducements--a lost soul to be saved, the Church to be strengthened.
Not often are such inducements offered. But," and here he raised and
hardened his voice, "it is not by inducements only that the Church acts,
but by orders and threatenings. Upon you a certain burden has been
placed, hard to bear, perhaps, but not beyond your strength. From this
task you must not shrink; your private wishes are as nothing in the
balance. You have a duty, and would fain escape it to pass your life in
the way it would please you in a convent; you would say, to serve God
there, but He will not be so served; He has given you another sphere,
other tasks. The convent is for those who see no path of active
usefulness traced out for them--not for such as you. Who can tell what
may yet occur? I at first acceded to your request, and allowed you to
retire from the world, until your nephew's death clearly indicated that
Providence had not destined the property of the Church to pass from the
apostate father to the heretic son. Then your path of duty was clear;
and although at present the future looks dark, although your brother is
obstinate in his recusancy, and although he may talk of leaving his
property to others, yet the case is by no means hopeless. He may repent
and turn; this girl whom he has adopted may displease him; he may die
without a will. These and many other contingencies may arise, but until
his death your task cannot be ended."

"But he is younger than we are; he may survive us both," the elder
sister said.

"He may, but he may not; but that does not alter your path of duty," the
bishop answered. "But one thing I will concede. Just at present your
presence in England can do little or no good. You have my consent,
therefore, to your entering a religious house, and remaining there until
you shall hear, from the person whom you have informed me has undertaken
to let you know what is passing there, that some change has taken place,
either in his sentiments towards this girl, or in his health. This may
be weeks, months, or even years. When that word comes, you must be
prepared to go instantly back, and to do whatever I, or any one who may
speak in my name to you, may direct you."

"Thank you, dear father," the elder sister said, while even Angela
acquiesced mutely; "to this we are ready, quite ready, to agree. We know
the importance of our success to the Church; we grieve over seeing the
property pass away into the hands of others; and I, for my part, seem to
feel a presentiment that the time will come before long when we shall be
successful. Three times, lately, Robert and Edward have come to me in my
sleep, and have told me to hope on, for that the light will yet shine
through the darkness. You have yourself told me, father, that there is
much in dreams."

"Undoubtedly, sister; the Church has in all ages maintained that at
times revelations are made to the faithful in dreams, and by
apparitions, at which the vulgar mock. And now return to your hotel. You
shall hear from me in the course of the day; and if, as I believe, you
would rather be within reach of my ministration, than go among
strangers, I will speak to the superior of an establishment here, who
will, I am sure, gladly receive you as inmates."

Again the sisters knelt before him, and received his blessing, and then
returned through the quiet streets of Ravenna to their hotel.



CHAPTER VII.

SOCIETY GRACIOUSLY CONDESCENDS.


For upwards of a year after Mr. Harmer had spoken to papa relative to
the intended disposition of his property, the matter was not mentioned
to any one, but was known only to Dr. and Mrs. Ashleigh, my brother
Harry, himself, and his sisters. At the end of that time he made public
his intentions, and spoke of them openly. He did this for reasons
connected with Sophy Needham, for whom he was desirous of obtaining
suitable society. At the time the matter gave papa a good deal of
annoyance. Much as he was generally liked and esteemed, there were
people found, as there always are found upon every occasion, who made
ill-natured remarks upon our good fortune, and who really seemed by
their talk to be personally aggrieved at Mr. Harmer's kind intentions
towards us. Had they been asked why they were so, they probably could
not have replied; for as Mr. Harmer had--with the exception of his
sisters, who were amply provided for--no relation in the world, it was
evident that there was no one who could be considered as wronged or
injured by this disposition of his property. However, so it was; and,
although papa received the sincere congratulations of all his old
friends, I think he felt a good deal the ill-natured remarks, which came
to his ears, of people for whose opinion I should have thought he would
have cared nothing whatever. I was rather surprised at this; for if
there was one person more than another who had by his whole life and
conduct showed that he did not care for money, it was papa. He might,
therefore, have well afforded to laugh at such accusations as this; but
I suppose no one, however conscious of rectitude, likes to be spoken ill
of, even by people whom he despises, and whose opinion about others he
would treat with contempt.

This was not, however, of long continuance, for, as far as we were
concerned, the talk and wonder soon died away, and things settled down
into their usual state; but it was not so as regarded Sophy Needham. The
announcement that she was to be the heiress of half of Mr. Harmer's
large fortune, elicited the greatest reprobation and disgust among the
very portion of the population who had been most cordial in their
congratulations as to the destination of the other half; namely, among
the country gentry, the clergy--a very numerous and powerful body in
Canterbury,--the professional men, and respectabilities of the place.

"To think that that girl,--that----[and they called poor Sophy very hard
names],--that young person, should be raised up into one of the richest
heiresses of that part of the country, was a scandal to morality and an
outrage to public decency. Her elevation was offering a premium to
immorality among the lower orders. Did Mr. Harmer suppose that a person
of that kind, however wealthy, would be received into society? No,
indeed; the thing was quite out of the question."

This was the first outburst of opinion among the upper two hundred of
Canterbury.

By degrees, finding that Mr. Harmer did not concern himself greatly with
what was said about him, and that he showed no sign of changing his
declared intentions in deference to the popular voice, society gave up
talking so much about it; but its opinion was, it declared, unchangeable
as to the objectionable nature of his conduct.

I think it likely that Mr. Harmer, who loved peace and quiet above all
things, would have suffered matters to remain as they were; but papa had
a serious talk with him on the subject. He pointed out that Sophy was
now eighteen years old, that the mere declaration of Mr. Harmer's
intentions towards her had not been of any use in procuring her friends
of her own age, and that, for her sake, he ought to again re-enter
society. She was growing up knowing nothing of the world; and should
anything happen to Mr. Harmer, she, being left entirely unprotected and
alone, would fall an easy prey to some fortune-hunter of the worst kind,
and her fortune would thus, instead of a benefit, turn out a positive
evil to her.

Mr. Harmer acknowledged the truth of all this, and agreed with the
doctor, that reluctant as he felt to change his present studious and
retired mode of life, he ought still, for her sake, to make an effort to
re-enter society.

Accordingly, the next day he ordered his carriage, and made a long round
of visits to his old friends in the town and precincts; for, although he
had ceased to visit, he had still kept up a casual acquaintance with
those he had before known, and indeed had met many of them during his
frequent visits to papa.

Mr. Harmer's calls were everywhere received with pleasure, and his
frank, winning manner seemed at once to place him upon a familiar
footing with those of his friends with whom he had once been such a
favourite. He apologized for the hermit life he had so long led; said
that circumstances had induced him to determine to abandon it, and that
he hoped that they, their wives, and daughters would show that they
forgave him by calling at Harmer Place. But at the end of the day, if
well satisfied with the reception he had personally met with, he was
unable to persuade himself that he had made the slightest progress, as
far as Sophy--who was the real object of his visits--was concerned. A
cordial invitation had been in each instance given him to repeat his
calls, but in no case had more than an evasive answer been returned in
reply to his invitation to the ladies of the family.

On the day succeeding these visits the interchange of calls which took
place at Canterbury was quite without precedent. The great question
which every one had to ask was, "Should they go over to Harmer Place to
call upon Sophy Needham?" It would hardly have been supposed necessary
to have asked a question upon which they had, three months before,
decided unanimously in the negative; but then it is so easy to say you
will not do a thing before you have been asked--so very difficult to
refuse when you are. Indeed, many of the Canterbury ladies were now
sorry that they had spoken so very decidedly, and were ready to admit
that there was really a good deal to be said in favour of calling upon
the poor girl.

However, fortunately for these vaccillating creatures, and happily for
the propriety and strict respectability of the town, the heads of the
society, from whose dicta there was no appeal, sternly said that such a
thing was, of course, out of the question; and society in general
naturally followed suit, repressed a little sigh of regret, and agreed
that it was quite out of the question. Had the population of Canterbury
been differently proportioned to what it was, the answer might have been
otherwise. Had there been young men in the place, who might have won the
heiress, their mothers might have rebelled against the edict of
exclusion, and for their sons' sake have called upon Sophy Needham; but,
as I shall explain in its proper place, there were no young men in
Canterbury, and therefore no motive for any one to rebel against
constituted authority, or to outrage propriety by calling at Harmer
Place.

Papa, when informed of this decision, was very indignant and angry--much
more so than he had been by the recent aspersions on himself. He even
went so far as to say, that if this were Christian charity, he would
rather fall among heathens. He exerted himself to the utmost to bring
matters about, but the other ladies would not call unless the ladies of
the precincts did, and the ladies of the precincts would not. However,
it was not papa's way to give up anything he had once undertaken, and he
accordingly one day sat down and wrote as follows:--

     "My dear old Friend,

     "Although our correspondence has been pretty regular, it is now
     three years since we met, and I want you, your wife, and
     daughter to come down and stay a week with us, either before or
     after Christmas, as may suit you best. Your diocese can, I am
     sure, do without you for a little while, and I know you will be
     glad to see again the old place, where you lived so long; and
     it would give us all great pleasure to enjoy your society once
     more. At the same time, I tell you frankly that it is in your
     power to confer a great favour and benefit both upon myself and
     upon another old friend of yours, Herbert Harmer.

     "You will remember he brought up the child his son left behind
     him, that he sent her to school, and, in fact, adopted her as
     his own. All this happened when you were here. In my last
     letter I told you that he intended to leave her half his
     fortune, about £75,000. He is now naturally anxious to
     introduce her into society, in order that she may see the
     world, and make some suitable match, as otherwise the poor girl
     would, at his death, be nearly certain to be snapped up by some
     worthless fortune-hunter. Now you will hardly believe me when I
     tell you that the Christian matrons of this town shake their
     garments at the poor child, and insist that her presence would
     be a contamination to the pure atmosphere they breathe.

     "Sophy is a quiet, modest, ladylike girl, and I am greatly
     interested in her. But here I can do nothing. I am sure that
     the great proportion of the ladies would be willing enough to
     call upon her, but they are like society in general--a mere
     flock of sheep, who will only follow where the bell-wethers
     lead them. Now, the two or three ladies who act in that
     capacity to Canterbury society consider that this poor little
     lamb will taint the whole flock, and therefore pronounce her
     infect and excommunicated.

     "My dear old friend, I rely upon you and your kind wife to take
     off the ban these Pharisees have lain upon her. If you will
     both go over, during your stay here, to call upon her,
     Canterbury will be only too glad to do the same. If a bishop
     and his lady pronounce her visitable, who shall say them nay? I
     know, old friend, that in the eyes of yourself and your wife
     the sin of this poor girl's parents will not affect her. She is
     not to blame, and why should their faults be visited upon her?
     But I know that upon this head I need say nothing. Your wide
     views of Christian love and charity are so well known, that any
     word upon the subject would be superfluous. If you will do
     this, my dear bishop, you will confer an inestimable benefit
     upon Herbert Harmer and his grand-daughter; and you will very
     greatly oblige,

     "Yours, very truly,

     "ALFRED ASHLEIGH."

All turned out as papa had hoped. The bishop, with his wife and
daughter, came down to spend a week with us. The day after they arrived
we had a perfect levee of visitors; and when the room was at its
fullest, Mr. Harmer came in, being, of course, in complete ignorance
that the visit had been principally brought about for his especial
benefit. The bishop greeted him warmly, for they mutually esteemed and
liked each other.

"I am very glad, Mr. Harmer, to hear from our friend, the doctor, that
you have given up your hermit-mode of life, and are going out into the
world again. I suppose all these years you have been hoarding up
treasures: your house must be a perfect scientific museum by this time;
and the doctor tells me that your library is nearly perfect, of its
kind. I must really come over some day before I leave and inspect your
collection."

Mr. Harmer expressed the gratification the visit would afford him.

"I shall certainly come," the bishop went on; "it will give me great
pleasure. Let me see. To-morrow I shall be engaged in calls upon my
friends in the town; suppose we say the day after. What do you say, my
dear?" he asked, raising his voice, to his wife, who was sitting on the
other side of the room, "I am going over the day after to-morrow to see
Mr. Harmer's museum and library; will you and Gertude accompany me? Your
adopted daughter," he added, turning to Mr. Harmer, "must be growing
quite a young woman by this time."

"Certainly, my dear," his wife answered, "I should like it very much."

Mr. Harmer's face flushed with pleasure, and he wrung the bishop's hand.
It was easy to see that he felt the kindness, and saw the true motive of
the offer to brings his wife and daughter to Harmer Place. As to the
remainder of those present, they were simply astounded. The buzz of
conversation ceased throughout the room, and a dead silence ensued. As
for myself, I should certainly have laughed out loud--had not the
silence been so great that I dared not do so--at the general look of
dismay in the female faces, and of rather amusement on the part of the
gentlemen, who I could guess had been vainly urging their wives to call.
The conversation presently became general again, but the effort was too
great to be continued long; and in a very few minutes most of those
present took their leave, only to be succeeded by fresh callers, until
half-past four, after which hour it was the strict etiquette of
Canterbury that no visits were permissible.

On the appointed day the visit was paid. I accompanied them in the
carriage, and papa rode on horseback.

The Miss Harmers were away, as, indeed, had been the case since Sophy
had left school and taken up her permanent residence there. Sophy was
pale, and evidently very nervous; and in her manifest desire to please
it was easy to see that she was much affected, and deeply grateful for
the kindness which would be the means of removing the disadvantages
under which she had laboured, and which had weighed much upon her mind.
However, before the visit, which lasted some time, as the library and
collection of scientific apparatus had to be inspected, was over, she
had recovered her usual placid demeanour.

This visit had the consequences which papa had predicted from it.
Society unanimously agreed that although certainly it was a strange, a
very strange step for the bishop and his lady to have taken, still as
they had done so, there could be no harm in every one else doing the
same; in fact that it would only be what was right and proper. The
ladies whom papa had rather irreverently spoken of in his letter as the
bell-wethers of the flock, held out to the last and declared that they
could not reconcile it to their conscience, or to their sense of what
was due to their husbands' position. But the flock were no longer
obedient to their lead, and indeed whispered amongst themselves, that a
bishop's lady, who was moreover the daughter of a peeress, must know a
good deal better what was proper and right than a mere canon's wife
could do; and the consequence was that from that moment the influence of
these ladies over Canterbury society waned much, and the opposition to
poor Sophy recoiled upon the heads of those who had made it. In a short
time every one in Canterbury and the neighbourhood called at Harmer
Place, and the general verdict upon Sophy was decidedly satisfactory.
She was pronounced quiet, self-composed, and ladylike; and indeed Sophy
evinced none of that nervousness which she had shown upon the occasion
of the bishop's visit. To him she felt she owed all; to these people
nothing. So, although perfectly polite and courteous, she was yet
composed and tranquil; and some of the ladies who had called, quite
prepared to be very patronizing and kind, found any such line of conduct
completely out of the question. There was a quiet dignity and self
possession about her which became her much. She was the well-bred
hostess receiving her grandfather's guests, and few girls enacting such
a part for the first time could have played it so well.

For three or four months after the bishop's visit had given the signal
for society to admit Sophy Needham within its circle, the intercourse
was restricted to morning calls of an extremely formal nature, which
seemed by no means likely to bring about the result, to obtain which Mr.
Harmer had emerged from his solitude; he made up his mind, therefore, to
break the ice, which again seemed setting over the surface of the
Canterbury society, by giving a series of picnics and open air fêtes.
The first of these took place early in June, when I was away at school;
but I heard full particulars of it upon my return. The whole of the
inhabitants of Canterbury and the neighbourhood whose position rendered
them eligible were invited, together with the officers of the garrison,
a very necessary addition at Canterbury, where dancing young men are
almost unknown. A large marquee was erected and boarded for dancing, a
quadrille band brought down from London, and the military band engaged
for the afternoon. Archery butts were set up, bowling-greens mowed and
rolled, and coloured lamps placed in all the walks, to be illuminated
after dusk. People met at between three and four, had a substantial tea
at six, and a magnificent supper at eleven. Nothing, in short, which
taste and an unlimited purse could do, was neglected, and the result was
a splendid success. And yet early in the evening a difference had arisen
which would have marred the pleasure of the whole scene had it not been
for the firmness of Mr. Harmer. It seemed that soon after nine o'clock
when it began to get dusk, some of the ladies of the precincts had
objected strongly to the coloured lamps which had just been lighted, and
which began to sparkle in the trees and grass by the side of the various
walks. Not in themselves, for they allowed the effect to be very pretty;
but as offering inducements and pretexts for isolated couples to stroll
away, and get entirely beyond maternal supervision. Two of the ladies
waited upon Mr. Harmer as a sort of deputation from the others, and it
happened that one of them was the chief of the party who had opposed
Sophy Needham's introduction into society, but who had at last come to
the conclusion that, as others were going, it would be showing a want of
Christian feeling to refuse to do as others did. These ladies recited to
Mr. Harmer the objections they entertained, and concluded--

"The lighted walks will tempt the young people to stroll away and get
quite out of our sight, and as all these thoughtless officers are sure
to persuade them to walk there, it will lead to all sorts of silly
nonsense and flirtation."

"My dear ladies," Mr. Harmer said, "as to the result I entirely agree
with you, and as I, although I am an old fellow now, do like to see
young people enjoying themselves, it is precisely for the very reason
that you have alleged that I have had the garden lighted up."

There was nothing to reply to this, but one of the ladies said rather
angrily--

"Of course, Mr. Harmer, you can do as you like, but we shall forbid our
daughters to walk there."

"My dear madam," Mr. Harmer said, gently, "you can equally of course do
as you please; but it appears to me, and it will appear to every one
else, if you issue such an order, that you can have but a very poor
opinion of, and very slight confidence in, the principles of your
daughters. You show, in fact, that you cannot trust them to stroll for a
few minutes, with gentlemen they have never met before, in well-lighted
walks, where there will be dozens of other couples similarly enjoying
themselves. Were I in your place, I should hesitate greatly before I
laid such a serious imputation upon my children."

The deputation retired greatly crestfallen, and the result was that for
that evening the young Canterbury girls were for the first time in their
lives nearly emancipated from maternal supervision, and enjoyed the
evening proportionately, flirting with a zest all the greater for its
being an amusement indulged in for the first time, and making their
mothers' hearts swell, and their mothers' hair figuratively stand on end
at such unheard of goings on. Another consequence of the lighted walks
was that many families of girls who had never hitherto been allowed to
dance except in quadrilles, now found themselves allowed to waltz as
they pleased. Not that their mothers' views of the extreme impropriety
of such dances had undergone any change; but that of two evils they
chose the least, and thought it better to have their daughters waltzing
under their eyes, than that they should be wandering away altogether
beyond their ken.

Why is it that mothers are so much stricter than fathers? It is certain
that it is so, and upon this occasion, while the mothers were inwardly
bewailing the conduct of their daughters, the fathers, although many of
them clergymen, were looking on with beaming faces on the young people
enjoying themselves so thoroughly; and more than one would have been
delighted, could such a thing have been permitted, to have put his
clerical dignity aside, and his clerical white neckcloth into his
pocket, and to have joined heartily in the fun.

They did what they could to add to the general enjoyment, and several
times some of them gathered into a little knot, with two or three of
their wives, and sung some old glees--"Five times by the taper's light,"
"The winds whistle cold," and "The chough and crow;" and splendidly they
sang them too. They had some famous voices among them, and I do not
think I have ever heard those fine old glees better sung than I have
heard them at Canterbury.

Sophy, of course, attracted much attention throughout the evening, and
was constantly the centre of a little group of officers, not a few of
whom would have been very willing to have turned their swords into
ploughshares for her sake, and to have devoted their lives to the care
of her and her possessions.

Sophy, however, by no means appeared to reciprocate their feelings in
her favour. She was naturally of a quiet and retiring disposition, and
did not care for dancing; and therefore, under the excuse of attending
to her guests, she danced very little; when she did so, her conversation
was so simple and straightforward, that any attempt at flirting upon the
part of her partners was out of the question. Altogether, although the
success of the fête was brilliant, as the officers agreed on their way
back to barracks, and that nothing could have been better done, still,
as far as Sophy was concerned--and several of them had previously
announced their intention of going in for the heiress, and had even
exchanged bets upon the subject--the affair was a failure. However, they
consoled themselves that there was plenty of time yet, especially as Mr.
Harmer had announced at supper, that another fête would take place that
day six weeks, upon the 28th of July, to which he invited all friends.

This fête completely roused Canterbury from its usual lethargy, as Mr.
Harmer's return to the abode of his father had done twenty years before.
Every one gave parties; picnics upon a large scale were organized to
different places in the neighbourhood, and the officers of the garrison
gave a ball.

At the second of Mr. Harmer's fêtes Polly and I were present, as it came
off just at the end of our holidays. I need not describe it, as it was
in most respects similar to the first, and was just as great a success.
I enjoyed myself very much, and danced a great deal with the officers,
who did not seem to consider my being a schoolgirl any bar to me as a
partner, as I had expected that they would have done. When not dancing I
amused myself in watching Sophy. I knew that Mr. Harmer wished her to
marry, and I was interested to see with what sort of a man she was
likely to be taken. But Sophy was so quiet, that she did not seem to
care in the least with whom she danced, or to evince the slightest
preference for any one. There was, however, one thing I noticed, and
that puzzled me a good deal at the time. I never spoke to any one about
it, but as events turned out, I afterwards bitterly regretted that I had
not done so. I noticed early in the evening a remarkably handsome man,
standing by himself, and watching Sophy as she danced. I did not know
him, and asked a lady next to me, who he was.

"That is Robert Gregory, my dear, the son of Mr. Gregory, the
hop-factor, who died about two years ago. He was thought to have been a
wealthy man, but he died worth next to nothing. It was supposed that
this son of his--who is, I am told, one of the most idle and worthless
young men in the country--squandered it all away. He was absent some
years in London, and went on terribly there, and it is said that his
poor old father was silly and weak enough to ruin himself paying the
worthless fellow's debts. I am surprised to meet such a person in
respectable society; but I suppose Mr. Harmer knew nothing about him,
and only invited him as the son of a man who stood well in the town."

Robert Gregory was certainly a very handsome man, of a powerful build,
about twenty eight years old. But as I watched him, his face seemed to
me, not to be a pleasant one, but to have a bold and defiant expression.
It might be merely the effect of what I had just heard; but certainly
the more I looked at the man the more I felt repelled by him. He was
still watching Sophy, and as I mechanically followed the direction of
his gaze, I distinctly observed her, to my intense surprise, glance two
or three times in his direction, not mere ordinary glances, which might
fall upon any one, but positive stolen looks, which rested upon him, and
were unmistakably in answer to his. After this I could not help watching
them whenever I was not dancing, and I observed her once or twice in the
course of the evening, as she passed by where he stood, exchange a word
or two with him, not naturally and openly, but speaking as she walked
past, so that no one, not watching as I was doing, would have noticed
it.

I thought, as I have said, a good deal about it at the time. I did not
like to speak to papa upon such a subject, as it might seem like prying,
and, had there been nothing in it, it would have caused a great deal of
unpleasantness; still, I do think that I should finally have done so,
under promise of secrecy, had I not started for school next day. Before
Christmas came round, when I left school and came back for good, I had
forgotten all about the circumstance, and even had I not done so, should
certainly not have mentioned it after all that lapse of time.



CHAPTER VIII.

INTRODUCED TO THE WORLD.


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
effort. 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 minutiæ; 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."



CHAPTER IX.

THE OLD STORY.


I never enjoyed myself in my life as much as I did at that ball. Lady
Desborough introduced a good many of the first comers to me, and Percy
brought up more. He had engaged me for the first waltz, and he presently
asked me for the first polka after supper; and my card was soon quite
full for the whole evening.

At some times I should have been sorry for this, as one does not like to
be obliged to refuse any very eligible looking man who may be introduced
to one. Besides, it prevents dancing a second dance with any
particularly pleasant partner,--that is, of course, unless one has the
coolness to turn out some one already on the list, which at that time I
certainly had not.

But that night I preferred having fresh partners every dance. It was all
so new to me, and I wanted to see everything; and in this way I was less
engaged in interesting conversation, and was able to give more attention
to what was going on.

It was a brilliant scene. The _élite_ of London society were there, and
very beautiful were many of the faces, and very exquisite the dresses.
Not one of them all through was more lovely than Ada, and almost every
one of my partners remarked to me how very lovely she was; indeed, she
made quite a sensation.

The men I was not so much struck with. They were very
distinguished-looking and very gentlemanly and polished in
manner,--very, very different from what few young men there were at
Canterbury. But they had a languid air about them which impressed me
unpleasantly. They gave me the idea that they had gone out so much into
society that they had quite ceased to care for dancing, and that even
conversation was too much labour to be undertaken; and I knew it was bad
taste, but I certainly preferred as partners the officers I had met at
Canterbury to these languid young Guardsmen and scions of nobility.

For myself, I could not understand how any one could help dancing with
spirit to that inspiring music; and the only drawback to my enjoyment
was that the rooms were so very full that one was dreadfully squeezed
and knocked about. However, on my venturing to remark to one of my
partners that the room was extremely full, I found that I knew nothing
about it, for he answered,--

"Dear me! Do you think so, now? Why, every one has been remarking to me
how pleasant it is that the rooms are not crowded."

I found afterwards that my partner was right, and that I had shown my
ignorance; for, at some of the balls I went to afterwards, the crush was
so great that dancing was literally an impossibility.

I felt very thankful I had been to the opera, for most of my partners,
on finding I was fresh from the country, asked that question, having, I
suppose, no other topic in common with me. Had I danced oftener than
once with some of them, no doubt my conversations would have been more
lively. As it was, with a few exceptions, they were not interesting. But
they all danced well, and that part I did enjoy most thoroughly. Most of
all I liked my dances with Percy, for he told me who every one was, and
did it really good naturedly, while some of my other partners, who had
done the same, had been as sarcastic and ill-natured about every one, as
if they thought that it must give me pleasure to hear other people run
down; whereas, when they were making depreciating remarks upon other
girls' dresses and manners, I could not but feel quite uncomfortable in
wondering what they would say about me presently.

Percy managed to take me down to supper, carrying me off from my last
partner in a very dexterous manner; and, what was very nice, he managed
to get me a place next to Ada, who had been taken down by young Lord
Holmeskirk, a very pleasant young fellow in the Guards. Ada introduced
him to me at once, and he pleaded very hard for a dance after supper; I
told him that my card was full, but he urged it so much that I said at
last I would dance with him if he would manage it for me, but that I had
not the least idea how it was to be done. I may here say that he did so;
the second dance after supper, coming up to me as I was leaning on
Percy's arm, after my polka with him, and saying, in the quietest way,
"I believe I have the pleasure of this dance, Miss Ashleigh," he carried
me off immediately the music struck up, before my real partner, whoever
he was, could find me. Not being accustomed to this sort of thing, and
not having the least idea who it was I was engaged to, I felt quite
nervous and uncomfortable for the next dance or two, expecting that
every gentleman who came near me was on the point of reproaching me for
having broken my engagement to him. And, indeed, to the very end of my
stay in London, I could never bring myself, in spite of what Ada told me
about every one doing so, to turn off a partner in this way without
feeling that I was doing something very wrong. I dare say my conscience
would have been blunted in time, but as it was I never arrived at that
point. Lord Holmeskirk turned out the most pleasant partner of all I had
been introduced to, and I could chat with him with more freedom,--he was
so perfectly natural and unaffected.

We were a very merry little group at supper; what I ate I have not the
slightest idea. Percy kept my plate constantly filled, but, with the
exception of strawberries and cream, I did not recognise a single thing
he gave me. Then we pulled crackers, and found the mottoes within them
of a singularly silly and unsatisfactory nature.

At last we got up from supper, and went up to the drawing-room, and then
the gentlemen, at least those of them who were fortunate enough to find
seats, sat down; and when they once did so, I began to think they would
never come up again, they were such a terribly long time; and it seemed
such a waste to be sitting still doing nothing, with that splendid music
ready to go on again. While they were downstairs I was introduced to
several ladies, to whose houses I was going in the next few nights with
Lady Desborough and Ada.

At last the gentlemen came up again, and we began to dance as if to make
up for lost time; for the dancing was certainly better than before
supper, and my partners more agreeable and chatty; besides, some of the
people had left, so that there was more room, and I enjoyed it
accordingly. I think every one else did the same, for there seemed to me
to be much more lively conversation and flirting going on than before
supper.

I have said that I only danced once with each partner, but there was one
exception: this was Lord Bangley, a captain in the Guards. He was
introduced to me early in the evening, before my card was full, and he
begged so earnestly for two dances that I had no excuse for refusing
him; but of all the partners I had that evening, I disliked him
certainly the most. He was a handsome man, that I could not deny; but
that was all I could say for him. He was tall and very stiff--so stiff
that his head seemed set too far back--with a supercilious sneering
manner, a very harsh unpleasant voice, and an insufferable air of
arrogance and conceit.

Ada told me next day that Lord Bangley had condescended to express to
her his great approval of my appearance and manner. I curtsied low when
Ada told me, but all that I could say was, "that the feeling was by no
means reciprocal."

Presently the room began to thin in earnest, and there was a great noise
outside, in the intervals of the music, of shouting for carriages and
prancing of horses; and then, in a very short time, they were all gone,
and there remained in the great drawing-room only Lady Desborough, Ada,
Percy, and myself.

"What do you think of your first ball?" Lady Desborough asked.

"Oh, delightful!" we exclaimed simultaneously; "we could have gone on
dancing all night."

"It has gone off very well indeed, and I am perfectly satisfied with
everything. But now let us go off to bed; we shall have plenty of time
to talk it all over in the morning."

It was, however, very long before Ada and

I went to bed. We took off our ball-dresses, let down our hair, put our
feet into slippers, and then sat by the fire in my room talking over the
evening, and our partners, and our impressions of everything.

At last I said, "If we do not go to bed soon, Ada, we may as well give
up all idea of going at all. It is nearly six o'clock."

Ada rose to go into her own room.

"We have a good five hours to sleep yet. We shall not breakfast till
twelve. Good night, dear."

After this memorable _entrée_ into society, we were out nearly every
night, until, before the end of a month, I had had quite enough of
parties and balls, and was really glad when we had a quiet evening to
ourselves.

Sometimes, before going to the balls, we went to the opera, which, I
think, after a time I liked more than the parties. Percy always
accompanied us there, but he did not often go the balls, which I was
sorry for; I liked him so much as a partner, and I could talk with him,
so much more naturally and freely about every one there, than I could
with my other partners.

For the first few nights I went out, Lord Bangley was very attentive to
me; but I disliked him so much that at last I always was engaged when he
asked me to dance; and, although he was very slow to see that any one
really could dislike dancing with so very exalted a person as himself,
he at last was forced to adopt that conclusion, and so gave up asking
me, which was a great relief to me, for his disagreeable manner quite
oppressed me.

Ada, one morning at breakfast--at which meal, by the bye, Lady
Desborough never appeared--was laughing at me about him, when I said,
sharply, that I could not bear him, and that I had shown him so most
unmistakably.

"I am glad to hear you say so, Agnes," Percy said; for by this time Ada
had pointed out to us the extreme absurdity of our being constantly
together for two months, and calling each other Miss Ashleigh and Mr.
Desborough all that time. So Percy, having obtained my willing consent,
took to calling me Agnes, while I don't think I called him anything; but
really Percy came almost naturally to my lips, for Ada had so often
spoken of him to me by that name. "I am very glad to hear you say so,
Agnes; Bangley is hated by his brother officers, and and is what I
should call, although an earl's son, a downright snob;--a snob, because
he is conceited about his advantages of person and position;--a snob,
because he is a narrow-minded, empty-headed coxcomb."

"Well done, oh! most outspoken brother," Ada said. "Pray what offence
has poor Lord Bangley given you for all this outburst?"

"No particular offence, Ada; but I can't bear the fellow."

"Curious, now," Ada said, rather mischievously; "I never heard you say
anything against him before: your dislike must be of very recent
origin."

"Recent or not recent," Percy said, dogmatically, "I can't bear him."

After I had been three weeks in London, Lady Desborough asked me to stay
two months instead of one, as I had originally intended. She kindly said
that it was so very advantageous and pleasant for Ada having me with
her, and, indeed, pressed me so much that I saw she really wished it,
and on my part I was only too glad to prolong my stay.

I was quite at home now in society, and knew nearly every one, and
enjoyed the conversation now as much, or more, than the dancing. Ada
told me one morning, when I had been there about five weeks, that I was
getting a perfect flirt--quite as bad as she was--indeed worse, because
quieter--and therefore much more dangerous.

"There is Lord Holmeskirk, Agnes: he is quite assiduous in his
attentions to you. Now, Percy, you have certainly nothing to say against
him, for he is an exceedingly nice, unaffected fellow."

"Holmeskirk," broke in Percy, "why, he is a mere boy!"

"He is an officer in the Guards, Percy. He is, I grant you, two years
younger than your sapient self; still he is more than three years older
than Agnes. Don't mind what he says, my dear: you have my free consent
and approbation. I only wish it had been my magnificent self at whom he
had deigned to throw his handkerchief."

"Nonsense, Ada. I do wish you would get out of the way of always talking
such ridiculous nonsense;" and Percy got up quite crossly, and went
straight out of the room.

Ada lifted her eyes in comic amazement and penitence.

"Dear me! to think of my having angered his royal highness! Did I say
anything very dreadful, Agnes? I do not remember his being so fierce
with me since I was twelve years old. One would think he had been
crossed in love. Eh, Agnes! what do you say to that?" she asked, with
rather a mischievous tone.

"I am sure I do not know," I said, composedly.

"Oh, you are sure you do not know! Well, let us see if we can guess. Not
long ago, when Lord Bangley was in question, he became furious against
him; now, he is enraged with me for recommending that nice little Lord
Holmeskirk. Put two and two together, my dear, and four is the undoubted
result."

"What nonsense you are talking, Ada!" I said, colouring greatly. "Your
brother no more thinks anything about me than--than--" and I stopped for
a comparison.

"Than you do about him," Ada suggested.

"He thinks nothing of me," I said, ignoring her suggestion, "except as
an old school-fellow and friend; and I really am surprised, Ada, that
ever you should talk such nonsense."

"Very well, my dear," Ada said, tranquilly; "then I will say no more
about it. I certainly thought I had an average amount of perception, and
could see as far into a brick wall as my neighbours; but it seems I
cannot. I know, now, that my brother, who never cared for music, and who
never went ten times to the opera in his life, only goes every night we
do because he has acquired a sudden taste for music. Still, in that
case, you will allow it is odd that he should sit so much behind your
chair, and talk to you all the time the music is going on. No doubt,
however, he is criticising the performance for your benefit; but, as he
never speaks loud enough for me to hear, of course I could not guess
that. Another thing too, is, to say the least of it, strange--Percy,
till you came, was at work all day in his room upon Sanscrit and
Hindostanee, and smoking so, that, in spite of the double doors which he
has on purpose, the upper part of the house used quite to smell of his
cigars, and I was always expecting mamma to complain about it. It is,
then, certainly strange that he should now find time to idle away all
his morning with us, and to ride out by the side of our carriage in the
Park of an afternoon. However, I dare say all this is because he has
finished his study of Eastern tongues, and is arrived at perfection in
them. How stupid I have been not to have thought of all this before!"
and here Ada went on sipping her coffee, as if quite convinced that she
had been altogether in error.

Honestly, I was astonished. It had seemed so natural having Percy
always with us, so pleasant listening to his sensible conversation,
so different from the light flow of badinage we heard of an
evening--it seemed such a matter of course, to enjoy the little
quiet--well--flirtation at the opera, that, up to this moment, I can say
honestly that it had never seriously entered my head that Percy
Desborough cared for me. As, however, I thought over all our
conversation together, not so much what he had said as the way in which
he had said it, the conviction came over me that perhaps Ada was right
after all; and the colour came mounting up into my face, till I felt a
deep crimson even over my forehead.

Ada was watching me, although she did not seem to be doing so; and
guessing, from what she could see of my face, that I had arrived at the
conclusion that it was as she said, she jumped up from her chair, and,
kneeling down by me in her old impulsive way, she put her arms round me,
and kissed my burning cheeks.

"You dear, silly, blind Agnes! you know I am right, and that Percy loves
you."

I was silent a little, and then I said--

"But are you sure of what you say, Ada?"

"Quite sure, Agnes: he has not yet said as much to me, but I know it
just as well as if he had. Have I not seen the way he looks at you when
you are not noticing him? My dear child, I am quite sure about him. But
about you, Agnes, do you care for him?"

"I never thought of him so, Ada--never once. I liked him very much
indeed, but it never entered my mind that he cared for me in that way;
so I never thought of it."

"But now you know he does?" Ada persisted, kissing me coaxingly.

"Ah, but I don't know yet, Ada; so you will get no answer from me on
that head. But, oh, Ada!" I exclaimed, suddenly. "What would Lady
Desborough say? Oh, I do hope it is not true! What would she say to
Percy falling in love with a country doctor's daughter?"

Ada did not look at all alarmed.

"My dear," she said, laughing, "I do not think you need trouble yourself
on that score. Country doctors' daughters, in general, are not heiresses
of twenty-five thousand pounds. Mamma is, no doubt, ambitious, and
expects that I shall make a great match; and had Percy been like other
people, and remained in the Guards, and stayed at home, I dare say she
would have thought nothing under a duke's daughter good enough for him.
As it is, all that is changed. She was very angry indeed with him about
it, but she has given it up now. Here he is in a regiment which in a
year or so will go on foreign service; he is mad enough to intend to go
with it, and where is he then? You may be quite sure of one thing,
Agnes. My mamma is a very excellent woman, but she knows far too much of
human nature not to have weighed in her mind, and accepted the
possibility of Percy's falling in love, before she invited a very pretty
girl like you to spend a month in the house at a time she knew Percy
would be at home on leave."

I had no reply ready to this argument of Ada's, which I knew enough of
Lady Desborough to feel was true; so I kissed her, and told her that she
had talked quite nonsense enough for one morning, and that it was quite
time to get ready to go out.

The last three weeks I spent in Eaton Square were perhaps more happy
than the previous time, but I don't think they were so pleasant; that
is, I did not feel so much at home. Before, I had been with Percy as I
might have been with a brother, or rather, perhaps, with a cousin; but
now, to feel in my heart--as I now did feel--that he looked at me in
quite another way, made me feel different, and at times a little awkward
with him. Before, if Ada left the room for any thing, I continued to
chat with Percy as unconcernedly as if she had been present; now, I made
some excuse to accompany her, or, if obliged to remain, rattled on about
anything that came uppermost, to prevent the conversation by any
possibility taking a serious turn.

Ada told me one day that Percy had asked her the reason of my remaining
away so; but I told her she had no one to blame but herself, who had
made me uncomfortable by talking nonsense to me about him.

"But he is very much in earnest, Agnes. He spoke to me last night, and
said he was only waiting for an opportunity of speaking to you. You
won't say 'no,' will you, Agnes darling?"

She asked in her coaxing way, kissing me as she used to do at school
when she wanted me to do anything for her.

I did not answer. I felt very very happy to know now for certain that he
loved me, still, I could not answer that question except to himself,
especially to Ada, who would be sure whatever she promised me, to tell
Percy. So I said at last, "There is no use, Ada, in his speaking to me
now at all. I would never accept him or any other man, even if I loved
him with all my heart, until my father had seen and liked him."

"But how is Dr. Ashleigh to see Percy?" Ada asked, with a dismayed face.

"Of course, Ada, it is not for me to make arrangements for your
brother," I said quietly; and then, after a pause, seeing her blank
dismay, I went on, "It is not for me to suggest, Ada; but as you have
promised to come down for a week to us, in another six weeks when the
season is over, on your way to Lady Dashwood's, I have no doubt that
papa would be very happy to see your brother if he should be happening
to accompany you."

I was conscious that although I said this laughingly, I was blushing
crimson; but still I felt it was better so than that Percy should ask me
now, for I quite meant what I said about papa's consent; but I was by no
means sure of my own resolution if he asked me, which he was certain to
do if I did not somehow put it off. Ada looked me full in the face, she
saw that it would be as she wished, and she took me very gently in her
arms, and we kissed each other lovingly, as if in pledge of the nearer
relationship we were to bear. And then she made one more effort.

"But could you not say 'yes,' now, Agnes, and refer him to your papa? It
would be the same thing, and put him out of his suspense."

"No, Ada," I said positively; "it would not be the same thing at all. If
I said 'yes,' but which, mind, I have not said that I ever shall do,
papa would be sure to give his consent because he loves me. But before I
am engaged to any one, I should like papa to see him and like him first,
and then when he tells me he approves my choice, I shall know he really
means what he says."

After this, I have no doubt Ada told him something of what I had said,
for from that time they ceased to try and contrive _tête-à-têtes_
between us, and I saw that Percy was content to wait till the time I had
indicated. So I was much more comfortable with him. His leave expired,
and he went away three or four days before my visit ended. I took care
the last day or two not to be alone with him, for I confess I doubted my
own resolution as much as I did his. However, nothing was said till he
was going, and then as he was saying good-bye, he held my hand and said,
"Then I may hope to see you again in six weeks, Agnes?" and he looked so
earnestly at me, that my stupid colour would come rushing up.

"Yes," I said, as steadily as I could, "papa will be very glad to see
you, if you should happen to be accompanying Ada."

For a moment longer he held my hand, and it seemed to me that he drew me
a little towards him as if he were going to kiss me. If Ada had not been
in the room, I believe he would have done so; as it was, he lifted my
hand and pressed it to his lips, kissed Ada heartily, and was gone.

The very last ball I went to before I left, a circumstance happened
which gave me great pain at the time. I was dancing with Lord
Holmeskirk, with whom, indeed, I danced more perhaps than with any one
else, and we were speaking of my leaving on the following day, and he
remarked almost seriously how much I should be missed, to which I
replied with laughing disbelief. After the dance was over we took our
seats on a sofa placed in a conservatory on the landing, half way up the
stairs, and which was otherwise unoccupied. It was quite surrounded by
flowers, so that although any one who came up-stairs could see us, still
no one could hear what we said.

When we had sat down Lord Holmeskirk said, "So you do not think you will
be missed, Miss Ashleigh? Now I can assure you that at least by me your
absence will be keenly felt." And then without further introduction, he
made me an honest straightforward offer.

I felt very surprised, and very very sorry, and told him so. I had
looked upon him as a very pleasant partner, and had liked him very much,
and I assured him that I had never for a moment imagined that he had
regarded me in any other light.

"I don't suppose you love me now, Miss Ashleigh," he said earnestly.
"There is no reason in the world why you should; but don't you think you
could some day. Is it quite impossible that you may in time get to care
for me?" And the honest young nobleman looked so pleadingly up in my
face, that I could hardly restrain my tears.

"Lord Holmeskirk," I said, "I am very sorry indeed for what you have
said to me. I am grieved that I should unwittingly have obtained the
love of a true heart such as yours is without being able to requite it.
It will be a matter of lasting regret to me. But it would be cruel
kindness to deceive you. I cannot encourage you even to hope. There are
many here far more fitted than I am to win your love, and whose rank
would render them far more suitable matches for you than I could be.
Your parents----"

"I can assure you," he began, earnestly, "I have their consent; I have
already spoken to them."

"I esteem you still more for having done so, Lord Holmeskirk, and I am
touched at their willingness to receive me; still, their consent must
have been the result rather of their affection for you, than their own
real approval of it."

I saw at once in his open face that it was so, and that his parents'
consent had been reluctantly given.

"It could not be otherwise," I said; "they naturally wish you to choose
one who, from her rank and connections, may strengthen your position,
however high that may be. And now, I can only say again how sorry I am
for the pain I have given you, but that it cannot be. I shall always
remember you with esteem and regard, and nothing will give me greater
pleasure than to hear you have made some happier choice."

The young man saw that any further appeal would be hopeless, and the
tears stood in his honest grey eyes.

"Thank you very much for your kindness, Miss Ashleigh, but, believe me,
I shall ever regard you----" "as a friend," I said, rising, and making a
movement to the staircase. He offered me his arm, and as we went up I
began chatting on indifferent subjects, as I did not wish any one to
even guess what had taken place. As we walked round the room, we passed
by where the countess, his mother, was sitting. I saw she looked at us
anxiously, and as her son caught her eye, he shook his head slightly in
answer to the question she asked, and I could see her eyes open, first
in astonishment, and then soften with a variety of emotions,--sorrow for
her son's disappointment,--pleasure that he was not going to make a
match which she could not have thought suitable. As we passed again, she
stopped us, and spoke a few words to me, for I had frequently spoken to
her before, and had liked her much, for she was a kind, motherly sort of
woman, though she was a countess. She said she heard this was my last
ball, and that she should quite miss my face amongst the dancers.

"It is a fresh, happy face, my dear, and I hope it may continue so.
Good-bye; you have my best wishes;" and she shook hands with me very
kindly and affectionately, in a way which seemed to say a very great
many things which she could not well express.

When I got back that evening, Ada, who had been rather silent on our way
home, came into my room, as she usually did, for a talk, and said,
"Agnes, I was going down the stairs to get an ice, and I saw you and
Lord Holmeskirk go into the conservatory together, and you were there
when I came up again, and I am quite sure by both your looks that he has
made you an offer. Well?"

"What do you mean by _well_?" I asked, for I felt a little hurt that,
after what I had said to her about Percy, she should ever dream of the
possibility of my accepting any one else.

"Of course I mean what did you answer? Don't keep me waiting, Agnes: you
don't know how anxious and impatient I have been to get home to ask
you."

"After what I said to you about Percy, Ada," I said, rather coldly, "I
should have thought it hardly necessary to ask. Of course I refused
him."

"There, you dear Agnes," Ada said, almost crying on my neck, "don't be
angry with me; but I have been so nervous, though I knew you would say
'no.' Still, it must require so much courage to refuse a nobleman; I
know I never could;" and so she went on till she coaxed me into a good
humour again, and we talked a long time before we went to bed. And so my
gaieties ended, and next morning, bidding adieu to Ada and Lady
Desborough, who was very gracious, and even kissed me, I started for
Canterbury, under charge of a lady who was going down, and whom I met by
arrangement on the platform of the station.



CHAPTER X.

SUNSHINE AND SHADOW.


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?



CHAPTER XI.

LAYING A TRAIN.


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 all
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.



CHAPTER XII.

THE EXPLOSION.


There are some boys so naturally passionate and vicious, in whose
dispositions the evil so strongly predominates over the good, that we
are obliged to own that under no conceivable course of training could
they have turned out otherwise than bad. Some faults might have been
checked by early firmness, some vices eradicated by judicious kindness
and care, yet nothing could ever have altered the radical nature;
nothing could ever have made a fair, straight tree out of that crooked
and distorted sapling. Such a character was that of Robert Gregory, and
in his case there was no countervailing force, either of judicious
kindness or of proper severity, to check the strong tendency to evil in
his disposition. His mother had died when he was an infant, and his
father--who had married late in life, and who had no other
children,--indulged his every whim, and neither thwarted him in any
desire, nor punished him for any fault; and so he grew up an idle,
passionate, turbulent boy, pursuing his own way, and laughing to scorn
the entreaties and prayers of his weak father. As time went on, his
character developed; he chose his companions from the wildest and least
reputable youths of the neighbourhood, and soon became even wilder and
less reputable than the worst of them. He at length led such a life,
that his father was only too glad when he expressed a desire to go up to
London, in hopes that there, with other companions and habits, he might
yet retrieve himself. Robert Gregory was not all bad, he had his good
points, and with other training might have turned out, if not a good
man, at any rate not the character that Dr. Ashleigh had described. He
was good-natured and even generous--by fits and starts certainly--but
still enough so to make those who knew him as a boy, before he had got
entirely beyond all control, regret that his father, by his weakness and
injudicious kindness, was allowing him to grow up a curse to himself and
a nuisance to the whole neighbourhood. Any hopes his father may have
entertained of his reformation from the influence of a life in London,
were destined to be very shortly extinguished. He wrote at first flaming
accounts of the grand friends he was making, but lamenting their
expensive way of living, and begging more money to enable him to do as
they did. For months, for years, the letters came regularly, and always
demanding money, sometimes very large sums. Some of these letters were
accompanied by plausible tales that he wished to oblige his great
friends, through whom he shortly expected to obtain a lucrative
appointment. At other times he told the truth--various losses on the
turf, or heavy gambling debts which must, he said, be paid, or his
honour would be irretrievably lost. The old man patiently answered these
constant demands upon him, and paid without a complaint the large sums
required. He truly, although weakly, loved this reprobate son of his: he
knew that no remonstrances could now avail: he feared so to alienate the
liking which his son still felt for him by remonstrances which would
irritate, without reforming him, and so he continued to pay, and pay.
"The boy can have it but once," he said to himself; "as well now as at
my death; there will be enough to last my time." But there hardly was.
After Robert had been six years in London, during which he had only paid
three or four flying visits to his native place, he received a letter
from his father, asking him to let him know the total amount of his
debts; as he would rather settle the whole at once and set him clear,
than be continually asked for money. Robert consequently sent him a
list, which even he had grace enough left to be ashamed of. However, the
enormous amount was paid without a word; but a week afterwards a letter
came from his father, saying that in six years he had spent no less than
£40,000, and that now there only remained the house in which the old man
lived and a small farm which yielded a bare £200 a year; that this he
would not touch, and that not one single penny would he farther advance
his son; but that if he chose to come down and live with him, that he
would meet with a hearty welcome, and with not one word of reproach for
the past. Seeing no other course open to him, Robert Gregory came back
sulkily enough to the old house, where, as has before been said, the old
man did not live many months.

Long as was the list of debts which Robert had sent up from London, it
had by no means comprised the whole of them. At his father's death,
therefore, he was obliged to mortgage the farm to nearly its full value,
to satisfy the most pressing of his creditors, and then, for the first
time in his life, Robert Gregory asked himself how he was to live. It
was by no means an easy question to answer; indeed, think the matter
over as he would, he could imagine no mode by which, even had he been
inclined to work, which he was not, he could have earned his living. It
was while he was vainly, week after week, endeavouring to solve this
problem, that the intention of Mr. Harmer to make Sophy Needham his
heiress was made public. Robert Gregory hailed the news as a direct
answer to his question--he would marry the heiress. He did not jump at
the conclusion in haste; he inquired closely concerning the habits of
the family at Harmer Place, of whom previously he had known nothing
except by name; he found that their life had been hitherto one of
seclusion, owing to the ascetic life of the Miss Harmers, and the
studious one of their brother; he heard of Sophy Needham's birth and
origin, and he heard, too, that society refused to visit her, and at
last he said to himself confidently and firmly, "I will marry her."
Having arrived at this determination, Robert Gregory at once proceeded
to act upon it, and soon had his whole scheme arranged to his
satisfaction. He felt that the matter was one which required time, and
he accordingly sold the farm for two or three hundred pounds beyond the
amount for which it was mortgaged, and on this sum he calculated to be
able to live until he was able to marry Sophy.

This done, putting on a shooting suit, he day after day concealed
himself in the grounds at some distance from the house, at a spot from
which he could see when Sophy strolled out, and could watch the
direction she took. One day he perceived that the course she was
following in her ramble would lead her close to the boundary of the
property; making a circuit, he took his position on the other side of
the hedge, and therefore off the Harmer estate. When Sophy came along,
and he could see that she was immediately opposite him, separated only
by the hedge, he discharged both barrels of his gun. Sophy naturally
uttered an exclamation of surprise and alarm, and this was all he
needed.

As if astonished at finding a lady so close to him, he crossed the
hedge, and lifting his hat, he apologized deeply for the alarm he had
given her, trusted that the shock had not been serious, and in fact made
so good a use of his time, that he managed to detain her in conversation
for a quarter of an hour.

Robert Gregory, it has already been said, was a handsome man with a good
figure. His conversation and manners might not have passed muster in
critical society, still he had seen enough of the world to be able to
assume the air of a gentleman sufficiently well to deceive a girl who
had hardly ever conversed with a young man before in her life; his
address to her was straightforward and outspoken, and yet with something
deferential about it to which Sophy was quite unaccustomed, and which
gratified her exceedingly.

The attempt of Robert Gregory was well-timed. Sophy knew that Mr. Harmer
had proclaimed her his heiress, and she felt, and felt keenly, that
society refused to call upon her or recognise her; she was naturally a
sensitive, shy girl, and the accident of her birth had been a constant
pain and sorrow to her, and she was, therefore, in exactly the frame of
mind to receive with greedy pleasure the expression of Robert Gregory's
deference and distantly expressed admiration. She noted no bad
expression in the handsome face which smiled upon her, she detected no
flaw in the fine figure which bent a little as he spoke to her; she only
saw one who treated her--her whom the world scorned and repelled--with
respectful deference and admiration; and from that moment her heart went
out freely and fully towards him.

As he was leaving her, Robert Gregory mentioned that he lived on the
other side of Canterbury, but was out for a day's shooting on the
neighbouring estate. He said that on that day week he should again be
there, and asked her if she frequently walked in that direction; he
urged that he should feel really anxious to know if she had suffered
from the effect of the sudden alarm he had given her, and that he hoped
she would be kind enough to let him know how she was.

Sophy coloured and paused, and then said that she frequently walked in
that direction, and that if he happened to see her as she went past, she
should of course be happy to assure him that she was not in the least
upset by the little start that she had had. And so they parted, and
Robert Gregory felt, that as far as she was concerned, the game was won.

Again and again they met, and before very long he spoke of love to her;
and Sophy, whose life had been hitherto a joyless one, gave him her
heart without concealment, and found that, for the first time, she had
discovered happiness. But that happiness soon had its alloy of trouble.
When Christmas came, and the Bishop and his wife called, and society in
general followed their example, Sophy naturally wondered, and asked
Robert why he did not do the same. He was prepared for the question,
which he knew must come sooner or later, and his answer had long been
determined upon. He at once said that he threw himself entirely on her
mercy, and even if it were the signal for his dismissal from her side
for ever, he would tell her the truth. He told her that, owing to want
of control as a boy, he had been when a very young man, spendthrift and
wild, and that he had dissipated his fortune in folly and amusements.
That the Christian propriety of Canterbury had taken upon itself to be
greatly scandalized thereby; and that although he had long since given
up his former courses, and had returned and lived happily and quietly
with his old father, although that father himself had never complained
to him, or, he believed, to any one, of his previous folly, yet that
society in general had taken upon itself to refuse its assent to the
welcome of the prodigal, but had indeed desired him to go into a far
country and be fed upon husks.

Sophy, instead of being shocked at all this, clung to him, as might have
been expected, all the closer. The well-affected scorn and bitterness
with which he spoke of the Christian charity of society, struck, as he
had intended it should, a sympathetic chord in her own breast; for had
not she, too, been declared under the ban of society, and for no fault
or sin of her own? It is true, society had now condescended to visit
her, but why? Was she any better or more honourably born than before?
Had her conduct in any way softened them towards her? Not a bit. A
bishop had said that she might be visited, and so the world had
graciously extended its hand and received her into its fold. But
although Sophy accepted the offered hand, she hated the giver of it; and
although she arrayed her face with a placid smile as she entered into
society, it only covered a sense of bitter outrage and of indignant
contempt. Nursing, as she did, feelings like these, it was with an
absolute sense of pleasure that she found that her lover, like herself,
was deemed an outcast. To her it was but one more new tie between them;
and when Robert had finished his confession, her own rage and wrongs
against society broke out in a stream of bitter, passionate words, and
Robert Gregory found there was far more in the ordinarily tranquil,
quiet woman before him than he had ever given her credit for. However,
her present frame of mind was most favourable for his plans, and he
therefore took good care to keep alive her resentment against the world,
in order to bind her more closely to himself. It was soon after this
that the fêtes at Harmer Place were given. Robert Gregory managed to
obtain an invitation, but arranged with Sophy that he would not dance
with her, alleging the truth, that if he did so, society would be sure
to poison Mr. Harmer's mind against him, and render his consent to their
marriage out of the question; and Sophy was content to follow his
guidance in all things, and to see everything with his eyes.

The real difficulties of Robert Gregory's course were only yet
beginning. Sophy was, indeed, won; but it was Sophy's money, and not
herself, that he cared for; now Sophy's money at present depended upon
Mr. Harmer, and not upon herself; and Robert feared that in the event of
a runaway match, Mr. Harmer would very materially alter his will. Still,
on the other hand, her grandfather was extremely fond of her; he had no
one else to leave his money to, and he might in time reinstate her in
his favour. At last he asked Sophy if she thought Mr. Harmer would,
after a time, forgive her if she made a runaway match with him, for he
had no hope of ever obtaining his consent beforehand. Sophy was very
loath to answer the question. She was quite ready to marry Robert, but
she shrank from the thought of paining the old man who had been so kind
to her. However, as Robert again and again returned to the point, she at
last came to discuss it as calmly as he did.

"Yes, she thought Mr. Harmer would be reconciled to her; she believed he
would miss her so much, that he would be sure to forgive her in a short
time; it was not in his nature to bear malice to any one. Yes, he would
soon come round; indeed, she was certain that if Robert would but make
himself known to him, that Mr. Harmer would not care for what other
people said, but would judge for himself, and would esteem and like him
as she did."

This course Sophy pressed very much upon her lover, with many loving
entreaties and tears, for she really loved Mr. Harmer truly, and shrank
from grieving him. These entreaties, however, Robert always gently, but
decidedly put aside. He said that Mr. Harmer would be certain to believe
the edict of society against him, would decline to grant him any
opportunity of justifying himself, and would refuse to allow him to
enter the house. Besides he would be just as angry at discovering the
secret understanding which existed between them, as he would be at their
marriage, and he would be certain to forbid all intercourse between
them, and perhaps even insert a condition in his will forbidding her to
marry him under pain of the forfeiture of his fortune. For Robert made
no secret from Sophy that her money would be of the greatest use to
them; not, as he put it, that he cared for money for its own sake, but
that if they were rich they could spend their life abroad, where no
scoff or sneer of society could reach them, and where they should never
be disturbed by the sarcasms and whispers of the world; while they, in
their turn, would be able to show society how heartily they despised it,
and how well they could do without it.

Sophy, in her present state of mind, thought all this very grand and
heroic, and really believed that her lover spoke in a noble and
disinterested manner; and as she was herself perfectly conscious of the
advantages of wealth, she quite agreed that, if possible, her fortune
should not be sacrificed.

Robert, then, at last, succeeded in persuading her that a runaway match
was the only alternative, and as she really believed that she would be
very soon forgiven by Mr. Harmer, it was at length arranged to take
place shortly. This was in the spring of the year, and their secret
acquaintance had then continued eighteen months. The date was fixed for
the elopement, when the paralytic stroke which Mr. Harmer had put a stop
to all their plans; and this for two reasons: pressed as he again was
for money--for his creditors, who had been only partially paid before,
were now becoming clamorous--Robert Gregory felt that with Mr. Harmer at
the point of death it would be perfect madness to run the risk of Sophy
being disinherited, when a few weeks might leave her the undisputed
owner of £75,000; so although sorely harassed for money, he was content
to wait. The other reason was that Sophy was full of remorse at the
thought that she had been at the point of deserting her benefactor. She
met Robert now very seldom, but devoted herself to Mr. Harmer. As,
however, the weeks ran on, he slowly but surely recovered health and
became his former self, and her constant attendance on him was no longer
needed; so she fell back to her old habits; her meetings in the
plantation became more frequent, and his influence resumed its power
over her. Robert Gregory had discernment enough to suit his behaviour to
his words: when the old man was at his worst, he was full of tender
commiseration for her; when he began to recover, he pretended a warm
interest in his health, although inwardly he was filled with rage and
chagrin at his convalescence. At length his own affairs arrived at such
a crisis that he was in momentary fear of arrest, and he felt that once
in prison his union with Sophy must be postponed at any rate till after
Mr. Harmer's death, which now again appeared to be a distant event. He,
therefore, once more began to persuade Sophy to elope with him; but he
had a far more difficult task than before. All his old arguments were
brought forward; but it was some time before he could succeed.
Gradually, however, her old habit of listening to his opinion prevailed;
she allowed herself to be persuaded that her grandfather might now live
for many years, and that he could for a short time dispense with her
services; that as she had been so useful to him during his illness, and
as he must be more attached to her than ever, it was quite certain that
he could not for long remain proof to her entreaties for forgiveness.

And so at last, but not without many tears and much bitter
self-reproach, Sophy consented to an elopement--consented at that very
interview coming from which Dr. Ashleigh surprised Robert Gregory--who,
elated by his success, was making his way off without observing his
usual care and precaution.

At breakfast on the following morning, Mr. Harmer remarked that Sophy
looked pale and ill; she answered that her head ached sadly, but that
she had no doubt a stroll in the grounds would do it good. After
breakfast she accordingly went out, and, after wandering for some time
carelessly in sight of the house, she made her usual circuit to avoid
observation, and then entered the plantation near the road. She found
Robert Gregory waiting for her under the tree where they had now met for
just two years, sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month, according
to the time of year, and the opportunities Sophy had for rambling about.
Robert looked anxiously at her as she came up, to see if there were any
signs of flinching or drawing back in her pale face, but there were
none. Sophy was quiet and shy, but she had a fund of quiet determination
and courage within her. He kissed her tenderly. "You are looking pale
this morning, little one."

"I daresay," she answered, "for I have not closed my eyes all night. Is
everything ready?"

"Quite. I shall be with the gig in the road just outside that gap, a
minute or two before a quarter past eight; if you will get here a few
minutes after that time, we shall be able to catch the nine o'clock
train to London easily. I shall take you to an Hotel near Euston Square,
and we will go on by the early train to Scotland, and shall be half way
there before they find out in the morning that you are gone. You can
trust me, dearest?"

"Yes, Robert," Sophy said quietly. "I have trusted you all these
meetings here, and I have found you an honourable gentleman, and I am
not going to distrust you now. I feel sure that all will turn out as we
wish, and that grandpapa will forgive me very soon, and take us both
into favour; and I hope that in a fortnight we shall be back here again,
forgiven and welcome." Sophy spoke cheerfully, for she really believed
what she said.

"Are you sure to be able to slip out unobserved?"

"Quite sure, Robert. I shall go up to bed at eight, and ask not to be
disturbed, as I wish to sleep. I shall bring a bag with me, and shall
put on a thick veil, so as not to be recognized by any one as we go
through Canterbury. I have, as I told you, plenty of money. Good-bye
now, Robert, I must not wait here any longer."

"Good bye, dear, till this evening."

He looked after her as she went lightly away among the trees, her
footsteps scarcely sounding in the limp, new-fallen autumn leaves, and a
shade of compunction came over his face. He was certainly a blackguard,
he knew it well, but, by heavens, he would try to make this little girl
happy. They would be rich some day, and then they would travel for
years, and when he came back his evil name would have died out, and he
could then lead a quiet, happy life, perhaps at the old house there; and
then--and then, who knows; perhaps little children would grow up round
him: surely then he must be happy. Could it be--good God! could it be
possible that he might yet turn out a good man after all? "Yes, there
was hope for him yet." And as Robert Gregory turned away, there was a
tear in his eye, which was even now growing heavy and red from long
excesses and hard drinking, and a sigh, and a half prayer from the
heart, from which for long years such things had ceased to rise.

The next morning at ten o'clock, as Sophy had not come down to
breakfast, Mr. Harmer, as he went into the library, desired the servant
to take his compliments to Miss Needham, and inquire how she felt.
Presently the servant came into the library looking very pale and
scared. "If you please, sir, Miss Sophy is not in her room, but there
was this letter for you laying on the table." So saying, the girl
hastily left the room, to relate to the other servants the extraordinary
fact that Miss Sophy was not in her room, and that her bed had not been
slept in.

The letter to Mr. Harmer was as follows:--

     "My dearest Grandpapa,

     "If you were other than you are, this letter would not be
     written; I should not dare to plead my cause with you; but I
     know you so well--I know how kind and good you are--and so I
     venture to hope for your forgiveness. I am very wicked,
     grandpapa; I am going away without your consent to be married.
     He--my husband that is to be--is named Robert Gregory. He has
     told me frankly that men do not speak well of him, and that
     when he was young he was wild and bad. He tells me so, and I
     must believe him; but he must have been very different to what
     he is now--for now I know him to be good and noble. I have
     known him long--I own it with shame that I have never told you
     before, and many tears the concealment has cost me; but, oh,
     grandpapa, had I told you, you would have sent him away, and I
     should have lost him. He and you are all I have in the world;
     let me keep you both. He showed me kindness when all the world,
     except you--my kindest and best of friends--turned their backs
     upon me, and I could not give him up. While I write now, my
     eyes are full of tears, and my heart bleeds to think of the
     pain this will give you, after all your goodness to me. Oh,
     forgive me. Do for my sake, dear, dear grandpapa, see him and
     judge for yourself. I only ask this, and then I know you will
     forgive him and me. Write soon to me--only one word--say you
     forgive me, and let me be your little Sophy once more. I shall
     not love you the less for loving him, and much as I love him,
     without your forgiveness my life will indeed be miserable.

     "Write soon, grandpapa--write soon, and say you forgive me, and
     that I shall again be your own--

     "SOPHY."

Presently the Misses Harmer--who always breakfasted much earlier
together, and then retired to a dressing-room they had fitted up as a
small oratory--were surprised at loud talking, and confusion in the
house. In a short time their own maid knocked at the door, and then came
in with a face full of excitement, to say that Miss Sophy had not slept
in her bed, and that they had searched the whole house, and found no
signs of her.

"Does my brother know?" Miss Harmer asked, after hearing the whole story
very quietly to the end.

"I can't say, ma'am; there was a letter on Miss Sophy's table, which
Mary took into Mr. Harmer, in the library, when she first found it, and
he has not come out since."

The Misses Harmer, with their usual deliberate walk, went down stairs,
and then into the library.

Mr. Harmer was sitting at the table, with his back to the door, and did
not turn round at their approach. They went up. Beside him on the table
lay an open letter--the one from Sophy;--in his hand was a pen, and
before him a sheet of paper. On it he had written: "My dearest Sophy,
come back; I forgive"--but the handwriting was strangely indistinct, and
the last word, the word "forgive," was large and sprawling, like a
schoolboy's writing, and then the pen stopped, and had stopped for
ever;--Herbert Harmer was dead.



CHAPTER XIII.

A BAD BUSINESS.


"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 hard,
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.



CHAPTER XIV.

MISSING!


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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