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Volume I

Chapter I • Early Days • 3,800 Words
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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 • 3,900 Words

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” • 5,000 Words

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 • 5,700 Words

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 • 4,700 Words

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 • 2,700 Words

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 • 4,700 Words

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 • 3,800 Words

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 • 5,400 Words

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 • 4,200 Words

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 • 3,400 Words

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 • 4,700 Words

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 • 3,800 Words

“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! • 5,000 Words

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.

Volume II

Chapter I • A Family Conclave • 5,300 Words

For some little time after Dr. Ashleigh’s carriage drove off from Harmer Place, not a word was spoken. The scene through which its occupants had passed, had left a deep impression upon them—even upon Mr. Petersfield, who was by no means of a nature to be easily moved. Dr. Ashleigh felt greatly the words he had spoken, the wrong which had been committed, and the thought of his children’s altered future. Harry felt more indignant than hurt; he was too astonished and angry to reflect yet how much it would affect himself. Perhaps if he had one wish more predominant than another, it was that the Misses Harmer were but men—men of about his own age, and that he could get them into some quiet spot—by Jove, would not he find out where the will was hidden!

But Robert Gregory felt the disappointment with all its force. To him the blow had been so overwhelming and crushing, that his fierce temper was beaten down and mastered by it; and he had borne it with a sense of dull despair, very unlike the passionate outburst of wrath which might have been expected from him. Only when Miss Harmer had turned upon him so fiercely, had the blood rushed to his cheek, and had not Dr. Ashleigh interposed, he would doubtless have given way to a burst of passion; but with a great effort he had checked himself; desperate as he was, he knew that Dr. Ashleigh stood in a far higher and better position in the case than he did himself; it was to his interest that the doctor should take the lead, for he felt that what hopes remained rested solely in him.

Dr. Ashleigh was certainly favourably impressed with his conduct throughout this trying interview; he knew that to this man the loss of the will was a terrible blow, the defeat of all his plots and schemes, and he was surprised and pleased that he had behaved with so much self-control, and had avoided creating a stormy and violent scene.

“Mr. Gregory,” he said at last, breaking the silence for the first time as they were entering Canterbury, “I know that this is a grievous blow to you, as it is to us all. I think you had better follow out your original plan of returning this evening to your wife in London. You can safely leave the matter in my hands; I am, for the sake of my children, interested in this affair equally with yourself, and you may rely that I shall spare no pains to come to the bottom of it. What search and stir is made, will come with a far better grace from me than from yourself, and you may depend upon my letting you know, the instant the slightest clue is gained to the mystery.”

Robert Gregory in a few words thanked the doctor, agreed that such a course was best, and that at any rate until Sophy was perfectly recovered, he would leave the affair in his hands.

Dr. Ashleigh then turned to Mr. Petersfield and asked him if he would come on to Ramsgate, and stay the night with him, to chat over the affair in quiet, and determine upon the best course to be pursued. Mr. Petersfield agreed to stop for the night, saying that he must return to town by the early train in the morning, but that if they would promise that he should do that, he would accompany them.

As this was arranged, they drove into the station, and here the party separated; Dr. Ashleigh, Harry, and Mr. Petersfield to go on to Ramsgate, Robert Gregory to return to London. The latter preserved his quiet demeanour until he was alone in a railway carriage, and then he gave full vent to his fury and disappointment. He raved aloud; he cursed himself, his fortune, and all connected with him; he poured imprecations of every kind and description upon the heads of the Misses Harmer; and his last exclamation as he flung himself down in a corner of the carriage, was, “Let them beware, for by——I will find it, if it is in existence, if it costs me my life!—or,” he added, after a pause, “them theirs!”

I now resume my own narrative. How surprised I was that evening when they came in. Of course, just at first I was too much occupied in kissing Harry—whom I now saw for the first time, as he had only arrived from the North the evening before—to notice anything strange about their manner. Then papa introduced me to Mr. Petersfield; and after I had spoken a word or two to him, and had time to look at all their faces, I saw that there was a great gloom upon them, greater even than the occasion warranted; for I had been expecting some little joking remark from papa about my being a woman of property now, so that I was the more struck by the subdued expression of his face.

“Is anything the matter, papa?” I asked, quietly.

“Yes, my dear, a great deal is the matter, I am sorry to say. Mr. Harmer’s will is missing.”

“Missing, papa!” I exclaimed, almost incredulously.

“Yes, my love; you must not take it too much to heart; it may come to light yet, but at present it is missing.”

I sat down with a faint feeling in my heart. It was not that I cared for the money for its own sake; but I thought of Lady Desborough, and I felt a rush of coming trouble sweep round me. However, after a moment, I drove back the feeling, and asked, in as cheerful a voice as I could,—

“But how is it missing, papa?”

“Ah, my dear, that is the rub. Mr. Harmer had it in the house, and now it is nowhere to be found. We all believe—indeed, there can be little doubt—that Miss Harmer has concealed it, or, at any rate, that she knows where it has been hidden away. I have noticed the last week a strange manner, a sort of secret understanding between the sisters, but thought little about it at the time. Now, however, I can understand it all by the light of the present state of affairs; and I remember now, what I smiled at at the time as an impotent threat, that Miss Harmer said, in her passion, that while she lived, Sophy’s husband should never enter the doors of Harmer Place.”

“But, papa,” I said, “she has a very good life-income; why should she do such a thing as this?”

“There are several reasons, my dear; but we will talk them over after tea. I am hungry and tired, and I am sure Mr. Petersfield and Harry are the same; so let us have tea at once; that will do us all good, and we shall be able to look at matters in a far more cheerful light afterwards. What are you going to give us, my dear?”

“Cold pie, papa, and some fresh-boiled mackerel, and a dish of prawns and some muffins.”

“Capital! Now we will go and wash our hands, and make ourselves comfortable, and by that time you will be ready for us.”

They were soon down again, and seated round the table, and papa began to question Harry about his work in the North; and Harry, who was never depressed above five minutes about anything, entered into a most amusing description of his life on the railway; and we were all laughing merrily, in spite of our troubles, before tea was over. I am sure no one who had looked in upon us would have guessed that we had that day as good as lost £50,000 between us. When we had done, papa said,—

“There, my dear, we are all a hundred per cent better. Now, as we have taken one great consoler—tea, let us take another—tobacco. I am sure Harry is dying for a pipe; and although I do not often smoke indoors, on this special occasion I will make an exception. What say you, Mr. Petersfield?”

“I am very fond of a good cigar,” the lawyer said, producing a cigar-case; “but will not Miss Ashleigh object?”

“Not at all,” I said. “Harry always smokes when he is at home, and I am quite accustomed to it. If I find it too much, I can easily open the window a little.”

The tea-things were soon cleared away, and we took our seats round the fire. For although the weather was not actually cold, we usually had a fire in the evening, as, indeed, by the seaside one can do almost all the year round with comfort. Papa sat on one side, I on a stool by him, Harry next, and Mr. Petersfield on the other side. As soon as the cigars and pipe were fairly alight, the table cleared, and we alone, papa began,—

“Now, my dear, I will answer the question you asked me before tea; and I shall do so at length, as what I am saying to you may be some sort of guide and assistance to Mr. Petersfield, who—from his late partner, Mr. Ransome, having had the management of Mr. Harmer’s affairs—does not know very much of the business.”

Papa then explained the whole history of the Harmers nearly as I have told it, although of course in far fewer words. “Thus you see,” he concluded, “there are several reasons which we may suppose, actuate the Miss Harmers. The first and principal, is the religious question. The Misses Harmer were, as I have said, educated in a convent; they were brought up to, and have ever since lived a life of ascetic severity. They have been taught to look upon the advancement of their Church as the thing to be striven for upon earth, the summum bonum to be aimed at. They were accustomed to consider the Harmer estate as destined to go to the furtherance of that object; and when Herbert Harmer by the accidental death of his two brothers, suddenly succeeded to it, they looked upon it as absolutely stolen from the Church, to which it was, by the elder brother’s will, to have gone. They then left the house, went abroad, and did not return until the death of Gerald Harmer seemed again to open the way for them. They have since resided there off and on, in hopes probably that their brother might return to his old faith, might die without a will, or, in fact, that some unexpected contingency might happen. The last three or four years since Mr. Harmer’s declared intentions relative to Sophy and yourselves, they have very much intermitted their visits, and only returned on the news of their brother’s first paralytic seizure. Thus, you see, the last twenty years of their lives, may be said to have been given to the endeavour; and the temptation to them to suppress the will is of course enormous, in order that the property may come to them, and afterwards, as their eldest brother intended, to the Romish Church. They have, besides this, another motive now, and one which, no doubt, greatly soothes their consciences. They are mercilessly severe upon Sophy, they look upon her as their brother’s murderess, and they therefore have the twofold satisfaction of punishing her—and so of avenging their brother’s death—and of enriching their own Church.”

“Strong inducements, my dear sir,” Mr. Petersfield, who was a bachelor, said, “religion and malice, the two strongest motive powers in the female, especially the elderly female, mind.”

“Mr. Petersfield,” I said, “remember that I am here, and that you are talking treason.”

“I apologize humbly, Miss Ashleigh,” he said, smiling. “But really,” he continued to papa, “what you say explains the whole matter, and gives it an even more awkward appearance, in my eyes, than it had before. The question is, what is to be done?”

“Ah! what is to be done?” papa repeated; “that is indeed a difficult question to decide upon. I believe the will to be in existence, and I do not think they will venture to destroy it; it is one thing to allow a will to lie hid in a secret drawer, another to take it out and deliberately burn it: one requires a very different degree of courage and hardihood to the other. No, I do not think they will venture to destroy it.”

“I do not think they will,” Mr. Petersfield said; “they quailed so unmistakably under your denunciations. Do you know, doctor, I give you great credit for that, it was grand, sir!” and the lawyer rubbed his hands at the thought. “I give you my word, I never saw anything better done in the whole of my professional experience.”

Harry laughed. “Yes, father, you actually alarmed me at the time; you were awfully impressive.”

Papa could not help smiling a little. “Was I?” he said. “Well, I meant to be. I the women to be extremely superstitious; I have heard them confess to a belief in spirits and apparitions; and it flashed across me that the best thing I could do, to prevent them destroying the will, was to touch them on that score, and I do think it is safe for a time. One of the worst features to my mind is the appearance of that Father Eustace. Where does he come from? Who sent for him? They said he had come from abroad, and as he is an Italian, they must have telegraphed for him.”

“I think I can find that out,” Harry said. “Dick Thornton, who is one of the telegraph clerks, was at school with me, and I have no doubt I can get out of him who the message was sent to, and who sent it, even if I cannot get the words themselves.”

“Do,” Mr. Petersfield said; “that message might be of great value to us.”

“By the way, Mr. Petersfield,” papa said, “there is a point which has just occurred to me, which may serve to guide us materially in our search. Do you keep all Mr. Harmer’s deeds and papers?”

“Not all; we keep the title-deeds of the property, and that sort of thing, but he himself keeps the copies of his tenants’ leases, and papers of that kind, to which he may have occasion to refer in his dealings with them. But why do you ask the question?”

“It is a very important one, my dear sir, and I am pleased with your answer.”

“How so?” the lawyer asked, rather puzzled.

“In this way: if the will had been the only important document at Harmer Place, it might have been kept in any of the drawers we searched to-day, and the Misses Harmer might have removed it last week, and either destroyed or concealed it in their rooms, or in any other place, where we could never find it. Now, we have every reason to believe it is not so, for in that case, they would have left the leases, and other documents, and we should have found them. It is quite clear to my mind, then, that Mr. Harmer had some secret place of concealment, to which he alluded when he told your clerk that all the burglars in the world could not find it; and in this place of concealment the whole of these papers, together with the will, are stowed away, and the Misses Harmer, who no doubt know of the existence of this place of concealment, will be perhaps content to let them remain there, and relying upon the secrecy of the hiding-place, will not be tempted to destroy the will.”

“Capital, my dear sir,” Mr. Petersfield exclaimed energetically, “you are quite right, and it is indeed, as you say, a great point gained. Before, we had a solitary document to look for, which might be contained and hid away in any small space, a drawer with a double bottom, a woman’s desk, or sewed up in her stays—I beg your pardon, Miss Ashleigh—in fact, in any small out-of-the-way corner. Now we have some regular receptacle to look for, capable of holding bulky documents—at any rate, a good-sized box. This is indeed a great point gained. There the will is beyond doubt, for I think the Miss Harmers’ faces were quite sufficient evidence that it is not destroyed; besides, we may reasonably suppose that the box is not concealed about the Misses Harmer’s rooms, but is where it was originally placed by their brother; the question arises, ‘Where the deuce is that?’”

“I can guess where it is,” I said.

“Where?” the other three exclaimed, simultaneously.

“In the ‘priest’s chamber,’ wherever that may be,” I answered. “I remember well, that when I was once talking to Mr. Harmer about the old times, and old houses and their hiding-places, he said that Harmer Place was celebrated as having one of the snuggest hiding-places in the kingdom, and that many a priest had lain hidden there for months. I asked him if he knew where it was, and he told me that he did; for that when a boy he had gone into it on some occasion or other with his father, and that when he came back and took possession of the house, he had again examined it, and found it such a snug hiding-place, that he used it as a sort of strong room; he promised that some day or other he would show it to me, but I never thought to ask him, and, unfortunately, he never mentioned it again.”

“By Jove,” Harry exclaimed, “we shall find it yet!” while papa and Mr. Petersfield uttered exclamations of surprise and satisfaction.

“Sure enough, doctor, the will is in the ‘priest’s chamber.’ The only question is, how are we to find it, and how are we to get into it when we do?”

“I should think there can be no difficulty about that,” Harry said; “all we have to do is to go before a magistrate, and swear that the will is there, and get a search warrant to examine for it.”

Mr. Petersfield smiled. “You would find a great difficulty in getting such a warrant.”

“Why so?” Harry asked indignantly. “Do you mean to say that if we knew there was a will hidden in a certain place, which will left us all the property, that we should have no right to go in and search for it?”

“It would be a very delicate matter indeed,” Mr. Petersfield said, “very delicate; but still not impossible. By the 7 and 8 statute of the 14 of George, chapter 29, s. 22, it is enacted that if any person shall either during the lifetime or after the death of any person steal, or for any fraudulent purpose conceal any will, codicil, or other testamentary instrument, they shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof, be liable to various punishments. And by the same statute, chapter 29, s. 63, it says if any credible witness shall prove upon oath before a justice of the peace, a reasonable cause to suspect that any person has in his possession, or on his premises, any property whatsoever, or in respect to which any such offence (such as stealing a will, &c.,) shall have been committed, the justice may grant a warrant to search for such property, as in the case of stolen goods. Now by this Act it is clear that a warrant could be obtained upon an affidavit that you believed, as you do believe, that the will exists; but that would not allow you to pull the house to pieces, and it is quite certain that in no other way would you discover a chamber built for the purpose of concealment, and which you say baffled the priest-hunters of the old time—men who were pretty well accustomed to the finding of this sort of hiding-place, and who knew exactly where they were likely to be situated. You would never find it; and even while you were searching for it, Miss Harmer might enter by the secret door—wherever that may be—and abstract or destroy the will, without your being one bit the wiser; or, at any rate, she would be certain after you had given up the hopeless search and left, to destroy the will to prevent the possibility of your ever trying again with better fortune. No, your best course is to find out, first, where the chamber is; next, how to get into it; and when these two points are discovered, we can arrange about going in and taking possession of the will without asking any one’s leave in the matter. That is, I believe, our only chance of recovering it—by strategy. Take one of the servants into your pay, and get her to search for the chamber. This I leave to you, as of course you are acquainted with some of the domestics. I do not know that I have anything more which I can suggest at present. Should anything strike me, I will write from town, and, as I go by the early train, I will now, with your permission, retire to bed. You will of course write to me immediately you find out anything which may seem to you to have the smallest bearing upon the affair. I should especially advise that you do not hint to any one your belief in the existence of the will, as it may get to Miss Harmer’s ears; and although, if she believes that no search is being made for it, she may be content to let it remain for years concealed as at present, you may be assured that should she believe that you are working to find it, either she or the priest will destroy it at once.” We all agreed in the propriety of following this advice, and then separated for the night.

The next morning I got up at six, to make breakfast for Mr. Petersfield before he started. He was pleased at my having done so. We had not much time for talk, but before he went, I said,—

“Honestly, Mr. Petersfield, do you think we shall ever find the will?”

“Honestly, my dear Miss Ashleigh, I am very much afraid you never will. It is a lamentable affair, and I am certain in my own mind that it is in existence, and that its place of concealment is known to the Misses Harmer; but under the circumstances of the case, I feel assured that, even on their death-beds, there is no chance of their ever revealing where it is. Your only chance, in my mind, is in finding the hiding-place; direct all your energies to this point; find that chamber, and you may be assured you will find the will.”

When the others came down to breakfast at nine o’clock, I proposed that we should return at once to Canterbury; but papa said that this affair would cause so much talk and excitement in the place, that we should be quite overwhelmed with calls from every one, and have to repeat the whole story a dozen times a day, which would be a terrible infliction, and that as he and Harry would be mostly out, I should have to bear the whole brunt of the attack. So it was settled that we should stay there, at any rate a week or ten days longer, until the first stir and excitement were over. So papa and Harry went over every day to Canterbury, and I remained quietly down at Ramsgate. For some days they brought back no news of any importance, but one day towards the end of the week papa came back to dinner alone, and Harry did not arrive until nearly ten o’clock. As he came in he told us that he had had a long chat with his friend Thornton of the telegraph office.

“And what have you learnt, Harry?” I asked.

“I will tell you all about it, my dear, directly I have made myself comfortable;” and he proceeded with the most provoking coolness to take off his coat and gloves, and to arrange himself in a chair before the fire. “Now I will tell you. I went down to the station to-day, and there I saw Dick Thornton. He shook hands with me, and said—what every one says—’This is a bad job, Harry.’ ‘A devilish bad job’ I answered.”

“Never mind the expletives, Harry,” I put in, “we can imagine them.”

“Don’t interrupt me, Agnes, or I won’t tell you anything. ‘I want to have a chat with you, Thornton,’ I said. ‘When can I see you?’ ‘I don’t get away from here till six.’ ‘Well, suppose you come round to our place and have a chat with me when you get away.’ ‘Done,’ he said. Accordingly I had a snug little dinner cooked, got a bottle of wine up from the cellar, and at about half-past six Dick came in. After we had dined, and had talked over the whole affair, I told him he could do me a great service by telling me whether the Misses Harmer had sent off a telegraphic message, and if so, where. ‘It would lose me my place, if it were known I had told you, Harry,’ he said. ‘I know it would,’ I answered; ‘but what you say will not go any further; indeed it is more as a matter of curiosity that we may find out where the priest came from, than from any action we can take from it.’ ‘Well, Harry,’ he said, ‘I will tell you all about it, and you can make what use you like of it; the place is not so first-rate that I should care very much if I did get the sack in consequence. One of the servants from Harmer Place—I should say Miss Harmer’s own maid, for she was a stiff foreign-looking woman—came down upon that Friday afternoon, with a note and a message. I was alone at the time, for the other clerk happened to be away. The message was in Italian; it was that which made me notice it particularly, and when I got home I took the trouble to get a dictionary to see what it was about. I could not make much of it, and I forget the Italian words, but the English was—”To the Bishop of Ravenna, Italy. He is dead—much can be done, if lawful, for the mother—send advice and assistance.” ‘And did you get an answer,’ I asked. ‘Yes, the answer came on Sunday morning; I always attend there between half-past nine and half-past ten. It was also in Italian. “All is lawful for the mother—advice and aid have started.”‘”

“Father Eustace to wit,” papa said.

“That is all,” Harry concluded, “that Thornton told me. Of course I said I was very much obliged to him, and that I would take good care that it never was known from whom I got the information. And now, I suppose the mother they talk of means Mother Church, but who is the Bishop of Ravenna?”

“I remember,” papa said thoughtfully, “that about three years ago Miss Harmer said she was delighted to hear that the confessor, or visitor, or whatever they call him, of the convent where they formerly lived so many years, and where they always stayed whenever they went upon the Continent, had just been made a bishop; and her only regret was that it was to some place in the north of Italy, whereas their convent was at Florence. I remember the fact specially, because, after the sisters had left the room, their poor brother said to me, ‘Between you and I, doctor, I should have been much better pleased to have heard that the excellent priest had received his promotion to heaven. That man has had a complete ascendancy over my sisters for many years. He is, I believe, some four or five years younger than they are, but at any rate he has been the confessor or whatever it is of their convent, ever since they were there, twenty-four or five years ago. He is, I judge by what they say, a gloomy fanatical man, whose ambition is to do service to his Church, and, I suppose, rise in it—at any rate, he has a complete ascendancy over them, by his ascetic life and devotion to the Church. They correspond with him frequently, and I cannot help thinking that his advice and orders—given in his letters, and whenever they go over there, which they do constantly—have tended greatly to make them the gloomy unhappy women they are. They were, it is true, brought up with extreme strictness and austerity, but I cannot help thinking that much of that would have worn off, if it had not been for this man’s influence.’

“No doubt,” papa continued, “Mr. Harmer was right, and all their actions are dictated by this priest; it was he who ordered them to make friends with their brother, at Gerald Harmer’s death, and to come over here and take up their abode,—I know they were at that convent when they heard the news, and that they had announced their intention of staying there permanently—and now he has sent over this Father Eustace. The man looks a religious enthusiast, and there is no doubt that he will never allow them to change their minds even were they disposed. Altogether, my children, it is evident the only remaining chance is to find out the secret chamber. If we can discover that, well and good; if not, it will be wiser for us, painful as the disappointment is, to give up all hope of finding the will, and to endeavour to go on as if it had never had an existence. It is a most unfortunate affair now, Sir John having died.”

“It is, indeed,” Harry answered, “Sir John would have pushed me on, and I should have had no difficulty, even without capital, in making my way.”

Sir John, to whom papa alluded, I should say was the engineer to whom Harry had been articled. Harry’s time had run out now three or four months, and he was only remaining in the North on a small salary, completing the piece of work on which he was engaged. His old master had died only a month before this time. When this piece of work was finished, Harry had intended buying a partnership in some good business, with the £10,000 Mr. Harmer had promised him for the purpose.

“Yes, it is very unfortunate his having died,” Harry said; “unless one has a good patron of that sort to push one on, it makes up-hill work of it. Not that I care much; I can fight my way well enough;” and Harry stretched his great shoulders, and looked as confident and cheerful as if he had just gained a legacy, instead of losing one. “I shall go back in another two or three days to my work,” he said; “it will not last much more than another month; and in the meantime I shall be on the look-out for something else.”

Chapter II • Swift Retribution • 2,900 Words

Sophy Gregory might have excited pity even in the minds of her enemies could they have seen her as she lay, pale and sad, in her lonely room, during the long hours of the day upon which her husband had gone down to hear the reading of the will of Mr. Harmer. The week which had passed since she left home had indeed been a terrible one. Her punishment had followed, bitter and heavy, ere the fault was scarce committed. Only one day of happiness and life, and then that crushing blow which met her the very day after her marriage, in the words of the telegraphic message, “Mr. Harmer is dead.” It had reached them at York, where, after wandering through the old streets, they had come back to their hotel to lunch. It lay upon their table. Robert had opened it eagerly. Sophy needed not that he should tell her what were its contents. The sudden start, the deadly pallor, the look of horror that he could not control, told their tale too plainly. Her grandfather was dead; she had killed him.

She did not faint, she did not scream; one faint, low, wailing cry broke from her, and then she stood, rigid and immovable, her eyes open and staring, her lips parted, and every vestige of colour gone from her face. One hand clasped her throat; the other, clenched and rigid, rested on the table.

Robert Gregory forgot his own heavy interest in the news, forgot that a fortune might have been gained or lost by the few words of that telegram. Sophy’s face frightened him as he had never been frightened before. He spoke to her, he called her every loving name; but it was of no avail. No movement of the rigid face, no change in the fixed eyes, showed that she had heard him. He dared not touch her; she might break into dreadful shrieks—her reason might be gone. What was he to do? He pealed at the bell, and then went to the door, and told the waiter who answered it to beg the landlady to come up instantly. In another minute the landlady arrived, all of a fluster—as she afterwards expressed it when describing the matter—at this sudden summons, and at the brief account the waiter had given her of the manner of Robert Gregory.

“My wife has had a terrible shock; she has just heard of the sudden death of her father, and I don’t know what to do with her. She does not hear me; I am afraid she is going to be ill or something terrible. For God’s sake speak to her, or do something or other.” Such was the hurried greeting which met her at the door.

The landlady was somewhat accustomed to sudden emergencies, but she saw at a glance that this was beyond her, and she said to the waiter, who had followed her up, to hear, if possible, what was the matter,—

“James, the lady is ill. Send Hannah here with some cold water, and my scent bottle, and run across to Dr. Cope’s opposite, and tell him to come over at once. If he is out, run for the nearest doctor.”

Then, closing the door, she advanced towards Sophy.

“Don’tye, don’tye, take on so, dear!” she said, in a kind, motherly way, as if she was speaking to a little child; “don’t, now, for your husband’s sake; try and rouse yourself, dear.” But it was no use. There was a slight, a very slight quiver of the eyelids, but no other sign of life or movement.

The landlady paused. She was almost as much frightened at Sophy’s face as Robert Gregory had been, and she dared not touch the rigid hand. They stood, one on each side of her, watching her helplessly; with faces almost as much blanched by apprehension as was her own and listening breathlessly for the footstep of the doctor outside. It was not long in coming, although it seemed an age to them. He entered quietly: a tall, slight man, with silvered hair, and took the whole state of things in at a glance.

“A sudden shock?” he asked; and then gave orders to the servant to bring such things as were necessary. Then he spoke to Sophy, and put his finger upon the motionless wrist. “It is a serious case, sir,” he said to Robert, “very serious; the shock to the brain has been very great. I must bleed her; it is the only thing to be done. Help me to place her upon the sofa.”

Between them they gently lifted the rigid figure and placed her, half sitting, half lying, upon the sofa. There was no sign of consciousness. In another minute the doctor had opened a vein in her arm. At first no blood came, then a few dark drops, and then gradually a steady stream.

The doctor gave a sigh of relief. Still the blood flowed, on and on, till Robert Gregory was frightened at the quantity, and looked anxiously at the doctor, who, with his fingers on her pulse, was watching Sophy’s face. Presently a change came over the stony expression, the eyes lost their fixed look, the eyelids began to droop down, and the whole figure to yield; then, as she fell back on the sofa, he prepared to stop the bleeding.

It had had its effect; Sophy had fainted. The first crisis was over, but not as yet was the danger past. Very anxiously they watched her waking, and intense was the relief when they found that she was conscious of what had happened; but there were still grave apprehensions for the future. Weak as she was, she was in a state of almost delirious grief and excitement; indeed, at times her mind wandered.

No reproaches which the Misses Harmer had lavished upon her were one-tenth as severe as those she bestowed upon herself. Over and over again she called herself her grandfather’s murderess. Constantly she pictured up harrowing scenes of his death, and how he had died, invoking the curse of heaven upon her and hers with his latest breath. Above all, she insisted on returning at any rate to London, that Robert might go down to Canterbury to hear the particulars.

The doctor had a long talk next day with Robert, who explained, to some extent, the facts of the case.

“I hardly know what to do, Mr. Gregory. Your wife is in a most critical state. She has set her mind upon going to London, and ill as she is, I almost question whether there would not be less danger in her doing so than remaining here in her present state of nervous anxiety. It is most essential that, if possible, her mind should be relieved of the present strain, and that she should obtain some intelligence as to the last moments of her adopted father. You tell me that he had a seizure before; it is likely, therefore, that the present attack was very sudden, and in that case he may not—probably would not—have said anything against her. This alone would be a relief to her; and, at any rate, she would be pacified by knowing that she was doing all she could to learn the truth. I fear that brain fever will be the termination of her attack, but its character may be modified if her present anxiety is to some extent allayed. By applying to-day at the railway office, you can have a carriage with a sleeping couch ready by to-morrow, and I should advise your taking her up without delay. Of course, upon your arrival there, you will at once call in medical assistance.”

And so it was carried out. Sophy bore the journey better than could have been anticipated; indeed, the very fact that she was getting nearer to Canterbury soothed and satisfied her. But she was still in an almost delirious state of remorse and grief. The doctor who was called in to her had shaken his head in talking over her case with her husband, and had told him that unless her mind could be relieved from the terrible weight upon it, he would not answer for her reason.

And so, leaving a nurse to take care of Sophy, Robert Gregory went down to Canterbury and saw Dr. Ashleigh. The news which he brought back of Mr. Harmer’s forgiveness before his death, saved her from an attack of brain fever, if not from entire loss of reason. And yet, although it allayed her fears, and relieved her mind of the harrowing pictures of her grandfather’s death which she had before conjured up so constantly, it scarcely lessened her sorrow and remorse; indeed, the knowledge that his forgiveness had been so instant, and his last thoughts those of kindness to her, caused her to reproach herself more than ever; but her grief was now quieter, and the doctor believed that she would escape the fever he had feared for her. She could now shed tears, and in long and bitter fits of crying found exhaustion and relief. In another two or three days she was calmer and better.

Robert had been everything which was kind and consoling to her, and very gentle and thoughtful in his talk and manners. In her wildest outbursts of grief she had never blamed him for his share in her fault, and would not listen to the reproaches which, in the hope of relieving her conscience somewhat, he would have gladly bestowed upon himself. But this Sophy would not allow. He had not deceived a benefactor; he had been actuated only by his love for her, and his entreaties for her to elope with him had been but natural; it was she only who had been wrong and wicked in neglecting her plain duty, and in deceiving her more than father; and upon her, and her only, must the blame and grief fall.

She was very quiet and pale, as she lay that day that he had gone down to the funeral, and she waited and thought all those long hours that he was abroad. She thought a good deal of the future, and planned that they should go upon the Continent first for a while, and upon their return spend the great proportion of their income in doing good, living quietly themselves upon very little; she thought that in any other way she should feel as if this fortune were a curse to her, for it had never even occurred to her that Mr. Harmer might have altered his will.

It was late in the evening before Robert returned; he came in quiet and grave, but with no sign of passion or disappointment upon his face as he kissed her, and asked her how she had been all the long day. Robert Gregory was not a good man. In many respects he was bad and vicious; but, as in most men, there was some good in him, and what there was came out at its brightest in his relations with Sophy.

Deep as had been his disappointment, bitter and fierce the invectives and curses which, during his journey, he had showered upon the Misses Harmer, his own unfortunate luck, and upon the world in general, yet, as he approached the hotel, he curbed himself in, and became calm and quiet. As he thought of her love and suffering, of the sacrifices her attachment for him would entail upon her, and upon her trust in himself, he determined that, come what might, she should not see his disappointment, and that in addition to her other troubles, she should never come to know that he had married her for her money; and as he came into the room where she was lying, pale and weak, upon the sofa, his brow cleared, his voice softened, and he tried, and tried hard, that she should see no sign in his face of that bitter sense of disappointment he was feeling in his breast.

Sophy answered his inquiries as to her health, and then, as he sat down on a chair close to the sofa, so that she could lean her head upon his arm, and look up into his face, she said,—

“I am afraid that this has been a very painful day for you, Robert?”

“Not very pleasant, love,” he said, almost cheerfully; “but, of course, I had made up my mind for that.”

“Did you see the Misses Harmer, Robert, and did they say anything about me?”

“I saw them, Sophy, but we did not exchange many words.”

“And Dr. Ashleigh, did he speak as kindly as before?”

“More so, Sophy; he could not have been more kind; he took me back in his carriage to the station.”

Sophy looked pleased. There was a little silence. Robert did not know how to announce his intelligence, and his wife considered all that part of the affair as so much a matter of course that she did not even think it necessary to ask any question about it. In a short time Sophy went on,—

“Do you know, Robert, I have been thinking so much about the future, and I think that when we come back from our travels we ought to put aside almost all our money to do good with.”

“My dear,” Robert said, gently, “I hardly think we need enter into that now, for an event has occurred which will alter all our plans. The fact is, darling, the will is missing.”

“The will missing, Robert!” Sophy repeated, opening her eyes in astonishment—”how can it be missing?”

“It is a curious business, darling, and looks very bad. Mr. Harmer, it seems, had it down some little time since to make some slight alteration. We know that he did not destroy it upon that morning, but it is not to be found, and there is strong reason for supposing that the Misses Harmer have concealed it. In that case, although it may yet turn up, still we must look the worst in the face, and consider that it is very probable that it may never be heard of again.”

“And in that case should I get nothing?” Sophy asked, eagerly.

“Not one penny, Sophy; it will all go to the Misses Harmer.”

Sophy closed her eyes, and leaned back, with a faint “Thank God!” She looked upon it as a punishment—as a sort of atonement for her fault. Then in an instant a fresh thought struck her. How would Robert bear it? Would he love her any the less, now she was penniless, instead of being a great heiress? And she looked up again with a frightened, inquiring glance into his eyes. He bore it well, and said, gently,—

“We must bear it bravely, Sophy. It is, of course, a heavy blow. I have never disguised from you how I am situated. Still, darling, we must do our best, and I have no doubt we shall pull through somehow. I am very sorry for your sake, dear, and I bitterly accuse myself for tempting you. It will be a different life from what you expected, but I will try hard to make it easy for you.”

He spoke tenderly and earnestly, for he, at the time, almost felt what he said. Sophy had raised herself, and, as he finished, was crying softly, with her head upon his shoulder, but her tears were quite different to those which she had shed during the last week.

“I am not crying, Robert, because I have lost the fortune—I am crying because I am so happy. I know now that you love me quite for my own sake, and not for my money.”

“You did not doubt it, did you, Sophy?” her husband asked, rather reproachfully, although he felt that he was but a hypocrite while he said so.

“I never really doubted you, Robert—no, no—I would not have married you if I had. At times, when I felt low, I could not help wondering how much my money had to do with it, but I always drove away the thought, dearest, as an injustice to you; and now I shall never think so again. Do you know, Robert, this news has been quite a relief to me? I should always have felt that the wealth was a burden; and now that I am punished for my fault, I shall not reproach myself quite so much with it. But I am sorry for your sake, dear. It must be a great blow for you, and I feel how kind it is of you to hide your disappointment for my sake. I will try very hard, Robert, to make it up to you by loving you more and more; and you shall see what a useful little wife I will make you as soon as I get strong again, which I mean to do very fast now.”

Chapter III • The Search Commenced • 4,000 Words

Papa wrote several times in the fortnight following the funeral of Mr. Harmer to Robert Gregory, in answer to his letters inquiring what progress he was making towards the discovery of the will. At the end of that time I received a letter from Sophy, and from the handwriting I could see how ill and shaken she must be. Her letter was very, very pitiful; she was still evidently suffering the greatest remorse and sorrow for the death of Mr. Harmer, and she said “she was sure she should never have recovered at all had she not received the news of the forgiveness he had written to her before he died.” It had been a dreadful shock to her; but she accepted the loss of her fortune as a deserved punishment for her wicked conduct. “My husband,” she said, “is very kind indeed to me; and it is on my account entirely that he regrets the loss of the fortune, as he says that my listening to him has been my ruin.” If the will was not found shortly, he intended to get something to do, and she meant to try to get some pupils for music. She begged me to write to her, for that I was the only person she could hope to be a friend to her now.

Of course I answered her letter, and from that time we kept up an occasional correspondence.

Papa told me that in his early letters to him, Robert Gregory had expressed his determination to discover the will at all hazards, but that he had now, to a certain extent, acquiesced in papa’s view, that an unsuccessful attempt would be certain to prove the signal for the instant destruction of the will, and that therefore nothing should be attempted unless success was pretty certain. Robert Gregory was the more obliged to acquiesce in this decision, as far as he was personally concerned, for he was unable to appear in Canterbury, as he would have been arrested if he had done so.

We returned from Ramsgate, as we had agreed upon, about a fortnight after the funeral. Harry having already left for the North, papa would still further have postponed our return; but I said it would be very unpleasant whenever we returned, and we might as well go through it sooner as later.

Indeed, I got through the next fortnight better than I had expected. Every one, of course, came to call; but by that time people had heard pretty well all there was to tell,—namely, that the will was missing,—so that all I had to do was to receive their condolences. Almost all were, I believe, sincerely sorry for us, and every one remarked what an extraordinary business it was; indeed, popular opinion was strongly against the Misses Harmer, whom every one accused of having hidden the will. However, papa and I were careful never by any remarks of ours to appear to confirm these suspicions, as it was evidently our best policy to keep quiet, and let the matter seem to drop.

In the meanwhile I had commenced taking steps towards what was now our only hope, the discovery of the “priest’s chamber.”

The day after I returned from Ramsgate, I went round the garden to see how things were looking after my long absence, and I found our servant Andrew—who acted in the general capacity of coachman, groom, and gardener, having a boy under him to assist in all these labours—busy banking up some long rows of celery, an article on which he particularly prided himself. Andrew had been in papa’s service a great many years, and papa would not have parted with him on any account. He was a very faithful, attached old man. When I say old man, I believe he was not more than seven or eight and forty; but he looked much older: his face was pinched and weatherbeaten, he stooped very much, walked with a short, quick, shuffling step, and looked as if he were momentarily on the point of falling. This was not to be wondered at, for he had never, as long as I can remember, had any legs to speak of; and now there did not seem to be the least flesh upon them. They looked, as Harry once said, exactly like a pair of very crooked mop-sticks; and as he always dressed in drab breeches and gaiters to match, it showed the extraordinary thinness of his legs to the greatest advantage. Andrew, however, had not the least idea but that he was an active, able man; and, indeed, would sometimes in confidence lament to me,—

“Master going out in wet, cold nights to visit patients.”

“But it is much worse for you than for him, Andrew,” I would urge; “you are outside all in the wet, while he is inside in shelter.”

“Lor’, Miss Agnes, it is no account along of me. I am a young man by the side of master. He must be nigh fifteen years older than I am.”

And so he was; but papa was a hale, active man, whereas poor Andrew looked as if a strong wind would blow him off his seat on the box. Even when he was at his best, and came to papa when we first went to Canterbury, and he was only thirty, I have heard papa say that he never had been at all strong; and yet he was so willing, and careful, and indefatigable, that papa put a great value on him.

Andrew ceased from working among the celery when I came up, and, touching his hat to me, inquired how I had been all this longtime.

“Bad doings at Harmer Place, Miss,” he said, after a few remarks about the weather, the garden, and the horses.

“Are there, Andrew?” I asked; “anything new?”

“Very bad, Miss; half the servants have had notice to leave. There’s my Mary, who has been there three years last Michaelmas, and who your papa was kind enough to recommend there as housemaid—she’s got warning, and she came to me last night as savage as ever was; not because she was going to leave, miss—don’t go to think such a thing; but she wanted to have given warning at once, when we found that Miss Harmer had hid away the will, and cheated you all out of your money. But I said to her, ‘Don’t you go to do nothing in a hurry, Mary; the will is hid away, and you may be useful somehow in watching what they two old cats—saving your presence, Miss Agnes—is up to. At any rate, you wait.’ And now she’s got warning to go, and she’s as savage as may be that she did not have the first word. Didn’t she let on to me last night though, till her mother up and told her to sit down and hold her tongue; but it were enough to aggravate the girl, surely.”

“I am sorry to hear that she will have to leave, Andrew, both for her own sake and because she might, as you say, have been useful to us in making a few inquiries.”

“That’s just what I said to my son Thomas last night when Mary came in with the news; but he said that it did not matter so much on that account, because his Sarah’s not got warning to leave, and she will find out everything that is wanted.”

“And who is your son Thomas’s Sarah?” I asked, smiling.

“She is the under-housemaid, Miss; and she used to go out walks with Mary on her Sunday evenings out. Thomas, he used to go out to meet his sister, and so met Sarah too; at last he goes to meet her more than Mary, and, I suppose, one of these days they will get married. She is one of the few that are to stay, Miss, for most of the old ones are going because they don’t mean to keep so many servants, and they have got some new ones coming. All those who are going were recommended to Mr. Harmer by Master; and they seem to have picked them out a-purpose. Now Sarah was not; she came from the other end of the county, and was recommended to Mr. Harmer by some lady last year, at the time of all those grand doings over there; and as they don’t know that her young man Thomas is my son, seeing he is in service in another place, they have not given her warning to go.”

“And do you think, Andrew, that Sarah would be willing to do anything to help us?”

“Lor’ bless you, Miss, she would do anything for you; she said the other day she would, and that she did not care whether she lost her place or not; she did not want to stop with thieves. Oh, you may depend on her, Miss.”

“Well, Andrew, do you think I could get her to come here and have a talk with me quietly?”

“Sure enough, Miss Agnes. To-day is Friday. On Sunday evening she goes out, and will walk into town with Mary—and for the matter of that, with Tom too—and she can very well come here; no one will know her in the dark, and so she will be quite safe.”

Accordingly, on Sunday evening our maid came in to say that Andrew’s daughter, Mary, and another young woman, were in the hall, and would be glad to see me. And so Mary and Thomas’s Sarah were shown in. Mary I knew well; indeed she had learnt her work with us as under-housemaid before she went to Mr. Harmer’s. She was a stout, well-made, active girl, with a good-natured honest face, but I should have had some hesitation in entrusting any delicate and difficult task to her. Thomas’s Sarah, I felt at once, had tact and intelligence sufficient for my purpose, and I was sure that I could trust her, and that she would do exactly for what I required.

Thomas had certainly shown good taste in his selection, for his Sarah was a very pretty little girl,—a slight active figure, a bright clear complexion, brown hair waving back off her forehead, a cheerful smile, large speaking eyes with a little touch of sauciness in them—which I fancied would sometimes vex and puzzle Thomas, who was a steady matter-of-fact young groom, not a little—and a very prettily cut nose and mouth. I was altogether very much taken with her appearance.

I asked them to take seats, and Sarah at once began:—

“Miss Ashleigh, I am told by”—and here she paused a little, coloured, and ended by telling a story and saying—”Mary, that I could be of service to you. I can only say that I shall be glad to do so by any means in my power; we are all at Harmer Place very sorry at your losing your rights, and should rejoice to see you restored to them.”

Sarah expressed herself so well that I was really quite surprised. I thanked her for her offer, and said, “You can, indeed, do us a service which may turn out of great importance. Now I do not disguise from you, it will cost you your place if you are discovered; but I need not say that we will take care that you shall be no loser by that. Now I will at once tell you how we stand at present, and what we want to find out. We know, or at least are nearly sure, that the will exists, and that it is with some other papers large enough to fill a good-sized box. Now we strongly believe that this box is hidden away in a secret room we know to exist in the house; and what we want to find out is, where is that secret room? It must be a pretty good size—I mean much larger than a mere closet—because we know people used to lay hid there in old times.” Sarah nodded, as much as to say that she had heard legends of the “priest’s chamber.” “Now, Sarah, the first thing we want to discover is the whereabouts of this room—and this can only be done in one way. I want the exact dimensions—that is to say, the measure, the height, length, and breadth, of every room, passage, closet, and staircase in the old part of the house; because as this room existed in the old time, it is only in the central part of the house, which was the original building, that the secret chamber need be looked for. When I have got all these measurements, and put them all down upon paper, I shall see where there is a space to fill up. Do you understand?”

Sarah did not quite understand; so I got a sheet of paper, drew a rough plan of a house, and explained the matter more fully.

Sarah understood now, and at once entered into it with all her heart.

“You see,” I said, “we want the exact position of the doors, windows, and chimneys. Here is a small pocket-book and pencil: take one page for each room; mark down first in this way, the extreme length and breadth, then the positions of the doors and windows thus, and put ‘in small figures’ their distances from each other.”

I then showed her a small plan of Harmer Place, which I had drawn from my recollection of it, and Sarah understood perfectly what she had to do.

“Make a notch the length of a yard on the handle of your broom,” I said, “and measure the exact length of the bottom of your apron. With your broom you can get the height of the room, and with your apron the other measurements, so that you will be able to get all the sizes; and even if you are disturbed, no one would have the slightest idea of what you are doing.”

I then asked her to measure the room we were in, and to make a little sort of plan of it, and I found her so quick and intelligent, that I felt certain she would execute her task with sufficient accuracy to enable us to find out where the secret room was situated.

The two girls then took their leave, and I really felt strong hope in the success of my plan—not indeed that it was mine, for it was Harry’s idea entirely, and I only gave her the instructions he had previously given me.

After this, a small packet arrived every week, sent by Sarah, through Thomas, to his father, containing seven or eight leaves of the pocket-book.

In little more than a month we had all the measurements, and were enabled to make out the entire plan, in doing which, of course our previous knowledge of the house assisted us greatly. Papa assisted me in this. I had not, at first, told him anything of what I was doing, as I wished that, in case by any chance my scheme was detected, he should be able to say that he knew nothing about it. At last, however, I was obliged to let him into the secret, and when I told him, he was very much interested and pleased; and I do not think that I should ever have succeeded in putting the parts together, and certainly have never arrived at any accurate conclusion, without his assistance.

When it was done, we found the blank space precisely where we had anticipated that we should do. It is difficult to explain the exact position, but I will endeavour to do so.

On entering the house, from the front, one found oneself in a large square hall, from one side of which the library opened, and from the other the dining-room. Opposite to the front door was an immense fireplace, in which still stood two large iron dogs, and in which in winter a great wood fire always blazed; on one side of this fireplace, the grand staircase went up, and on the other a passage led down to a room which had originally been a drawing-room, but which, from its windows being at the back of the house, had been long since turned into a kitchen; the fireplace of this room stood back to back to the one in the hall. It was in the block contained in the square formed by the backs of the kitchen and hall, the staircase and the passage, that we came to the conclusion that the secret room must be, for, even allowing for immense thickness of masonry, there was yet a large space unaccounted for. On the floor above there was also a space, directly over this, considerably larger than would have been required for the chimneys of the hall and kitchen fire, even had there been two of them—which there were not, for Sarah found that the chimney of the hall made almost a right angle, and ran into the kitchen chimney.

Papa, after going very carefully into the measurements, came to the conclusion that the room itself was situated nearly over the hall fireplace; that it might be some seven or eight feet long, by five or six wide, and that it could be little over six feet high. He thought it was approached by some short staircase opening into the hall fireplace, or into one of the bedrooms above, which abutted on the vacant space on that floor. One of these rooms had been occupied by Herbert Harmer, and the other had been, and was still, Miss Harmer’s room.

Indeed papa suspected both entrances to exist, as by them, in case of necessity, provisions could be so much more readily and secretly supplied, and escape made in some disguise from the one exit, should an entrance be forcibly made at the other.

“All this is mere guesswork, my dear; but when there is so much ground to go upon as we have got, one can guess very closely indeed to the truth.”

“And where should you think, papa, that the entrance is most likely to be discovered?”

“Most likely in the hall fireplace. The back and sides, if I remember right, are formed of iron, with rude ornaments upon it. The mantelpiece, too, is of old oak, and is covered with carving; undoubtedly in some of all this the secret spring is concealed. The hall is the best place to try for another reason; early in the morning, and at various times indeed, Sarah might search among all these ornaments and knobs for the spring, and if any one came suddenly into the hall, her presence there would appear only natural; whereas in either of the bedrooms, and especially that of Mr. Harmer, which is not now in use, she could hardly be often without exciting suspicion.”

Sarah came on the following Saturday evening, and I showed her the plan we had made, and explained to her where we thought the entrance was, and how she was most likely to find the secret spring.

Sarah was much pleased with the success which had so far attended her efforts, and promised to find the spring if it existed. She said she would get up half an hour before the other servants, and try every knob and roughness on or near the grate.

However, week after week rolled on, and every Saturday came a message, “No result;” and the week before Christmas she sent to say she had tried every possible place, but could not find any signs of it. I sent back in answer to ask her to try all the stones and bricks as far up the chimney as she could reach.

With Christmas, Polly came home from school, and this time to stop for good, for papa could not very well afford to keep her at so expensive a school as Grendon House; and indeed we wanted her bright face and happy laugh back again among us. Papa’s practice was not very lucrative; it was a large, but not a good-paying one. A great proportion of it lay among the lower classes; in any serious cases among them he was always ready to give his time and skill. Indeed for the last three years, since there was an apparent certainty that we should be all so handsomely provided for, papa had purposely given up much of his paying practice. Many among the upper classes have the habit of calling in a medical man on the slightest pretext, and like him, indeed, to call regularly, and have an hour’s chat on all sorts of subjects; this time papa could not spare, and indeed I know that he said to two or three of his very best patients,—

“You have nothing serious the matter with you. All you want is a little occasional medicine, and a good chat of a day to do you good and cheer you up; this I have no time to give you, when I have half a dozen dying people waiting anxiously for me. Send to Harper; he is a clever fellow; knows all about everything; will amuse you more than I do. He has a large family, and your money will be of use to him. If you get seriously ill, and want me, I will of course come to you.”

So papa had gradually withdrawn himself from much of his paying practice; he had still an income sufficient to keep us comfortably, but it was not nearly what it had been four or five years before. However, he was quite content to work as he did, giving his skill and time to those who most required but were least able to pay for them.

Harry came home, too, a little before Christmas. He had finished his last piece of work, and had now obtained an appointment of £150 a year to superintend a railway in the course of construction in the north of Ireland.

The evening after Christmas Day I received a note from Sarah, saying, that that morning, she had, in feeling up the chimney, found a projecting knob immediately behind the mantelpiece; that on pressing this it went into the wall, and that every time it did so, she could hear a click, but that she could not find that anything else moved.

“Hurrah, Sarah!” Harry shouted when I read the note aloud; “we are on the right track. ‘The king shall enjoy his own again!’” he sang in his stentorian way.

“I really do begin to think we are on the track,” papa said. “You must tell Sarah that no doubt there is some other spring which must be pressed either together or before or after this; for generally there were two springs to these old hiding-places, in case one should be touched accidentally.”

This I told Sarah, who came on the next Sunday evening to see me. She had rather began to despair before; but now that she had found something tangible she became quite enthusiastic, and said that she was determined to find the other spring if she were years engaged in the search. She was now certain that we were right, that the secret chamber existed, and that the entrance was there, of neither of which facts had she been quite sure in her own mind before.

Chapter IV • Evil Days • 3,600 Words

With the cheering thought that she was punished, and that perhaps her fault was thus in some little way atoned for, and with the happy conviction that her husband loved her for her own sake, and not for that of her money, Sophy Gregory recovered from the weight of her sorrow and remorse more quickly than could have been expected; and by the end of another ten days she was able to leave her room, and go for a little walk leaning upon Robert’s arm. That evening they were sitting before the fire; Robert looking moodily into it, but sometimes rousing himself and trying to talk pleasantly to Sophy, who was watching him a little anxiously, when she said, after one of these pauses,—

“I think, Robert, now that I am getting strong again, we ought to talk about the future. I am sure that by the time we have paid all we owe here, we shall not have much left out of our hundred pounds.”

Sophy might have said, “my hundred pounds;” for it was she who had furnished the funds for their elopement. Mr. Harmer had been in the habit of giving her money from time to time, for which she had little use; and this had, at the time she left home with Robert Gregory, accumulated to rather more than a hundred pounds.

“The first thing to be done, Robert, is to find some very cheap lodgings. How cheap could you get two little rooms?”

Robert roused himself; he was pleased at Sophy’s broaching the subject; for he had been all day wondering what they were to do, as of course it was out of the question that they could remain where they were. It was a small private hotel where Robert had gone the night of their return from Scotland, thinking that their stay there would not have exceeded three or four days at most, whereas now it had run on to more than a fortnight.

“You are quite right, Sophy, although I did not like to begin the conversation. It seems so hard for you, accustomed as you have been to luxury, to go into all the discomfort of small lodgings.”

“My dear Robert,” Sophy said, “please don’t talk in that way. I am your wife, and shall be very happy anywhere with you; besides I have not been always accustomed to luxury. I was born and lived until I was twelve or thirteen in a cottage as a poor village girl. And please do not remind me of scenes where I had no right, and where I never deserved to have been. Do not let us think of the past at all, Robert; it is perhaps not very pleasant for either of us. Let us think of the future—it is all before us, and we are not worse off than thousands of others; but you did not answer my question, how cheap could we get a little parlour and bedroom?”

“We could get them, Sophy, in some out-of-the-way place, such as Islington, or Camberwell, or Chelsea, at about twelve shillings a week; but remember, they would be very small.”

“That is of no consequence at all,” Sophy said, cheerfully. “Now I will tell you what I have been thinking of. I have been thinking that when we have gone into some little lodgings, and people come to know us, the tradesmen round will let me put some cards into the windows, saying that a lady wishes to give some lessons in music, French, and German. If I charge very little, say one shilling an hour, I should think I might get five or six daily pupils, which would bring us in some thirty or thirty-six shillings a week, and we might manage on that, Robert, for a time; after paying our bill here, there will be enough to keep us for some time till I can get some pupils.”

“Sophy,” Robert said, in a deep, husky voice, “God forgive me, I have been a great scoundrel. I have ruined you. I have dragged you down to this; and here are you now, hardly able to walk, offering to support us both. Oh, Sophy, I wish to heaven I had never known you.” And the strong, bad man put his face between his hands and fairly cried.

“But I do not wish so, Robert,” Sophy said, getting up from her seat, taking his hands from his face, kissing him fondly, and then seating herself on his knees, and nestling up to him as a child might have done; “I do not, and therefore why should you? Would it not be a pleasure to you to work for both of us, if you had any way to do so? but as of course you cannot, why should I not have the pleasure? It need not in any case be for long, dear. Agnes Ashleigh in her letter this morning says that she does not give up hope, and that she has already got a servant at Harmer Place to look for the secret chamber; let us wait for the issue of the search, and let me do as I propose for that time. If after a time the will cannot be found, will it not be better for us to go either to Australia or America? I hear any one can get work there, and we will both work and get quite rich, and that will be much more enjoyable than owing it to another. I am sure Dr. Ashleigh will lend us enough money to take us out there. What do you think, Robert?”

“Yes, darling, it will be far best. I shall never do any good here: out there I may. But I shall not give up the will for a long time yet; but once assured, quite assured, that it is not in existence, I shall be ready to start with you at once.”

And then they talked over a new life in a new land, as thousands and thousands have done since then; and the future looked bright and happy out there. Australia is indeed a land of promise, a bright star in the horizon, to countless numbers whose fate it never is to reach it; but who have yet—when almost hopeless of keeping themselves afloat in the fierce struggle for existence in this crowded land—looked longingly over across the wide ocean, and said, “At the worst, we can go there, where every strong arm and willing heart is welcome. If we cannot get on here, we will go.” Perhaps they never do go, but still it has served its purpose; it has given them hope when hope was most needed, and when without it they might have yielded in despair to the reverses of fortune.

The next morning Robert Gregory started in search of lodgings, and returned in the afternoon, saying that he had found some across in Lambeth, which were very small, but were clean and respectable, and which were to be had for the twelve shillings a week. Into this they moved next day, and they found on paying their hotel bill, that they had twenty pounds left out of Sophy’s hundred, and this they calculated would, with care, last for three months. The lodgings, which were situated in King Edward Street, Westminster Bridge Road, consisted of a parlour, and bedroom behind it. The parlour was very small, but clean, and Sophy felt quite happy as mistress of her little domain, which under her care soon assumed a homelike appearance.

The first step was to clear away those innumerable extraordinary knicknacks with which small lodging-house keepers delight to cumber their rooms. The inevitable shepherdesses and imitation Bohemian glass vases on the mantelpiece, the equally inevitable shells on coloured worsted mats, and the basket of wax fruit under a glass shade, standing on the little round table in the middle of the window.

These alterations the landlady complied with without hesitation, rather pleased indeed that these valuables should be placed beyond risk of breakage; but the next change proposed was evidently very wounding to her feelings, and was not complied with until it was made the sole condition on which her lodgers would take the rooms beyond the first week for which they had engaged them.

Over the chimneypiece was a glass, about three feet by two; it could not fairly be termed a looking-glass, for its ripply surface seemed agitated as by a gale, and no reflexion which it gave back in the slightest degree resembled the original. Still it was to a certain extent ornamental; for it was enclosed in a wide, dark wood frame, with a gilt ornament at each corner, which in summer Mrs. Billow protected by elaborate fly-papers of red, blue, and yellow. As this glass, although not useful, was so ornamental, no objection was raised to it. On the walls round the room were suspended a great variety of pictures, mostly landscapes, in the pure tea-tray style. These as a general thing, although by no means ornamental in themselves, yet served to enliven the very dingy paper, and to them too, as a whole, no objection was taken; but on the side opposite to the fireplace hung two half-length portraits, which at once inevitably and unpleasantly attracted the attention of any one entering the room—almost, indeed, to the exclusion of everything else. These were the portraits of Mr. Billow, the landlord, and his wife, taken when they were much younger, probably at the time of their nuptials. These paintings were in the early Pre-Raphaelite style. Their dresses were of an elaborate description; the lady in green silk, with a gold brooch of immense size and massive pattern; the gentleman in blue coat, black satin waistcoat, showing an immense extent of white shirt, and a resplendent watch chain. Their faces were charmingly pink and white, perfectly flat, and with an entire absence of shade. They were alike characterized by a ghastly smile impressed upon them, and a staring fixed look in the eyes very painful to behold. This stare of their eyes looked into every corner of the room, and could in no way be avoided. Robert declared that it was as bad as a nightmare; and even Sophy, disposed as she was to be pleased, and to like everything, confessed that she really should feel uncomfortable with those staring eyes constantly watching her. Mrs. Billow urged that they were considered remarkable pieces of art, and had been very much admired; indeed that when they were first painted the artist had frequently asked permission to bring strangers in to see them, as they were quite an advertisement for him.

Sophy seeing that Robert was about to express an opinion respecting the portraits which would irreparably injure the feelings of their landlady, hastily said, “That, beyond question, they were remarkable paintings; but that she had been ill, and that the eyes had such a very lifelike expression, that she should never feel quiet and alone with them looking at her.”

Mrs. Billow thereupon acceded, and the cherished portraits were removed upstairs to her own bedroom, leaving two large light patches upon the dingy paper. They were, however, partially covered by two framed prints, which were displaced upstairs to make room for the portraits.

After a few days, when they were settled, and found that they should be comfortable, Robert wrote to Miss Harmer, requesting that Sophy’s things might be forwarded to her there.

In a few days a railway van arrived with quite a number of packages. All Sophy’s wearing apparel, her work-table, her desk and music-stand; all the paintings she had executed under a master at school, and which had been framed and hung in the drawing-room at Harmer Place; her books; her grand piano, given to her by Mr. Harmer when she left school, and which was much too large to go into their little room, and was therefore sent to a warehouse for the present, to be reclaimed or sold, according as their circumstances might demand; and lastly, a pony-carriage, with two beautiful ponies, which Mr. Harmer had presented to her a few months before his death.

This was at once sent to be sold, and the money it fetched was a welcome addition to their little store, which the amount to be paid for the conveyance of all these things had nearly exhausted.

The ponies and carriage fetched seventy guineas, and Robert was at once anxious to move into larger lodgings; but Sophy persuaded him to wait as they were for the present, at any rate, until they saw what success attended her project for teaching. The only thing to which she would agree was that a few shillings should be laid out in repapering their sitting-room; and when this was done with a light, pretty paper, all the tea-tray landscapes removed, and her own paintings hung up in their place, the room looked so different that Sophy was quite delighted with it, and even Robert allowed that, although very small, it was really a pretty, snug little room.

In a short time, Sophy went round to the various tradesmen in the neighbourhood with whom they dealt, and asked them to allow her modest little cards to appear in their windows; and in a month she had obtained two pupils, three times a week, for an hour in French or German, and three every day for an hour in music—in all twenty-four shillings a week.

It was tedious work, no doubt; but Sophy felt so much pleasure in bringing home her earnings at the end of the week, that, as she said, she really liked it. Besides this, it was a break to the monotony of her life; for, after a while, Robert took to going out after breakfast and not returning until five o’clock to dinner, being engaged, as he said, in looking for something to do; and, indeed, he did believe that he was trying very hard to get employment, although he had not the least idea what kind of work he needed. He sauntered across the bridge, went into a public-house to read the paper, and look through all the advertisements in the vague hope of seeing something to suit him. Three or four advertisements, indeed, he answered; but received no reply. Still he comforted himself with the assurance that it did not matter for that—the will was sure to be found; and that it was therefore really as well that he should not undertake a situation which he should, when he became a rich man, be sorry that he had filled. For the same reason he tried hard to persuade Sophy not to enter into the teaching business, as it would be humiliating to look back upon afterwards; but Sophy replied that she could see nothing to be ashamed of in the remembrance that she had tried her best to get her living, at a time when she had thought it necessary that she should do so. And in this particular she insisted on having her own way.

After another month Sophy got four more pupils, but two of them were in the evening, and this brought with it a more than countervailing drawback; for Robert was now left at home by himself on the evenings when she gave her lessons. Finding his own society dull, he would saunter out to seek other companionship, and on one or two of these occasions he came back with his face flushed, his tread unsteady, and his voice thick and uncertain; and Sophy felt with a terrible fear that his old habits were coming back upon him, and that, even for her sake, he could not keep from drink. On the morning after the first time that this happened, he was very penitent, called himself hard names, and promised that it should not happen again; but after a time he ceased to make excuses for himself, but was only sulky and sullen of a morning as if he resented the reproaches which Sophy never made. Sophy’s evil time was coming, and she felt it; the bright smile with which she had lit up their little home, came only with an effort now; the roses which had began to bloom in her pale cheeks, faded out again, but she bore it unflinchingly. Sophy was a quiet, undemonstrative girl, but she had a brave heart; she felt that she deserved any punishment she might receive, and she tried hard to bear it uncomplainingly. When Robert found this, and that no cold looks or reproaches greeted him, he did try hard to please the patient loving woman who had suffered so much for his sake, and withdrew himself, for awhile, from the new friends he was making. Sophy on her part gave up her evening pupils, and stopped at home with him; and so for a time things went on smoothly again.

Sophy had now become accustomed to the place, and had learned from Mrs. Billow—who was a good-hearted, talkative old woman, in a very large cap, and who waited upon them herself—all about their various neighbours. King Edward Street was a quiet, semi-respectable little street, and although it was a thoroughfare leading into the Westminster Bridge Road, very few people except its own inhabitants ever passed through it. It was, it seemed, quite a little professional colony. Next door, in the parlours, played first violin at a theatre on that side of the water, and the one beyond that was second cornet at the Adelphi. The two sisters in the house opposite danced in the ballet at the opera, and worked as milliners in their spare time; next door was a comic singer at Cremorne; and beyond him again lived a leading star and his wife—who was a singing chambermaid, both at the Victoria. They were a kindly, cheerful lot, sociable among themselves, and ready to do any kindness or service to each other. There were a few black sheep among them, but the very blackest of all, Robert and Sophy now suspected Mr. Billow himself, to be.

Mr. Billow was a bad-tempered, cross-grained old man, dirty, and almost always unshaven, very unlike the pink and white gentleman which his portrait represented him to have been; indeed it is almost certain that his habits must have changed greatly for the worse since that was taken; for it was otherwise inconceivable how he could ever have got himself up in that dazzling degree of cleanliness, both of face and shirt front. Mr. Billow’s ordinary custom was to get drunk three or four times a day, and then to doze by the fireside into a state of comparative sobriety. All this was bad, but it was not the worst.

Mr. Billow was supposed to be a retired watchmaker, living upon his savings, but he was in reality engaged in a far more profitable trade than that had ever been. At various times of the day ill-looking fellows would lounge in at the little front gate, and instead of going up the stairs to the front door, would knock at the window, and be admitted by a little door under the steps into the kitchen. Mr. Billow would then postpone his sleep for a few minutes, tell Mrs. Billow to “hook it;” and when alone, would enter into a low but animated conversation with his visitors, who had generally small parcels of goods to display to him; the ownership of these, after much altercation, generally changed hands—that is to say the nominal ownership, the real owner being some third person, whose rights and interests were entirely unrepresented and overlooked. Sometimes men would come in the same way late of an evening, with a bundle too large to be carried openly through the streets in the broad daylight; and on all these occasions Mrs. Billow was dismissed while the conversation was going on. Once, too, at three or four in the morning, Robert Gregory hearing a noise below, went down, stairs and found Mr. Billow engaged over a fire in the kitchen, apparently cooking. Finding that all was safe, Robert had gone up to bed again, and in the morning, Mrs. Billow mentioned casually that Mr. Billow had started very early, and that Robert had found him cooking his breakfast. But Robert knew that if Mr. Billow had required breakfast at any hour, his wife would have had to get up to prepare it; he had moreover detected that the smell of the ingredients in the pot on the fire, much more resembled the fumes of melting metal, than the savory steam of Mr. Billow’s breakfast. He was therefore confirmed in what he had previously strongly suspected, namely, that his landlord was neither more nor less than a receiver of stolen goods. Sophy objected to this, “Why then should he let lodgings?” But Robert told her, with a laugh, that this was merely a blind to deceive the police as to the character of the house. Sophy when she made this discovery, wished at once to leave their lodgings, but Robert said that it could make no difference to them what the old rogue was; that the lodgings were clean and comfortable, and that it would be a pity to change without some better reason. And so, this time against Sophy’s judgment, they determined to stay for the present as they were.

Chapter V • Overtures from the Enemy • 5,600 Words

I have as yet said nothing about my own feelings during these three months, nor told how I bore the loss. At first I felt it very, very much. I made sure the will was gone for ever; and although I had concerted with Harry our plan to find the secret chamber, and pretended to believe in it, I did so with the same feeling with which, as a child, one pretends a chair is a ship, and makes voyages upon it; shouting as lustily as if on board a real vessel, apparently quite as anxious if an imaginary wind arises and threatens to wreck our bark, and making our escape on to the sofa, which represents a desert island, with as much joy as if our rescue had been all real.

We elders smile at these pretences, and wonder at the lively interest, the loud joy, and the terrible panics with which children enter into these imaginary games of theirs; but I am sure we often play at ships too. We make believe that our barks are going safe to port, and sing pœans of joy, while in our heart of hearts we know it is quite otherwise, and that a disastrous shipwreck is inevitable; we ignore the threatening black cloud on the horizon, and congratulate ourselves that the sun is shining so brightly. Some of us, indeed, do this through long, long years—play it till the curtain falls, and all play is over.

I do not think that men thus wilfully shut their eyes as we women do: they have not the same happy faculty for self-deceit. But do we not all know many women who are for ever playing this game of ships? Do they not cling confidently all their lives to the idea that the bark to which they have entrusted themselves and their fortunes is indeed a gallant vessel, built of true heart of oak, marked A 1, fit to contend against any tempest and storm whatever, and certain to make a delightful and prosperous voyage to the end—cling to it even when the rotten timbers show through as soon as the fresh paint wears off, even when the water pours in through the leaky sides, and she tosses about without helm or rudder, a mere sport to every breeze? Happy are the women who are adepts at playing at this game—happy those who can go through life persisting in it; driving back with angry self-reproach any thought which may intrude itself that their dolls are not princesses—that the idol which they worship is not a god after all, but a mere image, made of very common clay indeed.

So I played at ships with myself, and made believe that we were certain to find the secret chamber. After a time, indeed, I did come to believe in it—that is, after we had put the plan together, and found out whereabouts it lay,—but even then an incredulous doubt would occasionally occur, which, however, I never allowed to stop there long. All this wore me very much—this constant anxiety, this endeavour to be cheerful, this trying to believe that all would be right yet.

When the news of Mr. Harmer’s death came to us at Ramsgate, I had written to Lady Desborough, and had received in reply from her a letter of condolence, which indeed, from the tone it was written in, resembled rather one of congratulation. It was evident that Lady Desborough considered that £25,000 at once was a very much more comfortable thing than £10,000 on my marriage, and the remaining £15,000 at some uncertain, and perhaps distant, period. Ada and Percy both wrote, really sympathizing with me in the loss of so very dear and kind a friend.

When, however, I had to write, ten days after, and say that the will was missing, I confess that I did so almost with the feelings of a man signing his own death-warrant. I wrote to Ada this time, and related the whole history to her. I told her—what I tried to believe myself—that we might find it yet; indeed, that we did not by any means give up all hope. I said that we felt quite sure that it was concealed in a secret chamber, and that until we found that chamber we should never give up the search. In truth, I was a coward—I dreaded what might happen if I said that all hope was gone, and that I had no idea of ever finding it; for that I knew would bring on a crisis from which, although I felt sure it must some day come, I shrank with a terrible fear. I believe now that if I had allowed to myself that it was hopeless, I should, whatever came of it, have written and said so; but I was playing at ships, and I really persuaded myself that I believed as I wrote.

Ada’s answer came in a day or two; it was, as I knew it would be, everything which was kind and affectionate. She “was sorry, so, so sorry for us all,” and she was indignant and furious against “those dreadful old hags,” as she irreverently termed the Misses Harmer, “and she should only like—” and Ada’s wishes and intentions towards them were terrible. Nothing indeed could be kinder or more satisfactory than the first part of Ada’s letter; but when she came to write about her mamma, her pen evidently went slower, and her words were cautiously chosen. Mamma, she said, was very sorry indeed to hear of the will being missing, and indeed was made quite ill by the news. She begged her to say how much she condoled with me upon it, and what a dreadful affair it was. “In short,” Ada finally scribbled, evidently puzzled how to put it—”in short, you know exactly what mamma would say under the circumstances.”

Ada and I continued to correspond regularly, and I kept her posted up in the proceedings of our plot to discover the chamber. In answer to the joyous letter I wrote to Ada after Christmas—saying that we had discovered one of the secret openings which opened the door, and had now every hope of finding the other—Lady Desborough herself wrote, for the first time since the will had been lost. She said how glad she was that, after all, it seemed by what Ada said, we were likely to find the missing will, and regain our fortunes. She stated that she had always expressed herself as certain that the infamous conspiracy against us would be defeated, and she wound up by saying that she sincerely trusted that the document would be discovered before long, both for my sake and Percy’s, who, she believed, would sail for India in the following autumn.

As I read this letter, it appeared to me that the pith of the whole contents was contained in that last line. To me it said as plainly as if she had so written it—”He goes to India in the autumn, but, of course, unless you find the will before that, he will have to go without you.” I was neither hurt nor surprised at this. I knew Lady Desborough well enough to be perfectly assured that with her consent I should never marry Percy unless I regained the lost fortune.

Percy’s letters to me were always alike; he told me that he did not care whether I had the fortune or not. That for my own sake he should of course have preferred that I should have had money, in order that in our Indian home we might be surrounded by more comforts and luxuries, but that for no other reason did he in the least care. That, of course, his pay as a cornet was next to nothing, but he expected that before many months he should get a step. He calculated that his lieutenant’s pay in India, with the staff appointment—which he made sure, from his proficiency in the native languages, he should speedily obtain—together with the £300 a year his mother allowed him, would enable us to live in tolerable comfort.

He spoke always of the £300 a year as if it were a certainty, but I was sure that in case of his marrying me his mother would at once stop it.

Lady Desborough, although she lived in so fashionable a style, was by no means a very rich woman. Her income, with the trifling exception of her pension as a General’s widow, was derived entirely from property she possessed previous to her marriage, and which had been settled upon her at that time. Of this she had the entire income during her lifetime, and could leave it as she chose between her children.

Percy’s letters to me were very loving and tender, and he was never tired of drawing happy pictures of our future. My answers to him, since the loss of the will, were not less loving, perhaps, than before; but they were far less confident and hopeful, and I could not trust myself to speak much of a future which I so feared in my heart could never come for me.

Altogether, I was very nervous and anxious all this time, and I looked forward to Sarah’s communications with feverish eagerness. I felt that to me far more depended on the discovery of this will than the mere matter of money. It was not the question of wealth or the reverse, it was—a life of happiness with Percy, or one of solitary unhappiness. Had it not been for the search Sarah was making, which kept hope alive, I should have felt it even more than I did. But when the secret spring was found, I did begin to think that all would come right again.

On New Year’s Day we had a great surprise—a letter came to papa from Miss Harmer; a messenger brought it, and it was sent in just as we had finished dinner. Papa opened it, glanced it through, and gave a long whistle of astonishment. “The man who brought this is not waiting, I suppose?” he asked the servant.

“No, sir, he said that he was told there was no answer.”

“You can clear away the dinner things at once, and put the dessert on.”

We were all quiet while this was being done, wondering what it could be about—and papa was evidently waiting only till the servant left the room to read the letter to us. When she had finished, and had gone out, without any preface he opened the letter and read it aloud:—

“Dear Dr. Ashleigh,

“The will of our late brother Herbert not having been found, and it therefore being now extremely improbable that it ever will be so, my sister and myself have naturally, as his only relatives, come into possession of his property. At our death that property will go, as originally intended by our elder brothers, to the destination from which it was only diverted by one of those extraordinary combinations of events by which Providence sometimes upsets our best-laid plans. My brother Herbert had, however, some property of his own, which he acquired in India, in addition to that which he inherited from his brothers. The amount of this property was, our man of business informs us, about £30,000. This sum we propose to devote to carrying out a portion of his expressed wishes. We are willing therefore to pay over at once the sum of £10,000 to each of your children—on the one condition that not one single penny shall they ever directly or indirectly bestow to or for the benefit of the person formerly known as Sophy Needham, and now as Sophy Gregory, she having by her conduct caused our brother’s death. And that they all bind themselves to this condition under an oath solemnly taken on the Bible, and under penalty of forfeiture of the amount should this condition not be strictly observed.

“Awaiting your reply,”&c., &c.,

“Cecilia and Angela Harmer.”

What an astonishment that was to us, and in what silent amazement we looked at each other when papa had finished reading the letter.

No one spoke for some time.

At last papa said, “This is a very serious question, my dears; and the offer ought to be thoroughly discussed before being either accepted or refused. £10,000 each is a handsome provision for you. It will start Harry in a good business, and it will enable you girls to marry well and yet to feel that you bring your share to the expenses of the household.” And here papa glanced at me, and I saw at once that although he had never spoken to me on the subject, he had yet thought a good deal about my engagement with Percy. He then went on: “All this is the bright side of the picture—now for the reverse;—you are unquestionably entitled to a much larger amount, and those who make this offer are the very people who are keeping you out of it. Then, too, the condition about Sophy is most repugnant; as you would naturally have wished in the event of your accepting this sum, to make her at any rate an equal participator in it with each of yourselves. The matter is one which must be thought over very seriously, and no conclusion should be hastily arrived at. Talk it over quietly together: it is a question on which I would rather give no opinion whatever, but leave you to decide it entirely by yourselves.”

“There is one thing, papa, you have not mentioned,” Polly said, “and that is, that if we take this money we must give up all search for the will; we cannot accept the Misses Harmer’s money, and then get their servants to work against them.”

“Certainly, my dear; that must of course be quite understood. If you accept this money, you must give up all further search for the will, and dismiss all idea of ever hearing of it again. There, don’t say any more about it now. Let us have a glass of wine and some nuts, and after that I shall go into my study, and you can talk it over among yourselves.”

When papa left us, we drew round the fire, and Harry said the first thing to be done was to smoke the calumet of council; accordingly in a minute or two he was puffing clouds of smoke from an immense meerschaum, of which he was very proud.

“Now,” he said, “the council is begun; let my sisters speak.”

Neither of us took advantage of the invitation, but sat looking steadily into the fire.

Polly—who was now sixteen, and who had grown up a very dear, loveable girl—was seated between us, in a high-backed, old-fashioned chair, with her feet on a low stool. I have not hitherto described her, and I could not choose a moment to do so in which she would look prettier than she did as she sat there; with the light on the table behind her shining on the gold of her hair, and her face lit only by the dancing light of the fire. She was a blonde, her hair looked almost brown in shadow; but when the light fell on it, it had still the bright golden tinge that every one had admired when she was a child. Her eyes were a pure blue, her complexion was bright and clear, she had a particularly lithe lissom figure, and her small head was very gracefully set on her neck and shoulders. She was very lively and full of fun; indeed I sometimes had to call her to order. She was a little positive and wilful sometimes, but she was a very loving and loveable girl. She was at present hardly as tall as I was, but as she had another year to grow, it was very probable she would be the taller in time. She had very long eyelashes, nearly the longest I ever saw, and these added greatly to the effect of her great blue eyes. The mouth and nose might both have been better, but for all that she had grown into a very pretty girl.

“Well, girls, what do you think about this offer of ours?” Harry repeated, finding that neither of us answered him.

My own mind was pretty well made up on the subject, but I wished to hear what the others thought, so I said, “What do you think yourself about it, Harry?”

Harry did not seem more inclined to give an opinion than we had been, for he sat and puffed out such huge volumes of smoke, that Polly threatened to take his pipe away if he did not smoke more quietly. At last he took it from between his lips, and began: “The fact is, girls, I am loath to give my opinion, not because I have not one, but because I do not wish to influence you. Your cases are so very different from mine, that there is no comparison at all between us. I am now just twenty-one; I am in a position to keep myself, and consequently the advantage this sum of money would be to me, is not sufficient to counterbalance the repugnance I feel—as far as I am concerned—to taking the money from these women who have robbed us. Still understand, I am not so much against it as to decide to refuse it, should you both agree to accept it. This is rather a suggestion of mine, as it were, than a positive and final opinion. I mean to say that for my own sake I certainly would not accept of the offer, but you are so differently placed that if you give your vote for accepting it, I shall be quite ready to agree with you.”

Harry made this unusually long speech, for him, with some difficulty. I could see that personally he was very strongly opposed to taking any favour from the Misses Harmer, after the way in which they had treated us. Being quite of the same opinion myself, I thought the matter was settled, as I made sure Polly would refuse. When Harry had done, he took another puff or two at his pipe, and then turning to Polly, who was next to him, said,—

“Now, Polly, you have heard what I have to say, let us have your opinion.”

For some time sister Polly did not answer, but sat gazing into the fire, with the long lashes nearly shading her eyes, and looking more womanly and thoughtful than I had ever seen her before. At last, without moving, or lifting her eyes, she said,—

“I think we had better accept.”

Harry, evidently surprised, gave one or two short puffs at his pipe. I was myself astonished. I had made sure that Polly would of all the three be the most indignant and determined to reject the offer; for she had been most bitter in her invectives at the Misses Harmer, and money had at present no particular value in her eyes. However, I made no remark expressive of my surprise, but only said,—

“Let us have your reasons, Polly.”

“Yes,” Harry repeated, “let us have your reasons.”

Polly was again silent a little, and sat thoughtfully twining her long taper fingers one over the other; then without looking up she asked,—

“Is it understood and agreed between us that two votes carry the day?”

“Certainly,” I said, knowing that my vote would be on Harry’s side.

“Quite so,” Harry agreed, “if you two girls make up your minds that it is best to accept this offer, I, as I said before, shall offer no objection.”

“Well then, Harry, I say—accept, and I will tell you why;” and now, although Polly had not changed her attitude, she spoke clearly and firmly, and her eyes were fixed on the fire with a steady resolute look. “But you must both agree not to interrupt me till I have done.”

“I promise,” Harry said, looking rather puzzled at Polly’s very unusual demeanour.

“I promise,” I repeated, amused and rather surprised, too.

“Very well,” Polly said, “please remember that. Now, Harry, you are a great big strong fellow, but you know you are hardly fit to entrust any delicate business to, and that in any affair of that sort you would know no more than a child.”

“Well, Miss Polly,” Harry said in astonishment, taking his pipe out of his mouth, “you are a pretty cool hand to talk to your elders; what next, I wonder!”

“You promised not to interrupt, Harry. As I said, you are very good and kind, and all that, but you know you are not—not so to say sharp.”

I could hardly help laughing, Harry’s eyes opened so very wide in amazement at the girl’s remarks, and Polly herself was looking so very serious and earnest.

“Now we women——”

“We women, indeed!” Harry repeated.

“Yes, we women,” Polly continued unmoved,—”I have left school now, and I am more of a woman as far as these things go than you are of a man—we women look very deeply into these matters. Now there is only one of us three, who, as we stand at present, will be greatly affected by this gift. I do not say that £10,000 is not a nice sum to have, or that it might not some day assist me to get a husband, but at present I can manage very well without one——”

“I should think so,” put in Harry.

“And you can get on without it, and keep yourself comfortably. Therefore to us the money has no peculiar charms at present, and we might both be rather disposed to refuse it, than to accept it as a gift from people who have robbed us of a large sum. There is a good deal in that, Harry, is there not?”

Harry nodded; he had not yet sufficiently recovered from the astonishment into which the position of superiority taken up by Polly had thrown him, while I on my part could not fancy what was coming next.

“Well you see, Harry, we have agreed that we neither of us are in a position rightly to estimate the value of this £10,000 at present. Now Agnes, on the contrary, is in a position to appreciate it keenly.”

Here Harry again opened his eyes, and looked at me with such astonishment, that I really thought he must fancy that I wanted the money to pay off a gambling debt or something of that sort.

“Agnes appreciate it!” he exclaimed.

“Of course,” Polly said; “and please do not interrupt me so, Harry. Now this £10,000 will, in all probability, be the turning-point in Agnes’s life, and her future happiness or unhappiness may depend upon it. Let us see how she is situated. She is engaged to Percy Desborough——”

“Thank goodness,” Harry muttered to himself, “she has said something I can understand at last.”

“She is engaged to him, and he is a capital fellow; but for all that unless we find the will, or she has this £10,000, she knows, and I know it by her face, that it may be years before she marries Percy Desborough, if she ever does so.”

“By George,” Harry exclaimed, taking his pipe suddenly from his mouth, and jumping up from his chair,—”By George, if I thought for a moment that Percy Desborough——”

“There, you will interrupt me, Harry,” Polly said, looking for the first time up from the fire with a little glance of amusement into his angry face. “Do sit down and hear me out, and you will see that there is no vengeance to be taken upon any one.”

Harry looked more than half inclined to be very angry; however he resumed his seat, and took short sulky puffs at his pipe.

“The fact is, Harry, you have heard of Lady Desborough, and from what you have heard you must know——”

“My dear Polly,” I interrupted in my turn, assured at last that she had intuitively arrived at a correct conclusion about the state of my engagement with Percy,—”My dear Polly——”

“My dear Agnes,” she said, “you promised to hear me out. But, my darling,”—and she spoke in a very soft tender voice, turning round to me, and laying her hand on mine,—”you know what I am going to say to Harry; if it is painful, will you go away till I have done? Harry must hear it before he can come to any correct conclusion about this money.”

I shook my head silently, but pressed her hand, which, while she went on, still remained resting in mine.

“Lady Desborough,” and now she was looking steadily into the fire again, as if she read there all she was saying, “is a proud woman of the world, very ambitious, and very self-willed. Had Percy followed her wishes, and remained in the Guards, she would have expected him to have made a first-rate match; as it is, she could not hope that any earl’s daughter would unite her fortunes to those of a cornet in a cavalry regiment, and troop with him out to India. When Percy therefore succeeded in persuading our Agnes here, that it was the best thing she could do, Lady Desborough was delighted at the match, which, with Agnes’s £25,000, was vastly better than she could have expected. But when Mr. Harmer dies, what happens? Agnes has no fortune. All this time that I have been at school since Mr. Harmer died, and the will was missing, I have wondered and thought over what Lady Desborough would do. I came to the conclusion that she would wait for a bit, and would take no decided steps until it was clear that the will would never be found, but that unquestionably when it was proved to be gone she would interfere to break off the engagement between Percy and Agnes. I come back here, and what do I find? I find very little said about the engagement, and Agnes looking pale and depressed. Percy’s letters come regularly; Agnes takes them up into her room, and comes down again after a very long time, with flushed cheeks, and a soft look, and yet not perfectly happy—that is not brightly happy. What does this mean? Just what I had anticipated. Percy is unchanged; the money, in his eyes, makes no difference whatever, but there is an obstacle somewhere; that obstacle being of course Lady Desborough. Probably by the continuance of the correspondence, she has not yet given up hopes of the will being found, and has not therefore taken any decided step, but has, I should imagine, plainly shown what her intentions will be if the fortune is not recovered. In support of this view, I see Agnes absorbed in the result of this search for the secret room; I saw her delight when one of the hidden springs was found—and this not because Agnes loves money, but because she loves Percy Desborough, and knows that without the fortune she cannot be married to him.”

“Why cannot Percy marry her in spite of his mother?” Harry growled in an unconvinced way. “He is not a boy; why can he not do as he likes?”

“Because his present income and his future fortune depend upon her. I heard Agnes say so the last time I was at home. She could refuse to allow him one penny, and leave every farthing she possesses to Ada. You don’t suppose that a subaltern in a cavalry regiment can keep a wife on his pay, even if Agnes would marry him under the circumstances, which she would not. Is all this true, Agnes darling?” she said, turning again to me, and this time I saw the tears were brimming up in her great blue eyes.

“You are certainly a witch, Polly,” I answered, trying to smile, but the tears were stealing down my cheeks too, as I got up and kissed her flushed face very tenderly and affectionately. To me all this was a perfect revelation. Here was my little sister Polly, whom I had always looked upon as a mere child, thinking and talking like a woman, and a very sensible, loving woman, too. I felt that in that half hour’s conversation my child-sister was gone for ever, and that I had gained in her place a dear friend in whom I could trust and confide every secret of my heart. As for Harry, he was completely silenced.

“Well, oh most sapient brother,” Polly asked, turning to him in her old laughing way, “do you confess that all this never entered into your mind; indeed, that you knew no more about it than the man in the moon?”

“By Jove!” Harry said with a great effort, “I confess you have fairly astonished me, as much by yourself as by your story. I think that you are right, and that in these matters you are more of a woman than I am of a man. How you found this all out I cannot conceive; it certainly never entered into my head. I thought of the effect which the money would have upon myself, and upon you, but Agnes I hardly took into consideration. I thought of her marriage with Percy as a sort of settled thing, and knowing him to have a handsome allowance, I never gave her case a second thought. But I see you are quite right, and that we must, of course, accept this money.”

“Indeed, we will not,” I said; “with my consent, this money shall never be accepted.”

“That is not fair, Agnes,” Polly said. “You know we agreed that two votes should carry the day.”

“I did, Polly; but I have a right to say what I think about it before it is put to the vote. I acknowledge all that Polly has said about my affairs to be true. I allow that I do believe that my marriage with Percy depends upon this will being found. But for all that, I say we cannot take this money. These women have robbed us of £25,000 each; they have robbed Sophy of £75,000; robbed us as actually as if they had stolen it from our possession—and now they offer, as a gift, £10,000 each to us. If we take it, it is on an understanding that we renounce all further claim, that we receive it as a free gift from these enemies of ours; and by this act not only should we, as it were, pledge ourselves to make no further efforts to find the will, we should not only sell our birthright to our enemies, but we should be bound to desert Sophy, and so leave her in hopeless poverty, for without our assistance she has not the slightest chance of ever finding the will. All this would be a miserable degradation—a degradation so deep that nothing could satisfy our own consciences to it; even my marriage to Percy could not reconcile it to myself, and he himself would blame me for it. No, no, dears, this would be a shameful action. Let us refuse it at once. You, I know, would do it for my sake; but I would not do it for myself, much less allow you to do so. We have really, at present, strong hopes of finding the will; let us trust to that; let us believe that in the end we shall be righted. If not, God’s will be done. The evil may seem to prosper at present, but at any rate let us make no terms with it.”

Polly and Harry were both silent. Polly was crying fast now—crying, that her little scheme for my happiness had failed; but yet they both felt as I did, and she could urge nothing further.

“There, dears, I know you both agree with me in your hearts, so let us say no more about it.”

And so it was settled; and when papa came in soon after, I told him that we were unanimously of opinion that the money could not be accepted. Papa then said, that although he had not wished to bias us in our decision, yet that he quite agreed with us, and was very glad we had so decided. So the next day he wrote to Miss Harmer, acknowledging the receipt of her letter, and stating that, for various reasons into which it was not necessary to enter, we felt ourselves obliged to decline the offer. This affair had one consequence among us, and that was, that Polly henceforth occupied a very different position amongst us from what she had heretofore done. Harry looked up to her as a prodigy of intellect and acuteness; and I myself felt deeply not only her intelligence, but the thoughtful, loving kindness she had evinced towards me. From that time Polly became quite one of ourselves; and, indeed, I think that insensibly she fell into her natural position as the clever one of the family.

Chapter VI • The Priest’s Chamber • 4,300 Words

I was very glad that Polly had left school and come home for good. It was far more cheerful and pleasant than it had been at all since I left school. Polly made the place so cheerful with her bright happy smile, and was so full of life and fun, that I never found time to sit and muse, and wonder and fret over the future, as I had done before she came home. She never left me long alone for any time, but every day would make me go out for long walks with her, and indeed devoted herself entirely to cheering and amusing me. Papa too very much recovered his spirits under her genial influence; and altogether she made our home much brighter and more cheerful than before.

So our life went on for nearly three months, and then one Friday evening I was told that Sarah was below waiting to speak to me. I was rather surprised, for she had been to the house very seldom before, and then always on Sunday evenings.

However, the moment she came in, I saw that she had something very important to tell. Her bright face was quite pale with excitement, and her whole figure was in a nervous tremble.

“Oh, miss,” she burst out directly the door was closed behind her, “Oh, miss, I have found the secret door!”

Although I had tried all along to hope that she would some day do so, that hope had been so long deferred that it had almost died away; and now at the sudden news, I felt all the blood rush to my heart, the room swam round with me, and I sat on a chair quite overwhelmed by the sudden shock.

“Shall I get you some water, miss?”

“No, no, Sarah, I shall be myself in a minute or two.”

I had to sit quiet a little time, before I could steady myself sufficiently to listen to the account of the wonderful discovery, which was to lead to fortune and happiness. Then I said,—

“I am not very strong, Sarah, and the surprise has been almost too much for me, for I own I hardly expected that you ever would find it. Now tell me all about it, or stay, let me ask papa and my sister to come in to share in this wonderful news of yours.” So saying, I ran down to the study where papa was busy writing.

“Papa,” I said, “I want you to come up stairs directly.”

“What for my dear? I am really very busy at present.”

“Never mind, papa; but put by your writing at once and come up. Sarah is here, and oh, papa, she has found the secret door.”

“That is news, indeed!” papa said, pushing back his chair at once; “I am sure I never expected it.”

So saying, he followed me upstairs. I called Polly as we went up, and she came running up after us, and as she went into the drawing-room with me, I whispered to her that the secret door was found. She gave me a little squeeze of congratulation, and I saw that even in that first flush of pleasure at the news, it was only the consequences to me that she thought of, and that her own personal interest in the matter never entered into her mind.

“Well, Sarah,” papa began, “so I hear you have discovered the secret entrance at last.”

“Yes sir, I have. From the time I found the first spring at Christmas, I have never ceased looking for another one. I had felt every knob on the fireplace and chimneypiece, and every stone up the chimney as far as I could reach. You know, sir, it is only in the half hour I get of a morning by being up before the other servants that I can try; indeed I only have half that time, for I must get some of the shutters open and appear to have began to do something to account for my time. Well, sir, at last I really seemed to have tried everywhere, and I almost gave up all hope of finding it, although I had quite made up my mind to go on searching as long as I stayed there, even if it was for ten years. Well, sir, yesterday morning I quite got out of temper with the thing, and I sat down on the ground in the great fireplace quite out of heart; my face was quite close to the great iron dogs, so I said, “Drat you, you look for all the world as if you were putting out your long tongues at me;” and I took hold of the tongue nearest to me, and gave it a twist, and do you know, sir, it quite gave me a turn to find that the tongue twisted round in my hand. I twisted and twisted till the tongue came out in my hand, then I touched the spring behind the mantel, but nothing moved; then I tried the tongue of the other dog, and that came out too; but still nothing moved. Just then I heard the cook moving in the kitchen, so I had to put the tongues back again and go to my work; but all day I hardly knew whether I stood on my head or my heels, I wanted so much to see whether anything would come of it. Well, miss, this morning I got up quite early, and unscrewed the dogs’ tongues, and looked in the places they had come out of, but could not see anything. Then I pushed the sharp end of the tongue into the hole, and twisted and poked about, but I could not find anything moved; then I put that tongue in again, and tried the other, and directly I pushed the sharp end in, I felt something give way, and then I heard a click. I jumped up and pushed the knob in the chimney, and directly something creaked, and the whole of the left hand side of the fireplace swung open like a low door, about four feet high, and beyond it was a little flight of stone stairs. I was so excited, sir, when I saw the door and the steps, and knew I had found the place I had been looking for so long, that I had to lean against the wall to support myself. After a little while I pushed the door back again, and heard it close with a click. Then I screwed the tongue into the mouth again, and went about my work, but all day I have hardly known whether I stood upon my head or my heels.”

We were all silent when Sarah finished. So far, then, we had succeeded in our search. What was to be done next? We turned to papa.

“You have indeed done well, Sarah, and have laid us under a deep obligation to you for the perseverance you have shown, and the clearness with which you have carried out my daughter’s plans. But this we will talk about hereafter. The thing to be done now is to follow up your discovery. The most important point is to find out the size of the box or safe in which the will is kept in this secret room. If it is small enough to be carried away easily, our course will be very simple. If, on the other hand, the chest or safe should be too heavy to be moved, I shall first take a lawyer’s opinion on the subject, and either get a search warrant, or else go quietly into the chamber with a locksmith, force the lock, and take out the will, which, when found, will be ample justification for our forcible entrance. The first thing to be done is for Sarah to examine the room, and to bring us word how large the box is.”

“Do you mean, sir,” Sarah asked, in a terrified tone, “for me to go up that staircase by myself? I could not do such a thing for the world. I could not, indeed, sir.”

“We will reward you handsomely, Sarah,” papa began.

“Don’t ask me, Dr. Ashleigh. I could not do it if it were to make me a rich woman all my life. Please, sir, don’t ask me.”

The girl was so evidently terrified at the idea of going up the secret staircase, and she had already done so much for us, that we felt it would not be right to urge her further, and we looked at each other for a moment or two in silence. Then Polly said,—

“The proper persons to go are certainly Agnes and I. It is our property for which the search is made, and it is our place to make it. I think that the best plan will be for Sarah to get up some morning an hour earlier than usual. We will be waiting outside for her to open the doors; papa will be with us, and will stay there while we go inside, examine the room, and bring out the box in which the will is kept, if it is not too heavy for us to carry. What do you say, Agnes?”

I confess I was frightened at the idea, not of going up into the priest’s chamber, but of entering the house in that sort of secret midnight way, and at the thought of the scene which would ensue if we were detected. However, Polly seemed so brave and confident about it, that I was ashamed to offer any opposition, and so said that I thought it would be a very good plan.

“I think so, too,” papa said. “It certainly seems a strange expedition for us to make at five o’clock on a March morning; still, with such a fortune depending upon it, one does not mind doing strange things to obtain it. But before we do it, write to Sophy; tell her what has happened, and what you intend doing, and ask her to send you by return of post an authority from her to search in her name as well as your own for the will. It would be as well, in case of any misadventure, that we should be able to prove that we are acting in the joint interest of the heirs. Let me see; to-day is Friday. She cannot get the letter now till Monday, and you will have her answer on Tuesday. So let us say Wednesday, Sarah. What time is the house stirring?”

“At seven, sir, the servants get up.”

“Very well; will you be at the front door as the clock strikes six? We shall be there. If not, some change will have taken place in our plans. And now, Sarah, whether we succeed in our aim or not, we are equally indebted to you. Here are twenty pounds for you, for what you have done for us; and if we get the will, you may rely upon it that you shall have a present which will make you comfortable for life.”

Sarah retired delighted with her present, and promising to be ready on Wednesday. We then had a long chat over our plans. Papa, who had, I think, a strange tinge of romance in his disposition, quite looked forward to the adventure, and he and Polly talked it over with great glee. Papa said that he should write to Mr. Petersfield, tell him that we had found the chamber, and ask him to come down and be present at the finding of the will, so that he could—should the box be too large for us to carry—give us his advice as to the best course for us to pursue.

On Tuesday morning we received the answers to the two letters;—that from Sophy written in high spirits at our discovery, and authorizing us to act in her name; that from Mr. Petersfield, also written in terms of warm congratulation, and saying that, although the legality of our course was at least doubtful, he had felt so warm an interest in our search, that he would come down to be present at the dénouement, and he felt quite sure that the will, when found, would amply justify our proceedings. He said that he should leave town by the afternoon train. And so nothing whatever seemed likely to occur to postpone our expedition, as I could not help hoping in my heart that something would do.

Mr. Petersfield came down in the evening, and was full of spirits at the prospect of recovering the will, and made several jokes about female burglars, which amused Polly very much, but made me feel shivery and uncomfortable.

At night, after we had gone up to bed, Polly came into my room, and said,—

“Agnes, darling, I can see you are nervous and frightened about this expedition of ours. You are not strong, you know, and I think that really you had better stay at home. I can just as well go by myself; it is only to see if it is there, and when I find it, if the box should be too heavy for me to carry, Sarah will not mind going up with me the second time to help me to bring it down.”

“No, no, Polly,” I answered; “I know I am a coward, but I am not so bad as that. I will most certainly go with you; nothing would induce me to stay at home and let you go alone. Still, I cannot look at it in the same amusing way that you do. It is to me a very awful business; but you will see that when it comes to the point I shall be able to go through it all calmly. And now, good-night, dear. I will call you at half-past five.”

That night I did not close my eyes. I thought over every possible accident by which we might be detected, and at last made myself so nervous that I could remain in bed no longer; so I got up, lighted a candle, dressed, and then wrapped myself in a warm shawl, and read till it was time to call the others. Then I went and woke Polly, who was sleeping as quietly and peacefully as if she were a girl again at Grendon House, with nothing on her mind but the extreme difficulty of her German lesson. She woke up with a cheerful laugh as she remembered what was to be done. I afterwards knocked at papa’s and Mr. Petersfield’s doors, and then lighted a large spirit-lamp under a kettle, which papa had to make coffee when he went out or returned from any night visit.

At five o’clock we all met in the dining-room—looking, as papa said, like a lot of conspirators; and I quite agreed with him. However, by the time we had taken a cup of coffee and some bread and butter and a slice of cold ham, our spirits quite rose again, and we all responded gaily to Polly’s funny remarks; even I felt more confident and less nervous than I had done since the expedition had been proposed.

It was just a quarter past five when we started, and still quite dark. The stars were shining brightly, and the keen March wind made us shiver and draw our wraps more closely round us as we went out into it. The carriage was waiting at the door for us, and old Andrew, to whom we had confided somewhat of our intended attempt, was stamping up and down, and swinging his arms in the attempt to warm himself. Papa had at first intended to walk, but he afterwards came to the conclusion that the carriage passing through the streets at that hour would excite no attention at all, whereas if we were seen walking it would be sure to give rise to all sorts of surmises and conjectures. We pulled down the blinds, and drove out through the town. When we were fairly past the barracks, we again pulled them up and looked out. There was a faint light growing up in the east, but the country round was as dark as ever. We met or passed two or three solitary individuals going towards or from the town to their work.

We were a silent party. Papa and Mr. Petersfield made an occasional remark, and Polly tried once or twice to enliven us, but it would not do. We all felt that we were engaged upon a serious business, and that the future of our lives depended upon its result.

As we passed through Sturry, we again pulled down the blinds, for the villagers were astir there. The light smoke was curling up from the chimneys, the flickering fire-light could be seen through the latticed windows, and many of the men were starting to their work. We drove up the hill behind the village, and then the carriage turned up a narrow lane, where it would be concealed from the sight of any one going along the highroad. Here we got out, entered Mr. Harmer’s grounds by a small gate, and followed a footpath across the park up to the house, and then went round to the front door. Now I was once there, I felt no longer frightened, and the excitement of the adventure set my blood in a glow.

“What time is it?” I asked papa.

“Ten minutes to six,” he said, “but I dare say Sarah is waiting for us.”

She was, for the moment that we reached the door she opened it, and stepped out to meet us.

“It is all ready, sir,” she said to papa. “I oiled the lock and bolts yesterday, and I had everything undone ready, so as to open the door when I heard your footsteps on the gravel. I am not afraid now, sir, and will go up with the young ladies if they like.”

“No, Sarah—you had better wait in the hall, to let them know if you hear any one stirring in the house. We shall remain out here. Now, girls, courage and victory!”

“Now for it!” Polly said, and we went into the hall together.

There were three candlesticks with lighted candles on the table. We each took one of them, and with light steps crossed the hall to the chimney-place. Sarah at once knelt down, and unscrewed the dog’s tongue, touched the spring, then the one in the chimney, and the door swung round with a slight creak, startling us, although we expected it.

While she was doing this, I looked round the hall, and I do not think that the least trace of my past fear remained. I was thinking of the last time I had been in that hall, some little time before my dear mother’s death. How different was my position then, and what changes had these sad nine months brought about! I thought, too, for a moment of how it might be the next time I entered it, with Sophy as undisputed mistress; and, quickly as all these thoughts had flitted across my mind, I had only got thus far when the creak of the opening door made me turn sharply round, and prepare for the business on hand.

“Shall I go first, Agnes?” Polly asked, offering to pass me.

“No, no,” I answered; “I am not in the least afraid now.”

Nor was I. My pulse beat quick, but it was purely from excitement, and I do not think at that moment, had the Misses Harmer suddenly stepped down the staircase, before me, I should have been afraid of them. Holding my candle well in front of me, I stooped under the low doorway, and began to ascend the narrow stone stairs, Polly following closely behind. The stairs, as papa had calculated, were only five or six in number, and we then stood at once in the chamber into which for so many months we had been so longing to penetrate. Now for the will!

After the first breathless look round, a low exclamation of disappointment broke from each of us. There was no box or chest of any kind to be seen. The room was a mere cell, a little more than six feet high, eight feet long, and six wide. The walls were of rough stone, which had been whitewashed at no very distant time. The only furniture in it was a small table and an easy chair, both quite modern; indeed, the chair was the fellow to one I remembered in Mr. Harmer’s library. On the table stood an inkstand, some pens and paper, and there were some torn scraps of paper on the floor; on picking up one of which I perceived words in Mr. Harmer’s well-known handwriting. On the table, too, were placed two or three of his scientific books, and a half-consumed cigar lay beside them.

It was evident, from all this, that Mr. Harmer had been in the habit of using this room for a study, and the warmth which we felt the moment that we came into it, from its being against the kitchen chimney, suggested his reasons for so using it. It was apparent that the room had not been disturbed since he left it after reading there—on, perhaps, the very night before his death.

There was no other furniture, and no place whatever where the will could be concealed. We examined the walls closely, but without any result, the only opening being a small hole near the roof, about four inches square, and evidently leading into the kitchen chimney for the purpose of ventilation. Hiding-place, as far as we could see, there was none.

The stairs did not stop on reaching the room, but wound upwards. I ascended them very cautiously, and found that they went up about ten steps, and then ended at a small door, on which were two bolts with which any one inside could fasten it, and so prevent its opening, even if the secret springs outside were discovered and touched. This door, I had no doubt, formed the entrance into Mr. Harmer’s room, and opened by some spring which I could not perceive; nor indeed did I look for it, but returned with a heavy heart to Polly, who had remained in the chamber, and who was in vain examining the walls for any sign of a hidden closet. We looked ruefully in each others faces.

“It is no use, Polly,” I said, as cheerfully as I could. “We shall not find the will here.”

“I am afraid not,” she said, and gave me a silent kiss, expressing her sorrow for my sake; and then taking our candles, we went down the stairs into the hall again.

Sarah was standing listening with hushed breath.

“Have you found it, miss?”

“No, Sarah—the place is quite empty.”

“Oh dear! oh dear!” Sarah exclaimed, almost crying with vexation. “I am so sorry.”

We put our candles down on the hall table, and went out into the open air. We shook our heads in answer to the looks of papa and Mr. Petersfield. They asked no questions, for they saw at once by our looks that we had found no signs of the will, and the present was no time or place for explanation. So we turned off from the house, and walked fast across the grounds, and out to where the carriage was standing, for the morning was fairly broken now, and our figures could have been seen for a considerable distance.

Once in the carriage, we related all that we had seen, and that there was no sign of the will to be found. Mr. Petersfield and papa were both very much disappointed. Mr. Petersfield remarked that most likely we had been within arm’s reach of the will, for it was certain now that Mr. Harmer did use that room for a study, and that no doubt there was some secret hiding-place there, made originally for the concealment of important papers in case the entrance to the secret chamber should be discovered. It was a singular fancy of Mr. Harmer’s to use that little place for writing in.

“I can quite understand that,” papa said. “Mr. Harmer lived a long time in India, where the night and early morning are the pleasantest part of the twenty-four hours, and I have heard him say that he often rose at four o’clock, and got through five hours’ writing before breakfast; and I can remember now that I once said to him that he must find it very cold in winter, and he said, ‘Oh, I have a very snug little place for it.’ I did not ask him where it was, although I dare say had I done so he would have told me. But it is evident now that it was in this chamber, which from its warmth, and from it so immediately adjoining his room, would be very convenient for him, as he would not be under any fear of disturbing the house by his movements. I have no doubt you are correct in your conjecture, and that there is some secret receptacle there for papers, which could never be discovered without the secret being communicated.”

“At any rate we must give it up now,” I said, “and I have not the least idea that we shall ever hear any more of it.”

The others were silent, for they, too, felt that it was in vain now to cherish any further hopes of its discovery.

Chapter VII • The Course of True Love • 4,400 Words

We reached home after the expedition a little before seven o’clock, and then sat down to a regular breakfast, under the influence of which our spirits rose somewhat, and we recovered a little from our disappointment. Polly and I agreed that it was settled that we were not to be heiresses, and that it was no use our repining. We talked a good deal of Sophy, and we agreed that the loss was a matter of far more serious importance to her than it was to us. We feared she had a terrible life before her, and we wondered what she and her husband would do.

For some time while we were talking, Mr. Petersfield ate his breakfast in silence, and was evidently not attending to what we were saying, but was lost in his own contemplations.

“What are you thinking of?” papa asked him, at last.

“I am thinking, doctor—that is, I am wondering how Herbert Harmer came to know of that secret hiding-place. Of course his sisters may have told him of it, but I should doubt if they did. I am wondering if he found it described in any old family documents, and if so, where they are now. There are no longer any papers in my possession, as at Miss Harmer’s request I gave them all up a week after the funeral to their new solicitor.”

“I should think,” I said, “that Mr. Harmer was shown this secret hiding-place at the time when he first knew of the chamber itself; that is, when he went into it as a boy with his father.”

“No doubt,” papa said,—”no doubt he was. Don’t say any more about it, Petersfield; let us make up our minds to the inevitable. We have done our best, and now let us give it up. There is not, I believe, the slightest chance in the world of our ever hearing any more about it, and it is far better to give it up, than to go on hoping against hope, and keeping ourselves in a fever about what will never take place. Let us give the matter up altogether, and turn over a fresh page of our lives. We are no worse off than other people. Let us look forward as if it had never been, and give up the past altogether.”

And so it was settled, and the will henceforth ceased to be a subject of conversation among us.

After breakfast, Mr. Petersfield took his leave and returned to London; and when papa had gone out on his round of visits, and sister Polly had sat down for her usual hour’s practice on the piano, I went up into my own room, shut and locked the door, and prepared for the task I had before me. For it was clear to me that I must now face my position. I could no longer play at ships with myself. I knew that my last hope had fled. The last anchor, to which I had so fondly trusted, was gone now, and my bark of happiness was destined to certain and irretrievable wreck. I knew that my engagement with Percy must come to an end, and that this letter which I must write would be the means of making it do so.

How long I sat there on that dreary March morning I do not know, with the paper lying open and untouched before me, its black edge a fitting symbol of the dead hopes, whose tale I had to write upon it. Not that I think I looked at that; my eyes were fixed blankly on the wall before me; but not one word did I write, although all the time my hand held the pen ready to set down what my heart and brain should dictate. But nothing came; my heart seemed cold and dead, as if it could feel no motion, while my brain was in a strange whirl of thought, and yet no thought framed itself into any tangible shape. I hardly know what current they took, the past or the future; I cannot recall one single thought; indeed, I question if one stood out prominently enough among the others to have been seized, even at the time.

How long I sat there I do not know. But at last I was recalled to myself by a loud, continued knocking at my door. I think I heard it some time before I answered; it did not seem to me to be connected at all with me, but to be some noise a long way off. Even when I was sure that it was at my door, and that it was a loud, urgent knocking it was some little time before I could rouse myself sufficiently to answer. At last I said, “What is it?” But the knocking was so loud that my voice was not heard, and I now distinguished Polly’s voice calling to me. I tried to rise, but I found that my limbs were stiff and numbed. However, with a great effort, for I was really frightened at the noise, I got up, and with great difficulty moved to the door and opened it. I was about to repeat my question, “What is it?” when Polly burst in, pale and terror-stricken, the tears rolling fast down her cheeks. She fell upon my neck, and sobbed out, “Oh, Agnes, Agnes, how you have frightened me!”

“Frightened you!” I said. “How? What is the matter?”

“What have you been doing? and why did you not answer my knocking?”

“I answered directly I heard it.”

“Then what have you been doing, Agnes? I have been knocking for ten minutes. How pale you are, and your hands are as cold as ice, and so is your face; you are nearly frozen. There don’t say anything now, but come down to the dining-room.”

I had some difficulty in getting downstairs; I had sat so long motionless in the cold, that I was, as Polly said, nearly frozen, and it required all the assistance she could give me, before I was able to get down at all. Once in the dining-room, Polly wheeled the sofa up in front of the fire, and then ran off and got some boiling water from the kitchen, and made me a glass of hot port wine and water, which she insisted on my drinking scalding hot,—all the time scolding and petting me; then when I began to get warm again, she told me that when she had done practising, not finding me anywhere, she asked the housemaid if she had seen me, and the girl told her that I had gone into my room more than an hour before, and that she had not seen me since. Polly went back to the dining-room, but finding that time went on, and I did not come down, she came up to my room to scold me for staying up in the cold so long, and to suggest that if I had not finished writing, I should go into papa’s consulting-room, where I should be quite secure from interruption. She had knocked, but receiving no answer, had at first gone away again, thinking that perhaps I had lain down, and gone to sleep, having had such a short night; but after she had gone down stairs again, she came to the conclusion that I should not have done that without telling her of my intention; so she had come up to my door again, and finding that her first gentle knocking had produced no effect, she had continued, getting louder and louder, and becoming more and more terrified, until at last, just as I had opened the door, she had worked herself into such an agony of terror, that she was on the point of running down into the kitchen to send out for some one to come in to force the door.

I told Polly that I was very sorry that I had frightened her so much, but that I really did not know what had come over me; that I had sat there thinking, and that I supposed I had got regularly numbed, and had not noticed her knocking until I got up and opened the door. When I was thoroughly warmed again, I proposed going into the library to write my letters, but Polly would not let me, as she said that I had had more than enough excitement for one day. So I yielded to her entreaties, not sorry indeed to put off the painful task, if only for one day.

On the following morning, however, I went into papa’s study to write my letters, and got through them more easily than I had expected. Polly came in from time to time to see that I was not agitating myself too much, only staying just for a minute or two to kiss me, and say some little word of consolation and love. My first letter was to Percy. I told him what had happened, and that all hope which I might previously have entertained of finding the will, was now entirely extinguished. I told him that I knew he loved me for my own sake; and no unworthy doubt that this would make any difference in him had ever entered my mind; but I frankly said that I feared Lady Desborough would no longer give her approval and consent, and that I foresaw painful times in store for us, for it was of course out of the question that we could marry in the face of her determined opposition. Putting aside pecuniary considerations, which even lovers could not entirely ignore, I could not consent to marry into a family where my presence would be the cause of dissension and division between mother and son. I said this was my fixed determination, and begged him to acquiesce in it, and not pain me by solicitations—to which I could not yield—to do otherwise than what I felt to be right, in the event of his mother’s insisting on his breaking off his engagement with me.

My letter to Percy finished, I had the other and more difficult one before me, and I was some considerable time before I could make up my mind respecting it. In the first place, should it be to Lady Desborough or Ada? and then, how should I put it? Of course I must say that all hope of finding the will was gone; but should I add that in consequence I considered my engagement with Percy to be at an end, or should I leave her to do so? At one time I resolved upon the former, and wrote the beginnings of two or three letters to that effect. But then I said to myself, why should I do this? Why should I assume that she would stop the allowance of 300l. a year, which Percy has, when he thinks that with that and the staff pay he expects to get in India, there is no reason why we could not manage very well? I accordingly came to the conclusion to write to Ada. I told her all that we had done, and that the will was now unquestionably lost for ever; I said that this was of course a grievous disappointment to me, and then after a little chit-chat upon ordinary matters, I wound up by asking her to show to Lady Desborough the part relating to the loss of the will.

Although I wrote these letters at the same time, I did not send off the one to Ada until the following day. I delayed it in this way in order that Lady Desborough might get a letter from Percy within a few hours of receiving mine; so that she might not answer me until she had heard Percy’s arguments and entreaties that she would not withdraw her approval of the engagement.

The second letter sent off, I had nothing to do but to wait patiently, but oh, how anxiously, for the result.

Percy’s letter came by return of post; it was just what I knew it would be, a repetition of the one he had written when the will was first found missing,—full of passionate protestations of love, and assurances that my fortune had only value in his eyes on my account, and that therefore to him its loss could make no difference. He said that it was quite impossible that his mother could withdraw her consent, previously so warmly given, merely from a matter of money; and he affirmed that indeed, at the age he was, he did not consider that under any circumstances she had any right to dictate his choice to him. He told me that he was that day writing to her, to inform her that of course what had happened had not made the slightest change in his intentions, and that he felt assured she would be entirely of his opinion. The next day passed without any letter from Lady Desborough; the next and the next—a week passed. How my heart ached. I knew what the delay meant, and could guess at the angry correspondence which must be passing between mother and son. I knew what the result must be, and yet I hoped against hope until the eighth day, when the long-expected letter arrived; it was as follows:—

“My dear Miss Ashleigh,

“You may imagine how extremely sorry we all were to hear that the will under which you ought to come into possession of the fortune to which I always understood that you were entitled, is missing, and I fear from what you say in your letter to Ada irretrievably lost. This is a terrible event for you, and the more so, since it of course alters your position with respect to my son Percy. You will I am sure be sorry to hear that it has caused a very serious misunderstanding between him and me. I gather from what he has let drop, that you yourself quite see that it is out of the question that your engagement with him can continue, and I know that you will regret with me that he should not like ourselves submit to what is inevitable. Knowing your good sense, I felt sure that you would, as a matter of course, view the matter in the same light that I do, and it gives me pleasure to know that I had so correctly judged your character. I am sure, my dear Miss Ashleigh, that you would be grieved that any serious estrangement should take place between Percy and myself; but I am sorry to say his obstinate and violent conduct at present renders this not only probable, but imminent. I rely upon your aid to assist me in bringing him to the same way of thinking as ourselves. Percy will, I am sure, listen to your arguments with more politeness and deference than he pays to mine. His allowance, as you are aware, depends entirely upon me, and it is quite impossible, as he surely must see, that he can support a wife, even in India, on a bare lieutenant’s pay. I rely upon your good sense to convince him of this, and you will be doing a great service to us all by your assistance in this matter. I need not say, in conclusion, how much all this sad affair, and my son’s headstrong folly, have shaken and disturbed me, and how much I regret that circumstances should have occurred to prevent an alliance on which I had set my heart. And now, with my sincere condolence,

“Believe me, my dear Miss Ashleigh,

“Yours very faithfully,

“Eveline Desborough.”

I really could hardly help smiling, pained and heartsick as I felt, at the quiet way in which Lady Desborough arranged the affair, and claimed me as an ally against Percy. When I had finished the letter, I gave it to Polly—who was watching my face most anxiously—to read, and I do think that if Lady Desborough had been there my sister Polly would have been very near committing a breach of the peace. She did not say much—only the one word “infamous,” as she threw the letter on to the table, and then sat down by the fire, biting her lips with anger, with her large eyes ablaze, and her fingers and feet twitching and quivering with suppressed rage.

A letter arrived by the same post from Ada, which I will also copy from the original, which has been so long laying in my desk:—

“My darling Agnes,

“This is a terrible affair, and I am quite ill with it all. My eyes are red and swollen, and, altogether, I was never so wretched in my life. I should have written to you at once to tell you how sorry I was about it, and that I love you more dearly than ever, but mamma positively ordered me not to do so at first, so that I was obliged to wait; but as I know that she has written to you to-day, I must do the same. We have had such dreadful scenes here, Agnes, you can hardly imagine. On the same morning your letter arrived, one came from Percy. It did not come till the eleven o’clock post, and I had sent your letter up to mamma in her room before that. Mamma wrote to Percy the same day; what she said I do not know; but two days afterwards Percy himself arrived, and for the last three days there have been the most dreadful scenes here. That is, the scenes have been all on Percy’s side. He is half out of his mind, while mamma is very cold, and——Well, you can guess what she could be if she pleased. To-day she has not been out of her room, and has sent word to Percy that as long as he remains in the house she shall not leave it. So things are at a dead-lock. What is to be done I have no idea. Of course I agree with Percy, and think mamma very wrong. But what can I do? My head is aching so, I can hardly write; and indeed, Agnes, I think I am as wretched as you can be. I do not see what is to come of it. Mamma and Percy are equally obstinate, and which will give way I know not. Mamma holds the purse-strings, and therefore she has a great advantage over him. I am afraid it will be a permanent quarrel, which will be dreadful. My darling Agnes, what can I say or do? I believe Percy will go down to see you, although I have begged him not to do so for your sake; but he only asked me if I was going to turn against him, too; so, of course, I could do nothing but cry. How will it end? Oh, Agnes, who would have thought it would ever come to this? I will write again in a day or two. Goodbye, my own Agnes.

“Your most affectionate

“Ada.”

At twelve o’clock that day there was a knock at the door, and Percy Desborough was ushered in. I was prepared for his coming, and therefore received him with tolerable composure; and although I dreaded the painful scene I knew I should have to go through, I was yet glad that he had come, for I felt that it was better that all this should come to an end. Percy was looking very pale and worn, and as he came up to me, much as I had schooled myself, I could hardly keep my tears down. He came up, took me in his arms, and kissed me. I suffered him to do so. I knew that it was nearly the last kiss that I should ever have from him. Polly, after the first salutation, would have left the room, but I said,—

“Stop here, please, Polly. She knows all about it, Percy; and it is better for us both that she should be here. I have heard this morning from Lady Desborough, and also from Ada, so I know what you have come down for.”

“I have come down, Agnes,” Percy said, solemnly, “to renew and confirm my engagement to you. I have come down, that you may hear me swear before God that I will never marry any other woman but you.”

“And I, Percy, will marry no other man; but you, even you, I will never marry without your mother’s consent. I will never divide mother and son. Besides which, without her consent, it would be impossible.”

“Impossible just at present, Agnes, I admit. My mother has refused to allow me one farthing if I marry you, and I know I cannot ask you to go out to India as a lieutenant’s wife, on a lieutenant’s pay; but in a short time I am sure to get a staff appointment; and although it will not be such a home as I had hoped to offer you, it will be at least a home in which we could have every necessary comfort; and I know you too well, not to feel sure that you would be content with it.”

“Percy,” I said, “why do you tempt me? You know well how gladly I would go with you anywhere, that comfort or discomfort would make little difference to me if they were shared by you. But you know Lady Desborough, and you know well that she will not only refuse to assist you now, but that she will utterly disown and cast you off if you act in defiance of her will. You are choosing between wife and mother; if you take the one, you lose the other. Has she not told you, Percy, that if you marry me, you are no longer son of hers?”

Percy hesitated. “She has,” he said, “she has; but, Agnes, although in any just exercise of her authority, I, as a son, would yield to her; yet at my age, I have a perfect right, in a matter of this sort, to choose for myself; besides, she has already given her entire approval, and it is not because circumstances have changed that she has any right to withdraw that consent. It was you she approved of, and you are unaltered.”

“She is acting, as she believes, for your good, Percy. You think her mistaken and cruel, but she will never change, and I will never marry you without her consent. See, Percy, I have no false pride. I would have come to you, had there been nothing to prevent it, as a penniless wife, although I had hoped it would have been otherwise; but no true woman will drag her husband down; no true woman will marry a man when, instead of bringing him a fortune, she brings him ruin. You are now comparatively well off; some day you will be much better; and I will not be the means of your losing this—losing not only this, but your mother.”

“But my happiness, Agnes!—what is money to happiness?” Percy exclaimed, impetuously.

“Nothing, Percy,—I know and feel that; but I also feel that my decision is right, and not wrong. I know that I could not decide otherwise, and that whatever unhappiness it may cause us both, yet that, without your mother’s consent, I can never be yours.”

“You will make me wish my mother dead, Agnes,” Percy said, passionately.

“No, no, Percy, do not say that; I know I am doing right. Do not make it harder for me than I can bear.”

Percy strode up and down the room. Once or twice he stopped before me, as if he would speak, but he did not. I was crying freely now, and I could not look up at him.

“Can you not say something for me?” he said to Polly, at last.

Polly got up when he spoke to her—before that she had been sitting on the sofa by me, holding one of my hands in hers—now she went up to him. She put one of her hands on his shoulder, took one of his hands in her other, and looked up into his face.

“Percy, she is right—you know in your own heart she is so. Have pity upon her; she will not do it—she cannot. I love her better than myself, but I could not advise her to do, even for her happiness, what she believes is not right;—she cannot come between you and your mother. Wait, Percy, and be patient—time works wonders. You may be sure she will be yours in heart to the end of her life. Have pity on her, Percy, and go.”

“Oh, Polly, have pity on me, too,” Percy said, and his lips quivered now; and although he kept the features of his face still rigid and under control, the tears were starting from his eyes. “What shall I do!”

“Go, Percy,” I said, getting up. “Go. Let us help each other;” and I took his hands now, and looked up into his face. “Go. I do not say, forget me; I do not say, goodbye for ever; I only say, go, now. I cannot do what you ask me; let us wait—let us wait and hope.”

“Agnes,” Percy said, solemnly, “I go now; I leave you for a time, but our engagement is not over, and again hear me swear never to marry any woman but you.”

“And I no other man, Percy; and now kiss me and go.”

For a little while Percy held me strained to his heart, his tears rained down upon my face, his lips pressed mine again and again, then one long, long kiss—I felt it was the last; then he gave me to Polly, who was standing near. I heard the door close behind him, and for a long time I heard no other sound. I had fainted.

Chapter VIII • Struggles for a Living • 4,200 Words

When at Christmas time Robert Gregory heard that one of the springs which were supposed to open the secret door was found, he gave up for a time even the pretence of looking for anything to do; but not very long afterwards he met an old friend, and most unexpectedly went into a business with him, and that perhaps the only one which could have been named for which he was really fitted.

He had one day, as was his usual custom, entered a public-house where he was well known, and had gone into the bar parlour, where he was sitting reading the paper, smoking his pipe, and drinking a glass of spirits and water, when another man entered the room, looked carelessly at Gregory, then more attentively, and finally burst out,—

“Hallo, Robert? is that you? How fares the world with you all this time?”

“By Jove, Fielding! is that you? How are you, my boy?”

They greeted each other warmly, for they had been a great deal together in the time when Gregory was in London, and their satisfaction at meeting was mutual. After a while, they sat down before the fire, ordered fresh glasses of spirits and water, and prepared for a long talk over all that had happened since they had parted some four years ago—Robert to return to his father at Canterbury, Fielding to continue for a short time longer the reckless life they were living about town.

“Now, Gregory,” Fielding said, “let me hear what you have been doing first.”

Robert, in reply, related pretty accurately the whole of his life since he had left London.

“Well, that is a rum start,” his companion said when he had finished his story. “And you really think that you will some day come in for all this money?”

“I do,” Robert answered. “As I have told you they are trying down there now, and have a good chance; but if that fails, I mean to try for it myself. And now what have you been doing?”

“The easiest way to answer would be to tell you what I have not been doing. You left us in the winter, and I held on, as I had been doing before, till the next Derby Day; but I dropped so much upon that, that I had to make myself scarce for a bit. Then I came back again, and set to work to earn my living, and very hard work I found it.”

“I should think so,” Robert Gregory put in. “I have been trying to get something to do for the last three months, and I am no nearer, as far as I can see, than when I began. How did you set about it?”

“To tell you the truth, Robert, I found it rather up-hill work at first. I worked for the papers for a bit,—went to all the fires, and the inquests, and the hospitals, and sent accounts to all the dailies. Of course at first they did not often put them in, still they did sometimes, and after a month or two they came to take them pretty regularly. At last I did what I really very seldom did do; but I was very hard-up, and I sent an account of a fire which only existed in my imagination. Well, it turned out that there was a row about it, and of course that put an end to that line. It was winter then, and I was very hard-up, and was glad to earn a few shillings a week as super at one of the pantomimes. Then I happened to meet with a man with a few pounds, and together we set up a very profitable business—advertising to find situations for clerks and servants. They paid us five shillings to enter their names in our books; then we answered every advertisement that appeared in any of the papers for that sort of thing, and sent them to look after the situations. If they got them, they paid us thirty per cent, on the first year’s earnings, down on the nail. There were three or four of us in that game. I kept the head office, and they took places in other parts, and each of them wanted clerks at £150 a year. It was a capital dodge, and we made a lot of money; but at last it got blown upon, and we had to give it up.

“Then I did the ladies employment business. Lessons given for a guinea, and constant employment guaranteed when the art was learnt. We used to send them a book on illuminating, which by the gross cost us twopence each. None of the ladies, as it turned out, ever became perfect enough for us to give them employment; but that was their fault you know, not ours. Well, that paid uncommonly well for a bit. After that, I tried no end of moves, and did sometimes well, sometimes badly; still I was not often without a sovereign in my pocket. At last I took up my present line; I have been at it now a year and a half, and I mean to stick to it.”

“What is it?” Robert Gregory asked rather curiously, for his companion had the look of a well-to-do man, although perhaps rather of a sporting cut. He wore a good substantial great-coat with a velvet collar, a very good hat, put rather on one side of his head, and a quiet scarf, with a gold pin representing a jockey’s cap and whip.

“I am a betting man,” Fielding said. “I make a book on all the races. I have certain places—public-houses, quiet streets, and so on—where I am always to be found at regular hours of the day, and I do a very fair business.”

“And do you always win, Fielding?”

“Not always; occasionally one gets hit hard, but nineteen times out of twenty, if one is careful, one wins. The great thing is always to have enough in hand to pay your losses the day after the race; and as one receives all the money when the bets are made, two or three months before a race, it is hard if one cannot do that. In this way I have got a good name, am looked upon as a safe man, and so am getting a good business together.

“What do you make on an average a week?”

“Well, on an average, five or six pounds—more than that a good deal in the season, but very little just at this time of year; in a month or so I shall be beginning again.”

“I should like to join you, Fielding,” Robert said, eagerly.

“Aye, but what capital could you put in? I acknowledge I could do very well with a partner who would take one end of the town while I took the other. I could easily double the business. But I should want a good sum of money with one. I have been, as I told you, a year and a half at it, and have got a good connection together.”

“How much do you call a good sum?”

“That would depend upon the man,” Fielding answered. “I have known you well, and I am sure we should pull well together. I would take a hundred pounds with you; not for my own use, mind, but to lay in a bank in our joint names. You see it makes the beginning of an account, and we could pay in there all we took, and settle our losses by cheques, which looks much better, and would give us a much better name altogether.”

“I should have difficulty in getting a hundred pounds,” Robert said; and indeed the sixty pounds the pony carriage had fetched had melted away very fast; for Robert had spent a large amount in this daily search for employment, and Sophy often wondered to herself, with a little sigh, how Robert could possibly spend as much money as he did. “No, Fielding, I am sure I could not manage a hundred, but I think I could go as far as sixty.”

“Suppose you think it over, Gregory, and see what you can do. Let us meet here again to-morrow at the same time, and then we will enter into it again; and I will bring you some of my old books to show you that what I say is correct.”

“Very well,” Robert said, and they parted to meet again next day.

That evening Robert told Sophy what had occurred, and said that it seemed to him an opportunity for getting on which might not occur to him again, but that he would be guided entirely by her.

Sophy was a little alarmed at the thought of their whole available capital being embarked; but she assented cheerfully to the proposal, as she was delighted at anything which seemed likely to occupy Robert’s time and thoughts, and prevent him being driven, from sheer want of something to do, to spend his time in drinking. So the next day the grand pianoforte was sent to an auction-room to be sold; it fetched fifty-five pounds, and with this and twenty-five of their former stock Robert joined Fielding as a partner, leaving a solitary ten pounds only in Sophy’s charge. But as she was now regularly giving lessons six hours a day, she had very little occasion to break in upon this, as the thirty-six shillings she earned quite covered her household expenses; and she was now able to go to her work with a light heart, knowing that her absence from home no longer drove her husband to spend his time in public-houses.

The firm of Gregory and Fielding flourished; in a short time they had plenty to do; and as the spring came on and the racing season began, they had their hands quite full. At first they went about together; and then, when Robert became known to Fielding’s connection, the one took the east end of the town, the other the west, meeting twice a day at some middle point to compare their books and see how they stood. They now, too, started as racing prophets and commission agents, and advertised in the sporting papers, and by the end of April they were making a large income. How large a portion of the money they received would be clear profit, they could not tell until the races were over, so they agreed to draw five pounds a week each, and to pay the rest into the bank to draw from as required. Sophy knew Robert was doing well; for he again begged her to give up teaching, and generally gave her four pounds out of the five he drew every week for the expenses. This was, as she told him double what they spent; but he said that he was making that, and therefore gave it to her; that he did not want to know how it went, but any she could save she might put by with her own earnings, in case of a rainy day.

For the first two months after Robert Gregory had commenced his work, his wife did not see much of him, for his business now often kept him out the whole evening; and when he came back late he was seldom quite sober, and he was frequently not up when she started to her work at nine o’clock. This went on until, in the middle of March, the news came that the secret of the door was found, and Robert was in such a state of excitement at what he considered the certainty of the missing will being found, that he was quite unable to attend to his business, so Fielding agreed to give him a holiday at any rate until he heard of the result. These three days Robert spent in going about from public-house to public-house treating every one he knew; telling them all it was probable that this was the last time he should see them, as he was about to come into an immense fortune. Proportionate therefore to his exultation, was the disappointment when the news came that the secret chamber had been entered, and that the will was not there. Sophy had never seen him in a rage before, indeed she had never seen any one really in a passion, and she was thoroughly frightened and horror-struck by it. She listened in silence to the terrible imprecations and oaths which he poured out, and which shocked and terrified her indeed, but of the meaning of which she had, of course, not the slightest idea.

At last he calmed down, but from that time he was a changed man. Among his associates he had no longer a loud laugh and ready joke; he was become a moody, surly man, doing all that he had to do in a dogged, resolute way, as if it was only by sheer force of will that he could keep his attention to the work upon which he was engaged. He came to be known among them as a dangerous customer; for one or two of them who had ventured to joke him about the fortune he had told them of, had been warned fiercely and savagely to leave that subject alone; while one who, more adventurous than the others, had disregarded the warning and continued his jokes, had been attacked with such fury, that had not Robert been pulled off him by the bystanders, the consequences would have been most serious. So it came to be understood amongst them that he was a man who was safer to be left alone.

Still the business did not suffer by the change, but, as I have said, throve and increased wonderfully through the months of April and May. People seemed to fancy that their money was safer with “Surly Bob,” as he generally came to be known among them, than with some of the other offhand, careless, joking speculators. At any rate, the firm throve. They were lucky on the “Two Thousand,” and won heavily upon the “Derby;” so the money in the bank accumulated, and Fielding and Gregory came to be looked well upon among their associates.

Robert now arranged for his partner to take as much as possible of the evening work off his hands. He gave up all his former companions, and returned back to Sophy at half-past six, after which, except on the week preceding very important races, when he was obliged to be at work, he did not go out again.

But he did not give up drinking. He told Sophy that he would stop at home of an evening if she would not interfere with him, but that he could not give up drink till the will was found or they started for Australia: in either of which cases, he swore a great oath that he would never touch spirits again.

Sophy tried in vain to point out to him that the will now seemed altogether lost, and that it would be better to start for abroad at once. But Robert said that he did not give it up yet, and that, as he was doing very well, he was in no hurry to start; but that if by the end of the next racing season—that was to say, in about eighteen months—it was not found, he would give up his present work and go abroad, for by that time he should have made enough money to take them out comfortably, and to start them fairly in the new country.

Indeed, in his heart Robert Gregory would rather have gone on as he was, for he knew that he should find no work out in the colony so easy and suitable for him as his present; but yet he was determined that he would go, for Sophy’s sake. He thought that there, with hard work as a settler, he could keep from drink, and he was sincere in his determination never again to touch it. There he might be a respectable man yet, and, cost him what it would, he was resolved to try.

Sophy was satisfied with the new arrangement. She was glad to know that, at any rate, he was now safe at home of an evening. It relieved her from the anxiety with which she had sat, sometimes for hours, listening for his heavy, and usually unsteady, footfall. So after that Robert, whenever he could, stayed at home, drank large quantities of spirits, and smoked moodily; arousing himself sometimes to talk with Sophy, who would sit by working, and always ready to answer with a cheerful smile. Occasionally he brought home some book or paper about Australia, and Sophy looked through it and read out to him such parts as she thought would interest him; and then he would leave his spirits untasted for a while, and listen to the accounts of the struggles of the back-wood settler, of the clearings in the dark forests, and of the abundant return nature gave for the labour; and his eye would brighten, and his finger tighten as if on the handle of an axe, and he longed for the time to come when he too would be there, away from all debasing associations, and out of reach of the spirit-bottle. And sometimes he told Sophy that perhaps, after all, he should not wait as long as he had said, but might start in the early spring. The spirits he drank of an evening had little effect upon his hardened frame, and he generally went to bed, if not quite sober, at any rate not very drunk.

He now succeeded in persuading Sophy to give up teaching; telling her that she might be of the greatest use answering the correspondence of the firm, for that this was now growing too large for them to manage. He urged that they would otherwise have to pay some one else to do it, and that it would be a great annoyance to have to let a stranger into all their secrets. He added that of course they should be glad to pay her for her work instead of a clerk, and that they would give her thirty-five shillings per week, which she should have for her own private use.

Sophy, seeing that she really could be of service, at once agreed; and telling her pupils that for a time she must give up teaching, she settled to her new employment. Accordingly, the first thing after breakfast of a morning, she now sat down to her writing-desk, with the list, on one side of her, of the horses selected by the firm as the probable winners of the various races; on the other, of the entries for the different races, and the current odds against each horse. She then opened the letters received that morning, and made a list of the various commissions sent to back different horses, to be given to Robert when he came in for them at one o’clock; then she answered those which required reply, and sent out circulars and lists to their numerous town and country subscribers. Generally she had done her work about twelve o’clock, but on the few days preceding great races she was frequently engaged until quite late in the evening.

However, she liked it much better than the teaching, for there was a certain excitement in seeing whether the prophecies of the firm were correct; and as she now knew pretty nearly what horses they stood to win or lose upon in each race, she quite shared in their interest in the result of the different events. Every Saturday she received her pay, which she put by as regularly. She had now two funds. The one she considered the common fund; this consisted of the ten pounds which remained in hand after paying the partnership money to Fielding, and which had been increasing at the rate of nearly two pounds a week—her savings out of the housekeeping money—ever since that time; the other was her private fund, her own earnings since Robert had been able to pay their expenses. Of the existence of either of these hoards Robert was quite ignorant. He was himself so careless in money matters, and had always parted with his money so freely, that he never thought what Sophy was saving. He knew that she always had everything very comfortable for him, and he asked nothing more. If he had been asked, he would have said, perhaps, that Sophy might have laid by a few pounds; but if he had been told what the total amount came to at the end of the six months, he would have been perfectly astounded. But Sophy said nothing about it. She was laying it by till the time should come for starting abroad.

She was more comfortable now than she had been at all. Her husband, although he was gloomy, and talked little, still was not unkind, and very, very seldom spoke harshly to her.

Mrs. Billow had turned out a really kind-hearted, motherly old woman, and had conceived quite an affection for her quiet, pale young lodger.

Mr. Billow she saw very little of. He was generally quite drunk or asleep, and she never heard him except as he tumbled upstairs to bed. At first, indeed, he had been inclined to be disagreeable, and had taken upon himself to tell Robert Gregory that he would not have his lodgers coming in drunk at all times of the night. But Robert turned upon him fiercely, loaded him with abuse, told him that he was a drunken old vagabond, and a receiver of stolen goods; and that if he ever ventured to say a word to him again, he would go the next morning to Scotland Yard, and mention what he knew of his goings on.

Mr. Billow cowered under this fierce and unexpected attack, and was from that time in deadly fear of his lodger, and kept scrupulously out of his sight.

Sophy, too, had by this time got to know many of her neighbours,—most of them professional people, simple, kind-hearted women with families, struggling hard for existence. Some of these would frequently bring their work over of an afternoon, and sit awhile with her. They would on these occasions talk unrestrainedly of their lives and struggles; and Sophy came to take quite an interest in their histories, and occasional little triumphs, and in talk with them forgot her own trials and troubles. They would have been much more sociable had Sophy chosen, and several times asked her and her husband over to take tea with them, on evenings when they were not professionally engaged. But Sophy declined these invitations, saying that her husband had a dislike to society, and would not go out anywhere. Their only visitor of an evening was Fielding, who occasionally came over for a quiet talk with his partner, to compare their books, and discuss at leisure the chances of the various horses, and which to lay against. He took a strong liking to Robert’s quiet lady-wife, reminding him as she did of the women he used to meet when he was young, before he left his father, a quiet country clergyman, and came up to London.

Sophy’s great treat was upon occasions when the firm had done particularly well, and when Robert had come home in an unusually good temper. Then Sophy would petition him to take her to the theatre; and as it was so very seldom that Sophy did ask for anything, Robert, on these occasions, would give up his pipe and his spirit-bottle, and go with her to the pit of one of the theatres. These were the great treats of Sophy’s life, and she enjoyed them immensely. She had never been to a theatre before the first of these expeditions, and she entered into it with all her heart. Even Robert was pleased at seeing her gratified, and promised himself that he would come oftener with her, as when so little made her happy he would be a brute not to let her have that little. It was too much self-denial, however, for him voluntarily to suggest giving up his spirits and his pipe, but he never refused on the rare occasions when she proposed it; and when he did go, he went willingly, and with an air of pleasure which doubled Sophy’s enjoyment. After their return from the theatre, Sophy always had a nice little supper ready—some oysters, or a lobster; and they would chat over their evening’s entertainment, while Robert drank a glass of spirits-and-water, before going to bed; and Sophy, for the time, would really feel as happy as she had long ago dreamt she should be when Robert Gregory was her husband.

Chapter IX • Polly to the Rescue • 5,100 Words

In three or four days after that terrible interview with Percy, in which we agreed—well, I don’t know that we actually did agree to anything,—but in which it was at any rate understood that my resolution was immovable, and that I would not marry and accompany him to India without Lady Desborough’s consent to our union—I received a letter from him. It was written from Newry, where his regiment was stationed, and was as follows:—

“My darling Agnes,

“I do not write this letter to you to ask you to reconsider your determination. Deeply as I feel the disappointment of my dearest hopes, I yet bow to your decision. Indeed, although it is against me, I feel, now that I can consider it calmly, that it is the only one which you, with your feelings of delicacy, could have arrived at. Forgive me, Agnes, for the cruel way in which I tried and agitated you the other day; but my mother’s hardness and obduracy had driven me nearly out of my mind. I went away, Agnes, with your words ringing in my ears, ‘Wait and hope!’ and I am ready to do so. But how long, Agnes? My regiment may not improbably remain in India fifteen years; but at the end of eight years out there, I can return home for, at any rate, a year’s leave; so that I may expect to be in England again in nine years from the present time. I shall by that time have got my troop; and my pay as a captain in India, together with the extra pay I may get from any staff appointment, would enable us to live in tolerable comfort. Should my regiment be returning before the time I name, I can exchange into another; so as to remain in India, at any rate, for another six or seven years.

“Will you, Agnes, when I return in nine years from this time, be my wife?—I mean, whether my mother still oppose or not? I cannot think she will; but let us suppose the worst. Will you then be my wife? Will you continue your engagement to me, and correspond with me for that time? Will you give me that fixed period to look forward to, instead of a restless waiting for my mother’s death? If you do this, I shall be comparatively happy; for I should then have something certain to look forward to. If you answer ‘yes,’ I shall write to my mother, whom I have neither seen nor heard from, and say that I am willing—at your request—so far to give in to her that I will agree not to marry you before proceeding to India, and that we will wait, at any rate, until my return. But that I shall, of course, expect on her part that my allowance will be continued as before. The three hundred a-year which I receive from her I shall scrupulously lay by, as I can manage very well in India upon my lieutenant’s pay; and as this, without counting what I may make by my staff appointment, will amount to nearly three thousand pounds in the nine years, I shall—even in the event of my mother refusing to assist me farther after my marriage with you—have accumulated enough to purchase my majority when the time comes. This is my future, if you agree to my proposal, dearest. If you tell me that you will not promise, if you write and repeat that you will not ruin me by marrying without my mother’s consent, my mind is made up. I shall at once send in my papers to the Horse Guards, sell my commission, and embark for Australia, where, I am told, with a thousand pounds capital to start with, I may in a few years be a rich man. I shall then return and claim you, and no one will have a right to discuss my choice. Upon your decision, dearest Agnes, rests my future. What is it to be?

“Your own,

“Percy.”

After I had read this letter through many times, I resolved to lay it before Polly, in whose judgment I felt the most perfect confidence. My sister did not hesitate a moment.

“What Percy asks is only fair, Agnes. He must not, as he says, be made to look forward to his mother’s death as the only hope of his marriage with you. If you and he make this great sacrifice to her wishes, and at the end of nine years are of the same mind, I think that he at thirty-two and you at twenty-seven, have a perfect right to marry even without her consent; and by that time, as he says, his position will be so secured that he can afford to make the money sacrifice. Write and agree to his proposal, dear, by all means.”

My own opinion tallied with Polly’s, and I wrote to Percy to tell him that I agreed to remain engaged to him, and that, at the end of the nine years, if he claimed me, I would be his. That I would not cease all correspondence with him, although I felt that I had better do so, but that I would agree to exchange letters once every three months.

Percy wrote at once, thanking me very much for my decision, but begging that I would not insist on such long intervals between the letters. I would not, however, relax that condition. I knew how few long engagements ever came to anything, and how hard it is for a man to wait through the best part of his life. I determined, therefore, not to keep up a too frequent exchange of letters, which would, I felt, however much he might wish it at present, prove terribly tiresome to him long before the expiration of the period of trial; and yet he would not like to fall off in his correspondence, for he would know that I should feel it a great trial when he began to write less frequently. So I maintained my resolution, but told him that, in the event of illness, or of any particular news, the rule might, of course, be broken.

In another day or two I heard again from him, saying that his mother—while on her part reiterating her assertion that she should never alter her determination, or consent to his marriage with any woman without either money or rank to assist him—had yet agreed willingly to his proposal, namely, that things should go on as before, and that the breach between them should be healed if he would go to India by himself.

And so it was settled; and when my letter to Percy in answer to his was written, the three months’ rule began. And now that I could have no letter for that time, I settled down into a dreamy, despondent state, from which, although I tried to rouse myself, I could not succeed in doing so. Nine years! It was such a long, long time to look forward to; and so few long engagements ever came to anything, even when there were no difficulties in the way. How could I hope that my case would form an exception to the rule?

Under all this, my health, which had never since my mother’s death been strong, failed rapidly, in spite of papa’s tonics, and sister Polly’s kindness and tender care. Papa I could see was growing very anxious about me, and I myself thought that I was going into a decline. I was thin and pale; I had no longer strength to go for long walks with Polly, but seldom went out beyond the garden. I felt the heat, too, dreadfully. I do not know that it was a particularly hot summer, but I was weak, and the heat tired me sadly. Polly was unceasing in her kindness and attention; she read to me, chatted to me, talked cheerfully about the future, pictured Percy’s return to claim me, painted our life in India, and laughingly said that if she could not get a husband here, that she would come out to us on spec. Indeed she did everything in her power to cheer and amuse me. I tried hard to respond to all this kindness, but with little result; I was ashamed of myself for giving way, and yet I gave way, and daily became weaker and weaker. I am sure that Polly thought I was going to die, and she came to a resolution of the result of which I was not told till long afterwards.

She ascertained that the elder Miss Harmer was in the habit of coming in on Sunday mornings, to the little Catholic chapel in the town, and that she was very seldom accompanied by her sister. Accordingly, one morning when I was unusually poorly, and was unable to go to church, she started early, and walked through the town, and out upon the road to Sturry; presently she saw the well-known Harmer carriage approaching, and she pulled down her veil as it approached her, to prevent any possibility of her being recognized.

She pursued her way until she reached the lodge gate of Harmer Place, turned in, went up the drive, and rang at the hall door. Sarah opened it, and looked not a little surprised at seeing Polly.

“Is Miss Angela Harmer in, Sarah?”

“Yes, Miss, she has just come down into the drawing-room.”

“Do not ask her if she will see me, Sarah, as I have no doubt she would refuse, and it is absolutely necessary that I should have a talk with her.”

“Very well, Miss,” Sarah said; “I gave notice better than three weeks ago, and my month is up on Thursday, so I do not care in the least what they say to me.” Accordingly Sarah led the way to the drawing-room, opened the door, and announced “Miss Mary Ashleigh.” Polly went in, the door closed behind her, and she was alone with Angela Harmer.

The old lady had changed much since Polly had seen her a year before; she had aged wonderfully, and was evidently breaking fast; her cheeks had fallen in, her face was wrinkled, and her whole figure was thinner and feebler than before; her hands, too, which had before been plump and well shaped—and upon which, if Angela Harmer had a single thought of personal vanity, she rather prided herself—were thin and bony, unmistakably the hands of an old woman.

As Polly Ashleigh was announced and entered, Angela Harmer half rose, with an exclamation almost of terror, and looked round with a wild, frightened look, as if seeking some outlet of escape; but there was none, and even had there been she could not have availed herself of it, for her knees gave way under her, and she sank down with a scared, helpless look, into the chair from which she had half risen.

Polly raised her veil, and looked down with a rather heightened colour, but with a steady look, at the cowering old woman before her, and then said, “You are surprised to see me here, Miss Harmer; and you well may be; for myself—had it been to make me the richest woman in the world—would not have set foot as a petitioner within the walls; but on behalf of my sister, I would do this and much more.”

“What do you want, Miss Ashleigh?” Angela Harmer said, in hurried, anxious tones. “You must not talk to me; you must see my sister; she is more able to talk upon business than I am.”

“I do not go to your sister, Miss Harmer, because I know my errand would then be a fruitless one. I come to you in her absence, because from what I know and have heard of you, I believe that your heart is accessible to impulses of kindness and pity; I come to you because I believe you to have been a mere passive participator in the wrong which others have committed.”

“What do you want?” again Miss Harmer asked, in the same frightened, helpless way.

“I ask at your hands my sister’s life—Miss Harmer, she is dying; do you know why? She was happy, she was loved; and was engaged to a man worthy of her, and they would before this have been married. But this man is dependent upon another, and that other’s consent was only given for him to wed an heiress; my sister is an heiress no longer. This man would gladly take her penniless as she is, take her to the ruin of his worldly prospects, but she cannot accept the sacrifice; and she is dying—dying; do you hear that, Miss Harmer? And you are assuredly her murderess,—far, far more so than you allege Sophy to have been of your brother; for he was an old man, suffering from a deadly malady, by which he might at any moment have been carried off, while this is a fair, young, happy girl, whom you have struck down. She is dying;—Miss Harmer, I demand her life of you!”

Miss Harmer cowered back into her chair before the young girl who stood looking down with her earnest face upon her; and raised her hands feebly, as if to keep her accuser at a distance.

“I pity you,” Polly went on, “I pity you from my heart; but yet I demand my sister’s life; give her back to us again, and you will be doubly—yes, tenfold repaid; for your peace of mind will be restored to you. I know what you must have suffered—your changed face shows it; I know what misery you must have undergone, and the struggle between your conscience, your innate sense of right, and what you had been led to believe. This was terrible before; but it was nothing to what you will feel now, with the thought of my sister, whom you are sending to her grave, before you. You cannot—I see it in your face—you cannot reconcile with your conscience what you are doing; for your own sake, Miss Harmer, and for my sister’s, I call upon you to do what is right.”

“What would you have?” Miss Harmer asked, wringing her hands in helpless despair; “we offered at Christmas——”

“You did,” Polly broke in, “you tried to cheat your conscience, as Ananias did of old, by giving part while you held back the rest; but we could not accept it: not even to save life, could we receive as a gift part of our own, and so become almost participators in the robbery of Sophy and ourselves. No, Miss Harmer, we must have our own, or nothing. I call upon you now, solemnly in the names of your dead brother, and of my dying sister, to give me this will you are hiding. Give it to me, and I promise you in the name of us all, that the past shall never be alluded to; I offer you a clear conscience, and our blessing, as the saviour of my sister’s life.”

“But my sister!—Father Eustace!” Miss Harmer murmured, in a terrified tone to herself. “Oh, no, no, no, I dare not!” and she again wrung her hands despairingly.

“You dare not refuse, Miss Harmer; you dare not go down to your grave with this grievous wrong and with my sister’s death upon your soul; you will have to meet then, One whose wrath will be far more terrible than that of the anger of mortal. Miss Harmer, give me the will,—come,” and with an air of mingled entreaty and command, Sophy took Miss Harmer’s hands, looking down upon her with her earnest eyes, and Miss Harmer almost unconsciously rose to her feet.

“Come,” Polly said again, “save my sister’s life, earn peace and happiness for yourself, here and hereafter.”

The girl led the old woman to the door, never taking her eyes from her face, for she felt that somehow she was exercising a strange power over her, that she was leading her, as it were, against her own will and volition, and that if nothing occurred to break the spell, the victory was hers. Miss Harmer’s eyes were wide open, but she hardly seemed to see, but went mechanically, like a person walking in her sleep; her lips moved, but no sound came from them; then they went out of the door, and up the stairs, and turned towards the door of Mr. Harmer’s former bedroom, when a noiseless step came up the stairs behind them, a hand was placed upon Miss Harmer’s shoulder, and the deep voice of Father Eustace said,—

“Sister Angela, what are you doing?”

As a sleep-walker startled at some sudden touch from a dream, the old woman turned round with a convulsive start, and then with a loud cry fell senseless to the ground.

“Who are you?” the priest asked of Polly, as he stooped to raise the fallen woman. “Who are you?”

“One of the rightful possessors of this house,” Polly said, proudly; and then turning round—for she saw that the prize was hopelessly lost at the moment of victory—she went down stairs and out of the house, telling Sarah, whom she found in the hall, to go upstairs to help the astonished Father Eustace to carry the insensible woman to her room.

Polly, when she got home again, went straight to the library, and told papa of her visit to Harmer Place, and its results, and how nearly she had been to the recovery of the will. Papa looked thoughtful over it for some time.

“It was a dangerous experiment, Polly, but the fact that you so nearly succeeded, proves that it was not a hopeless one, as I should have unhesitatingly have pronounced it to be, had you asked my opinion before starting. It shows that the will is in existence still, and no doubt as she was leading you towards Mr. Harmer’s room, she was going down the upper staircase towards the secret chamber, in some closet in which it is undoubtedly concealed. I only hope that Miss Harmer will not, when she returns home, and hears what a narrow escape she has had, destroy the will at once. However, we must do as we have done before, hope for the best.”

Papa and Polly had a long talk again over Miss Harmer, and they quite agreed that her religious bigotry and personal obstinacy were both so great that it was hopeless to expect any change in her. Her superstition was the only weak point in her character. So great was this, that papa said that, strong-minded woman as she was in other respects, he had heard her confess that she would not remain without a light at night for any consideration, and that she would not even go into a dark room without a candle on any account.

“It is very strange, papa,” Polly said. “How do you account for a feeling so opposed to her general character?”

“We are all anomalies, Polly, and in the present instance the anomaly can be accounted for more easily than it can in many others. As children, the Misses Harmer were brought up in convents abroad, and saw pictures and were told stories of the martyrdoms of saints, until the very air seemed full of horrors. I have no doubt that this is how their feeling originated; but at any rate it is fortunate for us, for there is no question that it is their superstition, heightened by the threat I held over them of their brother’s spirit, which has prevented Miss Harmer from destroying the will long ago.”

“I wish I could frighten her again,” Polly said thoughtfully.

“Come, Polly, no more tricks,” papa said, “you might get yourself into some very serious scrape. You must promise me that you will on no account go to Harmer Place again, without consulting me beforehand.”

Polly did not like to promise, but papa insisted upon it, and Polly, although very reluctantly, had to bind herself by a promise not to do so again.

Two days afterwards, a short time after breakfast—to which I had not risen—there was a knock at the door, and the servant came in, looking rather surprised, and said that Miss Harmer wished to speak to Miss Mary Ashleigh.

Polly, who was alone, at once ordered her to be shown in. The girl rose to meet her visitor with a bright flush on her cheek, and a little nervous tremor of excitement running through her, for she felt that Miss Harmer was a very different woman to her sister, and that she had a harder battle to fight than the previous one had been, and with even a slighter chance of victory.

Miss Harmer entered stiff and unbending, and her cold stern face at once restored Polly’s composure. Her bow of greeting was to the full as haughty as that of Miss Harmer, and she motioned that lady to a chair, and in silence sat down opposite to her.

The two women looked at each other full in the face, and Miss Harmer, fearless as she herself was of all earthly things, could not help admiring the bright unflinching look of the young girl, and feeling that despite the difference of age, she had met an opponent worthy of her. Seeing that Polly waited quietly for her to begin, she said at last,—

“I have called, Miss Ashleigh, to remonstrate with you upon your very extraordinary conduct the other day. My sister has been very ill, and indeed it was only last evening that she was able to give me any account of what had taken place.”

“I am sorry to hear that your sister has been ill, Miss Harmer, but for no other reason do I regret what I did. I endeavoured for my sister’s sake to persuade your sister to do what was right. I grieve that my attempt failed, but on that account only do I regret what I have done. I did it without the knowledge of my father or sister. I acted as I did because my conscience told me I was right.”

“But your conduct is outrageous, Miss Ashleigh,” Miss Harmer said angrily. “You first gratuitously assume that this will—which there is every reason to believe is long since destroyed—is in existence; upon the strength of this unfounded and injurious supposition you insult us grossly, and have shocked and alarmed my poor sister beyond description. If such a thing occur again, or if any similar attempt is made, I shall call in the assistance of the law for our protection.”

“I assume that the will is in existence, Miss Harmer, because I am as certain of it as I am of my own being.”

“I suppose,” Miss Harmer said scornfully, “you imagine that my poor sister—whom your language and manner appear to have affected until she did not know what she was doing—was taking you to my brother’s room, and that she would have there unlocked a drawer and given you the will.”

“My supposition is founded upon no such grounds, Miss Harmer. I know the will to be in existence, and I also know that it is not in your brother’s room.”

Polly spoke so calmly and earnestly, that Miss Harmer felt a little startled and uneasy in spite of herself.

“Upon what my conviction is founded I will presently inform you. My attempt failed, and I shall try no more, but leave the matter in His hands who is certain to bring the works of darkness to light in the end. You believe, Miss Harmer,” and the girl’s voice rose now, and became more firm and impressive, “that you are acting in the interests of God; believe me, He is strong enough to act for Himself. I have a strong, a sure conviction that some day it will be all made straight, and in the meantime I am content to trust my sister’s life in His hands, and wait. If she die, it is His will; but I still hope that He will in some way or other make known to me where the will is placed.”

Miss Harmer looked scornfully at her. Polly paid no heed to her look; she had turned her eyes from Miss Harmer now, and was looking straight before her, and went on, speaking in a quiet, dreamy tone, as if almost unconscious of her visitor’s presence.

“Already I know much. I know that the will is not destroyed, and yet I know not where it is, but I may know yet. I have dreams at night. I see at times before me a small chamber, with a single arm-chair and a table there; a light stands upon the table, and a figure, your brother, sits there writing. The will lies on the table before him. He has risen now, and has taken up the will and the candle, but the light burns dimly, and I cannot see what he does with it; but I know somehow that he has put it into a place of safety, and that it is there still. A voice seems to say to me, ‘Patience, and wait: I guard it!’ When I wake I know this is no ordinary dream, for it comes over and over again, and I know that the chamber is in existence. I can see it now before me, with its low ceiling, and a stone staircase which seems to run through it, leading both up and down—I know not where. I can see it, with its table and chair, with books and some scattered papers, and a figure is sitting in the chair, and which yet seems to me to be no figure, but a mere shadow; but I know that he is there, and that he will wait until the time comes for the hidden will to be found. Miss Harmer!” Polly said, turning suddenly round upon her, “you best know how far my dream is true, and whether such a chamber as I have seen exists!”

Miss Harmer made no reply, but sat as if stricken with a fit. She had during her brother’s life been frequently in the “priest’s chamber,” and once on the afternoon of his death; and the room rose before her as Polly described it, with its table and candles, and her brother sitting reading, and the stone steps leading up and down. She could hardly keep herself from screaming aloud. The hard, rigid lines of her face relaxed; the tightly-closed lips parted; and the whole expression of her face was changed by this great terror.

Polly saw the tremendous sensation she had created, and rose and filled a tumbler with water from a caraffe which stood on the side board, and offered it to Miss Harmer, but she motioned it away. Polly set it down beside her, and it was some time before the stricken woman could trust her trembling hand to carry it to her lips. At length she did so, drank a little, and then said,—

“One question, Miss Ashleigh: Did my brother ever reveal to your father, sister, or yourself the existence and description of such a place as you speak of?”

“As I hope in heaven!” Polly said, solemnly, “he did not.”

There was a pause for some time, and then Miss Harmer said, very feebly,—

“I confess you have startled me, Miss Ashleigh; for you have, I say honestly, described accurately a place the very existence of which I believed known only to my dead brother, my sister, myself, and one other person abroad, with whom it would be as safe as with myself. I went into that chamber on the day after my brother’s death, to see if the will was on that table, but, as you say, it was not. Should it be anywhere in existence, which, remember, I am ignorant of—for I give you my solemn assurance that I have not seen it since my brother’s death—and should, in your dream, the place where it is hidden be revealed to you, come to me, and you shall be free to examine the place, and take the will if you find it. I will acknowledge the hand of God, and not struggle against it. And now goodbye. You will not come again to my sister?”

“I will not, Miss Harmer. I wait and hope.”

“Will you not reconsider the proposal we made?”

“No, Miss Harmer—it is impossible.”

Miss Harmer now rose with some difficulty, and went out, attended by Polly, to her carriage, with an air very different to her usual upright walk.

When the door had closed, and the carriage had driven off, Polly said exultingly to herself, “The will is safe for a time anyhow.”

Four or five days afterwards papa received a formal letter from Miss Harmer’s man of business in London, saying that the Misses Harmer were anxious to clear off all outstanding accounts, and that they did not find any mention among Mr. Harmer’s papers of money paid to Dr. Ashleigh for professional services, during the three years prior to his death; that as all other payments were punctually entered by Mr. Harmer, it was evident that no such sum had been paid; and that he, therefore, at Miss Harmer’s request, forwarded a cheque for £500, being, she stated, certainly not too large a sum for the constant attendance furnished by him during that time.

Papa did not refuse to accept this money, as indeed he had not, from the time that Mr. Harmer declared his intentions respecting us, ever sent in any account to him. Papa determined to spend the money in making a grand tour for the benefit of my health; and accordingly, in another fortnight—having arranged with some one to take his practice during his absence—he, Polly, and I started for a four months’ tour. For that time we wandered through Switzerland, Germany, and the old cities of Belgium; and very greatly we enjoyed it. My health improved with the change of scene, and when we returned to our old home, at the end of November, I was really myself again, and was able to look forward cheerfully to the future, and to take my part again in what was going on round me.

Chapter X • Allies from Alsatia • 3,100 Words

And so things went on with the Gregorys through the summer months, and on into the autumn. Still the firm of Gregory and Fielding flourished, and still Sophy wrote their letters for them. Robert remained moody and sullen, staying at home of an evening, but saddening Sophy by his continued indulgence in the bottle, and by his moody sullen temper, which, however, was hardly ever turned against herself. Robert Gregory still tried hard to keep to the resolve he had made. This little girl who loved him so fondly, who had ruined herself for his sake, and who bore so patiently with his faults, he was determined should in addition to her other troubles, have at any rate no unkindness to bear from him; he strove hard for that; he would at least in that respect not be a bad husband to her. He did not love her with the passionate love which he might have given to some women; his feelings towards her were a mixture of love and compassion, mingled with admiration at the unflinching courage and equanimity with which she endured the great change which had befallen her.

Late in the autumn the good fortune which had so steadily accompanied the operations of the firm seemed all at once to desert them, and on the Cambridgeshire and the Cesarewitch, the two last great races of the season, they lost very heavily. For the one, relying upon information they had received from a lad in the stable, they had continued to lay heavily against the favourite, who, when the day came, not only won, but won in a canter. The other, an outsider against whom they had several times laid fifty to one—believing his chance to be worth nothing—won by a neck, defeating a horse on whom they stood to win heavily. These two races were a very severe blow to them, but still they held up their heads. Their previous winnings had been so large that they were able to draw from their bankers sufficient to meet their creditors on settling day, and still to have two hundred pounds remaining in the bank. Heavy as their loss was, it had one good effect—it gave them the best possible name, and, as Fielding said, it secured them a certainty of increased connection and business in the ensuing year.

Throughout the season they had never been a day behind in their payments, nor once asked for time; and their character as straight-forward honest men stood so high, that Fielding was resolved during the winter to enter as a member of Tattersall’s, which would secure them a larger business, and give them a better position and increased opportunity for managing the commission part of their business.

On Robert Gregory, however, the loss had one good effect, that of making him determine more than ever that he would give up the business and start for Australia in the spring, unless in the meantime he could find the will; and to this point all his thoughts now turned. He would sit of an evening musing over it for hours, and hardly speaking a word. Sophy, too, was now less able to endeavour to cheer or rouse him, for she, too, had her anxieties—she was expecting very shortly to be confined. One evening after sitting thus for an unusually long time, he rose, and saying that his head ached, and that he should go out for an hour or so for a walk, he got up and went out. He did not walk far, only to the corner of the street, and stood there for some little time smoking his pipe and looking out on the busy road. Then he turned round, and came slowly back to the house, walking in the road so that his tread on the pavement might not be heard. When he came opposite his own door, he paused, then went in at the gate and into the little patch of garden, and knocked at the kitchen door under the steps. Mr. Billow who was dozing at the fire woke up and opened the door, and was astonished into a state more approaching perfect wakefulness than he had been for many a month before, on seeing his lodger from upstairs applying for admission at this door.

“It is all right, Mr. Billow,” Robert said, entering and shutting the door behind him. “Just fasten the other door, will you; I don’t wish my wife, and therefore I don’t wish yours, to know that I am here. I want half an hour’s chat with you.”

Mr. Billow fastened the kitchen door in silence, and then sat down again, motioning to Robert, whom he was regarding with great suspicion, to do the same.

“What are you drinking?” Robert asked, taking up a black bottle which was standing on the table, and smelling the contents. “Ah, whisky; that will do;” so saying he took down a glass from the shelf, poured some spirits into it from the bottle, and some hot water from a kettle on the fire, and then putting in a lump of sugar from a basin on the table, took his seat. Mr. Billow imitated his guest’s proceedings as far as mixing himself a strong glass of spirits and water, and then waited for Robert to commence the conversation. He had seen so many unexpected things in his trade, that it took a good deal to surprise him. Robert lit his pipe again, swallowed half the contents of his tumbler, and then began.

“My wife, Mr. Billow, as you may suppose by what you have heard, and by what you may remember of her pony carriage and piano which came up when we first came here fifteen months ago, was brought up a lady, and not accustomed to live in such a miserable little den as this.”

Mr. Billow here interrupted, “that if it was not good enough for them, why did they stop there?”

“You hold your tongue,” Robert said, savagely, “and don’t interrupt me, if you value that miserable old neck of yours. She was brought up a lady,” he continued, “and was to have come into a large fortune. The person who had left her the fortune died, and the will has been hidden away by his sisters,—two old women who live in a lonely house in the country. Of course, there are servants, and that sort of thing; but they sleep in a distant part of the building, and would not be likely to hear anything that went on. There is no other house within call. One of these women, I understand, is as hard as a rock; there would be no getting her to say a word she did not want to say, if it was to save her life. The other one is made of different stuff. Now I want to get hold of a couple of determined fellows, accustomed to that sort of business, to make an entrance there with me at night—to get hold of this old woman, and to frighten her into telling us where this will is hidden. If I can get it, I am safe, because the house is part of the property; and besides, I should have them under my thumb for hiding the will. If it had not been my own house I was going to break into, I would rather do the job by myself than take any one with me, to give them the opportunity of living on me all the rest of my life. As it is, I am safe both from the law and from extortion. If we are interrupted, and things go wrong, we can get off easily enough, so that there is no great risk either for me or the men who go with me. What do you think, Mr. Billow—this is all in your line? Could you put your hand on a couple of such men as I want?”

“There are such men to be found in London, no doubt,” Mr. Billow said, cautiously. “The question is, would it be worth any one’s while to find them, and would it be worth their while to go?”

“If from any bad luck we should fail,” Robert Gregory answered, “I could only afford to pay a ten-pound note each; if I succeed, I will give them a couple of hundred apiece, which would make it the best night’s work they have done for a long time, and I will give you the same I do them.”

“I can find the men,” Mr. Billow said readily; “they shall be here—let me see, by this time the day after to-morrow.”

“No, no,” Robert said hastily; “not here. You take me to some place you may appoint to meet them; and your part of the agreement is that you on no account tell them my name, or anything about me. If the plan succeeds, I don’t care, for I shall only have broken into my own house. At any rate, if I were punished I should care very little, for I should be a rich man; and I question if the old women dare prosecute me for any violence I may have to use, when they will be themselves liable to imprisonment for hiding the will; but in the case of its failing, I don’t want to be in the power of any man. I don’t mind you, because I could break up your place here in return; but I intend to go abroad very soon if it fails, and I don’t want anything known against me. So make an appointment for me to meet them where you like, and call me Robert Brown.”

Two days afterwards, Mr. Billow informed Robert that he had made an appointment for him to meet two first-rate hands that evening, at a quiet place, where they could talk things over without being interrupted. Accordingly, at nine o’clock, Robert Gregory made some excuse to Sophy, and went out. He found Mr. Billow waiting for him at the corner of the street; and although for once he was sober, and had evidently taken some pains with his personal appearance, Robert could not help thinking what a dirty, disreputable old man he looked, and feeling quite ashamed of him as he kept close to his heels along the busy Westminster Bridge Road. They crossed the bridge, kept on in front of the old Abbey, and entered the network of miserable lanes and alleys which lie almost beneath the shadow of its towers. Into this labyrinth they plunged, and went on their way through lanes of squalid houses, with still more squalid courts leading from them, reeking with close, foul smells, which sickened the mere passer-by, and told their tales of cholera and typhus; miserable dens, where honest labour and unsuccessful vice herd and die together; hotbeds of pestilence and fever, needing only a spark to burst into a flame of disease, and spread the plague around—a fitting judgment on the great, rich city which permits their existence within it. Through several of these they passed, and then emerged into a wider street, where the gaslight streamed out from nearly every house, and where the doors were ever on the swing. By the sides of the pavements were stalls with candles in paper lanterns, with hawkers proclaiming the goodness of the wares which they sold; stale vegetables, the refuse of the fish at the public sales at Billingsgate, and strange, unwholesome-looking meats, which would puzzle any one to define the animals from which they were taken, or the joints which they were supposed to represent. Round them were numbers of eager, haggling women; and the noise, the light, and bustle, formed a strange contrast to the silent, ill-lighted lanes through which they had just passed. In a rather wider lane than usual, leading off this sort of market, was a quiet-looking public-house, offering a strong contrast to its brilliant rivals close by, with their bright lamps, and plate-glass, and gaudy fittings. Into this Mr. Billow entered, followed by Robert Gregory. Two or three men were lounging at the bar, who looked up rather curiously as the new comers entered. Mr. Billow spoke a word or two to the landlord, to whom he was evidently known, and then passed along a passage into a small room, where two men were sitting with glasses before them, smoking long pipes. They rose when Robert and his conductor entered, with a sort of half bow, half nod. Mr. Billow closed the door carefully behind him, and then said to Robert,—

“These are the parties I was speaking to you of; both first-class in their lines. I have had a good deal to do with them in my time, and have always found them there when wanted.”

“That’s true, governor,” one of the men said; “no man can say that either of us ever did what was not right and straight-forward.”

“And now, Mr. Brown,” Mr. Billow said, “that I have brought you together, I shall leave you to talk things over. I don’t want to know anything about the matter. The fewer that are in these things the better. I shall go out for half an hour to see some friends, and after that you will find me in the bar. Shall I order anything in for you?”

“Yes,” Robert Gregory said; “tell them to send in a bottle of brandy, and a kettle with hot water.”

Mr. Billow accordingly went out, and the two men instinctively finished the glasses before them, in order that they might be in readiness for the arrival of the fresh ingredients. While they were waiting for the coming of them, Robert Gregory had time to examine narrowly his associates in his enterprise. The younger, although there was not much difference in their ages, was a man of from thirty to thirty-five—a little active man. The lower part of his face was, contrary to usual custom, the better. He had a well-shaped mouth and chin, with a good-natured smile upon his lips; but his eyes were sharp and watchful, with a restless, furtive look about them, and his hair was cut quite short, which gave him an unpleasant jail-bird appearance. He was a man of some education and considerable natural abilities. He was known among his comrades by the soubriquet of The Schoolmaster. The other was a much bigger and more powerful man; a heavy, beetle-browed, high-cheeked ruffian, with a flat nose, and thick, coarse lips. He was a much more common and lower scoundrel than The Schoolmaster; but they usually worked together: one was the head and the other the hand. Both were expert house-breakers, and had passed a considerable portion of their time in prison. When the bottle of spirits was brought, the kettle placed upon the fire, the glasses filled, and they were again alone, Robert Gregory began,—

“I suppose you know what I want you for?”

“Thereabout,” The Schoolmaster said. “The old one told us all about it. The long and short of it is, two old women have hid a paper, which you want, and our game is to go in and frighten one of them into telling where it is hid.”

“Yes, that is about it,” Robert answered.

“You know the house well?”

“I have only been in it once, but it has been so exactly described to me that I could find the right room with my eyes shut. She is a timid old woman, and I think a pistol pointed at her head will get the secret out of her at once.”

“I don’t know,” the schoolmaster said, “some of these old women are uncommon cantankerous and obstinate. Suppose she should not, what then?”

“She must,” Gregory said, with a deep oath. “I must have the will; she shall tell where it is.”

“You see, master, if she is hurt we shall get hauled up for it, even if you do get the paper.”

“She is liable to imprisonment,” Robert said, “for hiding it, so she would hardly dare to take steps against us; but if she did, you are safe enough. They may suspect me, they may prove it against me, but I don’t care even if I am sent across the sea for it. The property would be my wife’s, and she would come out to me, and in a year or two I should get a ticket-of-leave. I have thought it all over, and am ready to risk it, and you are all right enough.”

“And the pay is ten pounds each down, and two hundred pounds each if we get it?”

Robert nodded.

“We are ready to do it, then,” The Schoolmaster said; “there’s my hand on it;” and the two men shook hands with Robert Gregory on the bargain. “And now let us talk it over. Of course she must be gagged at once, and the pistol tried first. If that does not do—and old women are very obstinate—I should say a piece of whipcord round her arm, with a stick through it, and twisted pretty sharply, would get a secret out of any one that ever lived.”

“I don’t wish to hurt the old woman if I can help it,” Gregory said, moodily; “besides, it would make it so much the worse for me afterwards. But the will I must have, and if she brings it upon herself by her cursed obstinacy, it is her fault, not mine.”

They then went into a number of details on the subject, and arranged everything, and it was settled that they should start on that day week; but that if any delay were necessary, that Robert should call at the same place on the evening before the start. If they heard nothing from him, they were to meet at the railway station at nine o’clock on the morning named. Robert then took leave of them, and returned home with Mr. Billow.

This delay for a week was because Sophy was daily expecting to be confined, and Robert was determined to wait till that was over. However, on the very next day a son was born to Sophy, who, as she received it, thanked God that now at least she had a comfort who would be always with her, and which nothing but death could take away. She felt that her days would be no longer long and joyless, for she would have a true pleasure—something she could constantly pet and care for.

Chapter XI • The Coup de Main • 3,900 Words

It was two o’clock in the morning; Miss Harmer was at her devotions. Half her nights were so spent. Not that she felt any more need for prayer than she had formerly done, nor that she had one moment’s remorse or compunction concerning the course she had adopted; in that respect she was in her own mind perfectly justified. He whom she had looked up to for so many years for counsel and advice, he who to her represented the Church, had enjoined her to act as she had done, had assured her that she was so acting for the good of the Church, and that its blessing and her eternal happiness were secured by the deed; and she did not for an instant doubt him. The only moment that she had wavered, the only time she had ever questioned whether she was doing right, was when Polly Ashleigh had so vividly described the chamber, and when it had seemed to her that the secret was in the course of being revealed by dreams. She thought it altogether natural and right that the estate of her Catholic ancestors—the estate which her elder brother had actually devised to the Church, and which had been only diverted from that destination by what she considered an actual interposition of the evil one himself—should go as they had intended. So that she never questioned in her own mind the right or justice of the course she had taken.

Miss Harmer rose at night to pray, simply because she had been taught in the stern discipline of the convent in which she had been brought up and moulded to what she was, that it was right to pass a part of the night in prayer, and she had never given up the custom. And, indeed, it was not merely from the force of custom that she made her devotions; for she prayed, and prayed earnestly, and with all her strength, prayed for the increase and triumph of the Church, that all nations and people might be brought into its fold, and that God would show forth His might and power upon its enemies. On this night she was more wakeful than usual, for the wind was blowing strongly round the old walls of Harmer Place, and sounded with a deep roar in its great chimneys. This was always pleasant music to her; for she, like her dead brothers, loved the roar and battle of the elements, and the fierce passionate spirit within her seemed to swell and find utterance in the burst of the storm.

Suddenly she paused in the midst of her devotions; for amidst the roar and shriek of the wind she thought she heard the wild cry of a person in distress. She listened awhile; there was no repetition of the sound, and again she knelt, and tried to continue her prayers; but tried in vain: she could not divest herself of the idea that it was a human cry, and she again rose to her feet. Stories she had heard of burglaries and robbers came across her. She knew that there was a good deal of valuable plate in the house; and then the thought, for the first time, occurred to her, that perhaps it was her sister’s voice that she had heard. She did not hesitate an instant now, but went to a table placed against the bed on which lay two pistols: curious articles to be found in a lady’s bedroom, and that lady more than seventy years old. But Miss Harmer was prepared for an emergency like this. For the last year Father Eustace had been warning her of the danger of it; not perhaps that he had any idea that a burglary would actually be attempted, but he wished to be resident in the house, and to this, with her characteristic obstinacy when she had once made up her mind to anything, she refused to assent. The Harmers’ chaplains she said never had been resident; there was a house in the village belonging to them, which they had built specially for their chaplains to reside in, and which they had so inhabited for more than a hundred years, and she did not see why there should be any change now. Father Eustace had urged that the sisters slept in a part of the building far removed from the domestics, and that if the house were entered by burglars they might not be heard even if they screamed ever so loud.

“I am not likely to scream, although I am an old woman,” Miss Harmer had answered grimly; and the only result of Father Eustace’s warning had been, that Miss Harmer had ordered a brace of her brother’s pistols to be cleaned and loaded, and placed on the table at her bedside; and it was the duty of the gardener to discharge and reload these pistols every other morning, so that they might be in perfect order if required.

Miss Harmer’s pistols were rather a joke among the servants; and yet they all agreed that if the time ever did come when she would be called upon to use them, the stern old woman would not hesitate or flinch for a moment in so doing.

So with a pistol in one hand, and a candle in the other, Miss Harmer went out of her door and along the short corridor which led to her sister’s bedroom—a strange gaunt figure, in a long white dress covering her head—in fact a nun’s attire, which she put on when she prayed at night, and from underneath which the stiff white frills of her cap bristled out strangely. She walked deliberately along, for she believed that she was only deceiving herself, and that the cry which she had thought she heard was only a wilder gust of wind among the trees. When she reached her sister’s door, she paused and listened. Then she started back, for within she could hear low murmured words in men’s voices, and then a strange stifled cry: she hesitated but for one moment, to deliberate whether she should go back to fetch the other pistol—then that strange cry came up again, and she threw open the door and entered. She was prepared for something, but for nothing so terrible as met her eyes. The room was lighted by the two candles which still burned in a little oratory at one end of the room before a figure of the Virgin; a chair lay overturned near it, and it was evident that Angela Harmer had, like her sister, been engaged at her devotions when her assailants had entered the room, and when she had given that one loud cry which had at last brought her sister to her assistance. But all this Cecilia Harmer did not notice then, her eyes were fixed on the group in the middle of the room.

There, in a chair, her sister was sitting, a man, standing behind it, held her there; another was leaning over her, doing something—what her sister could not see; a third stood near her, seemingly giving directions; all had black masks over their faces.

Angela Harmer was a pitiful sight: her white nun’s dress was all torn and disarranged; her cap was gone; her thin grey hair hung down her shoulders; her head and figure were dripping wet—she having fainted from pain and terror, and having been evidently recovered by pouring the contents of the water-jug over her, for the empty jug lay on the ground at her feet. Her face was deadly pale with a ghastly expression of terror and suffering, made even more horrible to see, by a red handkerchief which one of the ruffians had stuffed into her mouth as a gag.

It was a dreadful sight, and Miss Harmer gave a loud cry when she saw it. She rushed forward to her sister’s aid, discharging as she did so, almost without knowing it, her pistol at the man nearest to her. As she fired, there was a volley of deep oaths and fierce exclamations; the one who was holding Angela Harmer, with a jerk sent the chair in which she was sitting backwards, bringing her head with fearful force against the floor. There was a rush to the door; one of the robbers struck Cecilia Harmer a violent blow on the head with the butt end of a heavy pistol which he held in his hand, stretching her insensible on the ground; and then the three men rushed downstairs, and through the hall window, by which they had entered; across the grounds—but more slowly now, for one was lagging behind—and out into the road.

There in the lane a horse and light cart were standing, the horse tied up to a gate. Two of them jumped at once into the cart. “Jump up, mate!” the shorter of the two said, and with the exception of fierce oaths of disappointment, it was the first word which had been spoken since Cecilia Harmer had entered the room. “Jump up, mate! we have no time to lose.”

“I can’t,” the man said; “that she-devil has done for me.”

“You don’t say that,” the other said, getting out of the cart again. “I thought she had touched you by the way you walked, but I fancied it was a mere scratch. Where is it?”

“Through the body,” the man said, speaking with difficulty now, for it was only by the exercise of almost superhuman determination that he had succeeded in keeping up with the others.

“Well, you are a good plucked ‘un, mate,” the man said, admiringly. “Here, Bill, lend me a hand to get him into the cart.”

The other man got down, and the two lifted their almost insensible companion into the cart, laid him as tenderly as they could in the straw at the bottom, and then, jumping in themselves, drove off down the hill as fast as the horse could gallop. This speed they kept up until they were close to Canterbury; and then they slackened it, and drove quietly through the town, not to excite the suspicions of such policemen as they passed in the streets. When clear of the town, they again put the horse to his fullest speed. Once, after going three or four miles, they drew up, where a little stream ran under the road. Here one of them fetched some water, and sprinkled it on the face of the wounded man, who was now insensible. They then poured some spirits, from a flask one of them carried, between his lips, and he presently opened his eyes and looked round.

“Cheer up, mate; you will do yet,” one said, in a tone of rough kindness.

The wounded man shook his head.

“Yes, yes, you will soon be all right again, and we shan’t drive so fast now we are quite safe. There, let’s have a look at your wound.”

They found that, as he had said, he was hit in the body. The wound had almost ceased bleeding now, and there was nothing to be done for it. With an ominous shake of the head, they remounted the cart, and drove gently on.

“This is a bad job, Bill.”

“A —— bad job,” the other said, with an oath; “about as bad as I ever had a hand in. Who would have thought that old cat would have held out against that? I know I could not have done it.”

“No, nor I either. I would have split on my own mother before I could have stood that. I am afraid it is all up with him,” and he motioned towards the man at the bottom of the cart.

The other nodded.

“What are we to do with him, Schoolmaster?”

“We must leave him at Parker’s, where we got the cart. He can’t be taken any farther. I will ask him.” And he stopped the cart, and told the wounded man, who was conscious now, what they intended to do, and asked if he could suggest anything better.

He shook his head.

“He is a good fellow; he will make you comfortable, never you fear.”

The man seemed now to want to ask a question, and The Schoolmaster leaned over him to catch the words.

“Did you take anything?”

The man hesitated a little.

“Well, mate, truth is I did. I grabbed a watch and chain, and a diamond cross, which were laying handy on the table.”

The wounded man looked pleased.

“I am glad of that; they will think it is only a common burglary. I don’t think the woman will ever tell.”

“I don’t think she will,” the other said, carelessly. “I expect it was too much for her, and Bill threw her over mortal hard. I thought it a pity at the time, but I don’t know now that it was not for the best. The old fool, why did she give us all that trouble, when one word would have settled the whole business.”

“Do you think we are safe?” the wounded man asked.

“Safe! aye; we are safe enough. We shall drive into the place the same side we went out, and no one will suspect us honest countrymen of being London cracksmen.”

Nor would any one have done so.

After passing through Canterbury, they had taken disguises from the bottom of the cart, and even had it been light no one would have guessed they were not what they seemed—countrymen going into early market. The shorter one was in a shooting jacket and gaiters, and looked like a farmer’s son; the other had on a smock-frock and a red handkerchief round his neck, and with his big slouching figure looked exactly like a farm labourer.

They drove along at a steady pace for another two hours. They had some time since left the main road, to avoid the towns of Sittingbourne and Chatham, and they were now in the lanes and byways skirting Rochester. The man called Bob was a native of Chatham, and knew all the country well. It was nearly six o’clock, and was still pitch dark, and since they had left Canterbury they had not met a single person.

In a short time they entered the highroad again, about a mile on the London side of Rochester, and turned their tired horse’s head back again in the direction of that town. They kept along this till the lights of Rochester were close to them, and then turned again from the main road down a narrow lane, and stopped at a house about a hundred yards from the road.

The morning was beginning to break now, not giving much light, but sufficient to show that it was a small house standing in a yard, which the sense of smell, rather than sight, at once told to be a tanyard.

There was a gate in the wall, which was unfastened, for it yielded easily when one of the men got down from the cart and pushed it; he then led the horse and cart in, and closed the gate after them, and then knocked at the door of the house with his hand. In a minute or two a man’s head appeared at an upper window.

“Is it you, boys?” he asked.

“All right, Parker; make haste and come down as quickly as you can.”

The door was soon opened, and a man came out—a big man, with a not dishonest face, respectably dressed, and evidently the master of the place.

“So you are come back?” he said. “I don’t want to ask any questions, but have you done well?”

“No,” was the answer; “as bad as bad can be. Our mate has got hurt—badly hurt, too.”

“Where is he?”

“In the cart.”

The man gave a long whistle.

“The devil he is! This is a pretty kettle of fish, upon my word. What is to be done?”

“He must be left here, Parker,—that’s the long and short of it. There is not the least fear of his being traced here; we have never seen a soul since we left Canterbury.”

“I don’t suppose there is much fear,” the man said gruffly; “but if he should be, I am done for.”

“Not a bit of it, Parker; you have only to show the receipt we gave you, and stick to the story we agreed upon, and which happens to be true. Three men called upon you, and said that they wanted to hire a light cart for a day, and that they heard you let one out sometimes. You told them that as you did not know them, you could not trust the horse with strangers, and so they left thirty-five pounds in your hands as security,—that they brought back the cart in the morning, and said one of their number had fallen out and got hurt, and that you agreed to let him stay for a day or so till he got well; and that you did not find, till the other two men had left, that the one who remained had been wounded by a bullet.”

Here a slight groan from the cart called their attention to it.

“But what on earth am I to do with him?”

“Put him up in one of the garrets. You don’t keep a servant; there will be no one to know anything about it; and as for the pay, there is twenty-five pounds left in your hands, after taking the ten pounds for the hire of the trap—that will be enough for you, won’t it?”

“Aye, aye,” the man said. “I am not thinking of the money. I would not do it for ten times the money if I had the choice; as I have not, I would do it whether I am paid or not. The first thing is to get him upstairs.”

Accordingly the three men lifted him out of the cart, and carried him as carefully as they could upstairs, and laid him on a bed. The tanner then summoned his wife, a respectable-looking woman, who was horrified at the sight of the pallid and nearly lifeless man upon the bed.

“Oh, William!” she said, bursting into tears, “and so it has come to this! Did I not agree to stop with you only on the condition that you had nothing more to do with this business beyond taking care of things, and keeping them hid till all search for them should be over? and did you not give me your solemn oath that you would do nothing else?”

“No more I have, Nancy,” the man said; “no more I have, girl. I have had nothing to do with this job. I don’t know what it is, or where it came off, no more than a babe, though no doubt we shall hear all about it soon enough. But here the man has come home in our cart, and here he must be, unless you want him put out into one of the sheds.”

“No, no, William; we must do what we can for him, but that is little enough. He looks dying, and he ought to have a doctor. But what can we say to him?—how can we explain how he got hurt?—who can we trust? Oh, William, this is a bad business!” and the woman wrung her hands despairingly.

The wounded man made a slight movement, as if he would speak.

“What is it, mate?” the man called The Schoolmaster said, leaning over him.

The wounded man murmured, with a great effort, the words—

“Dr. Ashleigh, Canterbury.”

“Dr. Ashleigh, of Canterbury,” the tanner said, when the other repeated the words aloud. “I have heard of him as a clever man and a kind one; but how can we trust in him more than another?”

The wounded man tried to nod his head several times to express that he might be trusted.

“You are quite sure?” the tanner asked.

Strong and positive assent was again expressed.

“You know him?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Will he come?”

“Yes,” again.

“Well, it must be risked,” the tanner said; “the man must not die like a dog here, with no one to see after him. Perhaps when the ball is out he may get round it yet. I will take my other horse, and ride over at once. I have been over there several times to buy bark, so there will be nothing out of the way in it. Don’t be uneasy,” he said, kindly, to the wounded man. “You will be as safe here as you would be in your own place, and I will get the doctor to you before night. Now, boys, you go and put on the changes you brought down from London with you, and get off by the next train. I will saddle up, and start at once. By the way, what name shall I say to the doctor?”

A sharp pang of pain passed over the wounded man’s face.

“Come, Bill,” The Schoolmaster said, with rough kindness, “we don’t want to hear the mate’s name; so we will be off at once. Goodbye, mate. It is a bad job; but keep up your spirits, and you will soon get round again. You are a good plucked one, and that’s all in your favour;” and the two men, with this parting, went off to re-disguise themselves previous to their starting for London.

The tanner again leant over the bed, and the wounded man said, with a great effort, “Tell him Robert, Sophy’s husband, is dying, and wants to speak with him.”

The tanner repeated the words over, to be sure he had them right; he then, assisted by his wife, cut the clothes from Robert, so as to move him as little as possible; they placed him carefully in the bed; and the tanner gave his wife instructions to give him a little weak brandy-and-water from time to time, and a few spoonsful of broth in the middle of the day, if he could take it. He then collected the clothes that he had taken off Robert Gregory, carried them downstairs, and burned them piece by piece in the kitchen fire.

After that he went out into the yard. It was not a large yard, but there were several pits with the skins lying in the tan, and there was a pile of oak bark in one corner. On one side of the yard was a long shed, in which some of the other processes were carried on; on the other side was the stable. The tanner next took out the straw from the cart, which was all saturated with blood, and brought some fresh straw from the stable; this he mixed with it, making it into a pile, and fetching a brand from the fire, set it alight, and watched it until it was entirely consumed; he then scattered the ashes over the yard. Next he carefully washed the cart itself, put fresh straw into the bottom, wheeled it into the shed, and cleaned down the horse which had been out all night; and then, having put everything straight, he saddled the other horse, mounted it, and started for Canterbury.

Chapter XII • After the Battle • 4,400 Words

How well I remember that morning, and the excitement into which we were all thrown by the terrible news. “Burglary at Harmer Place. Reported murder of the younger Miss Harmer.” And yet with all the excitement people were hardly surprised. Harmer Place had got an evil name now; folks shook their heads and spoke almost low when they mentioned it. For the last twenty-five years a curse seemed to hang over it and its belongings. The two elder brothers drowned, and all their intentions and plans set aside, and the property devolving to the very person they were so determined to disinherit. Gerald Harmer killed, and all the melancholy circumstances attending his death. Herbert Harmer’s adopted child’s elopement, and his own sudden death, and all his intentions frustrated—as his brother’s had been before—by the will being missing. This was, indeed, a long list of misfortunes, and up to this time it had seemed almost as if Providence had decreed that it should prove a fatal inheritance to the Protestant who had, contrary to the will of his dead brothers, taken possession of the old Roman Catholic property, and wrested it from the clutch of Mother Church. It had brought him no happiness; his son’s death had destroyed all his hopes and plans for the future; that son’s daughter, whom he had reared with so much kindness and care, had fled away from her home at night, and the news had dealt his deathblow; and then the missing will. It really seemed as if it was fated that the Romish Church should have her own again, and the elder brother’s intention be carried out.

The general community had wondered over the chain of events, and told the tale to strangers as an extraordinary example of a series of unexpected events which had frustrated the best-laid plans and baffled all human calculation; while the few Catholics of the town instanced it as a manifest interposition of Providence on behalf of their Church. But now the tables seemed turned; and the “curse of Harmer Place,” as it began to be called, appeared working anew against its Catholic possessors.

The news came to us while we were at breakfast, and we were all inexpressibly shocked. Papa at once ordered the carriage, and directly it came to the door he started for Harmer Place to inquire himself as to the truth of these dreadful reports. He returned in about an hour and a half, and brought quite a budget of news to us. When he arrived, he had sent up his name, but Miss Harmer sent down word that Doctors Sadman and Wilkinson were in attendance, and that therefore she would not trouble him to come in. Papa had felt a good deal hurt at the message, but he thought it was probably given because Miss Harmer, knowing how much they had injured him, was afraid that her sister might recognize him, and in the state she was in, reveal something about the will. However, just as the carriage was driving away, Dr. Sadman, who, from the window above, had seen papa drive up, came to the door and called after him. Papa stopped the carriage, got out, and went back to speak to him. Dr. Sadman particularly wished him to come up to give them the benefit of his opinion. Finding that Miss Harmer was not in the room, and that Angela was insensible, and not likely ever to recover consciousness, he had gone up with him. He had found her in a dying state, and he did not think it at all likely that she would live more than a few hours. She was apparently dying from the effect of the shock upon the system, and the terror and pain that she had undergone; for round one arm a piece of string was found which had cut completely into the flesh, probably for the purpose of extorting the supposed place of concealment of plate, valuables, or money. She had not apparently received any injury which in itself would have been sufficient to cause death, but she had had a very heavy fall upon the back of her head which might have affected her brain. The symptoms, however, from which she was suffering were not exactly those which would have been caused by concussion of the brain; and although the fall had assisted to produce the evil, yet, on the whole, her death would be attributable rather to the mental shock, the terror and distress, than to actual bodily violence.

Papa had heard all the particulars of the night’s events as far as Miss Harmer had told the other medical men. She had herself received a very heavy blow from some blunt instrument, either a short stick, or the but-end of a pistol, which had left a very severe wound on the forehead; from this she was suffering so much, that, much as she wished it, she was quite unable to sit up or take her place by her sister’s side, but was in bed herself; still, although much shaken, there was nothing serious to be apprehended. Miss Harmer had fired a pistol at one of the assailants, and it was believed that she had wounded him, as a few spots of blood were visible on the floor and on the staircase. She had recognized none of the figures, of whom there were three; they were, she believed, all masked, but whether they were tall or short, or indeed about any particulars of them she was quite ignorant, for she had seen only her sister surrounded by them, had rushed forward, fired almost unconsciously, and been felled to the ground an instant afterwards, first seeing Angela’s chair thrown backwards with her in it. The blow which she had received in the fall, and the laceration of the arm by the string, were the only signs of violence which could be found on Angela’s person. The police were up there, but had at present discovered no clue whatever to guide them in their search; one of the men on duty in the town remembered that about three o’clock, a light cart, with two men in it, had driven in on that road, and another had seen such a cart go out through Westgate, but there was at present nothing to connect it with the affair. A detective had been telegraphed for at Miss Harmer’s request, and was expected down in the afternoon.

Papa told all this in a very grave and serious way. I was very much shocked indeed, and for some time after he had done, we were all silent, and then Polly said, “Was anything stolen, papa?” She asked the question so earnestly that I looked up almost in surprise; with Miss Harmer dying, it seemed such a very indifferent matter whether the robbers had stolen anything or not, that it appeared to me an extraordinary question for Polly to ask so anxiously. But papa did not seem to think so, for he answered as seriously as she had spoken,—

“Only a watch and chain, and a diamond cross from the dressing-table.”

“And was any attempt made to break open the plate-closets and places below?”

“No, my dear,” papa said, “none at all.”

They were both silent again, and I looked surprised from one to the other. What could this question of a few things matter, when a woman we had known so long was dying? And yet Polly and papa evidently thought it did, and that it mattered very much too, for they looked very meaningly at each other.

“I don’t understand you,” I said; “you are laying so much stress upon what can be of no consequence to people of their wealth; and you both, by your looks, seem to think it really a matter of consequence.”

Polly and papa were still silent. “What is it, papa?” I said wearily; “I am stronger now, and I think it would take a great deal to affect me much,—nothing that I could be told here certainly. Please tell me what you mean, for although I really do not see how this robbery at Miss Harmer’s can be more serious than it seems, for that is bad enough, still I worry myself thinking about it.”

“The idea, my dear Agnes,” papa said very gravely, “which has struck me, and which I have been thinking over ever since I left Harmer Place, and which I see has also occurred to Polly, is that this is no robbery at all; that is, that robbery was no part of the original scheme. I am very much afraid that it is an effort on the part of Robert Gregory to get possession of the will.”

I had said that I should not be shocked, but I was, terribly—more than I had believed I could be by anything not connected with Percy.

“Why, papa,” I asked presently, “what makes you think such a dreadful thing?”

“The whole proceedings of these men, my dear—so different from what might be expected of them. Ordinary burglars, on entering a house, would have proceeded at once to the pantry and plate-room, forced the doors, and stripped them of their contents, and would have done this in the most noiseless manner possible, to avoid disturbing any one in the house. These men, on the contrary, never seem to have gone near these places—at any rate there are no signs of their having attempted to force them; they appear to have gone straight to the bedroom of the younger and weaker of the sisters, to have seized, gagged her, and cruelly tortured her to make her reveal the hiding-place—of what? Surely not of the plate; they might with a little search have found that for themselves. Not of money or jewellery: there was hardly likely to have been much in the house, assuredly nothing which Angela Harmer would not at once have given up rather than endure the pain she must have suffered. What then could they have wanted? To my mind, unquestionably, the will; and as no one but you and Harry are interested in its discovery, with the exception of Robert Gregory, I fear there is no doubt of his being the author of this scheme, and indeed that he was personally engaged in it.”

It was some time before I continued the conversation: I was sick and faint at the news. The idea of Sophy, whom I had known and liked so well, being the wife of a man who had committed burglary, if not murder, was too shocking, and it was some time before I recovered myself.

Polly spoke next: “The only thing, papa, is, why should Angela Harmer—who so nearly revealed where the will was to me—so obstinately refuse to do so even under such terrible pain and terror?”

“My dear, when you saw her, you acted upon her feelings of compassion for Agnes here, and for a time shook her rooted faith that she was acting rightly. In this case, there was nothing to act upon her conviction; she felt no doubt, while refusing to betray where the will was hidden, that she was suffering as a martyr for the good of her Church, and with a martyr’s strength and firmness she underwent what was inflicted upon her. I have no doubt that this idea will occur to Miss Harmer as it has done to us, and in that case there is little doubt that Robert Gregory will be speedily arrested; for as I hear he is a well-known betting man in London, the police will be pretty certain to find him. And the last evil arising from it is that Miss Harmer will, undoubtedly, in that case destroy the will. And now, my dear, take a glass of wine, and then lie down upon the sofa till dinnertime; get to sleep if you can, and do not worry yourself about it. As to the will, we have already given up all hopes of ever finding it, so that it will make no difference now, whether it is destroyed or not. Polly, you see that Agnes does as I order her. We must run no risks of her being laid up again.”

At about half-past eleven, papa was told that a man wished to speak to him, and the tanner of Rochester was shown in.

“I am speaking to Dr. Ashleigh?”

Papa bowed.

“I am not come to consult you about myself, sir, but about some one else.”

“It is of no use describing his symptoms to me,” the doctor said, “I cannot prescribe unless I see the patient himself.”

“I do not wish you to do so, sir, but it is a very peculiar business, and I hardly know how to begin. The person who sent me, told me that you might be implicitly trusted.”

“I hope so, sir!” Dr. Ashleigh said haughtily; “but as I am not fond of secrets or mysteries, I would rather you went to some other medical man. Good morning!”

The man made no motion to go.

“No offence is intended, doctor; but when the safety of three or four men, including perhaps myself, is concerned, one cannot be too careful. At any rate I will give you my message, and if after that you don’t come, why I shall have had a ride of nigh thirty miles here, and as much back, for nothing. The words of my message are, ‘Sophy’s husband, Robert, is dying, and begs you to go and see him.’”

Papa had listened to the first part of the man’s speech with evident impatience, but when the message came, his face changed altogether.

“Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “then my suspicions are correct. Unfortunate man! He is dying of a pistol wound, is he not?”

“Something like it,” the man answered. “Will you come, sir?”

“Come? Of course I will. I would go to any man to whom my aid could be useful, and to me it is a matter of no consequence whether he is a good or a bad one; in any case I will for Sophy’s sake do what I can for her husband, bad as I am afraid he is. And you?” and the doctor shrunk back from the man; “What have you to do with him?”

“Nothing, I am glad to say,” the man answered. “Till I got into the town I did not know where or what the job was; but from what every one is talking about at the place where I put up my horse, I am afraid I do know now, and a shocking bad affair it seems; although if what I hear of it be true, I can’t make head or tail of what they were up to. Two of the men were at least too old hands to have gone on in the way they did. There is something beyond what one sees.”

“You are right!” Dr. Ashleigh said; “they never went for plunder at all. I can guess very well what they did go for, but that is of no consequence now. How, then, are you concerned in the affair?”

“They came to me and hired my horse and cart. I asked no questions, but perhaps had my own thoughts what they were up to; but that was no business of mine. Well, sir, this morning they came back with a dying man in the cart, and I had nothing for it but to take him in.”

“Where is he hurt?” the doctor asked.

“Right in the side, just above the hip. I am afraid it is all up with him; the long journey, and the loss of blood, have pretty well done for any chance he might have had. Still we could not let him die like a dog, and he told us he was sure you would come.”

The doctor nodded. “How had I better get over there?”

“I looked at the train book, when I went in to get a glass of beer after putting up my horse, and I see there is a train for London at one o’clock which gets there about four; and then you could go down by the Rochester train, and get there between six and seven.”

“The very thing!” papa said. “For it is very probable that suspicion will fall upon this man; and as I am known to be, in a certain sort of way, likely to go to him in case he were hurt, it would be sure to attract notice, and might lead to his being traced, were I to take my carriage over as far as Rochester. I am afraid by what you say that it will be of no use, but I will bring my instruments with me: I practised as a surgeon for some years as a young man. How shall I find the place?”

“I will meet you at the station, sir. I shall give my horse another two hours’ rest, and shall then get over there easily by six o’clock.”

After a brief consultation of a time-table to see the exact hour at which the first train from London, which papa could catch, would reach Rochester, the tanner took his leave. And papa packed up such things as he would require, and then came into the dining-room—where I had gone to sleep on the sofa—and called Polly out. He then shortly told her what had happened, and enjoined her on no account to tell me, but to say only when I woke that he had been sent for into the country, and that it was a case which would keep him all night. He also left a short note, saying that he should be detained another night, for her to give to me the next evening should he not return; and he promised that if it should occur that his absence was still further prolonged, he would himself write to me to explain it in some way. These plans were carried out, and I had not the least suspicion at the time that papa’s absence was caused by anything unusual; indeed it was some months afterwards before I heard the truth of the matter.

When Dr. Ashleigh got down to Rochester, at a quarter past six, he found the tanner waiting for him, according to agreement.

“How is he now?” he asked.

“Very bad, sir! Going fast, I should say.”

They went out of the station, and through the town, and then out towards the country.

When the houses became fewer, and there was no one to overhear them, the doctor said, “You tell me that three men hired a cart of you: I suppose you knew them before?”

“The other two I knew before, but not this one.”

“You live here, then?”

“Yes, sir; I have a small tanyard. The truth is, sir, my father was a tanner down in Essex. He’s dead long since. As a boy, I never took to the business, but was fonder of going about shooting,—yes, and sometimes poaching. At last I married a farmer’s daughter near, and was pretty steady for a bit; still, sometimes I would go out with my old mates, and once our party fell in with the gamekeepers. Some one fired a gun, and then we had a regular fight, and there were some bad hurts given on both sides. We got off then; but some of us were known, and so I went straight up to London,—and there, sir, I met the men who were here to-day, and a good many others like them, and got my living as I best could. At last my wife, who had joined me in London, got news that some relative had died and left her a little money. So she persuaded me to give it all up; and as we heard of this little place being for sale, we bought it and settled down here—that’s three years ago. But I have never been able quite to get rid of my old work. They knew where I was, and threatened, if I did not help them, they would peach on me: so I agreed that I would hide anything down here for which the scent was too hot in London. Of course they pay me for it. But I mean to give it up; this will be a good excuse, as it is a terrible risk. Besides, they have not sent me down many things lately, so I expect they have found another place more handy. At any rate, I mean to give it up now.”

“Does your tanyard pay?”

“Just about pays, sir. You see I do most of the work myself, and only have a man or two in now and then, as I dared not trust any one: but I could do very well with it. I have a good bit of money—some my wife’s, and some that I have saved; but I did not dare to extend the place before for fear that I might get seized at any time. But I have to-day made up my mind that I will set to work at it on a better scale, and cut the other work altogether. Here we are, sir; through this gate.”

The door was opened by the tanner’s wife.

“Thank God you are here, sir! I was afraid he would not last till you came.”

The doctor followed her upstairs to the wounded man’s bedside. He would not have known him again. There was not a vestige of colour now in his face. His whole complexion was of a ghastly ashen hue, his cheeks had shrunk and fallen in, deep lead-coloured rings surrounded his eyes, and his lips were pinched and bloodless, and drawn back, showing the regular teeth between them. His hands, which lay outside the coverlid, were bloodless and thin, and the nails were a deep blue. A slight movement of his eyes, and an occasional twitching of his fingers, were the only signs of life which remained. Dr. Ashleigh shook his head, he could be of no use here. Probably had he even seen him immediately after the wound was given, he could have done but little; now he was beyond all earthly skill. Dr. Ashleigh took his hand in his own, and felt the pulse, which beat so lightly and flickeringly that its action could hardly be perceived. He looked for a moment to see where the ball had entered, not that it mattered much now; and then shook his head, and turned to the others who were standing by.

“I am glad I came over,” he said; “it is a satisfaction; but I can do nothing for him now—he is sinking fast. I do not think he will live another hour.”

In less than an hour the change came: for a moment the doctor thought the eyes expressed recognition; the lips moved, and the name of Sophy was breathed out; and then the breath came fainter and at longer intervals, the fingers twitched no more, the fluttering pulse ceased to beat. Robert Gregory was dead.

Dr. Ashleigh went downstairs with the tanner and his wife, and asked them what they intended to do about the body.

“I am thinking, sir, of putting some tramp’s clothes on him, and laying him out on some straw in one of the sheds, as if he had died there. Then I shall go to the parish medical officer, whom I know something of, and say that a tramp I gave leave to sleep for a night in my shed is dead; that he gave me a pound he had in his pocket to take care of for him, and that I will put what may be necessary to it in order that he may be buried without coming upon the parish. I have no doubt that he will give me the necessary certificate without any trouble. The most he will do will be to send down his assistant; and in that dark shed, he is not likely, with the minute’s inspection he will give, to see anything out of the ordinary way. Should the worst come to the worst, which is not likely, I must make the best story out of it I can; if it come to the worst of all——”

“Then you must say I was present at his death, and I will come forward to clear you. But of course I should not wish it to be known I was here, if it can possibly be avoided; both because his name would then come out—which would be very painful for others—and for other reasons which I cannot explain. Here is some money for the necessary expenses.”

“No, sir,” the man said, drawing back, “I have been very well paid, indeed. What shall I have put on the grave?”

“Merely R. G., aged thirty. If at any time his friends choose to put up a headstone with more upon it, they can do so; but that will be sufficient to point out the place. And now goodbye, my friend, do as you have told me you intend to do, and you will be far happier, as well as your wife.”

“I mean to, sir; I will never touch a dishonest penny again. And now, sir, I will just walk with you far enough to put you in the straight road for the train.”

And so the doctor went back to London, getting there at about eleven o’clock. He did not hear from the tanner for some time, but about three months afterwards met him in Canterbury, to which town he had come over to buy some bark. The man then said that he had quite given up the receiver business, and become an honest man; that he had enlarged his place, and now employed three or four men regularly, and was doing very well. He said, too, that the funeral of Robert Gregory had passed off without any difficulty, for that the parish officer had, as he anticipated, given him a certificate of the death without taking the trouble of going to see the body.

Chapter XIII • A Young Widow • 4,400 Words

The next morning Dr. Ashleigh started from his hotel after breakfast to see Sophy Gregory. He shrank from what he had to do, for he knew what a terrible shock it must be to her, and he remembered how ill she had been, and how nearly she had gone out of her mind a year before, under the blow of the news of Mr. Harmer’s sudden death. But there was no help for it: it was evident that she must be told. He knew where she lived, as letters had been exchanged several times, up to the last, which had conveyed the news of the failure of the attempt to find the will in the secret chamber. Of course, it was possible that they might have since changed their abode; but if so, the people at their last lodgings would be certain to know their present address. However, this doubt was at once removed by the reply to his question, “Is Mrs. Gregory in?”

“Yes, sir, but she is in bed.”

“In bed!” the doctor said, rather surprised. “Is she not well?”

“Don’t you know, sir, she had a little baby last week?”

“God bless me!” was all the doctor could say; for Sophy had not in her last letter, which, indeed, had been written some time before, made any mention of her expecting such a thing. “Will you be good enough to tell her that Dr. Ashleigh is here, and ask her if she will see him; and do not mention that I did not know of her confinement.”

The doctor was shown into the little parlour, where he sat down while Mrs. Billow went in to tell Sophy that he was there. As he looked round on the pictures which he remembered hanging in such a different room, he wondered to himself whether the advent of this little child, who was fatherless now, was for the better or no; and he came to the conclusion that it was. Sophy would have two mouths to feed instead of one, but it would be surely a comfort to her—something to cling to and love, under this terrible blow which he had to give her.

In about five minutes Mrs. Billow came in, and said that Mrs. Gregory was ready to see him now.

“She is rather low to-day, sir,” she said, “for Mr. Gregory went away the day before yesterday, and said he should be back yesterday; but he has not come back, and Mrs. Gregory is fretting like about it.”

Dr. Ashleigh went into the little room where Sophy was. She was sitting up in bed, in a white wrapper, and her baby was asleep beside her. She looked, Dr. Ashleigh thought, years older than when he had seen her fifteen months before. She had a worn look, although the flush of pleasure and surprise which his coming had called up in her cheek made her quite pretty for the moment.

“Oh, Dr. Ashleigh,” she said, “how kind of you to come and see me! how very kind! I suppose you had heard of my confinement. Is it not a fine little fellow?” and she uncovered the baby’s face, that the doctor might see it. “Robert did not tell me that he had written to you. I suppose he wanted to surprise me. I am so sorry he is away: he is not often away, Dr. Ashleigh—very, very seldom—and then always on business. He is very kind to me.”

The doctor was greatly touched, accustomed as he was, and as all medical men must be, to scenes of pain and grief; yet there was something very touching in her pleading now for her husband, for whose sake she had gone through so much, and who was now lying dead, although she knew it not. He could hardly command his voice to speak steadily, as he answered,—

“I am very glad to see you again, Sophy, and I came up specially to do so; but I did not know till I came to the door that you were confined, or were even expecting it; but I am very glad, for your sake, that it is so, and that you have got over it so well.”

Dr. Ashleigh spoke very kindly, but Sophy at once detected a certain gravity in his manner.

“Is anything the matter?” she asked at once.

Dr. Ashleigh hardly knew what answer to make, and hesitated for a moment whether it would not be better to defer the communication of the fatal intelligence for a few days; but the thought of the anxiety Sophy would suffer from Robert’s continued and unexplained silence, decided him; for he thought she would probably pine and fret so much, that in a short time she would be in a state even less fitted to stand the blow than she was at present.

“My dear Sophy,” he said, sitting down upon the bed, and taking her hand in his, “since I last saw you, things have greatly changed with us all. With you I need not say how much—with us also greatly.”

“I am so sorry——” Sophy began, as if about to lament the share she had had in all this.

“My dear Sophy, we do not blame you. That was all over long ago; nor could you, at any rate, have possibly foreseen that my children could have been injured by anything you might have done to displease Mr. Harmer. Humanly speaking, the contrary effect might have been anticipated. I only say that great changes have taken place. Your little friend Polly has grown into a very dear, lovable, clever woman; while Agnes has suffered very much. Her engagement with Mr. Desborough has been broken off, and she has been very ill. However, by God’s mercy, she has been spared to us, but she is still in a sadly weak state.”

“But there is something else, doctor—is there not?—some new misfortune? It cannot be about Robert?” she said, anxiously; “you could not have heard anything of him?”

Dr. Ashleigh was silent.

“It is, then! Oh, tell me what it is!”

“My dear Sophy, you have judged rightly. I do come to tell you about Robert, but you must be calm and collected. Remember that any excitement on your part now would be most injurious to your child—remember that any illness on your part means death on his.”

Sophy, with a great effort, controlled herself, and sat very quiet. The colour had faded from her cheeks now, and the marks of care seemed to come back again very plain and deep; then, after waiting a minute or two, until she felt herself quite quiet, she laid one hand on the cheek of her sleeping baby, and looked up appealingly into Dr. Ashleigh’s face.

“My dear Sophy, your husband has met with an accident, and is seriously injured.”

Sophy’s cheeks were as white, now, as the dress she wore; she spoke not, although her lips were parted, but her eyes—at all times large, and now looking unnaturally so from the thinness of her cheeks—begged for more news.

“I’m afraid he is very ill,” the doctor said.

“I must go to him!” she panted out; “I must go to him!” and she made an effort to rise.

“You cannot,” Dr. Ashleigh said; “you cannot; it would kill you. Bear it bravely, Sophy; keep quiet, my child, for your own sake and your baby’s.”

Again Sophy’s hand went back to the infant’s face, from which in her effort to rise she had for a moment withdrawn it, and rested on the soft unconscious cheek, but she never took her eyes from the doctor’s face. At last she said, in a strange far-off sort of voice,—

“Tell me the worst—Is he dead?”

She read the answer in his face, and gave a low short cry; and then was silent, but her eyes no longer looked at him, but gazed with a blank horror into the distance, as if they sought to penetrate all obstacles, and to seek her dead husband.

“Comfort yourself, my poor child,” Dr. Ashleigh said tenderly; “God has stricken you grievously, but he has given you your child to love.”

Sophy made no answer; she neither heard nor saw him, but sat rigid and stiff, the picture of mute despair. Two or three times the doctor spoke to her, but nothing betokened that she heard him. He raised her hand, which was laying motionless in his; he let it go, and it fell lifelessly on the bed again. He began to be seriously alarmed—he feared that she would awaken from this state with a succession of wild shrieks, and then a series of fainting fits, the termination of which in her condition would probably be death. In the hopes of acting upon her newborn feelings of maternity, he took the child up, and placed it against her, but the arms made no movement to enclose or support it; she showed no sign of consciousness of what he was doing. Then he slightly pinched the child’s arm, and it woke with a loud wailing cry. In an instant a change passed over the rigid face; a human light came into the stony fixed eyes; and with a little cry, and a quick convulsive movement, she clasped the child to her breast, leaned over it, and her tears rained down freely now, as she swayed herself to and fro, and hushed it to her bosom.

Dr. Ashleigh knew that the worst was over now, and for a time he let her grief have its way undisturbed; he then persuaded her to lie down, and, enfeebled as she was by her recent illness, in less than an hour she cried herself to sleep.

The doctor sat by her side until she awoke, which was not for some time, and when she did so she was calmer and more composed. He then talked to her very soothingly, but did not enter into any of the details of her husband’s death, beyond the fact that it was the result of an accident, and that he had died at Rochester, and would be buried there; that he had sent for him, and that he had been with him to the end, and that her name had been the last word on his lips. The doctor told her he would return again in a few days to see her, and that she must not disquiet herself about the future, for that he would take care of her and her child as if they were his own.

Sophy answered dreamily, although gratefully, to all he said, but she was at present too much stunned by the blow to be capable of fixing her attention; indeed, she scarce understood his words. While Sophy was asleep, Dr. Ashleigh had gone out and told the news to Mrs. Billow; she was deeply concerned at it, although her regret was evidently more for Sophy’s sake than for that of her husband. She readily promised to do all in her power to soothe and comfort Sophy, and said she was sure that as soon as she felt equal to it, one or other of her kind neighbours would be glad to come over and sit with her; and she promised that should Sophy be taken worse, she would immediately telegraph for Dr. Ashleigh.

The doctor stayed till late in the afternoon, and then drove round to Sophy’s medical attendant to tell him that she had just received the news of her husband’s death, and to bespeak his best care and attention on her behalf. He afterwards returned to the station, and reached home at nine o’clock. I was very pleased to see him back again, for it was not often that he was away so long as thirty hours; however, I did not ask any questions, and he did not volunteer, as he usually did, any account of his doings; and so I had no idea that he had been to more than an ordinary visit, demanding unusual time and attention; and, as I have before said, it was some months afterwards before I was told of Robert Gregory’s death.

It was fortunate, as it turned out, that papa got back that evening, for while we were at breakfast next morning a servant brought over a letter from Miss Harmer. It was written on the previous evening, and said that as she had declined to see him on the day before when he had called, he might feel a difficulty in coming now to see her; but that she had a particular matter on which she was very anxious to speak to him.

I have forgotten to say that when papa came home the evening before, we had the news to give him, which indeed he had quite expected to hear, that Angela Harmer had died the previous evening.

Papa had a strong suspicion what it was that Miss Harmer wished to see him about. While the horses were being put into the carriage, he had a little consultation with Polly in his study, and they agreed that for Sophy’s sake he should try to lull as far as possible any suspicions Miss Harmer might entertain of Robert’s having had a part in the affair. Besides, it was quite certain that unless any suspicions which she might have were laid at rest, she would at last destroy the will,—although that was a very secondary matter now, as there did not seem the most remote probability of its ever coming to light, even if it should be in existence, for years. Papa then started for Harmer Place, and on arriving was shown at once into the drawing-room, orders evidently having been given to that effect; in a few minutes Miss Harmer joined him. Her forehead was bandaged up, and her general aspect was more stiff and forbidding than ever. After the first few remarks were over, she proceeded at once to the point.

“It would be a strange step to have taken, Dr. Ashleigh, in the position in which we stand to each other, for me to have asked you to have come over here, had I not had very powerful reasons for so doing. But it appears to me that I have, for I have very strong suspicions concerning the events which have taken place here in the last two days. Have you heard the particulars?”

“Yes, Miss Harmer; when I called here the day before yesterday, Dr. Sadman gave me the details of them, so far as he knew.”

“Did you hear that these burglars—” and Miss Harmer strongly emphasized the word—”did not attempt to take anything downstairs?” The doctor bowed assent. “Did you hear that they tortured my sister to make her tell them something?”

“I did, Miss Harmer. I have before heard of people being threatened, or even absolutely tortured, to oblige them to tell where their valuables are concealed; but it is a very rare occurrence, and surprised me at the time, almost as much as it shocked me. As a general thing, burglars when they attempt a robbery, ascertain previously where the valuables are kept, and act accordingly. It is possible that in this case it was not so. These men may have been merely passing vagrants, or they may have been thieves from London, who may have heard that there was a very fine collection of plate here. Taking into consideration the lonely position of the place, and the fact that the only males in it are servants who sleep in a remote corner of the house, they may have thought that it would be at once quicker, and would save them the trouble of breaking open a number of doors in the search for the plate-closet, to come at once to the owners, whom, they imagined, would readily be frightened into revealing its exact whereabouts.”

“Your supposition, Dr. Ashleigh, is nearly that of the detective who has been sent down here, and who, knowing nothing of my private affairs, could not without a clue come to any other conclusion. He says it was a strange and unusual, although not an unprecedented affair. This clue I have not yet given him, although I intend to do so upon leaving this room, as I have not the least doubt in my own mind that my suspicions are correct. My sister, Dr. Ashleigh, was not tortured to tell where any plate was hidden: she was treated as she was to make her divulge the supposed hiding-place of what—in spite of all we can say—it still appears that some of you persist in believing to be in existence,—I mean my late brother’s will.”

Dr. Ashleigh made a movement of astonishment.

“Yes, Dr. Ashleigh, I have no doubt that it was so. I need not say that I do not for a moment suspect you or yours of having the slightest knowledge or complicity in this villainous plot, to which my poor sister has fallen a victim; but there is another who is interested in this supposed will, and who to the murder of my brother has now added the murder of my poor sister. I mean Robert Gregory. Thank God, the law can and will avenge this murder, if it could not the other.”

“Miss Harmer,” papa said very quietly, “you have had much to agitate and trouble you, and I am not therefore surprised at your thus fixing upon him; indeed in the way you put it, it does seem reasonable; but I believe that you will regret your hastiness when I tell you that you are actually accusing a dead man.”

“Dead!—Robert Gregory dead!” Miss Harmer exclaimed, greatly astonished; “I had no idea of that. How long has he been dead?”

“Only a short time,” Dr. Ashleigh answered. “I am not surprised that you are ignorant of the fact, for it is hardly likely that Sophy would have written to tell you. This poor young widow was only confined last week. I had to go to town on business, after I left here the day before yesterday, and I called to see her and her child. She has been keeping herself, until she was confined, by giving lessons in music.”

“Did you know of her husband’s death before you saw her then?” Miss Harmer asked.

“Most assuredly I did,” the doctor answered; “I heard of it at the time when he died. And now, Miss Harmer, I trust that I have quite dissipated your suspicions. Robert Gregory is dead, his wife is on a sick bed, and my children, you acknowledge, are very unlikely to have entered into a plot of this sort.”

“Quite, Dr. Ashleigh; in fact it cannot be otherwise; and I am exceedingly glad that I spoke to you before putting the matter into the hands of the detective, for it would have perhaps put him off the right clue, and would have led to the discussion of very painful matters. About Sophy”—and here she hesitated—”Is she in very bad circumstances? Because, even looking at her in the way I do, and always shall do, as my brother’s murderess, I should not like her to——”

“You need not be uneasy on that score Miss Harmer,” papa said rather coldly, “I have already told Sophy that my house is a home for her and her child, whenever she may choose to come. Whether she will use it as such, I cannot say; but I think I can assert with certainty that she would rather lay her head in the streets than owe a shelter to your favour. Is there anything else you wish to ask me about, or in which I can be of any service to you?”

“Nothing, Dr. Ashleigh. I really feel much obliged to you for having set my mind at rest upon a point which has been troubling me much for the last three days. Indeed, by the information that this bad man has gone to his end, you have set me greatly at ease on my own account; for—believing as I did that he was the perpetrator of this dreadful deed—I should have never felt safe until he had met with his deserts at the hand of the law that some such murderous attack might not have been perpetrated upon me. I am, I believe, no coward; still, with the idea that it was my life or his in question, I should have offered a reward for his apprehension which would have set every policeman in England on the look-out for him. I am glad to hear that your daughter Agnes is better. Goodbye, Dr. Ashleigh; I am sorry that we cannot be friends, but at least we need not be enemies.” She held out her hand to Dr. Ashleigh, which he took, and then retired, well pleased that he had, without any actual sacrifice of the truth, been enabled to save Sophy, and perhaps some day Sophy’s child, from the pain and shame of the exposure which must have followed, had not Miss Harmer’s suspicions been averted.

On the following week papa again went up to London to see Sophy. He found her recovering from the blow; still pale and thin, but upon the whole as well as could have been expected. Papa again offered her a home with us, but she declined, gratefully but decidedly; she had, she said, even when it was supposed that she was an heiress, been looked down upon on account of the misfortune of her birth; and now, with the story of her elopement and Mr. Harmer’s sudden death fresh on the memory, she would rather beg her bread in the streets than live there.

“Would she accept money for her present uses?”

Again she thanked papa, but declined. “She had,” she said, “plenty of money; she had been putting by nearly four pounds a week for ten months, and was therefore provided for for a long time.” All that she would promise at last was, that if she should ever be really in distress for money, she would not hesitate to write and apply to him for it. When this point had been discussed at length, Sophy insisted upon knowing all particulars of Robert’s death, and papa—after in vain endeavouring to persuade her to be content with what she knew already—was obliged at last to tell her, softening all the worst points as much as he could; and saying only that Robert had gone at night with two men, in the hopes of frightening Angela Harmer into disclosing where the will was hidden; how they had been disturbed by Miss Harmer, who had fired a pistol, which had wounded Robert, and how he had been carried to Rochester to die. He told her, too—for he feared she might see it in the papers—that Angela Harmer had died the same evening from the fright, but he suppressed all mention of the cruelty or violence. He partly told her how Miss Harmer had entertained suspicions of the truth, and how he had, he believed, succeeded in laying them at rest, and that he felt sure that the subject would not be pursued further in that direction; still, for her sake and the child’s, should any one, under any pretence or other, come and make inquiries as to the date of Robert’s death, that she should mention that it took place a short time earlier than it really did.

Sophy heard the doctor through more tranquilly than he had expected. She asked a few questions here and there, but was very pale and composed. When he had quite done, she said,—

“You do not surprise me, Dr. Ashleigh. My husband has so frequently asked me questions about the positions of the different rooms, and has so often said that he would try for it some day, that when you came and told me that he was killed by accident, and did not say how, or when, or where, I guessed that it was somehow in trying to get the will. If you please, we will not say any more about it now; I want to think it all over, and my head aches sadly. I am much obliged to you for all your kindness.”

And so Sophy held out her hand, and papa came away, still very uneasy about her, and repeating his former direction to Mrs. Billow to send for him at once in the event of Sophy being taken ill.

A week after, a letter came from Sophy to me. It began by again thanking papa for his kindness to her, but saying that she was determined, if possible, to earn a living for herself and child; should she, however, from illness or other cause, fail in the attempt, she would then, for her child’s sake, accept his kindness. The letter went on—

“My child will be one chief object of my life; and I have another, in the success of which he will be interested. I am determined, next to my child, to devote my life to finding the stolen will. You have tried, and failed. Robert tried, and laid down his life in the attempt. I alone, by whose conduct the will was lost, have not tried; but I will do so; it shall be the purpose of my life. Every thought and energy shall be given to it, for the sake of my child, and of you who have innocently been punished for my fault. I am not going to act now; I know it would be useless; but some day—it may be years on—some day I will try, and when I do I will succeed. Do not seek to dissuade me from this; my determination is irrevocable.”

We did write, and tried to argue with her. She answered briefly, that nothing would alter her resolve. From time to time we exchanged letters, but at longer intervals, until at last she did not answer one of mine, and from that time years past before I again heard of Sophy Gregory.

Volume III

Chapter I • Great Changes • 4,700 Words

Now that I have finished the account of the last of the series of unsuccessful attempts which were made to find the will, I must hurry over the subsequent events of my life in a much briefer and more concise way. It is now nearly six years since Robert Gregory died, and I must content myself with a mere sketch of what has taken place in that time; for this my history has already spun out to a most unreasonable length, many times surpassing the limits I proposed to myself when I first sat down with the intention of writing it. But my pen has run on and on, as I recalled all the past events of my life; and I feel every day, when I see the mass of manuscript which has accumulated in my drawer—for my desk has long since been too small to contain its growing bulk—that the chances that any one will ever take the trouble to read it through, are growing fainter and fainter every day.

However, should it be so, my task has served its purpose. It has, by chaining my attention to the period of which I have been writing, saved me from many an hour of sorrowful thought, and has served as a break to the monotony of many a weary day. It has, too, often served as an excuse for me to seclude myself in my own room, when my spirits have felt unequal to take part in the constant flow of tittle-tattle and harmless gossip, which form the staple of the conversation of those with whom my life is now cast, and is likely, I hope, to remain to the end.

After I came back from our three months’ trip on the continent, with my health greatly restored, my spirits rose proportionately; and as I had nothing to throw me back again into my old state, with the exception of the shock I received at the news of Angela Harmer’s death, I really began to look at things in a more hopeful way, and to think that the eight years—no, the seven years and a half—I was getting very particular as to dates—which were to elapse before Percy started on his return from India, were not such a hopelessly long time to look forward to after all.

By the way, I did not mention in its proper place that he started with his regiment for India while we were on the continent. Poor Percy! he was terribly disappointed and grieved that he could not see me before he sailed. But we were in Italy at the time he received his order, and as he had very short notice, it was quite out of the question that he could come for the purpose.

I, too, was very sorry that it so happened, and had we been in England I certainly should have made no objection to our meeting; and yet the interview would have been so painful to us both, that although I was very sorry I did not see him, I was yet sure that it was for the best that we should not meet. My letters from him, except during the voyage, came regularly every three months, and it did not seem nearly so hard hearing at these long intervals—now that he was so very far off—as it had done while he was within a day’s journey of me. I knew how hard Percy must have felt it before by own feelings; for I, who had made the rule, fretted and complained to myself against it. It seemed so cruel, when by merely sitting down and writing to him, I could have given myself so much pleasure as well as conferred it upon him—so hard, when the postman came of a day with letters for others, that none should come from him, who if I only gave him leave, would have written such long loving letters to me every day. I knew that I had determined for the best, but still it had been a very great trial for me. But now it was quite different; letters from India could only come once a month or so, and therefore, as I have said, three months did not seem so very unnatural.

When the letters did come, they were quite volumes; for I had put no limit to length, and Percy used to write a little nearly every day, so that in the three months it swelled to quite a bulky packet. They were delightful letters; such long accounts of his Indian life, and of everything which could interest me in it. Such bright, happy pictures of our future life out there, and such welcome reiterations of his love for me. How often I read them through and through, until I knew them by heart! They are all in my desk now, faded and torn from constant reading. I take them out sometimes and read little bits—I never can get very far with them—and then have a long, sad cry over my dead hopes and faded dreams; but I end at last by cheering up and thanking God, that at least in my present tranquil life, if I have had great troubles, I have some very happy moments to look back upon, which nothing can ever change or alter, or efface from my memory.

All this time Ada corresponded with me regularly; not very frequently, indeed, but often enough to show me that she thought very often of me, and loved me as of old. She wrote more like a sister than before, and always talked of my marriage with Percy as of a settled event which was certain to occur on his return from India, to which she said that she, like I, was counting the months and years. I judged from the tone of her letters that she did not care so much for gaiety as she had done, and that the constant whirl of dissipation in which she lived during the London season had greatly lost its charm for her. At last one of her letters came, which she said at the beginning, she was sure would give me pleasure, and indeed it did; for it told me that Lord Holmeskirk, who had proposed to me during the season I had spent in London, had for the last two seasons transferred his attentions to her, and that he had now proposed and she had accepted him, to the great satisfaction of her mother. I was indeed delighted at the news, for I liked the young nobleman very much—he was so perfectly natural and unaffected.

It was, of course, a very good match for her; and what was, I thought, of far more importance, I could see by the way she wrote that she really was very fond of him for his own sake. In one of her after letters to me, she laughed and said that it was terribly galling to her pride to have to take up with my rejected one; but that, as this was the only possible objection she could find to marrying him, she could not allow it to counterbalance all the advantages of her so doing.

When the time for her marriage drew near, she wrote to say how much she regretted that she could not ask me to be her bridesmaid, and how much pleasure it would have given her could she have done so; but that, of course, in the present state of relationship between Lady Desborough and myself, it was out of the question.

However, I saw the report of the wedding in the Morning Post, with a full account of how the bride looked, and of the bridesmaids’ dresses; and Ada sent me a large piece of her wedding-cake, and wrote to me from Switzerland where she had gone with her husband, giving me a detailed account of the whole ceremony, and of how happy she was. She wound up by saying that Lord Holmeskirk had requested her to send his compliments, but that she had pointed out to him that compliments to a future sister-in-law were simply ridiculous, and so he had sent his love.

She corresponded with me much oftener after she was married than she had done before; indeed, I noticed that she wrote regularly once a month, and as I answered as regularly, I have no doubt that my letters to her were sent out to Percy, as being the next best thing to having letters direct from me; and very often she sent me his letters to herself, so that I heard pretty regularly how Percy was, and what he was doing.

Ada seemed very happy in her new character as Viscountess Holmeskirk. The first winter after she was married, she sent me a very pressing invitation to go up and spend a few weeks with her: but as I pointed out to her in my reply, it would be unpleasant to all parties, for Lady Desborough could not come to her house the whole time I was there; at any rate that if she did, I certainly could not meet her: so that it was really better I should not come, as I could not possibly feel at ease, and, in any case, I should not have cared for entering into the gaieties of London life.

Ada wrote back to say that although she was very much disappointed that she should not see me, still, there was so much truth in what I said, that she could not urge me farther; she said, however, that the same objection did not apply to Polly, and that she should be very glad if she could come up, and be introduced into society under her care.

Polly at first made some objections, but I overruled them as I knew what a treat it would be for her, and she accordingly went up in February, and stayed for six weeks with Ada. She came back delighted with her visit, and looking upon London as a species of fairy-land. Lord Holmeskirk and Ada, she said, had been so extremely kind to her, and treated her quite like a sister: she had been as gay as I had during my stay at Lady Desborough’s, and had been out almost every evening of her visit in London. She said that, no doubt owing to her stay there, Lady Desborough had been very seldom to Ada’s, and then only during the day. On these occasions she had, under some pretence or other, generally absented herself from the room; still, she had occasionally remained, as she did not wish to seem afraid of meeting her, for, as Polly said, certainly she had nothing to feel ashamed of, whatever her ladyship might have. Ada had, of course, introduced her, Lady Desborough had bowed with extreme frigidity, and Polly flattered herself that she was at least as distant and cool as her ladyship. This visit served Polly and me as a topic of conversation for a long time, and, as she had met very many of the people that I had done, it gave us a great subject in common, whereas previously my London experience had been of little interest to her, owing to her knowing nothing either of the place or people.

And so my life passed away very quietly. I had become quite strong again now; and month passed after month, and year after year since Percy had gone—so that two and a half out of the eight years were gone—and there were only five and a half more to be looked forward to. Percy’s letters were unaltered in tone, and loving and fond as ever, and so I began to be quite cheerful and happy again, and to believe that there was great happiness in store for me yet.

My only little fear was that when Percy came back he would find me looking dreadfully old. I was more than eighteen when the eight years’ agreement was made, and I should be nearly twenty-seven when he returned, and twenty-seven then seemed to me to be quite old; and I used very often to wonder whether I should be much changed, and frequently looked at my face in a glass very carefully, to see if I could detect any sign of alteration in it; but the glass at present told me no disagreeable tidings, for my cheeks had filled out again and the colour had come back into them, and I looked once more bright and hopeful.

Polly and I were able to take long walks together, and were a happy, laughing couple of girls again. And so another year went by, quiet and uneventful, varied only by our Christmas gaieties and the festivities of the cricket week. Polly enjoyed these immensely; I, too, liked them; but certainly principally for her sake—at any rate they were a change.

All this time Harry had continued at his employment as an engineer, with but indifferent success. I do not mean that he was not keeping himself; but it was not much more. The market, he said, was overstocked. All the great jobs were taken up by great men, who found the money, and got the plans through Parliament. These men, of course, employed their own staff and pupils, and an outsider had a very poor chance of getting a footing. If the great engineer to whom Harry had been articled had lived a few years longer, so that he could have put him into some post where he would have had an opportunity of making himself a name, it would have been quite different. As it was, he had to be content with the supervision of comparatively small works, and when these were completed, had to look out for something else.

Another thing which prevented him getting on, was that, in some respects, Harry was a very diffident man. He had no idea of pushing himself, or of blowing his own trumpet; but was content to work hard, and let other people take the credit. However, he did not fret about it; he had enough to live upon, and as he did not stand out for high salaries he was never long out of work.

He had twice spent a month or two with us down at Canterbury, in his intervals between leaving one place and going to another. These were delightful times, and we made the happiest quartet possible. I used to ask Harry sometimes, on these occasions, whether there was any chance of his bringing home a new sister some day; but he would only laugh in his loud way, and say,—

“Never, Agnes, never!” It was, he said, much too expensive a luxury for him to think of; indeed, he should have no time to enjoy one if he had her; he was out all day at his work, and had plans and drawings to make of an evening. Besides, he smoked all day, and nearly all night, and what would a wife say to that? His work, too, lay chiefly in out-of-the-way places, where his only companions were rough, unpolished men, who did very well for him, but who would by no means accord with a wife’s idea of good society.

And after all these and various other objections, he would wind up with,—

“No, no, Agnes; I am very well as I am, and I by no means think a wife would better my condition.”

Evidently, Harry was at present quite heart whole. About this time he got an engagement upon a series of extensive works in the neighbourhood of London, where he was likely to be engaged for a very long time. Indeed, the engineer who was carrying them out, and who had known Harry when he was serving his time in town, told him that he could promise him regular work for some years.

And now there came a time when our happy life at Canterbury was to come to an end, and the dear old house which we loved so much, and where we had lived so many years, was to pass into other hands. Our father, our dear, kind father, was found one morning dead in his bed. He died of disease of the heart, of the presence of which, it appeared afterwards, he had been conscious for many years.

I pass over that terrible time without a word.

Harry came down at once and managed everything. Polly was heart-broken; and this time it was I who was the stronger, and who was able, in my turn, to console and support her.

At last, when all was over, when a week had passed, we drew our chairs round the fire after dinner, as was our old custom, to discuss the future; and yet how different from the old times, with that dreadful gap among us,—that empty chair which was never to be filled again. It was some time before any of us could speak; but at last Harry began talking on indifferent subjects, and we all gradually joined in. Still, we only did so at intervals; for we felt that we must presently come to that point from which we all shrank—the future. We had not come to any understanding with each other that we were to discuss our future arrangements at this particular time; but I think we all felt instinctively, as we drew our chairs round the fire, that the question could not be put off any longer, and that this was the time at which it must be faced. At last, Harry, who was, as usual, puffing away at his pipe, began it by saying as cheerfully as he could,—

“And now, girls, we must talk business. In the first place, I have had a long chat this morning with Mr. Fairlow, our lawyer. He tells me that, as I had expected, there is not very much besides the life-insurance. The practice has hardly done more than paid for the carriage and horses for the last three years. Mr. Petersfield and I are executors. The will was made nearly four years ago, just after you girls missed finding the will in the secret room at Harmer Place. Papa asked me at the time if I agreed to its provisions, and I said that of course I did, for it was just as I should have wished it to be. The amount of insurance, £4,000, is divided among you girls; I am left everything else.”

“But what is there else?” I asked dubiously, after a short silence.

“Oh, lots of things,” Harry said, cheerfully. “The furniture and the horses and carriage to begin with, the book debts, and all sorts of other things. Besides, had there been nothing at all, it would not have made the least difference to me, for as I can earn enough to live upon, what do I want with more?”

We afterwards learnt that at the time the will was made, there was a house worth upwards of a thousand pounds, which had also been left to Harry; but that this had, at Harry’s own suggestion, been sold a short time afterwards, as at that time papa did not expect to live many months. He had told Harry this, and was naturally desirous of going on living in the same style he had been accustomed to; and as the professional income had, as I have said, been very small, this thousand pounds had been very nearly expended in the three years for the housekeeping expenses, and for the payments of the premiums upon the insurance.

“And now, girls, that you know exactly what you have, what do you think of doing?”

“How much a year will £4,000 bring in, Harry?”

“Well, it depends upon what you put it into. I daresay Mr. Petersfield could put it out for you on mortgage, on good security, at four and a half or five per cent.”

“And how much would that be a year?”

“£180 to £200.”

“And how could we best live upon that, Harry?”

“Well, you might take a nice little place for £30 or £35 a year, put furniture into it, keep one servant, and manage very comfortably upon it; or, should you prefer it—which I should think you would not—you could live in a boarding-house very well, the two of you, for—say £140 a year, which would leave you about £50 a year for clothes and other expenses.”

“No, no, Harry,” we both said, “we would much rather live alone; not here, for the present, at any rate, although we might some day come back, but somewhere near London.”

“Then,” Harry said, “there is one more proposition, and that is—I am likely to remain in London for some time; my income is £200 a year. Now if you like, we will take a little cottage, and live together. You shall keep house for me, and I will take care of you, and if I move, you can either move with me, or set up for yourselves, just as you like.”

“Oh, yes, yes, Harry,” we both exclaimed, delightedly. “That will be nice, that will be charming,” and we kissed the dear old fellow again and again, in greater glee than I should have thought it possible that anything could have made us feel; and so pleased were we at the thought of it, that it was some time before we could settle down to discuss the question quietly.

“And now, girls, that we may consider that settled, what part of London do you think you should like to live in?”

“You don’t mean in London itself, Harry, do you?” I asked, rather frightened at the thought of all the smoke and noise.

“No, no,” Harry said; “we should find some difficulty in getting the sort of house we want there. We must get out of the smoke, on one side or other of it. The question is, where?”

For some time neither of us offered any suggestion, for we knew very little indeed about the suburbs of London. At last I said, “I think Harry I should like to be somewhere near the river, if that would suit you as well as any other side of London. When we were at Grendon House, we used to go up the river to Kew in a steamer, once or twice every summer, on the Miss Pilgrims’ birthdays, and grand occasions of that sort, and I remember I used to think to myself, that if I were to live in London, I should like it to be near the river.”

“Just the very thing I should have proposed, if you had no decided preference for any other part,” Harry said. “I have lately joined the ‘Metropolitan Rowing Club,’ which was started about a year since. It is held at Putney, and Putney would suit me very well for business, for I can get up by train in twenty minutes, as early of a morning as I like. Yes, that will do capitally for us all.”

So to Putney it was unanimously settled we should go.

“And now, girls, when will you leave here?”

“The sooner the better, Harry,” Polly said, eagerly; and I agreed with her, for I really dreaded being by our two selves in that rambling old house, where every room, every piece of furniture, every act of our daily life would bring back some association of him who was gone.

“How long can you stay, Harry?”

“Not beyond Saturday, Agnes—five more days. Pellat has written to me saying that, although of course under the circumstances he does not wish to hurry me, still that I am greatly wanted; and I answered him to-day saying that I could not possibly get away before, but that I would be at work on Monday morning.”

“Do you mean to sell the furniture, or move it, Harry?”

“Sell it, my dear; it will be of no use to us: it is all very old, and would hardly pay for the carriage. Of course those things which have any particular association we will take with us.”

“Do you think there would be any possibility of our going up with you on Saturday, Harry?” Polly asked, anxiously. “I should not mind how hard I worked, if we could but do it; don’t you think we could?”

“Well, Polly, I don’t know that there is any absolute reason against it, if you work very hard, and get everything packed up; of course I will help you. To-morrow morning I am going to speak to Dr. Hooper. He has written to me saying that he should be glad to take the lease of the house of me. There are only three more years to run. I answered him that I would let him know to-morrow; but of course I could give no decided answer till I knew what your plans would be.”

“I suppose if we can get ready to go up with you, Harry, we could go into lodgings at Putney, till we find a house to suit us?”

“Certainly, Polly, that will be what we must do.”

“I can tell you of some lodgings,” I said. “I have the address upstairs.”

I accordingly went up at once to the drawer where I kept all my old pocket-books. I found the one for the year when we had been at Ramsgate, and there in pencil, as I had written it down when the old bathing-woman told me of it, was her daughter’s address at Putney. I went down with it triumphantly, and found them wondering where I could have got the address of lodgings at Putney. However, I explained the matter to them, and although, as Harry said, she might have moved long since, we agreed at any rate to try there first, as it was much pleasanter to have some fixed place to go to, than to drive about vaguely looking for lodgings.

The next morning we girls set to work at our packing, and at luncheon Harry came in with the welcome news, that he had arranged everything most satisfactorily with Dr. Hooper.

Dr. Hooper was at present living in a furnished house, and he had gladly agreed to take all our furniture at a valuation, and also the carriage and horses, and to continue old Andrew as coachman—at any rate, for the present; and Harry, on his part, agreed to ask very little for the lease of the house, which we held on favourable terms for three years longer. This was a very good arrangement, as it saved us all further trouble; and it was more pleasant to think of the old house remaining as it had been during our time, which we could not have done had the furniture been put up and sold by auction. I have no doubt that it suited Dr. Hooper equally well, as it was a very large, roomy house, at a moderate rent, and the good-will, although not worth much, was still an advantage to any medical man taking the house.

That afternoon we went through the house, and decided on the few articles we should like to keep. The next day a valuer came in, and on Friday morning Dr. Hooper gave Harry a cheque for £500, which was, with the exception of £70 or £80, which some of the richer of papa’s patients owed him, all that Harry ever received as his share of the property.

That four days we were dreadfully busy—what with packing, and seeing all our friends who came in to say good-bye; but on Saturday we had finished, bade farewell to Canterbury, and started by the one o’clock train for London.

Chapter II • A Quiet Time • 4,500 Words

It was dusk when we got to Putney. We had left all our heavy baggage, to be sent up after us when we should have got into a house, and had brought up only what we should require for the present. We got into one of the rickety-looking flies standing at the station, and told the man to drive us to No. 12, Charlemagne Villas. We were soon there, and in the uncertain light we could see that it was a little detached house standing in a garden, and cut off from its neighbours and the road by a wall.

The driver got down and rang at the bell, and the gate, or rather the door in the wall, was opened by a small servant-girl.

“Does Mrs. Thompson live here?”

“Yes, ma’am; will you walk in?”

Very pleased to find that the object of our search still lived there, Polly and I got out of the fly and went in; while Harry, who said he hated this sort of thing, stopped outside to look after the boxes.

We were shown into a pretty little drawing-room, where the servant drew down the blind and lighted the gas, and in a minute or two a brisk little woman came in and said—

“My name is Thompson, ma’am; did you wish to see me?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson: some four years ago I was at Ramsgate, and when there I struck up a great acquaintance with your mother. She gave me your address, and I said that if ever I came to London I would come to you. Do you still let lodgings, and are they vacant?”

“I do, ma’am,” Mrs. Thompson said, “and shall be only too glad to let them to any one whom mother recommended them to. If you had come two months later I might have been full, but my season does not begin till April, so we are quite empty at present.”

A bargain was soon made with her, and Mrs. Thompson went to the top of the stairs and called “Mother,” and, to my great surprise, the old bathing-woman herself came up. She knew me at once.

“Miss Ashleigh!” she exclaimed. “Oh, miss, I am so glad to see you. Do you know it is only ten days ago, when I saw your loss in the paper, that I said to Jane: ‘Now, Jane, I should not be surprised if Miss Ashleigh comes up to town; every one does seem to come up here some time or other in their lives—perhaps this is her time.’ And I said, miss, that I should take the liberty of writing to you in a few days, in case you might be coming up. I remembered I had given you Jane’s address, but I thought you would have lost that long since. It is very kind of you to have thought of what an old woman said so long ago.”

“Not kind at all,” I said, “I was very glad to think that there was a place I seemed to know something of, and as I wrote the address down in my pocket-book at the time, I had no trouble in finding it. Have you given up your old occupation?”

“No, miss, but it is not the season now, and only one of us waits on through the winter, and as I begin to find the water then too cold for my old limbs, I have given it up these last two winters, and come here and stop with Jane and her husband.”

Our landlady now took us upstairs. Our room was a nice large one, over the drawing room. Harry’s was behind ours, smaller, but quite large enough for him, and both were beautifully clean and nice.

While tea was getting ready, we unpacked as much as we could, and in half an hour, when Harry’s voice was heard shouting at the foot of the stairs that tea was ready, we were quite astonished to find how much we had done, and how nearly we had finished our unpacking and putting away. The room below looked so comfortable that we could not help exclaiming with surprise and pleasure when we went in. A bright fire blazed in the grate, various gauze covers which had been placed over the chimney glass and picture frames, had been taken off. A white table-cloth was laid on the table, with a very pretty tea service upon it. Harry had made the tea, and the bright copper kettle was standing on the fire. I don’t know when I enjoyed a meal so much—it seemed so homelike and comfortable that we were all quite in spirits, and certainly all very hungry; and we agreed that it was most fortunate that I had kept the old bathing-woman’s address.

We were very comfortable at Mrs. Thompson’s; indeed, we could not have been more so in our own house, and we almost debated whether we should not stay as we were. Still, after all, there is nothing like being in a house of one’s own; and it would give Polly and me something to do to see after the housekeeping. Besides, Harry said that he wanted a place where he could have men in of an evening to have a glass of grog and smoke a pipe with him; for, although he did not mind smoking when alone with us, he said he did not wish the room where his sisters were to look like the bar parlour in a public-house.

On the Monday after we got there, Harry went up to work. Sometimes he went to an office at the West End, and on these days we breakfasted at half-past seven, which was rather a hardship; still it would cease to be one in another month, when the mornings got lighter and the weather warmer; and it could not be helped, as Harry had to catch the ten minutes past eight train, so as to be at his office by nine. Sometimes he had to go out surveying, and on these mornings he had to start very early—soon after six. When he did this, we did not get up to breakfast with him, but he had some bread and butter taken up to his room overnight, and he made a cup of coffee in a patent machine over a spirit-lamp.

After we had been in Putney about a week, and began to know the place a little, Harry asked us to look about for a house. We were not long in finding one, for Polly and I had observed a pretty little place to let within a hundred yards of us, which we both agreed would suit exactly; and now, having Harry’s permission to look for a house, we at once went there.

We found that it was just what we wanted; indeed, that it could not have been more so if it had been specially built for the purpose. It was one of a row of six little semi-detached villas—at least they were called villas—but I think the word cottages would have been more appropriate. They stood back from the road, with pretty flower gardens in front, and a good large piece of ground behind for vegetables. A row of lime-trees grew in the gardens close to the road, the branches of which were trained towards each other, so that they formed a green wall in summer, and it was only through the arch cut over each gate that the houses could then be seen at all by passers-by. It was just the right size, and was altogether a charming little place, and the rent was £35 a year.

Harry stopped at home the next morning an hour behind his usual time, to go in with us to see it. He was as much pleased with it as we were, and at once decided upon taking it. It was a few days before he could spare time to give a day with us in town to buy the furniture; but in just a month from the date of our arrival in Putney we were snugly installed in our new home, which was called No. 1, Daisy Villas, Charlemagne Road; and comfortable as we had been at Mrs. Thompson’s, we all agreed it was far pleasanter being in a house of our own. Harry had furnished the drawing-room very nicely, and bought a piano as a joint present for Polly and myself.

We had promised old Andrew that directly we were in a house of our own we would have up his youngest daughter Susan, who had been with us for a year before we left Canterbury, as our servant; and, accordingly, when we had taken the cottage, and the furniture came in, we sent for Susan, who arrived in due course, and was installed as our maid-of-all-work; and an excellent servant she turned out.

On the opposite side of the road to us was a large field, which had as yet escaped the builder’s hands, and which was in autumn and winter used as a playground for the children of the neighbourhood, and in spring and summer was shut up, and kept for hay. Before we left, however, a builder had began to erect a line of villas opposite to us, but for the first two years there was nothing to interfere with our view; and even afterwards it did not matter so much, for, as I have said, in summer our lime-trees formed such a leafy screen that we could not see beyond our bright little flower garden.

We liked Putney very much. Polly and I were capital walkers, and there were such pretty walks to be taken round it—up the hill, and across the common to Wimbledon, or on nearly to Kingston, or across Putney heath, through Barnes, to Mortlake and Kew, or—best of all—through the green lanes to Richmond Park, with its groups of splendid trees, its brown fern brakes, and fallow-deer; and sometimes, when it was fine and the water was high, along the towing-path to Hammersmith, to watch the barges drifting lazily on the quiet water, and the steamboats, full of holiday-makers to Kew, cleaving their swift way through it.

I certainly got to like Putney, with its quaint High Street, its noble river, and its pretty walks, very very much—not in the same way that I loved Canterbury. Canterbury, with its quiet, sleepy ways, is far better suited to me as I am now; but as I was then, I thought Putney a delightful place to live in. It was, too, such a convenient distance from town, and once a week Polly and I used to walk across the bridge, get into an omnibus, and go as far as the Circus, and then get out and walk up Regent Street and Oxford Street, and look at the shops.

It was not always that we had shopping to do, although we generally managed to want something, as a sort of excuse for going; but we both enjoyed it much, it was all so new to us; for we had never been in London at all, except at the time when we were at school—and then, of course, we never went up into London itself, and when we were staying respectively with Lady Desborough and Ada, when we were very much too grand to go out shopping on foot. So that the shops, and the gay carriages, and the bustle and confusion were all quite new, and very pleasant to us.

Sometimes of an evening, when Harry got back in good time, he would take us up to the theatre, at which he occasionally had a box given him by a friend in the “Metropolitan.” Being in deep mourning, we could not go into any other part of the house; nor, indeed, did we go at all for the first six months of our stay in London.

After we had been in our new home about a fortnight, I wrote to tell Ada where we were. I had not done so before, because I did not wish her to come down to see us till we were quite straight, and had everything very nice: it was a little bit of pride, perhaps, but so it was. I had received a letter from her a week after dear papa’s death, condoling with us, and asking Polly and me to go and stay with her for a while, when we felt equal to it, until our future plans were settled; and I had written back, thanking her, and telling her I would let her know when things were arranged. After that, I had not sent my usual monthly letter to her, but, as I had written myself to Percy, that did not matter. The day before I wrote, I had received a letter from her, which was forwarded from Canterbury, asking what had become of me, and this I now answered by giving our present address, and saying how pleased we should be to see her.

By this time it was the end of April; the season happened to be an early one, and our garden was gay with spring flowers, with which we had stocked it from a nursery close by, and the lime-trees in front were just putting out their delicate green leaves.

On the very day after I had written to Ada, an open carriage with a splendid pair of horses stopped in front of our house, and a tall powdered footman got down, opened the gate and came down the little walk, with a rather mystified air, as if wondering what his mistress could possibly want at No. 1, Daisy Villas.

He knocked a prolonged and thundering knock at the door, such as had probably never before been sounded upon it, and which was evidently intended to impress us all with a sense of the extreme importance and urgency of our visitor, and I heard him inquire of Susan, when she opened the door, in a tone of the most dignified condescension, “If Miss Ashleigh were at home?” Finding that she was, he returned, opened the carriage door and let down the steps, and Ada got out and came up to the door, and in another minute she was in my arms.

It was some time before we were composed enough to talk at all. It was so long since we had met—nearly five years now—at the time when Percy came down with her to Canterbury, when I became engaged to him. How much had happened since then! how many changes! it seemed an age to look back upon, and a very sad age too. Ada was naturally the first to recover herself, and as soon as she saw that I could listen to her, she began to scold me for being six weeks so near London without writing to let her know, and said that she had felt so indignant, when she first received my letter, that she had a great mind not to come down at all. I excused myself as well as I could, and told her frankly that I had been influenced by three reasons—the first, that from the time when we came up we had been so occupied in seeing about the furniture of our new house, that we had been busy from morning till night; the second, that owing to the same cause, both we and the house had been in such a state of confusion that we were not fit to receive visitors, and that I preferred her seeing the place when it was clean and tidy; and lastly, that I really had hardly felt equal to seeing her, and having so many sad memories called up. Ada still scolded me a little, and then, finding that I had now recovered myself, said:—

“There, Agnes, I will forgive you; and now let me look fairly at you: turn to the light. Really, I do not think you look a year older.”

“Nonsense, Ada, I know I am looking older; I do not care for myself, but I only hope Percy will not think me looking dreadfully old when he comes back.”

“If he does, Agnes, I will have nothing to say to him. Let me see, he has been gone now nearly four years,—four more, darling! it seems a long time to wait, but still it is something that half has gone, and what a happiness it is that his regiment was not out in that dreadful Crimea. And now, how am I looking, Agnes?”

“A little changed, Ada. You see I speak the truth. You were, like myself, nearly eighteen then; you are twenty-three now. Older, and a little more matronly-looking, for you were a girl then; you are a woman now, but certainly not less beautiful; indeed, I think more so, for your face has a calmer and brighter expression than it had.”

I was not flattering her, for as I looked at her I thought I had never seen such a lovely woman in my life. Ada laughed and coloured a little, and declared I was an old goose; and then I said:—

“And now for a very important question, Ada; how is baby?”

“Very well, Agnes; he is six months old now, getting quite a big, troublesome boy. Ah, here is Polly!”

For Polly, always thoughtful, had remained out of the room, to let Ada and me have our first meeting, after so long a separation, together alone. It was only a year since they had met, and I was pleased to see by her manner how fond Ada was of her; as in the event of my going to India with Percy, her friendship would be very valuable to Polly.

“And is that your carriage, Ada?” I asked.

“Dear me, no,” Ada said, “my equipage is a simple brougham. But I was in at the Square this morning with Holmeskirk, and I said I was coming down to see you; so the countess—who has a very high opinion of you, my dear, and who constantly inquires after you, especially as she knows, of course, how you stand with Percy—insisted on my taking her carriage and leaving her card. She sent her love, and she hopes that you and Polly will call upon her when you come over to see me; and I can assure you, Agnes, the dear old lady meant it. And now what day will you come? I will send my brougham down any day you like to name, that is if you will let me first see what days I am disengaged.”

Ada thereupon took out her tablets, and found she was engaged for every day except Friday.

“Now, Agnes, I want you and Polly to come early to lunch. Then we will have the countess’s carriage—she is a great invalid now, and she likes my using her carriage,—and we will have a drive in the park, and then a long cosy talk till dinner, at seven. And I want your brother to come to dinner, and then the brougham shall bring you back. Holmeskirk would have called himself; but your letter said that your brother always went out early, so he knew he had no chance of finding him in; but he asked me to leave his card.”

After a little consultation with Polly, I accepted the invitation as far as the going up to dinner was concerned, but solely on condition that we came up in our own way. Ada inquired what was our own way, and I said that we should send up a box by the Parcels’ Delivery with the things we required for dinner, and that we ourselves should come up by an omnibus to Sloane Street; that we would walk from there to her ladyship’s, and that we should have a fly to fetch us at night. And so it was agreed; and Ada sat and talked for more than an hour, and then got up to go. We went down the garden with her, and she stopped at the gate to kiss us again before she got in; to, I have no doubt, the intense astonishment of the powdered footman, who was holding the carriage-door open, and who must have suffered the more that his position prevented him expressing his feelings, except by assuming an expression of even more stony impassiveness than before; for I have no doubt that before he saw this mark of affection and familiarity, he had the impression that Viscountess Holmeskirk had come down to pay a visit to some old nurse or domestic whom she had known in childhood.

When Harry came home, I told him of the engagement we had made for him, and he pished and grumbled, and said at first that he would not go; but, as I pointed out, there was no possible excuse for his not doing so, and indeed that it would be of no use, for Ada had particularly begged me, should Harry say he was engaged for that day, to write at once and let her know, and she would change the day for one in the following week. So Harry had to give in, and on the day of our engagement arranged to dress in town, and come straight down, for he was busy just then, and could not get away till six o’clock. Polly and I got to Ada’s house, which was in Wilton Crescent, at one o’clock. Lord Holmeskirk was at home, and renewed his acquaintance with me with the frank heartiness which was natural to him.

After lunch Ada took us up to the nursery to see baby, and after we had sufficiently admired him—and he was really a fine little fellow—we put on our things and went for a drive with her in the park in the Countess of Rochester’s carriage. On our return we went in with Ada to call on the countess herself, who lived in Belgrave Square, and who was very kind in her manner and remarks. She was evidently very fond of Ada, and not a little proud of her beautiful daughter-in-law; and I could see that Ada, on her part, was very attached to the kind old lady, whom she treated with a deference which I had certainly never seen her exhibit for her own imperious mother.

After we got back to Ada’s we took off our things, and sat down for a long, cozy chat about the past. I found she was very happy in her married life, and that her husband was all she could possibly wish him. I certainly thought that her happiness had improved her; for, although quite as cheerful as of old, she had a quiet dignity which very much became her. She said that she hoped, when we were able to enter into gaiety again, that we would let her take us with her into society.

For myself I declined at once, and I am glad that Polly did the same. I told her we moved in a sphere as far removed from the one in which she did, as the sun was from the earth, and that I was sure it was a great mistake, as my own example might prove, to go out of it. “It is pleasant for a time, Ada,” I said, “but it is a bitter fruit; no good can come of it. When Percy comes home, if we are married, and if Polly is still single, it will be a different thing; but at present Daisy Villa has nothing in common, except our affection, with Wilton Crescent and Belgrave Square. We shall be very glad to come over sometimes to see you quietly, and for you to drive over to see us when you can spare time from your gaieties, but beyond that, as long as I am Miss Ashleigh, nothing.” Ada tried hard to shake my resolution, but in vain, and Polly was equally firm with myself.

Harry came to dinner, and Ada made him feel perfectly at home. Certainly prosperity had not spoiled her; she was just as frank and as friendly as when she had been staying with us as a girl at Canterbury; she introduced him to Lord Holmeskirk with a laughing remark, that Harry had at one time very nearly prevented her from ever occupying the position she now so unworthily filled, by making the most desperate love to her when she was only sixteen years old. Lord Holmeskirk laughed, and said, that in that case he was very greatly Harry’s debtor in that he had not succeeded in his attempt upon Ada’s affections.

Harry and Lord Holmeskirk were soon on very friendly terms. They suited each other well. They had moved certainly in very different circles, and had seen very different sides of life; but they were of the same happy disposition; both in their way singularly straightforward men, and both gifted with the same honest determination to see only the best side of things.

Our little dinner-party went off very pleasantly; and I felt quite relieved to find that when we were helped, the servants left the room; and Ada then told us that she had suffered so much as a girl from the stony presence behind her mother’s chair, that she had always determined, if she were at the head of a house of her own, never to have a servant in the room one moment longer than necessary.

After dessert was over, Ada and we went up to the nursery, leaving the gentlemen over their wine, and I believe they would have sat and talked there all night if Ada had not at last sent them message after message to say that tea was ready upstairs. Soon after they came up our fly arrived, and we went home very much pleased with our evening.

After that Harry never raised any objection to going to dine at Wilton Crescent, which we afterwards did every month or so when Ada was in town. Polly and I used to lunch with her once a fortnight, and the coronetted carriage was very often down at Daisy Villa, where it never ceased to be an object of wonder and admiration to the small children of the neighbourhood, and I have no doubt gave us great standing and dignity in the eyes of the inhabitants of the other five villas. I really believe we never ceased to be subjects for wonder and speculation to the countess’s powdered footman, who knowing that Lord Holmeskirk had married the daughter of the fashionable Lady Desborough, could never form any hypothesis perfectly satisfactory to himself as to how she could possibly come to be familiar with people living in such a small, and exceedingly unfashionable domicile as No. 1, Daisy Villas, Charlemagne Road, Putney.

Chapter III • A Strange Profession • 4,500 Words

A very touching picture Sophy Gregory presented as she sat in the little parlour at work, a week after Dr. Ashleigh’s visit; in her mourning dress, and with the tiny fatherless child in her lap. She was very pale, and looked years older than she was. Sophy had gone through a heavy trial. She had loved her husband very truly; not indeed with the same admiring affection she had felt for him when they met in the plantations of Harmer Place—that dream had been dispelled rudely enough long ago,—but she had loved him as a true woman, knowing his faults, and bearing with them, taking them indeed as a special and deserved punishment upon herself for her fault in marrying him as she had done; but yet loving him the more, in that she saw how hard he tried, in spite of his faults, to make her happy. For this she had thanked God, and had prayed very earnestly that some day it might be granted to her, that through her influence over him, and his love for her, he might yet turn out nearly such a man as, in her early days of love, she had fancied him to be. But now all those pictures which she had been so fondly painting of their life in a distant land, had suddenly faded away; those bright pictures which had been ever before her eyes, as she sat at her work through the day, or of an evening, with Robert sitting moodily drinking beside her; fair, happy pictures of their future life, in a rude hut in some lonely clearing, far away from the nearest neighbours; she, engaged in her household work, listening to the ring of Robert’s axe, till the hour should come for him to return from his labour, tired, but cheery and bright, to spend the evening with her happily without that dreadful bottle; contented with her fond welcome, sitting by the log fire-side, perhaps with his children climbing on his knee, or standing by while he told them stories, or taught them their first simple lessons, while she sat by busy at her work watching them fondly. At the thought of these, or some such fancies, Sophy’s face had brightened often, and, trusting in the future, she had almost forgotten the present, and once again admired as well as loved her husband, not for what he was, but for what he would some day become. But now all these pictures were gone, blotted out in a moment by the rude hand of death,—and of such a death! If he had died as most men die, tranquilly and peacefully, with his last words breathed in her ears, his last look fixed upon herself, Sophy thought she could have borne it with resignation; but to die such a death as this, to be shot down in his strength, to go out full of health and spirits, and never to return; and for her only to be told that he lay in an obscure grave in a distant town! this she could hardly bear; and as she looked with a blank hopeless look into the fire, she thought that were it not for the unconscious babe on her knees, she would gladly—oh, how gladly!—go where there is no more weeping and tears. But for the child’s sake she must live and work; for that child who, if he had his rights, would be heir to wealth and fortune—to that very home where his father had been shot down like a common robber, by the woman who had defrauded him of his rights. Sophy did not know all the history of that night’s work, only what Dr. Ashleigh had told her; that Robert had gone with the intention of alarming Miss Harmer into divulging where the will was hidden. Angela Harmer’s death she regarded as an unfortunate effect of the fright, which could not have been foreseen; of the violence used towards her she was of course ignorant.

Was not Robert, she asked herself, right in what he did? Was he not in his own house, seeking his own for her sake and the child’s. Should all this go for ever unpunished? Should this woman who had robbed her and her child, who had now slain her husband, who had, as Dr. Ashleigh had told her, destroyed his daughter’s happiness, and brought her to the verge of the grave; should she prosper and triumph? No, a thousand times no; and day after day Sophy’s determination became more and more deeply rooted, her purpose more strongly confirmed. Should it cost her her life as it had done Robert’s, she would yet find the will. But how? And she brooded over the thought till her brain seemed on fire; she fell into reveries from which nothing except the crying of her child could rouse her; her eyes began to have a dreamy, far-off look, and had there not been anything to rouse and occupy her, it is probable that her reason would have given way entirely under the strain of this fixed idea upon her mind. Upon this day, however, there was a knock at the door, and a little talking in the passage, and then Mrs. Billow, who had been as kind as a mother to Sophy during this period, came into the room.

“Mr. Fielding wishes to speak to you, my dear; he has been here three or four times to ask after you, and I do think you had better see him.”

Sophy looked up at her as she spoke, but it was evident that she did not hear what was said to her; her thoughts were too far away to be called back all at once.

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Billow,” she said presently, with an effort, “what are you saying?” Mrs. Billow repeated her message.

“Do see him, my dear,” she went on as Sophy shook her head, “It will do you good; you are fretting yourself to death. Indeed, indeed, my dear, you are, and it is very wrong of you; what is to become of your little baby if you get ill, as I am sure you will, if you sit here think, think, all day, without speaking a word to any one? Do see him, now there’s a deary, it will do you good, indeed it will.”

Sophy paused a little, and then said in a weary tone, “Very well, Mrs. Billow, if it will please you, I will see him.”

Mr. Fielding was shown in. He was a rough man, and, to a certain extent, an unprincipled one; but he had been a gentleman once, and could be one still when he chose, and his heart was, after all, not far from its right place.

“Mrs. Gregory,” he said, as he came in, “I will not pain you by offering you my condolences, or by telling you how I feel for you in your affliction. Please to consider all that as said, and to take this visit as one simply of business. When I called the day before yesterday, I took the liberty of asking your landlady what you were thinking of doing. She told me that from what you said she believed that you intended teaching again. Now will you excuse me if I say, that although, under other circumstances, such a plan might have its advantages, yet that I think, that with a young baby, whom you would be obliged to leave without you the whole day, it would be attended by great inconveniences. Besides, there is no occasion why you should do so. My proposition is, that you should continue to do as you have hitherto done. I can leave the papers, letters, and such information as you require, here of a day, without coming in to disturb you. If I were to see you, say once a week at present, while it is the slack time, it would, I should think, be sufficient. By the time the busy season comes on, you will, I hope, be so far recovered as to be able to see me for half an hour or so every day. Of course, the remuneration will be the same as it has been up to this time. I do not think you could earn more at your teaching, and you will be able to have baby with you all day. There is another thing I should wish to say. It was through—through my late partner’s capital and assistance, that we managed to do as well as we did, and it has laid the foundation for a first-rate business this year. There is at present £150 only in the bank, half of which is your property. Should you choose to let that remain in the business, I will give you, as I think would be fair, an interest in it—say one-fifth of the profits at the end of the year.”

“But I have no right to that, have I, Mr. Fielding? For I know that I heard Robert say that any man would be ready to put £1,000 into the business for a third of the profits.”

“That is right enough, Mrs. Gregory, and I do not disguise from you that the fifth of the business is worth a great deal more than £75, even for a sleeping partner; but that is not the question: it is not for the money, but for your interest and partnership, as it were, that I think it fair that you should still have a share in it.”

“But I have no absolute right to any share, Mr. Fielding?”

“Well, not actually a right, Mrs. Gregory. You see we never drew up any deed of partnership when we began; but it was, of course, an understood thing that if anything should happen to either of us that his representatives should have some sort of interest or pull out of the affair.”

“And about the writing, Mr. Fielding? Are you sure that my work is worth what you pay me?”

“Quite sure,” he said, in a far less hesitating and undecided way than he had before spoken in. “I can assure you that I could not get any one on whom I could rely to do the work for less money, and that I should be very sorry for any one else to know all my affairs as you do.”

“Then in that case I accept with many thanks,” Sophy said, gratefully; “and I feel that you are acting with great kindness, for the £75 is no equivalent for my share of the profits. You have, indeed, taken a great weight off my mind, for I have been very troubled, wondering what I should do with baby while I was out.”

“That is settled, then,” Mr. Fielding said, cheerfully, as if greatly relieved that the matter had been so arranged. “I will send you the papers and letters to-morrow, when the post comes in. I can assure you it will be quite a relief to me; for although work is slack now, I have got into such a muddle that I hardly know which letters I have answered and which I have not. I have all this week’s lot here.” And he took a large bundle of letters from his pocket. “I believe I have answered all the others, but I have not touched one of these. I will leave them with you to clear up. And now, good bye. I will call again this day week.”

And so Sophy, very joyful that she should be always with her baby, again set to at her old work of making out lists, and answering correspondents, and sending out the names of winning horses; and busied in these pursuits, and in the nursing and fondling of baby, her thoughts ceased to dwell on her project for the recovery of the will, and her eyes recovered their former expression. Not that she had given up her idea, but she had postponed it for a fitting season; the only step she took towards it being to write to her foster-mother, the woman who had brought her up, to ask her to send an account of Miss Harmer’s state of health every three months, and to let her know at once if she should be taken ill.

As time went on, the first faint gleams of consciousness came into baby’s eyes, and then it came to know her, and to hold out its arms, and struggle and cry to come to her, and Sophy began to feel that life might have some happiness for her yet, for she had something to love and work for, something which loved her in return.

And so a year passed, and now the little child was able just to toddle across the room, to Sophy’s delight and terror, and to call her “mammy,” and to utter other sounds, perfectly unintelligible to any one, but which she persisted was talking; and Sophy was able to toss him and play with him almost as gleefully as she would have done years before. She looked far younger than she had done eighteen months back, for she had now no care on her mind. Sometimes, indeed, of an evening, when her work was all done, and the child in bed, she would sit by the hour musing over her plans for the recovery of the will; but her eyes had not the fixed, strange look they used to wear when thinking it over; for then she had thought of it as a duty, as a something which she had to do; but now that it was for her darling’s sake, it was a pleasure; and her eyes would lighten as she thought over what she would do when she had succeeded, and she and her boy were rich.

She was comfortably off now; for the firm was doing well, and James Fielding was a member of Tattersall’s and began to stand high in the ring. His drawings had risen from five pounds to ten pounds a week. He told Sophy so, and said that he considered this five pounds had been payment for his work, in the same way that her two pounds was of hers, but this additional five pounds he looked upon as a weekly division of profits, and consequently she was entitled to another one pound a week also. So she had now three pounds a week and was very comfortable. At the end of the season he showed her his banker’s book, and there was nearly £2,000 standing to his credit; and he said that next year, having so good a capital, he should be able to bet more heavily, and had no question that he should do much better.

All through that winter although business was very slack, and there was no occasion for his so doing, James Fielding used to come over three times a week to see her. And indeed all along his kindness had been very great, sending her little presents of game and poultry, and bringing baskets of choice fruit from Covent Garden.

It was not for a year after Robert Gregory’s death that Sophy thought anything of all this. James Fielding had been very kind to her, and she had learned to think of him as a true friend; but absorbed as she was in her child, and with her spare thoughts so fixed on that other purpose of hers, she had never thought more on the subject. At length one day, something he said, some tone of his voice came upon her like a revelation. She started, looked hurriedly and anxiously at him and saw that it was indeed so. With an exclamation almost of pain she rose—

“James Fielding,” she said, “don’t say it to me. Never think of it again. Do not take away the last friend I have in the world from me. You are the only one I have to rely upon, do not make it impossible for me ever to receive a kindness from you again. I shall never marry again; do not, do not speak of it.”

“I know, Sophy, I am not worthy of you,” James Fielding began slowly, and then—as with an imploring gesture, she tried to silence him—”Let me speak, Sophy, I will never allude to it again.”

“No, no, no,” Sophy cried, passionately; “I will not hear you! If you once tell me you love me, you can never be to me what you have been before. I cannot be your wife; pray, pray, do not ask me.”

“And can it never be, Sophy? Not in a long, long time?”

“Never, James, never! Think of me as a dear friend, as a sister. Shake hands, James. You will be my friend as you have been before, will you not? And the friend of my child?”

“I will, Sophy,” he said, sorrowfully but earnestly. “I will, so help me God!”

It was a great blow to him; for he had come to love his late partner’s pale young widow very truly, with her grave, sedate face when at business, and her pretty winning ways when he had come in sometimes and found her romping with her baby.

However, he saw at once that it was not to be, and very sorrowfully determined that at all events she should not find any change in his manner or way, and that she should be able to look on him as a brother. Had he thought that time could have made any change in his favour he would have been content to wait and hope; but he saw that there was none, and as he said to himself on his way home, “a man may back a horse when the odds are a hundred to one against it, and land his money in the end, but no one but a fool would put money on a scratched horse.”

From that time Sophy never saw by his manner that she was anything more than a dear friend to him; and although for a little while she was timid and reserved with him, yet this in time wore off, and they fell back into their old relations, and things went on as before.

Next to James Fielding, Sophy’s greatest friends were Mr. Harley and his wife who lived opposite. They had known her before Robert’s death, and had about that time been very kind to her, and were really much attached to her and her boy. He played first violin at the Victoria, and his wife took the singing chambermaid at the same theatre. She was considered very clever in her line, and could have obtained an engagement at one of the houses across the water, but she preferred remaining at the same theatre with her husband. He was a man about thirty; she was twenty-six. They had been married five years, and it was their great grief that they had no children. They took very much to Sophy and her boy, who was christened James, after Mr. Fielding, his godfather; for Sophy could not at that time have borne that her child should be named after his father.

And so three years more went on. Little James was now four years old, and was growing up a very fine little fellow, and Sophy, who almost adored him, began to tell herself that it was time that she should leave him and devote herself for a while to that purpose which, if successful, would make him a rich man.

One day, nearly four years after her husband’s death, James Fielding called upon her. After talking for some time on indifferent matters, he said—

“My dear Sophy, three years ago I asked you a question, and you said it could not be.”

Sophy looked up for a moment with a little frightened start, but seeing by his steady face that he was not as she feared going to repeat that question, she listened quietly as he went on.

“Had your answer been other than it was—had you given me the least hope, I should have been contented to have waited any time; but I saw that what you said was final, and that it was not to be. I therefore gave up all hope and have looked upon you ever since as you asked me to do—as a sister; and now I am come to tell you that I am going to be married.”

“I am very glad to hear it, James,” Sophy said, cordially; “more glad than I can tell.”

“I was sure you would be, Sophy. She is a cousin of mine down in Leicestershire. She was a child when I left home, at my poor father’s death, and came up to London, twelve years ago; now she is twenty-five. The winter before last, as you know, I went down to see the old place and the old folk. Two of my uncles were living there, and they were glad enough to see me. I don’t say that they altogether approved of my profession; still, it is a sporting county. One of my uncles is a lawyer, the other a doctor, and both ride to the hounds, and they consequently did not think my being a betting man quite such a dreadful thing as some people might have done. At any rate they received me kindly, and I had rather a strong flirtation with my cousin. Last winter we came pretty well to an understanding, and now we have arranged that I shall go down to spend Christmas with them, and shall carry her away with me a day or two afterwards. And now, Sophy, I am going to talk business. These last few years we have been doing better and better, and we have now as nearly as may be £25,000 in the bank. Now, some of this I want to take out, as I have arranged to settle £8,000 on my wife, and I therefore propose that you should draw your share out. It is now £5,000, which will be enough to make you comfortable with your child, and place you beyond all necessity for work. It is better for us both, for, careful as I am, I might, by a run of ill luck, have it all swept away, yours and mine, and by this arrangement we shall be safe.”

“I had already made up my mind, James, to tell you that I wished our partnership to be dissolved. To begin with, you now bet in such a large way, that I am sure this commission business is only an annoyance to you, and that you only continue it because it affords me work. However, I have kept a private account for the last three years, and I found that there was a good balance of profit after paying me my four pounds a week, so I did not hesitate in keeping on. However, I am now desirous of giving it up. For these four years I have been putting off the execution of a purpose I have had in my mind, and I must delay no longer. I do not tell you what it is, James, true friend as you are, for you might try and dissuade me from it, and that would only trouble me, without diverting me from my purpose. As for the £5,000, I cannot take such a sum as that; that is the result of your work, and not of the £75, which was what I put in. Still, as you say that you did benefit by Robert’s work that year, and as that year laid the foundation of your fortune, I will consent to take £2,000, and I do that only for the sake of my child. Will you let it be so?”

James Fielding did not let it be so without a great struggle; but nothing could persuade Sophy to take more than the £2,000. At last, when he found that nothing could change her determination, he gave in, and agreed that it should be as she wished. He then began to ask her about her future plans.

“I cannot tell you, James, so do not ask me. My design, whatever it is, may take a year in execution—it may take two years. I may be gone before you come back.”

“Gone!” James Fielding said, in astonishment; “but where on earth are you going?”

“I cannot tell you, James, so it is not of the slightest use asking.”

“But what on earth are you going to do, Sophy?”

“I can tell you nothing now, James, so pray do not ask. I will send you my address when I am gone, and you can write to me; and if anything should happen to me, James, will you promise to be a father to my boy?”

“I will, Sophy. I will bring him up as my own child. But all this is really too bad, Sophy. You promised to look upon me as a brother, and now you are going upon some extraordinary business, and don’t give me the slightest clue as to what you are going to do; and yet it is so serious that you ask me to take care of your child, if anything happens to you.”

“I do look upon you as a brother, James, but not to my own brother would I tell what I am going to do. But at any rate you shall know in six weeks where I am.”

More than this James Fielding could not obtain from her, and went away greatly mystified and rather anxious. James Fielding had a shrewd suspicion of how Robert Gregory had met his end. He knew the anticipations of fortune he had under Mr. Harmer’s will. He knew—for Robert had spoken to him of it—of the efforts which had been made to find the will. He had read in the papers the account of the burglary at Harmer Place, and that one of the robbers was supposed to have been wounded. When therefore he heard of Robert’s death, and that it had resulted from an accident, without any particulars of the how or where being given, the idea had struck him that he had fallen in the attempt to recover the will. All these thoughts forgotten for many years now came back to him, and he could not help fancying that in some way Sophy’s new resolution was connected with the same end. However, it was no use guessing on the subject; it was evident that time alone would show, for Sophy would tell him nothing.

The next day James Fielding paid £2,000 in to Sophy’s account, and a week afterwards went down into Leicestershire to fetch his bride.

Chapter IV • An Odd Wooing • 4,100 Words

We had not much society at Putney—that is, not much ladies’ society. Putney is too near to London for people to call upon new comers; so the only acquaintances we made were the wives and sisters of the “Metropolitan” men who resided there. There were only four or five of them—that is only that number of married men; but that gave us as much quiet evening visiting as we cared for. We were all very sociable, and very frequently met at each other’s houses to tea, and then, after a little music, the gentlemen sat down to whist, while we talked and looked on. It was a great place for whist, and both Polly and I were fond of it, and played, Harry said, very fairly for girls. We often played when we were wanted; and when Harry brought in two friends with him, we took it by turns to play the double rubber. In summer this was constantly the case, for then Putney was full of “Metropolitan” men, who took up their quarters there for the rowing season, went up to their business by the morning train, and came down in quite a strong body for the rowing; in the evening—increased as their numbers were by those who lived in other parts of London, and had to return again the same evening. A finer-looking set of men could hardly be found—men with straight, active figures, and fresh, healthy complexions; not noisy, and yet full of fun and life. They were almost all in business of some kind in the City; merchants, Stock Exchange men, solicitors, and men in government and other offices. Harry was very particular who he brought home with him, and certainly Polly’s opinion and mine—as far as our little season in town had qualified us to judge—was, that they were as pleasant and gentlemanly a set of men as could be found. There were, Harry said, of course, a few men in the club who were not quite so presentable; but that was to be expected in any large body of men.

Harry came down twice a week all through the summer, to go out in the club-eights, and we generally walked a little way along the towing-path on these evenings, to see them come along with their measured stroke, and steady swing. In time, from hearing so much talk about it, we got to know how nearly every man in the club rowed.

It was more especially when the club races were coming on, and three or four eights had entered, that these matters were discussed with the greatest interest.

Harry always entered for them. He had taken to rowing too late ever to become a finished oar; but he was considered a very useful man in the middle of the boat. What excitement we all felt about it; and I believe the ladies of the club—if I may call them so—were at least as much interested as the men. We discussed the chances of the boats quite scientifically, and laid bets of kid-gloves with each other upon the result. The first great excitement was the evening when Harry came back from the club on the night of choosing the crews, with the lists. How eagerly we looked over them, and how glad we would be to see that he had Griffin for stroke, and Thompson for seven, a host in themselves; but as our eye ran down it, our faces would fall greatly, when we saw that he had also Big Hamper, who it was notorious never pulled his weight along, and Long Black, who in himself was enough to——well I must not use Harry’s word, though it was very expressive—but enough to spoil any crew he got among.

During the fortnight they were practising for the race, pretty Miss Planter would generally call in for us every evening, as we lived nearer to the water than she did; and we would walk through the cricket-field to the towing-path, and watch the different boats coming down over the course. In time we became quite judges of rowing, and could tell pretty nearly which would be most likely to win, by the regularity of the stroke and the steadiness of the swing with which they did the last half-mile down to the bridge; for, as Harry said, any crew could swing when they were fresh, but the boat which kept its form after going over the course might be pretty well relied upon to win the race. Miss Planter was a better judge than we were, for her brother was the life and soul, the guiding spirit of the club.

Rupert Planter was a tall, wiry man, rather loosely put together, with a rolling, uncouth walk. On shore, no one would have singled him out as a man of unusual strength, or as a practised gymnast; but put him into a boat, and his muscles seemed to stiffen into steel, and, as he tore his oar through the water, you saw before you the most finished, as well as, perhaps, the most plucky, oarsman in the world. Rupert Planter’s life was passed, when not at business or asleep, in a boat. His every thought and energy were devoted to the promotion of the aquatic art in general, and of the “Metropolitan Rowing Club” in particular. His whole time was at its disposal, and no trouble was grudged by him in the endeavour to maintain it in its proud position of the first rowing club in England.

He was rather a despot in his way, and a little fond of carrying things with a high hand, and anything like shirking was greeted with a force of denunciation which sometimes rather astonished new members; but no one minded what he said, for they knew that he only spoke as he did for the good of the club. It was wonderful the influence he had over them, and how much better a boat went when he was steering her; and if he were on the bank, and an eight came along pulling heavily against the tide, the moment his voice was heard, with his sharp “Now lift her up, boys!” the way in which the tired crew straightened up and lay out to their work was almost magical.

On the day of the race we went in the steamer which the club hired to accompany it, and great was our interest and excitement. I don’t know anything prettier than to see four eights dash off together at the word “Go!” their oars all dipping together, amidst the burst of shouts and encouragement from their friends in the accompanying steamer, and the breathless excitement, lest—as they close nearer to each other, in their efforts to draw over to the Middlesex shore—there should be a foul; then the thrill of pleasure and triumph with which you see the boat you wish to win, slowly, inch by inch, draw itself out from among the others. Even should the boat which first leads not be your favourite, still you do not give up hope, but continue to wave your handkerchief, and to watch each fresh effort, until, perhaps, towards Hammersmith, your boat, stroke by stroke, slowly gains on the leader till it is nearly abreast, and then with a desperate spurt, amidst the wild cheering from the steamer, it snatches the victory in the last quarter of a mile. Oh, it is a glorious exercise! and if ever I wished myself a man, it was, certainly, that I might be able to row in a boat-race.

Polly would get even more excited than I did, and I remember that on one or two occasions of particularly hard races, she came home with her handkerchief and gloves literally torn into shreds, quite unconsciously to herself, in the excitement she felt in watching the varying chances of the boat Harry pulled in.

On occasions of general interest, such as the University contests, or races for the championship, we used to go up to the club-room, and out into the long balcony looking over the river; and it was very interesting to see the river crowded with steamers, and the excited crowd on the towing-path, and to hear the burst of cheering which broke out when they started. But it was only the start we saw, and not even always that—for the steamers often got in our way—so that, on the whole, I enjoyed the club races far more than these great contests.

On quiet afternoons, when the tide was favourable, and there was no racing on, Harry would come down early, and, perhaps, bring a friend round with him, and take a club skiff, and row us up to Richmond. Very pleasant it was, lying back in the boat, with its gentle gliding motion through the still water, and listening to the regular plash of the oars; and then, when we reached Richmond, to get out, and stroll up into the park, and look out on the wonderfully beautiful view over the rich wooded country towards Windsor, with the winding river, and the pretty mansions, and country seats on its banks. Then, when the tide turned, we would start again, floating down lazily with the current, and not getting back to the boat-house until it was growing quite dark, and the mists were beginning to curl up from the still river.

We had now been two years at Putney, and in this time Polly had many admirers; indeed, I don’t think any one could help loving her; and she could, had she given them the slightest encouragement, have married almost any one of Harry’s friends. But her heart was evidently quite untouched at present, and she did not seem to be at all anxious to change her name. Among Harry’s friends it was generally understood that I was engaged. I wished it to be so, as it made my position more pleasant, by putting me quite at my ease with them, and by preventing the possibility of any unfortunate mistake being made; besides, I was the better able to chaperone Polly.

In the winter season, as I have said, we were much quieter than in summer, for then the rowing men almost all went away to London till the spring; but twice a week at any rate we went in of an evening to the Planters’, or one of the other resident families, or they came in to us. Saturday was the club-day, and then Harry went out on the water when the weather was fine, and in the evening to the club-room, where he boxed, fenced, and played whist till twelve o’clock.

It was not till we had been there two years that we came to know one of Harry’s friends, he had never brought home before; and yet we had heard more of him than of almost any man in the club. This was Charley Horton, a merchant, with a very good business in the City—not that any one would have taken him for a merchant, or, indeed, for anything connected with business in any way. He was a man of about thirty, of middle height, but very strongly built, with a large pair of whiskers, a ruddy complexion, a clear, honest eye, a big voice, and a hearty laugh. Harry had often spoken of him as one of the most popular men in the club, but when we had asked him why he did not bring him in, Harry had said—

“Oh, Charley can’t stand women; it is not that he dislikes them absolutely, but he says he does not understand them, and can never think of anything to say to them; a man who once met him at a party reports that he stood at the door all the evening, and looked as afraid of speaking to a woman as if he had never seen one before in his life.”

One day, however, when Harry came down early with the intention of taking us up the river, Charley happened to come down in the same carriage with him, and Harry told him what he was going to do, and asked him to take an oar. After great difficulty, and only under the promise that he should pull bow, so as to be as far out of the way of conversation as possible, Charley consented to come. Harry came home to fetch us, while his friend went round to the club-room to dress, and met us at the boat-house. When he saw us coming I do believe that if he could by any possibility have got away he would have done so; but there was no escape. Harry introduced him to us, he murmured something vague, and then went off to help to get the boat down.

I do not think that I ever remember Polly in such a wild humour as she was on that afternoon. She kept up a string of questions and talk the whole time we were on the water, I believe on purpose to put Mr. Horton out, and as we were going up with the tide there was no occasion to pull hard, and the rowers had no excuse for not talking.

Polly commenced the attack directly the boat had pushed off. I believe she waited for that lest her victim should escape her.

“Do you know, Mr. Horton, we have been wishing to make your acquaintance for ever so long; Harry has so often spoken about you, that we seem to know you quite well.”

Charley Horton coloured up like a girl, and murmured something about “mutual pleasure, he was sure.”

I was obliged to hold my face down, while I thought that Harry, who was pulling stroke and had therefore his back to Charley Horton, would have laughed out loud. However, he restrained himself, and shook his head admonishingly at Polly, who, however, paid not the slightest attention to it; but with a perfectly innocent and unconscious look continued to talk, sometimes addressing Harry, sometimes his friend, but always a question requiring rather a long answer or explanation. I do believe that for his own sake, Charley Horton would willingly have jumped overboard and swam ashore at any time during our trip up. Coming back again she was more merciful, and confined her questions chiefly to boating matters, and on these Charley was able to answer pretty fluently, and was more at his ease. I leaned forward and asked Harry to invite his friend round. He nodded, but said nothing about it till we got out of the boat. Then he asked—

“I suppose you are not going up to town, Charley, till a late train?”

“No,” he answered, “not till the 10.40.”

“Well, then,” Harry said, “you may as well come round with us, we are going to have a dinner-tea.”

Charley opened his eyes with an expression of absolute alarm.

“Much obliged,” he said, “but I can’t anyhow. It is quite impossible.”

“Why, Mr. Horton,” I said quietly, “you said you were not going up to town till late, so there can be surely nothing to prevent your coming in to us.”

“Come, old fellow,” Harry laughed, “there can’t be any reason why you won’t come, so say no more about it, but come.”

“Well, I don’t know that there is any particular reason,” Charley said in a tone of extreme depression, and evidently quite unable at the moment to invent any excuse whatever, “No—well, Ashleigh, I’ll come.”

“That’s right,” Harry said, “I want to speak to some one at the rooms, so I will go round with you; you may as well go on girls and get tea ready.”

As we went home I talked quite seriously to Polly, and told her I was really very surprised at her; but Polly would by no means allow she was wrong, and insisted that she had only been very polite and chatty. This was, to a certain extent, true and I was quite unable to extract any promise from her that she would be more merciful. Presently the two gentlemen came in, and Harry told us afterwards that had he not gone round with his friend he would never have come; as it was, he had endeavoured to persuade Harry to tell us that he had received some urgent message calling him to town; but Harry refused to do this, and pointed out that if he did we should not believe him, and that he would have to call and apologize next time he came down.

And so Charley, with great discontent, came round, and was for some time evidently very uncomfortable; but as the evening went on, he became more at his ease, although it was ridiculous to hear the difference between his loud, jovial tone when he spoke to Harry, and his shy, disconnected way of speaking when he answered our questions.

This was Charley Horton’s first visit to us, but it was by no means the last. After this he came with Harry, not often at first, but as he became more intimate, much more frequently, and sometimes even when Harry did not bring him in; and as he got to know us, and found that women were not such terrible beings after all, he became comparatively at his ease. Certainly Polly did not help to make him so, for she teazed and put him out of countenance most unmercifully; the consequence was, that although before very long he got to talk to me almost in the same way he did to Harry, he was always shy and awkward when he addressed her. I wondered myself that he came at all, for Polly plagued him sadly in spite of what I could say to her; I even expressed myself surprised to Harry, but Harry laughed, and said, “Do you know, Agnes, I am firmly of opinion that Charley is rather smitten with Polly.”

“What nonsense,” I said; greatly amused at the idea; “you are not in earnest, Harry, are you?”

“I am, indeed, Agnes,” he said, “and a capital husband he would make, too.”

“Why, my dear Harry, Polly would as soon think of marrying the man in the moon as Charley Horton. Why, she could marry almost any one she liked, and she does nothing but make fun of him.”

I told Polly what Harry had said, as a very great joke. Polly laughed too, but she coloured a little, and said, “What ridiculous nonsense, Agnes;” altogether she was not so amused at the idea as I had thought she would be. After this I watched them closely, and at last came to the conclusion that Harry was right, and that Charley really was serious about it. About Polly I could not tell at all; she was just as teazing as ever with him, and I could not see the least change in her manner.

I cannot enter into all this at length, or I shall never bring this story of mine to an end, and I must, therefore, be very brief with it, as I have been with all this part of my history.

It was a funny courtship, and I never, till it was settled, felt quite certain that it was a courtship at all. I never heard Charley pay her a compliment, or say anything such as people in his condition do; never at least, but once, and that was not at all the usual way of doing it. We had been talking about a race, and Polly said that she should like to steer one of the boats, when Charley came out in his loud way,—”By Jove! Miss Ashleigh, if you did, there would be no occasion to say, ‘Eyes in the boat.’” Harry and I laughed heartily, and Polly got up and made a very deep curtsey, and poor Charley was so completely astonished at himself that he could not say another word that evening, and took his leave very shortly. It was only to Harry that he would confide anything, and he at last told him that he was only waiting for an opportunity to ask Polly, but that for the life of him he could not imagine what he should say to her. However, I suppose he did manage it somehow, for one day Polly told me that it was all settled, and that she was going to marry Charley Horton.

I was very pleased; for although Charley was not a bit the man I should have thought Polly would have chosen, still I was sure, from what I had heard and seen of him, that he was a really good fellow, and would make her extremely happy. How Charley managed to summon up courage enough to propose to her I never found out; for although I several times asked Polly, she always laughed, and would never tell me a word about it. She at first wanted to wait until Percy came back from India for me, as she said she did not like to leave me alone; but this, of course, I would not hear of. I had not so much longer now to wait; and, besides, Charley urged, if anything should take Harry away from town, that of course I should come and live with them. And so it was arranged that they should be married in six months. Now that it was all settled, it seemed very strange to me; and yet I was very glad that it was so, for I had hoped anxiously that Polly would be married to some one, whom I could like very much, before I was myself, as I should have been very loath to have gone away and left her alone, while leaving her with a husband she loved, I should know in my far off home in India that she was happy as well as myself: and so I was heartily glad at her engagement with Charley Horton.

About this time I was rather anxious about Harry. He was restless and unhappy; it was some time before I could make out the reason, and then I guessed, that whether from the idea of Polly being married, or why, I know not, but that he had fallen in love with Planter’s pretty sister. Of course, Harry, in his present circumstances, could not think of marrying; and I knew whatever he felt, that he was one of the last men in the world to become engaged unless he could keep a wife. I said one day,—

“Well, Harry, I suppose I shall have you following Polly’s example next;” and he answered so sharply,—”Yes, a nice match I should be, on my £200 a year,” that I was certain that there was something of the sort in his mind.

It happened that one day soon after this I read in the paper a prospectus of a company to execute some extensive engineering works in Australia, and Lord Holmeskirk’s name was among the directors.

The same day I went up and saw Ada and her husband, and asked if he could procure Harry an appointment upon it. He kindly said that he would do what he could, and ten days later Harry received a letter, offering him the appointment of resident engineer, at a salary of £800 a year to begin with, and £1,200 at the end of three years. Harry accepted the offer with the greatest joy; and thus, in the space of a month, I was to lose my brother and sister—I say, lose them both, because Harry would be absolutely gone, and Polly would have other loves and cares, and I should no longer be, as I had so long been, her first object in life. Harry was not to leave for six months yet, and it was arranged that Polly should be married immediately before he started, and that I was to take up my abode with her and her husband.

Charley, now his shyness had worn off, improved wonderfully, and I liked him more and more every day, with his hearty, straightforward manner. Polly’s manner to him was very little changed, and she still delighted in teazing and bothering her “dear old bear,” as she generally called him, but I could see now, that under all her fun and raillery she was very, very fond of him.

Chapter V • Terrible Tidings • 4,100 Words

And now, when all seemed so fair and smooth, when I thought that at last fortune had resolved to make amends for all her frowns—with Harry looking forward hopefully to his new appointment in Australia, with Polly engaged to a man whom I felt sure would make her happy, with five and a half years passed since Percy left for India, and only two and a half to look forward to, and these I felt sure would be happy ones, spent as we had arranged that they should be, with Polly and her husband—now was to come the blow which should shatter for ever my fabric of happiness, and destroy at once all those plans which I had vainly fancied were so fixed and settled.

It was the end of March. Polly was to be married in July. Early in the month I had received my periodical letter from Percy. It was written in his usual spirits; but there was one part of it which made me rather uneasy at the time, although I did not think that it could be anything serious. It was as follows:—

“You must not fidget yourself, dearest, about what I am going to say now. I should not say it at all, but the fact is so notorious that I have no doubt you will see allusions and accounts in the newspapers, which will very likely, as newspapers often do, greatly exaggerate matters, and had I not written to you on the subject, might make you very uneasy. Some of the native troops are grumbling and disaffected. It seems that some one has persuaded them that the cartridges they use are greased with pig’s fat, on purpose to destroy their caste. However, the authorities are quite awake, and several of the regiments have been disarmed; and there, no doubt, with a severe punishment of some of the ringleaders, the matter will end. These scamps are too well treated, and, like all men who are too well fed and too much petted, they must find something to grumble at. The cartridge question is a mere pretext, and could be at once avoided by withdrawing all the cartridges which have been served, and letting the men make them for themselves. I suppose it will blow over, as these things usually do; but the native mind is certainly a good deal disturbed; strange rumours are going about the country, and the natives in general have an idea that the Company’s raj, or rule, is going to end shortly; but I confess that, for my part, I don’t think John Company is at all likely to give up this trifling bit of country in a hurry.”

The rest of Percy’s letter was written in his usual way, and was very loving and tender. He said that in a little more than two years he should be thinking of starting for England, and that as he had not fallen in love with any native princess yet, he thought there was every chance now of his claiming me when he got back. It was a very long letter—longer even than usual; but long as it was, how often and often I have read it over since!

It was the last I ever received from him.

The letter was written from a place in India then but little known in England, although it has attained a terrible celebrity since. It was dated from Lucknow, where Percy had recently been sent with a very good staff appointment, his regiment being in quite another part of India. The mail which brought his letter, brought, as he had predicted, accounts of disaffection in the Bengal army; but still, no one thought that it was anything very serious, and I did not feel at all uneasy, for the scene where the regiments had been mutinous and were disarmed, was a very long distance from the place where he was stationed.

The next mail brought news of how the disaffection was spreading—fresh regiments had mutinied, and had been disbanded; and the next—oh, what a throb of agony it sent through England!—told of risings and massacres, and unutterable horrors. Oh, it was terrible! With what fearful anxiety I waited, as thousands did in England at that dreadful time, for the arrival of the next mail! and how that anxiety grew when the post only brought darker and darker news, and tidings that at every station there were risings and massacres.

Every one during that two months was very, very kind to me. We were very quiet, for Harry brought no one in now, and Charley Horton was our only visitor. He tried to moderate his big hearty voice for my sake, and brought me down what cheering news he could from the City,—of how people thought it would not spread farther, and that our troops would soon get the upper hand again. I tried hard to believe him; but I could not but feel that he only told me so to cheer me, and not because he believed what he said.

At last one morning Harry went up as usual to catch the eight o’clock train, but instead of going by it, came back in twenty minutes after he had started. As he came in at the gate I saw that he had the paper in his hand, and I felt intuitively that there was bad news in it, and that he had come back to tell me.

“Do not be alarmed, Agnes,” he said, as he came in, seeing the look of terrible suspense on my face. “There is nothing about Percy in the paper.”

“Thank God!” I murmured.

“The news,” he went on, “is only what we had almost expected. The last mail told us that they were making every preparation; and with a man like Lawrence to lead them, there is, I trust, no fear for their ultimate safety. Still, darling, the news is undoubtedly bad. They have risen at Lucknow. The garrison have retreated to the Residency. They made a sortie at first to meet the rebels, who were marching towards the town; but it seems that our men got the worst of it. So they blew up the fort, which the last mail said they were fortifying, and all retired into the Residency: it appears to be a fortified sort of place, and they think they can hold out until relief comes.”

This was terrible news. Harry gave me the paper, now, to look at. There was a long list of telegrams about different stations and garrisons, but that was all I read; it was nearly word for word as he had told me, nothing more—but what could be worse? It was evident that the garrison was terribly weak, or they would never have abandoned the post they had so carefully fortified. Probably they had suffered dreadfully in that sortie, and Percy was sure to have been among them.

Had he ever got back into Lucknow? and if so, could they hold out till relief came? And where was it to come from? Oh, what a terrible four or five days that was before the mail came in with the details of the news, what a sickening agony of suspense I suffered!

At the end of that time all suspense, all hope was over.

The day that it was expected, Polly went down to the gate to watch if Harry returned from the station, which he was sure to do if there was news.

I could not stand there with her, but sat indoors watching her, with my heart hardly beating, and my hands grasping tightly the arms of the chair, as if to keep down the wild impulse which prompted me to rush madly down to the station to see the paper. At last Polly moved, and then went up the road, out of my sight, and I knew then that she saw Harry coming back again, and that the news was in.

How long—oh, how long they were coming! I knew that, owing to a little turn of the road, he could not have been more than a hundred yards off when she caught sight of him, not fifty when she met him. Oh, how long they were! and as second passed by after second—each second seeming an age to me—and still they did not come, my heart sank lower and lower, and hope died quite out. At last they appeared at the gate. I could not see Harry’s face, for it was bent down, but Polly’s was as white as death, and then I knew that Percy was killed.

I did not hear anything about it for some time afterwards: I remember them coming in at the gate, and the sight of Polly’s face, and the next thing that I recollect, was that I was laying on the sofa, with Polly crying softly over me, and Dr. Whitmore standing beside me.

Harry was not there, for he had cried so terribly, and had been so much in the way, that the doctor had been obliged to send him out of the room. I had been for a long time in a faint, so long that they had become seriously alarmed, and had sent the servant to fetch the doctor; but even with his aid, there had been a great difficulty in bringing me round.

As soon as I recovered sufficiently to be moved, Harry came in and carried me up to my room, and Polly got me into bed. I was very faint and weak still, and soon dozed off to sleep. I believe, indeed, that Dr. Whitmore gave me some powerful sedative. It was not till next day that I was recovered sufficiently to ask any questions. I had never been told that Percy was dead, but I knew it as well as if they had spoken; they saw that I knew it, and had not even alluded to the subject.

“Let me see the account,” I said at last.

“Are you strong enough, darling?” Polly said, anxiously.

“Yes, it cannot do me any harm, Polly. I know the worst; please let me see how it was.”

Polly in silence fetched the paper, folded it down to the place, and gave it to me. It was the account of that disastrous sortie made from Lucknow just before the siege began. In the account of the retreat of the little column back to the town, during which so many noble fellows fell, were the words: “Among the little troop of cavalry, composed principally of officers either on the staff, or who had found their way to Lucknow, where their regiments had mutinied, Lieutenant Desborough, of the Lancers, greatly distinguished himself, until, heading a gallant charge to check the pursuing rebels, he fell. He had already, earlier in the day, been wounded, but not so badly as to prevent his keeping his seat. In common with nearly every one who fell, it was impossible, from the close pursuit of the rebels, to bring off his body.”

Two or three times I read through the paragraph and then turned round wearily to the wall. This was the end then. My Percy was dead, and there was not even the consolation of knowing that he had been laid tenderly in some quiet churchyard, there to wait, under that burning Indian sky, till the time should come, when we should again meet, and never part more. But now I could not even think of him so; I had not even that consolation; I could not think of him as lying anywhere; his body had fallen into the hands of the rebels, to be hacked and mutilated, before they left it to the jackals and wild dogs. I could not think of him at all, it was too horrible—Oh, Percy, Percy!

The next day Ada came down to see me. Grieved and shocked as she was, the dear girl had thought of me, and of my sorrow—greater even than hers—and so had driven down in her brougham to see me.

Polly left us to ourselves, and Ada cried with me, and talked with me over her dead brother, till our tears ceased to flow so fast, and we were both comforted.

The next day I was about the house again, and the next Polly went to London to buy mourning for me. Not for herself, although she had intended to do so, but I would not allow it. I pointed out to her that Harry would sail in little over three months now, and that it was absolutely necessary that our original plan should be carried out, and that she should be married before he started. I showed her how inconvenient delay would be; for that we had given notice to give up the house at that time, and I knew the landlord had already found a tenant for it, and that therefore there would be nowhere for her to be married from. Consequently, that our plans must hold good as before intended, and it would be a useless expense for her to go into mourning.

Polly endeavoured at first to argue that her marriage should be postponed; but finding that I would not hear of it, and seeing that it really would be very inconvenient, she gave way. However, when she came back from town, I found that she had bought a black dress and bonnet for herself, to wear until her marriage.

Charley Horton came that evening. I did not see him, but Polly did, and had a long talk with him. Polly told me afterwards that directly he came in and had inquired after me, he said—

“Well, Polly, all we can do is to try hard to make your poor sister as happy as we can. Her loss will in one way be your gain, Polly; for she would have gone back with her husband to India, and you would not have seen her for years. Now, you will be always able to keep her with you, as of course she will live with us, you know.”

Polly thereupon, as she confided to me, straightway bestowed upon Charley, to his great embarrassment and delight, the first kiss which she had yet vouchsafed him.

“Do you know, my dear old bear, that only this afternoon I was thinking that, perhaps, we should not be married after all?”

“You don’t say so, Polly,” Charley said, in great astonishment; “and why not?”

“Well you see, Charley, I cannot leave Agnes now, and if you had raised the least difficulty or question——”

“Oh, come now, Polly, dash it——I beg your pardon, but I can’t help it. No, really now, that is too bad. Why I should be glad, very glad to have Agnes to live with us. I like her almost as much as I do you. Not so well you know, Polly, and in a different sort of way, but still very much. And even if I did not——No, really now, Polly, that’s not fair on a man.”

“Never mind, Charley, it is all right now; but you see I was thinking so much of my sister and of her life, that I almost forgot what a good old bear it is, and you don’t know how pleased I am that you have spoken as you have done.”

Polly then had a serious talk with him; for he was of course anxious to know whether she wished her marriage postponed. But she told him what I had said against any alteration being made in the time; and so to his great pleasure it was settled that things should remain as previously arranged. When Charley had gone, Polly came up to me to tell me how warmly and sincerely he had expressed his pleasure at the thought of my taking up my permanent residence with them.

I expressed my earnest satisfaction; for I would not for worlds have damped her pleasure by telling her what my own resolve was. Indeed, I was firmly convinced that had she known it, much as she loved Charley, Polly would have at once broken off her engagement with him; for I had quite made up my mind that I would not on any account live with her and her husband. It was not so much that I did not wish to inflict my dulness upon her, for I knew how kindly they would bear with me; but I felt quite unequal to join even in home society like theirs. I was certain that at any rate for a very, very long time I should be a sad, unsociable woman. I had lived so many years on hope, that now that hope was gone I seemed to have nothing more to live for. I knew that I should not for years be fit to join in society. I felt already old and strange; the light and youth seemed at once to have faded out of my life. I was resolved that I would return to Canterbury and take up my abode there. My heart seemed to yearn for the dear old town, with its tranquil, sleepy ways, and I felt that it would harmonize well with my changed life, and that I should be calmer, more resigned and tranquil, there than I could be anywhere else. And now my next thought was of Harry. Why should he not take a wife with him on his long journey?

I asked him this the first time that I had an opportunity of speaking to him alone. After much pressing he owned that when he first accepted the appointment he had thought of it; but that these Indian troubles had begun, and while I was so anxious and troubled he could not be thinking of marrying; but he said that he had spoken to Nelly Planter, and that she had agreed to wait three years until he came back to fetch her. But I cried—

“No, no, Harry; take her with you. No more waiting. Oh, think of my ruined life, Harry, and don’t ask her to wait! Go at once, Harry! go at once, and persuade her to go with you. There are three months yet.”

I would not let Harry rest till he went. He was away two hours, and when he came back I saw by his face that he had succeeded, and that his wife would accompany him on his journey.

I pass over those three months. I tried hard for Harry and Polly’s sake to keep up, and as there was so much to do with his outfit and her trousseau, I succeeded pretty well.

It was a very quiet double wedding in the old Putney church. I could not trust myself to go with them, but went in to Rupert Planter’s, where they had a quiet breakfast afterwards. When they had finished, I said good-bye to Harry and my new sister—good-bye for a long time, for they were to start at once and go down to Plymouth, where the ship they were to sail in would touch in a week’s time. Charley and Polly were going up the Rhine. They all said good-bye, and started together. I did not cry—I could not—I did not feel as if anything but my own sad thoughts could ever make me cry again. I then went off to Ada’s, where my things had been sent the night before. I did not return to Daisy Villa, for all had been arranged for our leaving; everything was packed and ready, and Rupert Planter willingly promised to see the boxes off, and to hand the house over to the landlord. Our servant was to go down for three weeks to Canterbury to see her friends, and was then to come back to Polly’s new home, which was a pretty villa on Putney Hill. There I was to meet her, and was to get everything ready for her new master and mistress’s return. And so I went to Ada’s for three weeks; very, very kind she was to me during that time, and so was her husband. Ada told me that her mother felt Percy’s death terribly, and that it seemed quite to have crushed her. Ada was sure, although Lady Desborough had not said so to her, that she bitterly regretted now the course she had taken with reference to his engagement with me.

Thus it often is with us, we take a course, and we keep to it, as if we were infallible, and we allow nothing to alter our convictions. We persuade ourselves that we are right, and we hold on our course unmoved. Death steps in: and now, when the past is irrevocable, the scales that have so long darkened our eyes, fall at once to the ground, and we see that we were wrong after all. How much cruel conduct, how many harsh words, how many little unkindnesses do we wish unspoken and undone when we look upon a dead face we have loved, or stand by the side of a new-made grave! how we wish—how we wish that we could but have the time over again! Perhaps in past times we were quite content with our own conduct; we had no doubts in our mind but that we always did what was right and kind, and that we were in every way doing our duty. But now in what a different light do right and duty appear! how we regret that we ever caused tears to flow from those dear eyes, now never to open again! why could we not have made those small concessions which would have cost us so little, why were we so hard upon that trifling fault, why so impatient with that little failing? Ah me! ah me! if we could but live our lives over again, how different, oh, how different it should be! And yet while we say this, we do not think that there are others yet alive upon whose faults we are just as hard, with whose failings we bear just as little, and that these, too, may some day go down into the quiet grave, and that we may again have to stand beside and cry “peccavi.”

And so with Lady Desborough; now that Percy was dead, and her repentance—as far as he was concerned—came too late, she murmured and grieved bitterly over what she had done. I did not see her while I stayed at Ada’s, but she sent a very pitiable message to me by her daughter, praying me to forgive her. I sent back to say that I forgave and pitied her, but I was obliged to decline an interview, which she asked for, that she might personally express her contrition, as I was not equal to such a scene. Before I left Ada’s I told her of my intention of taking up my residence at Canterbury, she would have combated the idea, but I told her at once that my mind was made up, at any rate for some time. I had already had a correspondence with Mrs. Mapleside, a very old friend of ours at Canterbury, and had accepted her invitation to stay with her until I settled myself there. From Ada’s home I went to Polly’s pretty new abode, and saw that everything was in readiness for their return; and I then left, on the afternoon of the day they were to come back, leaving a letter for Polly stating my determination and my reasons for it. I told her that I knew that she would be grieved, but that I begged her not to try and change my determination, which was immoveable; and I promised to come up every six months and stay for a fortnight at least with her. Polly wrote in return quite heart-broken; but sorry as I was for the grief I knew my darling was suffering for my sake, I was still sure that I had acted for the best and that my life would never be fit to mingle with gay happy society, while in dear old Canterbury it might at least flow easily and tranquilly along.

Chapter VI • The Search Renewed • 3,700 Words

James Fielding being gone, Sophy proceeded to put her long-cherished plans into execution. She gave notice to Mrs. Billow that she was going to leave. Had she been informed that the sky was on the point of falling, Mrs. Billow could not have been more astonished. Sophy had been there now more than five years, and her good landlady had come to look upon her as a daughter; as one, indeed, who by education and habits was far above herself; as one who had been brought up, and had married, in a station far above her own, and with whom, therefore, she could not feel upon quite equal terms, but yet she loved her as she might have done had Sophy really been a daughter. She had been so long Sophy’s only friend; she had nursed her through her illness; she had soothed and consoled her when there were none else to do so; she had looked upon her child as almost belonging to her also;—so that when, after the first incredulous burst of astonishment was over, she saw that Sophy was really in earnest, and that she was going to leave her, Mrs. Billow sat down and had a great cry over it. She, too, was a lonely woman; her husband, from the nature of his pursuits, allowed her to have no friends; and he himself passed his existence in sleep and drunkenness; so that she had attached herself very much to her young widow lodger and her baby, and felt that, for her at least, it would be a heavy loss when she went.

When Mrs. Billow had recovered herself sufficiently to speak, she said—

“And where on earth are you going, my dear?”

“I am going to Italy,” Sophy said, quietly.

“Italy!” Mrs. Billow said, in the greatest consternation; “going to foreign parts! Then I shall never see you again!” And here the good woman again gave way to plentiful tears.

“I shall only be gone a year, Mrs. Billow; I shall be sure to be back in that time.”

But Mrs. Billow was not to be comforted.

“No, no, my dear, I shall never see you again. They all say it is only for a year when they go to foreign parts; but they never come back again. My nephew—that is, my sister Jane’s son—William, he went to Australy. ‘Never mind, mother,’ he said to her, ‘I shall be back in a year or two, a rich man;’ and she never heard of him afterwards. It always is so—either you get wrecked under the sea, or eaten by savages, or something dreadful; any how, they never come back again.”

Sophy after some difficulty persuaded Mrs. Billow that there was a great difference between Italy and Australia; that one was a four months’ journey and the other four days; and that it all, with the exception of two hours, was by land.

Mrs. Billow was somewhat comforted by this information; but was still very despondent and low for the few days Sophy remained with her.

Mr. Billow, too, was much put out, and, indeed, felt himself personally aggrieved. She had been with them so long, that he had come to look upon the twelve shillings a week as a species of annuity which he received by right. As he said, he should never get another lodger who would suit him so well, who would give so little trouble, and ask no questions; indeed, that he did not think that he would take any lodger at all again, and that, therefore, it was a clear robbery of twelve shillings a week.

Sophy’s friends, too, the Harleys, were greatly grieved when they heard that Sophy and her child were leaving, and could not understand why she wanted to go to Italy; but the only explanation they received was that she wished to learn the language. They tried very hard to dissuade her from her intention, but without avail; and in less than ten days after James Fielding had left town, Sophy and her child started for Italy, her destination being Florence.

That fortnight’s travelling Sophy enjoyed as she had never enjoyed anything before. She journeyed by comparatively short stages; for time was no object to her, nor did she spare money. She was resolved to enjoy herself, and she entered into all the novelty of the scene with as much zest as a schoolgirl out for her holidays. It was all so new and so strange to her. She had never travelled before, except on that hurried flight to Scotland, when her heart was so troubled at the thought of the old man she had left behind. Her life had been always so monotonous and even, that the rapid motion, the strange sights and dresses, and the novelty of everything, flushed her cheeks and brightened her eyes with pleasurable excitement; besides, had she not at last entered upon that enterprise upon which her heart and thoughts had for the last three years been fixed—that enterprise, the result of which was to make her child rich; and although, before that was to come, she might have trouble and danger to encounter, still that was distant as yet: she had a year’s holiday before her, and she was determined to make the most of it.

Little James was fortunately no drawback to this pleasure. Children generally go into either one extreme or the other: when travelling, they are either terribly peevish and irritable, or as good as gold. Fortunately, James chose the latter alternative; he either looked out of the windows and talked a great deal—principally about the horses and sheep and cattle grazing quietly in the meadows, as the train flew past them—or else slept for hours on the seat.

They went by train as far as Chambéry, and then by diligence and in sledges over Mont Cenis. Very cold this journey was; but Sophy was well wrapped up, and, with her child nestling on her lap, felt nothing but enjoyment as they passed over the pass and through the magnificent scenery which was all so new to her. At Susa they again took train, and thence through Turin to Genoa.

Here Sophy stopped for a day, and wandered through the long streets and narrow lanes, with the picturesque houses and quaint little jewellers’ shops. The next morning they went by steamer to Leghorn, starting again next day by train to Florence. Past Pisa, with its leaning tower and lofty campaniles, visible for miles across the plain; and then along lovely valleys, studded with pretty villages, where every foot of ground is a garden; till at last the hills receded, and before them lay Florence in all its beauty. Here Sophy remained in a hotel for a week, waiting for answers to an advertisement she had inserted in the local paper on the day of her arrival—

“An English lady, with a little boy, desires to enter into an Italian family residing a short distance from Florence, where she can be treated as one of themselves.”

To this she had many answers, but she finally selected one to which she was recommended by the proprietor of the hotel, to whom she had mentioned her wishes. He had, in turn, spoken to his wife, and she was sure that her brother Giacomo would be glad to receive the lady. Giacomo was written to, and came over to Florence with his wife. He lived in the valley through which Sophy had journeyed from Pisa, and his wife and he would be glad to receive the signora and her child, if she would not find the place too rough for her.

Sophy, before deciding, went over to see it, and when she did so, she accepted their proposal at once. The house stood by itself on the side of the hill, a little way out of a village, and the view from its windows was lovely. It was the property of her hosts, who owned, besides, about fifty acres of ground—a large farm in that locality, where ground is very valuable. The family consisted of her host, a fine specimen of the small Italian proprietario; his wife, a cheery, talkative woman of about forty; and three daughters, from seventeen to twenty-one, all lively, hearty girls, even more talkative than their mother.

Here Sophy and her child took up their abode. She had studied Italian for the four years that she had had this journey in anticipation, and could write and speak it grammatically, although, of course, her accent was very imperfect. At first she was unable to follow the rapid conversation around her, but before long she was quite at home at it, and could talk away as fast as themselves. Sophy insisted upon being treated as one of the family, helped the girls and their mother in their household work, and was very happy. Little James was soon as much at home as herself: he speedily picked up the language, and in six months spoke it as well, or better, than English, which, indeed, he would have quite lost, had not Sophy spoken to him in it when they were alone together.

It was a very quiet, happy life. In the morning Sophy assisted at the domestic work; that done, she sat under the shelter of the vines, working sometimes, and looking over the lovely country, with its picturesque houses—picturesque not only in shape but in colour, with their fancifully painted walls—with its innumerable little gardens—they could be hardly called fields—separated by trees, over and between which the vines clustered and hung with graceful festoons; with the hills rising on either side, cultivated to the very tops; and over all the bright Italian sky, with its intense, cloudless blue.

It was very charming; and as she sat there, and listened to her boy’s laughter, as he romped with the sisters, by whom he was made chief pet and favourite, she would close her eyes, and almost wish it could last for ever. Had she been alone in the world, she would have been well content that it should be so. The interest of the money that she had would have been amply sufficient for her present mode of life, but, for her boy’s sake, she must leave it, as he, the rightful heir to a noble property, must not grow up an Italian peasant. Her purpose must be carried out; yet still she felt it very hard to have to return again to England, with that heavy task before her of finding the will. Not that she ever wavered for an instant; but, as the time drew on, her spirits drooped, her cheek paled again, and she would sit for long hours without speaking, musing over every detail of her purposed plans. And so, at the end of the year, Sophy and her child took their leave of their quiet Italian home, not without many tears on their own parts and those of their friends; giving each of the women pretty presents and keepsakes, and promising that they should hear from her before long, and that some day she would pay them another, though it might be only a short, visit.

Sophy did not go straight back, but proceeded to Bologna, and made an excursion from there, which lasted three days; then—having carried out the two objects she had proposed to herself when she left England—she went back again over the St. Gothard; travelling, as before, without haste, until she returned to King Edward Street, Lambeth.

Great was the pleasure with which she was received by Mrs. Billow and her other friends. Her rooms were still unlet—for Mr. Billow had remained firm to his determination to receive no other lodgers—and so Sophy went into them again, telling Mrs. Billow, however, that she should not, probably, occupy them for long, as she should shortly be going away again. James Fielding and his wife came over to see her as soon as he heard of her return. His business was still prospering, and Sophy liked his wife very much, but refused to go and stay with them, as they wanted her to do.

About ten days after her return, she said, one day, to the Harleys, who were sitting with her—

“I am going into the country in a fortnight or so. I have been so long accustomed to fields and trees, that I long to be in them again, or, at any rate, out of London. I have nothing to do now, and feel lonely and sad here. It is such a change for Jamie, too, after the open-air life he has had for the last year. But I want to ask you something. I may, at any moment, have to go far away again, and this time I cannot take him with me. If I come up suddenly, and leave him with you, will you take care of him as your own? It may be for three months—it may be for three years. Of course, I shall pay you; but it is not that. Will you take care of him as your own?”

Both husband and wife agreed willingly to take the child, if necessary, but asked what his mother could be going to do that she could not take her boy with her? But to this they received no reply: she had to go, and that was all she would tell them.

The next day, when Mrs. Billow was out, and Jamie had gone over for a game of play with his friends opposite, Sophy went down into the kitchen, perfectly astounding Mr. Billow—who was, as usual, dozing over the fire—by her appearance there.

“Mrs. Billow is out, and I want to have some talk with you alone, Mr. Billow,” she said quietly, sitting down opposite to the old man.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Gregory?” he asked, when he had roused himself a little.

“Nothing, just at present, Mr. Billow. I want to ask you a question. I know that, in your way of business, you become connected with all sorts of strange characters.”

Mr. Billow opened his eyes in greater surprise than before. Was she coming, as her husband had done more than five years before, to ask to be introduced to two men for some desperate business? or what could she want? He was too astonished to speak, and Sophy continued—

“Now, do you think, Mr. Billow, that, in the circle of your acquaintance, you could find any one who could imitate a handwriting so exactly that it should not be known?”

“Do you mean you want a forger?”

“Not exactly that,” Sophy said, quite composedly—for she had thought all this over so frequently, that it seemed to come quite as a matter of course to her—”not exactly that, Mr. Billow. I want a man who can exactly imitate a handwriting, so that, if I send you a specimen of the hand I want copied, and the words of a letter to be written in that handwriting, the letter can be executed so that no one will know the difference. I may as well mention, that it is not for any purpose of getting money, or anything of that sort; it is a simple ordinary letter.”

“It is such an extraordinary thing for you to ask.”

“Quite so, Mr. Billow, I am quite aware of that; but that is my business, not yours. Of course it is an unusual thing, and I am ready to pay an unusual price for it. What could you get me such a thing done for?”

Mr. Billow thought for some little time.

“It is not at all in my line,” he said, at last, “still, I could get at a man who would do it; but I daresay he would charge a twenty pound note.”

“Very well, Mr. Billow, when the time comes, which may not be for a long time yet, I will send you a specimen of handwriting, a copy of the letter to be written, and thirty pounds, and I shall expect it back in two or three days at most after you receive it. That is all I wanted to say, Mr. Billow, I need not ask you not to mention it to your wife.”

So saying, Sophy Gregory went up to her own room again, leaving Mr. Billow so extremely surprised that he was unable to settle comfortably off to sleep again for the rest of the evening.

Sophy did not carry out the intention she had expressed of going into the country with her child; for a day or two before she had intended to start, a letter came from her foster-mother, saying, that it wanted a month yet of her usual time of writing; but that Miss Harmer had broken so much during the last two months, that she thought she ought to write to Sophy as she had put so much stress upon it. The writer went on to say that as far as she heard the village people say, there was no immediate danger at all, but that she had given up going in to Canterbury to mass, and kept entirely in the house.

Sophy, after she got this letter, sat for a long time quietly looking into the fire. The colour died out from her face, and her expression changed and hardened strangely. So it was come at last, this time for which she had waited so long and so patiently; it was now or never this great prize was to be won, this grievous wrong to be righted. She did not doubt or hesitate a moment, yet still she could not help being sorry. She was so happy with her boy, she loved him so much that it seemed hard to go away and leave him; and perhaps—who could say? never see him again. But all this feeling, natural as it was, she shortly put aside, and began once again to think over her plans; at last—with a face very different from that with which she had sat down—she got up, put on her things, and went out, across the water to a strange looking shop near Drury Lane Theatre; here she purchased some of the things she needed, and ordered others, which would require preparation, to be made up at once, and sent home the next evening.

Then back again to King Edward Street. Mr. Billow told her that Jamie was over at Mr. Harley’s, and there she went. There was something so unusual and strange in her look and manner that both Mr. and Mrs. Harley noticed it at once, and asked if she were ill, or if anything was the matter.

Sophy shook her head, and sat down without speaking; her child ran up to her side to show her some new toy which his friends had given him: but she did not look down at him, she only put her hand on his head and stroked it gently while she was speaking.

“The other day, Mrs. Harley,” she began, “you said that when I came up from the country you would take care of Jamie for me. I find that I must go away upon this business at once, the day after to-morrow; are you willing to take him now?”

“Certainly, if you require it,” Mrs. Harley said; “but must this be, Sophy? I don’t know why, but this strange mystery makes me quite uneasy; and you look so white and unlike yourself.”

“I am quite well,” Sophy replied; but she could not say more, for Jamie awakening to the fact that his mammy was going away without him, set up such a terrible roaring that all farther conversation was suspended for some time; at last, on the promise that he should go out the next day and choose any plaything he liked, his tears were dried, and for the rest of the day he was occupied debating with himself, and with every one else, on the respective merits of a big farm-yard, a big Noah’s ark, a big ship, or a big horse. The next day Sophy packed up; she did this quietly and methodically, talking very little to Jamie, but with every faculty absorbed in the one thought of the work she had before her. In the afternoon she bade good-bye to her friends opposite, left them money for half a year’s keep for James, and said she would send the next instalment when the time came. Just as she was going out Mrs. Harley said—

“But you have not given us your address, Sophy. Where are we to write to you?”

“Not at all,” she said. “Please put an advertisement in the Times the first Monday of each month—’S. G., Jamie is well.’ If anything should be the matter in the mean time, advertise in the same way. I shall be sure to see it. Good-bye, God bless you! take care of Jamie.”

Mr. and Mrs. Harley had a long talk together after Sophy had gone across to her own house, and they came to the conclusion that it was very strange; and they were both inclined to believe that their friend’s brain must be a little touched; still, what could they do? she was not mad enough to be shut up. Altogether it was very strange.

That evening Sophy wrote a letter to James Fielding saying that she was going away for a time, but imploring him on no account to institute any inquiry after her, as such a proceeding might damage her to an extent he could not possibly imagine. She told him that she had left Jamie with the Harleys, and recalled his promise that in case of anything happening to her, he would take care of her boy. She inclosed her will appointing him to be her boy’s guardian, and her sole executor in case of her death.

In the morning she got up early, and dressed very quietly, keeping the blinds down, so as not to disturb Jamie. She took a little breakfast, kissed her sleeping child—one long, loving kiss,—and was gone.

Chapter VII • A Broken Life • 3,700 Words

And so I returned to dear old Canterbury. I had so many friends there, and the town itself, which I loved better than them all, that as I looked out of the window of the fly as I drove through its well-remembered streets, it seemed to me as if the events of the last four years were all obliterated from my mind, and that I was coming back after only a short absence to my dear old home. Mrs. Mapleside, with whom, as I have said, I was going to stay, was an elderly lady when I was a young girl. She was then known as Miss Mapleside; but she had now taken brevet rank, and was grievously displeased if she were addressed in any other way; she was now more than seventy-five, but was still brisk and lively, and her heart was kindness itself. She was short, but very upright, and generally dressed in brown plum-coloured, or black silk. She inclined to bright colours in her bonnet, and rather prided herself upon her taste in dress. Personally she was the reverse of vain, and wore the most palpable wig I ever saw, and a pair of spectacles, with tortoiseshell rims of an immense thickness. She had besides a pair of heavy gold double eye-glasses, which hung upon her chain on state occasions, and which she sometimes put on; but I think this was merely from a little harmless pride in their possession, for whenever she had really to look at anything, she always pulled out her tortoiseshell spectacles, and not unfrequently tried to put them on, forgetful that the gold spectacles were already fixed on her nose.

Mrs. Mapleside lived in a pretty little house on the terrace overlooking the market-place; and when I arrived that evening, she received me with an almost motherly affection and interest. She would hardly allow me to go upstairs, to take my things off. She was sure that I must be so terribly fatigued, for to her a three hours’ journey by rail was an undertaking not to be lightly entered upon, and involving immense risk and fatigue. The old lady had once when a girl made a journey to London, and the coach had been snowed up, and they had been two days on the road; and she still retained a vivid remembrance of her sufferings. For the last fifty years she had never been beyond Whitstable or Ramsgate, to one or other of which places she made an expedition for a fortnight or so every two years; always going in the coach, as long as coaches ran, and after that in some friend’s carriage; for the railway to her was a terrible monster, and nothing would convince her that collisions and catastrophes of all sorts were not its normal state of being. She expressed her gratitude to Providence most warmly that I should have been preserved from destruction on the way, and seemed to think that an almost special dispensation had taken place in my favour.

Mrs. Mapleside read the Times regularly, getting it on the third day from the library, and her principal object of interest in it was to search for railway accidents; and as few days pass without some mishap of greater or less importance being recorded, she was constantly quoting them in support of her pet theory. It was in vain that I assured her that the number of accidents was as nothing in proportion to the immense number of trains which ran daily. This was a light in which she would not look at it; but had an argument, quite original to herself, with which she always triumphantly confuted anything I could urge on the opposite side of the question.

“Now, my dear,” she would say, “this accident happened by the train which left York at ten o’clock in the morning. Will you be kind enough to look in Bradshaw, which I never can understand, and see by which train we must have left Canterbury, to have reached York in time to have gone on by that ten-o’clock train?”

I would get the book and find that if we had gone up to London by the four o’clock train the evening before, and then on by the night mail to York, and had slept there for a few hours, we could have gone on by the ten o’clock train to which the accident happened.

“There, my dear,” she would exclaim triumphantly, “you see we have had a wonderful escape. If we had started by that four o’clock train on our way to Scotland we should have been very likely killed, and if you remember, if we had gone by the twelve o’clock train the day before to Bath, we should have been in that dreadful accident at the bridge, where so many people were killed. No, no, my dear, there is hardly a day passes when if we had taken our places by one of the trains from here, and gone on a journey to some part of England or other, we should not have met with some accident or other; perhaps only run over a signalman, but even that would have been very unpleasant to the feelings. You may say what you like, my dear, but nothing will persuade me that we do not have almost daily the most providential escapes from destruction.”

This was Mrs. Mapleside’s great hobby. She had only one other curious conviction; and that was that the population of London was composed almost exclusively of bad characters, and that an inhabitant there must expect, as an ordinary occurrence, to have his house destroyed by fire. The columns of the Times afforded her an immense array of facts in support of this theory; and as some one had unfortunately once told her, that not one in fifty of the cases before the London magistrates were reported, the argument that these cases were as nothing in proportion to the population, carried no weight with her whatever. She was absolutely pathetic in her description of the fires.

“There, my dear,” she would say, “four fires on last Tuesday night: only think, Agnes, what a terrible spectacle to look out of one’s window and see the town blazing in four directions all at once; the clank of the engines—I saw a fire once my dear, and I shall never forget it,—and the roaring of the flames, and the cries of the lookers on; and the poor people getting their furniture out of the next houses, and the water running down the street; and only think of seeing all this in four directions at once.”

These are Mrs. Mapleside’s peculiarities, and nothing will shake her faith in her view of the subjects; on all other points she is the most easy old lady possible, hardly having any opinion of her own, and ready to do, or say anything to give pleasure to others. On the whole she is one of the kindest and most cheerful old ladies in the world.

Her welcome to me was, as I have said, most affectionate, and when tea was over, she made me sit down in a large easy chair by the fire—for although it was hardly cold enough for one, she had it lighted because she was sure I should come in perished with cold from my journey.

I sat there, contented and snug, listening and yet hardly hearing Mrs. Mapleside as she ran on, telling me all the changes which had taken place in Canterbury in those four years that I had been away. The old names sounded very pleasant to me, and called up many happy memories of the past; and that night, when I had gone up to my own room, I threw up the window, and looked out; and as I heard the old cathedral bells chiming the hour, I felt once more at home again, and that my life, although it could no longer be bright and happy as I had hoped, might yet be a very contented and cheerful one.

In a day or two all my old friends called upon me, and in a week I felt completely at home. The place itself was so perfectly unchanged, the very goods in the shop windows seemed arranged in precisely the same order in which they had been when I had last walked down the High Street. I found my acquaintances and friends exactly as I had left them; I had changed so much that it seemed almost strange to me that they should have altered so little. I had at seventeen been as merry and as full of fun as any of them. My separation from Percy and my ill health, had certainly changed me a good deal a year and a half after that; but in the three years before papa’s death I had again recovered my spirits, and had been able to take my place again with my old playfellows and friends. Only two months back I had been as merry and perhaps more happy than any of them, but now how changed I was! they were still lively girls, I was a quiet sad woman. It was not of course in feature that I was so much altered, it was in expression. I think sometimes now, when I look in the glass, that if I could but laugh again, and if my eyes could once more light up, I should not be so much changed from what I was seven years ago; but I know that can never be again. I have fought my fight for happiness, and have lost; I staked my whole life upon one throw, and after so many years weary waiting, when it seemed as if the prize would soon be mine, the cup was dashed in an instant from my lips; and henceforth I know that I am no longer an actor in the long drama of life, but a mere spectator—content to look on at the play, and to feel, I hope, an interest in the success of others.

So I told all my friends who came to see me on my first arrival—and who were proposing little schemes of pleasure and amusement—that I should not, at any rate for some time, enter into any society even of the quietest kind; but that I should be glad, very glad if they would come and sit with me, and talk to me, and make me a confidant in their hopes and plans, as they had done long ago. At first my old playfellows were rather shy of me, I seemed so different to themselves, so grave and sad in my deep mourning, that they could hardly feel at home with me. They knew that I had gone through some great sorrow, and perhaps guessed at its nature, but they had heard no particulars, nor who it was that I mourned; for although my engagement with Percy had been generally known, it had been supposed by every one—from my illness after the will was lost, and from Percy’s departure for India—that it had been broken off; and we had never deemed it necessary to tell any one how the matter really stood, as a long engagement like ours is such a very uncertain affair, even at the best. So every one supposed that I had become engaged in London, and that death had in someway broken it off, and I have never given any further explanation of it.

Now that six months have passed, and my friends are more accustomed to my changed appearance and manners—and now that I am, perhaps, a little more cheerful—their timidity has worn off, and few days pass that one of them does not bring in her work and come and sit for an hour and chat with me.

But if my old playmates find me strangely quiet and old, I see but little alteration in them. They are all girls still, as merry and genial as of old. Even those who were many years older than I, who had been elder girls at our children’s parties when I was one of the youngest of the little ones, are still quite young women, and have by no means ceased to consider themselves as eligible partners at a ball. These sometimes try to rally me out of my determination never again to go into society. They tell me that I am only a little over twenty-five, a mere child yet, and that I shall think better of it some day. But I know that it will never be otherwise. My heart is dead, and I have neither thought nor hope of any change as long as my life lasts. But, of course, they cannot know this, and I let them prophecy and predict as they please, knowing that their anticipations can never turn out true.

With hardly an exception, nearly all my young friends are there still, and all are like myself, single. Indeed, it cannot well be otherwise, for there is literally no one for them to marry. The boys, as they have grown up, have left the town, and are seen no more; and of them all—of all those rude, unruly boys who used to go to our parties, and blow out the lights and kiss us, hardly one remains. Many are dead. Rivers was killed at the Cape; Jameson died of fever in India; Smithers, Lacy, and Marsden, all sleep far away from their English homes, under the rich soil of the Crimea; Thompson was drowned at sea. Many of them are in the army and navy, and scattered all over the world. Two or three have emigrated to Australia. Hampton is a rising young barrister on the Northern circuit. Travers is a struggling curate in London; and Douglas, more fortunate, has a living in Devonshire. Two of the Hoopers are clerks in the Bank of Ireland, and one of them a medical man of good position near Reigate. Many of them have married; but they have chosen their wives in the neighbourhoods where their profession had thrown them. Anyhow, none of them had taken Canterbury girls; and these—pretty, amiable, and ladylike, as many of them are—seemed doomed to remain unmarried. One or two of them only, frightened at the hopeless look-out, have recklessly taken up with marching subalterns from the garrison; but the rest look but gravely upon such doings, for the Canterbury girls are far too properly brought up to regard a red coat with anything but a pious horror, as a creature of the most dangerous description, very wild, and generally very poor; but withal exceedingly fascinating, to be approached with great caution, and to be flirted with demurely at the race-ball, and during the cricket-week, but at other times to be avoided and shunned; and it is an agreed thing among them, supported by the general experience of the few who have tried the experiment, that even a life of celibacy at Canterbury is preferable to the lot of a sub.’s wife in a marching regiment.

Thus it happens that all my old schoolfellows were still single, and indeed we have a riddle among ourselves, “Why is Canterbury like heaven? Because we neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Before I had been long in Canterbury I found myself so comfortable with Mrs. Mapleside, that I was convinced that any change must be for the worse. I therefore suggested to the dear old lady that we should enter into an arrangement for me to take up my abode permanently with her. To this she assented very willingly; for, she said, she found it far more cheerful than living by herself; besides which my living would not add very much to her expenses, and the sum I proposed to pay, sixty pounds a year, would enable her to indulge in many little additional luxuries; for her income, although just sufficient to live upon in the way she was accustomed to, was still by no means large.

Thus the arrangement would be mutually beneficial to us, and when it was settled, I looked with increased pleasure at my beautifully neat little bedroom, where before I had only been as a guest, but which I could now look upon as my own sanctuary—my home.

I am very comfortable now, more even than when I had been a visitor; for then the good old lady fussed a little about my comforts, and I could seldom leave her and get up to my room in quiet; but now that I am a permanent inmate of the house, I am able to mark out my own day, and to pursue my course while Mrs. Mapleside keeps hers.

Mrs. Mapleside keeps one servant, a tidy, cheerful-looking young woman of about seven-and-twenty. She has been thirteen years with her, Mrs. Mapleside having taken her from the national school, and trained her into a perfect knowledge of all her little ways. Her name is Hannah, but Mrs. Mapleside always addressed her as “child.”

My life here is not eventful, but on the other hand it is not dull. I am never unoccupied, and time passes away in an easy, steady flow, which is very tranquillizing and soothing to me. The first thing after breakfast I read the Times aloud to Mrs. Mapleside, and then whenever there is an accident I look out the train in Bradshaw, and she is always devoutly thankful for another hairbreadth escape which she insists we have had. About eleven, either one or other of my friends comes in with her work and sits with us until lunch-time, or else I myself go out to call upon one of them. After lunch we go for a walk, or at least I do, and Mrs. Mapleside makes calls—to which she is very partial, and of which I confess I have quite a horror. Indeed, I never pay regular visits, preferring much to take my work and sit for a while of a morning at the houses where I am intimate. After dinner, Mrs. Mapleside dozes, and I go up into my room—for it has been summer—and write my story. I have now been here six months, and in that time have, between dinner and tea, written this little history of the principal events in my life, and in the lives of those dear to me; and the exercise has been a great solace and amusement to me. I have nearly come to an end now.

After I had been down here for four months I yielded to Polly’s entreaties, and made my first half-yearly visit to them, from which I have only returned a fortnight. I confess that I had rather dreaded this meeting, but now that it is over I am very glad that I made it. It is so pleasant to think of Polly in her happy home, for it is a very happy one. Charley is such a capital fellow, so thoroughly good and hearty, and I am sure he would cut off his little finger if he thought it would give Polly pleasure. I tell her that I think she has her own way too much, more than it is good that a wife should, but Polly only laughs, and says, “That her dear old bear is quite contented with his chain, but that if he were to take it into his head to growl, and pull his own way, that he would find the chain only a flimsy pretence after all.”

I believe they are as happy as it is possible for a couple to be. Polly says it would be quite perfect if she only had me with them. Charley and she tried very hard to persuade me, but I was firm in my resolution. Canterbury is my home, and shall always remain so; but when my spirits get better I shall make my visits longer in London; but not till I feel that my dull presence is no drawback to the brightness of their hearth: and this will not be for a long time yet. I try very hard to be patient, but I feel at times irritable and impatient at my sorrow, I hope, with time, that this will die away, and that I shall settle down into a tranquil, even-tempered, cheerful old maid. I find it difficult, at present, to enter into all the tittle-tattle and gossip of this town, but I endeavour to do so, for I know that I shall not be the same as those around me if I do not. So I am beginning to join in the working parties and tea-meetings, which form the staple of the amusements of our quiet set, and where we discuss the affairs of Canterbury to our hearts’ content. And now I lay down my pen, which has already run on far beyond the limits I had originally assigned for it.

I have told briefly, in general—but in those parts which I thought of most interest, more at length—the story of my life, and of the lives of those dear to me, and I have now arrived at a proper point to stop; but should any unexpected event occur—not in my life, for that is out of the question, but in theirs—I shall again take up my pen to narrate it. But this is not likely, for Polly, Harry, and Ada are all married, and have a fair chance of having the old ending to all the fairy stories I used to read as a child, written at the end of the chapter of their lives, “And so they married and lived very happily ever after.”

Chapter VIII • Risen from the Dead • 4,600 Words

I take up my pen again, but in what a different spirit to that with which I laid it down, as I thought for ever. Then I believed that I had done with the world; that its joys and its pleasures, its griefs and anxieties, were no more for me, but that I was to remain a mere spectator of the drama; interested indeed, as a spectator always is, hoping that virtue will be rewarded, and the villains of the play unmasked and punished in the end, and giving my best wishes to all the young lovers, but really caring only for the happiness of Harry, and Polly and Ada; and my greatest ambition and hope being to become some day a quiet, contented old maid, the friend and confidant of the young people round me, and the beloved aunty of Polly’s and Harry’s children. But in these three months two events have happened, the first of which is important enough for me to have taken up my pen to have chronicled; but the second, and which is the one of which I shall write first, has once more altered all my life, has at once changed all the plans which I had, in my sagacity, thought so unalterably settled, and has, when I least dreamt of it, given me fresh life, and hope, and happiness. I cannot stay to tell it as it was told me, my heart is too full, I must write it at once. Percy is alive, is alive; think of that! My eyes are full of tears of joy as I write it, and I can hardly sit still, although it is a week now since I heard it, but I could not trust myself to write it before. I am wild with joy; thank God—thank God for all his mercies, and for this most of all. Oh, how happy, how intensely happy I am! Percy is alive; he has written to me, and in another year he will be home to claim me. What a changed being I am in this short week. I can hardly keep myself from bursting into wild songs of joy. My happiness is so exquisite, it is almost too much for me, and I want all the world to rejoice with me, for this, my own Percy, who was dead and is alive again; who was lost, and is found. Mrs. Mapleside tells me that I look ten years younger than I did a week ago. I can quite believe her; I feel fifty. If I had Polly here now, to play for me, I think it would be a relief to dance myself into a state of exhaustion; but poor Mrs. Mapleside would not understand it. As it is she says she does not know my step about the house; so I forego the relief a tarantella would give me, and keep myself as quiet as I can, and continually bless and thank God for all this, His great mercy to me. And now I must tell how it happened.

Last Friday—that is, this day week—we had finished lunch, and Mrs. Mapleside had just gone out, when a fly stopped at the door. There was a knock, a word or two in the passage to Hannah, and then the parlour door opened, and in walked—I could hardly believe my eyes—Polly.

What a surprise! but what a pleasure it was; and how delighted I felt to see her!

“My dear, darling Polly,” I said, as soon as our first embrace was over, “what on earth brings you to Canterbury?”

“You, Agnes, I suppose. It is nearly three months since you were up, and it will be as much before your next visit; so as it was about half-way, I persuaded Charley to let me run down for three or four days to see you, so that I might judge for myself what your life was like here. Besides, it is so long since I was down in dear old Canterbury that I had a great longing to see it again. You told me that you had a spare room here, and Charley has promised to come down to-morrow and stay till Monday. He says I rave so about the place, that though he can’t help thinking it must be dreadfully slow, with no river wide enough to pull on, still he really must come down, too, to see it.”

“I am so, so glad, Polly; but why did you not write to tell me?”

“I thought I would surprise you, Agnes; and, indeed, it was not finally settled before last night. Charley could not tell whether he should be able to get away or not. And now I will go up to your room, Agnes, and take off my things.”

It was not until we had come down again, and had at last sat quietly down, that I noticed Polly’s face, and then I saw at once that she was not looking at all herself. She was very pale, and looked, I thought, anxious and flurried.

“There is nothing the matter, Polly, is there?” I asked anxiously. “You have not any bad news to tell me?”

“No, Agnes, none at all,” Polly said.

“You are quite sure, Polly?” I repeated, for I could not help thinking that there was something the matter. “You have not heard any bad news from Harry, in Australia, have you?”

“No, indeed, Agnes; I have not heard of him since the last mail, a fortnight since, and you had a letter from him at the same time.”

“Nor about Ada, or her family?” I persisted.

“Nothing at all, Agnes. I assure you I have no bad news of any kind whatever to give you.”

I could not help believing, although still I could not understand her.

“Excuse me, Polly,” I said, at last; “but you have not had any foolish quarrel with Charley, have you?”

“Bless me, no, Agnes,” she laughed. “The idea of my quarrelling with my dear old bear. What will you imagine next?”

I could not help laughing, too—the idea was ridiculous, certainly; for Polly and Charley were about as little likely to quarrel as any pair I ever saw. Here Hannah brought up the tray. Polly ate a little and had a glass of wine. When Hannah took away the things, she requested her to leave a tumbler of water on the table, as she felt rather thirsty after her journey. When we were alone again, she asked me to give her a piece of work to keep her fingers employed while she talked to me.

I accordingly gave her a piece of embroidery to do, and we chatted over our friends at Putney, and my quiet little doings here; but I could see that Polly was thinking of something else, for her answers to my questions were sometimes quite vague; and it certainly was not from the attention she was bestowing upon my work, for I could see that her needle moved quite mechanically, and that she was making a terrible mess of my unfortunate piece of embroidery. I was quite confirmed in my belief that something or other was the matter; but as Polly was evidently not inclined to tell it, I waited patiently, but rather anxiously, for her to take her own time and manner of so doing.

At last she changed the subject of the conversation from Putney and Canterbury to a topic in which I at first felt little interest, as I thought she had merely started it to delay the communication which I was sure, whatever it was, was coming presently.

“Have you seen the paper to-day, Agnes?”

“I have seen our paper; but that, as I have told you, is three days’ old. Is there any particular news this morning?”

“The Indian mail is in to-day.”

“Is it?” I said, indifferently. “One has no great interest in it now, ever since Sir Colin Campbell relieved Lucknow. One mail is exactly like another; merely the exploits of the flying columns, and the gradual restoration of order.”

“Yes, Agnes; but still, many of these captures of forts are very gallant actions.”

“No doubt, Polly; but unless one has some friend actually engaged, one has no great interest in them.”

“No,” Polly said, absently, “of course not. Still, it is pleasant to read how sometimes, when they take these distant forts, they find captives long since missing, and given up by their friends.”

“Yes, indeed,” I said, “I always do feel an interest in that; it is such joyous news to those who have grieved for them.”

Polly was silent; and I wondered how much longer she was going on talking about indifferent matters, and what it could be that she took so long before she could tell me. Presently she asked—

“Do you think, Agnes, that sudden joy ever kills?”

“I do not know, Polly, my experience has been so entirely the other way that I cannot say how it might be; and there is one thing certain that I am never likely to have the experiment tried upon myself.”

“I do not know that,” Polly said in a low voice.

There was a something in the way she spoke, a strange meaning tone which sent a thrill through me; and yet there was no good news I could have to receive, except, indeed, that the will was found; but if it ever should be, I should be more likely to give the news to Polly than she to me; besides, even this would give me no such great pleasure now.

“Who can tell,” Polly went on, seeing that I made no remark, “such strange things do happen, that one should never be surprised. Fortunes turn up which were long thought lost; people come to life again who were long since mourned for as dead; people, for instance, supposed to be lost at sea, but who were picked up by some passing ship; people, who in this Indian mutiny we were speaking of just now, have been hidden for months by some native prince or peasant; officers who have been cut off from their regiments, and left for dead on the battle-field.”

I had dropped my work now, and was looking at her, with my breath held, while my heart seemed to stop beating. What did she mean? These questions about sudden joy, this talk about officers found after being long supposed dead?—could it be?—but I could not speak. Polly looked up at me now for the first time, for she had before kept her eyes on her work; then she threw down the embroidery, came over to me, and knelt down beside me.

“Drink a little water, Agnes, prepare yourself to bear what I have to tell you. God is very, very good to you, Agnes. The news from India to-day, says, that two officers long supposed to be dead have been recovered, and one of them is——”

“Percy,” I gasped.

“Yes, dearest, your own Percy Desborough.”

I did not faint; by a mighty effort I kept myself from screaming wildly, then all the blood seemed to rush up to my head, and I should have fallen had not Polly supported me, and sprinkled some water in my face and moistened my lips with it. Then the quiet tears of joy and thankfulness came to my relief, and I was able to hang round Polly’s neck and kiss her and cry with her for a little time, till I was composed enough to kneel down at the sofa, and to thank God for this His great and unexpected mercy to me. When I rose from my knees, I felt more myself again, but I was still dazed and giddy with my great joy. I could hardly even now believe that it was true, and that Percy whom I had mourned as dead so long was yet alive—would yet come home again; it seemed too great a happiness to be true, and yet I could not doubt, for there was the paragraph in the Indian telegram, before my eyes, to assure me that it was so.

“Two officers, Major Payne, 105th regiment, and Lieutenant Desborough, 25th Lancers, were found concealed by friendly natives in the district of Jemundar, by the flying column under Colonel Heaviside.”

There could be no mistake or doubt about it. Percy was saved. I need not say what my feelings were; they were too deep for me to express then, and are far too deep for me to write of now. Polly was so pleased, too, not only at the news itself, but also because I had borne it better than she had been afraid I should have done. When we became composed at last, Polly made me sit in the easy chair, while she drew a stool up and took her old position upon it by my side, and we talked long and thankfully of my changed life and restored happiness.

At last I said, “Do you know, Polly, I could not think what you had to tell me. I saw you had something on your mind, that you were anxious and absent, and that your visit had some purpose more than you pretended,—and yet, as you assured me that all I cared for were well, I could not conceive what it could be. Did you see it in the paper before Charley started to business?”

“I did, Agnes, and we had quite a scene, I can assure you. I will tell you all about it. You know, Agnes, we always breakfast at a quarter past eight, and Charley goes up by the nine o’clock train, that gives him plenty of time, and he hates being hurried. The newspaper comes a few minutes past eight, and Charley always looks at the money article the first thing, before we begin, for I won’t let him read at breakfast; as I tell him, he has all day for business, and he can study his paper as he goes up in the train, so I insist on his giving up his breakfast-time to me. Well, my dear, he had just sat down to the table, and had opened the paper quite wide to look at his City article; I was standing up, waiting for the coffee to be brought up, when I noticed on the part of the paper turned towards me, the Indian telegrams—they are always in large print, you know—so I could read them easily as I stood, and I glanced down them till I came to the one about Percy; without a word I snatched the paper out of Charley’s hand to read it closely, and then I saw that I was not mistaken, and that it was indeed he. I am not quite clear what I did—something extravagant, I daresay. I think I kissed Charley violently, and then, for the first time in my life, went into a sort of hysterics. The first thing I distinctly remember is, that my dear old Charley was trying to calm me. He was evidently in the greatest alarm, and had not the least idea what was the matter, or what ought to be done, and I believe he thought I had gone suddenly out of my mind. He was evidently afraid to touch me lest it should make me more violent, but was going on,—’Now, my dear Polly!—Oh, I say, now, Polly!—It is all right, Polly; it is, indeed!—For God’s sake, try and compose yourself!’ and he looked so dreadfully frightened, and his dear red old cheeks were so pale, that with another wild fit of laughing, which I could not help, I threw my arms round his neck and kissed him; frightening him more than ever, for he evidently thought my madness had taken a fresh turn.

“‘It is all right, Charley,’ I said, as soon as I could speak at all. “‘I am only so pleased.’

“‘Oh, you are?’ Charley said, still thinking I was out of my mind; ‘that is right, my dear—you are quite right to be pleased, but try and quiet yourself. It is very jolly, no doubt, and I quite agree with you; but there now, dear, don’t laugh any more like that—for, upon my soul, you frighten me horribly!’

“‘I am better now, Charley,’ I said. ‘Get me a little cold water.’

“Just at this moment the servant came in with the breakfast, and Charley rushed up to her, snatched the coffee-pot from her, and shouted out at the top of his voice,—’Some cold water,—quick, quick!’ frightening the servant nearly as much as I alarmed him; he then ran back to the table, burning himself terribly from the way he had taken the coffee-pot in his hands, and then swearing to himself—which he only does on very rare occasions now—dreadfully. It nearly set me off again; however, the girl now came back with some water, and when I had drank a little I began to recover myself.

“‘Do you know what it was that gave me so much pleasure, Charley?’

“‘Not in the least, my dear; but never mind telling me now. I dare say it was very clever; but you can tell me presently. I shan’t go up to town to-day.’

“‘It was something I read in the paper, Charley.’

“‘Oh, it was!’ he said, doubtfully, evidently not believing me in the least, but considering that I was still wandering in my mind.

“‘Yes, Charley, only think, Percy Desborough, who was engaged to Agnes——’

“‘Yes, my dear, I know; the man who was killed at Lucknow a year ago.’

“‘He is not dead after all, Charley.’

“‘No, I dare say not,’ Charley said, soothingly; ‘I should not be at all surprised. I never thought he was myself; but don’t mind him now. Lay down, my dear, and try and compose yourself.’

“‘You silly old goose,’ I said, ‘look in the paper yourself.’

“Charley, evidently to humour me, turned to the paper; but he still watched me closely, in case I should be going to do anything fresh. When he saw that it was really as I said, he was quite delighted; at first principally for my sake, as he now began to see that after all, I had only had a fit of hysterics from my sudden delight, and was not out of my mind after all: that fear once removed, he was truly pleased at the news for your sake. Presently I said,—

“‘Oh, Charley, only think of Agnes; if she reads it in the papers, the sudden shock will kill her.’

“‘By Jove!’ Charley said, ‘so it might. What is to be done?’

“‘May I run down and tell her?’ I asked. ‘She does not see the Times the first day, and no one in Canterbury knows that she is engaged to him; every one supposed it was broken off years ago, so no one is likely to go in to tell her the first thing.”

“‘Of course you may, Polly, if you like; and, look here! I think I will go down with you, for you have frightened me so confoundedly that I shall be fit for nothing to-day in the City, and as to-morrow is Saturday, I will go down with you and bring you back on Monday morning.’

“We looked in a Bradshaw, and found there was an eleven o’clock train down here; so he went up to town directly after breakfast, to say he should be away till Monday; I went up rather later, and he met me at the London Bridge Station in time to catch the train.”

“Then where is Charley?” I asked, when Polly had finished her story.

“I sent him on to Ramsgate. I told him that I should have to take some time to break it to you; and that then we should want to be alone; so that, as altogether he would be dreadfully in the way, his best plan was to go on to Ramsgate, and out for a sail, and to have dinner there; and that he could come back here about seven o’clock. I mean to sleep here, as I said, Agnes; but Charley will go to an hotel. He will like that much better, as then he can smoke and do as he likes.”

I was now quite myself again, and Polly had evidently made her story as long as she could, to allow me to recover myself, and to divert my thoughts a little from my great joy.

Mrs. Mapleside now came in, and was very surprised and glad to see Polly. We confided to her, under promise of strict secrecy, the good news Polly had come down to bring; a promise which the dear old lady did not keep, for she was so delighted and full of it, that I really do not believe she could have kept it to herself had her life depended upon it. So she informed—also in the strictest confidence—three or four of her most intimate friends, and as these were the greatest gossips in Canterbury, it was not long before the whole town knew of it; and, although I would, perhaps, rather that it had not been known, yet I could not be vexed with the kind old lady, for I was very pleased at the sincere pleasure all my friends seemed to feel at my happiness.

I wrote the same afternoon to Ada, telling her that Polly had come down to break the news to me, and congratulating her on the happiness which she, as well as myself, must be feeling.

A few days after, I heard from her, saying that my letter had been forwarded to her in Scotland, where she was visiting with her husband, and how great a relief it had been to her; for that after she had seen the joyful news in the paper, she was very anxious about me, and had she been in London, she should certainly have acted as our dear Polly had done, and have come down to break the news to me.

At about seven o’clock Charley came in from his trip to Ramsgate, and very hearty and cordial was he in the pleasure he felt at my happiness. Mrs. Mapleside took a great fancy to him, and their three days’ stay was altogether a delightful time. On Monday morning they returned to town, as Charley could not stay away longer from his business. Polly and he tried hard to persuade me now to give up my plan of a residence at Canterbury, and to go and live with them; but this I would not do. I am very comfortable and happy where I am, and Mrs. Mapleside looks upon me quite as her own child, and would, I know, miss me dreadfully; and as at farthest I thought Percy would be back in two years, I made up my mind to remain as I was till then, but I promised to pass a good deal of my time with Polly.

Yesterday I got a letter from Percy, which Polly forwarded to me from Putney, where he had of course directed it. It was a very long letter, and began by saying how grieved he was to think how much I must have suffered at the news of his supposed death, and that he should be very anxious about my health till he heard from me. He then went on to tell me all his adventures and hairbreadth escapes, and it really seemed as if over and over again he had been saved almost by a miracle. He had, as was supposed, been severely wounded by a rebel ball, and had fallen from his horse; but he had strength enough left to crawl away and conceal himself under some bushes till the rebels had passed, which, occupied as they were in harassing the retreating column, they did without much search. Before their return he had crawled some considerable distance, and again concealed himself till night, he had then made his way to a cottage which he entered and threw himself on the hospitality of the peasants who lived there.

The poor people had been most kind to him and had concealed him there for nearly a month, by which time his wounds, for he had two, had healed; neither of them, fortunately, were very serious, and it was principally from loss of blood that he had fallen from his horse. They had then sent him up the country to a friendly Zemindar who had received him kindly, but had not the power openly to protect him. Here he had stayed ten months, till the arrival of Colonel Heaviside’s column had given him an opportunity of rejoining the British forces. This ten months had been one continual danger, and had been passed sometimes in one disguise, sometimes in another, which only his perfect knowledge of Hindostanee had enabled him to carry through.

He wrote word that he was now quite well and strong again, and that he hoped to be in England in a year at the farthest; but he promised to give me at any rate a couple of months notice, and said that he should expect to have everything ready to be married a week after he landed; for that after waiting all these years he did not see any reason why he should be kept without me a single day, after he returned, longer than necessary.

This was only yesterday. All this has happened in a week. I can hardly steady myself down—I can hardly believe that all this happiness is true, and that in another year Percy will be home to claim me. But yet it is all true, and it seems to have given me back my youth and life again. Every one tells me that in this short week I am so changed, that they look at me almost with wonder, and are hardly able to believe that I am the same person they knew ten days ago, as a quiet, melancholy-looking woman. Thank God for it all—for all His exceeding mercy and goodness to me!

This great grief has had one good effect. It has removed the only obstacle to my marriage with Percy. Three days after I received the joyful news, a letter came to me from Lady Desborough. It was such a letter as I had not imagined that she could have written. She said that, in her grief, she had thought often of me, and had seen how wrong she had been in her conduct towards us. She had said to herself that, if the opportunity could but come over again, she would act differently. That opportunity, by God’s mercy, had come, and she wrote to say that she should no longer, in any way, raise the slightest obstacle to our union. She besought me to forget the past, and the weary years of separation and waiting which her cruelty had entailed upon us, and she prayed me to forgive her, and to think of it as if it had never been.

This letter gave me, for Percy’s sake, great pleasure. I, of course, responded to it; and from that time we exchanged letters regularly.

Chapter IX • Prepared for the Attempt • 2,700 Words

And now I have told of the joyful news which has so wonderfully altered the current of my life, and restored me to youth and happiness, I must relate another incident which happened, indeed, two months prior to it in point of time, but which I record after it, because the other is so infinitely more important to myself, and, indeed, filled my heart, to the exclusion of all else. And yet, until I received the news of Percy’s recovery—I had almost written resurrection, for to me it is indeed a coming back from the grave—I had, from the time the event happened, thought a great deal about it. Not, indeed, that I attached, or do attach, the slightest importance to it, as far as regards myself; but it has brought back to my mind all the circumstances connected with the series of efforts which we made to find the will of Mr. Harmer, from six to seven years ago, and which terminated in the death of the unfortunate Robert Gregory. This research, so long abandoned, has now, strangely enough, been once again taken in hand; and this time even more methodically and determinately than at any of our former attempts, and that by the very person whose conduct indirectly caused the original loss of the will—Sophy Gregory.

It was about a month after my return from my visit to London, that I was in the parlour alone, when Hannah came in and said that a person wished to speak to me.

“Do you know who it is, Hannah?”

“No, miss. She is a servant, I should say, by her looks.”

“Did she ask for me, or for Mrs. Mapleside?”

“For you, miss, special.”

“Very well, Hannah, then show her in.”

And Hannah accordingly ushered my visitor into the room. She was a woman of apparently three or four and thirty, and was paler, I think, than any person I ever saw. Not the pallor produced by illness, although that may have had something to do with it; but a complete absence of colour, such as may be caused by some wearing anxiety, or some very great and sudden shock; her eyes, too, had a strange unnatural look, which, coupled with her unusual paleness, gave her a very strange appearance; indeed, it struck me at once that there was something wrong with her mind, and had not Hannah closed the door as soon as she had shown her in, I should certainly have told her to remain in the room with us. I had not the least recollection of having seen her face before, and waited in silence for her to address me, but as she did not, I said:—

“Did I understand that you wished to speak to me? my name is Miss Ashleigh.”

“Then you have no recollection of me?” she asked.

The instant she spoke I recognized her voice: it was Sophy.

“Sophy!” I almost cried out.

“Yes, indeed, Agnes, it is Sophy.”

I was very much shocked at the terrible change which seven years had made in her. My poor friend what must she have suffered, what had my grief and sorrow been to hers? We had both lost those we loved best in the world, but I had no painful or shameful circumstances in the death of my lover, as there had been in the death of her husband. Percy had died honourably, in the field of battle; Robert had fallen, shot as a burglar by a woman’s hand; beside, I was not alone in the world, I had my brother Harry, and my dear Polly, and Ada, and many kind and sympathizing friends. Sophy was quite alone. Truly my own sufferings seemed but small in my eyes when I thought of hers, and I was very much moved by pity and tenderness for my old friend, as I thought of what she had gone through. All these thoughts rushed through me, as I embraced her with almost more than the warmth of my old affection for her; for it seemed to me that the sorrow which we both suffered was an additional tie between us. It was some time before we were composed enough to speak, or rather before I was; for she, although she had responded to my embrace, and was evidently glad to see me, was plainly in a state of too great tension of mind to find relief as I did in tears.

When I came to look at her face more quietly, I was still puzzled by it. It was not so much that it was changed and aged, as that there was something which seemed to me to be quite different, to what I remembered: what it was I could not for some time make out. At last I exclaimed,—

“Why, Sophy, you have put on a black wig and dyed your eyebrows. They were quite fair before, and now they are black.”

“It was only last night that I did so,” she said quietly. “I did not wish to be recognized down here for a very particular reason, which I will tell you presently.”

Now I knew what the change in Sophy’s face was, I could recall it, and saw that the alteration in her was not really so great as I had imagined. She certainly looked many years older than she was, but it was the black hair and eyebrows which gave the pale and unnatural appearance to her face, which had so struck me when she first entered the room.

“And now, Sophy,” I said, “tell me all about yourself; where have you been living, and how have you been getting on all this time, and what are your plans for the future? Your little child, too, Sophy? What has become of it? You have not lost it, have you?”

“No, Agnes,” Sophy said quietly, “I have not lost Jamie, and he is a very good, dear little fellow; but I have left him now for some time, and so I would rather talk of something else. And now I will give you the history of my life, as nearly as I can, from the time I went away from here.”

But although Sophy had thus volunteered me this information, it was some little time before she could begin the sad narrative of her early married days. And yet she was not agitated as she told it—she seemed rather cold and strange; and I think the very manner which would have repelled other people drew me towards her. I had felt so much the same; I was still so quiet and old from my great loss, that I saw in that abstracted air of hers, and the impassive tone in which she spoke of times when she must have suffered so deeply, that she, like me, had had so great a grief, that nothing again would ever move her from her quiet self-possession. And yet I fancied afterwards that it was not exactly so, for it was upon a point in the future that all her thoughts and energies were centered, while all mine were buried in the past.

But by degrees Sophy told me all her history, from the date of her elopement up to the present time. She did not, at that time, enter into all the details of her life, but she has done so in the two visits she has paid me since she came down. As much of her history as is at all important in itself—more especially as having any reference to my own story,—particularly their life in London when first married, and the events prior to Robert’s coming down to try and recover the will, I have told at some length. The rest of her tale I have had to relate very briefly; and I have now written it out in chapters, and arranged them with my own story, as well as I could, according to the date at which the various events took place, so that our two stories may be read in their proper order.

When Sophy had finished her tale, she told me that she had left her boy in London, and had come down to devote h