Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

Jacob Nowell.

The days went by, and brought Gilbert Fenton no reply to his advertisement. He called at the post-office morning and evening, only to find the same result; and a dull blank feeling, a kind of deadness of heart and mind, began to steal over him with the progress of the days. He went through the routine of his business-life steadily enough, working as hard as he had ever worked; but it was only by a supreme effort that he could bring his mind to bear upon the details of business — all interest in his office-work was gone.

The advertisement had appeared for the sixth time, and Gilbert had framed a second, offering a reward of twenty pounds for any direct evidence of the marriage of Marian Nowell; when a letter was handed to him one evening at the post-office — a letter in a common blue envelope, directed in a curious crabbed hand, and bearing the London post-mark.

His heart beat loud and fast as he tore open this envelope It contained only a half-sheet of paper, with these words written upon it in the cramped half-illegible hand which figured on the outside:

“The person advertising for Marian Nowell is requested to call at No. 5, Queen Anne’s Court, Wardour Street, any evening after seven.”

This was all. Little as this brief note implied, however, Gilbert made sure that the writer must be in a position to give him some kind of information about the object of his search. It was six o’clock when he received the communication. He went from the post-office to his lodgings with his mind in a tumult of excitement, made a mere pretence of taking a hasty dinner, and set off immediately afterwards for Wardour Street.

There was more than time for him to walk, and he hoped that the walk might have some effect in reducing the fever of his mind. He did not want to present himself before strangers — who, no doubt, only wanted to make a barter of any knowledge they possessed as to Marian’s whereabouts — in a state of mental excitement. The address to which he was going mystified him beyond measure. What could people living in such a place as this know of her whom he sought?

He was in Wardour Street at a quarter before seven, but he had considerable trouble in finding Queen Anne’s Court, and the clocks of the neighbourhood were striking the hour as he turned into a narrow alley with dingy-looking shops on one side and a high dead wall on the other. The gas was glimmering faintly in the window of No. 5, and a good deal of old silver, tarnished and blackened, huddled together behind the wire-guarded glass, was dimly visible in the uncertain light. There was some old jewellery too, and a little wooden bowl of sovereigns or gold coins of some kind or other.

On a brass plate upon the door of this establishment there appeared the name of Jacob Nowell, silversmith and money-changer.

Gilbert Fenton stared in amazement at this inscription. It must needs be some relative of Marian’s he was about to see.

He opened the door, bewildered a little by this discovery, and a shrill bell gave notice of his entrance to those within. A tall lanky young man, with a sallow face and sleek black hair, emerged quickly from some door in the obscure background, and asked in a sharp voice what the visitor pleased to want.

“I wish to see Mr. Nowell, the writer of a letter addressed to the post-office in Wigmore Street.”

The sallow-faced young man disappeared without a word, leaving Gilbert standing in the dimly lighted shop, where he saw more old silver crowded upon shelves behind glass doors, carved ebony cabinets looming out of the dusk, and here and there an old picture in a tarnished frame. On the counter there was a glass case containing foreign bank-notes and gold, some curious old watches, and other trinkets, a baby’s coral, a battered silver cup, and a gold snuff-box.

While Gilbert waited thus he heard voices in a room at the back — the shrill tones of the sallow young man and a feeble old voice raised querulously — and then, after a delay which seemed long to his impatience, the young man reappeared and told him Mr. Nowell was ready to see him.

Gilbert went into the room at the end of the shop — a small dark parlour, more crowded with a heterogeneous collection of plate, pictures, and bric-a-brac of all kinds than the shop itself. Sultry as the July evening was, there was a fire burning in the pinched rusty grate, and over this fire the owner of the room bent affectionately, with his slippered feet on the fender, and his bony hands clasping his bony knees.

He was an old man, with long yellowish-white hair streaming from beneath a velvet skull-cap, and bright black eyes deep set in a pale thin face. His nose was a sharp aquiline, and gave something of a bird-like aspect to a countenance that must once have been very handsome. He was wrapped in a long dressing-gown of some thick grey woollen stuff.

The sallow-faced young man lingered by the half-glass door between the parlour and the shop, as if he would fain have remained a witness to the interview about to take place between his master and the stranger; but the old man looked round at him sharply, and said —

“That will do, Tulliver; you can go back to the shop. If Abrahams brings that little lot again to-night, tell him I’ll give five-and-nine an ounce, not a fraction more.”

Mr. Tulliver retired, leaving the door ajar ever so little; but the penetrating black eyes of the master were quick to perceive this manoeuvre.

“Will you be so good as to shut that door, sir, quite securely?” he said to Gilbert. “That young man is very inquisitive; I’m afraid I’ve kept him too long. People talk of old servants; but half the robberies in the world are committed by old servants. Be seated, if you please, sir. You find this room rather close, perhaps. Some people do; but I’m old and chilly, and I can’t live without a fire.”

“I have come to you in great anxiety of mind,” said Gilbert, as he seated himself upon the only disengaged chair in the room, “and with some hope that you may be able to set my mind at ease by affording me information about Miss Marian Nowell.”

“I can give you no information about her.”

“Indeed!” cried Gilbert, with a bitter pang of disappointment; “and yet you answered my advertisement.”

“I did, because I have some reason to suppose this Marian Nowell may be my granddaughter.”

“That is quite possible.”

“Can you tell me her father’s name?”

“Percival Nowell. Her mother was a Miss Lucy Geoffry.”

“Right,” said the old man. “Percival Nowell was my only son — my only child of late years. There was a girl, but she died early. He was my only son, and his mother and I were foolish enough to be proud of his good looks and his clever ways; and we brought him up a gentleman, sent him to an expensive school, and after that to the University, and pinched ourselves in every way for his sake. My father was a gentleman; and it was only after I had failed as a professional man, through circumstances which I need not explain to you now, that I took to this business. I would have made any sacrifice in reason for that boy of mine. I wanted him to be a gentleman, and to make his way in one of the learned professions. After a great deal of chopping and changing, he fixed upon the Bar, took chambers in the Temple, made me pay all the fees, and pretended to study. But I soon found that he was leading a wild dissipated life, and was never likely to be good for anything. He got into debt, drew bills upon me, and behaved altogether in a most shameful manner. When I sent for him, and remonstrated with him upon his disgraceful conduct, he told me that I was a miser, that I spent my life in a dog-kennel for the sake of hoarding money, and that I deserved nothing better than his treatment of me. I may have been better off at this time than I had cared to let him know, for I had soon found out what a reckless scoundrel I had to deal with; but if he had behaved decently, he would have found me generous and indulgent enough. As it was, I told him to go about his business, and never to expect another sixpence from me as long as he lived. How he managed to exist after this, I hardly know. He was very much mixed up with a disreputable lot of turf-men, and I believe he made money by betting. His mother robbed me for him, I found out afterwards, and contrived to send him a good deal of money at odd times. My business as a dealer in second-hand silver was better then than it is now, and I had had so much money passing through my hands that it was pretty easy for my wife to cheat me. Poor soul! she has been dead and gone these fifteen years, and I have freely forgiven her. She loved that young man to distraction. If he had wanted a step to reach the object of his wishes, she would have laid herself down in the dust and let him walk over her body. I suppose it is in the nature of mothers to love their sons like that. Well, sir, I never saw my gentleman after that day. I had plenty of letters from him, all asking for money; threatening letters, pitiful letters, letters in which he swore he would destroy himself if he didn’t receive a remittance by return of post; but I never sent him a shilling. About a year after our last meeting, I received the announcement of his marriage with Miss Geoffry. He wrote to tell me that, if I would allow him a decent income, he would reform and lead a steady life. That letter I did answer: to the effect that, if he chose to come here and act as my shopman, I would give him board and lodging for himself and his wife, and such wages as he should deserve. I told him that I had given him his chance as a gentleman, and he had thrown it away. I would give him the opportunity now of succeeding in a humbler career by sheer industry and perseverance as I had succeeded myself. If he thought that I had made a fortune, there was so much the more reason for him to try his luck. This was the last letter I ever wrote to him. It was unanswered; but about a year and a half afterwards there came a few lines to his mother, telling her of the birth of a daughter, which was to be called Marian, after her. This last letter came from Brussels.”

“And did you hear no more of your son after this?” Gilbert asked.

“Nothing. I think his mother used to get letters from him in secret for some time; that these failed suddenly at last; and that anxiety about her worthless son — anxiety which she tried to hide from me — shortened her life. She never complained, poor soul! never mentioned Percy’s name until the last, when she begged me to be kind to him if he should ever come to throw himself upon my kindness. I gave her my promise that, if that came to pass, he should find me a better friend to him than he deserved. It is hard to refuse the last prayer of a faithful wife who has done her duty patiently for nearly thirty years.”

“Have you any reason to suppose your son still living?”

“I have no evidence of his death. Often and often, after my poor wife was gone, I have sat alone here of a night thinking of him; thinking that he might come in upon me at any moment; almost listening for his footstep in the quiet of the place. But he never came. He would have found me very soft-hearted at such times. My mind changed to him a good deal after his mother’s death. I used to think of him as he was in his boyhood, when Marian and I had such great hopes of him, and would sit and talk of him for hours together by this fireside. An old man left quite alone as I was had plenty of time for such thoughts. Night after night I have fancied I heard his step, and have looked up at that door expecting to see him open it and come in; but he never came. He may be dead. I suppose he is dead; or he would have come to make another attempt at getting money out of me.”

“You have never taken any measures for finding him?” inquired Gilbert.

“No. If he wanted me, he knew where I was to be found. I was a fixture. It was his business to come to me. When I saw the name of Marian Nowell in your advertisement a week ago, I felt curious to know whether it could be my grandchild you were looking for. I held off till this morning, thinking it wasn’t worth my while to make any inquiries about the matter; but I couldn’t get it out of my head somehow; and it ended by my answering your advertisement. I am an old man, you see, without a creature belonging to me; and it might be a comfort to me to meet with some one of my own flesh and blood. The bit of money I may leave behind me when I die won’t be much; but it might as well go to my son’s child as to a stranger.”

“If your son’s child can be found, you will discover her to be well worthy of your love. Yes, though she has done me a cruel wrong, I believe her to be all that is good and pure and true.”

“What is the wrong that she has done you?”

Gilbert told Jacob Nowell the story of his engagement, and the bitter disappointment which had befallen him on his return from Australia. The old man listened with every appearance of interest. He approved of Gilbert’s notion of advertising for the particulars of a possible marriage, and offered to bear his part in the expenses of the search for his granddaughter.

Gilbert smiled at this offer.

“You do not know what a worthless thing money is to me now,” he said, “or now lightly I hold my own trouble or loss in this matter.”

He left Queen Anne’s Court soon after this, after having promised Jacob Nowell to return and report progress so soon as there should be anything worth telling. He went back to Wigmore Street heavy-hearted, depressed by the reaction that followed the vain hope which the silversmith’s letter had inspired. It mattered little to him to know the antecedents of Marian’s father, while Marian’s destiny remained still hidden from him.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31