Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

The Marriage at Wygrove.

On the following day Gilbert Fenton took his second advertisement to the office in Printing House Square; an advertisement offering a reward of twenty pounds for any reliable information as to the marriage of Marian Nowell. A week went by, during which the advertisement appeared on alternate days; and at the end of that time there came a letter from the parish-clerk of Wygrove, a small town about forty miles farther from London than Lidford, stating that, on the 14th of March, John Holbrook and Marian Nowell had been married at the church in that place. Gilbert Fenton left London by an early train upon the morning after his receipt of this letter; and at about three o’clock in the afternoon found himself on the outskirts of Wygrove, rather a difficult place to reach, involving a good deal of delay at out-of-the-way junctions, and a six-mile journey by stage-coach from the nearest station.

It was about the dullest dreariest little town to which his destiny had ever brought Gilbert Fenton, consisting of a melancholy high-street, with a blank market-place, and a town hall that looked as if it had not been opened within the memory of man; a grand old gothic church, much too large for the requirements of the place; a grim square brick box inscribed “Ebenezer;” and a few prim villas straggling off into the country.

On one side of the church there was a curious little old-fashioned court, wonderfully neat and clean, with houses the parlours whereof were sunk below the level of the pavement, after the manner of these old places. There was a great show of geraniums in the casements, and a general aspect of brightness and order distinguished all these modest dwellings. It was to this court that Mr. Fenton had been directed on inquiring for Thomas Stoneham, the parish-clerk, at the inn where the coach deposited him. He was fortunate enough to find Mr. Stoneham sunning himself on the threshold of his domicile, smoking an after-dinner pipe. A pleasant clattering of tea-things sounded from the neat little parlour within, showing that, early as it was, there were already preparations for the cup which cheers without inebriating in the Stoneham household.

Thomas Stoneham, supported by a freshly-painted door of a vivid green and an extensive brass plate engraved with his name and functions, was a personage of some dignity. He was a middle-aged man, ponderous and slow of motion, with a latent pomposity, which he rendered as agreeable as possible by the urbanity of his manners. He was a man of a lofty spirit, who believed in his office as something exalted above all other dignities of this earth — less lucrative, of course, than a bishopric or the woolsack, and of a narrower range, but quite as important on a small scale. “The world might get on pretty well without bishops,” thought Mr. Stoneham, when he pondered upon these things as he smoked his churchwarden pipe; “but what would become of a parish in which there was no clerk?”

This gentleman, seeing Gilbert Fenton approach, was quick to surmise that the stranger came in answer to the letter he had written the day before. The advent of a stranger in Wygrove was so rare an occurrence, that it was natural enough for him to jump at this conclusion.

“I believe you are Mr. Stoneham,” said Gilbert, “and the writer of a letter in answer to an advertisement in the Times.”

“My name is Stoneham, sir; I am the clerk of this parish, and have been for twenty years and more, as I think I may have stated in the letter to which you refer. Will you be so kind as to step inside?”

Mr. Stoneham waved his hand towards the parlour, to which apartment Gilbert descended. Here he found Mrs. Stoneham, a meek little sandy-haired woman, who seemed to be borne down by the weight of her lord’s dignity; and Miss Stoneham, also meek and sandy, with a great many stiff little corkscrew ringlets budding out all over her head and a sharp little inquiring nose.

These ladies would have retired on Gilbert’s entrance, but he begged them to remain; and after a good deal of polite hesitation they consented to do so, Mrs. Stoneham resuming her seat before the tea-tray, and Miss Stoneham retiring to a little table by the window, where she was engaged in trimming a bonnet.

“I want to know all about this marriage, Mr. Stoneham,” Gilbert began, when he had seated himself in a shining mahogany arm-chair by the empty fire-place. “First and foremost, I want you to tell me where Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook are now living.”

The parish-clerk shook his head with a stately slowness.

“Not to be done, sir,” he said: “when Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook left here they went the Lord knows where. They went away the very day they were married. There was a fly waiting for them at the church-door, with their luggage upon it, when the ceremony was over, ready to drive them to Grangewick station. I saw them get into it and drive away; and that’s every mortal thing that I know as to what became of them after they were married in yonder church.”

“You don’t know who this Mr. Holbrook is?”

“No more than the babe unborn, sir. He was a stranger in this place, was only here long enough to get the license for his marriage. I should take him to be a gentleman; but he wasn’t a pleasant person to speak to — rather stand-off-ish in his manners. He wasn’t the sort of man I should have chosen if I’d been a pretty young woman like Miss Nowell; but there’s no accounting for taste, and she seemed uncommonly fond of him. I never saw any one more agitated than she was when they were married. She was crying in a quiet way all through the service, and when it was over she fainted dead-off. I daresay it did seem hard to her to be married like that, without so much as a friend to give her away. She was in mourning, too, deep mourning.”

“Can you give me any description of this man — this Mr. Holbrook?”

“Well, no, sir: he was an ordinary kind of person to look at; might be any age between thirty and forty; not a gentleman that I should have taken a fancy to myself, as I said before; but young women are that wayward and uncertain like, there’s no knowing where to have them.”

“Was Miss Nowell long at Wygrove before her marriage?”

“About three weeks. She lodged with Miss Long, up the town, a friend of my daughter’s. If you’d like to ask any questions of Miss Long, our Jemima might step round there with you presently.”

“I should be very glad to do so,” Gilbert answered quickly. He asked several more questions; but Mr. Stoneham could give him no information, except as to the bare fact of the marriage. Gilbert knew now that the girl he had so fondly loved and so entirely trusted was utterly lost to him; that he had been jilted cruelly and heartlessly, as he could but own to himself. Yes, she had jilted him — had in all probability never loved him. He blamed himself for having urged his suit too ardently, with little reference to Marian’s own feelings, with a rooted obstinate conviction that he needed only to win her in order to insure the happiness of both.

Having fully proved Mr. Stoneham’s inability to afford him any further help in this business, Gilbert availed himself of the fair Jemima’s willingness to “step round” to Miss Long’s domicile with him, in the hope of obtaining fuller information from that lady. While Miss Stoneham was engaged in putting on her bonnet for this expedition, the clerk proposed to take Gilbert across to the church and show him the entry of the marriage in the register. “With a view to the satisfactory settlement of the reward,” Mr. Stoneham added in a fat voice, and with the air of a man to whom twenty pounds more or less was an affair of very little moment.

Gilbert assented to this, and accompanied Mr. Stoneham to a little side-door which admitted them into the old church, where the light shone dimly through painted windows, in which there seemed more leaden framework than glass. The atmosphere of the place was cold even on this sultry July afternoon, and the vestry to which Mr. Stoneham conducted his companion had a damp mouldy smell.

He opened a cupboard, with a good deal of jingling of a great bunch of keys, and produced the register; a grim-looking volume bound in dingy leather, and calculated to inspire gloomy feelings in the minds of the bridegrooms and brides who had occasion to inscribe their names therein; a volume upon which the loves and the graces who hover around the entrance to the matrimonial state had shed no ray of glamour.

Thomas Stoneham laid this book before Gilbert, open at the page on which Marian’s marriage was recorded. Yes, there was the familiar signature in the fair flowing hand he had loved so well. It was his Marian, and no other, whom John Holbrook had married in that gloomy old church.

The signature of the bridegroom was in a stiff straight hand, all the letters formed with unusual precision, as if the name had been written in a slow laboured way.

Who could this John Holbrook be? Gilbert was quite certain that he had never heard the name at Lidford, nor could he believe that if any attachment between this man and Marian Nowell had existed before his own acquaintance with her, Captain Sedgewick would have been so dishonourable as to keep the fact a secret from him. This John Holbrook must needs, therefore, be some one who had come to Lidford during Gilbert’s absence from England; yet Sarah Down had been able to tell him of no new visitor at Hazel Cottage.

He copied the record of the marriage on a leaf in his pocket-book, paid Mr. Stoneham a couple of ten-pound notes, and left the church. The clerk’s daughter was waiting for him in the little court outside, and they went at once to the house where Miss Nowell had lodged during her residence at Wygrove.

It was a house in a neat little terrace on the outskirts of the town; a house approached by a flight of steep stone steps of spotless purity, and a half-glass door, which opened at once into a bright airy-looking parlour, faintly perfumed with rose-leaves and lavender mouldering in the china vases on the mantelpiece. Here Gilbert was introduced to Miss Long, a maiden lady of uncertain age, who wore stiff bands of suspiciously black hair under an imposing structure of lace and artificial flowers, and a rusty black-silk dress, the body of which fitted so tightly as to seem like a kind of armour. This lady received Mr. Fenton very graciously, and declared herself quite ready to give him any information in her power about Miss Nowell.

It happened unfortunately, however, that her power was of a most limited extent.

“A sweeter young lady never lived than Miss Nowell,” she said. “I’ve had a great many people occupying these apartments since my father’s death left me thrown upon my own resources. I’ve had lodgers that I might call permanent, in a manner of speaking; but I never had any one that I took to as I took to Miss Nowell, though she was hardly with me three weeks from first to last.”

“Did she seem happy in her mind during that time?” Gilbert asked.

“Well, no; I cannot say that she did. I should have expected to see a young lady that was going to be married to the man she loved much more cheerful and hopeful about the future than Miss Nowell was. She told me that her uncle had not been dead many weeks, and I thought at first that this was the only grief she had on her mind; but after some time, when I found her very low and downhearted, and had won upon her to trust me almost as if I had been an old friend, she owned to me that she had behaved very badly to a gentleman she had been engaged to, and that the thought of her wickedness to him preyed upon her mind. ‘I don’t think any good can ever come of my marriage, Miss Long,’ she said to me; ‘I think I must surely be punished for my falsehood to the good man who loved me so truly. But there are some things in life that seem like fate. They come upon us in a moment, and we have no strength to fight against them. I believe it was my fate to love John Holbrook. There is nothing in this world I could refuse to do for his sake. If he had asked me for my life, I must have given it to him as freely as I gave him my love. From the first hour in which I saw him he was my master.’”

“This Mr. Holbrook was very fond of her, I suppose?”

“I daresay he was, sir; but he was not a man that showed his feelings very much. They used to go for long walks together, though it was March and cold windy weather, and she always seemed happier when he brought her home. He came every evening to drink tea with her, and I used to hear them talking as I sat at work in the next room. She was happy enough when he was with her. It was only when she was alone that she would give way to low spirits and gloomy thoughts about the future.”

“Did she ever tell you anything about Mr. Holbrook — his position or profession? how long she had known him? how and where they had first met?”

“No, sir. She told me once that he was not rich; I think that is about all she ever said of him, except when she spoke of his influence over her, and her trust in him.”

“Have you any idea where they were going to live after their marriage?”

“I cannot tell you the name of the place. Miss Nowell said that a friend of Mr. Holbrook’s was going to lend him an old farm-house in a very pretty part of the country. It would be very lonely, she said, and her husband would have sometimes to leave her to attend to his business in London; but she would not mind that. ‘Some day, I daresay, he will let me live in London with him,’ she said; ‘but I don’t like to ask him that yet.’”

“Did she drop no hint as to the whereabouts of this place to which they were going?”

“It was somewhere in Hampshire; that is all I can remember.”

“I would give a great deal to know more,” Gilbert said with a sigh. “In what manner did this Mr. Holbrook impress you? You were interested in the young lady, and would therefore naturally be interested in her lover. Did he strike you as worthy of her?”

I cannot say that he did, sir,” Miss Long answered doubtfully. “I could see that he had great power over her, though his manner to her was always very gentle; but I cannot say that I took to him myself. I daresay he is a very clever man; but he had a cold proud way that kept one at a distance from him, and I seemed to know no more of him at the last than I had known on the first day I saw him. I believe he loved Miss Nowell, and that’s about all the good I do believe of him.”

After this, there was no more to be asked of Miss Long; so Gilbert thanked her for her civility, and bade good evening at once to her and to Miss Stoneham. There was time for him to catch the last coach to Grangewick station. He determined upon going from Grangewick to Lidford, instead of returning to London. He wanted, if possible, to find out something more about this man Holbrook, who must surely have been known to some one at Lidford during his secret courtship of Marian Nowell.

He wasted two days at Lidford, making inquiries on this subject, in as quiet a manner as possible and in every imaginable quarter; but without the slightest result. No one either at Lidford or Fairleigh had ever heard of Mr. Holbrook.

Gilbert’s last inquiries were made in a singular direction. After exhausting every likely channel of information, he had a few hours left before the departure of the fast train by which he had determined to return to London; and this leisure he devoted to a visit to Heatherly Park, in the chance of finding Sir David Forster at home. It was just possible that Mr. Holbrook might be one of Sir David’s innumerable bachelor acquaintances.

Gilbert walked from Lidford to Heatherly by that romantic woodland path by which he had gone with Marian and her uncle on the bright September afternoon when he first saw Sir David’s house. The solitary walk awakened very bitter thoughts; the memory of those hopes which had then made the sunshine of his life, and without which existence seemed a weary purposeless journey across a desert land.

Sir David was at home, the woman at the lodge told him; and he went on to the house, and rang a great clanging bell, which made an alarming clamour in the utter stillness of the place.

A gray-haired old servant answered the summons, and ushered Gilbert into the state drawing-room, an apartment with a lofty arched roof, eight long windows, and a generally ecclesiastical aspect, which was more suggestive of solemn grandeur than of domestic comfort.

Here Gilbert waited for about ten minutes, at the end of which time the man returned, to request that he would be so kind as to go to Sir David’s study. His master was something of an invalid, the man told Gilbert.

They went through the billiard-room to a very snug little apartment, with dark-panelled walls and one large window opening upon a rose-garden on the southern side of the house. There was a ponderous carved-oak bookcase on one side of the room; on all the others the paraphernalia of sporting — gunnery and fishing-tackle, small-swords, whips, and boxing-gloves — artistically arranged against the panelling; and over the mantelpiece an elaborate collection of meerschaum pipes. Through a half-open door Gilbert caught a glimpse of a comfortable bedchamber leading out of this room.

Sir David was sitting on a low easy-chair near the window, with one leg supported on a luxuriously-cushioned rest, invented for the relief of gouty subjects. Although not yet forty, the baronet was a chronic sufferer from this complaint.

“My dear Mr. Fenton, how good of you to come to me!” he exclaimed, shaking hands very cordially with Gilbert. “Here I am, laid by the heels in this dreary old place, and quite alone. You can’t imagine what a treat it is to see a friendly intelligent face from the outer world.”

“The purpose of my visit is such a purely selfish one, that I am really ashamed to receive such a kindly greeting, Sir David. If I had known you were here and an invalid, I should have gladly come to see you; but I didn’t know it. I have been at Lidford on a matter of business for the last two days; and I came here on the hazard of finding you, and with a faint hope that you might be able to give me some help in an affair which is supremely important to me.”

Sir David Forster looked at Gilbert Fenton curiously for a moment, and then took up an empty meerschaum that lay upon a little table near him, and began to fill it with a thoughtful air. Gilbert had dropped into an arm-chair on the opposite side of the open window, and was watching the baronet’s face, puzzled a little by that curious transient expression which had just flitted across it.

“What is the business?” Sir David asked presently; “and how can I be of use to you?”

“I think you knew all about my engagement to Miss Nowell, when I was here last September, Sir David,” Gilbert began presently.

“Yes, Saltram told me you were engaged; not but what it was easy enough to see how the land lay, without any telling.”

“Miss Nowell has jilted me. I love her too dearly to be able to entertain any vindictive feeling against her; but I do feel vindictively disposed towards the man who has robbed me of her, for I know that only a very powerful influence would have induced her to break faith with me; and this man must needs have known the dishonourable thing he was doing when he tempted her away from me. I want to know who he is, Sir David, and how he came to acquire such an influence over my plighted wife.”

“My dear Fenton, you are going on so fast! You say Miss Nowell has jilted you. She is married to some one else, then, I suppose?”

“She is married to a Mr. Holbrook. I came to Lidford the night before last, with the hope of finding out something about him; but all my endeavours have resulted in failure. It struck me at last, as a kind of forlorn hope, that this Mr. Holbrook might possibly be one of your autumnal visitors; and I came here to ask you that question.”

“No,” answered the baronet; “I have had no visitor called Holbrook. Is the name quite strange to yourself?”

“Entirely strange.”

“And this Mr. Holbrook is now Miss Nowell’s husband? and you want to know who he is? With what end?”

“I want to find the man who has done me the deadliest wrong one man can do another.”

“My dear fellow, don’t you see that it is fate, and not Mr. Holbrook, that has done you this wrong? If Miss Nowell had really loved you as she ought to have loved you, it would have been quite impossible for her to be tempted away from you. It was her destiny to marry this Holbrook, rely upon it; and had you been on the spot to protect your own interests, the result would have been just the same. Believe me, I am very sorry for you, and can fully sympathise with your feelings in this business; but I cannot see what good could possibly arise out of a meeting between you and your fortunate rival. The days of duelling are past; and even if it were not so, I think you are too generous to seek to deprive Miss Nowell of her husband.”

“I do not know about that. There are some wrongs which all a man’s Christianity is not wide enough to cover. I think if that man and I were to meet, there would be very little question of mercy on my side. I hold a man who could act as he has acted unworthy of all consideration — utterly unworthy of the woman he has won from me.”

“My dear fellow, you know the old saying. A man who is in love thinks everything fair. There is no such thing as honour in such a case as this. Of course, I don’t want to defend this Holbrook; I only want to awaken your senses to the absurdity of any vindictive pursuit of the man. If the lady did not love you, believe me you are well out of the business.”

“Yes, that is what every one would tell me, I daresay,” Gilbert answered impatiently. “But is there to be no atonement for my broken life, rendered barren to me by this man’s act? I tell you, Sir David, there is no such thing as pardon for a wrong like this. But I know how foolish this talk must seem to you: there is always something ridiculous in the sufferings of a jilted lover.”

“Not at all, my dear Fenton. I heartily wish that I could be of use to you in this matter; but there is very little chance of that; and, believe me, there is only one rational course open to you, which is, to forget Miss Nowell, or Mrs. Holbrook, with all possible assiduity.”

Gilbert smiled, a melancholy incredulous smile. Sir David’s advice was only the echo of John Saltram’s counsel — the counsel which he would receive from every man of the world, no doubt — the counsel which he himself would most likely have given to a friend under the same circumstances.

Sir David was very cordial, and wanted his visitor to dine and sleep at Heatherly; but this Gilbert declined. He was eager to get back to London now that his business was finished.

He arrived in town late that night; and went back to his office-work next day with a dreary feeling that he must needs go through the same dull routine day after day in all the time to come, without purpose or hope in his life, only because a man must go on living somehow to the end of his earthly pilgrimage, whether the sun shine upon him or not.

He went to Queen Anne’s Court one evening soon after his return, and told Mr. Nowell all he had discovered at Wygrove. The old man showed himself keenly interested in his grand-daughter’s fate.

“I would give a great deal to see her before I die,” he said. “Whatever I have to leave will be hers. It may be little or much — I won’t speak about that; but I’ve lived a hard life, and saved where other men would have spent. I should like to see my son’s child; I should like to have some one of my own flesh and blood about me in my last days.”

“Would it not be a good plan to put an advertisement into the Times, addressed to Mrs. Holbrook, from a relation? She would be likely to answer that, when she would not reply to any appeal coming directly from me.”

“Yes,” answered Jacob Nowell; “and her husband would let her come to me for the sake of what I may have to leave her. But that can’t be helped, I suppose; it is the fate of a man who lives as I have lived, to be cared for at last only for what he has to give. I’ll put in such an advertisement as you speak of; and we’ll see what comes of it.”

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