Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 12

A Friendly Counsellor.

Gilbert Fenton called several times in the Temple without being able to see John Saltram; a slip of paper pasted on the outer door of that gentleman’s chamber informed the public that he was “out of town,” and that was all. Gilbert took the trouble to penetrate the domicile of the laundress who officiated in Mr. Saltram’s chambers, in order to obtain some more particular information as to her employer’s movements, and after infinite difficulty succeeded in finding that industrious matron in the remote obscurity of a narrow court near the river. But the laundress could tell Mr. Fenton very little. She did not know whither Mr. Saltram had gone, or when he was likely to return. He was one of the most uncertingest gentlemen she had to do for; and he had been out of town a great deal lately; which was not to be wondered at, considering the trying hot weather, when it was not to be supposed that gentlefolks as was free to do what they pleased would stay in London. It was hard enough upon working people with five children to wash and mend and cook for, and over in the court besides, and provisions dearer than they had been these ten years. Gilbert asked if Mr. Saltram had left any orders about his letters; but the woman told him, no; there never was such a careless gentleman about letters. He never cared about having them sent after him, and would let them lie in the box till the dust got thick upon them.

Gilbert left a brief note for John Saltram with the woman — a note begging his friend to come to him when he was next in London; and having done this, he paid no more visits to the Temple, but waited patiently for Mr. Saltram’s coming, feeling very sure that his request would not be neglected. If anything could have intensified the gloom of his mind at this time it would have been the absence of that one friend, whom he loved better than he had ever loved any one in this world, except Marian Nowell. He stayed in town all through the blank August and September season, working harder than he had worked since the early days of his commercial life, taking neither pleasure nor interest in anything, and keeping as much as possible out of the way of all his old acquaintance.

No answer came to Jacob Nowell’s advertisement, although it appeared several times; and the old man began to despair of ever seeing his granddaughter. Gilbert used to drop in upon him sometimes of an evening during this period, at his urgent request. He was interested in the solitary silversmith for Marian’s sake, and very willingly sacrificed an occasional evening for his gratification. He fancied that these visits of his inspired some kind of jealousy in the breast of the sallow-faced, sleek-haired shopman; who regarded him always on these occasions with a look of suppressed malevolence, and by every stratagem in his power tried to find out the nature of the conversation between the visitor and his employer, making all kinds of excuses to come into the parlour, and showing himself proof against the most humiliating treatment from his master.

“Does that young man expect you to leave him money? and does he look upon me as a possible rival?” Gilbert asked one night, provoked by the shopman’s conduct.

“Very likely,” Mr. Nowell answered, with a malicious grin.

“One gets good service from a man who expects his reward in the future. Luke Tulliver serves me very well indeed, and of course I am not responsible for his delusions.”

“Do you know, Mr. Nowell, that is a man I should scarcely care to trust. To my mind there is a warning of danger in his countenance.”

“My dear sir, I have never trusted any one in my life,” answered the silversmith promptly. “I don’t for a moment suppose that Luke Tulliver would be honest if I gave him an opportunity to cheat me. As to the badness of his countenance, that is so much the better. I like to deal with an obvious rogue. The really dangerous subject is your honest fool, who goes on straight enough till he has lulled one into a false security, and then turns thief all at once at the instigation of some clever tempter.”

“That young man lives in the house with you, I suppose?”

“Yes; my household consists of Luke Tulliver, and an old woman who does the cooking and other work. There are a couple of garrets at the top of the house where the two sleep; my own bedroom is over this; and the room over the shop is full of pictures and other unsaleable stuff, which I have seldom occasion to show anybody. My business is not what it once was, Mr. Fenton. I have made some rather lucky hits in the way of picture-dealing in the course of my business career, but I haven’t done a big line lately.”

Gilbert was inclined to believe that Jacob Nowell was a much richer man than he cared to confess, and that the fortune which Marian Nowell might inherit in the future was a considerable one. The old man had all the attributes of a miser. The house in which he lived had the aspect of a place in which money has been made and hoarded day by day through long dull years.

It was not until the end of October that John Saltram made his appearance at his old friend’s lodgings. He had just come up from the country, and was looking his best — brighter and younger than Gilbert had seen him look for a long time.

“My dear Jack, I began to think I should never see you again. What have you been doing all this time, and where have you been?”

“I have been hard at work, as usual, for the reviews, down Oxford way, at a little place on the river. And how has the world been going with you, Gilbert? I saw your advertisement offering a reward for evidence of Miss Nowell’s marriage. Was there any result?”

“Yes; I know all about the marriage now, but I don’t know who or what the man is,” Gilbert answered; and then went on to give his friend a detailed account of his experience at Wygrove, and his visit to Sir David Forster.

“My dear foolish Gilbert,” said John Saltram, “how much useless trouble you have given yourself! Was it not enough to know that this girl had broken faith with you? I think, were I in your place, that would be the end of the story for me. And now you know more than that — you know that she is another man’s wife. If you find her, nothing can come of it.”

“It is the man I want to find, John; the man whom I shall make it the business of my life to discover.”

“For what good?”

“For the deadliest harm to him,” Gilbert answered moodily. “If ever he and I meet, I will have some payment for my broken life; some compensation for my ruined hopes. We two should not meet and part lightly, rely upon it.”

“You can make no excuse for his love, that fatal irresistible passion, which outweighs truth and honour when they are set in the opposite scale. I did not think you could be so hard, Gilbert; I thought you would have more mercy on the man who wronged you.”

“I could pardon any injury but this. I will never forgive this.”

John Saltram shrugged his shoulders with a deprecating air.

“It is a mistake, my dear fellow,” he said. “Life is not long enough for these strong passions. There is nothing in the world worth the price these bitter hatreds and stormy angers cost us. You have thrown away a great deal of deep feeling on a lady, whose misfortune it was not to be able to return your affection as she might have done — as you most fully deserved at her hands. Why waste any further emotion in regrets that we as useless as they are foolish?”

“You may as well ask me why I exist,” Gilbert answered quietly. “Regret for all I have lost is a part of my life.”

After this there was no more to be said, and Mr. Saltram went on to speak of pleasanter topics. The two men dined together, and sat by the fire afterwards with a bottle of claret between them, smoking their cigars, and talking till late into the night.

It was not to be supposed that Adela Branston’s name could be omitted entirely from this confidential talk.

“I have seen nothing and heard very little of her while I have been away,” John Saltram said, in answer to a question of Gilbert’s; “but I called in Cavendish-square this afternoon, and was fortunate enough to find her at home. She wants me to dine with her next Sunday, and I half promised to do so. Will you come too? I know that she would be glad to see you.”

“I cannot see that I am wanted, John.”

“But I tell you that you are wanted. I wish you to go with me. Mrs. Branston likes you amazingly, if you care to know the opinion of so frivolous a person.”

“I am very much flattered by Mrs. Branston’s kindly estimate of me, but I do not think I have any claim to it, except the fact that I am your friend. I shall be happy to go with you on Sunday, if you really wish it.”

“I do really wish it. I shall drop Mrs. Branston a line to say you will come. She asked me to bring you whenever I had an opportunity. The dinner-hour is seven. I’ll call for you here a few minutes before. I don’t promise you a very lively evening, remember. There will only be Adela, and a lady she has taken as her companion.”

“I don’t care about lively evenings. I have been nowhere in society since I returned from Melbourne. I have done with all that kind of thing.”

“My dear Gilbert, that sort of renunciation will never do,” John Saltram said earnestly. “A man cannot turn his back upon society at your age. Life lies all before you, and it rests with yourself to create a happy future. Let the dead bury their dead.”

“Yes, John; and what is left for the living when that burial is over? I don’t want to make myself obnoxious by whining over my troubles, but they are not to be lessened by philosophy, and I can do nothing but bear them as best I may. I had long been growing tired of society, in the conventional acceptation of the word, and all the stereotyped pleasures of a commercial man’s life. Those things are less than nothing when a man has nothing brighter and fairer beyond them — no inner life by which the common things of this world are made precious. It is only dropping out of the arena a little earlier than I might have done otherwise. I have a notion that I shall wind up my affairs next year, sell my business, and go abroad. I could manage to retire upon a very decent income, in spite of my losses the other day.”

“Don’t dream of that, Gilbert; for heaven’s sake, don’t dream of anything so mad as that. What would a man of your age be without some kind of career? A mere purposeless wanderer on the face of the earth. Stick to business, dear old fellow. Believe me, there is nothing like work to make a man forget any foolish trouble of this kind. And you will forget it, Gilbert, be assured of that. If I were not certain it would be so, I should ——”

He stopped suddenly, staring absently at the fire with a darkening brow.

“You would do what, John?”

“Hate this man Holbrook almost as savagely as you hate him, for having come between you and your happiness. Yet, if Marian Nowell did not love you — as a wife should love her husband, with all her heart and soul — it was ten thousand times better that the knot should be cut in time, however roughly. Think what your misery would have been if you had discovered after your marriage that her heart had never been really yours.”

“I cannot imagine that possible. I have no shadow of doubt that I should have succeeded in winning her heart if this man had not robbed me of her. My absence gave him his opportunity. Had I been at hand to protect my own interests, I do not think his influence could have prevailed against me.”

“It is quite natural that you should think that,” John Saltram said gravely. “Yet you may be mistaken. A woman’s love is such a capricious thing, and so often bestowed upon the least deserving amongst those who seek it.”

After this they were silent for some time, and then Gilbert told his friend about his acquaintance with Jacob Nowell, and the old man’s futile endeavours to find his grandchild; to all of which Mr. Saltram listened attentively.

“Then you fancy there is a good bit of money in question?” he said, when Gilbert told him everything.

“I fancy so. But I have no actual ground for the belief. The place in which the old man lives is poor enough, and he has carefully abstained from any hint as to what he might leave his granddaughter. Whatever it is, Marian ought to have it; and there is very little chance of that, unless she comes forward in response to Mr. Nowell’s advertisements.”

“It is a pity she should lose the chance of this inheritance, certainly,” said Mr. Saltram.

And then the conversation changed, and they talked of other subjects until it was time for them to part.

John Saltram walked back to the Temple in a very sombre mood, meditating upon his friend’s trouble.

“Poor old Gilbert,” he said to himself, “this business has touched him more deeply than I could have thought possible. I wish things had happened otherwise. What is it Lady Macbeth says? ‘Naught’s had, all’s spent, when our desire is got without content.’ I wonder whether the fulfilment of one’s heart’s desire ever does bring perfect contentment? I think not. There is always something wanting. And if a man comes by his wish basely, there is a taint of poison in the wine of life that neutralizes all its sweetness.”

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