Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 13

Mrs. Pallinson has Views.

At seven o’clock on Sunday evening, as the neighbouring church bells were just sounding their last peal, Mr. Fenton found himself on the threshold of Mrs. Branston’s house in Cavendish-square. It was rather a gloomy mansion, pervaded throughout with evidences of its late owner’s oriental career; old Indian cabinets; ponderous chairs of elaborately-carved ebony, clumsy in form and barbaric in design; curious old china and lacquered ware of every kind, from gigantic vases to the tiniest cups and saucers; ivory temples, and gods in silver and clay, crowded the drawing-rooms and the broad landings on the staircase. The curtains and chair-covers were of Indian embroidery; the carpets of oriental manufacture. Everything had a gaudy semi-barbarous aspect.

Mrs. Branston received her guests in the back drawing-room, a smaller and somewhat snugger apartment than the spacious chamber in front, which was dimly visible in the light of a single moderator lamp and the red glow of a fire through the wide-open archway between the two rooms. In the inner room the lamps were brighter, and the fire burned cheerily; and here Mrs. Branston had established for herself a comfortable nook in a deep velvet-cushioned arm-chair, very low and capacious, sheltered luxuriously from possible draughts by a high seven-leaved Japanese screen. The fair Adela was a chilly personage, and liked to bask in her easy-chair before the fire. She looked very pretty this evening, in her dense black dress, with the airiest pretence of a widow’s cap perched on her rich auburn hair, and a voluminous Indian shawl of vivid scarlet making a drapery about her shoulders. She was evidently very pleased to see John Saltram, and gave a cordial welcome to his friend. On the opposite side of the fire-place there was a tall, rather grim-looking lady, also in mourning, and with an elaborate headdress of bugles and ornaments of a feathery and beady nature, which were supposed to be flowers. About her neck this lady wore numerous rows of jet beads, from which depended crosses and lockets of the same material: she had jet earrings and jet bracelets; and had altogether a beaded and bugled appearance, which would have been eminently fascinating to the untutored taste of a North American Indian.

This lady was Mrs. Pallinson, a widow of limited means, and a distant relation of Adela Branston’s. Left quite alone after her husband’s death, and feeling herself thoroughly helpless, Adela had summoned this experienced matron to her aid; whereupon Mrs. Pallinson had given up a small establishment in the far north of London, which she was in the habit of speaking about on occasions as her humble dwelling, and had taken up her quarters in Cavendish-square, where she was a power of dread to the servants.

Gilbert fancied that Mrs. Pallinson was by no means too favourably disposed towards John Saltram. She had sharp black eyes, very much like the jet beads with which her person was decorated, and with these she kept a close watch upon Mrs. Branston and Mr. Saltram when the two were talking together. Gilbert saw how great an effort it cost her at these times to keep up the commonplace conversation which he had commenced with her, and how intently she was trying to listen to the talk upon the other side of the fire-place.

The dinner was an admirable one, the wines perfection, Mr. Branston having been a past-master of the art of good living, and having stocked his cellars with a view to a much longer life than had been granted to him; the attendance was careful and complete; the dining-room, with its rather old-fashioned furniture and heavy crimson hangings, a picture of comfort; and Mrs. Branston a most charming hostess. Even Gilbert was fain to forget his own troubles and enjoy life a little in that agreeable society.

The two gentlemen accompanied the ladies back to the drawing-room. There was a grand piano in the front room, and to this Adela Branston went at Mr. Saltram’s request, and began to play some of Handel’s oratorio music, while he stood beside the piano, talking to her as she played. Mrs. Pallinson and Gilbert were thus left alone in the back room, and the lady did her best to improve the occasion by extorting what information she could from Mr. Fenton about his friend.

“Adela tells me that you and Mr. Saltram are friends of very long standing, Mr. Fenton,” she began, fanning herself slowly with a shining black fan as she sat opposite Gilbert, awful of aspect in the sombre splendour of her beads and bugles.

“Yes; we were at Oxford together, and have been fast friends ever since.”

“Indeed! — how really delightful! The young men of the present day appear to me generally so incapable of a sincere friendship. And you and Mr. Saltram have been friends all that time? He is a literary man, I understand. I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his works; but Adela tells me he is extremely clever.”

“He is very clever.”

“And steady, I hope. Literary men are so apt to be wild and dissipated; and Adela has such a high opinion of your friend. I hope he is steady.”

“I scarcely know what a lady’s notion of steadiness may involve,” Gilbert answered, smiling; “but I daresay when my friend marries he will be steady enough. I cannot see that literary tastes and dissipated habits have any natural affinity. I should rather imagine that a man with resources of that kind would be likely to lead a quieter life than a man without such resources.”

“Do you really think so? I fancied that artists and poets and people of that kind were altogether a dangerous class. And you think that Mr. Saltram will be steady when he is married? He is engaged to be married, I conclude by your manner of saying that.”

“I had no idea my words implied anything of the kind. No, I do not think John Saltram is engaged.”

Mrs. Pallinson glanced towards the piano, where the two figures seemed very close to each other in the dim light of the room. Adela’s playing had been going on in a desultory kind of manner, broken every now and then by her conversation with John Saltram, and had evidently been intended to give pleasure only to that one listener.

While she was still playing in this careless fitful way, a servant announced Mr. Pallinson; and a gentleman entered whom Gilbert had no difficulty in recognizing as the son of the lady he had been conversing with. This new-comer was a tall pale-faced young man, with intensely penetrating black eyes exactly like his mother’s, sharp well-cut features, and an extreme precision of dress and manner. His hands, which were small and thin, were remarkable for their whiteness, and were set-off by spotless wristbands, which it was his habit to smooth fondly with his slim fingers in the intervals of his discourse. Mrs. Pallinson rose and embraced this gentleman with stately affection.

“My son Theobald — Mr. Fenton,” she said. “My son is a medical practitioner, residing at Maida-hill; and it is a pleasure to him to spend an occasional evening with his cousin Adela and myself.”

“Whenever the exigencies of professional life leave me free to enjoy that happiness,” Mr. Pallinson added in a brisk semi-professional manner. “Adela has been giving you some music, I see. I heard one of Handel’s choruses as I came upstairs.”

He went into the front drawing-room, shook hands with Mrs. Branston, and established himself with a permanent air beside the piano. Adela did not seem particularly glad to see him; and John Saltram, who had met him before in Cavendish-square, received him with supreme indifference.

“I am blessed, as I daresay you perceive, Mr. Fenton, in my only son,” Mrs. Pallinson said, when the young man had withdrawn to the adjoining apartment. “It was my misfortune to lose an admirable husband very early in life; and I have been ever since that loss wholly devoted to my son Theobald. My care has been amply rewarded by his goodness. He is a most estimable and talented young man, and has already attained an excellent position in the medical profession.”

“You have reason to be proud of him,” Gilbert answered kindly.

“I am proud of him, Mr. Fenton. He is the sole delight and chief object of my life. His career up to this hour has been all that the fondest mother could desire. If I can only see him happily and advantageously married, I shall have nothing left to wish for.”

“Indeed!” thought Gilbert. “Then I begin to perceive the reason of Mrs. Pallinson’s anxiety about John Saltram. She wants to secure Mrs. Branston’s handsome fortune for this son of hers. Not much chance of that, I think, fascinating as the doctor may be. Plain John Saltram stands to win that prize.”

They went into the front drawing-room presently, and heard Mr. Pallinson play the “Hallelujah Chorus,” arranged as a duet, with his cousin. He was a young man who possessed several accomplishments in a small way — could sing a little, and play the piano and guitar a little, sketch a little, and was guilty of occasional effusions in the poetical line which were the palest, most invertebrate reflections of Owen Meredith. In the Maida-hill and St. John’s-wood districts he was accounted an acquisition for an evening party; and his dulcet accents and engaging manners had rendered him a favourite with the young mothers of the neighbourhood, who believed implicitly in Mr. Pallinson’s gray powders when their little ones’ digestive organs had been impaired by injudicious diet, and confided in Mr. Pallinson’s carefully-expressed opinion as the fiat of an inscrutable power.

Mr. Theobald Pallinson himself cherished a very agreeable opinion of his own merits. Life seemed to him made on purpose that Theobald Pallinson should flourish and succeed therein. He could hardly have formed any idea of the world except as an arena for himself. He was not especially given to metaphysics; but it would not have been very difficult for him to believe that the entire universe was an emanation from the brain of Theobald Pallinson — a phenomenal world existing only in his sense of sight and touch. Happy in this opinion of himself, it is not to be supposed that the surgeon had any serious doubt of ultimate success with his cousin. He regarded John Saltram as an interloper, who had gained ground in Mrs. Branston’s favour only by the accident of his own absence from the stage. The Pallinsons had not been on visiting terms with Adela during the life of the East Indian merchant, who had not shown himself favourably disposed to his wife’s relations; and by this means Mr. Saltram had enjoyed advantages which Theobald Pallinson told himself could not have been his, had he, Theobald, been at hand to engage his cousin’s attention by those superior qualities of mind and person which must needs have utterly outshone the other. All that Mr. Pallinson wanted was opportunity; and that being now afforded him, he looked upon the happy issue of events as a certainty, and already contemplated the house in Cavendish-square, the Indian jars and cabinets, the ivory chessmen and filigree-silver rosewater-bottles, the inlaid desks and Japanese screens, the ponderous plate and rare old wines, with a sense of prospective proprietorship.

It seemed as if John Saltram had favoured this gentleman’s views by his prolonged absence from the scene, holding himself completely aloof from Adela Branston at a time when, had he been inclined to press his suit, he might have followed her up closely. Mrs. Branston had been not a little wounded by this apparent neglect on the part of one whom she loved better than anything else in the world; but she was inclined to believe any thing rather than that John Saltram did not care for her; and she had contrived to console herself with the idea that his avoidance of her had been prompted by a delicate consideration for her reputation, and a respect for the early period of her mourning. To-night, in his society, she had an air of happiness which became her wonderfully; and Gilbert Fenton fancied that a man must needs be hard and cold whose heart could not be won by so bright and gracious a creature.

She spoke more than once, in a half-playful way, of Mr. Saltram’s absence from London; but the deeper feeling underneath the lightness of her manner was very evident to Gilbert.

“I suppose you will be running away from town again directly,” she said, “without giving any one the faintest notice of your intention. I can’t think what charm it is that you find in country life. I have so often heard you profess your indifference to shooting, and the ordinary routine of rustic existence. Perhaps the secret is, that you fear your reputation as a man of fashion would suffer were you to be seen in London at such a barbarous season as this.”

“I have never rejoiced in a reputation for fashion,” Mr. Saltram answered, with his quiet smile — a smile that gave a wonderful brightness to his face; “and I think I like London in the autumn better than at any other time. One has room to move about. I have been in the country of late because I really do appreciate rural surroundings, and have found myself able to write better in the perfect quiet of rural life.”

“It is rather hard upon your friends that you should devote all your days to literature.”

“And still harder upon the reading public, perhaps. But, my dear Mrs. Branston, remember, I must write to live.”

Adela gave a little impatient sigh. She was thinking how gladly she would have made this man master of her ample fortune; wondering whether he would ever claim from her the allegiance she was so ready to give.

Mr. Pallinson did his best to engage his cousin’s attention during the rest of the evening. He brought her her tea-cup, and hovered about her while she sipped the beverage with that graceful air of suppressed tenderness which constant practice in the drawing-rooms of Maida-hill had rendered almost natural to him; but, do what he would, he could not distract Mrs. Branston’s thoughts and looks from John Saltram. It was on him that her eyes were fixed while the accomplished Theobald was giving her a lively account of a concert at the Eyre Arms; and it was the fascination of his presence which made her answer at random to her cousin’s questions about the last volume of the Laureate’s, which she had been lately reading. Even Mr. Pallinson, obtuse as he was apt to be when called upon to comprehend any fact derogatory to his own self-esteem, was fain to confess to himself that this evening’s efforts were futile, and that this dark-faced stranger was the favourite for those matrimonial stakes he had entered himself to run for. He looked at Mr. Saltram with a critical eye many times in the course of the evening, wondering what possible merit any sensible woman could perceive in such a man. But then, as Theobald Pallinson reflected, the misfortune is that so few women are sensible; and it was gradually becoming evident to him that Michael Branston’s widow was amongst the most foolish of her sex.

Mrs. Pallinson kept a sharp watch upon Adela throughout the evening, plunging into the conversation every now and then with a somewhat dictatorial and infallible air, and generally contriving to drag some praise of Theobald into her talk: now dilating rapturously upon that fever case which he had managed so wonderfully the other day, proving his judgment superior to that of an eminent consulting physician; anon launching out into laudation of his last poem, which had been set to music by a young lady in St. John’s-wood; and by-and-by informing the company of her son’s artistic talents, and his extraordinary capacity as a judge of pictures. To these things the surgeon himself listened with a deprecating air, smoothing his wristbands, and caressing his slim white hands, while he playfully reproved his parent for her maternal weakness.

Mr. Pallinson held his ground near his cousin’s chair till the last moment, while John Saltram sat apart by one of the tables, listlessly turning over a volume of engravings, and only looking up at long intervals to join in the conversation. He had an absent weary look, which puzzled Gilbert Fenton, who, being only a secondary personage in this narrow circle, had ample leisure to observe his friend.

The three gentlemen left at the same time, Mr. Pallinson driving away in a neat miniature brougham, after politely offering to convey his cousin’s guests to their destination. It was a bright starlight night, and Gilbert walked to the Temple with John Saltram, through the quietest of the streets leading east-wards. They lit their cigars as they left the square, and walked for some time in a friendly companionable silence. When they did speak, their talk was naturally of Adela Branston.

“I thought she was really charming to-night,” Gilbert said, “in spite of that fellow’s efforts to absorb her attention. It is pretty easy to see how the land lies in that direction; and it such a rival were likely to injure you, you have a very determined one in Mr. Pallinson.”

“Yes; the surgeon has evidently fixed his hopes upon poor old Michael Branston’s money. But I don’t think he will succeed.”

“You will not allow him to do so, I hope?”

“I don’t know about that. Then you really admire the little woman, Gilbert?”

“Very much; as much as I have ever admired any woman except Marian Nowell.”

“Ah, your Marian is a star, single and alone in her brightness, like that planet up yonder! But Adela Branston is a good little soul, and will make a charming wife. Gilbert, I wish to heaven you would fall in love with her!”

Gilbert Fenton stared aghast at his companion, as he tossed the end of his cigar into the gutter.

“Why, John, you must be mad to say such a thing.”

“No, it is by no means a mad notion. I want to see you cured, Gilbert. I do like you, dear boy, you know, as much as it is possible for a selfish worthless fellow like me to like any man. I would give a great deal to see you happy; and I am sure that you might be so as Adela Branston’s husband. I grant you that I am the favourite at present; but she is just the sort of woman to be won by any man who would really prove himself worthy of her. Her liking for me is a mere idle fancy, which would soon die out for want of fuel. You are my superior in every way — younger, handsomer, better. Why should you not go in for this thing, Gil?”

“Because I have no heart to give any woman, John. And even if I were free, I would not give my heart to a woman whose affection had to be diverted from another channel before it could be bestowed upon me. I can’t imagine what has put such a preposterous idea into your head, or why it is that you shrink from improving your own chances with Mrs. Branston.”

“You must not wonder at anything that I do or say, Gilbert. It is my nature to do strange things — my destiny to take the wrong turning in life!”

“When shall I see you again?” Gilbert asked, when they were parting at the Temple gates.

“I can scarcely tell you that. I must go back to Oxford to-morrow.”

“So soon?”

“Yes, my work gets on better down there. I will let you know directly I return to London.”

On this they parted, Gilbert considerably mystified by his friend’s conduct, but not caring to push his questions farther. He had his own affairs to think of, that one business which absorbed almost the whole of his thoughts — the business of his search for the man who had robbed him of his promised wife, this interval, in which he remained inactive, devoting himself to the duties of his commercial life, was only a pause in his labours. He was not the less bent upon bringing about a face-to-face meeting between himself and Marian’s husband because of this brief suspension of his efforts.

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