Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

Father and Son.

While Gilbert Fenton was deliberating what steps to take next in his quest of his unknown enemy, a gentleman arrived at a small hotel near Charing Cross — a gentleman who was evidently a stranger to England, and whose portmanteaus and other travelling paraphernalia bore the names of New York manufacturers. He was a portly individual of middle age, and was still eminently handsome. He dressed well, lived expensively, and had altogether a prosperous appearance. He took care to inform the landlord of the hotel that he was not an American, but had returned to the land of his birth after an absence of something like fifteen years, and after realizing a handsome fortune upon the other side of the Atlantic. He was a very gracious and communicative person, and seemed to take life in an easy agreeable manner, like a man whose habit it was to look on the brighter side of all things, provided his own comfort was secured. Norton Percival was the name on this gentleman’s luggage, and on the card which he gave to the waiter whom he desired to look after his letters. After dining sumptuously on the evening of his arrival in London, this Mr. Percival strolled out in the autumn darkness, and made his way through the more obscure streets between Charing Cross and Wardour-street. The way seemed familiar enough to him, and he only paused now and then to take note of some alteration in the buildings which he had to pass. The last twenty years have not made much change in this neighbourhood, and the traveller from New York found little to surprise him.

“The place looks just as dull and dingy as it used to look when I was a lad,” he said to himself. “I daresay I shall find the old court unchanged in all these years. But shall I find the old man alive? I doubt that. Dead more likely, and his money gone to strangers. I wonder whether he had much money, or whether he was really as poor as he made himself out. It’s difficult to say. I know I made him bleed pretty freely, at one time and another, before he turned rusty; and it’s just possible I may have had pretty nearly all he had to give.”

He was in Wardour-street by this time, looking at the dimly-lighted shops where brokers’ ware of more or less value, old oak carvings, doubtful pictures, and rusted armour loomed duskily upon the passer-by. At the corner of Queen Anne’s Court he paused, and peered curiously into the narrow alley.

“The court is still here, at any rate,” he muttered to himself, “and I shall soon settle the other question.”

His heart beat faster than it was wont to beat as he drew near his destination. Was it any touch of real feeling, or only selfish apprehension, that quickened its throbbing? The man’s life had been so utterly reckless of others, that it would be dangerous to give him credit for any affectionate yearning — any natural remorseful pang in such a moment as this. He had lived for self, and self alone; and his own interests were involved in the issue of to-night.

A few steps brought him before Jacob Nowell’s window. Yes, it was just as he remembered it twenty years before — the same dingy old silver, the same little heap of gold, the same tray of tarnished jewelry glimmered in the faint light of a solitary gas-burner behind the murky glass. On the door-plate there was still Jacob Nowell’s name. Yet all this might mean nothing. The grave might have closed over the old silversmith, and the interest of trade necessitate the preservation of the familiar name.

The gentleman calling himself Percival went into the shop. How well he remembered the sharp jangling sound of the bell! and how intensely he had hated it and all the surroundings of his father’s sordid life in the days when he was pursuing his headlong career as a fine gentleman, and only coming to Queen Anne’s Court for money! He remembered what an incubus the shop had been upon him; what a pursuing phantom and perpetual image of his degradation in the days of his University life, when he was incessantly haunted by the dread that his father’s social status would be discovered. The atmosphere of the place brought back all the old feelings, and he was young again, a nervous supplicant for money, which was likely to be refused to him.

The sharp peal of the bell produced Mr. Luke Tulliver, who emerged from a little den in a corner at the back of the shop, where he had been engaged copying items into a stock-book by the light of a solitary tallow-candle. The stranger looked like a customer, and Mr. Tulliver received him graciously, turning up the gas over the counter, which had been burning at a diminished and economical rate hitherto.

“Did you wish to look at anything in antique silver, sir?” he asked briskly. “We have some very handsome specimens of the Queen Anne period.”

“No, I don’t want to look at anything. I want to know whether Jacob Nowell is still living?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Nowell is my master. You might, have noticed his name upon the door-plate if you had looked! Do you wish to see him?”

“I do. Tell him that I am an old friend, just come from America.”

Luke Tulliver went into the parlour behind the half-glass door, Norton Percival following upon him closely. He heard the old man’s voice saying,

“I have no friend in America; but you may tell the person to come in; I will see him.”

The voice trembled a little; and the silversmith had raised himself from his chair, and was looking eagerly towards the door as Norton Percival entered, not caring to wait for any more formal invitation. The two men faced each other silently in the dim light from one candle on the mantelpiece, Jacob Nowell looking intently at the bearded face of his visitor.

“You can go, Tulliver,” he said sharply to the shopman. “I wish to be alone with this gentleman.”

Luke Tulliver departed with his usual reluctant air, closing the door as slowly as it was possible for him to close it, and staring at the stranger till the last moment that it was possible for him to stare.

When he was gone the old man took the candle from the mantelpiece, and held it up before the bearded face of the traveller.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said slowly; “at last! It is you, Percival, my only son. I thought you were dead long ago. I had a right to consider you dead.”

“If I had thought my existence could be a matter of interest to you, I should hardly have so long refrained from all communication with you. But your letters led me to suppose you utterly indifferent to my fate.”

“I offered you and your wife a home.”

“Yes, but on conditions that were impossible to me. I had some pride in those days. My education had not fitted me to stand behind a counter and drive hard bargains with dealers of doubtful honesty. Nor could I bring my wife to such a home as this.”

“The time came when you left that poor creature without any home,” said the old man sternly.

“Necessity has no law, my dear father. You may imagine that my life, without a profession and without any reliable resources, has been rather precarious. When I seemed to have acted worst, I have been only the slave of circumstances.”

“Indeed! and have you no pity for the fate of your wife, no interest in the life of your only child?”

“My wife was a poor helpless creature, who contrived to make my life wretched,” Mr. Nowell, alias Percival, answered coolly. “I gave her every sixpence I possessed when I sent her home to England; but luck went dead against me for a long time after that, and I could neither send her money nor go to her. When I heard of her death, I heard in an indirect way that my child had been adopted by some old fool of a half-pay officer; and I was naturally glad of an accident which relieved me of a heavy incubus. An opportunity occurred about the same time of my entering on a tolerably remunerative career as agent for some Belgian ironworks in America; and I had no option but to close with the offer at once or lose the chance altogether. I sailed for New York within a fortnight after poor Lucy’s death, and have lived in America for the last fifteen years. I have contrived to establish a tolerably flourishing trade there on my own account; a trade that only needs capital to become one of the first in New York.”

“Capital!” echoed Jacob Nowell; “I thought there was something wanted. It would have been a foolish fancy to suppose that affection could have had anything to do with your coming to me.”

“My dear father, it is surely possible that affection and interest may sometimes go together. Were I a pauper, I would not venture to present myself before you at all; but as a tolerably prosperous trader, with the ability to propose an alliance that should be to our mutual advantage, I considered I might fairly approach you.”

“I have no money to invest in your trade,” the old man answered sternly. “I am a very poor man, impoverished for life by the wicked extravagance of your youth. If you have come to me with any hope of obtaining money from me, you have wasted time and trouble.”

“Let that subject drop, then,” Percival Nowell said lightly. “I suppose you have some remnant of regard for me, in spite of our old misunderstanding, and that my coming is not quite indifferent to you.”

“No,” the other answered, with a touch of melancholy; “it is not indifferent to me. I have waited for your return these many years. You might have found me more tenderly disposed towards you, had you come earlier; but there are some feelings which seem to wear out as a man grows older — affections that grow paler day by day, like colours fading in the sun. Still, I am glad to see you once more before I die. You are my only son, and you must needs he something nearer to me than the rest of the world, in spite of all that I have suffered at your hands.”

“I could not come back to England sooner than this,” the young man said presently. “I had a hard battle to fight out yonder.”

There had been very little appearance of emotion upon either side so far. Percival Nowell took things as coolly as it was his habit to take everything, while his father carefully concealed whatever deeper feeling might be stirred in the depths of his heart by this unexpected return.

“You do not ask any questions about the fate of your only child,” the old man said, by-and-by.

“My dear father, that is of course a subject of lively interest to me; but I did not suppose that you could be in a position to give me any information upon that point.”

“I do happen to know something about your daughter, but not much.”

Jacob Nowell went on to tell his son all that he had heard from Gilbert Fenton respecting Marian’s marriage. Of his own advertisements, and wasted endeavours to find her, he said nothing.

“And this fellow whom she has jilted is pretty well off, I suppose?” Percival said thoughtfully.

“He is an Australian merchant, and, I should imagine, in prosperous circumstances.”

“Foolish girl! And this Holbrook is no doubt an adventurer, or he would scarcely have married her in such a secret way. Have you any wish that she should be found?”

“Yes, I have a fancy for seeing her before I die. She is my own flesh and blood, like you, and has not injured me as you have. I should like to see her.”

“And if she happened to take your fancy, you would leave her all your money, I suppose?”

“Who told you that I have money to leave?” cried the old man sharply. “Have I not said that I am a poor man, hopelessly impoverished by your extravagance?”

“Bah, my dear father, that is all nonsense. My extravagance is a question of nearly twenty years ago. If I had swamped all you possessed in those days — which I don’t for a moment believe — you have had ample time to make a fresh fortune since then. You would never have lived all those years in Queen Anne’s Court, except for the sake of money-making. Why, the place stinks of money. I know your tricks: buying silver from men who are in too great a hurry to sell it to be particular about the price; lending money at sixty per cent, a sixty which comes to eighty before the transaction is finished. A man does not lead such a life as yours for nothing. You are rolling in money, and you mean to punish me by leaving it all to Marian.”

The silversmith grew pale with anger during this speech of his son’s.

“You are a consummate scoundrel,” he said, “and are at liberty to think what you please. I tell you, once for all, I am as poor as Job. But if I had a million, I would not give you a sixpence of it.”

“So be it,” the other answered gaily. “I have not performed the duties of a parent very punctually hitherto; but I don’t mind taking some trouble to find this girl while I am in England, in order that she may not lose her chances with you.”

“You need give yourself no trouble on that score. Mr. Fenton has promised to find her for me.”

“Indeed! I should like to see this Mr. Fenton.”

“You can see him if you please; but you are scarcely likely to get a warm reception in that quarter. Mr. Fenton knows what you have been to your daughter and to me.”

“I am not going to fling myself into his arms. I only want to hear all he can tell me about Marian.”

“How long do you mean to stay in England?”

“That is entirely dependent upon the result of my visit. I had hoped that if I found you living, which I most earnestly desired might be the case, I should find in you a friend and coadjutor. I am employed in starting a great iron company, which is likely — I may say certain — to result in large gains to all concerned in it; and I fancied I should experience no difficulty in securing your co-operation. There are the prospectuses of the scheme” (he flung a heap of printed papers on the table before his father), “and there is not a line in them that I cannot guarantee on my credit as a man of business. You can look over them at your leisure, or not, as you please. I think you must know that I always had an independent spirit, and would be the last of mankind to degrade myself by any servile attempt to alter your line of conduct towards me.”

“Independent spirit! Yes!” cried the old man in a mocking tone; “a son extorts every sixpence he can from his father and mother — ay, Percy, from his weak loving mother; I know who robbed me to send you money — and then, when he can extort no more, boasts of his independence. But that will do. There is no need that we should quarrel. After twenty years’ severance, we can afford to let bygones be bygones. I have told you that I am glad to see you. If you come to me with disinterested feelings, that is enough. You may take back your prospectuses. I have nothing to embark in Yankee speculations. If your scheme is a good one, you will find plenty of enterprising spirits willing to join you; if it is a bad one, I daresay you will contrive to find dupes. You can come and see me again when you please. And now good-night. I find this kind of talk rather tiring at my age.”

“One word before I leave you,” said Percival. “On reflection, I think it will be as well to say nothing about my presence in England to this Mr. Fenton. I shall be more free to hunt for Marian without his co-operation, even supposing he were inclined to give it. You have told me all that he could tell me, I daresay.”

“I believe I have.”

“Precisely. Therefore no possible good could come of an encounter between him and me, and I shall be glad if you will keep my name dark.”

“As you please, though I can see no reason for secrecy in the matter.”

“It is not a question of secrecy, but only of prudential reserve.”

“It may be as you wish,” answered the old man, carelessly. “Good-night.”

He shook hands with his son, who departed without having broken bread in his father’s house, a little dashed by the coldness of his reception, but not entirely without hope that some profit might arise to him out of this connection in the future.

“The girl must be found,” he said to himself. “I am convinced there has been a great fortune made in that dingy hole. Better that it should go to her than to a stranger. I’m very sorry she’s married; but if this Holbrook is the adventurer I suppose him, the marriage may come to nothing. Yes; I must find her. A father returned from foreign lands is rather a romantic notion — the sort of notion a girl is pretty sure to take kindly to.”

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