Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

On the Track.

Gilbert Fenton saw no more of his friend John Saltram after that Sunday evening which they had spent together in Cavendish-square. He called upon Mrs. Branston before the week was ended, and was so fortunate as to find that lady alone; Mrs. Pallinson having gone on a shopping expedition in her kinswoman’s dashing brougham.

The pretty little widow received Gilbert very graciously; but there was a slight shade of melancholy in her manner, a pensiveness which softened and refined her, Gilbert thought. Nor was it long before she allowed him to discover the cause of her sadness. After a little conventional talk upon indifferent subjects, she began to speak of John Saltram.

“Have you seen much of your friend Mr. Saltram since Sunday?” she asked, with that vain endeavour to speak carelessly with which a woman generally betrays her real feeling.

“I have not seen him at all since Sunday. He told me he was going back to Oxford — or the neighbourhood of Oxford, I believe — almost immediately; and I have not troubled myself to hunt him up at his chambers.”

“Gone back already!” Mrs. Branston exclaimed, with a disappointed petulant look that was half-childish, half-womanly. “I cannot imagine what charm he finds in a dull village on the banks of the river. He has confessed that the place is the dreariest and most obscure in the world, and that he has neither shooting nor any other kind of amusement. There must be some mysterious attraction, Mr. Fenton. I think your friend is a good deal changed of late. Haven’t you found him so?”

“No, Mrs. Branston, I cannot say that I have discovered any marked alteration in him since my return from Australia. John Saltram was always wayward and fitful. He may have been a little more so lately, perhaps, but that is all.”

“You have a very high opinion of him, I suppose?”

“He is very dear to me. We were something more than friends in the ordinary acceptation of the word. Do you remember the story of those two noble young Venetians who inscribed upon their shield Fraires, non amici? Saltram and I have been brothers rather than friends.”

“And you think him a good man?” Adela asked anxiously.

“Most decidedly; I have reason to think so. I believe him to be a noble-hearted and honourable man; a little neglectful or disdainful of conventionalities, wearing his faith in God and his more sacred feelings anywhere than upon his sleeve; but a man who cannot fail to come right in the long-run.”

“I am so glad to hear you say that. I have known Mr. Saltram some time, as you may have heard and like him very much. But my cousin Mrs. Pallinson has quite an aversion to him, and speaks against him with such a positive air at times, that I have been almost inclined to think she must be right. I am very inexperienced in the ways of the world, and am naturally disposed to lean a little upon the opinions of others.”

“But don’t you think there may be a reason for Mrs. Pallinson’s dislike of my friend?”

Adela Branston blushed at this question, and then laughed a little.

“I think I know what you mean,” she said. “Yes, it is just possible that Mrs. Pallinson may be jealously disposed towards any acquaintance of mine, on account of that paragon of perfection, her son Theobald. I have not been so blind as not to see her views in that quarter. But be assured, Mr. Fenton, that whatever may happen to me, I shall never become Mrs. Theobald Pallinson.”

“I hope not. I am quite ready to acknowledge Mr. Pallinson’s merits and accomplishments, but I do not think him worthy of you.”

“It is rather awful, isn’t it, for me to speak of marriage at all within a few months of my husband’s death? But when a woman has money, people will not allow her to forget that she is a widow for ever so short a time. But it is quite a question if I shall ever marry again. I have very little doubt that real happiness is most likely to be found in a wise avoidance of all the perils and perplexities of that foolish passion which we read of in novels, if one could only be wise; don’t you think so, Mr. Fenton?”

“My own experience inclines me to agree with you, Mrs. Branston,” Gilbert answered, smiling at the little woman’s naïveté.

“Your own experience has been unfortunate, then? I wish I were worthy of your confidence. Mr. Saltram told me some time ago that you were engaged to a very charming young lady.”

“The young lady in question has jilted me.”

“Indeed! And you are very angry with her, of course?”

“I loved her too well to be angry with her. I reserve my indignation for the scoundrel who stole her from me.”

“It is very generous of you to make excuses for the lady,” Mrs. Branston said; and would fain have talked longer of this subject, but Gilbert concluded his visit at this juncture, not caring to discuss his troubles with the sympathetic widow.

He left the great gloomy gorgeous house in Cavendish square more than ever convinced of Adela Branston’s affection for his friend, more than ever puzzled by John Saltram’s indifference to so advantageous an alliance.

Within a few days of this visit Gilbert Fenton left London. He had devoted himself unflinchingly to his business since his return to England, and had so planned and organized his affairs as to be able now to absent himself for some little time from the City. He was going upon what most men would have called a fool’s errand — his quest of Marian’s husband; but he was going with a steady purpose in his breast — a determination never to abandon the search till it should result in success. He might have to suspend it from time to time, should he determine to continue his commercial career; but the purpose would be nevertheless the ruling influence of his life.

He had but one clue for his guidance in setting out upon this voyage of discovery. Miss Long had told him that the newly-married couple were to go to some farm-house in Hampshire which had been lent to Mr. Holbrook by a friend. It was in Hampshire, therefore, that Gilbert resolved to make his first inquiries. He told himself that success was merely a question of time and patience. The business of tracing these people, who were not to be found by any public inquiry, would be slow and wearisome no doubt. He was prepared for that. He was prepared for a thousand failures and disappointments before he alighted on the one place in which Mr. Holbrook’s name must needs be known, the town or village nearest to the farm-house that had been lent to him. And even if, after unheard-of trouble and perseverance on his part, he should find the place he wanted, it was quite possible that Marian and her husband would have gone elsewhere, and his quest would have to begin afresh. But he fancied that he could hardly fail to obtain some information as to their plan of life, if he could find the place where they had stayed after their marriage.

His own scheme of action was simple enough. He had only to travel from place to place, making careful inquiries at post-offices and in all likely quarters at every stage of his journey. He went straight to Winchester, having a fancy for the quiet old city and the fair pastoral scenery surrounding it, and thinking that Mr. Holbrook’s borrowed retreat might possibly be in this neighbourhood. The business proved even slower and more tedious than he had supposed; there were so many farms round about Winchester, so many places which seemed likely enough, and to which he went, only to find that no person of the name of Holbrook had ever been heard of by the inhabitants.

He made his head-quarters in the cathedral city for nearly a week, and explored the country round, in a radius of thirty miles, without the faintest success. It was fine autumn weather, calm and clear, the foliage still upon the trees, in all its glory of gold and brown, with patches of green lingering here and there in sheltered places. The country was very beautiful, and Gilbert Fenton’s work would have been pleasant enough if the elements of peace had been in his breast. But they were not. Bitter regrets for all he had lost, uneasy fears and wild imaginings about the fate of her whom he still loved with a fond useless passion — these and other gloomy thoughts haunted him day by flay, clouding the calm loveliness of the scenes on which he looked, until all outer things seemed to take their colour from his own mind. He had loved Marian Nowell as it is not given to many men to love; and with the loss of her, it seemed to him as if the very springs of his life were broken. All the machinery of his existence was loosened and out of gear, and he could scarcely have borne the dreary burden of his days, had it not been for that one feverish hope of finding the man who had wronged him.

The week ended without bringing him in the smallest degree nearer the chance of success. Happily for himself, he had not expected to succeed in a week. On leaving Winchester, he started on a kind of vagabond tour through the county, on a horse which he hired in the cathedral city, and which carried him from twenty to thirty miles a day. This mode of travelling enabled him to explore obscure villages and out-of-the-way places that lay off the line of railway. Everywhere he made the same inquiries, everywhere with the same result. Another week came to an end. He had made his voyage of discovery through more than half of the county, as his pocket-map told him, and was still no nearer success than when he left London.

He spent his Sunday at a comfortable inn in a quiet little town, where there was a curious old church, and a fine peal of bells that seemed to him to be ringing all day long. It was a dull rainy day. He went to church in the morning, and in the afternoon stood at the coffee-room window watching the townspeople going by to their devotions in an absent unseeing way, and thinking of his own troubles; pausing, just a little, now and then, from that egotistical brooding to wonder how these people endured the dull monotonous round of their lives, and what crosses and disappointments they had to suffer in their small obscure way.

The inn was very empty, and the landlord waited upon Mr. Fenton in person at his dinner. Gilbert had the coffee-room all to himself, and it looked comfortable enough when the curtains were drawn, the lamps lighted, and the small dinner-table wheeled in front of a blazing fire.

“I have been thinking over what you were asking me last night, sir,” the host of the White Swan began, while Gilbert was eating his fish; “and though I can’t say that I ever heard the name of Holbrook, I fancy I may have seen the lady and gentleman you are looking for.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Gilbert eagerly, pushing away his plate, and turning full on the landlord.

“I hope you won’t let me spoil your dinner, sir; I know that sole’s fresh. I’m a pretty good judge of those things, and choose every bit of fish that’s cooked in this house. But as I was saying, sir, with regard to this lady and gentleman, I think you said that the people you are looking for were strangers to this part of the country, and were occupying a farm-house that had been lent to them.”

“Precisely.”

“Well, sir, I remember some time in the early part of the year, I think it must have been about March ——”

“Yes, the people I am looking for would have arrived in March.”

“Indeed, sir! That makes it seem likely. I remember a lady and gentleman coming here from the railway station — we’ve got a station close by our town, as you know, sir, I daresay. They wanted a fly to take them and their luggage on somewhere — I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the place — but it was a ten-mile drive, and it was a farm —that I could swear to — Something Farm. If it had been a place I’d known, I think I should have remembered the name.”

“Can I see the man who drove them?” Gilbert asked quickly.

“The young man that drove them, sir, has left me, and has left these parts a month come next Tuesday. Where he has gone is more than I can tell you. He was very good with horses; but he turned out badly, cheated me up hill and down dale, as you may say — though what hills and dales have got to do with it is more than I can tell — and I was obliged to get rid of him.”

“That’s provoking. But if the people I want are anywhere within ten miles of this place, I don’t suppose I should be long finding them. Yet the mere fact of two strangers coming here, and going on to some place called a farm, seems very slight ground to go upon. The month certainly corresponds with the time at which Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook came to Hampshire. Did you take any particular notice of them?”

“I took particular notice of the lady. She was as pretty a woman as ever I set eyes upon — quite a girl. I noticed that the gentleman was very careful and tender with her when he put her into the carriage, wrapping her up, and so on. He looked a good deal older than her, and I didn’t much like his looks altogether.”

“Could you describe him?”

“Well — no, sir. The time was short, and he was wrapped up a good deal; the collar of his overcoat turned up, and a scarf round his neck. He had dark eyes, I remember, and rather a stern look in them.”

This was rather too vague a description to make any impression upon Gilbert. It was something certainly to know that his rival had dark eyes, if indeed this man of whom the landlord spoke really were his rival. He had never been able to make any mental picture of the stranger who had come between him and his betrothed. He had been inclined to fancy that the man must needs be much handsomer than himself, possessed of every outward attribute calculated to subjugate the mind of an inexperienced girl like Marian; but the parish-clerk at Wygrove and Miss Long had both spoken in a disparaging tone of Mr. Holbrook’s personal appearance; and, remembering this, he was fain to believe that Marian had been won by some charm more subtle than that of a handsome face.

He went on eating his dinner in silence for some little time, meditating upon what the landlord had told him. Then, as the man cleared the table, lingering over his work, as if eager to impart any stray scraps of information he might possess, Gilbert spoke to him again.

“I should have fancied that, as a settled inhabitant of the place, you would be likely to know every farm and farm-house within ten miles — or within twenty miles,” he said.

“Well, sir, I daresay I do know the neighbourhood pretty well, in a general way. But I think, if I’d known the name of the place this lady and gentleman were going to, it would have struck me more than it did, and I should have remembered it. I was uncommonly busy through that afternoon, for it was market-day, and there were a mort of people going in and out. I never did interfere much with the fly business; it was only by taking the gentleman out some soda-and-brandy that I came to take the notice I did of the lady’s looks and his care of her. I know it was a ten-mile drive, and that I told the gentleman the fare, so as there might be no bother between him and William Tyler, my man, at the end; and he agreed to it in a liberal off-hand kind of way, like a man who doesn’t care much for money. As to farms within ten miles of here, there are a dozen at least, one way and another — some small, and some large.”

“Do you know of any place in the ownership of a gentleman who would be likely to lend his house to a friend?”

“I can’t say I do, sir. They’re tenant-farmers about here mostly, and rather a roughish lot, as you may say. There’s a place over beyond Crosber, ten miles off and more; I don’t know the name of it, or the person it belongs to; but I’ve noticed it many a time as I’ve driven by; a curious old-fashioned house, standing back off one of the lanes out of Crosber, with a large garden before it. A queer lonesome place altogether. I should take it to be two or three hundred years old; and I shouldn’t think the house had had money spent upon it within the memory of man. It’s a dilapidated tumbledown old gazabo of a place, and yet there’s a kind of prettiness about it in summer-time, when the garden is full of flowers. There’s a river runs through some of the land about half a mile from the house.”

“What kind of a place is Crosber?”

“A bit of a village on the road from here to Portsmouth. The house I’m telling you about is a mile from Crosber at the least, away from the main road. There’s two or three lanes or by-roads about there, and it lies in one of them that turns sharp off by the Blue Boar, which is about the only inn where you can bait a horse thereabouts.”

“I’ll ride over there to-morrow morning, and have a look at this queer old house. You might give me the names of any other farms you know about this neighbourhood, and their occupants.”

This the landlord was very ready to do. He ran over the names of from ten to fifteen places, which Gilbert jotted down upon a leaf of his pocket-book, afterwards planning his route upon the map of the county which he carried for his guidance. He set put early the next morning under a low gray sky, with clouds in the distance that threatened rain. The road from the little market-town to Crosber possessed no especial beauty. The country was flat and uninteresting about here, and needed the glory of its summer verdure to brighten and embellish it. But Mr. Fenton did not give much thought to the scenes through which he went at this time; the world around and about him was all of one colour — the sunless gray which pervaded his own life. To-day the low dull sky and the threatening clouds far away upon the level horizon harmonised well with his own thoughts — with the utter hopelessness of his mind. Hopelessness! — yes, that was the word. He had hazarded all upon this one chance, and its failure was the shipwreck of his life. The ruin was complete. He could not build up a new scheme of happiness. In the full maturity of his manhood, his fate had come to him. He was not the kind of man who can survive the ruin of his plans, and begin afresh with other hopes and still fairer dreams. It was his nature to be constant. In all his life he had chosen for himself only one friend — in all his life he had loved but one woman.

He came to the little village, with its low sloping-roofed cottages, whose upper stories abutted upon the road and overshadowed the casements below; and where here and there a few pennyworths of gingerbread, that seemed mouldy with the mould of ages, a glass pickle-bottle of bull’s-eyes or sugar-sticks, and half a dozen penny bottles of ink, indicated the commercial tendencies of Crosber. A little farther on, he came to a rickety-looking corner-house, with a steep thatched roof overgrown by stonecrop and other parasites, which was evidently the shop of the village, inasmuch as one side of the window exhibited a show of homely drapery, while the other side was devoted to groceries, and a shelf above laden with great sprawling loaves of bread. This establishment was also the post-office, and here Gilbert resolved to make his customary inquiries, when he had put up his horse.

Almost immediately opposite this general emporium, the sign of the Blue Boar swung proudly across the street in front of a low rather dilapidated-looking hostelry, with a wide frontage, and an archway leading into a spacious desolate yard, where one gloomy cock of Spanish descent was crowing hoarsely on the broken roof of a shed, surrounded by four or five shabby-looking hens, all in the most wobegone stage of moulting, and appearing as if eggs were utterly remote from their intentions. This Blue Boar was popularly supposed to have been a most distinguished and prosperous place in the coaching days, when twenty coaches passed daily through the village of Crosber; and was even now much affected as a place of resort by the villagers, to the sore vexation of the rector and such good people as believed in the perfectibility of the human race and the ultimate suppression of public-houses.

Here Mr. Fenton dismounted, and surrendered his horse to the keeping of an unkempt bareheaded youth who emerged from one of the dreary-looking buildings in the yard, announced himself as the hostler, and led off the steed in triumph to a wilderness of a stable, where the landlord’s pony and a fine colony of rats were luxuriating in the space designed for some twelve or fifteen horses.

Having done this, Gilbert crossed the road to the post-office, where he found the proprietor, a deaf old man, weighing half-pounds of sugar in the background, while a brisk sharp-looking girl stood behind the counter sorting a little packet of letters.

It was to the damsel, as the more intelligent of these two, that Gilbert addressed himself, beginning of course with the usual question. Did she know any one, a stranger, sojourning in that neighbourhood called Holbrook?

The girl shook her head without a moment’s hesitation. No, she knew no one of that name.

“And I suppose all the letters for people in this neighbourhood pass through your hands?”

“Yes, sir, all of them; I couldn’t have failed to notice if there had been any one of that name.”

Gilbert gave a little weary sigh. The information given him by the landlord of the White Swan had seemed to bring him so very near the object of his search, and here he was thrown back all at once upon the wide field of conjecture, not a whit nearer any certain knowledge. It was true that Crosber was only one among several places within ten miles of the market-town, and the strangers who had been driven from the White Swan in March last might have gone to any one of those other localities. His inquiries were not finished yet, however.

“There is an old house about a mile from here,” he said to the girl; “a house belonging to a farm, in the lane yonder that turns off by the Blue Boar. Have you any notion to whom it belongs, or who lives there?”

“An old house in that lane across the way?” the girl said, reflecting. “That’s Golder’s lane, and leads to Golder’s-green. There’s not many houses there; it’s rather a lonesome kind of place. Do you mean a big old-fashioned house standing far back in a garden?”

“Yes; that must be the place I want to know about.”

“It must be the Grange, surely. It was a gentleman’s house once; but there’s only a bailiff lives there now. The farm belongs to some gentleman down in Midlandshire, a baronet; I can’t call to mind his name at this moment, though I have heard it often enough. Mr. Carley’s daughter — Carley is the name of the bailiff at the Grange — comes here for all they want.”

Gilbert gave a little start at the name of Midlandshire. Lidford was in Midlandshire. Was it not likely to be a Midlandshire man who had lent Marian’s husband his house?

“Do you know if these people at the Grange have had any one staying with them lately — any lodgers?” he asked the girl.

“Yes; they have lodgers pretty well every summer. There were some people this year, a lady and gentleman; but they never seemed to have any letters, and I can’t tell you their names.”

“Are they living there still?”

“I can’t tell you that. I used to see them at church now and then in the summer-time; but I haven’t seen them lately. There’s a church at Golder’s-green almost as near, and they may have been there.”

“Will you tell me what they were like?” Gilbert asked eagerly.

His heart was beating loud and fast, making a painful tumult in his breast. He felt assured that he was on the track of the people whom the innkeeper had described to him; the people who were, in all probability, Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook.

“The lady is very pretty and very young — quite a girl. The gentleman older, dark, and not handsome.”

“Yes. Has the lady gray eyes, and dark-brown hair, and a very bright expressive face?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Pray try to remember the name of the gentleman to whom the Grange belongs. It is of great importance to me to know that.”

“I’ll ask my father, sir,” the girl answered good-naturedly; “he’s pretty sure to know.”

She went across the shop to the old man who was weighing sugar, and bawled her question into his ear. He scratched his head in a meditative way for some moments.

“I’ve heard the name times and often,” he said, “though I never set eyes upon the gentleman. William Carley has been bailiff at the Grange these twenty years, and I don’t believe as the owner has ever come nigh the place in all that time. Let me see — it’s a common name enough, though the gentleman is a baronight. Forster — that’s it — Sir something Forster.”

“Sir David?” cried Gilbert.

“You’ve hit it, sir. Sir David Forster — that’s the gentleman.”

Sir David Forster! He had little doubt after this that the strangers at the Grange had been Marian and her husband. Treachery, blackest treachery somewhere. He had questioned Sir David, and had received his positive assurance that this man Holbrook was unknown to him; and now, against that there was the fact that the baronet was the owner of a place in Hampshire, to be taken in conjunction with that other fact that a place in Hampshire had been lent to Mr. Holbrook by a friend. At the very first he had been inclined to believe that Marian’s lover must needs be one of the worthless bachelor crew with which the baronet was accustomed to surround himself. He had only abandoned that notion after his interview with Sir David Forster; and now it seemed that the baronet had deliberately lied to him. It was, of course, just possible that he was on a false scent after all, and that it was to some other part of the country Mr. Holbrook had brought his bride; but such a coincidence seemed, at the least, highly improbable. There was no occasion for him to remain in doubt very long, however. At the Grange he must needs be able to obtain more definite information.

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