Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

Face to Face.

Gilbert Fenton left the homely little post-office and turned into the lane leading to Golder’s-green — a way which may have been pleasant enough in summer, but had no especial charm at this time. The level expanse of bare ploughed fields on each side of the narrow road had a dreary look; the hedges were low and thin; a tall elm, with all its lower limbs mercilessly shorn, uplifted its topmost branches to the dull gray sky, here and there, like some transformed prophetess raising her gaunt arms in appeal or malediction; an occasional five-barred gate marked the entrance to some by-road to the farm; on one side of the way a deep black-looking ditch lay under the scanty shelter of the low hedge, and hinted at possible water rats to the traveller from cities who might happen to entertain a fastidious aversion to such small deer.

The mile seemed a very long one to Gilbert Fenton. Since his knowledge of Sir David Forster’s ownership of the house to which he was going, his impatience was redoubled. He had a feverish eagerness to come at the bottom of this mystery. That Sir David had lied to him, he had very little doubt. Whoever this Mr. Holbrook was, it was more likely that he should have escaped the notice of Lidford people as a guest at Heatherly than under any other circumstances. At Heatherly it was such a common thing for strangers to come and go, that even the rustic gossips had left off taking much interest in the movements of the Baronet or his guests. There was one thought that flashed suddenly into Gilbert’s mind during that gloomy walk under the lowering gray sky.

If this man Holbrook were indeed a friend of Sir David Forster’s, how did it happen that John Saltram had failed to recognize his name? The intimacy between Forster and Saltram was of such old standing, that it seemed scarcely likely that any acquaintance of Sir David’s could be completely unknown to the other. Were they all united in treachery against him? Had his chosen friend — the man he loved so well — been able to enlighten him, and had he coldly withheld his knowledge? No, he told himself, that was not possible. Sir David Forster might be the falsest, most unprincipled of mankind; but he could not believe John Saltram capable of baseness, or even coldness, towards him.

He was at the end of his journey by this time. The Grange stood in front of him — a great rambling building, with many gables, gray lichen-grown walls, and quaint old diamond-paned casements in the upper stories. Below, the windows were larger, and had an Elizabethan look, with patches of stained glass here and there. The house stood back from the road, with a spacious old-fashioned garden before it; a garden with flower-beds of a Dutch design, sheltered from adverse winds by dense hedges of yew and holly; a pleasant old garden enough, one could fancy, in summer weather. The flower-beds were for the most part empty now, and the only flowers to be seen were pale faded-looking chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daises. The garden was surrounded by a high wall, and Gilbert contemplated it first through the rusty scroll-work of a tall iron gate, surmounted by the arms and monogram of the original owner. On one side of the house there was a vast pile of building, comprising stables and coach-houses, barns and granaries, arranged in a quadrangle. The gate leading into this quadrangle was open, and Gilbert saw the cattle standing knee-deep in a straw-yard.

He rang a bell, which had a hoarse rusty sound, as if it had not been rung very often of late; and after he had waited for some minutes, and rung a second time, a countrified-looking woman emerged from the house, and came slowly along the wide moss-grown gravel-walk towards him. She stared at him with the broad open stare of rusticity, and did not make any attempt to open the gate, but stood with a great key in her hand, waiting for Gilbert to speak.

“This is Sir David Forster’s house, I believe,” he said.

“Yes, sir, it be; but Sir David doesn’t live here.”

“I know that. You have some lodgers here — a lady and gentleman called Holbrook.”

He plunged at once at this assertion, as the easiest way of arriving at the truth. He had a conviction that this solitary farm-house was the place to which his unknown rival had brought Marian.

“Yes, sir,” the woman answered, still staring at him in her Blow stupid way. “Mrs. Holbrook is here, but Mr. Holbrook is away up in London. Did you wish to see the lady?”

Gilbert’s heart gave a great throb. She was here, close to him! In the next minute he would be face to face with her, with that one woman whom he loved, and must continue to love, until the end of his life.

“Yes,” he said eagerly, “I wish to see her. You can take me to her at once. I am an old friend. There is no occasion to carry in my name.”

He had scarcely thought of seeing Marian until this moment. It was her husband he had come to seek; it was with him that his reckoning was to be made; and any meeting between Marian and himself was more likely to prove a hindrance to this reckoning than otherwise. But the temptation to seize the chance of seeing her again was too much for him. Whatever hazard there might be to his scheme of vengeance in such an encounter slipped out of his mind before the thought of looking once more at that idolised face, of hearing the loved voice once again. The woman hesitated for a few moments, telling Gilbert that Mrs. Holbrook never had visitors, and she did not know whether she would like to see him; but on his administering half-a-crown through the scroll-work of the gate, she put the key in the lock and admitted him. He followed her along the moss-grown path to a wide wooden porch, over which the ivy hung like a voluminous curtain, and through a half-glass door into a low roomy hall, with massive dark oak-beams across the ceiling, and a broad staircase of ecclesiastical aspect leading to a gallery above. The house had evidently been a place of considerable grandeur and importance in days gone by; but everything in it bore traces of neglect and decay. The hall was dark and cold, the wide fire-place empty, the iron dogs red with rust. Some sacks of grain were stored in one corner, a rough carpenter’s bench stood under one of the mullioned windows, and some garden-seeds were spread out to dry in another.

The woman opened a low door at the end of this hall, and ushered Gilbert into a sitting-room with three windows looking out upon a Dutch bowling-green, a quadrangle of smooth turf shut in by tall hedges of holly. The room was empty, and the visitor had ample leisure to examine it while the woman went to seek Mrs. Holbrook.

It was a large room with a low ceiling, and a capacious old-fashioned fire-place, where a rather scanty fire was burning in a dull slow way. The furniture was old and worm-eaten — furniture that had once been handsome — and was of a ponderous fashion that defied time. There was a massive oaken cabinet on one side of the room, a walnut-wood bureau with brass handles on the other. A comfortable looking sofa, of an antiquated design, with chintz-covered cushions, had been wheeled near the fire-place; and close beside it there was a small table with an open desk upon it, and some papers scattered loosely about. There were a few autumn flowers in a homely vase upon the centre table, and a work-basket with some slippers, in Berlin wool work, unfinished.

Gilbert Fenton contemplated all these things with supreme tenderness. It was here that Marian had lived for so many months — alone most likely for the greater part of the time. He had a fixed idea that the man who had stolen his treasure was some dissipated worldling, altogether unworthy so sacred a trust. The room had a look of loneliness to him. He could fancy the long solitary hours in this remote seclusion.

He had to wait for some little time, walking slowly up and down; very eager for the interview that was to come, yet with a consciousness that his fate would seem only so much the darker to him afterwards, when he had to turn his back upon this place, with perhaps no hope of ever seeing Marian again. At last there came a light footfall; the door was opened, and his lost love came into the room.

Gilbert Fenton was standing near the fire-place, with his back to the light. For the first few moments it was evident that Marian did not recognize him. She came towards him slowly, with a wondering look in her face, and then stopped suddenly with a faint cry of surprise.

“You here!” she exclaimed. “O, how did you find this place? Why did you come?”

She clasped her hands, looking at him in a half-piteous way that went straight to his heart. What he had told Mrs. Branston was quite true. It was not in him to be angry with this girl. Whatever bitterness there might have been in his mind until this moment fled away at sight of her. His heart had no room for any feeling but tenderness and pity.

“Did you imagine that I should rest until I had seen you once more, Marian? Did you suppose I should submit to lose you without hearing from your own lips why I have been so unfortunate?”

“I did not think you would waste time or thought upon any one so wicked as I have been towards you,” she answered slowly, standing before him with a pale sad face and downcast eyes. “I fancied that whatever love you had ever felt for me — and I know how well you did love me — would perish in a moment when you found how basely I had acted. I hoped that it would be so.”

“No, Marian; love like mine does not perish so easily as that. O, my love, my love, why did you forsake me so cruelly? What had I done to merit your desertion of me?”

“What had you done! You had only been too good to me. I know that there is no excuse for my sin. I have prayed that you and I might never meet again. What can I say? From first to last I have been wrong. From first to last I have acted weakly and wickedly. I was flattered and gratified by your affection for me; and when I found that my dear uncle had set his heart upon our marriage, I yielded against my own better reason, which warned me that I did not love you as you deserved to be loved. Then for a long time I was blind to the truth. I did not examine my own heart. I was quite able to estimate all your noble qualities, and I fancied that I should be very happy as your wife. But you must remember that at the last, when you were leaving England, I asked you to release me, and told you that it would be happier for both of us to be free.”

“Why was that, Marian?”

“Because at that last moment I began to doubt my own heart.”

“Had there been any other influence at work, Marian? Had you seen your husband, Mr. Holbrook, at that time?” She blushed crimson, and the slender hands nervously clasped and unclasped themselves before she spoke.

“I cannot answer that question,” she said at last.

“That is quite as good as saying ‘yes.’ You had seen this man; he had come between us already. O, Marian, Marian, why were you not more candid?”

“Because I was weak and foolish. I could not bear to make you unhappy. O, believe me, Gilbert, I had no thought of falsehood at that time. I fully meant to be true to my promise, come what might.”

“I am quite willing to believe that,” he answered gently. “I believe that you acted from first to last under the influence of a stronger will than your own. You can see that I feel no resentment against you. I come to you in sorrow, not in anger. But I want to understand how this thing came to pass. Why was it that you never wrote to me to tell me the complete change in your feelings?”

“It was thought better not,” Marian faltered, after a pause.

“By you?”

“No; by my husband.”

“And you suffered him to dictate to you in that matter. Against your own sense of right?”

“I loved him,” she answered simply. “I have never refused to obey him in anything. I will own that I thought it would be better to write and tell you the truth; but my husband thought otherwise. He wished our marriage to remain a secret from you, and from all the world for some time to come. He had his own reasons for that — reasons I was bound to respect. I cannot think how you came to discover this out-of-the-world place.”

“I have taken some trouble to find you, Marian, and it is a hard thing to find you the wife of another; but the bitterness of it must be borne. I do not want to reproach you when I tell you that my life has been broken utterly by this blow. I want you to believe in my truth and honour, to trust me now as you might have trusted me when you first discovered that you could not love me. Since I am not to be your husband, let me be the next best thing — your friend. The day may come in which, you will have need of an honest man’s friendship.”

She shook her head sadly.

“You are very good,” she said; “but there is no possibility at friendship between you and me. If you will only say that you can forgive me for the great wrong I have done you, there will be a heavy burden lifted from my heart; and whatever you may think now, I cannot doubt that in the future you will find some one far better worthy of your love than ever I could have been.”

“That is the stereotyped form of consolation, Marian, a man is always referred to — that shadowy and perfect creature who is to appear in the future, and heal all his wounds. There will be no such after-love for me. I staked all when I played the great game; and have lost all. But why cannot I be your friend, Marian?”

“Can you forgive my husband for his part in the wrong that has been done you? Can you be his friend, knowing what he has done?”

“No!” Gilbert answered fiercely between his set teeth. “I can forgive your weakness, but not the man’s treachery.”

“Then you can never be mine,” Marian said firmly.

“Remember, I am not talking of a common friendship, a friendship of daily association. I offer myself to you as refuge in the hour of trouble, a counsellor in perplexity, a brother always waiting in the background of your life to protect or serve you. Of course, it is quite possible you may never have need of protection or service — God knows, I wish you all happiness — but there are not many lives quite free from trouble, and the day may come in which you will want a friend.”

“If it ever does, I will remember your goodness.”

Gilbert looked scrutinisingly at Marian Holbrook as she stood before him with the cold gray light of the sunless day full upon her face. He wanted to read the story of her life in that beautiful face, if it were possible. He wanted to know whether she was happy with the man who had stolen her from him.

She was very pale, but that might be fairly attributed to the agitation caused by his presence. Gilbert fancied that there was a careworn look in her face, and that her beauty had faded a little since those peaceful days at Lidford, when these two had wasted the summer hours in idle talk under the walnut trees in the Captain’s garden. She was dressed very plainly in black. There was no coquettish knot of ribbon at her throat; no girlish trinkets dangled at her waist — all those little graces and embellishments of costume which seem natural to a woman whose life is happy, were wanting in her toilet to-day; and slight as these indications were, Gilbert did not overlook them.

Did he really wish her to be happy — happy with the rival he so fiercely hated? He had said as much; and in saying so, he had believed that he was speaking the truth. But he was only human; and it is just possible that, tenderly as he still loved this girl, he may have been hardly capable of taking pleasure in the thought of her happiness.

“I want you to tell me about your husband, Marian,” he said after a pause; “who and what he is.”

“Why should I do that?” she asked, looking at him with a steady, almost defiant, expression. “You have said that you will never forgive him. What interest can you possibly feel in his affairs?”

“I am interested in him upon your account.”

“I cannot tell you anything about him. I do not know how you could have discovered even his name.”

“I learned that at Wygrove, where I first heard of your marriage.”

“Did you go to Wygrove, then?”

“Yes; I have told you that I spared no pains to find you. Nor shall I spare any pains to discover the history of the man who has wronged me. It would be wiser for you to be frank with me, Marian. Rely upon it that I shall sooner or later learn the secret underlying this treacherous business.”

“You profess to be my friend, and yet are avowedly say husband’s enemy. Why cannot you be truly generous, Gilbert, and pardon him? Believe me, he was not willingly treacherous; it was his fate to do you this wrong.”

“A poor excuse for a man, Marian. No, my charity will not stretch far enough for that. But I do not come to you quite on a selfish errand, to speak solely of my own wrongs. I have something to tell you of real importance to yourself.”

“What is that?”

Gilbert Fenton described the result of his first advertisement, and his acquaintance with Jacob Nowell.

“It is my impression that this old man is rich, Marian; and there is little doubt that he would leave all he possesses to you, if you went to him at once.”

“I do not care very much about money for my own sake,” she answered with rather a mournful smile; “but we are not rich, and I should be glad of anything that would improve my husband’s position. I should like to see my grandfather: I stand so much alone in the world that it would be very sweet to me to find a near relation.”

“Your husband must surely have seen Mr. Nowell’s advertisement,” Gilbert said after a pause. “It was odd that he did not tell you about it — that he did not wish you to reply to it.”

“The advertisement may have escaped him, or he may have looked upon it as a trap to discover our retreat,” Marian answered frankly.

“I cannot understand the motive for such secrecy.”

“There is no occasion that you should understand it. Every life has its own mystery — its peculiar perplexities. When I married my husband, I was prepared to share all his troubles. I have been obedient to him in everything.”

“And has your marriage brought you happiness, Marian?”

“I love my husband,” she answered with a plaintive reproachful look, as if there had been a kind of cruelty in his straight question. “I do not suppose that there is such a thing as perfect happiness in the world.”

The answer was enough for Gilbert Fenton. It told him that this girl’s life was not all sunshine.

He had not the heart to push his inquiries farther. He felt that he had no right to remain any longer, when in all probability his presence was a torture to the girl who had injured him.

“I will not prolong my visit, Marian,” he said regretfully.

“It was altogether a foolish one, perhaps; but I wanted so much to see you once more, to hear some explanation of your conduct from your own lips.”

“My conduct can admit of neither explanation nor justification,” she replied humbly. “I know how wickedly I have acted. Believe me, Gilbert, I am quite conscious of my unworthiness, and how little right I have to expect your forgiveness.”

“It is my weakness, rather than my merit, not to be able to cherish any angry feeling against you, Marian. Mine has been a slavish kind of love. I suppose that sort of thing never is successful. Women have an instinctive contempt for men who love them with such blind unreasonable idolatry.”

“I do not know how that may be; but I know that I have always respected and esteemed you,” she answered in her gentle pleading way.

“I am grateful to you even for so much as that. And now I suppose I must say good-bye — rather a hard word to say under the circumstances. Heaven knows when you and I may meet again.”

“Won’t you stop and take some luncheon? I dine early when my husband is away; it saves trouble to the people of the house. The bailiff’s daughter always dines with me when I am alone; but I don’t suppose you will mind sitting down with her. She is a good girl, and very fond of me.”

“I would sit down to dinner with a chimney-sweep, if he were a favourite of yours, Marian — or Mrs. Holbrook; I suppose I must call you that now.”

After this they talked of Captain Sedgewick for a little, and the tears came to Marian’s eyes as she spoke of that generous and faithful protector. While they were talking thus, the door was opened, and a bright-faced countrified-looking girl appeared carrying a tray. She was dressed in a simple pretty fashion, a little above her station as a bailiff’s daughter, and had altogether rather a superior look, in spite of her rusticity, Gilbert thought.

She was quite at her ease in his presence, laying the cloth briskly and cleverly, and chattering all the time.

“I am sure I’m very glad any visitor should come to see Mrs. Holbrook,” she said; “for she has had a sad lonely time of it ever since she has been here, poor dear. There are not many young married women would put up with such a life.”

“Nelly,” Marian exclaimed reproachfully, “you know that I have had nothing to put up with — that I have been quite happy here.”

“Ah, it’s all very well to say that, Mrs. Holbrook; but I know better. I know how many lonely days you’ve spent, so downhearted that you could scarcely speak or look up from your book, and that only an excuse for fretting. — If you’re a friend of Mr. Holbrook’s, you might tell him as much, sir; that he’s killing his pretty young wife by inches, by leaving her so often alone in this dreary place. Goodness knows, it isn’t that I want to get rid of her. I like her so much that I sha’n’t know what to do with myself when she’s gone. But I love her too well not to speak the truth when I see a chance of its getting to the right ears.”

“I am no friend of Mr. Holbrook’s,” Gilbert answered; “but I think you are a good generous-hearted girl.”

“You are a very foolish girl,” Marian exclaimed; “and I am extremely angry with you for talking such utter nonsense about me. I may have been a little out of spirits sometimes in my husband’s absence; but that is all. I shall begin to think that you really do want to get rid of me, Nell, say what you will.”

“That’s a pretty thing, when you know that I love you as dearly as if you were my sister; to say nothing of father, who makes a profit by your being here, and would be fine and angry with me for interfering. No, Mrs. Holbrook; it’s your own happiness I’m thinking of, and nothing else. And I do say that it’s a shame for a pretty young woman like you to be shut up in a lonely old farm-house while your husband is away, enjoying himself goodness knows where; and when he is here, I can’t see that he’s very good company, considering that he spends the best part of his time —”

The girl stopped abruptly, warned by a look from Marian. Gilbert saw this look, and wondered what revelation of Mr. Holbrook’s habits the bailiff’s daughter had been upon the point of making; he was so eager to learn something of this man, and had been so completely baffled in all his endeavours hitherto.

“I will not have my affairs talked about in this foolish way, Ellen Carley,” Marian said resolutely.

And then they all three sat down to the dinner-table. The dishes were brought in by the woman who had admitted Gilbert. The dinner was excellent after a simple fashion, and very nicely served; but for Mr. Fenton the barn-door fowl and home-cured ham might as well have been the grass which the philosopher believed the French people might learn to eat. He was conscious of nothing but the one fact that he was in Marian’s society for perhaps the last time in his life. He wondered at himself not a little for the weakness which made it so sweet to him to be with her.

The moment came at last in which he must needs take his leave, having no possible excuse for remaining any longer.

“Good-bye, Marian,” he said. “I suppose we are never likely to meet again.”

“One never knows what may happen; but I think it is far better we should not meet, for many reasons.”

“What am I to tell your grandfather when I see him?”

“That I will come to him as soon as I can get my husband’s permission to do so.”

“I should not think there would be any difficulty about that, when he knows that this relationship is likely to bring you fortune.”

“I daresay not.”

“And if you come to London to see Mr. Nowell, there will be some chance of our meeting again.”

“What good can come of that?”

“Not much to me, I daresay. It would be a desperate, melancholy kind of pleasure. Anything is better than the idea of losing sight of you for ever — of leaving this room to-day never to look upon your face again.”

He wrote Jacob Nowell’s address upon one of his own cards, and gave it to Marian; and then prepared to take his departure. He had an idea that the bailiff’s daughter would conduct him to the gate, and that he would be able to make some inquiries about Mr. Holbrook on his way. It is possible that Marian guessed his intentions in this respect; for she offered to go with him to the gate herself; and he could not with any decency refuse to be so honoured.

They went through the hall together, where all was as still and lifeless as it had been when he arrived, and walked slowly side by side along the broad garden-path in utter silence. At the gate Gilbert stopped suddenly, and gave Marian his hand.

“My darling,” he said, “I forgive you with all my heart; and I will pray for your happiness.”

“Will you try to forgive my husband also?” she asked in her plaintive beseeching way.

“I do not know what I am capable of in that direction. I promise that, for your sake, I will not attempt to do him any injury.”

“God bless you for that promise! I have so dreaded the chance of a meeting between you two. It has often been the thought of that which has made me unhappy when that faithful girl, Nelly, has noticed my low spirits. You have removed a great weight from my mind.”

“And you will trust me better after that promise?”

“Yes; I will trust you as you deserve to be trusted, with all my heart.”

“And now, good-bye. It is a hard word for me to say; but I must not detain you here in the cold.”

He bent his head, and pressed his lips upon the slender little hand which held the key of the gate. In the next moment he was outside that tall iron barrier; and it seemed to him as if he were leaving Marian in a prison. The garden, with its poor pale scentless autumn flowers, had a dreary look under the dull gray sky. He thought of the big empty house, with its faded traces of vanished splendour, and of Marian’s lonely life in it, with unspeakable pain. How different from the sunny home which he had dreamed of in the days gone by — the happy domestic life which he had fancied they two might lead!

“And she loves this man well enough to endure the dullest existence for his sake,” he said to himself as he turned his back at last upon the tall iron gate, having lingered there for some minutes after Marian had re-entered the house. “She could forget all our plans for the future at his bidding.”

He thought of this with a jealous pang, and with all his old anger against his unknown rival. Moved by an impulse of love and pity for Marian, he had promised that this man should suffer no injury at his hands; and, having so pledged himself, he must needs keep his word. But there were certain savage feelings and primitive instincts in his breast not easily to be vanquished; and he felt that now he had bound himself to keep the peace in relation to Mr. Holbrook, it would be well that those two should not meet.

“But I will have some explanation from Sir David Forster as to that lie he told me,” he said to himself; “and I will question John Saltram about this man Holbrook.”

John Saltram — John Holbrook. An idea flashed into his brain that seemed to set it on fire. What if John Saltram and John Holbrook were one! What if the bosom friend whom he had introduced to his betrothed had played the traitor, and stolen her from him! In the next moment he put the supposition away from him, indignant with himself for being capable of thinking such a thing, even for an instant. Of all the men upon earth who could have done him this wrong, John Saltram was the last he could have believed guilty. Yet the thought recurred to him many times after this with a foolish tiresome persistence; and he found himself going over the circumstances of his friend’s acquaintance with Marian, his hasty departure from Lidford, his return there later during Sir David Forster’s illness. Let him consider these facts as closely as he might, there was no especial element of suspicion in them. There might have been a hundred reasons for that hurried journey to London — nay, the very fact itself argued against the supposition that Mr. Saltram had fallen in love with his friend’s plighted wife.

And now, the purpose of his life being so far achieved, Gilbert Fenton rode back to Winchester next day, restored his horse to its proprietor, and went on to London by an evening train.

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