Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 19

Gilbert Asks a Question.

Gilbert Fenton called at John Saltram’s chambers within a day or two of his return from Hampshire. He had a strange, almost feverish eagerness to see his old friend again; a sense of having wronged him for that one brief moment of thought in which the possibility of his guilt had flashed across his mind; and with this feeling there was mingled a suspicion that John Saltram had not acted quite fairly to him; that he had kept back knowledge which must have come to him as an intimate ally of Sir David Forster.

He found Mr. Saltram at home in the familiar untidy room, with the old chaos of books and papers about him. He looked tired and ill, and rose to greet his visitor with a weary air, as if nothing in the world possessed much interest for him now-a-days.

“Why, John, you are as pallid as a ghost!” Gilbert exclaimed, grasping the hand extended to him, and thinking of that one moment in which he had fancied he was never to touch that hand again. “You have been at the old work, I suppose — overdoing it, as usual!”

“No, I have been working very little for these last few days. The truth is, I have not been able to work. The divine afflatus wouldn’t come down upon me. There are times when a man’s brain seems to be made of melted butter. Mine has been like that for the last week or so.”

“I thought you were going back to your fishing village near Oxford.”

“No, I was not in spirits for that. I have dined two or three times in Cavendish Square, and have been made much of, and have contrived to forget my troubles for a few hours.”

“You talk of your troubles as if you were very heavily burdened; and yet, for the life of me, I cannot see what you have to complain of,” Gilbert said wonderingly.

“Of course not. That is always the case with one’s friends — even the best of them. It’s only the man who wears the shoe that knows why it pinches and galls him. But what have you been doing since I saw you last?”

“I have been in Hampshire.”

“Indeed!” said John Saltram, looking him full in the face. “And what took you into that quarter of the world?”

“I thought you took more interest in my affairs than to have to ask that question. I went to look for Marian Holbrook — and I found her.”

“Poor old fellow!” Mr. Saltram said gently. “And was there any satisfaction for you in the meeting?”

“Yes, and no. There was a kind of mournful pleasure in seeing the dear face once more.”

“She must have been surprised to see you.”

“She was, no doubt, surprised — unpleasantly, perhaps; but she received me very kindly, and was perfectly frank upon every subject except her husband. She would tell me nothing about him — neither his position in the world, nor his profession, if he has one, as I suppose he has. She owned he was not rich, and that is about all she said of him. Poor girl, I do not think she is happy!”

“What ground have you for such an idea?”

“Her face, which told me a great deal more than her words. Her beauty is very much faded since the summer evening when I first saw her in Lidford Church. She seems to lead a lonely life in the old farm-house to which her husband brought her immediately after their marriage — a life which few women would care to lead. And now, John, I want to know how it is you have kept back the truth from me in this matter; that you have treated me with a reserve which I had no right to expect from a friend.”

“What have I kept from you”

“Your knowledge of this man Holbrook.”

“What makes you suppose that I have any knowledge of him?”

“The fact that he is a friend of Sir David Forster’s. The house in which I found Marian belongs to Sir David, and was lent by him to Mr. Holbrook.”

“I do not know every friend of Forster’s. He is a man who picks up his acquaintance in the highways and byways, and drops them when he is tired of them.”

“Will you tell me, on your honour, that you know nothing of this Mr. Holbrook?”

“Certainly.”

Gilbert Fenton gave a weary sigh, and then seated himself silently opposite Mr. Saltram. He could not afford to doubt this friend of his. The whole fabric of his life must have dropped to pieces if John Saltram had played him false. His single venture as a lover having ended in shipwreck, he seemed to have nothing left him but friendship; and that kind of hero-worship which had made his friend always appear to him something better than he really was, had grown stronger with him since Marian’s desertion.

“O Jack,” he said presently, “I could bear anything in this world better than the notion that you could betray me — that you could break faith with me for the sake of another man.”

“I am not likely to do that. There is no man upon, this earth I care for very much except you. I am not a man prone to friendship. In fact, I am a selfish worthless fellow at the best, Gilbert, and hardly merit your serious consideration. It would be wiser of you to think of me as I really am, and to think very little of me.”

“You did not show yourself remarkably selfish when you nursed me through that fever, at the hazard of your own life.”

“Pshaw! that was nothing. I could not have done less in the position in which we two were. Such sacrifices as those count for very little. It is when a man’s own happiness is in the scale that the black spot shows itself. I tell you, Gilbert, I am not worth your friendship. It would be better for you to go your own way, and have nothing more to do with me.”

Mr. Saltram had said this kind of thing very often in the past, so that the words had no especial significance to Gilbert. He only thought that his friend was in one of those gloomy moods which were common to him at times.

“I could not do without your friendship, Jack,” he said. “Remember how barren the world is to me now. I have nothing left but that.”

“A poor substitute for better things, Gilbert. I am never likely to be much good to you or to myself. By the way, have you seen anything lately of that old man you told me about — Miss Nowell’s grandfather?”

“I saw him the other night. He is very ill — dying, I believe. I have written to Marian to tell her that if she does not come very quickly to see him, there is a chance of her not finding him alive.”

“And she will come of course.”

“I suppose so. She talked of waiting for her husband’s consent; but she will scarcely do that when she knows her grandfather’s precarious state. I shall go to Queen Anne’s Court after I leave you, to ascertain if there has been any letter from her to announce her coming. She is a complete stranger in London, and may be embarrassed if she arrives at the station alone. But I should imagine her husband would meet her there supposing him to be in town.”

Mr. Fenton stayed with his friend about an hour after this; but John Saltram was not in a communicative mood to-night, and the talk lagged wearily. It was almost a relief to Gilbert when they had bidden each other good-night, and he was out in the noisy streets once more, making his way towards Queen Anne’s Court.

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