Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Marian’s Story.

The days passed, and there was no more dulness or emptiness for Gilbert Fenton in his life at Lidford. He went every day to the white-walled cottage on the green. It was easy enough to find some fresh excuse for each visit — a book or a piece of music which he had recommended to Miss Nowell, and had procured from London for her, or something of an equally frivolous character. The Captain was always cordial, always pleased to see him. His visits were generally made in the evening; and it was his delight to linger over the pretty little round table by the bow-window, drinking tea dispensed by Marian. The bright home-like room, the lovely face turned so trustingly to his; these were the things which made that fair vision of the future that haunted him so often now. He fancied himself the master of some pretty villa in the suburbs — at Kingston or Twickenham, perhaps — with a garden sloping down to the water’s edge, a lawn on which he and his wife and some chosen friend might sit after dinner in the long summer evenings, sipping their claret or their tea, as the case might be, and watching the last rosy glow of the sunset fade and die upon the river. He fancied himself with this girl for his wife, and the delight of going back from the dull dryasdust labours of his city life to a home in which she would bid him welcome. He behaved with a due amount of caution, and did not give the young lady any reason to suspect the state of the case yet awhile. Marian was perfectly devoid of coquetry, and had no idea that this gentleman’s constant presence at the cottage could have any reference to herself. He liked her uncle; what more natural than that he should like that gallant soldier, whom Marian adored as the first of mankind? And it was out of his liking for the Captain that he came so often.

The Captain, however, had not been slow to discover the real state of affairs, and the discovery had given him unqualified satisfaction. For a long time his quiet contentment in this pleasant, simple, easy-going life had been clouded by anxious thoughts about Marian’s future. His death — should that event happen before she married — must needs leave her utterly destitute. The little property from which his income was derived was not within his power to bequeath. It would pass, upon his death, to one of his nephews. The furniture of the cottage might realize a few hundreds, which would most likely be, for the greater part, absorbed by the debts of the year and the expenses of his funeral. Altogether, the outlook was a dreary one, and the Captain had suffered many a sharp pang in brooding over it. Lovely and attractive as Marian was, the chances of an advantageous marriage were not many for her in such a place as Lidford. It was natural, therefore, that Captain Sedgewick should welcome the advent of such a man as Gilbert Fenton — a man of good position and ample means; a thoroughly unaffected and agreeable fellow into the bargain, and quite handsome enough to win any woman’s heart, the Captain thought. He watched the two young people together, after the notion of this thing came into his mind, and about the sentiments of one of them he felt no shadow of doubt. He was not quite so clear about the feelings of the other. There was a perfect frankness and ease about Marian that seemed scarcely compatible with the growth of that tender passion which generally reveals itself by a certain amount of reserve, and is more eloquent in silence than in speech. Marian seemed always pleased to see Gilbert, always interested in his society; but she did not seem more than this, and the Captain was sorely perplexed.

There was a dinner-party at Lidford House during the second week of Gilbert’s acquaintance with these new friends, and Captain Sedgewick and his adopted niece were invited.

“They are pleasant people to have at a dinner-party,” Mrs. Lister said, when she discussed the invitation with her husband and brother; “so I suppose they may as well come — though I don’t want to encourage your folly, Gilbert.”

“My folly, as you are kind enough to call it, is not dependent on your encouragement, Belle.”

“Then it is really a serious case, I suppose,” said Martin.

“I really admire Miss Nowell — more than I ever admired any one before, if that is what you call a serious case, Martin.”

“Rather like it, I think,” the other answered with a laugh.

The dinner was a very quiet business — a couple of steady-going country gentlemen, with their wives and daughters, a son or two more or less dashing and sportsmanlike in style, the rector and his wife, Captain Sedgewick and Miss Nowell. Gilbert had to take one of the portly matrons in to dinner, and found himself placed at some distance from Miss Nowell during the repast; but he was able to make up for this afterwards, when he slipped out of the dining-room some time before the rest of the gentlemen, and found Marian seated at the piano, playing a dreamy reverie of Goria’s, while the other ladies were gathered in a little knot, discussing the last village scandal.

He went over to the piano and stood by her while she played, looking fondly down at the graceful head, and the white hands gliding gently over the keys. He did not disturb her by much talk: it was quite enough happiness for him to stand there watching her as she played. Later, when a couple of whist-tables had been established, and the brilliantly-lighted room had grown hot, these two sat together at one of the open windows, looking out at the moonlit lawn; one of them supremely happy, and yet with a kind of undefined sense that this supreme happiness was a dangerous thing — a thing that it would be wise to pluck out of his heart, and have done with.

“My holiday is very nearly over, Miss Nowell,” Gilbert Fenton said by and by. “I shall have to go back to London and the old commercial life, the letter-writing and interview-giving, and all that kind of thing.”

“Your sister said you were very fond of the counting-house, Mr. Fenton,” she answered lightly. “I daresay, if you would only confess the truth, you are heartily tired of the country, and will be delighted to resume your business life.”

“I should never be tired of Lidford.”

“Indeed! and yet it is generally considered such a dull place.”

“It has not been so to me. It will always be a shining spot in my memory, different and distinct from all other places.”

She looked up at him, wondering a little at his earnest tone, and their eyes met — his full of tenderness, hers only shy and surprised. It was not then that the words he had to speak could be spoken, and he let the conversation drift into a general discussion of the merits of town or country life. But he was determined that the words should be spoken very soon.

He went to the cottage next day, between three and four upon a drowsy summer afternoon, and was so fortunate as to find Marian sitting under one of the walnut-trees at the end of the garden reading a novel, with her faithful Skye terrier in attendance. He seated himself on a low garden-chair by her side, and took the book gently from her hand.

“I have come to spoil your afternoon’s amusement,” he said. “I have not many days more to spend in Lidford, you know, and I want to make the most of a short time.”

“The book is not particularly interesting,” Miss Nowell answered, laughing. “I’ll go and tell my uncle you are here. He is taking an afternoon nap; but I know he’ll be pleased to see you.”

“Don’t tell him just yet,” said Mr. Fenton, detaining her. “I have something to say to you this afternoon — something that it is wiser to say at once, perhaps, though I have been willing enough to put off the hour of saying it, as a man may well be when all his future life depends upon the issue of a few words. I think you must know what I mean, Miss Nowell. Marian, I think you can guess what is coming. I told you last night how sweet Lidford had been to me.”

“Yes,” she said, with a bright inquiring look in her eyes. “But what have I to do with that?”

“Everything. It is you who have made the little country village my paradise. O Marian, tell me that it has not been a fool’s paradise! My darling, I love you with all my heart and soul, with an honest man’s first and only love. Promise that you will be my wife.”

He took the hand that lay loosely on her lap, and pressed it in both his own. She withdrew it gently, and sat looking at him with a face that had grown suddenly pale.

“You do not know what you are asking,” she said; “you cannot know. Captain Sedgewick is not my uncle. He does not even know who my parents were. I am the most obscure creature in the world.”

“Not one degree less dear to me because of that, Marian; only the dearer. Tell me, my darling, is there any hope for me?”

“I never thought ——” she faltered; “I had no idea ——”

“That to know you was to love you. My life and soul, I have loved you from the hour I first saw you in Lidford church. I was a doomed man from that moment, Marian. O my dearest, trust me, and it shall go hard if I do not make your future life a happy one. Granted that I am ten years — more than ten years — your senior, that is a difference on the right side. I have fought the battle of life, and have conquered, and am strong enough to protect and shelter the woman I love. Come, Marian, I am waiting for a word of hope.”

“And do you really love me?” she asked wonderingly. “It seems so strange after so short a time.”

“I loved you from that first evening in the church, my dear.”

“I am very grateful to you,” she said slowly, “and I am proud — I have reason to be proud — of your preference. But I have known you such a short time. I am afraid to give you any promise.”

“Afraid of me, or of yourself, Marian?”

“Of myself.”

“In what way?”

“I am only a foolish frivolous girl. You offer me so much more than I deserve in offering me your love like this. I scarcely know if I have a heart to give to any one. I know that I have never loved anybody except my one friend and protector my dear adopted uncle.”

“But you do not say that you cannot love me, Marian. Perhaps I have spoken too soon, after all. It seems to me that I have known you for a lifetime; but that is only a lover’s fancy. I seem almost a stranger to you, perhaps?”

“Almost,” she answered, looking at him with clear truthful eyes.

“That is rather hard upon me, my dear. But I can wait. You do not know how patient I can be.”

He began to talk of indifferent subjects after this, a little depressed and disheartened by the course the interview had taken. He felt that he had been too precipitate. What was there in a fortnight’s intimacy to justify such a step, except to himself, with whom time had been measured by a different standard since he had known Marian Nowell? He was angry with his own eagerness, which had brought upon him this semi-defeat.

Happily Miss Nowell had not told him that his case was hopeless, had not forbidden him to approach the subject again; nor had she exhibited any involuntary sign of aversion to him. Surprise had appeared the chief sentiment caused by his revelation. Surprise was natural to such girlish inexperience; and after surprise had passed away, more tender feelings might arise, a latent tenderness unsuspected hitherto.

“I think a woman can scarcely help returning a man’s love, if he is only as thoroughly in earnest as I am,” Gilbert Fenton said to himself, as he sat under the walnut-trees trying to talk pleasantly, and to ignore the serious conversation which had preceded that careless talk.

He saw the Captain alone next day, and told him what had happened. George Sedgewick listened to him with profound attention and a grave anxious face.

“She didn’t reject you?” he said, when Gilbert had finished his story.

“Not in plain words. But there was not much to indicate hope. And yet I cling to the fancy that she will come to love me in the end. To think otherwise would be utter misery to me. I cannot tell you how dearly I love her, and how weak I am about this business. It seems contemptible for a man to talk about a broken heart; but I shall carry an empty one to my grave unless I win Marian Nowell for my wife.”

“You shall win her!” cried the Captain energetically. “You are a noble fellow, sir, and will make her an excellent husband. She will not be so foolish as to reject such a disinterested affection. Besides,” he added, hesitating a little, “I have a very shrewd notion that all this apparent indifference is only shyness on my little girl’s part, and that she loves you.”

“You believe that!” cried Gilbert eagerly.

“It is only guesswork on my part, of course. I am an old bachelor, you see, and have had very little experience as to the signs and tokens of the tender passion. But I will sound my little girl by and by. She will be more ready to confess the truth to her old uncle than she would to you, perhaps. I think you have been a trifle hasty about this affair. There is so much in time and custom.”

“It is only a cold kind of love that grows out of custom,” Gilbert answered gloomily. “But I daresay you are right, and that it would have been better for me to have waited.”

“You may hope everything, if you can-only be patient,” said the Captain. “I tell you frankly, that nothing would make me happier than to see my dear child married to a good man. I have had many dreary thoughts about her future of late. I think you know that I have nothing to leave her.”

“I have never thought of that. If she were destined to inherit all the wealth of the Rothschilds, she could be no dearer to me than she is.”

“Ah, what a noble thing true love is! And do you know that she is not really my niece — only a poor waif that I adopted fourteen years ago?”

“I have heard as much from her own lips. There is nothing, except some unworthiness in herself, that could make any change in my estimation of her.”

“Unworthiness in herself! You need never fear that. But I must tell you Marian’s story before this business goes any farther. Will you come and smoke your cigar with me to-night? She is going to drink tea at a neighbour’s, and we shall be alone. They are all fond of her, poor child.”

“I shall be very happy to come. And in the meantime, you will try and ascertain the real state of her feelings without distressing her in any way; and you will tell me the truth with all frankness, even if it is to be a deathblow to all my hopes?”

“Even if it should be that. But I do not fear such a melancholy result. I think Marian is sensible enough to know the value of an honest man’s heart.”

Gilbert quitted the Captain in a more hopeful spirit than that in which he had gone to the cottage that day. It was only reasonable that this man should be the best judge of his niece’s feelings.

Left alone, George Sedgewick paced the room in a meditative mood, with his hands thrust deep into his trousers-pockets, and his gray head bent thoughtfully.

“She must like him,” he muttered to himself. “Why should not she like him? — good-looking, generous, clever, prosperous, well-connected, and over head and ears in love with her. Such a marriage is the very thing I have been praying for. And without such a marriage, what would be her fate when I am gone? A drudge and dependent in some middle-class family perhaps — tyrannised over and tormented by a brood of vulgar children.”

Marian came in at the open window while he was still pacing to and fro with a disturbed countenance.

“My dear uncle, what is the matter?” she asked, going up to him and laying a caressing hand upon his shoulder. “I know you never walk about like that unless you are worried by something.”

“I am not worried to-day, my love; only a little perplexed,” answered the Captain, detaining the caressing little hand, and planting himself face to face with his niece, in the full sunlight of the broad bow-window. “Marian, I thought you and I had no secrets from each other?”

“Secrets, uncle George!”

“Yes, my dear. Haven’t you something pleasant to tell your old uncle — something that a girl generally likes telling? You had a visitor yesterday afternoon while I was asleep.”

“Mr. Fenton.”

“Mr. Fenton. He has been here with me just now; and I know that he asked you to be his wife.”

“He did, uncle George.”

“And you didn’t refuse him, Marian?”

“Not positively, uncle George. He took me so much by surprise, you see; and I really don’t know how to refuse any one; but I think I ought to have made him understand more clearly that I meant no.”

“But why, my dear?”

“Because I am sure I don’t care about him as much as I ought to care. I like him very well, you know, and think him clever and agreeable, and all that kind of thing.”

“That will soon grow into a warmer feeling, Marian; at least I trust in God that it will do so.”

“Why, dear uncle?”

“Because I have set my heart upon this marriage. O Marian, my love, I have never ventured to speak to you about your future — the days that must come when I am dead and gone; and you can never know how many anxious hours I have spent thinking of it. Such a marriage as this would secure you happiness and prosperity in the years to come.”

She clung about him fondly, telling him she cared little what might become of her life when he should be lost to her. That grief must needs be the crowning sorrow of her existence; and it would matter nothing to her what might come afterwards.

“But my dear love, ‘afterwards’ will make the greater part of your life. We must consider these things seriously, Marian. A good man’s affection is not to be thrown away rashly. You have known Mr. Fenton a very short time; and perhaps it is only natural you should think of him with comparative indifference.”

“I did not say I was indifferent to him, uncle George; only that I do not love him as he seems to love me. It would be a kind of sin to accept so much and to give so little.”

“The love will come, Marian; I am sure that it will come.”

She shook her head playfully.

“What a darling match-making uncle it is!” she said, and then kissed him and ran away.

She thought of Gilbert Fenton a good deal during the rest of that day; thought that it was a pleasant thing to be loved so truly, and hoped that she might always have him for her friend. When she went out to drink tea in the evening his image went with her; and she found herself making involuntary comparisons between a specimen of provincial youth whom she encountered at her friend’s house and Mr. Fenton, very much to the advantage of the Australian merchant.

While Marian Nowell was away at this little social gathering, Captain Sedgewick and Gilbert Fenton sat under the walnut-trees smoking their cigars, with a bottle of claret on a little iron table before them.

“When I came back from India fourteen years ago on the sick-list,” began the Captain, “I went down to Brighton, a place I had been fond of in my young days, to recruit. It was in the early spring, quite out of the fashionable season, and the town was very empty. My lodgings were in a dull street at the extreme east, leading away from the sea, but within sight and sound of it. The solitude and quiet of the place suited me; and I used to walk up and down the cliff in the dusk of evening enjoying the perfect loneliness of the scene. The house I lived in was a comfortable one, kept by an elderly widow who was a pattern of neatness and propriety. There were no children; for some time no other lodgers; and the place was as quiet as the grave. All this suited me very well. I wanted rest, and I was getting it.

“I had been at Brighton about a month, when the drawing-room floor over my head was taken by a lady, and her little girl of about five years old. I used to hear the child’s feet pattering about the room; but she was not a noisy child by any means; and when I did happen to hear her voice, it had a very pleasant sound to me. The lady was an invalid, and was a good deal of trouble, my landlady took occasion to tell me, as she had no maid of her own. Her name was Nowell.

“Soon after this I encountered her on the cliff one afternoon with her little girl. The child and I had met once or twice before in the hall; and her recognition of me led to a little friendly talk between me and the mother. She was a fragile delicate-looking woman, who had once been very pretty, but whose beauty had for the most part been worn away, either by ill-health or trouble. She was very young, five-and-twenty at the utmost. She told me that the little girl was her only child, and that her husband was away from England, but that she expected his return before long.

“After this we met almost every afternoon; and I began to look out for these meetings, and our quiet talk upon the solitary cliff, as the pleasantest part of my day. There was a winning grace about this Mrs. Nowell’s manner that I had never seen in any other woman; and I grew to be more interested in her than I cared to confess to myself. It matters little now; and I may freely own how weak I was in those days.

“I could see that she was very ill, and I did not need the ominous hints of the landlady, who had contrived to question Mrs. Nowell’s doctor, to inspire me with the dread that she might never recover. I thought of her a great deal, and watched the fading light in her eyes, and listened to the weakening tones of her voice, with a sense of trouble that seemed utterly disproportionate to the occasion. I will not say that I loved her; neither the fact that she was another man’s wife, nor the fact that she was soon to die, was ever absent from my mind when I thought of her. I will only say that she was more to me than any woman had ever been before, or has ever been since. It was the one sentimental episode of my life, and a very brief one.

“The weeks went by, and her husband did not come. I think the trouble and anxiety caused by his delay did a good deal towards hastening the inevitable end; but she bore her grief very quietly, and never uttered a complaint of him in my hearing. She paid her way regularly enough for a considerable time, and then all at once broke down, and confessed to the landlady that she had not a shilling more in the world. The woman was a hard creature, and told her that if that was the case, she must find some other lodgings, and immediately. I heard this, not from Mrs. Nowell, but from the landlady, who seemed to consider her conduct thoroughly justified by the highest code of morals. She was a lone unprotected woman, and how was she to pay her rent and taxes if her best floor was occupied by a non-paying tenant?

“I was by no means a rich man; but I could not endure to think of that helpless dying creature thrust out into the streets; and I told my landlady that I would be answerable for Mrs. Nowell’s rent, and for the daily expenses incurred on her behalf. Mr. Nowell would in all probability appear in good time to relieve me from the responsibility, but in the mean while that poor soul upstairs was not to be distressed. I begged that she might know nothing of this undertaking on my part.

“It was not long after this when our daily meetings on the cliff came to an end. Mild as the weather was by this time, Mrs. Nowell’s doctor had forbidden her going out any longer. I knew that she had no maid to send out with the child, so I sent the servant up to ask her if she would trust the little one for a daily walk with me. This she was very pleased to do, and Marian became my dear little companion every afternoon. She had taken to me, as the phrase goes, from the very first. She was the gentlest, most engaging child I had ever met with — a little grave for her years, and tenderly thoughtful of others.

“One evening Mrs. Nowell sent for me. I went up to the drawing-room immediately, and found her sitting in an easy-chair propped up by pillows, and very much changed for the worse since I had seen her last. She told me that she had discovered the secret of my goodness to her, as she called it, from the landlady, and that she had sent for me to thank me.

“‘I can give you nothing but thanks and blessings,’ she said, ‘for I am the most helpless creature in this world. I suppose my husband will come here before I die, and will relieve you from the risk you have taken for me; but he can never repay you for your goodness.’

“I told her to give herself no trouble on my account; but I could not help saying, that I thought her husband had behaved shamefully in not coming to England to her long ere this.

“‘He knows that you are ill, I suppose?’ I said.

“‘O yes, he knows that. I was ill when he sent me home. We had been travelling about the Continent almost ever since our marriage. He married me against his father’s will, and lost all chance of a great fortune by doing so. I did not know how much he sacrificed at the time, or I should never have consented to his losing so much for my sake. I think the knowledge of what he had lost came between us very soon. I know that his love for me has grown weaker as the years went by, and that I have been little better than a burden to him. I could never tell you how lonely my life has been in those great foreign cities, where there seems such perpetual gaiety and pleasure. I think I must have died of the solitude and dulness — the long dreary summer evenings, the dismal winter days — if it had not been for my darling child. She has been all the world to me. And, O God!’ she cried, with a look of anguish that went to my heart, ‘what will become of her when I am dead, and she is left to the care of a selfish dissipated man?’

“‘You need never fear that she will be without one friend while I live,’ I said. ‘Little Marian is very dear to me, and I shall make it my business to watch over her career as well as I can.’

“The poor soul clasped my hand, and pressed her feverish lips to it in a transport of gratitude. What a brute a man must have been who could neglect such a woman!

“After this I went up to her room every evening, and read to her a little, and cheered her as well as I could; but I believe her heart was broken. The end came very suddenly at last. I had intended to question her about her husband’s family; but the subject was a difficult one to approach, and I had put it off from day to day, hoping that she might rally a little, and would be in a better condition to discuss business matters.

“She never did rally. I was with her when she died, and her last act was to draw her child towards her with her feeble arms and lay my hand upon the little one’s head, looking up at me with sorrowful pleading eyes. She was quite speechless then, but I knew what the look meant, and answered it.

“‘To the end of my life, my dear,’ I said, ‘I shall love and cherish her — to the end of my life.’

“After this the child fell asleep in my arms as I sat by the bedside sharing the long melancholy watch with the landlady, who behaved very well at this sorrowful time. We sat in the quiet room all night, the little one wrapped in a shawl and nestled upon my breast. In the early summer morning Lucy Nowell died, very peacefully; and I carried Marian down to the sofa in the parlour, and laid her there still asleep. She cried piteously for her mother when she awoke, and I had to tell her that which it is so hard to tell a child.

“I wrote to Mr. Nowell at an address in Brussels which I found at the top of his last letter to his wife. No answer came. I wrote again, after a little while, with the same result; and, in the mean time, the child had grown fonder of me and dearer to me every day. I had hired a nursemaid for her, and had taken an upper room for her nursery; but she spent the greater part of her life with me, and I began to fancy that Providence intended I should keep her with me for the rest of her days. She told me, in her innocent childish way, that papa had never loved her as her mamma did. He had been always out of doors till very, very late at night. She had crept from her little bed sometimes when it was morning, quite light, and had found mamma in the sitting-room, with no fire, and the candles all burnt out, waiting for papa to come home.

“I put an advertisement, addressed to Mr. Percival Nowell, in the Times and in Galignani, for I felt that the child’s future might depend upon her father’s acknowledgment of her in the present; but no reply came to these advertisements, and I settled in my own mind that this Nowell was a scoundrel, who had deliberately deserted his wife and child.

“The possessions of the poor creature who was gone were of no great value. There were some rather handsome clothes and a small collection of jewelry — some of it modern, the rest curious and old-fashioned. These latter articles I kept religiously, believing them to be family relics. The clothes and the modern trinkets I caused to be sold, and the small sum realised for them barely paid the expense of the funeral and grave. The arrears of rent and all other arrears fell upon me. I paid them, and then left Brighton with the child and nurse. I was born not twenty miles from this place, and I had a fancy for ending my days in my native county; so I came down to this part of the world, and looked about me a little, living in farm-house lodgings here and there, until I found this cottage to let one day, and decided upon settling at Lidford. And now you know the whole story of Marian’s adoption, Mr. Fenton. How happy we have been together, or what she has been to me since that time, I could never tell you.”

“The story does you credit, sir; and I honour you for your goodness,” said Gilbert Fenton.

“Goodness, pshaw!” cried the Captain, impetuously; “it has been a mere matter of self-indulgence on my part. The child made herself necessary to me from the very first. I was a solitary man, a confirmed bachelor, with every prospect of becoming a hard, selfish old fogey. Marian Nowell has been the sunshine of my life!”

“You never made any farther discoveries about Mr. Nowell?”

“Never. I have sometimes thought, that I ought to have made some stronger efforts to place myself in communication with him. I have thought this, especially when brooding upon the uncertainties of my darling’s future. From the little Mrs. Nowell told me about her marriage, I had reason to believe her husband’s father must have been a rich man. He might have softened towards his grandchild, in spite of his disapproval of the marriage. I sometimes think I ought to have sought out the grandfather. But, you see, it would have been uncommonly difficult to set about this, in my complete ignorance as to who or what he was.”

“Very difficult. And if you had found him, the chances are that he would have set his face against the child. Marian Nowell will have no need to supplicate for protection from an indifferent father or a hard-hearted grandfather, if she will be my wife.

“Heaven grant that she may love you as you deserve to be loved by her!” Captain Sedgewick answered heartily.

He thought it would be the best thing that could happen to his darling to become this young man’s wife, and he had a notion that a simple, inexperienced girl could scarcely help responding to the hopes of such a lover. To his mind Gilbert Fenton seemed eminently adapted to win a woman’s heart. He forgot the fatality that belongs to these things, and that a man may have every good gift, and yet just miss the magic power to touch one woman’s heart.

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