Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 20

Drifting Away.

Gilbert Fenton found Jacob Nowell worse; so much worse, that he had been obliged to take to his bed, and was lying in a dull shabby room upstairs, faintly lighted by one tallow candle on the mantelpiece. Marian was there when Gilbert went in. She had arrived a couple of hours before, and had taken her place at once by the sick-bed. Her bonnet and shawl were thrown carelessly upon a dilapidated couch by the window. Gilbert fancied she looked like a ministering angel as she sat by the bed, her soft brown hair falling loosely round the lovely face, her countenance almost divine in its expression of tenderness and pity.

“You came to town alone, Marian?” he asked in a low voice.

The old man was in a doze at this moment, lying with his pinched withered face turned towards his granddaughter, his feeble hand in hers.

“Yes, I came alone. My husband had not come back, and I would not delay any longer after receiving your letter. I am very glad I came. My poor grandfather seemed so pleased to see me. He was wandering a little when I first came in, but brightened wonderfully afterwards, and quite understood who I was.”

The old man awoke presently. He was in a semi-delirious state, but seemed to know his granddaughter, and clung to her, calling her by name with senile fondness. His mind wandered back to the past, and he talked to his son as if he had been in the room, reproaching him for his extravagance, his college debts, which had been the ruin of his careful hard-working father. At another moment he fancied that his wife was still alive, and spoke to her, telling her that their grandchild had been christened after her, and that she was to love the girl. And then the delirium left him for a time, his mind grew clearer, and he talked quite rationally in his low feeble way.

“Is that Mr. Fenton?” he asked; “the room’s so dark, I can’t see very well. She has come to me, you see. She’s a good girl. Her eyes are like my wife’s. Yes, she’s a good girl. It seems a hard thing that I should have lived all these years without knowing her; lived alone, with no one about me but those that were on the watch for my money, and eager to cheat me at every turn. My life might have been happier if I’d had a grandchild to keep me company, and I might have left this place and lived like a gentleman for her sake. But that’s all past and gone. You’ll be rich when I’m dead, Marian; yes, what most people would count rich. You won’t squander the money, will you, my dear, as your father would, if it were left to him?”

“No, grandfather. But tell me about my father. Is he still living?” the girl asked eagerly.

“Never mind him, child,” answered Jacob Nowell. “He hasn’t troubled himself about you, and you can’t do better than keep clear of him. No good ever came of anything he did yet, and no good ever will come. Don’t you have anything to do with him, Marian. He’ll try to get all your money away from you, if you give him a chance — depend upon that.”

“He is living, then? O, my dear grandfather, do tell me something more about him. Remember that whatever his errors may have been, he is my father — the only relation I have in the world except yourself.”

“His whole life has been one long error,” answered Jacob Nowell. “I tell you, child, the less you know of him the better.”

He was not to be moved from this, and would say no more about his son, in spite of Marian’s earnest pleading. The doctor came in presently, for the second time that evening, and forbade his patient’s talking any more. He told Gilbert, as he left the house, that the old man’s life was now only a question of so many days or so many hours.

The old woman who did all the work of Jacob Nowell’s establishment — a dilapidated-looking widow, whom nobody in that quarter ever remembered in any other condition than that of widowhood — had prepared a small bedroom at the back of the house for Marian; a room in which Percival had slept in his early boyhood, and where the daughter found faint traces of her father’s life. Mr. Macready as Othello, in a spangled tunic, with vest of actual satin let into the picture, after the pre-Raphaelite or realistic tendency commonly found in such juvenile works of art, hung over the narrow painted mantelpiece. The fond mother had had this masterpiece framed and glazed in the days when her son was still a little lad, unspoiled by University life and those splendid aspirations which afterwards made his home hateful to him. There were some tattered books upon a shelf by the bed — school prizes, an old Virgil, a “Robinson Crusoe” shorn of its binding. The boy’s name was written in them in a scrawling schoolboy hand; not once, but many times, after the fashion of juvenile bibliopoles, with primitive rhymes in Latin and English setting forth his proprietorship in the volumes. Caricatures were scribbled upon the fly-leaves and margins of the books, the date whereof looked very old to Marian, long before her own birth.

It was not till very late that she consented to leave the old man’s side and go to the room which had been got ready for her, to lie down for an hour. She would not hear of any longer rest though the humble widow was quite pathetic in her entreaties that the dear young lady would try to get a good night’s sleep, and would leave the care of Mr. Nowell to her, who knew his ways, poor dear gentleman, and would watch over him as carefully as if he had been her own poor husband, who kept his bed for a twelvemonth before he died, and had to be waited on hand and foot. Marian told this woman that she did not want rest. She had come to town on purpose to be with her grandfather, and would stay with him as long as he needed her care.

She did, however, consent to go to her room for a little in the early November dawn, when Jacob Nowell had fallen into a profound sleep; but when she did lie down, sleep would not come to her. She could not help listening to every sound in the opposite room — the falling of a cinder, the stealthy footfall of the watcher moving cautiously about now and then; listening still more intently when all was silent, expecting every moment to hear herself summoned suddenly. The sick-room and the dark shadow of coming death brought back the thought of that bitter time when her uncle was lying unconscious and speechless in the pretty room at Lidford, with the wintry light shining coldly upon his stony face; while she sat by his pillow, watching him in hopeless silent agony, waiting for that dread change which they had told her was the only change that could come to him on earth. The scene re-acted itself in her mind to-night, with all the old anguish. She shut it out at last with a great effort, and began to think of what her grandfather had said to her.

She was to be rich. She who had been a dependant upon others all her life was to know the security and liberty that must needs go along with wealth. She was glad of this, much more for her husband’s sake than her own. She knew that the cares which had clouded their life of late, which had made him seem to love her less than he had loved her at first, had their chief origin in want of money. What happiness it would be for her to lift this burden from his life, to give him peace and security for the years to come! Her thoughts wandered away into the bright region of day-dreams after this, and she fancied what their lives might be without that dull sordid trouble of pecuniary embarrassments. She fancied her husband, with all the fetters removed that had hampered his footsteps hitherto, winning a name and a place in the world. It is so natural for a romantic inexperienced girl to believe that the man she loves was born to achieve greatness; and that if he misses distinction, it is from the perversity of his surroundings or from his own carelessness, never from the fact of his being only a very small creature after all.

It was broad daylight when Marian rose after an hour of sleeplessness and thought, and refreshed herself with the contents of the cracked water-jug upon the rickety little wash-stand. The old man was still asleep when she went back to his room; but his breathing was more troubled than it had been the night before, and the widow, who was experienced in sickness and death, told Marian that he would not last very long. The shopman, Luke Tulliver, had come upstairs to see his master, and was hovering over the bed with a ghoulish aspect. This young man looked very sharply at Marian as she came into the room — seemed indeed hardly able to take his eyes from her face — and there was not much favour in his look. He knew who she was, and had been told how kindly the old man had taken to her in those last moments of his life; and he hated her with all his heart and soul, having devoted all the force of his mind for the last ten years to the cultivation of his employer’s good graces, hoping that Mr. Nowell, having no one else to whom to leave his money, would end by leaving it all to him. And here was a granddaughter, sprung from goodness knows where, to cheat him out of all his chances. He had always suspected Gilbert Fenton of being a dangerous sort of person, and it was no doubt he who had brought about this introduction, to the annihilation of Mr. Tulliver’s hopes. This young man took his place in a vacant chair by the fire, as if determined to stop; while Marian seated herself quietly by the sleeper’s pillow, thinking only of that one occupant of the room, and supposing that Mr. Tulliver’s presence was a mark of fidelity.

The old man woke with a start presently, and looked about him in a slow bewildered way for some moments.

“Who’s that?” he asked presently, pointing to the figure by the hearth.

“It’s only Mr. Tulliver, sir,” the widow answered. “He’s so anxious about you, poor young man.”

“I don’t want him,” said Jacob Nowell impatiently. “I don’t want his anxiety; I want to be alone with my granddaughter.”

“Don’t send me away, sir,” Mr. Tulliver pleaded in a piteous tone. “I don’t deserve to be sent away like a stranger, after serving you faithfully for the last ten years ——”

“And being well paid for your services,” gasped the old man. “I tell you I don’t want you. Go downstairs and mind the shop.”

“It’s not open yet, sir,” remonstrated Mr. Tulliver.

“Then it ought to be. I’ll have no idling and shirking because I’m ill. Go down and take down the shutters directly. Let the business go on just as if I was there to watch it.”

“I’m going, sir,” whimpered the young man; “but it does seem rather a poor return after having served you as I have, and loved you as if you’d been my own father.”

“Very much men love their fathers now-a-days! I didn’t ask you to love me, did I? or hire you for that, or pay you for it? Pshaw, man, I know you. You wanted my money like the rest of them, and I didn’t mind your thinking there was a chance of your getting it. I’ve rather encouraged the notion at odd times. It made you a better servant, and kept you honest. But now that I’m dying, I can afford to tell the truth. This young lady will have all my money, every sixpence of it, except five-and-twenty pounds to Mrs. Mitchin yonder. And now you can go. You’d have got something perhaps in a small way, if you’d been less of a sneak and a listener; but you’ve played your cards a trifle too well.”

The old man had raised himself up in his bed, and rallied considerably while he made this speech. He seemed to take a malicious pleasure in his shopman’s disappointment. But when Luke Tulliver had slowly withdrawn from the room, with a last venomous look at Marian, Jacob Nowell sank back upon his pillow exhausted by his unwonted animation.

“You don’t know what a deep schemer that young man has been, Marian,” he said, “and how I have laughed in my sleeve at his manoeuvres.”

The dull November day dragged itself slowly through, Marian never leaving her post by the sick-bed. Jacob Nowell spent those slow hours in fitful sleep and frequent intervals of wakefulness, in which he would talk to Marian, however she might urge him to remember the doctor’s injunctions that he should be kept perfectly quiet. It seemed indeed to matter very little whether he obeyed the doctor or not, since the end was inevitable.

One of the curates of the parish came in the course of the day, and read and prayed beside the old man’s bed, Jacob Nowell joining in the prayers in a half-mechanical way. For many years of his life he had neglected all religious duties. It was years since he had been inside a church; perhaps he had not been once since the death of his wife, who had persuaded him to go with her sometimes to the evening service, when he had generally scandalised her by falling asleep during the delivery of the sermon. All that the curate told him now about the necessity that he should make his peace with his God, and prepare himself for a world to come, had a far-off sound to him. He thought more about the silver downstairs, and what it was likely to realize in the auction-room. Even in this supreme hour his conscience did not trouble him much about the doubtful modes by which some of the plate he had dealt in had reached his hands. If he had not bought the things, some other dealer would have bought them. That is the easy-going way in which he would have argued the question, had he been called upon to argue it at all.

Mr. Fenton came in the evening to see the old man, and stood for a little time by the bedside watching him as he slept, and talking in a low voice to Marian. He asked her how long she was going to remain in Queen Anne’s Court, and found her ideas very vague upon that subject.

“If the end is so near as the doctor says, it would be cruel to leave my grandfather till all is over,” she said.

“I wonder that your husband has not come to you, if he is in London,” Gilbert remarked to her presently. He found himself very often wondering about her husband’s proceedings, in no indulgent mood.

“He may not be in London,” she answered, seeming a little vexed by the observation. “I am quite sure that he will do whatever is best.”

“But if he should not come to you, and if your grandfather should die while you are alone here, I trust you will send for me and let me give you any help you may require. You can scarcely stay in this house after the poor old man’s death.”

“I shall go back to Hampshire immediately; if I am not wanted here for anything — to make arrangements for the funeral. O, how hard it seems to speak of that while he is still living!”

“You need give yourself no trouble on that account. I will see to all that, if there is no more proper person to do so.”

“You are very good. I am anxious to go back to the Grange as quickly as possible.”

Gilbert left soon after this. He felt that his presence was of no use in the sick-room, and that he had no right to intrude upon Marian at such a time.

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