Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 21

Father and Daughter.

Almost immediately after Gilbert’s departure, another visitor appeared in the dimly lighted shop, where Luke Tulliver was poring over a newspaper at one end of the counter under a solitary gas-burner.

The new-comer was Percival Nowell, who had not been to the house since his daughter’s arrival.

“Well,” said this gentleman, in his usual off-hand manner, “how’s the governor?”

“Very ill; going fast, the doctor says.”

“Eh? As bad as that? Then there’s been a change since I was here last.”

“Yes; Mr. Nowell was taken much worse yesterday morning. He had a kind of fit, I fancy, and couldn’t get his speech for some time afterwards. But he got over that, and has talked well enough since then,” Mr. Tulliver concluded ruefully, remembering his master’s candid remarks that morning.

“I’ll step upstairs and have a look at the old gentleman,” said Percival.

“There’s a young lady with him,” Mr. Tulliver remarked, in a somewhat mysterious tone.

“A young lady!” the other cried. “What young lady?”

“His granddaughter.”

“Indeed!”

“Yes; she came up from the country yesterday evening, and she’s been sitting with him ever since. He seems to have taken to her very much. You’d think she’d been about him all her life; and she’s to have all his money, he says. I wonder what his only son will say to that,” added Mr. Tulliver, looking very curiously at Percival Nowell, “supposing him to be alive? Rather hard upon him, isn’t it?”

“Uncommonly,” the other answered coolly. He saw that the shopman suspected his identity, though he had carefully avoided all reference to the relationship between himself and the old man in Luke Tulliver’s presence, and had begged his father to say nothing about him.

“I should like to see this young lady before I go up to Mr. Nowell’s room,” he said presently. “Will you step upstairs and ask her to come down to me?”

“I can go if you wish, but I don’t suppose she’ll leave the old gentleman.”

“Never mind what you suppose. Tell her that I wish to say a few words to her upon particular business.”

Luke Tulliver departed upon his errand, while Percival Nowell went into the parlour, and seated himself before the dull neglected fire in the lumbering old arm-chair in which his father had sat through the long lonely evenings for so many years. Mr. Nowell the younger was not disturbed by any sentimental reflections upon this subject, however; he was thinking of his father’s will, and the wrong which was inflicted upon him thereby.

“To be cheated out of every sixpence by my own flesh and blood!” he muttered to himself. “That seems too much for any man to bear.”

The door was opened by a gentle hand presently, and Marian came into the room. Percival Nowell rose from his seat hastily and stood facing her, surprised by her beauty and an indefinable likeness which she bore to her mother — a likeness which brought his dead wife’s face back to his mind with a sudden pang. He had loved her after his own fashion once upon a time, and had grown weary of her and neglected her after the death of that short-lived selfish passion; but something, some faint touch of the old feeling, stirred his heart as he looked at his daughter to-night. The emotion was as brief as the breath of a passing wind. In the next moment he was thinking of his father’s money, and how this girl had emerged from obscurity to rob him of it.

“You wish to speak to me on business, I am told,” she said, in her clear low voice, wondering at the stranger’s silence and deliberate scrutiny of her face.

“Yes, I have to speak to you on very serious business, Marian,” he answered gravely.

“You are an utter stranger to me, and yet call me by my Christian name.”

“I am not an utter stranger to you. Look at me, Mrs. Holbrook. Have you never seen my face before?”

“Never.”

“Are you quite sure of that? Look a little longer before you answer again.”

“Yes!” she cried suddenly, after a long pause. “You are my father!”

There had come back upon her, in a rapid flash of memory, the picture of a room in Brussels — a room lighted dimly by two wax-candles on the chimney-piece, where there was a tall dark man who snatched her up in his arms and kissed her before he went out. She remembered caring very little for his kisses, and having a childish consciousness of the fact that it was he who made her mamma cry so often in the quiet lonely evenings, when the mother and child were together in that desolate continental lodging.

Yet at this moment she was scarcely disposed to think much about her father’s ill-conduct. She considered only that he was her father, and that they had found each other after long years of separation. She stretched out her arms, and would have fallen upon his breast; but something in his manner repelled her, something downcast and nervous, which had a chilling effect upon her, and gave her time to remember how little cause she had to love him. He did not seem aware of the affectionate impulse which had moved her towards him at first. He gave her his hand presently. It was deadly cold, and lay loosely in her own.

“I was asking my grandfather about you this morning,” she said, wondering at his strange manner, “but he would not tell me where you were.”

“Indeed! I am surprised to find you felt so much interest in me; I’m aware that I don’t deserve as much. Yet I could plead plenty of excuses for my life, if I cared to trouble you with them; but I don’t. It would be a long story; and when it was told, you might not believe it. Most men are, more or less, the slave of circumstances. I have suffered that kind of bondage all my life. I have known, too, that you were in good hands — better off in every way than you could have been in my care — or I should have acted differently in relation to you.”

“There is no occasion to speak of the past,” Marian replied gravely. “Providence was very good to me; but I know my poor mother’s last days were full of sorrow. I cannot tell how far it might have been in your power to prevent that. It is not my place to blame, or even to question your conduct.”

“You are an uncommonly dutiful daughter,” Mr. Nowell exclaimed with rather a bitter laugh; “I thought that you would have repudiated me altogether perhaps; would have taken your tone from my father, who has grown pig-headed with old age, and cannot forgive me for having had the aspirations of a gentleman.”

“It is a pity there should not be union between my grandfather and you at such a moment as this,” Marian said.

“O, we are civil enough to each other. I bear no malice against the old man, though many sons in my position might consider themselves hardly used. And now I may as well go upstairs and pay my respects. Why is not your husband with you, by the bye?”

“He is not wanted here; and I do not even know that he is in London.”

“Humph! He seems rather a mysterious sort of person, this husband of yours.”

Marian took no notice of this remark, and the father and daughter went upstairs to the sick-room together. The old silversmith received his son with obvious coolness, and was evidently displeased at seeing Marian and her father together.

Percival Nowell, however, on his part, appeared to be in an unusually affectionate and dutiful mood this evening. He held his place by the bedside resolutely, and insisted on sharing Marian’s watch that night. So all through the long night those two sat together, while the old man passed from uneasy slumber to more uneasy wakefulness, and back to troubled sleep again, his breathing growing heavier and more laboured with every hour. They were very quiet, and could have found but little to say to each other, had there been no reason for their silence. That first brief impulsive feeling of affection past, Marian could only think of this newly-found father as the man who had made her mother’s life lonely and wretched while he pursued his own selfish pleasures; and who had allowed her to grow to womanhood without having been the object of one thought or care upon his part. She could not forget these things, as she sat opposite to him in the awful silence of the sick-room, stealing a glance at his face now and then, and wondering at the strange turn of fortune which had brought them thus together.

It was not a pleasant face by any means — not a countenance to inspire love or confidence. Handsome still, but with a faded look, like a face that had grown pallid and wrinkled in the feverish atmosphere of vicious haunts — under the flaring gas that glares down upon the green cloth of a rouge-et-noir table, in the tumult of crowded race-courses, the press and confusion of the betting-ring — it was the face of a battered roué, who had lived his life, and outlived the smiles of fortune; the face of a man to whom honest thoughts and hopes had long been unknown. There was a disappointed peevish look about the drooping corners of the mouth, an angry glitter in the eyes.

He did not look at his daughter very often as they sat together through that weary vigil, but kept his eyes for the greater part of the time upon the wasted face on the pillow, which looked like a parchment mask in the dim light. He seemed to be deep in thought, and several times in the night Marian heard him breathe an impatient sigh, as if his thoughts were not pleasant to him. More than once he rose from his chair and paced the room softly for a little time, as if the restlessness of his mind had made that forced quiet unendurable. The early morning light came at last, faint and wan and gray, across a forest of blackened chimney-pots, and by that light the watchers could see that Jacob Nowell had changed for the worse.

He lingered till late that afternoon. It was growing dusk when he died, making a very peaceful end of life at the last, with his head resting upon Marian’s shoulder, and his cold hand clasped in hers. His son stood by the bed, looking down upon him at that final moment with a fixed inscrutable face. Gilbert Fenton called that evening, and heard of the old man’s death from Luke Tulliver. He heard also that Mrs. Holbrook intended to sleep in Queen Anne’s Court that night, and did not therefore intrude upon her, relying upon being able to see her next morning. He left his card, with a few words of condolence written upon it in pencil.

Mr. Nowell was with his daughter in the little parlour behind the shop when Luke Tulliver gave her this card. He asked who the visitor was.

“Mr. Fenton, a gentleman I knew at Lidford in my dear uncle’s lifetime. My grandfather liked him very much.”

“Mr. Fenton! Yes, my father told me all about him. You were engaged to him, and jilted him for this man you have married — very foolishly, as it seems to me; for he could certainly have given you a better position than that which you appear to occupy now.”

“I chose for my own happiness,” Marian answered quietly, “and I have only one subject for regret; that is, that I was compelled to act with ingratitude towards a good man. But Mr. Fenton has forgiven me; has promised to be my friend, if ever I should have need of his friendship. He has very kindly offered to take all trouble off my hands with respect to — to the arrangements for the funeral.”

“He is remarkably obliging,” said Percival Nowell with a sneer; “but as the only son of the deceased, I consider myself the proper person to perform that final duty.”

“I do not wish to interfere with your doing so. Of course I did not know how near at hand you were when Mr. Fenton made that offer, or I should have told him.”

“You mean to remain until the funeral is over, I suppose?”

“I think not; I want to go back to Hampshire as soon as possible — by an early train to-morrow morning, if I can. I do not see that there is any reason for my remaining. I could not prove my respect or affection for my grandfather any more by staying.”

“Certainly not,” her father answered promptly. “I think you will be quite right in getting away from this dingy hole as quick as you can.”

“It is not for that. But I have promised to return directly I was free to do so.”

“And you go back to Hampshire? To what part of Hampshire?”

Marian told him the name of the place where she was living. He wrote the address in his pocket-book, and was especially careful that it should be correctly written, as to the name of the nearest town, and in all other particulars.

“I may have to write to you, or to come to you, perhaps,” he said. “It’s as well to be prepared for the contingency.”

After this Mr. Nowell sent out for a “Railway Guide,” in order to give his daughter all necessary information about the trains for Malsham. There was a tolerably fast train that left Waterloo at seven in the morning, and Marian decided upon going by that. She had to spend the evening alone with her father while Mrs. Mitchin kept watch in the dismal chamber upstairs. Mr. Nowell asked his daughter’s permission to light his cigar, and having obtained it, sat smoking moodily all the evening, staring into the fire, and very rarely addressing his companion, who had taken a Bible out of her travelling-bag, and was reading those solemn, chapters which best harmonised with her feelings at this moment; thinking as she read of the time when her guardian and benefactor lay in his last calm rest, and she had vainly tried to find comfort in the same words, and had found herself staring blankly at the sacred page, with eyes that were dry and burning, and to which there came no merciful relief from tears.

Her father glanced at her askance now and then from his arm-chair by the fire, as she sat by the little round table looking down at her book, the light of the candles shining full upon her pensive face. He looked at her with no friendliness in his eyes, but with that angry sparkle which had grown almost habitual to them of late, since the world had gone ill with him. After one of those brief stolen looks, a strange smile crept over his face. He was thinking of a little speech of Shakespeare’s Richard about his nephew, the youthful Prince of Wales:

So young, so wise, they say do ne’er live long.

“How pious she is!” he said to himself with a diabolical sneer. “Did the half-pay Captain teach her that, I wonder? or does church-going, and psalm-singing, and Bible-reading come natural to all women? I know my mother was good at it, and my wife too. She used to fly to her Bible as a man flies to dram-drinking, or his pipe, when things go wrong.”

He got tired of his cigar at last, and went out into the shop, where he began to question Mr. Tulliver as to the extent and value of the stock-in-trade, and upon other details of the business; to all of which inquiries the shopman replied in a suspicious and grudging spirit, giving his questioner the smallest possible amount of information.

“You’re an uncommonly cautious young man,” Mr. Nowell exclaimed at last. “You’ll never stand in your own light by being too anxious to oblige other people. I daresay, though, you could speak fast enough, if it was made worth your while.”

“I don’t see what is to make it worth my while,” Luke Tulliver answered coolly. “My duty is to my dead master, and those that are to come after him. I don’t want strangers coming sniffing and prying into the stock. Mr. Nowell’s books were kept so that I couldn’t cheat him out of a sixpence, or the value of a sixpence; and I mean to hand ’em over to the lawyer in a manner that will do me credit. My master has not been a generous master to me, considering how I’ve served him, and I’ve got nothing but my character to look to; but that I have got, and I don’t want it tampered with.”

“Who is going to tamper with it?” said Mr. Nowell. “So you’ll hand over the stock-books to the lawyer, will you, without a leaf missing, or an erasure, or an item marked off as sold that never was sold, or any little dodges of that kind, eh, Mr. Tulliver?”

“Of course,” answered the shopman, looking defiantly at the questioner, who was leaning across the counter with folded arms, staring at Luke Tulliver with an ironical grin upon his countenance.

“Then you are a very remarkable man. I should have thought such a chance as a death as unexpected as my — as old Mr. Nowell’s would have made the fortune of a confidential clerk like you.”

“I’m not a thief,” answered Mr. Tulliver with an air of virtuous indignation; “and you can’t know much about old Jacob Nowell if you think that anybody could cheat him, living or dead. There’s not an entry in the book that isn’t signed with his initials, in his own hand. When a thing was sold and crossed off the book, he put his initials to the entry of the sale. He went through the books every night till a week ago, and he’d as soon have cut his own head off as omit to do it, so long as he could see the figures in the book or hold his pen.”

Mr. Medler the lawyer came in while Percival Nowell and the shopman were talking. He had been away from his office upon business that evening, and had only just received the tidings of the silversmith’s death.

Luke Tulliver handed him the books and keys of the cases in which the tarnished plate was exhibited. He went into all the details of the business carefully, setting his seal upon books and papers, and doing all that he could to make matters secure without hindrance to the carrying on of the trade.

He was surprised to hear that Mrs. Holbrook was in the house, and proposed paying his respects to her that evening; but this Mr. Nowell prevented. She was tired and out of spirits, he told the attorney; it would be better for him to see her next day. It was convenient to Mr. Nowell to forget Marian’s intention of returning to Hampshire by an early train on the following morning at this juncture.

When he went back to the parlour by-and-by, after Mr. Medler had finished his business in the shop, and was trudging briskly towards his own residence, Mr. Nowell told his daughter that the lawyer had been there, but did not inform her of his desire to see her.

“I suppose you know all about your grandfather’s will?” he said by-and-by, when he had half-finished another cigar.

Marian had put away her book by this time, and was looking dreamily at the fire, thinking of her husband, who need never know those weary sordid cares about money again, now that she was to be rich.

Her father’s question startled her out of that agreeable day-dream.

“Yes,” she said; “my grandfather told me that he had left all his money to me. I know that must seem unjust to you, papa; but I hope my husband will allow me to do something towards repairing that injustice in some measure.”

“In some measure!” Mr. Nowell thought savagely. “That means a pittance that would serve to keep life in a pauper, I suppose; and that is to be contingent upon her husband’s permission.” He made no audible reply to his daughter’s speech, and seemed, indeed, so much absorbed in his own thoughts, that Marian doubted if he had heard her; and so the rest of the long evening wore itself out in dismal silence, whilst stealthy footsteps sounded now and then upon the stairs. Later Mr. Nowell was summoned to a conference with some mysterious person in the shop, whom Marian supposed to be the undertaker; and returning from this interview with a gloomy face, he resumed his seat by the fire.

It seemed very strange to Marian that they two, father and daughter, should be together thus, so near and yet so wide apart; united by the closest tie of kindred, brought together thus after years of severance, yet with no bond of sympathy between them; no evidence of remorseful tenderness on the side of him whose life had been one long neglect of a father’s duty.

“How could I expect that he would care for me in the smallest degree, after his desertion of my mother?” Marian thought to herself, as she meditated upon her father’s coldness, which at first had seemed so strange to her. She had fancied that, what ever his sins in the past had been, his heart would have melted at the sight of his only child. She had thought of him and dreamed of him so often in her girlhood, elevating him in her romantic fancy into something much better and brighter than he really was — a sinner at best, it is true, but a sinner of a lofty type, a noble nature gone astray. She had imagined a reunion with him in the days to come, when it should be her delight to minister to his declining years — to be the consolation of his repentant soul. And now she had found him she knew these things could never be — that there was not one feeling of sympathy possible between her and that broken-down, dissipated-looking man of the world.

The dismal evening came to an end at last, and Marian bade her father good-night, and went upstairs to the little room where the traces of his boyhood had interested her so keenly when first she looked upon them. Mr. Nowell promised to come to Queen Anne’s Court at a quarter past six next morning, to escort his daughter to the station, an act of parental solicitude she had not expected from him. He took his departure immediately afterwards, being let out of the shop-door by Luke Tulliver, who was in a very cantankerous humour, and took no pains to disguise the state of his feelings. The lawyer Mr. Medler had pried into everything, the shopman told Percival Nowell; had declared himself empowered to do this, as the legal adviser of the deceased; and had seemed as suspicious as if he, Luke Tulliver, meant to rob his dead master. Mr. Tulliver’s sensitive nature had been outraged by such a line of conduct.

“And what has he done with the books?” Mr. Nowell asked.

“They’re all in the desk yonder, and that fellow Medler has taken away the keys.”

“Sharp practice,” said Mr. Nowell; “but to a man with your purity of intention it can’t matter what precautions are taken to insure the safety of the property.”

“Of course it don’t matter,” the other answered peevishly; “but I like to be treated as a gentleman.”

“Humph! And you expect to retain your place here, I suppose, if the business is carried on?”

“It’s too good a business to be let drop,” replied Mr. Tulliver; “but I shouldn’t think that young lady upstairs would be much of a hand at trade. I wouldn’t mind offering a fair price for the business — I’ve got a tidy little bit of money put away, though my salary has been small enough, goodness knows; but I’ve lived with the old gentleman, and never wasted a penny upon pleasure; none of your music-halls, or dancing-saloons, or anything of that kind, for me — or I wouldn’t mind paying an annual sum out of the profits of the trade for a reasonable term. If you’ve any influence with the young lady, perhaps you could put it to her, and get her to look at things in that light,” Mr. Tulliver added, becoming quite obsequious as it dawned upon him that this interloping stranger might be able to do him a service.

“I’ll do my best for you, Tulliver,” Mr. Nowell replied, in a patronising tone. “I daresay the young lady will be quite willing to entertain any reasonable proposition you may make.”

Faithful to his promise Mr. Nowell appeared at a quarter past six next morning, at which hour he found his daughter quite ready for her journey. She was very glad to get away from that dreary house, made a hundredfold more dismal by the sense of what lay in the closed chamber, where the candles were still burning in the yellow fog of the November morning, and to which Marian had gone with hushed footsteps to kneel for the last time beside the old man who was so near her by the ties of relationship, and whom she had known for so brief a space. She was glad to leave that dingy quarter of the town, which to one who had never lived in an English city seemed unspeakably close and wretched; still more glad to think that she was going back to the quiet home, where her husband would most likely join her very soon. She might find him there when she arrived, perhaps; for he knew nothing of this journey to London, or could only hear of it at the Grange, where she had left a letter for him, enclosing that brief note of Gilbert Fenton’s which had informed her of her grandfather’s fatal illness. There were special reasons why she should not ask him to meet her in Queen Anne’s Court, however long she might have been compelled to stay there.

Mr. Nowell was much more affectionate in his manner to his daughter this morning, as they sat in the cab driving to the station, and walked side by side upon the platform in the quarter of an hour’s interval before the departure of the train. He questioned her closely upon her life in the present, and her plans for the future, expressing himself in a remarkably generous manner upon the subject of her grandfather’s will, and declaring himself very well pleased that his own involuntary neglect was to be so amply atoned for by the old man’s liberality. He found his daughter completely ignorant of the world, as gentle and confiding as he had found her mother in the past. He sounded the depths of her innocent mind during that brief promenade; and when the train bore her away at last, and the platform was clear, he remained for some time walking up and down in profound meditation, scarcely knowing where he was. He looked round him in an absent way by-and-by, and then hurriedly left the station, and drove straight to Mr. Medler’s office, which was upon the ground floor of a gloomy old house in one of the dingier streets in the Soho district, and in the upper chambers whereof the attorney’s wife and numerous offspring had their abode. He came down to his client from his unpretending breakfast-table in a faded dressing-gown, with smears of egg and greasy traces of buttered toast about the region of his mouth, and seemed not particularly pleased to see Mr. Nowell. But the conference that followed was a long one; and it is to be presumed that it involved some chance of future profit, since the lawyer forgot to return to his unfinished breakfast, much to the vexation of Mrs. Medler, a faded lady with everything about her in the extremest stage of limpness, who washed the breakfast-things with her own fair hands, in consideration of the multitudinous duties to be performed by that hapless solitary damsel who in such modest households is usually denominated “the girl.”

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