Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 23

Called to Account.

Gilbert walked over to Heatherly after luncheon next day, taking of preference the way which led him past Captain Sedgewick’s cottage and through the leafless wood where he and Marian had walked together when the foliage was in its summer glory. The leaves lay thick upon the mossy ground now; and the gaunt bare branches of the trees had a weird awful look in the utter silence of the place. His footsteps trampling upon the fallen leaves had an echo; and he turned to look behind him more than once, fancying he was followed.

The old house, with its long lines of windows, had a prison-like aspect under the dull November day. Gilbert wondered how such a man as Sir David Forster could endure his existence there, embittered as it was by the memory of that calamity which had taken all the sunlight out of his life, and left him a weary and purposeless hunter after pleasure. But Sir David had been prostrate under the heavy hand of his hereditary foe, the gout, for a long time past; and was fain to content himself with such company as came to him at Heatherly, and such amusement as was to be found in the society of men who were boon companions rather than friends. Gilbert Fenton heard the familiar clash of the billiard-balls as he went into the hall, where a couple of liver-coloured setters were dozing before a great fire that roared half-way up the wide chimney. There was no other life in the hall; and Mr. Fenton was conducted to the other end of the house, and ushered into that tobacco-tainted snuggery in which he had last seen the Baronet. His suspicions were on the alert this time; and he fancied he could detect a look of something more than surprise in Sir David’s face when the servant announced him — an uneasy look, as of a man taken at a disadvantage.

The Baronet was very gracious, however, and gave him a hearty welcome.

“I’m uncommonly glad to see you, my dear Fenton,” he said, “Indeed, I have been pleased to see worse fellows than you lately, since this infernal gout has laid me up in this dreary old place. The house is pretty full now, I am happy to say. I have friends who will come to shoot my partridges, though they won’t remember my solitude in a charitable spirit before the first of September. You’ll stop and dine, I hope; or perhaps you can put up here altogether for a week or so. My housekeeper shall find you a good room; and I can promise you pleasant company. Say yes, now, like a good fellow, and I’ll send a man to Lidford for your traps.”

“Thanks — no. You are very kind; but I am staying with my sister for a few days, and must return to town before the end of the week. The fact of the matter is, Sir David, I have come here to-day to ask you for some explanation of your conduct at our last interview. I don’t want to say anything rude or disagreeable; for I am quite willing to believe that you felt kindly towards me, even at the time when you deceived me. I suppose there are some positions in which a man can hardly expect fair play, and that mine was such a position. But you certainly did deceive me, Sir David, and grossly.”

“That last is rather an unpleasant word, Mr. Fenton. In what respect did I deceive you?”

“I came here on purpose to ask you if Mr. Holbrook, the man who robbed me of my promised wife, were a friend of yours, and you denied all knowledge of him.”

“Granted. And what then, my dear sir?”

“When I came to ask you that question, I had no special reason for supposing this Mr. Holbrook was known to you. It only struck me that, being a stranger in the village, as the result of my inquiries had proved to me, he might be one of your many visitors. I knew at that time that Mr. Holbrook had taken his wife to a farm-house in Hampshire immediately after their marriage — a house lent to him by a friend; but I did not know that you had any estate in that county. I have been to Hampshire since then, and have found Mrs. Holbrook at the Grange, near Crosber — in your house.”

“You have found her! Well, Mr. Fenton, the circumstantial evidence is too strong for me, so I must plead guilty. Yes; I did deceive you when I told you that Holbrook was unknown to me; but I pledged my word to keep his secret — to give you no clue, should you ever happen to question me, that could lead to your discovery of your lost love’s whereabouts. It was considered, I conclude, that any meeting between you two must needs result unpleasantly. At any rate, there was a strong desire to avoid you; and in common duty to my friend I was compelled to respect that desire.”

“Not a very manly wish on the part of my successful rival,” said Gilbert.

“It may have been the lady’s wish rather than Mr. Holbrook’s.”

“I have reason to know that it was otherwise. I have heard from Marian’s own lips that she would have written a candid confession of the truth had she been free to do so. It was her husband who prevented her giving me notice of my desertion.”

“I cannot pretend to explain his conduct,” Sir David answered gravely. “I only know that I pledged myself to keep his secret; and felt bound to do so, even at the cost of a lie.”

“And this man is your friend. You must know whether he is worthy to be Marian Nowell’s husband. The circumstances of her life do not seem to me favourable to happiness, so far as I have been able to discover them; nor did I think her looking happy when we met. But I should be glad to know that she has not fallen into bad hands.”

“And I suppose by this time your feelings have cooled down a little. You have abandoned those revengeful intentions you appeared to entertain, when you were last in this house?”

“In a great measure, yes. I have promised Marian that, should I and her husband meet, as we must do, I believe, sooner or later, she need apprehend no violence on my part. He has won the prize; any open resentment would seem mere schoolboy folly. But you cannot suppose that I feel very kindly towards him, or ever shall.”

“Upon my soul, I think men are hardly responsible for their actions where a woman is concerned,” Sir David exclaimed after a pause. “We are the veriest slaves of destiny in these matters. A man sees the only woman in the world he can love too late to win her with honour. If he is strong enough to act nobly, he turns his back upon the scene of his temptation, all the more easily should the lady happen to be staunch to her affianced, or her husband, as the case may be. But if she waver — if he sees that his love is returned — heaven help him! Honour, generosity, friendship, all go by the board; and for the light in those fatal eyes, for the dangerous music of that one dear voice, he sacrifices all that he has held highest in life until that luckless time. I know that Holbrook held it no light thing to do you this wrong; I know that he fought manfully against temptation. But, you see, fate was the stronger; and he had to give way at the last.”

“I cannot agree with that way of looking at things, Sir David. The world is made up of people who take their own pleasure at any cost to others, and then throw the onus of their misdoings upon Providence. I have long ago forgiven the girl who jilted me, and have sworn to be her faithful and watchful friend in all the days to come. I want to be sure that her future is a bright one — much brighter than it seemed when I saw her in your lonely old house near Crosber. She has had money left her since then; so poverty can no longer be a reason for her being hidden from the world.”

“I am very glad to hear that; my friend is not a rich man.”

“So Marian told me. But I want to learn something more than that about him. Up to this moment he has been the most intangible being I ever heard of. Will you tell me who and what he is — his position in the world, and so on?”

“Humph!” muttered Sir David meditatively; “I don’t know that I can tell you much about him. His position is like that of a good many others of my acquaintance — rather vague and intangible, to use the word you employed just now. He is not well off; he is a gentleman by birth, with some small means of his own, and he ‘lives, sir, lives.’ That is about all I can say of him — from a worldly point of view. With regard to his affection for Miss Nowell, I know that he loved her passionately, devotedly, desperately — the strongest expression you can supply to describe a man’s folly. I never saw any fellow so far gone. Heaven knows, I did my best to argue him out of his fancy — urged your claim, the girl’s poverty, every reason against the marriage; but friendly argumentation of that kind goes very little way in such a case. He took his own course. It was only when I found the business was decided upon, that I offered him my house in Hampshire; a place to which I never go myself, but which brings me in a decent income in the hands of a clever bailiff. I knew that Holbrook had no home ready for his wife, and I thought it would give them a pleasant retreat enough for a few months, while the honey and rose-leaves still sweetened the wine-cup of their wedded life. They have stayed there ever since, as you seem to know; so I conclude they have found the place agreeable. Confoundedly dreary, I should fancy it myself; but then I’m not a newly married man.”

The Baronet gave a brief sigh, and his thoughts went back for a moment to the time when he too was in Arcadia; when a fair young wife was by his side, and when no hour of his existence seemed ever dull or weary to him. It was all changed now! He had billiards and whist, and horses and hounds, and a vast collection of gunnery, and great stores of wine in the gloomy arched vaults beneath the house, where a hundred prisoners had been kept under lock and key when Heatherly had fallen into the hands of the Cromwellian soldiery, and the faithful retainers of the household were fain to lay down their arms. He had all things that make up the common pleasures and delights of a man’s existence; but he had lost the love which had given these things a new charm, and without which all life seemed to him flat, stale, and unprofitable. He could sympathise with Gilbert Fenton much more keenly than that gentleman would have supposed possible; for a man suffering from this kind of affliction is apt to imagine that he has a copyright in that species of grief, and that no other man ever did or ever can experience a like calamity. The same manner of trouble may come to others, of course, but not with a similar intensity. Others will suffer and recover, and find a balm elsewhere. He alone is constant until death!

“And you can tell me nothing more about Mr. Holbrook?” he asked after a pause.

“Upon my honour, nothing. I think you will do wisely to leave these two people to take their own way in the future without any interference on your part. You speak of watchful friendship and all that kind of thing, and I can quite appreciate your disinterested desire to befriend the woman whom you once hoped to make your wife. But, believe me, my dear Fenton, no manner of good can possibly come of your intervention. Those two have chosen their road in life, and must travel along it, side by side, through good or evil fortune. Holbrook would naturally be jealous of any friendship between his wife and you; while such a friendship could not fail to keep alive bitter thoughts in your mind — could not fail to sharpen the regret which you fancy just now is to be life-long. I have no doubt I seem to speak in a hard worldly spirit.”

“You speak like a man of the world, Sir David,” the other answered quietly; “and I cannot deny that there is a certain amount of wisdom in your advice. No, my friendship is not wanted by either of those two, supposing even that I were generous enough to be able to give it to both. I have learnt that lesson already from Marian herself. But you must remember that I promised her poor old grandfather — the man who died a few days ago — that I would watch over her interests with patient fidelity, that I would be her friend and protector, if ever the hour should come in which she would need friendship and protection. I am not going to forget this promise, or to neglect its performance; and in order to be true to my word, I am bound to make myself acquainted with the circumstances of her married life, and the character of her husband.”

“Cannot you be satisfied with knowing that she is happy?”

“I have seen her, Sir David, and am by no means assured of her happiness.”

“And yet it was a love-match on both sides. Holbrook, as I have told you, loved her passionately.”

“That passionate kind of love is apt to wear itself out very quickly with some men. Your bailiff’s daughter complained bitterly of Mr. Holbrook’s frequent absence from the Grange, of the dulness and loneliness of my poor girl’s life.”

“Women are apt to be exacting,” Sir David answered with a deprecating shrug of the shoulders. “My friend Holbrook has the battle of life to fight, and could not spend all his days playing the lover. If his wife has had money left her, that will make some difference in their position. A man is never at his best when he is worried by debts and financial difficulties.”

“And Mr. Holbrook was in debt when he married, I suppose?”

“He was. I must confess that I find that complaint a very common one among my acquaintance,” the Baronet added with a laugh.

“Will you tell me what this Holbrook is like in person, Sir David? I have questioned several people about him, and have never obtained anything beyond the vaguest kind of description.”

Sir David Forster laughed aloud at this request.

“What! you want to know whether your rival is handsome, I suppose? like a woman, who always commences her inquiries about another woman by asking whether she is pretty. My dear Fenton, all personal descriptions are vague. It is almost impossible to furnish a correct catalogue of any man’s features. Holbrook is just one of those men whom it is most difficult to describe — not particularly good-looking, nor especially ill-looking; very clever, and with plenty of expression and character in his face. Older than you by some years, and looking older than he really is.”

“Thanks; but there is not one precise statement in your description. Is the man dark or fair — short or tall?”

“Rather dark than fair; rather tall than short.”

“That will do, Sir David,” Gilbert said, starting suddenly to his feet, and looking the Baronet in the face intently. “The man who robbed me of my promised wife is the man whom I introduced to her; the man who has come between me and all my hopes, who hides himself from my just anger, and skulks in the background under a feigned name, is the one friend whom I have loved above all other men — John Saltram!”

Sir David faced him without flinching. If it was acted surprise which appeared upon his countenance at the sound of John Saltram’s name, the acting was perfect. Gilbert could discover nothing from that broad stare of blank amazement.

“In heaven’s name, what can have put such a preposterous notion into your head?” Sir David asked coolly.

“I cannot tell you. The conviction has grown upon me, against my own will. Yes, I have hated myself for being able to suspect my friend. You do not know how I have loved that man, or how our friendship began at Oxford long ago with something like hero-worship on my side. I thought that he was born to be great and noble; and heaven knows I have felt the disappointments and shortcomings of his career more keenly than he has felt them himself. No, Sir David, I don’t think it is possible for any man to comprehend how I have loved John Saltram.”

“And yet, without a shred of evidence, you believe him guilty of betraying you.”

“Will you give me your word of honour that Marian’s husband and John Saltram are not one and the same person?”

“No,” answered Sir David impatiently; “I am tired of the whole business. You have questioned and cross-questioned me quite long enough, Mr. Fenton, and I have answered you to the best of my ability, and have given you rational advice, which you will of course decline to take. If you think your friend has wronged you, go to him, and tax him with that wrong. I wash my hands of the affair altogether, from this moment; but, without wishing to be offensive, I cannot help telling you, that to my mind you are acting very foolishly in this business.”

“I daresay it may seem so to you. You would think better of me if I could play the stoic, and say, ‘She has jilted me, and is dead to me henceforward.’ But I cannot do that. I have the memory of her peaceful girlhood — the happy days in which I knew her first — the generous protector who sheltered her life. I am pledged to the dead, Sir David.”

He left Heatherly soon after this, though the Baronet pressed him to stay to dinner.

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