Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 24

Tormented by Doubt.

The long homeward walk gave Gilbert ample leisure for reflection upon his interview with Sir David; a very unsatisfactory interview at the best. Yes, the conviction that the man who had wronged him was no other than his own familiar friend, had flashed upon him with a new force as the Baronet answered his questions about John Holbrook. The suspicion which had entered his mind after he left the lonely farm-house near Crosber, and which he had done his uttermost to banish, as if it had been a suggestion of the evil one, came back to him to-day with a form and reality which it had lacked before. It seemed no longer a vague fancy, a dark unwelcome thought that bordered on folly. It had taken a new shape altogether, and appeared to him almost a certainty.

Sir David’s refusal to make any direct denial of the fact seemed to confirm his suspicion. Yet it was, on the other hand, just possible that Sir David, finding him on a false scent, should have been willing to let him follow it, and that the real offender should be screened by this suspicion of John Saltram. But then there arose in his mind a doubt that had perplexed him sorely for a long time. If his successful rival had been indeed a stranger to him, what reason could there be for so much mystery in the circumstances of the marriage? and why should Marian have so carefully avoided telling him anything about her husband? That his friend, having betrayed him, should shrink from the revelation of his falsehood, should adopt any underhand course to avoid discovery, seemed natural enough. Yet to believe this was to think meanly of the man whom he had loved so well, whom he had confided in so implicitly until the arising of this cruel doubt.

He had known long ago, when the first freshness of his boyish delusions faded away before the penetrating clear daylight of reality, he had known long ago that his friend was not faultless; that except in that one faithful alliance with himself, John Saltram had been fickle, wayward, vacillating, unstable, and inconstant, true to no dream of his youth, no ambition of his early manhood content to drop one purpose after another, until his life was left without any exalted aim. But Gilbert had fancied his friend’s nature was still a noble one in spite of the comparative failure of his life. It was very difficult for him to imagine it possible that this friend could act falsely and ungenerously, could steal his betrothed from him, and keep the secret of his guilt, pretending to sympathise with the jilted lover all the while.

But though Mr. Fenton told himself at one moment that this was impossible, his thoughts travelled back to the same point immediately afterwards, and the image of John Saltram arose before him as that of his hidden foe. He remembered the long autumn days which he and his friend had spent with Marian — those unclouded utterly happy days, which he looked back upon now with a kind of wonder. They had been so much together, Marian so bright and fascinating in her innocent enjoyment of the present, brighter and happier just then than she had ever seemed to him before, Gilbert remembered with a bitter pang. He had been completely unsuspicious at the time, untroubled by one doubtful thought; but it appeared to him now that there had been a change in Marian from the time of his friend’s coming — a new joyousness and vivacity, a keener delight in the simple pleasures of their daily life, and withal a fitfulness, a tendency to change from gaiety to thoughtful silence, that he had not remarked in her before.

Was it strange if John Saltram had fallen in love with her? was it possible to see her daily in all the glory of her girlish loveliness, made doubly bewitching by the sweetness of her nature, the indescribable charm of her manner — was it possible to be with her often, as John Saltram had been, and not love her? Gilbert Fenton had thought of his friend as utterly impregnable to any such danger; as a man who had spent all his stock of tender emotion long ago, and who looked upon matrimony as a transaction by which he might mend his broken fortunes. That this man should fall a victim to the same subtle charm which had subjugated himself, was a possibility that never occurred to Gilbert’s mind, in this happy period of his existence. He wanted his friend’s approval of his choice; he wished to see his passion justified in the eyes of the man whom it was his habit to regard in somewise as a superior creature; and it had been a real delight to him to hear Mr. Saltram’s warm praises of Marian.

Looking back at the past to-day from a new point of view, he wondered at his own folly. What was more natural than that John Saltram should have found his doom, as he had found it, unthought of, undreamed of, swift, and fatal? Nor was it difficult for him to believe that Marian — who had perhaps never really loved him, who had been induced to accept him by his own pertinacity and her uncle’s eager desire for the match — should find a charm and a power in John Saltram that had been wanting in himself. He had seen too many instances of his friend’s influence over men and women, to doubt his ability to win this innocent inexperienced girl, had he set himself to win her. He recalled with a bitter smile how his informants had all described his rival in a disparaging tone, as unworthy of so fair a bride; and he knew that it was precisely those qualities which these common people were unable to appreciate that constituted the subtle charm by which John Saltram influenced others. The rugged power and grandeur of that dark face, which vulgar critics denounced as plain and unattractive, the rare fascination of a manner that varied from an extreme reserve to a wild reckless vivacity, the magic of the deep full voice, with its capacity for the expression of every shade of emotion — these were attributes to be passed over and ignored by the vulgar, yet to exercise a potent influence upon sensitive sympathetic natures.

“How that poor little Anglo–Indian widow loves him, without any effort to win or hold her affection on his side!” Gilbert said to himself, as he walked back to Lidford in the darkening November afternoon, brooding always on the one subject which occupied all his thoughts; “and can I doubt his power to supersede me if he cared to do so — if he really loved Marian, as he never has loved Mrs. Branston? What shall I do? Go to him at once, and tell him my suspicion, tax him broadly with treachery, and force him to a direct confession or denial? Shall I do this? Or shall I bide my time, wait and watch with dull dogged patience, till I can collect some evidence of his guilt? Yes, let it be so. If he has been base enough to do me this great wrong — mean enough to steal my betrothed under a false name, and to keep the secret of his wrong-doing at any cost of lies and deceit — let him go on to the end, let him act out the play to the last; and when I bring his falsehood home to him, as I must surely do, sooner or later — yes, if he is capable of deceiving me, he shall continue the lie to the last, he shall endure all the infamy of his false position.”

And then, after a pause, he said to himself —

“And at the end, if my suspicions are confirmed, I shall have lost all I have ever valued in life since my mother died — my plighted wife, and the one chosen friend whose companionship could make existence pleasant to me. God grant that this fancy of mine is as baseless as Sir David Forster declared it to be! God grant that I may never find a secret enemy in John Saltram!”

Tossed about thus upon a sea of doubts, Mr. Fenton returned to Lidford House, where he was expected to be bright and cheerful, and entertain his host and hostess with the freshest gossip of the London world. He did make a great effort to keep up a show of cheerfulness at the dinner-table; but he felt that his sister’s eyes were watching him with a pitiless scrutiny, and he knew that the attempt was an ignominious failure.

When honest Martin was snoring in his easy-chair before the drawing-room fire, with the red light shining full upon his round healthy countenance, Mrs. Lister beckoned her brother over to her side of the hearth, where she had an embroidery-frame, whereon was stretched some grand design in Berlin wool-work, to which she devoted herself every now and then with a great show of industry. She had been absorbed in a profound calculation of the stitches upon the canvas and on the coloured pattern before her until this moment; but she laid aside her work with a solemn air when Gilbert went over to her, and he knew at once what was coming.

“Sit down, Gilbert,” she said; and her brother dropped into a chair by her side with a faint sigh of resignation. “I want to talk to you seriously, as a sister ought to talk to a brother, without any fear of offending. I’m very sorry to see you have not yet forgotten that wicked ungrateful girl Marian Nowell.”

“Who told you that I have not forgotten her?”

“Your own face, Gilbert. It’s no use for you to put on a pretence of being cheerful and light-hearted with me. I know you too well to be deceived by that kind of thing — I could see how absent-minded you were all dinner-time, in spite of your talk. You can’t hoodwink an affectionate sister.”

“I don’t wish to hoodwink you, my dear,” Mr. Fenton answered quietly, “or to affect a happiness which I do not feel, any more than I wish to make a parade of my grief. It is natural for an Englishman to be reticent on such matters; but I do not mind owning to you that Marian Nowell is unforgotten by me, and that the loss of her will have an enduring influence upon my life; and having said as much as that, Belle, I must request that you will not expatiate any more upon this poor girl’s breach of faith. I have forgiven her long ago, and I shall always regard her as the purest and dearest of women.”

“What! you can hold her up as a paragon of perfection after she has thrown you over in the most heartless manner? Upon my word, Gilbert, I have no common patience with such folly. Your weakness in this affair from first to last has been positively deplorable.”

“I am sorry you disapprove of my conduct, Belle; but as it is not a very pleasant subject, don’t you think we may as well avoid it now and henceforward?”

“O, very well, Gilbert,” the lady exclaimed, with an offended air; “of course, if you choose to exclude me from your confidence, I must submit; but I do think it rather hard that your only sister should not he allowed to speak of a business that concerns you so nearly.”

“What good can arise out of any discussion of this subject, Belle? You think me weak and foolish; granted that I am both, you cannot cure me of my weakness or my folly.”

“And am I never to hope that you will find some one else, better worthy of your regard than Marian Nowell?”

“I fear not, Belle. For me there is no one else.”

Mrs. Lister breathed a profound sigh, and resumed the counting of her stitches. Yet perhaps, after all, it was better that her brother should cherish the memory of this unlucky attachment. It would preserve him from the hazard of any imprudent alliance in the future, and leave his fortune free, to descend by-and-by to the juvenile Listers. Isabella was not a particularly mercenary person, but she was a woman of the world, and had an eye to the future aggrandisement of her children.

She was very kind and considerate to Gilbert after this, carefully avoiding any farther allusions to his lost love, and taking all possible pains to make his visit pleasant to him. She was so affectionate and cordial, and seemed so really anxious for him to stay, that he could not in common decency hurry back to town quite so soon as he had intended. He prolonged his visit to the end of that week, and then to the beginning of the next; and when he did at last find himself free to return to London, the second week was nearly ended.

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