Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 26

In Bondage.

Adela Branston found life very dreary in the splendid gloom of her town house. She would have infinitely preferred the villa near Maidenhead for the place of her occupation, had it not been for the fact that in London she was nearer John Saltram, and that any moment of any day might bring him to her side.

The days passed, however — empty useless days, frittered away in frivolous occupations, or wasted in melancholy idleness; and John Saltram did not come, or came so rarely that the only effect of his visits was to keep up the fever and restlessness of the widow’s mind.

She had fancied that life would be so bright for her when the day of her freedom came; that she would reap so rich a harvest of happiness as a reward for the sacrifice which she had made in marrying old Michael Branston, and enduring his peevishness and ill-health with tolerable good-humour during the half-dozen years of their wedded life. She had fancied this; and now her release had come to her, and was worthless in her sight, because the one man she cared for had proved himself cold and indifferent.

In spite of his coldness, however, she told herself that he loved her, that he had loved her from the earliest period of their acquaintance.

She was a poor weak little woman, the veriest spoilt child of fortune, and she clung to this belief with a fond foolish persistence, a blind devoted obstinacy, against which the arguments of Mrs. Pallinson were utterly vain, although that lady devoted a great deal of time and energy to the agreeable duty which she called “opening dear Adela’s eyes about that dissipated good-for-nothing Mr. Saltram.”

To a correct view of this subject Adela Branston’s eyes were not to be opened in any wise. She was wilfully, resolutely blind, clinging to the hope that this cruel neglect on John Saltram’s part arose only from his delicacy of feeling, and tender care for her reputation.

“But O, how I wish that he would come to me!” she said to herself again and again, as those slow dreary days went by, burdened and weighed down by the oppressive society of Mrs. Pallinson, as well as by her own sad thoughts. “My husband has been dead ever so long now, and what need have we to study the opinion of the world so much? Of course I wouldn’t marry him till a year, or more, after poor Michael’s death; but I should like to see him often, to be sure that he still cares for me as he used to care — yes, I am sure he used — in the dear old days at Maidenhead. Why doesn’t he come to me? He knows that I love him. He must know that I have no brighter hope than to make him the master of my fortune; and yet he goes on in those dismal Temple chambers, toiling at his literary work as if he had not a thought in the world beyond earning so many pounds a week.”

This was the perpetual drift of Mrs. Branston’s meditations; and in the absence of any sign or token of regard from John Saltram, all Mrs. Pallinson’s attempts to amuse her, all the fascinations and accomplishments of the elegant Theobald, were thrown away upon an unreceptive soil.

There were not many amusements open to a London public at that dull season of the year, except the theatres, and for those places of entertainment Mrs. Pallinson cherished a shuddering aversion. But there were occasional morning and evening “recitals,” or concerts, where the music for the most part was of a classical and recondite character — feasts of melody, at which long-buried and forgotten sonatas of Gluck, or Bach, or Chembini were introduced to a discriminating public for the first time; and to these Mrs. Pallinson and Theobald conducted poor Adela Branston, whose musical proclivities had never yet soared into higher regions than those occupied by the sparkling joyous genius of Rossini, and to whom the revived sonatas, or the familiar old-established gems of classical art, were as unintelligible as so much Hebrew or Syriac. Perhaps they were not much more delightful to Mrs. Pallinson; but that worthy matron had a profound veneration for the conventionalities of life, and these classical matinées and recitals seemed to her exactly the correct sort of thing for the amusement of a young widow whose husband had not very long ago been consigned to the tomb.

So poor Adela was dragged hither and thither to gloomy concert-rooms, where the cold winter’s light made the performers look pale and wan, or to aristocratic drawing-rooms, graciously lent to some favoured pianiste by their distinguished owners; and so, harassed and weary, but lacking spirit to oppose her own feeble inclinations to the overpowering force of Mrs. Pallinson’s will, the helpless little widow went submissively wherever they chose to take her, tormented all the while by the thought of John Saltram’s coldness, and wondering when this cruel time of probation would be at an end, and he would show himself her devoted slave once more. It was very weak and foolish to think of him like this, no doubt; undignified and unwomanly, perhaps; but Adela Branston was little more than a child in knowledge of the world, and John Saltram was the only man who had ever touched her heart. She stood quite alone in the world too, lonely with all her wealth, and there was no one to share her affection with this man, who had acquired so complete an influence over her.

She endured the dreary course of her days patiently enough for a considerable time, not knowing any means whereby she might release herself from the society of her kinswoman, or put an end to the indefatigable attentions of the popular Maida Hill doctor. She would have gladly offered Mrs. Pallinson a liberal allowance out of her fortune to buy that lady off, and be her own mistress once more, free to act and think for herself, had she dared to make such a degrading proposition to a person of Mrs. Pallinson’s dignity. But she could not venture to do this; and she felt that no one but John Saltram, in the character of her future husband, could release her from the state of bondage into which she had weakly suffered herself to fall. In the meantime she defended the man she loved with an unflinching spirit, resolutely refusing to have her eyes opened to the worthlessness of his character, and boldly declaring her disbelief of those sad accounts which Theobald affected to have heard from well-informed acquaintance of his own, respecting the follies and dissipations of Mr. Saltram’s career, his debts, his love of gambling, his dealings with money-lenders, and other foibles common to the rake’s progress.

It was rather a hard battle for the lonely little woman to fight, but she had fortune on her side; and at the worst, her kinsfolk treated her with a certain deference, even while they were doing their utmost to worry her into an untimely grave. If little flatteries, and a perpetual indulgence in all small matters, such as a foolish nurse might give to a spoilt child, could have made Adela happy, she had certainly no reason to complain, for in this manner Mrs. Pallinson was the most devoted and affectionate of companions. If her darling Adela looked a little paler than usual, or confessed to suffering from a headache, or owned to being nervous or out of spirits, Mrs. Pallinson’s anxiety knew no bounds, and Theobald was summoned from Maida Hill without a minute’s delay, much to poor Adela’s annoyance. Indeed, she grew in time to deny the headaches, and the low spirits, or the nervousness resolutely, rather than bring upon herself a visitation from Mr. Theobald Pallinson; and in spite of all this care and indulgence she felt herself a prisoner in her own house, somehow; more dependent than the humblest servant in that spacious mansion; and she looked out helplessly and hopelessly for some friend through whose courageous help she might recover her freedom. Perhaps she only thought of one champion as at all likely to come to her rescue; indeed, her mind had scarcely room for more than that one image, which occupied her thoughts at all times.

Her captivity had lasted for a period which seemed a very long time, though it was short enough when computed by the ordinary standard of weeks and months, when a circumstance occurred which gave her a brief interval of liberty. Mr. Pallinson fell a victim to some slight attack of low fever; and his mother, who was really most devoted to this paragon of a son, retired from the citadel in Cavendish Square for a few days in order to nurse him. It was not that the surgeon’s illness was in any way dangerous, but the mother could not trust her darling to the care of strangers and hirelings.

Adela Branston seemed to breathe more freely in that brief holiday. Relieved from Mrs. Pallinson’s dismal presence, life appeared brighter and pleasanter all at once; a faint colour came back to the pale cheeks, and the widow was even beguiled into laughter by some uncomplimentary observations which her confidential maid ventured upon with reference to the absent lady.

“I’m sure the house itself seems lighter and more cheerful-like without her, ma’am,” said this young person, who was of a vivacious temperament, and upon whom the dowager’s habitual dreariness had been a heavy affliction; “and you’re looking all the better already for not being worried by her.”

“Berners, you really must not say such things,” Mrs. Branston exclaimed reproachfully. “You ought to know that my cousin is most kind and thoughtful, and does everything for the best.”

“O, of course, ma’am; but some people’s best is quite as bad as other people’s worst,” the maid answered sharply; “and as to kindness and thoughtfulness, Mrs. Pallinson is a great deal too kind and thoughtful, I think; for her kindness and thoughtfulness won’t allow you a moment’s rest. And then, as if anybody couldn’t see through her schemes about that precious son of hers — with his finicking affected ways!”

And at this point the vivacious Berners gave a little imitation of Theobald Pallinson, with which liberty Adela pretended to be very much offended, laughing at the performance nevertheless.

Mrs. Branston passed the first day of her freedom in luxurious idleness. It was such an inexpressible relief not to hear the perpetual click of Mrs. Pallinson’s needle travelling in and out of the canvas, as that irreproachable matron sat at her embroidery-frame, on which a group of spaniels, after Sir Edwin Landseer, were slowly growing into the fluffy life of Berlin wool; a still greater relief, not to be called upon to respond appropriately to the dull platitudes which formed the lady’s usual conversation, when she was not abusing John Saltram, or sounding the praises of her beloved son.

The day was a long one for Adela, in spite of the pleasant sense of freedom; for she had begun the morning with the thought of what a delightful thing it would be if some happy accident should bring Mr. Saltram to Cavendish-square on this particular day; and having once started with this idea, she found herself counting the hours and half-hours with impatient watchfulness until the orthodox time for visiting was quite over, and she could no longer beguile herself with the hope that he would come. She wanted so much to see him alone. Since her husband’s death, they had met only in the presence of Mrs. Pallinson, beneath the all-pervading eye and within perpetual ear-shot of that oppressive matron. Adela fancied that if they could only meet for one brief half-hour face to face, without the restraint of that foreign presence, all misunderstanding would be at an end between them, and John Saltram’s affection for her, in which she believed with a fond credulity, would reveal itself in all its truth and fulness.

“I daresay it is my cousin Pallinson who has kept him away from me all this time,” Adela said to herself with a very impatient feeling about her cousin Pallinson. “I know how intolerant he is of any one he dislikes; and no doubt he has taken a dislike to her; she has done everything to provoke it, indeed by her coldness and rudeness to him.”

That day went by, and the second and third day of the dowager’s absence; but there was no sign of John Saltram. Adela thought of writing to ask him to come to her; but that seemed such a desperate step, she could not think how she should word the letter, or how she could give it to one of the servants to post. No, she would contrive to post it herself, if she did bring herself to write. And then she thought of a still more desperate step. What if she were to call upon Mr. Saltram at his Temple chambers? It would be a most unwarrantable thing for her to do, of course; an act which would cause Mrs. Pallinson’s hair to stand on end in virtuous horror, could it by any means come to her knowledge; but Adela did not intend that it ever should be known to Mrs. Pallinson; and about the opinion of the world in the abstract, Mrs. Branston told herself that she cared very little. What was the use of being a rich widow, if she was to be hedged-in by the restrictions which encompass the steps of an unwedded damsel just beginning life? Emboldened by the absence of her dowager kinswoman, Mrs. Branston felt herself independent, free to do a foolish thing, and ready to abide the hazard of her folly.

So, upon the fourth day of her freedom, despairing of any visit from John Saltram, Adela Branston ordered the solemn-looking butler to send for a cab, much to the surprise of that portly individual.

“Josephs has just been round asking about the carriage, mum,” he said, in a kind of suggestive way; “whether you’d please to want the b’rouche or the broom, and whether you’d drive before or after luncheon.”

“I shall not want the carriage this morning; send for a cab, if you please, Parker. I am going into the City, and don’t care about taking the horses there.”

The solemn Parker bowed and retired, not a little mystified by this order. His mistress was a kind little woman enough, but such extreme consideration for equine comfort is hardly a feminine attribute, and Mr. Parker was puzzled. He told Josephs the coachman as much when he had dispatched an underling to fetch the cleanest four-wheeler procurable at an adjacent stand.

“She’s a-going to her banker’s I suppose,” he said meditatively; “going to make some new investments perhaps. Women are always a-fidgeting and chopping and changing with their money.”

Mrs. Branston kept the cab waiting half an hour, according to the fairest reckoning. She was very particular about her toilette that morning, and inclined to be discontented with the sombre plainness of her widow’s garb, and to fancy that the delicate border of white crape round her girlish face made her look pale, not to say sallow. She came downstairs at last, however, looking very graceful and pretty in her trailing mourning robes and fashionable crape bonnet, in which the profoundest depth of woe was made to express itself with a due regard to elegance. She came down to the homely hackney vehicle attended by the obsequious Berners, whose curiosity was naturally excited by this solitary expedition.

“Where shall I tell the man to drive, mum?” the butler asked with the cab-door in his hand.

Mrs. Branston felt herself blushing, and hesitated a little before she replied.

“The Union Bank, Chancery-lane. Tell him to go by the Strand and Temple-bar.”

“I can’t think what’s come to my mistress,” Miss Berners remarked as the cab drove off. “Catch me driving in one of those nasty vulgar four-wheel cabs, if I had a couple of carriages and a couple of pairs of horses at my disposal. There’s some style about a hansom; but I never could abide those creepy-crawley four-wheelers.”

“I admire your taste, Miss Berners; and a dashing young woman like you’s a credit to a hansom,” replied Mr. Parker gallantly. “But there’s no accounting for the vagaries of the female sex; and I fancy somehow Mrs. B. didn’t want any of us to know where she was going; she coloured-up so when I asked her for the direction. You may depend there’s something up, Jane Berners. She’s going to see some poor relation perhaps — Mile-end or Kentish-town way — and was ashamed to give the address.”

“I don’t believe she has any relations, except old Mother Pallinson and her son,” Miss Berners answered.

And thereupon the handmaiden withdrew to her own regions with a discontented air, as one who had been that day cheated out of her legitimate rights.

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