Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 27

Only a Woman.

The cabman did not hurry his tall raw-boned steed, and the drive to Temple-bar seemed a very long one to Adela Branston, whose mind was disturbed by the consciousness that she was doing a foolish thing. Many times during the journey, she was on the point of stopping the man and telling him to drive back to Cavendish-square; but in spite of these moments of doubt and vacillation she suffered the vehicle to proceed, and only stopped the man when they were close to Temple-bar.

Here she told him where she wanted to go; upon which he plunged down an obscure side street, and stopped at one of the entrances to the Temple. Here Mrs. Branston alighted, and had to inquire her way to Mr. Saltram’s chambers. She was so unaccustomed to be out alone, that this expedition seemed something almost awful to her when she found herself helpless and solitary in that strange locality. She had fancied that the cab would drive straight to Mr. Saltram’s door.

The busy lawyers flitting across those grave courts and passages turned to glance curiously at the pretty little widow. She had the air of a person not used to be on foot and unattended — a kind of aerial butterfly air, as of one who belonged to the useless and ornamental class of society; utterly different from the appearance of such humble female pedestrians as were wont to make the courts and alleys of the Temple a short-cut in their toilsome journeys to and fro. Happily a porter appeared, who was able to direct her to Mr. Saltram’s chambers, and civilly offered to escort her there; for which service she rewarded him with half-a-crown, instead of the sixpence which he expected as his maximum recompense; she was so glad to have reached the shelter of the dark staircase in safety. The men whom she had met had frightened her by their bold admiring stares; and yet she was pleased to think that she was looking pretty.

The porter did not leave her until she had been admitted by Mr. Saltram’s boy, and then retired, promising to be in the way to see her back to her carriage. How the poor little thing trembled when she found herself on the threshold of that unfamiliar door! What a horrible dingy lobby it was! and how she pitied John Saltram for having to live in such place! He was at home and alone, the boy told her; would she please to send in her card?

No, Mrs. Branston declined to send in her card. The boy could say that a lady wished to see Mr. Saltram.

The truth was, she wanted to surprise this man; to see how her unlooked-for presence would affect him. She fancied herself beloved by him, poor soul! and that she would be able to read some evidence of his joy at seeing her in this unexpected manner.

The boy went in to his master and announced the advent of a lady, the first he had ever seen in those dismal premises.

John Saltram started up from his desk and came with a hurried step to the door, very pale and almost breathless.

“A lady!” he gasped, and then fell back a pace or two on seeing Adela, with a look which was very much like disappointment.

“You here, Mrs. Branston!” he exclaimed; “I— you are the last person in the world I should have expected to see.”

Perhaps he felt that there was a kind of rudeness in this speech, for he added hastily, and with a faint smile —

“Of course I am not the less honoured by your visit.”

He moved a chair forward, the least dilapidated of the three or four which formed his scanty stock, and placed it near the neglected fire, which he tried to revive a little by a judicious use of the poker.

“You expected to see some one else, I think,” Adela said; quite unable to hide her wounded feelings.

She had seen the eagerness in his pale face when he came to the door, and the disappointed look with which he had recognised her.

“Scarcely; but I expected to receive news of some one else.”

“Some one you are very anxious to hear about, I should imagine, from your manner just now,” said Adela, who could not forbear pressing the question a little.

“Yes, Mrs. Branston, some one about whom I am anxious; a relation, in short.”

She looked at him with a puzzled air. She had never heard him talk of his relations, had indeed supposed that he stood almost alone in the world; but there was no reason that it should be so, except his silence on the subject. She watched him for some moments in silence, as he stood leaning against the opposite angle of the chimney-piece waiting for her to speak. He was looking very ill, much changed since she had seen him last, haggard and worn, with the air of a man who had not slept properly for many nights. There was an absent far-away look in his eyes: and Adela Branston felt all at once that her presence was nothing to him; that this desperate step which she had taken had no more effect upon him than the commonest event of every-day life; in a word, that he did not love her. A cold deathlike feeling came over her as she thought this. She had set her heart upon this man’s love, and had indeed some justification for supposing that it was hers. It seemed to her that life was useless — worse than useless, odious and unendurable — without it.

But even while she was thinking this, with a cold blank misery in her heart, she had to invent some excuse for this unseemly visit.

“I have waited so anxiously for you to call,” she said at last, in a nervous hesitating way, “and I began to fear that you must be ill, and I wished to consult you about the management of my affairs. My lawyers worry me so with questions which I don’t know how to answer, and I have so few friends in the world whom I can trust except you; so at last I screwed up my courage to call upon you.”

“I am deeply honoured by your confidence, Mrs. Branston,” John Saltram answered, looking at her gravely with those weary haggard eyes, with the air of a man who brings his thoughts back to common life from some far-away region with an effort. “If my advice or assistance can be of any use to you, they are completely at your service. What is this business about which your solicitor bothers you?”

“I’ll explain that to you directly,” Adela answered, taking some letters from her pocket-book. “How good you are! I knew that you would help me; but tell me first why you have never been to Cavendish-square in all this long time. I fear I was right; you have been ill, have you not?”

“Not exactly ill, but very much worried and overworked.”

A light dawned on Adela Branston’s troubled mind. She began to think that Mr. Saltram’s strange absent manner, his apparent indifference to her presence, might arise from preoccupation, caused by those pecuniary difficulties from which the Pallinsons declared him so constant a sufferer. Yes, she told herself, it was trouble of this kind that oppressed him, that had banished him from her all this time. He was too generous to repair his shattered fortunes by means of her money; he was too proud to confess his fallen state.

A tender pity took possession of her. All that was most sentimental in her nature was awakened by the idea of John Saltram’s generosity. What was the use of her fortune, if she could not employ it for the relief of the man she loved?

“You are so kind to me, Mr. Saltram,” she faltered, after a troubled pause; “so ready to help me in my perplexities, I only wish you would allow me to be of some use to you in yours, if you have any perplexities; and I suppose everybody has, of some kind or other. I should be so proud if you would give me your confidence — so proud and happy!” Her voice trembled a little as she said this, looking up at him all the while with soft confiding blue eyes, the fair delicate face looking its prettiest in the coquettish widow’s head-gear.

A man must have been harder of heart than John Saltram who could remain unmoved by a tenderness so evident. This man was touched, and deeply. The pale careworn face grew more troubled, the firmly-moulded lips quivered ever so little, as he looked down at the widow’s pleading countenance; and then he turned his head aside with a sudden half-impatient movement.

“My dear Mrs. Branston, you are too good to me; I am unworthy, I am in every way unworthy of your kindness.”

“You are not unworthy, and that is no answer to my question; only an excuse to put me off. We are such old friends, Mr. Saltram, you might trust me. You own that you have been worried — overworked — worried about money matters, perhaps. I know that gentlemen are generally subject to that kind of annoyance; and you know how rich I am, how little employment I have for my money, though you can never imagine how worthless and useless it seems to me. Why won’t you trust me? why won’t you let me be your banker?”

She blushed crimson as she made this offer, dreading that the man she loved would turn upon her fiercely in a passion of offended pride. She sat before him trembling, dreading the might of his indignation.

But there was no anger in John Saltram’s face when he looked round at her; only grief and an expression that was like pity.

“The offer is like you,” he said with suppressed feeling; “but the worries of which I spoke just now are not money troubles. I do not pretend to deny that my affairs are embarrassed, and have been for so long that entanglement has become their normal state; but if they were ever so much more desperate, I could not afford to trade upon your generosity. No, Mrs. Branston, that is just the very last thing in this world that I could consent to do.”

“It is very cruel of you to say that,” Adela answered, with the tears gathering in her clear blue eyes, and with a little childish look of vexation, which would have seemed infinitely charming in the eyes of a man who loved her. “There can be no reason for your saying this, except that you do not think me worthy of your confidence — that you despise me too much to treat me like a friend. If I were that Mr. Fenton now, whom you care for so much, you would not treat me like this.”

“I never borrowed a sixpence from Gilbert Fenton in my life, though I know that his purse is always open to me. But friendship is apt to end when money transactions begin. Believe me, I feel your goodness, Mrs. Branston, your womanly generosity; but it is my own unworthiness that comes between me and your kindness. I can accept nothing from you but the sympathy which it is your nature to give to all who need it.”

“I do indeed sympathise with you; but it seems so hard that you will not consent to make some use of all that money which is lying idle. It would make me so happy if I could think it were useful to you; but I dare not say any more. I have said too much already, perhaps; only I hope you will not think very badly of me for having acted on impulse in this way.”

“Think badly of you, my dear kind soul! What can I think, except that you are one of the most generous of women?”

“And about these other troubles, Mr. Saltram, which have no relation to money matters; you will not give me your confidence?”

“There is nothing that I can confide in you, Mrs. Branston. Others are involved in the matter of which I spoke, I am not free to talk about it.”

Poor Adela felt herself repulsed at every point. It seemed very hard. Had she been mistaken about this man all the time? mistaken and deluded in those old happy days during her husband’s lifetime, when he had been so constant a visitor at the river-side villa, and had seemed exactly what a man might seem who cherished a tenderness which he dared not reveal in the present, but which in a brighter future might blossom into the full-blown flower of love?

“And now about your own affairs, my dear Mrs. Branston?” John Saltram said with a forced cheerfulness, drawing his chain up to the table and assuming a business-like manner. “These tiresome letters of your lawyers’; let me see what use I can be in the matter.”

Adela Branston produced the letters with rather an absent air. They were letters about very insignificant affairs; the renewal of a lease or two; the reinvestment of a sum of money that had been lent on mortgage, and had fallen in lately; transactions that scarcely called for the employment of Mr. Saltram’s intellectual powers. But he gave them very serious attention nevertheless, well aware, all the time that this business consultation was only the widow’s excuse for her visit; and while she seemed to be listening to his advice, her eyes were wandering round the room all the time, noting the dust and confusion, the soda-water bottles huddled in one corner, the pile of books heaped in a careless mass in another, the half-empty brandy-bottle between a couple of stone ink-jars on the mantelpiece. She was thinking what a dreary place it was, and that there was the stamp of decay and ruin somehow upon the man who occupied it. And she loved him so well, and would have given all the world to have redeemed his life.

It is doubtful whether Adela Branston heard one syllable of that counsel which Mr. Saltram administered so gravely. Her mind was full of the failure of this desperate step which she had taken. He seemed farther from her now than before they had met, obstinately adverse to profit by her friendship, cold and cruel.

“You will come and dine with us very soon, I hope,” she said as she rose to go, “My cousin, Mrs. Pallinson, will be home in a day or two. She has been nursing her son for the last few days; but he is much better, and I expect her back immediately. We shall be so pleased to see you; you will name an early day, won’t you? Monday shall we say, or Sunday? You can’t plead business on Sunday.”

“My dear Mrs. Branston, I really am not well enough for visiting.”

“But dining with us does not come under the head of visiting. We will be quite alone, if you wish it. I shall be hurt if you refuse to come.”

“If you put it in that way, I cannot refuse; but I fear you will find me wretched company.”

“I am not afraid of that. And now I must ask you to forgive me for having wasted so much of your time, before I say good-morning.”

“There has been no time of mine wasted. I have learned to know your generous heart even better than I knew it before, and I think I always knew that it was a noble one. Believe me, I am not ungrateful or indifferent to so much goodness.”

He accompanied her downstairs, and through the courts and passages to the place where she had left her cab, in spite of the ticket-porter, who was hanging about ready to act as escort. He saw her safely seated in the hackney vehicle, and then walked slowly back to his chambers, thinking over the interview which had just concluded.

“Poor little soul,” he said softly to himself; “dear little soul! There are men who would go to the end of the world for a woman like that; yes, if she had not a sixpence. And to think that I, who thought myself so strong in the wisdom of the world, should have let such a prize slip through my fingers? For what? For a fancy, for a caprice that has brought confusion and shame upon me — disappointment and regret.”

He breathed a profound sigh. From first to last life had been more or less a disappointment to this man. He had lived alone; lived for himself, despising the ambitious aims and lofty hopes of other men, thinking the best prizes this world can give scarcely worth that long struggle which is so apt to end in failure; perfect success was so rare a result, it seemed to him. He made a rough calculation of his chances in any given line when he was still fresh from college, and finding the figures against him, gave up all thoughts of doing great things. By-and-by, when his creditors grew pressing and it was necessary for him to earn money in some way, he found that it was no trouble to him to write; so he wrote with a spasmodic kind of industry, but a forty-horse power when he chose to exercise it. For a long time he had no thought of winning name or fame in literature. It was only of late it had dawned upon him that he had wasted labour and talent, out of which a wiser man would have created for himself a reputation; and that reputation is worth something, if only as a means of making money.

This conviction once arrived at, he had worked hard at a book which he thought must needs make some impression upon the world whenever he could afford time to complete it. In the meanwhile his current work occupied so much of his life, that he was fain to lay the magnum opus aside every now and then, and it still needed a month or two of quiet labour.

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