Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 28

At Fault.

Gilbert Fenton took up his abode at the dilapidated old inn at Crosber, thinking that he might be freer there than at the Grange; a dismal place of sojourn under the brightest circumstances, but unspeakably dreary for him who had only the saddest thoughts for his companions. He wanted to be on the spot, to be close at hand to hear tidings of the missing girl, and he wanted also to be here in the event of John Holbrook’s return — to come face to face with this man, if possible, and to solve that question which had sorely perplexed him of late — the mystery that hung about the man who had wronged him.

He consulted Ellen Carley as to the probability of Mr. Holbrook’s return. The girl seemed to think it very unlikely that Marian’s husband would ever again appear at the Grange. His last departure had appeared like a final one. He had paid every sixpence he owed in the neighbourhood, and had been liberal in his donations to the servants and hangers-on of the place. Marian’s belongings he had left to Ellen Carley’s care, telling her to pack them, and keep them in readiness for being forwarded to any address he might send. But his own books and papers he had carefully removed.

“Had he many books here?” Gilbert asked.

“Not many,” the girl answered; “but he was a very studious gentleman. He spent almost all his time shut up in his own room reading and writing.”

“Indeed!”

In this respect the habits of the unknown corresponded exactly with those of John Saltram. Gilbert Fenton’s heart beat a little quicker at the thought that he was coming nearer by a step to the solution of that question which was always uppermost in his mind now.

“Do you know if he wrote books — if he was what is called a literary man — living by his pen?” he asked presently.

“I don’t know; I never heard his wife say so. But Mrs. Holbrook was always reserved about him and his history. I think he had forbidden her to talk about his affairs. I know I used to fancy it was a dull life for her, poor soul, sitting in his room hour after hour, working while he wrote. He used not to allow her to be with him at all at first, but little by little she persuaded him to let her sit with him, promising not to disturb him by so much as a word; and she never did. She seemed quite happy when she was with him, contented, and proud to think that her presence was no hindrance to him.”

“And you think he loved her, don’t you?”

“At first, yes; but I think a kind of weariness came over him afterwards, and that she saw it, and almost broke her heart about it. She was so simple and innocent, poor darling, it wasn’t easy for her to hide anything she felt.”

Gilbert asked the bailiff’s daughter to describe Mr. Holbrook to him, as she had done more than once before. But this time he questioned her closely, and contrived that her description of this man’s outward semblance should be especially minute and careful.

Yes, the picture which arose before him as Ellen Carley spoke was the picture of John Saltram. The description seemed in every particular to apply to the face and figure of his one chosen friend. But then all such verbal pictures are at best vague and shadowy, and Gilbert knew that he carried that one image in his mind, and would be apt unconsciously to twist the girl’s words into that one shape. He asked if any picture or photograph of Mr. Holbrook had been left at the Grange, and Ellen Carley told him no, she had never even seen a portrait of Marian’s husband.

He was therefore fain to be content with the description which seemed so exactly to fit the friend he loved, the friend to whom he had clung with a deeper, stronger feeling since this miserable suspicion had taken root in his mind.

“I think I could have forgiven him if he had come between us in a bold and open way,” he said to himself, brooding over this harassing doubt of his friend; “yes, I think I could have forgiven him, in spite of the bitterness of losing her. But to steal her from me with cowardly treacherous secrecy, to hide my treasure in an obscure corner, and then grow weary of her, and blight her fair young life with his coldness — can I forgive him these things? can all the memory of the past plead with me for him when I think of these things? O God, grant that I am mistaken; that it is some other man who has done this, and not John Saltram; not the man I have loved and honoured for fifteen years of my life!”

But his suspicions were not to be put away, not to be driven out of his mind, let him argue against them as he might. He resolved, therefore, that as soon as he should have made every effort and taken every possible means towards the recovery of the missing girl, he would make it his business next to bring this thing home to John Saltram, or acquit him for ever.

It is needless to dwell upon that weary work, which seemed destined to result in nothing but disappointment. The local constabulary and the London police alike exerted all their powers to obtain some trace of Marian Holbrook’s lost footsteps; but no clue to the painful mystery was to be found. From the moment when she vanished from the eyes of the servant-woman watching her departure from the Grange gate, she seemed to have disappeared altogether from the sight of mankind. If by some witchcraft she had melted into the dim autumnal mist that hung about the river-bank, she could not have left less trace, or vanished more mysteriously than she had done. The local constabulary gave in very soon, in spite of Gilbert Fenton’s handsome payment in the present, and noble promises of reward in the future. The local constabulary were honest and uninventive. They shook their heads gloomily, and said “Drownded.”

“But the river has been dragged,” Gilbert cried eagerly, “and there has been nothing found.”

He shuddered at the thought of that which might have been hauled to shore in the foul weedy net. The face he loved, changed, disfigured, awful — the damp clinging hair.

“Holes,” replied the chief of the local constabulary, sententiously; “there’s holes in that there river where you might hide half a dozen drownded men, and never hope to find ’em, no more than if they was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Lord bless your heart, sir, you Londoners don’t know what a river is, in a manner of speaking,” added the man, who was most likely unacquainted with the existence of the Thames, compared with which noble stream this sluggish Hampshire river was the veriest ditch. “I’ve known a many poor creatures drownded in that river, and never one of ’em to come to light — not that the river was dragged for them. Their friends weren’t of the dragging class, they weren’t.”

The London police were more hopeful and more delusive. They were always hearing of some young lady newly arrived at some neighbouring town or village who seemed to answer exactly to the description of Mrs. Holbrook. And, behold, when Gilbert Fenton hurried off post-haste to the village or town, and presented himself before the lady in question, he found for the most part that she was ten years older than Marian, and as utterly unlike her as it was possible for one Englishwoman to be unlike another.

He possessed a portrait of the missing girl — a carefully finished photograph, which had been given to him in the brief happy time when she was his promised wife; and he caused this image to be multiplied and distributed wherever the search for Marian was being made. He neglected no possible means by which he might hope to obtain tidings; advertising continually, in town and country, and varying his advertisements in such a manner as to insure attention either from the object of his inquiries, or any one acquainted with her.

But all his trouble was in vain. No reply, or, what was worse, worthless and delusive replies, came to his advertisements. The London police, who had pretended to be so hopeful at first, began to despair in a visible manner, having put all their machinery into play, and failed to obtain even the most insignificant result. They were fain to confess at last that they could only come to pretty much the same conclusion as that arrived at by their inferiors, the rustic officials; and agreed that in all probability the river hid the secret of Marian Holbrook’s fate. She had been the victim of either crime or accident. Who should say which? The former seemed the more likely, as she had vanished in broad daylight, when, it was scarcely possible that her footsteps could go astray; while in that lonely neighbourhood a crime was never impossible.

“She had a watch and chain, I suppose?” the officer inquired. “Ladies will wear ’em.”

Gilbert ascertained from Ellen Carley that Marian had always worn her watch and chain, had worn them when she left the Grange for the last time. She had a few other trinkets too, which she wore habitually, quaint old-fashioned things, of some value.

How well Gilbert remembered those little family treasures, which she had exhibited to him at Captain Sedgewick’s bidding!

“Ah,” muttered the officer when he heard this, “quite enough to cost her her life, if she met with one of your ugly customers. I’ve known a murder committed for the sake of three-and-sixpence in my time; and pushing a young woman into the river don’t count for murder among that sort of people. You see, some one may come by and fish her out again; so it can’t well be more than manslaughter.”

A dull horror came over Gilbert Fenton as he heard these professional speculations, but at the worst he could not bring himself to believe that these men were right, and that the woman he loved had been the victim of some obscure wretch’s greed, slain in broad daylight for the sake of a few pounds’ worth of jewelry.

When everything had been done that was possible to be done in that part of the country, Mr. Fenton went back to London. But not before he had become very familiar with the household at the Grange. From the first he had liked and trusted Ellen Carley, deeply touched by her fidelity to Marian. He made a point of dropping in at the Grange every evening, when not away from Crosber following up some delusive track started by his metropolitan counsellors. He always went there with a faint hope that Ellen Carley might have something to tell him, and with a vague notion that John Holbrook might return unexpectedly, and that they two might meet in the old farm-house. But Mr. Holbrook did not reappear, nor had Ellen any tidings for her evening visitor; though she thought of little else than Marian, and never let a day pass without making some small effort to obtain a clue to that mystery which now seemed so hopeless. Gilbert grew to be quite at home in the little wainscoted parlour at the Grange, smoking his cigar there nightly in a tranquil contemplative mood, while Mr. Carley puffed vigorously at his long clay pipe. There was a special charm for him in the place that had so long being Marian’s home. He felt nearer to her, somehow, under that roof, and as if he must needs be on the right road to some discovery. The bailiff, although prone to silence, seemed to derive considerable gratification from Mr. Fenton’s visits, and talked to that gentleman with greater freedom than he was wont to display in his intercourse with mankind. Ellen was not always present during the whole of the evening, and in her absence the bailiff would unbosom himself to Gilbert on the subject of his daughter’s undutiful conduct; telling him what a prosperous marriage the girl might make if she had only common sense enough to see her own interests in the right light, and wasn’t the most obstinate self-willed hussy that ever set her own foolish whims and fancies against a father’s wishes.

“But a woman’s fancies sometimes mean a very deep feeling, Mr. Carley,” pleaded Gilbert; “and what worldly-wise people call a good home, is not always a happy one. It’s a hard thing for a young woman to marry against her inclination.”

“Humph!” muttered the bailiff in a surly tone. “It’s a harder thing for her to marry a pauper, I should think, and to bring a regiment of children into the world, always wanting shoes and stockings. But you’re a bachelor, you see, Mr. Fenton, and can’t be expected to know what shoes and stockings are. Now there happens to be a friend of mine — a steady, respectable, middle-aged man — who worships the ground my girl walks on, and could make her mistress of as good a house as any within twenty miles of this, and give a home to her father in his old age, into the bargain; for I’m only a servant here, and it can’t be expected that I am to go on toiling and slaving about this place for ever. I don’t say but what I’ve saved a few pounds, but I haven’t saved enough to keep me out of the workhouse.”

This seemed to Gilbert rather a selfish manner of looking at a daughter’s matrimonial prospects, and he ventured to hint as much in a polite way. But the bailiff was immovable.

“What a young woman wants is a good home,” he said decisively; “whether she has the sense to know it herself, or whether she hasn’t, that’s what she’s got to look for in life.”

Gilbert had not spent many evenings at the Grange before he had the honour of being introduced to the estimable middle-aged suitor, whose claims Mr. Carley was always setting forth to his daughter. He saw Stephen Whitelaw, and that individual’s colourless expressionless countenance, redeemed from total blankness only by the cunning visible in the small grey eyes, impressed him with instant distrust and dislike.

“God forbid that frank warm-hearted girl should ever be sacrificed to such a fellow as this,” he said to himself, as he sat on the opposite side of the hearth, smoking his cigar, and meditatively contemplating Mr. Whitelaw conversing in his slow solemn fashion with the man who was so eager to be his father-in-law.

In the course of that first evening of their acquaintance, Gilbert was surprised to see how often Stephen Whitelaw looked at him, with a strangely-attentive expression, that had something furtive in it, some hidden meaning, as it seemed to him. Whenever Gilbert spoke, the farmer looked up at him, always with the same sharp inquisitive glance, the same cunning twinkle in his small eyes. And every time he happened to look at Mr. Whitelaw during that evening, he found the watchful eyes turned towards him in the same unpleasant manner. The sensation caused by this kind of surveillance on the part of the farmer was so obnoxious to him, that at parting he took occasion to speak of it in a friendly way.

“I fancy you and I must have met before to-night, Mr. Whitelaw,” he said; “or that you must have some notion to that effect. You’ve looked at me with an amount of interest my personal merits could scarcely call for.”

“No, no, sir,” the farmer answered in his usual slow deliberate way; “it isn’t that; I never set eyes on you before I came into this room to-night. But you see, Ellen, she’s interested in you, and I take an interest in any one she takes to. And we’ve all of us thought so much about your searching for that poor young lady that’s missing, and taking such pains, and being so patient-like where another would have given in at the first set-off — so, altogether, you’re a general object of interest, you see.”

Gilbert did not appear particularly flattered by this compliment. He received it at first with rather an angry look, and then, after a pause, was vexed with himself for having been annoyed by the man’s clumsy expression of sympathy — for it was sympathy, no doubt, which Mr. Whitelaw wished to express.

“It has been sad work, so far,” he said. “I suppose you can give me no hint, no kind of advice as to any step to be taken in the future.”

“Lord bless you, no sir. Everything that could be done was done before you came here. Mr. Holbrook didn’t leave a stone unturned. He did his duty as a man and a husband, sir. The poor young lady was drowned — there’s no doubt about that.”

“I don’t believe it,” Gilbert said, with a quiet resolute air, which seemed quite to startle Mr. Whitelaw.

“You don’t believe she was drowned! You mean to say you think she’s alive, then?” he asked, with unusual sharpness and quickness of speech.

“I have a firm conviction that she still lives; that, with God’s blessing, I shall see her again.”

“Well, sir,” Mr. Whitelaw replied, relapsing into his accustomed slowness, and rubbing his clumsy chin with his still clumsier hand, in a thoughtful manner, “of course it ain’t my place to go against any gentleman’s convictions — far from it; but if you see Mrs. Holbrook before the dead rise out of their graves, my name isn’t Stephen Whitelaw. You may waste your time and your trouble, and you may spend your money as it was so much water, but set eyes upon that missing lady you never will; take my word for it, or don’t take my word for it, as you please.”

Gilbert wondered at the man’s earnestness. Did he really feel some kind of benevolent interest in the fate of a helpless woman, or was it only a vulgar love of the marvellous and horrible that moved him? Gilbert leaned to the latter opinion, and was by no means inclined to give Stephen Whitelaw credit for any surplus stock of benevolence. He saw a good deal more of Ellen Carley’s suitor in the course of his evening visits to the Grange, and had ample opportunity for observing Mr. Whitelaw’s mode of courtship, which was by no means of the demonstrative order, consisting in a polite silence towards the object of his affections, broken only by one or two clumsy but florid compliments, delivered in a deliberate but semi-jocose manner. The owner of Wyncomb Farm had no idea of making hard work of his courtship. He had been angled for by so many damsels, and courted by so many fathers and mothers, that he fancied he had but to say the word when the time came, and the thing would be done. Any evidence of avoidance, indifference, or even dislike upon Ellen Carley’s part, troubled him in the smallest degree. He had heard people talk of young Randall’s fancy for her, and of her liking for him, but he knew that her father meant to set his heel upon any nonsense of this kind; and he did not for a moment imagine it possible that any girl would resolutely oppose her father’s will, and throw away such good fortune as he could offer her — to ride in her own chaise-cart, and wear a silk gown always on Sundays, to say nothing of a gold watch and chain; and Mr. Whitelaw meant to endow his bride with a ponderous old-fashioned timepiece and heavy brassy-looking cable which had belonged to his mother.

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