Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 29

Baffled, Not Beaten.

The time came when Gilbert Fenton was fain to own to himself that there was no more to be done down in Hampshire: professional science and his own efforts had been alike futile. If she whom he sought still lived — and he had never for a moment suffered himself to doubt this — it was more than likely that she was far away from Crosber Grange, that there had been some motive for her sudden flight, unaccountable as that flight might seem in the absence of any clue to the mystery.

Every means of inquiry being exhausted in Hampshire, there was nothing left to Gilbert but to return to London — that marvellous city, where there always seems the most hope of finding the lost, wide as the wilderness is.

“In London I shall have clever detectives always at my service,” Gilbert thought; “in London I may be able to solve the question of John Holbrook’s identity.”

So, apart from the fact that his own affairs necessitated his prompt return to the great city, Gilbert had another motive for leaving the dull rural neighbourhood where he had wasted so many anxious hours, so much thought and care.

For the rest, he knew that Ellen Carley would be faithful — always on the watch for any clue to the mystery of Marian Holbrook’s fate, always ready to receive the wanderer with open arms, should any happy chance bring her back to the Grange. Assured of this, he felt less compunction in turning his back upon the spot where his lost love had vanished from the eyes of men.

Before leaving, he gave Ellen a letter for Marian’s husband, in the improbable event of that gentleman’s reappearance at the Grange — a few simple earnest lines, entreating Mr. Holbrook to believe in the writer’s faithful and brotherly affection for his wife, and to meet him in London on an early occasion, in order that they might together concert fresh means for bringing about her restoration to her husband and home. He reminded Mr. Holbrook of his friendship for Captain Sedgewick, and that good man’s confidence in him, and declared himself bound by his respect for the dead to be faithful to the living — faithful in all forgiveness of any wrong done him in the past.

He went back to London cruelly depressed by the failure of his efforts, and with a blank dreary feeling that there was little more for him to do, except to wait the working of Providence, with the faint hope that one of those happy accidents which sometimes bring about a desired result when all human endeavour has been in vain, might throw a sudden light on Marian Holbrook’s fate.

During the whole of that homeward journey he brooded an those dark suspicions of Mr. Holbrook which Ellen Carley had let fall in their earlier interviews. He had checked the girl on these occasions, and had prevented the full utterance of her thoughts, generously indignant that any suspicion of foul play should attach to Marian’s husband, and utterly incredulous of such a depth of guilt as that at which the girl’s hints pointed; but now that he was leaving Hampshire, he felt vexed with himself for not having urged her to speak freely — not having considered her suspicions, however preposterous those suspicions might have appeared to him.

Marian’s disappearance had taken a darker colour in his mind since that time. Granted that she had left the Grange of her own accord, having some special reason for leaving secretly, at whose bidding would she have so acted except her husband’s — she who stood so utterly alone, without a friend in the world? But what possible motive could Mr. Holbrook have had for such an underhand course — for making a conspiracy and a mystery out of so simple a fact as the removal of his wife from a place whence he was free to remove her at any moment? Fair and honest motive for such a course there could be none. Was it possible, looking at the business from a darker point of view, to imagine any guilty reason for the carrying out of such a plot? If this man had wanted to bring about a life-long severance between himself and his wife, to put her away somewhere, to keep her hidden from the eyes of the world — in plainer words, to get rid of her — might not this pretence of losing her, this affectation of distress at her loss, be a safe way of accomplishing his purpose? Who else was interested in doing her any wrong? Who else could have had sufficient power over her to beguile her away from her home?

Pondering on these questions throughout all that weary journey across a wintry landscape of bare brown fields and leafless trees, Gilbert Fenton travelled London-wards, to the city which was so little of a home for him, but in which his life had seemed pleasant enough in its own commonplace fashion until that fatal summer evening when he first saw Marian Nowell’s radiant face in the quiet church at Lidford.

He scarcely stopped to eat or drink at the end of his journey, regaling himself only with a bottle of soda-water, imperceptibly flavoured with cognac by the hands of a ministering angel at the refreshment-counter of the Waterloo Station, and then hurrying on at once in a hansom to that dingy street in Soho where Mr. Medler sat in his parlour, like the proverbial spider waiting for the advent of some too-confiding fly.

The lawyer was at home, and seemed in no way surprised to see Mr. Fenton.

“I have come to you about a bad business, Mr. Medler,” Gilbert began, seating himself opposite the shabby-looking office-table, with its covering of dusty faded baize, upon which there seemed to be always precisely the same array of papers in little bundles tied with red tape; “but first let me ask you a question: Have you heard from Mrs. Holbrook?”

“Not a line.”

“And have you taken no further steps, no other means of communicating with her?” Gilbert asked.

“Not yet. I think of sending my clerk down to Hampshire, or of going down myself perhaps, in a day or two, if my business engagements will permit me.”

“Do you not consider the case rather an urgent one, Mr. Medler? I should have supposed that your curiosity would have been aroused by the absence of any reply to your letters — that you would have looked at the business in a more serious light than you appear to have done — that you would have taken alarm, in short.”

“Why should I do so?” the lawyer demanded carelessly.

“It is Mrs. Holbrook’s business to look after her affairs. The property is safe enough. She can administer to the will as soon as she pleases. I certainly wonder that the husband has not been a little sharper and more active in the business.”

“You have heard nothing of him, then, I presume?”

“Nothing.”

Gilbert remembered what Ellen Carley had told him about Marian’s keeping the secret of her newly-acquired fortune from her husband, until she should be able to tell it to him with her own lips; waiting for that happy moment with innocent girlish delight in the thought that he was to owe prosperity to her.

It seemed evident, therefore, that Mr. Holbrook could know nothing of his wife’s inheritance, nor of Mr. Medler’s existence, supposing the lawyer’s letter to have reached the Grange before Marian’s disappearance, and to have been destroyed or carried away by her.

He inquired the date of this letter; whereupon Mr. Medler referred to a letter-book in which there was a facsimile of the document. It had been posted three days before Marian left the Grange.

Gilbert now proceeded to inform Mr. Medler of his client’s mysterious disappearance, and all the useless efforts that had been made to solve the mystery. The lawyer listened with an appearance of profound interest and astonishment, but made no remark till the story was quite finished.

“You are right, Mr. Fenton,” he said at last. “It is a bad business, a very bad business. May I ask you what is the common opinion among people in that part of the world — in the immediate neighbourhood of the event, as to this poor lady’s fate?”

“An opinion with which I cannot bring myself to agree — an opinion which I pray God may prove as unfounded as I believe it to be. It is generally thought that Mrs. Holbrook has fallen a victim to some common crime — that she was robbed, and then thrown into the river.”

“The river has been dragged, I suppose?”

“It has; but the people about there seem to consider that no conclusive test.”

“Had Mrs. Holbrook anything valuable about her at the time of her disappearance?”

“Her watch and chain and a few other trinkets.”

“Humph! There are scoundrels about the country who will commit the darkest crime for the smallest inducement. I confess the business has rather a black look, Mr. Fenton, and that I am inclined to concur with the country people.”

“An easy way of settling the question for those not vitally interested in the lady’s fate,” Gilbert answered bitterly.

“The lady is my client, sir, and I am bound to feel a warm interest in her affairs,” the lawyer said, with the lofty tone of a man whose finer feelings have been outraged.

“The lady was once my promised wife, Mr. Medler,” returned Gilbert, “and now stands to me in the place of a beloved and only sister. For me the mystery of her fate is an all-absorbing question, an enigma to the solution of which I mean to devote the rest of my life, if need be.”

“A wasted life, Mr. Fenton; and in the meantime that river down yonder may hide the only secret.”

“O God!” cried Gilbert passionately, “how eager every one is to make an end of this business! Even the men whom I paid and bribed to help me grew tired of their work, and abandoned all hope after the feeblest, most miserable attempts to earn their reward.”

“What can be done in such a case, Mr. Fenton?” demanded the lawyer, shrugging his shoulders with a deprecating air. “What can the police do more than you or I? They have only a little more experience, that’s all; they have no recondite means of solving these social mysteries. You have advertised, of course?”

“Yes, in many channels, with a certain amount of caution, but in such a manner as to insure Mrs. Holbrook’s identification, if she had fallen into the hands of any one willing to communicate with me, and to insure her own attention, were she free to act for herself.”

“Humph! Then it seems to me that everything has been done that can be done.”

“Not yet. The men whom I employed in Hampshire — they were recommended to me by the Scotland-yard authorities, certainly — may not have been up to the mark. In any case, I shall try some one else. Do you know anything of the detective force?”

Mr. Medler assumed an air of consideration, and then said, “No, he did not know the name of a single detective; his business did not bring him in contact with that class of people.” He said this with the tone of a man whose practice was of the loftiest and choicest kind — conveyancing, perhaps, and the management of estates for the landed gentry, marriage-settlements involving the disposition of large fortunes, and so on; whereas Mr. Medler’s business lying chiefly among the criminal population, his path in life might have been supposed to be not very remote from the footsteps of eminent police-officers.

“I can get the information elsewhere,” Gilbert said carelessly. “Believe me, I do not mean to let this matter drop.”

“My dear sir, if I might venture upon a word of friendly advice — not in a professional spirit, but as between man and man — I should warn you against wasting your time and fortune upon a useless pursuit. If Mrs. Holbrook has vanished from the world of her own free will — a thing that often happens, eccentric as it may be — she will reappear in good time of her own free will. If she has been the victim of a crime, that crime will no doubt come to light in due course, without any efforts of yours.”

“That is the common kind of advice, Mr. Medler,” answered Gilbert. “Prudent counsel, no doubt, if a man could be content to take it, and well meant; but, you see, I have loved this lady, love her still, and shall continue so to love her till the end of my life. It is not possible for me to rest in ignorance of her fate.”

“Although she jilted you in favour of Mr. Holbrook?” suggested the lawyer with something of a sneer.

“That wrong has been forgiven. Fate did not permit me to be her husband, but I can be her friend and brother. She has need of some one to stand in that position, poor girl! for her lot is very lonely. And now I want you to explain the conditions of her grandfather’s will. It is her father who would profit, I think I gathered from our last conversation, in the event of Marian’s death.”

“In the event of her dying childless — yes, the father would take all.”

“Then he is really the only person who could profit by her death?”

“Well, yes,” replied the lawyer with some slight hesitation; “under her grandfather’s will, yes, her father would take all. Of course, in the event of her father having died previously, the husband would come in as heir-at-law. You see it was not easy to exclude the husband altogether.”

“And do you believe that Mr. Nowell is still living to claim his inheritance?”

“I believe so. I fancy the old man had some tidings of his son before the will was executed; that he, in short, heard of his having been met with not long ago, over in America.”

“No doubt he will speedily put in an appearance now,” said Gilbert bitterly —“now that there is a fortune to be gained by the assertion of his identity.”

“Humph!” muttered the lawyer. “It would not be very easy for him to put his hand on sixpence of Jacob Nowell’s money, in the absence of any proof of Mrs. Holbrook’s death. There would be no end of appeals to the Court of Chancery; and after all manner of formulas he might obtain a decree that would lock up the property for twenty-four years. I doubt, if the executor chose to stick to technicals, and the business got into chancery, whether Percival Nowell would live long enough to profit by his father’s will.”

“I am glad of that,” said Gilbert. “I know the man to be a scoundrel, and I am very glad that he is unlikely to be a gainer by any misfortune that has befallen his daughter. Had it been otherwise, I should have been inclined to think that he had had some hand in this disappearance.”

The lawyer looked at Mr. Fenton with a sharp inquisitive glance.

“In other words, you would imply that Percival Nowell may have made away with his daughter. You must have a very bad opinion of human nature, Mr. Fenton, to conceive anything so horrible.”

“My suspicions do not go quite so far as that,” said Gilbert. “God forbid that it should be so. I have a firm belief that Marian Holbrook lives. But it is possible to get a person out of the way without the last worst crime of which mankind is capable.”

“It would seem more natural to suspect the husband than the father, I should imagine,” Mr. Medler answered, after a thoughtful pause.

“I cannot see that. The husband had nothing to gain by his wife’s disappearance, and everything to lose.”

“He might have supposed the father to be dead, and that he would step into the fortune. He might not know enough of the law of property to be aware of the difficulties attending a succession of that kind. There is a most extraordinary ignorance of the law of the land prevailing among well-educated Englishmen. Or he may have been tired of his wife, and have seen his way to a more advantageous alliance. Men are not always satisfied with one wife in these days, and a man who married in such a strange underhand manner would be likely to have some hidden motive for secrecy.”

The suggestion was not without force for Gilbert Fenton. His face grew darker, and he was some time before he replied to Mr. Medler’s remarks. That suspicion which of late had been perpetually floating dimly in his brain — that vague distrust of his one chosen friend, John Saltram, flashed upon him in this moment with a new distinctness. If this man, whom he had so loved and trusted, had betrayed him, had so utterly falsified his friend’s estimate of his character, was it not easy enough to believe him capable of still deeper baseness, capable of growing weary of his stolen wife, and casting her off by some foul secret means, in order to marry a richer woman? The marriage between John Holbrook and Marian Nowell had taken place several months before Michael Branston’s death, at a time when perhaps Adela Branston’s admirer had begun to despair of her release. And then fate had gone against him, and Mrs. Branston’s fortune lay at his feet when it was too late.

Thus, and thus only, could Gilbert Fenton account in any easy manner for John Saltram’s avoidance of the Anglo–Indian’s widow. A little more than a year ago it had seemed as if the whole plan of his life was built upon a marriage with this woman; and now that she was free, and obviously willing to make him the master of her fortune, he recoiled from the position, unreasonably and unaccountably blind or indifferent to its advantages.

“There shall be an end of these shapeless unspoken doubts,” Gilbert said to himself. “I will see John Saltram to-day, and there shall be an explanation between us. I will be his dupe and fool no longer. I will get at the truth somehow.”

Gilbert Fenton said very little more to the lawyer, who seemed by no means sorry to get rid of him. But at the door of the office he paused.

“You did not tell me the names of the executors to Jacob Nowell’s will,” he said.

“You didn’t ask me the question,” answered Mr. Medler curtly. “There is only one executor — myself.”

“Indeed! Mr. Nowell must have had a very high opinion of you to leave you so much power.”

“I don’t know about power. Jacob Nowell knew me, and he didn’t know many people. I don’t say that he put any especial confidence in me — for it was his habit to trust no one, his boast that he trusted no one. But he was obliged to name some one for his executor, and he named me.”

“Shall you consider it your duty to seek out or advertise for Percival Nowell?” asked Gilbert.

“I shall be in no hurry to do that, in the absence of any proof of his daughter’s death. My first duty would be to look for her.”

“God grant you may be more fortunate than I have been! There is my card, Mr. Medler. You will be so good as to let me have a line immediately, at that address, if you obtain any tidings of Mrs. Holbrook.”

“I will do so.”

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