Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

Accepted.

Mr. Fenton lingered another week at Lidford, with imminent peril to the safe conduct of affairs at his offices in Great St. Helens. He could not tear himself away just yet. He felt that he must have some more definite understanding of his position before he went back to London; and in the meantime he pondered with a dangerous delight upon that sunny vision of a suburban villa to which Marian should welcome him when his day’s work was done.

He went every day to the cottage, and he bore himself in no manner like a rejected lover. He was indeed very hopeful as to the issue of his wooing. He knew that Marian Nowell’s heart was free, that there was no rival image to be displaced before his own could reign there, and he thought that it must go hard with him if he did not win her love.

So Marian saw him every day, and had to listen to the Captain’s praises of him pretty frequently during his absence. And Captain Sedgewick’s talk about Gilbert Fenton generally closed with a regretful sigh, the meaning of which had grown very clear to Marian.

She thought about her uncle’s words and looks and sighs a good deal in the quiet of her own room. What was there she would not do for the love of that dearest and noblest of men? Marry a man she disliked? No, that was a sin from which the girl’s pure mind would have recoiled instinctively. But she did like Gilbert Fenton — loved him perhaps — though she had never confessed as much to herself.

This calm friendship might really be love after all; not quite such love as she had read of in novels and poems, where the passion was always rendered desperate by the opposing influence of adverse circumstances and unkind kindred; but a tranquil sentiment, a dull, slow, smouldering fire, that needed only some sudden wind of jealousy or misfortune to fan it into a flame.

She knew that his society was pleasant to her, that she would miss him very much when he left Lidford; and when she tried to fancy him reconciled to her rejection of him, and returning to London to transfer his affections to some other woman, the thought was very obnoxious to her. He had not flattered her, he had been in no way slavish in his attentions to her; but he had surrounded her with a kind of atmosphere of love and admiration, the charm of which no girl thus beloved for the first time in her life could be quite proof against.

Thus the story ended, as romances so begun generally do end. There came a summer twilight, when Gilbert Fenton found himself once more upon the dewy lawn under the walnut-trees alone with Marian Nowell. He repeated his appeal in warmer, fonder tones than before, and with a kind of implied certainty that the answer must be a favourable one. It was something like taking the fortress by storm. He had his arm round her slim waist, his lips upon her brow, before she had time to consider what her answer ought to be.

“My darling, I cannot live without you!” he said, in a low passionate voice. “Tell me that you love me.”

She disengaged herself gently from his embrace, and stood a little way from him, with shy, downcast eyelids.

“I think I do,” she said slowly.

“That is quite enough, Marian!” cried Gilbert, joyously. “I knew you were destined to be my wife.”

He drew her hand through his arm and took her back to the house, where the Captain was sitting in his favourite arm-chair by the window, with a reading lamp on the little table by his side, and the Times newspaper in his hand.

“Your niece has brought you a nephew, sir,” said Gilbert.

The Captain threw aside his paper, and stretched out both his hands to the young man.

“My dear boy, I cannot tell you how happy this makes me!” he cried. “Didn’t I promise you that all would go well if you were patient? My little girl is wise enough to know the value of a good man’s love.”

“I am very grateful, uncle George,” faltered Marian, taking shelter behind the Captain’s chair; “only I don’t feel that I am worthy of so much thought.”

“Nonsense, child; not worthy! You are the best girl in Christendom, and will make the brightest and truest wife that ever made a man’s home dear to him.”

The evening went on very happily after that: Marian at the piano, playing plaintive dreamy melodies with a tender expressive touch; Gilbert sitting close at hand, watching the face he loved so dearly — an evening in Paradise, as it seemed to Mr. Fenton. He went homewards in the moonlight a little before eleven o’clock, thinking of his new happiness — such perfect happiness, without a cloud. The bright suburban villa was no longer an airy castle, perhaps never to be realized; it was a delightful certainty. He began to speculate as to the number of months that must needs pass before he could make Marian his wife. There was no reason for delay. He was well-off, his own master, and it was only her will that could hinder the speedy realization of that sweet domestic dream which had haunted him lately.

He told his sister what had happened next morning, when Martin Lister had left the breakfast table to hold audience with his farm bailiff, and those two were together alone. He was a little tired of having his visits to the cottage criticised in Mrs. Lister’s somewhat supercilious manner, and was very glad to be able to announce that Marian Nowell was to be his wife.

“Well, Gilbert,” exclaimed the matron, after receiving his tidings with tightly-closed lips and a generally antagonistic demeanour, “I can only say, that if you must marry at all — and I am sure I thought you had quite settled down as a bachelor, with your excellent lodgings in Wigmore Street, and every I possible comfort in life — I think you might have chosen much better than this. Of course, I don’t want to be rude or unpleasant; but I cannot help saying, that I consider any man a fool who allows himself to be captivated by a pretty face.”

“I have found a great deal more than a pretty face to admire in Marian Nowell.”

“Indeed! Can you name any other advantages which she possesses?”

“Amiability, good sense, and a pure and refined nature.”

“What warrant have you for all those things? Mind, Gilbert, I like the girl well enough; I have nothing to say against her; but I cannot help thinking it a most unfortunate match for you.”

“How unfortunate?”

“The girl’s position is so very doubtful.”

“Position!” echoed Gilbert impatiently. “That sort of talk is one of the consequences of living in such a place as Lidford. You talk about position, as if I were a prince of the blood-royal, whose marriage would be registered in every almanac in the kingdom.”

“If she were really the Captain’s niece, it would be a different thing,” harped Mrs. Lister, without noticing this contemptuous interruption; “but to marry a girl about whose relations nobody knows anything! I suppose even you have not been told who her father and mother were.”

“I know quite enough about them. Captain Sedgewick has been candour itself upon the subject.”

“And are the father and mother both dead?”

“Miss Nowell’s mother has been dead many years.”

“And her father?”

“Captain Sedgewick does not know whether he is dead or living.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Mrs. Lister with a profound sigh; “I should have thought as much. And you are really going to marry a girl with this disreputable mystery about her belongings?”

“There is nothing either disreputable or mysterious. People are sometimes lost sight of in this world. Mr. Nowell was a bad husband and an indifferent father, and Captain Sedgewick adopted his daughter; that is all.”

“And no doubt, after you are married, this Mr. Nowell will make his appearance some day, and be a burden upon you.”

“I am not afraid of that. And now, Belle, as this is a subject upon which we don’t seem very likely to agree, I think we had better drop it. I considered it only right to tell you of my engagement.”

On this his sister softened a little, and promised Gilbert that she would do her best to be kind to Miss Nowell.

“You won’t be married for some time to come, of course,” she said.

“I don’t know about that, Belle. There is nothing to prevent a speedy marriage.”

“O, surely you will wait a twelvemonth, at least. You have known Marian Nowell such a short time. You ought to put her to the test in some manner before you make her your wife.”

“I have no occasion to put her to any kind of test. I have a most profound and perfect belief in her goodness.”

“Why, Gilbert, this is utter infatuation — about a girl whom you have only known a little more than three weeks!”

It does seem difficult for a matter-of-fact, reasonable matron, whose romantic experiences are things of the remote past, to understand this sudden trust in, and all-absorbing love for, an acquaintance of a brief summer holiday. But Gilbert Fenton believed implicitly in his own instinct, and was not to be shaken.

He went back to town by the afternoon express that day, for he dared not delay his return any longer. He went back regretfully enough to the dryasdust business life, after spending the greater part of the morning under the walnut-trees in Captain Sedgewick’s garden, playing with Fritz the Skye terrier, and talking airy nonsense to Marian, while she sat in a garden-chair hemming silk handkerchiefs for her uncle, and looking distractingly pretty in a print morning dress with tiny pink rosebuds on a white ground, and a knot of pink ribbon fastening the dainty collar. He ventured to talk a little about the future too; painting, with all the enthusiasm of Claude Melnotte, and a great deal more sincerity, the home which he meant to create for her.

“You will have to come to town to choose our house, you know, Marian,” he said, after a glowing description of such a villa as never yet existed, except in the florid imagination of an auctioneer; “I could never venture upon such an important step without you: apart from all sentimental considerations, a woman’s judgment is indispensable in these matters. The house might be perfection in every other point, and there might be no boiler, or no butler’s pantry, or no cupboard for brooms on the landing, or some irremediable omission of that kind. Yes, Marian, your uncle must bring you to town for a week or so of house-hunting, and soon.”

She looked at him with a startled expression.

“Soon!” she repeated.

“Yes, dear, very soon. There is nothing in the world to hinder our marriage. Why should we delay longer than to make all necessary arrangements? I long so for my new home, Marian, I have never had a home in my life since I was a boy.”

“O Mr. Fenton — Gilbert,”— she pronounced his Christian name shyly, and in obedience to his reproachful look — “remember how short a time we have known each other. It is much too soon to talk or think of marriage yet. I want you to have plenty of leisure to consider whether you really care for me, whether it isn’t only a fancy that will die out when you go back to London. And we ought to have time to know each other very well, Gilbert, to be quite sure we are suited to one another.”

This seemed an echo of his sister’s reasoning, and vexed him a little.

“Have you any fear that we shall not suit each other, Marian?” he asked anxiously.

“I know that you are only too good for me,” she answered. Upon which Gilbert hindered the hemming of the Captain’s handkerchiefs by stooping down to kiss the little hands at work upon them. And then the talk drifted back to easier subjects, and he did not again press that question as to the date of the marriage.

At last the time came for going to the station. He had arranged for Mr. Lister’s gig to call for him at the cottage, so that he might spend every possible moment with Marian. And at three o’clock the gig appeared, driven by Martin Lister himself, and Gilbert was fain to say good-bye. His last lingering backward glance showed him the white figure under the walnut-trees, and a little hand waving farewell.

How empty and dreary his comfortable bachelor lodgings seemed to him that night when he had dined, and sat by the open window smoking his solitary cigar, listening to the dismal street-noises, and the monotonous roll of ceaseless wheels yonder in Oxford-street; not caring to go out to his club, caring still less for opera or theatre, or any of the old ways whereby he had been wont to dispose of his evenings!

His mind was full of Marian Nowell. All that was grave and earnest in his nature gave force to this his first love. He had had flirtations in the past, of course; but they had been no more than flirtations, and at thirty his heart was as fresh and inexperienced as a boy’s. It pleased him to think of Marian’s lonely position. Better, a hundred times better, that she should be thus, than fettered by ties which might come between them and perfect union. The faithful and generous protector of her childhood would of necessity always claim her love; but beyond this one affection, she would be Gilbert’s, and Gilbert’s only. There would be no mother, no sisters, to absorb her time and distract her thoughts from her husband, perhaps prejudice her against him. Domestic life for those two must needs be free from all the petty jars, the overshadowing clouds no bigger than a man’s hand, forerunners of tempest, which Mr. Fenton had heard of in many households.

He was never weary of thinking about that life which was to be. Everything else he thought of was now considered only in relation to that one subject. He applied himself to business with a new ardour; never before had he been so anxious to grow rich.

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