Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 36

Coming Round.

Possessed with a thorough distrust of Mr. Medler and only half satisfied as to the fact of Marian’s safety, Gilbert Fenton lost no time in seeking professional aid in the work of investigating this perplexing social mystery. He went once more to the metropolitan detective who had been with him in Hampshire, and whose labours there had proved so futile. The task now to be performed seemed easy enough. Mr. Proul (Proul was the name of the gentleman engaged by Gilbert) had only to discover the whereabouts of Percival Nowell; a matter of no great difficulty, Gilbert imagined, since it was most likely that Marian’s father had frequent personal communication with the lawyer; nor was it improbable that he would have business with his agent or representative, Mr. Tulliver, in Queen Anne’s Court. Provided with these two addresses, Gilbert fancied that Mr. Proul’s work must needs be easy enough.

That gentleman, however, was not disposed to make light of the duty committed to him; whether from a professional habit of exaggerating the importance of any mission undertaken by him, or in perfect singleness of mind, it is not easy to say.

“It’s a watching business, you see sir,” he told Gilbert, “and is pretty sure to be tedious. I may put a man to hang about this Mr. Medler’s business all day and every day for a month at a stretch, and he may miss his customer at the last, especially as you can’t give me any kind of description of the man you want.”

“Surely your agent could get some information out of Medler’s clerk; it’s in his trade to do that kind of thing, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, sir; I don’t deny that I might put a man on to the clerk, and it might answer. On the other hand, such a gentleman’s clerk would be likely to be uncommon well trained and uncommon little trusted.”

“But we want to know so little,” Gilbert exclaimed impatiently; “only where this man lives, and who lives with him.”

“Yes,” murmured Mr. Proul, rubbing his chin thoughtfully; “it ain’t much, as you say, and it might be got out of the clerk, if the clerk knows it; but as to Mrs. Holbrook having got away from Hampshire and come to London, that’s more than I can believe. I worked that business harder and closer than ever I worked any business yet. You told me to spare neither money nor time, and I didn’t spare either; though it was more a question of time than money, for my expenses were light enough, as you know. I don’t believe Mrs. Holbrook could have got away from Malsham station up to the time when I left Hampshire. I’m pretty certain she couldn’t have left the place any other way than by rail; I’m more than certain she couldn’t have been living anywhere in the neighbourhood when I was hunting for her. In short, it comes to this — I stick to my old opinion, that the poor lady was drowned in Malsham river.”

This was just what Gilbert, happily for his own peace, could not bring himself to believe. He was ready to confide in Mr. Medler as a model of truth and honesty, rather than admit the possibility of Marian’s death.

“We have this man Medler’s positive assertion, that Mrs. Holbrook is with her father, you see, Mr. Proul,” he said doubtfully.

That for Medler’s assertion!” exclaimed the detective contemptuously; “there are lawyers in London who will assert anything for a consideration. Let him produce the lady; and if he does produce her, I give him leave to say that Thomas Henry Proul is incapable of his business; or, putting it in vulgar English, that T.H.P. is a duffer. Of course I shall carry out any business you like to trust me with, Mr. Fenton, and carry it out thoroughly. I’ll set a watch upon Mr. Medler’s offices, and I’ll circumvent him by means of his clerk, if I can; but it’s my rooted conviction that Mrs. Holbrook never left Hampshire.”

This was discouraging; and with that ready power to adapt itself to circumstances which is a distinguishing characteristic of the human mind, Gilbert Fenton began to entertain a very poor opinion of the worthy Proul’s judgment. But not knowing any better person whose aid he could enlist in this business, he was fain to confide his chances of success to that gentleman, and to wait with all patience for the issue of events. Much of this dreary interval of perpetual doubt and suspense was spent beside John Saltram’s sick bed. There were strangely mingled feelings in the watcher’s breast; a pitying regret that struggled continually with his natural anger; a tender remembrance of past friendship, which he despised as a shameful weakness in his nature, but could not banish from his mind, as he sat in the stillness of the sick-room, watching the helpless creature who had once kept as faithful a vigil for him.

To John Saltram’s recovery he looked also as to his best chance of restoring Marian to her natural home. The influence that he himself was powerless to bring to bear upon Percival Nowell’s daughter might be easily exerted by her husband.

“She was lured away from him, perhaps, by some specious lie of her father’s, some cruel slander of the husband. There had been bitter words between them. Saltram has betrayed as much in his wandering talk; but to the last there was no feeling but love for him in her heart. Ellen Carley is my witness for that; nothing less than some foul lie could have tempted her away from him.”

In the meantime, pending the sick man’s recovery, the grand point was to discover the whereabouts of Marian and her father; and for this discovery Gilbert was compelled to trust to the resources of the accomplished Proul. So eager was he for the result, that if be could have kept a watch upon Mr. Medler’s office with his own eyes, he would have done so; but this being out of the question, and the more prudent course a complete avoidance of the lawyer’s neighbourhood, he could only await the result of his paid agent’s researches, in the hope that Mr. Nowell was still in London, and would have need of frequent communication with his late father’s solicitor. The first month of the year dragged itself slowly to an end, and the great city underwent all those pleasing alternations, from snow to mud, from the slipperiness of a city paved with plate-glass to the sloppiness of a metropolis ankle-deep in a rich brown compound of about the consistency and colour of mock-turtle soup, which are common to great cities at this season; and still John Saltram lingered on in the shabby solitude of his Temple chambers, slowly mending, Mr. Mew declared, towards the end of the month, and in a fair way towards recovery. The time came at last when the fevered mind began to cease from its perpetual wanderings; when the weary brain, sorely enfeebled by its long interval of unnatural activity, dropped suddenly into a state of calm that was akin to apathy.

The change came with an almost alarming suddenness. It was at the beginning of February, close upon the dead small hours of a bleak windy night, and Gilbert was keeping watch alone in the sick-room, while the professional nurse slept comfortably on the sofa in the sitting-room. It was his habit now to spend the early part of the night in such duty as this, and to go home to bed between four and five in the morning, at which time the nurse was ready to relieve guard.

He had been listening to the dismal howling of the winds, threatening damage to neighbouring chimney-pots of rickety constitution, and thinking idly of the men that had come and gone amidst those old buildings, and how few amongst them all had left any mark behind them; inclined to speculate too how many of them had been men capable of better work than they had done, only carelessly indifferent to the doing of it, like him who lay on that bed yonder, with one muscular arm, powerful even in its wasted condition, thrown wearily above his head, and an undefinable look, that seemed half pain, half fatigue, upon his haggard face.

Suddenly, while Gilbert Fenton was meditating in this idle desultory manner, the sleeper awakened, looked full at him, and called him by his name.

“Gilbert,” he said very quietly, “is it really you?”

It was the first time, in all his long watches by that bed, that John Saltram had recognised him. The sick man had talked of him often in his delirium; but never before had he looked his former friend in the face with one ray of recognition in his own. An indescribable thrill of pain went through Gilbert’s heart at the sound of that calm utterance of his name. How sweet it would have been to him, what a natural thing it would have seemed, to have fallen upon his old friend’s breast and wept aloud in the deep joy of this recovery! But they were friends no longer. He had to remember how base a traitor this man had been to him.

“Yes, John, it is I.”

“And you have been here for a long time. O God, how many months have I been lying here? The time seems endless; and there have been so many people round me — a crowd of strange faces — all enemies, all against me. And people in the next room — that was the worst of all. I have never seen them, but I have always known that they were there. They could not deceive me as to that — hiding behind that door, and watching me as I lay here. You might have turned them out, Gilbert,” he added peevishly; “it seems a hard thing that you could let them stay there to torment me.”

“There has been no one in either of the rooms, John; no one but myself and the hired nurse, the doctors, and Mrs. Pratt now and then. These people have no existence out of your sick fancy. You have been, very ill, delirious, for a long time. I thank God that your reason has been restored to you; yes, I thank God with all my heart for that.”

“Have I been mad?” the other asked.

“Your mind has wandered. But that has passed at last with the fever, as the doctors hoped it might. You are calm now, and must try to keep yourself quiet; there must be no more talk between us to-night.”

The sick man took no notice of this injunction; but for the time was not disobedient, and lay for some minutes staring at the watcher’s face with a strange half-vacant smile upon his own.

“Gilbert,” he said at last, “what have they done with my wife? Why has she been kept away from me?”

“Your wife? Marian?”

“Yes Marian. You know her name, surely. Did she know that I was ill, and yet stayed away from me?”

“Was her place here, John Saltram? — that poor girl whom you married under a false name, whom you tried to hide from all the world. Have you ever brought her here? Have you ever given her a wife’s license, or a wife’s place? How many lies have you not told to hide that which any honest man would have been proud to confess to all the world?”

“Yes, I have lied to you about her, I have hidden my treasure. But it was for your sake, Gilbert; it was for the sake of our old friendship. I could not hear to lose you; I could not bear to stand revealed before you as the weak wretch who betrayed your trust and stole your promised wife. Yes, Gilbert, I have been guilty beyond all measure. I have looked you in the face and told you lies. I wanted to keep you for my friend; I could not stand the thought of a life-long breach between us. Gilbert, old friend, have pity on me. I was weak — wicked, if you like — but I loved you very dearly.”

He stretched out his bony hand with an appealing gesture, but it was not taken. Gilbert sat with his head turned away, his face hidden from the sick man.

“Anything would have been better than the course you chose,” he said at last in a very quiet voice. “If she loved you better than me — than me, who would have thought it so small a thing to lay down my life for her happiness, or to stand aloof and keep the secret of my broken heart while I blest her as the cherished wife of another — if you had certain reason to be sure she loved you, you should have asserted your right to claim her love like a man, and should have been prompt to tell me the bitter truth. I am a man, and would have borne the blow as a man should bear it. But to sneak into my place behind my back, to steal her away from me, to marry her under a false name — a step that might go far to invalidate the marriage, by the way — and then leave me to piece-out the broken story, syllable by syllable, to suffer all the torture of a prolonged suspense, all the wasted passion of anger and revenge against an imaginary enemy, to find at last that the man I had loved and trusted, honoured and admired beyond all other men throughout the best years of my life, was the man who had struck this secret blow — it was the conduct of a villain and a coward, John Saltram. I have no words to speak my contempt for so base a betrayal. And when I remember your pretended sympathy, your friendly counsel — O God! it was the work of a social Judas; nothing was wanted but the kiss.”

“Yes,” the other answered with a faint bitter laugh; “it was very bad. Once having began, you see, it was but to add one lie to another. Anything seemed better than to tell you the truth. I fancied your devotion for Marian would wear itself out much sooner than it did — that you would marry some one else; and then I thought, when you were happy, and had forgotten that old fancy, I would have confessed the truth, and told you it was your friend who was your rival. It might have seemed easy to you to forgive me under those happier circumstances, and so our old friendship might never have been broken. I waited for that, Gilbert. Don’t suppose that it was not painful to me to act so base a part; don’t suppose that I did not suffer. I did — in a hundred ways. You have seen the traces of that slow torture in my face. In every way I had sinned from my weak desire to win my love and yet keep my friend; and God knows the burden of my sin has been heavy upon me. I will tell you some day — if ever I am strong enough for so many words, and if you will hear me out patiently — the whole story of my temptation; how I struggled against it, and only gave way at last when life seemed insupportable to me without the woman I loved.”

After this he lay quiet again for some minutes, exhausted by having spoken so long. All the factitious strength, which had made him loud and violent in his delirium, was gone; he seemed as weak as a sick child.

“Where is she?” he asked at last; “why doesn’t she come to me? You have not answered that question.”

“I have told you that her place is not here,” Gilbert replied evasively. “You have no right to expect her here, never having given her the right to come.”

“No; it is my own fault. She is in Hampshire still, I suppose. Poor girl, I would give the world to see her dear face looking down at me. I must get well and go back to her. When shall I be strong enough to travel? — to-morrow, or if not to-morrow, the next day; surely the next day — eh, Gilbert?”

He raised himself in the bed in order to read the answer in Gilbert’s face, but fell back upon the pillows instantly, exhausted by the effort. Memory had only returned to him in part. It was clear that he had forgotten the fact of Marian’s disappearance — a fact of which he had seemed half-conscious long ago in his delirium.

“How did you find out that Marian was my wife?” he asked presently, with perfect calmness. “Who betrayed my secret?”

“Your own lips, in your delirious talk of her, which has been incessant; and if collateral evidence were needed to confirm your words, this, which I found the other day marking a place in your Shakespeare.”

Gilbert took a scrap of ribbon from his breast, a ribbon with a blue ground and a rosebud on it — a ribbon which he had chosen himself for Marian, in the brief happy days of their engagement.

John Saltram contemplated the scrap of colour with a smile that was half sombre, half ironical.

“Yes, it was hers,” he said; “she wore it round that slim swan’s throat of hers; and one morning, when I was leaving her in a particularly weak frame of mind, I took it from her neck and brought it away in my bosom, for the sake of having something about me that she had worn; and then I put it in the book, you see, and forgot all about it. A fitting emblem of my love — full of passion and fervour to-day, at the point of death to-morrow. There have been times when I would have given the world to undo what I had done, when my life seemed blighted by this foolish marriage; and again, happier moments, when my wife was all the universe to me, and I had not a thought or a dream beyond her. God bless her! You will let me go to her, Gilbert, the instant I am able to travel, as soon as I can drag myself anyhow from this bed to the railway? You will not stand between me and my love?”

“No, John Saltram; God knows, I have never thought of that.”

“And you knew I was a traitor — you knew it was my work that had destroyed your scheme of happiness — and yet have been beside me, watching me patiently through this wretched illness?”

“That was a small thing to do You did as much, and a great deal more, for me, when I was ill in Egypt. It was a mere act of duty.”

“Not of friendship. It was Christian charity, eh, Gilbert? If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; and so on. It was not the act of a friend?”

“No, John Saltram, between you and me there can never again be any such word as friendship. What little I have done for you I think I would have done for a stranger, had I found a stranger as helpless and unfriended as I found you. I am quite sure that to have done less would have been to neglect a sacred duty. There is no question of obligation. Till you are on your feet again, a strong man, I will stand by you; when that time comes, we part for ever.”

John Saltram sank back upon his pillow with a heavy sigh, but uttered no protest against this sentence. And this was all that came of Gilbert’s vengeful passion against the man who had wronged him; this was the end of a long-cherished anger. “A lame and impotent conclusion,” perhaps, but surely the only end possible under the circumstances. He could not wage war against a feeble creature, whose hold on life was still an uncertainty; he could not forget his promise to Marian, that no harm should come to her husband through any act of his. So he sat quietly by the bedside of his prostrate foe, watched him silently as he fell into a brief restless slumber, and administered his medicine when he woke with a hand that was as gentle as a woman’s.

Between four and five o’clock the nurse came in from the next room to take her place, refreshed by a sleep of several hours; and then Gilbert departed in the chill gloom of the winter’s morning, still as dark as night — departed with his mind lightened of a great load; for it had been very terrible to him to think that the man who had once been his friend might go down to the grave without an interval of reason.

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