Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 37

A Full Confession.

Gilbert did not go to the Temple again till he had finished his day’s work at St. Helen’s, and had eaten his modest dinner at a tavern in Fleet-street. He found that Mr. Mew had already paid his second visit to the sick-room, and had pronounced himself much relieved and delighted by the favourable change.

“I have no fear now,” he had said to the nurse. “It is now only a question of getting back the physical strength, which has certainly fallen to a very low ebb. Perfect repose and an entire freedom from care are what we have to look to.”

This the nurse told Gilbert. “He has been very restless all day,” she added, “though I’ve done what I could to keep him quiet. But he worries himself, now that his senses have come back, poor gentleman; and it isn’t easy to soothe him any way. He keeps on wondering when he’ll be well enough to move, and so on, over and over again. Once, when I left the room for a minute and went back again, I found him attempting to get out of bed — only to try his strength, he said. But he’s no more strength than a new-born baby, poor soul, and it will be weeks before he’s able to stir. If he worries and frets, he’ll put himself back for a certainty; but I daresay you’ll have more influence over him than I, sir, and that you may be able to keep him quiet.”

“I doubt that,” answered Gilbert; “but I’ll do my best. Has he been delirious to-day?”

“No, sir, not once; and of course that’s a great thing gained.”

A feeble voice from the inner room called Gilbert by name presently, and he went in at its bidding.

“Is that you, Gilbert? Come in, for pity’s sake. I was sure of the voice. So you have come on your errand of charity once more. I am very glad to see you, though you are not my friend. Sit down, ministering Christian, sit by my side; I have some questions to ask you.”

“You must not talk much, John. The doctor insists upon perfect tranquillity.”

“He might just as well insist upon my making myself Emperor of all the Russias; one demand would be about as reasonable as the other. How long have I been lying here like a log — a troublesome log, by the way; for I find from some hints the nurse dropped to-day as to the blessing of my recovery, that I have been somewhat given to violence; — how long have I been ill, Gilbert?”

“A very long time.”

“Give me a categorical answer. How many weeks and days?”

“You were taken ill about the middle of December, and we are now in the first week of February.”

“Nearly two months; and in all that time I have been idle —ergo, no remittances from publishers. How have I lived, Gilbert? How have the current expenses of my illness been paid? And the children of Israel — have they not been clamorous? There was a bill due in January, I know. I was working for that when I got pulled up. How is it that my vile carcass is not in their hands?”

“You need give yourself no trouble; the bill has been taken up.”

“By you, of course? Yes; you do not deny it. And you have been spending your money day by day to keep me alive. But then you would have done as much for a stranger. Great heaven, what a mean hound I seem to myself, as I lie here and think what you have done for me, and how I have acted towards you!” He turned himself in his bed with a great effort, and lay with his face to the wall. “Let me hide my face from you,” he said; “I am a shameful creature.”

“Believe me, once more, there is not the faintest shadow of an obligation,” Gilbert responded eagerly; “I can very well afford anything I have done; shall never feel myself the poorer for it by a sixpence. I cannot bear that these things should be spoken of between us. You know how often I have begged you to let me help you in the past, and how wounded I have been by your refusal.”

“Yes, when we were friends, before I had ever wronged you. If I had taken your help then, I should hardly have felt the obligation. But, stay, I am not such a pauper as I seem. My wife will have money; at least you told me that the old man was rich.”

“Yes, your wife will have money, plenty of money. You have no need to trouble yourself about financial matters. You have only to consider what the doctor has said. Your recovery depends almost entirely upon your tranquillity of mind. If you want to get well speedily, you must remember this.”

“I do want to get well. I am in a fever to get well; I want to see my wife. But my recovery will be evidently a tedious affair. I cannot wait to see her till I am strong enough to travel. Why should she not come to me here? She can — she must come. Write to her, Gilbert; tell her how I languish for her presence; tell her how ill I have been.”

“Yes; I will write by and by.”

“By and by! Your tone tells me that you do not mean what you say. There is something you are keeping from me. O, my God, what was that happened before I was ill? My wife was missing. I was hunting for her without rest for nearly a week; and then they told me she was drowned, that there was no hope of finding her. Was that real, Gilbert? or only a part of my delirium? Speak to me, for pity’s sake. Was it real?”

“Yes, John; your perplexity and trouble were real, but unnecessary; your wife is safe.”

“Safe? Where?”

“She is with her father.”

“She did not even know that her father was living.”

“No, not till very lately. He has come home from America, it seems, and Marian is now under his protection.”

“What! she could desert me without a word of warning — without the faintest hint of her intention — to go to a father of whom she knew nothing, or nothing that was not eminently to his discredit!”

“There may have been some strong influence brought to bear to induce her to take such a step.”

“What influence?”

“Do not worry yourself about that now; make all haste to get well, and then it will be easy for you to win her back.”

“Yes; only place me face to face with her, and I do not think there would be much question as to that. But that she should forsake me of her own free will! It is so unlike my Marian — my patient, long-suffering Marian; I can scarcely believe such a thing possible. But that question can soon be put at rest. Write to her, Gilbert; tell her that I have been at death’s door; that my chance of recovery hangs upon her will. Father or no father, that will bring her to my side.”

“I will do so, directly I know her address.”

“You do not know where she is?”

“Not yet. I am expecting to obtain that information every day. I have taken measures to ascertain where she is.”

“And how do you know that she is with her father?”

“I have the lawyer’s authority for that; a lawyer whom the old man, Jacob Nowell, trusted, whom he left sole executor to his will.”

It was necessary above all things that John Saltram’s mind should be set at rest; and in order to secure this result Gilbert was fain to affect a supreme faith in Mr. Medler.

“You believe this man, Gilbert?” the invalid asked anxiously.

“Of course. He has no reason for deceiving me.”

“But why withhold the father’s address?”

“It is easy enough to conjecture his reasons for that; a dread of your influence robbing him of his daughter. Her fortune has made her a prize worth disputing, you see. It is natural enough that the father should wish to hide her from you.”

“For the sake of the money? — yes, I suppose that is the beginning and end of his scheme. My poor girl! No doubt he has told her all manner of lies about me, and so contrived to estrange that faithful heart. Will you insert an advertisement in the Times, Gilbert, under initials, telling her of my illness, and entreating her to come to me?”

“I will do so if you like; but I daresay Nowell will be cautious enough to keep the advertisement-sheet away from her, or to watch it pretty closely, and prevent her seeing anything we may insert. I am taking means to find them, John I, must entreat you to rest satisfied with that.”

“Rest satisfied — when I am uncertain whether I shall ever see my wife again! That is a hard thing to do.”

“If you harass yourself, you will not live to see her again. Trust in me, John; Marian’s safety is as dear to me as it can be to you. I am her sworn friend and brother, her self-appointed guardian and defender. I have skilled agents at work; we shall find her, rely upon it.”

It was a strange position into which Gilbert found himself drifting; the consoler of this man who had so basely robbed him. They could never be friends again, these two; he had told himself that, not once, but many times during the weary hours of his watching beside John Saltram’s sick-bed. They could never more be friends; and yet he found himself in a manner compelled to perform the offices of friendship. Nor was it easy to preserve anything like the neutral standing which he had designed for himself. The life of this sometime friend of his hung by so frail a link, he had such utter need of kindness; so what could Gilbert do but console him for the loss of his wife, and endeavour to inspire him with a hopeful spirit about her? What could he do less than friendship would have done, although his affection for this old friend of his youth had perished for evermore? The task of consolation was not an easy one. Once restored to his right mind, with a vivid sense of all that had happened to him before his illness, John Saltram was not to be beguiled into a false security. The idea that his wife was in dangerous hands pursued him perpetually, and the consciousness of his own impotence to rescue her goaded him to a kind of mental fever.

“To be chained here, Gilbert, lying on this odious bed like a dog, when she needs my help! How am I to bear it?”

“Like a man,” the other answered quietly. “Were you as well as I am this moment, there’s nothing you could do that I am not doing. Do you think I should sit idly here, if the best measures had not been taken to find your wife?”

“Forgive me. Yes; I have no doubt you have done what is best. But if I were astir, I should have the sense of doing something. I could urge on those people you employ, work with them even.”

“You would be more likely to hinder than to assist them. They know their work, and it is a slow drudging business at best, which requires more patience than you possess. No, John, there is nothing to be done but to wait, and put our trust in Providence and in time.”

This was a sermon which Gilbert Fenton had occasion to preach very often in the slow weary days that followed John Saltram’s recovery of his right senses. The sick man, tossing to and fro upon the bed he loathed with such an utter loathing, could not refrain from piteous bewailings of his helplessness. He was not a good subject for sickness, had never served his apprenticeship to a sick-bed until now, and the ordeal seemed to him a very long one. In all that period of his delirious wanderings there had been an exaggerated sense of time in his mind. It seemed to him that he had been lying there for years, lost in a labyrinth of demented fancies. Looking back at that time, now that his reason had been restored to him, he was able to recall his delusions one by one, and it was very difficult for him to understand, even now, that they were all utterly groundless, the mere vagabondage of a wandering brain; that the people he had fancied close at hand, lurking in the next room — he had rarely seen them close about his bed, but had been possessed with a vivid sense of their neighbourhood — had been never near him; that the old friends and associates of his boyhood, who had been amongst these fancied visitors, were for the greater number dead and passed away long before this time; that he had been, in every dream and every fancy of that weary interval, the abject slave of his own hallucinations. Little by little his strength came back to him by very slow degrees — so slowly, indeed, that the process of recovery might have sorely tried the patience of any man less patient than Gilbert. There came a day at last when the convalescent was able to leave his bed for an hour or so, just strong enough to crawl into the sitting-room with the help of Gilbert’s arm, and to sit in an easy-chair, propped up by pillows, very feeble of aspect, and with a wan haggard countenance that pleaded mutely for pity. It was impossible to harbour revengeful feelings against a wretch so stricken.

Mr. Mew was much elated by this gradual improvement in his patient, and confessed to Gilbert, in private, that he had never hoped for so happy a result. “Nothing but an iron constitution, and your admirable care, could have carried our friend through such an attack, sir,” he said decisively. “And now that we are getting round a little, we must have change of air — change of air and of scene; that is imperatively necessary. Mr. Saltram talks of a loathing for these rooms; very natural under the circumstances. We must take him away directly he can bear the removal.”

“I rather doubt his willingness to stir,” Gilbert answered, thoughtfully. “He has anxieties that are likely to chain him to London.”

“If there is any objection of that kind it must be conquered,” Mr. Mew said. “A change will do your friend more good than all the physic I can give him.”

“Where would you advise me to take him?”

“Not very far. He couldn’t stand the fatigue of a long journey. I should take him to some quiet little place near town — the more countrified the better. It isn’t a very pleasant season for the country; but in spite of that, the change will do him good.”

Gilbert promised to effect this arrangement, as soon as the patient was well enough to be moved. He would run down to Hampton or Kingston, he told Mr. Mew, in a day or two, and look for suitable lodgings.

“Hampton or Kingston by all means,” replied the surgeon cheerily. “Both very pleasant places in their way, and as mild as any neighbourhood within easy reach of town. Don’t go too near the water, and be sure your rooms are dry and airy — that’s the main point. We might move him early next week, I fancy; if we get him up for an hour or two every day in the interval.”

Gilbert had kept Mrs. Branston very well informed as to John Saltram’s progress, and that impetuous little woman had sent a ponderous retainer of the footman species to the Temple daily, laden now with hothouse grapes, and anon with dainty jellies, clear turtle-soups, or delicate preparations of chicken, blancmanges and iced drinks; the conveyance whereof was a sore grievance to the ponderous domestic, in spite of all the aid to be derived from a liberal employment of cabs. Adela Branston had sent these things in defiance of her outraged kinswoman, Mrs. Pallinson, who was not slow to descant upon the impropriety of such a proceeding.

“I wonder you can talk in such a way, when you know how friendless this poor Mr. Saltram is, and how little trouble it costs me to do as much as this for him. But I daresay the good Samaritan had some one at home who objected to the waste of that twopence he paid for the poor traveller.”

Mrs. Pallinson gave a little shriek of horror on hearing this allusion, and protested against so profane a use of the gospel.

“But the gospel was meant to be our guide in common things, wasn’t it, Mrs. Pallinson? However, there’s not the least use in your being angry; for I mean to do what I can for Mr. Saltram, and there’s no one in the world could turn me from my intention.”

“Indeed!” cried the elder lady, indignantly; “and when he recovers you mean to marry him, I daresay. You will be weak enough to throw away your fortune upon a profligate and a spendthrift, a man who is certain to make any woman miserable.”

And hereupon there arose what Sheridan calls “a very pretty quarrel” between the two ladies, which went very near to end in Mrs. Pallinson’s total withdrawal from Cavendish-square. Very nearly, but not quite, to that agreeable consummation did matters proceed; for, on the very verge of the final words which could have spoken the sentence of separation, Mrs. Pallinson was suddenly melted, and declared that nothing, no outrage of her feelings —“and heaven knows how they have been trodden on this day,” the injured matron added in parenthesis — should induce her to desert her dearest Adela. And so there was a hollow peace patched up, and Mrs. Branston felt that the blessings of freedom, the delightful relief of an escape from Pallinsonian influences, were not yet to be hers. Directly she heard from Gilbert that change of air had been ordered for the patient, she was eager to offer her villa near Maidenhead for his accommodation. “The house is always kept in apple-pie order,” she wrote to Gilbert; “and I can send down more servants to make everything comfortable for the invalid.”

“I know he is fond of the place,” she added in conclusion, after setting out all the merits of the villa with feminine minuteness; “at least I know he used to like it, and I think it would please him to get well there. I can only say that it would make me very happy; so do arrange it, dear Mr. Fenton, if possible, and oblige yours ever faithfully, ADELA BRANSTON.”

“Poor little woman,” murmured Gilbert, as he finished the letter. “No; we will not impose upon her kindness; we will go somewhere else. Better for her that she should see and hear but little of John Saltram for all time to come; and then the foolish fancy will wear itself out perhaps, and she may live to be a happy wife yet; unless she, too, is afflicted with the fatal capability of constancy. Is that such a common quality, I wonder? are there many so luckless as to love once and once only, and who, setting all their hopes upon one cast, lose all if that be fatal?”

Gilbert told John Saltram of Mrs. Branston’s offer, which he was as prompt to decline as Gilbert himself had been. “It is like her to wish it,” he said; “but no, I should feel myself a double traitor and impostor under her roof. I have done her wrong enough already. If I could have loved her, Gilbert, all might have been well for you and me. God knows I tried to love her, poor little woman; and she is just the kind of woman who might twine herself about any man’s heart — graceful, pretty, gracious, tender, bright and intelligent enough for any man; and not too clever. But my heart she never touched. From the hour I saw that other, I was lost. I will tell you all about that some day. No; we will not go to the villa. Write and give Mrs. Branston my best thanks for the generous offer, and invent some excuse for declining it; that’s a good fellow.”

By-and-by, when the letter was written, John Saltram said — “I do not want to go out of town at all, Gilbert. It’s no use for the doctor to talk; I can’t leave London till we have news of Marian.”

Gilbert had been prepared for this, and set himself to argue the point with admirable patience. Mr. Proul’s work would go on just as well, he urged, whether they were in London or at Hampton. A telegram would bring them any tidings as quickly in the one place as the other. “I am not asking you to go far, remember,” he added. “You will be within an hour’s journey of London, and the doctors declare this change is indispensable to your recovery. You have told us what a horror you have of these rooms.”

“Yes; I doubt if any one but a sick man can understand his loathing of the scene of his illness. That room in there is filled with the shadows that haunted me in all those miserable nights — when the fever was at its worst, and I lived amidst a crowd of phantoms. Yes, I do most profoundly hate that room. As for this matter of change of air, Gilbert, dispose of me as you please; my worthless existence belongs to you.”

Gilbert was quick to take advantage of this concession. He went down to Hampton next day, and explored the neighbourhood on both sides of the Thames. His choice fell at last on a pretty little house within a stone’s throw of the Palace gates, the back windows whereof looked out upon the now leafless solitude of Bushy Park, and where there was a comfortable-looking rosy-faced landlady, whose countenance was very pleasant to contemplate after the somewhat lachrymose visage of Mrs. Pratt. Here he found he could have all the accommodation he required, and hither he promised to bring the invalid early in the following week.

There were as yet no tidings worth speaking of from Mr. Proul. That distinguished member of the detective profession waited upon Gilbert Fenton with his budget twice a week, but the budget was a barren one. Mr. Proul’s agent pronounced Mr. Medler’s clerk the toughest individual it had ever been his lot to deal with. No amount of treating at the public-house round the corner — and the agent had ascended from the primitive simplicity of a pint of porter to the highest flights in the art of compound liquors — could exert a softening influence upon that rigid nature. Either the clerk knew nothing about Percival Nowell, or had been so well schooled as to disclose nothing of what he knew. Money had been employed by the agent, as well as drink, as a means of temptation; but even every insidious hint of possible gains had failed to move the ill-paid underling to any revelation.

“It’s my belief the man knows nothing, or else I should have had it out of him by hook or by crook,” Mr. Proul’s agent told him, and Mr. Proul repeated to his client.

This first agent having thus come to grief, and having perhaps made himself a suspected person in the eyes of the Medler office by his manoeuvres, a second spy had been placed to keep close watch upon the house, and to follow any person who at all corresponded with the detective idea of Mr. Nowell. It could be no more than an idea, unfortunately, since Gilbert had been able to give the accomplished Proul no description of the man he wanted to trace. Above all, the spy was to take special note of any lady who might be seen to enter or leave the office, and to this end he was furnished with a close description of Marian.

Gilbert called upon Mrs. Branston before carrying John Saltram out of town; he fancied that her offer of the Maidenhead villa would be better acknowledged personally than by a letter. He found the pretty little widow sorely disappointed by Mr. Saltram’s refusal to occupy her house, and it was a little difficult to explain to her why they both preferred other quarters for the convalescent.

“Why will he not accept the smallest favour from me?” Adela Branston asked plaintively. “He ought to know that there is no arrière pensée in any offer which I make him — that I have no wish except for his welfare. Why does he not trust me a little more?”

“He will do so in future, I think, Mrs. Branston,” Gilbert answered gravely. “I fancy he has learned the folly and danger of all underhand policy, and that he will put more faith in his friends for the rest of his life.”

“And he is really much better, quite out of danger? Do the doctors say that?”

“He is as much out of danger as a man can well be whose strength has all been wasted in a perilous illness. He has that to regain yet, and the recovery will be slow work. Of course in his condition a relapse would be fatal; but there is no occasion to apprehend a relapse.”

“Thank heaven for that! And you will take care of him, Mr. Fenton, will you not?”

“I will do my very best. He saved my life once; so you see that I owe him a life.”

The invalid was conveyed to Hampton on a bright February day, when there was an agreeable glimpse of spring sunshine. He went down by road in a hired brougham, and the journey seemed a long one; but it was an unspeakable relief to John Saltram to see the suburban roads and green fields after the long imprisonment of the Temple — a relief that moved him almost to tears in his extreme weakness.

“Could you believe that a man would be so childish, Gilbert?” he said apologetically. “It might have been a good thing for me to have died in that dismal room, for heaven only knows what heavy sorrow lies before me in the future. Yet the eight of these common things touches me more keenly than all the glory of the Jungfrau touched me ten years ago. What a gay bright-looking world it is! And yet how many people are happy in it? how many take the right road? I suppose there is a right road by which we all might travel, if we only knew how to choose it.”

He felt the physical weariness of the journey acutely, but uttered no complaint throughout the way; though Gilbert could see the pale face growing paler, the sunken cheeks more pinched of aspect, as they went on. To the last he pronounced himself delighted by that quiet progress through the familiar landscape; and then having reached his destination, had barely strength to totter to a comfortable chintz-covered sofa in the bright-looking parlour, where he fainted away. The professional nurse had been dismissed before they left London, and Gilbert was now the invalid’s only attendant. The woman had performed her office tolerably well, after the manner of her kind; but the presence of a sick nurse is not a cheering influence, and John Saltram was infinitely relieved by her disappearance.

“How good you are to me, Gilbert!” he said, that first evening of his sojourn at Hampton, after he had recovered from his faint, and was lying on the sofa sipping a cup of tea. “How good! and yet you are my friend no longer; all friendship is at an end between us. Well, God knows I am as helpless as that man who fell among thieves; I cannot choose but accept your bounty.”

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