Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

John Saltram.

The offices of Fenton and Co. in Great St. Helens were handsome, prosperous-looking premises, consisting of two large outer rooms, where half-a-dozen indefatigable clerks sat upon high stools before ponderous mahogany desks, and wrote industriously all day long; and an inner and smaller apartment, where there was a faded Turkey-carpet instead of the kamptulicon that covered the floor of the outer offices, a couple of capacious, red-morocco-covered arm-chairs, and a desk of substantial and somewhat legal design, on which Gilbert Fenton was wont to write the more important letters of the house. In all the offices there were iron safes, which gave one a notion of limitless wealth stored away in the shape of bonds and bills, if not actual gold and bank-notes; and upon all the walls there were coloured and uncoloured engravings of ships framed and glazed, and catalogues of merchandise that had been sold, or was to be sold, hanging loosely one on the other. Besides these, there were a great many of those flimsy papers that record the state of things on ‘Change, hanging here and there on the brass rails of the desks, from little hooks in the walls, and in any other available spot. And in all the premises there was an air of business and prosperity, which seemed to denote that Fenton and Co. were travelling at a rapid pace on the high-road to fortune.

Gilbert Fenton sat in the inner office at noon one day about a week after his return from Lidford. He had come to business early that morning, had initialed a good many accounts, and written half-a-dozen letters already, and had thrown himself back in his easy-chair for a few minutes’ idle musing — musing upon that one sweet dream of his new existence, of course. From whatever point his thoughts started, they always drifted into that channel.

While he was sitting like this, with his hands in his pockets and his chair tilted upon its hind legs, the half-glass door opened, and a gentleman came into the office — a man a little over middle height, broad-shouldered, and powerfully built, with a naturally dark complexion, which had been tanned still darker by sun and wind, black eyes and heavy black eyebrows, a head a little bald at the top, and a face that might have been called almost ugly but for the look of intellectual power in the broad open forehead and the perfect modelling of the flexible sensitive mouth; a remarkable face altogether, not easily to be forgotten by those who had once looked upon it.

This man was John Saltram, the one intimate and chosen friend of Gilbert Fenton’s youth and manhood. They had met first at Oxford, and had seldom lost sight of each other since the old university days. They had travelled a good deal together during the one idle year that had preceded Gilbert’s sudden plunge into commerce. They had been up the Nile together in the course of these wanderings; and here, remote from all civilized aid, Gilbert had fallen ill of a fever — a long tedious business which brought him to the very point of death, and throughout which John Saltram had nursed him with a womanly tenderness and devotion that knew no abatement. If this had been wanting to strengthen the tie between them — which it was not — it would have brought them closer together. As it was, that dreary time of sickness and peril was only a memory which Gilbert Fenton kept in his heart of hearts, never to grow less sacred to him until the end of life.

Mr. Saltram was a barrister, almost a briefless one at present, for his habits were desultory, not to say idle, and he had not taken very kindly to the slow drudgery of the Bar. He had some money of his own, and added to his income by writing for the press in a powerful trenchant manner, with a style that was like the stroke of a sledge-hammer. In spite of this literary work, for which he got very well paid, Mr. Saltram generally contrived to be in debt; and there were few periods of his life in which he was not engaged more or less in the delicate operation of raising money by bills of accommodation. Habit had given him quite an artistic touch for this kind of thing, and he did his work fondly, like some enthusiastic horticulturist who gives his anxious days to the budding forth of some new orchid or the production of a hitherto unobtainable tulip. It is doubtful whether money procured from any other source was ever half so sweet to this gentleman as the cash for which he paid sixty per cent to the Jews. With these proclivities he managed to rub on from year to year somehow, getting about five hundred per annum in solid value out of an income of seven, and adding a little annually to the rolling mass of debt which he had begun to accumulate while he was at Balliol.

“Why, Jack,” cried Gilbert, starting up from his reverie at the entrance of his friend, and greeting him with a hearty handshaking, “this is an agreeable surprise! I was asking for you at the Pnyx last night, and Joe Hawdon told me you were away — up the Danube he thought, on a canoe expedition.”

“It is only under some utterly impossible dispensation that Joseph Hawdon will ever be right about anything. I have been on a walking expedition in Brittany, dear boy, alone, and have found myself very bad company. I started soon after you went to your sister’s, and only came back last night. That scoundrel Levison promised me seventy-five this afternoon; but whether I shall get it out of him is a fact only known to himself and the powers with which he holds communion. And was the rustic business pleasant, Gil? Did you take kindly to the syllabubs and new milk, the summer sunrise over dewy fields, the pretty dairy-maids, and prize pigs, and daily inspections of the home-farm? or did you find life rather dull down at Lidford? I know the place well enough, and all the country round about there. I have stayed at Heatherly with Sir David Forster more than once for the shooting season. A pleasant fellow Forster, in a dissipated good-for-nothing kind of way, always up to his eyes in debt. Did you happen to meet him while you were down there?”

“No, I don’t think the Listers know him.”

“So much the better for them! It is a vice to know him. And you were not dull at Lidford?”

“Very far from it, Jack. I was happier there than I have ever been in my life before.”

“Eh, Gil!” cried John Saltram; “that means something more than a quiet fortnight with a married sister. Come, old fellow, I have a vested right to a share in all your secrets.”

“There is no secret, Jack. Yes, I have fallen in love, if that’s what you mean, and am engaged.”

“So soon! That’s rather quick work, isn’t it, dear boy?”

“I don’t think so. What is that the poet says? —‘If not an Adam at his birth, he is no love at all.’ My passion sprang into life full-grown after an hour’s contemplation of a beautiful face in Lidford church.”

“Who is the lady?”

“O, her position is not worth speaking of. She is the adopted niece of a half-pay captain — an orphan, without money or connections.”

“Humph!” muttered John Saltram with the privileged candour of friendship; “not a very advantageous match for you, Gilbert, from a worldly point of view.”

“I have not considered the matter from that point of view.”

“And the lady is all that is charming, of course?”

“To my mind, yes.”

“Very young?”

“Nineteen.”

“Well, dear old follow, I wish you joy with all heartiness. You can afford to marry whom you please, and are very right to let inclination and not interest govern your choice. Whenever I tie myself in the bondage of matrimony, it will be to a lady who can pay my debts and set me on my legs for life. Whether such a one will ever consider my ugly face a fair equivalent for her specie, is an open question. You must introduce me to your future wife, Gilbert, on the first opportunity. I shall be very anxious to discover whether your marriage will be likely to put an end to our friendship.”

“There is no fear of that, Jack. That is a contingency never to arise. I have told Marian a great deal about you already. She knows that I owe my life to you, and she is prepared to value you as much as I do.”

“She is very good; but all wives promise that kind of thing before marriage. And there is apt to come a day when the familiar bachelor friend falls under the domestic taboo, together with smoking in the drawing-room, brandy-and-soda, and other luxuries of the old, easy-going, single life.”

“Marian is not very likely to prove a domestic tyrant. She is the gentlest dearest girl, and is very well used to bachelor habits in the person of her uncle. I don’t believe she will ever extinguish our cigars, Jack, even in the drawing-room. I look forward to the happiest home that ever a man possessed; and it would be no home of mine if you were not welcome and honoured in it. I hope we shall spend many a summer evening on the lawn, Jack, with a bottle of Pomard or St. Julien between us, watching the drowsy old anglers in their punts, and the swift outriggers flashing past in the twilight. I mean to find some snug little place by the river, you know, Saltram — somewhere about Teddington, where the gardens slope down to the water’s edge.”

“Very pleasant! and you will make an admirable family man, Gil. You have none of the faults that render me ineligible for the married state. I think your Marian is a very fortunate girl. What is her surname, by the way?”

“Nowell.”

“Marian Nowell — a very pretty name! When do you think of going back to Lidford?”

“In about a month. My brother-in-law wants me to go back to them for the 1st of September.”

“Then I think I shall run down to Forster’s, and have a pop at the pheasants. It will give me an opportunity of being presented to Miss Nowell.”

“I shall be very pleased to introduce you, old fellow. I know that you will admire her.”

“Well, I am not a very warm admirer of the sex in general; but I am sure to like your future wife, Gil, if it is only because you have chosen her.”

“And your own affairs, Jack — how have they been going on?”

“Not very brightly. I am not a lucky individual, you know. Destiny and I have been at odds ever since I was a schoolboy.”

“Not in love yet, John?”

“No,” the other answered, with rather a gloomy look.

He was sitting on a corner of the ponderous desk in a lounging attitude, gazing meditatively at his boots, and hitting one of them now and then with a cane he carried, in a restless kind of way.

“You see, the fact of the matter is, Gil,” he began at last, “as I told you just now, if ever I do marry, mercenary considerations are likely to be at the bottom of the business. I don’t mean to say that I would marry a woman I disliked, and take it out of her in ill-usage or neglect. I am not quite such a scoundrel as that. But if I had the luck to meet with a woman I could like, tolerably pretty and agreeable, and all that kind of thing, and weak enough to care for me — a woman with a handsome fortune — I should be a fool not to snap at such a chance.”

“I see,” exclaimed Gilbert, “you have met with such a woman.”

“I have.”

Again the gloomy look came over the dark strongly-marked face, the thick black eyebrows contracted in a frown, and the cane was struck impatiently against John Saltram’s boot.

“But you are not in love with her; I see that in your face, Jack. You’ll think me a sentimental fool, I daresay, and fancy I look at things in a new light now that I’m down a pit myself; but, for God’s sake, don’t marry a woman you can’t love. Tolerably pretty and agreeable won’t do, Jack — that means indifference on your part; and, depend upon it, when a man and woman are tied together for life, there is only a short step from indifference to dislike.”

“No, Gilbert, it’s not that,” answered the other, still moodily contemplative of his boots. “I really like the lady well enough — love her, I daresay. I have not had much experience of the tender passion since I was jilted by an Oxford barmaid — whom I would have married, by Jove. But the truth is, the lady in question isn’t free to marry just yet. There’s a husband in the case — a feeble old Anglo–Indian, who can’t live very long. Don’t look so glum, old fellow; there has been nothing wrong, not a word that all the world might not hear; but there are signs and tokens by which a man, without any vanity — and heaven knows I have no justification for that — may be sure a woman likes him. In short, I believe that if Adela Branston were a widow, the course would lie clear before me, and I should have nothing to do but go in and win. And the stakes will be worth winning, I assure you.”

“But this Mr. Branston may live for an indefinite number of years, during which you will be wasting your life on a shadow.”

“Not very likely. Poor old Branston came home from Calcutta a confirmed invalid, and I believe his sentence has been pronounced by all the doctors. In the mean time he makes the best of life, has his good days and bad days, and entertains a great deal of company at a delightful place near Maidenhead — with a garden sloping to the river like that you were talking of just now, only on a very extensive scale. You know how often I have wanted you to run down there with me, and how there has been always something to prevent your going.”

“Yes, I remember. Rely upon it, I shall contrive to accept the next invitation, come what may. But I can’t say I like the idea of this prospective kind of courtship, or that I consider it quite worthy of you, Saltram.”

“My dear Gilbert, when a fellow is burdened with debt and of a naturally idle disposition, he is apt to take rather a liberal view of such means of advancement in life as may present themselves to him. But there is no prospective courtship — nothing at all resembling a courtship in this case, believe me. Mrs. Branston knows that I like and admire her. She knows as much of almost every man who goes to Rivercombe; for there are plenty who will be disposed to go in against me for the prize by-and-by. But I think that she likes me better than any one else, and that the chances will be all in my favour. From first to last there has not been a word spoken between us which old Branston himself might not hear. As to Adela’s marrying again when he is gone, he could scarcely be so fatuous as not to foresee the probability of that.”

“Is she pretty?”

“Very pretty, in rather a childish way, with blue eyes and fair hair. She is not my ideal among women, but no man ever marries his ideal. The man who has sworn by eyes as black as a stormy midnight and raven hair generally unites himself to the most insipid thing in blondes, and the idolater of golden locks takes to wife some frizzy-haired West Indian with an unmistakable dip of the tar-brush. When will you go down to Rivercombe?”

“Whenever you like.”

“The nabob is hospitality itself, and will be delighted to see you if he is to the fore when you go. I fancy there is some kind of regatta — a race or two, at any rate — on Saturday afternoon. Will that suit you?”

“Very well indeed.”

“Then we can meet at the station. There is a train down at 2.15. But we are going to see something of each other in the meantime, I hope. I know that I am a sore hindrance to business at such an hour as this. Will you dine with me at the Pnyx at seven to-night? I shall be able to tell you how I got on with Levison.”

“With pleasure.”

And so they parted — Gilbert Fenton to return to his letter-writing, and to the reception of callers of a more commercial and profitable character; John Saltram to loiter slowly through the streets on his way to the money-lender’s office.

They dined together very pleasantly that evening. Mr. Levison had proved accommodating for the nonce; and John Saltram was in high spirits, almost boisterously gay, with the gaiety of a man for whom life is made up of swift transitions from brightness to gloom, long intervals of despondency, and brief glimpses of pleasure; the reckless humour of a man with whom thought always meant care, and whose soul had no higher aspiration than to beguile the march of time by such evenings as these.

They met on the following Saturday at the Great Western terminus, John Saltram still in high spirits, and Gilbert Fenton quietly happy. That morning’s post had brought him his first letter from Marian — an innocent girlish epistle, which was as delicious to Gilbert as if it had been the chef-d’oeuvre of a Sevigné. What could she say to him? Very little. The letter was full of gratitude for his thoughtfulness about her, for the pretty tributes of his love which he had sent her, the books and music and ribbons and gloves, in the purchase whereof he had found such a novel pleasure. It had been a common thing for him to execute such commissions for his sister; but it was quite a new sensation to him to discuss the colours of gloves and ribbons, now that the trifles he chose were to give pleasure to Marian Nowell. He knew every tint that harmonised or contrasted best with that clear olive complexion — the brilliant blue that gave new brightness to the sparkling grey eyes, the pink that cast warm lights upon the firmly-moulded throat and chin — and he found a childish delight in these trivialities. There was one ribbon he selected for her at this time which he had strange reason to remember in the days to come — a narrow blue ribbon, with tiny pink rosebuds upon it, a daring mixture of the two colours.

He had the letter in the breast-pocket of his coat when he met John Saltram at the station, and entertained that gentleman with certain passages from it as they sped down to Maidenhead. To which passages Mr. Saltram listened kindly, with a very vague notion of the writer.

“I am afraid she is rather a namby-pamby person,” he thought, “with nothing but her beauty to recommend her. That wonderful gift of beauty has such power to bewitch the most sensible man upon occasion.”

They chartered a fly at Maidenhead, and drove about a mile and a half along a pleasant road before they came to the gates of Rivercombe — a low straggling house with verandahs, over which trailed a wealth of flowering creepers, and innumerable windows opening to the ground. The gardens were perfection, not gardens of yesterday, with only the prim splendours of modern horticulture to recommend them, but spreading lawns, on which the deep springy turf had been growing a hundred years — lawns made delicious in summer time by the cool umbrage of old forest-trees; fertile rose-gardens screened from the biting of adverse winds by tall hedges of holly and yew, the angles whereof were embellished by vases and peacocks quaintly cut in the style of a bygone age; and for chief glory of all, the bright blue river, which made the principal boundary of the place, washing the edge of the wide sloping lawn, and making perpetual music on a summer day with its joyous ripple.

There was a good deal of company already scattered about the lawn when John Saltram and his friend were ushered into the pretty drawing-room. The cheerful sound of croquet-balls came from a level stretch of grass visible from the windows, and quite a little fleet of boats were jostling one another at the landing by the Swiss boat-house.

Mrs. Branston came in from the garden to welcome them, looking very pretty in a coquettish little white-chip hat with a scarlet feather, and a pale-gray silk dress looped up over an elaborately-flounced muslin petticoat. She was a slender little woman, with a brilliant complexion, sunny waving hair, and innocent blue eyes; the sort of woman whom a man would wish to shelter from all the storms of life, but whom he might scarcely care to choose for the companion of a perilous voyage.

She professed herself very much pleased to see Gilbert Fenton.

“I have heard so much of you from Mr. Saltram,” she said. “He is always praising you. I believe he cares more for you than anyone else in the world.”

“I have not many people to care for,” answered John Saltram, “and Gilbert is a friend of long standing.”

A sentimental expression came over Mrs. Branston’s girlish face, and she gave a little regretful sigh.

“I am sorry you will not see my husband to-day,” she said, after a brief pause. “It is one of his bad days.”

The two gentlemen both expressed their regret upon this subject; and then they went out to the lawn with Mrs. Branston, and joined the group by the river-brink, who were waiting for the race. Here Gilbert found some pleasant people to talk to; while Adela Branston and John Saltram strolled, as if by accident, to a seat a little way apart from the rest, and sat there talking in a confidential manner, which might not really constitute a flirtation, but which had rather that appearance to the eye of the ignorant observer.

The boats came flashing by at last, and there was the usual excitement amongst the spectators; but it seemed to Gilbert that Mrs. Branston found more interest in John Saltram’s conversation than in the race. It is possible she had seen too many such contests to care much for the result of this one. She scarcely looked up as the boats shot by, but sat with her little gloved hands clasped upon her knee, and her bright face turned towards John Saltram.

They all went into the house at about seven o’clock, after a good deal of croquet and flirtation, and found a free-and-easy kind of banquet, half tea, half luncheon, but very substantial after its kind, waiting for them in the long low dining-room. Mrs. Branston was very popular as a hostess, and had a knack of bringing pleasant people round her — journalists and musical men, clever young painters who were beginning to make their mark in the art-world, pretty girls who could sing or play well, or talk more or less brilliantly. Against nonentities of all kinds Adela Branston set her face, and had a polite way of dropping people from whom she derived no amusement, pleading in her pretty childish way that it was so much more pleasant for all parties. That this mundane existence of ours was not intended to be all pleasure, was an idea that never yet troubled Adela Branston’s mind. She had been petted and spoiled by everyone about her from the beginning of her brief life, and had passed from the frivolous career of a school-girl to a position of wealth and independence as Michael Branston’s wife; fully believing that, in making the sacrifice involved in marrying a man forty years her senior, she earned the right to take her own pleasure, and to gratify every caprice of her infantile mind, for the remainder of her days. She was supremely selfish in an agreeable unconscious fashion, and considered herself a domestic martyr whenever she spent an hour in her husband’s sick-room, listening to his peevish accounts of his maladies, or reading a Times leader on the threatening aspect of things in the City for the solace of his loneliness and pain.

The popping of corks sounded merrily amidst the buzz of conversation, and great antique silver tankards of Badminton and Moselle cup were emptied as by magic, none knowing how except the grave judicial-looking butler, whose omniscient eye reigned above the pleasant confusion of the scene. And after about an hour and a half wasted in this agreeable indoor picnic, Mrs. Branston and her friends adjourned to the drawing-room, where the grand piano had been pushed into a conspicuous position, and where the musical business of the evening speedily began.

It was very pleasant sitting by the open windows in the summer twilight, with no artificial light in the room, except the wax candles on the piano, listening to good music, and talking a little now and then in that subdued confidential tone to which music makes such an agreeable accompaniment.

Adela Branston sat in the midst of a group in a wide bay window, and although John Saltram was standing near her chair, he did not this time engage the whole of her attention. Gilbert found himself seated next a very animated young lady, who rather bored him with her raptures about the music, and who seemed to have assisted at every morning and evening concert that had been given within the last two years. To any remoter period her memory did not extend, and she implied that she had been before that time in a chrysalis or non-existent condition. She told Mr. Fenton, with an air of innocent wonder, that she had heard there were people living who remembered the first appearance of Jenny Lind.

A little before ten o’clock there was a general movement for the rail, the greater number of Mrs. Branston’s guests having come from town. There was a scarcity of flys at this juncture, so John Saltram and Gilbert Fenton walked back to the station in the moonlight.

“Well, Gilbert, old fellow, what do you think of the lady?” Mr. Saltram asked, when they were a little way beyond the gates of Rivercombe.

“I think her very pretty, Jack, and — well — yes — upon the whole fascinating. But I don’t like the look of the thing altogether, and I fancy there’s considerable bad taste in giving parties with an invalid husband upstairs. I was wondering how Mr. Branston liked the noise of all that talk and laughter in the dining-room, or the music that came afterwards.”

“My dear fellow, old Branston delights in society. He is generally well enough to sit in the drawing-room and look on at his wife’s parties. He doesn’t talk much on those occasions. Indeed, I believe he is quite incapable of conversing about anything except the rise and fall of Indian stock, or the fluctuations in the value of indigo. And, you see, Adela married him with the intention of enjoying her life. She confesses as much sometimes with perfect candour.”

“I daresay she is very candid, and just as shallow,” said Gilbert Fenton, who was inclined to set his face against this entanglement of his friend’s.

“Well — yes, I suppose she is rather shallow. Those pretty pleasant little women generally are, I think. Depth of feeling and force of mind are so apt to go along with blue spectacles and a rugged aspect. A woman’s prettiness must stand for something. There is so much real pleasure in the contemplation of a charming face, that a man had need rescind a little in the way of mental qualifications. And I do not think Adela Branston is without a heart.”

“You praise her very warmly. Are you really in love with her, John?” his friend asked seriously.

“No, Gilbert, upon my honour. I heartily wish I were. I wish I could give her more by-and-by, when death brings about her release from Michael Branston, than the kind of liking I feel for her. No, I am not in love with her; but I think she likes me; and a man must be something worse than a brute if he is not grateful for a pretty woman’s regard.”

They said no more about Mrs. Branston. Gilbert had a strong distaste for the business; but he did not care to take upon himself the office of mentor to a friend whose will he knew to be much stronger than his own, and to whose domination he had been apt to submit in most things, as to the influence of a superior mind. It disappointed him a little to find that John Saltram was capable of making a mercenary marriage, capable even of the greater baseness involved in the anticipation of a dead man’s shoes; but his heart was not easily to be turned against the chosen friend of his youth, and he was prompt in making excuses for the line of conduct he disapproved.

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