Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 40

In Pursuit.

John Saltram improved daily at Hampton Court. In spite of his fierce impatience to get well, in order to engage in the search for Marian — an impatience which was in itself sufficient to militate against his well-being — he did make considerable progress on the road to recovery. He was still very weak, and it must take time to complete his restoration; but he was no longer the pale ghost of his former self that Gilbert had brought down to the quiet suburb.

It would have been a cruel thing to leave him much alone at such a time, or it would have seemed very cruel to Gilbert Fenton, who had ever present in his memory those old days in Egypt when this man had stood him in such good stead. He remembered the days of his own sickness, and contrived to perform his business duties within the smallest time possible, and so spend the rest of his life in the comfortable sitting-rooms looking out upon Bushy-park on the one side, and on the other upon the pretty high road before the Palace grounds.

Nor was there any sign in the intercourse of those two that the bond of friendship between them was broken. There was, it is true, a something deprecating in John Saltram’s manner that had not been common to him of old, and in Gilbert Fenton a deeper gravity than was quite natural; but that was all. It was difficult to believe that any latent spirit of animosity could lurk in the mind of either. In sober truth, Gilbert, in his heart of hearts, had forgiven his treacherous friend. Again and again he had told himself that the wrong he had suffered was an unpardonable offence, a thing not to be forgiven upon any ground whatever. But, lo, when he looked into his mind to discover the smouldering fires of that burning anger which he had felt at first against the traitor, he could find nothing but the gray ashes of a long-expired flame. The wrong had been suffered, and he loved his old friend still. Yes, there was that in his heart for John Saltram which no ill-doing could blot out.

So he tended the convalescent’s couch with a quiet devotion that touched the sinner very deeply, and there was a peace between those two which had in it something almost sacred. In the mind of the one there was a remorseful sense of guilt, in the heart of the other a pitying tenderness too deep for words.

One night, as they were together on opposite sides of the fire, John Saltram lying on a low sofa drawn close to the hearth, Gilbert seated lazily in an easy-chair, the invalid broke out suddenly into a kind of apology for his wrong-doing.

The conversation had flagged between them after the tea-things had been removed by the brisk little serving-maid of the lodgings; Gilbert gazing meditatively at the fire, John Saltram so quiet that his companion had thought him asleep.

“I said once that I would tell you all about that business,” he began at last, in a sudden spasmodic way; “but, after all there is so little to tell. There is no excuse for what I did; I know that better than you can know it. A man in my position, who had a spark of generosity or honour, would have strangled his miserable passion in its birth, would have gone away directly he discovered his folly, and never looked upon Marian Nowell’s face again. I did try to do that, Gilbert. You remember that last night we ever spent together at Lidford — what a feverishly-happy night it was; only a cottage-parlour with a girl’s bright face shining in the lamplight, and a man over head and ears in love, but a glimpse of paradise to that man. I meant that it should be the last of my weakness, Gilbert. I had pledged myself to that by all the outspoken oaths wherewith a man can bind himself to do his duty. And I did turn my back upon the scene of my temptation, as you know, heartily resolved never to approach the edge of the pit again. I think if you had stayed in England, Gilbert, if you had been on the spot to defend your own rights, all would have gone well, I should have kept the promise I had made for myself.”

“It was so much the more sacred because of my absence, John,” Gilbert said.

“Perhaps. After all, I suppose it was only a question of opportunity. That particular devil who tempts men to their dishonour contrived that the business should be made fatally easy for me. You were away, and the coast was clear, you know. I loved you, Gilbert; but there is a passion stronger than the love which a man feels for his dearest friend. I meant most steadfastly to keep my faith with you; but you were away, and that fellow Forster plagued me to come to him. I refused at first — yes, I held out for a couple of months; but the fever was strong upon me — a restless demon not to be exorcised by hard work, or dissipation even, for I tried both. And then before you were at the end of your journey, while you were still a wanderer across the desolate sea, happy in the thought of your dear love’s fidelity, my courage gave way all at once, and I went down to Heatherly. And so I saw her, and saw that she loved me — all unworthy as I was; and from that hour I was a lost man; I thought of nothing but winning her.”

“If you had only been true to me, even then, John; if you had written to me declaring the truth, and giving me fair warning that you were my rival, how much better it would have been! Think what a torture of suspense, what a world of wasted anger, you might have saved me.”

“Yes, it would have been the manlier course, no doubt,” the other answered; “but I could not bring myself to that. I could not face the idea of your justifiable wrath. I wanted to win my wife and keep my friend. It was altogether a weak notion, that idea of secrecy, of course, and couldn’t hold water for any time, as the result has shown; but I thought you would get over your disappointment quickly — those wounds are apt to heal so speedily — and fall in love elsewhere; and then it would have been easy for me to tell you the truth. So I persuaded my dear love, who was easily induced to do anything I wished, to consent to our secret being kept from you religiously for the time being, and to that end we were married under a false name — not exactly a false name either. You remember my asking you if you had ever heard the name of Holbrook before your hunt after Marian’s husband? You said no; yet I think you must have seen the name in some of my old college books. I was christened John Holbrook. My grandmother was one of the Holbrooks of Horley-place, Sussex, people of some importance in their day, and our family were rather proud of the name. But I have dropped it ever since I was a lad.”

“No, I don’t think I can ever have seen the name; I must surely have remembered it, if I had seen it.”

“Perhaps so. Well, Gilbert, there is no more to be said. I loved her, selfishly, after the manner of mankind. I could not bring myself to give her up, and pursued her with a passionate persistence which must plead her excuse. If her uncle had lived, I doubt whether I should ever have succeeded. But his death left the tender womanly heart weakened by sorrow; and so I won her, the dearest, truest wife that ever man was blest withal. Yet, I confess to you, so wayward is my nature, that there have been moments in which I repented my triumph — weak hours of doubt and foreboding, in which I fear that dear girl divined my thoughts. Since our wretched separation I have fancied sometimes that a conviction of this kind on her part is at the root of the business, that she has alienated herself from me, believing — in plain words — that I was tired of her.”

“Such an idea as that would scarcely agree with Ellen Carley’s account of Marian’s state of mind during that last day or two at the Grange. She was eagerly expecting your return, looking forward with delight to the pleasant surprise you were to experience when you heard of Jacob Nowell’s will.”

“Yes, the girl told me that. Great heavens, why did I not return a few days earlier! I was waiting for money, not caring to go back empty-handed; writing and working like a nigger. I dared not meet my poor girl at her grandfather’s, since in so doing I must risk an encounter with you.”

After this they talked of Marian’s disappearance for some time, going over the same ground very often in their helplessness, and able, at last, to arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. If she were with her father, she was with a bad, unscrupulous man. That was a fact which Gilbert Fenton no longer pretended to deny. They sat talking till late, and parted for the night in very different spirits.

Gilbert had a good deal of hard work in the City on the following day; a batch of foreign correspondence too important to be entrusted to a clerk, and two or three rather particular interviews. All this occupied him up to so late an hour, that he was obliged to sleep in London that night, and to defer his return to Hampton till the next day’s business was over. This time he got over his work by an early hour, and was able to catch a train that left Waterloo at half-past five. He felt a little uneasy at having been away from the convalescent so long though he knew that John Saltram was now strong enough to get on tolerably without him, and that the people of the house were careful and kindly, ready at any moment to give assistance if it were wanted.

“Strange,” he thought to himself, as the train approached the quiet, river-side village —“strange that I should be so fond of the fellow, in spite of all; that I should care more for his society than that of any man living. It is the mere force of habit, I suppose. After all these years of liking, the link between us is not to be broken, even by the deepest wrong that one man can do another.”

The spring twilight was closing in as he crossed the bridge and walked briskly along an avenue of leafless trees at the side of the green. The place had a peaceful rustic look at this dusky hour. There were no traces of that modern spoiler the speculative builder just hereabouts; and the quaint old houses near the barracks, where lights were twinkling feebly here and there, had a look of days that are gone, a touch of that plaintive poetry which pervades all relics of the past. Gilbert felt the charm of the hour; the air still and mild, the silence only broken by the cawing of palatial rooks; and whatever tenderness towards John Saltram there was lurking in his breast seemed to grow upon him as he drew nearer to their lodgings; so that his mood was of the softest when he opened the little garden-gate and went in.

“I will make no further pretence of enmity,” he said to himself; “I will not keep up this farce of estrangement. We two will be friends once more. Life is not long enough for the rupture of such a friendship.”

There was no light shining in the parlour window, no pleasant home-glow streaming out upon the night. The blank created by this unwonted darkness chilled him somehow, and there was a vague sense of dread in his mind as he opened the door. There was no need to knock. The simple household was untroubled by the fear of burglariously-disposed intruders, and the door was rarely fastened until after dark.

Gilbert went into the parlour; all was dark and silent in the two rooms, which communicated with folding doors, and made one fair-sized apartment. There were no preparations for dinner; he could see that in the deepening dusk. The fire had been evidently neglected, and was at an expiring point.

“John!” he called, stirring the fire with a vigorous hand, whereby he gave it the coup-de-grace, and the last glimmer sank to darkness. “John, what are you doing?”

He fancied the convalescent had fallen asleep upon the sofa in the inner room; but when he went in search of him, he found nothing but emptiness. He rang the bell violently, and the brisk maid-servant came flying in.

“Oh, dear, sir, you did give me and missus such a turn!” she said, gasping, with her hand on her heart, as if that organ had been seriously affected. “We never heard you come in, and when the bell rung ——”

“Is Mr. Saltram worse?” Gilbert asked, eagerly.

“Worse, poor dear gentleman; no, sir, I should hope not, though he well may be, for there never was any one so imprudent, not of all the invalids I’ve ever had to do with — and Hampton is a rare place for invalids. And I feel sure if you’d been here, sir, you wouldn’t have let him do it.”

“Let him do what? Are you crazy, girl? What, in heaven’s name, are you talking of?”

“You wouldn’t have let him start off to London post-haste, as he did yesterday afternoon, and scarcely able to stand alone, in a manner of speaking.”

“Gone to London! Do you mean to say that my friend Mr. Saltram went to London?”

“Yes, sir; yesterday afternoon between four and five.”

“What utter madness! And when did he come back?”

“Lor’ bless you, sir, he ain’t come back yet. He told missus as his coming back was quite uncertain, and she was not to worry herself about him. She did all she could, almost to going down on her knees, to hinder him going; but it was no use. It was a matter of life and death as he was going upon, he said, and that there was no power on earth could keep him back, not if he was ten times worse than he was. The strange gentleman hadn’t been in the house much above a quarter of an hour, when they was both off together in a fly to the station.”

“What strange gentleman?”

“A stout middle-aged man, sir, with gray whiskers, that came from London, and asked for you first, and then for Mr. Saltram; and those two hadn’t been together more than five minutes, when Mr. Saltram rang the bell in a violent hurry, and told my missus he was going to town immediate, on most particular business, and would she pack him a carpet-bag with a couple of shirts, and so on. And then she tried all she could to turn him from going; but it was no good, as I was telling you, sir, just now. Go he would, and go he did; looking quite flushed and bright-like when he went out, so as you’d have scarcely known how ill he’d been. And he left a bit of a note for you on the chimbley-piece, sir.”

Gilbert found the note; a hurried scrawl upon half a sheet, of paper, twisted up hastily, and unsealed.

“She is found, Gilbert,” wrote John Saltram. “Proul has traced the father to his lair at last, and my darling is with him. They are lodging at 14, Coleman-street, Tottenham-court-road. I am off this instant. Don’t be angry with me, true and faithful friend; I could not rest an hour away from her now that she is found. I have no plan of action, but leave all to the inspiration of the moment. You can follow me whenever you please. Marian must thank you for your goodness to me. Marian must persuade you to forgive my sin against you — Ever yours, J.S.”

Follow him! yes, of course. Gilbert had no other thought. And she was found at last, after all their suspense, their torturing anxiety. She was found; and whatever danger there might be in her association with Percival Nowell, she was safe so far, and would be speedily extricated from the perilous alliance by her husband. It seemed at first so happy a thing that Gilbert could scarcely realise it; and yet, throughout the weary interval of ignorance as to her fate, he had always declared his belief in her safety. Had he been really as confident as he had seemed, as the days had gone by, one after another, without bringing him any tidings of her? had there been no shapeless terror in his mind, no dark dread that when the knowledge came, it might be something worse than ignorance? Yes, now in the sudden fulness of his joy, he knew how much he had feared, how very near he had been to despair.

But John Saltram, what of him? Was it not at the hazard of his life that he had gone upon this sudden journey, reckless and excited, in a fever of hope and delight?

“Providence will surely be good to him,” Gilbert thought.

“He bore the journey from town when he was much worse than he is now. Surely he will bear a somewhat rougher journey now, buoyed up by hope.”

The landlady came in presently, and insisted upon giving Mr. Fenton her own version of the story which he had just heard from her maid; and a very close and elaborate version it was, though not remarkable for any new facts. He was fain to listen to it with a show of patience, however, and to consent to eat a mutton chop which the good woman insisted upon cooking for him, after his confession that he had eaten nothing since breakfast. He kept telling himself that there was no hurry; that he was not wanted in Coleman-street; that his presence there was a question of his own gratification and nothing else; but the fever in his mind was not to be set at rest go easily. There was a sense of hurry upon him that he could not shake off, argue with himself as wisely as he would.

He took a hasty meal, and started off to the railway station directly afterwards, though there was no train to carry, him back to London for nearly an hour.

It was weary work waiting at the little station, while the keen March wind blew sharply across the unsheltered platform on which Gilbert paced to and fro in his restlessness; weary work waiting, with that sense of hurry and anxiety upon him, not to be shaken off by any effort he could make to take a hopeful view of the future. He tried to think of those two whom he loved best on earth, whose union he had taught himself, by a marvellous effort of unselfishness, to contemplate with serenity, tried to think of them in the supreme happiness of their restoration to each other; but he could not bring his mind to the realisation of this picture. After all those torments of doubt and perplexity which he had undergone during the last three months, the simple fact of Marian’s safety seemed too good a thing to be true. He was tortured by a vague sense of the unreality of this relief that had come so suddenly to put an end to all perplexities.

“I feel as if I were the victim of some hoax, some miserable delusion,” he said to himself. “Not till I see her, not till I clasp her by the hand, shall I believe that she is really given back to us.”

And in his eagerness to do this, to put an end to that slow torture of unreasonable doubt which had come upon him since the reading of John Saltram’s letter, the delay at the railway station was an almost intolerable ordeal; but the hour came to an end at last, the place awoke from its blank stillness to a faint show of life and motion, a door or two banged, a countrified-looking young woman with a good many bundles and a band-box came out of the waiting-room and arranged her possessions in readiness for the coming train, a porter emerged lazily from some unknown corner and looked up the line — then, after another five minutes of blankness, there came a hoarse throbbing in the distance, a bell rang, and the up-train panted into the station. It was a slow train, unluckily for Gilbert’s impatience, which stopped everywhere, and the journey to London took him over an hour. It was past nine when a hansom drove him into Coleman-street, a dull unfrequented-looking thoroughfare between Tottenham-court-road and Gower-street, overshadowed a little by the adjacent gloom of the University Hospital, and altogether a low-spirited street.

Gilbert looked up eagerly at the windows of Number 14, expecting to see lights shining, and some visible sign of rejoicing, even upon the house front; but there was nothing. Either the shutters were shut, or there was no light within, for the windows were blank and dark. It was a slight thing, but enough to intensify that shapeless foreboding against which he had been struggling throughout his journey.

“You must have come to the wrong house,” he said to the cabman as he got out.

“No, sir, this is 14.”

Yes, it was the right number. Gilbert read it on the door; and yet it could scarcely be the right house; for tied to the door-handle was a placard with “Apartments” engraved upon it, and this house would hardly be large enough to accommodate other lodgers besides Mr. Nowell and his daughter. Yet there is no knowing the capabilities of a London lodging-house in an obscure quarter, and there might be some vacant garret in the roof, or some dreary two-pair back, dignified by the name of “apartments.” Gilbert gave a loud hurried knock. There was a delay which seemed to him interminable, then a hasty shuffling of slipshod feet upon the basement stairs, then the glimmer of a light through the keyhole, the removal of a chain, and at last the opening of the door. It was opened by a young person with her hair dressed in the prevailing fashion, and an air of some gentility, which clashed a little with a certain slatternliness that pervaded her attire. She was rather a pretty girl, but had the faded London look of late hours, and precocious cares, instead of the fresh bloom and girlish brightness which should have belonged to her.

“Did you please to wish to see the apartments, sir?” she asked politely.

“No; I want to see Mr. and Mrs. — the lady and gentleman who are lodging here.”

He scarcely knew under what name he ought to ask for Marian. It seemed unnatural to him now to speak of her as Mrs. Holbrook.

“The lady and gentleman, sir!” the girl exclaimed with a surprised air. “There’s no one lodging here now. Mr. Nowell and his daughter left yesterday morning.”

“Left yesterday morning?”

“Yes, sir. They went away to Liverpool; they are going to America — to New York.”

“Mr. Nowell and his daughter, Mrs. Holbrook?”

“Yes, sir, that was the lady’s name.”

“It’s impossible,” cried Gilbert; “utterly impossible that Mrs. Holbrook would go to America! She has ties that would keep her in England; a husband whom she would never abandon in that manner. There must be some mistake here.”

“O no, indeed, sir, there’s no mistake. I saw all the luggage labelled with my own eyes, and the direction was New York by steam-packet Oronoco; and Mrs. Holbrook had lots of dresses made, and all sorts of things. And as to her husband, sir, her father told me that he’d treated her very badly, and that she never meant to go back to him again to be made unhappy by him. She was going to New York to live with Mr. Nowell all the rest of her life.”

“There must have been some treachery, some underhand work, to bring this about. Did she go of her own free will?”

“O, dear me, yes, sir. Mr. Nowell was kindness itself to her, and she was very fond of him, and pleased to go to America, as far as I could make out.”

“And she never seemed depressed or unhappy?”

“I never noticed her being so, sir. They were out a good deal, you see; for Mr. Nowell was a gay gentleman, very fond of pleasure, and he would have Mrs. Holbrook always with him. They were away in Paris ever so long, in January and the beginning of February, but kept on the lodgings all the same. They were very good lodgers.”

“Had they many visitors?”

“No, sir; scarcely any one except a gentleman who used to come sometimes of an evening, and sit drinking spirits-and-water with Mr. Nowell; he was his lawyer, I believe, but I never heard his name.”

“Did no one come here yesterday to inquire for Mrs. Holbrook towards evening?”

“Yes, sir; there was a gentleman came in a cab. He looked very ill, as pale as death, and was in a dreadful way when he found they were gone. He asked me a great many questions, the same as you’ve asked me, and I think I never saw any one so cut-up as he seemed. He didn’t say much about that either, but it was easy to see it in his face. He wanted to look at the apartments, to see whether he could find anything, an old letter or such-like, that might be a help to him in going after his friends, and mother took him upstairs.”

“Did he find anything?”

“No, sir; Mr. Nowell hadn’t left so much as a scrap of paper about the place. So the gentleman thanked mother, and went away in the same cab as had brought him.”

“Do you know where he was going?”

“I fancy he was going to Liverpool after Mr. Nowell and his daughter. He seemed all in a fever, like a person that’s ready to do anything desperate. But I heard him tell the cabman Cavendish-square.”

“Cavendish-square! Yes, I can guess where he was going. But what could he want there?” Gilbert said to himself, while the girl stared at him wonderingly, thinking that he, as well as the other gentleman, had gone distraught on account of Mr. Nowell’s daughter.

“Thank you for answering my questions so patiently, and good-night,” said Gilbert, slipping some silver into her hand; for his quick eye had observed the faded condition of her finery, and a general air of poverty conspicuous in her aspect. “Stay,” he added, taking out his card-case; “if you should hear anything farther of these people, I should be much obliged by your sending me word at that address.”

“I won’t forget, sir; not that I think we’re likely to hear any more of them, they being gone straight off to America.”

“Perhaps not. But if you do hear anything, let me know.”

He had dismissed his cab on alighting in Coleman-street, believing that his journey was ended; but the walk to Cavendish-square was a short one, and he set out at a rapid pace.

The check that had befallen him was a severe one. It seemed a deathblow to all hope, a dreary realization of that vague dread which had pursued him from the first. If Marian had indeed started for America, what new difficulties must needs attend every effort to bring her back; since it was clear that her father’s interests were involved in keeping her under his influence, and separating her entirely from her husband. The journey to New York was no doubt intended to secure this state of things. In America, in that vast country, with which this man was familiar with long residence, how easy for him to hide her for ever from her friends! how vain would all inquiries, all researches be likely to prove!

At the ultimate moment, in the hour of hope and rejoicing, he was lost to them irrevocably.

“Yet criminals have been traced upon the other side of the Atlantic, where the police have been prompt to follow them,” Gilbert said to himself, glancing for an instant at the more hopeful side of the question; “but not often where they’ve got anything like a start. Did John Saltram really mean to follow those two to Liverpool, I wonder? Such a journey would seem like madness, in his state; and yet what a triumph if he should have been in time to prevent their starting by the Oronoco!”

And then, after a pause, he asked himself,

“What could he want with Mrs. Branston, at a time when every moment was precious? Money, perhaps. He could have had none with him. Yes, money, no doubt; but I shall discover that from her presently, and may learn something of his plans into the bargain.”

Gilbert went into a stationer’s shop and purchased a Bradshaw. There was a train leaving Euston station for Liverpool at a quarter to eleven. He might be in time for that, after seeing Mrs. Branston. That lady happened fortunately to be at home, and received Gilbert alone in her favourite back drawing-room, where he found her ensconced in that snug retreat made by the six-leaved Japanese screen, which formed a kind of temple on one side of the fire-place. There had been a final rupture between Adela and Mrs. Pallinson a few days before, and that matron, having shown her cards a little too plainly, had been routed by an unwonted display of spirit on the part of the pretty little widow. She was gone, carrying all her belongings with her, and leaving peace and liberty behind her. The flush of triumph was still upon Mrs. Branston; and this unexpected victory, brief and sudden in its occurrence, like most great victories, was almost a consolation to her for that disappointment which had stricken her so heavily of late.

Adela Branston welcomed her visitor very graciously; but Gilbert had no time to waste upon small talk, and after a hasty apology for his untimely intrusion, dashed at once into the question he had come to ask.

“John Saltram was with you yesterday evening, Mrs. Branston,” he said. “Pray tell me the purpose that brought him here, and anything you know of his plan of action after leaving you.”

“I can tell you very little about that. He was going upon a journey he told me, that evening, immediately indeed; a most important journey; but he did not tell me where he was going.”

“I think I can guess that,” said Gilbert. “Did he seem much agitated?”

“No; he was quite calm; but he had a resolute air, like a man who has some great purpose to achieve. I thought him looking very white and weak, and told him that I was sure he was too ill to start upon a long journey, or any journey. I begged him not to go, if it were possible to avoid going, and used every argument I could think of to persuade him to abandon the idea of such a thing. But it was all no use. ‘If I had only a dozen hours to live, I must go,’ he said.”

“He came to ask you for money for his journey, did he not?”

“He did. I suppose to so close a friend as you are to him, there can be no breach of confidence in my admitting that. He came to borrow any ready-money I might happen to have in the house. Fortunately, I had a hundred and twenty pounds by me in hard cash.”

“And he took that? — he wanted as much as that?” asked Gilbert eagerly.

“Yes, he said he was likely to require as much as that.”

“Then he must have thought of going to America.”

“To America! travel to America in his weak state of health?” cried Mrs. Branston, aghast.

“Yes. It seems like madness, does it not? But there are circumstances under which a man may be excused for being almost mad. John Saltram has gone in pursuit of some one very dear to him, some one who has been separated from him by treachery.”

“A woman?”

Adela Branston’s fair face flushed crimson as she asked the question. A woman? Yes, no doubt he was in pursuit of that woman whom he loved better than her.

“I cannot stop to answer a single question now, my dear Mrs. Branston,” Gilbert said gently. “You shall know all by-and-by, and I am sure your generous heart will forgive any wrong that has been done you in this business. Good night. I have to catch a train at a quarter to eleven; I am going to Liverpool.”

“After Mr. Saltram?”

“Yes; I do not consider him in a fitting condition to travel alone. I hope to be in time to prevent his doing anything rash.”

“But how will you find him?”

“I must make a round of the hotels till I discover his head-quarters. Good night.”

“Let me order my carriage to take you to the station.”

“A thousand thanks, but I shall be there before your carriage would be ready. I can pick up a cab close by and shall have time to call at my lodgings for a carpet-bag. Once more, good night.”

It was still dark when Gilbert Fenton arrived at Liverpool. He threw himself upon a sofa in the waiting-room, where he had an hour or so of uncomfortable, unrefreshing sleep, and then roused himself and went out to begin his round of the hotels.

A surly fly-driver of unknown age and prodigious deafness carried him from house to house; first to all the principal places of entertainment, aristocratic, family, and commercial; then to more obscure taverns and boarding-houses, until the sun was high and the commerce of Liverpool in full swing; and at all these places Gilbert questioned night-porters, and chief waiters, and head chamber-maids, until his brain grew dizzy by mere repetition of his questions; but no positive tidings could he obtain of John Saltram. There was a coffee-house near the quay where it seemed just possible that he had slept; but even here the description was of the vaguest, and the person described might just as well have been John Smith as John Saltram. Gilbert dismissed the fly-man and his vehicle at last, thoroughly wearied out with that morning’s work.

He went to one of the hotels, took a hasty breakfast, and then hurried off to the offices belonging to the owners of the Oronoco.

That vessel had started for New York at nine o’clock on the previous morning, and John Saltram had gone with her. His name was the last on the list of passengers; he had only taken his passage an hour before the steamer left Liverpool, but there his name was in black and white. The names of Percival Nowell, and of Mrs. Holbrook, his daughter, were also in the list. The whole business was clear enough, and there was nothing more that Gilbert could do. Had John Saltram been strong and well, his friend would have felt nothing but satisfaction in the thought that he was going in the same vessel with Marian, and would without doubt bring her back in triumph. But the question of his health was a painful one to contemplate. Could he, or could he not endure the strain that he had put upon himself within the last eight-and-forty hours? In desperate straits men can do desperate things — there was always that fact to be remembered; but still John Saltram might break down under the burden he had taken upon himself; and when Gilbert went back to London that afternoon he was sorely anxious about this feeble traveller.

He found a letter from him at the lodgings in Wigmore-street; a hurried letter written at Liverpool the night before John Saltram’s departure. He had arrived there too late to get on board the Oronoco that night, and had ascertained that the vessel was to leave at nine next morning.

“I shall take my passage in her in case of the worst,” he wrote; “and if I cannot see Marian and persuade her to come on shore with me, I must go with her to New York. Heaven knows what power her father may use against me in the brief opportunity I shall have for seeing her before the vessel starts; but he can’t prevent my being their fellow-passenger, and once afloat it shall go hard with me if I cannot make my dear girl hear reason. Do not be uneasy about my health, dear old friend; you see how well I am keeping up under all this strain upon body and mind. You will see me come back from America a new man, strong enough to prove my gratitude for your devotion, in some shape or other, I trust in God.”

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