Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 41

Outward Bound.

The bustle of departure was at its culminating point when John Saltram went on board the Oronoco, captain and officers scudding hither and thither, giving orders and answering inquiries at every point, with a sharp, short, decisive air, as of commanding powers in the last half-hour before a great battle; steward and his underlings ubiquitous; passengers roaming vaguely to and fro, in quest of nothing particular, and in a state of semi-distraction.

In this scene of confusion there was no one to answer Mr. Saltram’s eager inquires about those travellers whom he had pursued to this point. He did contrive, just about ten minutes before the vessel sailed, to capture the ubiquitous steward by the button-hole, and to ask for tidings of Mr. Nowell, before that excited functionary could wrench himself away.

“Mr. Nowell, sir; upon my word, sir, I can’t say. Yes, there is a gentleman of that name on board; state-rooms number 5 and 7; got a daughter with him — tall dark gentleman, with a moustache and beard. Yes, sir, he was on deck just now, on the bridge; but I don’t see him, I suppose he’s gone below. Better look for him in the saloon, sir.”

The ten minutes were over before John Saltram had seen half the faces on board the crowded vessel; but in his hurried wanderings to and fro, eager to see that one face which he so ardently desired to behold once wore, he had met nothing but strangers. There was no help for it: the vessel would steam out seaward presently, and he must needs go with her. At the best, he had expected this. It was not likely that, even if he could have obtained speech with his wife, she could have been prevailed upon immediately to desert the father whose fortunes she had elected to follow, and return to shore with the husband she had abandoned. Her mind must have been poisoned, her judgment perverted, before she could have left him thus of her own free will; and it would need the light of calm reason to set things right again. No; John Saltram could scarcely hope to carry her off by a coup-de-main, in the face of the artful schemer who had evidently obtained so strong an influence over her. That she could for a moment contemplate this voyage to America with her father, was enough to demonstrate the revolution that must have taken place in her feelings towards her husband.

“Slander and lies are very strong,” John Saltram said to himself; “but I do not think, when my dear love and I are once face to face, any power on earth can prevail against me. She must be changed indeed, if it can; she must be changed indeed, if anything but a lie can part us.”

He had come on board the Oronoco prepared for the worst, and furnished with a slender outfit for the voyage, hurriedly purchased at a Liverpool clothier’s. He had plenty of money in his pocket — enough to pay for his own and his wife’s return passage; and the thought of this useless journey across the Atlantic troubled him very little. What did it matter where he was, if she were with him? The mental torture he had undergone during all this time, in which he had seemed in danger of losing her altogether, had taught him how dear she was — how precious and perfect a treasure he had held so lightly.

The vessel steamed put of the Mersey, and John Saltram, indifferent to the last glimpse of his native land, was still roaming hither and thither, in quest of the familiar face he longed with such a passionate yearning to see; but up to this point he sought for his wife in vain. Mrs. Holbrook had evidently retired at once to her cabin. There was nothing for him to do but to establish a channel of communication with her by means of the stewardess.

He found this official with some trouble, and so desperately busy that it was no easy matter to obtain speech with her, pursued as she was by forlorn and distracted female passengers, clamorously eager to know where she had put that “waterproof cloak,” or “Maud,” or “travelling-bag,” or “dressing-case.” He did at last contrive to enlist her services in his behalf, and extort some answer to his questions.

“Yes,” she told him, “Mrs. Holbrook was on board — state-room number 7. She had gone to her room at once, but would appear at dinner-time, no doubt, if she wasn’t ill.”

John Saltram tore a blank leaf from his pocket-book, and wrote one hasty line:

“I am here, Marian; let me see you for God’s sake.

“JOHN HOLBROOK.”

“If you’ll take that to the lady in number 7, I shall be exceedingly obliged,” he said to the stewardess, slipping half-a-crown into her willing hand at the same time.

“Yes, sir, this very minute, sir.”

John Saltram sat down upon a bench outside the ladies’ cabin, in a sort of antechamber between the steward’s pantry and store-rooms, strongly perfumed with the odour of grocery, and waited for Marian’s coming. He had no shadow of doubt that she would come to him instantly, in defiance of any other guardian or counseller. Whatever lies might have been told her — however she might have been taught to doubt him — he had a perfect faith in the power of his immediate presence. They had but to meet face to face, and all would be well.

Indeed, there was need that things should be well for John Saltram very speedily. He had set nature at defiance so far, acting as if physical weakness were unknown to him. There are periods in a man’s life in which nothing seems impossible to him; in which by the mere force of will he triumphs over impossibility. But such conquests are apt to be of the briefest. John Saltram felt that he must very soon break down. The heavily throbbing heart, the aching limbs, the dizzy sight, and parched throat, told him how much this desperate chase had cost him. If he had strength enough to clasp his wife’s hand, to give her loving greeting and tell her that he was true, it would be about as much as he could hope to achieve; and then he felt that he would be glad to crawl into any corner of the vessel where he might find rest.

The stewardess came back to him presently, with rather a discomfited air.

“The lady says she is too ill to see any one, sir,” she told John Saltram; “but under any circumstances she must decline to see you.”

“She said that — my wife told you that?”

“Your wife, sir! Good gracious me, is the lady in number 7 your wife? She came on board with her father, and I understood they were only two in party.”

“Yes; she came with her father. Her father’s treachery has separated her from me; but a few words would explain everything, if I could only see her.”

He thought it best to tell the woman the truth, strange as it might seem to her. Her sympathies were more likely to be enlisted in his favour if she knew the actual state of the case.

“Did Mrs. Holbrook positively decline to see me?” he asked again, scarcely able to believe that Marian could have resisted even that brief appeal scrawled upon a scrap of paper.

“She did indeed, sir,” answered the stewardess. “Nothing could be more positive than her manner. I told her how anxious you seemed — for I could see it in your face, you see, sir, when you gave me the paper — and I really didn’t like to bring you such a message; but it was no use. ‘I decline to see him,’ the lady said, ‘and be sure you bring me no more messages from this gentleman;’ and with that, sir, she tore up the bit of paper, as cool as could be. But, dear me, sir, how ill you do look, to be sure!”

“I have been very ill. I came from a sick-room to follow my wife.”

“Hadn’t you better go and lie down a little, sir? You look as if you could scarcely stand. Shall I fetch the steward for you?”

“No, thanks. I can find my way to my berth, I daresay. Yes, I suppose I had better go and lie down. I can do no more yet awhile.”

He could do no more, and had indeed barely strength to stagger to his sleeping-quarters, which he discovered at last with some difficulty. Here he flung himself down, dressed as he was, and lay like a log, for hours, not sleeping, but powerless to move hand or foot, and with his brain racked by torturing thoughts. “As soon as I am able to stand again, I will see her father, and exact a reckoning from him,” he said to himself again and again, during those long dreary hours of prostration; but when the next day came, he was too weak to raise himself from his narrow bed, and on the next day after that he was no better. The steward was much concerned by his feeble condition, especially as it was no common case of sea-sickness; for John Saltram had told him that he was never sea-sick. He brought the prostrate traveller soda-water and brandy, and tried to tempt him to eat rich soups of a nutritious character; but the sick man would take nothing except an occasional draught of soda-water.

On the third day of the voyage the steward was very anxious to bring the ship’s surgeon to look at Mr. Saltram; but against this John Saltram resolutely set his face.

“For pity’s sake, don’t bore me with any more doctors!” he cried fretfully. “I have had enough of that kind of thing. The man can do nothing for me. I am knocked up with over exertion and excitement — that’s all; my strength will come back to me sooner or later if I lie quietly here.”

The steward gave way, for the time being, upon this appeal, and the surgeon was not summoned; but Mr. Saltram’s strength seemed very slow to return to him. He could not sleep; he could only lie there listening to all the noises of the ship, the perpetual creaking and rattling, and tramping of footsteps above his head, and tortured by his impatience to be astir again. He would not stand upon punctilio this time, he told himself; he would go straight to the door of Marian’s cabin, and stand there until she came out to him. Was she not his wife — his very own — powerless to hold him at bay in this manner? His strength did not come back to him; that wakeful prostration in which the brain was always busy, while the aching body lay still, did not appear to be a curative process. In the course of that third night of the voyage John Saltram was delirious, much to the alarm of his fellow-passenger, the single sharer of his cabin, a nervous elderly gentleman, who objected to his illness altogether as an outrage upon himself, and was indignantly desirous to know whether it was contagious.

So the doctor was brought to the sick man early next morning whether he would or not, and went through the usual investigations, and promised to administer the usual sedatives, and assured the anxious passenger that Mr. Saltram’s complaint was in nowise infectious.

“He has evidently been suffering from serious illness lately, and has been over-exerting himself,” said the doctor; “that seems very clear. We shall contrive to bring him round in a few days, I daresay, though he certainly has got into a very low state.”

The doctor said this rather gravely, on which the passenger again became disturbed of aspect. A death on board ship must needs be such an unpleasant business, and he really had not bargained for anything of that kind. What was the use of paying first-class fare on board a first-class vessel, if one were subject to annoyance of this sort? In the steerage of an overcrowded emigrant ship such a thing might be a matter of course — a mere natural incident of the voyage — but on board the Oronoco it was most unlooked for.

“He’s not going to die, is he?” asked the passenger, with an injured air.

“O dear, no, I should hope not. I have no apprehension of that sort,” replied the surgeon promptly.

He would no doubt have said the same thing up to within an hour or so of the patient’s decease.

“There is an extreme debility, that is all,” he went on quite cheerfully; “and if we can induce him to take plenty of nourishment, we shall get on very well, I daresay.”

After this the nervous passenger was profoundly interested in the amount of refreshment consumed by the patient, and questioned the steward about him with a most sympathetic air.

John Saltram, otherwise John Holbrook, was not destined to die upon this outward voyage. He was very eager to be well, or at least to be at liberty to move about again; and perhaps this impatient desire of his helped in some measure to bring about his recovery. The will, physiologists tell us, has a great deal to do with these things.

The voyage was a prosperous one. The good ship steamed gaily across the Atlantic through the bleak spring weather; and there was plenty of eating and drinking, and joviality and flirtation on board her, while John Saltram lay upon his back, very helpless, languishing to be astir once more.

During these long dreary days and nights he had contrived to send several messages to the lady in the state-cabin, feeble pencil scrawls, imploring her to come to him, telling her that he was very ill, at death’s door almost, and desired nothing so much as to see her, if only for a moment. But the answer — by word of mouth of the steward or stewardess always — was unfailingly to the same effect:— the lady in number 7 refused to hold any communication with the sick gentleman.

“She’s a hard one!” the steward remarked to the stewardess, when they talked the matter over in a comfortable manner during the progress of a snug little supper in the steward’s cabin, “she must be an out-and-out hard-hearted one to stand out against him like that, if he is her husband, and I suppose he is. I told her to-day — when I took his message — how bad he was, and that it was a chance if he ever went ashore alive; but she was walking up and down deck with her father ten minutes afterwards, laughing and talking like anything. I suppose he’s been a bad lot, Mrs. Peterson, and deserves no better from her; but still it does seem hard to see him lying there, and his wife so near him, and yet refusing to go and see him.”

“I’ve no common patience with her,” said the stewardess with acrimony; “the cold-hearted creature! — flaunting about like that, with a sick husband within a stone’s throw of her. Suppose he is to blame, Mr. Martin; whatever his faults may have been, it isn’t the time for a wife to remember them.”

To this Mr. Martin responded dubiously, remarking that there were some carryings on upon the part of husbands which it was difficult for a wife not to remember.

The good ship sped on, unhindered by adverse winds or foul weather, and was within twenty-four hours of her destination when John Saltram was at last able to crawl out of the cabin, where he had lain for some eight or nine days crippled and helpless.

The first purpose which he set himself to accomplish was an interview with Marian’s father. He wanted to grapple his enemy somehow — to ascertain the nature of the game that was being played against him. He had kept himself very quiet for this purpose, wishing to take Percival Nowell by surprise; and on this last day but one of the voyage, when he was able for the first time to rise from his berth, no one but the steward and the surgeon knew that he intended so to rise.

He had taken the steward in some measure into his confidence; and that official, after helping him to dress, left him seated in the cabin, while he went to ascertain the whereabouts of Mr. Nowell. Mr. Martin, the steward, came back after about five minutes.

“He’s in the saloon, sir, reading, quite alone. You couldn’t have a better opportunity of speaking to him.”

“That’s a good fellow. Then I’ll go at once.”

“You’d better take my arm, sir; you’re as weak as a baby, and the ship lurches a good deal to-day.”

“I’m not very strong, certainly. I begin to think I never shall be strong again. Do you know, Martin, I was once stroke in a university eight. Not much vigour in my biceps now, eh?”

It was only a few paces from one cabin to the other; but Mr. Saltram could scarcely have gone so far without the steward’s supporting arm. He was a feeble-looking figure, with a white wan face, as he tottered along the narrow passage between the tables, making his way to that end of the saloon where Percival Nowell lounged luxuriously, with his legs stretched at full length upon the sofa, and a book in his hand.

“Mr. Nowell, I believe,” said the sick man, as the other looked up at him with consummate coolness. Whatever his feelings might be with regard to his daughter’s husband, he had had ample time to prepare himself for an encounter with him.

“Yes, my name is Nowell. But I have really not the honour to ——”

“You do not know me,” answered John Saltram. “No, but it is time you did so. I am your daughter’s husband, John Holbrook.”

“Indeed. I have heard that she has been persecuted by the messages of some person calling himself her husband. You are that person, I presume.”

“I have tried to persuade my wife to see me. Yes; and I mean to see her before this vessel arrives in port.”

“But if the lady in question refuses to have anything to say to you?”

“We shall soon put that to the test. I have been too ill to stir ever since I came on board, or you would have heard of me before this, Mr. Nowell. Now that I can move about once more, I shall find a way to assert my claims, you may be sure. But in the first place, I want to know by what right you stole my wife away from her home — by what right you brought her on this voyage?”

“Before I answer that question, Mr. — Mr. Holbrook, as you choose to call yourself, I’ll ask you another. By what right do you call yourself my daughter’s husband? what evidence have you to produce to prove that you are not a bare-faced impostor? You don’t carry your marriage-certificate about with you, I daresay; and in the absence of some kind of documentary evidence, what is to convince me that you are what you pretend to be — my daughter’s husband?”

“The evidence of your daughter’s own senses. Place me face to face with her; she will not deny my identity.”

“But how, if my daughter declines to see you, as she does most positively? She has suffered enough at your hands, and is only too glad to be released from you.”

“She has suffered — she is glad to be released! Why, you most consummate scoundrel!” cried John Saltram, “there never was an unkind word spoken between my wife and me! She was the best, most devoted of women; and nothing but the vilest treachery could have separated us. I know not what villanous slander you have made her believe, or by what means you lured her away from me; but I know that a few words between us would let in the light upon your plot. You had better make the best of a bad position, Mr. Nowell. As my wife’s father, you know, you are pretty sure to escape. Whatever my inclination might be, my regard for her would make me indulgent to you. You’ll find candour avail you best in this case, depend upon it. Your daughter has inherited a fortune, and you want to put your hand upon it altogether. It would be wiser to moderate your desires, and be content with a fair share of the inheritance. Your daughter is not the woman to treat you ungenerously, nor am I the man to create any hindrance to her generosity.”

“I can make no bargain with you, sir,” replied Mr. Nowell, with the same cool audacity of manner that had distinguished him throughout the interview; “nor am I prepared to admit your claim to the position you assume. But if my daughter is your wife, she left you of her own free will, under no coercion of mine; and she must return to you in the same manner, or you must put the machinery of the law in force to compel her. And that, I flatter myself, in a free country like America, will be rather a difficult business.”

It was hard for John Saltram to hear any man talk like this, and not be able to knock him down. But in his present condition Marian’s husband could not have grappled a child, and he knew it.

“You are an outrageous scoundrel!” he said between his set teeth, tortured by that most ardent desire to dash his clenched fist into Mr. Nowell’s handsome dissolute-looking face. “You are a most consummate villain, and you know it!”

“Hard words mean so little,” returned Mr. Nowell coolly, “and go for so little. That kind of language before witnesses would be actionable; but, upon my word, it would be mere child’s play on my part to notice it, especially to a man in your condition. You’d better claim your wife from the captain, and see what he will say to you. I have told him that there’s some semi-lunatic on board, who pretends to be Mrs. Holbrook’s husband; so he’ll be quite prepared to hear your statement.”

John Saltram left the saloon in silence. It was worse than useless talking to this man, who presumed upon his helpless state, and openly defied him. His next effort must be to see Marian.

This he found impossible, for the time being at any rate. The state-room number 7 was an apartment a little bigger than a rabbit-hutch, opening out of a larger cabin, and in that cabin there reposed a ponderous matron who had suffered from sea-sickness throughout the voyage, and who could in no wise permit a masculine intruder to invade the scene of her retirement.

The idea of any blockade of Marian’s door was therefore futile. He must needs wait as patiently as he might, till she appeared of her own free will. He could not have to wait very long; something less than a day and a night, the steward had told him, would bring them to the end of the voyage.

Mr. Saltram went on deck, still assisted by the friendly steward, and seated himself in a sheltered corner of the vessel, hoping that the sea-breeze might bring him back some remnant of his lost strength. The ship’s surgeon had advised him to get a little fresh air as soon as he felt himself able to bear it; so he sat in his obscure nook, very helpless and very feeble, meditating upon what he should do when the final moment came and he had to claim his wife.

He had no idea of making his wrongs known to the captain, unless as a last desperate resource. He could not bring himself to make Marian the subject of a vulgar squabble. No, it was to herself alone he would appeal; it was in the natural instinct of her own heart that he would trust.

Very long and weary seemed the remaining hours of that joyless voyage. Mr. Saltram was fain to go back to his cabin after an hour on deck, there to lie and await the morrow. He had need to husband his strength for the coming encounter. The steward told him in the evening that Mrs. Holbrook had not dined in the saloon that day, as usual. She had kept her cabin closely, and complained of illness.

The morning dawned at last, after what had seemed an endless night to John Saltram, lying awake in his narrow berth — a bleak blusterous morning, with the cold gray light staring in at the port-hole, like an unfriendly face. There was no promise in such a daybreak; it was only light, and nothing more.

Mr. Saltram, having duly deliberated the matter during the long hours of that weary night, had decided that his wisest course was to lie perdu until the last moment, the very moment of landing, and then to come boldly forward and make his claim. It was useless to waste his strength in any futile endeavour to baffle so hardy a scoundrel as Percival Nowell. At the last, when Marian was leaving the ship, it would be time for him to assert his right as her husband, and to defy the wretch who had beguiled her away from him.

Having once arrived at this decision, he was able to await the issue of events with some degree of tranquility. He had no doubt, even now, of his wife’s affection for him, no fear as to the ultimate triumph of her love over all the lies and artifices of that scheming scoundrel, her father.

It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when the steward came to tell him that they were on the point of arriving at their destination. The wharf where they were to land was within sight. The man had promised to give him due warning of this event, and John Saltram had therefore contrived to keep himself quiet amidst all the feverish impatience and confusion of mind prevailing, amongst the other passengers. He was rewarded for his prudence; for when he rose to go on deck, he found himself stronger than he had felt yet. He went up the companion-ladder, took his place close to the spot at which the passengers must all leave the vessel, and waited.

New York was very near. The day had been cold and showery, but the sun was shining now, and the whole scene looked bright and gay. Every one seemed in high spirits, as if the new world they were about to touch contained for them a certainty of Elysium. It was such a delicious relief to arrive at the great lively Yankee city, after the tedium of a ten-day’s voyage, pleasant and easy as the transit had been.

John Saltram looked eagerly among the faces of the crowd, but neither Percival Nowell nor his daughter were to be seen amongst them. Presently the vessel touched the wharf, and the travellers began to move towards the gangway. He watched them, one by one, breathlessly. At the very last, Mr. Nowell stepped quickly forward, with a veiled figure on his arm.

She was closely veiled, her face quite hidden by thick black lace, and she was clinging with something of a frightened air to her companion’s arm.

John Saltram sprang up from his post of observation, and confronted the two before they could leave the vessel.

“Marian,” he said, in slow decided tone, “let go that man’s arm. You will leave this vessel with me, and with no one else.”

“Stand out of the way, fellow,” cried Percival Nowell; “my daughter can have nothing to say to you.”

“Marian, for God’s sake, obey me! There is the vilest treachery in this man’s conduct. Let go his arm. My love, my darling, come with me!”

There was a passionate appeal in his tone, but it produced no answer.

“Marian!” he cried, still interposing himself between these two and the passage to the landing wharf. “Marian, I will have some answer!”

“You have had your answer, sir,” said Percival Nowell, trying to push him aside. “This lady does not know you. Do you want to make a scene, and render yourself ridiculous to every one here? There are plenty of lunatic asylums in New York that will accommodate you, if you are determined to make yourself eligible for them.”

“Marian!” repeated John Saltram, without vouchsafing the faintest notice of this speech. “Marian, speak to me!”

And then, as there came no answer from that shrinking clinging figure, with a sudden spring forward, that brought him quite close to her, John Saltram tore the veil away from the hidden face.

“This must be some impostor,” he said; “this is not my wife.”

He was right. The creature clinging to Percival Nowell’s arm was a pretty woman enough, with rather red hair, and a common face. She was about Marian’s height; and that was the only likeness between them.

The spectators of this brief fracas crowded round the actors in it, seeing nothing but the insult offered to a lady, and highly indignant with John Saltram; and amidst their murmurs Percival Nowell pushed his way to the shore, with the woman still clinging to his arm.

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