Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 44

After the Fire.

Yes, it was Marian. She whom Gilbert Fenton had sought so long and patiently, with doubt and anguish in his heart; she whose double John Saltram had followed across the Atlantic, had been within easy reach of them all the time, hidden away in that dreary old farm-house, the innocent victim of Percival Nowell’s treachery, and Stephen Whitelaw’s greed of gain. The whole story was told by-and-by, when the master of Wyncomb Farm lay dying.

William Carley and his daughter took her to the Grange as soon as the farmer’s spring cart was ready to convey her thither. It was all done very quickly, and none of the farm-servants saw her face. Even if they had done so, it is more than doubtful that they would have recognised her, so pale a shadow of her former self had she become during that long dreary imprisonment; the face wan and wasted, with a strange sharpened look about the features which was like the aspect of death; all the brightness and colour vanished out of the soft brown hair; an ashen pallor upon her beauty, that made her seem like a creature risen from the grave.

They lifted her into the cart, still insensible, and seated her there, wrapped in an old horse-cloth, with her head resting on Mrs. Whitelaw’s shoulder; and so they drove slowly away. It was only when they had gone some little distance from the farm, that the fresh morning air revived her, and she opened her eyes and looked about her, wildly at first, and with a faint shuddering sigh.

Then, after a few moments, full consciousness came back to her, and a sudden cry of rapture broke from the pale lips. “O God!” she exclaimed, “am I set free?”

“Yes, dear Mrs. Holbrook, you are free, never again to go back to that cruel place. O, to think that you should be used so, and I so near!”

Marian lifted her head from Ellen’s shoulder, and recognised her with a second cry of delight.

“Ellen, is it you? Then I am safe; I must be safe with you.”

“Safe! yes, dear. I would die sooner than any harm should come to you again. Who could have brought this cruelty about? who could have shut you up in that room?”

“My father,” Marian answered with a shudder. “He wanted my money, I suppose; and instead of killing me, he shut me up in that place.”

She said no more just then, being too weak to say much; and Ellen, who was employed in soothing and comforting her, did not want her to talk. It was afterwards, when she had been established in her old rooms at the Grange, and had taken a little breakfast, that she told Ellen something more about her captivity.

“O, Ellen, if I were to tell you what I have suffered! But no, there are no words can tell that. It’s not that they ill-used me. The girl who waited on me brought me good food, and even tried to make me comfortable in her rough way; but to sit there day after day, Ellen, alone, with only a dim light from the top of the window above the wood-stack; to sit there wondering about my husband, whether he was searching for me still, and would ever find me, or whether, as was more likely, he had given me up for dead. Think of me, Ellen, if you can, sitting there for weeks and months in my despair, trying to reckon the days sometimes by the aid of some old newspaper which the girl brought me now and then, at other times losing count of them altogether.”

“Dear Mrs. Holbrook, I can’t understand it even yet. Tell me how it all came about — how they ever lured you into that place.”

“It was easy enough, Ellen; I wasn’t conscious when they took me there. The story is very short. You remember that day when you left the Grange, how happy I was, looking forward to my husband’s return, and thinking of the good news I had to tell him. We were to be rich, and our lives free and peaceful henceforward; and I had seen him suffer so much for the want of money. It was the morning after you left when the post brought me a letter from my father — a letter with the Malsham post-mark. I had seen him in town, as you know, and was scarcely surprised that he should write to me. But I was surprised to find him so near me, and the contents of the letter were very perplexing. My father entreated me to meet him on the river-side pathway, between Malsham station and this house. He had been informed of my habits, he said, and that I was accustomed to walk there. That was curious, when, so far as I knew, he had sever been near this place; but I hardly thought about the strangeness of it then. He begged me so earnestly to see him; it was a matter of life or death, he said. What could I do, Nelly? He was my father, and I felt that I owed him some duty. I could not refuse to see him; and if he had some personal objection to coming here, it seemed a small thing for me to take the trouble to go and meet him. I could but hear what he had to say.”

“I wish to heaven I had been here!” exclaimed Ellen; “you shouldn’t have gone alone, if I had known anything about it.”

“I think, if you had been here, I should have told you about the letter, for it puzzled me a good deal, and I knew how well I could trust you. But you were away; and my father’s request was so urgent — the hour was named — I could do nothing but accede to it. So I went, leaving no message for you or for my husband, feeling so sure of my return within an hour or two.”

“And you found your father waiting for you?”

“Yes, on the river-bank, within a short distance of Mr. Whitelaw’s house. He began by congratulating me on the change in my prospects — I was a rich woman, he said. And then he went on to vilify my husband in such hateful words, Ellen; telling me that I had married a notorious scoundrel and profligate, and that he could produce ample evidence of what he affirmed; and all this with a pretended pity for my weakness and ignorance of the world. I laughed his shameful slanders to scorn, and told him that I knew my husband too thoroughly to be alarmed even for a moment by such groundless charges. He still affected to compassionate me as the weakest and most credulous of women, and then came to a proposal which he said he had travelled to Hampshire on purpose to make to me. It was, that I should leave my husband, and place myself under his protection; that I should go to America with him when he returned there, and so preserve my fortune from the clutches of a villain. ‘My fortune?’ I said; ‘yes, I see that it is that alone you are thinking of. How can you suppose me so blind as not to understand that? You had better be candid with me, and say frankly what you want. I have no doubt my husband will allow me to make any reasonable sacrifice in your favour.’”

“What did he say to that?”

“He laughed bitterly at my offer. ‘Your husband!’ he said ‘I am not likely to see the colour of my father’s money, if you are to be governed by him.’ ‘You do him a great wrong,’ I answered. ‘I am sure that he will act generously, and I shall be governed by him.’”

“He was very angry, I suppose?”

“No doubt of it; but for some time he contrived to suppress all appearance of anger, and urged me to believe his statements about my husband, and to accept his offer of a home and protection with him. I cannot tell you how plausible his words were — what an appearance of affection and interest in my welfare he put on. Then, finding me firm, he changed his tone, and there were hidden threats mixed with his entreaties. It would be a bad thing for me if I refused to go with him, he said; I would have cause to repent my folly for the rest of my life. He said a great deal, using every argument it is possible to imagine; and there was always the same threatening under-tone. He could not move me in the least, as you may fancy, Nell. I told him that nothing upon earth would induce me to leave my husband, or to think ill of him. And in this manner we walked up and down for nearly two hours, till I began to feel very tired and faint. My father saw this, and when we came within sight of Wyncomb Farmhouse, proposed that I should go in and rest, and take a glass of milk or some kind of refreshment. I was surprised at this proposal, and asked him if he knew the people of the house. He said yes, he knew something of Mr. Whitelaw; he had met him the night before in the coffee-room of the inn at Malsham.”

“Then your father had slept at Malsham the night before?”

“Evidently. His letter to me had been posted at Malsham, you know. I asked him how long he had been in this part of the country, and he rather evaded the question. Not long, he said; and he had come down here only to see me. At first I refused to go into Mr. Whitelaw’s house, being only anxious to get home as quickly as possible. But my father seemed offended by this. I wanted to get rid of him, he said, although this was likely to be our last interview — the very last time in his life that he would ever see me, perhaps. I could not surely grudge him half an hour more of my company. I could scarcely go on refusing after this; and I really felt so tired and faint, that I doubted my capability of walking back to this house without resting. So I said yes, and we went into Wyncomb Farmhouse. The door was opened by a girl when my father knocked. There was no one at home, she told him; but we were quite welcome to sit down in the parlour, and she would bring me a glass of fresh milk and a slice of bread-and-butter.

“The house had a strange empty look, I thought. There was none of the life or bustle one expects to see at a farm; all was silent as the grave. The gloom and quietness of the place chilled me somehow. There was a fire burning in the parlour, and my father made me sit down very close to it, and I think the heat increased that faintness which I had felt when I came into the house.

“Again and again he urged his first demand, seeming as if he would wear down all opposition by persistence. I was quite firm; but the effect of all this argument was very wearisome, and I began to feel really ill.

“I think I must have been on the point of fainting, when the door was opened suddenly, and Mr. Whitelaw came in. In the next moment, while the room was spinning round before my eyes, and that dreadful giddiness that comes before a dead faint was growing worse, my father snatched me up in his arms, and threw a handkerchief over my face. I had just sense enough to know that there was chloroform upon it, and that was all. When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on a narrow bed, in a dimly-lighted room, with a small fire burning in a rusty grate in one corner, and some tea-things, with a plate of cold meat, on a table near it. There was a scrap of paper on this table, with a few lines scrawled upon it in pencil, in my father’s hand: ‘You have had your choice, either to share a prosperous life with me, or to be shut up like a mad woman. You had better make yourself as comfortable as you can, since you have no hope of escape till it suits my purpose to have you set free. Good care will be taken of you. You must have been a fool to suppose that I would submit to the injustice of J.N.‘s will.’

“For a long time I sat like some stupid bewildered creature, going over these words again and again, as if I had no power to understand them. It was very long before I could believe that my father meant to shut me up in that room for an indefinite time — for the rest of my life, perhaps. But, little by little, I came to believe this, and to feel nothing but a blank despair. O, Nelly, I dare not dwell upon that time! I suffered too much. God has been very merciful to me in sparing me my mind; for there were times when I believe I was quite mad. I could pray sometimes, but not always. I have spent whole days in prayer, almost as if I fancied that I could weary out my God with supplications.”

“And Stephen; did you see him?”

“Yes, now and then — once in several days, in a week perhaps. He used to come, like the master of a madhouse visiting his patients, to see that I was comfortable, he said. At first I used to appeal to him to set me free — kneeling at his feet, promising any sacrifice of my fortune for him or for my father, if they would release me. But it was no use. He was as hard as a rock; and at last I felt that it was useless, and used to see him come and go with hopeless apathy. No, Ellen, there are no words can describe what I suffered. I appealed to the girl who waited on me daily, but who came only once a-day, and always after dark. I might as well have appealed to the four walls of my room; the girl was utterly stolid. She brought me everything I was likely to want from day to day, and gave me ample means of replenishing my fire, and told me that I ought to make myself comfortable. I had a much better life than any one in the workhouse, she said; and I must be very wicked if I complained. I believe she really thought I was a harmless madwoman, and that her master had a right to shut me up in that room. One night, after I had been there for a time that seemed like eternity, my father came ——”

“What!” cried Ellen Whitelaw, “the stranger! I understand. That man was your father; he came to see you that night; and as he was leaving you, you gave that dreadful shriek we heard downstairs. O, if I had known the truth — if I had only known!”

You heard me, Ellen? You were there?” Marian exclaimed, surprised. She was, as yet, entirely ignorant of Ellen’s marriage, and had been too much bewildered by the suddenness of her escape to wonder how the bailiff’s daughter had happened to be so near at hand in that hour of deadly peril.

“Yes, yes, dear Mrs. Holbrook; I was there, and I did not help you. But never mind that now; tell me the rest of your story; tell me how your father acted that night.”

“He was with me alone for about ten minutes; he came to give me a last chance, he said. If I liked to leave my husband for ever, and go to America with him, I might do so; but before he let me out of that place, he must have my solemn oath that I would make no attempt to see my husband; that I would never again communicate with any one I had known up to that time; that I would begin a new life, with him, my father, for my sole protector. I had had some experience of the result of opposing him, he said, and he now expected to find me reasonable.

“You can imagine my answer, Ellen. I would do anything, sacrifice anything, except my fidelity to my husband. Heaven knows I would have given twenty years of my life to escape from that dismal place, with the mere chance of being able to get back to my husband; but I would not take a false oath; I could not perjure myself, as that man would have made me perjure myself, in order to win my release. I knelt at his feet and clung about him, beseeching him with all the power I had to set me free; but he was harder than iron. Just at the end, when he had the door open, and was leaving me, telling me that I had lost my last chance, and would never see him again, I clung about him with one wild desperate cry. He flung me back into the room violently, and shut the door in my face. I fancied afterwards that that cry must have been heard, and that, if there had been any creature in the house inclined to help me, there would have come an end to my sufferings. But the time passed, and there was no change; only the long dreary days, the wretched sleepless nights.”

This was all. There were details of her sufferings which Marian told her faithful friend by-and-by, when her mind was calmer, and they had leisure for tranquil talk; but the story was all told; and Marian lay down to rest in the familiar room, unspeakably grateful to God for her rescue, and only eager that her husband should be informed of her safety. She had not yet been told that he had crossed the Atlantic in search of her, deluded by a false scent. Ellen feared to tell her this at first; and she had taken it for granted that John Saltram was still in London. It was easy to defer any explanation just yet, on account of Marian’s weakness. The exertion of telling the brief story of her sufferings had left her prostrate; and she was fain to obey her friendly nurse.

“We will talk about everything, and arrange everything, by-and-by, dear Mrs. Holbrook,” Ellen said resolutely; “but for the present you must rest, and you must take everything that I bring you, and be very good.”

And with that she kissed and left her, to perform another and less agreeable duty — the duty of attendance by her husband’s sick-bed.

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