Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 46

Ellen Regains Her Liberty.

Stephen Whitelaw lingered for two days and two nights, and at the expiration of that time departed this life, making a very decent end of it, and troubled by no thought that his existence had been an unworthy one.

Before he died, he told his wife something of how he had been tempted into the doing of that foul deed whereof Marian Saltram had been the victim. Those two were alone together the day before he died, when Stephen, of his own free will, made the following statement:——

“It was Mrs. Holbrook’s father, you see,” he said, in a plausible tone, “that put it to me, how he might want his daughter taken care of for a time — it might be a short time, or it might be rather a longish time, according to how circumstances should work out. We’d met once before at the King’s Arms at Malsham, where Mr. Nowell was staying, and where I went in of an evening, once in a way, after market; and he’d made pretty free with me, and asked me a good many questions about myself, and told me a good bit about himself, in a friendly way. He told me how his daughter had gone against him, and was likely to go against him, and how some property that ought in common justice to have been left to him, had been left to her. He was going to give her a fair chance, he said, if she liked to leave her husband, who was a scheming scoundrel, and obey him. She might have a happy home with him, if she was reasonable. If not, he should use his authority as a father.

“He came to see me at Wyncomb next day — dropped in unawares like, when mother Tadman was out of the way — not that I had asked him, you see. He seemed to be quite taken with the place, and made me show him all over the house; and then he took a glass of something, and sat and talked a bit, and went away, without having said a word about his daughter. But before he went he made me promise that I’d go and see him at the King’s Arms that night.

“Well, you see, Nell, as he seemed to have taken a fancy to me, as you may say, and had told me he could put me up to making more of my money, and had altogether been uncommonly pleasant, I didn’t care to say no, and I went. I was rather taken aback at the King’s Arms when they showed me to a private room, because I’d met Mr. Nowell before in the Commercial; however, there he was, sitting in front of a blazing fire, and with a couple of decanters of wine upon the table.

“He was very civil, couldn’t have been more friendly, and we talked and talked; he was always harping on his daughter; till at last he came out with what he wanted. Would I give her house-room for a bit, just to keep her out of the way of her husband and such-like designing people, supposing she should turn obstinate and refuse to go abroad with him? ‘You’ve a rare old roomy place,’ he said. ‘I saw some rooms upstairs at the end of a long passage which don’t seem to have been used for years. You might keep my lady in one of those; and that fine husband of hers would be as puzzled where to find her as if she was in the centre of Africa. It would be a very easy thing to do,’ he said; ‘and it would be only friendly in you to do it.’”

“O, Stephen!” cried his wife reproachfully, “how could you ever consent to such a wicked thing?”

“I don’t know about the wickedness of it,” Mr. Whitelaw responded, with rather a sullen air; “a daughter is bound to obey her father, isn’t she? and if she don’t, I should think he had the power to do what he liked with her. That’s how I should look at it, if I was a father. It’s all very well to talk, you see, Nell, but you don’t know the arguments such a man as that can bring to bear. I didn’t want to do it; I was against it from the first. It was a dangerous business, and might bring me into trouble. But that man bore down upon me to that extent that he made me promise anything; and when I went home that night, it was with the understanding that I was to fit up a room — there was a double door to be put up to shut out sound, and a deal more — ready for Mrs. Holbrook, in case her father wanted to get her out of the way for a bit.”

“He promised to pay you, of course?” Ellen said, not quite able to conceal the contempt and aversion which this confession of her husband’s inspired.

“Well, yes, a man doesn’t put himself in jeopardy like that for nothing. He was to give me a certain sum of money down the first night that Mrs. Holbrook slept in my house; and another sum of money before he went to America, and an annual sum for continuing to take care of her, if he wanted to keep her quiet permanently, as he might. Altogether it would be a very profitable business, he told me, and I ought to consider myself uncommonly lucky to get such a chance. As to the kindness or unkindness of the matter, it was better than shutting her up in a lunatic asylum, he said; and he might have to do that, if I refused to take her. She was very weak in her head, he said, and the doctors would throw no difficulty in his way, if he wanted to put her into a madhouse.”

“But you must have known that was a lie!” exclaimed Ellen indignantly. “You had seen and talked to her; you must have known that Mrs. Holbrook was as sane as you or I.”

“I couldn’t be supposed to know better than her own father,” answered Mr. Whitelaw, in an injured tone; “he had a right to know best. However, it’s no use arguing about it now. He had such a power over me that I couldn’t go against him; so I gave in, and Mrs. Holbrook came to Wyncomb. She was to be treated kindly and made comfortable, her father said; that was agreed between us; and she has been treated kindly and made comfortable. I had to trust some one to wait upon her, and when Mr. Nowell saw the two girls he chose Sarah Batts. ‘That girl will do anything for money,’ he said; ‘she’s stupid, but she’s wise enough to know her own interest, and she’ll hold her tongue.’ So I trusted Sarah Batts, and I had to pay her pretty stiffly to keep the secret; but she was a rare one to do the work, and she went about it as quiet as a mouse. Not even mother Tadman ever suspected her.”

“It was a wicked piece of business — wicked from first to last,” said Ellen. “I can’t bear to hear about it.”

And then, remembering that the sinner was so near his end, and that this voluntary confession of his was in some manner a sign of repentance, she felt some compunction, and spoke to him in a softer tone.

“Still I’m grateful to you for telling me the truth at last, Stephen,” she said; “and, thank God, there’s no harm done that need last for ever. Thank God that dear young lady did not lose her life, shut up a prisoner in that miserable room, as she might have done.”

“She had her victuals regular,” observed Mr. Whitelaw, “and the best.”

“Eating and drinking won’t keep any one alive, if their heart’s breaking,” said Ellen; “but, thank heaven, her sufferings have come to an end now, and I trust God will forgive your share in them, Stephen.”

And then, sitting by his bedside through the long hours of that night, she tried in very simple words to awaken him to a sense of his condition. It was not an easy business to let any glimmer of spiritual light in upon the darkness of that sordid mind. There did arise perhaps in this last extremity some dim sense of remorse in the breast of Mr. Whitelaw, some vague consciousness that in that one act of his life, and in the whole tenor of his life, he had not exactly shaped his conduct according to that model which the parson had held up for his imitation in certain rather prosy sermons, indifferently heard, on the rare occasions of his attendance at the parish church. But whatever terrors the world to come might hold for him seemed very faint and shapeless, compared with the things from which he was to be taken. He thought of his untimely death as a hardship, an injustice almost. When his wife entreated him to see the vicar of Crosber before he died, he refused at first, asking what good the vicar’s talk could do him.

“If he could keep me alive as long as till next July, to see how those turnips answer with the new dressing, I’d see him fast enough,” he said peevishly; “but he can’t; and I don’t want to hear his preaching.”

“But it would be a comfort to you, surely, Stephen, to have him talk to you a little about the goodness and mercy of God. He won’t tell you hard things, I’m sure of that.”

“No, I suppose he’ll try and make believe that death’s uncommon pleasant,” answered Mr. Whitelaw with a bitter laugh; “as if it could be pleasant to any man to leave such a place as Wyncomb, after doing as much for the land, and spending as much labour and money upon it, as I have done. It’s like nurses telling children that a dose of physic’s pleasant; they wouldn’t like to have to take it themselves.”

And then by-and-by, when his last day had dawned, and he felt himself growing weaker, Mr. Whitelaw expressed himself willing to comply with his wife’s request.

“If it’s any satisfaction to you, Nell, I’ll see the parson,” he said. “His talk can’t do me much harm, anyhow.” Whereupon the rector of Crosber and Hallibury was sent for, and came swiftly to perform his duty to the dying man. He was closeted with Mr. Whitelaw for some time, and did his best to awaken Christian feelings in the farmer’s breast; but it was doubtful if his pious efforts resulted in much. The soul of Stephen Whitelaw was in his barns and granaries, with his pigs and cattle. He could not so much as conceive the idea of a world in which there should be no such thing as sale and profit.

His end came quietly enough at last, and Ellen was free. Her time of bondage had been very brief, yet she felt herself twenty years older than she had seemed before that interval of misery began.

When the will was read by Mr. Pivott on the day of Stephen Whitelaw’s funeral, it was found that the farmer had left his wife two hundred a year, derivable from real estate. To Mrs. Rebecca Tadman, his cousin, he bequeathed an annuity of forty pounds, the said annuity to revert to Ellen upon Mrs. Tadman’s death should Ellen survive. The remaining portion of his real estate he bequeathed to one John James Harris, a distant cousin, who owned a farm in Wiltshire, with whom Stephen Whitelaw had spent some years of his boyhood, and from whom he had learned the science of agriculture. It was less from any love the testator bore John James Harris than from a morbid jealousy of his probable successor Frank Randall, that the Wiltshire farmer had been named as residuary legatee. If Stephen Whitelaw could have left his real estate to the Infirmary, he would have so left it. His personal estate, consisting of divers investments in railway shares and other kinds of stock, all of a very safe kind, was to be realized, and the entire proceeds devoted to the erection of an additional wing for the extension of Malsham Infirmary, and his gift was to be recorded on a stone tablet in a conspicuous position on the front of that building. This, which was an absolute condition attached to the bequest, had been set forth with great minuteness by the lawyer, at the special desire of his client.

Mr. Carley’s expression of opinion after hearing this will read need not be recorded here. It was forcible, to say the least of it; and Mr. Pivott, the Malsham solicitor, protested against such language as an outrage upon the finer feelings of our nature.

“Some degree of disappointment is perhaps excusable upon your part, my dear sir,” said the lawyer, who wished to keep the widow for his client, and had therefore no desire to offend her father; “but I am sure that in your calmer moments you will admit that the work to which your son-in-law has devoted the bulk of his accumulations is a noble one. For ages to come the sick and the suffering among our townsfolk will bless the name of Whitelaw. There is a touching reflection for you, Mr. Carley! And really now, your amiable daughter, with an income of two hundred per annum — to say nothing of that reversion which must fall in to her by-and-by on Mrs. Tadman’s decease — is left in a very fair position. I should not have consented to draw up that will, sir, if I had considered it an unjust one.”

“Then there’s a wide difference between your notion of justice and mine,” growled the bailiff; who thereupon relapsed into grim silence, feeling that complaint was useless. He could no more alter the conditions of Mr. Whitelaw’s will than he could bring Mr. Whitelaw back to life — and that last operation was one which he was by no means eager to perform.

Ellen herself felt no disappointment; she fancied, indeed, that her husband, whom she had never deceived by any pretence of affection, had behaved with sufficient generosity towards her. Two hundred a year seemed a large income to her. It would give her perfect independence, and the power to help others, if need were.

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