Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 47

Closing Scenes.

It was not until the day of her husband’s funeral that Ellen Whitelaw wrote to Mr. Fenton to tell him what had happened. She knew that her letter was likely to bring him post-haste to the Grange, and she wished his coming to be deferred until that last dismal day was over. Nor was she sorry that there should be some little pause — a brief interval of ignorance and tranquillity — in Marian’s life before she heard of her husband’s useless voyage across the Atlantic. She was in sad need of rest of mind and body, and even in those few days gained considerable strength, by the aid of Mrs. Whitelaw’s tender nursing. She had not left her room during the time that death was in the darkened house, and it was only on the morning after the funeral that she came downstairs for the first time. Her appearance had improved wonderfully in that interval of little more than a week. Her eyes had lost their dim weary look, the deathly pallor of her complexion had given place to a faint bloom. But grateful as she was for her own deliverance, she was full of anxiety about her husband. Ellen Whitelaw’s vague assurances that all would be well, that he would soon be restored to her, were not enough to set her mind at ease.

Ellen had not the courage to tell her the truth. It was better that Gilbert Fenton should do that, she thought. He who knew all the circumstances of Mr. Holbrook’s journey, and the probabilities as to his return, would be so much better able to comfort and reassure his wife.

“He will come to-day, I have no doubt,” Ellen said to herself on the morning after her husband’s funeral.

She told Marian how she had written to Mr. Fenton on the day before, in order to avoid the agitation of a surprise, should he appear at the Grange without waiting to announce his coming. Nor was she mistaken as to the probability of his speedy arrival. It was not long after noon when there came a loud peal of the bell that rang so rarely. Ellen ran herself to the gate to admit the visitor. She had told him of her husband’s death in her last letter, and her widow’s weeds were no surprise to him. He was pale, but very calm.

“She is well?” he asked eagerly.

“Yes, sir, she is as well as one could look for her to be, poor dear, after what she has gone through. But she is much changed since last you saw her. You must prepare yourself for that, sir. And she is very anxious about her husband. I don’t know how she’ll take it, when she hears that he has gone to America.”

“Yes, that is a bad business, Mrs. Whitelaw,” Gilbert answered gravely. “He was not in a fit state to travel, unfortunately. He was only just recovering from a severe illness, and was as weak as a child.”

“O dear, O dear! But you won’t tell Mrs. Holbrook that, sir?”

“I won’t tell her more than I can help; of course I don’t want to alarm her; but I am bound to tell her some portion of the truth. You did her husband a great wrong, you see, Mrs. Whitelaw, when you suspected him of some share in this vile business. He has shown himself really devoted to her. I thank God that it has proved so. And now tell me more about this affair; your letter explains so little.”

“I will tell you all, sir.”

They walked in the garden for about a quarter of an hour before Gilbert went into the house. Eager as he was to see Marian, he was still more anxious to hear full particulars of that foul plot of which she had been made the victim. Ellen Whitelaw told him the story very plainly, making no attempt to conceal her husband’s guilty part in the business; and the story being finished, she took him straight to the parlour where he had seen Marian for the first time after her marriage.

It was a warm bright day, and all three windows were open. Marian was sitting by one of them, with some scrap of work lying forgotten in her lap. She started up from her seat as Gilbert went into the room, and hastened forward to meet him.

“How good of you to come!” she cried. “And you have brought me news of my husband? I am sure of that.”

“Yes, dear Mrs. Holbrook — Mrs. Saltram; may I not call you by that name now? — I know all; and have forgiven all.”

“Then you know how deeply he sinned against you, and how much he valued your friendship? He would never have played so false a part but for that. He could not bear to think of being estranged from you.”

“We are not estranged. I have tried to be angry with him; but there are some old ties that a man cannot break. He has used me very ill, Marian; but he is still my friend.”

His voice broke a little as he uttered the old familiar name. Yes, she was changed, cruelly changed, by that ordeal of six months’ suffering. The brightness of her beauty had quite faded; but there was something in the altered face that touched him more deeply than the old magic. She was dearer to him, perhaps, in this hour than she had ever been yet. Dearer to him, and yet divided from him utterly, now that he professed himself her husband’s friend as well as her own.

Friendship, brotherly affection, those chastened sentiments which he had fancied had superseded all warmer feelings — where were they now? By the passionate beating of his heart, by his eager longing to clasp that faded form to his breast, he knew that he loved her as dearly as on the day when she promised to be his wife; that he must love her with the same measure till the end of his existence.

“Thank God for that,” Marian said gently; “thank God that you are still friends. But why did he not come with you to-day? You have told him about me, I suppose?”

“Not yet, Marian; I have not been able to do that. Nor could he come with me to-day. He has left England — on a false scent.”

And then he told her, in a few words, the story of John Saltram’s voyage to New York; making very light of the matter, and speaking cheerily of his early return.

“He will come back at once, of course, when he finds how he has been deceived,” Gilbert said.

Marian was cruelly distressed by this disappointment. She tried to bear the blow bravely, and listened with a gentle patience to Gilbert’s reassuring arguments; but it was a hard thing to bear.

“He will be back soon, you say,” she said; “but soon is such a vague word; and you have not told me when he went.”

Gilbert told her the date of John Saltram’s departure. She began immediately to question him as to the usual length of the voyage, and to calculate the time he had had for his going and return. Taking the average length of the voyage as ten days, and allowing ten days for delay in New York, a month would give ample time for the two journeys; and John Saltram had been away more than a month.

Gilbert could see that Marian was quick to take alarm on discovering this.

“My dear Mrs. Saltram, be reasonable,” he said gently. “Finding such a cheat put upon him, your husband would naturally be anxious to bring your father to some kind of reckoning, to extort from him the real secret of your fate. He would no doubt stay in New York to do this; and we cannot tell how difficult the business might prove, or how long it would occupy him.”

“But if he had been detained like that, he would surely have written to you,” said Marian; “and you have heard nothing from him since he left England.”

“Unhappily nothing. But he is not the best correspondent in the world, you know.”

“Yes, yes, I know that. Yet, in such a case as this, he would surely have written, if he were well.” Her eyes met Gilbert’s as she said this. She stopped abruptly, dismayed by something in his face.

“You are hiding some misfortune from me,” she cried; “I can see it in your face. You have had bad news of him.”

“Upon my honour, no. He was not in very strong health when he left England, that is all; and, like yourself, I am naturally anxious.”

He had not meant to admit even as much as this just yet; but having said this, he found himself compelled to say more. Marian questioned him so closely, that she finally extorted from him the whole history of John Saltram’s illness. After that it was quite in vain to attempt consolation. She was very gentle, very patient, troubling him with no vain wailings and lamentations; but he could see that her heart was almost broken.

He left her at the end of a few hours to return to London, promising to go on to Liverpool next day, in order to be on the spot to await her husband’s return, and to send her the earliest possible tidings of it.

“Your friendship for us has given you nothing but trouble and pain,” she said; “but if you will do this for me, I shall be grateful to you for the rest of my life.”

There was no occasion for that journey to Liverpool. When he arrived in London that night, Gilbert Fenton found a letter waiting for him at his Wigmore-street lodgings — a letter with the New York post-mark, but not addressed in his friend’s hand. He tore it open hurriedly, just a little alarmed by this fact.

His first feeling was one of relief. There were three separate sheets of paper in the envelope, and the first which he took up was in John Saltram’s hand — a hurried eager letter, dated some weeks before.

“My dear Gilbert,” he wrote, “I have been duped. This man Nowell is a most consummate scoundrel. The woman with him is not Marian, but some girl whom he has picked up to represent her — his wife perhaps, or something worse. I was very ill on the passage out, and only discovered the trick at the last. Since then I have traced the scoundrel to his quarters, and have had an interview with him — rather a stormy one, as you may suppose. But the long and short of it is that he defies me. He tells me that my wife is in England, and safe, but will admit no more. I have consulted a lawyer here, but it seems I can do nothing against him — or nothing that will not involve a more complicated and protracted business than I have time or patience for. I don’t want this wretch to go scot-free. It is evident that he has hatched this plot in order to get possession of his daughter’s money, and I have little doubt the lawyer Medler is in it. But of course my first duty, as well as my most ardent desire, is to find Marian; and for this purpose I shall come back to England by the first steamer that will convey me, leaving Mr. Nowell’s punishment to the chances of the future. My dear girl’s property, as well as herself, will be best protected by my presence in England.”

There was a pause here, and the next paragraph was dated two days after.

“If I have strength to come, I shall return by the next steamer; but the fact is, my dear Gilbert, I am very ill — have been completely prostrate since writing the above — and a doctor here tells me I must not think of the voyage yet awhile. But I shan’t allow his opinion to govern me. If I can crawl to the steamer, which starts three days hence, I shall come.”

Then there was another break, and again the writer went on in a weak and more straggling hand, without any date this time.

“My dear Gil, it’s nearly a week since I wrote the last lines, and I’ve been in bed ever since. I’m afraid there’s no hope for me; in plain words, I believe I’m dying. To you I leave the duty I am not allowed to perform. Marian is living, and in England. I believe that scoundrelly father of hers told me the truth when he declared that. You will not rest till you find her, I know; and you will protect her fortune from that wretch. God bless you, faithful old friend! Heaven knows how I yearn for the sight of your honest face, lying here among strangers, to be buried in a foreign land. See that my wife pays Mrs. Branston the money I borrowed to come here; and tell her that I was grateful to her, and thought of her on my dying bed. To my wife I send no message. She knows that I loved her; but how dear she has been to me in this bitter time of separation, she can never know.

“You will find a bulky MS. at my chambers, in the bottom drawer on the right side of my desk. It is my Life of Swift — unfinished as my own life. If, after reading it, you should think it worth publishing, as a fragment, with my name to it, I should wish you to arrange its publication. I should be glad to leave my name upon something.”

In a stranger’s hand, and upon another sheet of paper, Gilbert read the end of his friend’s history.

“Sir — I regret to inform you that your friend Mr. Saltram expired at eleven o’clock last night (Wednesday, May 2nd), after an illness of a fortnight’s duration, throughout which I gave him my best attention as his medical adviser. He will be buried in the Cypress-hill Cemetery, on Long Island, at his own request; and he has left sufficient funds for the necessary expenses, and the payment of his hotel bill, as well as my own small claim against him. Any surplus which may be left I shall forward to you, when these payments have been made. I enclose a detailed account of the case for your satisfaction, and have the honour to be, sir,

“Yours very obediently,

“SILAS WARREN, M.D.

“113 Sixteenth-street, New York,

“May 3, 186 —.”

This was all.

And Gilbert had to carry these tidings to Marian. For a time he was almost paralyzed by the blow. He had loved this man as a brother; if he had ever doubted the strength of his attachment to John Saltram, he knew it now. But the worst of all was, that one bitter fact — Marian must be told, and by him.

He went back to the Grange next day. Again and again upon that miserable journey he acted over the scene which was to take place when he came to the end of it — in spite of himself, as it were — going over the words he was to say, while Marian’s face rose before him like a picture. How was he to tell her? Would not the very fact of this desolation coming to her from his lips be sufficient to make him hateful to her in all the days to come? More than once upon that journey he was tempted to turn back, and to leave his dismal news to be told in a letter.

But when the fatal moment did at last arrive, the event in no manner realized the picture of his imagination. Time was not given to him to speak those solemn preliminary words by which he had intended to prepare the victim for her deathblow. His presence there, and his presence alone, were all sufficient to prepare her for some calamity.

“You have come back to me, and without him!” she exclaimed. “Tell me what has happened; tell me at once.”

He had no time to defer the stroke. His face told her so much. In a few moments — before his broken words could shape themselves into coherence — she knew all.

There are some things that can never be forgotten. Never, to his dying day, can Gilbert Fenton forget the quiet agony he had to witness then.

She was very ill for a long time after that day — in danger of death. All that she had suffered during her confinement at Wyncomb seemed to fall upon her now with a double weight. Only the supreme devotion of those who cared for her could have carried her through that weary time; but the day did at last come when the peril was pronounced a thing of the past, and the feeble submissive patient might be carried away from the Grange — from the scene of her brief married life and of her bitter widowhood.

She went with Ellen Whitelaw to Ventnor. It was late in August before she was able to bear this journey; and in this mild refuge for invalids she remained throughout the winter.

Even during that trying time, when it seemed more than doubtful whether she could live to profit by her grandfather’s bequest, her interests had been carefully watched by Gilbert Fenton. It was tolerably evident to his mind that Mr. Medler had been a tacit accomplice in Percival Nowell’s fraud; or, at any rate, that he had enabled the pretended Mrs. Holbrook to obtain a large sum of ready money with greater ease than she could have done had he, as executor, been scrupulously careful to obtain her identification from some more trustworthy person than he knew Percival Nowell to be.

Whether these suspicions of Gilbert’s were correct, whether the lawyer had been actually deceived, or had willingly lent himself to the furtherance of Nowell’s design, must remain, unascertained; as well as the amount of profit which Mr. Medler may have secured to himself by the transaction. The law held him liable for the whole of the moneys thus paid over in fraud or error; but the law could do very little against a man whose sole earthly possessions appeared to be comprised by the worm-eaten desks and shabby chairs and tables in his dingy offices. The poor consolation remained of making an attempt to get him struck off “the Rolls;” but when the City firm of solicitors in whose hands Gilbert had placed Mrs. Saltram’s affairs suggested this. Marian herself entreated that the man might have the benefit of the doubt as to his complicity with her father, and that no effort should be made to bring legal ruin upon him.

“There has been enough misery caused by this money already,” she said. “Let the matter rest. I am richer than I care to be, as it is.”

Of course Mr. Medler was not allowed to retain his position as executor. The Court of Chancery was appealed to in the usual manner, and intervened for the future protection of Mrs. Saltram’s interests.

About Nowell’s conduct there was, of course, no doubt; but after wasting a good deal of money and trouble in his pursuit, Gilbert was fain to abandon all hope of catching him in the wide regions of the new world. It was ascertained that the woman who had accompanied him in the Orinoco as his daughter was actually his wife — a girl whom he had met at some low London dancing-rooms, and married within a fortnight of his introduction to her. It is possible that prudence as well as attachment may have had something to do with this alliance. Mr. Nowell knew that, once united to him in the bonds of holy matrimony, the accomplice of his fraud would have no power to give evidence against him. The amount which he had contrived to secure to himself by this plot amounted in all to something under four thousand pounds; and out of this it may fairly be supposed that Mr. Medler claimed a considerable percentage. The only information that Gilbert Fenton could ever obtain from America was, of a shabby swindler arrested in a gambling-house in one of the more remote western cities, whose description corresponded pretty closely with that of Marian’s father.

There comes a time for the healing of all griefs. The cruel wound closes at last, though the scar, and the bitter memory of the stroke, may remain for ever. There came a time — some years after John Saltram’s death — when Gilbert Fenton had his reward. And if the woman he won for his wife in these latter days was not quite the fresh young beauty he had wooed under the walnut-trees in Captain Sedgewick’s garden, she was still infinitely more beautiful than all other women in his eyes; she was still the dearest and best and brightest and purest of all earthly creatures for him. In that happy time — that perfect summer and harvest of his life — all his fondest dreams have been realized. He has the home he so often pictured, the children whose airy voices sounded in his dreams, the dear face always near him, and, sweeter than all, the knowledge that he is loved almost as he loves. The bitter apprenticeship has been served, and the full reward has been granted.

For Ellen Whitelaw too has come the period of compensation, and the farmer’s worst fears have been realized as to Frank Randall’s participation in that money he loved so well. The income grudgingly left to his wife by Stephen has enabled Mr. Randall to begin business as a solicitor upon his own account, in a small town near London, with every apparent prospect of success. Ellen’s home is within easy reach of the river-side villa occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Fenton; so she is able to see her dear Marian as often as she likes; nor is there any guest at the villa more welcome than this faithful friend.

The half-written memoir of Jonathan Swift was published; and reviewers, who had no compunction in praising the dead, were quick to recognize the touch of a master hand, the trenchant style of a powerful thinker. For the public the book is of no great value; it is merely a curiosity of literature; but it is the only monument of his own rugged genius which bears the name of John Saltram.

Poor little Mrs. Branston has not sacrificed all the joys of life to the manes of her faithless lover. She is now the happy wife of a dashing naval officer, and gives pleasant parties which bring life and light into the great house in Cavendish-square; parties to which Theobald Pallinson comes, and where he shines as a small feeble star when greater lights are absent — singing his last little song, or reciting his last little poem, for the delight of some small coterie of single ladies not in the first bloom of youth; but parties from which Mrs. Pallinson keeps aloof in a stern spirit of condemnation, informing her chosen familiars that she was never more cruelly deceived than in that misguided ungrateful young woman, Adela Branston.

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