Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Halcyon Days.

It was still quite early in September when Gilbert Fenton went back to Lidford and took up his quarters once more in the airy chintz-curtained bedchamber set apart for him in his sister’s house. He had devoted himself very resolutely to business during the interval that had gone by since his last visit to that quiet country house; but the time had seemed very long to him, and he fancied himself a kind of martyr to the necessities of commerce. The aspect of his affairs of late had not been quite free from unpleasantness. There were difficulties in the conduct of business in the Melbourne branch of the house, that branch which was under the charge of a cousin of Gilbert’s, about whose business capacities the late Mr. Fenton had entertained the most exalted opinion.

The Melbourne trading had not of late done much credit to this gentleman’s commercial genius. He had put his trust in firms that had crumbled to pieces before the bills drawn upon them came due, involving his cousin in considerable losses. Gilbert was rich enough to stand these losses, however; and he reconciled himself to them as best he might, taking care to send his Australian partner imperative instructions for a more prudent system of trading in the future.

The uneasiness and vexation produced by this business was still upon him when he went down to Lidford; but he relied upon Marian Nowell’s presence to dissipate all his care.

He did find himself perfectly happy in her society. He was troubled by no doubts as to her affection for him, no uncertainty as to the brightness of the days that were to come. Her manner seemed to him all that a man could wish in the future partner of his life. An innocent trustfulness in his superior judgment, a childlike submission to his will which Marian displayed upon all occasions, were alike flattering and delightful. Nor did she ever appear to grow tired of that talk of their future which was so pleasant to her lover. There was no shadow of doubt upon her face when he spoke of the serene happiness which they two were to find in an existence spent together. He was the first who had ever spoken to her of these things, and she listened to him with an utter simplicity and freshness of mind.

Time had reconciled Isabella Lister to her brother’s choice, and she now deigned to smile upon the lovers, very much to Gilbert’s satisfaction. He had been too proud to supplicate her good graces; but he was pleased that his only sister should show herself gracious and affectionate to the girl he loved so fondly. During this second visit of his, therefore, Marian came very often to Lidford House; sometimes accompanied by her uncle, sometimes alone; and there was perfect harmony between the elder and younger lady.

The partridges upon Martin Lister’s estate did not suffer much damage from his brother-in-law’s gun that autumn. Gilbert found it a great deal pleasanter to spend his mornings dawdling in the little cottage drawing-room or under the walnut-trees with Marian, than to waste his noontide hours in the endeavour to fill a creditable game-bag. There is not very much to tell of the hours which those two spent together so happily. It was an innocent, frivolous, useless employment of time, and left little trace behind it, except in the heart of one of those two. Gilbert wondered at himself when, in some sober interval of reflection, he happened to consider those idle mornings, those tranquil uneventful afternoons and evenings, remembering what a devoted man of business he had once been, and how a few months ago he would have denounced such a life in another.

“Well,” he said to himself, with a happy laugh, “a man can take this fever but once in his life, and it is only wise in him to surrender himself utterly to the divine delirium. I shall have no excuse for neglecting business by-and-by, when my little wife and I are settled down together for the rest of our days. Let me be her lover while I may. Can I ever be less than her lover, I wonder? Will marriage, or custom, or the assurance that we belong to each other for the rest of our days, take the poetry out of our lives? I think not; I think Marian must always be to me what she has seemed to me from the very first — something better and brighter than the common things of this life.”

Custom, which made Marian Nowell dearer to Gilbert Fenton every day, had by this time familiarised her with his position as her future husband. She was no longer surprised or distressed when he pleaded for a short engagement, and a speedy realization of that Utopian home which they were to inhabit together. The knowledge of her uncle’s delight in this engagement of hers might have reconciled her to it, even if she had not loved Gilbert Fenton. And she told herself that she did love him; or, more often putting the matter in the form of a question, asked herself whether she could be so basely ungrateful as not to love one who regarded her with such disinterested affection?

It was settled finally, after a good deal of pleasant discussion, that the wedding should take place early in the coming spring — at latest in April. Even this seemed a long delay to Gilbert; but he submitted to it as an inevitable concession to the superior instinct of his betrothed, which harmonised so well with Mrs. Lister’s ideas of wisdom and propriety. There was the house to be secured, too, so that he might have a fitting home to which to take his darling when their honeymoon was over; and as he had no female relation in London who could take the care of furnishing this earthly paradise off his hands, he felt that the whole business must devolve upon himself, and could not be done without time.

Captain Sedgewick promised to bring Marian to town for a fortnight in October, in order that she might assist her lover in that delightful duty of house-hunting. She looked forward to this visit with quite a childlike pleasure. Her life at Lidford had been completely happy; but it was a monotonous kind of happiness; and the notion of going about London, even at the dullest time of the year, was very delightful to her.

The weather happened to be especially fine that September. It was the brightest month of the year, and the lovers took long rambles together in the woodland roads and lanes about Lidford, sometimes alone, more often with the Captain, who was a very fair pedestrian, in spite of having had a bullet or two through his legs in the days gone by. When the weather was too warm for walking, Gilbert borrowed Martin Lister’s dog-cart, and drove them on long journeys of exploration to remote villages, or to the cheery little market-town ten miles away.

They all three set out for a walk one afternoon, when Gilbert had been about a fortnight at Lidford, with no particular destination, only bent on enjoying the lovely weather and the rustic beauty of woodland and meadow. The Captain chose their route, as he always did on these occasions, and under his guidance they followed the river-bank for some distance, and then turned aside into a wood in which Gilbert Fenton had never been before. He said so, with an expression of surprise at the beauty of the place, where the fern grew deep under giant oaks and beeches, and where the mossy ground dipped suddenly down to a deep still pool which reflected the sunlit sky through a break in the dark foliage that sheltered it.

“What, have you never been here?” exclaimed the Captain; “then you have never seen Heatherly, I suppose?”

“Never. By the way, is not that Sir David Forster’s place?” asked Gilbert, remembering John Saltram’s promise.

He had seen very little more of his friend after that visit to Rivercombe, and had half forgotten Mr. Saltram’s talk of coming down to this neighbourhood on purpose to be presented to Marian.

“Yes. It is something of a show-place, too; and we think a good deal of it in these parts. There are some fine Sir Joshuas among the family portraits, painted in the days when the Forsters were better off and of more importance in the county than they are now. And there are a few other good pictures — Dutch interiors, and some seascapes by Bakhuysen. Decidedly you ought to see Heatherly. Shall we push on there this afternoon?”

“Is it far from here?”

“Not much more than a mile. This wood joins the park, and there is a public right of way across the park to the Lidford road, so the gate is always open. We can’t waste our walk, and I know Sir David quite well enough to ask him to let you see the pictures, if he should happen to be at home.”

“I should like it of all things,” said Gilbert eagerly. “My friend John Saltram knows this Sir David Forster, and he talked of being down here at this time: I forgot all about it till you spoke of Heatherly just now. I have a knack of forgetting things now-a-days.”

“I wonder that you should forget anything connected with Mr. Saltram, Gilbert,” said Marian; “that Mr. Saltram of whom you think so much. I cannot tell you how anxious I am to see what kind of person he is; not handsome — you have confessed as much as that.”

“Yes, Marian, I admit the painful fact. There are people who call John Saltram ugly. But his face is not a common one; it is a very picturesque kind of ugliness — a face that Velasquez would have loved to paint, I think. It is a rugged, strongly-marked countenance with a villanously dark complexion; but the eyes are very fine, the mouth perfection; and there is a look of power in the face that, to my mind, is better than beauty.”

“And I think you owned that Mr. Saltram is hardly the most agreeable person in the world.”

“Well, no, he is not what one could well call an eminently agreeable person. And yet he exercises a good deal of influence over the men he knows, without admitting many of them to his friendship. He is very clever; not a brilliant talker by any means, except on rare occasions, when he chooses to give full swing to his powers; he does not lay himself out for social successes; but he is a man who seems to know more of every subject than the men about him. I doubt if he will ever succeed at the Bar. He has so little perseverance or steadiness, and indulges in such an erratic, desultory mode of life; but he has made his mark in literature already, and I think he might become a great man if he chose. Whether he ever will choose is a doubtful question.”

“I am afraid he must be rather a dissipated, dangerous kind of person,” said Marian.

“Well, yes, he is subject to occasional outbreaks of dissipation. They don’t last long, and they seem to leave not the faintest impression upon his herculean constitution; but of course that sort of thing does more or less injury to a man’s mind, however comparatively harmless the form of his dissipation may be. There are very few men whom John Saltram cannot drink under the table, and rise with a steady brain himself when the wassail is ended; yet I believe, in a general way, few men drink less than he does. At cards he is equally strong; a past-master in all games of skill; and the play is apt to be rather high at one or two of the clubs he belongs to. He has a wonderful power of self-restraint when he cares to exert it; will play six or seven hours every night for three weeks at a stretch, and then not touch a card for six months. Poor old John,” said Gilbert Fenton, with a half-regretful sigh; “under happy circumstances, he might be such a good man.”

“But I fear he is a dangerous friend for you, Gilbert,” exclaimed Marian, horrified by this glimpse of bachelor life.

“No, darling, I have never shared his wilder pleasures. There are a few chosen spirits with whom he consorts at such times. I believe this Sir David Forster is one of them.”

“Sir David has the reputation of leading rather a wild life in London,” said the Captain, “and of bringing a dissipated set down here every autumn. Things have not gone well with him. His wife, who was a very beautiful girl, and whom he passionately loved, was killed by a fall from her horse a few months after the birth of her first child. The child died too, and the double loss ruined Sir David. He used to spend the greater part of his life at Heatherly, and was a general favourite among the county people; but since that time he has avoided the place, except during the shooting season. He has a hunting-box in the shires, and is a regular daredevil over a big country they tell me.”

They had reached the little gate opening from the wood into the park by this time. There was not much difference in the aspect of the sylvan scene upon the other side of the fence. Sir David’s domain had been a good deal neglected of late years, and the brushwood and brambles grew thick under the noble old trees. The timber had not yet suffered by its owner’s improvidence. The end of all things must have come for Sir David before he would have consented to the spoliation of a place he fondly loved, little as he had cared to inhabit it since the day that shattered all that was brightest and best in his life.

For some time Captain Sedgewick and his companions went along a footpath under the shelter of the trees, and then emerged upon a wide stretch of smooth turf, across which they commanded a perfect view of the principal front of the old house. It was a quadrangular building of the Elizabethan period, very plainly built, and with no special beauty to recommend it to the lover of the picturesque. Whatever charm of form it may have possessed in the past had been ruthlessly extirpated by the modernisation of the windows, which were now all of one size and form — a long gaunt range of unsheltered casements staring blankly out upon the spectator. There were no flower-beds, no terraced walks, or graceful flights of steps before the house; only a bare grassplot, with a stiff line of tall elms on each side, and a wide dry moat dividing it from the turf in the park. Two lodges — ponderous square brick buildings with very small windows, each the exact counterpart of the other, and a marvel of substantial ugliness — kept guard over a pair of tall iron gates, about six hundred yards apart, approached by stone bridges that spanned the moat.

Captain Sedgewick rang a bell hanging by the side of one of these gates, whereat there arose a shrill peal that set the rooks screaming in the tall elms overhead. An elderly female appeared in answer to this summons, and opened the gate in a slow mechanical way, without the faintest show of interest in the people about to enter, and looking as if she would have admitted a gang of obvious burglars with equal indifference.

“Rather a hideous style of place,” said Gilbert, as they walked towards the house; “but I think show-places, as a general rule, excel in ugliness. I daresay the owners of them find a dismal kind of satisfaction in considering the depressing influence their dreary piles of bricks-and-mortar must exercise on the minds of strangers; may be a sort of compensation for being obliged to live in such a gaol of a place.”

There was a clumsy low stone portico over the door, wide enough to admit a carriage; and lounging upon a bench under this stony shelter they found a sleepy-looking man-servant, who informed Captain Sedgewick that Sir David was at Heatherly, but that he was out shooting with his friends at this present moment. In his absence the man would be very happy to show the house to Captain Sedgewick and his party.

Gilbert Fenton asked about John Saltram.

Yes, Mr. Saltram had arrived at Heatherly on Tuesday evening, two nights ago.

They went over the state-rooms, and looked at the pictures, which were really as good as the Captain had represented them. The inspection occupied a little more than an hour, and they were ready to take their departure, when the sound of masculine voices resounded loudly in the hall, and their conductor announced that Sir David and his friends had come in.

There were only two gentlemen in the hall when they went into that spacious marble-paved chamber, where there were great logs burning on the wide open hearth, in spite of the warmth of the September day. One of these two was Sir David Forster, a big man, with a light-brown beard and a florid complexion. The other was John Saltram, who sat in a lounging attitude on one of the deep window-seats examining his breech-loader. His back was turned towards the window, and the glare of the blazing logs shone full upon his dark face with a strange Rembrandt-like effect.

One glance told Marian Nowell who this man was. That powerful face, with its unfathomable eyes and thoughtful mouth, was not the countenance she had conjured up from the depths of her imagination when Gilbert Fenton had described his friend; yet she felt that this stranger lounging in the window was John Saltram, and no other. He rose, and set down his gun very quietly, and stood by the window waiting while Captain Sedgewick introduced Gilbert to Sir David. Then he came forward, shook hands with his friend, and was thereupon presented to Marian and her uncle by Gilbert, who made these introductions with a kind of happy eagerness.

Sir David was full of friendliness and hospitality, and insisted on keeping them to show Gilbert and Miss Nowell some pictures in the billiard-room and in his own private snuggery, apartments which were not shown to ordinary visitors.

They strolled through these rooms in a leisurely way, Sir David making considerable pains to show Gilbert Fenton the gems of his collection, John Saltram acting as cicerone to Marian. He was curious to discover what this girl was like, whether she had indeed only her beauty to recommend her, or whether she was in sober reality the perfect being Gilbert Fenton believed her to be.

She was very beautiful. The first brief look convinced Mr. Saltram that upon this point at least her lover had indulged in no loverlike exaggeration. There was a singular charm in the face; a higher, more penetrating loveliness than mere perfection of feature; a kind of beauty that would have been at once the delight and desperation of a painter — so fitting a subject for his brush, so utterly beyond the power of perfect reproduction, unless by one of those happy, almost accidental successes which make the triumphs of genius.

John Saltram watched Marian Nowell’s face thoughtfully as he talked to her, for the most part, about the pictures which they were looking at together. Before their inspection of these art-treasures was ended, he was fain to confess to himself that she was intelligent as well as beautiful. It was not that she had said anything particularly brilliant, or had shown herself learned in the qualities of the old Dutch masters; but she possessed that charming childlike capacity for receiving information from a superior mind, and that perfect and rapid power of appreciating a clever man’s conversation, which are apt to seem so delightful to the sterner sex when exhibited by a pretty woman. At first she had been just a little shy and constrained in her talk with John Saltram. Her lover’s account of this man had not inspired her with any exalted opinion of his character. She was rather inclined to look upon him as a person to be dreaded, a friend whose influence was dangerous at best, and who might prove the evil genius of Gilbert Fenton’s life. But whatever her opinion on this point might remain, her reserve soon melted before John Saltram’s clever talk and kindly conciliating manner. He laid himself out to please on this occasion, and it was very rarely he did that without succeeding.

“I want you to think of me as a kind of brother, Miss Nowell,” he said in the course of their talk. “Gilbert and I have been something like brothers for the last twelve years of our lives, and it would be a hard thing, for one of us at least, if our friendship should ever be lessened. You shall find me discretion itself by-and-by, and you shall see that I can respect Gilbert’s altered position; but I shouldn’t like to lose him, and I don’t think you look capable of setting your face against your husband’s old friend.”

Marian blushed a little at this, remembering that only an hour or two ago she had been thinking that this friendship was a perilous one for Gilbert, and that it would be well if John Saltram’s influence over him could be lessened somehow in the future.

“I don’t believe I should ever have the power to diminish Gilbert’s regard for you, Mr. Saltram, even were I inclined to do so,” she said.

“O yes, you would; your power over him will be illimitable, depend upon it. But now I have seen you, I think you will only use it wisely.”

Marian shook her head, laughing gaily.

“I am much more fitted to be ruled than to rule, Mr. Saltram,” she said. “I am utterly inexperienced in the world, you know, and Mr. Fenton is my superior in every way.”

“Your superior in years, I know, but in what else?”

“In everything else. In intellect and judgment, as well as in knowledge of the world. You could never imagine what a quiet changeless life I have led.”

“Your intellect is so much the clearer for that, I think. It has not been disturbed by all the narrow petty influences of a life spent in what is called ‘society.’”

Before they left the house, Gilbert and the Captain were obliged to promise to dine at Heatherly next day, very much to the secret distaste of the former, who must thus lose an evening with Marian, but who was ashamed to reveal his hopeless condition by a persistent refusal. Captain Sedgewick begged John Saltram to choose an early day for dining at the cottage, and Gilbert gave him a general invitation to Lidford House.

These matters being settled, they departed, accompanied by Mr. Saltram, who proposed to walk as far as the wood with them, and who extended his walk still farther, only leaving them at the gate of the Captain’s modest domain. The conversation was general throughout the way back; and they all found plenty to talk about, as they loitered slowly on among the waving shadows of the trees flickering darkly on the winding path by which they went. Gilbert lingered outside the gate after Marian and her uncle had gone into the cottage — he was so eager to hear his friend praise the girl he loved.

“Well, John?” he asked.

“Well, dear old boy, she is all that is beautiful and charming, and I can only congratulate you upon your choice. Miss Nowell’s perfection is a subject about which there cannot be two opinions.”

“And you think she loves me, Jack?”

“Do I think she loves you? Why, surely, Gil, that is not a question upon which you want another man’s judgment?”

“No, of course not, but one is never tired of receiving the assurance of that fact. And you could see by her way of speaking about me ——”

“She spoke of you in the prettiest manner possible. She seems to consider you quite a superior being.”

“Dear girl, she is so good and simple-hearted. Do you know, Jack, I feel as if I could never be sufficiently grateful to Providence for my happiness in having won such an angel.”

“Well, you certainly have reason to consider yourself a very lucky fellow; but I doubt if any man ever deserved good fortune better than you do, Gilbert. And now, good-bye. It’s getting unconscionably late, and I shall scarcely get back in time to change my clothes for dinner. We spend all our evenings in pious devotion to billiards, with a rubber or two, or a little lansquenet towards the small hours. Don’t forget your engagement to-morrow; good-bye.”

They had a very pleasant evening at Heatherly. Sir David’s guests at this time consisted of a Major Foljambe, an elderly man who had seen a good deal of service in India; a Mr. Harker, who had been in the church, and had left it in disgust as alike unsuited to his tastes and capacity; Mr. Windus Carr, a prosperous West-end solicitor, who had inherited a first-rate practice from his father, and who devoted his talents to the enjoyment of life, leaving his clients to the care of his partner, a steady-going stout gentleman, with a bald head, and an inexhaustible capacity for business; and last, but by no means least, John Saltram, who possessed more influence over David Forster than any one else in the world.

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