Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Sentence of Exile.

After the dinner at Heatherly, John Saltram came very often to the cottage. He did not care much for the fellows who were staying with Sir David this year, he told Gilbert. He knew all Major Foljambe’s tiger stories by heart, and had convicted him of glaring discrepancies in his description of the havoc he and his brother officers had made among the big game. Windus Carr was a conceited presuming cad, who was always boring them with impossible accounts of his conquests among the fair sex; and that poor Harker was an unmitigated fool, whose brains had run into his billiard-cue. This was the report which John Saltram gave of his fellow-guests; and he left the shooting-party morning after morning to go out boating with Gilbert and Marian, or to idle away the sunny hours on the lawn listening to the talk of the two others, and dropping in a word now and then in a sleepy way as he lay stretched on the grass near them, looking up to the sky, with his arms crossed above his head.

He called at Lidford House one day when Gilbert had told him he should stay at home to write letters, and was duly presented to the Listers, who made a little dinner-party in his honour a few days afterwards, to which Captain Sedgewick and Marian were invited — a party which went off with more brightness and gaiety than was wont to distinguish the Lidford House entertainments. After this there was more boating — long afternoons spent on the winding river, with occasional landings upon picturesque little islands or wooded banks, where there were the wild-flowers Marian Nowell loved and understood so well; more idle mornings in the cottage garden — a happy innocent break in the common course of life, which seemed almost as pleasant to John Saltram as to his friend. He had contrived to make himself popular with every one at Lidford, and was an especial favourite with Captain Sedgewick.

He seemed so thoroughly happy amongst them, and displayed such a perfect sympathy with them in all things, that Gilbert Fenton was taken utterly by surprise by his abrupt departure, which happened one day without a word of warning. He had dined at the cottage on the previous evening, and had been in his wildest, most reckless spirits — that mood to which he was subject at rare intervals, and in which he exercised a potent fascination over his companions. He had beguiled the little party at the cottage into complete forgetfulness of the hour by his unwonted eloquence upon subjects of a deeper, higher kind than it was his habit to speak about; and then at the last moment, when the clock on the mantelpiece had struck twelve, he had suddenly seated himself at the piano, and sung them Moore’s “Farewell, but whenever you welcome the hour,” in tones that went straight to the hearts of the listeners. He had one of those rare sympathetic voices which move people to tears unawares, and before the song was ended Marian was fairly overcome, and had made a hasty escape from the room ashamed of her emotion.

Late as it was, Gilbert accompanied his friend for a mile of his homeward route. He had secured a latch-key during his last visit to Lidford House, and could let himself in quietly of a night without entrenching upon the regular habits of Mrs. Lister’s household.

Once clear of the cottage, John Saltram’s gaiety vanished all in a moment, and gave place to a moody silence which Gilbert was powerless to dissipate.

“Is there anything amiss, Jack?” he asked. “I know high spirits are not always a sign of inward contentment with you. Is there anything wrong to-night?”

“No.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“Quite sure. I may be a little knocked up perhaps; that’s all.”

No hint of his intended departure fell from him when they shook hands and wished each other good-night; but early next morning a brief note was delivered to Mr. Fenton at his sister’s house to the following effect:—

“MY DEAR GILBERT— I find myself obliged to leave this place for London at once, and have not time to thank anyone for the kindness I have received during my stay. Will you do the best to repair this omission on my part, and offer my warmest expressions of gratitude to Captain Sedgewick and Miss Nowell for their goodness to me? Pray apologise for me also to Mr. and Mrs. Lister for my inability to make my adieux in a more formal manner than this, a shortcoming which I hope to atone for on some future visit. Tell Lister I shall be very pleased to see him if he will look me up at the Pnyx when he is next in town.

“Ever yours — JOHN SALTRAM.”

This was all. There was no explanation of the reason for this hurried journey — a strange omission between men who were on terms of such perfect confidence as obtained with these two. Gilbert Fenton was not a little disturbed by this unlooked-for event, fearing that some kind of evil had befallen his friend.

“His money matters may have fallen into a desperate condition,” he thought; “or perhaps that woman — that Mrs. Branston, is at the bottom of the business.”

He went to the cottage that morning as usual, but not with his accustomed feeling of unalloyed happiness. The serene heaven of his tranquil life was clouded a little by this strange conduct of John Saltram’s. It wounded him to think that his old companion was keeping a secret from him.

“I suppose it is because I lectured him a little about Mrs. Branston the other day,” he said to himself. “The business is connected with her in some way, I daresay, and poor Jack does not care to arouse my virtuous indignation. That comes of taking a high moral tone with one’s friend. He swallows the pill with a decent grace at the time, and shuts one out of his confidence ever afterwards.”

Captain Sedgewick expressed himself much surprised and disappointed by Mr. Saltram’s departure. Marian said very little upon the subject. There seemed nothing extraordinary to her in the fact that a gentleman should be summoned to London by the claims of business.

Gilbert might have brooded longer upon the mystery involved in his friend’s conduct, but that evening’s post brought him trouble in the shape of bad news from Melbourne. His confidential clerk — an old man who had been with his father for many years, and who knew every intricacy of the business — wrote him a very long letter, dwelling upon the evil fortune which attended all their Australian transactions of late, and hinting at dishonesty and double-dealing on the part of Gilbert’s cousin, Astley Fenton, the local manager.

The letter was a very sensible one, calculated to arouse a careless man from a false sense of security. Gilbert was so much disturbed by it, that he determined upon going back to London by the earliest fast train next morning. It was cutting short his holiday only by a few days. He had meant to return at the beginning of the following week, and he felt that he had already some reason to reproach himself for his neglect of business.

He left Lidford happy in the thought that Captain Sedgewick and Marian were to come to London in October. The period of separation would be something less than a month. And after that? Well, he would of course spend Christmas at Lidford; and he fancied how the holly and mistletoe, the church-decorations and carol-singing, and all the stereotyped genialities of the season — things that had seemed trite and dreary to him since the days of his boyhood — would have a new significance and beauty for him when he and Marian kept the sacred festival together. And then how quickly would begin the new year, the year whose spring-tide would see them man and wife! Perhaps there is no period of this mortal life so truly happy as that in which all our thoughts are occupied in looking forward to some great joy to come. Whether the joy, when it does come, is ever so unqualified a delight as it seemed in the distance, or whether it ever comes at all, are questions which we have all solved for ourselves somehow or other. To Gilbert Fenton these day-dreams were bright and new, and he was troubled by no fear of their not being realized.

He went at his business with considerable ardour, and made a careful and detailed investigation of all affairs connected with their Melbourne trading, assisted throughout by Samuel Dwyer, the old clerk. The result of his examination convinced him that his cousin had been playing him false; that the men with whom his pretended losses had been made were men of straw, and the transactions were shadows invented to cover his own embezzlements. It was a complicated business altogether; and it was not until Gilbert Fenton had been engaged upon it for more than a week, and had made searching inquiries as to the status of the firms with which the supposed dealings had taken place, that he was able to arrive at this conclusion. Having at last made himself master of the real state of things, as far as it was in any way possible to do so at that distance from the scene of action, Gilbert saw that there was only one line of conduct open to him as a man of business. That was to go at once to Melbourne, investigate his cousin’s transactions on the spot, and take the management of the colonial house into his own hands. To do this would be a sore trial to him, for it would involve the postponement of his marriage. He could scarcely hope to do what he had to do in Melbourne and to get back to England before a later date than that which he had hoped would be his wedding-day. Yet to do anything less than this would be futile and foolish; and it was possible that the future stability of his position was dependent upon his arrangement of these Melbourne difficulties. It was his home, the prosperity of his coming life that he had to fight for; and he told himself that he must put aside all weakness, as he had done once before, when he turned away from the easy-going studies and pleasures of young Oxford life to undertake a hand-to-hand fight with evil fortune.

He had conquered then, as he hoped to conquer now, having an energetic nature, and a strong faith in man’s power to master fortune by honest work and patience.

There was no time lost after once his decision was arrived at. He began to put his affairs in order for departure immediately, and wrote to Marian within a few hours of making up his mind as to the necessity of this voyage. He told her frankly all that had happened, that their fortune was at stake, and that it was his bounden duty to take this step hard as it might seem to him. He could not leave England without seeing her once more, he said, recently as they had parted, and brief as his leisure must needs be. There were so many things he would have to say to her on the eve of this cruel separation.

He went down to Lidford one evening when all the arrangements for his voyage were complete, and he had two clear days at his disposal before the vessel he was to go in left Liverpool. The Listers were very much surprised and shocked when he told them what he was going to do; Mrs. Lister bitterly bewailing the insecurity of all commercial positions, and appearing to consider her brother on the verge of bankruptcy.

He found a warm welcome at the cottage from the Captain, who heartily approved of the course he was taking, and was full of hopefulness about the future.

“A few months more or less can make little difference,” he said, when Gilbert was lamenting the postponement of his wedding. “Marian will be quite safe in her old uncle’s care; and I do not suppose either of you will love each other any the less for the delay. I have such perfect confidence in you, Gilbert, you see; and it is such a happiness to me to know that my darling’s future is in the hands of a man I can so thoroughly trust. Were you reduced to absolute poverty, with the battle of life to fight all over again, I would give you my dear girl without fear of the issue. I know you are of the stuff that is not to be beaten; and I believe that neither time nor circumstance could ever change your love for her.”

“You may believe that. Every day makes her dearer to me. I should be ashamed to tell you how bitterly I feel this parting, and what a desperate mental struggle I went through before I could make up my mind to go.”

Marian came into the room in the midst of this conversation. She was very pale, and her eyes had a dull, heavy look. The bad news in Gilbert’s letter had distressed her even more than he had anticipated.

“My darling,” he said tenderly, looking down at the changed face, with her cold hand clasped in his own, “how ill you are looking! I fear I made my letter too dismal, and that it frightened you.”

“Oh no, no. I am very sorry you should have this bad fortune, Gilbert, that is all.”

“There is nothing which I do not hope to repair, dear. The losses are not more than I can stand. All that I take to heart is the separation from you, Marian.”

“I am not worth so much regret,” she said, with her eyes fixed upon the ground, and her hands clasping and unclasping each other nervously.

“Not worth so much regret, Marian!” he exclaimed. “You are all the world to me; the beginning and end of my universe.”

She looked a little brighter by-and-by, when her lover had done his best to cheer her with hopeful talk, which cost him no small effort in the depressed state of his mind. The day went by very slowly, although it was the last which those two were to spend together until Gilbert Fenton’s return. It was a hopelessly wet day, with a perpetual drizzling rain and a leaden-gray sky; weather which seemed to harmonise well enough with the pervading gloom of Gilbert’s thoughts as he stood by the fire, leaning against an angle of the mantelpiece, and watching Marian’s needle moving monotonously in and out of the canvas.

The Captain, who led an easy comfortable kind of life at all times, was apt to dispose of a good deal of his leisure in slumber upon such a day as this. He sat down in his own particular easy-chair, dozing behind the shelter of a newspaper, and lulled agreeably by the low sound of Gilbert and Marian’s conversation.

So the quiet hours went by, overshadowed by the gloom of that approaching separation. After dinner, when they had returned to the drawing-room, and Captain Sedgewick had refreshed his intellectual powers with copious draughts of strong tea, he began to talk of Marian’s childhood, and the circumstances which had thrown her into his hand.

“I don’t suppose my little girl ever showed you her mother’s jewel-case, did she, Gilbert?” he asked.

“Never.”

“I thought as much. It contains that old-fashioned jewelry I spoke of — family relics, which I have sometimes fancied might be of use to her, if ever her birthright were worth claiming. But I doubt if that will ever happen now that so many years have gone by, and there has been no endeavour to trace her. Run and fetch the case, Marian. There are some of its contents which Gilbert ought to see before he leaves England — papers which I intended to show him when I first told him your mother’s story.”

Marian left them, and came back in a few minutes carrying an old-fashioned ebony jewel-case, inlaid with brass. She unlocked it with a little key hanging to her watch-chain, and exhibited its contents to Gilbert Fenton. There were some curious old rings, of no great value; a seal-ring with a crest cut on a bloodstone — a crest of that common kind of device which does not imply noble or ancient lineage on the part of the bearer thereof; a necklace and earrings of amethyst; a gold bracelet with a miniature of a young man, whose handsome face had a hard disagreeable expression; a locket containing grey hair, and having a date and the initials “M.G.” engraved on the massive plain gold case.

These were all the trinkets. In a secret drawer there was a certificate of marriage between Percival Nowell, bachelor, gentleman, and Lucy Geoffry, spinster, at St. Pancras Church, London. The most interesting contents of the jewel-case consisted of a small packet of letters written by Percival Nowell to Lucy Geoffry before their marriage.

“I have read them carefully ever so many times, with the notion that they might throw some light upon Mr. and Mrs. Nowell’s antecedents,” said the Captain, as Gilbert held these in his hands, disinclined to look at documents of so private and sacred a character; “but they tell very little. I fancy that Miss Geoffry was a governess in some family in London — the envelopes are missing, you see, so there is no evidence as to where she was living, except that it was in London — and that she left her employment to marry this Percival Nowell. You’d like to read the letters yourself, I daresay, Gilbert. Put them in your pocket, and look them over at your leisure when you get home. You can bring them back before you leave Lidford.”

Mr. Fenton glanced at Marian to see if she had any objection to his reading the letters. She was quite silent, looking absently at the trinkets lying in the tray before her.

“You don’t mind my reading your father’s letters, Marian?” he asked.

“Not at all. Only I think you will find them very uninteresting.”

“I am interested in everything that concerns you.”

He put the papers in his pocket, and sat up for an hour in his room that night reading Percival Nowell’s love letters. They revealed very little to him, except the unmitigated selfishness of the writer. That quality exhibited itself in every page. The lovers had met for the first time at the house of some Mr. Crosby, in whose family Miss Geoffry seemed to be living; and there were clandestine meetings spoken of in the Regent’s Park, for which reason Gilbert supposed Mr. Crosby’s house must have been in that locality. There were broken appointments, for which Miss Geoffry was bitterly reproached by her lover, who abused the whole Crosby household in a venomous manner for having kept her at home at these times.

“If you loved me, as you pretend, Lucy,” Mr. Nowell wrote on one occasion, “you would speedily exchange this degrading slavery for liberty and happiness with me, and would be content to leave the future utterly in my hands, without question or fear. A really generous woman would do this.”

There was a good deal more to the same effect, and it seemed as if the proposal of marriage came at last rather reluctantly; but it did come, and was repeated, and urged in a very pressing manner; while Lucy Geoffry to the last appeared to have hung back, as if dreading the result of that union.

The letters told little of the writer’s circumstances or social status. Whenever he alluded to his father, it was with anger and contempt, and in a manner that implied some quarrel between them; but there was nothing to indicate what kind of man the father was.

Gilbert Fenton took the packet back to the cottage next morning. He was to return to London that afternoon, and had only a few hours to spend with Marian. The day was dull and cold, but there was no rain; and they walked together in the garden, where the leaves were beginning to fall, and whence every appearance of summer seemed to have vanished since Gilbert’s last visit.

For some time they were both rather silent, pacing thoughtfully up and down the sheltered walk that bounded the lawn. Gilbert found it impossible to put on an appearance of hopefulness on this last day. It was better wholly to give up the attempt, and resign himself to the gloom that brooded over him, shutting out the future. That airy castle of his — the villa on the banks of the Thames — seemed to have faded and vanished altogether. He could not look beyond the Australian journey to the happy time of his return. The hazards of time and distance bewildered him. He felt an unspeakable dread of the distance that was to divide him from Marian Nowell — a dread that grew stronger with every hour. He was destined to suffer a fresh pang before the moment of parting came. Marian turned to him by-and-by with an earnest anxious face, and said —

“Gilbert, there is something which I think I ought to say to you before you go away.”

“What is that, my darling?”

“It is rather hard to say. I fear it will give you pain. I have been thinking about it for a long time. The thought has been a constant reproach to me. Gilbert, it would be better if we were both free; better if you could leave England without any tie to weigh you down with anxieties when you are out yonder, and will have so much occasion for perfect freedom of mind.”

“Marian!”

“O, pray, pray don’t think me ungrateful or unmindful of your goodness to me. I am only anxious for your happiness. I am not steady enough, or fixed enough, in my mind. I am not worthy of all the thought and care you have given me.”

“Marian, have I done anything to forfeit your love?”

“O no, no.”

“Then why do you say these things to me? Do you want to break my heart?”

“Would it break your heart if I were to recall my promise, Gilbert?”

“Yes, Marian,” he answered gravely, drawing her suddenly to him, and looking into her face with earnest scrutinising eyes; “but if you do not love me, if you cannot love me — and God knows how happy I have been in the belief that I had won your love long ago — let the word be spoken. I will bear it, my dear, I will bear it.”

“O no, no,” she cried, shocked by the dead whiteness of his face, and bursting into tears. “I will try to be worthy of you. I will try to love you as you deserve to be loved. It was only a fancy of mine that it would be better for you to be free from all thoughts of me. I think it would seem very hard to me to lose your love. I don’t think I could bear that, Gilbert.”

She looked up at him with an appealing expression through her tears — an innocent, half-childish look that went to his heart — and he clasped her to his breast, believing that this proposal to set him free had been indeed nothing more than a girlish caprice.

“My dearest, my life is bound up with your love,” he said. “Nothing can part us except your ceasing to love me.”

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