Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Missing.

On the 5th of July in the following year, Gilbert Fenton landed in England, after nearly ten months of exile. He had found hard work to do in the colonial city, and had done it; surmounting every difficulty by a steady resolute course of action.

Astley Fenton had tried to shelter his frauds, heaping falsehood upon falsehood; and had ended by making a full confession, after receiving his cousin’s promise not to prosecute. The sums made away with by him amounted to some thousands. Gilbert found that he had been leading a life of reckless extravagance, and was a notorious gambler. So there came an evening when after a prolonged investigation of affairs, Astley Fenton put on his hat, and left his cousin’s office for ever. When Gilbert heard of him next, he was clerk to a bookseller in Sydney.

The disentanglement of the Melbourne trading had occupied longer than Gilbert expected; and his exile had been especially dreary to him during the last two months he spent in Australia, from the failure of his English letters. The first two mails after his arrival had brought him letters from Marian and her uncle, and one short note from John Saltram. The mails that followed brought him nothing, and he was inexpressibly alarmed and distressed by this fact. If he could by any possibility have returned to England immediately after the arrival of the first mail which brought him no letter, he would have done so. But his journey would have been wasted had he not remained to complete the work of reorganization he had commenced; so he stayed, sorely against the grain, hoping to get a letter by the next mail.

That came, and with the same dispiriting result to Gilbert Fenton. There was a letter from his sister, it is true; but that was written from Switzerland, where she was travelling with her husband, and brought him no tidings of Marian. He tried to convince himself that if there had been bad news, it must needs have come to him; that the delay was only the result of accident, some mistake of Marian’s as to the date of the mail. What more natural than that she should make such a mistake, at a place with such deficient postal arrangements as those which obtained at Lidford? But, argue with himself as he might, this silence of his betrothed was none the less perplexing to him, and he was a prey to perpetual anxiety during the time that elapsed before the sailing of the vessel that was to convey him back to England.

Then came the long monotonous voyage, affording ample leisure for gloomy thoughts, for shapeless fears in the dead watches of the night, when the sea washed drearily against his cabin window, and he lay broad awake counting the hours that must wear themselves out before he could set foot on English ground. As the time of his arrival drew nearer, his mind grew restless and fitful, now full of hope and happy visions of his meeting with Marian, now weighed down by the burden of some unspeakable terror.

The day dawned at last, that sultry summer day, and Gilbert was amongst those eager passengers who quitted the vessel at daybreak.

He went straight from the quay to the railway-station, and the delay of an hour which he had to endure here seemed almost interminable to him. As he paced to and fro the long platform waiting for the London express, he wondered how he had borne all the previous delay, how he had been able to live through that dismal agonizing time. His own patience was a mystery to him now that the ordeal was over.

The express started at last, and he sat quietly in his corner trying to read a newspaper; while his fellow-travellers discussed the state of trade in Liverpool, which seemed from their account to be as desperate and hopeless as the condition of all commerce appears invariably to be whenever commercial matters come under discussion. Gilbert Fenton was not interested in the Liverpool trade at this particular crisis. He knew that he had weathered the storm which had assailed his own fortunes, and that the future lay clear and bright before him.

He did not waste an hour in London, but went straight from one station to another, and was in time to catch a train for Fairleigh, the station nearest to Lidford. It was five o’clock in the afternoon when he arrived at this place, and chartered a fly to take him over to Lidford — a lovely summer afternoon. The sight of the familiar English scenery, looking so exquisite in its summer glory, filled him with a pleasure that was almost akin to pain. He had often walked this road with Marian; and as he drove along he looked eagerly at every distant figure, half hoping to see his darling approach him in the summer sunlight.

Mr. Fenton deposited his carpet-bag at the cosy village inn, where snow-white curtains fluttered gaily at every window in the warm western breeze, and innumerable geraniums made a gaudy blaze of scarlet against the wooden wall. He did not stop here to make any inquiries about those he had come to see. His heart was beating tumultuously in expectation of the meeting that seemed so near. He alighted from the fly, dismissed the driver, and walked rapidly across a field leading by a short cut to the green on which Captain Sedgewick’s house stood. This field brought him to the side of the green opposite the Captain’s cottage. He stopped for a moment as he came through the little wooden gate, and looked across the grass, where a regiment of geese was marching towards the still pool of willow-shadowed water.

The shutters of the upper rooms were closed, and there was a board above the garden-gate. The cottage was to be let.

Gilbert Fenton’s heart gave one great throb, and then seemed to cease beating altogether. He walked across the green slowly, stunned by this unlooked-for blow. Yes, the house was empty. The garden, which he remembered in such exquisite order, had a weedy dilapidated look that seemed like the decay of some considerable time. He rang the bell several times, but there was no answer; and he was turning away from the gate with the stunned confused feeling still upon him, unable to consider what he ought to do next, when he heard himself called by his name, and saw a woman looking at him across the hedge of the neighbouring garden.

“Were you wishing to make any inquiries about the last occupants of Hazel Cottage, sir?” she asked.

“Yes,” Gilbert answered huskily, looking at her in an absent unseeing way.

He had seen her often during his visits to the cottage, busy at work in her garden, which was much smaller than the Captain’s, but he had never spoken to her before to-day.

She was a maiden lady, who eked out her slender income by letting a part of her miniature abode whenever an opportunity for so doing occurred. The care of this cottage occupied all her days, and formed the delight and glory of her life. It was a little larger than a good-sized doll’s house, and furnished with spindle-legged chairs and tables that had been polished to the last extremity of brightness.

“Perhaps you would be so good as to walk into my sitting-room for a few moments, sir,” said this lady, opening her garden-gate. “I shall be most happy to afford you any information about your friends.”

“You are very good,” said Gilbert, following her into the prim little parlour.

He had recovered his self-possession in some degree by this time, telling himself that this desertion of Hazel Cottage involved no more than a change of residence.

“My name is Dodd,” said the lady, motioning Mr. Fenton to a chair, “Miss Letitia Dodd. I had the pleasure of seeing you very often during your visits next door. I was not on visiting terms with Captain Sedgewick and Miss Nowell, although we bowed to each other out of doors. I am only a tradesman’s daughter — indeed my brother is now carrying on business as a butcher in Fairleigh — and of course I am quite aware of the difference in our positions. I am the last person to intrude myself upon my superiors.”

“If you will be so kind as to tell me where they have gone?” Gilbert asked, eager to stop this formal statement of Miss Dodd’s social standing.

“Where they have gone!” she repeated. “Dear, dear! Then you do not know ——”

“I do not know what?”

“Of Captain Sedgewick’s death.”

“Good God! My dear old friend! When did he die?”

“At the beginning of the year. It was very sudden — a fit of apoplexy. He was seized in the night, poor dear gentleman, and it was only discovered when the servant went to call him in the morning. He only lived two days after the seizure; and never spoke again.”

“And Miss Nowell — what made her leave the cottage? She is still at Lidford, I suppose?”

“O dear no, Mr. Fenton. She went away altogether about a month after the Captain’s death.”

“Where did she go?”

“I cannot tell you that, I did not even know that she intended leaving Hazel Cottage until the day after she left. When I saw the shutters closed and the board up, you might have knocked me down with a feather. Miss Nowell was so much liked in Lidford, and she had more than one invitation from friends to stay with them for the sake of a change after her uncle’s death; but she would not visit anywhere. She stayed quite alone in the cottage, with only the old servant.”

“But there must surely be some one in the place who knows where she has gone!” exclaimed Gilbert.

“I think not. The landlord of Hazel Cottage does not know. He is my landlord also, and I was asking him about Miss Nowell when I paid my rent the other day. He said he supposed she had gone away to be married. That has been the general impression, in fact, at Lidford. People made sure that Miss Nowell had left to be married to you.”

“I have only just returned from Australia. I have come back to fulfil my engagement to Miss Nowell. Can you suggest no one from whom I am likely to obtain information?”

“There is the family at the Rectory; they knew her very well, and were extremely kind to her after her uncle’s death. It might be worth your while to call upon Mr. Marchant.”

“Yes, I will call,” Gilbert answered; “thanks for the suggestion.”

He wished Miss Dodd good-afternoon, and left her standing at the gate of her little garden, watching him with profound interest as he walked away towards the village. There was a pleasing mystery in the affair, to the mind of Miss Dodd.

Gilbert Fenton went at once to the Rectory, although it was now past seven o’clock. He had met Mr. and Mrs. Marchant several times, and had visited them with the Listers.

The Rector was at home, sitting over his solitary glass of port by the open window of his snug dining-room, looking lazily out at a group of sons and daughters playing croquet on the lawn. He was surprised to see Mr. Fenton, but welcomed him with much cordiality.

“I have come to you full of care, Mr. Marchant,” Gilbert began; “and the pressing nature of my business must excuse the lateness of my visit.”

“There is no occasion for any excuse. I am very glad to see you at this time. Pray help yourself to some wine, there are clean glasses near you; and take some of those strawberries, on which my wife prides herself amazingly. People who live in the country all their days are obliged to give their minds to horticulture. And now, what is this care of yours, Mr. Fenton? Nothing very serious, I hope.”

“It is very serious to me at present. I think you know that I am engaged to Miss Nowell.”

“Perfectly. I had imagined until this moment that you and she were married. When she left Lidford, I concluded that she had gone to stay with friends of yours, and that the marriage would, in all probability, take place at an early period, without any strict observance of etiquette as to her mourning for her uncle. It was natural that we should think this, knowing her solitary position.”

“Then you do not know where she went on leaving this place?”

“Not in the faintest degree. Her departure was altogether unexpected by us. My wife and daughters called upon her two or three times after the Captain’s death, and were even anxious that she should come here to stay for a short time; but she would not do that. She seemed grateful, and touched by their anxiety about her, but they could not bring her to talk of her future.”

“And she told them nothing of her intention to leave Lidford?”

“Not a word.”

This was all that Gilbert Fenton could learn. His interview with the Rector lasted some time longer; but it told him nothing. Whom next could he question? He knew all Marian’s friends, and he spent the next day in calling upon them, but with the same result; no one could tell him her reason for leaving Hazel Cottage, or where she had gone.

There remained only one person whom he could question, and that was the old servant who had lived with Captain Sedgewick nearly all the time of his residence at Lidford, and whom Gilbert had conciliated by numerous gifts during his visits to Hazel Cottage. She was a good-humoured honest creature, of about fifty, and had been devoted to the Captain and Marian.

After a good deal of trouble, Gilbert ascertained that this woman had not accompanied her young mistress when she left Lidford, but had taken service in a grocer’s family at Fairleigh. Having discovered this, Mr. Fenton set off immediately for the little market-town, on foot this time, and with his mind full of the days when he and Marian had walked this way together.

He found the shop to which he had been directed — a roomy old-fashioned emporium in the High-street, sunk three or four feet below the level of the pavement, and approached by a couple of steps; a shop with a low ceiling, that was made lower by bunches of candles, hams, bacon, and other merchandise hanging from the massive beams that spanned it. Mr. Fenton, having duly stated his business, was shown into the grocer’s best parlour — a resplendent apartment, where there were more ornaments in the way of shell-and-feather flowers under glass shades, and Bohemian glass scent-bottles, than were consistent with luxurious occupation, and where every chair and sofa was made a perfect veiled prophet by enshrouding antimacassors. Here Sarah Down, the late Captain’s servant, came to Mr. Fenton, wiping her hands and arms upon a spotless canvas apron, and generally apologetic as to her appearance. To this woman Gilbert repeated the question he had asked of others, with the same disheartening result.

“The poor dear young lady felt the Captain’s loss dreadfully; as well she might, when they had been so fond of each other,” Sarah Down said, in answer to one of Gilbert’s inquiries. “I never knew any one grieve so deeply. She wouldn’t go anywhere, and she couldn’t bear to see any one who came to see her. She used to shut herself up in the Captain’s room day after day, kneeling by his bedside, and crying as if her heart would break. I have looked through the keyhole sometimes, and seen her there on her knees, with her face buried in the bedclothes. She didn’t care to talk about him even to me, and I had hard work to persuade her to eat or drink enough to keep life in her at this time. When the days were fine, I used to try and get her to walk out a little, for she looked as white as a ghost for want of air; and after a good deal of persuasion, she did go out sometimes of an afternoon, but she wouldn’t ask any one to walk with her, though there were plenty she might have asked — the young ladies from the Rectory and others. She preferred being alone, she told me, and I was glad that she should get the air and the change anyhow. She brightened a little after this, but very little. It was all of a sudden one day that she told me she was going away. I wanted to go with her, but she said that couldn’t be. I asked her where she was going, and she told me, after hesitating a little, that she was going to friends in London. I knew she had been very fond of two young ladies that she went to school with at Lidford, whose father lived in London; and I thought it was to their house she was going. I asked her if it was, and she said yes. She made arrangements with the landlord about selling the furniture. He is an auctioneer himself, and there was no difficulty about that. The money was to be sent to her at a post-office in London. I wondered at that, but she said it was better so. She paid every sixpence that was owing, and gave me a handsome present over and above my wages; though I didn’t want to take anything from her, poor dear young lady, knowing that there was very little left after the Captain’s death, except the furniture, which wasn’t likely to bring much. And so she went away about two days after she first mentioned that she was going to leave Lidford. It was all very sudden, and I don’t think she bade good-bye to any one in the place. She seemed quite broken down with grief in those two last days. I shall never forget her poor pale face when she got into the fly.”

“How did she go? From the station here?”

“I don’t know anything about that, except that the fly came to the cottage for her and her luggage. I wanted to go to the station with her, to see her off, but she wouldn’t let me.”

“Did she mention me during the time that followed Captain Sedgewick’s death?”

“Only when I spoke about you, sir. I used to try to comfort her, telling her she had you still left to care for her, and to make up for him she’d lost. But she used to look at me in a strange pitiful sort of way, and shake her head. ‘I am very miserable, Sarah,’ she would say to me; ‘I am quite alone in the world now my dear uncle is gone, and I don’t know what to do.’ I told her she ought to look forward to the time when she would be married, and would have a happy home of her own; but I could never get her to talk of that.”

“Can you tell me the name and address of her friends in London — the young ladies with whom she went to school?”

“The name is Bruce, sir; and they live, or they used to live at that time, in St. John’s-wood. I have heard Miss Nowell say that, but I don’t know the name of the street or number of the house.”

“I daresay I shall be able to find them. It is a strange business, Sarah. It is most unaccountable that my dearest girl should have left Lidford without writing me word of her removal and her intentions with regard to the future — that she should have sent me no announcement of her uncle’s death, although she must have known how well I loved him, I am going to ask you a question that is very painful to me, but which must be asked sooner or later. Do you know of any one else whom she may have liked better than me — any one whose influence may have governed her at the time she left Lidford?”

“No, indeed, sir,” replied the woman, promptly. “Who else was there? Miss Nowell knew so few gentlemen, and saw no one except the Rector’s family and two or three ladies after the uncle’s death.”

“Not at the cottage, perhaps. But she may have seen some one out-of-doors. You say she always went out alone at that time, and preferred to do so.”

“Yes, sir, that is true. But it seemed natural enough that she should like to be alone on account of her grief.”

“There must have been some reason for her silence towards me, Sarah. She could not have acted so cruelly without some powerful motive. Heaven only knows what it may have been. The business of my life will be to find her — to see her face to face once more, and hear the explanation of her conduct from her own lips.”

He thanked the woman for her information, slipped a sovereign into her hand, and departed. He called upon the proprietor of Hazel Cottage, an auctioneer, surveyor, and house-agent in the High-street of Fairleigh, but could obtain no fresh tidings from this gentleman, except the fact that the money realised by the Captain’s furniture had been sent to Miss Nowell at a post-office in the City, and had been duly acknowledged by her, after a delay of about a week. The auctioneer showed Gilbert the letter of receipt, which was worded in a very formal business-like manner, and bore no address but “London.” The sight of the familiar hand gave him a sharp pang. O God, how he had languished for a letter in that handwriting!

He had nothing more to do after this in the neighbourhood of Lidford, except to pay a pious visit to the Captain’s grave, where a handsome slab of granite recorded the virtues of the dead. It lay in the prettiest, most retired part of the churchyard, half-hidden under a wide-spreading yew. Gilbert Fenton sat down upon a low wall near at hand for a long time, brooding over his broken life, and wishing himself at rest beneath that solemn shelter.

“She never loved me,” he said to himself bitterly. “I shut my eyes obstinately to the truth, or I might have discovered the secret of her indifference by a hundred signs and tokens. I fancied that a man who loved a woman as I loved her must succeed in winning her heart at last. And I accepted her girlish trust in me, her innocent gratitude for my attentions, as the evidence of her love. Even at the last, when she wanted to release me, I would not understand. I did not expect to be loved as I loved her. I would have given so much, and been content to take so little. What is there I would not have done — what sacrifice of my own pride that I would not have happily made to win her! O my darling, even in your desertion of me you might have trusted me better than this! You would have found me fond and faithful through every trial, your friend in spite of every wrong.”

He knelt down by the grave, and pressed his lips to the granite on which George Sedgewick’s name was chiselled.

“I owe it to the dead to discover her fate,” he said to himself, as he rose from that reverent attitude. “I owe it to the dead to penetrate the secret of her new life, to assure myself that she is happy, and has fallen under no fatal influence.”

The Listers were still abroad, and Gilbert was very glad that it was so. It would have excruciated him to hear his sister’s comments on Marian’s conduct, and to perceive the suppressed exultation with which she would most likely have discussed this unhappy termination to an engagement which had been entered on in utter disregard of her counsel.

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