Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

John Saltram’s Advice.

Mr. Fenton discovered the Bruce family in Boundary-road, St. John’s-wood, after a good deal of trouble. But they could tell him nothing of their dear friend Miss Nowell, of whom they spoke with the warmest regard. They had never seen her since they had left the school at Lidford, where they had been boarders, and she a daily pupil. They had not even heard of Captain Sedgewick’s death.

Gilbert asked these young ladies if they knew of any other acquaintance of Marian’s living in or near London. They both answered promptly in the negative. The school was a small one, and they had been the only pupils who came from town; nor had they ever heard Marian speak of any London friends.

Thus ended Mr. Fenton’s inquiries in this direction, leaving him no wiser than when he left Lidford. He had now exhausted every possible channel by which he might obtain information. The ground lay open before him, and there was nothing left for him but publicity. He took an advertisement to the Times office that afternoon, and paid for six insertions in the second column:—

“Miss MARIAN NOWELL, late of Lidford, Midlandshire, is requested to communicate immediately with G.F., Post-office, Wigmore-street, to whom her silence has caused extreme anxiety. She may rely upon the advertiser’s friendship and fidelity under all possible circumstances.”

Gilbert felt a little more hopeful after having done this. He fancied this advertisement must needs bring him some tidings of his lost love. The mystery might be happily solved after all, and Marian prove true to him. He tried to persuade himself that this was possible; but it was very difficult to reconcile her line of conduct with the fact of her regard for him.

In the evening he went to the Temple, eager to see John Saltram, from whom he had no intention to keep the secret of his trouble. He found his friend at home, writing, with his desk pushed against the open window, and the dust and shabbiness of his room dismally obvious in the hot July sunshine. He started up as Gilbert entered, and the dark face grew suddenly pale.

“You took me by surprise,” he said. “I didn’t know you were in England.”

“I only landed two days ago,” answered Gilbert, as they shook hands. “I daresay I startled you a little, dear old fellow, coming in upon you without a moment’s notice, when you fancied I was at the Antipodes. But, you see, I hunted you up directly I was free.”

“You have done well out yonder, I hope, Gilbert?”

“Yes; everything has gone well enough with me in business. But my coming home has been a dreary one.”

“How is that?”

“Captain Sedgewick is dead, and Marian Nowell is lost.”

“Lost! What do you mean by that?”

Mr. Fenton told his friend all that had befallen him since his arrival in England.

“I come to you for counsel and help, John,” he said, when he had finished his story.

“I will give you my help, so far as it is possible for one man to help another in such a business, and my counsel in all honesty,” answered John Saltram; “but I doubt if you will be inclined to receive it.”

“Why should you doubt that?”

“Because it is not likely to agree with your own ideas.”

“Speak out, John.”

“I think that if Miss Nowell had really loved you, she would never have taken this step. I think that she must have left Lidford in order to escape from her engagement, perhaps expecting your early return. I believe your pursuit of her can only end in failure and disappointment; and although I am ready to assist you in any manner you wish, I warn you against sacrificing your life to a delusion.”

“It is not under the delusion that Marian Nowell loves me that I am going to search for her,” Gilbert Fenton said slowly, after an interval of silence. “I am not so weak as to believe that after what has happened, though I have tried to argue with myself, only this afternoon, that she may still be true to me and that there may have been some hidden reason for her conduct. Granted that she wished to escape from her engagement, she might have trusted to my honour to give her a prompt release the moment I became acquainted with the real state of her feelings. There must have been some stronger influence than this at work when she left Lidford. I want to know the true cause of that hurried departure, John. I want to be sure that Marian Nowell is happy, and in safe hands.”

“By what means do you hope to discover this?”

“I rely a good deal upon repeated advertisements in the Times. They may bring me tidings of Marian — if not directly, from some person who has seen her since she left Lidford.”

“If she really wished to hide herself from you, she would most likely change her name.”

“Why should she wish to hide herself from me? She must know that she might trust me. Of her own free will she would never do this cruel thing. There must have been some secret influence at work upon my darling’s mind. It shall be my business to discover what that influence was; or, in plainer words still, to discover the man who has robbed me of Marian Nowell’s heart.”

“It comes to that, then,” said John Saltram. “You suspect some unknown rival?”

“Yes; that is the most natural conclusion to arrive at. And yet heaven knows how unwillingly I take that into consideration.”

“There is no particular person whom you suspect?”

“No one.”

“If there should be no result from your advertisement, what will you do?”

“I cannot tell you just yet. Unless I get some kind of clue, the business will seem a hopeless one. But I cannot imagine that the advertisements will fail completely. If she left Lidford to be married, there must be some record of her marriage. Should my first advertisements fail, my next shall be inserted with a view to discover such a record.”

“And if, after infinite trouble, you should find her the wife of another man, what reward would you have for your wasted time and lost labour?”

“The happiness of knowing her to be in a safe and honourable position. I love her too dearly to remain in ignorance of her fate.”

“Well, Gilbert, I know that good advice is generally thrown away in such a case as this; but I have a fixed opinion on the subject. To my mind, there is only one wise course open to you, and that is, to let this thing alone, and resign yourself to the inevitable. I acknowledge that Miss Nowell was eminently worthy of your affection; but you know the old song —‘If she be not fair to me, what care I how fair she be.’ There are plenty of women in the world. The choice is wide enough.”

“Not for me, John. Marian Nowell is the only woman I have ever loved, the only woman I ever can love.”

“My dear boy, it is so natural for you to believe that just now; and a year hence you will think so differently!”

“No, John. But I am not going to mate any protestations of my constancy. Let the matter rest. I knew that my life is broken — that this blow has left me nothing to hope for or to live for, except the hope of finding the girl who has wronged me. I won’t weary you with lamentations. My talk has been entirely of self since I came into this room. Tell me your own affairs, Jack, old friend. How has the world gone with you since we parted at Liverpool last year?”

“Not too smoothly. My financial position becomes a little more obscure and difficult of comprehension every year, as you know; but I rub on somehow. I have been working at literature like a galley-slave; have contributed no end of stuff to the Quarterlies; and am engaged upon a book — yes Gil, positively a book — which I hope may do great things for me if ever I can finish it.”

“Is it a novel?”

“A novel! no!” cried John Saltram, with a wry face; “it is the romance of reality I deal with. My book is a Life of Jonathan Swift. He was always a favourite study of mine, you know, that brilliant, unprincipled, intolerant, cynical, irresistible, miserable man. Scott’s biography seems to me to give but a tame picture, and others are only sketches. Mine will be a pre-Raphaelite study — faithful as a photograph, careful as a miniature on ivory, and life-size.”

“I trust it will bring you fame and money when the time comes,” answered Gilbert. “And how about Mrs. Branston? Is she as charming as ever?”

“A little more so, if possible. Poor old Michael Branston is dead — went off the hooks rather suddenly about a month ago. The widow looks amazingly pretty in her weeds.”

“And you will marry her, I suppose, Jack, as soon as her mourning is over?”

“Well, yes; it is on the cards,” John Saltram said, in an indifferent tone.

“Why, how you say that! Is there any doubt as to the lady’s fortune?”

“O no; that is all square enough. Michael Branston’s will was in the Illustrated London News; the personalty sworn under a hundred and twenty thousand — all left to the widow — besides real property — a house in Cavendish Square, the villa at Maidenhead, and a place near Leamington.”

“It would be a splendid match for you, Jack.”

“Splendid, of course. An unprecedented stroke of luck for such a fellow as I. Yet I doubt very much if I am quite the man for that sort of life. I should be apt to fancy it a kind of gilded slavery, I think, Gil, and there would be some danger of my kicking off the chains.”

“But you like Mrs. Branston, don’t you, Jack?”

“Like her? Yes, I like her too well to deceive her. And she would expect devoted affection from a second husband. She is full of romantic ideas, school-girl theories of life which she was obliged to nip in the bud when she went to the altar with old Branston, but which have burst into flower now that she is free.”

“Have you seen her often since her husband’s death?”

“Only twice; — once immediately after the funeral, and again yesterday. She is living in Cavendish Square just now.”

“I hope you will marry her. I should like to see you safe in smooth water, and with some purpose in life. I should like to see you turn your back upon the loneliness of these dreary chambers.”

“They are not very brilliant, are they? I don’t know how many generations of briefless barristers these chairs and tables have served. The rooms have an atmosphere of failure; but they suit me very well. I am not always here, you know. I spend a good deal of my time in the country.”

“Whereabouts?”

“Sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another; wherever my truant fancy leads me. I prefer such spots as are most remote from the haunts of men, unknown to cockneys; and so long as there is a river within reach of my lodging, I can make myself tolerably happy with a punt and a fishing-rod, and contrive to forget my cares.”

“You have not been to Lidford since I left England, I suppose?”

“Yes; I was at Heatherly a week or two in the winter. Poor old David Forster would not let me alone until I went down to him. He was ill, and in a very dismal condition altogether, abandoned by the rest of his cronies, and a close prisoner in the house which has so many painful associations for him. It was a work of charity to bear him company.”

“Did you see Captain Sedgewick, or Marian, while you were down there?”

“No. I should have liked to have called upon the kind old Captain; but Forster was unconscionably exacting — there was no getting away from him.”

Gilbert stepped with his friend until late that night, smoking and drinking a mild mixture of brandy and soda-water, and talking of the things that had been doing on this side of the globe while he had been on the other. No more was said about Marian, or Gilbert’s plans for the future. In his own mind that one subject reigned supreme, shutting out every other thought; but h did not want to make himself a nuisance to John Saltram, and he knew that there are bounds to the endurance of which friendship is capable.

The two friends seemed cheerful enough as they smoked their cigars in the summer dusk, the quiet of the flagged court below rarely broken by a passing footfall. It was the pleasantest evening which Gilbert Fenton had spent for a long time, in spite of the heavy burden on his mind, in spite of the depressing view which Mr. Saltram took of his position.

“Dear old John,” he said, as they shook hands at parting, “I cannot tell you what a happiness it has been to me to see you again. We were never separated so long before since the day when I ate my first dinner at Balliol.”

The other seemed touched by this expression of regard, but disinclined to betray his emotion, after the manner of Englishmen on such occasions.

“My dear Gilbert, it ought to be very pleasant to me to hear that. But I doubt if I am worthy of so much. As far as my own liking for you goes, there is no inequality between us; but you are a better fellow than I am by a long way, and are not likely to profit much in the long-run by your friendship for a reprobate like me.”

“That’s all nonsense, John. That kind of vague self-accusation means nothing. I have no doubt I shall live to see you a great man, and to be proud enough of being able to claim you as the chosen friend of my youth. Mr. Branston’s death has cleared the way for you. The chances of a distinguished future are within your grasp.”

“The chances within my grasp! Yes. My dear Gilbert, I tell you there are some men for whom everything in this world comes too late.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Only that I doubt if you will ever see me Adela Branston’s husband.”

“I can’t understand you, John.”

“My dear fellow, there is nothing strange in that. There are times when I cannot understand myself.”

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