Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

At Lidford Again.

Gilbert Fenton called in Queen Anne’s Court within a few hours of Marian’s departure, and was not a little disappointed when he was told that she had gone back to Hampshire. He had relied upon seeing her again — not once only, but several times — before her return. He had promised Jacob Nowell that he would watch over and protect her interests; and it was a sincere unqualified wish to do this that influenced him now. More than a dear friend, the sweetest and dearest of all womankind, she could never be to him. He accepted the position with resignation. The first sharp bitterness of her loss was over. That he should ever cease to love her was impossible; but it seemed to him that a chivalrous friendship for her, a disinterested brotherly affection, was in no manner incompatible with that hapless silent love. No word of his, in all their intercourse to come, should ever remind her of that hidden devotion; no shadow of the past should ever cloud the calm brightness of the present. It was a romantic fancy, perhaps, for a man of business, whose days were spent in the very press and tumult of commercial life; but it had lifted Gilbert Fenton out of that slough of despond into which he had fallen when Marian seemed utterly lost to him — vanished altogether out of his existence.

He had a sense of bitter disappointment, therefore, when he found that she had gone, leaving neither letter nor message for him. How little value his friendship must needs possess for her, when she could abandon him thus without a word! He had felt sure that she would consult him upon her affairs; but no, she had her husband to whom to appeal, and had no need of any other counsellor.

“I was a fool to think that I could ever be anything to her, even a friend,” he said to himself bitterly; “women are incapable of friendship. It is all or nothing with them; a blind self-abnegation or the coldest indifference. Devotion cannot touch them, unless the man who gives it happen to be that one man out of a thousand who has the power to bewitch their senses. Truth and affection, of themselves, have no value with them. How many people spoke to me of this Holbrook as an unattractive man; and yet he won my love away from me, and holds her with an influence so complete, that my friendship seems worthless to her. She cannot give me a word or a thought.”

Mr. Fenton made some inquiries about the funeral arrangements and found that these had been duly attended to by the lawyer, and a gentleman who had been with Jacob Nowell a good deal of late, who seemed to be some relation to the old man, Mr. Tulliver said, and took a great deal upon himself. This being done, there was, of course, no occasion for Gilbert to interfere, and he was glad to be released from all responsibility. Having ascertained this, he asked for the address of the late Mr. Nowell’s lawyer; and being told it, went at once to Mr. Medler’s office. He did not consider himself absolved from the promise he had made the old man by Marian’s indifference, and was none the less anxious to watch over her interests because she seemed to set so little value on his friendship.

He told Mr. Medler who he was, and the promise he had given to Jacob Nowell, abstaining, of course, from any reference to the position he had once occupied towards Marian. He described himself as her friend only — a friend of long standing, who had been intimate with her adopted guardian.

“I know how ignorant Mrs. Holbrook is of the world and of all business matters,” he went on to say, “and I am naturally anxious that her interests should be protected.”

“I should think there was very little doubt that her husband will see after those,” the lawyer answered, with something of a sneer; “husbands are generally supposed to do that, especially where there is money at stake.”

“I do not know Mr. Holbrook; and he has kept himself in the background so persistently up to this point, and has been altogether so underhanded in his proceedings, that I have by no means a good opinion of him. Mr. Nowell told me that he intended to leave his money to his granddaughter in such a manner, that it would be hers and hers only — free from the control of any husband. He has done so, I presume?”

“Yes,” Mr. Medler replied, with the air of a man who would fain have withheld the information; “he has left it for her own separate use and maintenance.”

“And it is a property of some importance, I conclude?”

“Of some importance — yes,” the lawyer answered, in the same tone.

“Ought not Mrs. Holbrook to have remained to hear the reading of the will?”

“Well, yes, decidedly; it would have been more in the usual way of things; but her absence can have no ill effect upon her interests. Of course it will be my duty to make her acquainted with the contents of the will.”

Gilbert Fenton was not prepossessed by Mr. Medler’s countenance, which was not an open candid index to a spotless soul, nor by his surroundings, which were of the shabbiest; but the business being in this man’s hands, it might be rather difficult to withdraw it — dangerous even. The man held the will, and in holding that had a certain amount of power.

“There is no one except Mrs. Holbrook interested in Mr. Nowell’s will, I suppose?” Gilbert said presently.

“No one directly and immediately, except an old charwoman, who has a legacy of five-and-twenty pounds.”

“But there is some one else interested in an indirect manner I infer from your words?”

“Yes. Mrs. Holbrook takes the whole of the personalty, but she has only a life-interest in the real estate. If she should have children, it will go to them on her death; if she should die childless, it will go to her father, supposing him to survive her.”

“To her father? That is rather strange, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know that. It was the old man’s wish that the will should be to that effect.”

“I understood from him that he did not know whether his son was alive or dead.”

“Indeed! I believe he had news of his son very lately.”

“Curious that he should not have told me, knowing as he did my interest in everything relating to Mrs. Holbrook.”

“Old people are apt to be close; and Jacob Nowell was about one of the closest customers I ever met with,” answered the lawyer.

Gilbert left him soon after this, and chartered a hansom in the next street, which carried him back to the City. He was very uncertain as to what he ought to do for Marian, doubtful of Mr. Medler’s integrity, and yet anxious to abstain from any act that might seem uncalled for or officious. She had her husband to look after her interests, as the lawyer had reminded him, and it was scarcely probable that Mr. Holbrook would neglect any steps necessary to secure his wife’s succession to whatever property Jacob Nowell had left. It seemed to Gilbert that he could do nothing at present, except write to Marian, telling her of his interview with the lawyer, and advising her to lose no time in placing the conduct of her affairs in more respectable hands than those of Mr. Medler. He mentioned his own solicitors, a City firm of high standing, as gentlemen whom she might wisely trust at this crisis of her life.

This done, he could only wait the issue of events, and he tried to occupy himself as much as possible with his business at St. Helens — that business which he seriously intended getting rid of as soon as he could meet with a favourable opportunity for so doing. He worked with that object in view. In spite of his losses in Australia, he was in a position to retire from commerce with a very fair income. He had lost all motive for sustained exertion, all desire to become rich. A man who has no taste for expensive bachelor pleasures and no home has very little opportunity for getting rid of large sums of money. Mr. Fenton had taken life pleasantly enough, and yet had never spent five hundred a year. He could retire with an income of eight hundred and having abandoned all idea of ever marrying this seemed to him more than sufficient.

The Listers had come back to England, and Mrs. Lister had written to her brother more than once, begging him to run down to Lidford. Of course she had expressed herself freely upon the subject of Marian’s conduct in these letters, reprobating the girl’s treachery and ingratitude, and congratulating Gilbert upon his escape from so ineligible a connection. Mr. Fenton had put his sister off with excuses hitherto, and had subjected himself thereby to sundry feminine reproaches upon his coldness and want of affection for Mrs. Lister and her children. “It was very different when Marian Nowell was here,” she wrote; “you thought it no trouble to come to us then.”

No answer came to his letter to Mrs. Holbrook — which scarcely called for a reply, unless it had been a few lines of thanks, in acknowledgment of his interest in her behalf. He had looked for such a letter, and was a little disappointed by its non-appearance. The omission, slight as it was, served to strengthen his bitter feeling that his friendship in this quarter was unneeded and unvalued.

Business in the City happened to be rather slack at this time; and it struck Mr. Fenton all at once that he could scarcely have a better opportunity for wasting two or three days in a visit of duty to the Listers, and putting an end to his sister’s reproachful letters. He had a second motive for going to Lidford; a motive which had far greater weight with him than his brotherly affection just at this time. He wanted to see Sir David Forster, to call that gentleman to some account for the deliberate falsehood he had uttered at their last meeting. He had no bloodthirsty or ferocious feelings upon the subject, he could even understand that the Baronet might have been bound by his own ideas of honour to tell a lie in the service of his friend; but he wanted to extort some explanation of the line of conduct Sir David had taken, and he wanted to ascertain from him the character of Marian’s husband. He had made inquiries about Sir David at the club, and had been told that he was still at Heatherly.

He went down to Lidford by an afternoon train, without having troubled himself to give Mrs. Lister any notice of his coming. The November evening had closed in upon the quiet rural landscape when he drove from the station to Lidford. A cold white mist enfolded all things here, instead of the stifling yellow fog that had filled the London streets when he walked westwards from the City at the same hour on the previous evening. Above his head the sky was clear and bright, the mist-wreaths melting away as they mounted towards the stars. The lighted windows in the village street had a pleasant homely look; the snug villas, lying back from the high road with a middle distance of dark lawn and glistening shrubbery, shone brightly upon the traveller as he drove by, the curtains not yet drawn before some of the windows, the rooms ruddy in the firelight. In one of them he caught a brief glimpse of a young matron seated by the fire with her children clustered at her knee, and the transient picture struck him with a sudden pang. He had dreamed so fondly of a home like this; pleasant rooms shining in the sacred light of the hearth, his wife and children waiting to bid him welcome when the day’s work was done. All other objects which men live and toil for seemed to him poor and worthless in the absence of this one dear incentive to exertion, this one sweet recompense for every care. Even Lidford House, which had never before seemed to him the perfection of a home, had a new aspect for him to-night, and reminded him sharply of his own loss. He envied Martin Lister the quiet jog-trot happiness of his domestic life; his love for and pride in his children; the calm haven of that comfortable hearth by which he sat to-night, with his slippered feet stretched luxuriously upon a fender-stool of his wife’s manufacture, and his daughter sitting on a hassock close to his easy-chair, reading in a book of fairy tales.

Of course they were all delighted to see him, at once pleased and surprised by the unexpected visit. He had brought a great parcel of toys for the two children; and Selwyn Lister, a fine boisterous boy in a Highland costume, was summoned downstairs to assist at the unpacking of these treasures. It was half-past seven, and the Listers had dined at six: but in an incredibly short space of time the Sutherland table had been drawn out to a cosy position near the fire and spread with a substantial repast, while Mrs. Lister took her place behind the ponderous old silver urn which had been an heirloom in her husband’s family for the last two centuries. The Listers were full of talk about their own travels — a long-delayed continental tour which had been talked of ever since their return from the honeymoon trip to Geneva and Chamouni; and were also very eager to hear Gilbert’s adventures in Australia, of which he had given them only very brief accounts in his letters. There was nothing said that night about Marian, and Gilbert was grateful for his sister’s forbearance.


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