Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 30

Stricken Down.

A hansom carried Gilbert Fenton to the Temple, without loss of time. There was a fierce hurry in his breast, a heat and fever which he had scarcely felt since the beginning of his troubles; for his lurking suspicion of his friend had gathered shape and strength all at once, and possessed his mind now to the exclusion of every other thought.

He ran quickly up the stairs. The outer and inner doors of John Saltram’s chambers were both ajar. Gilbert pushed them open and went in. The familiar sitting-room looked just a little more dreary than usual. The litter of books and papers, ink-stand and portfolio, was transferred to one of the side-tables, and in its place, on the table where his friend had been accustomed to write, Gilbert saw a cluster of medicine-bottles, a jug of toast-and-water, and a tray with a basin of lukewarm greasy-looking beef-tea.

The door between the two rooms stood half open, and from the bedchamber within Gilbert heard the heavy painful breathing of a sleeper. He went to the door and looked into the room. John Saltram was lying asleep, in an uneasy attitude, with both arms thrown over his head. His face had a haggard look that was made all the more ghastly by two vivid crimson spots upon his sunken cheeks; there were dark purple rings round his eyes, and his beard was of more than a week’s growth.

“Ill,” Gilbert muttered, looking aghast at this dreary picture, with strangely conflicting feelings of pity and anger in his breast; “struck down at the very moment when I had determined to know the truth.”

The sick man tossed himself restlessly from side to side in his feverish sleep, changed his position two or three times with evident weariness and pain, and then opened his eyes and stared with a blank unseeing gaze at his friend. That look, without one ray of recognition, went to Gilbert’s heart somehow.

“O God, how fond I was of him!” he said to himself. “And if he has been a traitor! If he were to die like this, before I have wrung the truth from him — to die, and I not dare to cherish his memory — to be obliged to live out my life with this doubt of him!”

This doubt! Had he much reason to doubt two minutes afterwards, when John Saltram raised himself on his gaunt arm, and looked piteously round the room?

“Marian!” he called. “Marian!”

“Yes,” muttered Gilbert, “it is all true. He is calling his wife.”

The revelation scarcely seemed a surprise to him. Little by little that suspicion, so vague and dim at first, had gathered strength, and now that all his doubts received confirmation from those unconscious lips, it seemed to him as if he had known his friend’s falsehood for a long time.

“Marian, come here. Come, child, come,” the sick man cried in feeble imploring tones. “What, are you afraid of me? Is this death? Am I dead, and parted from her? Would anything else keep her from me when I call for her, the poor child that loved me so well? And I have wished myself free of her — God forgive me! — wished myself free.”

The words were muttered in broken gasping fragments of sentences; but Gilbert heard them and understood them very easily. Then, after looking about the room, and looking full at Gilbert without seeing him, John Saltram fell back upon his tumbled pillows and closed his eyes. Gilbert heard a slipshod step in the outer room, and turning round, found himself face to face with the laundress — that mature and somewhat depressing matron whom he had sought out a little time before, when he wanted to discover Mr. Saltram’s whereabouts.

This woman, upon seeing him, burst forth immediately into jubilation.

“O, sir, what a providence it is that you’ve come!” she cried. “Poor dear gentleman, he has been that ill, and me not knowing what to do more than a baby, except in the way of sending for a doctor when I see how bad he was, and waiting on him myself day and night, which I have done faithful, and am that worn-out in consequence, that I shake like a haspen, and can’t touch a bit of victuals. I had but just slipped round to the court, while he was asleep, poor dear, to give my children their dinner; for it’s a hard trial, sir, having a helpless young family depending upon one; and it would but be fair that all I have gone through should be considered; for though I says it as shouldn’t, there isn’t one of your hired nurses would do more; and I’m willing to continue of it, provisoed as I have help at nights, and my trouble considered in my wages.”

“You need have no apprehension; you shall be paid for your trouble. Has he been long ill?”

“Well, sir, he took the cold as were the beginning of his illness a fortnight ago come next Thursday. You may remember, perhaps, as it came on awful wet in the afternoon, last Thursday week, and Mr. Saltram was out in the rain, and walked home in it — not being able to get a cab, I suppose, or perhaps not caring to get one, for he was always a careless gentleman in such respects — and come in wet through to the skin; and instead of changing his clothes, as a Christian would have done, just gives himself a shake like, as he might have been a New-fondling dog that had been swimming, and sits down before the fire, which of course drawed out the steam from his things and made it worse, and writes away for dear life till twelve o’clock that night, having something particular to finish for them magazines, he says; and so, when I come to tidy-up a bit the last thing at night, I found him sitting at the table writing, and didn’t take no more notice of me than a dog, which was his way, though never meant unkindly — quite the reverse.”

The laundress paused to draw breath, and to pour a dose of medicine from one of the bottles on the table.

“Well, sir, the next day, he had a vi’lent cold, as you may suppose, and was low and languid-like, but went on with his writing, and it weren’t no good asking him not. ‘I want money, Mrs. Pratt,’ he said; ‘you can’t tell how bad I want money, and these people pay me for my stuff as fast as I send it in.’ The day after that he was a deal worse, and had a wandering way like, as if he didn’t know what he was doing; and sat turning over his papers with one hand, and leaning his head upon the other, and groaned so that it went through one like a knife to hear him. ‘It’s no use,’ he said at last; ‘it’s no use!’ and then went and threw hisself down upon that bed, and has never got up since, poor dear gentleman! I went round to fetch a doctor out of Essex Street, finding as he was no better in the evening, and awful hot, and still more wandering-like — Mr. Mew by name, a very nice gentleman — which said as it were rheumatic fever, and has been here twice a day ever since.”

“Has Mr. Saltram never been in his right senses since that day?” Gilbert asked.

“O yes, sir; off and on for the first week he was quite hisself at times; but for the last three days he hasn’t known any one, and has talked and jabbered a deal, and has been dreadful restless.”

“Does the doctor call it a dangerous case?”

“Well, sir, not to deceive you, he ast me if Mr. Saltram had any friends as I could send for; and I says no, not to my knowledge; ‘for,’ says Mr. Mew, ‘if he have any relations or friends near at hand, they ought to be told that he’s in a bad way;’ and only this morning he said as how he should like to call in a physician, for the case was a bad one.”

“I see. There is danger evidently,” Gilbert said gravely. “I will wait and hear what the doctor says. He will come again to-day, I suppose?”

“Yes, sir; he’s sure to come in the evening.”

“Good; I will stay till the evening. I should like you to go round immediately to this Mr. Mew’s house, and ask for the address of some skilled nurse, and then go on, in a cab if necessary, and fetch her.”

“I could do that, sir, of course — not but what I feel myself capable of nursing the poor dear gentleman.”

“You can’t nurse him night and day, my good woman. Do what I tell you, and bring back a professional nurse as soon as you can. If Mr. Mew should be out, his people are likely to know the address of such a person.”

He gave the woman some silver, and despatched her; and then, being alone, sat down quietly in the sick-room to think out the situation.

Yes, there was no longer any doubt; that piteous appeal to Marian had settled the question. John Saltram, the friend whom he had loved, was the traitor. John Saltram had stolen his promised wife, had come between him and his fair happy future, and had kept the secret of his guilt in a dastardly spirit that made the act fifty times blacker than it would have seemed otherwise.

Sitting in the dreary silence of that sick chamber, a silence broken only by the painful sound of the sleeper’s difficult breathing, many things came back to his mind; circumstances trivial enough in themselves, but invested with a grave significance when contemplated by the light of today’s revelation.

He remembered those happy autumn afternoons at Lidford; those long, drowsy, idle days in which John Saltram had given himself up so entirely to the pleasure of the moment, with surely something more than mere sympathy with his friend’s happiness. He remembered that last long evening at the cottage, when this man had been at his best, full of life and gaiety; and then that sudden departure, which had puzzled him so much at the time, and yet had seemed no surprise to Marian. It had been the result of some suddenly-formed resolution perhaps, Gilbert thought.

“Poor wretch! he may have tried to be true to me,” he said to himself, with a sharp bitter pain at his heart.

He had loved this man so well, that even now, knowing himself to have been betrayed, there was a strange mingling of pity and anger in his mind, and mixed with these a touch of contempt. He had believed in John Saltram; had fancied him nobler and grander than himself, somehow; a man who, under a careless half-scornful pretence of being worse than his fellows, concealed a nature that was far above the common herd; and yet this man had proved the merest caitiff, a weak cowardly villain.

“To take my hand in friendship, knowing what he had done, and how my life was broken! to pretend sympathy; to play out the miserable farce to the very last! Great heaven! that the man I have honoured could be capable of so much baseness!”

The sleeper moved restlessly, the eyes were opened once more and turned upon Gilbert, not with the same utter blankness as before, but without the faintest recognition. The sick man saw some one watching him, and the figure was associated with an unreal presence, the phantom of his brain, which had been with him often in the day and night.

“The man again!” he muttered. “When will she come?” And then raising himself upon his elbow, he cried imploringly, “Mother, you fetch her!”

He was speaking to his mother, whom he had loved very dearly — his mother who had been dead fifteen years.

Gilbert’s mind went back to that far-away time in Egypt, when he had lain like this, helpless and unconscious, and this man had nursed and watched him with unwearying tenderness.

“I will see him safely through this,” he said to himself, “and then ——”

And then the account between them must be squared somehow. Gilbert Fenton had no thought of any direful vengeance. He belonged to an age in which injuries are taken very quietly, unless they are wrongs which the law can redress — wounds which can be healed by a golden plaster in the way of damages.

He could not kill his friend; the age of duelling was past, and he not romantic enough to be guilty of such an anachronism as mortal combat. Yet nothing less than a duel to the death could avenge such a wrong.

So friendship was at an end between those two, and that was all; it was only the utter severance of a tie that had lasted for years, nothing more. Yet to Gilbert it seemed a great deal. His little world had crumbled to ashes; love had perished, and now friendship had died this sudden bitter death, from which there was no possible resurrection.

In the midst of such thoughts as these he remembered the sick man’s medicine. Mrs. Pratt had given him a few hurried directions before departing on her errand. He looked at his watch, and then went over to the table and prepared the draught and administered it with a firm and gentle hand.

“Who’s that?” John Saltram muttered faintly. “It seems like the touch of a friend.”

He dropped back upon the pillow without waiting for any reply, and fell into a string of low incoherent talk, with closed eyes.

The laundress was a long time gone, and Gilbert sat alone in the dismal little bedroom, where there had never been the smallest attempt at comfort since John Saltram had occupied it. He sat alone, or with that awful companionship of one whose mind was far away, which was so much more dreary than actual loneliness — sat brooding over the history of his friend’s treachery.

What had he done with Marian? Was her disappearance any work of his, after all? Had he hidden her away for some secret reason of his own, and then acted out the play by pretending to search for her? Knowing him for the traitor he was, could Gilbert Fenton draw any positive line of demarcation between the amount of guilt which was possible and that which was not possible to him?

What had he done with Marian? How soon would he be able to answer that question? or would he ever be able to answer it? The thought of this delay was torture to Gilbert Fenton. He had come here to-day thinking to make an end of all his doubts, to force an avowal of the truth from those false lips. And behold, a hand stronger than his held him back. His interrogation must await the answer to that awful question — life or death.

The woman came in presently, bustling and out of breath. She had found a very trustworthy person, recommended by Mr. Mew’s assistant — a person who would come that evening without fail.

“It was all the way up at Islington, sir, and I paid the cabman three-and-six altogether, which he said it were his fare. And how has the poor dear been while I was away?” asked Mrs. Pratt, with her head on one side and an air of extreme solicitude.

“Very much as you see him now. He has mentioned a name once or twice, the name of Marian. Have you ever heard that?”

“I should say I have, sir, times and often since he’s been ill. ‘Marian, why don’t you come to me?’ so pitiful; and then, ‘Lost, lost!’ in such a awful wild way. I think it must be some favourite sister, sir, or a young lady as he has kep’ company with.”

“Marian!” cried the voice from the bed, as if their cautious talk had penetrated to that dim brain. “Marian! O no, no; she is gone; I have lost her! Well, I wished it; I wanted my freedom.”

Gilbert started, and stood transfixed, looking intently at the unconscious speaker. Yes, here was the clue to the mystery. John Saltram had grown tired of his stolen bride — had sighed for his freedom. Who should say that he had not taken some iniquitous means to rid himself of the tie that had grown troublesome to him?

Gilbert Fenton remembered Ellen Carley’s suspicions. He was no longer inclined to despise them.

It was dreary work to sit by the bedside watching that familiar face, to which fever and delirium had given a strange weird look; dismal work to count the moments, and wonder when that voice, now so thick of utterance as it went on muttering incoherent sentences and meaningless phrases, would be able to reply to those questions which Gilbert Fenton was burning to ask.

Was it a guilty conscience, the dull slow agony of remorse, which had stricken this man down — this strong powerfully-built man, who was a stranger to illness and all physical suffering? Was the body only crushed by the burden of the mind? Gilbert could not find any answer to these questions. He only knew that his sometime friend lay there helpless, unconscious, removed beyond his reach as completely as if he had been lying in his coffin.

“O God, it is hard to bear!” he said half aloud: “it is a bitter trial to bear. If this illness should end in death, I may never know Marian’s fate.”

He sat in the sick man’s room all through that long dismal afternoon, waiting to see the doctor, and with the same hopeless thoughts repeating themselves perpetually in his mind.

It was nearly eight o’clock when Mr. Mew at last made his evening visit. He was a grave gray-haired little man, with a shrewd face and a pleasant manner; a man who inspired Gilbert with confidence, and whose presence was cheering in a sick-room; but he did not speak very hopefully of John Saltram.

“It is a bad case, sir — a very bad case,” he said gravely, after he had made his careful examination of the patient’s condition. “There has been a violent cold caught, you see, through our poor friend’s recklessness in neglecting to change his damp clothes, and rheumatic fever has set in. But it appears to me that there are other causes at work — mental disturbance, and so on. Our friend has been taxing his brain a little too severely, I gather from Mrs. Pratt’s account of him; and these things will tell, sir; sooner or later they have their effect.”

“Then you apprehend danger?”

“Well, yes; I dare not tell you that there is an absence of danger. Mr. Saltram has a fine constitution, a noble frame; but the strain is a severe one, especially upon the mind.”

“You spoke just now of over-work as a cause for this mental disturbance. Might it not rather proceed from some secret trouble of mind, some hidden care?” Gilbert asked anxiously.

“That, sir, is an open question. The mind is unhinged; there is no doubt of that. There is something more here than the ordinary delirium we look for in fever cases.”

“You have talked of a physician, Mr. Mew; would it not be well to call one in immediately?”

“I should feel more comfortable if my opinion were supported, sir: not that I believe there is anything more can be done for our patient than I have been doing; but the case is a critical one, and I should be glad to feel myself supported.”

“If you will give me the name and address of the gentleman you would like to call in, I will go for him immediately.”

“To-night? Nay, my dear sir, there is no occasion for such haste; to-morrow morning will do very well.”

“To-morrow morning, then; but I will make the appointment to-night, if I can.”

Mr. Mew named a physician high in reputation as a specialist in such cases as John Saltram’s; and Gilbert dashed off at once in a hansom to obtain the promise of an early visit from this gentleman on the following morning. He succeeded in his errand; and on returning to the Temple found the professional nurse installed, and the sick-room brightened and freshened a little by her handiwork. The patient was asleep, and his slumber was more quiet than usual.

Gilbert had eaten nothing since breakfast, and it was now nearly nine o’clock in the evening; but before going out to some neighbouring tavern to snatch a hasty dinner, he stopped to tell Mrs. Pratt that he should sleep in his friend’s chamber that night.

“Why, you don’t mean that, sir, sure to goodness,” cried the laundress, alarmed; “and not so much as a sofy bedstead, nor nothing anyways comfortable.”

“I could sleep upon three or four chairs, if it were necessary; but there is an old sofa in the bedroom. You might bring that into this room for me; and the nurse can have it in the day-time. She won’t want to be lying down to-night, I daresay. I don’t suppose I shall sleep much myself, but I am a little knocked up, and shall be glad of some sort of rest. I want to be on the spot, come what may.”

“But, sir, with the new nurse and me, there surely can’t be no necessity; and you might be round the first thing in the morning like to see how the poor dear gentleman has slep’.”

“I know that, but I would rather be on the spot. I have my own especial reasons. You can go home to your children.”

“Thank you kindly, sir; which I shall be very glad to take care of ’em, poor things. And I hope, sir, as you won’t forget that I’ve gone through a deal for Mr. Saltram — if so be as he shouldn’t get better himself, which the Lord forbid — to take my trouble into consideration, bein’ as he were always a free-handed gentleman, though not rich.”

“Your services will not be forgotten, Mrs. Pratt, depend upon it. Perhaps I’d better give you a couple of sovereigns on account: that’ll make matters straight for the present.”

“Yes, sir; and many thanks for your generosity,” replied the laundress, agreeably surprised by this prompt donation, and dropping grateful curtseys before her benefactor; “and Mr. Saltram shall want nothing as my care can provide for him, you may depend upon it.”

“That is well. And now I am going out to get some dinner; I shall be back in half an hour.”

The press and bustle of the day’s work was over at the tavern to which Gilbert bent his steps. Dinners and diners seemed to be done with for one more day; and there were only a couple of drowsy-looking waiters folding table-cloths and putting away cruet-stands and other paraphernalia in long narrow closets cut in the papered walls, and invisible by day.

One of these functionaries grew brisk again, with a wan factitious briskness, at sight of Gilbert, made haste to redecorate one of the tables, and in bland insinuating tones suggested a dinner of six courses or so, as likely to be agreeable to a lonely and belated diner; well aware in the depths of his inner consciousness that the six courses would be all more or less warmings-up of viands that had figured in the day’s bill of fare.

“Bring me a chop or a steak, and a pint of dry sherry,” Gilbert said wearily.

“Have a slice of turbot and lobster-sauce, sir — the turbot are uncommon fine to-day; and a briled fowl and mushrooms. It will be ready in five minutes.”

“You may bring me the fowl, if you like: I won’t wait for fish. I’m in a hurry.”

The attendant gave a faint sigh, and communicated the order for the fowl and mushrooms through a speaking-tube. It was the business of his life to beguile his master’s customers into over-eating themselves, and to set his face against chops and steaks; but he felt that this particular customer was proof against his blandishments. He took Gilbert an evening paper, and then subsided into a pensive silence until the fowl appeared in an agreeable frizzling state, fresh from the gridiron, but a bird of some experience notwithstanding, and wingless. It was a very hasty meal. Gilbert was eager to return to those chambers in the Temple — eager to be listening once more for some chance words of meaning that might be dropped from John Saltram’s pale parched lips in the midst of incoherent ravings. Come what might, he wanted to be near at hand, to watch that sick-bed with a closer vigil than hired nurse ever kept; to be ready to surprise the briefest interval of consciousness that might come all of a sudden to that hapless fever-stricken sinner. Who should say that such an interval would not come, or who could tell what such an interval might reveal?

Gilbert Fenton paid for his dinner, left half his wine undrunk, and hurried away; leaving the waiter with rather a contemptuous idea of him, though that individual condescended to profit by his sobriety, and finished the dry sherry at a draught.

It was nearly ten when Gilbert returned to the chambers, and all was still quiet, that heavy slumber continuing; an artificial sleep at the best, produced by one of Mr. Mew’s sedatives. The sofa had been wheeled from the bedroom to the sitting-room, and placed in a comfortable corner by the fire. There were preparations too for a cup of tea, to be made and consumed at any hour agreeable to the watcher; a small teakettle simmering on the hob; a tray with a cup and saucer, and queer little black earthenware teapot, on the table; a teacaddy and other appliances close at hand — all testifying to the grateful attention of the vanished Pratt.

Gilbert shared the nurse’s watch till past midnight. Long before that John Saltram woke from his heavy sleep, and there was more of that incoherent talk so painful to hear — talk of people that were dead, of scenes that were far away, even of those careless happy wanderings in which those two college friends had been together; and then mere nonsense talk, shreds and patches of random thought, that scorned to be drawn from, some rubbish-chamber, some waste-paper basket of the brain.

It was weary work. He woke towards eleven, and a little after twelve dropped asleep again; but this time, the effect of the sedative having worn off, the sleep was restless and uneasy. Then came a brief interval of quiet; and in this Gilbert left him, and flung himself down upon the sofa, to sink into a slumber that was scarcely more peaceful than that of the sick man.

He was thoroughly worn out, however, and slept for some hours, to be awakened suddenly at last by a shrill cry in the next room. He sprang up from the sofa, and rushed in. John Saltram was sitting up in bed, propped by the pillows on which his two elbows were planted, looking about him with a fierce haggard face, and calling for “Marian.” The nurse had fallen asleep in her arm-chair by the fire, and was slumbering placidly.

“Marian,” he cried, “Marian, why have you left me? God knows I loved you; yes, even when I seemed cold and neglectful. Everything was against me; but I loved you, my dear, I loved you! Did I ever say that you came between me and fortune — was I mean enough, base enough, ever to say that? It was a lie, my love; you were my fortune. Were poverty and obscurity hard things to bear for you? No, my darling, no; I will face them to-morrow, if you will come back to me. O no, no, she is gone; my life has gone: I broke her heart with my hard bitter words; I drove my angel away from me.”

He had not spoken so coherently since Gilbert had been with him that day. Surely this must be an interval of consciousness, or semi-consciousness. Gilbert went to the bedside, and, seating himself there quietly, looked intently at the altered face, which stared at him without a gleam of recognition.

“Speak to me, John Saltram,” he said. “You know me, don’t you — the man who was once your friend, Gilbert Fenton?”

The other burst into a wild bitter laugh. “Gilbert Fenton — my friend, the man who trusts me still! Poor old Gilbert! and I fancied that I loved him, that I would have freely sacrificed my own happiness for his.”

“And yet you betrayed him,” Gilbert said in a low distinct voice. “But that may be forgiven, if you have been guilty of no deeper wrong than that. John Saltram, as you have a soul to be saved, what have you done with Marian — with — your wife?”

It cost him something, even in that moment of excitement, to pronounce those two words.

“Killed her!” the sick man answered with the same mad laugh. “She was too good for me, you see; and I grew weary of her calm beauty, and I sickened of her tranquil goodness. First I sacrificed honour, friendship, everything to win her; and then I got tired of my prize. It is my nature, I suppose; but I loved her all the time; she had twined herself about my heart somehow. I knew it when she was lost.”

“What have you done with her?” repeated Gilbert, in a low stern voice, with his grasp upon John Saltram’s arm.

“What have I done with her? I forget. She is gone — I wanted my freedom; I felt myself fettered, a ruined man. She is gone; and I am free, free to make a better marriage.”

“O God!” muttered Gilbert, “is this man the blackest villain that ever cumbered the earth? What am I to think, what am I to believe?”

Again he repeated the same question, with a stem kind of patience, as if he would give this guilty wretch the benefit of every possible doubt, the unwilling pity which his condition demanded. Alas! he could obtain no coherent answer to his persistent questioning. Vague self-accusation, mad reiteration of that one fact of his loss; nothing more distinct came from those fevered lips, nor did one look of recognition flash into those bloodshot eyes.

The time at which this mystery was to be solved had not come yet; there was nothing to be done but to wait, and Gilbert waited with a sublime patience through all the alternations of a long and wearisome sickness.

“Talk of friends,” Mrs. Pratt exclaimed, in a private conference with the nurse; “never did I see such a friend as Mr. Fenting, sacrificing of himself as he do, day and night, to look after that poor creature in there, and taking no better rest than he can get on that old horsehair sofy, which brickbats or knife boards isn’t harder, and never do you hear him murmur.”

And yet for this man, whose, battle with the grim enemy, Death, he watched so patiently, what feeling could there be in Gilbert Fenton’s heart in all the days to come but hatred or contempt? He had loved him so well, and trusted him so completely, and this was the end of it.

Christmas came while John Saltram was lying at death’s door, feebly fighting that awful battle, struggling unconsciously with the bony hand that was trying to drag him across that fatal threshold; just able to keep himself on this side of that dread portal beyond which there lies so deep a mystery, so profound a darkness. Christmas came; and there were bells ringing, and festive gatherings here and there about the great dreary town, and Gilbert Fenton was besieged by friendly invitations from Mrs. Lister, remonstrating with him for his want of common affection in preferring to spend that season among his London friends rather than in the bosom of his family.

Gilbert wrote: to his sister telling her that he had particular business which detained him in town. But had it been otherwise, had he not been bound prisoner to John Saltram’s sick-room, he would scarcely have cared to take his part in the conventional feastings and commonplace jovialities of Lidford House. Had he not dreamed of a bright home which was to be his at this time, a home beautified by the presence of the woman he loved? Ah, what delight to have welcomed the sacred day in the holy quiet of such a home, they two alone together, with all the world shut out!


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50