The hour for the final parting came at last, and Gilbert Fenton turned his back upon the little gate by which he had watched Marian Nowell standing upon that first summer Sunday evening which sealed his destiny.
He left Lidford weary at heart, weighed down by a depression he had vainly struggled against, and he brooded over his troubles all the way back to town. It seemed as if all the hopes that had made life so sweet to him only a week ago had been swept away. He could not look beyond that dreary Australian exile; he could not bring his thoughts to bear upon the time that was to come afterwards, and which need be no less bright because of this delay.
“She may die while I am away,” he thought. “O God, if that were to happen! If I were to come back and find her dead! Such things have been; and men and women have borne them, and gone on living.”
He had one more duty to perform before he left England. He had to say good-bye to John Saltram, whom he had not seen since they parted that night at Lidford. He could not leave England without some kind of farewell to his old friend, and he had reserved this last evening for the duty.
He went to the Pnyx on the chance of finding Saltram there, and failing in that, ate his solitary dinner in the coffee-room. The waiters told him that Mr. Saltram had not been at the club for some weeks. Gilbert did not waste much time over his dinner, and went straight from the Pnyx to the Temple, where John Saltram had a second-floor in Figtree-court.
Mr. Saltram was at home. It was his own sonorous voice which answered Gilbert’s knock, bidding him enter with a muttered curse upon the interruption by way of addendum. The room into which Mr. Fenton went upon receiving this unpromising invitation was in a state of chaotic confusion. An open portmanteau sprawled upon the floor, and a whole wardrobe of masculine garments seemed to have been shot at random on to the chairs near it; a dozen soda-water bottles, full and empty, were huddled in one corner; a tea-tray tottered on the extreme edge of a table heaped with dusty books and papers; and at a desk in the centre of the room, with a great paraffin lamp flaring upon his face as he wrote, sat John Saltram, surrounded by fallen slips of copy, writing as if to win a wager.
“Who is it? and what do you want?” he asked in a husky voice, without looking up from his paper or suspending the rapid progress of his pen.
“Why, Jack, I don’t think I ever caught you so hard at work before.”
John Saltram dropped his pen at the sound of his friend’s voice and got up. He gave Gilbert his hand in a mechanical kind of way.
“No, I don’t generally go at it quite so hard; but you know I have a knack of doing things against time. I have been giving myself a spell of hard work in order to pick up a little cash for the children of Israel.”
He dropped back into his chair, and Gilbert took one opposite him. The lamp shone full upon John Saltram’s face as he sat at his desk; and after looking at him for a moment by that vivid light, Gilbert Fenton gave a cry of surprise.
“What is the matter, Gil?”
“You are the matter. You are looking as worn and haggard as if you’d had a long illness since I saw you last. I never remember you looking so ill. This kind of thing won’t do, John. You’d soon kill yourself at this rate.”
“Not to be done, my dear fellow. I am the toughest thing in creation. I have been sitting up all night for the last week or so, and that does rather impair the freshness of one’s complexion; but I assure you there’s nothing so good for a man as a week or two of unbroken work. I have been doing an exhaustive review of Roman literature for one of the quarterlies, and the subject involved a little more reading than I was quite prepared for.”
“And you have really not been ill?”
“Not in the least. I am never ill.”
He pushed aside his papers, and sat with his elbow on the desk and his head leaning on his hand, waiting for Gilbert to talk. He was evidently in one of those silent moods which were common to him at times.
Gilbert told him of his Melbourne troubles, and of his immediate departure. The announcement roused him from his absent humour. He dropped his arm from the table suddenly, and sat looking full at Gilbert with a very intent expression.
“This is strange news,” he said, “and it will cause the postponement of your marriage, I suppose?”
“Unhappily, yes; that is unavoidable. Hard lines, isn’t it, Jack?”
“Well, yes; I daresay the separation seems rather a hardship; but you are young enough to stand a few months’ delay. When do you sail?”
“Yes. It is a case in which everything depends upon rapidity of action. I leave Liverpool to-morrow afternoon. I came up from Lidford to-day on purpose to spend a few farewell hours with you. And I have been thinking, Jack, that you might run down to Liverpool with me to-morrow, and see the last of me, eh, old fellow?”
John Saltram hesitated, looking doubtfully at his papers.
“It would be only a kind thing to do, Jack, and a wholesome change for yourself into the bargain. Anything would be better for you than being shut up in these chambers another day.”
“Well, Gilbert, I’ll go with you,” said Mr. Saltram presently with a kind of recklessness. “It is a small thing to do for friendship. Yes, I’ll see you off, dear boy. Egad, I wish I could go to Australia with you. I would, if it were not for my engagements with the children and sundry other creditors. I think a new country might do me good. But there’s no use in talking about that. I’m bound hand and foot to the old one.”
“That reminds me of something I had to say to you, John. There must have been some reason for your leaving Lidford in that sudden way the other day, and your note explained nothing. I thought you and I had no secrets from each other, It’s scarcely fair to treat me like that.”
“The business was hardly worth explaining,” answered the other moodily. “A bill that I had forgotten for the time fell due just then, and I hurried off to set things straight.”
“Let me help you somehow or other, Jack.”
“No, Gilbert; I will never suffer you to become entangled in the labyrinth of my affairs. You don’t know what a hopeless wilderness you would enter if you were desperate enough to attempt my rescue. I have been past redemption for the last ten years, ever since I left Oxford. Nothing but a rich marriage will ever set me straight; and I sometimes doubt if that game is worth the candle, and whether it would not be better to make a clean sweep of my engagements, offer up my name to the execration of mankind and the fiery indignation of solvent journalists — who would find subject for sensation leaders in my iniquities — emigrate, and turn bushranger. A wild free life in the wilderness must be a happy exchange for all the petty worries and perplexities of this cursed existence.”
“And how about Mrs. Branston, John? By the way, I thought that she might have had something to do with your sudden journey to London.”
“No; she had nothing to do with it. I have not seen her since I came back from Lidford.”
“No. Your lecture had a potent effect, you see,” said Mr. Saltram, with something of a sneer. “You have almost cured me of that passion.”
“My opinion would have very little influence if you were far gone, John. The fact is, Mrs. Branston, pretty and agreeable as she may be, is not the sort of woman to acquire any strong hold upon you.”
“You think not?”
“I am sure of it.”
After this John Saltram became more expansive. They sat together until late in the night, talking chiefly of the past, old friends, and half-forgotten days; recalling the scenes through which they had travelled together with a pensive tenderness, and dwelling regretfully upon that careless bygone time when life was fresh for both of them, and the future seemed to lie across the straightest, easiest high-road to reputation and happiness.
Gilbert spoke of that perilous illness of his in Egypt, the fever in which he had been given over by every one, and only saved at last by the exemplary care and devotion of his friend. John Saltram had a profound objection to this thing being talked about, and tried immediately to change the drift of the conversation; but to-night Gilbert was not to be stopped.
“You refuse the help of my purse, Jack,” he said, “and forget that I owe you my life. I should never have been to the fore to navigate the good ship Fenton and Co., if it hadn’t been for your care. The doctor fellow at Cairo told me as much in very plain terms. Yes, John, I consider myself your debtor to the amount of a life.”
“Saving a man’s life is sometimes rather a doubtful boon. I think if I had a fever, and some officious fool dragged me through it when I was in a fair way to make a decent end, I should be very savagely disposed towards him.”
“Why, John Saltram, you are the last man in the world from whom I should expect that dreary kind of talk. Yet I suppose it’s only a natural consequence of shutting yourself up in these rooms for ten days at a stretch.”
“What good use have I made of my life in the past, Gilbert?” demanded the other bitterly; “and what have I to look forward to in the future? To marry, and redeem my position by the aid of a woman’s money. That’s hardly the noblest destiny that can befall a man. And yet I think if Adela Branston were free, and willing to marry me, I might make something of my life. I might go into Parliament, and make something of a name for myself. I could write books instead of anonymous articles. I should scarcely sink down into an idle mindless existence of dinner-giving and dinner-eating. Yes, I think the best thing that could happen to me would be to marry Adela Branston.”
They parted at last, John Saltram having faithfully promised his friend to work no more that night, and they met at Euston Square early the next morning for the journey to Liverpool. Gilbert had never found his friend’s company more delightful than on this last day. It seemed as if John Saltram put away every thought of self in his perfect sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the traveller. They dined together, and it was dusk when they wished each other good-bye on the deck of the vessel.
“Good-bye, Gilbert, and God bless you! If — if anything should happen to me — if I should have gone to the bad utterly before you come back, you must try to remember our friendship of the past. Think that I have loved you very dearly — as well as one man ever loved another, perhaps.”
“My dear John, you have no need to tell me to think that. Nothing can ever weaken the love between us. And you are not likely to go to the bad. Good bye, dear old friend. I shall remember you every day of my life. You are second only to Marian in my heart. I shall write you an account of my proceedings, and shall expect to hear from you. Once more, good bye.”
The bell rang. Gilbert Fenton and his friend shook hands in silence for the last time, and in the next moment John Saltram ran down the steps to the little steamer which had brought them out to the larger vessel. The sails spread wide in the cool evening wind, and the mighty ship glided away into the dusk. John Saltram’s last look showed him his friend’s face gazing down upon him over the bulwarks full of trust and affection.
He went back to London by the evening express, and reached his chambers at a late hour that night. There had been some attempt at tidying the rooms in his absence; but his books and papers had been undisturbed. Some letters were lying on the desk, amongst them one in a big scrawling hand that was very familiar to Mr. Saltram, the envelope stamped “Lidford.” He tore this open eagerly. It was from Sir David Forster.
“DEAR SALTRAM” (wrote the Baronet) — “What do you mean by this iniquitous conduct? You only obtained my consent to your hurried departure the other day on condition you should come back in a week, yet there are no signs of you. Foljambe and the lawyer are gone, and I am alone with Harker, whose stupidity is something marvellous. I am dying by inches of this dismal state of things. I can’t tell the man to go, you see, for he is really a most worthy creature, although such a consummate fool. For pity’s sake come to me. You can do your literary work down here as well as in London, and I promise to respect your laborious hours. — Ever yours,
John Saltram stood with this letter open in his hand, staring blankly at it, like a man lost in a dream.
“Go back!” he muttered at last —“go back, when I thought I did such a great thing in coming away! No, I am not weak enough for that folly.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50