M. E. BRADDON
The Author of "Lady Audley's Secret," "Aurora Floyd," Etc. Etc. Etc.
CHEAP UNIFORM EDITION OF MISS BRADDON'S NOVELS.
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MISS BRADDON'S NOVELS
"LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET," "VIXEN," "ISHMAEL" ETC.
"No one can be dull who has a novel by Miss Braddon in hand. The most tiresome journey is beguiled, and the most wearisome illness is brightened, by any one of her books."
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N.B.—There are now 45 Novels always in print; For full list see book of cover, or apply for a Catalogue, to be sent (post free),
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I. THE COMMON FEVER II. MARIAN'S STORY III. ACCEPTED IV. JOHN SALTRAM V. HALCYON DAYS VI. SENTENCE OF EXILE VII. "GOOD-BYE" VIII. MISSING IX. JOHN SALTRAM'S ADVICE X. JACOB NOWELL XI. THE MARRIAGE AT WYGROVE XII. A FRIENDLY COUNSELLOR XIII. MRS. PALLINSON HAS VIEWS XIV. FATHER AND SON XV. ON THE TRACK XVI. FACE TO FACE XVII. MISS CARLEY'S ADMIRERS XVIII. JACOB NOWELL'S WILL XIX. GILBERT ASKS A QUESTION XX. DRIFTING AWAY XXI. FATHER AND DAUGHTER XXII. AT LIDFORD AGAIN XXIII. CALLED TO ACCOUNT XXIV. TORMENTED BY DOUBT XXV. MISSING AGAIN XXVI. IN BONDAGE XXVII. ONLY A WOMAN XXVIII. AT FAULT XXIX. BAFFLED, NOT BEATEN XXX. STRICKEN DOWN XXXI. ELLEN CARLEY'S TRIALS XXXII. THE PADLOCKED DOOR AT WYNCOMB XXXIII. "WHAT MUST BE SHALL BE" XXXIV. DOUBTFUL INFORMATION XXXV. BOUGHT WITH A PRICE XXXVI. COMING ROUND XXXVII. A FULL CONFESSION XXXVIII. AN ILL-OMENED WEDDING XXXIX. A DOMESTIC MYSTERY XL. IN PURSUIT XLI. OUTWARD BOUND XLII. THE PLEASURES OF WYNCOMB XLIII. MR. WHITELAW MAKES AN END OF THE MYSTERY XLIV. AFTER THE FIRE XLV. MR. WHITELAW MAKES HIS WILL XLVI. ELLEN REGAINS HER LIBERTY XLVII. CLOSING SCENES
THE COMMON FEVER.
A warm summer evening, with a sultry haze brooding over the level landscape, and a Sabbath stillness upon all things in the village of Lidford, Midlandshire. In the remoter corners of the old gothic church the shadows are beginning to gather, as the sermon draws near its close; but in the centre aisle and about the pulpit there is broad daylight still shining-in from the wide western window, across the lower half of which there are tall figures of the Evangelists in old stained glass.
There are no choristers at Lidford, and the evening service is conducted in rather a drowsy way; but there is a solemn air of repose about the gray old church that should be conducive to tranquil thoughts and pious meditations. Simple and earnest have been the words of the sermon, simple and earnest seem the countenances of the congregation, looking reverently upwards at the face of their pastor; and one might fancy, contemplating that grand old church, so much too spacious for the needs of the little flock gathered there to-night, that Lidford was a forgotten, half-deserted corner of this earth, in which a man, tired of the press and turmoil of the world, might find an almost monastic solitude and calm.
So thought a gentleman in the Squire's pew—a good-looking man of about thirty, who was finishing his first Sunday at Lidford by devout attendance at evening service. He had been thinking a good deal about this quiet country life during the service, wondering whether it was not the best life a man could live, after all, and thinking it all the sweeter because of his own experience, which had lain chiefly in cities.
He was a certain Mr. Gilbert Fenton, an Australian merchant, and was on a visit to his sister, who had married the principal landowner in Lidford, Martin Lister—a man whose father had been called "the Squire." The lady sat opposite her brother in the wide old family pew to-night—a handsome-looking matron, with a little rosy-cheeked damsel sitting by her side—a damsel with flowing auburn hair, tiny hat and feather, and bright scarlet stockings, looking very much as if she had walked out of a picture by Mr. Millais.
The congregation stood up to sing a hymn when the sermon was ended, and Gilbert Fenton turned his face towards the opposite line of pews, in one of which, very near him, there was a girl, at whom Mrs. Lister had caught her brother looking very often, during the service just concluded.
It was a face that a man could scarcely look upon once without finding his glances wandering back to it afterwards; not quite a perfect face, but a very bright and winning one. Large gray eyes, with a wonderful light in them, under dark lashes and darker brows; a complexion that had a dusky pallor, a delicate semi-transparent olive-tint that one seldom sees out of a Spanish picture; a sweet rosy mouth, and a piquant little nose of no particular order, made up the catalogue of this young lady's charms. But in a face worth looking at there is always a something that cannot be put into words; and the brightest and best attributes of this face were quite beyond translation. It was a face one might almost call "splendid"—there was such a light and glory about it at some moments. Gilbert Fenton thought so to-night, as he saw it in the full radiance of the western sunlight, the lips parted as the girl sang, the clear gray eyes looking upward.
She was not alone: a portly genial-looking old man stood by her side, and accompanied her to the church-porch when the hymn was over. Here they both lingered a moment to shake hands with Mrs. Lister, very much to Gilbert Fenton's satisfaction. They walked along the churchyard-path together, and Gilbert gave his sister's arm a little tug, which meant, "Introduce me."
"My brother Mr. Fenton, Captain Sedgewick, Miss Nowell."
The Captain shook hands with Gilbert. "Delighted to know you, Mr. Fenton; delighted to know any one belonging to Mrs. Lister. You are going to stop down here for some time, I hope."
"I fear not for very long, Captain Sedgewick. I am a business man, you see, and can't afford to take a long holiday from the City."
Mrs. Lister laughed. "My brother is utterly devoted to commercial pursuits," she said; "I think he believes every hour wasted that he spends out of his counting-house."
"And yet I was thinking in church this evening, that a man's life might be happier in such a place as this, drifting away in a kind of dreamy idleness, than the greatest successes possible to commerce could ever make it."
"You would very soon be tired of your dreamy idleness," answered his sister, "and sigh for your office and your club."
"The country suits old people, who have played their part in life, and made an end of it," said the Captain. "It suits my little girl here very well, too," he added, with a fond glance at his companion; "she has her birds and her flowers, and her books and music; and I don't think she ever sighs for anything gayer than Lidford."
"Never, uncle George," said the girl, slipping her hand through his arm. And Gilbert Fenton saw that those two were very fond of each other.
They came to the end of a shady winding lane at this moment, and Captain Sedgewick and Miss Nowell wished Mrs. Lister and her brother good-evening, and went away down the lane arm-in-arm.
"What a lovely girl she is!" said Gilbert, when they were gone.
"Lovely is rather a strong word, Gilbert," Mrs. Lister answered coldly; "she is certainly pretty, but I hope you are not going to lose your heart in that direction."
"There is no fear of that. A man may admire a girl's face without being in any danger of losing his heart. But why not in that direction, Belle? Is there any special objection to the lady?"
"Only that she is a nobody, without either money or position and I think you ought to have both when you marry."
"Thanks for the implied compliment; but I do not fancy that an Australian merchant can expect to secure a wife of very exalted position; and I am the last man in the world to marry for money."
"I don't for a moment suppose you would marry any one you didn't like, from mercenary considerations; but there is no reason you should make a foolish match."
"Of course not. I think it very doubtful whether I shall ever marry at all. I am just the kind of man to go down to my grave a bachelor."
"Why so, Gilbert?"
"Well, I can hardly tell you, my dear. Perhaps I am rather difficult to please—just a little stony-hearted and invulnerable. I know that since I was a boy, and got over my schoolboy love affairs, I have never seen the woman who could touch my heart. I have met plenty of pretty women, and plenty of brilliant women, of course, in society; and have admired them, and there an end. I have never seen a woman whose face impressed me so much at first sight as the face of your friend, Miss Nowell."
"I am very sorry for that."
"But why, Belle?"
"Because the girl is a nobody—less than nobody. There is an unpleasant kind of mystery about her birth."
"How is that? Her uncle, Captain Sedgewick, seems to be a gentleman."
"Captain Sedgewick is very well, but he is not her uncle; he adopted her when she was a very little girl."
"But who are her people, and how did she fall into his hands?"
"I have never heard that. He is not very fond of talking about the subject. When we first came to know them, he told us that Marian was only his adopted niece; and he has never told us any more than that."
"She is the daughter of some friend, I suppose. They seem very much attached to each other."
"Yes, she is very fond of him, and he of her. She is an amiable girl; I have nothing to say against her—but——"
"But what, Belle?"
"I shouldn't like you to fall in love with her."
"But I should, mamma!" cried the damsel in scarlet stockings, who had absorbed every word of the foregoing conversation. "I should like uncle Gil to love Marian just as I love her. She is the dearest girl in the world. When we had a juvenile party last winter, it was Marian who dressed the Christmas-tree—every bit; and she played the piano for us all the evening, didn't she, mamma?"
"She is very good-natured, Lucy; but you mustn't talk nonsense; and you ought not to listen when your uncle and I are talking. It is very rude."
"But! I can't help hearing you, mamma."
They were at home by this time, within the grounds of a handsome red-brick house of the early Georgian era, which had been the property of the Listers ever since it was built. Without, the gardens were a picture of neatness and order; within, everything was solid and comfortable: the furniture of a somewhat ponderous and exploded fashion, but handsome withal, and brightened here and there by some concession to modern notions of elegance or ease—a dainty little table for books, a luxurious arm-chair, and so on.
Martin Lister was a gentleman chiefly distinguished by good-nature, hospitable instincts, and an enthusiastic devotion to agriculture. There were very few things in common between him and his brother-in-law the Australian merchant, but they got on very well together for a short time. Gilbert Fenton pretended to be profoundly interested in the thrilling question of drainage, deep or superficial, and seemed to enter unreservedly into every discussion of the latest invention or improvement in agricultural machinery; and in the mean time he really liked the repose of the country, and appreciated the varying charms of landscape and atmosphere with a fervour unfelt by the man who had been born and reared amidst those pastoral scenes.
The two men smoked their cigars together in a quietly companionable spirit, strolling about the gardens and farm, dropping out a sentence now and then, and anon falling into a lazy reverie, each pondering upon his own affairs—Gilbert meditating transactions with foreign houses, risky bargains with traders of doubtful solvency, or hazardous investments in stocks, as the case might be; the gentleman farmer ruminating upon the chances of a good harvest, or the probable value of his Scotch short-horns.
Mr. Lister had preferred lounging about the farm with a cigar in his mouth to attendance at church upon this particular Sunday evening. He had finished his customary round of inspection by this time, and was sitting by one of the open windows of the drawing-room, with his body in one luxurious chair, and his legs extended upon another, deep in the study of the Gardener's Chronicle, which he flung aside upon the appearance of his family.
"Well, Toddlekins," he cried to the little girl, "I hope you were very attentive to the sermon; listened for two, and made up for your lazy dad. That's a vicarious kind of devotion that ought to be permitted occasionally to a hard-working fellow like me.—I'm glad you've come back to give us some tea, Belle. Don't go upstairs; let Susan carry up your bonnet and shawl. It's nearly nine o'clock. Toddlekins wants her tea before she goes to bed."
"Lucy has had her tea in the nursery," said Mrs. Lister, as she took her seat before the cups and saucers.
"But she will have some more with papa," replied Martin, who had an amiable knack of spoiling his children. There were only two—this bright fair-haired Lucy, aged nine, and a sturdy boy of seven.
They sipped their tea, and talked a little about who had been at church and who had not been, and the room was filled with that atmosphere of dulness which seems to prevail in such households upon a summer Sunday evening; a kind of palpable emptiness which sets a man speculating how many years he may have to live, and how many such Sundays he may have to spend. He is apt to end by wondering a little whether life is really worth the trouble it costs, when almost the best thing that can come of it is a condition of comfortable torpor like this.
Gilbert Fenton put down his cup and went over to one of the open windows. It was nearly as dark as it was likely to be that midsummer night. A new moon was shining faintly in the clear evening sky; and here and there a solitary star shone with a tremulous brightness. The shadows of the trees made spots of solemn darkness on the wide lawn before the windows, and a warm faint sweetness came from the crowded flower-beds, where all the flowers in this light were of one grayish silvery hue.
"It's almost too warm an evening for the house," said Gilbert; "I think I'll take a stroll."
"I'd come with you, old fellow, but I've been all round the farm, and I'm dead beat," said good-natured Martin Lister.
"Thanks, Martin; I wouldn't think of disturbing you. You look the picture of comfort in that easy-chair. I shall only stay long enough to finish a cigar."
He walked slowly across the lawn—a noble stretch of level greensward with dark spreading cedars and fine old beeches scattered about it; he walked slowly towards the gates, lighting his cigar as he went, and thinking. He was thinking of his past life, and of his future. What was it to be? A dull hackneyed course of money-making, chequered only by the dreary vicissitudes of trade, and brightened only by such selfish pleasures as constitute the recreations of a business man—an occasional dinner at Blackwall or Richmond, a week's shooting in the autumn, a little easy-going hunting in the winter, a hurried scamper over some of the beaten continental roads, or a fortnight at a German spa? These had been his pleasures hitherto, and he had found life pleasant enough. Perhaps he had been too busy to question the pleasantness of these things. It was only now that he found himself away from the familiar arena of his daily life, with neither employment nor distraction, that was able to look back upon his career deliberately, and risk himself whether it was one that he could go on living without weariness for the remainder of his days.
He had been at this time a little more than seven years in business. He had been bred-up with no expectation of ever having to take his place in the counting-house, had been educated at Eton and Oxford, and had been taught to anticipate a handsome fortune from his father. All these expectations had been disappointed by Mr. Fenton's sudden death at a period of great commercial disturbance. The business was found in a state of entanglement that was very near insolvency; and wise friends told Gilbert Fenton that the only hope of coming well out of these perplexities lay with himself. The business was too good to be sacrificed, and the business was all his father had left behind him, with the exception of a houseful of handsome furniture, two or three carriages, and a couple of pairs of horses, which were sold by auction within a few weeks of the funeral.
Gilbert Fenton took upon himself the management of the business. He had a clear comprehensive intellect, which adapted itself very easily to commerce. He put his shoulder to the wheel with a will, and worked for the first three years of his business career as it is not given to many men to work in the course of their lives. By that time the ship had been steered clear of all rocks and quicksands, and rode the commercial waters gallantly. Gilbert was not a rich man, but was in a fair way to become a rich man; and the name of Fenton stood as high as in the palmiest days of his father's career.
His sister had fortunately married Martin Lister some years before her father's death, and had received her dowry at the time of her marriage. Gilbert had only himself to work for. At first he had worked for the sake of his dead father's honour and repute; later he fell into a groove, like other men, and worked for the love of money-making—not with any sordid love of money, but with that natural desire to accumulate which grows out of a business career.
To-night he was in an unusually thoughtful humour, and inclined to weigh things in the balance with a doubtfulness as to their value which was new to him. The complete idleness and emptiness of his life in the country had made him meditative. Was it worth living, that monotonous business life of his? Would not the time soon come in which its dreariness would oppress him as the dulness of Lidford House had oppressed him to-night? His youth was fast going—nay, had it not indeed gone from him for ever? had not youth left him all at once when he began his commercial career?—and the pleasures that had been fresh enough within the last few years were rapidly growing stale. He knew the German spas, the pine-groves where the hand played, the gambling-saloons and their company, by heart, though he had never stayed more than a fortnight at any one of them. He had exhausted Brittany and the South of France in these rapid scampers; skimmed the cream of their novelty, at any rate. He did not care very much for field-sports, and hunted and shot in a jog-trot safe kind of way, with a view to the benefit of his health, which savoured of old bachelorhood. And as for the rest of his pleasures—the social rubber at his club, the Blackwall or Richmond dinners—it seemed only custom that made them agreeable.
"If I had gone to the Bar, as I intended to do before my father's death, I should have had an object in life," he thought, as he puffed slowly at his cigar; "but a commercial man has nothing to hope for in the way of fame—nothing to work for except money. I have a good mind to sell the business, now that it is worth selling, and go in for the Bar after all, late as it is."
He had thought of this more than once; but he knew the fancy was a foolish one, and that his friends would laugh at him for his folly.
He was beyond the grounds of Lidford House by this time, sauntering onward in the fair summer night; not indifferent to the calm loveliness of the scene around him, only conscious that there was some void within himself which these things could not fill. He walked along the road by which he and his sister had come back from church, and turned into the lane at the end of which Captain Sedgewick had bidden them good night. He had been down this lane before to-night, and knew that it was one of the prettiest walks about Lidford; so there was scarcely anything strange in the fact that he should choose this promenade for his evening saunter.
The rustic way, wide enough for a wagon, and with sloping grassy banks, and tall straggling hedges, full of dog-roses and honeysuckle, led towards a river—a fair winding stream, which was one of the glories of Lidford. A little before one came to the river, the lane opened upon a green, where there was a mill, and a miller's cottage, a rustic inn, and two or three other houses of more genteel pretensions.
Gilbert Fenton wondered which of these was the habitation of Captain Sedgewick, concluding that the half-pay officer and his niece must needs live in one of them. He reconnoitred them as he went by the low garden-fences, over which he could see the pretty lawns and flower-beds, with clusters of evergreens here and there, and a wealth of roses and seringa. One of them, the prettiest and most secluded, was also the smallest; a low white-walled cottage, with casement windows above, and old-fashioned bow-windows below, and a porch overgrown with roses. The house lay back a little way from the green; and there was a tiny brook running beside the holly hedge that bounded the garden, spanned by a little rustic bridge before the gate.
Pausing just beside this bridge, Mr. Fenton heard the joyous barking of a dog, and caught a brief glimpse of a light muslin dress flitting across the little lawn at one side of the cottage While he was wondering about the owner of this dress, the noisy dog came rushing towards the gate, and in the next moment a girlish figure appeared in the winding path that went in and out among the flower-beds.
Gilbert Fenton knew that tall slim figure very well. He had guessed rightly, and this low white-walled cottage was really Captain Sedgewick's. It seemed to him as if a kind of instinct brought him to that precise spot.
Miss Nowell came to the gate, and stood there looking out, with a Skye terrier in her arms. Gilbert drew back a little, and flung his cigar into the brook. She had not seen him yet. Her looks were wandering far away across the green, as if in search of some one.
Gilbert Fenton stood quite still watching her. She looked even prettier without her bonnet than she had looked in the church, he thought: the rich dark-brown hair gathered in a great knot at the back of the graceful head; the perfect throat circled by a broad black ribbon, from which there hung an old-fashioned gold cross; the youthful figure set-off by the girlish muslin dress, so becoming in its utter simplicity.
He could not stand there for ever looking at her, pleasant as it might be to him to contemplate the lovely face; so he made a little movement at last, and came a few steps nearer to the gate.
"Good-evening once more, Miss Nowell," he said.
She looked up at him, surprised by his sudden appearance, but in no manner embarrassed.
"Good-evening, Mr. Fenton. I did not see you till this moment. I was looking for my uncle. He has gone out for a little stroll while he smokes his cigar, and I expect him home every minute."
"I have been indulging in a solitary cigar myself," answered Gilbert. "One is apt to be inspired with an antipathy to the house on this kind of evening. I left the Listers yawning over their tea-cups, and came out for a ramble. The aspect of the lane at which we parted company this evening tempted me down this way. What a pretty house you have! Do you know I guessed that it was yours before I saw you."
"Indeed! You must have quite a talent for guessing."
"Not in a general way; but there is a fitness in things. Yes, I felt sure that this was your house."
"I am glad you like it," she answered simply. "Uncle George and I are very fond of it. But it must seem a poor little place to you after Lidford House."
"Lidford House is spacious, and comfortable, and commonplace. One could hardly associate the faintest touch of romance with such a place. But about this one might fancy anything. Ah, here is your uncle, I see."
Captain Sedgewick came towards them, surprised at seeing Mr. Fenton, with whom he shook hands again very cordially, and who repeated his story about the impossibility of enduring to stop in the house on such a night.
The Captain insisted on his going in-doors with them, however; and he exhibited no disinclination to linger in the cottage drawing-room, though it was only about a fourth of the size of that at Lidford House. It looked a very pretty room in the lamplight, with quaint old-fashioned furniture, the freshest and most delicate chintz hangings and coverings of chairs and sofas, and some valuable old china here and there.
Captain Sedgewick had plenty to say for himself, and was pleased to find an intelligent stranger to converse with. His health had failed him long ago, and he had turned his back upon the world of action for ever; but he was as cheerful and hopeful as if his existence had been the gayest possible to man.
Of course they talked a little of military matters, the changes that had come about in the service—none of them changes for the better, according to the Captain, who was a little behind the times in his way of looking at these things.
He ordered in a bottle of claret for his guest, and Gilbert Fenton found himself seated by the open bow-window looking out at the dusky lawn and drinking his wine, as much at home as if he had been a visitor at the Captain's for the last ten years. Marian Nowell sat on the other side of the room, with the lamplight shining on her dark-brown hair, and with that much-to-be-envied Skye terrier on her lap. Gilbert glanced across at her every now and then while he was talking with her uncle; and by and by she came over to the window and stood behind the Captain's chair, with her clasped hands resting upon his shoulder.
Gilbert contrived to engage her in the conversation presently. He found her quite able to discuss the airy topics which he started—the last new volume of poems, the picture of the year, and so on. There was nothing awkward or provincial in her manner; and if she did not say anything particularly brilliant, there was good sense in all her remarks, and she had a bright animated way of speaking that was very charming.
She had lived a life of peculiar seclusion, rarely going beyond the village of Lidford, and had contrived to find perfect happiness in that simple existence. The Captain told Mr. Fenton this in the course of their talk.
"I have not been able to afford so much as a visit to London for my darling," he said; "but I do not know that she is any the worse for her ignorance of the great world. The grand point is that she should be happy, and I thank God that she has been happy hitherto."
"I should be very ungrateful if I were not, uncle George," the girl said in a half whisper.
Captain Sedgewick gave a thoughtful sigh, and was silent for a little while after this; and then the talk went on again until the clock upon the chimney-piece struck the half-hour after ten, and Gilbert Fenton rose to say good-night. "I have stayed a most unconscionable time, I fear," he said; "but I had really no idea it was so late."
"Pray, don't hurry away," replied the Captain. "You ought to help me to finish that bottle. Marian and I are not the earliest people in Lidford."
Gilbert would have had no objection to loiter away another half-hour in the bow-window, talking politics with the Captain, or light literature with Miss Nowell, but he knew that his prolonged absence must have already caused some amount of wonder at Lidford House; so he held firmly to his good-night, shook hands with his new friends, holding Marian Nowell's soft slender hand in his for the first time, and wondering at the strange magic of her touch, and then went out into the dreamy atmosphere of the summer night a changed creature.
"Is this love at first sight?" he asked himself, as he walked homeward along the rustic lane, where dog-roses and the starry flowers of the wild convolvulus gleamed whitely in the uncertain light. "Is it? I should have been the last of men to believe such a thing possible yesterday; and yet to-night I feel as if that girl were destined to be the ruling influence of my future life. Why is it? Because she is lovely? Surely not. Surely I am not so weak a fool as to be caught by a beautiful face! And yet what else do I know of her? Absolutely nothing. She may be the shallowest of living creatures—the most selfish, the falsest, the basest. No; I do not believe she could ever be false or unworthy. There is something noble in her face—something more than mere beauty. Heaven knows, I have seen enough of that in my time. I could scarcely be so childish as to be bewitched by a pair of gray eyes and a rosy mouth; there must be something more. And, after all, this is most likely a passing fancy, born out of the utter idleness and dulness of this place. I shall go back to London in a week or two, and forget Marian Nowell. Marian Nowell!"
He repeated the name with unspeakable tenderness in his tone—a deeper feeling than would have seemed natural to a passing fancy. It was more like a symptom of sickening for life's great fever.
It was close upon eleven when he made his appearance in his sister's drawing-room, where Martin Lister was enjoying a comfortable nap, while his wife stifled her yawns over a mild theological treatise.
He had to listen to a good deal of wonderment about the length of his absence, and was fain to confess to an accidental encounter with Captain Sedgewick, which had necessitated his going into the cottage.
"Why, what could have taken you that way, Gilbert?"
"A truant fancy, I suppose, my dear. It is as good a way as any other."
Mrs. Lister sighed, and shook her head doubtfully. "What fools you men are," she said, "about a pretty face!" "Including Martin, Belle, when he fell in love with your fair self?"
"Martin did not stare me out of countenance in church, sir. But you have almost kept us waiting for prayers."
The servants came filing in. Martin Lister woke with a start, and Gilbert Fenton knelt down among his sister's household to make his evening orisons. But his thoughts were not easily to be fixed that night. They wandered very wide of that simple family prayer, and made themselves into a vision of the future, in which he saw his life changed and brightened by the companionship of a fair young wife.
The days passed, and there was no more dulness or emptiness for Gilbert Fenton in his life at Lidford. He went every day to the white-walled cottage on the green. It was easy enough to find some fresh excuse for each visit—a book or a piece of music which he had recommended to Miss Nowell, and had procured from London for her, or something of an equally frivolous character. The Captain was always cordial, always pleased to see him. His visits were generally made in the evening; and it was his delight to linger over the pretty little round table by the bow-window, drinking tea dispensed by Marian. The bright home-like room, the lovely face turned so trustingly to his; these were the things which made that fair vision of the future that haunted him so often now. He fancied himself the master of some pretty villa in the suburbs—at Kingston or Twickenham, perhaps—with a garden sloping down to the water's edge, a lawn on which he and his wife and some chosen friend might sit after dinner in the long summer evenings, sipping their claret or their tea, as the case might be, and watching the last rosy glow of the sunset fade and die upon the river. He fancied himself with this girl for his wife, and the delight of going back from the dull dryasdust labours of his city life to a home in which she would bid him welcome. He behaved with a due amount of caution, and did not give the young lady any reason to suspect the state of the case yet awhile. Marian was perfectly devoid of coquetry, and had no idea that this gentleman's constant presence at the cottage could have any reference to herself. He liked her uncle; what more natural than that he should like that gallant soldier, whom Marian adored as the first of mankind? And it was out of his liking for the Captain that he came so often.
The Captain, however, had not been slow to discover the real state of affairs, and the discovery had given him unqualified satisfaction. For a long time his quiet contentment in this pleasant, simple, easy-going life had been clouded by anxious thoughts about Marian's future. His death—should that event happen before she married—must needs leave her utterly destitute. The little property from which his income was derived was not within his power to bequeath. It would pass, upon his death, to one of his nephews. The furniture of the cottage might realize a few hundreds, which would most likely be, for the greater part, absorbed by the debts of the year and the expenses of his funeral. Altogether, the outlook was a dreary one, and the Captain had suffered many a sharp pang in brooding over it. Lovely and attractive as Marian was, the chances of an advantageous marriage were not many for her in such a place as Lidford. It was natural, therefore, that Captain Sedgewick should welcome the advent of such a man as Gilbert Fenton—a man of good position and ample means; a thoroughly unaffected and agreeable fellow into the bargain, and quite handsome enough to win any woman's heart, the Captain thought. He watched the two young people together, after the notion of this thing came into his mind, and about the sentiments of one of them he felt no shadow of doubt. He was not quite so clear about the feelings of the other. There was a perfect frankness and ease about Marian that seemed scarcely compatible with the growth of that tender passion which generally reveals itself by a certain amount of reserve, and is more eloquent in silence than in speech. Marian seemed always pleased to see Gilbert, always interested in his society; but she did not seem more than this, and the Captain was sorely perplexed.
There was a dinner-party at Lidford House during the second week of Gilbert's acquaintance with these new friends, and Captain Sedgewick and his adopted niece were invited.
"They are pleasant people to have at a dinner-party," Mrs. Lister said, when she discussed the invitation with her husband and brother; "so I suppose they may as well come,—though I don't want to encourage your folly, Gilbert."
"My folly, as you are kind enough to call it, is not dependent on your encouragement, Belle."
"Then it is really a serious case, I suppose," said Martin.
"I really admire Miss Nowell—more than I ever admired any one before, if that is what you call a serious case, Martin."
"Rather like it, I think," the other answered with a laugh.
The dinner was a very quiet business—a couple of steady-going country gentlemen, with their wives and daughters, a son or two more or less dashing and sportsmanlike in style, the rector and his wife, Captain Sedgewick and Miss Nowell. Gilbert had to take one of the portly matrons in to dinner, and found himself placed at some distance from Miss Nowell during the repast; but he was able to make up for this afterwards, when he slipped out of the dining-room some time before the rest of the gentlemen, and found Marian seated at the piano, playing a dreamy reverie of Goria's, while the other ladies were gathered in a little knot, discussing the last village scandal.
He went over to the piano and stood by her while she played, looking fondly down at the graceful head, and the white hands gliding gently over the keys. He did not disturb her by much talk: it was quite enough happiness for him to stand there watching her as she played. Later, when a couple of whist-tables had been established, and the brilliantly-lighted room had grown hot, these two sat together at one of the open windows, looking out at the moonlit lawn; one of them supremely happy, and yet with a kind of undefined sense that this supreme happiness was a dangerous thing—a thing that it would be wise to pluck out of his heart, and have done with.
"My holiday is very nearly over, Miss Nowell," Gilbert Fenton said by and by. "I shall have to go back to London and the old commercial life, the letter-writing and interview-giving, and all that kind of thing."
"Your sister said you were very fond of the counting-house, Mr. Fenton," she answered lightly. "I daresay, if you would only confess the truth, you are heartily tired of the country, and will be delighted to resume your business life."
"I should never be tired of Lidford."
"Indeed! and yet it is generally considered such a dull place."
"It has not been so to me. It will always be a shining spot in my memory, different and distinct from all other places."
She looked up at him, wondering a little at his earnest tone, and their eyes met—his full of tenderness, hers only shy and surprised. It was not then that the words he had to speak could be spoken, and he let the conversation drift into a general discussion of the merits of town or country life. But he was determined that the words should be spoken very soon.
He went to the cottage next day, between three and four upon a drowsy summer afternoon, and was so fortunate as to find Marian sitting under one of the walnut-trees at the end of the garden reading a novel, with her faithful Skye terrier in attendance. He seated himself on a low garden-chair by her side, and took the book gently from her hand.
"I have come to spoil your afternoon's amusement," he said. "I have not many days more to spend in Lidford, you know, and I want to make the most of a short time."
"The book is not particularly interesting," Miss Nowell answered, laughing. "I'll go and tell my uncle you are here. He is taking an afternoon nap; but I know he'll be pleased to see you."
"Don't tell him just yet," said Mr. Fenton, detaining her. "I have something to say to you this afternoon,—something that it is wiser to say at once, perhaps, though I have been willing enough to put off the hour of saying it, as a man may well be when all his future life depends upon the issue of a few words. I think you must know what I mean, Miss Nowell. Marian, I think you can guess what is coming. I told you last night how sweet Lidford had been to me."
"Yes," she said, with a bright inquiring look in her eyes. "But what have I to do with that?"
"Everything. It is you who have made the little country village my paradise. O Marian, tell me that it has not been a fool's paradise! My darling, I love you with all my heart and soul, with an honest man's first and only love. Promise that you will be my wife."
He took the hand that lay loosely on her lap, and pressed it in both his own. She withdrew it gently, and sat looking at him with a face that had grown suddenly pale.
"You do not know what you are asking," she said; "you cannot know. Captain Sedgewick is not my uncle. He does not even know who my parents were. I am the most obscure creature in the world."
"Not one degree less dear to me because of that, Marian; only the dearer. Tell me, my darling, is there any hope for me?"
"I never thought——" she faltered; "I had no idea——"
"That to know you was to love you. My life and soul, I have loved you from the hour I first saw you in Lidford church. I was a doomed man from that moment, Marian. O my dearest, trust me, and it shall go hard if I do not make your future life a happy one. Granted that I am ten years—more than ten years—your senior, that is a difference on the right side. I have fought the battle of life, and have conquered, and am strong enough to protect and shelter the woman I love. Come, Marian, I am waiting for a word of hope."
"And do you really love me?" she asked wonderingly. "It seems so strange after so short a time."
"I loved you from that first evening in the church, my dear."
"I am very grateful to you," she said slowly, "and I am proud—I have reason to be proud—of your preference. But I have known you such a short time. I am afraid to give you any promise."
"Afraid of me, or of yourself, Marian?"
"In what way?"
"I am only a foolish frivolous girl. You offer me so much more than I deserve in offering me your love like this. I scarcely know if I have a heart to give to any one. I know that I have never loved anybody except my one friend and protector my dear adopted uncle."
"But you do not say that you cannot love me, Marian. Perhaps I have spoken too soon, after all. It seems to me that I have known you for a lifetime; but that is only a lover's fancy. I seem almost a stranger to you, perhaps?"
"Almost," she answered, looking at him with clear truthful eyes.
"That is rather hard upon me, my dear. But I can wait. You do not know how patient I can be."
He began to talk of indifferent subjects after this, a little depressed and disheartened by the course the interview had taken. He felt that he had been too precipitate. What was there in a fortnight's intimacy to justify such a step, except to himself, with whom time had been measured by a different standard since he had known Marian Nowell? He was angry with his own eagerness, which had brought upon him this semi-defeat.
Happily Miss Nowell had not told him that his case was hopeless, had not forbidden him to approach the subject again; nor had she exhibited any involuntary sign of aversion to him. Surprise had appeared the chief sentiment caused by his revelation. Surprise was natural to such girlish inexperience; and after surprise had passed away, more tender feelings might arise, a latent tenderness unsuspected hitherto.
"I think a woman can scarcely help returning a man's love, if he is only as thoroughly in earnest as I am," Gilbert Fenton said to himself, as he sat under the walnut-trees trying to talk pleasantly, and to ignore the serious conversation which had preceded that careless talk.
He saw the Captain alone next day, and told him what had happened. George Sedgewick listened to him with profound attention and a grave anxious face.
"She didn't reject you?" he said, when Gilbert had finished his story.
"Not in plain words. But there was not much to indicate hope. And yet I cling to the fancy that she will come to love me in the end. To think otherwise would be utter misery to me. I cannot tell you how dearly I love her, and how weak I am about this business. It seems contemptible for a man to talk about a broken heart; but I shall carry an empty one to my grave unless I win Marian Nowell for my wife."
"You shall win her!" cried the Captain energetically. "You are a noble fellow, sir, and will make her an excellent husband. She will not be so foolish as to reject such a disinterested affection. Besides," he added, hesitating a little, "I have a very shrewd notion that all this apparent indifference is only shyness on my little girl's part, and that she loves you."
"You believe that!" cried Gilbert eagerly.
"It is only guesswork on my part, of course. I am an old bachelor, you see, and have had very little experience as to the signs and tokens of the tender passion. But I will sound my little girl by and by. She will be more ready to confess the truth to her old uncle than she would to you, perhaps. I think you have been a trifle hasty about this affair. There is so much in time and custom."
"It is only a cold kind of love that grows out of custom," Gilbert answered gloomily. "But I daresay you are right, and that it would have been better for me to have waited."
"You may hope everything, if you can-only be patient," said the Captain. "I tell you frankly, that nothing would make me happier than to see my dear child married to a good man. I have had many dreary thoughts about her future of late. I think you know that I have nothing to leave her."
"I have never thought of that. If she were destined to inherit all the wealth of the Rothschilds, she could be no dearer to me than she is."
"Ah, what a noble thing true love is! And do you know that she is not really my niece—only a poor waif that I adopted fourteen years ago?"
"I have heard as much from her own lips. There is nothing, except some unworthiness in herself, that could make any change in my estimation of her."
"Unworthiness in herself! You need never fear that. But I must tell you Marian's story before this business goes any farther. Will you come and smoke your cigar with me to-night? She is going to drink tea at a neighbour's, and we shall be alone. They are all fond of her, poor child."
"I shall be very happy to come. And in the meantime, you will try and ascertain the real state of her feelings without distressing her in any way; and you will tell me the truth with all frankness, even if it is to be a deathblow to all my hopes?"
"Even if it should be that. But I do not fear such a melancholy result. I think Marian is sensible enough to know the value of an honest man's heart."
Gilbert quitted the Captain in a more hopeful spirit than that in which he had gone to the cottage that day. It was only reasonable that this man should be the best judge of his niece's feelings.
Left alone, George Sedgewick paced the room in a meditative mood, with his hands thrust deep into his trousers-pockets, and his gray head bent thoughtfully.
"She must like him," he muttered to himself. "Why should not she like him?—good-looking, generous, clever, prosperous, well-connected, and over head and ears in love with her. Such a marriage is the very thing I have been praying for. And without such a marriage, what would be her fate when I am gone? A drudge and dependent in some middle-class family perhaps—tyrannised over and tormented by a brood of vulgar children."
Marian came in at the open window while he was still pacing to and fro with a disturbed countenance.
"My dear uncle, what is the matter?" she asked, going up to him and laying a caressing hand upon his shoulder. "I know you never walk about like that unless you are worried by something."
"I am not worried to-day, my love; only a little perplexed," answered the Captain, detaining the caressing little hand, and planting himself face to face with his niece, in the full sunlight of the broad bow-window. "Marian, I thought you and I had no secrets from each other?"
"Secrets, uncle George!"
"Yes, my dear. Haven't you something pleasant to tell your old uncle—something that a girl generally likes telling? You had a visitor yesterday afternoon while I was asleep."
"Mr. Fenton. He has been here with me just now; and I know that he asked you to be his wife."
"He did, uncle George."
"And you didn't refuse him, Marian?"
"Not positively, uncle George. He took me so much by surprise, you see; and I really don't know how to refuse any one; but I think I ought to have made him understand more clearly that I meant no."
"But why, my dear?"
"Because I am sure I don't care about him as much as I ought to care. I like him very well, you know, and think him clever and agreeable, and all that kind of thing."
"That will soon grow into a warmer feeling, Marian; at least I trust in God that it will do so."
"Why, dear uncle?"
"Because I have set my heart upon this marriage. O Marian, my love, I have never ventured to speak to you about your future—the days that must come when I am dead and gone; and you can never know how many anxious hours I have spent thinking of it. Such a marriage as this would secure you happiness and prosperity in the years to come."
She clung about him fondly, telling him she cared little what might become of her life when he should be lost to her. That grief must needs be the crowning sorrow of her existence; and it would matter nothing to her what might come afterwards.
"But my dear love, 'afterwards' will make the greater part of your life. We must consider these things seriously, Marian. A good man's affection is not to be thrown away rashly. You have known Mr. Fenton a very short time; and perhaps it is only natural you should think of him with comparative indifference."
"I did not say I was indifferent to him, uncle George; only that I do not love him as he seems to love me. It would be a kind of sin to accept so much and to give so little."
"The love will come, Marian; I am sure that it will come."
She shook her head playfully.
"What a darling match-making uncle it is!" she said, and then kissed him and ran away.
She thought of Gilbert Fenton a good deal during the rest of that day; thought that it was a pleasant thing to be loved so truly, and hoped that she might always have him for her friend. When she went out to drink tea in the evening his image went with her; and she found herself making involuntary comparisons between a specimen of provincial youth whom she encountered at her friend's house and Mr. Fenton, very much to the advantage of the Australian merchant.
While Marian Nowell was away at this little social gathering, Captain Sedgewick and Gilbert Fenton sat under the walnut-trees smoking their cigars, with a bottle of claret on a little iron table before them.
"When I came back from India fourteen years ago on the sick-list," began the Captain, "I went down to Brighton, a place I had been fond of in my young days, to recruit. It was in the early spring, quite out of the fashionable season, and the town was very empty. My lodgings were in a dull street at the extreme east, leading away from the sea, but within sight and sound of it. The solitude and quiet of the place suited me; and I used to walk up and down the cliff in the dusk of evening enjoying the perfect loneliness of the scene. The house I lived in was a comfortable one, kept by an elderly widow who was a pattern of neatness and propriety. There were no children; for some time no other lodgers; and the place was as quiet as the grave. All this suited me very well. I wanted rest, and I was getting it.
"I had been at Brighton about a month, when the drawing-room floor over my head was taken by a lady, and her little girl of about five years old. I used to hear the child's feet pattering about the room; but she was not a noisy child by any means; and when I did happen to hear her voice, it had a very pleasant sound to me. The lady was an invalid, and was a good deal of trouble, my landlady took occasion to tell me, as she had no maid of her own. Her name was Nowell.
"Soon after this I encountered her on the cliff one afternoon with her little girl. The child and I had met once or twice before in the hall; and her recognition of me led to a little friendly talk between me and the mother. She was a fragile delicate-looking woman, who had once been very pretty, but whose beauty had for the most part been worn away, either by ill-health or trouble. She was very young, five-and-twenty at the utmost. She told me that the little girl was her only child, and that her husband was away from England, but that she expected his return before long.
"After this we met almost every afternoon; and I began to look out for these meetings, and our quiet talk upon the solitary cliff, as the pleasantest part of my day. There was a winning grace about this Mrs. Nowell's manner that I had never seen in any other woman; and I grew to be more interested in her than I cared to confess to myself. It matters little now; and I may freely own how weak I was in those days.
"I could see that she was very ill, and I did not need the ominous hints of the landlady, who had contrived to question Mrs. Nowell's doctor, to inspire me with the dread that she might never recover. I thought of her a great deal, and watched the fading light in her eyes, and listened to the weakening tones of her voice, with a sense of trouble that seemed utterly disproportionate to the occasion. I will not say that I loved her; neither the fact that she was another man's wife, nor the fact that she was soon to die, was ever absent from my mind when I thought of her. I will only say that she was more to me than any woman had ever been before, or has ever been since. It was the one sentimental episode of my life, and a very brief one.
"The weeks went by, and her husband did not come. I think the trouble and anxiety caused by his delay did a good deal towards hastening the inevitable end; but she bore her grief very quietly, and never uttered a complaint of him in my hearing. She paid her way regularly enough for a considerable time, and then all at once broke down, and confessed to the landlady that she had not a shilling more in the world. The woman was a hard creature, and told her that if that was the case, she must find some other lodgings, and immediately. I heard this, not from Mrs. Nowell, but from the landlady, who seemed to consider her conduct thoroughly justified by the highest code of morals. She was a lone unprotected woman, and how was she to pay her rent and taxes if her best floor was occupied by a non-paying tenant?
"I was by no means a rich man; but I could not endure to think of that helpless dying creature thrust out into the streets; and I told my landlady that I would be answerable for Mrs. Nowell's rent, and for the daily expenses incurred on her behalf. Mr. Nowell would in all probability appear in good time to relieve me from the responsibility, but in the mean while that poor soul upstairs was not to be distressed. I begged that she might know nothing of this undertaking on my part.
"It was not long after this when our daily meetings on the cliff came to an end. Mild as the weather was by this time, Mrs. Nowell's doctor had forbidden her going out any longer. I knew that she had no maid to send out with the child, so I sent the servant up to ask her if she would trust the little one for a daily walk with me. This she was very pleased to do, and Marian became my dear little companion every afternoon. She had taken to me, as the phrase goes, from the very first. She was the gentlest, most engaging child I had ever met with—a little grave for her years, and tenderly thoughtful of others.
"One evening Mrs. Nowell sent for me. I went up to the drawing-room immediately, and found her sitting in an easy-chair propped up by pillows, and very much changed for the worse since I had seen her last. She told me that she had discovered the secret of my goodness to her, as she called it, from the landlady, and that she had sent for me to thank me.
"'I can give you nothing but thanks and blessings,' she said, 'for I am the most helpless creature in this world. I suppose my husband will come here before I die, and will relieve you from the risk you have taken for me; but he can never repay you for your goodness.'
"I told her to give herself no trouble on my account; but I could not help saying, that I thought her husband had behaved shamefully in not coming to England to her long ere this.
"'He knows that you are ill, I suppose?' I said.
"'O yes, he knows that. I was ill when he sent me home. We had been travelling about the Continent almost ever since our marriage. He married me against his father's will, and lost all chance of a great fortune by doing so. I did not know how much he sacrificed at the time, or I should never have consented to his losing so much for my sake. I think the knowledge of what he had lost came between us very soon. I know that his love for me has grown weaker as the years went by, and that I have been little better than a burden to him. I could never tell you how lonely my life has been in those great foreign cities, where there seems such perpetual gaiety and pleasure. I think I must have died of the solitude and dulness—the long dreary summer evenings, the dismal winter days—if it had not been for my darling child. She has been all the world to me. And, O God!' she cried, with a look of anguish that went to my heart, 'what will become of her when I am dead, and she is left to the care of a selfish dissipated man?'
"'You need never fear that she will be without one friend while I live,' I said. 'Little Marian is very dear to me, and I shall make it my business to watch over her career as well as I can.'
"The poor soul clasped my hand, and pressed her feverish lips to it in a transport of gratitude. What a brute a man must have been who could neglect such a woman!
"After this I went up to her room every evening, and read to her a little, and cheered her as well as I could; but I believe her heart was broken. The end came very suddenly at last. I had intended to question her about her husband's family; but the subject was a difficult one to approach, and I had put it off from day to day, hoping that she might rally a little, and would be in a better condition to discuss business matters.
"She never did rally. I was with her when she died, and her last act was to draw her child towards her with her feeble arms and lay my hand upon the little one's head, looking up at me with sorrowful pleading eyes. She was quite speechless then, but I knew what the look meant, and answered it.
"'To the end of my life, my dear,' I said, 'I shall love and cherish her—to the end of my life.'
"After this the child fell asleep in my arms as I sat by the bedside sharing the long melancholy watch with the landlady, who behaved very well at this sorrowful time. We sat in the quiet room all night, the little one wrapped in a shawl and nestled upon my breast. In the early summer morning Lucy Nowell died, very peacefully; and I carried Marian down to the sofa in the parlour, and laid her there still asleep. She cried piteously for her mother when she awoke, and I had to tell her that which it is so hard to tell a child.
"I wrote to Mr. Nowell at an address in Brussels which I found at the top of his last letter to his wife. No answer came. I wrote again, after a little while, with the same result; and, in the mean time, the child had grown fonder of me and dearer to me every day. I had hired a nursemaid for her, and had taken an upper room for her nursery; but she spent the greater part of her life with me, and I began to fancy that Providence intended I should keep her with me for the rest of her days. She told me, in her innocent childish way, that papa had never loved her as her mamma did. He had been always out of doors till very, very late at night. She had crept from her little bed sometimes when it was morning, quite light, and had found mamma in the sitting-room, with no fire, and the candles all burnt out, waiting for papa to come home.
"I put an advertisement, addressed to Mr. Percival Nowell, in the Times and in Galignani, for I felt that the child's future might depend upon her father's acknowledgment of her in the present; but no reply came to these advertisements, and I settled in my own mind that this Nowell was a scoundrel, who had deliberately deserted his wife and child.
"The possessions of the poor creature who was gone were of no great value. There were some rather handsome clothes and a small collection of jewelry—some of it modern, the rest curious and old-fashioned. These latter articles I kept religiously, believing them to be family relics. The clothes and the modern trinkets I caused to be sold, and the small sum realised for them barely paid the expense of the funeral and grave. The arrears of rent and all other arrears fell upon me. I paid them, and then left Brighton with the child and nurse. I was born not twenty miles from this place, and I had a fancy for ending my days in my native county; so I came down to this part of the world, and looked about me a little, living in farm-house lodgings here and there, until I found this cottage to let one day, and decided upon settling at Lidford. And now you know the whole story of Marian's adoption, Mr. Fenton. How happy we have been together, or what she has been to me since that time, I could never tell you."
"The story does you credit, sir; and I honour you for your goodness," said Gilbert Fenton.
"Goodness, pshaw!" cried the Captain, impetuously; "it has been a mere matter of self-indulgence on my part. The child made herself necessary to me from the very first. I was a solitary man, a confirmed bachelor, with every prospect of becoming a hard, selfish old fogey. Marian Nowell has been the sunshine of my life!"
"You never made any farther discoveries about Mr. Nowell?"
"Never. I have sometimes thought, that I ought to have made some stronger efforts to place myself in communication with him. I have thought this, especially when brooding upon the uncertainties of my darling's future. From the little Mrs. Nowell told me about her marriage, I had reason to believe her husband's father must have been a rich man. He might have softened towards his grandchild, in spite of his disapproval of the marriage. I sometimes think I ought to have sought out the grandfather. But, you see, it would have been uncommonly difficult to set about this, in my complete ignorance as to who or what he was."
"Very difficult. And if you had found him, the chances are that he would have set his face against the child. Marian Nowell will have no need to supplicate for protection from an indifferent father or a hard-hearted grandfather, if she will be my wife.
"Heaven grant that she may love you as you deserve to be loved by her!" Captain Sedgewick answered heartily.
He thought it would be the best thing that could happen to his darling to become this young man's wife, and he had a notion that a simple, inexperienced girl could scarcely help responding to the hopes of such a lover. To his mind Gilbert Fenton seemed eminently adapted to win a woman's heart. He forgot the fatality that belongs to these things, and that a man may have every good gift, and yet just miss the magic power to touch one woman's heart.
Mr. Fenton lingered another week at Lidford, with imminent peril to the safe conduct of affairs at his offices in Great St. Helens. He could not tear himself away just yet. He felt that he must have some more definite understanding of his position before he went back to London; and in the meantime he pondered with a dangerous delight upon that sunny vision of a suburban villa to which Marian should welcome him when his day's work was done.
He went every day to the cottage, and he bore himself in no manner like a rejected lover. He was indeed very hopeful as to the issue of his wooing. He knew that Marian Nowell's heart was free, that there was no rival image to be displaced before his own could reign there, and he thought that it must go hard with him if he did not win her love.
So Marian saw him every day, and had to listen to the Captain's praises of him pretty frequently during his absence. And Captain Sedgewick's talk about Gilbert Fenton generally closed with a regretful sigh, the meaning of which had grown very clear to Marian.
She thought about her uncle's words and looks and sighs a good deal in the quiet of her own room. What was there she would not do for the love of that dearest and noblest of men? Marry a man she disliked? No, that was a sin from which the girl's pure mind would have recoiled instinctively. But she did like Gilbert Fenton—loved him perhaps—though she had never confessed as much to herself.
This calm friendship might really be love after all; not quite such love as she had read of in novels and poems, where the passion was always rendered desperate by the opposing influence of adverse circumstances and unkind kindred; but a tranquil sentiment, a dull, slow, smouldering fire, that needed only some sudden wind of jealousy or misfortune to fan it into a flame.
She knew that his society was pleasant to her, that she would miss him very much when he left Lidford; and when she tried to fancy him reconciled to her rejection of him, and returning to London to transfer his affections to some other woman, the thought was very obnoxious to her. He had not flattered her, he had been in no way slavish in his attentions to her; but he had surrounded her with a kind of atmosphere of love and admiration, the charm of which no girl thus beloved for the first time in her life could be quite proof against.
Thus the story ended, as romances so begun generally do end. There came a summer twilight, when Gilbert Fenton found himself once more upon the dewy lawn under the walnut-trees alone with Marian Nowell. He repeated his appeal in warmer, fonder tones than before, and with a kind of implied certainty that the answer must be a favourable one. It was something like taking the fortress by storm. He had his arm round her slim waist, his lips upon her brow, before she had time to consider what her answer ought to be.
"My darling, I cannot live without you!" he said, in a low passionate voice. "Tell me that you love me."
She disengaged herself gently from his embrace, and stood a little way from him, with shy, downcast eyelids.
"I think I do," she said slowly.
"That is quite enough, Marian!" cried Gilbert, joyously. "I knew you were destined to be my wife."
He drew her hand through his arm and took her back to the house, where the Captain was sitting in his favourite arm-chair by the window, with a reading lamp on the little table by his side, and the Times newspaper in his hand.
"Your niece has brought you a nephew, sir," said Gilbert.
The Captain threw aside his paper, and stretched out both his hands to the young man.
"My dear boy, I cannot tell you how happy this makes me!" he cried. "Didn't I promise you that all would go well if you were patient? My little girl is wise enough to know the value of a good man's love."
"I am very grateful, uncle George," faltered Marian, taking shelter behind the Captain's chair; "only I don't feel that I am worthy of so much thought."
"Nonsense, child; not worthy! You are the best girl in Christendom, and will make the brightest and truest wife that ever made a man's home dear to him."
The evening went on very happily after that: Marian at the piano, playing plaintive dreamy melodies with a tender expressive touch; Gilbert sitting close at hand, watching the face he loved so dearly—an evening in Paradise, as it seemed to Mr. Fenton. He went homewards in the moonlight a little before eleven o'clock, thinking of his new happiness—such perfect happiness, without a cloud. The bright suburban villa was no longer an airy castle, perhaps never to be realized; it was a delightful certainty. He began to speculate as to the number of months that must needs pass before he could make Marian his wife. There was no reason for delay. He was well-off, his own master, and it was only her will that could hinder the speedy realization of that sweet domestic dream which had haunted him lately.
He told his sister what had happened next morning, when Martin Lister had left the breakfast table to hold audience with his farm bailiff, and those two were together alone. He was a little tired of having his visits to the cottage criticised in Mrs. Lister's somewhat supercilious manner, and was very glad to be able to announce that Marian Nowell was to be his wife.
"Well, Gilbert," exclaimed the matron, after receiving his tidings with tightly-closed lips and a generally antagonistic demeanour, "I can only say, that if you must marry at all—and I am sure I thought you had quite settled down as a bachelor, with your excellent lodgings in Wigmore Street, and every I possible comfort in life—I think you might have chosen much better than this. Of course, I don't want to be rude or unpleasant; but I cannot help saying, that I consider any man a fool who allows himself to be captivated by a pretty face."
"I have found a great deal more than a pretty face to admire in Marian Nowell."
"Indeed! Can you name any other advantages which she possesses?"
"Amiability, good sense, and a pure and refined nature."
"What warrant have you for all those things? Mind, Gilbert, I like the girl well enough; I have nothing to say against her; but I cannot help thinking it a most unfortunate match for you."
"The girl's position is so very doubtful."
"Position!" echoed Gilbert impatiently. "That sort of talk is one of the consequences of living in such a place as Lidford. You talk about position, as if I were a prince of the blood-royal, whose marriage would be registered in every almanac in the kingdom."
"If she were really the Captain's niece, it would be a different thing," harped Mrs. Lister, without noticing this contemptuous interruption; "but to marry a girl about whose relations nobody knows anything! I suppose even you have not been told who her father and mother were."
"I know quite enough about them. Captain Sedgewick has been candour itself upon the subject."
"And are the father and mother both dead?"
"Miss Nowell's mother has been dead many years."
"And her father?"
"Captain Sedgewick does not know whether he is dead or living."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mrs. Lister with a profound sigh; "I should have thought as much. And you are really going to marry a girl with this disreputable mystery about her belongings?"
"There is nothing either disreputable or mysterious. People are sometimes lost sight of in this world. Mr. Nowell was a bad husband and an indifferent father, and Captain Sedgewick adopted his daughter; that is all."
"And no doubt, after you are married, this Mr. Nowell will make his appearance some day, and be a burden upon you."
"I am not afraid of that. And now, Belle, as this is a subject upon which we don't seem very likely to agree, I think we had better drop it. I considered it only right to tell you of my engagement."
On this his sister softened a little, and promised Gilbert that she would do her best to be kind to Miss Nowell.
"You won't be married for some time to come, of course," she said.
"I don't know about that, Belle. There is nothing to prevent a speedy marriage."
"O, surely you will wait a twelvemonth, at least. You have known Marian Nowell such a short time. You ought to put her to the test in some manner before you make her your wife."
"I have no occasion to put her to any kind of test. I have a most profound and perfect belief in her goodness."
"Why, Gilbert, this is utter infatuation—about a girl whom you have only known a little more than three weeks!"
It does seem difficult for a matter-of-fact, reasonable matron, whose romantic experiences are things of the remote past, to understand this sudden trust in, and all-absorbing love for, an acquaintance of a brief summer holiday. But Gilbert Fenton believed implicitly in his own instinct, and was not to be shaken.
He went back to town by the afternoon express that day, for he dared not delay his return any longer. He went back regretfully enough to the dryasdust business life, after spending the greater part of the morning under the walnut-trees in Captain Sedgewick's garden, playing with Fritz the Skye terrier, and talking airy nonsense to Marian, while she sat in a garden-chair hemming silk handkerchiefs for her uncle, and looking distractingly pretty in a print morning dress with tiny pink rosebuds on a white ground, and a knot of pink ribbon fastening the dainty collar. He ventured to talk a little about the future too; painting, with all the enthusiasm of Claude Melnotte, and a great deal more sincerity, the home which he meant to create for her.
"You will have to come to town to choose our house, you know, Marian," he said, after a glowing description of such a villa as never yet existed, except in the florid imagination of an auctioneer; "I could never venture upon such an important step without you: apart from all sentimental considerations, a woman's judgment is indispensable in these matters. The house might be perfection in every other point, and there might be no boiler, or no butler's pantry, or no cupboard for brooms on the landing, or some irremediable omission of that kind. Yes, Marian, your uncle must bring you to town for a week or so of house-hunting, and soon."
She looked at him with a startled expression.
"Soon!" she repeated.
"Yes, dear, very soon. There is nothing in the world to hinder our marriage. Why should we delay longer than to make all necessary arrangements? I long so for my new home, Marian, I have never had a home in my life since I was a boy."
"O Mr. Fenton—Gilbert,"—she pronounced his Christian name shyly, and in obedience to his reproachful look,—"remember how short a time we have known each other. It is much too soon to talk or think of marriage yet. I want you to have plenty of leisure to consider whether you really care for me, whether it isn't only a fancy that will die out when you go back to London. And we ought to have time to know each other very well, Gilbert, to be quite sure we are suited to one another."
This seemed an echo of his sister's reasoning, and vexed him a little.
"Have you any fear that we shall not suit each other, Marian?" he asked anxiously.
"I know that you are only too good for me," she answered. Upon which Gilbert hindered the hemming of the Captain's handkerchiefs by stooping down to kiss the little hands at work upon them. And then the talk drifted back to easier subjects, and he did not again press that question as to the date of the marriage.
At last the time came for going to the station. He had arranged for Mr. Lister's gig to call for him at the cottage, so that he might spend every possible moment with Marian. And at three o'clock the gig appeared, driven by Martin Lister himself, and Gilbert was fain to say good-bye. His last lingering backward glance showed him the white figure under the walnut-trees, and a little hand waving farewell.
How empty and dreary his comfortable bachelor lodgings seemed to him that night when he had dined, and sat by the open window smoking his solitary cigar, listening to the dismal street-noises, and the monotonous roll of ceaseless wheels yonder in Oxford-street; not caring to go out to his club, caring still less for opera or theatre, or any of the old ways whereby he had been wont to dispose of his evenings!
His mind was full of Marian Nowell. All that was grave and earnest in his nature gave force to this his first love. He had had flirtations in the past, of course; but they had been no more than flirtations, and at thirty his heart was as fresh and inexperienced as a boy's. It pleased him to think of Marian's lonely position. Better, a hundred times better, that she should be thus, than fettered by ties which might come between them and perfect union. The faithful and generous protector of her childhood would of necessity always claim her love; but beyond this one affection, she would be Gilbert's, and Gilbert's only. There would be no mother, no sisters, to absorb her time and distract her thoughts from her husband, perhaps prejudice her against him. Domestic life for those two must needs be free from all the petty jars, the overshadowing clouds no bigger than a man's hand, forerunners of tempest, which Mr. Fenton had heard of in many households.
He was never weary of thinking about that life which was to be. Everything else he thought of was now considered only in relation to that one subject. He applied himself to business with a new ardour; never before had he been so anxious to grow rich.
The offices of Fenton and Co. in Great St. Helens were handsome, prosperous-looking premises, consisting of two large outer rooms, where half-a-dozen indefatigable clerks sat upon high stools before ponderous mahogany desks, and wrote industriously all day long; and an inner and smaller apartment, where there was a faded Turkey-carpet instead of the kamptulicon that covered the floor of the outer offices, a couple of capacious, red-morocco-covered arm-chairs, and a desk of substantial and somewhat legal design, on which Gilbert Fenton was wont to write the more important letters of the house. In all the offices there were iron safes, which gave one a notion of limitless wealth stored away in the shape of bonds and bills, if not actual gold and bank-notes; and upon all the walls there were coloured and uncoloured engravings of ships framed and glazed, and catalogues of merchandise that had been sold, or was to be sold, hanging loosely one on the other. Besides these, there were a great many of those flimsy papers that record the state of things on 'Change, hanging here and there on the brass rails of the desks, from little hooks in the walls, and in any other available spot. And in all the premises there was an air of business and prosperity, which seemed to denote that Fenton and Co. were travelling at a rapid pace on the high-road to fortune.
Gilbert Fenton sat in the inner office at noon one day about a week after his return from Lidford. He had come to business early that morning, had initialed a good many accounts, and written half-a-dozen letters already, and had thrown himself back in his easy-chair for a few minutes' idle musing—musing upon that one sweet dream of his new existence, of course. From whatever point his thoughts started, they always drifted into that channel.
While he was sitting like this, with his hands in his pockets and his chair tilted upon its hind legs, the half-glass door opened, and a gentleman came into the office—a man a little over middle height, broad-shouldered, and powerfully built, with a naturally dark complexion, which had been tanned still darker by sun and wind, black eyes and heavy black eyebrows, a head a little bald at the top, and a face that might have been called almost ugly but for the look of intellectual power in the broad open forehead and the perfect modelling of the flexible sensitive mouth; a remarkable face altogether, not easily to be forgotten by those who had once looked upon it.
This man was John Saltram, the one intimate and chosen friend of Gilbert Fenton's youth and manhood. They had met first at Oxford, and had seldom lost sight of each other since the old university days. They had travelled a good deal together during the one idle year that had preceded Gilbert's sudden plunge into commerce. They had been up the Nile together in the course of these wanderings; and here, remote from all civilized aid, Gilbert had fallen ill of a fever—a long tedious business which brought him to the very point of death, and throughout which John Saltram had nursed him with a womanly tenderness and devotion that knew no abatement. If this had been wanting to strengthen the tie between them—which it was not—it would have brought them closer together. As it was, that dreary time of sickness and peril was only a memory which Gilbert Fenton kept in his heart of hearts, never to grow less sacred to him until the end of life.
Mr. Saltram was a barrister, almost a briefless one at present, for his habits were desultory, not to say idle, and he had not taken very kindly to the slow drudgery of the Bar. He had some money of his own, and added to his income by writing for the press in a powerful trenchant manner, with a style that was like the stroke of a sledge-hammer. In spite of this literary work, for which he got very well paid, Mr. Saltram generally contrived to be in debt; and there were few periods of his life in which he was not engaged more or less in the delicate operation of raising money by bills of accommodation. Habit had given him quite an artistic touch for this kind of thing, and he did his work fondly, like some enthusiastic horticulturist who gives his anxious days to the budding forth of some new orchid or the production of a hitherto unobtainable tulip. It is doubtful whether money procured from any other source was ever half so sweet to this gentleman as the cash for which he paid sixty per cent to the Jews. With these proclivities he managed to rub on from year to year somehow, getting about five hundred per annum in solid value out of an income of seven, and adding a little annually to the rolling mass of debt which he had begun to accumulate while he was at Balliol.
"Why, Jack," cried Gilbert, starting up from his reverie at the entrance of his friend, and greeting him with a hearty handshaking, "this is an agreeable surprise! I was asking for you at the Pnyx last night, and Joe Hawdon told me you were away—up the Danube he thought, on a canoe expedition."
"It is only under some utterly impossible dispensation that Joseph Hawdon will ever be right about anything. I have been on a walking expedition in Brittany, dear boy, alone, and have found myself very bad company. I started soon after you went to your sister's, and only came back last night. That scoundrel Levison promised me seventy-five this afternoon; but whether I shall get it out of him is a fact only known to himself and the powers with which he holds communion. And was the rustic business pleasant, Gil? Did you take kindly to the syllabubs and new milk, the summer sunrise over dewy fields, the pretty dairy-maids, and prize pigs, and daily inspections of the home-farm? or did you find life rather dull down at Lidford? I know the place well enough, and all the country round about there. I have stayed at Heatherly with Sir David Forster more than once for the shooting season. A pleasant fellow Forster, in a dissipated good-for-nothing kind of way, always up to his eyes in debt. Did you happen to meet him while you were down there?"
"No, I don't think the Listers know him."
"So much the better for them! It is a vice to know him. And you were not dull at Lidford?"
"Very far from it, Jack. I was happier there than I have ever been in my life before."
"Eh, Gil!" cried John Saltram; "that means something more than a quiet fortnight with a married sister. Come, old fellow, I have a vested right to a share in all your secrets."
"There is no secret, Jack. Yes, I have fallen in love, if that's what you mean, and am engaged."
"So soon! That's rather quick work, isn't it, dear boy?"
"I don't think so. What is that the poet says?—'If not an Adam at his birth, he is no love at all.' My passion sprang into life full-grown after an hour's contemplation of a beautiful face in Lidford church."
"Who is the lady?"
"O, her position is not worth speaking of. She is the adopted niece of a half-pay captain—an orphan, without money or connections."
"Humph!" muttered John Saltram with the privileged candour of friendship; "not a very advantageous match for you, Gilbert, from a worldly point of view."
"I have not considered the matter from that point of view."
"And the lady is all that is charming, of course?"
"To my mind, yes."
"Well, dear old follow, I wish you joy with all heartiness. You can afford to marry whom you please, and are very right to let inclination and not interest govern your choice. Whenever I tie myself in the bondage of matrimony, it will be to a lady who can pay my debts and set me on my legs for life. Whether such a one will ever consider my ugly face a fair equivalent for her specie, is an open question. You must introduce me to your future wife, Gilbert, on the first opportunity. I shall be very anxious to discover whether your marriage will be likely to put an end to our friendship."
"There is no fear of that, Jack. That is a contingency never to arise. I have told Marian a great deal about you already. She knows that I owe my life to you, and she is prepared to value you as much as I do."
"She is very good; but all wives promise that kind of thing before marriage. And there is apt to come a day when the familiar bachelor friend falls under the domestic taboo, together with smoking in the drawing-room, brandy-and-soda, and other luxuries of the old, easy-going, single life."
"Marian is not very likely to prove a domestic tyrant. She is the gentlest dearest girl, and is very well used to bachelor habits in the person of her uncle. I don't believe she will ever extinguish our cigars, Jack, even in the drawing-room. I look forward to the happiest home that ever a man possessed; and it would be no home of mine if you were not welcome and honoured in it. I hope we shall spend many a summer evening on the lawn, Jack, with a bottle of Pomard or St. Julien between us, watching the drowsy old anglers in their punts, and the swift outriggers flashing past in the twilight. I mean to find some snug little place by the river, you know, Saltram—somewhere about Teddington, where the gardens slope down to the water's edge."
"Very pleasant! and you will make an admirable family man, Gil. You have none of the faults that render me ineligible for the married state. I think your Marian is a very fortunate girl. What is her surname, by the way?"
"Marian Nowell—a very pretty name! When do you think of going back to Lidford?"
"In about a month. My brother-in-law wants me to go back to them for the 1st of September."
"Then I think I shall run down to Forster's, and have a pop at the pheasants. It will give me an opportunity of being presented to Miss Nowell."
"I shall be very pleased to introduce you, old fellow. I know that you will admire her."
"Well, I am not a very warm admirer of the sex in general; but I am sure to like your future wife, Gil, if it is only because you have chosen her."
"And your own affairs, Jack—how have they been going on?"
"Not very brightly. I am not a lucky individual, you know. Destiny and I have been at odds ever since I was a schoolboy."
"Not in love yet, John?"
"No," the other answered, with rather a gloomy look.
He was sitting on a corner of the ponderous desk in a lounging attitude, gazing meditatively at his boots, and hitting one of them now and then with a cane he carried, in a restless kind of way.
"You see, the fact of the matter is, Gil," he began at last, "as I told you just now, if ever I do marry, mercenary considerations are likely to be at the bottom of the business. I don't mean to say that I would marry a woman I disliked, and take it out of her in ill-usage or neglect. I am not quite such a scoundrel as that. But if I had the luck to meet with a woman I could like, tolerably pretty and agreeable, and all that kind of thing, and weak enough to care for me—a woman with a handsome fortune—I should be a fool not to snap at such a chance."
"I see," exclaimed Gilbert, "you have met with such a woman."
Again the gloomy look came over the dark strongly-marked face, the thick black eyebrows contracted in a frown, and the cane was struck impatiently against John Saltram's boot.
"But you are not in love with her; I see that in your face, Jack. You'll think me a sentimental fool, I daresay, and fancy I look at things in a new light now that I'm down a pit myself; but, for God's sake, don't marry a woman you can't love. Tolerably pretty and agreeable won't do, Jack,—that means indifference on your part; and, depend upon it, when a man and woman are tied together for life, there is only a short step from indifference to dislike."
"No, Gilbert, it's not that," answered the other, still moodily contemplative of his boots. "I really like the lady well enough—love her, I daresay. I have not had much experience of the tender passion since I was jilted by an Oxford barmaid—whom I would have married, by Jove. But the truth is, the lady in question isn't free to marry just yet. There's a husband in the case—a feeble old Anglo-Indian, who can't live very long. Don't look so glum, old fellow; there has been nothing wrong, not a word that all the world might not hear; but there are signs and tokens by which a man, without any vanity—and heaven knows I have no justification for that—may be sure a woman likes him. In short, I believe that if Adela Branston were a widow, the course would lie clear before me, and I should have nothing to do but go in and win. And the stakes will be worth winning, I assure you."
"But this Mr. Branston may live for an indefinite number of years, during which you will be wasting your life on a shadow."
"Not very likely. Poor old Branston came home from Calcutta a confirmed invalid, and I believe his sentence has been pronounced by all the doctors. In the mean time he makes the best of life, has his good days and bad days, and entertains a great deal of company at a delightful place near Maidenhead—with a garden sloping to the river like that you were talking of just now, only on a very extensive scale. You know how often I have wanted you to run down there with me, and how there has been always something to prevent your going."
"Yes, I remember. Rely upon it, I shall contrive to accept the next invitation, come what may. But I can't say I like the idea of this prospective kind of courtship, or that I consider it quite worthy of you, Saltram."