M.E. Braddon.

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"I have only just returned from Australia. I have come back to fulfil my
engagement to Miss Nowell. Can you suggest no one from whom I am likely
to obtain information?"

"There is the family at the Rectory; they knew her very well, and were
extremely kind to her after her uncle's death. It might be worth your
while to call upon Mr. Marchant."

"Yes, I will call," Gilbert answered; "thanks for the suggestion."

He wished Miss Dodd good-afternoon, and left her standing at the gate of
her little garden, watching him with profound interest as he walked away
towards the village. There was a pleasing mystery in the affair, to the
mind of Miss Dodd.

Gilbert Fenton went at once to the Rectory, although it was now past
seven o'clock. He had met Mr. and Mrs. Marchant several times, and had
visited them with the Listers.

The Rector was at home, sitting over his solitary glass of port by the
open window of his snug dining-room, looking lazily out at a group of
sons and daughters playing croquet on the lawn. He was surprised to see
Mr. Fenton, but welcomed him with much cordiality.

"I have come to you full of care, Mr. Marchant," Gilbert began; "and the
pressing nature of my business must excuse the lateness of my visit."

"There is no occasion for any excuse. I am very glad to see you at this
time. Pray help yourself to some wine, there are clean glasses near you;
and take some of those strawberries, on which my wife prides herself
amazingly. People who live in the country all their days are obliged to
give their minds to horticulture. And now, what is this care of yours,
Mr. Fenton? Nothing very serious, I hope."

"It is very serious to me at present. I think you know that I am engaged
to Miss Nowell."

"Perfectly. I had imagined until this moment that you and she were
married. When she left Lidford, I concluded that she had gone to stay
with friends of yours, and that the marriage would, in all probability,
take place at an early period, without any strict observance of etiquette
as to her mourning for her uncle. It was natural that we should think
this, knowing her solitary position."

"Then you do not know where she went on leaving this place?"

"Not in the faintest degree. Her departure was altogether unexpected by
us. My wife and daughters called upon her two or three times after the
Captain's death, and were even anxious that she should come here to stay
for a short time; but she would not do that. She seemed grateful, and
touched by their anxiety about her, but they could not bring her to talk
of her future."

"And she told them nothing of her intention to leave Lidford?"

"Not a word."

This was all that Gilbert Fenton could learn. His interview with the
Rector lasted some time longer; but it told him nothing. Whom next could
he question? He knew all Marian's friends, and he spent the next day in
calling upon them, but with the same result; no one could tell him her
reason for leaving Hazel Cottage, or where she had gone.

There remained only one person whom he could question, and that was the
old servant who had lived with Captain Sedgewick nearly all the time of
his residence at Lidford, and whom Gilbert had conciliated by numerous
gifts during his visits to Hazel Cottage. She was a good-humoured honest
creature, of about fifty, and had been devoted to the Captain and Marian.

After a good deal of trouble, Gilbert ascertained that this woman had not
accompanied her young mistress when she left Lidford, but had taken
service in a grocer's family at Fairleigh. Having discovered this, Mr.
Fenton set off immediately for the little market-town, on foot this time,
and with his mind full of the days when he and Marian had walked this way
together.

He found the shop to which he had been directed - a roomy old-fashioned
emporium in the High-street, sunk three or four feet below the level of
the pavement, and approached by a couple of steps; a shop with a low
ceiling, that was made lower by bunches of candles, hams, bacon, and
other merchandise hanging from the massive beams that spanned it. Mr.
Fenton, having duly stated his business, was shown into the grocer's best
parlour - a resplendent apartment, where there were more ornaments in the
way of shell-and-feather flowers under glass shades, and Bohemian glass
scent-bottles, than were consistent with luxurious occupation, and where
every chair and sofa was made a perfect veiled prophet by enshrouding
antimacassors. Here Sarah Down, the late Captain's servant, came to Mr.
Fenton, wiping her hands and arms upon a spotless canvas apron, and
generally apologetic as to her appearance. To this woman Gilbert repeated
the question he had asked of others, with the same disheartening result.

"The poor dear young lady felt the Captain's loss dreadfully; as well she
might, when they had been so fond of each other," Sarah Down said, in
answer to one of Gilbert's inquiries. "I never knew any one grieve so
deeply. She wouldn't go anywhere, and she couldn't bear to see any one
who came to see her. She used to shut herself up in the Captain's room
day after day, kneeling by his bedside, and crying as if her heart would
break. I have looked through the keyhole sometimes, and seen her there on
her knees, with her face buried in the bedclothes. She didn't care to
talk about him even to me, and I had hard work to persuade her to eat or
drink enough to keep life in her at this time. When the days were fine, I
used to try and get her to walk out a little, for she looked as white as
a ghost for want of air; and after a good deal of persuasion, she did go
out sometimes of an afternoon, but she wouldn't ask any one to walk with
her, though there were plenty she might have asked - the young ladies from
the Rectory and others. She preferred being alone, she told me, and I was
glad that she should get the air and the change anyhow. She brightened a
little after this, but very little. It was all of a sudden one day that
she told me she was going away. I wanted to go with her, but she said
that couldn't be. I asked her where she was going, and she told me, after
hesitating a little, that she was going to friends in London. I knew she
had been very fond of two young ladies that she went to school with at
Lidford, whose father lived in London; and I thought it was to their
house she was going. I asked her if it was, and she said yes. She made
arrangements with the landlord about selling the furniture. He is an
auctioneer himself, and there was no difficulty about that. The money was
to be sent to her at a post-office in London. I wondered at that, but she
said it was better so. She paid every sixpence that was owing, and gave
me a handsome present over and above my wages; though I didn't want to
take anything from her, poor dear young lady, knowing that there was very
little left after the Captain's death, except the furniture, which wasn't
likely to bring much. And so she went away about two days after she first
mentioned that she was going to leave Lidford. It was all very sudden,
and I don't think she bade good-bye to any one in the place. She seemed
quite broken down with grief in those two last days. I shall never forget
her poor pale face when she got into the fly."

"How did she go? From the station here?"

"I don't know anything about that, except that the fly came to the
cottage for her and her luggage. I wanted to go to the station with her,
to see her off, but she wouldn't let me."

"Did she mention me during the time that followed Captain Sedgewick's
death?"

"Only when I spoke about you, sir. I used to try to comfort her, telling
her she had you still left to care for her, and to make up for him she'd
lost. But she used to look at me in a strange pitiful sort of way, and
shake her head. 'I am very miserable, Sarah,' she would say to me; 'I am
quite alone in the world now my dear uncle is gone, and I don't know what
to do.' I told her she ought to look forward to the time when she would
be married, and would have a happy home of her own; but I could never get
her to talk of that."

"Can you tell me the name and address of her friends in London - the young
ladies with whom she went to school?"

"The name is Bruce, sir; and they live, or they used to live at that
time, in St. John's-wood. I have heard Miss Nowell say that, but I don't
know the name of the street or number of the house."

"I daresay I shall be able to find them. It is a strange business, Sarah.
It is most unaccountable that my dearest girl should have left Lidford
without writing me word of her removal and her intentions with regard to
the future - that she should have sent me no announcement of her uncle's
death, although she must have known how well I loved him. I am going to
ask you a question that is very painful to me, but which must be asked
sooner or later. Do you know of any one else whom she may have liked
better than me - any one whose influence may have governed her at the time
she left Lidford?"

"No, indeed, sir," replied the woman, promptly. "Who else was there? Miss
Nowell knew so few gentlemen, and saw no one except the Rector's family
and two or three ladies after the uncle's death."

"Not at the cottage, perhaps. But she may have seen some one
out-of-doors. You say she always went out alone at that time, and
preferred to do so."

"Yes, sir, that is true. But it seemed natural enough that she should
like to be alone on account of her grief."

"There must have been some reason for her silence towards me, Sarah. She
could not have acted so cruelly without some powerful motive. Heaven only
knows what it may have been. The business of my life will be to find
her - to see her face to face once more, and hear the explanation of her
conduct from her own lips."

He thanked the woman for her information, slipped a sovereign into her
hand, and departed. He called upon the proprietor of Hazel Cottage, an
auctioneer, surveyor, and house-agent in the High-street of Fairleigh,
but could obtain no fresh tidings from this gentleman, except the fact
that the money realised by the Captain's furniture had been sent to Miss
Nowell at a post-office in the City, and had been duly acknowledged by
her, after a delay of about a week. The auctioneer showed Gilbert the
letter of receipt, which was worded in a very formal business-like
manner, and bore no address but "London." The sight of the familiar hand
gave him a sharp pang. O God, how he had languished for a letter in that
handwriting!

He had nothing more to do after this in the neighbourhood of Lidford,
except to pay a pious visit to the Captain's grave, where a handsome slab
of granite recorded the virtues of the dead. It lay in the prettiest,
most retired part of the churchyard, half-hidden under a wide-spreading
yew. Gilbert Fenton sat down upon a low wall near at hand for a long
time, brooding over his broken life, and wishing himself at rest beneath
that solemn shelter.

"She never loved me," he said to himself bitterly. "I shut my eyes
obstinately to the truth, or I might have discovered the secret of her
indifference by a hundred signs and tokens. I fancied that a man who
loved a woman as I loved her must succeed in winning her heart at last.
And I accepted her girlish trust in me, her innocent gratitude for my
attentions, as the evidence of her love. Even at the last, when she
wanted to release me, I would not understand. I did not expect to be
loved as I loved her. I would have given so much, and been content to
take so little. What is there I would not have done - what sacrifice of my
own pride that I would not have happily made to win her! O my darling,
even in your desertion of me you might have trusted me better than this!
You would have found me fond and faithful through every trial, your
friend in spite of every wrong."

He knelt down by the grave, and pressed his lips to the granite on which
George Sedgewick's name was chiselled.

"I owe it to the dead to discover her fate," he said to himself, as he
rose from that reverent attitude. "I owe it to the dead to penetrate the
secret of her new life, to assure myself that she is happy, and has
fallen under no fatal influence."

The Listers were still abroad, and Gilbert was very glad that it was so.
It would have excruciated him to hear his sister's comments on Marian's
conduct, and to perceive the suppressed exultation with which she would
most likely have discussed this unhappy termination to an engagement
which had been entered on in utter disregard of her counsel.




CHAPTER IX.

JOHN SALTRAM'S ADVICE.


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

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

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

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

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

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

"You took me by surprise," he said. "I didn't know you were in England."

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

"You have done well out yonder, I hope, Gilbert?"

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

"How is that?"

"Captain Sedgewick is dead, and Marian Nowell is lost."

"Lost! What do you mean by that?"

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

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

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

"Why should you doubt that?"

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

"Speak out, John."

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

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

"By what means do you hope to discover this?"

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

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

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

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

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

"There is no particular person whom you suspect?"

"No one."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is it a novel?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Why, how you say that! Is there any doubt as to the lady's fortune?"

"O no; that is all square enough. Michael Branston's will was in the
_Illustrated London News_; the personalty sworn under a hundred and
twenty thousand, - all left to the widow, - besides real property - a house
in Cavendish Square, the villa at Maidenhead, and a place near
Leamington."

"It would be a splendid match for you, Jack."

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

"But you like Mrs. Branston, don't you, Jack?"

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

"Have you seen her often since her husband's death?"

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

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

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

"Whereabouts?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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