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marriage, I yielded against my own better reason, which warned me that I did not love you as you deserved to be loved. Then for a long time I was blind to the truth. I did not examine my own heart. I was quite able to estimate all your noble qualities, and I fancied that I should be very happy as your wife. But you must remember that at the last, when you were leaving England, I asked you to release me, and told you that it would be happier for both of us to be free.'
Why was that, Marian ?'
· Had there been any other influence at work, Marian ? Had you seen your husband, Mr. Holbrook, at that time?'
She blushed crimson, and the slender hands nervously clasped and unclasped themselves before she spoke.
'I cannot answer that question,' she said at last.
• That is quite as good as saying “yes.” You had seen this man; he had come between us already. O Marian, Marian, why were you not more candid ?'
• Because I was weak and foolish. I could not bear to make you unhappy. O, believe me, Gilbert, I had no thought of falsehood at that time. I fully meant to be true to my promise, come what might.'
'I am quite willing to believe that,' he answered gently. 'I believe that you acted from first to last under the influence of a stronger will than your own. You can see that I feel no resentment against you. I come to you in sorrow, not in anger. But I want to understand how this thing came to pass. Why was it that you never wrote to me to tell me the complete change in your feelings?
• It was thought better not, Marian faltered, after a pause.
* And you suffered him to dictate to you in this matter, against your own sense of right ?'
“I loved him,' she answered simply. “I have never refused to obey him in anything. I will own that I thought it would be better to write and tell you the truth ; but my husband thought otherwise. He wished our marriage to remain a secret from you, and from all the world, for some time to come. He had his own reasons for that-reasons I was bound to respect. I cannot think how you came to discover this out-of-the-world place.?
'I have taken some trouble to find you, Marian, and it is a hard thing to find you the wife of another ; but the bitterness of it must be borne. I do not want to reproach you when I tell you that my life has been broken utterly by this blow. I want you to believe in my truth and honour, to trust me now as you might have trusted
me when you first discovered that you could not love me. Since I am not to be your husband, let me be the next best thing—your friend. The day may come in which you will have need of an honest man's friendship.'
She shook her head sadly.
• You are very good,' she said ; but there is no possibility of friendship between you and me. If you will only say that you can forgive me for the great wrong I have done you, there will be a heavy burden lifted from my heart; and whatever you may think now, I cannot doubt that in the future you will find some one far better worthy of your love than ever I could have been.'
. That is the stereotyped form of consolation, Marian, a man is always referred to—that shadowy and perfect creature who is to appear in the future, and heal all his wounds. There will be no such after-love for me. I staked all when I played the great game; and have lost all. But why cannot I be your friend, Marian ?'
Can you forgive my husband for his part in the wrong that has been done you? Can you be his friend, knowing what he has done ?'
No! Gilbert answered fiercely between his set teeth. forgive your weakness, but not the man's treachery.'
• Then you can never be mine,' Marian said firmly.
• Remember I am not talking of a common friendship, a friendship of daily association. I offer myself to you as a refuge in the hour of trouble, a counsellor in perplexity, a brother always waiting in the background of your life to protect or serve you. it is quite possible you may never have need of protection or service -God knows, I wish you all happiness—but there are not many lives quite free from trouble, and the day may come in which you will want a friend.'
*If it ever does, I will remember your goodness.'
Gilbert looked scrutinisingly at Marian Holbrook as she stood before him with the cold gray light of the sunless day full upon her face. He wanted to read the story of her life in that beautiful face, if it were possible. He wanted to know whether she was happy with the man who had stolen her from him.
She was very pale, but that might be fairly attributed to the agitation caused by his presence.
Gilbert fancied that there was a careworn look in her face, and that her beauty had faded a little since those peaceful days at Lidford, when these two had wasted the summer hours in idle talk under the walnut-trees in the Captain's garden. She was dressed very plainly in black. There was no coquettish knot of ribbon at her throat; no girlish trinkets dangled at her waist—all those little graces and embellishments of costume which seem natural to a woman whose life is happy were wanting in her toilet to-day; and slight as these indications were, Gilbert did not overlook them.
Did he really wish her to be happy-happy with the rival he so fiercely hated ? He had said as much ; and in saying so, he had believed that he was speaking the truth. But he was only human ; and it is just possible that, tenderly as he still loved this girl, he may have been hardly capable of taking pleasure in the thought of her happiness.
'I want you to tell me about your husband, Marian,' he said after a pause ; who and what he is.'
Why should I do that ?' she asked, looking at him with a steady, almost defiant, expression. “You have said that you will never forgive him. What interest can you possibly feel in his affairs ?'
I am interested in him upon your account.'
'I cannot tell you anything about him. I do not know how you could have discovered even his name.'
I learned that at Wygrove, where I first heard of your marriage.'
Did you go to Wygrove, then ?'
Yes; I have told you that I spared no pains to find you. Nor shall I spare any pains to discover the history of the man who has wronged me. It would be wiser for you to be frank with me, Marian. Rely upon it that I shall sooner or later learn the secret underlying this treacherous business.'
* You profess to be my friend, and yet are avowedly my husband's enemy. Why cannot you be truly generous, Gilbert, and pardon him? Believe me, he was not willingly treacherous; it was his fate to do you this wrong.'
‘A poor excuse for a man, Marian. No, my charity will not stretch far enough for that. But I do not come to you quite on a selfish errand, to speak solely of my own wrongs.
I have something to tell you of real importance to yourself.'
• What is that ?'
Gilbert Fenton described the result of his first advertisement, and his acquaintance with Jacob Nowell.
It is my impression that this old man is rich, Marian; and there is little doubt that he would leave all he possesses to you, if you went to him at once.'
"I do not care very much about money for my own sake,' she answered with rather a mournful smile ; but we are not rich, and I should be glad of anything that would improve my husband's position. I should like to see my grandfather : I stand so much alone in the world that it would be very sweet to me to find a near relation.'
• Your husband must surely have seen Mr. Nowell's advertisement,' Gilbert said after a pause. • It was odd that he did not tell you about it--that he did not wish you to reply to it.'
• The advertisement may have escaped him, or he may have looked upon it as a trap to discover our retreat,' Marian answered frankly.
I cannot understand the motive for such secrecy.'
• There is no occasion that you should understand it. Every life has its own mystery—its peculiar perplexities. When I married my husband, I was prepared to share all his troubles. I have been obedient to him in everything.'
· And has your marriage brought you happiness, Marian ?'
• I love my husband,' she answered with a plaintive reproachful look, as if there had been a kind of cruelty in his straight question. 'I do not suppose that there is such a thing as perfect happiness in the world.'
The answer was enough for Gilbert Fenton. It told him that this girl's life was not all sunshine.
He had not the heart to push his inquiries farther. He felt that he had no right to remain any longer, when in all probability his presence was a torture to the girl who had injured him.
I will not prolong my visit, Marian,' he said regretfully. It was altogether a foolish one, perhaps; but I wanted so much to see you once more, to hear some explanation of your conduct from your own lips.'
My conduct can admit of neither explanation nor justification,' she replied humbly. “I know how wickedly I have acted. Believe me, Gilbert, I am quite conscious of my unworthiness, and how little right I have to expect your forgiveness.'
• It is my weakness, rather than my merit, not to be able to cherish any angry feeling against you, Marian. Mine has been a slavish kind of love. I
suppose that sort of thing never is successful. Women have an instinctive contempt for men who love them with such blind unreasonable idolatry.'
• I do not know how that may be ; but I know that I have always respected and esteemed you,' she answered in her gentle pleading way.
'I am grateful to you even for so much as that. And now I suppose I must say good-bye— rather a hard word to say under the circumstances. Heaven knows when you and I may meet again.'
• Won't you stop and take some luncheon ? I dine early when my husband is away; it saves trouble to the people of the house. The bailiff's daughter always dines with me when I am alone ; but I don't suppose you will mind sitting down with her. She is a good girl, and very fond of me.'
'I would sit down to dinner with a chimney-sweep, if he were a favourite of yours, Marian-or Mrs. Holbrook ; I suppose I must call you that now.'
After this they talked of Captain Sedgewick for a little, and the tears came to Marian's eyes as she spoke of that generous and faithful protector. While they were talking thus, the door was opened, and a bright-faced countrified-looking girl appeared carrying a tray. She was dressed in a simple pretty fashion, a little above her station as a bailiff's daughter, and had altogether rather a superior look, in spite of her rusticity, Gilbert thought.
She was quite at her ease in his presence, laying the cloth briskly and cleverly, and chattering all the time.
"I am sure I'm very glad any visitor should come to see Mrs. Holbrook,' she said ; ‘for she has had a sad lonely time of it ever since she has been here, poor dear. There are not many young married women would put-up with such a life.'
Nelly,' Marian exclaimed reproachfully, you know that I have had nothing to put-up with that I have been quite happy here.'
Ah, it's all very well to say that, Mrs. Holbrook ; but I know better. I know how many lonely days you've spent, so downhearted that you could scarcely speak or look up from your book, and that only an excuse for fretting.-If you're a friend of Mr. Holbrook's, you might tell him as much, sir ; that he's killing his pretty young wife by inches, by leaving her so often alone in this dreary place. Goodness knows, it isn't that I want to get rid of her. I like her so much that I sha'n't know what to do with myself when she's gone. But I love her too well not to speak the truth when I see a chance of its getting to the right ears.'
I am no friend of Mr. Holbrook's,' Gilbert answered; but I think you are a good generous-hearted girl.'
* You are a very foolish girl,' Marian exclaimed; and I am extremely angry with you for talking such utter nonsense about me. I may have been a little out of spirits sometimes in my husband's absence; but that is all. I shall begin to think that you really do want to get rid of me, Nell, say what you will.'
• That's a pretty thing, when you know that I love you as dearly as if you were my sister ; to say nothing of father, who makes a profit by your being here, and would be fine and angry with me for interfering. No, Mrs. Holbrook; it's your own happiness I'm thinking of, and nothing else. · And I do say that it's a shame for a pretty young woman like you to be shut up in a lonely old farmhouse while your husband is away, enjoying himself goodness knows where; and when he is here, I can't see that he's very good company, considering that he spends the best part of his time
The girl stopped abruptly, warned by a look from Marian. Gilbert saw this look, and wondered what revelation of Mr. Holbrook's habits the bailiff's daughter had been upon the point of making; he was so eager to learn something of this man, and had been so completely baffled in all his endeavours hitherto.