« PreviousContinue »
transactions as to leave no course open to him except a speedy departure. Since his coming to England he had lived entirely on credit; and beyond the fine clothes he wore and the contents of his two portmanteaus, he possessed nothing in the world. It was quite true that he had done very well in New York; but his well-being had been secured at the cost of other people; and after having started some half-dozen speculations, and living extravagantly upon the funds of his victims, he was now as poor as he had been when he left Belgium for America, the commission-agent of a house in the iron trade. In this position he might have prospered in a moderate way, and might have profited by the expensive education which had given him nothing but showy agreeable manners, had he been capable of steadiness and industry. But of these virtues he was utterly deficient, possessing instead a genius for that kind of swindling which keeps just upon the safe side of felony. He had lived pleasantly enough, for many years, by the exercise of this agreeable talent; so pleasantly indeed that he had troubled himself very little about his chances of inheriting his father's savings. It was only when he had exhausted all expedients for making money on the other side,' that he turned his thoughts in the direction of Queen-Anne's-court, and began to speculate upon the probability of Jacob Nowell's good graces being worth the trouble of cultivation. The prospectuses which he had shown his father were mere waste paper, the useless surplus stationery remaining from a scheme that had failed to enlist the sympathies of a Transatlantic public. But he fancied that his only chance with the old man lay in an assumption of prosperity; so he carried matters with a high hand throughout the business, and swaggered in the little dusky parlour behind the shop just as he had swaggered on New-York Broadway or at Delmonico's in the heyday of his commercial success.
He called at Mr. Medler's office the day after Jacob Nowell's will had been executed, having had no hint of the fact from his father. The solicitor told him what had been done, and how the most strenuous efforts on his part had only resulted in the insertion of Percival's name after that of his daughter.
Whatever indignation Mr. Nowell may have felt at the fact that his daughter had been preferred before him, he contrived to keep hidden in his own mind. The lawyer was surprised at the quiet gravity with which he received the intelligence. He listened to Mr. Medler's statement of the case with the calmest air of deliberation, seemed indeed to be thinking so deeply that it was as if his thoughts had wandered away from the subject in hand to some theme which allowed of more profound speculation.
* And if she should die childless, I should get everything ?” he said at last, waking-up suddenly from that state of abstraction, and turning his thoughtful face upon the lawyer.
* Not an exact notion. Your father gave me a rough list of
! And my daughter will step into two or three thousand a year,' he went on; ' very pleasant for her, and for her husband into the bargain. Of course I'm not going to say that I wouldn't rather have had the money myself. You'd scarcely swallow that, as a man of the world, you see, Medler.
But the girl is my only child, and though circumstances have divided us for the greater part of our lives, blood is thicker than water; and in short, since there was no getting the governor to do the right thing, and leave this money to me, it's the next best thing that he should leave it to Marian.'
• To say nothing of the possibility of her dying without children, and your coming into the property, after all,' said Mr. Medler, wondering a little at Mr. Nowell's philosophical manner of looking at the question.
Sir,' exclaimed Percival indignantly, do you imagine me capable of speculating upon the untimely death of my only child ?'
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders doubtfully. In the course of his varied experience he had found men and women capable of very queer things when their pecuniary interests were at stake ; and he had not a most exalted opinion of Mr. Nowell's virtue, he knew too many secrets connected with his early career.
Remember, if ever by any strange chance you should come into this property, you have me to thank for getting your name into the will, and for giving your daughter only a life-interest. She would have had every penny left to her without reserve, if I hadn't fought for your interests as hard as ever I fought for anything in the whole course of my professional career.'
You're a good fellow, Medler; and if ever fortune should favour me, which hardly seems on the cards, I sha'n't forget what I promised you the other day. I daresay you did the best you could for me, though it doesn't amount to much when it's done."
Long after Percival Nowell had left him, Mr. Medler sat idle at his desk meditating upon his interview with that gentleman.
'I can't half understand his coolness,' he said to himself; “I expected him to be as savage as a bear when he found that the old man had left him nothing. I thought I should hear nothing but
I execrations and blasphemies; for I think I know my gentleman pretty well of old, and that he's not a person to take a disappoint
ment of this kind very sweetly. There must be something under that quiet manner of his. Perhaps he knows more about his daughter than he cares to let out; knows that she is sickly, and that he stands a good chance of surviving her.'
There was indeed a lurking desperation under Percival Nowell's airy manner, of which the people amongst whom he lived had no suspicion. Unless some sudden turn in the wheel of fortune should change the aspect of affairs for him very soon, ruin, most complete and utter, was inevitable. A man cannot go on very long without money; and in order to pay his hotel-bill, Mr. Nowell had been obliged to raise funds from an accommodating gentleman with whom he had done business in years gone by, and who was very familiar with his own and his father's autograph. The bill upon which this gentleman advanced the money in question bore the name of Jacob Nowell, and was drawn at three months. Percival had persuaded himself that before the three months were out, his father would be in his grave, and his executors would scarcely be in a position to dispute the genuineness of the signature. In the mean time the money thus obtained enabled him to float on. He paid his hotel-bill, and removed to lodgings in one of the narrow streets to the north-east of Tottenham-court-road; an obscure lodging enough, where he had a couple of comfortable rooms on the first floor, and where his going-out and coming-in attracted little notice. Here, as at the hotel, he chose to assume the name of Norton instead of his legitimate cognomen.
GILBERT ASKS A QUESTION. GILBERT FENTON called at John Saltram's chambers within a day or two of his return from Hampshire. He had a strange, almost feverish, eagerness to see his old friend again ; a sense of having wronged him for that one brief moment of thought in which the possibility of his guilt had flashed across his mind; and with this feeling there was mingled a suspicion that John Saltram had not acted quite fairly to him ; that he had kept back knowledge which must have come to him as an intimate ally of Sir David Forster.
He found Mr. Saltram at home in the familiar untidy room, with the old chaos of books and papers about him. He looked tired and ill, and rose to greet his visitor with a weary air, as if nothing in the world possessed much interest for him nowadays.
• Why, John, you are as pallid as a ghost !' Gilbert exclaimed, grasping the hand extended to him, and thinking of that one moment in which he had fancied he was never to touch that hand again. You have been at the old work, I suppose-over-doing it, as usual!'
“No, I have been working very little for these last few days.
The truth is, I have not been able to work. The divine afflatus wouldn't come down upon me. There are times when a man's brain seems to be made of melted butter. Mine has been like that for the last week or so.'
'I thought you were going back to your fishing village near Oxford.'
• No; I was not in spirits for that. I have dined two or three times in Cavendish-square, and have been made much of, and have contrived to forget my troubles for a few hours.' • You talk of your troubles as if you were very heavily burdened;
; and yet, for the life of me, I cannot see what you have to complain of,' Gilbert said wonderingly.
• Of course not. That is always the case with one's friends even the best of them. It's only the man who wears the shoe that knows why it pinches and galls him. But what have you been doing since I saw you last ?
I have been in Hampshire.'
Indeed!' said John Saltram, looking him full in the face. And what took you into that quarter of the world ?'
'I thought you took more interest in my affairs than to have to ask that question. I went to look for Marian Holbrook,—and I found her.'
· Poor old fellow !' Mr. Saltram said gently. “And was there any satisfaction for you in the meeting ?'
Yes, and no. There was a kind of mournful pleasure in seeing the dear face once more.'
• She must have been surprised to see you.'
• She was, no doubt, surprised-unpleasantly, perhaps ; but she received me very kindly, and was perfectly frank upon every subject except her husband. She would tell me nothing about him-neither his position in the world, nor his profession, if he has one, as I suppose he has.
She owned he was not rich, and that is about all she said of him. Poor girl, I do not think she is happy!'
What ground have you for such an idea ?'
• Her face, which told me a great deal more than her words. Her beauty is very much faded since the summer evening when I first saw her in Lidford Church. She seems to lead a lonely life in the old farmhouse to which her husband brought her immediately after their marriage--a life which few women would care to lead. And now, John, I want to know how it is you have kept back the truth from me in this matter; that you have treated me with a reserve which I had no right to expect from a friend.'
• What have I kept from you ?
in which I found Marian belongs to Sir David, and was lent by him to Mr. Holbrook.'
'I do not know every friend of Forster's. He is a man who picks up his acquaintance in the highways and byways, and drops them when he is tired of them.'
• Will you tell me, on your honour, that you know nothing of this Mr. Holbrook ?'
Gilbert Fenton gave a weary sigh, and then seated himself silently opposite Mr. Saltram. He could not afford to doubt this friend of his. The whole fabric of his life must have dropped to pieces if John Saltram had played him false. His single venture as a lover having ended in shipwreck, he seemed to have nothing left him but friendship; and that kind of hero-worship which had made his friend always appear to him something better than he really was, had grown stronger with him since Marian's desertion.
0 Jack,' he said presently, I could bear anything in this world better than the notion that you could betray me—that you could break faith with me for the sake of another man.'
'I am not likely to do that. There is no man upon this earth I care for very much except you. I am not a man prone to friendship. In fact, I am a selfish worthless fellow at the best, Gilbert, and hardly merit your serious consideration. It would be wiser of you to think of me as I really am, and to think very little of me.'
You did not show yourself remarkably selfish when you nursed me through that fever, at the hazard of your own life.'
· Pshaw! that was nothing. I could not have done less in the position in which we two were. Such sacrifices as those count for
It is when a man's own happiness is in the scale that the black spot shows itself. I tell you, Gilbert, I am not worth your friendship. It would be better for you to go your own way, and have nothing more to do with me.'
Mr. Saltram had said this kind of thing very often in the past, so that the words had no especial significance to Gilbert. He only thought that his friend was in one of those gloomy moods which were common to him at times.
I could not do without your friendship, Jack,' he said. member how barren the world is to me now. I have nothing left but that.'
* A poor substitute for better things, Gilbert. I am never likely to be much good to you or to myself. By the way, have you seen anything lately of that old man you told me about — Miss Nowell's grandfather ?
I saw him the other night. He is very ill-dying, I believe. I have written to Marian to tell her that if she does not come very quickly to see him, there is a chance of her not finding him alive.'