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for ever so short a time. But it is quite a question if I shall ever marry again. I have very little doubt that real happiness is most likely to be found in a wise avoidance of all the perils and perplexities of that foolish passion which we read of in novels, if one could only be wise ; don't you think so, Mr. Fenton ?'
• My own experience inclines me to agree with you, Mrs. Branston,' Gilbert answered, smiling at the little woman's naïveté.
• Your own experience has been unfortunate, then? I wish I were worthy of your confidence. Mr. Saltram told me some time ago that you were engaged to a very charming young lady.'
• The young lady in question has jilted me.'
*I loved her too well to be angry with her. I reserve my indignation for the scoundrel who stole her from me.'
• It is very generous of you to make excuses for the lady,' Mrs. Branston said; and would fain have talked longer of this subject, but Gilbert concluded his visit at this juncture, not caring to discuss his troubles with the sympathetic widow.
He left the great gloomy gorgeous house in Cavendish - square more than ever convinced of Adela Branston's affection for his friend, more than ever puzzled by John Saltram's indifference to so advantageous an alliance.
Within a few days of this visit Gilbert Fenton left London. He had devoted himself unflinchingly to his business since his return to England, and had so planned and organised his affairs as to be able now to absent himself for some little time from the City. He was going upon what most men would have called a fool's errand -his quest of Marian's husband; but he was going with a steady purpose in his breast-a determination never to abandon this search till it should result in success. He might have to suspend it from time to time, should he determine to continue his commercial career; but the purpose would be nevertheless the ruling influence of his life.
He had but one clue for his guidance in setting out upon this voyage of discovery. Miss Long had told him that the newly-married couple were to go to some farmhouse in Hampshire, which had been lent to Mr. Holbrook by a friend. It was in Hampshire, therefore, that Gilbert resolved to make his first inquiries. He told himself that success was merely a question of time and patience. The business of tracing these people, who were not to be found by any public inquiry, would be slow and wearisome no doubt. He was prepared for that. He was prepared for a thousand failures and disappointments before he alighted on the one place in which Mr. Holbrook's name must needs be known, the town or village nearest to the farmhouse that had been lent to him. And even if, after unheard-of trouble and perseverance on his part, he should find the place he wanted, it was quite possible that Marian and her husband would have gone elsewhere, and his quest would have to begin afresh. But he fancied that he could hardly fail to obtain some information as to their plan of life, if he could find the place where they had stayed after their marriage.
His own scheme of action was simple enough. He had only to travel from place to place, making careful inquiries at post - offices and in all likely quarters at every stage of his journey. He went straight to Winchester, having a fancy for the quiet old city and the fair pastoral scenery surrounding it, and thinking that Mr. Holbrook's borrowed retreat might possibly be in this neighbourhood. The business proved even slower and more tedious than he had supposed; there were so many farms round about Winchester, so many places which seemed likely enough, and to which he went, only to find that no person of the name of Holbrook had ever been heard of by the inhabitants.
He made his head-quarters in the cathedral city for nearly a week, and explored the country round, in a radius of thirty miles, without the faintest success. It was fine autumn weather, calm and clear, the foliage still upon the trees, in all its glory of gold and brown, with patches of green lingering here and there in sheltered places. The country was very beautiful, and Gilbert Fenton's work would have been pleasant enough if the elements of peace had been in his breast. But they were not. Bitter regrets for all he had lost, uneasy fears and wild imaginings about the fate of her whom he still loved with a fond useless passion,—these and other gloomy thoughts haunted him day by day, clouding the calm loveliness of the scenes on which he looked, until all outer things seemed to take their colour from his own mind. He had loved Marian Nowell as it is not given to many men to love; and with the loss of her, it seemed to him as if the very springs of his life were broken. All the machinery of his existence was loosened and out of gear, and he could scarcely have borne the dreary burden of his days, had it not been for that one feverish hope of finding the man who had wronged him.
The week ended without bringing him in the smallest degree nearer the chance of success. Happily for himself, he had not expected to succeed in a week. On leaving Winchester he started on a kind of vagabond tour through the county, on a horse which he hired in the cathedral city, and which carried him from twenty to thirty miles a day. This mode of travelling enabled him to explore obscure villages and out-of-the-way places that lay off the line of railway. Everywhere he made the same inquiries, everywhere with the same result. Another week came to an end. He had made his voyage of discovery through more than half of the county, as his pocket-map told him, and was still no nearer success than when he left London.
He spent his Sunday at a comfortable inn in a quiet little town, where there was a curious old church, and a fine peal of bells that seemed to him to be ringing all day long. It was a dull rainy day. He went to church in the morning, and in the afternoon stood at the coffee-room window watching the townspeople going by to their devotions in an absent unseeing way, and thinking of his own troubles; pausing, just a little, now and then, from that egotistical brooding to wonder how these people endured the dull monotonous round of their lives, and what crosses and disappointments they had to suffer in their small obscure way.
The inn was very empty, and the landlord waited upon Mr. Fenton in person at his dinner. Gilbert had the coffee-room all to himself, and it looked comfortable enough when the curtains were drawn, the lamps lighted, and the small dinner-table wheeled in front of a blazing fire.
I have been thinking over what you were asking me last night, sir,' the host of the White Swan began, while Gilbert was eating his fish ; ' and though I can't say that I ever heard the name of Holbrook, I fancy I may have seen the lady and gentleman you are looking for.'
• Indeed!' exclaimed Gilbert eagerly, pushing away his plate, and turning full on the landlord.
"I hope you won't let me spoil your dinner, sir ; I know that sole's fresh. I'm a pretty good judge of those things, and choose every bit of fish that's cooked in this house. But as I was saying, sir, with regard to this lady and gentleman, I think you said that the people you are looking for were strangers to this part of the country, and were occupying a farmhouse that had been lent to them.'
· Well, sir, I remember some time in the early part of the year, I think it must have been about March
Yes, the people I am looking for would have arrived in March.'
Indeed, sir! That makes it seem likely. I remember a lady and gentleman coming here from the railway station-we've got a station close by our town, as you know, sir, I daresay. They wanted a fly to take them and their luggage on somewhere—I can't for the life of me remember the name of the place—but it was a ten-mile drive, and it was a farm—that I could swear to—Something Farm. If it had been a place I'd known, I think I should have remembered the name.'
* Can I see the man who drove them ?' Gilbert asked quickly.
• The young man that drove them, sir, has left me, and has left these parts a month come next Tuesday. Where he has gone is more than I can tell you. He was very good with horses ; but he turned out badly, cheated me up hill and down dale, as you may say—though what hills and dales have got to do with it is more than I can tell—and I was obliged to get rid of him.'
· That's provoking. But if the people I want are anywhere within ten miles of this place, I don't suppose I should be long finding them. Yet the mere fact of two strangers coming here, and going on to some place called a farm, seems very slight ground to go upon. The month certainly corresponds with the time at which Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook came to Hampshire. Did you take any particular notice of them ?'
'I took particular notice of the lady. She was as pretty a woman as ever I set eyes upon-quite a girl. I noticed that the gentleman was very careful and tender with her when he put her into the carriage, wrapping her up, and so on.
He looked a good deal older than her, and I didn't much like his looks altogether.'
• Could you describe him ?'
Well—no, sir. The time was short, and he was wrapped up a good deal; the collar of his overcoat turned up, and a scarf round his neck. He had dark eyes, I remember, and rather a stern look in them.'
This was rather too vague a description to make any impression upon Gilbert. It was something certainly to know that his rival had dark eyes, if indeed this man of whom the landlord spoke really were his rival. He had never been able to make any mental picture of the stranger who had come between him and his betrothed. He had been inclined to fancy that the man must needs be much handsomer than himself, possessed of every outward attribute calculated to subjugate the mind of an inexperienced girl like Marian ; but the parish-clerk at Wygrove and Miss Long had both spoken in a disparaging tone of Mr. Holbrook's personal appearance; and, remembering this, he was fain to believe that Marian had been won by some charm more subtle than that of a handsome face.
He went on eating his dinner in silence for some little time, meditating upon what the landlord had told him. Then, as the man cleared the table, lingering over his work, as if eager to impart any stray scraps of information he might possess, Gilbert spoke to him again.
'I should have fancied that, as a settled inhabitant of the place, you would be likely to know every farm and farmhouse within ten miles—or within twenty miles,' he said.
· Well, sir, I daresay I do know the neighbourhood pretty well, in a general way. But I think, if I'd known the name of the place this lady and gentleman were going to, it would have struck me more than it did, and I should have remembered it. I was uncommonly busy through that afternoon, for it was market-day, and there were a mort of people going in and out. And I never did interfere much with the fly business; it was only by taking the gentleman out some soda-and-brandy that I came to take the notice I did of the lady's looks and his care of her. I know it was a ten-mile drive, and that I told the gentleman the fare, so as there might be no bother between him and William Tyler, my man, at the end ; and he agreed to it in a liberal off-hand kind of way, like a man who doesn't care much for money. As to farms within ten miles of here, there are a dozen at least, one way and another—some small, and some large.
• Do you know of any place in the ownership of a gentleman who would be likely to lend his house to a friend ?'
'I can't say I do, sir. They're tenant-farmers about here mostly, and rather a roughish lot, as you may say. There's a place over beyond Crosber, ten miles off and more; I don't know the name of it, or the person it belongs to; but I've noticed it many a time as I've driven by; a curious old-fashioned house, standing back off one of the lanes out of Crosber, with a large garden before it.
A queer lonesome place altogether. I should take it to be two or three hundred years old; and I shouldn't think the house had had money spent upon it within the memory of man. It's a dilapidated tumbledown old gazabo of a place, and yet there's a kind of prettiness about it in summer-time, when the garden is full of flowers. There's a river runs through some of the land about half a mile from the house.'
• What kind of a place is Crosber?'
"A bit of a village on the road from here to Portsmouth. The house I'm telling you about is a mile from Crosber at the least, away from the main road. There's two or three lanes or byroads about there, and it lies in one of them that turns sharp off by the Blue Boar, which is about the only inn where you can bait a horse thereabouts.'
* I'll ride over there to-morrow morning, and have a look at this queer old house. You might give me the names of any other farms you know about this neighbourhood, and their occupants.'
This the landlord was very ready to do. He ran over the names of from ten to fifteen places, which Gilbert jotted down upon a leaf of his pocket-book, afterwards planning his route upon the map of the county which he carried for his guidance. He set out early the next morning under a low gray sky, with clouds in the distance that threatened rain. The road from the little market-town to Crosber possessed no especial beauty. The country was flat and uninteresting about here, and needed the glory of its summer verdure to brighten and embellish it. But Mr. Fenton did not give much thought to the scenes through which he went at this time; the world around and about him was all of one colour—the sunless gray which pervaded his own life. To-day the low dull sky and the threatening clouds far away upon the level horizon harmonised well