Page images

what could I do but make inquiries anywhere and everywhere? I was almost wild with fright by this time. They could tell me nothing at Wyncomb Farm. Stephen Whitelaw was alone in the kitchen smoking his pipe by a great fire. He hadn't been out all day, he told me, and none of his people had seen or heard anything out of the common. As to any harm having come to Mrs. Holbrook by the river-bank, he said he didn't think that was possible, for his men had been at work in the fields near the river all the afternoon, and must have seen or heard if there had been anything wrong. There was some kind of comfort in this, and I left the farm with my mind a little lighter than it had been when I went in there. I knew that Stephen Whitelaw was no friend to Mrs. Holbrook ; that he had a kind of grudge against her because she had been on some one else's side—in—in something.' Ellen Carley blushed as she came to this part of her story, and then went on rather hurriedly to hide her confusion. • He didn't like her, sir, you see. I knew this, but I didn't think it possible he could deceive me in a matter of life and death. So I came home, hoping to find Mrs. Holbrook there before me. But there were no signs of her, nor of her husband either, though I had fully expected to see him. Even father owned that things looked bad now, and he let me send every man about the place—some one way, and some another—to hunt for my poor darling. I went into Crosber myself, though it was getting late by this time, and made inquiries of every creature I knew in the village ; but it was all no good : no one had seen anything of the lady I was looking for.'

. And the husband ?' Gilbert asked again; "what of him ?'

He came next day at the usual hour, after we had been astir all night, and the farm-labourers had been far and wide looking for Mrs. Holbrook. I never saw any one seem so shocked and horrified as he did when we told him how his wife had been missing for more than four-and-twenty hours. He is not a gentleman to show his feelings much at ordinary times, and he was quiet enough in the midst of his alarm; but he turned as white as death, and I never saw the natural colour come back to his face all the time he was down here.'

*How long did he stay ?'

• He only left yesterday. He was travelling about the country all the time, coming back here of a night to sleep, and with the hope that we might have heard something in his absence. The river was dragged for three days; but, thank God, nothing came of that. Mr. Holbrook set the Malsham police to work—not that they're much good, I think; but he wouldn't leave a stone unturned. And now I believe he has gone to London to get help from the police there. But 0, sir, I can't make it out, and I have lain awake night after night thinking of it, and puzzling myself about it, until all sorts of dreadful fancies come into my mind.'

• What fancies ?

• O sir, I scarcely dare tell you ; but I loved that sweet young lady so well, that I have been as watchful and jealous in all things that concerned her as if she had been my own sister. I have thought sometimes that her husband had grown tired of her; that, however dearly he might have loved her at first, as I suppose he did, his love had worn out little by little, and he felt her a burden to him. What other reason could there be for him to keep her hidden away in this dull place, month after month, when he must have seen that her youth and beauty and gaiety of heart were slowly vanishing away, if he had eyes to see anything ?'

• But, good heavens !' Gilbert exclaimed, startled by the sudden horror of the idea which Ellen Carley's words suggested, you surely do not imagine that Marian's husband had any part in her disappearance ? that he could be capable of—'

I don't know what to think, sir,' the girl answered, interrupting him. I know that I have never liked Mr. Holbrook

-never liked or trusted him from the first, though he has been civil enough and kind enough in his own distant way to me. That dear young lady could not disappear off the face of the earth, as it seems she has done, without the evil work of some one. As to her leaving this place of her own free will, without a word of warning to her husband or to me, that I am sure she would never dream of doing. No, sir, there has been foul play of some kind, and I'm afraid I shall never see that dear face again.'

The girl said this with an air of conviction that sent a deadly chill to Gilbert Fenton's heart. It seemed to him in this moment of supreme anguish as if all his trouble of the past, all his vague fears and anxieties about the woman he loved, had been the foreshadowing of this evil to come. He had a blank helpless feeling, a dismal sense of his own weakness, which for the moment mastered him. Against any ordinary calamity he would have held himself bravely enough, with the natural strength of an ardent hopeful character; but against this mysterious catastrophe courage and manhood could avail nothing. She was gone, the fragile helpless creature he had pledged himself to protect; gone from all who knew her, leaving not the faintest clue to her fate. Could he doubt that this energetic warm-hearted girl was right, and that some foul deed had been done, of which Marian Holbrook was the victim ?

• If she lives, I will find her,' he said at last, after a long pause, in which he had sat in gloomy silence, with his eyes fixed upon the ground, meditating the circumstances of Marian's disappearance.

Living or dead, I will find her. It shall be the business of my life from this hour. All my serious thoughts have been of her from the moment in which I first knew her. They will be doubly hers henceforward.'



[ocr errors]

How good and true you are !' Ellen Carley exclaimed admiringly, and how you must have loved her! I guessed when you were here last that it was you to whom she was engaged before her marriage, and told her as much ; but she would not acknowledge that I was right. O, how I wish she had kept faith with you! how much happier she might have been as your wife !'

People have different notions of happiness, you see, Miss Carley,' Gilbert answered, with a bitter smile. Yes, you were right; it was I who was to have been Marian Nowell's husband, whose every hope of the future was bound up in her. But all that is past; whatever bitterness I felt against her at first—and I do not think I was ever very bitter-has passed away. I am nothing now but her friend, her steadfast and constant friend.'

• Thank heaven that she has such a friend,' Ellen said earnestly. ' And you will make it your business to look for her, sir ?'

* The chief object of my life, from this hour.'

* And you will try to discover whether her husband is really true, or whether the search that he has made for her has been a blind to hide his own guilt ?'

What grounds have you for supposing his guilt possible ?' asked Gilbert. • There are crimes too detestable for credibility; and this would be such a one. You may imagine that I have no friendly feeling towards this man, yet I cannot for an instant conceive him capable of harming a hair of his wife's head.'

• Because you have not brooded upon this business as I have, sir, for hours and hours together, until the smallest things seem to have an awful meaning. I have thought of every word and every look of Mr. Holbrook's in the past, and all my thoughts have pointed one way. I believe that he was tired of his sweet young wife; that his marriage was a burden and a trouble to him somehow; that it had arisen out of an impulse that had passed away.'

• All this might be, and yet the man be innocent.'

• He might be-yes, sir. It is a hard thing, perhaps, even to think him guilty for a moment. But it is so difficult to account in any common way for Mrs. Holbrook's disappearance. If there had been murder done' (the girl shuddered as she said the words)—'a common murder, such as one hears of in lonely country placessurely it must have come to light before this, after the search that has been made all round about. But it would have been easy enough for Mr. Holbrook to decoy his wife away to London or anywhere else. She would have gone anywhere with him, at a moment's notice. She obeyed him implicitly in everything.'

* But why should he have taken her away from this place in a secret manner ?' asked Gilbert; he was free to remove her openly. And then you describe him as taking an amount of trouble in his search for her, which might have been so easily avoided, had he acted with ordinary prudence and caution. Say that he wanted to keep the secret of his marriage from the world in which he lives, and to place his wife in even a more secluded spot than this—which scarcely seems possible—what could have been easier for him than to take her away when and where he pleased ? No one here would have had any right to question his actions.'

Ellen Carley shook her head doubtfully.

* I don't know, sir,' she answered slowly; 'I daresay my fancies are very foolish—they may have come perhaps out of thinking about this so much, till my brain has got addled, as one may say. But it flashed upon me all of a sudden one night, as Mr. Holbrook was standing in our parlour talking about his wife--it flashed upon me that he was in the secret of her disappearance, and that he was only acting with us in his pretence of anxiety and all that; I fancied there was a guilty look in his face, somehow.'

Did you tell him about his wife's good fortune—the money left her by her grandfather?'

'I did, sir ; I thought it right to tell him everything I could about my poor dear young lady's journey to London. She had told him of that in her letters, it seemed, but not about the money. She had been keeping that back for the pleasure of telling him with her own lips, and seeing his face light up, she said to me, when he heard the good news. I asked him about the letter which had come in the morning of the day she disappeared, and whether it was from him; but he said no, he had not written, counting upon being with his wife that evening. It was only at the last moment he was prevented coming.'

You have looked for that letter, I suppose ?'

* O yes, sir ; I searched, and Mr. Holbrook too, in every direction, but the letter wasn't to be found. He seemed very vexed about it, very anxious to find it. We could not but think that Mrs. Holbrook had gone to meet some one that day, and that the letter had something to do with her going out. I am sure she would not have gone beyond the garden and the meadow for pleasure alone. She never had been outside the gate without me, except when she went to meet her husband.'

'Strange !' muttered Gilbert.

He was wondering about that letter: what could have been the lure which had beguiled Marian away from the house that day; what except a letter from her husband ? It seemed hardly probable that she would have gone to meet any one but him, or that any one else would have appointed a meeting on the river-bank. The fact that she had gone out at an earlier hour than the time at which she had been in the habit of meeting her husband when he came from the Malsham station, went some way to prove that the letter had influenced her movements. Gilbert thought of the fortune which had been left to Marian, and which gave her existence a new value, perhaps exposed her to new dangers. Her husband's interests were involved in her life—her death, should she die childless, must needs deprive him of all advantage from Jacob Nowell's wealth. The only person to profit from such an event would be Percival Nowell; but he was far away, Gilbert believed, and completely ignorant of his reversionary interest in his father's property. There was Medler the attorney, a man whom Gilbert had distrusted from the first. It was just possible that the letter had been from him; yet most improbable that he should have asked Mrs. Holbrook to meet him out of doors, instead of coming to her at the Grange, or that she should have acceded to such a request had he made it.

The whole affair was encompassed with mystery, and Gilbert Fenton's heart sank as he contemplated the task that lay before him.

'I shall spend a day or two in this neighbourhood before I return to town,' he said to Ellen Carley presently; there are inquiries that I should like to make with my own lips. I shall be only going over old ground, I daresay, but it will be some satisfaction to me to do it for myself. Can you give me house-room here for a night or two, or shall I put up at Crosber ?'

• I'm sure father would be very happy to accommodate you here, sir. We've plenty of room now—too much for my taste. The house seems like a wilderness now Mrs. Holbrook is gone.'

• Thanks. I shall be very glad to sleep here. There is just the chance that you may have some news for me, or I for you.'

* Ah, sir, it's only a very poor chance, I'm afraid,' the girl answered hopelessly.

She went with Gilbert to the gate, and watched him as he walked away towards the river. His first impulse was to follow the path which Marian had taken that day, and to see for himself what manner of place it was from which she had so mysteriously vanished.


IN BONDAGE. ADELA BRANSTON found life very dreary in the splendid gloom of her town house. She would have infinitely preferred the villa near Maidenhead for the place of her occupation, had it not been for the fact that in London she was nearer John Saltram, and that any moment of any day might bring him to her side.

The days passed, however-empty useless days, frittered away in frivolous occupations, or wasted in melancholy idleness; and John Saltram did not come, or came so rarely that the only effect of his visits was to keep up the fever and restlessness of the widow's mind.

« PreviousContinue »