Page images
PDF
EPUB

caused by those pecuniary difficulties from which the Pallinsons declared him so constant a sufferer. Yes, she told herself, it was trouble of this kind that oppressed him, that had banished him from her all this time. He was too generous to repair his shattered fortunes by means of her money ; he was too proud to confess his fallen state.

A tender pity took possession of her. All that was most sentimental in her nature was awakened by the idea of John Saltram's generosity. What was the use of her fortune, if she could not employ it for the relief of the man she loved ?

• You are so kind to me, Mr. Saltram,' she faltered, after a troubled pause ; so ready to help me in my perplexities, I only wish you would allow me to be of some use to you in yours, if you have any perplexities; and I suppose everybody has, of some kind or other.

I should be so proud if you would give me your confidence- -so proud and happy.' Her voice trembled a little as she said this, looking up at him all the while with soft confiding blue eyes, the fair delicate face looking its prettiest in the coquettish widow's head-gear.

A man must have been harder of heart than John Saltram who could remain unmoved by a tenderness so evident. This man was touched, and deeply. The pale careworn face grew more troubled, the firmly-moulded lips quivered ever so little, as he looked down at the widow's pleading countenance; and then he turned his head aside with a sudden half-impatient movement.

My dear Mrs. Branston, you are too good to me; I am unworthy, I am in every way unworthy of your kindness.'

• You are not unworthy, and that is no answer to my question ; only an excuse to put me off. We are such old friends, Mr. Saltram, you might trust me. You own that you have been worried worked — worried about money matters, perhaps. I know that gentlemen are generally subject to that kind of annoyance; and you know how rich I am, how little employment I have for my money, though you can never imagine how worthless and useless it seems to me. Why won't you trust me ? why won't you

let me be

over

your banker ?

She blushed crimson as she made this offer, dreading that the man she loved would turn upon her fiercely in a passion of offended pride. She sat before him trembling, dreading the might of his indignation.

But there was no anger in John Saltram's face when he looked round at her; only grief and an expression that was like pity.

• The offer is like you,' he said with suppressed feeling ; but the worries of which I spoke just now are not money troubles. I do not pretend to deny that my affairs are embarrassed, and have been for so long that entanglement has become their normal state ; but if they were ever so much more desperate, I could not afford to trade upon your generosity. No, Mrs. Branston, that is just the very last thing in this world that I could consent to do.'

It is very cruel of you to say that,' Adela answered, with the tears gathering in her clear blue eyes, and with a little childish look of vexation, which would have seemed infinitely charming in the eyes of a man who loved her. There can be no reason for your saying this, except that you do not think me worthy of your confidence—that you despise me too much to treat me like a friend. If I were that Mr. Fenton now, whom you care for so much, you would not treat me like this.'

“I never borrowed a sixpence from Gilbert Fenton in my life, though I know that his purse is always open to me. But friendship is apt to end when money transactions begin. Believe me, I feel your goodness, Mrs. Branston, your womanly generosity; but it is my own unworthiness that comes between me and your kindness. I can accept nothing from you but the sympathy which it is your nature to give to all who need it.'

'I do indeed sympathise with you ; but it seems so hard that you will not consent to make some use of all that money which is lying idle. It would make me so happy if I could think it were useful to you; but I dare not say any more.

I have said too much already, perhaps; only I hope you will not think very badly of me for having acted on impulse in this way.'

* Think badly of you, my dear kind soul! What can I think, except that you are one of the most generous of women ?'

And about these other troubles, Mr. Saltram, which have no relation to money matters; you will not give me your confidence ?'

• There is nothing that I can confide in you, Mrs. Branston. Others are involved in the matter of which I spoke. I am not free to talk about it.'

Poor Adela felt herself repulsed at every point. It seemed very hard. Had she been mistaken about this man all the time ? mistaken and deluded in those old happy days during her husband's lifetime, when he had been so constant a visitor at the riverside villa, and had seemed exactly what a man might seem who cherished a tenderness which he dared not reveal in the present, but which, in a brighter future, might blossom into the full-blown flower of love ?

· And now about your own affairs, my dear Mrs. Branston ?' John Saltram said with a forced cheerfulness, drawing his chair up to the table and assuming a business-like manner. These tiresome letters of your lawyer's; let me see what use I can be in the matter.'

Adela Branston produced the letters with rather an absent air. They were letters about very insignificant affairs : the renewal of a lease or two; the reinvestment of a sum of money that had been

[ocr errors]

6

lent on mortgage, and had fallen in lately; transactions that scarcely called for the employment of Mr. Saltram's intellectual powers. But he gave them very serious attention nevertheless, well aware all the time that this business consultation was only the widow's excuse for her visit; and while she seemed to be listening to his advice, her eyes were wandering round the room all the time, noting the dust and confusion, the soda - water bottles huddled in one corner, the pile of books heaped in a careless mass in another, the half-empty brandy-bottle between a couple of stone ink-jars on the mantelpiece. She was thinking what a dreary place it was, and that there was the stamp of decay and ruin somehow upon

the man who occupied it. And she loved him so well, and would have given all the world to have redeemed his life.

It is doubtful whether Adela Branston heard one syllable of that counsel which Mr. Saltram administered so gravely. Her mind was full of the failure of this desperate step which she had taken. He seemed farther from her now than before they had met, obstinately averse to profit by her friendship, cold and cruel.

You will come and dine with us very soon, I hope,' she said as she rose to go. “My cousin Mrs. Pallinson will be home in a day or two. She has been nursing her son for the last few days; but he is much better, and I expect her back immediately. We shall be so pleased to see you; you will name an early day, won't you ? Monday shall we say, or Sunday? You can't plead business on Sunday.'

My dear Mrs. Branston, I am really not well enough for visiting.'

• But dining with us does not come under the head of visiting. We will be quite alone, if you wish it. I shall be hurt if you refuse to come.'

If you put it in that way, I cannot refuse; but I fear you will find me wretched company.'

I am not afraid of that. And now I must ask you to forgive me for having wasted so much of your time, before I say goodmorning.'

"There has been no time of mine wasted. I have learned to know your generous heart even better than I knew it before, and I think I always knew that it was a noble one. Believe me, I am not ungrateful or indifferent to so much goodness.'

He accompanied her downstairs, and through the courts and passages to the place where she had left her cab, in spite of the ticket - porter, who was hanging about ready to act as escort. He saw her safely seated in the hackney vehicle, and then walked slowly back to his chambers, thinking over the interview which had just concluded.

Poor little soul,' he said softly to himself; dear little soul !

[ocr errors]

6

There are men who would go to the end of the world for a woman like that; yes, if she had not a sixpence. And to think that I, who thought myself so strong in the wisdom of the world, should have let such a prize slip through my fingers! For what? For a fancy, for a caprice that has brought confusion and shame upon me —disappointment and regret.'

He breathed a profound sigh. From first to last life had been more or less a disappointment to this man. He had lived alone; lived for himself, despising the ambitious aims and lofty hopes of other men, thinking the best prizes this world can give scarcely worth that long struggle which is so apt to end in failure ; perfect success was so rare a result, it seemed to him. He made a rough calculation of his chances in any given line when he was still fresh from college, and finding the figures against him, gave up all thought of doing great things. By and by, when his creditors grew pressing and it was necessary for him to earn money in some way, he found that it was no trouble to him to write; so he wrote with a spasmodic kind of industry, but a forty-horse power when he chose to exercise it. For a long time he had no thought of winning name or fame in literature. It was only of late it had dawned upon him that he had wasted labour and talent, out of which a wiser man would have created for himself a reputation; and that reputation is worth something, if only as a means of making money.

This conviction once arrived at, he had worked hard at a book which he thought must needs make some impression upon the world, whenever he could afford time to complete it. In the mean while his current work occupied so much of his life, that he was fain to lay the magnum opus aside every now and then, and it still needed a month or two of quiet labour.

CHAPTER XXVIII.

AT FAULT.

GILBERT FENTON took up his abode at the dilapidated old inn at Crosber, thinking that he might be freer there than at the Grange; a dismal place of sojourn under the brightest circumstances, but unspeakably dreary for him who had only the saddest thoughts for his companions. He wanted to be on the spot, to be close at hand to hear tidings of the missing girl, and he wanted also to be here in the event of John Holbrook's return—to come face to face with this man, if possible, and to solve that question which had sorely perplexed him of late—the mystery that hung about the man who had wronged him.

He consulted Ellen Carley as to the probability of Mr. Holbrook's return. The girl seemed to think it very unlikely that Marian's husband would ever again appear at the Grange. His last departure had appeared like a final one. He had paid every sixpence he owed in the neighbourhood, and had been liberal in his donations to the servants and hangers-on of the place. Marian's belongings he had left to Ellen Carley's care, telling her to pack them, and keep them in readiness for being forwarded to any address he might send. But his own books and papers he had carefully removed.

· Had he many books here ?' Gilbert asked.

Not many,' the girl answered; but he was a very studious gentleman. He spent almost all his time shut up in his own room reading and writing.'

Indeed!'

In this respect the habits of the unknown corresponded exactly with those of John Saltram. Gilbert Fenton's heart beat a little quicker at the thought that he was coming nearer by a step to the solution of that question which was always uppermost in his mind

now.

• Do you know if he wrote books—if he was what is called a literary man-living by his pen ?' he asked presently.

“I don't know ; I never heard his wife say so. But Mrs. Holbrook was always reserved about him and his history. I think he had forbidden her to talk about his affairs. I know I used to fancy it was a dull life for her, poor soul, sitting in his room hour after hour, working while he wrote. He used not to allow her to be with him at all at first, but little by little she persuaded him to let her sit with him, promising not to disturb him by so much as a wordand she never did. She seemed quite happy when she was with him, contented, and proud to think that her presence was no hindrance to him.'

* And you think he loved her, don't you ?'

* At first, yes; but I think a kind of weariness came over him afterwards, and that she saw it, and almost broke her heart about it. She was so simple and innocent, poor darling, it wasn't easy for her to hide anything she felt.'

Gilbert asked the bailiff's daughter to describe Mr. Holbrook to him, as she had done more than once before. But this time he questioned her closely, and contrived that her description of this man’s outward semblance should be especially minute and careful.

Yes, the picture which arose before him as Ellen Carley spoke was the picture of John Saltram. The description seemed in every particular to apply to the face and figure of his one chosen friend. But then all such verbal pictures are at best vague and shadowy, and Gilbert knew that he carried that one image in his mind, and would be apt unconsciously to twist the girl's words into that one shape. He asked if any picture or photograph of Mr. Holbrook had been left at the Grange, and Ellen Carley told him no, she had never even seen a portrait of Marian's husband.

« PreviousContinue »