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Adela gave a little impatient sigh. She was thinking how gladly she would have made this man master of her ample fortune; wondering whether he would ever claim from her the allegiance she was so ready to give.
Mr. Pallinson did his best to engage his cousin's attention during the rest of the evening. He brought her her teacup, and hovered about her while she sipped the beverage with that graceful air of suppressed tenderness which constant practice in the drawing-rooms of Maida-hill had rendered almost natural to him ; but, do what he would, he could not distract Mrs. Branston's thoughts and looks from John Saltram. It was on him that her eyes were fixed while the accomplished Theobald was giving her a lively account of a concert at the Eyre Arms; and it was the fascination of his presence which made her answer at random to her cousin's questions about the last volume of the laureate's, which she had been lately reading. Even Mr. Pallinson, obtuse as he was apt to be when called upon to comprehend any fact derogatory to his own self-esteem, was fain to confess to himself that this evening's efforts were futile, and that this dark-faced stranger was the favourite for those matrimonial stakes he had entered himself to run for. He looked at Mr. Saltram with a critical eye many times in the course of the evening, wondering what possible merit any sensible woman could perceive in such a man. But then, as Theobald Pallinson reflected, the misfortune is that so few women are sensible; and it was gradually becoming evident to him that Michael Branston's widow was amongst the most foolish of her sex.
Mrs. Pallinson kept a sharp watch upon Adela throughout the evening, plunging into the conversation every now and then with a somewhat dictatorial and infallible air, and generally contriving to drag some praise of Theobald into her talk: now dilating rapturously upon that fever case which he had managed so wonderfully the other day, proving his judgment superior to that of an eminent consulting physician; anon launching out into laudation of his last poem, which had been set to music by a young lady in St. John's-wood; and by and by informing the company of her son’s artistic talents, and his extraordinary capacity as a judge of pictures. To these things the surgeon himself listened with a deprecating air, smoothing his wristbands, and caressing his slim white hands, while he playfully reproved his parent for her maternal weakness.
Mr. Pallinson held his ground near his cousin's chair till the last moment, while John Saltram sat apart by one of the tables, listlessly turning over a volume of engravings, and only looking up at long intervals to join in the conversation. He had an absent weary look, which puzzled Gilbert Fenton, who, being only a secondary personage in this narrow circle, had ample leisure to observe his friend.
The three gentlemen left at the same time, Mr. Pallinson driving away in a neat miniature brougham, after politely offering to convey his cousin's guests to their destination. It was a bright starlight night, and Gilbert walked to the Temple with John Saltram, through the quietest of the streets leading eastwards. They lit their cigars as they left the square, and walked for some time in a friendly companionable silence. When they did speak, their talk was naturally of Adela Branston.
'I thought she was really charming to-night,' Gilbert said, 'in spite of that fellow's efforts to absorb her attention.
It is pretty easy to see how the land lies in that direction; and if such a rival were likely to injure you, you have a very determined one in Mr. Pallinson.'
• Yes; the surgeon has evidently fixed his hopes upon poor old Michael Branston's money.
But I don't think he will succeed.' • You will not allow him to do so, I hope ?'
'I don't know about that. Then you really admire the little woman, Gilbert ?'
* Very much ; as much as I have ever admired any woman except Marian Nowell.'
• Ah, your Marian is a star, single and alone in her brightness, like that planet up yonder! But Adela Branston is a good little soul, and will make a charming wife. Gilbert, I wish to heaven you would fall in love with her!
Gilbert Fenton stared aghast at his companion, as he tossed the end of his cigar into the gutter.
Why, John, you must be mad to say such a thing.'
No, it is by no means a mad notion. I want to see you cured, Gilbert. I do like you, dear boy, you know, as much as it is possible for a selfish worthless fellow like me to like any man. I would give a great deal to see you happy; and I am sure that you might be so as Adela Branston's husband. I grant you that I am the favourite at present; but she is just the sort of woman to be won by any man who would really prove himself worthy of her. Her liking for me is a mere idle fancy, which would soon die out for want of fuel. You are my superior in every way --younger, handsomer, better. Why should you not go in for this thing, Gil ?'
· Because I have no heart to give any woman, John. And even if I were free, I would not give my heart to a woman whose affection had to be diverted from another channel before it could be bestowed upon me.
I can't imagine what has put such a preposterous idea into your head, or why it is that you shrink from improving your own chances with Mrs. Branston.'
* You must not wonder at anything that I do or say, Gilbert. It is my nature to do strange things—my destiny to take the wrong turning in life !
When shall I see you again ?' Gilbert asked, when they were parting at the Temple gates.
'I can scarcely tell you that. I must go back to Oxford tomorrow.'
So soon ?'
Yes, my work gets on better down there. I will let you know directly I return to London.'
On this they parted, Gilbert considerably mystified by his friend's conduct, but not caring to push his questions farther. He had his own affairs to think of: that one business which absorbed almost the whole of his thoughts—the business of his search for the man who had robbed him of his promised wife. This interval, in which he remained inactive, devoting himself to the duties of his commercial life, was only a pause in his labours. He was not the less bent upon bringing about a face-to-face meeting between himself and Marian's husband because of this brief suspension of his efforts.
FATHER AND SON.
WHILE Gilbert Fenton was deliberating what steps to take next in his quest of his unknown enemy, a gentleman arrived at a small hotel near Charing-cross—a gentleman who was evidently a stranger to England, and whose portmanteaus and other travelling paraphernalia bore the names of New York manufacturers. He was a portly individual of middle age, and was still eminently handsome. He dressed well, lived expensively, and had altogether a prosperous appearance. He took care to inform the landlord of the hotel that he was not an American, but had returned to the land of his birth after an absence of something like fifteen years, and after realising a handsome fortune upon the other side of the Atlantic.
He was a very gracious and communicative person, and seemed to take life in an easy agreeable manner, like a man whose habit it was to look on the brighter side of all things, provided his own comfort was secured. Norton Percival was the name on this gentleman's luggage, and on the card which he gave to the waiter whom he desired to look after his letters. After dining sumptuously on the evening of his arrival in London, this Mr. Percival strolled out in the autumn darkness, and made his way through the more obscure streets between Charing-cross and Wardour-street. The way seemed familiar enough to him, and he only paused now and then to take note of some alteration in the buildings which he had to pass. The last twenty years have not made much change in this neighbourhood, and the traveller from New York found little to surprise him.
* The place looks just as dull and dingy as it used to look when I was a lad,' he said to himself. “I daresay I shall find the old
court unchanged in all these years. But shall I find the old man alive? I doubt that. Dead more likely, and his money gone to strangers. I wonder whether he had much money, or whether he was really as poor as he made himself out. It's difficult to say. I know I made him bleed pretty freely, at one time and another, before he turned rusty; and it's just possible I may have had pretty nearly all he had to give.'
He was in Wardour-street by this time, looking at the dimlylighted shops where broker's ware of more or less value, old oak carvings, doubtful pictures, and rusted armour loomed duskily upon the passer-by. At the corner of Queen Anne's-court he paused, and peered curiously into the narrow alley.
• The court is still here, at any rate,' he muttered to himself, and I shall soon settle the other question.'
His heart beat faster than it was wont to beat as he drew near his destination. Was it any touch of real feeling, or only selfish apprehension, that quickened its throbbing? The man's life had been so utterly reckless of others, that it would be dangerous to give him credit for any affectionate yearning—any natural remorseful pang in such a moment as this. He had lived for self, and self alone; and his own interests were involved in the issue of to-night.
A few steps brought him before Jacob Nowell's window. Yes, it was just as he remembered it twenty years before — the same dingy old silver, the same little heap of gold, the same tray of tarnished jewelry glimmered in the faint light of a solitary gas-burner behind the murky glass. On the door-plate there was still Jacob Nowell's name. Yet all this might mean nothing. The grave might have closed over the old silversmith, and the interest of trade necessitate the preservation of the familiar name.
The gentleman calling himself Percival went into the shop. How well he remembered the sharp jangling sound of the bell! and how intensely he had hated it and all the surroundings of his father's sordid life in the days when he was pursuing his headlong career as a fine gentleman, and only coming to Queen Anne's-court for money! He remembered what an incubus the shop had been upon him ; what a pursuing phantom and perpetual image of his degradation in the days of his university life, when he was incessantly haunted by the dread that his father's social status would be discovered. The atmosphere of the place brought back all the old feelings, and he was young again, a nervous supplicant for money, which was likely to be refused to him.
The sharp peal of the bell produced Mr. Luke Tulliver, who emerged from a little den in a corner at the back of the shop, where he had been engaged copying items into a stock-book by the light of a solitary tallow-candle. The stranger looked like a customer, and Mr. Tulliver received him graciously, turning up the gas over the counter, which had been burning at a diminished and economical rate hitherto.
Did you wish to look at anything in antique silver, sir ?' he asked briskly. We have some very handsome specimens of the Queen Anne period.'
No, I don't want to look at anything. I want to know whether Jacob Nowell is still living ?'
• Yes, sir. Mr. Nowell is my master. You might have noticed his name upon the door-plate if you had looked. Do you wish to see him ?
*I do. Tell him that I am an old friend, just come from America.'
Luke Tulliver went into the parlour behind the half-glass door, Norton Percival following upon him closely. He heard the old man's voice saying,
• I have no friend in America ; but you may tell the person to come in; I will see him.'
The voice trembled a little; and the silversmith had raised himself from his chair, and was looking eagerly towards the door as Norton Percival entered, not caring to wait for any more formal invitation. The two men faced each other silently in the dim light from one candle on the mantelpiece, Jacob Nowell looking intently at the bearded face of his visitor.
• You can go, Tulliver,' he said sharply to the shopman. 'I wish to be alone with this gentleman.'
Luke Tulliver departed with his usual reluctant air, closing the door as slowly as it was possible for him to close it, and staring at the stranger till the last moment that it was possible for him to stare.
When he was gone, the old man took the candle from the mantelpiece, and held it up before the bearded face of the traveller.
Yes, yes, yes,' he said slowly; at last ! It is you, Percival, my only son. I thought you were dead long ago. I had a right to consider you dead.'
* If I had thought my existence could be a matter of interest to you, I should hardly have so long refrained from all communication with you. But your letters led me to suppose you utterly indifferent to my fate.'
• I offered you and your wife a home.'
Yes, but on conditions that were impossible to me. I had some pride in those days. My education had not fitted me to stand behind a counter and drive hard bargains with dealers of doubtful honesty. Nor could I bring my wife to such a home as this.'
• The time came when you left that poor creature without any home,' said the old man sternly.
• Necessity has no law, my dear father. You may imagine that