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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.
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. She had fancied that life would be so bright for her when the day of her freedom came; that she would reap so rich a harvest of happiness as a reward for the sacrifice which she had made in marrying old Michael Branston, and enduring his peevishness and ill-health with tolerable good-humour during the half-dozen years of their wedded life. She had fancied this; and now her release had come to her, and was worthless in her sight, because the one man she cared for had proved himself cold and indifferent.
In spite of his coldness, however, she told herself that he loved her, that he had loved her from the earliest period of their acquaint
She was a poor weak little woman, the veriest spoilt child of fortune, and she clung to this belief with a fond foolish persistence, a blind devoted obstinacy, against which the arguments of Mrs. Pallinson were utterly vain, although that lady devoted a great deal of time and energy to the agreeable duty which she called opening dear Adela's eyes about that dissipated good-for-nothing Mr. Saltram.'
To a correct view of this subject Adela Branston's eyes were not to be opened in any wise. She was wilfully, resolutely blind, clinging to the hope that this cruel neglect on John Saltram's part arose only from his delicacy of feeling, and tender care for her reputation.
• But 0, how I wish that he would come to me!' she said to herself again and again, as those slow dreary days went by, burdened and weighed down by the oppressive society of Mrs. Pallinson, as well as by her own sad thoughts. My husband has been dead ever so long now, and what need have we to study the opinion of the world so much? Of course I wouldn't marry him till a year, or more, after poor Michael's death ; but I should like to see him often, to be sure that he still cares for me as he used to care—yes, I am sure he used —in the dear old days at Maidenhead. Why doesn't he come to me ? He knows that I love him. He must know that I have no brighter hope than to make him the master of my fortune; and yet he goes on in those dismal Temple chambers, toiling at his literary work as if he had not a thought in the world beyond earning so many pounds a week.'
This was the perpetual drift of Mrs. Branston's meditations; and in the absence of any sign or token of regard from John Saltram, all Mrs. Pallinson's attempts to amuse her, all the fascinations and accomplishments of the elegant Theobald, were thrown away upon an unreceptive soil.
There were not many amusements open to a London public at that dull season of the year, except the theatres, and for those places of entertainment Mrs. Pallinson cherished a shuddering aversion. But there were occasional morning and evening 'recitals,' or concerts, where the music for the most part was of a classical and recondite character-feasts of melody, at which long-buried and forgotten sonatas of Gluck, or Bach, or Cherubini were introduced to a discriminating public for the first time; and to these Mrs. Pallinson and Theobald conducted poor Adela Branston, whose musical proclivities had never yet soared into higher regions than those occupied by the sparkling joyous genius of Rossini, and to whom the revived sonatas, or the familiar old-established gems of classical art, were as unintelligible as so much Hebrew or Syriac. Perhaps they were not much more delightful to Mrs. Pallinson; but that worthy matron had a profound veneration for the conventionalities of life, and these classical matinées and recitals seemed to her exactly the correct sort of thing for the amusement of a young widow whose husband had not very long ago been consigned to the tomb.
So poor Adela was dragged hither and thither to gloomy concertrooms, where the cold winter's light made the performers look pale and wan, or to aristocratic drawing-rooms, graciously lent to some favoured pianiste by their distinguished owners; and so, harassed and weary, but lacking spirit to oppose her own feeble inclinations to the overpowering force of Mrs. Pallinson's will, the helpless little widow went submissively wherever they chose to take her, tormented all the while by the thought of John Saltram's coldness, and wondering when this cruel time of probation would be at an end, and he would show himself her devoted slave once more. It was very weak and foolish to think of him like this, no doubt; undignified and unwomanly, perhaps; but Adela Branston was little more than a child in knowledge of the world, and John Saltram was the only man who had ever touched her heart. She stood quite alone in the world too, lonely with all her wealth, and there was no one to share her affection with this man, who had acquired so complete an influence over her.
She endured the dreary course of her days patiently enough for a considerable time, not knowing any means whereby she might release herself from the society of her kinswoman, or put an end to the indefatigable attentions of the popular Maida-hill doctor. She would have gladly offered Mrs. Pallinson a liberal allowance out of her fortune to buy that lady off, and be her own mistress once more, free to act and think for herself, had she dared to make such a degrading proposition to a person of Mrs. Pallinson's dignity. But she could not venture to do this; and she felt that no one but John Saltram, in the character of her future husband, could release her from the state of bondage into which she had weakly suffered herself to fall. In the mean time she defended the man she loved with an unflinching spirit, resolutely refusing to have her eyes opened to the worthlessness of his character, and boldly declaring her disbelief of those sad accounts which Theobald affected to have heard from well-informed acquaintance of his own, respecting the follies and dissipations of
Mr. Saltram's career, his debts, his love of gambling, his dealings with money - lenders, and other foibles common to the rake's progress.
It was rather a hard battle for the lonely little woman to fight, but she had fortune on her side ; and at the worst, her kinsfolk treated her with a certain deference, even while they were doing their utmost to worry her into an untimely grave. If little flatteries, and a perpetual indulgence in all small matters, such as a foolish nurse might give to a spoilt child, could have made Adela happy, she had certainly no reason to complain, for in this manner Mrs. Pallinson was the most devoted and affectionate of companions. If her darling Adela looked a little paler than usual, or confessed to suffering from a headache, or owned to being nervous or out of spirits, Mrs. Pallinson's anxiety knew no bounds, and Theobald was summoned from Maida - hill without a minute's delay, much to poor Adela's annoyance. Indeed, she grew in time to deny the headaches, and the low spirits, or the nervousness resolutely, rather than bring upon herself a visitation from Mr. Theobald Pallinson; and in spite of all this care and indulgence she felt herself a prisoner in her own house, somehow; more dependent than the humblest servant in that spacious mansion; and she looked out helplessly and hopelessly for some friend through whose courageous help she might recover her freedom. Perhaps she only thought of one champion as at all likely to come to her rescue ; indeed, her mind had scarcely room for more than that one image, which occupied her thoughts at all times.
Her captivity had lasted for a period which seemed a very long time, though it was short enough when computed by the ordinary standard of weeks and months, when a circumstance occurred which gave her a brief interval of liberty. Mr. Pallinson fell a victim to some slight attack of low fever; and his mother, who was really most devoted to this paragon of a son, retired from the citadel in Cavendish-square for a few days in order to nurse him. It was not that the surgeon's illness was in any way dangerous, but the mother could not trust her darling to the care of strangers and hirelings.
Adela Branston seemed to breathe more freely in that brief holiday. Relieved from Mrs. Pallinson's dismal presence, life appeared brighter and pleasanter all at once; a faint colour came back to the pale cheeks, and the widow was even beguiled into laughter by some uncomplimentary observations which her confidential maid ventured upon with reference to the absent lady.
• I'm sure the house itself seems lighter and more cheerful-like without her, ma'am,' said this young person, who was of a vivacious temperament, and upon whom the dowager's habitual dreariness had been a heavy affliction ; 'and you're looking all the better already for not being worried by her.'