He left Heatherly soon after this, though the Baronet pressed him to stay to dinner.
TORMENTED BY DOUBT.
The long homeward walk gave Gilbert ample leisure for reflection upon his interview with Sir David; a very unsatisfactory interview at the best. Yes, the conviction that the man who had wronged him was no other than his own familiar friend, had flashed upon him with a new force as the Baronet answered his questions about John Holbrook. The suspicion which had entered his mind after he left the lonely farm-house near Crosber, and which he had done his uttermost to banish, as if it had been a suggestion of the evil one, came back to him to-day with a form and reality which it had lacked before. It seemed no longer a vague fancy, a dark unwelcome thought that bordered on folly. It had taken a new shape altogether, and appeared to him almost a certainty.
Sir David’s refusal to make any direct denial of the fact seemed to confirm his suspicion. Yet it was, on the other hand, just possible that Sir David, finding him on a false scent, should have been willing to let him follow it, and that the real offender should be screened by this suspicion of John Saltram. But then there arose in his mind a doubt that had perplexed him sorely for a long time. If his successful rival had been indeed a stranger to him, what reason could there be for so much mystery in the circumstances of the marriage? and why should Marian have so carefully avoided telling him anything about her husband? That his friend, having betrayed him, should shrink from the revelation of his falsehood, should adopt any underhand course to avoid discovery, seemed natural enough. Yet to believe this was to think meanly of the man whom he had loved so well, whom he had confided in so implicitly until the arising of this cruel doubt.
He had known long ago, when the first freshness of his boyish delusions faded away before the penetrating clear daylight of reality, he had known long ago that his friend was not faultless; that except in that one faithful alliance with himself, John Saltram had been fickle, wayward, vacillating, unstable, and inconstant, true to no dream of his youth, no ambition of his early manhood content to drop one purpose after another, until his life was left without any exalted aim. But Gilbert had fancied his friend’s nature was still a noble one in spite of the comparative failure of his life. It was very difficult for him to imagine it possible that this friend could act falsely and ungenerously, could steal his betrothed from him, and keep the secret of his guilt, pretending to sympathise with the jilted lover all the while.