Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

Laura Dunbar.

While these things had been happening between London and Southampton, Laura Dunbar, the banker’s daughter, had been anxiously waiting the coming of her father.

She resembled her mother, Lady Louisa Dunbar, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantwick, a very beautiful and aristocratic woman. She had met Mr. Dunbar in India, after the death of her first husband, a young captain in a cavalry regiment, who had been killed in an encounter with the Sikhs a year after his marriage, leaving his young widow with an infant daughter, a helpless baby of six weeks old.

The poor, high-born Lady Louisa Macmahon was left most desolate and miserable after the death of her first husband. She was very poor, and she knew that her relations in England were very little better off than herself. She was almost as helpless as her six-weeks’ old baby; she was heart-broken by the loss of the handsome young Irishman, whom she had fondly loved; and ill and broken down by her sorrows, she lingered in Calcutta, subsisting upon her pension, and too weak to undertake the perils of the voyage home.

It was at this time that poor widowed Lady Louisa met Henry Dunbar, the rich banker. She came in contact with him on account of some money arrangements of her dead husband’s, who had always banked with Dunbar and Dunbar; and Henry, then getting on for forty years of age, had fallen desperately in love with the beautiful young widow.

There is no need for me to dwell upon the history of this courtship. Lady Louisa married the rich man eighteen months after her first husband’s death. Little Dorothea Macmahon was sent to England with a native nurse, and placed under the care of her maternal relatives; and Henry Dunbar’s beautiful wife became queen of the best society in the city of palaces, by the right of her own rank and her husband’s wealth.

Henry Dunbar loved her desperately, as even a selfish man can sometimes love for once in his life.

But Lady Louisa never truly returned the millionaire’s affection. She was haunted by the memory of her first and purest love; she was tortured by remorseful thoughts about the fatherless child who had been so ruthlessly banished from her. Henry Dunbar was a jealous man, and he grudged the love which his wife bore to his dead rival’s child. It was by his contrivance the girl had been sent from India.

Lady Louisa Dunbar held her place in Calcutta society for two years. But in the very hour when her social position was most brilliant, her beauty in the full splendour of its prime, she died so suddenly that the fashionables of Calcutta were discussing the promised splendour of a ball, for which Lady Louisa had issued her invitations, when the tidings of her death spread like wildfire through the city — Henry Dunbar was a widower. He might have married again, had he pleased to do so. The proudest beauty in Calcutta would have been glad to become the wife of the sole heir of that dingy banking-house in St. Gundolph Lane.

There was a good deal of excitement upon this subject in the matrimonial market for two or three years after Lady Louisa’s death. A good many young ladies were expressly imported from England by anxious papas and mammas, with a view to the capture of the wealthy widower.

But though Griselda’s yellow hair fell down to her waist in glossy, rippling curls, that shone like molten gold; though Amanda’s black eyes glittered like the stars in a midnight sky; though the dashing Georgina was more graceful than Diana, the gentle Lavinia more beautiful than Venus — Mr. Dunbar went among them without pleasure, and left them without regret.

The charms of all these ladies concentrated in the person of one perfect woman would have had no witchery for the banker. His heart was dead. He had given all the truth, all the passion of which his nature was capable, to the one woman who had possessed the power to charm him.

To seek to win love from him was about as hopeless as it would have been to ask alms of a man whose purse was empty. The bright young English beauties found this out by and by, and devoted themselves to other speculations in the matrimonial market.

Henry Dunbar sent his little girl, his only child, to England. He parted with her, not because of his indifference, but rather by reason of his idolatry. It was the only unselfish act of his life, this parting with his child; and yet even in this there was selfishness.

“It would be sweet to me to keep her here,” he thought; “but then, if the climate should kill her; if I should lose her, as I lost her mother? I will send her away from me now, that she may be my blessing by-and-by, when I return to England after my father’s death.”

Henry Dunbar had sworn when he left the office in St. Gundolph Lane, after the discovery of the forgery, that he would never look upon his father’s face again — and he kept his oath.

This was the father to whose coming Laura Dunbar looked forward with eager anxiety, with a heart overflowing with tender womanly love.

She was a very beautiful girl; so beautiful that her presence was like the sunlight, and made the meanest place splendid. There was a queenliness in her beauty, which she inherited from her mother’s high-born race. But though her beauty was queenlike, it was not imperious. There was no conscious pride in her aspect, no cold hauteur in her ever-changing face. She was such a woman as might have sat by the side of an English king to plead for all trembling petitioners kneeling on the steps of the throne. She would have been only in her fitting place beneath the shadow of a regal canopy; for in soul, as well as in aspect, she was worthy to be a queen. She was like some tall white lily, unconsciously beautiful, unconsciously grand; and the meanest natures kindled with a faint glow of poetry when they came in contact with her.

She had been spoiled by an adoring nurse, a devoted governess, masters who had fallen madly in love with their pupil, and servants who were ready to worship their young mistress. Yes, according to the common acceptation of the term, she had been spoiled; she had been allowed to have her own way in everything; to go hither and thither, free as the butterflies in her carefully tended garden; to scatter her money right and left; to be imposed upon and cheated by every wandering vagabond who found his way to her gates; to ride, and hunt, and drive — to do as she liked, in short. And I am fain to say that the consequence of all this foolish and reprehensible indulgence had been to make the young heiress of Maudesley Abbey the most fascinating woman in all Warwickshire.

She was a little capricious, just a trifle wayward, I will confess. But then that trifling waywardness gave just the spice that was wanting to this grand young lily. The white lilies are never more beautiful than when they wave capriciously in the summer wind; and if Laura Dunbar was a little passionate when you tried to thwart her; and if her great blue eyes at such times had a trick of lighting up with sudden fire in them, like a burst of lurid sunlight through a summer storm-cloud, there were plenty of gentlemen in Warwickshire ready to swear that the sight of those lightning-flashes of womanly anger was well worth the penalty of incurring Miss Dunbar’s displeasure.

She was only eighteen, and had not yet “come out.” But she had seen a great deal of society, for it had been the delight of her grandfather to have her perpetually with him.

She travelled from Maudesley Abbey to Portland Place in the company of her nurse — a certain Elizabeth Madden, who had been Lady Louisa’s own maid before her marriage with Captain Macmahon, and who was devotedly attached to the motherless girl.

But Mrs. Madden was not Laura Dunbar’s only companion upon this occasion. She was accompanied by her half-sister, Dora Macmahon, who of late years had almost lived at the Abbey, much to the delight of Laura. Nor was the little party without an escort; for Arthur Lovell, the son of the principal solicitor in the town of Shorncliffe, near Maudesley Abbey, attended Miss Dunbar to London.

This young man had been a very great favourite with Percival Dunbar and had been a constant visitor at the Abbey. Before the old man died, he told Arthur Lovell to act in everything as Laura’s friend and legal adviser; and the young lawyer was very enthusiastic in behalf of his beautiful client. Why should I seek to make a mystery of this gentleman’s feelings? He loved her. He loved this girl, who, by reason of her father’s wealth, was as far removed from him as if she had been a duchess. He paid a terrible penalty for every happy hour, every delicious day of simple and innocent enjoyment, that he had spent at Maudesley Abbey; for he loved Laura Dunbar, and he feared that his love was hopeless.

It was hopeless in the present, at any rate; for although he was handsome, clever, high-spirited, and honourable, a gentleman in the noblest sense of that noble word, he was no fit husband for the daughter of Henry Dunbar. He was an only son, and he was heir to a very comfortable little fortune: but he knew that the millionaire would have laughed him to scorn had he dared to make proposals for Laura’s hand.

But was his love hopeless in the future? That was the question which he perpetually asked himself.

He was proud and ambitious. He knew that he was clever; he could not help knowing this, though he was entirely without conceit. A government appointment in India had been offered to him through the intervention of a nobleman, a friend of his father’s. This appointment would afford the chance of a noble career to a man who knew how to seize the golden opportunity, which mediocrity neglects, but which genius makes the stepping-stone to greatness.

The nobleman who made the offer to Arthur Lovell had written to say that there was no necessity for an immediate decision. If Arthur accepted the appointment, he would not be obliged to leave England until the end of a twelvemonth, as the vacancy would not occur before that time.

“In the meanwhile,” Lord Herriston wrote to the solicitor, “your son can think the matter over, my dear Lovell, and make his decision with all due deliberation.”

Arthur Lovell had already made that decision.

“I will go to India,” he said; “for if ever I am to win Laura Dunbar, I must succeed in life. But before I go I will tell her that I love her. If she returns my love, my struggles will be sweet to me, for they will be made for her sake. If she does not ——”

He did not finish the sentence even in his own mind. He could not bear to think that it was possible he might hear his death-knell from the lips he worshipped. He had gladly seized upon the opportunity afforded by this visit to the town house.

“I will speak to her before her father returns,” he thought; “she will speak the truth to me now fearlessly; for it is her nature to be fearless and candid as a child. But his coming may change her. She is fond of him, and will be ruled by him. Heaven grant he may rule her wisely and gently!”

On the 17th of August, Laura and Mrs. Madden arrived in Portland Place.

Arthur Lovell parted with his beautiful client at the railway station, and drove off to the hotel at which he was in the habit of staying. He called upon Miss Dunbar on the 18th; but found that she was out shopping with Mrs. Madden. He called again, on the morning of the 19th; that bright sunny August morning on which the body of the murdered man lay in the darkened chamber at Winchester.

It was only ten o’clock when the young lawyer made his appearance in the pleasant morning-room occupied by Laura Dunbar whenever she stayed in Portland Place. The breakfast equipage was still upon the table in the centre of the room. Mrs. Madden, who was companion, housekeeper, and confidential maid to her charming young mistress, was officiating at the breakfast-table; Dora Macmahon was sitting near her, with an open book by the side of her breakfast-cup; and Miss Laura Dunbar was lounging in a low easy-chair, near a broad window that opened into a conservatory filled with exotics, that made the air heavy with their almost overpowering perfume.

She rose as Arthur Lovell came into the room, and she looked more like a lily than ever in her long loose morning-dress of soft semi-diaphanous muslin. Her thick auburn hair was twisted into a diadem that crowned her broad white forehead, and added a couple of inches to her height. She held out her little ringed hand, and the jewels on the white fingers scintillated in the sunlight.

“I am so glad to see you, Mr. Lovell,” she said. “Dora and I have been miserable, haven’t we, Dora? London is as dull as a desert. I went for a drive yesterday, and the Lady’s Mile is as lonely as the Great Sahara. There are plenty of theatres open, and there was a concert at one of the opera-houses last night; but that disagreeable Elizabeth wouldn’t allow me to go to any one of those entertainments. Grandpapa would have taken me. Dear grandpapa went everywhere with me.”

Mrs. Madden shook her head solemnly.

“Your gran’pa would have gone after you to the remotest end of this world, Miss Laura, if you’d so much as held your finger up to beckon of him. Your gran’pa spiled you, Miss Laura. A pretty thing it would have been if your pa had come all the way from India to find his only daughter gallivanting at a theaytre.”

Miss Dunbar looked at her old nurse with an arch smile. She was very lovely when she smiled; she was very lovely when she frowned. She was most beautiful always, Arthur Lovell thought.

“But I shouldn’t have been gallivanting, you dear old Madden,” she cried, with a joyous silver laugh, that was like the ripple of a cascade under a sunny sky. “I should only have been sitting quietly in a private box, with my rapid, precious, aggravating, darling old nurse to keep watch and ward over me. Besides, how could papa be angry with me upon the first day of his coming home?”

Mrs. Madden shook her head again even more solemnly than before.

“I don’t know about that, Miss Laura. You mustn’t expect to find Mr. Dunbar like your gran’pa.”

A sudden cloud fell upon the girl’s lovely face.

“Why, Elizabeth,” she said, “you don’t mean that papa will be unkind to me?”

“I don’t know your pa, Miss Laura. I never set eyes upon Mr. Dunbar in my life. But the Indian servant that brought you over, when you was but a bit of a baby, said that your pa was proud and passionate; and that even your poor mar, which he loved her better than any livin’ creature upon this earth, was almost afraid of him.”

The smile had quite vanished from Laura Dunbar’s face by this time, and the blue eyes filled suddenly with tears.

“Oh, what shall I do if my father is unkind to me?” she said, piteously. “I have so looked forward to his coming home. I have counted the very days; and if he is unkind to me — if he does not love me ——”

She covered her face with her hands, and turned away her head. “Laura,” exclaimed Arthur Lovell, addressing her for the first time by her Christian name, “how could any one help loving you? How ——”

He stopped, half ashamed of his passionate enthusiasm. In those few words he had revealed the secret of his heart: but Laura Dunbar was too innocent to understand the meaning of those eager words.

Mrs. Madden understood them perfectly; and she smiled approvingly at the young man.

Arthur Lovell was a great favourite with Laura Dunbar’s nurse. She knew that he adored her young mistress; and she looked upon him as a model of all that is noble and chivalrous.

She began to fidget with the silver tea-canisters; and then looked significantly at Dora Macmahon. But Miss Macmahon did not understand that significant glance. Her dark eyes — and she had very beautiful eyes, with a grave, half-pensive softness in their sombre depths — were fixed upon the two young faces in the sunny window; the girl’s face clouded with a look of sorrowful perplexity, the young man’s face eloquent with tender meaning. Dora Macmahon’s colour went and came as she looked at that earnest countenance, and the fingers which were absently turning the leaves of her book were faintly tremulous.

“Your new bonnet’s come home this morning, Miss Dora,” Elizabeth Madden said, rather sharply. “Perhaps you’d like to come up-stairs and have a look at it.”

“My new bonnet!” murmured Dora, vaguely.

“La, yes, miss; the new bonnet you bought in Regent Street only yesterday afternoon. I never did see such a forgetful wool-gathering young lady in all my life as you are this blessed morning, Miss Dora.”

The absent-minded young lady rose suddenly, bewildered by Mrs. Madden’s animated desire for an inspection of the bonnet. But she very willingly left the room with Laura’s old nurse, who was accustomed to have her mandates obeyed even by the wayward heiress of Maudesley Abbey; and Laura was left alone with the young lawyer.

Miss Dunbar had seated herself once more in the low easy-chair by the window. She sat with her elbow resting on the cushioned arm of the chair, and her head supported by her hand. Her eyes were fixed, and looked straight before her, with a thoughtful gaze that was strange to her: for her nature was as joyous as that of a bird, whose music fills all the wide heaven with one rejoicing psalm.

Arthur Lovell drew his chair nearer to the thoughtful girl.

“Laura,” he said, “why are you so silent? I never saw you so serious before, except after your grandfather’s death.”

“I am thinking of my father,” she answered, in a low, tremulous voice, that was broken by her tears: “I am thinking that, perhaps, he will not love me.”

“Not love you, Laura! who could help loving you? Oh, if I dared — if I could venture — I must speak, Laura Dunbar. My whole life hangs upon the issue, and I will speak. I am not a poor man, Laura; but you are so divided from the rest of the world by your father’s wealth, that I have feared to speak. I have feared to tell you that which you might have discovered for yourself, had you not been as innocent as your own pet doves in the dovecote at Maudesley.”

The girl looked at him with wondering eyes that were still wet with unshed tears.

“I love you, Laura; I love you. The world would call me beneath you in station, now; but I am a man, and I have a man’s ambition — a strong man’s iron will. Everything is possible to him who has sworn to conquer; and for your sake. Laura, for your love I should overcome obstacles that to another man might be invincible. I am going to India, Laura: I am going to carve my way to fame and fortune, for fame and fortune are slaves that come at the brave man’s bidding; they are only masters when the coward calls them. Remember, my beloved one, this wealth that now stands between you and me may not always be yours. Your father is not an old man; he may marry again, and have a son to inherit his wealth. Would to Heaven, Laura, that it might be so! But be that as it may, I despair of nothing if I dare hope for your love. Oh, Laura, dearest, one word to tell me that I may hope! Remember how happy we have been together; little children playing with flowers and butterflies in the gardens at Maudesley; boy and girl, rambling hand-in-hand beside the wandering Avon; man and woman standing in mournful silence by your grandfather’s deathbed. The past is a bond of union betwixt us, Laura. Look back at all those happy days and give me one word, my darling — one word to tell me that you love me.”

Laura Dunbar looked up at him with a sweet smile, and laid her soft white hand in his.

“I do love you, Arthur,” she said, “as dearly as I should have loved my brother had I ever known a brother’s love.”

The young man bowed his head in silence. When he looked up, Laura Dunbar saw that he was very pale.

“You only love me as a brother, Laura?”

“How else should I love you?” she asked, innocently.

Arthur Lovell looked at her with a mournful smile; a tender smile that was exquisitely beautiful, for it was the look of a man who is prepared to resign his own happiness for the sake of her he loves.

“Enough, Laura,” he said, quietly; “I have received my sentence. You do not love me, dearest; you have yet to suffer life’s great fever.”

She clasped her hands, and looked at him beseechingly.

“You are not angry with me, Arthur?” she said.

“Angry with you, my sweet one!”

“And you will still love me?”

“Yes, Laura, with all a brother’s devotion. And if ever you have need of my services, you shall find what it is to have a faithful friend, who holds his life at small value beside your happiness.”

He said no more, for there was the sound of carriage-wheels below the window, and then a loud double-knock at the hall-door.

Laura started to her feet, and her bright face grew pale.

“My father has come!” she exclaimed.

But it was not her father. It was Mr. Balderby, who had just come from St. Gundolph Lane, where he had received Henry Dunbar’s telegraphic despatch.

Every vestige of colour faded out of Laura’s face as she recognized the junior partner of the banking-house.

“Something has happened to my father!” she cried.

“No, no, Miss Dunbar!” exclaimed Mr. Balderby, anxious to reassure her. “Your father has arrived in England safely, and is well, as I believe. He is staying at Winchester; and he has telegraphed to me to go to him there immediately.”

“Something has happened, then?”

“Yes, but not to Mr. Dunbar individually; so far as I can make out by the telegraphic message. I was to come to you here, Miss Dunbar, to tell you not to expect your papa for some few days; and then I am to go on to Winchester, taking a lawyer with me.”

“A lawyer!” exclaimed Laura.

“Yes, I am going to Lincoln’s Inn immediately to Messrs. Walford and Walford, our own solicitors.”

“Let Mr. Lovell go with you,” cried Miss Dunbar; “he always acted as poor grandpapa’s solicitor. Let him go with you.”

“Yes, Mr. Balderby,” exclaimed the young man, “I beg you to allow me to accompany you. I shall be very glad to be of service to Mr. Dunbar.”

Mr. Balderby hesitated for a few moments.

“Well, I really don’t see why you shouldn’t go, if you wish to do so,” he said, presently. “Mr. Dunbar says he wants a lawyer; he doesn’t name any particular lawyer. We shall save time by your going; for we shall be able to catch the eleven o’clock express.”

He looked at his watch.

“There’s not a moment to lose. Good morning, Miss Dunbar. We’ll take care of your papa, and bring him to you in triumph. Come, Lovell.”

Arthur Lovell shook hands with Laura, murmured a few words in her ear, and hurried away with Mr. Balderby.

She had spoken the death-knell of his dearest hopes. He had seen his sentence in her innocent face; but he loved her still.

There was something in her virginal candour, her bright young loveliness, that touched the noblest chords of his heart. He loved her with a chivalrous devotion, which, after all, is as natural to the breast of a young Englishman in these modern days, miscalled degenerate, as when the spotless knight King Arthur loved and wooed his queen.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31