Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

The Inquest.

The coroner’s inquest, which had been appointed to take place at noon that day, was postponed until three o’clock in the afternoon, in compliance with the earnest request of Henry Dunbar.

When ever was the earnest request of a millionaire refused?

The coroner, who was a fussy little man, very readily acceded to Mr. Dunbar’s entreaties.

“I am a stranger in England,” the Anglo–Indian said; “I was never in my life present at an inquest. The murdered man was connected with me. He was last seen in my company. It is vitally necessary that I should have a legal adviser to watch the proceedings on my behalf. Who knows what dark suspicions may arise, affecting my name and honour?”

The banker made this remark in the presence of four or five of the jurymen, the coroner, and Mr. Cricklewood, the surgeon who had been called in to examine the body of the man supposed to have been murdered. Every one of those gentlemen protested loudly and indignantly against the idea of the bare possibility that any suspicion, or the shadow of a suspicion, could attach to such a man as Mr. Dunbar.

They knew nothing of him, of course, except that he was Henry Dunbar, chief of the rich banking-house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, and that he was a millionaire.

Was it likely that a millionaire would commit a murder?

When had a millionaire ever been known to commit a murder? Never, of course!

The Anglo–Indian sat in his private sitting-room at the George Hotel, writing, and examining his papers — perpetually writing, perpetually sorting and re-sorting those packets of letters in the despatch-box — while he waited for the coming of Mr. Balderby.

The postponement of the coroner’s inquest was a very good thing for the landlord of the Foresters’ Arms. People went in and out, and loitered about the premises, and lounged in the bar, drinking and talking all the morning, and the theme of every conversation was the murder that had been done in the grove on the way to St. Cross.

Mr. Balderby and Arthur Lovell arrived at the George a few minutes before two o’clock. They were shown at once into the apartment in which Henry Dunbar sat waiting for them.

Arthur Lovell had been thinking of Laura and Laura’s father throughout the journey from London. He had wondered, as he got nearer and nearer to Winchester, what would be his first impression respecting Mr. Dunbar.

That first impression was not a good one — no, it was not a good one. Mr. Dunbar was a handsome man — a very handsome man — tall and aristocratic-looking, with a certain haughty pace in his manner that harmonized well with his good looks. But, in spite of all this, the impression which he made upon the mind of Arthur Lovell was not an agreeable one.

The young lawyer had heard the story of the forgery vaguely hinted at by those who were familiar with the history of the Dunbar family; and he had heard that the early life of Henry Dunbar had been that of a selfish spendthrift.

Perhaps this may have had some influence upon his feelings in this his first meeting with the father of the woman he loved.

Henry Dunbar told the story of the murder. The two men were inexpressibly shocked by this story.

“But where is Sampson Wilmot?” exclaimed Mr. Balderby. “It was he whom I sent to meet you, knowing that he was the only person in the office who remembered you, or whom you remembered.”

“Sampson was taken ill upon the way, according to his brother’s story,” Mr. Dunbar answered. “Joseph left the poor old man somewhere upon the road.”

“He did not say where?”

“No; and, strange to say, I forgot to ask him the question. The poor fellow amused me by old memories of the past on the road between Southampton and this place, and we therefore talked very little of the present.”

“Sampson must be very ill,” exclaimed Mr. Balderby, “or he would certainly have returned to St. Gundolph Lane to tell me what had taken place.”

Mr. Dunbar smiled.

“If he was too ill to go on to Southampton, he would, of course, be too ill to return to London,” he said, with supreme indifference.

Mr. Balderby, who was a good-hearted man, was distressed at the idea of Sampson Wilmot’s desolation; an old man, stricken with sudden illness, and abandoned to strangers.

Arthur Lovell was silent: he sat a little way apart from the two others, watching Henry Dunbar.

At three o’clock the inquest commenced. The witnesses summoned were the two Irishmen, Patrick Hennessy and Philip Murtock, who had found the body in the stream near St. Cross; Mr. Cricklewood, the surgeon; the verger, who had seen and spoken to the two men, and who had afterwards shown the cathedral to Mr. Dunbar; the landlord of the George, and the waiter who had received the travellers and had taken Mr. Dunbar’s orders for the dinner; and Henry Dunbar himself.

There were a great many people in the room, for by this time the tidings of the murder had spread far and wide. There were influential people present, amongst others, Sir Arden Westhorpe, one of the county magistrates resident at Winchester. Arthur Lovell, Mr. Balderby, and the Anglo–Indian sat in a little group apart from the rest.

The jurymen were ranged upon either side of a long mahogany table. The coroner sat at the top.

But before the examination of the witnesses was commenced, the jurymen were conducted into that dismal chamber where the dead man lay upon one of the long tap-room tables. Arthur Lovell went with them; and Mr. Cricklewood, the surgeon, proceeded to examine the corpse, so as to enable him to give evidence respecting the cause of death.

The face of the dead man was distorted and blackened by the agony of strangulation. The coroner and the jurymen looked at that dead face with wondering, awe-stricken glances. Sometimes a cruel stab, that goes straight home to the heart, will leave the face of the murdered as calm, as the face of a sleeping child.

But in this case it was not so. The horrible stamp of assassination was branded upon that rigid brow. Horror, surprise, and the dread agony of sudden death were all blended in the expression of the face.

The jurymen talked a little to one another in scarcely audible whispers, asked a few questions of the surgeon, and then walked softly from the darkened room.

The facts of the case were very simple, and speedily elicited. But whatever the truth of that awful story might be, there was nothing that threw any light upon the mystery.

Arthur Lovell, watching the case in the interests of Mr. Dunbar, asked several questions of the witnesses. Henry Dunbar was himself the first person examined. He gave a very simple and intelligible account of all that had taken place from the moment of his landing at Southampton.

“I found the deceased waiting to receive me when I landed,” he said. “He told me that he came as a substitute for another person. I did not know him at first — that is to say, I did not recognize him as the valet who had been in my service prior to my leaving England five-and-thirty years ago. But he made himself known to me afterwards, and he told me that he had met his brother in London on the sixteenth of this month, and had travelled with him part of the way to Southampton. He also told me that, on the way to Southampton, his brother, Sampson Wilmot, a much older man than the deceased, was taken ill, and that the two men then parted company.”

Mr. Dunbar had said all this with perfect self-possession, and with great deliberation. He was so very self-possessed, so very deliberate, that it seemed almost as if he had been reciting something which he had learned by heart.

Arthur Lovell, watching him very intently, saw this, and wondered at it. It is very usual for a witness, even the most indifferent witness, giving evidence about some trifling matter, to be confused, to falter, and hesitate, and contradict himself, embarrassed by the strangeness of his position. But Henry Dunbar was in nowise discomposed by the awful nature of the event which had happened. He was pale; but his firmly-set lips, his erect carriage, the determined glance of his eyes, bore witness to the strength of his nerves and the power of his intellect.

“The man must be made of iron,” Arthur Lovell thought to himself. “He is either a very great man, or a very wicked one. I almost fear to ask myself which.”

“Where did the deceased Joseph Wilmot say he left his brother Sampson, Mr. Dunbar?” asked the coroner.

“I do not remember.”

The coroner scratched his chin, thoughtfully.

“That is rather awkward,” he said; “the evidence of this man Sampson might throw some light upon this most mysterious event.”

Mr. Dunbar then told the rest of his story.

He spoke of the luncheon at Southampton, the journey from Southampton to Winchester, the afternoon stroll down to the meadows near St. Cross.

“Can you tell us the exact spot at which you parted with the deceased?” asked the coroner.

“No,” Mr. Dunbar answered; “you must bear in mind that I am a stranger in England. I have not been in this neighbourhood since I was a boy. My old schoolfellow, Michael Marston, married and settled at the Ferns during my absence in India. I found at Southampton that I should have a few hours on my hands before I could travel express for London, and I came to this place on purpose to see my old friend. I was very much disappointed to find that he was dead. But I thought that I would call upon his widow, from whom I should no doubt hear the history of my poor friend’s last moments. I went with Joseph Wilmot through the cathedral yard, and down towards St. Cross. The verger saw us, and spoke to us as we went by.”

The verger, who was standing amongst the other witnesses, waiting to be examined, here exclaimed —

“Ay, that I did, sir; I remember it well.”

“At what time did you leave the George?”

“At a little after four o’clock.”

“Where did you go then?”

“I went,” answered Mr. Dunbar, boldly, “into the grove with the deceased, arm-in-arm. We walked together about a quarter of a mile under the trees, and I had intended to go on to the Ferns, to call upon Michael Marston’s widow; but my habits of late years have been sedentary; the heat of the day and the walk together were too much for me. I sent Joseph Wilmot on to the Ferns with a message for Mrs. Marston, asking at what hour she could conveniently receive me to-day; and I returned to the cathedral. Joseph Wilmot was to deliver his message at the Ferns, and rejoin me in the cathedral.”

“He was to return to the cathedral?”

“Yes.”

“But why should he not have returned to the George Hotel? Why should you wait for him at the cathedral?”

Arthur Lovell listened, with a strange expression upon his face. If Henry Dunbar was pale, Henry Dunbar’s legal adviser was still more so. The jurymen stared aghast at the coroner, as if they had been awe-stricken by his impertinence towards the chief partner of the great banking-house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby. How dared he — a man with an income of five hundred a year at the most — how dared he discredit or question any assertion made by Henry Dunbar?

The Anglo–Indian smiled, a little contemptuously. He stood in a careless attitude, playing with the golden trinkets at his watch-chain, with the hot August sunshine streaming upon his face from a bare unshaded window opposite him. But he did not attempt to escape that almost blinding glare. He stood facing the sunlight; facing the gaze of the coroner and the jurymen; the scrutinizing glance of Arthur Lovell. Unabashed and nonchalant as if he had been standing in a ball-room, the hero of the hour, the admired of all who looked upon him, Mr. Dunbar stood before the coroner and jury, and told the broken history of his old servant’s death.

“Yes,” Mr. Lovell thought again, as he watched the rich man’s face, “his nerves must be made of iron.”

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