Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

Baffled.

Mr. Dunbar was sitting in a luxurious easy-chair, with a newspaper lying across his knee. Mr. Balderby had returned to London upon the previous evening, but Arthur Lovell still remained with the Anglo–Indian.

Henry Dunbar was a good deal the worse for the close confinement which he had suffered since his arrival in the cathedral city. Everybody who looked at him saw the change which the last ten days had made in his appearance. He was very pale; there were dark purple rings about his eyes; the eyes themselves were unnaturally bright: and the mouth — that tell-tale feature, over whose expression no man has perfect control — betrayed that the banker had suffered.

Arthur Lovell had been indefatigable in the service of his client: not from any love towards the man, but always influenced more or less by the reflection that Henry Dunbar was Laura’s father; and that to serve Henry Dunbar was in some manner to serve the woman he loved.

Mr. Dunbar had only been discharged from custody upon the previous evening, after a long and wearisome examination and cross-examination of the witnesses who had given evidence at the coroner’s inquest, and that additional testimony upon which the magistrate had issued his warrant. He had slept till late, and had only just finished breakfast, when the waiter entered with Margaret’s message.

“A young person wishes to see you, sir,” he said, respectfully.

“A young person!” exclaimed Mr. Dunbar, impatiently; “I can’t see any one. What should any young person want with me?”

“She wants to see you particularly, sir; she says her name is Wilmot — Margaret Wilmot; and that she is the daughter of ——”

The sickly pallor of Mr. Dunbar’s face changed to an awful livid hue: and Arthur Lovell, looking at his client at this moment, saw the change.

It was the first time he had seen any evidence of fear either in the face or manner of Henry Dunbar.

“I will not see her,” exclaimed Mr. Dunbar; “I never heard Wilmot speak of any daughter. This woman is some impudent impostor, who wants to extort money out of me. I will not see her: let her be sent about her business.”

The waiter hesitated.

“She is a very respectable-looking person, sir,” he said; “she doesn’t look anything like an impostor.”

“Perhaps not!” answered Mr. Dunbar, haughtily; “but she is an impostor, for all that. Joseph Wilmot had no daughter, to my knowledge. Pray do not let me be disturbed about this business. I have suffered quite enough already on account of this man’s death.”

He sank back in his chair, and took up his newspaper as he finished speaking. His face was completely hidden behind the newspaper.

“Shall I go and speak to this girl?” asked Arthur Lovell. “On no account! The girl is an impostor. Let her be sent about her business!”

The waiter left the room.

“Pardon me, Mr. Dunbar,” said the young lawyer; “but if you will allow me to make a suggestion, as your legal adviser in this business, I would really recommend you to see this girl.”

“Why?”

“Because the people in a place like this are notorious gossips and scandal-mongers. If you refuse to see this person, who, at any rate, calls herself Joseph Wilmot’s daughter, they may say ——”

“They may say what?” asked Henry Dunbar.

“They may say that it is because you have some special reason for not seeing her.”

“Indeed, Mr. Lovell. Then I am to put myself out of the way — after being fagged and harassed to death already about this business — and am to see every adventuress who chooses to trade upon the name of the murdered man, in order to stop the mouths of the good people of Winchester. I beg to tell you, my dear sir, that I am utterly indifferent to anything that may be said of me: and that I shall only study my own ease and comfort. If people choose to think that Henry Dunbar is the murderer of his old servant, they are welcome to their opinion: I shall not trouble myself to set them right.”

The waiter re-entered the room as Mr. Dunbar finished speaking.

“The young person says that she must see you, sir,” the man said. “She says that if you refuse to see her, she will wait at the door of this house until you leave it. My master has spoken to her, sir; but it’s no use: she’s the most determined young woman I ever saw.”

Mr. Dunbar’s face was still hidden by the newspaper. There was a little pause before he replied.

“Lovell,” he said at last, “perhaps you had better go and see this person. You can find out if she is really related to that unhappy man. Here is my purse. You can let her have any money you think proper. If she is the daughter of that wretched man, I should, of course, wish her to be well provided for. I will thank you to tell her that, Lovell. Tell her that I am willing to settle an annuity upon her; always on condition that she does not intrude herself upon me. But remember, whatever I give is contingent upon her own good conduct, and must not in any way be taken as a bribe. If she chooses to think and speak ill of me, she is free to do so. I have no fear of her; nor of any one else.”

Arthur Lovell took the millionaire’s purse and went down stairs with the waiter. He found Margaret sitting in the hall. There was no impatience, no violence in her manner: but there was a steady, fixed, resolute look in her white face. The young lawyer felt that this girl would not be easily put off by any denial of Mr. Dunbar.

He ushered Margaret into a private sitting-room leading out of the hall, and then closed the door behind him. The disappointed waiter lingered upon the door-mat: but the George is a well-built house, and that waiter lingered in vain.

“You want to see Mr. Dunbar?” he said.

“Yes, sir!”

“He is very much fatigued by yesterday’s business, and he declines to see you. What is your motive for being so eager to see him?”

“I will tell that to Mr. Dunbar himself.”

“You are really the daughter of Joseph Wilmot? Mr. Dunbar seems to doubt the fact of his having had a daughter.”

“Perhaps so. Mr. Dunbar may have been unaware of my existence until this moment. I did not know until last night what had happened.”

She stopped for a moment, half-stifled by a hysterical sob, which she could not repress: but she very quickly regained her self-control, and continued, slowly and deliberately, looking earnestly in the young man’s face with her clear brown eyes, “I did not know until last night that my father’s name was Wilmot; he had called himself by a false name — but last night, after hearing of the — the — murder”— the horrible word seemed to suffocate her, but she still went bravely on —“I searched a box of my father’s and found this.”

She took from her pocket the letter directed to Norfolk Island, and handed it to the lawyer.

“Read it,” she said; “you will see then how my father had been wronged by Henry Dunbar.”

Arthur Lovell unfolded the worn and faded letter. It had been written five-and-twenty years before by Sampson Wilmot. Margaret pointed to one passage on the second page.

“Your bitterness against Henry Dunbar is very painful to me, my dear Joseph; yet I cannot but feel that your hatred against my employer’s son is only natural. I know that he was the first cause of your ruin; and that, but for him, your lot in life might have been very different. Try to forgive him; try to forget him, even if you cannot forgive. Do not talk of revenge. The revelation of that secret which you hold respecting the forged bills would bring disgrace not only upon him, but upon his father and his uncle. They are both good and honourable men, and I think that shame would kill them. Remember this, and keep the secret of that painful story.“

Arthur Lovell’s face grew terribly grave as he read these lines. He had heard the story of the forgery hinted at, but he had never heard its details. He had looked upon it as a cruel scandal, which had perhaps arisen out of some trifling error, some unpaid debt of honour; some foolish gambling transaction in the early youth of Henry Dunbar.

But here, in the handwriting of the dead clerk, here was the evidence of that old story. Those few lines in Sampson Wilmot’s letter suggested a motive.

The young lawyer dropped into a chair, and sat for some minutes silently poring over the clerk’s letter. He did not like Henry Dunbar. His generous young heart, which had yearned towards Laura’s father, had sunk in his breast with a dull, chill feeling of disappointment, at his first meeting with the rich man.

Still, after carefully sifting the evidence of the coroner’s inquest, he had come to the conclusion that Henry Dunbar was innocent of Joseph Wilmot’s death. He had carefully weighed every scrap of evidence against the Anglo–Indian; and had deliberately arrived at this conclusion.

But now he looked at everything in a new light. The clerk’s letter suggested a motive, perhaps an adequate motive. The two men had gone down together into that silent grove, the servant had threatened his patron, they had quarrelled, and —

No! the murder could scarcely have happened in this way. The assassin had been armed with the cruel rope, and had crept stealthily behind his victim. It was not a common murder; the rope and the slip-knot, the treacherous running noose, hinted darkly at Oriental experiences: somewhat in this fashion might a murderous Thug have assailed his unconscious victim.

But then, on the other hand, there was one circumstance that always remained in Henry Dunbar’s favour — that circumstance was the robbery of the dead man’s clothes. The Anglo–Indian might very well have rifled the pocket-book, and left it empty upon the scene of the murder, in order to throw the officers of justice upon a wrong scent. That would have been only the work of a few moments.

But was it probable — was it even possible — that the murderer would have lingered in broad daylight, with every chance against him, long enough to strip off the garments of his victim, in order still more effectually to hoodwink suspicion? Was it not a great deal more likely that Joseph Wilmot had spent the afternoon drinking in the tap-room of some roadside public-house, and had rambled back into the grove after dark, to meet his death at the hands of some every-day assassin, bent only upon plunder?

All these thoughts passed through Arthur Lovell’s mind as he sat with Sampson’s faded letter in his hands. Margaret Wilmot watched him with eager, scrutinizing eyes. She saw doubt, perplexity, horror, indecision, all struggling in his handsome face.

But the lawyer felt that it was his duty to act, and to act in the interests of his client, whatever vaguely-hideous doubts might arise in his own breast. Nothing but his conviction of Henry Dunbar’s guilt could justify him in deserting his client. He was not convinced; he was only horror-stricken by the first whisper of doubt.

“Mr. Dunbar declines to see you,” he said to Margaret; “and I do not really see what good could possibly arise out of an interview between you. In the meantime, if you are in any way distressed — and you must most likely need assistance at such a time as this — he is quite ready to help you: and he is also ready to give you permanent help if you require it.”

He opened Henry Dunbar’s purse as he spoke, but the girl rose and looked at him with icy disdain in her fixed white face.

“I would sooner crawl from door to door, begging my bread of the hardest strangers in this cruel world — I would sooner die from the lingering agonies of starvation — than I would accept help from Henry Dunbar. No power on earth will ever induce me to take a sixpence from that man’s hand.”

“Why not?”

You know why not. I can see that knowledge in your face. Tell Mr. Dunbar that I will wait at the door of this house till he comes out to speak to me. I will wait until I drop down dead.”

Arthur Lovell went back to his client, and told him what the girl said.

Mr. Dunbar was walking up and down the room, with his head bent moodily upon his breast.

“By heavens!” he cried, angrily, “I will have this girl removed by the police, if ——”

He stopped abruptly, and his head sank once more upon his breast.

“I would most earnestly advise you to see her,” pleaded Arthur Lovell; “if she goes away in her present frame of mind, she may spread a horrible scandal against you. Your refusing to see her will confirm the suspicions which ——”

“What!” cried Henry Dunbar; “does she dare to suspect me?”

“I fear so.”

“Has she said as much?”

“Not in actual words. But her manner betrayed her suspicions. You must not wonder if this girl is unreasonable. Her father’s miserable fate must have been a terrible blow to her.”

“Did you offer her money?”

“I did.”

“And she ——”

“She refused it.”

Mr. Dunbar winced, as if the announcement of the girl’s refusal had stung him to the quick.

“Since it must be so,” he said, “I will see this importunate woman. But not to-day. To-day I must and will have rest. Tell her to come to me to-morrow morning at ten o’clock. I will see her then.”

Arthur Lovell carried this message to Margaret.

The girl looked at him with an earnest questioning glance.

“You are not deceiving me?” she said.

“No, indeed!”

“Mr. Dunbar said that?”

“He did.”

“Then I will go away. But do not let Henry Dunbar try to deceive me! for I will follow him to the end of the world. I care very little where I go in my search for the man who murdered my father!”

She went slowly away. She went down into the cathedral yard, across which the murdered man had gone arm-in-arm with his companion. Some boys, loitering about at the entrance to the meadows, answered all her questions, and took her to the spot upon which the body had been found.

It was a dull misty day, and there was a low wind wailing amongst the wet branches of the old trees. The rain-drops from the fading leaves fell into the streamlet, from whose shallow waters the dead man’s face had looked up to the moonlit sky.

Later in the afternoon, Margaret found her way to a cemetery outside the town, where, under a newly-made mound of turf, the murdered man lay.

A great many people had been to see this grave, and had been very much disappointed at finding it in no way different from other graves.

Already the good citizens of Winchester had begun to hint that the grove near St. Cross was haunted; and there was a vague report to the effect that the dead man had been seen there, walking in the twilight.

Punctual to the very striking of the clock, Margaret Wilmot presented herself at the George at the time appointed by Mr. Dunbar.

She had passed a wretched night at a humble inn a little way put of the town, and had been dreaming all night of her meeting with Mr. Dunbar. In those troubled dreams she had met the rich man perpetually: now in one place, now in another: but always in the most unlikely places: yet she had never seen his face. She had tried to see it; but by some strange devilry or other, peculiar to the incidents of a dream, it had been always hidden from her.

The same waiter was lounging in the same attitude at the door of the hotel. He looked up with an expression of surprise as Margaret approached him.

“You’ve not gone, then, miss?” he exclaimed.

“Gone! No! I have waited to see Mr. Dunbar!”

“Well, that’s queer,” said the waiter; “did he tell you he’d see you?”

“Yes, he promised to see me at ten o’clock this morning.”

“That’s uncommon queer.”

“Why so?” asked Margaret, eagerly.

“Because Mr. Dunbar, and that young gent as was with him, went away, bag and baggage, by last night’s express.”

Margaret Wilmot gave no utterance to either surprise or indignation. She walked quietly away, and went once more to the house of Sir Arden Westhorpe. She told him what had occurred; and her statement was written down and signed, as upon the previous day.

“Mr. Dunbar murdered my father!” she said, after this had been done; “and he’s afraid to see me!”

The magistrate shook his head gravely.

“No, no, my dear,” he said; “you must not say that. I cannot allow you to make such an assertion as that. Circumstantial evidence often points to an innocent person. If Mr. Dunbar had been in any way concerned in this matter, he would have made a point of seeing you, in order to set your suspicions at rest. His declining to see you is only the act of a selfish man, who has already suffered very great inconvenience from this business, and who dreads the scandal of some tragical scene.”

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