Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

Is it Love or Fear?

Henry Dunbar and Arthur Lovell slept at the same hotel upon the night of their journey from Winchester to London; for the banker refused to disturb his daughter by presenting himself at the house in Portland Place after midnight.

In this, at least, he showed himself a considerate father.

Arthur Lovell had made every effort in his power to dissuade the banker from leaving Winchester upon that night, and thus breaking the promise that he had made to Margaret Wilmot. Henry Dunbar was resolute; and the young lawyer had no alternative. If his client chose to do a dishonourable thing, in spite of all that the young man could say against it, of course it was no business of his. For his own part, Arthur Lovell was only too glad to get back to London; for Laura Dunbar was there: and wherever she was, there was Paradise, in the opinion of this foolish young man.

Early upon the morning after their arrival in London, Henry Dunbar and the young lawyer breakfasted together in their sitting-room at the hotel. It was a bright morning, and even London looked pleasant in the sunshine. Henry Dunbar stood in the window, looking out into the street below, while the breakfast was being placed upon the table. The hotel was situated in a new street at the West End.

“You find London very much altered, I dare say, Mr. Dunbar?” said Arthur Lovell, as he unfolded the morning paper.

“How do you mean altered?” asked the banker, absently.

“I mean, that after so long an absence you must find great improvements. This street for instance — it has not been built six years.”

“Oh, yes, I remember. There were fields upon this spot when I went to India.”

They sat down to breakfast. Henry Dunbar was absent-minded, and ate very little. When he had drunk a cup of tea, he took out the locket containing Laura’s miniature, and sat silently contemplating it.

By-and-by he unfastened the locket from the chain, and handed it across the table to Arthur Lovell.

“My daughter is very beautiful, if she is like that,” said the banker; “do you consider it a good likeness?”

The young lawyer looked at the portrait with a tender smile. “Yes,” he said, thoughtfully, “it is very like her — only ——”

“Only what?”

“The picture is not lovely enough.”

“Indeed! and yet it is very beautiful. Laura resembles her mother, who was a lovely woman.”

“But I have heard your father say, that the lower part of Miss Dunbar’s face — the mouth and chin — reminded him of yours. I must own, Mr. Dunbar, that I cannot see the likeness.”

“I dare say not,” the banker answered, carelessly; “you must allow something for the passage of time, my dear Lovell. and the wear and tear of a life in Calcutta. I dare say my mouth and chin are rather harder and sterner in their character than Laura’s.”

There was nothing more said upon the subject of the likeness; by-and-by Mr. Dunbar got up, took his hat, and went towards the door.

“You will come with me, Lovell,” he said.

“Oh, no, Mr. Dunbar. I would not wish to intrude upon you at such a time. The first interview between a father and daughter, after a separation of so many years, is almost sacred in its character. I——”

“Pshaw, Mr. Lovell! I did not think a solicitor’s son would be weak enough to indulge in any silly sentimentality. I shall be very glad to see my daughter; and I understand from her letters that she will be pleased to see me. That is all! At the same time, as you know Laura much better than I do, you may as well come with me.”

Mr. Dunbar’s looks belied the carelessness of his words. His face was deadly pale, and there was a singularly rigid expression about his mouth.

Laura had received no notice of her father’s coming. She was sitting at the same window by which she had sat when Arthur Lovell asked her to be his wife. She was sitting in the same low luxurious easy-chair, with the hot-house flowers behind her, and a huge Newfoundland dog — a faithful attendant that she had brought from Maudesley Abbey — lying at her feet.

The door of Miss Dunbar’s morning-room was open: and upon the broad landing-place outside the apartment the banker stopped suddenly, and laid his hand upon the gilded balustrade. For a moment it seemed almost as if he would have fallen: but he leaned heavily upon the bronze scroll-work of the banister, and bit his lower lip fiercely with his strong white teeth. Arthur Lovell was not displeased to perceive this agitation: for he had been wounded by the careless manner in which Henry Dunbar had spoken of his beautiful daughter. Now it was evident that the banker’s indifference had only been assumed as a mask beneath which the strong man had tried to conceal the intensity of his feelings.

The two men lingered upon the landing-place for a few minutes; while Mr. Dunbar looked about him, and endeavoured to control his agitation. Everything here was new to him: for neither the house in Portland Place, nor Maudesley Abbey, had been in the possession of the Dunbar family more than twenty years.

The millionaire contemplated his possessions. Even upon that landing-place there was no lack of evidence of wealth. A Persian carpet covered the centre of the floor, and beyond its fringed margin a tessellated pavement of coloured marbles took new and brighter hues from the slanting rays of sunlight that streamed in through a wide stained-glass window upon the staircase. Great Dresden vases of exotics stood on pedestals of malachite and gold: and a trailing curtain of purple velvet hung half-way across the entrance to a long suite of drawing-rooms — a glistening vista of light and splendour.

Mr. Dunbar pushed open the door, and stood upon the threshold of his daughter’s chamber. Laura started to her feet.

“Papa! — papa!” she cried; “I thought that you would come to-day!”

She ran to him and fell upon his breast, half-weeping, half-laughing. The Newfoundland dog crept up to Mr. Dunbar with his head down: he sniffed at the heels of the millionaire, and then looked slowly upward at the man’s face with sombre sulky-looking eyes, and began to growl ominously.

“Take your dog away, Laura!” cried Mr. Dunbar, angrily.

It happened thus that the very first words Henry Dunbar said to his daughter were uttered in a tone of anger. The girl drew herself away from him, and looked up almost piteously in her father’s face. That face was as pale as death: but cold, stern, and impassible. Laura Dunbar shivered as she looked at it. She had been a spoiled child; a pampered, idolized beauty; and had never heard anything but words of love and tenderness. Her lips quivered, and the tears came into her eyes.

“Come away, Pluto,” she said to the dog; “papa does not want us.”

She took the great flapping ears of the animal in her two hands, and led him out of the room. The dog went with his young mistress submissively enough: but he looked back at the last moment to growl at Mr. Dunbar.

Laura left the Newfoundland on the landing-place, and went back to her father. She flung herself for the second time into the banker’s arms.

“Darling papa,” she cried, impetuously; “my dog shall never growl at you again. Dear papa, tell me you are glad to come home to your poor girl. You would tell me so, if you knew how dearly I love you.”

She lifted up her lips and kissed Henry Dunbar’s impassible face. But she recoiled from him for the second time with a shudder and a long-drawn shivering sigh. The lips of the millionaire were as cold as ice.

“Papa,” she cried, “how cold you are! I’m afraid that you are ill!”

He was ill. Arthur Lovell, who stood quietly watching the meeting between the father and daughter, saw a change come over his client’s face, and wheeled forward an arm-chair just in time for Henry Dunbar to fall into it as heavily as a log of wood.

The banker had fainted. For the second time since the murder in the grove near St. Cross he had betrayed violent and sudden emotion. This time the emotion was stronger than his will, and altogether overcame him.

Arthur Lovell laid the insensible man flat upon his back on the carpet. Laura rushed to fetch water and aromatic vinegar from her dressing-room: and in five minutes Mr. Dunbar opened his eyes, and looked about him with a wild half-terrified expression in his face. For a moment he glared fiercely at the anxious countenance of Laura, who knelt beside him: then his whole frame was shaken by a convulsive trembling, and his teeth chattered violently. But this lasted only for a few moments. He overcame it: grinding his teeth, and clenching his strong hands: and then staggered heavily to his feet.

“I am subject to these fainting fits,” he said, with a wan, sickly smile upon his white face; “and I dreaded this interview on that account: I knew that it would be too much for me.”

He seated himself upon the low sofa which Laura had pushed towards him, resting his elbows on his knees, and hiding his face in his hands. Miss Dunbar placed herself beside her father, and wound her arm about his neck.

“Poor papa,” she murmured, softly; “I am so sorry our meeting has agitated you like this: and to think that I should have fancied you cold and unkind to me, at the very time when your silent emotion was an evidence of your love!”

Arthur Lovell had gone through the open window into the conservatory: but he could hear the girl talking to her father. His face was very grave: and the same shadow that had clouded it once during the course of the coroner’s inquest rested upon it now.

“An evidence of his love! Heaven grant this may be love,” he thought to himself; “but to me it seems a great deal more like fear!”

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