Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 17

The Broken Picture.

Arthur Lovell stopped at Portland Place for the rest of the day, and dined with the banker and his daughter in the evening. The dinner-party was a very cheerful one, as far as Mr. Dunbar and his daughter were concerned: for Laura was in very high spirits on account of her father’s return, and Dora Macmahon joined pleasantly in the conversation. The banker had welcomed his dead wife’s elder daughter with a speech which, if a little studied in its tone, was at any rate very kind in its meaning.

“I shall always be glad to see you with my poor motherless girl,” he said; “and if you can make your home altogether with us, you shall never have cause to remember that you are less nearly allied to me than Laura herself.”

When he met Arthur and the two girls at the dinner-table, Henry Dunbar had quite recovered from the agitation of the morning, and talked gaily of the future. He alluded now and then to his Indian reminiscences, but did not dwell long upon this subject. His mind seemed full of plans for his future life. He would do this, that, and the other, at Maudesley Abbey, in Yorkshire, and in Portland Place. He had the air of a man who fully appreciates the power of wealth; and is prepared to enjoy all that wealth can give him. He drank a good deal of wine during the course of the dinner, and his spirits rose with every glass.

But in spite of his host’s gaiety, Arthur Lovell was ill at ease. Do what he would, he could not shake off the memory of the meeting between the father and daughter. Henry Dunbar’s deadly pallor — that wild, scared look in his eyes, as they slowly reopened and glared upon Laura’s anxious face — were ever present to the young lawyer’s mind.

Why was this man frightened of his beautiful child? — for that it was fear, and not love, which had blanched Henry Dunbar’s face, the lawyer felt positive. Why was this father frightened of his own daughter, unless ——?

Unless what?

Only one horrible and ghastly suggestion presented itself to Arthur Lovell’s mind. Henry Dunbar was the murderer of his old valet: and the consciousness of guilt had paralyzed him at the first touch of his daughter’s innocent lips.

But, oh, how terrible if this were true — how terrible to think that Laura Dunbar was henceforth to live in daily and hourly association with a traitor and an assassin!

“I have promised to love her for ever, though my love is hopeless, and to serve her faithfully if ever she should need of my devotion,” Arthur Lovell thought, as he sat silent at the dinner-table, while Henry Dunbar and his daughter talked together gaily.

The lawyer watched his client now with intense anxiety; and it seemed to him that there was something feverish and unnatural in the banker’s gaiety. Laura and her step-sister left the room soon after dinner: and the two men remained alone at the long, ponderous-looking dinner-table, on which the sparkling diamond-cut decanters and Sèvres dessert-dishes looked like tiny vases of light and colour on a dreary waste of polished mahogany.

“I shall go to Maudesley Abbey to-morrow,” Henry Dunbar said. “I want rest and solitude after all this trouble and excitement: and Laura tells me that she infinitely prefers Maudesley to London. Do you think of returning to Warwickshire, Mr. Lovell?”

“Oh, yes, immediately. My father expected my return a week ago. I only came up to town to act as Miss Dunbar’s escort.”

“Indeed, that was very kind of you. You have known my daughter for a long time, I understand by her letters.”

“Yes. We were children together. I was a great deal at the Abbey in old Mr. Dunbar’s time.”

“And you will still be more often there in my time, I hope,” Henry Dunbar answered, courteously. “I fancy I could venture to make a pretty correct guess at a certain secret of yours, my dear Lovell. Unless I am very much mistaken, you have a more than ordinary regard for my daughter.”

Arthur Lovell was silent, his heart beat violently, and he looked the banker unflinchingly in the face; but he did not speak, he only bent his head in answer to the rich man’s questions.

“I have guessed rightly, then,” said Mr. Dunbar.

“Yes, sir, I love Miss Dunbar as truly as ever a man loved the woman of his choice! but ——”

“But what? She is the daughter of a millionaire, and you fear her father’s disapproval of your pretensions, eh?”

“No, Mr. Dunbar. If your daughter loved me as truly as I love her, I would marry her in spite of you — in spite of the world; and carve my own way to fortune. But such a blessing as Laura Dunbar’s love is not for me. I have spoken to her, and ——”

“She has rejected you?”

“She has.”

“Pshaw! girls of her age are as changeable as the winds of heaven. Do not despair, Mr. Lovell; and as far as my consent goes, you may have it to-morrow, if you like. You are young, good-looking, clever, agreeable: what more, in the name of feminine frivolity, can a girl want? You will find no stupid prejudices in me, Mr. Lovell. I should like to see you married to my daughter: for I believe you love her very sincerely. You have my good will, I assure you. There is my hand upon it.”

He held out his hand as he spoke, and Arthur Lovell took it, a little reluctantly perhaps, but with as good a grace as he could.

“I thank you, sir,” he said, “for your good will, and ——”

He tried to say something more, but the words died away upon his lips. The horrible fear which had taken possession of his breast after the scene of the morning, weighed upon him like the burden that seems to lie upon the sleeper’s breast throughout the strange agony of nightmare. Do what he would, he could not free himself from the weight of this dreadful doubt. Mr. Dunbar’s words seemed to emanate from the kind and generous breast of a good man: but, on the other hand, might it not be possible that the banker wished to get rid of his daughter?

He had betrayed fear in her presence, that morning: and now he was eager to give her hand to the first suitor who presented himself: ineligible as that suitor was in a worldly point of view. Might it not be that the girl’s innocent society was oppressive to her father, and that he wished therefore to shuffle her off upon a new protector?

“I shall be very busy this evening, Mr. Lovell,” said Henry Dunbar, presently; “for I must look over some papers I have amongst the luggage that was sent on here from Southampton. When you are tired of the dining-room, you will be able to find the two girls, and amuse yourself in their society, I have no doubt.”

Mr. Dunbar rang the bell. It was answered by an elderly man-servant out of livery.

“What have you done with the luggage that was sent from Southampton?” asked the banker.

“It has all been placed in old Mr. Dunbar’s bed-room, sir,” the man answered.

“Very well; let lights be carried there, and let the portmanteaus and packing-cases be unstrapped and opened.”

He handed a bunch of keys to the servant, and followed the man out of the room. In the hall he stopped suddenly, arrested by the sound of a woman’s voice.

The entrance-hall of the house in Portland Place was divided into two compartments, separated from each other by folding-doors, the upper panels of which were of ground glass. There was a porter’s chair in the outer division of the hall, and a bronzed lamp hung from the domed ceiling.

The doors between the inner and outer hall were ajar, and the voice which Henry Dunbar heard was that of a woman speaking to the porter.

“I am Joseph Wilmot’s daughter,” the woman said. “Mr. Dunbar promised that he would see me at Winchester: he broke his word, and left Winchester without seeing me: but he shall see me, sooner or later; for I will follow him wherever he goes, until I look into his face, and say that which I have to say to him.”

The girl did not speak loudly or violently. There was a quiet earnestness in her voice; an earnestness and steadiness of tone which expressed more determination than any noisy or passionate utterance could have done.

“Good gracious me, young woman!” exclaimed the porter, “do you think as I’m goin’ to send such a rampagin’ kind of a message as that to Mr. Dunbar? Why, it would be as much as my place is worth to do it. Go along about your business, miss; and don’t you preshume to come to such a house as this durin’ gentlefolks’ dinner-hours another time. Why, I’d sooner take a message to one of the tigers in the Joological-gardings at feedin’ time than I’d intrude upon such a gentleman as Mr. Dunbar when he’s sittin’ over his claret.”

Mr. Dunbar stopped to listen to this conversation; then he went back into the dining-room, and beckoned to the servant who was waiting to precede him up-stairs.

“Bring me pen, ink, and paper,” he said.

The man wheeled a writing-table towards the banker. Henry Dunbar sat down and wrote the following lines; in the firm aristocratic handwriting that was so familiar to the chief clerks in the banking-house.

The young person who calls herself Joseph Wilmot’s daughter is informed that Mr. Dunbar declines to see her now, or at any future time. He is perfectly inflexible upon this point; and the young person will do well to abandon the system of annoyance which she is at present pursuing. Should she fail to do so, a statement of her conduct will be submitted to the police, and prompt measures taken to secure Mr. Dunbar’s freedom from persecution. Herewith Mr. Dunbar forwards the young person a sum of money which will enable her to live for some time with ease and independence. Further remittances will be sent to her at short intervals; if she conducts herself with propriety, and refrains from attempting any annoyance against Mr. Dunbar.

“Portland Place, August 30, 1850.”

The banker took out his cheque-book, wrote a cheque for fifty pounds, and folded it in the note which he had just written then he rang the bell, and gave the note to the elderly manservant who waited upon him.

“Let that be taken to the young person in the hall,” he said.

Mr. Dunbar followed the servant to the dining-room door and stood upon the threshold, listening. He heard the man speak to Margaret Wilmot as he delivered the letter; and then he heard the crackling of the envelope, as the girl tore it open.

There was a pause, during which the listener waited, with an anxious expression on his face.

He had not to wait long. Margaret spoke presently, in a clear ringing voice, that vibrated through the hall.

“Tell your master,” she said, “that I will die of starvation sooner than I would accept bread from his hand. You can tell him what I did with his generous gift.”

There was another brief pause; and then, in the hushed stillness of the house, Henry Dunbar heard a light shower of torn paper flutter down upon the polished marble floor. Then he heard the great door of the house close upon Joseph Wilmot’s daughter.

The millionaire covered his face with his hands, and gave a long sigh: but he lifted his head presently, shrugged his shoulders with an impatient gesture, and went slowly up the lighted staircase.

The suite of apartments that had been occupied by Percival Dunbar comprised the greater part of the second floor of the house in Portland Place. There was a spacious bed-chamber, a comfortable study, a dressing-room, bath-room, and antechamber. The furniture was handsome, but of a ponderous style: and, in spite of their splendour, the rooms had a gloomy look. Everything about them was dark and heavy. The house was an old one, and the five windows fronting the street were long and narrow, with deep oaken seats in the recesses between the heavy shutters. The walls were covered with a dark green paper that looked like cloth. The footsteps of the occupant were muffled by the rich thickness of the sombre Turkey carpet. The voluminous curtains that sheltered the windows, and shrouded the carved rosewood four-post bed, were of a dark green, which looked black in the dim light.

The massive chairs and tables were of black oak, with cushions of green velvet. A few valuable cabinet pictures, by the old masters, set in deep frames of ebony and gold, hung at wide distances upon the wall. There was the head of an ecclesiastic, cut from a large picture by Spagnoletti; a Venetian senator by Tintoretto; the Adoration of the Magi by Caravaggio. An ivory crucifix was the only object upon the high, old-fashioned chimney-piece.

A pair of wax-candles, in antique silver candlesticks, burned upon a writing-table near the fireplace, and made a spot of light in the gloomy bed-chamber. All Henry Dunbar’s luggage had been placed in this room. There were packing-cases and portmanteaus of almost every size and shape, and they had all been opened by a man-servant, who was kneeling by the last when the banker entered the room.

“You will sleep here to-night, sir, I presume?” the servant said, interrogatively, as he prepared to quit the apartment. “Mrs. Parkyn thought it best to prepare these rooms for your occupation.”

Henry Dunbar looked thoughtfully round the spacious chamber.

“Is there no other place in which I can sleep?” he asked. “These rooms are horribly gloomy.”

“There is a spare room upon the floor above this, sir.”

“Very well; let the spare room be got ready for me. I have a good many arrangements to make, and shall be late.” “Will you require assistance, sir?”

“No. Let the room up-stairs be prepared. Is it immediately above this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good; I shall know how to find it, then. No one need sit up for me. Let Miss Dunbar be told that I shall not see her again to-night, and that I shall start for Maudesley in the course of to-morrow. She can make her arrangements accordingly. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then you can go. Remember, I do not wish to be disturbed again to-night.”

“You will want nothing more, sir?”

“Nothing.”

The man retired. Henry Dunbar followed him to the door, listened to his receding footsteps in the corridor and upon the staircase, and then turned the key in the lock. He went back to the centre of the room, and kneeling down before one of the open portmanteaus, took out every article which it contained, slowly: removing the things one by one, and throwing most of them into a heap upon the floor. He went through this operation with the contents of all the boxes, throwing the clothes upon the floor, and carrying the papers to the writing-table, where he piled them up in a great mass. This business occupied a very long time, and the hands of an antique clock, upon a bracket in a corner of the room, pointed to midnight when the banker seated himself at the table, and began to arrange and sort his papers.

This operation lasted for several hours. The candles were burnt down, and the flames flickered slowly out in the silver sockets. Mr. Dunbar went to one of the windows, drew back the green-cloth curtain, unbarred the heavy shutters, and let the grey morning light into the room. But he still went on with his work: reading faded documents, tying up old papers, making notes upon the backs of letters, and other notes in his own memorandum-book: very much as he had done at the Winchester Hotel. The broad sunlight streamed in upon the sombre colours of the Turkey carpet, the sound of wheels was in the street below, when the banker’s work was finished. By that time he had arranged all the papers with unusual precision, and replaced them in one of the portmanteaus: but he left the clothes in a careless heap upon the floor, just as they had fallen when he first threw them out of the boxes.

Mr. Dunbar did one thing more before he left the room. Amongst the papers which he had arranged upon the writing-table, there was a small square morocco case, containing a photograph done upon glass. He took this picture out of the case, dropped it upon the polished oaken floor beyond the margin of the carpet, and ground the glass into atoms with the heavy heel of his boot. But even then he was not content with his work of destruction, for he stamped upon the tiny fragments until there was nothing left of the picture but a handful of sparkling dust. He scattered this about with his foot, dropped the empty morocco case into his pocket, and went up-stairs in the morning sunlight.

It was past six o’clock, and Mr. Dunbar heard the voices of the women-servants upon the back staircase as he went to his room. He threw himself, dressed as he was, upon the bed, and fell into a heavy slumber.

At three o’clock the same day Mr. Dunbar left London for Maudesley Abbey, accompanied by his daughter, Dora Macmahon, and Arthur Lovell.

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