Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

Three who Suspect.

No further discovery was made respecting the murder that had been committed in the grove between Winchester and St. Cross. The police made every effort to find the murderer, but without result. A large reward was offered by the government for the apprehension of the guilty man; and a still larger reward was offered by Mr. Dunbar, who declared that his own honour and good name were in a manner involved in the discovery of the real murderer.

The one clue by which the police hoped to trace the footsteps of the assassin was the booty which his crime had secured to him: the contents of the pocket-book that had been rifled, and the clothes which had been stripped from the corpse of the victim. By means of the clue which these things might afford, the detective police hoped to reach the guilty man. But they hoped in vain. Every pawnbroker’s shop in Winchester, and in every town within a certain radius of Winchester, was searched, but without effect. No clothes at all resembling those that had been seen upon the person of the dead man had been pledged within forty miles of the cathedral city. The police grew hopeless at last. The reward was a large one; but the darkness of the mystery seemed impenetrable, and little by little people left off talking of the murder. By slow degrees the gossips resigned themselves to the idea that the secret of Joseph Wilmot’s death was to remain a secret for ever. Two or three “sensation” leaders appeared in some of the morning papers, urging the bloodhounds of the law to do their work, and taunting the members of the detective force with supineness and stupidity. I dare say the social leader-writers were rather hard-up for subjects at this stagnant autumnal period, and were scarcely sorry for the mysterious death of the man in the grove. The public grumbled a little when there was no new paragraph in the papers about “that dreadful Winchester murder;” but the nine-days’ period during which the English public cares to wonder elapsed, and nothing had been done. Other murders were committed as brutal in their nature as the murder in the grove; and the world, which rarely stops long to lament for the dead, began to think of other things. Joseph Wilmot was forgotten.

A month passed very quietly at Maudesley Abbey. Henry Dunbar took his place in the county as a person of importance; lights blazed in the splendid rooms; carriages drove in and out of the great gates in the park, and all the landed gentry within twenty miles of the abbey came to pay their respects to the millionaire who had newly returned from India. He did not particularly encourage people’s visits, but he submitted himself to such festivities as his daughter declared to be necessary, and did the honours of his house with a certain haughty grandeur, which was a little stiff and formal as compared to the easy friendly grace of his high-bred visitors. People shrugged their shoulders, and hinted that there was something of the “roturier” in Mr. Dunbar; but they freely acknowledged that he was a fine handsome-looking fellow, and that his daughter was an angel, rendered still more angelic by the earthly advantage of half a million or so for her marriage-portion.

Meanwhile Margaret Wilmot lived alone in her simple countrified lodging, and thought sadly enough of the father whom she had lost.

He had not been a good father, but she had loved him nevertheless. She had pitied him for his sorrows, and the wrongs that had been done him. She had loved him for those feeble traces of a better nature that had been dimly visible in his character.

“He had not been always a cheat and reprobate,” the girl thought as she sat pondering upon her father’s fate. “He never would have been dishonest but for Henry Dunbar.”

She remembered with bitter feelings the aspect of the rich man’s house in Portland Place. She had caught a glimpse of its splendour upon the night after her return from Winchester. Through the narrow opening between the folding-doors she had seen the pictures and the statues glimmering in the lamplight of the inner hall. She had seen in that brief moment a bright confusion of hothouse flowers, and trailing satin curtains, gilded mouldings, and frescoed panels, the first few shallow steps of a marble staircase, the filigree-work of the bronze balustrade.

Only for one moment had she peeped wonderingly into the splendid interior of Henry Dunbar’s mansion; but the objects seen in that one brief glance had stamped themselves upon the girl’s memory.

“He is rich,” she thought, “and they say that wealth can buy all the best things upon this earth. But, after all, there are few real things that it can purchase. It can buy flattery, and simulated love, and sham devotion, but it cannot buy one genuine heart-throb, one thrill of true feeling. All the wealth of this world cannot buy peace for Henry Dunbar, or forgetfulness. So long as I live he shall be made to remember. If his own guilty conscience can suffer him to forget, it shall be my task to recall the past. I promised my dead father that I would remember the name of Henry Dunbar; I have had good reason to remember it.”

Margaret Wilmot was not quite alone in her sorrow. There was one person who sympathized with her, with an earnest and pure desire to help her in her sorrow. This person was Clement Austin, the cashier in St. Gundolph’s Lane; the man who had fallen head-over-heels in love with the pretty music-mistress, but who felt half ashamed of his sudden and unreasoning affection.

“I have always ridiculed what people call ‘love at sight,’” he thought; “surely I am not so silly as to have been bewitched by hazel eyes and a straight nose. Perhaps, after all, I only take an interest in this girl because she is so beautiful and so lonely, and because of the kind of mystery there seems to be about her life.”

Never for one moment had Clement Austin suspected that this mystery involved anything discreditable to Margaret herself. The girl’s sad face seemed softly luminous with the tender light of pure and holy thoughts. The veriest churl could scarcely have associated vice or falsehood with such a lovely and harmonious image.

Since her return from Winchester, since the failure of her second attempt to see Henry Dunbar, her life had pursued its wonted course; and she went so quietly about her daily duties, that it was only by the settled sadness of her face, the subdued gravity of her manner, that people became aware of some heavy grief that had newly fallen upon her.

Clement Austin had watched her far too closely not to understand her better than other people. He had noticed the change in her costume, when she put on simple inexpensive mourning for her dead father; and he ventured to express his regret for the loss which she had experienced. She told him, with a gentle sorrowful accent in her voice, that she had lately lost some one who was very dear to her; and that the loss had been unexpected, and was very bitter to bear. But she told him no more; and he was too well bred to intrude upon her grief by any further question.

But though he refrained from saying more upon this occasion, the cashier brooded long and deeply upon the conduct of his niece’s music-mistress: and one chilly September evening, when Miss Wentworth was not expected at Clapham, he walked across Wandsworth Common, and went straight to the lane in which Godolphin Cottages sheltered themselves under the shadow of the sycamores.

Margaret had very few intervals of idleness, and there was a kind of melancholy relief to her in such an evening as this, on which she was free to think of her dead father, and the strange story of his death. She was standing at the low wooden gate opening into the little garden below the window of her room, in the deepening twilight of this September evening. It was late in the month: the leaves were falling from the trees, and drifting with a rustling sound along the dusty roadway.

The girl stood with her elbow resting upon the top of the gate, and a dark shawl covering her head and shoulders. She was tired and unhappy, and she stood in a melancholy attitude, looking with sad eyes towards the glimpse of the river at the bottom of the lane. So entirely was she absorbed by her own gloomy thoughts, that she did not hear a footstep approaching from the other end of the lane; she did not look up until a man’s voice said, in subdued tones —

“Good evening, Miss Wentworth; are you not afraid of catching cold? I hope your shawl is thick, for the dews are falling, and here, near the river, there is a damp mist on these autumn nights.”

The speaker was Clement Austin.

Margaret Wilmot looked up at him, and a pensive smile stole over her face. Yes, it was something to be spoken to so kindly in that deep manly voice. The world had seemed so blank since her father’s death: such utter desolation had descended upon her since her miserable journey to Winchester, and her useless visit to Portland Place: for since that time she had shrunk away from people, wrapped in her own sorrow, separated from the commonplace world by the exceptional nature of her misery. It was something to this poor girl to hear thoughtful and considerate words; and the unbidden tears clouded her eyes.

As yet she had spoken openly of her trouble to no living creature, since that night upon which she had attempted to gain admission to Mr. Dunbar’s house. She was still known in the neighbourhood as Margaret Wentworth. She had put on mourning: and she had told the few people about the place where she lived, of her father’s death: but she had told no one the manner of that death. She had shared her gloomy secret with neither friends nor counsellors, and had borne her dismal burden alone. It was for this reason that Clement Austin’s friendly voice raised an unwonted emotion in her breast. The desolate girl remembered that night upon which she had first heard of the murder, and she remembered the sympathy that Mr. Austin had evinced on that occasion.

“My mother has been quite anxious about you, Miss Wentworth,” said Clement Austin. “She has noticed such a change in your manner for the last month or five weeks; though you are as kind as ever to my little niece, who makes wonderful progress under your care. But my mother cannot be indifferent to your own feelings, and she and I have both perceived the change. I fear there is some great trouble on your mind; and I would give much — ah, Miss Wentworth, you cannot guess how much! — if I could be of help to you in any time of grief or trouble. You seemed very much agitated by the news of that shocking murder at Winchester. I have been thinking it all over since, and I cannot help fancying that the change in your manner dated from the evening on which my mother told you that dreadful story. It struck me, that you must, therefore, in some way or other, be interested in the fate of the murdered man. Even beyond this, it might be possible that, if you knew this Joseph Wilmot, you might be able to throw some light upon his antecedents, and thus give a clue to the assassin. Little by little this idea has crept into my mind, and to-night I resolved to come to you, and ask you the direct question, as to whether you were in any way related to this unhappy man.”

At first Margaret Wilmot’s only answer was a choking sob; but she grew calmer presently, and said, in a low voice —

“Yes, you have guessed rightly, Mr. Austin; I was related to that most unhappy man. I will tell you everything, but not here,” she added, looking back at the cottage windows, in which lights were glimmering; “the people about me are inquisitive, and I don’t want to be overheard.”

She wrapped her shawl more closely round her, and went out of the little garden. She walked by Clement’s side down to the pathway by the river, which was lonely enough at this time of the night.

Here she told him her story. She carefully suppressed all vehement emotion; and in few and simple words related the story of her life.

“Joseph Wilmot was my father,” she said. “Perhaps he may not have been what the world calls a good father; but I know that he loved me, and he was very dear to me. My mother was the daughter of a gentleman, a post-captain in the Royal Navy, whose name was Talbot. She met my father at the house of a lady from whom she used to receive music-lessons. She did not know who he was, or what he was. She only knew that he called himself James Wentworth; but he loved her, and she returned his affection. She was very young — a mere child, who had not long emerged from a boarding-school — and she married my poor father in defiance of the advice of her friends. She ran away from her home one morning, was married by stealth in an obscure little church in the City, and then went home with my father to confess what she had done. Her father never forgave her for that secret marriage. He swore that he would never look upon her face after that day: and he never did, until he saw it in her coffin. At my mother’s death Captain Talbot’s heart was touched: he came for the first time to my father’s house, and offered to take me away with him, and to have me brought up amongst his younger children. But my father refused to allow this. He grieved passionately for my poor mother: though I have heard him say that he had much to regret in his conduct towards her. But I can scarcely remember that sad time. From that period our life became a wandering and wretched one. Sometimes, for a little while, we seemed better off. My father got some employment; he worked steadily; and we lived amongst respectable people. But soon — ah, cruelly soon! — the new chance of an honest life was taken away from him. His employers heard something: a breath, a whisper, perhaps: but it was enough. He was not a man to be trusted. He promised well: so far he had kept his promise: but there was a risk in employing him. My father never met any good Christian who was willing to run that risk, in the hope of saving a human soul. My father never met any one noble enough to stretch out his hand to the outcast and say, ‘I know that you have done wrong; I know that you are without a character: but I will forget the blot upon the past, and help you to achieve redemption in the future.’ If my father had met such a friend, such a benefactor, all might have been different.”

Then Margaret Wilmot related the substance of the last conversation between herself and her father. She told Clement Austin what her father had said about Henry Dunbar; and she showed him the letter which was directed to Norfolk Island — that letter in which the old clerk alluded to the power that his brother possessed over his late master. She also told Mr. Austin how Henry Dunbar had avoided her at Winchester and in Portland Place, and of the letter which he had written to her — a letter in which he had tried to bribe her to silence.

“Since that night,” she added, “I have received two anonymous enclosures — two envelopes containing notes to the amount of a hundred pounds, with the words ‘From a True Friend’ written across the flap of the envelope. I returned both the enclosures; for I knew whence they had come. I returned them in two envelopes directed to Henry Dunbar, at the office in St. Gundolph’s Lane.”

Clement Austin listened with a grave face. All this certainly seemed to hint at the guilt of Mr. Dunbar. No clue pointing to any other person had been as yet discovered, though the police had been indefatigable in their search.

Mr. Austin was silent for some minutes; then he said, quietly —

“I am very glad you have confided in me, Miss Wilmot, and, believe me, you shall not find me slow to help you whenever my services can be of any avail. If you will come and drink tea with my mother at eight o’clock to-morrow evening, I will be at home; and we can talk this matter over seriously. My mother is a clever woman, and I know that she has a most sincere regard for you. You will trust her, will you not?”

“Willingly, with my whole heart.”

“You will find her a true friend.”

They had returned to the little garden-gate by this time. Clement Austin stretched out his hand.

“Good night, Miss Wilmot.”

“Good night.”

Margaret opened the gate and went into the garden. Mr. Austin walked slowly homewards, past pleasant cottages nestling in suburban gardens, and pretentious villas with, campanello towers and gothic porches. The lighted windows shone out upon the darkness. Here and there he heard the sound of a piano, or a girlish voice stealing softly out upon the cool night air.

The sight of pleasant homes made the cashier think very mournfully of the girl he had just left.

“Poor, desolate girl,” he thought, “poor, lonely, orphan girl!” But he thought still more about that which he had heard of Henry Dunbar; and the evidence against the rich man seemed to grow in importance as he reflected upon it. It was not one thing, but many things, that hinted at the guilt of the millionaire.

The secret possessed, and no doubt traded upon, by Joseph Wilmot; Mr. Dunbar’s agitation in the cathedral; his determined refusal to see the murdered man’s daughter; his attempt to bribe her — these were strong points: and by the time Clement Austin reached home, he — like Margaret Wilmot, and like Arthur Lovell — suspected the millionaire. So now there were three people who believed Mr. Dunbar to be the murderer of his old servant.

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