Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 19

Laura Dunbar’s Disappointment.

Arthur Lovell went often to Maudesley Abbey. Henry Dunbar welcomed him freely, and the young man had not the power to resist temptation. He went to his doom as the foolish moth flies to the candle. He went, he saw Laura Dunbar, and spent hour after hour in her society: for his presence was always agreeable to the impetuous girl. To her he seemed, indeed, that which he had promised to be, a brother — kind, devoted, affectionate: but no more. He was endeared to Laura by the memory of a happy childhood. She was grateful to him, and she loved him: but only as she would have loved him had he been indeed her brother. Whatever deeper feeling lay beneath the playful gaiety of her manner had yet to be awakened.

So, day after day, the young man bowed down before the goddess of his life, and was happy — ah, fatally happy! — in her society. He forgot everything except the beautiful face that smiled on him. He forgot even those dark doubts which he had felt as to the secret of the Winchester murder.

Perhaps he would scarcely have forgotten the suspicions that had entered his mind after the first interview between the banker and his daughter, had he seen much of Henry Dunbar. But he saw very little of the master of Maudesley Abbey. The rich man took possession of the suite of apartments that had been prepared for him, and rarely left his own rooms: except to wander alone amongst the shady avenues of the park: or to ride out upon the powerful horse he had chosen from the stud purchased by Percival Dunbar.

This horse was a magnificent creature; the colt of a thorough-bred sire, but of a stronger and larger build than a purely thorough-bred animal. He was a chestnut horse, with a coat that shone like satin, and not a white hair about him. His nose was small, his eyes large, his ears and neck long. He had all the points which an Arab prizes in his favourite barb.

To this horse Henry Dunbar became singularly attached. He had a loose box built on purpose for the animal in a private garden adjoining his own dressing-room, which, Like the rest of his apartments, was situated upon the ground-floor of the abbey. Mr. Dunbar’s groom slept in a part of the house near this loose box: and horse and man were at the service of the banker at any hour of the day or night.

Henry Dunbar generally rode either early in the morning, or in the grey twilight after his dinner-hour. He was a proud man, and he was not a sociable man. When the county gentry came to welcome him to England, he received them, and thanked them for their courtesy. But there was something in his manner that repelled rather than invited friendship. He gave one great dinner-party soon after his arrival at Maudesley, a ball, at which Laura floated about in a cloud of white gauze, and with diamonds in her hair; and a breakfast and morning concert on the lawn, in compliance with the urgent entreaties of the same young lady. But when invitations came flooding in upon Mr. Dunbar, he declined them one after another, on the ground of his weak health. Laura might go where she liked, always provided that she went under the care of a suitable chaperone; but the banker declared that the state of his health altogether unfitted him for society. His constitution had been much impaired, he said, by his long residence in Calcutta. And yet he looked a strong man. Tall, broad-chested, and powerful, it was very difficult to perceive in Henry Dunbar’s appearance any one of the usual evidences of ill-health. He was very pale: but that unchanging pallor was the only sign of the malady from which he suffered.

He rose early, rode for a couple of hours upon his chestnut horse Dragon, and then breakfasted. After breakfast he sat in his luxurious sitting-room, sometimes reading, sometimes writing, sometimes sitting for hours together brooding silently over the low embers in the roomy fireplace. At six o’clock he dined, still keeping to his own room — for he was not well enough to dine with his daughter, he said: and he sat alone late into the night, drinking heavily, according to the report current in the servants’ hall.

He was respected and he was feared in his household: but he was not liked. His silent and reserved manner had a gloomy influence upon the servants who came in contact with him: and they compared him very disadvantageously with his predecessor, Percival Dunbar; the genial, kind, old master, who had always had a cheerful, friendly word for every one of his dependants: from the stately housekeeper in rustling silken robes, to the smallest boy employed in the stables.

No, the new master of the abbey was not liked. Day after day he lived secluded and alone. At first, his daughter had broken in upon his solitude, and, with bright, caressing ways, had tried to win him from his loneliness: but she found that all her efforts to do this were worse than useless: they were even disagreeable to her father: and, by degrees, her light footstep was heard less and less often in that lonely wing of the house where Henry Dunbar had taken up his abode.

Maudesley Abbey was a large and rambling old mansion, which had been built in half-a-dozen different reigns. The most ancient part of the building was that very northern wing which Mr. Dunbar had chosen for himself. Here the architecture belonged to the early Plantagenet era; the stone walls were thick and massive, the lancet-headed windows were long and narrow, and the arms of the early benefactors of the monastery were emblazoned here and there upon the richly stained glass. The walls were covered with faded tapestry, from which grim faces scowled upon the lonely inhabitant of the chambers. The groined ceiling was of oak, that had grown black with age. The windows of Mr. Dunbar’s bedroom and dressing-room opened into a cloistered court, beneath whose solemn shadow the hooded monks had slowly paced, in days that were long gone. The centre of this quadrangular court had been made into a garden, where tall hollyhocks and prim dahlias flaunted in the autumn sunshine. And within this cloistered courtway Mr. Dunbar had erected the loose box for his favourite horse.

The southern wing of Maudesley Abbey owed its origin to a much later period. The windows and fireplaces at this end of the house were in the Tudor style; the polished oak wainscoting was very beautiful; the rooms were smaller and snugger than the tapestried chambers occupied by the banker; Venetian glasses and old crystal chandeliers glimmered and glittered against the sombre woodwork: and elegant modern furniture contrasted pleasantly with the Elizabethan casements and carved oaken chimney-pieces. Everything that unlimited wealth can do to make a house beautiful had been done for this part of the mansion by Percival Dunbar; and had been done with considerable success. The doting grandfather had taken a delight in beautifying the apartments occupied by his girlish companion: and Miss Dunbar had walked upon velvet pile, and slept beneath the shadow of satin curtains, from a very early period of her existence.

She was used to luxury and elegance: she was accustomed to be surrounded by all that is refined and beautiful: but she had that inexhaustible power of enjoyment which is perhaps one of the brightest gifts of a fresh young nature: and she did not grow tired of the pleasant home that had been made for her. Laura Dunbar was a pampered child of fortune: but there are some natures that it seems very difficult to spoil: and I think hers must have been one of these.

She knew no weariness of the “rolling hours.” To her the world seemed a paradise of beauty. Remember, she had never seen real misery: she had never endured that sick feeling of despair, which creeps over the most callous of us when we discover the amount of hopeless misery that is, and has been, and is to be, for ever and ever upon this weary earth. She had seen sick cottagers, and orphan children, and desolate widows, in her pilgrimages amongst the dwellings of the poor: but she had always been able to relieve these afflicted ones, and to comfort them more or less.

It is the sight of sorrows which we cannot alleviate that sends a palpable stab home to our hearts, and for a time almost sickens us with a universe which cannot go upon its course without such miseries as these.

To Laura Dunbar the world was still entirely beautiful, for the darker secrets of life had not been revealed to her.

Only once had affliction come near her; and then it had come in a calm and solemn shape, in the death of an old man, who ended a good and prosperous life peacefully upon the breast of his beloved granddaughter.

Perhaps her first real trouble came to her now in the bitter disappointment which had succeeded her father’s return to England. Heaven only knows with what a tender yearning the girl had looked forward to Henry Dunbar’s return. They had been separated for the best part of her brief lifetime; but what of that? He would love her all the more tenderly because of those long years during which they had been divided. She meant to be the same to her father that she had been to her grandfather — a loving companion, a ministering angel.

But it was never to be. Her father, by a hundred tacit signs, rejected her affection. He had shunned her presence from the first: and she had grown now to shun him. She told Arthur Lovell of this unlooked-for sorrow.

“Of all the things I ever thought of, Arthur, this never entered my head,” she said, in a low, pensive voice, as she stood one evening in the deep embrasure of the Tudor window, looking thoughtfully out at the wide-spreading lawn, where the shadows of the low cedar branches made patches of darkness on the moonlit surface of the grass; “I thought that papa might fall ill on the voyage home, and die, and that the ship for whose safe course I prayed night and day, might bring me nothing but the sacred remains of the dead. I have thought this, Arthur, and I have lain awake at night, torturing myself with the thought: till my mind has grown so full of the dark picture, that I have seen the little cabin in the cruel, restless ship, and my father lying helpless on a narrow bed, with only strangers to watch his death-hour. I cannot tell you how many different things I have feared: but I never, never thought that he would not love me. I have even thought that it was just possible he might be unlike my grandfather, and a little unkind to me sometimes when I vexed or troubled him: but I thought his heart would be true to me through all, and that even in his harshest moments he would love me dearly, for the sake of my dead mother.”

Her voice broke, and she sobbed aloud: but the man who stood by her side had no word of comfort to say to her. Her complaint awoke that old suspicion which had lately slumbered in his breast — the horrible fear that Mr. Dunbar was guilty of the murder of his old servant.

The young lawyer was bound to say something, however. It was too cruel to stand by and utter no word of comfort to this sobbing girl.

“Laura, dear Laura,” he said, “this is foolish, believe me. You must have patience, and still hope for the best. How can your father do otherwise than love you, when he grows to know you well? You may have expected too much of him. Remember, that people who have lived long in the East Indies are apt to become cold and languid in their manners. When Mr. Dunbar has seen more of you, when he has become better accustomed to your society ——”

“That he will never be,” Laura answered, impetuously. “How can he ever know me better when he scrupulously avoids me? Sometimes whole days pass during which I do not see him. Then I summon up courage and go to his dreary rooms. He receives me graciously enough, and treats me with politeness. With politeness! when I am yearning for his affection: and I linger a little, perhaps, asking him about his health, and trying to get more at home in his presence. But there is always a nervous restlessness in his manner: which tells me — oh, too plainly! — that my presence is unwelcome to him. So I go away at last, half heart-broken. I remember, now, how cold and brief his letters from India always seemed: but then he need to excuse himself to me on account of the hurry of business: and he seldom finished his letter without saying that he looked joyfully forward to our meeting. It was very cruel of him to deceive me!”

Arthur Lovell was a sorry comforter. From the first he had tried in vain to like Henry Dunbar. Since that strange scene in Portland Place, he had suspected the banker of a foul and treacherous murder — that worst and darkest crime, which for ever separates a man from the sympathy of his fellow-men, and brands him as an accursed and abhorred creature, beyond the pale of human compassion. Ah, how blessed is that Divine and illimitable compassion which can find pity for those whom sinful man rejects!

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