Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 21

A New Life.

For the first time in her life, Margaret Wilmot knew what it was to have friends, real and earnest friends, who interested themselves in her welfare, and were bent upon securing her happiness; and I must admit that in this particular case there was something more than friendship — something holier and higher in its character — the pure and unselfish love of an honourable man.

Clement Austin, the cashier at Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby’s Anglo–Indian banking-house, had fallen in love with the modest hazel-eyed music-mistress, and had set himself to work to watch her, and to find out all about her, long before he was conscious of the real nature of his feelings.

He had begun by pitying her. He had pitied her because of her hard life, her loneliness, her beauty, which doubtless exposed her to many dangers that would have been spared to a plain woman.

Now, when a man allows himself to pity a very pretty girl, he places himself on a moral tight-rope; and he must be a moral Blondin if he expects to walk with any safety upon the narrow line which alone divides him from the great abyss called love.

There are not many Blondins, either physical or intellectual; and the consequence is, that nine out of ten of the gentlemen who place themselves in this perilous position find the narrow line very slippery, and, before they have gone twenty paces, plunge overboard plump to the very bottom of the abyss, and are over head and ears in love before they know where they are.

Clement Austin fell in love with Margaret Wilmot; and his tender regard, his respectful devotion, were very new and sweet to the lonely girl. It would have been strange, then, under such circumstances, if his love had been hopeless.

He was in no very great hurry to declare himself; for he had a powerful ally in his mother, who adored her son, and would have allowed him to bring home a young negress, or a North American squaw, to the maternal hearth, if such a bride had been necessary to his happiness.

Mrs. Austin very speedily discovered her son’s secret; for he had taken little pains to conceal his feelings from the indulgent mother who had been his confidante ever since his first boyish loves at a Clapham seminary, within whose sacred walls he had been admitted on Tuesdays and Fridays to learn dancing in the delightful society of five-and-thirty young ladies.

Mrs. Austin confessed that she would rather her son had chosen some damsel who could lay claim to greater worldly advantages than those possessed by the young music-mistress; but when Clement looked disappointed, the good soul’s heart melted all in a moment, and she declared, that if Margaret was only as good as she was pretty, and truly attached to her dear noble-hearted boy, she (Mrs. Austin) would ask no more.

It happened fortunately that she knew nothing of Joseph Wilmot’s antecedents, or of the letter addressed to Norfolk Island; or perhaps she might have made very strong objections to a match between her son and a young lady whose father had spent a considerable part of his life in a penal settlement.

“We will tell my mother nothing of the past, Miss Wilmot,” Clement Austin said, “except that which concerns yourself alone. Let the history of your unhappy father’s life remain a secret between you and me. My mother is very fond of you; I should be sorry, therefore, if she heard anything to shock her prejudices. I wish her to love you better every day.”

Clement Austin had his wish; for the kind-hearted widow grew every day more and more attached to Margaret Wilmot. She discovered that the girl had more than an ordinary talent for music; and she proposed that Margaret should take a prettily furnished first-floor in a pleasant-looking detached house, half cottage, half villa, at Clapham, and at once set to work as a teacher of the piano.

“I can get you plenty of pupils, my dear,” Mrs. Austin said; “for I have lived here more than thirty years — ever since Clement’s birth, in fact — and I know almost everybody in the neighbourhood. You have only to teach upon moderate terms, and the people will be glad to send their children to you. I shall give a little evening party, on purpose that my friend may hear you play.”

So Mrs. Austin gave her evening party, and Margaret appeared in a simple black-silk dress that had been in her wardrobe for a long time, and which would have seemed very shabby in the glaring light of day. The wearer of it looked very pretty and elegant, however, by the light of Mrs. Austin’s wax-candles; and the aristocracy of Clapham remarked that the “young person” whom Mrs. Austin and her son had “taken up” was really rather nice-looking.

But when Margaret played and sang, people were charmed in spite of themselves. She had a superb contralto voice, rich, deep, and melodious; and she played with brilliancy, and, what is much rarer, with expression.

Mrs. Austin, going backwards and forwards amongst her guests to ascertain the current of opinions, found that her protégée’s success was an accomplished fact before the evening was over.

Margaret took the new apartments in the course of the week; and before a fortnight had passed, she had secured more than a dozen pupils, who gave her ample employment for her time; and who enabled her to earn more than enough for her simple wants.

Every Sunday she dined with Mrs. Austin. Clement had persuaded his mother to make this arrangement a settled thing; although as yet he had said nothing of his growing love for Margaret.

Those Sundays were pleasant days to Clement and the girl whom he hoped to win for his wife.

The comfortable elegance of Mrs. Austin’s drawing-room, the peaceful quiet of the Sabbath-evening, when the curtains were drawn before the bay-window, and the shaded lamp brought into the room; the intellectual conversation; the pleasant talk about new books and music: all were new and delightful to Margaret.

This was her first experience of a home, a real home, in which there was nothing but union and content; no overshadowing fear, no horrible unspoken dread, no half-guessed secrets always gnawing at the heart. But in all this new comfort Margaret Wilmot had not forgotten Henry Dunbar. She had not ceased to believe him guilty of her father’s murder. Calm and gentle in her outward demeanour, she kept her secret buried in her breast, and asked for no sympathy.

Clement Austin had given her his best attention, his best advice; but it all amounted to nothing. The different scraps of evidence that hinted at Henry Dunbar’s guilt were not strong enough to condemn him. The cashier communicated with the detective police, who had been watching the case; but they only shook their heads gravely, and dismissed him with their thanks for his information. There was nothing in what he had to tell them that could implicate Mr. Dunbar.

“A gentleman with a million of money doesn’t put himself in the power of the hangman unless he’s very hard pushed,” said the detective. “The motive’s what you must look to in these cases, sir. Now, where’s Mr. Dunbar’s motive for murdering this man Wilmot?”

“The secret that Joseph Wilmot possessed ——”

“Bah, my dear sir! Henry Dunbar could afford to buy all the secrets that ever were kept. Secrets are like every other sort of article: they’re only kept to sell. Good morning.”

After this, Clement Austin told Margaret that he could be of no use to her. The dead man must rest in his grave: there was little hope that the mystery of his fate would ever be fathomed by human intelligence.

But Margaret Wilmot did not cease to remember Mr. Dunbar She only waited.

One resolution was always uppermost in her mind, even when she was happiest with her new friends. She would see Henry Dunbar. In spite of his obstinate determination to avoid an interview with her, she would see him: and then, when she had gained her purpose, and stood face to face with him, she would boldly denounce him as her father’s murderer. If then he did not flinch or falter, if she saw innocence in his face, she would cease to doubt him, she would be content to believe that Joseph Wilmot had met his untimely death from a stranger’s hand.

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