Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 26

What Happened in the Back Parlour of the Banking-House.

Henry Dunbar arrived in London a couple of hours after Mr. Vernon left the Abbey. He went straight to the Clarendon Hotel. He had no servant with him, and his luggage consisted only of a portmanteau, a dressing-case, and a despatch-box; the same despatch-box whose contents he had so carefully studied at the Winchester hotel, upon the night of the murder in the grove.

The day after his arrival was Sunday, and all that day the banker occupied himself in reading a morocco-bound manuscript volume, which he took from the despatch-box.

There was a black fog upon this November day, and the atmosphere out of doors was cold and bleak. But the room in which Henry Dunbar sat looked the very picture of comfort and elegance.

He had drawn his chair close to the fire, and on a table near his elbow were arranged the open despatch-box, a tall crystal jug of Burgundy, with a goblet-shaped glass, on a salver, and a case of cigars.

Until long after dark that evening, Henry Dunbar sat by the fire, smoking and drinking, and reading the manuscript volume. He only paused now and then to take pencil-notes of its contents in a little memorandum-book, which he carried in the breast-pocket of his coat.

It was not till seven o’clock, when the liveried servant who waited upon him came to inform him that his dinner was served in an adjoining chamber, that Mr. Dunbar rose from his seat and put away the book in the despatch-box. He laid down the volume on the table while he replaced other papers in the box, and it fell open at the first page. On that first page was written, in Henry Dunbar’s bold, legible hand —

Journal of my life in India, from my arrival in 1815 until my departure in 1850.

This was the book the banker had been studying all that winter’s day.

At twelve o’clock the next day he ordered a brougham, and was driven to the banking-house in St. Gundolph Lane. This was the first time that Henry Dunbar had visited the house in St. Gundolph Lane since his return from India.

Those who knew the history of the present chief partner of the house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, were in nowise astonished by this fact. They knew that, as a young man, Henry Dunbar had contracted the tastes and habits of an aristocrat, and that, if he had afterwards developed into a clever and successful man of business, it was only by reason of the force of circumstances, which had thrust him into a position that he hated.

It was by no means wonderful, then, that, after becoming possessor of the united fortunes of his father and his uncle, Henry Dunbar should keep aloof from a place that had always been obnoxious to him. The business had gone on without him very well during his absence, and it went on without him now, for his place in India had been assumed by a very clever man, who for twenty years had acted as cashier in the Calcutta house.

It may be that the banker had an unpleasant recollection of his last visit to St. Gundolph Lane, upon the day when the existence of the forged bills was discovered by Percival and Hugh Dunbar. All the width of thirty-five years between the present hour and that day might not be wide enough to separate the memory of the past from the thoughts which were busy this morning in the mind of Henry Dunbar.

Be it as it might, Mr. Dunbar’s reflections this day were evidently not of a pleasant nature. He was very pale as he rode citywards, in the comfortable brougham, from the Clarendon; and his face had a stern, fixed look, like a man who has nerved himself to meet some crisis, which he knows is near at hand.

There was a stoppage upon Ludgate Hill. Great wooden barricades and mountains of uprooted paving-stones, amidst which sturdy navigators disported themselves with spades and pickaxes, and wheelbarrows full of rubbish, blocked the way; so the brougham turned into Farringdon Street, and went up Snow Hill, and under the grim black walls of dreadful Newgate.

The vehicle travelled very slowly, for the traffic was concentrated in this quarter by reason of the stoppage on Ludgate Hill, and Mr. Dunbar was able to contemplate at his leisure the black prison-walls, and the men and women selling dogs’-collars under their dismal shadows.

It may be that the banker’s face grew a shade paler after that contemplation. The corners of his mouth twitched nervously as he got out of the carriage before the mahogany doors of the banking-house in St. Gundolph Lane. But he drew a long breath, and held his head proudly erect as he pushed open the doors and went in.

Never since the day of the discovery of the forged bills had that man entered the banking-house. Dark thoughts came back upon his mind, and the shadows deepened on his face as he gave one rapid glance round the familiar office.

He walked straight towards the private parlour in which that well-remembered scene had occurred five-and-thirty years ago. But before he arrived at the door leading from the public offices to the back of the house, he was stopped by a gentlemanly-looking man, who came forward from a desk in some shadowy region, and intercepted the stranger.

This man was Clement Austin, the cashier.

“Do you wish to see Mr. Balderby, sir?” he asked.

“Yes. I have an appointment with him at one o’clock. My name is Dunbar.”

The cashier bowed and opened the door. The banker passed across the threshold, which he had not crossed for five-and-thirty years until to-day.

But as Mr. Dunbar went towards the familiar parlour at the back of the banking-house, he stopped for a minute, and looked at the cashier.

Clement Austin was scarcely less pale than Henry Dunbar himself. He had heard of the banker’s intended visit to St. Gundolph Lane, and had looked forward with strange anxiety to a meeting with the man whom Margaret Wilmot declared to be the murderer of her father. Now that the meeting had come to pass, he looked at Henry Dunbar with an earnest, scrutinizing gaze, as if he would fain have discovered the secret of the man’s guilt or innocence in his countenance.

The banker’s face was pale, and grave, and stern; but Clement Austin knew that for Henry Dunbar there were very humiliating and unpleasant circumstances connected with the offices in St. Gundolph Lane, and it was scarcely to be expected that a man would come smiling into a place out of which he had gone five-and-thirty years before a disgraced and degraded creature.

For a few moments the two men paused in the passage between the public offices and the private parlour, looking at each other.

The banker’s gaze never flinched during that encounter. It is taken as a strong proof of a man’s innocence that he should look you full in the face with a steadfast gaze when you look at him with suspicion plainly visible in your eyes; but would he not be the poorest villain if he shirked that encounter of glances when he knows full surely that he is in that moment put to the test? It is rather innocence whose eyelids drop when you peer too closely into its eyes, for innocence is appalled by the stern, accusing glances which it is unprepared to meet. Guilt stares you boldly in the face, for guilt is hardened and defiant, and has this one grand superiority over innocence — that it is prepared for the worst.

Clement Austin opened the door of Mr. Balderby’s parlour; Mr. Dunbar went in unannounced. The cashier closed the parlour-door and returned to his desk in the public office.

The junior partner was sitting at an office table near the fire writing, but he rose as the banker entered the room, and went forward to meet him.

“You are very punctual, Mr. Dunbar,” he said.

“Yes, I am generally punctual.”

The two men shook hands, and Mr. Balderby wheeled forward a morocco-covered arm-chair for his senior partner, and then took his seat opposite to him, with only the small office table between them.

“It may seem late in the day to bid you welcome to the bank, Mr. Dunbar,” said the junior partner, “but I do so, nevertheless — most heartily!”

There was a flatness in the accent in which these two last words were spoken, which was like the sound of a false coin when it falls dead upon a counter and proclaims itself spurious.

Henry Dunbar did not return his partner’s greeting. He was looking round the room, and remembering the day upon which he had last seen it. There was very little alteration in the appearance of the dismal city chamber. There was the same wire-blind before the window, the same solitary tree, leafless, in the narrow courtyard without. The morocco-covered arm-chairs had been re-covered, perhaps, during that five-and-thirty years; but if so, the covering had grown shabby again. Even the Turkey carpet was in the very stage of dusky dinginess that had distinguished the carpet on which Henry Dunbar had stood five-and-thirty years before.

“I received your letter announcing your journey to London, and your desire for a private interview, on Saturday afternoon,” Mr. Balderby said, after a pause. “I have made arrangements to assure our being undisturbed so long as you may remain here. If you wish to make any investigation of the affairs of the house, I——”

Mr. Dunbar waved his hand with a deprecatory air.

“Nothing is farther from my thoughts than any such design,” he said. “No, Mr. Balderby, I have only been a man of business because all chance of another career, which I infinitely preferred, was closed upon me five-and-thirty years ago. I am quite content to be a sleeping-partner in the house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby. For ten years prior to my father’s death he took no active part in the business. The house got on very well without his aid; it will get on equally well without mine. The business that brings me to London is an entirely personal matter. I am a rich man, but I don’t exactly know how rich I am, and I want to realize rather a large sum of money.”

Mr. Balderby bowed, but his eyebrows went up a little, as if he found it impossible to control some slight evidence of his surprise.

“Previous to my daughter’s marriage I settled upon her the house in Portland Place and the Yorkshire property. She will have all my money when I die; and, as Sir Philip Jocelyn is a rich man, she will perhaps be one of the wealthiest women in England. So far so good. Neither Laura nor her husband will have any reason for dissatisfaction. But this is not quite enough, Mr. Balderby. I am not a demonstrative man, and I have never made any great fuss about my love for my daughter; but I do love her, nevertheless.”

Mr. Dunbar spoke very slowly here, and stopped once or twice to pass his handkerchief across his forehead, as he had done in the hotel at Winchester.

“We Anglo–Indians have rather a magnificent way of doing things, Mr. Balderby” he continued, “when we take it into our heads to do them at all. I want to give my daughter a diamond-necklace as a wedding present, and I want it to be such as an Eastern prince or a Rothschild might offer to his only child. You understand?”

“Oh, perfectly,” answered Mr. Balderby; “I shall be most happy to be of any use to you in the matter.”

“All I want is a large sum of money at my command. I may go rather recklessly to work and make a large investment in this necklace; it will be something for Lady Jocelyn to bequeath to her children. You and John Lovell, of Shorncliffe, were the executors to my father’s will. You signed an order for the transfer of my father’s money to my account some time in last September.”

“I did, in concurrence with Mr. Lovell.”

“Precisely; Lovell wrote me a letter to that effect. My father kept two accounts here, I believe — a deposit and a drawing account?”

“He did.”

“And those two accounts have gone on since my return in the same manner as during his lifetime?”

“Precisely. The income which Mr. Percival Dunbar set aside for his own use was seven thousand a year. He rarely, spent as much as that; sometimes he spent less than half. The balance of this income, and his double share in the profits of the business, went to the credit of his deposit account, and various sums have been withdrawn from time to time, and duly invested under his order.”

“Perhaps you can let me see the ledgers containing those two accounts?”

“Most certainly.”

Mr. Balderby touched the spring of a handbell upon his table.

“Ask Mr. Austin to bring the daily balance and deposit accounts ledgers,” he said to the person who answered his summons.

Clement Austin appeared five minutes afterwards, carrying two ponderous morocco-bound volumes.

Mr. Balderby opened both ledgers, and placed them before his senior partner. Henry Dunbar looked at the deposit account. His eyes ran eagerly down the long row of figures before him until they came to the sum total. Then his chest heaved, and he drew a long breath, like a man who feels almost stifled by some internal oppression.

The last figures in the page were these:

137,926l. 17s. 2d.

One hundred and thirty-seven thousand nine hundred and twenty-six pounds seventeen shillings and twopence. The twopence seemed a ridiculous anti-climax; but business-men are necessarily as exact in figures as calculating-machines.

“How is this money invested?” asked Henry Dunbar, pointing to the page. His fingers trembled a little as he did so, and he dropped his hand suddenly upon the ledger.

“There’s fifty thousand in India stock,” Mr. Balderby answered, as indifferently as if fifty thousand pounds more or less was scarcely worth speaking of; “and there’s five-and-twenty in railway debentures, Great Western. Most of the remainder is floating in Exchequer bills.”

“Then you can realize the Exchequer bills?”

Mr. Balderby winced as if some one had trodden upon one of his corns. He was a banker heart and soul, and he did not at all relish the idea of any withdrawal of the bank’s resources, however firm that establishment might stand.

“It’s rather a large amount of capital to withdraw from the business,” he said, rubbing his chin, thoughtfully.

“I suppose the bank can afford it!” Mr. Dunbar exclaimed, with a tone of surprise.

“Oh, yes; the bank can afford it well enough. Our calls are sometimes heavy. Lord Yarsfield — a very old customer — talks of buying an estate in Wales; he may come down upon us at any moment for a very stiff sum of money. However, the capital is yours, Mr. Dunbar; and you’ve a right to dispose of it as you please. The Exchequer bills shall be realized immediately.”

“Good; and if you can dispose of the railway bonds to advantage, you may do so.”

“You think of spending ——”

“I think of reinvesting the money. I have an offer of an estate north of the metropolis, which I think will realize cent per cent a few years hence: but that is an after consideration. At present we have only to do with the diamond-necklace for my daughter. I shall buy the diamonds myself, direct from the merchant-importers. You will hold yourself ready after Wednesday, we’ll say, to cash some very heavy cheques on my account?”

“Certainly, Mr. Dunbar.”

“Then I think that is really all I have to say. I shall be happy to see you at the Clarendon, if you will dine with me any evening that you are disengaged.”

There was very little heartiness in the tone of this invitation; and Mr. Balderby perfectly understood that it was only a formula which Mr. Dunbar felt himself called upon to go through. The junior partner murmured his acknowledgment of Henry Dunbar’s politeness; and then the two men talked together for a few minutes on indifferent subjects.

Five minutes afterwards Mr. Dunbar rose to leave the room. He went into the passage between Mr. Balderby’s parlour and the public offices of the bank. This passage was very dark; but the offices were well lighted by lofty plate-glass windows. Between the end of the passage and the outer doors of the bank, Henry Dunbar saw the figure of a woman sitting near one of the desks and talking to Clement Austin.

The banker stopped suddenly, and went back to the parlour.

He looked about him a little absently as he re-entered the room.

“I thought I brought a cane,” he said.

“I think not,” replied Mr. Balderby, rising from before his desk. “I don’t remember seeing one in your hand.”

“Ah, then, I suppose I was mistaken.”

He still lingered in the parlour, putting on his gloves very slowly, and looking out of the window into the dismal backyard, where there was a dingy little wooden door set deep in the stone wall.

While the banker loitered near the window, Clement Austin came into the room, to show some document to the junior partner. Henry Dunbar turned round as the cashier was about to leave the parlour.

“I saw a woman just now talking to you in the office. That’s not very business-like, is it, Mr. Austin? Who is the woman?”

“She is a young lady, sir.”

“A young lady?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What brings her here?”

The cashier hesitated for a moment before he replied, “She — wishes to see you, Mr. Dunbar,” he said, after that brief pause.

“What is her name? — who — who is she?”

“Her name is Wilmot — Margaret Wilmot.”

“I know no such person!” answered the banker, haughtily, but looking nervously at the half-opened door as he spoke.

“Shut that door, sir!” he said, impatiently, to the cashier; “the draught from the passage is strong enough to cut a man in two. Who is this Margaret Wilmot?”

“The daughter of that unfortunate man, Joseph Wilmot, who was cruelly murdered at Winchester!” answered the cashier, very gravely.

He looked Henry Dunbar full in the face as he spoke.

The banker returned his look as unflinchingly as he had done before, and spoke in a hard, unfaltering voice as he answered: “Tell this person, Margaret Wilmot, that I refuse to see her to-day, as I refused to see her in Portland Place, and as I refused to see her at Winchester!” he said, deliberately. “Tell her that I shall always refuse to see her, whenever or wherever she makes an attack upon me. I have suffered enough already on account of that hideous business at Winchester, and I shall most resolutely defend myself from any further persecution. This young person can have no possible motive for wishing to see me. If she is poor and wants money of me, I am ready and willing to assist her. I have already offered to do so — I can do no more. But if she is in distress ——”

“She is not in distress, Mr. Dunbar,” interrupted Clement Austin. “She has friends who love her well enough to shield her from that.”

“Indeed; and you are one of those friends, I suppose, Mr. Austin?”

“I am.”

“Prove your friendship, then, by teaching Margaret Wilmot that she has a friend and not an enemy in me. If you are — as I suspect from your manner — something more than a friend: if you love her, and she returns your love, marry her, and she shall have a dowry that no gentleman’s wife need be ashamed to bring to her husband.”

There was no anger, no impatience in the banker’s voice now, but a tone of deep feeling. Clement Austin locked at him, astonished by the change in his manner.

Henry Dunbar saw the look, and it seemed as if he endeavoured to answer it.

“You have no need to be surprised that I shrink from seeing Margaret Wilmot,” he said. “Cannot you understand that my nerves may be none of the strongest, and that I cannot endure the idea of an interview with this girl, who, no doubt, by her persistent pursuit of me, suspects me of her father’s murder? I am an old man, and I have been thirty-five years in India. My health is shattered, and I have a horror of all tragic scenes. I have not yet recovered from the shock of that horrible business at Winchester. Go and tell Margaret Wilmot this: tell her that I will be her true friend if she will accept that friendship, but that I will not see her until she has learned to think better of me.”

There was something very straightforward, very simple, in all this. For a time, at least, Clement Austin’s mind wavered. Margaret was, perhaps, wrong, after all, and Henry Dunbar might be an innocent man.

It was Clement who had informed Margaret of Mr. Dunbar’s expected presence here upon this day; and it was on the strength of that information that the girl had come to St. Gundolph Lane, with the determination of seeing the man whom she believed to be the murderer of her father.

Clement returned to the office, where he had left Margaret, in order to repeat to her Mr. Dunbar’s message.

No sooner had the door of the parlour closed upon the cashier than Henry Dunbar turned abruptly to his junior partner.

“There is a door leading from the yard into a court that connects St. Gundolph Lane with another lane at the back,” he said, “is there not?”

He pointed to the dark little yard outside the window as he spoke.

“Yes, there is a door, I believe.”

“Is it locked?”

“No; it is seldom locked till four o’clock; the clerks use it sometimes, when they go in and out.”

“Then I shall go out that way,” said Mr. Dunbar, who was almost breathless in his haste. “You can send the carriage back to the Clarendon by-and-by. I don’t want to see that girl. Good morning.”

He hurried out of the parlour, and into a passage leading to the yard, followed by Mr. Balderby, who wondered at his senior partner’s excitement. The door in the yard was not locked. Henry Dunbar opened it, went out into the court, and closed the door behind him.

So, for the third time, he escaped from an interview with Margaret Wilmot.

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