Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 27

Clement Austin’s Wooing.

For the third time Margaret Wilmot was disappointed in the hope of seeing Henry Dunbar. Clement Austin had on the previous evening told her of the banker’s intended visit to the office in St. Gundolph Lane, and the young music-mistress had made hasty arrangements for the postponement of her usual duties, in order that she might go to the City to see Henry Dunbar.

“He will not dare to refuse you,” Clement Austin said; “for he must know that such a refusal would excite suspicion in the minds of the people about him.”

“He must have known that at Winchester, and yet he avoided me there,” answered Margaret Wilmot; “he must have known it when he refused to see me in Portland Place. He will refuse to see me to-day, if I ask for an interview with him. My only chance will be the chance of an accidental meeting with Him. Do you think that you can arrange this for me, Mr. Austin?”

Clement Austin readily promised to bring about an apparently accidental meeting between Margaret and Mr. Dunbar, and this is how it was that Joseph Wilmot’s daughter had waited in the office in St. Gundolph Lane. She had arrived only five minutes after Mr. Dunbar entered the banking-house, and she waited very patiently, very resolutely, in the hope that when Henry Dunbar returned to his carriage she might snatch the opportunity of speaking to him, of seeing his face, and discovering whether he was guilty or not.

She clung to the idea that some indefinable expression of his countenance would reveal the fact of his guilt or innocence. But she could not dispossess herself of the belief that he was guilty. What other reason could there be for his persistent avoidance of her?

But, for the third time, she was baffled; and she went home very despondently, haunted by the image of her dead father; while Henry Dunbar went back to the Clarendon in a common hack cab, which he picked up in Cornhill.

Margaret Wilmot found one of her pupils waiting in the pretty little parlour in the cottage at Clapham, and she was obliged to sit down to the piano and listen to a fantasia, very badly played, keeping sharp watch upon the pupil’s fingers, for an hour or so, before she was free to think her own thoughts.

Margaret was very glad when the lesson was over. The pupil was a very vivacious young lady, who called her music-mistress “dear,” and would have been glad to waste half an hour or so in an animated conversation about the last new style in bonnets, or the shape of the fashionable winter mantle, or the popular novel of the month. But Margaret’s pale face seemed a mute appeal for compassion; so Miss Lamberton drew on her gloves, settled her bonnet before the glass over the mantel-piece, and tripped away.

Margaret sat by the little round table, with an open book before her. But she could not read, though the volume was one that had been lent her by Clement, and though she took a peculiar pleasure in reading any book that was a favourite of his. She did not read; she only sat with her eyes fixed, and her face very pale, in the dim light of two candles that flickered in the draught from the window.

She was aroused from her despondent reverie by a double knock at the door below, and presently the neat little maid-servant ushered Mr. Austin into the room.

Margaret started up, a little confused at the advent of this unexpected visitor. It was the first time that Clement had ever called upon her alone. He had often been her guest; but, until to-night, he had always come under his mother’s wing to see the pretty music-mistress.

“I am afraid I startled you, Miss Wilmot,” he said.

“Oh, no; not at all,” answered Margaret; “I was sitting here, quite idle, thinking ——”

“Thinking of your failure of to-day, I suppose?”

“Yes.”

There was a pause, during which Margaret seated herself once more by the little table, while Clement Austin walked up and down the room thinking.

Presently he stopped suddenly, with his elbow leaning upon the corner of the mantel-piece, opposite Margaret, and looked down at the girl’s thoughtful face. She had blushed when the cashier first entered the room; but she was very pale now.

“Margaret,” said Clement Austin — it was the first time he had called his mother’s protégée by her Christian name, and the girl looked up at him with a surprised expression — “Margaret, that which happened to-day makes me think that your conviction is only the horrible truth, and that Henry Dunbar, the sole surviving kinsman of those two men whom I learnt to honour and revere long ago, when I was a mere boy, is indeed guilty of your father’s death. If so, the cause of justice demands that this man’s crime should be brought to light. I am something of Shakspeare’s opinion; I cannot but believe that ‘murder will out,’ somehow or other, sooner or later. But I think that, in this business, the police have been culpably supine. It seems as if they feared to handle the case to closely, lest the clue they followed should lead them to Henry Dunbar.”

“You think they have been, bribed?”

“No; I don’t think that. There seems to be a popular belief, all over the world, that a man with a million of money can do no wrong. I don’t believe the police have been culpable; they have only been faint-hearted. They have suffered themselves to be discouraged by the difficulties of the case. Other crimes have been committed, other work has arisen for them to do, and they have been obliged to abandon an investigation which seemed hopeless. This is how criminals escape — this is how murderers are suffered to be at large; not because discovery is impossible, but because it can only be effected by a slow and wearisome process in which so few men have courage to persevere. While the country is ringing with the record of a great crime — while the murderer is on his guard night and day, waking and sleeping — the police watch and work: but by-and-by, when the crime is half forgotten — when security has made the criminal careless — when the chances of detection are ten-fold — the police have grown tired, and there is no eye to watch the guilty man’s movements. I know nothing of the science of detection, Margaret; but I believe that Henry Dunbar was the murderer of your father; and I will do my uttermost, with God’s help, to bring this crime home to him.”

The girl’s eyes flashed with a proud light, as Clement Austin finished speaking.

“Will you do this?” she said; “will you bring to light the mystery of my father’s death? Will you bring punishment upon his murderer? It seems a horrible thing, perhaps, for a woman to wish detection to overtake any man, however base; but surely it would be more horrible if I were content to let my father’s murder remain unavenged. My poor father! If he had been a good man, I do not think it would grieve me so much to remember his cruel death: but he was not a good man — he was not a good man.”

“Let him have been what he may, Margaret, his murderer shall not go unpunished if I can aid the cause of justice,” said Clement Austin. “But it was not to say this alone that I came here to-night, Margaret. I have something more to say to you.”

There was a tenderness in the cashier’s voice as he said these last words, that brought the blushes back to Margaret’s pale cheeks.

“You know that I love you, Margaret,” Clement said, in a low, earnest voice; “you must know that I love you: or if you do not, it is because there is no sympathy between us, and in that case my love is indeed hopeless. I have loved you from the first, dear — yes, from the very first summer twilight in which I saw your pale, pensive face in the dusky little garden at Wandsworth. The tender interest which I then felt in you was the first mysterious dawn of love, though I, in my infinite wisdom, put it down to an artistic admiration for your peculiar beauty. It was love, Margaret; and it has grown and strengthened in my heart ever since that summer evening, until it leads me here to-night to tell you all, and to ask you if there is any hope. Ah, Margaret, you must have known my love all along! You would have banished me had you felt that my love was hopeless: you could not have been so cruel as to deceive me.”

Margaret looked up at her lover with a frightened face. Had she done wrong, then, to be happy in his society, if she did not love him — if she did not love him! But surely this sudden thrill of triumph and delight which filled her breast, as Clement spoke to her, must be in some degree akin to love.

Yes, she loved him; but the bright things of this world were not for her. Love and Duty fought for the mastery of her pure Soul: and Duty was the conqueror.

“Oh, Clement!” she said, “do you forget who I am? Do you forget that letter which I showed you long ago, a letter addressed to my father when he was a transported felon, suffering the penalty of his crime? Do you forget who I am, and the taint that is in my blood; the disgrace that stains my name? I am proud to think that you have loved me, Clement Austin; but I am no fitting wife for you!”

“You are a noble, true-hearted woman, Margaret; and as such you are a fitting wife for a king. Besides, I am not such a grandee that I need look for high lineage in the wife of my choice. I am only a working man, content to accept a salary for my services; and looking forward by-and-by to a junior partnership in the house I serve. Margaret, my mother loves you; and she knows that you are the woman I seek to win as my wife. Forget the taint upon your dead father’s name as freely as I forget it, dearest; and only answer me one question; Is my love hopeless?”

“I will never consent to be your wife, Mr. Austin!” Margaret answered, in a low voice.

“Because you do not love me?”

“Because I will never cause you to blush for the history of your wife’s girlhood.”

“That is no answer to my question, Margaret,” said Clement Austin, seating himself by her side, and taking both her hands in his. “I must ask you to look me full in the face, Miss Wilmot,” he added, laughingly, drawing her towards him as he spoke; “for I begin to fancy you’re addicted to prevarication. Look me in the face, Madge darling, and tell me that you love me.”

But the blushing face would not be turned towards his own. Margaret’s head was still averted.

“Don’t ask me,” she pleaded; “don’t ask me. The day would come when you would regret your choice. I could not endure that. It would be too bitter. You have been very kind to me; and it would be a poor return for your kindness, if ——”

“If you were to make me unutterably happy, eh, Margaret? I think it would be only a proper act of gratitude. Haven’t I run all over Clapham, Brixton, and Wandsworth — to say nothing of an occasional incursion upon Putney — in order to procure you half-a-dozen pupils? And the very first favour I demand of you, which is only the gift of this clever little hand, you have the audacity to refuse me point-blank.”

He waited for a few moments, in the hope that Margaret would say something; but her face was still averted, and the trembling hand which Mr. Austin was holding struggled to release itself from his grasp.

“Margaret,” he said, very gravely, “perhaps I have been foolish and presumptuous in this business. In that case I fully deserve to be disappointed, however bitter the disappointment may be. If I have been wrong, Margaret; if I have been deceived by your sweet smile, your gentle words; for pity’s sake tell me that it is so, and I will forgive you for having involuntarily deceived me, and will try to cure myself of my folly. But I will not leave this room, I will not abandon the dear hope that has brought me here to-night, until you tell me plainly that you do not love me. Speak, Margaret, and speak fearlessly.”

But Margaret was still silent, only in the silence Clement Austin heard a low, sobbing sound.

“Margaret darling, you are crying. Ah! I know now that you love me, and I will not leave this room except as your plighted husband.”

“Heaven help me!” murmured Joseph Wilmot’s daughter; “Heaven lead me right! for I do love you, Clement, with all my heart”

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