Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 3

The Meeting at the Railway Station.

When the hands of the little clock in Margaret’s sitting-room pointed to five minutes before three, James Wentworth rose from his lounging attitude in the easy-chair, and took his hat from a side-table.

“Are you going out, father?” the girl asked.

“Yes, Madge; I’m going up to London. It don’t do for me to sit still too long. Bad thoughts come fast enough at any time; but they come fastest when a fellow sits twirling his thumbs. Don’t look so frightened, Madge; I’m not going to do any harm. I’m only going to look about me. I may fall in with a bit of luck, perhaps; no matter what, if it puts a few shillings into my pocket.”

“I’d rather you stayed at home, father dear,” Margaret said, gently.

“I dare say you would, child. But I tell you, I can’t. I can’t sit quiet this afternoon. I’ve been talking of things that always seem to set my brain on fire. No harm shall come of my going away, girl; I promise you that. The worst I shall do is to sit in a tavern parlour, drink a glass of gin-and-water, and read the papers. There’s no crime in that, is there, Madge?”

His daughter smiled as she tried to arrange the shabby velvet collar of his threadbare coat.

“No, father dear,” she said; “and I’m sure I always wish you to enjoy yourself. But you’ll come home soon, won’t you?”

“What do you call ‘soon,’ my lass?”

“Before ten o’clock. My day’s work will be all over long before that, and I’ll try and get something nice for your supper.”

“Very well, then, I’ll be back by ten o’clock to-night. There’s my hand upon it.”

He gave Margaret his hand, kissed her smooth cheeks, took his cane from a corner of the room, and then went out.

His daughter watched him from the open window as he walked up the narrow lane, amongst the groups of children gathered every here and there upon the dusty pathway.

“Heaven have pity upon him, and keep him from sin!” murmured Margaret Wentworth, clasping her hands, and with her eyes still following the retreating figure.

James Wentworth jingled the money in his waistcoat-pocket as he walked towards the railway station. He had very little; a couple of sixpences and a few halfpence. Just about enough to pay for a second-class return ticket, and for his glass of gin-and-water at a London tavern.

He reached the station three minutes before the train was due, and took his ticket.

At half-past three he was in London.

But as he was an idle, purposeless man, without friends to visit or money to spend, he was in no hurry to leave the railway station.

He hated solitude or quiet; and here in this crowded terminus there was life and bustle and variety enough in all conscience; and all to be seen for nothing: so he strolled backwards and forwards upon the platform, watching the busy porters, the eager passengers rushing to and fro, and meditating as to where he should spend the rest of his afternoon.

By-and-by he stood against a wooden pillar in a doorway, looking at the cabs, as, one after another, they tore up to the station, and disgorged their loads.

He had witnessed the arrival of a great many different travellers, when his attention was suddenly arrested by a little old man, wan and wizen and near-sighted, feeble-looking, but active, who alighted from a cab, and gave his small black-leather portmanteau into the hands of a porter.

This man was Sampson Wilmot, the old confidential clerk in the house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby.

James Wentworth followed the old man and the porter.

“I wonder if it is he,” he muttered to himself; “there’s a likeness — there’s certainly a likeness. But it’s so many years ago — so many years — I don’t suppose I should know him. And yet this man recalls him to me somehow. I’ll keep my eye upon the old fellow, at any rate.”

Sampson Wilmot had arrived at the station about ten minutes before the starting of the train. He asked some questions of the porter, and left his portmanteau in the man’s care while he went to get his ticket.

James Wentworth lingered behind, and contrived to look at the portmanteau.

There was a label pasted on the lid, with an address, written in a business-like hand —

“MR. SAMPSON WILMOT,
PASSENGER TO SOUTHAMPTON.”

James Wentworth gave a long whistle.

“I thought as much,” he muttered; “I thought I couldn’t be mistaken!”

He went into the ticket-office, where the clerk was standing amongst the crowd, waiting to take his ticket.

James Wentworth went up close to him, and touched him lightly on the shoulder.

Sampson Wilmot turned and looked him full in the face. He looked, but there was no ray of recognition in that look.

“Do you want me, sir?” he asked, with rather a suspicious glance at the reprobate’s shabby dress.

“Yes, Mr. Wilmot, I want to speak to you. You can come into the waiting-room with me, after you’ve taken your ticket.”

The clerk stared aghast. The tone of this shabby-looking stranger was almost one of command.

“I don’t know you, my good sir,” stammered Sampson; “I never set eyes upon you before; and unless you are a messenger sent after me from the office, you must be under a mistake. You are a stranger to me!”

“I am no stranger, and I am no messenger!” answered the other. “You’ve got your ticket? That’s all right! Now you can come with me.”

He walked into a waiting-room, the half-glass doors of which opened out of the office. The room was empty, for it only wanted five minutes to the starting of the train, and the passengers had hurried off to take their seats.

James Wentworth took off his hat, and brushed his rumpled grey hair from his forehead.

“Put on your spectacles, Sampson Wilmot,” he said, “and look hard at me, and then tell me if I am a stranger to you.”

The old clerk obeyed, nervously, fearfully. His tremulous hands could scarcely adjust his spectacles.

He looked at the reprobate’s face for some moments and said nothing. But his breath came quicker and his face grew very pale.

“Ay,” said James Wentworth, “look your hardest, and deny me if you can. It will be only wise to deny me; I’m no credit to any one — least of all to a steady respectable old chap like you!”

“Joseph! — Joseph!” gasped the old clerk; “is it you? Is it really my wretched brother? I thought you were dead, Joseph — I thought you were dead and gone!”

“And wished it, I dare say!” the other answered, bitterly. “No, Joseph — no!” cried Sampson Wilmot; “Heaven knows I never wished you ill. Heaven knows I was always sorry for you, and could make excuses for you even when you sank lowest!”

“That’s strange!” Joseph muttered, with a sneer; “that’s very strange! If you were so precious fond of me, how was it that you stopped in the house of Dunbar and Dunbar? If you had had one spark of natural affection for me, you could never have eaten their bread!”

Sampson Wilmot shook his head sorrowfully.

“Don’t be too hard upon me, Joseph,” he said, with mild reproachfulness; “if I hadn’t stopped at the banking-house your mother might have starved!”

The reprobate made no answer to this; but he turned his face away and sighed.

The bell rang for the starting of the train.

“I must go,” Sampson cried. “Give me your address, Joseph, and I will write to you.”

“Oh, yes, I dare say!” answered his brother, scornfully; “no, no, that won’t do. I’ve found you, my rich respectable brother, and I’ll stick to you. Where are you going?”

“To Southampton.”

“What for?”

“To meet Henry Dunbar.”

Joseph Wilmot’s face grew livid with rage.

The change that came over it was so sudden and so awful in its nature, that the old clerk started back as if he had seen a ghost.

“You are going to meet him?” said Joseph, in a hoarse whisper; “he is in England, then?”

“No; but he is expected to arrive almost immediately. Why do you look like that, Joseph?”

“Why do I look like that?” cried the younger man; “have you grown to be such a mere machine, such a speaking automaton, such a living tool of the men you serve, that all human feeling has perished in your breast? Bah! how should such as you understand what I feel? Hark! the bell’s ringing — I’ll come with you.”

The train was on the point of starting: the two men hurried out to the platform.

“No — no,” cried Sampson Wilmot, as his brother stepped after him into the carriage; “no — no, Joseph, don’t come with me — don’t come with me!”

“I will go with you.”

“But you’ve no ticket.”

“I can get one — or you can get me one, for I’ve no money — at the first station we stop at.”

They were seated in a second-class railway carriage by this time. The ticket-collector, running from carriage to carriage, was in too great a hurry to discover that the little bit of pasteboard which Joseph Wilmot exhibited was only a return-ticket to Wandsworth. There was a brief scramble, a banging of doors, and Babel-like confusion of tongues; and then the engine gave its farewell shriek and rushed away.

The old clerk looked very uneasily at his younger brother’s face. The livid pallor had passed away, but the strongly-marked eyebrows met in a dark frown.

“Joseph — Joseph!” said Sampson, “Heaven only knows I’m glad to see you, after more than thirty years’ separation, and any help I can give you out of my slender means I’ll give freely — I will, indeed, Joseph, for the memory of our dear mother, if not for love of you; and I do love you, Joseph — I do love you very dearly still. But I’d rather you didn’t take this journey with me — I would, indeed. I can’t see that any good can come of it.”

“Never you mind what comes of it. I want to talk to you. You’re a nice affectionate brother to wish to shuffle me off directly after our first meeting. I want to talk to you, Sampson Wilmot. And I want to see him. I know how the world’s used me for the last five-and-thirty years; I want to see how the same world — such a just and merciful world as it is — has treated my tempter and betrayer, Henry Dunbar!”

Sampson Wilmot trembled like a leaf. His health had been very feeble ever since the second shock of paralysis — that dire and silent foe, whose invisible hand had stricken the old man down as he sat at his desk, without one moment’s warning. His health was feeble, and the shock of meeting with his brother — this poor lost disgraced brother — whom he had for five-and-twenty years believed to be dead, had been almost too much for him. Nor was this all — unutterable terror took possession of him when he thought of a meeting between Joseph Wilmot and Henry Dunbar. The old man could remember his brother’s words:

“Let him consider it a lucky escape, if, when we next meet, he gets off scot free!”

Sampson Wilmot had prayed night and day that such a meeting might never take place. For five-and-thirty years it had been delayed. Surely it would not take place now.

The old clerk looked nervously at his brother’s face.

“Joseph,” he murmured, “I’d rather you didn’t go with me to Southampton; I’d rather you didn’t meet Mr. Dunbar. You were very badly treated — cruelly and unjustly treated — nobody knows that better than I. But it’s a long time ago, Joseph — it’s a very, very long time ago. Bitter feelings die out of a man’s breast as the years roll by — don’t they, Joseph? Time heals all old wounds, and we learn to forgive others as we hope to be forgiven — don’t we, Joseph?”

You may,” answered the reprobate, fiercely; “I don’t!”

He said no more, but sat silent, with his arms folded over his breast.

He looked straight before him out of the carriage-window; but he saw no more of the pleasant landscape — the fair fields of waving corn, with scarlet poppies and deep-blue corn flowers, bright glimpses of sunlit water, and distant villages, with grey church-turrets, nestling among trees. He looked out of the carriage-window, and some of earth’s pleasantest pictures sped by him; but he saw no more of that ever-changing prospect than if he had been looking at a blank sheet of paper.

Sampson Wilmot sat opposite to him, restless and uneasy, watching his fierce gloomy countenance.

The clerk took a ticket for his brother at the first station the train stopped at. But still Joseph was silent.

An hour passed by, and he had not yet spoken.

He had no love for his brother. The world had hardened him. The consequences of his own sins, falling very heavily upon his head, had embittered his nature. He looked upon the man whom he had once loved and trusted as the primary cause of his disgrace and misery, and this thought influenced his opinion of all mankind.

He could not believe in the goodness of any man, remembering, as he did, how he had once trusted Henry Dunbar.

The brothers were alone in the carriage.

Sampson watched the gloomy face opposite to him for some time, and then, with a weary sigh, he drew his handkerchief over his face, and sank back in the corner of the carriage. But he did not sleep. He was agitated and anxious. A dizzy faintness had seized upon him, and there was a strange buzzing in his ears, and unwonted clouds before his dim eyes. He tried to speak once or twice, but it seemed to him as if he was powerless to form the words that were in his mind.

Then his mind began to grow confused. The hoarse snorting of the engine sounded monotonously in his ears: growing louder and louder with every moment; until the noise of it grew hideous and intolerable — a perpetual thunder, deafening and bewildering him.

The train was fast approaching Basingstoke, when Joseph Wilmot was suddenly startled from his moody reverie.

There was an awful cause for that sudden start, that look of horror in the reprobate’s face.

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