Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 32

What Happened at Maudesley Abbey.

Early the next day Clement Austin walked to Maudesley Abbey, in order to procure all the information likely to facilitate Margaret Wilmot’s grand purpose. He stopped at the gate of the principal lodge. The woman who kept it was an old servant of the Dunbar family, and had known Clement Austin in Percival Dunbar’s lifetime. She gave him a hearty welcome, and he had no difficulty whatever in setting her tongue in motion upon the subject of Henry Dunbar.

She told him a great deal; she told him that the present owner of the Abbey never had been liked, and never would be liked: for his stern and gloomy manner was so unlike his father’s easy, affable good-nature, that people were always drawing comparisons between the dead man and the living.

This, in a few words, is the substance of what the worthy woman said in a good many words. Mrs. Grumbleton gave Clement all the information he required as to the banker’s daily movements at the present time. Henry Dunbar was now in the habit of rising about two o’clock in the day, at which time he was assisted from his bedroom to his sitting-room, where he remained until seven or eight o’clock in the evening. He had no visitors, except the surgeon, Mr. Daphney, who lived in the Abbey, and a gentleman called Vernon, who had bought Woodbine Cottage, near Lisford, and who now and then was admitted to Mr. Dunbar’s sitting-room.

This was all Clement Austin wanted to know. Surely it might be possible, with a little clever management, to throw the banker completely off his guard, and to bring about the long-delayed interview between him and Margaret Wilmot.

Clement returned to the Reindeer, had a brief conversation with Margaret, and made all arrangements.

At four o’clock that afternoon, Miss Wilmot and her lover left the Reindeer in a fly; at a quarter to five the fly stopped at the lodge-gates.

“I will walk to the house,” Margaret said; “my coming will attract less notice. But I may be detained for some time, Clement. Pray, don’t wait for me. Your dear mother will be alarmed if you are very long absent. Go back to her, and send the fly for me by-and-by.”

“Nonsense, Madge. I shall wait for you, however long you may be. Do you think my heart is not as much engaged in anything that may influence your fate as even your own can be? I won’t go with you to the Abbey; for it will be as well that Henry Dunbar should remain in ignorance of my presence in the neighbourhood. I will walk up and down the road here, and wait for you.”

“But you may have to wait so long, Clement.”

“No matter how long. I can wait patiently, but I could not endure to go home and leave you, Madge.”

They were standing before the great iron gates as Clement said this. He pressed Margaret’s cold hand; he could feel how cold it was, even through her glove; and then rang the bell. She looked at him as the gate was opened; she turned and looked at him with a strangely earnest gaze as she crossed the boundary of Henry Dunbar’s domain, and then walked slowly along the broad avenue.

That last look had shown Clement Austin a pale resolute face, something like the countenance of a fair young martyr going quietly to the stake.

He walked away from the gates, and they shut behind him with a loud clanging noise. Then he went back to them, and watched Margaret’s figure growing dim and distant in the gathering dusk as she approached the Abbey. A faint glow of crimson firelight reddened the gravel-drive before the windows of Mr. Dunbar’s apartments, and there was a footman airing himself under the shadow of the porch, with a glimmer of light shining out of the hall behind him.

“I do not suppose I shall have to wait very long for my poor girl,” Clement thought, as he left the gates, and walked briskly up and down the road. “Henry Dunbar is a resolute man; he will refuse to see her to-day, as he refused before.”

Margaret found the footman lolling against the clustered pillars of the gothic porch, staring thoughtfully at the low evening light, yellow and red behind the brown trunks of the elms, and picking his teeth with a gold toothpick.

The sight of the open hall-door, and this languid footman lolling in the porch, suddenly inspired Margaret Wilmot with a new idea. Would it not be possible to slip quietly past this man, and walk straight to the apartments of Mr. Dunbar, unquestioned, uninterrupted?

Clement had pointed out to her the windows of the rooms occupied by the banker. They were on the left-hand side of the entrance-hall. It would be impossible for her to mistake the door leading to them. It was dusk, and she was very plainly dressed, with a black straw bonnet, and a veil over her face. Surely she might deceive this languid footman by affecting to be some hanger-on of the household, which of course was a large one.

In that case she had no right to present herself at the front door, certainly; but then, before the languid footman could recover from the first shock of indignation at her impertinence, she might slip past him and reach the door leading to those apartments in which the banker hid himself and his guilt.

Margaret lingered a little in the avenue, watching for a favourable opportunity in which she might hazard this attempt. She waited five minutes or so.

The curve of the avenue screened her, in some wise, from the man in the porch, who never happened to roll his languid eyes towards the spot where she was standing.

A flight of rooks came scudding through the sky presently, very much excited, and cawing and screeching as if they had been an ornithological fire brigade hurrying to extinguish the flames of some distant rookery.

The footman, who was suffering acutely from the complaint of not knowing what to do with himself, came out of the porch and stood in the middle of the gravelled drive, with his back towards Margaret, staring at the birds as they flew westward.

This was her opportunity. The girl hurried to the door with a light step, so light upon the smooth solid gravel that the footman heard nothing until she was on the broad stone step under the porch, when the fluttering of her skirt, as it brushed against the pillars, roused him from a species of trance or reverie.

He turned sharply round, as upon a pivot, and stared aghast at the retreating figure under the porch.

“Hi, you there, young woman!” he exclaimed, without stirring from his post; “where are you going to? What’s the meaning of your coming to this door? Are you aware that there’s such a place as a servants’ ‘all and a servants’ hentrance?”

But the languid retainer was too late. Margaret’s hand was upon the massive knob of the door upon the left side of the hall before the footman had put this last indignant question.

He listened for an apologetic murmur from the young woman; but hearing none, concluded that she had found her way to the servants’ hall, where she had most likely some business or other with one of the female members of the household.

“A dressmaker, I dessay,” the footman thought. “Those gals spend all their earnings in finery and fallals, instead of behaving like respectable young women, and saving up their money against they can go into the public line with the man of their choice.”

He yawned, and went on staring at the rooks, without troubling himself any further about the impertinent young person who had dared to present herself at the grand entrance.

Margaret opened the door, and went into the room next the hall.

It was a handsome apartment, lined with books from the floor to the ceiling; but it was quite empty, and there was no fire burning in the grate. The girl put up her veil, and looked about her. She was very, very pale now, and trembled violently; but she controlled her agitation by a great effort, and went slowly on to the next room.

The second room was empty like the first; but the door between it and the next chamber was wide open, and Margaret saw the firelight shining upon the faded tapestry, and reflected in the sombre depths of the polished oak furniture. She heard the low sound of the light ashes falling on the hearth, and the shorting breath of a dog.

She knew that the man she sought, and had so long sought without avail, was in that room. Alone; for there was no murmur of voices, no sound of any one moving in the apartment. That hour, to which Margaret Wilmot had looked as the great crisis of her life, had come; and her courage failed her all at once, and her heart sank in her breast on the very threshold of the chamber in which she was to stand face to face with Henry Dunbar.

“The murderer of my father!” she thought; “the man whose influence blighted my father’s life, and made him what he was. The man through whose reckless sin my father lived a life that left him, oh! how sadly unprepared to die! The man who, knowing this, sent his victim before an offended God, without so much warning as would have given him time to think one prayer. I am going to meet that man face to face!”

Her breath came in faint gasps, and the firelit chamber swam before her eyes as she crossed the threshold of that door, and went into the room where Henry Dunbar was sitting alone before the low fire.

He was wrapped in crimson draperies of thick woollen stuff, and the leopard-skin railway rug was muffled about his knees A dog of the bull-dog breed was lying asleep at the banker’s feet, half-hidden in the folds of the leopard-skin. Henry Dunbar’s head was bent over the fire, and his eyes were closed in a kind of dozing sleep, as Margaret Wilmot went into the room.

There was an empty chair opposite to that in which the banker sat; an old-fashioned, carved oak-chair, with a high back and crimson-morocco cushions. Margaret went softly up to this chair, and laid her hand upon the oaken framework. Her footsteps made no sound on the thick Turkey carpet; the banker never stirred from his doze, and even the dog at his feet slept on.

“Mr. Dunbar!” cried Margaret, in a clear, resolute voice; “awake! it is I, Margaret Wilmot, the daughter of the man who was murdered in the grove near Winchester!”

The dog awoke, and snapped at her. The man lifted his head, and looked at her. Even the fire seemed roused by the sound of her voice! for a little jet of vivid light leaped up out of the smouldering log, and lighted the scared face of the banker.

Clement Austin had promised Margaret to wait for her, and to wait patiently; and he meant to keep his promise. But there are some limits even to the patience of a lover, though he were the veriest knight-errant who was ever eager to shiver a lance or hack the edge of a battle-axe for love of his liege lady. When you have nothing to do but to walk up and down a few yards of hard dusty high-road, upon a bleak evening in January, an hour more or less is of considerable importance. Five o’clock struck about ten minutes after Margaret Wilmot had entered the park, and Clement thought to himself that even if Margaret were successful in obtaining an interview with the banker, that interview would be over before six. But the faint strokes of Lisford-church clock died away upon the cold evening wind, and Clement was still pacing up and down, and the fly was still waiting; the horse comfortable enough, with a rug upon his back and his nose in a bag of oats; the man walking up and down by the side of the vehicle, slapping his gloved hands across his shoulders every now and then to keep himself warm. In that long hour between six and seven, Clement Austin’s patience wore itself almost threadbare. It is one thing to ride into the lists on a prancing steed, caparisoned with embroidered trappings, worked by the fair hands of your lady-love, and with the trumpets braying, and the populace shouting, and the Queen of beauty smiling sweet approval of your prowess: but it is quite another thing to walk up and down a dusty country road, with the wind biting like some ravenous animal at the tip of your nose, and no more consciousness of your legs and arms than if you were a Miss Biffin.

By the time seven o’clock struck, Clement Austin’s patience had given up the ghost; and to impatience had succeeded a vague sense of alarm. Margaret Wilmot had gone to force herself into this man’s presence, in spite of his reiterated refusal to see her. What if — what if, goaded by her persistence, maddened by the consciousness of his own guilt, he should attempt any violence.

Oh, no, no; that was quite impossible. If this man was guilty, his crime had been deliberately planned, and executed with such a diabolical cunning, that he had been able so far to escape detection. In his own house, surrounded by prying servants, he would never dare to assail this girl by so much as a harsh word.

But, notwithstanding this, Clement was determined to wait no longer. He would go to the Abbey at once, and ascertain the cause of Margaret’s delay. He rang the bell, went into the park, and ran along the avenue to the perch. Lights were shining in Mr. Dunbar’s windows, but the great hall-door was closely shut.

The languid footman came in answer to Clement’s summons.

“There is a young lady here,” Clement said, breathlessly; “a young lady — with Mr. Dunbar.”

“Ho! is that hall?” asked the footman, satirically. “I thought Shorncliffe town-‘all was a-fire, at the very least, from the way you rung. There was a young pusson with Mr. Dunbar above a hour ago, if that’s what you mean?”

“Above an hour ago?” cried Clement Austin, heedless of the man’s impertinence in his own growing anxiety; “do you mean to say that the young lady has left?”

“She have left, above a hour ago.”

“She went away from this house an hour ago?”

“More than a hour ago.”

“Impossible!” Clement said; “impossible!”

“It may be so,” answered the footman, who was of an ironical turn of mind; “but I let her out with my own hands, and I saw her go out with my own eyes, notwithstanding.”

The man shut the door before Clement had recovered from his surprise, and left him standing in the porch; bewildered, though he scarcely knew why; frightened, though he scarcely knew what he feared.

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