Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 33

Margaret’s Return.

For some minutes Clement Austin lingered in the porch at Maudesley Abbey, utterly at a loss as to what he should do next.

Margaret had left the Abbey an hour ago, according to the footman’s statement; but, in that case, where had she gone? Clement had been walking up and down the road before the iron gates of the park, and they had not been opened once during the hours in which he had waited outside them. Margaret could not have left the park, therefore, by the principal entrance. If she had gone away at all, she must have gone out by one of the smaller gates — by the lodge-gate upon the Lisford Road, perhaps, and thus back to Shorncliffe.

“But then, why, in Heaven’s name, had Margaret set out to walk home when the fly was waiting for her at the gates; when her lover was also waiting for her, full of anxiety to know the result of the step she had taken?

“She forgot that I was waiting for her, perhaps,” Clement thought to himself. “She may have forgotten all about me, in the fearful excitement of this night’s work.”

The young man was by no means pleased by this idea.

“Margaret can love me very little, in that case,” he said to himself. “My first thought, in any great crisis of my life, would be to go to her, and tell her all that had happened to me.”

There were no less than four different means of exit from the park. Clement Austin knew this, and he knew that it would take him upwards of two hours to go to all four of them.

“I’ll make inquiries at the gate upon the Lisford Road,” he said to himself; “and if I find Margaret has left by that way, I can get the fly round there, and pick her up between this and Shorncliffe. Poor girl, in her ignorance of this neighbourhood, she has no idea of the distance she will have to walk!”

Mr. Austin could not help feeling vexed by Margaret’s conduct; but he did all he could to save the girl from the fatigue she was likely to entail upon herself through her own folly. He ran to the lodge upon the Lisford Road, and asked the woman who kept it, if a lady had gone out about an hour before.

The woman told him that a young lady had gone out an hour and a half before.

This was enough. Clement ran across the park to the western entrance, got into the fly, and told the man to drive back to Shorncliffe, by the Lisford Road, as fast as he could go, and to look out on the way for the young lady whom he had driven to Maudesley Abbey that afternoon.

“You watch the left side of the road, I’ll watch the right,” Clement said.

The driver was cold and cross, but he was anxious to get back to Shorncliffe, and he drove very fast.

Clement sat with the window down, and the frosty wind blowing full upon his face as he looted out for Margaret.

But he reached Shorncliffe without having overtaken her, and the fly crawled under the ponderous archway beneath which the dashing mail-coaches had rolled in the days that were for ever gone.

“She must have got home before me,” the cashier thought; “I shall find her up-stairs with my mother.”

He went up to the large room with the bow-window. The table in the centre of the room was laid for dinner, and Mrs. Austin was nodding in a great arm-chair near the fire, with the county newspaper in her lap. The wax-candles were lighted, the crimson curtains were drawn before the bow-window, and the room looked altogether very comfortable: but there was no Margaret.

The widow started up at the sound of the opening of the door and her son’s hurried footsteps.

“Why, Clement,” she cried, “how late you are! I seem to have been sitting dozing here for full two hours; and the fire has been replenished three times since the cloth was laid for dinner. What have you been doing, my dear boy?”

Clement looked about him before he answered.

“Yes, I am very late, mother, I know,” he said; “but where’s Margaret?”

Mrs. Austin stared aghast at her son’s question.

“Why, Margaret is with you, is she not?” she exclaimed.

“No, mother; I expected to find her here.”

“Did you leave her, then?”

“No, not exactly; that is to say, I——”

Clement did not finish the sentence. He walked slowly up and down the room thinking, whilst his mother watched him very anxiously.

“My dear Clement,” Mrs. Austin exclaimed at last, “you really quite alarm me. You set out this afternoon upon some mysterious expedition with Margaret; and though I ask you both where you are going, you both refuse to satisfy my very natural curiosity, and look as solemn as if you were about to attend a funeral. Then, after ordering dinner for seven o’clock, you keep it waiting nearly two hours; and you come in without Margaret, and seem alarmed at not seeing net here. What does it all mean, Clement?”

“I cannot tell you, mother.”

“What! is this business of to-day, then, a part of your secret?”

“It is,” answered the cashier. “I can only say again what I said before, mother — trust me!”

The widow sighed, and shrugged her shoulders with a deprecating gesture.

“I suppose I must be satisfied, Clem,” she said. “But this is the first time there’s ever been anything like a mystery between you and me.”

“It is, mother; and I hope it may be the last.”

The elderly waiter, who remembered the coaching days, and pretended to believe that the Reindeer was not an institution of the past, came in presently with the first course.

It happened to be one of those days on which fish was to be had in Shorncliffe; and the first course consisted of a pair of very small soles and a large cruet-stand. The waiter removed the cover with as lofty a flourish as if the small soles had been the noblest turbot that ever made the glory of an aldermannic feast.

Clement seated himself at the dinner-table, in deference to his mother, and went through the ceremony of dinner; but he scarcely ate half a dozen mouthfuls. His ears were strained to hear the sound of Margaret’s footstep in the corridor without; and he rejected the waiter’s fish-sauces in a manner that almost wounded the feelings of that functionary. His mind was racked by anxiety about the missing girl.

Had he passed her on the road? No, that was very improbable; for he had kept so sharp a watch upon the lonely highway that it was more than unlikely the familiar figure of her whom he looked for could have escaped his eager eyes. Had Mr. Dunbar detained her at Maudesley Abbey against her will? No, no, that was quite impossible; for the footman had distinctly declared that he had seen his master’s visitor leave the house; and the footman’s manner had been innocence itself.

The dinner-table was cleared by-and-by, and Mrs. Austin produced some coloured wools, and a pair of ivory knitting-needles, and set to work very quietly by the light of the tall wax-candles; but even she was beginning to be uneasy at the absence of hot son’s betrothed wife.

“My dear Clement,” she said at last, “I’m really growing quite uneasy about Madge. How is it that you left her?”

Clement did not answer this question; but he got up and took his hat from a side-table near the door.

“I’m uneasy about her absence too, mother,” he said, “I’ll go and look for her.”

He was leaving the room, but his mother called to him.

“Clement!” she cried, “you surely won’t go out without your greatcoat — upon such a bitter night as this, too!”

But Mr. Austin did not stop to listen to his mother’s remonstrance; he hurried out into the corridor, and shut the door of the room behind him. He wanted to run away and look for Margaret, though he did not know how or where to seek for her. Quiescence had become intolerable to him. It was utterly impossible that he should sit calmly by the fire, waiting for the coming of the girl he loved.

He was hurrying along the corridor, but he stopped abruptly, for a well-known figure appeared upon the broad landing at the top of the stairs. There was an archway at the end of the corridor, and a lamp hung under the archway. By the light of this lamp, Clement Austin saw Margaret Wilmot coming towards him slowly: as if she dragged herself along by a painful effort, and would have been well content to sink upon the carpeted floor and lie there helpless and inert.

Clement ran to meet her, with his face lighted up by that intense delight which a man feels when some intolerable fear is suddenly lifted off his mind.

“Margaret!” he cried; “thank God you have returned! Oh, my dear, if you only knew what misery your conduct has caused me!”

He held out his arms, but, to his unutterable surprise, the girl recoiled from him. She recoiled from him with a look of horror, and shrank against the wall, as if her chief desire was to avoid the slightest contact with her lover.

Clement was startled by the blank whiteness of her face, the fixed stare of her dilated eyes. The January wind had blown her hair about her forehead in loose disordered tresses; her shawl and dress were wet with melted snow; but the cashier scarcely looked at these. He only saw her face; his gaze was fascinated by the girl’s awful pallor, and the strange expression of her eyes.

“My darling,” he said, “come into the parlour. My mother has been almost as much alarmed as I have been. Come, Margaret; my poor girl, I can see that this interview has been too much for you. Come, dear.”

Once more he approached her, and again she shrank away from him, dragging herself along against the wall, and with her eyes still fixed in the same deathlike stare.

“Don’t speak to me, Clement Austin,” she cried; “don’t approach me. There is contamination in me. I am no fit associate for an honest man. Don’t come near me.”

He would have gone to her, to clasp her in his arms, and comfort her with soothing, tender words; but there was something in her eyes that held him at bay, as if he had been rooted to the spot on which he stood.

“Margaret!” he cried.

He followed her, but she still recoiled from him, and, as he held out his hand to grasp her wrist, she slipped by him suddenly, and rushed away towards the other end of the corridor.

Clement followed her; but she opened a door at the end of the passage, and went into Mrs. Austin’s room. The cashier heard the key turned hurriedly in the lock, and he knew that Margaret Wilmot had locked herself in. The room in which she slept was inside that occupied by Mrs. Austin.

Clement stood for some moments almost paralyzed by what had happened. Had he done wrong in seeking to bring about this interview between Margaret Wilmot and Henry Dunbar? He began to think that he had been most culpable. This impulsive and sensitive girl had seen her father’s assassin: and the horror of the meeting had been too much for her impressionable nature, and had produced, for the time at least, a fearful effect upon her over-wrought brain.

“I must appeal to my mother,” Clement thought; “she alone can give me any help in this business.”

He hurried back to the sitting-room, and found his mother still watching the rapid movements of her ivory knitting-needles. The Reindeer was a well-built house, solid and old-fashioned, and listeners lurking in the long passages had small chance of reaping much reward for their pains unless they found a friendly keyhole.

Mrs. Austin looked up with an expression of surprise as her son re-entered the room.

“I thought you had gone to look for Margaret,” she said.

“There was no occasion to do so, mother; she has returned.”

“Thank Heaven for that! I have been quite alarmed by her strange absence.”

“So have I, mother; but I am still more alarmed by her manner, now that she has returned. I asked you just now to trust me, mother,” said Clement, very gravely. “It is my turn now to confide in you. The business in which Margaret has been engaged this evening was of a most painful nature — so painful that I am scarcely surprised by the effect that it has produced on her sensitive mind. I want you to go to her, mother. I want you to comfort my poor girl. She has locked herself in her own room; but she will admit you, no doubt. Go to her, dear mother, and try and quiet her excitement, while I go for a medical man.”

“You think she is ill, then, Clement?”

“I don’t know that, mother; but such violent emotion as she has evidently endured might produce brain-fever. I’ll go and look for a doctor.”

Clement hurried down to the hall of the hotel, while his mother went to seek Margaret. He found the landlord, who directed him to the favourite Shorncliffe medical man.

Luckily, Mr. Vincent, the surgeon, was at home. He received Clement very cordially, put on his hat without five minutes delay, and accompanied Margaret’s lover back to the Reindeer.

“It is a case of mental excitement,” Clement said. “There may be no necessity for medical treatment; but I shall feel more comfortable when you have seen this poor girl.”

Clement conducted Mr. Vincent to the sitting-room, which was empty.

“I’ll go and see how Miss Wilmot is now,” the cashier said. The doctor gave a scarcely perceptible start as he heard that name of Wilmot. The murder of Joseph Wilmot had formed the subject of many a long discussion amongst the towns-people at Shorncliffe, and the familiar name struck the surgeon’s ear.

“But what of that?” thought Mr. Vincent. “The name is not such a very uncommon one.”

Clement went to his mother’s room and knocked softly at the door. The widow came out to him presently.

“How is she now?” Clement asked.

“I can scarcely tell you. Her manner frightens me. She is lying on her bed as motionless as if she were a corpse, and with her eyes fixed upon the blank wall opposite to her. When I speak to her, she does not answer me by so much as a look; but if I go near her she shivers, and gives a long shuddering sigh. What does it all mean, Clement?”

“Heaven knows, mother. I can only tell you that she has gone through a meeting which was certainly calculated to have considerable effect upon her mind. But I had no idea that the effect would be anything like this. Can the doctor come?”

“Yes; he had better come at once.”

Clement returned to the sitting-room, and remained there while Mr. Vincent went to see Margaret. To Poor Clement it seemed as if the surgeon was absent nearly an hour, so intolerable was the anguish of that interval of suspense.

At last, however, the creaking footstep of the medical man sounded in the corridor. Clement hurried to the door to meet him.

“Well!” he cried, eagerly.

Mr. Vincent shook his head.

“It is a case in which my services can be of very little avail,” he said; “the young lady is suffering from some mental uneasiness, which she refuses to communicate to her friends. If you could get her to talk to you, she would no doubt be very much benefited. If she were an ordinary person, she would cry, and the relief of tears would have a most advantageous effect upon her mind. Our patient is by no means an ordinary person She has a very strong will.”

“Margaret has a strong will!” exclaimed Clement, with a look of surprise; “why, she is gentleness itself.”

“Very likely; but she has a will of iron, nevertheless. I implored her to speak to me just now; the tone of her voice would have helped to some slight diagnosis of her state; but I might as well have implored a statue. She only shook her head slowly, and she never once looked at me. However, I will send her a sedative draught, which had better be taken immediately, and I’ll look round in the morning.”

Mr. Vincent left the Reindeer, and Clement went to his mother’s room. That loving mother was ready to sympathize with every trouble that affected her only son. She came out of Margaret’s room and went to meet Clement.

“Is she still the same, mother?” he asked.

“Yes, quite the same. Would you like to see her?”

“Very much.”

Mrs. Austin and her son went into the adjoining chamber. Margaret was lying, dressed in the damp, draggled gown which she had worn that afternoon, upon the outside of the bed. The dull stony look of her face filled Clement’s mind with an awful terror. He began to fear that she was going mad.

He sat down upon a chair close by the bed, and watched her for some moments in silence, while his mother stood by, scarcely less anxious than himself.

Margaret’s arm hung loosely by her side as lifeless in its attitude as if it had belonged to the dead. Clement took the slender hand in his. Lie had expected to find it dry and burning with feverish heat; but, to his surprise, it was cold as ice.

“Margaret,” he said, in a low earnest voice, “you know how dearly I have loved and do love you; you know how entirely my happiness depends upon yours; surely, my dear one, you will not refuse — you cannot be so cruel as to keep your sorrow a secret from him who has so good a right to share it? Speak to me, my darling. Remember what suffering you are inflicting upon me by this cruel silence.”

At last the hazel eyes lost their fixed look, and wandered for a moment to Clement Austin’s face.

“Have pity upon me,” the girl said, in a hoarse unnatural voice; “have compassion upon me, for I need man’s mercy as well as the mercy of God. Have some pity upon me, Clement Austin, and leave me; I will talk to you to-morrow.”

“You will tell me all that has happened?”

“I will talk to you to-morrow,” answered Margaret, looking at her lover with a white, inflexible face; “but leave me now; leave me, or I will run out of this room, and away from this house. I shall go mad if I am not left alone!”

Clement Austin rose from his seat near the bedside.

“I am going, Margaret,” he said, in a tone of wounded feeling; “but I leave you with a heavy heart. I did not think there would ever come a time in which you would reject my sympathy.”

“I will talk to you to-morrow,” Margaret said, for the second time.

She spoke in a strange mechanical way, as if this had been a set speech which she had arranged for herself.

Clement stood looking at her for some little time; but there was no change either in her face or attitude, and the young man went slowly and sorrowfully from the room.

“I leave her in your hands, mother,” he said. “I know how tender and true a friend she has in you; I leave her in your care, under Providence. May Heaven have pity upon her and me!”

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