Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 34

Farewell.

Margaret submitted to take the sedative draught sent by the medical man. She submitted, at Mrs. Austin’s request; but it seemed as if she scarcely understood why the medicine was offered to her. She was like a sleep-walker, whose brain is peopled by the creatures of a dream, and who has no consciousness of the substantial realities that surround him.

The draught Mr. Vincent had spoken of as a sedative turned out to be a very powerful opiate, and Margaret sank into a profound slumber about a quarter of an hour after taking the medicine.

Mrs. Austin went to Clement to carry him these good tidings.

“I shall sit up two or three hours, and see how the poor girl goes on, Clement,” the widow said; “but I hope you’ll go to bed; I know all this excitement has worn you out.”

“No, mother; I feel no sense of fatigue.”

“But you will try to get some rest, to please me? See, dear boy, it’s already nearly twelve o’clock.”

“Yes, if you wish it, mother, I’ll go to my room,” Mr. Austin answered, quickly.

His room was near those occupied by his mother and Margaret, much nearer than the sitting-room. He bade Mrs. Austin good night and left her; but he had no thought of going to bed, or even trying to sleep. He went to his own room, and walked up and down; going out into the corridor every now and then, to listen at the door of his mother’s chamber.

He heard nothing. Some time between two and three o’clock Mrs. Austin opened the door of her room, and found her son lingering in the corridor.

“Is she still asleep, mother?” he asked.

“Yes, and she is sleeping very calmly. I am going to bed now; pray try to get some sleep yourself, Clem.”

“I will, mother.”

Clement returned to his room. He was thankful, as he thought that sleep would bring tranquillity and relief to Margaret’s overwrought brain. He went to bed and fell asleep, for he was exhausted by the fatigue of the day and the anxiety of the night. Poor Clement fell asleep, and dreamt that he met Margaret Wilmot by moonlight in the park around Maudesley Abbey, walking with a DEAD MAN, whose face was strange to him. This was the last of many dreams, all more or less grotesque or horrible, but none so vivid or distinct as this. The end of the vision woke Clement with a sudden shock, and he opened his eyes upon the cold morning light, which seemed especially cold in this chamber at the Reindeer, where the paper on the walls was of the palest grey, and every curtain or drapery of a spotless white.

Clement lost no time over his toilet. He looked at his watch while dressing, and found that it was between seven and eight. It wanted a quarter to eight when he left his room, and went to his mother’s door to inquire about Margaret. He knocked softly, but there was no answer; then he tried the door, and finding it unlocked, opened it a few inches with a cautious hand, and listened to his mother’s regular breathing.

“She is asleep, poor soul,” he thought. “I won’t disturb her, for she must want rest after sitting up half last night.”

Clement closed the door as noiselessly as he had opened it, and then went slowly to the sitting-room. There was a struggling fire in the shining grate; and the indefatigable waiter, who refused to believe in the extinction of mail-coaches, had laid the breakfast apparatus — frosty-looking white-and-blue cups and saucers on a snowy cloth, a cut-glass cream-jug that looked as if it had been made out of ice, and a brazen urn in the last stage of polish. The breakfast service was harmoniously adapted to the season, and eminently calculated to produce a fit of shivering in the sojourner at the Reindeer.

But Clement Austin did not bestow so much as one glance upon the breakfast-table. He hurried to the bow-window, where Margaret Wilmot was sitting, neatly dressed in her morning garments, with her shawl on, and her bonnet lying on a chair near her.

“Margaret!” exclaimed Clement, as he approached the place where Joseph Wilmot’s daughter was sitting; “my dear Margaret, why did you get up so early this morning, when you so much need rest?”

The girl rose and looked at her lover with a grave and quiet earnestness of expression; but her face was quite as colourless as it had been upon the previous night, and her lips trembled a little as she spoke to Clement.

“I have had sufficient rest,” she said, in a low, tremulous voice; “I got up early because — because — I am going away.”

Her two hands had been hanging loosely amongst the fringes of her shawl; she lifted them now, and linked her fingers together with a convulsive motion; but she never withdrew her eyes from Clement’s face, and her glance never faltered as she looked at him.

“Going away, Margaret?” the cashier cried; “going away — to-day — this morning?”

“Yes, by the half-past nine o’clock train.”

“Margaret, you must be mad to talk of such a thing.”

“No,” the girl answered, slowly; “that is the strangest thing of all — I am not mad. I am going away, Clement — Mr. Austin. I wished to avoid seeing you. I meant to have written to you to tell you ——”

“To tell me what, Margaret?” asked Clement. “Is it I who am going mad; or am I dreaming all this?”

“It is no dream, Mr. Austin. My letter would have only told you the truth. I am going away from here because I can never be your wife.”

“You can never be my wife! Why not, Margaret?”

“I cannot tell you the reason.”

“But you shall tell me, Margaret!” cried Clement, passionately. “I will accept no sentence such as this until I know the reason for pronouncing it; I will suffer no imaginary barrier to stand between you and me. There is some mystery, some mystification in all this, Margaret; some woman’s fancy, which a few words of explanation would set at rest. Margaret, my pearl! do you think I will consent to lose you so lightly? My own dear love! do you know me so little as to think that I will part with you? My love is a stronger passion than you think, Madge; and the bondage you accepted when you promised to be my wife is a bondage that cannot so easily be shaken off!”

Margaret watched her lover’s face with melancholy, tearless eyes.

“Fate is stronger than love, Clement,” she said, mournfully, “I can never be your wife!”

“Why not?”

“For a reason which you can never know.”

“Margaret, I will not submit ——”

“You must submit,” the girl said, holding up her hand, as if to stop her lover’s passionate words. “You must submit, Clement. This world seems very hard sometimes, so hard that in a dreadful interval of dull despair the heavens are hidden from us, and we cannot recognize the Eternal wisdom guiding the hand that afflicts us. My life seems very hard to me to-day, Clement. Do not try to make it harder. I am a most unhappy woman; and in all the world there is only one favour you can grant me. Let me go away unquestioned; and blot my image from your heart for ever when I am gone.”

“I will never consent to let you go,” Clement Austin answered, resolutely. “You are mine by right of your own most sacred promise, Margaret. No womanish folly shall part us.”

“Heaven knows it is no woman’s folly that parts us, Clement,” the girl answered, in a plaintive, tremulous voice.

“What is it, then, Margaret?”

“I can never tell you.”

“You will change your mind.”

“Never.”

She looked at him with an air of quiet resolution stamped upon her colourless face.

Clement remembered what the doctor had said of his patient’s iron will. Was it possible that Mr. Vincent had been right? Was this gentle girl’s resolution to overrule a strong man’s passionate vehemence?

“What is it that can part us, Margaret?” Mr. Austin cried. “What is it? You saw Mr. Dunbar yesterday?”

The girl shuddered, and over her colourless face there came a livid shade, which was more deathlike than the marble whiteness that had preceded it.

“Yes,” Margaret Wilmot said, after a pause. “I was — very fortunate. I gained admission to — Mr. Dunbar’s rooms.”

“And you spoke to him?”

“Yes.”

“Did your interview with him confirm or dissipate your suspicions? Do you still believe that Henry Dunbar murdered your unhappy father?”

“No,” answered Margaret, resolutely; “I do not.”

“You do not? The banker’s manner convinced you of his innocence, then?”

“I do not believe that Henry Dunbar murdered my — my unhappy father.”

It is impossible to describe the tone of anguish with which Margaret spoke those last three words.

“But something transpired in that interview at Maudesley Abbey, Margaret? Henry Dunbar told you something — perhaps something about your dead father — some disgraceful secret which you never heard before; and you think that the shame of that secret is a burden which I would fear to carry? You mistake my nature, Margaret, and you commit a cruel treason against my love. Be my wife, dear one; and if malicious people should point to you, and say, ‘Clement Austin’s wife is the daughter of a thief and a forger,’ I would give them back scorn for scorn, and tell them that I honour my wife for virtues that have been sometimes missing in the consort of an emperor.”

For the first time that morning Margaret’s eyes grew dim, but she brushed away the gathering tears with a rapid movement of her trembling hand.

“You are a good man, Clement Austin,” she said; “and I— wish that I were better worthy of you. You are a good man; but you are very cruel to me to-day. Have pity upon me, and let me go.”

She drew a pretty little watch from her waist, and looked at the dial. Then, suddenly remembering that the watch had been Clement’s gift, she took the slender chain from her neck, and handed them both to him.

“You gave me these when I was your betrothed wife, Mr. Austin; I have no right to keep them now.”

She spoke very mournfully; but poor Clement was only mortal. He was a good man, as Margaret had just declared; but, unhappily, good men are apt to fly into passions as well as their inferiors in the scale of morality.

Clement Austin threw the pretty little Genevese toy upon the floor, and ground it to atoms under the heel of his boot.

“You are cruel and unjust, Mr. Austin,” Margaret said.

“I am a man, Miss Wilmot,” Clement answered, bitterly; “and I have the feelings of a man. When the woman I have loved and believed in turns upon me, and coolly tells me that she means to break my heart, without so much as deigning to give me a reason for her conduct, I am not so much a gentleman as to be able to smile politely, and request her to please herself.”

The cashier turned away from Margaret, and walked two at three times up and down the room. He was in a passion, but grief and indignation were so intermingled in his breast that he scarcely knew which was uppermost. But grief and love allied themselves presently, and together were much too strong for indignation.

Clement Austin went back to the window; Margaret was standing where he had left her, but she had put on her bonnet and gloves, and was quite ready to leave the house.

“Margaret,” said Mr. Austin, trying to take her hand; but she drew herself away from him, almost as she had shrunk from him in the corridor on the previous night; “Margaret, once for all, listen to me. I love you, and I believe you love me. If this is true, no obstacle on earth shall part us so long as we live. There is only one condition upon which I will let you go this day.”

“What is that condition?”

“Tell me that I have been fooled by my own egotism. I am twelve years older than you, Margaret, and there is nothing very romantic or interesting either in myself or my worldly position. Tell me that you do not love me. I am a proud man, I will not sue in formâ pauperis. If you do not love me, Margaret, you are free to go.”

Margaret bowed her head, and moved slowly towards the door.

“You are going — Miss Wilmot!”

“Yes, I am going. Farewell, Mr. Austin.”

Clement caught the retreating girl by her wrist.

“You shall not go thus, Margaret Wilmot!” he cried, passionately —“not thus! You shall speak to me! You shall speak plainly! You shall speak the truth! You do not love me?”

“No; I do not love you.”

“It was all a farce, then — a delusion — it was all falsehood and trickery from first to last. When you smiled at me, your smile was a mockery; when you blushed, your blushes were the simulated blushes of a professed coquette. Every tender word you have ever spoken to me — every tremulous cadence in your low voice — every tearful look in the eyes that have seemed so truthful — all — it has altogether been false — altogether a delusion — a ——”

The strong man covered his face with his hands and sobbed aloud. Margaret watched him with tearless eyes; her lips were convulsively contracted, but there was no other evidence of emotion in her face.

“Why did you do this, Margaret?” Clement asked at last, in a heart-rending voice; “why did you do this cruel thing?”

“I will tell you why,” the girl answered, slowly and deliberately; “I will tell you why, Mr. Austin; and then I shall seem utterly despicable in your eyes, and it will be a very easy thing for you to blot my image from your heart. I was a poor desolate girl; and I was worse than poor and desolate, for the stain of my father’s shameful history blackened my name. It was a fine thing for such as me to win the love of an honest man — a gentleman — who could shelter me from all the troubles of life, and give me a stainless name and an honourable place in society. I was the daughter of a returned convict, an outcast, and your love offered me a splendid chance of redemption from the black depths of disgrace and misery in which I lived. I was only mortal, Clement Austin; what was there in my blood that should make me noble, or good, or strong to stand against temptation? I seized upon the one chance of my miserable life; I plotted to win your love. Step by step I lured you on until you offered to make me your wife. That was my end and aim. I triumphed; and for a time enjoyed my success, and the advantages that it brought me. But I suppose the worst sinners have some kind of conscience. Mine was awakened last night, and I resolved to spare you the misery of being married to a woman who comes of such a race as that from which I spring.”

Nothing could be more callous than the manner with which Margaret Wilmot had made this speech. Her tones had never faltered. She had spoken slowly, pausing before every fresh sentence; but she had spoken like a wretched creature, whose withered heart was almost incapable of womanly emotion. Clement Austin looked at her with a blank wondering stare.

“Oh! great heavens!” he cried at last; “how could I think it possible that any man could be as cruelly deceived as I have been by this woman!”

“I may go now, Mr. Austin?” said Margaret.

“Yes, you may go now —you, who once were the woman I loved; you, who have thrown away the beautiful mask I believed in, and revealed to me the face of a skeleton; you, who have lifted the silver veil of imagination to show me the hideous ghastliness of reality. Go, Margaret Wilmot; and may Heaven forgive you!”

“Do you forgive me, Mr. Austin?”

“Not yet. I will pray God to make me strong enough to forgive you!”

“Farewell, Clement!”

If my readers have seen Manfred at Drury Lane, let them remember the tone in which Miss Rose Leclercq breathed her last farewell to Mr. Phelps, and they will know how Margaret Wilmot pronounced this mournful word — love’s funeral bell —

“Farewell, Clement!”

“One word, Miss Wilmot,” cried Mr. Austin. “I have loved you too much in the past ever to become indifferent to your fate. Where are you going?”

“To London.”

“To your old apartments at Clapham?”

“Oh, no, no!”

“Have you money — money enough to last you for some time?”

“Yes; I have saved money.”

“If you should be in want of help, will you let me help you?”

“Willingly, Mr. Austin. I am not too proud to accept your help in the hour of my need.”

“You will write to me, then, at my mother’s, or you will write to my mother herself, if ever you require assistance. I shall tell my mother nothing of what has passed between us this day, except that we have parted. You are going by the half-past nine o’clock train, you say, Miss Wilmot?”

Clement had only spoken the truth when he said that he was a proud man. He asked this question in the same business-like tone in which he might have addressed a lady who was quite indifferent to him.

“Yes, Mr. Austin.”

“I will order a fly for you, then. You have five minutes to spare. And I will send one of the waiters to the station, so that you may have no trouble about your luggage.”

Clement rang the bell, and gave the necessary orders. Then he bowed gravely to Margaret, and wished her good morning as she left the room.

And this is how Margaret Wilmot parted from Clement Austin.

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