Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

The Stroke of Death.

The old clerk had fallen from his seat, and lay in a motionless heap at the bottom of the railway carriage.

The third stroke of paralysis had come upon him; inevitable, no doubt, long ago; but hastened, it may be, by that unlooked-for meeting at the Waterloo terminus.

Joseph Wilmot knelt beside the stricken man. He was a vagabond and an outcast, and scenes of horror were not new to him. He had seen death under many of its worst aspects, and the grim King of Terrors had little terror for him. He was hardened, steeped in guilt, and callous as to the sufferings of others. The love which he bore for his daughter was, perhaps, the last ray of feeling that yet lingered in this man’s perverted nature.

But he did all he could, nevertheless, for the unconscious old man. He loosened his cravat, unfastened his waistcoat, and felt for the beating of his heart.

That heart did beat: very fitfully, as if the old clerk’s weary soul had been making feeble struggles to be released from its frail tabernacle of clay.

“Better, perhaps, if this should prove fatal,” Joseph muttered; “I should go on alone to meet Henry Dunbar.”

The train reached Basingstoke; Joseph put his head out of the open window, and called loudly to a porter.

The man came quickly, in answer to that impatient summons.

“My brother is in a fit,” Joseph cried; “help me to lift him out of the carriage, and then send some one for a doctor.”

The unconscious form was lifted out in the arms of the two strong men. They carried it into the waiting-room, and laid it on a sofa.

The bell rang, and the Southampton train rushed onward without the two travellers.

In another moment the whole station was in commotion. A gentleman had been seized with paralysis, and was dying.

The doctor arrived in less than ten minutes. He shook his head, after examining his patient.

“It’s a bad case,” said he; “very bad; but we must do our best. Is there anybody with this old gentleman?”

“Yes, sir,” the porter answered, pointing to Joseph; “this person is with him.”

The country surgeon glanced rather suspiciously at Joseph Wilmot. He looked a vagabond, certainly — every inch a vagabond; a reckless, dare-devil scoundrel, at war with society, and defiant of a world he hated.

“Are you — any — relation to this gentleman?” the doctor asked, hesitatingly.

“Yes, I am his brother.”

“I should recommend his being removed to the nearest hotel. I will send a woman to nurse him. Do you know if this is the first stroke he has ever had?”

“No, I do not.”

The surgeon looked more suspicious than ever, after receiving this answer.

“Strange,” he said, “that you, who say you are his brother, should not be able to give me information upon that point.”

Joseph Wilmot answered with an air of carelessness that was almost contemptuous:

“It is strange,” he said; “but many stranger things have happened in this world before now. My brother and I haven’t met for years until we met to-day.”

The unconscious man was removed from the railway station to an inn near at hand — a humble, countrified place, but clean and orderly. Here he was taken to a bed-chamber, whose old-fashioned latticed windows looked out upon the dusty road.

The doctor did all that his skill could devise, but he could not restore consciousness to the paralyzed brain. The soul was gone already. The body lay, a form of motionless and senseless clay, under the white counterpane; and Joseph Wilmot, sitting near the foot of the bed, watched it with a gloomy face.

The woman who was to nurse the sick man came by-and-by, and took her place by the pillow. But there was very little for her to do.

“Is there any hope of his recovering?” Joseph asked eagerly, as the doctor was about to leave the room.

“I fear not — I fear there is no hope.”

“Will it be over soon?”

“Very soon, I think. I do not believe that he can last more than four-and-twenty hours.”

The surgeon waited for a few moments after saying this, expecting some exclamation of surprise or grief from the dying man’s brother: but there was none; and with a hasty “good evening” the medical man quitted the room.

It was growing dusk, and the twilight shadows upon Joseph Wilmot’s face made it, in its sullen gloom, darker even than it had been in the railway carriage.

“I’m glad of it, I’m glad of it,” he muttered; “I shall meet Harry Dunbar alone.”

The bed-chamber in which the sick man lay opened out of a little sitting-room. Sampson’s carpet-bag and portmanteau had been left in this sitting-room.

Joseph Wilmot searched the pockets in the clothes that had been taken off his brother’s senseless form.

There was some loose silver and a bunch of keys in the waistcoat-pocket, and a well-worn leather-covered memorandum-book in the breast-pocket of the old-fashioned coat.

Joseph took these things into the sitting-room, closed the door between the two apartments, and then rang for lights.

The chambermaid who brought the candles asked if he had dined.

“Yes,” he said, “I dined five hours ago. Bring me some brandy.”

The girl brought a small decanter of spirit and a wine-glass, set them on the table, and left the room. Joseph Wilmot followed her to the door, and turned the key in the lock.

“I don’t want any intruders,” he muttered; “these country people are always inquisitive.”

He seated himself at the table, poured out a glass of brandy, drank it, and then drew one of the candles towards him.

He had put the money, the keys, and the memorandum-book, in one of his own pockets. He took out the memorandum-book first, and examined it. There were five Bank of England notes for five pounds each in one of the pockets, and a letter in the other.

The letter was directed to Henry Dunbar, and sealed with the official seal of the banking-house. The name of Stephen Balderby was written on the left-hand lower corner of the envelope.

“So, so,” whispered Joseph Wilmot, “this is the junior partner’s letter of welcome to his chief. I’ll take care of that.”

He replaced the letter in the pocket of the memorandum-book, and then looked at the pencil entries on the different pages.

The last entry was the only memorandum that had any interest for him.

It consisted of these few words —

“H.D., expected to arrive at Southampton Docks on or about the 19th inst., per steamer Electra; will be met by Miss Laura D. at Portland Place.“

“Who’s Laura D.?” mused the spy, as he closed the memorandum-book. “His daughter, I suppose. I remember seeing his marriage in the papers, twenty years ago. He married well, of course. Fortune made everything smooth for him. He married a lady of rank. Curse him!”

Joseph Wilmot sat for some time with his arms folded upon the table before him, brooding, brooding, brooding; with a sinister smile upon his lips, and an ominous light in his eyes.

A dangerous man always — a dangerous man when he was loud, reckless, brutal, violent: but most of all dangerous when he was most quiet.

By-and-by he took the bunch of keys from his pocket, knelt down before the portmanteau, and examined its contents.

There was very little to reward his scrutiny — only a suit of clothes, a couple of clean shirts, and the necessaries of the clerk’s simple toilet. The carpet-bag contained a pair of boots, a hat-brush, a night-shirt, and a faded old chintz dressing-gown.

Joseph Wilmot rose from his knees after examining these things, and softly opened the door between the two rooms. There had been no change in the sick chamber. The nurse still sat by the head of the bed. She looked round at Joseph, as he opened the door.

“No change, I suppose?” he said.

“No, sir; none.”

“I am going out for a stroll, presently. I shall be in again in an hour’s time.”

He shut the door again, but he did not go out immediately. He knelt down once more by the side of the portmanteau, and tore off the label with his brother’s name upon it. He tore a similar label off the carpet-bag, taking care that no vestige of the clerk’s name was left behind.

When he had done this, and thrust the torn labels into his pocket, he began to walk up and down the room, softly, with his arms folded upon his breast.

“The Electra, is expected to arrive on the nineteenth,” he said, in a low, thoughtful voice, “on or about the nineteenth. She may arrive either before or after. To-morrow will be the seventeenth. If Sampson dies, there will be an inquest, no doubt: a post-mortem examination, perhaps: and I shall be detained till all that is over. I shall be detained two or three days at least: and in the mean time Henry Dunbar may arrive at Southampton, hurry on to London, and I may miss the one chance of meeting that man face to face. I won’t be balked of this meeting — I won’t be balked. Why should I stop here to watch by an unconscious man’s death-bed? No! Fate has thrown Henry Dunbar once more across my pathway: and I won’t throw my chance away.”

He took up his hat — a battered, shabby-looking white hat, which harmonized well with his vagabond appearance — and went out, after stopping for a minute at the bar to tell the landlord that he would be back in an hour’s time.

He went straight to the railway station, and made inquiries as to the trains.

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