Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 40

Flight.

The man who called himself Henry Dunbar was lying on the tapestried cushions of a carved oaken couch that stood before the fire in his spacious sitting-room. He lay there, listening to the March wind roaring in the broad chimney, and watching the blazing coals and the crackling logs of wood.

It was three o’clock in the morning now, and the servants had left the room at midnight; but the sick man had ordered a huge fire to be made up — a fire that promised to last for some hours.

The master of Maudesley Abbey was in no way improved by his long imprisonment. His complexion had faded to a dull leaden hue; his cheeks were sunken; his eyes looked unnaturally large and unnaturally bright. Long hours of loneliness, long sleepless nights, and thoughts that from every diverging point for ever narrowed inwards to one hideous centre, had done their work of him. The man lying opposite the fire to-night looked ten years older than the man who gave his evidence so boldly and clearly before the coroner’s jury at Winchester.

The crutches — they were made of some light, polished wood, and were triumphs of art in their way — leaned against a table close to the couch, and within reach to the man’s hand. He had learned to walk about the rooms and on the gravel-drive before the Abbey with these crutches, and had even learned to do without them, for he was now able to set the lamed foot upon the ground, and to walk a few paces pretty steadily, with no better support than that of his cane; but as yet he walked slowly and doubtfully, in spite of his impatience to be about once more.

Heaven knows how many different thoughts were busy in his restless brain that night. Strange memories came back to him, as he lay staring at the red chasms and craggy steeps in the fire — memories of a time so long gone by, that all the personages of that period seemed to him like the characters in a book, or the figures in a picture. He saw their faces, and he remembered how they had looked at him; and among these other faces he saw the many semblances which his own had worn.

O God, how that face had changed! The bright, frank, boyish countenance, looking eagerly out upon a world that seemed so pleasant; the young man’s hopeful smile; and then — and then, the hard face that grew harder with the lapse of years; the smile that took no radiance from a light within; the frown that blackened as the soul grew darker. He saw all these, and still for ever, amid a thousand distracting ideas, his thoughts, which were beyond his own volition, concentrated in the one plague-spot of his life, and held him there, fixed as a wretch bound hand and foot upon the rack.

“If I could only get away from this place,” he said to himself; “if I could get away, it would all be different. Change of scene, activity, hurrying from place to place in new countries and amongst strange people, would have the usual influence upon me. That memory would pass away then, as other memories have passed; only to be recalled, now and then, in a dream; or conjured up by some chance allusion dropped from the lips of strangers, some coincidence of resemblance in a scene, or face, or tone, or look. That memory cannot be so much worse than the rest that it should be ineffaceable, where they have been effaced. But while I stay here, here in this dismal room, where the dropping of the ashes on the hearth, the ticking of the clock upon the chimney-piece, are like that torture I have read of somewhere — the drop of water falling at intervals upon the victim’s forehead until the anguish of its monotony drives him raving mad — while I stay here there is no hope of forgetfulness, no possibility of peace. I saw him last night, and the night before last, and the night before that. I see him always when I go to sleep, smiling at me, as he smiled when we went into the grove. I can hear his voice, and the words he said, every syllable of those insignificant words, selfish murmurs about the probability of his being fatigued in that long walk, the possibility that it would have been better to hire a fly, and to have driven by the road — bah! What was he that I should be sorry for him? Am I sorry for him? No! I am sorry for myself, and for the torture which I have created for myself. O God! I can see him now as he looked up at me out of the water. The motion of the stream gave a look of life to his face, and I almost thought he was still alive, and I had never done that deed.”

These were the pleasant fireside thoughts with which the master of Maudesley Abbey beguiled the hours of his convalescence. Heaven keep our memories green! exclaims the poet novelist; and Heaven preserve us from such deeds as make our memories hideous to us!

From such a reverie as this the master of Maudesley Abbey was suddenly aroused by the sound of a light knocking against one of the windows of his room — the window nearest him as he lay on the couch.

He started, and lifted himself into a sitting posture.

“Who is there?” he cried, impatiently.

He was frightened, and clasped his two hands upon, his forehead, trying to think who the late visitant could be. Why should any one come to him at such an hour, unless — unless it was discovered? There could be no other justification for such an intrusion.

His breath came short and thick as he thought of this. Had it come at last, then, that awful moment which he had dreamed of so many times — that hideous crisis which he had imagined under so many different aspects? Had it come at last, like this? — quietly, in the dead of the night, without one moment’s warning? — before he had prepared himself to escape it, or hardened himself to meet it? Had it come now? The man thought all this while he listened, with his chest heaving, his breath coming in hoarse gasps, waiting for the reply to his question.

There was no reply except the knocking, which grew louder and more hurried.

If there can be expression in the tapping of a hand against a pane of glass, there was expression in that hand — the expression of entreaty rather than of demand, as it seemed to that white and terror-stricken listener.

His heart gave a great throb, like a prisoner who leaps away from the fetters that have been newly loosened.

“What a fool I have been!” he thought. “If it was that, there would be knocking and ringing at the hall-door, instead of that cautious summons. I suppose that fellow Vallance has got into some kind of trouble, and has come in the dead of the night to hound me for money. It would be only like him to do it. He knows he must be admitted, let him come when he may.”

The invalid gave a groan as he thought this. He got up and walked to the window, leaning upon his cane as he went.

The knocking still sounded. He was close to the window, and he heard something besides the knocking — a woman’s voice, not loud, but peculiarly audible by reason of its earnestness.

“Let me in; for pity’s sake let me in!”

The man standing at the window knew that voice: only too well, only too well. It was the voice of the girl who had so persistently followed him, who had only lately succeeded in seeing him. He drew back the bolts that fastened the long French window, opened it, and admitted Margaret Wilmot.

“Margaret!” he cried; “what, in Heaven’s name, brings you here at such an hour as this?”

“Danger!” answered the girl, breathlessly. “Danger to you! I have been running, and the words seem to choke me as I speak. There’s not a moment to be lost, not one moment. They will be here directly; they cannot fail to be here directly. I felt as if they had been close behind me all the way — they may have been so. There is not a moment — not one moment!”

She stopped, with her hands clasped upon her breast. She was incoherent in her excitement, and knew that she was so, and struggled to express herself clearly.

“Oh, father!” she exclaimed, lifting her hands to her head, and pushing the loose tangled hair away from her face; “I have tried to save you — I have tried to save you! But sometimes I think that is not to be. It may be God’s mercy that you should be taken, and your wretched daughter can die with you!”

She fell upon her knees, suddenly, in a kind of delirium, and lifted up her clasped hands.

“O God, have mercy upon him!” she cried. “As I prayed in this room before — as I have prayed every hour since that dreadful time — I pray again to-night. Have mercy upon him, and give him a penitent heart, and wash away his sin. What is the penalty he may suffer here, compared to that Thou canst inflict hereafter? Let the chastisement of man fall upon him, so as Thou wilt accept his repentance!”

“Margaret,” said Joseph Wilmot, grasping the girl’s arm, “are you praying that I may be hung? Have you come here to do that? Get up, and tell me what is the matter!”

Margaret Wilmot rose from her knees shuddering, and looking straight before her, trying to be calm — trying to collect her thoughts.

“Father,” she said, “I have never known one hour’s peaceful sleep since the night I left this room. For the last three nights I have not slept at all. I have been travelling, walking from place to place, until I could drop on the floor at your feet. I want to tell you — but the words — the words — won’t come — somehow ——”

She pointed to her dry lips, which moved, but made no sound. There was a bottle of brandy and a glass on the table near the couch. Joseph Wilmot was seldom without that companion. He snatched up the bottle and glass, poured out some of the brandy, and placed it between his daughter’s lips. She drank the spirit eagerly. She would have drunk living fire, if, by so doing, she could have gained strength to complete her task.

“You must leave this house directly!” she gasped. “You must go abroad, anywhere, so long as you are safe out of the way. They will be here to look for you — Heaven only knows how soon!”

“They! Who?

“Clement Austin, and a man — a detective ——”

“Clement Austin — your lover — your confederate? You have betrayed me, Margaret!”

“I!” cried the girl, looking at her father.

There was something sublime in the tone of that one word — something superb in the girl’s face, as her eyes met the haggard gaze of the murderer.

“Forgive me, my girl! No, no, you wouldn’t do that, even to a loathsome wretch like me!”

“But you will go away — you will escape from them?”

“Why should I be afraid of them? Let them come when they please, they have no proof against me.”

“No proof? Oh, father, you don’t know — you don’t know. They have been to Winchester. I heard from Clement’s mother that he had gone there; and I went after him, and found out where he was — at the inn where you stayed, where you refused to see me — and that there was a man with him. I waited about the streets; and at night I saw them both, the man and Clement. Oh! father, I knew they could have only one purpose in coming to that place. I saw them at night; and the next day I watched again — waiting about the street, and hiding myself under porches or in shops, when there was any chance of my being seen. I saw Clement leave the George, and take the way towards the cathedral. I went to the cathedral-yard afterwards, and saw the strange man talking in a doorway with an old man. I loitered about the cathedral-yard, and saw the man that was with Clement go away, down by the meadows, towards the grove, to the place where ——”

She stopped, and trembled so violently that she was unable to speak.

Joseph Wilmot filled the glass with brandy for the second time, and put it to his daughter’s lips.

She drank about a teaspoonful, and then went on, speaking very rapidly, and in broken sentences —

“I followed the man, keeping a good way behind, so that he might not see that he was followed. He went straight down to the very place where — the murder was done. Clement was there, and three men. They were there under the trees, and they were dragging the water.”

“Dragging the water! Oh, my God, why were they doing that?” cried the man, dropping suddenly on the chair nearest to him, and with his face livid.

For the first time since Margaret had entered the room terror took possession of him. Until now he had listened attentively, anxiously; but the ghastly look of fear and horror was new upon his face. He had defied discovery. There was only one thing that could be used against him — the bundle of clothes, the marked garments of the murdered man — those fatal garments which he had been unable to destroy, which he had only been able to hide. These things alone could give evidence against him; but who should think of searching for these things? Again and again he had thought of the bundle at the bottom of the stream, only to laugh at the wondrous science of discovery which had slunk back baffled by so slight a mystery, only to fancy the water-rats gnawing the dead man’s garments, and all the oose and slime creeping in and out amongst the folds until the rotting rags became a very part of the rank river-weeds that crawled and tangled round them.

He had thought this, and the knowledge that strangers had been busy on that spot, dragging the water — the dreadful water that had so often flowed through his dreams — with, not one, but a thousand dead faces looking up and grinning at him through the stream — the tidings that a search had been made there, came upon him like a thunderbolt.

“Why did they drag the water?” he cried again.

His daughter was standing at a little distance from him. She had never gone close up to him, and she had receded a little — involuntarily, as a woman shrinks away from some animal she is frightened of — whenever he had approached her. He knew this — yes, amidst every other conflicting thought, this man was conscious that his daughter avoided him.

“They dragged the water,” Margaret said; “I walked about — that place — under the elms — all the day — only one day — but it seemed to last for ever and ever. I was obliged to hide myself — and to keep at a distance, for Clement was there all day; but as it grew dusk I ventured nearer, and found out what they were doing, and that they had not found what they were searching for; but I did not know yet what it was they wanted to find.”

“But they found it!” gasped the girl’s father; “did they find it? Come to that.”

“Yes, they found it by-and-by. A bundle of rags, a boy told me — a boy who had been about with the men all day —‘a bundle of rags, it looked like,’ he said; but he heard the constable say that those rags were the clothes that had belonged to the murdered man.”

“What then? What next?”

“I waited to hear no more, father; I ran all the way to Winchester to the station — I was in time for a train, which brought me to London — I came on by the mail to Rugby — and ——”

“Yes, yes; I know — and you are a brave girl, a noble girl. Ah! my poor Margaret, I don’t think I should have hated that man so much if it hadn’t been for the thought of you — your lonely girlhood — your hopeless, joyless existence — and all through him — all through the man who ruined me at the outset of my life. But I won’t talk — I daren’t talk: they have found the clothes; they know that the man who was murdered was Henry Dunbar — they will be here — let me think — let me think how I can get away!”

He clasped both his hands upon his head, as if by force of their iron grip he could steady his mind, and clear away the confusion of his brain.

From the first day on which he had taken possession of the dead man’s property until this moment he had lived in perpetual terror of the crisis which had now arrived. There was no possible form or manner in which he had not imagined the situation. There was no preparation in his power to make that he had left unmade. But he had hoped to anticipate the dreaded hour. He had planned his flight, and meant to have left Maudesley Abbey for ever, in the first hour that found him capable of travelling. He had planned his flight, and had started on that wintry afternoon, when the Sabbath bells had a muffled sound, as their solemn peals floated across the snow — he had started on his journey with the intention of never again returning to Maudesley Abbey. He had meant to leave England, and wander far away, through all manner of unfrequented districts, choosing places that were most difficult of approach, and least affected by English travellers.

He had meant to do this, and had calculated that his conduct would be, at the worst, considered eccentric; or perhaps it would be thought scarcely unnatural in a lonely man, whose only child had married into a higher sphere than his own. He had meant to do this, and by-and-by, when he had been lost sight of by the world, to hide himself under a new name and a new nationality, so that if ever, by some strange fatality, by some awful interposition of Providence, the secret of Henry Dunbar’s death should come to light, the murderer would be as entirely removed from human knowledge as if the grave had closed over him and hidden him for ever.

This is the course that Joseph Wilmot had planned for himself. There had been plenty of time for him to think and plot in the long nights that he had spent in those splendid rooms — those noble chambers, whose grandeur had been more hideous to him than the blank walls of a condemned cell; whose atmosphere had seemed more suffocating than the foetid vapours of a fever-tainted den in St. Giles’s. The passionate, revengeful yearning of a man who has been cruelly injured and betrayed, the common greed of wealth engendered out of poverty’s slow torture, had arisen rampant in this man’s breast at the sight of Henry Dunbar. By one hideous deed both passions were gratified; and Joseph Wilmot, the bank-messenger, the confidential valet, the forger, the convict, the ticket-of-leave man, the penniless reprobate, became master of a million of money.

Yes, he had done this. He had entered Winchester upon that August afternoon, with a few sovereigns and a handful of silver in his pocket, and with a life of poverty and degradation, before him. He had left the same town chief partner in the firm of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, and sole owner of Maudesley Abbey, the Yorkshire estates, and the house in Portland Place.

Surely this was the very triumph of crime, a master-stroke of villany. But had the villain ever known one moment’s happiness since the commission of that deed — one moment’s peace — one moment’s freedom from a slow, torturing anguish that was like the gnawing of a ravenous beast for ever preying on his entrails? The author of the Opium–Eater suffered so cruelly from some internal agony that he grew at last to fancy there was indeed some living creature inside him, for ever torturing and tormenting him. This doubtless was only the fancy of an invalid: but what of that undying serpent called Remorse, which coils itself about the heart of the murderer and holds it for ever in a deadly grip — never to beat freely again, never to know a painless throb, or feel a sweet emotion?

In a few minutes — while the rooks were cawing in the elms, and the green leaves fluttering in the drowsy summer air, and the blue waters rippling in the sunshine and flecked by the shadows — Joseph Wilmot had done a deed which had given him the richest reward that a murderer ever hoped to win; and had so transformed his life, so changed the very current of his being, that he went away out of that wood, not alone, but dogged step by step by a gaunt, stalking creature, a hideous monster that echoed his every breath, and followed at his shoulder, and clung about him, and grappled his throat, and weighed him down; a horrid thing, which had neither shape nor name, and yet wore every shape, and took every name, and was the ghost of the deed that he had done.

Joseph Wilmot stood for a few moments with his hands clasped upon his head, and then the shadows faded from his face, which suddenly became fixed and resolute-looking. The first thrill of terror, the first shock of surprise, were over. This man never had been and never could be a coward. He was ready now for the worst. It may be that he was glad the worst had come. He had suffered such unutterable anguish, such indescribable tortures, during the time in which his guilt had been unsuspected, that it may have been a kind of relief to know that his secret was discovered, and that he was free to drop the mask.

While he paused, thinking what he was to do, some lucky thought came to him, for his face brightened suddenly with a triumphant smile.

“The horse!” he said. “I may ride, though I can’t walk.”

He took up his cane, and went to the next room, where there was a door that opened into the quadrangle, in which the master of the Abbey had caused a loose box to be built for his favourite horse. Margaret followed her father, not closely, but at a little distance, watching him with anxious, wondering eyes.

He unfastened the half-glass door, opened it, and went out into the quadrangular garden, the quaint old-fashioned garden, where the flower-beds were primly dotted on the smooth grass-plot, in the centre of which there was a marble basin, and the machinery of a little fountain that had never played within the memory of living man.

“Go back for the lamp, Margaret,” Joseph Wilmot whispered. “I must have light.”

The girl obeyed. She had left off trembling now, and carried the shaded lamp as steadily as if she had been bent on some simple womanly errand. She followed her father into the garden, and went with him to the loose box where the horse was to be found.

The animal knew his master, even in that uncertain light. There was gas laid on in the millionaire’s stables, and a low jet had been left burning by the groom.

The horse plunged his head about his master’s shoulders, and shook his mane, and reared, and disported himself in his delight at seeing his old friend once more, and it was only Joseph Wilmot’s soothing hand and voice that subdued the animal’s exuberant spirits.

“Steady, boy, steady! quiet, old fellow!” Joseph said, in a whisper.

Three or four saddles and bridles hung upon a rack in one corner of the small stable. Joseph Wilmot selected the things he wanted, and began to saddle the horse, supporting himself on his cane as he did so.

The groom slept in the house now, by his master’s orders, and there was no one within hearing.

The horse was saddled and bridled in five minutes, and Joseph Wilmot led him out of the stable, followed by Margaret, who still carried the lamp. There was a low iron gate leading out of the quadrangle into the grounds. Joseph led the horse to this gate.

“Go back and get me my coat,” he said to Margaret; “you’ll go faster than I can. You’ll find a coat lined with fur on a chair in the bedroom.”

His daughter obeyed, silently and quietly, as she had done before. The rooms all opened one into the other. She saw the bedroom with the tall, gloomy bedstead, the light of the fire flickering here and there. She set the lamp down upon a table in this room, and found the fur-lined coat her father had sent her to fetch. There was a purse lying on a dressing-table, with sovereigns glittering through the silken network, and the girl snatched it up as she hurried away, thinking, in her innocent simplicity, that her father might have nothing but those few sovereigns to help him in his flight. She went back to him, carrying the bulky overcoat, and helped him to put it on in place of the dressing-grown he had been wearing. He had taken his hat before going to the stable.

“Here is your purse, father,” she said, thrusting it into his hand; “there is something in it, but I’m afraid there’s not very much. How will you manage for money where you art going?”

“Oh, I shall manage very well.”

He had got into the saddle by this time, not without considerable difficulty; but though the fresh air made him feel faint and dizzy, he felt himself a new man now that the horse was under him — the brave horse, the creature that loved him, whose powerful stride could carry him almost to the other end of the world; as it seemed to Joseph Wilmot in the first triumph of being astride the animal once more. He put his hand involuntarily to the belt that was strapped round him, as Margaret asked that question about the money.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “I’ve money enough — I am all right.”

“But where are you going?” she asked, eagerly.

The horse was tearing up the wet gravel, and making furious champing noises in his impatience of all this delay.

“I don’t know,” Joseph Wilmot answered; “that will depend upon — I don’t know. Good night, Margaret. God bless you! I don’t suppose He listens to the prayers of such as me. If He did, it might have been all different long ago — when I tried to be honest!”

Yes, this was true; the murderer of Henry Dunbar had once tried to be honest, and had prayed God to prosper his honesty; but then he only tried to do right in a spasmodic, fitful kind of way, and expected his prayers to be granted as soon as they were asked, and was indignant with a Providence that seemed to be deaf to his entreaties. He had always lacked that sublime quality of patience, which endures the evil day, and calmly breasts the storm.

“Let me go with you, father,” Margaret said, in an entreating voice, “let me go with you. There is nothing in all the world for me, except the hope of God’s forgiveness for you. I want to be with you. I don’t want you to be amongst bad men, who will harden your heart. I want to be with you — far away — where ——”

You with me?” said Joseph Wilmot, slowly; “you wish it?”

“With all my heart!”

“And you’re true,” he cried, bending down to grasp his daughter’s shoulder and look her in the face, “you’re true, Margaret, eh? — true as steel; ready for anything, no flinching, no quailing or trembling when the danger comes. You’ve stood a good deal, and stood it nobly. Can you stand still more, eh?”

“For your sake, father, for your sake! yes, yes, I will brave anything in the world, do anything to save you from ——”

She shuddered as she remembered what the danger was that assailed him, the horror from which flight alone could save him. No, no, no! that could never be endured at any cost; at any sacrifice he must be saved from that. No strength of womanly fortitude, no trust in the mercy of God, could even make her resigned as to that.

“I’ll trust you, Margaret,” said Joseph Wilmot, loosening his grasp upon the girl’s shoulder; “I’ll trust you. Haven’t I reason to trust you? Didn’t I see your mother, on the day when she found out what my history was; didn’t I see the colour fade out of her face till she was whiter than the linen collar round her neck, and in the next moment her arms were about me, and her honest eyes looking up in my face, as she cried, ‘I shall never love you less, dear; there’s nothing in this world can make me love you less!’”

He paused for a moment. His voice had grown thick and husky; but he broke out violently in the next instant.

“Great Heaven! why do I stop talking like this? Listen to me, Margaret; if you want to see the last of me, you must find your way, somehow or other, to Woodbine Cottage, near Lisford — on the Lisford Road, I think. Find your way there — I’m going there now, and shall be there long before you — you understand?”

“Yes; Woodbine Cottage, Lisford — I shan’t forget! God speed you, father! — God help you!”

“He is the God of sinners,” thought the wretched girl. “He gave Cain a long lifetime in which to repent of his sins.”

Margaret thought this as she stood at the gate, listening to the horse’s hoofs upon the gravel road that wound through the grounds away into the park.

She was very, very tired, but had little sense of her fatigue, and her journey was by no means finished yet. She did not once look back at Maudesley Abbey — that stately and splendid mansion, in which a miserable wretch had acted his part, and endured the penalty of his guilt, for many wearisome months She went away — hurrying along the lonely pathways, with the night breezes blowing her loose hair across her eyes, and half-blinding her as she went — to find the gate by which she had entered the park.

She went out at this gateway because it was the only point of egress by which she could leave the park without being seen by the keeper of a lodge. The dim morning light was grey in the sky before she met any one whom she could ask to direct her to Woodbine Cottage; but at last a man came out of a farmyard with a couple of milk-pails, and directed her to the Lisford Road.

It was broad daylight when she reached the little garden-gate before Major Vernon’s abode. It was broad daylight, and the door leading into the prim little hall was ajar. The girl pushed it open, and fell into the arms of a man, who caught her as she fainted.

“Poor girl, poor child!” said Joseph Wilmot; “to think what she has suffered. And I thought that she would profit by that crime; I thought that she would take the money, and be content to leave the mystery unravelled. My poor child! my poor, unhappy child!”

The man who had murdered Henry Dunbar wept aloud over the white face of his unconscious daughter.

“Don’t let’s have any of that fooling,” cried a harsh voice from the little parlour; “we’ve no time to waste on snivelling!”

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