Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 42

The Housemaid at Woodbine Cottage.

In less than a quarter of an hour after leaving the gate of Maudesley Park, the fly came to a stand-still before Woodbine Cottage. Mr. Carter paid the man and dismissed the vehicle, and went alone into the little garden.

He rang a bell on one side of the half-glass door, and had ample leisure to contemplate the stuffed birds and marine curiosities that adorned the little hall of the cottage before any one came to answer his summons. He rang a second time before anyone came, but after a delay of about five minutes a young woman appeared, with her face tied up in a coloured handkerchief. The detective asked to see Major Vernon, and the young woman ushered him into a little parlour at the back of the cottage, without either delay or hesitation.

The occupant of the cottage was sitting in an arm-chair by the fire. There was very little light in the room, for the only window looked into a miniature conservatory, where there were all manner of prickly and spiky plants of the cactus kind, which had been the delight of the late owner of Woodbine Cottage.

Mr. Carter looked very sharply at the gentleman sitting in the easy-chair; but the closest inspection showed him nothing but a good-looking man, between fifty and sixty years of age, with a determined-looking mouth, half shaded by a grey moustache.

“I’ve come to make a few inquiries about a friend of yours, Major Vernon,” the detective said; “Mr. Dunbar, of Maudesley Abbey, who has been missing since four o’clock this morning.”

The gentleman in the easy-chair was smoking a meerschaum. As Mr. Carter said those two words, “four o’clock,” his teeth made a little clicking noise upon the amber mouthpiece of the pipe.

The detective heard the sound, slight as it was, and drew his inference from it. Major Vernon had seen Joseph Wilmot, and knew that he had left the Abbey at four o’clock, and thus gave a little start of surprise when he found that the exact hour was known to others.

“You know where Mr. Dunbar has gone?” said Mr. Carter, looking still more sharply at the gentleman in the easy-chair.

“On the contrary, I was thinking of looking in upon him at the Abbey this evening.”

“Humph!” murmured the detective, “then it’s no use my asking you any questions on the subject?”

“None whatever. Henry Dunbar is gone away from the Abbey, you say? Why, I thought he was still under medical supervision — couldn’t move off his sofa, except to take a turn upon a pair of crutches.”

“I believe it was so, but he has disappeared notwithstanding.”

“What do you mean by disappeared? He has gone away, I suppose, and he was free to go away, wasn’t he?”

“Oh! of course; perfectly free.”

“Then I don’t so much wonder that he went,” exclaimed the occupant of the cottage, stooping over the fire, and knocking the ashes out of his meerschaum. “He’d been tied by the leg long enough, poor devil! But how is it you’re running about after him, as if he was a little boy that had bolted from his precious mother? You’re not the surgeon who was attending him?”

“No, I’m employed by Lady Jocelyn; in fact, to tell you the honest truth,” said the detective, with a simplicity of manner that was really charming: “to tell you the honest truth, I’m neither more nor less than a private detective, and I have come down from London direct to look after the missing gentleman. You see, Lady Jocelyn is afraid the long illness and fever, and all that sort of thing, may have had a very bad effect upon her poor father, and that he’s a little bit touched in the upper story, perhaps; — and, upon my word,” added the detective, frankly, “I think this sudden bolt looks very like it. In which case I fancy we may look for an attempt at suicide. What do you think, now, Major Vernon, as a friend of the missing gentleman, eh?”

The Major smiled.

“Upon my word,” he said, “I don’t think you’re so very far away from the mark. Henry Dunbar has been rather queer in his ways since that railway smash.”

“Just so. I suppose you wouldn’t have any objection to my looking about your house, and round the garden and outbuildings? Your friend might hide himself somewhere about your place. When once they take an eccentric turn, there’s no knowing where to have ’em.”

Major Vernon shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t think Dunbar’s likely to have got into my house without my knowledge,” he said; “but you are welcome to examine the place from garret to cellar if that’s any satisfaction to you.”

He rang a bell as he spoke. It was answered by the girl whose face was tied up.

“Ah, Betty, you’ve got the toothache again, have you? A nice excuse for slinking your work, eh, my girl? That’s about the size of your toothache, I expect! Look here now, this gentleman wants to see the house, and you’re to show him over it, and over the garden too, if he likes — and be quick about it, for I want my dinner.”

The girl curtseyed in an awkward countrified manner, and ushered Mr. Carter into the hall.

“Betty!” roared the master of the house, as the girl reached the foot of the stair with the detective; “Betty, come here!”

She went back to her master, and Mr. Carter heard a whispered conversation, very brief, of which the last sentence only was audible.

That last sentence ran thus:

“And if you don’t hold your tongue, I’ll make you pay for it.”

“Ho, ho!” thought the detective; “Miss Betsy is to hold her tongue, is she? We’ll see about that.”

The girl came back to the hall, and led Mr. Carter into the two sitting-rooms in the front of the house. They were small rooms, with small furniture. They were old-fashioned rooms, with low ceilings, and queer cupboards nestling in out-of-the-way holes and corners: and Mr. Carter had enough work to do in squeezing himself into the interior of these receptacles, which all smelt, more or less, of chandlery and rum — that truly seaman-like spirit having been a favourite beverage with the late inhabitant of the cottage.

After examining half-a-dozen cupboards in the lower regions, Mr. Carter and his guide ascended to the upper story.

The girl called Betsy ushered the detective into a bedroom, which she said was her master’s, and where the occupation of the Major was made manifest by divers articles of apparel lying on the chairs and hanging on the pegs, and, furthermore, by a powerful effluvium of stale tobacco, and a collection of pipes and cigar-boxes on the chimney-piece.

The girl opened the door of an impossible-looking little cupboard in a corner behind a four-post bed; but instead of inspecting the cupboard, Mr. Carter made a sudden rush at the door, locked it, and then put the key in his pocket.

“No, thank you, Miss Innocence,” he said; “I don’t crick my neck, or break my back, by looking into any more of your cupboards. Just you come here.”

“Here,” was the window, before which Mr. Carter planted himself.

The girl obeyed very quietly. She would have been a pretty-looking girl but for her toothache, or rather, but for the coloured handkerchief which muffled the lower part of her face, and was tied in a knot at the top of her head. As it was, Mr. Carter could only see that she had pretty brown eyes, which shifted left and right as he looked at her.

“Oh, yes, you’re an artful young hussy, and no mistake,” he said; “and that toothache’s only a judgment upon you. What was that your master said to you in the parlour just now, eh? What was that he told you to hold your tongue about, eh?”

Betty shook her head, and began to twist the corner of her apron in her hands.

“Master didn’t say nothing, sir,” she said.

“Master didn’t say nothing! Your morals and your grammar are about a match, Miss Betsy; but you’ll find yourself rather in the wrong box by-and-by, my young lady, when you find yourself committed to prison for perjury; which crime, in a young female, is transportation for life,” added Mr. Carter, in an awful tone.

“Oh, sir!” cried Betty, “it isn’t me; it’s master: and he do swear so when he’s in his tantrums. If the ‘taters isn’t done to his likin’, sir, he’ll grumble about them quite civil at first, and then he’ll work hisself up like, and take and throw them at me one by one, and his language gets worse with every ‘tater. Oh, what am I to do, sir! I daren’t go against him. I’d a’most sooner be transported, if it don’t hurt much.”

“Don’t hurt much!” exclaimed Mr. Carter; “why, there’s a ship-load of cat-o’-nine-tails goes out to Van Diemen’s Land every quarter, and reserved specially for young females!”

“Oh! I’ll tell you all about it, sir,” cried Mr. Vernon’s housemaid; “sooner than be took up for perjuring, I’ll tell you everything.”

“I thought so,” said Mr. Carter; “but it isn’t much you’ve got to tell me. Mr. Dunbar came here this morning on horseback, between five and six?”

“It was ten minutes past six, sir, and I was opening the shutters.”

“Precisely.”

“And the gentleman came on horseback, sir, and was nigh upon fainting with the pain of his leg; and he sent me to call up master, and master helped him off the horse, and took the horse to the stable; and then the gentleman sat and rested in master’s little parlour at the back of the house; and then they sent me for a fly, and I went to the Rose and Crown at Lisford, and fetched a fly; and before eight o’clock the gentleman went away.”

Before eight, and it was now past three. Mr. Carter looked at his watch while the girl made her confession.

“And, oh, please don’t tell master as I told you,” she said; “oh, please don’t, sir.”

There was no time to be lost, and yet the detective paused for a minute, thinking of what he had just heard.

Had the girl told him the truth; or was this a story got up to throw him off the scent? The girl’s terror of her master seemed genuine. She was crying now, real tears, that streamed down her pale cheeks, and wetted the handkerchief that covered the lower part of her face.

“I can find out at the Rose and Crown whether anybody did go away in a fly,” the detective thought.

“Tell your master I’ve searched the place, and haven’t found his friend,” he said to the girl; “and that I haven’t got time to wish him good morning.”

The detective said this as he went down stairs. The girl went into the little rustic porch with him, and directed him to the Rose and Crown at Lisford.

He ran almost all the way to the little inn; for he was growing desperate now, with the idea that his man had escaped him.

“Why, he can do anything with such a start,” he thought to himself. “And yet there’s his lameness — that’ll go against him.”

At the Rose and Crown Mr. Carter was informed that a fly had been ordered at seven o’clock that morning by a young person from Woodbine Cottage; that the vehicle had not long come in, and that the driver was somewhere about the stables. The driver was summoned at Mr. Carter’s request, and from him the detective ascertained that a gentleman, wrapped up to the very nose, and wearing a coat lined with fur, and walking very lame, had been taken up by him at Woodbine Cottage. This gentleman had ordered the driver to go as fast as he could to Shorncliffe station; but on reaching the station, it appeared the gentleman was too late for the train he wanted to go by, for he came back to the fly, limping awful, and told the man to drive to Maningsly. The driver explained to Mr. Carter that Maningsly was a little village three miles from Shorncliffe, on a by-road. Here the gentleman in the fur coat had alighted at an ale-house, where he dined, and stopped, reading the paper and drinking hot brandy-and-water till after one o’clock. He acted altogether quite the gentleman, and paid for the driver’s dinner and brandy-and-water, as well as his own. At half-after one he got into the fly, and ordered the man to go back to Shorncliffe station. At five minutes after two he alighted at the station, where he paid and dismissed the driver.

This was all Mr. Carter wanted to know.

“You get a fresh horse harnessed in double-quick time,” he said, “and drive me to Shorncliffe station.”

While the horse and fly were being got ready, the detective went into the bar, and ordered a glass of steaming brandy-and-water. He was accustomed to take liquids in a boiling state, as the greater part of his existence was spent in hurrying from place to place, as he was hurrying now.

“Sawney’s got the chance this time,” he thought. “Suppose he was to sell me, and go in for the reward?”

The supposition was not a pleasant one, and Mr. Carter looked grave for a minute or so; but he quickly relapsed into a grim smile.

“I think Sawney knows me too well for that,” he said; “I think Sawney is too well acquainted with me to try that on.”

The fly came round to the inn-door while Mr. Carter reflected upon this. He sprang into the vehicle, and was driven off to the station.

At the Shorncliffe station he found everything very quiet. There was no train due for some time yet; there was no sign of human life in the ticket-office or the waiting-rooms.

There was a porter asleep upon his truck on the platform, and there was one solitary young female sitting upon a bench against the wall, with her boxes and bundles gathered round her, and an umbrella and a pair of clogs on her lap.

Upon all the length of the platform there was no sign of Mr. Tibbles, otherwise Sawney Tom.

Mr. Carter awoke the porter, and sent him to the station-master to ask if any letter addressed to Mr. Henry Carter had been left in that functionary’s care. The porter went yawning to make this inquiry, and came back by-and-by, still yawning, to say that there was such a letter, and would the gentleman please step into the station-master’s office to claim and receive it.

The note was not a long one, nor was it encumbered by any ceremonious phraseology.

“Gent in furred coat turned up 2.10, took a ticket for Derby, 1 class, took ticket for same place self, 2 class. — Yrs to commd, T.T.“

Mr. Carter crumpled up the note and dropped it into his pocket. The station-master gave him all the information about the trains. There was a train for Derby at seven o’clock that evening; and for the three and a half weary hours that must intervene, Mr. Carter was left to amuse himself as best he might.

“Derby,” he muttered to himself, “Derby. Why, he must be going north; and what, in the name of all that’s miraculous, takes him that way?”

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