Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 46

Clement’s Story. — Before the Dawn.

“I went back to my mother’s house a broken and a disappointed man. I had solved the mystery of Margaret’s conduct, and at the same time had set a barrier between myself and the woman I loved.

“Was there any hope that she would ever be my wife? Reason told me that there was none. In her eyes I must henceforth appear the man who had voluntarily set himself to work to discover her father’s guilt, and track him to the gallows.

Could she ever again love me with this knowledge in her mind? Could she ever again look me in the face, and smile at me, remembering this? The very sound of my name must in future be hateful to her.

“I knew the strength of my noble girl’s love for her reprobate father. I had seen the force of that affection tested by so many cruel trials. I had witnessed my poor girl’s passionate grief at Joseph Wilmot’s supposed death: and I had seen all the intensity of her anguish when the secret of his existence, which was at the same time the secret of his guilt, became known to her.

“‘She renounced me then, rather than renounce that guilty wretch,’ I thought; ‘she will hate me now that I have been the means of bringing his most hideous crime to light.’

“Yes, the crime was hideous — almost unparalleled in horror. The treachery which had lured the victim to his death seemed almost less horrible than the diabolical art which had fixed upon the name of the murdered man the black stigma of a suspected crime.

“But I knew too well that, in all the blackness of his guilt, Margaret Wilmot would cling to her father as truly, as tenderly, as she had clung to him in those early days when the suspicion of his worthlessness had been only a dark shadow for ever brooding between the man and his only child. I knew this, and I had no hope that she would ever forgive me for my part in the weaving of that strange chain of evidence which made the condemnation of Joseph Wilmot.

“These were the thoughts that tormented me during the first fortnight after my return from the miserable journey to Winchester; these were the thoughts for ever revolving in my tired brain while I waited for tidings from the detective.

“During all that time it never once occurred to me that there was any chance, however remote, of Joseph Wilmot’s escape from his pursuer.

“I had seen the science of the detective police so invariably triumphant over the best-planned schemes of the most audacious criminals, that I should have considered — had I ever debated the question, which I never did — Joseph Wilmot’s evasion of justice an actual impossibility. It was most likely that he would be taken at Maudesley Abbey entirely unprepared, in his ignorance of the fatal discovery at Winchester; an easy prey to the experienced detective.

“Indeed, I thought that his immediate arrest was almost a certainty; and every morning, when I took up the papers, I expected to see a prominent announcement to the effect that the long-undiscovered Winchester mystery was at last solved, and that the murderer had been taken by one of the detective police.

“But the papers gave no tidings of Joseph Wilmot; and I was surprised, at the end of a week’s time, to read the account of a detective’s skirmish on board a schooner some miles off Hull, which had resulted in the drowning of one Stephen Vallance, an old offender. The detective’s name was given as Henry Carter. Were there two Henry Carters in the small band of London detective police? or was it possible that my Henry Carter could have given up so profitable a prize as Joseph Wilmot in order to pursue unknown criminals upon the high seas? A week after I had read of this mysterious adventure, Mr. Carter made his appearance at Clapham, very grave of aspect and dejected of manner.

“‘It’s no use, sir,’ he said; ‘it’s humiliating to an officer of my standing in the force; but I’d better confess it freely. I’ve been sold, sir — sold by a young woman too, which makes it three times as mortifying, and a kind of insult to the male sex in general!’

“My heart gave a great throb.

“‘Do you mean that Joseph Wilmot has escaped? I asked.

“He has, sir; as clean as ever a man escaped yet. He hasn’t left this country, not to my belief, for I’ve been running up and down between the different outports like mad. But what of that? If he hasn’t left the country, and if he doesn’t mean to leave the country, so much the better for him, and so much the worse for those that want to catch him. It’s trying to leave England that brings most of ’em to grief, and Joseph Wilmot’s an old enough hand to know that. I’ll wager he’s living as quiet and respectable as any gentleman ever lived yet.’

“Mr. Carter went on to tell me the whole story of his disappointments and mortifications. I could understand all now: the moonlit figure in the Winchester street, the dusky shadow beneath the dripping branches in the grove. I could understand all now: my poor girl — my poor, brave girl.

“When I was alone, I rendered up my thanks to Heaven for the escape of Joseph Wilmot. I had done nothing to impede the course of justice, though I had known full well that the punishment of the evil-doer would crush the bravest and purest heart that ever beat in an innocent woman’s bosom. I had not dared to attempt any interposition between Joseph Wilmot and the punishment of his crime; but I was, nevertheless, most heartily thankful that Providence had suffered him to escape that hideous earthly doom which is supposed to be the wisest means of ridding society of a wretch.

“But for the wretch himself, surely long years of penitence must make a better expiation of his guilt than that one short agony — those few spasmodic throes, which render his death such a pleasant spectacle for a sight-seeing populace.

“I was glad, for the sake of the guilty and miserable creature himself, that Joseph Wilmot had escaped. I was still gladder for the sake of that dear hope which was more to me than any hope on earth — the hope of making Margaret my wife.

“‘There will be no hideous recollection interwoven with my image now,’ I thought; ‘she will forgive me when I tell her the history of my journey to Winchester. She will let me take her away from the companionship that must be loathsome to her, in spite of her devotion. She will let me bring her to a happy home as my cherished wife.’

“I thought this, and then in the next moment I feared that Margaret might cling persistently to the dreadful duty of her life — the duty of shielding and protecting a criminal; the duty of teaching a wicked man to repent of his sins.

“I inserted an advertisement in the Times newspaper, assuring Margaret of my unalterable love and devotion, which no circumstances could lessen, and imploring her to write to me. Of course the advertisement was so worded as to give no clue to the identity of the person to whom it was addressed. The acutest official in Scotland Yard could have gathered nothing from the lines ‘From C. to M.,’ so like other appeals made through the same medium.

“But my advertisement remained unanswered — no letter came from Margaret.

“The weeks and months crept slowly past. The story of the evidence of the clothes found at Winchester was made public, together with the history of Joseph Wilmot’s flight and escape. The business created a considerable sensation, and Lord Herriston himself went down to Winchester to witness the exhumation of the remains of the man who had been buried under the name of Joseph Wilmot.

“The dead man’s face was no longer recognizable. Only by induction was the identity of Henry Dunbar ever established: but the evidence of the identity was considered conclusive by all who were interested in the question. Still I doubt whether, in the fabric of circumstantial evidence against Joseph Wilmot, legal sophistry could not have discovered some loophole by which the murderer might have escaped the full penalty of his crime.

“The remains were removed from Winchester to Lisford Church, where Percival Dunbar was buried in a vault beneath the chancel. The murdered man’s coffin was placed beside that of his father, and a simple marble tablet recording the untimely death of Henry Dunbar, cruelly and treacherously assassinated in a grove near Winchester, was erected by order of Lady Jocelyn, who was abroad with her husband when the story of her father’s death was revealed to her.

“The weeks and months crept by. The revelation of Joseph Wilmot’s guilt left me free to return to my old position in the house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby. But I had no heart to go back to the old business now the hope that had made my commonplace city life so bright seemed for ever broken. I was surprised, however, into a confession of the truth by the good-natured junior partner, who lived near us on Clapham Common, and who dropped in sometimes as he went by my mother’s gate, to while away an idle half-hour in some political discussion.

“He insisted upon my returning to the office directly he heard the secret of my resignation. The business was now entirely his; for there had been no one to succeed Henry Dunbar, and Mr. John Lovell had sold the dead man’s interest on behalf of his client, Lady Jocelyn. I went back to my old post, but not to remain long in my old position; for a week after my return Mr. Balderby made me an offer which I considered as generous as it was flattering, and which I ultimately and somewhat reluctantly accepted.

“By means of this new and most liberal arrangement, which demanded from me a very moderate amount of capital, I became junior partner in the firm, which was now conducted under the names of Dunbar, Dunbar, Balderby, and Austin. The double Dunbar was still essential to us, though the last of the male Dunbars was dead and buried under the chancel of Lisford Church. The old name was the legitimate stamp of our dignity as one of the oldest Anglo–Indian banking firms in the city of London.

“My new life was smooth enough, and there was so much business to be got through, so much responsibility vested in my hands — for Mr. Balderby was getting fat and lazy, as regarded affairs in the City, though untiring in the production of more forced pine-apples and hothouse grapes than he could consume or give away — that I had not much leisure in which to think of the one sorrow of my life. A City man may break his heart for disappointed love, but he must do it out of business hours if he pretends to be an honourable man: for every sorrowful thought which wanders to the loved and lost is a separate treason against the ‘house’ he serves.

“Smoking my after-dinner cigar in the narrow pathways and miniature shrubberies of my mother’s garden, I could venture to think of my lost Margaret; and I did think of her, and pray for her with as fervent aspirations as ever rose from a man’s faithful heart. And in the dusky stillness of the evening, with the faint odour of dewy flowers round me, and distant stars shining dimly in that far-off opal sky; against which the branches of the elms looked so black and dense, I used to beguile myself — or it may be that the influence of the scene and hour beguiled me — into the thought that my separation from Margaret could be only a temporary one. We loved each other so truly! And after all, what under heaven is stronger than love? I thought of my poor girl in some lonely, melancholy place, hiding with her guilty father; in daily companionship with a miserable wretch, whose life must be made hideous to himself by the memory of his crime. I thought of the self-abnegation, the heroic devotion, which made Margaret strong enough to endure such an existence as this: and out of my belief in the justice of Heaven there grew up in my mind the faith in a happier life in store for my noble girl.

“My mother supported me in this faith. She knew all Margaret’s story now, and she sympathized with my love and admiration for Joseph Wilmot’s daughter. A woman’s heart must have been something less than womanly if it could have tailed to appreciate my darling’s devotion: and my mother was about the last of womankind to be wanting in tenderness and compassion for any one who had need of her pity and was worthy of her love.

“So we both cherished the thought of the absent girl in our minds, talking of her constantly on quiet evenings, when we sat opposite to each other in the snug lamp-lit drawing-room, unhindered by the presence of guests. We did not live by any means a secluded or gloomy life, for my mother was fond of pleasant society: and I was quite as true to Margaret while associating with agreeable people, and hearing cheerful voices buzzing round me, as I could have been in a hermitage whose stillness was only broken by the howling of the storm.

“It was in the dreariest part of the winter which followed Joseph Wilmot’s escape that an incident occurred which gave me a strangely-mingled feeling of pleasure and pain. I was sitting one evening in my mother’s breakfast-parlour — a little room situated close to the hall-door — when I heard the ringing of the bell at the garden-gate. It was nine o’clock at night, a bitter wintry night, in which I should least have expected any visitor. So I went on reading my paper, while my mother speculated about the matter.

“Three minutes after the bell had rung, our parlour-maid came into the room, and placed something on the table before me.

“‘A parcel, sir,’ she said, lingering a little; perhaps in the hope that, in my eager curiosity, I might immediately open the packet, and give her an opportunity of satisfying her own desire for information.

“I put aside my newspaper, and looked down at the object before me.

“Yes, it was a parcel — a small oblong box — about the size of those pasteboard receptacles which are usually associated with Seidlitz powders — an oblong box, neatly packed in white paper, secured with several seals, and addressed to Clement Austin, Esq., Willow Bank, Clapham.

“But the hand, the dear, well-known hand, which had addressed the packet — my blood thrilled through my veins as I recognized the familiar characters.

“‘Who brought this parcel?’ I asked, starting from my comfortable easy-chair, and going straight out into the hall.

“The astonished parlour-maid told me that the packet had been given her by a lady, ‘a lady who was dressed in black, or dark things,’ the girl said, ‘and whose face was quite hidden by a thick veil.’ After leaving the small packet, this lady got into a cab a few paces from our gate, the girl added, ‘and the cab had tore off as fast as it could tear!’

“I went out into the open yard, and looked despairingly London-wards. There was no vestige of any cab: of course there had been ample time for the cab in question to get far beyond reach of pursuit. I felt almost maddened with this disappointment and vexation. It was Margaret, Margaret herself most likely, who had come to my door; and I had lost the opportunity of seeing her.

“I stood staring blankly up and down the road for some time, and then went back to the parlour, where my mother, with pardonable weakness, had pounced upon the packet, and was examining it with eyes opened to their widest extent.

“‘It is Margaret’s hand!’ she exclaimed. ‘Oh, do open — do, please, open it directly. What on earth can it be?’

“I tore off the white paper covering, and revealed just such an object as I had expected to see — a box, a common-place pasteboard box, tied securely across and across with thin twine. I cut the twine and opened the box. At the top there was a layer of jewellers’ wool, and on that being removed, my mother gave a little shriek of surprise and admiration.

“The box contained a fortune — a fortune in the shape of unset diamonds, lying as close together as their nature would admit — unset diamonds, which glittered and flashed upon us in the lamplight.

“Inside the lid there was a folded paper, upon, which the following lines were written in the dear hand, the never-to-be-forgotten hand:

“‘EVER-DEAREST CLEMENT— The sad and miserable secret which led to our parting is a secret no longer. You know all, and you have no doubt forgiven, and perhaps in part forgotten, the wretched woman to whom your love was once so dear, and to whom the memory of your love will ever be a consolation and a happiness. If I dared to pray to you to think pitifully of that most unhappy man whose secret is now known to you, I would do so; but I cannot hope for so much mercy from men: I can only hope it from God, who in His supreme wisdom alone can fathom the mysteries of a repentant heart. I beg of you to deliver to Lady Jocelyn the diamonds I place in your hands. They belong of right to her; and I regret to say they only represent apart of the money withdrawn from the funds in the name of Henry Dunbar. Good-bye, dear and generous friend; this it the last you will ever hear of one whose name must sound odious to the ears of honest men. Pity me, and forget me; and may a happier woman be to you that which I can never be! M. W.’

“This was all. Nothing could be firmer than the tone of this letter, in spite of its pensive gentleness. My poor girl could not be brought to believe that I should hold it no disgrace to make her my wife, in spite of the hideous story connected with her name. In my vexation and disappointment, I appealed once more to the unfailing friend of parted or persecuted lovers, the Jupiter of Printing–House Square.

“‘Margaret,’ I wrote in the advertisement which adorned the second column of the Times Supplement on twenty consecutive occasions, ‘I hold you to your old promise, and consider the circumstances of our parting as in no manner a release from your old engagement. The greatest wrong you can inflict upon me will be inflicted by your desertion. C. A.”

“This advertisement was as useless as its predecessor. I looked in vain for any answer.

“I lost no time in fulfilling the commission intrusted to me I went down to Shorncliffe, and delivered the box of diamonds into the hands of John Lovell, the solicitor; for Lady Jocelyn was still on the Continent. He packed the box in paper, and made me seal it with my signet-ring, in the presence of one of his clerks, before he put it away in an iron safe near his desk.

“When this was done, and when the Times advertisement had been inserted for the twentieth time without eliciting any reply, I gave myself up to a kind of despair about Margaret. She had failed to see my advertisement, I thought; for she would scarcely have been so hard-hearted as to leave it unanswered. She had failed to see this advertisement, as well as the previous appeal made to her through the same medium, and she would no doubt fail to see any other. I had reason to know that she was, or had been, in England, for she would scarcely have intrusted the diamonds to strange hands; but it was only too likely that she had chosen the very eve of her own and her father’s departure for some distant country as the most fitting time at which to leave the valuable parcel with me.

“‘Her influence over her father must be complete,’ I thought, ‘or he would scarcely have consented to surrender such a treasure as the diamonds. He has most likely retained enough to pay the passage out to America for himself and Margaret; and my poor darling will wander with her wretched father into some remote corner of the United States, where she will be hidden from me for ever.’

“I remembered with unspeakable pain how wide the world was, and how easy it would be for the woman I loved to be for ever lost to me.

“I gave myself up to despair; it was not resignation, for my life was empty and desolate without Margaret; try as I might to carry my burden quietly, and put a brave face upon my sorrow. Up to the time of Margaret’s appearance on that bleak winter’s night, I had cherished the hope — or even more than hope — the belief that we should be reunited: but after that night the old faith in a happy future crumbled away, and the idea that Joseph Wilmot’s daughter had left England grew little by little into conviction.

“I should never see her again. I fully believed this now. There was never to be any more sunshine in my life: and there was nothing for me to do but to resign myself to the even tenor of an existence in which the quiet duties of a business career would leave little time for any idle grief or lamentation. My sorrow was a part of my life: but even those who knew me best failed to fathom the depth of that sorrow. To them I seemed only a grave business man, devoted to the dry details of a business life.

“Eighteen months had passed since the bleak winter’s night on which the box of diamonds had been intrusted to me; eighteen months, so slow and quiet in their course that I was beginning to feel myself an old man, older than many old men, inasmuch as I had outlived the wreck of the one bright hope which had made life dear to me. It was midsummer time, and the counting-house in St. Gundolph Lane, and the parlour in which — in virtue of my new position — I had now a right to work, seemed peculiarly hot and frowsy, dusty and obnoxious. My work being especially hard at this time knocked me up; and I was compelled, under pain of solemn threats from my mother’s pet medical attendant, to stay at home, and take two or three days’ rest. I submitted, very unwillingly; for however dusty and stifling the atmosphere in St. Gundolph Lane might be, it was better to be there, victorious over my sorrow, by means of man’s grandest ally in the battle with black care — to wit, hard work — than to be lying on the sofa in my mother’s pleasant drawing-room, listening to the cheery click of two knitting-needles, and thinking of my wasted life.

“I submitted, however, to take the three days’ holiday; and on the second day, after a couple of hours’ penance on the sofa, I got up, languid and tired still, but bent on some employment by which I might escape from the sad monotony of my own thoughts.

“‘I think I’ll go into the next room and put my papers to rights, mother,’ I said.

“My dear indulgent mother remonstrated: I was to rest and keep myself quiet, she said, and not to worry myself about papers and tiresome things of that kind, which appertained only to the office. But I had my own way, and went into the little room, where there were flowers blooming and caged birds singing in the open window.

“This room was a sort of snuggery, half library, half breakfast-parlour, and it was in this room my mother and I had been sitting on the night on which the diamonds had been brought to me.

“On one side of the fireplace stood my mother’s work-table, on the other the desk at which I wrote, whenever I wrote any letters at home — a ponderous old-fashioned office desk, with a row of drawers on each side, a deep well in the centre, and under that a large waste-paper basket, full of old envelopes and torn scraps of letters.

“I wheeled a comfortable chair up to the desk, and began my task. It was a very long one, and involved a great deal of folding, sorting, and arranging of documents, which perhaps were scarcely worth the trouble I took with them. At any rate, the work kept my fingers employed, though my mind still brooded over the old trouble.

“I sat for nearly three hours; for it was a very long time since I had had a day’s leisure, and the accumulation of letters, bills, and receipts was something very formidable. At last all was done, the letters and bills endorsed and tied into neat packets that would have done credit to a lawyer’s office; and I flung myself back in my chair with a sigh of relief.

“But I had not finished my work yet; for I drew out the waste-paper basket presently, and emptied its contents upon the floor, in order that I might make sure of there being no important paper thrown by chance amongst them, before I consigned them to be swept away by the housemaid.

“I tossed over the chaotic fragments, the soiled envelopes, the circulars of enterprising Clapham tradesmen, and all the other rubbish that had accumulated within the last two years. The dust floated up to my face and almost blinded me.

“Yes, there was something of consequence amongst the papers — something, at least, which I should have held it sacrilegious to consign to Molly, the housemaid — the wrapper of the box containing the diamonds; the paper wrapper, directed in the dear hand I loved, the hand of Margaret Wilmot.

“I must have left the wrapper on the table on the night when I received the box, and one of the servants had no doubt put it into the waste-paper basket. I picked up the sheet of paper and folded it neatly; it was a very small treasure for a lover to preserve, perhaps: but then I had so few relics of the woman who was to have been my wife.

“As I folded the paper, I looked, half in absence of mind, at the stamp in the corner. It was an old-fashioned sheet of Bath post, stamped with the name of the stationer who had sold it — Jakins, Kylmington. Kylmington; yes, I remembered there was a town in Hampshire — a kind of watering-place, I believed — called Kylmington! And the paper had been bought there — and if so, it was more than likely that Margaret had been there.

“Could it be so? Could it be really possible that in this sheet of paper I had found a clue which would help me to trace my lost love? Could it be so? The new hope sent a thrill of sudden life and energy through my veins. Ill — worn out, knocked up by over-work? Who could dare to say I was any thing of the kind? I was as strong as Hercules.

“I put the folded paper in the breast-pocket of my coat, and took down Bradshaw. Dear Bradshaw, what an interesting writer you seemed to me on that day! Yes, Kylmington was in Hampshire; three hours and a half from London, with due allowance for delays in changing carriages. There was a train would convey me from Waterloo to Kylmington that afternoon — a train that would leave Waterloo at half-past three.

“I looked at my watch. It was half-past two. I had only an hour for all my preparations and the drive to Waterloo. I went to the drawing-room, where my mother was still sitting at work near the open window. She started when she saw my face, for my new hope had given it a strange brightness.

“‘Why, Clem,’ she said, ‘you look as pleased as if you’d found some treasure among your papers.’

“‘I hope I have, mother. I hope and believe that I have found a clue that will enable me to trace Margaret.’

“‘You don’t mean it?’

“‘I’ve found the name of a town which I believe to be the place where she was staying before she brought those diamonds to me. I am going there to try and discover some tidings of her. I am going at once. Don’t look anxious, dear mother; the journey to Kylmington, and the hope that takes me there, will do me more good than all the drugs in Mr. Bainham’s surgery. Be my own dear indulgent mother, as you have always been, and pack me a couple of clean shirts in a portmanteau. I shall come back to-morrow night, I dare say, as I’ve only three days’ leave of absence from the office.’

“My mother, who had never in her life refused me anything, did not long oppose me to-day. A hansom cab rattled me off to the station; and at five minutes before the half-hour I was on the platform, with my ticket for Kylmington in my pocket.”

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