Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 47

The Dawn.

“The clock of Kylmington church, which was as much behind any other public timekeeper I had ever encountered as the town of Kylmington was behind any other town I had ever explored, struck eight as I opened the little wooden gate of the churchyard, and went into the shade of an avenue of stunted sycamores, which was supposed to be the chief glory of Kylmington.

“It was twenty minutes past eight by London time, and the summer sun had gone down, leaving all the low western sky bathed in vivid yellow light, which deepened into crimson as I watched it.

“I had been more than an hour and a half in Kylmington. I had taken some slight refreshment at the principal hotel — a queer, old-fashioned place, with a ruinous, weedy appearance pervading it, and the impress of incurable melancholy stamped on the face of every scrap of rickety furniture and lopsided window-blind. I had taken some slight refreshment — to this hour I don’t know what it was I ate upon that balmy summer evening, so entirely was my mind absorbed by that bright hope, which was growing brighter and brighter every moment. I had been to the stationer’s shop, which still bore above its window the faded letters of the name ‘Jakins,’ though the last of the Jakinses had long left Kylmington. I had been to this shop, and from a good-natured but pensive matron I had heard tidings that made my bright hope a still brighter certainty.

“I began business by asking if there was any lady in Kylmington who gave lessons in music and singing.

“‘Yes,’ Mr. Jakins’s successor told me, ‘there were two music-mistresses in the town — one was Madame Carinda, who taught at Grove House, the fashionable ladies’ school; the other was Miss Wilson, whose terms were lower than Madame Carinda’s — though Madame wasn’t a bit a foreigner except by name — and who was much respected in the town. Likewise her papa, which had been quite the gentleman, attending church twice every Sunday as regular as the day came round, and being quite a picture of respectability, with his venerable pious-looking grey hair.’

“I gave a little start as I heard this.

“‘Miss Wilson lived with her papa, did she?’ I asked.

“‘Yes,’ the woman told me; ‘Miss Wilson had lived with her papa till the poor old gentleman’s death.’

“‘Oh, he was dead, then?’

“‘Yes, Mr. Wilson had died in the previous December, of a kind of decline, fading away like, almost unbeknown; and being, oh, so faithfully nursed and cared for by that blessed daughter of his. And people did say that he had once been very wealthy, and had lost his money in some speculation; and the loss of it had preyed upon his mind, and he had fallen into a settled melancholy like, and was never seen to smile.’

“The woman opened a drawer as she talked to me, and, after turning over some papers, took out a card — a card with embossed edges, fly-spotted, and dusty, and with a little faded blue ribbon attached to it — a card on which there was written, in the hand I knew so well, an announcement that Miss Wilson, of the Hermitage, would give instruction in music and singing for a guinea a quarter.

“I had been about to ask for a description of the young music-mistress, but I had no need to do so now.

“‘Miss Wilson is the young lady I wish to see,’ I said. ‘Will you direct me to the Hermitage? I will call there early to-morrow morning.’

“The proprietress of Jakins’s, who was, I dare say, something of a matchmaker, after the manner of all good-natured matrons, smiled significantly.

“‘I know where you could see Miss Wilson, nearer than the Hermitage,’ she said, ‘and sooner than to-morrow morning. She works very hard all day — poor, dear, delicate-looking young thing; but every evening when it’s tolerably fine, she goes to the churchyard. It’s the only walk I’ve ever seen her take since her father’s death. She goes past my window regular every night, just about when I’m shutting up, and from my door I can see her open the gate and go into the churchyard. It’s a doleful walk to take alone at that time of the evening, to be sure, though some folks think it’s the pleasantest walk in all Kylmington.’

“It was in consequence of this conversation that I found myself under the shadow of the trees while the Kylmington clock was striking eight.

“The churchyard was a square flat, surrounded on all sides by a low stone wall, beyond which the fields sloped down to the mouth of a river that widened into the sea at a little distance from Kylmington, but which hereabouts had a very dingy melancholy look when the tide was out, as it was to-night.

“There was no living creature except myself in the churchyard as I came out of the shadow of the trees on to the flat, where the grass grew long among the unpretending headstones.

“I looked at all the newest stones till I came at last to one standing in the obscurest corner of the churchyard, almost hidden by the low wall.

“There was a very brief inscription on this modest headstone; but it was enough to tell me whose ashes lay buried under the spot on which I stood.

“To the Memory of
J. W.
Who died December 19, 1853.
‘Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner!‘

“I was still looking at this brief memorial, when I heard a woman’s dress rustling upon the long rank grass, and turning suddenly, saw my darling coming towards me, very pale, very pensive, but with a kind of seraphic resignation upon her face which made her seem to me more beautiful than I had ever seen her before.

“She started at seeing me, but did not faint. She only grew paler than she had been before, and pressed her two hands on her breast, as if to still the sudden tumult of her heart.

“I made her take my arm and lean upon it, and we walked up and down the narrow path talking until the last low line of light faded out of the dusky sky.

“All that I could say to her was scarcely enough to shake her resolution — to uproot her conviction that her father’s guilt was an insurmountable barrier between us. But when I told her of my broken life — when, in the earnestness of my pleading, she perceived the proof of a constancy that no time could shake, I could see that she wavered.

“‘I only want you to be happy, Clement,’ she said. ‘My former life has been such an unhappy one, that I tremble at the thought of linking it to yours. The shame, Clement — think of that. How will you answer people when they ask you the name of your wife?’

“‘I will tell them that she has no name, but that which she has honoured by accepting from me. I will tell them that she is the noblest and dearest of women, and that her history is a story of unparalleled virtue and devotion!’

“I sent a telegraphic message to my mother early the next morning; and in the afternoon the dear soul arrived at Kylmington to embrace her future daughter. We sat late in the little parlour of the Hermitage; a dreary cottage, looking out on the flat shore, half sand, half mud, and the low water lying in greenish pools. Margaret told us of her father’s penitence.

“‘No repentance was ever more sincere, Clement,’ she said, for she seemed afraid we should doubt the possibility of penitence in such a criminal as Joseph Wilmot. ‘My poor father — my poor wronged, unhappy father! — yes, wronged, Clement, you must not forget that; you must never forget that in the first instance he was wronged, and deeply wronged, by the man who was murdered. When first we came here, his mind brooded upon that, and he seemed to look upon what he had done as an ignorant savage would look upon the vengeance which his heathenish creed had taught him to consider a justifiable act of retaliation. Little by little I won my poor father away from such thoughts as these: till by-and-by he grew to think of Henry Dunbar as he was when they were young men together, linked by a kind of friendship, before the forging of the bills, and all the trouble that followed. He thought of his old master as he knew him first, and his heart was softened towards the dead man’s memory; and from that time his penitence began. He was sorry for what he had done. No words can describe that sorrow, Clement: and may you never have to watch, as I have watched, the anguish of a guilty soul! Heaven is very merciful. If my father had failed to escape, and had been hung, he would have died hardened and impenitent. God had compassion on him, and gave him time to repent.’”

(The end of the story.)

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