Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

After Five-And-Thirty Years.

Joseph Wilmot waited patiently enough, in all outward seeming, for the arrival of the steamer. Everybody was respectful to him now, paying deference to his altered guise, and he went where he liked without question or hindrance.

There were several people waiting for passengers who were expected to arrive by the Electra, and the coming of the steamer was hailed by a feeble cheer from the bystanders grouped about the landing-place.

The passengers began to come on shore at about eleven o’clock. There were a good many children and English nursemaids; three or four military-looking men, dressed in loose garments of grey and nankeen colour; several ladies, all more or less sunburnt; a couple of ayahs; three men-servants; and an aristocratic-looking man of about fifty-five, dressed, unlike the rest of the travellers, in fine broadcloth, with a black-satin cravat, a gold pin, a carefully brushed hat, and varnished boots.

His clothes, in fact, were very much of the same fashion as those which Joseph Wilmot had chosen for himself.

This man was Henry Dunbar; tall and broad-chested, with grey hair and moustache, and with a haughty smile upon his handsome face.

Joseph Wilmot stood among the little crowd, motionless as a statue, watching his old betrayer.

“Not much changed,” he murmured; “very little changed! Proud, and selfish, and cruel then — proud, and selfish, and cruel now. He has grown older, and stouter, and greyer; but he is the same man he was five-and-thirty years ago. I can see it all in his face.”

He advanced as Henry Dunbar landed, and approached the Anglo–Indian.

“Mr. Dunbar, I believe?” he said, removing his hat.

“Yes, I am Mr. Dunbar.”

“I have been sent from the office in St. Gundolph Lane, sir,” returned Joseph; “I have a letter for you from Mr. Balderby. I came to meet you, and to be of service to you.”

Henry Dunbar looked at him doubtfully.

“You are not one of the clerks in St. Gundolph Lane?” he said.

“No, Mr. Dunbar.”

“I thought as much; you don’t look like a clerk; but who are you, then?”

“I will tell you presently, sir. I am a substitute for another person, who was taken ill upon the road. But there is no time to speak of that now. I came to be of use to you. Shall I see after your luggage?”

“Yes, I shall be glad if you will do so.”

“You have a servant with you, Mr. Dunbar?”

“No, my valet was taken ill at Malta, and I left him behind.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Joseph Wilmot; “that was a misfortune.”

A sudden flash of light sparkled in his eyes as he spoke.

“Yes, it was devilish provoking. You’ll find the luggage packed, and directed to Portland Place; be so good as to see that it is sent off immediately by the speediest route. There is a portmanteau in my cabin, and my travelling-desk. I require those with me. All the rest can go on.”

“I will see to it, sir.”

“Thank you; you are very good. At what hotel are you staying?”

“I have not been to any hotel yet. I only arrived this morning. The Electra was not expected until to-morrow.”

“I will go on to the Dolphin, then,” returned Mr. Dunbar; “and I shall be glad if you will follow me directly you have attended to the luggage. I want to get to London to-night, if possible.”

Henry Dunbar walked away, holding his head high in the air, and swinging his cane as he went. Ha was one of those men who most confidently believe in their own merits. The sin he had committed in his youth sat very lightly upon his conscience. If he thought about that old story at all, it was only to remember that he had been very badly used by his father and his Uncle Hugh.

And the poor wretch who had helped him — the clever, bright-faced, high-spirited lad who had acted as his tool and accomplice — was as completely forgotten as if he had never existed.

Mr. Dunbar was ushered into a great sunny sitting-room at the Dolphin; a vast desert of Brussels carpet, with little islands of chairs and tables scattered here and there. He ordered a bottle of soda-water, sank into an easy-chair, and took up the Times newspaper.

But presently he threw it down impatiently, and took his watch from his waistcoat-pocket.

Attached to the watch there was a locket of chased yellow gold. Henry Dunbar opened this locket, which contained the miniature of a beautiful girl, with fair rippling hair as bright as burnished gold, and limpid blue eyes.

“My poor little Laura!” he murmured; “I wonder whether she will be glad to see me. She was a mere baby when she left India. It isn’t likely she’ll remember me. But I hope she may be glad of my coming back — I hope she may be glad.”

He put the locket again in its place, and took a letter from his breast-pocket. It was directed in a woman’s hand, and the envelope was surrounded by a deep border of black.

“If there’s any faith to be put in this, she will be glad to have me home at last,” Henry Dunbar said, as he drew the letter out of its envelope.

He read one passage softly to himself.

“If anything can console me for the loss of my dear grandfather, it is the thought that you will come back at last, and that I shall see you once more. You can never know, dearest father, what a bitter sorrow this cruel separation has been to me. It has seemed so hard that we who are so rich should have been parted as we have been, while poor children have their fathers with them. Money seems such a small thing when it cannot bring us the presence of those we love. And I do love you, dear papa, truly and devotedly, though I cannot even remember your face, and have not so much as a picture of you to recall you to my recollection.”

The letter was a very long one, and Henry Dunbar was still reading it when Joseph Wilmot came into the room.

The Anglo–Indian crushed the letter into his pocket, and looked up languidly.

“Have you seen to all that?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. Dunbar; the luggage has been sent off.”

Joseph Wilmot had not yet removed his hat. He had rather an undecided manner, and walked once or twice up and down the room, stopping now and then, and then walking on again, in an unsettled way; like a man who has some purpose in his mind, yet is oppressed by a feverish irresolution as to the performance of that purpose.

But Mr. Dunbar took no notice of this. He sat with the newspaper in his hand, and did not deign to lift his eyes to his companion, after that first brief question. He was accustomed to be waited upon, and to look upon the people who served him as beings of an inferior class: and he had no idea of troubling himself about this gentlemanly-looking clerk from St. Gundolph Lane.

Joseph Wilmot stopped suddenly upon the other side of the table, near which Mr. Dunbar sat, and, laying his hand upon it, said quietly —

“You asked me just now who I was, Mr. Dunbar.”

The banker looked up at him with haughty indifference.

“Did I? Oh, yea, I remember; and you told me you came from the office. That is quite enough.”

“Pardon me, Mr. Dunbar, it is not quite enough. You are mistaken: I did not say I came from the office in St. Gundolph Lane. I told you, on the contrary, that I came here as a substitute for another person, who was ordered to meet you.”

“Indeed! That is pretty much the same thing. You seem a very agreeable fellow, and will, no doubt, be quite as useful as the original person could have been. It was very civil of Mr. Balderby to send some one to meet me — very civil indeed.”

The Anglo–Indian’s head sank back upon the morocco cushion of the easy-chair, and he looked languidly at his companion, with half-closed eyes.

Joseph Wilmot removed his hat.

“I don’t think you’ve looked at me very closely, have you, Mr. Dunbar?” he said.

“Have I looked at you closely!” exclaimed the banker. “My good fellow, what do you mean?”

“Look me full in the face, Mr. Dunbar, and tell me if you see anything there that reminds you of the past.”

Henry Dunbar started.

He opened his eyes widely enough this time, and started at the handsome face before him. It was as handsome as his own, and almost as aristocratic-looking. For Nature has odd caprices now and then, and had made very little distinction between the banker, who was worth half a million, and the runaway convict, who was not worth sixpence.

“Have I met you before?” he said. “In India?”

“No, Mr. Dunbar, not in India. You know that as well as I do. Carry your mind farther back. Carry it back to the time before you went to India.”

“What then?”

“Do you remember losing a heap of money on the Derby, and being in so desperate a frame of mind that you took the holster-pistols down from their place above the chimney-piece in your barrack sitting-room, and threatened to blow your brains out? Do you remember, in your despair, appealing to a lad who served you, and who loved you, better perhaps than a brother would have loved you, though he was your inferior by birth and station, and the son of a poor, hard-working woman? Do you remember entreating this boy — who had a knack of counterfeiting other people’s signatures, but who had never used his talent for any guilty purpose until that hour, so help me Heaven! — to aid you in a scheme by which your creditors were to be kept quiet till you could get the money to pay them? Do you remember all this? Yes, I see you do — the answer is written on your face; and you remember me — Joseph Wilmot.”

He struck his hand upon his breast, and stood with his eyes fixed upon the other’s face. They had a strange expression in them, those eyes — a sort of hungry, eager look, as if the very sight of his old foe was a kind of food that went some way towards satisfying this man’s vengeful fury.

“I do remember you,” Henry Dunbar said slowly. He had turned deadly pale, and cold drops of sweat had broken out upon his forehead: he wiped them away with his perfumed cambric handkerchief as he spoke.

“You do remember me?” the other man repeated, with no change in the expression of his face.

“I do; and, believe me, I am heartily sorry for the past. I dare say you fancy I acted cruelly towards you on that wretched day in St. Gundolph Lane; but I really could scarcely act otherwise. I was so harassed and tormented by my own position, that I could not be expected to get myself deeper into the mire by interceding for you. However, now that I am my own master, I can make it up to you. Rely upon it, my good fellow, I’ll atone for the past.”

“Atone for the past!” cried Joseph Wilmot. “Can you make me an honest man, or a respectable member of society? Can you remove the stamp of the felon from me, and win for me the position I might have held in this hard world but for you? Can you give me back the five-and-thirty blighted years of my life, and take the blight from them? Can you heal my mother’s broken heart — broken, long ago by my disgrace? Can you give me back the dead? Or can you give me pleasant memories, or peaceful thoughts, or the hope of God’s forgiveness? No, no; you can give me none of these.”

Mr. Henry Dunbar was essentially a man of the world. He was not a passionate man. He was a gentlemanly creature, very seldom demonstrative in his manner, and he wished to take life pleasantly.

He was utterly selfish and heartless. But as he was very rich, people readily overlooked such small failings as selfishness and want of heart, and were loud in praise of the graces of his manner and the elegance of his person.

“My dear Wilmot,” he said, in no wise startled by the vehemence of his companion, “all that is so much sentimental talk. Of course I can’t give you back the past. The past was your own, and you might have fashioned it as you pleased. If you went wrong, you have no right to throw the blame of your wrong-doing upon me. Pray don’t talk about broken hearts, and blighted lives, and all that sort of thing. I’m a man of the world, and I can appreciate the exact value of that kind of twaddle. I am sorry for the scrape I got you into, and am ready to do anything reasonable to atone for that old business. I can’t give you back the past; but I can give you that for which most men are ready to barter past, present, and future — I can give you money.”

“How much?” asked Joseph Wilmot, with a half-suppressed fierceness in his manner.

“Humph!” murmured the Anglo–Indian, pulling his grey moustaches with a reflective air. “Let me see; what would satisfy you, now, my good fellow?”

“I leave that for you to decide.”

“Very well, then. I suppose you’d be quite contented if I were to buy you a small annuity, that would keep you straight with the world for the rest of your life. Say, fifty pounds a year.”

“Fifty pounds a year,” Joseph Wilmot repeated. He had quite conquered that fierceness of expression by this time, and spoke very quietly. “Fifty pounds a year — a pound a week.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll accept your offer, Mr. Dunbar. A pound a week. That will enable me to live — to live as labouring men live, in some hovel or other; and will insure me bread every day. I have a daughter, a very beautiful girl, about the same age as your daughter: and, of course, she’ll share my income with me, and will have as much cause to bless your generosity as I shall have.”

“It’s a bargain, then?” asked the East Indian, languidly.

“Oh, yes, it’s a bargain. You have estates in Warwickshire and Yorkshire, a house in Portland Place, and half a million of money; but, of course, all those things are necessary to you. I shall have — thanks to your generosity, and as an atonement for all the shame and misery, the want, and peril, and disgrace, which I have suffered for five-and-thirty years — a pound a week secured to me for the rest of my life. A thousand thanks, Mr. Dunbar. You are your own self still, I find; the same master I loved when I was a boy; and I accept your generous offer.”

He laughed as he finished speaking, loudly but not heartily — rather strangely, perhaps; but Mr. Dunbar did not trouble himself to notice any such insignificant fact as the merriment of his old valet.

“Now we have done with all these heroics,” he said, “perhaps you’ll be good enough to order luncheon for me.”

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