Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

The First Stage on the Journey Home.

Joseph Wilmot obeyed his old master, and ordered a very excellent luncheon, which was served in the best style of the Dolphin; and a sojourn at the Dolphin is almost a recompense for the pains and penalties of the voyage home from India. Mr. Dunbar, from the sublime height of his own grandeur, stooped to be very friendly with his old valet, and insisted upon Joseph’s sitting down with him at the well-spread table. But although the Anglo–Indian did ample justice to the luncheon, and washed down a spatchcock and a lobster-salad with several glasses of iced Moselle, the reprobate ate and drank very little, and sat for the best part of the time crumbling his bread in a strange absent manner, and watching his companion’s face. He only spoke when his old master addressed him; and then in a constrained, half-mechanical way, which might have excited the wonder of any one less supremely indifferent than Henry Dunbar to the feelings of his fellow-creatures.

The Anglo–Indian finished his luncheon, left the table, and walked to the window: but Joseph Wilmot still sat with a full glass before him. The sparkling bubbles had vanished from the clear amber wine; but although Moselle at half-a-guinea a bottle could scarcely have been a very common beverage to the ex-convict, he seemed to have no appreciation of the vintage. He sat with his head bent and his elbow on his knee; brooding, brooding, brooding.

Henry Dunbar amused himself for about ten minutes looking out at the busy street — the brightest, airiest, lightest, prettiest High Street in all England, perhaps; and then turned away from the window and looked at his old valet. He had been accustomed, five-and-thirty years ago, to be familiar with the man, and to make a confidant and companion of him, and he fell into the same manner now, naturally; as if the five-and-thirty years had never been; as if Joseph Wilmot had never been wronged by him. He fell into the old way, and treated his companion with that haughty affability which a monarch may be supposed to exhibit towards his prime favourite.

“Drink your wine, Wilmot,” he exclaimed; “don’t sit meditating there, as if you were a great speculator brooding over the stagnation of the money-market. I want bright looks, man, to welcome me back to my native country. I’ve seen dark faces enough out yonder; and I want to see smiling and pleasanter faces here. You look as black as if you had committed a murder, or were plotting one.”

The Outcast smiled.

“I’ve so much reason to look cheerful, haven’t I?” he said, in the same tone he had used when he had declared his acceptance of the banker’s bounty. “I’ve such a pleasant life before me, and such agreeable recollections to look back upon. A man’s memory seems to me like a book of pictures that he must be continually looking at, whether he will or not: and if the pictures are horrible, if he shudders as he looks at them, if the sight of them is worse than the pain of death to him, he must look nevertheless. I read a story the other day — at least my girl was reading it to me; poor child! she tries to soften me with these things sometimes — and the man who wrote the story said it was well for the most miserable of us to pray, ‘Lord, keep my memory green!’ But what if the memory is a record of crime, Mr. Dunbar? Can we pray that those memories may be kept green? Wouldn’t it be better to pray that our brains and hearts may wither, leaving us no power to look back upon the past? If I could have forgotten the wrong you did me five-and-thirty years ago, I might have been a different man: but I couldn’t forget it. Every day and every hour I have remembered it. My memory is as fresh to-day as it was four-and-thirty years ago, when my wrongs were only a twelvemonth old.”

Joseph Wilmot had said all this almost as if he yielded to an uncontrollable impulse, and spoke because he must speak, rather than from the desire to upbraid Henry Dunbar. He had not looked at the Anglo–Indian; he had not changed his attitude; he had spoken with his head still bent, and his eyes fixed upon the ground.

Mr. Dunbar had gone back to the window, and had resumed his contemplation of the street; but he turned round with a gesture of angry impatience as Joseph Wilmot finished speaking.

“Now, listen to me, Wilmot,” he said. “If the firm in St. Gundolph Lane sent you down here to annoy and insult me directly I set foot upon British ground, they have chosen a very nice way of testifying their respect for their chief: and they have made a mistake which they shall repent having made sooner or later. If you came here upon your own account, with a view to terrify me, or to extort money from me, you have made a mistake. If you think to make a fool of me by any maudlin sentimentality, you make a still greater mistake. I give you fair warning. If you expect any advantage from me, you must make yourself agreeable to me. I am a rich man, and know how to recompense those who please me: but I will not be bored or tormented by any man alive: least of all by you. If you choose to make yourself useful, you can stay: if you don’t choose to do so, the sooner you leave this room the better for yourself, if you wish to escape the humiliation of being turned out by the waiter.”

At the end of this speech Joseph Wilmot looked up for the first time. He was very pale, and there were strange hard lines about his compressed lips, and a new light in his eyes.

“I am a poor weak fool,” he said, quietly; “very weak and very foolish, when I think there can be anything in that old story to touch your heart, Mr. Dunbar. I will not offend you again, believe me. I have not led a very sober life of late years: I’ve had a touch of delirium tremens, and my nerves are not as strong as they used to be: but I’ll not annoy you again. I’m quite ready to make myself useful in any way you may require.”

“Get me a time-table, then, and let’s see about the trains. I don’t want to stay in Southampton all day.”

Joseph Wilmot rang, and ordered the time-table; Henry Dunbar studied it.

“There is no express before ten o’clock at night,” he said; “and I don’t care about travelling by a slow train. What am I to do with myself in the interim?”

He was silent for a few moments, turning over the leaves of Bradshaw’s Guide, and thinking.

“How far is it from here to Winchester?” he asked presently.

“Ten miles, or thereabouts, I believe,” Joseph answered.

“Ten miles! Very well, then, Wilmot, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ve a friend in the neighbourhood of Winchester, an old college companion, a man who has a fine estate in Hampshire, and a house near St. Cross. If you’ll order a carriage and pair to be got ready immediately, we’ll drive over to Winchester. I’ll go and see my old friend Michael Marston; we’ll dine at the George, and go up to London by the express which leaves Winchester at a quarter past ten. Go and order the carriage, and lose no time about it, that’s a good fellow.”

Half an hour after this the two men left Southampton in an open carriage, with the banker’s portmanteau, dressing-case, and despatch-box, and Joseph Wilmot’s carpet-bag. It was three o’clock when the carriage drove away from the entrance of the Dolphin Hotel: it wanted five minutes to four when Mr. Dunbar and his companion entered the handsome hall of the George.

Throughout the drive the banker had been in very excellent spirits, smoking cheroots, and admiring the lovely English landscape, the spreading pastures, the glimpses of woodland, the hills beyond the grey cathedral city, purple in the distance.

He had talked a good deal, making himself very familiar with his humble friend. But he had not talked so much or so loudly as Joseph Wilmot. All gloomy memories seemed to have melted away from this man’s mind. His former moody silence had been succeeded by a manner that was almost unnaturally gay. A close observer would have detected that his laugh was a little forced, his loudest merriment wanting in geniality: but Henry Dunbar was not a close observer. People in Calcutta, who courted and admired the rich banker, had been wont to praise the aristocratic ease of his manner, which was not often disturbed by any vulgar demonstration of his own emotions, and very rarely ruffled by any sympathy with the joys, or pity for the sorrows, of his fellow-creatures.

His companion’s ready wit and knowledge of the world — the very worst part of the world, unhappily — amused the languid Anglo–Indian: and by the time the travellers reached Winchester, they were on excellent terms with each other. Joseph Wilmot was thoroughly at home with his patron; and as the two men were dressed in the same fashion, and had pretty much the same nonchalance of manner, it would have been very difficult for a stranger to have discovered which was the servant and which the master.

One of them ordered dinner for eight o’clock, the best dinner the house could provide. The luggage was taken up to a private room, and the two men walked away from the hotel arm-in-arm.

They walked under the shadow of a low stone colonnade, and then turned aside by the market-place, and made their way into the precincts of the cathedral. There are quaint old courtyards, and shadowy quadrangles hereabouts; there are pleasant gardens, where the flowers seem to grow brighter in the sanctified shade than other flowers that flaunt in the unhallowed sunshine. There are low old-fashioned houses, with Tudor windows and ponderous porches, grey gables crowned with yellow stone-moss, high garden-walls, queer nooks and corners, deep window-seats in painted oriels, great oaken beams supporting low dark ceilings, heavy clusters of chimneys half borne down by the weight of the ivy that clings about them; and over all, the shadow of the great cathedral broods, like a sheltering wing, preserving the cool quiet of these cosy sanctuaries.

Beyond this holy shelter fair pastures stretch away to the feet of the grassy hills: and a winding stream of water wanders in and out: now hiding in dim groves of spreading elms: now creeping from the darkness, with a murmuring voice and stealthy gliding motion, to change its very nature, and become the noisiest brook that ever babbled over sunlit pebbles on its way to the blue sea.

In one of the grey stone quadrangles close under the cathedral wall, the two men, still arm-in-arm, stopped to make an inquiry about Mr. Michael Marston, of the Ferns, St. Cross.

Alas! Ben Bolt, it is a fine thing to sail away to foreign shores and prosper there; but it is not so pleasant to come home and hear that Alice is dead and buried; that of all your old companions there is only one left to greet you; and that even the brook, which rippled through your boyish dreams, as you lay asleep amongst the rushes on its brink, has dried up for ever!

Mr. Michael Marston had been dead more than ten, years. His widow, an elderly lady, was still living at the Ferns.

This was the information which the two men obtained from a verger, whom they found prowling about the quadrangle, Very little was said. One of the men asked the necessary questions. But neither of them expressed either regret or surprise.

They walked away silently, still arm-in-arm, towards the shady groves and spreading pastures beyond the cathedral precincts.

The verger, who was elderly and slow, called after them in a feeble voice as they went away:

“Maybe you’d like to see the cathedral, gentlemen; it’s well worth seeing.”

But he received no answer. The two men were out of hearing, or did not care to reply to him.

“We’ll take a stroll towards St. Cross, and get an appetite for dinner,” Mr. Dunbar said, as he and his companion walked along a pathway, under the shadow of a moss-grown wall, across a patch of meadow-land, and away into the holy quiet of a grove.

A serene stillness reigned beneath the shelter of the spreading branches. The winding streamlet rippled along amidst wild flowers and trembling rushes; the ground beneath the feet of these two idle wanderers was a soft bed of moss and rarely-trodden grass.

It was a lonely place this grove; for it lay between the meadows and the high-road. Feeble old pensioners from St. Cross came here sometimes, but not often. Enthusiastic disciples of old Izaak Walton now and then invaded the holy quiet of the place: but not often. The loveliest spots on earth are those where man seldom comes.

This spot was most lovely because of its solitude. Only the gentle waving of the leaves, the long melodious note of a lonely bird, and the low whisper of the streamlet, broke the silence.

The two men went into the grove arm-in-arm. One of them was talking, the other listening, and smoking a cigar as he listened. They went into the long arcade beneath the over-arching trees, and the sombre shadows closed about them and hid them from the world.

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