Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

How Henry Dunbar Waited Dinner.

The old verger was still pottering about the grey quadrangle, sunning himself in such glimpses of the glorious light as found their way into that shadowy place, when one of the two gentlemen who had spoken to him returned. He was smoking a cigar, and swinging his gold-headed cane lightly as he came along.

“You may as well show me the cathedral,” he said to the verger; “I shouldn’t like to leave Winchester without having seen it; that is to say without having seen it again. I was here forty years ago, when I was a boy; but I have been in India five-and-thirty years, and have seen nothing but Pagan temples.”

“And very beautiful them Pagan places be, sir, bain’t they?” the old man asked, as he unlocked a low door, leading into one of the side aisles of the cathedral.

“Oh yes, very magnificent, of course. But as I was not a soldier, and had no opportunity of handling any of the magnificence in the way of diamonds and so forth, I didn’t particularly care about them.”

They were in the shadowy aisle by this time, and Mr. Dunbar was looking about him with his hat in his hand.

“You didn’t go on to the Ferns, then, sir?” said the verger.

“No, I sent my servant on to inquire if the old lady is at home. If I find that she is, I shall sleep in Winchester to-night, and drive over to-morrow morning to see her. Her husband was a very old friend of mine. How far is it from here to the Ferns?”

“A matter of two mile, sir.”

Mr. Dunbar looked at his watch.

“Then my man ought to be back in an hour’s time,” he said; “I told him to come on to me here. I left him half-way between here and St. Cross.”

“Is that other gentleman your servant, sir?” asked the verger, with unmitigated surprise.

“Yes, that gentleman, as you call him, is, or rather was, my confidential servant. He is a clever fellow, and I make a companion of him. Now, if you please, we will see the chapels.”

Mr. Dunbar evidently desired to put a stop to the garrulous inclinations of the verger.

He walked through the aisle with a careless easy step, and with his head erect, looking about him as he went along: but presently, while the verger was busy unlocking the door of one of the chapels, Mr. Dunbar suddenly reeled like a drunken man, and then dropped heavily upon an oaken bench near the chapel-door.

The verger turned to look at him, and found him wiping the perspiration from his forehead with his perfumed silk handkerchief.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said, smiling at the man’s scared face; “my Indian habits have unfitted me for any exertion. The walk in the broiling afternoon sun has knocked me up: or perhaps the wine I drank at Southampton may have had something to do with it,” he added, with a laugh.

The verger ventured to laugh too: and the laughter of the two men echoed harshly through the solemn place.

For more than an hour Mr. Dunbar amused himself by inspecting the cathedral. He was eager to see everything, and to know the meaning of everything. He peered into every nook and corner, going from monument to monument with the patient talkative old verger at his heels; asking questions about every thing he saw; trying to decipher half-obliterated inscriptions upon long-forgotten tombs; sounding the praises of William of Wykeham; admiring the splendid shrines, the sanctified relics of the past, with the delight of a scholar and an antiquarian.

The old verger thought that he had never had so pleasant a task as that of exhibiting his beloved cathedral to this delightful gentleman, just returned from India, and ready to admire everything belonging to his native land.

The verger was still better pleased when Mr. Dunbar gave him half a sovereign as the reward for his afternoon’s trouble.

“Thank you, sir, and kindly, to be sure,” the old man cackled, gratefully. “It’s very seldom as I get gold for my trouble, sir. I’ve shown this cathedral to a dook, sir; but the dook didn’t treat me as liberal as this here, sir.”

Mr. Dunbar smiled.

“Perhaps not,” he said; “the duke mightn’t have been as rich a man as I am in spite of his dukedom.”

“No, to be sure, sir,” the old man answered, looking admiringly at the banker, and sighing plaintively. “It’s well to be rich, sir, it is indeed; and when one have twelve grand-children, and a bed-ridden wife, one finds it hard, sir; one do indeed.”

Perhaps the verger had faint hopes of another half sovereign from this very rich gentleman.

But Mr. Dunbar seated himself upon a bench near the low doorway by which he had entered the cathedral, and looked at his watch.

The verger looked at the watch too; it was a hundred-guinea chronometer, a masterpiece of Benson’s workmanship; and Mr. Dunbar’s arms were emblazoned upon the back. There was a locket attached to the massive gold chain, the locket which contained Laura Dunbar’s miniature.

“Seven o’clock,” exclaimed the banker; “my servant ought to be here by this time.”

“So he ought, sir,” said the verger, who was ready to agree to anything Mr. Dunbar might say; “if he had only to go to the Ferns, sir, he might have been back by this time easy.”

“I’ll smoke a cheroot while I wait for him,” the banker said, passing out into the quadrangle; “he’s sure to come to this door to look for me — I gave him particular orders to do so.”

Henry Dunbar finished his cheroot, and another, and the cathedral clock chimed the three-quarters after seven, but Joseph Wilmot had not come back from the Ferns. The verger waited upon his patron’s pleasure, and lingered in attendance upon him, though he would fain have gone home to his tea, which in the common course he would have taken at five o’clock.

“Really this is too bad,” cried the banker, as the clock chimed the three-quarters; “Wilmot knows that I dine at eight, and that I expect him to dine with me. I think I have a right to a little more consideration from him. I shall go back to the George. Perhaps you’ll be good enough to wait here, and tell him to follow me.”

Mr. Dunbar went away, still muttering, and the verger gave up all thoughts of his tea, and waited conscientiously. He waited till the cathedral clock struck nine, and the stars were bright in the dark blue heaven above him: but he waited in vain. Joseph Wilmot had not come back from the Ferns.

The banker returned to the George. A small round table was set in a pleasant room on the first floor; a bright array of glass and silver glittered under the light of five wax-candles in a silver candelabrum; and the waiter was beginning to be nervous about the fish.

“You may countermand the dinner,” Mr. Dunbar said, with evident vexation: “I shall not dine till Mr. Wilmot, who is my old confidential servant — my friend, I may say — returns.”

“Has he gone far, sir?”

“To the Ferns, about a mile beyond St. Cross. I shall wait dinner for him. Put a couple of candles on that writing-table, and bring me my desk.”

The waiter obeyed; he placed a pair of tall wax-candles upon the table; and then brought the desk, or rather despatch-box, which had cost forty pounds, and was provided with every possible convenience for a business man, and every elegant luxury that the most extravagant traveller could desire. It was like everything else about this man: it bore upon it the stamp of almost limitless wealth.

Mr. Dunbar took a bunch of keys from his pocket, and unlocked his despatch-box. He was some little time doing this, as he had a difficulty in finding the right key. He looked up and smiled at the waiter, who was still hovering about, anxious to be useful.

“I must have taken too much Moselle at luncheon to-day,” he said, laughing, “or, at least, my enemies might say so, if they were to see me puzzled to find the key of my own desk.”

He had opened the box by this time, and was examining one of the numerous packets of papers, which were arranged in very methodical order, carefully tied together, and neatly endorsed.

“I am to put off the dinner, then, sir?” asked the waiter.

“Certainly; I shall wait for my friend, however long he may be. I’m not particularly hungry, for I took a very substantial luncheon at Southampton. I’ll ring the bell if I change my mind.”

The waiter departed with a sigh; and Henry Dunbar was left alone with the contents of the open despatch-box spread out on the table before him under the light of the tall wax-candles.

For nearly two hours he sat in the same attitude, examining the papers one after the other, and re-sorting them.

Mr. Dunbar must have been possessed of the very spirit of order and precision; for, although the papers had been neatly arranged before, he re-sorted every one of them; tying up the packets afresh, reading letter after letter, and making pencil memoranda in his pocket-book as he did so.

He betrayed none of the impatience which is natural to a man who is kept waiting by another. He was so completely absorbed by his occupation, that he, perhaps, had forgotten all about the missing man: but at nine o’clock he closed and locked the despatch-box, jumped up from his seat and rang the bell.

“I am beginning to feel alarmed about my friend,” he said; “will you ask the landlord to come to me?”

Mr. Dunbar went to the window and looked out while the waiter was gone upon this errand. The High Street was very quiet, a lamp glimmered here and there, and the pavements were white in the moonlight. The footstep of a passer-by sounded in the quiet street almost as it might have sounded in the solemn cathedral aisle.

The landlord came to wait upon his guest.

“Can I be of any service to you, sir?” he asked, respectfully.

“You can be of very great service to me, if you can find my friend; I am really getting alarmed about him.”

Mr. Dunbar went on to say how he had parted with the missing man in the grove, on the way to St. Cross, with the understanding that Wilmot was to go on to the Ferns, and rejoin his old master in the cathedral. He explained who Joseph Wilmot was, and in what relation he stood towards him.

“I don’t suppose there is any real cause for anxiety,” the banker said, in conclusion; “Wilmot owned to me that he had not been leading a sober life of late years. He may have dropped into some roadside public-house and be sitting boozing amongst a lot of country fellows at this moment. It’s really too bad of him.”

The landlord shook his head.

“It is, indeed, sir; but I hope you won’t wait dinner any longer, sir?”

“No, no; you can send up the dinner. I’m afraid I shall scarcely do justice to your cook’s achievements, for I took a very substantial luncheon at Southampton.”

The landlord brought in the silver soup-tureen with his own hands, and uncorked a bottle of still hock, which Mr. Dunbar had selected from the wine-list. There was something in the banker’s manner that declared him to be a person of no small importance; and the proprietor of the George wished to do him honour.

Mr. Dunbar had spoken the truth as to his appetite for his dinner. He took a few spoonfuls of soup, he ate two or three mouthfuls of fish, and then pushed away his plate.

“It’s no use,” he said, rising suddenly, and walking to the window; “I am really uneasy about this fellow’s absence.”

He walked up and down the room two or three times, and then walked back to the open window. The August night was hot and still; the shadows of the queer old gabled roofs were sharply defined upon the moonlit pavement. The quaint cross, the low stone colonnade, the solemn towers of the cathedral, gave an ancient aspect to the quiet city.

The cathedral clock chimed the half-hour after nine while Mr. Dunbar stood at the open window looking out into the street.

“I shall sleep here to-night,” he said presently, without turning to look at the landlord, who was standing behind him. “I shall not leave Winchester without this fellow Wilmot. It is really too bad of him to treat me in this manner. It is really very much too bad of him, taking into consideration the position in which he stands towards me.”

The banker spoke with the offended tone of a proud and selfish man, who feels that he has been outraged by his inferior. The landlord of the George murmured a few stereotyped phrases, expressive of his sympathy with the wrongs of Henry Dunbar, and his entire reprobation of the missing man’s conduct.

“No, I shall not go to London to-night,” Mr. Dunbar said; “though my daughter, my only child, whom I have not seen for sixteen years, is waiting for me at my town house. I shall not leave Winchester without Joseph Wilmot.”

“I’m sure it’s very good of you, sir,” the landlord murmured; “it’s very kind of you to think so much of this — ahem — person.”

He had hesitated a little before the last word; for although Mr. Dunbar spoke of Joseph Wilmot as his inferior and dependant, the landlord of the George remembered that the missing man had looked quite as much a gentleman as his companion.

The landlord still lingered in attendance upon Mr. Dunbar. The dishes upon the table were still hidden under the glistening silver covers.

Surely such an unsatisfactory dinner had never before been served at the George Hotel.

“I am getting seriously uncomfortable about this man,” Mr. Dunbar exclaimed at last. “Can you send a messenger to the Ferns, to ask if he has been seen there?”

“Certainly, sir. One of the lads in the stable shall get a horse ready, and ride over there directly. Will you write a note to Mrs. Marston, sir?”

“A note? No. Mrs. Marston is a stranger to me. My old friend Michael Marston did not marry until after I left England. A message will do just as well. The lad has only to ask if any messenger from Mr. Dunbar has called at the Ferns; and if so, at what time he was there, and at what hour he left. That’s all I want to know. Which way will the boy go; through the meadows, or by the high road?”

“By the high road, sir; there’s only a footpath across the meadows. The shortest way to the Ferns is the pathway through the grove between here and St. Cross; but you can only walk that way, for there’s gates and stiles, and such like.”

“Yes, I know; it was there I parted from my servant — from this man Wilmot.”

“It’s a pretty spot, sir, but very lonely at night; lonely enough in the day, for the matter of that.”

“Yes, it seems so. Send your messenger off at once, there’s a good fellow. Joseph Wilmot may be sitting drinking in the servants’ hall at the Ferns.”

The landlord went away to do his guest’s bidding.

Mr. Dunbar flung himself into a low easy-chair, and took up a newspaper. But he did not read a line upon the page before him. He was in that unsettled frame of mind which is common to the least nervous persons when they are kept waiting, kept in suspense by some unaccountable event. The absence of Joseph Wilmot became every moment more unaccountable: and his old master made no attempt to conceal his uneasiness. The newspaper dropped out of his hand: and he sat with his face turned towards the door: listening.

He sat thus for more than an hour, and at the end of that time the landlord came to him.

“Well?” exclaimed Henry Dunbar.

“The lad has come back, sir. No messenger from you or any one else has called at the Ferns this afternoon.”

Mr. Dunbar started suddenly to his feet, and stared at the landlord. He paused for a few moments, watching the man’s face with a thoughtful countenance. Then he said, slowly and deliberately —

“I am afraid that something has happened.”

The landlord fidgeted with his ponderous watch-chain, and shrugged his shoulders with a dubious gesture.

“Well, it is strange, sir, to say the least of it. But you don’t think that ——”

He looked at Henry Dunbar as if scarcely knowing how to finish his sentence.

“I don’t know what to think,” exclaimed the banker. “Remember, I am almost as much a stranger in this country as if I had never set foot on British soil before to-day. This man may have played me a trick, and gone off for some purpose of his own, though I don’t know what purpose. He could have best served his own interests by staying with me. On the other hand, something may have happened to him. And yet what can have happened to him?”

The landlord suggested that the missing man might have fallen down in a fit, or might have loitered somewhere or other until after dark, and then lost his way, and wandered into a mill-stream. There was many a deep bit of water between Winchester Cathedral and the Ferns, the landlord said.

“Let a search be made at daybreak to-morrow morning,” exclaimed Mr. Dunbar. “I don’t care what it costs me, but I am determined this business shall be cleared up before I leave Winchester. Let every inch of ground between this and the Ferns be searched at daybreak to-morrow morning; let ——”

He did not finish the sentence, for there was a sudden clamour of voices, and trampling, and hubbub in the hall below. The landlord opened the door, and went out upon the broad landing-place, followed by Mr. Dunbar.

The hall below was crowded by the servants of the place, and by eager strangers who had pressed in from outside; and the two men standing at the top of the stairs heard a hoarse murmur; which seemed all in one voice, though it was in reality a blending of many voices; and which grew louder and louder, until it swelled into the awful word “Murder!”

Henry Dunbar heard it and understood it, for his handsome face grew of a bluish white, like snow in the moonlight, and he leaned his hand upon the oaken balustrade.

The landlord passed his guest, and ran down the stairs. It was no time for ceremony.

He came back again in less than five minutes, looking almost as pale as Mr. Dunbar.

“I’m afraid your friend — your servant — is found, sir,” he said.

“You don’t mean that he is ——”

“I’m afraid it is so, sir. It seems that two Irish reapers, coming from Farmer Matfield’s, five mile beyond St. Cross, stumbled against a man lying in a little streamlet under the trees ——”

“Under the trees! Where?”

“In the very place where you parted from this Mr. Wilmot, sir.”

“Good God! Well?”

“The man was dead, sir; quite dead. They carried him to the Foresters’ Arms, sir, as that was the nearest place to where they found him; and there’s been a doctor sent for, and a deal of fuss: but the doctor — Mr. Cricklewood, a very respectable gentleman, sir — says that the man had been lying in the water hours and hours, and that the murder had been done hours and hours ago.”

“The murder!” cried Henry Dunbar; “but he may not have been murdered! His death may have been accidental. He wandered into the water, perhaps.”

“Oh, no, sir; it’s not that. He wasn’t drowned; for the water where he was found wasn’t three foot deep. He had been strangled, sir; strangled with a running-noose of rope; strangled from behind, sir, for the slip-knot was pulled tight at the back of his neck. Mr. Cricklewood the surgeon’s in the hall below, if you’d like to see him; and he knows all about it. It seems, from what the two Irishmen say, that the body was dragged into the water by the rope. There was the track of where it had been dragged along the grass. I’m sure, sir, I’m very sorry such an awful thing should have happened to the — the person who attended you here.”

Mr. Dunbar had need of sympathy. His white face was turned towards the landlord’s, fixed in a blank stare. He had not seemed to listen to the man’s account of the crime that had been committed, and yet he had evidently heard everything; for he said presently, in slow, thick accents —

“Strangled — and the body dragged down — to the water Who — who could — have done it?”

“Ah! that’s the question, indeed, sir. It must all have been done for the sake of a bit of money, I suppose; for there was an empty pocket-book found by the water’s edge. There are always tramps and such-like about the country at this time of year; and some of them will commit almost any crime for the sake of a few pounds. I remember — ah, as long ago as forty years and more — when I was a bit of a boy in pinafores, there was a gentleman murdered on the Twyford road, and they did say ——”

But Mr. Dunbar was in no humour to listen to the landlord’s reminiscences. He interrupted the man’s story with a long-drawn sigh —

“Is there anything I can do? What am I to do?” he said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Nothing, sir, until to-morrow. The inquest will be held to-morrow, I suppose.”

“Yes — yes, to be sure. There’ll be an inquest.”

“An inquest! Oh, yes, sir; of course there will,” answered the landlord.

“Remember that I am a stranger to English habits. I don’t know what steps ought to be taken in such a case as this. Should there not be some attempt made to find — the — the murderer?”

“Yes, sir; I’ve no doubt the constables are on the look-out already. There’ll be every effort made, depend upon it; but I’m really afraid this is a case in which the murderer will escape from justice.”

“Why so?”

“Because, you see, sir, the man has had plenty of time to get off; and unless he’s a fool, he must be far away from here by this time, and then what is there to trace him by — that’s to say, unless you could identify the money, or watch and chain, or what not, which the murdered man had about him?”

Mr. Dunbar shook his head.

“I don’t even know whether he wore a watch and chain,” he said; “I only met him this morning. I have no idea what money he may have had about him.”

“Would you like to see the doctor, sir — Mr. Cricklewood?”

“Yes — no — you have told me all that there is to tell, I suppose?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I shall go to bed. I’m thoroughly upset by all this. Stay. Is it a settled thing that this man who has been found murdered is the person who accompanied me to this house to-day?”

“Oh, yes, sir; there’s no doubt about that. One of our people went down to the Foresters’ Arms, out of curiosity, as you may say, and he recognized the murdered man directly as the very gentleman that came into this house with you, sir, at four o’clock to-day.”

Mr. Dunbar retired to the apartment that had been prepared for him. It was a spacious and handsome chamber, the best room in the hotel; and one of the waiters attended upon the rich man.

“As you’ve been accustomed to have your valet about you, you’ll find it awkward, sir,” the landlord had said; “so I’ll send Henry to wait upon you.”

This Henry, who was a smart, active young fellow, unpacked Mr. Dunbar’s portmanteau, unlocked his dressing-case, and spread the gold-topped crystal bottles and shaving apparatus upon the dressing-table.

Mr. Dunbar sat in an easy-chair before the looking-glass, staring thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face, pale in the light of the tall wax-candles.

He got up early the next morning, and before breakfasting he despatched a telegraphic message to the banking-house in St. Gundolph Lane.

It was from Henry Maddison Dunbar to William Balderby, and it consisted of these words:—

Pray come to me directly, at the George, Winchester. A very awful event has happened; and I am in great trouble and perplexity. Bring a lawyer with you. Let my daughter know that I shall not come to London for some days.”

All this time the body of the murdered man lay on a long table in a darkened chamber at the Foresters’ Arms.

The rigid outline of the corpse was plainly visible under the linen sheet that shrouded it; but the door of the dread chamber was locked, and no one was to enter until the coming of the coroner.

Meanwhile the Foresters’ Arms did more business than had been done there in the same space of time within the memory of man. People went in and out, in and out, all through the long morning; little groups clustered together in the bar, discoursing in solemn under-tones; and other groups straggled on the seemed as if every living creature in Winchester was talking of the murder that had been done in the grove near St. Cross.

Henry Dunbar sat in his own room, waiting for an answer to the telegraphic message.

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