The house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, East India bankers, was one of the richest firms in the city of London — so rich that it would be quite in vain to endeavour to describe the amount of its wealth. It was something fabulous, people said. The offices were situated in a dingy and narrow thoroughfare leading out of King William Street, and were certainly no great things to look at; but the cellars below their offices — wonderful cellars, that stretched far away underneath the church of St. Gundolph, and were only separated by party-walls from the vaults in which the dead lay buried — were popularly supposed to be filled with hogsheads of sovereigns, bars of bullion built up in stacks like so much firewood, and impregnable iron safes crammed to overflowing with bank bills and railway shares, government securities, family jewels, and a hundred other trifles of that kind, every one of which was worth a poor man’s fortune.
The firm of Dunbar had been established very soon after the English first grew powerful in India. It was one of the oldest firms in the City; and the names of Dunbar and Dunbar, painted upon the door-posts, and engraved upon shining brass plates on the mahogany doors, had never been expunged or altered: though time and death had done their work of change amongst the owners of that name.
The last heads of the firm had been two brothers, Hugh and Percival Dunbar; and Percival, the younger of these brothers, had lately died at eighty years of age, leaving his only son, Henry Dunbar, sole inheritor of his enormous wealth.
That wealth consisted of a splendid estate in Warwickshire; another estate, scarcely less splendid, in Yorkshire; a noble mansion in Portland Place; and three-fourths of the bank. The junior partner, Mr. Balderby, a good-tempered, middle-aged man, with a large family of daughters, and a handsome red-brick mansion on Clapham Common, had never possessed more than a fourth share in the business. The three other shares had been divided between the two brothers, and had lapsed entirely into the hands of Percival upon the death of Hugh.
On the evening of the 15th of August, 1850, three men sat together in one of the shady offices at the back of the banking-house in St. Gundolph Lane.
These three men were Mr. Balderby, a confidential cashier called Clement Austin, and an old clerk, a man of about sixty-five years of age, who had been a faithful servant of the firm ever since his boyhood.
This man’s name was Sampson Wilmot.
He was old, but he looked much older than he was. His hair was white, and hung in long thin locks upon the collar of his shabby bottle-green great coat. He wore a great coat, although it was the height of summer, and most people found the weather insupportably hot. His face was wizen and wrinkled, his faded blue eyes dim and weak-looking. He was feeble, and his hands were tremulous with a perpetual nervous motion. Already he had been stricken twice with paralysis, and he knew that whenever the third stroke came it must be fatal.
He was not very much afraid of death, however; for his life had been a joyless one, a monotonous existence of perpetual toil, unrelieved by any home joys or social pleasures. He was not a bad man, for he was honest, conscientious, industrious, and persevering.
He lived in a humble lodging, in a narrow court near the bank, and went twice every Sunday to the church of St. Gundolph.
When he died he hoped to be buried beneath the flagstones of that City church, and to lie cheek by jowl with the gold in the cellars of the bank.
The three men were assembled in this gloomy private room after office hours, on a sultry August evening, in order to consult together upon rather an important subject, namely, the reception of Henry Dunbar, the new head of the firm.
This Henry Dunbar had been absent from England for five-and-thirty years, and no living creature now employed in the bank, except Sampson Wilmot, had ever set eyes upon him.
He had sailed for Calcutta five-and-thirty years before, and had ever since been employed in the offices of the Indian branch of the bank; first as clerk, afterwards as chief and manager. He had been sent to India because of a great error which he had committed in his early youth.
He had been guilty of forgery. He, or rather an accomplice employed by him, had forged the acceptance of a young nobleman, a brother officer of Henry Dunbar’s, and had circulated forged bills of accommodation to the amount of three thousand pounds.
These bills were taken up and duly honoured by the heads of the firm. Percival Dunbar gladly paid three thousand pounds as the price of his son’s honour. That which would have been called a crime in a poorer man was only considered an error in the dashing young cornet of dragoons, who had lost money upon the turf, and was fain to forge his friend’s signature rather than become a defaulter.
His accomplice, the man who had actually manufactured the fictitious signatures, was the younger brother of Sampson Wilmot, who had been a few months prior to that time engaged as messenger in the banking-house — a young fellow of nineteen, little better than a lad; a reckless boy, easily influenced by the dashing soldier who had need of his services.
The bill-broker who discounted the bills speedily discovered their fraudulent nature; but he knew that the money was safe.
Lord Adolphus Vanlorme was a customer of the house of Dunbar and Dunbar; the bill-brokers knew that his acceptance was a forgery; but they knew also that the signature of the drawer, Henry Dunbar, was genuine.
Messrs. Dunbar and Dunbar would not care to see the heir of their house in a criminal dock.
There had been no hitch, therefore, no scandal, no prosecution. The bills were duly honoured; but the dashing young officer was compelled to sell his commission, and begin life afresh as a junior clerk in the Calcutta banking-house.
This was a terrible mortification to the high-spirited young man.
The three men assembled in the quiet room behind the bank on this oppressive August evening were talking together of that old story.
“I never saw Henry Dunbar,” Mr. Balderby said; “for, as you know, Wilmot, I didn’t come into the firm till ten years after he sailed for India; but I’ve heard the story hinted at amongst the clerks in the days when I was only a clerk myself.”
“I don’t suppose you ever heard the rights of it, sir,” Sampson Wilmot answered, fumbling nervously with an old horn snuff-box and a red cotton handkerchief, “and I doubt if any one knows the rights of that story except me, and I can remember it as well as if it all happened yesterday — ay, that I can — better than I remember many things that really did happen yesterday.”
“Let’s hear the story from you, then, Sampson,” Mr. Balderby said. “As Henry Dunbar is coming home in a few days, we may as well know the real truth. We shall better understand what sort of a man our new chief is.”
“To be sure, sir, to be sure,” returned the old clerk. “It’s five-and-thirty years ago — five-and-thirty years ago this month, since it all happened. If I hadn’t good cause to remember the date because of my own troubles, I should remember it for another reason, for it was the Waterloo year, and city people had been losing and making money like wildfire. It was in the year ‘15, sir, and our house had done wonders on ‘Change. Mr. Henry Dunbar was a very handsome young man in those days — very handsome, very aristocratic-looking, rather haughty in his manners to strangers, but affable and free-spoken to those who happened to take his fancy. He was very extravagant in all his ways; generous and open-handed with money; but passionate and self-willed. It’s scarcely strange he should have been so, for he was an only child; he had neither brother nor sister to interfere with him; and his uncle Hugh, who was then close upon fifty, was a confirmed bachelor — so Henry considered himself heir to an enormous fortune.”
“And he began his career by squandering every farthing he could get, I suppose?” said Mr. Balderby.
“He did, sir. His father was very liberal to him; but give him what he would, Mr. Percival Dunbar could never give his son enough to keep him free of gambling debts and losses on the turf. Mr. Henry’s regiment was quartered at Knightsbridge, and the young man was very often at this office, in and out, in and out, sometimes twice and three times a week; and I expect that every time he came, he came to get money, or to ask for it. It was in coming here he met my brother, who was a handsome lad — ay, as handsome and as gentlemanly a lad as the young cornet himself; for poor Joseph — that’s my brother, gentlemen — had been educated a bit above his station, being my mother’s favourite son, and fifteen years younger than me. Mr. Henry took a great deal of notice of Joseph, and used to talk to him while he was waiting about to see his father or his uncle. At last he asked the lad one day if he’d like to leave the bank, and go and live with him as a sort of confidential servant and amanuensis, to write his letters, and all that sort of thing. ‘I shan’t treat you altogether as a servant, you know, Joseph,’ he said, ‘but I shall make quite a companion of you, and you’ll go about with me wherever I go. You’ll find my quarters a great deal pleasanter than this musty old banking-house, I can tell you.’ Joseph accepted this offer, in spite of everything my poor mother and I could say to him. He went to live with the cornet in the January of the year in which the fabricated bills were presented at our counter.”
“And when were the bills presented?”
“Not till the following August, sir. It seems that Mr. Henry had lost five or six thousand pounds on the Derby. He got what he could out of his father towards paying his losses, but he could not get more than three thousand pounds; so then he went to Joseph in an awful state of mind, declaring that he should be able to get the money in a month or so from his father, and that if he could do anything just to preserve his credit for the time, and meet the claims of the vulgar City betting fellows who were pressing him, he should be able to make all square afterwards. Then, little by little, it came out that he wanted my brother, who had a wonderful knack of imitating any body’s handwriting, to forge the acceptance of Lord Vanlorme. ‘I shall get the bills back into my own hands before they fall due, Joe,’ he said; ‘it’s only a little dodge to keep matters sweet for the time being.’ Well, gentlemen, the poor foolish boy was very fond of his master, and he consented to do this wicked thing.”
“Do you believe this to be the first time your brother ever Committed forgery?”
“I do, Mr. Balderby. Remember he was only a lad, and I dare say he thought it a fine thing to oblige his generous-hearted young master. I’ve seen him many a time imitate the signature of this firm, and other signatures, upon a half-sheet of letter-paper, for the mere fun of the thing: but I don’t believe my brother Joseph ever did a dishonest action in his life until he forged those bills. He hadn’t need have done so, for he was only eighteen at the time.”
“Young enough, young enough!” murmured Mr. Balderby, compassionately.
“Ay, sir, very young to be ruined for life. That one error, that one wicked act, was his ruin; for though no steps were taken against him, he lost his character, and never held his head up in an honest situation again. He went from bad to worse, and three years after Mr. Henry sailed for India, my brother, Joseph Wilmot, was convicted, with two or three others, upon a charge of manufacturing forged Bank of England notes, and was transported for life.”
“Indeed!” exclaimed Mr. Balderby; “a sad story — a very sad story. I have heard something of it before, but never the whole truth. Your brother is dead, I suppose.”
“I have every reason to believe so, sir,” answered the old clerk, producing a red cotton handkerchief and wiping away a couple of tears that were slowly trickling down his poor faded cheeks. “For the first few years of his time, he wrote now and then, complaining bitterly of his fate; but for five-and-twenty years I’ve never had a line from him. I can’t doubt that he’s dead. Poor Joseph! — poor boy! — poor boy! The misery of all this killed my mother. Mr. Henry Dunbar committed a great sin when he tempted that lad to wrong; and many a cruel sorrow arose out of that sin, perhaps to lie heavy at his door some day or other, sooner or later, sooner or later. I’m an old man, and I’ve seen a good deal of the ways of this world, and I’ve found that retribution seldom fails to overtake those who do wrong.”
Mr. Balderby shrugged his shoulders.
“I should doubt the force of your philosophy in this case, my good Sampson,” he said; “Mr. Dunbar has had a long immunity from his sins. I should scarcely think it likely he would ever be called upon to atone for them.”
“I don’t know, sir,” the old clerk answered; “I don’t know that. I’ve seen retribution come very late, very late; when the man who committed the sin had well nigh forgotten it. Evil trees bear evil fruit, Mr. Balderby: the Scriptures tell us that; and take my word for it, evil consequences are sure to come from evil deeds.”
“But to return to the story of the forged bills,” said Mr. Austin, the cashier, looking at his watch as he spoke.
He was evidently growing rather impatient of the old clerk’s rambling talk.
“To be sure, sir, to be sure,” answered Sampson Wilmot. “Well, you see, sir, one of the bills was brought to our counter, and the cashier didn’t much like the look of my lord’s signature, and he took the bill to the inspector, and the inspector said,’ Pay the money, but don’t debit it against his lordship.’ About an hour afterwards the inspector carried the bill to Mr. Percival Dunbar, and directly he set eyes upon it, he knew that Lord Vanlorme’s acceptance was a forgery. He sent for me to his room; and when I went in, he was as white as a sheet, poor gentleman. He handed me the bill without speaking, and when I had looked at it, he said —
“‘Your brother is at the bottom of this business, Sampson. Do you remember the half-sheet of paper I found on a blotting-pad in the counting-house one day; half a sheet of paper scrawled over with the imitation of two or three signatures? I asked who had copied those signatures, and your brother came forward and owned to having done it, laughing at his own cleverness. I told him then that it was a fatal facility, a fatal facility, and now he has proved the truth of my words by helping my son to turn forger and thief. That signature must be honoured, though I should have to sacrifice half my fortune to meet the demands upon us. Heaven knows to what amount such paper as that may be in circulation. There are some forged bills that are as good as genuine documents; and the Jew who discounted these knew that. If my son comes into the bank this morning send him to me.’”
“And did the young man come?” asked the junior partner.
“Yes, Mr. Balderby, sir; in less than half an hour after I left Mr. Percival Dunbar’s room, in comes Mr. Henry, dashing and swaggering into the place as if it was his own.
“‘Will you please step into your father’s room, sir?’ I said; ‘he wants to see you very particular.’
“The cornet’s jaw dropped, and his face turned ghastly white as I said this; but he tried to carry it off with a swagger, and followed me into Mr. Percival Dunbar’s room.
“‘You needn’t leave us, Sampson,’ said Mr. Hugh, who was sitting opposite his brother at the writing-table. ‘You may as well hear what I have to say. I wish somebody whom I can rely upon to know the truth of this business, and I think we may rely upon you.’
“‘Yes, gentlemen,’ I answered, ‘you may trust me.’
“‘What’s the meaning of all this?’ Mr. Henry Dunbar asked, pretending to look innocent and surprised; but it wouldn’t do, for his lips trembled so, that it was painful to watch him. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.
“Mr. Hugh Dunbar handed him the forged bill.
“‘This is what’s the matter,’ he said.
“The young man stammered out something in the endeavour to deny any knowledge of the bill in his hand; but his uncle checked him. ‘Do not add perjury to the crime you have already committed,’ he said. ‘How many of these are in circulation?’
“‘How many!’ Mr. Henry repeated, in a faltering voice. ‘Yes,’ his uncle answered; ‘how many — to what amount?’ ‘Three thousand pounds,’ the cornet replied, hanging his head. ‘I meant to take them up before they fell due, Uncle Hugh,’ he said. ‘I did, indeed; I stood to win a hatful of money upon the Liverpool Summer Meeting, and I made sure I should be able to take up those bills: but I’ve had the devil’s own luck all this year. I never thought those bills would be presented; indeed, I never did.’
“‘Henry Dunbar,’ Mr. Hugh said, very solemnly, ‘nine men out of ten, who do what you have done, think what you say you thought: that they shall be able to escape the consequences of their deeds. They act under the pressure of circumstances. They don’t mean to do any wrong — they don’t intend to rob any body of a sixpence. But that first false step is the starting point upon the road that leads to the gallows; and the worst that can happen to a man is for him to succeed in his first crime. Happily for you, detection has speedily overtaken you. Why did you do this?’
“The young man stammered out some rambling excuse about his turf losses, debts of honour which he was compelled to pay. Then Mr. Hugh asked him whether the forged signature was his own doing, or the work of any body else. The cornet hesitated for a little, and then told his uncle the name of his accomplice. I thought this was cruel and cowardly. He had tempted my brother to do wrong, and the least he could have done would have been to try to shield him.
“One of the messengers was sent to fetch poor Joseph. The lad reached the banking house in an hour’s time, and was brought straight into the private room, where we had all been sitting in silence, waiting for him.
“He was as pale as his master, but he didn’t tremble, and he had altogether a more determined look than Mr. Henry.
“Mr. Hugh Dunbar taxed him with what he had done.
“‘Do you deny it, Joseph Wilmot?’ he asked.
“‘No,’ my brother said, looking contemptuously at the cornet. ‘If my master has betrayed me, I have no wish to deny anything. But I dare say he and I will square accounts some day.’
“‘I am not going to prosecute my nephew,’ Mr. Hugh said; ‘so, of course I shall not prosecute you. But I believe that you have been an evil counsellor to this young man, and I give you warning that you will get no character from me. I respect your brother Sampson, and shall retain him in my service in spite of what you have done; but I hope never to see your face again. You are free to go; but have a care how you tamper with other men’s signatures, for the next time you may not get off so easily.’
“The lad took up his hat and walked slowly towards the door.
“‘Gentlemen — gentlemen!’ I cried, ‘have pity upon him. Remember he is little more than a boy; and whatever he did, he did out of love for his master.’
“Mr. Hugh shook his head. ‘I have no pity,’ he answered, sternly: ‘his master might never have done wrong but for him.’
“Joseph did not say a word in answer to all this; but, when his hand was on the handle of the door, he turned and looked at Mr. Henry Dunbar.
“‘Have you nothing to say in my behalf, sir?’ he said, very quietly; ‘I have been very much attached to you, sir, and I don’t want to think badly of you at parting. Haven’t you one word to say in my behalf?’
“Mr. Henry made no answer. He sat with his head bent forward upon his breast, and seemed as if he dare not lift his eyes to his uncle’s face.
“‘No!’ Mr. Hugh answered, as sternly as before, ‘he has nothing to say for you. Go; and consider this a lucky escape.’
“Joseph turned upon the banker, with his face all in a crimson flame, and his eyes flashing fire. ‘Let him consider it a lucky escape,’ he said, pointing to Mr. Henry Dunbar — ‘let him consider it a lucky escape, if when we next meet he gets off scot free.’
“He was gone before any body could answer him.
“Then Mr. Hugh Dunbar turned to his nephew.
“‘As for you,’ he said, ‘you have been a spoilt child of fortune, and you have not known how to value the good things that Providence has given you. You have begun life at the top of the tree, and you have chosen to fling your chances into the gutter. You must begin again, and begin this time upon the lowest step of the ladder. You will sell your commission, and sail for Calcutta by the next ship that leaves Southampton. To-day is the 23rd of August, and I see by the Shipping Gazette that the Oronoko sails on the 10th of September. This will give you little better than a fortnight to make all your arrangements.”
“The young cornet started from his chair as if he had been shot.
“‘Sell my commission!’ he cried; ‘go to India! You don’t mean it, Uncle Hugh; surely you don’t mean it. Father, you will never compel me to do this.’
“Percival Dunbar had never looked at his son since the young man had entered the room. He sat with his elbow resting upon the arm of his easy-chair, and his face shaded by his hand, and had not once spoken.
“He did not speak now, even when his son appealed to him.
“‘Your father has given me full authority to act in this business,’ Mr. Hugh Dunbar said. ‘I shall never marry, Henry, and you are my only nephew, and my acknowledged heir. But I will never leave my wealth to a dishonest or dishonourable man, and it remains for you to prove whether you are worthy to inherit it. You will have to begin life afresh. You have played the man of fashion, and your aristocratic associates have led you to the position in which you find yourself to-day. You must turn your back upon the past, Henry. Of course you are free to choose for yourself. Sell your commission, go to India, and enter the counting-house of our establishment in Calcutta as a junior clerk; or refuse to do so, and renounce all hope of succeeding to my fortune or to your father’s.’
“The young man was silent for some minutes, then he said, sullenly enough —
“‘I will go. I consider that I have been harshly treated; but I will go.’”
“And he did go?” said Mr. Balderby.
“He did, sir,” answered the clerk, who had displayed considerable emotion in relating this story of the past. “He did go, sir — he sold his commission, and left England by the Oronoko. But he never took leave of a living creature, and I fully believe that he never in his heart forgave either his father or his uncle. He worked his way up, as you know, sir, in the Calcutta counting-house, and by slow degrees rose to be manager of the Indian branch of the business. He married in 1831, and he has an only child, a daughter, who has been brought up in England since her infancy, under the care of Mr. Percival.”
“Yes,” answered Mr. Balderby, “I have seen Miss Laura Dunbar at her grandfather’s country seat. She is a very beautiful girl, and Percival Dunbar idolized her. But now to return to business, my good Sampson. I believe you are the only person in this house who has ever seen our present chief, Henry Dunbar.”
“I am, sir.”
“So far so good. He is expected to arrive at Southampton in less than a week’s time, and somebody must be there to meet him and receive him. After five-and-thirty years’ absence he will be a perfect stranger in England, and will require a business man about him to manage matters for him, and take all trouble off his hands. These Anglo–Indians are apt to be indolent, you know, and he may be all the worse for the fatigues of the overland journey. Now, as you know him, Sampson, and as you are an excellent man of business, and as active as a boy, I should like you to meet him. Have you any objection to do this?”
“No, sir,” answered the clerk; “I have no great love for Mr. Henry Dunbar, for I can never cease to look upon him as the cause of my poor brother Joseph’s ruin; but I am ready to do what you wish, Mr. Balderby. It’s business, and I’m ready to do anything in the way of business. I’m only a sort of machine, sir — a machine that’s pretty nearly worn out, I fancy, now — but as long as I last you can make what use of me you like, sir. I’m ready to do my duty.”
“I am sure of that, Sampson.”
“When am I to start for Southampton, sir?”
“Well, I think you’d better go to-morrow, Sampson. You can leave London by the afternoon train, which starts at four o’clock. You can see to your work here in the morning, and reach your destination between seven and eight. I leave everything in your hands. Miss Laura Dunbar will come up to town to meet her father at the house in Portland Place. The poor girl is very anxious to see him, as she has not set eyes upon him since she was a child of two years old. Strange, isn’t it, the effect of these long separations? Laura Dunbar might pass her father in the street without recognizing him, and yet her affection for him has been unchanged in all these years.”
Mr. Balderby gave the old clerk a pocket-book containing six five-pound notes.
“You will want plenty of money,” he said, “though, of course, Mr. Dunbar will be well supplied. You will tell him that all will be ready for his reception here. I really am quite anxious to see the new head of the house. I wonder what he is like, now. By the way, it’s rather a singular circumstance that there is, I believe, no portrait of Henry Dunbar in existence. His picture was painted when he was a young man, and exhibited in the Royal Academy; but his father didn’t think the likeness a good one, and sent it back to the artist, who promised to alter and improve it. Strange to say, this artist, whose name I forget, delayed from day to day performing his promise, and at the expiration of a twelvemonth left England for Italy, taking the young man’s portrait with him, amongst a lot of other unframed canvases. This artist never returned from Italy, and Percival Dunbar could never find out his whereabouts, or whether he was dead or alive. I have often heard the old man regret that he possessed no likeness of his son. Our chief was handsome, you say, in his youth?”
“Yes, sir,” Sampson Wilmot answered, “he was very handsome — tall and fair, with bright blue eyes.”
“You have seen Miss Dunbar: is she like her father?”
“No, sir. Her features are altogether different, and her expression is more amiable than his.”
“Indeed! Well, Sampson, we won’t detain you any longer. You understand what you have to do?”
“Yes, sir, perfectly.”
“Very well, then. Good night! By the bye, you will put up at one of the best hotels at Southampton — say the Dolphin — and wait there till the Electra steamer comes in. It is by the Electra that Mr. Dunbar is to arrive. Once more, good evening!”
The old clerk bowed and left the room.
“Well, Austin,” said Mr. Balderby, turning to the cashier, “we may prepare ourselves to meet our new chief very speedily. He must know that you and I cannot be entirely ignorant of the story of his youthful peccadilloes, and he will scarcely give himself airs to us, I should fancy.”
“I don’t know that, Mr. Balderby,” the cashier answered; “if I am any judge of human nature, Henry Dunbar will hate us because of that very crime of his own, knowing that we are in the secret, and will be all the more disagreeable and disdainful in his intercourse with us. He will carry it off with a high hand, depend upon it.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50