The town of Wandsworth is not a gay place. There is an air of old-world quiet in the old-fashioned street, though dashing vehicles drive through it sometimes on their way to Wimbledon or Richmond Park.
The sloping roofs, the gable-ends, the queer old chimneys, the quaint casement windows, belong to a bygone age; and the traveller, coming a stranger to the little town, might fancy himself a hundred miles away from boisterous London; though he is barely clear of the great city’s smoky breath, or beyond the hearing of her myriad clamorous tongues.
There are lanes and byways leading out of that humble High Street down to the low bank of the river; and in one of these, a pleasant place enough, there is a row of old-fashioned semi-detached cottages, standing in small gardens, and sheltered by sycamores and laburnums from the dust, which in dry summer weather lies thick upon the narrow roadway.
In one of these cottages a young lady lived with her father; a young lady who gave lessons on the piano-forte, or taught singing, for very small remuneration. She wore shabby dresses, and was rarely known to have a new bonnet; but people respected and admired her, notwithstanding; and the female inhabitants of Godolphin Cottages, who gave her good-day sometimes as she went along the dusty lane with her well-used roll of music in her hand, declared that she was a lady bred and born. Perhaps the good people who admired Margaret Wentworth would have come nearer the mark if they had said that she was a lady by right divine of her own beautiful nature, which had never required to be schooled into grace or gentleness.
She had no mother, and she had not even the memory of her mother, who had died seventeen years before, leaving an only child of twelve months old for James Wentworth to keep.
But James Wentworth, being a scapegrace and a reprobate, who lived by means that were a secret from his neighbours, had sadly neglected this only child. He had neglected her, though with every passing year she grew more and more like her dead mother, until at last, at eighteen years of age, she had grown into a beautiful woman, with hazel-brown hair, and hazel eyes to match.
And yet James Wentworth was fond of his only child, after a fashion of his own. Sometimes he was at home for weeks together, a prey to a fit of melancholy; under the influence of which he would sit brooding in silence over his daughter’s humble hearth for hours and days together.
At other times he would disappear, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for weeks and months at a time; and during his absence Margaret suffered wearisome agonies of suspense.
Sometimes he brought her money; sometimes he lived upon her own slender earnings.
But use her as he might, he was always proud of her, and fond of her; and she, after the way of womankind, loved him devotedly, and believed him to be the noblest and most brilliant of men.
It was no grief to her to toil, taking long weary walks and giving tedious lessons for the small stipends which her employers had the conscience to offer her; they felt no compunction about bargaining and haggling as to a few pitiful shillings with a music mistress who looked so very poor, and seemed so glad to work for their paltry pay. The girl’s chief sorrow was, that her father, who to her mind was calculated to shine in the highest station the world could give, should be a reprobate and a pauper.
She told him so sometimes, regretfully, tenderly, as she sat by his side, with her arms twined caressingly about his neck. And there were times when the strong man would cry aloud over his blighted life, and the ruin which had fallen upon his youth.
“You’re right, Madge,” he said sometimes, “you’re right, my girl. I ought to have been something better; I ought to have been, and I might have been, perhaps, but for one man — but for one base-minded villain, whose treachery blasted my character, and left me alone in the world to fight against society. You don’t know what it is, Madge, to have to fight that battle. A man who began life with an honest name, and fair prospects before him, finds himself cast, by one fatal error, disgraced and broken, on a pitiless world. Nameless, friendless, characterless, he has to begin life afresh, with every man’s hand against him. He is the outcast of society. The faces that once looked kindly on him turn away from him with a frown. The voices that once spoke in his praise are loud in his disfavour. Driven from every place where once he found a welcome, the ruined wretch hides himself among strangers, and tries to sink his hateful identity under a false name. He succeeds, perhaps, for a time, and is trusted, and being honestly disposed at heart, is honest: but he cannot long escape from the hateful past. No! In the day and hour when he is proudest of the new name he has made, and the respect he has won for himself, some old acquaintance, once a friend, but now an enemy, falls across his pathway. He is recognized; a cruel voice betrays him. Every hope that he had cherished is swept away from him. Every good deed that he has done is denounced as the act of a hypocrite. Because once sinned he can never do well. That is the world’s argument.”
“But not the teaching of the gospel,” Margaret murmured. “Remember, father, who it was that said to the guilty woman, Go, and sin no more.’”
“Ay, my girl,” James Wentworth answered, bitterly, “but the world would have said, ‘Hence, abandoned creature! go, and sin afresh; for you shall never be suffered to live an honest life, or herd with honest people. Repent, and we will laugh at your penitence as a shallow deception. Weep, and we will cry out upon your tears. Toil and struggle to regain the eminence from which you have fallen, and when you have nearly reached the top of that difficult hill, we will band ourselves together to hurl you back into the black abyss.’ That’s what the world says to the sinner, Margaret, my girl. I don’t know much of the gospel; I have never read it since I was a boy, and used to read long chapters aloud to my mother, on quiet Sunday evenings; I can see the little old-fashioned parlour now as I speak of that time; I can hear the ticking of the eight-day clock, and I can see my mother’s fond eyes looking up at me every now and then. But I don’t know much about the gospel now; and when, you, poor child, try to read it to me, there’s some devil rises in my breast, and shuts my ears against the words. I don’t know the gospel, but I do know the world. The laws of society are inflexible, Madge; there is no forgiveness for a man who is once found out. He may commit any crime in the calendar, so long as his crimes are profitable, and he is content to share his profits with his neighbours. But he mustn’t be found out.”
Upon the 16th of August, 1850, the day on which Sampson Wilmot, the banker’s clerk, was to start for Southampton, James Wentworth spent the morning in his daughter’s humble little sitting-room, and sat smoking by the open window, while Margaret worked beside a table near him.
The father sat with his long clay pipe in his mouth, watching his daughter’s fair face as she bent over the work upon her knee.
The room was neatly kept, but poorly furnished, with that old-fashioned spindle-legged furniture which seems peculiar to lodging-houses. Yet the little sitting-room had an aspect of simple rustic prettiness, which is almost pleasanter to look at than fine furniture. There were pictures — simple water-colour sketches — and cheap engravings on the walls, and a bunch of flowers on the table, and between the muslin curtains that shadowed the window you saw the branches of the sycamores waving in the summer wind.
James Wentworth had once been a handsome man. It was impossible to look at him and not perceive as much as that. He might, indeed, have been handsome still, but for the moody defiance in his eyes, but for the half-contemptuous curve of his finely-moulded upper lip.
He was about fifty-three years of age, and his hair was grey, but this grey hair did not impart a look of age to his appearance. His erect figure, the carriage of his head, his dashing, nay, almost swaggering walk, all belonged to a man in the prime of middle age. He wore a beard and thick moustache of grizzled auburn. His nose was aquiline, his forehead high and square, his chin massive. The form of his head and face denoted force of intellect. His long, muscular limbs gave evidence of great physical power. Even the tones of his voice, and his manner of speaking, betokened a strength of will that verged upon obstinacy.
A dangerous man to offend! A relentless and determined man; not easily to be diverted from any purpose, however long the time between the formation of his resolve and the opportunity of carrying it into execution.
As he sat now watching his daughter at her work, the shadows of black thoughts darkened his brow, and spread a sombre gloom over his face.
And yet the picture before him could have scarcely been unpleasing to the most fastidious eye. The girl’s face, drooping over her work, was very fair. The features were delicate and statuesque in their form; the large hazel eyes were very beautiful — all the more beautiful, perhaps, because of a soft melancholy that subdued their natural brightness; the smooth brown hair rippling upon the white forehead, which was low and broad, was of a colour which a duchess might have envied, or an empress tried to imitate with subtle dyes compounded by court chemists. The girl’s figure, tall, slender, and flexible, imparted grace and beauty to a shabby cotton dress and linen collar, that many a maid-servant would have disdained to wear; and the foot visible below the scanty skirt was slim and arched as the foot of an Arab chief.
There was something in Margaret Wentworth’s face, some shade of expression, vague and transitory in its nature, that bore a likeness to her father; but the likeness was a very faint one, and it was from her mother that the girl had inherited her beauty.
She had inherited her mother’s nature also: but mingled with that soft and womanly disposition there was much of the father’s determination, much of the strong man’s force of intellect and resolute will.
A beautiful woman — an amiable woman; but a woman whose resentment for a great wrong could be deep and lasting.
“Madge,” said James Wentworth, throwing his pipe aside, and looking full at his daughter, “I sit and watch you sometimes till I begin to wonder at you. You seem contented and most happy, though the monotonous life you lead would drive some women mad. Have you no ambition, girl?”
“Plenty, father,” she answered, lifting her eyes from her work, and looking at him mournfully; “plenty — for you.”
The man shrugged his shoulders, and sighed heavily.
“It’s too late for that, my girl,” he said; “the day is past — the day is past and gone — and the chance gone with it. You know how I’ve striven, and worked, and struggled; and how I’ve seen my poor schemes crushed when I had built them up with more patience than perhaps man ever built before. You’ve been a good girl, Margaret — a noble girl; and you’ve been true to me alike in joy and sorrow — the joy’s been little enough beside the sorrow, poor child — but you’ve borne it all; you’ve endured it all. You’ve been the truest woman that was ever born upon this earth, to my thinking; but there’s one thing in which you’ve been unlike the rest of your sex.”
“And what’s that, father?”
“You’ve shown no curiosity. You’ve seen me knocked down and disgraced wherever I tried to get a footing; you’ve seen me try first one trade and then another, and fail in every one of them. You’ve seen me a clerk in a merchant’s office; an actor; an author; a common labourer, working for a daily wage; and you’ve seen ruin overtake me whichever way I’ve turned. You’ve seen all this, and suffered from it; but you’ve never asked me why it has been so. You’ve never sought to discover the secret of my life.”
The tears welled up to the girl’s eyes as her father spoke.
“If I have not done so, dear father,” she answered, gently, “it has been because I knew your secret must be a painful one. I have lain awake night after night, wondering what was the cause of the blight that has been upon you and all you have done. But why should I ask you questions that you could not answer without pain? I have heard people say cruel things of you; but they have never said them twice in my hearing.” Her eyes flashed through a veil of tears as she spoke. “Oh, father — dearest father!” she cried, suddenly throwing aside her work, and dropping on her knees beside the man’s chair, “I do not ask for your confidence if it is painful to you to give it; I only want your love. But believe this, father — always believe this — that, whether you trust me or not, there is nothing upon this earth strong enough to turn my heart from you.”
She placed her hand in her father’s as she spoke, and he grasped it so tightly that her pale face grew crimson with the pain.
“Are you sure of that, Madge?” he asked, bending his head to look more closely in her earnest face.
“I am quite sure, father.”
“Nothing can tear your heart from me?”
“Nothing in this world.”
“What if I am not worthy of your love?”
“I cannot stop to think of that, father. Love is not mete out in strict proportion to the merits of those we love. If it were, there would be no difference between love and justice.”
James Wentworth laughed sneeringly.
“There is little enough difference as it is, perhaps,” he said; “they’re both blind. Well, Madge,” he added, in a more serious tone, “you’re a generous-minded, noble-spirited girl, and I believe you do love me. I fancy that if you never asked the secret of my life, you can guess it pretty closely, eh?”
He looked searchingly at the girl’s face. She hung her head, but did not answer him.
“You can guess the secret, can’t you, Madge? Don’t be afraid to speak, girl.”
“I fear I can guess it, father dear,” she murmured in a low voice.
“Speak out, then.”
“I am afraid the reason you have never prospered — the reason that so many are against you — is that you once did something wrong, very long ago, when you were young and reckless, and scarcely knew the nature of your own act; and that now, though you are truly penitent and sorry, and have long wished to lead an altered life, the world won’t forget or forgive that old wrong. Is it so, father?”
“It is, Margaret. You’ve guessed right enough, child, except that you’ve omitted one fact. The wrong I did was done for the sake of another. I was tempted to do it by another. I made no profit by it myself, and I never hoped to make any. But when detection came, it was upon me that the disgrace and ruin fell; while the man for whom I had done wrong — the man who had made me his tool — turned his back upon me, and refused to utter one word in my justification, though he was in no danger himself, and the lightest word from his lips might have saved me. That was a hard case, wasn’t it, Madge?”
“Hard!” cried the girl, with her nostrils quivering and her hands clenched; “it was cruel, dastardly, infamous!”
“From that day, Margaret, I was a ruined man. The brand of society was upon me. The world would not let me live honestly, and the love of life was too strong in me to let me face death. I tried to live dishonestly, and I led a wild, rackety, dare-devil kind of a life, amongst men who found they had a skilful tool, and knew how to use me. They did use me to their heart’s content, and left me in the lurch when danger came. I was arrested for forgery, tried, found guilty, and transported for life. Don’t flinch, girl! don’t turn so white! You must have heard something of this whispered and hinted at often enough before to-day. You may as well know the whole truth. I was transported, for life, Madge; and for thirteen years I toiled amongst the wretched, guilty slaves in Norfolk Island — that was the favourite place in those days for such as me — and at the end of that time, my conduct having been approved of by my gaolers, the governor sent for me, gave me a good-service certificate, and I went into a counting-house and served as a clerk. But I got a kind of fever in my blood, and night and day I only thought of one thing, and that was my chance of escape. I did escape — never you mind how, that’s a long story — and I got back to England, a free man; a free man, Madge, I thought; but the world soon told me another story. I was a felon, a gaol-bird; and I was never more to lift my head amongst honest people. I couldn’t bear it, Madge, my girl. Perhaps a better man might have persevered in spite of all till he conquered the world’s prejudice. But I couldn’t. I sank under my trials, and fell lower and lower. And for every disgrace that has ever fallen upon me — for every sorrow I have ever suffered — for every sin I have ever committed — I look to one man as the cause.”
Margaret Wentworth had risen to her feet. She stood before her father now, pale and breathless, with her lips parted, and her bosom heaving.
“Tell me his name, father,” she whispered; “tell me that man’s name.”
“Why do you want to know his name, Madge?”
“Never mind why, father. Tell it to me — tell it!”
She stamped her foot in the vehemence of her passion.
“Tell me his name, father,” she repeated, impatiently.
“His name is Henry Dunbar,” James Wentworth answered, “and he is the son of a rich banker. I saw his father’s death in the paper last March. His uncle died ten years ago, and he will inherit the fortunes of both father and uncle. The world has smiled upon him. He has never suffered for that one false step in life, which brought such ruin upon me. He will come home from India now, I dare say, and the world will be under his feet. He will be worth a million of money, I should fancy; curse him! If my wishes could be accomplished, every guinea he possesses would be a separate scorpion to sting and to torture him.”
“Henry Dunbar,” whispered Margaret to herself —“Henry Dunbar. I will not forget that name.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50