Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 24

The Unbidden Guest who Came to Laura Dunbar’s Wedding.

The wedding was to take place in Lisford church — that pretty, quaint, old church of which I have already spoken.

The wandering Avon flowed through this rustic churchyard, along a winding channel fringed by tall, trembling rushes. There was a wooden bridge across the river, and there were two opposite entrances to the churchyard. Pedestrians who chose the shortest route between Lisford and Shorncliffe went in at one gate and out at another, which opened on to the high-road.

The worthy inhabitants of Lisford were almost as much distressed by the unpromising aspect of the sky as Laura Dunbar and her faithful nurse themselves. New bonnets had been specially prepared for this festive occasion. Chrysanthemums and dahlias, gay-looking China-asters, and all the lingering flowers that light up the early winter landscape, had been collected to strew the pathway beneath the bride’s pretty feet. All the brightest evergreens in the Lisford gardens had been gathered as a fitting sacrifice for the “young lady from the Abbey.”

Laura Dunbar’s frank good-nature and reckless generosity were well remembered upon this occasion; and every creature in Lisford was bent upon doing her honour.

But this aggravating rain balked everybody. What was the use of throwing wet dahlias and flabby chrysanthemums into the puddles through which the bride must tread, heiress though she was? How miserable would be the aspect of two rows of damp charity children, with red noses and no pocket-handkerchiefs! The rector himself had a cold in his head, and would be obliged to omit all the n’s and m’s in the marriage service.

In short, everybody felt that the Abbey wedding was destined to be more or less a failure. It seemed very hard that the chief partner in the firm of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby could not, with all his wealth, buy a little glimmer of sunshine to light up his daughter’s wedding. It grew so dark and foggy towards eleven o’clock, that a dozen or so of wax-candles were hastily stuck about the neighbourhood of the altar, in order that the bride and bridegroom might be able, each of them, to see the person that he or she was taking for better or worse.

Yes, the dismal weather made everything dismal in unison with itself. A wet wedding is like a wet pic-nic. The most heroic nature gives way before its utter desolation; the wit of the party forgets his best anecdote; the funny man breaks down in the climactic verse of his great buffo song; there is no brightness in the eyes of the beauty; there is neither sparkle nor flavour in the champagne, though the grapes thereof have been grown in the vineyards of Widow Cliquot herself.

There are some things that are more powerful than emperors, and the atmosphere is one of them. Alexander might conquer nations in very sport; but I question whether he could have resisted the influence of a wet day.

Of all the people who were to assist at Sir Philip Jocelyn’s wedding, perhaps the father of the bride was the person who seemed least affected by that drizzling rain, that hopelessly-black sky.

If Henry Dunbar was grave and silent to-day, why that was nothing new: for he was always grave and silent. If the banker’s manner was stern and moody to-day, that stern moodiness was habitual to him: and there was no need to blame the murky heavens for any change in his temper. He sat by the broad fireplace watching the burning coals, and waiting until he should be summoned to take his place by his daughter’s side in the carriage that was to convey them both to Lisford church; and he did not utter one word of complaint about that aggravating weather.

He looked very handsome, very aristocratic, with his grey moustache carefully trimmed, and a white camellia in his button-hole. Nevertheless, when he came out into the hall by-and-by, with a set smile upon his face, like a man who is going to act a part in a play, Laura Dunbar recoiled from him with an involuntary shiver, as she had done upon the day of her first meeting with him in Portland Place.

But he offered her his hand, and she laid the tips of her fingers in his broad palm, and went with him to the carriage. “Ask God to bless me upon this day, papa,” the girl said, in a low, tender voice, as these two people took their places side by side in the roomy chariot.

Laura Dunbar laid her hand caressingly upon the banker’s shoulder as she spoke. It was not a time for reticence; it was not an occasion upon which to be put off by any girlish fear of this stern, silent man.

“Ask God to bless me, father dearest,” the soft, tremulous voice pleaded, “for the sake of my dead mother.”

She tried to see his face: but she could not. His head was turned away, and he was busy making some alteration in the adjustment of the carriage-window. The chariot had cost nearly three hundred pounds, and was very well built: but there was something wrong about the window nevertheless, if one might judge by the difficulty which Mr. Dunbar had, in settling it to his satisfaction.

He spoke presently, in a very earnest voice, but with his head still turned away from Laura.

“I hope God will bless you, my dear,” he said; “and that He will have pity upon your enemies.”

This last wish was more Christianlike than natural; since fathers do not usually implore compassion for the enemies of their children.

But Laura Dunbar did not trouble herself to think about this. She only knew that her father had called down Heaven’s blessing upon her; and that his manner had betrayed such agitation as could, of course, only spring from one cause, namely, his affection for his daughter.

She threw herself into his arms with a radiant smile, and putting up her hands, drew his face round, and pressed her lips to his.

But, as on the day in Portland Place, a chill crept through her veins, as she felt the deadly coldness of her father’s hands lifted to push her gently from him.

It is a common thing for Anglo–Indians to be quiet and reserved in their manners, and strongly adverse to all demonstrations of this kind. Laura remembered this, and made excuses to herself for her father’s coldness.

The rain was still falling as the carriage stopped at the churchyard. There were only three carriages in this brief bridal train, for Mr. Dunbar had insisted that there should be no grandeur, no display.

The two Miss Melvilles, Dora Macmahon, and Arthur Lovell rode in the same carriage. Major Melville’s daughters looked very pale and cold in their white-and-blue dresses, and the north-easter had tweaked their noses, which were rather sharp and pointed in style. They would have looked pretty enough, poor girls, had the wedding taken place in summer-time; but they had not that splendid exceptional beauty which can defy all changes of temperature, and which is alike glorious, whether clad in abject rags or robed in velvet and ermine.

The carriages reached the little gate of Lisford churchyard; Philip Jocelyn came out of the porch, and down the narrow pathway leading to the gate.

The drizzling rain descended on him, though he was a baronet, and though he came bareheaded to receive his bride.

I think the Lisford beadle, who was a sound Tory of the old school, almost wondered that the heavens themselves should be audacious enough to wet the uncovered head of the lord of Jocelyn’s Rock.

But it went on raining, nevertheless.

“Times has changed, sir,” said the beadle, to an idle-looking stranger who was standing near him. “I have read in a history of Warwickshire, that when Algernon Jocelyn was married to Dame Margery Milward, widow to Sir Stephen Milward, knight, in Charles the First’s time, there was a cloth-of-gold canopy from the gate yonder to this porch here, and two moving turrets of basket-work, each of ’em drawn by four horses, and filled with forty poor children, crowned with roses, lookin’ out of the turret winders, and scatterin’ scented waters on the crowd; and there was a banquet, sir, served up at noon that day at Jocelyn’s Rock, with six peacocks brought to table with their tails spread; and a pie, served in a gold dish, with live doves in it, every feather of ’em steeped in the rarest perfume, which they was intended to sprinkle over the company as they flew about here and there. But — would you believe in such a radical spirit pervadin’ the animal creation? — every one of them doves flew straight out of the winder, and went and scattered their perfumes on the poor folks outside. There’s no such weddin’s as that nowadays, sir,” said the old beadle, with a groan. “As I often say to my old missus, I don’t believe as ever England has held up its head since the day when Charles the Martyr lost his’n.”

Laura Dunbar went up the narrow pathway by her father’s side; but Philip Jocelyn walked upon her left hand, and the crowd had enough to do to stare at bride and bridegroom.

The baronet’s face, which was always a handsome one, looked splendid in the light of his happiness. People disputed as to whether the bride or bridegroom was handsomest; and Laura forgot all about the wet weather as she laid her light hand on Philip Jocelyn’s arm.

The churchyard was densely crowded in the neighbourhood of the pathway along which the bride and bridegroom walked. In spite of the miserable weather, in defiance of Mr. Dunbar’s desire that the wedding should be a quiet one, people had come from a very long distance in order to see the millionaire’s beautiful daughter married to the master of Jocelyn’s Rock.

Amongst the spectators who had come to witness Miss Dunbar’s wedding was the tall gentleman in the high white hat, who was known in sporting circles as the Major, and who had exhibited so much interest when the name of Henry Dunbar was mentioned on the Shorncliffe racecourse. The Major had been very lucky in his speculations on the Shorncliffe races, and had gone straight away from the course to the village of Lisford, where he took up his abode at the Hose and Crown, a bright-looking hostelry, where a traveller could have his steak or his chop done to a turn in one of the cosiest kitchens in all Warwickshire. The Major was very reserved upon the subject of his sporting operations when he found himself among unprofessional people; and upon such occasions, though he would now and then condescend to lay the odds against anything with some unconscious agriculturalist or village tradesman, his innocence with regard to all turf matters was positively refreshing.

He was a traveller in Birmingham jewellery, he told the land lady of the quiet little inn, and was on his way to that busy commercial centre to procure a fresh supply of glass emeralds, and a score or so of gigantic rubies with crinkled tinsel behind them. The Major, usually somewhat silent and morose, contrived to make himself very agreeable to the jovial frequenters of the comfortable little public parlour of the Rose and Crown.

He took his dinner and his supper in that cosy apartment; and he sat there all the evening, listening to and joining in the conversation of the Lisfordians, and drinking sixpenn’orths of gin-and-water, with the air of a man who could consume a hogshead of the juice of the juniper-berry without experiencing any evil consequences therefrom. He ate and drank like a man of iron; and his glittering black eyes kept perpetual watch upon the faces of the simple country people, and his eager ears drank in every word that was spoken. Of course a great deal was said about the event of the next morning. Everybody had something to say about Miss Dunbar and her wealthy father, who lived so lonely and secluded at the Abbey, and whose ways were altogether so different from those of his father before him.

The Major listened to every syllable, and only edged-in a word or two now and then, when the conversation flagged, or when there was a chance of the subject being changed.

By this means he contrived to keep the Lisfordians constant to one topic all the evening, and that topic was the manners and customs of Henry Dunbar.

Very early on the morning of the wedding the Major made his appearance in the churchyard. As for the incessant rain, that was nothing to him; he was used to it; and, moreover, the wet weather gave him a good excuse for buttoning his coat to the chin, and turning the poodle collar over his big red ears.

He found the door of the church ajar, early though it was, and going in softly, he came upon the Tory beadle and some damp charity children.

The Major contrived to engage the Tory beadle in conversation, which was not very difficult, seeing that the aforesaid beadle was always ready to avail himself of any opportunity of hearing his own voice. Of course the loquacious beadle talked chiefly of Sir Philip Jocelyn and the banker’s daughter; and again the sporting gentleman from London heard of Henry Dunbar’s riches.

“I have heerd as Mr. Dunbar is the richest man in Europe, exceptin’ the Hemperore of Roosia and Baron Rothschild,” the beadle said; “but I don’t know anythink more than that he’s got a deal more money than he knows what to do with, seein’ that he passes the best part of his days sittin’ over the fire in his own room, or ridin’ out after dark on horseback, if report speaks correct.”

“I tell you what I’ll do,” said the Major; “as I am in Lisford — and, to be candid with you, Lisford’s about the dullest place it was ever my bad luck to visit — why, I’ll stay and have a look at this wedding. I suppose you can put me into a quiet pew, back yonder in the shadow, where I can see all that’s going on, without any of your fine folks seeing me, eh?”

As the Major emphasized this question by dropping half-a-crown into the beadle’s hand, that official answered it very promptly —

“I’ll put you into the comfortablest pew you ever sat in,” answered the official.

“You might do that easily,” muttered the sporting gentleman, below his breath; “for there’s not many pews, or churches either, that I’ve ever sat in.”

The Major took his place in a corner of the church whence there was a very good view of the altar, where the feeble flames of the wax-candles made little splashes of yellow light in the fog.

The fog got thicker and thicker in the church as the hour for the marriage ceremony drew nearer and nearer, and the light of the wax-candles grew brighter as the atmosphere became more murky.

The Major sat patiently in his pew, with his arms folded upon the ledge, where the prayer-books in the corner of the seats were wont to rest during divine service. He planted his bristly chin upon his folded arms, and closed his eyes in a kind of dog-sleep.

But in this sleep he could hear everything going on. He heard the hobnailed soles of the charity children pattering upon the floor of the church; he heard the sharp rustling of the evergreens and wet flowers under the children’s figures; and he could hear the deep voice of Philip Jocelyn, talking to the clergyman in the porch, as he waited the arrival of the carriages from Maudesley Abbey.

The carriages arrived at last; and presently the wedding-train came up the narrow aisle, and took their places about the altar-rails. Henry Dunbar stood behind his daughter, with his face in shadow.

The marriage-service was commenced. The Major’s eyes were wide open now. Those sharp eager black eyes took notice of everything. They rested now upon the bride, now upon the bridegroom, now upon the faces of the rector and his curate.

Sometimes those glittering eyes strove to pierce the gloom, and to see the other faces, the faces that were farther away from the flickering yellow light of the wax-candles; but the gloom was not to be pierced even by the sharpest eyes.

The Major could only see four faces; — the faces of the bride and bridegroom, the rector, and his curate. But by-and-by, when one of the clergymen asked the familiar question —“Who giveth this woman to be married, to this man?” Henry Dunbar came forward into the light of the wax-candles, and gave the appointed answer.

The Major’s folded arms dropped off the ledge, as if they had been suddenly paralyzed. He sat, breathing hard and quick, and staring at Mr. Dunbar.

“Henry Dunbar?” he muttered to himself, presently —“Henry Dunbar!”

Mr. Dunbar did not again retire into the shadow. He remained during the rest of the ceremony standing where the light shone full upon his handsome face.

When all was over, and the bride and bridegroom had signed their names in the vestry, before admiring witnesses, the sporting gentleman rose and walked softly out of the pew, and along one of the obscure side-aisles.

The wedding-party passed out of the church-porch. The Major followed slowly.

Philip Jocelyn and his bride went straight to the carriage that was to convey them back to the Abbey.

Dora Macmahon and the two pale Bridesmaids, with areophane bonnets that had become hopelessly limp from exposure to that cruel rain, took their places in the second carriage. They were accompanied by Arthur Lovell, whom they looked upon with no very great favour; for he had been silent and melancholy throughout the drive from Maudesley Abbey to Lisford Church, and had stared at them with vacant indifference, while handing them out of the carriage with a mechanical kind of politeness that was almost insulting.

The two first carriages drove away from the churchyard-gate, and the mud upon the high-road splashed the closed windows of the vehicles as the wheels went round.

The third carriage waited for Henry Dunbar, and the crowd in the churchyard waited to see him get into it.

He had his foot upon the lowest step, and his hand upon the door, when the Major went up to him, and tapped him lightly upon the shoulder.

The spectators recoiled, aghast with indignant astonishment.

How dared this shabby-looking man, with clumsy boots that were queer about the heels, and a mangy fur collar, like the skin of an invalid French poodle, to his threadbare coat — how in the name of all that is audacious, dared such a low person as this lay his dirty fingers upon the sacred shoulder of Henry Dunbar of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby’s banking-house, St. Gundolph Lane, City?

The millionaire turned, and grew as ashy pale at sight of the shabby stranger as he could have done if the sheeted dead had risen from one of the graves near at hand. But he uttered no exclamation of horror or surprise. He only shrank haughtily away from the Major’s touch, as if there had been some infection to be dreaded from those dirty finger-tips.

“May I be permitted to know your motive for this intrusion, sir?” the banker asked, in a cold, repellent voice, looking the shabby intruder full in the eyes as he spoke.

There was something so resolute, so defiant, in the rich man’s gaze, that it is a wonder the poor man did not shrink from encountering it.

But he did not: he gave back look for look.

“Don’t say you’ve forgotten me, Mr. Dunbar,” he said; “don’t say you’ve forgotten a very old acquaintance.”

This was spoken after a pause, in which the two men had looked at each other as earnestly as if each had been trying to read the inmost secrets of the other’s soul.

“Don’t say you’ve forgotten me, Mr. Dunbar,” repeated the Major.

Henry Dunbar smiled. It was a forced smile, perhaps; but, at any rate, it was a smile.

“I have a great many acquaintances,” he said; “and I fancy you must have gone down in the world since I knew you, if I may judge from appearances.”

The bystanders, who had listened to every word, began to murmur among themselves. “Yes, indeed, they should rather think so:— if ever this shabby stranger had known Mr. Dunbar, and if he was not altogether an impostor, he must have been a very different sort of person at the time of his acquaintance with the millionaire.”

“When and where did I know you?” asked Henry Dunbar, with his eyes still looking straight into the eyes of the other man.

“Oh, a long time ago — a very long way off!”

“Perhaps it was — somewhere in India — up the country?’ said the banker, very slowly.

“Yes, it was in India — up the country,” answered the other.

“Then you won’t find me slow to befriend you,” said Mr. Dunbar. “I am always glad to be of service to any of my Indian acquaintances — even when the world has treated them badly. Get into my carriage, and I’ll drive you home. I shall be able to talk to you by-and-by, when all this wedding business is over.”

The two men seated themselves side by side upon the spring cushions of the banker’s luxurious carriage; and the vehicle drove rapidly away, leaving the spectators in a rapture of admiration at Henry Dunbar’s condescension to his shabby Indian acquaintance.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50