Margaret Wilmot had promised to become the wife of the man she loved; but she had given that promise very reluctantly, and only upon one condition. The condition was, that, before her marriage with Clement Austin took place, the mystery of her father’s death should be cleared up for ever.
“I cannot be your wife so long as the secret of that cruel deed remains unknown,” she said to Clement. “It seems to me as if I have already been, wickedly neglectful of a solemn duty. Who had my father to love him and remember him in all the world but me? and who should avenge his death if I do not? He was an outcast from society; and people think it a very small thing that, after having led a reckless life, he should die a cruel death. If Henry Dunbar, the rich banker, had been murdered, the police would never have rested until the assassin had been discovered. But who cares what became of Joseph Wilmot, except his daughter? His death makes no blank in the world: except to me — except to me!”
Clement Austin did not forget his promise to do his uttermost towards the discovery of the banker’s guilt. He believed that Henry Dunbar was the murderer of his old servant; and he had believed it ever since that day upon which the banker stole, like a detected thief, out of the house in St. Gundolph Lane.
It was just possible that Henry Dunbar might avoid Joseph Wilmot’s daughter from a natural horror of the events connected with his return to England; but that the banker should resort to a cowardly stratagem to escape from an interview with the girl could scarcely be accounted for, except by the fact of his guilt.
He had an insurmountable terror of seeing this girl, because he was the murderer of her father.
The longer Clement Austin deliberated upon this business the more certainly he came to that one terrible conclusion: Henry Dunbar was guilty. He would gladly have thought otherwise: and he would have been very happy had he been able to tell Margaret Wilmot that the mystery of her father’s death was a mystery that would never be solved upon this earth: but he could not do so; he could only bow his head before the awful necessity that urged him on to take his part in this drama of crime — the part of an avenger.
But a cashier in a London bank has very little time to play any part in life’s history, except that quiet rôle which seems chiefly to consist in locking and unlocking iron safes, peering furtively into mysterious ledgers, and shovelling about new sovereigns as coolly as if they were Wallsend or Clay–Cross coals.
Clement Austin’s life was not an easy one, and he had no time to turn amateur detective, even in the service of the woman ha loved.
He had no time to turn amateur detective so long as he remained at the banking-house in St. Gundolph Lane.
But could he remain there? That question arose in his mind, and took a very serious form. Was it possible to remain in that house when he believed the principal member of it to be one of the most infamous of men?
No; it was quite impossible for him to remain in his present situation. So long as he took a salary from Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby, he was in a manner under obligation to Henry Dunbar. He could not remain in this man’s service, and yet at the same time play the spy upon his actions, and work heart and soul to drag the dreadful secret of his life into the light of day.
Thus it was that towards the close of the week in which Henry Dunbar, for the first time after his return from India, visited the banking-offices, Clement Austin handed a formal notice of resignation to Mr. Balderby. The cashier could not immediately resign his situation, but was compelled to give his employers a month’s notice of the withdrawal of his services.
A thunderbolt falling upon the morocco-covered writing-table in Mr. Balderby’s private parlour could scarcely have been more astonishing to the junior partner than this letter which Clement Austin handed him very quietly and very respectfully.
There were many reasons why Clement Austin should remain in the banking-house. His father had lived for thirty years, and had eventually died, in the employment of Dunbar and Dunbar. He had been a great favourite with the brothers; and Clement had been admitted into the house as a boy, and had received much notice from Percival. More than this, he had every chance of being admitted ere long to a junior partnership upon very easy terms, which junior partnership would of course be the high-road to a great fortune.
Mr. Balderby sat with the letter open in his hands, staring at the lines before him as if he was scarcely able to comprehend their purport.
“Do you mean this, Austin?” he said at last.
“Yes, sir. Circumstances over which I have no control compel me to offer you my resignation.”
“Have you quarrelled with anybody in the office? Has anything occurred in the house that has made you uncomfortable?”
“No, indeed, Mr. Balderby; I am very comfortable in my position.”
The junior partner leaned back in his chair, and stared at the cashier as if he had been trying to detect the traces of incipient insanity in the young man’s countenance.
“You are comfortable in your position, and yet you — Oh! I suppose the real truth of the matter is, that you have heard of something better, and you are ready to give us the go-by in order to improve your own circumstances?” said Mr. Balderby, with a tone of pique; “though I really don’t see how you can very well be better off anywhere than you are here,” he added, thoughtfully.
“You do me wrong, sir, when you think that I could willingly leave you for my own advantage,” Clement answered, quietly. “I have no better engagement, nor have I even a prospect of any engagement.”
“You haven’t!” exclaimed the junior partner; “and yet you throw away such a chance as only falls to the lot of one man in a thousand! I don’t particularly care about guessing riddles, Mr. Austin; perhaps you’ll be kind enough to tell me frankly why you want to leave us?”
“I regret to say that it is impossible for me to do so, sir,” replied the cashier; “my motive for leaving this house, which is a kind of second home to me, is no frivolous one, believe me. I have weighed well the step I am about to take, and I am quite aware that I sacrifice very excellent prospects in throwing up my present situation. But the reason of my resignation must remain a secret; for the present at least. If ever the day comes when I am able to explain my conduct, I believe that you will give me your hand, and say to me, ‘Clement Austin, you only did your duty.’”
“Clement,” said Mr. Balderby, “you are an excellent fellow; but you certainly must have got some romantic crotchet in your head, or you could never have thought of writing such a letter as this. Are you going to be married? Is that your reason for leaving us? Have you fascinated some wealthy heiress, and are you going to retire into splendid slavery?”
“No, sir. I am engaged to be married; but the lady whom I hope to call my wife is poor, and I have every necessity to be a working man for the rest of my life.”
“Well, then, my dear fellow, it’s a riddle; and, as I said before, I’m not good at guessing enigmas. There, my boy; go home and sleep upon this; and come back to me to-morrow morning, and tell me to throw this stupid letter in the fire — that’s the wisest thing you can do. Good night.”
But, in spite of all that Mr. Balderby could say, Clement Austin steadily adhered to his resolution. He worked early and late during the month in which he remained at his post, preparing the ledgers, balancing accounts, and making things straight and easy for the new cashier. He told Margaret Wilmot of what he had done, but he did not tell her the extent of the sacrifice which he had made for her sake. She was the only person who knew the real motive of his conduct, for to his mother he said very little more than he had said to Mr. Balderby.
“I shall be able to tell you my motives for leaving the banking-house at some future time, dear mother,” he said; “until that time I can only entreat you to trust me, and to believe that I have acted for the best.”
“I do believe it, my dear,” answered the widow, cheerfully; “when did you ever do anything that wasn’t wise and good?”
Her only son, Clement, was the god of this simple woman’s idolatry; and if he had seen fit to turn her out of doors, and ask her to beg by his side in the streets of the city, I doubt if she would not have imagined some hidden wisdom lurking at the bottom of his apparently irrational proceedings. So she made no objection to his abandoning his desk in the house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby.
“We shall be poorer, I suppose, Clem,” Mrs. Austin said; “but that’s very little consequence, for your dear father left me so comfortably off that I can very well afford to keep house for my only son; and I shall have you more at home, dear, and that will indeed be happiness.”
But Clement told his mother that he had some very important business on hand just then, which would occupy him a good deal; and indeed the first step necessary would be a journey to Shorncliffe, in Warwickshire.
“Why, that’s where you went to school, Clem!”
“And it’s near Mr. Percival Dunbar — or, at least, Mr. Dunbar’s country house.”
“Yes, mother,” answered Clement. “Now the business in which I am engaged is — is rather of a difficult nature, and I want legal help. My old schoolfellow, Arthur Lovell, who is as good a fellow as ever breathed, has been educated for the law, and is now a solicitor. He lives at Shorncliffe with his father, John Lovell, who is also a solicitor, and a man of some standing in the county. I shall run down to Shorncliffe, see my old friend, and get has advice; and if you’ll bring Margaret down for a few days’ change of air, we’ll stop at the dear old Reindeer, where you used to come, mother, when I was at school, and where you used to give me such jolly dinners in the days when a good dinner was a treat to a hungry schoolboy.”
Mrs. Austin smiled at her son; she smiled tenderly as she remembered his bright boyhood. Mothers with only sons are not very strong-minded. Had Clement proposed a trip to the moon, she would scarcely have known how to refuse him her company on the expedition.
She shivered a little, and looked rather doubtfully from the blazing; fire which lit up the cozy drawing-room to the cold grey sky outside the window.
“The beginning of January isn’t the pleasantest time in the year for a trip into the country, Clem, dear,” she said; “but I should certainly be very lonely at home without you. And as to poor Madge, of course it would be a great treat to her to get away from her pupils and have a peep at the genuine country, even though there isn’t a single leaf upon the trees. So I suppose I must say yes. But do tell me all about this business there’s a dear good boy.”
Unfortunately the dear good boy was obliged to tell his mother that the business in question was, like his motive for resigning his situation, a profound secret, and that it must remain so for some time to come.
“Wait, dear mother,” he said; “you shall know all about it by-and-by. Believe me, when I tell you that it’s not a very pleasant business,” he added, with a sigh.
“It’s not unpleasant for you, I hope, Clement?”
“It isn’t pleasant for any one who is concerned in it, mother,” answered the young man, thoughtfully; “it’s altogether a miserable business; but I’m not concerned in it as a principal, you know, dear mother; and when it’s all over we shall only look back upon it as the passing of a black cloud over our lives, and you will say that I have done my duty. Dearest mother, don’t look so puzzled,” added Clement; “this matter must remain a secret for the present. Only wait, and trust me.”
“I will, my dear boy,” Mrs. Austin said, presently. “I will trust you with all my heart; for I know how good you are. But I don’t like secrets, Clem; secrets always make me uncomfortable.”
No more was said upon this subject, and it was arranged by-and-by that Mrs. Austin and Margaret should prepare to start for Warwickshire at the beginning of the following week, when Clement would be freed from all engagements to Messrs. Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby.
Margaret had waited very patiently for this time, in which Clement would be free to give her all his help in that awful task which lay before her — the discovery of Henry Dunbar’s guilt.
“You will go to Shorncliffe with my mother,” Clement Austin said, upon the evening after his conversation with the widow; “you will go with her, Madge, ostensibly upon a little pleasure trip. Once there, we shall be able to contrive an interview with Mr. Dunbar. He is a prisoner at Maudesley Abbey, laid up by the effect of his accident the other day, but not too ill to see people, Balderby says; therefore I should think we may be able to plan an interview between you and him. You still hold to your original purpose? You wish to see Henry Dunbar?”
“Yes,” answered Margaret, thoughtfully; “I want to see him. I want to look straight into the face of the man whom I believe to be my father’s murderer. I don’t know why it is, but this purpose has been uppermost in my mind ever since I heard of that dreadful journey to Winchester; ever since I first knew that my father had been murdered while travelling with Henry Dunbar. It might, as you have said, be wiser to watch and wait, and to avoid all chance of alarming this man. But I can’t be wise. I want to see him. I want to look in his face, and see if his eyes can meet mine.”
“You shall see him then, dear girl. A woman’s instinct is sometimes worth more than a man’s wisdom. You shall see Henry Dunbar. I know that my old schoolfellow Arthur Lovell will help me, with all his heart and soul. I have called again upon the Scotland–Yard people, and I gave them a minute description of the scene in St. Gundolph Lane; but they only shrugged their shoulders, and said the circumstances looked queer, but were not strong enough to act upon. If any body can help us, Arthur Lovell can; for he was present at the inquest and all further examination of the witnesses at Winchester.”
If Margaret Wilmot and Clement Austin had been going upon any other errand than that which took them to Warwickshire, the journey to Shorncliffe might have been very pleasant to them.
To Margaret, this comfortable journey in the cushioned corner of a first-class carriage, respectfully waited upon by the man she loved, possessed at least the charm of novelty. Her journeys hitherto had been long wearisome pilgrimages in draughty third-class carriages, with noisy company, and in an atmosphere pervaded by a powerful effluvium of various kinds of alcohol.
Her life had been a very hard one, darkened by the ever-brooding shadow of disgrace. It was new to her to sit quietly looking out at the low meadows and glimmering white-walled villas, the patches of sparse woodland, the distant villages, the glimpses of rippling water, shining in the wintry sun. It was new to her to be loved by people whose minds were unembittered by the baneful memories of wrong and crime. It was new to her to hear gentle voices, sweet Christian-like words: it was new to her to breathe the bright atmosphere that surrounds those who lead a virtuous, God-fearing life.
But there is little sunshine without its attendant shadow. The shadow upon Margaret’s life now was the shadow of that coming task — that horrible work which must be done — before she could be free to thank God for His mercies, and to be happy.
The London train reached Shorncliffe early in the afternoon. Clement Austin hired a roomy old fly, and carried off his companions to the Reindeer.
The Reindeer was a comfortable old-fashioned hotel. It had been a very grand place in the coaching-days, and you entered the hostelry by a broad and ponderous archway, under which Highflyers and Electrics had driven triumphantly in the days that were for ever gone.
The house was a roomy old place, with long corridors and wide staircases; noble staircases, with broad, slippery, oaken banisters and shallow steps. The rooms were grand and big, with bow windows so spotless in their cleanness that they had rather a cold effect on a January day, and were apt to inspire in the vulgar mind the fancy that a little dirt or smoke would look warmer and more comfortable. Certainly, if the Reindeer had a fault, it was that it was too clean. Everything was actually slippery with cleanness, from the newly-calendered chintz that covered the sofa and the chair-cushions to the copper coal-scuttle that glittered by the side of the dazzling brass fender. There were faint odours of soft soap in the bed-chambers, which no amount of dried lavender could overcome. There was an effluvium of vitriol about all the brass-work, and there was a good deal of brass-work in the Reindeer: and if one species of decoration is more conducive to shivering than another, it certainly is brass-work in a state of high polish.
There was no dish ever devised by mortal cook which the sojourner at the Reindeer could not have, according to the preliminary statement of the landlord; but with whatever ambitious design the sojourner began to talk about dinner, it always ended, somehow or other, by his ordering a chicken, a little bit of boiled bacon, a dish of cutlets, and a tart. There were days upon which divers species of fish were to be had in Shorncliffe, but the sojourner at the Reindeer rarely happened to hit upon one of those days.
Clement Austin installed Margaret and the widow in a sitting-room which would have comfortably accommodated about forty people. There was a bow-window quite large enough for the requirements of a small family, and Mrs. Austin settled herself there, while the landlord was struggling with a refractory fire, and pretending not to know that the grate was damp.
Clement went through the usual fiction of deliberation as to what he should have for dinner, and of course ended with the perennial chicken and cutlets.
“I haven’t the fine appetite I had fifteen years ago, Mr. Gilwood,” he said to the landlord, “when my mother yonder, who hasn’t grown fifteen days older in all those fifteen years — bless her dear motherly heart! — used to come down to see me at the academy in the Lisford Road, and give me a dinner in this dear old room. I thought your cutlets the most ethereal morsels ever dished by mortal cook, Mr. Gilwood, and this room the best place in all the world. You know Mr. Lovell — Mr. Arthur Lovell?”
“Yes, sir; and a very nice young gentleman he is.”
“He’s settled in Shorncliffe, I suppose?”
“Well, I believe he is, sir. There was some talk of his going out to India, in a Government appointment, sir, or something of that sort; but I’m given to understand that it’s all off now, and that Mr. Arthur is to go into partnership with his father; and a very clever young lawyer he is, I’ve been told.”
“So much the better,” answered Clement, “for I want to consult him upon a little matter of business. Good-bye, mother! Take care of Madge, and make yourselves as comfortable as you can. I think the fire will burn now, Mr. Gilwood. I shan’t be away above an hour, I dare say; and then I’ll come and take you for a walk before dinner. God bless you, my poor Madge!” Clement whispered, as Margaret followed him to the door of the room, and looked wistfully after him as he went down the staircase.
Mrs. Austin had once cherished ambitious views with regard to her son’s matrimonial prospects; but she had freely given them up when she found that he had set his heart upon winning Margaret Wilmot for his wife. The good mother had made this sacrifice willingly and without complaint, as she would have made any other sacrifice for her dearly-beloved only son; and she found the reward of her devotion; for Margaret, this penniless, friendless girl, had become very dear to her — a real daughter, not in law, but bound by the sweet ties of gratitude and affection.
“And I was such a silly old creature, my dear,” the widow said to Margaret, as they sat in the bow-window looking out into the quiet street; “I was so worldly-minded that I wanted Clement to marry a rich woman, so that I might have some stuck-up daughter-in-law, who would despise her husband’s mother, and estrange my boy from me, and make my old age miserable. That’s what I wanted, Madge, and what I might have had, perhaps, if Clem hadn’t been wiser than his silly old mother. And, thanks to him, I’ve got the sweetest, truest, brightest girl that ever lived; though you are not as bright as usual to-day, Madge,” Mrs. Austin added, thoughtfully. “You haven’t smiled once this morning, my dear, and you seem as if you’d something on your mind.”
“I’ve been thinking of my poor father,” Margaret answered, quietly.
“To be sure, my dear; and I might have known as much, my poor tender-hearted lamb. I know how unhappy those thoughts always make you.”
Clement Austin had not been at Shorncliffe for three years. He had visited Maudesley Abbey several times during the lifetime of Percival Dunbar, for he had been a favourite with the old man; and he had been four years at a boarding-school kept by a clergyman of the Church of England in a fine old brick mansion on the Lisford Road.
The town of Shorncliffe was therefore familiar to Mr. Austin; and he looked neither to the right nor to the left as he walked towards the archway of St. Gwendoline’s Church, near which Mr. Lovell’s house was situated.
He found Arthur at home, and very delighted to see his old schoolfellow. The two young men went into a little panelled room, looting into the garden, a cosy little room which Arthur Lovell called his study; and here they sat together for upwards of an hour, discussing the circumstances of the murder at Winchester, and the conduct of Mr. Dunbar since that event.
In the course of that interview, Clement Austin plainly perceived that Arthur Lovell had come to the same conclusion as himself, though the young lawyer was slow to express his opinion.
“I cannot bear to think it,” he said; “I know Laura Dunbar — that is to say, Lady Jocelyn — and it is too horrible to me to imagine that her father is guilty of this crime. What would be that innocent girl’s feelings if it should be so, and if her father’s guilt should be brought home to him!”
“Yes, it would be very terrible for Lady Jocelyn, no doubt,” Clement answered; “but that consideration must not hinder the course of justice. I think this man’s position has served him as a shield from the very first. People have thought it next to impossible that Henry Dunbar could be guilty of a crime, while they would have been ready enough to suspect some penniless vagabond of any iniquity.”
Arthur Lovell told Clement that the banker was still at Maudesley, bound a prisoner by his broken leg, which was going on favourably enough, but very slowly.
Mr. Dunbar had expressed a wish to go abroad, in spite of his broken leg, and had only desisted from his design of being conveyed somehow or other from place to place, when he was told that any such imprudence might result in permanent lameness.
“Keep yourself quiet, and submit to the necessities of your accident, and you’ll recover quickly,” the surgeon told his patient. “Try to hurry the work of nature, and you’ll have cause to repent your impatience for the remainder of your life.”
So Henry Dunbar had been obliged to submit himself to the decrees of Fate, and to lie day after day, and night after night, upon his bed in the tapestried chamber, staring at the fire, or the figure of his valet and attendant; nodding in the easy-chair by the hearth; or listening to the cinders falling from the grate, and the moaning of the winter wind amongst the bare branches of the elms.
The banker was getting better and stronger every day, Arthur Lovell said. His attendants were able to remove him from one chamber to another; a pair of crutches had been made for him, but he had not yet been able to make his first feeble trial of them. He was fain to content himself with being carried to an easy-chair, to sit for a few hours, wrapped in blankets, with the leopard-skin rug about his legs. No man could have been more completely a prisoner than this man had become by the result of the fatal accident near Rugby.
“Providence has thrown him into my power,” Margaret said, when Clement repeated to her the information which he had received from Arthur Lovell — “Providence has thrown this man into my power; for he can no longer escape, and, surrounded by his own servants, he will scarcely dare to refuse to see me; he will surely never be so unwise as to betray his terror of me.”
“And if he does refuse ——”
“If he does, I’ll invent some stratagem by which I may see him. But he will not refuse. When he finds that I am so resolute as to follow him here, he will not refuse to see me.”
This conversation took place during a brief walk which the lovers took in the wintry dusk, while Mrs. Austin nodded by the fire in that comfortable half-hour which precedes dinner.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50