Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

Sinking the Past.

The train from London to Southampton was due in an hour. The clerk who gave Joseph Wilmot this information asked him how his brother was getting on.

“He is much better,” Joseph answered. “I am going on to Southampton to execute some important business he was to have done there. I shall come back early to-morrow morning.”

He walked into the waiting-room, and stopped there, seated in the same attitude the whole time: never stirring, never lifting his head from his breast: always brooding, brooding, brooding: as he had brooded in the railway carriage, as he had brooded in the little parlour of the inn. He took his ticket for Southampton as soon as the office was open, and then stood on the platform, where there were two or three stragglers, waiting for the train to come up.

It came at last. Joseph Wilmot sprang into a second-class carriage, took his seat in the corner, with his hat slouched over his eyes, which were almost hidden by its dilapidated brim.

It was late when he reached Southampton; but he seemed to be acquainted with the town, and he walked straight to a small public-house by the river-side, almost hidden under the shadow of the town wall.

Here he got a bed, and here he ascertained that the Electra had not yet arrived.

He ate his supper in his own room, though he was requested to take it in the public apartment. He seemed to shrink from meeting any one, or talking to any one; and still brooded over his own black thoughts: as he had brooded at the railway station, in the parlour of the Basingstoke inn, in the carriage with his brother Sampson.

Whatever his thoughts were, they absorbed him so entirely that he seemed like a man who walks in his sleep, doing everything mechanically, and without knowing what he does.

But for all this he was active, for he rose very early the next morning. He had not had an hour’s sleep throughout the night, but had lain in every variety of restless attitude, tossing first on this side and then on that: always thinking, thinking, thinking, till the action of his brain became as mechanical as that of any other machine, and went on in spite of himself.

He went downstairs, paid the money for his supper and night’s lodging to a sleepy servant-girl, and left the house as the church-clock in an old-fashioned square hard by struck eight.

He walked straight to the High Street, and entered the shop of a tailor and general outfitter. It was a stylish establishment, and there was a languid young man taking down the shutters, who appeared to be the only person on the establishment just at present.

He looked superciliously enough at Joseph Wilmot, eyeing him lazily from head to foot, and yawning as he did so.

“You’d better make yourself scarce,” he said; “our principal never gives anything to tramps.”

“Your principal may give or keep what he likes,” Joseph answered, carelessly; “I can pay for what I want. Call your master down: or stay, you’ll do as well, I dare say. I want a complete rig-out from head to heel. Do you understand?”

“I shall, perhaps, when I see the money for it,” the languid youth answered, with a sneer.

“So you’ve learned the way of the world already, have you, my lad?” said Joseph Wilmot, bitterly. Then, pulling his brother’s memorandum-book from his pocket, he opened it, and took out the little packet of bank-notes. “I suppose you can understand these?” he said.

The languid youth lifted his nose, which by its natural conformation betrayed an aspiring character, and looked dubiously at his customer.

“I can understand as they might be flash uns,” he remarked, significantly.

Mr. Joseph Wilmot growled out an oath, and made a plunge at the young shopman.

“I said as they might be flash,” the youth remonstrated, quite meekly; “there’s no call to fly at me. I didn’t mean to give no offence.”

“No,” muttered Mr. Wilmot; “egad! you’d better not mean it. Call your master.”

The youth retired to obey: he was quite subdued and submissive by this time.

Joseph Wilmot looked about the shop.

“The cur forgot the till,” he muttered; “I might try my hand at that, if —” He stopped and smiled with a strange, deliberate expression, not quite agreeable to behold —“if I wasn’t going to meet Henry Dunbar.”

There was a full-length looking-glass in one corner of the shop. Joseph Wilmot walked up to it, looked at himself for a few moments in silent contemplation, and then shook his clenched hand at the reflected image.

“You’re a vagabond!” he muttered between his set teeth, “and you look it! You’re an outcast; and you look it! But who set the mark upon you? Who’s to blame for all the evil you have done? Whose treachery made you what you are? That’s the question!”

The owner of the shop appeared, and looked sharply at his customer.

“Now, listen to me!” Joseph Wilmot said, slowly and deliberately. “I’ve been down upon my luck for some time past, and I’ve just got a bit of money. I’ve got it honestly, mind you; and I don’t want to be questioned by such a jackanapes as that shopboy of yours.”

The languid youth folded his arms, and endeavoured to look ferocious in his fiery indignation; but he drew a little way behind his master as he did so.

The proprietor of the shop bowed and smiled.

“We shall be happy to wait upon you, sir,” he said; “and I have no doubt we shall be able to give you satisfaction. If my shopman has been impertinent —”

“He has,” interrupted Joseph; “but I don’t want to make any palaver about that. He’s like the rest of the world, and he thinks if a man wears a shabby coat, he must be a scoundrel; that’s all. I forgive him.”

The languid youth, very much in the background, and quite sheltered, by his master, might have been heard murmuring faintly —

“Oh, indeed! Forgive, indeed! Do you really, now? Thank you for nothing!” and other sentences of a derisive character.

“I want a complete rig-out,” continued Joseph Wilmot; “a new suit of clothes — hat, boots, umbrella, a carpet-bag, half-a-dozen shirts, brush and comb, shaving tackle, and all the et-ceteras. Now, as you may be no more inclined to trust me than that young whipper-snapper of yours, for all you’re so uncommon civil, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I want this beard of mine trimmed and altered. I’ll go to a barber’s and get that done, and in the meantime you can make your mind easy about the character of these gentlemen.”

He handed the tradesman three of the Bank of England notes. The man looked at them doubtfully.

“If you think they ain’t genuine, send ’em round to one of your neighbours, and get ’em changed,” Joseph Wilmot said; “but be quick about it. I shall be back here in half an hour.”

He walked out of the shop, leaving the man still staring, with the three notes in his hand.

The vagabond, with his hat slouched over his eyes, and big hands in his pockets, strolled away from the High Street down to a barber’s shop near the docks.

Here he had his beard shaved off, his ragged moustache trimmed into the most aristocratic shape, and his long, straggling grey hair cut and arranged according to his own directions.

If he had been the vainest of men, bent on no higher object in life than the embellishment of his person, he could not have been more particular or more difficult to please.

When the barber had completed his work, Joseph Wilmot washed his face, readjusted the hair upon his ample forehead, and looked at himself in a little shaving-glass that hung against the wall.

So far as the man’s head and face went, the transformation was perfect. He was no longer a vagabond. He was a respectable, handsome-looking gentleman, advanced in middle age. Not altogether unaristocratic-looking.

The very expression of his face was altered. The defiant sneer was changed into a haughty smile; the sullen scowl was now a thoughtful frown.

Whether this change was natural to him, and merely brought about by the alteration in his hair and beard, or whether it was an assumption of his own, was only known to the man himself.

He put on his hat, still slouching the brim over his eyes, paid the barber, and went away. He walked straight to the docks, and made inquiries about the steamer Electra. She was not expected to arrive until the next day, at the earliest. Having satisfied himself upon this point, Joseph Wilmot went back to the outfitter’s to choose his new clothes.

This business occupied him for a long time; for in this he was as difficult to please as he had been in the matter of his beard and hair. No punctilious old bachelor, the best and brightest hours of whose life had been devoted to the cares of the toilet, could have shown himself more fastidious than this vagabond, who had been out-at-elbows for ten years past, and who had worn a felon’s dress for thirteen years at a stretch in Norfolk Island.

But he evinced no bad taste in the selection of a costume. He chose no gaudy colours, or flashily-cut vestments. On the contrary, the garb he assumed was in perfect keeping with the style of his hair and moustache. It was the dress of a middle-aged gentleman; fashionable, but scrupulously simple, quiet alike in colour and in cut.

When his toilet was complete, from his twenty-one shilling hat to the polished boots upon his well-shaped feet, he left the shady little parlour in which he had changed his clothes, and came into the shop, with a glove dangling loosely in one ungloved hand, and a cane in the other.

The tradesman and his shopboy stared aghast.

“If that turn-out had cost you fifty pound, sir, instead of eighteen pound, twelve, and elevenpence, it would be worth all the money to you; for you look like a dook;” cried the tailor, with enthusiasm.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Mr. Wilmot said, carelessly. He stood before the cheval-glass, and twirled his moustache as he spoke, looking at himself thoughtfully, with a smile upon his face. Then he took his change from the tailor, counted it, and dropped the gold and silver into his waistcoat-pocket.

The man’s manner was as much altered as his person. He had entered the shop at eight o’clock that morning a blackguard as well as a vagabond. He left it now a gentleman; subdued in voice, easy and rather listless in gait, haughty and self-possessed in tone.

“Oh, by the bye,” he said, pausing upon the threshold of the door, “I’ll thank you to bundle all those old things of mine together into a sheet of brown paper: tie them up tightly. I’ll call for them after dark to-night.”

Having said this, very carelessly and indifferently, Mr. Wilmot left the shop: but though he was now as well dressed and as gentlemanly-looking as any man in Southampton, he turned into the first by-street, and hurried away from the town to a lonely walk beside the water.

He walked along the shore until he came to a village near the river, and about a couple of miles from Southampton. There he entered a low-roofed little public-house, very quiet and unfrequented, ordered some brandy and cold water of a girl who was seated at work behind the bar, and then went into the parlour — a low-ceilinged, wainscoted room, whose walls were adorned here and there with auctioneers’ announcements of coming sales of live and dead stock, farm-houses, and farming implements, interspersed with railway time-tables.

Mr. Joseph Wilmot had this room all to himself. He seated himself by the open window, took up a country newspaper, and tried to read.

But that attempt was a most dismal failure. In the first place, there was very little in the paper to read: and in the second, Joseph Wilmot would have been unable to chain his attention to the page upon which his eyes were fixed, though all the wisdom of the world had been concentrated upon that one sheet of printed paper.

No; he could not read. He could only think. He could only think of this strange chance which had come to him after five-and-thirty weary years. He could only think of his probable meeting with Henry Dunbar.

He entered the village public-house at a little after one, and he stayed there throughout the rest of the day, drinking brandy-and-water — not immoderately: he was very careful and watchful of himself in that matter — taking a snack of bread and cold meat for his dinner, and thinking of Henry Dunbar.

In that he never varied, let him do what he would.

In the railway carriage, at the Basingstoke inn, at the station, through the long sleepless night at the public-house by the water, in the tailor’s shop, even when he was most occupied by the choice of his clothes, he had still thought of Henry Dunbar. From the time of his meeting the old clerk at the Waterloo terminus, he had never ceased to think of Henry Dunbar.

He never once thought of his brother: not so much even as to wonder whether the stroke had been fatal — whether the old man was yet dead. He never thought of his daughter, or the anguish his prolonged absence might cause her to suffer.

He had put away the past as if it had never been, and concentrated all the force of his mind upon the one idea which possessed him like some strong demon.

Sometimes a sudden terror seized him.

What if Henry Dunbar should have died upon the passage home? What if the Electra should bring nothing but a sealed leaden coffin, and a corpse embalmed in spirit?

No, he could not imagine that! Fate, darkly brooding over these two men throughout half a long lifetime, had held them asunder for five-and-thirty years, to fling them mysteriously together now.

It seemed as if the old clerk’s philosophy was not so very unsound, after all. Sooner or later — sooner or later — the day of retribution comes.

When it grew dusk, Joseph Wilmot left the little inn, and walked back to Southampton. It was quite dark when he entered the High Street, and the tailor’s shop was closing.

“I thought you’d forgotten your parcel, sir,” the man said; “I’ve had it ready for you ever so long. Can I send it any where for you?”

“No, thank you; I’ll take it myself.”

With the brown-paper parcel — which was a very bulky one — under his arm, Joseph Wilmot left the tailor’s shop, and walked down to an open pier or quay abutting on the water.

On his way along the river shore, between the village public-house and the town of Southampton, he had filled his pockets with stones. He knelt down now by the edge of the pier, and tied all these stones together in an old cotton pocket-handkerchief.

When he had done this, carefully, compactly, and quickly, like a man accustomed to do all sorts of strange things, he tied the handkerchief full of stones to the whipcord that bound the brown-paper parcel, and dropped both packages into the water.

The spot which he had chosen for this purpose was at the extreme end of the pier, where the water was deepest.

He had done all this cautiously, taking care to make sure every now and then that he was unobserved.

And when the parcel had sunk, he watched the widening circle upon the surface of the water till it died away.

“So much for James Wentworth, and the clothes he wore,” he said to himself as he walked away.

He slept that night at the village inn where he had spent the day, and the next morning walked into Southampton.

It was a little after nine o’clock when he entered the docks, and the Electra was visible to the naked eye, steaming through the blue water under a cloudless summer sky.


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