Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 16

Mr. James Conyers.

The first week in July brought James Conyers, the new trainer, to Mellish Park. John had made no particular inquiries as to the man’s character of any of his former employers, as a word from Mr. Pastern was all-sufficient.

Mr. Mellish had endeavored to discover the cause of Aurora’s agitation at the reading of Mr. Pastern’s letter. She had fallen like a dead creature at his feet; she had been hysterical throughout the remainder of the day, and delirious in the ensuing night, but she had not uttered one word calculated to throw any light upon the secret of her strange manifestation of emotion.

Her husband sat by her bedside upon the day after that on which she had fallen into the death-like swoon, watching her with a grave, anxious face, and earnest eyes that never wandered from her own.

He was suffering very much the same agony that Talbot Bulstrode had endured at Felden on the receipt of his mother’s letter. The dark wall was slowly rising and separating him from the woman he loved. He was now to discover the tortures known only to the husband whose wife is parted from him by that which has more power to sever than any width of land or wild extent of ocean —a secret.

He watched the pale face lying on the pillow; the large, black, haggard eyes, wide open, and looking blankly out at the faraway purple tree-tops in the horizon; but there was no clew to the mystery in any line of that beloved countenance; there was little more than an expression of weariness, as if the soul, looking out of that white face, was so utterly enfeebled as to have lost all power to feel anything but a vague yearning for rest.

The wide casement windows were open, but the day was hot and oppressive — oppressively still and sunny; the landscape sweltering under a yellow haze, as if the very atmosphere had been opaque with melted gold. Even the roses in the garden seemed to feel the influence of the blazing summer sky, dropping their heavy heads like human sufferers from headache. The mastiff Bow-wow, lying under an acacia upon the lawn, was as peevish as any captious elderly gentleman, and snapped spitefully at a frivolous butterfly that wheeled, and spun, and threw summersaults about the dog’s head. Beautiful as was this summer’s day, it was one on which people are apt to lose their tempers, and quarrel with each other by reason of the heat; every man feeling a secret conviction that his neighbor is in some way to blame for the sultriness of the atmosphere, and that it would be cooler if he were out of the way. It was one of those days on which invalids are especially fractious, and hospital nurses murmur at their vocation; a day on which third-class passengers travelling long distances by excursion-trains are savagely clamorous for beer at every station, and hate each other for the narrowness and hardness of the carriage-seats, and for the inadequate means of ventilation provided by the Railway Company; a day on which stern business men revolt against the ceaseless grinding of the wheel, and, suddenly reckless of consequences, rush wildly to the Crown and Sceptre, to cool their overheated systems with water souchy and still hock; and abnormal day, upon which the machinery of every-day life gets out of order, and runs riot throughout twelve suffocating hours.

John Mellish, sitting patiently by his wife’s side, thought very little of the summer weather. I doubt if he knew whether the month was January or June. For him earth only held one creature, and she was ill and in distress — distress from which he was powerless to save her — distress the very nature of which he was ignorant.

His voice trembled when he spoke to her.

“My darling, you have been very ill,” he said.

She looked at him with a smile so unlike her own that it was more painful to him to see than the loudest agony of tears, and stretched out her hand. He took the burning hand in his, and held it while he talked to her.

“Yes, dearest, you have been ill; but Morton says the attack was merely hysterical, and that you will be yourself again to-morrow, so there’s no occasion for anxiety on that score. What grieves me, darling, is to see that there is something on your mind — something which has been the real cause of your illness.”

She turned her face upon the pillow, and tried to snatch her hand from his in her impatience, but he held it tightly in both his own.

“Does my speaking of yesterday distress you, Aurora?” he asked, gravely.

“Distress me? Oh, no.”

“Then tell me, darling, why the mention of that man, the trainer’s name, had such a terrible effect upon you.”

“The doctor told you that the attack was hysterical,” she said, coldly; “I suppose I was hysterical and nervous yesterday.”

“But the name, Aurora, the name. This James Conyers, who is he?” He felt the hand he held tighten convulsively upon his own as he mentioned the trainer’s name.

“Who is this man? Tell me, Aurora. For God’s sake, tell me the truth.”

She turned her face toward him once more as he said this.

“If you only want the truth from me, John, you must ask me nothing. Remember what I said to you at the Chateau d’Arques. It was a secret that parted me from Talbot Bulstrode. You trusted me then, John — you must trust me to the end; or, if you can not trust me”— she stopped suddenly, and the tears welled slowly up to her large, mournful eyes as she looked at her husband.

“What, dearest?”

“We must part — as Talbot and I parted.”

“Part!” he cried; “my love, my love! Do you think there is anything upon this earth strong enough to part us, except death? Do you think that any combination of circumstances, however strange, however inexplicable, would ever cause me to doubt your honor, or to tremble for my own? Could I be here if I doubted you? could I sit by your side, asking you these questions, if I feared the issue? Nothing shall shake my confidence — nothing can. But have pity on me; think how bitter a grief it is to sit here with your hand in mine, and to know that there is a secret between us. Aurora, tell me — this man, this Conyers — what is he, and who is he?”

“You know that as well as I do. A groom once; afterward a jockey; and now a trainer.”

“But you know him?”

“I have seen him.”

“When?”

“Some years ago, when he was in my father’s service.”

John Mellish breathed more freely for a moment. The man had been a groom at Felden Woods, that was all. This accounted for the fact of Aurora’s recognizing his name, but not for her agitation. He was no nearer the clew to the mystery than before.

“James Conyers was in your father’s service,” he said, thoughtfully; “but why should the mention of his name yesterday have caused you such emotion?”

“I can not tell you.”

“It is another secret, then, Aurora,” he said, reproachfully; “or has this man anything to do with the old secret of which you told me at the Chateau d’Arques?”

She did not answer him.

“Ah! I see — I understand, Aurora,” he added, after a pause. “This man was a servant at Felden Woods; a spy, perhaps; and he discovered the secret, and traded upon it, as servants often have done before. This caused your agitation at hearing his name. You were afraid that he would come here and annoy you, making use of this secret to extort money, and keeping you in perpetual terror of him. I think I can understand it all. I am right, am I not?”

She looked at him with something of the expression of a hunted animal that finds itself at bay.

“Yes, John.”

“This man — this groom — knows something of — of the secret?”

“He does.”

John Mellish turned away his head, and buried his face in his hands. What cruel anguish! what bitter degradation! This man, a groom, a servant, was in the confidence of his wife, and had such power to harass and alarm her that the very mention of his name was enough to cast her to the earth, as if stricken by sudden death. What, in the name of Heaven, could this secret be, which was in the keeping of a servant, and yet could not be told to him? He bit his lip till his strong teeth met upon the quivering flesh, in the silent agony of that thought. What could it be? He had sworn, only a minute before, to trust in her blindly to the end; and yet — and yet — His massive frame shook from head to heel in that noiseless struggle; doubt and despair rose like twin demons in his soul: but he wrestled with them, and overcame them; and, turning with a white face to his wife, said quietly:

“I will press these painful questions no farther, Aurora. I will write to Pastern, and tell him that the man will not suit us; and —”

He was rising to leave her bedside, when she laid her hand upon his arm.

“Don’t write to Mr. Pastern, John,” she said; “the man will suit you very well, I dare say. I had rather he came.”

“You wish him to come here?”

“Yes.”

“But he will annoy you; he will try to extort money from you.”

“He would do that in any case, since he is alive. I thought that he was dead.”

“Then you really wish him to come here?”

“I do.”

John Mellish left his wife’s room inexpressibly relieved. The secret could not be so very terrible after all, since she was willing that the man who knew it should come to Mellish Park, where there was at least a remote chance of his revealing it to her husband. Perhaps, after all, this mystery involved others rather than herself — her father’s commercial integrity — her mother? He had heard very little of her mother’s history; perhaps she — Pshaw! why weary himself with speculative surmises? he had promised to trust her, and the hour had come in which he was called upon to keep his promise. He wrote to Mr. Pastern, accepting his recommendation of James Conyers, and waited rather impatiently to see what kind of man the trainer was.

He received a letter from Conyers, very well written and worded, to the effect that he would arrive at Mellish Park upon the third of July.

Aurora had recovered from her brief hysterical attack when this letter arrived; but, as she was still weak and out of spirits, her medical man recommended change of air; so Mr. and Mrs. Mellish drove off to Harrowgate upon the 28th of June, leaving Mrs. Powell behind them at the Park.

The ensign’s widow had been scrupulously kept out of Aurora’s room during her short illness, being held at bay by John, who coolly shut the door in the lady’s sympathetic face, telling her that he’d wait upon his wife himself, and that when he wanted female assistance he would ring for Mrs. Mellish’s maid.

Now, Mrs. Walter Powell, being afflicted with that ravenous curiosity common to people who live in other people’s houses, felt herself deeply injured by this line of conduct. There were mysteries and secrets afloat, and she was not to be allowed to discover them; there was a skeleton in the house, and she was not to anatomize the bony horror. She scented trouble and sorrow as carnivorous animals scent their prey, and yet she, who hated Aurora, was not to be allowed to riot at the unnatural feast.

Why is it that the dependents in a household are so feverishly inquisitive about the doings and sayings, the manners and customs, the joys and sorrows of those who employ them? Is it that, having abnegated for themselves all active share in life, they take an unhealthy interest in those who are in the thick of the strife? Is it because, being cut off, in a great measure, by the nature of their employments from family ties and family pleasures, they feel a malicious delight in all family trials and vexations, and the ever-recurring breezes which disturb the domestic atmosphere? Remember this, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, when you quarrel. Your servants enjoy the fun. Surely that recollection ought to be enough to keep you for ever peaceful and friendly. Your servants listen at your doors, and repeat your spiteful speeches in the kitchen, and watch you while they wait at table, and understand every sarcasm, every innuendo, every look, as well as those at whom the cruel glances and the stinging words are aimed. They understand your sulky silence, your studied and overacted politeness. The most polished form your hate and anger can take is as transparent to those household spies as if you threw knives at each other, or pelted your enemy with the side-dishes and vegetables, after the fashion of disputants in a pantomime. Nothing that is done in the parlor is lost upon these quiet, well-behaved watchers from the kitchen. They laugh at you; nay, worse, they pity you. They discuss your affairs, and make out your income, and settle what you can afford to do and what you can’t afford to do; they prearrange the disposal of your wife’s fortune, and look prophetically forward to the day when you will avail yourself of the advantages of the new Bankruptcy Act. They know why you live on bad terms with your eldest daughter, and why your favorite son was turned out of doors; and they take a morbid interest in every dismal secret of your life. You don’t allow them followers; you look blacker than thunder if you see Mary’s sister or John’s poor old mother sitting meekly in your hall; you are surprised if the postman brings them letters, and attribute the fact to the pernicious system of over-educating the masses; you shut them from their homes and their kindred, their lovers and their friends; you deny them books, you grudge them a peep at your newspaper, and then you lift up your eyes and wonder at them because they are inquisitive, and because the staple of their talk is scandal and gossip.

Mrs. Walter Powell, having been treated by most of her employers as a species of upper servant, had acquired all the instincts of a servant, and she determined to leave no means untried in order to discover the cause of Aurora’s illness, which the doctor had darkly hinted to her had more to do with the mind than the body. John Mellish had ordered a carpenter to repair the lodge at the north gate for the accommodation of James Conyers, and John’s old trainer, Langley, was to receive his colleague and introduce him to the stables.

The new trainer made his appearance at the lodge-gates in the glowing July sunset; he was accompanied by no less a person than Steeve Hargraves, the softy, who had been lurking about the station upon the look-out for a job, and who had been engaged by Mr. Conyers to carry his portmanteau.

To the surprise of the trainer, Stephen Hargraves set down his burden at the Park gates.

“You’ll have to find some one else to carry it th’ rest ‘t’ ro-ad,” he said, touching his greasy cap, and extending his broad palm to receive the expected payment.

Mr. James Conyers was rather a dashing fellow, with no small amount of that quality which is generally termed “swagger,” so he turned sharply round upon the softy and asked him what the devil he meant.

“I mean that I may n’t go inside yon gates,” muttered Stephen Hargraves; “I mean that I’ve been turned out of yon place that I’ve lived in, man and boy, for forty years — turned out like a dog, neck and crop.”

Mr. Conyers threw away the stump of his cigar, and stared superciliously at the softy.

“What does the man mean?” he asked of the woman who had opened the gates.

“Why, poor fellow, he’s a bit fond, sir, and him and Mrs. Mellish did n’t get on very well; she has a rare spirit, and I have heard that she horsewhipped him for beating her favorite dog. Anyways, master turned him out of his service.”

“Because my lady had horsewhipped him. Servants’-hall justice all the world over,” said the trainer, laughing, and lighting a second cigar from a metal fusee-box in his waistcoat-pocket.

“Yes, that’s justice, a’n’t it?” the softy said, eagerly. “You would n’t like to be turned out of a place as you’d lived in forty year, would you? But Mrs. Mellish has a rare spirit, bless her pretty face!”

The blessing enunciated by Mr. Stephen Hargraves had such a very ominous sound that the new trainer, who was evidently a shrewd, observant fellow, took his cigar from his mouth on purpose to stare at him. The white face, lighted up by a pair of red eyes with a dim glimmer in them, was by no means the most agreeable of countenances; but Mr. Conyers looked at the man for some moments, holding him by the collar of his coat in order to do so with more deliberation; then, pushing the softy away with an affably contemptuous gesture, he said, laughing:

“You’re a character, my friend, it strikes me, and not too safe a character either. I’m dashed if I should like to offend you. There’s a shilling for your trouble, my man,” he added, tossing the money into Steeve’s extended palm with careless dexterity.

“I suppose I can leave my portmanteau here till to-morrow, ma’am?” he said, turning to the woman at the lodge. “I’d carry it down to the house myself, if I was n’t lame.”

He was such a handsome fellow, and had such an easy, careless manner, that the simple Yorkshirewoman was quite subdued by his fascinations.

“Leave it here, sir, and welcome,” she said, courtesying, “and my master shall take it to the house for you as soon as he comes in. Begging your pardon, sir, but I suppose you’re the new gentleman that’s expected in the stables?”

“Precisely.”

“Then I was to tell you, sir, that they’ve fitted up the north lodge for you; but you was to please go straight to the house, and the housekeeper was to make you comfortable and give you a bed for to-night.”

Mr. Conyers nodded, thanked her, wished her good-night, and limped slowly away, through the shadows of the evening, and under the shelter of the overarching trees. He stepped aside from the broad carriage-drive on to the dewy turf that bordered it, choosing the softest, mossiest places, with a sybarite’s instinct. Look at him as he takes his slow way under those glorious branches, in the holy stillness of the summer sunset, his face sometimes lighted by the low, lessening rays, sometimes dark with the shadows from the leaves above his head. He is wonderfully handsome — wonderfully and perfectly handsome — the very perfection of physical beauty; faultless in proportion, as if each line in his face and form had been measured by the sculptor’s rule, and carved by the sculptor’s chisel. He is a man about whose beauty there can be no dispute, whose perfection servant-maids and duchesses must alike confess, albeit they are not bound to admire; yet it is rather a sensual type of beauty, this splendor of form and color, unallied to any special charm of expression. Look at him now, as he stops to rest, leaning against the trunk of a tree, and smoking his big cigar with easy enjoyment. He is thinking. His dark blue eyes, deeper in color by reason of the thick black lashes which fringe them, are half closed, and have a dreamy, semi-sentimental expression, which might lead you to suppose the man was musing upon the beauty of the summer sunset. He is thinking of his losses on the Chester Cup, the wages he is to get from John Mellish, and the perquisites likely to appertain to the situation. You give him credit for thoughts to match with his dark, violet-hued eyes, and the exquisite modelling of his mouth and chin; you give him a mind as æsthetically perfect as his face and figure, and you recoil on discovering what a vulgar every-day sword may lurk under that beautiful scabbard. Mr. James Conyers is, perhaps, no worse than other men of his station, but he is decidedly no better. He is only very much handsomer; and you have no right to be angry with him because his opinions and sentiments are exactly what they would have been if he had had red hair and a pug nose. With what wonderful wisdom has George Eliot told us that people are not any better because they have long eye-lashes! Yet it must be that there is something anomalous in this outward beauty and inward ugliness; for, in spite of all experience, we revolt against it, and are incredulous to the last, believing that the palace which is outwardly so splendid can scarcely be ill furnished within. Heaven help the woman who sells her heart for a handsome face, and awakes, when the bargain has been struck, to discover the foolishness of such an exchange.

It took Mr. Conyers a long while to walk from the lodge to the house. I do not know how, technically, to describe his lameness. He had fallen, with his horse, in the Prussian steeple-chase, which had so nearly cost him his life, and his left leg had been terribly injured. The bones had been set by wonderful German surgeons, who put the shattered leg together as if it had been a Chinese puzzle, but who, with all their skill, could not prevent the contraction of the sinews, which had left the jockey lamed for life, and no longer fit to ride in any race whatever. He was of the middle height, and weighed something over eleven stone, and had never ridden except in Continental steeple-chases.

Mr. James Conyers paused a few paces from the house, and gravely contemplated the irregular pile of buildings before him.

“A snug crib,” he muttered; “plenty of tin hereabouts, I should think, from the look of the place.”

Being ignorant of the geography of the neighborhood, and being, moreover, by no means afflicted by an excess of modesty, Mr. Conyers went straight to the principal door, and rang the bell sacred to visitors and the family.

He was admitted by a grave old man-servant, who, after deliberately inspecting his brown shooting-coat, colored shirt-front, and felt hat, asked him, with considerable asperity, what he was pleased to want.

Mr. Conyers explained that he was the new trainer, and that he wished to see the housekeeper; but he had hardly finished doing so when a door in an angle of the hall was softly opened, and Mrs. Walter Powell peeped out of the snug little apartment sacred to her hours of privacy.

“Perhaps the young man will be so good as to step in here,” addressing herself apparently to space, but indirectly to James Conyers.

The young man took off his hat, uncovering a mass of luxuriant brown curls, and limped across the hall in obedience to Mrs. Powell’s invitation.

“I dare say I shall be able to give you any information you require.”

James Conyers smiled, wondering whether the bilious-looking party, as he mentally designated Mrs. Powell, could give him any information about the York summer meeting; but he bowed politely, and said he merely wanted to know where he was to hang out — he stopped and apologized — where he was to sleep that night, and whether there were any letters for him. But Mrs. Powell was by no means inclined to let him off so cheaply. She set to work to pump him, and labored so assiduously that she soon exhausted that very small amount of intelligence which he was disposed to afford her, being perfectly aware of the process to which he was subjected, and more than equal to the lady in dexterity. The ensign’s widow, therefore, ascertained little more than that Mr. Conyers was a perfect stranger to John Mellish and his wife, neither of whom he had ever seen.

Having failed to gain much by this interview, Mrs. Powell was anxious to bring it to a speedy termination.

“Perhaps you would like a glass of wine after your walk?” she said; “I’ll ring for some, and I can inquire at the same time about your letters. I dare say you are anxious to hear from the relatives you have left at home.”

Mr. Conyers smiled for the second time. He had neither had a home nor any relatives to speak of since the most infantine period of his existence, but had been thrown upon the world a sharp-witted adventurer at seven or eight years old. The “relatives” for whose communication he was looking out so eagerly were members of the humbler class of bookmen with whom he did business.

The servant despatched by Mrs. Powell returned with a decanter of sherry and about half a dozen letters for Mr. Conyers.

“You’d better bring the lamp, William,” said Mrs. Powell, as the man left the room, “for I’m sure you’ll never be able to read your letters by this light,” she added politely to Mr. Conyers.

The fact was, that Mrs. Powell, afflicted by that diseased curiosity of which I have spoken, wanted to know what kind of correspondents these were whose letters the trainer was so anxious to receive, and sent for the lamp in order that she might get the full benefit of any scraps of information to be got at by rapid glances and dexterously stolen peeps.

The servant brought a brilliant camphene lamp, and Mr. Conyers, not at all abashed by Mrs. Powell’s condescension, drew his chair close to the table, and, after tossing off a glass of sherry, settled himself to the perusal of his letters.

The ensign’s widow, with some needle-work in her hand, sat directly opposite to him at the small round table, with nothing but the pedestal of the lamp between them.

James Conyers took up the first letter, examined the superscription and seal, tore open the envelope, read the brief communication upon half a sheet of note-paper, and thrust it into his waistcoat-pocket. Mrs. Powell, using her eyes to the utmost, saw nothing but a few lines in a scratchy, plebeian handwriting, and a signature which, seen at a disadvantage upside down, did n’t look unlike “Johnson.” The second envelope contained only a tissue-paper betting-list; the third held a dirty scrap of paper with a few words scrawled in pencil; but at sight of the uppermost envelope of the remaining three Mr. James Conyers started as if he had been shot. Mrs. Powell looked from the face of the trainer to the superscription of the letter, and was scarcely less surprised than Mr. Conyers. The superscription was in the handwriting of Aurora Mellish.

It was a peculiar hand — a hand about which there could be no mistake; not an elegant Italian hand, sloping, slender, and feminine, but large and bold, with ponderous up-strokes and down-strokes, easy to recognize at a greater distance than that which separated Mrs. Powell from the trainer. There was no room for any doubt. Mrs. Mellish had written to her husband’s servant, and the man was evidently familiar with her hand, yet surprised at receiving her letter.

He tore open the envelope, and read the contents eagerly twice over, frowning darkly as he read.

Mrs. Powell suddenly remembered that she had left part of her needle-work upon a chiffonnier behind the young man’s chair, and rose quietly to fetch it. He was so much engrossed by the letter in his hand that he was not aware of the pale face which peered for one brief moment over his shoulder, as the faded, hungry eyes stole a glance at the writing on the page.

The letter was written on the first side of a sheet of note-paper, with only a few words carried over to the second page. It was this second page which Mrs. Powell saw. The words written at the top of the leaf were these: “Above all, express no surprise.— A.”

There was no ordinary conclusion to the letter; no other signature than this big capital A.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31