Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 21

He Only Said I Am a-Weary.”

Mr. James Conyers found the long summer’s day hang rather heavily upon his hands at Mellish Park, in the society of the rheumatic ex-trainer, the stable-boys, and Steeve Hargraves, the softy, and with no literary resources except the last Saturday’s Bell’s Life, and sundry flimsy sheets of shiny, slippery tissue-paper, forwarded him by post from King Charles’ Croft, in the busy town of Leeds.

He might have found plenty of work to do in the stables, perhaps, if he had had a mind to do it; but after the night of the storm there was a perceptible change in his manner, and the showy pretence of being very busy, which he had made on his first arrival at the Park, was now exchanged for a listless and undisguised dawdling and an unconcerned indifference, which caused the old trainer to shake his gray head, and mutter to his hangers-on that the new chap warn’t up to mooch, and was evidently too grand for his business.

Mr. James cared very little for the opinion of these simple Yorkshiremen; and he yawned in their faces, and stifled them with his cigar-smoke, with a dashing indifference that harmonized well with the gorgeous tints of his complexion and the lustrous splendor of his lazy eyes. He had taken the trouble to make himself very agreeable on the day succeeding his arrival, and had distributed his hearty slaps on the shoulder and friendly digs in the ribs right and left, until he had slapped and dug himself into considerable popularity among the friendly rustics, who were ready to be bewitched by his handsome face and flashy manner. But after his interview with Mrs. Mellish in the cottage by the north gates, he seemed to abandon all desire to please, and to grow suddenly restless and discontented — so restless and so discontented that he felt inclined even to quarrel with the unhappy softy, and led his red-haired retainer a sufficiently uncomfortable life with his whims and vagaries.

Stephen Hargraves bore this change in his new master’s manner with wonderful patience. Rather too patiently, perhaps; with that slow, dogged, uncomplaining patience of those who keep something in reserve as a set-off against present forbearance, and who invite rather than avoid injury, rejoicing in anything which swells the great account, to be squared in future storm and fury. The softy was a man who could hoard his hatred and vengeance, hiding the bad passions away in the dark corners of his poor shattered mind, and bringing them out in the dead of the night to “kiss and talk to,” as the Moor’s wife kissed and conversed with the strawberry-embroidered cambric. There must surely have been very little “society” at Cyprus, or Mrs. Othello could scarcely have been reduced to such insipid company.

However it might be, Steeve bore Mr. Conyers’ careless insolence so very meekly that the trainer laughed at his attendant for a poor-spirited hound, whom a pair of flashing black eyes and a lady’s toy riding-whip could frighten out of the poor remnant of wit left in his muddled brain. He said something to this effect when Steeve displeased him once, in the course of the long, temper-trying summer’s day, and the softy turned away with something very like a chuckle of savage pleasure in acknowledgment of the compliment. He was more obsequious than ever after it, and was humbly thankful for the ends of cigars which the trainer liberally bestowed upon him, and went into Doncaster for more spirits and more cigars in the course of the day, and fetched and carried as submissively as that craven-spirited hound to which his employer had politely compared him.

Mr. Conyers did not even make a pretence of going to look at the horses on this blazing 5th of July, but lolled on the window-sill, with his lame leg upon a chair, and his back against the frame-work of the little casement, smoking, drinking, and reading his price-lists all through the sunny day. The cold brandy and water which he poured, without half an hour’s intermission, down his handsome throat, seemed to have far less influence upon him than the same amount of liquid would have had upon a horse. It would have put the horse out of condition, perhaps, but it had no effect whatever upon the trainer.

Mrs. Powell, walking for the benefit of her health, in the north shrubberies, and incurring imminent danger of a sun-stroke for the same praiseworthy reason, contrived to pass the lodge, and to see Mr. Conyers lounging, dark and splendid, on the window-sill, exhibiting a kitcat of his handsome person framed in the clustering foliage which hung about the cottage walls. She was rather embarrassed by the presence of the softy, who was sweeping the door-step, and who gave her a glance of recognition as she passed — a glance which might perhaps have said, “We know his secrets, you and I, handsome and insolent as he is; we know the paltry price at which he can be bought and sold. But we keep our counsel — we keep our counsel till time ripens the bitter fruit upon the tree, though our fingers itch to pluck it while it is still green.”

Mrs. Powell stopped to give the trainer good-day, expressing as much surprise at seeing him at the north lodge as if she had been given to understand that he was travelling to Kamtchatka; but Mr. Conyers cut her civilities short with a yawn, and told her, with easy familiarity, that she would be conferring a favor upon him by sending him that morning’s Times as soon as the daily papers arrived at the Park. The ensign’s widow was too much under the influence of the graceful impertinence of his manner to resist it as she might have done, and returned to the house, bewildered and wondering, to comply with his request. So through the oppressive heat of the summer’s day the trainer smoked, drank, and took his ease, while his dependent and follower watched him with a puzzled face, revolving vaguely and confusedly in his dull, muddled brain the events of the previous night.

But Mr. James Conyers grew weary at last even of his own ease; and that inherent restlessness which caused Rasselas to tire of his happy valley, and sicken for the free breezes on the hill-tops and the clamor of the distant cities, arose in the bosom of the trainer, and grew so strong that he began to chafe at the rural quiet of the north lodge, and to shuffle his poor lame leg wearily from one position to another in sheer discontent of mind, which, by one of those many subtle links between spirit and matter that tell us we are mortal, communicated itself to his body, and gave him that chronic disorder which is popularly called “the fidgets”— an unquiet fever, generated amid the fibres of the brain, and finding its way by that physiological telegraph, the spinal marrow, to the remotest station on the human railway.

Mr. James suffered from this common complaint to such a degree that, as the solemn strokes of the church clock vibrated in sonorous music above the tree-tops of Mellish Park in the sunny evening atmosphere, he threw down his pipe with an impatient shrug of the shoulders, and called to the softy to bring him his hat and walking-stick.

“Seven o’clock,” he muttered; “only seven o’clock. I think there must have been twenty-four hours in this blessed summer’s day.”

He stood looking from the little casement window with a discontented frown contracting his handsome eyebrows, and a peevish expression distorting his full, classically-moulded lips as he said this. He glanced through the little casement, made smaller by its clustering frame of roses and clematis, jessamine and myrtle, and looking like the port-hole of a ship that sailed upon a sea of summer verdure. He glanced through the circular opening left by that scented frame-work of leaves and blossoms into the long glades, where the low sunlight was flickering upon waving fringes of fern. He followed with his listless glance the wandering intricacies of the underwood, until they led his weary eyes away to distant patches of blue water, slowly changing to opal and rose-color in the declining light. He saw all these things with a lazy apathy, which had no power to recognize their beauty, or to inspire one latent thrill of gratitude to Him who had made them. He had better have been blind; surely he had better have been blind.

He turned his back upon the evening sunshine, and looked at the white face of Steeve Hargraves, the softy, with every whit as much pleasure as he had felt in looking at Nature in her loveliest aspect.

“A long day,” he said; “an infernally tedious, wearisome day. Thank God, it’s over.”

Strange that, as he uttered this impious thanksgiving, no subtle influence of the future crept through his veins to chill the slackening pulses of his heart, and freeze the idle words upon his lips. If he had known what was so soon to come; if he had known, as he thanked God for the death of one beautiful summer’s day, never to be born again, with its twelve hours of opportunity for good or evil, surely he would have grovelled on the earth, stricken with a sudden terror, and wept aloud for the shameful history of the life which lay behind him.

He had never shed tears but once since his childhood, and then those tears were scalding drops of baffled rage and vengeful fury at the utter defeat of the greatest scheme of his life.

“I shall go into Doncaster to-night, Hargraves,” he said to the softy, who stood deferentially awaiting his master’s pleasure, and watching him, as he had watched him all day, furtively but incessantly; “I shall spend the evening in Doncaster, and — and — see if I can pick up a few wrinkles about the September meeting; not that there’s anything worth entering among this set of screws, Lord knows,” he added, with undisguised contempt for poor John’s beloved stable. “Is there a dog-cart, or a trap of any kind, I can drive over in?” he asked of the softy.

Mr. Hargraves said that there was a Newport Pagnell, which was sacred to Mr. John Mellish, and a gig that was at the disposal of any of the upper servants when they had occasion to go into Doncaster, as well as a covered van, which some of the lads drove into the town every day for the groceries and other matters required at the house.

“Very good,” said Mr. Conyers; “you may run down to the stables, and tell one of the boys to put the fastest pony of the lot into the Newport Pagnell, and to bring it up here, and to look sharp.”

“But nobody but Muster Mellish rides in the Newport Pagnell,” suggested the softy, with an accent of alarm.

“What of that, you cowardly hound?” cried the trainer, contemptuously. “I’m going to drive it to-night, don’t you hear? D— n his Yorkshire insolence! Am I to be put down by him? It’s his handsome wife that he takes such pride in, is it? Lord help him! Whose money bought the dog-cart, I wonder? Aurora Floyd’s, perhaps. And I’m not to ride in it, I suppose, because it’s my lord’s pleasure to drive his black-eyed lady in the sacred vehicle. Look you here, you brainless idiot, and understand me, if you can,” cried Mr. James Conyers, in a sudden rage, which crimsoned his handsome face, and lit up his lazy eyes with a new fire —“look you here, Stephen Hargraves; if it was n’t that I’m tied hand and foot, and have been plotted against and thwarted by a woman’s cunning at every turn, I could smoke my pipe in yonder house, or in a better house this day.”

He pointed with his finger to the pinnacled roof, and the reddened windows glittering in the evening sun, visible far away among the trees.

“Mr. John Mellish!” he said. “If his wife was n’t such a she-devil as to be too many guns for the cleverest man in Christendom, I’d soon make him sing small. Fetch the Newport Pagnell,” he cried, suddenly, with an abrupt change of tone; “fetch it, and be quick. I’m not safe to myself when I talk of this. I’m not safe when I think how near I was to half a million of money,” he muttered under his breath.

He limped out into the open air, fanning himself with the wide brim of his felt hat, and wiping the perspiration from his forehead.

“Be quick,” he cried, impatiently, to his deliberate attendant, who had listened eagerly to every word of his master’s passionate talk, and who now stood watching him even more intently than before; “be quick, man, can’t you? I don’t pay you five shillings a week to stare at me. Fetch the trap. I’ve worked myself into a fever, and nothing but a rattling drive will set me right again.”

The softy shuffled off as rapidly as it was within the range of his ability to walk. He had never been seen to run in his life, but had a slow, sidelong gait, which had some faint resemblance to that of the lower reptiles, but very little in common with the motions of his fellow-men.

Mr. James Conyers limped up and down the little grassy lawn in front of the north lodge. The excitement which had crimsoned his face gradually subsided as he vented his disquietude in occasional impatient exclamations. “Two thousand pound,” he muttered; “a pitiful, paltry two thousand. Not a twelvemonth’s interest on the money I ought to have had — the money I should have had, if —”

He stopped abruptly, and growled something like an oath between his set teeth as he struck his stick with angry violence into the soft grass. It is especially hard when we are reviling our bad fortune, and quarrelling with our fate, to find at last, on wandering backward to the source of our ill luck, that the primary cause of all has been our own evil-doing. It was this that made Mr. Conyers stop abruptly in his reflections upon his misfortunes, and break off with a smothered oath, and listen impatiently for the wheels of the Newport Pagnell.

The softy appeared presently, leading the horse by the bridle. He had not presumed to seat himself in the sacred vehicle, and he stared wonderingly at James Conyers as the trainer tumbled about the chocolate-cloth cushions, arranging them afresh for his own ease and comfort. Neither the bright varnish of the dark brown panels, nor the crimson crest, nor the glittering steel ornaments on the neat harness, nor any of the exquisitely finished appointments of the light vehicle, provoked one word of criticism from Mr. Conyers. He mounted as easily as his lame leg would allow him, and, taking the reins from the softy, lighted his cigar, preparatory to starting.

“You need n’t sit up for me to-night,” he said, as he drove into the dusty high-road; “I shall be late.”

Mr. Hargraves shut the iron gates with a loud clanking noise upon his new master.

“But I shall, though,” he muttered, looking askant through the bars at the fast-disappearing Newport Pagnell, which was now little more than a black spot in a white cloud of dust; “but I shall sit up, though. You’ll come home drunk, I lay.” (Yorkshire is so preeminently a horse-racing and betting county, that even simple country folk who have never wagered a sixpence in the quiet course of their lives say “I lay” where a Londoner would say “I dare say.") “You’ll come home drunk, I lay; folks generally do from Doncaster; and I shall hear some more of your wild talk. Yes, yes,” he said, in a slow, reflecting tone, “it’s very wild talk, and I can’t make top nor tail of it yet — not yet; but it seems to me somehow as if I knew what it all meant, only I can’t put it together — I can’t put it together. There’s something missin’, and the want of that something hinders me putting it together.”

He rubbed his stubble of coarse red hair with his two strong, awkward hands, as if he would fain have rubbed some wanting intelligence into his head.

“Two thousand pound,” he said, walking slowly back to the cottage —“two thousand pound. It’s a power of money. Why it’s two thousand pound that the winner gets by the great race at Newmarket, and there’s all the gentlefolks ready to give their ears for it. There’s great lords fighting and struggling against each other for it; so it’s no wonder a poor fond chap like me thinks summat about it.”

He sat down upon the step of the lodge-door to smoke the cigar-ends which his benefactor had thrown him in the course of the day; but he still ruminated upon this subject, and he still stopped sometimes, between the extinction of one cheroot stump and the illuminating of another, to mutter, “Two thousand pound. Twenty hundred pound. Forty times fifty pound,” with an unctuous chuckle after the enunciation of each figure, as if it was some privilege even to be able to talk of such vast sums of money. So might some doting lover, in the absence of his idol, murmur the beloved name to the summer breeze.

The last crimson lights upon the patches of blue water died out beneath the gathering darkness; but the softy sat, still smoking, and still ruminating, till the stars were light in the purple vault above his head. A little after ten o’clock he heard the rattling of wheels and the tramp of horses’ hoofs upon the high-road, and, going to the gate, he looked out through the iron bars. As the vehicle dashed by the north gates, he saw that it was one of the Mellish-Park carriages which had been sent to the station to meet John and his wife.

“A short visit to Loon’on,” he muttered. “I lay she’s been to fetch the brass.”

The greedy eyes of the half-witted groom peered through the iron bars at the passing carriage, as if he would have fain looked through its opaque panels in search of that which he had denominated “the brass.” He had a vague idea that two thousand pounds would be a great bulk of money, and that Aurora would carry it in a chest or a bundle that might be perceptible through the carriage-window.

“I’ll lay she’s been to fetch t’ brass,” he repeated, as he crept back to the lodge-door.

He resumed his seat upon the door-step, his cigar-ends, and his reverie, rubbing his head very often, sometimes with one hand, sometimes with both, but always as if he were trying to rub some wanting sense or power of perception into his wretched brains. Sometimes he gave a short restless sigh, as if he had been trying all this time to guess some difficult enigma, and was on the point of giving it up.

It was long after midnight when Mr. James Conyers returned, very much the worse for brandy and water and dust. He tumbled over the softy, still sitting on the step of the open door, and then cursed Mr. Hargraves for being in the way.

“B’t s’nc’y’h’v ch’s ‘n t’ s’t ‘p,” said the trainer, speaking a language entirely composed of consonants, “y’ m’y dr’v’ tr’p b’ck t’ st’bl’s.”

By which rather obscure speech he gave the softy to understand that he was to take the dog-cart back to Mr. Mellish’s stable-yard.

Steeve Hargraves did his drunken master’s bidding, and, leading the horse homeward through the quiet night, found a cross boy with a lantern in his hand waiting at the gate of the stable-yard, and by no means disposed for conversation, except, indeed, to the extent of the one remark that he, the cross boy, hoped the new trainer was n’t going to be up to this game every night, and hoped the mare, which had been bred for a racer, had n’t been ill used.

All John Mellish’s horses seemed to have been bred for racers, and to have dropped gradually from prospective winners of the Derby, Oaks, Chester Cup, Great Ebor, Yorkshire Stakes, Leger, and Doncaster Cup, to say nothing of minor victories in the way of Northumberland Plates, Liverpool Autumn Cups, and Curragh Handicaps, through every variety of failure and defeat, into the everyday ignominy of harness. Even the van which carried groceries was drawn by a slim-legged, narrow-chested, high-shouldered animal, called the “Yorkshire Childers,” and bought, in its sunny colthood, at a great price by poor John.

Mr. Conyers was snoring aloud in his little bedroom when Steeve Hargraves returned to the lodge. The softy stared wonderingly at the handsome face brutalized by drink, and the classical head flung back upon the crumpled pillow in one of those wretched positions which intoxication always chooses for its repose. Steeve Hargraves rubbed his head harder even than before as he looked at the perfect profile, the red, half-parted lips, the dark fringe of lashes on the faintly crimson-tinted cheeks.

“Perhaps I might have been good for summat if I’d been like you,“ he said, with a half-savage melancholy. “I should n’t have been ashamed of myself then. I should n’t have crept into dark corners to hide myself, and think why I was n’t like other people, and what a bitter, cruel shame it was that I was n’t like ’em. You’ve no call to hide yourself from other folks; nobody tells you to get out of the way for an ugly hound, as you told me this morning, hang you. The world’s smooth enough for you.”

So may Caliban have looked at Prospero, with envy and hate in his heart, before going to his obnoxious tasks of dish-washing and trencher-scraping.

He shook his fist at the unconscious sleeper as he finished speaking, and then stooped to pick up the trainer’s dusty clothes, which were scattered upon the floor.

“I suppose I’m to brush these before I go to bed,” he muttered, “that my lord may have ’em ready when he wakes in th’ morning.”

He took the clothes on his arm and the light in his hand, and went down to the lower room, where he found a brush, and set to work sturdily, enveloping himself in a cloud of dust, like some ugly Arabian génie who was going to transform himself into a handsome prince.

He stopped suddenly in his brushing by and by, and crumpled the waistcoat in his hand.

“There’s some paper,” he exclaimed. “A paper sewed up between stuff and linin’.”

He omitted the definite article before each of the substantives, as is a common habit with his countrymen when at all excited.

“A bit o’ paper,” he repeated, “between stuff and linin’. I’ll rip t’ waistcoat open and see what ‘t is.”

He took his clasp-knife from his pocket, carefully unripped a part of one of the seams in the waistcoat, and extracted a piece of paper folded double — a decent-sized square of rather thick paper, partly printed, partly written.

He leaned over the light with his elbows on the table, and read the contents of this paper, slowly and laboriously, following every word with his thick forefinger, sometimes stopping a long time upon one syllable, sometimes trying back half a line or so, but always plodding patiently with his ugly forefinger.

When he came to the last word, he burst suddenly into a loud chuckle, as if he had just succeeded in guessing that difficult enigma which had puzzled him all the evening.

“I know it all now,” he said. “I can put it all together now, his words, and hers, and the money. I can put it all together, and make out the meaning of it. She’s going to give him the two thousand pound to go away from here and say nothing about this.”

He refolded the paper, replaced it carefully in its hiding-place between the stuff and lining of the waistcoat, then searched in his capacious pocket for a fat leathern book, in which, among all sorts of odds and ends, there were some needles and a tangled skein of black thread. Then, stooping over the light, he slowly sewed up the seam which he had ripped open, dexterously and neatly enough, in spite of the clumsiness of his big fingers.

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