Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

Still Constant.

Mr. James Conyers took his breakfast in his own apartment upon the morning of his visit to Doncaster, and Stephen Hargraves waited upon him, carrying him a basin of muddy coffee, and enduring his ill humor with the long-suffering which seemed peculiar to this hump-backed, low-voiced stable-helper.

The trainer rejected the coffee, and called for a pipe, and lay smoking half the summer morning, with the scent of the roses and honeysuckle floating into his close chamber, and the July sunshine glorifying the sham roses and blue lilies that twisted themselves in floricultural monstrosity about the cheap paper on the walls.

The softy cleaned his master’s boots, set them in the sunshine to air, washed the breakfast things, swept the door-step, and then seated himself upon it to ruminate, with his elbows on his keens and his hands twisted in his coarse red hair. The silence of the summer atmosphere was only broken by the drowsy hum of the insects in the wood, and the occasional dropping of some early-blighted leaf.

Mr. Conyers’ temper had been in no manner improved by his night’s dissipation in the town of Doncaster. Heaven knows what entertainment he had found in those lonely streets, the grass-grown market-place and tenantless stalls, or that dreary and hermetically-sealed building, which looks like a prison on three sides and a chapel on the fourth, and which, during the September meeting, bursts suddenly into life and light with huge posters flaring against its gaunt walls, and a bright blue-ink announcement of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mathews, or Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, for five nights only. Normal amusement in the town of Doncaster between those two oases in the year’s dreary circle, the spring and autumn meetings, there is none; but of abnormal and special entertainment there may be much, only known to such men as Mr. James Conyers, to whom the most sinuous alley is a pleasant road, so long as it leads, directly or indirectly, to the betting-man’s god — Money.

However this might be, Mr. Conyers bore upon him all the symptoms of having, as the popular phrase has it, made a night of it. His eyes were dim and glassy; his tongue hot and furred, and uncomfortably large for his parched mouth; his hand so shaky that the operation which he performed with a razor before his looking-glass was a toss-up between suicide and shaving. His heavy head seemed to have been transformed into a leaden box full of buzzing noises; and after getting half through his toilet, he gave it up for a bad job, and threw himself upon the bed he had just left, a victim to that biliary derangement which inevitably follows an injudicious admixture of alcoholic and malt liquors.

“A tumbler of Hockheimer,” he muttered, “or even the third-rate Chablis they give one at a table d’hôte, would freshen me up a little; but there’s nothing to be had in this abominable place except brandy and water.”

He called to the softy, and ordered him mix a tumbler of the last-named beverage, cold and weak.

Mr. Conyers drained the cool and lucid draught, and flung himself back upon the pillow with a sigh of relief. He knew that he would be thirsty again in five or ten minutes and that the respite was a brief one; but still it was a respite.

“Have they come home?” he asked.

“Who?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Mellish, you idiot!” answered the trainer, fiercely. “Who else should I bother my head about? Did they come home last night while I was away?”

The softy told his master that he had seen one of the carriages drive past the north gates at a little after ten o’clock upon the preceding night, and that he supposed it contained Mr. and Mrs. Mellish.

“Then you’d better go up to the house and make sure,” said Mr. Conyers; “I want to know.”

“Go up to th’ house?”

“Yes, coward! yes, sneak! Do you suppose that Mrs. Mellish will eat you?”

“I don’t suppose naught o’ t’ sort,” answered the softy, sulkily, “but I’d rather not go.”

“But I tell you I want to know,” said Mr. Conyers; “I want to know if Mrs. Mellish is at home, and what she’s up to, and whether there are any visitors at the house, and all about her. Do you understand?”

“Yes; it’s easy enough to understand, but it’s rare and difficult to do,” replied Steeve Hargraves. “How am I to find out? Who’s to tell me?”

“How do I know?” cried the trainer impatiently; for Stephen Hargrave’s slow, dogged stupidity was throwing the dashing James Conyers into a fever of vexation. “How do I know? Don’t you see that I’m too ill to stir from this bed? I’d go myself if I was n’t. And can’t you go and do what I tell you, without standing arguing there until you drive me mad?”

Steeve Hargraves muttered some sulky apology, and shuffled out of the room. Mr. Conyers’ handsome eyes followed him with a dark frown. It is not a pleasant state of health which succeeds a drunken debauch; and the trainer was angry with himself for the weakness which had taken him to Doncaster upon the preceding evening, and thereby inclined to vent his anger upon other people.

There is a great deal of vicarious penance done in this world. Lady’s -maids are apt to suffer for the follies of their mistresses, and Lady Clara Vere de Vere’s French abigail is extremely likely to have to atone for young Laurence’s death by patient endurance of my lady’s ill temper, and much unpicking and remaking of bodices, which would have fitted her ladyship well enough in any other state of mind than the remorseful misery which is engendered of an evil conscience. The ugly gash across young Laurence’s throat, to say nothing of the cruel slanders circulated after the inquest, may make life almost unendurable to the poor, meek nursery-governess who educates Lady Clara’s younger sisters; and the younger sisters themselves, and mamma and papa, and my lady’s youthful confidantes, and even her haughtiest adorers, all have their share in the expiation of her ladyship’s wickedness. For she will not — or she can not— meekly own that she has been guilty, and shut herself away from the world, to make her own atonement, and work her own redemption. So she thrusts the burden of her sins upon other people’s shoulders, and travels the first stage to captious and disappointed old-maidism.

The commercial gentlemen who make awkward mistakes in the city, the devotees of the turf whose misfortunes keep them away from Mr. Tattersall’s premises on a settling-day, can make innocent women and children carry the weight of their sins, and suffer the penalties of their foolishness. Papa still smokes his Cabanas at fourpence half-penny apiece, or his mild Turkish at nine shillings a pound, and still dines at the “Crown and Sceptre” in the drowsy summer weather, when the bees are asleep in the flowers at Morden College, and the fragrant hay newly stacked in the meadows beyond Blackheath. But mamma must wear her faded silk, or have it dyed, as the case may be; and the children must forego the promised happiness, the wild delight of sunny rambles on a shingly beach, bordered by yellow sands that stretch away to hug an ever-changeful and yet ever-constant ocean in their tawny arms. And not only mamma and the little ones, but other mothers and other little ones, must help in the heavy sum of penance for the defaulter’s iniquities. The baker may have calculated upon receiving that long-standing account, and may have planned a new gown for his wife, and a summer treat for his little ones, to be paid for by the expected money; and the honest tradesman, soured by the disappointment of having to disappoint those he loves, is likely to be cross to them in the bargain, and even to grudge her Sunday out to the household drudge who waits at his little table. The influence of the strong man’s evil deed slowly percolates through insidious channels of which he never knows or dreams. The deed of folly or of guilt does its fatal work when the sinner who committed it has forgotten his wickedness. Who shall say where or when the results of one man’s evil-doing shall cease? The seed of sin engenders no common root, shooting straight upward through the earth, and bearing a given crop. It is the germ of a foul running weed, whose straggling suckers travel underground, beyond the ken of mortal eye, beyond the power of mortal calculation. If Louis XV had been a conscientious man, terror and murder, misery and confusion, might never have reigned upon the darkened face of beautiful France. If Eve had rejected the fatal fruit, we might all have been in Eden to-day.

Mr. James Conyers, then, after the manner of mankind, vented his spleen upon the only person who came in his way, and was glad to be able to despatch the softy upon an unpleasant errand, and make his attendant as uncomfortable as he was himself.

“My head rocks as if I was on board a steam-packet,” he muttered, as he lay alone in his little bedroom, “and my hand shakes so that I can’t hold my pipe steady while I fill it. I’m in a nice state to have to talk to her. As if it was n’t as much as I can do at the best of times to be a match for her.”

He flung aside his pipe half filled, and turned his head wearily upon the pillow. The hot sun and the buzz of the insects tormented him. There was a big blue-bottle fly blundering and wheeling about among the folds of the dimity bed-curtains — a fly which seemed the very genius of delirium tremens; but the trainer was too ill to do more than swear at his purple-winged tormentor.

He was awakened from a half doze by the treble voice of a small stable-boy in the room below. He called out angrily for the lad to come up and state his business. His business was a message from Mr. John Mellish, who wished to see the trainer immediately.

Mr. Mellish,” muttered James Conyers to himself. “Tell your master I’m too ill to stir, but that I’ll wait upon him in the evening,” he said to the boy. “You can see I’m ill, it you’ve got any eyes, and you can say that you found me in bed.”

The lad departed with these instructions, and Mr. Conyers returned to his own thoughts, which appeared to be by no means agreeable to him.

To drink spirituous liquors and play all-fours in the sanded tap-room of a sporting public is no doubt a very delicious occupation, and would be altogether Elysian and unobjectionable if one could always be drinking spirits and playing all-fours. But as the finest picture ever painted by Raphael or Rubens is but a dead blank of canvas upon the reverse, so there is generally a disagreeable other side to all the pleasures of earth, and a certain reaction after card-playing and brandy-drinking which is more than equivalent in misery to the pleasures which have preceded it. Mr. Conyers, tossing his hot head from side to side upon a pillow which seemed even hotter, took a very different view of life to that which he had expounded to his boon companions only the night before in the tap-room of the “Lion and Lamb,” Doncaster.

“I should liked to have stopped over the Leger,” he muttered, “for I meant to make a hatful of money out of the Conjurer; for if what they say at Richmond is anything like truth, he’s safe to win. But there’s no going against my lady when her mind’s made up. It’s take it or leave it — yes or no — and be quick about it.”

Mr. Conyers garnished his speech with two or three expletives common enough among the men with whom he had lived, but not to be recorded here, and, closing his eyes, fell into a doze — a half-waking, half-sleeping torpidity, in which he felt as if his head had become a ton-weight of iron, and was dragging him backward through the pillow into a bottomless abyss.

While the trainer lay in this comfortless semi-slumber, Stephen Hargraves walked slowly and sulkily through the wood on his way to the invisible fence, from which point he meant to reconnoitre the premises.

The irregular façade of the old house fronted him across the smooth breadth of lawn, dotted and broken by parti-colored flower-beds; by rustic clumps of gnarled oak supporting mighty clusters of vivid scarlet geraniums, all aflame in the sunshine; by trellised arches laden with trailing roses of every varying shade, from palest blush to deepest crimson; by groups of evergreens, whose every leaf was rich in beauty and luxuriance, whose every tangled garland would have made a worthy chaplet for a king.

The softy, in the semi-darknesses of his soul, had some glimmer of that light which was altogether wanting in Mr. James Conyers. He felt that these things were beautiful. The broken lines of the ivy-covered house-front, Gothic here, Elizabethan there, were in some manner pleasant to him. The scattered rose-leaves on the lawn; the flickering shadows of the evergreens upon the grass; the song of a skylark too lazy to soar, and content to warble among the bushes; the rippling sound of a tiny water-fall far away in the wood, made a language of which he only understood a few straggling syllables here and there, but which was not altogether a meaningless jargon to him, as it was to the trainer, to whose mind Holborn Hill would have conveyed as much of the sublime as the untrodden pathways of the Jungfrau. The softy dimly perceived that Mellish Park was beautiful, and he felt a fiercer hatred against the person whose influence had ejected him from his old home.

The house fronted the south, and the Venetian shutters were all closed upon this hot summer’s day. Stephen Hargraves looked for his old enemy Bow-wow, who was likely enough to be lying on the broad stone steps before the hall-door; but there was no sign of the dog’s presence anywhere about. The hall-door was closed, and the Venetian shutters, under the rose and clematis shadowed veranda which sheltered John Mellish’s room, were also closed. The softy walked round by the fence which encircled the lawn to another iron gate which opened close to John’s room and which was so completely overshadowed by a clump of beeches as to form a safe point of observation. This gate had been left ajar by Mr. Mellish himself, most likely, for that gentleman had a happy knack of forgetting to shut the doors and gates which he opened: and the softy, taking courage from the stillness around and about the house, ventured into the garden, and crept stealthily toward the closed shutters before the windows of Mr. Mellish’s apartment, with much of the manner which might distinguish some wretched mongrel cur who trusts himself within earshot of a mastiff’s kennel.

The mastiff was out of the way on this occasion, for one of the shutters was ajar: and when Stephen Hargraves peeped cautiously into the room, he was relieved to find it empty. John’s elbow-chair was pushed a little way from the table, which was laden with open pistol-cases and breech-loading revolvers. These, with two or three silk handkerchiefs, a piece of chamois leather, and a bottle of oil, bore witness that Mr. Mellish had been beguiling the morning by the pleasing occupation of inspecting and cleaning the fire-arms, which formed the chief ornaments of his study.

It was his habit to begin this operation with great preparation, and altogether upon a gigantic scale; to reject all assistance with scorn; to put himself in a violent perspiration at the end of half an hour, and to send one of the servants to finish the business, and restore the room to its old order.

The softy looked with a covetous eye at the noble array of guns and pistols. He had that innate love of these things which seems to be implanted in every breast, whatever its owner’s state or station. He had hoarded his money once to buy himself a gun; but when he had saved the five-and-thirty shillings demanded by a certain pawnbroker of Doncaster for an old-fashioned musket, which was almost as heavy as a small cannon, his courage failed him, and he could not bring himself to part with the precious coins, whose very touch could send a thrill of rapture through the slow current of his blood. No, he could not surrender such a sum of money to the Doncaster pawnbroker even for the possession of his heart’s desire; and as the stern money-lender refused to take payment in weekly instalments of sixpences, Stephen was fain to go without the gun, and to hope that some day or other Mr. John Mellish would reward his services by the gift of some disused fowling-piece by Forsythe or Manton. But there was no hope of such happiness now. A new dynasty reigned at Mellish, and a black-eyed queen, who hated him, had forbidden him to sully her domain with the traces of his shambling foot. He felt that he was in momentary peril upon the threshold of that sacred chamber, which, during his long service at Mellish Park, he had always regarded as a very temple of the beautiful; but the sight of fire-arms upon the table had a magnetic attraction for him, and he drew the Venetian shutters a little way farther ajar, and slid himself in through the open window. Then, flushed and trembling with excitement, he dropped into John’s chair, and began to handle the precious implements of warfare upon pheasants and partridges, and to turn them about in his big, clumsy hands.

Delicious as the guns were, and delightful though it was to draw one of the revolvers up to his shoulder, and take aim at an imaginary pheasant, the pistols were even still more attractive, for with them he could not refrain from taking imaginary aim at his enemies; sometimes at James Conyers, who had snubbed and abused him, and had made the bread of dependence bitter to him; very often at Aurora; once or twice at poor John Mellish; but always with a darkness upon his pallid face which would have promised little mercy had the pistol been loaded and the enemy near at hand.

There was one pistol, a small one, and an odd one apparently, for he could not find its fellow, which took a peculiar hold upon his fancy. It was as pretty as a lady’s toy, and small enough to be carried in a lady’s pocket; but the hammer snapped upon the nipple, when the softy pulled the trigger, with a sound that evidently meant mischief.

“To think that such a little thing as this could kill a big man like you,” muttered Mr. Hargraves, with a jerk of his head in the direction of the north lodge.

He had this pistol still in his hand when the door was suddenly opened, and Aurora Mellish stood upon the threshold.

She spoke as she opened the door, almost before she was in the room.

“John, dear,” she said, “Mrs. Powell wants to know whether Colonel Maddison dines here to-day with the Lofthouses.”

She drew back with a shudder that shook her from head to foot as her eyes met the softy’s hated face instead of John’s familiar glance.

In spite of the fatigue and agitation which she had endured within the last few days, she was not looking ill. Her eyes were unnaturally bright, and a feverish color burned in her cheeks. Her manner, always impetuous, was restless and impatient to-day, as if her nature had been charged with a terrible amount of electricity, till she were likely at any moment to explode in some tempest of anger or woe.

You here!” she exclaimed.

The softy, in his embarrassment, was at a loss for an excuse for his presence. He pulled his shabby hare-skin cap off, and twisted it round and round in his great hands, but he made no other recognition of his late master’s wife.

“Who sent you to this room?” asked Mrs. Mellish; “I thought you had been forbidden this place — the house at least,” she added, her face crimsoning indignantly as she spoke, “although Mr. Conyers may choose to bring you to the north lodge. Who sent you here?”

“Him,” answered Mr. Hargraves, doggedly, with another jerk of his head toward the trainer’s abode.

“James Conyers?”

“Yes.”

“What does he want here, then?”

“He told me to come down t’ th’ house, and see if you and the master’d come back.”

“Then you can go and tell him that we have come back,” she said contemptuously, “and that if he’d waited a little longer, he would have had no occasion to send his spies after me.”

The softy crept toward the window, feeling that his dismissal was contained in these words, and looking rather suspiciously at the array of driving and hunting whips over the mantle-piece. Mrs. Mellish might have a fancy for laying one of these about his shoulders if he happened to offend her.

“Stop!” she said, impetuously, as he laid his hand upon the shutter to push it open; “since you are here, you can take a message, or a scrap of writing,” she said, contemptuously, as if she could not bring herself to call any communication between herself and Mr. Conyers a note or letter. “Yes; you can take a few lines to your master. Stop there while I write.”

She waved her hand with a gesture which expressed plainly, “Come no nearer; you are too obnoxious to be endured except at a distance,” and seated herself at John’s writing-table.

She scratched two lines with a quill pen upon a slip of paper, which she folded while the ink was still wet. She looked for an envelope among her husband’s littered paraphernalia of account-books, bills, receipts, and price-lists, and, finding one after some little trouble, put the folded paper into it, fastened the gummed flaps with her lips, and handed the missive to Mr. Hargraves, who had watched her with hungry eyes, eager to fathom this new stage in the mystery.

Was the two thousand pounds in that envelope? he thought. No, surely such a sum of money must be a huge pile of gold and silver — a mountain of glittering coin. He had seen checks sometimes, and bank-notes, in the hands of Langley, the trainer, and he had wondered how it was that money could be represented by those pitiful bits of paper.

“I’d rayther have ‘t i’ goold,” he thought; “if ‘t was mine, I’d have it all i’ goold and silver.”

He was very glad when he found himself safely clear of the whips and Mrs. John Mellish, and, as soon as he reached the shelter of the thick foliage upon the northern side of the Park, he set to work to examine the packet which had been intrusted to him.

Mrs. Mellish had liberally moistened the adhesive flap of the envelope, as people are apt to do when they are in a hurry; the consequence of which carelessness was that the gum was still so wet that Stephen Hargraves found no difficulty in opening the envelope without tearing it. He looked cautiously about him, convinced himself that he was unobserved, and then drew out the slip of paper. It contained very little to reward him for his trouble — only these few words, scrawled in Aurora’s most careless hand:

“Be on the southern side of the wood, near the turnstile, between half-past eight and nine.”

The softy grinned as he slowly made himself master of this communication.

“It’s oncommon hard wroitin’, t’ make out th’ shapes o’ th’ letters,” he said, as he finished his task. “Why can’t gentlefolks wroit like Ned Tiller oop at th’ Red Lion — printin’ loike. It’s easier to read, and a deal prettier to look at.”

He refastened the envelope, pressing it down with his dirty thumb to make it adhere once more, and not much improving its appearance thereby.

“He’s one of your rare careless chaps,” he muttered, as he surveyed the letter; ”he won’t stop t’ examine if it’s been opened before. What’s insoide were hardly worth th’ trouble of openin’ it; but perhaps it’s as well to know it too.”

Immediately after Stephen Hargraves had disappeared through the open window, Aurora turned to leave the room by the door, intending to go in search of her husband.

She was arrested on the threshold by Mrs. Powell, who was standing at the door, with the submissive and deferential patience of paid companionship depicted in her insipid face.

Does Colonel Maddison dine here, my dear Mrs. Mellish?” she asked meekly, yet with a pensive earnestness which suggested that her life, or, at any rate, her peace of mind, depended upon the answer. “I am so anxious to know, for of course it will make a difference with the fish — and perhaps we ought to have some mulligatawny, or, at any rate, a dish of curry among the entrées, for these elderly East-Indian officers are so —”

“I don’t know,” answered Aurora, curtly. “Were you standing at the door long before I came out, Mrs. Powell?”

“Oh, no,” answered the ensign’s widow, “not long. Did you not hear me knock?”

Mrs. Powell would not have allowed herself to be betrayed into anything so vulgar as an abbreviation by the torments of the rack, and would have neatly rounded her periods while the awful wheel was stretching every muscle of her agonized frame, and the executions waiting to give the coup de grace.

“Did you not hear me knock?” she asked.

“No,” said Aurora, “you did n’t knock! Did you?”

Mrs. Mellish made an alarming pause between the two sentences.

“Oh, yes, too-wice,” answered Mrs. Powell with as much emphasis as was consistent with gentility upon the elongated word; “I knocked too-wice; but you seemed so very much preoccupied that —”

“I did n’t hear you,” interrupted Aurora: “you should knock rather louder when you want people to hear, Mrs. Powell. I— I came here to look for John, and I shall stop to put away his guns. Careless fellow — he always leaves them lying about.”

“Shall I assist you, dear Mrs. Mellish?”

“Oh, no, thank you.”

“But pray allow me — guns are so interesting. Indeed, there is very little either in art or nature which, properly considered, is not —”

“You had better find Mr. Mellish, and ascertain if the colonel does dine here, I think, Mrs. Powell,” interrupted Aurora, shutting the lids of the pistol-cases, and replacing them upon their accustomed shelves.

“Oh, if you wish to be alone, certainly,” said the ensign’s widow, looking furtively at Aurora’s face bending over the breech-loading revolvers, and then walking genteelly and noiselessly out of the room.

“Who was she talking to?” thought Mrs. Powell. “I could hear her voice, but not the other person’s. I suppose it was Mr. Mellish: and yet he is not generally so quiet.”

She stopped to look out of a window in the corridor, and found the solution of her doubts in the shambling figure of the softy making his way northward, creeping stealthily under shadow of the plantation that bordered the lawn. Mrs. Powell’s faculties were all cultivated to a state of unpleasant perfection, and she was able, actually as well as figuratively, to see a great deal farther than most people.

John Mellish was not to be found in the house, and, on making inquiries of some of the servants, Mrs. Powell learned that he had strolled up to the north lodge to see the trainer, who was confined to his bed.

“Indeed!” said the ensign’s widow; “then I think, as we really ought to know about the colonel and the mulligatawny, I will walk to the north lodge myself and see Mr. Mellish.”

She took a sun-umbrella from the stand in the hall, and crossed the lawn northward at a smart pace, in spite of the heat of the July noontide. “If I can get there before Hargraves,” she thought, “I may be able to find out why he came to the house.”

The ensign’s widow did reach the lodge before Stephen Hargraves, who stopped, as we know, under shelter of the foliage in the loneliest pathway of the wood to decipher Aurora’s scrawl. She found John Mellish seated with the trainer, in the little parlor of the lodge, discussing the stable arrangement; the master talking with considerable animation, the servant listening with a listless nonchalance which had a certain air of depreciation, not to say contempt, for poor John’s racing-stud. Mr. Conyers had risen from his bed at the sound of his employer’s voice in the little room below, and had put on a dusty shooting-coat and a pair of shabby slippers, in order to come down and hear what Mr. Mellish had to say.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re ill, Conyers,” John said, heartily, with a freshness in his strong voice which seemed to carry health and strength in its every tone; “as you were n’t well enough to look in at the house, I thought I’d come over here and talk to you about business. I want to know whether we ought to take Monte Cristo out of his York engagement, and if you think it would be wise to let Northern Dutchman take his chance for the Great Ebor. Hey?”

Mr. Mellish’s query resounded through the small room, and made the languid trainer shudder. Mr. Conyers had all the peevish susceptibility to discomfort or inconvenience which go to make a man above his station. Is it a merit to be above one’s station, I wonder, that people make such a boast of their unfitness for honest employments, and sturdy but progressive labor? The flowers, in the fables, that want to be trees, always get the worst of it, I remember. Perhaps that is because they can do nothing but complain. There is no objection to their growing into trees, if they can, I suppose, but a great objection to their being noisy and disagreeable because they can’t. With the son of the simple Corsican advocate, who made himself Emperor of France, the world had every sympathy, but with poor Louis Philippe, who ran away from a throne at the first shock that disturbed its equilibrium, I fear, very little. Is it quite right to be angry with the world because it worships success; for is not success, in some manner, the stamp of divinity? Self-assertion may deceive the ignorant for a time, but, when the noise dies away, we cut open the drum, and find that it was emptiness that made the music. Mr. Conyers contented himself with declaring that he walked on a road which was unworthy of his footsteps, but as he never contrived to get an inch farther upon the great highway of life, there is some reason to suppose that he had his opinion entirely to himself. Mr. Mellish and his trainer were still discussing stable matters when Mrs. Powell reached the north lodge. She stopped for a few minutes in the rustic doorway, waiting for a pause in the conversation. She was too well-bred to interrupt Mr. Mellish in his talk, and there was a chance that she might hear something by lingering. No contrast could be stronger than that presented by the two men. John, broad-shouldered and stalwart; his short, crisp chestnut hair brushed away from his square forehead; his bright, open blue eyes beaming honest sunshine upon all they looked at; his loose gray clothes neat and well made; his shirt in the first freshness of the morning’s toilet; everything about him made beautiful by the easy grace which is the peculiar property of the man who has been born a gentleman, and which neither all the cheap finery which Mr. Moses can sell, nor all the expensive absurdities which Mr. Tittlebat Titmouse can buy, will ever bestow upon the parvenu or the vulgarian; the trainer, handsomer than his master by as much as Antinous in Grecian marble is handsomer than the substantially-shod and loose-coated young squires in Mr. Millais’s designs; as handsome as it is possible for this human clay to be, with every feature moulded to the highest type of positive beauty, and yet every inch of him a boor; his shirt soiled and crumpled, his hair rough and uncombed; his unshaven chin dark with the blue bristles of his budding beard, and smeared with the traces of last night’s liquor; his dingy hands supporting this dingy chin, and his elbows bursting half out of the frayed sleeves of his shabby shooting-jacket, leaning on the table in an attitude of indifferent insolence; his countenance expressive of nothing but dissatisfaction with his own lot, and contempt for the opinions of other people. All the homilies that could be preached upon the time-worn theme of beauty and its worthlessness could never argue so strongly as this mute evidence presented by Mr. Conyers himself in his slouching posture and his unkempt hair. Is beauty, then, so little, one asks, on looking at the trainer and his employer? Is it better to be clean, and well-dressed, and gentlemanly, than to have a classical profile and a thrice-worn shirt?

Finding very little to interest her in John’s stable-talk, Mrs. Powell made her presence known, and once more asked the all-important question about Colonel Maddison.

“Yes,” John answered, “the old boy is sure to come. Let’s have plenty of chutnee, and boiled rice, and preserved ginger, and all the rest of the unpleasant things that Indian officers live upon. Have you seen Lolly?”

Mr. Mellish put on his hat, gave a last instruction to the trainer, and left the cottage.

“Have you seen Lolly?” he asked again.

“Ye-es,” replied Mrs. Powell; “I have only lately left Mrs. Mellish in your room; she had been speaking to that half-witted person — Hargraves I think he is called.”

“Speaking to him?“ cried John; “speaking to him in my room? Why, the fellow is forbidden to cross the threshold of the house, and Mrs. Mellish abominates the sight of him. Don’t you remember the day he flogged her dog, you know, and Lolly horse — had hysterics?” added Mr. Mellish, choking himself with one word and substituting another.

“Oh, yes, I remember that little — ahem — unfortunate occurrence perfectly,” replied Mrs. Powell, in a tone which, in spite of its amiability, implied that Aurora’s escapade was not a thing to be easily forgotten.

“Then it’s not likely, you know, that Lolly would talk to the man. You must be mistaken, Mrs. Powell.”

The ensign’s widow simpered, and lifted her eyebrows, gently shaking her head with a gesture that seemed to say, “Did you ever find me mistaken?”

“No, no, my dear Mr. Mellish,” she said, with a half-playful air of conviction, “there was no mistake on my part. Mrs. Mellish was talking to the half-witted person; but you know the person is a sort of servant to Mr. Conyers, and Mrs. Mellish may have had a message for Mr. Conyers.”

“A message for him!“ roared John, stopping suddenly, and planting his stick upon the ground in a movement of unconcealed passion; “what messages should she have for him? Why should she want people fetching and carrying between her and him?”

Mrs. Powell’s pale eyes lit up with a faint yellow flame in their greenish pupils as John broke out thus. “It is coming — it is coming — it is coming!” her envious heart cried, and she felt that a faint flush of triumph was gathering in her sickly cheeks.

But in another moment John Mellish recovered his self-command. He was angry with himself for that transient passion. “Am I going to doubt her again?” he thought. “Do I know so little of the nobility of her generous soul that I am ready to listen to every whisper, and terrify myself with every look?”

They had walked about a hundred yards away from the lodge by this time. John turned irresolutely, as if half inclined to go back.

“A message for Conyers,” he said to Mrs. Powell; “ay, ay, to be sure. It’s likely enough she might want to send him a message, for she’s cleverer at all the stable business than I am. It was she who told me not to enter Cherry-stone for the Chester Cup, and, egad! I was obstinate, and I was licked — as I deserved to be, for not listening to my dear girl.”

Mrs. Powell would fain have boxed John’s ear, had she been tall enough to reach that organ. Infatuated fool! would he never open his dull eyes and see the ruin that was preparing for him?

“You are a good husband, Mr. Mellish, she said, with gentle melancholy. “Your wife ought to be happy!” she added, with a sigh which plainly hinted that Mrs. Mellish was miserable.

“A good husband!” cried John; “not half good enough for her. What can I do to prove that I love her? What can I do? Nothing, except to let her have her own way; and what a little that seems! Why, if she wanted to set that house on fire, for the pleasure of making a bonfire,” he added, pointing to the rambling mansion in which his blue eyes had first seen the light, “I’d let her do it, and look on with her at the blaze.”

“Are you going back to the lodge?” Mrs. Powell asked quietly, not taking any notice of this outbreak of marital enthusiasm.

They had retraced their steps, and were within a few paces of the little garden before the north lodge.

“Going back?” said John; “no — yes.”

Between his utterance of the negative and the affirmative he had looked up and seen Stephen Hargraves entering the little garden-gate. The softy had come by the short cut through the wood. John Mellish quickened his pace, and followed Steeve Hargraves across the little garden to the threshold of the door. At the threshold he paused. The rustic porch was thickly screened by the spreading branches of the roses and honey-suckle, and John was unseen by those within. He did not himself deliberately listen; he only waited for a few moments, wondering what to do next. In those few moments of indecision he heard the trainer speak to his attendant:

“Did you see her?” he asked.

“Ay, sure, I see her.”

“And she gave you a message?”

“No, she gave me this here.”

“A letter!” cried the trainer’s eager voice: “give it me.”

John Mellish heard the tearing of the envelope and the crackling of the crisp paper, and knew that his wife had been writing to his servant. He clenched his strong right hand until the nails dug into the muscular palm; then turning to Mrs. Powell, who stood close behind him, simpering meekly, as she would have simpered at an earthquake, or a revolution, or any other national calamity not peculiarly affecting herself, he said quietly:

“Whatever directions Mrs. Mellish has given are sure to be right; I won’t interfere with them.” He walked away from the north lodge as he spoke, looking straight before him, homeward, as if the unchanging load-star of his honest heart were beckoning to him across the dreary Slough of Despond, and bidding him take comfort.

“Mrs. Powell,” he said, turning rather sharply upon the ensign’s widow, “I should be very sorry to say anything likely to offend you, in your character of — of a guest beneath my roof; but I shall take it as a favor to myself if you will be so good as to remember that I require no information respecting my wife’s movements from you, or from any one. Whatever Mrs. Mellish does, she does with my full consent, my perfect approbation. Cæsar’s wife must not be suspected, and, by Jove, ma’am — you’ll pardon the expression — John Mellish’s wife must not be watched.”

“Watched! information!” exclaimed Mrs. Powell, lifting her pale eyebrows to the extreme limits allowed by nature. “My dear Mr. Mellish, when I really only casually remarked, in reply to a question of your own, that I believed Mrs. Mellish had —”

“Oh yes,” answered John, “I understand. There are several ways by which you can go to Doncaster from this house. You can go across the fields, or round by Harper’s Common, an out-of-the-way, roundabout route, but you get there all the same, you know, ma’am. I generally prefer the high-road. It may n’t be the shortest way, perhaps, but it’s certainly the straightest.”

The corners of Mrs. Powell’s thin lower lip dropped perhaps the eighth of an inch as John made these observations, but she very quickly recovered her habitual genteel simper, and told Mr. Mellish that he really had such a droll way of expressing himself as to make his meaning scarcely so clear as could be wished.

But John had said all that he wanted to say, and walked steadily onward, looking always toward that quarter in which the polestar might be supposed to shine, guiding him back to his home.

That home so soon to be desolate! with such ruin brooding above it as in his darkest doubts, his wildest fears, he had never shadowed forth.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/aurora_floyd/chapter22.html

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