Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 25

The Deed that had Been Done in the Wood.

The bareheaded seafaring man who stood in the centre of the hall was Captain Samuel Prodder. The scared faces of the servants gathered round him told more plainly than his words, which came hoarsely from his parched white lips, the nature of the tidings that he brought.

John Mellish strode across the hall with an awful calmness on his white face, and, parting the hustled group of servants with his strong arms as a mighty wind rends asunder the storm-beaten waters, he placed himself face to face with Captain Prodder.

“Who are you?” he asked, sternly; “and what has brought you here?”

The Indian officer had been aroused by the clamor, and had emerged, red and bristling with self-importance, to take his part in the business in hand.

There are some pies in the making of which everybody yearns to have a finger. It is a great privilege, after some social convulsion has taken place, to be able to say, “I was there at the time the scene occurred, sir;” or, “I was standing as close to him when the blow was struck, ma’am, as I am to you at this moment.” People are apt to take pride out of strange things. An elderly gentleman at Doncaster, showing me his comfortably furnished apartments, informed me, with evident satisfaction, that Mr. William Palmer had lodged in those very rooms.

Colonel Maddison pushed aside his daughter and her husband, and struggled out into the hall.

“Come, my man,” he said, echoing John’s interrogatory, “let us hear what has brought you here at such a remarkably unseasonable hour.”

The sailor gave no direct answer to the question. He pointed with his thumb across his shoulder toward that dismal spot in the lonely wood, which was as present to his mental vision now as it had been to his bodily eyes a quarter of an hour before.

“A man!” he gasped; “a man — lyin’ close agen’ the water’s edge — shot through the heart.”

“Dead?” asked some one, in an awful tone. The voices and the questions came from whom they would in the awe-stricken terror of those first moments of overwhelming horror and surprise. No one knew who spoke except the speakers; perhaps even they were scarcely aware that they had spoken.

“Dead?” asked one of those eager listeners.

“Stone dead.”

“A man — shot dead in the wood!” cried John Mellish; “what man?”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said the grave old butler, laying his hand gently upon his master’s shoulder, “I think, from what this person says, that the man who had been shot is — the new trainer, Mr. — Mr. —”

“Conyers!” exclaimed John. “Conyers! who — who should shoot him?” The question was asked in a hoarse whisper. It was impossible for the speaker’s face to grow whiter than it had been from the moment in which he had opened the drawing-room-door, and looked out into the hall; but some terrible change not to be translated into words came over it at the mention of the trainer’s name.

He stood motionless and silent, pushing his hair from his forehead, and staring wildly about him.

The grave butler laid his warning hand for a second time upon his master’s shoulder.

“Sir, Mr. Mellish,” he said, eager to arouse the young man from the dull, stupid quiet into which he had fallen, “excuse me, sir, but if my mistress should come in suddenly, and hear of this, she might be upset, perhaps. Would n’t it be better to —”

“Yes! yes!” cried John Mellish, lifting his head suddenly, as if aroused into immediate action by the mere suggestion of his wife’s name —“yes! Clear out of the hall, every one of you,” he said, addressing the eager group of pale-faced servants. “And you, sir,” he added, to Captain Prodder, “come with me.”

He walked toward the dining-room-door. The sailor followed him, still bareheaded, still with a semi-bewildered expression in his dusky face.

“It a’n’t the first time I’ve seen a man shot,” he thought, “but it’s the first time I’ve felt like this.”

Before Mr. Mellish could reach the dining-room, before the servants could disperse and return to their proper quarters, one of the half-glass doors, which had been left ajar, was pushed open by the light touch of a woman’s hand, and Aurora Mellish entered the hall.

“Ah, ha!” thought the ensign’s widow, who looked on at the scene snugly sheltered by Mr. and Mrs. Lofthouse, “my lady is caught a second time in her evening rambles. What will he say to her goings on to-night, I wonder?”

Aurora’s manner presented a singular contrast to the terror and agitation of the assembly in the hall. A vivid crimson flush glowed in her cheeks and lit up her shining eyes. She carried her head high, in that queenly defiance which was her peculiar grace. She walked with a light step; she moved with easy, careless gestures. It seemed as if some burden which she had long carried had been suddenly removed from her. But at sight of the crowd in the hall she drew back with a look of alarm.

“What has happened, John?” she cried; “what is wrong?”

He lifted his hand with a warning gesture — a gesture that plainly said, Whatever trouble or sorrow there may be, let her be spared the knowledge of it — let her be sheltered from the pain.

“Yes, my darling,” he answered, quietly, taking her hand and leading her into the drawing-room, “there is something wrong. An accident has happened — in the wood yonder; but it concerns no one whom you care for. Go, dear; I will tell you all by and by. Mrs. Lofthouse, you will take care of my wife. Lofthouse, come with me. Allow me to shut the door, Mrs. Powell, if you please,” he added to the ensign’s widow, who did not seem inclined to leave her post upon the threshold of the drawing-room. “Any curiosity which you may have about the business shall be satisfied in due time. For the present, you will oblige me by remaining with my wife and Mrs. Lofthouse.”

He paused, with his hand upon the drawing-room-door, and looked at Aurora.

She was standing with her shawl upon her arm, watching her husband; and she advanced eagerly to him as she met his glance.

“John,” she exclaimed, “for mercy’s sake, tell me the truth! What is this accident?”

He was silent for a moment, gazing at her eager face — that face, whose exquisite mobility expressed every thought; then, looking at her with a strange solemnity, he said gravely, “You were in the wood just now, Aurora?”

“I was,” she answered; “I have only just left the grounds. A man passed me, running violently, about a quarter of an hour ago. I thought he was a poacher. Was it to him the accident happened?”

“No. There was a shot fired in the wood some time since. Did you hear it?”

“I did,” replied Mrs. Mellish, looking at him with sudden terror and surprise. “I knew there were often poachers about near the road, and I was not alarmed by it. Was there anything wrong in that shot? Was any one hurt?”

Her eyes were fixed upon his face, dilated with that look of wondering terror.

“Yes; a — a man was hurt.”

Aurora looked at him in silence — looked at him with a stony face, whose only expression was an utter bewilderment. Every other feeling seemed blotted away in that one sense of wonder.

John Mellish led her to a chair near Mrs. Lofthouse, who had been seated, with Mrs. Powell, at the other end of the room, close to the piano, and too far from the door to overhear the conversation which had just taken place between John and his wife. People do not talk very loudly in moments of intense agitation. They are liable to be deprived of some portion of their vocal power in the fearful crisis of terror and despair. A numbness seizes the organ of speech; a partial paralysis disables the ready tongue; the trembling lips refuse to do their duty. The soft pedal of the human instrument is down, and the tones are feeble and muffled, wandering into weak minor shrillness, or sinking to husky basses, beyond the ordinary compass of the speaker’s voice. The stentorian accents in which Claude Melnotte bids adieu to Mademoiselle Deschappelle mingle very effectively with the brazen clamor of the Marseillaise Hymn; the sonorous tones in which Mistress Julia appeals to her Hunchback guardian are pretty sure to bring down the approving thunder of the eighteen-penny gallery; but I doubt if the noisy energy of stage-grief is true to nature, however wise in art. I’m afraid that an actor who would play Claude Melnotte with a pre-Raphaelite fidelity to nature would be an insufferable bore, and utterly inaudible beyond the third row in the pit. The artist must draw his own line between nature and art, and map out the extent of his own territory. If he finds that cream-colored marble is more artistically beautiful than a rigid presentment of actual flesh and blood, let him stain his marble of that delicate hue until the end of time. If he can represent five acts of agony and despair without once turning his back to his audience or sitting down, let him do it. If he is conscientiously true to his art, let him choose for himself how true he shall be to nature.

John Mellish took his wife’s hand in his own, and grasped it with a convulsive pressure that almost crushed the delicate fingers.

“Stay here, my dear, till I come back to you,” he said. “Now, Lofthouse.”

Mr. Lofthouse followed his friend into the hall, where Colonel Maddison had been making the best use of his time by questioning the merchant-captain.

“Come, gentlemen,” said John, leading the way to the dining-room; “come, colonel, and you too, Lofthouse; and you, sir,” he added, to the sailor, “step this way.”

The débris of the dessert still covered the table, but the men did not advance far into the room. John stood aside as the others went in, and, entering the last, closed the door behind him, and stood with his back against it.

“Now,” he said, turning sharply upon Samuel Prodder, “what is this business?”

“I’m afraid it’s sooicide — or — or murder,” answered the sailor, gravely. “I’ve told this good gentleman all about it.”

This good gentleman was Colonel Maddison, who seemed delighted to plunge into the conversation.

“Yes, my dear Mellish,” he said, eagerly, “our friend, who describes himself as a sailor, and who had come down to see Mrs. Mellish, whose mother he knew when he was a boy, has told me all about this shocking affair. Of course the body must be removed immediately, and the sooner your servants go out with lanterns for that purpose the better. Decision, my dear Mellish, decision and prompt action are indispensable in these sad catastrophes.”

“The body removed!” repeated John Mellish; “the man is dead, then?”

“Quite dead,” answered the sailor; “he was dead when I found him, though it was n’t above seven minutes after the shot was fired. I left a man with him — a young man as drove me from Doncaster — and a dog — some big dog that watched beside him, howling awful, and would n’t leave him.”

“Did you — see — the man’s face?”

“Yes.”

“You are a stranger here,” said John Mellish; “it is useless, therefore, to ask you if you know who the man is.”

“No, sir,” answered the sailor, “I did n’t know him; but the young man from the Reindeer —”

“He recognized him?”

“Yes; he said he’d seen the man in Doncaster only the night before; and that he was your — trainer, I think he called him.”

“Yes, yes.”

“A lame chap.”

“Come, gentlemen,” said John, turning to his friends, “what are we to do?”

“Send the servants into the wood,” replied Colonel Maddison, “and have the body carried —”

“Not here,” cried John Mellish, interrupting him, “not here; it would kill my wife.”

“Where did the man live?” asked the colonel.

“In the north lodge. A cottage against the northern gates, which are never used now.”

“Then let the body be taken there,” answered the Indian soldier; “let one of your people run for the parish constable; and you’d better send for the nearest surgeon immediately, though, from what our friend here says, a hundred of ’em could n’t do any good. It’s an awful business. Some poaching fray, I suppose.”

“Yes, yes,” answered John, quickly, “no doubt.”

“Was the man disliked in the neighborhood?” asked Colonel Maddison; “had he made himself in any manner obnoxious?”

“I should scarcely think it likely. He had only been with me about a week.”

The servants, who had dispersed at John’s command, had not gone very far. They had lingered in corridors and lobbies, ready at a moment’s notice to rush out into the hall again, and act their minor parts in the tragedy. They preferred doing anything to returning quietly to their own quarters.

They came out eagerly at Mr. Mellish’s summons. He gave his orders briefly, selecting two of the men, and sending the others about their business.

“Bring a couple of lanterns,” he said: “and follow us across the Park toward the pond in the wood.”

Colonel Maddison, Mr. Lofthouse, Captain Prodder, and John Mellish left the house together. The moon, still slowly rising in the broad, cloudless heavens, silvered the quiet lawn, and shimmered upon the tree-tops in the distance. The three gentlemen walked at a rapid pace, led by Samuel Prodder, who kept a little way in advance, and followed by a couple of grooms, who carried darkened stable-lanterns.

As they entered the wood, they stopped involuntarily, arrested by that solemn sound which had first drawn the sailor’s attention to the dreadful deed that had been done — the howling of the dog. It sounded in the distance like a low, feeble wail — a long, monotonous death-cry.

They followed that dismal indication of the spot to which they were to go. They made their way through the shadowy avenue, and emerged upon the silvery patch of turf and fern where the rotting summer-house stood in its solitary decay. The two figures — the prostrate figure on the brink of the water, and the figure of the dog with uplifted head — still remained exactly as the sailor had left them three-quarters of an hour before. The young man from the Reindeer stood aloof from these two figures, and advanced to meet the new-comers as they drew near.

Colonel Maddison took a lantern from one of the men, and ran forward to the water’s edge. The dog rose as he approached, and walked slowly round the prostrate form, sniffling at it, and whining piteously. John Mellish called the animal away.

“This man was in a sitting posture when he was shot,” said Colonel Maddison, decisively. “He was sitting upon this bench here.”

He pointed to a dilapidated rustic seat close to the margin of the stagnant water.

“He was sitting upon this bench,” repeated the colonel, “for he’s fallen close against it, as you see. Unless I’m very much mistaken, he was shot from behind.”

“You don’t think he shot himself, then?” asked John Mellish.

“Shot himself!” cried the colonel; “not a bit of it. But we’ll soon settle that. If he shot himself, the pistol must be close against him. Here, bring a loose plank from that summer-house, and lay the body upon it,” added the Indian officer, speaking to the servants.

Captain Prodder and the two grooms selected the broadest plank they could find. It was moss-grown and rotten, and straggling wreaths of wild clematis were entwined about it; but it served the purpose for which it was wanted. They laid it upon the grass, and lifted the body of James Conyers on to it, with his handsome face — ghastly and horrible in the fixed agony of sudden death — turned upward to the moonlit sky. It was wonderful how mechanically and quietly they went to work, promptly and silently obeying the colonel’s orders.

John Mellish and Mr. Lofthouse searched the slippery grass upon the bank, and groped among the fringe of fern, without result. There was no weapon to be found anywhere within a considerable radius of the body.

While they were searching in every direction for this missing link in the mystery of the man’s death, the parish constable arrived with the servant who had been sent to summon him.

He had very little to say for himself, except that he supposed it was poachers as had done it; and that he also supposed all particklars would come out at the inquest. He was a simple rural functionary, accustomed to petty dealings with refractory tramps, contumacious poachers, and impounded cattle, and was scarcely master of the situation in any great emergency.

Mr. Prodder and the servants lifted the plank upon which the body lay, and struck into the long avenue leading northward, walking a little ahead of the three gentlemen and the constable. The young man from the Reindeer returned to look after his horse, and to drive round to the north lodge, where he was to meet Mr. Prodder. All had been done so quietly that the knowledge of the catastrophe had not passed beyond the domains of Mellish Park. In the holy summer-evening stillness James Conyers was carried back to the chamber from whose narrow window he had looked out upon the beautiful world, weary of its beauty, only a few hours before.

The purposeless life was suddenly closed. The careless wanderer’s journey had come to an unthought-of end. What a melancholy record, what a meaningless and unfinished page? Nature, blindly bountiful to the children whom she has yet to know, had bestowed her richest gifts upon this man. She had created a splendid image, and had chosen a soul at random, ignorantly enshrining it in her most perfectly-fashioned clay. Of all who read the story of this man’s death in the following Sunday’s newspapers, there was not one who shed a tear for him; there was not one who could say, “That man once stepped out of his way to do me a kindness; and may the Lord have mercy upon his soul!”

Shall I be sentimental, then, because he is dead, and regret that he was not spared a little longer, and allowed a day of grace in which he might repent? Had he lived for ever, I do not think he would have lived long enough to become that which it was not in his nature to be. May God, in His infinite compassion, have pity upon the souls which He has Himself created, and where He has withheld the light, may be excuse the darkness! The phrenologists who examined the head of William Palmer declared that he was so utterly deficient in moral perception, so entirely devoid of conscientious restraint, that he could not help being what he was. Heaven keep us from too much credence in that horrible fatalism! Is a man’s destiny here and hereafter to depend upon bulbous projections scarcely perceptible to uneducated fingers, and good and evil propensities which can be measured by the compass or weighed in the scale?

The dismal cortége slowly made its way under the silver moonlight, the trembling leaves making a murmuring music in the faint summer air, the pale glowworm sshining here and there amid the tangled verdure. The bearers of the dead walked with a slow but steady tramp in advance of the rest. All walked in silence. What should they say? In the presence of death’s awful mystery life made a pause. There was a brief interval in the hard business of existence — a hushed and solemn break in the working of life’s machinery.

“There’ll be an inquest,” thought Mr. Prodder, “and I shall have to give evidence. I wonder what questions they’ll ask me?”

He did not think this once, but perpetually, dwelling with a half-stupid persistence upon the thought of that inquisition which must most infallibly be made, and those questions that might be asked. The honest sailor’s simple mind was cast astray in the utter bewilderment of this night’s mysterious horror. The story of life was changed. He had come to play his humble part in some sweet domestic drama of love and confidence, and he found himself involved in a tragedy — a horrible mystery of hatred, secrecy; and murder — a dreadful maze, from whose obscurity he saw no hope of issue.

A beacon-light glimmered in the lower window of the cottage by the north gates — a feeble ray, that glittered like a gem from out a bower of honeysuckle and clematis. The little garden-gate was closed, but it only fastened with a latch.

The bearers of the body paused before entering the garden, and the constable stepped aside to speak to Mr. Mellish.

“Is there anybody lives in the cottage?” he asked.

“Yes,” answered John; “the trainer employed an old hanger-on of my own — a half-witted fellow, called Hargraves.”

“It’s him as burns the light in there most likely, then,” said the constable. “I’ll go in and speak to him first. Do you wait here till I come out again,” he added, turning to the men who carried the body.

The lodge-door was on the latch. The constable opened it softly and went in. A rushlight was burning upon the table, the candlestick placed in a basin of water. A bottle half filled with brandy, and a tumbler, stood near the light; but the room was empty. The constable took his shoes off, and crept up the little staircase. The upper floor of the lodge consisted of two rooms — one, sufficiently large and comfortable, looking toward the stable-gates; the other, smaller and darker, looked out upon a patch of kitchen-garden and on the fence which separated Mr. Mellish’s estate from the high-road. The larger chamber was empty; but the door of the smaller was ajar; and the constable, pausing to listen at that half-open door, heard the regular breathing of a heavy sleeper.

He knocked sharply upon the panel.

“Who’s there?” asked the person within, starting up from a truckle bedstead. “Is ‘t thou, Muster Conyers?”

“No,” answered the constable. “It’s me, William Dork, of Little Meslingham. Come down stairs; I want to speak to you.”

“Is there aught wrong?”

“Yes.”

“Poachers?”

“That’s as may be,” answered Mr. Dork. “Come down stairs, will you?”

Mr. Hargraves muttered something to the effect that he would make his appearance as soon as he could find sundry portions of his rather fragmentary toilet. The constable looked into the room, and watched the softy groping for his garments in the moonlight. Three minutes afterward Stephen Hargraves slowly shambled down the angular wooden stairs, which wound, in a corkscrew fashion affected by the builders of small dwellings, from the upper to the lower floor.

“Now,” said Mr. Dork, planting the softy opposite to him, with the feeble rays of the rush-light upon his sickly face, “now then, I want you to answer me a question. At what time did your master leave the house?”

“At half-past seven o’clock,” answered the softy, in his whispering voice; “she was stroikin’ the half-hour as he went out.”

He pointed to a small Dutch clock in a corner of the room. His countrymen always speak of a clock as “she.”

“Oh, he went out at half-past seven o’clock, did he?” said the constable; “and you have n’t seen him since, I suppose?”

“No. He told me he should be late, and I was n’t to sit oop for him. He swore at me last night for sitting oop for him. But is there aught wrong?” asked the softy.

Mr. Dork did not condescend to reply to this question. He walked straight to the door, opened it, and beckoned to those who stood without in the summer moonlight, patiently waiting for his summons. “You may bring him in,” he said.

They carried their ghastly burden into the pleasant rustic chamber — the chamber in which Mr. James Conyers had sat smoking and drinking a few hours before. Mr. Morton, the surgeon from Meslingham, the village nearest to the Park gates, arrived as the body was being carried in, and ordered a temporary couch of mattresses to be spread upon a couple of tables placed together, in the lower room, for the reception of the trainer’s corpse.

John Mellish, Samuel Prodder, and Mr. Lofthouse remained outside of the cottage. Colonel Maddison, the servants, the constable, and the doctor were all clustered round the corpse.

“He has been dead about an hour and a quarter,” said the doctor, after a brief inspection of the body. “He has been shot in the back; the bullet has not penetrated the heart, for in that case there would have been no hemorrhage. He has respired after receiving the shot; but death must have been almost instantaneous.”

Before making his examination, the surgeon had assisted Mr. Dork, the constable, to draw off the coat and waistcoat of the deceased. The bosom of the waistcoat was saturated with the blood that had flowed from the parted lips of the dead man.

It was Mr. Dork’s business to examine these garments, in the hope of finding some shred of evidence which might become a clew to the secret of the trainer’s death. He turned out the pockets of the shooting-coat and of the waistcoat; one of these pockets contained a handful of half-pence, a couple of shillings, a fourpenny piece, and a rusty watch-key; another held a little parcel of tobacco wrapped in an old betting-list, and a broken meerschaum pipe, black and greasy with the essential oil of by-gone shag, and bird’s eye. In one of the waistcoat-pockets Mr. Dork found the dead man’s silver watch, with a blood-stained ribbon and a worthless gilt seal. Among all these things there was nothing calculated to throw any light upon the mystery. Colonel Maddison shrugged his shoulders as the constable emptied the paltry contents of the trainer’s pockets on to a little dresser at one end of the room.

“There’s nothing here that makes the business any clearer,” he said; “but, to my mind, it’s plain enough. The man was new here, and he brought new ways with him from his last situation. The poachers and vagabonds have been used to have it all their own way about Mellish Park, and they did n’t like this poor fellow’s interference. He wanted to play the tyrant, I dare say, and made himself obnoxious to some of the worst of the lot; and he’s caught it hot, poor chap, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

Colonel Maddison, with the recollection of a refractory Punjaub strong upon him, had no very great reverence for the mysterious spark that lights the human temple. If a man made himself obnoxious to other men, other men were very likely to kill him. This was the soldier’s simple theory; and, having delivered himself of his opinion respecting the trainer’s death, he emerged from the cottage, and was ready to go home with John Mellish, and drink another bottle of that celebrated tawny port which had been laid in by his host’s father twenty years before.

The constable stood close against a candle, that had been hastily lighted and thrust unceremoniously into a disused blacking-bottle, with the waistcoat still in his hands. He was turning the blood-stained garment inside out; for, while emptying the pockets, he had felt a thick substance that seemed like a folded paper, but the whereabouts of which he had not been able to discover. He uttered a suppressed exclamation of surprise presently, for he found the solution of this difficulty. The paper was sewn between the inner lining and the outer material of the waistcoat. He discovered this by examining the seam, a part of which was sewn with coarse stitches, and a thread of a different color to the rest. He ripped open this part of the seam, and drew out the paper, which was so much bloodstained as to be undecipherable to Mr. Dork’s rather obtuse vision. “I’ll say naught about it, and keep it to show to th’ coroner,” he thought; “I’ll lay he’ll make something out of it.” The constable folded the document, and secured it in a leathern pocket-book, a bulky receptacle, the very aspect of which was wont to strike terror to rustic defaulters. “I’ll show it to the coroner,” he thought, “and if aught particklar comes out, I may get something for my trouble.”

The village surgeon, having done his duty, prepared to leave the crowded little room, where the gaping servants still lingered, as if loath to tear themselves away from the ghastly figure of the dead man, over which Mr. Morton had spread a patchwork coverlet, taken from the bed in the chamber above. The softy had looked on quietly enough at the dismal scene, watching the faces of the small assembly, and glancing furtively from one to another beneath the shadow of his bushy red eyebrows. His haggard face, always of a sickly white, seemed to-night no more colorless than usual. His slow, whispering tones were not more suppressed than they always were. If he had a hangdog manner and a furtive glance, the manner and the glance were both common to him. No one looked at him, no one heeded him. After the first question as to the hour at which the trainer left the lodge had been asked and answered, no one spoke to him. If he got in anybody’s way, he was pushed aside; if he said anything, nobody listened to him. The dead man was the sole monarch of that dismal scene. It was to him they looked with awe-stricken glances; it was of him they spoke in subdued whispers. All their questions, their suggestions, their conjectures, were about him, and him alone. There is this to be observed in the physiology of every murder — that before the coroner’s inquest the sole object of public curiosity is the murdered man; while immediately after that judicial investigation the tide of feeling turns, the dead man is buried and forgotten, and the suspected murderer becomes the hero of men’s morbid imaginations.

John Mellish looked in at the door of the cottage to ask a few questions.

“Have you found anything, Dork?” he asked.

“Nothing particklar, sir.”

“Nothing that throws any light upon this business?”

“No, sir.”

“You are going home, then, I suppose?”

“Yes, sir, I must be going back now; if you’ll leave some one here to watch —”

“Yes, yes,” said John, “one of the servants shall stay.”

“Very well, then, sir; I’ll just take the names of the witnesses that’ll be examined at the inquest, and I’ll go over and see the coroner early to-morrow morning.”

“The witnesses — ah! to be sure. Who will you want?”

Mr. Dork hesitated for a moment, rubbing the bristles upon his chin.

“Well, there’s this man here, Hargraves, I think you called him,” he said presently, “we shall want him; for it seems he was the last that saw the deceased alive, leastways as I can hear on yet; then we shall want the gentleman as found the body, and the young man as was with him when he heard the shot: the gentleman as found the body is the most particklar of all, and I’ll speak to him at once.”

John Mellish turned round, fully expecting to see Mr. Prodder at his elbow, where he had been some time before. John had a perfect recollection of seeing the loosely-clad seafaring figure standing behind him in the moonlight; but, in the terrible confusion of his mind, he could not remember exactly when it was that he had last seen the sailor: it might have been only five minutes before — it might have been a quarter of an hour. John’s ideas of time were annihilated by the horror of the catastrophe which had marked this night with the red brand of murder. It seemed to him as if he had been standing for hours in the little cottage garden, with Reginald Lofthouse by his side, listening to the low hum of the voices in the crowded room, and waiting to see the end of the dreary business.

Mr. Dork looked about him in the moonlight, entirely bewildered by the disappearance of Samuel Prodder.

“Why, where on earth has he gone?” exclaimed the constable. “We must have him before the coroner. What’ll Mr. Hayward say to me for letting him slip through my fingers?”

“The man was here a quarter of an hour ago, so he can’t be very far off,” suggested Mr. Lofthouse. “Does anybody know who he is?”

No; nobody knew anything about him. He had appeared as mysteriously as if he had risen from the earth, to bring terror and confusion upon it with the evil tidings which he bore. Stay! some one suddenly remembered that he had been accompanied by Bill Jarvis, the young man from the Reindeer, and that he had ordered the young man to drive his trap to the north gates, and wait for him there.

The constable ran to the gates upon receiving this information; but there was no vestige of the horse and gig, or of the young man. Samuel Prodder had evidently taken advantage of the confusion, and had driven off in the gig under cover of the general bewilderment.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, sir,” said William Dork, addressing Mr. Mellish; “if you’ll lend me a horse and trap, I’ll drive into Doncaster, and see if this man’s to be found at the Reindeer. We must have him for a witness.”

John Mellish assented to this arrangement. He left one of the grooms to keep watch in the death-chamber, in company with Stephen Hargraves, the softy; and, after bidding the surgeon good-night, walked slowly homeward with his friends. The church clock was striking twelve as the three gentlemen left the wood, and passed through the little iron gateway on to the lawn.

“We had better not tell the ladies more than we are obliged to tell them about this business,” said John Mellish, as they approached the house, where the lights were still burning in the hall and drawing-room; “we shall only agitate them by letting them know the worst.”

“To be sure, to be sure, my boy,” answered the colonel. “My poor little Maggie always cries if she hears of anything of this kind; and Lofthouse is almost as big a baby,” added the soldier, glancing rather contemptuously at his son-in-law, who had not spoken once during that slow homeward walk.

John Mellish thought very little of the strange disappearance of Captain Prodder. The man had objected to be summoned as a witness perhaps, and had gone. It was only natural. He did not even know his name; he only knew him as the mouth-piece of evil tidings, which had shaken him to the very soul. That this man Conyers — this man of all others, this man toward whom he had conceived a deeply-rooted aversion, an unspoken horror — should have perished mysteriously by an unknown hand, was an event so strange and appalling as to deprive him for a time of all power of thought, all capability of reasoning. Who had killed this man — this penniless, good-for-nothing trainer? Who could have had any motive for such a deed? Who — The cold sweat broke out upon his brow in the anguish of the thought.

Who had done this deed?

It was not the work of any poacher. No. It was very well for Colonel Maddison, in his ignorance of antecedent facts, to account for it in that manner; but John Mellish knew that he was wrong. James Conyers had only been at the Park a week. He had had neither time nor opportunity for making himself obnoxious; and, beyond that, he was not the man to make himself obnoxious. He was a selfish, indolent rascal, who only loved his own ease, and who would have allowed the young partridges to be wired under his very nose. Who, then, had done this deed?

There was only one person who had any motive for wishing to be rid of this man. One person who, made desperate by some great despair, enmeshed perhaps by some net hellishly contrived by a villain, hopeless of any means of extrication, in a moment of madness, might have — No! In the face of every evidence that earth could offer — against reason, against hearing, eyesight, judgment, and memory — he would say, as he said now, No! She was innocent! She was innocent! She had looked in her husband’s face, the clear light had shone from her luminous eyes, a stream of electric radiance penetrating straight to his heart — and he had trusted her.

“I’ll trust her at the worst,” he thought. “If all living creatures upon this wide earth joined their voices in one great cry of upbraiding, I’d stand by her to the very end, and defy them.”

Aurora and Mrs. Lofthouse had fallen asleep upon opposite sofas; Mrs. Powell was walking softly up and down the long drawing-room, waiting and watching — waiting for a fuller knowledge of this ruin which had come upon her employer’s household.

Mrs. Mellish sprang up suddenly at the sound of her husband’s step as he entered the drawing-room.

“Oh, John,” she cried, running to him and laying her hands upon his broad shoulders, “thank Heaven you are come back! Now tell me all — tell me all, John. I am prepared to hear anything, no matter what. This is no ordinary accident. The man who was hurt —”

Her eyes dilated as she looked at him with a glance of intelligence that plainly said, “I can guess what has happened.”

“The man was very seriously hurt, Lolly,” her husband answered, quietly.

“What man?”

“The trainer recommended to me by John Pastern.”

She looked at him for a few moments in silence.

“He is dead?” she said, after that brief pause.

“He is.”

Her head sank forward upon her breast, and she walked away, quietly returning to the sofa from which she had arisen.

“I am very sorry for him,” she said; “he was not a good man. I am sorry he was not allowed time to repent of his wickedness.”

“You knew him, then?” asked Mrs. Lofthouse, who had expressed unbounded consternation at the trainer’s death.

“Yes; he was in my father’s service some years ago.”

Mr. Lofthouse’s carriage had been waiting ever since eleven o’clock, and the rector’s wife was only too glad to bid her friends good-night, and to drive away from Mellish Park and its fatal associations; so, though Colonel Maddison would have preferred stopping to smoke another cheroot while he discussed the business with John Mellish, he was fain to submit to feminine authority, and take his seat by his daughter’s side in the comfortable landau, which was an open or a close carriage, as the convenience of its proprietor dictated. The vehicle rolled away upon the smooth carriage-drive; the servants closed the hall-doors, and lingered about, whispering to each other, in little groups in the corridors and on the staircases, waiting until their master and mistress should have retired for the night. It was difficult to think that the business of life was to go on just the same though a murder had been done upon the outskirts of the Park, and even the housekeeper, a severe matron at ordinary times, yielded to the common influence, and forgot to drive the maids to their dormitories in the gabled roof.

All was very quiet in the drawing-room where the visitors had left their host and hostess to hug those ugly skeletons which are put away in the presence of company. John Mellish walked slowly up and down the room. Aurora sat staring vacantly at the guttering wax candles in the old-fashioned silver branches; and Mrs. Powell, with her embroidery in full working-order, threaded her needles and snipped away the fragments of her delicate cotton as carefully as if there had been no such thing as crime or trouble in the world, and no higher purpose in life than the achievement of elaborate devices upon French cambric.

She paused now and then to utter some polite commonplace. She regretted such an unpleasant catastrophe; she lamented the disagreeable circumstances of the trainer’s death; indeed, she in a manner inferred that Mr. Conyers had shown himself wanting in good taste and respect for his employer by the mode of his death; but the point to which she recurred most frequently was the fact of Aurora’s presence in the grounds at the time of the murder.

“I so much regret that you should have been out of doors at the time, my dear Mrs. Mellish,” she said; “and, as I should imagine, from the direction which you took on leaving the house, actually near the place where the unfortunate man met his death. It will be so unpleasant for you to have to appear at the inquest.”

“Appear at the inquest!” cried John Mellish, stopping suddenly, and turning fiercely upon the placid speaker. “Who says that my wife will have to appear at the inquest?”

“I merely imagined it probable that —”

“Then you’d no business to imagine it, ma’am,” retorted Mr. Mellish, with no very great show of politeness. “My wife will not appear. Who should ask her to do so? Who should wish her to do so? What has she to do with to-night’s business? or what does she know of it more than you or I, or any one else in this house?”

Mrs. Powell shrugged her shoulders.

“I thought that, from Mrs. Mellish’s previous knowledge of this unfortunate person, she might be able to throw some light upon his habits and associations,” she suggested, mildly.

“Previous knowledge!” roared John. “What knowledge should Mrs. Mellish have of her father’s grooms? What interest should she take in their habits or associations?”

“Stop,” said Aurora, rising and laying her hand lightly on her husband’s shoulder. “My dear, impetuous John, why do you put yourself into a passion about this business? If they choose to call me as a witness, I will tell all I know about this man’s death, which is nothing but that I heard a shot fired while I was in the grounds.”

She was very pale, but she spoke with a quiet determination, a calm, resolute defiance of the worst that fate could reserve for her.

“I will tell anything that it is necessary to tell,” she said; “I care very little what.”

With her hand still upon her husband’s shoulder, she rested her head on his breast like some weary child nestling in its only safe shelter.

Mrs. Powell rose, and gathered together her embroidery in a pretty, lady-like receptacle of fragile wicker-work. She glided to the door, selected her candlestick, and paused on the threshold to bid Mr. and Mrs. Mellish good-night.

“I am sure you must need rest after this terrible affair,” she simpered, “so I will take the initiative. It is nearly one o’clock. Good-night.”

If she had lived in the Thane of Cawdor’s family, she would have wished Macbeth and his wife a good night’s rest after Duncan’s murder, and would have hoped they would sleep well; she would have courtesied and simpered amid the tolling of alarm-bells, the clashing of vengeful swords, and the blood-bedabbled visages of the drunken grooms. It must have been the Scottish queen’s companion who watched with the truckling physician, and played the spy upon her mistress’s remorseful wanderings, and told how it was the conscience-stricken lady’s habit to do thus and thus; no one but a genteel mercenary would have been so sleepless in the dead hours of the night, lying in wait for the revelation of horrible secrets, the muttered clews to deadly mysteries.

“Thank God, she’s gone at last!” cried John Mellish, as the door closed very softly and very slowly upon Mrs. Powell. “I hate that woman, Lolly.”

Heaven knows I have never called John Mellish a hero; I have never set him up as a model of manly perfection or infallible virtue; and, if he is not faultless, if he has those flaws and blemishes which seem a constituent part of our imperfect clay, I make no apology for him, but trust him to the tender mercies of those who, not being quite perfect themselves, will, I am sure, be merciful to him. He hated those who hated his wife, or did her any wrong, however small. He loved those who loved her. In the great power of his wide affection, all self-esteem was annihilated. To love her was to love him; to serve her was to do him treble service; to praise her was to make him vainer than the vainest school-girl. He freely took upon his shoulders every debt that she owed, whether of love or of hate; and he was ready to pay either species of account to the utmost farthing, and with no mean interest upon the sum total. “I hate that woman, Lolly,” he repeated, “and I shan’t be able to stand her much longer.”

Aurora did not answer him. She was silent for some moments, and when she did speak it was evident that Mrs. Powell was very far away from her thoughts.

“My poor John,” she said, in a low, soft voice, whose melancholy tenderness went straight to her husband’s heart; “my dear, how happy we were together for a little time! How very happy we were, my poor boy!”

“Always, Lolly,” he answered, “always, my darling.”

“No, no, no,” said Aurora, suddenly; “only for a little while. What a horrible fatality has pursued us! what a frightful curse has clung to me! The curse of disobedience, John — the curse of Heaven upon my disobedience. To think that this man should have been sent here, and that he —”

She stopped, shivering violently, and clinging to the faithful breast that sheltered her.

John Mellish quietly led her to her dressing-room, and placed her in the care of her maid.

“Your mistress has been very much agitated by this night’s business,” he said to the girl; “keep her as quiet as you possibly can.”

Mrs. Mellish’s bedroom, a comfortable and roomy apartment, with a low ceiling and deep bay-windows, opened into a morning-room, in which it was John’s habit to read the newspapers and sporting periodicals, while his wife wrote letters, drew pencil sketches of dogs and horses, or played with her favorite Bow-wow. They had been very childish, and idle, and happy in this pretty chintz-hung chamber; and, going into it to-night in utter desolation of heart, Mr. Mellish felt his sorrows all the more bitterly for the remembrance of those by-gone joys. The shaded lamp was lighted on the morocco-covered writing-table, and glimmered softly on the picture-frames, caressing the pretty modern paintings, the simple, domestic-story pictures which adorned the subdued gray walls. This wing of the old house had been refurnished for Aurora, and there was not a chair or a table in the room that had not been chosen by John Mellish with a special view to the comfort and the pleasure of his wife. The upholsterer had found him a liberal employer, the painter and the sculptor a noble patron. He had walked about the Royal Academy with a catalogue and a pencil in his hand, choosing all the “pretty” pictures for the beautification of his wife’s rooms. A lady in a scarlet riding-habit and three-cornered beaver hat, a white pony, and a pack of greyhounds, a bit of stone terrace and sloping turf, a flower-bed, and a fountain made poor John’s idea of a pretty picture; and he had half a dozen variations of such familiar subjects in his spacious mansion. He sat down to-night, and looked hopelessly round the pleasant chamber, wondering whether Aurora and he would ever be happy again — wondering if this dark, mysterious, storm-threatening cloud would ever pass from the horizon of his life, and leave the future bright and clear.

“I have not been good enough,” he thought; “I have intoxicated myself with my happiness, and have made no return for it. What am I, that I should have won the woman I love for my wife, while other men are laying down the best desires of their hearts a willing sacrifice, and going out to fight the battle for their fellow-men? What an indolent, good-for-nothing wretch I have been! How blind, how ungrateful, how undeserving!”

John Mellish buried his face in his broad hands, and repented of the carelessly happy life which he had led for one-and-thirty thoughtless years. He had been awakened from his unthinking bliss by a thunder-clap, that had shattered the fairy castle of his happiness, and laid it level with the ground; and in his simple faith he looked into his own life for the cause of the ruin which had overtaken him. Yes, it must be so; he had not deserved his happiness, he had not earned his good fortune. Have you ever thought of this, ye simple country squires, who give blankets and beef to your poor neighbors in the cruel winter-time, who are good and gentle masters, faithful husbands, and tender fathers, and who lounge away your easy lives in the pleasant places of this beautiful earth? Have you ever thought that, when all your good deeds have been gathered together and set in the balance, the sum of them will be very small when set against the benefits you have received? It will be a very small percentage which you will yield your Master for the ten talents intrusted to your care. Remember John Howard, fever-stricken and dying, Mrs. Fry, laboring in criminal prisons, Florence Nightingale, in the bare hospital chambers, in the close and noxious atmosphere among the dead and the dying. These are the people who return cent per cent for the gifts intrusted to them. These are the saints whose good deeds shine among the stars for ever and ever; these are the indefatigable workers who, when the toil and turmoil of the day is done, hear the Master’s voice in the still even-time welcoming them to His rest.

John Mellish, looking back at his life, humbly acknowledged that it had been a comparatively useless one. He had distributed happiness to the people who had come in his way, but he had never gone out of his way to make people happy. I dare say that Dives was a liberal master to his own servants, although he did not trouble himself to look after the beggar who sat at his gates. The Israelite who sought instruction from the lips of inspiration was willing to do his duty to his neighbor, but had yet to learn the broad signification of that familiar epithet; and poor John, like the rich young man, was ready to serve his Master faithfully, but had yet to learn the manner of his service.

“If I could save her from the shadow of sorrow or disgrace, I would start to-morrow barefoot on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” he thought. “What is there that I would not do for her? what sacrifice would seem too great? what burden too heavy to bear?”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/aurora_floyd/chapter25.html

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