Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 26

At the Golden Lion.

Mr. William Dork, the constable, reached Doncaster at about quarter-past one o’clock upon the morning after the murder, and drove straight to the Reindeer. That hotel had been closed for a couple of hours, and it was only by the exercise of his authority that Mr. Dork obtained access, and a hearing from the sleepy landlord. The young man who had driven Mr. Prodder was found after considerable difficulty, and came stumbling down the servants’ staircase in a semi-somnolent state to answer the constable’s inquiries. He had driven the seafaring gentleman, whose name he did not know, direct to the Doncaster Station, in time to catch the mail-train, which started at 12.50. He had parted with the gentleman at the door of the station three minutes before the train started.

This was all the information that Mr. Dork could obtain. If he had been a sharp London detective, he might have made his arrangements for laying hands upon the fugitive sailor at the first station at which the train stopped; but being merely a simple rural functionary, he scratched his stubble head, and stared at the landlord of the Reindeer in utter mental bewilderment.

“He was in a devil of a hurry, this chap,” he muttered rather sulkily. “What did he want to coot away for?”

The young man who had acted as charioteer could not answer this question. He only knew that the seafaring gentleman had promised him half a sovereign if he caught the mail-train, and that he had earned his reward.

“Well, I suppose it a’n’t so very particklar,” said Mr. Dork, sipping a glass of rum, which he had ordered for his refreshment. “You’ll have to appear to-morrow, and you can tell nigh as much as t’ other chap,” he added, turning to the young man. “You was with him when the shot were fired, and you warn’t far when he found the body. You’ll have to appear and give evidence whenever the inquest’s held. I doubt if it’ll be tomorrow, for there won’t be much time to give notice to the coroner.”

Mr. Dork wrote the young man’s name in his pocket-book, and the landlord vouched for his being forthcoming when called upon. Having done thus much, the constable left the inn, after drinking another glass of rum, and refreshing John Mellish’s horse with a handful of oats and a drink of water. He drove at a brisk pace back to the Park stables, delivered the horse and gig to the lad who had waited for his coming, and returned to his comfortable little dwelling in the village of Meslingham, about a mile from the Park gates.

I scarcely know how to describe that long, quiet, miserable day which succeeded the night of the murder. Aurora Mellish lay in a dull stupor, not able to lift her head from the pillows upon which it rested, scarcely caring to raise her eyelids from the aching eyes they sheltered. She was not ill, nor did she affect to be ill. She lay upon the sofa in her dressing-room, attended by her maid, and visited at intervals by John, who roamed hither and thither about the house and grounds, talking to innumerable people, and always coming to the same conclusion, namely, that the whole affair was a horrible mystery, and that he heartily wished the inquest well over. He had visitors from twenty miles round his house — for the evil news had spread far and wide before noon — visitors who came to condole, and to sympathize, and wonder, and speculate, and ask questions, until they fairly drove him mad. But he bore all very patiently. He could tell them nothing except that the business was as dark a mystery to him as it could be to them, and that he had no hope of finding any solution to the ghastly enigma. They one and all asked him the same question, “Had any one a motive for killing this man?”

How could he answer them? He might have told them that if twenty persons had had a powerful motive for killing James Conyers, it was possible that a one-and-twentieth person, who had no motive, might have done the deed. That species of argument which builds up any hypothesis out of a series of probabilities may, after all, lead very often to false conclusions.

Mr. Mellish did not attempt to argue the question. He was too weary and sick at heart, too anxious for the inquest to be over, and he free to carry Aurora away with him, and turn his back upon the familiar place, which had been hateful to him ever since the trainer had crossed its threshold.

“Yes, my darling,” he said to his wife, as he bent over her pillow, “I shall take you away to the south of France directly this business is settled. You shall leave the scene of all past associations, all by gone annoyances. We will begin the world afresh.”

“God grant that we may be able to do so,” Aurora answered, gravely. “Ah! my dear, I can not tell you that I am sorry for this man’s death. If he had died nearly two years ago, when I thought he did, how much misery he would have saved me!”

Once in the course of that long summer’s afternoon Mr. Mellish walked across the Park to the cottage at the north gates. He could not repress a morbid desire to look upon the lifeless clay of the man whose presence had caused him such vague disquietude, such instinctive terror. He found the softy leaning on the gate of the little garden, and one of the grooms standing at the door of the death-chamber.

“The inquest is to be held at the Golden Lion at ten o’clock to-morrow morning,” Mr. Mellish said to the men. “You, Hargraves, will be wanted as a witness.”

He walked into the darkened chamber. The groom understood what he came for, and silently withdrew the white drapery that covered the trainer’s dead face.

Accustomed hands had done their awful duty. The strong limbs had been straightened. The lower jaw, which had dropped in the agony of sudden death, was supported by a linen bandage; the eyelids were closed over the dark violet eyes; and the face, which had been beautiful in life, was even yet more beautiful in the still solemnity of death. The clay which in life had lacked so much in its lack of a beautiful soul to light it from within, found its level in death. The worthless soul was gone, and the physical perfection that remained had lost its only blemish. The harmony of proportion, the exquisitely modelled features, the charms of detail, all were left, and the face which James Conyers carried to the grave was handsomer than that which had smiled insolent defiance upon the world in the trainer’s lifetime.

John Mellish stood for some minutes looking gravely at that marble face.

“Poor fellow!” thought the generous-hearted young squire; “it was a hard thing to die so young. I wish he had never come here. I wish Lolly had confided in me, and let me made a bargain with this man to stop away and keep her secret. Her secret! her father’s secret more likely. What secret could she have had that a groom was likely to discover? It may have been some mercantile business, some commercial transaction of Archibald Floyd’s, by which the old man fell into his servant’s power. It would be only like my glorious Aurora to take the burden upon her own shoulders, and to bear it bravely through every trial.”

It was thus that John Mellish had often reasoned upon the mystery which divided him from his wife. He could not bear to impute even the shadow of evil to her. He could not endure to think of her as a poor, helpless woman, entrapped into the power of a mean-spirited hireling, who was only too willing to make his market out of her secrets. He could not tolerate such an idea as this; and he sacrificed poor Archibald Floyd’s commercial integrity for the preservation of Aurora’s womanly dignity. Ah! how weak and imperfect a passion is this boundless love! How ready to sacrifice others for that one loved object, which must be kept spotless in our imaginations, though a hecatomb of her fellow-creatures are to be blackened and befouled for her justification. If Othello could have established Desdemona’s purity by the sacrifice of the reputation of every lady in Cyprus, do you think he would have spared the fair inhabitants of the friendly isle? No; he would have branded every one of them with infamy, if he could, by so doing, have rehabilitated the wife he loved. John Mellish would not think ill of his wife. He resolutely shut his eyes to all damning evidence. He clung with a desperate tenacity to his belief in her purity, and only clung the more tenaciously as the proofs against her became more numerous.

The inquest was held at a roadside inn within a quarter of a mile of the north gates — a quiet little place, only frequented on market-days by the country people going backward and forward between Doncaster and the villages beyond Meslingham. The coroner and his jury sat in a long bare room, in which the frequenters of the Golden Lion were wont to play bowls in wet weather. The surgeon, Steeve Hargraves, Jarvis, the young man from the Reindeer, William Dork, the constable, and Mr. Mellish were the only witnesses called; but Colonel Maddison and Mr. Lofthouse were both present during the brief proceedings.

The inquiry into the circumstances of the trainer’s death occupied a very short time. Nothing was elicited by the brief examination of the witnesses which in any way led to the elucidation of the mystery. John Mellish was the last person interrogated, and he answered the questions put to him with prompt decision. There was one inquiry, however, which he was unable to answer, although it was a very simple one. Mr. Hayward, the coroner, anxious to discover so much of the history of the dead man as might lead eventually to the discovery of his murderer, asked Mr. Mellish if his trainer had been a bachelor or a married man.

“I really can not answer that question,” said John; “I should imagine that he was a single man, as neither he nor Mr. Pastern told me anything to the contrary. Had he been married, he would have brought his wife with him, I should suppose. My trainer, Langley, was married when he entered my service, and his wife and children have occupied the premises over my stables for some years.”

“You infer, then, that James Conyers was unmarried?”

“Most decidedly.”

“And it is your opinion that he had made no enemies in the neighborhood?”

“It is next to impossible that he could have done so.”

“To what cause, then, do you attribute his death?”

“To an unhappy accident. I can account for it in no other way. The path through the wood is used as a public thoroughfare, and the whole of the plantation is known to be infested with poachers. It was past ten o’clock at night when the shot was heard. I should imagine that it was fired by a poacher, whose eyes deceived him in the shadowy light.”

The coroner shook his head. “You forget, Mr. Mellish,” he said, “that the cause of death was not an ordinary gunshot wound. The shot heard was the report of a pistol, and the deceased was killed by a pistol-bullet.”

John Mellish was silent. He had spoken in good faith as to his impression respecting the cause of the trainer’s death. In the press and hurry, the horror and confusion of the two last days, the smaller details of the awful event had escaped his memory.

“Do you know any one among your servants, Mr. Mellish,” asked the coroner, “whom you would consider likely to commit an act of violence of this kind? Have you any one of an especially vindictive character in your household?”

“No,” answered John, decisively; “I can answer for my servants as I would for myself. They were all strangers to this man. What motive could they possibly have had to seek his death?”

Mr Hayward rubbed his chin, and shook his head reflectively.

“There was this superannuated trainer whom you spoke of just now, Mr. Mellish,” he said. “I am well aware that the post of trainer in your stables is rather a good thing. A man may save a good deal of money out of his wages and perquisites with such a master as you. This former trainer may not have liked being superseded by the deceased. He may have felt some animus toward his successor.”

“Langley!” cried John Mellish; “he is as good a fellow as ever breathed. He was not superseded; he resigned the active part of his work at his own wish, and he retained his full wages by mine. The poor fellow has been confined to his bed for the last week.”

“Humph!” muttered the coroner. “Then you can throw no light upon this business, Mr. Mellish?”

“None whatever. I have written to Mr. Pastern, in whose stables the deceased was employed, telling him of the circumstances of the trainer’s death, and begging him to forward the information to any relative of the murdered man. I expect an answer by tomorrow’s post, and I shall be happy to submit that answer to you.”

Prior to the examination of the witnesses, the jurymen had been conducted to the north lodge, where they had beheld the mortal remains of James Conyers. Mr. Morton had accompanied them, and had endeavored to explain to them the direction which the bullet had taken, and the manner in which, according to his own idea, the shot must have been fired. The jurymen who had been impanneled to decide upon this awful question were simple agriculturists and petty tradesmen, who grudged the day’s lost labor, and who were ready to accept any solution of the mystery which might be suggested to them by the coroner. They hurried back to the Golden Lion, listened deferentially to the evidence and to Mr. Hayward’s address, retired to an adjoining apartment, where they remained in consultation for the space of about five minutes, and whence they emerged with a very rambling form of decision, which Mr. Hayward reduced into a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.

Very little had been said about the disappearance of the seafaring man who had carried the tidings of the murder to Mr. Mellish’s house. Nobody for a moment imagined that the evidence of this missing witness might have thrown some ray of light upon the mystery of the trainer’s death. The seafaring man had been engaged in conversation with the young man from the Reindeer at the time when the shot was fired; he was therefore not the actual murderer; and, strangely significant as his hurried flight might have been to the acute intelligence of a well-trained metropolitan police officer, no one among the rustic officials present at the inquest attached any importance to the circumstance. Nor had Aurora’s name been once mentioned during the brief proceedings. Nothing had transpired which in any way revealed her previous acquaintance with James Conyers; and John Mellish drew a deep breath, a long sigh of relief, as he left the Golden Lion and walked homeward. Colonel Maddison, Mr. Lofthouse, and two or three other gentlemen lingered on the threshold of the little inn talking to Mr. Hayward, the coroner.

The inquest was terminated; the business was settled; and the mortal remains of James Conyers could be carried to the grave at the pleasure of his late employer. All was over. The mystery of death and the secrets of life would be buried peacefully in the grave of the murdered man, and John Mellish was free to carry his wife away with him whithersoever he would. Free, have I said? No; for ever and for ever the shadow of that bygone mystery would hang like a funeral pall between himself and the woman he loved; for ever and for ever the recollection of that ghastly undiscovered problem would haunt him in sleeping and in waking, in the sunlight and in the darkness. His nobler nature, triumphing again and again over the subtle influences of damning suggestions and doubtful facts, was again and again shaken, although never quite defeated. He fought the battle bravely, though it was a very hard one, and it was to endure, perhaps, to the end of time. That voiceless argument was for ever to be argued; the spirits of Faith and Infidelity were for ever to be warring with each other in that tortured breast until the end of life — until he died, perhaps, with his head lying upon his wife’s bosom, with his cheek fanned by her warm breath, but ignorant to the very last of the real nature of that dark something, that nameless and formless horror with which he had wrestled so patiently and so long.

“I’ll take her away with me,” he thought; “and when we are divided by a thousand miles of blue water from the scene of her secret, I will fall on my knees before her, and beseech her to confide in me.”

He passed by the north lodge with a shudder, and walked straight along the high-road toward the principal entrance of the Park. He was close to the gates when he heard a voice — a strange, suppressed voice, calling feebly to him to stop. He turned round and saw the softy making his way toward him with a slow, shambling run. Of all human beings, except perhaps that one who now lay cold and motionless in the darkened chamber at the north lodge, this Steeve Hargraves was the last whom Mr. Mellish cared to see. He turned with an angry frown upon the softy, who was wiping the perspiration from his pale face with the ragged end of his neck-handkerchief, and panting hoarsely.

“What is the matter?” asked John. “What do you want with me?”

“It’s th’ coroner,” gasped Stephen Hargraves —“th’ coroner and Mr. Lofthouse, th’ parson — they want to speak to ye, sir, oop at the Loi-on.”

“What about?”

Steeve Hargraves gave a ghastly grin.

“I doant know, sir,” he whispered. “It’s hardly loikely they’d tell me. There’s summat oop, though, I’ll lay, for Mr. Lofthouse was as whoite as ashes, and seemed strangely oopset about summat. Would you be pleased to step oop, and speak to ’un directly, sir? that was my message.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll go,” answered John, absently.

He had taken his hat off, and was passing his hand over his hot forehead in a half-bewildered manner. He turned his back upon the softy, and walked rapidly away, retracing his steps in the direction of the roadside inn.

Stephen Hargraves stood staring after him until he was out of sight, and then turned, and walked on slowly toward the turnstile leading into the wood.

I know what they’ve found,” he muttered, “and I know what they want with him. He’ll be some time oop there, so I’ll slip across the wood and tell her. Yes”— he paused, rubbing his hands, and laughing a slow, voiceless laugh, which distorted his ugly face, and made him horrible to look upon — yes, it will be nuts for me to tell her.”

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