Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 27

“My Wife! MY WIFE! What Wife? I have No Wife.”

The Golden Lion had reassumed its accustomed air of rustic tranquillity when John Mellish returned to it. The jurymen had gone back to their different avocations, glad to have finished the business so easily; the villagers, who had hung about the inn to hear what they could of the proceedings, were all dispersed; and the landlord was eating his dinner, with his wife and family, in the comfortable little bar-parlor. He put down his knife and fork as John entered the sanded bar, and left his meal to receive such a distinguished visitor.

“Mr. Hayward and Mr. Lofthouse are in the coffee-room, sir,” he said. “Will you please to step this way?”

He opened the door of a carpeted room, furnished with shining mahogany tables, and adorned by half a dozen gaudily colored prints of the Doncaster meetings, the great match between Voltigeur and Flying Dutchman, and other events which had won celebrity for the northern race-course. The coroner was sitting at the bottom of one of the long tables, with Mr. Lofthouse standing near him. William Dork, the Meslingham constable, stood near the door, with his hat in his hand, and with rather an alarmed expression dimly visible in his ruddy face. Mr. Hayward and Mr. Lofthouse were both very pale.

One rapid glance was enough to show all this to John Mellish — enough to show him this, and something more: a basin of blood-stained water before the coroner, and an oblong piece of wet paper, which lay under Mr. Hayward’s clenched hand.

“What is the matter? Why did you send for me?” he asked.

Bewildered and alarmed as he had been by the message which had summoned him hurriedly back to the inn, he was still more so by the confusion evident in the coroner’s manner as he answered this question.

“Pray sit down, Mr. Mellish,” he said. “I— I— sent for you — at — the — advice of Mr. Lofthouse, who — who, as a clergyman and a family man, thought it incumbent upon me —”

Reginald Lofthouse laid his hand upon the coroner’s arm with a warning gesture. Mr. Hayward stopped for a moment, cleared his throat, and then continued speaking, but in an altered tone.

“I have had occasion to reprimand William Dork for a breach of duty, which, though I am aware it may have been, as he says, purely unintentional and accidental —”

“It was indeed, sir,” muttered the constable, submissively. “If I’d ha’ know’d —”

“The fact is, Mr. Mellish, that on the night of the murder, Dork, in examining the clothes of the deceased, discovered a paper, which had been concealed by the unhappy man between the outer material and the lining of his waistcoat. This paper was so stained by the blood in which the breast of the waistcoat was absolutely saturated that Dork was unable to decipher a word of its contents. He therefore was quite unaware of the importance of the paper; and, in the hurry and confusion consequent on the very hard duty he has done for the last two days, he forgot to produce it at the inquest. He had occasion to make some memorandum in his pocket-book almost immediately after the verdict had been given, and this circumstance recalled to his mind the existence of the paper. He came immediately to me, and consulted me upon this very awkward business. I examined the document, washed away a considerable portion of the stains which had rendered it illegible, and have contrived to decipher the greater part of it.”

“The document is of some importance, then?” John asked.

He sat at a little distance from the table, with his head bent, and his fingers rattling nervously against the side of his chair. He chafed horribly at the coroner’s pompous slowness. He suffered an agony of fear and bewilderment. Why had they called him back? What was this paper? How could it concern him?

“Yes,” Mr. Hayward answered, “the document is certainly an important one. I have shown it to Mr. Lofthouse, for the purpose of taking his advice upon the subject. I have not shown it to Dork; but I detained Dork in order that you may hear from him how and where the paper was found, and why it was not produced at the inquest.”

“Why should I ask any questions upon the subject?” cried John, lifting his head suddenly, and looking from the coroner to the clergyman. “How should this paper concern me?”

“I regret to say that it does concern you very materially, Mr. Mellish,” the rector answered, gently.

John’s angry spirit revolted against that gentleness. What right had they to speak to him like this? Why did they look at him with those grave, pitying faces? Why did they drop their voices to that horrible tone in which the bearers of evil tidings pave their way to the announcement of some overwhelming calamity?

“Let me see this paper, then, if it concerns me,” John said, very carelessly. “Oh, my God!” he thought, “what is this misery that is coming upon me? What is this hideous avalanche of trouble which is slowly descending to crush me?”

“You do not wish to hear anything from Dork?” asked the coroner.

“No, no!” cried John, savagely. “I only want to see that paper.” He pointed as he spoke to the wet and blood-stained document under Mr. Hayward’s hand.

“You may go, then, Dork,” the coroner said, quietly, “and be sure you do not mention this business to any one. It is a matter of purely private interest, and has no reference to the murder. You will remember?”

“Yes, sir.”

The constable bowed respectfully to the three gentlemen, and left the room. He was very glad to be so well out of the business.

“They need n’t have called me,” he thought (to call, in the Northern patois, is to scold, to abuse). “They need n’t have said it was repri — wat’s its name? — to keep the paper. I might have burnt it if I liked, and said naught about it.”

“Now,” said John, rising and walking to the table as the door closed upon the constable, “now, then, Mr. Hayward, let me see this paper. If it concerns me, or any one connected with me, I have a right to see it.”

“A right which I will not dispute,” the coroner answered, gravely, as he handed the blood-stained document to Mr. Mellish. “I only beg you to believe in my heart-felt sympathy with you in this —”

“Let me alone!” cried John, waving the speaker away from him as he snatched the paper from his hand; “let me alone! Can’t you see that I’m nearly mad?”

He walked to the window, and with his back to the coroner and Mr. Lofthouse, examined the blotched and blotted document in his hands. He stared for a long time at those blurred and half-illegible lines before he became aware of their full meaning. But at last, at last, the signification of that miserable paper grew clear to him, and with a loud cry of anguish he dropped into the chair from which he had risen, and covered his face with his strong right hand. He held the paper in the left, crumpled and crushed by the convulsive pressure of his grasp.

“My God!” he ejaculated, after that first cry of anguish, “my God! I never thought of this — I never could have imagined this.”

Neither the coroner nor the clergyman spoke. What could they say to him. Sympathetic words could have no power to lessen such a grief as this; they would only fret and harass the strong man in his agony; it was better to obey him; it was far better to let him alone.

He rose at last, after a silence that seemed long to the spectators of his grief.

“Gentlemen,” he said, in a loud, resolute voice that resounded through the little room, “I give you my solemn word of honor that when Archibald Floyd’s daughter married me, she believed this man, James Conyers, to be dead.”

He struck his clenched fist upon the table, and looked with proud defiance at the two men. Then, with his left hand, the hand that grasped the blood-stained paper, thrust into his breast, he walked out of the room. He walked out of the room, and out of the house, but not homeward. A grassy lane opposite the Golden Lion led away to a great waste of brown turf called Harper’s Common. John Mellish walked slowly along this lane, and out upon this quiet common-land, lonely even in the broad summer daylight. As he closed the five-barred gate at the end of the lane, and emerged upon the open waste, he seemed to shut the door of the world that lay behind him, and to stand alone with his great grief under the low, sunless summer sky. The dreary scene before him, and the gray atmosphere above his head, seemed in strange harmony with his grief. The reedy water-pools, unbroken by a ripple; the barren verdure, burnt a dull grayish brown by the summer sun; the bloomless heather, and the flowerless rushes — all things upon which he looked took a dismal coloring from his own desolation, and seemed to make him the more desolate. The spoiled child of fortune — the popular young squire, who had never been contradicted in nearly two-and-thirty years — the happy husband, whose pride in his wife had touched upon that narrow boundary-line which separates the sublime from the ridiculous — ah! whither had they fled, all these shadows of the happy days that were gone? They had vanished away; they had fallen into the black gulf of the cruel past. The monster who devours his children had taken back these happy ones, and a desolate man was left in their stead — a desolate man, who looked at a broad ditch and a rushy bank a few paces from where he stood, and thought, “Was it I who leaped that dike a month ago to gather forget-me-nots for my wife?”

He asked himself that question, reader, which we must all ask ourselves sometimes. Was he really that creature of the irrevocable past? Even as I write this I can see that common-land of which I write — the low sky, the sunburnt grass, the reedy water-pools, the flat landscape stretching far away on every side to regions that are strange to me. I can recall every object in that simple scene — the atmosphere of the sunless day, the sounds in the soft summer air, the voices of the people near me; I can recall everything except —myself. This miserable ego is the one thing that I can not bring back — the one thing that seems strange to me — the one thing that I can scarcely believe in. If I went back to that Northern common-land to-morrow, I should recognize every hillock, every scrap of furze, or patch of heather. The few years that have gone by since I saw it will have made a scarcely perceptible difference in the features of the familiar place. The slow changes of Nature, immutable in her harmonious law, will have done their work according to that unalterable law; but this wretched me has undergone so complete a change that, if you could bring me back that alter ego of the past, I should be unable to recognize the strange creature; and yet it is by no volcanic shocks, no rending asunder of rocky masses, no great convulsions, or terrific agonies of Nature, that the change has come about; it is rather by a slow, monotonous wearing away of salient points, an imperceptible adulteration of this or that constituent part, an addition here, and a subtraction there, that the transformation takes place. It is hard to make a man believe in the physiologists, who declare that the hand which uses his pen to-day is not the same hand that guided the quill with which he wrote seven years ago. He finds it very difficult to believe this; but let him take out of some forgotten writing-desk, thrust into a corner of his lumber-room, those letters which he wrote seven years ago, and which were afterward returned to him by the lady to whom they were addressed, and the question which he will ask himself, as he reads the faded lines, will most surely be, “Was it I who wrote this bosh? Was it I who called a lady with white eyelashes ‘the guiding star of a lonely life?’ Was it I who was ‘inexpressibly miserable, with one s, and looked ‘forward with unutterable anxiety to the party in Onslow Square, at which I once more should look into those soft blue eyes?’ What party in Onslow Square? Non mi recordo. ‘Those soft blue eyes’ were garnished with white lashes, and the lady to whom the letters were written jilted me to marry a rich soap-boiler.” Even the law takes cognizance of this wonderful transformation. The debt which Smith contracts in 1850 is null and void in 1857. The Smith of ‘50 may have been an extravagant rogue; the Smith of ‘57 may be a conscientious man, who would not cheat his creditors of a farthing. Shall Smith the second be called upon to pay the debts of Smith the first? I leave that question to Smith’s conscience and the metaphysicians. Surely the same law should hold good in breach of promise of marriage. Smith the first may have adored Miss Brown; Smith the second may detest her. Shall Smith of 1857 be called upon to perform the contract entered into by that other Smith of 1850? The French criminal law goes still farther. The murderer whose crime remains unsuspected for ten years can laugh at the police officers who discover his guilt in the eleventh. Surely this must be because the real murderer is no longer amenable to justice — because the hand that struck the blow, and the brain that plotted the deed, are alike extinct.

Poor John Mellish, with the world of the past crumbled at his feet, looked out at the blank future, and mourned for the people who were dead and gone.

He flung himself at full length upon the stunted grass, and, taking the crumpled paper from his breast, unfolded it and smoothed it our before him.

It was a certificate of marriage — the certificate of a marriage which had been solemnized at the parish church of Dover upon the 2d of July, 1856, between James Conyers, bachelor, rough-rider, of London, son of Joseph Conyers, stage-coachman, and Susan, his wife, and Aurora Floyd, spinster, daughter of Archibald Floyd, banker, of Felden Woods, Kent.

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