Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 33

Captain Prodder Goes Back to Doncaster.

Mr. Samuel Prodder, returning to London, after having played his insignificant part in the tragedy at Felden Woods, found that city singularly dull and gloomy. He put up at some dismal boarding-house, situated amid a mazy labyrinth of brick and mortar between the Tower and Wapping, and having relations with another boarding-house in Liverpool. He took up his abode at this place, in which he was known and respected. He drank rum and water, and played cribbage with other seamen, made after the same pattern as himself. He even went to an East-End theatre upon the Saturday night after the murder, and sat out the representation of a nautical drama, which he would have been glad to have believed in, had it not promulgated such wild theories in the science of navigation, and exhibited such extraordinary experiments in the manoeuvring of the man-of-war upon which the action of the play took place as to cause the captain’s hair to stand on end in the intensity of his wonder. The things people did upon that ship curdled Samuel Prodder’s blood, as he sat in the lonely grandeur of the eighteen-penny boxes. It was quite a common thing for them to walk unhesitatingly through the bulwarks, and disappear in what ought to have been the sea. The extent of browbeating and humiliation borne by the captain of that noble vessel; the amount of authority exercised by a sailor with loose legs; the agonies of sea-sickness, represented by a comic countryman, who had no particular business on board the gallant bark; the proportion of hornpipe-dancing and nautical ballad-singing gone through as compared to the work that was done, all combined to impress poor Samuel with such a novel view of her majesty’s naval service that he was very glad when the captain who had been browbeaten suddenly repented of all his sins — not without a sharp reminder from the prompter, who informed the dramatis personæ that it was parst twelve, and they’d better cut it short — joined the hands of the contumacious sailor and a young lady in white muslin, and begged them to be happy.

It was in vain that the captain sought distraction from the one idea upon which he had perpetually brooded since the night of his visit to Mellish Park. He would be wanted in Yorkshire to tell what he knew of the dark history of that fatal night. He would be called upon to declare at what hour he had entered the wood, whom he had met there, what he had seen and heard there. They would extort from him that which he would have died rather than tell. They would cross-examine, and bewilder, and torment him, until he told them everything — until he repeated, syllable by syllable, the passionate words that had been said — until he told them how, within a quarter of an hour of the firing of the pistol, he had been the witness of a desperate scene between his niece and the murdered man — a scene in which concentrated hate, vengeful fury, illimitable disdain and detestation had been expressed by her — by her alone: the man had been calm and moderate enough. It was she who had been angry; it was she who had given loud utterance to her hate.

Now, by reason of one of those strange inconsistencies common to weak human nature, the captain, though possessed night and day by a blind terror of being suddenly pounced upon by the minions of the law, and compelled to betray his niece’s secret, could not rest in his safe retreat amid the labyrinths of Wapping, but must needs pine to return to the scene of the murder. He wanted to know the result of the inquest. The Sunday papers gave a very meagre account, only hinting darkly at suspected parties. He wanted to ascertain for himself what had happened at the inquest, and whether his absence had given rise to suspicion. He wanted to see his niece again — to see her in the daylight, undisturbed by passion. He wanted to see this beautiful tigress in her calmer moods, if she ever had any calmer moods. Heaven knows the simple merchant-captain was wellnigh distracted as he thought of his sister Eliza’s child, and the awful circumstances of his first and only meeting with her.

Was she — that which he feared people might be led to think her if they heard the story of that scene in the wood? No, no, no!

She was his sister’s child — the child of that merry, impetuous little girl who had worn a pinafore and played hop-scotch. He remembered his sister flying into a rage with one Tommy Barnes for unfair practices in that very game, and upbraiding him almost as passionately as Aurora had upbraided the dead man. But if Tommy Barnes had been found strangled by a skipping-rope, or shot dead from a pea-shooter in the next street a quarter of an hour afterward, would Eliza’s brother have thought that she must needs be guilty of the boy’s murder? The captain had gone so far as to reason thus in his trouble of mind. His sister Eliza’s child would be likely to be passionate and impetuous, but his sister Eliza’s child would be a generous, warm-hearted creature, incapable of any cruelty in either thought or deed. He remembered his sister Eliza boxing his ears on the occasion of his gouging out the eyes of her wax doll, but he remembered the same dark-eyed sister sobbing piteously at the spectacle of a lamb that a heartless butcher was dragging to the slaughter-house.

But the more seriously Captain Prodder revolved this question in his mind, the more decidedly his inclination pointed to Doncaster; and early upon that very morning on which the quiet marriage had taken place in the obscure city church he repaired to a magnificent Israelitish temple of fashion in the Minories, and there ordered a suit of such clothes as were most affected by elegant landsmen. The Israelitish salesman recommended something light and lively in the fancy-check line; and Mr. Prodder, submitting to that authority as beyond all question, invested himself in a suit which he had contemplated solemnly athwart a vast expanse of plate-glass before entering the temple of the Graces. It was “our aristocratic tourist,” at seventy-seven shillings and sixpence, and was made of a fleecy and rather powdery-looking cloth, in which the hues of baked and unbaked bricks predominated over a more delicate hearthstone tint, which latter the shopman had declared to be a color that West-End tailors had vainly striven to emulate.

The captain, dressed in “our aristocratic tourist,” which suit was of the ultra cut-away and peg-toppy order, and with his sleeves and trowsers inflated by any chance summer’s breeze, had perhaps more of the appearance of a tombola than is quite in accordance with a strictly artistic view of the human figure. In his desire to make himself utterly irrecognizable as the seafaring man who had carried the tidings of the murder to Mellish Park, the captain had tortured himself by substituting a tight circular collar and a wisp of purple ribbon for the honest half-yard of snowy linen which it had been his habit to wear turned over the loose collar of his blue coat. He suffered acute agonies from this modern device, but he bore them bravely; and he went straight from the tailor’s to the Great Northern Railway Station, where he took his ticket for Doncaster. He meant to visit that town as an aristocratic tourist; he would keep himself aloof from the neighborhood of Mellish Park, but he would be sure to hear the result of the inquest, and he would be able to ascertain for himself whether any trouble had come upon his sister’s child.

The sea-captain did not travel by that express which carried Mr. and Mrs. Mellish to Doncaster, but by an earlier and a slower train, which lumbered quietly along the road, conveying inferior persons, to whom time was not measured by a golden standard, and who smoked, and slept, and ate, and drank resignedly enough through the eight or nine hours journey.

It was dusk when Samuel Prodder reached the quiet racing-town from which he had fled away in the dead of the night so short a time before. He left the station, and made his way to the market-place, and from the market-place he struck into a narrow lane that led him to an obscure street upon the outskirts of the town. He had a great terror of being led by some unhappy accident into the neighborhood of the “Reindeer,” lest he should be recognized by some hanger-on of that hotel.

Half-way between the beginning of the straggling street and the point at which it dwindled and shrank away into a country lane, the captain found a little public-house called the “Crooked Rabbit”— such an obscure and out-of-the-way place of entertainment that poor Samuel thought himself safe in seeking for rest and refreshment within its dingy walls. There was a framed and glazed legend of “good beds” hanging behind an opaque window-pane — beds for which the landlord of the “Crooked Rabbit” was in the habit of asking and receiving almost fabulous prices during the great Leger week. But there seemed little enough doing at the humble tavern just now, and Captain Prodder walked boldly in, ordered a steak and a pint of ale, with a glass of rum and water, hot, to follow, at the bar, and engaged one of the good beds for his accommodation. The landlord, who was a fat man, lounged with his back against the bar, reading the sporting news in the Manchester Guardian; and it was the landlady who took Mr. Prodder’s orders, and showed him the way into an awkwardly-shaped parlor, which was much below the rest of the house, and into which the uninitiated visitor was apt to precipitate himself head foremost, as into a well or pit. There were several small mahogany tables in this room, all adorned with sticky arabesques formed by the wet impressions of the bottom rims of pewter pots; there were so many spittoons that it was almost impossible to walk from one end of the room to the other without taking unintentional foot-baths of sawdust; there was an old bagatelle-table, the cloth of which had changed from green to dingy yellow, and was frayed and tattered like a poor man’s coat; and there was a low window, the sill of which was almost on a level with the pavement of the street.

The merchant-captain threw off his hat, loosened the slip of ribbon and the torturing circular collar supplied him by the Israelitish outfitter, and cast himself into a shining mahogany arm-chair close to this window. The lower panes were shrouded by a crimson curtain, and he lifted this very cautiously, and peered for a few moments into the street. It was lonely enough and quiet enough in the dusky summer’s evening. Here and there lights twinkled in a shop-window, and upon one threshold a man stood talking to his neighbor. With one thought always paramount in his mind, it is scarcely strange that Samuel Prodder should fancy these people must necessarily be talking of the murder.

The landlady brought the captain the steak he had ordered, and the tired traveller seated himself at one of the tables, and discussed his simple meal. He had eaten nothing since seven o’clock that morning, and he made very short work of the three-quarters of a pound of meat that had been cooked for him. He finished his beer, drank his rum and water, smoked a pipe, and then, as he had the room still to himself, he made an impromptu couch of Windsor chairs arranged in a row, and, in his own parlance, turned-in upon this rough hammock to take a brief stretch.

He might have set his mind at rest, perhaps, before this, had he chosen. He could have questioned the landlady about the murder at Mellish Park; she was likely to know as much as any one else he might meet at the “Crooked Rabbit.” But he had refrained from doing this because he did not wish to draw attention to himself in any way as a person in the smallest degree interested in the murder. How did he know what inquiries had possibly been made for the missing witness? There was perhaps some enormous reward offered for his apprehension, and a word or a look might betray him to the greedy eyes of those upon the watch to obtain it.

Remember that this broad-shouldered seafaring man was as ignorant as a child of all things beyond the deck of his own vessel, and the watery high-roads he had been wont to navigate. Life along-shore was a solemn mystery to him — the law of the British dominions a complication of inscrutable enigmas, only to be spoken of and thought of in a spirit of reverence and wonder. If anybody had told him that he was likely to be seized upon as an accessory before the fact, and hung out of hand for his passive part in the Mellish catastrophe, he would have believed them implicitly. How did he know how many Acts of Parliament his conduct in leaving Doncaster without giving his evidence might come under? It might be high treason, leze-majesty — anything in the world that is unpronounceable and awful — for aught this simple sailor knew to the contrary. But in all this it was not his own safety that Captain Prodder thought of. That was of very little moment to this light-hearted, easy-going sailor. He had perilled his life too often on the high-seas to set any exaggerated value upon it ashore. If they chose to hang an innocent man, they must do their worst; it would be their mistake, not his; and he had a simple, seaman-like faith, rather vague, perhaps, and not very reducible to anything like Thirty-nine Articles, that told him that there were sweet little cherubs sitting up aloft who would take good care that any such sublunary mistake should be rectified in a certain supernal log-book, upon whose pages Samuel Prodder hoped to find himself set down as an honest and active sailor, always humbly obedient to the signals of his Commander.

It was for his niece’s sake, then, that the sailor dreaded any discovery of his whereabouts, and it was for her sake that he resolved upon exercising the greatest degree of caution of which his simple nature was capable.

“I won’t ask a single question,” he thought; “there’s sure to be a pack of lubbers dropping in here by and by, and I shall hear ’em talking about the business as likely as not. These country folks would have nothing to talk about if they did n’t overhaul the ship’s books of their betters.”

The captain slept soundly for upward of an hour, and was awakened at the end of that time by the sound of voices in the room, and the fumes of tobacco. The gas was flaring high in the low-roofed parlor when he opened his eyes, and at first he could scarcely distinguish the occupants of the room for the blinding glare of light.

“I won’t get up,” he thought; “I’ll sham asleep for a bit, and see whether they happen to talk about the business.”

There were only three men in the room. One of them was the landlord, whom Samuel Prodder had seen reading in the bar; and the other two were shabby-looking men, with by no means too respectable a stamp either upon their persons or their manners. One of them wore a velveteen cut-away coat with big brass buttons, knee-breeches, blue stockings, and high-lows. The other was a pale-faced man, with mutton-chop whiskers, and dressed in a shabby-genteel costume that gave indication of general vagabondage rather than of any particular occupation.

They were talking of horses when Captain Prodder awoke, and the sailor lay for some time listening to a jargon that was utterly unintelligible to him. The men talked of Lord Zetland’s lot, of Lord Glasgow’s lot, and the Leger, and the Cup, and made offers to bet with each other, and quarrelled about the terms, and never came to an agreement, in a manner that was utterly bewildering to poor Samuel; but he waited patiently, still feigning to be asleep, and not in any way disturbed by the men, who did not condescend to take any notice of him.

“They’ll talk of the other business presently,” he thought; “they’re safe to talk of it.”

Mr. Prodder was right.

After discussing the conflicting merits of half the horses in the racing calendar, the three men abandoned the fascinating subject; and the landlord, re-entering the room after having left it to fetch a supply of beer for his guests, asked if either of them had heard if anything new had turned up about that business at Mellish.

“There’s a letter in to-day’s Guardian,“ he added, before receiving any reply to his question, “and a pretty strong one. It tries to fix the murder upon some one in the house, but it don’t exactly name the party. It would n’t be safe to do that yet a while, I suppose.”

Upon the request of the two men, the landlord of the “Crooked Rabbit” read the letter in the Manchester daily paper. It was a very clever letter, and a spirited one, giving a synopsis of the proceedings at the inquest, and commenting very severely upon the manner in which that investigation had been conducted. Mr. Prodder quailed until the Windsor chairs trembled beneath him as the landlord read one passage, in which it was remarked that the stranger who carried the news of the murder to the house of the victim’s employer, the man who had heard the report of the pistol, and had been chiefly instrumental in the finding of the body, had not been forthcoming at the inquest.

“He had disappeared mysteriously and abruptly, and no efforts were made to find him,” wrote the correspondent of the Guardian. “What assurance can be given for the safety of any man’s life when such a crime as the Mellish-Park murder is investigated in this loose and indifferent manner? The catastrophe occurred within the boundary of the Park fence. Let it be discovered whether any person in the Mellish household had a motive for the destruction of James Conyers. The man was a stranger to the neighborhood. He was not likely, therefore, to have made enemies outside the boundary of his employer’s estate, but he may have had some secret foe within that limit. Who was he? where did he come from? what were his antecedents and associations? Let each one of these questions be fully sifted, and let a cordon be drawn round the house, and let every creature living in it be held under the surveillance of the law until patient investigation has done its work, and such evidence has been collected as must lead to the detection of the guilty person.”

To this effect was the letter which the landlord read in a loud and didactic manner, that was very imposing, though not without a few stumbles over some hard words, and a good deal of slap-dash jumping at others.

Samuel Prodder could make very little of the composition, except that it was perfectly clear he had been missed at the inquest, and his absence commented upon. The landlord and the shabby-genteel man talked long and discursively upon the matter; the man in the velveteen coat, who was evidently a thoroughbred Cockney, and only newly arrived in Doncaster, required to be told the whole story before he was upon a footing with the other two. He was very quiet, and generally spoke between his teeth, rarely taking the unnecessary trouble of removing his short clay pipe from his mouth except when it required refilling. He listened to the story of the murder very intently, keeping one eye upon the speaker and the other upon his pipe, and nodding approvingly now and then in the course of the narrative.

He took his pipe from his mouth when the story was finished, and filled it from a gutta-percha pouch, which had to be turned inside out in some mysterious manner before the tobacco could be extricated from it. While he was packing the loose fragments of shag or bird’s -eye neatly into the bowl of the pipe with his stumpy little finger, he said, with supreme carelessness:

“I know’d Jim Conyers.”

“Did you, now?” exclaimed the landlord, opening his eyes very wide.

“I know’d him,” repeated the man, “as intimate as I know’d my own mother; and when I read of the murder in the newspaper last Sunday, you might have knocked me down with a feather. ‘Jim’s got it at last,’ I said; for he was one of them coves that goes through the world cock-adoodling over other people to sich an extent that, when they do drop in for it, there’s not many particular sorry for ’em. He was one of your selfish chaps, this here; and when a chap goes through this life makin’ it his leadin’ principle to care about nobody, he must n’t be surprised if it ends by nobody carin’ for him. Yes, I know’d Jim Conyers,” added the man, slowly and thoughtfully, “and I know’d him under rather pecooliar circumstances.”

The landlord and the other man pricked up their ears at this point of the conversation.

The trainer at Mellish Park had, as we know, risen to popularity from the hour in which he had fallen upon the dewy turf in the wood, shot through the heart.

“If there was n’t any partiklar objections,” the landlord of the “Crooked Rabbit” said, presently, “I should oncommonly like to hear anything you’ve got to tell about the poor chap. There’s a deal of interest took about the matter in Doncaster, and my customers have scarcely talked of anything else since the inquest.”

The man in the velveteen coat rubbed his chin, and smoked his pipe reflectively. He was evidently not a very communicative man, but it was also evident that he was rather gratified by the distinction of his position in the little public-house parlor.

This man was no other than Mr. Matthew Harrison, the dog-fancier, Aurora’s pensioner, the man who had traded upon her secret, and made himself the last link between herself and the low-born husband she had abandoned.

Samuel Prodder lifted himself from the Windsor chairs at this juncture. He was too much interested in the conversation to be able to simulate sleep any longer. He got up, stretched his legs and arms, made an elaborate show of having just awakened from a profound and refreshing slumber, and asked the landlord of the “Crooked Rabbit” to mix him another glass of that pineapple-rum grog.

The captain lighted his pipe while his host departed upon this errand. The seaman glanced rather inquisitively at Mr. Harrison; but he was fain to wait until the conversation took its own course, and offered him a safe opportunity of asking a few questions.

“The pecooliar circumstances under which I know’d James Conyers,” pursued the dog-fancier, after having taken his own time, and smoked out half a pipeful of tobacco, to the acute aggravation of his auditory, “was a woman — and a stunner she was, too; one of your regular spitfires, that’ll knock you into the middle of next week if you so much as asks her how she does in a manner she don’t approve of. She was a woman, she was, and a handsome one too; but she was more than a match for James, with all his brass. Why, I’ve seen her great black eyes flash fire upon him,” said Mr. Harrison, looking dreamily before him, as if he could even at that moment see the flashing eyes of which he spoke —“I’ve seen her look at him as if she’d wither him up from off the ground he trod upon with that contempt she felt for him.”

Samuel Prodder grew strangely uneasy as he listened to this man’s talk of flashing black eyes and angry looks directed at James Conyers. Had he not seen his niece’s shining orbs flame fire upon the dead man only a quarter of an hour before he received his death-wound — only so long — Heaven help that wretched girl! — only so long before the man for whom she had expressed unmitigated hate had fallen by the hand of an unknown murderer?

“She must have been a tartar, this young woman of yours,” the landlord observed to Mr. Harrison.

“She was a tartar,” answered the dog-fancier; “but she was the right sort, too, for all that; and, what’s more, she was a kind friend to me. There’s never a quarter-day goes by that I don’t have cause to say so.”

He poured out a fresh glass of beer as he spoke, and tossed the liquor down his capacious throat with the muttered sentiment, “Here’s toward her.”

Another man had entered the room while Mr. Prodder had sat smoking his pipe and drinking his rum and water — a hump-backed, white-faced man, who sneaked into the public-house parlor as if he had no right to be there, and seated himself noiselessly at one of the tables.

Samuel Prodder remembered this man. He had seen him through the window in the lighted parlor of the north lodge when the body of James Conyers had been carried into the cottage. It was not likely, however, that the man had seen the captain.

“Why, if it is n’t Steeve Hargraves, from the Park!” exclaimed the landlord, as he looked round and recognized the softy; “he’ll be able to tell plenty, I dare say. We’ve been talking of the murder, Steeve,” he added, in a conciliatory manner.

Mr. Hargraves rubbed his clumsy hands about his head, and looked furtively, yet searchingly, at each member of the little assembly.

“Ay, sure,” he said, “folks don’t seem to me to talk about aught else. It was bad enough up at the Park, but it seems worse in Doncaster.”

“Are you stayin’ up town, Steeve?” asked the landlord, who seemed to be upon pretty intimate terms with the late hanger-on of Mellish Park.

“Yes, I’m stayin’ oop town for a bit; I’ve been out of place since the business oop there; you know how I was turned out of the house that had sheltered me ever since I was a boy, and you know who did it. Never mind that; I’m out of place now, but you may draw me a mug of ale; I’ve money enough for that.”

Samuel Prodder looked at the softy with considerable interest. He had played a small part in the great catastrophe, yet it was scarcely likely that he should be able to throw any light upon the mystery. What was he but a poor half-witted hanger-on of the murdered man, who had lost all by his patron’s untimely death?

The softy drank his beer, and sat, silent, ungainly, and disagreeable to look upon, among the other men.

“There’s a reg’lar stir in the Manchester papers about this murder, Steeve,” the landlord said, by way of opening a conversation; “it don’t seem to me as if the business was goin’ to be let drop over quietly. There’ll be a second inquest, I reckon, or a examination, or a memorial to the Secretary of State, or summat o’ that sort, before long.”

The softy’s face, expressionless almost always, expressed nothing now but stolid indifference; the stupid indifference of a half-witted ignoramus, to whose impenetrable intellect even the murder of his own master was a far-away and obscure event, not powerful enough to awaken any effort of attention.

“Yes; I’ll lay there’ll be a stir about it before long,” the landlord continued. “The papers put it down very strong that the murder must have been done by some one in the house — by some one as had more knowledge of the man, and more reason to be angry against him, than strangers could have. Now you, Hargraves, were living at the place; you must have seen and heard things that other people have n’t had the opportunity to hear. What do you think about it?”

Mr. Hargraves scratched his head reflectively.

“The papers are cleverer nor me,” he said at last; “it would n’t do for a poor fond chap like me to go again’ such as them. I think what they think. I think it was some one about the place did it; some one that had good reason to be spiteful against him that’s dead.”

An imperceptible shudder passed over the softy’s frame as he alluded to the murdered man. It was strange with what gusto the other three men discussed the ghastly subject, returning to it persistently in spite of every interruption, and in a manner licking their lips over its gloomiest details. It was surely more strange that they should do this than that Stephen Hargraves should exhibit some reluctance to talk freely upon the dismal topic.

“And who do you think had cause to be spiteful agen him, Steeve?” asked the landlord. “Had him and Mr. Mellish fell out about the management of the stable?”

“Him and Mr. Mellish had never had an angry word pass between ’em, as I’ve heard of,” answered the softy.

He laid such a singular emphasis upon the word Mr. that the three men looked at him wonderingly, and Captain Prodder took his pipe from his mouth, and grasped the back of a neighboring chair as firmly as if he had entertained serious thoughts of flinging that trifle of furniture at the softy’s head.

“Who else could it have been, then, as had a spite against the man?” asked some one.

Samuel Prodder scarcely knew who it was who spoke, for his attention was concentrated upon Stephen Hargraves; and he never once removed his gaze from the white face, and dull, blinking eyes.

“Who was it that went to meet him late at night in the north lodge?” whispered the softy. “Who was it that could n’t find words that was bad enough for him, or looks that was angry enough for him? Who was it that wrote him a letter — I’ve got it, and I mean to keep it, too — askin’ of him to be in the wood at such and such a time upon the very night of the murder? Who was it that met him there in the dark — as others could tell as well as me? Who was it that did this?”

No one answered. The men looked at each other and at the softy with open mouths, but said nothing. Samuel Prodder grasped the topmost bar of the wooden chair still more tightly, and his broad bosom rose and fell beneath his tourist waistcoat like a raging sea; but he sat in the shadow of the queerly-shaped room, and no one noticed him.

“Who was it that ran away from her own home, and hid herself after the inquest?” whispered the softy. “Who was it that was afraid to stop in her own house, but must run away to London without leaving word where she was gone for anybody? Who was it that was seen upon the mornin’ before the murder meddlin’ with her husband’s guns and pistols, and was seen by more than me, as them that saw her will testify when the time comes? Who was this?”

Again there was no answer. The raging sea labored still more heavily under Captain Prodder’s waistcoat, and his grasp tightened, if it could tighten, on the rail of the chair; but he uttered no word. There was more to come, perhaps, yet, and he might want every chair in the room as instruments with which to appease his vengeance.

“You was talkin’, when I just came in, a while ago, of a young woman in connection with Mr. James Conyers, sir,” said the softy, turning to Matthew Harrison; “a black-eyed woman, you said; might she have been his wife?”

The dog-fancier started, and deliberated for a few moments before he answered.

“Well, in a manner of speaking, she was his wife,” he said at last, rather reluctantly.

“She was a bit above him, loike, was n’t she?” asked the softy. “She had more money than she knew what to do with, eh?”

The dog-fancier stared at the questioner.

“You know who she was, I suppose?” he said, suspiciously.

“I think I do,” whispered Stephen Hargraves. “She was the daughter of Mr. Floyd, the rich banker oop in London; and she married James Conyers, and she got tired of him; and she married our squire while her first husband was alive; and she wrote a letter to him that’s dead, askin’ of him to meet her upon the night of the murder.”

Captain Prodder flung aside the chair. It was too poor a weapon with which to wreak his wrath, and with one bound he sprang upon the softy, seizing the astonished wretch by the throat, and overturning a table, with a heap of crashing glasses and pewter pots, that rolled away into the corners of the room.

“It’s a lie!” roared the sailor, “you foulmouthed hound! you know that it’s a lie! Give me something,” cried Captain Prodder, “give me something, somebody, and give it quick, that I may pound this man into a mash as soft as a soaked ship’s biscuit; for if I use my fists to him I shall murder him, as sure as I stand here. It’s my sister Eliza’s child you want to slander, is it? You’d better have kept your mouth shut while you was in her own uncle’s company. I meant to have kep’ quiet here,” cried the captain, with a vague recollection that he had betrayed himself and his purpose; “but was I to keep quiet and hear lies told of my own niece? Take care,” he added, shaking the softy, till Mr. Hargraves’ teeth chattered in his head, “or I’ll knock those crooked teeth of yours down your ugly throat, to hinder you from telling any more lies of my dead sister’s only child.”

“They were n’t lies,” gasped the softy, doggedly; “I said I’ve got the letter, and I have got it. Let me go, and I’ll show it to you.”

The sailor released the dirty wisp of cotton neckerchief by which he had held Stephen Hargraves, but he still retained a grasp upon his coat-collar.

“Shall I show you the letter?” asked the softy.

“Yes.”

Mr. Hargraves fumbled in his pockets for some minutes, and ultimately produced a dirty scrap of crumpled paper.

It was the brief scrawl which Aurora had written to James Conyers, telling him to meet her in the wood. The murdered man had thrown it carelessly aside, after reading it, and it had been picked up by Stephen Hargraves.

He would not trust the precious document out of his own clumsy hands, but held it before Captain Prodder for inspection.

The sailor stared at it, anxious, bewildered, fearful; he scarcely knew how to estimate the importance of the wretched scrap of circumstantial evidence. There were the words, certainly, written in a bold, scarcely feminine hand. But these words in themselves proved nothing until it could be proved that his niece had written them.

“How do I know as my sister Eliza’s child wrote that?” he asked.

“Ay, sure; but she did, though,” answered the softy. “But, coom, let me go now, will you?” he added, with cringing civility; “I did n’t know you was her uncle. How was I to know aught about it? I don’t want to make any mischief agen Mrs. Mellish, though she’s been no friend to me. I did n’t say anything at the inquest, did I? though I might have said as much as I’ve said tonight, if it comes to that, and have told no lies. But when folks bother me about him that’s dead, and ask this, and that, and t’ other, and go on as if I had a right to know all about it, I’m free to tell my thoughts, I suppose — surely I’m free to tell my thoughts?”

“I’ll go straight to Mr. Mellish, and tell him what you’ve said, you scoundrel!” cried the captain.

“Ay, do,” whispered Stephen Hargraves, maliciously; “there’s some of it that’ll be stale news to him, anyhow.”

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