Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 35

Under a Cloud.

Talbot Bulstrode and his wife came to Mellish Park a few days after the return of John and Aurora. Lucy was pleased to come to her cousin — pleased to be allowed to love her without reservation — grateful to her husband for his gracious goodness in setting no barrier between her and the friend she loved.

And Talbot — who shall tell the thoughts that were busy in his mind, as he sat in a corner of the first-class carriage, to all outward appearance engrossed in the perusal of a Times leader?

I wonder how much of the Thunderer’s noble Saxon-English Mr. Bulstrode comprehended that morning? The broad white paper on which the Times is printed serves as a convenient screen for a man’s face. Heaven knows what agonies have been sometimes endured behind that printed mass. A woman, married, and a happy mother, glances carelessly enough at the Births, and Marriages, and Deaths, and reads, perhaps, that the man she loved, and parted with, and broke her heart for fifteen or twenty years before, has fallen shot through the heart, far away upon an Indian battle-field. She holds the paper firmly enough before her face, and her husband goes on with his breakfast, and stirs his coffee, or breaks his egg, while she suffers her agony — while the comfortable breakfast-table darkens and goes away from her, and the long-ago day comes back upon which the cruel ship left Southampton, and the hard voices of well-meaning friends held forth monotonously upon the folly of improvident marriages. Would it not be better, by the by, for wives to make a practice of telling their husbands all the sentimental little stories connected with the prematrimonial era? Would it not be wiser to gossip freely about Charles’ dark eyes and mustache, and to hope that the poor fellow is getting on well in the Indian service, than to keep a skeleton, in the shape of a phantom ensign in the 87th, hidden away in some dark chamber of the feminine memory?

But other than womanly agonies are suffered behind the Times. The husband reads bad news of the railway company in whose shares he has so rashly invested that money which his wife believes safely lodged in the jog-trot, three-per-cent-yielding Consols. The dashing son, with Newmarket tendencies, reads evil tidings of the horse he has backed so boldly, perhaps at the advice of a Manchester prophet, who warranted putting his friends in the way of winning a hatful of money for the small consideration of three and sixpence in postage stamps. Visions of a wall that it will not be very easy to square; of a black-list of play or pay engagements; of a crowd of angry bookmen clamorous for their dues, and not slow to hint at handy horse-ponds, and possible tar and feathers, for defaulting swells and sneaking welshers — all these things flit across the disorganized brain of the young man, while his sisters are entreating to be told whether the Crown Diamonds is to be performed that night, and if “dear Miss Pyne” will warble Rode’s air before the curtain falls. The friendly screen hides his face; and by the time he has looked for the Covent Garden advertisements, and given the required information, he is able to set the paper down, and proceed calmly with his breakfast, pondering ways and means as he does so.

Lucy Bulstrode read a High-Church novel, while her husband sat with the Times before his face, thinking of all that had happened to him since he had first met the banker’s daughter. How far away that old love-story seemed to have receded since the quiet domestic happiness of his life had begun in his marriage with Lucy! He had never been false, in the remotest shadow of a thought, to his second love; but, now that he knew the secret of Aurora’s life, he could but look back and wonder how he should have borne that cruel revelation if John’s fate had been his; if he had trusted the woman he loved in spite of the world, in spite of her own strange words, which had so terribly strengthened his worst fear, so cruelly redoubled his darkest doubts.

“Poor girl,” he thought; “it was scarcely strange that she should shrink from telling that humiliating story. I was not tender enough. I confronted her in my obstinate and pitiless pride. I thought of myself rather than of her and of her sorrow. I was barbarous and ungentlemanly; and then I wondered that she refused to confide in me.”

Talbot Bulstrode, reasoning after the fact, saw the weak points of his conduct with a preternatural clearness of vision, and could not repress a sharp pang of regret that he had not acted more generously. There was no infidelity to Lucy in this thought. He would not have exchanged his devoted little wife for the black-browed divinity of the past, though an all-powerful fairy had stood at his side ready to cancel his nuptials, and tie a fresh knot between him and Aurora. But he was a gentleman, and he felt that he had grievously wronged, insulted, and humiliated a woman whose worst fault had been the trusting folly of an innocent girl.

“I left her on the ground in that room at Felden,” he thought —“kneeling on the ground, with her beautiful head bowed down before me. O my God, can I ever forget the agony of that moment? Can I ever forget what it cost me to do what I thought was right?”

The cold perspiration broke out upon his forehead as he remembered that by-gone pain, as it may do with a cowardly person who recalls too vividly the taking out of a three-pronged double tooth, or the cutting off of a limb.

“John Mellish was ten times wiser than I,” thought Mr. Bulstrode; “he trusted to his instinct, and recognized a true woman when he met her. I used to despise him at Rugby because he could n’t construe Cicero. I never thought he’d live to be wiser than me.”

Talbot Bulstrode folded the Times newspaper, and laid it down in the empty seat beside him. Lucy shut the third volume of her novel. How should she care to read when it pleased her husband to desist from reading?

“Lucy,” said Mr. Bulstrode, taking his wife’s hand (they had the carriage to themselves, a piece of good fortune which often happens to travellers who give the guard half a crown), “Lucy, I once did your cousin a great wrong; I want to atone for it now. If any trouble, which no one yet foresees, should come upon her, I want to be her friend. Do you think I am right in wishing this, dear?”

“Right, Talbot!”

Mrs. Bulstrode could only repeat the word in unmitigated surprise. When did she ever think him anything but the truest, and wisest, and most perfect of created beings?

Everything seemed very quiet at Mellish when the visitors arrived. There was no one in the drawing-room, nor in the smaller room within the drawing room; the Venetians were closed, for the day was close and sultry; there were vases of fresh flowers upon the tables, but there were no open books, no litter of frivolous needle-work or drawing materials, to indicate Aurora’s presence.

“Mr. and Mrs. Mellish expected you by the later train, I believe sir,” the servant said, as he ushered Talbot and his wife into the drawing-room.

“Shall I go and look for Aurora?” Lucy said to her husband. “She is in the morning-room, I dare say.”

Talbot suggested that it would be better, perhaps, to wait till Mrs. Mellish came to them. So Lucy was fain to remain where she was. She went to one of the open windows, and pushed the shutters apart. The blazing sunshine burst into the room, and drowned it in light. The smooth lawn was aflame with scarlet geraniums and standard roses, and all manner of gaudily-colored blossoms; but Mrs. Bulstrode looked beyond this vividly-tinted parterre to the thick woods, that loomed darkly purple against the glowing sky.

It was in that very wood that her husband had declared his love for her; the same wood that had since been outraged by violence and murder.

“The — the man is buried, I suppose, Talbot?” she said to her husband.

“I believe so, my dear.”

“I should never care to live in this place again, if I were Aurora.”

The door opened before Mrs. Bulstrode had finished speaking, and the mistress of the house came toward them. She welcomed them affectionately and kindly, taking Lucy in her arms, and greeting her very tenderly; but Talbot saw that she had changed terribly within the few days that had passed since her return to Yorkshire, and his heart sank as he observed her pale face and the dark circles about her hollow eyes.

Could she have heard — Could anybody have given her reason to suppose —

“You are not well, Mrs. Mellish,” he said, as he took her hand.

“No, not very well. This oppressive weather makes my head ache.”

“I am sorry to see you looking ill. Where shall I find John?” asked Mr. Bulstrode.

Aurora’s pale face flushed suddenly.

“I— I— don’t know,” she stammered. “He is not in the house; he has gone out — to the stables — or to the farm, I think. I’ll send for him.”

“No, no,” Talbot said, intercepting her hand on its way to the bell. “I’ll go and look for him. Lucy will be glad of a chat with you, I dare say, Aurora, and will not be sorry to get rid of me.”

Lucy, with her arm about her cousin’s waist, assented to this arrangement. She was grieved to see the change in Aurora’s looks, the unnatural constraint of her manner.

Mr. Bulstrode walked away, hugging himself upon having done a very wise thing.

“Lucy is a great deal more likely to find out what is the matter than I am,” he thought. “There is a sort of freemasonry between women, an electric affinity, which a man’s presence always destroys. How deathly pale Aurora looks! Can it be possible that the trouble I expected has come so soon?”

He went to the stables, but not so much to look for John Mellish as in the hope of finding somebody intelligent enough to furnish him with a better account of the murder than any he had yet heard.

“Some one else, as well as Aurora, must have had a reason for wishing to get rid of this man,” he thought. “There must have been some motive — revenge, gain — something which no one has yet fathomed.”

He went into the stable-yard; but he had no opportunity of making his investigation, for John Mellish was standing in a listless attitude before a small forge, watching the shoeing of one of his horses. The young squire looked up with a start as he recognized Talbot, and gave him his hand, with a few straggling words of welcome. Even in that moment Mr. Bulstrode saw that there was perhaps a greater change in John’s appearance than in that of Aurora. The Yorkshireman’s blue eyes had lost their brightness, his step its elasticity; his face seemed sunken and haggard, and he evidently avoided meeting Talbot’s eye. He lounged listlessly away from the forge, walking at his guest’s side, in the direction of the stable-gates; but he had the air of a man who neither knows nor cares whither he is going.

“Shall we go to the house?” he said. “You must want some luncheon after your journey.” He looked at his watch as he said this. It was half-past three, an hour after the usual time for luncheon at Mellish.

“I’ve been in the stables all the morning,” he said. “We’re busy making our preparations for the York Summer.”

“What horses do you run?” Mr. Bulstrode asked, politely affecting to be interested in a subject that was utterly indifferent to him, in the hope that stable-talk might rouse John from his listless apathy.

“What horses?” repeated Mr. Mellish, vaguely. “I— I hardly know. Langley manages all that for me, you know; and — I— I forget the names of the horses he proposed, and —”

Talbot Bulstrode turned suddenly upon his friend, and looked him full in the face. They had left the stables by this time, and were in a shady pathway that led through a shrubbery toward the house.

“John Mellish,” he said, “this is not fair toward an old friend. You have something on your mind, and you are trying to hide it from me.”

The squire turned away his head.

“I have something on my mind, Talbot,” he said, quietly. “If you could help me, I’d ask your help more than any man’s. But you can’t, you can’t!”

“But suppose I think I can help you?” cried Mr. Bulstrode. “Suppose I mean to try and do so, whether you will or no? I think I can guess what your trouble is, John, but I thought you were a braver man than to give way under it; I thought you were just the sort of man to struggle through it nobly and bravely, and to get the better of it by your own strength of will.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed John Mellish. “You can guess — you know — you thought! Have you no mercy upon me, Talbot Bulstrode? Can’t you see that I’m almost mad, and that this is no time for you to force your sympathy upon me? Do you want me to betray myself? Do you want me to betray —”

He stopped suddenly, as if the words had choked him, and, passionately stamping his foot upon the ground, walked on hurriedly, with his friend still by his side.

The dining-room looked dreary enough when the two men entered it, although the table gave promise of a very substantial luncheon; but there was no one to welcome them, or to officiate at the banquet.

John seated himself wearily in a chair at the bottom of the table.

“You had better go and see if Mrs. Bulstrode and your mistress are coming to luncheon,” he said to a servant, who left the room with his master’s message, and returned three minutes afterward to say that the ladies were not coming.

The ladies were seated side by side upon a low sofa in Aurora’s morning-room. Mrs. Mellish sat with her head upon her cousin’s shoulder. She had never had a sister, remember, and gentle Lucy stood in place of that near and tender comforter. Talbot was perfectly right; Lucy had accomplished that which he would have failed to bring about. She had found the key to her cousin’s unhappiness.

“Ceased to love you, dear!” exclaimed Mrs. Bulstrode, echoing the words that Aurora had last spoken. “Impossible!”

“It is true, Lucy,” Mrs. Mellish answered, despairingly. “He has ceased to love me. There is a black cloud between us now, now that all secrets are done away with. It is very bitter for me to bear, Lucy, for I thought we should be so happy and united. But — but it is only natural. He feels the degradation so much. How can he look at me without remembering who and what I am? The widow of his groom! Can I wonder that he avoids me?”

“Avoids you, dear!”

“Yes, avoids me. We have scarcely spoken a dozen words to each other since the night of our return. He was so good to me, so tender and devoted during the journey home, telling me again and again that this discovery had not lessened his love, that all the trial and horror of the past few days had only shown him the great strength of his affection; but on the night of our return, Lucy, he changed — changed suddenly and inexplicably; and now I feel that there is a gulf between us that can never be passed again. He is alienated from me for ever.”

“Aurora, all this is impossible,” remonstrated Lucy. “It is your own morbid fancy, darling.”

“My fancy!” cried Aurora, bitterly. “Ah! Lucy, you can not know how much I love my husband, if you think that I could be deceived in one look or tone of his. Is it my fancy that he averts his eyes when he speaks to me? Is it my fancy that his voice changes when he pronounces my name? Is it my fancy that he roams about the house like a ghost, and paces up and down his room half the night through? If these things are my fancy, Heaven have mercy upon me, Lucy, for I must be going mad.”

Mrs. Bulstrode started as she looked at her cousin. Could it be possible that all the trouble and confusion of the past week or two had indeed unsettled this poor girl’s intellect?

“My poor Aurora,” she murmured, smoothing the heavy hair away from her cousin’s tearful eyes, “my poor darling, how is it possible that John should change toward you? He loved you so dearly, so devotedly; surely nothing could alienate him from you.”

“I used to think so, Lucy,” Aurora murmured in a low, heart-broken voice; “I used to think nothing could ever come to part us. He said he would follow me to the uttermost end of the world; he said that no obstacle on earth should ever separate us; and now —”

She could not finish the sentence, for she broke into convulsive sobs, and hid her face upon her cousin’s shoulder, staining Mrs. Bulstrode’s pretty silk dress with her hot tears.

“Oh, my love, my love,” she cried, piteously, “why did n’t I run away and hide myself from you? why did n’t I trust to my first instinct, and run away from you for ever? Any suffering would be better than this — any suffering would be better than this!”

Her passionate grief merged into a fit of hysterical weeping, in which she was no longer mistress of herself. She had suffered for the past few days more bitterly than she had ever suffered yet. Lucy understood all that. She was one of those people whose tenderness instinctively comprehends the griefs of others. She knew how to treat her cousin; and in less than an hour after this emotional outbreak Aurora was lying on her bed, pale and exhausted, but sleeping peacefully. She had carried the burden of her sorrow in silence during the past few days, and had spent sleepless nights in brooding over her trouble. Her conversation with Lucy had unconsciously relieved her, and she slumbered calmly after the storm. Lucy sat by the bed watching the sleeper for some time, and then stole on tip-toe from the room.

She went, of course, to tell her husband all that had passed, and to take counsel from his sublime wisdom.

She found Talbot in the drawing-room alone; he had eaten a dreary luncheon in John’s company, and had been hastily left by his host immediately after the meal. There had been no sound of carriage-wheels upon the gravelled drive all that morning; there had been no callers at Mellish since John’s return; for a horrible scandal had spread itself throughout the length and breadth of the county, and those who spoke of the young squire and his wife talked in solemn undertones, and gravely demanded of each other whether some serious step should not be taken about the business which was uppermost in everybody’s mind.

Lucy told Talbot all that Aurora had said to her. This was no breach of confidence in the young wife’s code of morality; for were not she and her husband immutably one, and how could she have any secret from him?

“I thought so!” Mr. Bulstrode said, when Lucy had finished her story.

“You thought what, dear?”

“That the breach between John and Aurora was a serious one. Don’t look so sorrowful, my darling. It must be our business to reunite these divided lovers. You shall comfort Aurora, Lucy, and I’ll look after John.”

Talbot Bulstrode kissed his little wife, and went straight away upon his friendly errand. He found John Mellish in his own room — the room in which Aurora had written to him upon the day of her flight — the room from which the murderous weapon had been stolen by some unknown hand. John had hidden the rusty pistol in one of the locked drawers of his Davenport; but it was not to be supposed that the fact of its discovery could be locked up or hidden away. That had been fully discussed in the servants’ hall; and who shall doubt that it had travelled farther, percolating through some of those sinuous channels which lead away from every household?

“I want you to come for a walk with me, Mr. John Mellish,” said Talbot, imperatively; “so put on your hat, and come into the Park. You are the most agreeable gentleman I ever had the honor to visit, and the attention you pay your guests is really something remarkable.”

Mr. Mellish made no reply to this speech. He stood before his friend pale, silent, and sullen. He was no more like the hearty Yorkshire squire whom we have known than he was like Viscount Palmerston or Lord Clyde. He was transformed out of himself by some great trouble that was preying upon his mind, and, being of a transparent and childishly truthful disposition, was unable to disguise his anguish.

“John, John,” cried Talbot, “we were little boys together at Rugby, and have backed each other in a dozen childish fights. Is it kind of you to withhold your friendship from me now, when I have come here on purpose to be a friend to you — to you and to Aurora?”

John Mellish turned away his head as his friend mentioned that familiar name, and the gesture was not lost upon Mr. Bulstrode.

“John, why do you refuse to trust me?”

“I don’t refuse. I— why did you come to this accursed house?” cried John Mellish, passionately; “why did you come here, Talbot Bulstrode? You don’t know the blight that is upon this place, and those who live in it, or you would have no more come here than you would willingly go to a plague-stricken city. Do you know that since I came back from London not a creature has called at this house? Do you know that when I and — and — my wife — went to church on Sunday, the people we knew sneaked away from our path as if we had just recovered from typhus fever? Do you know that the cursed gaping rabble come from Doncaster to stare over the Park palings, and that this house is a show to half the West Riding? Why do you come here? You will be stared at, and grinned at, and scandalized — you, who — Go back to London to-night, Talbot, if you don’t want to drive me mad.”

“Not till you trust me with your troubles, John,” answered Mr. Bulstrode, firmly. “Put on your hat, and come out with me. I want you to show me the spot where the murder was done.”

“You may get some one else to show it you,” muttered John, sullenly; “I’ll not go there!”

“John Mellish,” cried Talbot, suddenly, “am I to think you a coward and a fool? By the Heaven that’s above me, I shall think so if you persist in this nonsense. Come out into the Park with me; I have the claim of past friendship upon you, and I’ll not have that claim set aside by any folly of yours.”

The two men went out upon the lawn, John complying moodily enough with his friend’s request, and walked silently across the Park toward that portion of the wood in which James Conyers had met his death. They had reached one of the loneliest and shadiest avenues in this wood, and were, in fact, close against the spot from which Samuel Prodder had watched his niece and her companion on the night of the murder, when Talbot stopped suddenly, and laid his hand on the squire’s shoulder.

“John,” he said, in a determined tone, “before we go to look at the place where this bad man died, you must tell me your trouble.”

Mr. Mellish drew himself up proudly, and looked at the speaker with gloomy defiance lowering upon his face.

“I will tell no man that which I do not choose to tell,” he said, firmly; and then, with a sudden change that was terrible to see, he cried impetuously, “Why do you torment me, Talbot? I tell you that I can’t trust you — I can’t trust any one upon earth. If — if I told you — the horrible thought that — if I told you, it would be your duty to — I— Talbot, Talbot, have pity upon me — let me alone — go away from me — I—”

Stamping furiously, as if he would have trampled down the cowardly despair for which he despised himself, and beating his forehead with his clenched fists, John Mellish turned away from his friend, and, leaning against the gnarled branch of a great oak, wept aloud. Talbot Bulstrode waited till the paroxysm had passed away before he spoke again; but when his friend had grown calmer, he linked his arm about him, and drew him away almost as tenderly as if the big Yorkshireman had been some sorrowing woman, sorely in need of manly help and comfort.

“John, John,” he said gravely, “thank God for this; thank God for anything that breaks the ice between us. I know what your trouble is, poor old friend, and I know that you have no cause for it. Hold up your head, man, and look forward to a happy future. I know the black thought that has been gnawing at your poor, foolish, manly, heart: you think that Aurora murdered the groom!

John Mellish started, shuddering convulsively.

“No, no,” he gasped; “who said so — who said —”

“You think this, John,” continued Talbot Bulstrode, “and you do her the most grievous wrong that ever yet was done to woman — a more shameful wrong than I committed when I thought that Aurora Floyd had been guilty of some base intrigue.”

“You don’t know —” stammered John.

“I don’t know! I know all, and foresaw trouble for you before you saw the cloud that was in the sky. But I never dreamed of this. I thought the foolish country-people would suspect your wife, as it always pleases people to try and fix a crime upon the person in whom that crime would be more particularly atrocious. I was prepared for this; but to think that you — you, John, who should have learned to know your wife by this time — to think that you should suspect the woman you have loved of a foul and treacherous murder!”

“How do we know that the — that the man was murdered?” cried John, vehemently. “Who says that the deed was treacherously done? He may have goaded her beyond endurance, insulted her generous pride, stung her to the very quick, and in the madness of her passion — having that wretched pistol in her possession — she may —”

“Stop!” interrupted Talbot. “What pistol? You told me the weapon had not been found.”

“It was found upon the night of our return.”

“Yes; but why do you associate this weapon with Aurora? What do you mean by saying that the pistol was in her possession?”

“Because — O my God! Talbot, why do you wring these things from me?”

“For your own good, and for the justification of an innocent woman, so help me Heaven!” answered Mr. Bulstrode. “Do not be afraid to be candid with me, John. Nothing would ever make me believe Aurora Mellish guilty of this crime.”

The Yorkshireman turned suddenly toward his friend, and, leaning upon Talbot Bulstrode’s shoulder, wept for the second time during that woodland ramble.

“May God in heaven bless you for this, Talbot!” he cried, passionately. “Ah! my love, my dear, what a wretch I have been to you! but Heaven is my witness that, even in my worst agony of doubt and horror, my love has never lessened. It never could, it never could!”

“John, old fellow,” said Mr. Bulstrode, cheerfully, “perhaps, instead of talking this nonsense (which leaves me entirely in the dark as to everything that has happened since you left London), you will do me the favor to enlighten me as to the cause of these foolish suspicions.”

They had reached the ruined summer-house, and the pool of stagnant water on the margin of which James Conyers had met with his death. Mr. Bulstrode seated himself upon a pile of broken timber, while John Mellish paced up and down the smooth patch of turf between the summer-house and the water, and told, disjointedly enough, the story of the finding of the pistol which had been taken out of his room.

“I saw that pistol upon the day of the murder,” said he. “I took particular notice of it; for I was cleaning my guns that morning, and I left them all in confusion while I went down to the lodge to see the trainer. When I came back — I—”

“Well, what then?”

“Aurora had been setting my guns in order.”

“You argue, therefore, that your wife took the pistol?”

John looked piteously at his friend; but Talbot’s grave smile reassured him.

“No one else had permission to go into the room,” he answered. “I keep my papers and accounts there, you know, and it’s an understood thing that none of the servants are allowed to go there except when they clean the room.”

“To be sure! But the room is not locked, I suppose?”

“Locked! of course not.”

“And the windows, which open to the ground, are sometimes left open, I dare say?”

“Almost always, in such weather as this.”

“Then, my dear John, it may be just possible that some one who had not permission to enter the room did nevertheless enter it for the purpose of abstracting this pistol. Have you asked Aurora why she took upon herself to rearrange your guns? She had never done such a thing before, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, very often. I’m rather in the habit of leaving them about after cleaning them, and my darling understands all about them as well as I do. She has often put them away for me.”

“Then there was nothing particular in her doing so upon the day of the murder. Have you asked her how long she was in your room, and whether she can remember seeing this particular pistol among others?”

“Ask her!” exclaimed John; “how could I ask her when —”

“When you had been mad enough to suspect her. No, my poor old friend, you made the same mistake that I committed at Felden. You presupposed the guilt of the woman you loved, and you were too great a coward to investigate the evidence upon which your suspicions were built. Had I been wise enough, instead of blindly questioning this poor, bewildered girl, to tell her plainly what it was that I suspected, the incontrovertible truth would have flashed out of her angry eyes, and one indignant denial would have told me how basely I had wronged her. You shall not make the mistake that I made, John. You must go frankly and fearlessly to the wife you love, tell her of the suspicion that overclouds her fame, and implore her to help you to the uttermost of her power in unravelling the mystery of this man’s death. The assassin must be found, John; for, so long as he remains undiscovered, you and your wife will be the victims of every penny-a-liner who finds himself at a loss for a paragraph.”

“Yes,” Mr. Mellish answered bitterly, “the papers have been hard at it already; and there’s been a fellow hanging about the place for the last few days whom I’ve had a very strong inclination to thrash. Some reporter, I suppose, come to pick up information.”

“I suppose so,” Talbot answered, thoughtfully; “what sort of a man was he?”

“A decent-looking fellow enough; but a Londoner, I fancy, and — stay!” exclaimed John, suddenly, “there’s a man coming toward us from the turnstile, and, unless I’m considerably mistaken, it’s the very fellow.”

Mr. Mellish was right.

The wood was free to any foot-passenger who pleased to avail himself of the pleasant shelter of spreading beeches, and the smooth carpet of mossy turf, rather than tramp wearily upon the dusty highway.

The stranger advancing from the turnstile was a decent-looking person, dressed in dark, tight-fitting clothes, and making no unnecessary or ostentatious display of linen, for his coat was buttoned tightly to the chin. He looked at Talbot and John as he passed them, not insolently, or even inquisitively, but with one brightly rapid and searching glance, which seemed to take in the most minute details in the appearance of both gentlemen. Then, walking on a few paces, he stopped, and looked thoughtfully at the pond, and the bank above it.

“This is the place, I think, gentlemen?” he said, in a frank and rather free-and-easy manner.

Talbot returned his look with interest.

“If you mean the place where the murder was committed, it is,” he said.

“Ah! I understood so,” answered the stranger, by no means abashed.

He looked at the bank, regarding it, now from one point, now from another, like some skilful upholsterer taking the measure of a piece of furniture. Then, walking slowly round the pond, he seemed to plumb the depth of the stagnant water with his small gray eyes.

Talbot Bulstrode watched the man as he took this mental photograph of the place. There was a business-like composure in his manner which was entirely different to the eager curiosity of a scandal-monger and a busybody.

Mr. Bulstrode rose as the man walked away, and went slowly after him.

“Stop where you are, John,” he said, as he left his companion; “I’ll find out who this fellow is.”

He walked on, and overtook the stranger at about a hundred yards from the pond.

“I want to have a few words with you before you leave the Park, my friend,” he said, quietly; “unless I am very much mistaken, you are a member of the detective police, and come here with credentials from Scotland Yard.”

The man shook his head with a quiet smile.

“I’m not obliged to tell everybody my business,” he answered, coolly; “this footpath is a public thoroughfare, I believe?”

“Listen to me, my good fellow,” said Mr. Bulstrode. “It may serve your purpose to beat about the bush, but I have no reason to do so, and therefore may as well come to the point at once. If you are sent here for the purpose of discovering the murderer of James Conyers, you can be more welcome to no one than to the master of that house.”

He pointed to the Gothic chimneys as he spoke.

“If those who employ you have promised you a liberal reward, Mr. Mellish will willingly treble the amount they may have offered you. He would not give you cause to complain of his liberality should you succeed in accomplishing the purpose of your errand. If you think you will gain anything by underhand measures, and by keeping yourself dark, you are very much mistaken; for no one can be better able or more willing to give you assistance in this than Mr. and Mrs. Mellish.”

The detective — for he had tacitly admitted the fact of his profession — looked doubtfully at Talbot Bulstrode.

“You’re a lawyer, I suppose?” he said.

“I am Mr. Talbot Bulstrode, member for Penruthy, and the husband of Mrs. Mellish’s first cousin.”

The detective bowed.

“My name is Joseph Grimstone, of Scotland Yard and Ball’s Pond,” he said; “and I certainly see no objection to our working together. If Mr. Mellish is prepared to act on the square, I’m prepared to act with him, and to accept any reward his generosity may offer. But if he or any friend of his wants to hoodwink Joseph Grimstone, he’d better think twice about the game before he tries it on — that’s all.”

Mr. Bulstrode took no notice of this threat, but looked at his watch before replying to the detective.

“It’s a quarter-past six,” he said. “Mr. Mellish dines at seven. Can you call at the house, say at nine, this evening? You shall then have all the assistance it is in our power to give you.”

“Certainly, sir. At nine this evening.”

“We shall be prepared to receive you. Good-afternoon.”

Mr. Grimstone touched his hat, and strolled quietly away under the shadow of the beeches, while Talbot Bulstrode walked back to rejoin his friend.

It may be as well to take this opportunity of stating the reason of the detective’s early appearance at Mellish Park. Upon the day of the inquest, and consequently the next day but one after the murder, two anonymous letters, worded in the same manner, and written by the same hand, were received respectively by the head of the Doncaster constabulary and by the chief of the Scotland-Yard detective confederacy.

These anonymous communications — written in a hand which, in spite of all attempt at disguise, still retained the spidery peculiarities of feminine calligraphy — pointed, by a sinuous and inductive process of reasoning, at Aurora Mellish as the murderess of James Conyers. I need scarcely say that the writer was no other than Mrs. Powell. She has disappeared for ever from my story, and I have no wish to blacken a character which can ill afford to be slandered. The ensign’s widow actually believed in the guilt of her beautiful patroness. It is so easy for an envious woman to believe horrible things of the more prosperous sister whom she hates.

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