Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 37

The Brass Button, by Crosby, Birmingham.

Mr. Matthew Harrison and Captain Prodder were both accommodated with suitable entertainment at the sign of the “Crooked Rabbit;” but while the dog-fancier appeared to have ample employment in the neighborhood — employment of a mysterious nature, which kept him on the tramp all day, and sent him home at sunset, tired and hungry, to his hostlery — the sailor, having nothing whatever to do, and a great burden of care upon his mind, found the time hang very heavily upon his hands, although, being naturally of a social and genial temper, he made himself very much at home in his strange quarters. From Mr. Harrison the captain obtained much information respecting the secret of all the sorrow that had befallen his niece. The dog-fancier had known James Conyers from his boyhood; had known his father, the “swell” coachman of a Brighton Highflyer, or Sky-rocket, or Electric, and the associate of the noblemen and gentlemen of that princely era, in which it was the right thing for the youthful aristocracy to imitate the manners of Mr. Samuel Weller, senior. Matthew Harrison had known the trainer in his brief and stormy married life, and had accompanied Aurora’s first husband as a humble dependent and hanger-on in that foreign travel which had been paid for out of Archibald Floyd’s check-book. The honest captain’s blood boiled as he heard that shameful story of treachery and extortion practised upon an ignorant school-girl. Oh, that he had been by to avenge those outrages upon the child of the dark-eyed sister he had loved! His rage against the undiscovered murderer of the dead man was redoubled when he remembered how comfortably James Conyers had escaped from his vengeance.

Mr. Stephen Hargraves, the softy, took good care to keep out of the way of the “Crooked Rabbit,” having no wish to encounter Captain Prodder a second time; but he still hung about the Town of Doncaster, where he had a lodging up a wretched alley, hidden away behind one of the back streets — a species of lair common to every large town, and only to be found by the inhabitants of the locality.

The softy had been born and bred, and had lived his life in such a narrow radius, that the uprooting of one of the oaks in Mellish Park could scarcely be a slower or more painful operation than the severing of those ties of custom which held the boorish hanger-on to the neighborhood of the household in which he had so long been an inmate. But, now that his occupation at Mellish was for ever gone, and his patron, the trainer, dead, he was alone in the world, and had need to look out for a fresh situation.

But he seemed rather slow to do this. He was not a very prepossessing person, it must be remembered, and there were not very many services for which he was fitted. Although upward of forty years of age, he was generally rather loosely described as a young man who understood all about horses, and this qualification was usually sufficient to procure for any individual whatever some kind of employment in the neighborhood of Doncaster. The softy seemed, however, rather to keep aloof from the people who knew and could have recommended him; and when asked why he did not seek a situation, gave evasive answers, and muttered something to the effect that he had saved a little bit of money at Mellish Park, and had no need to come upon the parish if he was out of work for a week or two.

John Mellish was so well known as a generous paymaster, that this was a matter of surprise to no one. Steeve Hargraves had no doubt had pretty pickings in that liberal household. So the softy went his way unquestioned, hanging about the town in a lounging, uncomfortable manner, sitting in some public-house tap-room half the day and night, drinking his meagre liquor in a sullen and unsocial style peculiar to himself, and consorting with no one.

He made his appearance at the railway station one day, and groped helplessly through all the time-tables pasted against the walls; but he could make nothing of them unaided, and was at last compelled to appeal to a good-tempered-looking official who was busy on the platform.

“I want th’ Liverpool trayuns,” he said, “and I can’t find nowght about ’em here.”

The official knew Mr. Hargraves, and looked at him with a stare of open wonder.

“My word! Steeve,” he said, laughing, “what takes you to Liverpool? I thought you’d never been farther than York in your life.”

“Maybe I have n’t,” the softy answered, sulkily; “but that’s no reason I should n’t go now. I’ve heard of a situation at Liverpool as I think’ll suit me.”

“Not better than the place you had with Mr. Mellish.”

“Perhaps not,” muttered Mr. Hargraves, with a frown darkening over his ugly face; “but Mellish Park be no pleace for me now, and arn’t been for a long time past.”

The railway official laughed.

The story of Aurora’s chastisement of the half-witted groom was pretty well known among the towns-people of Doncaster, and I am sorry to say there were very few members of that sporting community who did not admire the mistress of Mellish Park something more by reason of this little incident in her history.

Mr. Hargraves received the desired information about the railway route between Doncaster and Liverpool, and then left the station.

A shabby-looking little man, who had also been making some inquiries of the same official who had talked to the softy, and had consequently heard the above brief dialogue, followed Stephen Hargraves from the station into the town. Indeed, had it not been that the softy was unusually slow of perception, he might have discovered that upon this particular day the same shabby-looking little man generally happened to be hanging about any and every place to which he, Mr. Hargraves, betook himself. But the cast-off retainer of Mellish Park did not trouble himself with any such misgivings. His narrow intellect, never wide enough to take in many subjects at a time, was fully absorbed by other considerations; and he loitered about with a gloomy and preoccupied expression on his face that by no means enhanced his personal attractions.

It is not to be supposed that Mr. Joseph Grimstone let the grass grow under his feet after his interview with John Mellish and Talbot Bulstrode. He had heard enough to make his course pretty clear to him, and he went to work quietly and sagaciously to win the reward offered to him.

There was not a tailor’s shop in Doncaster or its vicinity into which the detective did not make his way. There was not a garment confectionnée by any of the civil purveyors upon whom he intruded that Mr. Grimstone did not examine; not a drawer of odds and ends which he did not ransack, in his search for buttons by “Crosby, maker, Birmingham.” But for a long time he made his inquisition in vain. Before the day succeeding that of Talbot’s arrival at Mellish was over, the detective had visited every tailor or clothier in the neighborhood of the racing metropolis of the north, but no traces of “Crosby, maker, Birmingham,” had he been able to find. Brass waistcoat-buttons are not particularly affected by the leaders of the fashion in the present day, and Mr. Grimstone found almost every variety of fastening upon the waistcoats he examined except that one special style of button, a specimen of which, out of shape and blood-stained, he carried deep in his trowsers-pocket.

He was returning to the inn at which he had taken up his abode, and where he was supposed to be a traveller in the Glenfield starch and sugar-plum line, tired and worn out with a day’s useless work, when he was attracted by the appearance of some ready-made garments gracefully festooned about the door of a Doncaster pawnbroker, who exhibited silver teaspoons, oil paintings, boots and shoes, dropsical watches, doubtful rings, and remnants of silk and satin in his artistically-arranged window.

Mr. Grimstone stopped short before the money-lender’s portal.

“I won’t he beaten,” he muttered between his teeth. “If this man has got any waistcoats, I’ll have a look at ’em.”

He lounged into the shop in a leisurely manner, and asked the proprietor of the establishment if he had anything cheap in the way of fancy waistcoats.

Of course the proprietor had everything desirable in that way, and from a kind of grove or arbor of all manner of dry goods at the back of the shop he brought out half a dozen brown-paper parcels, the contents of which he exhibited to Mr. Joseph Grimstone.

The detective looked at a great many waistcoats, but with no satisfactory result.

“You have n’t got anything with brass buttons, I suppose?” he inquired at last.

The proprietor shook his head reflectively.

“Brass buttons a’n’t much worn nowadays,” he said; “but I’ll lay I’ve got the very thing you want, now I come to think of it. I got ’em an uncommon bargain from a traveller for a Birmingham house, who was here at the September meeting three years ago, and lost a hatful of money upon Underhand, and left a lot of things with me, in order to make up what he wanted.”

Mr. Grimstone pricked up his ears at the sound of “Birmingham.” The pawnbroker retired once more to the mysterious caverns at the back of his shop, and, after a considerable search, succeeded in finding what he wanted. He brought another brown-paper parcel to the counter, turned the flaming gas a little higher, and exhibited a heap of very gaudy and vulgar-looking waistcoats, evidently of that species of manufacture which is generally called slop-work.

“These are the goods,” he said; “and very tasty and lively things they are, too. I had a dozen of ’em; and I’ve only got these five left.”

Mr. Grimstone had taken up a waistcoat of a flaming check pattern, and was examining it by the light of the gas.

Yes; the purpose of his day’s work was accomplished at last. The back of the brass buttons bore the name of Crosby, Birmingham.

“You’ve only got five left out of the dozen,” said the detective; “then you’ve sold seven?”

“I have.”

“Can you remember who you sold ’em to?”

The pawnbroker scratched his head thoughtfully.

“I think I must have sold ’em all to the men at the works,” he said. “They take their wages once a fortnight; and there’s some of ’em drop in here every other Saturday night to buy something or other, or to take something out of pledge. I know I sold four or five that way.”

“But can you remember selling one of them to anybody else?” asked the detective. “I’m not asking out of curiosity; and I don’t mind standing something handsome by and by, if you can give me the information I want. Think it over, now, and take your time. You could n’t have sold ’em all seven to the men from the works.”

“No, I did n’t,” answered the pawnbroker, after a pause. “I remember, now, I sold one of them — a fancy sprig on a purple ground — to Josephs, the baker in the next street; and I sold another — a yellow stripe on a brown ground — to the head gardener at Mellish Park.”

Mr. Joseph Grimstone’s face flushed hot and red. His day’s work had not been wasted. He was bringing the buttons by Crosby of Birmingham very near to where he wanted to bring them.

“You can tell me the gardener’s name, I suppose?” he said to the pawnbroker.

“Yes; his name’s Dawson. He belongs to Doncaster, and he and I were boys together. I should not have remembered selling him the waistcoat, perhaps — for it’s nigh upon a year and a half ago — only he stopped and had a chat with me and my missis the night he bought it.”

Mr. Grimstone did not linger much longer in the shop. His interest in the waistcoats was evidently departed. He bought a couple of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, out of civility, no doubt, and then bade the pawnbroker good-night.

It was nearly nine o’clock; but the detective only stopped at his inn long enough to eat about a pound and a quarter of beefsteak, and drink a pint of ale, after which brief refreshment he started for Mellish Park on foot. It was the principle of his life to avoid observation, and he preferred the fatigue of a long and lonely walk to the risks contingent upon hiring a vehicle to convey him to his destination.

Talbot and John had been waiting hopefully all the day for the detective’s coming, and welcomed him very heartily when he appeared, between ten and eleven. He was shown into John’s own room this evening, for the two gentlemen were sitting there smoking and talking after Aurora and Lucy had gone to bed. Mrs. Mellish had good need of rest, and could sleep peacefully now; for the dark shadow between her and her husband had gone for ever, and she could not fear any peril, any sorrow, now that she knew herself to be secure of his love. John looked up eagerly as Mr. Grimstone followed the servant into the room; but a warning look from Talbot Bulstrode checked his impetuosity, and he waited till the door was shut before he spoke.

“Now, then, Grimstone,” he said, “what news?”

“Well, sir, I’ve had a hard day’s work,” the detective answered, gravely, “and perhaps neither of you gentlemen — not being professional — would think much of what I’ve done. But, for all that, I believe I’m bringin’ it home, sir; I believe I’m bringing of it home.”

“Thank God for that!” murmured Talbot Bulstrode, reverently.

He had thrown away his cigar, and was standing by the fireplace, with his arm resting upon the angle of the mantle-piece.

“You’ve got a gardener by the name of Dawson in your service, Mr. Mellish?” said the detective.

“I have,” answered John; “but, Lord have mercy upon us! you don’t mean to say you think it’s him. Dawson’s as good a fellow as ever breathed.”

“I don’t say I think it’s any one as yet, sir,” Mr. Grimstone answered, sententiously; “but when a man, as had two thousand pound upon him in bank-notes, is found in a wood shot through the heart, and the notes missin’— the wood bein’ free to anybody as chose to walk in it — it’s a pretty open case for suspicion. I should like to see this man Dawson, if it’s convenient.”

“To-night?” asked John.

“Yes; the sooner the better. The less delay there is in this sort of business, the more satisfactory for all parties — with the exception of the party that’s wanted,” added the detective.

“I’ll send for Dawson, then,” answered Mr. Mellish; “but I expect he’ll have gone to bed by this time.”

“Then he can but get up again, if he has, sir,” Mr. Grimstone said, politely. “I’ve set my heart upon seeing him to-night, if it’s all the same to you.”

It is not to be supposed that John Mellish was likely to object to any arrangement which might hasten, if by but a moment’s time, the hour of the discovery for which he so ardently prayed. He went straight off to the servants’ hall to make inquiries for the gardener, and left Talbot Bulstrode and the detective together.

“There a’n’t nothing turned up here, I suppose, sir,” said Joseph Grimstone, addressing Mr. Bulstrode, “as will be of any help to us?”

“Yes,” Talbot answered; “we have got the numbers of the notes which Mrs. Mellish gave the murdered man. I telegraphed to Mr. Floyd’s country-house, and he arrived here himself only an hour ago, bringing the list of the notes with him.”

“And an uncommon plucky thing of the old gentleman to do, beggin’ your pardon, sir,” exclaimed the detective, with enthusiasm.

Five minutes afterward Mr. Mellish re-entered the room, bringing the gardener with him. The man had been into Doncaster to see his friends, and only returned about half an hour before; so the master of the house had caught him in the act of making havoc with a formidable cold joint, and a great jar of pickled cabbage, in the servants’ hall.

“Now, you’re not to be frightened, Dawson,” said the young squire, with friendly indiscretion; “of course nobody for a moment suspects you any more than they suspect me; but this gentleman here wants to see you, and of course you know there’s no reason that he should n’t see you, if he wishes it, though what he wants with you —”

Mr. Mellish stopped abruptly, arrested by a frown from Talbot Bulstrode; and the gardener, who was innocent of the faintest comprehension of his master’s meaning, pulled his hair respectfully, and shuffled nervously upon the slippery Indian matting.

“I only want to ask you a question or two to decide a wager between these two gentlemen and me, Mr. Dawson,” said the detective, with reassuring familiarity. “You bought a second-hand waistcoat of Gogram, in the market-place, did n’t you, about a year and a half ago?”

“Ay, sure, sir. I bought a weskit at Gogram’s,” answered the gardener; “but it were n’t second-hand — it were bran new.”

“A yellow stripe upon a brown ground?”

The man nodded, with his mouth wide open, in the extremity of his surprise at this London stranger’s familiarity with the details of his toilet.

“I dunno how you come to know about that weskit, sir,” he said, with a grin; “it were wore out full six months ago; for I took to wearin’ of ‘t in t’ garden, and garden-work soon spiles anything in the way of clothes; but him as I give it to was glad enough to have it, though it was awful shabby.”

“Him as you give it to?” repeated Mr. Grimstone, not pausing to amend the sentence in his eagerness. “You gave it away, then?”

“Yees, I gave it to th’ softy; and was n’t the poor fond chap glad to get it, that’s all!”

“The softy!” exclaimed Mr. Grimstone. “Who’s the softy?”

“The man we spoke of last night,” answered Talbot Bulstrode; “the man whom Mrs. Mellish found in this room upon the morning before the murder — the man called Stephen Hargraves.”

“Ay, ay, to be sure; I thought as much,” murmured the detective. “That will do, Mr. Dawson,” he added, addressing the gardener, who had shuffled a good deal nearer to the doorway in his uneasy state of mind. “Stay, though; I may as well ask you one more question. Were any of the buttons missing off that waistcoat when you gave it away?”

“Not one on ’em,” answered the gardener, decisively. “My missus is too particular for that. She’s a reg’lar toidy one, she is; allers mendin’ and patchin’; and if one of t’ buttons got loose, she was sure to sew it on toight again before it was lost.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dawson,” returned the detective, with the friendly condescension of a superior being. “Good-night.”

The gardener shuffled off, very glad to be released from the awful presence of his superiors, and to go back to the cold meat and pickles in the servants’ hall.

“I think I’m bringing the business into a nutshell, sir,” said Mr. Grimstone, when the door had closed upon the gardener. “But the less said the better just yet a while. I’ll take the list of the numbers of the notes, please, sir; and I believe I shall come upon you for that two hundred pound, Mr. Mellish, before either of us is many weeks older.”

So, with the list made by cautious Archibald Floyd bestowed safely in his waistcoat-pocket, Mr. Joseph Grimstone walked back to Doncaster through the still summer’s night, intent upon the business he had undertaken.

“It looked uncommon black against the lady about a week ago,” he thought, as he walked meditatively across the dewy grass in Mellish Park; “and I fancy the information they got at the Yard would have put a fool upon the wrong scent, and kept him on it till the right one got worn out. But it’s clearing up — it’s clearing up beautiful; and I think it’ll turn out one of the neatest cases I ever had the handling of.”

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