Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 38

Off the Scent.

It is scarcely necessary to say that, with the button by Crosby in his pocket, and with the information acquired from Dawson, the gardener, stowed away carefully in his mind, Mr. Joseph Grimstone looked with an eye of particular interest upon Steeve Hargraves, the softy.

The detective had not come to Doncaster alone. He had brought with him an humble ally and follower in the shape of the little shabby-looking man who had encountered the softy at the railway station, having received orders to keep a close watch upon Mr. Stephen Hargraves. It was, of course, a very easy matter to identify the softy in the Town of Doncaster, where he had been pretty generally known since his childhood.

Mr. Grimstone had called upon a medical practitioner, and had submitted the button to him for inspection. The stains upon it were indeed that which the detective had supposed, blood; and the surgeon detected a minute morsel of cartilage adhering to the jagged hasp of the button; but the same surgeon declared that this missile could not have been the only one used by the murderer of James Conyers. It had not been through the dead man’s body; it had inflicted only a surface wound.

The business which now lay before Mr. Grimstone was the tracing of one or other of the bank-notes; and for this purpose he and his ally set to work upon the track of the softy, with a view of discovering all the places which it was his habit to visit. The haunts affected by Mr. Hargraves turned out to be some half-dozen very obscure public-houses, and to each of these Joseph Grimstone went in person.

But he could discover nothing. All his inquiries only elicited the fact that Stephen Hargraves had not been observed to change, or attempt to change, any bank-note whatever. He had paid for all he had had, and spent more than it was usual for him to spend, drinking a good deal harder than had been his habit theretofore; but he had paid in silver, except on one occasion, when he had changed a sovereign. The detective called at the bank; but no person answering the description of Stephen Hargraves had been observed there. The detective endeavored to discover any friends or companions of the softy; but here again he failed. The half-witted hanger-on of the Mellish stables had never made any friends, being entirely deficient in all social qualities.

There was something almost miraculous in the manner in which Mr. Joseph Grimstone contrived to make himself master of any information which he wished to acquire; and before noon on the day after his interview with Mr. Dawson, the gardener, he had managed to eliminate all the facts set down above, and had also succeeded in ingratiating himself into the confidence of the dirty old proprietress of that humble lodging in which the softy had taken up his abode.

It is scarcely necessary to this story to tell how the detective went to work; but while Stephen Hargraves sat soddening his stupid brain with medicated beer in a low tap-room not far off, and while Mr. Grimstone’s ally kept close watch, holding himself in readiness to give warning of any movement on the part of the suspected individual, Mr. Grimstone himself went so cleverly to work in his manipulation of the softy’s landlady, that in less than a quarter of an hour he had taken full possession of that weak point in the intellectual citadel which is commonly called the blind side, and was able to do what he pleased with the old woman and her wretched tenement.

His peculiar pleasure was to make a very elaborate examination of the apartment rented by the softy, and any other apartments, cupboards, or hiding-places to which Mr. Hargraves had access. But he found nothing to reward him for his trouble. The old woman was in the habit of receiving casual lodgers, resting for a night or so at Doncaster before tramping further on their vagabond wanderings; and the six-roomed dwelling-place was only furnished with such meagre accommodation as may be expected for fourpence and sixpence a night. There were few hiding-places. No carpets, underneath which fat bundles of bank-notes might be hidden; no picture-frames, behind which the same species of property might be bestowed; no ponderous cornices or heavily-fringed valances shrouding the windows, and affording dusty recesses wherein the title-deeds of half a dozen fortunes might lie and rot. There were two or three cupboards, into which Mr. Grimstone penetrated with a tallow candle; but he discovered nothing of any more importance than crockery-ware, lucifer-matches, firewood, potatoes, bare ropes, on which an onion lingered here and there, and sprouted dismally in its dark loneliness, empty ginger-beer bottles, oyster-shells, old boots and shoes, disabled mouse-traps, black beetles, and humid fungi rising ghost-like from the damp and darkness.

Mr. Grimstone emerged, dirty and discomfited, from one of these dark recesses after a profitless search which had occupied a couple of weary hours.

“Some other chap’ll go in and cut the ground under my feet, if I waste my time this way,” thought the detective. “I’m bless’d if I don’t think I’ve been a fool for my pains. The man carries the money about him, that’s clear as mud; and if I were to search Doncaster till my hair got gray, I should n’t find what I want.”

Mr. Grimstone shut the door of the last cupboard which he had examined with an impatient slam, and then turned toward the window. There was no sign of his scout in the little alley before the house, and he had time, therefore, for further business.

He had examined everything in the softy’s apartment, and he had paid particular attention to the state of Mr. Hargraves’ wardrobe, which consisted of a pile of garments, every one of which bore in its cut and fashion the stamp of a different individuality, and thereby proclaimed itself as having belonged to another master. There was a Newmarket coat of John Mellish’s, and a pair of hunting-breeches, which could only have been built by the great Poole himself, split across the knees, but otherwise little the worse for wear. There was a linen jacket, and an old livery waistcoat that had belonged to one of the servants at the Park; odd tops of every shade known in the hunting-field, from the spotless white, or the delicate Champagne-cleaned color of the dandy, to the favorite vinegar hue of the hard-riding country squire; a groom’s hat with a tarnished band and a battered crown; hobnailed boots, which might have belonged to Mr. Dawson; corduroy breeches, that could only have fitted a dropsical lodge-keeper long deceased; and there was one garment which bore upon it the ghastly impress of a dreadful deed, that had but lately been done. This was the velveteen shooting-coat worn by James Conyers, the trainer, which, pierced with the murderous bullet, and stiffened by the soaking torrent of blood, had been appropriated by Mr. Stephen Hargraves in the confusion of the catastrophe. All these things, with sundry rubbish in the way of odd spurs and whip-handles, scraps of broken harness, ends of rope, and such other scrapings as only a miser loves to accumulate, were packed in a lumbering trunk covered with mangy fur, and secured by about a dozen yards of knotted and jagged rope, tied about it in such a manner as the softy had considered sufficient to defy the most artful thief in Christendom.

Mr. Grimstone had made very short work of all the elaborate defences in the way of knots and entanglements, and had ransacked the box from one end to the other; nay, had even closely examined the fur covering of the trunk, and had tested each separate brass-headed nail to ascertain if any of them had been removed or altered. He may have thought it just possible that two thousand pounds worth of Bank of England paper had been nailed down under the mangy fur. He gave a weary sigh as he concluded his inspection, replaced the garments one by one in the trunk, reknotted and secured the jagged cord, and turned his back upon the softy’s chamber.

“It’s no go.” he thought. “The yellow-striped waistcoat is n’t among his clothes, and the money is n’t hidden away anywhere. Can he be deep enough to have destroyed that waistcoat, I wonder? He’d got a red woollen one on this morning; perhaps he’s got the yellow-striped one under it”

Mr. Grimstone brushed the dust and cobwebs off his clothes, washed his hands in a greasy wooden bowl of scalding water which the old woman brought him, and then sat down before the fire, picking his teeth thoughtfully, and with his eyebrows set in a reflective frown over his small gray eyes.

“I don’t like to be beat,” he thought, “I don’t like to be beat.” He doubted if any magistrate would grant him a warrant against the softy upon the strength of the evidence in his possession — the blood-stained button by Crosby of Birmingham; and without a warrant he could not search for the notes upon the person of the man he suspected. He had sounded all the out-door servants at Mellish, but had been able to discover nothing that threw any light upon the movements of Stephen Hargraves on the night of the murder. No one remembered having seen him: no one had been on the southern side of the wood that night. One of the lads had passed the north lodge on his way from the high-road to the stables about the time at which Aurora had heard the shot fired in the wood, and had seen a light burning in the lower window; but this, of course, proved nothing either one way or the other.

“If we could find the money upon him,“ thought Mr. Grimstone, “it would be pretty strong proof of the robbery; and if we find the waistcoat off which that button came in his possession, it would n’t be bad evidence of the murder, putting the two things together; but we shall have to keep a preshus sharp watch upon my friend while we hunt up what we want, or I’m bless’d if he won’t give us the slip, and be off to Liverpool, and out of the country before we know where we are.”

Now the truth of the matter is, that Mr. Joseph Grimstone was not, perhaps, acting quite so conscientiously in this business as he might have done, had the love of justice in the abstract, and without any relation to sublunary reward, been the ruling principle of his life. He might have had any help he pleased from the Doncaster constabulary, had he chosen to confide in the members of that force; but as a very knowing individual who owns a three-year old which he has reason to believe “a flyer” is apt to keep the capabilities of his horse a secret from his friends and the sporting public while he puts a “pot” of money upon the animal at enormous odds, so Mr. Grimstone desired to keep his information to himself until it should have brought him its golden fruit, in the shape of a small reward from government and a large one from John Mellish.

The detective had reason to know that the Dogberrys of Doncaster, misled by a duplicate of that very letter which had first aroused the attention of Scotland Yard, were on the wrong scent, as he had been at first; and he was very well content to leave them where they were.

“No,” he thought, “it’s a critical game; but I’ll play it single-handed, or, at least, with no one better than Tom Chivers to help me through with it; and a ten-pound note will satisfy him, if we win the day.”

Pondering thus, Mr. Grimstone departed, after having recompensed the landlady for her civility by a donation which the old woman considered princely.

He had entirely deluded her as to the object of his search, by telling her that he was a lawyer’s clerk, commissioned by his employer to hunt for a codicil which had been hidden somewhere in that house by an old man who had lived in it in the year 1783; and he had contrived, in the course of conversation, to draw from the old woman, who was of a garrulous turn, all that she had to tell about the softy.

It was not much, certainly. Mr. Hargraves had never changed a bank-note with her knowledge. He had paid for his bit of victuals as he had it, but had not spent a shilling a day. As to bank-notes, it was n’t at all likely that he had any of them; for he was always complaining that he was very poor, and that his little bit of savings, scraped together out of his wages, would n’t last him long.

“This Hargraves is a precious deep ’un, for all they call him soft,” thought Mr. Grimstone, as he left the lodging-house, and walked slowly toward the sporting-public at which he had left the softy under the watchful eye of Mr. Tom Chivers. “I’ve often heard say that these half-witted chaps have more cunning in their little fingers than a better man has in the whole of his composition. Another man would never have been able to stand against the temptation of changing one of those notes; or would have gone about wearing that identical waistcoat; or would have made a bolt of it the day after the murder; or tried on something or another that would have blown the gaff upon him; but not your softy! He hides the notes, and he hides the waistcoat, and then he laughs in his sleeve at those that want him, and sits drinking his beer as comfortably as you please.”

Pondering thus, the detective made his way to the public-house in which he had left Mr. Stephen Hargraves. He ordered a glass of brandy and water at the bar, and walked into the tap-room, expecting to see the softy still brooding sullenly over his drink, still guarded by the apparently indifferent eye of Mr. Chivers. But it was not so. The tap-room was empty; and, upon making cautious inquiries, Mr. Grimstone ascertained that the softy and his watcher had been gone for upward of an hour.

Mr. Chivers had been forbidden to let his charge out of sight under any circumstances whatever, except, indeed, if the softy had turned homeward while Mr. Grimstone was employed in ransacking his domicile, in which event Tom was to have slipped on a few paces before him, and given warning to his chief. Wherever Stephen Hargraves went, Mr. Thomas Chivers was to follow him; but he was, above all, to act in such a manner as would effectually prevent any suspicion arising in the softy’s mind as to the fact that he was followed.

It will be seen, therefore, that poor Chivers had no very easy task to perform, and it has been seen that he had heretofore contrived to perform it pretty skilfully. If Stephen Hargraves sat boozing in a tap-room half the day, Mr. Chivers was also to booze, or to make a pretence of boozing, for the same length of time. If the softy showed a disposition to be social, and gave his companion any opportunity of getting friendly with him, the detective’s underling was to employ his utmost skill and discretion in availing himself of that golden chance. It is a wondrous provision of Providence that the treachery which would be hateful and horrible in any other man, is considered perfectly legitimate in the man who is employed to hunt out a murderer or a thief. The vile instruments which the criminal employed against his unsuspecting victim are in due time used against himself; and the wretch who laughed at the poor unsuspecting dupe who was trapped to his destruction by his lies, is caught in his turn by some shallow deceit or pitifully-hackneyed device of the paid spy, who has been bribed to lure him to his doom. For the outlaw of society, the code of honor is null and void. His existence is a perpetual peril to innocent women and honorable men; and the detective who beguiles him to his end does such a service to society as must doubtless counterbalance the treachery of the means by which it is done. The days of Jonathan Wild and his compeers are over, and the thief-taker no longer begins life as a thief. The detective officer is as honest as he is intrepid and astute, and it is not his own fault if the dirty nature of all crime gives him now and then dirty work to do.

But Mr. Stephen Hargraves did not give the opportunity for which Tom Chivers had been bidden to lie in wait; he sat sullen, silent, stupid, unapproachable; and as Tom’s orders were not to force himself upon his companion, he was fain to abandon all thought of worming himself into the softy’s good graces. This made the task of watching him all the more difficult. It is not such a very easy matter to follow a man without seeming to follow him.

It was market-day too, and the town was crowded with noisy country people. Mr. Grimstone suddenly remembered this, and the recollection by no means added to his peace of mind.

“Chivers never did sell me,” he thought, “and surely he won’t do it now. I dare say they’re safe enough, for the matter of that, in some other public. I’ll slip out and look after them.”

Mr. Grimstone had, as I have said, already made himself acquainted with all the haunts affected by the softy. It did not take him long, therefore, to look in at the three or four public-houses where Steeve Hargraves was likely to be found, and to discover that he was not there.

“He’s slouching about the town somewhere or other, I dare say,” thought the detective, “with my mate close upon his heels. I’ll stroll toward the market-place, and see if I can find them anywhere that way.”

Mr. Grimstone turned out of the by-street in which he had been walking into a narrow alley leading to the broad open square upon which the market-place stands.

The detective went his way in a leisurely manner, with his hands in his pockets and a cigar in his mouth. He had perfect confidence in Mr. Thomas Chivers, and the crowded state of the market-place and its neighborhood in no way weakened his sense of security.

“Chivers will stick to him through thick and thin,” he thought; “he’d keep an eye upon his man if he had to look after him between Charing Cross and Whitehall when the queen was going to open Parliament. He’s not the man to be flummaxed by a crowd in a country market-place.”

Serene in this sense of security, Mr. Grimstone amused himself by looking about him, with an expression of somewhat supercilious wonder, at the manners and customs of those indigenæ who, upon market-day, make their inroad into the quiet town. He paused upon the edge of a little sunken flight of worn steps leading down to the stage-door of the theatre, and read the fragments of old bills mouldering upon the door-posts and lintel. There were glowing announcements of dramatic performances that had long ago taken place; and, above the rain and mud-stained relics of the past, in bold black lettering, appeared the record of a drama as terrible as any that had ever been enacted in that provincial theatre. The bill-sticker had posted the announcement of the reward offered by John Mellish for the discovery of the murderer in every available spot, and had not forgotten this position, which commanded one of the entrances to the market-place.

“It’s a wonder to me,” muttered Mr. Grimstone, “that that blessed bill should n’t have opened the eyes of these Doncaster noodles. But I dare say they think it’s a blind; a planned thing to throw ’em off the scent their clever noses are sticking to so determined. If I can get my man before they open their eyes, I shall have such a haul as I have n’t met with lately.”

Musing thus pleasantly, Mr. Grimstone turned his back upon the theatre, and crossed over to the market. Within the building the clamor of buying and selling was at its height: noisy countrymen chaffering in their northern patois upon the value and merits of poultry, butter, and eggs; dealers in butchers’ meat bewildering themselves in the endeavor to simultaneously satisfy the demands of half a dozen sharp and bargain-loving housekeepers; while from without there came a confused clatter of other merchants and other customers, clamoring and hustling round the stalls of green grocers, and the slimy barrows of blue-jacketed fishmongers. In the midst of all this bustle and confusion, Mr. Grimstone came suddenly upon his trusted ally, pale, terror-stricken, and — ALONE!

The detective’s mind was not slow to grasp the full force of the situation.

“You’ve lost him!” he whispered fiercely, seizing the unfortunate Mr. Chivers by the collar, and pinning him as securely as if he had serious thoughts of making him a permanent fixture upon the stone flags of the market-place. “You’ve lost him, Tom Chivers!” he continued, hoarse with agitation. “You’ve lost the party that I told you was worth more to me than any other party I ever gave you the office for. You’ve lost me the best chance I’ve ever had since I’ve been in Scotland Yard, and yourself too; for I should have acted liberal by you,” added the detective, apparently oblivious of that morning’s reverie, in which he had predetermined offering his assistant ten pounds, in satisfaction of all his claims —“I should have acted liberal by you, Tom. But what’s the use of standing jawing here? You come along with me; you can tell me how it happened as we go.”

With his powerful grasp still on the underling’s collar, Mr. Grimstone walked out of the market-place, neither looking to the right nor the left, though many a pair of rustic eyes opened to their widest as he passed, attracted no doubt by the rapidity of his pace and the obvious determination of his manner. Perhaps those rustic by-standers thought that the stern-looking gentleman in the black frockcoat had arrested the shabby little man in the act of picking his pocket, and was bearing him off to deliver him straight into the hands of justice.

Mr. Grimstone released his grasp when he and his companion had got clear of the market-place.

“Now,” he said, breathless, but not slackening his pace, “now I suppose you can tell me how you come to make such an”— inadmissible adjective —“fool of yourself? Never you mind where I’m goin’. I’m goin’ to the railway station. Never you mind why I’m goin’ there. You’d guess why if you were n’t a fool. Now tell me all about it, can’t you?”

“It a’n’t much to tell,” the humble follower gasped, his respiratory functions sadly tried by the pace at which his superior went over the ground. “It a’n’t much. I followed your instructions faithful. I tried, artful and quiet-like, to make acquaintance with him, but that warn’t a bit of good. He was as surly as a bull-terrier, so I did n’t force him to it, but kept an eye upon him, and let out before him as it was racin’ business as had brought me to Doncaster, and as I was here to look after a horse, what was in trainin’ a few miles off, for a gent in London; and when he left the public I went after him, but not conspikiwous. But I think from that minute he was fly, for he did n’t go three steps without lookin’ back, and he led me such a chase as made my legs tremble under me, which they trembles at this moment; and then he gets me into the market-place, and he dodges here, and he dodges there, and wherever the crowd’s thickest he dodges most, till he gets me at last in among a ring of market-people round a couple a coves a millin’ with each other, and there I loses him. And I’ve been in and out the market, and here and there, until I’m fit to drop, but it a’n’t no good; and you’ve no call to lay the blame on me, for mortal man could n’t have done more.”

Mr. Chivers wiped the perspiration from his face in testimony of his exertions. Dirty little streams were rolling down his forehead and trickling upon his poor faded cheeks. He mopped up these evidences of his fatigue with a red cotton handkerchief, and gave a deprecatory sigh.

“If there’s anybody to lay blame on, it a’n’t me,” he said, mildly. “I said all along you ought to have had help. A man as is on his own ground, and knows his own ground, is more than a match for one cove, however hard he may work.”

The detective turned fiercely upon his meek dependent.

“Who’s blaming you?” he cried, impatiently. “I would n’t cry out before I was hurt, if I were you.”

They had reached the railway station by this time.

“How long is it since you missed him?” asked Mr. Grimstone of the penitent Chivers.

“Three-quarters of a hour, or it may be a hour,” Tom added, doubtfully.

“I dare say it is an hour,” muttered the detective.

He walked straight to one of the chief officials, and asked what trains had left within the last hour.

“Two, both market trains; one eastward, Selby way, the other for Penistone and the intervening stations.”

The detective looked at the time-table, running his thumb-nail along the names of the stations.

“That train will reach Penistone in time to catch the Liverpool train, won’t it?” he asked.

“Just about.”

“What time did it go?”

“The Penistone train?”

“Yes.”

“About half an hour ago — at 2.30.”

The clocks had struck three as Mr. Grimstone made his way to the station.

“Half an hour ago,” muttered the detective. “He’d have had ample time to catch the train after giving Chivers the slip.”

He questioned the guards and porters as to whether any of them had seen a man answering to the description of the softy; a whitefaced, humpbacked fellow, in corduroys and a fustian jacket; and even penetrated into the ticket-clerk’s office to ask the same question.

No; none of them had seen Mr. Stephen Hargraves. Two or three of them recognized him by the detective’s description, and asked if it was one of the stable-men from Mellish Park that the gentleman was inquiring after. Mr. Grimstone rather evaded any direct answer to this question. Secrecy was, as we know, the principle upon which he conducted his affairs.

“He may have contrived to give ’em all the slip,” he said, confidentially, to his faithful but dispirited ally. “He may have got off without any of ’em seeing him. He’s got the money about him, I am all but certain of that, and his game is to get off to Liverpool. His inquiries after the trains yesterday proves that. Now I might telegraph, and have him stopped at Liverpool — supposing him to have given us all the slip, and gone off there — if I like to let others into the game; but I don’t. I’ll play to win or lose; but I’ll play singlehanded. He may try another dodge, and get off Hull way by the canal-boats that the market-people use, and then slip across to Hamborough, or something of that sort; but that a’n’t likely — these fellows always go one way. It seems as if the minute a man has taken another man’s life, or forged his name, or embezzled his money, his ideas gets fixed in one groove, and never can soar higher than Liverpool and the American packet.”

Mr. Chivers listened respectfully to his patron’s communications. He was very well pleased to see the serenity of his employer’s mind gradually returning.

“Now, I’ll tell you what, Tom,” said Mr. Grimstone. “If this chap has given us the slip, why he’s given us the slip, and he’s got a start of us which we shan’t be able to pick up till half-past ten o’clock to-night, when there’s a train that’ll take us to Liverpool. If he has n’t given us the slip, there’s only one way he can leave Doncaster, and that’s by this station; so you stay here patient and quiet, till you see me, or hear from me. If he is in Doncaster, I’m jiggered if I don’t find him.”

With which powerful asseveration Mr. Grimstone walked away, leaving his scout to keep watch for the possible coming of the softy.

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