Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 17

The Trainer’s Messenger.

Mr. James Conyers made himself very much at home at Mellish Park. Poor Langley, the invalid trainer, who was a Yorkshireman, felt himself almost bewildered by the easy insolence of the town-bred trainer. He looked so much too handsome and dashing for his office that the grooms and stable-boys bowed down to him, and paid court to him as they had never done to simple Langley, who had been very often obliged to enforce his commands with a horsewhip or a serviceable leather strap. James Conyers’ handsome face was a capital with which that gentleman knew very well how to trade, and he took the full amount of interest that was to be got for it without compunction. I am sorry to be obliged to confess that this man, who had sat in the artists’ studios and the life academies for Apollo and Antinous, was selfish to the backbone; and, so long as he was well fed, and clothed, and housed, and provided for, cared very little whence the food and clothing came, or who kept the house that sheltered him, or filled the purse which he jingled in his trowsers-pocket. Heaven forbid that I should be called upon for his biography. I only know that he sprang from the mire of the streets, like some male Aphrodite rising from the mud; that he was a blackleg in the gutter at four years of age, and a welsher in the matter of marbles and hardbake before his fifth birthday. Even then he was for ever reaping the advantage of a handsome face; for tender-hearted matrons, who would have been deaf to the cries of a snub-nosed urchin, petted and compassionated the pretty boy.

In his earliest childhood he learned therefore to trade upon his beauty, and to get the most that he could for that merchandise; and he grew up utterly unprincipled, and carried his handsome face out into the world to help him on to fortune. He was extravagant, lazy, luxurious, and selfish; but he had that easy, indifferent grace of manner which passes with shallow observers for good-nature. He would not have gone three paces out of his way to serve his best friend; but he smiled and showed his handsome white teeth with equal liberality to all his acquaintance, and took credit for being a frank, generous-hearted fellow on the strength of that smile. He was skilled in the uses of that gilt gingerbread of generosity which so often passes current for sterling gold. He was dexterous in the handling of those cogged dice which have all the rattle of the honest ivories. A slap on the back, a hearty shake of the hand, often went as far from him as the loan of a sovereign from another man; and Jim Conyers was firmly believed in by the doubtful gentlemen with whom he associated as a good-natured fellow who was nobody’s enemy but his own. He had that superficial Cockney cleverness which is generally called knowledge of the world — knowledge of the worst side of the world — and utter ignorance of all that is noble upon earth, it might perhaps be more justly called; he had matriculated in the streets of London, and graduated on the race-course; he had never read any higher literature than the Sunday papers and the Racing Calendar, but he contrived to make a very little learning go a long way, and was generally spoken of by his employers as a superior young man, considerably above his station.

Mr. Conyers expressed himself very well contented with the rustic lodge which had been chosen for his dwelling-house. He condescendingly looked on while the stable-lads carried the furniture selected for him by the housekeeper from the spare servants’ rooms from the house to the lodge, and assisted in the arrangement of the tiny rustic chambers, limping about in his shirt-sleeves, and showing himself wonderfully handy with a hammer and a pocket full of nails. He sat upon a table and drank beer with such charming affability that the stable-lads were as grateful to him as if he had treated them to that beverage. Indeed, seeing the frank cordiality with which James Conyers smote the lads upon the back, and prayed them to be active with the can, it was almost difficult to remember that he was not the giver of the feast, and that it was Mr. John Mellish who would have to pay the brewer’s bill. What, among all the virtues which adorn this earth, can be more charming than the generosity of upper servants! With what hearty hospitality they pass the bottle! how liberally they throw the seven-shilling gunpowder into the teapot! how unsparingly they spread the twenty-penny fresh butter on the toast! and what a glorious welcome they give to the droppers-in of the servants’ hall! It is scarcely wonderful that the recipients of their bounty forget that it is the master of the household who will be called upon for the expenses of the banquet, and who will look ruefully at the total of the quarter’s housekeeping.

It was not to be supposed that so dashing a fellow as Mr. James Conyers could, in the lodging-house-keeper’s patois, “do for” himself. He required a humble drudge to black his boots, make his bed, boil his kettle, cook his dinner, and keep the two little chambers at the lodge in decent order. Casting about in a reflective mood for a fitting person for this office, his recreant fancy hit upon Steeve Hargraves, the softy. He was sitting upon the sill of an open window in the little parlor of the lodge, smoking a cigar and drinking out of a can of beer, when this idea came into his head. He was so tickled by the notion that he took his cigar from his mouth in order to laugh at his case.

“The man’s a character,” he said, still laughing, “and I’ll have him to wait upon me. He’s been forbid the place, has he? turned out neck and crop because my Lady Highropes horsewhipped him. Never mind that; I’ll give him leave to come back, if it’s only for the fun of the thing.”

He limped out upon the high-road half an hour after this, and went into the village to find Steeve Hargraves. He had little difficulty in doing this, as everybody knew the softy, and a chorus of boys volunteered to fetch him from the house of the doctor, in whose service he did odd jobs, and brought him to Mr. Conyers five minutes afterward, looking very hot and dirty, but as pale of complexion as usual.

Stephen Hargraves agreed very readily to abandon his present occupation, and to wait upon the trainer, in consideration of five shillings a week and his board and lodging; but his countenance fell when he discovered that Mr. Conyers was in the service of John Mellish, and lived on the outskirts of the Park.

“You’re afraid of setting foot upon his estate, are you?” said the trainer, laughing. “Never mind, Steeve, I give you leave to come, and I should like to see the man or woman in that house who’ll interfere with any whim of mine. I give you leave. You understand.”

The softy touched his cap, and tried to look as if he understood; but it was very evident that he did not understand, and it was some time before Mr. Conyers could persuade him that his life would be safe within the gates of Mellish Park; but he was ultimately induced to trust himself at the north lodge, and promised to present himself there in the course of the evening.

Now, Mr. James Conyers had exerted himself as much in order to overcome the cowardly objections of this rustic clown as he could have done if Steeve Hargraves had been the most accomplished body-servant in the three ridings. Perhaps there was some deeper motive than any regard for the man himself in this special preference for the softy; some lurking malice, some petty spite, the key to which was hidden in his own breast. If, while standing smoking in the village street, chaffing the softy for the edification of the lookers-on, and taking so much trouble to secure such an ignorant and brutish esquire — if one shadow of the future, so very near at hand, could have fallen across his path, surely he would have instinctively recoiled from the striking of that ill-omened bargain.

But James Conyers had no superstition; indeed, he was so pleasantly free from that weakness as to be a disbeliever in all things in heaven and on earth, except himself and his own merits; so he hired the softy, for the fun of the thing, as he called it, and walked slowly back to the Park gates to watch for the return of Mr. and Mrs. Mellish, who were expected that afternoon.

The woman at the lodge brought him out a chair, and begged him to rest himself under the portico. He thanked her with a pleasant smile, and sat down among the roses and honeysuckles, and lighted another cigar.

“You’ll find the north lodge dull, I’m thinking, sir,” the woman said, from the open window, where she had reseated herself with her needle-work.

“Well, it is n’t very lively, ma’am, certainly,” answered Mr. Conyers, “but it serves my purpose well enough. The place is lonely enough for a man to be murdered there and nobody be any the wiser; but, as I have nothing to lose, it will answer well enough for me.”

He might, perhaps, have said a good deal more about the place, but at this moment the sound of wheels upon the high-road announced the return of the travellers, and two or three minutes afterward the carriage dashed through the gate, and past Mr. James Conyers.

Whatever power this man might have over Aurora, whatever knowledge of a compromising secret he might have obtained and traded upon, the fearlessness of her nature showed itself now as always, and she never flinched at the sight of him. If he had placed himself in her way on purpose to watch the effect of his presence, he must have been disappointed; for, except that a cold shadow of disdain passed over her face as the carriage drove by him, he might have imagined himself unseen. She looked pale and careworn, and her eyes seemed to have grown larger since her illness; but she held her head as erect as ever, and had still the air of imperial grandeur which constituted one of her chief charms.

“So that is Mr. Mellish,” said Conyers, as the carriage disappeared. “He seems very fond of his wife.”

“Yes, sure; and he is, too. Fond of her! Why, they say there is n’t another such couple in all Yorkshire. And she’s fond of him, too, bless her handsome face! But who would n’t be fond of Master John?”

Mr. Conyers shrugged his shoulders; these patriarchal habits and domestic virtues had no particular charm for him.

“She had plenty of money, had n’t she?” he asked, by way of bringing the conversation into a more rational channel.

“Plenty of money! I should think so. They say her pa gave her fifty thousand pounds down on her wedding-day; not that our master wants money; he’s got enough, and to spare.”

“Ah! to be sure,” answered Mr. Conyers; “that’s always the way of it. The banker gave her fifty thousand, did he? If Miss Floyd had married a poor devil, now, I don’t suppose her father would have given her fifty sixpences.”

“Well, no; if she’d gone against his wishes, I don’t suppose he would. He was here in the spring — a nice, white-haired old gentleman, but failing fast.”

“Failing fast. And Mrs. Mellish will come into a quarter of a million, at his death, I suppose. Good afternoon, ma’am. It’s a queer world.” Mr. Conyers took up his stick, and limped away under the trees, repeating this ejaculation as he went. It was a habit with this gentleman to attribute the good fortune of other people to some eccentricity in the machinery of life, by which he, the only really deserving person in the world, had been deprived of his natural rights. He went through the wood into a meadow where some of the horses under his charge were at grass, and spent upward of an hour lounging about the hedge-rows, sitting on gates, smoking his pipe, and staring at the animals, which seemed about the hardest work he had to do in his capacity of trainer. “It is n’t a very hard life, when all’s said and done,” he thought, as he looked at a group of mares and foals, who, in their eccentric diversions, were performing a species of Sir Roger de Coverly up and down the meadow. “It is n’t a very hard life; for as long as a fellow swears hard and fast at the lads, and gets rid of plenty of oats, he’s right enough. These country gentlemen always judge a man’s merits by the quantity of corn they have to pay for. Feed their horses as fat as pigs, and never enter ’em except among such a set of screws as an active pig could beat, and they’ll swear by you. They’d think more of having a horse win the Margate plate, or the Hampstead Heath sweepstakes, than if he ran a good fourth in the Derby. Bless their innocent hearts! I should think fellows with plenty of money and no brains must have been invented for the good of fellows with plenty of brains and no money; and that’s how we contrive to keep our equilibrium in the universal see-saw.”

Mr. James Conyers, puffing lazy clouds of transparent blue smoke from his lips, and pondering thus, looked as sentimental as if he had been ruminating upon the last three pages of the Bride of Abydos, or the death of Paul Dombey. He had that romantic style of beauty peculiar to dark blue eyes and long black lashes, and he could not wonder what he should have for dinner without a dreamy pensiveness in the purple shadows of those deep blue orbs. He had found the sentimentality of his beauty almost of greater use to him than the beauty itself. It was this sentimentality which always put him at an advantage with his employers. He looked like an exiled prince doing menial service in bitterness of spirit and a turned-down collar. He looked like Lara returned to his own domains to train the horses of a usurper. He looked, in short, like anything but what he was — a selfish, good-for-nothing, lazy scoundrel, who was well up in the useful art of doing the minimum of work, and getting the maximum of wages.

He strolled slowly back to his rustic habitation, where he found the softy waiting for him; the kettle boiling upon a handful of bright fire, and some tea-things laid out upon the little round table. Mr. Conyers looked rather contemptuously at the humble preparations.

“I’ve mashed the tea for ‘ee,” said the softy; “I thought you’d like a coop.”

The trainer shrugged his shoulders.

“I can’t say I am particularly attached to the cat-lap,” he said, laughing; “I’ve had rather too much of it when I’ve been in training — half-and-half, warm tea, and cold-drawn castor-oil. I’ll send you into Doncaster for some spirits to-morrow, my man — or to-night, perhaps,” he added, reflectively, resting his elbow upon the table and his chin in the hollow of his hand.

He sat for some time in this thoughtful attitude, his retainer, Steeve Hargraves, watching him intently all the while, with that half wondering, half admiring stare with which a very ugly creature — a creature so ugly as to know it is ugly — looks at a very handsome one.

At the close of his reverie, Mr. Conyers took out a clumsy silver watch, and sat for a few minutes staring vacantly at the dial.

“Close upon six,” he muttered at last. “What time do they dine at the house, Steeve?”

“Seven o’clock,” answered the softy.

“Seven o’clock. Then you’d have time to run there with a message, or a letter, and catch ’em just as they’re going in to dinner.”

The softy stared aghast at his new master.

“A message or a letter,” he repeated, “for Mr. Mellish?”

“No; for Mrs. Mellish.”

“But I dare n’t,” exclaimed Stephen Hargraves; “I dare n’t go nigh the house, least of all to speak to her. I don’t forget the day she horsewhipped me. I’ve never seen her since, and I don’t want to see her. You think I am a coward, don’t ‘ee?” he said, stopping suddenly, and looking at the trainer, whose handsome lips were curved into a contemptuous smile. “You think I’m a coward, don’t ‘ee, now?” he repeated.

“Well, I do n’t think you are over valiant,” answered Mr. Conyers, “to be afraid of a woman, though she was the veriest devil that ever played fast and loose with a man.”

“Shall I tell you what it is I’m afraid of?” said Steeve Hargraves, hissing the words through his closed teeth in that unpleasant whisper peculiar to him. “It is n’t Mrs. Mellish. It’s myself. It’s this“— he grasped something in the loose pocket of his trowsers as he spoke —“it’s this. I’m afraid to trust myself anigh her, for fear I should spring upon her, and cut her throat from ear to ear. I’ve seen her in my dreams sometimes, with her beautiful white throat laid open, and streaming oceans of blood; but, for all that, she’s always had the broken whip in her hand, and she’s always laughed at me. I’ve had many a dream about her, but I’ve never seen her dead or quiet, and I’ve never seen her without the whip.”

The contemptuous smile died away from the trainer’s lips as Steeve Hargraves made this revelation of his sentiments, and gave place to a darkly thoughtful expression, which overshadowed the whole of his face.

“I’ve no such wonderful love for Mrs. Mellish myself,” he said; “but she might live to be as old as Methuselah for aught I care, if she’d”— he muttered something between his teeth, and walked up the little staircase to his bedroom, whistling a popular tune as he went.

He came down again with a dirty-looking leather desk in his hand, which he flung carelessly on to the table. It was stuffed with crumpled, untidy-looking letters and papers, from among which he had considerable difficulty in selecting a tolerably clean sheet of note-paper.

“You’ll take a letter to Mrs. Mellish, my friend,” he said to Stephen, stooping over the table and writing as he spoke, “and you’ll please to deliver it safely into her own hands. The windows will all be open this sultry weather, and you can watch till you see her in the drawing-room; and when you do, contrive to beckon her out, and give her this.”

He had folded the sheet of paper by this time, and had sealed it carefully in an adhesive envelope.

“There’s no need of any address,” he said, as he handed the letter to Steeve Hargraves; “you know who it’s for, and you won’t give it to anybody else. There, get along with you. She’ll say nothing to you, man, when she sees who the letter comes from.”

The softy looked darkly at his new employer; but Mr. James Conyers rather piqued himself upon a quality which he called determination, but which his traducers designated obstinacy, and he made up his mind that no one but Steeve Hargraves should carry the letter.

“Come,” he said, “no nonsense, Mr. Stephen. Remember this: if I choose to employ you, and if I choose to send you on any errand whatsoever, there’s no one in that house will dare to question my right to do it. Get along with you.”

He pointed as he spoke, with the stem of his pipe, to the Gothic roof and ivied chimneys of the old house gleaming among a mass of foliage. “Get along with you, Mr. Stephen, and bring me an answer to that letter,” he added, lighting his pipe, and seating himself in his favorite attitude upon the windowsill — an attitude which, like everything about him, was a half careless, half defiant protest of his superiority to his position. “You need n’t wait for a written answer. Yes or no will be quite enough, you may tell Mrs. Mellish.”

The softy whispered something half inaudible between his teeth; but he took the letter, and, pulling his shabby rabbit-skin cap over his eyes, walked slowly off in the direction to which Mr. Conyers had pointed, with a half contemptuous action, a few moments before.

“A queer fish,” muttered the trainer, lazily watching the awkward figure of his attendant; “a queer fish; but it’s rather hard if I can’t manage him. I’ve twisted his betters round my little finger before to-day.”

Mr. Conyers forgot that there are some natures which, although inferior in everything else, are strong by reason of their stubbornness, and not to be twisted out of their natural crookedness by any trick of management or skilfulness of handling.

The evening was sunless, but sultry; there was a lowering darkness in the leaden sky, and an unnatural stillness in the atmosphere that prophesied the coming of a storm. The elements were taking breath for the struggle, and lying silently in wait against the wreaking of their fury. It would come by and by, the signal for the outburst, in a long, crackling peal of thunder, that would shake the distant hills and flutter every leaf in the wood.

The trainer looked with an indifferent eye at the ominous aspect of the heavens. “I must go down to the stables, and send some of the boys to get the horses under shelter,” he said; “there’ll be a storm before long.” He took his stick and limped out of the cottage, still smoking; indeed, there were very few hours in the day, and not many during the night, in which Mr. Conyers was unprovided with his pipe or cigar.

Steeve Hargraves walked very slowly along the narrow pathway which led across the Park to the flower-garden and lawn before the house. This north side of the Park was wilder and less well-kept than the rest; but the thick undergrowth swarmed with game, and the young hares flew backward and forward across the pathway, startled by the softy’s shambling tread. while every now and then the partridges rose in pairs from the tangled grass, and skimmed away under the low roof of foliage.

“If I was to meet Mr. Mellish’s keeper here, he’d look at me black enough, I dare say,” muttered the softy, “though I a’n’t after the game. Looking at a pheasant’s high treason in his mind, curse him.”

He put his hands low down in his pockets, as if scarcely able to resist the temptation to wring the neck of a splendid cock-pheasant that was strutting through the high grass, with a proud serenity of manner that implied a knowledge of the game-laws. The trees on the north side of the Park formed a species of leafy wall which screened the lawn, so that, coming from this northern side, the softy emerged at once from the shelter into the smooth grass bordering this lawn, which was separated from the Park by an invisible fence.

As Steeve Hargraves, still sheltered from observation by the trees, approached this place, he saw that his errand was shortened, for Mrs. Mellish was leaning upon a low iron gate, with the dog Bow-wow, the dog that he had beaten, at her side.

He had left the narrow pathway and struck in among the undergrowth, in order to make a shorter cut to the flower-garden, and as he came from under the shelter of the low branches which made a leafy cave about him, he left a long track of parted grass behind him, like the track of the footstep of a tiger, or the trail of a slow, ponderous serpent creeping toward its prey.

Aurora looked up at the sound of the shambling footsteps, and, for the second time since she had beaten him, she encountered the gaze of the softy. She was very pale, almost as pale as her white dress, which was unenlivened by any scrap of color, and which hung about her in loose folds that gave a statuesque grace to her figure. She was dressed with such evident carelessness that every fold of muslin seemed to tell how far away her thoughts had been when that hasty toilet was made. Her black brows contracted as she looked at the softy.

“I thought Mr. Mellish had dismissed you,” she said, “and that you had been forbidden to come here.”

“Yes, ma’am, Muster Mellish did turn me out of the house I’d lived in, man and boy, nigh upon forty year, but I’ve got a new place now, and my new master sent me to you with a letter.”

Watching the effect of his words, the softy saw a leaden change come over the pale face of his listener.

“What new master?” she asked.

Steeve Hargraves lifted his hand and pointed across his shoulder. She watched the slow motion of that clumsy hand, and her eyes seemed to grow larger as she saw the direction to which it pointed.

“Your new master is the trainer, James Conyers, the man who lives at the north lodge?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What does he want with you?” she asked.

“I keep his place in order for him, ma’am, and run errands for him; and I’ve brought a letter.”

“A letter? Ah! yes, give it me.”

The softy handed her the envelope. She took it slowly, without removing her eyes from his face, but watching him with a fixed and earnest look that seemed as if it would have fathomed something beneath the dull red eyes which met hers — a look that betrayed some doubtful terror hidden in her own breast, and a vague desire to penetrate the secrets of his.

She did not look at the letter, but held it half crushed in the hand hanging by her side.

“You can go,” she said.

“I was to wait for an answer.”

The black brows contracted again, and this time a bright gleam of fury kindled in the great black eyes.

“There is no answer,” she said, thrusting the letter into the bosom of her dress, and turning to leave the gate; “there is no answer, and there shall be none till I choose. Tell your master that.”

“It was n’t to be a written answer,” persisted the softy; “it was to be yes or no, that’s all; but I was to be sure and wait for it.”

The half-witted creature saw some feeling of hate and fury in her face beyond her contemptuous hatred of himself, and took a savage pleasure in tormenting her. She struck her foot impatiently upon the grass, and, plucking the letter from her breast, tore open the envelope, and read the few lines it contained. Few as they were, she stood for nearly five minutes with the open letter in her hand, separated from the softy by the iron fence, and lost in thought. The silence was only broken during this pause by an occasional growl from the mastiff, who lifted his heavy lip and showed his feeble teeth for the edification of his old enemy.

She tore the letter into a hundred morsels, and flung it from her before she spoke. “Yes,” she said at last; “tell your master that.”

Steeve Hargraves touched his cap, and went back through the grassy trail he had left, to carry this message to the trainer.

“She hates me bad enough,” he muttered, as he stopped once to look back at the quiet white figure on the lawn, “but she hates him worse.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50