The second dinner-bell rang five minutes after the softy had left Aurora, and Mr. John Mellish came out upon the lawn to look for his wife. He came whistling across the grass, and whisking the roses with his pocket-hand-kerchief in very gayety of heart. He had quite forgotten the anguish of that miserable morning after the receipt of Mr. Pastern’s letter. He had forgotten all but that his Aurora was the loveliest and dearest of women, and that he trusted her with the boundless faith of his big, honest heart. “Why should I doubt such a noble, impetuous creature?” he thought; “does n’t every feeling and every sentiment write itself upon, her lovely, expressive face in characters the veriest fool could read? If I please her, what bright smiles light up in her black eyes! If I vex her — as I do, poor awkward idiot that I am, a hundred times a day — how the two black arches contract over her pretty impertinent nose, while the red lips pout defiance and disdain! Shall I doubt her because she keeps one secret from me, and freely tells me I must for ever remain ignorant of it, when an artful woman would try to set my mind at rest with some shallow fiction invented to deceive me? Heaven bless her! no doubt of her shall ever darken my life again, come what may.”
It was easy for Mr. Mellish to make this mental vow, believing fully that the storm was past, and that lasting fair weather had set in.
“Lolly, darling,” he said, winding his great arm round his wife’s waist, “I thought I had lost you.”
She looked up at him with a sad smile.
“Would it grieve you much, John,” she said, in a low voice, “if you were really to lose me?”
He started as if he had been struck, and looked anxiously at her pale face.
“Would it grieve me, Lolly!” he repeated; “not for long; for the people who came to your funeral would come to mine. But, my darling, my darling, what can have made you ask this question? Are you ill, dearest? You have been looking pale and tired for the last few days, and I have thought nothing of it. What a careless wretch I am!”
“No, no, John,” she said, “I don’t mean that. I know you would grieve dear, if I were to die. But suppose something were to happen which would separate us for ever — something which would compel me to leave this place never to return to it — what then?”
“What then, Lolly?” answered her husband, gravely. “I would rather see your coffin laid in the empty niche beside my mother’s in the vault yonder”— he pointed in the direction of the parish church, which was close to the gates of the Park —“than I would part with you thus. I would rather know you to be dead and happy than I would endure any doubt about your fate. Oh, my darling, why do you speak of these things? I could n’t part with you — I could n’t. I would rather take you in my arms and plunge with you into the pond in the wood; I would rather send a bullet into your heart, and see you lying murdered at my feet.”
“John, John, my dearest and truest,” she said, her face lighting up with a new brightness, like the sudden breaking of the sun through a leaden cloud, “not another word, dear; we will never part. Why should we? There is very little upon this wide earth that money can not buy, and it shall help to buy our happiness. We will never part, darling, never.”
She broke into a joyous laugh as she watched his anxious, half-wondering face.
“Why, you foolish John, how frightened you look!” she said. “Have n’t you discovered yet that I like to torment you now and then with such questions as these, just to see your big blue eyes open to their widest extent? Come, dear; Mrs. Powell will look white thunder at us when we go in, and make some meek conventional reply to our apologies for this delay, to the effect that she does n’t care in the least how long she waits for dinner, and that, on the whole, she would rather never have any dinner at all. Is n’t it strange, John, how that woman hates me?”
“Hates you, dear, when you’re so kind to her!”
“But she hates me for being kind to her, John. If I were to give her my diamond necklace, she’d hate me for having it to give. She hates us because we’re rich, and young, and handsome,” said Aurora, laughing, “and the very opposite of her namby-pamby, pale-faced self.”
It was strange that from this moment Aurora seemed to regain her natural gayety of spirits, and to be what she had been before the receipt of Mr. Pastern’s letter. Whatever dark cloud had hovered over her head since the day upon which that simple epistle had caused such a terrible effect, that threatening shadow seemed to have been suddenly removed. Mrs. Walter Powell was not slow to perceive this change. The eyes of love, clear-sighted though they may be, are dull indeed beside the eyes of hate. Those are never deceived. Aurora had wandered out of the drawing-room, listless and dispirited, to stroll wearily upon the lawn — Mrs. Powell, seated in one of the windows, had watched her every movement, and had seen her in the distance speaking to some one (she had been unable to distinguish the softy from her post of observation)— and this same Aurora returned to the house almost another creature. There was a look of determination about the beautiful mouth (which female critics called too wide), a look not usual to the rosy lips, and a resolute brightness in the eyes, which had some significance surely, Mrs. Powell thought, if she could only have found the key to that hidden meaning. Ever since Aurora’s brief illness the poor woman had been groping for this key — groping in mazy darknesses which baffled her utmost powers of penetration. Who and what was this groom, that Aurora should write to him, as she most decidedly had written? Why was he to express no surprise, and what cause could there be for his expressing any surprise in the simple economy of Mellish Park? The mazy darknesses were more impenetrable than the blackest night, and Mrs. Powell wellnigh gave up all hope of ever finding any clew to the mystery. And now, behold, a new complication had arisen in Aurora’s altered spirits. John Mellish was delighted with this alteration. He talked and laughed until the glasses near him vibrated with his noisy mirth. He drank so much sparkling Moselle that his butler Jarvis (who had grown gray in the service of the old squire, and had poured out Master John’s first glass of Champagne) refused at last to furnish him with any more of that beverage, offering him in its stead some very expensive Hock, the name of which was in fourteen unpronounceable syllables, and which John tried to like, but did n’t.
“We’ll fill the house with visitors for the shooting-season, Lolly, darling,” said Mr. Mellish. “If they come on the first of September, they’ll all be comfortably settled for the Leger. The dear old dad will come of course, and trot about on his white pony like the best of men and bankers in Christendom. Captain and Mrs. Bulstrode will come too; and we shall see how our little Lucy looks, and whether solemn Talbot beats her in the silence of the matrimonial chamber. Then there’s Hunter, and a host of fellows; and you must write me a list of any nice people you’d like to ask down here, and we’ll have a glorious autumn — won’t we, Lolly?”
“I hope so, dear,” said Mrs. Mellish, after a little pause, and a repetition of John’s eager question. She had not been listening very attentively to John’s plans for the future, and she startled him rather by asking him a question very wide from the subject upon which he had been speaking.
“How long do the fastest vessels take going to Australia, John?” she asked, quietly.
Mr. Mellish stopped with his glass in his hand to stare at his wife as she asked this question.
“How long do the fastest vessels take to go to Australia?” he repeated. “Good gracious me, Lolly, how should I know? Three weeks or a month — no, I mean three months; but, in mercy’s name, Aurora, why do you want to know?”
“The average length of the voyage is, I believe, about three months; but some fast-sailing packets do it in seventy, or even in sixty-eight days,” interposed Mrs. Powell, looking sharply at Aurora’s abstracted face from under cover of her white eyelashes.
“But why, in goodness name, do you want to know, Lolly?” repeated John Mellish. “You don’t want to go to Australia, and you don’t know anybody who’s going to Australia?”
“Perhaps Mrs. Mellish is interested in the Female Emigration movement,” suggested Mrs. Powell: “it is a most delightful work.”
Aurora replied neither to the direct nor the indirect question. The cloth had been removed (for no modern customs had ever disturbed the conservative economy of Mellish Park), and Mrs. Mellish sat, with a cluster of pale cherries in her hand, looking at the reflection of her own face in the depths of the shining mahogany.
“Lolly!” exclaimed John Mellish, after watching his wife for some minutes, “you are as grave as a judge. What can you be thinking of?”
She looked up at him with a bright smile, and rose to leave the dining-room.
“I’ll tell you one of these days, John,” she said. “Are you coming with us, or are you going out upon the lawn to smoke?”
“If you’ll come with me, dear,” he answered, returning her smile with a frank glance of unchangeable affection, which always beamed in his eyes when they rested on his wife. “I’ll go out and smoke a cigar if you’ll come with me, Lolly.”
“You foolish old Yorkshireman,” said Mrs. Mellish, laughing, “I verily believe you’d like me to smoke one of your choice Manillas, by way of keeping you company.”
“No, darling, I’d never wish to see you do anything that did n’t square — that was n’t compatible,” interposed Mr. Mellish gravely, “with the manners of the noblest lady, and the duties of the truest wife in England. If I love to see you ride across country with a red feather in your hat, it is because I think that the good old sport of English gentlemen was meant to be shared by their wives rather than by people whom I would not like to name, and because there is a fair chance that the sight of your Spanish hat and scarlet plume at the meet may go some way toward keeping Miss Wilhelmina de Lancy (who was born plain Scroggins, and christened Sarah) out of the field. I think our British wives and mothers might have the battle in their own hands, and win the victory for themselves and their daughters, if they were a little braver in standing to their ground — if they were not quite so tenderly indulgent to the sins of eligible young noblemen, and, in their estimate of a man’s qualifications for the marriage state, were not so entirely guided by the figures in his banker’s book. It’s a sad world, Lolly, but John Mellish, of Mellish Park, was never meant to set it right.”
Mr. Mellish stood on the threshold of a glass door which opened to a flight of steps leading to the lawn as he delivered himself of this homily, the gravity of which was quite at variance with the usual tenor of his discourse. He had a cigar in his hand, and was going to light it, when Aurora stopped him.
“John, dear,” she said, “my most unbusiness-like of darlings, have you forgotten that poor Langley is so anxious to see you, that he may give up your old accounts before the new trainer takes the stable business into his hands? He was here half an hour before dinner, and begged that you would see him to-night.”
Mr. Mellish shrugged his shoulders.
“Langley’s as honest a fellow as ever breathed,” he said. “I don’t want to look into his accounts. I know what the stable costs me yearly on an average, and that’s enough.”
“But for his satisfaction, dear.”
“Well, well, Lolly, to-morrow morning, then.”
“No, dear, I want you to ride out with me to-morrow.”
“‘You meet the captains at the Citadel,’” said Aurora, laughing; “that is to say, you dine at Holmbush with Colonel Pevensey. Come, darling, I insist on your being business-like for once in a way; come to your sanctum sanctorum, and we’ll send for Langley, and look into the accounts.”
The pretty tyrant linked her arm in his, and led him to the other end of the house, and into the very room in which she had swooned away at the hearing of Mr. Pastern’s letter. She looked thoughtfully out at the dull evening sky as she closed the windows. The storm had not yet come, but the ominous clouds still brooded low over the earth, and the sultry atmosphere was heavy and airless. Mrs. Mellish made a wonderful show of her business habits, and appeared to be very much interested in the mass of corn-chandlers’, veterinary surgeons’, saddlers’, and harness-makers’ accounts with which the old trainer respectfully bewildered his master. But about ten minutes after John had settled himself to his weary labor Aurora threw down the pencil with which she had been working a calculation (by a process of so wildly original a nature as to utterly revolutionize Cocker, and annihilate the hackneyed notion that twice two are four), and floated lightly out of the room, with some vague promise of coming back presently, leaving Mr. Mellish to arithmetic and despair.
Mrs. Walter Powell was seated in the drawing-room reading when Aurora entered the apartment with a large black lace shawl wrapped about her head and shoulders. Mrs. Mellish had evidently expected to find the room empty, for she started and drew back at the sight of the pale-faced widow, who was seated in a distant window, making the most of the last faint rays of summer twilight. Aurora paused for a moment a few paces within the door, and then walked deliberately across the room toward the farthest window from that at which Mrs. Powell was seated.
“Are you going out in the garden this dull evening, Mrs. Mellish?” asked the ensign’s widow.
Aurora stopped half way between the window and the door to answer her.
“Yes,” she said coldly.
“Allow me to advise you not to go far. We are going to have a storm.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What, my dear Mrs. Mellish, not with that thunder-cloud yonder?”
“I will take my chance of being caught in it, then. The weather has been threatening all the afternoon. The house is insupportable to-night.”
“But you will not surely go far?”
Mrs. Mellish did not appear to overhear this remonstrance. She hurried through the open window, and out upon the lawn, striking northward toward that little iron gate across which she had talked to the softy.
The arch of the leaden sky seemed to contract above the tree-tops in the Park, shutting in the earth as if with a roof of hot iron, after the fashion of those cunningly contrived metal torture-chambers which we read of; but the rain had not yet come.
“What can take her into the garden on such an evening as this?” thought Mrs. Powell, as she watched the white dress receding in the dusky twilight. “It will be dark in ten minutes, and she is not usually so fond of going out alone.”
The ensign’s widow laid down the book in which she had appeared so deeply interested, and went to her own room, where she selected a comfortable gray cloak from a heap of primly-folded garments in her capacious wardrobe. She muffled herself in this cloak, hurried down stairs with a soft but rapid step, and went out into the garden through a little lobby near John Mellish’s room. The blinds in the little sanctum were not drawn down, and Mrs. Powell could see the master of the house bending over his paper under the light of a reading-lamp, with the rheumatic trainer sitting by his side. It was by this time quite dark, but Aurora’s white dress was faintly visible upon the other side of the lawn.
Mrs. Mellish was standing beside the little iron gate when the ensign’s widow emerged from the house. The white dress was motionless for some time, and the pale watcher, lurking under the shade of a long veranda, began to think that her trouble was wasted, and that perhaps, after all, Aurora had no special purpose in this evening ramble.
Mrs. Walter Powell felt cruelly disappointed. Always on the watch for some clew to the secret whose existence she had discovered, she had fondly hoped that even this unseasonable ramble might be some link in the mysterious chain she was so anxious to fit together. But it appeared that she was mistaken. The unseasonable ramble was very likely nothing more than one of Aurora’s caprices — a womanly foolishness signifying nothing.
No! The white dress was no longer motionless, and in the unnatural stillness of the hot night Mrs. Powell heard the distant, scrooping noise of a hinge revolving slowly, as if guided by a cautious hand. Mrs. Mellish had opened the iron gate, and had passed to the other side of the invisible barrier which separated the gardens from the Park. In another moment she had disappeared under the shadow of the trees which made a belt about the lawn.
Mrs. Powell paused, almost terrified by her unlooked-for discovery.
What, in the name of all that was darkly mysterious, could Mrs. Mellish have to do between nine and ten o’clock on the north side of the Park — the wildly-kept, deserted north side, in which, from year’s end to year’s end, no one but the keepers ever walked.
The blood rushed hotly up to Mrs. Powell’s pale face as she suddenly remembered that the disused, dilapidated lodge upon this north side had been given to the new trainer as a residence. Remembering this was nothing, but remembering this in connection with that mysterious letter signed “A” was enough to send a thrill of savage, horrible joy through the dull veins of the dependent. What should she do? Follow Mrs. Mellish, and discover where she was going? How far would this be a safe thing to attempt?
She turned back and looked once more through the windows of John’s room. He was still bending over the papers, still in an apparently hopeless confusion of mind. There seemed little chance of his business being finished very quickly. The starless night and her dark dress alike sheltered the spy from observation.
“If I were close behind her, she would never see me,” she thought.
She struck across the lawn to the iron gate, and passed into the Park. The brambles and the tangled undergrowth caught at her dress as she paused for a moment looking about her in the summer night.
There was no trace of Aurora’s white figure among the leafy alleys stretching in wild disorder before her.
“I’ll not attempt to find the path she took,” thought Mrs. Powell; “I know where to find her.”
She groped her way into the narrow footpath leading to the lodge. She was not sufficiently familiar with the place to take the short cut which the softy had made for himself through the grass that afternoon, and she was some time walking from the iron gate to the lodge.
The front windows of this rustic lodge faced the road and the disused north gates; the back of the building looked toward the path down which Mrs. Powell went, and the two small windows in this back wall were both dark.
The ensign’s widow crept softly round to the front, looked about her cautiously, and listened. There was no sound but the occasional rustle of a leaf, tremulous even in the still atmosphere, as if by some internal prescience of the coming storm. With a slow, careful footstep, she stole toward the little rustic window, and looked into the room within.
She had not been mistaken when she had said that she knew where to find Aurora.
Mrs. Mellish was standing with her back to the window. Exactly opposite to her sat James Conyers, the trainer, in an easy attitude, and with his pipe in his mouth. The little table was between them, and the one candle which lighted the room was drawn close to Mr. Conyers’ elbow, and had evidently been used by him for the lighting of his pipe. Aurora was speaking. The eager listener could hear her voice, but not her words; and she could see by the trainer’s face that he was listening intently. He was listening intently; but a dark frown contracted his handsome eyebrows, and it was very evident that he was not too well satisfied with the bent of the conversation.
He looked up when Aurora ceased speaking, shrugged his shoulders, and took his pipe out of his mouth. Mrs. Powell, with her pale face close against the window-pane, watched him intently.
He pointed with a careless gesture to an empty chair near Aurora, but she shook her head contemptuously, and suddenly turned toward the window; so suddenly that Mrs. Powell had scarcely time to recoil into the darkness before Aurora had unfastened the iron latch and flung the narrow casement open.
“I can not endure this intolerable heat,” she exclaimed, impatiently; “I have said all I have to say, and need only wait for your answer.”
“You don’t give me much time for consideration,” he said, with an insolent coolness which was in strange contrast to the restless vehemence of her manner. “What sort of answer do you want?”
“Yes or no.”
“No, nothing more. You know my conditions; they are all written here,” she added, putting her hand upon an open paper which lay upon the table; “they are all written clearly enough for a child to understand. Will you accept them? Yes or no?”
“That depends upon circumstances,” he answered, filling his pipe, and looking admiringly at the nail of his little finger as he pressed the tobacco into the bowl.
“Upon what circumstances?”
“Upon the inducement which you offer, my dear Mrs. Mellish.”
“You mean the price?”
“That’s a low expression,” he said, laughing; “but I suppose we both mean the same thing. The inducement must be a strong one which will make me do all that”— he pointed to the written paper —“and it must take the form of solid cash. How much is it to be?”
“That is for you to say. Remember what I have told you. Decline to-night, and I telegraph to my father to-morrow morning, telling him to alter his will.”
“Suppose the old gentleman should be carried off in the interim, and leave that pleasant sheet of parchment standing as it is. I hear that he’s old and feeble; it might be worth while calculating the odds upon such an event. I’ve risked my money on a worst chance before to-night.”
She turned upon him with so dark a frown as he said this that the insolently heartless words died upon his lips, and left him looking at her gravely.
“Egad,” he said, “you’re as great a devil as ever you were. I doubt if that is n’t a good offer after all. Give me ten thousand down, and I’ll take it.”
“Ten thousand pounds!”
“I ought to have said twenty, but I’ve always stood in my own light.”
Mrs. Powell, crouching down beneath the open casement, had heard every word of this brief dialogue; but at this juncture, half-forgetful of all danger in her eagerness to listen, she raised her head until it was nearly on a level with the window-sill. As she did so, she recoiled with a sudden thrill of terror. She felt a puff of hot breath upon her cheek, and the garments of a man rustling against her own.
She was not the only listener.
The second spy was Stephen Hargraves, the softy.
“Hush!” he whispered, grasping Mrs. Powell by the wrist, and pinning her in her crouching attitude by the muscular force of his horny hand; “it’s only me, Steeve the Softy, you know; the stable-helper that she“ (he hissed out the personal pronoun with such a furious impetus that it seemed to whistle sharply through the stillness)—“the fondy that she horsewhipped. I know you, and I know you’re here to listen. He sent me into Doncaster to fetch this” (he pointed to a bottle under his arm); “he thought it would take me four or five hours to go and get back; but I ran all the way, for I knew there was summat oop.”
He wiped his streaming face with the ends of his coarse neckerchief as he finished speaking. His breath came in panting gasps, and Mrs. Powell could hear the laborious beating of his heart in the stillness.
“I won’t tell o’ you,” he said, “and you won’t tell o’ me. I’ve got the stripes upon my shoulder where she cut me with the whip to this day; I look at ‘m sometimes, and they help to keep me in mind. She’s a fine madam, a’n’t she, and a great lady too? Ay, sure she is; but she comes to meet her husband’s servant on the sly, after dark, for all that. Maybe the day is n’t far off when she’ll be turned away from these gates, and warned off this ground, and the merciful Lord send that I live to see it. Hush!”
With her wrist still pinioned in his strong grasp, he motioned her to be silent, and bent his pale face forward, every feature rigid in the listening expectancy of his hungry gaze.
“Listen,” he whispered; “listen! Every fresh word damns her deeper than the last.”
The trainer was the first to speak after this pause in the dialogue within the cottage. He had quietly smoked out his pipe, and had emptied the ashes of his tobacco upon the table before he took up the thread of the conversation at the point at which he had dropped it.
“Ten thousand pounds,” he said; “that is the offer, and I think it ought to be taken freely. Ten thousand down, in Bank of England notes (fives and tens; higher figures might be awkward), or sterling coin of the realm. You understand; ten thousand down. That’s my alternative; or I leave this place to-morrow morning, with all belonging to me.”
“By which course you would get nothing,” said Mrs. John Mellish, quietly.
“Should n’t I? What does the chap in the play get for his trouble when the blackamoor smothers his wife? I should get nothing — but my revenge upon a tiger-cat whose claws have left a mark upon me that I shall carry to my grave.” He lifted his hair with a careless gesture of his hand, and pointed to a scar upon his forehead — a white mark, barely visible in the dim light of the tallow-candle. “I’m a good-natured, easy-going fellow, Mrs. John Mellish, but I don’t forget. Is it to be the ten thousand pounds, or war to the knife?”
Mrs. Powell waited eagerly for Aurora’s answer; but before it came a round, heavy rain-drop pattered upon the light hair of the ensign’s widow. The hood of her cloak had fallen back, leaving her head uncovered. This one large drop was the warning of the coming storm. The signal peal of thunder rumbled slowly and hoarsely in the distance, and a pale flash of lightning trembled upon the white faces of the two listeners.
“Let me go,” whispered Mrs. Powell, “let me go; I must get back to the house before the rain begins.”
The softy slowly relaxed his iron grip upon her wrist. He had held it unconsciously in his utter abstraction to all things except the two speakers in the cottage.
Mrs. Powell rose from her knees, and crept noiselessly away from the lodge. She remembered the vital necessity of getting back to the house before Aurora, and of avoiding the shower. Her wet garments would betray her if she did not succeed in escaping the coming storm. She was of spare, wizen figure, encumbered with no superfluous flesh, and she ran rapidly along the narrow sheltered pathway leading to the iron gate through which she had followed Aurora.
The heavy rain-drops fell at long intervals upon the leaves. A second and a third peal of thunder rattled along the earth like the horrible roar of some hungry animal creeping nearer and nearer to its prey. Blue flashes of faint lightning lit up the tangled intricacies of the wood, but the fullest fury of the storm had not yet burst forth.
The rain-drops came at shorter intervals as Mrs. Powell passed out of the wood, through the little iron gate; faster still as she hurried across the lawn; faster yet as she reached the lobby-door, which she had left ajar an hour before, and sat down panting upon a little bench within, to recover her breath before she went any farther. She was still sitting on this bench, when the fourth peal of thunder shook the low roof above her head, and the rain dropped from the starless sky with such a rushing impetus that it seemed as if a huge trap-door had been opened in the heavens, and a celestial ocean let down to flood the earth.
“I think my lady will be nicely caught,” muttered Mrs. Walter Powell.
She threw her cloak aside upon the lobby-bench, and went through a passage leading to the hall. One of the servants was shutting the hall-door.
“Have you shut the drawing-room windows, Wilson?” she asked.
“No, ma’am; I am afraid Mrs. Mellish is out in the rain. Jarvis is getting ready to go and look for her, with a lantern and the gig-umbrella.”
“Then Jarvis can stop where he is; Mrs. Mellish came in half an hour ago. You may shut all the windows, and close the house for the night.”
“By the by, what o’clock is it, Wilson? My watch is slow.”
“A quarter past ten, ma’am, by the dining-room clock.”
The man locked the hall-door, and put up an immense iron bar, which worked with some rather complicated machinery, and had a bell hanging at one end of it, for the frustration of all burglarious and designing ruffians.
From the hall the man went to the drawing-room, where he carefully fastened the long range of windows; from the drawing-room to the lobby; and from the lobby to the dining-room, where he locked the half-glass door opening into the garden. This being done, all communication between the house and the garden was securely cut off.
“He shall know of her goings on, at any rate,” thought Mrs. Powell, as she dogged the footsteps of the servant to see that he did his work. The Mellish household did not take very kindly to this deputy mistress; and when the footman went back to the servants’ hall, he informed his colleagues that SHE was pryin’ and pokin’ about sharper than hever, and watchin’ of a feller like a hold ’ouse-cat. Mr. Wilson was a Cockney, and had been newly imported into the establishment.
When the ensign’s widow had seen the last bolt driven home to its socket, and the last key turned in its lock, she went back to the drawing-room and seated herself at the lamp-lit table, with some delicate morsel of old-maidish fancy-work, which seemed to be the converse of Penelope’s embroidery, as it appeared to advance at night and retrograde by day. She had hastily smoothed her hair and rearranged her dress, and she looked as uncomfortably neat as when she came down to breakfast in the fresh primness of her matutinal toilette.
She had been sitting at her work for about ten minutes when John Mellish entered the room, emerging weary but triumphant from his struggle with the simple rules of multiplication and substraction. Mr. Mellish had evidently suffered severely in the contest. His thick brown hair was tumbled into a rough mass that stood nearly upright upon his head, his cravat was untied, and his shirt collar was thrown open for the relief of his capacious throat; and these and many other marks of the struggle he bore upon him when he entered the drawing-room.
“I’ve broken loose from school at last, Mrs. Powell,” he said, flinging his big frame upon one of the sofas, to the imminent peril of the German spring cushions; “I’ve broken away before the flag dropped, for Langley would have liked to keep me there till midnight. He followed me to the door of this room with fourteen bushels of oats that was down in the corn-chandler’s account and was not down in the book he keeps to check the corn-chandler. Why the doose don’t he put it down in his book and make it right, then, I ask, instead of bothering me? What’s the good of his keeping an account to check the corn-chandler if he don’t make his account the same as the corn-chandler’s? But it’s all over,” he added, with a great sigh of relief, “it’s all over; and all I can say is, I hope the new trainer is n’t honest.”
“Do you know much of the new trainer, Mr. Mellish?” asked Mrs. Powell, blandly, rather as if she wished to amuse her employer by the exertion of her conversational powers than for the gratification of any mundane curiosity.
“Doosed little,” answered John indifferently. “I have n’t even seen the fellow yet; but John Pastern recommended him, and he’s sure to be all right; besides, Aurora knows the man; he was in her father’s service once.”
“Oh, indeed!” said Mrs. Powell, giving the two insignificant words a significant little jerk; “oh, indeed! Mrs. Mellish knows him, does she? Then of course he is a trustworthy person. He’s a remarkably handsome young man.”
“Remarkably handsome, is he?” said Mr. Mellish, with a careless laugh. “Then I suppose all the maids will be falling in love with him, and neglecting their work to look out of the windows that open on to the stable-yard, hey? That’s the sort of thing when a man has a handsome groom, a’n’t it? Susan and Sarah, and all the rest of ’em, take to cleaning the windows, and wearing new ribbons in their caps?”
“I don’t know anything about that, Mr. Mellish,” answered the ensign’s widow, simpering over her work as if the question they were discussing was so very far away that it was impossible for her to be serious about it; “but my experience has thrown me into a very large number of families.” (She said this with perfect truth, as she had occupied so many situations that her enemies had come to declare she was unable to remain in any one household above a twelvemonth, by reason of her employer’s discovery of her real nature.) “I have occupied positions of trust and confidence,” continued Mrs. Powell, “and I regret to say that I have seen much domestic misery arise from the employment of handsome servants, whose appearance and manners are superior to their station. Mr. Conyers is not at all the sort of person I should like to see in a household in which I had the charge of young ladies.”
A sick, half-shuddering faintness crept through John’s herculean frame as Mrs. Powell expressed herself thus; so vague a feeling that he scarcely knew whether it was mental or physical, any better than he knew what it was that he disliked in this speech of the ensign’s widow. The feeling was as transient as it was vague. John’s honest blue eyes looked wonderingly round the room.
“Where’s Aurora?” he said; “gone to bed?”
“I believe Mrs. Mellish has retired to rest,” Mrs. Powell answered.
“Then I shall go too. The place is as dull as a dungeon without her,” said Mr. Mellish, with agreeable candor. “Perhaps you’ll be good enough to make me a glass of brandy and water before I go, Mrs. Powell, for I’ve got the cold shivers after those accounts.”
He rose to ring the bell; but, before he had gone three paces from the sofa, an impatient knocking at the closed outer shutters of one of the windows arrested his footsteps.
“Who, in mercy’s name, is that?” he exclaimed, staring at the direction from which the noise came, but not attempting to respond to the summons.
Mrs. Powell looked up to listen, with a face expressive of nothing but innocent wonder.
The knocking was repeated more loudly and impatiently than before.
“It must be one of the servants,” muttered John; “but why does n’t he go round to the back of the house? I can’t keep the poor devil out upon such a night as this, though,” he added, good-naturedly, unfastening the window as he spoke. The sashes opened inward, the Venetian shutters outward. He pushed these shutters open, and looked out into the darkness and the rain.
Aurora, shivering in her drenched garments, stood a few paces from him, with the rain beating down straight and heavily upon her head.
Even in that obscurity her husband recognized her.
“My darling,” he cried, “is it you? You out at such a time, and on such a night! Come in, for mercy’s sake; you must be drenched to the skin.”
She came into the room; the wet hanging in her muslin dress streamed out upon the carpet on which she trod, and the folds of her lace shawl clung tightly about her figure.
“Why did you let them shut the windows?” she said, turning to Mrs. Powell, who had risen, and was looking the picture of lady-like uneasiness and sympathy. “You knew that I was in the garden.”
“Yes, but I thought you had returned, my dear Mrs. Mellish,” said the ensign’s widow, busying herself with Aurora’s wet shawl, which she attempted to remove, but which Mrs. Mellish plucked impatiently away from her. “I saw you go out, certainly, and I saw you leave the lawn in the direction of the north lodge, but I thought you had returned some time since.”
The color faded out of John Mellish’s face.
“The north lodge!” he said. “Have you been to the north lodge?”
“I have been in the direction of the north lodge,“ Aurora answered, with a sneering emphasis upon the words. “Your information is perfectly correct, Mrs. Powell, though I did not know you had done me the honor of watching my actions.”
Mr. Mellish did not appear to hear this. He looked from his wife to his wife’s companion with a half-bewildered expression — an expression of newly-awakened doubt, of dim, struggling perplexity, which was very painful to see.
“The north lodge!” he repeated; “what were you doing at the north lodge, Aurora?”
“Do you wish me to stand here in my wet clothes while I tell you?” asked Mrs. Mellish, her great black eyes blazing up with indignant pride. “If you want an explanation for Mrs. Powell’s satisfaction, I can give it here; if only for your own, it will do as well up stairs.”
She swept toward the door, trailing her wet shawl after her, but not less queenly, even in her dripping garments (Semiramide and Cleopatra may have been out in wet weather); but at the door she paused and looked back at him.
“I shall want you to take me to London to-morrow, Mr. Mellish,” she said. Then, with one haughty toss of her beautiful head, and one bright flash of her glorious eyes, which seemed to say, “Slave, obey and tremble!” she disappeared, leaving Mr. Mellish to follow her, meekly, wonderingly, fearfully, with terrible doubts and anxieties creeping, like venomous living creatures, stealthily into his heart.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05