Mrs. Mellish sat in her husband’s room on the morning of the inquest, among the guns and fishing-rods, the riding-boots and hunting-whips, and all the paraphernalia of sportsmanship. She sat in a capacious wicker-work arm-chair close to the open window, with her head lying back upon the chintz-covered cushions, and her eyes wandering far away across the lawn and flower-beds toward the winding pathway by which it was likely John Mellish would return from the inquest at the Golden Lion.
She had openly defied Mrs. Powell, and had locked the door of this quiet chamber upon that lady’s stereotyped civilities and sympathetic simperings. She had locked the door upon the outer world, and she sat alone in the pleasant window, the full-blown roses showering their scented petals upon her lap with every breath of the summer breeze, and the butterflies hovering about her. The old mastiff sat by her side, with his heavy head lying on her lap, and his big dim eyes lifted to her face. She sat alone, I have said; but Heaven knows she was not companionless. Black care and corroding anxiety kept her faithful company, and would not budge from her side. What companions are so adhesive as trouble and sorrow? what associates so tenacious, what friends so watchful and untiring? This wretched girl stood alone in the centre of a sea of troubles, fearful to stretch out her hands to those who loved her, lest she should drag them into that ocean which was rising to overwhelm her.
“Oh, if I could suffer alone,” she thought —“if I could suffer all this misery alone, I think I would go through it to the last without complaining; but the shame, the degradation, the anguish will come upon others more heavily than upon me. What will they not suffer? what will they not endure if the wicked madness of my youth should become known to the world?”
Those others of whose possible grief and shame she thought with such cruel torture were her father and John Mellish. Her love for her husband had not lessened by one iota her love for that indulgent father on whom the folly of her girlhood had brought such bitter suffering. Her generous heart was wide enough for both. She had acknowledged no “divided duty,” and would have repudiated any encroachment of the new affection upon the old. The great river of her love widened into an ocean, and embraced a new shore with its mighty tide; but that far-away source of childhood, from which affection first sprang in its soft infantine purity, still gushed in crystal beauty from its unsullied spring. She would perhaps scarcely have recognized the coldly-measured affection of mad Lear’s youngest daughter — the affection which could divide itself with mathematical precision between father and husband. Surely, love is too pure a sentiment to be so weighed in the balance. Must we subtract something from the original sum when we are called upon to meet a new demand? or has not affection rather some magic power by which it can double its capital at any moment when there is a run upon the bank? When Mrs. John Anderson becomes the mother of six children, she does not say to her husband, “My dear John, I shall be compelled to rob you of six-tenths of my affection in order to provide for the little ones.” No; the generous heart of the wife grows larger to meet the claims upon the mother, as the girl’s heart expanded with the new affections of the wife. Every pang of grief which Aurora felt for her husband’s misery was doubled by the image of her father’s sorrow. She could not divide these two in her own mind. She loved them, and was sorry for them, with an equal measure of love and sorrow.
“If — if the truth should be discovered at this inquest,” she thought, “I never can see my husband again; I can never look in his face any more. I will run away to the end of the world, and hide myself from him for ever.”
She had tried to capitulate with her fate; she had endeavored to escape the full measure of retribution, and she had failed. She had done evil that good might come of it, in the face of that command which says that all such evil-doing shall be wasted sin, useless iniquity. She had deceived John Mellish, in the hope that the veil of deception might never be rent in twain, that the truth might be undiscovered to the end, and the man she loved spared from cruel shame and grief. But the fruits of that foolish seed, sown long ago, in the day of her disobedience, had grown up around her and hedged her in upon every side, and she had been powerless to cut a pathway for herself through the noxious weeds that her own hands had planted.
She sat with her watch in her hand, and her eyes wandered every now and then from the gardens before her to the figures on the dial. John Mellish had left the house at a little after nine o’clock, and it was now nearly two. He had told her that the inquest would be over in a couple of hours, and that he would hurry home directly it was finished and tell her the result. What would be the result of that inquest? What inquiries might be made? what evidence might, by some unhappy accident, be produced to compromise or to betray her? She sat in a dull stupor, waiting to receive her sentence. What would it be? Condemnation or release? If her secret should escape detection — if James Conyers should be allowed to carry the story of his brief married life to the grave, what relief, what release for the wretched girl, whose worst sin had been to mistake a bad man for a good one — the ignorant trustfulness of a child who is ready to accept any shabby pilgrim for an exiled nobleman or a prince in disguise.
It was half-past two when she was startled by the sound of a shambling footstep upon the gravelled pathway underneath the veranda. The footstep slowly shuffled on for a few paces, then paused, then shuffled on again; and at last a face that she hated made itself visible at the angle of the window opposite to that against which she sat. It was the white face of the softy, which was poked cautiously forward a few inches within the window-frame. The mastiff sprang up with a growl, and made as if he would have flown at that ugly leering face, which looked like one of the hideous decorations of a Gothic building; but Aurora caught the animal’s collar with both her hands, and dragged him back.
“Be quiet, Bow-wow,” she said; “quiet, boy, quiet.”
She still held him with one firm hand, soothing him with the other. “What do you want?” she asked, turning upon the softy with a cold, icy grandeur of disdain, which made her look like Nero’s wife defying her false accusers. “What do you want with me? Your master is dead, and you have no longer an excuse for coming here. You have been forbidden the house and the grounds. If you forget this another time, I shall request Mr. Mellish to remind you.”
She lifted her disengaged hand, and laid it upon the window-sash; she was going to close the window, when Stephen Hargraves stopped her.
“Don’t be in such a hoorry,” he said; “I want to speak to you. I’ve come straight from th’ inquest. I thought you might want to know all about it. I coom out o’ friendliness, though you did pay into me with th’ horsewhip.”
Aurora’s heart beat tempestuously against her aching breast. Ah! what hard duty that poor heart had done lately; what icy burdens it had borne, what horrible oppression of secrecy and terror had weighed upon it, crushing out all hope and peace! An agony of suspense and dread convulsed that tortured heart as the softy tempted her — tempted her to ask him the issue of the inquest, that she might receive from his lips the sentence of life or death. She little knew how much of her secret this man had discovered; but she knew that he hated her, and that he suspected enough to know his power of torturing her.
She lifted her proud head, and looked at him with a steady glance of defiance. “I have told you that your presence is disagreeable,” she said. “Stand aside, and let me shut the window.”
The softy grinned insolently, and, holding the window-frame with one of his broad hands, put his head into the room. Aurora rose to leave the window; but he laid the other hand upon her wrist, which shrunk instinctively from contact with his hard, horny palm.
“I tell you I’ve got summat particklar to say to you,” he whispered. “You shall hear all about it. I was one of th’ witnesses at th’ inquest, and I’ve been hangin’ about ever since, and I know everything.”
Aurora flung her head back disdainfully, and tried to wrench her wrist from that strong grasp.
“Let me go,” she said. “You shall suffer for this insolence when Mr. Mellish returns.”
“But he won’t be back just yet a while,” said the softy, grinning. “He’s gone back to the Golden Loi-on. Th’ coroner and Mr. Lofthouse, th’ parson, sent for him to tell him summat —summat about you!“ hissed Stephen Hargraves, with his dry white lips close to Aurora’s ear.
“What do you mean?” cried Mrs. Mellish, still writhing in the softy’s grasp — still restraining her dog from flying at him with her disengaged hand; “what do you mean?”
“I mean what I say,” answered Steeve Hargraves; “I mean that it’s all found out. They know everything; and they’ve sent for Mr. Mellish, to tell him. They’ve sent for him to tell him what you was to him that’s dead.”
A low wail broke from Aurora’s lips. She had expected to hear this, perhaps; she had, at any rate, dreaded it; she had only fought against receiving the tidings from this man; but he had conquered her — he had conquered her, as the dogged, obstinate nature, however base, will always conquer the generous and impulsive soul. He had secured his revenge, and had contrived to be the witness of her agony. He released her wrist as he finished speaking, and looked at her — looked at her with an insolently triumphant leer in his small eyes.
She drew herself up, proudly still — proudly and bravely in spite of all, but with her face changed — changed from its former expression of restless pain to the dull blankness of despair.
“They found th’ certificate,” said the softy. “He’d carried it about with him sewed up in’s waistco-at.”
The certificate! Heaven have pity upon her girlish ignorance! She had never thought of that; she had never remembered that miserable scrap of paper which was the legal evidence of her folly. She had dreaded the presence of that husband who had arisen, as if from the grave, to pursue and torment her, but she had forgotten that other evidence of the parish register, which might also arise against her at any moment. She had feared the finding of something — some letter — some picture — some accidental record among the possessions of the murdered man, but she had never thought of this most conclusive evidence, this most incontrovertible proof. She put her hand to her head, trying to realize the full horror of her position. The certificate of her marriage with her father’s groom was in the hands of John Mellish.
“What will he think of me?” she thought. “How would he ever believe me if I were to tell him that I had received what I thought positive evidence of James Conyers’ death a year before my second marriage? How could he believe in me? I have deceived him too cruelly to dare to ask his confidence.”
She looked about, trying to collect herself, trying to decide upon what she ought to do, and in her bewilderment and agony forgot for a moment the greedy eyes which were gloating upon her misery. But she remembered herself presently, and, turning sternly upon Stephen Hargraves, spoke to him with a voice which was singularly clear and steady.
“You have told me all that you have to tell,” she said; “be so good as to get out of the way while I shut the window.”
The softy drew back and allowed her to close the sashes; she bolted the window, and drew down the Venetian blind, effectually shutting out her spy, who crept away slowly and reluctantly toward the shrubbery, through which he could make his way safely out of the grounds.
“I’ve paid her out,” he muttered, as he shambled off under the shelter of the young trees; “I’ve paid her out pretty tidy. It’s almost better than money,” he said, laughing silently —“it’s almost better than money to pay off them kind of debts.”
Aurora seated herself at John Mellish’s desk, and wrote a few hurried lines upon a sheet of paper that lay uppermost among letters and bills.
“MY DEAR LOVE,” she wrote, “I can not remain here to see you after the discovery which has been made to-day. I am a miserable coward, and I can not meet your altered looks, I can not hear your altered voice. I have no hope that you can have any other feeling for me than contempt and loathing. But on some future day, when I am far away from you, and the bewilderment of my present misery has grown less, I will write, and explain everything. Think of me mercifully if you can; and if you can believe that, in the wicked concealments of the last few weeks, the mainspring of my conduct has been my love for you, you will only believe the truth. God bless you, my best and truest. The pain of leaving you for ever is less than the pain of knowing that you had ceased to love me. Good-by.”
She lighted a taper, and sealed the envelope which contained this letter.
“The spies who hate and watch me shall not read this,” she thought, as she wrote John’s name upon the envelope.
She left the letter upon the desk, and, rising from her seat, looked round the room — looked with a long, lingering gaze, that dwelt on each familiar object. How happy she had been among all that masculine litter! how happy with the man she had believed to be her husband! how innocently happy before the coming down of that horrible storm-cloud which had overwhelmed them both! She turned away with a shudder.
“I have brought disgrace and misery upon all who have loved me,” she thought. “If I had been less cowardly — if I had told the truth — all this might have been avoided if I had confessed the truth to Talbot Bulstrode.”
She paused at the mention of that name.
“I will go to Talbot,” she thought. “He is a good man. I will go to him; I shall have no shame now in telling him all. He will advise me what to do; he will break this discovery to my poor father.”
Aurora had dimly foreseen this misery when she had spoken to Lucy Bulstrode at Felden; she had dimly foreseen a day in which all would be discovered, and she would fly to Lucy to ask for a shelter.
She looked at her watch.
“A quarter-past three,” she said. “There is an express that leaves Doncaster at five. I could walk the distance in the time.”
She unlocked the door, and ran up stairs to her own rooms. There was no one in the dressing-room, but her maid was in the bedroom, arranging some dresses in a huge wardrobe.
Aurora selected her plainest bonnet and a large gray cloak, and quietly put them on before the cheval glass in one of the pretty French windows. The maid, busy with her own work, did not take any particular notice of her mistress’s actions; for Mrs. Mellish was accustomed to wait upon herself, and disliked any officious attention.
“How pretty the rooms look!” Aurora thought, with a weary sigh; “how simple and countrified! It was for me that the new furniture was chosen, for me that the bath-room and conservatory were built.”
She looked through the vista of brightly-carpeted rooms.
Would they ever seem as cheerful as they had once done to their master? Would he still occupy them, or would he lock the doors, and turn his back upon the old house in which he had lived such an untroubled life for nearly two-and-thirty years?
“My poor boy, my poor boy!” she thought. “Why was I ever born to bring such sorrow upon him?”
There was no egotism in her sorrow for his grief. She knew that he had loved her, and she knew that this parting would be the bitterest agony of his life; but in the depth of mortification which her own womanly pride had undergone, she could not look beyond the present shame of the discovery made that day to a future of happiness and release.
“He will believe that I never loved him,” she thought. “He will believe that he was the dupe of a designing woman, who wished to regain the position she had lost. What will he not think of me that is base and horrible?”
The face which she saw in the glass was very pale and rigid; the large dark eyes dry and lustrous, the lips drawn tightly down over the white teeth.
“I look like a woman who could cut her throat in such a crisis as this,” she said. “How often I have wondered at the desperate deeds done by women! I shall never wonder again.”
She unlocked her dressing-case, and took a couple of bank-notes and some loose gold from one of the drawers. She put these in her purse, gathered her cloak about her, and walked toward the door.
She paused on the threshold to speak to her maid, who was still busy in the inner room.
“I am going into the garden, Parsons,” she said; “tell Mr. Mellish that there is a letter for him in his study.”
The room in which John kept his boots and racing-accounts was called a “study” by the respectful household.
The dog Bow-wow lifted himself lazily from his tiger-skin rug as Aurora crossed the hall, and came sniffing about her, and endeavored to follow her out of the house. But she ordered him back to his rug, and the submissive animal obeyed her, as he had often done in his youth, when his young mistress used to throw her doll into the water at Felden, and send the faithful mastiff to rescue that fair-haired waxen favorite. He obeyed her now, but a little reluctantly; and he watched her suspiciously as she descended the flight of steps before the door.
She walked at a rapid pace across the lawn, and into the shrubbery, going steadily southward, though by that means she made her journey longer; for the north lodge lay toward Doncaster. In her way through the shrubbery she met two people, who walked closely side by side, engrossed in a whispering conversation, and who both started and changed countenance at seeing her. These two people were the softy and Mrs. Powell.
“So,” she thought, as she passed this strangely-matched pair, “my two enemies are laying their heads together to plot my misery. It is time that I left Mellish Park.”
She went out of a little gate leading into some meadows. Beyond these meadows there was a long shady lane that led behind the house to Doncaster. It was a path rarely chosen by any of the household at the Park, as it was the longest way to the town.
Aurora stopped at about a mile from the house which had been her own, and looked back at the picturesque pile of building, half hidden under the luxuriant growth of a couple of centuries.
“Good-by, dear home, in which I was an impostor and a cheat,” she said; “good-by for ever and for ever, my own dear love.”
While Aurora uttered these few words of passionate farewell, John Mellish lay upon the sun-burnt grass, staring absently at the still water-pools under the gray sky — pitying her, praying for her, and forgiving her from the depth of his honest heart.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50