The sun was low in the western sky, and distant village clocks had struck seven, when John Mellish walked slowly away from that lonely waste of stunted grass called Harper’s Common, and strolled homeward in the peaceful evening.
The Yorkshire squire was still very pale. He walked with his head bent forward upon his breast, and the hand that grasped the crumpled paper thrust into the bosom of his waistcoat; but a hopeful light shone in his eyes, and the rigid lines of his mouth had relaxed into a tender smile — a smile of love and forgiveness. Yes, he had prayed for her, and forgiven her, and he was at peace. He had pleaded her cause a hundred times in the dull quiet of that summer’s afternoon, and had excused her, and forgiven her. Not lightly, Heaven is a witness; not without a sharp and cruel struggle, that had rent his heart with tortures undreamed of before.
This revelation of the past was such bitter shame to him — such horrible degradation — such irrevocable infamy. His love, his idol, his empress, his goddess — it was of her he thought. By what hellish witchcraft had she been insnared into the degrading alliance recorded in this miserable scrap of paper? The pride of five unsullied centuries arose, fierce and ungovernable, in the breast of the country gentleman, to resent this outrage upon the woman he loved. O God, had all his glorification of her been the vain boasting of a fool who had not known what he talked about? He was answerable to the world for the past as well as for the present. He had made an altar for his idol, and had cried aloud to all who came near her to kneel down and perform their worship at her shrine, and he was answerable to these people for the purity of their divinity. He could not think of her as less than the idol which his love had made her — perfect, unsullied, unassailable. Disgrace where she was concerned knew in his mind no degrees.
It was not his own humiliation he thought of when his face grew hot as he imagined the talk there would be in the county if this fatal indiscretion of Aurora’s youth ever became generally known; it was the thought of her shame that stung him to the heart. He never once disturbed himself with any prevision of the ridicule which was likely to fall upon him.
It was here that John Mellish and Talbot Bulstrode were so widely different in their manner of loving and suffering. Talbot had sought a wife who should reflect honor upon himself, and had fallen away from Aurora at the first trial of his faith, shaken with horrible apprehensions of his own danger. But John Mellish had submerged his very identity into that of the woman he loved. She was his faith and his worship, and it was for her glory that he wept in this cruel day of shame. The wrong which he found so hard to forgive was not her wrong against him, but that other and more fatal wrong against herself. I have said that his affection was universal, and partook of all the highest attributes of that sublime self-abnegation which we call Love. The agony which he felt to-day was the agony which Archibald Floyd had suffered years before. It was vicarious torture, endured for Aurora, and not for himself; and, in his struggle against that sorrowful anger which he felt for her folly, every one of her perfections took up arms upon the side of his indignation, and fought against their own mistress. Had she been less beautiful, less queenly, less generous, great, and noble, he might have forgiven her that self-inflicted shame more easily. But she was so perfect; and how could she — how could she?
He unfolded the wretched paper half a dozen times, and read and reread every word of that commonplace legal document, before he could convince himself that it was not some vile forgery, concocted by James Conyers for purposes of extortion. But he prayed for her, and forgave her. He pitied her with more than a mother’s tender pity, with more than a sorrowful father’s anguish.
“My poor dear!” he said, “my poor dear! she was only a school-girl when this certificate was first written — an innocent child, ready to believe in any lies told her by a villain.”
A dark frown obscured the Yorkshireman’s brow as he thought this — a frown that would have promised no good to Mr. James Conyers had not the trainer passed out of the reach of all earthly good and evil.
“Will God have mercy upon a wretch like that?” thought John Mellish; “will that man be forgiven for having brought disgrace and misery upon a trusting girl?”
It will perhaps be wondered at that John Mellish, who suffered his servants to rule in his household, and allowed his butler to dictate to him what wines he should drink, who talked freely to his grooms, and bade his trainer sit in his presence — it will be wondered at, perhaps, that this frank, free-spoken, simple-mannered young man should have felt so bitterly the shame of Aurora’s unequal marriage. It was a common saying in Doncaster that Squire Mellish, of the Park, had no pride; that he would clap poor folks on the shoulder, and give them good-day as he lounged in the quiet street; that he would sit upon the corn-chandler’s counter, slashing his hunting-whip upon those popular tops — about which a legend was current, to the effect that they were always cleaned with Champagne — and discussing the prospects of the September meeting; and that there was not within the three Ridings a better landlord or a nobler-hearted gentlemen. And all this was perfectly true. John Mellish was entirely without personal pride; but there was another pride, which was wholly inseparable from his education and position, and this was the pride of caste. He was strictly conservative; and although he was ready to talk to his good friend the saddler, or his trusted retainer the groom, as freely as he would have held converse with his equals, he would have opposed all the strength of his authority against the saddler had that honest tradesman attempted to stand for his native town, and would have annihilated the groom with one angry flash of his bright blue eyes had the servant infringed by so much as an inch upon the broad extent of territory that separated him from his master.
The struggle was finished before John Mellish arose from the brown turf, and turned toward the home which he had left early that morning, ignorant of the great trouble that was to fall upon him, and only dimly conscious of some dark foreboding of the coming of an unknown horror. The struggle was over, and there was now only hope in his heart — the hope of clasping his wife to his breast, and comforting her for all the past. However bitterly he might feel the humiliation of this madness of her ignorant girlhood, it was not for him to remind her of it; his duty was to confront the world’s slander or the world’s ridicule, and oppose his own breast to the storm, while she was shielded by the great shelter of his love. His heart yearned for some peaceful foreign land, in which his idol would be far away from all who could tell her secret, and where she might reign once more glorious and unapproachable. He was ready to impose any cheat upon the world, in his greediness of praise and worship for her — for her. How tenderly he thought of her, walking slowly homeward in that tranquil evening? He thought of her waiting to hear from him the issue of the inquest, and he reproached himself for his neglect when he remembered how long he had been absent.
“But my darling will scarcely be uneasy,” he thought; “she will hear all about the inquest from some one or other, and she will think that I have gone into Doncaster on business. She will know nothing of the finding of this detestable certificate. No one need know of it. Lofthouse and Hayward are honorable men, and they will keep my poor girl’s secret; they will keep the secret of her foolish youth — my poor, poor girl!”
He longed for that moment which he fancied so near — the moment in which he should fold her in his arms, and say, “My dearest one, be at peace; there is no longer any secret between us. Henceforth your sorrows are my sorrows, and it is hard if I can not help you to carry the load lightly. We are one, my dear. For the first time since our wedding-day, we are truly united.”
He expected to find Aurora in his own room, for she had declared her intention of sitting there all day; and he ran across the broad lawn to the rose-shadowed veranda that sheltered his favorite retreat. The blind was drawn down and the window bolted, as Aurora had bolted it in her wish to exclude Mr. Stephen Hargraves. He knocked at the window, but there was no answer.
“Lolly has grown tired of waiting,” he thought.
The second dinner-bell rang in the hall while Mr. Mellish lingered outside this darkened window. The commonplace sound reminded him of his social duties.
“I must wait till dinner is over, I suppose, before I talk to my darling,” he thought. “I must go through all the usual business, for the edification of Mrs. Powell and the servants, before I can take my darling to my breast, and set her mind at ease for ever.”
John Mellish submitted himself to the indisputable force of those ceremonial laws which we have made our masters, and he was prepared to eat a dinner for which he had no appetite, and wait two hours for that moment for whose coming his soul yearned, rather than provoke Mrs. Powell’s curiosity by any deviation from the common course of events.
The windows of the drawing-room were open, and he saw the glimmer of a pale muslin dress at one of them. It belonged to Mrs. Powell, who was sitting in a contemplative attitude, gazing at the evening sky.
She was not thinking of that western glory of pale crimson and shining gold. She was thinking that if John Mellish cast off the wife who had deceived him, and who had never legally been his wife, the Yorkshire mansion would be a fine place to live in; a fine place for a housekeeper who knew how to obtain influence over her master, and who had the secret of his married life and of his wife’s disgrace to help her on to power.
“He’s such a blind, besotted fool about her,” thought the ensign’s widow, “that if he breaks with her to-morrow, he’ll go on loving her just the same, and he’ll do anything to keep her secret. Let it work which way it will, they’re in my power — they’re both in my power; and I’m no longer a poor dependent, to be sent away, at a quarter’s notice, when it pleases them to be tired of me.”
The bread of dependence is not a pleasant diet, but there are many ways of eating the same food. Mrs. Powell’s habit was to receive all favors grudgingly, as she would have given, had it been her lot to give instead of to receive. She measured others by her own narrow gauge, and was powerless to comprehend or believe in the frank impulses of a generous nature. She knew that she was a useless member of Poor John’s household, and that the young squire could have easily dispensed with her presence. She knew, in short, that she was retained by reason of Aurora’s pity for her friendlessness; and, having neither gratitude nor kindly feelings to give in return for her comfortable shelter, she resented her own poverty of nature, and hated her entertainers for their generosity. It is a property of these narrow natures so to resent the attributes they can envy, but can not even understand; and Mrs. Powell had been far more at ease in households in which she had been treated as a lady-like drudge than she had ever been at Mellish Park, where she was received as an equal and a guest. She had eaten the bitter bread upon which she had lived so long in a bitter spirit, that her whole nature had turned to gall from the influence of that disagreeable diet. A moderately generous person can bestow a favor, and bestow it well; but to receive a boon with perfect grace requires a far nobler and more generous nature.
John Mellish approached the open window at which the ensign’s widow was seated, and looked into the room. Aurora was not there. The long saloon seemed empty and desolate. The decorations of the temple looked cold and dreary, for the deity was absent.
“No one here!” exclaimed Mr. Mellish, disconsolately.
“No one but me,” murmured Mrs. Powell, with an accent of mild deprecation.
“But where is my wife, ma’am?”
He said those two small words, “my wife,” with such a tone of resolute defiance that Mrs. Powell looked at him as he spoke, and thought, “He has seen the certificate.”
“Where is Aurora?” repeated John.
“I believe that Mrs. Mellish has gone out.”
“Gone out! where?”
“You forget, sir,” said the ensign’s widow, reproachfully —“you appear to forget your special request that I should abstain from all supervision of Mrs. Mellish’s arrangements. Prior to that request, which I may venture to suggest was unnecessarily emphatic, I had certainly considered myself as the humble individual chosen by Miss Floyd’s aunt, and invested by her with a species of authority over the young lady’s actions, in some manner responsible for —”
John Mellish chafed horribly under the merciless stream of long words which Mrs. Powell poured upon his head.
“Talk about that at another time, for Heaven’s sake, ma’am,” he said, impatiently. “I only want to know where my wife is. Two words will tell me that, I suppose.”
“I am sorry to say that I am unable to afford you any information upon that subject,” answered Mrs. Powell; “Mrs. Mellish quitted the house at about half-past three o’clock, dressed for walking. I have not seen her since.”
Heaven forgive Aurora for the trouble it had been her lot to bring upon those who best loved her. John’s heart grew sick with terror at this first failure of his hope. He had pictured her waiting to receive him, ready to fall upon his breast in answer to his passionate cry, “Aurora, come! come, dear love! the secret has been discovered, and is forgiven.”
“Somebody knows where my wife has gone, I suppose, Mrs. Powell?” he said, fiercely, turning upon the ensign’s widow in his wrathful sense of disappointment and alarm. He was only a big child after all, with a child’s alternate hopefulness and despair; with a child’s passionate devotion for those he loved, and ignorant terror of danger to those beloved ones.
“Mrs. Mellish may have made a confidante of Parsons,” replied the ensign’s widow, “but she certainly did not enlighten me as to her intended movements. Shall I ring the bell for Parsons?”
“If you please.”
John Mellish stood upon the threshold of the French window, not caring to enter the handsome chamber of which he was the master. Why should he go into the house? It was no home for him without the woman who had made it so dear and sacred — dear even in the darkest hour of sorrow and anxiety, sacred even in despite of the trouble his love had brought upon him.
The maid Parsons appeared in answer to a message sent by Mrs. Powell, and John strode into the room, and interrogated her sharply as to the departure of her mistress.
The girl could tell very little, except that Mrs. Mellish had said that she was going into the garden, and that she had left a letter in the study for the master of the house. Perhaps Mrs. Powell was even better aware of the existence of this letter than the abigail herself. She had crept stealthily into John’s room after her interview with the softy and her chance encounter with Aurora. She had found the letter lying on the table, sealed with a crest and monogram that were engraved upon a bloodstone worn by Mrs. Mellish among the trinkets on her watch-chain. It was not possible, therefore, to manipulate this letter with any safety, and Mrs. Powell had contented herself by guessing darkly at its contents. The softy had told her of the fatal discovery of the morning, and she instinctively comprehended the meaning of that sealed letter. It was a letter of explanation and farewell, perhaps — perhaps only of farewell.
John strode along the corridor that led to his favorite room. The chamber was dimly lighted by the yellow evening sunlight which streamed from between the Venetian blinds and drew golden bars upon the matted floor. But even in that dusky and uncertain light he saw the white patch upon the table, and sprang with tigerish haste upon the letter his wife had left for him.
He drew up the Venetian blind, and stood in the embrasure of the window, with the evening sunlight upon his face, reading Aurora’s letter. There was neither anger nor alarm visible in his face as he read — only supreme love and supreme compassion.
“My poor darling! my poor girl! How could she think that there could ever be such a word as good-by between us! Does she think so lightly of my love as to believe that it could fail her now, when she wants it most? Why, if that man had lived,” he thought, his face darkening with the memory of that unburied clay which yet lay in the still chamber at the north lodge —“if that man had lived, and had claimed her, and carried her away from me by the right of the paper in my breast, I would have clung to her still; I would have followed wherever he went, and would have lived near him, that she might have known where to look for a defender from every wrong; I would have been his servant, the willing servant and contented hanger-on of a boor, if I could have served her by enduring his insolence. So, my dear, my dear,” murmured the young squire, with a tender smile, “it was worse than foolish to write this letter to me, and even more useless than it was cruel to run away from the man who would follow you to the farthest end of this wide world.”
He put the letter into his pocket, and took his hat from the table. He was ready to start — he scarcely knew for what destination; for the end of the world, perhaps — in his search for the woman he loved. But he was going to Felden Woods before beginning the longer journey, as he fully believed that Aurora would fly to her father in her foolish terror.
“To think that anything could ever happen to change or lessen my love for her,” he said: “foolish girl! foolish girl!”
He rang for his servant, and ordered the hasty packing of his smallest portmanteau. He was going to town for a day or two, and he was going alone. He looked at his watch; it was only a quarter after eight, and the mail left Doncaster at half-past twelve. There was plenty of time, therefore; a great deal too much time for the feverish impatience of Mr. Mellish, who would have chartered a special engine to convey him, had the railway officials been willing. There were four long hours during which he must wait, wearing out his heart in his anxiety to follow the woman he loved — to take her to his breast, and comfort and shelter her — to tell her that true love knows neither decrease nor change. He ordered the dog-cart to be got ready for him at eleven o’clock. There was a slow train that left Doncaster at ten; but, as it reached London only ten minutes before the mail, it was scarcely desirable as a conveyance. Yet, after the hour had passed for its starting, Mr. Mellish reproached himself bitterly for that lost ten minutes, and was tormented by a fancy that, through the loss of those very ten minutes, he should miss the chance of an immediate meeting with Aurora.
It was nine o’clock before he remembered the necessity of making some pretence of sitting down to dinner. He took his place at the end of the long table, and sent for Mrs. Powell, who appeared in answer to his summons, and seated herself with a well-bred affectation of not knowing that the dinner had been put off for an hour and a half.
“I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long, Mrs. Powell,” he said, as he sent the ensign’s widow a ladleful of clear soup, that was of the temperature of lemonade. “The truth is, that I— I— find I shall be compelled to run up to town by the mail.”
“Upon no unpleasant business, I hope?”
“Oh, dear, no; not at all. Mrs. Mellish has gone up to her father’s place, and — and — has requested me to follow her,” added John, telling a lie with considerable awkwardness, but with no very great remorse. He did not speak again during dinner. He ate anything that his servants put before him, and took a good deal of wine; but he ate and drank alike unconsciously, and when the cloth had been removed, and he was left alone with Mrs. Powell, he sat staring at the reflection of the wax candles in the depths of the mahogany. It was only when the lady gave a little ceremonial cough, and rose with the intention of simpering out of the room, that he roused himself from his long reverie, and looked up suddenly.
“Don’t go just this moment, if you please, Mrs. Powell,” he said. “If you’ll sit down again for a few minutes, I shall be glad. I wished to say a word or two to you before I leave Mellish.”
He rose as he spoke, and pointed to a chair. Mrs. Powell seated herself, and looked at him earnestly, with an eager, viperish earnestness, and a nervous movement of her thin lips.
“When you came here, Mrs. Powell,” said John, gravely, “you came as my wife’s guest and as my wife’s friend. I need scarcely say that you could have had no better claim upon my friendship and hospitality. If you had brought a regiment of dragoons with you as the condition of your visit, they would have been welcome, for I believed that your coming would give pleasure to my poor girl. If my wife had been indebted to you for any word of kindness, for any look of affection, I would have repaid that debt a thousand-fold, had it lain in my power to do so by any service, however difficult. You would have lost nothing by your love for my poor motherless girl if any devotion of mine could have recompensed you for that tenderness. It was only reasonable that I should look to you as the natural friend and counsellor of my darling, and I did so honestly and confidently. Forgive me if I tell you that I very soon discovered how much I had been mistaken in entertaining such a hope. I soon saw that you were no friend to my wife.”
“Oh, my dear madam, you think because I keep hunting-boots and guns in the room I call my study, and because I remember no more of the Latin that my tutor crammed into my head than the first line of the Eton Syntax — you think, because I’m not clever, that I must needs be a fool. That’s your mistake, Mrs. Powell; I’m not clever enough to be a fool, and I’ve just sufficient perception to see any danger that assails those I love. You don’t like my wife; you grudge her her youth, and her beauty, and my foolish love for her; and you’ve watched, and listened, and plotted — in a lady-like way, of course — to do her some evil. Forgive me if I speak plainly. Where Aurora is concerned, I feel very strongly. To hurt her little finger is to torture my whole body. To stab her once is to stab me a hundred times. I have no wish to be discourteous to a lady; I am only sorry that you have been unable to love a poor girl who has rarely failed to win friends among those who have known her. Let us part without animosity, but let us understand each other for the first time. You do not like us, and it is better that we should part before you learn to hate us.”
The ensign’s widow waited in utter stupefaction until Mr. Mellish stopped, from want of breath, perhaps, rather than from want of words.
All her viperish nature rose in white defiance of him, as he walked up and down the room, chafing himself into a fury with his recollection of the wrong she had done him in not loving his wife.
“You are perhaps aware, Mr. Mellish,” she said, after an awful pause, “that under such circumstances the annual stipend due to me for my services can not be expected to cease at your caprice; and that, although you may turn me out of doors”— Mrs. Powell descended to this very commonplace locution, and stooped to the vernacular in her desire to be spiteful —“you must understand that you will be liable for my salary until the expiration of —”
“Oh, pray do not imagine that I shall repudiate any claim you may make upon me, Mrs. Powell,” said John, eagerly; “Heaven knows it has been no pleasure to me to speak as plainly as I have spoken to-night. I will write a check for any amount you may consider proper as compensation for this change in our arrangements. I might have been more polite, perhaps; I might have told you that my wife and I think of travelling on the Continent, and that we are, therefore, breaking up our household. I have preferred telling you the plain truth. Forgive me if I have wounded you.”
Mrs. Powell rose, pale, menacing, terrible — terrible in the intensity of her feeble wrath, and in the consciousness that she had power to stab the heart of the man who had affronted her.
“You have merely anticipated my own intention, Mr. Mellish,” she said. “I could not possibly have remained a member of your household after the very unpleasant circumstances that have lately transpired. My worst wish is, that you may find yourself involved in no greater trouble through your connection with Mr. Floyd’s daughter. Let me add one word of warning before I have the honor of wishing you good-evening. Malicious people might be tempted to smile at your enthusiastic mention of your ‘wife,’ remembering that the person to whom you allude is Aurora Conyers, the widow of your groom, and that she has never possessed any legal claim to the title you bestow upon her.”
If Mrs. Powell had been a man, she would have found her head in contact with the Turkey carpet of John’s dining-room before she could have concluded this speech; as she was a woman, John Mellish stood looking her full in the face, waiting till she had finished speaking. But he bore the stab she inflicted without flinching under its cruel pain, and he robbed her of the gratification she had hoped for. He did not let her see his anguish.
“If Lofthouse has told her the secret,” he cried, when the door had closed upon Mrs. Powell, “I’ll horsewhip him in the church.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50