Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 34

Discovery of the Weapon with which James Conyers had Been Slain.

Mr. and Mrs. Mellish returned to the house in which they had been so happy; but it is not to be supposed that the pleasant country mansion could be again, all in a moment, the home that it had been before the advent of James Conyers, the trainer, and the tragedy that had so abruptly concluded his brief service.

No; every pang that Aurora had felt, every agony that John had endured, had left a certain impress upon the scene in which it had been suffered. The subtle influences of association hung heavily about the familiar place. We are the slaves of such associations, and we are powerless to stand against their silent force. Scraps of color and patches of gilding upon the walls will bear upon them, as plainly as if they were covered with hieroglyphical inscriptions, the shadows of the thoughts of those who have looked upon them. Transient and chance effects of light or shade will recall the same effects, seen and observed — as Fagin observed the broken spike upon the guarded dock — in some horrible crisis of misery and despair. The commonest household goods and chattels will bear mute witness of your agonies: an easy-chair will say to you, “It was upon me you cast yourself in that paroxysm of rage and grief;” the pattern of a dinner-service may recall to you that fatal day on which you pushed your food untasted from you, and turned your face, like grief-stricken King David, to the wall. The bed you lay upon, the curtains that sheltered you, the pattern of the paper on the walls, the common every-day sounds of the household, coming muffled and far-away to that lonely room in which you hid yourself, all these bear record of your sorrow, and of that hideous double action of the mind which impresses these things most vividly upon you at the very time when it would seem they should be most indifferent.

But every sorrow, every pang of wounded love, or doubt, or jealousy, or despair, is a fact — a fact once, and a fact for ever; to be outlived, but very rarely to be forgotten; leaving such an impress upon our lives as no future joys can quite wear out. The murder has been done, and the hands are red. The sorrow has been suffered; and, however beautiful Happiness may be to us, she can never be the bright virginal creature she once was, for she has passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and we have discovered that she is not immortal.

It is not to be expected, then, that John Mellish and his wife Aurora could feel quite the same in the pretty chambers of the Yorkshire mansion as they had felt before the first shipwreck of their happiness. They had been saved from peril and destruction, and landed, by the mercy of Providence, high and dry upon a shore that seemed to promise them pleasure and security henceforth. But the memory of the tempest was yet new to them; and upon the sands that were so smooth to-day they had seen yesterday the breakers beating with furious menace, and hurrying onward to destroy them.

The funeral of the trainer had not yet taken place, and it was scarcely a pleasant thing for Mr. Mellish to remember that the body of the murdered man still lay, stark and awful, in the oak coffin that stood upon trestles in the rustic chamber at the north lodge.

“I’ll pull that place down, Lolly,” said John, as he turned away from an open window, through which he could see the Gothic chimneys of the trainer’s late habitation glimmering redly above the trees. “I’ll pull the place down, my pet. The gates are never used, except by the stable-boys; I’ll knock them down, and the lodge too, and build some loose boxes for the brood-mares with the materials. And we’ll go away to the south of France, darling, and run across to Italy, if you like, and forget all about this horrid business.”

“The funeral will take place to-morrow, John, will it not?” Aurora asked.

“To-morrow, dear! to-morrow is Wednesday, you know. It was upon Thursday night that —”

“Yes, yes,” she answered, interrupting him, “I know — I remember.”

She shuddered as she spoke, remembering the ghastly circumstances of the night to which he alluded — remembering how the dead man had stood before her, strong in health and vitality, and had insolently defied her hatred. Away from Mellish Park, she had only remembered that the burden of her life had been removed from her, and that she was free. But here — here, upon the scene of the hideous story — she recollected the manner of her release, and that memory oppressed her even more terribly than her old secret, her only sorrow.

She had never seen or known in this man who had been murdered one redeeming quality, one generous thought. She had known him as a liar, a schemer, a low and paltry swindler, a selfish spendthrift, extravagant to wantonness upon himself, but meaner than words could tell toward others; a profligate, a traitor, a glutton, a drunkard. This is what she had found behind her school-girl’s fancy for a handsome face, for violet-tinted eyes, and soft brown curling hair. Do not call her hard, then, if sorrow had no part in the shuddering horror she felt as she conjured up the image of him in his death-hour, and saw the glazing eyes turned angrily upon her. She was little more than twenty; and it had been her fate always to take the wrong step, always to be misled by the vague fingerposts upon life’s high-road, and to choose the longest, and crookedest, and hardest way toward the goal she sought to reach.

Had she, upon the discovery of the first husband’s infidelity, called the law to her aid — she was rich enough to command its utmost help, though Sir Cresswell Cresswell did not then keep the turnpike upon such a royal road to divorce as he does now — she might have freed herself from the hateful chains so foolishly linked together, and might have defied this dead man to torment or assail her.

But she had chosen to follow the counsel of expediency, and it had led her upon the crooked way through which I have striven to follow her. I feel that there is much need of apology for her. Her own hands had sown the dragon’s teeth, from whose evil seed had sprung up armed men strong enough to rend and devour her. But then, if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story; for I think some wise man of old remarked that the perfect women were those who left no histories behind them, but went through life upon such a tranquil course of quiet well-doing as left no footprints on the sands of time; only mute records hidden here and there, deep in the grateful hearts of those who had been blessed by them.

The presence of the dead man within the boundary of Mellish Park made itself felt throughout the household that had once been such a jovial one. The excitement of the catastrophe had passed away, and only the dull gloom remained — a sense of oppression not to be cast aside. It was felt in the servants’ hall as well as in Aurora’s luxurious apartments. It was felt by the butler as well as by the master. No worse deed of violence than the slaughter of an unhappy stag, who had rushed for a last refuge to the Mellish flower-garden, and had been run down by furious hounds upon the velvet lawn, had ever before been done within the boundary of the young squire’s home. The house was an old one, and had stood, gray and ivy-shrouded, through the perilous days of civil war. There were secret passages, in which loyal squires of Mellish had hidden from ferocious Roundheads bent upon riot and plunder. There were broad hearth-stones, upon which sturdy blows had been given and exchanged by strong men in leathern jerkins and clumsy iron-heeled boots; but the Royalist Mellish had always ultimately escaped — up a chimney, or down a cellar, or behind a curtain of tapestry; and the wicked Praise-the-Lord Thompsons and Smiter-of-the-Philistines Joneses had departed after plundering the plate-chest and emptying the wine-barrels. There had never before been set upon the place in which John Mellish had first seen the light the red hand of MURDER.

It was not strange, then, that the servants sat long over their meals, and talked in solemn whispers of the events of the past week. There was more than the murder to talk about. There was the flight of Mrs. Mellish from beneath her husband’s roof upon the very day of the inquest. It was all very well for John to give out that his wife had gone up to town upon a visit to her cousin, Mrs. Bulstrode. Such ladies as Mrs. Mellish do not go upon visits without escort, without a word of notice, without the poorest pretence of bag and baggage. No; the mistress of Mellish Park had fled away from her home under the influence of some sudden panic. Had not Mrs. Powell said as much, or hinted as much? for when did the lady-like creature ever vulgarize her opinions by stating them plainly? The matter was obvious. Mr. Mellish had taken, no doubt, the wisest course; he had pursued his wife, and brought her back, and had done his best to hush up the matter; but Aurora’s departure had been a flight — a sudden and unpremeditated flight.

The lady’s maid — ah! how many handsome dresses, given to her by a generous mistress, lay neatly folded in the girl’s boxes on the second story! — told how Aurora had come to her room, pale and wild-looking, and had dressed herself unassisted for that hurried journey upon the day of the inquest. The girl liked her mistress, loved her, perhaps; for Aurora had a wondrous and almost dangerous faculty for winning the love of those who came near her; but it was so pleasant to have something to say about this all-absorbing topic, and to be able to make one’s self a feature in the solemn conclave. At first they had talked only of the murdered man, speculating upon his life and history, and building up a dozen theoretical views of the murder. But the tide had turned now, and they talked of their mistress; not connecting her in any positive or openly-expressed manner with the murder, but commenting upon the strangeness of her conduct, and dwelling much upon those singular coincidences by which she had happened to be roaming in the dark upon the night of the catastrophe, and to run away from her home upon the day of the inquest.

“It was odd, you know,” the cook said; “and them black-eyed women are generally regular spirity ones. I should n’t like to offend Master John’s wife. Do you remember how she paid into t’ softy?”

“But there was nought o’ sort between her and the trainer, was there?’ asked some one.

“I don’t know about that. But softy said she hated him like poison, and that there was no love lost between ’em.”

But why should Aurora have hated the dead man? The ensign’s widow had left the sting of her venom behind her, and had suggested to these servants, by hints and innuendoes, something so far more base and hideous than the truth that I will not sully these pages by recording it. But Mrs. Powell had of course done this foul thing without the utterance of one ugly word that could have told against her gentility, had it been repeated aloud in a crowded drawing-room. She had only shrugged her shoulders, and lifted her straw-colored eyebrows, and sighed half regretfully, half deprecatingly; but she had blasted the character of the woman she hated as shamefully as if she had uttered a libel too gross for Holywell street. She had done a wrong that could only be undone by the exhibition of the blood-stained certificate in John’s keeping, and the revelation of the whole story connected with that fatal scrap of paper. She had done this before packing her boxes; and she had gone away from the house that had sheltered her well pleased at having done this wrong, and comforting herself yet farther by the intention of doing more mischief through the medium of the penny-post.

It is not to be supposed that the Manchester paper, which had caused so serious a discussion in the humble parlor of the “Crooked Rabbit,” had been overlooked in the servants’ hall at Mellish. The Manchester journals were regularly forwarded to the young squire from the metropolis of cotton-spinning and horse-racing, and the mysterious letter in the Guardian had been read and commented upon. Every creature in that household, from the fat housekeeper who had kept the keys of the store-room through nearly three generations, to the rheumatic trainer, Langley, had a certain interest in the awful question. A nervous footman turned pale as that passage was read which declared that the murder had been committed by some member of the household; but I think there were some younger and more adventurous spirits — especially a pretty housemaid, who had seen the thrilling drama of Susan Hopley performed at the Doncaster Theatre during the spring meeting — who would have rather liked to be accused of the crime, and to emerge spotless and triumphant from the judicial ordeal, through the evidence of an idiot, or a magpie, or a ghost, or some other witness common and popular in criminal courts.

Did Aurora know anything of all this? No; she only knew that a dull and heavy sense of oppression in her own breast made the very summer atmosphere floating in at the open windows seem stifling and poisonous; that the house, which had once been so dear to her, was as painfully and perpetually haunted by the ghastly presence of the murdered man as if the dead trainer had stalked palpably about the corridors wrapped in a blood-stained winding-sheet.

She dined with her husband alone in the great dining-room. Many people had called during the two days that Mr. and Mrs. Mellish had been absent; among others, the rector, Mr. Lofthouse, and the coroner, Mr. Hayward.

“Lofthouse and Heyward will guess why we went away,” John thought, as he tossed the cards over in the basket; “they will guess that I have taken the proper steps to make my marriage legal, and to make my darling quite my own.”

They were very silent at dinner, for the presence of the servants sealed their lips upon the topic that was uppermost in their minds. John looked anxiously at his wife every now and then, for he saw that her face had grown paler since her arrival at Mellish; but he waited until they were alone before he spoke.

“My darling,” he said, as the door closed behind the butler and his subordinate, “I am sure you are ill. This business has been too much for you.”

“It is the air of this house that seems to oppress me, John,” answered Aurora. “I had forgotten all about this dreadful business while I was away. Now that I come back, and find that the time which has been so long to me — so long in misery and anxiety, and so long in joy, my own dear love, through you — is in reality only a few days, and that the murdered man still lies near us, I— I shall be better when — when the funeral is over, John.”

“My poor darling, I was a fool to bring you back. I should never have done so but for Talbot’s advice. He urged me so strongly to come back directly. He said that if there should be any disturbance about the murder, we ought to be upon the spot.”

“Disturbance! What disturbance?” cried Aurora.

Her face blanched as she spoke, and her heart sank within her. What farther disturbance could there be? Was the ghastly business as yet unfinished then? She knew — alas! only too well — that there could be no investigation of this matter which would not bring her name before the world linked with the name of the dead man. How much she had endured in order to keep that shameful secret from the world! How much she had sacrificed in the hope of saving her father from humiliation! And now, at the last, when she had thought that the dark chapter of her life was finished, the hateful page blotted out — now, at the very last, there was a probability of some new disturbance which would bring her name and her history into every newspaper in England.

“Oh, John, John!” she cried, bursting into a passion of hysterical sobs, and covering her face with her clasped hands, “am I never to hear the last of this? Am I never, never, never to be released from the consequences of my miserable folly?”

The butler entered the room as she said this; she rose hurriedly, and walked to one of the windows, in order to conceal her face from the man.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” the old servant said, “but they’ve found something in the Park, and I thought perhaps you might like to know —”

“They’ve found something? What,” exclaimed John, utterly bewildered between his agitation at the sight of his wife’s grief and his endeavor to understand the man.

“A pistol, sir. One of the stable-lads found it just now. He went to the wood with another boy to look at the place where — the — the man was shot, and he’s brought back a pistol he found there. It was close against the water, but hid away among the weeds and rushes. Whoever threw it there, thought, no doubt, to throw it in the pond; but Jim, that’s one of the boys, fancied he saw something glitter, and sure enough it was the band of a pistol; and I think it must be the one that the trainer was shot with, Mr. John.”

“A pistol!” cried Mr. Mellish; “let me see it.”

His servant handed him the weapon. It was small enough for a toy, but none the less deadly in a skilful hand. It was a rich man’s fancy, deftly carried out by some cunning gunsmith, and enriched by elaborate inlaid work of purple steel and tarnished silver. It was rusty, from exposure to rain and dew; but Mr. Mellish knew the pistol well, for it was his own.

It was his own; one of his pet playthings; and it had been kept in the room which was only entered by privileged persons — the room in which his wife had busied herself upon the day of the murder with the rearrangement of his guns.

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