“We are on the verge of a precipice,” Talbot Bulstrode thought, as he prepared for dinner in the comfortable dressing-room allotted to him at Mellish —“we are on the verge of a precipice, and nothing but a bold grapple with the worst can save us. Any reticence, any attempt at keeping back suspicious facts, or hushing up awkward coincidences, would be fatal to us. If John had made away with this pistol with which the deed was done, he would have inevitably fixed a most fearful suspicion upon his wife. Thank God I came here to-day! We must look matters straight in the face, and our first step must be to secure Aurora’s help. So long as she is silent as to her share in the events of that day and night, there is a link missing in the chain, and we are all at sea. John must speak to her to-night; or perhaps it will be better for me to speak.”
Mr. Bulstrode went down to the drawing-room, where he found his friend pacing up and down, solitary and wretched.
“The ladies are going to dine up stairs,” said Mr. Mellish, as Talbot joined him. “I have just had a message to say so. Why does she avoid me, Talbot? Why does my wife avoid me like this? We have scarcely spoken to each other for days.”
“Shall I tell you why, you foolish John?” answered Mr. Bulstrode. “Your wife avoids you because you have chosen to alienate yourself from her, and because she thinks, poor girl, that she has lost your affection. She fancies that the discovery of her first marriage has caused a revulsion of feeling, and that you no longer love her.”
“No longer love her!” cried John. “O my God! she ought to know that, if I could give my life for her fifty times over, I would do it, to save her one pang. I would do it, so help me Heaven, though she was the guiltiest wretch that had ever crawled the earth!”
“But no one asks you to do anything of the kind,” said Mr. Bulstrode. “You are only requested to be reasonable and patient, to put a proper trust in Providence, and to be guided by people who are rather less impetuous than your ungovernable self.”
“I will do what you like, Talbot; I will do what you like.”
Mr. Mellish pressed his friend’s hand. Had he ever thought, when he had seen Talbot an accepted lover at Felden, and had hated him with a savage and wild Indian-like fury, that he would come to be thus humbly grateful to him — thus pitifully dependent upon his superior wisdom? He wrung the young politician’s hand, and promised to be as submissive as a child beneath his guidance.
In compliance, therefore, with Talbot’s command, he ate a few morsels of fish, and drank a couple of glasses of sherry; and, having thus gone through a show of dining, he went with Mr. Bulstrode to seek Aurora.
She was sitting with her cousin in the morning-room, looking terribly pale in the dim dusk of the August evening — pale and shadowy in her loose white muslin dress. She had only lately risen, after a long feverish slumber, and had pretended to dine out of courtesy to her guest. Lucy had tried in vain to comfort her cousin. This passionate, impetuous, spoiled child of fortune and affection refused all consolation, crying out again and again that she had lost her husband’s love, and that there was nothing left for her upon earth.
But in the very midst of one of these desponding speeches she sprang up from her seat, erect and trembling, with her parted lips quivering and her dark eyes dilated, startled by the sound of a familiar step, which within the last few days had been seldom heard in the corridor outside her room. She tried to speak, but her voice failed her; and in another moment the door had been dashed open by a strong hand, and her husband stood in the room, holding out his arms and calling to her:
“Aurora! Aurora! my own dear love, my own poor darling!”
She was folded to his breast before she knew that Talbot Bulstrode stood close behind him.
“My own darling,” John said, “my own dearest, you can not tell how cruelly I have wronged you. But oh, my love, the wrong has brought unendurable torture with it. My poor, guiltless girl! how could I— how could I— But I was mad, and it was only when Talbot —”.
Aurora lifted her head from her husband’s breast, and looked wonderingly into his face, utterly unable to guess the meaning of these broken sentences.
Talbot laid his hand upon his friend’s shoulder. “You will frighten your wife if you go on in this manner, John,” he said, quietly. “You must n’t take any notice of his agitation, my dear Mrs. Mellish. There is no cause, believe me, for all this outcry. Will you sit down by Lucy and compose yourself? It is eight o’clock, and between this and nine we have some serious business to settle.”
“Serious business!” repeated Aurora, vaguely. She was intoxicated by her sudden happiness. She had no wish to ask any explanation of the mystery of the past few days. It was all over, and her faithful husband loved her as devotedly and tenderly as ever. How could she wish to know more than this?
She seated herself at Lucy’s side, in obedience to Talbot; but she still held her husband’s hand, she still looked in his face, for the moment most supremely unconscious that the scheme of creation included anything beyond this stalwart Yorkshireman.
Talbot Bulstrode lighted the lamp upon Aurora’s writing-table — a shaded lamp, which only dimly illuminated the twilight room — and then, taking his seat near it, said gravely:
“My dear Mrs. Mellish, I shall be compelled to say something which I fear may inflict a terrible shock upon you. But this is no time for reservation — scarcely a time for ordinary delicacy. Will you trust in the love and friendship of those who are around you, and promise to bear this new trial bravely? I believe and hope that it will be a very brief one.”
Aurora looked wonderingly at her husband, not at Talbot.
“A new trial?” she said, inquiringly.
“You know that the murderer of James Conyers has not yet been discovered?” said Mr. Bulstrode.
“Yes, yes; but what of that?”
“My dear Mrs. Mellish, my dear Aurora, the world is apt to take a morbid delight in horrible ideas. There are some people who think that you are guilty of this crime!”
She rose suddenly from her low seat, and turned her face toward the lamplight with a look of such blank amazement, such utter wonder and bewilderment, that, had Talbot Bulstrode until that moment believed her guilty, he must thenceforth and for ever have been firmly convinced of her innocence.
“I!“ she repeated.
Then turning to her husband, with a sudden alteration in her face, that blank amazement changing to a look of sorrow, mingled with reproachful wonder, she said, in a low voice:
“You thought this of me, John; you thought this!”
John Mellish bowed his head before her.
“I did, my dear,” he murmured; “God forgive me for my wicked folly; I did think this, Aurora. But I pitied you, and was sorry for you, my own dear love; and when I thought it most, I would have died to save you from shame or sorrow. My love has never changed, Aurora; my love has never changed.”
She gave him her hand, and once more resumed her seat. She sat for some moments in silence, as if trying to collect her thoughts, and to understand the meaning of this strange scene.
“Who suspects me of this crime?” she said, presently. “Has any one else suspected me? Any one besides — my husband?”
“I can scarcely tell you, my dear Mrs. Mellish,” answered Talbot; “when an event of this kind takes place, it is very difficult to say who may or may not be suspected. Different persons set up different theories: one man writes to a newspaper to declare that, in his opinion, the crime was committed by some person within the house; another man writes as positively to another paper, asserting that the murderer was undoubtedly a stranger. Each man brings forward a mass of supposititious evidence in favor of his own argument, and each thinks a great deal more of proving his own cleverness than of furthering the ends of justice. No shadow of slander must rest upon this house, or upon those who live in it. It is necessary, therefore, imperatively necessary, that the real murderer should be found. A London detective is already at work. These men are very clever; some insignificant circumstance, forgotten by those most interested in discovering the truth, would be often enough to set a detective on the right track. This man is coming here at nine o’clock, and we are to give him all the assistance we can. Will you help us, Aurora?”
“Help you? How?”
“By telling us all you know of the night of the murder. Why were you in the wood that night?”
“I was there to meet the dead man.”
“For what purpose?”
Aurora was silent for some moments, and then, looking up with a bold, half-defiant glance, she said suddenly:
“Talbot Bulstrode, before you blame or despise me, remember how the tie that bound me to this man had been broken. The law would have set me free from him if I had been brave enough to appeal to the law; and was I to suffer all my life because of the mistake I had made in not demanding a release from the man whose gross infidelity entitled me to be divorced from him? Heaven knows I had borne with him patiently enough. I had endured his vulgarity, his insolence, his presumption; I had gone penniless while he spent my father’s money in a gambling-booth on a race-course, and dinnerless while he drank Champagne with cheats and reprobates. Remember this when you blame me most. I went into the wood that night to meet him for the last time upon this earth. He had promised me that he would emigrate to Australia upon the payment of a certain sum of money.”
“And you went that night to pay it to him?” cried Talbot, eagerly.
“I did. He was insolent, as he always was; for he hated me for having discovered that which shut him out from all claim upon my fortune. He hated himself for his folly in not having played his cards better. Angry words passed between us; but it ended in his declaring his intention of starting for Liverpool early the next morning, and —”
“You gave him the money?”
“But tell me — tell me, Aurora,” cried Talbot, almost too eager to find words, “how long had you left him when you heard the report of the pistol?”
“Not more than ten minutes.”
“John Mellish,” exclaimed Mr. Bulstrode, “was there any money found upon the person of the murdered man?”
“No — yes; I believe there was a little silver,” Mr. Mellish answered, vaguely.
“A little silver!” cried Talbot, contemptuously. “Aurora, what was the sum you gave James Conyers upon the night of his death?”
“Two thousand pounds.”
“In a check?”
“No, in notes.”
“And that money has never been heard of since?”
No; John Mellish declared that he had never heard of it.
“Thank God!” exclaimed Mr. Bulstrode; “we shall find the murderer.”
“What do you mean?” asked John.
“Whoever killed James Conyers, killed him in order to rob him of the money that he had upon him at the time of his death.”
“But who could have known of the money?” asked Aurora.
“Anybody; the pathway through the wood is a public thoroughfare. Your conversation with the murdered man may have been overheard. You talked about the money, I suppose?”
“Thank God, thank God! Ask your wife’s pardon for the cruel wrong you have done her, John, and then come down stairs with me. It’s past nine, and I dare say Mr. Grimstone is waiting for us. But stay — one word, Aurora. The pistol with which this man was killed was taken from this house — from John’s room. Did you know that?”
“No; how should I know it?” Mrs. Mellish asked, naively.
“That fact is against the theory of the murder having been committed by a stranger. Is there any one of the servants whom you could suspect of such a crime, John?”
“No,” answered Mr. Mellish, decisively, “not one.”
“And yet the person who committed the murder must have been the person who stole your pistol. You, John, declare that very pistol to have been in your possession upon the morning before the murder?”
“You put John’s guns back into their places upon that morning, Aurora,” said Mr. Bulstrode; “do you remember seeing that particular pistol?”
“No,” Mrs. Mellish answered; “I should not have known it from the others.”
“You did not find any of the servants in the room that morning?”
“Oh, no,” Aurora answered immediately, “Mrs. Powell came into the room while I was there. She was always following me about, and I suppose she had heard me talking to —”
“Talking to whom?”
“To James Conyers’ hanger-on and messenger, Stephen Hargraves — the softy, as they call him.”
“You were talking to him? Then this Stephen Hargraves was in the room that morning?”
“Yes; he brought me a message from the murdered man, and took back my answer.”
“Was he alone in the room?”
“Yes; I found him there when I went in expecting to find John. I dislike the man — unjustly, perhaps, for he is a poor, half-witted creature, who, I dare say, scarcely knows right from wrong, and I was angry at seeing him. He must have come in through the window.”
A servant entered the room at this moment. He came to say that Mr. Grimstone had been waiting below for some time, and was anxious to see Mr. Bulstrode.
Talbot and John went down stairs together. They found Mr. Joseph Grimstone sitting at a table in the comfortable room that had lately been sacred to Mrs. Powell, with the shaded lamp drawn close to his elbow, and a greasy little memorandum-book open before him. He was thoughtfully employed making notes in this memorandum-book with a stumpy morsel of lead-pencil — when do these sort of people begin their pencils, and how is it that they always seem to have arrived at the stump? — when the two gentlemen entered.
John Mellish leaned against the mantle-piece, and covered his face with his hand. For any practical purpose, he might as well have been in his own room. He knew nothing of Talbot’s reasons for this interview with the detective officer. He had no shadowy idea, no growing suspicion shaping itself slowly out of the confusion and obscurity, of the identity of the murderer. He only knew that his Aurora was innocent; that she had indignantly refuted his base suspicion; and that he had seen the truth, radiant as the light of inspiration, shining out of her beautiful face.
Mr. Bulstrode rang, and ordered a bottle of sherry for the delectation of the detective, and then, in a careful and business-like manner, he recited all that he had been able to discover upon the subject of the murder. Joseph Grimstone listened very quietly, following Talbot Bulstrode with a shining track of lead-pencil hieroglyphics over the greasy paper, just as Tom Thumb strewed crumbs of bread in the forest pathway with a view to his homeward guidance. The detective only looked up now and then to drink a glass of sherry, and smack his lips with the quiet approval of a connoisseur. When Talbot had told all that he had to tell, Mr. Grimstone thrust the memorandum-book into a very tight breast-pocket, and, taking his hat from under the chair upon which he had been seated, prepared to depart.
“If this information about the money is quite correct,” he said, “I think I can see my way through the affair — that is, if we can have the numbers of the notes. I can’t stir a peg without the numbers of the notes.”
Talbot’s countenance fell. Here was a death-blow. Was it likely that Aurora, that impetuous and unbusiness-like girl, had taken the numbers of the notes which, in utter scorn and loathing, she had flung as a last bribe to the man she hated?
“I’ll go and make inquiries of Mrs. Mellish,” he said; “but I fear it is scarcely likely that I shall get the information you want.”
He left the room, but five minutes afterward returned triumphant.
“Mrs. Mellish had the notes from her father,” he said. “Mr. Floyd took a list of the numbers before he gave his daughter the money.”
“Then, if you’ll be so good as to drop Mr. Floyd a line, asking for that list by a return of post, I shall know how to act,” replied the detective. “I have n’t been idle this afternoon, gentlemen, any more than you. I went back after I parted with you, Mr. Bulstrode, and had another look at the pond. I found something to pay me for my trouble.”
He took from his waistcoat-pocket a small object, which he held between his finger and thumb.
Talbot and John looked intently at this dingy object, but could make nothing out of it. It seemed to be a mere disk of rusty metal.
“It’s neither more nor less than a brass button,” the detective said, with a smile of quiet superiority; “maker’s name Crosby, Birmingham. There’s marks upon it which seem oncommon like blood; and, unless I’m very much mistaken, it’ll be found to fit pretty correct into the barrel of your pistol, Mr. Mellish. So what we’ve got to do is to find a gentleman wearin’ or havin’ in his possession a waistcoat with buttons by Crosby, Birmingham, and one button missin’; and if we happen to find the same gentleman changin’ one of the notes that Mr. Floyd took the numbers of, I don’t think we shall be very far off layin’ our hands on the man we want.”
With which oracular speech Mr. Grimstone departed, charged with a commission to proceed forthwith to Doncaster, to order the immediate printing and circulating of a hundred bills, offering a reward of £200 for such information as would lead to the apprehension of the murderer of James Conyers — this reward to be given by Mr. Mellish, and to be over and above any reward offered by the government.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05