Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 39

Talbot Bulstrode Makes Atonement for the Past.

John Mellish and Talbot Bulstrode walked to and fro upon the lawn before the drawing-room windows on that afternoon on which the detective and his underling lost sight of Stephen Hargraves. It was a dreary time, this period of watching and waiting, of uncertainty and apprehension, and poor John Mellish chafed bitterly under the burden which he had to bear.

Now that his friend’s common sense had come to his relief, and that a few plain, outspoken sentences had dispersed the terrible cloud of mystery, now that he himself was fully assured of his wife’s innocence, he had no patience with the stupid country people who held themselves aloof from the woman he loved. He wanted to go out and do battle for his slandered wife; to hurl back every base suspicion into the faces that had scowled upon his idolized Aurora. How could they dare, these foul-minded slanderers, to harbor one base thought against the purest, the most perfect of women? Mr. Mellish, of course, quite forgot that he, the rightful defender of all this perfection, had suffered his mind to be for a time obscured beneath the black shadow of that vile suspicion.

He hated the old friends of his youth for their base avoidance of him; the servants of his household for a half-doubtful, half-solemn expression of face, which he knew had relation to that growing suspicion, that horrible suspicion, which seemed to grow stronger with every hour. He broke out into a storm of rage with the gray-haired butler, who had carried him pickapack in his infancy, because the faithful retainer tried to hold back certain newspapers which contained dark allusions to the Mellish mystery.

“Who told you I did n’t want the Manchester Guardian, Jarvis?” he cried, fiercely; “who gave you the right to dictate what I’m to read or what I’m to leave unread? I do want to-day’s Guardian; to-day’s, and yesterday’s, and to-morrow’s, and every other newspaper that comes into this house! I won’t have them overhauled by you, or any one, to see whether they’re pleasant reading or not, before they’re brought to me. Do you think I’m afraid of anything these penny-a-liner fellows can write?” roared the young squire, striking his open hand upon the table at which he sat. “Let them write their best or their worst of me. But let them write one word that can be twisted into an insinuation upon the purest and truest woman in all Christendom, and, by the Heaven above me, I’ll give them such a thrashing — penny-a-liners, printers, publishers, and every man-Jack of them — as shall make them remember the business to the last hour of their lives!”

Mr. Mellish said all this in despite of the restraining presence of Talbot Bulstrode. Indeed, the young member for Penruthy had by no means a pleasant time of it during those few days of anxiety and suspense. A keeper set to watch over a hearty young jungle tiger, and bidden to prevent the noble animal from committing any imprudence, might have found his work little harder than that which Mr. Bulstrode did, patiently and uncomplainingly, for pure friendship’s sake.

John Mellish roamed about in the custody of this friendly keeper, with his short auburn hair tumbled into a feverish-looking mass, like a field of ripening corn that had been beaten by a summer hurricane, his cheeks sunken and haggard, and a bristling yellow stubble upon his chin. I dare say he had made a vow neither to shave nor be shaven until the murderer of James Conyers should be found. He clung desperately to Talbot Bulstrode, but he clung with still wilder desperation to the detective, the professional criminal-hunter, who had, in a manner, tacitly pledged himself to the discovery of the real homicide.

All through the fitful August day, now hot and still, now overclouded and showery, the master of Mellish Park went hither and thither — now sitting in his study; now roaming out on the lawn; now pacing up and down the drawing-room, displacing, disarranging, and overturning the pretty furniture; now wandering up and down the staircase, lolling on the landing-places, and patrolling the corridor outside the rooms in which Lucy and Aurora sat together, making a show of employing themselves, but only waiting, waiting, waiting for the hoped-for end.

Poor John scarcely cared to meet that dearly-loved wife; for the great earnest eyes that looked in his face always asked the same question so plainly — always appealed so piteously for the answer that could not be given.

It was a weary and a bitter time. I wonder, as I write of it, when I think of a quiet Somersetshire household in which a dreadful deed was done — the secret of which has never yet been brought to light, and perhaps never will be revealed until the Day of Judgment — what must have been suffered by each member of that family? What slow agonies, what ever-increasing tortures, while that cruel mystery was the “sensation” topic of conversation in a thousand happy home circles, in a thousand tavern parlors and pleasant club-rooms — a common and ever-interesting topic, by means of which travellers in first-class railway carriages might break down the ceremonial icebergs which surround each travelling Englishman, and grow friendly and confidential; a safe topic, upon which even tacit enemies might talk pleasantly without fear of wrecking themselves upon hidden rocks of personal insinuation. God help that household, or any such household, through the weary time of waiting which it may please Him to appoint, until that day in which it shall be His good pleasure to reveal the truth! God help all patient creatures laboring under the burden of an unjust suspicion, and support them unto the end!

John Mellish chafed and fretted himself ceaselessly all through that August day at the nonappearance of the detective. Why did n’t he come? He had promised to bring or send them news of his proceedings. Talbot in vain assured his friend that Mr. Grimstone was no doubt hard at work; that such a discovery as he had to make was not to be made in a day; and that Mr. Mellish had nothing to do but to make himself as comfortable as he could, and wait quietly for the event he desired so eagerly.

“I should not say this to you, John,” Mr. Bulstrode said by and by, “if I did not believe — as I know this man Grimstone believes — that we are upon the right track, and are pretty sure to bring the crime home to the wretch who committed it. You can do nothing but be patient, and wait the result of Grimstone’s labors.”

“Yes,” cried John Mellish; “and, in the meantime, all these people are to say cruel things of my darling, and keep aloof from her, and — No, I can’t bear it, Talbot, I can’t bear it. I’ll turn my back upon this confounded place. I’ll sell it; I’ll burn it down; I’ll — I’ll do anything to get away, and take my precious one from the wretches who have slandered her!”

“That you shall not do, John Mellish,” exclaimed Talbot Bulstrode, “until the murderer of James Conyers has been discovered. Go away then as soon as you like, for the associations of this place can not be otherwise than disagreeable to you — for a time, at least. But, until the truth is out, you must remain here. If there is any foul suspicion against Aurora, her presence here will best give the lie to that suspicion. It was her hurried journey to London which first set people talking of her, I dare say,” added Mr. Bulstrode, who was, of course, entirely ignorant of the fact that an anonymous letter from Mrs. Powell had originally aroused the suspicions of the Doncaster constabulary.

So through the long summer’s day Talbot reasoned with and comforted his friend, never growing weary of his task, never for one moment losing sight of the interests of Aurora Mellish and her husband.

Perhaps this was a self-imposed penalty for the wrong which he had done the banker’s daughter long ago in the dim starlit chamber at Felden. If it was so, he did penance very cheerfully.

“Heaven knows how gladly I would do her a service,” he thought; “her life has been a troubled one, in spite of her father’s thousands. Thank Heaven, my poor little Lucy has never been forced into playing the heroine of a tragedy like this; thank Heaven, my poor little darling’s life flows evenly and placidly in a smooth channel.”

He could not but reflect with something of a shudder that it might have been his wife whose history was being canvassed throughout the West Riding. He could not be otherwise than pleased to remember that the name of the woman he had chosen had never gone beyond the holy circle of her own home, to be the common talk among strangers.

There are things which are utterly unendurable to some people, but which are not at all terrible in the eyes of others. John Mellish, secure in his own belief in his wife’s innocence, would have been content to carry her away with him, after razing the home of his forefathers to the ground, and defying all Yorkshire to find flaw or speck upon her fair fame. But Talbot Bulstrode would have gone mad with the agony of the thought that common tongues had defiled the name he loved, and would, in no after-triumph of his wife’s innocence, have been able to forget or to recover from the torture of that unendurable agony. There are people who can not forget, and Talbot Bulstrode was one of them. He had never forgotten his Christmas agony at Felden Woods, and the after-struggle at Bulstrode Castle; nor did he ever hope to forget it. The happiness of the present, pure and unalloyed though it was, could not annihilate the anguish of the past. That stood alone — so many months, weeks, days, and hours of unutterable misery riven away from the rest of his life, to remain for ever a stony memorial upon the smooth plains of the past.

Archibald Martin Floyd sat with his daughter and Lucy in Mrs. Mellish’s morning-room, the pleasantest chamber for many reasons, but chiefly because it was removed from the bustle of the house, and from the chance of unwelcome intrusion. All the troubles of that household had been made light of in the presence of the old man, and no word had been dropped before him which could give him reason to guess that his only child had been suspected of the most fearful crime that man or woman can commit. But Archibald Floyd was not easily to be deceived where his daughter’s happiness was in question; he had watched that beautiful face, whose ever-varying expression was its highest charm, so long and earnestly, as to have grown familiar with its every look. No shadow upon the brightness of his daughter’s beauty could possibly escape the old man’s eyes, dim as they may have grown for the figures in his banking-book. It was Aurora’s business, therefore, to sit by her father’s side in the pleasant morning-room, to talk to him and amuse him, while John rambled hither and thither, and made himself otherwise tiresome to his patient companion, Talbot Bulstrode. Mrs. Mellish repeated to her father again and again that there was no cause for uneasiness; they were merely anxious — naturally anxious — that the guilty man should be found and brought to justice — nothing more.

The banker accepted this explanation of his daughter’s pale face very quietly; but he was not the less anxious — anxious he scarcely knew why, but with the shadow of a dark cloud hanging over him that was not to be driven away.

Thus the long August day wore itself out, and the low sun — blazing a lurid red behind the trees in Mellish Wood, until it made that pool beside which the murdered man had fallen seem a pool of blood — gave warning that one weary day of watching and suspense was nearly done.

John Mellish, far too restless to sit long at dessert, had roamed out upon the lawn, still attended by his indefatigable keeper, Talbot Bulstrode, and employed himself in pacing up and down the smooth grass amid Mr. Dawson’s flower-beds, looking always toward the pathway that led to the house, and breathing suppressed anathemas against the dilatory detective.

“One day nearly gone, thank Heaven, Talbot!” he said, with an impatient sigh. “Will to-morrow bring us no nearer to what we want, I wonder? What if it should go on like this for long? what if it should go on for ever, until Aurora and I go mad with this wretched anxiety and suspense? Yes, I know you think me a fool and a coward, Talbot Bulstrode; but I can’t bear it quietly, I tell you I can’t. I know there are some people who can shut themselves up with their troubles, and sit down quietly and suffer without a groan; but I can’t. I must cry out when I am tortured, or I should dash my brains out against the first wall I came to, and make an end of it. To think that anybody should suspect my darling! to think that they should believe her to be —”

“To think that you should have believed it, John!” said Mr. Bulstrode, gravely.

“Ah! there’s the cruelest stab of all,” cried John; “if I— I, who know her, and love her, and believe in her as man never yet believed in woman — if I could have been bewildered and maddened by that horrible chain of cruel circumstances, every one of which pointed — Heaven help me! — at her — if I could be deluded by these things until my brain reeled, and I went nearly mad with doubting my own dearest love, what may strangers think — strangers who neither know nor love her, but who are only too ready to believe anything unnaturally infamous? Talbot I won’t endure this any longer. I’ll ride into Doncaster and see this man Grimstone. He must have done some good to-day. I’ll go at once.”

Mr. Mellish would have walked straight off to the stables; but Talbot Bulstrode caught him by the arm.

“You may miss the man on the road, John,” he said. “He came last night after dark, and may come as late to-night. There’s no knowing whether he’ll come by the road, or the short cut across the fields. You’re as likely to miss him as not.”

Mr. Mellish hesitated.

“He may n’t come at all to-night,” he said; “and I tell you I can’t bear this suspense.”

“Let me ride into Doncaster, then, John,” urged Talbot, “and you stay here to receive Grimstone if he should come.”

Mr. Mellish was considerably mollified by this proposition.

“Will you ride into the town, Talbot?” he said. “Upon my word, it’s very kind of you to propose it. I should n’t like to miss this man upon any account; but, at the same time, I don’t feel inclined to wait for the chance of his coming or staying away. I’m afraid I’m a great nuisance to you, Bulstrode.”

“Not a bit of it,” answered Talbot, with a smile.

Perhaps he smiled involuntarily at the notion of how little John Mellish knew what a nuisance he had been through that weary day.

“I’ll go with very great pleasure, John,” he said, “if you’ll tell them to saddle a horse for me.”

“To be sure; you shall have Red Rover, my covert hack. We’ll go round to the stables, and see about him at once.”

The truth of the matter is, Talbot Bulstrode was very well pleased to hunt up the detective himself, rather than that John Mellish should execute that errand in person; for it would have been about as easy for the young squire to have translated a number of the Sporting Magazine into Porsonian Greek, as to have kept a secret for half an hour, however earnestly entreated, or however conscientiously determined to do so.

Mr. Bulstrode had made it his particular business, therefore, during the whole of that day, to keep his friend as much as possible out of the way of every living creature, fully aware that Mr. Mellish’s manner would most certainly betray him to the least observant eyes that might chance to fall upon him.

Red Rover was saddled, and, after twenty loudly-whispered injunctions from John, Talbot Bulstrode rode away in the evening sunlight. The nearest way from the stables to the high-road took him past the north lodge. It had been shut up since the day of the trainer’s funeral, such furniture as it contained left to become a prey to moths and rats; for the Mellish servants were a great deal too superstitiously impressed with the story of the murder to dream of readmitting those goods and chattels which had been selected for Mr. Conyers’ accommodation to the garrets whence they had been taken. The door had been locked, therefore, and the key given to Dawson, the gardener, who was to be once more free to use the place as a storehouse for roots and matting, superannuated cucumber-frames, and crippled garden-tools.

The place looked dreary enough, though the low sun made a gorgeous illumination upon one of the latticed windows that faced the crimson west, and though the last leaves of the roses were still lying upon the long grass in the patch of garden before the door, out of which Mr. Conyers had gone to his last resting-place. One of the stable-boys had accompanied Mr. Bulstrode to the lodge in order to open the rusty iron gates, which hung loosely on their hinges, and were never locked.

Talbot rode at a brisk pace into Doncaster, never drawing rein until he reached the little inn at which the detective had taken up his quarters. Mr. Grimstone had been snatching a hasty refreshment, after a weary and useless perambulation about the town, and came out with his mouth full to speak to Mr. Bulstrode. But he took very good care not to confess that since three o’clock that day neither he nor his ally had seen or heard of Mr. Stephen Hargraves, or that he was actually no nearer the discovery of the murderer than he had been at eleven o’clock upon the previous night, when he had discovered the original proprietor of the fancy waistcoat, with buttons by Crosby, Birmingham, in the person of Dawson, the gardener.

“I’m not losing any time, sir,” he said, in answer to Talbot’s inquiries; “my sort of work’s quiet work, and don’t make no show till it’s done. I’ve reason to think the man we want is in Doncaster; so I stick in Doncaster, and mean to, till I lay my hand upon him — unless I should get information as would point farther off. Tell Mr. Mellish I’m doing my duty, sir, and doing it conscientious; and that I shall neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep more than just as much as’ll keep human nature together, until I’ve done what I’ve set my mind on doing.”

“But you’ve discovered nothing fresh, then?” said Talbot; “you’ve nothing new to tell me?”

“Whatever I’ve discovered is neither here nor there yet a while, sir,” answered the detective, vaguely. “You keep your heart up, and tell Mr. Mellish to keep his heart up, and trust in me.”

Talbot Bulstrode was obliged to be content with this rather doubtful comfort. It was not much, certainly, but he determined to make the best of it to John Mellish.

He rode out of Doncaster, past the “Reindeer” and the white-fronted houses of the wealthier citizens of that prosperous borough, and away upon the smooth high-road. The faint shimmer of the pale early moonlight lit up the tree-tops to right and left of him as he left the suburb behind, and made the road ghostly beneath his horse’s feet. He was in no very hopeful humor, after his interview with Mr. Grimstone, and he knew that hungry-eyed members of the Doncaster constabulary were keeping stealthy watch upon every creature in the Mellish household, and that the slanderous tongues of a greedy public were swelling into a loud and ominous murmur against the wife John loved. Every hour, every moment, was of vital importance. A hundred perils menaced them on every side. What might they not have to dread from eager busybodies, anxious to distinguish themselves, and proud of being the first to circulate a foul scandal against the lovely daughter of one of the richest men upon the Stock Exchange? Hayward, the coroner, and Lofthouse, the rector, both knew the secret of Aurora’s life; and it would be little wonder if, looking at the trainer’s death by the light of that knowledge, they believed her guilty of some share in the ghastly business which had terminated the trainer’s service at Mellish Park.

What if, by some horrible fatality, the guilty man should escape, and the truth never be revealed. For ever and for ever, until her blighted name should be written upon a tombstone, Aurora Mellish must rest under the shadow of this suspicion. Could there be any doubt that the sensitive and highly-strung nature would give way under the unendurable burden? that the proud heart would break beneath the undeserved disgrace? What misery for her! and not for her alone, but for every one who loved her, or had any share in her history. Heaven pardon the selfishness that prompted the thought, if Talbot Bulstrode remembered that he would have some part in that bitter disgrace; that his name was allied, if only remotely, with that of his wife’s cousin; and that the shame which would make the name of Mellish a by-word must also cast some slur upon the escutcheon of the Bulstrodes. Sir Bernard Burke, compiling the romance of the county families, would tell that cruel story, and, hinting cautiously at Aurora’s guilt, would scarcely fail to add, that the suspected lady’s cousin had married Talbot Raleigh Bulstrode, Esq., eldest son and heir of Sir John Walter Raleigh Bulstrode, Baronet, of Bulstrode Castle, Cornwall.

Now, although the detective had affected a hopeful and even mysterious manner in his brief interview with Talbot, he had not succeeded in hoodwinking that gentleman, who had a vague suspicion that all was not quite right, and that Mr. Joseph Grimstone was by no means so certain of success as he pretended to be.

“It’s my firm belief that this man Hargraves has given him the slip,” Talbot thought. “He said something about believing him to be in Doncaster, and then the next moment added that he might be farther off. It’s clear, therefore, that Grimstone does n’t know where he is; and in that case, it’s as likely as not that the man’s made off with his money, and will get away from England in spite of us. If he does this —”

Mr. Bulstrode did not finish the sentence. He had reached the north lodge, and dismounted to open the iron gate. The lights of the house shone hospitably far away beyond the wood, and the voices of some men about the stable-gates sounded faintly in the distance; but the north lodge and the neglected shrubbery around it were as silent as the grave, and had a certain phantom-like air in the dim moonlight.

Talbot led his horse through the gates. He looked up at the windows of the lodge as he passed, half involuntarily; but he stopped with a suppressed exclamation of surprise at the sight of a feeble glimmer, which was not the moonlight, in the window of that upper chamber in which the murdered man had slept. Before that exclamation had wellnigh crossed his lips the light had disappeared.

If any one of the Mellish grooms or stable-boys had beheld that brief apparition, he would have incontinently taken to his heels, and rushed breathless to the stables, with a wild story of some supernatural horror in the north lodge; but Mr. Bulstrode, being altogether of another mettle, walked softly on, still leading his horse, until he was well out of earshot of any one within the lodge, when he stopped and tied the Red Rover’s bridle to a tree, and turned back toward the north gates, leaving the corn-fed covert hack cropping greedily at dewy hazel-twigs, and any green meat within his reach.

The heir of Sir John Walter Raleigh Bulstrode crept back to the lodge almost as noiselessly as if he had been educated for Mr. Grimstone’s profession, choosing the grassy pathway beneath the trees for his cautious footsteps. As he approached the wooden paling that shut in the little garden of the lodge, the light which had been so suddenly extinguished reappeared behind the white curtain of the upper window.

“It’s queer!” mused Mr. Bulstrode, as he watched the feeble glimmer; “but I dare say there’s nothing in it. The associations of this place are strong enough to make one attach a foolish importance to anything connected with it. I think I heard John say the gardeners keep their tools there, and I suppose it’s one of them. But it’s late, too, for any of them to be at work.”

It had struck ten while Mr. Bulstrode rode homeward, and it was more than unlikely that any of the Mellish servants would be out at such a time.

Talbot lingered by the wicket-gate, irresolute as to what he should do next, but thoroughly determined to see the last of this late visitor at the north lodge, when the shadow of a man flitted across the white curtain — a shadow even more weird and ungainly than such things are — the shadow of a man with a humpback!

Talbot Bulstrode uttered no cry of surprise; but his heart knocked furiously against his ribs, and the blood rushed hotly to his face. He never remembered having seen the softy, but he had always heard him described as a humpbacked man. There could be no doubt of the shadow’s identity; there could be still less doubt that Stephen Hargraves had visited that place for no good purpose. What could bring him there — to that place above all other places, which, if he were indeed guilty, he would surely most desire to avoid? Stolid, semi-idiotic as he was supposed to be, surely the common terrors of the lowest assassin, half brute, half Caliban, would keep him away from that spot. These thoughts did not occupy more than those few moments in which the violent beating of Talbot Bulstrode’s heart held him powerless to move or act; then, pushing open the gate, he rushed across the tiny garden, trampling recklessly upon the neglected flower-beds, and softly tried the door. It was firmly secured with a heavy chain and padlock.

“He has got in at the window, then,” thought Mr. Bulstrode. “What, in Heaven’s name, could be his motive in coming here?”

Talbot was right. The little lattice-window had been wrenched nearly off its hinges, and hung loosely among the tangled foliage that surrounded it. Mr. Bulstrode did not hesitate a moment before he plunged head foremost into the narrow aperture through which the softy must have found his way, and scrambled as he could into the little room. The lattice, strained still farther, dropped, with a crashing noise, behind him; but not soon enough to serve as a warning for Stephen Hargraves, who appeared upon the lowest step of the tiny corkscrew staircase at the same moment. He was carrying a tallow candle in a battered tin candlestick in his right hand, and he had a small bundle under his left arm. His white face was no whiter than usual, but he presented an awfully corpse-like appearance to Mr. Bulstrode, who had never seen him or noticed him before. The softy recoiled, with a gesture of intense terror, as he saw Talbot; and a box of lucifer-matches, which he had been carrying in the candlestick, rolled to the ground.

“What are you doing here?” asked Mr. Bulstrode, sternly; “and why did you come in at the window?”

“I warn’t doin’ no wrong,” the softy whined, piteously; “and it a’n’t your business neither,” he added, with a feeble attempt at insolence.

“It is my business. I am Mr. Mellish’s friend and relation; and I have reason to suspect that you are here for no good purpose,” answered Talbot. “I insist upon knowing what you came for.”

“I have n’t come to steal owght, anyhow,” said Mr. Hargraves; “there’s nothing here but chairs and tables, and ‘t a’n’t loikely I’ve come arter them.”

“Perhaps not; but you have come after something, and I insist upon knowing what it is. You would n’t come to this place unless you’d a very strong reason for coming. What have you got there?”

Mr. Bulstrode pointed to the bundle carried by the softy. Stephen Hargraves’ small, red-brown eyes evaded those of his questioner, and made believe to mistake the direction in which Talbot looked.

“What have you got there?” repeated Mr. Bulstrode; “you know well enough what I mean. What have you got there, in that bundle under your arm?”

The softy clutched convulsively at the dingy bundle, and glared at his questioner with something of the savage terror of some ugly animal at bay, except that in his brutalized manhood he was more awkward, and perhaps more repulsive, than the ugliest of lower animals.

“It’s nowght to you, nor to anybody else,” he muttered sulkily. “I suppose a poor chap may fetch his few bits of clothes without bein’ called like this?”

“What clothes? Let me see the clothes.”

“No, I won’t; they’re nowght to you. They — it’s only an old weskit as was give me by one o’ th’ lads in th’ steables.”

“A waistcoat!” cried Mr. Bulstrode; “let me see it this instant. A waistcoat of yours has been particularly inquired for, Mr. Hargraves. It’s a chocolate waistcoat, with yellow stripes and brass buttons, unless I’m very much mistaken. Let me see it.”

Talbot Bulstrode was almost breathless with excitement. The softy stared aghast at the description of his waistcoat, but he was too stupid to comprehend instantaneously the reason for which this garment was wanted. He recoiled for a few paces, and then made a rush toward the window; but Talbot’s hands closed upon his collar, and held him as if in a vice.

“You’d better not trifle with me,” cried Mr. Bulstrode; “I’ve been accustomed to deal with refractory Sepoys in India, and I’ve had a struggle with a tiger before now. Show me that waistcoat.”

“I won’t.”

“By the Heaven above us, you shall.”

“I won’t!”

The two men closed with each other in a hand-to-hand struggle. Powerful as the soldier was, he found himself more than matched by Stephen Hargraves, whose thick-set frame, broad shoulders, and sinewy arms were almost herculean in their build. The struggle lasted for a considerable time — or for a time that seemed considerable to both of the combatants but at last it drew toward its termination, and the heir of all the Bulstrodes, the commander of squadrons of horse, the man who had done battle with the blood-thirsty Sikhs, and ridden against the black mouths of Russian cannon at Balaklava, felt that he could scarcely hope to hold out much longer against the half-witted hanger-on of the Mellish stables. The horny fingers of the softy were upon his throat, the long arms of the softy were writhing round him, and in another moment Talbot Bulstrode lay upon the floor of the north lodge, with the softy’s knee planted upon his heaving chest.

Another moment, and in the dim moonlight — the candle had been thrown down and trampled upon in the beginning of the scuffle — the heir of Bulstrode Castle saw Stephen Hargraves fumbling with his disengaged hand in his breast-pocket.

One moment more, and Mr. Bulstrode heard that sharp metallic noise only associated with the opening of a clasp-knife.

“E’es,” hissed the softy, with his hot breath close upon the fallen man’s cheek, “you wanted t’ see th’ weskit, did you? but you shan’t, for I’ll sarve you as I sarved him. ‘T a’n’t loikely I’ll let you stand between me and two thousand pound.”

Talbot Raleigh Bulstrode had a faint notion that a broad Sheffield blade flashed in the silvery moonlight; but at this moment his senses grew confused under the iron grip of the softy’s hand, and he knew little, except that there was a sudden crashing of glass behind him, a quick trampling of feet, and a strange voice roaring some seafaring oath above his head. The suffocating pressure was suddenly removed from his throat; some one or something was hurled into a corner of the little room; and Mr. Bulstrode sprang to his feet, a trifle dazed and bewildered, but quite ready to do battle again.

“Who is it?” he cried.

“It’s me, Samuel Prodder!” answered the voice that had uttered that dreadful seafaring oath. “You were pretty nigh done for, mate, when I came aboard. It a’n’t the first time I’ve been up here after dark, takin’ a quiet stroll and a pipe, before turning in over yonder”— Mr. Prodder indicated Doncaster by a backward jerk of his thumb. “I’d been watchin’ the light from a distance, till it went out suddenly five minutes ago, and then I came up close to see what was the matter. I don’t know who you are, or what you are, or why you’ve been quarrelling; but I know you’ve been pretty near as nigh your death to-night as ever that chap was in the wood.”

“The waistcoat!” gasped Mr. Bulstrode; “let me see the waistcoat!”

He sprang once more upon the softy, who had rushed toward the door, and was trying to beat out the panel with his iron-bound-clog; but this time Mr. Bulstrode had a stalwart ally in the merchant-captain.

“A bit of rope comes uncommon handy in these cases,” said Samuel Prodder, “for which reason I always make a point of carrying it somewhere about me.”

He plunged up to his elbow in one of the capacious pockets of his tourist peg-tops, and produced a short coil of tarry rope. As he might have lashed a seaman to a mast in the last crisis of a wreck, so he lashed Mr. Stephen Hargraves now, binding him right and left, until the struggling arms and legs, and writhing trunk, were fain to be still.

Now, if you want to ask him any questions, I make no doubt he’ll answer ’em,” said Mr. Prodder, politely. “You’ll find him a deal quieter after that.”

“I can’t thank you now,” Talbot answered, hurriedly; “there’ll be time enough for that by and by.”

“Ay, ay, to be sure, mate,” growled the captain; “no thanks is needed where no thanks is due. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes, a good deal presently; but I must find this waistcoat first. Where did he put it, I wonder? Stay, I’d better try and get a light. Keep your eye upon that man while I look for it.”

Captain Prodder only nodded. He looked upon his scientific lashing of the softy as the triumph of art; but he hovered near his prisoner in compliance with Talbot’s request, ready to fall upon him if he should make any attempt to stir.

There was enough moonlight to enable Mr. Bulstrode to find the lucifers and candlestick after a few minutes search. The candle was not improved by having been trodden upon; but Talbot contrived to light it, and then set to work to look for the waistcoat.

The bundle had rolled into a corner. It was tightly bound with a quantity of whipcord, and was harder than it could have been had it consisted solely of the waistcoat.

“Hold the light for me while I undo this,” Talbot cried, thrusting the candlestick into Mr. Prodder’s hand. He was so impatient that he could scarcely wait while he cut the whip-cord about the bundle with the softy’s huge clasp-knife, which he had picked up while searching for the candle.

“I thought so,” he said, as he unrolled the waistcoat; “the money’s here.”

The money was there, in a small Russia-leather pocket-book, in which Aurora had given it to the murdered man. If there had been any confirmation needed for this fact, the savage yell of rage which broke from Stephen’s lips would have afforded that confirmation.

“It’s the money,” cried Talbot Bulstrode. “I call upon you, sir, to bear witness, whoever you may be, that I find this waistcoat and this pocket-book in the possession of this man, and that I take them from him after a struggle in which he attempts my life.”

“Ay, ay, I know him well enough,” muttered the sailor; “he’s a bad ’un; and him and me have had a stand further, before this.”

“And I call upon you to bear witness that this man is the murderer of James Conyers!”

“WHAT?” roared Samuel Prodder; “him! Why, the double-dyed villain, it was him that put it into my head that it was my sister Eliza’s chi — that it was Mrs. Mellish —”

“Yes, yes, I know. But we’ve got him now. Will you run to the house, and send some of the men to fetch a constable, while I stop here?”

Mr. Prodder assented willingly. He had assisted Talbot in the first instance without any idea of what the business was to lead to. Now he was quite as much excited as Mr. Bulstrode. He scrambled through the lattice, and ran off to the stables, guided by the lighted windows of the grooms’ dormitories.

Talbot waited very quietly while he was gone. He stood at a few paces from the softy, watching Mr. Hargraves as he gnawed savagely at his bonds, in the hope, perhaps, of setting himself free.

“I shall be ready for you,” the young Cornishman said, quietly, “whenever you’re ready for me.”

A crowd of grooms and hangers-on came with lanterns before the constable could arrive; and foremost among them came Mr. John Mellish, very noisy and very unintelligible. The door of the lodge was opened, and they all burst into the little chamber, where, heedless of grooms, gardeners, stable-boys, hangers-on, and rabble, John Mellish fell on his friend’s breast and wept aloud.

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