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him off so cheaply. She set to work to pump him, and laboured so assiduously that she soon exhausted that very small amount of intelligence which he was disposed to afford her, being perfectly aware of the process to which he was subjected, and more than equal to the lady in dexterity. The ensign's widow, therefore, ascertained little more than that Mr. Conyers was a perfect stranger to John Mellish and his wife, neither of whom he had ever seen.
Having failed to gain much by this interview, Mrs. Powell was anxious to bring it to a speedy termination.
"Perhaps you would like a glass of wine after your walk ?" she said; “I'll ring for some, and I can inquire at the same time about your
letters. I dare say you are anxious to hear from the relatives you have left at home."
Mr. Conyers smiled for the second time. He had neither had a home nor any relatives to speak of, since the most infantine period of his existence; but had been thrown upon the world a sharp-witted adventurer at seven or eight years old. The “ relatives” for whose communication he was looking out so eagerly were members of the humbler class of bookmen with whom he did business.
The servant despatched by Mrs. Powell returned with a decanter of sherry and about half-a-dozen letters for Mr. Conyers.
“You'd better bring the lamp, William,” said Mrs. Powell, as the man left the room; “for I'm sure you'll never be able to read your
letters by this light," she added politely to Mr. Conyers.
The fact was, that Mrs. Powell, afflicted by that diseased curiosity of which I have spoken, wanted to know what kind of correspondents these were whose letters the trainer was so anxious to receive, and sent for the lamp in order that she might get the full benefit of any scraps of information to be got at by rapid glances and dexterously stolen peeps.
The servant brought a brilliant camphine-lamp, and Mr. Conyers, not at all abashed by Mrs. Powell's condescension, drew his chair close to the table, and after tossing off a glass of sherry, settled himself to the perusal of his letters.
The ensign's widow, with some needlework in her hand, sat directly opposite to him at the small round table, with nothing but the pedestal of the lamp between them.
James Conyers took up the first letter, examined the superscription and seal, tore open the envelope, read the brief communication upon half a sheet of note-paper, and thrust it into his waistcoat-pocket. Mrs. Powell, using her eyes to the utmost, saw nothing but a few lines in a scratchy plebeian handwriting, and a signature which, seen at a disadvantage upside-down, didn't look unlike Johnson. The second envelope contained only a tissue-paper betting-list; the third held a dirty scrap of paper with a few words scrawled in pencil; but at sight of the uppermost envelope of the remaining three Mr. James Conyers started as if he had been shot. Mrs. Powell looked from the face of the trainer to the superscription of the letter, and was scarcely less surprised than Mr. Conyers. The superscription was in the handwriting of Aurora Mellish.
It was a peculiar hand; a hand about which there could be no mistake ; not an elegant Italian hand, sloping, slender, and feminine, but large and bold, with ponderous up-strokes and down-strokes, easy to recognise at a greater distance than that which separated Mrs. Powell from the trainer. There was no room for any doubt. Mrs. Mellish had written to her husband's servant, and the man was evidently familiar with her hand, yet surprised at receiving her letter.
He tore open the envelope, and read the contents eagerly twice over, frowning darkly as he read.
Mrs. Powell suddenly remembered that she had left part of her needlework upon a cheffonier behind the young man’s chair, and rose quietly to fetch it. He was so much engrossed by the letter in his hand that he was not aware of the pale face which peered for one brief moment over his shoulder, as the faded, hungry eyes stole a glance at the writing on the page.
The letter was written on the first side of a sheet of note-paper, with only a few words carried over to the second page. It was this second page which Mrs. Powell saw. The words written at the top of the leaf were these,—"Above all, express no surprise. A."
There was no ordinary conclusion to the letter; no other signature than this big capital A.
THE TRAINER'S MESSENGER. MR. JAMES CONYERS made himself very much at home at Mellish Park. Poor Langley, the invalid trainer, who was a Yorkshireman, felt himself almost bewildered by the easy insolence of the town-bred trainer. He looked so much too handsome and dashing for his office, that the grooms and stable-boys bowed down to him, and paid court to him as they had never done to simple Langley, who had been very often obliged to enforce his commands with a horsewhip or a serviceable leather strap. James Conyers's handsome face was a capital with which that gentleman knew very well how to trade, and he took the full amount of interest that was to be got for it without compunction. I am sorry to be obliged to confess that this man, who had sat in the artists' studios and the life academies for Apollo and Antinous was selfish to the backbone ; and so long as he was well fed and clothed and housed and provided for, cared very little whence the food and clothing came, or who kept the house that sheltered him, or filled the purse which he jingled in his trouserspocket. Heaven forbid that I should be called upon for his biography. I only know that he sprang from the mire of the streets, like some male Aphrodite rising from the mud; that he was a blackleg in the gutter at four years of age, and a welsher in the matter of marbles and hardbake before his fifth birthday. Even then he was for ever reaping the advantage of a handsome face; for tender-hearted matrons, who would have been deaf to the cries of a snub-nosed urchin, petted and compassionated the pretty boy.
In his earliest childhood he learned therefore to trade upon his beauty, and to get the most that he could for that merchandise; and he grew up utterly unprincipled, and carried his handsome face out into the world to help him on to fortune. He was extravagant, lazy, luxurious, and selfish; but he had that easy indifferent grace of manner which passes with shallow observers for good-nature. He would not have gone three paces out of his way to serve his best friend; but he smiled and showed his handsome white teeth with equal liberality to all his acquaintance; and took credit for being a frank, generous-hearted fellow on the strength of that smile. He was skilled in the uses of that gilt gingerbread of generosity which so often passes current for sterling gold. He was dexterous in the handling of those cogged dice which have all the rattle of the honest ivories. A slap on the back, a hearty shake of the hand, often went as far from him as the loan of a sovereign from another man and Jim Conyers was firmly believed in by the doubtful gentleman with whom he associated, as a good-natured fellow who was nobody's enemy but his own. He had that superficial Cockney cleverness which is generally called knowledge of the world, -knowledge of the worst side of the world,--and utter ignorance of all that is noble upon earth, it might perhaps be more justly called; he had matriculated in the streets of London, and graduated on the race-course; he had never read any higher literature than the Sunday papers and the Racing Calendar, but he contrived to make a very little learning go a long way, and was generally spoken of by his employers as a superior young man, considerably above his station.
Mr. Conyers expressed himself very well contented with the rustic lodge which had been chosen for his dwelling-house. He condescendingly looked on while the stable-lads carried the furniture, selected for him by the housekeeper from the spare servants' rooms, from the house to the lodge, and assisted in the arrangement of the tiny rustic chambers,
about in his shirt-sleeves, and showing himself wonderfully handy with a hammer and a pocket full of nails. He sat upon a table and drank beer with such charming affability, that the stable-lads were as grateful to him as if he had treated them to that beverage. Indeed, seeing the frank cordiality with which James Conyers smote the lads upon the back, and prayed them to be active with the can, it was almost difficult to remember that he was not the giver of the feast, and that it was Mr. John Mellish who would have to pay the brewer's bill. What, amongst all the virtues which adorn this earth, can be more charming than the generosity of upper servants! With what hearty hospitality they pass the bottle ! how liberally they throw the seven-shilling gunpowder into the teapot! how unsparingly they spread the twenty-penny fresh butter on the toast! and what a glorious welcome they give to the droppersin of the servants' hall! It is scarcely wonderful that the recipients of their bounty forget that it is the master of the household who will be called upon for the expenses of the banquet, and who will look ruefully at the total of the quarter's housekeeping.
It was not to be supposed that so dashing a fellow as Mr. James Conyers could, in the lodginghouse-keepers' patois, “ do for" himself. He required a humble drudge to black his boots, make his bed, boil his kettle, cook his dinner, and keep the two little chambers at the lodge in decent order. Casting about in a reflective mood for a fitting person for this office, his recreant fancy hit upon Steeve Hargraves the Softy. He was sitting upon the sill of an open window in the little parlour of the lodge, smoking a cigar and drinking out of a can of beer, when this idea came into his head. He was so tickled by the notion, that he took his cigar from his mouth in order to laugh at his ease.
“The man's a character,” he said, still laughing, "and I'll have him to wait upon me. He's been forbid the place, has he? Turned out neck and crop because my Lady Higbropes horsewhipped him. Never mind that; I'll give him leave to come back, if it's only for the fun of the thing."
He limped out upon the high-road half an hour after this, and went into the village to find Steeve Hargraves. He had little difficulty in doing this, as every body knew the Softy, and a chorus of boys volunteered to fetch him from the house of the doctor, in whose service he did odd jobs, and brought him to Mr. Conyers five minutes afterwards, looking very hot and dirty, but as pale of complexion as usual.
Stephen Hargraves agreed very readily to abandon his present occupation and to wait upon the trainer, in consideration of five shillings & week and his board and lodging; but his countenance fell when he discovered that Mr. Conyers was in the service of John Mellish and lived on the outskirts of the park.
“ You're afraid of setting foot upon his estate, are you?" said the trainer, laughing. “Never mind, Steeve, I give you leave to come, and I should like to see the man or woman in that house who'll interfere with any wbim of mine. I give you leave. You understand.”
The Softy touched his cap and tried to look as if he understood ; but it was very evident that he did not understand, and it was some time before Mr. Conyers could persuade him that his life would be safe within the gates of Mellish Park; but he was ultimately induced to trust himself at the north lodge, and promised to present himself there in the course of the evening
Now Mr. James Conyers had exerted himself as much in order to overcome the cowardly objections of this rustic clown as he could have done if Steeve Hargraves had been the most accomplished body servant in the three ridings. Perhaps there was some deeper motive than any regard for the man himself in this special preference for the Softy; some lurking malice, some petty spite, the key to which was hidden in his own
breast. If, while standing smoking in the village street, chaffing the Softy for the edification of the lookers-on, and taking so much trouble to secure such an ignorant and brutish esquire, - if one shadow of the future, so very near at hand, could have fallen across his path, surely he would have instinctively recoiled from the striking of that ill-omened bargain.
But James Conyers had no superstition; indeed, he was so pleasantly free from that weakness as to be a disbeliever in all things in heaven and on earth, except himself and his own merits; so he hired the Softy, for the fun of the thing, as he called it, and walked slowly back to the park gates to watch for the return of Mr. and Mrs. Mellish, who were expected that afternoon.
The woman at the lodge brought him out a chair, and begged him to rest himself under the portico. He thanked her with a pleasant smile, and sat down amongst the roses and honeysuckles, and lighted another cigar.
“ You'll find the north lodge dull, I'm thinking, sir," the woman said, from the open window, where she had reseated herself with her needlework.
“Well, it isn't very lively, ma'am, certainly,” answered Mr. Conyers, "but it serves my purpose well enough. The place is lonely enough for a man to be murdered there and nobody be any the wiser ; but as I have nothing to lose, it will answer well enough for me."
He might perhaps have said a good deal more about the place, but at this moment the sound of wheels upon the high-road announced the return of the travellers, and two or three minutes afterwards the carriage dashed through the gate, and past Mr. James Conyers.
Whatever power this man might have over Aurora, whatever knowledge of a compromising secret he might have obtained and traded upon, the fearlessness of her nature showed itself now as always, and she never flinched at the sight of him. If he had placed himself in her way on purpose to watch the effect of his presence, he must have been disappointed; for except that a cold shadow of disdain passed over her face as the carriage drove by him, he might have imagined himself unseen. She looked pale and careworn, and her eyes seemed to have grown larger since her illness; but she held her head as erect as ever, and had still the air of imperial grandeur which constituted one of her chief charms.
“So that is Mr. Mellish,” said Conyers, as the carriage disappeared. “He seems very fond of his wife.”
“Yes, sure; and he is too. Fond of her! Why they say there isn't another such couple in all Yorkshire. And she's fond of him too, bless her handsome face! But who wouldn't be fond of Master John ?"
Mr. Conyers shrugged his shoulders; these patriarchal habits and domestic virtues had no particular charm for him.
“She had plenty of money, hadn't she ?” he asked, by way of bringing the conversation into a more rational channel.