« VorigeDoorgaan »
tage 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' rcoms, from the house to the lodge, and assisted in the arrangement of the tiny rustic chambers, limping 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 droppers
in 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 Highropes 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 a 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 whim 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.
"Plenty of money! I should think so. They say her pa gave her fifty thousand pounds down on her wedding-day; not that our master wants money, he's got enough and to spare."
"Ah, to be sure," answered Mr. Conyers; "that's always the way of it. The banker gave her fifty thousand, did he? If Miss Floyd had married a poor devil, now, I don't suppose her father would have given her fifty sixpences."
"Well, no; if she'd gone against his wishes, I don't suppose he would. He was here in the spring,-a nice, white-haired old gentleman; but failing fast."
Failing fast. And Mrs. Mellish will come into a quarter of a million at his death, I suppose. Good afternoon, ma'am. It's a queer world." Mr. Conyers took up his stick, and limped away under the trees, repeating this ejaculation as he went. It was a habit with this gentleman to attribute the good fortune of other people to some eccentricity in the machinery of life, by which he, the only really deserving person in the world, had been deprived of his natural rights. He went through the wood into a meadow where some of the horses under his charge were at grass, and spent upwards of an hour lounging about the hedgerows, sitting on gates, smoking his pipe, and staring at the animals, which seemed about the hardest work he had to do in his capacity of trainer. "It isn't a very hard life, when all's said and done," he thought, as he looked at a group of mares and foals who in their eccentric diversions were performing a species of Sir Roger de Coverley up and down the meadow. "It isn't a very hard life; for as long as a fellow swears hard and fast at the lads, and gets rid of plenty of oats, he's right enough. These country gentlemen always judge a man's merits by the quantity of corn they have to pay for. Feed their horses as fat as pigs, and never enter 'em except among such a set of screws as an active pig could beat; and they'll swear by you. They'd think more of having a horse win the Margate plate, or the Hampstead Heath sweepstakes, than if he ran a good fourth in the Derby. Bless their innocent hearts! I should think fellows with plenty of money and no brains must have been invented for the good of fellows with plenty of brains and no money; and that's how we contrive to keep our equilibrium in the universal see-saw."
Mr. James Conyers, puffing lazy clouds of transparent blue smoke from his lips, and pondering thus, looked as sentimental as if he had been ruminating upon the last three pages of the Bride of Abydos, or the death of Paul Dombey. He had that romantic style of beauty peculiar to dark-blue eyes and long black lashes; and he could not wonder what he should have for dinner without a dreamy pensiveness in the purple shadows of those deep-blue orbs. He had found the sentimentality of his beauty almost of greater use to him than the beauty itself. It was this sentimentality which always put him at an advantage with his employers. He looked like an exiled prince doing menial service in bitterness of spirit and a turned-down collar. He looked like Lara returned
to his own domains to train the horses of a usurper. He looked, in short, like any thing but what he was,-a selfish, good-for-nothing, lazy scoundrel, who was well up in the useful art of doing the minimum of work, and getting the maximum of wages.
He strolled slowly back to his rustic habitation, where he found the Softy waiting for him; the kettle boiling upon a handful of bright fire, and some tea-things laid out upon the little round table. Mr. Conyers looked rather contemptuously at the humble preparations.
"I've mashed the tea for 'ee," said the Softy; "I thought you'd like a coop."
The trainer 'shrugged his shoulders.
"I can't say I'm particularly attached to the cat-lap," he said, laughing; "I've had rather too much of it when I've been in training,-halfand-half, warm tea, and cold-drawn castor-oil. I'll send you into Doncaster for some spirits to-morrow, my man; or to-night, perhaps," he added reflectively, resting his elbow upon the table and his chin in the hollow of his hand.
He sat for some time in this thoughtful attitude, his retainer Steeve Hargraves watching him intently all the while, with that half-wondering, half-admiring stare with which a very ugly creature-a creature so ugly as to know it is ugly-looks at a very handsome one.
At the close of his reverie, Mr. Conyers took out a clumsy silver watch, and sat for a few minutes staring vacantly at the dial. "Close upon six," he muttered at last. "What time do they dine at
the house, Steeve ?"
"Seven o'clock," answered the Softy.
"Seven o'clock. Then you'd have time to run there with a message, or a letter, and catch 'em just as they're going in to dinner."
The Softy stared aghast at his new master.
"A message or a letter," he repeated; "for Mr. Mellish?" "No; for Mrs. Mellish."
"But I daren't," exclaimed Stephen Hargraves; "I daren't go nigh the house, least of all to speak to her. I don't forget the day she horsewhipped me. I've never seen her since, and I don't want to see her. You think I am a coward, don't 'ee ?" he said, stopping suddenly, and looking at the trainer, whose handsome lips were curved into a contemptuous smile. "You think I'm a coward, don't 'ee, now ?" he repeated.
"Well, I don't think you are over valiant," answered Mr. Conyers, "to be afraid of a woman, though she was the veriest devil that ever played fast and loose with a man."
"Shall I tell you what it is I'm afraid of?" said Steeve Hargraves, hissing the words through his closed teeth in that unpleasant whisper peculiar to him. "It isn't Mrs. Mellish. It's myself. It's this,"―he grasped something in the loose pocket of his trousers as he spoke,—“it's this. I'm afraid to trust myself a-nigh her, for fear I should spring upon her, and cut her throat from ear to ear. I've seen her in my dreams sometimes,