Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 10

Fighting the Battle.

The new year began in sadness at Felden Woods, for it found Archibald Floyd watching in the sick-room of his only daughter.

Aurora had taken her place at the long dinner-table upon the night of Talbot’s departure, and, except for being perhaps a little more vivacious and brilliant than usual, her manner had in no way changed after that terrible interview in the bay-windowed room. She had talked to John Mellish, and had played and sung to her younger cousins; she had stood behind her father, looking over his cards through all the fluctuating fortunes of a rubber of long whist; and the next morning her maid had found her in a raging fever, with burning cheeks and bloodshot eyes, her long purple-black hair all tumbled and tossed about the pillows, and her dry hands scorching to the touch. The telegraph brought two grave London physicians to Felden before noon, and the house was clear of visitors by night-fall, only Mrs. Alexander and Lucy remaining to assist in nursing the invalid. The West-End doctors said very little. This fever was as other fevers to them. The young lady had caught a cold, perhaps; she had been imprudent, as these young people will be, and had received some sudden chill. She had very likely overheated herself with dancing, or had sat in a draught, or eaten an ice. There was no immediate danger to be apprehended. The patient had a superb constitution; there was wonderful vitality in the system; and, with careful treatment she would soon come round. Careful treatment meant a two-guinea visit every day from each of these learned gentlemen, though, perhaps, had they given utterance to their inmost thoughts, they would have owned that, for all they could tell to the contrary, Aurora Floyd wanted nothing but to be let alone, and left in a darkened chamber to fight out the battle by herself. But the banker would have had all Saville Row summoned to the sick-bed of his child, if he could by such a measure have saved her a moment’s pain; and he implored the two physicians to come to Felden twice a day if necessary, and to call in other physicians if they had the least fear for their patient. Aurora was delirious; but she revealed very little in that delirium. I do not quite believe that people often make the pretty, sentimental, consecutive confessions under the influence of fever which are so freely attributed to them by the writers of romances. We rave about foolish things in those cruel moments of feverish madness. We are wretched because there is a man with a white hat on in the room, or a black cat upon the counterpane, or spiders crawling about the bed-curtains, or a coal-heaver who will put a sack of coals on our chest. Our delirious fancies are like our dreams, and have very little connection with the sorrows or joys which make up the sum of our lives.

So Aurora Floyd talked of horses and dogs, and masters and governesses; of childish troubles that had afflicted her years before, and of girlish pleasures, which, in her normal state of mind, had been utterly forgotten. She seldom recognized Lucy or Mrs. Alexander, mistaking them for all kinds of unlikely people; but she never entirely forgot her father, and, indeed, always seemed to be conscious of his presence, and was perpetually appealing to him, imploring him to forgive her for some act of childish disobedience committed in those departed years of which she talked so much.

John Mellish had taken up his abode at the Grayhound Inn, in Croydon High street, and drove every day to Felden Woods, leaving his phaeton at the park-gates, and walking up to the house to make his inquiries. The servants took notice of the Yorkshireman’s pale face, and set him down at once as “sweet” upon their young lady. They liked him a great deal better than Captain Bulstrode, who had been too “‘igh” and “‘aughty” for them. John flung his half-sovereigns right and left when he came to the hushed mansion in which Aurora lay, with loving friends about her. He held the footman who answered the door by the button-hole, and would have gladly paid the man half a crown a minute for his time while he asked anxious questions about Miss Floyd’s health. Mr. Mellish was warmly sympathized with, therefore, in the servants’ hall at Felden. His man had informed the banker’s household how he was the best master in England, and how Mellish Park was a species of terrestrial paradise, maintained for the benefit of trustworthy retainers; and Mr. Floyd’s servants expressed a wish that their young lady might get well, and marry the “fair one,” as they called John. They came to the conclusion that there had been what they called “a split” between Miss Floyd and the captain, and that he had gone off in a huff, which was like his impudence, seeing that their young lady would have hundreds of thousands of pounds by and by, and was good enough for a duke, instead of a beggarly officer.

Talbot’s letter to Mr. Floyd reached Felden Woods on the 27th of December, but it lay for some time unopened upon the library table. Archibald had scarcely heeded his intended son-in-law’s disappearance in his anxiety about Aurora. When he did open the letter, Captain Bulstrode’s words were almost meaningless to him, though he was just able to gather that the engagement had been broken — by his daughter’s wish, as Talbot seemed to infer.

The banker’s reply to this communication was very brief; he wrote:

“MY DEAR SIR— Your letter arrived here some days since, but has only been opened by me this morning. I have laid it aside, to be replied to, D.V., at a future time. At present I am unable to attend to anything. My daughter is seriously ill. “Yours obediently, “ARCHIBALD FLOYD.”

“Seriously ill!” Talbot Bulstrode sat for nearly an hour with the banker’s letter in his hand, looking at these two words. How much or how little might the sentence mean? At one moment, remembering Archibald Floyd’s devotion to his daughter, he thought that this serious illness was doubtless some very trifling business — some feminine nervous attack, common to young ladies upon any hitch in their love-affairs; but five minutes afterward he fancied that those words had an awful meaning — that Aurora was dying — dying of the shame and anguish of that interview in the little chamber at Felden.

Heaven above! what had he done? Had he murdered this beautiful creature, whom he loved a million times better than himself? Had he killed her with those impalpable weapons, those sharp and cruel words which he had spoken on the 25th of December? He acted the scene over again and again, until the sense of outraged honor, then so strong upon him, seemed to grow dim and confused, and he began almost to wonder why he had quarrelled with Aurora. What if, after all, this secret involved only some school-girl’s folly? No; the crouching figure and ghastly face gave the lie to that hope. The secret, whatever it might be, was a matter of life and death to Aurora Floyd. He dared not try to guess what it was. He tried to close his mind against the surmises that would arise to him. In the first days that succeeded that terrible Christmas he determined to leave England. He would try to get some government appointment that would take him away to the other end of the world, where he could never hear Aurora’s name — never be enlightened as to the mystery that had separated them. But now, now that she was ill — in danger, perhaps — how could he leave the country? How could he go away to some place where he might one day open the English newspapers and see her name among the list of deaths?

Talbot was a dreary guest at Bulstrode Castle. His mother and his cousin Constance respected his pale face, and held themselves aloof from him in fear and trembling; but his father asked what the deuce was the matter with the boy, that he looked so chapfallen, and why he didn’t take his gun and go out on the moors, and get an appetite for his dinner like a Christian, instead of moping in his own rooms all day long, biting his fingers’ ends.

Once, and once only, did Lady Bulstrode allude to Aurora Floyd.

“You asked Miss Floyd for an explanation, I suppose, Talbot?” she said.

“Yes, mother.”

“And the result —”

“Was the termination of our engagement. I had rather you would not speak to me of this subject again, if you please, mother.”

Talbot took his gun, and went out upon the moors, as his father advised; but it was not to slaughter the last of the pheasants, but to think in peace of Aurora Floyd, that the young man went out. The low-lying clouds upon the moorlands seemed to shut him in like prison-walls. How many miles of desolate country lay between the dark expanse on which he stood and the red-brick mansion at Felden! how many leafless hedge-rows! how many frozen streams! It was only a day’s journey, certainly, by the Great Western; but there was something cruel in the knowledge that half the length of England lay between the Kentish woods and that far angle of the British Isles upon which Castle Bulstrode reared its weather-beaten walls. The wail of mourning voices might be loud in Kent, and not a whisper of death reach the listening ears in Cornwall. How he envied the lowest servant at Felden, who knew day by day and hour by hour of the progress of the battle between Death and Aurora Floyd! And yet, after all, what was she to him? What did it matter to him if she were well or ill? The grave could never separate them more utterly than they had been separated from the very moment in which he discovered that she was not worthy to be his wife. He had done her no wrong; he had given her a full and fair opportunity of clearing herself from the doubtful shadow on her name, and she had been unable to do so. Nay, more, she had given him every reason to suppose, by her manner, that the shadow was even a darker one than he had feared. Was he to blame, then? Was it his fault if she were ill? Were his days to be misery, and his nights a burden, because of her? He struck the stock of his gun violently upon the ground at the thought, and thrust the ramrod down the barrel, and loaded his fowling-piece furiously with nothing; and then, casting himself at full length upon the stunted turf, lay there till the early dusk closed in about him, and the soft evening dew saturated his shooting-coat, and he was in a fair way to be stricken with rheumatic fever.

I might fill chapters with the foolish sufferings of this young man; but I fear he must have become very wearisome to my afflicted readers — to those, at least, who have never suffered from this fever. The sharper the disease, the shorter its continuance; so Talbot will be better by and by, and will look back at his old self, and laugh at his old agonies. Surely this inconstancy of ours is the worst of all — this fickleness, by reason of which we cast off our former selves with no more compunction than we feel in flinging off a worn-out garment. Our poor, threadbare selves, the shadows of what we were! With what sublime, patronizing pity, with what scornful compassion, we look back upon the helpless dead and gone creatures, and wonder that anything so foolish could have been allowed to cumber the earth! Shall I feel the same contempt ten years hence for myself as I am to-day as I feel to-day for myself as I was ten years ago? Will the loves and aspirations, the beliefs and desires of to-day, appear as pitiful then as the dead loves and dreams of the by-gone decade? Shall I look back in pitying wonder, and think what a fool that young man was, although there was something candid and innocent in his very stupidity, after all? Who can wonder that the last visit to Paris killed Voltaire? Fancy the octogenarian looking round the national theatre, and seeing himself, through an endless vista of dim years, a young man again, paying his court to a “goat-faced cardinal,” and being beaten by De Rohan’s lackeys in broad daylight.

Have you ever visited some still country town after a lapse of years, and wondered, oh, fast-living reader, to find the people you knew in your last visit still alive and thriving, with hair unbleached as yet, although you have lived and suffered whole centuries since then? Surely Providence gives us this sublimely egotistical sense of Time as a set-off against the brevity of our lives! I might make this book a companion in bulk to the Catalogue of the British Museum if I were to tell all that Talbot Bulstrode felt and suffered in the month of January, 1858 — if I were to anatomize the doubts, and confessions, and self-contradictions, the mental resolutions, made one moment to be broken the next. I refrain, therefore, and will set down nothing but the fact that, on a certain Sunday, midway in the month, the captain, sitting in the family pew at Bulstrode church, directly facing the monument of Admiral Hartley Bulstrode, who fought and died in the days of Queen Elizabeth, registered a silent oath that, as he was a gentleman and a Christian, he would henceforth abstain from holding any voluntary communication with Aurora Floyd. But for this vow he must have broken down, and yielded to his yearning fear and love, and gone to Felden Woods to throw himself, blind and unquestioning, at the feet of the sick woman.

The tender green of the earliest leaflets was breaking out in bright patches upon the hedge-rows round Felden Woods; the ashbuds were no longer black upon the front of March, and pale violets and primroses made exquisite tracery in the shady nooks beneath the oaks and beeches; all nature was rejoicing in the mild April weather when Aurora Floyd lifted her dark eyes to her father’s face with something of their old look and familiar light. The battle had been a long and severe one, but it was wellnigh over now, the physicians said; defeated Death drew back for a while, to wait a better opportunity for making his fatal spring; and the feeble victor was to be carried down stairs to sit in the drawing-room for the first time since the night of December the 25th.

John Mellish, happening to be at Felden that day, was allowed the supreme privilege of carrying the fragile burden in his strong arms from the door of the sick-chamber to the great sofa by the fire in the drawing-room, attended by a procession of happy people bearing shawls and pillows, vinaigrettes and scent-bottles, and other invalid paraphernalia. Every creature at Felden was devoted to this adored convalescent. Archibald Floyd lived only to minister to her; gentle Lucy waited on her night and day, fearful to trust the service to menial hands: Mrs. Powell, like some pale and quiet shadow, lurked amid the bed-curtains, soft of foot and watchful of eye, invaluable in the sick-chamber, as the doctors said. Throughout her illness, Aurora had never mentioned the name of Talbot Bulstrode. Not even when the fever was at its worst, and the brain most distraught, had that familiar name escaped her lips. Other names, strange to Lucy, had been repeated by her again and again: the names of places and horses, and slangy technicalities of the turf, had interlarded the poor girl’s brain-sick babble; but, whatever were her feelings with regard to Talbot, no word had revealed their depth or sadness. Yet I do not think that my poor, dark-eyed heroine was utterly feelingless upon this point. When they first spoke of carrying her down stairs, Mrs. Powell and Lucy proposed the little bay-windowed chamber, which was small and snug, and had a southern aspect, as the fittest place for the invalid; but Aurora cried out, shuddering, that she would never enter that hateful chamber again.

As soon as ever she was strong enough to bear the fatigue of the journey, it was considered advisable to remove her from Felden, and Leamington was suggested by the doctors as the best place for the change — a mild climate and a pretty inland retreat, a hushed and quiet town, peculiarly adapted to invalids, being almost deserted by other visitors after the hunting-season.

Shakespeare’s birthday had come and gone, and the high festivals at Stratford were over, when Archibald Floyd took his pale daughter to Leamington. A furnished cottage had been engaged for them a mile and a half out of the town; a pretty place, half villa, half farmhouse, with walls of white plaster, checkered with beams of black wood, and wellnigh buried in a luxuriant and trimly-kept flower-garden; a pleasant place, forming one of a little cluster of rustic buildings crowded about a gray old church in a nook of the roadway, where two or three green lanes met, and went branching off between overhanging hedges; a most retired spot, yet clamorous with that noise which is of all others cheerful and joyous — the hubbub of farm-yards, the cackle of poultry, the cooing of pigeons, the monotonous lowing of lazy cattle, and the squabbling grunt of quarrelsome pigs. Archibald could not have brought his daughter to a better place. The checkered farm-house seemed a haven of rest to this poor, weary girl of nineteen. It was so pleasant to lie wrapped in shawls, on a chintz-covered sofa, in the open window, listening to the rustic noises in the straw-littered yard upon the other side of the hedge, with her faithful Bow-wow’s big fore paws resting on the cushions at her feet. The sounds in the farm-yard were pleasanter to Aurora than the monotonous inflections of Mrs. Powell’s voice; but as that lady considered it a part of her duty to read aloud for the invalid’s delectation, Miss Floyd was too good-natured to own how tired she was of Marmion and Childe Harold, Evangeline and The Queen of the May, and how she would have preferred, in her present state of mind, to listen to a lively dispute between a brood of ducks round the pond in the farm-yard, or a trifling discussion in the pig-sty, to the sublimest lines ever penned by poet, living or dead. The poor girl had suffered very much, and there was a certain sensuous, lazy pleasure in this slow recovery, this gradual return to strength. Her own nature revived in unison with the bright revival of the genial summer weather. As the trees in the garden put forth new strength and beauty, so the glorious vitality of her constitution returned with much of its wonted power. The bitter blows had left their scars behind them, but they had not killed her after all. They had not utterly changed her even, for glimpses of the old Aurora appeared day by day in the pale convalescent; and Archibald Floyd, whose life was at best but a reflected existence, felt his hopes revive as he looked at his daughter. Lucy and her mother had gone back to the villa at Fulham, and to their own family duties; so the Leamington party consisted only of Aurora and her father, and that pale shadow of propriety, the ensign’s light-haired widow. But they were not long without a visitor. John Mellish, artfully taking the banker at a disadvantage in some moment of flurry and confusion at Felden Woods, had extorted from him an invitation to Leamington, and a fortnight after their arrival he presented his stalwart form and fair face at the low, wooden gates of the checkered cottage. Aurora laughed (for the first time since her illness) as she saw that faithful adorer come, carpet-bag in hand, through the labyrinth of grass and flower-beds toward the open window at which she and her father sat; and Archibald seeing that first gleam of gayety in the beloved face, could have hugged John Mellish for being the cause of it. He would have embraced a street-tumbler, or the low comedian of a booth at a fair, or a troop of performing dogs and monkeys, or anything upon earth that could win a smile from his sick child. Like the Eastern potentate in the fairy tale, who always offers half his kingdom and his daughter’s hand to any one who can cure the princess of her bilious headache, or extract her carious tooth, Archibald would have opened a banker’s account in Lombard street, with a fabulous sum to start with, for any one who could give pleasure to this black-eyed girl, now smiling, for the first time in that year, at sight of the big, fair-faced Yorkshireman coming to pay his foolish worship at her shrine.

It was not to be supposed that Mr. Floyd had felt no wonder as to the cause of the rupture of his daughter’s engagement to Talbot Bulstrode. The anguish and terror endured by him during her long illness had left no room for any other thought; but since the passing away of the danger he had pondered not a little upon the abrupt rupture between the lovers. He ventured once, in the first week of their stay at Leamington, to speak to her upon the subject, asking why it was she had dismissed the captain. Now if there was one thing more hateful than another to Aurora Floyd, it was a lie. I do not say that she had never told one in the course of her life. There are some acts of folly which carry falsehood and dissimulation at their heels as certainly as the shadows which follow us when we walk toward the evening sun; and we very rarely swerve from the severe boundary-line of right without being dragged ever so much farther than we calculated upon across the border. Alas! my heroine is not faultless. She would take her shoes off to give them to the bare-footed poor; she would take the heart from her breast, if she could by so doing heal the wounds she has inflicted upon the loving heart of her father. But a shadow of mad folly has blotted her motherless youth, and she has a terrible harvest to reap from that lightly-sown seed, and a cruel expiation to make for that unforgotten wrong. Yet her natural disposition is all truth and candor; and there are many young ladies, whose lives have been as primly ruled and ordered as the fair pleasure-gardens of a Tyburnian Square, who could tell a falsehood with a great deal better grace than Aurora Floyd. So, when her father asked her why she had dismissed Talbot Bulstrode, she made no answer to that question, but simply told him that the quarrel had been a very painful one, and that she hoped never to hear the captain’s name again, although at the same time she assured Mr. Floyd that her lover’s conduct had been in nowise unbecoming a gentleman and a man of honor. Archibald implicitly obeyed his daughter in this matter, and, the name of Talbot Bulstrode never being spoken, it seemed as if the young man had dropped out of their lives, or as if he had never had any part in the destiny of Aurora Floyd. Heaven knows what Aurora herself felt and suffered in the quiet of her low-roofed, white-curtained little chamber, with the soft May moonlight stealing in at the casement windows, and creeping in wan radiance about the walls. Heaven only knows the bitterness of the silent battle. Her vitality made her strong to suffer; her vivid imagination intensified every throb of pain. In a dull and torpid soul grief is a slow anguish; but with her it was a fierce and tempestuous emotion, in which past and future seemed rolled together with the present to make a concentrated agony. But, by an all-wise dispensation, the stormy sorrow wears itself out by reason of its very violence, while the dull woe drags its slow length sometimes through weary years, becoming at last ingrafted in the very nature of the patient sufferer, as some diseases become part of our constitutions. Aurora was fortunate in being permitted to fight her battle in silence, and to suffer unquestioned. If the dark hollow rings about her eyes told of sleepless nights, Archibald Floyd forbore to torment her with anxious speeches and trite consolations. The clairvoyance of love told him that it was better to let her alone. So the trouble hanging over the little circle was neither seen nor spoken of. Aurora kept her skeleton in some quiet corner, and no one saw the grim skull, or heard the rattle of the dry bones. Archibald Floyd read his newspapers and wrote his letters; Mrs. Walter Powell tended the convalescent, who reclined during the best part of the day on the sofa in the open window; and John Mellish loitered about the garden and the farm-yard, leaned on the low white gate, smoking his cigar, and talking to the men about the place, and was in and out of the house twenty times in an hour. The banker pondered sometimes in serio-comic perplexity as to what was to be done with this big Yorkshireman, who hung upon him like a good-natured monster of six feet two, conjured into existence by the hospitality of a modern Frankenstein. He had invited him to dinner, and, lo! he appeared to be saddled with him for life. He could not tell the friendly, generous, loud-spoken creature to go away. Besides, Mr. Mellish was, on the whole, very useful, and he did much toward keeping Aurora in apparently good spirits. Yet, on the other hand, was it right to tamper with this great loving heart? Was it just to let the young man linger in the light of those black eyes, and then send him away when the invalid was equal to the effort of giving him his congé? Archibald Floyd did not know that John had been rejected by his daughter on a certain morning at Brighton, so he made up his mind to speak frankly, and sound the depths of his visitor’s feelings.

Mrs. Powell was making tea at a little table near one of the windows, Aurora had fallen asleep with an open book in her hand, and the banker walked with John Mellish up and down an espaliered alley in the golden sunset.

Archibald freely communicated his perplexities to the Yorkshireman. “I need not tell you, my dear Mellish,” he said, “how pleasant it is to me to have you here. I never had a son; but if it had pleased God to give me one, I could have wished him to be just such a frank, noble-hearted fellow as yourself. I’m an old man, and have seen a great deal of trouble — the sort of trouble which strikes deeper home to the heart than any sorrows that begin in Lombard street or on ‘Change; but I feel younger in your society, and I find myself clinging to you and leaning on you as a father might upon his son. You may believe, then, that I don’t wish to get rid of you.”

“I do, Mr. Floyd; but do you think that any one else wishes to get rid of me? Do you think I’m a nuisance to Miss Floyd?”

“No, Mellish,” answered the banker, energetically. “I am sure that Aurora takes pleasure in your society, and seems to treat you almost as if you were her brother; but — but — I know your feelings, my dear boy, and what I fear is, that you may perhaps never inspire a warmer feeling in her heart.”

“Let me stay and take my chance, Mr. Floyd,” cried John, throwing his cigar across the espaliers, and coming to a dead stop upon the gravel walk in the warmth of his enthusiasm. “Let me stay and take my chance. If there’s any disappointment to be borne, I’ll bear it like a man; I’ll go back to the Park, and you shall never be bothered with me again. Miss Floyd has rejected me once already; but perhaps I was in too great a hurry. I’ve grown wiser since then, and I’ve learned to bide my time. I’ve one of the finest estates in Yorkshire; I’m not worse looking than the generality of fellows, or worse educated than the generality of fellows. I may n’t have straight hair, and a pale face, and look as if I’d walked out of a three-volume novel, like Talbot Bulstrode. I may be a stone or two over the correct weight for winning a young lady’s heart; but I’m sound, wind and limb. I never told a lie, or committed a mean action; and I love your daughter with as true and pure a love as ever man felt for woman. May I try my luck once more?”

“You may, John.”

“And have I— thank you, sir, for calling me John — have I your good wishes for my success?”

The banker shook Mr. Mellish by the hand as he answered this question.

“You have, my dear John, my best and heartiest wishes.”

So there were three battles of the heart being fought in that springtide of fifty-eight. Aurora and Talbot, separated from each other by the length and breadth of half England, yet united by an impalpable chain, were struggling day by day to break its links; while poor John Mellish quietly waited in the background, fighting the sturdy fight of the strong heart, which very rarely fails to win the prize it is set upon, however high or far away that prize may seem to be.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31