Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

“Love Took up the Glass of Time and Turned it in His Glowing Hands.”

Talbot Bulstrode yielded at last to John’s repeated invitations, and consented to pass a couple of days at Mellish Park.

He despised and hated himself for the absurd concession. In what a pitiful farce had the tragedy ended! A visitor in the house of his rival — a calm spectator of Aurora’s everyday, commonplace happiness. For the space of two days he had consented to occupy this most preposterous position. Two days only; then back to the Cornish miners, and the desolate bachelor’s lodgings in Queen’s Square, Westminster; back to his tent in life’s great Sahara. He could not, for the very soul of him, resist the temptation of beholding the inner life of that Yorkshire mansion. He wanted to know for certain — what was it to him, I wonder — whether she was really happy, and had utterly forgotten him. They all returned to the Park together — Aurora, John, Archibald Floyd, Lucy, Talbot Bulstrode, and Captain Hunter. The last-named officer was a jovial gentleman, with a hook nose and auburn whiskers; a gentleman whose intellectual attainments were of no very oppressive order, but a hearty, pleasant guest in an honest country mansion, where there is cheer and welcome for all.

Talbot could but inwardly confess that Aurora became her new position. How everybody loved her! What an atmosphere of happiness she created about her wherever she went! How joyously the dogs barked and leaped at sight of her, straining their chains in the desperate effort to approach her! How fearlessly the thorough-bred mares and foals ran to the paddock-gates to bid her welcome, bending down their velvet nostrils to nestle upon her shoulder, or respond to the touch of her caressing hand! Seeing all this, how could Talbot refrain from remembering that the same sunlight might have shone upon that dreary castle far away by the surging Western Sea? She might have been his, this beautiful creature; but at what price? At the price of honor; at the price of every principle of his mind, which had set up for himself a holy and perfect standard — a pure and spotless ideal for the wife of his choice. Forbid it, manhood! He might have weakly yielded; he might have been happy, with the blind happiness of a lotus-eater, but not the reasonable bliss of a Christian. Thank Heaven for the strength which had been given him to escape from the silken net! Thank Heaven for the power which had been granted to him to fight the battle!

Standing by Aurora’s side in one of the wide windows at Mellish Park, looking far out over the belted lawn to the glades in which the deer lay basking drowsily in the April sunlight, he could not repress the thought uppermost in his mind.

“I am — very glad — to see you so happy, Mrs. Mellish.”

She looked at him with frank, truthful eyes, in whose brightness there was not one latent shadow.

“Yes,” she said, “I am very, very happy. My husband is very good to me. He loves — and trusts me.”

She could not resist that one little stab — the only vengeance she ever took upon him, but a stroke that pierced him to the heart.

“Aurora! Aurora! Aurora!” he cried.

That half-stifled cry revealed the secret of wounds that were not yet healed. Mrs. Mellish turned pale at the traitorous sound. This man must be cured. The happy wife, secure in her own strong-hold of love and confidence, could not bear to see this poor fellow still adrift.

She by no means despaired of his cure, for experience had taught her that although love’s passionate fever takes several forms there are very few of them incurable. Had she not passed safely through the ordeal herself, without one scar to bear witness of the old wounds?

She left Captain Bulstrode staring moodily out of the window, and went away to plan the saving of this poor shipwrecked soul.

She ran, in the first place, to tell Mr. John Mellish of her discovery, as it was her custom to carry to him every scrap of intelligence, great and small.

“My dearest old Jack,” she said — it was another of her customs to address him by every species of exaggeratedly endearing appellation; it may be that she did this for the quieting of her own conscience, being well aware that she tyrannized over him —“my darling boy, I have made a discovery.”

“About the filly?”

“About Talbot Bulstrode.”

John’s blue eyes twinkled maliciously. He was half prepared for what was coming.

“What is it, Lolly?”

Lolly was a corruption of Aurora, devised by John Mellish.

“Why, I’m really afraid, my precious darling, that he has n’t quite got over —”

“My taking you away from him!” roared John. “I thought as much. Poor devil — poor Talbot! I could see that he would have liked to fight me on the stand at York. Upon my word, I pity him!” and, in token of his compassion, Mr. Mellish burst into that old joyous, boisterous, but musical laugh, which Talbot might almost have heard at the other end of the house.

This was a favorite delusion of John’s. He firmly believed that he had won Aurora’s affection in fair competition with Captain Bulstrode, pleasantly ignoring that the captain had resigned all pretensions to Miss Floyd’s hand nine or ten months before his own offer had been accepted.

The genial, sanguine creature, had a habit of deceiving himself in this manner. He saw all things in the universe just as he wished to see them — all men and women good and honest; life one long, pleasant voyage, in a well-fitted ship, with only first-class passengers on board. He was one of those men who are likely to cut their throats or take prussic acid upon the day they first encounter the black visage of Care.

“And what are we to do with this poor fellow, Lolly?”

“Marry him!” exclaimed Mrs. Mellish.

“Both of us?” said John, simply.

“My dearest pet, what an obtuse old darling you are! No; marry him to Lucy Floyd, my first cousin once removed, and keep the Bulstrode estate in the family.”

“Marry him to Lucy!”

“Yes; why not? She has studied enough, and learned history, and geography, and astronomy, and botany, and geology, and conchology, and entomology enough; and she has covered I don’t know how many China jars with impossible birds and flowers; and she has illuminated missals, and read High-Church novels; so the next best thing she can do is to marry Talbot Bulstrode.”

John had his own reasons for agreeing with Aurora in this matter. He remembered that secret of poor Lucy’s which he had discovered more than a year before at Felden Woods — the secret which had been revealed to him by some mysterious sympathetic power belonging to hopeless love. So Mr. Mellish declared his hearty concurrence in Aurora’s scheme, and the two amateur match-makers set to work to devise a complicated man-trap, in the which Talbot was to be entangled; never for a moment imagining that, while they were racking their brains in the endeavor to bring this piece of machinery to perfection, the intended victim was quietly strolling across the sunlit lawn toward the very fate they desired for him.

Yes, Talbot Bulstrode lounged with languid step to meet his destiny in a wood upon the borders of the Park — a part of the Park, indeed, inasmuch as it was within the boundary fence of John’s domain. The wood-anemones trembled in the spring breezes deep in those shadowy arcades; pale primroses showed their mild faces amid their sheltering leaves; and in shady nooks, beneath low spreading boughs of elm and beech, oak and ash, the violets hid their purple beauty from the vulgar eye. A lovely spot, soothing by its harmonious influence; a very forest sanctuary, without whose dim arcades man cast his burden down, to enter in a child. Captain Bulstrode had felt in no very pleasant humor as he walked across the lawn, but some softening influence stole upon him on the threshold of that sylvan shelter which made him feel a better man. He began to question himself as to how he was playing his part in the great drama of life.

“Good Heavens!” he thought, “what a shameful coward, what a negative wretch I have become by this one grief of my manhood! An indifferent son, a careless brother, a useless, purposeless creature, content to dawdle away my life in feeble pottering with political economy. Shall I ever be in earnest again? Is this dreary doubt of every living creature to go with me to my grave? Less than two years ago my heart sickened at the thought that I had lived to two-and-thirty years of age and had never been loved. Since then — since then — since then I have lived through life’s brief fever; I have fought manhood’s worst and sharpest battle, and find myself — where? Exactly where I was before — still companion-less upon the dreary journey, only a little nearer to the end.”

He walked slowly onward into the woodland aisle, other aisles branching away from him right and left into deep glades and darkening shadow. A month or so later, and the mossy ground beneath his feet would be one purple carpet of hyacinths, the very air thick with a fatal scented vapor from the perfumed bulbs.

“I asked too much,” said Talbot, in that voiceless argument we are perpetually carrying on with ourselves; “I asked too much — I yielded to the spell of the siren, and was angry because I missed the white wings of the angel. I was bewitched by the fascinations of a beautiful woman, when I should have sought for a noble-minded wife.”

He went deeper and deeper into the wood, going to his fate, as another man was to do before the coming summer was over; but to what a different fate! The long arcades of beech and elm had reminded him from the first of the solemn aisles of a cathedral. The saint was only needed. And, coming suddenly to a spot where a new arcade branched off abruptly on his right hand, he saw, in one of the sylvan niches, as fair a saint as had ever been modelled by the hand of artist and believer — the same golden-haired angel he had seen in the long drawing-room at Felden Woods — Lucy Floyd, with the pale aureola about her head, her large straw hat in her lap, filled with anemones and violets, and the third volume of a novel in her hand.

How much in life often hangs, or seems to us to hang, upon what is called by playwrights “a situation!” But for this sudden encounter, but for coming thus upon this pretty picture, Talbot Bulstrode might have dropped into his grave ignorant to the last of Lucy’s love for him. But, given a sunshiny April morning (April’s fairest bloom, remember, when the capricious nymph is mending her manners, aware that her lovelier sister May is at hand, and anxious to make a good impression before she drops her farewell courtesy, and weeps her last brief shower of farewell tears)— given a balmy spring morning, solitude, a wood, wild flowers, golden hair, and blue eyes, and is the problem difficult to solve?

Talbot Bulstrode, leaning against the broad trunk of a beech, looked down at the fair face, which crimsoned under his eyes, and the first glimmering hint of Lucy’s secret began to dawn upon him. At that moment he had no thought of profiting by the discovery, no thought of what he was afterward led on to say. His mind was filled with the storm of emotion that had burst from him in that wild cry to Aurora. Rage and jealousy, regret, despair, envy, love, and hate — all the conflicting feelings that had struggled like so many demons in his soul at sight of Aurora’s happiness, were still striving for mastery in his breast, and the first words he spoke revealed the thoughts that were uppermost.

“Your cousin is very happy in her new life, Miss Floyd?” he said.

Lucy looked up at him with surprise. It was the first time he had spoken to her of Aurora.

“Yes,” she answered quietly, “I think she is happy.”

Captain Bulstrode whisked the end of his cane across a group of anemones, and decapitated the tremulous blossoms. He was thinking, rather savagely, what a shame it was that this glorious Aurora could be happy with big, broad-shouldered, jovial-tempered John Mellish. He could not understand the strange anomaly; he could not discover the clew to the secret; he could not comprehend that the devoted love of this sturdy Yorkshireman was in itself strong enough to conquer all difficulties, to outweigh all differences.

Little by little he and Lucy began to talk of Aurora, until Miss Floyd told her companion all about that dreary time at Felden Woods during which the life of the heiress was wellnigh despaired of. So she had loved him truly, then, after all; she had loved and had suffered, and had lived down her trouble, and had forgotten him and was happy. The story was all told in that one sentence. He looked blankly back at the irrecoverable past, and was angry with the pride of the Bulstrodes, which had stood between himself and his happiness.

He told sympathizing Lucy something of his sorrow; told her that misapprehension — mistaken pride — had parted him from Aurora. She tried, in her gentle, innocent fashion, to comfort the strong man in his weakness, and in trying revealed — ah! how simply and transparently — the old secret, which had so long been hidden from him.

Heaven help the man whose heart is caught at the rebound by a fair-haired divinity, with dove-like eyes, and a low, tremulous voice, softly attuned to his grief. Talbot Bulstrode saw that he was beloved, and in very gratitude made a dismal offer of the ashes of that fire which had burnt so fiercely at Aurora’s shrine. Do not despise this poor Lucy if she accepted her cousin’s forgotten lover with humble thankfulness, nay, with a tumult of wild delight, and with joyful fear and trembling. She loved him so well, and had loved him so long. Forgive and pity her, for she was one of those pure and innocent creatures whose whole being resolves itself into affection; to whom passion, anger, and pride are unknown; who live only to love, and who love until death. Talbot Bulstrode told Lucy Floyd that he had loved Aurora with the whole strength of his soul, but that now the battle was over, he, the stricken warrior, needed a consoler for his declining days; would she, could she, give her hand to one who would strive to the uttermost to fulfil a husband’s duty, and to make her happy? Happy! She would have been happy if he had asked her to be his slave — happy if she could have been a scullery-maid at Bulstrode Castle, so that she might have seen the dark face she loved once or twice a day through the obscure panes of some kitchen-window.

But she was the most undemonstrative of women, and, except by her blushes, and her drooping eyelids, and the teardrop trembling upon the soft auburn lashes, she made no reply to the captain’s appeal, until at last, taking her hand in his, he won from her a low consenting murmur, which meant Yes.

Good Heavens! how hard it is upon such women as these that they feel so much and yet display so little feeling. The dark-eyed, impetuous creatures, who speak out fearlessly, and tell you that they love or hate you, flinging their arms around your neck or throwing the carving-knife at you, as the case may be, get full value for all their emotion; but these gentle creatures love, and make no sign. They sit, like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief, and no one reads the mournful meaning of that sad smile. Concealment, like the worm i’ the bud, feeds on their damask cheeks, and compassionate relatives tell them that they are bilious, and recommend Cockle’s pills, or some other homely remedy, for their pallid complexions. They are always at a disadvantage. Their inner life may be a tragedy, all blood and tears, while their outward existence is some dull domestic drama of every-day life. The only outward sign Lucy Floyd gave of the condition of her heart was that one tremulous, half-whispered affirmative, and yet what a tempest of emotion was going forward within! The muslin folds of her dress rose and fell with the surging billows, but for the very life of her she could have uttered no better response to Talbot’s pleading.

It was only by and by, after she and Captain Bulstrode had wandered slowly back to the house, that her emotion betrayed itself. Aurora met her cousin in the corridor out of which their rooms opened, and, drawing Lucy into her own dressing-room, asked the truant where she had been.

“Where have you been, you runaway girl? John and I have wanted you half a dozen times.”

Miss Lucy Floyd explained that she had been in the wood with the last new novel — a High-Church novel, in which the heroine rejected the clerical hero because he did not perform the service according to the Rubric. Now, Miss Lucy Floyd made this confession with so much confusion and so many blushes that it would have appeared as if there were some lurking criminality in the fact of spending an April morning in a wood; and, being farther examined as to why she had staid so long, and whether she had been alone all the time, poor Lucy fell into a pitiful state of embarrassment, saying that she had been alone, that is to say, part of the time, or at least most of the time, but that Captain Bulstrode —”

But, in trying to pronounce his name — this beloved, this sacred name — Lucy Floyd’s utterance failed her; she fairly broke down, and burst into tears.

Aurora laid her cousin’s face upon her breast, and looked down with a womanly, matronly glance into those tearful blue eyes.

“Lucy, my darling,” she said, “is it really and truly as I think — as I wish — Talbot loves you?”

“He has asked me to marry him,” Lucy whispered.

“And you — you have consented — you love him?”

Lucy Floyd only answered by a new burst of tears.

“Why, my darling, how this surprises me! How long has it been so, Lucy? How long have you loved him?”

“From the hour I first saw him,” murmured Lucy; “from the day he first came to Felden. Oh, Aurora! I know how foolish and weak it was; I hate myself for the folly; but he is so good, so noble, so —”

“My silly darling; and because he is good and noble, and asked you to be his wife, you shed as many tears as if you had been asked to go to his funeral. My loving, tender Lucy, you loved him all the time then; and you were so gentle and good to me — to me, who was selfish enough never to guess! My dearest, you are a hundred times better suited to him than ever I was, and you will be as happy — as happy as I am with that ridiculous old John.”

Aurora’s eyes filled with tears as she spoke.

She was truly and sincerely glad that Talbot was in a fair way to find consolation, still more glad that her sentimental cousin was to be made happy.

Talbot Bulstrode lingered on a few days at Mellish Park — happy, ah! too happy days for Lucy Floyd — and then departed, after receiving the congratulations of John and Aurora.

He was to go straight to Alexander Floyd’s villa at Fulham, and plead his cause with Lucy’s father. There was little fear of his meeting other than a favorable reception, for Talbot Bulstrode, of Bulstrode Castle, was a very great match for a daughter of the junior branch of Floyd, Floyd, and Floyd, a young lady whose expectations were considerably qualified by half a dozen brothers and sisters.

So Captain Bulstrode went back to London as the betrothed lover of Lucy Floyd — went back with a subdued gladness in his heart all unlike the stormy joys of the past. He was happy in the choice he had made, calmly and dispassionately. He had loved Aurora for her beauty and her fascination; he was going to marry Lucy because he had seen much of her, had observed her closely, and believed her to be all that a woman should be. Perhaps, if stern truth must be told, Lucy’s chief charm in the captain’s eyes lay in that reverence for himself which she so naively betrayed. He accepted her worship with a quiet, unconscious serenity, and thought her the most sensible of women.

Mrs. Alexander was utterly bewildered when Aurora’s sometime lover pleaded for her daughter’s hand. She was too busy a mother among her little flock to be the most penetrating of observers, and she had never suspected the state of Lucy’s heart. She was glad, therefore, to find that her daughter did justice to her excellent education, and had too much good sense to refuse so advantageous an offer as that of Captain Bulstrode; and she joined with her husband in perfect approval of Talbot’s suit. So, there being no let or hinderance, and as the lovers had long known and esteemed each other, it was decided, at the captain’s request, that the wedding should take place early in June, and that the honeymoon should be spent at Bulstrode Castle. At the end of May Mr. and Mrs. Mellish went to Felden on purpose to attend Lucy’s wedding, which took place with great style at Fulham, Archibald Floyd presenting his grand-niece with a check for five thousand pounds after the return from church.

Once during that marriage ceremony Talbot Bulstrode was nigh rubbing his eyes, thinking that the pageant must be a dream. A dream surely; for here was a pale, fairhaired girl by his side, while the woman he had chosen two years before stood amid a group behind him, and looked on at the ceremony a pleased spectator. But when he felt the little gloved hand trembling upon his arm as the bride and bridegroom left the altar he remembered that it was no dream, and that life held new and solemn duties for him from that hour.

Now, my two heroines being married, the reader versed in the physiology of novel-writing may conclude that my story is done, that the green curtain is ready to fall upon the last act of the play, and that I have nothing more to do than to entreat indulgence for the shortcomings of the performance and the performers. Yet, after all, does the business of the real life-drama always end upon the altar-steps? Must the play needs be over when the hero and heroine have signed their names in the register? Does man cease to be, to do, and to suffer when he gets married? And is it necessary that the novelist, after devoting three volumes to the description of a courtship of six weeks duration, should reserve for himself only half a page in which to tell us the events of two-thirds of a lifetime? Aurora is married, and settled, and happy; sheltered, as one would imagine, from all dangers, safe under the wing of her stalwart adorer; but it does not therefore follow that the story of her life is done. She has escaped ship-wreck for a while, and has safely landed on a pleasant shore; but the storm may still lower darkly upon the horizon, while the hoarse thunder grumbles threateningly in the distance.

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