Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

Mr. Pastern’s Letter.

Mr. John Mellish reserved to himself one room upon the ground-floor of his house, a cheerful, airy apartment, with French windows opening upon the lawn — windows that were sheltered from the sun by a veranda overhung with jessamine and roses. It was altogether a pleasant room for the summer season, the floor being covered with an India matting instead of a carpet, and many of the chairs being made of light basket-work. Over the chimney-piece hung a portrait of John’s father, and opposite to this work of art there was the likeness of the deceased gentleman’s favorite hunter, surmounted by a pair of brightly-polished spurs, the glistening rowels of which had often pierced the sides of that faithful steed. In this chamber Mr. Mellish kept his whips, canes, foils, single-sticks, boxing-gloves, spurs, guns, pistols, powder and shot flasks, fishing-tackle, boots and tops, and many happy mornings were spent by the master of Mellish Park in the pleasing occupation of polishing, repairing, inspecting, and otherwise setting in order these possessions. He had as many pairs of hunting-boots as would have supplied half Leicestershire, with tops to match. He had whips enough for half the Melton Hunt. Surrounded by these treasures, as it were in a temple sacred to the deities of the race-course and the hunting-field, Mr. John Mellish used to hold solemn audiences with his trainer and his head groom upon the business of the stable.

It was Aurora’s custom to peep into this chamber perpetually, very much to the delight and distraction of her adoring husband, who found the black eyes of his divinity a terrible hinderance to business, except, indeed, when he could induce Mrs. Mellish to join in the discussion upon hand, and lend the assistance of her powerful intellect to the little conclave. I believe that John thought she could have handicapped the horses for the Chester Cup as well as Mr. Topham himself. She was such a brilliant creature that every little smattering of knowledge she possessed appeared to such good account as to make her seem an adept in any subject of which she spoke, and the simple Yorkshireman believed in her as the wisest, as well as the noblest and fairest of women.

Mr. and Mrs. Mellish returned to Yorkshire immediately after Lucy’s wedding. Poor John was uneasy about his stables: for his trainer was a victim to chronic rheumatism, and Mr. Pastern had not as yet made any communication respecting the young man of whom he had spoken on the stand at York.

“I shall keep Langley,” John said to Aurora, speaking of his old trainer; “for he’s an honest fellow, and his judgment will always be of use to me. He and his wife can still occupy the rooms over the stables, and the new man, whoever he may be, can live in the lodge on the north side of the Park. Nobody ever goes in at that gate, so the lodge-keeper’s post is a sinecure, and the cottage has been shut up for the last year or two. I wish John Pastern would write.”

“And I wish whatever you wish, my dearest life,” Aurora said, dutifully, to her happy slave.

Very little had been seen of Steeve Hargraves, the softy, since the day upon which John Mellish had turned him neck and crop out of his service. One of the grooms had seen him in a little village close to the Park, and Stephen had informed the man that he was getting his living by doing odd jobs for the doctor of the parish, and looking after that gentleman’s horse and gig; but the softy had seemed inclined to be sulky, and had said very little about himself or his sentiments. He made very particular inquiries, though, about Mrs. Mellish, and asked so many questions as to what Aurora did and said, where she went, whom she saw, and how she agreed with her husband, that at last the groom, although only a simple country lad, refused to answer any more interrogatories about his mistress.

Steeve Hargraves rubbed his coarse, sinewy hands, and chuckled as he spoke of Aurora.

“She’s a rare proud one — a regular high-spirited lady,” he said, in that whispering voice that always sounded strange. “She laid in on me with that riding-whip of hers; but I bear no malice — I bear no malice. She’s a beautiful creature, and I wish Mr. Mellish joy of his bargain.”

The groom scarcely knew how to take this, not being fully aware whether it was intended as a compliment or an impertinence. So he nodded to the softy and strode off, leaving him still rubbing his hands and whispering about Aurora Mellish, who had long ago forgotten her encounter with Mr. Stephen Hargraves.

How was it likely that she should remember him or take heed of him? How was it likely that she should take alarm because the pale-faced widow, Mrs. Walter Powell, sat by her hearth and hated her? Strong in her youth and beauty, rich in her happiness, sheltered and defended by her husband’s love, how should she think of danger? How should she dread misfortune? She thanked God every day that the troubles of her youth were past, and that her path in life led henceforth through smooth and pleasant places, where no perils could come.

Lucy was at Bulstrode Castle, winning upon the affections of her husband’s mother, who patronized her daughter-in-law with lofty kindness, and took the blushing, timorous creature under her sheltering wing. Lady Bulstrode was very well satisfied with her son’s choice. He might have done better, certainly, as to position and fortune, the lady hinted to Talbot; and, in her maternal anxiety, she would have preferred his marrying any one rather than the cousin of that Miss Floyd, who ran away from school and caused such a scandal at the Parisian seminary. But Lady Bulstrode’s heart warmed to Lucy, who was so gentle and humble, and who always spoke of Talbot as if he had been a being far “too bright and good,” etc., much to the gratification of her ladyship’s maternal vanity.

“She has a very proper affection for you, Talbot,” Lady Bulstrode said, “and, for so young a creature, promises to make an excellent wife; far better suited to you, I’m sure, than her cousin could ever have been.”

Talbot turned fiercely upon his mother, very much to the lady’s surprise.

“Why will you be for ever bringing Aurora’s name into the question, mother?” he cried. “Why can not you let her memory rest? You parted us for ever — you and Constance — and is not that enough? She is married, and she and her husband are a very happy couple. A man might have a worse wife than Mrs. Mellish, I can tell you; and John seems to appreciate her value in his rough way.”

“You need not be so violent, Talbot,” Lady Bulstrode said with offended dignity. “I am very glad to hear that Miss Floyd has altered since her school-days, and I hope that she may continue to be a good wife,” she added, with an emphasis which expressed that she had no very great hopes of the continuance of Mr. Mellish’s happiness.

“My poor mother is offended with me,” Talbot thought, as Lady Bulstrode swept out of the room. “I know I am an abominable bear, and that nobody will ever truly love me so long as I live. My poor little Lucy loves me after her fashion — loves me in fear and trembling, as if she and I belonged to different orders of beings — very much as the flying woman must have loved my countryman, Peter Wilkins, I think. But, after all, perhaps my mother is right, and my gentle little wife is better suited to me than Aurora would have been.”

So we dismiss Talbot Bulstrode for a while, moderately happy, and yet not quite satisfied. What mortal ever was quite satisfied in this world? It is a part of our earthly nature always to find something wanting, always to have a vague, dull, ignorant yearning which can not be appeased. Sometimes, indeed, we are happy; but in our wildest happiness we are still unsatisfied, for it seems then sin if the cup of joy were too full, and we grow cold with terror at the thought that, even because of its fulness, it may possibly be dashed to the ground. What a mistake this life would be, what a wild, feverish dream, what an unfinished and imperfect story, if it were not a prelude to something better! Taken by itself, it is all trouble and confusion; but, taking the future as the key-note of the present, how wondrously harmonious the whole becomes! How little does it signify that our hearts are not complete, our wishes not fulfilled, if the completion and the fulfilment are to come hereafter!

Little more than a week after Lucy’s wedding Aurora ordered her horse immediately after breakfast, upon a sunny summer morning, and, accompanied by the old groom who had ridden behind John’s father, went out on an excursion among the villages round Mellish Park, as it was her habit to do once or twice a week.

The poor in the neighborhood of the Yorkshire mansion had good reason to bless the coming of the banker’s daughter. Aurora loved nothing better than to ride from cottage to cottage, chatting with the simple villagers, and finding out their wants. She never found the worthy creatures very remiss in stating their necessities, and the housekeeper at Mellish Park had enough to do in distributing Aurora’s bounties among the cottagers who came to the servants’ hall with pencil orders from Mrs. Mellish. Mrs. Walter Powell sometimes ventured to take Aurora to task on the folly and sinfulness of what she called indiscriminate almsgiving; but Mrs. Mellish would pour such a flood of eloquence upon her antagonist that the ensign’s widow was always glad to retire from the unequal contest. Nobody had ever been able to argue with Archibald Floyd’s daughter. Impulsive and impetuous, she had always taken her own course, whether for weal or woe, and nobody had been strong enough to hinder her.

Returning on this lovely June morning from one of these charitable expeditions, Mrs. Mellish dismounted from her horse at a little turnstile leading into the wood, and ordered the groom to take the animal home.

“I have a fancy for walking through the wood, Joseph,” she said, “it’s such a lovely morning. Take care of Mazeppa; and if you see Mr. Mellish, tell him that I shall be home directly.”

The man touched his hat, and rode off, leading Aurora’s horse.

Mrs. Mellish gathered up the folds of her habit and strolled slowly into the wood under whose shadow Talbot Bulstrode and Lucy had wandered on that eventful April day which sealed the young lady’s fate.

Now, Aurora had chosen to ramble homeward through this wood because, being thoroughly happy, the warm gladness of the summer weather filled her with a sense of delight which she was loath to curtail. The drowsy hum of the insects, the rich coloring of the woods, the scent of wild flowers, the ripple of water, all blended into one delicious whole, and made the earth lovely.

There is something satisfactory, too, in the sense of possession; and Aurora felt, as she looked down the long avenues, and away through distant loop-holes in the wood to the wide expanse of park and lawn, and the picturesque irregular pile of building beyond, half Gothic, half Elizabethan, and so lost in a rich tangle of ivy and bright foliage as to be beautiful at every point — she felt, I say, that all the fair picture was her own, or her husband’s, which was the same thing. She had never for one moment regretted her marriage with John Mellish. She had never, as I have said already, been inconstant to him by one thought.

In one part of the wood the ground rose considerably, so that the house, which lay low, was distinctly visible whenever there was a break in the trees. The rising ground was considered the prettiest spot in the wood, and here a summer-house had been erected — a fragile wooden building, which had fallen into decay of late years, but which was still a pleasant resting-place upon a summer’s day, being furnished with a wooden table and a broad bench, and sheltered from the sun and wind by the lower branches of a magnificent beech. A few paces away from this summerhouse there was a pool of water, the surface of which was so covered with lilies and tangled weeds as to have beguiled a short-sighted traveller into forgetfulness of the danger beneath. Aurora’s way led her past this spot, and she started with a momentary sensation of terror on seeing a man lying asleep by the side of the pool. She quickly recovered herself, remembering that John allowed the public to use the footpath through the wood; but she started again when the man, who must have been a bad sleeper, to be aroused by her light footstep, lifted his head and displayed the white face of the softy.

He rose slowly from the ground upon seeing Mrs. Mellish, and crawled away, looking at her as he went, but not making any acknowledgment of her presence.

Aurora could not repress a brief terrified shudder; it seemed as if her footfall had startled some viperish creature, some loathsome member of the reptile race, and scared it from its lurking-place.

Steeve Hargraves disappeared among the trees as Mrs. Mellish walked on, her head proudly erect, but her cheek a shade paler than before this unexpected encounter with the softy.

Her joyous gladness in the bright summer’s day had forsaken her as suddenly as she had met Stephen Hargraves; that bright smile, which was even brighter than the morning sunshine, faded out, and left her face unnaturally grave.

“Good Heavens!” she exclaimed, “how foolish I am! I am actually afraid of that man — afraid of that pitiful coward who could hurt my feeble old dog. As if such a creature as that could do one any mischief!”

Of course this was very wisely argued, as no coward ever by any chance worked any mischief upon this earth, since the Saxon prince was stabbed in the back while drinking at his kinswoman’s gate, or since brave King John and his creature plotted together what they should do with the little boy Arthur.

Aurora walked slowly across the lawn toward that end of the house at which the apartment sacred to Mr. Mellish was situated. She entered softly at the open window, and laid her hand upon John’s shoulder as he sat at a table covered with a litter of account-books, racing-lists, and disorderly papers.

He started at the touch of the familiar hand.

“My darling, I’m so glad you’ve come in. How long you’ve been!”

She looked at her little jewelled watch. Poor John had loaded her with trinkets and gewgaws. His chief grief was that she was a wealthy heiress, and that he could give her nothing but the adoration of his simple, honest heart.

“Only half-past one, you silly old John,” she said. “What made you think me late?”

“Because I wanted to consult you about something, and to tell you something. Such good news!”

“About what?”

“About the trainer.”

She shrugged her shoulders, and pursed up her red lips with a bewitching little gesture of indifference.

“Is that all?” she said.

“Yes; but a’n’t you glad we’ve got the man at last — the very man to suit us, I think? Where’s John Pastern’s letter?”

Mr. Mellish searched among the litter of papers upon the table, while Aurora, leaning against the frame-work of the open window, watched him, and laughed at his embarrassment.

She had recovered her spirits, and looked the very picture of careless gladness as she leaned in one of those graceful and unstudied attitudes peculiar to her, supported by the frame-work of the window, and with the trailing jessamine waving round her in the soft summer breeze. She lifted her ungloved hand and gathered the roses above her head as she talked to her husband.

“You most disorderly and unmethodic of men,” she said, laughing, “I would n’t mind betting you won’t find it.”

I’m afraid that Mr. Mellish muttered an oath as he tossed about the heterogeneous mass of papers in his search for the missing document.

“I had it five minutes before you came in, Aurora,” he said, “and now there’s not a sign of it — oh, here it is!”

Mr. Mellish unfolded the letter, and, smoothing it out upon the table before him, cleared his throat preparatory to reading the epistle. Aurora still leaned against the window-frame, half in and half out of the room, singing a snatch of a popular song, and trying to gather an obstinate half-blown rose which grew provokingly out of reach.

“You’re attending, Aurora?”

“Yes, dearest and best.”

“But do come in. You can’t hear a word there.”

Mrs. Mellish shruggéd her shoulders, as who should say, “I submit to the command of a tyrant,” and advanced a couple of paces from the window; then, looking at John with an enchantingly insolent toss of her head, she folded her hands behind her, and told him she would “be good.” She was a careless, impetuous creature, dreadfully forgetful of what Mrs. Walter Powell called her “responsibilities;” every mortal thing by turns, and never any one thing for two minutes together; happy, generous, affectionate; taking life as a glorious summer’s holiday, and thanking God for the bounty which made it so pleasant to her.

Mr. John Pastern began his letter with an apology for having so long deferred writing. He had lost the address of the person he had wished to recommend, and had waited until the man wrote to him.

“I think he will suit you very well,” the letter went on to say, “as he is well up in his business, having had plenty of experience as groom, jockey, and trainer. He is only thirty years of age, but met with an accident some time since, which lamed him for life. He was half killed in a steeple-chase in Prussia, and was for upward of a year in a hospital at Berlin. His name is James Conyers, and he can have a character from —”

The letter dropped out of John Mellish’s hand as he looked up at his wife. It was not a scream which she had uttered. It was a gasping cry, more terrible to hear than the shrillest scream that ever came from the throat of woman in all the long history of womanly distress.

“Aurora! Aurora!”

He looked at her, and his own face changed and whitened at the sight of hers. So terrible a transformation had come over her during the reading of that letter that the shock could scarcely have been greater had he looked up and seen another person in her place.

“It’s wrong! it’s wrong!” she cried, hoarsely; “you’ve read the wrong name. It can’t be that!”

“What name?”

“What name?” she echoed fiercely, her face flaming up with a wild fury —“that name! I tell you it can’t be. Give me the letter.”

He obeyed her mechanically, picking up the paper and handing it to her, but never removing his eyes from her face.

She snatched it from him; looked at it for a few moments with her eyes dilated and her lips apart; then, reeling back two or three paces, her knees bent under her, and she fell heavily to the ground.

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