Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 23

On the Threshold of Darker Miseries.

John went straight to his own apartment to look for his wife; but he found the guns put back in their usual places, and the room empty. Aurora’s maid, a smartly-dressed girl, came tripping out of the servants’ hall, where the rattling of knives and forks announced that a very substantial dinner was being done substantial justice to, to answer John’s eager inquiries. She told him that Mrs. Mellish had complained of a headache, and had gone to her room to lie down. John went up stairs, and crept cautiously along the carpeted corridor, fearful of every footfall which might break the repose of his wife. The door of her dressing-room was ajar; he pushed it softly open, and went in. Aurora was lying upon the sofa, wrapped in a loose white dressing-gown, her masses of ebon hair uncoiled and falling about her shoulders in serpentine tresses that looked like shining blue-black snakes released from poor Medusa’s head to make their escape amid the folds of her garments. Heaven knows what a stranger sleep may have been for many a night to Mrs. Mellish’s pillow, but she had fallen into a heavy slumber on this hot summer’s day. Her cheeks were flushed with a feverish crimson, and one small hand lay under her head, twisted in the tangled masses of her glorious hair.

John bent over her with a tender smile.

“Poor girl,” he thought; “Thank God that she can sleep, in spite of the miserable secrets which have come between us. Talbot Bulstrode left her because he could not bear the agony that I am suffering now. What cause had he to doubt her? What cause compared to that which I have had a fortnight ago — the other night — this morning? And yet — and yet I trust her, and will trust her, please God, to the very end.”

He seated himself in a low easy-chair close beside the sofa upon which his sleeping wife lay, and, resting his head upon his arm, watched her, thought of her, perhaps prayed for her, and after a little while fell asleep, snoring in bass harmony with Aurora’s regular breathing. He slept and snored, this horrible man, in the hour of his trouble, and behaved himself altogether in a manner most unbecoming in a hero. But then he is not a hero. He is stout and strongly built, with a fine broad chest, and unromantically robust health. — There is more chance of his dying of apoplexy than of fading gracefully in a decline, or breaking a blood-vessel in a moment of intense emotion. He sleeps calmly, with the warm July air floating in upon him from the open window, and comforting him with its balmy breath, and he fully enjoys that rest of body and mind. Yet even in his tranquil slumber there is a vague something, some lingering shadow of the bitter memories which sleep has put away from him, that fills his breast with a dull pain, an oppressive heaviness, which can not be shaken off. He slept until half a dozen different clocks in the rambling old house had come to one conclusion, and declared it to be five in the afternoon; and he awoke with a start, to find his wife watching him, Heaven knows how intently, with her black eyes filled with solemn thought, and a strange earnestness in her face.

“My poor John,” she said, bending her beautiful head and resting her burning forehead upon his hand, “how tired you must have been to sleep so soundly in the middle of the day! I have been awake for nearly an hour, watching you.”

“Watching me, Lolly — why?”

“And thinking how good you are to me. Oh, John, John, what can I ever do — what can I ever do to atone to you for all —”

“Be happy, Aurora,” he said, huskily, “be happy, and — and send that man away.”

“I will, John; he shall go soon, dear — to-night!”

“What! then that letter was to dismiss him?” asked Mr. Mellish.

“You know that I wrote to him?”

“Yes, darling, it was to dismiss him — say that it was so, Aurora. Pay him what money you like to keep the secret that he discovered, but send him away, Lolly, send him away. The sight of him is hateful to me. Dismiss him, Aurora, or I must do so myself.”

He rose in his passionate excitement, but Aurora laid her hand softly upon his arm.

“Leave all to me,” she said, quietly. “Believe me that I will act for the best. For the best, at least, if you could n’t bear to lose me; and you could n’t bear that, could you, John?”

“Lose you! My God, Aurora, why do you say such things to me? I would n’t lose you. Do you hear, Lolly? I would n’t. I’d follow you to the farthest end of the universe; and Heaven take pity upon those that came between us.”

His set teeth, the fierce light in his eyes, and the iron rigidity of his mouth gave an emphasis to his words which my pen could never give if I used every epithet in the English language.

Aurora rose from her sofa, and, twisting her hair into a thickly-rolled mass at the back of her head, seated herself near the window, and pushed back the Venetian shutter.

“These people dine here to-day, John?” she asked, listlessly.

“The Lofthouses and Colonel Maddison? Yes, darling; and it’s ever so much past five. Shall I ring for your afternoon cup of tea?”

“Yes, dear, and take some with me, if you will.”

I’m afraid that in his inmost heart Mr. Mellish did not cherish any very great affection for the decoctions of bohea and gunpowder with which his wife dosed him; but he would have dined upon cod-liver oil had she served the banquet, and he strung his nerves to their extreme tension at her supreme pleasure, and affected to highly relish the post-meridian dishes of tea which his wife poured out for him in the sacred seclusion of her dressing-room.

Mrs. Powell heard the comfortable sound of the chinking of the thin egg-shell china and the rattling of the spoons as she passed the half-open door on her way to her own apartment, and was mutely furious as she thought that love and harmony reigned within the chamber where the husband and wife sat at tea.

Aurora went down to the drawing-room an hour after this, gorgeous in maize-colored silk and voluminous flouncings of black lace, with her hair plaited in a diadem upon her head, and fastened with three diamond stars which John had bought for her in the Rue de la Paix, and which were cunningly fixed upon wire springs, which caused them to vibrate with every chance movement of her beautiful head. You will say, perhaps, that she was arrayed too gaudily for the reception of an old Indian officer and a country clergyman and his wife; but if she loved handsome dresses better than simpler attire, it was from no taste for display, but rather from an innate love of splendor and expenditure, which was a part of her expansive nature. She had always been taught to think of herself as Miss Floyd, the banker’s daughter, and she had been taught also to spend money as a duty which she owed to society.

Mrs. Lofthouse was a pretty little woman, with a pale face and hazel eyes. She was the youngest daughter of Colonel Maddison, and was, “by birth, you know, my dear, far superior to poor Mrs. Mellish, who, in spite of her wealth, is only, etc., etc., etc.,” as Margaret Lofthouse remarked to her female acquaintance. She could not very easily forget that her father was the younger brother of a baronet, and had distinguished himself in some terrific manner by blood-thirsty demolition of Sikhs far away in the untractable East, and she thought it rather hard that Aurora should possess such cruel advantages through some pettifogging commercial genius on the part of her Glasgow ancestors.

But, as it was impossible for honest people to know Aurora without loving her, Mrs. Lofthouse heartily forgave her her fifty thousand pounds, and declared her to be the dearest darling in the wide world; while Mrs. Mellish freely returned her friendliness, and caressed the little woman as she had caressed Lucy Bulstrode, with a superb yet affectionate condescension, such as Cleopatra may have had for her handmaidens.

The dinner went off pleasantly enough. Colonel Maddison attacked the side-dishes specially provided for him, and praised the Mellish-Park cook. Mr. Lofthouse explained to Aurora the plan of a new school-house which Mrs. Mellish was going to build for her husband’s parish. She listened patiently to the rather wearisome details, in which a bake-house, and a wash-house, and a Tudor chimney seemed the leading features. She had heard so much of this before; for there was scarcely a church, or a hospital, or a model lodging-house, or a refuge for any misery or destitution whatever that had been lately elevated to adorn this earth for which the banker’s daughter had not helped to pay. But her heart was wide enough for them all, and she was always glad to hear of the bake-house, and wash-house, and the Tudor chimney all over again. If she was a little less interested upon this occasion than usual, Mr. Lofthouse did not observe her inattention, for in the simple earnestness of his own mind he thought it scarcely possible that the school-house topic could fail to be interesting. Nothing is so difficult as to make people understand that you don’t care for what they themselves especially affect. John Mellish could not believe that the entries for the Great Ebor were not interesting to Mr. Lofthouse, and the country clergyman was fully convinced that the details of his philanthropic schemes for the regeneration of his parish could not be otherwise than delightful to his host. But the master of Mellish Park was very silent, and sat with his glass in his hand, looking across the dinner-table and Mrs. Lofthouse’s head at the sunlit tree-tops between the lawn and the north lodge. Aurora, from her end of the table, saw that gloomy glance, and a resolute shadow darkened her face, expressive of the strengthening of some rooted purpose deep hidden in her heart. She sat so long at dessert, with her eyes fixed upon an apricot in her plate, and the shadow upon her face deepening every moment, that poor Mrs. Lofthouse was in utter despair of getting the significant look which was to release her from the bondage of hearing her father’s stories of tiger-shooting and pig-sticking for the two or three hundredth time. Perhaps she never would have got that feminine signal had not Mrs. Powell, with a little significant “hem,” made some observation about the sinking sun.

The ensign’s widow was one of those people who declare that there is a perceptible difference in the length of the days upon the twenty-third or twenty-fourth of June, and who go on announcing the same fact until the long winter evenings come with the twenty-first of December, and it is time for them to declare the converse of their late proposition. It was some remark of this kind that aroused Mrs. Mellish from her reverie, and caused her to start up suddenly, quite forgetful of the conventional simpering beck to her guest.

“Past eight!” she said; “no, it’s surely not so late?”

“Yes it is, Lolly, “John Mellish answered, looking at his watch, “a quarter past.”

“Indeed! I beg your pardon, Mrs. Lofthouse; shall we go into the drawing-room?”

“Yes, dear, do,” said the clergyman’s wife, “and let’s have a nice chat. Papa will drink too much claret if he tells the pig-sticking stories,” she added, in a confidential whisper. “Ask your dear, kind husband not to let him have too much claret, because he’s sure to suffer with his liver to-morrow, and say that Lofthouse ought to have restrained him. He always says that it’s poor Riginald’s fault for not restraining him.”

John looked anxiously after his wife, as he stood with the door in his hand, while the three ladies crossed the hall. He bit his lip as he noticed Mrs. Powell’s unpleasantly precise figure close at Aurora’s shoulder.

“I think I spoke pretty plainly, though, this morning,” he thought, as he closed the door and returned to his friends.

A quarter past eight; twenty minutes past; five-and-twenty minutes past. Mrs. Lofthouse was rather a brilliant pianist, and was never happier than when interpreting Thalberg and Benedict upon her friends’ Collard and Collards. There were old-fashioned people round Doncaster who believed in Collard and Collard, and were thankful for the melody to be got out of a good, honest grand, in a solid rosewood case, unadorned with carved glorification or ormulu fretwork. At seven-and-twenty minutes past eight Mrs. Lofthouse was seated at Aurora’s piano, in the first agonies of a prelude in six flats; a prelude which demanded such extraordinary uses of the left hand across the right, and the right over the left, and such exercise of the thumbs in all sorts of positions — in which, according to all orthodox theories of the pre -Thalberg -ite school, no pianist’s thumbs should ever be used — that Mrs. Mellish felt that her friend’s attention was not very likely to wander from the keys.

Within the long, low-roofed drawing-room at Mellish there was a snug little apartment, hung with innocent rosebud-sprinkled chintzes, and furnished with maple-wood chairs and tables. Mrs. Lofthouse had not been seated at the piano more than five minutes when Aurora strolled from the drawing-room to this inner chamber, leaving her guest with no audience but Mrs. Powell. She lingered for a moment on the threshold to look back at the ensign’s widow, who sat near the piano in an attitude of rapt attention.

“She is watching me,” thought Aurora, “though her pink eyelids are drooping over her eyes, and she seems to be looking at the border of her pocket-handkerchief. She sees me with her chin or her nose, perhaps. How do I know? She is all eyes! Bah! am I going to be afraid of her, when I was never afraid of him? What should I fear except —” her head changed from its defiant attitude to a drooping posture, and a sad smile curved her crimson lips —“except to make you unhappy, my dear, my husband. Yes,” with a sudden lifting of her head, and reassumption of its proud defiance, “my own true husband; the husband who has kept his marriage vow as unpolluted as when first it issued from his lips!”

I am writing what she thought, remember, not what she said; for she was not in the habit of thinking aloud, nor did I ever know anybody who was.

Aurora took up a shawl that she had flung upon the sofa, and threw it lightly over her head, veiling herself with a cloud of black lace, through which the restless, shivering diamonds shone out like stars in a midnight sky. She looked like Hecate, as she stood on the threshold of the French window, lingering for a moment, with a deep-laid purpose in her heart, and a resolute light in her eyes. The clock in the steeple of the village church struck the three-quarters after eight while she lingered for those few moments. As the last chime died away in the summer air, she looked up darkly at the evening sky, and walked with a rapid footstep out upon the lawn toward the southern end of the wood that bordered the Park.

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