Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 31

Talbot Bulstrode’s Advice.

Talbot Bulstrode went out early upon the quiet Sunday morning after Aurora’s arrival, and walked down to the Telegraph Company’s Office at Charing Cross, whence he despatched a message to Mr. John Mellish. It was a very brief message, only telling Mr. Mellish to come to town without delay, and that he would find Aurora in Half-Moon street. Mr. Bulstrode walked quietly homeward in the morning sunshine after having performed this duty. Even the London streets were bright and dewy in that early sunlight, for it was only a little after seven o’clock, and the fresh morning breezes came sweeping over the house-tops, bringing health and purity from Shooter’s Hill and Highgate, Streatham and Barnsbury, Richmond and Hampstead. The white morning mists were slowly melting from the worn grass in the Green Park; and weary creatures, who had had no better shelter than the quiet sky, were creeping away to find such wretched resting-places as they might, in that free city, in which to sit for an unreasonable time upon a door-step, or to ask a rich citizen for the price of a loaf, is to commit an indictable offence.

Surely it was impossible for any young legislator not quite worn out by a life-long struggle with the time which was never meant to be set right — surely it was impossible for any fresh-hearted, prosperous young Liberal to walk through those quiet streets without thinking of these things. Talbot Bulstrode thought very earnestly and very mournfully. To what end were his labors, after all? He was fighting for a handful of Cornish miners; doing battle with the rampant spirit of circumlocution for the sake of a few benighted wretches, buried in the darkness of a black abyss of ignorance a hundred times deeper and darker than the material obscurities in which they labored. He was working his best and his hardest that these men might be taught, in some easy, unambitious manner, the simplest elements of Christian love and Christian duty. He was working for these poor far-away creatures, in their forgotten corner of the earth; and here, around and about him, was ignorance more terrible, because, hand in hand with ignorance of all good, there was the fatal experience of all evil. The simple Cornish miner who uses his pickaxe in the region of his friend’s skull when he wishes to enforce an argument, does so because he knows no other species of emphasis. But in the London universities of crime, knavery, and vice, and violence, and sin matriculate and graduate day by day, to take their degrees in the felon’s dock or on the scaffold. How could he be otherwise than sorrowful, thinking of these things? Were Sodom and Gomorrah worse than this city, in which there were yet so many good and earnest men laboring patiently day by day, and taking little rest? Was the great accumulation of evil so heavy that it rolled for ever back upon these untiring Sisyphuses? Or did they make some imperceptible advance toward the mountain-top, despite of all discouragement?

With this weary question debating itself in his brain, Mr. Bulstrode walked along Piccadilly toward the comfortable bachelor’s quarters, whose most commonplace attributes Lucy had turned to favor and to prettiness; but at the door of the Gloucester Coffee-house Talbot paused to stare absently at a nervous-looking chestnut mare, who insisted upon going through several lively performances upon her hind legs, very much to the annoyance of an unshaven ostler, and not particularly to the advantage of a smart little dog-cart to which she was harnessed.

“You need n’t pull her mouth to pieces, my man,” cried a voice from the doorway of the hotel; “use her gently, and she’ll soon quiet herself. Steady, my girl, steady!” added the owner of this voice, walking to the dog-cart as he spoke.

Talbot had good reason to stop short, for this gentleman was Mr. John Mellish, whose pale face, and loose, disordered hair betokened a sleepless night.

He was going to spring into the dog-cart when his old friend tapped him on the shoulder.

“This is rather a lucky accident, John, for you’re the very person I want to see,” said Mr. Bulstrode. “I’ve just telegraphed to you.”

John Mellish stared with a blank face.

“Don’t hinder me, please,” he said; I’ll talk to you by and by. I’ll call upon you in a day or two. I’m just off to Felden. I’ve only been in town an hour and a half, and should have gone down before if I had not been afraid of knocking up the family.”

He made another attempt to get into the vehicle, but Talbot caught him by the arm.

“You need n’t go to Felden,” he said; your wife’s much nearer.”

“Eh?”

“She’s at my house. Come and have some breakfast.”

There was no shadow upon Talbot Bulstrode’s mind as his old school-fellow caught him by the hand, and nearly dislocated his wrist in a paroxysm of joy and gratitude. It was impossible for him to look beyond that sudden burst of sunshine upon John’s face. If Mr. Mellish had been separated from his wife for ten years, and had just returned from the Antipodes for the sole purpose of seeing her again, he could scarcely have appeared more delighted at the prospect of a speedy meeting.

“Aurora here!” he said; “at your house? My dear old fellow, you can’t mean it. But, of course, I ought to have known she’d come to you. She could n’t have done anything better or wiser, after having been so foolish as to doubt me.”

“She came to me for advice, John. She wanted me to advise her how to act for your happiness — yours, you great Yorkshireman, and not her own.”

“Bless her noble heart!” cried Mr. Mellish, huskily. “And you told her —”

“I told her nothing, my dear fellow; but I tell you to take your lawyer down to Doctor’s Commons with you to-morrow morning, get a new license, and marry your wife for the second time, in some quiet little out-of-the-way church in the city.”

Aurora had risen very early upon that peaceful Sunday morning. The few hours of feverish and fitful sleep had brought very little comfort to her. She stood with her weary head leaning against the window-frame, and looked hopelessly out into the empty London street. She looked out into the desolate beginning of a new life, the blank uncertainty of an unknown future. All the minor miseries peculiar to a toilet in a strange room were doubly miserable to her. Lucy had brought the poor luggageless traveller all the paraphernalia of the toilet-table, and had arranged everything with her own busy hands. But the most insignificant trifle that Aurora touched in her cousin’s chamber brought back the memory of some costly toy chosen for her by her husband. She had travelled in her white morning-dress, and the soft lace and muslin were none the fresher for her journey; but as two of Lucy’s dresses joined together would have scarcely fitted her stately cousin, Mrs. Mellish was fain to be content with her limp muslin. What did it matter? The loving eyes which noted every shred of ribbon, every morsel of lace, every fold of her garments, were, perhaps, never to look upon her again. She twisted her hair into a careless mass at the back of her head, and had completed her toilet when Lucy came to the door, tenderly anxious to know how she had slept.

“I will abide by Talbot’s decision,” she repeated to herself again and again. “If he says it is best for my dear that we should part, I will go away for ever. I will ask my father to take me far away, and my poor darling shall not even know where I have gone. I will be true in what I do, and will do it thoroughly.”

She looked to Talbot Bulstrode as a wise judge, to whose sentence she would be willing to submit. Perhaps she did this because her own heart kept for ever repeating, “Go back to the man who loves you. Go back, go back! There is no wrong you can do him so bitter as to desert him. There is no unhappiness you can bring upon him equal to the unhappiness of losing you. Let me be your guide. Go back, go back!”

But this selfish monitor must not be listened to. How bitterly this poor girl, so old in experience of sorrow, remembered the selfish sin of her mad marriage! She had refused to sacrifice a school-girl’s foolish delusion; she had disobeyed the father who had given her seventeen years of patient love and devotion; and she looked at all the misery of her youth as the fatal growth of this evil seed, so rebelliously sown. Surely such a lesson was not to be altogether unheeded! Surely it was powerful enough to teach her the duty of sacrifice! It was this thought that steeled her against the pleadings of her own affection. It was for this that she looked to Talbot Bulstrode as the arbiter of her future. Had she been a Roman Catholic, she would have gone to her confessor, and appealed to a priest — who, having no social ties of his own, must, of course, be the best judge of all the duties involved in domestic relations — for comfort and succor; but, being of another faith, she went to the man whom she most respected, and who, being a husband himself, might, as she thought, be able to comprehend the duty that was due to her husband.

She went down stairs with Lucy into a little inner room upon the drawing-room floor — a snug apartment, opening into a mite of a conservatory. It was Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode’s habit to breakfast in this cosy little chamber rather than in that awful temple of slippery morocco, funereal bronze, and ghastly mahogany, which upholsterers insist upon as the only legitimate place in which an Englishman may take his meals. Lucy loved to sit opposite her husband at the small round table, and minister to his morning appetite from her pretty breakfast equipage of silver and china. She knew — to the smallest weight employed at Apothecaries’ Hall, I think — how much sugar Mr. Bulstrode liked in his tea. She poured the cream into his cup as carefully as if she had been making up a prescription. He took the simple beverage in a great shallow breakfast-cup of fragile turquoise Sevres, that had cost seven guineas, and had been made for Madame du Barry, the rococo merchant had told Talbot. (Had his customer been a lady, I fear Marie Antoinette would have been described as the original possessor of the porcelain.) Mrs. Bulstrode loved to minister to her husband. She picked the bloated livers of martyred geese out of the Strasburgh pies for his delectation; she spread the butter upon his dry toast, and pampered and waited on him, serving him as only such women serve their idols. But this morning she had her cousin’s sorrows to comfort, and she established Aurora in a capacious chintz-covered easy-chair on the threshold of the conservatory, and seated herself at her feet.

“My poor, pale darling,” she said, tenderly, “what can I do to bring the roses back to your cheeks?”

“Love me, and pity me, dear,” Aurora answered, gravely, “but don’t ask me any questions.”

The two women sat thus for some time, Aurora’s handsome head bent over Lucy’s fair face, and her hand clasped in both Lucy’s hands. They talked very little, and only spoke then of indifferent matters, or of Lucy’s happiness and Talbot’s parliamentary career. The little clock over the chimney-piece struck the quarter before eight; they were very early, these unfashionable people; and a minute afterward Mrs. Bulstrode heard her husband’s step upon the stairs, returning from his ante-breakfast walk. It was his habit to take a constitutional stroll in the Green Park now and then, so Lucy had thought nothing of this early excursion.

“Talbot has let himself in with his latchkey,” said Mrs. Bulstrode, “and I may pour out the tea, Aurora. But listen, dear; I think there’s some one with him.”

There was no need to bid Aurora listen; she had started from her low seat, and stood erect and motionless, breathing in a quick, agitated manner, and looking toward the door. Besides Talbot Bulstrode’s step there was another, quicker and heavier — a step she knew so well.

The door was opened, and Talbot entered the room, followed by a visitor, who pushed aside his host with very little attention to the laws of civilized society, and, indeed, nearly drove Mr. Bulstrode backward into a gilded basket of flowers. But this stalwart John Mellish had no intention of being unmannerly or brutal. He pushed aside his friend only as he would have pushed, or tried to push, aside a regiment of soldiers with fixed bayonets, or a Lancaster gun, or a raging ocean, or any other impediment that had come between him and Aurora. He had her in his arms before she could even cry his name aloud in her glad surprise, and in another moment she was sobbing on his breast.

“My darling! my pet! my own!” he cried, smoothing her dark hair with his broad hand, and blessing her, and weeping over her —“my own love! How could you do this? how could you wrong me so much? My own precious darling! had you learned to know me no better than this in all our happy married life?”

“I came to ask Talbot’s advice, John,” she said, earnestly, “and I mean to abide by it, however cruel it may seem.”

Mr. Bulstrode smiled gravely as he watched these two foolish people. He was very much pleased with his part in the little domestic drama, and he contemplated them with a sublime consciousness of being the author of all this happiness; for they were happy. The poet has said, there are some moments — very rare, very precious, very brief — which stand by themselves, and have their perfect fulness of joy within their own fleeting span, taking nothing from the past, demanding nothing of the future. Had John and Aurora known that they were to be separated by the breadth of Europe for the remainder of their several lives, they would not the less have wept joyful tears at the pure blissfulness of this meeting.

“You asked me for my advice, Aurora,” said Talbot, “and I bring it to you. Let the past die with the man who died the other night. The future is not yours to dispose of; it belongs to your husband, John Mellish.”

Having delivered himself of these oracular sentences, Mr. Bulstrode seated himself at the breakfast-table, and looked into the mysterious and cavernous interior of a raised pie with such an intent gaze that it seemed as if he never meant to look out of it. He devoted so many minutes to this serious contemplation that by the time he looked up again Aurora had become quite calm, while Mr. Mellish affected an unnatural gayety, and exhibited no stronger sign of past emotion than a certain inflamed appearance in the region of his eyelids.

But this stalwart, devoted, impressionable Yorkshireman ate a most extraordinary repast in honor of this reunion. He spread mustard on his muffins. He poured Worcester sauce into his coffee, and cream over his deviled cutlets. He showed his gratitude to Lucy by loading her plate with comestibles she did n’t want. He talked perpetually, and devoured incongruous viands in utter absence of mind. He shook hands with Talbot so many times across the breakfast-table that he exposed the lives or limbs of the whole party to imminent peril from the boiling water in the urn. He threw himself into a paroxysm of coughing, and made himself scarlet in the face by an injudicious use of Cayenne pepper; and he exhibited himself altogether in such an imbecile light, that Talbot Bulstrode was compelled to have recourse to all sorts of expedients to keep the servants out of the room during the progress of that rather noisy and bewildering repast.

The Sunday papers were brought to the master of the house before breakfast was over; and while John talked, ate, and gesticulated, Mr. Bulstrode hid himself behind the open leaves of the Weekly Dispatch, reading a paragraph that appeared in that journal.

This paragraph gave a brief account of the murder and the inquest at Mellish, and wound up by that rather stereotyped sentence, in which the public are informed that “the local police are giving unremitting attention to the affair, and we think we may venture to affirm that they have obtained a clew which will most probably lead to the early discovery of the guilty party.”

Talbot Bulstrode, with the newspaper still before his face, sat for some little time frowning darkly at the page upon which this paragraph appeared. The horrible shadow, whose nature he would not acknowledge even to himself, once more lowered upon the horizon which had just seemed so bright and clear.

“I would give a thousand pounds,” he thought, “if I could find the murderer of this man.”

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