Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 32

On the Watch.

Very soon after breakfast upon that happy Sabbath of reunion and contentment. John Mellish drove Aurora to Felden Woods. It was necessary that Archibald Floyd should hear the story of the trainer’s death from the lips of his own children, before newspaper paragraphs terrified him with some imperfect outline of the truth.

The dashing phaeton in which Mr. Bulstrode was in the habit of driving his wife was brought to the door as the church-bells were calling devout citizens to their morning duties, and at that unseemly hour John Mellish smacked his whip, and dashed off in the direction of Westminster Bridge.

Talbot Bulstrode’s horses soon left London behind them, and before long the phaeton was driving upon the trim park-like roads, overshadowed by luxuriant foliage, and bordered here and there by exquisitely-ordered gardens and rustic villas, that glittered whitely in the sunshine. The holy peace of the quiet Sabbath was upon every object that they passed, even upon the leaves and flowers, as it seemed to Aurora. The birds sang subdued and murmuring harmonies; the light summer breeze scarcely stirred the deep grass on which the lazy cattle stood to watch the phaeton dash by.

Ah! how happy Aurora was, seated by the side of the man whose love had outlasted every trial! How happy now that the dark wall that had divided them was shattered, and they were indeed united! John Mellish was as tender and pitying toward her as a mother to her forgiven child. He asked no explanations; he sought to know nothing of the past. He was content to believe that she had been foolish and mistaken, and that the mistake and folly of her life would be buried in the grave of the murdered trainer.

The lodge-keeper at Felden Woods exclaimed as he opened the gates to his master’s daughter. He was an old man, and he had opened the same gates more than twenty years before, when the banker’s dark-eyed bride had first entered her husband’s mansion.

Archibald Floyd welcomed his children heartily. How could he ever be otherwise than unutterably happy in the presence of his darling, however often she might come, with whatever eccentricity she might time her visits?

Mrs. Mellish led her father into his study.

“I must speak to you alone, papa.” she said; “but John knows all I have to say. There are no secrets between us now. There never will be again.”

Aurora had a painful story to tell her father, for she had to confess to him that she had deceived him upon the occasion of her return to Felden after her parting with James Conyers.

“I told you a story, father,” she said, “when I told you that my husband was dead. But, Heaven knows, I believed that I should be forgiven the sin of that falsehood, for I thought that it would spare you grief and trouble of mind, and surely anything would have been justifiable that could have done that. I suppose good never can come out of evil, for I have been bitterly punished for my sin. I received a newspaper within a few months of my return in which there was a paragraph describing the death of James Conyers. The paragraph was not correct, for the man had escaped with his life: and when I married John Mellish, my first husband was alive.”

Archibald Floyd uttered a cry of despair, and half rose from his easy-chair; but Aurora knelt upon the ground by his side, with her arms about him, soothing and comforting him.

“It is all over now, dear father,” she said; “it is all over. The man is dead. I will tell you how he died by and by. It is all over. John knows all; and I am to marry him again. Talbot Bulstrode says that it is necessary, as our marriage was not legal. My own dear father, there is to be no more secrecy, no more unhappiness — only love, and peace, and union for all of us.”

She told the old man the story of the trainer’s death, dwelling very little upon the particulars, and telling nothing of her own doings that night, except that she had been in the wood at the time of the murder, and that she had heard the pistol fired.

It was not a pleasant story, this story of murder, and violence, and treachery within the boundary of his daughter’s home. Even amid Aurora’s assurances that all sorrow was past, that doubt and uncertainty were to vanish away before security and peace, Archibald Floyd could not control this feeling. He was restless and uneasy in spite of himself. He took John Mellish out upon the terrace in the afternoon sunshine, while Aurora lay asleep upon one of the sofas in the long drawing-room, and talked to him of the trainer’s death as they walked up and down. There was nothing to be elicited from the young squire that threw any light upon the catastrophe, and Archibald Floyd tried in vain to find any issue out of the darkness of the mystery.

“Can you imagine any one having any motive for getting rid of this man?” the banker asked.

John shrugged his shoulders. He had been asked this question so often before, and had been always obliged to give the same reply.

No; he knew of no motive which any one about Mellish could be likely to have.

“Had the man any money about him?” asked Mr. Floyd.

“Goodness knows whether he had or not,” John answered, carelessly; “but I should think it was n’t likely he had much. He had been out of a situation, I believe, for some time before he came to me, and he had spent a good many months in a Prussian hospital. I don’t suppose he was worth robbing.”

The banker remembered the two thousand pounds which he had given to his daughter. What had Aurora done with that money! Had she known of the trainer’s existence when she asked for it? and had she wanted it for him? She had not explained this in her hurried story of the murder, and how could he press her upon so painful a subject? Why should he not accept her own assurance that all was over, and that nothing remained but peace.

Archibald Floyd and his children spent a tranquil day together; not talking much, for Aurora was completely worn out by the fatigue and excitement she had undergone. What had her life been but agitation and terror since the day upon which Mr. John Pastern’s letter had come to Mellish to tell her of the existence of her first husband? She slept through the best part of the day, lying upon a sofa, and with John Mellish sitting by her side keeping watch over her. She slept while the bells of Beckenham church summoned the parishioners to afternoon service, and while her father went to assist in those quiet devotions, and to kneel on his hassock in the old square pew, and pray for the peace of his beloved child. Heaven knows how earnestly the old man prayed for his daughter’s happiness, and how she filled his thoughts; not distracting him from more sacred thoughts, but blending her image with his worship in alternate prayer and thanksgiving. Those who watched him as he sat, with the sunshine on his gray head, listening reverentially to the sermon, little knew how much trouble had been mingled with the great prosperity of his life. They pointed him out respectfully to strangers as a man whose signature across a slip of paper could make that oblong morsel of beaten rag into an incalculable sum of money; a man who stood upon a golden pinnacle with the Rothschilds, and Montefiores, and Couttses; who could afford to pay the national debt any morning that the whim seized him; and who was yet a plain man, and simple as a child, as anybody might see, the admiring parishioners would add, as the banker came out of church shaking hands right and left, and nodding to the charity children.

I’m afraid the children dropped lower courtesies in the pathway of Mr. Floyd than even before the Vicar of Beckenham; for they had learned to associate the image of the banker with bunns and tea, with sixpences and oranges, gambols on the smooth lawn at Felden, and jovial feasts in monster tents to the music of clashing brass bands, and with even greater treats in the way of excursions to a Crystal Palace on a hill, an enchanted fairyland of wonders, from which it was delicious to return in the dewy evening, singing hymns of rejoicing that shook the vans in which they travelled.

The banker had distributed happiness right and left; but the money which might have paid the national debt had been impotent to save the life of the dark-eyed woman he had loved so tenderly, or to spare him one pang of uneasiness about his idolized child. Had not that all-powerful wealth been rather the primary cause of his daughter’s trouble, since it had cast her, young, inexperienced, and trusting, a prey into the mercenary hands of a bad man, who would not have cared to persecute her but for the money that had made her such a golden prize for any adventurer who might please to essay the hazard of winning her?

With the memory of these things always in his mind, it was scarcely strange that Archibald Floyd should bear the burden of his riches meekly and fearfully, knowing that, whatever he might be in the Stock Exchange, he was in the sight of Heaven only a feeble old man, very assailable by suffering, very liable to sorrow, and humbly dependent on the mercy of the Hand that is alone powerful to spare or to afflict, as seemeth good to Him who guides it.

Aurora awoke out of her long sleep while her father was at church. She awoke to find her husband watching her; the Sunday papers lying forgotten on his knee, and his honest eyes fixed on the face he loved.

“My own dear John,” she said, as she lifted her head from the pillows, supporting herself upon her elbow, and stretching out one hand to Mr. Mellish, “my own dear boy, how happy we are together now! Will anything ever come to break our happiness again, my dear? Can Heaven be so cruel as to afflict us any more?”

The banker’s daughter, in the sovereign vitality of her nature, had rebelled against sorrow as a strange and unnatural part of her life. She had demanded happiness almost as a right; she had wondered at her afflictions, and been unable to understand why she should be thus afflicted. There are natures which accept suffering with patient meekness, and acknowledge the justice by which they suffer; but Aurora had never done this. Her joyous soul had revolted against sorrow, and she arose now in the intense relief which she felt in her release from the bonds that had been so hateful to her, and challenged Providence with her claim to be happy for evermore.

John Mellish thought very seriously upon this matter. He could not forget the night of the murder — the night upon which he had sat alone in his wife’s chamber pondering upon his unworthiness.

“Do you think we deserve to be happy, Lolly?” he said, presently. “Don’t mistake me, my darling. I know that you’re the best and brightest of living creatures — tender-hearted, loving, generous, and true. But do you think we take life quite seriously enough, Lolly, dear? I’m sometimes afraid that we’re too much like the careless children in the pretty childish allegory, who played about among the flowers on the smooth grass in the beautiful garden until it was too late to set out upon the long journey on the dark road which would have led them to Paradise. What shall we do, my darling, to deserve the blessings God has given us so freely — the blessings of youth and strength, and love and wealth? What shall we do, dear? I don’t want to turn Mellish into a Philanstery exactly, nor to give up my racing-stud if I can help it,” John said, reflectively; “but I want to do something, Lolly, to prove that I am grateful to Providence. Shall we build a lot of schools, or a church, or almshouses, or something of that sort? Lofthouse would like me to put up a painted window in Mellish church, and a new pulpit with a patent sounding-board; but I can’t see that painted windows and sounding-boards do much good in a general way. I want to do something, Aurora, to prove my gratitude to the Providence that has given me the loveliest and best of women for my true-hearted wife.”

The banker’s daughter smiled almost mournfully upon her devoted husband.

“Have I been such a blessing to you, John,” she said, “that you should be grateful for me? Have I not brought you far more sorrow than happiness, my poor dear?”

“No,” shouted Mr. Mellish, emphatically. “The sorrow you have brought me has been nothing to the joy I have felt in your love. My own dearest girl, to be sitting here by your side to-day, and to hear you tell me that you love me, is enough happiness to set against all the trouble of mind that I have endured since the man that is dead came to Mellish.”

I hope my poor John Mellish will be forgiven if he talked a great deal of nonsense to the wife he loved. He had been her lover from the first moment in which he had seen her, darkly beautiful, upon the gusty Brighton Parade, and he was her lover still. No shadow of contempt had ever grown out of his familiarity with her. And, indeed, I am disposed to take objection to that old proverb, or at least to believe that contempt is only engendered of familiarity with things which are in themselves base and spurious. The priest who is familiar with the altar learns no contempt for its sacred images; but it is rather the ignorant neophyte who sneers and sniggers at things which he can not understand. The artist becomes only more reverent as toil and study make him more familiar with his art; its eternal sublimity grows upon him, and he worships the far-away Goddess of Perfection as humbly when he drops his brush or his chisel after a life of patient labor as he did when first he ground color or pointed rough blocks of marble for his master. And I can not believe that a good man’s respect for the woman he loves can be lessened by that sweet and every-day familiarity in which a hundred household virtues and gentle beauties — never dreamed of in the ball-rooms where he first danced with an unknown idol in gauzy robes and glimmering jewels — grow upon him, until he confesses that the wife of ten years standing is even ten times dearer than the bride of a week’s honeymoon.

Archibald Floyd came back from church, and found his two children sitting side by side in one of the broad windows, watching for his arrival, and whispering together like lovers, as I have said they were.

They dined pleasantly together later in the evening, and a little after dark the phaeton was brought round to the terrace-steps, and Aurora kissed her father as she wished him good-night.

“You will come up to town, and be present at the marriage, sir, I know,” John whispered, as he took his father-in-law’s hand. “Talbot Bulstrode will arrange all about it. It is to take place at some out-of-the way little church in the city. Nobody will be any the wiser, and Aurora and I will go back to Mellish as quietly as possible. There’s only Lofthouse and Hayward know the secret of the certificate, and they —”

John Mellish stopped suddenly. He remembered Mrs. Powell’s parting sting. She knew the secret. But how could she have come by that knowledge? It was impossible that either Lofthouse or Hayward could have told her. They were both honorable men, and they had pledged themselves to be silent.

Archibald Floyd did not observe his son-in-law’s embarrassment; and the phaeton drove away, leaving the old man standing on the terrace-steps looking after his daughter.

“I must shut up this place,” he thought, “and go to Mellish to finish my days. I can not endure these separations; I can not bear this suspense. It is a pitiful sham, my keeping house, and living in all this dreary grandeur. I’ll shut up the place, and ask my daughter to give me a quiet corner in her Yorkshire home, and a grave in the parish church-yard.”

The lodge-keeper turned out of his comfortable Gothic habitation to open the clanking iron gates for the phaeton; but John drew up his horses before they dashed into the road, for he saw that the man wanted to speak to him.

“What is it, Forbes?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing particular, sir,” said the man, “and perhaps I ought n’t to trouble you about it; but did you expect any one down to-day, sir?”

“Expect any one here? no!” exclaimed John.

“There’s been a person inquirin’, sir, this afternoon — two persons, I may say, in a shaycart — but one of ’em asked particular if you was here, sir, and if Mrs. Mellish was here; and when I said yes, you was, the gent says it was n’t worth troublin’ you about, the business as he’d come upon, and as he’d call another time. And he asked me what time you’d be likely to be leavin’ the Woods; and I said I made no doubt you’d stay to dinner up at the house. So he says ‘All right,’ and drives off.”

“He left no message, then?”

“No, sir. He said nothin’ more than what I’ve told you.”

“Then his business could have been of no great importance, Forbes,” answered John, laughing. “So we need n’t worry our heads about him. Good-night.”

Mr. Mellish dropped a five-shilling piece into the lodge-keeper’s hand, gave Talbot’s horses their heads, and the phaeton rolled off Londonward over the crisp gravel of the well-kept Beckenham roads.

“Who could the man have been?” Aurora asked, as they left the gates.

“Goodness knows, my dear,” John answered, carelessly. “Somebody on racing business, perhaps.”

Racing business seems to be in itself such a mysterious business that it is no strange thing for mysterious people to be always turning up in relation to it. Aurora, therefore, was content to accept this explanation, but not without some degree of wonderment.

“I can’t understand the man coming to Felden after you, John,” she said. “How could he know that you were to be there to-day?”

“Ah! how indeed, Lolly?” returned Mr. Mellish. “He chanced it, I suppose. A sharp customer, no doubt; wants to sell a horse, I dare say, and heard I did n’t mind giving a good price for a good thing.”

Mr. Mellish might have gone even farther than this, for there were many horsey gentlemen in his neighborhood, past masters in the art they practised, who were wont to say that the young squire, judiciously manipulated, might be induced to give a remarkably good price for a very bad thing, and there were many broken-down, slim-legged horses in the Mellish stables that bore witness to the same fact. Those needy chevaliers d’esprit, who think that Burke’s landed gentry were created by Providence and endowed with the goods of this world for their especial benefit, just as pigeons are made plump and nice eating for the delectation of hawks, drove a wholesale trade upon the young man’s frank simplicity and hearty belief in his fellow-creatures. I think it is Eliza Cook who says, “It is better to trust and be deceived, than own the mean, poor spirit that betrays;” and if there is any happiness in being “done,” poor John enjoyed that fleeting delight pretty frequently.

There was a turn in the road between Beckenham and Norwood; and as the phaeton swept round, a chaise or dog-cart, a shabby vehicle enough, with a rakish-looking horse, drove close up, and the man who was driving asked the squire to put him in the nearest way to London. The vehicle had been behind them all the way from Felden, but had kept at a very respectful distance until now.

“Do you want to get to the city or the West End?” John asked.

“The West End.”

“Then you can’t do better than follow us,” answered Mr. Mellish; “the road’s clean enough, and your horse seems a good one to go. You can keep us in sight, I suppose?

“Yes, sir, and thank ye.”

“All right, then.”

Talbot Bulstrode’s thorough-breds dashed off, but the rakish-looking horse kept his ground behind them. He had something of the insolent, off-hand assurance of a butcher’s horse, accustomed to whirl a bare-headed, blue-coated master through the sharp morning air.

“I was right, Lolly,” Mr. Mellish said, as he left the dog-cart behind.

“How do you mean, dear?” asked Aurora.

“The man who spoke to us just now is the man who has been inquiring for me at Felden. He’s a Yorkshireman.”

“A Yorkshireman!”

“Yes; did n’t you hear the North-country twang?”

No; she had not listened to the man, nor heeded him. How should she think of anything but her newborn happiness — the newborn confidence between herself and the husband she loved?

Do not think her hard-hearted or cruel if she forgot that it was the death of a fellow-creature, a sinful man stricken down in the prime of youth and health, that had given her this welcome release. She had suffered so much that the release could not be otherwise than welcome, let it come how it might.

Her nature, frank and open as the day, had been dwarfed and crippled by the secret that had blighted her life. Can it be wondered, then, that she rejoiced now that all need of secrecy was over, and this generous spirit might expand as it pleased?

It was past ten when the phaeton turned into Half-Moon street. The men in the dog-cart had followed John’s directions to the letter, for it was only in Piccadilly that Mr. Mellish had lost sight of them among other vehicles travelling backward and forward on the lamplit thoroughfare.

Talbot and Lucy received their visitors in one of the pretty little drawing-rooms. The young husband and wife had spent a quiet day together; going to church in the morning and afternoon, dining alone, and sitting in the twilight, talking happily and confidentially. Mr. Bulstrode was no Sabbath-breaker; and John Mellish had reason to consider himself a peculiarly privileged person, inasmuch as the thorough-breds had been permitted to leave their stables for his service, to say nothing of the groom, who had been absent from his hard seat in the servants’ pew at a fashionable chapel in order that he might accompany John and Aurora to Felden.

The little party sat up rather late, Aurora and Lucy talking affectionately together, side by side, upon a sofa in the shadow of the room, while the two men lounged in the open window. John told his host the history of the day, and in doing so casually mentioned the man who had asked him the way to London.

Strange to say, Talbot Bulstrode seemed especially interested in this part of the story. He asked several questions about the men. He asked what they were like; what was said by either of them; and made many other inquiries, which seemed equally trivial.

“Then they followed you into town, John?” he said, finally.

“Yes; I only lost sight of them in Piccadilly, five minutes before I turned the corner of the street.”

“Do you think they had any motive in following you?” asked Talbot.

“Well, I fancy so; they’re on the look-out for information, I expect. The man who spoke to me looked something like a tout. I’ve heard that Lord Stamford’s rather anxious about my West-Australian colt, the Pork Butcher. Perhaps his people have set these men to work to find out if I’m going to run him in the Leger.”

Talbot Bulstrode smiled bitterly, almost mournfully, at the vanity of horseflesh. It was painful to see this light-hearted young squire looking in such ignorant hopefulness toward a horizon upon which graver and more thoughtful men could see a dreadful shadow lowering. Mr. Bulstrode was standing close to the balcony; he stepped out among the china boxes of mignonette, and looked down into the quiet street. A man was leaning against a lamp-post some few paces from Talbot’s house, smoking a cigar, and with his face turned toward the balcony. He finished his cigar deliberately, threw the end into the road, and walked away while Talbot kept watch; but Mr. Bulstrode did not leave his post of observation, and about a quarter of an hour afterward he saw the same man lounging slowly along the pavement upon the other side of the street. John, who sat within the shadow of the window-curtains, lolling against them, and creasing their delicate folds with the heavy pressure of his broad back, was utterly unconscious of all this.

Early the next morning Mr. Bulstrode and Mr. Mellish took a Hansom cab, and rattled down to Doctor’s Commons, where, for the second time in his life, John gave himself up to be fought for by white-aproned ecclesiastical touts, and eventually obtained the Archbishop of Canterbury’s gracious sanction of his marriage with Aurora, widow of James Conyers, only daughter of Archibald Floyd, banker. From Doctor’s Commons the two gentlemen drove to a certain quiet, out-of-the-way church, within the sound of Bow bells, but so completely hidden among piles of warehouses, top-heavy chimneys, sloping roofs, and other eccentricities of masonry, that any unhappy bridegroom who had appointed to be married there was likely enough to spend the whole of the wedding-day in futile endeavors to find the church-door. Here John discovered a mouldy clerk, who was fetched from some habitation in the neighborhood with considerable difficulty by a boy, who volunteered to accomplish anything under heaven for a certain copper consideration; and to this clerk Mr. Mellish gave notice of a marriage which was to take place upon the following day, by special license.

“I’ll take my second marriage certificate back with me,” John said, as he left the church, “and then I should like to see who’ll dare to look me in the face, and tell me that my darling is not my own lawfully-wedded wife.”

He was thinking of Mrs. Powell as he said this. He was thinking of the pale, spiteful eyes that had looked at him, and of the woman’s tongue that had stabbed him with all a little nature’s great capacity for hate. He would be able to defy her now; he would be able to defy every creature in the world who dared to breathe a syllable against his beloved wife.

Early the next morning the marriage took place. Archibald Floyd, Talbot Bulstrode, and Lucy were the only witnesses — that is to say, the only witnesses with the exception of the clerk and the pew-opener, and a couple of men who lounged into the church when the ceremony was half over, and slouched about one of the side aisles, looking at the monuments, and talking to each other in whispers, until the parson took off his surplice, and John came out of the vestry with his wife upon his arm.

Mr. and Mrs. Mellish did not return to Half-Moon street; they drove straight to the Great Northern Station, whence they started by the afternoon express for Doncaster. John was anxious to return; for remember that he had left his household under very peculiar circumstances, and strange reports might have arisen in his absence.

The young squire would perhaps scarcely have thought of this had not the idea been suggested to him by Talbot Bulstrode, who particularly urged upon him the expediency of returning immediately.

“Go back, John,” said Mr. Bulstrode, “without an hour’s unnecessary delay. If by any chance there should be some farther disturbance about this murder, it will be much better for you, and Aurora too, to be on the spot. I will come down to Mellish myself in a day or two, and will bring Lucy with me, if you will allow me.”

“Allow you, my dear Talbot!”

“I will come, then. Good-by, and God bless you! Take care of your wife.”

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