Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 4

After the Ball.

Two days after Aurora’s birthnight festival, Talbot Bulstrode’s phaeton dashed once more into the avenue at Felden Woods. Again the captain made a sacrifice on the shrine of friendship, and drove Francis Maldon from Windsor to Beckenham, in order that the young cornet might make those anxious inquiries about the health of the ladies of Mr. Floyd’s household, which, by a pleasant social fiction, are supposed to be necessary after an evening of intermittent waltzes and quadrilles.

The junior officer was very grateful for this kindness; for Talbot, though the best of fellows, was not much given to putting himself out of the way for the pleasure of other people. It would have been far pleasanter to the captain to dawdle away the day in his own rooms, lolling over those erudite works which his brother officers described by the generic title of “heavy reading,” or, according to the popular belief of those hare-brained young men, employed in squaring the circle in the solitude of his chamber.

Talbot Bulstrode was altogether an inscrutable personage to his comrades of the 11th Hussars. His black-letter folios, his polished mahogany cases of mathematical instruments, his proof-before-letters engravings, were the fopperies of a young Oxonian rather than an officer who had fought and bled at Inkermann. The young men who breakfasted with him in his rooms trembled as they read the titles of the big books on the shelves, and stared helplessly at the grim saints and angular angels in the pre-Raphaelite prints upon the walls. They dared not even propose to smoke in those sacred chambers, and were ashamed of the wet impressions of the rims of the Moselle bottles which they left upon the mahogany cases.

It seemed natural to people to be afraid of Talbot Bulstrode, just as little boys are frightened of a beadle, a policeman, and a school-master, even before they have been told the attributes of these terrible beings. The colonel of the 11th Hussars, a portly gentleman, who rode fifteen stone, and wrote his name high in the peerage, was frightened of Talbot. That cold gray eye struck a silent awe into the hearts of men and women with its straight, penetrating gaze, that always seemed to be telling them they were found out. The colonel was afraid to tell his best stories when Talbot was at the mess-table, for he had a dim consciousness that the captain was aware of the discrepancies in those brilliant anecdotes, though that officer had never implied a doubt by either look or gesture. The Irish adjutant forgot to brag about his conquests among the fair sex; the younger men dropped their voices when they talked to each other of the side-scenes at Her Majesty’s Theatre; and the corks flew faster, and the laughter grew louder, when Talbot left the room.

The captain knew that he was more respected than beloved, and, like all proud men who repel the warm feelings of others in utter despite of themselves, he was grieved and wounded because his comrades did not become attached to him.

“Will anybody, out of all the millions on this wide earth, ever love me!” he thought. “No one ever has as yet — not even my father and mother. They have been proud of me, but they have never loved me. How many a young profligate has brought his parents’ gray hairs with sorrow to the grave, and has been beloved with the last heart-beat of those he destroyed as I have never been in my life! Perhaps my mother would have loved me better if I had given her more trouble; if I had scattered the name of Bulstrode all over London upon post-obits and dishonored acceptances; if I had been drummed out of my regiment, and had walked down to Cornwall without shoes or stockings, to fall at her feet, and sob out my sins and sorrows in her lap, and ask her to mortgage her jointure for the payment of my debts. But I have never asked anything of her, dear soul, except her love, and that she has been unable to give me. I suppose it is because I do not know how to ask. How often have I sat by her side at Bulstrode, talking of all sorts of indifferent subjects, yet with a vague yearning at my heart to throw myself upon her breast, and implore of her to love and bless her son, but held aloof by some icy barrier that I have been powerless all my life to break down. What woman has ever loved me? Not one. They have tried to marry me because I shall be Sir Talbot Bulstrode of Bulstrode Castle; but how soon they have left off angling for the prize, and shrunk away from me chilled and disheartened! I shudder when I remember that I shall be three-and-thirty next March, and that I have never been beloved. I shall sell out, now the fighting is over, for I am of no use among the fellows here; and, if any good little thing would fall in love with me, I would marry her and take her down to Bulstrode, to my mother and father, and turn country gentleman.”

Talbot Bulstrode made this declaration in all sincerity. He wished that some good and pure creature would fall in love with him, in order that he might marry her. He wanted some spontaneous exhibition of innocent feeling which might justify him in saying “I am beloved!” He felt little capacity for loving on his own side, but he thought that he would be grateful to any good woman who would regard him with disinterested affection, and that he would devote his life to making her happy.

“It would be something to feel that if I were smashed in a railway accident, or dropped out of a balloon, some one creature in this world would think it a lonelier place for the lack of me. I wonder whether my children would love me? I dare say not. I should freeze their young affections with the Latin grammar, and they would tremble as they passed the door of my study, and hush their voices into a frightened whisper when papa was within hearing.”

Talbot Bulstrode’s ideal of woman was some gentle and feminine creature crowned with an aureole of pale auburn hair; some timid soul with downcast eyes, fringed with golden-tinted lashes; some shrinking being, as pale and prim as the mediæval saints in his pre-Raphaelite engravings, spotless as her own white robes, excelling in all womanly graces and accomplishments, but only exhibiting them in the narrow circle of a home.

Perhaps Talbot thought that he had met with his ideal when he entered the long drawing-room at Felden Woods with Cornet Maldon, on the seventeenth of September, 1857.

Lucy Floyd was standing by an open piano, with her white dress and pale golden hair bathed in a flood of autumn sunlight. That sunlit figure came back to Talbot’s memory long afterward, after a stormy interval, in which it had been blotted away and forgotten, and the long drawing-room stretched itself out like a picture before his eyes.

Yes, this was his ideal — this graceful girl, with the shimmering light for ever playing upon her hair, and the modest droop in her white eyelids. But, undemonstrative as usual, Captain Bulstrode seated himself near the piano, after the brief ceremony of greeting, and contemplated Lucy with grave eyes that betrayed no especial admiration.

He had not taken much notice of Lucy Floyd on the night of the ball; indeed, Lucy was scarcely a candle-light beauty; her hair wanted the sunshine gleaming through it to light up the golden halo about her face, and the delicate pink of her cheeks waxed pale in the glare of the great chandeliers.

While Captain Bulstrode was watching Lucy with that grave, contemplative gaze, trying to find out whether she was in any way different from other girls he had known, and whether the purity of her delicate beauty was more than skin deep, the window opposite to him was darkened, and Aurora Floyd stood between him and the sunshine.

The banker’s daughter paused on the threshold of the open window, holding the collar of an immense mastiff in both her hands, and looking irresolutely into the room.

Miss Floyd hated morning callers, and she was debating within herself whether she had been seen, or whether it might be possible to steal away unperceived.

But the dog set up a big bark, and settled the question.

“Quiet, Bow-wow,” she said; “quiet, quiet, boy.”

“Yes, the dog was called Bow-wow. He was twelve years old, and Aurora had so christened him in her seventh year, when he was a blundering, big-headed puppy, that sprawled upon the table during the little girl’s lessons, upset ink-bottles over her copy-books, and ate whole chapters of Pinnock’s abridged histories.

The gentlemen rose at the sound of her voice, and Miss Floyd came into the room and sat down at a little distance from the captain and her cousin, twirling a straw hat in her hand and staring at her dog, who seated himself resolutely by her chair, knocking double knocks of good temper upon the carpet with his big tail.

Though she said very little, and seated herself in a careless attitude that bespoke complete indifference to her visitors, Aurora’s beauty extinguished poor Lucy as the rising sun extinguishes the stars.

The thick plaits of her black hair made a great diadem upon her low forehead, and crowned her an Eastern empress — an empress with a doubtful nose, it is true, but an empress who reigned by right divine of her eyes and hair. For do not these wonderful black eyes, which perhaps shine upon us only once in a lifetime, in themselves constitute a royalty?

Talbot Bulstrode turned away from his ideal to look at this dark-haired goddess, with a coarse straw hat in her hand and a big mastiff’s head lying on her lap. Again he perceived that abstraction in her manner which had puzzled him upon the night of the ball. She listened to her visitors politely, and she answered them when they spoke to her, but it seemed to Talbot as if she constrained herself to attend to them by an effort.

“She wishes me away, I dare say,” he thought, “and no doubt considers me a ‘slow party’ because I don’t talk to her of horses and dogs.”

The captain resumed his conversation with Lucy. He found that she talked exactly as he had heard other young ladies talk, that she knew all they knew, and had been to the places they had visited. The ground they went over was very old indeed, but Lucy traversed it with charming propriety.

“She is a good little thing,” Talbot thought, “and would make an admirable wife for a country gentleman. I wish she would fall in love with me.”

Lucy told him of some excursion in Switzerland, where she had been during the preceding autumn with her father and mother.

“And your cousin,” he asked, “was she with you?”

“No; Aurora was at school in Paris with the Demoiselles Lespard.”

“Lespard — Lespard!” he repeated; “a Protestant pension in the Faubourg Saint Germain? Why, a cousin of mine is being educated there — a Miss Trevyllian. She has been there for three or four years. Do you remember Constance Trevyllian at the Demoiselles Lespard, Miss Floyd?” said Talbot, addressing himself to Aurora.

“Constance Trevyllian? Yes, I remember her,” answered the banker’s daughter.

She said nothing more, and for a few moments there was rather an awkward pause.

“Miss Trevyllian is my cousin,” said the captain.

“Indeed!”

“I hope that you were very good friends.”

“Oh, yes.”

She bent over her dog, caressing his big head, and not even looking up as she spoke of Miss Trevyllian. It seemed as if the subject was utterly indifferent to her, and she disdained even to affect an interest in it.

Talbot Bulstrode bit his lip with offended pride. “I suppose this purse-proud heiress looks down upon the Trevyllians of Tredethlin,” he thought, “because they can boast of nothing better than a few hundred acres of barren moorland, some exhausted tin mines, and a pedigree that dates from the days of King Arthur.”

Archibald Floyd came into the drawing-room while the officers were seated there, and bade them welcome to Felden Woods.

“A long drive, gentlemen,” said he; “your horses will want a rest. Of course you will dine with us. We shall have a full moon tonight, and you’ll have it as light as day for your drive back.”

Talbot looked at Francis Lewis Maldon, who was sitting staring at Aurora with vacant, open-mouthed admiration. The young officer knew that the heiress and her fifty thousand pounds were not for him; but it was scarcely the less pleasant to look at her, and wish that, like Captain Bulstrode, he had been the eldest son of a rich baronet.

The invitation was accepted by Mr. Maldon as cordially as it had been given, and with less than his usual stiffness of manner on the part of Talbot.

The luncheon-bell rang while they were talking, and the little party adjourned to the dining-room, where they found Mrs. Alexander Floyd sitting at the bottom of the table. Talbot sat next to Lucy, with Mr. Maldon opposite to them, while Aurora took her place beside her father.

The old man was attentive to his guests, but the shallowest observer could have scarcely failed to notice his watchfulness of Aurora. It was ever present in his careworn face, that tender, anxious glance which turned to her at every pause in the conversation, and could scarcely withdraw itself from her for the common courtesies of life. If she spoke, he listened — listened as if every careless, half-disdainful word concealed a deeper meaning, which it was his task to discern and unravel. If she was silent, he watched her still more closely, seeking perhaps to penetrate that gloomy veil which sometimes spread itself over her handsome face.

Talbot Bulstrode was not so absorbed by his conversation with Lucy and Mrs. Alexander as to overlook this peculiarity in the father’s manner toward his only child. He saw, too, that when Aurora addressed the banker, it was no longer with that listless indifference, half weariness, half disdain, which seemed natural to her on other occasions. The eager watchfulness of Archibald Floyd was in some measure reflected in his daughter; by fits and starts, it is true, for she generally sank back into that moody abstraction which Captain Bulstrode had observed on the night of the ball; but still it was there, the same feeling as her father’s, though less constant and intense — a watchful, anxious, half-sorrowful affection, which could scarcely exist except under abnormal circumstances. Talbot Bulstrode was vexed to find himself wondering about this, and growing every moment less and less attentive to Lucy’s simple talk.

“What does it mean?” he thought; “has she fallen in love with some man whom her father has forbidden her to marry, and is the old man trying to atone for his severity? That’s scarcely likely. A woman with a head and throat like hers could scarcely fail to be ambitious — ambitious and revengeful, rather than over-susceptible of any tender passion. Did she lose half her fortune upon that race she talked to me about? I’ll ask her presently. Perhaps they have taken away her betting-book, or lamed her favorite horse, or shot some pet dog, to cure him of distemper. She is a spoiled child, of course, this heiress, and I dare say her father would try to get a copy of the moon made for her if she cried for that planet.”

After luncheon, the banker took his guests into the gardens that stretched far away upon two sides of the house — the gardens which poor Eliza Floyd had helped to plan nineteen years before.

Talbot Bulstrode walked rather stiffly from his Crimean wound, but Mrs. Alexander and her daughter suited their pace to his, while Aurora walked before them with her father and Mr. Maldon, and with the mastiff close at her side.

“Your cousin is rather proud, is she not?” Talbot asked Lucy, after they had been talking of Aurora.

“Aurora proud! oh no, indeed! perhaps, if she has any fault at all (for she is the dearest girl that ever lived), it is that she has not sufficient pride — I mean with regard to servants, and that sort of people. She would as soon talk to one of those gardeners as to you or me; and you would see no difference in her manner, except that perhaps it would be a little more cordial to them than to us. The poor people round Felden idolize her.”

“Aurora takes after her mother,” said Mrs. Alexander; “she is the living image of poor Eliza Floyd.”

“Was Mrs. Floyd a countrywoman of her husband’s?” Talbot asked. He was wondering how Aurora came to have those great, brilliant black eyes, and so much of the south in her beauty.

“No; my uncle’s wife belonged to a Lancashire family.”

A Lancashire family! If Talbot Raleigh Bulstrode could have known that the family name was Prodder; that one member of the haughty house had employed his youth in the pleasing occupations of a cabin-boy, making thick coffee and toasting greasy herrings for the matutinal meal of a surly captain, and receiving more corporal correction from the sturdy toe of his master’s boot than sterling copper coin of the realm — if he could have known that the great aunt of this disdainful creature, walking before him in all the majesty of her beauty, had once kept a chandler’s shop in an obscure street in Liverpool, and, for aught any one but the banker knew, kept it still! But this was a knowledge which had wisely been kept even from Aurora herself, who knew little, except that, despite of having been born with that allegorical silver spoon in her mouth, she was poorer than other girls, inasmuch as she was motherless.

Mrs. Alexander, Lucy, and the captain overtook the others upon a rustic bridge, where Talbot stopped to rest. Aurora was leaning over the rough wooden balustrade, looking lazily at the water.

“Did your favorite win the race, Miss Floyd?” he asked, as he watched the effect of her profile against the sunlight; not a very beautiful profile certainly, but for the long black eyelashes, and the radiance under them, which their darkest shadows could never hide.

“Which favorite?” she said.

“The horse you spoke to me about the other night — Thunderbolt; did he win?”

“No.”

“I am very sorry to hear it.”

Aurora looked up at him, reddening angrily. “Why so?” she asked.

“Because I thought you were interested in his success.”

As Talbot said this, he observed, for the first time, that Archibald Floyd was near enough to hear their conversation, and, furthermore, that he was regarding his daughter with even more than his usual watchfulness.

“Do not talk to me of racing; it annoys papa,” Aurora said to the captain, dropping her voice. Talbot bowed. “I was right, then,” he thought; “the turf is the skeleton. I dare say Miss Floyd has been doing her best to drag her father’s name into the Gazette, and yet he evidently loves her to distraction; while I—” There was something so very pharisaical in the speech that Captain Bulstrode would not even finish it mentally. He was thinking, “This girl, who, perhaps, has been the cause of nights of sleepless anxiety and days of devouring care, is tenderly beloved by her father, while I, who am a model to all the elder sons of England, have never been loved in my life.”

At half-past six the great bell at Felden Woods rang a clamorous peal that went shivering above the trees, to tell the country-side that the family were going to dress for dinner; and another peal at seven to tell the villagers round Beckenham and West Wickham that Maister Floyd and his household were going to dine; but not altogether an empty or discordant peal, for it told the hungry poor of broken victuals and rich and delicate meats to be had almost for asking in the servants’ offices — shreds of fricandeaux and patches of dainty preparations, quarters of chickens and carcasses of pheasants, which would have gone to fatten the pigs for Christmas but for Archibald Floyd’s strict commands that all should be given to those who chose to come for it.

Mr. Floyd and his visitors did not leave the gardens till after the ladies had retired to dress. The dinner-party was very animated, for Alexander Floyd drove down from the city to join his wife and daughter, bringing with him the noisy boy who was just going to Eton, and who was passionately attached to his cousin Aurora; and whether it was owing to the influence of this young gentleman, or to that fitfulness which seemed a part of her nature, Talbot Bulstrode could not discover, but certain it was that the dark cloud melted away from Miss Floyd’s face, and she abandoned herself to the joyousness of the hour with a radiant grace that reminded her father of the night when Eliza Percival played Lady Teazel for the last time, and took her farewell of the stage in the little Lancashire theatre.

It needed but this change in his daughter to make Archibald Floyd thoroughly happy. Aurora’s smiles seemed to shed a revivifying influence upon the whole circle. The ice melted away, for the sun had broken out, and the winter was gone at last. Talbot Bulstrode bewildered his brain by trying to discover why it was that this woman was such a peerless and fascinating creature. Why it was that, argue as he would against the fact, he was nevertheless allowing himself to be bewitched by this black-eyed siren — freely drinking of that cup of bang which she presented to him, and rapidly becoming intoxicated.

“I could almost fall in love with my fair-haired ideal,” he thought, “but I can not help admiring this extraordinary girl. She is like Mrs. Nisbett in her zenith of fame and beauty; she is like Cleopatra sailing down the Cydnus; she is like Nell Gwynne selling oranges; she is like Lola Montez giving battle to the Bavarian students; she is like Charlotte Corday with the knife in her hand, standing behind the friend of the people in his bath; she is like everything that is beautiful, and strange, and wicked, and unwomanly, and bewitching; and she is just the sort of creature that many a fool would fall in love with.”

He put the length of the room between himself and the enchantress, and took his seat by the grand piano, at which Lucy Floyd was playing slow harmonious symphonies of Beethoven. The drawing-room at Felden Woods was so long that, seated by this piano, Captain Bulstrode seemed to look back at the merry group about the heiress as he might have looked at a scene on the stage from the back of the boxes. He almost wished for an opera-glass as he watched Aurora’s graceful gestures and the play of her sparkling eyes; and then, turning to the piano, he listened to the drowsy music, and contemplated Lucy’s face, marvellously fair in the light of that full moon of which Archibald Floyd had spoken, the glory of which, streaming in from an open window, put out the dim wax candles on the piano.

All that Aurora’s beauty most lacked was richly possessed by Lucy. Delicacy of outline, perfection of feature, purity of tint, all were there; but, while one face dazzled you by its shining splendor, the other impressed you only with a feeble sense of its charms, slow to come, and quick to pass away. There are so many Lucys, but so few Auroras; and while you never could be critical with the one, you were merciless in your scrutiny of the other. Talbot Bulstrode was attracted to Lucy by a vague notion that she was just the good and timid creature who was destined to make him happy; but he looked at her as calmly as if she had been a statue, and was as fully aware of her defects as a sculptor who criticises the work of a rival.

But she was exactly the sort of woman to make a good wife. She had been educated to that end by a careful mother. Purity and goodness had watched over her and hemmed her in from the cradle. She had never seen unseemly sights, or heard unseemly sounds. She was as ignorant as a baby of all the vices and horrors of this big world. She was ladylike, accomplished, well-informed; and if there were a great many others of precisely the same type of graceful womanhood, it was certainly the highest type, and the holiest, and the best.

Later in the evening, when Captain Bulstrode’s phaeton was brought round to the flight of steps in front of the great doors, the little party assembled on the terrace to see the two officers depart, and the banker told his guests how he hoped this visit to Felden would be the beginning of a lasting acquaintance.

“I am going to take Aurora and my niece to Brighton for a month or so,” he said, as he shook hands with the captain, “but on our return you must let us see you as often as possible.”

Talbot bowed, and stammered his thanks for the banker’s cordiality. Aurora and her cousin, Percy Floyd, the young Etonian, had gone down the steps, and were admiring Captain Bulstrode’s thorough-bred bays, and the captain was not a little distracted by the picture the group made in the moonlight.

He never forgot that picture. Aurora, with her coronet of plaits dead black against the purple air, and her silk dress shimmering in the uncertain light, the delicate head of the bay horse visible above her shoulder, and her ringed white hands caressing the animal’s slender ears, while the purblind old mastiff, vaguely jealous, whined complainingly at her side.

How marvellous is the sympathy which exists between some people and the brute creation! I think that horses and dogs understood every word that Aurora said to them — that they worshipped her from the dim depths of their inarticulate souls, and would have willingly gone to death to do her service. Talbot observed all this with an uneasy sense of bewilderment.

“I wonder whether these creatures are wiser than we?” he thought; “do they recognize some higher attributes in this girl than we can perceive, and worship their sublime presence? If this terrible woman, with her unfeminine tastes and mysterious propensities, were mean, or cowardly, or false, or impure, I do not think that mastiff would love her as he does; I do not think my thorough-breds would let her hands meddle with their bridles; the dog would snarl, and the horses would bite, as such animals used to do in those remote old days when they recognized witchcraft and evil spirits, and were convulsed by the presence of the uncanny. I dare say this Miss Floyd is a good, generous-hearted creature — the sort of person fast men would call a glorious girl — but as well-read in the Racing Calendar and Ruff’s Guide as other ladies in Miss Yonge’s novels. I’m really sorry for her.”

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