Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 5

John Mellish.

The house which the banker hired at Brighton for the month of October was perched high up on the East Cliff, towering loftily above the wind-driven waves; the rugged coast of Dieppe was dimly visible from the upper windows in the clear autumn mornings, and the Chain Pier looked like a strip of ribbon below the cliff — a pleasanter situation, to my mind, than those level terraces toward the west, from the windows of which the sea appears of small extent, and the horizon within half a mile or so of the Parade.

Before Mr. Floyd took his daughter and her cousin to Brighton, he entered into an arrangement which he thought, no doubt, a very great evidence of his wisdom; this was the engagement of a lady, who was to be a compound governess, companion, and chaperon to Aurora, who, as her aunt said, was sadly in need of some accomplished and watchful person, whose care it would be to train and prune those exuberant branches of her nature which had been suffered to grow as they would from her infancy. The beautiful shrub was no longer to trail its wild stems along the ground, or shoot upward to the blue skies at its own sweet will; it was to be trimmed, and clipped, and fastened primly to the stony wall of society with cruel nails and galling strips of cloth. In other words, an advertisement was inserted in the Times newspaper, setting forth that a lady by birth and education was required as finishing governess and companion in the household of a gentleman to whom salary was no object, provided the aforesaid lady was perfect mistress of all the accomplishments under the sun, and was altogether such an exceptional and extraordinary being as could only exist in the advertising columns of a popular journal.

But if the world had been filled with exceptional beings, Mr. Floyd could scarcely have received more answers to his advertisement than came pelting in upon the unhappy little postmaster at Beckenham. The man had serious thoughts of hiring a cart in which to convey the letters to Felden. If the banker had advertised for a wife, and had stated the amount of his income, he could scarcely have had more answers. It seemed as if the female population of London, with one accord, was seized with the desire to improve the mind and form the manners of the daughter of the gentleman to whom terms were no object. Officers’ widows, clergymen’s widows, lawyers’ and merchants’ widows, daughters of gentlemen of high family but reduced means, orphan daughters of all sorts of noble and distinguished people, declared themselves each and every one to be the person who, out of all living creatures upon this earth, was best adapted for the post. Mrs. Alexander Floyd selected six letters, threw the rest into the waste-paper basket, ordered the banker’s carriage, and drove into town to see the six writers thereof. She was a practical and energetic woman, and she put the six applicants through their facings so severely that when she returned to Mr. Floyd it was to announce that only one of them was good for anything, and that she was coming down to Felden Woods the next day.

The chosen lady was the widow of an ensign who had died within six months of his marriage, and about an hour and a half before he would have succeeded to some enormous property, the particulars of which were never rightly understood by the friends of his unfortunate relict. But, vague as the story night be, it was quite clear enough to establish Mrs. Walter Powell in life as a disappointed woman. She was a woman with straight light hair, and a lady-like droop of the head — a woman who had left school to marry, and after six months wedded life, had gone back to the same school as instructress of the junior pupils — a woman whose whole existence had been spent in teaching and being taught; who had exercised in her earlier years a species of hand-to-mouth tuition, teaching in the morning that which she learned over night; who had never lost an opportunity of improving herself; who had grown mechanically proficient as a musician and an artist, who had a certain parrot-like skill in foreign languages, who had read all the books incumbent upon her to read, and who knew all things imperative for her to know, and who, beyond all this, and outside the boundary of the school-room wall, was ignorant, and soulless, and low-minded, and vulgar. Aurora swallowed the bitter pill as best she might, and accepted Mrs. Powell as the person chartered for her improvement — a kind of ballast to be flung into the wandering bark, to steady its erratic course, and keep it off rocks and quicksands.

“I must put up with her, Lucy, I suppose,” she said, “and I must consent to be improved and formed by the poor, faded creature. I wonder whether she will be like Miss Drummond, who used to let me off from my lesson and read novels while I ran wild in the gardens and stables. I can put up with her, Lucy, as long as I have you with me; but I think I should go mad if I were to be chained up alone with that grim, pale-faced watch-dog.”

Mr. Floyd and his family drove from Felden to Brighton in the banker’s roomy travelling carriage, with Aurora’s maid in the rumble, a pile of imperials upon the roof, and Mrs. Powell, with her young charges, in the interior of the vehicle. Mrs. Alexander had gone back to Fulham, having done her duty, as she considered, in securing a protectress for Aurora; but Lucy was to stay with her cousin at Brighton, and to ride with her on the downs. The saddle-horses had gone down the day before with Aurora’s groom, a gray-haired and rather surly old fellow who had served Archibald Floyd for thirty years; and the mastiff called Bow-wow travelled in the carriage with his mistress.

About a week after the arrival at Brighton, Aurora and her cousin were walking together on the West Cliff, when a gentleman with a stiff leg rose from a bench upon which he had been seated listening to the band, and slowly advanced to them. Lucy dropped her eyelids with a faint blush, but Aurora held out her hand in answer to Captain Bulstrode’s salute.

“I thought I should be sure to meet you down here, Miss Floyd,” he said. “I only came this morning, and I was going to call at Folthorpe’s for your papa’s address. Is he quite well?”

“Quite — yes, that is — pretty well.” A shadow stole over her face as she spoke. It was a wonderful face for fitful lights and shades. “But we did not expect to see you at Brighton, Captain Bulstrode; we thought your regiment was still quartered at Windsor.”

“Yes, my regiment — that is, the Eleventh is still at Windsor; but I have sold out.”

“Sold out!” Both Aurora and her cousin opened their eyes at this intelligence.

“Yes; I was tired of the army. It’s dull work now the fighting is all over. I might have exchanged and gone to India, certainly,” he added, as if in answer to some argument of his own; “but I’m getting middle-aged, and I am tired of roaming about the world.”

“I should like to go to India,” said Aurora, looking seaward as she spoke.

“You, Aurora! but why?” exclaimed Lucy.

“Because I hate England.”

“I thought it was France you disliked?”

“I hate them both. What is the use of this big world if we are to stop for ever in one place, chained to one set of ideas, fettered to one narrow circle of people, seeing and hearing of the persons we hate for ever and ever, and unable to get away from the odious sound of their names? I should like to turn female missionary, and go to the centre of Africa with Dr. Livingstone and his family — and I would go if it was n’t for papa.”

Poor Lucy stared at her cousin in helpless amazement. Talbot Bulstrode found himself falling back into that state of bewilderment in which this girl always threw him. What did she mean, this heiress of nineteen years of age, by her fits of despondency and outbursts of bitterness? Was it not perhaps, after all, only an affectation of singularity?

Aurora looked at him with her brightest smile while he was asking himself this question. “You will come and see papa?” she said.

Captain Bulstrode declared that he desired no greater happiness than to pay his respects to Mr. Floyd, in token whereof he walked with the young ladies toward the East Cliff.

From that morning the officer became a constant visitor at the banker’s. He played chess with Lucy, accompanied her on the piano when she sang, assisted her with valuable hints when she painted in water-colors, put in lights here, and glimpses of sky there, deepened autumnal browns, and intensified horizon purples, and made himself altogether useful to the young lady, who was, as we know, accomplished in all lady-like arts. Mrs. Powell, seated in one of the windows of the pleasant drawing-room, shed the benignant light of her faded countenance and pale blue eyes upon the two young people, and represented all the proprieties in her own person. Aurora, when the weather prevented her riding, occupied herself more restlessly than profitably by taking up books and tossing them down, pulling Bow-wow’s ears, staring out of the windows, drawing caricatures of the promenaders on the cliff, and dragging out a wonderful little watch, with a bunch of dangling inexplicable golden absurdities, to see what o’clock it was.

Talbot Bulstrode, while leaning over Lucy’s piano or drawing-board, or pondering about the next move of his queen, had ample leisure to watch the movements of Miss Floyd, and to be shocked at the purposeless manner in which that young lady spent the rainy mornings. Sometimes he saw her poring over Bell’s Life, much to the horror of Mrs. Walter Powell, who had a vague idea of the iniquitous proceedings recited in that terrible journal, but who was afraid to stretch her authority so far as to forbid its perusal.

Mrs. Powell looked with silent approbation upon the growing familiarity between gentle Lucy Floyd and the captain. She had feared at first that Talbot was an admirer of Aurora’s; but the manner of the two soon dispelled her alarm. Nothing could be more cordial than Miss Floyd’s treatment of the officer; but she displayed the same indifference to him that she did to everything else except her dog and her father. Was it possible that wellnigh perfect face and those haughty graces had no charm for the banker’s daughter? Could it be that she could spend hour after hour in the society of the handsomest and most aristocratic man she had ever met, and yet be as heart-whole as when the acquaintance began? There was one person in the little party who was for ever asking that question, and never able to answer it to her own satisfaction, and that person was Lucy Floyd. Poor Lucy Floyd, who was engaged, night and day, in mentally playing that old German game which Faust and Margaret played together with the full-blown rose in the garden —“He loves me — loves me not!”

Mrs. Walter Powell’s shallow-sighted blue eyes might behold in Lucy Captain Bulstrode’s attraction to the East Cliff, but Lucy herself knew better — bitterly, cruelly better.

“Captain Bulstrode’s attentions to Miss Lucy Floyd were most evident,” Mrs. Powell said one day when the captain left, after a long morning’s music, and singing, and chess. How Lucy hated the prim phrase! None knew so well as she the value of those “attentions.” They had been at Brighton six weeks, and for the last five the captain had been with them nearly every morning. He had ridden with them on the downs, and driven with them to the Dike, and lounged beside them listening to the band, and stood behind them in their box at the pretty little theatre, and crushed with them into the Pavilion to hear Grisi, and Mario, and Alboni, and poor Bosio. He had attended them through the whole round of Brighton amusements, and had never seemed weary of their companionship. But for all this, Lucy knew what the last leaf upon the rose would tell her when the many petals should be plucked away, and the poor stem be left bare. She knew how often he forgot to turn over the leaf in the Beethoven sonatas, how often he put streaks of green into a horizon that should have been purple, and touched up the trees in her foreground with rose-pink, and suffered himself to be ignominiously checkmated from sheer inattention, and gave her wandering, random answers when she spoke to him. She knew how restless he was when Aurora read Bell’s Life, and how the very crackle of the newspaper made him wince with nervous pain. She knew how tender he was of the purblind mastiff, how eager to be friends with him, how almost sycophantic in his attentions to the big, stately animal. Lucy knew, in short, that which Talbot as yet did not know himself — she knew that he was fast falling head over heels in love with her cousin, and she had, at the same time, a vague idea that he would much rather have fallen in love with herself, and that he was blindly struggling with the growing passion.

It was so; he was falling in love with Aurora. The more he protested against her, the more determinedly he exaggerated her follies, and argued with himself upon the folly of loving her, so much the more surely did he love her. The very battle he was fighting kept her for ever in his mind, until he grew the veriest slave of the lovely vision which he only evoked in order to endeavor to exorcise.

“How could he take her down to Bulstrode, and introduce her to his father and mother?” he thought; and at the thought she appeared to him illuminating the old Cornish mansion by the radiance of her beauty, fascinating his father, bewitching his mother, riding across the moorland on her thorough-bred mare, and driving all the parish mad with admiration of her.

He felt that his visits to Mr. Floyd’s house were fast compromising him in the eyes of its inmates. Sometimes he felt himself bound in honor to make Lucy an offer of his hand; sometimes he argued that no one had any right to consider his attentions more particular to one than to the other of the young ladies. If he had known of that weary game which Lucy was for ever mentally playing with the imaginary rose, I am sure he would not have lost an hour in proposing to her; but Mrs. Alexander’s daughter had been far too well educated to betray one emotion of her heart, and she bore her girlish agonies, and concealed her hourly tortures, with the quiet patience common to these simple, womanly martyrs. She knew that the last leaf must soon be plucked, and the sweet pain of uncertainty be for ever ended.

Heaven knows how long Talbot Bulstrode might have done battle with his growing passion had it not been for an event which put an end to his indecision, and made him desperate. This event was the appearance of a rival.

He was walking with Aurora and Lucy upon the West Cliff one afternoon in November, when a mail phaeton and pair suddenly drew up against the railings that separated them from the road, and a big man, with huge masses of Scotch plaid twisted about his waist and shoulders, sprang out of the vehicle, splashing the mud upon his legs, and rushed up to Talbot, taking off his hat as he approached, and bowing apologetically to the ladies.

“Why, Bulstrode,” he said, “who on earth would have thought of seeing you here? I heard you were in India, man; but what have you done to your leg?”

He was so breathless with hurry and excitement that he was utterly indifferent to punctuation, and it seemed as much as he could do to keep silence while Talbot introduced him to the ladies as Mr. Mellish, an old friend and school-fellow. The stranger stared with such open-mouthed admiration at Miss Floyd’s black eyes that the captain turned round upon him almost savagely as he asked what had brought him to Brighton.

“The hunting-season, my boy. Tired of Yorkshire; know every field, ditch, hedge, pond, sunk fence, and scrap of timber in the three Ridings. I’m staying at the Bedford; I’ve got my stud with me — give you a mount to-morrow morning if you like. Harriers meet at eleven — Dike Road. I’ve a gray that’ll suit you to a nicety — carry my weight, and as easy to sit as your arm-chair.”

Talbot hated his friend for talking of horses; he felt a jealous terror of him. This, perhaps, was the sort of man whose society would be agreeable to Aurora — this big, empty-headed Yorkshireman, with his babble about his stud and hunting-appointments. But, turning sharply round to scrutinize Miss Floyd, he was gratified to find that young lady looking vacantly upon the gathering mists upon the sea, and apparently unconscious of Mr. John Mellish, of Mellish Park, Yorkshire.

This John Mellish was, as I have said, a big man, looking even bigger than he was by reason of about eight yards length of thick shepherd’s plaid twisted scientifically about his shoulders. He was a man of thirty years of age at least, but having withal such a boyish exuberance in his manner, such a youthful and innocent joyousness in his face, that he might have been a youngster of eighteen just let loose from some public academy of the muscular Christianity school. I think the Rev. Charles Kingsley would have delighted in this big, hearty, broad-chested young Englishman, with brown hair brushed away from an open forehead, and a thick, brown mustache, bordering a mouth for ever ready to expand into a laugh. Such a laugh, too! such a hearty and sonorous peal, that the people on the Parade turned round to look at the owner of those sturdy lungs, and smiled good-naturedly for very sympathy with his honest merriment.

Talbot Bulstrode would have given a hundred pounds to get rid of the noisy Yorkshireman. What business had he at Brighton? Was n’t the biggest county in England big enough to hold him, that he must needs bring his North-country bluster to Sussex for the annoyance of Talbot’s friends?

Captain Bulstrode was not any better pleased when, strolling a little farther on, the party met with Archibald Floyd, who had come out to look for his daughter. The old man begged to be introduced to Mr. Mellish, and invited the honest Yorkshireman to dine at the East Cliff that very evening, much to the aggravation of Talbot, who fell sulkily back, and allowed John to make the acquaintance of the ladies. The familiar brute ingratiated himself into their good graces in about ten minutes, and by the time they reached the banker’s house was more at his case with Aurora than the heir of Bulstrode after two months acquaintance. He accompanied them to the door-step, shook hands with the ladies and Mr. Floyd, patted the mastiff Bow-wow, gave Talbot a playful sledge hammer-like slap upon the shoulder, and ran back to the Bedford to dress for dinner. His spirits were so high that he knocked over little boys and tumbled against fashionable young men, who drew themselves up in stiff amazement as the big fellow dashed past them. He sang a scrap of a hunting-song as he ran up the great staircase to his eyry at the Bedford, and chattered to his valet as he dressed. He seemed a creature especially created to be prosperous — to be the owner and dispenser of wealth, the distributor of good things. People who were strangers to him ran after him and served him on speculation, knowing instinctively that they would get an ample reward for their trouble. Waiters in a coffee-room deserted other tables to attend upon that at which he was seated. Box-keepers would leave parties of six shivering in the dreary corridors while they found a seat for John Mellish. Mendicants picked him out from the crowd in a busy thoroughfare, and hung about him, and would not be driven away without a dole from the pocket of his roomy waistcoat. He was always spending his money for the convenience of other people. He had an army of old servants at Mellish Park, who adored him, and tyrannized over him after the manner of their kind. His stables were crowded with horses that were lame, or wall-eyed, or otherwise disqualified for service, but that lived on his bounty like a set of jolly equine paupers, and consumed as much corn as would have supplied a racing-stud. He was perpetually paying for things he neither ordered nor had, and was for ever being cheated by the dear honest creatures about him, who, for all they did their best to ruin him, would have gone through typical fire and water to serve him, and would have clung to him, and worked for him, and supported him out of those very savings for which they had robbed him, when the ruin came. If “Muster John” had a headache, every creature in that disorderly household was unhappy and uneasy till the ailment was cured; every lad in the stables, every servant-maid in the house, was eager that his or her remedy should be tried for his restoration. If you had said at Mellish Park that John’s fair face and broad shoulders were not the highest forms of manly beauty and grace, you would have been set down as a creature devoid of all taste and judgment. To the mind of that household, John Mellish in “pink” and pipe-clayed tops was more beautiful than the Apollo Belvidere whose bronze image in little adorned a niche in the hall. If you had told them that fourteen-stone weight was not indispensable to manly perfection, or that it was possible there were more lofty accomplishments than driving unicorns, or shooting forty-seven head of game in a morning, or pulling the bay mare’s shoulder into joint that time she got a sprain in the hunting-field, or vanquishing Joe Millings, the East Riding smasher, without so much as losing breath, those simple-hearted Yorkshire servants would have fairly laughed in your face. Talbot Bulstrode complained that everybody respected him, and nobody loved him. John Mellish might have uttered the reverse of this complaint, had he been so minded. Who could help loving the honest, generous squire, whose house and purse were open to all the country-side? Who could feel any chilling amount of respect for the friendly and familiar master who sat upon the table in the big kitchen at Mellish Park, with his dogs and servants round him, and gave them the history of the day’s adventures in the hunting-field, till the old blind fox-hound at his feet lifted his big head and set up a feeble music? No; John Mellish was well content to be beloved, and never questioned the quality of the affection bestowed upon him. To him it was all the purest virgin gold; and you might have talked to him for twelve hours at a sitting without convincing him that men and women were vile and mercenary creatures, and that if his servants, and his tenantry, and the poor about his estate, loved him, it was for the sake of the temporal benefits they received of him. He was as unsuspicious as a child, who believes that the fairies in a pantomime are fairies for ever and ever, and that the harlequin is born in patches and a mask. He was as open to flattery as a school-girl who distributes the contents of her hamper among a circle of toadies. When people told him he was a fine fellow, he believed them, and agreed with them, and thought that the world was altogether a hearty, honest place, and that everybody was a fine fellow. Never having an arrière pensée himself, he looked for none in the words of other people, but thought that every one blurted out their real opinions, and offended or pleased their fellows as frankly and blunderingly as himself. If he had been a vicious young man, he would no doubt have gone altogether to the bad, and fallen among thieves; but, being blessed with a nature that was inherently pure and innocent, his greatest follies were no worse than those of a big school-boy who errs from very exuberance of spirit. He had lost his mother in the first year of his infancy, and his father had died some time before his majority; so there had been none to restrain his actions, and it was something at thirty years of age to be able to look back upon a stainless boyhood and youth, which might have been befouled with the slime of the gutters, and infected with the odor of villanous haunts? Had he not reason to be proud of this?

Is there anything, after all, so grand as a pure and unsullied life — a fair picture, with no ugly shadows lurking in the background — a smooth poem, with no crooked, halting line to mar the verse — a noble book, with no unholy page — a simple story, such as our children may read? Can any greatness be greater? can any nobility be more truly noble? When a whole nation mourned with one voice but a few weeks since; when we drew down our blinds, and shut out the dull light of the December day, and listened sadly to the far booming of the guns; when the poorest put aside their work-a-day troubles to weep for a widowed queen and orphaned children in a desolate palace; when rough omnibus-drivers forgot to blaspheme at each other, and tied decent scraps of crape upon their whips, and went sorrowfully about their common business, thinking of that great sorrow at Windsor, the words that rose simultaneously to every lip dwelt most upon the spotless character of him who was lost — the tender husband, the watchful father, the kindly master, the liberal patron, the temperate adviser, the stainless gentleman.

It is many years since England mourned for another royal personage who was called a “gentleman”— a gentleman who played practical jokes, and held infamous orgies, and persecuted a wretched foreign woman, whose chief sin and misfortune it was to be his wife — a gentleman who cut out his own nether garments, and left the companion of his gayest revels, the genius whose brightness had flung a spurious lustre upon the dreary saturnalia of vice, to die destitute and despairing. Surely there is some hope that we have changed for the better within the last thirty years, inasmuch as we attach a new meaning to-day to this simple title of “gentleman.” I take some pride, therefore, in the two young men of whom I write, for the simple reason that I have no dark patches to gloss over in the history of either of them. I may fail in making you like them, but I can promise that you shall have no cause to be ashamed of them. Talbot Bulstrode may offend you with his sulky pride, John Mellish may simply impress you as a blundering, countrified ignoramus, but neither of them shall ever shock you by an ugly word or an unholy thought.

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