Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 6

Rejected and Accepted.

The dinner-party at Mr. Floyd’s was a very merry one; and when John Mellish and Talbot Bulstrode left the East Cliff to walk westward at eleven o’clock at night, the Yorkshireman told his friend that he had never enjoyed himself so much in his life. This declaration must, however, be taken with some reserve, for it was one which John was in the habit of making about three times a week; but he really had been very happy in the society of the banker’s family, and, what was more, he was ready to adore Aurora Floyd without any further preparation whatever.

A few bright smiles and sparkling glances, a little animated conversation about the hunting-field and the race-course, combined with a few glasses of those effervescent wines which Archibald Floyd imported from the fair Moselle country, had been quite enough to turn the head of John Mellish, and to cause him to hold wildly forth in the moonlight upon the merits of the beautiful heiress.

“I verily believe I shall die a bachelor, Talbot,” he said, “unless I can get that girl to marry me. I’ve only known her half a dozen hours, and I’m head over heels in love with her already. What is it that has knocked me over like this, Bulstrode? I’ve seen other girls with black eyes and hair, and she knows no more of horses than half the women in Yorkshire; so it is n’t that. What is it, then, hey?”

He came to a full stop against a lamp-post, and stared fiercely at his friend as he asked this question.

Talbot gnashed his teeth in silence.

It was no use battling with his fate, then, he thought; the fascination of this woman had the same effect upon others as upon himself; and while he was arguing with, and protesting against, his passion, some brainless fellow, like this Mellish, would step in and win the prize.

He wished his friend good-night upon the steps of the Old Ship Hotel, and walked straight to his room, where he sat with his window open to the mild November night, staring out at the moonlit sea. He determined to propose to Aurora Floyd before twelve o’clock the next day.

Why should he hesitate?

He had asked himself that question a hundred times before, and had always been unable to answer it; and yet he had hesitated. He could not dispossess himself of a vague idea that there was some mystery in this girl’s life; some secret known only to herself and her father; some one spot upon the history of the past which cast a shadow on the present. And yet, how could that be? How could that be, he asked himself, when her whole life only amounted to nineteen years, and he had heard the history of those years over and over again? How often he had artfully led Lucy to tell him the simple story of her cousin’s girlhood — the governesses and masters that had come and gone at Felden Woods — the ponies and dogs, and puppies and kittens, and petted foals; the little scarlet riding-habit that had been made for the heiress when she rode after the hounds with her cousin Andrew Floyd. The worst blots that the officer could discover in those early years were a few broken china vases, and a great deal of ink spilled over badly-written French exercises; and, after being educated at home until she was nearly eighteen, Aurora had been transferred to a Parisian finishing school — and that was all. Her life had been the every-day life of other girls of her own position, and she differed from them only in being a great deal more fascinating, and a little more wilful, than the majority.

Talbot laughed at himself for his doubts and hesitations. “What a suspicious brute I must be,” he said, “when I imagine I have fallen upon the clew to some mystery simply because there is a mournful tenderness in the old man’s voice when he speaks to his only child! If I were sixty-seven years of age, and had such a daughter as Aurora, would there not always be a shuddering terror mingled with my love — a horrible dread that something would happen to take her away from me? I will propose to Miss Floyd to-morrow.”

Had Talbot been thoroughly candid with himself, he would perhaps have added, “Or John Mellish will make her an offer the day after.”

Captain Bulstrode presented himself at the house on the East Cliff some time before noon on the next day, but he found Mr. Mellish on the door-step talking to Miss Floyd’s groom and inspecting the horses, which were waiting for the young ladies; for the young ladies were going to ride, and John Mellish was going to ride with them.

“But if you’ll join us, Bulstrode,” the Yorkshireman said, good-naturedly, “you can ride the gray I spoke of yesterday. — Saunders shall go back and fetch him.”

Talbot rejected this offer rather sulkily. “I’ve my own horses here, thank you,” he answered. “But if you’ll let your groom ride down to the stables and tell my man to bring them up, I shall be obliged to you.”

After which condescending request Captain Bulstrode turned his back upon his friend, crossed the road, and, folding his arms upon the railings, stared resolutely at the sea. But in five minutes more the ladies appeared upon the door-step, and Talbot, turning at the sound of their voices, was fain to cross the road once more for the chance of taking Aurora’s foot in his hand as she sprang into her saddle; but John Mellish was before him again, and Miss Floyd’s mare was curveting under the touch of her right hand before the captain could interfere. He allowed the groom to attend to Lucy, and, mounting as quickly as his stiff leg would allow him, he prepared to take his place by Aurora’s side. Again he was too late; Miss Floyd had cantered down the hill attended by Mellish, and it was impossible for Talbot to leave poor Lucy, who was a timid horsewoman.

The captain never admired Lucy so little as on horseback. His pale saint with the halo of golden hair seemed to him sadly out of place in a side-saddle. He looked back at the day of his morning visit to Felden, and remembered how he had admired her, and how exactly she corresponded with his ideal, and how determined he was to be bewitched with her rather than by Aurora. “If she had fallen in love with me,” he thought, “I would have snapped my fingers at the black-browed heiress, and married this fair-haired angel out of hand. I meant to do that when I sold my commission. It was not for Aurora’s sake I left the army, it was not Aurora whom I followed down here. Which did I follow? What did I follow, I wonder? My destiny, I suppose, which is leading me through such a witch’s dance as I never thought to tread at the sober age of three-and-thirty. If Lucy had only loved me, it might have been all different.”

He was so angry with himself that he was half inclined to be angry with poor Lucy for not extracting him from the snares of Aurora. If he could have read that innocent heart as he rode in sulky silence across the stunted turf on the wide downs — if he could have known the slow, sick pain in that gentle breast, as the quiet girl by his side lifted her blue eyes every now and then to steal a glance at his hard profile and moody brow — if he could have read her secret later, when, talking of Aurora, he for the first time clearly betrayed the mystery of his own heart — if he could have known how the landscape grew dim before her eyes, and how the brown moorland reeled beneath her horse’s hoofs until they seemed going down, down, down into some fathomless depth of sorrow and despair! But he knew nothing of this, and he thought Lucy Floyd a pretty, inanimate girl, who would no doubt be delighted to wear a becoming dress as bridesmaid at her cousin’s wedding.

There was a dinner-party that evening upon the East Cliff, at which both John Mellish and Talbot were to assist, and the captain savagely determined to bring matters to an issue before the night was out.

Talbot Raleigh Bulstrode would have been very angry with you had you watched him too closely that evening as he fastened the golden solitaire in his narrow cravat before his looking-glass in the bow-window at the Old Ship. He was ashamed of himself for being causelessly savage with his valet, whom he dismissed abruptly before he began to dress, and had not the courage to call the man back again when his own hot hands refused to do their office. He spilled half a bottleful of perfume upon his varnished boots, and smeared his face with a terrible waxy compound which promised to lisser sans graisser his mustache. He broke one of the crystal boxes in his dressing-case, and put the bits of broken glass in his waistcoat-pocket from sheer absence of mind. He underwent semi-strangulation with the unbending circular collar in which, as a gentleman, it was his duty to invest himself; and he could have beaten the ivory backs of his brushes upon his head in blind execration of that short, stubborn black hair, which only curled at the other ends; and, when at last he emerged from his room, it was with a spiteful sensation that every waiter in the place knew his secret, and had a perfect knowledge of every emotion in his breast, and that the very Newfoundland dog lying on the door-step had an inkling of the truth, as he lifted up his big head to look at the captain, and then dropped it again with a contemptuously lazy yawn.

Captain Bulstrode offered a handful of broken glass to the man who drove him to the East Cliff, and then confusedly substituted about fifteen shillings worth of silver coin for that abnormal species of payment. There must have been two or three earthquakes and an eclipse or so going on in some part of the globe, he thought, for this jog-trot planet seemed all tumult and confusion to Talbot Bulstrode. The world was all Brighton, and Brighton was all blue moonlight, and steel-colored sea, and glancing, dazzling gas-light, and hare-soup, and cod and oysters, and Aurora Floyd — yes, Aurora Floyd, who wore a white silk dress, and a thick circlet of dull gold upon her hair, who looked more like Cleopatra to-night than ever, and who suffered Mr. John Mellish to take her down to dinner. How Talbot hated the Yorkshireman’s big fair face, and blue eyes, and white teeth, as he watched the two young people across a phalanx of glass and silver, and flowers and wax candles, and pickles, and other Fortnum and Mason ware! Here was a golden opportunity lost, thought the discontented captain, forgetful that he could scarcely have proposed to Miss Floyd at the dinner-table, amid the jingle of glasses and popping of corks, and with a big powdered footman charging at him with a side-dish or a sauce-tureen while he put the fatal question. The desired moment came a few hours afterward, and Talbot had no longer any excuse for delay.

The November evening was mild, and the three windows in the drawing-room were open from floor to ceiling. It was pleasant to look out from the hot gas-light upon that wide sweep of moonlit ocean, with a white sail glimmering here and there against the purple night. Captain Bulstrode sat near one of the open windows, watching that tranquil scene, with, I fear, very little appreciation of its beauty. He was wishing that the people would drop off and leave him alone with Aurora. It was close upon eleven o’clock, and high time they went. John Mellish would of course insist upon waiting for Talbot; this was what a man had to endure on account of some old school-boy acquaintance. All Rugby might turn up against him in a day or two, and dispute with him for Aurora’s smiles. But John Mellish was engaged in a very animated conversation with Archibald Floyd, having contrived, with consummate artifice, to ingratiate himself in the old man’s favor, and, the visitors having one by one dropped off, Aurora, with a listless yawn that she took little pains to conceal, strolled out into the broad iron balcony. Lucy was sitting at a table at the other end of the room, looking at a book of beauty. Oh, my poor Lucy! how much did you see of the Honorable Miss Brownsmith’s high forehead and Roman nose? Did not that young lady’s handsome face stare up at you dimly through a blinding mist of tears that you were a great deal too well educated to shed? The chance had come at last. If life had been a Haymarket comedy, and the entrances and exits arranged by Mr. Buckstone himself, it could have fallen out no better than this. Talbot Bulstrode followed Aurora on to the balcony; John Mellish went on with his story about the Beverly fox-hounds; and Lucy, holding her breath at the other end of the room, knew as well what was going to happen as the captain himself.

Is not life altogether a long comedy, with Fate for the stage-manager, and Passion, Inclination, Love, Hate, Revenge, Ambition, and Avarice, by turns, in the prompter’s box? A tiresome comedy sometimes, with dreary, talkee, talkee front scenes which come to nothing, but only serve to make the audience more impatient as they wait while the stage is set and the great people change their dresses; or a “sensation” comedy, with unlooked-for tableaux and unexpected dénoûments; but a comedy to the end of the chapter, for the sorrows which seem tragic to us are very funny when seen from the other side of the foot-lights; and our friends in the pit are as much amused with our trumpery griefs as the Haymarket habitués when Mr. Box finds his gridiron empty, or Mr. Cox misses his rasher. What can be funnier than other people’s anguish? Why do we enjoy Mr. Maddison Morton’s farces, and laugh till the tears run down our cheeks at the comedian who enacts them? Because there is scarcely a farce upon the British stage which is not, from the rising to the dropping of the curtain, a record of human anguish and undeserved misery. Yes, undeserved and unnecessary torture — there is the special charm of the entertainment. If the man who was weak enough to send his wife to Camberwell had crushed a baby behind a chest of drawers, his sufferings would n’t be half so delightful to an intellectual audience. If the gentleman who became embroiled with his laundress had murdered the young lady in the green boots, where would be the fun of that old Adelphi farce in which poor Wright was wont to delight us? And so it is with our friends on the other side of the foot-lights, who enjoy our troubles all the more because we have not always deserved them, and whose sorrows we shall gloat over by and by, when the bell for the next piece begins, and it is their turn to go on and act.

Talbot Bulstrode went out on to the balcony, and the earth stood still for ten minutes or so, and every steel-blue star in the sky glared watchfully down upon the young man in this the supreme crisis of his life.

Aurora was leaning against a slender iron pilaster, looking aslant into the town, and across the town into the sea. She was wrapped in an opera cloak; no stiff, embroidered, young ladified garment, but a voluminous drapery of soft scarlet woollen stuff, such as Semiramide herself might have worn. “She looks like Semiramide,” Talbot thought. “How did this Scotch banker and his Lancashire wife come to have an Assyrian for their daughter?”

He began brilliantly, this young man, as lovers generally do.

“I am afraid you must have fatigued yourself this evening, Miss Floyd,” he remarked.

Aurora stifled a yawn as she answered him. “I am rather tired,” she said.

It was n’t very encouraging. How was he to begin an eloquent speech, when she might fall asleep in the middle of it? But he did; he dashed at once into the heart of his subject, and he told her how he loved her; how he had done battle with this passion, which had been too strong for him; how he loved her as he never thought to love any creature upon this earth; and how he cast himself before her in all humility, to take his sentence of life or death from her dear lips.

She was silent for some moments, her profile sharply distinct to him in the moonlight, and those dear lips trembling visibly. Then, with a half-averted face, and in words that seemed to come slowly and painfully from a stifled throat, she gave him his answer.

That answer was a rejection!

Not a young lady’s No, which means yes to-morrow, or which means perhaps that you have not been on your knees in a passion of despair, like Lord Edward Fitz Morkysh in Miss Oderose’s last novel. Nothing of this kind; but a calm negative, carefully and tersely worded, as if she feared to mislead him by so much as one syllable that could leave a loop-hole through which hope might creep into his heart. He was rejected. For a moment it was quite as much as he could do to believe it. He was inclined to imagine that the signification of certain words had suddenly changed, or that he had been in the habit of mistaking them all his life, rather than that those words meant this hard fact, namely, that he, Talbot Raleigh Bulstrode, of Bulstrode Castle, and of Saxon extraction, had been rejected by the daughter of a Lombard-street banker.

He paused — for an hour and a half or so, as it seemed to him — in order to collect himself before he spoke again.

“May I— venture to inquire,” he said — how horribly commonplace the phrase seemed; he could have used no worse had he been inquiring for furnished lodgings —“may I ask if any prior attachment — to one more worthy —”

“Oh no, no, no!”

The answer came upon him so suddenly that it almost startled him as much as her rejection.

“And yet your decision is irrevocable?”

“Quite irrevocable.”

“Forgive me if I am intrusive; but — but Mr. Floyd may perhaps have formed some higher views.”

He was interrupted by a stifled sob as she clasped her hands over her averted face.

“Higher views!” she said; “poor, dear old man, no, no, indeed.”

“It is scarcely strange that I bore you with these questions. It is so hard to think that, meeting you with your affections disengaged, I have yet been utterly unable to win one shadow of regard upon which I might build a hope for the future.”

Poor Talbot! Talbot, the splitter of metaphysical straws and chopper of logic, talking of building hopes on shadows with a lover’s delirious stupidity.

“It is so hard to resign every thought of your ever coming to alter your decision of tonight, Aurora”— he lingered on her name for a moment, first because it was so sweet to say it, and, secondly, in the hope that she would speak —“it is so hard to remember the fabric of happiness I had dared to build, and to lay it down here to-night for ever.”

Talbot quite forgot that, up to the time of the arrival of John Mellish, he had been perpetually arguing against his passion, and had declared to himself over and over again that he would be a consummmate fool if he was ever beguiled into making Aurora his wife. He reversed the parable of the fox; for he had been inclined to make faces at the grapes while he fancied them within his reach, and, now that they were removed from his grasp, he thought that such delicious fruit had never grown to tempt mankind.

“If — if,” he said, “my fate had been happier, I know how proud my father, poor old Sir John, would have been of his eldest son’s choice.”

How ashamed he felt of the meanness of this speech! The artful sentence had been constructed in order to remind Aurora whom she was refusing. He was trying to bribe her with the baronetcy which was to be his in due time. But she made no answer to the pitiful appeal. Talbot was almost choked with mortification. “I see — I see,” he said, “that it is hopeless. Good-night, Miss Floyd.”

She did not even turn to look at him as he left the balcony; but, with her red drapery wrapped tightly round her, stood shivering in the moonlight, with the silent tears slowly stealing down her cheeks.

“Higher views!” she cried bitterly, repeating a phrase that Talbot used —“higher views! God help him!”

“I must wish you good-night and good-by at the same time,” Captain Bulstrode said as he shook hands with Lucy.

“Good-by?”

“Yes; I leave Brighton early to-morrow.”

“So suddenly?”

“Why not exactly suddenly. I always meant to travel this winter. Can I do anything for you — at Cairo?”

He was so pale, and cold, and wretched-looking that she almost pitied him in spite of the wild joy growing up in her heart. Aurora had refused him — it was perfectly clear — refused him! The soft blue eyes filled with tears at the thought that a demigod should have endured such humiliation. Talbot pressed her hand gently in his own clammy palm. He could read pity in that tender look, but possessed no lexicon by which he could translate its deeper meaning.

“You will wish your uncle good-by for me, Lucy,” he said. He called her Lucy for the first time; but what did it matter now? His great affliction set him apart from his fellowmen, and gave him dismal privileges. “Good-night, Lucy; good-night and good-by. I— I— shall hope to see you again in a year or two.”

The pavement of the East Cliff seemed so much air beneath Talbot Bulstrode’s boots as he strode back to the Old Ship; for it is peculiar to us, in our moments of supreme trouble or joy, to lose all consciousness of the earth we tread, and to float upon the atmosphere of sublime egotism.

But the captain did not leave Brighton the next day on the first stage of his Egyptian journey. He staid at the fashionable watering-place; but he resolutely abjured the neighborhood of the East Cliff, and, the day being wet, took a pleasant walk to Shoreham through the rain; and Shoreham being such a pretty place, he was, no doubt, much enlivened by that exercise.

Returning through the fog at about four o’clock, the captain met Mr. John Mellish close against the turnpike outside Cliftonville.

The two men stared aghast at each other.

“Why, where on earth are you going?” asked Talbot.

“Back to Yorkshire by the first train that leaves Brighton.”

“But this is n’t the way to the station!”

“No; but they’re putting the horses in my portmanteau, and my shirts are going by the Leeds cattle-train, and —”

Talbot Bulstrode burst into a loud laugh, a harsh and bitter cachinnation, but affording wondrous relief to that gentleman’s over-charged breast.

“John Mellish,” he said, “you have been proposing to Aurora Floyd.”

The Yorkshireman turned scarlet. “It — it — was n’t honorable of her to tell you,” he stammered.

“Miss Floyd has never breathed a word to me upon the subject. I’ve just come from Shoreham, and you’ve only lately left the East Cliff. You’ve proposed, and you’ve been rejected.”

“I have,” roared John; “and it’s doosed hard, when I promised her she should keep a racing-stud if she liked, and enter as many colts as she pleased for the Derby, and give her own orders to the trainer, and I’d never interfere; and — and — Mellish Park is one of the finest places in the county; and I’d have won her a bit of blue ribbon to tie up her bonny black hair.”

“That old Frenchman was right,” muttered Captain Bulstrode; “there is a great satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. If I go to my dentist, I like to find another wretch in the waiting-room; and I like to have my tooth extracted first, and to see him glare enviously at me as I come out of the torture-chamber, knowing that my troubles are over, while his are to come. Good-by, John Mellish, and God bless you. You’re not such a bad fellow, after all.”

Talbot felt almost cheerful as he walked back to the Ship, and he took a mutton cutlet and tomato sauce, and a pint of Moselle for his dinner; and the food and wine warmed him; and, not having slept a wink on the previous night, he fell into a heavy indigestible slumber, with his head hanging over the sofa-cushion, and dreamed that he was at Grand Cairo (or at a place which would have been that city had it not been now and then Bulstrode Castle, and occasionally chambers in the Albany), and that Aurora Floyd was with him, clad in imperial purple, with hieroglyphics on the hem of her robe, and wearing a clown’s jacket of white satin and scarlet spots, such as he had once seen foremost in a great race. Captain Bulstrode arose early the next morning, with the full intention of departing from Sussex by the 8.45 express; but suddenly remembering that he had but poorly acknowledged Archibald Floyd’s cordiality, he determined on sacrificing his inclinations on the shrine of courtesy, and calling once more at the East Cliff to take leave of the banker. Having once resolved upon this line of action, the captain would fain have hurried that moment to Mr. Floyd’s house; but, finding that it was only half-past seven, he was compelled to restrain his impatience and await a more seasonable hour. Could he go at nine? Scarcely. At ten? Yes, surely, as he could then leave by the eleven o’clock train. He sent his breakfast away untouched, and sat looking at his watch in a mad hurry for the time to pass, yet growing hot and uncomfortable as the hour drew near.

At a quarter to ten he put on his hat and left the hotel. Mr. Floyd was at home, the servant told him — up stairs in the little study, he thought. Talbot waited for no more. “You need not announce me,” he said; “I know where to find your master.”

The study was on the same floor as the drawing-room, and close against the drawing-room door Talbot paused for a moment. The door was open; the room empty — no, not empty: Aurora Floyd was there, seated with her back toward him, and her head leaning on the cushions of her chair. He stopped for another moment to admire the back view of that small head, with its crown of lustrous raven hair, then took a step or two in the direction of the banker’s study, then stopped again, then turned back, went into the drawing-room, and shut the door behind him.

She did not stir as he approached her, nor answer when he stammered her name. Her face was as white as the face of a dead woman, and her nerveless hands hung over the cushions of the arm-chair. A newspaper was lying at her feet. She had quietly swooned away sitting there by herself, with no one by to restore her to consciousness.

Talbot flung some flowers from a vase on the table, and dashed the water over Aurora’s forehead; then, wheeling her chair close to the open window, he set her with her face to the wind. In two or three moments she began to shiver violently, and soon afterward opened her eyes and looked at him; as she did so, she put her hands to her head, as if trying to remember something. “Talbot!” she said, “Talbot!”

She called him by his Christian name, she who five-and-thirty hours before had coldly forbidden him to hope.

“Aurora,” he cried, “Aurora, I thought I came here to wish your father good-by; but I deceived myself. I came to ask you once more, and once for all, if your decision of the night before last was irrevocable?”

“Heaven knows I thought it was when I uttered it.”

“But it was not?”

“Do you wish me to revoke it?”

“Do I wish? do I—”

“Because, if you really do, I will revoke it: for you are a brave and honorable man, Captain Bulstrode, and I love you very dearly.”

Heaven knows into what rhapsodies he might have fallen, but she put up her hand, as much as to say, “Forbear to-day, if you love me,” and hurried from the room. He had accepted the cup of bang which the siren had offered, and had drained the very dregs thereof, and was drunken. He dropped into the chair in which Aurora had sat, and, absent-minded in his joyful intoxication, picked up the newspaper that had lain at her feet. He shuddered in spite of himself as he looked at the title of the journal; it was Bell’s Life— a dirty copy, crumpled, and beer-stained, and emitting rank odors of inferior tobacco. It was directed to Miss Floyd, in such sprawling penmanship as might have disgraced the pot-boy of a sporting public house:

“MISS FLOID,
fell dun wodes,
kent.”

The newspaper had been redirected to Aurora by the housekeeper at Felden. Talbot ran his eye eagerly over the front page; it was almost entirely filled with advertisements (and such advertisements!), but in one column there was an account headed “FRIGHTFUL ACCIDENT IN GERMANY: AN ENGLISH JOCKEY KILLED.”

Captain Bulstrode never knew why he read of this accident. It was in no way interesting to him, being an account of a steeple-chase in Prussia, in which a heavy English rider and a crack French horse had been killed. There was a great deal of regret expressed for the loss of the horse, and none for the man who had ridden him, who, the reporter stated, was very little known in sporting-circles; but in a paragraph lower down was added this information, evidently procured at the last moment: “The jockey’s name was Conyers.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/aurora_floyd/chapter6.html

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