Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 7

Aurora’s Strange Pensioner.

Archibald Floyd received the news of his daughter’s choice with evident pride and satisfaction. It seemed as if some heavy burden had been taken away, as if some cruel shadow had been lifted from the lives of father and daughter.

The banker took his family back to Felden Woods, with Talbot Bulstrode in his train; and the chintz rooms — pretty, cheerful chambers, with bow-windows that looked across the well-kept stable-yard into long glades of oak and beech — were prepared for the ex-Hussar, who was to spend his Christmas at Felden.

Mrs. Alexander and her husband were established with their family in the western wing; Mr. and Mrs. Andrew were located at the eastern angle; for it was the hospitable custom of the old banker to summon his kinsfolk about him early in December, and to keep them with him till the bells of romantic Beckenham church had heralded in the New Year.

Lucy Floyd’s cheeks had lost much of their delicate color when she returned to Felden and it was pronounced by all who observed the change that the air of East Cliff, and the autumn winds drifting across the bleak downs, had been too much for the young lady’s strength.

Aurora seemed to have burst forth into some new and more glorious beauty since the morning upon which she had accepted the hand of Talbot Bulstrode. There was a proud defiance in her manner, which became her better than gentleness becomes far lovelier women. There was a haughty insouciance about this young lady which gave new brilliancy to her great black eyes, and new music to her joyous laugh. She was like some beautiful, noisy, boisterous water-fall, for ever dancing, rushing, sparkling, scintillating, and utterly defying you to do anything but admire it. Talbot Bulstrode, having once abandoned himself to the spell of the siren, made no farther struggle, but fairly fell into the pitfalls of her eyes, and was entangled in the meshy net-work of her blue-black hair. The greater the tension of the bowstring, the stronger the rebound thereof; and Talbot Bulstrode was as weak to give way at last as he had long been powerful to resist. I must write his story in the commonest words. He could not help it! He loved her; not because he thought her better, or wiser, or lovelier, or more suited to him than many other women — indeed, he had grave doubts upon every one of these points — but because it was his destiny, and he loved her.

What is that hard word which M. Victor Hugo puts into the mouth of the priest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an excuse for the darkness of his sin? Anakthe!It was his fate. So he wrote to his mother, and told her that he had chosen a wife who was to sit in the halls of Bulstrode, and whose name was to be interwoven with the chronicles of the house; told her, moreover, that Miss Floyd was a banker’s daughter, beautiful and fascinating, with big black eyes, and fifty thousand pounds for her dowry. Lady Raleigh Bulstrode answered her son’s letter upon a quarter of a quire of note-paper, filled with fearful motherly prayers and suggestions; anxious hopes that he had chosen wisely; questionings as to the opinions and religious principles of the young lady — much, indeed, that Talbot would have been sorely puzzled to answer. Inclosed in this was a letter to Aurora, a womanly and tender epistle, in which pride was tempered with love, and which brought big tears welling up to Miss Floyd’s eyes, until Lady Bulstrode’s firm penmanship grew blotted and blurred beneath the reader’s vision.

And whither went poor slaughtered John Mellish? He returned to Mellish Park, carrying with him his dogs, and horses, and grooms, and phaeton, and other paraphernalia; but his grief — having unluckily come upon him after the racing season — was too much for him, and he fled away from the roomy old mansion, with its pleasant surroundings of park and woodland: for Aurora Floyd was not for him, and it was all flat, stale, and unprofitable. So he went to Paris, or Parry, as he called that imperial city, and established himself in the biggest chambers at Meurice’s, and went backward and forward between that establishment and Galignani’s ten times a day in quest of the English papers. He dined drearily at Véfour’s, the Trois Frères, and the Café de Paris. His big voice was heard at every expensive dining-place in Paris, ordering ”Toos killyar de mellyour: vous savez;“ but he sent the daintiest dishes away untasted, and would sit for a quarter of an hour counting the toothpicks in the tiny blue vases, and thinking of Aurora. He rode dismally in the Bois de Boulogne, and sat shivering in cafés chantants, listening to songs that always seemed set to the same melody. He haunted the circuses, and was wellnigh in love with a fair manége rider, who had black eyes, and reminded him of Aurora; till, upon buying the most powerful opera-glass that the Rue de Rivoli could afford, he discovered that the lady’s face was an inch deep in a certain whitewash called blanc rosati, and that the chief glory of her eyes were the rings of Indian ink which surrounded them. He could have dashed that double-barrelled truth-revealer to the ground, and trodden the lenses to powder with his heel, in his passion of despair; better to have been for ever deceived, to have gone on believing that woman to be like Aurora, and to have gone to that circus every night until his hair grew white, but not with age, and until he pined away and died.

The party at Felden Woods was a very joyous one. The voices of children made the house pleasant; noisy lads from Eton and Westminster clambered about the balustrades of the staircases, and played battledoor and shuttlecock upon the long stone terrace. These young people were all cousins to Aurora Floyd, and loved the banker’s daughter with a childish worship, which mild Lucy could never inspire. It was pleasant to Talbot Bulstrode to see that, wherever his future wife trod, love and admiration waited upon her footsteps. He was not singular in his passion for this glorious creature, and it could be, after all, no such terrible folly to love one who was beloved by all who knew her. So the proud Cornishman was happy, and gave himself up to his happiness without farther protest.

Did Aurora love him? Did she make him due return for the passionate devotion, the blind adoration? She admired and esteemed him; she was proud of him — proud of that very pride in his nature which made him so different to herself, and she was too impulsive and truthful a creature to keep this sentiment a secret from her lover. She revealed, too, a constant desire to please her betrothed husband, suppressing, at least, all outward token of the tastes that were so unpleasant to him. No more copies of Bell’s Life littered the ladies’ morning-room at Felden; and when Andrew Floyd asked Aurora to ride to meet with him, his cousin refused the offer, which would once have been so welcome. Instead of following the Croydon hounds, Miss Floyd was content to drive Talbot and Lucy in a basket carriage through the frost-bespangled country-side. Lucy was always the companion and confidante of the lovers; it was hard for her to hear their happy talk of the bright future stretching far away before them — stretching down, down the shadowy aisles of Time, to an escutcheoned tomb at Bulstrode, where husband and wife would lie down, full of years and honors, in the days to come. It was hard to have to help them to plan a thousand schemes of pleasure, in which — Heaven pity her! — she was to join; but she bore her cross meekly, this pale Elaine of modern days, and she never told Talbot Bulstrode that she had gone mad and loved him, and was fain to die.

Talbot and Aurora were both concerned to see the pale cheeks of their gentle companion; but everybody was ready to ascribe them to a cold, or a cough, or constitutional debility, or some other bodily evil, which was to be cured by drugs and boluses; and no one for a moment imagined that anything could possibly be amiss with a young lady who lived in a luxurious house, went shopping in a carriage and pair, and had more pocket-money than she cared to spend. But the lily maid of Astolat lived in a lordly castle, and had doubtless ample pocket-money to buy gorgeous silks for her embroidery, and had little on earth to wish for, and nothing to do, whereby she fell sick for love of Sir Lancelot, and pined and died.

Surely the secret of many sorrows lies in this. How many a grief has been bred of idleness and leisure! How many a Spartan youth has nursed a bosom-devouring fox for very lack of better employment! Do the gentlemen who write the leaders in our daily journals ever die of grief? Do the barristers whose names appear in almost every case reported in those journals go mad for love unrequited? Did the LADY WITH THE LAMP cherish any foolish passion in those days and nights of ceaseless toil, in those long watches of patient devotion far away in the East? Do the curates of over-crowded parishes, the chaplains of jails and convict-ships, the great medical attendants in the wards of hospitals — do they make for themselves the griefs that kill? Surely not. With the busiest of us there may be some holy moments, some sacred hour snatched from the noise and confusion of the revolving wheel of Life’s machinery, and offered up as a sacrifice to sorrow and care; but the interval is brief, and the great wheel rolls on, and we have no time to pine or die.

So Lucy Floyd, having nothing better to do, nursed and made much of her hopeless passion. She set up an altar for the skeleton, and worshipped at the shrine of her grief; and when people told her of her pale face, and the family doctor wondered at the failure of his quinine mixture, perhaps she nourished a vague hope that before the spring-time came back again, bringing with it the wedding-day of Talbot and Aurora, she would have escaped from all this demonstrative love and happiness, and be at rest.

Aurora answered Lady Raleigh Bulstrode’s letter with an epistle expressive of such gratitude and humility, such earnest hope of winning the love of Talbot’s mother, mingled with a dim fearfulness of never being worthy of that affection, as won the Cornish lady’s regard for her future daughter. It was difficult to associate the impetuous girl with that letter, and Lady Bulstrode made an image of the writer that very much differed from the fearless and dashing original. She wrote Aurora a second letter, more affectionately worded than the first, and promised the motherless girl a daughter’s welcome at Bulstrode.

“Will she ever let me call her ‘mother,’ Talbot?” Aurora asked, as she read Lady Bulstrode’s second letter to her lover. “She is very proud, is she not — proud of your ancient descent. My father comes from a Glasgow mercantile family, and I do not even know anything about my mother’s relations.”

Talbot answered her with a grave smile.

“She will accept you for your native worth, dearest Aurora,” he said, “and will ask no foolish questions about the pedigree of such a man as Archibald Floyd — a man whom the proudest aristocrat in England might be glad to call his father-in-law. She will reverence my Aurora’s transparent soul and candid nature, and will bless me for the choice I have made.”

“I shall love her very dearly if she will only let me. Should I have ever cared about horse-racing, and read sporting papers, if I could have called a good woman ‘mother?’”

She seemed to ask this question rather of herself than of Talbot.

Complete as was Archibald Floyd’s satisfaction at his daughter’s disposal of her heart, the old man could not calmly contemplate a separation from this idolized daughter; so Aurora told Talbot that she could never take up her abode in Cornwall during her father’s lifetime; and it was finally arranged that the young couple were to spend half the year in London, and the other half at Felden Woods. What need had the lonely widower of that roomy mansion, with its long picture-gallery and snug suites of apartments, each of them large enough to accommodate a small family? What need had one solitary old man of that retinue of servants, the costly stud in the stables, the new-fangled vehicles in the coach-houses, the hot-house flowers, the pines, and grapes, and peaches, cultivated by three Scottish gardeners? What need had he of these things? He lived principally in the study, in which he had once had a stormy interview with his only child; the study in which hung the crayon portrait of Eliza Floyd; the room which contained an old-fashioned desk he had bought for a guinea in his boyhood, and in which there were certain letters written by a hand that was dead, some tresses of purple-black hair cut from the head of a corpse, and a pasteboard ticket, printed at a little town in Lancashire, calling upon the friends and patrons of Miss Eliza Percival to come to the theatre, for her especial benefit, upon the night of August 20, 1837.

It was decided, therefore, that Felden Woods was to be the country residence of Talbot and Aurora till such time as the young man should succeed to the baronetcy and Bulstrode Castle, and be required to live upon his estate. In the meantime the ex-Hussar was to go into Parliament, if the electors of a certain little borough in Cornwall, which had always sent a Bulstrode to Westminster, should be pleased to return him.

The marriage was to take place early in May, and the honeymoon was to be spent in Switzerland and at Bulstrode Castle. Mrs. Walter Powell thought that her doom was sealed, and that she would have to quit those pleasant pastures after the wedding-day; but Aurora speedily set the mind of the ensign’s widow at rest by telling her that as she, Miss Floyd, was utterly ignorant of housekeeping, she would be happy to retain her services after marriage as guide and adviser in such matters.

The poor about Beckenham were not forgotten in Aurora Floyd’s morning drives with Lucy and Talbot. Parcels of grocery and bottles of wine often lurked beneath the crimson-lined leopard-skin carriage-rug; and it was no uncommon thing for Talbot to find himself making a footstool of a huge loaf of bread. The poor were very hungry in that bright December weather, and had all manner of complaints, which, however otherwise dissimilar, were all to be benefited by one especial treatment, namely, half-sovereigns, old brown sherry, French brandy, and gunpowder tea. Whether the daughter was dying of consumption, or the father laid up with the rheumatics, or the husband in a raging fever, or the youngest boy recovering from a fall into a copper of boiling water, the above-named remedies seemed alike necessary, and were far more popular than the chicken-broths and cooling fever-drinks, prepared by the Felden cook. It pleased Talbot to see his betrothed dispensing good things to the eager recipients of her bounty. It pleased him to think how even his mother must have admired this high-spirited girl, content to sit down in close cottage chambers and talk to rheumatic old women. Lucy distributed little parcels of tracts prepared by Mrs. Alexander, and flannel garments made by her own white hands; but Aurora gave the half-sovereigns and the old sherry; and I’m afraid these simple cottagers liked the heiress best, although they were wise enough and just enough to know that each lady gave according to her means.

It was in returning from a round of these charitable visits that an adventure befell the little party which was by no means pleasing to Captain Bulstrode.

Aurora had driven farther than usual, and it was striking four as her ponies dashed past Beckenham church and down the hill toward Felden Woods. The afternoon was cold and cheerless; light flakes of snow drifted across the hard road, and hung here and there upon the leafless hedges, and there was that inky blackness in the sky which presages a heavy fall. The woman at the lodge ran out with her apron over her head to open the gates as Miss Floyd’s ponies approached, and at the same moment a man rose from a bank by the road-side, and came close up to the little carriage.

He was a broad-shouldered, stout-built fellow, wearing a shabby velveteen cut-away coat, slashed about with abnormal pockets, and white and greasy at the seams and elbows. His chin was muffled in two or three yards of dirty woollen comforter, after the fashion of his kind; and the band of his low-crowned felt hat was ornamented with a short clay pipe, colored of a respectable blackness. A dingy white dog, with a brass collar, bow legs, a short nose, bloodshot eyes, one ear, a hanging jaw, and a generally supercilious expression of countenance, rose from the bank at the same moment with his master, and growled ominously at the elegant vehicle and the mastiff Bow-wow trotting by its side.

The stranger was the same individual who had accosted Miss Floyd in Cockspur street three months before.

I do not know whether Miss Floyd recognized this person; but I know that she touched her ponies’ ears with the whip, and the spirited animals had dashed past the man, and through the gates of Felden, when he sprang forward, caught at their heads, and stopped the light basket carriage, which rocked under the force of his strong hand.

Talbot Bulstrode leaped from the vehicle, heedless of his stiff leg, and caught the man by the collar.

“Let go that bridle!” he cried, lifting his cane; “how dare you stop this lady’s ponies?”

“Because I wanted to speak to her, that’s why. Let go my coat, will yer?”

The dog made at Talbot’s legs, but the young man whirled round his cane and inflicted such a chastisement upon the snub nose of that animal as sent him into temporary retirement, howling dismally.

“You are an insolent scoundrel, and I’ve a good mind to —”

“You’d be hinserlent, p’raps, if yer was hungry,” answered the man, with a pitiful whine, which was meant to be conciliating. “Such weather as this here’s all very well for young swells such as you, as has your dawgs, and guns, and ‘untin’; but the winter’s tryin’ to a poor man’s temper when he’s industrious and willin’, and can’t get a stroke of honest work to do, or a mouthful of vittals. I only want to speak to the young lady: she knows me well enough.”

“Which young lady?”

“Miss Floyd — the heiress.”

They were standing a little way from the pony carriage. Aurora had risen from her seat and flung the reins to Lucy; she was looking toward the two men, pale and breathless, doubtless terrified for the result of the encounter.

Talbot released the man’s collar, and went back to Miss Floyd.

“Do you know this person, Aurora?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“He is one of your old pensioners, I suppose?”

“He is; do not say anything more to him, Talbot. His manner is rough, but he means no harm. Stop with Lucy while I speak to him.”

Rapid and impetuous in all her movements, she sprang from the carriage, and joined the man beneath the bare branches of the trees before Talbot could remonstrate.

The dog, which had crawled slowly back to his master’s side, fawned upon her as she approached, and was driven away by a fierce growl from Bow-wow, who was little likely to brook any such vulgar rivalry.

The man removed his felt hat, and tugged ceremoniously at a tuft of sandyish hair which ornamented his low forehead.

“You might have spoken to a cove without all this here row, Miss Floyd,” he said, in an injured tone.

Aurora looked at him indignantly.

“Why did you stop me here?” she said; “why could n’t you write to me?”

“Because writin’s never so much good as speakin’, and because such young ladies as you are uncommon difficult to get at. How did I know that your pa might n’t have put his hand upon my letter, and there’d have been a pretty to do; though I dessay, as for that, if I was to go up to the house, and ask the old gent for a trifle, he would n’t be back’ard in givin’ it. I dessay he’d be good for a fi-pun note, or a tenner, if it came to that.”

Aurora’s eyes flashed sparks of fire as she turned upon the speaker. “If ever you dare to annoy my father, you shall pay dearly for it, Matthew Harrison,” she said; “not that I fear anything you can say, but I will not have him annoyed — I will not have him tormented. He has borne enough, and suffered enough, Heaven knows, without that. I will not have him harassed, and his best and tenderest feelings made a market of by such as you. I will not!”

She stamped her foot upon the frosty ground as she spoke. Talbot Bulstrode saw and wondered at the gesture. He had half a mind to leave the carriage and join Aurora and her petitioner; but the ponies were restless, and he knew it would not do to abandon the reins to poor timid Lucy.

“You need n’t take on so, Miss Floyd,” answered the man, whom Aurora had addressed as Matthew Harrison; “I’m sure I want to make things pleasant to all parties. All I ask is, that you’ll act a little liberal to a cove wot’s come down in the world since you see him last. Lord, wot a world it is for ups and downs! If it had been the summer season, I’d have had no needs to worrit you; but what’s the good of standin’ at the top of Regent street such weather as this with tarrier pups and such likes? Old ladies has no eyes for dawgs in the winter; and even the gents as cares for rat-catchin’ is gettin’ uncommon scarce. There ain’t nothink doin’ on the turf whereby a chap can make an honest penny, nor won’t be, come the Craven Meetin’. I’d never have come anigh you, miss, if I had n’t been hard up, and I know you’ll act liberal.”

“Act liberally!” cried Aurora; “good Heavens! if every guinea I have, or ever hope to have, could blot out the business that you trade upon, I’d open my hands and let the money run through them as freely as so much water.”

“It was only good-natured of me to send you that ’ere paper, though, miss, eh?” said Mr. Matthew Harrison, plucking a dry twig from the tree nearest him, and chewing it for his delectation.

Aurora and the man had walked slowly onward as they spoke, and were by this time at some distance from the pony carriage.

Talbot Bulstrode was in a fever of restless impatience.

“Do you know this pensioner of your cousin’s, Lucy?” he asked.

“No, I can’t remember his face. I don’t think he belongs to Beckenham.”

“Why, if I had n’t have sent you that ’ere Life, you would n’t have know’d, would you, now?” said the man.

“No, no, perhaps not,” answered Aurora. She had taken her porte-monnaie from her pocket, and Mr. Harrison was furtively regarding the little morocco receptacle with glistening eyes.

“You don’t ask me about any of the particulars?” he said.

“No. What should I care to know of them?”

“No, certainly,” answered the man, suppressing a chuckle; “you know enough, if it comes to that; and if you wanted to know any more, I could n’t tell you, for them few lines in the paper is all I could ever get hold of about the business. But I always said it, and I always will, if a man as rides up’ard of eleven stone —”

It seemed as if he were in a fair way of rambling on for ever so long if Aurora had not checked him by an impatient frown. Perhaps he stopped all the more readily as she opened her purse at the same moment, and he caught sight of the glittering sovereigns lurking between leaves of crimson silk. He had no very acute sense of color; but I am sure that he thought gold and crimson made a pleasing contrast, as he looked at the yellow coin in Miss Floyd’s porte-monnaie. She poured the sovereigns into her own gloved palm, and then dropped the golden shower into Mr. Harrison’s hands, which were hollowed into a species of horny basin for the reception of her bounty. The great trunk of an oak screened them from the observation of Talbot and Lucy as Aurora gave the man the money.

“You have no claim upon me,” she said, stopping him abruptly, as he began a declaration of his gratitude, “and I protest against your making a market of any past events which have come under your knowledge. Remember, once and for ever, that I am not afraid of you; and that if I consent to assist you, it is because I will not have my father annoyed. Let me have the address of some place where a letter may always find you — you can put it into an envelope and direct it to me here — and from time to time I promise to send you a moderate remittance, sufficient to enable you to lead an honest life, if you or any of your set are capable of doing so; but I repeat, if I give you this money as a bribe, it is only for my father’s sake.”

The man muttered some expression of thanks, looking at Aurora earnestly; but there was a stern shadow upon that dark face that forbade any hope of conciliation. She was turning from him, followed by the mastiff, when the bandy-legged dog ran forward, whining, and raising himself upon his hind legs to lick her hand.

The expression of her face underwent an immediate change. She shrank from the dog, and he looked at her for a moment with a dim uncertainty in his bloodshot eyes; then, as conviction stole upon the brute mind, he burst into a joyous bark, frisking and capering about Miss Floyd’s silk dress, and imprinting dusty impressions of his fore paws upon the rich fabric.

“The pore hanimal knows yer, miss,” said the man, deprecatingly; “you was never ‘aughty to ’im.”

The mastiff Bow-wow made as if he would have torn up every inch of ground in Felden Woods at this juncture; but Aurora quieted him with a look.

“Poor Boxer!” she said, “poor Boxer! so you know me, Boxer!”

“Lord, miss, there’s no knowin’ the faithfulness of them animals.”

“Poor Boxer! I think I should like to have you. Would you sell him, Harrison?”

The man shook his head.

“No, miss,” he answered, “thank you kindly; there a’n’t much in the way of dawgs as I’d refuse to make a bargain about. If you wanted a mute spaniel, or a Russian setter, or a Hile of Skye, I’d get him for you and welcome, and ask you nothin’ for my trouble; but this here bull-terrier’s father, mother, and wife, and fambly to me, and there a’n’t money enough in your pa’s bank to buy him, miss.”

“Well, well,” said Aurora, relentingly, “I know how faithful he is. Send me the address, and don’t come to Felden again.”

She returned to the carriage, and, taking the reins from Talbot’s hand, gave the restless ponies their head; the vehicle dashed past Mr. Matthew Harrison, who stood hat in hand, with his dog between his legs, until the party had gone by. Miss Floyd stole a glance at her lover’s face, and saw that Captain Bulstrode’s countenance wore its darkest expression. The officer kept sulky silence till they reached the house, when he handed the two ladies from the carriage, and followed them across the hall. Aurora was on the lowest step of the broad staircase before he spoke.

“Aurora,” he said, “one word before you go up stairs.”

She turned and looked at him a little defiantly; she was still very pale, and the fire with which her eyes had flashed upon Mr. Matthew Harrison, dog-fancier and rat-catcher, had not yet died out of those dark orbs. Talbot Bulstrode opened the door of a long chamber under the picture-gallery — half billiard-room, half library, and almost the pleasantest apartment in the house — and stood aside for Aurora to pass him.

The young lady crossed the threshold as proudly as Marie Antoinette going to face her plebeian accusers. The room was empty.

Miss Floyd seated herself in a low easy-chair by one of the two great fireplaces, and looked straight at the blaze.

“I want to ask you about that man, Aurora,” Captain Bulstrode said, leaning over a prie-dieu chair, and playing nervously with the carved arabesques of the walnut-wood frame-work.

“About which man?”

This might have been prevarication in some; from Aurora it was simply defiance, as Talbot knew.

“The man who spoke to you on the avenue just now. Who is he, and what was his business with you?” Here Captain Bulstrode fairly broke down. He loved her, reader, he loved her, remember, and he was a coward, a coward under the influence of that most cowardly of all passions, LOVE— the passion that could leave a stain upon a Nelson’s name; the passion which might have made a dastard of the bravest of the three hundred at Thermopylæ, or the six hundred at Balaklava. He loved her, this unhappy young man, and he began to stammer, and hesitate, and apologize, shivering under the angry light in her wonderful eyes. “Believe me, Aurora, that I would not for the world play the spy upon your actions, or dictate to you the objects of your bounty. No, Aurora, not if my right to do so were stronger than it is, and I were twenty times your husband; but that man, that disreputable-looking fellow who spoke to you just now — I don’t think he is the sort of person you ought to assist.”

“I dare say not,” she said; “I have no doubt I assist many people who ought by rights to die in a workhouse or drop on the high-road; but, you see, if I stopped to question their deserts, they might die of starvation while I was making my inquiries; so perhaps it’s better to throw away a few shillings upon some unhappy creature who is wicked enough to be hungry, and not good enough to deserve to have anything given him to eat.”

There was a recklessness about this speech that jarred upon Talbot, but he could not very well take objection to it; besides, it was leading away from the subject upon which he was so eager to be satisfied.

“But that man, Aurora, who is he?”

“A dog-fancier.”

Talbot shuddered.

“I thought he was something horrible,” he murmured; “but what, in Heaven’s name, could he want of you, Aurora?”

“What most of my petitioners want,” she answered; “whether it’s the curate of a new chapel with mediæval decorations, who wants to rival our Lady of Bons-Secours upon one of the hills about Norwood; or a laundress who has burnt a week’s washing, and wants the means to make it good; or a lady of fashion, who is about to inaugurate a home for the children of indigent lucifer-match sellers; or a lecturer upon political economy, or Shelley and Byron, or Charles Dickens and the modern humorists, who is going to hold forth at Croydon; they all want the same thing — money! If I tell the curate that my principles are evangelical, and that I can’t pray sincerely if there are candlesticks on the altar, he is not the less glad of my hundred pounds. If I inform the lady of fashion that I have peculiar opinions about the orphans of lucifer-match sellers, and cherish a theory of my own against the education of the masses, she will shrug her shoulders deprecatingly, but will take care to let me know that any donation Miss Floyd may be pleased to afford will be equally acceptable. If I told them that I had committed half a dozen murders, or that I had a silver statue of the winner of last year’s Derby erected on an altar in my dressing-room, and did daily and nightly homage to it, they would take my money and thank me kindly for it, as that man did just now.”

“But one word, Aurora — does the man belong to this neighborhood?”

“No.”

“How, then, did you come to know him?”

She looked at him for a moment steadily, unflinchingly, with a thoughtful expression in that ever-changing countenance — looked as if she were mentally debating some point. Then, rising suddenly, she gathered her shawl about her and walked toward the door. She paused upon the threshold and said,

“This cross-questioning is scarcely pleasant, Captain Bulstrode. If I choose to give a five pound note to any person who may ask me for it, I expect full license to do so, and I will not submit to be called to account for my actions — even by you.”

“Aurora!”

The tenderly reproachful tone struck her to the heart.

“You may believe, Talbot,” she said, “you must surely believe that I know too well the value of your love to imperil it by word or deed — you must believe this.”

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