Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Poor John Mellish Comes Back Again.

John Mellish grew weary of the great City of Paris. Better love, and contentment, and a crust in a mansarde, than stalled oxen or other costly food in the loftiest saloons au premier, and with the most obsequious waiters to do us homage, and repress so much as a smile at our insular idiom. He grew heartily weary of the Rue de Rivoli, the gilded railings of the Tuileries gardens, and the leafless trees behind them. He was weary of the Place de la Concorde, and the Champs Elysées, and the rattle of the hoofs of the troop about his imperial highness’s carriage when Napoleon the Third or the baby prince took his airing. The plot was yet a hatching which was to come so soon to a climax in the Rue Lepelletier. He was tired of the broad boulevards, and the theatres, and the cafés, and the glove-shops — tired of staring at the jewellers’ windows in the Rue de la Paix, picturing to himself the face of Aurora Floyd under the diamond and emerald tiaras displayed therein. He had serious thoughts at times of buying a stove and a basket of charcoal, and asphyxiating himself quietly in the great gilded saloon at Meurice’s. What was the use of his money, or his dogs, or his horses, or his broad acres? All these put together would not purchase Aurora Floyd. What was the good of life, if it came to that, since the banker’s daughter refused to share it with him? Remember that this big, blue-eyed, curly-haired John Mellish had been from his cradle a spoiled child — spoiled by poor relations and parasites, servants and toadies, from the first hour to the thirtieth year of his existence — and it seemed such a very hard thing that this beautiful woman should be denied to him. Had he been an Eastern potentate, he would have sent for his vizier, and would have had that official bowstrung before his eyes, and so made an end of it; but, being merely a Yorkshire gentleman and land-owner, he had no more to do but to bear his burden quietly. As if he had ever borne anything quietly! He flung half the weight of his grief upon his valet, until that functionary dreaded the sound of Miss Floyd’s name, and told a fellow-servant in confidence that his master “made such a howling about that young woman as he offered marriage to at Brighton that there was no bearing him.” The end of it all was, that one night John Mellish gave sudden orders for the striking of his tents, and early the next morning departed for the Great Northern Railway, leaving only the ashes of his fires behind him.

It was only natural to suppose that Mr. Mellish would have gone straight to his country residence, where there was much business to be done by him: foals to be entered for coming races, trainers and stable-boys to be settled with, the planning and laying down of a proposed tan-gallop to be carried out, and a racing-stud awaiting the eye of the master. But, instead of going from the Dover Railway Station to the Great Northern Hotel, eating his dinner, and starting for Doncaster by the express, Mr. Mellish drove to the Gloucester Coffee-house, and there took up his quarters, for the purpose, as he said, of seeing the Cattle-show. He made a melancholy pretence of driving to Baker street in a Hansom cab, and roamed hither and thither for a quarter of an hour, staring dismally into the pens, and then fled away precipitately from the Yorkshire gentlemen-farmers, who gave him hearty greeting. He left the Gloucester the next morning in a dog-cart, and drove straight to Beckenham. Archibald Floyd, who knew nothing of this young Yorkshireman’s declaration and rejection, had given him a hearty invitation to Felden Woods. Why should n’t he go there? Only to make a morning call upon the hospitable banker; not to see Aurora; only to take a few long respirations of the air she breathed before he went back to Yorkshire.

Of course he knew nothing of Talbot Bulstrode’s happiness, and it had been one of the chief consolations of his exile to remember that that gentleman had put forth in the same vessel, and had been shipwrecked along with him.

He was ushered into the billiard-room, where he found Aurora Floyd seated at a little table near the fire, making a pencil copy of a proof-engraving of one of Rosa Bonheur’s pictures, while Talbot Bulstrode sat by her side preparing her pencils.

We feel instinctively that the man who cuts lead-pencils, or holds a skein of silk upon his outstretched hands, or carries lap-dogs, opera-cloaks, camp-stools, or parasols, is “engaged.” Even John Mellish had learned enough to know this. He breathed a sigh so loud as to be heard by Lucy and her mother, seated by the other fireplace — a sigh that was on the verge of a groan — and then held out his hand to Miss Floyd. Not to Talbot Bulstrode. He had vague memories of Roman legends floating in his brain, legends of superhuman generosity and classic self-abnegation, but he could not have shaken hands with that dark-haired young Cornishman, though the tenure of the Mellish estate had hung upon the sacrifice. He could not do it. He seated himself a few paces from Aurora and her lover, twisting his hat about in his hot, nervous hands until the brim was wellnigh limp, and was powerless to utter one sentence, even so much as some poor pitiful remark about the weather.

He was a great spoiled baby of thirty years of age; and I am afraid that, if the stern truth must be told, he saw Aurora Floyd across a mist, that blurred and distorted the bright face before his eyes. Lucy Floyd came to his relief by carrying him off to introduce him to her mother, and kind-hearted Mrs. Alexander was delighted with his frank, fair English face. He had the good fortune to stand with his back to the light, so that neither of the ladies detected that foolish mist in his blue eyes.

Archibald Floyd would not hear of his visitor’s returning to town either that night or the next day.

“You must spend Christmas with us,” he said, “and see the New Year in before you go back to Yorkshire. I have all my children about me at this season, and it is the only time that Felden seems like an old man’s home. Your friend Bulstrode stops with us” (Mellish winced as he received this intelligence), “and I shan’t think it friendly if you refuse to join our party.”

What a pitiful coward this John Mellish must have been to accept the banker’s invitation, and send the Newton Pagnell back to the Gloucester, and suffer himself to be led away by Mr. Floyd’s own man to a pleasant chamber a few doors from the chintz rooms occupied by Talbot! But I have said before that love is a cowardly passion. It is like the toothache; the bravest and strongest succumb to it, and howl aloud under the torture. I don’t suppose the Iron Duke would have been ashamed to own that he objected to having his teeth out. I have heard of a great fighting man who could take punishment better than any other of the genii of the ring, but who fainted away at the first grip of the dentist’s forceps. John Mellish consented to stay at Felden, and he went between the lights into Talbot’s dressing-room to expostulate with the captain upon his treachery.

Talbot did his best to console his doleful visitant.

“There are more women than one in the world,” he said, after John had unbosomed himself of his grief — he did n’t think this, the hypocrite, though he said it —“there are more women than one, my dear Mellish, and many very charming and estimable girls, who would be glad to win the affections of such a fellow as you.”

“I hate estimable girls,” said Mr. Mellish; “bother my affections, nobody will ever win my affections; but I love her, I love that beautiful black-eyed creature down stairs, who looks at you with two flashes of lightning, and rides so well; I love her, Bulstrode, and you told me that she’d refused you, and that you were going to leave Brighton by the eight o’clock express, and you did n’t, and you sneaked back and made her a second offer, and she accepted you, and, damme, it was n’t fair play.”

Having said which, Mr. Mellish flung himself upon a chair, which creaked under his weight, and fell to poking the fire furiously.

It was hard for poor Talbot to have to excuse himself for having won Aurora’s hand. He could not very well remind John Mellish that if Miss Floyd had accepted him, it was perhaps because she preferred him to the honest Yorkshireman. To John the matter never presented itself in this light. The spoiled child had been cheated out of that toy above all other toys, upon the possession of which he had set his foolish heart. It was as if he had bidden for some crack horse at Tattersall’s, in fair and open competition with a friend, who had gone back after the sale to outbid him in some underhand fashion. He could not understand that there had been no dishonesty in Talbot’s conduct, and he was highly indignant when that gentleman ventured to hint to him that perhaps, on the whole, it would have been wiser to have kept away from Felden Woods.

Talbot Bulstrode had avoided any further allusion to Mr. Matthew Harrison, the dog-fancier, and this, the first dispute between the lovers, had ended in the triumph of Aurora.

Miss Floyd was not a little embarrassed by the presence of John Mellish, who roamed disconsolately about the big rooms, seating himself ever and anon at one of the tables to peer into the lenses of a stereoscope, or to take up some gorgeously bound volume and drop it on the carpet in gloomy absence of mind, and who sighed heavily when spoken to, and was altogether far from pleasant company. Aurora’s warm heart was touched by the piteous spectacle of this rejected lover, and she sought him out once or twice, and talked to him about his racing-stud, and asked him how he liked the hunting in Surrey; but John changed from red to white, and from hot to cold, when she spoke to him, and fled away from her with a scared and ghastly aspect, which would have been grotesque had it not been so painfully real.

But by and by John found a more pitiful listener to his sorrows than ever Talbot Bulstrode had been, and this gentle and compassionate listener was no other than Lucy Floyd, to whom the big Yorkshireman turned in his trouble. Did he know, or did he guess, by some wondrous clairvoyance, that her griefs bore a common likeness to his own, and that she was just the one person, of all others, at Felden Woods to be pitiful to him and patient with him? He was by no means proud, this transparent, boyish, babyish good fellow. Two days after his arrival at Felden he told all to poor Lucy.

“I suppose you know, Miss Floyd,” he said, “that your cousin rejected me? Yes, of course you do; I believe she rejected Bulstrode about the same time; but some men have n’t a ha’porth of pride; I must say I think the captain acted like a sneak.”

A sneak! Her idol, her adored, her demigod, her dark-haired and gray-eyed divinity, to be spoken of thus! She turned upon Mr. Mellish with her fair cheeks flushed into a pale glow of anger, and told him that Talbot had a right to do what he had done, and that whatever Talbot did was right.

Like most men whose reflective faculties are entirely undeveloped, John Mellish was blessed with a sufficiently rapid perception — a perception sharpened just then by that peculiar sympathetic prescience, that marvellous clairvoyance of which I have spoken; and in those few indignant words, and that angry flush, he read poor Lucy’s secret; she loved Talbot Bulstrode as he loved Aurora — hopelessly.

How he admired this fragile girl, who was frightened of horses and dogs, and who shivered if a breath of the winter air blew across the heated hall, and who yet bore her burden with this quiet, uncomplaining patience; while he, who weighed fourteen stone, and could ride forty miles across country with the bitterest blasts of December blowing on his face, was powerless to endure his affliction. It comforted him to watch Lucy, and to read in these faint signs and tokens, which had escaped even a mother’s eye, the sad history of her unrequited affection.

Poor John was too good-natured and unselfish to hold out for ever in the dreary fortress of despair which he had built up for his habitation; and on Christmas eve, when there were certain rejoicings at Felden, held in especial honor of the younger visitors, he gave way, and joined in their merriment, and was more boyish than the youngest of them, burning his fingers with blazing raisins, suffering his eyes to be bandaged at the will of noisy little players at blind-man’s -buff, undergoing ignominious penalties in their games of forfeits, performing alternately innkeepers, sheriff’s officers, policemen, clergymen, and justices in the acted charades, lifting the little ones who wanted to see “de top of de Kitmat-tee” in his sturdy arms, and making himself otherwise agreeable and useful to young people of from three to fifteen years of age, until at last, under the influence of all this juvenile gayety, and perhaps two or three glasses of Moselle, he boldly kissed Aurora Floyd beneath the branch of mistletoe hanging, “for this night only,” in the great hall at Felden Woods.

And having done this, Mr. Mellish fairly lost his wits, and was “off his head” for the rest of the evening, making speeches to the little ones at the supper-table, and proposing Mr. Archibald Floyd and the commercial interests of Great Britain with three times three; leading the chorus of those tiny treble voices with his own sonorous bass, and weeping freely — he never quite knew why — behind his table-napkin. It was through an atmosphere of tears, and sparkling wines, and gas, and hot-house flowers, that he saw Aurora Floyd, looking — ah! how lovely, in those simple robes of white which so much became her, and with a garland of artificial holly round her head. The spiked leaves and the scarlet berries formed themselves into a crown — I think, indeed, that a cheese-plate would have been transformed into a diadem if Miss Floyd has been pleased to put it on her head — and she looked like the genius of Christmas: something bright and beautiful — too beautiful to come more than once a year.

When the clocks were striking 2 A. M., long after the little ones had been carried away muffled up in opera-cloaks, terribly sleepy, and I’m afraid, in some instances, under the influence of strong drink — when the elder guests had all retired to rest, and the lights, with a few exceptions, were fled, the garlands dead, and all but Talbot and John Mellish departed, the two young men walked up and down the long billiard-room, in the red glow of the two declining fires, and talked to each other confidentially. It was the morning of Christmas day, and it would have been strange to be unfriendly at such a time.

“If you’d fallen in love with the other one, Bulstrode,” said John, clasping his old school-fellow by the hand, and staring at him pathetically, “I could have looked upon you as a brother; she’s better suited to you, twenty thousand times better adapted to you than her cousin, and you ought to have married her — in common courtesy — I mean to say as an honorable — having very much compromised yourself by your attentions — Mrs. Whatshername — the companion — Mrs. Powell — said so — you ought to have married her.”

“Married her! Married whom?” cried Talbot, rather savagely, shaking off his friend’s hot grasp, and allowing Mr. Mellish to sway backward upon the heels of his varnished boots in rather an alarming manner. “Who do you mean?”

“The sweetest girl in Christendom — except one,” exclaimed John, clasping his hot hands and elevating his dim blue eyes to the ceiling; “the loveliest girl in Christendom, except one — Lucy Floyd.”

“Lucy Floyd!”

“Yes, Lucy; the sweetest girl in —”

“Who says that I ought to marry Lucy Floyd?”

“She says so — no, no, I don’t mean that; I mean,” said Mr. Mellish, sinking his voice to a solemn whisper, “I mean that Lucy Floyd loves you! She did n’t tell me so — oh, no, bless your soul! she never uttered a word upon the subject; but she loves you. Yes,” continued John, pushing his friend away from him with both hands, and staring at him as if mentally taking his pattern for a suit of clothes, “that girl loves you, and has loved you all along. I am not a fool, and I give you my word and honor that Lucy Floyd loves you.”

“Not a fool!” cried Talbot; “you’re worse than a fool, John Mellish — you’re drunk!”

He turned upon his heel contemptuously, and, taking a candle from a table near the door, lighted it, and strode out of the room,

John stood rubbing his hands through his curly hair, and staring helplessly after the captain.

“This is the reward a fellow gets for doing a generous thing,” he said, as he thrust his own candle into the burning coals, ignoring any easier mode of lighting it. “It’s hard, but I suppose it’s human nature.”

Talbot Bulstrode went to bed in a very bad humor. Could it be true that Lucy loved him? Could this chattering Yorkshireman have discovered a secret which had escaped the captain’s penetration? He remembered how, only a short time before, he had wished that this fair-haired girl might fall in love with him, and now all was trouble and confusion. Guinevere was lady of his heart, and poor Elaine was sadly in the way. Mr. Tennyson’s wondrous book had not been given to the world in the year fifty-seven, or no doubt poor Talbot would have compared himself to the knight whose “honor rooted in dishonor stood.” Had he been dishonorable? Had he compromised himself by his attentions to Lucy? Had he deceived that fair and gentle creature? The down pillows in the chintz chamber gave no rest to his weary head that night; and when he fell asleep in the late daybreak, it was to dream of horrible dreams, and to see in a vision Aurora Floyd standing on the brink of a clear pool of water in a woody recess at Felden, and pointing down through its crystal surface to the corpse of Lucy, lying pale and still amid lilies and clustering aquatic plants, whose long tendrils entwined themselves with the fair golden hair.

He heard the splash of the water in that terrible dream, and awoke, to find his valet breaking the ice in his bath in the adjoining room. His perplexities about poor Lucy vanished in the broad daylight, and he laughed at a trouble which must have grown out of his own vanity. What was he, that young ladies should fall in love with him? What a weak fool he must have been to have believed for one moment in the drunken babble of John Mellish! So he dismissed the image of Aurora’s cousin from his mind, and had eyes, ears, and thought only for Aurora herself, who drove him to Beckenham church in her basket carriage, and sat by his side in the banker’s great square pew.

Alas! I fear he heard very little of the sermon that was preached that day; but, for all that, I declare that he was a good and devout man; a man whom God had blessed with the gift of earnest belief; a man who took all blessings from the hand of God reverently, almost fearfully; and as he bowed his head at the end of that Christmas service of rejoicing and thanksgiving, he thanked Heaven for his overflowing cup of gladness, and prayed that he might become worthy of so much happiness.

He had a vague fear that he was too happy — too much bound up heart and soul in the dark-eyed woman by his side. If she were to die! If she were to be false to him! He turned sick and dizzy at the thought; and even in that sacred temple the Devil whispered to him that there were still pools, loaded pistols, and other certain remedies for such calamities as those, so wicked as well as cowardly a passion is this terrible fever, Love!

The day was bright and clear, the light snow whitening the ground; every line of hedge-top and tree cut sharply out against the cold blue of the winter sky. The banker proposed that they should send home the carriages, and walk down the hill to Felden; so Talbot Bulstrode offered Aurora his arm, only too glad of the chance of a tête-à-tête with his betrothed.

John Mellish walked with Archibald Floyd, with whom the Yorkshireman was an especial favorite; and Lucy was lost amid a group of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

“We were so busy all yesterday with the little people,” said Talbot, “that I forgot to tell you, Aurora, that I had had a letter from my mother.”

Miss Floyd looked up at him with her brightest glance. She was always pleased to hear anything about Lady Bulstrode.

“Of course there is very little news in the letter,” added Talbot, “for there is rarely much to tell at Bulstrode. And yet — yes — there is one piece of news which concerns yourself.”

“Which concerns me?”

“Yes. You remember my cousin, Constance Trevyllian?”

“Yes —”

“She has returned from Paris, her education finished at last, and she, I believe, all-accomplished, and has gone to spend Christmas at Bulstrode. Good Heavens, Aurora, what is the matter?”

Nothing very much, apparently. Her face had grown as white as a sheet of letter-paper, but the hand upon his arm did not tremble. Perhaps, had he taken especial notice of it, he would have found it preternaturally still.

“Aurora, what is the matter?”

“Nothing. Why do you ask?”

“Your face is as pale as —”

“It is the cold, I suppose,” she said, shivering. “Tell me about your cousin, this Miss Trevyllian; when did she go to Bulstrode Castle?”

“She was to arrive the day before yesterday. My mother was expecting her when she wrote.”

“Is she a favorite of Lady Bulstrode?”

“No very especial favorite. My mother likes her well enough; but Constance is rather a frivolous girl.”

“The day before yesterday,” said Aurora; “Miss Trevyllian was to arrive the day before yesterday. The letters from Cornwall are delivered at Felden early in the afternoon, are they not?”

“Yes, dear.”

“You will have a letter from your mother to-day, Talbot?”

“A letter to-day! oh, no, Aurora, she never writes two days running; seldom more than once a week.”

Miss Floyd did not make any answer to this, nor did her face regain its natural hue during the whole of the homeward walk. She was very silent, only replying in the briefest manner to Talbot’s inquiries.

“I am sure that you are ill, Aurora,” he said, as they ascended the terrace-steps.

“I am ill.”

“But, dearest, what is it? Let me tell Mrs. Alexander, or Mrs. Powell. Let me go back to Beckenham for the doctor.”

She looked at him with a mournful earnestness in her eyes.

“My foolish Talbot,” she said, “do you remember what Macbeth said to his doctor? There are diseases that can not be ministered to. Let me alone; you will know soon enough — you will know very soon, I dare say.”

“But, Aurora, what do you mean by this? What can there be upon your mind?”

“Ah! what indeed! Let me alone, let me alone, Captain Bulstrode.”

He had caught her hand, but she broke from him, and ran up the staircase in the direction of her own apartments.

Talbot hurried to Lucy with a pale, frightened face.

“Your cousin is ill, Lucy,” he said; “go to her, for Heaven’s sake, and see what is wrong.”

Lucy obeyed immediately; but she found the door of Miss Floyd’s room locked against her; and when she called to Aurora and implored to be admitted, that young lady cried out,

“Go away, Lucy Floyd; go away, and leave me to myself, unless you want to drive me mad!”

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