Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 9

How Talbot Bulstrode Spent His Christmas.

There was no more happiness for Talbot Bulstrode that day. He wandered from room to room till he was as weary of that exercise as the young lady in Monk Lewis’s Castle Spectre; he roamed forlornly hither and thither, hoping to find Aurora, now in the billiard-room, now in the drawing-room. He loitered in the hall upon the shallow pretence of looking at barometers and thermometers, in order to listen for the opening and shutting of Aurora’s door. All the doors at Felden Woods were perpetually opening and shutting that afternoon, as it seemed to Talbot Bulstrode. He had no excuse for passing the doors of Miss Floyd’s apartments, for his own rooms lay at the opposite angle of the house; but he lingered on the broad staircase, looking at the furniture-pictures upon the walls, and not seeing one line in these Wardour-street productions. He had hoped that Aurora would appear at luncheon; but that dismal meal had been eaten without her; and the merry laughter and pleasant talk of the family assembly had sounded far away to Talbot’s ears — far away across some wide ocean of doubt and confusion.

He passed the afternoon in this wretched manner, unobserved by any one but Lucy, who watched him furtively from her distant seat, as he roamed in and out of the drawing-room. Ah! how many a man is watched by loving eyes whose light he never sees! how many a man is cared for by a tender heart whose secret he never learns! A little after dusk, Talbot Bulstrode went to his room to dress. It was some time before the bell would ring; but he would dress early, he thought, so as to make sure of being in the drawing-room when Aurora came down.

He took no light with him, for there were always wax candles upon the chimney-piece in his room.

It was almost dark in that pleasant chintz chamber, for the fire had been lately replenished, and there was no blaze; but he could just distinguish a white patch upon the green cloth cover of the writing-table. The white patch was a letter. He stirred the black mass of coal in the grate, and a bright flame went dancing up the chimney, making the room as light as day. He took the letter in one hand, while he lighted one of the candles on the chimney-piece with the other. The letter was from his mother. Aurora Floyd had told him that he would receive such a letter. What did it all mean? The gay flowers and birds upon the papered walls spun round him as he tore open the envelope. I firmly believe that we have a semi-supernatural prescience of the coming of all misfortune; a prophetic instinct, which tells us that such a letter, or such a messenger, carries evil tidings. Talbot Bulstrode had that prescience as he unfolded the paper in his hands. The horrible trouble was before him — a brooding shadow, with a veiled face, ghastly and undefined; but it was there.

“MY DEAR TALBOT— I know the letter I am about to write will distress and perplex you; but my duty lies not the less plainly before me. I fear that your heart is much involved in your engagement to Miss Floyd.” The evil tidings concerned Aurora, then; the brooding shadow was slowly lifting its dark veil, and the face of her he loved best on earth appeared behind it. “But I know,” continued that pitiless letter, “that the sense of honor is the strongest part of your nature, and that, however you may have loved this girl” (O God, she spoke of his love in the past!) “you will not suffer yourself to be entrapped into a false position through any weakness of affection. There is some mystery about the life of Aurora Floyd.”

This sentence was at the bottom of the first page; and, before Talbot Bulstrode’s shaking hand could turn the leaf, every doubt, every fear, every presentiment he had ever felt flashed back upon him with preternatural distinctness.

“Constance Trevyllian came here yesterday; and you may imagine that in the course of the evening you were spoken of, and your engagement discussed.”

A curse upon their frivolous women’s gossip! Talbot crushed the letter in his hand, and was about to fling it from him; but, no, it must be read. The shadow of doubt must be faced, and wrestled with, and vanquished, or there was no more peace upon this earth for him. He went on reading the letter.

“I told Constance that Miss Floyd had been educated in the Rue St. Dominique, and asked if she remembered her. ‘What!’ she said, ‘is it the Miss Floyd whom there was such a fuss about? the Miss Floyd who ran away from school?’ And then she told me, Talbot, that a Miss Floyd was brought to the Demoiselles Lespard by her father last June twelvemonth, and that less than a fortnight after arriving at the school she disappeared; her disappearance, of course, causing a great sensation and an immense deal of talk among the other pupils, as it was said she had run away. The matter was hushed up as much as possible; but you know that girls will talk, and from what Constance tells me, I imagine that very unpleasant things were said about Miss Floyd. Now you say that the banker’s daughter only returned to Felden Woods in September last. Where was she in the interval?

He read no more. One glance told him that the rest of the letter consisted of motherly cautions and admonitions as to how he was to act in this perplexing business.

He thrust the crumpled paper into his bosom, and dropped into a chair by the hearth.

It was so, then! There was a mystery in the life of this woman. The doubts and suspicious, the undefined fears and perplexities, which had held him back at the first, and caused him to wrestle against his love, had not been unfounded. There was good reason for them all, ample reason for them, as there is for every instinct which Providence puts into our hearts. A black wall rose up round about him, and shut him for ever from the woman he loved; this woman whom he loved so far from wisely, so fearfully well; this woman, for whom he had thanked God in the church only a few hours before. And she was to have been his wife — the mother of his children perhaps. He clasped his cold hands over his face, and sobbed aloud. Do not despise him for those drops of anguish: they were the virgin tears of his manhood. Never since infancy had his eyes been wet before. God forbid that such tears as those should be shed more than once in a lifetime. The agony of that moment was not to be lived through twice. The hoarse sobs rent and tore his breast as if his flesh had been hacked by a rusty sword; and, when he took his wet hands from his face, he wondered that they were not red, for it seemed to him as if he had been weeping blood. What should he do?

Go to Aurora, and ask her the meaning of that letter? Yes; the course was plain enough. A tumult of hope rushed back upon him, and swept away his terror. Why was he so ready to doubt her? What a pitiful coward he was to suspect her — to suspect this girl, whose transparent soul had been so freely unveiled to him; whose every accent was truth! For, in his intercourse with Aurora, the quality which he had learned most to reverence in her nature was its sublime candor. He almost laughed at the recollection of his mother’s solemn letter. It was so like these simple country people, whose lives had been bounded by the narrow limits of a Cornish village — it was so like them to make mountains out of the veriest mole-hills. What was there so wonderful in that which had occurred? The spoiled child, the wilful heiress, had grown tired of a foreign school, and had run away. Her father, not wishing the girlish escapade to be known, had placed her somewhere else, and had kept her folly a secret. What was there from first to last in the whole affair that was not perfectly natural and probable, the exceptional circumstances of the case duly considered?

He could fancy Aurora, with her cheeks in a flame, and her eyes flashing lightning, flinging a page of blotted exercises into the face of her French master, and running out of the school-room amid a tumult of ejaculatory babble. The beautiful, impetuous creature! There is nothing a man can not admire in the woman he loves, and Talbot was half inclined to admire Aurora for having run away from school.

The first dinner-bell had rung during Captain Bulstrode’s agony; so the corridors and rooms were deserted when he went to look for Aurora, with his mother’s letter in his breast.

She was not in the billiard-room nor the drawing-room, but he found her at last in a little inner chamber at the end of the house, with a bay-window looking out over the park. The room was dimly lighted by a shaded lamp, and Miss Floyd was seated in the uncurtained window, with her elbow resting on a cushioned ledge, looking out at the steel-cold wintry sky and the whitened landscape. She was dressed in black, her face, neck, and arms gleaming marble-white against the sombre hue of her dress, and her attitude was as still as that of a statue.

She neither stirred nor looked round when Talbot entered the room.

“My dear Aurora,” he said, “I have been looking for you everywhere.”

She shivered at the sound of his voice.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, dearest. I want you to explain something to me. A foolish business enough, no doubt, my darling, and, of course, very easily explained; but, as your future husband, I have a right to ask for an explanation; and I know, I know, Aurora, that you will give it in all candor.”

She did not speak, although Talbot paused for some moments, awaiting her answer. He could only see her profile, dimly lighted by the wintry sky. He could not see the mute pain, the white anguish in that youthful face.

“I have had a letter from my mother, and there is something in that letter which I wish you to explain. Shall I read it to you, dearest?”

His voice faltered upon the endearing expression, and he remembered afterward that it was the last time he had ever addressed her with a lover’s tenderness. The day came when she had need of his compassion, and when he gave it freely; but that moment sounded the death-knell of Love. In that moment the gulf yawned, and the cliffs were rent asunder.

“Shall I read you the letter, Aurora?”

“If you please.”

He took the crumpled epistle from his bosom, and, bending over the lamp, read it aloud to Aurora. He fully expected at every sentence that she would interrupt him with some eager explanation; but she was silent until he had finished, and even then she did not speak.

“Aurora, Aurora, is this true?”

“Perfectly true.”

“But why did you run away from the Rue St. Dominique?”

“I can not tell you.”

“And where were you between the month of June in the year fifty-six and last September?”

“I can not tell you, Talbot Bulstrode. This is my secret, which I can not tell you.”

“You can not tell me! There is upward of a year missing from your life, and you can not tell me, your betrothed husband, what you did with that year?”

“I can not.”

“Then, Aurora Floyd, you can never be my wife.”

He thought that she would turn upon him, sublime in her indignation and fury, and that the explanation he longed for would burst from her lips in a passionate torrent of angry words; but she rose from her chair, and, tottering toward him, fell upon her knees at his feet. No other action could have struck such terror to his heart. It seemed to him a confession of guilt. But what guilt? what guilt? What was the dark secret of this young creature’s brief life?

“Talbot Bulstrode,” she said in a tremulous voice, which cut him to the soul, “Talbot Bulstrode, Heaven knows how often I have foreseen and dreaded this hour. Had I not been a coward, I should have anticipated this explanation. But I thought — I thought the occasion might never come, or that, when it did come, you would be generous — and — trust me. If you can trust me, Talbot — if you can believe that this secret is not utterly shameful —”

“Not utterly shameful!” he cried. “O God, Aurora, that I should ever hear you talk like this! Do you think there are any degrees in these things? There must be no secret between my wife and me; and the day that a secret, or the shadow of one, arises between us, must see us part for ever. Rise from your knees, Aurora; you are killing me with this shame and humiliation. Rise from your knees; and if we are to part this moment, tell me, tell me, for pity’s sake, that I have no need to despise myself for having loved you with an intensity which has scarcely been manly.”

She did not obey him, but sank lower in her half kneeling, half crouching attitude, her face buried in her hands, and only the coils of her black hair visible to Captain Bulstrode.

“I was motherless from my cradle, Talbot,” she said, in a half stifled voice. “Have pity upon me.”

“Pity!” echoed the captain; ”pity! Why do you not ask me for justice? One question, Aurora Floyd, one more question, perhaps the last I ever may ask of you — Does your father know why you left that school, and where you were during that twelvemonth?”

“He does.”

“Thank God, at least, for that! Tell me, Aurora, then, only tell me this, and I will believe your simple word as I would the oath of another woman — tell me if he approved of your motive in leaving that school — if he approved of the manner in which your life was spent during that twelvemonth. If you can say yes, Aurora, there shall be no more questions between us, and I can make you, without fear, my loved and honored wife.”

“I can not,” she answered. “I am only nineteen, but within the two last years of my life I have done enough to break my father’s heart — to break the heart of the dearest father that ever breathed the breath of life.”

“Then all is over between us. God forgive you, Aurora Floyd; but, by your own confession, you are no fit wife for an honorable man. I shut my mind against all foul suspicions; but the past life of my wife must be a white, unblemished page, which all the world may be free to read.”

He walked toward the door, and then, returning, assisted the wretched girl to rise, and led her back to her seat by the window, courteously, as if she had been his partner at a ball. Their hands met with as icy a touch as the hands of two corpses. Ah! how much there was of death in that touch! How much had died between those two within the last few hours — hope, confidence, security, love, happiness, all that makes life worth the holding.

Talbot Bulstrode paused upon the threshold of the little chamber, and spoke once more.

“I shall have left Felden in half an hour, Miss Floyd,” he said; “it will be better to allow your father to suppose that the disagreement between us has arisen from something of a trifling nature, and that my dismissal has come from you. I shall write to Mr. Floyd from London, and, if you please, I will so word my letter as to lead him to think this.”

“You are very good,” she answered. “Yes, I would rather that he should think that. It may spare him pain. Heaven knows I have cause to be grateful for anything that will do that.”

Talbot bowed, and left the room, closing the door behind him. The closing of that door had a dismal sound to his ear. He thought of some frail young creature abandoned by her sister-nuns in a living tomb. He thought that he would rather have left Aurora lying rigidly beautiful in her coffin than as he was leaving her to-day.

The jangling, jarring sound of the second dinner-bell clanged out as he went from the semi-obscurity of the corridor into the glaring gas-light of the billiard-room. He met Lucy Floyd coming toward him in her rustling silk dinner-dress, with fringes, and laces, and ribbons, and jewels fluttering and sparkling about her, and he almost hated her for looking so bright and radiant, remembering, as he did, the ghastly face of the stricken creature he had just left. We are apt to be horribly unjust in the hour of supreme trouble, and I fear that if any one had had the temerity to ask Talbot Bulstrode’s opinion of Lucy Floyd just at that moment, the captain would have declared her to be a mass of frivolity and affectation. If you discover the worthlessness of the only woman you love upon earth, you will perhaps be apt to feel maliciously disposed toward the many estimable people about you. You are savagely inclined when you remember that they for whom you care nothing are so good, while she on whom you set your soul is so wicked. The vessel which you freighted with every hope of your heart has gone down, and you are angry at the very sight of those other ships riding so gallantly before the breeze. Lucy recoiled at the aspect of the young man’s face.

“What is it?” she asked; “what has happened, Captain Bulstrode?”

“Nothing; I have received a letter from Cornwall which obliges me to —”

His hollow voice died away into a hoarse whisper before he could finish the sentence.

“Lady Bulstrode — or Sir John — is ill, perhaps?” hazarded Lucy.

Talbot pointed to his white lips and shook his head. The gesture might mean anything. He could not speak. The hall was full of visitors and children going into dinner. The little people were to dine with their seniors that day, as an especial treat and privilege of the season. The door of the dining-room was open, and Talbot saw the gray head of Archibald Floyd dimly visible at the end of a long vista of lights, and silver, and glass, and evergreens. The old man had his nephews and nieces, and their children grouped about him, but the place at his right hand, the place Aurora was meant to fill, was vacant. Captain Bulstrode turned away from that gayly-lighted scene and ran up the staircase to his room, where he found his servant waiting with his master’s clothes laid out, wondering why he had not come to dress.

The man fell back at the sight of Talbot’s face, ghastly in the light of the wax candles on the dressing-table.

“I am going away, Philman,” said the captain, speaking very fast, and in a thick, indistinct voice. “I am going down to Cornwall by the express to-night, if I can get to town in time to catch the train. Pack my clothes and come after me. You can join me at the Paddington Station. I shall walk up to Beckenham, and take the first train for town. Here, give this to the servants for me, will you?”

He took a confused heap of gold and silver from his pocket, and dropped it into the man’s hand.

“Nothing wrong at Bulstrode, I hope, sir?” said the servant. “Is Sir John ill?”

“No, no; I’ve had a letter from my mother — I— you’ll find me at the Great Western.”

He snatched up his hat, and was hurrying from the room; but the man followed him with his great-coat.

“You’ll catch your death, sir, on such a night as this,” the servant said, in a tone of respectful remonstrance.

The banker was standing at the door of the dining-room when Talbot crossed the hall. He was telling a servant to look for his daughter.

“We are all waiting for Miss Floyd,” the old man said; “we can not begin dinner without Miss Floyd.”

Unobserved in the confusion, Talbot opened the great door softly, and let himself out into the cold winter’s night. The long terrace was all ablaze with the lights in the high, narrow windows, as upon the night when he had first come to Felden; and before him lay the park, the trees bare and leafless, the ground white with a thin coating of snow, the sky above gray and starless — a cold and desolate expanse, in dreary contrast with the warmth and brightness behind. All this was typical of the crisis of his life. He was leaving warm love and hope for cold resignation or icy despair. He went down the terrace-steps, across the trim garden-walks, and out into that wide, mysterious park. The long avenue was ghostly in the gray light, the tracery of the interlacing branches above his head making black shadows, that flickered to and fro upon the whitened ground beneath his feet. He walked for a quarter of a mile before he looked back at the lighted windows behind him. He did not turn until a wind in the avenue had brought him to a spot from which he could see the dimly-lighted bay-window of the room in which he had left Aurora. He stood for some time looking at this feeble glimmer, and thinking — thinking of all he had lost, or all he had perhaps escaped — thinking of what his life was to be henceforth without that woman — thinking that he would rather have been the poorest ploughboy in Beckenham parish than the heir of Bulstrode, if he could have taken the girl he loved to his heart, and believed in her truth.

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