Faint streaks of crimson glimmer here and there amid the rich darkness of the Kentish woods. Autumn’s red finger has been lightly laid upon the foliage — sparingly, as the artist puts the brighter tints into his picture; but the grandeur of an August sunset blazes upon the peaceful landscape, and lights all into glory.
The encircling woods and wide lawn-like meadows, the still ponds of limpid water, the trim hedges, and the smooth winding roads; undulating hill-tops, melting into the purple distance; laboring-men’s cottages, gleaming white from the surrounding foliage; solitary roadside inns with brown thatched roofs and moss-grown stacks of lop-sided chimneys; noble mansions hiding behind ancestral oaks; tiny Gothic edifices; Swiss and rustic lodges; pillared gates surmounted by escutcheons hewn in stone, and festooned with green wreaths of clustering ivy; village churches and prim school-houses — every object in the fair English prospect is steeped in a luminous haze, as the twilight shadows steal slowly upward from the dim recesses of shady woodland and winding lane, and every outline of the landscape darkens against the deepening crimson of the sky.
Upon the broad façade of a mighty redbrick mansion, built in the favorite style of the early Georgian era, the sinking sun lingers long, making gorgeous illumination. The long rows of narrow windows are all aflame with the red light, and an honest homeward-tramping villager pauses once or twice in the roadway to glance across the smooth width of dewy lawn and tranquil lake, half fearful that there must be something more than natural in the glitter of those windows, and that may be Maister Floyd’s house is afire.
The stately red-built mansion belongs to Maister Floyd, as he is called in the honest patois of the Kentish rustics; to Archibald Martin Floyd, of the great banking-house of Floyd, Floyd, and Floyd, Lombard street, City.
The Kentish rustics knew very little of this city banking-house, for Archibald Martin, the senior partner, has long retired from any active share in the business, which is carried on entirely by his nephews, Andrew and Alexander Floyd, both steady, middle-aged men, with families and country-houses; both owing their fortune to the rich uncle, who had found places in his counting-house for them some thirty years before, when they were tall, raw-boned, sandy-haired, red-complexioned Scottish youths, fresh from some unpronounceable village north of Aberdeen.
The young gentlemen signed their names M‘Floyd when they first entered their uncle’s counting-house; but they very soon followed that wise relative’s example, and dropped the formidable prefix. “We’ve nae need to tell these Southeran bodies that we’re Scotche,” Alick remarked to his brother as he wrote his name for the first time A. Floyd, all short.
The Scottish banking-house had thriven wonderfully in the hospitable English capital. Unprecedented success had waited upon every enterprise undertaken by the old-established and respected firm of Floyd, Floyd, and Floyd. It had been Floyd, Floyd, and Floyd for upward of a century; for, as one member of the house dropped off, some greener branch shot out from the old tree; and there had never yet been any need to alter the treble repetition of the well-known name upon the brass plates that adorned the swinging mahogany doors of the banking-house. To this brass plate Archibald Martin Floyd pointed when, some thirty years before the August evening of which I write, he took his raw-boned nephews for the first time across the threshold of his house of business.
“See there, boys,” he said: “look at the three names upon that brass plate. Your uncle George is over fifty, and a bachelor — that’s the first name; our first cousin, Stephen Floyd, of Calcutta, is going to sell out of the business before long — that’s the second name; the third is mine, and I’m thirty-seven years of age, remember, boys, and not likely to make a fool of myself by marrying. Your names will be wanted by and by to fill the blanks; see that you keep them bright in the meantime; for, let so much as one speck rest upon them, and they’ll never be fit for that brass plate.”
Perhaps the rugged Scottish youths took this lesson to heart, or perhaps honesty was a natural and inborn virtue in the house of Floyd. Be it as it might, neither Alick nor Andrew disgraced their ancestry; and when Stephen Floyd, the East-Indian merchant, sold out, and Uncle George grew tired of business, and took to building, as an elderly, bachelor-like hobby, the young men stepped into their relatives’ shoes, and took the conduct of the business upon their broad Northern shoulders. Upon one point only Archibald Martin Floyd had misled his nephews, and that point regarded himself. Ten years after his address to the young men, at the sober age of seven-and-forty, the banker not only made a fool of himself by marrying, but, if indeed such things are foolish, sank still farther from the proud elevation of worldly wisdom by falling desperately in love with a beautiful but penniless woman, whom he brought home with him after a business tour through the manufacturing districts, and with but little ceremony introduced to his relations and the county families round his Kentish estate as his newly-wedded wife.
The whole affair was so sudden, that these very county families had scarcely recovered from their surprise at reading a certain paragraph in the left-hand column of the Times, announcing the marriage of “Archibald Martin Floyd, Banker, of Lombard street and Felden Woods, to Eliza, only surviving daughter of Captain Prodder,” when the bridegroom’s travelling carriage dashed past the Gothic lodge at the gates, along the avenue and under the great stone portico at the side of the house, and Eliza Floyd entered the banker’s mansion, nodding good-naturedly to the bewildered servants, marshalled into the hall to receive their new mistress.
The banker’s wife was a tall young woman of about thirty, with a dark complexion, and great flashing black eyes that lit up a face which might otherwise have been unnoticeable into the splendor of absolute beauty.
Let the reader recall one of those faces whose sole loveliness lies in the glorious light of a pair of magnificent eyes, and remember how far they surpass all others in their power of fascination. The same amount of beauty frittered away upon a well-shaped nose, rosy, pouting lips, symmetrical forehead, and delicate complexion, would make an ordinarily lovely woman; but concentrated in one nucleus, in the wondrous lustre of the eyes, it makes a divinity, a Circe. You may meet the first any day of your life; the second, once in a lifetime.
Mr. Floyd introduced his wife to the neighboring gentry at a dinner-party, which he gave soon after the lady’s arrival at Felden Woods, as his country seat was called; and this ceremony very briefly despatched, he said no more about his choice either to his neighbors or his relations, who would have been very glad to hear how this unlooked-for marriage had come about, and who hinted the same to the happy bridegroom, but without effect.
Of course this very reticence on the part of Archibald Floyd himself only set the thousand tongues of rumor more busily to work. Round Beckenham and West Wickham, near which villages Felden Woods was situated, there was scarcely any one debased and degraded station of life from which Mrs. Floyd was not reported to have sprung. She was a factory-girl, and the silly old banker had seen her in the streets of Manchester, with a colored handkerchief on her head, a coral necklace round her throat, and shoeless and stockingless feet tramping in the mud: he had seen her thus, and had fallen incontinently in love with her, and offered to marry her there and then. She was an actress, and he had seen her on the Manchester stage; nay, lower still, she was some poor performer, decked in dirty white muslin, red cotton velvet, and spangles, who acted in a canvas booth, with a pitiful set of wandering vagabonds and a learned pig. Sometimes they said she was an equestrian, and it was at Astley’s, and not in the manufacturing districts, that the banker had first seen her; nay, some there were ready to swear that they themselves had beheld her leaping through gilded hoops, and dancing the cachuca upon six barebacked steeds in that sawdust-strewn arena. There were whispered rumors that went even farther than these — rumors which I dare not even set down here, for the busy tongues that dealt so mercilessly with the name and fame of Eliza Floyd were not unbarbed by malice. It may be that some of the ladies had personal reasons for their spite against the bride, and that many a waning beauty, in those pleasant Kentish mansions, had speculated upon the banker’s income, and the advantages attendant upon a union with the owner of Felden Woods.
The daring, disreputable creature, with not even beauty to recommend her — for the Kentish damsels scrupulously ignored Eliza’s wonderful eyes, and were sternly critical with her low forehead, doubtful nose, and rather wide mouth — the artful, designing minx, who, at the mature age of nine-and-twenty, with her hair growing nearly down to her eyebrows, had contrived to secure to herself the hand and fortune of the richest man in Kent — the man who had been hitherto so impregnable to every assault from bright eyes and rosy lips, that the most indefatigable of manoeuvring mothers had given him up in despair, and ceased to make visionary and Alnaschar-like arrangements of the furniture in Mr. Floyd’s great red-brick palace.
The female portion of the community wondered indignantly at the supineness of the two Scotch nephews, and the old bachelor brother, George Floyd. Why did not these people show a little spirit — institute a commission of lunacy, and shut their crazy relative in a mad-house? He deserved it.
The ruined noblesse of the Faubourg St. Germain, the faded duchesses and wornout vidames, could not have abused a wealthy Bonapartist with more vigorous rancor than these people employed in their ceaseless babble about the banker’s wife. Whatever she did was a new subject for criticism; even at that first dinner-party, though Eliza had no more ventured to interfere with the arrangements of the man-cook and housekeeper than if she had been a visitor at Buckingham Palace, the angry guests found that everything had degenerated since “that woman” had entered the house. They hated the successful adventuress — hated her for her beautiful eyes and her gorgeous jewels, the extravagant gifts of an adoring husband — hated her for her stately figure and graceful movements, which never betrayed the rumored obscurity of her origin — hated her, above all, for her insolence in not appearing in the least afraid of the lofty members of that new circle in which she found herself.
If she had meekly eaten the ample dish of humble-pie which these county families were prepared to set before her — if she had licked the dust from their aristocratic shoes, courted their patronage, and submitted to be “taken up” by them — they might, perhaps, in time, have forgiven her. But she did none of this. If they called upon her, well and good; she was frankly and cheerfully glad to see them. They might find her in her gardening-gloves, with rumpled hair and a watering-pot in her hands, busy among her conservatories; and she would receive them as serenely as if she had been born in a palace, and used to homage from her very babyhood. Let them be as frigidly polite as they pleased, she was always easy, candid, gay, and good-natured. She would rattle away about her “dear old Archy,” as she presumed to call her benefactor and husband; or she would show her guests some new picture he had bought, and would dare — the impudent, ignorant, pretentious creature! — to talk about Art, as if all the high-sounding jargon with which they tried to crush her was as familiar to her as to a Royal Academician. When etiquette demanded her returning these stately visits, she would drive boldly up to her neighbors’ doors in a tiny basket carriage, drawn by one rough pony; for it was an affectation of this designing woman to affect simplicity in her tastes, and to abjure all display. She would take all the grandeur she met with as a thing of course, and chatter and laugh, with her flaunting theatrical animation, much to the admiration of misguided young men, who could not see the high-bred charms of her detractors, but who were never tired of talking of Mrs. Floyd’s jolly manners and glorious eyes.
I wonder whether poor Eliza Floyd knew all or half the cruel things that were said of her. I shrewdly suspect that she contrived somehow or other to hear them all, and that she rather enjoyed the fun. She had been used to a life of excitement, and Felden Woods might have seemed dull to her but for these ever-fresh scandals. She took a malicious delight in the discomfiture of her enemies.
“How badly they must have wanted you for a husband, Archy,” she said, “when they hate me so ferociously. Poor, portionless old maids, to think I should snatch their prey from them! I know they think it a hard thing that they can’t have me hung for marrying a rich man.”
But the banker was so deeply wounded when his adored wife repeated to him the gossip which she had heard from her maid, who was a stanch adherent to a kind, easy mistress, that Eliza ever after withheld these reports from him. They amused her, but they stung him to the quick. Proud and sensitive, like almost all very honest and conscientious men, he could not endure that any creature should dare to befoul the name of the woman he loved so tenderly. What was the obscurity from which he had taken her to him? Is a star less bright because it shines on a gutter as well as upon the purple bosom of the midnight sea? Is a virtuous and generous-hearted woman less worthy because you find her making a scanty living out of the only industry she can exercise, and acting Juliet to an audience of factory hands, who gave threepence apiece for the privilege of admiring and applauding her?
Yes, the murder must out; the malicious were not altogether wrong in their conjectures: Eliza Prodder was an actress; and it was on the dirty boards of a second-rate theatre in Lancashire that the wealthy banker had first beheld her. Archibald Floyd nourished a traditional, passive, but sincere admiration for the British Drama. Yes, the British Drama; for he had lived in a day when the drama was British, and when George Barnwell and Jane Shore were among the favorite works of art of a play-going public. How sad that we should have degenerated since those classic days, and that the graceful story of Milwood and her apprentice-admirer is now so rarely set before us! Imbued, therefore, with the solemnity of Shakespeare and the drama, Mr. Floyd, stopping for a night at this second-rate Lancashire town, dropped into the dusty boxes of the theatre to witness the performance of Romeo and Juliet— the heiress of the Capulets being represented by Miss Eliza Percival, alias Prodder.
I do not believe that Miss Percival was a good actress, or that she would ever become distinguished in her profession; but she had a deep, melodious voice, which rolled out the words of her author in a certain rich though rather monotonous music, pleasant to hear; and upon the stage she was very beautiful to look at, for her face lighted up the little theatre better than all the gas that the manager grudged to his scanty audiences.
It was not the fashion in those days to make “sensation” dramas of Shakespeare’s plays. There was no Hamlet with the celebrated water-scene, and the Danish prince taking a “header” to save poor weak-witted Ophelia. In the little Lancashire theatre it would have been thought a terrible sin against all canons of dramatic art had Othello or his Ancient attempted to sit down during any part of the solemn performance. The hope of Denmark was no long-robed Norseman with flowing flaxen hair, but an individual who wore a short, rusty black cotton velvet garment, shaped like a child’s frock and trimmed with bugles, which dropped off and were trodden upon at intervals throughout the performance. The simple actors held, that tragedy, to be tragedy, must be utterly unlike anything that ever happened beneath the sun. And Eliza Prodder patiently trod the old and beaten track, far too good-natured, light-hearted, and easy-going a creature to attempt any foolish interference with the crookedness of the times, which she was not born to set right.
What can I say, then, about her performance of the impassioned Italian girl? She wore white satin and spangles, the spangles sewn upon the dirty hem of her dress, in the firm belief, common to all provincial actresses, that spangles are an antidote to dirt. She was laughing and talking in the whitewashed little green-room the very minute before she ran on to the stage to wail for her murdered kinsman and her banished lover. They tell us that Macready began to be Richelieu at three o’clock in the afternoon, and that it was dangerous to approach or to speak to him between that hour and the close of the performance. So dangerous, indeed, that surely none but the daring and misguided gentleman who once met the great tragedian in a dark passage, and gave him “Good-morrow, ‘Mac,’ “ would have had the temerity to attempt it. But Miss Percival did not take her profession very deeply to heart; the Lancashire salaries barely paid for the physical wear and tear of early rehearsals and long performances; how, then, for that mental exhaustion of the true artist who lives in the character he represents?
The easy-going comedians with whom Eliza acted made friendly remarks to each other on their private affairs in the intervals of the most vengeful discourse; speculated upon the amount of money in the house in audible undertones during the pauses of the scene; and when Hamlet wanted Horatio down at the foot-lights to ask him if he “marked that,” it was likely enough that the prince’s confidant was up the stage telling Polonius of the shameful way in which his landlady stole the tea and sugar.
It was not, therefore, Miss Percival’s acting that fascinated the banker. Archibald Floyd knew that she was as bad an actress as ever played the leading tragedy and comedy for five-and-twenty shillings a week. He had seen Miss O’Neil in that very character, and it moved him to a pitying smile as the factory hands applauded poor Eliza’s poison-scene. But, for all this, he fell in love with her. It was a repetition of the old story. It was Arthur Pendennis at the little Chatteris Theatre bewitched and bewildered by Miss Fotheringay all over again — only that instead of a feeble, impressionable boy, it was a sober, steady-going business-man of seven-and-forty, who had never felt one thrill of emotion in looking on a woman’s face until that night — until that night — and from that night to him the world only held one being, and life only had one object. He went the next evening, and the next, and then contrived to scrape acquaintance with some of the actors at a tavern next the theatre. They sponged upon him cruelly, these seedy comedians, and allowed him to pay for unlimited glasses of brandy and water, and flattered and cajoled him, and plucked out the heart of his mystery; and then went back to Eliza Percival, and told her that she had dropped into a good thing, for that an old chap with no end of money had fallen over head and ears in love with her, and that if she played her cards well, he would marry her to-morrow. They pointed him out to her through a hole in the green curtain, sitting almost alone in the shabby boxes, waiting for the play to begin and her black eyes to shine upon him once more.
Eliza laughed at her conquest; it was only one among many such, which had all ended alike — leading to nothing better than the purchase of a box on her benefit night, or a bouquet left for her at the stage-door. She did not know the power of first love upon a man of seven-and-forty. Before the week was out, Archibald Floyd had made her a solemn offer of his hand and fortune.
He had heard a great deal about her from her fellow-performers, and had heard nothing but good. Temptations resisted; diamond bracelets indignantly declined; graceful acts of gentle womanly charity done in secret; independence preserved through all poverty and trial — they told him a hundred stories of her goodness, that brought the blood to his face with proud and generous emotion. And she herself told him the simple history of her life — told him that she was the daughter of a merchant-captain called Prodder; that she was born at Liverpool; that she remembered little of her father, who was almost always at sea; nor of a brother, three years older than herself, who quarrelled with his father, the merchant-captain, and ran away, and was never heard of again; nor of her mother, who died when she, Eliza, was ten years old. The rest was told in a few words. She was taken into the family of an aunt who kept a grocer’s shop in Miss Prodder’s native town. She learned artificial flower-making, and did not take to the business. She went often to the Liverpool theatres, and thought she would like to go upon the stage. Being a daring and energetic young person, she left her aunt’s house one day, walked straight to the stage-manager of one of the minor theatres, and asked him to let her appear as Lady Macbeth. The man laughed at her, but told her that, in consideration of her fine figure and black eyes, he would give her fifteen shillings a week to “walk on,” as he technically called the business of the ladies who wander on to the stage, sometimes dressed as villagers, sometimes in court costume of calico trimmed with gold, and stare vaguely at whatever may be taking place in the scene. From “walking on” Eliza came to play minor parts, indignantly refused by her superiors; from these she plunged ambitiously into the tragic lead, and thus, for nine years, pursued the even tenor of her way, until, close upon her nine-and-twentieth birthday, Fate threw the wealthy banker across her pathway, and in the parish church of a small town in the Potteries the black-eyed actress exchanged the name of Prodder for that of Floyd.
She had accepted the rich man partly because, moved by a sentiment of gratitude for the generous ardor of his affection, she was inclined to like him better than any one else she knew, and partly in accordance with the advice of her theatrical friends, who told her, with more candor than elegance, that she would be a jolly fool to let such a chance escape her; but at the time she gave her hand to Archibald Martin Floyd she had no idea whatever of the magnitude of the fortune he had invited her to share. He told her that he was a banker, and her active mind immediately evoked the image of the only banker’s wife she had ever known — a portly lady, who wore silk gowns, lived in a square, stuccoed house with green blinds, kept a cook and house-maid, and took three box tickets for Miss Percival’s benefit.
When, therefore, the doting husband loaded his handsome bride with diamond bracelets and necklaces, and with silks and brocades that were stiff and unmanageable from their very richness — when he carried her straight from the Potteries to the Isle of Wight, and lodged her in spacious apartments at the best hotel in Ryde, and flung his money here and there as if he had carried the lamp of Aladdin in his coat-pocket — Eliza remonstrated with her new master, fearing that his love had driven him mad, and that this alarming extravagance was the first outburst of insanity.
It seemed a repetition of the dear old Burleigh story when Archibald Floyd took his wife into the long picture-gallery at Felden Woods. She clasped her hands for frank, womanly joy, as she looked at the magnificence about her. She compared herself to the humble bride of the marquis, and fell on her knees, and did theatrical homage to her lord. “Oh, Archy,” she said, “it is all too good for me. I am afraid I shall die of my grandeur, as the poor girl pined away at Burleigh House.”
In the full maturity of womanly loveliness, rich in health, freshness, and high spirits, how little could Eliza dream that she would hold even a briefer lease of these costly splendors than the Bride of Burleigh had done before her.
Now the reader, being acquainted with Eliza’s antecedents, may perhaps find in them some clew to the insolent ease and well-bred audacity with which Mrs. Floyd treated the second-rate county families who were bent upon putting her to confusion. She was an actress; for nine years she had lived in that ideal world in which dukes and marquises are as common as butchers and bakers in work-a-day life, in which, indeed, a nobleman is generally a poor, mean-spirited individual, who gets the worst of it on every hand, and is contemptuously entreated by the audience on account of his rank. How should she be abashed on entering the drawing-rooms of these Kentish mansions, when for nine years she had walked nightly on to a stage to be the focus for every eye, and to entertain her guests the evening through? Was it likely she was to be overawed by the Lenfields, who were coach-builders in Park Lane, or the Miss Manderlys, whose father had made his money by a patent for starch — she, who had received King Duncan at the gates of her castle, and had sat on her throne dispensing condescending hospitality to the obsequious Thanes at Dunsinane? So, do what they would, they were unable to subdue this base intruder; while, to add to their mortification, it every day became more obvious that Mr. and Mrs. Floyd made one of the happiest couples who had ever worn the bonds of matrimony, and changed them into garlands of roses. If this were a very romantic story, it would be perhaps only proper for Eliza Floyd to pine in her gilded bower, and misapply her energies in weeping for some abandoned lover, deserted in an evil hour of ambitious madness. But as my story is a true one — not only true in a general sense, but strictly true as to the leading facts which I am about to relate — and as I could point out, in a certain county, far northward of the lovely Kentish woods, the very house in which the events I shall describe took place, I am bound also to be truthful here, and to set down as a fact that the love which Eliza Floyd bore for her husband was as pure and sincere an affection as ever man need hope to win from the generous heart of a good woman. What share gratitude may have had in that love I can not tell. If she lived in a handsome house, and was waited on by attentive and deferential servants; if she ate of delicate dishes, and drank costly wines; if she wore rich dresses and splendid jewels, and lolled on the downy cushions of a carriage, drawn by high-mettled horses, and driven by a coachman with powdered hair; if, wherever she went, all outward semblance of homage was paid to her; if she had but to utter a wish, and, swift as the stroke of some enchanter’s wand, that wish was gratified, she knew that she owed all to her husband, Archibald Floyd; and it may be that she grew, not unnaturally, to associate him with every advantage she enjoyed, and to love him for the sake of these things. Such a love as this may appear a low and despicable affection when compared to the noble sentiment entertained by the Nancys of modern romance for the Bill Sykeses of their choice; and no doubt Eliza Floyd ought to have felt a sovereign contempt for the man who watched her every whim, who gratified her every whim, and who loved and honored her as much, ci-devant provincial actress as she was, as he could have done had she descended the steps of the loftiest throne in Christendom to give him her hand.
She was grateful to him, she loved him, she made him perfectly happy — so happy that the strong-hearted Scotchman was sometimes almost panic stricken at the contemplation of his own prosperity, and would fall down on his knees and pray that this blessing might not be taken from him; that, if it pleased Providence to afflict him, he might be stripped of every shilling of his wealth, and left penniless, to begin the world anew — but with her. Alas! it was this blessing, of all others, that he was to lose.
For a year Eliza and her husband lived this happy life at Felden Woods. He wished to take her on the Continent, or to London for the season; but she could not bear to leave her lovely Kentish home. She was happier than the day was long among her gardens, and pineries, and graperies, her dogs and horses, and her poor. To these last she seemed an angel, descended from the skies to comfort them. There were cottages from which the prim daughters of the second-rate county families fled, tract in hand, discomfited and abashed by the black looks of the half-starved inmates, but upon whose doorways the shadow of Mrs. Floyd was as the shadow of a priest in a Catholic country — always sacred, yet ever welcome and familiar. She had the trick of making these people like her before she set to work to reform their evil habits. At an early stage of her acquaintance with them, she was as blind to the dirt and disorder of their cottages as she would have been to a shabby carpet in the drawing-room of a poor duchess; but by and by she would artfully hint at this and that little improvement in the ménages of her pensioners, until, in less than a month, without having either lectured or offended, she had worked an entire transformation. Mrs. Floyd was frightfully artful in her dealings with these erring peasants. Instead of telling them at once in a candid and Christian-like manner that they were all dirty, degraded, ungrateful, and irreligious, she diplomatized and finessed with them as if she had been canvassing the county. She made the girls regular in their attendance at church by means of new bonnets; she kept married men out of the public houses by bribes of tobacco to smoke at home, and once (oh, horror!) by the gift of a bottle of gin. She cured a dirty chimney-piece by the present of a gaudy china vase to its proprietress, and a slovenly hearth by means of a brass fender. She repaired a shrewish temper with a new gown, and patched up a family breach of long standing with a chintz waistcoat. But one brief year after her marriage — while busy landscape-gardeners were working at the improvements she had planned; while the steady process of reformation was slowly but surely progressing among the grateful recipients of her bounty; while the eager tongues of her detractors were still waging war upon her fair fame; while Archibald Floyd rejoiced as he held a baby-daughter in his arms — without one forewarning symptom to break the force of the blow, the light slowly faded out of those glorious eyes, never to shine again on this side of eternity, and Archibald Martin Floyd was a widower.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05