Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

At the Chateau D’arques.

John Mellish made himself entirely at home in the little Leamington circle after this interview with Mr. Floyd. No one could have been more tender in his manner, more respectful, untiring, and devoted, than was this rough Yorkshireman to the broken old man. Archibald must have been less than human had he not in somewise returned this devotion, and it is therefore scarcely to be wondered that he became very warmly attached to his daughter’s adorer. Had John Mellish been the most designing disciple of Machiavelli, instead of the most transparent and candid of living creatures, I scarcely think he could have adopted a truer means of making for himself a claim upon the gratitude of Aurora Floyd than by the affection he evinced for her father. And this affection was as genuine as all else in that simple nature. How could he do otherwise than love Aurora’s father? He was her father. He had a sublime claim upon the devotion of the man who loved her — who loved her as John loved — unreservedly, undoubtingly, childishly; with such blind, unquestioning love as an infant feels for its mother. There may be better women than that mother, perhaps, but who shall make the child believe so?

John Mellish could not argue with himself upon his passion as Talbot Bulstrode had done. He could not separate himself from his love, and reason with the mild madness. How could he divide himself from that which was himself — more than himself — a diviner self? He asked no questions about the past life of the woman he loved. He never sought to know the secret of Talbot’s departure from Felden. He saw her, beautiful, fascinating, perfect, and he accepted her as a great and wonderful fact, like the moon and the stars shining down on the rustic flower-beds and espaliered garden-walks in the balmy June nights.

So the tranquil days glided slowly and monotonously past that quiet circle. Aurora bore her silent burden — bore her trouble with a grand courage, peculiar to such rich organizations as her own, and none knew whether the serpent had been rooted from her breast, or had made for himself a permanent home in her heart. The banker’s most watchful care could not fathom the womanly mystery; but there were times when Archibald Floyd ventured to hope that his daughter was at peace, and Talbot Bulstrode wellnigh forgotten. In any case, it was wise to keep her away from Felden Woods; so Mr. Floyd proposed a tour through Normandy to his daughter and Mrs. Powell. Aurora consented, with a tender smile and gentle pressure of her father’s hand. She divined the old man’s motive, and recognized the all-watchful love which sought to carry her from the scene of her trouble. John Mellish, who was not invited to join the party, burst forth into such raptures at the proposal that it would have required considerable hardness of heart to have refused his escort. He knew every inch of Normandy, he said, and promised to be of infinite use to Mr. Floyd and his daughter; which, seeing that his knowledge of Normandy had been acquired in his attendance at the Dieppe steeple-chases, and that his acquaintance with the French language was very limited, seemed rather doubtful. But, for all this, he contrived to keep his word. He went up to town and hired an all-accomplished courier, who conducted the little party from town to village, from church to ruin, and who could always find relays of Normandy horses for the banker’s roomy travelling carriage. The little party travelled from place to place until pale gleams of color returned in transient flushes to Aurora’s cheeks. Grief is terribly selfish. I fear that Miss Floyd never took into consideration the havoc that might be going on in the great, honest heart of John Mellish. I dare say that if she had ever considered the matter, she would have thought that a broad-shouldered Yorkshireman of six feet two could never suffer seriously from such a passion as love. She grew accustomed to his society; accustomed to have his strong arm handy for her to lean upon when she grew tired; accustomed to his carrying her sketch-book, and shawls, and camp-stools; accustomed to be waited upon by him all day, and served faithfully by him at every turn; taking his homage as a thing of course, but making him superlatively and dangerously happy by her tacit acceptance of it.

September was half gone when they bent their way homeward, lingering for a few days at Dieppe, where the bathers were splashing about in semi-theatrical costume, and the Etablissement des Bains was all aflame with colored lanterns and noisy with nightly concerts.

The early autumnal days were glorious in their balmy beauty. The best part of a year had gone by since Talbot Bulstrode had bade Aurora that adieu which, in one sense at least, was to be eternal. They two, Aurora and Talbot, might meet again, it is true. They might meet, ay, and even be cordial and friendly together, and do each other good service in some dim time to come; but the two lovers who had parted in the little bay-windowed room at Felden Woods could never meet again. Between them there was death and the grave.

Perhaps some such thoughts as these had their place in the breast of Aurora Floyd as she sat with John Mellish at her side, looking down upon the varied landscape from the height upon which the ruined walls of the Chateau d’Arques still rear the proud memorials of a day that is dead. I don’t suppose that the banker’s daughter troubled herself much about Henry the Fourth, or any other dead and gone celebrity who may have left the impress of his name upon that spot. She felt a tranquil sense of the exquisite purity and softness of the air, the deep blue of the cloudless sky, the spreading woods and grassy plains, the orchards, where the trees were rosy with their plenteous burden, the tiny streamlets, the white villa-like cottages and struggling gardens, outspread in a fair panorama beneath her. Carried out of her sorrow by the sensuous rapture we derive from nature, and for the first time discovering in herself a vague sense of happiness, she began to wonder how it was she had outlived her grief by so many months.

She had never, during those weary months, heard of Talbot Bulstrode. Any change might have come to him without her knowledge. He might have married — might have chosen a prouder and worthier bride to share his lofty name. She might meet him on her return to England, with that happier woman leaning upon his arm. Would some good-natured friend tell the bride how Talbot had loved and wooed the banker’s daughter? Aurora found herself pitying this happier woman, who would, after all, win but the second love of that proud heart — the pale reflection of a sun that has set; the feeble glow of expiring embers when the great blaze has died out. They had made her a couch with shawls and carriage-rugs, outspread upon a rustic seat, for she was still far from strong, and she lay in the bright September sunshine, looking down at the fair landscape, and listening to the hum of beetles and the chirp of grasshoppers upon the smooth turf.

Her father had walked to some distance with Mrs. Powell, who explored every crevice and cranny of the ruins with the dutiful perseverance peculiar to commonplace people; but faithful John Mellish never stirred from her side. He was watching her musing face, trying to read its meaning — trying to gather a gleam of hope from some chance expression floating across it. Neither he nor she knew how long he had watched her thus, when, turning to speak to him about the landscape at her feet, she found him on his knees imploring her to have pity upon him, and to love him, or to let him love her, which was much the same.

“I don’t expect you to love me, Aurora,” he said, passionately; “how should you? What is there in a big, clumsy fellow like me to win your love? I don’t ask that. I only ask you to let me love you, to let me worship you, as the people we see kneeling in the churches here worship their saints. You won’t drive me away from you, will you, Aurora, because I presume to forget what you said to me that cruel day at Brighton? You would never have suffered me to stay with you so long, and to be so happy, if you had meant to drive me away at the last! You never could have been so cruel!”

Miss Floyd looked at him with a sudden terror in her face. What was this? What had she done? More wrong, more mischief! Was her life to be one of perpetual wrong-doing? Was she to be for ever bringing sorrow upon good people? Was this John Mellish to be another sufferer by her folly?

“Oh, forgive me!” she cried, “forgive me! I never thought —”

“You never thought that every day spent by your side must make the anguish of parting from you more cruelly bitter. Oh, Aurora, women should think of these things! Send me away from you, and what shall I be for the rest of my life? a broken man, fit for nothing better than the race-course and the betting-rooms; a reckless man, ready to go to the bad by any road that can take me there — worthless alike to myself and to others. You must have seen such men, Aurora; men whose unblemished youth promised an honorable manhood, but who break up all of a sudden, and go to ruin in a few years of mad dissipation. Nine times out of ten a woman is the cause of that sudden change. I lay my life at your feet, Aurora; I offer you more than my heart — I offer you my destiny. Do with it as you will.”

He rose in his agitation, and walked a few paces away from her. The grass-grown battlements sloped away from his feet; outer and inner moat lay below him, at the bottom of a steep declivity. What a convenient place for suicide, if Aurora should refuse to take pity upon him! The reader must allow that he had availed himself of considerable artifice in addressing Miss Floyd. His appeal had taken the form of an accusation rather than a prayer, and he had duly impressed upon this poor girl the responsibility she would incur in refusing him. And this, I take it, is a meanness of which men are often guilty in their dealings with the weaker sex.

Miss Floyd looked up at her lover with a quiet, half-mournful smile.

“Sit down there, Mr. Mellish,” she said, pointing to a camp-stool at her side.

John took the indicated seat, very much with the air of a prisoner in a criminal dock about to answer for his life.

“Shall I tell you a secret?” asked Aurora, looking compassionately at his pale face.

“A secret?”

“Yes; the secret of my parting with Talbot Bulstrode. It was not I who dismissed him from Felden; it was he who refused to fulfil his engagement with me.”

She spoke slowly, in a low voice, as if it were painful to her to say the words which told of so much humiliation.

“He did!” cried John Mellish, rising, red and furious, from his seat, eager to run to look for Talbot Bulstrode then and there, in order to inflict chastisement upon him.

“He did, John Mellish, and he was justified in doing so,” answered Aurora, gravely. “You would have done the same.”

“Oh, Aurora, Aurora!”

“You would. You are as good a man as he, and why should your sense of honor be less strong than his? A barrier arose between Talbot Bulstrode and me, and separated us for ever. That barrier was a secret.”

She told him of the missing year in her young life; how Talbot had called upon her for an explanation, and how she had refused to give it. John listened to her with a thoughtful face, which broke out into sunshine as she turned to him and said,

“How would you have acted in such a case, Mr. Mellish?”

“How should I have acted, Aurora? I should have trusted you. But I can give you a better answer to your question, Aurora. I can answer it by a renewal of the prayer I made you five minutes ago. Be my wife.”

“In spite of this secret?”

“In spite of a hundred secrets. I could not love you as I do, Aurora, if I did not believe you to be all that is best and purest in woman. I can not believe this one moment, and doubt you the next. I give my life and honor into your hands. I would not confide them to the woman whom I could insult by a doubt.”

His handsome Saxon face was radiant with love and trustfulness when he spoke. All his patient devotion, so long unheeded, or accepted as a thing of course, recurred to Aurora’s mind. Did he not deserve some reward, some requital, for all this? But there was one who was nearer and dearer to her, dearer than even Talbot Bulstrode had ever been, and that one was the white-haired old man pottering about among the ruins on the other side of the grassy platform.

“Does my father know of this, Mr. Mellish?” she asked.

“He does, Aurora. He has promised to accept me as his son; and Heaven knows I will try to deserve that name. Do not let me distress you, Aurora. The murder is out now. You know that I still love you, still hope. Let time do the rest.”

She held out both her hands to him with a tearful smile. He took those little hands in his own broad palms, and, bending down, kissed them reverently.

“You are right,” she said; “let time do the rest. You are worthy of the love of a better woman than me, John Mellish; but, with the help of Heaven, I will never give you cause to regret having trusted me.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50