Aurora Floyd, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 20

Captain Prodder.

While the Doncaster express was carrying Mr. and Mrs. Mellish northward, another express journeyed from Liverpool to London with its load of passengers.

Among these passengers there was a certain broad-shouldered and rather bull-necked individual, who attracted considerable attention during the journey, and was an object of some interest to his fellow-travellers and the railway officials at the two or three stations where the train stopped.

He was a man of about fifty years of age, but his years were worn very lightly, and only recorded by some wandering streaks and patches of gray among his thick blue-black stubble of hair. His complexion, naturally dark, had become of such a bronzed and coppery tint by perpetual exposure to meridian suns, tropical hot winds, the fiery breath of the simoon, and the many other inconveniences attendant upon an out-door life, as to cause him to be frequently mistaken for the inhabitant of some one of those countries in which the complexion of the natives fluctuates between burnt sienna, Indian red, and Vandyke brown. But it was rarely long before he took an opportunity to rectify this mistake, and to express that hearty contempt and aversion for all furriners which is natural to the unspoiled and unsophisticated Briton.

Upon this particular occasion he had not been half an hour in the society of his fellow-passengers before he had informed them that he was a native of Liverpool, and the captain of a merchant vessel, trading, in a manner of speaking, he said, everywhere; that he had run away from his father and his home at a very early period of his life, and had shifted for himself in different parts of the globe ever since; that his Christian name was Samuel, and his surname Prodder, and that his father had been, like himself, a captain in the merchant service. He chewed so much tobacco, and drank so much fiery Jamaica rum from a pocket-pistol in the intervals of his conversation, that the first-class compartment in which he sat was odorous with the compound perfume. But he was such a hearty, loud-spoken fellow, and there was such a pleasant twinkle in his black eyes, that the passengers (with the exception of one crusty old lady) treated him with great good-humor, and listened very patiently to his talk.

“Chewin’ a’n’t smokin,’ you know, is it?” he said, with a great guffaw, as he cut himself a terrible block of Cavendish; “and railway companies a’n’t got any laws against that. They can put a fellow’s pipe out, but he can chew his quid in their faces; though I won’t say which is wust for their carpets, neither.”

I am sorry to be compelled to confess that this brown-visaged merchant-captain, who said wust and chewed Cavendish tobacco, was uncle to Mrs. John Mellish, of Mellish Park; and that the motive for this very journey was neither more nor less than his desire to become acquainted with his niece.

He imparted this fact — as well as much other information relating to himself, his tastes, habits, adventures, opinions, and sentiments — to his travelling companions in the course of the journey.

“Do you know for why I’m going to London by this identical train?” he asked generally, as the passengers settled themselves into their places after taking refreshment at Rugby.

The gentlemen looked over their newspapers at the talkative sailor, and a young lady looked up from her book, but nobody volunteered to speculate an opinion upon the mainspring of Mr. Prodder’s actions.

“I’ll tell you for why,” resumed the merchant-captain, addressing the assembly as if in answer to their eager questioning. “I’m going to see my niece, which I have never seen before. When I ran away from father’s ship, the Ventur’some, nigh upon forty years ago, and went aboard the craft of a captain by the name of Mobley, which was a good master to me for many a day, I had a little sister as I had left behind at Liverpool, which was dearer to me than my life.” He paused to refresh himself with rather a demonstrative sip from the pocket-pistol. “But if you,“ he continued generally, “if you had a father that’d fetch you a clout of the head as soon as look at you, you’d run away, perhaps, and so did I. I took the opportunity to be missin’ one night as father was settin’ sail from Yarmouth Harbor; and, not settin’ that wonderful store by me which some folks do by their only sons, he shipped his anchor without stoppin’ to ask many questions, and left me hidin’ in one of the little alleys which cut the town of Yarmouth through and across like they cut the cakes they make there. There was many in Yarmouth that knew me, and there was n’t one that did n’t say, ‘Sarve him right,’ when they heard how I’d given father the slip, and the next day Cap’en Mobley gave me a berth as cabin-boy about the Mariar Anne.

Mr. Prodder again paused to partake of refreshment from his portable spirit store, and this time politely handed the pocket-pistol to the company.

“Now, perhaps you’ll not believe me,” he resumed, after his friendly offer had been refused, and the wicker-covered vessel replaced in his capacious pocket —“you won’t perhaps believe me when I tell you, as I tell you candid, that up to last Saturday week I never could find the time nor the opportunity to go back to Liverpool, and ask after the little sister that I’d left no higher than the kitchen-table, and that had cried fit to break her poor little heart when I went away. But whether you believe it or whether you don’t, it’s as true as gospel,” cried the sailor, thumping his ponderous fist upon the padded elbow of the compartment in which he sat; “it’s as true as gospel. I’ve coasted America, North and South. I’ve carried West-Indian goods to the East Indies, and East-Indian goods to the West Indies. I’ve traded in Norwegian goods between Norway and Hull. I’ve carried Sheffield goods from Hull to South America. I’ve traded between all manner of countries and all manner of docks; but somehow or other I’ve never had the time to spare to go on shore at Liverpool, and find out the narrow little street in which I left my sister Eliza, no higher than the table, more than forty years ago, until last Saturday was a week. Last Saturday was a week I touched at Liverpool with a cargo of furs and poll-parrots — what you may call fancy goods; and I said to my mate, I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Jack; I’ll go ashore and see my little sister Eliza.’ ”

He paused once more, and a softening change came over the brightness of his black eyes. This time he did not apply himself to the pocket-pistol. This time he brushed the back of his brown hand across his eye-lashes, and brought it away with a drop or two of moisture glittering upon the bronzed skin. Even his voice was changed when he continued, and had mellowed to a richer and more mournful depth, until it very much resembled the melodious utterance which twenty-one years before had assisted to render Miss Eliza Percival the popular tragedian of the Preston and Bradford circuit.

“God forgive me,” continued the sailor, in that altered voice; “but throughout my voyages I’d never thought of my sister Eliza but in two ways — sometimes one, sometimes t’other. One way of thinking of her, and expecting to see her, was as the little sister that I’d left, not altered by so much as one lock of her hair being changed from the identical curl into which it was twisted the morning she cried and clung about me on board the Ventur’some, having come aboard to wish father and me good-by. Perhaps I oftenest thought of her in this way. Anyhow, it was in this way, and no other, that I always saw her in my dreams. The other way of thinking of her, and expectin’ to see her, was as a handsome, full-grown, buxom married woman, with a troop of saucy children hanging on to her apron-string, and every one of ’em askin’ what Uncle Samuel had brought ’em from foreign parts. Of course this fancy was the most rational of the two; but the other fancy, of the little child with the long, black, curly hair, would come to me very often, especially at night, when all was quiet aboard, and when I took the wheel in a spell while the helmsman turned in. Lord bless you, ladies and gentlemen, many a time of a starlight night, when we’ve been in them latitudes where the stars are brighter than common. I’ve seen the floating mists upon the water take the very shape of that light figure of a little girl in a white pinafore, and come skipping toward me across the waves. I don’t mean that I’ve seen a ghost, you know, but I mean that I could have seen one if I’d had the mind, and that I’ve seen as much of a one as folks ever do see upon this earth — the ghosts of their own memories and their own sorrows, mixed up with the mists of the sea or the shadows of the trees wavin’ back’ard and for’ard in the moonlight, or a white curtain agen a window, or something of that sort. Well, I was such a precious old fool with these fancies and fantigs”— Mr. Samuel Prodder seemed rather to pride himself upon the latter word, as something out of the common —“that when I went ashore at Liverpool last Saturday was a week, I could n’t keep my eyes off the little girls in white pinafores as passed me by in the streets, thinkin’ to see my Eliza skippin’ along, with her black curls flyin’ in the wind, and a bit of chalk, to play hop-scotch with, in her hand; so I was obliged to say to myself, quite serious, ‘Now, Samuel Prodder, the little girl you’re a lookin’ for must be fifty years of age, if she’s a day, and it’s more than likely that she’s left off playin’ hop-scotch and wearin’ white pinafores by this time.’ If I had n’t kept repeatin’ this, internally like, all the way I went, I should have stopped half the little girls in Liverpool to ask ’em if their name was Eliza, and if they’d ever had a brother as ran away and was lost. I had only one thought of how to set about findin’ her, and that was to walk straight to the back street in which I remembered leavin’ her forty years before. I’d no thought that those forty years could make any more change than to change her from a girl to a woman, and it seemed almost strange to me that they could make as much change as that. There was one thing I never thought of; and if my heart beat loud and quick when I knocked at the little front door of the very identical house in which we’d lodged, it was with nothing but hope and joy. The forty years that had sent railways spinning all over England had n’t made much difference in the old house; it was forty years dirtier, perhaps, and forty years shabbier, and it stood in the very heart of the town instead of on the edge of the open country; but, exceptin’ that, it was pretty much the same; and I expected to see the same landlady come to open the door, with the same dirty artificial flowers in her cap, and the same old slippers down at heel scrapin’ after her along the bit of oil-cloth. It gave me a kind of a turn when I did n’t see this identical landlady, though she’d have been turned a hundred years old if she’d been alive; and I might have prepared myself for the disappointment if I’d thought of that, but I had n’t; and when the door was opened by a young woman with sandy hair, brushed backward as if she’d been a Chinese, and no eyebrows to speak of, I did feel disappointed. The young woman had a baby in her arms — a black-eyed baby, with its eyes opened so wide that it seemed as if it had been very much surprised with the look of things on first comin’ into the world, and had n’t quite recovered itself yet; so I thought to myself, as soon as I clapped eyes on the little one, why, as sure as a gun, that’s my sister Eliza’s baby, and my sister Eliza’s married, and lives here still. But the young woman had never heard the name of Prodder, and did n’t think there was anybody in the neighborhood as ever had. I felt my heart, which had been beatin’ louder and quicker every minute, stop all of a sudden when she said this, and seem to drop down like a dead weight; but I thanked her for her civil answers to my questions, and went on to the next house to inquire there. I might have saved myself the trouble, for I made the same inquiries at every house on each side of the street, going straight from door to door, till the people thought I was a sea-farin’ tax-gatherer; but nobody had ever heard the name of Prodder, and the oldest inhabitant in the street had n’t lived there ten years. I was quite disheartened when I left the neighborhood, which had once been so familiar, and which seemed so strange, and small, and mean, and shabby now. I’d had so little thought of failing to find Eliza in the very house in which I’d left her, that I’d made no plans beyond. So I was brought to a dead stop; and I went back to the tavern where I’d left my carpet-bag, and I had a chop brought me for my dinner, and I sat with my knife and fork before me thinkin’ what I was to do next. When Eliza and I had parted, forty years before, I remembered father leaving her in charge of a sister of my mother’s (my poor mother had been dead a year), and I thought to myself, the only chance there is left for me now is to find Aunt Sarah.”

By the time Mr. Prodder arrived at this stage of his narrative his listeners had dropped off gradually, the gentlemen returning to their newspapers, and the young lady to her book, until the merchant-captain found himself reduced to communicate his adventures to one good-natured looking young fellow, who seemed interested in the brown-faced sailor, and encouraged him every now and then with an assenting nod or a friendly “Ay, ay, to be sure.”

“The only chance I can see, ses I,” continued Mr. Prodder, “is to find Aunt Sarah. I found Aunt Sarah. She’d been keepin’ a shop in the general line when I went away forty years ago, and she was keepin’ the same shop in the general line when I came back last Saturday week; and there was the same fly-blown handbills of ships that was to sail immediate, and that had sailed two years ago, accordin’ to the date upon the bills; and the same wooden sugar-loaves wrapped up in white paper; and the same lattice-work gate, with a bell that rang as loud as if it was meant to give the alarm to all Liverpool as well as to my Aunt Sarah in the parlor behind the shop. The poor old soul was standing behind the counter, serving two ounces of tea to a customer when I went in. Forty years had made so much change in her that I should n’t have known her if I had n’t known the shop. She wore black curls upon her forehead, and a brooch like a brass butterfly in the middle of the curls, where the parting ought to have been; and she wore a beard; and the curls were false, but the beard was n’t; and her voice was very deep, and rather manly, and she seemed to me to have grown manly altogether in the forty years that I’d been away. She tied up the two ounces of tea, and then asked me what I pleased to want. I told her that I was little Sam, and that I wanted my sister Eliza.”

The merchant-captain paused and looked out of the window for upward of five minutes before he resumed his story. When he did resume it, he spoke in a very low voice, and in short, detached sentences, as if he could n’t trust himself with long ones, for fear he should break down in the middle of them.

“Eliza had been dead one-and-twenty years. Aunt Sarah told me all about it. She’d tried the artificial flower-makin’, and she had n’t liked it. And she turned play-actress. And when she was nine-and-twenty she’d married — she’d married a gentleman that had no end of money, and she’d gone to live at a fine place somewhere in Kent. I’ve got the name of it wrote down in my memorandum-book. But she’d been a good and generous friend to Aunt Sarah; and Aunt Sarah was to have gone to Kent to see her, and to stop all the summer with her. But while aunt was getting ready to go for that very visit, my sister Eliza died, leaving a daughter behind her, which is the niece that I’m going to see. I sat down upon the three-legged wooden stool against the counter, and hid my face in my hands; and I thought of the little girl that I’d seen playin’ at hopscotch forty years before, until I thought my heart would burst; but I did n’t shed a tear. Aunt Sarah took a big brooch out of her collar, and showed me a ring of black hair behind a bit of glass, with a gold frame round it. ‘Mr. Floyd had this brooch made a purpose for me,’ she said; ‘he has always been a liberal gentleman to me, and he comes down to Liverpool once in two or three years, and takes tea with me in yon back parlor; and I’ve no call to keep a shop, for he allows me a handsome income; but I should die of the mopes if it was n’t for the business.’ There was Eliza’s name and the date of her death engraved upon the back of the brooch. I tried to remember where I’d been, and what I’d been doing that year. But I could n’t, sir. All the life that I looked back upon seemed muddled and mixed up, like a dream; and I could only think of the little sister I’d said good-by to aboard the Ventur’some forty years before. I got round by little and little, and I was able half an hour afterward to listen to Aunt Sarah’s talk. She was nigh upon seventy, poor old soul, and she’d always been a good one to talk. She asked me if it was n’t a great thing for the family that Eliza had made such a match; and if I was n’t proud to think that my niece was a young heiress, that spoke all manner of languages, and rode in her own carriage; and if that ought n’t to be a consolation to me? But I told her that I’d rather have found my sister married to the poorest man iu Liverpool, and alive and well, to bid me welcome back to my native town. Aunt Sarah said if those were my religious opinions, she did n’t know what to say to me. And she showed me a picture of Eliza’s tomb in Beckenham church-yard, that had been painted expressly for her by Mr. Floyd’s orders. Floyd was the name of Eliza’s husband. And then she showed me a picture of Miss Floyd, the heiress, at the age of ten, which was the image of Eliza, all but the pinafore; and it’s that very Miss Floyd that I’m going to see.”

“And I dare say,” said the kind listener, “that Miss Floyd will be very much pleased to see her sailor uncle.”

“Well, sir, I think she will,” answered the captain. “I don’t say it from any pride I take in myself, Lord knows; for I know I’m a rough and ready sort of a chap, that ‘ud be no great ornament in a young lady’s drawing-room; but if Eliza’s daughter’s anything like Eliza, I know what she’ll say and what she’ll do as well as if I see her saying it and doing it. She’ll clap her pretty little hands together, and she’ll clasp her arms round my neck, and she’ll say, ‘Lor, uncle, I am so glad to see you.’ And when I tell her that I was her mother’s only brother, and that me and her mother was very fond of one another, she’ll burst out a cryin’, and she’ll hide her pretty face upon my shoulder, and she’ll sob as if her dear little heart was going to break for love of the mother that she never saw. That’s what she’ll do,” said Captain Prodder, “and I don’t think the truest born lady that ever was could do any better.”

The good-natured traveller heard a good deal more from the captain of his plans for going to Beckenham to claim his niece’s affections, in spite of all the fathers in the world.

“Mr. Floyd’s a good man, I dare say, sir,” he said; “but he’s kept his daughter apart from her aunt Sarah, and it’s but likely he’ll try to keep her from me. But if he does, he’ll find he’s got a toughish customer to deal with in Captain Samuel Prodder.”

The merchant-captain reached Beckenham as the evening shadows were deepening among the Felden oaks and beeches, and the long rays of red sunshine fading slowly out in the low sky. He drove up to the old red-brick mansion in a hired fly, and presented himself at the hall-door just as Mr. Floyd was leaving the dining-room to finish the evening in his lonely study.

The banker paused to glance with some slight surprise at the loosely-clad, weather-beaten looking figure of the sailor, and mechanically put his hand among the gold and silver in his pocket. He thought the seafaring man had come to present some petition for himself and his comrades. A life-boat was wanted somewhere on the Kentish coast, perhaps, and this good-tempered looking, bronze-colored man had come to collect funds for the charitable work.

He was thinking this, when, in reply to the town-bred footman’s question, the sailor uttered the name of Prodder; and in the one moment of its utterance his thoughts flew back over one-and-twenty years, and he was madly in love with a beautiful actress, who owned blushingly to that plebeian cognomen. The banker’s voice was faint and husky as he turned to the captain and bade him welcome to Felden Woods.

“Step this way, Mr. Prodder,” he said, pointing to the open door of the study. “I am very glad to see you. I— I— have often heard of you. You are my dead wife’s runaway brother.”

Even amid his sorrowful recollection of that brief happiness of the past, some natural alloy of pride had its part, and he closed the study-door carefully before he said this.

“God bless you, sir,” he said, holding out his hand to the sailor. “I see I am right. Your eyes are like Eliza’s. You and yours will always be welcome beneath my roof. Yes, Samuel Prodder — you see I know your Christian name — and when I die you will find that you have not been forgotten.”

The captain thanked his brother-in-law heartily, and told him that he neither asked nor wished for anything except permission to see his niece, Aurora Floyd.

As he made this request, he looked toward the door of the little room, evidently expecting that the heiress might enter at any moment. He looked terribly disappointed when the banker told him that Aurora was married, and lived near Doncaster; but that, if he had happened to come ten hours earlier, he would have found her at Felden Woods.

Ah! who has not heard those common words? Who has not been told that, if they had come sooner, or gone earlier, or hurried their pace, or slackened it, or done something that they have not done, the whole course of life would have been otherwise? Who has not looked back regretfully at the past, which, differently fashioned, would have made the present other than it is? We think it hard that we can not take the fabric of our life to pieces, as a mantua-maker unpicks her work, and make up the stuff another way. How much waste we might save in the cloth, how much better a shape we might make the garment, if we only had the right to use our scissors and needle again, and refashion the past by the experience of the present.

“To think, now, that I should have been comin’ yesterday!” exclaimed the captain, “but put off my journey because it was a Friday! If I’d only knowed!”

Of course, Captain Prodder, if you had only known what it was not given you to know, you would, no doubt, have acted more prudently; and so would many other people. If Mr. William Palmer had known that detection was to dog the footsteps of crime, and the gallows to follow at the heels of detection, he would most likely have hesitated long before he mixed the strychnine pills for the friend whom, with cordial voice, he was entreating to be of good cheer. If the speculators upon this year’s Derby had known that Caractacus was to be the winner, they would scarcely have hazarded their money upon Buckstone and the Marquis. We spend the best part of our lives in making mistakes, and the poor remainder in reflecting how very easily we might have avoided them.

Mr. Floyd explained, rather lamely perhaps, how it was that the Liverpool spinster had never been informed of her grand-niece’s marriage with Mr. John Mellish; and the merchant-captain announced his intention of starting for Doncaster early the next morning.

“Don’t think that I want to intrude upon your daughter, sir,” he said, as if perfectly acquainted with the banker’s nervous dread of such a visit. “I know her station’s high above me, though she’s my own sister’s only child; and I make no doubt that those about her would be ready enough to turn up their noses at a poor old salt that has been tossed and tumbled about in every variety of weather for this forty year. I only want to see her once in a way, and to hear her say, perhaps, ‘Lor, uncle, what a rum old chap you are!’ There!” exclaimed Samuel Prodder, suddenly, “I think, if I could only once hear her call me uncle, I could go back to sea and die happy, though I never came ashore again.”

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