Aurora’s aunts, uncles, and cousins were not slow to exclaim upon the change for the worse which a twelvemonth in Paris had made in their young kinswoman. I fear that the Demoiselles Lespard suffered considerably in reputation among the circle round Felden Woods from Miss Floyd’s impaired good looks. She was out of spirits too, had no appetite, slept badly, was nervous and hysterical, no longer took any interest in her dogs and horses, and was altogether an altered creature. Mrs. Alexander Floyd declared it was perfectly clear that these cruel Frenchwomen had worked poor Aurora to a shadow: the girl was not used to study, she said; she had been accustomed to exercise and open air, and no doubt pined sadly in the close atmosphere of a school-room.
But Aurora’s was one of those impressionable natures which quickly recover from any depressing influence. Early in September Lucy Floyd came to Felden Woods, and found her handsome cousin almost entirely recovered from the drudgery of the Parisian pension, but still very loath to talk much of that seminary. She answered Lucy’s eager questions very curtly; said that she hated the Demoiselles Lespard and the Rue Saint Dominique, and that the very memory of Paris was disagreeable to her. Like most young ladies with black eyes and blue-black hair, Miss Floyd was a good hater; so Lucy forbore to ask for more information upon what was so evidently an unpleasant subject to her cousin. Poor Lucy had been mercilessly well educated; she spoke half a dozen languages, knew all about the natural sciences, had read Gibbon, Niebuhr, and Arnold from the title-page to the printer’s name, and looked upon the heiress as a big brilliant dunce; so she quietly set down Aurora’s dislike to Paris to that young lady’s distate for tuition, and thought little more about it. Any other reasons for Miss Floyd’s almost shuddering horror of her Parisian associations lay far beyond Lucy’s simple power of penetration.
The fifteenth of September was Aurora’s birthday, and Archibald Floyd determined, upon this, the nineteenth anniversary of his daughter’s first appearance on this mortal scene, to give an entertainment, whereat his country neighbors and town acquaintance might alike behold and admire the beautiful heiress.
Mrs. Alexander came to Felden Woods to superintend the preparations for this birthday ball. She drove Aurora and Lucy into town to order the supper and the band, and to choose dresses and wreaths for the young ladies. The banker’s heiress was sadly out of place in a milliner’s show-room; but she had that rapid judgment as to color, and that perfect taste in form, which bespeak the soul of an artist; and while poor mild Lucy was giving endless trouble, and tumbling innumerable boxes of flowers, before she could find any head-dress in harmony with her rosy cheeks and golden hair, Aurora, after one brief glance at the bright parterres of painted cambric, pounced upon a crown-shaped garland of vivid scarlet berries, with drooping and tangled leaves of dark shining green, that looked as if they had been just plucked from a running streamlet. She watched Lucy’s perplexities with a half compassionate, half contemptuous smile.
“Look at that poor child, Aunt Lizzie,” she said; “I know that she would like to put pink and yellow against her golden hair. Why, you silly Lucy, don’t you know that yours is the beauty which really does not want adornment? A few pearls or forget-me-not blossoms, or a crown of water lilies and a cloud of white areophane, would make you look a sylphide; but I dare say you would like to wear amber satin and cabbage-roses.”
From the milliner’s they drove to Mr. Gunter’s in Berkeley Square, at which world-renowned establishment Mrs. Alexander commanded those preparations of turkeys preserved in jelly, hams cunningly embalmed in rich wines and broths, and other specimens of that sublime art of confectionery which hovers midway between sleight of hand and cookery, and in which the Berkeley Square professor is without a rival. When poor Thomas Babington Macaulay’s New Zealander shall come to ponder over the ruins of St. Paul’s, perhaps he will visit the remains of this humbler temple in Berkeley Square, and wonder at the ice-pails and jelly-moulds, and refrigerators and stewpans, the hot plates, long cold and unheeded, and all the mysterious paraphernalia of the dead art.
From the West End Mrs. Alexander drove to Charing Cross; she had a commission to execute at Dent’s — the purchase of a watch for one of her boys, who was just off to Eton.
Aurora threw herself wearily back in the carriage while her aunt and Lucy stopped at the watchmaker’s. It was to be observed that, although Miss Floyd had recovered much of her old brilliancy and gayety of temper, a certain gloomy shade would sometimes steal over her countenance when she was left to herself for a few minutes — a darkly reflective expression, quite foreign to her face. This shadow fell upon her beauty now as she looked out of the open window, moodily watching the passers-by. Mrs. Alexander was a long time making her purchase, and Aurora had sat nearly a quarter of an hour blankly staring at the shifting figures in the crowd, when a man hurrying by was attracted by her face at the carriage-window, and started, as if at some great surprise. He passed on, however, and walked rapidly toward the Horse Guards; but, before he turned the corner, came to a dead stop, stood still for two or three minutes scratching the back of his head reflectively with his big bare hand, and then walked slowly back toward Mr. Dent’s emporium. He was a broad-shouldered, bull-necked, sandy-whiskered fellow, wearing a cut-away coat and a gaudy neckerchief, and smoking a huge cigar, the rank fumes of which struggled with a very powerful odor of rum and water recently imbibed. This gentleman’s standing in society was betrayed by the smooth head of a bull-terrier, whose round eyes peeped out of the pocket of his cut-away coat, and by a Blenheim spaniel carried under his arm. He was the very last person, among all the souls between Cockspur street and the statue of King Charles, who seemed likely to have anything to say to Miss Aurora Floyd; nevertheless, he walked deliberately up to the carriage, and, planting his elbows upon the door, nodded to her with friendly familiarity.
“Well,” he said, without inconveniencing himself by the removal of the rank cigar, “how do?”
After which brief salutation he relapsed into silence, and rolled his great brown eyes slowly here and there, in contemplative examination of Miss Floyd and the vehicle in which she sat — even carrying his powers of observation so far as to take particular notice of a plethoric morocco bag lying on the back seat, and to inquire casually whether there was “anythink wallable in the old party’s redicule.”
But Aurora did not allow him long for this leisurely employment; for, looking at him with her eyes flashing forked lightnings of womanly fury, and her face crimson with indignation, she asked him, in a sharp, spasmodic tone, whether he had anything to say to her.
He had a great deal to say to her; but as he put his head in at the carriage-window and made his communication, whatever it might be, in a rum and watery whisper, it reached no ears but those of Aurora herself. When he had done whispering, he took a greasy, leather-covered account-book, and a short stump of lead pencil, considerably the worse for chewing, from his waistcoat-pocket, and wrote two or three lines upon a leaf, which he tore out and handed to Aurora. “This is the address,” he said; “you won’t forget to send?”
She shook her head, and looked away from him — looked away with an irrepressible gesture of disgust and loathing.
“You wouldn’t like to buy a spannel dawg,” said the man, holding the sleek, curly, black and tan animal up to the carriage-window, “or a French poodle what’ll balance a bit of bread on his nose while you count ten? Hey? You should have him a bargain — say fifteen pound the two.”
At this moment Mrs. Alexander emerged from the watchmaker’s, just in time to catch a glimpse of the man’s broad shoulders as he moved sulkily away from the carriage.
“Has that person been begging of you, Aurora?” she asked, as they drove off.
“No. I once bought a dog of him, and he recognized me.”
“And wanted you to buy one to-day?”
Miss Floyd sat gloomily silent during the whole of the homeward drive, looking out of the carriage-window, and not deigning to take any notice whatever of her aunt and cousin. I do not know whether it was in submission to that palpable superiority of force and vitality in Aurora’s nature which seemed to set her above her fellows, or simply in that inherent spirit of toadyism common to the best of us; but Mrs. Alexander and her fair-haired daughter always paid mute reverence to the banker’s heiress, and were silent when it pleased her, or conversed at her royal will. I verily believe that it was Aurora’s eyes rather than Archibald Martin Floyd’s thousands that overawed all her kinsfolk; and that if she had been a street-sweeper dressed in rags and begging for half-pence, people would have feared her and made way for her, and bated their breath when she was angry.
The trees in the long avenue of Felden Woods were hung with sparkling colored lamps, to light the guests who came to Aurora’s birthday festival. The long range of windows on the ground-floor was ablaze with light; the crash of the band burst every now and then above the perpetual roll of carriage-wheels, and the shouted repetition of visitors’ names, and pealed across the silent woods; through the long vista of half a dozen rooms opening one into another, the waters of a fountain, sparkling with a hundred hues in the light, glittered amid the dark floral wealth of a conservatory filled with exotics. Great clusters of tropical plants were grouped in the spacious hall; festoons of flowers hung about the vapory curtains in the arched door-ways. Light and splendor were everywhere around; and amid all, and more splendid than all, in the dark grandeur of her beauty, Aurora Floyd, crowned with scarlet and robed in white, stood by her father’s side.
Among the guests who arrive latest at Mr. Floyd’s ball are two officers from Windsor, who have driven across the country in a mail phaeton. The elder of these two, and the driver of the vehicle, has been very discontented and disagreeable throughout the journey.
“If I’d had the remotest idea of the distance, Maldon,” he said, “I’d have seen you and your Kentish banker very considerably inconvenienced before I would have consented to victimize my horse for the sake of this snobbish party.”
“But it won’t be a snobbish party,” answered the young man, impetuously. “Archibald Floyd is the best fellow in Christendom, and as for his daughter —”
“Oh, of course, a divinity, with fifty thousand pounds for her fortune, all of which will no doubt be very tightly settled upon herself if she is ever allowed to marry a penniless scapegrace like Francis Lewis Maldon, of her Majesty’s 11th Hussars. However, I don’t want to stand in your way, my boy. Go in and win, and my blessing be upon your virtuous endeavors. I can imagine the young Scotchwoman — red hair (of course you’ll call it auburn), large feet, and freckles!”
“Aurora Floyd — red hair and freckles!” The young officer laughed aloud at the stupendous joke. “You’ll see her in a quarter of an hour, Bulstrode,” he said.
Talbot Bulstrode, Captain of her Majesty’s 11th Hussars, had consented to drive his brother-officer from Windsor to Beckenham, and to array himself in his uniform, in order to adorn therewith the festival at Felden Woods, chiefly because, having at two-and-thirty years of age run through all the wealth of life’s excitements and amusements, and finding himself a penniless spendthrift in this species of coin, though well enough off for mere sordid riches, he was too tired of himself and the world to care much whither his friends and comrades led him. He was the eldest son of a wealthy Cornish baronet, whose ancestor had received his title straight from the hands of Scottish King James, when baronetcies first came into fashion; the same fortunate ancestor being near akin to a certain noble, erratic, unfortunate, and injured gentleman called Walter Raleigh, and by no means too well used by the same Scottish James. Now, of all the pride which ever swelled the breasts of mankind, the pride of Cornishmen is perhaps the strongest; and the Bulstrode family was one of the proudest in Cornwall. Talbot was no alien son of this haughty house; from his very babyhood he had been the proudest of mankind. This pride had been the saving power that had presided over his prosperous career. Other men might have made a downhill road of that smooth pathway which wealth and grandeur made so pleasant, but not Talbot Bulstrode. The vices and follies of the common herd were perhaps retrievable, but vice or folly in a Bulstrode would have left a blot upon a hitherto unblemished escutcheon never to be erased by time or tears. That pride of birth, which was utterly unallied to pride of wealth or station, had a certain noble and chivalrous side, and Talbot Bulstrode was beloved by many a parvenu whom meaner men would have insulted. In the ordinary affairs of life he was as humble as a woman or a child; it was only when Honor was in question that the sleeping dragon of pride which had guarded the golden apples of his youth, purity, probity, and truth, awoke and bade defiance to the enemy. At two-and-thirty he was still a bachelor, not because he had never loved, but because he had never met with a woman whose stainless purity of soul fitted her in his eyes to become the mother of a noble race, and to rear sons who should do honor to the name of Bulstrode. He looked for more than ordinary every-day virtue in the woman of his choice; he demanded those grand and queenly qualities which are rarest in woman-kind. Fearless truth, a sense of honor keen as his own, loyalty of purpose, unselfishness, a soul untainted by the petty baseness of daily life — all these he sought in the being he loved; and at the first warning thrill of emotion caused by a pair of beautiful eyes, he grew critical and captious about their owner, and began to look for infinitesimal stains upon the shining robe of her virginity. He would have married a beggar’s daughter if she had reached his almost impossible standard; he would have rejected the descendant of a race of kings if she had fallen one decimal part of an inch below it. Women feared Talbot Bulstrode; manoeuvring mothers shrank abashed from the cold light of those watchful gray eyes; daughters to marry blushed and trembled, and felt their pretty affectations, their ballroom properties, drop away from them under the quiet gaze of the young officer, till, from fearing him, the lovely flutterers grew to shun and dislike him, and to leave Bulstrode Castle and the Bulstrode fortune unangled for in the great matrimonial fisheries. So at two-and-thirty Talbot walked serenely safe amid the meshes and pitfalls of Belgravia, secure in the popular belief that Captain Bulstrode, of the 11th Hussars, was not a marrying man. This belief was perhaps strengthened by the fact that the Cornishman was by no means the elegant ignoramus whose sole accomplishment consist in parting his hair, waxing his mustaches, and smoking a meerschaum that has been colored by his valet, and who has become the accepted type of the military man in time of peace.
Talbot Bulstrode was fond of scientific pursuits; he neither smoked, drank, nor gambled. He had only been to the Derby once in his life, and on that one occasion had walked quietly away from the stand while the great race was being run, and the white faces were turned toward the fatal corner, and men were sick with terror and anxiety, and frenzied with the madness of suspense. He never hunted, though he rode like Colonel Asheton Smith. He was a perfect swordsman, and one of Mr. Angelo’s pet pupils, a favorite lounger in the gallery of that simple-hearted, honorable-minded gentleman; but he had never handled a billiard-cue in his life, nor had he touched a card since the days of his boyhood, when he took a hand at long whist with his father, and mother, and the parson of the parish, in the south drawing-room at Bulstrode Castle. He had a peculiar aversion to all games of chance and skill, contending that it was beneath a gentleman to employ, even for amusement, the implements of the sharper’s pitiful trade. His rooms were as neatly kept as those of a woman. Cases of mathematical instruments took the place of cigar-boxes; proof impressions of Raphael adorned the walls ordinarily covered with French prints, and water-colored sporting sketches from Ackermann’s emporium. He was familiar with every turn of expression in Descartes and Condillac, but would have been sorely puzzled to translate the argotic locutions of Monsieur de Kock, père. Those who spoke of him summed him up by saying that he wasn’t a bit like an officer; but there was a certain regiment of foot, which he had commanded when the heights of Inkermann were won, whose ranks told another story of Captain Bulstrode. He had made an exchange into the 11th Hussars on his return from the Crimea, whence, among other distinctions, he had brought a stiff leg, which for a time disqualified him from dancing. It was from pure benevolence, therefore, or from that indifference to all things which is easily mistaken for unselfishness, that Talbot Bulstrode had consented to accept an invitation to the ball at Felden Woods.
The banker’s guests were not of that charmed circle familiar to the Captain of Hussars; so Talbot, after a brief introduction to his host, fell back among the crowd assembled in one of the doorways, and quietly watched the dancers; not unobserved himself, however, for he was just one of those people who will not pass in a crowd. Tall and broad-chested, with a pale, whiskerless face, aquiline nose, clear, cold gray eyes, thick mustache, and black hair, worn as closely cropped as if he had lately emerged from Coldbath Fields or Millbank prison, he formed a striking contrast to the yellow-whiskered young ensign who had accompanied him. Even that stiff leg, which in others might have seemed a blemish, added to the distinction of his appearance, and, coupled with the glittering orders on the breast of his uniform, told of deeds of prowess lately done. He took very little delight in the gay assembly revolving before him to one of Charles d’Albert’s waltzes. He had heard the same music before, executed by the same band; the faces, though unfamiliar to him, were not new: dark beauties in pink, fair beauties in blue; tall, dashing beauties in silks, and laces, and jewels, and splendor; modestly downcast beauties in white crape and rose-buds. They had all been spread for him, those familiar nets of gauze and areophane, and he had escaped them all; and the name of Bulstrode might drop out of the history of Cornish gentry to find no record save upon gravestones, but it would never be tarnished by an unworthy race, or dragged through the mire of a divorce court by a guilty woman. While he lounged against the pillar of a doorway, leaning on his cane, and resting his lame leg, and wondering lazily whether there was anything upon earth that repaid a man for the trouble of living, Ensign Maldon approached him with a woman’s gloved hand lying lightly on his arm, and a divinity walking by his side. A divinity! imperiously beautiful in white and scarlet, painfully dazzling to look upon, intoxicatingly brilliant to behold. Captain Bulstrode had served in India, and had once tasted a horrible spirit called bang, which made the men who drank it half-mad; and he could not help fancying that the beauty of this woman was like the strength of that alcoholic preparation — barbarous, intoxicating, dangerous, and maddening.
His brother-officer presented him to this wonderful creature, and he found that her earthly name was Aurora Floyd, and that she was the heiress of Felden Woods.
Talbot Bulstrode recovered himself in a moment. This imperious creature, this Cleopatra in crinoline, had a low forehead, a nose that deviated from the line of beauty, and a wide mouth. What was she but another trap set in white muslin, and baited with artificial flowers, like the rest? She was to have fifty thousand pounds for her portion, so she didn’t want a rich husband; but she was a nobody, so of course she wanted position, and had no doubt read up the Raleigh Bulstrodes in the sublime pages of Burke. The clear gray eyes grew cold as ever, therefore, as Talbot bowed to the heiress. Mr. Maldon found his partner a chair close to the pillar against which Captain Bulstrode had taken his stand; and Mrs. Alexander Floyd swooping down upon the ensign at this very moment, with the dire intent of carrying him off to dance with a lady who executed more of her steps upon the toes of her partner than on the floor of the ball-room, Aurora and Talbot were left to themselves.
Captain Bulstrode glanced downward at the banker’s daughter. His gaze lingered upon the graceful head, with its coronal of shining scarlet berries encircling smooth masses of blue-black hair. He expected to see the modest drooping of the eyelids peculiar to young ladies with long lashes, but he was disappointed; for Aurora Floyd was looking straight before her, neither at him, nor at the lights, nor the flowers, nor the dancers, but far away into vacancy. She was so young, prosperous, admired, and beloved, that it was difficult to account for the dim shadow of trouble that clouded her glorious eyes.
While he was wondering what he should say to her, she lifted her eyes to his face, and asked him the strangest question he had ever heard from girlish lips.
“Do you know if Thunderbolt won the Leger?” she asked.
He was too much confounded to answer for a moment, and she continued rather impatiently, “They must have heard by six o’clock this evening in London; but I have asked half a dozen people here to-night, and no one seems to know anything about it.”
Talbot’s close-cropped hair seemed lifted from his head as he listened to this terrible address. Good heavens! what a horrible woman! The hussar’s vivid imagination pictured the heir of all the Raleigh Bulstrodes receiving his infantine impressions from such a mother. She would teach him to read out of the Racing Calendar; she would invent a royal alphabet of the turf, and tell him that “D stands for Derby, old England’s great race,” and “E stands for Epsom, a crack meeting-place,” etc. He told Miss Floyd that he had never been to Doncaster in his life, that he had never read a sporting paper, and that he knew no more of Thunderbolt than of King Cheops.
She looked at him rather contemptuously. “Cheops wasn’t much,” she said; “but he won the Liverpool Autumn Cup in Blink Bonny’s year.”
Talbot Bulstrode shuddered afresh; but a feeling of pity mingled with his horror. “If I had a sister,” he thought, “I would get her to talk to this miserable girl, and bring her to a sense of her iniquity.”
Aurora said no more to the Captain of Hussars, but relapsed into the old far-away gaze into vacancy, and sat twisting a bracelet round and round upon her finely-modelled wrist. It was a diamond bracelet, worth a couple of hundred pounds, which had been given her that day by her father. He would have invested all his fortune in Messrs. Hunt and Roskell’s cunning handiwork if Aurora had sighed for gems and gewgaws. Miss Floyd’s glance fell upon the glittering ornament, and she looked at it long and earnestly, rather as if she were calculating the value of the stones than admiring the taste of the workmanship.
While Talbot was watching her, full of wondering pity and horror, a young man hurried up to the spot where she was seated, and reminded her of an engagement for the quadrille that was forming. She looked at her tablets of ivory, gold, and turquoise, and with a certain disdainful weariness rose and took his arm. Talbot followed her receding form. Taller than most among the throng, her queenly head was not soon lost sight of.
“A Cleopatra with a snub nose two sizes too small for her face, and a taste for horse-flesh!” said Talbot Bulstrode, ruminating upon the departed divinity. “She ought to carry a betting-book instead of those ivory tablets. How distraite she was all the time she sat here! I dare say she has made a book for the Leger, and was calculating how much she stands to lose. What will this poor old banker do with her? put her into a mad-house, or get her elected a member of the jockey club? With her black eyes and fifty thousand pounds, she might lead the sporting world. There has been a female pope, why should there not be a female ‘Napoleon of the Turf?’”
Later, when the rustling leaves of the trees in Beckenham Woods were shivering in that cold gray hour which precedes the advent of the dawn. Talbot Bulstrode drove his friend away from the banker’s lighted mansion. He talked of Aurora Floyd during the whole of that long cross-country drive. He was merciless to her follies; he ridiculed, he abused, he sneered at and condemned her questionable taste. He bade Francis Louis Maldon marry her at his peril, and wished him joy of such a wife. He declared that if he had such a sister he would shoot her, unless she reformed and burnt her betting-book. He worked himself up into a savage humor about the young lady’s delinquencies, and talked of her as if she had done him an unpardonable injury by entertaining a taste for the turf; till at last the poor meek young ensign plucked up a spirit, and told his superior officer that Aurora Floyd was a very jolly girl, and a good girl, and a perfect lady, and that if she did want to know who won the Leger, it was no business of Captain Bulstrode’s, and that he, Bulstrode, needn’t make such a howling about it.
While the two men are getting to high words about her, Aurora is seated in her dressing-room, listening to Lucy Floyd’s babble about the ball.
“There was never such a delightful party,” that young lady said; “and did Aurora see so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so? and above all, did she observe Captain Bulstrode, who had served all through the Crimean war, and who walked lame, and was the son of Sir John Walter Raleigh Bulstrode, of Bulstrode Castle, near Camelford?”
Aurora shook her head with a weary gesture. No, she hadn’t noticed any of these people. Poor Lucy’s childish talk was stopped in a moment.
“You are tired, Aurora dear,” she said; “how cruel I am to worry you!”
Aurora threw her arms about her cousin’s neck, and hid her face upon Lucy’s white shoulder.
“I am tired,” she said, “very, very tired.”
She spoke with such an utterly despairing weariness in her tone, that her gentle cousin was alarmed by her words.
“You are not unhappy, dear Aurora?” she asked, anxiously.
“No, no, only tired. There, go, Lucy. Good-night, good-night.”
She gently pushed her cousin from the room, rejected the services of her maid, and dismissed her also. Then, tired as she was, she removed the candle from the dressing-table to a desk on the other side of the room, and, seating herself at this desk, unlocked it and took from one of its inmost recesses the soiled pencil scrawl which had been given her a week before by the man who tried to sell her a dog in Cockspur street.
The diamond bracelet, Archibald Floyd’s birthday gift to his daughter, lay in its nest of satin and velvet upon Aurora’s dressing-table. She took the morocco case in her hand, looked for a few moments at the jewel, and then shut the lid of the little casket with a sharp metallic snap.
“The tears were in my father’s eyes when he clapsed the bracelet on my arm,” she said, as she reseated herself at the desk. “If he could see me now!”
She wrapped the case in a sheet of foolscap, secured the parcel in several places with red wax and a plain seal, and directed it thus:
Care of Mr. Joseph Green,
Early the next morning Miss Floyd drove her aunt and cousin into Croydon, and, leaving them at a Berlin wool-shop, went alone to the post-office, where she registered and posted this valuable parcel.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50