- Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The child which Eliza Floyd left behind her, when she was so suddenly taken away from all earthly prosperity and happiness, was christened Aurora.* The romantic-sounding name had been a fancy of poor Eliza’s; and there was no caprice of hers, however trifling, that had not always been sacred with her adoring husband, and that was not doubly sacred now. The actual intensity of the widower’s grief was known to no creature in this lower world. His nephews and his nephews’ wives paid him pertinacious visits of condolence; nay, one of these nieces by marriage, a good motherly creature, devoted to her husband, insisted on seeing and comforting the stricken man. Heaven only knows whether her tenderness did convey any comfort to that shipwrecked soul! She found him like a man who had suffered from a stroke of paralysis, torpid, almost imbecile. Perhaps she took the wisest course that could possibly have been taken. She said little to him upon the subject of his affliction; but she visited him frequently, patiently sitting opposite to him for p. 19↵hours at a time, he and she talking of all manner of easy conventional topics,—the state of the country, the weather, a change in the ministry, and such subjects as were so far remote from the grief of his life, that a less careful hand than Mrs Alexander Floyd’s could have scarcely touched upon the broken chords of that delicate instrument, the widower’s heart.
It was not until six months after Eliza’s death that Mrs Alexander ventured to utter her name; but when she did speak of her, it was with no solemn hesitation, but tenderly and familiarly, as if she had been accustomed to talk of the dead. She saw at once that she had done right. The time had come for the widower to feel relief in speaking of the lost one; and from that hour Mrs Alexander became a favourite with her uncle. Years after, he told her that, even in the sullen torpor of his grief, he had had a dim consciousness that she pitied him, and that she was ‘a good woman.’ This good woman came that very evening into the big room, where the banker sat by his lonely hearth, with a baby in her arms,—a pale-faced child, with great wondering black eyes, which stared at the rich man in sombre astonishment; a solemn-faced, ugly baby, which was to grow by-and-by into Aurora Floyd, the heroine of my story.
That pale black-eyed baby became henceforth the idol of Archibald Martin Floyd, the one object in all this wide universe for which it seemed worth his while to endure life. From the day of his wife’s death he had abandoned all active share in the Lombard Street business, and he had now neither occupation nor delight, save in waiting upon the prattlings and humouring the caprices of this infant daughter. His love for her was a weakness, almost verging upon a madness. Had his nephews been very designing men, they might perhaps have entertained some vague ideas of that commission of lunacy for which the outraged neighbours were so anxious. He grudged the hired nurses their offices of love about the person of his child. He watched them furtively, fearful lest they should be harsh with her. All the ponderous doors in the great house at Felden Woods could not shut the feeblest murmur of that infant voice from those ever-anxious ears.
He watched his daughter’s growth as a child watches an acorn it hopes to rear to an oak. He repeated her broken baby syllables p. 22↵till people grew weary of his babble about the child. Of course the end of all this was, that, in the common acceptation of the term, Aurora was spoiled. We do not say a flower is spoiled because it is reared in a hot-house where no breath of heaven can visit it too roughly; but then, certainly, the bright exotic is trimmed and pruned by the gardener’s merciless hand, while Aurora shot whither she would, and there was none to lop the wandering branches of that luxuriant nature. She said what she pleased; thought, spoke, acted as she pleased; learned what she pleased; and she grew into a bright impetuous being, affectionate and generous-hearted as her mother, but with some touch of native fire blended in her mould that stamped her as original. It is the common habit of ugly babies to grow into handsome women, and so it was with Aurora Floyd. At seventeen she was twice as beautiful as her mother had been at nine-and-twenty, but with the same irregular features, lighted up by a pair of eyes that were like the stars of heaven, and by two rows of peerlessly white teeth. You rarely, in looking at her face, could get beyond these eyes and teeth; for they so dazzled and blinded you that they defied you to criticize the doubtful little nose, or the width of the smiling mouth. What if those masses of blue-black hair were brushed away from a forehead too low for the common standard of beauty? A phrenologist would have told you that the head was a noble one; and a sculptor would have added that it was set upon the throat of a Cleopatra.
Miss Floyd knew very little of her poor mother’s history. There was a picture in crayons hanging in the banker’s sanctum sanctorum which represented Eliza in the full flush of her beauty and prosperity; but the portrait told nothing of the history of its original, and Aurora had never heard of the merchant-captain, the poor Liverpool lodging, the grim aunt who kept a chandler’s shop, the artificial flower-making, and the provincial stage. She had never been told that her maternal grandfather’s name was Prodder, and that her mother had played Juliet to an audience of factory hands, for the moderate and sometimes uncertain stipend of four-and-twopence a night. The county families accepted and made much of the rich banker’s heiress; but they were not slow to say that Aurora was her mother’s own daughter, and had the taint of the play-acting and horse-riding, p. 21↵the spangles and the saw-dust, strong in her nature. The truth of the matter is, that before Miss Floyd emerged from the nursery she evinced a very decided tendency to become what is called ‘fast.’ At six years of age she rejected a doll, and asked for a rocking-horse. At ten she could converse fluently upon the subject of pointers, setters, fox-hounds, harriers, and beagles, though she drove her governess to the verge of despair by persistently forgetting under what Roman emperor Jerusalem was destroyed, and who was legate from the Pope at the time of Catherine of Arragon’s divorce. At eleven she talked unreservedly of the horses in the Lenfield stables as a pack of screws; at twelve she contributed her half-crown to a Derby sweepstakes amongst her father’s servants, and triumphantly drew the winning horse; and at thirteen she rode across country with her cousin Andrew, who was a member of the Croydon hunt. It was not without grief that the banker watched his daughter’s progress in these doubtful accomplishments; but she was so beautiful, so frank and fearless, so generous, affectionate, and true, that he could not bring himself to tell her that she was not all he could desire her to be. If he could have governed or directed that impetuous nature, he would have had her the most refined and elegant, the most perfect and accomplished of her sex; but he could not do this, and he was fain to thank God for her as she was, and to indulge her every whim.
Alexander Floyd’s eldest daughter, Lucy, first cousin, once removed, to Aurora, was that young lady’s friend and confidante, and came now and then from her father’s villa at Fulham to spend a month at Felden Woods. But Lucy Floyd had half a dozen brothers and sisters, and her education had been very different from that of the heiress. She was a fair-faced, blue-eyed, rosy-lipped, golden-haired little girl, who thought Felden Woods a paradise upon earth, and Aurora more fortunate than the Princess Royal of England, or Titania, Queen of the Fairies. She was direfully afraid of her cousin’s ponies and Newfoundland dogs, and had a firm conviction that sudden death held his throne within a certain radius of a horse’s heels; but she loved and admired Aurora, after the manner common to these weaker natures, and accepted Miss Floyd’s superb patronage and protection as a thing of course.
p. 22↵The day came when some dark but undefined cloud hovered about the narrow home-circle at Felden Woods. There was a coolness between the banker and his beloved child. The young lady spent half her time on horseback, scouring the shady lanes round Beckenham, attended only by her groom—a dashing young fellow, chosen by Mr Floyd on account of his good looks for Aurora’s especial service. She dined in her own room after these long, lonely rides, leaving her father to eat his solitary meal in the vast dining-room, which seemed to be fully occupied when she sat in it, and desolately empty without her. The household at Felden Woods long remembered one particular June evening on which the storm burst forth between the father and daughter.
Aurora had been absent from two o’clock in the afternoon until sunset, and the banker paced the long stone terrace with his watch in his hand, the figures on the dial-plate barely distinguishable in the twilight, waiting for his daughter’s coming home. He had sent his dinner away untouched; his newspapers lay uncut upon the table, and the household spies we call servants told each other how his hand had shaken so violently that he had spilled half a decanter of wine over the polished mahogany in attempting to fill his glass. The housekeeper and her satellites crept into the hall, and looked through the half-glass doors at the anxious watcher on the terrace. The men in the stables talked of ‘the row,’ as they called this terrible breach between father and child; and when at last horses’ hoofs were heard in the long avenue, and Miss Floyd reined in her thorough-bred chestnut at the foot of the terrace-steps, there was a lurking audience hidden here and there in the evening shadow, eager to hear and see.
But there was very little to gratify these prying eyes and ears. Aurora sprang lightly to the ground before the groom could dismount to assist her, and the chestnut, with heaving and foam-flecked sides, was led off to the stable.
Mr Floyd watched the groom and the two horses as they disappeared through the great gates leading to the stable-yard, and then said very quietly, ‘You don’t use that animal well, Aurora. A six hours’ ride is neither good for her nor for you. Your groom should have known better than to allow it.’ He led p. 23↵the way into his study, telling his daughter to follow him, and they were closeted together for upwards of an hour.
Early the next morning Miss Floyd’s governess departed from Felden Woods, and between breakfast and luncheon the banker paid a visit to the stables, and examined his daughter’s favourite chestnut mare, a beautiful filly all bone and muscle, that had been trained for a racer. The animal had strained a sinew, and walked lame. Mr Floyd sent for his daughter’s groom and paid and dismissed him on the spot. The young fellow made no remonstrance, but went quietly to his quarters, packed a carpet-bag, and walked away from the house without bidding good-bye to his fellow-servants, who resented the affront, and pronounced him a surly brute who had always been too high for this business.
Three days after this, upon the 14th of June, 1856, Mr Floyd and his daughter left Felden Woods for Paris, where Aurora was placed at a very expensive and exclusive Protestant finishing school, kept by the Demoiselles Lespard, in a stately mansion entre cour et jardin in the Rue Saint-Dominique, there to complete her very imperfect education.
For a year and two months Miss Floyd has been away at this Parisian finishing school; it is late in the August of 1857, and again the banker walks upon the long stone terrace in front of the narrow windows of his red-brick mansion, this time waiting for Aurora’s arrival from Paris. The servants have expressed considerable wonder at his not crossing the Channel to fetch his daughter, and they think the dignity of the house somewhat lowered by Miss Floyd travelling unattended.
‘A poor dear young thing, that knows no more of this wicked world than a blessed baby,’ said the housekeeper, ‘all alone amongst a pack of moustachioed Frenchmen!’
Archibald Martin Floyd had grown an old man in one day— that terrible and unexpected day of his wife’s death; but even the grief of that bereavement had scarcely seemed to affect him so strongly as the loss of his daughter Aurora during the fourteen months of her absence from Felden Woods.
Perhaps it was that at sixty-five years of age he was less able to bear even a lesser grief; but those who watched him closely, p. 24↵declared that he seemed as much dejected by his daughter’s absence as he could well have been by her death. Even now, that he paces up and down the broad terrace, with the landscape stretching wide before him, and melting vaguely away under that veil of crimson glory shed upon all things by the sinking sun; even now that he hourly, nay, almost momentarily, expects to clasp his only child in his arms, Archibald Floyd seems rather nervously anxious than joyfully expectant.
He looks again and again at his watch, and pauses in his walk to listen to Beckenham church clock striking eight; his ears are preternaturally alert to every sound, and give him instant warning of carriage-wheels far off upon the high-road. All the agitation and anxiety he has felt for the last week has been less than the concentrated fever of this moment. Will it pass on, that carriage, or stop at the lodge-gates? Surely his heart could never beat so loud save by some wondrous magnetism of fatherly love and hope. The carriage stops. He hears the clanking of the gates; the crimson-tinted landscape grows dim and blurred before his eyes; and he knows no more till a pair of impetuous arms are twined about his neck, and Aurora’s face is hidden on his shoulder.
It was a paltry hired carriage which Miss Floyd arrived in, and it drove away as soon as she had alighted, and the small amount of luggage she brought had been handed to the eager servants. The banker led his child into the study, where they had held that long conference fourteen months before. A lamp burned upon the library table, and it was to this light that Archibald Floyd led his daughter.
A year had changed the girl to a woman—a woman with great hollow black eyes, and pale haggard cheeks. The course of study at the Parisian finishing school had evidently been too hard for the spoiled heiress.
‘Aurora, Aurora,’ the old man cried, piteously, ‘how ill you look! how altered! how——’
She laid her hand lightly yet imperiously upon his lips.
‘Don’t speak of me,’ she said, ‘I shall recover; but you—you, father—you too are changed.’
She was as tall as her father, and, resting her hands upon his shoulders, she looked at him long and earnestly. As she looked, p. 25↵the tears welled slowly up to her eyes which had been dry before, and poured silently down her haggard cheeks.
‘My father, my devoted father,’ she said in a broken voice, ‘if my heart was made of adamant, I think it might break when I see the change in this beloved face.’
The old man checked her with a nervous gesture—a gesture almost of terror.
‘Not one word, not one word, Aurora,’ he said hurriedly, ‘at least, only one. That person—he is dead?’