Doctor's Wife, The



Mr. Sigismund Smith was a sensation author. That bitter term of reproach, "sensation," had not been invented for the terror of romancers in the fifty-second year of this present century; but the thing existed nevertheless in divers forms, and people wrote sensation novels as unconsciously as Monsieur Jourdain talked prose. Sigismund Smith was the author of about half-a-dozen highly-spiced fictions, which enjoyed an immense popularity amongst the classes who like their literature as they like their tobacco—very strong. Sigismund had never in his life presented himself before the public in a complete form; he appeared in weekly numbers at a penny, and was always so appearing; and except on one occasion when he found himself, very greasy and dog's-eared at the edges, and not exactly pleasant to the sense of smell, on the shelf of a humble librarian and newsvendor, who dealt in tobacco and sweetstuff as well as literature, Sigismund had never known what it was to be bound. He was well paid for his work, and he was contented. He had his ambition, which was to write a great novel; and the archetype of this magnum opus was the dream which he carried about with him wherever he went, and fondly nursed by night and day. In the meantime he wrote for his public, which was a public that bought its literature in the same manner as its pudding—in penny slices.

There was very little to look at in the court below the window; so George Gilbert fell to watching his friend, whose rapid pen scratched along the paper in a breathless way, which indicated a dashing and Dumas-like style of literature, rather than the polished composition of a Johnson or an Addison. Sigismund only drew breath once, and then he paused to make frantic gashes at his shirt-collar with an inky bone paper-knife that lay upon the table.

"I'm only trying whether a man would cut his throat from right to left, or left to right," Mr. Smith said, in answer to his friend's look of terror; "it's as well to be true to nature; or as true as one can be, for a pound a page—double-column pages, and eighty-one lines in a column. A man would cut his throat from left to right: he couldn't do it in the other way without making perfect slices of himself."

"There's a suicide, then, in your story?" George said, with a look of awe.

"A suicide!" exclaimed Sigismund Smith; "a suicide in the 'Smuggler's Bride!' why, it teems with suicides. There's the Duke of Port St. Martin's, who walls himself up alive in his own cellar; and there's Leonie de Pasdebasque, the ballet-dancer, who throws herself out of Count C�sar Maraschetti's private balloon; and there's Lilia, the dumb girl,—the penny public like dumb girls,—who sets fire to herself to escape from the—in fact, there's lots of them," said Mr. Smith, dipping his pen in his ink, and hurrying wildly along the paper.

The boy came back before the last page was finished, and Mr. Smith detained him for five or ten minutes; at the end of which time he rolled up the manuscript, still damp, and dismissed the printer's emissary.

"Now, George," he said, "I can talk to you."

Sigismund was the son of a Wareham attorney, and the two young men had been schoolfellows at the Classical and Commercial Academy in the Wareham Road. They had been schoolfellows, and were very sincerely attached to each other. Sigismund was supposed to be reading for the Bar; and for the first twelve months of his sojourn in the Temple the young man had worked honestly and conscientiously; but finding that his legal studies resulted in nothing but mental perplexity and confusion, Sigismund beguiled his leisure by the pursuit of literature.

He found literature a great deal more profitable and a great deal easier than the study of Coke upon Lyttleton, or Blackstone's Commentaries; and he abandoned himself entirely to the composition of such works as are to be seen, garnished with striking illustrations, in the windows of humble newsvendors in the smaller and dingier thoroughfares of every large town. Sigismund gave himself wholly to this fascinating pursuit, and perhaps produced more sheets of that mysterious stuff which literary people call "copy" than any other author of his age.

It would be almost impossible for me adequately to describe the difference between Sigismund Smith as he was known to the very few friends who knew anything at all about him, and Sigismund Smith as he appeared on paper.

In the narrow circle of his home Mr. Smith was a very mild young man, with the most placid blue eyes that ever looked out of a human head, and a good deal of light curling hair. He was a very mild young man. He could not have hit any one if he had tried ever so; and if you had hit him, I don't think he would have minded—much. It was not in him to be very angry; or to fall in love, to any serious extent; or to be desperate about anything. Perhaps it was that he exhausted all that was passionate in his nature in penny numbers, and had nothing left for the affairs of real life. People who were impressed by his fictions, and were curious to see him, generally left him with a strong sense of disappointment, if not indignation.

Was this meek young man the Byronic hero they had pictured? Was this the author of "Colonel Montefiasco, or the Brand upon the Shoulder-blade?" They had imagined a splendid creature, half magician, half brigand, with a pale face and fierce black eyes, a tumbled mass of raven hair, a bare white throat, a long black velvet dressing-gown, and thin tapering hands, with queer agate and onyx rings encircling the flexible fingers.

And then the surroundings. An oak-panelled chamber, of course—black oak, with grotesque and diabolic carvings jutting out at the angles of the room; a crystal globe upon a porphyry pedestal; a mysterious picture, with a curtain drawn before it—certain death being the fate of him who dared to raise that curtain by so much as a corner. A mantel-piece of black marble, and a collection of pistols and scimitars, swords and yataghans—especially yataghans—glimmering and flashing in the firelight. A little show of eccentricity in the way of household pets: a bear under the sofa, and a tame rattlesnake coiled upon the hearth-rug. This was the sort of thing the penny public expected of Sigismund Smith; and, lo, here was a young man with perennial ink-smudges upon his face, and an untidy chamber in the Temple, with nothing more romantic than a waste-paper basket, a litter of old letters and tumbled proofs, and a cracked teapot simmering upon the hob.

This was the young man who described the reckless extravagance of a Montefiasco's sumptuous chamber, the mysterious elegance of a Diana Firmiani's dimly-lighted boudoir. This was the young man in whose works there were more masked doors, and hidden staircases, and revolving picture-frames and sliding panels, than in all the old houses in Great Britain; and a greater length of vaulted passages than would make an underground railway from the Scottish border to the Land's End. This was the young man who, in an early volume of poems—a failure, as it is the nature of all early volumes of poems to be—had cried in passionate accents to some youthful member of the aristocracy, surname unknown—

"Lady Mable, Lady May, no p�an in your praise I'll sing;
My shattered lyre all mutely tells
The tortured hand that broke the string.
Go, fair and false, while jangling bells
Through golden waves of sunshine ring;
Go, mistress of a thousand spells:
But know, midst those you've left forlorn,
One, lady, gives you scorn for scorn."

"Now, George," Mr. Smith said, as he pushed away a very dirty inkstand, and wiped his pen upon the cuff of his coat,—"now, George, I can attend to the rights of hospitality. You must be hungry after your journey, poor old boy! What'll you take?"

There were no cupboards in the room, which was very bare of furniture, and the only vestiges of any kind of refreshment were a brown crockery-ware teapot upon the hob, and a roll and pat of butter upon a plate on the mantel-piece.

"Have something!" Sigismund said. "I know there isn't much, because, you see, I never have time to attend to that sort of thing. Have some bread and marmalade?"

He drew out a drawer in the desk before which he was sitting, and triumphantly displayed a pot of marmalade with a spoon in it.

"Bread and marmalade and cold tea's capital," he said; "you'll try some, George, won't you? and then we'll go home to Camberwell."

Mr. Gilbert declined the bread and marmalade; so Sigismund prepared to take his departure.

"Morgan's gone into Buckinghamshire for a week's fishing," he said, "so I've got the place to myself. I come here of a morning, you know, work all day, and go home to tea and a chop or a steak in the evening. Come along, old fellow."

The young men went out upon the landing. Sigismund locked the black door and put the key in his pocket. They went down-stairs, and through the courts, and across the quadrangles of the Temple, bearing towards that outlet which is nearest Blackfriars Bridge.

"You'd like to walk, I suppose, George?" Mr. Smith asked.

"Oh, yes; we can talk better walking."

They talked a great deal as they went along. They were very fond of one another, and had each of them a good deal to tell; but George wasn't much of a talker as compared to his friend Sigismund. That young man poured forth a perpetual stream of eloquence, which knew no exhaustion.

"And so you like the people at Camberwell?" George said.

"Oh yes, they're capital people; free and easy, you know, and no stupid stuck-up gentility about them. Not but what Sleaford's a gentleman; he's a barrister. I don't know exactly where his chambers are, or in what court he practises when he's in town; but he is a barrister. I suppose he goes on circuit sometimes, for he's very often away from home for a long time together; but I don't know what circuit he goes on. It doesn't do to ask a man those sort of questions, you see, George; so I hold my tongue. I don't think he's rich, that's to say not rich in a regular way. He's flush of money sometimes, and then you should see the Sunday dinners—salmon and cucumber, and duck and green peas, as if they were nothing."

"Is he a nice fellow?"

"Oh yes; a jolly, out-spoken sort of a fellow, with a loud voice and black eyes. He's a capital fellow to me, but he's not fond of company. He seldom shows if I take down a friend. Very likely you mayn't see him all the time you stay there. He'll shut himself up in his own room when he's at home, and won't so much as look at you."

George seemed to be rather alarmed at this prospect.

"But if Mr. Sleaford objects to my being in the house," he began, "perhaps I'd better—"

"Oh, he doesn't object, bless you!" Sigismund cried, hastily; "not a bit of it. I said to Mrs. Sleaford the other morning at breakfast, 'A friend of mine is coming up from Midlandshire; he's as good a fellow as ever breathed,' I said, 'and good-looking into the bargain,'—don't you blush, George, because it's spooney,—and I asked Mrs. S. if she could give you a room and partially board you,—I'm a partial boarder, you know,—for a week or so. She looked at her husband,—she's very sharp with all of us, but she's afraid of him,—and Sleaford said yes; my friend might come and should be welcome, as long as he wasn't bothered about it. So your room's ready, George, and you come as my visitor; and I can get orders for all the theatres in London, and I'll give you a French dinner in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square every day of your life, if you like; and we'll fill the cup of dissipation to the highest top sparkle."

It was a long walk from the Temple to Camberwell; but the two young men were good walkers, and as Sigismund Smith talked unceasingly all the way, there were no awkward pauses in the conversation. They walked the whole length of the Walworth Road, and turned to the left soon after passing the turn-pike. Mr. Smith conducted his friend by mazy convolutions of narrow streets and lanes, where there were pretty little villas and comfortable cottages nestling amongst trees, and where there was the perpetual sound of clattering tin pails and the slopping of milk, blending pleasantly with the cry of the milkman. Sigismund led George through these shady little retreats, and past a tall stern-looking church, and along by the brink of a canal, till they came to a place where the country was wild and sterile in the year 1852. I dare say that railways have cut the neighbourhood all to pieces by this time, and that Mr. Sleaford's house has been sold by auction in the form of old bricks; but on this summer afternoon the place to which Sigismund brought his friend was quite a lonely, countrified spot, where there was one big, ill-looking house, shut in by a high wall, and straggling rows of cottages dwindling away into pigsties upon each side of it.

Standing before a little wooden door in the wall that surrounded Mr. Sleaford's garden, George Gilbert could only see that the house was a square brick building, with sickly ivy straggling here and there about it, and long narrow windows considerably obscured by dust and dirt. It was not a pleasant house to look at, however agreeable it might be as a habitation; and George compared it unfavourably with the trim white-walled villas he had seen on his way,—those neat little mansions at five-and-thirty pounds a year; those cosy little cottages, with shining windows that winked and blinked in the sunshine by reason of their cleanliness; those dazzling brass plates, which shone like brazen shields upon the vivid green of newly-painted front doors. If Mr. Sleaford's house had ever been painted within Mr Sleaford's memory, the barrister must have been one of the oldest inhabitants of that sterile region on the outskirts of Camberwell; if Mr. Sleaford held the house upon a repairing lease, he must have anticipated a prodigious claim for dilapidations at the expiration of his tenancy. Whatever could be broken in Mr. Sleaford's house was broken; whatever could fall out of repair had so fallen. The bricks held together, and the house stood; and that was about all that could be said for the barrister's habitation.

The bell was broken, and the handle rattled loosely in a kind of basin of tarnished brass, so it was no use attempting to ring; but Sigismund was used to this. He stooped down, put his lips to a hole broken in the wood-work above the lock of the garden-door, and gave a shrill whistle.

"They understand that," he said; "the bell's been broken ever since I've lived here, but they never have anything mended."

"Why not?"

"Because they're thinking of leaving. I've been with them two years and a half, and they've been thinking of leaving all the time. Sleaford has got the house cheap, and the landlord won't do anything; so between them they let it go. Sleaford talks about going to Australia some of these days."

The garden-door was opened while Mr. Smith was talking, and the two young men went in. The person who had admitted them was a boy who had just arrived at that period of life when boys are most obnoxious. He had ceased to be a boy pure and simple, and had not yet presumed to call himself a young man. Rejected on one side by his juniors, who found him arrogant and despotic, mooting strange and unorthodox theories with regard to marbles, and evincing supreme contempt for boys who were not familiar with the latest vaticinations of the sporting prophets in "Bell's Life" and the "Sunday Times;" and flouted on the other hand by his seniors, who offered him halfpence for the purchase of hardbake, and taunted him with base insinuations when he was seized with a sudden fancy for going to look at the weather in the middle of a strong cheroot,—the hobbledehoy sought vainly for a standing-place upon the social scale, and finding none, became a misanthrope, and wrapped himself in scorn as in a mantle. For Sigismund Smith the gloomy youth cherished a peculiar hatred. The young author was master of that proud position to obtain which the boy struggled in vain. He was a man! He could smoke a cigar to the very stump, and not grow ashy pale, or stagger dizzily once during the operation; but how little he made of his advantages! He could stay out late of nights, and there was no one to reprove him, He could go into a popular tavern, and call for gin-and-bitters, and drink the mixture without so much as a wry face, and slap his money upon the pewter counter, and call the barmaid "Mary;" and there was no chance of his mother happening to be passing at that moment, and catching a glimpse of his familiar back-view through the half-open swinging door, and rushing in, red and angry, to lead him off by the collar of his jacket, amid the laughter of heartless bystanders. No; Sigismund Smith was a MAN. He might have got tipsy if he had liked, and walked about London half the night, ringing surgeons' bells, and pulling off knockers, and being taken to the station-house early in the morning, to be bailed out by a friend by-and-by, and to have his name in the Sunday papers, with a sensational heading, "Another tipsy swell," or "A modern spring-heeled Jack."

Yes; Horace Sleaford hated his mother's partial boarder; but his hatred was tempered by disdain. What did Mr. Smith make of all his lofty privileges? Nothing; absolutely nothing. The glory of manhood was thrown away upon a mean-spirited cur, who, possessed of liberty to go where he pleased, had never seen a fight for the championship of England, or the last grand rush for the blue riband of the turf; and who, at four-and-twenty years of age, ate bread and marmalade openly in the face of contemptuous mankind. Master Sleaford shut the door with a bang, and locked it. There was one exception to the rule of no repairs in Mr. Sleaford's establishment, the locks were all kept in excellent order. The disdainful boy took the key from the lock, and carried it in-doors on his little finger. He had warts upon his hands, and warts are the stigmata of boyhood; and the sleeves of his jacket were white and shiny at the elbows, and left him cruelly exposed about the wrists. The knowledge of his youth, and that shabby frouziness of raiment peculiar to middle-class hobbledehoyhood, gave him a sulky fierceness of aspect, which harmonized well with a pair of big black eyes and a tumbled shock of blue-black hair. He suspected everybody of despising him, and was perpetually trying to look-down the scorn of others with still deeper scorn. He stared at George Gilbert, as the young man came into the garden, but did not deign to speak. George was six feet high, and that was in itself enough to make him hateful.

"Well, Horace!" Mr. Smith said, good-naturedly.

"Well, young 'un," the boy answered, disdainfully, "how do you find yourself?"

Horace Sleaford led the way into the house. They went up a flight of steps leading to a half-glass door. It might have been pretty once upon a time, when the glass was bright, and the latticed porch sheltered by clustering roses and clematis; but the clematis had withered, and the straggling roses were choked with wild convolvulus tendrils, that wound about the branches like weedy serpents, and stifled buds and blossoms in their weedy embrace.

The boy banged open the door of the house, as he had banged-to the door of the garden. He made a point of doing every thing with a bang; it was one way of evincing his contempt for his species.

"Mother's in the kitchen," he said; "the boys are on the common flying a kite, and Izzie's in the garden."

"Is your father at home?" Sigismund asked.

"No, he isn't, Clever; you might have known that without asking. Whenever is he at home at this time of day?"

"Is tea ready?"

"No, nor won't be for this half-hour," answered the boy, triumphantly; "so, if you and your friend are hungry, you'd better have some bread and marmalade. There's a pot in your drawer up-stairs. I haven't taken any, and I shouldn't have seen it if I hadn't gone to look for a steel pen; so, if you've made a mark upon the label, and think the marmalade's gone down lower, it isn't me. Tea won't be ready for half-an-hour; for the kitchen-fire's been smokin', and the chops can't be done till that's clear; and the kettle ain't on either; and the girl's gone to fetch a fancy loaf,—so you'll have to wait."

"Oh, never mind that," Sigismund said; "come into the garden, George; I'll introduce you to Miss Sleaford."

"Then I shan't go with you," said the boy; "I don't care for girls' talk. I say, Mr. Gilbert, you're a Midlandshire man, and you ought to know something. What odds will you give me against Mr. Tomlinson's brown colt, Vinegar Cruet, for the Conventford steeple-chase?"

Unfortunately Mr. Gilbert was lamentably ignorant of the merits or demerits of Vinegar Cruet.

"I'll tell you what I'll do with you, then," the boy said; "I'll take fifteen to two against him in fourpenny-bits, and that's one less than the last Manchester quotation."

George shook his head. "Horse-racing is worse than Greek to me, Master Sleaford," he said.

The "Master" goaded the boy to retaliate.

"Your friend don't seem to have seen much life," he said to Sigismund. "I think we shall be able to show him a thing or two before he goes back to Midlandshire, eh, Samuel?"

Horace Sleaford had discovered that fatal name, Samuel, in an old prayer-book belonging to Mr. Smith; and he kept it in reserve, as a kind of poisoned dart, always ready to be hurled at his foe.

"We'll teach him a little life, eh, SAMUEL?" he repeated, "Haw, haw, haw!"

But his gaiety was cut suddenly short; for a door in the shadowy passage opened, and a woman's face, thin and vinegary of aspect, looked out, and a shrill voice cried:

"Didn't I tell you I wanted another penn'orth of milk fetched, you young torment? But, law, you're like the rest of them, that's all! I may slave my life out, and there isn't one of you will as much as lift a finger to help me."

The boy disappeared upon this, grumbling sulkily; and Sigismund opened a door leading into a parlour.

The room was large, but shabbily furnished and very untidy. The traces of half-a-dozen different occupations were scattered about, and the apartment was evidently inhabited by people who made a point of never putting anything away. There was a work-box upon the table, open, and running over with a confusion of tangled tapes, and bobbins, and a mass of different-coloured threads, that looked like variegated vermicelli. There was an old-fashioned desk, covered with dusty green baize, and decorated with loose brass-work, which caught at people's garments or wounded their flesh when the desk was carried about; this was open, like the work-box, and was littered with papers that had been blown about by the summer breeze, and were scattered all over the table and the floor beneath it. On a rickety little table near the window there was a dilapidated box of colours, a pot of gum with a lot of brushes sticking up out of it, half-a-dozen sheets of Skelt's dramatic scenes and characters lying under scraps of tinsel, and fragments of coloured satin, and neatly-folded packets of little gold and silver dots, which the uninitiated might have mistaken for powders. There were some ragged-looking books on a shelf near the fire-place; two or three different kinds of inkstands on the mantel-piece; a miniature wooden stage, with a lop-sided pasteboard proscenium and greasy tin lamps, in one corner of the floor; a fishing-rod and tackle leaning against the wall in another corner; and the room was generally pervaded by copy-books, slate-pencils, and torn Latin grammars with half a brown-leather cover hanging to the leaves by a stout drab thread. Everything in the apartment was shabby, and more or less dilapidated; nothing was particularly clean; and everywhere there was the evidence of boys.

I believe Mr. Sleaford's was the true policy. If you have boys, "cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war;" shut your purse against the painter and the carpenter, the plumber and glazier, the upholsterer and gardener; "let what is broken, so remain,"—reparations are wasted labour and wasted money. Buy a box of carpenter's tools for your boys, if you like, and let them mend what they themselves have broken; and, if you don't mind their sawing off one or two of their fingers occasionally, you may end by making them tolerably useful.

Mr. Sleaford had one daughter and four sons, and the sons were all boys. People ceased to wonder at the shabbiness of his furniture and the dilapidation of his house, when they were made aware of this fact. The limp chintz curtains that straggled from the cornice had been torn ruthlessly down to serve as draperies for Tom when he personated the ghost in a charade, or for Jack when he wanted a sail to fasten to his fishing-rod, firmly planted on the quarter-deck of the sofa. The chairs had done duty as blocks for the accommodation of many an imaginary Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette, upon long winter evenings, when Horace decapitated the sofa-pillow with a smoky poker, while Tom and Jack kept guard upon the scaffold, and held the populace—of one—at bay with their halberds—the tongs and shovel. The loose carpets had done duty as raging oceans on many a night, when the easy-chair had gone to pieces against the sideboard, with a loss of two wine-glasses, and all hands had been picked up in a perishing state by the crew of the sofa, after an undramatic interlude of slaps, cuffs, and remonstrances from the higher powers, who walked into the storm-beaten ocean with cruel disregard of the unities. Mr. Sleaford had a room to himself up-stairs—a Bluebeard chamber, which the boys never entered; for the barrister made a point of locking his door whenever he left his room, and his sons were therefore compelled to respect his apartment. They looked through the keyhole now and then, to see if there was anything of a mysterious nature in the forbidden chamber; but, as they saw nothing but a dingy easy-chair and an office-table, with a quantity of papers scattered about it, their curiosity gradually subsided, and they ceased to concern themselves in any manner about the apartment, which they always spoke of as "Pa's room."

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