The garden at the back of Mr. Sleaford's house was a large square plot of ground, with fine old pear-trees sheltering a neglected lawn. A row of hazel-bushes screened all the length of the wall upon one side of the garden; and wherever you looked, there were roses and sweet-brier, espaliered apples, and tall straggling raspberry-bushes, all equally unfamiliar with the gardener's pruning knife; though here and there you came to a luckless bush that had been hacked at and mutilated in some amateur operations of "the boys."
It was an old-fashioned garden, and had doubtless once been beautifully kept; for bright garden-flowers grew up amongst the weeds summer after summer, as if even neglect or cruel usage could not disroot them from the familiar place they loved. Thus rare orchids sprouted up out of beds that were half full of chickweed, and lilies-of-the-valley flourished amongst the ground-sel in a shady corner under the water-butt. There were vines, upon which no grape had ever been suffered to ripen during Mr. Sleaford's tenancy, but which yet made a beautiful screen of verdant tracery all over the back of the house, twining their loving tendrils about the dilapidated Venetian shutters, that rotted slowly on their rusted hinges. There were strawberry-beds, and there was an arbour at one end of the garden in which the boys played at "beggar my neighbour," and "all fours," with greasy, dog's-eared cards in the long summer afternoons; and there were some rabbit-hutches—sure evidence of the neighbourhood of boys—in a sheltered corner under the hazel-bushes. It was a dear old untidy place, where the odour of distant pigsties mingled faintly with the perfume of the roses; and it was in this neglected garden that Isabel Sleaford spent the best part of her idle, useless life.
She was sitting in a basket-chair under one of the pear-trees when Sigismund Smith and his friend went into the garden to look for her. She was lolling in a low basket-chair, with a book on her lap, and her chin resting on the palm of her hand, so absorbed by the interest of the page before her that she did not even lift her eyes when the two young men went close up to her. She wore a muslin dress a good deal tumbled and not too clean, and a strip of black velvet was tied round her long throat. Her hair was almost as black as her brother's, and was rolled up in a great loose knot, from which a long untidy curl fell straggling on her white throat—her throat was very white, with the dead, yellowish whiteness of ivory.
"I wish that was 'Colonel Montefiasco,'" said Mr. Smith, pointing to the book which the young lady was reading. "I should like to see a lady so interested in one of my books that she wouldn't so much as look up when a gentleman was waiting to be introduced to her."
Miss Sleaford shut her book and rose from her low chair, abashed by this reproach; but she kept her thumb between the pages, and evidently meant to go on with the volume at the first convenient opportunity. She did not wait for any ceremonious introduction to George, but held out her hand to him, and smiled at him frankly.
"Yon are Mr. Gilbert, I know," she said. "Sigismund has been talking of you incessantly for the last week. Mamma has got your room ready; and I suppose we shall have tea soon. There are to be some chops on purpose for your friend, Sigismund, mamma told me to tell you."
She glanced downwards at the book, as much as to say that she had finished speaking, and wanted to get back to it.
"What is it, Izzie?" Sigismund asked, interpreting her look.
"Ah, I thought so. Always his books."
A faint blush trembled over Miss Sleaford's pale face.
"They are so beautiful!" she said.
"Dangerously beautiful, I'm afraid, Isabel," the young man said, gravely; "beautiful sweetmeats, with opium inside the sugar. These books don't make you happy, do they, Izzie?"
"No, they make me unhappy; but"—she hesitated a little, and then blushed as she said—"I like that sort of unhappiness. It's better than eating and drinking and sleeping, and being happy that way."
George could only stare at the young lady's kindling face, which lighted up all in a moment, and was suddenly beautiful, like some transparency which seems a dingy picture till you put a lamp behind it. The young surgeon could only stare wonderingly at Mr. Sleaford's daughter, for he hadn't the faintest idea what she and his friend were talking about. He could only watch her pale face, over which faint blushes trembled and vanished like the roseate reflections of a sunset sky. George Gilbert saw that Isabel Sleaford had eyes that were large and black, like her brother's, but which were entirely different from his, notwithstanding; for they were soft and sleepy, with very little light in them, and what little light there was, only a dim dreamy glimmer in the depths of the large pupils. Being a very quiet young man, without much to say for himself, George Gilbert had plenty of leisure in which to examine the young lady's face as she talked to her mother's boarder, who was on cordial brotherly terms with her. George was not a very enthusiastic young man, and he looked at Miss Sleaford's face with no more emotion than if she had been a statue amongst many statues in a gallery of sculpture. He saw that she had small delicate features and a pale face, and that her great black eyes alone invested her with a kind of weird and melancholy beauty, which kindled into warmer loveliness when she smiled.
George did not see the full extent of Isabel Sleaford's beauty, for he was merely a good young man, with a tolerable commonplace intellect, and Isabel's beauty was of a poetical kind, which could only be fully comprehended by a poet; but Mr. Gilbert arrived at a vague conviction that she was what he called "pretty," and he wondered how it was that her eyes looked a tawny yellow when the light shone full upon them, and a dense black when they were shadowed by their dark lashes.
George was not so much impressed by Miss Sleaford's beauty as by the fact that she was entirely different from any woman he had ever seen before; and I think herein lay this young lady's richest charm, by right of which she should have won the homage of an emperor. There was no one like her. Whatever beauty she had was her own, and no common property shared with a hundred other pretty girls. You saw her once, and remembered her for ever; but you never saw any mortal face that reminded you of hers.
She shut her book altogether at Sigismund's request, and went with the two young men to show George the garden; but she carried the dingy-looking volume lovingly under her arm, and she relapsed into a dreamy silence every now and then, as if she had been reading the hidden pages by some strange faculty of clairvoyance.
Horace Sleaford came running out presently, and summoned the wanderers to the house, where tea was ready.
"The boys are to have theirs in the kitchen," he said; "and we elders tea together in the front parlour."
Three younger boys came trooping out as he spoke, and one by one presented a dingy paw to Mr. Gilbert. They had been flying a kite, and fishing in the canal, and helping to stack some hay in the distant meadow; and they were rough and tumbled, and smelt strongly of out-door amusements. They were all three very much like their brother; and George, looking at the four boys as they clustered round him, saw eight of the blackest eyes he ever remembered having looked upon; but not one of those four pairs of eyes bore any resemblance to Isabel's. The boys were only Miss Sleaford's half-brothers. Mr. Sleaford's first wife had died three years after her marriage, and Isabel's only memory of her mother was the faint shadow of a loving, melancholy face; a transient shadow, that came to the motherless girl sometimes in her sleep.
An old servant, who had come one day, long ago, to see the Sleafords, told Isabel that her mother had once had a great trouble, and that it had killed her. The child had asked what the great trouble was; but the old servant only shook her head, and said, "Better for you not to know, my poor, sweet lamb; better for you never to know."
There was a pencil-sketch of the first Mrs. Sleaford in the best parlour; a fly-spotted pencil-sketch, which represented a young woman like Isabel, dressed in a short-waisted gown, with big balloon sleeves; and this was all Miss Sleaford knew of her mother.
The present Mrs. Sleaford was a shrewish little woman, with light hair, and sharp grey eyes; a well-meaning little woman, who made everybody about her miserable, and who worked from morning till night, and yet never seemed to finish any task she undertook. The Sleafords kept one servant, a maid-of-all-work, who was called the girl; but this young person very rarely emerged from the back kitchen, where there was a perpetual pumping of water and clattering of hardware, except to disfigure the gooseberry-bushes with pudding-cloths and dusters, which she hung out to dry in the sunshine. To the ignorant mind it would have seemed that the Sleafords might have been very nearly as well off without a servant; for Mrs. Sleaford appeared to do all the cooking and the greater part of the house-work, while Isabel and the boys took it in turns to go upon errands and attend to the garden-door.
The front parlour was a palatial chamber as compared to the back; for the boys were chased away with slaps by Mrs. Sleaford when they carried thither that artistic paraphernalia which she called their "rubbish," and the depredations of the race were, therefore, less visible in this apartment. Mrs. Sleaford had made herself "tidy" in honour of her new boarder, and her face was shining with the recent application of strong yellow soap. George saw at once that she was a very common little woman, and that any intellectual graces inherited by the boys must have descended to them from their father. He had a profound reverence for the higher branch of the legal profession, and he pondered that a barrister should have married such a woman as Mrs. Sleaford, and should be content to live in the muddle peculiar to a household where the mistress is her own cook, and the junior branches are amateur errand boys.
After tea the two young men walked up and down the weedy pathways in the garden, while Isabel sat under her favourite pear-tree reading the volume she had been so loth to close. Sigismund and his Midlandshire friend walked up and down, smoking cigars, and talking of what they called old times; but those old times were only four or five years ago, though the young men talked like greybeards, who look back half a century or so, and wonder at the folly of their youth.
Isabel went on with her book; the light was dying away little by little, dropping down behind the pear-trees at the western side of the garden, and the pale evening star glimmered at the end of one of the pathways. She read on more eagerly, almost breathlessly, as the light grew less; for her step-mother would call her in by-and-by, and there would be a torn jacket to mend, perhaps, or a heap of worsted socks to be darned for the boys; and there would be no chance of reading another line of that sweet sentimental story, that heavenly prose, which fell into a cadence like poetry, that tender, melancholy music which haunted the reader long after the book was shut and laid aside, and made the dull course of common life so dismally unendurable.
Isabel Sleaford was not quite eighteen years of age. She had been taught a smattering of everything at a day-school in the Albany Road; rather a stylish seminary in the opinion of the Camberwellians. She knew a little Italian, enough French to serve for the reading of novels that she might have better left unread, and just so much of modern history as enabled her to pick out all the sugar-plums in the historian's pages,—the Mary Stuarts, and Joan of Arcs, and Anne Boleyns, the Iron Masks and La Valli�res, the Marie Antoinettes and Charlotte Cordays, luckless K�nigsmarks and wicked Borgias; all the romantic and horrible stories scattered amid the dry records of Magna Chartas and Reform Bills, clamorous Third Estates and Beds of Justice. She played the piano a little, and sang a little, and painted wishy-washy-looking flowers on Bristol-board from nature, but not at all like nature; for the passion-flowers were apt to come out like blue muslin frills, and the fuchsias would have passed for prawns with short-sighted people.
Miss Sleaford had received that half-and-half education which is popular with the poorer middle classes. She left the Albany Road seminary in her sixteenth year, and set to work to educate herself by means of the nearest circulating library. She did not feed upon garbage, but settled at once upon the highest blossoms in the flower-garden of fiction, and read her favourite novels over and over again, and wrote little extracts of her own choosing in penny account-books, usually employed for the entry of butcher's-meat and grocery. She knew whole pages of her pet authors by heart, and used to recite long sentimental passages to Sigismund Smith in the dusky summer evenings; and I am sorry to say that the young man, going to work at Colonel Montefiasco next morning, would put neat paraphrases of Bulwer, or Dickens, or Thackeray into that gentleman's mouth, and invest the heroic brigand with the genial humour of a John Brodie, the spirituality of a Zanoni, and the savage sarcasm of a Lord Steyne. Perhaps there never was a wider difference between two people than that which existed between Isabel Sleaford and her mother's boarder. Sigismund wrote romantic fictions by wholesale, and yet was as unromantic as the prosiest butcher who ever entered a cattle-market. He sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers. To him romance was something which must be woven into the form most likely to suit the popular demand. He slapped his heroes into marketable shape as coolly as a butterman slaps a pat of butter into the semblance of a swan or a crown, in accordance with the requirements of his customers. But poor Isabel's heroes were impalpable tyrants, and ruled her life. She wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine,—unhappy perhaps, and dying early. She had an especial desire to die early, by consumption, with a hectic flush and an unnatural lustre in her eyes. She fancied every time she had a little cough that the consumption was coming, and she began to pose herself, and was gently melancholy to her half-brothers, and told them one by one, in confidence, that she did not think she should be with them long. They were slow to understand the drift of her remarks, and would ask her if she was going going out as a governess; and, if she took the trouble to explain her dismal meaning, were apt to destroy the sentiment of the situation by saying, "Oh, come now, Hookee Walker. Who ate a plum-dumpling yesterday for dinner, and asked for more? That's the only sort of consumption you've got, Izzie; two helps of pudding at dinner, and no end of bread-and-butter for breakfast."
It was not so that Florence Dombey's friends addressed her. It was not thus that little Paul would have spoken to his sister; but then, who could tolerate these great healthy boys after reading about little Paul?
Poor Izzie's life was altogether vulgar and commonplace, and she could not extract one ray of romance out of it, twist it as she would. Her father was not a Dombey, or an Augustine Caxton, or even a Rawdon Crawley. He was a stout, broad-shouldered, good-tempered-looking man, who was fond of good eating, and drank three bottles of French brandy every week of his life. He was tolerably fond of his children; but he never took them out with him, and he saw very little of them at home. There was nothing romantic to be got out of him. Isabel would have been rather glad if he had ill-used her; for then she would have had a grievance, and that would have been something. If he would have worked himself up into a rage, and struck her on the stairs, she might have run out into the lane by the canal; but, alas, she had no good Captain Cuttle with whom to take refuge, no noble-hearted Walter to come back to her, with his shadow trembling on the wall in the dim firelight! Alas, alas! she looked north and south and east and west, and the sky was all dark; so she was obliged to go back to her intellectual opium-eating, and become a dreamer of dreams. She had plenty of grievances in a small way, such as having to mend awkward three-cornered rents in her brothers' garments, and being sent to fetch butter in the Walworth Road; but she was willing enough to do these things when once you had wrenched her away from her idolized books; and she carried her ideal world wherever she went, and was tending delirious Byron at Missolonghi, or standing by the deathbed of Napoleon the Great while the shopman slapped the butter on the scale, and the vulgar people hustled her before the greasy counter.
If there had been any one to take this lonely girl in hand and organize her education, Heaven only knows what might have been made of her; but there was no friendly finger to point a pathway in the intellectual forest, and Isabel rambled as her inclination led her, now setting up one idol, now superseding him by another; living as much alone as if she had resided in a balloon, for ever suspended in mid air, and never coming down in serious earnest to the common joys and sorrows of the vulgar life about her.
George and Sigismund talked of Miss Sleaford when they grew tired of discoursing upon the memories of their schoolboy life in Midlandshire.
"You didn't tell me that Mr. Sleaford had a daughter," George said.
"No. She—Miss Sleaford—is very pretty."
"She's gorgeous," answered Sigismund, with enthusiasm; "she's lovely. I do her for all my dark heroines,—the good heroines, not the wicked ones. Have you noticed Isabel's eyes? People call them black; but they're bright orange-colour, if you look at them in the sunshine. There's a story of Balzac's called 'The Girl with the Golden Eyes.' I never knew what golden eyes were till I saw Isabel Sleaford."
"You seem very much at home with her?"
"Oh, yes; we're like brother and sister. She helps me with my work sometimes; at least she throws out suggestions, and I use them. But she's dreadfully romantic. She reads too many novels."
"Yes. Don't suppose that I want to depreciate the value of the article. A novel's a splendid thing after a hard day's work, a sharp practical tussle with the real world, a healthy race on the barren moorland of life, a hearty wrestling match in the universal ring. Sit down then and read 'Ernest Maltravers,' or 'Eugene Aram,' or the 'Bride of Lammermoor,' and the sweet romance lulls your tired soul to rest, like the cradle-song that soothes a child. No wise man or woman was ever the worse for reading novels. Novels are only dangerous for those poor foolish girls who read nothing else, and think that their lives are to be paraphrases of their favourite books. That girl yonder wouldn't look at a decent young fellow in a Government office with three hundred a year and the chance of advancement," said Mr. Smith, pointing to Isabel Sleaford with a backward jerk of his thumb. "She's waiting for a melancholy creature, with a murder on his mind."
They went across the grass to the pear-tree, under which Isabel was still seated. It was growing dark, and her pale face and black eyes had a mysterious look in the dusky twilight. George Gilbert thought she was fitted to be the heroine of a romance, and felt himself miserably awkward and commonplace as he stood before her, struggling with the sensation that he had more arms and legs than he knew what to do with. I like to think of these three people gathered in this neglected suburban garden upon the 21st of July, 1852, for they were on the very threshold of life, and the future lay before them like a great stage in a theatre; but the curtain was down, and all beyond it was a dense mystery. These three foolish children had their own ideas about the great mystery. Isabel thought that she would meet a duke some day in the Walworth Road; the duke would be driving his cab, and she would be wearing her best bonnet and not going to fetch butter; and the young patrician would be struck by her, and would drive off to her father, and there and then make a formal demand of her hand; and she would be married to him, and wear ruby velvet and a diamond coronet ever after, like Edith Dombey in Mr. Hablot Browne's grand picture. Poor George fashioned no such romantic destiny in his day-dreams. He thought that he would marry some pretty girl, and have plenty of patients, and perhaps some day be engaged in a great case which would be mentioned in the "Lancet," and live and die respected, as his grandfather had done before him, in the old house with the red-tiled roof and oaken gable-ends painted black. Sigismund had, of course, only one vision,—and that was the publication of that great book, which should be written about by the reviewers and praised by the public. He could afford to take life very quietly himself; for was he not, in a vicarious manner, going through more adventures than ever the mind of man imagined? He came home to Camberwell of an afternoon, and took half a pound of rump-steak and three or four cups of weak tea, and lounged about the weedy garden with the boys; and other young men who saw what his life was, sneered at him and called him "slow." Slow, indeed! Is it slow to be dangling from a housetop with a frayed rope slipping through your hands and seventy feet of empty space below you? Is it slow to be on board a ship on fire in the middle of the lonely Atlantic, and to rescue the entire crew on one fragile raft, with the handsomest female passenger lashed to your waist by means of her back hair? Is it slow to go down into subterranean passages, with a dark lantern and half-a-dozen bloodhounds, in pursuit of a murderer? This was the sort of thing that Sigismund was doing all day and every day—upon paper; and when the day's work was done, he was very well contented to loll in a garden-chair and smoke his cigar, while enthusiastic Isabel talked to him about Byron, and Shelley, and Napoleon the First; for the two poets and the warrior were her three idols, and tears came into her eyes when she talked of the sorrowful evening after Waterloo, or the wasted journey to Missolonghi, just as if she had known and loved these great men.
The lower windows of the house were lighted by this time, and Mrs. Sleaford came to the back-parlour window to call the young people to supper. They kept primitive hours at Camberwell, and supper was the pleasantest meal in the day; for Mrs. Sleaford's work was done by that time, and she softened into amiability, and discoursed plaintively of her troubles to Sigismund and her children. But to-night was to be a kind of gala, on account of the young man from the country. So there was a lobster and a heap of lettuces,—very little lobster in proportion to the green-stuff,—and Sigismund was to make a salad. He was very proud of his skill in this department of culinary art, and as he was generally about five-and-twenty minutes chopping, and sprinkling, and stirring, and tasting, and compounding, before the salad was ready, there was ample time for conversation. To-night George Gilbert talked to Isabel; while Horace enjoyed the privilege of sitting up to supper chiefly because there was no one in the house strong enough to send him to bed, since he refused to retire to his chamber unless driven there by force. He sat opposite his sister, and amused himself by sucking the long feelers of the lobster, and staring reflectively at George with his elbows on the table, while Sigismund mixed the salad.
They were all very comfortable and very merry, for Isabel forgot her heroes, and condescended to come down temporarily to George's level, and talk about the Great Exhibition of the previous year, and the pantomime she had seen last Christmas. He thought her very pretty, as she smiled at him across the table; but he fell to wondering about her again, and wondered why it was she was so different from Miss Sophronia Burdock and the young ladies of Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne, whom he had known all his life, and in whom he had never found cause for wonder.
The salad was pronounced ready at last, and the "six ale," as Horace called it, was poured out into long narrow glasses, and being a light frisky kind of beverage, was almost as good as champagne. George had been to supper-parties at Graybridge at which there had been real champagne, and jellies, and trifles, but where the talk had not been half so pleasant as at this humble supper-table, on which there were not two forks that matched one another, or a glass that was free from flaw or crack. The young surgeon enjoyed his first night at Camberwell to his heart's content; and Sigismund's spirits rose perceptibly with the six ale. It was when the little party was gayest that Horace jumped up suddenly with the empty lobster-shell in his hand, and told his companions to "hold their noise."
"I heard him," he said.
A shrill whistle from the gate sounded as the boy spoke.
"That's him again!" he exclaimed, running to the door of the room. "He's been at it ever so long, perhaps; and won't he just give it me if he has!"
Everybody was silent; and George heard the boy opening the hall-door and going out to the gate. He heard a brief colloquy, and a deep voice with rather a sulky tone in it, and then heavy footsteps coming along the paved garden-walk and counting the steps before the door.
"It's your pa, Izzie," Mrs. Sleaford said. "He'll want a candle: you'd better take it out to him; I don't suppose he'll care about coming in here."
George Gilbert felt a kind of curiosity about Isabel's father, and was rather disappointed when he learnt that Mr. Sleaford was not coming into the parlour. But Sigismund Smith went on eating bread and cheese, and fishing pickled onions out of a deep stone jar, without any reference to the movements of the barrister.
Isabel took a candle, and went out into the hall to greet her father. She left the door ajar, and George could hear her talking to Mr. Sleaford; but the barrister answered his daughter with a very ill grace, and the speech which George heard plainest gave him no very favourable impression of his host.
"Give me the light, girl, and don't bother!" Mr. Sleaford said. "I've been worried this day until my head's all of a muddle. Don't stand staring at me, child! Tell your mother I've got some work to do, and mayn't go to bed all night."
"You've been worried, papa?"
"Yes; infernally. And I don't want to be bothered by stupid questions now I've got home. Give me the light, can't you?"
The heavy footsteps went slowly up the uncarpeted staircase, a door opened on the floor above, and the footsteps were heard in the room over the parlour.
Isabel came in, looking very grave, and sat down, away from the table.
George saw that all pleasure was over for that night; and even Sigismund came to a pause in his depredations on the cheese, and meditated, with a pickled onion on the end of his fork.
He was thinking that a father who ill-used his daughter would not be a bad subject for penny numbers; and he made a mental plan of the plot for a new romance.
If Mr. Sleaford had business which required to be done that night, he seemed in no great hurry to begin his work; for the heavy footsteps tramped up and down, up and down the floor overhead, as steadily as if the barrister had been some ascetic Romanist who had appointed a penance for himself, and was working it out in the solitude of his own chamber. A church clock in the distance struck eleven presently, and a Dutch clock in the kitchen struck three, which was tolerably near the mark for any clock in Mr. Sleaford's house. Isabel and her mother made a stir, as if about to retire; so Sigismund got up, and lighted a couple of candles for himself and his friend. He undertook to show George to the room that had been prepared for him, and the two young men went up-stairs together, after bidding the ladies good night. Horace had fallen asleep, with his elbows upon the table, and his hair flopping against the flaring tallow-candle near him. The young surgeon took very little notice of the apartment to which he was conducted. He was worn out by his journey, and all the fatigue of the long summer day; so he undressed quickly, and fell asleep while his friend was talking to him through the half-open door between the two bedrooms. George slept, but not soundly; for he was accustomed to a quiet house, in which no human creature stirred after ten o'clock at night; and the heavy tramp of Mr. Sleaford's footsteps in a room near at hand disturbed the young man's slumbers, and mixed themselves with his dreams.
It seemed to George Gilbert as if Mr. Sleaford walked up and down his room all night, and long after the early daylight shone through the dingy window-curtains. George was not surprised, therefore, when he was told at breakfast next morning that his host had not yet risen, and was not likely to appear for some hours. Isabel had to go to the Walworth Road on some mysterious mission; and George overheard fragments of a whispered conversation between the young lady and her mother in the passage outside the parlour-door, in which the word "poor's rates," and "summonses," and "silver spoons," and "backing," and "interest," figured several times.
Mrs. Sleaford was busy about the house, and the boys were scattered; so George and Sigismund took their breakfast comfortably together, and read Mr. Sleaford's "Times," which was not as yet required for that gentleman's own use. Sigismund made a plan of the day. He would take a holiday for once in a way, he said, and would escort his friend to the Royal Academy, and divers other picture-galleries, and would crown the day's enjoyment by a French dinner.
The two young men left the house at eleven o'clock. They had seen nothing of Isabel that morning, nor of the master of the house. All that George Gilbert knew of that gentleman was the fact that Mr. Sleaford had a heavy footstep and a deep sulky voice.
The 21st of July was a blazing summer's day, and I am ashamed to confess that George Gilbert grew very tired of staring at the pictures in the Royal Academy. To him the finest works of modern art were only "pretty pictures," more or less interesting according to the story they told; and Sigismund's disquisitions upon "modelling," and "depth," and "feeling," and tone, and colour, and distance, were so much unintelligible jargon; so he was glad when the day's work was over, and Mr. Smith led him away to a very dingy street a little way behind the National Gallery.
"And now I'm going to give you a regular French dinner, George, old fellow;" Sigismund said, in a triumphant tone.
Mr. Gilbert looked about him with an air of mystification. He had been accustomed to associate French dinners with brilliantly lighted caf�s and gorgeous saloons, where the chairs were crimson velvet and gold, and where a dozen vast sheets of looking-glass reflected you as you ate your soup. He was a little disappointed, perhaps, when Sigismund paused before a narrow doorway, on each side of which there was an old-fashioned window with queer-shaped wine and liqueur bottles neatly ranged behind the glass. A big lantern-shaped lamp hung over the door, and below one of the windows was an iron grating, through which a subtle flavour of garlic and mock-turtle soup steamed out upon the summer air.
"This is Boujeot's," said Mr. Smith. "It's the jolliest place; no grandeur, you know, but capital wine and first-rate cooking. The Emperor of the French used to dine here almost every day when he was in England; but he never told any one his name, and the waiters didn't know who he was till they saw his portrait as President in the 'Illustrated News.'"
It is a popular fiction that the Prince Louis Napoleon was in the habit of dining daily at every French restaurant in London during the years of his exile; a fiction which gives a romantic flavour to the dishes, and an aroma of poetry to the wines. George Gilbert looked about him as he seated himself at a little table chosen by his friend, and he wondered whether Napoleon the Third had ever sat at that particular table, and whether the table-cloth had been as dirty in his time. The waiters at Boujeot's were very civil and accommodating, though they were nearly harassed off their legs by the claims of desultory gentlemen in the public apartments, and old customers dining by pre-arrangement in the private rooms up-stairs. Sigismund pounced upon a great sheet of paper, which looked something like a chronological table, and on the blank margins of which the pencil records of dinners lately consumed and paid for had been hurriedly jotted down by the harassed waiters. Mr. Smith was a long time absorbed in the study of this mysterious document; so George Gilbert amused himself by staring at some coffee-coloured marine views upon the walls, which were supposed to represent the Bay of Biscay and the Cape of Good Hope, with brown waves rolling tempestuously under a brown sky. George stared at these, and at a gentleman who was engaged in the soul-absorbing occupation of paying his bill; and then the surgeon's thoughts went vagabondizing away from the little coffee-room at Boujeot's to Mr. Sleaford's garden, and Isabel's pale face and yellow-black eyes, glimmering mysteriously in the summer twilight. He thought of Miss Sleaford because she was so unlike any other woman he had ever seen, and he wondered how his father would like her. Not much, George feared; for Mr. Gilbert senior expected a young woman to be very neat about her back-hair, which Isabel was not, and handy with her needle, and clever in the management of a house and the government of a maid-of-all-work; and Isabel could scarcely be that, since her favourite employment was to loll in a wicker-work garden-chair and read novels.
The dinner came in at last, with little pewter covers over the dishes, which the waiter drew one by one out of a mysterious kind of wooden oven, from which there came a voice, and nothing more. The two young men dined; and George thought that, except for the fried potatoes, which flew about his plate when he tried to stick his fork into them, and a flavour of garlic, that pervaded everything savoury, and faintly hovered over the sweets, a French dinner was not so very unlike an English one. But Sigismund served out the little messes with an air of swelling pride, and George was fain to smack his lips with the manner of a connoisseur when his friend asked him what he thought of the filets de sole � la ma�tre d'h�tel, or the rognons � la South African sherry.
Somehow or other, George was glad when the dinner was eaten and paid for, and it was time to go home to Camberwell. It was only seven o'clock as yet, and the sun was shining on the fountains as the young men went across Trafalgar Square. They took an omnibus at Charing Cross, and rode to the turnpike at Walworth, in the hope of being in time to get a cup of tea before Mrs. Sleaford let the fire out; for that lady had an aggravating trick of letting out the kitchen-fire at half-past seven or eight o'clock on summer evenings, after which hour hot water was an impossibility; unless Mr. Sleaford wanted grog, in which case a kettle was set upon a bundle of blazing firewood.
George Gilbert did not particularly care whether or not there was any tea to be procured at Camberwell, but he looked forward with a faint thrill of pleasure to the thought of a stroll with Isabel in the twilit garden. He thought so much of this, that he was quite pleased when the big, ill-looking house and the dead wall that surrounded it became visible across the barren waste of ground that was called a common. He was quite pleased, not with any fierce or passionate emotion, but with a tranquil sense of pleasure. When they came to the wooden door in the garden-wall, Sigismund Smith stooped down and gave his usual whistle at the keyhole; but he looked up suddenly, and cried:
"Well, I'm blest!"
"What's the matter?"
"The door's open."
Mr. Smith pushed it as he spoke, and the two young men went into the front garden.
"In all the time I've lived with the Sleafords, that never happened before," said Sigismund. "Mr. Sleaford's awfully particular about the gate being kept locked. He says that the neighbourhood's a queer one, and you never know what thieves are hanging about the place; though, inter nos, I don't see that there's much to steal hereabouts," Mr. Smith added, in a confidential whisper.
The door of the house, as well as that of the garden, was open. Sigismund went into the hall, followed closely by George. The parlour door was open too, and the room was empty—the room was empty, and it had an abnormal appearance of tidiness, as if all the litter and rubbish had been suddenly scrambled together and carried away. There was a scrap of old frayed rope upon the table, lying side by side with some tin-tacks, a hammer, and a couple of blank luggage-labels.
George did not stop to look at these; he went straight to the open window and looked out into the garden. He had so fully expected to see Isabel sitting under the pear-tree with a novel in her lap, that he started and drew back with an exclamation of surprise at finding the garden empty; the place seemed so strangely blank without the girlish figure lolling in the basket-chair. It was as if George Gilbert had been familiar with that garden for the last ten years, and had never seen it without seeing Isabel in her accustomed place.
"I suppose Miss Sleaford—I suppose they're all out," the surgeon said, rather dolefully.
"I suppose they are out," Sigismund answered, looking about him with a puzzled air; "and yet, that's strange. They don't often go out; at least, not all at once. They seldom go out at all, in fact, except on errands. I'll call the girl."
He opened the door and looked into the front parlour before going to carry out this design, and he started back upon the threshold as if he had seen a ghost.
"What is it?" cried George.
"My luggage and your portmanteau, all packed and corded; look!"
Mr. Smith pointed as he spoke to a couple of trunks, a hatbox, a carpet-bag, and a portmanteau, piled in a heap in the centre of the room. He spoke loudly in his surprise; and the maid-of-all-work came in with her cap hanging by a single hair-pin to a knob of tumbled hair.
"Oh, sir!" she said, "they're all gone; they went at six o'clock this evenin'; and they're going to America, missus says; and she packed all your things, and she thinks you'd better have 'em took round to the greengrocer's immediant, for fear of being seized for the rent, which is three-quarters doo; but you was to sleep in the house to-night, if you pleased, and your friend likewise; and I was to get you your breakfastes in the morning, before I take the key round to the Albany Road, and tell the landlord as they've gone away, which he don't know it yet."
"GONE AWAY!" said Sigismund; "GONE AWAY!"
"Yes, sir, every one of 'em; and the boys was so pleased that they would go shoutin' 'ooray, 'ooray, all over the garding, though Mr. Sleaford swore at 'em awful, and did hurry and tear so, I thought he was a-goin' mad. But Miss Isabel, she cried about goin' so sudden and seemed all pale and frightened like. And there's a letter on the chimbley-piece, please, which she put it there."
Sigismund pounced upon the letter, and tore it open. George read it over his friend's shoulder. It was only two lines.
"DEAR MR. SMITH,—Don't think hardly of us for going away so suddenly. Papa says it must be so.
"Yours ever faithfully,
"I should like to keep that letter," George said, blushing up to the roots of his hair. "Miss Sleaford writes a pretty hand."