The young surgeon went home to Midlandshire with his fellow-excursionists, when the appointed Monday came round. He met Miss Burdock and her sister on the platform in Euston Square, and received those ladies from the hands of their aunt. Sophronia did not blush now when her eyes met George Gilbert's frank stare. She had danced twice with a young barrister at the little quadrille-party which her aunt had given in honour of the maltster's daughters; a young barrister who was tall and dark and stylish, and who spoke of Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne as a benighted place, which was only endurable for a week or so in the hunting season. Miss Sophronia Burdock's ideas had expanded during that week in Baker Street, and she treated her travelling companion with an air of haughty indifference, which might have wounded George to the quick had he been aware of the change in the lady's manner. But poor George saw no alteration in the maltster's daughter; he watched no changes of expression in the face opposite to him as the rushing engine carried him back to Midlandshire. He was thinking of another face, which he had only seen for a few brief hours, and which he was perhaps never again to look upon; a pale girlish countenance, framed with dense black hair; a pale face, out of which there looked large solemn eyes, like stars that glimmer faintly through the twilight shadows.
Before leaving London, George had obtained a promise from his friend Sigismund Smith. Whatever tidings Mr. Smith should at any time hear about the Sleafords, he was to communicate immediately to the young surgeon of Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne. It was, of course, very absurd of George to take such an interest in this singular family; the young man admitted as much himself; but, then, singular people are always more or less interesting; and, having been a witness of Mr. Sleaford's abrupt departure, it was only natural that George should want to know the end of the story. If these people were really gone to America, why, of course, it was all over; but if they had not left London, some one or other of the family might turn up some day, and in that case Sigismund was to write and tell his friend all about it.
George Gilbert's last words upon the platform at Euston Square had relation to this subject; and all the way home he kept debating in his mind whether it was likely the Sleafords had really gone to America, or whether the American idea had been merely thrown out with a view to the mystification of the irate landlord.
Life at Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne was as slow and sleepy as the river which widened in the flat meadows outside the town; the dear old river which crept lazily past the mouldering wall of the churchyard, and licked the moss-grown tombstones that had lurched against that ancient boundary. Everything at Graybridge was more or less old and quaint and picturesque; but the chief glory of Graybridge was the parish church; a grand old edifice which was planted beyond the outskirts of the town, and approached by a long avenue of elms, beneath whose shadow the tombstones glimmered whitely in the sun. The capricious Wayverne, which was perpetually winding across your path wheresoever you wandered in pleasant Midlandshire, was widest here; and on still summer days the grey towers of the old church looked down at other phantasmal towers in the tranquil water.
George used to wander in this churchyard sometimes on his return from a trout-fishing expedition, and, lounging among the tombstones with his rod upon his shoulder, would abandon himself to the simple day-dreams he loved best to weave.
But the young surgeon had a good deal of work to do, now that his father had admitted him to the solemn rights of partnership, and very little time for any sentimental musings in the churchyard. The parish work in itself was very heavy, and George rode long distances on his steady-going grey pony to attend to captious patients, who gave him small thanks for his attendance. He was a very soft-hearted young man, and he often gave his slender pocket-money to those of his patients who wanted food rather than medicine. Little by little people grew to understand that George Gilbert was very different from his father, and had a tender pity for the sorrows and sufferings it was a part of his duty to behold. Love and gratitude for this young doctor may have been somewhat slow to spring up in the hearts of his parish patients; but they took a deep root, and became hardy, vigorous plants before the first year of George's service was over. Before that year came to a close the partnership between the father and son had been irrevocably dissolved, without the aid of legal practitioners, or any legal formulas whatsoever; and George Gilbert was sole master of the old house with the whitewashed plaster-walls and painted beams of massive oak.
The young man lamented the loss of his father with all that single-minded earnestness which was the dominant attribute of his character. He had been as obedient to his father at the last as he had been at the first; as submissive in his manhood as in his childhood. But in his obedience there had been nothing childish or cowardly. He was obedient because he believed his father to be wise and good, reverencing the old man with simple, unquestioning veneration. And now that the father was gone, George Gilbert began life in real earnest. The poor of Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne had good reason to rejoice at the change which had given the young doctor increase of means and power. He was elected unanimously to the post his father's death had left nominally vacant; and wherever there was sickness and pain, his kindly face seemed to bring comfort, his bright blue eyes seemed to inspire courage. He took an atmosphere of youth and hope and brave endurance with him everywhere, which was more invigorating than the medicines he prescribed; and, next to Mr. Neate the curate, George Gilbert was the best-beloved and most popular man in Graybridge.
He had never had any higher ambition than this. He had no wish to strive or to achieve; he only wanted to be useful; and when he heard the parable of the Talents read aloud in the old church, a glow of gentle happiness thrilled through his veins as he thought of his own small gifts, which had never yet been suffered to grow rusty for lack of service.
The young man's life could scarcely have been more sheltered from the storm and tempest of the world, though the walls of some medi�val monastery had encircled his little surgery. Could the tumults of passion ever have a home in the calm breast of these quiet provincials, whose regular lives knew no greater change than the slow alternation of the seasons, whose orderly existences were never disturbed by an event? Away at Conventford there were factory strikes, and political dissensions, and fighting and rioting now and then; but here the tranquil days crept by, and left no mark by which they might be remembered.
Miss Sophronia Burdock did not long cherish the memory of the dark-haired barrister she had met in Baker Street. To do so would have been as foolish as to "love some bright particular star, and think to wed it," in the young damsel's opinion. She wisely banished the barrister's splendid image, and she smiled once more upon Mr. Gilbert when she met him coming out of church in the cold wintry sunlight, looking to especial advantage in his new mourning clothes. But George was blind to the sympathetic smiles that greeted him. He was not in love with Miss Sophronia Burdock. The image of Isabel's pale face had faded into a very indistinct shadow by this time; nay, it was almost entirely blotted out by the young man's grief for his father's death; but if his heart was empty enough now, there was no place in it for Miss Burdock, though it was hinted at in Graybridge that a dower of four thousand pounds would accompany that fair damsel's hand. George Gilbert had no high-flown or sentimental notions; but he would have thought it no greater shame to rifle the contents of the maltster's iron safe, than to enrich himself with the possessions of a woman he did not love.
In the meantime he lived his peaceful life in the house where he had been born, mourning with simple, natural sorrow for the old father who had so long sat at the opposite side of the hearth, reading a local paper by the light of a candle held between his eyes and the small print, and putting down the page every now and then to descant, at his ease, upon the degeneracy of the times. The weak, loving, fidgety father was gone now, and George looked blankly at the empty chair which had taken the old man's shape; but his sorrow was unembittered by vain remorse or cruel self-reproach: he had been a good son, and he could look back at his life with his dead father, and thank God for the peaceful life that they had spent together.
But he was very lonely now in the old house, which was a bare, blank place, peopled by no bright inanimate creations by which art fills the homes of wealthy hermits with fair semblances of life. The empty walls stared down upon the young man as he sat alone in the dim candlelight, till he was fain to go into the kitchen, which was the most cheerful room in the house, and where he could talk to William and Tilly, while he lounged against the quaint old angle of the high oaken chimney-piece smoking his cigar.
William and Tilly were a certain Mr. and Mrs. Jeffson, who had come southwards with the pretty young woman whom Mr. John Gilbert had encountered in the course of a holiday-trip to a quiet Yorkshire town, where the fair towers of a minster rose above a queer old street, beyond whose gabled roofs lay spreading common-lands, fair pasture-farms, and pleasant market-gardens. It was in the homestead attached to one of these pasture-farms that John Gilbert had met the bright, rosy-faced girl whom he made his wife; and Mr. and Mrs. Jeffson were poor relations of the young lady's father. At Mrs. Gilbert's entreaty they consented to leave the little bit of garden and meadow-land which they rented near her father's farm, and followed the surgeon's wife to her new home, where Matilda Jeffson took upon herself the duties of housekeeper, general manager, and servant-of-all-work; while her husband looked after the surgeon's table, and worked in the long, old-fashioned garden, where the useful element very much preponderated over the ornamental.
I am compelled to admit that, in common with almost all those bright and noble qualities which can make man admirable, Mr. William Jeffson possessed one failing. He was lazy. But then his laziness gave such a delicious, easy-going tone to his whole character, and was so much a part of his good nature and benevolence, that to wish him faultless would have been to wish him something less than he was. There are some people whose faults are better than other people's virtues. Mr. Jeffson was lazy. In the garden which it was his duty to cultivate, the snails crawled along their peaceful way, unhindered by cruel rake or hoe; but then, on the other hand, the toads grew fat in shadowy corners under the broad dock-leaves, and the empty shells of their slimy victims attested the uses of those ugly and venomous reptiles. The harmony of the universe asserted itself in that Midlandshire garden, unchecked by any presumptuous interference from Mr. Jeffson. The weeds grew high in waste patches of ground, left here and there amongst the gooseberry-bushes and the cabbages, the raspberries and potatoes; and William Jeffson offered little hindrance to their rank luxuriance. "There was room enough for all he wanted," he said philosophically; "and ground that wouldn't grow weeds would be good for naught. Mr. Gilbert had more fruit and vegetables than he could eat or cared to give away; and surely that was enough for anybody." Officious visitors would sometimes suggest this or that alteration or improvement in the simple garden; but Mr. Jeffson would only smile at them with a bland, sleepy smile, as he lolled upon his spade, and remark, "that he'd been used to gardens all his life, and knew what could be made out of 'em, and what couldn't."
In short, Mr. Jeffson and Matilda Jeffson his wife did as they liked in the surgeon's house, and had done so ever since that day upon which they came to Midlandshire to take friendly service with their second cousin, pretty Mrs. John Gilbert. They took very small wages from their kinswoman's husband, but they had their own apartments, and lived as they pleased, and ordered the lives of their master and mistress, and idolized the fair-haired baby-boy who was born by-and-by, and who grew day by day under their loving eyes, when the tender gaze of his mother had ceased to follow his toddling footsteps, or yearn for the sight of his frank, innocent face. Mr. Jeffson may have neglected the surgeon's garden, by reason of that lymphatic temperament which was peculiar to him; but there was one business in which he never lacked energy, one pursuit in which he knew no weariness. He was never tired of any labour which contributed to the pleasure or amusement of Mr. Gilbert's only son. He carried the child on his shoulders for long journeys to distant meadows in the sunshiny haymaking season, when all the air was fragrant with the scent of grass and flowers; he clambered through thorny gaps amidst the brambly underwood, and tore the flesh off his poor big hands hunting for blackberries and cob-nuts for Master "Jarge." He persuaded his master into the purchase of a pony when the boy was five years old, and the little fellow trotted to Wareham at Mr. Jeffson's side when that gentleman went on errands for the Graybridge household. William Jeffson had no children of his own, and he loved the surgeon's boy with all the fondness of a nature peculiarly capable of love and devotion.
It was a bitter day for him when Master Jarge went to the Classical and Commercial Academy at Wareham; and but for those happy Saturday afternoons on which he went to fetch the boy for a holiday that lasted till Sunday evening, poor William Jeffson would have lost all the pleasures of his simple life. What was the good of haymaking if George wasn't in the thick of the fun, clambering on the loaded wain, or standing flushed and triumphant, high up against the sunlit sky on the growing summit of the new-made stack? What could be drearier work than feeding the pigs, or milking the cow, unless Master Jarge was by to turn labour into pleasure by the bright magic of his presence? William Jeffson went about his work with a grave countenance during the boy's absence, and only brightened on those delicious Saturday afternoons when Master Jarge came hurrying to the little wooden gate in Dr. Mulder's playground, shouting a merry welcome to his friend. There was no storm of rain or hail, snow or sleet, that ever came out of the heavens, heavy enough to hinder Mr. Jeffson's punctual attendance at that little gate. What did he care for drenching showers, or thunderclaps that seemed to shake the earth, so long as the little wooden gate opened, and the fair young face he loved poked out at him with a welcoming smile?
"Our boys laid any money you wouldn't come to-day, Jeff," Master Gilbert said sometimes; "but I knew there wasn't any weather invented that would keep you away."
O blessed reward of fidelity and devotion! What did William Jeffson want more than this?
Matilda Jeffson loved her master's son very dearly in her own way; but her household duties were a great deal heavier than Mr. Jeffson's responsibilities, and she had little time to waste upon the poetry of affection. She kept the boy's wardrobe in excellent order; baked rare batches of hot cakes on Saturday afternoons for his special gratification; sent him glorious hampers, in which there were big jars of gooseberry-jam, pork-pies, plum-loaves, and shrivelled apples. In all substantial matters Mrs. Jeffson was as much the boy's friend as her husband; but that tender, sympathetic devotion which William felt for his master's son was something beyond her comprehension.
"My master's daft about the lad," she said, when she spoke of the two.
George Gilbert taught his companion a good deal in those pleasant Saturday evenings, when the surgeon was away amongst his patients, and the boy was free to sit in the kitchen with Mr. and Mrs. Jeffson. He told the Yorkshireman all about those enemies of boyhood, the classic poets; but William infinitely preferred Shakespeare and Milton, Byron and Scott, to the accomplished Romans, whose verses were of the lamest as translated by George. Mr. Jeffson could never have enough of Shakespeare. He was never weary of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Romeo, the bright young Prince who tried on his father's crown, bold Hotspur, ill-used Richard, passionate Margaret, murderous Gloster, ruined Wolsey, noble Katharine. All that grand gallery of pictures unrolled its splendours for this man, and the schoolboy wondered at the enthusiasm he was powerless to understand. He was inclined to think that practical Mrs. Jeffson was right, and that her husband was a little "daft" upon some matters.
The boy returned his humble friend's affection with a steady, honest regard, that richly compensated the gardener, whose love was not of a nature to need much recompense, since its growth was as spontaneous and unconscious as that of the wild flowers amongst the long grass. George returned William Jeffson's affection, but he could not return it in kind. The poetry of friendship was not in his nature. He was honest, sincere, and true, but not sympathetic or assimilative; he preserved his own individuality wherever he went, and took no colour from the people amongst whom he lived.
Mr. Gilbert would have been very lonely now that his father was gone, had it not been for this honest couple, who managed his house and garden, his stable and paddocks, and watched his interests as earnestly as if he had been indeed their son. Whenever he had a spare half-hour, the young man strolled into the old-fashioned kitchen, and smoked his cigar in the chimney-corner, where he had passed so much of his boyhood.
"When I sit here, Jeff," he said sometimes, "I seem to go back to the old school-days again, and I fancy I hear Brown Molly's hoofs upon the frosty road, and my father's voice calling to you to open the gate."
Mr. Jeffson sighed, as he looked up from the mending of a bridle or the patching of a horse-cloth.
"Them was pleasant days, Master Jarge," he said, regretfully. He was thinking that the schoolboy had been more to him and nearer to him than the young surgeon could ever be. They had been children together, these two, and William had never grown weary of his childhood. He was left behind now that his companion had grown up, and the happy childish days were all over. There was a gigantic kite on a shelf in the back-kitchen; a kite that Mr. Jeffson had made with his own patient hands. George Gilbert would have laughed now if that kite had been mentioned to him; but William Jeffson would have been constant to the same boyish sports until his hair was grey, and would have never known weariness of spirit.
"You'll be marrying some fine lady, maybe now, Master Jarge," Mrs. Jeffson said; "and she'll look down upon our north-country ways, and turn us out of the old place where we've lived so long."
But George protested eagerly that, were he to marry the daughter of the Queen of England, which was not particularly likely, that royal lady should take kindly to his old servants, or should be no wife of his.
"When I marry, my wife must love the people I love," said, the surgeon, who entertained those superb theories upon the management of a wife which are peculiar to youthful bachelors.
George further informed his humble friends that he was not likely to enter the holy estate of matrimony for many years to come, as he had so far seen no one who at all approached his idea of womanly perfection. He had very practical views upon this subject, and meant to wait patiently until some faultless young person came across his pathway; some neat-handed, church-going damsel, with tripping feet and smoothly-banded hair; some fair young sage, who had never been known to do a foolish act or say an idle word. Sometimes the image of Isabel Sleaford trembled faintly upon the magic mirror of the young man's reveries, and he wondered whether, under any combination of circumstances, she would ever arrive at this standard. Oh, no, it was impossible. He looked back to the drowsy summer-time, and saw her lolling in the garden-chair, with the shadows of the branches fluttering upon her tumbled muslin dress, and her black hair pushed anyhow away from the broad low brow.
"I hope that foolish Sigismund won't meet Miss Sleaford again," George thought, very gravely; "he might be silly enough to marry her, and I'm sure she'd never make a good wife for any man."
George Gilbert's father died in the autumn of '52; and early in the following spring the young man received a letter from his friend Mr. Smith. Sigismund wrote very discursively about his own prospects and schemes, and gave his friend a brief synopsis of the romance he had last begun. George skimmed lightly enough over this part of the letter; but as he turned the leaf by-and-by, he saw a name that brought the blood to his face. He was vexed with himself for that involuntary blush, and sorely puzzled to know why he should be so startled by the unexpected sight of Isabel Sleaford's name.
"You made me promise to tell you anything that turned up about the Sleafords," Sigismund wrote. "You'll be very much surprised to hear that Miss Sleaford came to me the other day here in my chambers, and asked me if I could help her in any way to get her living. She wanted me to recommend her as a nursery-governess, or companion, or something of that kind, if I knew of any family in want of such a person. She was staying at Islington with a sister of her step-mother's, she told me; but she couldn't be a burthen on her any longer. Mrs. Sleaford and the boys have gone to live in Jersey, it seems, on account of things being cheap there; and I have no doubt that boy Horace will become an inveterate smoker. Poor Sleaford is dead. You'll be as much astounded as I was to hear this. Isabel did not tell me this at first; but I saw that she was dressed in black, and when I asked her about her father, she burst out crying, and sobbed as if heart would break. I should like to have ascertained what the poor fellow died of, and all about it,—for Sleaford was not an old man, and one of the most powerful-looking fellows I ever saw,—but I could not torture Izzie with questions while she was in such a state of grief and agitation. 'I'm very sorry you've lost your father, my dear Miss Sleaford,' I said: and she sobbed out something that I scarcely heard, and I got her some cold water to drink, and it was ever so long before she came round again and was able to talk to me. Well, I couldn't think of anybody that was likely to help her that day; but I took the address of her aunt's house at Islington, and promised to call upon her there in a day or two. I wrote by that day's post to my mother, and asked her if she could help me; and she wrote back by return to tell me that my uncle, Charles Raymond, at Conventford, was in want of just such a person as Miss Sleaford (of course I had endowed Isabel with all the virtues under the sun), and if I really thought Miss S. would suit, and I could answer for the perfect respectability of her connections and antecedents,—it isn't to be supposed that I was going to say anything about that three quarters' rent, or that I should own that Isabel's antecedents were lolling in a garden-chair reading novels, or going on suspicious errands to the jeweller ('O my prophetic soul!' et cetera) in the Walworth Road,—why, I was to engage Miss S. at twenty pounds a year salary. I went up to Islington that very afternoon, although I was a number and a half behind with 'The Demon of the Galleys' ('The D. of the G.' is a sequel to 'The Brand upon the Shoulder-blade;' the proprietor of the 'Penny Parthenon' insisted upon having a sequel, and I had to bring Colonel Montefiasco to life again, after hurling him over a precipice three hundred feet high),—and the poor girl began to cry when I told her I'd found a home for her. I'm afraid she's had a great deal of trouble since the Sleafords left Camberwell; for she isn't at all the girl she was. Her step-mother's sister is a vulgar woman who lets lodgings, and there's only one servant—such a miserable slavey; and Isabel went to the door three times while I was there. You know my uncle Raymond, and you know what a dear jolly fellow he is; so you may guess the change will be a very pleasant one for poor Izzie. By the bye, you might call and see her the first time you're in Conventford, and write me word how the poor child gets on. I thought she seemed a little frightened at the idea of going among strangers. I saw her off at Euston Square the day before yesterday. She went by the parliamentary train; and I put her in charge of a most respectable family going all the way through, with six children, and a birdcage, and a dog, and a pack of cards to play upon a tea-tray on account of the train being slow."
Mr. Gilbert read this part of his friend's letter three times over before he was able to realize the news contained in it. Mr. Sleaford dead, and Isabel settled as a nursery-governess at Conventford! If the winding Wayverne had overflowed its sedgy banks and flooded all Midlandshire, the young surgeon could have been scarcely more surprised than he was by the contents of his friend's letter. Isabel at Conventford—within eleven miles of Graybridge; within eleven miles of him at that moment, as he walked up and down the little room, with his hair tumbled all about his flushed good-looking face, and Sigismund's letter in his waistcoat!
What was it to him that Isabel Sleaford was so near? What was she to him, that he should think of her, or be fluttered by the thought that she was within his reach? What did he know of her? Only that she had eyes that were unlike any other eyes he had ever looked at; eyes that haunted his memory like strange stars seen in a feverish dream. He knew nothing of her but this: and that she had a pretty, sentimental manner, a pensive softness in her voice, and sudden flights and capricious changes of expression that had filled his mind with wonder.
George went back to the kitchen and smoked another cigar in Mr. Jeffson's company. He went back to that apartment fully determined to waste no more of his thoughts upon Isabel Sleaford, who was in sober truth a frivolous, sentimental creature, eminently adapted to make any man miserable; but somehow or other, before the cigar was finished, George had told his earliest friend and confidant all about Mr. Sleaford's family, touching very lightly upon Isabel's attractions, and speaking of a visit to Conventford as a disagreeable duty that friendship imposed.
"Of course I shouldn't think of going all that way on purpose to see Miss Sleaford," he said, "though Sigismund seems to expect me to do so; but I must go to Conventford in the course of the week, to see about those drugs Johnson promised to get me. They won't make a very big parcel, and I can bring them home in my coat-pocket. You might trim Brown Molly's fetlocks, Jeff; she'll look all the better for it. I'll go on Thursday; and yet I don't know that I couldn't better spare the time to-morrow."
"To-morrow's market-day, Master Jarge. I was thinkin' of goin' t' Conventford mysen. I might bring t' droogs for thee, and thoo couldst write a noate askin' after t' young leddy," Mr. Jeffson remarked, thoughtfully.
George shook his head. "That would never do, Jeff," he said; "Sigismund asks me to go and see her."
Mr. Jeffson relapsed into a thoughtful silence, out of which he emerged by-and-by with a slow chuckle.
"I reckon Miss Sleaford'll be a pretty girl," he remarked, thoughtfully, with rather a sly glance at his young master.
George Gilbert found it necessary to enter into an elaborate explanation upon this subject. No; Miss Sleaford was not pretty. She had no colour in her cheeks, and her nose was nothing particular,—not a beautiful queenlike hook, like that of Miss Harleystone, the belle of Graybridge, who was considered like the youthful members of the peerage,—and her mouth wasn't very small, and her forehead was low; and, in short, some people might think Miss Sleaford plain.
"But thoo doesn't, Master Jarge!" exclaimed Mr. Jeffson, clapping his hand upon his knee with an intolerable chuckle; "thoo thinkst summoat of her. I'll lay; and I'll trim Brown Molly's fetlocks till she looks as genteel as a thoroughbred."
"Thoo'rt an old fondy!" cried Mrs. Jeffson, looking up from her needlework. "It isn't one of these London lasses as'll make a good wife for Master Jarge; and he'd never be that soft as to go running after nursery-governesses at Conventford, when he might have Miss Burdock and all her money, and be one of the first gentlefolks in Graybridge."
"Hold thy noise, Tilly. Thou knowst nowt aboot it. Didn't I marry thee for loove, lass, when I might have had Sarah Peglock, as was only daughter to him as kept t' Red Lion in Belminster; and didn't I come up to London, where thou wast in service, and take thee away from thy pleace; and wasn't Sarah a'most wild when she heard it? Master Jarge 'll marry for loove, or he'll never marry at all. Don't you remember her as wore the pink sash and shoes wi' sandals at the dancin' school, Master Jarge; and us takin' her a ploom-loaf, and a valentine, and sugar-sticks, and oranges, when you was home for th' holidays?"
Mr. Jeffson had been the confidant of all George's boyish love-affairs, the innocent Leporello of this young provincial Juan; and he was eager to be trusted with new secrets, and to have a finger once more in the sentimental pie. But nothing could be more stern than Mr. Gilbert's denial of any romantic fancy for Miss Sleaford.
"I should be very glad to befriend her in any way," he said gravely; "but she's the very last person in the world that I should ever dream of making my wife."
This young man discussed his matrimonial views with the calm grandiosity of manner with which man, the autocrat, talks of his humble slaves before he has tried his hand at governing them,—before he has received the fiery baptism of suffering, and learned by bitter experience that a perfect woman is not a creature to be found at every street-corner waiting meekly for her ruler.