Brown Molly's fetlocks were neatly trimmed by Mr. Jeffson's patient hands. I fancy the old mare would have gone long without a clipping, had it not been George's special pleasure that the animal should be smartened up before he rode her to Conventford. Clipping is not a very pleasant labour: but there is no task so difficult that William Jeffson would have shrunk from it, if its achievement could give George Gilbert happiness.
Brown Molly looked a magnificent creature when George came home, after a hurried round of professional visits, and found her saddled and bridled, at eleven o'clock, on the bright March morning which he had chosen for his journey to Conventford. But though, the mare was ready, and had been ready for a quarter of an hour, there was some slight delay while George ran up to his room,—the room which he had slept in from his earliest boyhood (there were some of his toys, dusty and forgotten, amongst the portmanteaus and hat-boxes at the top of the painted deal wardrobe),—and was for some little time engaged in changing his neckcloth, brushing his hair and hat, and making other little improvements in his personal appearance.
William Jeffson declared that his young master looked as if he was going straight off to be married, as he rode away out of the stable-yard, with a bright eager smile upon his face and the spring breezes blowing amongst his hair. He looked the very incarnation of homely, healthy comeliness, the archetype of honest youth and simple English manhood, radiant with the fresh brightness of an unsullied nature, untainted by an evil memory, pure as a new-polished mirror on which no foul breath has ever rested.
He rode away to his fate, self-deluded, and happy in the idea that his journey was a wise blending of the duties of friendship and the cares of his surgery.
I do not think there can be a more beautiful road in all England than that between Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne and Conventford, and I can scarcely believe that in all England there is an uglier town than Conventford itself. I envy George Gilbert his long ride on that bright March morning, when the pale primroses glimmered among the underwood, and the odour of early violets mingled faintly with the air. The country roads were long avenues, which might have made the glory of a ducal park; and every here and there, between a gap in the budding hedge, a white-walled country villa or grave old red-brick mansion peeped out of some nook of rustic beauty, with shining windows winking in the noontide sun.
Midway between Graybridge and Conventford there is the village of Waverly; the straggling village street over whose quaint Elizabethan roofs the ruined towers of a grand old castle cast their protecting shadows. John of Gaunt was master and founder of the grandest of those old towers, and Henry the Eighth's wonderful daughter has feasted in the great banqueting-hall, where the ivy hangs its natural garlands round the stone mullions of the Tudor window. The surgeon gave his steed a mouthful of hay and a drink of water before the Waverly Arms, and then sauntered at a foot-pace into the long unbroken arcade which stretches from the quiet village to the very outskirts of the bustling Conventford. George urged Brown Molly into a ponderous kind of canter by-and-by, and went at a dashing rate till he came to the little turnpike at the end of the avenue, and left fair Elizabethan Midlandshire behind him. Before him there was only the smoky, noisy, poverty-stricken town, with hideous factory chimneys blackening the air, and three tall spires rising from amongst the crowded roofs high up into the clearer sky.
Mr. Gilbert drew rein on the green, which was quiet enough to-day, though such an uproarious spot in fair-time; he drew rein, and began to wonder what he should do. Should he go to the chemist's in the market-place and get his drugs, and thence to Mr. Raymond's house, which was at the other end of the town, or rather on the outskirts of the country and beyond the town; or should he go first to Mr. Raymond's by quiet back lanes, which were clear of the bustle and riot of the market-people? To go to the chemist's first would be the wiser course, perhaps; but then it wouldn't be very agreeable to have drugs in his pocket, and to smell of rhubarb and camomile-flowers when he made his appearance before Miss Sleaford. After a good deal of deliberation, George decided on going by the back way to Mr. Raymond's house; and then, as he rode along the lanes and back slums, he began to think that Mr. Raymond would wonder why he called, and would think his interest in the nursery-governess odd, or even intrusive; and from that a natural transition of thought brought him to wonder whether it would not be better to abandon all idea of seeing Miss Sleaford, and to content himself with the purchase of the drugs. While he was thinking of this, Brown Molly brought him into the lane at the end of which Mr. Raymond's house stood, on a gentle eminence, looking over a wide expanse of grassy fields, a railway cutting, and a white high-road, dotted here and there by little knots of stunted trees. The country upon this side of Conventford was bleak and bare of aspect as compared to that fair park-like region which I venture to call Elizabethan Midlandshire.
If Mr. Raymond had resembled other people, I dare say he would have been considerably surprised—or, it may be, outraged—by a young gentleman in the medical profession venturing to make a morning call upon his nursery-governess; but as Mr. Charles Raymond was the very opposite of everybody else in the world, and as he was a most faithful disciple of Mr. George Combe, and could discover by a glance at the surgeon's head that the young man was neither a profligate nor a scoundrel, he received George as cordially as it was his habit to receive every living creature who had need of his friendliness; and sent Brown Molly away to his stable, and set her master at his ease, before George had quite left off blushing in his first paroxysm of shyness.
"Come into my room," cried Mr. Raymond, in a voice that had more vibration in it than any other voice that ever rang out upon the air; "come into my room. You've had a letter from Sigismund,—the idea of the absurd young dog calling himself Sigismund!—and he's told you all about Miss Sleaford. Very nice girl, but wants to be educated before she can teach; keeps the little ones amused, however, and takes them out in the meadows; a very nice, conscientious little thing; cautiousness very large; can't get anything out of her about her past life; turns pale and begins to cry when I ask her questions; has seen a good deal of trouble, I'm afraid. Never mind; we'll try and make her happy. What does her past life matter to us if her head's well balanced? Let me have my pick of the young people in Field Lane, and I'll find you an undeveloped Archbishop of Canterbury; take me into places where the crimes of mankind are only known by their names in the Decalogue, and I'll find you an embryo Greenacre. Miss Sleaford's a very good little girl; but she's got too much Wonder and exaggerated Ideality. She opens her big eyes when she talks of her favourite books, and looks up all scared and startled if you speak to her while she's reading."
Mr. Raymond's room was a comfortable little apartment, lined with books from the ceiling to the floor. There were books everywhere in Mr. Raymond's house; and the master of the house read at all manner of abnormal hours, and kept a candle burning by his bedside in the dead of the night, when every other citizen of Conventford was asleep. He was a bachelor, and the children whom it was Miss Sleaford's duty to educate were a couple of sickly orphans, left by a pale-faced niece of Charles Raymond's,—an unhappy young lady, who seemed only born to be unfortunate, and who had married badly, and lost her husband, and died of consumption, running through all the troubles common to womankind before her twenty-fifth birthday. Of course Mr. Raymond took the children; he would have taken an accidental chimney-sweep's children, if it could have been demonstrated to him that there was no one else to take them. He buried the pale-faced niece in a quiet suburban cemetery, and took the orphans home to his pretty house at Conventford, and bought black frocks for them, and engaged Miss Sleaford for their education, and made less fuss about the transaction than many men would have done concerning the donation of a ten-pound note.
It was Charles Raymond's nature to help his fellow-creatures. He had been very rich once, the Conventford people said, in those far-off golden days when there were neither strikes nor starvation in the grim old town; and he had lost a great deal of money in the carrying out of sundry philanthropic schemes for the benefit of his fellow-creatures, and was comparatively poor in these latter days. But he was never so poor as to be unable to help other people, or to hold his hand when a mechanics' institution, or a working-men's club, or an evening-school, or a cooking-d�p�t, was wanted for the benefit and improvement of Conventford.
And all this time,—while he was the moving spirit of half-a-dozen committees, while he distributed cast-off clothing, and coals, and tickets for soup, and orders for flannel, and debated the solemn question as to whether Betsy Scrubbs or Maria Tomkins was most in want of a wadded petticoat, or gave due investigation to the rival claims of Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Green to the largess of the soup kitchen,—he was an author, a philosopher, a phrenologist, a metaphysician, writing grave books, and publishing them for the instruction of mankind. He was fifty years of age; but, except that his hair was grey, he had no single attribute of age. That grey hair framed the brightest face that ever smiled upon mankind, and with the liberal sunshine smiled alike on all. George Gilbert had seen Mr. Raymond several times before to-day. Everybody in Conventford, or within a certain radius of Conventford, knew Mr. Charles Raymond; and Mr. Charles Raymond knew everybody. He looked through the transparent screen which shrouded the young surgeon's thoughts: he looked down into the young man's heart, through depths that were as clear as limpid water, and saw nothing there but truth and purity. When I say that Mr. Raymond looked into George Gilbert's heart, I use a figure of speech, for it was from the outside of the surgeon's head he drew his deductions; but I like the old romantic fancy, that a good man's heart is a temple of courage, love, and piety—an earthly shrine of all the virtues.
Mr. Raymond's house was a pretty Gothic building, half villa, half cottage, with bay windows opening into a small garden, which was very different from the garden at Camberwell, inasmuch as here all was trimly kept by an indefatigable gardener and factotum. Beyond the garden there were the meadows, only separated from Mr. Raymond's lawn by a low privet hedge; and beyond the meadows the roofs and chimneys of Conventford loomed darkly in the distance.
Charles Raymond took George into the drawing-room by-and-by, and from the bay window the young man saw Isabel Sleaford once more, as he had seen her first, in a garden. But the scene had a different aspect from that other scene, which still lingered in his mind, like a picture seen briefly in a crowded gallery. Instead of the pear-trees on the low disorderly grass-plat, the straggling branches green against the yellow sunshine of July, George saw a close-cropped lawn and trim flower-beds, stiff groups of laurel, amid bare bleak fields unsheltered from the chill March winds. Against the cold blue sky he saw Isabel's slight figure, not lolling in a garden-chair reading a novel, but walking primly with two pale-faced children dressed in black. A chill sense of pain crept through the surgeon's breast as he looked at the girlish figure, the pale joyless face, the sad dreaming eyes. He felt that some inexplicable change had come to Isabel Sleaford since that July day on which she had talked of her pet authors, and glowed and trembled with childish love for the dear books out of whose pages she took the joys and sorrows of her life.
The three pale faces, the three black dresses, had a desolate look in the cold sunlight. Mr. Raymond tapped at the glass, and beckoned to the nursery-governess.
"Melancholy-looking objects, are they not?" he said to George, as the three girls came towards the window. "I've told my housekeeper to give them plenty of roast meat, not too much done; meat's the best antidote for melancholy."
He opened the window and admitted Isabel and her two pupils.
"Here's a friend come to see you, Miss Sleaford," he said; "a friend of Sigismund's; a gentleman who knew you in London."
George held out his hand, but he saw something like terror in the girl's face as she recognized him; and he fell straightway into a profound gulf of confusion and embarrassment.
"Sigismund asked me to call," he stammered. "Sigismund told me to write and tell him how you were."
Miss Sleaford's eyes filled with tears. The tears came unbidden to her eyes now with the smallest provocation.
"You are all very good to me," she said.
"There, you children, go out into the garden and walk about," cried Mr. Raymond. "You go with them, Gilbert, and then come in and have some stilton cheese and bottled beer, and tell us all about your Graybridge patients."
Mr. Gilbert obeyed his kindly host. He went out on to the lawn, where the brown shrubs were putting forth their feeble leaflets to be blighted by the chill air of March. He walked by Isabel's side, while the two orphans prowled mournfully here and there amongst the evergreens, and picked the lonely daisies that had escaped the gardener's scythe. George and Isabel talked a little; but the young man was fain to confine himself to a few commonplace remarks about Conventford, and Mr. Raymond, and Miss Sleaford's new duties; for he saw that the least allusion to the old Camberwell life distressed and agitated her. There was not much that these two could talk about as yet. With Sigismund Smith, Isabel would have had plenty to say; indeed, it would have been a struggle between the two as to which should do all the talking; but in George Gilbert's company Isabel Sleaford's fancies folded themselves like delicate buds whose fragile petals are shrivelled by a bracing northern breeze. She knew that Mr. Gilbert was a good young man kindly disposed towards her, and, after his simple fashion, eager to please her; but she felt rather than knew that he did not understand her, and that in that cloudy region where her thoughts for ever dwelt he could never be her companion. So, after a little of that deliciously original conversation which forms the staple talk of a morning call amongst people who have never acquired the supreme accomplishment called small-talk, George and Isabel returned to the drawing-room, where Mr. Raymond was ready to preside over a banquet of bread-and-cheese and bottled ale; after which refection the surgeon's steed was brought to the door.
"Come and see us again, Gilbert, whenever you've a day in Conventford," Mr. Raymond said, as he shook hands with the surgeon.
George thanked him for his cordial invitation, but he rode away from the house rather depressed in spirit, notwithstanding. How stupid he had been during that brief walk on Mr. Raymond's lawn; how little he had said to Isabel, or she to him! How dismally the conversation had died away into silence every now and then, only to be revived by some lame question, some miserable remark apropos to nothing,—the idiotic emanation of despair!
Mr. Gilbert rode to an inn near the market-place, where his father had been wont to take his dinner whenever he went to Conventford. George gave Brown Molly into the ostler's custody, and then walked away to the crowded pavement, where the country people were jostling each other in front of shop-windows and open stalls; the broad stony market-place, where the voices of the hawkers were loud and shrill, where the brazen boastings of quack-medicine vendors rang out upon the afternoon air. He walked through the crowd, and rambled away into a narrow back street leading to an old square, where the great church of Conventford stood amidst a stony waste of tombstones, and where the bells that played a hymn tune when they chimed the hour were booming up in the grand old steeple. The young man went into the stony churchyard, which was lonely enough even on a market-day, and walked about among the tombs, whiling away the time—for the benefit of Brown Molly, who required considerable rest and refreshment before she set out on the return journey—and thinking of Isabel Sleaford.
He had only seen her twice, and yet already her image had fastened itself with a fatal grip upon his mind, and was planted there—an enduring picture, never again to be blotted out.
That evening at Camberwell had been the one romantic episode of this young man's eventless life; Isabel Sleaford the one stranger who had come across his pathway. There were pretty girls, and amiable girls, in Graybridge: but then he had known them all his life. Isabel came to him in her pale young beauty, and all the latent sentimentality—without which youth is hideous—kindled and thrilled into life at the magic spell of her presence. The mystic Venus rises a full-blown beauty from the sea, and man the captive bows down before his divine enslaver. Who would care for a Venus whose cradle he had rocked, whose gradual growth he had watched, the divinity of whose beauty had perished beneath the withering influence of familiarity?
It was dusk when George Gilbert went to the chemist and received his parcels of drugs. He would not stop to dine at the White Lion, but paid his eighteenpence for Brown Molly's accommodation, and took a hasty glass of ale at the bar before he sprang into the saddle. He rode homeward through the solemn avenue, the dusky cathedral aisle, the infinite temple, fashioned by the great architect Nature. He rode through the long ghostly avenue, until the twinkling lights at Waverly glimmered on him faintly between the bare branches of the trees.
Isabel Sleaford's new life was a very pleasant one. There was no butter to be fetched, no mysterious errands to the Walworth Road. Everything was bright and smooth and trim in Mr. Raymond's household. There was a middle-aged housekeeper who reigned supreme, and an industrious maidservant under her sway. Isabel and her sickly charges had two cheerful rooms over the drawing-room, and took their meals together, and enjoyed the delight of one another's society all day long. The children were rather stupid, but they were very good. They too had known the sharp ills of poverty, the butter-fetching, the blank days in which there was no bright oasis of dinner, the scraps of cold meat and melancholy cups of tea. They told Isabel their troubles of an evening; how poor mamma had cried when the sheriff's officer came in, and said he was very sorry for her, but must take an inventory, and wouldn't leave even papa's picture or the silver spoons that had been grandmamma's. Miss Sleaford put her shoulder to the wheel very honestly, and went through Pinnock's pleasant abridgments of modern and ancient history with her patient pupils. She let them off with a very slight dose of the Heptarchy and the Normans, and even the early Plantagenet monarchs; but she gave them plenty of Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots,—fair Princess Mary, Queen of France, and wife of Thomas Brandon,—Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday.
The children only said "Lor'!" when they heard of Mademoiselle Corday's heroic adventure; but they were very much interested in the fate of the young princes of the House of York, and amused themselves by a representation of the smothering business with the pillows on the school-room sofa.
It was not to be supposed that Mr. Charles Raymond, who had all the interests of Conventford to claim his attention, could give much time or trouble to the two pupils or the nursery-governess. He was quite satisfied with Miss Sleaford's head, and was content to entrust his orphan nieces to her care.
"If they were clever children, I should be afraid of her exaggerated ideality," he said; "but they're too stupid to be damaged by any influence of that kind. She's got a very decent moral region—not equal to that young doctor at Graybridge, certainly—and she'll do her duty to the little ones very well, I dare say."
So no one interfered with Isabel or her pupils. The education of association, which would have been invaluable to her, was as much wanting at Conventford as it had been at Camberwell. She lived alone with her books and the dreams which were born of them, and waited for the prince, the Ernest Maltravers, the Henry Esmond, the Steerforth—it was Steerforth's proud image, and not simple-hearted David's gentle shadow, which lingered in the girl's mind when she shut the book. She was young and sentimental, and it was not the good people upon whom her fancy fixed itself. To be handsome and proud and miserable, was to possess an indisputable claim to Miss Sleaford's worship. She sighed to sit at the feet of a Byron, grand and gloomy and discontented, baring his white brow to the midnight blast, and raving against the baseness and ingratitude of mankind. She pined to be the chosen slave of some scornful creature, who should perhaps ill-treat and neglect her. I think she would have worshipped an aristocratic Bill Sykes, and would have been content to die under his cruel hand, only in the ruined chamber of some Gothic castle, by moonlight, with the distant Alps shimmering whitely before her glazing eyes, instead of in poor Nancy's unromantic garret. And then the Count Guilliaume de Syques would be sorry, and put up a wooden cross on the mountain pathway, to the memory of—, �N�TKH; and he would be found some morning stretched at the foot of that mysterious memorial, with a long black mantle trailing over his king-like form, and an important blood-vessel broken.
There is no dream so foolish, there is no fancy however childish, that did not find a lodgment in Isabel Sleaford's mind during the long idle evenings in which she sat alone in her quiet school-room, watching the stars kindle faintly in the dusk, and the darkening shadows gathering in the meadows, while feeble lights began to twinkle in the distant streets of Conventford. Sometimes, when her pupils were fast asleep in their white-curtained beds, Izzie stole softly down, and went out into the garden to walk up and down in the fair moonlight; the beautiful moonlight in which Juliet had looked more lovely than the light of day to Romeo's enraptured eyes; in which Hamlet had trembled before his father's ghostly face. She walked up and down in the moonlight, and thought of all her dreams; and wondered when her life was going to begin. She was getting quite old; yes—she thought of it with a thrill of horror—she was nearly eighteen! Juliet was buried in the tomb of the Capulets before this age, and haughty Beatrix had lived her life, and Florence Dombey was married and settled, and the story all over.
A dull despair crept over this foolish girl as she thought that perhaps her life was to be only a commonplace kind of existence, after all; a blank flat level, along which she was to creep to a nameless grave. She was so eager to be something. Oh, why was not there a revolution, that she might take a knife in her hand and go forth to seek the tyrant in his lodging, and then die; so that people might talk of her, and remember her name when she was dead?
I think Isabel Sleaford was just in that frame of mind in which a respectable, and otherwise harmless, young person aims a bullet at some virtuous sovereign, in a paroxysm of insensate yearning for distinction. Miss Sleaford wanted to be famous. She wanted the drama of her life to begin, and the hero to appear.
Vague, and grand, and shadowy, there floated before her the image of the prince; but, oh, how slow he was to come! Would he ever come? Were there any princes in the world? Were there any of those Beings whose manners and customs her books described to her, but whose mortal semblances she had never seen? The Sleeping Beauty in the woods slumbered a century before the appointed hero came to awaken her. Beauty must wait, and wait patiently, for the coming of her fate. But poor Isabel thought she had waited so long, and as yet there was not even the distant shimmer of the prince's plumes dimly visible on the horizon.
There were reasons why Isabel Sleaford should shut away the memory of her past life, and solace herself with visions of a brighter existence. A little wholesome drudgery might have been good for her, as a homely antidote against the sentimentalism of her nature; but in Mr. Raymond's house she had ample leisure to sit dreaming over her books, weaving wonderful romances in which she was to be the heroine, and the hero—?
The hero was the veriest chameleon, inasmuch as he took his colour from the last book Miss Sleaford had been reading. Sometimes he was Ernest Maltravers, the exquisite young aristocrat, with violet eyes and silken hair. Sometimes he was Eugene Aram, dark, gloomy, and intellectual, with that awkward little matter of Mr. Clarke's murder preying upon his mind. At another time he was Steerforth, selfish and haughty and elegant, Sometimes, when the orphans were asleep. Miss Sleaford let down her long black hair before the little looking-glass, and acted to herself in a whisper. She saw her pale face, awful in the dusky glass, her lifted arms, her great black eyes, and she fancied herself dominating a terror-stricken pit. Sometimes she thought of leaving friendly Mr. Raymond, and going up to London with a five-pound note in her pocket, and coming out at one of the theatres as a tragic actress. She would go to the manager, and tell him that she wanted to act. There might be a little difficulty at first, perhaps, and he would be rather inclined to be doubtful of her powers; but then she would take off her bonnet, and let down her hair, and would draw the long tresses wildly through her thin white fingers—so; she stopped to look at herself in the glass as she did it,—and would cry, "I am not mad; this hair I tear is mine!" and the thing would be done. The manager would exclaim, "Indeed, my dear young lady, I was not prepared for such acting as this. Excuse my emotion; but really, since the days of Miss O'Neil, I don't remember to have witnessed anything to equal your delivery of that speech. Come to-morrow evening and play Constance. You don't want a rehearsal?—no, of course not; you know every syllable of the part. I shall take the liberty of offering you fifty pounds a night to begin with, and I shall place one of my carriages at your disposal." Isabel had read a good many novels in which timid young heroines essay their histrionic powers, but she had never read of a dramatically-disposed heroine who had not burst forth a full-blown Mrs. Siddons without so much as the ordeal of a rehearsal.
Sometimes Miss Sleaford thought that her Destiny—she clung to the idea that she had a destiny—designed her to be a poet, an L.E.L.; oh, above all she would have chosen to be L.E.L.; and in the evening, when she had looked over the children's copy-books, and practised a new style of capital B, in order to infuse a dash of variety into the next day's studies, she drew the candles nearer to her, and posed herself, and dipped her pen into the ink, and began to pour forth some melancholy plaint upon the lonely blankness of her life, or some vague invocation of the unknown prince. She rarely finished either the plaint or the invocation, for there was generally some rhythmical difficulty that brought her poetic musings to a dead lock; but she began a great many verses, and spoiled several quires of paper with abortive sonnets, in which "stars" and "streamlets," "dreams" and "fountains," recurred with a frequency which was inimical to originality or variety of style.
The poor lonely untaught child looked right and left for some anchorage on the blank sea of life, and could find nothing but floating masses of ocean verdure, that drifted her here and there at the wild will of all the winds of heaven. Behind her there was a past that she dared not look back upon or remember; before her lay the unknown future, wrapped in mysterious shadow, grand by reason of its obscurity. She was eager to push onward, to pierce the solemn veil, to tear aside the misty curtain, to penetrate the innermost chamber of the temple.
Late in the night, when the lights of Conventford had died out under the starlit sky, the girl lay awake, sometimes looking up at those mystical stars, and thinking of the future; but never once, in any dream or reverie, in any fantastic vision built out of the stories she loved, did the homely image of the Graybridge surgeon find a place.
George Gilbert thought of her, and wondered about her, as he rode Brown Molly in the winding Midlandshire lanes, where the brown hedge-rows were budding, and the whitethorn bursting into blossom. He thought of her by day and by night, and was angry with himself for so thinking; and then began straightway to consider when he could, with any show of grace, present himself once more before Mr. Raymond's Gothic porch at Conventford.