While George Gilbert was thinking of Isabel Sleaford's pale face and black eyes; while, in his long rides to and fro among the cottages of his parish patients, he solemnly debated as to whether he ought to call upon Mr. Raymond when next he went to Conventford, or whether he ought to go to Conventford for the express purpose of paying his respects to Mr. Raymond,—the hand of Fate turned the wavering balance; and the makeweight which she threw into the scale was no heavier than the ordinary half-ounce of original composition which Government undertakes to convey, not exactly from Indus to the Pole, but from the Land's End to the Highlands, for the small charge of a penny. While George Gilbert hesitated and doubted, and argued and debated with himself, after the manner of every prudent home-bred young man who begins to think that he loves well, and sadly fears that he may not love wisely,—Destiny, under the form of a friend, gave him a push, and he went souse over head and ears into the roaring ocean, and there was nothing left for him but to swim as best he might towards the undiscovered shore upon the other side.
The letter from Sigismund was dated Oakbank, Conventford, May 23rd, 1853.
"Dear George," wrote the author of "The Brand upon the Shoulder-blade," "I'm down here for a few days with my uncle Charles; and we've arranged a picnic in Lord Hurstonleigh's grounds, and we want you to join us. So, if your patients are not the most troublesome people in the world, you can give yourself a holiday, and meet us on Wednesday morning, at twelve, if fine, at the Waverly Road lodge-gate to Hurstonleigh Park. Mrs. Pidgers—Pidgers is my uncle's housekeeper; a regular old dear, and such a hand at pie-crusts!—is going to pack up a basket,—and I know what Pidgers's baskets are,—and we shall bring plenty of sparkling, because, when my uncle does this sort of thing, he does do it; and we're to drink tea at one of Lord Hurstonleigh's model cottages, in his model village, with a model old woman, who's had all manner of prizes for the tidiest dust-holes, and the whitest hearth-stones, and the neatest knife-boards, and all that kind of thing; and we're going to make a regular holiday of it; and I shall forget that there's such a creature as 'the Demon of the Galleys' in the world, and that I'm a number behind with him,—which I am,—and the artist is waiting for a subject for his next cut.
"The orphans are coming, of course, and Miss Sleaford; and, oh, by the bye, I want you to tell me all about poisoning by strychnine, because I think I shall do a case or two in 'The D. of the G.'
"Twelve o'clock, sharp time, remember! We come in a fly. You can leave your horse at Waverly.—Yours, S.S."
Yes; Fate, impatient perhaps of any wavering of the balance in so insignificant a matter as George Gilbert's destiny, threw this penny-post letter into the scale, and, lo! it was turned. The young man read the letter over and over again, till it was crumpled and soiled with much unfolding and refolding, and taking out of, and putting back into, his waistcoat-pocket. A picnic! a picnic in the Hurstonleigh grounds, with Isabel Sleaford! Other people were to be of the party; but George Gilbert scarcely remembered that. He saw himself, with Isabel by his side, wandering along the winding pathways, straying away into mysterious arcades of verdure, where the low branches of the trees would meet above their heads, and shut them in from all the world. He fancied himself talking to Mr. Sleaford's daughter as he never had talked, nor was ever likely to talk, with any voice audible to mortal ears; he laid out and arranged that day as we are apt to arrange the days that are to come, and which—Heaven help our folly and presumption!—- are so different when they do come from the dreams we have dreamed about them. Mr. Gilbert lived that May holiday over and over again between the Monday afternoon on which he received Sigismund's letter, and the appointed Wednesday morning. He lay awake at night, when his day's work was done, thinking of Isabel, and what she would say to him, and how she would look at him, until those fancied words and looks thrilled him to the heart's core, and he was deluded by the thought that it was all a settled thing, and that his love was returned. His love! Did he love her, then, already—this pale-faced young person, whom he had only seen twice; who might be a Florence Nightingale, or a Madame de Laffarge, for all that he knew either one way or the other? Yes, he loved her; the wondrous flower that never yet "thrived by the calendar" had burst into full bloom. He loved this young woman, and believed in her, and was ready to bring her to his simple home whenever she pleased to come thither; and had already pictured her sitting opposite to him in the little parlour, making weak tea for him in a Britannia-metal teapot, sewing commonplace buttons upon his commonplace shirts, debating with Mrs. Jeffson as to whether there should be roast beef or boiled mutton for the two o'clock dinner, sitting up alone in that most uninteresting little parlour when the surgeon's patients were tiresome and insisted upon being ill in the night, waiting to preside over little suppers of cold meat and pickles, bread-and-cheese and celery. Yes; George pictured Miss Sleaford the heroine of such a domestic story as this, and had no power to divine that there was any incongruity in the fancy; no fineness of ear to discover the dissonant interval between the heroine and the story. Alas, poor Izzie! and are all your fancies, all the pretty stories woven out of your novels, all your long day-dreams about Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday, Edith Dombey and Ernest Maltravers,—all your foolish pictures of a modern Byron, fever-stricken at Missolonghi, and tended by you; a new Napoleon, exiled to St. Helena, and followed, perhaps liberated, by you,—are they all oome to this? Are none of the wonderful things that happen to women ever to happen to you? Are you never to be Charlotte Corday, and die for your country? Are you never to wear ruby velvet, and diamonds in your hair, and to lure some recreant Carker to a foreign hostelry, and there denounce and scorn him? Are all the pages of the great book of life to be closed upon you—you, who seem to yourself predestined, by reason of so many dreams and fancies, to such a wonderful existence? Is all the mystic cloudland of your dreams to collapse and shrivel into this,—a commonplace square-built cottage at Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne, with a commonplace country surgeon for your husband?
George Gilbert was waiting at the low white gate before the ivy-coloured lodge on the Waverly Road when the fly from Conventford drove up, with Sigismund Smith sitting beside the coachman, and questioning him about a murder that had been committed in the neighbourhood ten years before; and Mr. Raymond, Miss Sleaford, and the orphans inside. The surgeon had been waiting at the gate for a quarter of an hour, and he had been up ever since six o'clock that morning, riding backwards and forwards amongst his patients, doing a day's work in a few hours. He had been home to dress, of course, and wore his newest and most fashionable clothes, and was, in fact, a living realization of one of the figures in a fly-blown fashion-plate for June 1852, still exhibited in the window of a Graybridge tailor. He wore a monthly rosebud in his button-hole, and be carried a bunch of spring flowers,—jonquils and polyanthuses, pink hawthorn, peonies, and sweet-brier,—which Mr. Jeffson had gathered and tied up, with a view to their presentation to Isabel,—although there were better flowers in Mr. Raymond's garden, as George reminded his faithful steward.
"Don't thee tew thyself about that, Master Jarge," said the Yorkshireman; "th' young wench 'll like the flowers if thoo givest 'em til her."
Of course it never for a moment entered into Mr Jeffson's mind that his young master's attentions could be otherwise than welcome and agreeable to any woman living, least of all to a forlorn young damsel who was obliged to earn her bread amongst strangers.
"I'd like to see Miss Sleaford, Master Jarge," Mr. Jeffson said, in an insinuating manner, as George gathered up the reins and patted Brown Molly's neck, preparatory to riding away from the low white gate of his domain.
George blushed like the peonies that formed the centre of his nosegay.
"I don't know why you should want to see Miss Sleaford any more than other girls, Jeff," he said.
"Well, never you mind why, Master Jarge; I should like to see her; I'd give a deal to see her."
"Then we'll try and manage it, Jeff. We're to drink tea at Hurstonleigh; and we shall be leaving there, I suppose, as soon as it's dark—between seven and eight o'clock, I dare say. You might ride the grey pony to Waverly, and bring Brown Molly on to Hurstonleigh, and stop at the alehouse—there's an alehouse, you know, though it is a model village—until I'm ready to come home; and you can leave the horses with the ostler, you know, and stroll about the village,—and you're sure to find us."
"Yes, yes, Master Jarge; I'll manage it."
So George was at his post a quarter of an hour before the fly drove up to the gate. He was there to open the door of the vehicle, and to give his hand to Isabel when she alighted. He felt the touch of her fingers resting briefly on his arm, and trembled and blushed like a girl as he met the indifferent gaze of her great black eyes. Nobody took any notice of his embarrassment. Mr. Raymond and his nephew were busy with the hampers that had been stowed under the seats of the fly, and the orphans were employed in watching their elders,—for to them the very cream of the picnic was in those baskets.
There was a boy at the lodge who was ready to take the basket whithersoever Mr. Raymond should direct; so all was settled very quickly. The driver received his instructions respecting the return journey, and went rumbling off to Hurstonleigh to refresh himself and his horse. The lad went on before the little party, with the baskets swinging on either side of him as he went; and in the bustle of these small arrangements George Gilbert found courage to offer Isabel his arm. She took it without hesitation, and Sigismund placed himself on the other side of her. Mr. Raymond went on before with the orphans, who affected the neighbourhood of the baskets; and the three young people followed, walking slowly over the grass.
Isabel had put off her mourning. She had never had but one black dress, poor child; and that being worn out, she was fain to fall back upon her ordinary costume. If she had looked pretty in the garden at Camberwell, with tumbled hair and a dingy dress, she looked beautiful to-day, in clean muslin, fresh and crisp, fluttering in the spring breezes as she walked, and with her hair smoothly banded under a broad-leaved straw hat. Her face brightened with the brightness of the sunshine and the charm of the landscape; her step grew light and buoyant as she walked upon the springing turf. Her eyes lit up by-and-by, when the little party came to a low iron gate, beyond which there was a grove, a winding woodland patch, and undulating glades, and craggy banks half hidden under foliage, and, in a deep cleft below, a brawling waterfall for ever rushing over moss-grown rockwork, and winding far away to meet the river.
"Oh, how beautiful it is!" cried Isabel; "how beautiful!"
She was a Cockney, poor child, and had spent the best part of her life amidst the suburban districts of Camberwell and Peckham. All this Midlandshire beauty burst upon her like a sudden revelation of Paradise. Could the Garden of Eden have been more beautiful than this woodland grove?—where the ground was purple with wild hyacinths that grew under beeches and oaks centuries old; where the sunlight and shadows flickered on the mossy pathways; where the guttural warble of the blackbirds made perpetual music in the air. George looked wonderingly at the girl's rapt countenance, her parted lips, that were faintly tremulous with the force of her emotion.
"I did not think there could be any place in England so beautiful," she said by-and-by, when George disturbed her with some trite remark upon the scene. "I thought it was only in Italy and in Greece, and those sort of places—where Childe Harold went—that it was beautiful like this. It makes one feel as if one could never go back to the world again, doesn't it?" she asked na�vely.
George was fain to confess that, although the grove was very beautiful, it inspired him with no desire to turn hermit, and take up his abode therein. But Isabel hardly heard what he said to her. She was looking away into mysterious vistas of light and shadow, and thinking that in such a spot as this the hero of a woman's life might appear in all his shining glory. If she could meet him now, this wonderful unknown being—the Childe Harold, the Lara, of her life! What if it was to be so? what if she was to meet him now, and the story was appointed to begin to-day,—this very day,—and all her life henceforth was to be changed? The day was like the beginning of a story, somehow, inasmuch as it was unlike the other days of her life. She had thought of the holiday, and dreamt about it even more foolishly than George had done; for there had been some foundation for the young man's visions, while hers had been altogether baseless. What if Lord Hurstonleigh should happen to be strolling in his grove, and should see her and rescue her from death by drowning, or a mad bull, or something of that sort, and thereupon fall in love with her? Nothing was more life-like or likely, according to Izzie's experience of three-volume novels. Unhappily she discovered from Mr. Raymond that Lord Hurstonleigh was an elderly married man, and was, moreover, resident in the south of France; so that bright dream was speedily shattered. But there is no point of the compass from which a hero may not come. There was hope yet; there was hope that this bright spring-day might not close as so many days had closed upon the same dull record, the same empty page.
Mr. Raymond was in his highest spirits to-day. He liked to be with young people, and was younger than the youngest of them in his fresh enjoyment of all that is bright and beautiful upon earth. He devoted himself chiefly to the society of his orphan prot�g�es, and contrived to impart a good deal of information to them in a pleasant easy-going manner, that took the bitterness out of those Pierian waters, for which the orphans had very small affection. They were stupid and unimpressionable; but, then, were they not the children of that unhappy consumptive niece of his, who had acquired, by reason of her many troubles, a kind of divine right to become a burden upon happy people?
"If she had left me such an orphan as that girl Isabel, I would have thanked her kindly for dying," Mr. Raymond mused "That girl has mental imitation,—the highest and rarest faculty of the human brain,—ideality, and comparison. What could I not make of such a girl as that? And yet—"
Mr. Raymond only finished the sentence with a sigh. He was thinking that, after all, these bright faculties might not be the best gifts for a woman. It would have been better, perhaps, for Isabel to have possessed the organ of pudding-making and stocking-darning, if those useful accomplishments are represented by an organ. The kindly phrenologist was thinking that perhaps the highest fate life held for that pale girl with the yellow tinge in her eyes was to share the home of a simple-hearted country surgeon, and rear his children to be honest men and virtuous women.
"I suppose that is the best," Mr. Raymond said to himself.
He had dismissed the orphans now, and had sent them on to walk with Sigismund Smith, who kindly related to them the story of "Lilian the Deserted," with such suppressions and emendations as rendered the romance suitable to their tender years. The philosopher of Conventford had got rid of the orphans, and was strolling by himself in those delicious glades, swinging his stick as he went, and throwing up his head every now and then to scent all the freshness of the warm spring air.
"Poor little orphan child!" he mused, "will anybody ever fathom her fancies or understand her dreams? Will she marry that good, sheepish country surgeon, who has fallen in love with her? He can give her a home and a shelter; and she seems such a poor friendless little creature, just the sort of girl to get into some kind of mischief if she were left to herself. Perhaps it's about the best thing that could happen to her. I should like to have fancied a brighter fate for her, a life with more colour in it. She's so pretty—so pretty; and when she talks, and her face lights up, a sort of picture comes into my mind of what she would be in a great saloon, with clusters of lights about her, and masses of shimmering colour, making a gorgeous background for her pale young beauty; and brilliant men and women clustering round her, to hear her talk and see her smile. I can see her like this; and then, when I remember what her life is likely to be, I begin to feel sorry for her, just as if she were some fair young nun, foredoomed to be buried alive by-and-by. Sometimes I have had a fancy that if he were to come home and see her—but that's an old busybody's dream. When did a matchmaker ever create anything but matrimonial confusion and misery? I dare say Beatrice kept her word, and did make Benedick wretched. No; Miss Sleaford must marry whom she may, and be happy or miserable, according to the doctrine of averages; and as for him—"
Mr. Raymond stopped; and seeing the rest of the party happily engaged in gathering hyacinths under the low branches of the trees, he seated himself upon a clump of fallen timber, and took a book out of his pocket. It was a book that had been sent by post, for the paper wrapper was still about it. It was a neat little volume, bound in glistening green cloth, with uncut edges, and the gilt-letter title on the back of the volume set forth that the book contained "An Alien's Dreams." An alien's dreams could be nothing but poetry; and as the name of the poet was not printed under the title, it was perhaps only natural that Mr. Raymond should, not open the book immediately, but should sit turning and twisting the volume about in his hands, and looking at it with a contemptuous expression of countenance.
"An alien!" he exclaimed; "why, in the name of all the affectations of the present day, should a young man with fifteen thousand a year, and one of the finest estates in Midlandshire, call himself an alien? 'An Alien's Dreams'—and such dreams! I had a look at them this morning, without cutting the leaves. It's always a mistake to cut the leaves of young people's poetry. Such dreams! Surely no alien could have been afflicted with anything like them, unless he was perpetually eating heavy suppers of underdone pork, or drinking bad wine, or neglecting the ventilation of his bedroom. Imperfect ventilation has a good deal to do with it, I dare say. To think that Roland Lansdell should write such stuff—such a clever young man as he is, too—such a generous-hearted, high-minded young fellow, who might be—"
Mr. Raymond opened the volume in a very gingerly fashion, almost as if he expected something unpleasant might crawl out of it, and looked in a sideways manner between the leaves, muttering the first line or so of a poem, and then skipping on to another, and giving utterance to every species of contemptuous ejaculation between whiles.
"Imogen!" he exclaimed; "'To Imogen!' As if anybody was ever called Imogen out of Shakespeare's play and Monk Lewis's ballad! 'To Imogen:'
'Do you ever think of me, proud and cruel Imogen,
As I think, ah! sadly think, of thee—
When the shadows darken on the misty lea, Imogen,
And the low light dies behind the sea?'
'Broken!' 'Shattered!' 'Blighted!' Lively titles to tempt the general reader! Here's a nice sort of thing:
'Like an actor in a play,
Like a phantom in a dream,
Like a lost boat left to stray
Rudderless adown the stream,—
This is what my life has grown, Ida Lee,
Since thy false heart left me lone, Ida Lee.
And I wonder sometimes when the laugh is loud,
And I wonder at the faces of the crowd,
And the strange fantastic measures that they tread,
Till I think at last I must be dead—
Till I half believe that I am dead.'
And to think that Roland Lansdell should waste his time in writing this sort of thing! And here's his letter, poor boy!—his long rambling letter,—in which he tells me how he wrote the verses, and how writing them was a kind of consolation to him, a safety-valve for so much passionate anger against a world that doesn't exactly harmonize with the Utopian fancies of a young man with fifteen thousand a year and nothing to do. If some rightful heir would turn up, in the person of one of Roland's gamekeepers, now, and denounce my young friend as a wrongful heir, and turn him out of doors bag and baggage, and with very little bag and baggage, after the manner of those delightful melodramas which hold the mirror up to nature so exactly, what a blessing it would be for the author of 'An Alien's Dreams!' If he could only find himself without a sixpence in the world, what a noble young soldier in the great battle of life, what a triumphant hero, he might be! But as it is, he is nothing better than a colonel of militia, with a fine uniform, and a long sword that is only meant for show. My poor Roland! my poor Roland!" Mr. Raymond murmured sadly, as he dropped the little volume back into his pocket; "I am so sorry that you too should be infected with the noxious disease of our time, the fatal cynicism that transforms youth into a malady for which age is the only cure."
But he had no time to waste upon any regretful musings about Mr Roland Lansdell, sole master of Lansdell Priory, one of the finest seats in Midlandshire, and who was just now wandering somewhere in Greece, upon a Byronic kind of tour that had lasted upwards of six months, and was likely to last much longer.
It was nearly three o'clock now, and high time for the opening of the hampers, Mr. Raymond declared, when he rejoined the rest of the party, much to the delight of the orphans, who were always hungry, and who ate so much, and yet remained so pale and skeleton-like of aspect, that they presented a pair of perpetual phenomena to the eye of the physiologist. The baskets had been carried to a little ivy-sheltered arbour, perched high above the waterfall; and here Mr. Raymond unpacked them, bringing out his treasures one after another; first a tongue, then a pair of fowls, a packet of anchovy sandwiches, a great poundcake (at sight of which the eyes of the orphans glistened), delicate caprices in the way of pastry, semi-transparent biscuits, and a little block of Stilton cheese, to say nothing of sundry bottles of Madeira and sparkling Burgundy.
Perhaps there never was a merrier party. To eat cold chicken and drink sparkling Burgundy in the open air on a bright May afternoon is always an exhilarating kind of thing, though the scene of your picnic may be the bleakest of the Sussex Downs, or the dreariest of the Yorkshire Wolds; but to drink the sparkling wine in that little arbour of Hurstonleigh, with the brawling of the waterfall keeping time to your laughter, the shadows of patriarchal oaks sheltering you from all the outer world, is the very acme of bliss in the way of a picnic. And then Mr. Raymond's companions were so young! It was so easy for them to leave all the Past on the threshold of that lovely grove, and to narrow their lives into the life of that one bright day. Even Isabel forgot that she had a Destiny, and consented to be happy in a simple girlish way, without a thought of the prince who was so long coming.
It may be that the sparkling Burgundy had something to do with George Gilbert's enthusiasm; but, by and bye, after then d�bris of the dinner had been cleared away, and the little party lingered round the rustic table, talking with that expansion of thought and eloquence of language which is so apt to result from the consumption of effervescing wines in the open air, the young surgeon thought that all the earth could scarcely hold a more lovely creature than the girl who sat opposite to him, with her head resting against the rustic wood-work of the arbour, and her hat lying on her knee. She did not say very much, in comparison with Sigismund and Mr. Raymond, who were neither of them indifferent hands at talking; but when she spoke, there was generally something vague and dreamy in her words,—something that set George wondering about her anew, and made him admire her more than ever. He forgot all the dictates of prudence now; he was false to all the grand doctrines of young manhood; he only remembered that Isabel Sleaford was the loveliest creature upon earth; he only knew that he loved her, and that his love, like all true love, was mingled with modest doubtfulness of his own merits, and exaggerated deference for hers. He loved her as purely and truly as if he had been able to express his passion in the noblest poem ever written; but not being able to express it, his love and himself seemed alike tame and commonplace.
I must not dwell too long on this picnic, though it seemed half a lifetime to George Gilbert, for he walked with Isabel through the lanes between Hurstonleigh grove and Hurstonleigh village, and he loitered with her in the little churchyard at Hurstonleigh, and stood upon the bridge beneath which the Wayverne crept like a riband of silver, winding in and out among the rushes. He lingered there by her side while the orphans and Sigismund and Mr. Raymond were getting tea ready at the model cottage, and putting the model old woman's wits into such a state of "flustrification," as she herself expressed it, that she could scarcely hold the tea-kettle, and was in imminent peril of breaking one of her best "chaney" saucers, produced from a corner cupboard in honour of her friend and patron, Charles Raymond.
George loitered on the little stone bridge with Isabel, and somehow or other, still emboldened by the sparkling Burgundy, his passion all of a sudden found a voice, and he told her that he loved her, and that his highest hope upon earth was the hope of winning her for his wife.
I suppose that simple little story must be a pretty story, in its way; for when a woman hears it for the first time, she is apt to feel kindly disposed to the person who recites it, however poorly or tamely he may tell his tale. Isabel listened with a most delightful complacency; not because she reciprocated George's affection for her, but because this was the first little bit of romance in her life, and she felt that the story was beginning all at once, and that she was going to be a heroine. She felt this; and with this a kind of grateful liking for the young man at her side, through whose agency all these pleasant feelings came to her.
And all this time George was pleading with her, and arguing, from her blushes and her silence, that his suit was not hopeless. Emboldened by the girl's tacit encouragement, he grew more and more eloquent, and went on to tell her how he had loved her from the first; yes, from that first summer's afternoon—when he had seen her sitting under the pear-trees in the old-fashioned garden, with the low yellow light behind her.
"Of course I didn't know then that I loved you, Isabel—oh, may I call you Isabel? it is such a pretty name. I have written it over and over and over on the leaves of a blotting-book at home, very often without knowing that I was writing it. I only thought at first that I admired you, because you are so beautiful, and so different from other beautiful women; and then, when I was always thinking of you, and wondering about you, I wouldn't believe that it was because I loved you. It is only to-day—this dear, happy day—that has made me understand what I have felt all along; and now I know that I have loved you from the first, Isabel, dear Isabel, from the very first."
All this was quite as it should be. Isabel's heart fluttered like the wings of a young bird that essays its first flight.
"This is what it is to be a heroine," she thought, as she looked down at the coloured pebbles, the floating river weeds, under the clear rippling water; and yet knew all the time, by virtue of feminine second-sight, that George Gilbert was gazing at her and adoring her. She didn't like him, but she liked him to be there talking to her. The words she heard for the first time were delightful to her because of their novelty, but they took no charm from the lips that spoke them. Any other good-looking, respectably-dressed young man would have been quite as much to her as George Gilbert was. But then she did not know this. It was so very easy for her to mistake her pleasure in the "situation;" the rustic bridge, the rippling water, the bright spring twilight, even the faint influence of that one glass of sparkling Burgundy, and, above all, the sensation of being a heroine for the first time in her life—it was so terribly easy to mistake all these for that which she did not feel,—a regard for George Gilbert.
While the young man was still pleading, while she was still listening to him, and blushing and glancing shyly at him out of those wonderful tawny-coloured eyes, which seemed black just now under the shadow of their drooping lashes, Sigismund and the orphans appeared at the distant gate of the churchyard whooping and hallooing, to announce that the tea was all ready.
"Oh, Isabel!" cried George, "they are coming, and it maybe ever so long before I see you again alone. Isabel, dear Isabel! do tell me that you will make me happy—tell me that you will be my wife!"
He did not ask her if she loved him; he was too much in love with her—too entirely impressed with her grace and beauty, and his own inferiority—to tempt his fate by such a question. If she would marry him, and let him love her, and by-and-by reward his devotion by loving him a little, surely that would be enough to satisfy his most presumptuous wishes.
"Dear Isabel, you will marry me, won't you? You can't mean to say no,—you would have said it before now. You would not be so cruel as to let me hope, even for a minute, if you meant to disappoint me."
"I have known you—you have known me—such a short time," the girl murmured.
"But long enough to love you with a love that will last all my life," George answered eagerly. "I shall have no thought except to make you happy, Isabel. I know that you are so beautiful that you ought to marry a very different fellow from me,—a man who could give you a grand house, and carriages and horses, and all that sort of thing; but he could never love you better than I, and he mightn't love you as well, perhaps; and I'll work for you, Isabel, as no man ever worked before. You shall never know what poverty is, darling, if you will be my wife."
"I shouldn't mind being poor," Isabel answered, dreamily.
She was thinking that Walter Gay had been poor, and that the chief romance of Florence's life had been the quiet wedding in the little City church, and the long sea voyage with her young husband. This sort of poverty was almost as nice as poor Edith's miserable wealth, with diamonds flung about and trampled upon, and ruby velvet for every-day wear.
"I shouldn't mind so much being poor," repeated the girl; for she thought, if she didn't marry a duke or a Donibey, it would be at least something to experience the sentimental phase of poverty.
George Gilbert seized upon the words.
"Ah, then, you will marry me, dearest Isabel? you will marry me, my own darling, my beautiful wife?"
He was almost startled by the intensity of his own feelings, as he bent down and kissed the little ungloved hand lying on the moss-grown stonework of the bridge.
"Oh, Isabel, if you could only know how happy you have made me! if you could only know—"
She looked at him with a startled expression in her face. Was it all settled, then, so suddenly—with so little consideration? Yes, it was all settled; she was beloved with one of those passions that endure for a lifetime. George had said something to that effect. The story had begun, and she was a heroine.
"Good gracious me!" cried Mr. Smith, as he bounded on the parapet of the little bridge, and disported himself there in the character of an amateur Blondin; "if the model old woman who has had so many prizes—we've been looking at her diplomas, framed and glazed, in a parlour that I couldn't have believed to exist out of "Lilian the Deserted" (who begins life as the cottager's daughter, you know, and elopes with the squire in top-boots out of a diamond-paned window—and I've been trying the model old woman's windows, and Lilian couldn't have done it),—but I was about to remark, that if the old woman hasn't had a prize for a model temper, you two will catch it for keeping the tea waiting. Why, Izzie, what's the matter? you and George are both looking as spooney as—is it, eh?—yes, it is: isn't it? Hooray! Didn't I see it from the first?" cried Mr. Smith, striking an attitude upon the balustrade, and pointing down to the two blushing faces with a triumphant finger. "When George asked me for you? letter, Izzie,—the little bit of a letter you wrote me when you left Camberwell,—didn't I see him fold it up as gingerly as if it had been a fifty-pound note and slip it into his waistcoat-pocket, and then try to look as if he hadn't done it? Do you think I wasn't fly, then? A pretty knowledge of human nature I should have, if I couldn't see through that. The creator of Octavio Montefiasco, the Demon of the Galleys, flatters himself that he understands the obscurest diagnostic of the complaint commonly designated 'spoons.' Don't be downhearted, George," exclaimed Sigismund, jumping suddenly off the parapet of the bridge, and extending his hand to his friend. "Accept the congratulations of one who, with a heart long ber-lighted by the ber-lasting in-fer-luence of ker-rime, can-er yet-er feel a generous ther-rob in unison with virr-tue."
After this they all left the bridge, and went straight to the little cottage, where Mr. Raymond had been holding a species of Yankee lev�e, for the reception of the model villagers, every one of whom knew him, and required his advice on some knotty point of law, medicine, or domestic economy. The tea was laid upon a little round table, close to the window, in the full light of the low evening sun. Isabel sat with her back to that low western light, and George sat next to her, staring at her in a silent rapture, and wondering at himself for his own temerity in having asked her to be his wife. That tiresome Sigismund called Mr. Raymond aside, before sitting down to tea, on the pretence of showing him a highly-coloured representation of Joseph and his Brethren, with a strong family likeness between the brethren; and told him in a loud whisper what had happened on the little bridge. So it was scarcely wonderful that poor George and Isabel took their tea in silence, and were rather awkward in the handling of their teacups. But they were spared any further congratulations from Sigismund, as that young gentleman found it was as much as he could do to hold his own against the orphans in the demolition of the poundcake, to say nothing of a lump of honeycomb which the model old woman produced for the delectation of the visitors.
The twilight deepened presently, and the stars began to glimmer faintly in an opal-tinted sky. Mr. Raymond, Sigismund, and the orphans, employed themselves in packing the baskets with the knives, plates, and glasses which had been used for the picnic. The fly was to pick them all up at the cottage. Isabel stood in the little doorway, looking dreamily out at the village, the dim lights twinkling in the casement windows, the lazy cattle standing in the pond upon the green, and a man holding a couple of horses before the door of the little inn.
"That man with the horses is Jeffson, my father's gardener; I scarcely like to call him a servant, for he is a kind of connection of my poor mother's family," George said, with a little confusion; for he thought that perhaps Miss Sleaford's pride might take alarm at the idea of any such kindred between her future husband and his servant; "and he is such a good fellow! And what do you think, Isabel?" the young man added, dropping his voice to a whisper; "poor Jeffson has come all the way from Gray bridge on purpose to see you, because he has heard me say that you are very beautiful; and I think he guessed ever so long ago that I had fallen in love with you. Would you have any objection to walk over yonder and see him, Isabel, or shall I call him here?"
"I'll go to him, if you like; I should like very much to see him," the girl answered.
She took the arm George offered her. Of course it was only right that she should take his arm. It was all a settled thing now.
"Miss Sleaford has come to see you, Jeff," the young man said, when they came to where the Yorkshireman was standing.
Poor Jeff had very little to say upon this rather trying occasion. He took off his hat, and stood bareheaded, smiling and blushing—as George spoke of him and praised him—yet all the while keeping a sharp watch upon Isabel's face. He could see that pale girlish face very well in the evening light, for Miss Sleaford had left her hat in the cottage, and stood bareheaded, with her face turned towards the west, while George rambled on about Jeff and his old school-days, when Jeff and he had been such friends and playfellows.
But the fly from Conventford came rumbling out of the inn-yard as they stood there, and this was a signal for Isabel to hurry back to the cottage. She held out her hand to Mr. Jeffson as she wished him good night, and then went back, still attended by George, who handed her into the fly presently, and wished her good night in a very commonplace manner; for he was a young man whose feelings hid themselves from indifferent eyes, and, indeed, only appeared under the influence of extreme emotion.