George went back to the Seven Stars, where Mr. Jeffson was waiting with the horses. He went back, after watching the open vehicle drive away; he went back with his happiness which was so new and strange, he thought a fresh life was to begin for him from this day, and would have almost expected to find the diseases of his patients miraculously cured, and a new phase of existence opening for them as well as for himself.
He was going to be married; he was going to have this beautiful young creature for his wife. He thought of her; and the image of this pale-faced girl, sitting in the little parlour at Graybridge, waiting to receive him when he came home from his patients, was such an overpowering vision, that his brain reeled as he contemplated it. Was it true—could it be true—that all this inexpressible happiness was to be his?
By-and-by, when he was riding Brown Molly slowly along the shadowy lanes that lie between Hurstonleigh and Waverly, his silent bliss overflowed his heart and sought to utter itself in words. William Jeffson had always been George's confidant; why should he not be so now, when the young man had such need of some friendly ear to which to impart his happiness?
Somehow or other, the Yorkshireman did not seem so eager as usual to take his part in his master's pleasure; he had seemed to hang back a little; for, under ordinary circumstances, George would have had no occasion to break the ice. But to-night Mr. Jeffson seemed bent on keeping silence, and George was obliged to hazard a preliminary question.
"What do you think of her, Jeff?" he asked.
"What do I think to who, Master Jarge?" demanded the Yorkshireman, in his simple vernacular.
"Why, Isa—Miss Sleaford, of course," answered George, rather indignantly: was there any other woman in the world whom he could possibly think of or speak of to-night?
Mr. Jeffson was silent for some moments, as if the question related to so profound a subject that he had to descend into the farthest depths of his mind before he could answer it. He was silent; and the slow trampling of the horses' hoofs along the lane, and the twittering of some dissipated bird far away in the dim woodland, were the only sounds that broke the evening stillness.
"She's rare an' pretty, Master Jarge," the philosopher said at last, in a very thoughtful tone; "I a'most think I never see any one so pretty; though it isn't that high-coloured sort of prettiness they think so much to in Graybridge. She's still and white, somehow, like the images in York Minster; and her eyes seem far away as you look at her. Yes, she is rare an' pretty."
"I've told her how I love her; and—and you like her, Jeff, don't you?" asked George, in a rapture of happiness that was stronger than his native shyness. "You like her, and she likes you, Jeff, and will like you better as she comes to know you more. And she's going to be my wife, old Jeff!"
The young man's voice grew tremulous as he made this grand announcement. Whatever enthusiasm there was in his nature seemed concentrated in the emotions of this one day.
He had loved for the first time, and declared his love. His true and constant heart, that wondrous aloe which was to bear a single flower, had burst into sudden blossom, and all the vigour of the root was in that one bright bloom. The aloe-flower might bloom steadily on for ever, or might fade and die; but it could never know a second blossoming.
"She's going to be my wife, Jeff," he repeated, as if to say these words was in itself to taste an overpowering happiness.
But William Jeffson seemed very stupid to-night. His conversational powers appeared to have undergone a kind of paralysis. He spoke slowly, and made long pauses every now and then.
"You're going to marry her, Master Jarge?" he said.
"Yes, Jeff. I love her better than any living creature in this world—better than the world itself, or my own life; for I think, if she had answered me differently to-day, I should have died. Why, you're not surprised, are you, Jeff? I thought you guessed at the very first—before I knew it myself even—that I was in love with Isabel. Isabel! Isabel! what a pretty name! It sounds like a flower, doesn't it?"
"No; I'm not surprised, Master Jarge," the Yorkshireman said, thoughtfully. "I knew you was in love with Miss Sleaford, regular fond about her, you know; but I didn't think—I didn't think—as you'd ask her to marry you so soon."
"But why not, Jeff?" cried the young man. "What should I wait for? I couldn't love her better than I do if I knew her for years and years, and every year were to make her brighter and lovelier than she is now. I've got a home to bring her to, and I'll work for her—I'll work for her as no man ever worked before to make a happy home for his wife."
He struck out his arm, with his fist clenched, as if he thought that the highest round on the ladder of fortune was to be reached by any young surgeon who had the desire to climb.
"Why shouldn't I marry at once, Jeff?" he demanded, with some touch of indignation. "I can give my wife as good a home as that from which I shall take her."
"It isn't that as I was thinkin' of, Master Jarge," William Jeffson answered, growing slower of speech and graver of tone with every word he spoke; "it isn't that. But, you see, you know so little of Miss Sleaford; you know naught but that she's different, somehow, to all the other lasses you've seen, and that she seems to take your fancy like, because of that. You know naught about her, Master Jarge; and what's still worse—ever so much worse than that—you don't know that she loves you. You don't know that, Master Jarge. If you was only sure of that, the rest wouldn't matter so much; for there's scarcely anything in this world as true love can't do; and a woman that loves truly can't be aught but a good woman at heart. I see Miss Sleaford when you was standin' talkin' by the Seven Stars, Master Jarge, and there wasn't any look in her face as if she knew what you was sayin', or thought about it; but her eyes looked ever so far away like: and though there was a kind of light in her face, it didn't seem as if it had anything to do with you. And, Lor' bless your heart, Master Jarge, you should have seen my Tilly's face when she come up the airey steps in the square where she was head-housemaid, and see me come up to London on purpose to surprise her. Why, it was all of a shine like with smiles and brightness, at the sight o' me, Master Jarge; and I'm sure I'm no great shakes to look at," added Mr. Jeffson, in a deprecating tone.
The reins, lying loose upon Brown Molly's neck, shook with the sudden trembling of the hand that held them. George Gilbert was seized with a kind of panic as he listened to his Mentor's discourse. He had not presumed to solicit any confession of love from Isabel Sleaford; he had thought himself more than blest, inasmuch as she had promised to become his wife; yet he was absolutely terror-stricken at Mr. Jeffson's humiliating suggestion, and was withal very angry at his old playmate's insolence.
"You mean that she doesn't love me?" he said sharply.
"Oh, Master Jarge, to be right down truthful with you, that's just what I do mean. She doan't love you; as sure as I've seen true love lookin' out o' my Tilly's face, I see somethin' that wasn't love lookin' out o' hearn to-night. I see just such a look in Miss Sleaford's eyes as I see once in a pretty young creetur that married a mate o' mine down home; a young man as had got a little bit o' land and cottage, and everything comfortable, and it wasn't the young creetur herself that was in favour o' marryin' him; but it was her friends that worried and bothered her till she said yes. She was a poor foolish young thing, that didn't seem to have the strength to say no. And I was at Joe Tillet's weddin',—his name was Joe Tillet,—and I see the pretty young creetur standin', like as I saw Miss Sleaford to-night, close alongside her husband while he was talkin', and lookin' prettier nor ever in her straw bonnet and white ribands; but her eyes seemed to fix themselves on somethin' far away like; and when her husband turned of a sudden and spoke to her, she started, like as if she was waked out of a dream. I never forgot that look o' hearn, Master Jarge; and I saw the same kind o' look to-night."
"What nonsense you're talking, Jeff!" George answered, with considerable impatience. "I dare say your friend and his wife were very happy?"
"No, Master Jarge, they wasn't. And that's just the very thing that makes me remember the pretty young creetur's look that summer's day, as she stood, dresssed out in her wedding-clothes, by her loving husband's side. He was very fond of her, and for a good two year or so he seemed very happy, and was allus tellin' his friends he'd got the best wife in the three Ridin's, and the quietest and most industrious; but she seemed to pine like; and by-and-by there was a young soldier came home that had been to the Indies, and that was her first cousin, and had lived neighbours with her family when she was a bit of a girl. I won't tell you the story, Master Jarge; for it isn't the pleasantest kind o' thing to tell, nor yet to hear; but the end of it was, my poor mate Joe was found one summer's morning—just such a day as that when he was married—hanging dead behind the door of one of his barns; and as for the poor wretched young creetur as had caused his death, nobody ever knew what came of her. And yet," concluded Mr. Jeffson, in a meditative tone, "I've heard that poor chap Joe tell me so confident that his wife would get to love him dearly by-and-by, because he loved her so true and dear."
George Gilbert, made no answer to all this. He rode on slowly, with his head drooping. The Yorkshireman kept an anxious watch upon his master; he could not see the expression of the young man's face, but he could see by his attitude that the story of Joseph Tillet's misadventure had not been without a depressing influence upon him.
"Si'thee noo. Master Jarge," said William Jeffson, laying his hand upon the surgeon's wrist, and speaking in a voice that was almost solemn, "marryin' a pretty girl seems no more than gatherin' a wild rose out of the hedge to some men, they do it so light and careless-like,—just because the flower looks pretty where it's growin'. I'd known my Tilly six year before I asked her to be my wife. Master Jarge; and it was only because she'd been true and faithful to me all that time, and because I'd never, look at her when I might, seen anything but love in her face, that I ventured at last to say to mysen, 'William Jeffson, there's a lass that'll make thee a true wife.' Doan't be in a hurry. Master Jarge; doan't! Take the advice of a poor ignorant chap as has one great advantage over all your learnin', for he's lived double your time in the world. Doan't be in a hurry. If Miss Sleaford loves ye true to-night, she'll love ye ten times truer this night twelvemonths, and truer still this time ten years. If she doan't love you, Master Jarge, keep clear of her as you would of a venomous serpent; for she'll bring you worse harm than ever that could do, if it stung you to the heart, and made an end of you at once. I see Joe Tillet lyin' dead after the inquest that was held upon him, Master Jarge; and the thought that the poor desperate creeter had killed hisself warn't so bad to me as the sight of the suffering on his poor dead face,—the suffering that he'd borne nigh upon two year, Master Jarge, and had held his tongue about."