Isabel Sleaford was "engaged." She remembered this when she woke on the morning after that pleasant day in Hurstonleigh grove, and that henceforward there existed a person who was bound to be miserable because of her. She thought this as she stood before the modest looking-glass, rolling the long plaits of hair into a great knot, that seemed too heavy for her head. Her life was all settled. She was not to be a great poetess or an actress. The tragic mantle of the Siddons might have descended on her young shoulders, but she was never to display its gloomy folds on any mortal stage. She was not to be anything great. She was only to be a country surgeon's wife.
It was very commonplace, perhaps; and yet this lonely girl—this untaught and unfriended creature—felt some little pride in her new position. After all, she had read many novels in which the story was very little more than this,—three volumes of simple love-making, and a quiet wedding at the end of the chapter. She was not to be an Edith Dombey or a Jane Eyre. Oh, to have been Jane Eyre, and to roam away on the cold moorland and starve,—wouldn't that have been delicious!
No, there was to be a very moderate portion of romance in her life; but still some romance. George Gilbert would be very devoted, and would worship her always, of course. She gave her head a little toss as she thought that, at the worst, she could treat him as Edith treated Dombey, and enjoy herself that way; though she was doubtful how far Edith Dombey's style of treatment might answer without the ruby velvet, and diamond coronet, and other "properties" appertaining to the r�le.
In the meanwhile, Miss Sleaford performed her duties as best she could, and instructed the orphans in a dreamy kind of way, breaking off in the middle of the preterperfect tense of a verb to promise them that they should come to spend a day with her when she was married, and neglecting their fingering of the overture to "Masaniello" while she pondered on the colour of her wedding-dress.
And how much did she think of George Gilbert all this time? About as much as she would have thought of the pages who were to support the splendid burden of her trailing robes, if she had been about to be crowned Queen of England. He was the bridegroom, the husband; a secondary character in the play of which she was the heroine.
Poor George's first love-letter came to her on the following day—a vague and rambling epistle, full of shadowy doubts and fears; haunted, as it were, by the phantom of the poor dead-and-gone Joe Tillet, and without any punctuation whatever:
"But oh dearest ever dearest Isabel for ever dear you will be to me if you cast me from you and I should go to America for life in Graybridge would be worse than odious without you Oh Isabel if you do not love me I implore you for pity sake say so and end my misery I know I am not worthy of your love who are so beautiful and accomplished but oh the thought of giving you up is so bitter unless you yourself should wish it and oh there is no sacrifice on earth I would not make for you."
The letter was certainly not as elegant a composition as Isabel would have desired it to be; but then a love-letter is a love-letter, and this was the first Miss Sleaford had ever received. George's tone of mingled doubt and supplication was by no means displeasing to her. It was only right that he should be miserable: it was only proper that he should be tormented by all manner of apprehensions. They would have to quarrel by-and-by, and to bid each other an eternal farewell, and to burn each other's letters, and be reconciled again. The quietest story could not be made out without such legitimate incidents in the course of the three volumes.
Although Isabel amused herself by planning her wedding-dress, and changed her mind very often as to the colour and material she had no idea of a speedy marriage. Were there not three volumes of courtship to be gone through first?
Sigismund went back to town after the picnic which had been planned for his gratification, and Isabel was left quite alone with her pupils. She walked with them, and took her meals with them, and was with them all day; and it was only of a Sunday that she saw much of Mr. Raymond.
That gentleman was very kind to the affianced lovers. George Gilbert rode over to Conventford every alternate Sunday, and dined with the family at Oakbank. Sometimes he went early enough to attend Isabel and the orphans to church. Mr. Raymond himself was not a church-goer, but he sent his grand-nieces to perform their devotions, as he sent them to have their hair clipped by the hairdresser, or their teeth examined by the dentist. George plunged into the wildest extravagance in the way of waistcoats, in order to do honour to these happy Sundays; and left off mourning for his father a month or so earlier than he had intended, in order to infuse variety into his costume. Everything he wore used to look new on these Sundays; and Isabel, sitting opposite to him in the square pew would contemplate him thoughtfully when the sermon was dull, and wonder, rather regretfully, why his garments never wore themselves into folds, but always retained a hard angular look, as if they had been originally worn by a wooden figure, and had never got over that disadvantage. He wore a watch-chain that his father had given him,—a long chain that went round his neck, but which he artfully twisted and doubled into the semblance of a short one; and on this chain he hung a lucky sixpence and an old-fashioned silver vinaigrette; which trifles, when seen from a distance, looked almost like the gold charms which the officers stationed at Conventford wore dangling on their waistcoats.
And so the engagement dawdled on through all the bright summer months; and while the leaves were falling in the woods of Midlandshire, George still entreating that the marriage might speedily take place, and Isabel always deferring that ceremonial to some indefinite period.
Every alternate Sunday the young man's horse appeared at Mr. Raymond's gate. He would have come every Sunday, if he had dared, and indeed had been invited to do so by Isabel's kind employer; but he had sensitive scruples about eating so much beef and mutton, and drinking so many cups of tea, for which he could make no adequate return to his hospitable entertainer. Sometimes he brought a present for one of the orphans,—a work-box or a desk, fitted with scissors that wouldn't cut, and inkstands that wouldn't open (for there are no Parkins and Gotto in Graybridge or its vicinity), or a marvellous cake, made by Matilda Jeffson. Once he got up a little entertainment for his betrothed and her friends, and gave quite a dinner, with five sweets, and an elaborate dessert, and with the most plum-coloured of ports, and the brownest of sherries, procured specially from the Cock at Graybridge. But as the orphans, who alone did full justice to the entertainment, were afflicted with a bilious attack on the following day, the experiment was not repeated.
But the dinner at Graybridge was not without its good effect. Isabel saw the house that was to be her home; and the future began to take a more palpable shape than it had worn hitherto. She looked at the little china ornaments on the mantel-piece, the jar of withered rose-leaves, mingled with faint odours of spices—the scent was very faint now, for the hands of George's dead mother had gathered the flowers. George took Isabel through the little rooms, and showed her an old-fashioned work-table, with a rosewood box at the top, and a well of fluted silk, that had once been rose-coloured, underneath.
"My mother used to sit at this table working, while she waited for my father; I've often heard him say so. You'll use the old work-box, won't you, Izzie?" George asked, tenderly.
He had grown accustomed to call her Izzie now, and was familiar with her, and confided in her, as in a betrothed wife, whom no possible chance could alienate from him. He had ceased to regard her as a superior being, whom it was a privilege to know and worship. He loved her as truly as he had ever loved her; but not being of a poetical or sentimental nature, the brief access of romantic feeling which he had experienced on first falling in love speedily wore itself out, and the young man grew to contemplate his approaching marriage with perfect equanimity. He even took upon himself to lecture Isabel, on sundry occasions, with regard to her love of novel-reading, her neglect of plain needlework, and her appalling ignorance on the subject of puddings. He turned over her leaves, and found her places in the hymn-book at church; he made her follow the progress of the Lessons, with the aid of a church service printed in pale ink and a minute type; and he frowned at her sternly when he caught her eyes wandering to distant bonnets during the sermon. All the young man's old notions of masculine superiority returned now that he was familiar with Miss Sleaford; but all this while he loved her as only a good man can love, and supplicated all manner of blessings for her every night when he said his prayers.
Isabel Sleaford improved very much in this matter-of-fact companionship, and in the exercise of her daily round of duty. She was no longer the sentimental young lady, whose best employment was to loll in a garden-chair reading novels, and who was wont to burst into sudden rhapsodies about George Gordon Lord Byron and Napoleon the First upon the very smallest provocation. She had tried George on both these subjects, and had found him entirely wanting in any special reverence for either of her pet heroes. Talking with him on autumn Sunday afternoons in the breezy meadows near Conventford, with the orphans loitering behind or straggling on before, Miss Sleaford had tested her lover's conversational powers to the utmost; but as she found that he neither knew nor wished to know anything about Edith Dombey or Ernest Maltravers, and that he regarded the poems of Byron and Shelley as immoral and blasphemous compositions, whose very titles should be unknown to a well-conducted young woman, Isabel was fain to hold her tongue about all the bright reveries of her girlhood, and to talk to Mr. Gilbert about what he did understand.
He had read Cooper's novels, and a few of Lever's; and he had read Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare, and was fully impressed with the idea that he could not over-estimate these latter writers; but when Isabel began to talk about Edgar Ravenswood and Lucy, with her face all lighted up with emotion, the young surgeon could only stare wonderingly at his betrothed.
Oh, if he had only been like Edgar Ravenswood! The poor, childish, dissatisfied heart was always wishing that he could be something different from what he was. Perhaps during all that engagement the girl never once saw her lover really as he was. She dressed him up in her own fancies, and deluded herself by imaginary resemblances between him and the heroes in her books. If he was abrupt and disagreeable in his manner to her, he was Rochester; and she was Jane Eyre, tender and submissive. If he was cold, he was Dombey; and she feasted on her own pride, and scorned him, and made much of one of the orphans during an entire afternoon. If he was clumsy and stupid, he was Rawdon Crawley; and she patronized him, and laughed at him, and taunted him with little scraps of French with the Albany-Road accent, and played off all green-eyed Becky's prettiest airs upon him. But in spite of all this the young man's sober common sense exercised a beneficial influence upon her; and by-and-by, when the three volumes of courtship had been prolonged to the uttermost, and the last inevitable chapter was close at hand, she had grown to think affectionately of her promised husband, and was determined to be very good and obedient to him when she became his wife.
But for the pure and perfect love which makes marriage thrice holy,—the love which counts no sacrifice too great, no suffering too bitter,—the love which knows no change but death, and seems instinct with such divinity that death can be but its apotheosis,—such love as this had no place in Isabel Sleaford's heart. Her books had given her some vague idea of this grand passion, and on comparing herself with Lucy Ashton and Zuleika, with Amy Robsart and Florence Dombey and Medora, she began to think that the poets and novelists were all in the wrong, and that there were no heroes or heroines upon this commonplace earth.
She thought this, and she was content to sacrifice the foolish dreams of her girlhood, which were doubtless as impossible as they were beautiful. She was content to think that her lot in life was fixed, and that she was to be the wife of a good man, and the mistress of an old-fashioned house in one of the dullest towns in England. The time had slipped so quietly away since that spring twilight on the bridge at Hurstonleigh, her engagement had been taken so much as a matter of course by every one about her, that no thought of withdrawal therefrom had ever entered into her mind. And then, again, why should she withdraw from the engagement? George loved her; and there was no one else who loved her. There was no wandering Jamie to come home in the still gloaming and scare her with the sight of his sad reproachful face. If she was not George Gilbert's wife, she would be nothing—a nursery-governess for ever and ever, teaching stupid orphans, and earning five-and-twenty pounds a year. When she thought of her desolate position, and of another subject which was most painful to her, she clung to George Gilbert, and was grateful to him, and fancied that she loved him.
The wedding-day came at last,—one bleak January morning, when Conventford wore its barest and ugliest aspect; and Mr. Raymond gave his nursery-governess away, after the fashion of that simple Protestant ceremonial, which is apt to seem tame and commonplace when compared with the solemn grandeur of a Roman Catholic marriage. He had given her the dress she wore, and the orphans had clubbed their pocket-money to buy their preceptress a bonnet as a surprise, which was a failure, after the usual manner of artfully-planned surprises.
Isabel Sleaford pronounced the words that made her George Gilbert's wife; and if she spoke them somewhat lightly, it was because there had been no one to teach her their solemn import. There was no taint of falsehood in her heart, no thought of revolt or disobedience in her mind; and when she came out of the vestry, leaning on her young husband's arm, there was a smile of quiet contentment on her face.
"Joe Tillet's wife could never have smiled like that," thought George, as he looked at his bride.
The life that lay before Isabel was new; and, being little more than a child as yet, she thought that novelty must mean happiness. She was to have a house of her own, and servants, and an orchard and paddock, two horses, and a gig. She was to be called Mrs. Gilbert: was not her name so engraved upon the cards which George had ordered for her, in a morocco card-case, that smelt like new boots, and was difficult to open, as well as on those wedding-cards which the surgeon had distributed among his friends?
George had ordered envelopes for these cards with his wife's maiden name engraved inside; but, to his surprise, the girl had implored him, ever so piteously, to counter-order them.
"Oh, don't have my name upon the envelopes, George," she said; "don't send my name to your friends; don't ever tell them what I was called before you married me."
"But why not, Izzie?"
"Because I hate my name," she answered, passionately. "I hate it; I hate it! I would have changed it if I could when—when—I first came here; but Sigismund wouldn't let me come to his uncle's house in a false name. I hate my name; I hate and detest it."
And then suddenly seeing wonderment and curiosity plainly expressed in her lover's face, the girl cried out that there was no meaning in what she had been saying, and that it was only her own romantic folly, and that he was to forgive her, and forget all about it.
"But am I to send your name, or not, Isabel?" George asked, rather coolly. He did not rerish these flights of fancy on the part of the young lady he was training with a view to his own ideal of a wife. "You first say a thing, and then say you don't mean it. Am I to send the envelopes or not?"
"No, no, George; don't send them, please; I really do dislike the name. Sleaford is such an ugly name, you know."