Doctor's Wife, The



Mr. Gilbert took his young wife to an hotel at Murlington for a week's honeymoon—to a family hotel; a splendid mansion, Isabel thought, where there was a solemn church-like stillness all day long, only broken by the occasional tinkling of silver spoons in the distance, or the musical chime of fragile glasses carried hither and thither on salvers of electro-plate. Isabel had never stayed at an hotel before; and she felt a thrill of pleasure when she saw the glittering table, the wax-candles in silver branches, the sweeping crimson curtains drawn before the lofty windows, and the delightful waiter, whose manner was such a judicious combination of protecting benevolence and obsequious humility.

Mrs. George Gilbert drew a long breath as she trifled with the shining damask napkin, so wondrously folded into a bishop's mitre, and saw herself reflected in the tall glass on the opposite side of the room. She wore her wedding-dress still; a sombre brown-silk dress, which had been chosen by George himself because of its homely merit of usefulness, rather than for any special beauty or elegance. Poor Isabel had struggled a little about the choice of that dress, for she had wanted to look like Florence Dombey on her wedding-day; but she had given way. Her life had never been her own yet, and never was to be her own, she thought; for now that her step-mother had ceased to rule over her by force of those spasmodic outbreaks of violence by which sorely-tried matrons govern their households, here was George, with his strong will and sound common sense,—oh, how Isabel hated common sense!—and she must needs acknowledge him as her master.

But she looked at her reflection in the glass, and saw that she was pretty. Was it only prettiness, or was it something more, even in spite of the brown dress? She saw her pale face and black hair lighted up by the wax-candles; and thought, if this could go on for ever,—the tinkling silver and glittering glass, the deferential waiter, the flavour of luxury and elegance, not to say Edith Dombeyism, that pervaded the atmosphere,—she would be pleased with her new lot. Unhappily, there was only to be a brief interval of this aristocratic existence, for George had told his young wife confidentially that he didn't mean to go beyond a ten-pound note; and by-and-by, when the dinner-table had been cleared, he amused himself by making abstruse calculations as to how long that sum would hold out against the charges of the family hotel.

The young couple stayed for a week at Murlington. They drove about the neighbourhood in an open fly, conscientiously admiring what the guide-books called the beauties of the vicinity; and the bleak winds of January tweaked their young noses as they faced the northern sky. George was happy—ah, how serenely happy!—in that the woman he so dearly loved was his wife. The thought of any sorrow darkling in the distance now, now that the solemn vows had been spoken, never entered into his mind. He had thought of William Jeffson's warning sometimes, it is true, but only to smile in superb contempt of the simple creature's foolish talk. Isabel loved him; she smiled at him when he spoke to her, and was gentle and obedient to his advice: he was, perhaps, a shade too fond of advising her. She had given up novel-reading, and employed her leisure in the interesting pursuit of plain needlework. Her husband watched her complacently by the light of the wax-candles while she hemmed a cambric handkerchief, threading and unthreading her needle very often, and boggling a little when she turned the corners, and stopping now and then to yawn behind her pretty little pink fingers; but then she had been out in the open air nearly all day, and it was only natural that she should be sleepy.

Perhaps it might have been better for George Gilbert if he had not solicited Mr. Pawlkatt's occasional attendance upon the parish patients, and thus secured a week's holiday in honour of his young wife. Perhaps it would have been better if he had kept his ten-pound note in his pocket, and taken Isabel straight to the house which was henceforth to be her home. That week in the hotel at Murlington revealed one dreadful fact of these young people; a fact which the Sunday afternoon walks at Conventford had only dimly foreshadowed. They had very little to say to each other. That dread discovery, which should bring despair whenever it comes, dawned upon Isabel, at least, all at once; and a chill sense of weariness and disappointment crept into her breast, and grew there, while she was yet ignorant of its cause.

She was very young. She had not yet parted with one of her delusions, and she ignorantly believed that she could keep those foolish dreams, and yet be a good wife to George Gilbert. He talked to her of his school-days, and then branched away to his youth, his father's decline and death, his own election to the parish duties, his lonely bachelorhood, his hope of a better position and larger income some day. Oh, how dull and prosaic it all sounded to that creature, whose vague fancies were for ever wandering towards wonderful regions of poetry and romance! It was a relief to her when George left off talking, and left her free to think her own thoughts, as she laboured on at the cambric handkerchief, and pricked the points of her fingers, and entangled her thread.

There were no books in the sitting-room at the family hotel; and even if there had been, this honeymoon week seemed to Isabel a ceremonial period. She felt as if she were on a visit, and was not free to read. She sighed as she passed the library on the fashionable parade, and saw the name of the new novels exhibited on a board before the door; but she had not the courage to say how happy three cloth-covered volumes of light literature would have made her. George was not a reading man. He read the local papers and skimmed the "Times" after breakfast; and then, there he was, all day long. There were two wet days during that week at Murlington; and the young married people had ample opportunity of testing each other's conversational powers, as they stood in the broad window, watching occasional passers-by in the sloppy streets, and counting the rain-drops on the glass.

The week came to an end at last; and on a wet Saturday afternoon George Gilbert paid his bill at the family hotel. The ten-pound note had held out very well; for the young bridegroom's ideas had never soared beyond a daily pint of sherry to wash down the simple repast which the discreet waiter provided for those humble guests in pitiful regard to their youth and simplicity. Mr. Gilbert paid his bill, while Isabel packed her own and her husband's things; oh, what uninteresting things!—double-soled boots, and serviceable garments of grey woollen stuff. Then, when all was ready, she stood in the window watching for the omnibus which was to carry her to her new home. Murlington was only ten miles from Graybridge, and the journey between the two places was performed in an old-fashioned stunted omnibus,—a darksome vehicle, with a low roof, a narrow door, and only one small square of glass on each side.

Isabel breathed a long sigh as she watched for the appearance of this vehicle in the empty street. The dull wet day, the lonely pavement, the blank empty houses to let furnished—for it was not the Murlington season now—were not so dull or empty as her own life seemed to her this afternoon. Was it to be for ever and for ever like this? Yes; she was married, and the story was all over; her destiny was irrevocably sealed, and she was tired of it already. But then she thought of her new home, and all the little plans she had made for herself before her marriage,—the alterations and improvements she had sketched out for the beautification of her husband's house. Somehow or other, even these ideas, which had beguiled her so in her maiden reveries, seemed to melt and vanish now. She had spoken to George, and he had received her suggestions doubtfully, hinting at the money which would be required for the carrying out of her plans,—though they were very simple plans, and did not involve much expense.

Was there to be nothing in her life, then? She was only a week married; and already, as she stood at the window listening to the slop-slop of the everlasting rain, she began to think that she had made a mistake.

The omnibus came to the door presently, and she was handed into it, and her husband seated himself, in the dim obscurity, by her side. There was only one passenger—a wet farmer, wrapped in so many greatcoats that being wet outside didn't matter to him, as he only gave other people cold. He wiped his muddy boots on Isabel's dress, the brown-silk wedding-dress which she had worn all the week; and Mrs. Gilbert made no effort to save the garment from his depredations. She leaned her head back in the corner of the omnibus, while the luggage was being bumped upon the roof above her, and let down her veil. The slow tears gathered in her eyes, and rolled down her pale cheeks.

It was a mistake,—a horrible and irreparable mistake,—whose dismal consequences she must bear for ever and ever. She felt no dislike of George Gilbert. She neither liked nor disliked him—only he could not give her the kind of life she wanted; and by her marriage with him she was shut out for ever from the hope of such a life. No prince would ever come now; no accidental duke would fall in love with her black eyes, and lift her all at once to the bright regions she pined to inhabit. No; it was all over. She had sold her birthright for a vulgar mess of potage. She had bartered all the chances of the future for a little relief to the monotony of the present,—for a few wedding-clothes, a card-case with a new name on the cards contained in it, the brief distinction of being a bride.

George spoke to her two or three times during the journey to Graybridge; but she only answered him in monosyllables. She had a "headache," she said,—that convenient feminine complaint which is an excuse for anything. She never once looked out of the window, though the road was new to her. She sat back in the dusky vehicle, while George and the farmer talked local politics; and their talk mingled vaguely with her own misery. The darkness grew thicker in the low-roofed carriage; the voices of George and the farmer died drowsily away; and by-and-by there was snoring, whether from George or the farmer Isabel did not care to think. She was thinking of Byron and of Napoleon the First. Ah, to have lived in his time, and followed him, and slaved for him, and died for him in that lonely island far out in the waste of waters! The tears fell faster as all her childish dreams came back upon her, and arrayed themselves in cruel contrast with her new life. Mr. Buckstone's bright Irish heroine, when she has been singing her song in the cold city street,—the song which she has dreamt will be the means of finding her lost nursling,—sinks down at last upon a snow-covered doorstep, and sobs aloud because "it all seems so real!"

Life seemed "so real" now to Isabel. She awakened suddenly to the knowledge that all her dreams were only dreams after all, and never had been likely to come true. As it was, they could never come true; she had set a barrier against the fulfilment of those bright visions, and she must abide by her own act.

It was quite dark upon that wintry afternoon when the omnibus stopped at the Cock at Graybridge; and then there was more bumping about of the luggage before Isabel was handed out upon the pavement to walk home with her husband. Yes; they were to walk home. What was the use of a ten-pound note spent upon splendour in Murlington, when the honeymoon was to close in degradation such as this? They walked home. The streets were sloppy, and there was mud in the lane where George's house stood; but it was only five or ten minutes' walk, as he said, and nobody in Graybridge would have dreamed of hiring a fly.

So they walked home, with the luggage following on a truck; and when they came to the house, there was only a dim glimmer in the red lamp over the surgery-door. All the rest was dark, for George's letter to Mr. Jeffson had been posted too late, and the bride and bridegroom were not expected. Everybody knows the cruel bleakness which that simple fact involves. There were no fires in the rooms; no cheery show of preparation; and there was a faint odour of soft-soap, suggestive of recent cleaning. Mrs. Jeffson was up to her elbows in a flour-tub when the young master pulled his own door-bell; and she came out, with her arms white and her face dirty, to receive the newly-married pair. She set a flaring tallow-candle on the parlour-table, and knelt down to light the fire, exclaiming and wondering all the while at the unexpected arrival of Mr. Gilbert and his wife.

"My master's gone over to Conventford for some groceries, and we're all of a moodle like, ma'am," she said; "but we moost e'en do th' best we can, and make all coomfortable. Master Jarge said Moonday as plain as words could speak when he went away, and th' letter's not coom yet; so you may joost excuse things not bein' straight."

Mrs. Jeffson might have gone on apologizing for some time longer: but she jumped up suddenly to attend upon Isabel, who had burst into a passion of hysterical sobbing. She was romantic, sensitive, impressionable—selfish, if you will; and her poor untutored heart revolted against the utter ruin of her dreams.

"It is so miserable!" she sobbed; "it all seems so miserable!"

George came in from the stables, where he had been to see Brown Molly, and brought his wife some sal-volatile, in a wineglass of water; and Mrs. Jeffson comforted the poor young creature, and took her up to the half-prepared bedroom, where the carpets were still up, and where the whitewashed walls—it was an old-fashioned house, and the upper rooms had never been papered—and the bare boards looked cheerless and desolate in the light of a tallow-candle. Mrs. Jeffson brought her young mistress a cup of tea, and sat down by the bedside while she drank it, and talked to her and comforted her, though she did not entertain a very high opinion of a young lady who went into hysterics because there was no fire in her sitting-room.

"I dare say it did seem cold and lonesome and comfortless like," Mrs. Jeffson said, indulgently; "but we'll get things nice in no time."

Isabel shook her head.

"You are very kind," she said; "but it wasn't that made me cry."

She closed her eyes, not because she was sleepy, but because she wanted Mrs. Jeffson to go away and leave her alone. Then, when the good woman had retired with cautious footsteps, and closed the door, Mrs. George Gilbert slowly opened her eyes, and looked at the things on which they were to open every morning for all her life to come.

There was nothing beautiful in the room, certainly. There was a narrow mantel-piece, with a few blocks of Derbyshire spar and other mineral productions; and above them there hung an old-fashioned engraving of some scriptural subject, in a wooden frame painted black. There was a lumbering old wardrobe—or press, as it was called—of painted wood, with a good deal of the paint chipped off; there was a painted dressing-table, a square looking-glass, with brass ornamentation about the stand and frame,—a glass in which George Gilbert's grandfather had looked at himself seventy years before. Isabel stared at the blank white walls, the gaunt shadows of the awkward furniture, with a horrible fascination. It was all so ugly, she thought, and her mind revolted against her husband, as she remembered that he could have changed all this, and yet had left it in its bald hideousness.

And all this time George was busy in his surgery, grinding his pestle in so cheerful a spirit that it seemed to fall into a kind of tune, and thinking how happy he was now that Isabel Sleaford was his wife.

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