It happened that the very day after Isabel's little outbreak of passion was a peculiar occasion in George Gilbert's life. It was the 2nd of July, and it was his wife's birthday,—the first birthday after her marriage; and the young surgeon had planned a grand treat and surprise, quite an elaborate festival, in honour of the day. He had been, therefore, especially wounded by Isabel's ill-temper. Had he not been thinking of her and of her pleasure at the very moment when she had upbraided him for his lack of interest in the Alien? He did not care about the Alien. He did not appreciate
"Clotilde, Clotilde, my dark Clotilde!
With the sleepy light in your midnight glance.
We let the dancers go by to dance;
But we stayed out on the lamplit stair,
And the odorous breath of your trailing hair
Swept over my face as your whispers stole
Like a gush of melody through my soul;
Clotilde, Clotilde, my own Clotilde!"
But he loved his wife, and was anxious to please her; and he had schemed and plotted to do her pleasure. He had hired a fly—an open fly—for the whole day, and Mrs. Jeffson had prepared a basket with port and sherry from the Cock, and all manner of north-country delicacies; and George had written to Mr. Raymond, asking that gentleman, with the orphans of course, to meet himself and his wife at Warncliffe Castle, the show-place of the county. This Mr. Raymond had promised to do; and all the arrangements had been carefully planned, and had been kept profoundly secret from Isabel.
She was very much pleased when her husband told her of the festival early on that bright summer morning, while she was plaiting her long black hair at the little glass before the open lattice. She ran to the wardrobe to see if she had a clean muslin dress. Yes, there it was; the very lavender-muslin which she had worn at the Hurstonleigh picnic. George was delighted to see her pleasure; and he sat on the window-sill watching her as she arranged her collar and fastened a little bow of riband at her throat, and admired herself in the glass.
"I want it to be like that day last year, Izzie; the day I asked you to marry me. Mr. Raymond will bring the key of Hurstonleigh Grove, and we're to drive there after we've seen the castle, and picnic there as we did before; and then we're to go to the very identical model old woman's to tea; and everything will be exactly the same."
Ah, Mr. George Gilbert, do you know the world so little as to be ignorant that no day in life ever has its counterpart, and that to endeavour to bring about an exact repetition of any given occasion is to attempt the impossible?
It was a six-mile drive from Graybridge to Warncliffe, the grave old country-town,—the dear old town, with shady pavements, and abutting upper stories, pointed gables, and diamond-paned casements; the queer old town, with wonderful churches, and gloomy archways, and steep stony streets, and above all, the grand old castle, the black towers, and keep, and turrets, and gloomy basement dungeons, lashed for ever and for ever by the blue rippling water. I have never seen Warncliffe Castle except in the summer sunshine, and my hand seems paralyzed when I try to write of it. It is easy to invent a castle, and go into raptures about the ivied walls and mouldering turrets; but I shrink away before the grand reality, and can describe nothing; I see it all too plainly, and feel the tameness of my words too much. But in summer-time this Elizabethan Midlandshire is an English paradise, endowed with all the wealth of natural loveliness, enriched by the brightest associations of poetry and romance.
Mr. Raymond was waiting at the little doorway when the fly stopped, and he gave Isabel his arm and led her into a narrow winding alley of verdure and rockwork, and then across a smooth lawn, and under an arch of solid masonry to another lawn, a velvety grass-plat, surrounded by shrubberies, and altogether a triumph of landscape gardening.
They went into the castle with a little group of visitors who have just collected on the broad steps before the door; and they were taken at once under the convoy of a dignified housekeeper in a rustling silk gown, who started off into a viv�-voce catalogue of the contents of the castle-hall, a noble chamber with armour-clad effigies of dead-and-gone warriors ranged along the walls, with notched battle-axes, and cloven helmets, and monster antlers, and Indian wampum, and Canadian wolf-skins, and Australian boomerangs hanging against the wainscot, with carved oak and ebony muniment-chests upon the floor, and with three deep embayed windows overhanging the brightest landscape, the fairest streamlet in England.
While the housekeeper was running herself down like a musical box that had been newly wound up, and with as much animation and expression in her tones as there is in a popular melody interpreted by a musical box, Mr. Raymond led Isabel to the window, and showed her the blue waters of the Wayverne bubbling and boiling over craggy masses of rockwork, green boulders, and pebbles that shimmered in the sunlight, and then, playing hide-and-seek under dripping willows, and brawling away over emerald moss and golden sand, to fall with a sudden impetus into the quiet depths beneath the bridge.
"Look at that, my dear," said Mr. Raymond; "that isn't in the catalogue. I'll tell you all about the castle: and we'll treat the lady in the silk dress as they treat the organ boys in London. We'll give her half-a-crown to move on, and leave us to look at the pictures, and the boomerangs, and the armour, and the tapestry, and the identical toilet-table and pin-cushion in which her gracious Majesty stuck the pin she took out of her bonnet-string when she took luncheon with Lord Warncliffe a year or two ago. That's the gem of the catalogue in the housekeeper's opinion, I know. We'll look at the pictures by ourselves, Mrs. Gilbert, and I'll tell you all about them."
To my mind, Warncliffe Castle is one of the pleasantest show-places in the kingdom. There are not many rooms to see, nor are they large rooms. There are not many pictures; but the few in every room are of the choicest, and are hung on a level with the eye, and do not necessitate that straining of the spinal column which makes the misery of most picture galleries. Warncliffe Castle is like an elegant little dinner; there are not many dishes, and everything is so good that you wish there were more. And at Warncliffe the sunny chambers have the extra charm of looking as if people lived in them. You see not only Murillos and Titians, Lelys and Vandykes upon the walls; you see tables scattered with books, and women's handiwork here and there; and whichever way you turn, there is always the noisy Wayverne brawling and rippling under the windows, and the green expanse of meadow and the glory of purple woodland beyond.
Isabel moved through the rooms in a silent rapture; but yet there was a pang of anguish lurking somewhere or other amid all that rapture.
Her dreams were all true, then; there were such places as this, and people lived in them. Happy people, for whom life was all loveliness and poetry, looked out of those windows, and lolled in those antique chairs, and lived all their lives amidst caskets of Florentine mosaic, and portraits by Vandyke, and marble busts of Roman emperors, and Gobelin tapestries, and a hundred objects of art and beauty, whose very names were a strange language to Isabel.
For some people life was like this; and for her—! She shuddered as she remembered the parlours at Graybridge,—the shabby carpet, the faded moreen curtains edged with rusty velvet, the cracked jars and vases on the mantel-piece; and even if George had given her all that she had asked—the ottoman, and the Venetian blind, and the rose-coloured curtains—what would have been the use? her room would never have looked like this. She gazed about her in a sort of walking dream, intoxicated by the beauty of the place. She was looking like this when Mr. Raymond led her into one of the larger rooms, and showed her a little picture in a corner, a Tintoretto, which he said was a gem.
She looked at the Tintoretto in a drowsy kind of way. It was a very brown gem, and its beauties were quite beyond Mrs Gilbert's appreciation. She was not thinking of the picture. She was thinking if, by some romantic legerdemain, she could "turn out" to be the rightful heiress of such a castle as this, with a river like the Wayverne brawling under her windows, and trailing willow-branches dipping into the water. There were some such childish thoughts as these in her mind while Mr. Raymond was enlarging upon the wonderful finish and modelling of the Venetian's masterpiece; and she was aroused from her reverie not by her companion's remarks, but by a woman's voice on the other side of the room.
"You so rarely see that contrast of fair hair and black eyes," said the voice; "and there is something peculiar in those eyes."
There was nothing particular in the words: it was the tone in which they were spoken that caught Isabel Gilbert's ear—the tone in which Lady Clara Vere de Vere herself might have spoken; a tone in winch there was a lazy hauteur softened by womanly gentleness,—a drawling accent which had yet no affectation, only a kind of liquid carrying on of the voice, like a legato passage in music.
"Yes," returned another voice, which had all the laziness and none of the hauteur, "it is a pretty face. Joanna of Naples, isn't it? she was an improper person, wasn't she? threw some one out of a window, and made herself altogether objectionable."
Mr. Raymond wheeled round as suddenly as if he had received an electric shock, and ran across the room to a gentleman who was lounging in a half-reclining attitude upon one of the broad window-seats.
"Why, Roland, I thought you were at Corfu!"
The gentleman got up, with a kind of effort and the faintest suspicion of a yawn; but his face brightened nevertheless, as he held out his hand to Isabel's late employer.
"My dear Raymond, how glad I am to see you! I meant to ride over to-morrow morning, for a long day's talk. I only came home last night, to please my uncle and cousin, who met me at Baden and insisted on bringing me home with them. You know Gwendoline? ah, yes, of course you do."
A lady with fair banded hair and an aquiline nose—a lady in a bonnet which was simplicity itself, and could only have been produced by a milliner who had perfected herself in the supreme art of concealing her art—dropped the double eye-glass through which she had been looking at Joanna of Naples, and held out a hand so exquisitely gloved that it looked as if it had been sculptured out of grey marble.
"I'm afraid Mr. Raymond has forgotten me," she said "papa and I have been so long away from Midlandshire."
"And Lowlands was beginning to look quite a deserted habitation. I used to think of Hood's haunted house whenever I rode by your gates, Lady Gwendoline. But you have come home for good now? as if you could come for anything but good," interjected Mr. Raymond, gallantly. "You have come with the intention of stopping, I hope."
"Yes," Lady Gwendoline answered, with something like a sigh; "papa and I mean to settle in Midlandshire; he has let the Clarges Street house for a time; sold his lease, at least, I think; or something of that sort. And we know every nook and corner of the Continent. So I suppose that really the best thing we can do is to settle at Lowlands. But I suppose we sha'n't keep Roland long in the neighbourhood. He'll get tired of us in a fortnight, and run away to the Pyrenees, or Cairo, or Central Africa; 'anywhere, anywhere, out of the world!'"
"It isn't of you that I shall get tired, Gwendoline," said the gentleman called Roland, who had dropped back into his old lounging attitude on the window-seat. "It's myself that bores me; the only bore a man can't cut. But I'm not going to run away from Midlandshire. I shall go in for steam-farming, and agricultural implements, and drainage. I should think drainage now would have a very elevating influence upon a man's mind; and I shall send my short-horns to Smithfield next Christmas. And you shall teach me political economy, Raymond; and we'll improve the condition of the farm-labourer; and we'll offer a prize for the best essay on, say, classical agriculture as revealed to us in the writings of Virgil—that's the sort of thing for the farm-labourer, I should think—and Gwendoline shall give the prizes: a blue riband and a gold medal, and a frieze coat, or a pair of top-boots."
Isabel still lingered by the Tintoretto. She was aghast at the fact that Mr. Raymond knew, and was even familiar with, these beings. Yes; Beings—creatures of that remote sphere which she only knew in her dreams. Standing near the Tintoretto, she ventured to look very timidly towards these radiant creatures.
What did she see? A young man half reclining in the deep embrasure of a window, with the summer sunshine behind him, and the summer breezes fluttering his loose brown hair—that dark rich brown which is only a warmer kind of black. She saw a man upon whom beneficent or capricious Nature, in some fantastic moment, had lavished all the gifts that men most covet and that women most admire. She saw one of the handsomest faces ever seen since Napoleon, the young conqueror of Italy, first dazzled regenerated France; a kind of face that is only familiar to us in a few old Italian portraits; a beautiful, dreamy, perfect face, exquisite alike in form and colour. I do not think that any words of mine can realize Roland Lansdell's appearance; I can only briefly catalogue the features, which were perfect in their way, and yet formed so small an item in the homogeneous charm of this young man's appearance. The nose was midway betwixt an aquiline and a Grecian, but it was in the chiselling of the nostril, the firmness and yet delicacy of the outline, that it differed from other noses; the forehead was of medium height, broad, and full at the temples; the head was strong in the perceptive faculties, very strong in benevolence, altogether wanting in destructiveness; but Mr. Raymond could have told you that veneration and conscientiousness were deficient in Roland Lansdell's cranium,—a deficiency sorely to be lamented by those who knew and loved the young man. His eyes and mouth formed the chief beauty of his face; and yet I can describe neither, for their chief charm lay in the fact that they were indescribable. The eyes were of a nondescript colour; the mouth was ever varying in expression. Sometimes you looked at the eyes, and they seemed to you a dark bluish-grey; sometimes they were hazel; sometimes you were half beguiled into fancying them black. And the mouth was somehow in harmony with the eyes; inasmuch as looking at it one minute you saw an expression of profound melancholy in the thin flexible lips; and then in the next a cynical smile. Very few people ever quite understood Mr. Lansdell, and perhaps this was his highest charm. To be puzzled is the next thing to being interested; to be interested is to be charmed. Yes, capricious Nature had showered her gifts upon Roland Lansdell. She had made him handsome, and had attuned his voice to a low melodious music, and had made him sufficiently clever; and, beyond all this, had bestowed upon him that subtle attribute of grace, which she and she alone can bestow. He was always graceful. Involuntarily and unconsciously he fell into harmonious attitudes. He could not throw himself into a chair, or rest his elbow upon a table, or lean against the angle of a doorway, or stretch himself full-length upon the grass to fall asleep with his head upon his folded arms, without making himself into a kind of picture. He looked like a picture just now as he lounged in the castle window, with his face turned towards Mr. Raymond.
The lady, who was called Lady Gwendoline, put up her eye-glass to look at another picture; and in that attitude Isabel had time to contemplate her, and saw that she too was graceful, and that in every fold of her simple dress—it was only muslin, but quite a different fabric from Isabel's muslin—there was an indescribable harmony which stamped her as the creature of that splendid sphere which the girl only knew in her books. She looked longer and more earnestly at Lady Gwendoline than at Roland Lansdell, for in this elegant being she saw the image of herself, as she had fancied herself so often—the image of a heartless aristocratic divinity, for whose sake people cut their throats, and broke blood-vessels, and drowned themselves.
George came in while his wife was looking at Lady Gwendoline, and Mr. Raymond suddenly remembered the young couple whom he had taken upon himself to chaperone.
"I must introduce you to some new friends of mine, Roland," he said; "and when you are ill you must send for Mr. Gilbert of Graybridge, who, I am given to understand, is a very clever surgeon, and whom I know to have the best moral region I ever had under my hand. Gilbert, my dear boy, this is Roland Lansdell of Mordred Priory; Lady Gwendoline, Mrs. Gilbert—Mr. Lansdell. But you know something about my friend Roland, I think, don't you, Isabel?"
Mrs. Gilbert bowed and smiled and blushed in a pleasant bewilderment. To be introduced, to two Beings in this off-hand manner was almost too much for Mr. Sleaford's daughter. A faint perfume of jasmine and orange-blossom floated towards her from Lady Gwendoline's handkerchief, and she seemed to see the fair-haired lady who smiled at her, and the dark-haired gentleman who had risen at her approach, through an odorous mist that confused her senses.
"I think you know something of my friend Roland," Mr. Raymond repeated; "eh, my dear?"
"Oh, n—no indeed," Isabel stammered; "I never saw—"
"You never saw him before to-day," answered Mr. Raymond, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder with a kind of protecting tenderness in the gesture. "But you've read his verses; those pretty drawing-room Byronics, that refined and anglicised Alfred-de-Musset-ism, that you told me you are so fond of:—don't you remember asking me who wrote the verses, Mrs. Gilbert? I told you the Alien was a country squire; and here he is—a Midlandshire squire of high degree, as the old ballad has it."
Isabel's heart gave a great throb, and her pale face flushed all over with a faint carnation. To be introduced to a Being was something, but to be introduced to a Being who was also a poet, and the very poet whose rhapsodies were her last and favourite idolatry! She could not speak. She tried to say something—something very commonplace, to the effect that the verses were very pretty, and she liked them very much, thank you—but the words refused to come, and her lips only trembled. Before she could recover her confusion, Mr. Raymond had hooked his arm through that of Roland Lansdell, and the two men had walked off together, talking with considerable animation; for Charles Raymond was a kind of adopted father to the owner of Mordred Priory, and was about the only man whom Roland had ever loved or trusted.
Isabel was left by the open window with Lady Gwendoline and George, whose common sense preserved him serene and fearless in the presence of these superior creatures.
"You like my cousin's poetry, then, Mrs. Gilbert?" said Lady Gwendoline.
Her cousin! The dark-haired being was cousin to this fair-haired being in the Parisian bonnet,—a white-chip bonnet, with just one feathery sprig of mountain heather, and broad thick white-silk strings, tied under an aristocratic chin—a determined chin, Mr. Raymond would have told Isabel.
Mrs. Gilbert took heart of grace now that Roland Lansdell was out of hearing, and said, "Oh, yes; she was very, very fond of the 'Alien's Dreams;' they were so sweetly pretty."
"Yes, they are pretty." Lady Gwendoline said, seating herself by the window, and playing with her bonnet-strings as she spoke; "they are very graceful. Do sit down, Mrs. Gilbert; these show-places are so fatiguing. I am waiting for papa, who is talking politics with some Midlandshire people in the hall. I am very glad you like Roland's verses. They're not very original; all the young men write the same kind of poetry nowadays—a sort of mixture of Tennyson, and Edgar Poe, and Alfred de Musset. It reminds me of Balfe's music, somehow; it pleases, and one catches the melody without knowing how or why. The book made quite a little sensation. The 'Westminster' was very complimentary, but the 'Quarterly' was dreadful. I remember Roland reading the article and laughing at it; but he looked like a man who tries to be funny in tight boots, and he called it by some horrible slang term—'a slate,' I think he said."
Isabel had nothing to say to this. She had never heard that the "Quarterly" was a popular review; and, indeed, the adjective "quarterly" had only one association for her, and that was rent, which had been almost as painful a subject as taxes in the Camberwell household. Lady Gwendoline's papa came in presently to look for his daughter. He was Angus Pierrepoint Aubrey Amyott Pomphrey, Earl of Ruysdale; but he wore a black coat and grey trousers and waistcoat, just like other people, and had thick boots, and didn't look a bit like an earl, Isabel thought.
He said, "Haw, hum—yes, to be sure, my dear," when Lady Gwendoline told him she was ready to go home; "been talking to Witherston—very good fellow, Witherston—wants to get his son returned for Conventford, gen'ral 'lection next year, lib'ral int'rest—very gentlemanly young f'ler, the son;" and then he went to look for Roland, whom he found in the next room with Charles Raymond; and then Lady Gwendoline wished Isabel good morning, and said something very kind, to the effect that they should most likely meet again before long, Lowlands being so near Graybridge; and then the Earl offered his arm to his daughter.
She took it, but she looked back at her cousin, who was talking to Mr. Raymond, and glancing every now and then in a half-amused, half-admiring way at Isabel.
"I am so glad to think you like my wretched scribble, Mrs. Gilbert," he said, going up to her presently.
Isabel blushed again, and said, "Oh, thank you; yes, they are very pretty;" and it was as much as she could do to avoid calling Mr. Lansdell "Sir" or "Your lordship."
"You are coming with us, I suppose, Roland?" Lady Gwendoline said.
"Oh, yes,—that is to say. I'll see you to the carriage."
"I thought you were coming to luncheon."
"No; I meant to come, but I must see that fellow Percival, the lawyer, you know, Gwendoline, and I want to have a little more talk with Raymond. You'll go on and show Mrs. Gilbert the Murillo in the next room, Raymond? and I'll run and look for my cousin's carriage, and then come back."
"We can find the carriage very well without you, Roland," Lady Gwendoline answered quickly. "Come, papa."
The young man stopped, and a little shadow darkened over his face.
"Did you really ask me to luncheon?" he said.
"You really volunteered to come, after breakfast this morning, when you proposed bringing us here."
"Did I? Oh, very well; in that case I shall let the Percival business stand over; and I shall ride to Oakbank to-morrow morning, Raymond, and lie on the grass and talk to you all day long, if you'll let me waste your time for once in a way. Good-bye; good morning, Mrs. Gilbert. By the bye, how do you mean to finish the day, Raymond?"
"I'm going to take Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert to Hurstonleigh Grove; or rather they take me, for they've brought a basket that reminds one of the Derby-day. We're going to picnic in the grove, and drink tea at a cottage in honour of Isabel's—Mrs. Gilbert's—birthday."
"You must come and picnic at Mordred some day. It's not as pretty as Hurstonleigh, but we'll manage to find a rustic spot. If you care for partridges, Mr. Gilbert, you'll find plenty in the woods round Mordred next September."
The young man put on his hat, and went after his cousin and her father. Isabel saw him walk along the bright vista of rooms, and disappear in a burst of sunshine that flooded the great hall when the door was opened. The beings were gone. For a brief interval she had been breathing the poetry of life; but she fell back now into the sober prose, and thought that half the grandeur of the castle was gone with those aristocratic visitors.
"And how do you like my young kinsman?" Mr. Raymond asked presently.
Isabel looked at him with surprise.
"He is your relation—Mr. Lansdell?"
"Yes. My mother was a Lansdell. There's a sort of cousin-ship between Roland and me. He's a good fellow—a very noble-hearted, high-minded young fellow; but—"
But what? Mr. Raymond broke off with so deep a sigh, that Isabel imagined an entire romance upon the strength of the inspiration. Had he done anything wicked? that dark beautiful creature, who only wanted the soul-harrowing memory of a crime to render him perfect. Had he fled his country, like Byron? or buried a fellow-creature in a cave, like Mr. Aram? Isabel's eyes opened to their widest extent; and Charles Raymond answered that inquiring glance.
"I sigh when I speak of Roland," he said, "because I know the young man is not happy. He stands quite alone in the world, and has more money than he knows how to spend; two very bad things for a young man. He's handsome and fascinating,—another disadvantage; and he's brilliant without being a genius. In short, he's just the sort of man to dawdle away the brightest years of his life in the drawing-rooms of a lot of women, and take to writing cynical trash about better men in his old age. I can see only one hope of redemption for him, and that is a happy marriage; a marriage with a sensible woman, who would get the whip-hand of him before he knew where he was. All the luckiest and happiest men have been henpecked. Look at the fate of the men who won't be henpecked. Look at Swift: he was a lord of the creation, and made the women fear him; look at him drivelling and doting under the care of a servant-maid. Look at Sterne; and Byron, who outraged his wife in fact, and satirized her in fiction. Were their lives so much the better because they scorned the gentle guidance of the apron-string? Depend upon it, Mrs. Gilbert, the men who lead great lives, and do noble deeds, and die happy deaths, are married men who obey their wives. I'm a bachelor; so of course I speak without prejudice. I do most heartily wish that Roland Lansdell may marry a good and sensible woman."
"A good and sensible woman!"
Isabel gave an involuntary shudder. Surely, of all the creatures upon this over-populated earth, a sensible woman was the very last whom Roland Lansdell ought to marry. He should marry some lovely being in perpetual white muslin, with long shimmering golden hair,—the dark men always married fair women in Isabel's novels,—a creature who would sit at his feet, and watch with him, as Astarte watched with Manfred, till dismal hours in the silent night; and who should be consumptive, and should die some evening—promiscuously, as Mrs. Gamp would say—with flowers upon her breast, and a smile upon her face.
Isabel knew very little more of the pictures, or the men in armour, or the cannon in the chambers that yet remained to be seen at Warncliffe Castle. She was content to let Mr. Raymond and her husband talk. George admired the cannon, and the old-fashioned locks and keys, and the model of a cathedral made by a poor man out of old champagne corks, and a few other curiosities of the same order; and he enjoyed himself, and was happy to see that his wife was pleased. He could tell that, by the smile upon her lips, though she said so little.
The drive from Warncliffe to Hurstonleigh Grove was as beautiful as the drive from Graybridge to Warncliffe; for this part of Midlandshire is a perpetual park. Isabel sat back in the carriage, and thought of Lady Gwendoline's aristocratic face and white-chip bonnet, and wondered whether she was the sensible woman whom Roland Lansdell would marry. They would be a very handsome couple. Mrs. Gilbert could fancy them riding Arabs—nobody worth speaking of ever rode anything but Arab horses, in Isabel's fancy—in Rotten Row. She could see Lady Gwendoline with a cavalier hat and a long sweeping feather, and Roland Lansdell bending over her horse's neck to talk to her, as they rode along. She fancied them in that glittering saloon, which was one of the stock scenes always ready to be pushed on the stage of her imagination. She fancied them in the midst of that brilliant supernumerary throng who wait upon the footsteps of heroes and heroines. She pictured them to herself going down to the grave through an existence of dinner-parties, and Rotten Row, and balls, and Ascot cups. Ah, what a happy life! what a glorious destiny!
The picnic seemed quite a tame thing after these reveries in the carriage. The orphans met their uncle at the lodge-gate; and they all went across the grass, just as they had gone before, to the little low iron gate which Mr. Raymond was privileged to open with a special key; and into the grove, where the wonderful beeches and oaks made a faint summer darkness.
Was it the same grove? To Isabel it looked as if it had been made smaller since that other picnic; and the waterfall, and the woodland vistas, and the winding paths, and the arbour where they were to dine,—it was all very well for the orphans to clap their hands, and disport themselves upon the grass, and dart off at a tangent every now and then to gather inconvenient wild-flowers; but, after all, there was nothing so very beautiful in Hurstonleigh Grove.
Isabel wandered a little way by herself, while Mr. Raymond and George and the orphans unpacked the basket. She liked to be alone, that she might think of Lady Gwendoline and her cousin. Lady Gwendoline Pomphrey—oh, how grand it sounded! Why, to have such a name as that would alone be bliss; but to be called Gwendoline Pomphrey, and to wear a white-chip bonnet with that heavenly sprig of heather just trembling on the brim, and those broad, carelessly tied, unapproachable strings! And then, like the sudden fall of a curtain in a brilliant theatre, the scene darkened, and Isabel thought of her own life—the life to which she must go back when it was dark that night: the common parlour, or the best parlour,—what was the distinction, in their dismal wretchedness, that one should be called better than the other?—- the bread-and-cheese, the radishes,—and, oh, how George could eat radishes, crunch, crunch, crunch!—till madness would have been relief. This unhappy girl felt a blank despair as she thought of her commonplace home,—her home for ever and ever,—unbrightened by a hope, unsanctified by a memory; her home, in which she had a comfortable shelter, and enough to eat and to drink, and decent garments with which to cover herself; and where, had she been a good or a sensible young woman, she ought of course to have been happy.
But she was not happy. The slow fever that had been burning so long in her veins was now a rapid and consuming fire. She wanted a bright life, a happy life, a beautiful life; she wanted to be like Lady Gwendoline, and to live in a house like Warncliffe Castle. It was not that she envied Lord Ruysdale's daughter, remember; envy had no part in her nature. She admired Gwendoline Pomphrey too much to envy her. She would like to have been that elegant creature's youngest sister, and to have worshipped her and imitated her in a spirit of reverence. She had none of the radical's desire to tear the trappings from the bloated aristocrat; she only wanted to be an aristocrat too, and to wear the same trappings, and to march through life to the same music.
George came presently, very much out of breath, to take her back to the arbour where there was a lobster salad, and that fine high-coloured Graybridge sherry, and some pale German wine which Mr. Raymond contributed to the feast.
The orphans and the two gentlemen enjoyed themselves very much. Mr. Raymond could talk about medicine as well as political economy; and he and George entered into a conversation in which there were a great many hard words. The orphans ate—to do that was to be happy; and Isabel sat in a corner of the arbour, looking dreamily out at the shadows on the grass, and wondering why Fate had denied her the privilege of being an earl's daughter.
The drowsy atmosphere of the hot summer's afternoon, the Rhine wine, and the sound of his companion's voice, had such a pleasant influence upon Mr. Raymond, that he fell asleep presently while George was talking; and the young man, perceiving this, produced a Midlandshire newspaper, which he softly unfolded, and began to read.
"Will you come and gather some flowers, Izzie?" whispered one of the orphans. "There are wild roses and honeysuckle in the lane outside. Do come!"
Mrs. Gilbert was very willing to leave the arbour. She wandered away with the two children along those lonely paths, which now sloped downwards into a kind of ravine, and then wound upwards to the grove. The orphans had a good deal to say to their late governess. They had a new instructress, and "she isn't a bit like you, dear Mrs. Gilbert," they said; "and we love you best, though she's very kind, you know, and all that; but she's old, you know, very old,—more than thirty; and she makes us hem cambric frills, and does go on so if we don't put away our things; and makes us do such horrid sums; and instead of telling us stories when we're out with her, as you used,—oh, don't you remember telling us Pelham? how I love Pelham, and Dombey!—about the little boy that died, and Florence—she teaches us botany and jology" (the orphans called it 'jology'), "and tertiary sandstone, and old red formations, and things like that; and oh, dear Izzie, I wish you never had been married."
Isabel smiled at the orphans, and kissed them, when they entwined themselves about her. But she was thinking of the Alien's dreams, and whether Lady Gwendoline was the "Duchess! with the glittering hair and cruel azure eyes," regarding whom the Alien was cynical, not to say abusive. Mrs. Gilbert felt as if she had never read the Alien half enough. She had seen him, and spoken to him,—a real poet, a real, living, breathing poet, who only wanted to lame himself, and turn his collars down, to become a Byron.
She was walking slowly along the woodland pathway, with the orphans round about her, like a modern Laocoon family without the serpents, when she was startled by a rustling of the branches a few paces from her, and looking up, with a sudden half-frightened glance, she saw the tall figure of a man between her and the sunlight.
The man was Mr. Roland Lansdell, the author of "An Alien's Dreams."
"I'm afraid I startled you, Mrs. Gilbert," he said, taking off his hat and standing bareheaded, with the shadows of the leaves flickering and trembling about him like living things. "I thought I should find Mr. Raymond here, as he said you were going to picnic, and I want so much to talk to the dear old boy. So, as they know me at the lodge, I got them to let me in."
Isabel tried to say something; but the orphans, who were in no way abashed by the stranger's presence, informed Mr. Lansdell that their Uncle Charles was asleep in the arbour where they had dined.—"up there." The elder orphan pointed vaguely towards the horizon as she spoke.
"Thank you; but I don't think I shall find him very easily. I don't know half the windings and twistings of this place."
The younger orphan informed Mr. Lansdell that the way to the arbour was quite straight,—he couldn't miss it.
"But you don't know how stupid I am," the gentleman answered, laughing. "Ask your uncle if I'm not awfully deficient in the organ of locality. Would you mind—but you were going the other way, and it seems so selfish to ask you to turn back; yet if you would take compassion upon my stupidity, and show me the way—?"
He appealed to the orphans, but he looked at Isabel. He looked at her with those uncertain eyes,—blue with a dash of hazel, hazel with a tinge of blue,-yes that were always half hidden under the thick fringe of their lashes, like a glimpse of water glimmering athwart overshadowing rushes.
"Oh, yes, if you like," the orphans cried simultaneously; "we don't mind going back a bit."
They turned as they spoke, and Isabel turned with them. Mr. Lansdell put on his hat, and walked amongst the long grass beside the narrow pathway.
The orphans were very lively, and fraternized immediately with Mr. Lansdell. They were Mr. Raymond's nieces? then they were his poor cousin Rosa Harlow's children, of whom he had heard so much from that dear good Raymond? If so, they were almost cousins of his, Mr. Lansdell went on to say, and they must come and see him at Mordred. And they must ask Mrs. Gilbert to come with them, as they seemed so fond of her.
The girls had plenty to say for themselves. Yes; they would like very much to come to Mordred Priory; it was very pretty; their Uncle Charles had shown them the house one day when he took them out for a drive. It would be capital fun to come, and to have a picnic in the grounds, as Mr. Lansdell proposed. The orphans were ready for anything in the way of holiday-making. And for Isabel, she only blushed, and said, "Thank you," when Roland Lansdell talked of her visiting Mordred with her late charges. She could not talk to this grand and beautiful creature, who possessed in his own person all the attributes of her favourite heroes.
How often this young dreamer of dreams had fancied herself in such companionship as this; discoursing with an incessant flow of brilliant persiflage, half scornful, half playful; holding her own against a love-stricken marquis; making as light of a duke as Mary Queen of Scots ever made of a presumptuous Chastelar! And now that the dream was realized; now that this splendid Byronic creature was by her side, talking to her, trying to make her answer him, looking at her athwart those wondrous eyelashes,—she was stricken and dumbfounded; a miserable, stammering school-girl; a Pamela, amazed and bewildered by the first complimentary address of her aristocratic persecutor.
She had a painful sense of her own deficiency; she knew all at once that she had no power to play the part she had so often fancied herself performing to the admiration of supernumerary beholders. But with all this pain and mortification there mingled a vague delicious happiness. The dream had come true at last. This was romance—this was life. She knew now what a pallid and ghastly broker's copy of a picture that last year's business had been; the standing on the bridge to be worshipped by a country surgeon; the long tedious courtship; the dowdy, vulgar, commonplace wedding,—she knew now how poor and miserable a mockery all that had been. She looked with furtive glances at the tall figure bending now and then under the branches of the trees; the tall figure in loose garments, which, in the careless perfection of their fashion, were so unlike anything she had ever seen before; the wonderful face in which there was the mellow fight and colour of a Guido. She stole a few timid glances at Mr. Lansdell, and made a picture of him in her mind, which, like or unlike, must be henceforth the only image by which she would recognize or think of him. Did she think of him as what he was,—a young English gentleman, idle, rich, accomplished, and with no better light to guide his erratic wanderings than an uncertain glimmer which he called honour? Had she thought of him thus, she would have been surely wiser than to give him so large a place in her mind, or any place at all. But she never thought of him in this way. He was all this; he was a shadowy and divine creature, amenable to no earthly laws. He was here now, in this brief hour, under the flickering sunlight and trembling shadows, and to-morrow he would melt away for ever and ever into the regions of light, which were his every-day habitation.
What did it matter, then, if she was fluttered and dazed and intoxicated by his presence? What did it signify if the solid earth became empyrean air under this foolish girl's footsteps? Mrs. Gilbert did not even ask herself these questions. No consciousness of wrong or danger had any place in her mind. She knew nothing, she thought nothing; except that a modern Lord Byron was walking by her side, and that it was a very little way to the arbour.