While Mr. Lansdell remembered Isabel Gilbert as a pretty automaton, who had simpered and blushed when he spoke to her, and stammered shyly when she was called upon to answer him, the Doctor's Wife walked up and down the flat commonplace garden at Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne, and thought of her birthday afternoon, whose simple pleasures had been embellished by the presence of a demigod. Yes, she walked up and down between two rows of straggling gooseberry-bushes, in a rapturous day-dream; a dangerous day-dream, in which Roland Lansdell's dark face shone dazzling and beautiful. Was it wrong to think of him? She never asked herself that question. She had read sentimental books all her life, and had been passionately in love with heroes in three volumes, ever since she could remember. What did it matter whether she was in love with Sir Reginald Glanville or Mr. Roland Lansdell? One passion was as hopeless as the other, and as harmless therefore. She was never likely to see the lord of Mordred Priory again. Had she not heard him tell Mr. Raymond that he should spend the winter in Paris? Mrs. Gilbert counted the months upon her fingers. Was November the winter? If so, Mr. Lansdell would be gone in four months' time. And in all those four months what likelihood was there that she should see him,—she, who was such a low degraded wretch as compared with this splendid being and those with whom it was his right to associate? Never, no, never until now had she understood the utter hideousness and horror of her life. The square miserable parlour, with little stunted cupboards on each side of the fireplace, and shells and peacocks' feathers, and penny-bottles of ink, and dingy unpaid bills, upon the mantel-piece. She sat there with the July sun glaring in upon her through the yellow-white blind; she sat there and thought of her life and its squalid ugliness, and then thought of Lady Gwendoline at Lowlands, and rebelled against the unkindness of a Providence that had not made her an earl's daughter. And then she clasped her hands upon her face, and shut out the vulgar misery of that odious parlour—a parlour!—the very word was unknown in those bright regions of which she was always dreaming—and thought of Roland Lansdell.
She thought of him, and she thought what her life might have been—if——
If what? If any one out of a hundred different visions, all equally childish and impossible, could have been realized. If she had been an earl's daughter, like Lady Gwendoline! If she had been a great actress, and Roland Lansdell had seen her and fallen in love with her from a stage-box! If he had met her in the Walworth Road two or three years ago; she fancied the meeting,—he in a cab, with the reins lightly held between the tips of his gloved fingers, and a tiny tiger swinging behind; and she standing on the kerbstone waiting to cross the road, and not out to fetch anything vulgar, only going to pay a water-rate, or to negotiate some mysterious "backing" of the spoons, or some such young-ladylike errand. And then she got up and went to the looking-glass to see if she really was pretty; or if her face, as she saw it in her day-dreams, was only an invention of her own, like the scenery and the dresses of those foolish dreams. She rested her elbows on the mantel-piece, and looked at herself, and pushed her hair about, and experimented with her mouth and eyes, and tried to look like Edith Dombey in the grand Carker scene, and acted the scene in a whisper.
No, she wasn't a bit like Edith Dombey; she was more like Juliet, or Desdemona. She lowered her eyelids, and then lifted them slowly, revealing a tender penetrating glance in the golden black eyes.
"I'm very sorry that you are not well!"
she whispered. Yes, she would do for Desdemona. Oh, if instead of marrying George Gilbert, she had only run away to London, and gone straight to that enterprising manager, who would have been so sure to engage her! If she had done this, she might have played Desdemona, and Mr. Lansdell might have happened to go to the theatre, and might have fallen desperately in love with her on the spot.
She took a dingy volume of the immortal William's from a dusty row of books on one of the cupboards, and went up to her room and locked the door, and pleaded for Cassio, and wept and protested opposite the looking-glass, before which three matter-of-fact generations of Gilberts had shaved themselves.
She was only nineteen, and she was a child, with all a child's eagerness for something bright and happy. It seemed only a very short time since she had longed for a gaily-dressed doll that adorned one of the Walworth Road shop-windows. Her married life had not as yet invested her with any matronly dignity. She had no domestic cares or duties; for the simple household was kept in order by Mrs. Jeffson, who would have resented any interference from the young mistress. Isabel went into the kitchen sometimes, when she was very much at a loss as to what she should do with herself, and sat in an old rocking-chair swinging languidly backwards and forwards, and watching kind-hearted Tilly making a pie.
There are some young women who take kindly to a simple domestic life, and have a natural genius for pies and puddings, and cutting and contriving, in a cheery, pleasant way, that invests poverty with a grace of its own; and when a gentleman wishes to marry on three hundred a year, he should look out for one of those bright household fairies. Isabel had no liking for these things; to her the making of pastry was a wearisome business. It was all very well for Ruth Pinch to do it for once in a way, and to be admired by John Westlock, and marry a rich and handsome young husband offhand. No doubt Miss Pinch knew instinctively that Mr. Westlock would come that morning while the beef-steak pudding was in progress. But to go on making puddings for Tom Pinch for ever and ever, with no John Westlock! Isabel left the house affairs to Mrs. Jeffson, and acted Shakespearian heroines and Edith Dombey before her looking-glass, and read her novels, and dreamed her dreams, and wrote little scraps of poetry, and drew pen-and-ink profile portraits of Mr. Lansdell—always looking from right to left. She gave him very black eyes with white blanks in the centre, and streaky hair; she drew Lady Gwendoline and the chip bonnet also very often, if not quite as often as the gentleman; so there was no harm in it. Mrs. Gilbert was strictly punctilious with herself, even in the matter of her thoughts. She only thought of what might have happened if Mr. Lansdell had met her long ago before her marriage.
It is not to be supposed that she forgot Roland's talk of some picnic or entertainment at Mordred. She thought of it a great deal, sometimes fancying that it was too bright a thing to come to pass: at other times thinking that Mr. Lansdell was likely to call at any moment with a formal invitation for herself and her husband. The weather was very warm just now, and the roads very dusty; so Mrs. Gilbert stayed at home a good deal. He might come,—he might come at any unexpected moment. She trembled and turned hot at the sound of a double knock, and ran to the glass to smooth her disordered hair: but only the most commonplace visitors came to Mr. Gilbert's mansion; and Isabel began to think that she would never see Roland Lansdell again.
And then she plunged once more into the hot-pressed pages of the "Alien," and read Mr. Lansdell's plaints, on toned paper, with long s's that looked like f's. And she copied his verses, and translated them into bad French. They were very difficult: how was she to render even such a simple sentence as "My own Clotilde?" She tried such locutions as, "Ma propre Clotilde," "Ma Clotilde particuli�re;" but she doubted if they were quite academically correct. And she set the Alien to tunes that he didn't match, and sang him in a low voice to the cracked notes of an old harpsichord which George's mother had imported from Yorkshire.
One day when she was walking with George,—one dreary afternoon, when George had less to do than usual, and was able to take his wife for a nice dusty walk on the high-road,—Mrs. Gilbert saw the man of whom she had thought so much. She saw a brown horse and a well-dressed rider sweep past her in a cloud of dust; and she knew, when he had gone by, that he was Roland Lansdell. He had not seen her any more than if there was no such creature upon this earth. He had not seen her. For the last five weeks she had been thinking of him perpetually, and he rode by and never saw that she was there. No doubt Lord Byron would have passed her by in much the same manner if he had lived: and would have ridden on to make a morning call upon that thrice-blessed Italian woman, whose splendid shame it was to be associated with him. Was it not always so? The moon is a cold divinity, and the brooks look up for ever and win no special radiance in recompense for their faithful worship: the sunflower is always turning to the sun, and the planet takes very little notice of the flower. Did not Napoleon snub Madame de Sta�l? And if Isabel could have lived thirty years earlier, and worked her passage out to St. Helena as ship's needle-woman, or something of that kind, and expressed her intention of sitting at the exile's feet for the rest of her natural life, the hero would have doubtless sent her back by the first homeward-bound vessel with an imperially proportioned flea in her ear.
No, she must be content to worship after the manner of the brooks. No subtle power of sympathy was engendered out of her worship. She drew rather fewer profile views of Mr. Lansdell after that wretched dusty afternoon, and she left off hoping that he would call and invite her to Mordred.
She resumed her old habits, and went out again with Shelley and the "Alien," and the big green parasol.
One day—one never-to-be-forgotten day, which made a kind of chasm in her life, dividing all the past from the present and the future—she sat on her old seat under the great oak-tree, beside the creaking mill-wheel and the plashing water; she sat in her favourite spot, with Shelley on her lap and the green parasol over her head. She had been sitting there for a long time in the drowsy midday atmosphere, when a great dog came up to her, and stared at her, and snuffed at her hands, and made friendly advances to her; and then another dog, bigger, if anything, than the first, came bouncing over a stile and bounding towards her; and then a voice, whose sudden sound made her drop her book all confused and frightened, cried, "Hi, Frollo! this way, Frollo." And in the next minute a gentleman, followed by a third dog, came along the narrow bridge that led straight to the bench on which she was sitting.
Her parasol had fallen back as she stooped to pick up her book, and Roland Lansdell could not avoid seeing her face. He thought her very pretty, as we know, but he thought her also very stupid; and he had quite forgotten his talk about her coming to Mordred.
"Let me pick up the book, Mrs. Gilbert," he said. "What a pretty place you have chosen for your morning's rest! This is a favourite spot of mine." He looked at the open pages of the book as he handed it to her, and saw the title; and glancing at another book on the seat near her, he recognized the familiar green cover and beveled edges of the "Alien." A man always knows the cover of his own book, especially when the work has hung rather heavily on the publisher's hands.
"You are fond of Shelley," he said. (He was considerably surprised to find that this pretty nonentity beguiled her morning walks with the perusal of the "Revolt of Islam.")
"Oh yes, I am very, very fond of him. Wasn't it a pity that he was drowned?"
She spoke of that calamity as if it had been an event of the last week or two. These things were nearer to her than all that common business of breakfast and dinner and supper which made up her daily life. Mr. Lansdell shot a searching glance at her from under cover of his long lashes. Was this feminine affectation, provincial Rosa-Matilda-ism?
"Yes, it was a pity," he said; "but I fancy we're beginning to get over the misfortune. And so you like all that dreamy, misty stuff?" he added, pointing to the open book which Isabel held in her hands. She was turning the leaves about, with her eyes cast down upon the pages. So would she have sat, shy and trembling, if Sir Reginald Glanville, or Eugene Aram, or the Giaour, or Napoleon the Great, or any other grand melancholy creature, could have been conjured into life and planted by her side. But she could not tolerate the substantive "stuff" as applied to the works of the lamented Percy Bysshe Shelley.
"I think it is the most beautiful poetry that was ever written," she said.
"Better than Byron's?" asked Mr. Lansdell; "I thought most young ladies made Byron their favourite."
"Oh yes, I love Byron. But then he makes one so unhappy, because one feels that he was so unhappy when he wrote. Fancy his writing the 'Giaour' late at night, after being out at parties where everybody adored him; and if he hadn't written it, he would have gone mad," said Mrs. Gilbert, opening her eyes very wide. "Reading Shelley's poetry seems like being amongst birds and flowers and blue rippling water and summer. It always seems summer in his poetry. Oh, I don't know which I like best."
Was all this affectation, or was it only simple childish reality? Mr. Lansdell was so much given to that dreadful disease, disbelief, that he was slow to accept even the evidence of those eloquent blushes, the earnestness in those wonderful eyes, which could scarcely be assumed at will, however skilled in the light comedy of every-day life Mrs. Gilbert might be. The dogs, who had no misanthropical tendencies, had made friends with Izzie already, and had grouped themselves about her, and laid their big paws and cold wet noses on her knee.
"Shall I take them away?" asked Mr. Lansdell. "I am afraid they will annoy you."
"Oh no, indeed; I am so fond of dogs."
She bent over them and caressed them with her ungloved hands, and dropped Shelley again, and was ashamed of her awkwardness. Would Edith Dombey have been perpetually dropping things? She bent over a big black retriever till her lips touched his forehead, and he was emboldened to flap his great slimy tongue over her face in token of his affection. His dog! Yes, it had come to that already. Mr. Lansdell was that awful being, the mysterious "Lui" of a thousand romances. Roland had been standing upon the bridge all this time; but the bridge was very narrow, and as a labouring man came across at this moment with a reaping-hook across his shoulder, Mr. Lansdell had no choice except to go away, or else sit down on the bench under the tree. So he sat down at a respectful distance from Mrs. Gilbert, and picked up Shelley again; and I think if it had not been for the diversion afforded by the dogs, Isabel would have been likely to drop over into the brawling mill-stream in the intensity of her confusion.
He was there by her side, a real living hero and poet, and her weak sentimental little heart swelled with romantic rapture; and yet she felt that she ought to go away and leave him. Another woman might have looked at her watch, and exclaimed at the lateness of the hour, and gathered up her books and parasol, and departed with a sweeping curtsey and a dignified adieu to Mr. Lansdell. But Isabel was planted to the spot, held by some fearful but delicious charm,—a magic and a mystic spell,—with which the plashing of the water, and the slow creaking of the mill-wheel, and a faint fluttering of leaves and flowers, the drowzy buzz of multitudinous insects, the thrilling song of Shelley's own skylark in the blue heavens high above her head, blended in one sweet confusion.
I acknowledge that all this was very hard upon the honest-hearted parish doctor, who was at this moment sitting in the faint atmosphere of a cottage chamber, applying fresh layers of cotton wool to the poor tortured arm of a Sunday-school pupil, who had been all but burnt to death in the previous week. But then, if a man chooses to marry a girl because her eyes are black and large and beautiful, he must be contented with the supreme advantage he derives from the special attribute for which he has chosen her: and so long as she does not become a victim to cataract, or aggravated inflammation of the eyelids, or chronic ophthalmia, he has no right to complain of his bargain. If he selects his wife from amongst other women because she is true-hearted and high-minded and trustworthy, he has ample right to be angry with her whenever she ceases to be any one of these things.
Mr. Lansdell and his dogs lingered for some considerable time under the shadow of the big oak. The dogs were rather impatient, and gave expression to their feelings by sundry yawns that were like half-stifled howls, and by eager pantings, and sudden and purposeless leaps, and short broken-off yelps or snaps; but Roland Lansdell was in no hurry to leave the region of Thurston's Crag. Mrs. Gilbert was not stupid, after all; she was something better than a pretty waxen image, animated by limited machinery. That pretty head was tilled with a quaint confusion of ideas, half-formed childish fancies, which charmed and amused this elegant loiterer, who had lived in a world where all the women were clever and accomplished, and able to express all they thought, and a good deal more than they thought, with the clear precision and self-possession of creatures who were thoroughly convinced of the infallibility of their own judgment. Yes, Mr. Lansdell was amused by Isabel's talk; and he led her on very gently, till her shyness vanished, and she dared to look up at his face as she spoke to him; and he attuned his own talk to the key of hers, and wandered with her in the Valhalla of her heroes, from Eugene Aram to Napoleon Buonaparte. But in the midst of all this she looked all in a hurry at the little silver watch that George had given her, and found that it was past three.
"Oh, I must go, if you please," she said; "I have been out ever since eleven o'clock, and we dine at half-past four."
"Let me carry your books a little way for you, then," said Mr. Lansdell.
"But are you going that way?"
"Yes, that is the very way I am going."
The dogs were all excitement at the prospect of a move; they barked and careered about Isabel, and rushed off as if they were going to run ten miles at a stretch, and then wheeled round with alarming suddenness and flew back to Mrs. Gilbert and their master.
The nearest way to Graybridge lay across all that swelling sea of lovely meadow-land, and there were a good many stiles to be crossed and gates to be opened and shut, so the walk occupied some time; and Mr. Lansdell must have had business to transact in the immediate neighbourhood of Graybridge, for he walked all the way through those delicious meadows, and only parted with Isabel at a gate that opened into the high-road near the entrance of the town.
"I suppose you often stroll as far as Thurston's Crag?" Mr. Lansdell said.
"Oh yes, very often. It isn't too long a walk, and it is so pretty."
"It is pretty. Mordred is quite as near to you, though, and I think that you would like the garden at Mordred; there are ruins, you know, and it's altogether very romantic. I will give you and Mr. Gilbert a key, if you would like to come there sometimes. Oh, by the bye, I hope you haven't forgotten your promise to come to luncheon and see the pictures, and all that sort of thing."
No, Isabel had not forgotten; her face flushed suddenly at the thought of this rapturous vista opening before her. She was to see him again, once more, in his own house, and then—and then it would be November, and he would go away, and she would never see him again. No, Isabel had not forgotten; but until this moment all recollection of that invitation to the Priory had been blotted out of Mr. Lansdell's mind. It flashed back upon him quite suddenly now, and he felt that he had been unduly neglectful of these nice simple-hearted Gilberts, in whom his dear good Raymond was so much interested.
"I dare say you are fond of pictures?" he said, interrogatively.
"Oh yes, I am very, very fond of them."
This was quite true. She was fond of everything that was beautiful,—ready to admire everything with ignorant childish enthusiasm,—pictures, and flowers, and fountains, and moonlit landscapes, and wonderful foreign cities, and everything upon this earth that was romantic, and different from her own life.
"Then will you ask Mr. Gilbert to accept an unceremonious invitation, and to bring you to the Priory to luncheon,—say next Tuesday, as that will give me time to invite my cousin Gwendoline, and your old friend Mr. Raymond, and the two little girls who are so fond of you?"
Isabel murmured something to the effect that she would be very happy, and she was sure her husband would be very happy. She thought that no creature in the world could be otherwise than enraptured by such an invitation: and then she began to think of what she would wear, and to remember that there were greasy streaks and patches upon her brown silk wedding-dress, which was the best and richest garment her wardrobe contained. Oh, if George would only give her a pale pearly-coloured silk that she had seen in a shop-window at Murlington, and a black silk mantle, and white bonnet, and pearly gloves and boots and parasol to match the dress! There were people in the world rich enough to have all these things, she thought,—thrice-blessed creatures, who always walked in silk attire.
Mr. Lansdell begged her to write him a line to say if Tuesday would suit Mr. Gilbert. They were at the last gate by this time, and he lifted his hat with one hand while he held out the other to Isabel. She touched it very lightly, with fingers that trembled a little at the thrilling contact. Her gloves were rolled up in a little ball in her pocket. She was at an age when gloves are rather a nuisance than otherwise; it is only when women come to years of discretion that they are learned as to the conflicting merits of Houbigant and Piver.
"Good-bye. I shall see Gwendoline this afternoon; and I shall rely upon you for Tuesday. Hi, Frollo, Quasimodo, Caspar!"
He was gone, with his dogs and a cloud of dust about his heels. Even the dust imparted a kind of grandeur to him. He seemed a being who appeared and disappeared in a cloud, after the manner of some African genii.
Graybridge church clock chimed the half-hour after four, and Mrs. Gilbert hurried home, and went into the common parlour, where dinner was laid, with her face a little flushed, and her dress dusty. George was there already, whistling very loudly, and whittling a stick with a big knobby-handled clasp-knife.
"Why, Izzie," he said, "what have you been doing with yourself?"
"Oh, George!" exclaimed Mrs. Gilbert, in a tone of mingled triumph and rapture, "I have met Mr. Lansdell, and he was so polite, and he stopped and talked to me ever so long; and we're to go there on Tuesday, and Lady Gwendoline Pomphrey is to be there to meet us,—only think of that!"
"Where?" cried George.
"Why, at Mordred Priory, of course. We're to go to luncheon: and, oh, George, remember you must never call it 'lunch.' And I'm to write and say if you'll go; but of course you will go, George."
"Humph!" muttered Mr. Gilbert, reflectively; "Tuesday's an awkward day, rather. But still, as you say, Izzie, it's a splendid connection, and a man oughtn't to throw away such a chance of extending his practice. Yes, I think I'll manage it, my dear. You may write to say we'll go."
And this was all; no rapture, no spark of enthusiasm. To tell the truth, the surgeon was hungry, and wanted his dinner. It came in presently, smelling very savoury,—but, oh, so vulgar! It was Irish stew,—a horrible, plebeian dinner, such as Hibernian labourers might devour after a day's bricklaying. Isabel ate very little, and picked out all the bits of onion and put them aside on her plate. Come what might, she would never, never eat onions again. That degradation, at least, it was in her own power to avoid.
After dinner, while George was busy in the surgery, Mrs. Gilbert set to work to compose her letter to Mr. Lansdell. She was to write to him—to him! It was to be only a ceremonious letter, very brief and commonplace: "Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert present their compliments to Mr. Lansdell, and will be happy to," &c., &c. But even such a letter as this was a critical composition. In that sublime region in which Mr. Lansdell lived, there might be certain words and phrases that were indispensable,—there might be some arbitrary mode of expression, not to know which would argue yourself unknown. Isabel looked into "Dombey," but there was no help for her there. She would have been very glad if she could have found "Mrs. Grainger presents her compliments to Mr. Dombey," or "Miss F. Dombey has the pleasure to inform Mr. Gay—" or something of that kind, anywhere amongst those familiar pages. However, she was obliged to write her letter as best she might, on a sheet of paper that was very thick and slippery, and strongly impregnated with patchouli; and she sealed the envelope with a profile of Lord Byron imprinted upon white wax, the only stick that was to be had in Graybridge, and to find which good-natured Mr. Jeffson scoured the town, while Isabel was writing her letter.
Roland Lansdell, Esqre.,
To write such an address was in itself a pleasure. It was dark by the time Mrs. Gilbert had finished her letter, and then she began to think of her dress,—her dress for Tuesday,—the Tuesday which was henceforth to stand out from amongst all the other days in her life.
Would George give her a new silk dress? No; that was impossible. He would give her a sovereign, and she might "do up" the old one. She was fain to be content and thankful for so much; and she went up-stairs with a candle, and came down presently with two or three dresses on her arm. Among them there was a white muslin, a good deal the worse for wear, but prettier than the silk; a soft transparent fabric, and with lace about it. Mrs. Gilbert determined upon wearing this dress; and early the next morning she went out and consulted with a little dressmaker, and brought the young woman home with her, and sat down with her in the sunny parlour to unpick and refashion and improve this white muslin robe. She told the dressmaker that she was going on a visit to Mordred Priory, and by nightfall almost everybody in Graybridge knew that Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert had received an invitation from Mr. Lansdell.