Doctor's Wife, The



Isabel had met Mr. Lansdell on Thursday; and by Saturday night all her preparations were made, and the white dress, and a white muslin mantle to match it, were in the hands of Mrs. Jeffson, who was to get them up in the highest style of clear-starching. The sovereign had done a great deal. Isabel had bought a new riband for her straw hat and a pair of pale straw-coloured gloves, and all manner of small matters necessary to the female toilet upon gala occasions. And now that everything was done, the time between Saturday night and Tuesday lay all before them,—a dreary blank, that must be endured somehow or other. I should be ashamed to say how very little of the Rector's sermon Isabel heard on Sunday morning. She was thinking of Mordred Priory all the time she was in church, and the beautiful things that Mr. Lansdell would say to her, and the replies that she would make. She imagined it all, as was her habit to do.

And on this summer Sunday, this blessed day of quiet and repose, when there was no sound of the sickle in the corn-fields, and only the slow drip, drip, drip of the waterdrops from the motionless mill-wheel at Thurston's Crag, Roland Lansdell lounged all day in the library at Mordred Priory, reading a little, writing a little, smoking and pondering a great deal. What should he do with himself? That was the grand question which this young man found himself very often called upon to decide. He would stop at Mordred till he was tired of Mordred, and then he would go to Paris; and when he was weary of that brilliant city, whose best delights familiarity had rendered indifferent to him, he would go Rhine-ward, over all the old ground again, amongst all the old people. Ten years is a very long time when you have fifteen thousand a year and nothing particular to do with yourself or your money. Roland Lansdell had used up all the delights of civilized Europe; and the pleasures that seemed so freshly effervescent to other men were to him as champagne that has grown flat and vapid in the unemptied glasses on a deserted banquet-table.

He sat to-day in the great window of the library—a deeply-embayed Tudor window, jutting out upon a broad stone terrace, along whose balustrade a peacock stalked slowly in the sunshine. There were books on either side of the window; solid ranges of soberly-bound volumes, that reached from floor to ceiling on every side of the room; for the Lansdells had been a studious and book-learned race time out of mind, and the library at Mordred was worthy of its name.

There was only one picture—a portrait by Rembrandt, framed in a massive border of carved oak—above the high chimney-piece; a grave grand face, with solemn eyes that followed you wherever you went; a splendid earnest face, with the forehead mysteriously shadowed by the broad brim of a steeple-crowned hat.

In the dark melancholy of that sombre countenance there was some vague resemblance to the face of the young man lounging in the sunny window this afternoon, smoking and pondering, and looking up now and then to call to the peacock on the balustrade.

Beyond that balustrade there was a fair domain, bounded far away by a battlemented wall; a lofty ivy-mantled wall, propped every here and there with mighty buttresses; a wall that had been built in the days when William of Normandy enriched his faithful followers with the fairest lands of his newly-conquered realm. Beyond that grand old boundary arose the square turret of the village church, coeval with the oldest part of Mordred Priory. The bells were swinging in the turret now, and the sound of them floated towards Roland Lansdell as he lounged in the open window.

"Only thirty years of age," he thought; "and how long it seems since I sat on my mother's knee in the shadowy, sleepy old pew yonder, and heard the vicar's voice humming under the sounding-board above our heads! Thirty years-thirty profitless, tiresome years; and there is not a reaper in the fields, or a shock-headed country lad that earns sixpence a day by whooping to the birds amongst the corn, that is not of more use to his fellow-creatures than I am. I suppose though, at the worst, I'm good for trade. And I try my best not to do any harm—Heaven knows I don't want to do any harm."

It must have been a strange transition of ideas that at this moment led Mr. Lansdell to think of that chance meeting with the doctor's dark-eyed wife under the dense foliage of Lord Thurston's oak.

"She's a pretty creature," he thought; "a pretty, inexperienced, shy little creature. Just the sort of woman that a hardened profligate or a rou´┐Ż would try to pervert and entangle. There's something really bewitching in all that enthusiastic talk about Byron and Shelley. 'What a pity he was drowned!' and 'Oh, if he had only fought for Greece, and been victorious, like Leonidas, you know,'—poor little thing! I wonder how much she knows about Leonidas?—'how splendid that would have been! but, oh, to think that he should have a fever—a fever just such as kills common people—and die, just when he had proved himself so great and noble!' It's the newest thing to find all these silly school-girl fancies confusing the brain of a woman who ought to be the most practical person in Graybridge,—a parish surgeon's wife, who should not, according to the fitness of things, have an idea above coarse charity flannels and camomile-tea and gruel. How she will open her eyes when she sees this room; and all the books in it! Poor little thing I shall never forget what a pretty picture she made sitting under the oak, with the greenish grey of the great knotted trunk behind her, and the blue water in the foreground."

And then Mr. Lansdell's ideas, which seemed especially irrelevant this afternoon, broke off abruptly. "I hope I may never do any harm," he thought. "I am not a good man or a useful man; but I don't think I have ever done much harm."

He lit another cigar, and strolled out upon the terrace, and from the terrace to the great quadrangular stable-yard. Upon one side of the quadrangle there was a cool arched way that had once been a cloister; and I regret to say that the stone cells in which the monks of Mordred had once spent their slow quiet days and meditative nights now did duty as loose-boxes for Mr. Lansdell's hunters. Openings had been knocked through the dividing walls; for horses are more socially-disposed creatures than monks, and are apt to pine and sicken if entirely deprived of companionship with their kind. Roland went into three or four of the boxes, and looked at the horses, and sighed for the time when the hunting season should commence and Midlandshire might be tolerable.

"I want occupation," he thought, "physical wear and tear, and all that sort of thing. I let my mind run upon all manner of absurd things for want of occupation."

He yawned and threw away his cigar, and strode across the yard towards the open window of a harness-room, at which a man was sitting in his shirt-sleeves, and with a Sunday paper before him.

"You may bring the Diver round in half-an-hour, Christie," said Mr. Lansdell; "I shall ride over to Conventford this afternoon."

"Yes, sir."

Roland Lansdell did ride to Conventford; galloping his hardest into Waverly, to the scandal of the sober townspeople, who looked up from their tea-tables half-scared at the sound of the clattering hoofs upon the uneven pavement; and then dawdling at a foot-pace all along the avenue which extends in unbroken beauty from Waverly to Conventford. The streets of this latter town were crowded with gaily-dressed factory-girls, and the bells from three separate spires were clanging loudly in the summer air. Mr. Lansdell rode very slowly, thinking of "all manner of absurd things" as he went along; and he entered Mr. Raymond's pretty drawing-room at Oakbank just in time to catch that gentleman drinking tea with the orphans.

Of course Roland had forgotten that his friend dined at an early hour on Sundays, and he had come to dine; but it wasn't of the least consequence, he would have some tea; yes, and cold beef, by all means, if there was cold beef.

A side-table was laid for him, and a great sirloin was brought in. But Mr. Lansdell did not make much havoc with the joint. He and Mr. Raymond had a good deal to say to each other: and Mr. Lansdell took very kindly to the orphans, and asked them a good many questions about their studies and their present governess, who was a native of Conventford, and had gone out that evening to drink tea with her friends: and then, somehow or other, the conversation rambled on to their late governess, Isabel Sleaford, and the orphans had a great deal to say about her. She was so nice, and she told them such pretty things: "Eugene Aram" and the "Giaour"—how wicked Black Hassan was to tie his poor "sister" up in a sack and drown her, because he didn't wish her to marry the Giaour! Miss Sleaford had modified the romantic story in deference to the tender ages of her pupils. Yes, the young ladies said, they loved Miss Sleaford dearly. She was so nice; and sometimes, at night, when they begged her very, very hard, she would ACT (the orphans uttered this last word in an awfully distinct whisper); and, oh, that was beautiful! She would do Hamlet and the Ghost: when she stood one way, with a black cloak over her shoulder, she was Hamlet; when she stood the other way, with a mahogany ruler in her hand, she was the Ghost. And she acted the Ghost so beautifully, that sometimes they were frightened, and wouldn't go outside the schoolroom-door without a candle, and somebody's hand to hold—tight.

And then Mr. Raymond laughed, and told Roland what he thought of Isabel, phrenologically and otherwise.

"Poor little thing! I think there must be something sad about the story of her early life," he said; "for she so evidently shrinks from all allusion to it. It's the old story, I suppose,—an unkind step-mother and an uncomfortable home. Under these circumstances, I was very glad to see her married to a well-disposed, honest-hearted young man."

"She was very fond of Mr. Gilbert, I suppose,—very much in love with him?" said Roland, after a little pause.

"In love with him! not a bit of it. She was very fond of him, I dare say—not in the sentimental manner in which she discourses about her poets and her heroes; but she has every reason to be fond of him as a faithful protector and a good friend."

Mr. Raymond looked up suddenly, and fixed his eyes upon the face of his young kinsman. But it was dusk by this time; and in the dim light of the room Charles Raymond could not see the expression of Roland's face; he could only see the attitude of his head, which drooped a little forward, supported by his hand.

"I lent my voice to the bringing about of Isabel Gilbert's marriage," Mr. Raymond said, slowly; "and God grant that no man may ever be base enough or cruel enough to interpose himself between these two!"

"Amen!" answered Roland Lansdell, in a deep solemn voice.

And then he walked to the window and looked out into the twilit garden, above which the faint summer moon had newly arisen.

"If I could have believed in that splendid fable of a future life, that grand compensating balance for all the sorrows and mistakes of this lower world, what a good man I might have been!" he thought, as he stood there looking out, with his arm resting upon the broad wooden sash, and his head upon his arm.

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