The Tuesday was a fine day. The August sunshine—the beautiful harvest-time sunshine which was rejoicing the hearts of all the farmers in Midlandshire—awoke Mrs. Gilbert very early. She was going to Mordred Priory. For once she forgot to notice the ugliness of the shabby furniture, the bare whitewashed walls upon which her eyes opened. She was going to Mordred Priory. There are moments in our lives in which all the great expanse of the past and future seems as nothing compared with the consummate felicity of the present. It was very early; but not too early for her to get up, Mrs. Gilbert thought. She seated herself before the little glass at the open window, and brushed her long black hair; while the birds twittered and shook themselves in the sunshine, and the faint lowing of cattle came like a long drowsy murmur from the distant fields.
The surgeon and his wife had held solemn conference with each other as to the hour at which they ought to arrive at Mordred Priory. Luncheon might be eaten at any time from one until three. Mr. Gilbert said; and it was decided, therefore, that they should present themselves at the gates of the Priory a short time before one o'clock.
How pretty the village of Mordred looked in the sleepy August atmosphere, the hazy, Cuyp-like sunshine! How beautiful everything looked just at the entrance to the village, where there was a long straggling inn with a top-heavy roof, all dotted over with impossible little windows, a dear old red-tiled roof, with pouters and fantails brooding and cooing to themselves in the sunshine, and yellow stonecrop creeping here and there in patches of gold! To the right of the inn a shady road led away below the walls of the Priory to the square-turreted church; and, grander than the church itself, the lofty gates of Mordred dominated over all.
Isabel almost trembled as Mr. Gilbert got out of the gig and pulled the iron ring that hung at the end of a long chain on one side of those formidable oaken gates. It seemed like ringing at the door of the Past, somehow; and the Doctor's Wife half expected to see quaintly-costumed servants, with long points to their shoes and strange parti-coloured garments, and a jester with a cap and bells, when those great gates were opened. But the person who opened the gates was only a very harmless old woman, who inhabited some stony chambers on one side of the ponderous archway. George drove slowly under that splendid Norman gateway, and Isabel looked with a shiver at the portcullis and the great rusty chains high above her head. If it should fall some day upon Mr. Lansdell, as he was riding out of his grand domain! Her mind was like a voluminous picture-book, full of romantic incidents and dreadful catastrophes; and she was always imagining such events as these. Brown Molly jogged slowly along the winding drive,—oh, the beautiful shrubberies, and banks of verdure, and dark shining foliage, and spreading cedars, making solemn shadows yonder on the lawn, and peeps of glistening water in the distance; how beautiful! how beautiful!—and stopped before a Gothic porch, a grey old ivy-covered porch, beneath which there was an open doorway that revealed a hall with armour on the walls, and helmed classic heads of white marble on black marble pedestals, and skins of savage beasts upon dark oak floors. Isabel had only caught a brief glimpse of the dusky splendour of this interior, when a groom appeared from behind a distant angle of the house and ran forward to take George Gilbert's horse; and in the next moment Mr. Lansdell came out of the porch, and bade his visitors welcome to Mordred.
"I am so glad to see you! What a lovely morning, is it not? I'm afraid you must have found the roads rather dusty, though. Take care of Mr. Gilbert's horse, Christie; you'd better put him into one of the loose-boxes. You see my dogs know you, Mrs. Gilbert." A liver-coloured pointer and a great black retriever were taking friendly notice of Isabel. "Will you come and see my pictures at once? I expect Gwendoline and her father, and your friend Mr. Raymond, and the children, presently."
There was no special brilliancy or eloquence in all this, but it sounded different from other people's talk, somehow. The languid, lingering tones were very cordial in spite of their languor; and then how splendid the speaker looked in his loose black velvet morning coat, which harmonized so exquisitely with the Rembrandt hues of his complexion! There was a waxen-looking hothouse flower in his button-hole, and across that inspiration of a West-end tailor, his waistcoat, there glimmered a slender chain of very yellow gold, with onyx cameos and antique golden coins hanging to it,—altogether different from the clumsy yellow lockets and fusee-boxes which dangled on the padded chests of the officers at Conventford, whom Isabel had until lately so implicitly believed in.
Mr. Lansdell led the way into a room, beyond which there were other rooms opening one into the other in a long vista of splendour and sunshine. Isabel had only a very faint idea of what she saw in those beautiful rooms. It was all a confusion of brightness and colour, which was almost too much for her poor sentimental brain. It was all a splendid chaos, in which antique oak cabinets, and buhl and marqueterie, and carved ebony chairs, and filagree-work and ivory, old Chelsea, Battersea, Copenhagen, Vienna, Dresden, S�vres, Derby, and Salopian china, Majolica and Palissy ware, pictures and painted windows, revolved like the figures in a kaleidoscope before her dazzled eyes. Mr. Lansdell was very kind, and explained the nature of some of these beautiful things as he loitered here and there with his guests. George walked softly, with his hat in his hand, as if he had been in church, and stared with equal reverence at everything. He was pleased with a Vandevilde, because the sea was so nice and green, and the rigging so neatly made out; and he stopped a minute before a Fyt to admire the whiskers of a hare; and he thought that a plump-shouldered divinity by Greuze, with melting blue eyes and a grey satin gown, was rather a fine young woman; but he did not particularly admire the Murillos or the Spagnolettis, and thought that the models who sat to those two masters would have done better had they washed their faces and combed their hair before doing so.
Mr. Gilbert was not enthusiastic about the pictures; but Isabel's eyes wandered here and there in a rapture of admiration, and by-and-by those great dark eyes filled with tears before the gem of Mr. Lansdell's collection, a Raffaelle, a picture of the Man of Sorrows half fainting under the cruel burden of His cross, sublime in resignation, unspeakably sorrowful and tender; an exquisite half-length figure, sharply defined against a vivid blue sky. "My father believed in that picture," said Mr. Lansdell; "but connoisseurs shrug their shoulders and tell me that it never stood upon the easel of Raffaelle d'Urbino."
"But it is so beautiful," Isabel answered in a low, awe stricken voice. She had been very inattentive to the Rector's sermon on the previous Sunday, but her heart filled with tender devotion as she looked at this picture. "Does it matter much who painted it, if it is only beautiful?"
And then Mr. Lansdell began to explain in what manner the picture differed from the best-authenticated productions of the prince of painters; but in the middle of his little lecture Mr. Raymond and the orphans came trooping through the rooms, and the conversation became general. Soon after this Lady Gwendoline and her father made their appearance, and then a very neatly-dressed maid conducted the ladies to a dressing-room that had once belonged to Roland's mother, where the window-curtains were sea-green silk, and the looking-glass was framed in S�vres-biscuit, and where there were ivory-backed brushes, and glittering bottles of rich yellow-looking perfume in a casket of gold and enamel.
Isabel took off her bonnet, and smoothed her hair with one of the brushes, and remembered her dressing-table at home, and a broken black brush of George's with all the unprotected wires sticking out at the back. She thought of the drawer in the looking-glass, with a few bent hair-pins, and her husband's razors with coloured bone handles, and a flat empty bottle that had once held lavender-water, all jostling one another when the drawer was pulled open. Mrs. Gilbert thought of these things while Lady Gwendoline removed her bonnet—another marvellous bonnet—and drew off the tightest coffee-with-plenty-of-milk-in-it-coloured gloves, and revealed long white hands, luminous with opals and diamonds. The Doctor's Wife had time to contemplate Lady Gwendoline's silk dress—that exquisitely-fitting dress, whose soft golden brown was only a little darker than the lady's hair; and the tiny embroidered collar, fitting closely to the long slender throat, and clasped by one big turquoise in a wide rim of lustreless gold, and the turquoise earrings just peeping out under rich bands of auburn hair, Mrs. Gilbert admired all these things, and she saw that Lady Gwendoline's face, which was so handsome in profile, was just a little faded and wan when you had a full view of it.
The orphans took the gold tops off the bottles one by one, and sniffed energetically at the different perfumes, and disputed in whispers as to which was nicest. Lady Gwendoline talked very kindly to Mrs. Gilbert. She did not at all relish being asked to meet the Doctor's Wife, and she was angry with her cousin for noticing these people; but she was too well bred to be otherwise than kind to Roland's visitor.
They all went down-stairs presently, and were ushered into an oak-paneled room, where there was an oval table laid for luncheon, and where Isabel found herself seated presently on Mr. Lansdell's right hand, and opposite to Lady Gwendoline Pomphrey.
This was life. There was a Lance-like group of hothouse grapes and peaches, crowned with a pine-apple, in a high Dresden basket in the centre of the table. Isabel had never been in company with a pine-apple until to-day. There were flowers upon the table, and a faint odour of orange blossoms and apricots pervaded the atmosphere. There were starry white glasses, so fragile-looking that it seemed as if a breath would have blown them away; cup-shaped glasses, broad shallow glasses like water-lily leaves, glasses of the palest green, and here and there a glimpse of ruby glass flashing in the sunshine Mrs. Gilbert had a very vague idea of the nature of the viands which were served to her at that wonderful feast. Somebody dropped a lump of ice into the shallow glass, and filled it afterwards with a yellow bubbling wine, which had a faint flavour of jargonelle pears, and which some one said was Moselle. Mr. Lansdell put some white creamy compound on her plate, which might or might not have been chicken: and one of the servants brought her an edifice of airy pastry, filled with some mysterious concoction in which there were little black lumps. She took a spoonful of the concoction, seeing that other people had done so; but she was very doubtful about the little black lumps, which she conjectured to be a mistake of the cook's. And then some one brought her an ice, a real ice,—just as if Mordred Priory had been a perpetual pastrycook's shop,—a pink ice in the shape of a pear, which she ate with a pointed gold spoon; and then the pine-apple was cut, and she had a slice of it, and was rather disappointed in it, as hardly realizing the promise of its appearance.
But all the dishes in that banquet were of "such stuff as dreams are made of." So may have tasted the dew-berries which Titania's attendants gave to Bottom. To Isabel there was a dream-like flavour in everything. Was not he by her side, talking to her every now and then? The subjects of which he spoke were commonplace enough, certainly, and he talked to other people as well as to her. He talked about the plans of the Cabinet and the hunting season to Lord Ruysdale, and he talked of books and pictures with Mr. Raymond and Lady Gwendoline, and of parish matters with George Gilbert. He seemed to know all about everything in the world, Isabel thought. She could not say much. How to admire was all the art she knew. As to the orphans, those young ladies sat side by side, and nudged each other when the sacrificial knife was plunged into any fresh viand, and discoursed together every now and then in rapturous whispers. No part of the banquet came amiss to these young persons, from rout-cakes and preserved ginger to lobster-salad or the wall of a fricandeau.
It was four o'clock by the time the pine-apple had been cut, and the banquet concluded. The oak-painted room was lighted by one window—a great square window—which almost filled one side of the room; a splendid window, out of which you could walk into a square garden—an old-fashioned garden—divided from the rest of the grounds by cropped hedges of dense box; wonderful boundaries, that had taken a century or two to grow. The bees were humming in this garden all luncheon-time, and yellow butterflies shot backwards and forwards in the sunshine: tall hollyhocks flowered gorgeously in the prim beds, and threw straight shadows on the grass.
"Shall we go into the garden?" said Lady Gwendoline, as they rose from the table, and everybody assented: so presently Isabel found herself amidst a little group upon the miniature lawn, in the centre of which there was a broad marble basin, filled with gold fish, and a feeble little fountain, that made a faint tinkling sound in the still August atmosphere.
Mr. Raymond and Roland Lansdell both having plenty to say for themselves, and Lord Ruysdale and Lady Gwendoline being able to discourse pleasantly upon any possible subject, there had been no lack of animated conversation, though neither the doctor nor his wife had done much to keep the ball rolling.
Mr. Lansdell and his guests had been talking of all manner of things; flying off at tangents to all kinds of unlikely subjects; till they had come, somehow or other, to discuss the question of length of days.
"I can't say that I consider long life an inestimable blessing," said Roland, who was amusing himself with throwing minute morsels of a macaroon to the gold fish. "They're not so interesting as Sterne's donkey, are they, Mrs. Gilbert? No, I do not consider long life an advantage, unless one can be 'warm and young' for ever, like our dear Raymond. Perhaps I am only depreciating the fruit because it hangs out of my reach, though; for everybody knows that the Lansdells never live to be old."
Isabel's heart gave a bump as Roland said this, and involuntarily she looked at him with just one sudden startled glance. Of course he would die young; Beings always have so died, and always must. A thrill of pain shot through her breast as she thought of this; yet I doubt if she would have had it otherwise. It would be almost better that he should break a blood-vessel, or catch a fever, or commit suicide, than that he should ever live to have grey hair, and wear spectacles and double-soled boots.
Brief as that sudden look of alarm had been, Roland had seen it, and paused for a moment before he went on talking.
"No; we are not a long-lived race. We have been consumptive; and we have had our heads cut off in the good old days, when to make a confidential remark to a friend was very often leze majesty, or high treason; and we have been killed in battle,—at Flodden, to wit, and at Fontenoy, and in the Peninsula; and one of us was shot through the lungs in an Irish duel, on the open sward of the 'Phaynix.' In short, I almost fancy some fearful ban must have been set upon us in the Dark Ages, when one of our progenitors, a wicked prior of Mordred, who had been a soldier and a renegade before he crept into the bosom of the Church, appropriated some of the sanctified plate to make a dowry for his handsome daughter, who married Sir Anthony Lansdell, knight, and thus became the mother of our race; and we are evidently a doomed race, for very few of us have ever lived to see a fortieth birthday."
"And how is your doom to be brought about, Roland?" asked Lady Gwendoline.
"Oh, that's all settled," Mr. Lansdell answered. "I know my destiny."
"It has been predicted to you?"
"How very interesting!" exclaimed the lady, with a pretty silvery laugh. Isabel's eyes opened wider and wider, and fixed themselves on Roland Lansdell's face.
"Pray tell us all about it," continued Lady Gwendoline. "We won't promise to be very much frightened, because the accessories are not quite the thing for a ghost story. If it were midnight now, and we were sitting in the oak room, with the lights burning low, and the shadows trembling on the wall, you might do what you liked with our nerves. And yet I really don't know that a ghost might not be more awful in the broad sunshine—a ghost that would stalk across the grass, and then fade slowly, till it melted into the water-drops of the fountain. Come, Roland, you must tell us all about the prediction; was it made by a pretty girl with a dove on her wrist, like the phantom that appeared to Lord Lyttleton? Shall we have to put back the clock for an hour, in order to foil the designs of your impalpable foe? Or was it a black cat, or a gentleman usher, or a skeleton; or all three?"
"I dare say it was an abnormal state of the organs of form and colour," said Mr. Raymond. "That's the foundation of all ghost stories."
"But it isn't by any means a ghost story," answered Roland Lansdell. "The gentleman who predicted my early death was the very reverse of a phantom; and the region of the prediction was a place which has never yet been invested with any supernatural horrors. Amongst all the legends of the Old Bailey, I never heard of any ghostly record."
"The Old Bailey!" exclaimed Lady Gwendoline.
"Yes. The affair was quite an adventure, and the only adventure I ever had in my life."
"Pray tell us the story."
"But it's rather a long one, and not particularly interesting."
"I insist upon hearing it," said Mr. Raymond; "you've stimulated our organs of wonder, and you're bound to restore our brains to their normal state by satisfying our curiosity."
"Most decidedly," exclaimed Lady Gwendoline, seating herself upon a rustic bench, with the shining folds of her silk dress spread round her like the plumage of some beautiful bird, and a tiny fringed parasol sloping a little backward from her head, and throwing all manner of tremulous pinky shadows upon her animated face.
She was very handsome when she was animated; it was only when her face was in repose that you saw how much her beauty had faded since the picture with the high forehead and the long curls was first exhibited to an admiring public. It may be that Lady Gwendoline knew this, and was on that, account rather inclined to be animated about trifles.
"Well, I'll tell you the story, if you like," said Roland, "but I warn you that there's not much in it. I don't suppose you—any of you—take much interest in criminal cases; but this one made rather a sensation at the time."
"A criminal case?"
"Yes. I was in town on business a year or two ago. I'd come over from Switzerland to renew some leases, and look into a whole batch of tiresome business matters, which my lawyer insisted upon my attending to in my own proper person, very much to my annoyance. While I was in London I dropped into the United Joint-Stock Bank, Temple-Bar Branch, to get circular notes and letters of credit upon their correspondent at Constantinople, and so on. I was not in the office more than five minutes. But while I was talking to one of the clerks at the counter, a man came in, and stood close at my elbow while he handed in a cheque for eighty-seven pounds ten, or some such amount—I know it came very close upon the hundred—received the money, and went out. He looked like a groom out of livery. I left the bank almost immediately after him, and as he turned into a little alley leading down to the Temple. I followed a few paces behind him, for I had business in Paper Buildings. At the bottom of the alley my friend the groom was met by a big black-whiskered man, who seemed to have been waiting for him, for he caught him suddenly by the arm, and said, 'Well, did they do it?' 'Yes,' the other man answered, and began fumbling in his waistcoat-pocket, making a chinking sound as he did so. I had seen him put his money, which he took in notes and gold, into this waistcoat-pocket. 'You needn't have pounced upon me so precious sharp,' he said, rather sulkily; 'I wasn't going to bolt with it, was I?' The black-whiskered man had seen me by this time, and he muttered something to his companion, which evidently meant that he was to hold his tongue, and then dragged him off without further ceremony in the opposite direction to that in which I was going. This was all I saw of the groom or the black-whiskered gentleman on that occasion. I thought their method of cashing a cheque was rather a queer one; but I thought no more about it, until three weeks afterwards, when I went into the Temple-Bar Office of the United Joint-Stock again to complete my Continental arrangements, and was told that the cheque for eighty-seven pounds ten, more or less, which had been cashed in my presence, was a forgery; one of a series of most audacious frauds, perpetrated by a gang whose plans had only just come to light, and none of whom had yet been arrested. 'They've managed to keep themselves dark in the most extraordinary manner,' the clerk told me; 'the cheques are supposed to have been all fabricated by one man, but three or four men have been employed to get hold of the original signatures of our customers, which they have obtained by a complicated system. No two cheques have been presented by the same person,—that's the point that has beaten the detectives; they don't know what sort of men to look for.' 'Don't they?' said I; 'then I think I can assist them in the matter.' Whereupon I told my little story of the black-whiskered gentleman."
Mr. Lansdell paused to take breath, and stole a glance at Isabel. She was pale always,—but she was very pale now, and was watching him with an eager breathless expression.
"Silly romantic little thing," he thought, "to be so intensely absorbed in my story."
"You're getting interesting, Roland," said Lady Gwendoline. "Pray, go on."
"The upshot of the matter was, that at eight o'clock that evening a grave little gentleman in a pepper-and-salt waistcoat came to me at Mivart's, and cross-questioned me closely as to what I knew of the man who had cashed the cheque. 'You think you could recognize this man with the black whiskers?' he said. 'Yes; most decidedly I could.' 'And you'll swear to him, if necessary?' 'With pleasure.' On this the detective departed, and came to me the next day, to tell me that he fancied he was on the track of the man he warded, but he was at a loss for means of identification. He knew, or thought that he knew, who the man was; but he didn't know the man himself from Adam. The gang had taken fright, and it was believed that they had all started for Liverpool, with the intention of getting off to America by a vessel that was expected to sail at eight o'clock the following morning. The detective had only just got his information, and he came to me for help. The result of the business was, that I put on my great-coat, sent for a cab, and started for Euston Square with my friend the detective, with a view to identifying the black-whiskered gentleman. It was the first adventure I had ever had in my life, and I assure you I most heartily enjoyed it.
"Well, we travelled by the mail, got into Liverpool in the dead of the night, and in the bleak early dawn of the next morning I had the supreme pleasure of pointing out my black-whiskered acquaintance, just as he was going to step on board the steamer that was to convey him to the Atalanta screw-steam-ship, bound for New York. He looked very black at first; but when he found that my companion was altogether en r�gle, he went away with him, meekly enough, declaring that it was all a mistake, and that it would be easily set right in town. I let the two go back together, and returned by a later train, very well pleased with my adventure.
"I was not so well pleased, however, when I found that I was wanted as a witness at preliminary examinations, and adjourned examinations, and on and off through a trial that lasted four days and a half; to say nothing of being badgered and browbeaten by Old-Bailey practitioners,—who were counsel for the prisoner,—and who asked me if it was my friend's whiskers I recognized, or if I had never seen any other whiskers exactly like his? if I should know him without his whiskers? whether I could swear to the colour of his waistcoat? whether any member of my family had ever been in a lunatic asylum? whether I usually devoted my leisure time to travelling about with detective officers? whether I had been plucked at Oxford? whether I should be able to recognize an acquaintance whom I had only seen once in twenty years? whether I was short-sighted? could I swear I was not short-sighted? would I be kind enough to read a verse or so from a diamond edition of the works of Thomas Moore? and so on. But question me as they would, the prisoner at the bar,—commonly known as Jack the Scribe, alias Jack the Gentleman, alias ever so many other names, which I have completely forgotten,—was the identical person whom I had seen meet the groom at the entrance to the Temple. My evidence was only a single link in a long chain; but I suppose it was eminently damaging to my black-whiskered friend; for, when he and two of his associates had received their sentence—ten years' penal servitude—he turned towards where I was standing, and said:
"'I don't bear any grudge against the gentlemen of the jury, and I don't bear any malice against the judge, though his sentence isn't a light one; but when a languid swell mixes himself up in business that doesn't concern him, he deserves to get it hot and strong. If ever I come out of prison alive, I'll kill you!'"
"He shook his fist at me as he said it. There wasn't much in the words, but there was a good deal in the way in which they were spoken. He tried to say more; but the warders got hold of him and held him down, panting and gasping, and with his face all of a dull livid white. I saw no more of him; but if he does live to come out of prison, I most firmly believe he'll keep his word."
"Izzie," cried George Gilbert suddenly, "what's the matter?"
All the point of Mr. Lansdell's story was lost; for at this moment Isabel tottered and fell slowly backward upon the sward, and all the gold fish leaped away in a panic of terror as the doctor dipped his hat into the marble basin. He splashed the water into his wife's face, and she opened her eyes at last, very slowly, and looked round her.
"Did he say that——" she said,—"did he say that he'd kill——!"