Mrs. Gilbert recovered very quickly from her fainting-fit. She had been frightened by Mr. Lansdell's story, she said, and the heat had made her dizzy. She sat very quietly upon a sofa, in the drawing-room, with one of the orphans on each side of her, while Brown Molly was being harnessed.
Lady Gwendoline went away with her father, after bidding Mrs. Gilbert rather a cool good morning. The Earl of Ruysdale's daughter did not approve of the fainting-fit, which she was pleased to call Mrs. Gilbert's extraordinary demonstration.
"If she were a single woman, I should fancy she was trying to fascinate Roland," Lady Gwendoline said to her father, as they drove homewards. "What can possibly have induced him to invite those people to Mordred? The man is a clod, and the woman a nonentity; except when she chooses to make an exhibition of herself by fainting away. That sort of person is always fainting away, and being knocked down by feathers, and going unexpectedly into impossible hysterics; and so on."
But if Lady Gwendoline was unkind to the Doctor's Wife, Roland was kind; dangerously, bewilderingly kind. He was so anxious about Isabel's health. It was his fault, entirely his fault, that she had fainted. He had kept her standing under the blazing sun while he told his stupid story. He should never forgive himself, he said. And he would scarcely accept George Gilbert's assurance that his wife was all right. He rang the bell, and ordered strong tea for his visitors. With his own hands he closed the Venetian shutters, and reduced the light to a cool dusky glimmer. He begged Mr. Gilbert to allow him to order a close carriage for his wife's return to Graybridge.
"The gig shall be sent home to you to-night," he said; "I am sure the air and dust will be too much for Mrs. Gilbert."
But Mr. Raymond hereupon interfered, and said the fresh air was just the very thing that Isabel wanted, to which opinion the lady herself subscribed. She did not want to cause trouble, she said: she would not for all the world have caused him trouble, she thought: so the gig was brought round presently, and George drove his wife away, under the Norman archway by which they had entered in the fresh noonday sun. The young man was in excellent spirits, and declared that he had enjoyed himself beyond measure—these undemonstrative people always declare that they enjoy themselves—but Isabel was very silent and subdued; and when questioned upon the subject, said that she was tired.
Oh, how blank the world seemed after that visit to Mordred Priory! It was all over. This one supreme draught of bliss had been drained to the very dregs. It would be November soon, and Roland Lansdell would go away. He would go before November, perhaps: he would go suddenly, whenever the fancy seized him. Who can calculate the arrangements of the Giaour or Sir Reginald Glanville? At any moment, in the dead darkness of the moonless night, the hero may call for his fiery steed, and only the thunder of hurrying hoofs upon the hard high-road may bear witness of his departure.
Mr. Lansdell might leave Mordred at any hour in the long summer day, Isabel thought, as she stood at the parlour window looking out at the dusty lane, where Mrs. Jeffson's fowls were pecking up stray grains of wheat that had been scattered by some passing wain. He might be gone now,—yes, now, while she stood there thinking of him. Her heart seemed to stop beating as she remembered this. Why had he ever invited her to Mordred? Was it not almost cruel to open the door of that paradise just a little way, only to shut it again when she was half blinded by the glorious light from within? Would he ever think of her, this grand creature with the dark pensive eyes, the tender dreamy eyes that were never the same colour for two consecutive minutes? Was she anything to him, or was that musical lowering of his voice common to him when he spoke to women? Again and again, and again and again, she went over all the shining ground of that day at Mordred; and the flowers, and glass, and pictures, and painted windows, and hothouse fruit, only made a kind of variegated background, against which he stood forth paramount and unapproachable.
She sat and thought of Roland Lansdell, with some scrap of never-to-be-finished work lying in her lap. It was better than reading. A crabbed little old woman who kept the only circulating library in Graybridge noted a falling-off in her best customer about this time. It was better than reading, to sit through all the length of a hot August afternoon thinking of Roland Lansdell. What romance had ever been written that was equal to this story; this perpetual fiction, with a real hero dominant in every chapter? There was a good deal of repetition in the book, perhaps; but Isabel was never aware of its monotony.
It was all very wicked of course, and a deep and cruel wrong to the simple country surgeon, who ate his dinner, and complained of the underdone condition of the mutton, upon one side of the table, while Isabel read the inexhaustible volume on the other. It was very wicked; but Mrs. Gilbert had not yet come to consider the wickedness of her ways. She was a very good wife, very gentle and obedient; and she fancied she had a right to furnish the secret chambers of her mind according to her own pleasure. What did it matter if a strange god reigned in the temple, so long as the doors were for ever closed upon his awful beauty; so long as she rendered all due service to her liege lord and master? He was her lord and master, though his fingers were square at the tips, and he had an abnormal capacity for the consumption of spring-onions. Spring-onions! all-the-year-round onions, Isabel thought; for those obnoxious bulbs seemed always in season at Graybridge. She was very wicked; and she thought perpetually of Roland Lansdell, as she had thought of Eugene Aram, and Lara, and Ernest Maltravers—blue-eyed Ernest Maltravers. The blue-eyed heroes were out of fashion now, for was not he dark of aspect?
She was very wicked, she was very foolish, very childish. All her life long she had played with her heroines and heroes, as other children play with their dolls. Now Edith Dombey was the favourite, and now dark-eyed Zuleika, kneeling for ever at Selim's feet, with an unheeded flower in her hand. Left quite to herself through all her idle girlhood, this foolish child had fed upon three volume novels and sentimental poetry: and now that she was married and invested with the solemn duties of a wife, she could not throw off the sweet romantic bondage all at once, and take to pies and puddings.
So she made no endeavour to banish Mr. Lansdell's image from her mind. If she had recognized the need of such an effort, she would have made it, perhaps. But she thought that he would go away, and her life would drop back to its dead level, and would be "all the same as if he had not been."
But Mr. Lansdell did not leave Mordred just yet. Only a week after the never-to-be-forgotten day at the Priory, he came again to Thurston's Crag, and found Isabel sitting under the oak with her books in her lap. She started up as he approached her, looking rather frightened, and with her face flushed and her eyelids drooping. She had not expected him. Demi-gods do not often drop out of the clouds. It is only once in a way that Castor and Pollux are seen fighting in a mortal fray. Mrs. Gilbert sat down again, blushing and trembling; but, oh, so happy, so foolishly, unutterably happy; and Roland Lansdell seated himself by her side and began to talk to her.
He did not make the slightest allusion to that unfortunate swoon which had spoiled the climax of his story. That one subject, which of all others would have been most embarrassing to the Doctor's Wife, was scrupulously avoided by Mr. Lansdell. He talked of all manner of things. He had been a fl�neur pure and simple for the last ten years, and was a consummate master of the art of conversation; so he talked to this ignorant girl of books, and pictures, and foreign cities, and wonderful people, living and dead, of whom she had never heard before. He seemed to know everything, Mrs Gilbert thought. She felt as if she was before the wonderful gates of a new fairy-land, and Mr. Lansdell had the keys, and could open them for her at his will, and could lead her through the dim mysterious pathways into the beautiful region beyond.
Mr. Lansdell asked his companion a good many questions about her life at Graybridge, and the books she read. He found that her life was a very idle one, and that she was perpetually reading the same books,—the dear dilapidated volumes of popular novels that were to be had at every circulating library. Poor little childish creature, who could wonder at her foolish sentimentality? Out of pure philanthropy Roland offered to lend her any of the books in his library.
"If you can manage to stroll this way to-morrow morning, I'll bring you the 'Life of Robespierre,' and Carlyle's 'French Revolution.' I don't suppose you'll like Carlyle at first; but he's wonderful when you get accustomed to his style—like a monster brass-band, you know, that stuns you at first with its crashing thunder, until, little by little, you discover the wonderful harmony, and appreciate the beauty of the instrumentation. Shall I bring you Lamartine's 'Girondists' as well? That will make a great pile of books, but you need not read them laboriously; you can pick out the pages you like here and there, and we can talk about them afterwards."
The French Revolution was one of Isabel's pet oases in the history of the universe. A wonderful period, in which a quiet country-bred young woman had only to make her way up to Paris and assassinate a tyrant, and, lo, she became "a feature" throughout all time. Mr. Lansdell had discovered this special fancy in his talk with the Doctor's Wife, and he was pleased to let in the light of positive knowledge on her vague ideas of the chiefs of the Mountain and the martyrs of the Gironde. Was it not an act of pure philanthropy to clear some of the sentimental mistiness out of that pretty little head? Was it not a good work rather than a harmful one to come now and then to this shadowy resting-place under the oak, and while away an hour or so with this poor little half-educated damsel, who had so much need of some sounder instruction than she had been able to glean, unaided, out of novels and volumes of poetry?
There was no harm in these morning rambles, these meetings, which arose out of the purest chance. There was no harm whatever: especially as Mr. Lansdell meant to turn his back upon Midlandshire directly the partridge-shooting was over.
He told Isabel, indirectly, of this intended departure, presently.
"Yes," he said, "you must ask me for whatever books yon would like to read: and by-and-by, when I have left Mordred——"
He paused for a moment, involuntarily, for he saw that Isabel gave a little shiver.
"When I leave Mordred, at the end of October, you must go to the Priory, and choose the books for yourself. My housekeeper is a very good woman, and she will be pleased to wait upon you."
So Mrs. Gilbert began quite a new course of reading, and eagerly devoured the books which Mr. Lansdell brought her; and wrote long extracts from them, and made profile sketches of the heroes, all looking from right to left, and all bearing a strong family resemblance to the master of Mordred Priory. The education of the Doctor's Wife took a grand stride by this means. She sat for hours together reading in the little parlour at Graybridge; and George, whose life was a very busy one, grew to consider her only in her normal state with a book in her hand, and was in nowise offended when she ate her supper with an open volume by the side of her plate, or responded vaguely to his simple talk. Mr. Gilbert was quite satisfied. He had never sought for more than this: a pretty little wife to smile upon him when he came home, to brush his hat for him now and then in the passage after breakfast, before he went out for his day's work, and to walk to church twice every Sunday hanging upon his arm. If any one had ever said that such a marriage as this in any way fell short of perfect and entire union, Mr. Gilbert would have smiled upon that person as on a harmless madman.
Mr. Lansdell met the Doctor's Wife very often: sometimes on the bridge beside the water-mill; sometimes in the meadow-land which surged in emerald billows all about Graybridge and Mordred and Warncliffe. He met her very often. It was no new thing for Isabel to ramble here and there in that lovely rustic paradise: but it was quite a new thing for Mr. Lansdell to take such a fancy for pedestrian exercise. The freak could not last long, though: the feast of St. Partridge the Martyr was close at hand, and then Mr. Lansdell would have something better to do than to dawdle away his time in country lanes and meadows, talking to the Doctor's Wife.
Upon the very eve of that welcome morning which was to set all the guns in Midlandshire popping at those innocent red-breasted victims, George Gilbert received a letter from his old friend and comrade, Mr. Sigismund Smith, who wrote in very high spirits, and with a great many blots.
"I'm coming down to stop a few days with you, dear old boy," he wrote, "to get the London smoke blown out of my hyacinthines, and to go abroad in the meadows to see the young lambs—are there any young lambs in September, by the bye? I want to see what sort of a matron you have made of Miss Isabel Sleaford. Do you remember that day in the garden when you first saw her? A palpable case of spoons there and then! K-k-c-k-k! as Mr. Buckstone remarks when he digs his knuckles into the walking gentleman's ribs. Does she make puddings, and sew on buttons, and fill up the holes in your stockings with wonderful trellis-work? She never would do that sort of thing at Camberwell. I shall give you a week, and I shall spend another week in the bosom of my family; and I shall bring a gun, because it looks well in the railway carriage, you know, especially if it doesn't go off, which I suppose it won't, if it isn't loaded; though, to my mind, there's always something suspicious about the look of fire-arms, and I should never be surprised to see them explode by spontaneous combustion, or something of that kind. I suppose you've heard of my new three-volume novel—a legitimate three-volume romance, with all the interest concentrated upon one body,—'The Mystery of Mowbray Manor,'—pleasant alliteration of M's, eh?—which is taking the town by storm; that's to say, Camden Town, where I partial board, and have some opportunity of pushing the book myself by going into all the circulating libraries I pass, and putting my name down for an early perusal of the first copy. Of course I never go for the book; but if I am the means of making any one simple-minded librarian take a copy of 'The M. of M. M.' more than he wants, I feel I have not laboured in vain."
Mr. Smith arrived at Warncliffe by an early train next morning, and came on to Graybridge in an omnibus, which was quite spiky with guns. He was in very high spirits, and talked incessantly to Isabel, who had stayed at home to receive him; who had stayed at home when there was just a faint chance that Mr. Lansdell might take his morning walk in the direction of Lord Thurston's Crag,—only a faint chance, for was it not the 1st of September; and might not he prefer the slaughter of partridges to those lazy loiterings under the big oak?
Mrs. Gilbert gave her old friend a very cordial welcome. She was fond of him, as she might have been of some big brother less objectionable than the ordinary run of big brothers. He had never seen Mr. Sleaford's daughter looking so bright and beautiful. A new element had been introduced into her life. She was happy, unutterably happy, on the mystical threshold of a new existence. She did not want to be Edith Dombey any longer. Not for all the ruby-velvet gowns and diamond coronets in the world would she have sacrificed one accidental half-hour on the bridge under Lord Thurston's oak.
She sat at the little table smiling and talking gaily, while the author of "The Mystery of Mowbray Manor" ate about half a quartern of dough made up into puffy Yorkshire cakes, and new-laid eggs and frizzled bacon in proportion. Mr. Smith deprecated the rampant state of his appetite by-and-by, and made a kind of apology for his ravages.
"You see, the worst of going into society is that," he remarked vaguely, "they see one eat; and it's apt to tell against one in three volumes. It's a great pity that fiction is not compatible with a healthy appetite; but it isn't; and society is so apt to object to one, if one doesn't come up to its expectations. You've no idea what a lot of people have invited me out to tea—ladies, you know—since the publication of 'The Mystery of Mowbray Manor.' I used to go at first. But they generally said to me, 'Lor', Mr. Smith, you're not a bit like what I fancied you were! I thought you'd be TALL, and DARK, and HAUGHTY-LOOKING, like Montague Manderville in 'The Mystery of —— ', &c., &c.; and that sort of thing is apt to make a man feel himself an impostor. And if a writer of fiction can't drink hot tea without colouring up as if he had just pocketed a silver spoon, and it was his guilty conscience, why, my idea is, he'd better stay at home. I don't think any man was ever as good or as bad as his books," continued Sigismund, reflectively, scraping up a spoonful of that liquid grease which Mrs. Jeffson tersely entitled "dip." "There's a kind of righteous indignation, and a frantic desire to do something splendid for his fellow-creatures, like vaccinating them all over again, or founding a hospital for everybody, which a man feels when he's writing—especially late at night, when he's been keeping himself awake—with bitter ale—that seems to ooze away somehow when his copy has gone to the printers. And it's pretty much the same with one's scorn and hate and cynicism. Nobody ever quite comes up to his books. Even Byron, but for turning down his collars, and walking lame, and dining on biscuits and soda-water, might have been a social failure. I think there's a good deal of Horace Walpole's Inspired Idiocy in this world. The morning sun shines, and the statue is musical; but all the day there is silence; and at night—in society, I suppose—the sounds are lugubrious. How I do talk, Izzie, and you don't say anything! But I needn't ask if you're happy. I never saw you looking so pretty."
Isabel blushed. Was she pretty? Oh, she wanted so much to be pretty!
"And I think George may congratulate himself upon having secured the dearest little wife in all Midlandshire."
Mrs. Gilbert blushed a deeper red; but the happy smile died away on her lips. Something, a very vague something as yet, was lurking in what Mr. Raymond would have called her "inner consciousness;".and she thought, perhaps, George had not such very great reason for self-gratulation.
"I always do as he tells me,"' she said na�vely; "and he's kinder than mamma used to be, and doesn't mind my reading at meals. You know how ma used to go on about it. And I mend his socks—sometimes." She drew open a drawer, where there were some little bundles of grey woollen stuff, and balls of worsted with big needles stuck across them. "And, oh, Sigismund," she exclaimed, rather inconsecutively, "we've been to Mordred—to Mordred Priory—to a luncheon; quite a grand luncheon—pine-apple and ices, and nearly half-a-dozen different kinds of glasses for each person."
She could talk to Sigismund about Mordred and the master of Mordred. He was not like George, and he would sympathize with her enthusiasm about that earthly paradise.
"Do you know Mordred?" she asked. She felt a kind of pleasure in calling the mansion "Mordred," all short, as he called it.
"I know the village of Mordred well enough," Mr. Smith answered, "and I ought to know the Priory precious well. The last Mr. Lansdell gave my father a good deal of business; and when Roland Lansdell was being coached-up in the Classics by a private tutor, I used to go up to the Priory and read with him. The governor was very glad to get such a chance for me; but I can't say I intensely appreciated the advantage myself, on hot summer afternoons, when there was cricketing on Warncliffe meads."
"You knew him—you knew Mr. Roland Lansdell when he was a boy?" said Isabel, with a little gasp.
"I certainly did, my dear Izzie; but I don't think there's anything wonderful in that. You couldn't open your eyes much wider if I'd said I'd known Eugene Aram when he was a boy. I remember Roland Lansdell," continued Mr. Smith, slapping his breakfast-napkin across his dusty boots, "and a very jolly young fellow he was; a regular young swell, with a chimney-pot hat and dandy boots, and a gold hunter in his waistcoat-pocket, and no end of pencil-cases, and cricket-bats, and drawing-portfolios, and single-sticks, and fishing-tackle. He taught me fencing," added Sigismund, throwing himself suddenly into a position that covered one entire side of the little parlour, and making a postman's knock upon the carpet with the sole of his foot.
"Come, Mrs. Gilbert," he said, presently, "put on your bonnet, and come out for a walk. I suppose there's no chance of our seeing George till dinner-time."
Isabel was pleased to go out. All the world seemed astir upon this bright September morning; and out of doors there was always just a chance of meeting him. She put on her hat, the broad-leaved straw that cast such soft shadows upon her face, and she took up the big green parasol, and was ready to accompany her old friend in a minute.
"I don't want the greetings in the market-place," Mr. Smith said, as they went out into the lane, where it was always very dusty in dry weather, and very muddy when there was rain. "I know almost everybody in Graybridge; and there'll be a round of stereotyped questions and answers to go through as to how I'm getting on 'oop in London.' I can't tell those people that I earn my bread by writing 'The Demon of the Galleys,' or 'The Mystery of Mowbray Manor.' Take me for a country walk, Izzie; a regular rustic ramble."
Mrs. Gilbert blushed. That habit of blushing when she spoke or was spoken to had grown upon her lately. Then, after a little pause, she said, shyly:
"Thurston's Crag is a pretty place; shall we go there?"
"Suppose we do. That's quite a brilliant thought of yours, Izzie. Thurston's Crag is a pretty place, a nice, drowsy, lazy old place, where one always goes to sleep, and wishes one had bottled beer. It reminds one of bottled beer, you know, the waterfall,—bottled beer in a rampant state of effervescence."
Isabel's face was all lighted up with smiles.
"I am so glad you have come to see us, Sigismund," she said.
She was very glad. She might go to Thurston's Crag now as often as she could beguile Sigismund thitherward, and that haunting sense of something wrong would no longer perplex her in the midst of her unutterable joy. It was unutterable! She had tried to write poetry about it, and had failed dismally, though her heart was making poetry all day long, as wildly, vaguely beautiful as Solomon's Song. She had tried to set her joy to music; but there were no notes on the harpsichord that could express such wondrous melody; though there was indeed one little simple theme, an old-fashioned air, arranged as a waltz, "'Twere vain to tell thee all I feel," which Isabel would play slowly, again and again, for an hour together, dragging the melody out in lingering legato notes, and listening to its talk about Roland Lansdell.
But all this was very wicked, of course. To-day she could go to Thurston's Crag with a serene front, an unburdened conscience. What could be more intensely proper than this country walk with her mother's late partial boarder?
They turned into the meadows presently, and as they drew nearer and nearer to the grassy hollow under the cliff, where the miller's cottage and the waterfall were nestled together like jewels in a casket of emerald velvet, the ground seemed to grow unsubstantial under her feet, as if Thurston's Crag had been a phantasmal region suspended in mid air. Would he be there? Her heart was perpetually beating out the four syllables of that simple sentence: Would he be there? It was the 1st of September, and he would be away shooting partridges, perhaps. Oh, was there even the remotest chance that he would be there?
Sigismund handed her across the stile in the last meadow, and then there was only a little bit of smooth verdure between them and the waterfall; but the overhanging branches of the trees intervened, and Isabel could not see yet whether there was any one on the bridge.
But presently the narrow winding path brought them to a break in the foliage. Isabel's heart gave a tremendous bound, and then the colour, which had come and gone so often on her face, faded away altogether. He was there: leaning with his back against the big knotted trunk of the oak, and making a picture of himself, with one arm above his head, plucking the oak-leaves and dropping them into the water. He looked down at the glancing water and the hurrying leaves with a moody dissatisfied scowl. Had he been anything less than a hero, one might have thought that he looked sulky.
But when the light footsteps came rustling through the long grass, accompanied by the faint fluttering of a woman's garments, his face brightened as suddenly as if the dense foliage above his head had been swept away by a Titan's axe, and all the sunshine let in upon him. That very expressive face darkened a little when Mr. Lansdell saw Sigismund behind the Doctor's Wife; but the cloud was transient. The jealous delusions of a monomaniac could scarcely have transformed Mr. Smith into a Cassio. Desdemona might have pleaded for him all day long, and might have supplied him with any number of pocket-handkerchiefs hemmed and marked by her own fair hands, without causing the Moor a single apprehensive pang.
Mr. Lansdell did not recognize the youthful acquaintance who had stumbled a little way in the thorny path of knowledge by his side; but he saw that Sigismund was a harmless creature; and after he had bared his handsome head before Isabel, he gave Mr. Smith a friendly little nod of general application.
"I have let the keepers shoot the first of the partridges," he said, dropping his voice almost to a whisper as he bent over Mrs. Gilbert, "and I have been here ever since ten o'clock."
It was past one now. He had been there three hours, Isabel thought, waiting for her.
Yes, it had gone so far as this already. But he was to go away at the end of October. He was to go away, it would all be over, and the world come to an end by the 1st of November.
There was a little pile of books upon the seat under the tree. Mr. Lansdell pushed them off the bench, and tumbled them ignominiously among the long grass and weeds beneath it. Isabel saw them fall; and uttered a little exclamation of surprise.
"You have brought me-" she began; but to her astonishment Roland checked her with a frown, and began to talk about the waterfall, and the trout that were to be caught in the season lower down in the stream. Mr. Lansdell was more worldly wise than the Doctor's Wife, and he knew that the books brought there for her might seem slightly suggestive of an appointment. There had been no appointment, of course; but there was always a chance of finding Isabel under Lord Thurston's oak. Had she not gone there constantly, long ago, when Mr. Lansdell was lounging in Grecian Islands, and eating ices under, the colonnades of Venice? and was it strange that she should go there now?
I should become very wearisome, were I to transcribe all that was said that morning. It was a very happy morning,—a long, idle sunshiny pause in the business of life. Roland recognized an old acquaintance in Sigismund Smith presently, and the two young men talked gaily of those juvenile days at Mordred. They talked pleasantly of all manner of things. Mr. Lansdell must have been quite ardently attached to Sigismund in those early days, if one might judge of the past by the present; for he greeted his old acquaintance with absolute effusion, and sketched out quite a little royal progress of rustic enjoyment for the week Sigismund was to stay at Graybridge.
"We'll have a picnic," he said: "you remember we talked about a picnic, Mrs. Gilbert. We'll have a picnic at Waverly Castle; there isn't a more delightfully inconvenient place for a picnic in all Midlandshire. One can dine on the top of the western tower, in actual danger of one's life. You can write to your uncle Raymond, Smith, and ask him to join us, with the two nieces, who are really most amiable children; so estimably unintellectual, and no more in the way than a little extra furniture: you mayn't want it; but if you've space enough for it in your rooms, it doesn't in the least inconvenience you. This is Thursday; shall we say Saturday for my picnic? I mean it to be my picnic, you know; a bachelor's picnic, with all the most obviously necessary items forgotten, I dare say. I think the salad-dressing and the champagne-nippers are the legitimate things to forget, are they not? Do you think Saturday will suit you and the Doctor, Mrs. Gilbert? I should like it to be Saturday, because you must all dine with me at Mordred on Sunday, in order that we may drink success and a dozen editions to the—what's the name of your novel, Smith? Shall it be Saturday, Mrs. Gilbert?"
Isabel only answered by deepening blushes and a confused murmur of undistinguishable syllables. But her face lighted up with a look of rapture that was wont to illuminate it now and then, and which, Mr. Lansdell thought was the most beautiful expression of the human countenance that he had ever seen, out of a picture or in one. Sigismund answered for the Doctor's Wife. Yes, he was sure Saturday would do capitally. He would settle it all with George, and he would answer for his uncle Raymond and the orphans; and he would answer for the weather even, for the matter of that. He further accepted the invitation to dine at Mordred on Sunday, for himself and his host and hostess.
"You know you can, Izzie," he said, in answer to Mrs. Gilbert's deprecating murmur; "it's mere nonsense talking about prior engagements in a place like Graybridge, where nobody ever does go out to dinner, and a tea-party on a Sunday is looked upon as wickedness. Lansdell always was a jolly good fellow, and I'm not a bit surprised to find that he's a jolly good fellow still; because if you train up a twig in the way it's inclined, the tree will not depart from it, as the philosopher has observed. I want to see Mordred again, most particularly; for, to tell you the truth, Lansdell," said Mr. Smith, with a gush of candour, "I was thinking of taking the Priory for the scene of my next novel. There's a mossy kind of gloom about the eastern side of the house and the old square garden, that I think would take with the general public; and with regard to the cellarage," cried Sigismund, kindling with sudden enthusiasm, "I've been through it with a lantern, and I'm sure there's accommodation for a perfect regiment of bodies, which would be a consideration if I was going to do the story in penny numbers; for in penny numbers one body always leads on to another, and you never know, when you begin, how far you may be obliged to go. However, my present idea is three volumes. What do you think now, Lansdell, of the eastern side of the Priory; deepening the gloom, you know, and letting the gardens all run to seed, with rank grass and a blasted cedar or so, and introducing rats behind the panelling, and a general rottenness, and perhaps a ghostly footstep in the corridor, or a periodical rustling behind the tapestry? What do you say, now, to Mordred, taken in connection with twin brothers hating each other from infancy, and both in love with the same woman, and one of them—the darkest twin, with a scar on his forehead—walling up the young female in a deserted room, while the more amiable twin without a scar devotes his life to searching for her in foreign climes, accompanied by a detective officer and a bloodhound? It's only a rough idea at present," concluded Mr. Smith, modestly; "but I shall work it out in railway trains and pedestrian exercise. There's nothing like railway travelling or pedestrian exercise for working out an idea of that kind."
Mr. Lansdell declared that his house and grounds were entirely at the service of his young friend; and it was settled that the picnic should take place on Saturday, and the dinner-party on Sunday; and George Gilbert's acquiescence in the two arrangements was guaranteed by his friend Sigismund. And then the conversation wandered away into more fanciful regions; and Roland and Mr. Smith talked of men and books, while Isabel listened, only chiming in now and then with little sentimental remarks, to which the master of Mordred Priory listened as intently as if the speaker had been a Madame de Sta�l. She may not have said anything very wonderful; but those were wonderful blushes that came and went upon her pale face as she spoke, fluttering and fitful as the shadow of a butterfly's wing hovering above a white rose; and the golden light in her eyes was more wonderful than anything out of a fairy tale.
But he always listened to her, and he always looked at her from a certain position which he had elected for himself in relation to her. She was a beautiful child; and he, a man of the world, very much tired and worn out by the ordinary men and women of the world, was half amused, half interested, by her simplicity and sentimentality. He did no wrong, therefore, by cultivating her acquaintance when accident threw her, as had happened so often lately, in his way. There was no harm, so long as he held firmly to the position he had chosen for himself; so long as he contemplated this young gushing creature from across all the width of his own wasted youth and useless days; so long as he looked at her as a bright unapproachable being, as much divided from him by the difference in their natures, as by the fact that she was the lawful wife of Mr. George Gilbert of Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne.
Mr. Lansdell tried his uttermost to hold firmly to this self-elected position with regard to Isabel. He was always alluding to his own age; an age not to be computed, as he explained to Mrs. Gilbert, by the actual number of years in which he had inhabited this lower world, but to be calculated rather by the waste of those wearisome years, and the general decadence that had fallen upon him thereby.
"I suppose, according to the calendar, I am only your senior by a decade," he said to Izzie one day; "but when I hear you talk about your books and your heroes, I feel as if I had lived a century."
He took the trouble to make little speeches of this kind very often, for Mrs. Gilbert's edification; and there were times when the Doctor's Wife was puzzled, and even wounded, by his talk and his manner, which were both subject to abrupt transitions, that were perplexing to a simple person. Mr. Lansdell was capricious and fitful in his moods, and would break off in the middle of some delicious little bit of sentiment, worthy of Ernest Maltravers or Eugene Aram himself, with a sneering remark about the absurdity of the style of conversation into which he had been betrayed; and would sit moodily pulling his favourite retriever's long ears for ten minutes or so, and then get up and wish Isabel an abrupt good morning. Mrs. Gilbert took these changes of manner very deeply to heart. It was her fault, no doubt; she had said something silly; or affected, perhaps. Had not her brother Horace been apt to jeer at her as a mass of affectation, because she preferred Byron to "Bell's Life," and was more interested in Edith Dombey than in the favourite for the Oaks? She had said something that had sounded affected, though uttered in all simplicity of heart; and Mr. Lansdell had been disgusted by her talk. Contempt from him—she always thought of him in italics—was very bitter! She would never, never go to Thurston's Crag again. But then, after one of those abruptly-unpleasant "good mornings," Mr. Lansdell was very apt to call at Graybridge. He wanted Mr. Gilbert to go and see one of the men on the home-farm, who seemed in a very bad way, poor fellow, and ought not to be allowed to go on any longer without medical advice. Mr. Lansdell was very fond of looking up cases for the Graybridge surgeon. How good he was! Isabel thought; he in whom goodness was in a manner a supererogatory attribute; since heroes who were dark, and pensive, and handsome, were not called upon to be otherwise virtuous. How good he was! he who was as scornfully depreciative of his own merits as if the bones of another Mr. Clarke had been bleaching in some distant cave in imperishable evidence of his guilt. How good he was! and he had not been offended or disgusted with her when he left her so suddenly; for to-day he was kinder to her than ever, and lingered for nearly an hour in the unshaded parlour, in the hope that the surgeon would come in.
But when Mr. Lansdell walked slowly homeward after such a visit as this, there was generally a dissatisfied look upon his face, which was altogether inconsistent with the pleasure he had appeared to take in his wasted hour at Graybridge. He was inconsistent. It was in his nature, as a hero, to be so, no doubt. There were times when he forgot all about that yawning chasm of years which was supposed to divide him from any possibility of sympathy with Isabel Gilbert; there were times when he forgot himself so far as to be very young and happy in his loitering visits at Graybridge, playing idle scraps of extempore melody on the wizen old harpsichord, sketching little bunches of foliage and frail Italian temples, and pretty girlish faces with big black eyes, not altogether unlike Isabel's, or strolling out into the flat old-fashioned garden, where Mr. Jeffson lolled on his spade, and made a rustic figure of himself, between a middle distance of brown earth and a foreground of cabbage-plants. I am bound to say that Mr. Jeffson, who was generally courtesy itself to every living creature, from the pigs to whom he carried savoury messes of skim-milk and specky potatoes, to the rector of Graybridge, who gave him "good evening" sometimes as he reposed himself in the cool twilight, upon the wooden gate leading into George Gilbert's stable-yard,—I am bound to say that Mr. Jeffson was altogether wanting in politeness to Roland Lansdell, and was apt to follow the young man with black and evil looks as he strolled by Izzie's side along the narrow walks, or stooped now and then to extricate her muslin dress from the thorny branches of a gooseberry-bush.
Once, and once only, did Isabel Gilbert venture to remonstrate with her husband's retainer on the subject of his surly manner to the master of Mordred Priory. Her remonstrance was a very faint one, and she was stooping over a rose-bush while she talked, and was very busy plucking off the withered leaves, and now and then leaves that were not withered.
"I am afraid you don't like Mr. Lansdell, Jeff," she said. She had been very much attached to the gardener, and very confidential to him, before Roland's advent, and had done a little amateur gardening under his instructions, and had told him all about Eugene Aram and the murder of Mr. Clarke "You seemed quite cross to him this morning when he called to see George, and to inquire about the man that had the rheumatic fever; I'm afraid you don't like him."
She bent her face very low over the rose-bush; so low that her hair, which, though much tidier than of old, was never quite as neatly or compactly adjusted as it might have been, fell forward like a veil, and entangled itself among the spiky branches. "Oh yes, Mrs. George; I like him well enough. There's not a young gentleman that I ever set eyes on as I think nobler to look at, or pleasanter to talk to, than Mr. Lansdell, or more free and open-like in his manner to poor folk. But, like a many other good things, Mrs. George, Mr. Lansdell's only good, to my mind, when he's in his place; and I tell you, frank and candid, as I think he's never more out of his place than when he's hanging about your house, or idling away his time in this garden. It isn't for me, Mrs. George, to say who should come here, and who shouldn't; but there was a kind of relationship between me and my master's dead mother. I can see her now, poor young thing, with her bright fair face, and her fair hair blowing across it, as she used to come towards me along the very pathway on which you're standing now, Mrs. George; and all that time comes back to me as if it was yesterday. I never knew any one lead a better or a purer life. I stood beside her deathbed, and I never saw a happier death, nor one that seemed to bring it closer home to a man's mind that there was something happier and better still to come afterwards. But there was never no Mr. Roland Lansdell in those days, Mrs. George, scribbling heads with no bodies to 'em, and trees without any stumps, on scraps of paper, or playing tunes, or otherwise dawdling like, while my master was out o' doors. And I remember, as almost the last words that sweet young creature says, was something about having done her duty to her dear husband, and never having known one thought as she could wish to keep hid from him or Heaven."
Mrs. Gilbert dropped down on her knees before the rose-bush, with her face still shrouded by her hair, and her hands still busy among the leaves. When she looked up, which was not until after a lapse of some minutes, Mr. Jeffson was ever so far off, digging potatoes, with his back turned towards her. There had been nothing unkind in his manner of speaking to her; indeed, there had even been a special kindness and tenderness in his tones, a sorrowful gentleness, that went home to her heart.
She thought of her husband's dead mother a good deal that night, in a reverential spirit, but with a touch of envy also. Was not the first Mrs. Gilbert specially happy to have died young? was it not an enormous privilege so to die, and to be renowned ever afterwards as having done something meritorious, when, for the matter of that, other people would be very happy to die young, if they could? Isabel thought of this with some sense of injury. Long ago, when her brothers had been rude to her, and her step-mother had upbraided her on the subject of a constitutional unwillingness to fetch butter, and "back" teaspoons, she had wished to die young, leaving a legacy of perpetual remorse to those unfeeling relatives. But the gods had never cared anything about her. She had kept on wet boots sometimes after "backing" spoons in bad weather, in the fond hope that she might thereby fall into a decline. She had pictured herself in the little bedroom at Camberwell, fading by inches, with becoming hectic spots on her cheeks, and imploring her step-mother to call her early; which desire would have been the converse of the popular idea of the ruling passion, inasmuch as in her normal state of health Miss Sleaford was wont to be late of a morning, and remonstrate drowsily, with the voice of the sluggard, when roughly roused from some foolish dream, in which she wore a ruby-velvet gown that wouldn't keep hooked, and was beloved by a duke who was always inconsistently changing into the young man at the butter-shop.
All that evening Isabel pondered upon the simple history of her husband's mother, and wished that she could be very, very good, like her, and die early, with holy words upon her lips. But in the midst of such thoughts as these, she found herself wondering whether the hands of Mr. Gilbert the elder were red and knobby like those of his son, whether he employed the same bootmaker, and entertained an equal predilection for spring-onions and Cheshire cheese. And from the picture of her deathbed Isabel tried in vain to blot away a figure that had no right to be there,—the figure of some one who would be fetched post-haste, at the last moment, to hear her dying words, and to see her die.