Doctor's Wife, The



Mr. Roland Lansdell did not invite Lady Gwendoline or her father to that bachelor picnic which he was to give at Waverly Castle. He had a kind of instinctive knowledge that Lord Ruysdale's daughter would not relish that sylvan entertainment.

"She'd object to poor Smith. I dare say," Roland said to himself, "with his sporting-cut clothes, and his slang phrases, and his perpetual talk about three-volume novels and penny numbers. No, I don't think it would do to invite Gwendoline; she'd be sure to object to Smith."

Mr. Lansdell said this, or thought this, a good many times upon the day before the picnic; but it may be that there was a lurking idea in his mind that Lady Gwendoline might object to the presence of some one other than Mr. Smith in the little assembly that had been planned under Lord Thurston's oak. Perhaps Roland Lansdell,—who hated hypocrisy as men who are by no means sinless are yet apt to hate the base and crawling vices of mankind,—had become a hypocrite all at once, and wanted to deceive himself; or it may be that the weak slope of his handsome chin, and the want of breadth in a certain region of his skull, were the outward and visible signs of such a weak and vacillating nature, that what was true with regard to him one minute was false the next; so that out of this perpetual changefulness of thought and purpose there grew a confusion in the young man's mind, like the murmur of many streamlets rushing into one broad river, along whose tide the feeble swimmer was drifted to the very sea he wanted so much to avoid.

"The picnic will be a pleasant thing for young Smith," Mr. Lansdell thought; "and it'll please the children to make themselves bilious amongst ruins; and that dear good Raymond always enjoys himself with young and happy people. I cannot see that the picnic can be anything but pleasant; and for the matter of that, I've a good mind to send the baskets early by Stephens, who could make himself useful all day, and not go at all myself. I could run up to town under pretence of particular business, and amuse myself somehow for a day or two. Or, for that matter, I might go over to Baden or Hombourg, and finish the autumn there. Heaven knows I don't want to do any harm."

But, in spite of all this uncertainty and vacillation of mind, Mr. Lansdell took a great deal of interest in the preparations for the picnic. He did not trouble himself about the magnificent game-pie which was made for the occasion, the crust of which was as highly glazed as a piece of modern Wedgwood. He did not concern himself about the tender young fowls, nestling in groves of parsley; nor the tongue, floridly decorated with vegetable productions chiselled into the shapes of impossible flowers; nor the York ham, also in a high state of polish, like fine Spanish mahogany, and encircled about the knuckle by pure white fringes of cut paper.

The comestibles to which Mr. Lansdell directed his attention were of a more delicate and fairy-like description, such as women and children are apt to take delight in. There must be jellies and creams, Mr. Lansdell said, whatever difficulty there might be in the conveyance of such compositions. There must be fruit; he attended himself to the cutting of hothouse grapes and peaches, the noblest pine-apple in the long range of forcing-houses, and picturesque pears with leaves still clinging to the stalk. He ordered bouquets to be cut, one a very pyramid of choice flowers, chiefly white and innocent-looking, and he took care to select richly-scented blossoms, and he touched the big nosegay caressingly with his slim white fingers, and looked at it with a tender smile on his dark face, as if the flowers had a language for him,—and so they had; but it was by no means that stereotyped dictionary of substantives and adjectives popularly called the language of flowers.

It was nothing new for him to choose a bouquet. Had he not dispensed a small fortune in the Rue de la Paix and in the Faubourg St. Honor�, in exchange for big bunches of roses and myosotis, and Cape-jasmine and waxy camellias; which he saw afterwards lying on the velvet cushion of an opera-box, or withering in the warm atmosphere of a boudoir? He was not a good man,—he had not led a good life. Pretty women had called him "Enfant!" in the dim mysterious shades of lamplit conservatories, upon the curtain-shrouded thresholds of moonlit balconies. Arch soubrettes in little Parisian theatres, bewitching Marthons and Margots and Jeannettons, with brooms in their hands and diamonds in their ears, had smiled at him, and acted at him, and sung at him, as he lounged in the dusky recesses of a cavernous box. He had not led a good life. He was not a good man. But he was a man who had never sinned with impunity. With him remorse always went hand-in-hand with wrong-doing.

In all his life, I doubt if there was any period in which Mr. Lansdell had ever so honestly and truly wished to do aright as he did just now. His mind seemed to have undergone a kind of purification in the still atmosphere of those fair Midlandshire glades and meads. There was even a purifying influence in the society of such a woman as Isabel Gilbert, so different from all the other women he had known, so deficient in the merest rudiments of worldly wisdom.

Mr. Lansdell did not go to London. When the ponderous old fly from Graybridge drove up a narrow winding lane and emerged upon the green rising ground below the gates of Waverly Castle, Roland was standing under the shadow of the walls, with a big bunch of hothouse flowers in his hand. He was in very high spirits; for to-day he had cast care to the winds. Why should he not enjoy this innocent pleasure of a rustic ramble with simple country-bred people and children? He laid some little stress upon the presence of the orphans. Yes, he would enjoy himself for to-day; and then to-morrow—ah! by the bye, to-morrow Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert and Sigismund Smith were to dine with him. After to-morrow it would be all over, and he would be off to the Continent again, to begin the old wearisome rounds once more; To eat the same dinners at the same restaurants; the same little suppers after the opera, in stuffy entresol chambers, all crimson velvet, and gaslight, and glass, and gilding; to go to the same balls in the same gorgeous saloons, and to see the same beautiful faces shining upon him in their monotonous splendour.

"I might have turned country gentleman, and have been good for something in this world," thought Roland, "if——"

Mr. Lansdell was not alone. Charles Raymond and the orphans had arrived; and they all came forward together to welcome Isabel and her companions. Mr. Raymond had always been very kind to his nieces' governess, but he seemed especially kind to her to-day. He interposed himself between Roland and the door of the fly, and assisted Isabel to alight. He slipped her hand under his arm with a pleasant friendliness of manner, and looked with a triumphant smile at the rest of the gentlemen.

"I mean to appropriate Mrs. Gilbert for the whole of this day," he said, cheerily; "and I shall give her a full account of Waverly, looked upon from an arch�ological, historical, and legendary point of view. Never mind your flowers now, Roland; it's a very charming bouquet, but you don't suppose Mrs. Gilbert is going to carry it about all day? Take it into the lodge yonder, and ask them to put it in water; and in the evening, if you're very good, Mrs. Gilbert shall take it home to ornament her parlour at Graybridge."

The gates were opened, and they went in; Isabel arm-in-arm with Mr. Raymond.

Roland placed himself presently on one side of Isabel; but Mr. Raymond was so very instructive about John of Gaunt and the Tudors, that all Mrs. Gilbert's attention was taken up in the effort to understand his discourse, which was very pleasant and lively, in spite of its instructive nature. George Gilbert looked at the ruins with the same awful respect with which he had regarded the pictures at Mordred. He was tolerably familiar with those empty halls, those roofless chambers, and open doorways, and ivy-festooned windows; but he always looked at them with the same reverence, mingled with a vague wonder as to what it was that people admired in ruins, seeing that they generally made such short work of inspecting them, and seemed so pleased to get away and take refreshment. Ruins and copious refreshment ware associated in Mr. Gilbert's mind; and, indeed, there does seem to be a natural union between ivied walls and lobster-salad, crumbling turrets and cold chicken; just as the domes of Greenwich Hospital, the hilly park beyond, and the rippling water in the foreground, must be for ever and ever associated with floundered souchy and devilled whitebait. Mr. Sigismund Smith was delighted with Waverly. He had rambled amongst the ruins often enough in his boyhood; but to-day he saw everything from a new point of view, and he groped about in all manner of obscure corners, with a pencil and pocket-book in his hand, laying the plan of a thrilling serial, and making himself irrecognizable with dust. His friends found him on one occasion stretched at full length amongst crisp fallen leaves in a recess that had once been a fireplace, with a view to ascertain whether it was long enough to accommodate a body. He climbed fearful heights, and planned perilous leaps and "hairbreadth 'scapes," deadly dangers in the way of walks along narrow cornices high up above empty space; such feats as hold the reader with suspended breath, and make the continued expenditure of his weekly penny almost a certainty.

The orphans accompanied Mr. Smith, and were delighted with the little chambers that they found in nooks and corners of the mouldering castle. How delightful to have chairs and tables and kitchen utensils, and to live there for ever and ever, and keep house for themselves! They envied the vulgar children who lived in the square tower by the gate, and saw ruins every day of their lives.

It was a very pleasant morning altogether. There was a strangely mingled feeling of satisfaction and annoyance in Roland Lansdell's mind as he strolled beside Isabel, and listened, or appeared to listen, to Mr. Raymond's talk. He would like to have had Isabel's little hand lying lightly on his arm; he would like to have seen those wondering black eyes lifted to his face; he would like her to have heard the romantic legends belonging to the ruined walls and roofless banquet-chambers from him. And yet, perhaps, it was better as it was. He was going away very soon—immediately, indeed; he was going where that simple pleasure would be impossible to him, and it was better not to lull himself in soft delights that were so soon to be taken away from his barren life. Yes, his barren life. He had come to think of his fate with bitter repining, and to look upon himself as, somehow or other, cruelly ill-used by Providence.

But, in spite of Mr. Raymond, he contrived to sit next Isabel at dinner, which was served by-and-by in a lovely sheltered nook under the walls, where there was no chance of the salt being blown into the greengage tart, or the custard spilt over the lobster-salad. Mr. Lansdell had sent a couple of servants to arrange matters; and the picnic was not a bit like an ordinary picnic, where things are lost and forgotten, and where there is generally confusion by reason of everybody's desire to assist in the preparations. This was altogether a recherch� banquet; but scarcely so pleasant as those more rural feasts, in which there is a paucity of tumblers, and no forks to speak of. The champagne was iced, the jellies quivered in the sunlight, everything was in perfect order; and if Mr. Raymond had not insisted upon sending away the two men, who wanted to wait at table, with the gloomy solemnity of every-day life, it would scarcely have been worthy the name of picnic. But with the two solemn servants out of the way, and with Sigismund, very red and dusty and noisy, to act as butler, matters were considerably improved.

The sun was low when they left the ruins of the feast for the two solemn men to clear away. The sun was low, and the moon had risen, so pale as to be scarcely distinguishable from a faint summer cloud high up in the clear opal heaven. Mr. Raymond took Isabel up by a winding staircase to the top of a high turret, beneath which spread green meads and slopes of verdure, where once had been a lake and pleasaunce. The moon grew silvery before they reached the top of the turret, where there was room enough for a dozen people. Roland went with them, of course, and sat on one of the broad stone battlements looking out at the still night, with his profile defined as sharply as a cameo against the deepening blue of the sky. He was very silent, and his silence had a distracting influence on Isabel, who made vain efforts to understand what Mr. Raymond was saying to her, and gave vague answers every now and then; so vague that Charles Raymond left off talking presently, and seemed to fall into as profound a reverie as that which kept Mr. Lansdell silent.

To Isabel's mind there was a pensive sweetness in that silence, which was in some way in harmony with the scene and the atmosphere. She was free to watch Roland's face now that Mr. Raymond had left off talking to her, and she did watch it; that still profile whose perfect outline grew more and more distinct against the moonlit sky. If anybody could have painted his portrait as he sat there, with one idle hand hanging listless among the ivy-leaves, blanched in the moonlight, what a picture it would have made! What was he thinking of? Were his thoughts far away in some foreign city with dark-eyed Clotilde? or the Duchess with the glittering hair, who had loved him and been false to him long ago, when he was an alien, and recorded the history of his woes in heart-breaking verse, in fitful numbers, larded with scraps of French and Latin, alternately despairing and sarcastic? Isabel solemnly believed in Clotilde and the glittering Duchess, and was steeped in self-abasement and humiliation when she compared herself with those vague and splendid creatures.

Roland spoke at last: if there had been anything common-place or worldly wise in what he said, there must have been a little revulsion in Isabel's mind; but his talk was happily attuned to the place and the hour; incomprehensible and mysterious,—like the deepening night in the heavens.

"I think there is a point at which a man's life comes to an end," he said. "I think there is a fitting and legitimate close to every man's existence, that is as palpable as the falling of a curtain when a play is done. He goes on living; that is to say, eating and drinking, and inhaling so many cubic feet of fresh air every day, for half a century afterwards, perhaps; but that is nothing. Do not the actors live after the play is done, and the curtain has fallen? Hamlet goes home and eats his supper, and scolds his wife and snubs his children; but the exaltation and the passion that created him Prince of Denmark have died out like the coke ashes of the green-room fire. Surely that after-life is the penalty, the counter-balance, of brief golden hours of hope and pleasure. I am glad the Lansdells are not a long-lived race, Raymond; for I think the play is finished, and the dark curtain has dropped for me!"

"Humph!" muttered Mr. Raymond; "wasn't there something to that effect in the 'Alien?' It's very pretty, Roland,—that sort of dismal prettiness which is so much in fashion nowadays; but don't you think if you were to get up a little earlier in the morning, and spend a couple of hours amongst the stubble with your clogs and gun, so as to get an appetite for your breakfast, you might get over that sort of thing?"

Isabel turned a mutely reproachful gaze upon Mr. Raymond, but Roland burst out laughing.

"I dare say I talk like a fool," he said; "I feel like one sometimes."

"When are you going abroad again?"

"In a month's time. But why should I go abroad?" asked Mr. Lansdell, with a dash of fierceness in the sudden change of his tone; "why should I go? what is there for me to do there better than here? what good am I there more than I am here?" He asked these questions of the sky as much as of Mr. Raymond; and the philosopher of Conventford did not feel himself called upon to answer them. Mr. Lansdell relapsed into the silence that so puzzled Isabel; and nothing more was said until the voice of George Gilbert sounded from below, deeply sonorous amongst the walls and towers, calling to Isabel.

"I must go," she said; "I dare say the fly is ready to take us back. Goodnight, Mr. Raymond; goodnight, Mr. Lansdell."

She held out her hand, as if doubtful to whom she should first offer it; Roland had never changed his position until this moment, but he started up suddenly now, like a man awakened from a dream. "You are going?" he said; "so soon!"

"So soon! it is very late, I think," Mrs. Gilbert answered; "at least, I mean we have enjoyed ourselves very much; and the time has passed so quickly."

She thought it was her duty to say something of this kind to him, as the giver of the feast; and then she blushed and grew confused, thinking she had said too much.

"Good night, Mr. Lansdell."

"But I am coming down with you to the gate," said Roland; "do you think we could let you go down those slippery stairs by yourself, to fall and break your neck and haunt the tower by moonlight for ever afterwards, a pale ghost in shadowy muslin drapery? Here's Mr. Gilbert," he added, as the top of George's hat made itself visible upon the winding staircase; "but I'm sure I know the turret better than he does, and I shall take you under my care."

He took her hand as he spoke, and led her down the dangerous winding way as carefully and tenderly as if she had been a little child. Her hand did not tremble as it rested in his; but something like a mysterious winged creature that had long been imprisoned in her breast seemed to break his bonds all at once, and float away from her towards him. She thought it was her long-imprisoned soul, perhaps, that so left her to become a part of his. If that slow downward journey could have lasted for ever—if she could have gone down, down, down with Roland Lansdell into some fathomless pit, until at last they came to a luminous cavern and still moonlit water, where there was a heavenly calm—and death! But the descent did not last very long, careful as Roland was of every step; and there was the top of George's hat bobbing about in the moonlight all the time; for the surgeon had lost his way in the turret, and only came down at last very warm and breathless when Isabel called to him from the bottom of the stairs.

Sigismund and the orphans appeared at the same moment.

Mr. Raymond had followed Roland and Isabel very closely, and they all went together to the fly.

"Remember to-morrow," Mr. Lansdell said generally to the Graybridge party as they took their seats. "I shall expect you as soon as the afternoon service is over. I know you are regular church-goers at Graybridge. Couldn't you come to Mordred for the afternoon service, by the bye?—the church is well worth seeing." There was a little discussion; and it was finally agreed that Mr. and Mrs. George Gilbert and Sigismund should go to Mordred church on the following afternoon; and then there was a good deal of hand-shaking before the carriage drove away, and disappeared behind the sheltering edges that screened the winding road.

"I'll see you and the children off, Raymond," Mr. Lansdell said, "before I go myself."

"I'm not going away just this minute," Mr. Raymond answered gravely; "I want to have a little talk with you first. There's something I particularly want to say to you. Mrs. Primshaw," he cried to the landlady of a little inn just opposite the castle-gates, a good-natured rosy-faced young woman, who was standing on the threshold of her door watching the movements of the gentlefolks, "will you take care of my little girls, and see whether their wraps are warm enough for the drive home, while I take a moonlight stroll with Mr. Lansdell?"

Mrs. Primshaw declared that nothing would give her greater pleasure than to see to the comfort of the young ladies. So the orphans skipped across the moonlit road, nowise sorry to take shelter in the pleasant bar-parlour, all rosy and luminous with a cosy handful of bright fire in the tiniest grate ever seen out of a doll's house.

Mr. Lansdell and Mr. Raymond walked along the lonely road under the shadow of the castle wall, and for some minutes neither of them spoke. Roland evinced no curiosity about, or interest in, that unknown something which Mr. Raymond had to say to him; but there was a kind of dogged sullenness in the carriage of his head, the fixed expression of his face, that seemed to promise badly for the pleasantness of the interview.

Perhaps Mr. Raymond saw this, and was rather puzzled how to commence the conversation; at any rate, when he did begin, he began very abruptly, taking what one might venture to call a conversational header.

"Roland," he said, "this won't do!"

"What won't do?" asked Mr. Lansdell, coolly.

"Of course, I don't set up for being your Mentor," returned Mr. Raymond, "or for having any right to lecture you, or dictate to you. The tie of kinsmanship between us is a very slight one: though, as far as that goes, God knows that I could scarcely love you better than I do, if I were your father. But if I were your father, I don't suppose you'd listen to me, or heed me. Men never do in such matters as these. I've lived my life, Roland, and I know too well how little good advice can do in such a case as this. But I can't see you going wrong without trying to stop you: and for that poor honest-hearted fellow yonder, for his sake, I must speak, Roland. Have you any consciousness of the mischief you're doing? have you any knowledge of the bottomless pit of sin, and misery, and shame, and horror that you are digging before that foolish woman's feet?"

"Why, Raymond," cried Mr. Lansdell, with a laugh,—not a very hearty laugh, but something like that hollow mockery of merriment with which a man greets the narration of some old Joe-Millerism that has been familiar to him from his childhood,—"why, Raymond, you're as obscure as a modern poet! What do you mean? Who's the honest-hearted fellow? and who's the foolish woman? and what's the nature of the business altogether?"

"Roland, let us be frank with each other, at least. Do you remember how you told me once that, when every bright illusion had dropped away from you one by one, honour still remained,—- a poor pallid star, compared to those other lights that had perished in the darkness, but still bright enough to keep you in the straight road? Has that last light gone out with the rest, Roland, my poor melancholy boy,—my boy whom I have loved as my own child?—will the day ever come when I shall have to be ashamed of Anna Lansdell's only son?"

His mother's name had always something of a spell for Roland. His head, so proudly held before, drooped suddenly, and he walked on in silence for some little time. Mr. Raymond was also silent. He had drawn some good augury from the altered carriage of the young man's head, and was loth to disturb the current of his thoughts. When Roland did at last raise his head, he turned and looked his friend and kinsman full in the face.

"Raymond," he said, "I am not a good man;" he was very fond of making this declaration, and I think he fancied that in so doing he made some vague atonement for his short-comings: "I am not a good man, but I am no hypocrite; I will not lie to you, or prevaricate with you. Perhaps there may be some justification for what you said just now, or there might be, if I were a different sort of man. But, as it is, I give you my honour you are mistaken. I have been digging no pit for a woman's innocent footsteps to stray into. I have been plotting no treachery against that honest fellow yonder. Remember, I do not by any means hold myself blameless. I have admired Mrs. Gilbert just as one admires a pretty child, and I have allowed myself to be amused by her sentimental talk, and have lent her books, and may perhaps have paid her a little more attention than I ought to have done. But I have done nothing deliberately. I have never for one moment had any purpose in my mind, or mixed her image with so much as a dream of—of—any tangible form. I have drifted into a dangerous position, or a position that might be dangerous to another man; but I can drift out of it as easily as I drifted in. I shall leave Midlandshire next month."

"And to-morrow the Gilberts dine with you at Mordred; and all through this month there will be the chance of your seeing Mrs. Gilbert, and lending her more books, and paying her more attention; and so on. It is not so much that I doubt you, Roland; I cannot think so meanly of you as to doubt your honour in this business. But you are doing mischief; you are turning this silly girl's head. It is no kindness to lend her books; it is no kindness to invite her to Mordred, and to show her brief glimpses of a life that never can be hers. If you want to do a good deed, and to elevate her life out of its present dead level, make her your almoner, and give her a hundred a year to distribute among her husband's poor patients. The weak unhappy child is perishing for want of some duty to perform upon this earth; some necessary task to keep her busy from day to day, and to make a link between her husband and herself. Roland, I do believe that you are as good and generous-minded a fellow as ever an old bachelor was proud of. My dear boy, let me feel prouder of you than I have ever felt yet. Leave Midlandshire to-morrow morning. It will be easy to invent some excuse for going. Go to-morrow, Roland."

"I will," answered Mr. Lansdell, after a brief pause; "I will go, Raymond," he repeated, holding out his hand, and clasping that of his friend. "I suppose I have been going a little astray lately; but I only wanted the voice of a true-hearted fellow like you to call me back to the straight road. I shall leave Midlandshire to-morrow, Raymond; and it may be a very long time before you see me back again."

"Heaven knows I am sorry enough to lose you, my boy," Mr. Raymond said with some emotion; "but I feel that it's the only thing for you to do. I used sometimes to think, before George Gilbert offered to marry Isabel, that you and she would have been suited to each other somehow; and I have wished that—"

And here Mr. Raymond stopped abruptly, feeling that this speech was scarcely the wisest he could have made.

But Roland Lansdell took no notice of that unlucky observation.

"I shall go to-morrow," he repeated. "I'm very glad you've spoken to me, Raymond; I thank you most heartily for the advice you have given me this night; and I shall go to-morrow."

And then his mind wandered away to his boyish studies in mythical Roman history; and he wondered how Marcus Curtius felt just after making up his mind to take the leap that made him famous. And then, with a sudden slip from ancient to modern history, he thought of poor tender-hearted Louise la Valli�re running away and hiding herself in a convent, only to have her pure thoughts and aspirations scattered like a cluster of frail wood-anemones in a storm of wind—only to have her holy resolutions trampled upon by the ruthless foot of an impetuous young king.

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