Mrs. Gilbert spoke very little during the homeward drive through the moonlight. In her visions of that drive—or what that drive might be—she had fancied Roland Lansdell riding by the carriage-window, and going a few miles out of his way in order to escort his friends back to Graybridge.
"If he cared to be with us, he would have come," Isabel thought, with a pensive reproachful feeling about Mr. Lansdell.
It is just possible that Roland might have ridden after the fly from Graybridge, and ridden beside it along the quiet country roads, talking as he only in all the world could talk, according to Mrs. Gilbert's opinion. It is possible that, being so sorely at a loss as to what he should do with himself, Mr. Lansdell might have wasted an hour thus, had he not been detained by his old friend Charles Raymond.
As it was, he rode straight home to Mordred Priory, very slowly, thinking deeply as he went along; thinking bitter thoughts about himself and his destiny.
"If my cousin Gwendoline had been true to me, I should have been an utterly different man," he thought; "I should have been a middle-aged steady-going fellow by this time, with a boy at Eton, and a pretty fair-haired daughter to ride her pony by my side. I think I might have been good for something if I had married long ago, when my mother died, and my heart was ready to shelter the woman she had chosen for me. Children! A man who has children has some reason to be good, and to do his duty, But to stand quite alone in a world that one has grown tired of; with every pleasure exhausted, and every faith worn threadbare; with a dreary waste of memory behind, a barren desert of empty years before;—to be quite alone in the world, the last of a race that once was brave and generous; the feeble, worn-out remnant of a lineage that once did great deeds, and made a name for itself in this world;—that indeed is bitter!"
Mr. Lansdell's thoughts dwelt upon his loneliness to-night, as they had never dwelt before, since the day when his mother's death and cousin's inconstancy first left him lonely.
"Yes, I shall go abroad again," he thought presently, "and go over the whole dreary beat once more—like Marryat's phantom captain turned landsman, like the Wandering Jew in a Poole-built travelling dress. I shall eat fish at Philippe's again, and buy more bouquets in the Rue Castiglione, and lose more money at Hombourg, and shoot more crocodiles on the banks of the Nile, and be laid up with another fever in the Holy Land. It will be all the same over again, except that it will be a great deal more tiresome this time."
And then Mr. Lansdell began to think what his life might have been, if the woman he loved, or rather the woman for whom he had a foolish sentimental fancy,—he did not admit to himself that his predilection for Isabel Gilbert was more than this,—had been free to become his wife. He imagined himself returning from those tiresome Continental wanderings a twelve-month earlier than he had actually returned. "Ah, me!" he thought, "only one little year earlier, and all things would have been different!" He would have gone to Conventford to see his dear old friend Charles Raymond, and there, in the sunny drawing-room, he would have found a pale-faced, dark-eyed girl bending over a child's lesson-book, or listening while a child strummed on the piano. He could fancy that scene,—he could see it all, like a beautiful cabinet picture; ah, how different, how different everything would have been then! It would have been no sin then to be inexplicably happy in that girlish presence; there would have been no vague remorseful pang, no sting of self-reproach, mingling with every pleasant emotion, contending with every thrill of mystic joy. And then—and then, some night in the twilit garden, when the stars were hovering dim about the city roofs still and hushed in the distance, he would have told her that he loved her; that, after a decade of indifference to all the brightest things of earth, he had found a pure unutterable happiness in the hope and belief that she would be his wife. He fancied her shy blushes, her drooping eyes suddenly tearful in the depth of her joy; and he fancied what his life might have been for ever afterwards, transformed and sublimated by its new purpose, its new delights; transfigured by a pure and exalted affection. He fancied all this as it all might have been; and turned and bowed his face before an image that bore his own likeness, and yet was not himself—the image of a good man, happy husband and father, true friend and gentle master, dwelling for ever and ever amidst that peaceful English landscape; beloved, respected, the centre of a happy circle, the key-stone of a fair domestic arch,—a necessary link in the grand chain of human love and life.
"And, instead of all this, I am a wandering nomad, who never has been, and never can be, of any use in this world; who fills no place in life, and will leave no blank when he dies. When Louis the Well-beloved was disinclined for the chase, the royal huntsmen were wont to announce that to-day his majesty would do nothing. I have been doing nothing all my life, and cannot even rejoice in a stag-hunt."
Mr. Lansdell beguiled his homeward way with many bitter reflections of this kind. But, inconsistent and vacillating in his thoughts, as he had been ever inconsistent and vacillating in his actions, he thought of himself at one time as being deeply and devotedly in love with Isabel Gilbert, and at another time as being only the victim of a foolish romantic fancy, which would perish by a death as speedy as its birth.
"What an idiot I am for my pains!" he said to himself, presently. "In six weeks' time this poor child's pale face will have no more place in my mind than the snows of last winter have on this earth, or only in far-away nooks and corners of memory, like the Alpine peaks, where the snows linger undisturbed by the hand of change. Poor little girl! how she blushes and falters sometimes when she speaks to me, and how pretty she looks then! If they could get such an Ing�nue at the Fran�ais, all Paris would be mad about her. We are very much in love with each other, I dare say; but I don't think it's a passion to outlast six weeks' absence on either side, not on her side certainly, dear romantic child! I have only been the hero of a story-book; and all this folly has been nothing more than a page out of a novel set in action. Raymond is very right. I must go away; and she will go back to her three-volume novels, and fall in love with a fair-haired hero, and forget me."
He sighed as he thought this. It was infinitely better that he should be forgotten, and speedily; and yet it is hard to have no place in the universe—not even one hidden shrine in a foolish woman's heart. Mr. Lansdell was before the Priory gates by this time. The old woman stifled a yawn as she admitted the master of the domain. He went in past the little blinking light in the narrow Gothic window, and along the winding roadway between cool shrubberies that shed an aromatic perfume on the still night air. Scared fawns flitted ghost-like away into deep recesses amid the Mordred oaks; and in the distance the waterdrops of a cascade, changed by the moonbeams into showers of silver, fell with a little tinkling sound amongst great blocks of moss-grown granite and wet fern.
Mordred Priory, seen in the moonlight, was not a place upon which a man would willingly turn his back. Long ago Roland Lansdell had grown tired of its familiar beauties; but to-night the scene seemed transformed. He looked at it with a new interest; he thought of it with a sad tender regret, that stung him like a physical pain.
As he had thought of what his life might have been under other circumstances, he thought now of what the place might have been. He fancied the grand old rooms resonant with the echoes of children's voices; he pictured one slender white-robed figure on the moonlit terrace; he fancied a tender earnest face turned steadily towards the path along which he rode; he felt the thrilling contact of a caressing arm twining itself shyly in his; he heard the low murmur of a loving voice—his wife's voice!—bidding him welcome home.
But it was never to be! The watch-dog's honest bark—or rather the bark of several watch-dogs—made the night clamorous presently, when Mr. Lansdell drew rein before the porch; but there was no eye to mark his coming, and be brighter when he came; unless, indeed, it was the eye of his valet, which had waxed dim over the columns of the "Morning Post," and may have glimmered faintly, in evidence of that functionary's satisfaction at the prospect of being speedily released from duty.
If it was so, the valet was doomed to disappointment; for Mr. Lansdell—usually the least troublesome of masters-wanted a great deal done for him to-night.
"You may set to work at once with my portmanteau, Jadis," he said, when he met his servant in the hall. "I must leave Mordred to-morrow morning in time for the seven o'clock express from Warncliffe. I want you to pack my things, and arrange for Wilson to be ready to drive me over. I must leave here at six. Perhaps, by the bye, you may as well pack one portmanteau for me to take with me, and you can follow with the rest of the luggage on Monday."
"You are going abroad, sir?"
"Yes, I am tired of Mordred. I shall not stop for the hunting season. You can go up-stairs now and pack the portmanteau. Don't forget to make all arrangements about the carriage; for six precisely. You can go to bed when you've finished packing, I've some letters to write, and shall be late."
The man bowed and departed, to grumble, in an undertone, over Mr. Lansdell's shirts and waistcoats, while Roland went into the library to write his letters.
The letters which he had to write turned out to be only one letter, or rather a dozen variations upon the same theme, which he tore up, one after another, almost as soon as they were written. He was not wont to be so fastidious in the wording of his epistles, but to-night he could not be satisfied with what he wrote. He wrote to Mrs. Gilbert; yes, to her! Why should he not write to her when he was going away to-morrow morning; when he was going to offer up that vague bright dream which had lately beguiled him, a willing sacrifice, on the altar of duty and honour?
"I am not much good," he said: for ever excusing his shortcomings by his self-depreciation. "I never set up for being a good man; but I have some feeling of honour left in me at the worst." He wrote to Isabel, therefore, rather than to her husband, and he destroyed many letters before he wrote what he fancied suitable to the occasion. Did not the smothered tenderness, the regret, the passion, reveal itself in some of those letters, in spite of his own determination to be strictly conventional and correct? But the letter which he wrote last was stiff and commonplace enough to have satisfied the sternest moralist.
"Dear Mrs. Gilbert,-I much regret that circumstances, which only came to my knowledge after your party left last night, will oblige me to leave Mordred early to-morrow morning. I am therefore compelled to forego the pleasure which I had anticipated from our friendly little dinner to-morrow evening; but pray assure Smith that the Priory is entirely at his disposal whenever he likes to come here, and that he is welcome to make it the scene of half-a-dozen fictions, if he pleases. I fear the old place will soon look gloomy and desolate enough to satisfy his ideas of the romantic, for it may be some years before I again see the Midlandshire woods and meadows."
("The dear old bridge across the waterfall, the old oak under which I have spent such pleasant hours," Mr. Lansdell had written here in one of the letters which he destroyed.)
"I hope you will convey to Mr. Gilbert my warmest thanks, with the accompanying cheque, for the kindness and skill which have endeared him to my cottagers. I shall be very glad if he will continue to look after them, and I will arrange for the carrying out of any sanitary improvements he may suggest to Hodgeson, my steward.
"The library will be always prepared for you whenever you feel inclined to read and study there, and the contents of the shelves will be entirely at the service of yourself and Mr. Gilbert.
"With regards to your husband, and all friendly wishes for Smith's prosperity and success,
"I remain, dear Mrs. Gilbert,
"Yery truly yours,
"Mordred Priory, Saturday night."
"It may be some years before I again see the Midlandshire woods and meadows!" This sentence was the gist of the letter, the stiff unmeaning letter, which was as dull and laboured as a schoolboy's holiday missive to his honoured parents.
"My poor, innocent, tender-hearted darling! will she be sorry when she reads it?" thought Mr. Lansdell, as he addressed his letter. "Will this parting be a new grief to her, a shadowy romantic sorrow, like her regret for drowned Shelley, or fever-stricken Byron? My darling, my darling! if fate had sent me here a twelvemonth earlier, you and I might have been standing side by side in the moonlight, talking of the happy future before us. Only a year! and there were so many accidents that might have caused my return. Only one year! and in that little space I lost my one grand chance of happiness."
Mr. Lansdell had done his duty. He had given Charles Raymond a promise which he meant to keep; and having done so, he gave his thoughts and fancies a license which he had never allowed them before. He no longer struggled to retain the attitude from which he had hitherto endeavoured to regard Mrs. Gilbert. He no longer considered it his duty to think of her as a pretty, grown-up child, whose childish follies amused him for the moment. No; he was going away now, and had no longer need to set any restraint upon his thoughts. He was going away, and was free to acknowledge to himself that this love which had grown up so suddenly in his breast was the one grand passion of his life, and, under different circumstances, might have been his happiness and redemption.