Doctor's Wife, The



Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert went to church arm-in-arm as usual on the morning after the picnic; but Sigismund stayed at home to sketch the rough outline of that feudal romance which he had planned among the ruins of Waverly. The day was very fine,—a real summer day, with a blazing sun and a cloudless blue sky. The sunshine seemed like a good omen, Mrs. Gilbert thought, as she dressed herself in the white muslin robe that she was to wear at Mordred. An omen of what? She did not ask herself that question; but she was pleased to think that the heavens should smile upon her visit to Mordred. She was thinking of the dinner at the Priory while she sat by her husband's side in church, looking demurely down at the Prayer-book in her lap. It was a common thing for her now to be thinking of him when she ought to have been attending to the sermon. To-day she did not even try to listen to the rector's discourse. She was fancying herself in the dusky drawing-room at Mordred, after dinner, hearing him talk. She saw his face turned towards her in the twilight—the pale dark face—the dreamy, uncertain eyes. When the congregation rose suddenly, at the end of the sermon, she sat bewildered for a moment, like a creature awakened from a dream; and when the people knelt, and became absorbed in silent meditation on the injunctions of their pastor, Mrs. Gilbert remained so long in a devotional attitude, that her husband was fain to arouse her by a gentle tap upon the shoulder. She had been thinking of him even on her knees. She could not shut his image from her thoughts; she walked about in a perpetual dream, and rarely awakened to the consciousness that there was wickedness in so dreaming; and even when she did reflect upon her sin, it was very easy to excuse it and make light of it. He would never know. In November he would be gone, and the dream would be nothing but a dream.

It was only one o'clock, by the old-fashioned eight-day clock in the passage, when they went home after church. The gig was to be ready at a quarter before three, and at that hour they were to start for Mordred. George meant to put up his horse at the little inn near the Priory gates, and then they could walk quietly from the church to Mr. Lansdell's after the service. Mr. Gilbert felt that Brown Molly appeared rather at a disadvantage in Roland's grand stables.

Sigismund was still sitting in the little parlour, looking very warm, and considerably the worse for ink. He had tried all the penny bottles in the course of his labours, and had a little collection of them clustered at his elbow.

"I don't think any one ever imagined so many ink-bottles compatible with so little ink," he said, plaintively. "I've had my test ideas baulked by perpetual hairs in my pen, to say nothing of flies' wings, and even bodies. There's nothing like unlimited ink for imparting fluency to a man's language; you cut short his eloquence the moment you limit his ink. However, I'm down here for pleasure, old fellow," Mr. Smith added, cheerfully; "and all the printing-machines in the city of London may be waiting for copy for aught I care."

An hour and three quarters must elapse before it would be time even to start for Mordred. Mrs. Gilbert went up-stairs and rearranged her hair, and looked at herself in the glass, and wondered if she was pretty. He had never told her so. He had never paid her any compliment. But she fancied, somehow, that he thought her pretty, though she had no idea whence that fancy was derived. She went down-stairs again, and out into the garden, whence Mr. Smith was calling to her—the little garden in front of the house, where there were a few common flowers blooming dustily in oval beds like dishes; and where, in a corner, there was an erection of shells and broken bits of coloured glass, which Mr. Jeffson fondly imagined to be the exact representation of a grotto.

Mr. Smith had a good deal to say for himself, as indeed he had on all occasions; but as his discourse was entirely of a personal character, it may have been rather wanting in general interest. Isabel strolled up and down the narrow pathway by his side, and turned her face politely towards him, and said, "Yes," and "Did you really!" and "Well, how very strange!" now and then. But she was thinking as she had thought in church; she was thinking of the wonderful happiness that lay before her,—an evening in his companionship, amongst pictures and hothouse flowers and marble busts and trailing silken curtains, and with glimpses of a moonlit expanse of lawn and shrubbery gleaming through every open window.

She was thinking of this when a bell rang loud and shrill in her ear: and looking round suddenly, she saw a man in livery—a man who looked like a groom—standing outside the garden gate.

She was so near the gate that it would have been a mere affectation to keep the man waiting there while Mrs. Jeffson made her way from the remote premises at the back of the house. The Doctor's Wife turned the key in the lock and opened the gate; but the man only wanted to deliver a letter, which he gave her with one hand while he touched the brim of his hat with the other.

"From Mr. Lansdell, ma'am," he said.

In the next moment he was gone, and the open gate and the white dusty lane seemed to reel before Isabel Gilbert's eyes.

There had been no need for the man to tell her that the letter was from his master. She knew the bold dashing hand, in which she had read pencil annotations upon the margins of those books which Mr. Lansdell had lent her. And even if she had not known the hand, she would have easily guessed whence the letter came. Who else should send her so grand-looking a missive, with that thick cream-coloured envelope (a big official-looking envelope), and the broad coat-of-arms with tall winged supporters on the seal? But why should he have written to her? It was to put off the dinner, no doubt. Her lips trembled a little, like the lips of a child who is going to cry, as she opened the letter.

She read it very hurriedly twice, and then all at once comprehended that Roland was going away for some years,—for ever,—it was all the same thing; and that she would never, never, never, never,—the word seemed to repeat itself in her brain like the dreadful clanging of a bell,—never see him again!

She knew that Sigismund was looking at her, and asking her some question about the contents of the letter. "What did Lansdell say? was it a put-off, or what?" Mr. Smith demanded; but Isabel did not answer him. She handed him the open letter, and then, suddenly turning from him, ran into the house, up-stairs, and into her room. She locked the door, flung herself face downwards upon the bed, and wept as a woman weeps in the first great agony of her life. The sound of those passionate sobs was stifled by the pillows amidst which her face was buried, but the anguish of them shook her from head to foot. It was very wicked to have thought of him so much, to have loved him so dearly. The punishment of her sin came to her all at once, and was very bitter.

Mr. Smith stood for some moments staring at the doorway through which Isabel had disappeared, with the open letter in his hand, and his face a perfect blank in the intensity of his amazement.

"I suppose it is a put-off," he said to himself; "and she's disappointed because we're not going. Why, what a child she is still! I remember her behaving just like that once at Camberwell, when I'd promised her tickets for the play, and couldn't get 'em. The manager of the T. R. D. L. said he didn't consider the author of 'The Brand upon the Shoulder-blade' entitled to the usual privilege. Poor little Izzie! I remember her running away, and not coming back for ever so long; and when she did make her appearance, her eyelids were red and swollen."

Mr. Smith stooped to pick up a narrow slip of lavender-tinted paper from the garden-walk. It was the cheque which Roland Lansdell had written in payment of the Doctor's services. Sigismund read the letter, and reflected over it.

"I'm almost as much disappointed as Izzie, for the matter of that," he thought to himself; "we should have had a jolly good dinner at the Priory, and any amount of sparkling; and Chateau what's-its-name and Clos de thingamy to follow, I dare say. I'll take George the letter and the cheque—it's just like Izzie to leave the cheque on the ground—and resign myself to a dullish Sunday."

It was a dud Sunday. The unacademical "ish" with which Mr. Smith had qualified the adjective was quite unnecessary. It was a very dull Sunday. Ah, reader, if Providence has some desperate sorrow in store for you, pray that it may not befall you on a Sunday, in the blazing sunshine, when the church bells are ringing on the still drowsy air. Mr. Gilbert went up-stairs by-and-by, when the bells were at their loudest, and, finding the door of his chamber locked, knocked on the panel, and asked Isabel if she did not mean to go to church. But she told him she had a dreadful headache, and wanted to stay at home. He asked her ever so many questions, as to why her head ached, and how long it had ached, and wanted to see her, from a professional point of view.

"Oh, no, no!" she cried, from the bed upon which she was lying; "I don't want any medicine; I only want to rest my head; I was asleep when you knocked."

Ah, what a miserable falsehood that was! as if she could ever hope to sleep again!

"But, Izzie," remonstrated Mr. Gilbert, "you've had no dinner. There's cold lamb in the house, you know; and we're going to have that and a salad after church. You'll come down to dinner, eh?"

"No, no; I don't want any dinner. Please, leave me alone. I only want to rest," she answered, piteously.

Poor honest George Gilbert little knew how horrible an effort it had cost his wife to utter even these brief sentences without breaking down in a passion of sobbing and weeping. She buried her face in the pillows again as her husband's footsteps went slowly down the narrow stairs. She was very wretched, very foolish. It was only a dream—nothing more than a dream—that was lost to her. Again, had she not known all along that Roland Lansdell would go away, and that all her bright dreams and fancies must go with him? Had she not counted upon his departure? Yes; but in November, not in September; not on the day that was to have been such a happy day.

"Oh, how cruel, how cruel!" she thought. "How cruel of him to go away like that! without even saying good-bye,—without even saying he was sorry to go. And I fancied that he liked to talk to me; I fancied that he was pleased to see me sometimes, and would be sorry when the time came for him to go away. But to think that he should go away two months before the time he spoke of,—to think that he should not even be sorry to go!"

Mrs. Gilbert got up by-and-by, when the western sky was all one lurid glow of light and colour. She got up because there was little peace for a weary spirit in that chamber; to the door of which some considerate creature came every half-hour or so to ask Isabel if her head was any better by this time, if she would have a cup of tea, if she would come down-stairs and lie on the sofa, and to torment her with many other thoughtful inquiries of the like nature. She was not to be alone with her great sorrow. Sooner or later she must go out and begin life again, and face the blank world in which he was not. Better, since it must be so, that she should begin her dreary task at once. She bathed her face and head, she plaited her long black hair before the little glass, behind which the lurid sky glared redly at her. Ah, how often in the sunny morning she had stood before that shabby old-fashioned glass thinking of him, and the chance of meeting him beside the mill-stream, under the flickering shadows of the oak-leaves at Thurston's Crag! And now it was all over, and she would never, never, never, never see him again! Her life was finished. Ah, how truly he had spoken on the battlements of the ruined tower! and how bitterly the meaning of his words came home to her to-day! Her life was finished. The curtain had fallen, and the lights were out; and she had nothing more to do but to grope blindly about upon a darkened stage until she sank in the great vampire-trap—the grave. A pale ghost, with sombre shadowy hair, looked back at her from the glass. Oh, if she could die, if she could die! She thought of the mill-stream. The wheel would be idle; and the water low down in the hollow beyond the miller's cottage would be still to-night, still and placid and glassy, shining rosy red in the sunset like the pavement of a cathedral stained with the glory of a painted window. Why should she not end her sorrows for ever in the glassy pool, so deep, so tranquil? She thought of Ophelia, and the miller's daughter on the banks of Allan Water. Would she be found floating on the stream, with weeds of water-lilies tangled in her long dark hair? Would she look pretty when she was dead? Would he be sorry when he heard of her death? Would he read a paragraph in the newspapers some morning at breakfast, and break a blood-vessel into his coffee-cup? Or would he read and not care? Why should he care? If he had cared for her, he could never have gone away, he could never have written that cruel formal letter, with not a word of regret—no, not one. Vague thoughts like these followed one another in her mind. If she could have the courage to go down to the water's brink, and to drop quietly into the stream where Roland Lansdell had once told her it was deepest.

She went down-stairs by-and-by, in the dusk, with her face as white as the tumbled muslin that hung about her in limp and flabby folds. She went down into the little parlour, where George and Sigismund were waiting for their tea, and where two yellow mould-candles were flaring in the faint evening breeze. She told them that her head was better; and then began to make the tea, scooping up vague quantities of congou and gunpowder with the little silver scollop-shell, which had belonged to Mr. Gilbert's grandmother, and was stamped with a puffy profile of George, the Third.

"But you've been crying, Izzie!" George exclaimed presently, for Mrs. Gilbert's eyelids looked red and swollen in the light of the candles.

"Yes, my head was so bad it made me cry; but please don't ask me any more about it," Isabel pleaded, piteously. "I suppose it was the p-pic-nic"—she nearly broke down upon the word, remembering how good he had been to her all through the happy day—"yesterday that made me ill."

"I dare say it was that lobster-salad," Mr. Gilbert answered, briskly: "I ought to have told you not to eat it. I don't think there's anything more bilious than lobster-salad dressed with cream."

Sigismund Smith watched his hostess with a grave countenance, while she poured out the tea and handed the cups right and left. Poor Isabel managed it all with tolerable steadiness; and then, when the miserable task was over, she sat by the window alone, staring blankly out at the dusty shrubs distinct in the moonlight, while her husband and his friend smoked their cigars in the lane outside.

How was she to bear her life in that dull dusty lane—her odious life, which would go on and on for ever, like a slow barge crawling across dreary flats upon the black tideless waters of a canal? How was she to endure it? All its monotony, all its misery, its shabby dreariness, its dreary shabbiness, rose up before her with redoubled force; and the terror of that hideous existence smote her like a stroke from a giant's hand.

It all came back. Yes, it came back. For the last two months it had ceased to be; it had been blotted out—hidden, forgotten; there had been no such thing. An enchanter's wand had been waved above that dreary square-built house in the dusty lane, and a fairy palace had arisen for her habitation; a fairy-land of beauty and splendour had spread itself around her, a paradise in which she wandered hand in hand with a demigod. The image of Roland Lansdell had rilled her life, to the exclusion of every other shape, animate or inanimate. But the fairy-land melted away all at once, like a mirage in the desert; like the last scene in a pantomime, the rosy and cerulean lights went out in foul sulphurous vapours. The mystic domes and minarets melted into thin air; but the barren sands remained real and dreary, stretching away for ever and for ever before the wanderer's weary feet.

In all Mrs. Gilbert's thoughts there was no special horror or aversion of her husband. He was only a part of the dulness of her life; he was only one dreary element of that dreary world in which Roland Lansdell was not. He was very good to her, and she was vaguely sensible of his goodness, and thankful to him. But his image had no abiding place in her thoughts. At stated times he came home and ate his dinner, or drank his tea, with substantial accompaniment of bread and butter and crisp garden-stuff; but, during the last two months, there had been many times when his wife was scarcely conscious of his presence. She was happy in fairy-land, with the prince of her perpetual fairy tale, while poor George Gilbert munched bread and butter and crunched overgrown radishes. But the fairy tale was finished now, with an abrupt and cruel climax; the prince had vanished; the dream was over. Sitting by that open window, with her folded arms resting on the dusty sill, Mrs. Gilbert wondered how she was to endure her life.

And then her thoughts went back to the still pool below the mill-stream. She remembered the happy, drowsy summer afternoon on which Roland Lansdell had stood by her side and told her the depth of the stream. She closed her eyes, and her head sank forward upon her folded arms, and all the picture came back to her. She heard the shivering of the rushes, the bubbling splash of a gudgeon leaping out of the water: she saw the yellow sunlight on the leaves, the beautiful sunlight creeping in through every break in the dense foliage; and she saw his face turned towards her with that luminous look, that bright and tender smile, which had only seemed another kind of sunshine.

Would he be sorry if he opened the newspaper and read a little paragraph in a corner to the effect that she had been found floating amongst the long rushes in that very spot? Would he remember the sunny afternoon, and the things he had said to her? His talk had been very dreamy and indefinite; but there had been, or had seemed to be, an undercurrent of mournful tenderness in all he said, as vague and fitful, as faint and mysterious, as the murmuring of the summer wind among the rushes.

The two young men came in presently, smelling of dust and tobacco smoke. They found Isabel lying on the sofa, with her face turned to the wall. Did her head still ache? Yes, as badly as ever.

George sat down to read his Sunday paper. He was very fond of a Sunday paper; and he read all the accidents and police reports, and the indignant letters from liberal-minded citizens, who signed themselves Aristides, and Diogenes, and Junius Brutus, and made fiery protests against the iniquities of a bloated aristocracy. While the surgeon folded the crackling newspaper and cut the leaves, he told Isabel about Roland Lansdell's cheque.

"He has sent me five-and-twenty pounds," he said. "It's very liberal; but of course I can't think of taking such a sum, I've been a good deal about amongst his farm-people,—for there's been so much low fever this last month,—but I've been looking over the account I'd made out against him, and it doesn't come to a five-pound note. I suppose he's been used to deal with physicians, who charge a guinea for every visit. I shall send him back his cheque."

Isabel shuddered as she listened to her husband's talk. How low and mean all this discussion about money seemed! Had not the enclosure of the cheque in that cruel letter been almost an insult? What was her husband better than a tradesman, when there could be this question of accounts and payment between him and Roland Lansdell?

And then she thought of Clotilde and the Duchess,—the Duchess with her glittering hair and the cruel azure eyes. She thought of "marble pillars gleaming white against the purple of the night;" of "crimson curtains starred with gold, and high-bred beauty brightly cold." She thought of all that confusion of colour and glitter and perfume and music which was the staple commodity in Mr. Lansdell's poetic wares; and she wondered, in self-abasement and humiliation, how she could have ever for a moment deluded herself with the idea that he could feel one transient sentiment of regard or admiration for such a degraded being as herself. She thought of her scanty dresses, that never had the proper number of breadths in the skirt; she thought of her skimpy sleeves made in last year's fashion, her sunburnt straw hat, her green parasol faded like sickly grass at the close of a hot summer. She thought of the gulf between herself and the master of Mordred, and wondered at her madness and presumption.

Poor George Gilbert was quite puzzled by his wife's headache, which was of a peculiarly obstinate nature, lasting for some days. He gave her cooling draughts, and lotions for her forehead, which was very hot under his calm professional hand. Her pulse was rapid, her tongue was white, and the surgeon pronounced her to be bilious. He had not the faintest suspicion of any mental ailment lurking at the root of these physical derangements. He was very simple-minded, and, being incapable of wrong himself, measured all his decent fellow-creatures by a fixed standard. He thought that the good and the wicked formed two separate classes as widely apart as the angels of heaven and the demons of the fiery depths. He knew that there were, somewhere or other in the universe, wives who wronged their husbands and went into outer darkness, just as he knew that in dismal dens of crime there lurked robbers and murderers, forgers and pickpockets, the newspaper record of whose evil deeds made no unpleasant reading for quiet Sunday afternoons. But of vague sentimental errors, of shadowy dangers and temptations, he had no conception. He had seen his wife pleased and happy in Roland Lansdell's society; and the thought that any wrong to himself, how small soever, could arise out of that companionship, had never entered his mind. Mr. Raymond had remarked of the young surgeon that a man with such a moral region was born to be imposed upon.

The rest of the week passed in a strange dreary way for Isabel. The weather was very fine, cruelly fine; and to Mrs. Gilbert the universe seemed all dust and sunshine and blankness. Sigismund was very kind to her, and did his best to amuse her, reciting the plots of numerous embryo novels, which were to take Camden Town by storm in the future. But she sat looking at him without seeing him, and his talk sounded a harsh confusion on her ear. Oh, for the sound of that other voice,—that other voice, which had attuned itself to such a tender melody! Oh, for the beautiful cynical talk about the hollowness of life, and the wretchedness of things in general! Poor simple-hearted Mr. Smith made himself positively hateful to Isabel during that dismal week by reason of his efforts to amuse her.

"If he would only let me alone!" she thought. "If people would only have mercy upon me and let me alone!"

But that was just what every one seemed determined not to do. Sigismund devoted himself exclusively to the society of his young hostess. William Jeffson let the weeds grow high amongst the potatoes while he planted standard rose-bushes, and nailed up graceful creepers, and dug, and improved, and transplanted in that portion of the garden which made a faint pretence to prettiness. Was it that he wished to occupy Mrs. Gilbert's mind, and to force her to some slight exertion? He did not prune a shrub, or trim a scrap of box, without consulting the Doctor's Wife upon the subject; and Isabel was called out into the garden half-a-dozen times in an hour.

And then during his visit Sigismund insisted upon taking Mrs. Gilbert to Warncliffe to dine with his mother and sisters. Mr. Smith's family made quite a festival for the occasion: there was a goose for dinner,—a vulgar and savoury bird; and a big damson pie, and apples and pears in green leaf-shaped dishes for dessert; and of course Isabel's thoughts wandered away from that homely mahogany, with its crimson worsted d'oyleys and dark-blue finger-glasses, to the oval table at Mordred and all its artistic splendour of glass and fruit and flowers.

The Smith family thought Mrs. Gilbert very quiet and insipid; but luckily Sigismund had a great deal to say about his own achievements, past, present, and future; so Isabel was free to sit in the twilight listening dreamily to the slow footsteps in the old-fashioned street outside—the postman's knock growing fainter and fainter in the distance—and the cawing of the rooks in a grove of elms on the outskirts of the town.

Mr. Smith senior spent the evening in the bosom of his family, and was put through rather a sharp examination upon abstruse questions in chancery and criminal practice by his aspiring son, who was always getting into morasses of legal difficulty, from which he required to be extricated by professional assistance.

The evening seemed a very long one to poor Isabel; but it was over at last, and Sigismund conducted her back to Graybridge in a jolting omnibus; and during that slow homeward drive she was free to sit in a corner and think of him.

Mr. Smith left his friends on the following day; and before going, he walked with Isabel in the garden, and talked to her a little of her life.

"I dare say it is a little dull at Graybridge," he said, as if in answer to some remark of Isabel's, and yet she had said nothing. "I dare say you do find it a little dull, though George is one of the best fellows that ever lived, and devoted to you; yes, Izzie, devoted to you, in his quiet way. He isn't one of your demonstrative fellows, you know; can't go into grand romantic raptures, or anything of that kind. But we were boys together, Izzie, and I know him thoroughly: and I know that he loves you dearly, and would break his honest heart if anything happened to you; or he was—anyhow to take it into his head that you didn't love him. But still, I dare say, you do find life rather slow work down here; and I can't help thinking that if you were to occupy yourself a little more than you do, you'd be happier. Suppose, now," cried Mr. Smith, palpably swelling with the importance of his idea,—"suppose you were to WRITE A NOVEL! THERE! You don't know how happy it would make you. Look at me. I always used to be sighing and lamenting, and wishing for this, that, or the other: wishing I had ten thousand a year, or a Grecian nose, or some worldly advantage of that sort; but since I've taken to writing novels, I don't think I've a desire unsatisfied. There's nothing I haven't done—on paper. The beautiful women I've loved and married; the fortunes I've come into, always unexpectedly, and when I was at the very lowest ebb, with a tendency to throw myself into the Serpentine in the moonlight; the awful vengeance I've wreaked upon my enemies; the murders I've committed would make the life of a Napoleon Buonaparte seem tame and trivial by comparison. I suppose it isn't I that steal up the creaking stair, with a long knife tightly grasped and gleaming blue in the moonbeams that creep through a chink in the shutter; but I'm sure I enjoy myself as much as if it was. And if I were a young lady," continued Mr. Smith, speaking with some slight hesitation, and glancing furtively at Isabel's face,—"if I were a young lady, and had a kind of romantic fancy for a person I ought not to care about, I'll tell you what I'd do with him,—I'd put him into a novel, Izzie, and work him out in three volumes; and if I wasn't heartily sick of him by the time I got to the last chapter, nothing on earth would cure me."

This was the advice which Sigismund gave to Isabel at parting. She understood his meaning, and resented his interference. She was beginning to feel that people guessed her wickedness, and tried to cure her of her madness. Yes; she was very wicked—very mad. She acknowledged her sin, but she could not put it away from her. And now that he was gone, now that he was far away, never to come back, never to look upon her face again, surely there could be no harm in thinking of him. She did think of him, daily and hourly; no longer with any reservation, no longer with any attempt at self-deception. Eugene Aram and Ernest Maltravers, the Giaour and the Corsair, were alike forgotten. The real hero of her life had come, and she bowed down before his image, and paid him perpetual worship. What did it matter? He was gone! He was as far away from her life now as those fascinating figments of the poetic brain, Messrs. Aram and Maltravers. He was a dream, like all the other dreams of her life; only he could never melt away or change as they had done.

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