All through the autumnal months, all through the dreary winter, George Gilbert's wife endured her existence, and hated it. The days were all alike, all "dark and cold and dreary;" and her life was "dark and cold and dreary" like the days. She did not write a novel. She did not accomplish any task, or carry out any intention; but she began a great many undertakings, and grew tired of them, and gave them up in despair. She wrote a few chapters of a novel; a wild weird work of fiction, in which Mr. Roland Lansdell reigned paramount over all the rules of Lindley Murray, and was always nominative when he ought to have been objective, and vice versa, and did altogether small credit to the university at which he was described to have gained an impossible conglomeration of honours. Mrs. Gilbert very soon got tired of the novel, though it was pleasant to imagine it in a complete form taking the town by storm. He would read it, and would know that she had written it. Was there not a minute description of Lord Thurston's oak in the very first chapter? It was pleasant to think of the romance, neatly bound in three volumes. But Mrs. Gilbert never got beyond a few random chapters, in which the grand crisis of the work—the first meeting of the hero and heroine, the death of the latter by drowning and of the former by rupture of a blood-vessel, and so on—were described. She could not do the every-day work; she could erect a fairy palace, and scatter lavish splendour in its spacious halls; but she could not lay down the stair-carpets, or fit the window-blinds, or arrange the planned furniture. She tore up her manuscript; and then for a little time she thought that she would be very good; kind to the poor, affectionate to her husband, and attentive to the morning and afternoon sermons at Graybridge church. She made a little book out of letter-paper, and took notes of the vicar's and the curate's discourses; but both those gentlemen had a fancy for discussing abstruse points of doctrine far beyond Mrs. Gilbert's comprehension, and the Doctor's Wife found the business of a reporter very difficult work. She made her poor little unaided effort to repent of her sins, and to do good. She cut up her shabbiest dresses and made them into frocks for some poor children, and she procured a packet of limp tracts from a Conventford bookseller, and distributed them with the frocks; having a vague idea that no charitable benefaction was complete unless accompanied by a tract.
Alas for this poor sentimental child! the effort to be good, and pious, and practical did not sit well upon her. She got on very well with some of the cottagers' daughters, who had been educated at the national school, and were as fond of reading novels as herself; she fraternized with these damsels, and lent them odd volumes out of her little library, and even read aloud to them on occasion; and the vicar of Graybridge, entering one day a cottage where she was sitting, was pleased to hear a humming noise, as of the human voice, and praised Mrs. Gilbert for her devotion to the good cause. He might not have been quite so well pleased had he heard the subject of her lecture, winch had relation to a gentleman of loose principles and buccaneering propensities—a gentleman who
"Left a Corsair's name to other times,
Link'd with one virtue and a thousand crimes."
But even these feeble attempts to be good-ah! how short a time it seemed since Isabel Gilbert had been a child, subject to have her ears boxed by the second Mrs. Sleaford! how short a time since to "be good" meant to be willing to wash the teacups and saucers, or to darn a three-cornered rent in a hobbledehoy's jacket!—even these feeble efforts ceased by-and-by, and Mrs. Gilbert abandoned herself to the dull monotony of her life, and solaced herself with the thought of Roland Lansdell as an opium-eater beguiles his listless days with the splendid visions that glorify his besotted stupor. She resigned herself to her life, and was very obedient to her husband, and read novels as long as she could get one to read, and was for ever thinking of what might have been—if she had been free, and if Roland Lansdell had loved her. Alas! he had only too plainly proved that he did not love her, and had never loved her. He had made this manifest by cruelly indisputable evidence at the very time when she was beginning to be unutterably happy in the thought that she was somehow or another nearer and dearer to him than she ought to have been.
The dull autumn days and the dark winter days dragged themselves out, and Mr. Gilbert came in and went out, and attended to his duties, and ate his dinner, and rode Brown Molly between the leafless hedgerows, beside the frozen streams, as contentedly as he had done in the bright summer time, when his rides had lain through a perpetual garden. His was one of those happy natures which are undisturbed by any wild yearnings after the unattainable. He had an idea of exchanging his Graybridge practice for a better one by-and-by, and he used to talk to Isabel of this ambitious design, but she took little interest in the subject. She had evinced very little interest in it from the first, and she displayed less now. What would be the use of such a change? It could only bring her a new kind of dreariness; and it was something to stand shivering on the little bridge under Lord Thurston's oak, so bare and leafless now; it was something to see even the chimney-pots of Mordred, the wonderful clusters of dark red-brick chimneys, warm against the chill December sky.
Mrs. Gilbert did not forget that passage in Roland Lansdell's letter, in which he had placed the Mordred library at her disposal. But she was very slow to avail herself of the privilege thus offered to her. She shrank away shyly from the thought of entering his house, even though there was no chance of meeting him in the beautiful rooms; even though he was at the other end of Europe, gay and happy, and forgetful of her. It was only by-and-by, when Mr. Lansdell had been gone some months, and when the dulness of her life had grown day by day more oppressive, that Isabel Gilbert took courage to enter the noble gates of Mordred. Of course she told her husband whither she was going—was it not her duty so to do?—and George good-naturedly approving—"though I'm sure you've got books enough already," he said; "for you seem to be reading all day"—she set out upon a wintry afternoon and walked alone to the Priory. The old housekeeper received her very cordially.
"I've been expecting to see you every day, ma'am, since Mr Lansdell left us," the worthy woman exclaimed: "for he said as you were rare and fond of books, and was to take away any that you fancied; and John's to carry them for you, ma'am; and I was to pay you every attention. But I was beginning to think you didn't mean to come at all, ma'am."
There were fires in many of the rooms, for Mr. Lansdell's servants had a wholesome terror of that fatal blue mould which damp engenders upon the surface of a picture. The firelight glimmered upon golden frames, and glowed here and there in the ruby depths of rich Bohemian glass, and flashed in fitful gleams upon rare porcelain vases and groups of stainless marble; but the rooms had a desolate look, somehow, in spite of the warmth and light and splendour.
Mrs. Warman, the housekeeper, told Isabel of Mr. Lansdell's whereabouts. He was at Milan, Lady Gwendoline Pomphrey had been good enough to tell Mrs. Warman; somewheres in Italy that was, the housekeeper believed; and he was to spend the rest of the winter in Rome, and then he was going on to Constantinople, and goodness knows where! For there never was such a traveller, or any one so restless-like.
"Isn't it a pity he don't marry his cousin, Lady Gwendoline, and settle down like his pa?" said Mrs. Warman. "It do seem a shame for such a place as this to be shut up from year's end to year's end, till the very pictures get quite a ghastly way with them, and seem to stare at one reproachful-like, as if they was asking, over and over again, 'Where is he? Why don't he come home?'"
Isabel was standing with her back to the chill wintry sky outside the window, and the housekeeper did not perceive the effect of her discourse. That simple talk was very painful to Mrs. Gilbert. It seemed to her as if Roland Lansdell's image receded farther and farther from her in this grand place, where all the attributes of his wealth and station were a standing evidence of the great gulf between them.
"What am I to him?" she thought. "What can such a despicable wretch as I am ever be to him? If he comes home it will be to marry Lady Gwendoline. Perhaps he will tell her how he used to meet me by the mill-stream, and they will laugh together about me."
Had her conduct been shameless and unwomanly, and would he remember her only to despise her? She hoped that if Roland Lansdell ever returned to Midlandshire it would be to find her dead. He could not despise her if she was dead. The only pleasant thought she had that afternoon was the fancy that Mr. Lansdell might come back to Mordred, and engage himself to his cousin, and the marriage would take place at Graybridge church; and as he was leading his bride along the quiet avenue, he would start back, anguish-stricken, at the sight of a newly-erected headstone—"To the memory of Isabel Gilbert, aged 20." 20! that seemed quite old, Mrs. Gilbert thought. She had always fancied that the next best thing to marrying a duke would be to fade into an early grave before the age of eighteen.
The first visit to Mordred made the Doctor's Wife very unhappy. Was it not a reopening of all the old wounds? Did it not bring too vividly back to her the happy summer day when he had sat beside her at luncheon, and bent his handsome head and subdued his deep voice as he talked to her?
Having broken the ice, however, she went very often to the Priory; and on one or two occasions even condescended to take an early cup of tea with Mrs. Warman, the housekeeper, though she felt that by so doing she in some small measure widened the gulf between Mr. Lansdell and herself. Little by little she grew to feel quite at home in the splendid rooms. It was very pleasant to sit in a low easy-chair in the library,—his easy-chair,—with a pile of books on the little reading-table by her side, and the glow of the great fire subdued by a noble screen of ground-glass and brazen scroll-work. Mrs. Gilbert was honestly fond of reading, and in the library at Mordred her life seemed less bitter than elsewhere. She read a great deal of the lighter literature upon Mr. Lansdell's book-shelves,—poems and popular histories, biographies and autobiographies, letters, and travels in bright romantic lands. To read of the countries through which Mr. Lansdell wandered seemed almost like following him.
As Mrs. Gilbert grew more and more familiar with the grand old mansion, and more and more friendly with Mrs. Warman the housekeeper, she took to wandering in and out of all the rooms at pleasure, sometimes pausing before one picture, sometimes sitting before another for half an hour at a time lost in reverie. She knew all the pictures, and had learned their histories from Mrs. Warman, and ascertained which of them were most valued by Mr. Lansdell. She took some of the noble folios from the lower shelves of the library, and read the lives of her favourite painters, and stiff translations of Italian disquisitions on art. Her mind expanded amongst all the beautiful things around her, and the graver thoughts engendered out of grave books pushed away many of her most childish fancies, her simple sentimental yearnings. Until now she had lived too entirely amongst poets and romancers; but now grave volumes of biography opened to her a new picture of life. She read the stories of real men and women, who had lived and suffered real sorrows, prosaic anguish, hard commonplace trial and misery. Do you remember how, when young Caxton's heart had been wrung by youth's bitterest sorrows, the father sends his son to the "Life of Robert Hall" for comfort? Isabel, very foolish and blind as compared with the son of Austin Caxton, was yet able to take some comfort from the stories of good men's sorrows. The consciousness of her ignorance increased as she became less ignorant; and there were times when this romantic girl was almost sensible, and became resigned to the fact that Roland Lansdell could have no part in the story of her life. If the drowsy life, the quiet afternoons in the deserted chambers of the Priory, could have gone smoothly on for ever, Isabel Gilbert might have, little by little, developed into a clever and sensible woman; but the current of her existence was not to glide with one dull motion to the end. There were to be storms and peril of shipwreck, and fear and anguish, before the waters flowed into a quiet haven, and the story of her life was ended.
One day in March, one bleak day, when the big fires in the rooms at Mordred seemed especially comfortable, Mrs. Gilbert carried her books into an inner apartment, half boudoir, half drawing-room, at the end of a long suite of splendid chambers. She took off her bonnet and shawl, and smoothed her dark hair before the glass. She had altered a little since the autumn, and the face that looked out at her to-day was thinner and older than that passionate tear-blotted face which she had seen in the glass on the night of Roland Lansdell's departure. Her sorrow had not been the less real because it was weak and childish, and had told considerably upon her appearance. But she was getting over it. She was almost sorry to think that it was so. She was almost grieved to find that her grief was less keen than it had been six months ago, and that the splendour of Roland Lansdell's image was perhaps a trifle faded.
But to-day Mrs. Warman was destined to undo the good work so newly effected by grave books, and to awaken all Isabel's regrets for the missing squire of Mordred. The worthy housekeeper had received a letter from her master, which she brought in triumph to Mrs. Gilbert. It was a very brief epistle, enclosing cheques for divers payments, and giving a few directions about the gardens and stables. "See that pines and grapes are sent to Lord Ruysdale's, whenever he likes to have them; and I shall be glad if you send hothouse fruit and flowers occasionally to Mr. Gilbert, the surgeon of Graybridge. He was very kind to some of my people. Be sure that every attention is shown to Mrs. Gilbert whenever she comes to Mordred."
Isabel's eyes grew dim as she read this part of the letter. He thought of her far away—at the other end of the world almost, as it seemed to her, for his letter was dated from Corfu; he remembered her existence, and was anxious for her happiness! The books were no use to her that day. She sat, with a volume open in her lap, staring at the fire, and thinking of him. She went back into the old italics again. His image shone out upon her in all its ancient splendour. Oh, dreary, dreary life where he was not! How was she to endure her existence? She clasped her hands in a wild rapture. "Oh, my darling, if you could know how I love you!" she whispered, and then started, confused and blushing. Never until that moment had she dared to put her passion into words. The Priory clocks struck three succeeding hours, but Mrs. Gilbert sat in the same attitude, thinking of Roland Lansdell. The thought of going home and facing her daily life again was unutterably painful to her. That fatal letter—so commonplace to a common reader—had revived all the old exaltation of feeling. Once more Isabel Gilbert floated away upon the wings of sentiment and fancy, into that unreal region where the young squire of Mordred reigned supreme, beautiful as a prince in a fairy tale, grand as a demigod in some classic legend.
The French clock on the mantel-piece chimed the half-hour after four, and Mrs. Gilbert looked up, aroused for a moment from her reverie.
"Half-past four," she thought; "it will be dark at six, and I have a long walk home."
Home! she shuddered at the simple monosyllable which it is the special glory of our language to possess. The word is very beautiful, no doubt; especially so to a wealthy country magnate,—happy owner of a grand old English mansion, with fair lands and coverts, home-farm and model-farm buildings, shadowy park and sunlit pleasaunce, and wonderful dairies lined with majolica ware, and musical with the plashing of a fountain.
But for Mrs. Gilbert "home" meant a square-built house in a dusty lane, and was never likely to mean anything better or brighter. She got up from her low seat, and breathed a long-drawn sigh as she took her bonnet and shawl from a table near her, and began to put them on before the glass.
"The parlour at home always looks ugliest and barest and shabbiest when I have been here," she thought, as she turned away from the glass and moved towards the door.
She paused suddenly. The door of the boudoir was ajar; all the other doors in the long range of rooms were open, and she heard a footstep coming rapidly towards her: a man's footstep! Was it one of the servants? No; no servant's foot ever touched the ground with that firm and stately tread. It was a stranger's footstep, of course. Who should come there that day except a stranger? He was far away—at the other end of the world almost. It was not within the limits of possibility that his foot-fall should sound on the floors of Mordred Priory.
And yet! and yet! Isabel stopped, with her heart beating violently, her hands clasped, her lips apart and tremulous. And in the next moment the step was close to the threshold, the door was pushed open, and she was face to face with Roland Lansdell; Roland Lansdell, whom she never thought to see again upon this earth! Roland Lansdell, whose face had looked at her in her dreams by day and night any time within these last six months!
"Isabel—Mrs. Gilbert!" he said, holding out both his hands, and taking hers, which were as cold as death.
She tried to speak, but no sound came from her tremulous lips. She could utter no word of welcome to this restless wanderer, but stood before him breathless and trembling. Mr. Lansdell drew a chair towards her, and made her sit down.
"I startled you," he said; "you did not expect to see me. I had no right to come to you so suddenly; but they told me you were here, and I wanted so much to see you,—I wanted so much to speak to you."
The words were insignificant enough, but there was a warmth and earnestness in the tones that was new to Isabel. Faint blushes flickered into her cheeks, so deathly pale a few moments before; her eyelids fell over the dark unfathomable eyes; a look of sudden happiness spread itself upon her face and made it luminous.
"I thought you were at Corfu," she said. "I thought you would never, never, never come back again."
"I have been at Corfu, and in Italy, and in innumerable places. I meant to stay away; but—but I changed my mind, and I came back. I hope you are glad to see me again."
What could she say to him? Her terror of saying too much kept her silent; the beating of her heart sounded in her ears, and she was afraid that he too must hear that tell-tale sound. She dared not raise her eyes, and yet she knew that he was looking at her earnestly, scrutinizingly even.
"Tell me that you are glad to see me," he said. "Ah, if you knew why I went away—why I tried so hard to stay away—why I have come back after all—after all—so many resolutions made and broken—so many deliberations—so much doubt and hesitation! Isabel! tell me you are glad to see me once more!"
She tried to speak, and faltered out a word or two, and broke down, and turned away from him. And then she looked round at him again with a sudden impulse, as innocently and childishly us Zuleika may have looked at Selim; forgetful for a moment of the square-built house in the dusty lane, of George Gilbert, and all the duties of her life.
"I have been so unhappy," she exclaimed: "I have been so miserable; and you will go away again by-and-by, and I shall never, never see you any more!"
Her voice broke, and she burst into tears; and then, remembering the surgeon all in a moment, she brushed them hastily away with her handkerchief.
"You frightened me so, Mr. Lansdell," she said: "and I'm very late, and I was just going home, and my husband will be waiting for me. He comes to meet me sometimes when he can spare time. Good-bye."
She held out her hand, looking at Roland nervously as she did so. Did he despise her very much? she wondered. No doubt he had come home to marry Lady Gwendoline Pomphrey, and there would be a fine wedding in the bright May weather. There was just time to go into a consumption between March and May, Mrs. Gilbert thought; and her tombstone might be ready for the occasion, if the gods who bestow upon their special favourites the boon of early death would only be kind to her.
"Good-bye, Mr. Lansdell," she repeated.
"Let me walk with you a little way. Ah, if you knew how I have travelled night and day; if you knew how I have languished for this hour, and for the sight of——"
For the sight of what? Roland Lansdell was looking down at the pale face of the Doctor's Wife as he uttered that unfinished sentence. But amongst all the wonders that ever made the story of a woman's life wonderful, it could never surely come to pass that a demigod would descend from the ethereal regions which were his common habitation, on her account, Mrs. Gilbert thought. She went home in the chill March twilight; but not through the bleak and common atmosphere which other people breathed that afternoon; for Mr. Lansdell walked by her side, and, not encountering the surgeon, went all the way to Graybridge, and only left Mrs. Gilbert at the end of the dusty lane in which the doctor's red lamp already glimmered faintly in the dusk. Would the master of Mordred Priory have been stricken with any sense of shame if he had met George Gilbert? There was an air of decision in Lansdell's manner which seemed like that of a man who acts upon a settled purpose, and has no thought of shame.