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Doctor's Wife, The

CHAPTER XXIII.

A LITTLE CLOUD.

Isabel was happy. He had returned; he had returned to her; never again to leave her! Had he not said something to that effect? He had returned, because he had found existence unendurable away from her presence. Mr. Lansdell had told the Doctor's Wife all this, not once, but twenty times; and she had listened, knowing that it was wicked to listen, and yet powerless to shut her ears against the sweet insidious words. She was beloved; for the first time in her life really, truly, sentimentally beloved, like the heroine of a novel. She was beloved; despite of her shabby dresses, her dowdy bonnets, her clumsy country-made boots. All at once, in a moment, she was elevated into a queen, crowned with woman's noblest diadem, the love of a poet. She was Beatrice, and Roland Lansdell was Dante; or she was Leonora, and he was Tasso; she did not particularly care which. Her ideas of the two poets and their loves were almost as vague as the showman's notion of the rival warriors of Waterloo. She was the shadowy love of the poet, the pensive impossible love, who never could be more to him than a perpetual dream.

This was how Isabel Gilbert thought of the master of Mordred, who met her so often now in the chill spring sunshine. There was a kind of wickedness in these stolen meetings, no doubt, she thought; but her wickedness was no greater than that of the beautiful princess who smiled upon the Italian poet. In that serene region of romance, that mystic fairy-land in which Isabel's fancies dwelt, sin, as the world comprehends it, had no place. There was no such loathsome image in that fair kingdom of fountains and flowers. It was very wrong to meet Mr. Lansdell; but I doubt if the happiness of those meetings would have had quite such an exquisite flavour to Isabel had that faint soup´┐Żon of wickedness been wanting.

Did Mrs. Gilbert ever think that the road which seemed so pleasant, the blossoming pathway along which she wandered hand in hand with Roland Lansdell, was all downhill, and that there was a black and hideous goal hidden below in the farther-most valley? No; she was enraptured and intoxicated by her present happiness, blinded by the glory of her lover's face. It had been very difficult for her to realize the splendid fact of his love and devotion; but once believing, she was ready to believe for ever. She remembered a sweet sentimental legend of the Rhineland: the story of a knight who, going away to the wars, was reported as dead: whereon his lady-love, despairing, entered a convent, and consecrated the sad remainder of her days to heaven. But by-and-by the knight, who had not been killed, returned, and finding that his promised bride was lost to him, devoted the remainder of his days to constancy and solitude; building for himself a hermitage upon a rock high above the convent where his fair and faithful Hildegonde spent her pure and pious days. And every morning with the earliest flush of light in the low Eastern sky, and all day long, and when the evening-star rose pale and silvery beneath the purpling heavens, the hermit of love sat at the door of his cell gazing upon the humble casement behind which it pleased him to fancy his pure mistress kneeling before her crucifix, sometimes mingling his name with her prayers. And was not the name of the knight Roland—his name? It was such a love as this which Isabel imagined she had won for herself. It is such a love as this which is the dearest desire of womankind,—a beautiful, useless, romantic devotion,—a wasted life of fond regretful worship. Poor weak sentimental Mary of Scotland accepts Chastelar's poetic homage, and is pleased to think that the poet's heart is breaking because of her grace and loveliness, and would like it to go on breaking for ever. But the love-sick poet grows weary of that distant worship, and would scale the royal heavens to look nearer at the brightness of his star; whence come confusions and troubles, and the amputation of that foolish half-demented head.

So there was no thought of peril to herself or to others in Mrs. Gilbert's mind when she stood on the bridge above the mill-stream talking with Roland Lansdell. She had a vague idea that she was not exactly doing her duty to her husband; but poor George's image only receded farther and farther from her. Did she not still obey his behests, and sit opposite to him at the little dinner-table, and pour out his tea at breakfast, and assist him to put on his overcoat in the passage before he went out? Could she do more for him than that? No; he had himself rejected all further attention. She had tried to brush his hat once in a sudden gush of dutiful feeling; but she had brushed the nap the wrong way, and had incurred her husband's displeasure. She had tried to read poetry to him, and he had yawned during her lecture. She had put flowers on his dressing-table—white fragile-looking flowers—in a tall slender vase with a tendril of convolvulus twined artfully round the stem, like a garland about a classic column; and Mr. Gilbert had objected to the perfumed blossoms as liable to generate carbonic-acid gas. What could any one do for such a husband as this? The tender sentimental raptures, the poetic emotions, the dim aspirations, which Isabel revealed to Roland, would have been as unintelligible as the Semitic languages to George. Why should she not bestow this other half of her nature upon whom she chose? If she gave her duty and obedience to Othello, surely Cassio might have all the poetry of her soul, which the matter-of-fact Moor despised and rejected.

It was something after this wise that Isabel reasoned when she did reason at all about her platonic attachment for Roland Lansdell. She was very happy, lulled to rest by her own ignorance of all danger, rather than by any deeply-studied design on the part of her lover. His manner to her was more tender than a father's manner to his favourite child,—more reverential than Raleigh's to Elizabeth of England,—but in all this he had no thought of deception. The settled purpose in his mind took a firmer root every day; and he fancied that Isabel understood him, and knew that the great crisis of her life was fast approaching, and had prepared herself to meet it.

One afternoon, late in the month, when the March winds were bleaker and more pitiless than usual, Isabel went across the meadows where the hedgerows were putting forth timid little buds to be nipped by the chill breezes, and where here and there a violet made a tiny speck of purple on the grassy bank. Mr. Lansdell was standing on the bridge when Isabel approached the familiar trysting-place, and turned with a smile to greet her. But although he smiled as he pressed the slender little hand that almost always trembled in his own, the master of Mordred was not very cheerful this afternoon. It was the day succeeding that on which Charles Raymond had dined with him, and the influence of his kinsman's talk still hung about him and oppressed him. He could not deny that there had been truth and wisdom in his friend's earnest pleading; but he could not abandon his purpose now. Long vacillating and irresolute, long doubtful of himself and all the world, he was resolved at last, and obstinately bent upon carrying out his resolution.

"I am going to London, Isabel," he said, after standing by Mrs. Gilbert for some minutes, staring silently at the water; "I am going to London to-morrow morning, Isabel." He always called her Isabel now, and lingered with a kind of tenderness upon the name. Edith Dombey would have brought confusion upon him for this presumption, no doubt, by one bright glance of haughty reproof; but poor Isabel had found out long ago that she in no way resembled Edith Dombey.

"Going to London!" cried the Doctor's Wife, piteously; "ah, I knew, I knew that you would go away again, and I shall never see you any more." She clasped her hands in her sudden terror, and looked at him with a world of sorrow and reproach in her pale face. "I knew that it would be so!" she repeated; "I dreamt the other night that you had gone away, and I came here; and, oh, it seemed such a dreadful way to come, and I kept taking the wrong turnings, and going through the wrong meadows; and when I came, there was only some one—some stranger, who told me that you were gone, and would never come back."

"But, Isabel—my love—my darling!—" the tender epithets did not startle her; she was so absorbed by the fear of losing the god of her idolatry,—"I am only going to town for a day or two to see my lawyer—to make arrangements—arrangements of vital importance;—I should be a scoundrel if I neglected them, or incurred the smallest hazard by delaying them an hour. You don't understand these sort of things, Isabel; but trust me, and believe that your welfare is dearer to me than my own. I must go to town; but I shall only be gone a day or two—two days at the most—perhaps only one. And when I come back, Izzie, I shall have something to say to you—something very serious—something that had better be said at once—something that involves all the happiness of my future life. Will you meet me here two days hence,—on Wednesday, at three o'clock? You will, won't you, Isabel? I know I do wrong in exposing you to the degradation of these stolen meetings. If I feel the shame so keenly, how much worse it must be for you—my own dear girl—my sweet innocent darling. But this shall be the last time, Isabel,—the last time I will ask you to incur any humiliation for me. Henceforward we will hold our heads high, my love; for at least there shall be no trickery or falsehood in our lives."

Mrs. Gilbert stared at Roland Lansdell in utter bewilderment. He had spoken of shame and degradation, and had spoken in the tone of a man who had suffered, and still suffered, very bitterly. This was all Isabel could gather from her lover's speech, and she opened her eyes in blank amazement as she attended to him. Why should he be ashamed, or humiliated, or degraded? Was Dante degraded by his love for Beatrice? was Waller degraded by his devotion to Saccharissa—for ever evidenced by so many charming versicles, and never dropping down from the rosy cloud-land of poetry into the matter-of-fact regions of prose? Degraded! ashamed!—her face grew crimson all in a moment as these cruel words stung her poor sentimental heart.

She wanted to run away all at once, and never see Mr. Lansdell again. Her heart would break, as a matter of course; but how infinitely preferable to shame would be a broken heart and early death with an appropriate tombstone! The tears rolled down her flushed cheek, as she turned away her face from Roland. She was almost stifled by mingled grief and indignation.

"I did not think you were ashamed to meet me here sometimes," she sobbed out; "you asked me to come. I did not think that you were humiliated by talking to me—I——"

"Why, Izzie—Isabel darling!" cried Roland, "can you misunderstand me so utterly? Ashamed to meet you—ashamed of your society! Can you doubt what would have happened had I come home a year earlier than it was my ill fortune to come? Can you doubt for a moment that I would have chosen you for my wife out of all the women in the universe, and that my highest pride would have been the right to call you by that dear name? I was too late, Izzie, too late; too late to win that pure and perfect happiness which would have made a new man of me, which would have transformed me into a good and useful man, as I think. I suppose it is always so; I suppose there is always one drop wanting in the cup of joy, that one mystic drop which would change the commonplace potion into an elixir. I came too late! Why should I have everything in this world? Why should I have fifteen thousand a year, and Mordred Priory, and the right to acknowledge the woman I love in the face of all creation, while there are crippled wretches sweeping crossings for the sake of a daily crust, and men and women wasting away in great prison-houses called Unions, whose first law is the severance of every earthly tie? I came too late, and I suppose it was natural that I should so come. Millions of destinies have been blighted by as small a chance as that which has blighted mine, I dare say. We must take our fate as we find it, Isabel; and if we are true to each other, I hope and believe that it may be a bright one even yet—even yet."

A woman of the world would have very quickly perceived that Mr. Lansdell's discourse must have relation to more serious projects than future meetings under Lord Thurston's oak, with interchange of divers volumes of light literature. But Isabel Gilbert was not a woman of the world. She had read novels while other people perused the Sunday papers; and of the world out of a three-volume romance she had no more idea than a baby. She believed in a phantasmal universe, created out of the pages of poets and romancers; she knew that there were good people and bad people—Ernest Maltraverses and Lumley Ferrerses, Walter Gays and Carkers; but beyond this she had very little notion of mankind; and having once placed Mr. Lansdell amongst the heroes, could not imagine him to possess one attribute in common with the villains. If he seemed intensely in earnest about these meetings under the oak, she was in earnest too; and so had been the German knight, who devoted the greater part of his life to watching the casement of his lady-love.

"I shall see you sometimes," she said, with timid hesitation,—"I shall see you sometimes, shan't I, when you come home from town? Not often, of course; I dare say it isn't right to come here often, away from George; and the last time I kept him waiting for his dinner; but I told him where I had been, and that I'd seen you, and he didn't mind a bit."

Roland Lansdell sighed.

"Ah, don't you understand, Isabel," he said, "that doubles our degradation? It is for the very reason that he 'doesn't mind,' it is precisely because he is so simple-hearted and trusting, that we ought not to deceive the poor fellow any longer. That's the degradation, Izzie; the deception, not the deed itself. A man meets his enemy in fair fight and kills him, and nobody complains. The best man must always win, I suppose; and if he wins by fair means, no one need grudge him his victory. I mystify you, don't I, my darling, by all this rambling talk? I shall speak plainer on Wednesday. And now let me take you homewards," added Mr. Lansdell, looking at his watch, "if you are to be at home at five."

He knew the habits of the doctor's little household, and knew that five o'clock was Mr. Gilbert's dinner-hour. There was no conversation of any serious nature during the homeward walk—only dreamy talk about books and poets and foreign lands. Mr. Lansdell told Isabel of bright spots in Italy and Greece, wonderful villages upon the borders of blue lakes deeply hidden among Alpine slopes, and snow-clad peaks like stationary clouds—beautiful and picturesque regions which she must see by-and-by, Roland added gaily.

But Mrs. Gilbert opened her eyes very wide and laughed aloud. How should she ever see such places? she asked, smiling. George would never go there; he would never be rich enough to go; nor would he care to go, were he ever so rich.

And while she was speaking, Isabel thought that, after all, she cared very little for those lovely lands; much as she had dreamed about them and pined to see them, long ago in the Camberwell garden, on still moonlight nights, when she used to stand on the little stone step leading from the kitchen, with her arms resting on the water-butt, like Juliet's on the balcony, and fancy it was Italy. Now she was quite resigned to the idea of never leaving Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne. She was content to live there all her life, as long as she could see Mr. Lansdell now and then; so long as she could know that he was near her, thinking of her and loving her, and that at any moment his dark face might shine out of the dulness of her life. A perfect happiness had come to her—the happiness of being beloved by the bright object of her idolatry; nothing could add to that perfection; the cup was full to the very brim, filled with an inexhaustible draught of joy and delight.

Mr. Lansdell stopped to shake hands with Isabel when they came to the gate leading into the Graybridge road.

"Good-bye," he said softly: "good-bye, until Wednesday, Isabel. Isabel—what a pretty name it is! You have no other Christian name?"

"Oh no."

"Only Isabel—Isabel Gilbert. Good-bye."

He opened the gate and stood watching the Doctor's Wife as she passed out of the meadow, and walked at a rapid pace towards the town. A man passed along the road as Mr. Lansdell stood there, and looked at him as he went by, and then turned and looked after Isabel.

"Raymond is right, then," thought Roland; "they have begun to stare and chatter already. Let them talk about me at their tea-tables, and paragraph me in their newspapers, to their hearts' content! My soul is as much above them as the eagle soaring sunward is above the sheep that stare up at him from the valleys. I have set my foot upon the fiery ploughshare, but my darling shall be carried across it scatheless, in the strong arms of her lover."

Mrs. Gilbert went home to her husband, and sat opposite to him at dinner as usual; but Roland's words, dimly as she had comprehended their meaning, had in some manner influenced her, for she blushed when George asked her where she had been that cold afternoon. Mr. Gilbert did not see the blush, for he was carving the joint as he asked the question, and indeed had asked it rather as a matter of form than otherwise. This time Mrs. Gilbert did not tell her husband that she had met Roland Lansdell. The words "shame and degradation" were ringing in her ears all dinner-time. She had tasted, if ever so little, of the fruit of the famous tree, and she found the flavour thereof very bitter. It must be wrong to meet Roland under Lord Thurston's oak, since he said it was so; and the meeting on Wednesday was to be the last; and yet their fate was to be a happy one; had he not said so, in eloquently mysterious words, whose full meaning poor Isabel was quite unable to fathom? She brooded over what Mr. Lansdell said all that evening, and a dim sense of impending trouble crept into her mind. He was going away for ever, perhaps; and had only told her otherwise in order to lull her to rest with vain hopes, and thus spare himself the trouble of her lamentations. Or he was going to London to arrange for a speedy marriage with Lady Gwendoline. Poor Isabel could not shake off her jealous fears of that brilliant high-bred rival, whom Mr. Lansdell had once loved. Yes; he had once loved Lady Gwendoline. Mr. Raymond had taken an opportunity of telling Isabel all about the young man's early engagement to his cousin; and he had added a hope that, after all, a marriage between the two might yet be brought about; and had not the housekeeper at Mordred said very much the same thing?

"He will marry Lady Gwendoline," Isabel thought, in a sudden access of despair; "and that is what he is going to tell me on Wednesday. He was different to-day from what he has been since he came back to Mordred. And yet—and yet—" And yet what? Isabel tried in vain to fathom the meaning of all Roland Lansdell's wild talk—now earnestly grave—now suddenly reckless—one moment full of hope, and in the next tinctured with despair. What was this simple young novel-reader to make of a man of the world, who was eager to defy the world, and knew exactly what a terrible world it was that he was about to outrage and defy?

Mrs. Gilbert lay awake all that night, thinking of the meeting by the waterfall. Roland's talk had mystified and alarmed her. The ignorant happiness, the unreflecting delight in her lover's presence, the daily joy that in its fulness had no room for a thought of the morrow, had vanished all at once like a burst of sunlight eclipsed by the darkening clouds that presage a storm. Eve had listened to the first whispers of the serpent, and Paradise was no longer entirely beautiful.



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