Mrs. Gilbert stayed at home all through the day which succeeded her parting from Roland Lansdell. She stayed in the dingy parlour, and read a little, and played upon the piano a little, and sketched a few profile portraits of Mr. Lansdell, desperately inky and sentimental, with impossibly enormous eyes. She worked a little, wounding her fingers, and hopelessly entangling her thread; and she let the fire out two or three times, as she was accustomed to do very often, to the aggravation of Mrs. Jeffson. That hard-working and faithful retainer came into the parlour at two o'clock, carrying a little plate of seed-cake and a glass of water for her mistress's frugal luncheon; and finding the grate black and dismal for the second time that day, fetched a bundle of wood and a box of matches, and knelt down to rekindle the cavernous cinders in no very pleasant humour.
"I'm sorry I've let the fire out again, Mrs. Jeffson," Isabel said meekly. "I think there must be something wrong in the grate somehow, for the fire always will go out."
"It usen't to go out in Master George's mother's time," Mrs. Jeffson answered, rather sharply, "and it was the same grate then. But my dear young mistress used to sit in yon chair, stitch, stitch, stitch at the Doctor's cambric shirt-fronts, and the fire was always burning bright and pleasant when he came home. She was a regular stay-at-home, she was," added the housekeeper, in a musing tone; "and it was very rare as she went out beyond the garden, except on a summer's evening, when the Doctor took her for a walk. She didn't like going out alone, poor dear; for there was plenty of young squires about Graybridge as would have been glad enough to follow her and talk to her, and set people's malicious tongues chattering about her, if she'd have let 'em. But she never did; she was as happy as the day was long, sitting at home, working for her husband, and always ready to jump up and run to the door when she heard his step outside—God bless her innocent heart!"
Mrs. Gilbert's face grew crimson as she bent over a sheet of paper on which the words "despair" and "prayer," "breath" and "death," were twisted into a heartrending rhyme. Ah, this was a part of the shame and degradation of which Roland had spoken. Everybody had a right to lecture her, and at every turn the perfections of the dead were cast reproachfully in her face. As if she did not wish to be dead and at rest, regretted and not lectured, deplored rather than slandered and upbraided. These vulgar people laid their rude hands upon her cup of joy, and changed its contents into the bitter waters of shame. These commonplace creatures set themselves up as the judges of her life, and turned all its purest and brightest poetry into a prosaic record of disgrace. The glory of the Koh-i-noor would have been tarnished by the print of such base hands as these. How could these people read her heart, or understand her love for Roland Lansdell? Very likely the serene lady of the Rhineland, praying in her convent-cell, was slandered and misrepresented by vulgar boors, who, passing along the roadway beneath, saw the hermit-knight sitting at the door of his cell and gazing fondly at his lost love's casement.
Such thoughts as this arose in Isabel's mind, and she was angry and indignant at the good woman who presumed to lecture her. She pushed away the plate of stale cake, and went to the window flushed and resentful. But the flush faded all in a moment from her face when she saw a lady in a carriage driving slowly towards the gate,—a lady who wore a great deal of soft brown fur, and a violet velvet bonnet with drooping features, and who looked up at the house as if uncertain as to its identity. The lady was Lord Ruysdale's daughter; and the carriage was only a low basket-phaeton, drawn by a stout bay cob, and attended by a groom in a neat livery of dark blue. But if the simple equipage had been the fairy chariot of Queen Mab herself, Mrs. Gilbert could scarcely have seemed more abashed and astounded by its apparition before her door. The groom descended from his seat at an order from his mistress, and rang the bell at the surgeon's gate; and then Lady Gwendoline, having recognized Isabel at the window, and saluted her with a very haughty inclination of the head, abandoned the reins to her attendant, and alighted.
Mrs. Jeffson had opened the gate by this time, and the visitor swept by her into the little passage, and thence into the parlour, where she found the Doctor's Wife standing by the table, trifling nervously with that scrap of fancy-work whose only progress was to get grimier and grimier day by day under Isabel's idle fingers.
Oh, what a dingy shabby place that Graybridge parlour was always! how doubly and trebly dingy it seemed to-day by contrast with that gorgeous Millais-like figure of Gwendoline Pomphrey, rich and glorious in violet velvet and Russian sable, with the yellow tints of her hair contrasted by the deep purple shadows under her bonnet. Mrs. Gilbert almost sank under the weight of all that aristocratic splendour. She brought a chair for her visitor, and asked in a tremulous voice if Lady Gwendoline would be pleased to sit. There was a taint of snobbishness in her reverential awe of the Earl's handsome daughter. Was not Lady Gwendoline the very incarnation of all her own foolish dreams of the beautiful? Long ago, in the Camberwell garden, she had imagined such a creature; and now she bowed herself before the splendour, and was stricken with fear and trembling in the dazzling presence. And then there were other reasons that she should tremble and turn pale Might not Lady Gwendoline have come to announce her intended marriage with Mr. Lansdell, and to smite the poor wretch before her with sudden madness and despair? Isabel felt that some calamity was coming down upon her: and she stood pale and silent, meekly waiting to receive her sentence.
"Pray sit down, Mrs. Gilbert," said Lady Gwendoline; "I wish to have a little conversation with you. I am very glad to have found you at home, and alone."
The lady spoke very kindly, but her kindness had a stately coldness that crept like melted ice through Isabel's veins, and chilled her to the bone.
"I am older than you, Mrs. Gilbert," said Lady Gwendoline, after a little pause, and she slightly winced as she made the confession; "I am older than you; and if I speak to you in a manner that you may have some right to resent as an impertinent interference with your affairs, I trust that you will believe I am influenced only by a sincere desire for your welfare."
Isabel's heart sank to a profounder depth of terror than before when she heard this. She had never in her life known anything but unpleasantness to come from people's desire for her welfare: from the early days in which her step-mother had administered salutary boxes on the ear, and salts and senna, with an equal regard to her moral and physical improvement. She looked up fearfully at Lady Gwendoline, and saw that the fair Saxon face of her visitor was almost as pale as her own.
"I am older than you, Mrs. Gilbert," repeated Gwendoline, "and I know my cousin Roland Lansdell much better than you can possibly know him."
The sound of the dear name, the sacred name, which to Isabel's mind should only have been spoken in a hushed whisper, like a tender pianissimo passage in music, shot home to the foolish girl's heart. Her face flushed crimson, and she clasped her hands together, while the tears welled slowly up to her eyes.
"I know my cousin better than you can know him; I know the world better than you can know it. There are some women, Mrs. Gilbert, who would condemn you unheard, and who would consider their lips sullied by any mention of your name. There are many women in my position who would hold themselves aloof from you, content to let you go your own way. But I take leave to think for myself in all matters. I have heard Mr. Raymond speak very kindly of you; I cannot judge you as harshly as other people judge you; I cannot believe you to be what your neighbours think you."
"Oh, what, what can they think me?" cried Isabel, trembling with a vague fear—an ignorant fear of some deadly peril utterly unknown to her, and yet close upon her; "what harm have I done, that they should think ill of me? what can they say of me? what can they say?"
Her eyes were blinded by tears, that blotted Lady Gwendoline's stern face from her sight. She was still so much a child, that she made no effort to conceal her terror and confusion. She bared all the foolish secrets of her heart before those cruel eyes.
"People say that you are a false wife to a simple-hearted and trusting husband," Lord Ruysdale's daughter answered, with pitiless calmness; "a false wife in thought and intention, if not in deed; since you have lured my cousin back to this place; and are ready to leave it with him as his mistress whenever he chooses to say 'Come.' That is what people think of you; and you have given them only too much cause for their suspicion. Do you imagine that you could keep any secret from Graybridge? do you think your actions or even your thoughts could escape the dull eyes of these country people, who have nothing better to do than watch the doings of their neighbours?" demanded Lady Gwendoline, bitterly. Alas! she knew that her name had been bandied about from gossip to gossip; and that her grand disappointment in the matter of Lord Heatherland, her increasing years, and declining chances of a prize in the matrimonial lottery had been freely discussed at all the tea-tables in the little country town.
"Country people find out everything, Mrs. Gilbert," she said, presently. "You have been watched in your sentimental meetings and rambles with Mr. Lansdell; and you may consider yourself very fortunate if no officious person has taken the trouble to convey the information to your husband."
Isabel had been crying all this time, crying bitterly, with her head bent upon her clasped hands; but to Lady Gwendoline's surprise she lifted it now, and looked at her accuser with some show of indignation, if not defiance.
"I told George every—almost every time I met Mr. Lansdell," she exclaimed; "and George knows that he lends me books; and he likes me to have books—nice, in-st-structive books," said Mrs. Gilbert, stifling her sobs as best she might; "and I n-never thought that anybody could be so wicked as to fancy there was any harm in my meeting him. I don't suppose any one ever said anything to Beatrice Portinari, though she was married, and Dante loved her very dearly; and I only want to see him now and then, and to hear him talk; and he has been very, very kind to me."
"Kind to you!" cried Lady Gwendoline, scornfully. "Do you know the value of such kindness as his? Did you ever hear of any good coming of it? Did such kindness ever bear any fruit but anguish and misery and mortification? You talk like a baby, Mrs. Gilbert, or else like a hypocrite. Do you know what my cousin's life has been? Do you know that he is an infidel, and outrages his friends by opinions which he does not even care to conceal? Do you know that his name has been involved with the names of married women before to-day? Are you besotted enough to think that his new fancy for you is anything more than the caprice of an idle and dissipated man of the world, who is ready to bring ruin upon the happiest home in England for the sake of a new sensation, a little extra aliment for the vanity which a host of foolish women have pampered into his ruling vice?"
"Vanity!" exclaimed Mrs. Gilbert; "oh, Lady Gwendoline, how can you say that he is vain? It is you who do not know him. Ah, if you could only know how good he is, how noble, how generous! I know that he would never try to injure me by so much as a word or a thought. Why should I not love him; as we love the stars, that are so beautiful and so distant from us? Why should I not worship him as Helena worshipped Bertram, as Viola loved Zanoni? The wicked Graybridge people may say what they like; and if they tell George anything about me, I will tell him the truth; and then—and then, if I was only a Catholic, I would go into a convent like Hildegonde! Ah, Lady Gwendoline, you do not understand such love as mine!" added Isabel, looking at the Earl's daughter with an air of superiority that was superb in its simplicity.
She was proud of her love, which was so high above the comprehension of ordinary people. It is just possible that she was even a little proud of the slander which attached to her. She had all her life been pining for the glory of martyrdom, and lo, it had come upon her. The fiery circlet had descended upon her brow; and she assumed a dignified pose in order to support it properly.
"I only understand that you are a very foolish person," Lady Gwendoline answered, coldly; "and I have been extremely foolish to trouble myself about you. I considered it my duty to do what I have done, and I wash my hands henceforward of you and your affairs. Pray go your own way, and do not fear any further interference from me. It is quite impossible that I can have the smallest association with my cousin's mistress."
She hurled the cruel word at the Doctor's Wife, and departed with a sound of silken rustling in the narrow passage. Isabel heard the carriage drive away, and then flung herself down upon her knees, to sob and lament her cruel destiny. That last word had stung her to the very heart. It took all the poetry out of her life; it brought before her, in its fullest significance, the sense of her position. If she met Roland under Lord Thurston's oak,—if she walked with him in the meadows that his footsteps beautified into the smooth lawns of Paradise,—people, vulgar, ignorant people, utterly unable to comprehend her or her love, would say that she was his mistress. His mistress! To what people she had heard that word applied! And Beatrice Portinari, and Viola, and Leila, and Gulnare, and Zelica, what of them? The visions of all those lovely and shining creatures arose before her; and beside them, in letters of fire, blazed the odious word that transformed her fond platonic worship, her sentimental girlish idolatry, into a shame and disgrace.
"I will see him to-morrow and say farewell to him," she thought. "I will bid him good-bye for ever and ever, though my heart should break,—ah, how I hope it may, as I say the bitter word!—and never, never will see him again. I know now what he meant by shame and humiliation; I can understand all he said now."
Mrs. Gilbert had another of her headaches that evening, and poor George was obliged to dine alone. He went up-stairs once or twice in the course of the evening to see his wife, and found her lying very quietly in the dimly-lighted room with her face turned to the wall. She held out her hand to him as he bent over her, and pressed his broad palm with her feverish fingers.
"I'm afraid I've been neglectful of you sometimes, George," she said; "but I won't be so again. I won't go out for those long walks, and keep you waiting for dinner; and if you would like a set of new shirts made—you said the other day that yours were nearly worn out—I should like to make them for you myself. I used to help to make the shirts for my brothers, and I don't think I should pucker so much now; and, oh, George, Mrs. Jeffson was talking of your poor mother to-day, and I want you to tell me what it was she died of."
Mr. Gilbert patted his wife's hand approvingly, and laid it gently down on the coverlet.
"That's a melancholy subject, my love," he said, "and I don't think it would do either of us any good to talk about it. As for the shirts, my dear, it's very good of you to offer to make them; but I doubt if you'd manage them as well as the work-woman at Wareham, who made the last. She's very reasonable; and she's lame, poor soul; so it's a kind of charity to employ her. Good-bye for the present, Izzie; try to get a nap, and don't worry your poor head about anything."
He went away, and Isabel listened to his substantial boots creaking down the stairs, and away towards the surgery. He had come thence to his wife's room, and he left a faint odour of drugs behind him. Ah, how that odious flavour of senna and camomile flowers brought back a magical exotic perfume that had floated towards her one day from his hair as he bent his head to listen to her foolish talk! And now the senna and camomile were to flavour all her life. She was no longer to enjoy that mystical double existence, those delicious glimpses of dreamland, which made up for all the dulness of the common world that surrounded her.
If she could have died, and made an end of it all! There are moments in life when death seems the only issue from a dreadful labyrinth of grief and horror. I suppose it is only very weak-minded people—doubtful vacillating creatures like Prince Hamlet of Denmark—who wish to die, and make an easy end of their difficulties; but Isabel was not by any means strong-minded, and she thought with a bitter pang of envy of the commonplace young women whom she had known to languish and fade in the most interesting pulmonary diseases, while she so vainly yearned for the healing touch which makes a sure end of all mortal fevers. But there was something—one thing in the world yet worth the weariness of existence—that meeting with him—that meeting which was to be also an eternal parting. She would see him once more; he would look down at her with his mysterious eyes—the eyes of Zanoni himself could scarcely have been more mystically dark and deep. She would see him, and perhaps that strangely intermingled joy and anguish would be more fatal than earthly disease, and she would drop dead at his feet, looking to the last at the dark splendour of his face—dying under the spell of his low tender voice. And then, with a shudder, she remembered what Lady Gwendoline had said of her demi-god. Dissipated and an infidel; vain, selfish! Oh, cruel, cruel slander,—the slander of a jealous woman, perhaps, who had loved him and been slighted by him. The Doctor's Wife would not believe any treasonous whisper against her idol. Only from his own lips could come the words that would be strong enough to destroy her illusions. She lay awake all that night thinking of her interview with Lady Gwendoline, acting the scene over and over again; hearing the cruel words repeated in her ears with dismal iteration throughout the dark slow hours. The pale cheerless spring daylight came at last, and Mrs. Gilbert fell asleep just when it was nearly time for her to think of getting up.
The doctor breakfasted alone that morning, as he had dined the day before. He begged that Isabel might not be disturbed, A good long spell of rest was the best thing for his wife's head, he told Mrs. Jeffson; to which remark that lady only replied by a suspicious kind of sniff, accompanied by a jerk of the head, and followed by a plaintive sigh, all of which were entirely lost upon the parish surgeon.
"Females whose headaches keep 'em a-bed when they ought to be seeing after their husband's meals hadn't ought to marry," Mrs. Jeffson remarked, with better sense than grammar, when she took George's breakfast paraphernalia back to the kitchen. "I heard down the street just now, as he come back to the Priory late last night, and I'll lay she'll be goin' out to meet him this afternoon, William."
Mr. Jeffson, who was smoking his matutinal pipe by the kitchen fire, shook his head with a slow melancholy gesture as his wife made this remark.
"It's a bad business, Tilly," he said, "a bad business first and last. If he was anything of a man, he'd keep away from these parts, and 'ud be above leadin' a poor simple little thing like that astray. Them poetry-hooks and such like, as she's allus a-readin', has half turned her head long ago, and it only needs a fine chap like him to turn it altogether. I mind what I say to Muster Jarge the night as I fust see her; and I can see her face now, Tilly, as I see it then, with the eyes fixed and lookin' far away like; and I knew then what I know better still now, my lass,—them two'll never get on together. They warn't made for one another. I wonder sometimes to see the trouble a man'll take before he gets a pair o' boots, to find out as they're a good fit and won't gall his foot when he comes to wear 'em; but t' same man'll go and get married as careless and off-hand like, as if there weren't the smallest chance of his wife's not suiting him. I was took by thy good looks, lass, I won't deny, when I first saw thee," Mr. Jeffson added, with diplomatic gallantry; "but it wasn't because of thy looks as I asked thee to be my true wife, and friend, and companion, throughout this mortal life and all its various troubles."