Doctor's Wife, The



It was eleven o'clock when Isabel woke; and it was twelve when she sat down to make some pretence of eating the egg and toast which Mrs. Jeffson set before her. The good woman regarded her young mistress with a grave countenance, and Mrs. Gilbert shrank nervously from that honest gaze. Shame and disgrace—she had denied the application of those hideous words to herself: but the cup which she had repudiated met her lips at every turn, and the flavour of its bitter waters was intermingled with everything she tasted. She turned away from Mrs. Jeffson, and felt angry with her. Presently, when the faithful housekeeper was busy in the kitchen, Mrs. Gilbert went softly up-stairs to her room, and put on her bonnet and shawl.

She was not to meet him till three o'clock in the afternoon, and it was now only a little after twelve; but she could not stay in the house. A terrible fever and restlessness had taken possession of her lately. Had not her life been altogether one long fever since Roland Lansdell's advent in Midlandshire? She looked back, and remembered that she had lived once, and had been decently contented, in utter ignorance of this splendid being's existence. She had lived, and had believed in the shadowy heroes of books, and in great clumsy grey-coated officers stationed at Conventford, and in a sickly curate at Camberwell; and long, long ago—oh, unutterable horror!—in a sentimental-looking young chemist's apprentice in the Walworth Road, who had big watery-looking blue eyes, and was not so very unlike Ernest Maltravers, and who gave more liberal threepenny-worths of lavender-water or hair-oil than any other chemist on the Surrey side of the water—to Isabel! not to other people! Miss Sleaford sent one of the boys for the usual threepenny-worth on one occasion, and the chemist's measure was very different, and the young lady was not a little touched by this proof of her admirer's devotion.

And looking back now she remembered these things, and wondered at them, and hated herself because of them. There was no low image of a chemist's assistant lurking dimly in the background of Viola's life when she met her fate in the person of Zanoni. All Isabel's favourite heroines seemed to look out at her reproachfully from their cloudland habitations, as she remembered this portion of her existence. She had lived, and there had been no prophetic vision of his face among all her dreams. And now there was nothing for her but to try to go back to the same dull life again, since to-day she was to part from him for ever.

The day was a thorough March day—changeable in mood—now brightened by a sudden glimpse of the sun, now grey and threatening, dull and colourless as the life which lay before Isabel Gilbert when he should be gone, and the sweet romance of her existence closed abruptly, like a story that is never to be finished. The Doctor's Wife shuddered as she went out into the lane, where the dust was blowing into eddying circles every now and then by a frolicsome north-easter. She closed the gate safely behind her and went away, and to-day for the first time she felt that her errand was a guilty one. She went into the familiar meadow pathway; she tried to walk slowly, but her feet seemed to carry her towards Thurston's Crag in spite of herself; and when she was far from Graybridge, and looked at her watch, it was only one o'clock, and there were two long hours that must elapse before Roland Lansdell's coming. It was only a quarter past one when she came in sight of the miller's cottage—the pretty little white-walled habitation nestling low down under big trees, which made a shelter even in winter time. A girl was standing at a door feeding chickens and calling to them in a loud cheerful voice. There was no sorrowful love story in her life, Mrs. Gilbert thought, as she looked at the bouncing red-elbowed young woman. She would marry some floury-visaged miller's man, most likely, and be happy ever after. But it was only a momentary thrill of envy that shot through Isabel's breast. Better to die for Roland Lansdell than to live for a miller's man in thick clumpy boots and an elaborately-stitched smock-frock. Better to have lived for the briefest summer time of joy and triumph, and then to stand aloof upon a rock for ever afterwards, staring at the wide expanse of waters, and thinking of the past, like Napoleon at St. Helena.

"He has loved me!" thought Isabel; "I ought never to be unhappy, when I remember that."

She had brought Shelley with her, and she seated herself upon the bench under the oak; but she only turned the leaves over and over, and listened to the brawling waters at her feet, and thought of Roland Lansdell. Sometimes she tried to think of what her life would be after she had parted from him; but all the future after four o'clock that afternoon seemed to recede far away from her, beyond the limits of her understanding. She had a vague idea that after this farewell meeting she would be like Louise de la Valliļæ½re in the days of her seclusion and penitence. If Father Newman, or any other enthusiastic Romanist, could have found her sitting by the brawling water that afternoon, he would have secured a willing convert to his tender sentimental creed. The poor bewildered spirit pined for the shadowy aisles of some conventual sanctuary, the low and solemn music, the glimmering shrines, the dreamy exaltation and rapture, the separation from a hard commonplace world. But no sympathetic stranger happened to pass that way while Isabel sat there, watching the path by which Roland Lansdell must come. She took out her watch every now and then, always to be disappointed at the slow progress of the time; but at last—at last—just as a sudden gleam of sunshine lighted the waterfall, and flickered upon the winding pathway, a distant church clock struck three, and the master of Mordred Priory pushed open a little gate, and came in and out among the moss-grown trunks of the bare elms. In the next minute he was on the bridge; in the next moment, as it seemed, he was seated by Isabel's side, and had taken her passive hand in his. For the last time—for the last time! she thought. Involuntarily her fingers closed on his. How closely they seemed linked together now; they who so soon were to be for ever parted; they between whom all the expanse of the Atlantic would have been only too narrow a barrier!

Mrs. Gilbert looked up sadly and shrinkingly at Roland's face, and saw that it was all flushed and radiant. There was just the faintest expression of nervous hesitation about his mouth; but his dark eyes shone with a resolute glance, and seemed more definite in colour than Isabel had ever seen them yet.

"My darling," he said, "I am very punctual, am I not? I did not think you would be here before me. You can never guess how much I have thought of our meeting to-day, Isabel:—seriously; solemnly even. Do you remember the garden-scene in 'Romeo and Juliet,' Izzie? What pretty sportive boy-and-girl gallantry the love-making seems; and yet what a tragedy comes of it directly after! When I look at you to-day, Isabel, and think of my sleepless nights, my restless weary days, my useless wanderings, my broken vows and wasted resolutions, I look back and remember our first meeting at Warncliffe Castle—our chance meeting. If I had gone away ten minutes sooner, I might not have seen you—I might never have seen you. I look back and see it all. I looked up so indifferently when poor Raymond introduced you to us; it was almost a bore to get up and bow to you. I thought you were very pretty, a beautiful pale-faced automaton, with wonderful eyes that belonged of right to some Italian picture, and not to a commonplace little person like you. And then—having so little to do, being altogether such an idle purposeless wretch, and being glad of any excuse for getting away from my stately cousin and my dear prosy old uncle—I must needs stroll to Hurstonleigh Grove, and meet you again under the changing shadows of the grand old trees. Oh, what was it, Isabel? why was it? Was it only idle curiosity, as I believed, that took me there? Or had the cruel arrow shot home already; was my destiny sealed even then? I don't know—I don't know. I am not a good man, Izzie; but I am not utterly bad either. I went away from you, my dear; I did try to avoid the great peril of my life; but—you remember the monk in Hugo's 'Notre Dame.' It seems a grand story in that book, Izzie, but it's the commonest story in all the world. Some day—some careless day—we look out of the window and see the creature dancing in the sunshine, and from that moment every other purpose of our life is done with and forgotten; we can do nothing but go out and follow her wherever she beckons us. If she is a wicked siren, she may lure us into the dark recesses of her cave and pick our bones at her leisure. If she is Undine, and plunges deep down into the blue water, we can only take a header and go to the bottom after her. But if she is a dear little innocent creature, worthy of our best love and worship, why should we not be happy with her ever afterwards, like the good people in the story-books? why should we not plan a bright life of happiness and fidelity? Isabel, my darling, I want to talk very seriously to you to-day. The crisis has come in our lives, and I am to find out to-day whether you are the true woman I believe you to be, or only a pretty little village coquette, who has fooled me to the top of my bent, and who can whistle me off and let me down the wind to prey at fortune directly I become a nuisance. Izzie, I want you to answer a serious question to-day, and all the happiness of my future life depends upon your answer."

"Mr. Lansdell!"

She looked up at him—very much frightened by his manner, but with her hand still clasping his. The link must so soon be broken for ever. Only for a little while longer might she retain that dear hand in hers. Half an hour more, and they would be parted for ever and ever. The pain of that thought was strangely mingled with the delicious joy of being with him, of hearing from his lips that she was beloved. What did she care for Lady Gwendoline now?—cruel jealous Lady Gwendoline, who had outraged and insulted the purity of her love.

"Isabel," Roland said, very gravely, bending his head to a level with hers, as he spoke, but looking at the ground rather than at her, "It is time that we ended this farce of duty and submission to the world; we have tried to submit, and to rule our lives by the laws which other people have made for us. But we cannot—we cannot, my dear. We are only hypocrites, who try to mask our revolt under the pretence of submission. You come here and meet me, and we are happy together—unutterably and innocently happy. But you leave me and go home to your husband, and smile at him, and tell him that, while you were out walking, you met Mr. Lansdell, and so on; and you hoodwink and fool him, and act a perpetual lie for his delusion. All that must cease, Isabel. That Preacher, whom I think the noblest reformer, the purest philosopher whose voice was ever heard upon this earth, said that we cannot serve two masters. You cannot go on living the life you have lived for the last three weeks, Isabel. That is impossible. You have made a mistake. The world will tell you that, having made it, you must abide by it, and atone for your folly by a life of dissimulation. There are women brave enough—good enough, if you like—to do this, and to bear their burden patiently; but you are not one of them. You cannot dissimulate. Your soul has flown to me like a bird out of a cage; it is mine henceforth and for ever; as surely as that I love you,—fatally, unaccountably, mysteriously, but eternally. I know the strength of my chain, for I have tried to break it. I have held aloof, and tested the endurance of my love. If I ask you now to accept that love, it is because I know that it is true and pure,—the true metal, Izzie, the real virgin gold! I suppose a narrow vein of it runs through every man's nature; but it is only one woman's hand that has power to strike upon the precious ore. I love you, Isabel; and I want you to make an end of your present life, and leave this place for ever. I have written to an agent to get me a little villa on the outskirts of Naples. I went there alone, Izzie, two months ago, and set up your image in the empty rooms, and fancied you hovering here and there in your white dress, upon the broad marble terrace, with the blue sea below you, and the mountains above. I have made a hundred plans for our life, Izzie. There is not a whim or fancy of yours that I have not remembered. Ah, what happiness! to show you wonderful things and beautiful scenes! What delicious joy to see your eyes open their widest before all the fairest pictures of earth! I fancy you with me, Isabel, and, behold, my life is transformed. I have been so tired of everything in the world; and yet, with you by my side, all the world will be as fresh as Eden was to Adam on the first day of his life. Isabel, you need have no doubt of me. I have doubted myself, and tested myself. Mine is no light love, that time or custom can change or lessen: if it were, I would have done my duty, and stayed away from you for ever. I have thought of your happiness as well as my own, darling; and I ask you now to trust me, and leave this place for ever."

Something like a cry of despair broke from Isabel's lips. "You ask me to go away with you!" she exclaimed, looking at Roland as if she could scarcely believe the testimony of her own ears. "You ask me to leave George, and be your—mistress! Oh, Lady Gwendoline only spoke the truth, then. You don't understand—no one understands—how I love you!"

She had risen as she spoke, and flung herself passionately against the balustrade of the bridge, sobbing bitterly, with her face hidden by her clasped hands.

"Isabel, for Heaven's sake, listen to me! Can you doubt the purity of my love—the truth, the honesty of my intentions? I ask you to sign no unequal compact. Give me your life, and I'll give you mine in exchange—every day—every hour. Whatever the most exacting wife can claim of her husband, you shall receive from me. Whatever the truest husband can be to his wife, I swear to be to you. It is only a question of whether you love me, Isabel. You have only to choose between me and that man yonder."

"Oh, Roland! Roland! I have loved you so—and you could think that I——. Oh, you must despise me—you must despise me very much, and think me very wicked, or you would never——"

She couldn't say any more; but she still leant against the bridge, sobbing for her lost delusion.

Lady Gwendoline had been right, after all,—this is what Isabel thought,—and there had been no platonism, no poet-worship on Roland Lansdell's side; only the vulgar every-day wish to run away with another man's wife. From first to last she had been misunderstood; she had been the dupe of her own fancies, her own dreams. Lady Gwendoline's cruel words were only cruel truths. It was no Dante, no Tasso, who had wandered by her side; only a dissipated young country squire, in the habit of running away with other people's wives, and glorying in his iniquity. There was no middle standing-place which Roland Lansdell could occupy in this foolish girl's mind. If he was not a demi-god, he must be a villain. If he was not an exalted creature, full of poetic aspirations and noble fancies, he must be a profligate young idler, ready to whisper any falsehood into the ears of foolish rustic womanhood. All the stories of aristocratic villany that she had ever read flashed suddenly back upon Mrs. Gilbert's mind, and made a crowd of evidence against Lady Anna Lansdell's son. If he was not the one grand thing which she had believed him to be—a poetic and honourable adorer—he was in nothing the hero of her dreams. She loved him still, and must continue to love him, in spite of all his delinquencies; but she must love him henceforward with fear and trembling, as a splendid iniquitous creature, who had not even one virtue to set against a thousand crimes. Such thoughts as these crowded upon her, as she leaned sobbing on the narrow wooden rail of the bridge; while Roland Lansdell stood by, watching her with a grave and angry countenance.

"Is this acting, Mrs. Gilbert? Is this show of surprise and indignation a little comedy, which you play when you want to get rid of your lovers? Am I to accept my dismissal, and bid you good afternoon, and put up patiently with having been made the veriest fool that ever crossed this bridge?"

"Oh, Roland!" cried Isabel, lifting her head and looking piteously round at him, "I loved you so—I l-loved so!"

"You love me so, and prove your love by fooling me with tender looks and blushes, till I believe that I have met the one woman in all the world who is to make my life happy. Oh, Isabel, I have loved you because I thought you unlike other women. Am I to find that it is only the old story after all—falsehood, and trick, and delusion? It was a feather in your cap to have Mr. Lansdell of the Priory madly in love with you; and now that he grows troublesome, you send him about his business. I am to think this, I suppose. It has all been coquetry and falsehood, from first to last."

"Falsehood! Oh, Roland, when I love you so dearly—so dearly and truly; not as you love me,—with a cruel love that would bring shame and disgrace upon me. You never can be more to me than you are now. We may part; but there is no power on earth that can part my soul from yours, or lessen my love. I came to you this afternoon to say good-bye for ever, because I have heard that cruel things have been said of me by people who do not understand my love. Ah, how should those common people understand, when even you do not, Roland? I came to say good-bye; and then, after to-day, my life will be finished. You know what you said that night: 'The curtain goes down, and all is over!' I shall think of you for ever and ever, till I die. Ah, is there any kind of death that can ever make me forget you? but I will never come here again to see you. I will always try to do my duty to my husband."

"Your husband!" cried Mr. Lansdell, with a strident laugh; "had we not better leave his name out of the question? Oh, Isabel!" he exclaimed, suddenly changing his tone, "so help me Heaven, I cannot understand you. Are you only an innocent child, after all, or the wiliest coquette that ever lived? You must be one or the other. You speak of your husband. My poor dear, it is too late in the day now to talk of him. You should have thought of him when we first met; when your eyelids first drooped beneath my gaze; when your voice first grew tremulous as you spoke my name. From the very first you have lured me on. I am no trickster or thief, to steal another man's property. If your heart had been your husband's when first I met you, the beauty of an angel in a cathedral fresco would not have been farther away from me than yours. Depend upon it, Eve was growing tired of Eden when the serpent began to talk to her. If you had loved your husband, Isabel, I should have bowed my head before the threshold of your home, as I would at the entrance to a chapel. But I saw that you did not love him; I very soon saw that you did love, or seemed to love, me. Heaven knows how I struggled against the temptation, and only yielded at last when my heart told me that my love was true and honest, and worthy of the sacrifice I ask from you. I do ask that sacrifice; boldly, as a man who is prepared to give measure for measure. The little world to which you will say good-bye, Isabel, is a world whose gates will close on me in the same hour. Henceforth your life will be mine, with all its forfeitures. I am not an ambitious man, and have long ceased to care about making any figure in a world which has always seemed to me more or less like a show at a fair, with clanging cymbals and brazen trumpets, and promise and protestation, and boasting outside, and only delay and disappointment and vexation within. I do not give up very much, therefore, but what I have I freely resign. Come with me, Isabel, and I will take you away to the beautiful places you have been pleased to hear me talk about. All the world is ours, my darling, except this little corner of Midlandshire. Great ships are waiting to waft us away to far Southern shores, and tropical paradises, and deep unfathomable forests. All the earth is organized for our happiness. The money that has been so useless to me until now shall have a new use henceforward, for it shall be dedicated to your pleasure. Do you remember opening your eyes very wide the other day, Isabel, and crying out that you would like to see Rome, and poor Keats's grave, and the Colosseum,—Byron's Colosseum,—where the poetic gladiator thought of his wife and children, eh, Izzie? I made such a dream out of that little childish exclamation. I know the balcony in which we will sit, darling, after dark nights, in carnival time, to watch the crowd in the streets below, and, on one grandest night of all, the big dome of St. Peter's shining like a canopy of light, and all the old classic pediments and pillars blazing out of the darkness, as in a city of living fire. Isabel, you cannot have been ignorant of the end to which our fate was chaffing us; you must have known that I should sooner or later say what I have said to-day."

"Oh, no, no, no!" cried Mrs. Gilbert, despairingly, "I never thought that you would ask me to be more to you than I am now: I never thought that it was wicked to come here and meet you. I have read of people, who by some fatality could never marry, loving each other, and being true to others for years and years—till death sometimes; and I fancied that you loved me like that: and the thought of your love made me so happy; and it was such happiness to see you sometimes, and to think of you afterwards, remembering every word you had said, and seeing your face as plainly as I see it now. I thought, till yesterday, that this might go on for ever, and never, never believed that you would think me like those wicked women who run away from their husbands."

"And yet you love me?"

"With all my heart."

She looked at him with eyes still drowned in tears, but radiant with the truth of her sentimental soul, which had never before revealed itself so artlessly as now. Fondly as she worshipped her idol, his words had little power to move her, now that he was false to his attributes, and came down upon common ground and wooed her as an every-day creature. If Mr. Lansdell had declared his intention of erecting a marble mausoleum in the grounds of Mordred, and had requested Isabel to commit suicide in order to render herself competent to occupy it with him immediately, she would have thought his request both appropriate and delightful, and would have assented on the spot. But his wild talk of foreign travel had no temptation for her. True, she saw as in a bright and changing vision a picture of what her life might be far away amidst wild romantic regions in that dear companionship. But between herself and those far-away visions there was a darkly-brooding cloud of shame and disgrace. The Graybridge people might say what they chose of her: she could afford to hold her head high and despise their slanderous whispers: but she could not afford to tarnish her love—her love which had no existence out of bright ideal regions wherein shame could never enter.

Roland Lansdell watched her face in silence for some moments, and faintly comprehended the exaltation of spirit which lifted this foolish girl above him to-day. But he was a weak vacillating young man, who was unfortunate enough not to believe in anything, and he was, in his own fashion, truly and honestly in love,—too much in love to be just or reasonable,—and he was very angry with Isabel. The tide of his feelings had gathered strength day by day, and had relentlessly swept away every impediment, to be breasted at last by a rocky wall; here, where he thought to meet only the free boundless ocean, ready to receive and welcome him.

"Isabel," he said at last, "have you ever thought what your life is to be, always, after this parting to-day? You are likely to live forty years, and even when you have got through them you will not be an old woman. Have you ever contemplated those forty years, with three hundred and sixty-five days in every one of them; every day to be spent with a man you don't love—a man with whom you have not one common thought? Think of that, Isabel; and then, if you do love me, think of the life I offer you, and choose between them."

"I can only make one choice," Mrs. Gilbert answered, in a low sad voice. "I shall be very unhappy, I dare say; but I will do my duty to my husband—and think of you."

"So be it!" exclaimed Mr. Lansdell, with a long-drawn sigh. "In that case, good-bye." He held out his hand, and Isabel was startled by the coldness of its touch.

"You are not angry with me?" she asked, piteously.

"I have no right to be angry with any one but myself. I do not suppose you meant any harm; but you have done me the deepest wrong a woman can do to a man. I have nothing to say to you except good-bye. For mercy's sake go away, and leave me to myself."

She had no pretence for remaining with him after this, so she went away, very slowly, frightened and sorrowful. But when she had gone a few yards along the pathway under the trees, she felt all at once that she could not leave him thus. She must see his face once more: she must know for certain whether he was angry with her or not.

She crept slowly back to the spot where she had left him, and found him lying at full length upon the grass, with his face hidden on his folded arms. With a sudden instinct of grief and terror she knew that he was crying, and falling down on her knees by his side, murmured amidst her sobs,—

"Oh, pray forgive me! Pray do not be angry with me! I love you so dearly and so truly! Only say that you forgive me."

Roland Lansdell lifted his face and looked at her. Ah, what a reproachful look it was, and how long it lived in her memory and disturbed her peace!

"I will forgive you," he answered, sternly, "when I have learnt to endure my life without you."

He dropped his head again upon his folded arms, and Isabel knelt by his side for some minutes watching him silently; but he never stirred and she was too much frightened and surprised by his anger; and remorsefully impressed with a vague sense of her own wrong-doing, to dare address him further. So at last she got up and went away. She began to feel that she had been, somehow or other, very wicked, and that her sin had brought misery upon this man whom she loved.

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