What could Isabel Gilbert do? The fabric of all her dreams was shivered like a cobweb in a sudden wind, and floated away from her for ever. Everybody had misunderstood her. Even he, who should have been a demi-god in power of penetration as in every other attribute,—even he had wronged and outraged her, and never again could she look trustfully upward to the dark beauty of his face; never again could her hand rest, oh, so lightly, for one brief instant on his arm; never again could she tell him in childish confidence all the vague yearnings, the innocently-sentimental aspirations, of her childish soul.
Never any more. The bright ideal of her life had melted away from her like a spectral cloud of silvery spray hovering above an Alpine waterfall, and had left behind only a cynical man of the world, who boldly asked her to run away from her husband, and was angry with her because she refused to comply with his cruel demand.
Not for one moment did the Doctor's Wife contemplate the possibility of taking the step which Roland Lansdell had proposed to her. Far off—as far away from her as some dim half-forgotten picture of fairy-land—there floated a vision of what her life might have been with him, if she had been Clotilde, or the glittering Duchess, or Lady Gwendoline, or some one or other utterly different from herself. But the possibility of deliberately leaving her husband to follow the footsteps of this other man, was as far beyond her power of comprehension as the possibility that she might steal a handful of arsenic out of one of the earthenware jars in the surgery, and mix it with the sugar that sweetened George Gilbert's matutinal coffee.
She wandered away from Thurston's Crag, not following the meadow pathway that would have taken her homeward; but going anywhere, half-unconscious, wholly indifferent where she went; and thinking with unutterable sadness of her broken dreams.
She had been so childish, so entirely childish, and had given herself up so completely to that one dear day-dream. I think her childhood floated away from her for ever in company with that broken dream; and that the grey dawn of her womanhood broke upon her, cold and chill, as she walked slowly away from the spot where Roland Lansdell lay face downwards on the grass, weeping over the ruin of his dream. It seemed as if in that hour she crossed Mr. Longfellow's typical rivulet and passed on to the bleak and sterile country beyond. Well may the maiden linger ere she steps across that narrow boundary; for the land upon this hither side is very bare and desolate as compared with the fertile gardens and pleasant meads she abandons for ever. The sweet age of enchantment is over; the fairy companions of girlhood, who were loveliest even when most they deluded, spread their bright wings and flutter away; and the grave genius of common sense—a dismal-looking person, who dresses in grey woollen stuff, warranted not to shrink under the ordeal of the wash-tub, and steadfastly abjures crinoline—stretches out her hand, and offers, with a friendly but uncompromising abruptness, to be the woman's future guide and monitress.
Isabel Gilbert was a woman all at once; ten years older by that bleak afternoon's most bitter discovery. Since there was no one in the world who understood her, since even he so utterly failed to comprehend her, it must be that her dreams were foolish and impossible of comprehension to any one but herself. But those foolish dreams had for ever vanished. She could never think of Roland Lansdell again as she had thought of him. All her fancies about him had been so many fond and foolish delusions. He was not the true and faithful knight who could sit for ever at the entrance of his hermitage gazing fondly at the distant convent-casement, which might or might not belong to his lost love's chamber. No; he was quite another sort of person. He was the fierce dissolute cavalier, with a cross-handled sword a yard and a half long, and pointed shoes with long cruel spurs and steel chain-work jingling and clanking as he strode across his castle-hall. He was the false and wicked lover who would have scaled the wall of Hildegonde's calm retreat some fatal night, and would have carried the shrieking nun away, to go mad and throw herself into the Rhine on the earliest opportunity. He was a heartless Faust, ready to take counsel of Mephistopheles and betray poor trusting Gretchen. He was Robert the Devil, about whose accursed footsteps a whole graveyard of accusing spirits might arise at any moment. It may be that Isabel did not admire Mr. Lansdell less when she thought of him thus; but there was an awful shuddering horror mingled with her admiration. She was totally unable to understand him as he really was—a benevolently disposed young man, desirous of doing as little mischief in the world as might be compatible with his being tolerably happy himself; and fully believing that no great or irreparable harm need result from his appropriation of another man's wife.
The tears rolled slowly down Mrs. Gilbert's pale cheeks as she walked along the Midlandshire lanes that afternoon. She did not weep violently, or abandon herself to any wild passion of grief. As yet she was quite powerless to realize, the blankness of her future life, now that her dream was broken for ever. Her grief was not so bitter as it had been on the day of Roland's sudden departure from Mordred. He had loved her—she knew that now; and the supreme triumph of that thought supported her in the midst of her sorrow. He had loved her. His love was not the sort of thing she had so often read of, and so fondly believed in; it was only the destroying passion of the false knight, the cruel fancy of the wicked squire in top-boots, whom she had frequently seen—per favour of a newspaper-order—from the back boxes of the Surrey Theatre. But he did love her! He loved her so well as to cast himself on the ground and weep because she had rejected him; and the wicked squire in top-boots had never gone so far as that, generally contenting himself with more practical evidences of his vexation, such as the levying of an execution on the goods and chattels of the heroine's father, or the waylaying and carrying off of the heroine herself by lured ruffians. How oddly it happens that the worthy farmer in the chintz waistcoat is always in arrear with his rent, and always stands in the relation of tenant to the dissolute squire!
Would Mr. Lansdell do anything of that kind? Isabel gave a little shiver as she glanced at the lonely landscape, and thought how a brace of hireling scoundrels might spring suddenly across the hedge, and bear her off to a convenient postchaise. Were there any postchaises in the world now, Isabel wondered. A strange confusion of thoughts filled her mind. She could not become quite a woman all in a moment; the crossing of the mystic brook is not so rapid an operation as that. Some remnants of the old delusions hung about her, and merely took a new form.
She sat down on the lower step of a stile to rest herself by-and-by, and smoothed back her hair, which had been blown about her face by the March wind, and re-tied the strings of her bonnet, before she went out on the high-road, that lay on the other side of the stile. When she did emerge upon the road, she found herself ever so far from home, and close to the model village where Mr. Raymond had given his simple entertainment of tea and pound-cake, and in which George Gilbert had stood by her side pleading to her with such profound humility. Poor George! The quiet aspect of the village-green, the tiny cottages, trim and bright in the fading March sunshine; the low wooden gate opening into the churchyard,—all these, so strange and yet so familiar, brought back the memory of a time that seemed unspeakably far away now.
It was Passion-week,—for Easter fell very late in March this year,—and the model village being a worthy model in the matter of piety as well as in all other virtues, there was a great deal of church-going among the simple inhabitants. The bells were ringing for evening service now, as Mrs. Gilbert lingered in the road between the village and the churchyard; and little groups of twos and threes, and solitary old women in black bonnets, passed her by, as she loitered quite at a loss whither to go, or what to do. They looked at her with solemn curiosity expressed in their faces. She was a stranger there, though Graybridge was only a few miles away; she was a stranger, and that alone, in any place so circumscribed as the model village, was enough to excite curiosity; and it may be that, over and above this, there was something in the look of her pale face and heavy eyelids, and a certain absent expression in her downcast eyes, calculated to arouse suspicion. Even in the midst of her trouble she could see that people looked at her suspiciously; and all in a moment there flashed back upon her mind the cruel things that Lady Gwendoline Pomphrey had said to her. Yes; all at once she remembered those bitter sentences. She had made herself a subject for slanderous tongues, and the story of her wicked love for Roland Lansdell was on every lip. If he, who should have known her—if he before whom she had bared all the secrets of her sentimental soul—if even he thought so badly of her as to believe that she could abandon her husband and become the thing that Mr. Dombey believed his wife to be when he struck his daughter on the stairs—the sort of creature whom grave Judge Brandon met one night under a lamp-post in a London street—how could she wonder that other people slandered and despised her? Very suddenly had the gates of Paradise closed upon her: very swiftly had she been dropped down from the fairy regions of her fancy to this cold, hard, cruel workaday world; and being always prone to exaggeration, she fancied it even colder, harder, and more cruel than it was. She fancied the people pointing at her in the little street at Graybridge; the stern rector preaching at her in his Sunday sermon. She pictured to herself everything that is most bitterly demonstrative in the way of scorn and contumely. The days were past in which solemn elders of Graybridge could send her out to wander here and there with bare bleeding feet and a waxen taper in her hand. There was no scarlet letter with which these people could brand her as the guilty creature they believed her to be; but short of this, what could they not do to her? She imagined it all: her husband would come to know what was thought of her, and to think of her as others thought, and she would be turned out of doors.
The groups of quiet people—almost all of them were women, and very few of them were young—melted slowly into the shadowy church-porch, like the dusky unsubstantial figures in a dioramic picture. The bells were still ringing in the chill twilight; but the churchyard was very lonely now; and the big solemn yew-trees looked weird and ghost-like against the darkening grey sky. Only one long low line of pale yellow light remained of the day that was gone! the day in which Isabel had said farewell to Roland Lansdell! It was a real farewell; no lovers' quarrel, wherefrom should spring that re-renewal of love so dismally associated with the Eton Latin Grammar. It was an eternal parting: for had he not told her to go away from him—to leave him for ever? Not being the wicked thing for which he had mistaken her, she was nothing in the world for him. He did not require perpetual worship; he did not want her to retire to a convent, in order that he might enjoy himself for the rest of his existence by looking up at her window; he did not want her to sit beside a brazier of charcoal with her hand linked in his—and die. He was not like that delightful Henry von Kleist, who took his Henriette to a pleasant inn about a mile from Potsdam, supped gaily with her, and then shot her and himself beside a lake in the neighbourhood. Mr. Lansdell wanted nothing that was poetical or romantic, and had not even mentioned suicide in the course of his passionate talk.
She went into the churchyard, and walked towards the little bridge upon which she had stood with George Gilbert by her side. The Wayverne flowed silently under the solid moss-grown arch; the wind had gone down by this time, and there was only now and then a faint shiver of the long dark rushes, as if the footsteps of the invisible dead, wandering in the twilight, had stirred them. She stood on the bridge, looking down at the quiet water. The opportunity had come now, if she really wanted to drown herself. Happily for weak mankind, self-destruction is a matter in which opportunity and inclination very seldom go together. The Doctor's Wife was very miserable; but she did not feel quite prepared to take that decisive plunge which might have put an end to her earthly troubles, Would they hear the splash yonder in the church, if she dropped quietly in among the rushes from the sloping bank under the shadow of the bridge? Would they hear the water surging round her as she sank, and wonder what the sound meant, and then go on with their prayers, indifferent to the drowning creature, and absorbed by their devotions? She wondered what these people were like, who kept their houses so tidily, and went to church twice a day in Passion-week, and never fell in love with Roland Lansdell. Long ago, in her childhood, when she went to see a play, she had wondered about the people she met in the street; the people who were not going to the theatre. Were they very happy? did they know that she had a free admission to the upper boxes of the Adelphi, and envy her? How would they spend the evening,—they who were not going to weep with Mr. Benjamin Webster, or Miss Sarah Woolgar? Now she wondered about people who were not miserable like herself—simple commonplace people, who had no yearnings after a life of poetry and splendour. She thought of them as a racer, who had just run second for the Derby, might think of a quiet pack-horse plodding along a dusty road and not wanting to win any race whatsoever.
"Even if they knew him, they wouldn't care about him," she thought. They did know him, perhaps,—saw him ride by their open windows, on a summer's afternoon, gorgeous on a two-hundred-guinea hack, and did not feel the world to be a blank desert when he was gone.
Did she wish to be like these people? No! Amid all her sorrow she could acknowledge, in the words of the poet, that it was better to have loved and lost him, than never to have loved him at all. Had she not lived her life, and was she not entitled to be a heroine for ever and ever by reason of her love and despair?
For a long time she loitered on the bridge, thinking of all these things, and thinking very little of how she was to go back to Graybridge, where her absence must have created some alarm by this time. She had often kept the surgeon waiting for his dinner before to-day; but she had never been absent when he ate it. There was a station at the model village; but there was no rail to Graybridge; there was only a lumbering old omnibus, that conveyed railway passengers thither. Isabel left the churchyard, and went to the little inn before which George had introduced her to his gardener and factotum. A woman standing at the door of this hostelry gave her all needful information about the omnibus, which did not leave the station till half-past eight o'clock; until that time she must remain where she was. So she went slowly back to the churchyard, and being tired of the cold and darkness without, crept softly into the church.
The church was very old and very irregular. There were only patches of yellow light here and there, about the pulpit and reading-desk, up in the organ-loft, and near the vestry-door. A woman came out of the dense obscurity as Isabel emerged from the porch, and hustled her into a pew; scandalized by her advent at so late a stage of the service, and eager to put her away somewhere as speedily as possible. It was a very big pew, square and high, and screened by faded curtains, hanging from old-fashioned brass rods. There were a great many hassocks, and a whole pile of prayer and hymn books in the darkest corner; and Isabel, sitting amongst these, felt as completely hidden as if she had been in a tomb. The prayers were just finished,—the familiar prayers, which had so often fallen like a drowsy cadence of meaningless words upon her unheeding ears, while her erring and foolish thoughts were busy with the master of Mordred Priory.
She heard the footsteps of the clergyman coming slowly along the matted aisle—the rustling of his gown as he drew it on his shoulders; she heard the door of the pulpit closed softly, and then a voice, a low earnest voice, that sounded tender and solemn in the stillness, recited the preliminary prayer. There are voices which make people cry,—voices which touch too acutely on some hidden spring within us, and open the floodgates of our tears; and the voice of the curate of Hurstonleigh was one of these. He was only a curate; but he was very popular in the model village, and the rumour of his popularity had already spread to neighbouring towns and villages. People deserted their parish churches on a Sunday afternoon and came to hear Mr. Austin Colborne preach one of his awakening sermons. He was celebrated for awakening sermons. The stolid country people wept aloud sometimes in the midst of one of his discourses. He was always in earnest; tenderly earnest, sorrowfully earnest, terribly earnest sometimes. His life, too, outside the church was in perfect harmony with the precepts he set forth under the shadow of the dark oaken sounding-board. There are some men who can believe, who can look forward to a prize so great and wonderful as to hold the pain and trouble of the race of very small account when weighed against the hope of victory. Austin Colborne was one of these men. The priestly robes he wore had not been loosely shuffled on by him because there was no other lot in life within his reach. He had assumed his sacred office with all the enthusiasm of a Loyola or an Irving, and he knew no looking back. It was such a man as this whom people came to hear at the little church beside the wandering Wayverne. It was such a man as this whose deep-toned voice fell with a strange power upon Isabel Gilbert's ears to-night. Ah, now she could fancy Louise de la Valli�re low on her knees in the black shadow of a gothic pillar, hearkening to the cry of the priest who called upon her to repent and be saved. For some little time she only heard the voice of the preacher—the actual words of his discourse fell blankly on her ear. At first it was only a beautiful voice, a grand and solemn voice, rising and sinking on its course like the distant murmur of mighty waves for ever surging towards the shore. Then, little by little, the murmurs took a palpable form, and Isabel Gilbert found that the preacher was telling a story. Ah, that story, that exquisite idyl, that solemn tragedy, that poem so perfect in its beauty, that a sentimental Frenchman has only to garnish it with a few flowery periods, and lo, all the world is set reading it on a sudden, fondly believing that they have found something new. Mr. Austin Colborne was very fond of dwelling on the loveliness of that sublime history, and more frequently founded his discourse upon some divine incident in the records of the four Evangelists than on any obscure saying in St. Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians or the Hebrews. This is no place in which to dwell upon Mr. Austin Colborne, or the simple Christian creed it was his delight to illustrate. He was a Christian, according to the purest and simplest signification of the word. His sermons were within the comprehension of a rustic or a child, yet full and deep enough in meaning to satisfy the strictest of logicians, the sternest of critics. Heaven knows I write of him and of his teaching in all sincerity, and yet the subject seems to have so little harmony with the history of a foolish girl's errors and shortcomings, that I approach it with a kind of terror. I only know that Isabel Gilbert, weeping silently in the dark corner of the curtained pew, felt as she had never felt in all her Graybridge church-going; felt at once distressed and comforted.
Was it strange that, all at once, Isabel Gilbert should open her ears to the sublime story, which, in one shape or other, she had heard so often? Surely the history of all popular preachers goes far to demonstrate that Heaven gives a special power to some voices. When Whitfield preached the Gospel to the miners at Kingswood,—to rugged creatures who were little better than so many savages, but who, no doubt, in some shape or other, had heard that Gospel preached to them before,—the scalding tears ploughed white channels upon the black cheeks as the men listened. At last the voice of all others that had power to move them arose, and melted the stubborn ignorant hearts. Is it inspiration or animal magnetism which gives this power to some special persons? or is it not rather the force of faith, out of which is engendered a will strong enough to take hold of the wills of other people, and bend them howsoever it pleases? When Danton, rugged and gigantic, thundered his hideous demands for new hecatombs of victims, there must have been something in the revolutionary monster strong enough to trample out the common humanity in those who heard him, and mould a mighty populace to his own will and purpose as easily as a giant might fashion a mass of clay. Surely Mirabeau was right. There can be nothing impossible to the man who believes in himself. The masses of this world, being altogether incapable of lasting belief in anything, are always ready to be beaten into any shape by the chosen individual who believes, and is thus of another nature—something so much stronger than all the rest as to seem either a god or a demon. Cromwell appears, and all at once a voice is found for the wrongs of a nation. See how the king and his counsellors go down like corn before the blast of the tempest, while the man with a dogged will, and a sublime confidence in his own powers, plants himself at the helm of a disordered state, and wins for himself the name of Tiger of the Seas. Given Mr. John Law, with ample confidence in his own commercial schemes, and all France is rabid with a sudden madness, beating and trampling one another to death in the Rue Quincampoix. Given a Luther, and all the old papistical abuses are swept away like so much chaff before the wind. Given a Wesley, the believer, the man who is able to preach forty thousand sermons and travel a hundred thousand miles, and, behold, a million disciples exist in this degenerate day to bear testimony to his power.
Was it strange, then, that Isabel Gilbert, so dangerously susceptible of every influence, should be touched and melted by Mr. Colborne's eloquence? She had not been religiously brought up. In the Camberwell household Sunday had been a day on which people got up later than usual, and there were pies or puddings to be made. It had been a day associated with savoury baked meats, and a beer-stained "Weekly Dispatch" newspaper borrowed from the nearest tavern. It had been a day on which Mr. Sleaford slept a good deal on the sofa, excused himself from the trouble of shaving, and very rarely put on his boots. Raffish-looking men had come down to Camberwell in the Sunday twilight, to sit late into the night smoking and drinking, and discoursing in a mysterious jargon known to the household as "business talk." Sometimes of a summer evening, Mrs. Sleaford, awakened to a sense of her religious duties, would suddenly run a raid amongst the junior branches of the family, and hustle off Isabel and one or two of the boys to evening service at the big bare church by the canal. But the spasmodic attendance at divine service had very little effect upon Miss Sleaford, who used to sit staring at the holes in her gloves; or calculating how many yards of riband, at how much per yard, would be required for the trimming of any special bonnet to which her fancy leaned; or thinking how a decent-looking young man up in the gallery might be a stray nobleman, with a cab and tiger waiting somewhere outside the church, who would perhaps fall in love with her before the sermon was finished. She had not been religiously brought up; and the church-going at Graybridge had been something of a bore to her; or at best a quiet lull in her life, which left her free to indulge the foolish vagaries of her vagabond fancy. But now, for the first time, she was touched and melted; the weak sentimental heart was caught at the rebound. She was ready to be anything in the world except a commonplace matron, leading a dull purposeless life at Graybridge. She wanted to find some shrine, some divinity, who would accept her worship; some temple lifted high above the sordid workaday earth, in which she might kneel for ever and ever. If not Roland Lansdell, why then Christianity. She would have commenced her novitiate that night had she been in a Roman Catholic land, where convent-doors were open to receive such as her. As it was, she could only sit quietly in the pew and listen. She would have liked to go to the vestry when the service came to an end, and cast herself at the feet of the curate, and make a full confession of her sins; but she had not sufficient courage for that. The curate might misunderstand her, as Roland Lansdell had done. He might see in her only an ordinarily wicked woman, who wanted to run away from her husband. Vague yearnings towards Christian holiness filled her foolish breast; but as yet she knew not how to put them into any shape. When the congregation rose to leave the church, she lingered to the last, and then crept slowly away, resolved to come again to hear this wonderful preacher. She went to the little station whence the Graybridge omnibus was to start at half-past eight; and after waiting a quarter of an hour took her place in a corner of the vehicle. It was nearly ten when she rang the bell at her husband's gate, and Mrs. Jeffson came out with a grave face to admit her.
"Mr. George had his dinner and tea alone, ma'am," she said in tones of awful reproof, while Isabel stood before the little glass in the sitting-room taking off her bonnet; "and he's gone out again to see some sick folks in the lanes on the other side of the church. He was right down uneasy about you."
"I've been to Hurstonleigh, to hear Mr. Colborne preach," Isabel answered, with a very feeble effort to appear quite at her ease. "I had heard so much about his preaching, and I wanted so to hear him."
It was true that she had heard Austin Colborne talked of amongst her church-going acquaintance at Graybridge; but it was quite untrue that she had ever felt the faintest desire to hear him preach. Had not her whole life been bounded by a magic circle, of which Roland Lansdell was the resplendent centre?