The Sunday after Roland Lansdell's visit to his cousin was a warm May day, and the woodland lanes and meadows through which the master of Mordred Priory walked to Hurstonleigh were bright with wild-flowers. Nearly two months had gone by since he and the Doctor's Wife bad parted on the dull March afternoon which made a crisis in Isabel's life. The warm breath of the early summer fanned the young man's face as he strolled through the long grass under the spreading branches of elm and beech. He had breakfasted early, and had set out immediately after that poor pretence of eating and drinking. He had set out from Mordred in feverish haste; and now that he had walked two or three miles, he looked wan and pale in the vivid light of the bright May morning. To-day he looked as if his cynical talk about himself was not altogether such sentimental nonsense as genial, practical Mr. Raymond thought it. He looked tired, worn, mentally and physically, like a man who has indeed lived his life. Looking at him this morning, young, handsome, clever, and prosperous though he was, there were very few people who would have ventured to prophesy for him a bright and happy existence, a long and useful career. He had a wan, faded, unnatural look in the summer daylight, like a lamp that has been left burning all night. He had only spoken the truth that day in the garden at Mordred. The Lansdells had never been a long-lived race; and a look that lurked somewhere or other in the faces of all the portraits at the Priory might have been seen in the face of Roland Lansdell to-day. He was tired, very tired. He had lived too fast, and had ran through his heritage of animal spirits and youthful enthusiasm like the veriest spendthrift who squanders a fortune in a few nights spent at a gaming-house. The nights are very brilliant while they last, riotous with a wild excitement that can only be purchased at this monstrous cost. But, oh, the blank grey mornings, the freezing chill of that cheerless dawn, from which the spendthrift's eyes shrink appalled when the night is done!
Roland Lansdell was most miserably tired of himself, and all the world except Isabel Gilbert. Life, which is so short when measured by art, science, ambition, glory; life, which always closes too soon upon the statesman or the warrior, whether he dies in the prime of life, like Peel, or flourishes a sturdy evergreen like Palmerston; whether he perishes like Wolfe on the heights of Quebec, or sinks to his rest like Wellington in his simple dwelling by the sea: life, so brief when estimated by a noble standard, is cruelly long when measured by the empty pleasures of an idle worldling with fifteen thousand a year. Emile Angier has very pleasantly demonstrated that the world is much smaller for a rich man than it is for a poor one. My lord the millionaire rushes across wide tracts of varied landscape asleep in the padded corner of a first-class carriage, and only stops for a week or so here and there in great cities, to be bored almost to death by cathedrals and valhallas, picture-galleries and ruined Roman baths, "done" in the stereotyped fashion. While the poorer traveller, jogging along out-of-the-way country roads, with his staff in his hand, and his knapsack on his shoulder, drops upon a hundred pleasant nooks in this wide universe, and can spend a lifetime agreeably in seeing the same earth that the millionaire, always booked and registered all the way through, like his luggage, grows tired of in a couple of years. We have only to read Sterne's "Sentimental Journey" and Dickens's "Uncommercial Traveller," in order to find out how much there is in the world for the wanderer who has eyes to see. Read the story of Mr. Dickens's pedestrian rambles, and then read William Beckford's delicious discontented blas� letters, and see the difference between the great writer, for whom art is long and life is only too short, and the man of pleasure, who squandered all the wealth of his imagination upon the morbid phantasma of "Vathek," and whose talent could find no higher exercise than the planning of objectionable towers.
The lesson which Mr. Lansdell was called upon to learn just now was a very difficult one. For the first time in his life he found that there was something in the world that he could not have; for the first time he discovered what it was to wish wildly, madly for one precious treasure out of all the universe; and to wish in vain.
This morning he was not such a purposeless wanderer as he usually was; he was going to Hurstonleigh church, in the hope of seeing Isabel Gilbert, and ascertaining for himself whether there was any foundation for Lady Gwendoline's insinuation. He wanted to ascertain this; but above all, he wanted to see her—only to see her; to look at the pale face and the dark eyes once more. Yes, though she were the basest and shallowest-hearted coquette in all creation.
Mr. Lansdell was doomed to be disappointed that morning, for the Doctor's Wife was not at Hurstonleigh church. Graybridge would have been scandalized if Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert had not attended morning service in their own parish; so it was only in the afternoon or evening that Isabel was free to worship at the feet of the popular preacher.
The church was very full in the morning, and Roland sat in a pew near the door, waiting patiently until the service concluded. Isabel might be lurking somewhere in the rambling old edifice, though he had not been able to see her. He listened very attentively to the sermon, and bent his head approvingly once or twice during Mr. Colborne's discourse. He had heard so many bad sermons, delivered in divers languages, during his wandering existence, that he had no wish to depreciate a good one. When all was over, he stood at the door of his pew, watching the congregation file slowly and quietly out of the church, and looking for Isabel. But she was not there. When the church was quite empty, he breathed a long regretful sigh, and then followed the rest of the congregation.
"She will come in the afternoon, perhaps," he thought. "Oh, how I love her! what a weak pitiful wretch I must be to feel like this; to feel this sinking at my heart because she is not here; to consider all the universe so much emptiness because her face is missing!"
He went away into a secluded corner of the churchyard, a shadowy corner, where there was an angle in the old wall, below which the river crept in and out among the sedges. Here the salutations of the congregation loitering about the church-door seemed only a low distant hum; here Mr. Lansdell could sit at his ease upon the bank, staring absently at the blue Wayverne, and thinking of his troubles.
The distant murmur of voices, the sound of footsteps, and the rustling of women's light garments in the summer breeze died away presently, and a death-like stillness fell upon the churchyard. All Hurstonleigh was at dinner, being a pious village that took its sabbath meal early, and dined chiefly on cold meats and crisp salads. The place was very still: and Roland Lansdell, lolling idly with his back against the moss-grown wall, had ample leisure for contemplation.
What did he think of during those two long hours in which he sat in the churchyard waiting for the afternoon service? What did he think of? His wasted life; the good things he might have done upon this earth? No! His thoughts dwelt with a fatal persistency upon one theme. He thought of what his life might have been, if Isabel Gilbert had not balked all his plans of happiness. He thought of how he might have been sitting, that very day, at that very hour, on one of the fairest islands in the Mediterranean, with the woman he loved by his side: if she had chosen, if she had only chosen that it should be so. And he had been so mistaken in her, so deluded by his own fatuity, as to believe that any obstacle on her part was utterly out of the question. He had believed that it was only for him to weigh the matter in the balance and decide the turning of the scale.
He sat by the water listening to the church bells as they rang slowly out upon the tranquil atmosphere. It was one of those bright summer days which come sometimes at the close of May, and the sky above Hurstonleigh church was cloudless. When the bells had been ringing for a long time, slow footsteps sounded on the gravel walks upon the other side of the churchyard, with now and then the creaking of a gate or the murmur of voices. The people were coming to church. Roland's heart throbbed heavily in his breast. Was she amongst them? Ah, surely he would have recognized her lightest foot-fall even at that distance. Should he go and stand by the gate, to make sure of seeing her as she came in? No, he could not make a show of himself before all those inquisitive country people; he would wait till the service began, and then go into the church. That half-hour, during which the bells swung to and fro in the old steeple with a weary monotonous clang, seemed intolerably long to Roland Lansdell; but at last, at last, all was quiet, and the only bell to be heard in the summer stillness was the distant tinkle of a sheep-bell far away in the sunlit meadows. Mr. Lansdell got up as the clock struck three, and walked at a leisurely pace to the church.
Mr. Colborne was reading that solemn invitation to the wicked man to repent of his wickedness as the squire of Mordred went into the low porch. The penetrating voice reached the remotest corners of the old building; and yet its tone was low and solemn as an exhortation by a dying man's bed. The church was not by any means so full as it had been in the morning; and there was none of that fluttering noise of bonnet-strings and pocket-handkerchiefs which is apt to disturb the quiet of a crowded edifice. The pew-opener—always on the lookout to hustle stray intruders into pews—pounced immediately upon Mr. Lansdell.
"I should like to sit up-stairs," he whispered, dropping a half-crown into her hand; "can you put me somewhere up-stairs?"
He had reflected that from the gallery he should be better able to see Isabel, if she was in the church. The woman curtsied and nodded, and then led the way up the broad wooden stairs: where would she not have put Mr. Lansdell for such a donation as that which he had bestowed upon her!
The gallery at Hurstonleigh church was a very special and aristocratic quarter. It consisted only of half-a-dozen roomy old pews at one end of the church, immediately opposite the altar, and commanding an excellent view of the pulpit. The chief families of the neighbourhood occupied these six big open pews; and the common herd in the aisles below contemplated these aristocratic persons admiringly in the pauses of the service. As the grand families in the outskirts of Hurstonleigh were not quite such unbating church-goers as the model villagers themselves, these gallery-pews were not generally filled of an afternoon; and it was into one of these that the grateful pew-opener ushered Mr. Lansdell.
She was there; yes, she was there. She was alone, in a pew near the pulpit, on her knees, with her hands clasped and her eyes looking upwards. The high old-fashioned pew shut her in from the congregation about her, but Mr. Lansdell could look down upon her from his post of observation in the gallery. Her face was pale and worn, and her eyes looked larger and brighter than when he had last seen her. Was she in a consumption? Ah, no; it was only the eager yearning soul which was always consuming itself; it was no physical illness, but the sharp pain of a purely mental struggle that had left those traces on her face. Her lover watched her amidst the kneeling congregation; and a kind of holy exaltation in her face reminded him of pictures of saints and angels that he had seen abroad. Was it real, that exalted expression of the pale still face? was it real, or had she begun a new flirtation, a little platonic sentimentalism in favour of the popular preacher?
"The fellow has something in him, and is not by any means bad-looking," thought Mr. Lansdell; "I wonder whether she is laying traps for him with her great yellow-black eyes?" And then in the next moment he thought how, if that look in her pale face were real, and she was really striving to be good,—how then? Had he any right to come into that holy place? for the place was holy, if only by virtue of the simple prayers so simply spoken by happy and pious creatures who were able to believe. Had he any right to come there and trouble this girl in the midst of her struggle to forget him?
"I think she loved me," he mused; "surely I could not be mistaken in that; surely I have known too many coquettes in my life to be duped by one at the last! Yes, I believe she loved me."
The earlier prayers and the psalms were over by this time; and Mrs. Gilbert was seated in her pew facing the gallery, but with the pulpit and reading-desk between. Mr. Colborne began to read the first lesson; and there was a solemn hush in the church. Roland was seized with a sudden desire that Isabel should see him. He wanted to see the recognition of him in her face. Might he not learn the depth of her love, the strength of her regret, by that one look of recognition? A green serge curtain hung before him. He pushed the folds aside; and the brazen rings made a little clanging noise as they slipped along the rod. The sound was loud enough to startle the woman whom Mr. Lansdell was watching so intently. She looked up and recognized him. He saw a white change flit across her face; he saw her light muslin garments fluttered by a faint shiver; and then in the next moment she was looking demurely downwards at the book on her lap, something as she had looked on that morning when he first met her under Lord Thurston's oak.
All through the service Roland Lansdell sat watching her. He made no pretence of joining in the devotions of the congregation; but he disturbed no one. He only sat, grim and sombre-looking, staring down at that one pale face in the pew near the pulpit. A thousand warring thoughts and passionate emotions waged in his breast. He loved her so much that he could not be chivalrous; he could not even be just or reasonable. All through the service he sat watching the face of the woman he loved. If Austin Colborne could have known how strangely his earnest, pleading words fell upon the ears of two of his listeners that afternoon! Isabel Gilbert sat very quietly under all the angry fire of that dark gaze. Only now and then were her eyelids lifted; only now and then did her eyes steal one brief imploring glance at the face in the gallery. In all the church she could see nothing but that face. It absorbed and blotted out all else: and shone down upon her, grand and dazzling, as of old.
She was trying to be good. For the last two months she had been earnestly trying to be good. There was nothing else for her in the world but goodness, seeing that he was lost to her—seeing that a romantic Beatrice-Portinari kind of existence was an impossibility. If she had been a dweller in a Catholic country, she would have gone into a convent; as it was, she could only come to Hurstonleigh to hear Mr. Colborne, whose enthusiasm answered to the vague aspirations of her own ignorant heart. She was trying to be good. She and worthy plain-spoken Mrs. Jeffson were on the best possible terms now, for the Doctor's Wife had taken to staying at home a great deal, and had requested honest Tilly to instruct her in the art of darning worsted socks.
Would the sight of the wicked squire's dark reproachful face undo all the work of these two months? Surely not. To meet him once more—to hear his voice—to feel the strong grasp of his hand—ah, what deep joy! But what good could come of such a meeting? She could never confide in him again. It would be only new pain—wasted anguish. Besides, was there not some glory, some delight, in trying to be good? She felt herself a Louise de la Valli�re standing behind a grating in the convent-parlour, while a kingly Louis pleaded and stormed on the other side of the iron bars.
Some such thoughts as these sustained her all through that afternoon service. The sermon was over; the blessing had been spoken; the congregation began to disperse slowly and quietly. Would he go now? Would he linger to meet her and speak to her? would he go away at once? He did linger, looking at her with an appealing expression in his haggard face. He stood up, as if waiting until she should leave her pew, in order to leave his at the same moment. But she never stirred. Ah, if Louise de la Valli�re suffered as much as that! What wonder that she became renowned for ever in sentimental story!
Little by little the congregation melted out of the aisle. The charity boys from the neighbourhood of the organ-loft came clumping down the stairs. Still Mr. Lansdell stood waiting and watching the Doctor's Wife in the pew below. Still Isabel Gilbert kept her place, rigid and inflexible, until the church was quite empty!
Then Mr. Lansdell looked at her—only one look—but with a world of passion concentrated in its dark fury. He looked at her, slowly folding his arms, and drawing himself to his fullest height. He shrugged his shoulders, with one brief contemptuous movement, as if he flung some burden off him by the gesture, and then turned and left the pew. Mrs. Gilbert heard his firm tread upon the stairs, and she rose from her seat in time to see him pass out of the porch. It is very nice to have a place in romantic story: but there are some bitter pangs to be endured in the life of a Mademoiselle de la Valli�re.