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Doctor's Wife, The

CHAPTER XXIX.

THE FIRST WHISPER OF THE STORM.

There was no omnibus to take Mrs. Gilbert back to Graybridge after the service at Hurstonleigh; but there had been some Graybridge people at church, and she found them lingering in the churchyard talking to some of the model villagers, enthusiastic in their praises of Mr. Colborne's eloquence.

Amongst these Graybridge people was Miss Sophronia Burdock, the maltster's daughter, very radiant in a bright pink bonnet, so vivid as almost to extinguish her freckles, and escorted by young Mr. Pawlkatt, the surgeon's son, and his sister, a sharp-nosed, high-cheek-boned damsel, who looked polite daggers at the Doctor's Wife. Was not Mr. George Gilbert a rising man in Graybridge? and was it likely that the family of his rival should have any indulgence for the shortcomings of his pale-faced wife?

But Miss Sophronia was in the humour to heap coals of fire on the head of the nursery-governess whom George Gilbert had chosen to marry. Sophronia was engaged, with her father's full consent, to the younger Pawlkatt, who was to insure his life for the full amount of the fair damsel's dower, which was to be rigidly tied up for her separate use and maintenance, &c., and who looked of so sickly and feeble a constitution that the maltster may have reasonably regarded the matrimonial arrangement as a very fair speculation. Sophronia was engaged, and displayed the little airs and graces that Graybridge considered appropriate to the position of an engaged young lady. "The only way to make love now," said Mr. Nash to Goldsmith, "is to take no manner of notice of the lady." And Graybridge regarded the art of polite courtship very much in this fashion, considering that a well-bred damsel could not possibly be too contemptuously frigid in her treatment of the man whom she had chosen from all other men to be her partner for life. Acting on this principle, Miss Burdock, although intensely affectionate in her manner to Julia Pawlkatt, and warmly gushing in her greeting of the Doctor's Wife, regarded her future husband with a stony glare, only disturbed by a scornful smile when the unfortunate young man ventured to make any remark. To reduce a lover to a state of coma, and exhibit him in that state to admiring beholders for an entire evening, was reckoned high art in Graybridge.

Everybody in the little Midlandshire town knew that Miss Burdock and Mr. Pawlkatt were engaged; and people considered that Augustus Pawlkatt had done a very nice thing for himself by becoming affianced to a young lady who was to have four thousand pounds tightly tied up for her separate use and maintenance.

The consciousness of being engaged and having a fortune, combined to render Sophronia especially amiable to everybody but the comatose "future." Was Isabel alone, and going to walk back? "Oh, then, in that case you must go with us!" cried Miss Burdock, with a view to the exhibition of the unfortunate Augustus in peripatetic coma.

What could Mrs. Gilbert say, except that she would be delighted to go home with them? She was thinking of him; she was looking to see his head towering above the crowd. Of course it would tower above that crowd, or any crowd; but he was like the famous Spanish fleet in the "Critic," inasmuch as she could not see him because he was not to be seen. She went with Miss Burdock and her companions out of the churchyard, towards the meadow-path that led across country towards Graybridge. They walked in a straggling, uncomfortable manner, for Sophronia resolutely refused all offers of her future husband's arm; and he was fain to content himself with the cold comfort of her parasol, and a church-service of ruby velvet, with a great many ribands between the pages.

The conversation during that Sabbath afternoon walk was not very remarkable for liveliness or wisdom. Isabel only spoke when she was spoken to, and even then like a bewildered creature newly awakened from a dream. Miss Julia Pawlkatt, who was an intellectual young person, and prided herself upon not being frivolous, discoursed upon the botanical names and attributes of the hedge-blossoms beside the path, and made a few remarks on the science of medicine as adapted to female study, which would have served for the ground-work of a letter in a Sunday paper.

Miss Burdock, who eschewed intellectual acquirements, and affected to be a gushing thing of the Dora Spenlow stamp, entreated her future sister-in-law not to be "dreadful," and asked Isabel's opinion upon several "dears" of bonnets exhibited that afternoon in Hurstonleigh church; and the comatose future, who so rarely spoke that it seemed hard he should always commit himself when he did speak, ventured a few remarks, which were received with black and frowning looks by the idol of his heart.

"I say, Sophronia, weren't you surprised to see Mr. Lansdell in the gallery?" the young man remarked, interrupting his betrothed in a discussion of a bunch of artificial may on the top of a white-tulle bonnet so sweet and innocent-looking. "You know, dear, he isn't much of a church-goer, and people do say that he's an atheist; yet there he was as large as life this afternoon, and I thought him looking very ill. I've heard my father say that all those Lansdells are consumptive."

Miss Burdock made frowning and forbidding motions at the unhappy youth with her pale-buff eyebrows, as if he had mentioned an improper French novel, or started some other immoral subject. Poor Isabel's colour went and came. Consumptive! Ah, what more likely, what more proper, if it came to that? These sort of people were intended to die early. Fancy the Giaour pottering about in his eightieth year, and boasting that he could read small print without spectacles! Imagine the Corsair on the parish; or Byron, or Keats, or Shelley grown old, and dim, and grey! Ah, how much better to be erratic and hapless Shelley, drowned in an Italian lake, than worthy respectable Samuel Rogers, living to demand, in feeble bewilderment, "And who are you, ma'am?" of an amiable and distinguished visitor! Of course Roland Lansdell would die of consumption; he would fade little by little, like that delightful Lionel in "Rosalind and Helen."

Isabel improved the occasion by asking, Mr. Augustus Pawlkatt if many people died of consumption. She wanted to know what her own chances were. She wanted so much to die, now that she was good. The unhappy Augustus was quite relieved by this sudden opening for a professional discourse, and he and his sister became scientific, and neglected Sophronia, while they gave Isabel a good deal of useful information respecting tubercular disease, phthisis, &c. &c.; whereon Miss Burdock, taking offence, lapsed into a state of sullen gloom highly approved by Graybridge as peculiarly befitting an engaged, young lady who wished to sustain the dignity of her position.

At last they came out of a great corn-field into the very lane in which George Gilbert's house was situated; and Isabel's friends left her at the gate. She had done something to redeem her character in Graybridge by her frequent attendance at Hurstonleigh church, which was as patent to the gossips as ever her visits to Lord Thurston's oak had been. She had been cured of running after Mr. Lansdell, people said. No doubt George Gilbert had discovered her goings-on, and had found a means of clipping her wings. It was not likely that Graybridge would credit her with any such virtue as repentance, or a wish to be a better woman than she had been. Graybridge regarded her as an artful and presuming creature, whose shameful goings-on had been stopped by marital authority.

She went into the parlour, and found the tea-things laid on the little table, and Mr. Gilbert lying on the sofa, which was too short for him by a couple of feet, and was eked out by a chair, on which his clumsy boots rested. Isabel had never seen him give way to any such self-indulgence before; but as she bent over him, gently enough, if not tenderly, he told her that his head ached and he was tired, very tired; he had been in the lanes all the afternoon,—the people about there were very bad,—and he had been at work in the surgery since coming in. He put his hand in Isabel's, and pressed hers affectionately. A very little attention from his pretty young wife gratified him and made him happy.

"Why, George," cried Mrs. Gilbert, "your hand is as hot as a burning coal!"

Yes, he was very warm, he told her; the weather was hot and oppressive; at least, he had found it so that afternoon. Perhaps he had been hurrying too much, walking too fast; he had upset himself somehow or other.

"If you'll pour out the tea. Izzie, I'll take a cup, and then go to bed," he said; "I'm regularly knocked up."

He took not one cup only, but four cups of tea, pouring the mild beverage down his throat at a draught; and then he went up to the room overhead, walking heavily, as if he were very tired.

"I'm sure you're ill, George," Isabel said, as he left the parlour; "do take something—some of that horrid medicine you give me sometimes."

"No, my dear, there's nothing the matter with me. What should there be amiss with me, who never had a day's illness in my life? I must have an assistant, Izzie; my work's too hard—that's what is the matter."

Mrs. Gilbert sat in the dusk for a little while after her husband had left her, thinking of that last look which Roland Lansdell had given her in the church.

Heaven knows how long she might have sat thinking of him, if Mrs. Jeffson had not come in with those two miserable mould-candles, which were wont to make feeble patches of yellow haze, not light, in the doctor's parlour. After the candles had been brought Isabel took a book from the top of the little chiffonier by the fireplace. It was a religious book. Was she not trying to be good now, and was not goodness incompatible with the perusal of Shelley's poetry on a Sunday? It was a very dry religious book, being in fact a volume of Tillotson's sermons, with more hard logic, and firstly, secondly, and thirdly, than ordinary human nature could support. Isabel sat with the volume open before her, staring hopelessly at the pale, old-fashioned type, and going back a little way every now and then when she caught her thoughts far away from the Reverend Tillotson. She sat thus till after the clock had struck ten. She was all alone in the lower part of the house at that hour, for the Jeffsons had gone clumping up-stairs to bed at half-past eight. She sat alone, a poor childish, untaught, unguided creature, staring at Tillotson, and thinking of Roland Lansdell; yet trying to be good all the time in her own feeble way. She sat thus, until she was startled by a cautious single knock at the door. She started from her seat at the sound; but she went boldly enough, with the candle in her hand, to answer the summons.

There was nothing uncommon in a late knocking at the doctor's door,—some one from the lanes wanted medicine, no doubt; the people in the lanes were always wanting medicine. Mrs. Gilbert opened the door, and looked out into the darkness. A man was standing there, a well-clad, rather handsome-looking man, with broad shoulders, bold black eyes, and a black beard that covered all the lower part of his face. He did not wait to be invited to enter, but walked across the threshold like a man who had a right to come into that house, and almost pushed Isabel on one side as he did so. At first she only stared at him with a blank look of wonder, but all at once her face grew as white as the plaster on the wall behind her.

"You!" she gasped, in a whisper; "you here!"

"Yes, me! You needn't stare as if you saw a ghost. There's nothing so very queer about me, is there? You're a nice young lady, I don't think, to stand there shivering and staring. Where's your husband?"

"Up-stairs. Oh, why, why did you come here?" cried the Doctor's Wife, piteously, clasping her hands like a creature in some extremity of fear and trouble; "how could you be so cruel as to come here; how could you be so cruel as to come?"

"How could I be so—fiddlesticks!" muttered the stranger, with supreme contempt. "I came here because I had nowhere else to go, my lassie. You needn't whimper; for I shan't trouble you very long—this is not exactly the sort of place I should care to hang-out in: if you can give me a bed in this house for to-night, well and good; if not, you can give me a sovereign, and I'll find one elsewhere. While I am here, remember my name's Captain Morgan, and I'm in the merchant service,—just home from the Mauritius."



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