George Gilbert was something more than "knocked up." There had been a great deal of typhoid fever amongst the poorer inhabitants of Graybridge and the neighbouring villages lately—a bad infectious fever, which hung over the narrow lanes and little clusters of cottages like a black cloud; and the parish surgeon, working early and late, subject to sudden chills when his work was hottest, exposed to every variety of temperature at all times, fasting for long hours, and altogether setting at naught those very first principles of health, wherein it was his duty to instruct other people, had paid the common penalty to which all of his profession are, more or less, subject. George Gilbert had caught a touch of the fever. Mr. Pawlkatt senior called early on Monday morning,—summoned by poor terrified Isabel, who was a stranger to sickness, and was frightened at the first appearance of the malady,—and spoke of his rival's illness very lightly, as a "touch of the fever."
"I always said it was infectious," he remarked; "but your husband would have it that it wasn't. It was all the effect of dirty habits, and low living, he said, and not any special and periodical influence in the air. Well, poor fellow, he knows now who is right. You must keep him very quiet. Give him a little toast-and-water, and the lime-draughts I shall send you," and Mr. Pawlkatt went on to give all necessary directions about the invalid.
Unhappily for the patient, it was not the easiest matter in the world to keep him quiet. There was not so much in George Gilbert, according to any poetic or sentimental standard; but there was a great deal in him, when you came to measure him by the far nobler standard of duty. He was essentially "thorough;" and in his own quiet way he was very fond of his profession. He was attached to those rough Midlandshire peasants, whom it had been his duty to attend from his earliest manhood until now. Never before had he known what it was to have a day's illness; and he could not lie tranquilly watching Isabel sitting at work near the window, with the sunlight creeping in at the edges of the dark curtain that had been hastily nailed up to shut out the glaring day;—he could not lie quietly there, while there were mothers of sick children, and wives of sick husbands, waiting for hope and comfort from his lips. True, Mr. Pawlkatt had promised to attend to George's patients; but then, unhappily, George did not believe in Mr. Pawlkatt.—the two surgeons' views were in every way opposed,—and the idea of Mr. Pawlkatt attending the sick people in the lanes, and seizing with delight on the opportunity of reversing his rival's treatment, was almost harder to bear than the thought of the same sufferers being altogether unattended. And, beyond this, Mr. Gilbert, so clever while other people were concerned, was not the best possible judge of his own case; and he would not consent to believe that he had the fever.
"I dare say Pawlkatt likes to see me laid by the heels here, Izzie," he said to his wife, "while he goes interfering with my patients, and bringing his old-fashioned theories to bear. He'll shut up the poor wretched little windows of all those cottages in the lanes, I dare say; and make the rooms even more stifling than they have been made by the builder. He'll frighten the poor women into shutting out every breath of fresh air, and then take every atom of strength away from those poor wasted creatures by his drastic treatment. Dr. Robert James Graves said he only wanted three words for his epitaph, and those words were, 'HE FED FEVERS.' Pawlkatt will be for starving these poor feeble creatures in the lanes. It's no use talking, my dear; I'm a little knocked up, but I've no more fever about me than you have, and I shall go out this evening. I shall go round and see those people. There's a woman in the lane behind the church, a widow, with three children lying ill; and she seems to believe in me, poor creature, as if I was Providence itself. I can't forget the look she gave me yesterday, when she stood on the threshold of her wretched hovel, asking me to save her children, as if she thought it rested with me to save them. I can't forget her look, Izzie. It haunted me all last night, when I lay tossing about; for I was too tired to sleep, somehow or other. And when I think of Pawlkatt pouring his drugs down those children's throats, I—I tell you it's no use, my dear; I'll take a cup of tea, and then get up and dress."
It was in vain that Isabel pleaded; in vain that she brought to her aid Mrs. Jeffson, the vigorous and outspoken, who declared that it would be nothing short of self-murder if Mr. Gilbert insisted on going out that evening; equally in vain the threat of summoning Mr. Pawlkatt. George was resolute; these quiet people always are resolute, not to say obstinate. It is your animated, impetuous, impulsive creatures who can be turned by a breath from the pursuit or purpose they have most vehemently sworn to accomplish. Mr. Gilbert put aside all arguments in the quietest possible manner. He was a medical man, and he was surely the best judge of his own health. He was wanted yonder among his patients, and he must go. Isabel and Mrs. Jeffson retired in melancholy resignation to prepare the tea, which was to fortify the surgeon for his evening's work. George came down-stairs half an hour afterwards, looking, not ill, or even weak; but at once flushed and haggard.
"There's nothing whatever the matter with me, my dear Izzie," he said, as his wife followed him to the door; "I'm only done up by very hard work. I feel tired and cramped in my limbs, as if I'd caught cold somehow or other. I was out all day in the wet, last week, you know; but there's nothing in that. I shall just look in at those people at Briargate, and come back by the lanes; and then an hour or so in the surgery will finish my work, and I shall be able to get a good night's rest. I must have an assistant, my dear. The agricultural population gets very thick about Graybridge; and unless some one takes pity on the poor people, and brings about some improvement in the places they live in, we may look for plenty of fever."
He went out at the little gate, and Isabel watched him going along the lane. He walked a little slower than usual, and that was all. She watched him with a quiet affection on her face. There was no possible phase of circumstance by which she could ever have been brought to love him; but she knew that he was good, she knew that there was something praiseworthy in what he was doing to-night,—this resolute visiting of wretched sick people. It was not the knightly sort of goodness she had adored in the heroes of her choice; but it was good; and she admired her husband a little, in a calm unenthusiastic manner,—as she might have admired a very estimable grandfather, had she happened to possess such a relative. She was trying to be good, remember; and all the sentimental tenderness of her nature had been aroused by George's illness. He was a much more agreeable person lying faint and languid in a shaded room, and requiring his head constantly bathed with vinegar-and-water, than when in the full vigour of health and clumsiness.
Mr. Pawlkatt came in for his second visit half an hour after George had left the house. He was very angry when he was told what had happened, and inveighed solemnly upon his patient's imprudence.
"I sent my son round amongst your husband's patients," he said, "and I must say, I am a little hurt by the want of confidence in me which Mr. Gilbert's conduct exhibits."
Isabel was too much occupied by all manner of contending thoughts to be able to do much towards the soothing of Mr. Pawlkatt's indignation. That gentleman went away with his heart full of bitterness against the younger practitioner.
"If your husband's well enough to go about amongst his patients, he can't want me, Mrs. Gilbert," he said, as Isabel opened the gate for him; "but if you find him much worse, as you are very likely to do after his most imprudent conduct, you know where to send for me. I shall not come again till I'm sent for. Good night."
Isabel sighed as she shut the gate upon the offended surgeon. The world seemed to her quite full of trouble just now. Roland Lansdell was angry with her. Ah! what bitter anger and contempt had been exhibited in his face in the church yesterday! George was ill, and bent on making himself worse, as it seemed; a Person—the person whom of all others the Doctor's Wife most feared—had dropped as it were from the clouds into Midlandshire; and here, added to all this trouble, was Mr. Pawlkatt indignant and offended. She did not go indoors at once; the house seemed gloomy and hot in the summer dusk. She lingered by the gate, looking over the top of the rails at the dusty lane,—the monotonous uninteresting lane, of whose changeless aspect she was so very tired. She was sorry for her husband now that he was ill. It was her nature to love and pity every weak thing in creation. The same kind of tenderness that she had felt long ago for a sick kitten, or a wounded bird, or a forlorn street wanderer of the canine species looking pleadingly at her with great hungry eyes, filled her heart now, as she thought of George Gilbert. Out of the blank emptiness into which he had melted long ago at Roland Lansdell's advent, he emerged now, distinct and palpable, as a creature who wanted pity and affection.
"Is he very ill?" she wondered. "He says himself that he is not: and he is much cleverer than Mr. Pawlkatt."
She looked out into the lane, watching for her husband's coming. Two or three people went slowly by at considerable intervals; and at last, when it was growing quite dark, the figure of a boy, a slouching country-built lad, loomed out of the obscurity.
"Be this Muster Gilbert's the doctor's?" he asked of Isabel. "Yes; do you want him?"
"I doan't want him; but I've got a letter for his wife, from a man that's staying up at our place. Be you she?"
"Yes; give me the letter," answered Isabel, putting her hand over the gate.
She took the missive from the hand of the boy, who resigned it in a slow unwilling manner, and then slouched away. Mrs. Gilbert put the letter in her pocket, and went into the house. The candles had just been taken into the parlour. The Doctor's Wife seated herself at the little table, and took the letter from her pocket and tore it open. It was a very brief and unceremonious kind of epistle, containing only these words:
"I've found comfortable quarters, for the nonce, in a little crib called the Leicester Arms, down in Nessborough Hollow, to the left of the Briargate Road. I suppose you know the place; and I shall expect to see you in the course of to-morrow. Don't forget the sinews of war; and be sure you ask for Captain Morgan.
There was no signature. The letter was written in a big dashing hand, which had sprawled recklessly over a sheet of old-fashioned letter-paper; it seemed a riotous, improvident kind of writing, that gloried in the wasted space and squandered ink.
"How cruel of him to come here!" muttered Isabel, as she tore the letter into a little heap of fragments; "how cruel of him to come! As if I had not suffered enough already; as if the misery and disgrace had not been bitter enough and hard enough to bear."
She rested her elbows on the table, and sat quite still for some time with her face hidden in her hands. Her thoughts were very painful; but, for once in a way, they were not entirely devoted to Roland Lansdell; and yet the master of Mordred Priory did figure in that long reverie. George came in by-and-by, and found her sitting in the attitude into which she had fallen after destroying the letter. She had been very anxious about her husband some time ago; but for the last half-hour her thoughts had been entirely removed from him; and she looked up at him confusedly, almost startled by his coming, as if he had been the last person in the world whom she expected to see. Mr. Gilbert did not notice that look of confusion, but dropped heavily into the nearest chair, like a man who feels himself powerless to go one step farther.
"I'm very ill, Izzie," he said; "it's no use mincing the matter; I am ill. I suppose Pawlkatt is right after all, and I've got a touch of the fever."
"Shall I send for him?" asked Isabel, starting up; "he said I was to send for him if you were worse."
"Not on any account. I know what to do as well as he does. If I should happen to get delirious by-and-by, you can send for him, because I dare say you'd be frightened, poor girl, and would feel more comfortable with a doctor pottering about me. And now listen to me, my dear, while I give you a few directions; for my head feels like a ton weight, and I don't think I shall be able to sit upright much longer."
The doctor proceeded to give his wife all necessary instructions for the prevention of infection. She was to have a separate room prepared for herself immediately; and she was to fumigate the room in which he was to lie, in such and such a manner. As for any attendance upon himself, that would be Mrs. Jeffson's task.
"I don't believe the fever is infectious," Mr. Gilbert said; "I've caught it from the same causes that give it to the poor people: hard work, exposure to bad weather, and the foul air of the places I have to visit. Still we can't be too careful. You'd better keep away from my room as much as possible, Izzie; and let Mrs. Jeffson look after me. She's a strong-minded sort of a woman, who wouldn't be likely to catch a fever, because she'd be the last in the world to trouble her head about the risk of catching it."
But Isabel declared that she herself would wait upon her sick husband. Was she not trying to be good; and did not all Mr. Colborne's sermons inculcate self-sacrifice and compassion, tenderness and pity? The popular curate of Hurstonleigh was perhaps the kind of teacher that some people would have designated a sentimentalist; but his tender, loving exhortations had a fascination which could surely never belong to the tenable threats and awful warnings of a sterner preacher. In spite of Austin Colborne's deep faith in an infinitely grand and beautiful region beyond this lower earth, he did not look upon the world as a howling wilderness, in which Providence intended people to be miserable. He might certainly behold in it a place of probation, a kind of preparatory school, in which very small virtues were expected of ignorant and helpless scholars, wandering dimly towards a starry future: but he did not consider it a universal Dotheboys Hall, presided over by a Providence after the model of Mr. Squeers. He looked into the simple narratives of four historians who flourished some eighteen centuries ago; and in those solemn pages he saw no possible justification for the gloomy view of life entertained by many of his clerical compeers. He found in those sacred histories a story that opened like an idyl; he found bright glimpses of a life in which there were marriage festivals and pleasant gatherings, social feasts and happy Sabbath wanderings through rustic paths betwixt the standing corn; he found pure earthly friendship counted no sin against the claims of Heaven, and passionate parental love not reproved as an unholy idolatry of the creature, but hallowed for ever, by two separate miracles, that stand eternal records of a love so entirely divine as to be omnipotent, so tenderly human as to change the sternest laws of the universe in pity for weak human sorrow.
Mr. Pawlkatt was summoned to his rival's bedside early on the following morning. George's case was quite out of his own hands by this time; for he had grown much worse in the night, and was fain to submit to whatever people pleased to do to him. He was very ill. Isabel sat in the half-darkened room, sometimes reading, sometimes working in the dim light that crept through the curtain, sometimes sitting very quietly wrapt in thought—painful and perplexing thought. Mr. Gilbert was wakeful all through the day, as he had been all through the night, tossing uneasily from side to side, and now and then uttering half-suppressed groans that wrung his wife's heart. She was very foolish—she had been very wicked—but there was a deep fount of tenderness in that sentimental and essentially feminine breast; and I doubt if George Gilbert was not more lovingly watched by his weak erring young wife than ever he could have been by a strong-minded helpmate, who would have frozen any lurking sentiment in Mr. Lansdell's breast by one glance from her pitiless eyes. The Doctor's Wife felt a remorseful compassion for the man who, after his own matter-of-fact fashion, had been very good to her.
"He has never, never been cross to me, as my step-mother used to be," she thought; "he married me without even knowing who I was, and never asked any cruel questions; and even now, if he knew, I think he would have pity upon me and forgive me."
She sat looking at her husband with an earnest yearning expression in her eyes. It seemed as if she wanted to say something to him, but lacked the courage to approach the subject. He was very ill; it was no time to make any unpleasant communication to him. He had been delirious in the night, and had fancied that Mr. Pawlkatt was present, at an hour when that gentleman was snoring comfortably in his own bed. Isabel had been specially enjoined to keep her husband as quiet as it was possible for an active industrious man, newly stricken down by some unlooked-for malady, to be kept. No; whatever she might have to say to him must be left unspoken for the present. Whatever help he might, under ordinary circumstances, have given her, he was utterly powerless to give her now.
The day in that sick chamber seemed terribly long. Not because Isabel felt any selfish weariness of her task; she was only too anxious to be of use to the man she had so deeply wronged; she was only too eager to do something,—something that Mr. Colborne himself might approve,—as an atonement for her sin. But she was quite unused to sickness; and, being of a hyper-sensitive nature, suffered keenly at the sight of any suffering whatever. If the invalid was restless, she fancied directly that he was worse—much worse—in imminent danger, perhaps: if he rambled a little in his talk betwixt sleeping and waking, she sat with his burning hands clasped in hers, trembling from head to foot: if he fell into a profound slumber, she was seized with a sudden terror, fancying him unnaturally quiet, and was fain to disturb him, in her fear lest he should be sinking into some ominous lethargy.
The Doctor's Wife was not one of those excellent nurses who can settle themselves with cheerful briskness in a sick room, and improve the occasion by the darning of a whole basketful of invalided stockings, reserved for some such opportunity. She was not a nurse who could accept the duties of her position in a businesslike way, and polish off each separate task as coolly as a clerk in a banking-house transacts the work assigned to him. Yet she was very quiet withal,—soft of foot, gentle-handed, tender; and George was pleased to see her sitting in the shadowy room, when he lifted his heavy eyelids a little now and then; he was pleased in a dim kind of way to take his medicine from her hand,—the slender little white hand with tapering fingers,—the hand he had admired as it lay lightly on the moss-grown brickwork of the bridge in Hurstonleigh churchyard on the afternoon when he asked her to be his wife.
Mrs. Gilbert sat all day in her husband's room; but about five in the afternoon George fell into a deep slumber, in which Mr. Pawlkatt found him at a little after six o'clock. Nothing could be better than that tranquil sleep, the surgeon said; and when he was gone, Mrs. Jeffson, who had been sitting in the room for some time, anxious to be of use to her master, suggested that Isabel should go down-stairs and out into the garden to get a breath of fresh air.
"You must be a'most stifled, I should think, sitting all day in this room," Tilly said, compassionately. Mrs. Gilbert's face crimsoned all over, as she answered in a timid, hesitating way:
"Yes; I should like to go down-stairs a little, if you think that George is sure to sleep soundly for a long time; and I know you'll take good care of him. I want to go out somewhere—not very far; but I must go to-night."
The Doctor's Wife sat with her back to the light; and Mrs. Jeffson did not see that sudden tide of crimson that rushed into her face, and faded, as she said this; but George Gilbert's housekeeper gave a sniff of disapproval notwithstanding.
"I should have thought if you was the greatest gadderabout that ever was, you'd have stayed quietly at home while your husband was lying ill, Mrs. Gilbert," she said, sharply; "but of course you know your own business best."
"I'm not going far; only—only a little way on the Briargate Road," Isabel answered, piteously; and then her head sank back against the wall behind her, and she sighed a plaintive, almost heart-broken sigh. Her life was very hard just now,—hard and difficult,—begirt with terror and peril, as she thought.
She put on her bonnet and shawl—the darkest and shabbiest she possessed. Mrs. Jeffson watched her, as she stood before the old-fashioned looking-glass, and perceived that she did not even take the trouble to brush the rumpled hair which she pushed under her dingy bonnet. "She can't be going to meet him in that plight, anyhow," thought honest Matilda, considerably pacified by the contemplation of her mistress's toilette. She lifted the curtain and looked out of the window as the garden-gate closed on Isabel, and she saw the Doctor's Wife hurrying away with her veil pulled over her face. There was some kind of mystery about this evening's walk: something that filled the Yorkshirewoman's mind with vague disquietude.
The "touch of the fever," alluded to so lightly by Mr. Pawlkatt, turned out to be a great deal more serious in its nature than either he or George Gilbert had anticipated. The week came to an end, and the parish surgeon was still a prisoner in the room in which his father and mother had died. It seemed quite a long time now since he had been active and vigorous, going about his work all day, mixing medicines in the surgery, and coming into the parlour at stated times to eat hearty meals of commonplace substantial food. Now that he was so weak, and that it was a matter for rejoicing when he took a couple of spoonfuls of beef-tea, Isabel's conscience smote her cruelly as she remembered how she had despised him because of his healthy appetite; with what bitter scorn she had regarded him when he ate ponderous slices of underdone meat, and mopped up the last drop of the goriest-looking gravy with great pieces of bread. He had been ill for only a week, and yet already it seemed quite a normal state of things for him to be lying in that darkened chamber, helpless and uneasy, all through the long summer day. The state of the doctor's health was common talk in Graybridge; as common a subject for idle people's converse as the heat of the weather, or the progress of the green corn in the fields beyond the little town. All manner of discreditable-looking parish patients came every day to the surgery door to inquire after the surgeon's health; and went away downcast and lamenting, when they were told that he grew daily worse. Mrs. Gilbert, going down to answer these people's questions, discovered for the first time how much he was beloved; he who had not one of the attributes of a hero. She wondered sometimes whether it might not be better to wear thick boots, and go about doing good, than to be a used-up aristocratic wanderer, with white hands, and, oh, such delightful varnished boots wrinkled over an arched instep. She was trying to be good herself now—pleased and fascinated by Mr. Colborne's teaching as by some newly-discovered romance—she wanted to be good, and scarcely knew how to set about the task; and, behold, here was the man whom she had so completely ignored and despised, infinitely above her in the region she had entered. But was her romantic attachment to Roland Lansdell laid down at the new altar she had found for herself? Ah, no; she tried very hard to do her duty; but the old sentimental worship still held its place in her heart. She was like some classic pagan newly converted to Christianity, and yet entertaining a lurking love and reverence for the old heathen deities, too grand and beautiful to be cast off all at once.
The first week came to an end, and still Mr. Pawlkatt came twice a day to visit his patient; and still he gave very much the same directions to the untiring nurses who waited on George Gilbert. He was to be kept very quiet; he was to continue the medicine; all the old stereotyped rules were to be observed.
Throughout her husband's illness, Isabel had taken very little rest; though Mr. and Mrs. Jeffson would gladly have kept watch alternately with her in the sick room, and were a little wounded when banished therefrom. But Mrs. Gilbert wanted to be good; the harder the task was, the more gladly did she undertake it. Very often, quite alone in that quiet room, she sat watching through the stillest hours of the night.
During all those solemn watches did any bad thoughts enter her mind? did she ever think that she might be free to marry Roland Lansdell if the surgeon's illness should terminate fatally? Never—never once did such a dark and foul fancy enter the regions of her imagination. Do not believe that because she had been a foolish woman she must necessarily be a vicious woman. Again and again, on her knees by her husband's bed, she supplicated that his life might be spared. She had never encountered death, and her imagination shrank appalled from the thought of that awful presence. A whole after-life of happiness could not have atoned to her for the one pang of seeing a dreadful change come upon the familiar face. Sometimes, in spite of herself, though she put away the thought from her with shuddering horror, the idea that George Gilbert might not recover would come into her mind. He might not recover: the horror which so many others had passed through might overtake her. Oh, the hideous tramp of the undertaker's men upon the stairs; the knocking, unlike all other knocking; the dreadful aspect of the shrouded house! If—if any such sorrow came upon her, Mrs. Gilbert thought that she would join some community of holy women, and go about doing good until she died.
Was it so very strange, this sudden conversion? Surely not! In these enthusiastic natures sentiment may take any unexpected form. It is a question whether a Madame de Chantal shall write hazy devotional letters to a St. Francis de Sales, or peril her soul for the sake of an earthly lover.