Doctor's Wife, The



After that scene in the church at Hurstonleigh, Roland Lansdell went back to Mordred; to think, with even greater bitterness, of the woman he loved. That silent encounter—the sight of the pale face, profoundly melancholy, almost statuesque in its air of half-despairing resignation—had exercised no softening influence on the mind of this young man, who could not understand why the one treasure for which he languished should be denied to him. He could not be generous or just towards the woman who had fooled him with false hopes, and then left him to despair; he could not have pity upon the childish creature who had wandered unawares upon the flowery margin of a hideous gulf, and had fled, aghast and horrified, at the first glimpse of the yawning depths below. No; his anger against Isabel could not have been more intense had she been a hardened and practised coquette who had deliberately lured him to his ruin.

"I suppose this is what the world calls a virtuous woman," he cried, bitterly. "I dare say Lucretia was this sort of person; and dropped her eyelids to show off the dark lashes, and made the most of her tapering arms over the spinning-wheel, and summoned conscious blushes into her cheeks when Tarquin looked at her. These virtuous women delight in clamour and scandal. I've no doubt Mrs. Gilbert profoundly enjoyed herself during our rencontre in the church, and went away proud of the havoc she had made in me—the haggard lines about my mouth, and the caverns under my eyes."

"It is not because she is a good woman, it is not because she loves her husband, that she refuses to listen to me," he thought; "it is only a paltry provincial terror of an esclandre that ties her to this wretched place. And when she has broken my heart, and when she has ruined my life, she goes to church at Hurstonleigh, and sits in a devotional pose, with her big eyes lifted up to the parson's face, like a Madonna by Giorgione, in order that she may rehabilitate herself in the consideration of Graybridge."

He could neither be just nor patient. Sometimes he laughed aloud at his own folly. Was he, who had prided himself on his cynical disbelief in the depth or endurance of any emotion—was he the man to go mad for love of a pale face, and darkly pensive eyes? Ah, yes! it is just these scoffers who take the fever most deeply, when the infection seizes them.

"I—I, who have lived my life out, as I thought, wherever life is most worth living,—I suffer like this at last for the sake of a village surgeon's half-educated wife? I—who have given myself the airs of a Lauzun or a Brummel—am perishing for the love of a woman who doesn't even know how to put on her gloves!"

Every day Mr. Lansdell resolved to leave Midlandshire to-morrow; but to-morrow found him still lingering at the Priory, in a hopeless, purposeless way,-lingering for he knew not what,—lingering, perhaps, for want of the mere physical energy required for the brief effort of departure. He would go to Constantinople overland; there would be more fatigue in the journey that way. Might not a walk across Mount Cenis cure him of his foolish love for Isabel Gilbert? Did not D'Alembert retire from the world and all its troubles into the peaceful pleasures of geometry? Did not Goethe seek relief from some great sorrow in the study of a new language? Roland Lansdell made a faint effort to acquire the Arabic alphabet during those wretched idle days and nights at Mordred. He would study the Semitic languages; all of them. He would go in for the Book of Job. Many people have got plenty of hard work out of the Book of Job. But the curly little characters in the Arabic alphabet slipped out of Mr. Lansdell's brain as if they had been so many lively young serpents; and he only made so much headway in the attainment of the Semitic languages as enabled him to scrawl an Arabic rendering of Isabel Gilbert's name over the leaves of a blotting-book. He was in love. No schoolboy, bewitched by a pretty blue-eyed, blue-ribanded, white-robed partner at a dancing-school, was ever more foolishly in love than the young squire of Mordred, who had filled a whole volume with various metrical versions of his profound contempt for his species in general, and the feminine portion of them in particular. He had set up that gladsome halloo before he was safely out of the wood; and now he found to his cost that he had been premature; for lo, the dense forest hemmed him in on every side, and there seemed no way of escape out of the sombre labyrinth.

George Gilbert had been ill nearly a fortnight, and the master of Mordred Priory still lingered in Midlandshire. He had heard nothing of the surgeon's illness, for he had never been much given to gossiping with his body-servant; and that gentleman was especially disinclined to offer his master any unasked-for information just now; for, as he expressed himself in the servants' hall, "Mr. Lansdell's been in a devil of a temper almost ever since we come back to the Priory; and you might as lief talk to a tiger as speak to him, except when you're spoken to and goodness knows that ain't very often; for anything as gloomy as his ways has become of late, I never remember to have met with; and if it wasn't that the remuneration is high, and the perquisites never greasy about the elbows, or frayed at the edges,—which I've been with a member of the peerage that wore his clothes till they was shameful shabby,—it wouldn't be very long as I should trouble this dismal old dungeon with my presence."

Only from Lady Gwendoline was Roland likely to hear of George Gilbert's illness; and he had not been to Lowlands lately. He had a vague idea that he would go there some morning, and ask his cousin to marry him, and so make an end of it; but he deferred the carrying out of that idea indefinitely, as a man who contemplates suicide may postpone the ghastly realization of his purpose, keeping his loaded pistol or his prussic acid handy against the time when it shall be wanted. He had never ridden past the surgeon's house since that day on which he had seen Isabel seated in the parlour. He had indeed shunned Graybridge and the Graybridge road altogether.

"She shall not triumph in the idea that I pursue her," he thought; "her vain shallow heart shall not be gratified by the knowledge of my pitiful weakness. I bared my foolish breast before her once, and she sat in her pew playing at devotion, and let me go away with my despair. She might have thrown herself in my way that afternoon, if only for a few moments. She might have spoken to me, if only half-a-dozen commonplace words of comfort; but it pleased her better to exhibit her piety. I dare say she knows as well as I do how that devotional air harmonizes with her beauty; and she went home happy, no doubt, in the knowledge that she had made one man miserable. And that's the sort of woman whom the world calls virtuous,—a creature in whom vanity is strong enough to usurp the place of every other passion. For a really good woman, for a true-hearted wife who loves her husband, and before whose quiet presence the veriest libertine bows his head abashed and reverent,—for such a woman as that I have no feeling but respect and admiration; but I hate and despise these sentimental coquettes, who preach secondhand platonism, borrowed from the misty pages of Shelley."

But it was not always that Roland Lansdell was thus bitter against the woman he loved. Sometimes in the midst of his rage and anger a sudden current of tenderness swept across the dark waters of his soul, and for a little while the image of Isabel Gilbert appeared to him in its true colours. He saw her as she really was: foolish, but not base; weak, but not hypocritical; sentimental, and with some blemish of womanly vanity perhaps, but not designing. Sometimes amidst all contending emotions, in which passion, and selfishness, and wounded pride, and mortified vanity, made a very whirlpool of bitter feeling,—sometimes amidst such baser emotions as these, true love—the sublime, the clear-sighted—arose for a brief interval triumphant, and Roland Lansdell thought tenderly of the woman who had shattered his future.

"My poor little girl,-my poor innocent childish love," he thought, in these moments of purer feeling; "if I could only be noble, and go away, and forgive you, and leave you to grow into a good woman, with that well-meaning commonplace husband, whom it is your duty to honour and obey."

Nothing could be more irregular than Mr. Lansdell's habits during this period. The cook at Mordred declared that such a thing as a souffl� was a simple impossibility with an employer who might require his dinner served at any time between the hours of seven and nine. The fish was flabby, the joints were leathery; and all the hot-water reservoirs in the Mordred dinner-service could not preserve the cook's most special plats from stagnation. That worthy artist shrugged his shoulders over the ruins of his work, and turned his attention to the composition of a menu in which the best things were to be eaten cold. He might have spared himself the trouble. The young man, who, naturally careless as to what he ate, had, out of pure affectation, been wont to outrival the insolence of the oldest bon-vivants, now scarcely knew the nature of the dishes that were set before him. He ate and drank mechanically; and it may be drank a little deeper than he had been accustomed to drink of the famous clarets his father and grandfather had collected. But eating delighted him not, nor drinking neither. The wine had no exhilarating effect upon him; he sat dull and gloomy after a magnum of the famous claret—sat with the Arabic grammar open before him, wondering what was to become of him, now that his life was done.

He was sitting thus in the library, with the sombre Rembrandt face that was something like his own looking gravely down upon him; he was sitting thus by the lamplit table one sultry June evening, when George Gilbert had been ill nearly a fortnight. The light of the lamp—a soft subdued light, shining dimly through a great moon-like orb of thick ground-glass—fell chiefly on the open book, and left the student's face in shadow. But even in that shadow the face looked wan and haggard, and the something that lurked somewhere in all the Lansdell portraits—the something that you may see in every picture of Charles the First of England and Marie Antoinette of France, whensoever and by whomsoever painted—was very visible in Roland's face to-night. He had been sitting brooding over his books, but scarcely reading half-a-dozen pages, ever since nine o'clock, and it was now half-past eleven. He was stretching his hand towards the bell in order to summon his valet, and release that personage from the task of sitting up any longer, yawning alone in the housekeeper's room,—for the habits of Mordred Priory had never lost the sobriety of Lady Anna Lansdell's r�gime, and all the servants except Roland's valet went to bed at eleven,—when that gentleman entered the library.

"Would you please to see any one, sir?" he asked.

"Would I please to see any one?" cried Roland, turning in his low easy-chair, and staring at the solemn face of his valet; "who should want to see me at such a time of night? Is there anything wrong? Is it any one from-from Lowlands?"

"No, sir, it's a strange lady; leastways, when I say a strange lady, I think, sir,—though, her veil being down, and a very thick veil, I should not like to speak positive,—I think it's Mrs. Gilbert, the doctor's lady, from Graybridge."

Mr. Lansdell's valet coughed doubtfully behind his hand, and looked discreetly at the carved oaken bosses in the ceiling. Roland started to his feet.

"Mrs. Gilbert," he muttered, "at such an hour as this! It can't be; she would never—Show the lady here, whoever she is," he added aloud to his servant. "There must be something wrong; it must be some very important business that brings any one to this place to-night."

The valet departed, closing the door behind him, and Roland stood alone upon the hearth, waiting for his late visitor. All the warmer tints—he never had what people call "a colour"—faded out of his face, and left him very pale. Why had she come to him at such a time? What purpose could she have in coming to that house, save one? She had come to revoke her decision. For a moment a flood of rapture swept into his soul, warm and revivifying as the glory of a sudden sunburst on a dull grey autumn day; but in the next moment,—so strange and subtle an emotion is that which we call love,—a chill sense of regret crept into his mind, and he was almost sorry that Isabel should come to him thus, even though she were to bring him the promise of future happiness.

"My poor ignorant, innocent girl—how hard it seems that my love must for ever place her at a disadvantage!" he thought.

The door was opened by the valet, with as bold a sweep as if a duchess had been entering in all the glory of her court-robes, and Isabel came into the room. One glance showed Mr. Lansdell that she was very nervous, that she was suffering cruelly from the terror of his presence; and it may be that even before she had spoken, he understood that she had not come to announce any change in her decision, any modification of the sentiments that had led to their parting at Thurston's Crag. There was nothing desperate in her manner—nothing of the dramatic aplomb that belongs to the grand crises of life. She stood before him pale and irresolute, with pleading eyes lifted meekly to his face.

Mr. Lansdell wheeled forward a chair, but he was obliged to ask her to sit down; and even then she seated herself with the kind of timid irresolution he had so often seen in a burly farmer come to supplicate abnormal advantages in the renewal of a lease.

"I hope you are not angry with me for coming here at such a time," she said, in a low tremulous voice; "I could not come any earlier, or I——"

"It can never be anything but a pleasure to me to see you," Roland answered, gravely, "even though the pleasure is strangely mingled with pain. You have come to me, perhaps, because you are in some kind of trouble, and have need of my services in some way or other. I am very much pleased to think that you can so far confide in me; I am very glad to think that you can rely on my friendship."

Mr. Lansdell said this because he saw that the Doctor's Wife had come to demand some favour at his hands, and he wished to smooth the way for that demand. Isabel looked up at him with something like surprise in her gaze. She had not expected that he would be like this—calm, self-possessed, reasonable. A mournful feeling took possession of her heart. She thought that his love must have perished altogether, or he could not surely have been so kind to her, so gentle and dispassionate. She looked at him furtively as he lounged against the farther angle of the massive mantel-piece. His transient passion had worn itself out, no doubt, and he was deep in the tumultuous ocean of a new love affair,—a glittering duchess, a dark-eyed Clotilde,—some brilliant creature after one of the numerous models in the pages of the "Alien."

"You are very, very good not to be angry with me," she said; "I have come to ask you a favour—a very great favour—and I——"

She stopped, and sat silently twisting the handle of her parasol—the old green parasol under whose shadow Roland had so often seen her. It was quite evident that her courage had failed her altogether at this crisis.

"It is not for myself I am going to ask you this favour," she said, still hesitating, and looking down at the parasol; "it is for another person, who—it is a secret, in fact, and——"

"Whatever it is, it shall be granted," Roland answered, "without question, without comment."

"I have come to ask you to lend me,—or at least I had better ask you to give it me, for indeed I don't know when I should ever be able to repay it,—some money, a great deal of money,—fifty pounds."

She looked at him as if she thought the magnitude of the sum must inevitably astonish him, and she saw a tender half-melancholy smile upon his face.

"My dear Isabel—my dear Mrs. Gilbert—if all the money I possess in the world could secure your happiness, I would willingly leave Midlandshire to-morrow a penniless man. I would not for the world that you should be embarrassed for an hour, while I have more money than I know what to do with. I will write you a cheque immediately,—or, better still, half-a-dozen blank cheques, which you can fill up as you require them."

But Isabel shook her head at this proposal. "You are very kind," she said; "but a cheque would not do. It must be money, if you please; the person for whom I want it would not take a cheque."

Roland Lansdell looked at her with a sudden expression of doubt,—of something that was almost terror in his face.

"The person for whom you want it," he repeated. "It is not for yourself, then, that you want this money?"

"Oh no, indeed! What should I want with so much money?"

"I thought you might be in debt. I thought that——Ah, I see; it is for your husband that you want the money."

"Oh no; my husband knows nothing about it. But, oh, pray, pray don't question me. Ah, if you knew how much I suffered before I came here to-night! If there had been any other person in the world who could have helped me, I would never have come here; but there is no one, and I must get the money."

Roland's face grew darker as Mrs. Gilbert spoke. Her agitation, her earnestness, mystified and alarmed him.

"Isabel," he cried, "God knows I have little right to question you; but there is something in the manner of your request that alarms me. Can you doubt that I am your friend,—next to your husband your best and truest friend, perhaps?—forget every word that I have ever said to you, and believe only what I say to-night—to-night, when all my better feelings are aroused by the sight of you. Believe that I am your friend, Isabel, and for pity's sake trust me. Who is this person who wants money of you? Is it your step-mother? if so, my cheque-book is at her disposal."

"No," faltered the Doctor's Wife, "it is not for my step-mother, but——"

"But it is for some member of your family?"

"Yes," she answered, drawing a long breath; "but, oh, pray do not ask me any more questions. You said just now that you would grant me the favour I asked without question or comment. Ah, if you knew how painful it was to me to come here!"

"Indeed! I am sorry that it was so painful to you to trust me."

"Ah, if you knew——" Isabel murmured in a low voice, speaking to herself rather than to Roland.

Mr. Lansdell took a little bunch of keys from his pocket, and went across the room to an iron safe, cunningly fashioned after the presentment of an antique ebony cabinet. He opened the ponderous door, and took a little cash-box from one of the shelves.

"My steward brought me a bundle of notes yesterday. Will you take what you want?" he asked, handing the open box to Isabel.

"I would rather you gave me the money; I do not want more than fifty pounds."

Roland counted five ten-pound notes and handed them to Isabel. She rose and stood for a few moments, hesitating as if she had something more to say,—something almost as embarrassing in its nature as the money-question had been.

"I—I hope you will not think me troublesome," she said; "but there is one more favour that I want to ask of you."

"Do not hesitate to ask anything of me; all I want is your confidence."

"It is only a question that I wish to ask. You talked some time since of going away from Midlandshire—from England; do you still think of doing so?"

"Yes, my plans are all made for an early departure."

"A very early departure? You are going almost immediately?"

"Immediately,—to-morrow, perhaps. I am going to the East. It may be a long time before I return to England."

There was a little pause, during which Roland saw that a faint flush kindled in Isabel Gilbert's face, and that her breath came and went rather quicker than before.

"Then I must say good-bye to-night," she said.

"Yes, it is not likely we shall meet again. Good night—good-bye. Perhaps some day, when I am a pottering old man, telling people the same anecdotes every time I dine with them, I shall come back to Midlandshire, and find Mr. Gilbert a crack physician in Kylmington, petted by rich old ladies, and riding in a yellow barouche;—till then, good-bye."

He held Isabel's hand for a few moments,—not pressing it ever so gently,—only holding it, as if in that frail tenure he held the last link that bound him to love and life. Isabel looked at him wonderingly. How different was this adieu from that passionate farewell under Lord Thurston's oak, when he had flung himself upon the ground and wept aloud in the anguish of parting from her! The melodramas she had witnessed at the Surrey Theatre were evidently true to nature. Nothing could be more transient than the wicked squire's love.

"Only one word more, Mrs. Gilbert," Roland said, after that brief pause. "Your husband—does he know about this person who asks for money from you?"

"No—I—I should have told him—I think—and asked him to give me the money, only he is so very ill; he must not be troubled about anything."

"He is very ill—your husband—is ill?"

"Yes,—I thought every one knew. He is very, very ill. It is on that account I came here so late. I have been sitting in his room all day. Good night."

"But you cannot go back alone; it is such a long way. It will be two o'clock in the morning before you can get back to Graybridge. I will drive you home; or it will be better to let my coachman—my mother's old coachman—drive you home."

It was in vain that Mrs. Gilbert protested against this arrangement. Roland Lansdell reflected that as the Doctor's Wife had been admitted by his valet, her visit would of course be patent to all the other servants at their next morning's breakfast. Under these circumstances, Mrs. Gilbert could not leave Mordred with too much publicity; and a steady old man, who had driven Lady Anna Lansdell's fat white horses for slow jog-trot drives along the shady highways and by-ways of Midlandshire, was aroused from his peaceful slumbers and told to dress himself, while a half-somnolent stable-boy brought out a big bay horse and an old-fashioned brougham. In this vehicle Isabel returned very comfortably to Graybridge; but she begged the coachman to stop at the top of the lane, where she alighted and bade him good night.

She found all dark in the little surgery, which she entered by means of her husband's latch-key; and she crept softly up the stairs to the room opposite that in which George Gilbert lay, watched over by Mrs. Jeffson.

1 of 2
2 of 2