Doctor's Wife, The



The moon was slowly rising behind a black belt of dense foliage,—a noble screen of elm and beech that sheltered Lord Ruysdale's domain from the common world without,—as Roland Lansdell crossed the lawn, and went in amongst the thickest depths of the park. At Lowlands there were no smooth glades, and romantic waterfalls, no wonderful effects of landscape-gardening, such as adorned Mordred Priory. The Earls of Ruysdale had been more or less behind the world for the last century and a half; and the land about the old red-brick mansion was only a tangled depth of forest, in which the deer browsed peacefully, undisturbed by the ruthless handiwork of trim modern improvement.

The lonely wildness of the place suited Roland Lansdell's mood to-night. At first he had walked very rapidly, even breaking into a run now and then; so feverishly and desperately did he desire to reach the spot where he might perhaps find that which would confirm his despair. But all at once, when he had gone some distance from the house, and the lights in Lady Gwendoline's drawing-room were shut from him by half the width of the park, he stopped suddenly, leaning against a tree, faint and almost breathless. He stopped for the first time to think of what he had heard. The hot passion of anger, the fierce sense of outraged pride, had filled his breast so entirely as to sweep away every softer feeling, as flowers growing near a volcanic mountain may be scattered by the rolling lava-flood that passes over them. Now, for the first time, he lingered a little to reflect upon what he had heard. Could it be true? Could it be that this woman had deceived him,—this woman for whom he had been false to all the teaching of his life,—this woman, at whose feet he had offered up that comfortable philosophy which found an infallible armour against sorrow in supreme indifference to all things under heaven,—this woman, for whose sake he had consented to reassume the painful heritage of humanity, the faculty of suffering?

"And she is like the rest, after all," he thought; "or only a little worse than the rest. And I had forgotten so much for her sake. I had blotted out the experience of a decade in order that I might believe in the witchery of her dark eyes. I, the man of half-a-dozen seasons in London and Paris, Vienna and St. Petersburg, had sponged away every base record in the book of my memory, so that I might scrawl her name upon the blank pages; and now I am angry with her—with her, poor pitiful creature, who I suppose is only true to her nature when she is base and false. I am angry with her, when I have only my own folly to blame for the whole miserable business. I am angry with her, just as if she were a responsible being; as if she could be anything but what she is. And yet there have been good women in the world," he thought, sadly. "My mother was a good woman. I used to fancy sometimes what might have happened if I had known her in my mother's lifetime. I have even made a picture in my mind of the two women, happy together, and loving each other. Heaven forgive me! And after all her pretty talk about platonism and poetry, she betrays me for a low intrigue, and a rendezvous kept in an ale-house."

In all his anger against the Doctor's Wife, no thought of her husband's far deeper wrong ever entered into Mr. Lansdell's mind. It was he—Roland—who had been betrayed: it was he whose love was outraged, whose pride was humiliated to the very dust. That there was a man, now lying ill and helpless at Graybridge, who had a better right to resent Isabel Gilbert's treachery, and wreak vengeance upon the unknown wretch for whose sake she was thus base and guilty, never occurred to this angry young man. It had been, for a long time past, his habit to forget George Gilbert's existence; he had resolutely shut from his mind the image of the Graybridge surgeon ever since his return to Midlandshire; ever since the wrong he was doing against George Gilbert had fallen into a deliberate and persistent course, leading steadily to a foregone conclusion. He had done this, and little by little it had become very easy for him to forget so insignificant and unobtrusive a person as the simple-hearted parish surgeon, whose only sin against mankind was that he had chosen a pretty woman for his wife.

So now it was of his own wrongs, and of those wrongs alone, that Mr. Lansdell thought. All the circumstances of Isabel's visit to the Priory came back to him. Came back? When had they left his mind, except for that brief interval of passion during which his mind had been a chaos?

"The money she wanted was for this man, of course!" he thought. "For whom else should it be? for whom else should she come to ask for money—of her rejected lover—in the dead of the night, with all the mean, miserable circumstances of a secret and guilty action? If she had wanted money from me for any legitimate purpose—in any foolish feminine confusion of debt and difficulty—why should she not have written to me boldly for the sum she required? She must have known that my purse was hers to command whenever she required it. But that she should come secretly, trembling like a guilty creature,—compromising herself and me by a midnight visit,—afraid to confess why she wanted the money,—answering my straight questions by hesitation and prevarication! What construction can I put upon her conduct of last night except one—except one? And yet, even after last night, I believed in her. I thought that she might have wanted the money for some relation. Some relation! What relation should she meet alone, secretly, late at night, in such a place as Nessborough Hollow? She who never, in all the course of our acquaintance, mentioned a living creature beyond her step-mother who had any claim upon her; and all at once some one comes—some one for whom she must have fifty pounds; not in the form of a cheque, which might be traced home to the person who received it. I cannot forget that; I cannot forget that she refused to take my cheque for the money she wanted. That alone makes a mystery of the business; and the meeting that Raymond witnessed tells all the rest. This strange man is some old lover; some jilted admirer of a bygone era, who comes now and is clamorous and dangerous, and will only be bought off by a bribe. Oh, shame, shame, shame upon her, and upon my own folly! And I thought her an innocent child, who had ignorantly broken a strong man's heart!"

He walked on slowly now, and with his head bent, no longer trying to make a short cut for himself among the trees, but absently following a narrow winding path worn by slow peasants' feet upon the grass.

"Why should I be so eager to see this man?" he thought. "What can I discover that I do not already know? If there is any one upon earth whose word I can trust in, it is Raymond. He would be the very last to slander this wretched woman, or to be self-deluded by a prejudice; and he saw her—he saw her. And even beyond this, the base intrigue has become common talk. Gwendoline would not have dared to say what she said to-day without good grounds for her statement. It is only I,—I who have lived apart from all the world to think and dream about her,—it is only I who am the last to be told of her shame. But I will try to see this fellow notwithstanding. I should like to see the man who has been preferred to me."

Nessborough Hollow was some distance from Lowlands; and Mr. Lansdell, who was familiar with almost every inch of his native county, made his way thither by shadowy lanes and rarely trodden by-ways, where the summer wild-flowers smelt sweetly in the dewy night. Never surely had brighter heavens shone upon a fairer earth. The leaves and blossoms, the long lush grasses faintly stirred by lazy summer winds, made a perpetual whisper that scarcely broke the general stillness: and now and then the gurgling notes of a nightingale sounded amongst the clustering foliage that loomed darkly above tangled hedgerows, and broad wastes of moonlit grass.

"I wonder why people are not happy," mused Mr. Lansdell, impressed in spite of himself by the quiet beauty of the summer landscape. Intensely subjective though our natures may be, external things will not be quite put away, strive as we may to shut them out. Did not Fagin think about the broken rail when he stood in the dock, and wonder who would mend it? Was not Manfred, the supremely egotistical and subjective, perpetually dragging the mountain-tops and Alpine streamlets into his talk of his own troubles? So to-night, deeply absorbed though he was by the consciousness of his own wrongs, there was a kind of double action in Roland Lansdells mind, by means of which he was conscious of every flickering shadow of the honeysuckle blossoms dark upon the silver smoothness of the moonlit grass.

"I wonder how it is that people cannot be happy," he thought; "why can't they take a sensuous pleasure out of this beautiful universe, and enjoy the moonlight, and the shadows, and the perfume of new-mown hay upon the summer air; and then, when they are tired of one set of sensations, move on to another: from rural England to tropical India; from the southern prairies to the snow-mantled Alps; playing a game at hide-and-seek with the disagreeable seasons, and contriving to go down to the grave through the rosy sunsets of a perpetual summer, indifferent as to who dies or suffers, so long as the beauty of the world endures? Why can't people be reasonable, and take life wisely? I begin to think that Mr. Harold Skimpole was the only true philosopher. If he had been rich enough to indulge his sensuous simplicity out of his own pocket, he would have been perfect. It is only when the Skimpole philosopher wants other people's pounds that he becomes objectionable. Ah, how pleasantly life might glide by, taken � la Skimpole;—a beautiful waveless river, drifting imperceptibly on to darkness! But we make our own election. When we are wise enough to abjure all the glittering battle-grounds of man's ambition, we must needs fall in love, and go mad because a shallow-hearted woman has black eyes and a straight nose. With red hair and freckles Mrs. Gilbert might go to perdition, unwept and unhindered; but because the false creature has a pretty face we want to tear her all to pieces for her treachery."

In that moonlight walk from Lowlands to Nessborough Hollow there was time enough for Mr. Lansdell to fall into many moods. At one time he was ready to laugh aloud, in bitter contempt for his own weakness; at another time, moved almost to tears by the contemplation of his ruined dreams. It was so difficult for him to separate the ideal Isabel of yesterday from the degraded creature of to-night. He believed what Charles Raymond had told him, but he could not realize it; the hard and cruel facts slipped away from him every now and then, and he found himself thinking of the Doctor's Wife with all the old tenderness. Then suddenly, like a glare of phosphoric light, the memory of her treachery would flash back upon him. Why should he lament the innocent idol of his dreams? There was not, there never had been, any such creature. But he could not hold this in his mind. He could not blot out of his brain the Isabel of the past. It was easier for him to think of her as he might have thought of the dead, dwelling fondly on vain dreams of happiness which once might have been, but now could never be, because she was no more.

There was not a scheme that he had ever made; for that impossible future which did not come back to his mind to-night. The places in which he had fancied himself lingering in tranquil happiness with the woman he loved arose before him in all their brightest colouring; fair lonely Alpine villages, whose very names he had forgotten, emerged from the dim mists of memory, bright as an eastern city rising out of night's swiftly-melting vapours into the clear light of morning; and he saw Isabel Gilbert leaning from a rustic balcony jutting out upon broad purple waters, screened and sheltered by the tall grandeur of innumerable snow-peaks. Ah, how often he had painted these things; the moonlit journeys on nights as calm as this, under still bluer skies lit by a larger moon; the varied ways and waters by which they might have gone, always leading them farther and farther away from the common world and the base thoughts of common people; the perfect isolation in which there should have been no loneliness! And all this might have been, thought Mr. Lansdell, if she had not been so base and degraded a creature as to cling blindly to a vulgar lover, whose power over her most likely lay in some guilty secret of the past.

Twenty times in the course of that long summer night's walk Roland Lansdell stopped for a minute or so, doubtful whether he should go farther or not. What motive had he in seeking out this stranger staying at a rustic public-house? What right had he to interfere in a wicked woman's low intrigue? If Isabel Gilbert was the creature she was represented to be,—and he could not doubt his authority,—what could it matter to him how low she sank? Had she not coolly and deliberately rejected his love—his devotion, so earnestly and solemnly offered to her? Had she not left him to his despair and desolation, with no better comfort than the stereotyped promise that she would "think of him?" What was she to him, that he should trouble himself about her, and bring universal scorn upon his name, perhaps, by some low tavern brawl? No; he would go no farther; he would blot this creature out of his mind, and turn his back upon the land which held her. Was not all the world before him, and all creation designed for his pleasure? Was there anything upon earth denied him, except the ignis-fatuus light of this woman's black eyes?

"Perhaps this is a turning-point in my life," he thought during one of these pauses; "and there maybe some chance for me after all. Why should I not have a career like other men, and try like them to be of some use to my species? Better, perhaps, to be always trying and always failing, than to stand aloof for ever, wasting my intellect upon vain calculations as to the relative merits of the game and the candle. An outsider cannot judge the merits of the strife. To a man of my temperament it may have seemed a small matter whether Spartans or Persians were victors in the pass of Thermopyl�; but what a glorious thing the heat and din of the struggle must have been for those who were in it! I begin to think it is a mistake to lounge luxuriously on the grand stand, looking down at the riders. Better, perhaps, wear a jockey's jacket; even to be thrown and trampled to death in the race. I will wash my hands of Mrs. George Gilbert, and go back to the Priory and sleep peacefully; and to-morrow morning I will ask Lady Gwendoline to be my wife; and then I can stand for Wareham, and go in for liberal-conservatism and steam-farming."

But the picture of Isabel Gilbert and the stranger meeting in Nessborough Hollow was not to be so easily erased from Mr. Lansdell's brain. The habit of vacillation, which had grown out of the idleness of his life, was stronger in him to-night than usual; but the desire to see for himself how deeply he was wronged triumphed over every other feeling, and he never turned his face from the direction in which Nessborough Hollow lay,—a little rustic nook in fertile Midlandshire, almost as beautiful, after its own simple English fashion, as those sublime Alpine villages which shone upon Roland Lansdell in his dreams. He came near the place at last; a little tired by the long walk from Lowlands; a good deal wearied by all the contending emotions of the last few hours. He came upon the spot at last, not by the ordinary roadway, but across a strip of thickly wooded waste land lying high above the hollow—a dense and verdant shelter, in which the fern grew tall beneath the tangled branches of the trees. Here he stopped, upon the top-most edge of a bank that sloped down into the rustic roadway. The place beneath him was a kind of glen, sheltered from all the outer world, solemnly tranquil in that silent hour. He saw the road winding and narrowing under the trees till it reached a little rustic bridge. He heard the low ripple of the distant brook; and close beside the bridge he saw the white wall of the little inn, chequered with broad black beams, and crowned by high peaked gables jutting out above the quaint latticed casements. In one low window he saw a feeble candle gleaming behind a poor patch of crimson curtain, and through the half-open door a narrow stream of light shone in a slanting line upon the ground.

He saw all this; and then from the other end of the still glade he saw two figures coming slowly towards the inn. Two figures, one of which was so familiar and had been so dear that despair, complete and absolute, came upon him for the first time, in that one brief start of recognition. Ah, surely he had never believed in her falsehood until this moment; surely, if he had believed Charles Raymond, the agony of seeing her here could not have been so great as this!

He stood upon the crown of the steep slope, with his hands grasping the branches on each side of him, looking down at those two quiet figures advancing slowly in the moonlight. There was nothing between him and them except the grassy bank, broken here and there by patches of gorse and fern, and briers and saplings; there was nothing to intercept his view, and the moonlight shone full upon them. He did not look at the man. What did it matter to him what he was like? He looked at her—at her whom he had loved so tenderly—at her for whose sake he had consented to believe in woman's truth and purity. He looked at her, and saw her face, very pale in the moonlight,—blanched, no doubt, by the guilty pallor of fear. Even the pattern of her dress was familiar to him. Had she not worn it in one of their meetings at Thurston's Crag?

"Fool!" he thought, "to think that she, who found it so easy a matter to deceive her husband, must needs be true to me. I was ill at ease and remorseful when I went to meet her; but she came to me smiling, and went away, placid and beautiful as a good angel, to tell her husband that she had been to Thurston's Crag, and had happened to meet Mr. Lansdell."

He stood as still as death, not betraying his presence by so much as the rustling of a leaf, while the two figures approached the spot above which he stood. But a little way off they paused, and were parting, very coolly, as it seemed, when Mrs. Gilbert lifted up her face, and said something to the man. He stood with his back turned towards Roland, to whom the very expression of Isabel's face was visible in the moonlight.

It seemed to him as if she was pleading for something, for he had never seen her face more earnest,—no, not even when she had decided the question of his life's happiness in that farewell meeting beneath Thurston's oak. She seemed to be pleading for something, since the man nodded his head once or twice while she was speaking, with a churlish gesture of assent; and when they were about to part he bent his head and kissed her. There was an insolent indifference about his manner of doing this that stung Roland more keenly than any display of emotion could have done.

After this the Doctor's Wife went away. Roland watched her as she turned once, and stood for a moment looking back at the man from whom she had just parted, and then disappeared amongst the shadows in the glade. Ah, if she had been nothing more than a shadow—if he could have awakened to find all this the brief agony of a dream! The man stood where Isabel had left him, while he took a box of fusees from his waistcoat-pocket and lighted a cigar; but his back was still turned to Mr. Lansdell.

He drew two or three puffs of smoke from the cigar, assured himself that it was fully lighted, and then strolled slowly towards the spot above which Roland stood.

All that was left of the original savage in the fine gentleman arose at that moment in Roland Lansdell's breast. He had come there, only to ascertain for himself that he had been betrayed and deluded; he had come with no vengeful purpose in his mind; or, at any rate, with no consciousness of any such purpose. He had come to be cool, indifferent, ironical; to slay with cruel and cutting words, perhaps, but to use no common weapons. But in a moment all his modern philosophy of indifference melted away, and left him with the original man's murderous instincts and burning sense of wrong raging fiercely in his breast.

He leapt down the sloping bank with scarcely any consciousness of touching the slippery grass; but he dragged the ferns and brambles from the loose earth in his descent, and a shower of torn verdure flew up into the summer air. He had no weapon, nothing but his right arm, wherewith to strike the broad-chested black-bearded stranger. But he never paused to consider that, or to count the chances of a struggle. He only knew that he wanted to kill the man for whose sake Isabel Gilbert had rejected and betrayed him. In the next moment his hands were on the stranger's throat.

"You scoundrel!" he gasped, hoarsely, "you consummate coward and scoundrel, to bring that woman to this place!"

There was a brief struggle, and then the stranger freed himself from Mr. Lansdell's grasp. There was no comparison between the physical strength and weight of the two men; and the inequality was sensibly increased by a stout walking-stick of the bludgeon order carried by the black-bearded stranger.

"Hoity-toity!" cried that gentleman, who seemed scarcely disposed to take Mr. Lansdell's attack seriously; "have you newly escaped from some local lunatic asylum, my friend, that you go about the country flying at people's throats in this fashion? What's the row? Can't a gentleman in the merchant navy take a moonlight stroll with his daughter for once in a way, to wish her good-bye before he fits out for a fresh voyage, without all this hullabaloo?"

"Your daughter!" cried Roland Lansdell. "Your daughter?"

"Yes, my daughter Isabel, wife of Mr. Gilbert, surgeon."

"Thank God!" murmured Roland, slowly, "thank God!"

And then a pang of remorse shot through his heart, as he thought how little his boasted love had been worth, after all; how ready he had been to disbelieve in her purity; how easily he had accepted the idea of her degradation.

"I ought to have known," he thought,—"I ought to have known that she was innocent. If all the world had been banded together against her, I should have been her champion, and defender. But my love was only a paltry passion after all. The gold changed to brass in the fire of the first ordeal."

He thought this, or something like this, and then in the next moment he said courteously:

"Upon my word, I have to apologize for my——" he hesitated a little here, for he really was ashamed of himself; all the murderous instincts were gone, as if they had never been, and the Englishman's painfully acute perception of the ridiculous being fully aroused, he felt that he had made a consummate fool of himself. "I have to apologize for my very absurd behaviour just now; but having heard a very cruel and slanderous report, connecting you as a stranger, and not as a near relation, with Mrs. Gilbert, and entertaining a most sincere respect for that lady and her husband, to say nothing of the fact that I had been lately dining,"—Mr. Lansdell had not drunk so much as one glassful of wine during the last four-and-twenty hours; but he would have been quite willing to admit himself a drunkard if that could have lessened the ridiculous element of his position—"in point of fact, I completely lost my head. I am very happy to think you are so nearly related to the lady I so much esteem; and if I can be of service to you in any manner, I——"

"Stop a bit," cried Mr. Sleaford the barrister,—"stop a bit! I thought I knew your voice. You're the languid swell, who was so jolly knowing at the Old Bailey,—the languid swell who had nothing better to do than join the hunt against a poor devil that never cheated you out of sixpence. I said, if ever I came out of prison alive, I'd kill you; and I'll keep my promise."

He hissed out these last words between his set teeth. His big muscular hands were fastened on Roland Lansdell's throat; and his face was pushed forward until it almost touched that other handsome face which defied him in the proud insolence of a moral courage that rose above all physical superiority. The broad bright moonlight streaming through a wide gap in the foliage fell fall upon the two men; and in the dark face glowering at his, Mr. Lansdell recognized the man whom he had followed down to Liverpool for the mere amusement of the chase,—the man described in the police records by a dozen aliases, and best known by his familiar sobriquet of "Jack the Scribe."

"You dog!" cried Mr. Sleaford, "I've dreamt about such a meeting as this when I was working the pious dodge at Portland. I've dreamt about it; and it did me good to feel my fingers at your throat, even in my dreams. You dog! I'll do for you, if I swing for this night's work."

There was a struggle,—a brief and desperate struggle,—in which the two men wrestled with each other, and the chances of victory seemed uncertain. Then Mr. Sleaford's bludgeon went whirling up into the air, and descended with a dull thud, once, twice, three times upon Roland Lansdell's bare head. After the third blow, Jack the Scribe loosed his grasp from the young man's throat, and the master of Mordred Priory fell crashing down among the fern and wild-flowers, with a shower of opal-tinted rose-petals fluttering about him as he fell.

He lay very quietly where he had fallen. Mr. Sleaford looked about him right and left along the pleasant moon-lighted glade. There was not a living creature to be seen either way. The light behind the red curtain in the little rustic tavern still glimmered feebly in the distance; but the stillness of the place could scarcely have seemed more profound had Nessborough Hollow been a hidden glade in some primeval forest.

Jack the Scribe knelt down beside the figure lying so quietly amongst the tangled verdure, and laid his strong bare hand very gently above Mr. Lansdell's waistcoat.

"He'll do," muttered the Scribe; "I've spoiled him for some time to come, anyhow. Perhaps it's all for the best if I haven't gone too far."

He rose from his knees, looked about him again, and assured himself of the perfect loneliness of the place. Then he walked slowly towards the little inn.

"A low blackguard would have taken the fellow's watch," he mused, "and got himself into trouble that way. What did he mean by flying at me about Isabel, I wonder; and how does he come to know her? He belongs to this part of the country, I suppose. And to think that I should have been so near him all this time without knowing it. I knew his name, and that's about all I did know; but I thought he was a London swell."

He pushed open the door of the little tavern presently—the door through which the slanting line of light had streamed out upon the pathway. All within was very quiet, for the rustic owners of the habitation had long since retired to their peaceful slumbers, leaving Mr. Sleaford what he called "the run of the house." They had grown very familiar with their lodger, and placed implicit confidence in him as a jolly outspoken fellow of the seafaring order; for these Midlandshire rustics were not very keen to detect any small shortcomings in Mr. Sleaford's assumption of the mercantile mariner.

He went into the room where the light was burning. It was the room which he had occupied during his residence at the Leicester Arms. He seated himself at the table, on which there were some writing materials, and scrawled a few lines to the effect that he found himself obliged to go away suddenly that night, on his way to Liverpool, and that he left a couple of sovereigns, at a rough guess, to pay his score. He wrapped the money up in the letter, sealed it with a great sprawling red seal, directed it to the landlord, and placed it on a conspicuous corner of the mantel-piece. Then he took off his boots, and crept softly up the creaking corkscrew staircase leading to his bedroom, with the candle in his hand. He came down-stairs again about ten minutes afterwards carrying a little valise, which he slung across his shoulder by a strap; then he took up his bludgeon and prepared to depart.

But before leaving the room he bent over the table, and examined the heaviest end of his stick by the light of the candle. There was blood upon it, and a little tuft of dark hair, which he burned in the flame of the candle; and when he looked at his waistcoat he saw that there were splashes of blood on that and on his shirt.

He held the end of the stick over the candle till it was all smoked and charred; he buttoned his cut-away coat over his chest, and then took a railway-rug from a chair in a corner and threw it across his shoulder.

"It's an ugly sight to look at, that is," he muttered; "but I don't think I went too far."

He went out at the little door, and into the glade, where a nightingale was singing high up amongst the clustering foliage, and where the air was filled with the faint perfume of honeysuckle and starry wild roses. Once he looked, with something like terror in his face, towards the spot where he had left his prostrate enemy; and then he turned and walked away at a rapid pace in the other direction, crossing the rustic wooden bridge, and ascending the rising ground that led towards the Briargate Road.

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