After that farewell meeting with Mr. Sleaford in Nessborough Hollow, a sense of peace came upon Isabel Gilbert. She had questioned her father about his plans, and he had told her that he should leave Midlandshire by the seven o'clock train from Wareham on the following morning. He should be heartily rejoiced to get to London, he said, and to leave a place where he felt like a fox in a hole. The sentimental element was by no means powerfully developed in the nature of Jack the Scribe, to whom the crowded pavements of Fleet Street and the Strand were infinitely more agreeable than the wild roses and branching fern of Midlandshire.
His daughter slept tranquilly that night for the first time after Mr. Sleaford's appearance before the surgeon's door. She slept in peace, worn out by the fatigue and anxiety of the last fortnight; and no evil dream disturbed her slumbers. The odic forces must be worth very little after all, for there was no consciousness in the sleeper's mind of that quiet figure lying among the broken fern; no shadow, however dim, of the scene that had been enacted in the tranquil, summer moonlight, while she was hurrying homeward through the dewy lanes, triumphant in the thought that her difficult task was accomplished. Only once in a century does the vision of Maria Martin appear to an anxious dreamer; only so often as to shake the formal boundary-wall of common sense which we have so rigidly erected between the visible and invisible, and to show us that there are more things in heaven and earth than our dull philosophy is prepared to recognize.
Isabel woke upon the morning after that interview in the Hollow, with a feeling of relief still in her mind. Her father was gone, and all was well. He was not likely to return; for she had told him, with most solemn protestations, that she had obtained the money with extreme difficulty, and would never be able to obtain more. She had told him this, and he had promised never again to assail her with any demands. It was a very easy thing for Jack the Scribe to make that or any other promise; but even if he broke his word, Isabel thought, there was every chance that Roland Lansdell would leave Midlandshire very speedily, and become once more an alien and a wanderer.
The Doctor's Wife was at peace, therefore; the dreadful terror of the past fortnight was lifted away from her mind, and she was prepared to do her duty; to be true to Mr. Colborne's solemn teaching, and to watch dutifully, undistracted by any secret fear and anguish, by George Gilbert's sick bed.
Very dismal faces greeted her beside that bed. Mr. Jeffson never left his post now at the pillow of his young master. The weeds grew unheeded in the garden; and Brown Molly missed her customary grooming. The gardener had thrown half a load of straw in the lane, below the doctor's window, so that no rumbling of the waggon-wheels carrying home the new-mown hay should disturb George Gilbert's feverish sleep, if the brief fitful dozes into which he fell now and then could be called by so sweet a name.
Mr. Pawlkatt sat looking at his patient longer than usual that morning. George Gilbert lay in a kind of stupor, and did not recognize his medical attendant, and sometime rival. He had long since ceased to be anxious about his poor patients in the lanes behind the church, or about anything else upon this earth, as it seemed; and now that her great terror had been lifted from her mind, Isabel saw a new and formless horror gliding swiftly towards her, like a great iceberg sailing fast upon an arctic sea. She followed Mr. Pawlkatt out of the room, and down the little staircase, and clung to his arm as he was about to leave her.
"Oh, do you think he will die?" she said. "I did not know until this morning that he was so very ill. Do you think he will die?"
The surgeon looked inquisitively into the earnest face lifted to his—looked with some expression of surprise upon his countenance.
"I am very anxious, Mrs. Gilbert," he answered, gravely. "I will not conceal from you that I am growing very anxious. The pulse is feeble and intermittent; and these low fevers—there, there, don't cry. I'll drive over to Wareham, as soon as I've seen the most important of my cases; and I'll ask Dr. Herstett to come and look at your husband. Pray try to be calm."
"I am so frightened," murmured Isabel, between her low half-stifled sobs. "I never saw any one ill—like that—before."
Mr. Pawlkatt watched her gravely as he drew on his gloves.
"I am not sorry to see this anxiety on your part, Mrs. Gilbert," he remarked sententiously. "As the friend and brother-professional of your husband, and as a man who is—ahem!—old enough to be your father, I will go so far as to say that I am gratified to find that you—I may say, your heart is in the right place. There have been some very awkward reports about you, Mrs. Gilbert, during the last few days. I—I—of course should not presume to allude to those reports, if I did not believe them to be erroneous," the surgeon added, rather hastily, not feeling exactly secure as to the extent and bearing of the law of libel.
But Isabel only looked at him with bewilderment and distress in her face.
"Reports about me!" she repeated. "What reports?"
"There has been a person—a stranger—staying at a little inn down in Nessborough Hollow; and you,—in fact, I really have no right to interfere in this matter, but my very great respect for your husband,-and, in short——"
"Oh, that person is gone now," Isabel answered frankly. "It was very unkind of people to say anything against him, or against me. He was a relation,-a very near relation,—and I could not do otherwise than see him now and then while he was in the neighbourhood. I went late in the evening, because I did not wish to leave my husband at any other time. I did not think that the Graybridge people watched me so closely, or were so ready to think that what I do must be wrong."
Mr. Pawlkatt patted her hand soothingly.
"A relation, my dear Mrs. Gilbert?" he exclaimed. "That, of course, quite alters the case. I always said that you were no doubt perfectly justified in doing as you did; though it would have been better to invite the person here. Country people will talk, you know. As a medical man, with rather a large field of experience, I see all these little provincial weaknesses. They will talk; but keep up your courage, Mrs. Gilbert. We shall do our best for our poor friend. We shall do our very best."
He gave Isabel's tremulous hand a little reassuring squeeze, and departed complacently.
The Doctor's Wife stood absently watching him as he walked away, and then turned and went slowly into the parlour—the empty, miserable-looking parlour, which had not been used now for more than a week. The dust lay thick upon the shabby old furniture, and the atmosphere was hot and oppressive.
Here Isabel sat down beside the chiffonier, where her poor little collection of books was huddled untidily in a dusty corner. She sat down to think—trying to realize the nature of that terror which seemed so close to her, trying to understand the full significance of what Mr. Pawlkatt had said of her husband.
The surgeon had given no hope that George Gilbert would recover; he had only made little conventional speeches about calmness and fortitude.
She tried to think, but could not. She had only spoken the truth just now, when she cried out that she was frightened. This kind of terror was so utterly new to her that she could not understand the calm business-like aspect of the people who watched and waited on her husband. Could he be dying? That strong active man, whose rude health and hearty appetite had once jarred so harshly upon all her schoolgirl notions of consumptive and blood-vessel-breaking heroes! Could he be dying?—dying as heroic a death as any she had ever read of in her novels: the death of a man who speculates his life for the benefit of his fellow-creatures, and loses by the venture. The memory of every wrong that she had ever done him—small wrongs of neglect, or contemptuous opinions regarding his merits—wrongs that had been quite impalpable to the honest unromantic doctor,—crowded upon her now, and made a dull remorseful anguish in her breast. The dark shadow brooding over George Gilbert—the dread gigantic shadow, growing darker day by day—made him a new creature in the mind of this weak girl. No thought of her own position had any place in her mind. She could not think; she could only wait, oppressed by a dread whose nature she dared not realize. She sat for a long time in the same forlornly listless attitude, almost as helpless as the man who lay in the darkened chamber above her. Then, rousing herself with effort, she crept up-stairs to the room where the grave faces of the watchers greeted her, with very little sympathy in their gaze.
Had not Mr. and Mrs. Jeffson heard the reports current in Graybridge; and was it likely they could have any pity for a woman who crept stealthily at nightfall from her invalid husband's house to meet a stranger?
Isabel would have whispered some anxious question about the patient; but Matilda Jeffson frowned sternly at her, commanding silence with an imperious forefinger; and she was fain to creep into a dark corner, where it had been her habit to sit since the Jeffsons had, in a manner, taken possession of her husband's sick bed. She could not dispute their right to do so. What was she but a frivolous, helpless creature, fluttering and trembling like a leaf when she essayed to do any little service for the invalid?
The day seemed painfully long. The ticking of an old clock on the stairs, and the heavy troubled breathing of the sick man, were the only sounds that broke the painful silence of the house. Once or twice Isabel took an open Testament from a little table near her, and tried to take some comfort from its pages. But she could not feel the beauty of the words as she had in the little church at Hurstonleigh, when her mind had been exalted by all manner of vague spiritualistic yearnings; now it seemed deadened by the sense of dread and horror. She did not love her husband; and those tidings of heavenly love which have so subtle an affinity with earthly affection could not touch her very nearly in her present frame of mind. She did not love her husband well enough to pray that something little short of a miracle might be wrought for his sake. She was only sorry for him; tenderly compassionate of his suffering; very fearful that he might die. She did pray for him; but there was no exaltation in her prayers, and she had a dull presentiment that her supplications would not be answered.
It was late in the afternoon when the physician from Wareham came with Mr. Pawlkatt; and when he did arrive, he seemed to do very little, Isabel thought. He was a grey-whiskered important-looking man, with creaking boots; he seated himself by the bedside, and felt the patient's pulse, and listened to his breathing, and lifted his heavy eyelids, and peered into his dim blood-shot eyes. He asked a good many questions, and then went down-stairs with Mr. Pawlkatt, and the two medical men were closeted together some ten or twelve minutes in the little parlour.
Isabel did not follow Mr. Pawlkatt down-stairs this time. She was awed by the presence of the strange physician, and there was nothing in the manner of the two men that inspired hope or comfort. She sat quite still in her dusky corner; but Mrs. Jeffson stole out of the room soon after the medical men had quitted it, and went slowly down-stairs. George was asleep; in a very sound and heavy sleep this time; and his breathing was more regular than it had been—more regular, but still a laboured stertorous kind of respiration that was very painful to hear. In less than ten minutes Mrs. Jeffson came back, looking very pale, and with traces of tears upon her face. The good woman had been listening to the medical consultation in the little parlour below.
Perhaps Isabel dimly comprehended this; for she got up from her chair, and went a little way towards her husband's housekeeper.
"Oh, tell me the truth," she whispered, imploringly; "do they think that he will die?"
"Yes," Matilda Jeffson answered, in a hard cruel voice, strangely at variance with her stifled sobs, "yes, Mrs. Gilbert; and you'll be free to take your pleasure, and to meet Mr. Lansdell as often as you like; and go gadding about after dark with strange men. You might have waited a bit, Mrs. Gilbert; you wouldn't have had to wait very long—for they say my poor dear master—and I had him in my arms the day he was born, so I've need to love him dearly, even if others haven't!—I heard the doctor from Wareham tell Mr. Pawlkatt that he will never live to see to-morrow morning's light. So you might have waited, Mrs. Gilbert; but you're a wicked woman and a wicked wife!"
But just at this moment the sick man started suddenly from his sleep, and lifted himself into a sitting position. Mr. Jeffson's arm was about him directly, supporting the wasted figure that had very lately been so strong.
George Gilbert had heard Matilda's last words, for he repeated them in a thick strange voice, but with sufficient distinctness. It was a surprise to those who nursed him to hear him speak reasonably, for it was some time since he had been conscious of passing events.
"Wicked! no! no!" he said. "Always a good wife; always a very good wife! Come, Izzie; come here. I'm afraid it has been a dull life, my dear," he said very gently, as she came to him, clinging to him, and looking at him with a white scared face,—"dull—very dull; but it wouldn't have been always so. I thought—by-and-by to—new practice—Helmswell—market-town—seven thousand inhabitants—and you—drive—pony-carriage, like Laura Pawlkatt—but—the Lord's will be done, my dear!—I hope I've done my duty—the poor people—better rooms—ventilation—please God, by-and-by. I've seen a great deal of suffering—and—my duty——"
He slid heavily back upon William Jeffson's supporting arm; and a rain of tears—passionate remorseful tears never to be felt by him—fell on his pallid face. His death was very sudden, though his illness had been, considering the nature of his disease, a long and tedious one. He died supremely peaceful in the consciousness of having done his duty. He died, with Isabel's hand clasped in his own; and never, throughout his simple life, had one pang of doubt or jealousy tortured his breast.