Lady Gwendoline kept her promise. What promises are so sacred as those that are made to the dying, and which become solemn engagements binding us to the dead—the dead whom we have wronged, most likely; for who is there amongst us who does not do some wrong to the creature he most tenderly loves? Gwendoline Pomphrey repented her jealous anger against her cousin; she bitterly lamented those occasions upon which she had felt a miserable joy in the probing of his wounds. She looked back, now that the blindness of passion had passed away with the passing of the dead, and saw herself as she had really been-unchristian, intolerant, possessed by a jealous anger, which she had hidden under the useful womanly mask of outraged propriety. It was not Roland's sin that had stung her proud spirit to the quick: it was her love for the sinner that had been outraged by his devotion to another woman.
She never knew that she had sent the man she loved to his death. Inflexible to the last, Roland Lansdell had kept the secret of that fatal meeting in Nessborough Hollow. The man who had caused his death was Isabel's father. If Roland had been vindictively disposed towards his enemy, he would, for her sake, have freely let him go: but no very vengeful impulse had stirred the failing pulses of his heart. He was scarcely angry with Jack the Scribe; but rather recognized in what had occurred the working of a strange fatality, or the execution of a divine judgment.
"I was ready to defy heaven and earth for the sake of this girl," he thought. "I fancied it was an easy thing for a man to make his own scheme of life, and be happy after his own fashion. It was well that I should be made to understand my position in the universe. Mr. Sleaford was only a brutal kind of Nemesis waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. If I had tried to clamber upwards,—if I had buckled on my armour, and gone away from this castle of indolence, to fight in the ranks of my fellow-men,—I need never have met the avenger. Let him go, then. He has only done his appointed work; and I, who made so pitiful a use of my life, have small ground for complaint against the man who has shortened it by a year or two."
Thus it was that Mr. Sleaford went his own way. In spite of that murderous threat uttered by him in the Old Bailey dock, in spite of the savage violence of his attack upon Roland Lansdell, he had not, perhaps, meant to kill his enemy. In his own way of expressing it, he had not meant to go too far. There is a wide gulf between the signing of other people's names, or the putting an additional y after the word eight, and an unauthorized 0 after the numeral on the face of a cheque—there is an awful distance between such illegal accomplishments and an act of deliberate homicide. Mr. Sleaford had only intended to "punish" the "languid swell" who had borne witness against him; to spoil his beauty for the time being; and, in short, to give him just cause for remembering that little amateur-detective business by which he had beguiled the elegant idleness of his life. Isabel's father had scarcely intended to do more than this. But when you beat a man about the head with a loaded bludgeon, it is not so very easy to draw the line of demarcation between an assault and a murder; and Mr. Sleaford did go a little too far: as he learned a few days afterwards, when he read in the "Times" supplement an intimation of the sudden death of Roland Lansdell, Esq., of Mordred Priory, Midlandshire.
The strong man, reading this announcement in the parlour of a low public-house in one of the most obscure purlieus of Lambeth, felt an icy sensation of fear that he had never experienced before amidst all the little difficulties attendant upon the forging of negotiable autographs. This was something more than he had bargained for. This Midlandshire business was murder, or something so nearly resembling that last and worst of crimes, that a stupid jury might fail to recognize the distinction. Jack the Scribe, armed with Roland Lansdell's fifty pounds, had already organized a plan of operations which was likely to result in a very comfortable little income, without involving anything so disagreeable to the feelings of a gentleman as the illegal use of other people's names. It was to the science of money-lending that Mr. Sleaford had turned his attention; and during the enforced retirement of the last few years he had woven for himself a very neat little system, by which a great deal of interest, in the shape of inquiry-fees and preliminary postage-stamps, could be extorted out of simple-minded borrowers without any expenditure in the way of principal on the part of the lender. With a view to the worthy carrying out of this little scheme, Mr. Sleaford had made an appointment with one of his old associates, who appeared to him a likely person to act as clerk or underling, and to double that character with the more dignified r�le of solicitor to the MUTUAL AND CO-OPERATIVE FRIEND-IN-NEED AND FRIEND-IN-DEED SOCIETY; but after reading that dismal paragraph respecting Mr. Lansdell in the supplement of the "Times," Jack the Scribe's ideas underwent a considerable change. It might be that this big pleasant metropolis, in which there is always such a nice little crop of dupes and simpletons ready to fall prone beneath the sickle of the judicious husbandman, would become, in vulgar parlance, a little too hot to hold Mr. Sleaford. The contemplation of this unpleasant possibility led that gentleman's thoughts away to fairer and more distant scenes. He had a capital of fifty pounds in his pocket. With such a sum for his fulcrum, Jack the Scribe felt himself capable of astonishing—not to say uprooting—the universe; and if an indiscreet use of his bludgeon had rendered it unadvisable for him to remain in his native land, there were plenty of opportunities in the United States of America for a man of his genius. In America—on the "other side," as he had heard his Transatlantic friends designate their country—he might find an appropriate platform for the MUTUAL AND CO-OPERATIVE FRIEND-IN-NEED AND FRIEND-IN-DEED SOCIETY. The genus dupe is cosmopolitan, and the Transatlantic Arcadian would be just as ready with his postage-stamps as the confiding denizen of Bermondsey or Camden Town. Already in his mind's eye Mr. Sleaford beheld a flaming advertisement of his grand scheme slanting across the back page of a daily newspaper. Already he imagined himself thriving on the simplicity of the New Yorkers; and departing, enriched and rejoicing, from that delightful city just as the Arcadians were beginning to be a little impatient about the conclusion of operations, and a little backward in the production of postage-stamps.
Having once decided upon the advisability of an early departure from England, Mr. Sleaford lost no time in putting his plans into operation. He strolled out in the dusk of the evening, and made his way to some dingy lanes and waterside alleys in the neighbourhood of London Bridge. Here he obtained all information about speedily-departing steam-vessels bound for New York; and early the following morning, burdened only with a carpet-bag and the smallest of portmanteaus, Jack the Scribe left Euston Square on his way to Liverpool, whence he departed, this time unhindered and unobserved, in the steam-vessel Washington bound for New York. And here he drops out of my story, as the avenging goddess might disappear from a classic stage when her work was done. For him too a Nemesis waits, lurking darkly in some hidden turning of the sinuous way along which a scoundrel walks.
"If any calm, a calm despair." Such a calm fell at last upon Isabel Gilbert; but it was slow to come. For a long time it seemed to her as if a dreadful darkness obscured all the world; a darkness in which she groped blindly for a grave, where she might lie down and die. Was not he dead? What was there left in all the universe now that he was gone?
Happily for the sufferer there is attendant upon all great mental anguish a kind of numbness, a stupefaction of the senses, which in some manner deadens the sharpness of the torture. For a long time Isabel could not think of what had happened within the last few troubled weeks. She could only sit hopeless and tearless in the little parlour at Graybridge while the funeral preparations went quietly on about her, and while Mrs. Jeffson and the young woman, who went on to work at eighteenpence a day, came in every now and then to arouse her from her dull stupor for the trying-on of mourning garments which smelt of dye and size, and left black marks upon her neck and arms. She heard the horrible snipping of crape and bombazine going on all day, like the monotonous accompaniment of a nightmare; and sometimes when the door had been left ajar, she heard people talking in the opposite room. She heard them talking in stealthy murmurs of the two funerals which were to take place on successive days—one at Graybridge, one at Mordred. She heard them speculate respecting Mr. Lansdell's disposal of his wealth; she heard the name, the dear romantic name, that was to be nothing henceforward but an empty sound, bandied from lip to lip; and all this pain was only some portion of the hideous dream which bound her night and day.
People were very kind to her. Even Graybridge took pity upon her youth and desolation; though every pang of her foolish heart was the subject of tea-table speculation. But the accomplished slanderer is not always a malevolently disposed person. He is only like the wit, who loves his jest better than his friend; but who will yet do his friend good service in the day of need. The Misses Pawlkatt, and many other young ladies of standing in Graybridge, wrote Isabel pretty little notes of condolence, interlarded with quotations from Scripture, and offered to go and "sit with her." To "sit with her;" to beguile with their frivolous stereotype chatter the anguish of this poor stupefied creature, for whom all the universe seemed obscured by one impenetrable cloud.
It was on the second day after the surgeon's funeral, the day following that infinitely more stately ceremonial at Mordred church, that Mr. Raymond came to see Isabel. He had been with her several times during the last few days; but he had found all attempts at consolation utterly in vain, and he, who had so carefully studied human nature, knew that it was wisest and kindest to let her alone. But on this occasion he came on a business errand; and he was accompanied by a grave-looking person, whom he introduced to Isabel as the late Mr. Lansdell's solicitor.
"I have come to bring you strange news, Mrs. Gilbert," he said—"news that cannot fail to be very startling to you."
She looked up at Charles Raymond with a sad smile, whose meaning he was not slow to interpret. It said so plainly, "Do you think anything that can happen henceforward upon this earth could ever seem strange to me?"
"When you were with—him—on the last day of his life, Isabel," Mr. Raymond continued, "he talked to you very seriously. He changed—changed wonderfully with the near approach of death. It seemed as if the last ten years had been blotted away, and he was a young man again, just entering life, full of noble yearnings and aspirations. I pray God those ten idle years may never be counted against him. He spoke to you very earnestly, my dear; and he urged you, if ever great opportunities were given you, which they might be, to use them faithfully for his sake. I heard him say this, and was at a loss to understand his full meaning. I comprehend it perfectly now."
He paused; but Isabel did not even look up at him. The tears were slowly pouring down her colourless cheeks. She was thinking of that last day at Mordred; and Roland's tenderly-earnest voice seemed still sounding in her ears.
"Isabel, a great charge has been entrusted to you. Mr. Lansdell has left you the bulk of his fortune."
It is certain that Mr. Raymond expected some cry of surprise, some token of astonishment, to follow this announcement; but Isabel's tears only flowed a little faster, and her head sank forward on the sofa-cushion by her side.
"Had you any idea that Roland intended to leave his money in this manner?"
"Oh, no, no! I don't want the money; I can do nothing with it. Oh, give it to some hospital, please: and let the hospital be called by his name. It was cruel of him to think that I should care for money when he was dead."
"I have reason to believe that this will was made under very peculiar circumstances," Mr. Raymond said presently; "when Roland was labouring under a delusion about you—a delusion which you yourself afterwards dispelled. Mr. Lansdell's solicitor fully understands this; Lord Ruysdale and his daughter also understand it; and no possible discredit can attach to you from the inheritance of this fortune. Had Roland lived, he might very possibly have made some alteration and modifications of this will. As it stands, it is as good a will as any ever proved at Doctors' Commons. You are a very rich woman, Isabel. Lady Gwendoline, her father, and myself are all legatees to a considerable amount; but Mordred Priory and the bulk of the Lansdell property are left to you."
And then Mr. Raymond went on to explain the nature of the will, which left everything to himself and Mr. Meredith (the London solicitor) as trustees, for the separate use and maintenance of Isabel Gilbert, and a great deal more, which had no significance for the dull indifferent ears of the mourner. There had been a time when Mrs. Gilbert would have thought it a grand thing to be rich, and would have immediately imagined a life spent in ruby velvet and diamonds; but that time was past. The blessings we sigh for are very apt to come to us too late; like that pension the tidings of which came to the poet as he lay upon his deathbed.
Mordred Priory became the property of Isabel Gilbert; and for a time all that Shakespearian region of Midlandshire had enough to employ them in the discussion of Mr. Lansdell's will. But even the voice of slander was hushed when Mrs. Gilbert left England in the company of Lord Ruysdale and his daughter for a lengthened sojourn on the Continent. I quote here from the "Wareham Gazette," which found Isabel's proceedings worthy of record since her inheritance of Mr. Lansdell's property.
Lady Gwendoline had promised to be the friend of Isabel; and she kept her word. There was no bitterness in her heart now; and perhaps she liked George Gilbert's widow all the better on account of that foolish wasted love that made a kind of link between them.
Lord Ruysdale's daughter was not the sort of woman to feel any base envy of Mrs. Gilbert's fortune. The Earl had been very slow to understand the motives of his kinsman's will; but as he and his daughter received a legacy of ten thousand pounds apiece, to say nothing of sundry Cromwellian tankards, old-fashioned brooches and bracelets in rose-diamonds, a famous pearl necklace that had belonged to Lady Anna Lansdell, a Murillo and a Rembrandt, and nineteen dozen of Madeira that connoisseurs considered unique, Lord Ruysdale could scarcely esteem himself ill-treated by his late nephew.
So Mrs. Gilbert was permitted to possess her new wealth in peace, protected from any scandal by the Ruysdale influence. She was permitted to be at peace; and she went away with Lady Gwendoline and the Earl to those fair foreign lands for which she had pined in the weedy garden at Camberwell. Even during the first bitterness of her sorrow she was not utterly selfish. She sent money to Mrs. Sleaford and the boys—money which seemed enormous wealth to them; and she instructed her solicitor to send them quarterly instalments of an income which would enable her half-brothers to receive a liberal education.
"I have had a great sorrow," she wrote to her step-mother, "and I am going away with people who are very kind to me; not to forget—I would not for the world find forgetfulness, if such a thing was to be found; only that I may learn to bear my sorrow and to be good. When I come back, I shall be glad to see you and my brothers."
She wrote this, and a good deal more that was kind and dutiful, to poor Mrs. Sleaford, who had changed that tainted name to Singleton, in the peaceful retirement of Jersey; and then she went away, and was taken to many beautiful cities, over all of which there seemed to hang a kind of mist that shut out the sunshine. It was only when Roland Lansdell had been dead more than two years, that she began to understand that no grief, however bitter, can entirely obscure the beauty of the universe. She began to feel that there is something left in life even when a first romantic love is nothing but a memory; a peace which is so nearly akin to happiness, that we scarcely regret the flight of the brighter spirit; a calm which lies beyond the regions of despair, and which is unruffled by those vague fears, those shadowy forebodings, that are apt to trouble the joyful heart.
And now it seems to me that I have little more to do with Isabel Gilbert. She passes away from me into a higher region than that in which my story has lain,—useful, serene, almost happy, but very constant to the memory of sorrow,—she is altogether different from the foolish wife who neglected all a wife's duties while she sat by the mill-stream at Thurston's Crag reading the "Revolt of Islam." There is a great gulf between a girl of nineteen and a woman of five-and twenty; and Isabel's foolish youth is separated from her wiser womanhood by a barrier that is formed by two graves. Is it strange, then, that the chastening influence of sorrow has transformed a sentimental girl into a good and noble woman—a woman in whom sentiment takes the higher form of universal sympathy and tenderness? She has faithfully employed the trust confided to her. The money bequeathed to her by the ardent lover, who fancied that he had won the woman of his choice, and that his sole duty was to protect her from worldly loss or trouble,—the fortune bequeathed under such strange circumstances has become a sacred trust, to be accounted for to the dead. Only the mourner knows the exquisite happiness involved in any act performed for the sake of the lost. Our Protestant creed, which will not permit us to pray for our dead, cannot forbid the consecration of our good works to those departed and beloved creatures.
Charles Raymond has transferred to Isabel something of that affection which he felt for Roland Lansdell; and he and the orphans, grown into estimable young persons of sixteen and seventeen, spend a great deal of their time at Mordred Priory. The agricultural labourer, who had known the Doctor's Wife only as a pale-faced girlish creature, sitting under the shelter of a hedgerow, with a green parasol above her head, and a book in her lap, has good reason to bless the Doctor's Widow; for model cottages have arisen in many a pleasant corner of the estate which was once Roland Lansdell's—pretty Elizabethan cottages, with peaked gables and dormer windows. Allotment gardens have spread themselves here and there on pleasant slopes; and coming suddenly upon some woody hollow, you find yourself face to face with the Tudor windows of a schoolhouse, a substantial modern building, set in an old-world garden, where there are great gnarled pear-trees, and a cluster of beehives in a bowery corner, sheltered by bushes of elder and hazel.
Sigismund Smith appears sometimes at Mordred Priory, always accompanied by a bloated and dilapidated leathern writing-case, unnaturally distended by stuff which he calls "copy," and other stuff which he speaks of as "proofs."
Telegrams from infuriated proprietors of penny journals pursue him in his calm retreat, and a lively gentleman in a white hat has been known to arrive per express-train, vaguely declaring his intention of "standing over" Mr. Smith during the production of an urgently-required chapter of "The Bride of the Bosphorus; or, the Fourteen Corpses of the Caspian Sea."
He is very happy and very inky; and the rustic wanderers who meet a pale-faced and mild-looking gentleman loitering in the green lanes about Mordred, with his hat upon the back of his head, and his insipid blue eyes fixed on vacancy, would be slow to perceive in him the deliberate contriver of one of the most atrocious and cold-blooded schemes of vengeance that ever outraged the common dictates of human nature and adorned the richly-illustrated pages of a penny periodical. Amongst the wild roses and new-mown hay of Midlandshire, Mr. Smith finds it sweet to lie at ease, weaving the dark webs of crime which he subsequently works out upon paper in the dingy loneliness of his Temple chambers. He is still a bachelor, and complains that he is not the kind of man to fall in love, as he is compelled to avail himself of the noses and eyes, ruby lips, and golden or raven tresses—there are no other hues in Mr. Smith's vocabulary—of every eligible young lady he meets, for the decking out of his numerous heroines. "Miss Binks?" he will perhaps remark, when a lady's name is mentioned to him; "oh yes: she's Bella the Ballet Girl (one of Bickers's touch-and-go romances; the first five numbers, and a magnificent engraving of one of Landseer's best pictures, for a penny); I finished her off last week. She poisoned herself with insect-powder in a garret near Drury Lane, after setting fire to the house and grounds of her destroyer. She ran through a hundred and thirteen numbers, and Bickers has some idea of getting me to write a sequel. You see there might be an antidote to the insect-powder, or the oilman's shop-boy might have given Bella patent mustard in mistake."
But it has been observed of late that Mr. Smith pays very special attention to the elder of the two orphans, whom he declares to be too good for penny numbers, and a charming subject for three volumes of the quiet and domestic school, and he has consulted Mr. Raymond respecting the investment of his deposit-account, which is supposed to be something considerable; for a gentleman who lives chiefly upon bread-and marmalade and weak tea may amass a very comfortable little independence from the cultivation of sensational literature in penny numbers.