Mr Gibson believed that Cynthia Kirkpatrick was to return to England to be present at her mother's wedding; but Mrs Kirkpatrick had no such intention. She was not what is commonly called a woman of determination; but somehow what she disliked she avoided, and what she liked she tried to do, or to have. So although in the conversation, which she had already led to, as to the when and the how she was to be married, she had listened quietly to Mr Gibson's proposal that Molly and Cynthia should be the two bridesmaids, she had felt how disagreeable it would be to her to have her young daughter flashing out her beauty by the side of the faded bride, her mother; and as the further arrangements for the wedding became more definite, she saw further reasons in her own mind for Cynthia's remaining quietly at her school at Boulogne.
Mrs Kirkpatrick had gone to bed that first night of her engagement to Mr Gibson, fully anticipating a speedy marriage. She looked to it as a release from the thraldom of keeping school; keeping an unprofitable school, with barely enough of pupils to pay for house-rent and taxes, food, washing, and the requisite masters. She saw no reason for ever going back to Ashcombe, except to wind up her affairs, and to pack up her clothes. She hoped that Mr Gibson's ardour would be such that he would press on the marriage, and urge her never to resume her school drudgery, but to relinquish it now and for ever. She even made up a very pretty, very passionate speech for him in her own mind; quite sufficiently strong to prevail upon her, and to overthrow the scruples which she felt that she ought to have, at telling the parents of her pupils that she did not intend to resume school, and that they must find another place of education for their daughters, in the last week but one of the midsummer holidays.
It was rather like a douche of cold water on Mrs Kirkpatrick's plans, when the next morning at breakfast Lady Cumnor began to decide upon the arrangements and duties of the two middle-aged lovers.
'Of course you can't give up your school all at once, Clare. The wedding can't be before Christmas, but that will do very well. We shall all be down at the Towers; and it will be a nice amusement for the children to go over to Ashcombe, and see you married.'
'I think - I am afraid - I don't believe Mr Gibson will like waiting so long; men are so impatient under these circumstances.'
'Oh, nonsense! Lord Cumnor has recommended you to his tenants, and I'm sure he wouldn't like them to be put to any inconvenience. Mr Gibson will see that in a moment. He's a man of sense, or else he wouldn't be our family doctor. Now, what are you going to do about your little girl? Have you fixed yet?'
'No. Yesterday there seemed so little time, and when one is agitated it is so difficult to think of everything. Cynthia is nearly eighteen, old enough to go out as a governess, if he wishes it, but I don't think he will. He is so generous and kind.'
'Well! I must give you time to settle some of your affairs to-day. Don't waste it in sentiment, you're too old for that. Come to a clear understanding with each other; it will be for your happiness in the long run.'
So they did come to a clear understanding about one or two things. To Mrs Kirkpatrick's dismay, she found that Mr Gibson had no more idea than Lady Cumnor of her breaking faith with the parents of her pupils. Though he really was at a serious loss as to what was to become of Molly until she could be under the protection of his new wife at her own home, and though his domestic worries teased him more and more every day, he was too honourable to think of persuading Mrs Kirkpatrick to give up school a week sooner than was right for his sake. He did not even perceive how easy the task of persuasion would be; with all her winning wiles she could scarcely lead him to feel impatience for the wedding to take place at Michaelmas.
'I can hardly tell you what a comfort and relief it will be to me, Hyacinth, when you are once my wife - the mistress of my home - poor little Molly's mother and protector; but I wouldn't interfere with your previous engagements for the world. It wouldn't be right.'
'Thank you, my own love. How good you are! So many men would think only of their own wishes and interests! I'm sure the parents of my dear pupils will admire you - will be quite surprised at your consideration for their interests.'
'Don't tell them, then. I hate being admired. Why shouldn't you say it is your wish to keep on your school till they've had time to look out for another?'
'Because it isn't,' said she, daring all. 'I long to be making you happy; I want to make your home a place of rest and comfort to you; and I do so wish to cherish your sweet Molly, as I hope to do, when I come to be her mother. I can't take virtue to myself which doesn't belong to me. If I have to speak for myself, I shall say, "Good people, find a school for your daughters by Michaelmas, - for after that time I must go and make the happiness of others." I can't bear to think of your long rides in November - coming home wet at night with no one to take care of you. Oh! if you leave it to me, I shall advise the parents to take their daughters away from the care of one whose heart will be absent. Though I couldn't consent to any time before Michaelmas - that wouldn't be fair or right, and I'm sure you wouldn't urge me - you are too good.'
'Well, if you think that they will consider we have acted uprightly by them, let it be Michaelmas with all my heart. What does Lady Cumnor say?'
'Oh! I told her I was afraid you wouldn't like waiting, because of your difficulties with your servants, and because of Molly - it would be so desirable to enter on the new relationship with her as soon as possible.'
'To be sure; so it would. Poor child! I'm afraid the intelligence of my engagement has rather startled her.'
'Cynthia will feel it deeply, too,' said Mrs Kirkpatrick, unwilling to let her daughter be behind Mr Gibson's in sensibility and affection.
'We will have her over to the wedding! She and Molly shall be bridesmaids,' said Mr Gibson, in the unguarded warmth of his heart.
This plan did not quite suit Mrs Kirkpatrick; but she thought it best not to oppose it, until she had a presentable excuse to give, and perhaps also some reason would naturally arise out of future circumstances; so at this time she only smiled, and softly pressed the hand she held in hers.
It is a question whether Mrs Kirkpatrick or Molly wished the most for the day to be over which they were to spend together at the Towers. Mrs Kirkpatrick was rather weary of girls as a class. All the trials of her life were connected with girls in some way. She was very young when she first became a governess, and had been worsted in her struggles with her pupils, in the first place she ever went to. Her elegance of appearance and manner, and her accomplishments, more than her character and acquirements, had rendered it more easy for her than for most to obtain good 'situations;' and she had been absolutely petted in some; but still she was constantly encountering naughty or stubborn, or over-conscientious, or severe-judging, or curious and observant girls. And again, before Cynthia was born, she had longed for a boy, thinking it possible that if some three or four intervening relations died, he might come to be a baronet; and instead of a son, lo and behold it was a daughter! Nevertheless, with all her dislike to girls in the abstract as 'the plagues of her life' (and her aversion was not diminished by the fact of her having kept a school for 'young ladies' at Ashcombe), she really meant to be as kind as she could be to her new step-daughter, whom she remembered principally as a black-haired, sleepy child, in whose eyes she had read admiration of herself. Mrs Kirkpatrick accepted Mr Gibson principally because she was tired of the struggle of earning her own livelihood; but she liked him personally - nay, she even loved him in her torpid way, and she intended to be good to his daughter, though she felt as if it would have been easier for her to have been good to his son.
Molly was bracing herself up in her way too. 'I will be like Harriet. I will think of others. I won't think of myself,' she kept repeating all the way to the Towers. But there was no selfishness in wishing that the day was come to an end, and that she did very heartily. Mrs Hamley sent her thither in the carriage, which was to wait and bring her back at night. Mrs Hamley wanted Molly to make a favourable impression, and she sent for her to come and show herself before she set out.
'Don't put on your silk gown - your white muslin will look the nicest, my dear.'
'Not my silk? it is quite new! I had it to come here.'
'Still, I think your white muslin suits you the best.' 'Anything but that horrid plaid silk' was the thought in Mrs Hamley's mind; and, thanks to her, Molly set off for the Towers, looking a little quaint, it is true, but thoroughly ladylike, if she was old-fashioned. Her father was to meet her there; but he had been detained, and she had to face Mrs Kirkpatrick by herself, the recollection of her last day of misery at the Towers fresh in her mind as if it had been yesterday. Mrs Kirkpatrick was as caressing as could be. She held Molly's hand in hers, as they sate together in the library, after the first salutations were over. She kept stroking it from time to time, and purring out inarticulate sounds of loving satisfaction, as she gazed in the blushing face.
'What eyes! so like your dear father's! How we shall love each other - shan't we, darling? For his sake!'
'I'll try,' said Molly, bravely; and then she could not finish her sentence.
'And you've just got the same beautiful black curling hair!' said Mrs Kirkpatrick, softly lifting one of Molly's curls from off her white temple.
'Papa's hair is growing grey,' said Molly.
'Is it? I never see it. I never shall see it. He will always be to me the handsomest of men.'
Mr Gibson was really a very handsome man, and Molly was pleased with the compliment; but she could not help saying, -
'Still he will grow old, and his hair will grow grey. I think he will be just as handsome, but it won't be as a young man.'
'Ah! that's just it, love. He'll always be handsome; some people always are. And he is so fond of you, dear.' Molly's colour flashed into her face. She did not want an assurance of her own father's love from this strange woman. She could not help being angry; all she could do was to keep silent. 'You don't know how he speaks of you; "his little treasure," as he calls you. I'm almost jealous sometimes.'
Molly took her hand away, and her heart began to harden; these speeches were so discordant to her. But she set her teeth together, and 'tried to be good.'
'We must make him so happy. I'm afraid he has had a great deal to annoy him at home; but we will do away with all that now. You must tell me,' seeing the cloud in Molly's eyes, 'what he likes and dislikes, for of course you will know.'
Molly's face cleared a little; of course she did know. She had not watched and loved him so long without believing that she understood him better than any one else; though how he had come to like Mrs Kirkpatrick enough to wish to marry her, was an unsolved problem that she unconsciously put aside as inexplicable. Mrs Kirkpatrick went on, - 'All men have their fancies and antipathies, even the wisest. I have known some gentlemen annoyed beyond measure by the merest trifles; leaving a door open, or spilling tea in their saucers, or a shawl crookedly put on. Why,' continued she, lowering her voice, 'I know of a house to which Lord Hollingford will never be asked again because he didn't wipe his shoes on both the mats in the hall! Now you must tell me what your dear father dislikes most in these fanciful ways, and I shall take care to avoid it. You must be my little friend and helper in pleasing him. It will be such a pleasure to me to attend to his slightest fancies. About my dress, too - what colours does he like best? I want to do everything in my power with a view to his approval.'
Molly was gratified by all this, and began to think that really, after all, perhaps her father had done well for himself; and that if she could help towards his new happiness, she ought to do it. So she tried very conscientiously to think over Mr Gibson's wishes and ways; to ponder over what annoyed him the most in his household.
'I think,' said she, 'papa isn't particular about many things; but I think our not having the dinner quite punctual - quite ready for him when he comes in, fidgets him more than anything. You see, he has often had a long ride, and there is another long ride to come, and he has only half-an - hour - sometimes only a quarter - to eat his dinner in.'
'Thank you, my own love. Punctuality! Yes; it's a great thing in a household. It's what I've had to enforce with my young ladies at Ashcombe. No wonder poor dear Mr Gibson has been displeased at his dinner not being ready, and he so hard-worked!'
'Papa doesn't care what he has, if it's only ready. He would take bread-and-cheese, if cook would only send it in instead of dinner.'
'Bread-and-cheese! Does Mr Gibson eat cheese?'
'Yes; he's very fond of it,' said Molly, innocently. 'I've known him eat toasted cheese when he has been too tired to fancy anything else.'
'Oh! but, my dear, we must change all that. I shouldn't like to think of your father eating cheese; it's such a strong-smelling, coarse kind of thing. We must get him a cook who can toss him up an omelette, or something elegant. Cheese is only fit for the kitchen.'
'Papa is very fond of it,' persevered Molly.
'Oh! but we will cure him of that. I couldn't bear the smell of cheese; and I'm sure he would be sorry to annoy me.'
Molly was silent; it did not do, she found, to be too minute in telling about her father's likes or dislikes. She had better leave them for Mrs Kirkpatrick to find out for herself. It was an awkward pause; each was trying to find something agreeable to say. Molly spoke at length. 'Please! I should so like to know something about Cynthia - your daughter.'
'Yes, call her Cynthia. It's a pretty name, isn't it? Cynthia Kirkpatrick. Not so pretty, though, as my old name, Hyacinth Clare. People used to say it suited me so well. I must show you an acrostic a gentleman - he was a lieutenant in the 53rd - made upon it. Oh! we shall have a great deal to say to each other, I foresee!'
'But about Cynthia?'
'Oh, yes! about dear Cynthia. What do you want to know, my dear?'
'Papa said she was to live with us! When will she come?'
'Oh, was it not sweet of your kind father? I thought of nothing else but Cynthia's going out as a governess when she had completed her education; she has been brought up for it, and has had great advantages. But good dear Mr Gibson wouldn't hear of it. He said yesterday that she must come and live with us when she left school.'
'When will she leave school?'
'She went for two years. I don't think I must let her leave before next summer. She teaches English as well as learning French. Next summer she shall come home, and then shan't we be a happy little quartette?'
'I hope so,' said Molly. 'But she is to come to the wedding, isn't she?' she went on timidly, now knowing how far Mrs Kirkpatrick would like the allusion to her marriage.
'Your father has begged for her to come; but we must think about it a little more before quite fixing it. The journey is a great expense!'
'Is she like you? I do so want to see her.'
'She is very handsome, people say. In the bright-coloured style, - perhaps something like what I was. But I like the dark-haired foreign kind of beauty best - just now,' touching Molly's hair, and looking at her with an expression of sentimental remembrance.
'Does Cynthia - is she very clever and accomplished?' asked Molly, a little afraid lest the answer should remove Miss Kirkpatrick at too great a distance from her.
'She ought to be; I've paid ever so much money to have her taught by the best masters. But you will see her before long, and I'm afraid we must go now to Lady Cumnor. It has been very charming having you all to myself, but I know Lady Cumnor will be expecting us now, and she was very curious to see you, - my future daughter, as she calls you.'
Molly followed Mrs Kirkpatrick into the morning-room, where Lady Cumnor was sitting - a little annoyed, because, having completed her toilette earlier than usual, Clare had not been aware by instinct of the fact, and so had not brought Molly Gibson for inspection a quarter of an hour before. Every small occurrence is an event in the day of a convalescent invalid, and a little while ago Molly would have met with patronizing appreciation, where now she had to encounter criticism. Of Lady Cumnor's character as an individual she knew nothing; she only knew she was going to see and be seen by a live countess; nay, more, by 'the countess' of Hollingford.
Mrs Kirkpatrick led her into Lady Cumnor's presence by the hand, and in presenting her, said, - 'My dear little daughter, Lady Cumnor!'
'Now, Clare, don't let me have nonsense. She is not your daughter yet, and may never be, - I believe that one-third of the engagements I have heard of, have never come to marriages. Miss Gibson, I am very glad to see you, for your father's sake; when I know you better, I hope it will be for your own.'
Molly very heartily hoped that she might never be known any better by the stern-looking lady who sate so uprightly in the easy chair, prepared for lounging, and which therefore gave all the more effect to the stiff attitude. Lady Cumnor luckily took Molly's silence for acquiescent humility, and went on speaking after a further little pause of inspection.
'Yes, yes, I like her looks, Clare. You may make something of her. It will be a great advantage to you, my dear, to have a lady who has trained up several young people of quality always about you just at the time when you are growing up. I'll tell you what, Clare!' - a sudden thought striking her, - 'you and she must become better acquainted - you know nothing of each other at present; you are not to be married till Christmas, and what could be better than that she should go back with you to Ashcombe! She would be with you constantly, and have the advantage of the companionship of your young people, which would be a good thing for an only child! It's a capital plan; I'm very glad I thought of it!'
Now it would be difficult to say which of Lady Cumnor's two hearers was the most dismayed at the idea which had taken possession of her. Mrs Kirkpatrick had no fancy for being encumbered with a step-daughter before her time. If Molly came to be an inmate of her house, farewell to many little background economies, and a still more serious farewell to many little indulgences, that were innocent enough in themselves, but which Mrs Kirkpatrick's former life had caused her to look upon as sins to be concealed: the dirty dog's-eared delightful novel from the Ashcombe circulating library, the leaves of which she turned over with a pair of scissors. the lounging-chair which she had for use at her own home, straight and upright as she sate now in Lady Cumnor's presence; the dainty morsel, savoury and small, to which she treated herself for her own solitary supper, - all these and many other similarly pleasant things would have to be foregone if Molly came to be her pupil, parlour-boarder, or visitor, as Lady Cumnor was planning. One - two things Clare was instinctively resolved upon: to be married at Michaelmas, and not to have Molly at Ashcombe. But she smiled as sweetly as if the plan proposed was the most charming project in the world, while all the time her poor brains were beating about in every bush for the reasons or excuses of which she should make use at some future time. Molly, however, saved her all this trouble. It was a question which of the three was the most surprised by the words which burst out of her lips. She did not mean to speak, but her heart was very full, and almost before she was aware of her thought she heard herself saying, -
'I don't think it would be nice at all. I mean, my lady, that I should dislike it very much; it would be taking me away from papa just these very few last months. I will like you,' she went on, her eyes full of tears; and, turning to Mrs Kirkpatrick, she put her hand into her future stepmother's with the prettiest and most trustful action. 'I will try hard to love you, and to do all I can to make you happy. but you must not take me away from papa just this very last bit of time that I shall have him.'
Mrs Kirkpatrick fondled the hand thus placed in hers, and was grateful to the girl for her outspoken opposition to Lady Cumnor's plan. Clare was, however, exceedingly unwilling to back up Molly by any words of her own until Lady Cumnor had spoken and given the cue. But there was something in Molly's little speech, or in her straightforward manner, that amused instead of irritating Lady Cumnor in her present mood. Perhaps she was tired of the silkiness with which she had been shut up for so many days.
She put up her glasses, and looked at them both before speaking. Then she said, - 'Upon my word, young lady! Why, Clare, you've got your work before you! Not but what there is a good deal of truth in what she says. It must be very disagreeable to a girl of her age to have a stepmother coming in between her father and herself, whatever may be the advantages to her in the long run.'
Molly almost felt as if she could make a friend of the stiff old countess, for her clearness of sight as to the plan proposed being a trial; but she was afraid, in her new-born desire of thinking for others, of Mrs Kirkpatrick being hurt. She need not have feared as far as outward signs went, for the smile was still on that lady's pretty rosy lips, and the soft fondling of her hand never stopped. Lady Cumnor was more interested in Molly the more she looked at her; and her gaze was pretty steady through her gold-rimmed eye-glasses. She began a sort of catechism; a string of very straightforward questions, such as any lady under the rank of countess might have scrupled to ask, but which were not unkindly meant.
'You are sixteen, are you not?'
'No; I am seventeen. My birthday was three weeks ago.'
'Very much the same thing, I should think. Have you ever been to school?'
'No, never! Miss Eyre has taught me everything I know.'
'Umph! Miss Eyre was your governess, I suppose? I should not have thought your father could have afforded to keep a governess. But of course he must know his own affairs best.'
'Certainly, my lady,' replied Molly, a little touchy as to any reflections on her father's wisdom.
'You say "certainly!" as if it was a matter of course that every one should know their own affairs best. You are very young, Miss Gibson - very. You'll know better before you come to my age. And I suppose you've been taught music, and the use of the globes, and French, and all the usual accomplishments, since you have had a governess? I never heard of such nonsense!' she went on, lashing herself up. 'An only daughter! If there had been half-a-dozen girls, there might have been some sense in it.'
Molly did not speak but it was by a strong effort that she kept silence. Mrs Kirkpatrick fondled her hand more perseveringly than ever, hoping thus to express a sufficient amount of sympathy to prevent her from saying anything injudicious. But the caress had become wearisome to Molly, and only irritated her nerves. She took her hand out of Mrs Kirkpatrick's, with a slight manifestation of impatience.
It was, perhaps, fortunate for the general peace that just at this moment Mr Gibson was announced. It is odd enough to see how the entrance of a person of the opposite sex into an assemblage of either men or women calms down the little discordances and the disturbance of mood. It was the case now; at Mr Gibson's entrance my lady took off her glasses, and smoothed her brow; Mrs Kirkpatrick managed to get up a very becoming blush, and as for Molly, her face glowed with delight, and the white teeth and pretty dimples came out like sunlight on a landscape.
Of course, after the first greeting, my lady had to have a private interview with her doctor; and Molly and her future stepmother wandered about in the gardens with their arms round each other's waists, or hand in hand, like the babes in the wood; Mrs Kirkpatrick active in such endearments, Molly passive, and feeling within herself very shy and strange; for she had that particular kind of shy modesty which makes any one uncomfortable at receiving caresses from a person towards whom the heart does not go forth with an impulsive welcome.
Then came the early dinner; Lady Cumnor having hers in the quiet of her own room, to which she was still a prisoner. Once or twice during the meal, the idea crossed Molly's mind that her father disliked his position as a middle-aged lover being made so evident to the men in waiting as it was by Mrs Kirkpatrick's affectionate speeches and innuendos. He tried to banish every tint of pink sentimentalism from the conversation, and to confine it to matter of fact; and when Mrs Kirkpatrick would persevere in dwelling upon such facts as had a bearing upon the future relationship of the parties, he insisted upon viewing them in the most matter-of-fact way; and this continued even after the men had left the room. An old rhyme Molly had heard Betty use, would keep running in her head and making her uneasy, -
But where could she go to in that strange house? What ought she to do? She was roused from this fit of wonder and abstraction by her father's saying, - 'What do you think of this plan of Lady Cumnor's? She says she was advising you to have Molly as a visitor at Ashcombe until we are married.'
Mrs Kirkpatrick's countenance fell. If only Molly would be so good as to testify again, as she had done before Lady Cumnor! But if the proposal was made by her father, it would come to his daughter from a different quarter than it had done from a strange lady, be she ever so great. Molly did not say anything; she only looked pale, and wistful, and anxious. Mrs Kirkpatrick had to speak for herself.
'It would be a charming plan, only - Well! we know why we would rather not have it, don't we, love? And we won't tell papa, for fear of making him vain. No! I think I must leave her with you, dear Mr Gibson, for a tête-à-tête for these last few weeks. It would be cruel to take her away.'
'But you know, my dear, I told you of the reason why it does not do to have Molly at home just at present,' said Mr Gibson, eagerly. For the more he knew of his future wife, the more he felt it necessary to remember that, with all her foibles, she would be able to stand between Molly and any such adventures as that which had occurred lately with Mr Coxe; so that one of the good reasons for the step he had taken was always present to him, while it had slipped off the smooth surface of Mrs Kirkpatrick's mirror-like mind without leaving any impression. She now recalled it, on seeing Mr Gibson's anxious face.
But what were Molly's feelings at these last words of her father's? She had been sent from home for some reason, kept a secret from her, but told to this strange woman. Was there to be perfect confidence between these two, and she to be for ever shut out? Was she, and what concerned her - though how, she did not know - to be discussed between them for the future, and she to be kept in the dark? A bitter pang of jealousy made her heart-sick. She might as well go to Ashcombe, or anywhere else, now. Thinking more of others' happiness than of her own was very fine; but did it not mean giving up her very individuality, quenching all the warm love, the keen desires, that made her herself? Yet in this deadness lay her only comfort; or so it seemed. Wandering in such mazes, she hardly knew how the conversation went on; a third was indeed 'trumpery,' where there was entire confidence between the two who were company, from which the other was shut out. She was positively unhappy, and her father did not appear to see it; he was absorbed with his new plans and his new wife that was to be. But he did notice it; and was keenly sorry for his little girl; only he thought that there was a greater chance for the future harmony of the household, if he did not lead Molly to define her present feelings by putting them into words. It was his general plan to repress emotion by not showing the sympathy he felt. Yet, when he had to leave, he took Molly's hand in his, and held it there, in such a different manner to that in which Mrs Kirkpatrick had done; and his voice softened to his child as he bade her good-by, and added the words (most unusual to him), 'God bless you, child!'
Molly had held up all the day bravely; she had not shown anger, or repugnance, or annoyance, or regret; but when once more by herself in the Hamley carriage, she burst into a passion of tears, and cried her fill till she reached the village of Hamley. Then she tried in vain to smooth her face into smiles, and do away with the other signs of her grief. She only hoped she could run upstairs to her own room without notice, and bathe her eyes in cold water before she was seen. But at the hall-door she was caught by the squire and Roger coming in from an after-dinner stroll in the garden, and hospitably anxious to help her to alight. Roger saw the state of things in an instant, and saying, -
'My mother has been looking for you to come back for this last hour,' he led the way to the drawing-room. But Mrs Hamley was not there; the squire had stopped to speak to the coachman about one of the horses; they two were alone. Roger said, -
'I am afraid you have had a very trying day. I have thought of you several times, for I know how awkward these new relations are.'
'Thank you,' said she, her lips trembling, and on the point of crying again. 'I did try to remember what you said, and to think more of others, but it is so difficult sometimes; you know it is, don't you?'
'Yes,' said he, gravely. He was gratified by her simple confession of having borne his words of advice in mind, and tried to act up to them. He was but a very young man, and he was honestly flattered; perhaps this led him on to offer more advice, and this time it was evidently mingled with sympathy. He did not want to draw out her confidence, which he felt might very easily be done with such a simple girl; but he wished to help her by giving her a few of the principles on which he had learnt to rely. 'It is difficult,' he went on, 'but by-and-by you will be so much happier for it.'
'No, I shan't!' said Molly, shaking her head. 'It will be very dull when I shall have killed myself, as it were, and live only in trying to do, and to be, as other people like. I don't see any end to it. I might as well never have lived. And as for the happiness you speak of, I shall never be happy again.'
There was an unconscious depth in what she said, that Roger did not know how to answer at the moment; it was easier to address himself to the assertion of the girl of seventeen, that she should never be happy again.
'Nonsense: perhaps in ten years' time you will be looking back on this trial as a very light one - who knows?'
'I daresay it seems foolish; perhaps all our earthly trials will appear foolish to us after a while. perhaps they seem so now to angels. But we are ourselves, you know, and this is now, not some time to come, a long, long way off. And we are not angels, to be comforted by seeing the ends for which everything is sent.'
She had never spoken so long a sentence to him before; and when she had said it, though she did not take her eyes away from his, as they stood steadily looking at each other, she blushed a little; she could not have told why. Nor did he tell himself why a sudden pleasure came over him as he gazed at her simple expressive face - and for a moment lost the sense of what she was saying, in the sensation of pity for her sad earnestness. In an instant more he was himself again. Only it is pleasant to the wisest, most reasonable youth of one or two and twenty to find himself looked up to as a Mentor by a girl of seventeen.
'I know, I understand. Yes: it is now we have to do with. Don't let us go into metaphysics.' Molly opened her eyes wide at this. Had she been talking metaphysics without knowing it? 'One looks forward to a mass of trials, which will only have to be encountered one by one, little by little. Oh, here is my mother! she will tell you better than I can.'
And the tête-à-tête was merged in a trio. Mrs Hamley lay down; she had not been well all day - she had missed Molly, she said, - and now she wanted to hear of all the adventures that had occurred to the girl at the Towers. Molly sate on a stool close to the head of the sofa, and Roger, though at first he took up a book and tried to read that he might be no restraint, soon found his reading all a pretence: it was so interesting to listen to Molly's little narrative, and, besides, if he could give her any help in her time of need, was it not his duty to make himself acquainted with all the circumstances of her case?
And so they went on during all the remaining time of Molly's stay at Hamley. Mrs Hamley sympathized, and liked to hear details, as the French say, her sympathy was given en détail, the squire's en gros. He was very sorry for her evident grief, and almost felt guilty, as if he had had a share in bringing it about, by the mention he had made of the possibility of Mr Gibson's marrying again, when first Molly had come on her visit to them. He said to his wife more than once, -
''Pon my word, now, I wish I'd never spoken those unlucky words that first day at dinner. Do you remember how she took them up? It was like a prophecy of what was to come, now, wasn't it? And she looked pale from that day, and I don't think she has ever fairly enjoyed her food since. I must take more care what I say for the future. Not but what Gibson is doing the very best thing, both for himself and her, that he can do. I told him so only yesterday. But I'm very sorry for the little girl, though. I wish I'd never spoken about it, that I do! but it was like a prophecy, wasn't it?'
Roger tried hard to find out a reasonable and right method of comfort, for he, too, in his way, was sorry for the girl, who bravely struggled to be cheerful, in spite of her own private grief, for his mother's sake. He felt as if high principle and noble precept ought to perform an immediate work. But they do not, for there is always the unknown quantity of individual experience and feeling, which offer a tacit resistance, the amount incalculable by another, to all good counsel and high decree. But the bond between the Mentor and his Telemachus strengthened every day. He endeavoured to lead her out of morbid thought into interest in other than personal things; and, naturally enough, his own objects of interest came readiest to hand. She felt that he did her good, she did not know why or how; but after a talk with him, she always fancied that she had got the clue to goodness and peace, whatever befell.
Meanwhile the love-affairs between the middle-aged couple were prospering well, after a fashion; after the fashion that they liked best, although it might probably have appeared dull and prosaic to younger people. Lord Cumnor had come down in great glee at the news he had heard from his wife at the Towers. He, too, seemed to think he had taken an active part in bringing about the match by only speaking about it. His first words on the subject to Lady Cumnor were, -
'I told you so. Now didn't I say what a good, suitable thing this affair between Gibson and Clare would be! I don't know when I have been so much pleased. You may despise the trade of match-maker, my lady, but I am very proud of it. After this, I shall go on looking out for suitable cases among the middle-aged people of my acquaintance. I shan't meddle with young folks, they are so apt to be fanciful; but I have been so successful in this, that I do think it is a good encouragement to go on.'
'Go on - with what?' asked Lady Cumnor, drily.
'Oh, planning - You can't deny that I planned this match.'
'I don't think you are likely to do either much good or harm by planning,' she replied, with cool, good sense.
'It puts it into people's heads, my dear.'
'Yes, if you speak about your plans to them, of course it does. But in this case you never spoke to either Mr Gibson, or Clare, did you?'
All at once the recollection of how Clare had come upon the passage in Lord Cumnor's letter flashed on his lady, but she did not say anything about it, but left her husband to flounder about as best he might.
'No! I never spoke to them; of course not.'
'Then you must be strongly mesmeric, and your will acted upon theirs, if you are to take credit for any part in the affair,' continued his pitiless wife.
'I really can't say. It's no use looking back to what I said or did. I'm very well satisfied with it, and that's enough, and I mean to show them how much I'm pleased. I shall give Clare something towards her rigging out, and they shall have a breakfast at Ashcombe Manor-house. I'll write to Preston about it. When did you say they were to be married?'
'I think they'd better wait till Christmas, and I have told them so. It would amuse the children, going over to Ashcombe for the wedding; and if it's bad weather during the holidays I'm always afraid of their finding it dull at the Towers. It's very different if it's a good frost, and they can go out skating and sledging in the park. But these last two years it has been so wet for them, poor dears!'
'And will the other poor dears be content to wait to make a holiday for your grandchildren? "To make a Roman holiday." Pope, or somebody else, had a line of poetry like that. "To make a Roman holiday,"' - he repeated, pleased with his unusual aptitude at quotation.
'It's Byron, and it's nothing to do with the subject in hand. I'm surprised at your lordship's quoting Byron, - he was a very immoral poet.'
'I saw him take his oaths in the House of Lords,' said Lord Cumnor, apologetically.
'Well! the less said about him the better,' said Lady Cumnor. 'I have told Clare that she had better not think of being married before Christmas; and it won't do for her to give up her school in a hurry either.'
But Clare did not intend to wait till Christmas; and for this once she carried her point against the will of the countess, and without many words, or any open opposition. She had a harder task in setting aside Mr Gibson's desire to have Cynthia over for the wedding, even if she went back to her school at Boulogne directly after the ceremony. At first she had said that it would be delightful, a charming plan; only she feared that she must give up her own wishes to have her child near her at such a time, on account of the expense of the double journey.
But Mr Gibson, economical as he was in his habitual expenditure, had a really generous heart. He had already shown it, in entirely relinquishing his future wife's life-interest in the very small property the late Mr Kirkpatrick had left, in favour of Cynthia; while he arranged that she should come to his home as a daughter as soon as she left the school she was at. The life-interest was about thirty pounds a year. Now he gave Mrs Kirkpatrick three five-pound notes, saying that he hoped they would do away with the objections to Cynthia's coming over to the wedding; and at the time Mrs Kirkpatrick felt as if they would, and caught the reflection of his strong wish, and fancied it was her own. If the letter could have been written and the money sent off that day while the reflected glow of affection lasted, Cynthia would have been bridesmaid to her mother. But a hundred little interruptions came in the way of letter-writing; and by the next day maternal love had diminished; and the value affixed to the money had increased: money had been so much needed, so hardly earned in Mrs Kirkpatrick's life; while the perhaps necessary separation of mother and child had lessened the amount of affection the former had to bestow. So she persuaded herself, afresh, that it would be unwise to disturb Cynthia at her studies; to interrupt the fulfilment of her duties just after the semestre had begun afresh; and she wrote a letter to Madame Lefevre so well imbued with this persuasion, that an answer which was almost an echo of her words was returned, the sense of which being conveyed to Mr Gibson, who was no great French scholar, settled the vexed question, to his moderate but unfeigned regret. But the fifteen pounds were not returned. Indeed, not merely that sum, but a great part of the hundred which Lord Cumnor had given her for her trousseau, was required to pay off debts at Ashcombe; for the school had been anything but flourishing since Mrs Kirkpatrick had had it. It was really very much to her credit that she preferred clearing herself from debt to purchasing wedding finery. But it was one of the few points to be respected in Mrs Kirkpatrick that she had always been careful in payment to the shops where she dealt; it was a little sense of duty cropping out. Whatever other faults might arise from her superficial and flimsy character, she was always uneasy till she was out of debt. Yet she had no scruple in appropriating her future husband's money to her own use, when it was decided that it was not to be employed as he intended. What new articles she bought for herself, were all such as would make a show, and an impression upon the ladies of Hollingford. She argued with herself that linen, and all underclothing, would never be seen, while she knew that every gown she had, would give rise to much discussion and would be counted up in the little town.
So her stock of 'underclothing was very small, and scarcely any of it new; but it was made of dainty material, and was finely mended up by her deft fingers, many a night long after her pupils were in bed; inwardly resolving all the time she sewed, that hereafter some one else should do her plain-work. Indeed, many a little circumstance of former subjection to the will of others rose up before her during these quiet hours, as an endurance or a suffering never to occur again. So apt are people to look forward to a different kind of life from that to which they have been accustomed, as being free from care and trial! She recollected how, one time during this very summer at the Towers, after she was engaged to Mr Gibson, when she had taken above an hour to arrange her hair in some new mode carefully studied from Mrs Bradley's fashion-book - after all, when she came down, looking her very best, as she thought, and ready for her lover, Lady Cumnor had sent her back again to her room, just as if she had been a little child, to do her hair over again, and not to make such a figure of fun of herself! Another time she had been sent to change her gown for one in her opinion far less becoming, but which suited Lady Cumnor's taste better. These were little things; but they were late samples of what in different shapes she had had to endure for many years; and her liking for Mr Gibson grew in proportion to her sense of the evils from which he was going to serve as a means of escape. After all, that interval of hope and plain-sewing, intermixed though it was by tuition, was not disagreeable. Her wedding-dress was secure. Her former pupils at the Towers were going to present her with that; they were to dress her from head to foot on the auspicious day. Lord Cumnor, as has been said, had given her a hundred pounds for her trousseau, and had sent Mr Preston a carte-blanche order for the wedding-breakfast in the old hall in Ashcombe Manor-house. Lady Cumnor - a little put out by the marriage not being deferred till her grandchildren's Christmas holidays - had nevertheless given Mrs Kirkpatrick an excellent English-made watch and chain; more clumsy but more serviceable than the little foreign elegance that had hung at her side so long, and misled her so often.
Her preparations were thus in a very considerable state of forwardness, while Mr Gibson had done nothing as yet towards any new arrangement or decoration of his house for his intended bride. He knew he ought to do something. But what? Where to begin, when so much was out of order, and he had so little time for superintendence? At length he came to the wise decision of asking one of the Miss Brownings to take the trouble of preparing all that was immediately requisite in his house, for old friendship's sake; and resolved to leave all the more ornamental decorations that he proposed, to the taste of his future wife. But before making his request to the Miss Brownings he had to tell them of his engagement, which had hitherto been kept a secret from the townspeople, who had set down his frequent visits at the Towers to the score of the countess's health. He felt how he should have laughed in his sleeve at any middle-aged widower who came to him with a confession of the kind he had now to make to the Miss Brownings, and disliked the idea of the necessary call: but it was to be done, so one evening he went in (promiscuous,' as they called it, and told them his story. At the end of the first chapter - that is to say, at the end of the story of Mr Coxe's calf-love, Miss Browning held up her hands in surprise.
'To think of Molly, as I have held in long-clothes, coming to have a lover! Well, to be sure! Sister Phoebe - ' (she was just coming into the room), 'here's a piece of news! Molly Gibson has got a lover! One may almost say she's had an offer! Mr Gibson, may not one? - and she's but sixteen!'
'Seventeen, sister,' said Miss Phoebe, who piqued herself on knowing all about dear Mr Gibson's domestic affairs. 'Seventeen, the 22nd of last June.'
'Well, have it your own way. Seventeen, if you like to call her so!' said Miss Browning, impatiently. 'The fact is still the same - she's got a lover; and it seems to me she was in long-clothes only yesterday.'
'I'm sure I hope her course of true love will run smooth,' said Miss Phoebe.
Now Mr Gibson came in; for his story was not half told, and he did not want them to run away too far with the idea of Molly's love-affair.
'Molly knows nothing about it. I haven't even named it to any one but you two, and to one other friend. I trounced Coxe well, and did my best to keep his attachment - as he calls it - in bounds. But I was sadly puzzled what to do about Molly. Miss Eyre was away, and I couldn't leave them in the house together without any older woman.'
'Oh, Mr Gibson! why did you not send her to us?' broke in Miss Browning. 'We would have done anything in our power for you; for your sake, as well as her poor dear mother's.'
'Thank you. I know you would, but it wouldn't have done to have had her in Hollingford, just at the time of Coxe's effervescence. He's better now. His appetite has come back with double force, after the fasting he thought it right to exhibit. He had three helpings of blackcurrant dumpling yesterday.'
'I am sure you are most liberal, Mr Gibson. Three helpings! And, I daresay, butcher's meat in proportion?'
'Oh! I only named it because, with such very young men, it's generally see-saw between appetite and love, and I thought the third helping a very good sign. But still, you know, what has happened once, may happen again.'
'I don't know. Phoebe had an offer of marriage once -- ' said Miss Browning.
'Hush! sister. It might hurt his feelings to have it spoken about.'
'Nonsense, child! It's five-and-twenty years ago; and his eldest daughter is married herself.'
'I own he has not been constant,' pleaded Miss Phoebe, in her tender, piping voice. 'All men are not - like you, Mr Gibson - faithful to the memory of their first love.'
Mr Gibson winced. Jeanie was his first love; but her name had never been breathed in Hollingford. His wife - good, pretty, sensible, and beloved as she had been - was not his second; no, nor his third love. And now he was come to make a confidence about his second marriage.
'Well, well,' said he; 'at any rate, I thought I must do something to protect Molly from such affairs while she was so young, and before I had given my sanction. Miss Eyre's little nephew fell ill of scarlet fever -- '
'Ah! by-the-by, how careless of me not to inquire. How is the poor little fellow?'
'Worse - better. It doesn't signify to what I've got to say now; the fact was, Miss Eyre couldn't come back to my house for some time, and I cannot leave Molly altogether at Hamley.'
'Ah! I see now, why there was that sudden visit to Hamley. Upon my word, it's quite a romance.'
'I do like hearing of a love-affair,' murmured Miss Phoebe.
'Then if you'll let me get on with my story, you shall hear of mine,' said Mr Gibson, quite beyond his patience with their constant interruptions.
'Yours!' said Miss Phoebe, faintly.
'Bless us and save us!' said Miss Browning, with less sentiment in her tone; 'what next?'
'My marriage, I hope,' said Mr Gibson, choosing to take her expression of intense surprise literally. 'And that's what I came to speak to you about.'
A little hope darted up in Miss Phoebe's breast. She had often said to her sister, in the confidence of curling-time (ladies wore curls in those days), 'that the only man who could ever bring her to think of matrimony was Mr Gibson; but that if he ever proposed, she should feel bound to accept him, for poor dear Mary's sake;' never explaining what exact style of satisfaction she imagined she should give to her dead friend by marrying her late husband. Phoebe played nervously with the strings of her black silk apron. Like the Caliph in the Eastern story, a whole lifetime of possibilities passed through her mind in an instant, of which possibilities the question of questions was, Could she leave her sister? Attend, Phoebe, to the present moment, and listen to what is being said before you distress yourself with a perplexity which will never arise.
'Of course it has been an anxious thing for me to decide who I should ask to be the mistress of my family, the mother of my girl; but I think I've decided rightly at last. The lady I have chosen -- '
'Tell us at once who she is, there's a good man,' said straightforward Miss Browning.
'Mrs Kirkpatrick,' said the bridegroom elect.
'What! the governess at the Towers, that the countess makes so much of?'
'Yes; she is much valued by them - and deservedly so. She keeps a school now at Ashcombe, and is accustomed to housekeeping. She has brought up the young ladies at the Towers, and has a daughter of her own, therefore it is probable she will have a kind, motherly feeling towards Molly.'
'She's a very elegant-looking woman,' said Miss Phoebe, feeling it incumbent upon her to say something laudatory, by way of concealing the thoughts that had just been passing through her mind. 'I've seen her in the carriage, riding backwards with the countess; a very pretty woman, I should say.'
'Nonsense, sister,' said Miss Browning. 'What has her elegance or prettiness to do with the affair? Did you ever know a widower marry again for such trifles as those? It's always from a sense of duty of one kind or another - isn't it, Mr Gibson? They want a housekeeper; or they want a mother for their children; or they think their last wife would have liked it.'
Perhaps the thought had passed through the elder sister's mind that Phoebe might have been chosen for there was a sharp acrimony in her tone; not unfamiliar to Mr Gibson, but with which he did not choose to cope at this present moment.
'You must have it your own way, Miss Browning. Settle my motives for me. I don't pretend to be quite clear about them myself. But I am clear in wishing heartily to keep my old friends, and for them to love my future wife for my sake. I don't know any two women in the world, except Molly and Mrs Kirkpatrick, I regard as much as I do you. Besides, I want to ask you if you will let Molly come and stay with you till after my marriage?'
'You might have asked us before you asked Madam Hamley,' said Miss Browning, only half mollified. 'We are your old friends; and we were her mother's friends, too; though we are not county folk.'
'That's unjust,' said Mr Gibson. 'And you know it is.'
'I don't know. You are always with Lord Hollingford, when you can get at him, much more than you ever are with Mr Goodenough, or Mr Smith. And you are always going over to Hamley.'
Miss Browning was not one to give in all at once.
'I seek Lord Hollingford as I should seek such a man, whatever his rank or position might be: usher to a school, carpenter, shoemaker, if it were possible for them to have had a similar character of mind developed by similar advantages. Mr Goodenough is a very clever attorney, with strong local interests and not a thought beyond.'
'Well, well, don't go on arguing, it always gives me a headache, as Phoebe knows. I didn't mean what I said, that's enough, isn't it? I'll retract anything sooner than be reasoned with. Where were we before you began your arguments?'
'About dear little Molly coming to pay us a visit,' said Miss Phoebe.
'I should have asked you at first, only Coxe was so rampant with his love. I didn't know what he might do, or how troublesome he might be both to Molly and you. But he has cooled down now. Absence has had a very tranquillizing effect, and I think Molly may be in the same town with him, without any consequences beyond a few sighs every time she's brought to his mind by meeting her. And I've got another favour to ask of you, so you see it would never do for me to argue with you, Miss Browning, when I ought to be a humble suppliant. Something must be done to the house to make it all ready for the future Mrs Gibson. It wants painting and papering shamefully, and I should think some new furniture, but I'm sure I don't know what. Would you be so very kind as to look over the place, and see how far a hundred pounds will go? The dining-room walls must be painted; we'll keep the drawing-room paper for her choice, and I've a little spare money for that room for her to lay out; but all the rest of the house I'll leave to you, if you'll only be kind enough to help an old friend.'
This was a commission which exactly gratified Miss Browning's love of power. The disposal of money involved patronage of tradespeople, such as she had exercised in her father's lifetime, but had had very little chance of showing since his death. Her usual good-humour was quite restored by this proof of confidence in her taste and economy, while Miss Phoebe's imagination dwelt rather on the pleasure of a visit from Molly.
Time was speeding on; it was now the middle of August, - if anything was to be done to the house, it must be done at once. Indeed, in several ways Mr Gibson's arrangements with Miss Browning had not been made too soon. The squire had heard that Osborne might probably return home for a few days before going abroad; and, though the growing intimacy between Roger and Molly did not alarm him in the least, yet he was possessed by a very hearty panic lest the heir might take a fancy to the surgeon's daughter; and he was in such a fidget for her to leave the house before Osborne came home, that his wife lived in constant terror lest he should make it too obvious to their visitor.
Every young girl of seventeen or so, who is at all thoughtful, is very apt to make a Pope out of the first person who presents to her a new or larger system of duty than that by which she has been unconsciously guided hitherto. Such a Pope was Roger to Molly; she looked to his opinion, to his authority on almost every subject, yet he had only said one or two things in a terse manner which gave them the force of precepts - stable guides to her conduct, and had shown the natural superiority in wisdom and knowledge which is sure to exist between a highly educated young man of no common intelligence, and an ignorant girl of seventeen, who yet was well capable of appreciation. Still, although they were drawn together in this very pleasant relationship, each was imagining some one very different for the future owner of their whole heart - their highest and completest love. Roger looked to find a grand woman, his equal, and his empress; beautiful in person, serene in wisdom, ready for counsel, as was Egeria.' Molly's little wavering maiden fancy dwelt on the unseen Osborne, who was now a troubadour, and now a knight, such as he wrote about in one of his own poems; some one like Osborne, perhaps, rather than Osborne himself, for she shrank from giving a personal form and name to the hero that was to be. The squire was not unwise in wishing her well out of the house before Osborne came home, if he was considering her peace of mind. Yet, when she went away from the hall he missed her constantly; it had been so pleasant to have her there daily fulfilling all the pretty offices of a daughter; cheering the meals, so often tête-à-tête betwixt him and Roger, with her innocent wise questions, her lively interest in their talk, her merry replies to his banter.
And Roger missed her too. Sometimes her remarks had probed into his mind, and excited him to the deep thought in which he delighted; at other times he had felt himself of real help to her in her hours of need, and in making her take an interest in books, which treated of higher things than the continual fiction and poetry which she had hitherto read. He felt something like an affectionate tutor who was suddenly deprived of his most promising pupil; he wondered how she would go on without him; whether she would be puzzled and disheartened by the books he had lent her to read; how she and her stepmother would get along together? She occupied his thoughts a good deal those first few days after she left the hall. Mrs Hamley regretted her more, and longer than did the other two. She had given her the place of a daughter in her heart; and now she missed the sweet feminine companionship, the playful caresses, the never-ceasing attentions; the very need of sympathy in her sorrows, that Molly had shown so openly from time to time; all these things had extremely endeared her to the tenderhearted Mrs Hamley.
Molly, too, felt the change of atmosphere keenly; and she blamed herself for so feeling even more keenly still. But she could not help having a sense of refinement, which had made her appreciate the whole manner of being at the Hall. By her dear old friends the Miss Brownings she was petted and caressed so much that she became ashamed of noticing the coarser and louder tones in which they spoke, the provincialism of their pronunciation, the absence of interest in things, and their greediness of details about persons. They asked her questions which she was puzzled enough to answer about her future stepmother; her loyalty to her father forbidding her to reply fully and truthfully. She was always glad when they began to make inquiries as to every possible affair at the Hall. She had been so happy there; she liked them all, down to the very dogs, so thoroughly, that it was easy work replying: she did not mind telling them everything, even to the style of Mrs Hamley's invalid dress; nor what wine the squire drank at dinner. Indeed, talking about these things helped her to recall the happiest time in her life. But one evening, as they were all sitting together after tea in the little upstairs drawing-room, looking into the High Street - Molly discoursing away on the various pleasures of Hamley Hall, and just then telling of all Roger's wisdom in natural science, and some of the curiosities he had shown her, she was suddenly pulled up by this little speech, -
'You seem to have seen a great deal of Mr Roger, Molly!' said Miss Browning, in a way intended to convey a great deal of meaning to her sister and none at all to Molly. But, -
Molly was perfectly aware of Miss Browning's emphatic tone, though at first she was perplexed as to its cause; while Miss Phoebe was just then too much absorbed in knitting the heel of her stocking to be fully alive to her sister's nods and winks.
'Yes; he was very kind to me,' said Molly, slowly, pondering over Miss Browning's manner, and unwilling to say more until she had satisfied herself to what the question tended.
'I dare say you will soon be going to Hamley Hall again? He's not the eldest son, . you know, Phoebe! Don't make my head ache with your eternal "eighteen, nineteen," but attend to the conversation. Molly is telling us how much she saw of Mr Roger, and how kind he was to her. I've always heard he was a very nice young man, my dear. Tell us some more about him! Now, Phoebe, attend! How was he kind to you, Molly?'
'Oh, he told me what books to read; and one day he made me notice how many bees I saw -- '
'Bees, child! What do you mean? Either you or he must have been crazy!'
'No, not at all. There are more than two hundred kinds of bees in England, and he wanted me to notice the difference between them and flies. Miss Browning, I can't help seeing what you fancy,' said Molly, as red as fire, 'but it is very wrong; it is all a mistake. I won't speak another word about Mr Roger or Hamley at all, if it puts such silly notions into your head.'
'Highty-tighty! Here's a young lady to be lecturing her elders! Silly notions, indeed! They are in your head, it seems. And let me tell you, Molly, you are too young to let your mind be running on lovers.'
Molly had been once or twice called saucy and impertinent, and certainly a little sauciness came out now.
'I never said what the "silly notion" was, Miss Browning; did I now, Miss Phoebe? Don't you see, dear Miss Phoebe, it is all her own interpretation, and according to her own fancy, this foolish talk about lovers?'
Molly was flaming with indignation; but she had appealed to the wrong person for justice. Miss Phoebe tried to make peace after the fashion of weak-minded persons, who would cover over the unpleasant sight of a sore, instead of trying to heal it.
'I'm sure I don't know anything about it, my dear. It seems to me that what Sally was saying was very true - very true indeed; and I think, love, you misunderstood her; or, perhaps, she misunderstood you; or I may be misunderstanding it altogether; so we'd better not talk any more about it. What price did you say you were going to give for the drugget in Mr Gibson's dining-room, sister?'
So Miss Browning and Molly went on till evening, each chafed and angry with the other. They wished each other good-night, going through the usual forms in the coolest manner possible. Molly went up to her little bedroom, clean and neat as a bedroom could be, with draperies of small delicate patchwork - bed-curtains, window-curtains, and counter-pane; a japanned toilette-table, full of little boxes, with a small looking-glass affixed to it, that distorted every face that was so unwise as to look in it. This room had been to the child one of the most dainty and luxurious places ever seen, in comparison with her own bare, white-dimity bedroom; and now she was sleeping in it, as a guest, and all the quaint adornments she had once peeped at as a great favour, as they were carefully wrapped up in cap-paper, were set out for her use. And yet how little she had deserved this hospitable care; how impertinent she had been; how cross she had felt ever since! She was crying tears of penitence and youthful misery when there came a low tap to the door. Molly opened it, and there stood Miss Browning, in a wonderful erection of a nightcap, and scantily attired in a coloured calico jacket over her scrimpy and short white petticoat.
'I was afraid you were asleep, child,' said she, coming in and shutting the door. 'But I wanted to say to you we've got wrong to-day, somehow; and I think it was perhaps my doing. It's as well Phoebe shouldn't know, for she thinks me perfect; and when there's only two of us, we get along better if one of us thinks the other can do no wrong. But I rather think I was a little cross. We'll not say any more about it, Molly; only we'll go to sleep friends, - and friends we'll always be, child, won't we? Now give me a kiss, and don't cry and swell your eyes up; - and put out your candle carefully.'
'I was wrong - it was my fault,' said Molly, kissing her.
'Fiddlestick-ends! Don't contradict me! I say it was my fault, and I won't hear another word about it.'
The next day Molly went with Miss Browning to see the changes going on in her father's house. To her they were but dismal improvements. The faint grey of the dining-room walls, which had harmonized well enough with the deep crimson of the moreen curtains, and which when well cleaned looked thinly coated rather than dirty, was now exchanged for a pink salmon-colour of a very glowing hue; and the new curtains were of that pale sea-green just coming into fashion. 'Very bright and pretty,' Miss Browning called it; and in the first renewing of their love Molly could not bear to contradict her. She could only hope that the green and brown drugget would tone down the brightness and prettiness. There was scaffolding here, scaffolding there, and Betty scolding everywhere.
'Come up now, and see your papa's bedroom. He's sleeping upstairs in yours, that everything may be done up afresh in his.'
Molly could just remember, in faint clear lines of distinctness, the being taken into this very room to bid farewell to her dying mother. She could see the white linen, the white muslin, surrounding the pale, wan wistful face, with the large, longing eyes, yearning for one more touch of the little soft warm child, whom she was too feeble to clasp in her arms, already growing numb in death. Many a time when Molly had been in this room since that sad day, had she seen in vivid fancy that same wan wistful face lying on the pillow, the outline of the form beneath the clothes; and the girl had not shrunk from such visions, but rather cherished them, as preserving to her the remembrance of her mother's outward semblance. Her eyes were full of tears, as she followed Miss Browning into this room to see it under its new aspect. Nearly everything was changed - the position of the bed and the colour of the furniture; there was a grand toilette-table now, with a glass upon it, instead of the primitive substitute of the top of a chest of drawers, with a mirror above upon the wall, sloping downwards; these latter things had served her mother during her short married life.
'You see we must have all in order for a lady who has passed so much of her time in the countess's mansion,' said Miss Browning, who was now quite reconciled to the marriage, thanks to the pleasant employment of furnishing that had devolved upon her in consequence. 'Cromer, the upholsterer, wanted to persuade me to have a sofa and a writing-table. These men will say anything is the fashion, if they want to sell an article. I said, "No, no, Cromer: bedrooms are for sleeping in, and sitting-rooms are for sitting in. Keep everything to its right purpose, and don't try and delude me into nonsense." Why, my mother would have given us a fine scolding if she had ever caught us in our bedrooms in the daytime. We kept our outdoor things in a closet downstairs; and there was a very tidy place for washing our hands, which is as much as one wants in the day-time. Stuffing up a bedroom with sofas and tables! I never heard of such a thing. Besides, a hundred pounds won't last for ever. I shan't be able to do anything for your room, Molly!'
'I'm right down glad of it,' said Molly. 'Nearly everything in it was what mamma had when she lived with my great-uncle. I wouldn't have had it changed for the world; I am so fond of it.'
'Well, there's no danger of it, now the money is run out. By the way, Molly, who's to buy you a bridesmaid's dress?'
'I don't know,' said Molly;'I suppose I am to be a bridesmaid; but no one has spoken to me about my dress.'
'Then I shall ask your papa.'
'Please, don't. He must have to spend a great deal of money just now. Besides, I would rather not be at the wedding, if they'll let me stay away.'
'Nonsense, child. Why, all the town would be talking of it. You must go, and you must be well dressed, for your father's sake.'
But Mr Gibson had thought of Molly's dress, although he had said nothing about it to her. He had commissioned his future wife to get her what was requisite; and presently a very smart dressmaker came over from the county-town to try on a dress, which was both so simple and so elegant as at once to charm Molly. When it came home all ready to put on, Molly had a private dressing-up for the Miss Brownings' benefit; and she was almost startled when she looked into the glass, and saw the improvement in her appearance. 'I wonder if I'm pretty,' thought she. 'I almost think I am - in this kind of dress I mean, of course. Betty would say, "Fine feathers make fine birds."'
When she went downstairs in her bridal attire, and with shy blushes presented herself for inspection, she was greeted with a burst of admiration.
'Well, upon my word! I shouldn't have known you.' ('Fine feathers,' thought Molly, and checked her rising vanity.)
'You are really beautiful - isn't she, sister?' said Miss Phoebe. 'Why, my dear, if you were always dressed, you would be prettier than your dear mamma, whom we always reckoned so very personable.'
'You're not a bit like her. You favour your father, and white always sets off a brown complexion.'
'But isn't she beautiful?' persevered Miss Phoebe.
'Well! and if she is, Providence made her, and not she herself. Besides, the dressmaker must go shares. What a fine India muslin it is! it'll have cost a pretty penny!'
Mr Gibson and Molly drove over to Ashcombe, the night before the wedding, in the one yellow post-chaise that Hollingford possessed. They were to be Mr Preston's, or, rather, my lord's, guests at the Manor-house. The Manor-house came up to its name, and delighted Molly at first sight. It was built of stone, had many gables and mullioned windows, and was covered over with Virginian creeper and late-blowing roses. Molly did not know Mr Preston, who stood in the doorway to greet her father. She took standing with him as a young lady at once, and it was the first time she had met with the kind of behaviour - half complimentary, half flirting - which some men think it necessary to assume with every woman under five-and-twenty. Mr Preston was very handsome, and knew it. He was a fair man, with light-brown hair and whiskers; grey, roving, well-shaped eyes, with lashes darker than his hair; and a figure rendered easy and supple by the athletic exercises in which his excellence was famous, and which had procured him admission into much higher society than he was otherwise entitled to enter. He was a capital cricketer; was so good a shot, that any house desirous of reputation for its bags on the 12th or the 1st, was glad to have him for a guest. He taught young ladies to play billiards on a wet day, or went in for the game in serious earnest when required, He knew half the private theatrical plays off by heart, and was invaluable in arranging impromptu charades and tableaux. He had his own private reasons for wishing to get up a flirtation with Molly just at this time; he had amused himself so much with the widow when she first came to Ashcombe, that he fancied that the sight of him, standing by her less polished, less handsome, middle-aged husband, might be too much of a contrast to be agreeable. Besides, he had really a strong passion for some one else; some one who would be absent; and that passion it was necessary for him to conceal. So that, altogether, he had resolved, even had 'the little Gibson-girl' (as he called her) been less attractive than she was, to devote himself to her for the next sixteen hours.
They were taken by their host into a wainscoted parlour, where a wood fire crackled and burnt, and the crimson curtains shut out the waning day and the outer chill. Here the table was laid for dinner; snowy table-linen, bright silver, clear sparkling glass, wine and an autumnal dessert on the sideboard. Yet Mr Preston kept apologizing to Molly for the rudeness of his bachelor home, for the smallness of the room, the great dining-room being already appropriated by his housekeeper, in preparation for the morrow's breakfast. And then he rang for a servant to show Molly to her room. She was taken into a most comfortable chamber. a wood fire on the hearth, candles lighted on the toilette-table, dark woollen curtains surrounding a snow-white bed, great vases of china standing here and there.
'This is my Lady Harriet's room when her ladyship comes to the Manor-house with my lord the earl,' said the housemaid, striking out thousands of brilliant sparks by a well-directed blow at a smouldering log. 'Shall I help you to dress, miss? I always helps her ladyship.'
Molly, quite aware of the fact that she had but her white muslin gown for the wedding besides that she had on, dismissed the good woman, and was thankful to be left to herself.
'Dinner' was it called? Why it was nearly eight o'clock; and preparations for bed seemed a more natural employment than dressing at this hour of night. All the dressing she could manage was the placing of a red damask rose or two in the band of her grey stuff gown, there being a great nosegay of choice autumnal flowers on the toilette-table. She did try the effect of another crimson rose in her black hair, just above her ear; it was very pretty, but too coquettish, and so she put it back again. The dark-oak panels and wainscoting of the whole house seemed to glow in warm light; there were so many fires in different rooms, in the hall, and even one on the landing of the staircase. Mr Preston must have heard her step, for he met her in the hall, and led her into a small drawing-room, with closed folding-doors on one side, opening into the larger drawing-room, as he told her. This room into which she entered reminded her a little of Hamley - yellow-satin upholstery of seventy or a hundred years ago, all delicately kept and scrupulously clean; great Indian cabinets, and china jars, emitting spicy odours; a large blazing fire, before which her father stood in his morning dress, grave and thoughtful, as he had been all day.
'This room is that which Lady Harriet uses when she comes here with her father for a day or two,' said Mr Preston. And Molly tried to save her father by being ready to talk herself.
'Does she often come here?'
'Not often. But I fancy she likes being here when she does. Perhaps she finds it an agreeable change after the more formal life she leads at the Towers. '
'I should think it was a very pleasant house to stay at,' said Molly, remembering the look of warm comfort that pervaded it. But a little to her dismay Mr Preston seemed to take it as a compliment to himself.
'I was afraid a young lady like you might perceive all the incongruities of a bachelor's home. I am very much obliged to you, Miss Gibson. In general I live pretty much in the room in which we shall dine; and I have a sort of agent's office in which I keep books and papers, and receive callers on business.'
Then they went in to dinner. Molly thought everything that was served was delicious, and cooked to the point of perfection; but they did not seem to satisfy Mr Preston, who apologized to his guests several times for the bad cooking of this dish, or the omission of a particular sauce to that; always referring to bachelor's housekeeping, bachelor's this and bachelor's that, till Molly grew quite impatient at the word. Her father's depression, which was still continuing and rendering him very silent, made her uneasy; yet she wished to conceal it from Mr Preston; and so she talked away, trying to obviate the sort of personal bearing which their host would give to everything. She did not know when to leave the gentlemen, but her father made a sign to her; and she was conducted back to the yellow drawing-room by Mr Preston, who made many apologies for leaving her there alone. She enjoyed herself extremely, however, feeling at liberty to prowl about, and examine all the curiosities the room contained. Among other things was a Louis Quinze cabinet with lovely miniatures in enamel let into the fine woodwork. She carried a candle to it, and was looking intently at these faces when her father and Mr Preston came in. Her father looked still careworn and anxious; he came up and patted her on the back, looked at what she was looking at, and then went off to silence and the fire. Mr Preston took the candle out of her hand, and threw himself into her interests with an air of ready gallantry.
'That is said to be Mademoiselle de St Quentin, a great beauty at the French Court. This is Madame du Barri. Do you see any likeness in Mademoiselle de St Quentin to any one you know?' He had lowered his voice a little as he asked this question.
'No!' said Molly, looking at it again. 'I never saw any one half so beautiful.'
'But don't you see a likeness - in the eyes particularly?' he asked again, with some impatience.
Molly tried hard to find out a resemblance, and was again unsuccessful.
'It constantly reminds me of - of Miss Kirkpatrick.'
'Does it?' said Molly, eagerly. 'Oh! I am so glad - I've never seen her, so of course I couldn't find out the likeness. You know her, then, do you? Please tell me all about her.'
He hesitated a moment before speaking. He smiled a little before replying.
'She's very beautiful; that of course is understood when I say that this miniature does not come up to her for beauty.'
'And besides? - Go on, please.'
'What do you mean by "besides"?'
'Oh! I suppose she's very clever and accomplished?'
That was not in the least what Molly wanted to ask; but it was difficult to word the vague vastness of her unspoken inquiry.
'She is clever naturally; she has picked up accomplishments. But she has such a charm about her, one forgets what she herself is in the halo that surrounds her. You ask me all this, Miss Gibson, and I answer truthfully; or else I should not entertain one young lady with my enthusiastic praises of another.'
'I don't see why not,' said Molly. 'Besides, if you wouldn't do it in general, I think you ought to do it in my case; for you, perhaps, don't know, but she is coming to live with us when she leaves school, and we are very nearly the same age; so it will be almost like having a sister.'
'She is to live with you, is she?' said Mr Preston, to whom this intelligence was news. 'And when is she to leave school? I thought she would surely have been at this wedding; but I was told she was not to come. When is she to leave school?'
'I think it is to be at Easter. You know she's at Boulogne, and it's a long journey for her to come alone; or else papa wished for her to be at the marriage very much indeed.'
'And her mother prevented it? - I understand.'
'No, it wasn't her mother; it was the French schoolmistress, who didn't think it desirable.'
'It comes to pretty much the same thing. And she's to return and live with you after Easter?'
'I believe so. Is she a grave or a merry person?'
'Never very grave, as far as I have seen of her. Sparkling would be the word for her, I think. Do you ever write to her? If you do, pray remember me to her, and tell her how we have been talking about her - you and I.'
'I never write to her,' said Molly, rather shortly.
Tea came in; and after that they all went to bed, Molly heard her father exclaim at the fire in his bedroom, and Mr Preston's reply, -
'I pique myself on my keen relish for all creature comforts, and also on my power of doing without them, if need be. My lord's woods are ample, and I indulge myself with a fire in my bedroom for nine months in the year; yet I could travel in Iceland without wincing from the cold.'
The wedding went off much as such affairs do. Lord Cumnor and Lady Harriet drove over from the Towers, so the hour for the ceremony was as late as possible. Lord Cumnor came over to officiate as the bride's father, and was in more open glee than either bride or bridegroom, or any one else. Lady Harriet came as a sort of amateur bridesmaid, to 'share Molly's duties,' as she called it. They went from the Manor-house in two carriages to the church in the park, Mr Preston and Mr Gibson in one, and Molly, to her dismay, shut up with Lord Cumnor and Lady Harriet in the other. Lady Harriet's gown of white muslin had seen one or two garden-parties, and was not in the freshest order; it had been rather a freak of the young lady's at the last moment. She was very merry, and very much inclined to talk to Molly, by way of finding out what sort of a little personage Clare was to have for her future daughter. She began, -
'We mustn't crush this pretty muslin dress of yours. Put it over papa's knee; he doesn't mind it in the least.'
'What, my dear, a white dress! - no, to be sure not. I rather like it. Besides, going to a wedding, who minds anything? It would be different if we were going to a funeral.'
Molly conscientiously strove to find out the meaning of this speech; but before she had done so, Lady Harriet spoke again, going to the point, as she always piqued herself on doing.
'I daresay it's something of a trial to you, this second marriage of your father's; but you'll find Clare the most amiable of women. She always let me have my own way, and I've no doubt she'll let you have yours.'
'I mean to try and like her,' said Molly, in a low voice, trying hard to keep down the tears that would keep rising to her eyes this morning. 'I've seen very little of her yet.'
'Why, it's the very best thing for you that could have happened, my dear,' said Lord Cumnor. 'You're growing up into a young lady - and a very pretty young lady, too, if you'll allow an old man to say so - and who so proper as your father's wife to bring you out, and show you off, and take you to balls, and that kind of thing? I always said this match that is going to come off to-day was the most suitable thing I ever knew; and it's even a better thing for you than for the people themselves.'
'Poor child!' said Lady Harriet, who had caught a sight of Molly's troubled face, 'the thought of balls is too much for her just now; but you'll like having Cynthia Kirkpatrick for a companion, shan't you, dear?'
'Very much,' said Molly, cheering up a little. 'Do you know her?'
'Oh, I've seen her over and over again when she was a little girl, and once or twice since. She's the prettiest creature that you ever saw; and with eyes that mean mischief, if I'm not mistaken. But Clare kept her spirit under pretty well when she was staying with us, - afraid of her being troublesome, I fancy.'
Before Molly could shape her next question, they were at the church; and she and Lady Harriet went into a pew near the door to wait for the bride, in whose train they were to proceed to the altar. The earl drove on alone to fetch her from her own house, not a quarter of a mile distant. It was pleasant to her to be led to the hymeneal altar by a belted earl, and pleasant to have his daughter as a volunteered bridesmaid. Mrs Kirkpatrick in this flush of small gratifications, and on the brink of matrimony with a man whom she liked, and who would be bound to support her without any exertion of her own, looked beamingly happy and handsome. A little cloud came over her face at the sight of Mr Preston, - the sweet perpetuity of her smile was rather disturbed as he followed in Mr Gibson's wake. But his face never changed; he bowed to her gravely, and then seemed absorbed in the service. Ten minutes, and all was over. The bride and bridegroom were driving tête-à-tête to the Manor-house, Mr Preston was walking thither by a short cut, and Molly was again in the carriage with my lord, rubbing his hands and chuckling, and Lady Harriet, trying to be kind and consolatory, when her silence would have been the best comfort.
Molly found out, to her dismay, that the plan was for her to return with Lord Cumnor and Lady Harriet when they went back to the Towers in the evening. In the meantime Lord Cumnor had business to do with Mr Preston, and after the happy couple had driven off on their week's holiday tour, she was to be left alone with the formidable Lady Harriet. When they were by themselves after all the others had been thus disposed of, Lady Harriet sate still over the drawing-room fire, holding a screen' between it and her face, but gazing intently at Molly for a minute or two. Molly was fully conscious of this prolonged look, and was trying to get up her courage to return the stare, when Lady Harriet suddenly said, -
'I like you; - you are a little wild creature, and I want to tame you. Come here, and sit on this stool by me. What is your name? or what do they call you? - as North-country people would express it.'
'Molly Gibson. My real name is Mary.'
'Molly is a nice, soft-sounding name. People in the last century weren't afraid of homely names; now we are all so smart and fine: no more "Lady Bettys" now. I almost wonder they haven't re-christened all the worsted and knitting-cotton that bears her name. Fancy Lady Constantia's cotton, or Lady Anna-Maria's worsted.'
'I didn't know there was a Lady Betty's cotton,' said Molly.
'That proves you don't do fancy-work! You'll find Clare will set you to it, though. She used to set me at piece after piece: knights kneeling to ladies; impossible flowers. But I must do her the justice to add that when I got tired of them she finished them herself. I wonder how you'll get on together?'
'So do I!' sighed out Molly, under her breath.
'I used to think I managed her, till one day an uncomfortable suspicion arose that all the time she had been managing me. Still it's easy work to let oneself be managed; at any rate till one wakens up to the consciousness of the process, and then it may become amusing, if one takes it in that light.'
'I should hate to be managed,' said Molly, indignantly. 'I'll try and do what she wishes for papa's sake, if she'll only tell me outright; but I should dislike to be trapped into anything.'
'Now I,' said Lady Harriet, 'am too lazy to avoid traps; and I rather like to remark the cleverness with which they're set. But then of course I know that, if I choose to exert myself, I can break through the withes of green flax with which they try to bind me. Now, perhaps, you won't be able.'
'I don't quite understand what you mean,' said Molly.
'Oh, well - never mind; I daresay it's as well for you that you shouldn't. The moral of all I have been saying is, "Be a good girl, and suffer yourself to be led, and you'll find your new stepmother the sweetest creature imaginable." You'll get on capitally with her, I make no doubt. How you'll get on with her daughter is another affair; but I daresay very well. Now we'll ring for tea; for I suppose that heavy breakfast is to stand for our lunch.'
Mr Preston came into the room just at this time, and Molly was a little surprised at Lady Harriet's cool manner of dismissing him, remembering as she did how Mr Preston had implied his intimacy with her ladyship the evening before at dinner-time.
'I cannot bear that sort of person,' said Lady Harriet, almost before he was out of hearing; 'giving himself airs of gallantry towards one to whom his simple respect is all his duty. I can talk to one of my father's labourers with pleasure, while with a man like that underbred fop I am all over thorns and nettles. What is it the Irish call that style of creature? They've got some capital word for it, I know. What is it?'
'I don't know - I never heard it,' said Molly, a little ashamed of her ignorance.
'Oh! that shows you've never read Miss Edgeworth's tales; - now, have you? If you had, you'd have recollected that there was such a word, even if you didn't remember what it was. If you've never read those stories, they would be just the thing to beguile your solitude - vastly improving and moral, and yet quite sufficiently interesting. I'll lend them to you while you're all alone.'
'I'm not alone. I'm not at home, but on a visit to the Miss Brownings.'
'Then I'll bring them to you. I know the Miss Brownings; they used to come regularly on the school-day to the Towers. Pecksy and Flapsy I used to call them. I like the Miss Brownings; one gets enough of respect from them at any rate; and I've always wanted to see the kind of ménage of such people. I'll bring you a whole pile of Miss Edgeworth's stories, my dear.'
Molly sate quite silent for a minute or two; then she mustered up courage to speak out what was in her mind.
'Your ladyship' (the title was the firstfruits of the lesson, as Molly took it, on paying due respect) - 'your ladyship keeps speaking of the sort of - the class of people to which I belong as if it was a kind of strange animal you were talking about; yet you talk so openly to me that -- '
'Well, go on - I like to hear you.'
'You think me in your heart a little impertinent - now, don't you?' said Lady Harriet, almost kindly.
Molly held her peace for two or three moments; then she lifted her beautiful, honest eyes to Lady Harriet's face, and said, -
'Yes! - a little. But I think you a great many other things.'
'We'll leave the "other things" for the present. Don't you see, little one, I talked after my kind, just as you talk after your kind. It's only on the surface with both of us. Why, I daresay some of your good Hollingford ladies talk of the poor people in a manner which they would consider as impertinent in their turn, if they could hear it. But I ought to be more considerate when I remember how often my blood has boiled at the modes of speech and behaviour of one of my aunts, mamma's sister, Lady -- No! I won't name names. Any one who earns his livelihood by an exercise of head or hands, from professional people and rich merchants down to labourers, she calls "persons." She would never in her most slip-slop talk accord them even the conventional title of "gentlemen;" and the way in which she takes possession of human beings, "my woman," "my people," - but, after all, it is only a way of speaking. I ought not to have used it to you; but somehow I separate you from all these Hollingford people.'
'But why?' persevered Molly. 'I'm one of them.'
'Yes, you I are. But - now don't reprove me again for impertinence - most of them are so unnatural in their exaggerated respect and admiration when they come up to the Towers, and put on so much pretence by way of fine manners, that they only make themselves objects of ridicule. You at least are simple and truthful, and that's why I separate you in my own mind from them, and have talked unconsciously to you as I would -- Well! now here's another piece of impertinence - as I would to my equal - in rank, I mean; for I don't set myself up in solid things as any better than my neighbours. Here's tea, however, come in time to stop me from growing too humble.'
It was a very pleasant little tea in the fading September twilight. just as it was ended, in came Mr Preston again.
'Lady Harriet, will you allow me the pleasure of showing you some alterations I have made in the flower-garden - in which I have tried to consult your taste - before it grows dark?'
'Thank you, Mr Preston. I will ride over with papa some day, and we will see if we approve of them.'
Mr Preston's brow flushed. But he affected not to perceive Lady Harriet's haughtiness, and, turning to Molly, he said, -
'Will not you come out, Miss Gibson, and see something of the gardens? You haven't been out at all, I think, excepting to church.'
Molly did not like the idea of going out for a tête-à-tête walk with Mr Preston; yet she pined for a little fresh air, would have liked to have seen the gardens, and have looked at the Manor-house from different aspects; and, besides this, much as she recoiled from Mr Preston, she felt sorry for him under the repulse he had just received. While she was hesitating, and slowly tending towards consent, Lady Harriet spoke, -
'I cannot spare Miss Gibson. If she would like to see the place, I will bring her over some day myself.'
When he had left the room, Lady Harriet said, -
'I daresay it's my own lazy selfishness has kept you indoors all day against your will. But, at any rate, you are not to go out walking with that man. I've an instinctive aversion to him; not entirely instinctive either; it has some foundation in fact; and I desire you don't allow him ever to get intimate with you. He's a very clever land-agent, and does his duty by papa, and I don't choose to be taken up for libel; but remember what I say!'
Then the carriage came round, and after numberless last words from the earl - who appeared to have put off every possible direction to the moment when he stood, like an awkward Mercury, balancing himself on the step of the carriage - they drove back to the Towers.
'Would you rather come in and dine with us - we should send you home, of course - or go home straight?' asked Lady Harriet of Molly. She and her father had both been sleeping till they drew up at the bottom of the flight of steps.
'Tell the truth, now and evermore. Truth is generally amusing, if it's nothing else!'
'I would rather go back to Miss Brownings' at once, please,' said Molly, with a nightmare-like recollection of the last, the only evening she had spent at the Towers.
Lord Cumnor was standing on the steps, waiting to hand his daughter out of the carriage. Lady Harriet stopped to kiss Molly on the forehead, and to say, -
'I shall come some day soon, and bring you a load of Miss Edgeworth's tales, and make further acquaintance with Pecksy and Flapsy.'
'No, don't, please,' said Molly, taking hold of her, to detain her. 'You must not come - indeed you must not.'
'Because I would rather not - because I think that I ought not to have any one coming to see me who laughs at the friends I am staying with, and calls them names.' Molly's heart beat very fast, but she meant every word that she said.
'My dear little woman!' said Lady Harriet, bending over her and speaking quite gravely. 'I'm very sorry to have called them names - very, very sorry to have hurt you. If I promise you to be respectful to them in word and deed - and in very thought, if I can - you'll let me then, won't you?'
Molly hesitated. 'I'd better go home at once; I shall only say wrong things - and there's Lord Cumnor waiting all this time.'
'Let him alone; he's very well amused hearing all the news of the day from Brown. Then I shall come - under promise?'
So Molly drove off in solitary grandeur; and Miss Brownings' knocker was loosened on its venerable hinges by the never-ending peal of Lord Cumnor's footman.
They were full of welcome, full of curiosity. All through the long day they had been missing their bright young visitor, and three or four times in every hour they had been wondering and settling what everybody was doing at that exact minute. What had become of Molly during all the afternoon, had been a great perplexity to them; and they were very much oppressed with a sense of the great honour she had received in being allowed to spend so many hours tête-à-tête with Lady Harriet. They were, indeed, more excited by this one fact than by all the details of the wedding, most of which they had known of beforehand, and talked over with much perseverance during the day. Molly began to feel as if there was some foundation for Lady Harriet's inclination to ridicule the worship paid by the good people of Hollingford to their liege lords, and to wonder with what tokens of reverence they would receive Lady Harriet if she came to pay her promised visit. She had never thought of concealing the probability of this call until this evening; but now she felt as if it would be better not to speak of the chance, as she was not at all sure if the promise would be fulfilled.
Before Lady Harriet's call was paid, Molly received another visit. Roger Hamley came riding over one day with a note from his mother, and a wasps'-nest as a present from himself. Molly heard his powerful voice come sounding up the little staircase, as he asked if Miss Gibson was at home from the servant-maid at the door; and she was half amused and half annoyed as she thought how this call of his would give colour to Miss Browning's fancies. 'I would rather never be married at all,' thought she, 'than marry an ugly man, - and dear good Mr Roger is really ugly; I don't think one could even call him plain.' Yet the Miss Brownings, who did not look upon young men as if their natural costume was a helmet and a suit of armour, thought Mr Roger Hamley a very personable young fellow, as he came into the room, his face flushed with exercise, his white teeth showing pleasantly in the courteous bow and smile he gave to all around. He knew the Miss Brownings slightly, and talked pleasantly to them while Molly read Mrs Hamley's little missive of sympathy and good wishes relating to the wedding; then he turned to her, and though the Miss Brownings listened with all their ears, they could not find out anything remarkable either in the words he said or the tone in which they were spoken.
'I've brought you the wasps'-nest I promised you, Miss Gibson. There has been no lack of such things this year; we've taken seventy-four on my father's land alone; and one of the labourers, a poor fellow who ekes out his wages by bee-keeping, has had a sad misfortune - the wasps have turned the bees out of his seven hives, taken possession, and eaten up the honey.'
'What greedy little vermin!' said Miss Browning.
Molly saw Roger's eyes twinkle at the misapplication of the word;' but though he had a strong sense of humour, it never appeared to diminish his respect for the people who amused him.
'I'm sure they deserve fire and brimstone more than the poor dear innocent bees,' said Miss Phoebe. 'And then it seems so ungrateful of mankind, who are going to feast on the honey!' She sighed over the thought, as if it was too much for her.
While Molly finished reading her note, he explained its contents to Miss Browning.
'My brother and I are going with my father to an agricultural meeting at Canonbury on Thursday, and my mother desired me to say to you how very much obliged to you she should be if you would spare her Miss Gibson for the day. She was very anxious to ask for the pleasure of your company, too, but she really is so poorly that we persuaded her to be content with Miss Gibson, as she wouldn't scruple leaving a young lady to amuse herself, which she would be unwilling to do if you and your sister were there.'
'I'm sure she's very kind; very. Nothing would have given us more pleasure,' said Miss Browning, drawing herself up in gratified dignity. 'Oh, yes, we quite understand, Mr Roger; and we fully recognize Mrs Hamley's kind intention. We will take the will for the deed, as the common people express it. I believe that there was an intermarriage between the Brownings and the Hamleys, a generation or two ago.'
'I daresay there was,' said Roger. 'My mother is very delicate, and obliged to humour her health, which has made her keep aloof from society.'
'Then I may go?' said Molly, sparkling with the idea of seeing her dear Mrs Hamley again, yet afraid of appearing too desirous of leaving her kind old friends.
'To be sure, my dear. Write a pretty note, and tell Mrs Hamley how much obliged to her we are for thinking of us.'
'I'm afraid I can't wait for a note,' said Roger. 'I must take a message instead, for I have to meet my father at one o'clock, and it's close upon it now.'
When he was gone, Molly felt so light-hearted at the thoughts of Thursday that she could hardly attend to what the Miss Brownings were saying. One was talking about the pretty muslin gown which Molly had sent to the wash only that morning, and contriving how it could be had back again in time for Molly to wear; and the other, Miss Phoebe, totally inattentive to her sister's speaking for a wonder, was piping out a separate strain of her own, and singing Roger Hamley's praises.
'Such a fine-looking young man, and so courteous and affable. Like the young men of our youth now, is he not, sister? And yet they all say Mr Osborne is the handsomest. What do you think, child?'
'I've never seen Mr Osborne,' said Molly, blushing, and hating herself for doing so. Why was it? She had never seen him as she said. It was only that her fancy had dwelt on him so much.
He was gone; all the gentlemen were gone before the carriage, which came to fetch Molly on Thursday, reached Hamley Hall. But Molly was almost glad, she was so much afraid of being disappointed. Besides, she had her dear Mrs Hamley the more to herself; the quiet sit in the morning-room, talking poetry and romance; the mid-day saunter into the garden, brilliant with autumnal flowers and glittering dew-drops on the gossamer webs that stretched from scarlet to blue, and thence to purple and yellow petals. As they were sitting at lunch, a strange man's voice and step were heard in the hall; the door was opened, and a young man came in, who could be no other than Osborne. He was beautiful and languid-looking, almost as frail in appearance as his mother, whom he strongly resembled. This seeming delicacy made him appear older than he was. He was dressed to perfection, and yet with easy carelessness. He came up to his mother, and stood by her, holding her hand, while his eyes sought Molly, not boldly or impertinently, but as if appraising her critically.
'Yes! I'm back again. Bullocks, I find, are not in my line. I only disappointed my father in not being able to appreciate their merits, and, I'm afraid, I didn't care to learn. And the smell was insufferable on such a hot day.'
'My dear boy, don't make apologies to me; keep them for your father. I'm only too glad to have you back. Miss Gibson, this tall fellow is my son Osborne, as I daresay you have guessed. Osborne - Miss Gibson. Now, what will you have?'
He looked round the table as he sate down. 'Nothing here,' said he. 'Is there not some cold game-pie? I'll ring for that.'
Molly was trying to reconcile the ideal with the real. The ideal was agile, yet powerful, with Greek features and an eagle-eye, capable of enduring long fasting, and indifferent as to what he ate. The real was almost effeminate in movement, though not in figure; he had the Greek features, but his blue eyes had a cold, weary expression in them. He was dainty in eating, and had anything but a Homeric appetite. However, Molly's hero was not to eat more than Ivanhoe, when he was Friar Tuck's guest;' and, after all, with a little alteration, she began to think Mr Osborne Hamley might turn out a poetical, if not a chivalrous hero. He was extremely attentive to his mother, which pleased Molly, and, in return, Mrs Hamley seemed charmed with him to such a degree that Molly once or twice fancied that mother and son would have been happier in her absence. Yet, again, it struck on the shrewd, if simple girl, that Osborne was mentally squinting at her in the conversation which was directed to his mother. There were little turns and 'fioriture' of speech which Molly could not help feeling were graceful antics of language not common in the simple daily intercourse between mother and son. But it was flattering rather than otherwise to perceive that a very fine young man, who was a poet to boot, should think it worth while to talk on the tight rope for her benefit. And before the afternoon was ended, without there having been any direct conversation between Osborne and Molly, she had reinstated him on his throne in her imagination; indeed, she had almost felt herself disloyal to her dear Mrs Hamley when, in the first hour after her introduction, she had questioned his claims on his mother's idolatry. His beauty came out more and more, as he became animated in some discussion with her; and all his attitudes, if a little studied, were graceful in the extreme. Before Molly left, the squire and Roger returned from Canonbury.
'Osborne here!' said the squire, red and panting. 'Why the deuce couldn't you tell us you were coming home? I looked about for you everywhere, just as we were going into the ordinary. I wanted to introduce you to Grantley, and Fox, and Lord Forrest-men from the other side of the county, whom you ought to know; and Roger there missed above half his dinner hunting about for you; and all the time you'd stole away, and were quietly sitting here with the women. I wish you'd let me know the next time you make off. I've lost half my pleasure in looking at as fine a lot of cattle as I ever saw, with thinking you might be having one of your old attacks of faintness.'
'I should have had one, I think, if I'd stayed longer in that atmosphere. But I'm sorry if I've caused you anxiety.'
'Well! well!' said the squire, somewhat mollified. 'And Roger, too, - there I've been sending him here and sending him there all the afternoon.'
'I didn't mind it, sir. I was only sorry you were so uneasy. I thought Osborne had gone home, for I knew it wasn't much in his way,' said Roger.
Molly intercepted a glance between the two brothers - a look of true confidence and love, which suddenly made her like them both under the aspect of relationship - new to her observation.
Roger came up to her, and sate down by her.
'Well, and how are you getting on with Huber; don't you find him very interesting?'
'I'm afraid,' said Molly, penitently, 'I haven't read much. The Miss Brownings like me to talk; and, besides, there is so much to do at home before papa comes back; and Miss Browning doesn't like me to go without her. I know it sounds nothing, but it does take up a great deal of time.'
'When is your father coming back?'
'Next Tuesday, I believe. He cannot stay long away.'
'I shall ride over and pay my respects to Mrs Gibson,' said he. 'I shall come as soon as I may. Your father has been a very kind friend to me ever since I was a boy. And when I come, I shall expect my pupil to have been very diligent,' he concluded, smiling his kind, pleasant smile at idle Molly.
Then the carriage came round, and she had the long solitary drive back to Miss Brownings'. It was dark out of doors when she got there; but Miss Phoebe was standing on the stairs, with a lighted candle in her hand, peering into the darkness to see Molly come in.
'Oh, Molly! I thought you'd never come back. Such a piece of news! Sister has gone to bed; she's had a headache - with the excitement, I think; but she says it's new bread. Come upstairs softly, my dear, and I'll tell you what it is! Who do you think has been here, - drinking tea with us, too, in the most condescending manner?'
'Lady Harriet?' said Molly, suddenly enlightened by the word 'condescending.'
'Yes. Why, how did you guess it? But, after all, her call, at any rate in the first instance, was upon you. Oh dear, Molly! if you're not in a hurry to go to bed, let me sit down quietly and tell you all about it; for my heart jumps into my mouth still when I think of how I was caught. She - that is, her ladyship - left the carriage at the "George," and took to her feet to go shopping - just as you or I may have done many a time in our lives. And sister was taking her forty winks; and I was sitting with my gown up above my knees and my feet on the fender, pulling out my grandmother's lace which I'd been washing. The worst has yet to be told. I'd taken off my cap, for I thought it was getting dusk and no one would come, and there was I in my black silk skull-cap, when Nancy put her head in, and whispered, "There's a lady downstairs - a real grand one, by her talk;" and in there came my Lady Harriet, so sweet and pretty in her ways, it was some time before I remembered I had never a cap on. Sister never wakened; or never roused up, so to say. She says she thought it was Nancy bringing in the tea when she heard some one moving; for her ladyship, as soon as she saw the state of the case, came and knelt down on the rug by me, and begged my pardon so prettily for having followed Nancy upstairs without waiting for permission; and was so taken by my old lace, and wanted to know how I washed it, and where you were, and when you'd be back, and when the happy couple would be back: till sister wakened - she's always a little bit put out, you know, when she first wakens from her afternoon nap, - and, without turning her head to see who it was, she said, quite sharp, - "Buzz, buzz, buzz! When will you learn that whispering is more fidgeting than talking out loud? I've not been able to sleep at all for the chatter you and Nancy have been keeping up all this time." You know that was a little fancy of sister's, for she'd been snoring away as naturally as could be. So I went to her, and leant over her, and said, in a low voice, -
'"Sister, it's her ladyship and me that has been conversing.'
'"Ladyship here, ladyship there! have you lost your wits, Phoebe, that you talk such nonsense - and in your skull-cap, too!"
'By this time she was sitting up, and, looking round her, she saw Lady Harriet, in her velvets and silks, sitting on our rug, smiling, her bonnet off, and her pretty hair all bright with the blaze of the fire. My word! Sister was up on her feet directly; and she dropped her curtsey, and made her excuses for sleeping, as fast as might be, while I went off to put on my best cap, for sister might well say I was out of my wits to go on chatting to an earl's daughter in an old black silk skull-cap. Black silk, too! when, if I'd only known she was coming, I might have put on my new brown silk one, lying idle in my top drawer. And when I came back, sister was ordering tea for her ladyship, - our tea, I mean. So I took my turn at talk, and sister slipped out to put on her Sunday silk. But I don't think we were quite so much at our case with her ladyship as when I sate pulling out my lace in my skull-cap. And she was quite struck with our tea, and asked where we got it, for she had never tasted any like it before; and I told her we gave only 3s. 4d. a pound for it, at Johnson's - (sister says I ought to have told her the price of our company-tea, which is 5s. a pound, only that was not what we were drinking; for, as ill-luck would have it, we'd none of it in the house) - and she said she would send us some of hers, all the way from Russia or Prussia, or some out-of-the-way place, and we were to compare and see which we liked best; and if we liked hers best, she could get it for us at 3s. a pound. And she left her love for you; and, though she was going away, you were not to forget her. Sister thought such a message would set you up too much, and told me she would not be chargeable for the giving it you. "But," I said, "a message is a message, and it's on Molly's own shoulders if she's set up by it. Let us show her an example of humility, sister, though we have been sitting cheek-by-jowl in such company." So sister humphed, and said she'd a headache, and went to bed. And now you may tell me your news, my dear.'
So Molly told her small events; which, interesting as they might have been at other times to the gossip-loving and sympathetic Miss Phoebe, were rather pale in the stronger light reflected from the visit of an earl's daughter.
On Tuesday afternoon Molly returned home, to the home which was already strange, and what Warwickshire people would call 'unked,' to her. New paint, new paper, new colours; grim servants dressed in their best, and objecting to every change - from their master's marriage to the new oilcloth in the hall, 'which tripped 'em up, and threw 'em down, and was cold to the feet, and smelt just abominable.' All these complaints Molly had to listen to, and it was not a cheerful preparation for the reception which she already felt to be so formidable.
The sound of their carriage-wheels was heard at last, and Molly went to the front door to meet them. Her father got out first, and took her hand and held it while he helped his bride to alight. Then he kissed her fondly, and passed her on to his wife; but her veil was so securely (and becomingly) fastened down, that it was some time before Mrs Gibson could get her lips clear to greet her new daughter. Then there was luggage to be seen about; and both the travellers were occupied in this, while Molly stood by, trembling with excitement, unable to help, and only conscious of Betty's rather cross looks, as heavy box after heavy box jammed up the passage.
'Molly, my dear, show - your mamma to her room!'
Mr Gibson had hesitated, because the question of the name by which Molly was to call her new relation had never occurred to him before. The colour flashed into Molly's face. Was she to call her 'mamma'? - the name long appropriated in her mind to some one else - to her own dead mother. The rebellious heart rose against it, but she said nothing. She led the way upstairs, Mrs Gibson turning round, from time to time, with some fresh direction as to which bag or trunk she needed most. She hardly spoke to Molly till they were both in the newly-furnished bedroom, where a small fire had been lighted by Molly's orders.
'Now, my love, we can embrace each other in peace. Oh dear, how tired I am!' - (after the embrace had been accomplished.) 'My spirits are so easily affected with fatigue; but your dear papa has been kindness itself. Dear! what an old-fashioned bed! And what a - But it doesn't signify. By-and-by we'll renovate the house - won't we, my dear? And you'll be my little maid to-night, and help me to arrange a few things, for I'm just worn out with the day's journey.'
'I've ordered a sort of tea-dinner to be ready for you,' said Molly. 'Shall I go and tell them to send it in?'
'I'm not sure if I can go down again to-night. It would be very comfortable to have a little table brought in here, and sit in my dressing-gown by this cheerful fire. But, to be sure, there's your dear papa? I really don't think he would eat anything if I were not there. One must not think about oneself, you know. Yes, I'll come down in a quarter of an hour.'
But Mr Gibson had found a note awaiting him, with an immediate summons to an old patient, dangerously ill; and, snatching a mouthful of food while his horse was being saddled, he had to resume at once his old habits of attention to his profession above everything.
As soon as Mrs Gibson found that he was not likely to miss her presence - he had eaten a very tolerable lunch of bread and cold meat in solitude, so her fears about his appetite in her absence were not well founded - she desired to have her meal upstairs in her own room; and poor Molly, not daring to tell the servants of this whim, had to carry up first a table, which, however small, was too heavy for her; and afterwards all the choice portions of the meal, which she had taken great pains to arrange on the table, as she had seen such things done at Hamley, intermixed with fruit and flowers that had that morning been sent in from various great houses where Mr Gibson was respected and valued. How pretty Molly had thought her handiwork an hour or two before! How dreary it seemed as, at last released from Mrs Gibson's conversation, she sate down in solitude to cold tea and the drumsticks of the chicken! No one to look at her preparations, and admire her left-handedness and taste! She had thought that her father would be gratified by it, and then he had never seen it. She had meant her cares as an offering of good-will to her stepmother, who even now was ringing her bell to have the tray taken away, and Miss Gibson summoned to her bedroom,
Molly hastily finished her meal, and went upstairs again.
'I feel so lonely, darling, in this strange house; do come and be with me, and help me to unpack. I think your dear papa might have put off his visit to Mr Craven Smith for just this one evening.'
'Mr Craven Smith couldn't put off his dying,' said Molly, bluntly.
'You droll girl!' said Mrs Gibson, with a faint laugh. 'But if this Mr Smith is dying, as you say, what's the use of your father's going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect any legacy, or anything of that kind?'
Molly bit her lips to prevent herself from saying something disagreeable. She only answered, -
'I don't quite know that he is dying. The man said so; and papa can sometimes do something to make the last struggle easier. At any rate, it's always a comfort to the family to have him.'
'What dreary knowledge of death you have learned for a girl of your age! Really, if I had heard all these details of your father's profession, I doubt if I could have brought myself to have him!'
'He doesn't make the illness or the death; he does his best against them. I call it a very fine thing to think of what he does or tries to do. And you will think so, too, when you see how he is watched for, and how people welcome him!'
'Well, don't let us talk any more of such gloomy things to-night! I think I shall go to bed at once, I am so tired, if you will only sit by me till I get sleepy, darling. If you will talk to me, the sound of your voice will soon send me off."
Molly got a book, and read her stepmother to sleep, preferring that to the harder task of keeping up a continual murmur of speech.
Then she stole down and went into the dining-room, where the fire was gone out; purposely neglected by the servants, to mark their displeasure at their new mistress's having had her tea in her own room. Molly managed to light it, however, before her father came home, and collected and rearranged some comfortable food for him. Then she knelt down again on the hearth-rug, gazing into the fire in a dreamy reverie, which had enough of sadness about it to cause the tears to drop unnoticed from her eyes. But she jumped up, and shook herself into brightness at the sound of her father's step.
'How is Mr Craven Smith?' said she.
'Dead. He just recognized me. He was one of my first patients on coming to Hollingford.'
Mr Gibson sate down in the arm-chair made ready for him, and warmed his hands at the fire, seeming neither to need food nor talk, as he went over a train of recollections. Then he roused himself from his sadness, and looking round the room, he said briskly enough, -
'And where's the new mamma?'
'She was tired, and went to bed early. Oh, papa! must I call her "mamma"?'
'I should like it,' replied he, with a slight contraction of the brows.
Molly was silent. She put a cup or tea near him; he stirred it, and sipped it, and then he recurred to the subject.
'Why shouldn't you call her "mamma"? I'm sure she means to do the duty of a mother to you. We all may make mistakes, and her ways may not be quite all at once our ways; but at any rate let us start with a family bond between us.'
What would Roger say was right? - that was the question that rose to Molly's mind. She had always spoken of her father's new wife as Mrs Gibson, and had once burst out at Miss Brownings' with a protestation that she never would call her 'mamma.' She did not feel drawn to her new relation by their intercourse that evening. She kept silence, though she knew her father was expecting an answer. At last he gave up his expectation, and turned to another subject; told about their journey, questioned her as to the Hamleys, the Brownings, Lady Harriet, and the afternoon they had passed together at the Manor House. But there was a certain hardness and constraint in his manner, and in hers a heaviness and absence of mind. All at once she said, -
'Papa, I will call her "mamma"!'
He took her hand, and grasped it tight; but for an instant or two he did not speak. Then he said, -
'You won't be sorry for it, Molly, when you come to lie as poor Craven Smith did to-night.'
For some time the murmurs and grumblings of the two elder servants were confined to Molly's ears, then they spread to her father's, who, to Molly's dismay, made summary work with them.
'You don't like Mrs Gibson's ringing her bell so often, don't you? You've been spoilt, I'm afraid; but if you don't conform to my wife's desires, you have the remedy in your own hands, you know.'
What servant ever resisted the temptation to give warning after such a speech as that? Betty told Molly she was going to leave, in as indifferent a manner as she could possibly assume towards the girl, whom she had tended and been about for the last sixteen years. Molly had hitherto considered her former nurse as a fixture in the house; she would almost as soon have thought of her father's proposing to sever the relationship between them; and here was Betty coolly talking over whether her next place should be in town or country. But a great deal of this was assumed hardness. In a week or two Betty was in floods of tears at the prospect of leaving her nursling, and would fain have stayed and answered all the bells in the house once every quarter of an hour. Even Mr Gibson's masculine heart was touched by the sorrow of the old servant, which made itself obvious to him every time he came across her by her broken voice and her swollen eyes.
One day he said to Molly, 'I wish you'd ask your mamma if Betty might not stay, if she made a proper apology, and all that sort of thing.'
'I don't much think it will be of any use,' said Molly, in a mournful voice. 'I know she is writing, or has written, about some under-housemaid at the Towers.'
'Well! - all I want is peace and a decent quantity of cheerfulness when I come home. I see enough of tears in other people's houses. After all, Betty has been with us sixteen years - a sort of service of the antique world. But the woman may be happier elsewhere. Do as you like about asking mamma; only if she agrees, I shall be quite willing.'
So Molly tried her hand at making a request to that effect to Mrs Gibson. Her instinct told her she should be unsuccessful; but surely favour was never refused in so soft a tone.
'My dear girl, I should never have thought of sending an old servant away, - one who has had the charge of you from your birth, or nearly so. I could not have had the heart to do it. She might have stayed for ever for me, if she had only attended to all my wishes; and I am not unreasonable, am I? But, you see, she complained; and when your dear papa spoke to her, she gave warning; and it is quite against my principles ever to take an apology from a servant who has given warning.'
'She is so sorry,' pleaded Molly; 'she says she will do anything you wish, and attend to all your orders, if she may only stay.'
'But, sweet one, you seem to forget that I cannot go against my principles, however much I may be sorry for Betty. She should not have given way to ill-temper. As I said before, although I never liked her, and considered her a most inefficient servant, thoroughly spoilt by having had no mistress for so long, I should have borne with her - at least, I think I should - as long as I could. Now I have all but engaged Maria, who was under-housemaid at the Towers, so don't let me hear any more of Betty's sorrow, or anybody else's sorrow, for I'm sure, what with your dear papa's sad stories and other things, I'm getting quite low.'
Molly was silent for a moment or two.
'Have you quite engaged Maria?' asked she.
'No - I said "all but engaged." Sometimes one would think you did not hear things, dear Molly!' replied Mrs Gibson, petulantly. 'Maria is living in a place where they don't give her as much wages as she deserves. Perhaps they can't afford it, poor things! I'm always sorry for poverty, and would never speak hardly of those who are not rich; but I have offered her two pounds more than she gets at present, so I think she'll leave. At any rate, if they increase her wages, I shall increase my offer in proportion; so I think I'm sure to get her. Such a genteel girl! - always brings in a letter on a salver!'
'Poor Betty!' said Molly, softly.
'Poor old soul! I hope she'll profit by the lesson, I'm sure,' sighed out Mrs Gibson; 'but it's a pity we hadn't Maria before the county families began to call.'
Mrs Gibson had been highly gratified by the circumstances of so many calls 'from county families.' Her husband was much respected; and many ladies from various halls, courts, and houses, who had profited by his services towards themselves and their families, thought it right to pay his new wife the attention of a call when they drove into Hollingford to shop. The state of expectation into which these calls threw Mrs Gibson rather diminished Mr Gibson's domestic comfort. It was awkward to be carrying hot, savoury-smelling dishes from the kitchen to the dining-room at the very time when high-born ladies, with noses of aristocratic refinement, might be calling. Still more awkward was the accident which happened in consequence of clumsy Betty's haste to open the front door to a lofty footman's ran-tan, which caused her to set down the basket containing the dirty plates right in his mistress's way, as she stepped gingerly through the comparative darkness of the hall; and then the young men, leaving the dining-room quietly enough, but bursting with long-repressed giggle, or no longer restraining their tendency to practical joking, no matter who might be in the passage when they made their exit. The remedy proposed by Mrs Gibson for all these distressing grievances was a late dinner. The luncheon for the young men, as she observed to her husband, might be sent into the surgery. A few elegant cold trifles for herself and Molly would not scent the house, and she would always take care to have some little dainty ready for him. He acceded, but unwillingly, for it was an innovation on the habits of a lifetime, and he felt as if he should never be able to arrange his rounds aright with this newfangled notion of a six o'clock dinner.
'Don't get any dainties for me, my dear; bread and cheese is the chief of my diet, like it was that of the old woman's."
'I know nothing of your old woman,' replied his wife; 'but really I cannot allow cheese to come beyond the kitchen.'
'Then I'll eat it there,' said he. 'It's close to the stable-yard, and if I come in in a hurry I can get it in a moment.'
'Really, Mr Gibson, it is astonishing to compare your appearance and manners with your tastes. You look such a gentleman, as dear Lady Cumnor used to say.'
Then the cook left; also an old servant, though not so old a one as Betty. The cook did not like the trouble of late dinners; and, being a Methodist, she objected on religious grounds to trying any of Mrs Gibson's new receipts for French dishes. It was not scriptural, she said. There was a deal of mention of food in the Bible; but it was of sheep ready dressed, which meant mutton, and of wine, and of bread, and milk, and figs and raisins, of fatted calves, a good well-browned fillet of veal, and such like; but it had always gone against her conscience to cook swine-flesh and make raised pork-pies, and now if she was to be set to cook heathen dishes after the fashion of the Papists, she'd sooner give it all up together. So the cook followed in Betty's track, and Mr Gibson had to satisfy his healthy English appetite on badly made omelettes, rissoles, vol-au-vents, croquets, and timbales; never being exactly sure what he was eating.
He had made up his mind before his marriage to yield in trifles, and be firm in greater things. But the differences of opinion about trifles arose every day, and were perhaps more annoying than if they had related to things of more consequence. Molly knew her father's looks as well as she knew her alphabet; his wife did not; and being an unperceptive person, except when her own interests were dependent upon another person's humour, never found out how he was worried by all the small daily concessions which he made to her will or her whims. He never allowed himself to put any regret into shape, even in his own mind; he repeatedly reminded himself of his wife's good qualities, and comforted himself by thinking they should work together better as time rolled on; but he was very angry at a bachelor great-uncle of Mr Coxe's, who, after taking no notice of his red-headed nephew for years, suddenly sent for him, after the old man had partially recovered from a serious attack of illness, and appointed him his heir, on condition that his great-nephew remained with him during the remainder of his life. This had happened almost directly after Mr and Mrs Gibson's return from their wedding journey, and once or twice since that time Mr Gibson had found himself wondering why the deuce old Benson could not have made up his mind sooner, and so have rid his house of the unwelcome presence of the young lover. To do Mr Coxe justice, in the very last conversation he had as a pupil with Mr Gibson he had said, with hesitating awkwardness, that perhaps the new circumstances in which he should be placed might make some difference with regard to Mr Gibson's opinion on -
'Not at all,' said Mr Gibson, quickly. 'You are both of you too young to know your own minds; and if my daughter was silly enough to be in love, she should never have to calculate her happiness on the chances of an old man's death. I dare say he'll disinherit you after all. He may do, and then you'd be worse off than ever. No! go away, and forget all this nonsense; and when you've done, come back and see us!'
So Mr Coxe went away, with an oath of unalterable faithfulness in his heart; and Mr Gibson had unwillingly to fulfil an old promise made to a gentleman farmer in the neighbourhood a year or two before, and to take the second son of Mr Browne in young Coxe's place. He was to be the last of the race of pupils, and as he was rather more than a year younger than Molly, Mr Gibson trusted that there would be no repetition of the Coxe romance.
Among the 'county people' (as Mrs Gibson termed them) who called upon her as a bride, were the two young Mr Hamleys. The squire, their father, had done his congratulations, as far as he ever intended to do them, to Mr Gibson himself when he came to the hall; but Mrs Hamley, unable to go and pay visits herself, anxious to show attention to her kind doctor's new wife, and with perhaps a little sympathetic curiosity as to how Molly and her stepmother got on together, made her sons ride over to Hollingford with her cards and apologies. They came into the newly-furnished drawing-room, looking bright and fresh from their ride: Osborne first, - as usual, perfectly dressed for the occasion, and with the sort of fine manner which sate so well upon him; Roger, looking like a strong-built, cheerful, intelligent country farmer, followed in his brother's train. Mrs Gibson was dressed for receiving callers, and made the effect she always intended to produce, of a very pretty woman, no longer in first youth, but with such soft manners and such a caressing voice, that people forgot to wonder what her real age might be. Molly was better dressed than formerly; her stepmother saw after that. She disliked anything old or shabby, or out of taste about her; it hurt her eye; and she had already fidgeted Molly into a new amount of care about the manner in which she put on her clothes, arranged her hair, and was gloved and shod. Mrs Gibson had tried to put her through a course of rosemary washes and creams in order to improve her tanned ,complexion; but about that Molly was either forgetful or rebellious, and Mrs Gibson could not well come up to the girl's bedroom every night and see that she daubed her face and neck over with the cosmetics so carefully provided for her. Still, her appearance was extremely improved, even to Osborne's critical eye. Roger sought rather to discover in her looks and expression whether she was happy or not; his mother had especially charged him to note all these signs.
Osborne and Mrs Gibson made themselves agreeable to each other according to the approved fashion when a young man calls on a middle-aged bride. They talked of the 'Shakespeare and musical glasses' of the day, each viewing with the other in their knowledge of London topics. Molly heard fragments of their conversation in the pauses of silence between Roger and herself. Her hero was coming out in quite a new character; no longer literary or poetical, or romantic, or critical, he was now full of the last new play, the singers at the opera. He had the advantage over Mrs Gibson, who, in fact, only spoke of these things from hearsay, from listening to the talk at the Towers, while Osborne had run up from Cambridge two or three times to hear this, or to see that, wonder of the season. But she had the advantage over him in greater boldness of invention to eke out her facts; and besides she had more skill in the choice and arrangement of her words, so as to make it appear as if the opinions that were in reality quotations, were formed by herself from actual experience or personal observation; such as, in speaking of the mannerisms of a famous Italian singer, she would ask, -
'Did you observe her constant trick of heaving her shoulders and clasping her hands together before she took a high note?' - which was so said as to imply that Mrs Gibson herself had noticed this trick. Molly, who had a pretty good idea by this time of how her stepmother had passed the last year of her life, listened with no small bewilderment to this conversation; but at length decided that she must misunderstand what they were saying, as she could not gather up the missing links for the necessity of replying to Roger's questions and remarks. Osborne was not the same Osborne he was when with his mother at the hall. Roger saw her glancing at his brother.
'You think my brother looking ill?' said he, lowering his voice.
'No - not exactly.'
'He is not well. Both my father and I are anxious about him. That run on the Continent did him harm, instead of good; and his disappointment at his examination has told upon him, I'm afraid.'
'I was not thinking he looked ill; only changed somehow.'
'He says he must go back to Cambridge soon. Possibly it may do him good; and I shall be off next week. This is a farewell visit to you, as well as one of congratulation to Mrs Gibson.'
'Your mother will feel your both going away, won't she? But of course young men will always have to live away from home.'
'Yes,' he replied. 'Still she feels it a good deal; and I am not satisfied about her health either. You will go over and see her sometimes, will you? she is very fond of you.'
'If I may,' said Molly, unconsciously glancing at her stepmother. She had an uncomfortable instinct that, in spite of Mrs Gibson's own perpetual flow of words, she could, and did, hear everything that fell from Molly's lips.
'Do you want any more books?' said he. 'If you do, make a list out, and send it to my mother before I leave, next Tuesday. After I am gone, there will be no one to go into the library and pick them out.'
After they were gone, Mrs Gibson began her usual comments on the departed visitors.
'I do like that Osborne Hamley! What a nice fellow he is! Somehow, I always do like eldest sons. He will have the estate, won't he? I shall ask your dear papa to encourage him to come about the house. He will be a very good, very pleasant acquaintance for you and Cynthia. The other is but a loutish young fellow, to my mind; there is no aristocratic bearing about him. I suppose he takes after his mother, who is but a parvenue, I've heard them say at the Towers.'
Molly was spiteful enough to have great pleasure in saying, -
'I think I've heard her father was a Russia merchant, and imported tallow and hemp. Mr Osborne Hamley is extremely like her.'
'Indeed! But there's no calculating these things. Anyhow, he is the perfect gentleman in appearance and manner. The estate is entailed, is it not?'
'I know nothing about it,' said Molly.
A short silence ensued. Then Mrs Gibson said, -
'Do you know, I almost think I must get dear papa to give a little dinner-party, and ask Mr Osborne Hamley? I should like to have him feel at home in this house. It would be something cheerful for him after the dulness and solitude of Hamley Hall. For the old people don't visit much, I believe?'
'He's going back to Cambridge next week,' said Molly.
'Is he? Well, then, we'll put off our little dinner till Cynthia comes home. I should like to have some young society for her, poor darling, when she returns.'
'When is she coming?' said Molly, who had always a longing curiosity for this same Cynthia's return.
'Oh! I'm not sure; perhaps at the new year - perhaps not till Easter. I must get this drawing-room all new furnished first; and then I mean to fit up her room and yours just alike. They are just the same size, only on opposite sides of the passage.'
'Are you going to new-furnish that room?' said Molly, in astonishment at the never-ending changes.
'Yes; and yours, too, darling; so don't be jealous."
'Oh, please, mamma, not mine,' said Molly, taking in the idea for the first time.
'Yes, dear! You shall have yours done as well. A little French bed,' and a new paper, and a pretty carpet, and a dressed-up toilette-table and glass, will make it look quite a different place.'
'But I don't want it to look different. I like it as it is. Pray don't do anything to it.'
'What nonsense, child! I never heard anything more ridiculous! Most girls would be glad to get rid of furniture only fit for the lumber-room.'
'It was my own mamma's before she was married,' said Molly, in a very low voice; bringing out this last plea unwillingly, but with a certainty that it would not be resisted.
Mrs Gibson paused for a moment before she replied, -
'It's very much to your credit that you should have such feelings, I'm sure. But don't you think sentiment may be carried too far? Why, we should have no new furniture at all, and should have to put up with worm-eaten horrors. Besides, my dear, Hollingford will seem very dull to Cynthia, after pretty, gay France, and I want to make the first impressions attractive. I've a notion I can settle her down near here; and I want her to come in a good temper; for, between ourselves, my dear, she is a little, leetle wilful. You need not mention this to your papa.'
'But can't you do Cynthia's room, and not mine? Please let mine alone.'
'No, indeed! I couldn't agree to that. Only think what would be said of me by everybody; petting my own child, and neglecting my husband's! I couldn't bear it.'
'No one need know.'
'In such a tittle-tattle place as Hollingford! Really, Molly, you are either very stupid or very obstinate, or else you don't care what hard things may be said about me: and all for a selfish fancy of your own! No! I owe myself the justice of acting in this matter as I please. Every one shall know I'm not a common stepmother. Every penny I spend on Cynthia I shall spend on you too; so it's no use talking any more about it.'
So Molly's little white dimity bed, her old-fashioned chest of drawers, and her other cherished relics of her mother's maiden-days, were consigned to the lumber-room; and after a while, when Cynthia and her great French boxes had come home, the old furniture that had filled up the space required for the fresh importation of trunks, disappeared into the lumber-room.
All this time the family at the Towers had been absent; Lady Cumnor had been ordered to Bath for the early part of the winter, and her family were with her there. On dull rainy days, Mrs Gibson used to bethink her of missing 'the Cumnors,' for so she had taken to calling them since her position had become more independent of theirs. It marked a distinction between her intimacy in the family, and the reverential manner in which the townspeople were accustomed to speak of 'the earl and the countess.' both Lady Cumnor and Lady Harriet wrote to their dear Clare from time to time. The former had generally some commissions that she wished to have executed at the Towers, or in the town; and no one could do them so well as Clare, who was acquainted with all the tastes and ways of the countess. These commissions were the cause of various bills for flys and cars from the 'George' Inn. Mr Gibson pointed out this consequence to his wife; but she, in return, bade him remark that a present of game was pretty sure to follow upon the satisfactory execution of Lady Cumnor's wishes. Somehow, Mr Gibson did not quite like this consequence either; but he was silent about it, at any rate. Lady Harriet's letters were short and amusing. She had that sort of regard for her old governess which prompted her to write from time to time, and to feel glad when the half-voluntary task was accomplished. So there was no real outpouring of confidence, but enough news of the family and gossip of the place she was in, as she thought would make Clare feel that she was not forgotten by her former pupils, intermixed with moderate but sincere expressions of regard. How those letters were quoted and referred to by Mrs Gibson in her conversations with the Hollingford ladies! She had found out their effect at Ashcombe; and it was not less at Hollingford. But she was rather perplexed at kindly messages to Molly, and at inquiries as to how the Miss Brownings liked the tea she had sent; and Molly had first to explain, and then to narrate at full length, all the occurrences of the afternoon at Ashcombe Manor House, and Lady Harriet's call upon her at Miss Brownings'.
'What nonsense!' said Mrs Gibson, with some annoyance. 'Lady Harriet only went to see you out of a desire of amusement. She would only make fun of the Miss Brownings, and then they will be quoting her and talking about her, just as if she was their intimate friend.'
'I don't think she did make fun of them. She really sounded as if she had been very kind.'
'And you suppose you know her ways better than I do, who have known her these fifteen years? I tell you she turns every one into ridicule who does not belong to her set. Why, she used always to speak of the Miss Brownings as "Pecksy and Flapsy."'
'She promised me she would not,' said Molly driven to bay.
'Promised you! - Lady Harriet? What do you mean?'
'Only - she spoke of them as Pecksy and Flapsy - and when she talked of coming to call on me at their house, I asked her not to come if she was going to -- to make fun of them.'
'Upon my word! with all my long acquaintance with Lady Harriet I should never have ventured on such impertinence.'
'I didn't mean it as impertinence,' said Molly, sturdily. 'And I don't think Lady Harriet took it as such.'
'You can't know anything about it. She can put on any kind of manner.'
Just then Squire Hamley came in. It was his first call; and Mrs Gibson gave him a graceful welcome, and was quite ready to accept his apology for its tardiness, and to assure him that she quite understood the pressure of business on every landowner who farmed his own estate. But no such apology was made. He shook her hand heartily, as a mark of congratulation on her good fortune in having secured such a prize as his friend Gibson, but said nothing about his long neglect of duty. Molly, who by this time knew the few strong expressions of his countenance well, was sure that something was the matter, and that he was very much disturbed. He hardly attended to Mrs Gibson's fluent opening of conversation, for she had already determined to make a favourable impression on the father of the handsome young man who was heir to an estate, besides his own personal agreeableness; but he turned to Molly, and, addressing her, said - almost in a low voice, as if he was making a confidence to her that he did not intend Mrs Gibson to hear, -
'Molly, we are all wrong at home! Osborne has lost the fellowship at Trinity he went back to try for. Then he has gone and failed miserably in his degree, after all that he said, and that his mother said; and I, like a fool, went and boasted about my clever son. I can't understand it. I never expected anything extraordinary from Roger; but Osborne -- ! And then it has thrown madam into one of her bad fits of illness; and she seems to have a fancy for you, child! Your father came to see her this morning. Poor thing, she's very poorly, I'm afraid; and she told him how she should like to have you about her, and he said I might fetch you. You'll come, won't you, my dear? She's not a poor woman, such as many people think it's the only charity to be kind to, but she's just as forlorn of woman's care as if she was poor - worse, I dare say.'
'I'll be ready in ten minutes,' said Molly, much touched by the squire's words and manner, never thinking of asking her stepmother's consent, now that she had heard that her father had given his. As she rose to leave the room, Mrs Gibson, who had only half heard what the squire had said, and was a little affronted at the exclusiveness of his confidence, said, - 'My dear, where are you going?'
'Mrs Hamley wants me, and papa says I may go,' said Molly; and almost at the same time the squire replied, -
'My wife is ill, and as she's very fond of your daughter, she begged Mr Gibson to allow her to come to the Hall for a little while, and he kindly said she might, and I'm come to fetch her.'
'Stop a minute, darling,' said Mrs Gibson to Molly - a slight cloud over her countenance, in spite of her caressing word. 'I am sure dear papa quite forgot that you were to go out with me to-night, to visit people,' continued she, addressing herself to the squire, 'with whom I am quite unacquainted - and it is very uncertain if Mr Gibson can return in time to go with me - so, you see, I cannot allow Molly to go with you.'
'I shouldn't have thought it would have signified. Brides are always brides, I suppose; and it's their part to be timid; but I shouldn't have thought it - in this case. And my wife sets her heart on things, as sick people do. Well, Molly' (in a louder tone, for these foregoing sentences were spoken sotto voce), 'we must put it off till to-morrow: and it's our loss, not yours,' he continued, as he saw the reluctance with which she slowly returned to her place. 'You'll be as gay as can be to-night, I dare say -- '
'No, I shall not,' broke in Molly. 'I never wanted to go, and now I shall want it less than ever.'
'Hush, my dear,' said Mrs Gibson; and, addressing the squire, she added, 'The visiting here is not all one could wish for so young a girl - no young people, no dances, nothing of gaiety; but it is wrong in you, Molly, to speak against such kind friends of your father's as I understand these Cockerells are. Don't give so bad an impression of yourself to the kind squire.'
'Let her alone! let her alone!' quoth he. 'I see what she means. She'd rather come and be in my wife's sick-room than go out for this visit to-night. Is there no way of getting her off?'
'None whatever,' said Mrs Gibson. 'An engagement is an engagement with me; and I consider that she is not only engaged to Mrs Cockerell, but to me - bound to accompany me, in my husband's absence.'
The squire was put out; and when he was put out he had a trick of placing his hands on his knees and whistling softly to himself. Molly knew this phase of his displeasure, and only hoped he would confine himself to this wordless expression of annoyance. It was pretty hard work for her to keep the tears out of her eyes; and she endeavoured to think of something else, rather than dwell on regrets and annoyances. She heard Mrs Gibson talking on in a sweet monotone, and wished to attend to what she was saying, but the squire's visible annoyance struck sharper on her mind. At length, after a pause of silence, he started up, and said, -
'Well! it's no use. Poor madam; she won't like it. She'll be disappointed! But it's but for one evening! - but for one evening! She may come to-morrow, mayn't she? Or will the dissipation of such an evening as she describes, be too much for her?'
There was a touch of savage irony in his manner which frightened Mrs Gibson into good behaviour.
'She shall be ready at any time you name. I am so sorry: my foolish shyness is in fault, I believe; but still you must acknowledge that an engagement is an engagement.'
'Did I ever say an engagement was an elephant, madam? However, there's no use saying any more about it, or I shall forget my manners. I'm an old tyrant, and she - lying there in bed, poor girl - has always given me my own way. So you'll excuse me, Mrs Gibson, won't you; and let Molly come along with me at ten to-morrow morning?'
'Certainly,' said Mrs Gibson, smiling. But when his back was turned, she said to Molly, -
'Now, my dear, I must never have you exposing me to the ill-manners of such a man again! I don't call him a squire; I call him a boor, or a yeoman at best. You must not go on accepting or rejecting invitations as if you were an independent young lady, Molly. Pay me the respect of a reference to my wishes another time, if you please, my dear!'
'Papa had said I might go,' said Molly, choking a little.
'As I am now your mamma your references must be to me, for the future. But as you are to go you may as well look well dressed. I will lend you my new shawl for this visit, if you like it, and my set of green ribbons. I am always indulgent when proper respect is paid to me. And in such a house as Hamley Hall, no one can tell who may be coming and going, even if there is sickness in the family.'
'Thank you. But I don't want the shawl and the ribbons, please: there will be nobody there except the family. There never is, I think; and now that she is so ill' - Molly was on the point of crying at the thought of her friend lying ill and lonely, and looking for her arrival. Moreover, she was sadly afraid lest the squire had gone off with the idea that she did not want to come - that she preferred that stupid, stupid party at the Cockerells'. Mrs Gibson, too, was sorry; she had an uncomfortable consciousness of having given way to temper before a stranger, and a stranger, too, whose good opinion she had meant to cultivate: and she was also annoyed at Molly's tearful face.
'What can I do for you, to bring you back into good temper?' she said. 'First, you insist upon your knowing Lady Harriet better than I do - I, who have known her for eighteen or nineteen years at least. Then you jump at invitations without ever consulting me, or thinking of how awkward it would be for me to go stumping into a drawing-room all by myself; following my new name, too, which always makes me feel uncomfortable, it is such a sad come-down after Kirkpatrick! And then, when I offer you some of the prettiest things I have got, you say it does not signify how you are dressed. What can I do to please you, Molly? I, who delight in nothing more than peace in a family, to see you sitting there with despair upon your face?'
Molly could stand it no longer; she went upstairs to her own room - her own smart new room, which hardly yet seemed a familiar place; and began to cry so heartily and for so long a time, that she stopped at length for very weariness. She thought of Mrs Hamley wearying for her; of the old Hall whose very quietness might become oppressive to an ailing person; of the trust the squire had had in her that she would come off directly with him. And all this oppressed her much more than the querulousness of her stepmother's words.
If Molly thought that peace dwelt perpetually at Hamley Hall she was sorely mistaken. Something was out of tune in the whole establishment; and, for a very unusual thing, the common irritation seemed to have produced a common bond. All the servants were old in their places, and were told by some one of the family, or gathered, from the unheeded conversation carried on before them, everything that affected master or mistress or either of the young gentlemen. Any one of them could have told Molly that the grievance which lay at the root of everything, was the amount of the bills run up by Osborne at Cambridge, and which, now that all chance of his obtaining a fellowship was over, came pouring down upon the squire. But Molly, confident of being told by Mrs Hamley herself anything which she wished her to hear, encouraged no confidences from any one else.
She was struck with the change in 'madam's' looks as soon as she caught sight of her in the darkened room, lying on the sofa in her dressing-room, all dressed in white, which almost rivalled the white wanness of her face. The squire ushered Molly in with, -
'Here she is at last!' and Molly had scarcely imagined that he had so much variety in the tones of his voice - the beginning of the sentence was spoken in a loud congratulatory manner, while the last words were scarcely audible. He had seen the death-like pallor on his wife's face; not a new sight, and one which had been presented to him gradually enough, but which was now always giving him a fresh shock. It was a lovely tranquil winter's day; every branch and every twig of the trees and shrubs were glittering with drops of the sun-melted hoarfrost; a robin was perched on a holly-bush, piping cheerily; but the blinds were down, and out of Mrs Hamley's windows nothing of all this was to be seen. There was even a large screen placed between her and the wood-fire, to keep off that cheerful blaze. Mrs Hamley stretched out one hand to Molly, and held hers firm; with the other she shaded her eyes.
'She is not so well this morning,' said the squire, shaking his head. 'But never fear, my dear one; here's the doctor's daughter, nearly as good as the doctor himself. Have you had your medicine? Your beef-tea?' he continued, going about on heavy tiptoe and peeping into every empty cup and glass. Then he returned to the sofa; looked at her for a minute or two, and then softly kissed her, and told Molly he would leave her in charge.
As if Mrs Hamley was afraid of Molly's remarks or questions, she began in her turn a hasty system of interrogatories.
'Now, dear child, tell me all; it's no breach of confidence, for I shan't mention it again, and I shan't be here long. How does it all go on - the new mother, the good resolutions? let me help you if I can. I think with a girl I could have been of use - a mother does not know boys. But tell me anything you like and will; don't be afraid of details.'
Even with Molly's small experience of illness she saw how much of restless fever there was in this speech; and instinct, or some such gift, prompted her to tell a long story of many things - the wedding-day, her visit to Miss Brownings', the new furniture, Lady Harriet, &c., all in an easy flow of talk which was very soothing to Mrs Hamley, inasmuch as it gave her something to think about beyond her own immediate sorrows. But Molly did not speak of her own grievances, nor of the new domestic relationship. Mrs Hamley noticed this.
'And you and Mrs Gibson get on happily together?'
'Not always,' said Molly. 'You know we didn't know much of each other before we were put to live together.'
'I didn't like what the squire told me last night. He was very angry.'
That sore had not yet healed over; but Molly resolutely kept silence, beating her brains to think of some other subject of conversation.
'Ah! I see, Molly,' said Mrs Hamley; 'you won't tell me your sorrows, and yet, perhaps, I could have done you some good.'
'I don't like,' said Molly, in a low voice. 'I think papa wouldn't like it. And, besides, you have helped me so much - you and Mr Roger Hamley. I often, often think of the things he said. they come in so usefully, and are such a strength to me.'
'Ah, Roger! yes. He is to be trusted. Oh, Molly! I've a great deal to say to you myself, only not now. I must have my medicine and try to go to sleep. Good girl! You are stronger than I am, and can do without sympathy.'
Molly was taken to another room; the maid who conducted her to it told her that Mrs Hamley had not wished her to have her nights disturbed, as they might very probably have been if she had been in her former sleeping-room. In the afternoon Mrs Hamley sent for her, and with the want of reticence common to invalids, especially to those suffering from long and depressing maladies, she told Molly of the family distress and disappointment.
She made Molly sit down near her on a little stool, and, holding her hand, and looking into her eyes to catch her spoken sympathy from their expression quicker than she could from her words, she said, -
'Osborne has so disappointed us! I cannot understand it yet. And the squire was so terribly angry! I cannot think how all the money was spent - advances through money-lenders, besides bills. The squire does not show me how angry he is now, because he's afraid of another attack; but I know how angry he is. You see he has been spending ever so much money in reclaiming that land at Upton Common, and is very hard pressed himself. But it would have doubled the value of the estate, and so we never thought anything of economics which would benefit Osborne in the long run. And now the squire says he must mortgage some of the land; and you can't think how it cuts him to the heart. He sold a great deal of timber to send the two boys to college. Osborne - oh! what a dear, innocent boy he was: he was the heir, you know; and he was so clever, every one said he was sure of honours and a fellowship, and I don't know what all; and he did get a scholarship, and then all went wrong. I don't know how. That is the worst. Perhaps the squire wrote too angrily, and that stopped up confidence. But he might have told me. He would have done, I think, Molly, if he had been here, face to face with me. But the squire, in his anger, told him not to show his face at home till he had paid off the debts he had incurred out of his allowance. Out of two hundred and fifty a year to pay off more than nine hundred, one way or another! And not to come home till then! Perhaps Roger will have debts too! He had but two hundred; but, then, he was not the eldest son. The squire has given orders that the men are to be turned off the draining-works; and I lie awake thinking of their poor families this wintry weather. But what shall we do? I've never been strong, and, perhaps, I've been extravagant in my habits; and there were family traditions as to expenditure, and the reclaiming of this land. Oh! Molly, Osborne was such a sweet little baby, and such a loving boy: so clever, too! You know I read you some of his poetry: now, could a person who wrote like that do anything very wrong? And yet I'm afraid he has.'
'Don't you know, at all, how the money has gone?' asked Molly.
'No! not at all. That's the sting. There are tailors' bills, and bills for book-binding and wine and pictures - that come to four or five hundred; and though this expenditure is extraordinary - inexplicable to such simple folk as we are - yet it may be only the luxury of the present day. But the money for which he will give no account, - of which, indeed, we only heard through the squire's London agents, who found out that certain disreputable attorneys were making inquiries as to the entail of the estate, - oh! Molly, worse than all - I don't know how to bring myself to tell you - as to the age and health of the squire, his dear father' - (she began to sob almost hysterically; yet she would go on talking, in spite of Molly's efforts to stop her) - 'who held him in his arms, and blessed him, even before I had kissed him; and thought always so much of him as his heir and first-born darling. How he has loved him! How I have loved him! I sometimes have thought of late that we've almost done that good Roger injustice.'
'No! I'm sure you've not: only look at the way he loves you. Why, you are his first thought: he may not speak about it, but any one may see it. And dear, dear Mrs Hamley,' said Molly, determined to say out all that was in her mind now that she had once got the word, 'don't you think that it would be better not to misjudge Mr Osborne Hamley? We don't know what he has done with the money: he is so good (is he not?) that he may have wanted it to relieve some poor person - some tradesman, for instance, pressed by creditors - some -- '
'You forget, dear,' said Mrs Hamley, smiling a little at the girl's impetuous romance, but sighing the next instant, 'that all the other bills come from tradesmen, who complain piteously of being kept out of their money.'
Molly was nonplussed for the moment; but then she said, -
'I daresay they imposed upon him. I'm sure I've heard stories of young men being made regular victims of by the shopkeepers in great towns.'
'You're a great darling, child,' said Mrs Hamley, comforted by Molly's strong partisanship, unreasonable and ignorant though it was.
'And, besides,' continued Molly, 'some one must be acting wrongly in Osborne's - Mr Osborne Hamley's, I mean - I can't help saying Osborne sometimes, but, indeed, I always think of him as Mr Osborne - '
'Never mind, Molly, what you call him; only go on talking. It seems to do me good to have the hopeful side taken. The squire has been so hurt and displeased: strange-looking men coming into the neighbourhood, too, questioning the tenants, and grumbling about the last fall of timber, as if they were calculating on the squire's death.'
'That's just what I was going to speak about. Doesn't it show that they are bad men? and would bad men scruple to impose upon him, and to tell lies in his name, and to ruin him?'
'Don't you see, you only make him out weak, instead of wicked?'
'Yes; perhaps I do. But I don't think he is weak. You know yourself, dear Mrs Hamley, how very clever he really is. Besides, I would rather he was weak than wicked. Weak people may find themselves all at once strong in heaven, when they see things quite clearly; but I don't think the wicked will turn themselves into virtuous people all at once.'
'I think I've been very weak, Molly,' said Mrs Hamley, stroking Molly's curls affectionately. 'I've made such an idol of my beautiful Osborne; and he turns out to have feet of clay, not strong enough to stand firm on the ground. And that's the best view of his conduct, too!'
What with his anger against his son, and his anxiety about his wife: the difficulty of raising the money immediately required, and his irritation at the scarce-concealed inquiries made by strangers as to the value of his property, the poor squire was in a sad state. He was angry and impatient with every one who came near him; and then was depressed at his own violent temper and unjust words. The old servants, who, perhaps, cheated him in many small things, were beautifully patient under his upbraidings. They could understand bursts of passion, and knew the cause of his variable moods as well as he did himself. The butler, who was accustomed to argue with his master about every fresh direction as to his work, now nudged Molly at dinner-time to make her eat of some dish which she had just been declining, and explained his conduct afterwards as follows, -
'You see, miss, me and cook had planned a dinner as would tempt master to cat; but when you say, "No, thank you," when I hand you anything, master never so much as looks at it. But if you takes a thing, and cats with a relish, why first he waits, and then he looks, and by-and-by he smells; and then he finds out as he's hungry, and falls to eating as natural as a kitten takes to mewing. That's the reason, miss, as I gave you a nudge and a wink, which no one knows better nor me was not manners.'
Osborne's name was never mentioned during these tete-a- tete meals. The squire asked Molly questions about Hollingford people, but did not seem much to attend to her answers. He used also to ask her every day how she thought that his wife was; but if Molly told the truth - that every day seemed to make her weaker and weaker - he was almost savage with the girl. He could not bear it; and he would not. Nay, once he was on the point of dismissing Mr Gibson because he insisted on a consultation with Dr Nicholls, the great physician of the county.
'It's nonsense thinking her so ill as that - you know it's only the delicacy she's had for years; and if you can't do her any good in such a simple case - no pain - only weakness and nervousness - it is a simple case, eh? - don't look in that puzzled way, man! - you'd better give her up altogether, and I'll take her to Bath or Brighton,' or somewhere for change, for in my opinion it's only moping and nervousness.'
But the squire's bluff florid face was pinched with anxiety, and worn with the effort of being deaf to the footsteps of fate as he said these words which belied his fears.
Mr Gibson replied very quietly, -
'I shall go on coming to see her, and I know you will not forbid my visits. But I shall bring Dr Nicholls with me the next time I come. I may be mistaken in my treatment; and I wish to God he may say I am mistaken in my apprehensions.'
'Don't tell me them! I cannot hear them!' cried the squire. 'Of course we must all die; and she must too. But not the cleverest doctor in England shall go about coolly meting out the life of such as her. I dare say I shall die first. I hope I shall. But I'll knock any one down who speaks to me of the death sitting within me. And, besides, I think all doctors are ignorant quacks, pretending to knowledge they haven't got. Ay, you may smile at me. I don't care. Unless you can tell me I shall die first, neither you nor your Dr Nicholls shall come prophesying and croaking about this house.'
Mr Gibson went away, heavy at heart at the thought of Mrs Hamley's approaching death, but thinking little enough of the squire's speeches. He had almost forgotten them, in fact, when about nine o'clock that evening, a groom rode in from Hamley Hall in hot haste, with a note from the squire.
DEAR GIBSON, - For God's sake forgive me if I was rude to-day. She is much worse. Come and spend the night here. Write for Nicholls, and all the physicians you want. Write before you start off here. They may give her ease. There were Whitworth doctors much talked of in my youth for curing people given up by the regular doctors; can't you get one of them? I put myself in your hands. Sometimes I think it is the turning point, and she'll rally after this bout. I trust all to you.
Of course Mr Gibson went; for the first time since his marriage cutting short Mrs Gibson's querulous lamentations over her life, as involved in that of a doctor called out at all hours of day and night.
He brought Mrs Hamley through this attack; and for a day or two the squire's alarm and gratitude made him docile in Mr Gibson's hands. Then he returned to the idea of its being a crisis through which his wife had passed; and that she was now on the way to recovery. But the day after the consultation with Dr Nicholls, Mr Gibson said to Molly, -
'Molly! I've written to Osborne and Roger. Do you know Osborne's address?'
'No, papa. He's in disgrace. I don't know if the squire knows; and she has been too ill to write.'
'Never mind. I'll enclose it to Roger; whatever those lads may be to others, there's as strong brotherly love as ever I saw, between the two. Roger will know. And, Molly, they are sure to come home as soon as they hear my report of their mother's state. I wish you'd tell the squire what I've done. It's not a pleasant piece of work; and I'll tell madam myself in my own way. I'd have told him if he'd been at home; but you say he was obliged to go to Ashcombe on business.'
'Quite obliged. He was so sorry to miss you. But, papa, he will be so angry! You don't know how mad he is against Osborne.'
Molly dreaded the squire's anger when she gave him her father's message. She had seen quite enough of the domestic relations of the Hamley family to understand that, underneath his old-fashioned courtesy, and the pleasant hospitality he showed to her as a guest, there was a strong will, and a vehement passionate temper, along with that degree of obstinacy in prejudices (or 'opinions,' as he would have called them) so common to those who have, neither in youth nor in manhood, mixed largely with their kind. She had listened, day after day, to Mrs Hamley's plaintive murmurs as to the deep disgrace in which Osborne was being held by his father - the prohibition of his coming home; and she hardly knew how to begin to tell him that the letter summoning Osborne had already been sent off.
Their dinners were tête-à-tête. The squire tried to make them pleasant to Molly, feeling deeply grateful to her for the soothing comfort she was to his wife. He made merry speeches, which sank away into silence, and at which they each forgot to smile. He ordered up rare wines, which she did not care for, but tasted out of complaisance. He noticed that one day she had eaten some brown buerré pears as if she liked them; and as his trees had not produced many this year, he gave directions that this particular kind should be sought for through the neighbourhood. Molly felt that, in many ways, he was full of good-will towards her; but it did not diminish her dread of touching on the one sore point in the family. However, it had to be done, and that without delay.
The great log was placed on the after-dinner fire, the hearth swept up, the ponderous candles snuffed, and then the door was shut, and Molly and the squire were left to their dessert. She sate at the side of the table in her old place. That at the head was vacant; yet as no orders had been given to the contrary, the plate and glasses and napkin were always arranged as regularly and methodically as if Mrs Hamley would come in as usual. Indeed, sometimes, when the door by which she used to enter was opened by any chance, Molly caught herself looking round as if she expected to see the tall, languid figure in the elegant draperies of rich silk and soft lace, which Mrs Hamley was wont to wear of an evening.
This evening, it struck her, as a new thought of pain, that into that room she would come no more. She had fixed to give her father's message at this very point of time; but something in her throat choked her, and she hardly knew how to govern her voice. The squire got up and went to the broad fire-place, to strike into the middle of the great log, and split it up into blazing, sparkling pieces. His back was towards her. Molly began, 'When papa was here to-day, he bade me tell you he had written to Mr Roger Hamley to say that - that he thought he had better come home; and he enclosed a letter to Mr Osborne Hamley to say the same thing.'
The squire put down the poker, but he still kept his back to Molly.
'He sent for Osborne and Roger?' he asked, at length.
Molly answered, 'Yes.'
Then there was a dead silence, which Molly thought would never end. The squire had placed his two hands on the high chimney-piece, and stood leaning over the fire.
'Roger would have been down from Cambridge on the 18th,' said he. 'And he has sent for Osborne, too! Did he know,' - he continued, turning round to Molly, with something of the fierceness she had anticipated in voice and look. In another moment he had dropped his voice. 'It is right, quite right. I understand. It has come at length. Come! come! Osborne has brought it on, though,' with a fresh access of anger in his tones. 'She might have' (some word Molly could not hear - she thought it sounded like 'lingered') 'but for that. I cannot forgive him; I cannot.'
And then he suddenly left the room. While Molly sate there still, very sad in her sympathy with all, he put his head in again, -
'Go to her, my dear; I cannot - not just yet. But I will soon. Just this bit; and after that I won't lose a moment. You are a good girl. God bless you!'
It is not to be supposed that Molly had remained all this time at the Hall without interruption. Once or twice her father had brought her a summons home. Molly thought she could perceive that he had brought it unwillingly; in fact, it was Mrs Gibson that had sent for her, almost, as it were, to preserve a 'right of way' through her actions.
'You shall come back to-morrow, or the next day,' her father had said. 'But mamma seems to think people will put a bad construction on your being so much way from home so soon after our marriage.'
'Oh, papa, I'm afraid Mrs Hamley will miss me! I do so like being with her.'
'I don't think it is likely she will miss you as much as she would have done a month or two ago. She sleeps so much now, that she is scarcely conscious of the lapse of time. I'll see that you come back here again in a day or two.'
So out of the silence and the soft melancholy of the Hall Molly returned into the all-pervading element of chatter and gossip at Hollingford. Mrs Gibson received her kindly enough. Once' she had a smart new winter bonnet ready to give her as a present; but she did not care to hear any particulars about the friends whom Molly had just left; and her few remarks on the state of affairs at the Hall jarred terribly on the sensitive Molly.
'What a time she lingers! Your papa never expected she would last half so long after that attack. It must be very wearing work to them all; I declare you look quite another creature since you went there. One can only wish it mayn't last, for their sakes.'
'You don't know how the squire values every minute,' said Molly.
'Why, you say she sleeps a great deal, and doesn't talk much when she's awake, and there's not the slightest hope for her. And yet, at such times, people are kept on the tenterhooks with watching and waiting. I know it by my dear Kirkpatrick. There really were days when I thought it never would end. But we won't talk any more of such dismal things; you've had quite enough of them, I'm sure, and it always makes me melancholy to hear of illness and death; and yet your papa seems sometimes as if he could talk of nothing else. I'm going to take you out to-night, though, and that will give you something of a change; and I've been getting Miss Rose to trim up one of my old gowns for you; it's too tight for me. There's some talk of dancing, - it's at Mrs Edward's.'
'Oh, mamma, I cannot go!' cried Molly. 'I've been so much with her; and she may be suffering so, or even dying - and I to be dancing!'
'Nonsense! You're no relation, so you need not feel it so much. I wouldn't urge you, if she was likely to know about it and be hurt; but as it is, it's all fixed that you are to go; and don't let us have any nonsense about it. We might sit twirling our thumbs, and repeating hymns all our lives long, if we were to do nothing else when people were dying.'
'I cannot go,' repeated Molly. And, acting upon impulse, and almost to her own surprise, she appealed to her father, who came into the room at this very time. He contracted his dark eyebrows, and looked annoyed as both wife and daughter poured their different sides of the argument into his ears. He sate down in desperation of patience. When his turn came to pronounce a decision, he said, -
'I suppose I can have some lunch? I went away at six this morning, and there's nothing in the dining-room. I have to go off again directly.'
Molly started to the door; Mrs Gibson made haste to ring the bell.
'Where are you going, Molly?' said she, sharply.
'Only to see about papa's lunch.'
'There are servants to do it; and I don't like your going into the kitchen.'
'Come, Molly! sit down and be quiet,' said her father. 'One comes home wanting peace and quietness - and food too. If I am to be appealed to, which I beg I may not be another time, I settle that Molly stops home this evening. I shall come back late and tired. See that I have something ready to cat, goosey, and then I'll dress myself up in my best, and go and fetch you home, my dear. I wish all these wedding festivities were well over. Ready, is it? Then I'll go into the dining-room and gorge myself. A doctor ought to be able to eat like a camel, or like Major Dugald Dalgetty.'
It was well for Molly that callers came in just at this time, for Mrs Gibson was extremely annoyed. They told her some little local piece of news, however, which filled up her mind; and Molly found that, if she only expressed wonder enough at the engagement they had both heard of from the departed callers, the previous discussion as to her accompanying her stepmother or not might be entirely passed over. Not entirely though; for the next morning she had to listen to a very brilliantly touched-up account of the dance and the gaiety which she had missed; and also to be told that Mrs Gibson had changed her mind about giving her the gown, and thought now that she should reserve it for Cynthia, if only it was long enough; but Cynthia was so tall - quite overgrown, in fact. The chances seemed equally balanced as to whether Molly might not have the gown after all.
Osborne and Roger came to the Hall; Molly found Roger established there when she returned after this absence at home. She gathered that Osborne was coming; but very little was said about him in any way. The squire scarcely ever left his wife's room now; he sat by her, watching her, and now and then moaning to himself. She was so much under the influence of opiates that she did not often rouse up; but when she did, she almost invariably asked for Molly. In their rare tête-à-tête, she would ask after Osborne - where he was, if he had been told, and if he was coming? In her weakened and confused state of intellect she seemed to have retained two strong impressions - one, of the sympathy with which Molly had received her confidence about Osborne; the other, of the anger which her husband entertained against him. Before the squire she never mentioned Osborne's name; nor did she seem at her case in speaking about him to Roger, while, when she was alone with Molly, she hardly spoke of any one else. She must have had some sort of wandering idea that Roger blamed his brother, while she remembered Molly's eager defence, which she had thought hopelessly improbable at the time. At any rate she made Molly her confidante about her first-born. She sent her to ask Roger how soon he would come, for she seemed to know perfectly well that he was coming.
'Tell me all Roger says. He will tell you.'
But it was several days before Molly could ask Roger any questions; and meanwhile Mrs Hamley's state had materially altered. At length Molly came upon Roger sitting in the library, his head buried in his hands. He did not hear her footstep till she was close beside him. Then he lifted up his face, red, and stained with tears, his hair all ruffled up and in disorder.
'I've been wanting to see you alone,' she began. 'Your mother does so want some news of your brother Osborne. She told me last week to ask you about him, but I did not like to speak of him before your father.'
'She has hardly ever named him to me.'
'I don't know why; for to me she used to talk of him perpetually. I have seen so little of her this week, and I think she forgets a great deal now. Still, if you don't mind, I should like to be able to tell her something if she asks me again.'
He put his head again between his hands, and did not answer her for some time.
'What does she want to know?' said he, at last. 'Does she know that Osborne is coming soon - any day?'
'Yes. But she wants to know where he is.'
'I can't tell you. I don't exactly know. I believe he's abroad, but I'm not sure.'
'But you've sent papa's letter to him?'
'I've sent it to a friend of his who will know better than I do where he's to be found. You must know that he isn't free from creditors, Molly. You can't have been one of the family, like a child of the house almost, without knowing that much. For that and for some other reasons I don't exactly know where he is.'
'I will tell her so. You are sure he will come?'
'Quite sure. But, Molly, I think my mother may live some time yet; don't you? Dr Nicholls said so yesterday when he was here with your father. He said she had rallied more than he had ever expected. You're not afraid of any change that makes you so anxious for Osborne's coming?'
'No. It's only for her that I asked. She did seem so to crave for news of him. I think she dreamed of him; and then when she wakened it was a relief to her to talk about him to me. She always seemed to associate me with him. We used to speak so much of him when we were together.'
'I don't know what we should any of us have done without you. You've been like a daughter to my mother.'
'I do so love her,' said Molly, softly.
'Yes; I see. Have you ever noticed that she sometimes calls you "Fanny"? It was the name of a little sister of ours who died. I think she often takes you for her. It was partly that, and partly that at such a time as this one can't stand on formalities, that made me call you Molly. I hope you don't mind it?'
'No; I like it. But will you tell me something more about your brother? She really hungers for news of him.'
'She'd better ask me herself. Yet, no! I am so involved by promises of secrecy, Molly, that I couldn't satisfy her if she once began to question me. I believe he's in Belgium, and that he went there about a fortnight ago, partly to avoid his creditors. You know my father has refused to pay his debts?'
'Yes; at least, I knew something like it.'
'I don't believe my father could raise the money all at once without having recourse to steps which he would exceedingly recoil from. Yet for the time it places Osborne in a very awkward position.'
'I think what vexes your father a good deal is some mystery as to how the money was spent.'
'If my mother ever says anything about that part of the affair,' said Roger, hastily, 'assure her from me that there's nothing of vice or wrong-doing about it. I can't say more: I'm tied. But set her mind at ease on this point.'
'I'm not sure if she remembers all her painful anxiety about this,' said Molly. 'She used to speak a great deal to me about him before you came, when your father seemed so angry. And now, whenever she sees me she wants to talk on the old subject; but she doesn't remember so clearly. If she were to see him I don't believe she would recollect why she was uneasy about him while he was absent.'
'He must be here soon. I expect him every day,' said Roger, uneasily.
'Do you think your father will be very angry with him?' asked Molly, with as much timidity as if the squire's displeasure might be directed against her.
'I don't know,' said Roger. 'My mother's illness may alter him; but he didn't easily forgive us formerly. I remember once - but that is nothing to the purpose. I can't help fancying that he has put himself under some strong restraint for my mother's sake, and that he won't express much. But it doesn't follow that he will forget it. My father is a man of few affections, but what he has are very strong; he feels anything that touches him on these points deeply and permanently. That unlucky valuing of the property! It has given my father the idea of post-obits -- '
'What are they?' asked Molly.
'Raising money to be paid on my father's death, which, of course, involves calculations as to the duration of his life.'
'How shocking!' said she.
'I'm as sure as I am of my own life that Osborne never did anything of the kind. But my father expressed his suspicions in language that irritated Osborne; and he doesn't speak out, and won't justify himself even as much as he might; and, much as he loves me, I've but little influence over him, or else he would tell my father all. Well, we must leave it to time,' he added, sighing. 'My mother would have brought us all right, if she'd been what she once was.'
He turned away leaving Molly very sad. She knew that every member of the family she cared for so much was in trouble, out of which she saw no exit; and her small power of helping them was diminishing day by day as Mrs Hamley sank more and more under the influence of opiates and stupefying illness. Her father had spoken to her only this very day of the desirableness of her returning home for good. Mrs Gibson wanted her - for no particular reason, but for many small fragments of reasons. Mrs Hamley had ceased to want her much, only occasionally appearing to remember her existence. Her position (her father thought - the idea had not entered her head) in a family of which the only woman was an invalid confined to bed, was becoming awkward. But Molly had begged hard to remain two or three days longer - only that - only till Friday. If Mrs Hamley should want her (she argued, with tears in her eyes), and should hear that she had left the house, she would think her so unkind, so ungrateful!
'My dear child, she's getting past wanting any one! The keenness of earthly feelings is deadened.'
'Papa, that is worst of all. I cannot bear it. I won't believe it. She may not ask for me again, and may quite forget me; but I'm sure, to the very last, if the medicines don't stupefy her, she will look round for the squire and her children. For poor Osborne most of all; because he's in sorrow.'
Mr Gibson shook his head, but said nothing in reply. In a minute or two he asked, -
'I don't like to take you away while you even fancy you can be of use or comfort to one who has been so kind to you. But, if she hasn't wanted you before Friday, will you be convinced, will you come home willingly?'
'If I go then, I may see her once again, even if she hasn't asked for me?' inquired Molly.
'Yes, of course. You must make no noise, no step; but you may go in and see her. I must tell you, I'm almost certain she won't ask for you.'
'But she may, papa. I will go home on Friday, if she has not. I think she will.'
So Molly hung about the house, trying to do all she could out of the sick-room, for the comfort of those in it. They only came out for meals, or for necessary business, and found little time for talking to her, so her life was solitary enough, waiting for the call that never came. The evening of the day on which she had had the above conversation with Roger, Osborne arrived. He came straight into the drawing-room, where Molly was seated on the rug, reading by firelight, as she did not like to ring for candies merely for her own use. Osborne came in, with a kind of hurry, which almost made him appear as if he would trip himself up, and fall down. Molly rose. He had not noticed her before; now he came forwards, and took hold of both her hands, leading her into the full flickering light, and straining his eyes to look into her face.
'How is she? You will tell me - you must know the truth! I've travelled day and night since I got your father's letter.'
Before she could frame her answer, he had sate down in the nearest chair, covering his eyes with his hand.
'She's very ill,' said Molly. 'That you know; but I don't think she suffers much pain. She has wanted you sadly.'
He groaned aloud. 'My father forbade me to come.'
'I know!' said Molly, anxious to prevent his self-reproach. 'Your brother was away, too. I think no one knew how ill she was - she had been an invalid for so long.'
'You know -- Yes! she told you a great deal - she was very fond of you. And God knows how I loved her. If I had not been forbidden to come home, I should have told her all. Does my father know of my coming now?'
'Yes,' said Molly; 'I told him papa had sent for you.'
Just at that moment the squire came in. He had not heard of Osborne's arrival, and was seeking Molly to ask her to write a letter for him.
Osborne did not stand up when his father entered. He was too much exhausted, too much oppressed by his feelings, and also too much estranged by his father's angry, suspicious letters. If he had come forwards with any manifestation of feeling at this moment, everything might have been different. But he waited for his father to see him before he uttered a word. All that the squire said when his eye fell upon him at last was, -
'You here, sir!'
And, breaking off in the directions he was giving to Molly, he abruptly left the room. All the time his heart was yearning after his first-born; but mutual pride kept them asunder. Yet he went straight to the butler, and asked of him when Mr Osborne had arrived, and how he had come and if he had had any refreshment - dinner or what - since his arrival?
'For I think I forget everything now!' said the poor squire, putting his hand up to his head. 'For the life of me, I can't remember whether we've had dinner or not; these long nights, and all this sorrow and watching, quite bewilder me.'
'Perhaps, sir, you will take some dinner with Mr Osborne. Mrs Morgan is sending up his directly. You hardly sate down at dinner-time, sir, you thought my mistress wanted something.'
'Ay! I remember now. No! I won't have any more. Give Mr Osborne what wine he chooses. Perhaps he can eat and drink.' So the squire went away upstairs with bitterness as well as sorrow in his heart.
When lights were brought, Molly was struck with the change in Osborne. He looked haggard and worn; perhaps with travelling and anxiety. Not quite such a dainty gentleman either, as Molly had thought him, when she had last seen him calling on her stepmother, two months before. But she liked him better now. The tone of his remarks pleased her more. He was simpler, and less ashamed of showing his feelings. He asked after Roger in a warm, longing kind of way. Roger was out: he had ridden to Ashcombe to transact some business for the squire. Osborne evidently wished for his return; and hung about restlessly in the drawing-room after he had dined.
'You are sure I may not see her to-night?' he asked Molly, for the third or fourth time. 'No, indeed. I will go up again if you like it. But Mrs Jones, the nurse Dr Nicholls sent, is a very decided person. I went up while you were at dinner, and Mrs Hamley had just taken her drops, and was on no account to be disturbed by seeing any one, much less by any excitement.'
Osborne kept walking up and down the long drawing-room, half talking to himself, half to Molly.
'I wish Roger would come. He seems to be the only one to give me a welcome. Does my father always live upstairs in my mother's rooms, Miss Gibson?'
'He has done since her last attack. I believe he reproaches himself for not having been enough alarmed before.'
'You heard all the words he said to me: they were not much of a welcome, were they? And my dear mother, who always - whether I was to blame or not -- I suppose Roger is sure to come home to-night?'
'You are staying here, are you not? Do you often see my mother, or does this omnipotent nurse keep you out too?,
'Mrs Hamley hasn't asked for me for three days now, and I don't go into her room unless she asks. I'm leaving on Friday, I believe.'
'My mother was very fond of you, I know.'
After a while he said, in a voice that had a great deal of sensitive pain in its tone, -
'I suppose - do you know whether she is quite conscious - quite herself?'
'Not always conscious,' said Molly, tenderly. 'She has to take so many opiates. But she never wanders, only forgets, and sleeps.'
'Oh, mother, mother!' said he, stopping suddenly, and hanging over the fire, his hands on the chimney-piece.
When Roger came home, Molly thought it time to retire. Poor girl! it was getting to be time for her to leave this scene of distress in which she could be of no use. She sobbed herself to sleep this Tuesday night. Two days more, and it would be Friday; and she would have to wrench up the roots she had shot down into this ground. The weather was bright the next morning; and morning and sunny weather cheer up young hearts. Molly sate in the dining-room making tea for the gentlemen as they came down. She could not help hoping that the squire and Osborne might come to a better understanding before she left; for after all, in the discussion between father and son, lay a bitterer sting than in the illness sent by God. But though they met at the breakfast-table, they purposely avoided addressing each other. Perhaps the natural subject of conversation between the two, at such a time, would have been Osborne's long journey the night before; but he had never spoken of the place he had come from, whether north, south, east, or west, and the squire did not choose to allude to anything that might bring out what his son wished to conceal. Again, there was an unexpressed idea in both their minds that Mrs Hamley's present illness was much aggravated, if not entirely brought on, by the discovery of Osborne's debts; so, many inquiries and answers on that head were tabooed. In fact, their attempts at easy conversation were limited to local subjects, and principally addressed to Molly or Roger. Such intercourse was not productive of pleasure, or even of friendly feeling, though there was a thin outward surface of politeness and peace. Long before the day was over, Molly wished that she had acceded to her father's proposal, and gone home with him. No one seemed to want her. Mrs Jones, the nurse, assured her time after time that Mrs Hamley had never named her name; and her small services in the sickroom were not required since there was a regular nurse. Osborne and Roger seemed all in all to each other; and Molly now felt how much the short conversations she had had with Roger had served to give her something to think about, all during the remainder of her solitary days. Osborne was extremely polite, and even expressed his gratitude to her for her attentions to his mother in a very pleasant manner; but he appeared to be unwilling to show her any of the deeper feelings of his heart, and almost ashamed of his exhibition of emotion the night before. He spoke to her as any agreeable young man speaks to any pleasant young lady; but Molly almost resented this. It was only the squire who seemed to make her of any account. He gave her letters to write, small bills to reckon up; and she could have kissed his hands for thankfulness.
The last afternoon of her stay at the Hall came. Roger had gone out on the squire's business. Molly went into the garden, thinking over the last summer, when Mrs Hamley's sofa used to be placed under the old cedar-tree on the lawn, and when the warm air seemed to be scented with roses and sweetbrier. Now, the trees were leafless, - there was no sweet odour in the keen frosty air; and looking up at the house, there were the white sheets of blinds, shutting out the pale winter sky from the invalid's room. Then she thought of the day her father had brought her the news of his second marriage: the thicket was tangled with dead weeds and rime and hoarfrost; and the beautiful fine articulation of branches and boughs and delicate twigs were all intertwined in leafless distinctness against the sky. Could she ever be so passionately unhappy again? Was it goodness, or was it numbness, that made her feel as though life was too short to be troubled much about anything? death seemed the only reality. She had neither energy nor heart to walk far or briskly; and turned back towards the house. The afternoon sun was shining brightly on the windows; and, stirred up to unusual activity by some unknown cause, the housemaids had opened the shutters and windows of the generally unused library. The middle window was also a door; the white-painted wood went half-way up. Molly turned along the little flag-paved path that led past the library windows to the gate in the white railings at the front of the house, and went in at the opened doors. She had had leave given to choose out any books she wished to read, and to take them home with her; and it was just the sort of half-dawdling employment suited to her taste this afternoon. She mounted on the ladder to get to a particular shelf high up in dark corner of the room; and finding there some volume that looked interesting, she sate down on the step to read part of it. There she sate, in her bonnet and cloak, when Osborne suddenly came in. He did not see her at first; indeed, he seemed in such a hurry that he probably might not have noticed her at all, if she had not spoken.
'Am I in your way? I only came here for a minute to look for some books.' She came down the steps as she spoke, still holding the book in her hand.
'Not at all. It is I who am disturbing you. I must just write a letter for the post, and then I shall be gone. Is not this open door too cold for you?'
'Oh, no. It is so fresh and pleasant.'
She began to read again, sitting on the lowest step of the ladder; he to write at the large old-fashioned writing-table close to the window. There was a minute or two of profound silence, in which the rapid scratching of Osborne's pen upon the paper was the only sound. Then came a click of the gate, and Roger stood at the open door. His face was towards Osborne, sitting in the light; his back to Molly, crouched up in her corner. He held out a letter, and said in hoarse breathlessness, -
'Here's a letter from your wife, Osborne. I went past the post-office and thought -- '
Osborne stood up, angry dismay upon his face.
'Roger! what have you done! Don't you see her?'
Roger looked round, and Molly stood up in her corner, red, trembling, miserable, as though she were a guilty person. Roger entered the room. All three seemed to be equally dismayed. Molly was the first to speak; she came forwards and said, -
'I am so sorry! You didn't wish me to hear it, but I couldn't help it. You will trust me, won't you?' and turning to Roger she said to him with tears in her eyes, - 'Please say you know I shall not tell.'
'We can't help it,' said Osborne, gloomily. 'Only Roger, who knew of what importance it was, ought to have looked round him before speaking.'
'So I should,' said Roger. 'I'm more vexed with myself than you can conceive. Not but what I'm sure of you as of myself,' continued he, turning to Molly.
'Yes; but,' said Osborne, 'you see how many chances there are that even the best-meaning persons may let out what it is of such consequence to me to keep secret.'
'I know you think it so,' said Roger.
'Well, don't let us begin that old discussion again - at any rate, not before a third person.'
Molly had had hard work all this time to keep from crying. Now that she was alluded to as the third person before whom conversation was to be restrained, she said, -
'I'm going away. Perhaps I ought not to have been here. I'm very sorry - very. But I will try and forget what I've heard.'
'You can't do that,' said Osborne, still ungraciously. 'But will you promise me never to speak about it to any one - not even to me, or to Roger? Will you try to act and speak as if you had never heard it? I'm sure, from what Roger has told me about you, that if you give me this promise I may rely upon it.'
'Yes; I will promise,' said Molly, putting out her hand as a kind of pledge. Osborne took it, but rather as if the action was superfluous. She added, 'I think I should have done so, even without a promise. But it is, perhaps, better to bind oneself. I will go away now. I wish I'd never come into this room.'
She put down her book on the table very softly, and turned to leave the room, choking down her tears until she was in the solitude of her own chamber. But Roger was at the door before her, holding it open for her, and reading - she felt that he was reading - her face. He held out his band for hers, and his firm grasp expressed both sympathy and regret for what had occurred.
She could hardly keep back her sobs till she reached her bedroom. Her feelings had been overwrought for some time past, without finding the natural vent in action. The leaving Hamley Hall had seemed so sad before; and now she was troubled with having to bear away a secret which she ought never to have known, and the knowledge of which had brought out a very uncomfortable responsibility. Then there would arise a very natural wonder as to who was Osborne's wife. Molly had not stayed so long and so intimately in the Hamley family without being well aware of the manner in which the future lady of Hamley was planned for. The squire, for instance, partly in order to show that Osborne, his heir, was above the reach of Molly Gibson, the doctor's daughter, in the early days before he knew Molly well, had often alluded to the grand, the high, and the wealthy marriage which Hamley of Hamley, as represented by his clever, brilliant, handsome son Osborne, might be expected to make. Mrs Hamley, too, unconsciously on her part, showed the projects that she was constantly devising for the reception of the unknown daughter-in-law that was to be.
'The drawing-room must be refurnished when Osborne marries' - or 'Osborne's wife will like to have the west suite of rooms to herself; it will perhaps be a trial to her to live with the old couple; but we must arrange it so that she will feel it as little as possible' - 'Of course, when Mrs Osborne comes we must try and give her a new carriage; the old one does well enough for us' - these, and similar speeches had given Molly the impression of the future Mrs Osborne as of some beautiful grand young lady, whose very presence would make the old Hall into a stately, formal mansion, instead of the pleasant, unceremonious home that it was at present. Osborne, too, who had spoken with such languid criticism to Mrs Gibson about various country belles, and even in his own home was apt to give himself airs - only at home his airs were poetically fastidious, while with Mrs Gibson they had been socially fastidious - what unspeakably elegant beauty had he chosen for his wife? Who had satisfied him; and yet satisfying him, had to have her, marriage kept in concealment from his parents? At length Molly tore herself up from her wanderings. It was of no use: she could not find out; she might not even try. The blank wall of her promise blocked up the way. Perhaps it was not even right to wonder, and endeavour to remember slight speeches, casual mentions of a name, so as to piece them together into something coherent. Molly dreaded seeing either of the brothers again; but they all met at dinner-time as if nothing had happened. The squire was taciturn, either from melancholy or displeasure. He had never spoken to Osborne since his return, excepting about the commonest trifles, when intercourse could not be avoided; and his wife's state oppressed him like a heavy cloud coming over the light of his day. Osborne put on an indifferent manner to his father, which Molly felt sure was assumed; but it was not conciliatory, for all that. Roger, quiet, steady, and natural, talked more than all the others; but he too was uneasy, and in distress on many accounts. To-day he principally addressed himself to Molly; entering into rather long narrations of late discoveries in natural history, which kept up the current of talk without requiring much reply from any one, Molly had expected Osborne to look something different from usual - conscious, or ashamed, or resentful, or even 'married' - but he was exactly the Osborne of the morning - handsome, elegant, languid in manner and in look; cordial with his brother, polite towards her, secretly uneasy at the state of things between his father and himself. She would never have guessed the concealed romance which lay perdu under that every-day behaviour. She had always wished to come into direct contact with a love-story: here she was, and she only found it very uncomfortable; there was a sense of concealment and uncertainty about it all; and her honest straightforward father, her quiet life at Hollingford, which, even with all its drawbacks, was above-board, and where everybody knew what everybody was doing, seemed secure and pleasant in comparison. Of course she felt great pain at quitting the Hall, and at the mute farewell she had taken of her sleeping and unconscious friend. But leaving Mrs Hamley now was a different thing to what it had been a fortnight ago. Then she was wanted at any moment, and felt herself to be of comfort. Now her very existence seemed forgotten by the poor lady whose body appeared to be living so long after her soul.
She was sent home in the carriage, loaded with true thanks from every one of the family. Osborne ransacked the houses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.
Molly's father was not at home when she returned; and there was no one to give her a welcome. Mrs Gibson was out paying calls, the servants told Molly. She went upstairs to her own room, meaning to unpack and arrange her borrowed books, Rather to her surprise she saw the chamber, corresponding to her own, being dusted; water and towels too were being carried in.
'Is any one coming?' she asked of the housemaid.
'Missus's daughter from France. Miss Kirkpatrick is coming to-morrow.'
Was Cynthia coming at last? Oh, what a pleasure it would be to have a companion, a girl, a sister of her own age! Molly's depressed spirits sprang up again with bright elasticity. She longed for Mrs Gibson's return, to ask her all about it: it must be very sudden, for Mr Gibson had said nothing of it at the Hall the day before. No quiet reading now; the books were hardly put away with Molly's usual neatness. She went down into the drawing-room, and could not settle to anything. At last Mrs Gibson came home, tired out with her walk and her heavy velvet cloak. Until that was taken off, and she had rested herself for a few minutes, she seemed quite unable to attend to Molly's questions.
'Oh, yes! Cynthia is coming home to-morrow, by the "Umpire," which passes through at ten o'clock. What an oppressive day it is for the time of the year! I really am almost ready to faint. Cynthia heard of some opportunity, I believe, and was only too glad to leave school a fortnight earlier than we planned. She never gave me the chance of writing to say I did, or did not, like her coming so much before the time; and I shall have to pay for her just the same as if she had stopped. And I meant to have asked her to bring me a French bonnet; and then you could have had one made after mine. But I'm very glad she's coming, poor dear.'
'Is anything the matter with her?' asked Molly.
'Oh, no! Why should there be?'
'You called her "poor dear," and it made me afraid lest she might be ill.'
'Oh, no! It's only a way I got into, when Mr Kirkpatrick died. A fatherless girl - you know one always does call them "poor dears." Oh, no! Cynthia never is ill. She's as strong as a horse. She never would have felt to-day as I have done. Could you get me a glass of wine and a biscuit, my dear? I'm. really quite faint.'
Mr Gibson was much more excited about Cynthia's arrival than her own mother was. He anticipated her coming as a great pleasure to Molly, on whom, in spite of his recent marriage and his new wife, his interests principally centred. He even found time to run upstairs and see the bedrooms of the two girls; for the furniture of which he had paid a pretty round sum.
'Well, I suppose young ladies like their bedrooms decked out in this way! It's very pretty certainly, but -- '
'I liked my own old room better, papa; but perhaps Cynthia is accustomed to such decking up.'
'Perhaps; at any rate, she'll see we've tried to make it pretty. Yours is like hers. That's right. It might have hurt her, if hers had been smarter than yours. Now, good-night in your fine flimsy bed.'
Molly was up betimes - almost before it was light - arranging her pretty Hamley flowers in Cynthia's room. She could hardly eat her breakfast that morning. She ran upstairs and put on her things, thinking that Mrs Gibson was quite sure to go down to the 'George' Inn, where the 'Umpire' stopped, to meet her daughter after a two years' absence. But to her surprise Mrs Gibson had arranged herself at her great worsted-work frame, just as usual; and she, in her turn, was astonished at Molly's bonnet and cloak.
'Where are you going so early, child? The fog hasn't cleared away yet.'
'I thought you would go and meet Cynthia; and I wanted to go with you.'
'She will be here in half an hour; and dear papa has told the gardener to take the wheelbarrow down for her luggage. I'm not sure if he is not gone himself.'
'Then are not you going?' asked Molly, with a good deal of disappointment.
'No, certainly not. She will be here almost directly. And, besides, I don't like to expose my feelings to every passer-by in High Street. You forget I have not seen her for two years, and I hate scenes in the market-place.'
She settled herself to her work again; and Molly, after some consideration, gave up her own going, and employed herself in looking out of the downstairs window which commanded the approach from the town.
'Here she is - here she is!' she cried out at last. Her father was walking by the side of a tall young lady; William the gardener was wheeling along a great cargo of luggage. Molly flew to the front-door, and had it wide open to admit the new corner some time before she arrived.
'Well! here she is. Molly, this is Cynthia. Cynthia, Molly. You're to be sisters, you know.'
Molly saw the beautiful, tall, swaying figure, against the light of the open door, but could not see any of the features that were, for the moment, in shadow. A sudden gush of shyness had come over her just at the instant, and quenched the embrace she would have given a moment before. But Cynthia took her in her arms, and kissed her on both cheeks.
'Here's mamma,' she said, looking beyond Molly on to the stairs where Mrs Gibson stood, wrapped up in a shawl, and shivering in the cold. She ran past Molly and Mr Gibson, who rather averted their eyes from this first greeting between mother and child.
Mrs Gibson said, -
'Why, how you are grown, darling! You look quite a woman.'
'And so I am,' said Cynthia. 'I was before I went away; I've hardly grown since, - except, it is always to be hoped, in wisdom.'
'Yes! That we will hope,' said Mrs Gibson, in rather a meaning way. Indeed there were evidently hidden allusions in their seeming commonplace speeches. When they all came into the full light and repose of the drawing-room, Molly was absorbed in the contemplation of Cynthia's beauty. Perhaps her features were not regular; but the changes in her expressive countenance gave one no time to think of that. Her smile was perfect; her pouting charming; the play of the face was in the mouth. Her eyes were beautifully shaped, but their expression hardly seemed to vary. In colouring she was not unlike her mother; only she had not so much of the red-haired tints in her complexion; and her long-shaped, serious grey eyes were fringed with dark lashes, instead of her mother's insipid flaxen ones. Molly fell in love with her, so to speak, on the instant. She sate there warming her feet and hands, as much at her ease as if she had been there all her life; not particularly attending to her mother - who, all the time, was studying either her or her dress - measuring Molly and Mr Gibson with grave observant looks, as if guessing how she should like them.
'There's hot breakfast ready for you in the dining-room, when you are ready for it,' said Mr Gibson. 'I'm sure you must want it after your night journey.' He looked round at his wife, at Cynthia's mother, but she did not seem inclined to leave the warm room again.
'Molly will take you to your room, darling,' said she; 'it is near hers, and she has got her things to take off. I'll come down and sit in the dining-room while you are having your breakfast, but I really am afraid of the cold now.'
Cynthia rose and followed Molly upstairs.
'I'm so sorry there isn't a fire for you,' said Molly, 'but - I suppose it wasn't ordered; and, of course, I don't give any orders. Here is some hot water, though.'
'Stop a minute,' said Cynthia, getting hold of both Molly's hands, and looking steadily into her face, but in such a manner that she did not dislike the inspection.
'I think I shall like you. I am go glad! I was afraid I should not. We're all in a very awkward position together, aren't we? I like your father's looks, though.'
Molly could not help smiling at the way this was said. Cynthia replied to her smile.
'Ah, you may laugh. But I don't know that I am easy to get on with; mamma and I didn't suit when we were last together. But perhaps we are each of us wiser now. Now, please leave me for a quarter of an hour. I don't want anything more.'
Molly went into her own room, waiting to show Cynthia down to the dining-room. Not that, in the moderate-sized house, there was any difficulty in finding the way. A very little trouble in conjecturing would enable a stranger to discover any room. But Cynthia had so captivated Molly, that she wanted to devote herself to the new comer's service. Ever since she had heard of the probability of her having a sister - (she called her a sister, but whether it was a Scotch sister, or a sister à la mode de Brétagne, would have puzzled most people) - Molly had allowed her fancy to dwell much on the idea of Cynthia's coming; and in the short time since they had met, Cynthia's unconscious power of fascination had been exercised upon her. Some people have this power. Of course, its effects are only manifested in the susceptible. A school-girl may be found in every school who attracts and influences all the others, not by her virtues, nor her beauty, nor her sweetness, nor her cleverness, but by something that can neither be described nor reasoned upon. It is the something alluded to in the old lines: -
A woman will have this charm, not only over men but over her own sex; it cannot be defined, or rather it is so delicate a mixture of many gifts and qualities that it is impossible to decide on the proportions of each. Perhaps it is incompatible with very high principle; as its essence seems to consist in the most exquisite power of adaptation to varying people and still more various moods; 'being all things to all men.' At any rate, Molly might soon have been aware that Cynthia was not remarkable for unflinching morality; but the glamour thrown over her would have prevented Molly from any attempt at penetrating into and judging her companion's character, even had such processes been the least in accordance with her own disposition.
Cynthia was very beautiful, and was so well aware of this fact that she had forgotten to care about it; no one with such loveliness ever appeared so little conscious of it. Molly would watch her perpetually as she moved about the room, with the free stately step of some wild animal of the forest - moving almost, as it were, to the continual sound of music. Her dress, too, though now to our ideas it would be considered ugly and disfiguring, was suited to her complexion and figure, and the fashion of it subdued within due bounds by her exquisite taste. It was inexpensive enough, and the changes in it were but few. Mrs Gibson professed herself shocked to find that Cynthia had but four gowns, when she might have stocked herself so well, and brought over so many useful French patterns, if she had but patiently awaited her mother's answer to the letter which she had sent announcing her return by the opportunity madame had found for her. Molly was hurt for Cynthia at all these speeches; she thought they implied that the pleasure which her mother felt in seeing her a fortnight sooner after her two years' absence was inferior to that which she would have received from a bundle of silver-paper patterns. But Cynthia took no apparent notice of the frequent recurrence of these small complaints. Indeed, she received much of what her mother said with a kind of complete indifference, that made Mrs Gibson hold her rather in awe; and she was much more communicative to Molly than to her own child. With regard to dress, however, Cynthia soon showed that she was her mother's own daughter in the manner in which she could use her deft and nimble fingers. She was a capital workwoman; and, unlike Molly, who excelled in plain sewing, but had no notion of dressmaking or millinery, she could repeat the fashions she had only seen in passing along the streets of Boulogne, with one or two pretty rapid movements of her hands, as she turned and twisted the ribbons and gauze her mother furnished her with. So she refurbished Mrs Gibson's wardrobe; doing it all in a sort of contemptuous manner, the source of which Molly could not quite make out.
Day after day the course of these small frivolities was broken in upon by the news Mr Gibson. brought of Mrs Hamley's nearer approach to death. Molly - very often sitting by Cynthia, and surrounded by ribbon, and wire, and net - heard the bulletins like the toll of a funeral bell at a marriage feast. Her father sympathized with her. It was the loss of a dear friend to him too; but he was so accustomed to death, that it seemed to him but as it was, the natural end of all things human. To Molly, the death of some one she had known so well and loved so much, was a sad and gloomy phenomenon. She loathed the small vanities with which she was surrounded, and would wander out into the frosty garden, and pace the walk, which was both sheltered and concealed by evergreens.
At length - and yet it was not so long, not a fortnight since Molly had left the Hall - the end came. Mrs Hamley had sunk out of life as gradually as she had sunk out of consciousness and her place in this world. The quiet waves closed over her, and her place knew her no more.
'They all sent their love to you, Molly,' said her father. 'Roger Hamley said he knew how you would feel it.'
Mr Gibson had come in very late, and was having a solitary dinner in the dining-room. Molly was sitting near him to keep him company. Cynthia and her mother were upstairs. The latter was trying on a head-dress which Cynthia had made for her.
Molly remained downstairs after her father had gone out afresh on his final round among his town patients. The fire was growing very low, and the lights were waning. Cynthia came softly in, and taking Molly's listless hand, that hung down by her side, sate at her feet on the rug, chafing her chilly fingers without speaking. The tender action thawed the tears that had been gathering heavily at Molly's heart, and they came dropping down her cheeks.
'You loved her dearly, did you not, Molly?'
'Yes,' sobbed Molly; and then there was a silence.
'Had you known her long?'
'No, not a year. But I had seen a great deal of her. I was almost like a daughter to her; she said so. Yet I never bid her good-by, or anything. Her mind became weak and confused.'
'She had only sons, I think?'
'No; only Mr Osborne and Mr Roger Hamley. She had a daughter once - "Fanny." Sometimes, in her illness, she used to call me "Fanny."'
The two girls were silent for some time, both gazing into the fire. Cynthia spoke first, -
'I wish I could love people as you do, Molly!'
'Don't you?' said the other, in surprise.
'No. A good number of people love me, I believe, or at least they think they do; but I never seem to care much for any one. I do believe I love you, little Molly, whom I have only known for ten days, better than any one.'
'Not than your mother?' said Molly, in grave astonishment.
'Yes, than my mother!' replied Cynthia, half-smiling. 'It's very shocking, I daresay; but it is so. Now, don't go and condemn me. I don't think love for one's mother quite comes by nature; and remember how much I have been separated from mine! I loved my father, if you will,' she continued, with the force of truth in her tone, and then she stopped; 'but he died when I was quite a little thing, and no one believes that I remember him. I heard mamma say to a caller, not a fortnight after his funeral, "Oh, no, Cynthia is too young; she has quite forgotten him" - and I bit my lips, to keep from crying out, "Papa! papa! have I?" But it's of no use. Well, then mamma had to go out as a governess; she couldn't help it, poor thing! but she didn't much care for parting with me. I was a trouble, I daresay. So I was sent to school at four years old; first one school, and then another; and in the holidays, mamma went to stay at grand houses, and I was generally left with the schoolmistresses. Once I went to the Towers; and mamma lectured me continually, and yet I was very naughty, I believe. And so I never went again; and I was very glad of it, for it was a horrid place.'
'That it was,' said Molly, who remembered her own day of tribulation there.
'And once I went to London, to stay with my uncle Kirkpatrick. He is a lawyer, and getting on now; but then he was poor enough, and had six or seven children. It was wintertime, and we were all shut up in a small house in Doughty Street.' But, after all, that wasn't so bad.'
'But then you lived with your mother when she began school at Ashcombe. Mr Preston told me that, when I stayed that day at the Manor-house.'
'What did he tell you?' asked Cynthia, almost fiercely.
'Nothing but that. Oh, yes! He praised your beauty, and wanted me to tell you what he had said.'
'I should have hated you if you had,' said Cynthia.
'Of course I never thought of doing such a thing,' replied Molly. 'I didn't like him; and Lady Harriet spoke of him the next day, as if he wasn't a person to be liked.'
Cynthia was quite silent. At length she said, -
'I wish I was good!'
'So do I,' said Molly, simply. She was thinking again of Mrs Hamley, -
- and 'goodness' just then seemed to her to be the only enduring thing in the world.
'Nonsense, Molly! You are good. At least, if you're not good, what am I? There's a rule-of-three sum for you to do! But it's no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.'
'Do you think it easier to be a heroine?'
'Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history. I'm capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation - but steady every-day goodness is beyond me. I must be a moral kangaroo!'
Molly could not follow Cynthia's ideas; she could not distract herself from the thoughts of the sorrowing group at the Hall.
'How I should like to see them all! and yet one can do nothing at such a time! Papa says the funeral is to be on Tuesday, and that, after that, Roger Hamley is to go back to Cambridge. It will seem as if nothing had happened! I wonder how the squire and Mr Osborne Hamley will get on together.'
'He's the eldest son, is he not? Why shouldn't he and his father get on well together?'
'Oh! I don't know. That is to say, I do know, but I think I ought not to tell.'
'Don't be so pedantically truthful, Molly. Besides, your manner shows when you speak truth and when you speak falsehood, without troubling yourself to use words. I knew exactly what your "I don't know" meant. I never consider myself bound to be truthful, so I beg we may be on equal terms.'
Cynthia might well say she did not consider herself bound to be truthful; she literally said what came uppermost, without caring very much whether it was accurate or not. But there was no ill-nature, and, in a general way, no attempt at procuring any advantage for herself in all her deviations; and there was often such a latent sense of fun in them that Molly could not help being amused with them in fact, though she condemned them in theory. Cynthia's playfulness of manner glossed such failings over with a kind of charm; and yet, at times, she was so soft and sympathetic that Molly could not resist her, even when she affirmed the most startling things. The little account she made of her own beauty pleased Mr Gibson extremely; and her pretty deference to him won his heart. She was restless too, till she had attacked Molly's dress, after she had remodelled her mother's.
'Now for you, sweet one,' said she as she began upon one of Molly's gowns. 'I've been working as connoisseur until now. Now I begin as amateur.'
She brought down her pretty artificial flowers, plucked out of her own best bonnet to put into Molly's, saying they would suit her complexion, and that a knot of ribbons would do well enough for her. All the time she worked, she sang; she had a sweet voice in singing, as well as in speaking, and used to run up and down her gay French chansons without any difficulty; so flexible in the art was she. Yet she did not seem to care for music. She rarely touched the piano, on which Molly practised with daily conscientiousness. Cynthia was always willing to answer questions about her previous life, though, after the first, she rarely alluded to it of herself; but she was a most sympathetic listener to all Molly's innocent confidences of joys and sorrows; sympathizing even to the extent of wondering how she could endure Mr Gibson's second marriage, and why she did not take some active steps of rebellion.
In spite of all this agreeable and pungent variety of companionship at home, Molly yearned after the Hamleys. If there had been a woman in that family she would probably have received many little notes, and heard of numerous details which were now lost to her, or summed up in condensed accounts of her father's visits at the Hall, which, since his dear patient was dead, were only occasional.
'Yes! The squire is a good deal changed; but he's better than he was. There's an unspoken estrangement between him and Osborne; one can see it in the silence and constraint of their manners; but outwardly they are friendly - civil at any rate. The squire will always respect Osborne as his heir, and the future representative of the family. Osborne doesn't look well; he says he wants change. I think he's weary of the domestic tête-à-tête, or domestic dissension. But he feels his mother's death acutely. It's a wonder that he and his father are not drawn together by their common loss. Roger's away at Cambridge too - examination for the mathematical tripos. Altogether the aspect of both people and place is changed; it is but natural!'
Such is perhaps the summing-up of the news of the Hamleys, as contained in many bulletins. They always ended in some kind message to Molly.
Mrs Gibson generally said, as a comment upon her husband's account of Osborne's melancholy, -
'My dear! why don't you ask him to dinner here? A little quiet dinner, you know. Cook is quite up to it; and we would all of us wear blacks and lilacs;' he couldn't consider that as gaiety.'
Mr Gibson took no more notice of these suggestions than by shaking his head. He had grown accustomed to his wife by this time, and regarded silence on his own part as a great preservative against long inconsequential arguments. But every time that Mrs Gibson was struck by Cynthia's beauty, she thought it more and more advisable that Mr Osborne Hamley should be cheered up by a quiet little dinner-party. As yet no one but the ladies of Hollingford and Mr Ashton, the vicar - that hopeless and impracticable old bachelor - had seen Cynthia; and what was the good of having a lovely daughter, if there were none but old women to admire her?
Cynthia herself appeared extremely indifferent upon the subject, and took very little notice of her mother's constant talk about the gaieties that were possible, and the gaieties that were impossible, in Hollingford. She exerted herself just as much to charm the two Miss Brownings as she would have done to delight Osborne Hamley, or any other young heir. That is to say, she used no exertion, but simply followed her own nature, which was to attract every one of those she was thrown amongst. The exertion seemed rather to be to refrain from doing so, and to protest, as she so often did, by slight words and expressive looks against her mother's words and humours - alike against her folly and her caresses. Molly was almost sorry for Mrs Gibson, who seemed so unable to gain influence over her child. One day Cynthia read Molly's thought.
'I am not good, and I told you so. Somehow I cannot forgive her for her neglect of me as a child, when I would have clung to her. Besides, I hardly ever heard from her when I was at school. And I know she put a stop to my coming over to her wedding. I saw the letter she wrote to Madame Lefevre. A child should be brought up with its parents, if it is to think them infallible when it grows up.'
'But though it may know that there must be faults,' replied Molly, 'it ought to cover them over and try to forget their existence.'
'It ought. But don't you see I have grown up outside the pale of duty and "oughts." Love me as r am, sweet one, for I shall never be better.'
One day, to Molly's infinite surprise, Mr Preston was announced as a caller. Mrs Gibson and she were sitting together in the drawing-room; Cynthia was out - gone into the town a-shopping - when the door was opened, the name given, and in walked the young man. His entrance seemed to cause more confusion than Molly could well account for. He came in with the same air of easy assurance with which he had received them at Ashcombe Manor-house. He looked remarkably handsome in his riding-dress, and with the open-air exercise he had just had. But Mrs Gibson's smooth brows contracted a little at the sight of him, and her reception of him was much cooler than that which she usually gave to visitors. Yet there was a degree of agitation in it, which surprised Molly a little. Mrs Gibson was at her everlasting worsted-work frame when Mr Preston entered the room; but somehow in rising to receive him, she threw down her basket of crewels, and, declining Molly's offer to help her, she would pick up all the reels herself, before she asked her visitor to sit down. He stood there, hat in hand, affecting an interest in the recovery of the worsted which Molly was sure he did not feel; for all the time his eyes were glancing round the room, and taking note of the details in the arrangement.
At length they were seated, and conversation began.
'It is the first time I have been in Hollingford since your marriage, Mrs Gibson, or I should certainly have called to pay my respects sooner.'
'I know you are very busy at Ashcombe. I did not expect you to call. Is Lord Cumnor at the Towers? I have not heard from her ladyship for more than a week!'
'No! he seemed still detained at Bath. But I had a letter from him giving me certain messages for Mr Sheepshanks. Mr Gibson is not at home, I'm afraid?'
'No. He is a great deal out - almost constantly, I may say. I had no idea that I should see so little of him. A doctor's wife leads a very solitary life, Mr Preston!'
'You can hardly call it solitary, I should think, when you have such a companion as Miss Gibson always at hand,' said he, bowing to Molly.
'Oh, but I call it solitude for a wife when her husband is away. Poor Mr Kirkpatrick was never happy unless I always went with him, - all his walks, all his visits, he liked me to be with him. But somehow Mr Gibson feels as if I should be rather in his way.'
'I don't think you could ride pillion behind him on Black Bess, mamma,' said Molly. 'And unless you could go in that way you could hardly go with him in his rounds up and down all the rough lanes.'
'Oh! but he might keep a brougham! I've often said so. And then I could use it for visiting in the evenings. Really it was one reason why I didn't go to the Hollingford Charity Ball. I couldn't bring myself to use the dirty fly from the "George." We really must stir papa up against next winter, Molly; it will never do for you and -- '
She pulled herself up suddenly, and looked furtively at Mr Preston to see if he had taken any notice of her abruptness. Of course he had, but he was not going to show it. He turned to Molly, and said, -
'Have you ever been to a public ball yet, Miss Gibson?'
'No!' said Molly.
'It will be a great pleasure to you when the time comes.'
'I'm not sure. I shall like it if I have plenty of partners; but I'm afraid I shan't know many people.'
'And you suppose that young men haven't their own ways and means of being introduced to pretty girls?'
It was exactly one of the speeches Molly had disliked him for before; and delivered, too, in that kind of underbred manner which showed that it was meant to convey a personal compliment. Molly took great credit to herself for the unconcerned manner with which she went on with her tatting exactly as if she had never heard it.
'I only hope I may be one of your partners at the first ball you go to. Pray, remember my early application for that honour, when you are overwhelmed with requests for dances.'
'I don't choose to engage myself beforehand,' said Molly, perceiving, from under her dropped eyelids, that he was leaning forwards and looking at her as though he was determined to have an answer.
'Young ladies are always very cautious in fact, however modest they may be in profession,' he replied, addressing himself in a nonchalant manner to Mrs Gibson. 'In spite of Miss Gibson's apprehension of not having many partners she declines the certainty of having one. I suppose Miss Kirkpatrick will have returned from France before then?'
He said these last words exactly in the same tone as he had used before; but Molly's instinct told her that he was making an effort to do so. She looked up. He was playing with his hat, almost as if he did not care to have any answer to his question. Yet he was listening acutely, and with a half smile on his face.
Mrs Gibson reddened a little, and hesitated, -
'Yes; certainly. My daughter will be with us next winter, I believe; and I daresay she will go out with us.'
'Why can't she say at once that Cynthia is here now?' asked Molly to herself, yet glad that Mr Preston's curiosity was baffled.
He still smiled; but this time he looked up at Mrs Gibson, as he asked, - 'You have good news from her, I hope?'
'Yes; very. By the way, how are our old friends the Robinsons? How often I think of their kindness to me at Ashcombe! Dear good people, I wish I could see them again.'
'I will certainly tell them of your kind inquiries. They are very well, I believe.'
Just at this moment, Molly heard the familiar sound of the click and opening of the front door. She knew it must be Cynthia; and, conscious of some mysterious reason which made Mrs Gibson wish to conceal her daughter's whereabouts from Mr Preston, and maliciously desirous to baffle him, she rose to leave the room, and meet Cynthia on the stairs; but one of the lost crewels of worsted had entangled itself in her gown and feet, and before she had freed herself of the encumbrance, Cynthia had opened the drawing-room door, and stood in it, looking at her mother, at Molly, at Mr Preston, but not advancing one step. Her colour, which had been brilliant the first moment of her entrance, faded away as she gazed; but her eyes - her beautiful eyes - usually so soft and grave, seemed to fill with fire, and her brows to contract, as she took the resolution to come forwards and take her place among the three, who were all looking at her with different emotions. She moved calmly and slowly forwards; Mr Preston went a step or two to meet her, his hand held out, and the whole expression of his face that of eager delight.
But she took no notice of the outstretched hand, nor of the chair that he offered her. She sate down on a little sofa in one of the windows, and called Molly to her.
'Look at my purchases,' said she. 'This green ribbon was fourteen-pence a yard, this silk three shillings,' and so she went on, forcing herself to speak about these trifles as if they were all the world to her, and she had no attention to throw away on her mother and her mother's visitor.
Mr Preston took his cue from her. He, too, talked of the news of the day, the local gossip - but Molly, who glanced up at him from time to time, was almost alarmed by the bad expression of suppressed anger, almost amounting to vindictiveness, which entirely marred his handsome looks. She did not wish to look again; and tried rather to back up Cynthia's efforts at maintaining a separate conversation. Yet she could not help overhearing Mrs Gibson's strain after increased civility, as if to make up for Cynthia's rudeness, and, if possible, to deprecate his anger. She talked perpetually, as though her object were to detain him; whereas previous to Cynthia's return she had allowed frequent pauses in the conversation, as though to give him the opportunity to take his leave.
In the course of the conversation between them the Hamleys came up. Mrs Gibson was never unwilling to dwell upon Molly's intimacy with this county family; and when the latter caught the sound of her own name, her stepmother was saying, -
'Poor Mrs Hamley could hardly do without Molly; she quite looked upon her as a daughter, especially towards the last, when, I am afraid, she had a good deal of anxiety. Mr Osborne Hamley - I daresay you have heard - he did not do so well at college, and they had expected so much - parents will, you know; but what did it signify? for he had not to earn his living! I call it a very foolish kind of ambition when a young man has not to go into a profession.'
'Well, at any rate, the squire must be satisfied now. I saw this morning's Times, with the Cambridge examination lists in it. Isn't the second son called after his father, Roger?'
'Yes,' said Molly, starting up, and coming nearer.
'He's senior wrangler, that's all,' said Mr Preston, almost as though he were vexed with himself for having anything to say that could give her pleasure. Molly went back to her seat by Cynthia.
'Poor Mrs Hamley,' said she very softly, as if to herself. Cynthia took her hand, in sympathy with Molly's sad and tender look, rather than because she understood all that was passing in her mind, nor did she quite understand it herself. A death that had come out of time; a wonder if the dead knew what passed upon the earth they had left - the brilliant Osborne's failure, Roger's success; the vanity of human wishes; all these thoughts, and what they suggested, were inextricably mingled up in her mind. She came to herself in a few minutes. Mr Preston was saying all the unpleasant things he could think of about the Hamleys in a tone of false sympathy.
'The poor old squire - not the wisest of men - has woefully mismanaged his estate. And Osborne Hamley is too fine a gentleman to understand the means by which to improve the value of the land - even if he had the capital. A man who had practical knowledge of agriculture, and some thousands of ready money, might bring the rental up to eight thousand or so. Of course, Osborne will try and marry some one with money; the family is old and well-established, and he mustn't object to commercial descent, though I daresay the squire will for him; but then the young fellow himself is not the man for the work. No! the family's going down fast; and it's pity when these old Saxon houses vanish off the land; but it is "kismet" with the Hamleys. Even the senior wrangler - if it is that Roger Hamley - he will have spent all his brains in one effort. You never hear of a senior wrangler being worth anything afterwards. He'll be a Fellow of his college, of course - that will be a livelihood for him at any rate.'
'I believe in senior wranglers,' said Cynthia, her clear high voice ringing through the room. 'And from all I've heard of Mr Roger Hamley, I believe he will keep up the distinction he has earned. And I don't believe that the house of Hamley is so near extinction in wealth and fame, and good name.'
'They are fortunate in having Miss Kirkpatrick's good word,' said Mr Preston, rising to take his leave.
'Dear Molly,' said Cynthia, in a whisper, 'I know nothing about your friends the Hamleys, except that they are your friends, and what you have told me about them. But I won't have that man speaking of them so - and your eyes filling with tears all the time. I'd sooner swear to their having all the talents and good fortune under the sun.'
The only person of whom Cynthia appeared to be wholesomely afraid was Mr Gibson. When he was present she was more careful in speaking, and showed more deference to her mother. Her evident respect for Mr Gibson, and desire for his good opinion, made her curb herself before him; and in this manner she earned his good favour as a lively, sensible girl, with just so much knowledge of the world as made her a very desirable companion to Molly. Indeed, she made something of the same kind of impression on all men. They were first struck with her personal appearance; and then with her pretty deprecating manner, which appealed to them much as if she had said, 'You are wise, and I am foolish - have mercy on my folly.' It was a way she had; it meant nothing really; and she was hardly conscious of it herself; but it was very captivating all the same. Even old Williams, the gardener, felt it; he said to his confidante, Molly, -
'Eh, miss, but that be a rare young lady! She do have such pretty coaxing ways. I be to teach her to bud roses come the season - and I'll warrant ye she'll learn to be sharp enough, for all she says she bees so stupid.'
If Molly had not had the sweetest disposition in the world she might have become jealous of all the allegiance laid at Cynthia's feet; but she never thought of comparing the amount of admiration and love which they each received. Yet once she did feel a little as if Cynthia were poaching on her manor. The invitation to the quiet dinner had been sent to Osborne Hamley, and declined by him. But he thought it right to call soon afterwards. It was the first time Molly had seen any of the family since she left the Hall, since Mrs Hamley's death; and there was so much that she wanted to ask. She tried to wait patiently till Mrs Gibson had exhausted the first gush of her infinite nothings; and then Molly came in with her modest questions. How was the squire? Had he returned to his old habits? Had his health suffered? - putting each inquiry with as light and delicate a touch as if she had been dressing a wound. She hesitated a little, a very little, before speaking of Roger; for just one moment the thought flitted across her mind that Osborne might feel the contrast between his own and his brother's college career too painfully to like to have it referred to; but then she remembered the generous brotherly love that had always existed between the two, and had just entered upon the subject, when Cynthia, in obedience to her mother's summons, came into the room, and took up her work. No one could have been quieter - she hardly uttered a word; but Osborne seemed to fall under her power at once. He no longer gave his undivided attention to Molly. He cut short his answers to her questions; and by-and-by, without Molly's rightly understanding how it was, he had turned towards Cynthia, and was addressing himself to her. Molly saw the look of content on Mrs Gibson's face; perhaps it was her own mortification at not having heard all she wished to know about Roger, that gave her a keener insight than usual, but certain it is that all at once she perceived that Mrs Gibson would not dislike a marriage between Osborne and Cynthia, and considered the present occasion as an auspicious beginning. Remembering the secret which she had been let into so unwillingly, Molly watched his behaviour, almost as if she had been retained in the interests of the absent wife; but, after all, thinking as much of the possibility of his attracting Cynthia as of the unknown and mysterious Mrs Osborne Hamley. His manner was expressive of great interest and of strong prepossession in favour of the beautiful girl to whom he was talking. He was in deep mourning, which showed off his slight figure and delicate refined face. But there was nothing of flirting, as far as Molly understood the meaning of the word, in either looks or words. Cynthia, too, was extremely quiet; she was always much quieter with men than with women; it was part of the charm of her soft allurement that she was so passive. They were talking of France. Mrs Gibson herself had passed two or three years of her girlhood there; and Cynthia's late return from Boulogne made it a very natural subject of conversation. But Molly was thrown out of it; and with her heart still unsatisfied as to the details of Roger's success, she had to stand up at last, and receive Osborne's good-by, scarcely longer or more intimate than his farewell to Cynthia. As soon as he was gone Mrs Gibson began in his praise.
'Well, really, I begin to have some faith in long descent. What a gentleman he is! How agreeable and polite! So different from that forward Mr Preston,' she continued, looking a little anxiously at Cynthia. Cynthia, quite aware that her reply was being watched for, said, coolly, -
'Mr Preston doesn't improve on acquaintance. There was a time, mamma, when I think both you and I thought him very agreeable.'
'I don't remember. You've a clearer memory than I have. But we were talking of this delightful Mr Osborne Hamley. Why, Molly, you were always talking of his brother - it was Roger this, and Roger that - I can't think how it was you so seldom mentioned this young man.'
'I did not know I had mentioned Mr Roger Hamley so often,' said Molly, blushing a little. 'But I saw much more of him - he was more at home.'
'Well, well! It's all right, my dear. I daresay he suits you best. But really, when I saw Osborne Hamley close to my Cynthia, I couldn't help thinking - but perhaps I'd better not tell you what I was thinking of. Only they are each of them so much above the average in appearance; and, of course, that suggests things.'
'I perfectly understand what you were thinking of, mamma,' said Cynthia, with the greatest composure; 'and so does Molly, I have no doubt.'
'Well! there's no harm in it, I'm sure. Did you hear him say that, though he did not like to leave his father alone just at present, yet that when his brother Roger came back from Cambridge, he should feel more at liberty? It was quite as much to say, "If you will ask me to dinner then, I shall be delighted to come." And chickens will be so much cheaper, and cook has such a nice way of boning them, and doing them up with forcemeat. Everything seems to be falling out so fortunately. And Molly, my dear, you know I won't forget you. By-and-by, when Roger Hamley has taken his turn at stopping at home with his father, we will ask him to one of our little quiet dinners.'
Molly was very slow at taking this in; but in about a minute the sense of it had reached her brain, and she went all over very red and hot; especially as she saw that Cynthia was watching the light come into her mind with great amusement.
'I'm afraid Molly isn't properly grateful, mamma. If I were you, I wouldn't exert myself to give a dinner-party on her account. Bestow all your kindness upon me.'
Molly was often puzzled by Cynthia's speeches to her mother; and this was one of these occasions. But she was more anxious to say something for herself; she was so much annoyed at the implication in Mrs Gibson's last words.
'Mr Roger Hamley has been very good to me; he was a great deal at home when I was there, and Mr Osborne Hamley was very little there: that was the reason I spoke so much more of one than the other. If I had - if he had,' - losing her coherence in the difficulty of finding words, - 'I don't think I should. Oh, Cynthia, instead of laughing at me, I think you might help me to explain myself!'
Instead, Cynthia gave a diversion to the conversation.
'Mamma's paragon gives me an idea of weakness. I can't quite make out whether it is in body or mind. Which is it, Molly?'
'He is not strong, I know; but he is very accomplished and clever. Every one says that, - even papa, who doesn't generally praise young men. That made the puzzle the greater when he did so badly at college.'
'Then it's his character that is weak. I'm sure there's weakness somewhere; but he's very agreeable. It must have been very pleasant, staying at the Hall.'
'Yes; but it's all over now.'
'Oh, nonsense!' said Mrs Gibson, wakening up from counting the stitches in her pattern. 'We shall have the young men coming to dinner pretty often, you'll see. Your father likes them, and I shall always make a point of welcoming his friends. They can't go on mourning for a mother for ever. I expect we shall see a great deal of them; and that the two families will become very intimate. After all, these good Hollingford people are terribly behindhand, and I should say, rather commonplace.'