It appeared as if Mrs Gibson's predictions were likely to be verified; for Osborne Hamley found his way to her drawing-room pretty frequently. To be sure, sometimes prophets can help on the fulfilment of their own prophecies; and Mrs Gibson was not passive.
Molly was altogether puzzled by his manners and ways. He spoke of occasional absences from the Hall, without exactly saying where he had been. But that was not her idea of the conduct of a married man, who, she imagined, ought to have a house and servants, and pay rent and taxes, and live with his wife. Who this mysterious wife might be, faded into insignificance before the wonder of where she was. London, Cambridge, Dover, nay even France, were mentioned by him as places to which he had been on these different little journeys. These facts came out quite casually, almost as if he was unaware of what he was betraying; sometimes he dropped out such sentences as these: - 'Ah, that would be the day I was crossing! It was stormy, indeed! Instead of our being only two hours, we were nearly five.' Or, 'I met Lord Hollingford at Dover last week, and he said,' &c. 'The cold now is nothing to what it was in London on Thursday - the thermometer was down at 15*.' Perhaps, in the rapid flow of conversation, these small revelations were noticed by no one but Molly; whose interest and curiosity were always hovering over the secret she had become possessed of, in spite of all her self-reproach for allowing her thoughts to dwell on what was still to be kept as a mystery.
It was also evident to her that Osborne was not too happy at home. He had lost the slight touch of cynicism which he had affected when he was expected to do wonders at college; and that was one good result of his failure. If he did not give himself the trouble of appreciating other people, and their performances, at any rate his conversation was not so amply sprinkled with critical pepper. He was more absent, not so agreeable, Mrs Gibson thought, but did not say. He looked ill in health; but that might be the consequence of the real depression of spirits which Molly occasionally saw peeping out through all his pleasant surface-talk. Now and then, he referred to 'the happy days that are gone,' or, 'to the time when my mother was alive,' when talking directly to her; and then his voice sank, and a gloom came over his countenance, and Molly longed to express her own deep sympathy. He did not often mention his father; and Molly thought she could read in his manner, when he did, that something of the painful restraint she had noticed when she was last at the Hall still existed between them. Nearly all that she knew of the family interior she had heard from Mrs Hamley, and she was uncertain as to how far her father was acquainted with them; so she did not like to question him too closely; nor was he a man to be so questioned as to the domestic affairs of his patients. Sometimes she wondered if it was a dream - that short half hour in the library at Hamley Hall - when she had learnt a fact which seemed so all-important to Osborne, yet which made so little difference in his way of life - either in speech or action. During the twelve or fourteen hours or so that she had remained at the Hall afterwards, no further allusion had been made to his marriage, either by himself or by Roger. It was, indeed, very like a dream. Probably Molly would have been rendered much more uncomfortable in the possession of her secret if Osborne had struck her as particularly attentive in his devotion to Cynthia. She evidently amused and attracted him, but not in any lively or passionate kind of manner. He admired her beauty, and seemed to feel her charm; but he would leave her side, and come to sit near Molly, if anything reminded him of his mother, about which he could talk to her, and to her alone. Yet he came so often to the Gibsons', that Mrs Gibson might be excused for the fancy she had taken into her head, that it was for Cynthia's sake. He liked the lounge, the friendliness, the company of two intelligent girls of beauty and manners above the average; one of whom stood in a peculiar relation to him, as having been especially beloved by the mother whose memory he cherished so fondly. Knowing himself to be out of the category of bachelors, he was, perhaps, too indifferent as to other people's ignorance, and its possible consequences.
Somehow, Molly did not like to be the first to introduce Roger's name into the conversation, so she lost many an opportunity of hearing intelligence about him. Osborne was often so languid or so absent that he only followed the lead of talk; and as an awkward fellow, who had paid her no particular attention, and as a second son, Roger was not pre-eminent in Mrs Gibson's thoughts; Cynthia had never seen him, and the freak did not take her often to speak about him. He had not come home since he had obtained his high place in the mathematical lists: that Molly knew; and she knew, too, that he was working hard for something - she supposed a fellowship - and that was all. Osborne's tone in speaking of him was always the same: every word, every inflexion of the voice breathed out affection and respect - nay, even admiration! And this from the nil admirari brother, who seldom carried his exertions so far.
'Ah, Roger!' he said one day. Molly caught the name in an instant, though she had not heard what had gone before. 'He is a fellow in a thousand - in a thousand, indeed! I don't believe there is his match anywhere for goodness and real solid power combined.'
'Molly,' said Cynthia, after Mr Osborne Hamley had gone, 'what sort of a man is this Roger Hamley? One can't tell how much to believe of his brother's praises; for it is the one subject on which Osborne Hamley becomes enthusiastic. I've noticed it once or twice before.'
While Molly hesitated on which point of the large round to begin her description, Mrs Gibson struck in, -
'It just shows what a sweet disposition Osborne Hamley is of - that he should praise his brother as he does. I daresay he is senior wrangler, and much good may it do him! I don't deny that; but as for conversation, he's as heavy as heavy can be. A great awkward fellow to boot, who looks as if he did not know two and two made four, for all he is such a mathematical genius. You would hardly believe he was Osborne Hamley's brother to see him! I should not think he had a profile at all.'
'What do you think of him, Molly?' said the persevering Cynthia.
'I like him,' said Molly. 'He has been very kind to me. I know he isn't handsome like Osborne.'
It was rather difficult to say all this quietly, but Molly managed to do it, quite aware that Cynthia would not rest till she had extracted some kind of an opinion out of her.
'I suppose he will come home at Easter,' said Cynthia, 'and then I shall see him for myself.'
'It's a great pity that their being in mourning will prevent their going to the Easter charity ball,' said Mrs Gibson, plaintively. 'I shan't like to take you two girls, if you are not to have any partners. It will put me in such an awkward position. I wish we could join on to the Towers party. That would secure you partners, for they always bring a number of dancing men, who might dance with you after they had done their duty by the ladies of the house. But really everything is so changed since dear Lady Cumnor has been an invalid that perhaps they won't go at all.'
This Easter ball was a great subject of conversation with Mrs Gibson. She sometimes spoke of it as her first appearance in society as a bride, though she had been visiting once or twice a week all winter long. Then she shifted her ground, and said she felt so much interest in it, because she would then have the responsibility of introducing both her own and Mr Gibson's daughter to public notice, though the fact was that pretty nearly every one who was going to this ball had seen the two young ladies - though not their ball dresses - before. But, aping the manners of the aristocracy as far as she knew them, she intended to 'bring out' Molly and Cynthia on this occasion, which she regarded in something of the light of a presentation at Court. 'They are not out yet,' was her favourite excuse when either of them was invited to any house to which she did not wish them to go, or invited without her. She even made a difficulty about their 'not being out' when Miss Browning - that old friend of the Gibson family - came in one morning to ask the two girls to come to a very friendly tea and a round game afterwards; this mild piece of gaiety being designed as an attention to three of Mrs Goodenough's grandchildren - two young ladies and their school-boy brother - who were staying on a visit to their grandmamma.
'You are very kind, Miss Browning, but you see I hardly like to let them go - they are not out, you know, till after the Easter ball.'
'Till when we are invisible,' said Cynthia, always ready with her mockery to exaggerate any pretension of her mother's. 'We are so high in rank that our sovereign must give us her sanction before we can play a round game at your house.'
Cynthia enjoyed the idea of her own full-grown size and stately gait, as contrasted with that of a meek, half-fledged girl in the nursery; but Miss Browning was half puzzled and half affronted.
'I don't understand it at all. In my days girls went wherever it pleased people to ask them, without this farce of bursting out in all their new fine clothes at some public place. I don't mean but what the gentry took their daughters to York, or Matlock, or Bath to give them a taste of gay society when they were growing up; and the quality went up to London, and their young ladies were presented to Queen Charlotte, and went to a birthday ball, perhaps. But for us little Hollingford people, why we knew every child amongst us from the day of its birth; and many a girl of twelve or fourteen have I seen go out to a card-party, and sit quiet at her work, and know how to behave as well as any lady there. There was no talk of "coming out" in those days for any one under the daughter of a squire.'
'After Easter, Molly and I shall know how to behave at a card-party, but not before,' said Cynthia, demurely.
'You're always fond of your quips and your cranks,' my dear,' said Miss Browning, 'and I wouldn't quite answer for your behaviour: you sometimes let your spirits carry you away. But I'm quite sure Molly will be a little lady as she always is, and always was, and I have known her from a babe.'
Mrs Gibson took up arms on behalf of her own daughter, or rather, she took up arms against Molly's praises.
'I don't think you would have called Molly a lady the other day, Miss Browning, if you had found her where I did: sitting up in a cherry-tree, six feet from the ground at least, I do assure you.'
'Oh! but that wasn't pretty,' said Miss Browning, shaking her head at Molly. 'I thought you'd left off those tomboy ways.'
'She wants the refinement which good society gives in several ways', said Mrs Gibson, returning to the attack on poor Molly. 'She's very apt to come upstairs two steps at a time.'
'Only two, Molly!' said Cynthia. 'Why, to-day I found I could manage four of these broad shallow steps.'
'My dear child, what are you saying?'
'Only confessing that I, like Molly, want the refinements which good society gives; therefore, please do let us go to Miss Brownings' this evening. I will pledge myself for Molly that she shan't sit in a cherry-tree; and Molly shall see that I don't go upstairs in an unladylike way. I will go upstairs as meekly as if I were a come-out young lady, and had been to the Easter ball.'
So it was agreed that they should go. If Mr Osborne Hamley had been named as one of the probable visitors, there would have been none of this difficulty about the affair.
But though he was not there his brother Roger was. Molly saw him in a minute when she entered the little drawing-room; but Cynthia did not.
'And see, my dears,' said Miss Phoebe Browning, turning them round to the side where Roger stood waiting for his turn of speaking to Molly. 'We've got a gentleman for you after all! Wasn't it fortunate? - just as sister said that you might find it dull - you, Cynthia, she meant, because you know you come from France; and then, just as if he had been sent from heaven, Mr Roger came in to call; and I won't say we laid violent hands on him, because he was too good for that; but really we should have been near it, if he had not stayed of his own accord.'
The moment Roger had done his cordial greeting to Molly, he asked her to introduce him to Cynthia.
'I want to know her - your new sister,' he added, with the kind smile Molly remembered so well since the very first day she had seen it directed towards her, as she sate crying under the weeping ash. Cynthia was standing a little behind Molly when Roger asked for this introduction. She was generally dressed with careless grace. Molly, who was delicate neatness itself, used sometimes to wonder how Cynthia's tumbled gowns, tossed away so untidily, had the art of looking so well and falling in such graceful folds. For instance, the pale lilac muslin gown she wore this evening had been worn many times before, and had looked unfit to wear again until Cynthia put it on. Then the limpness became softness, and the very creases took the lines of beauty. Molly, in a daintily clean pink muslin, did not look half so elegantly dressed as Cynthia. The grave eyes that the latter raised when she had to be presented to Roger had a sort of child-like innocence and wonder about them, which did not quite belong to Cynthia's character. She put on her armour of magic that evening - involuntarily as she always did; but, on the other side, she could not help trying her power on strangers. Molly had always felt that she should have a right to a good long talk with Roger when she next saw him; and that he would tell her, or she should gather from him, all the details she so longed to hear about the squire - about the Hall - about Osborne - about himself. He was just as cordial and friendly as ever with her. If Cynthia had not been there all would have gone on as she had anticipated; but of all the victims to Cynthia's charms he fell most prone and abject. Molly saw it all, as she was sitting next to Miss Phoebe at the tea-table, acting right-hand, and passing cake, cream, sugar, with such busy assiduity that every one besides herself thought that her mind, as well as her hands, was fully occupied. She tried to talk to the two shy girls, as in virtue of her two years' seniority she thought herself bound to do; and the consequence was, she went upstairs with the twain clinging to her arms, and willing to swear an eternal friendship. Nothing would satisfy them but that she must sit between them at vingt-un; and they were so desirous of her advice in the important point of fixing the price of the counters that she could not even have joined in in the animated tête-à-tête going on between Roger and Cynthia. Or rather, it would be more correct to say that Roger was talking in a most animated manner to Cynthia, whose sweet eyes were fixed upon his face with a look of great interest in all he was saying, while it was only now and then she made her low replies. Molly caught a few words occasionally in intervals of business.
'At my uncle's, we always gave a silver threepence for three dozen. You know what a silver threepence is, don't you, dear Miss Gibson?'
'The three classes are published in the Senate House at nine o'clock on the Friday morning, and you can't imagine - '
'I think it will be thought rather shabby to play at anything less than sixpence. That gentleman' (this in a whisper) 'is at Cambridge, and you know they always play very high there, and sometimes ruin themselves, don't they, dear Miss Gibson?'
'Oh, on this occasion the Master of Arts who precedes the candidates for honours when they go into the Senate House is called the Father of the College to which he belongs. I think I mentioned that before, didn't I?'
So Cynthia was hearing all about Cambridge, and the very examination about which Molly had felt such keen interest, without having ever been able to have her questions answered by a competent person; and Roger, to whom she had always looked as the final and most satisfactory answerer, was telling all she wanted to know, and she could not listen. It took all her patience to make up little packets of counters, and settle, as the arbiter of the game, whether it would be better for the round or the oblong counters to be reckoned as six. And when all was done, and every one sate in their places round the table, Roger and Cynthia had to be called twice before they came. They stood up, it is true, at the first sound of their names; but they did not move: Roger went on talking, Cynthia listening, till the second call - when they hurried to the table and tried to appear all on a sudden quite interested in the great questions of the game, namely, the price of three dozen counters, and whether, all things considered, it would be better to call the round counters or the oblong half-a-dozen each. Miss Browning, drumming the pack of cards on the table, and quite ready to begin dealing, decided the matter by saying, 'Rounds are sixes, and three dozen counters cost sixpence. Pay up, if you please, and let us begin at once.' Cynthia sate between Roger and William Osborne, the young schoolboy, who bitterly resented on this occasion his sisters' habit of calling him 'Willie,' as he thought that it was this boyish sobriquet which prevented Cynthia from attending as much to him as to Mr Roger Hamley; he also was charmed by the charmer, who found leisure to give him one or two of her sweet smiles. On his return home to his grandmamma's he gave out one or two very decided and rather original opinions, quite opposed - as was natural - to his sisters'. One was, -
'That, after all, a senior wrangler was no great shakes. Any man might be one if he liked, but there were a lot of fellows that he knew who would be very sorry to go in for anything so slow.'
Molly thought the game would never end. She had no particular turn for gambling in her; and whatever her card might be, she regularly put on two counters, indifferent as to whether she won or lost. Cynthia, on the contrary, staked high, and was at one time very rich, but ended by being in debt to Molly something like six shillings. She had forgotten her purse, she said, and was obliged to borrow from the more provident Molly, who was aware that the round game of which Miss Browning had spoken to her was likely to require money. If it was not a very merry affair for all the individuals concerned, it was a very noisy one on the whole. Molly thought it was going to last till midnight; but punctually as the clock struck nine, the little maid-servant staggered in under the weight of a tray loaded with sandwiches, cakes, and jelly. This brought on a general move; and Roger, who appeared to have been on the watch for something of the kind, came and took a chair by Molly.
'I am so glad to see you again - it seems such a long time since Christmas,' said he, dropping his voice, and not alluding more exactly to the day when she had left the Hall.
'It is a long time,' she replied; 'we are close to Easter now. I have so wanted to tell you how glad I was to hear about your honours at Cambridge. I once thought of sending you a message through your brother, but then I thought it might be making too much fuss, because I know nothing of mathematics, or of the value of a senior-wranglership; and you were sure to have so many congratulations from people who did know.'
'I missed yours though, Molly,' said he, kindly. 'But I felt sure you were glad for me.'
'Glad and proud too,' said she. 'I should so like to hear something more about it. I heard you telling Cynthia -- '
'Yes. What a charming person she is! I should think you must be happier than we expected long ago.'
'But tell me something about the senior-wranglership, please,' said Molly.
'It's a long story, and I ought to be helping the Miss Brownings to hand sandwiches - besides, you wouldn't find it very interesting, it's so full of technical details.'
'Cynthia looked very much interested,' said Molly.
'Well! then I refer you to her, for I must go now. I can't for shame go on sitting here, and letting those good ladies have all the trouble. But I shall come and call on Mrs Gibson soon. Are you walking home to-night?'
'Yes, I think so,' replied Molly, eagerly foreseeing what was to come.
'Then I shall walk home with you. I left my horse at the "George," and that's half-way. I suppose old Betty will allow me to accompany you and your sister? You used to describe her as something of a dragon.'
'Betty has left us,' said Molly, sadly. 'She's gone to live at a place at Ashcombe.'
He made a face of dismay, and then went off to his duties. The short conversation had been very pleasant, and his manner had had just the brotherly kindness of old times; but it was not quite the manner he had to Cynthia; and Molly half thought she would have preferred the latter. He was now hovering about Cynthia, who had declined the offer of refreshments from Willie Osborne. Roger was tempting her, and with playful entreaties urging her to take something from him. Every word they said could be heard by the whole room; yet every word was said, on Roger's part at least, as if he could not have spoken it in that peculiar manner to any one else. At length, and rather more because she was weary of being entreated, than because it was his wish, Cynthia took a macaroon, and Roger seemed as happy as though she had crowned him with flowers. The whole affair was as trifling and commonplace as could be in itself. hardly worth noticing: and yet Molly did notice it, and felt uneasy; she could not tell why. As it turned out, it was a rainy night, and Mrs Gibson sent a fly for the two girls instead of old Betty's substitute. Both Cynthia and Molly thought of the possibility of their taking the two Osborne girls back to their grandmother's, and so saving them a wet walk; but Cynthia got the start in speaking about it; and the thanks and the implied praise for thoughtfulness were hers.
When they got home Mr and Mrs Gibson were sitting in the drawing-room, quite ready to be amused by any details of the evening.
Cynthia began, -
'Oh! it wasn't very entertaining. One didn't expect that,' and she yawned wearily.
'Who were there?' asked Mr Gibson. 'Quite a young party - wasn't it?'
'They'd only asked Lizzie and Fanny Osborne, and their brother; but Mr Roger Hamley had ridden over and called on the Miss Brownings, and they had kept him to tea. No one else.'
'Roger Hamley there!' said Mr Gibson. 'He's come home then. I must make time to ride over and see him.'
'You'd much better ask him here,' said Mrs Gibson. 'Suppose you invite him and his brother to dine here on Friday, my dear? It would be a very pretty attention, I think.'
'My dear! these young Cambridge men have a very good taste in wine, and don't spare it. My cellar won't stand many of their attacks.'
'I didn't think you were so inhospitable, Mr Gibson.'
'I'm not inhospitable, I'm sure. If you'll put "bitter beer" in the corner of your notes of invitation, just as the smart people put "quadrilles" as a sign of entertainment offered, we'll have Osborne and Roger to dinner any day you like. And what did you think of my favourite, Cynthia? You hadn't seen him before, I think?'
'Oh! he's nothing like so handsome as his brother; nor so polished; nor so easy to talk to. He entertained me for more than an hour with a long account of some examination or other; but there's something one likes about him.'
'Well - and Molly - ' said Mrs Gibson, who piqued herself on being an impartial stepmother; and who always tried hard to make Molly talk as much as Cynthia - 'what sort of an evening have you had?'
'Very pleasant, thank you.' Her heart a little belied her as she said this. She had not cared for the round game; and she would have cared for Roger's conversation. She had had what she was indifferent to, and not had what she would have liked.
'We've had our unexpected visitor, too,' said Mr Gibson. 'Just after dinner who should come in but Mr Preston. I fancy he's having more of the management of the Hollingford property than formerly. Sheepshanks is getting an old man. And if so, I suspect we shall see a good deal of Preston. He's "no blate," as they used to say in Scotland, and made himself quite at home to-night. If I'd asked him to stay, or, indeed, if I'd done anything but yawn, he'd have been here now. But I defy any man to stay when I have a fit of yawning.'
'Do you like Mr Preston, papa?' asked Molly.
'About as much as I do half the men I meet. He talks well, and has seen a good deal. I know very little of him, though, except that he's my lord's steward, which is a guarantee for a good deal.'
'Lady Harriet spoke pretty strongly against him that day I was with her at the Manor-house.'
'Lady Harriet's always full of fancies: she likes persons to-day, and dislikes them to-morrow,' said Mrs Gibson, who was touched on her sore point whenever Molly quoted Lady Harriet, or said anything to imply ever so transitory an intimacy with her.
'You must know a good deal about Mr Preston, my dear? I suppose you saw a good deal of him at Ashcombe?'
Mrs Gibson coloured, and looked at Cynthia before she replied. Cynthia's face was set into a determination not to speak, however much she might be referred to.
'Yes; we saw a good deal of him - at one time, I mean. He's changeable, I think. But he always sent us game, and sometimes fruit. There were some stories against him, but I never believed them.'
'What kind of stories?' said Mr Gibson, quickly.
'Oh, vague stories, you know: scandal, I daresay. No one ever believed them. He could be so agreeable if he chose; and my lord, who is so very particular, would never have kept him as agent if they were true; not that I ever knew what they were, for I consider all scandal as abominable gossip.'
'I'm very glad I yawned in his face,' said Mr Gibson. 'I hope he'll take the hint.'
'If it was one of your giant-gapes, papa, I should call it more than a hint,' said Molly. 'And if you want a yawning chorus the next time he comes, I'll join in; won't you, Cynthia?'
'I don't know,' replied the latter, shortly, as she lighted her bed-candle. The two girls had usually some nightly conversation in one or other of their bed-rooms; but to-night Cynthia said something or other about being terribly tired, and hastily shut her door.
The very next day, Roger came to pay his promised call. Molly was out in the garden with Williams, planning the arrangement of some new flower-beds, and deep in her employment of placing pegs upon the lawn to mark out the different situations, when, standing up to mark the effect, her eye was caught by the figure of a gentleman, sitting with his back to the light, leaning forwards, and talking, or listening, eagerly. Molly knew the shape of the head perfectly, and hastily began to put off her brown-holland gardening apron, emptying the pockets as she spoke to Williams.
'You can finish it now, I think,' said she. 'You know about the bright-coloured flowers being against the privet-hedge, and where the new rose-bed it to be?'
'I can't justly say as I do,' said he. 'Mebbe, you'll just go o'er it all once again, Miss Molly. I'm not so young as I oncst was, and my head is not so clear now-a-days, and I'd be loth to make mistakes when you're so set upon your plans.'
Molly gave up her impulse in a moment. She saw that the old gardener was really perplexed, yet that he was as anxious as he could be to do his best. So she went over the ground again, pegging and explaining till the wrinkled brow was smooth again, and he kept saying, 'I see, miss. All right, Miss Molly, I'se gotten it in my head as clear as patch-work now.'
So she could leave him, and go in. But just as she was close to the garden door, Roger came out. It really was for once a case of virtue its own reward, for it was far pleasanter to her to have him in a tête-à-tête, however short, than in the restraint of Mrs Gibson's and Cynthia's presence.
'I only just found out where you were, Molly. Mrs Gibson said you had gone out, but she didn't know where; and it was the greatest chance that I turned round and saw you.'
'I saw you some time ago, but I couldn't leave Williams. I think he was unusually slow to-day; and he seemed as if he couldn't understand my plan for the new flower-beds.'
'Is that the paper you've got in your hand? Let me look at it, will you? Ah, I see! you've borrowed some of your ideas from our garden at home, haven't you? This bed of scarlet geraniums, with the border of young oaks, pegged down! That was a fancy of my dear mother's.'
They were both silent for a minute or two. Then Molly said, -
'How is the squire? I've never seen him since.'
'No, he told me how much he wanted to see you, but he couldn't make up his mind to come and call. I suppose it would never do now for you to come and stay at the Hall, would it? It would give my father so much pleasure: he looks upon you as a daughter, and I'm sure both Osborne and I shall always consider you are like a sister to us, after all my mother's love for you, and your tender care of her at last. But I suppose it wouldn't do.'
'No! certainly not,' said Molly, hastily.
'I fancy if you could come it would put us a little to rights. You know, as I think I once told you, Osborne has behaved differently to what I should have done, though not wrongly, - only what I call an error of judgment. But my father, I'm sure, has taken up some notion of - never mind; only the end of it is that he holds Osborne still in tacit disgrace, and is miserable himself all the time. Osborne, too, is sore and unhappy, and estranged from my father. It is just what my mother would have put right very soon, and perhaps you could have done it - unconsciously, I mean - for this wretched mystery that Osborne preserves about his affairs is at the root of it all. But there's no use talking about it; I don't know why I began.' Then, with a wrench, changing the subject, while Molly still thought of what he had been telling her, he broke out, - 'I can't tell you how much I like Miss Kirkpatrick, Molly. It must be a great pleasure to you having such a companion!'
'Yes,' said Molly, half smiling. 'I'm very fond of her; and I think I like her better every day I know her. But how quickly you have found out her virtues!'
'I didn't say "virtues," did I?' asked he, reddening, but putting the question in all good faith. 'Yet I don't think one could be deceived in that face. And Mrs Gibson appears to be a very friendly person, - she has asked Osborne and me to dine here on Friday.'
'Bitter beer' came into Molly's mind; but what she said was, 'And are you coming?'
'Certainly, I am, unless my father wants me; and I've given Mrs Gibson a conditional promise for Osborne too. So I shall see you all very soon again. But I must go now. I have to keep an appointment seven miles from here in half an hour's time. Good luck to your flower-garden, Molly.'
Affairs were going on worse at the Hall than Roger had liked to tell. Moreover, very much of the discomfort there arose from 'mere manner,' as people express it, which is always indescribable and indefinable. Quiet and passive as Mrs Hamley had always been in appearance, she was the ruling spirit of the house as long as she lived. The directions to the servants, down to the most minute particulars, came from her sitting-room, or from the sofa on which she lay. Her children always knew where to find her; and to find her, was to find love and sympathy. Her husband, who was often restless and angry from one cause or another, always came to her to be smoothed down and put right. He was conscious of her pleasant influence over him, and became at peace with himself when in her presence; just as a child is at case when with some one who is both firm and gentle. But the keystone of the family arch was gone, and the stones of which it was composed began to fall apart. It is always sad when a sorrow of this kind seems to injure the character of the mourning survivors. Yet, perhaps, this injury may be only temporary or superficial; the judgments so constantly passed upon the way people bear the loss of those whom they have deeply loved, appear to be even more cruel, and wrongly meted out, than human judgments generally are. To careless observers, for instance, it would seem as though the squire was rendered more capricious and exacting, more passionate and authoritative, by his wife's death. The truth was, that it occurred at a time when many things came to harass him, and some to bitterly disappoint him; and she was no longer there to whom he used to carry his sore heart for the gentle balm of her sweet words. So the sore heart ached and smarted internally; and often, when he saw how his violent conduct affected others, he could have cried out for their pity, instead of their anger and resentment: 'Have mercy upon me, for I am very miserable.' How often have such dumb thoughts gone up from the hearts of those who have taken hold of their sorrow by the wrong end, as prayers against sin! And when the squire saw that his servants were learning to dread him, and his first-born to avoid him, he did not blame them. He knew he was becoming a domestic tyrant; it seemed as if all circumstances conspired against him, and as if he was too weak to struggle with them; else, why did everything indoors and out-of-doors go so wrong just now, when all he could have done, had things been prosperous, was to have submitted, in very imperfect patience, to the loss of his wife? But just when he needed ready money to pacify Osborne's creditors, the harvest had turned out remarkably plentiful, and the price of corn had sunk down to a level it had not touched for years. The squire had insured his life at the time of his marriage for a pretty large sum. It was to be a provision for his wife, if she had survived him, and for their younger children. Roger was the only representative of these interests now; but the squire was unwilling to lose the insurance by ceasing to pay the annual sum. He would not, if he could, have sold any part of the estate which he inherited from his father; and, besides, it was strictly entailed. He had sometimes thought how wise a step it would have been could he have sold a portion of it, and with the purchase-money have drained and reclaimed the remainder; and at length, learning from some neighbour that Government would make certain advances for drainage, &c. at a very low rate of interest, on condition that the work was done, and the money repaid, within a given time; his wife had urged him to take advantage of the proffered loan. But now that she was no longer here to encourage him, and take an interest in the progress of the work, he grew indifferent to it himself, and cared no more to go out on his stout roan cob, and sit square on his seat, watching the labourers on the marshy land all overgrown with rushes; speaking to them from time to time in their own strong nervous country dialect: but the interest to Government had to be paid all the same, whether the men worked well or ill. Then the roof of the Hall let in the melted snow-water this winter; and, on examination, it turned out that a new roof was absolutely required. The men who had come about the advances made to Osborne by the London money-lender, had spoken disparagingly of the timber on the estate - 'Very fine trees - sound, perhaps, too, fifty years ago, but gone to rot now; had wanted lopping and clearing. Was there no wood-ranger or forester? They were nothing like the value young Mr Hamley had represented them to be of.' The remarks had come round to the squire's ears. He loved the trees he had played under as a boy as if they were living creatures; that was on the romantic side of his nature. Merely looking at them as representing so many pounds sterling, he had esteemed them highly, and had had, until now, no opinion of another by which to correct his own judgment. So these words of the valuers cut him sharp, although he affected to disbelieve them, and tried to persuade himself that he did so. But, after all, these cares and disappointments did not touch the root of his deep resentment against Osborne. There is nothing like wounded affection for giving poignancy to anger. And the squire believed that Osborne and his advisers had been making calculations, based upon his own death. He hated the idea so much - it made him so miserable - that he would not face it, and define it, and meet it with full inquiry and investigation. He chose rather to cherish the morbid fancy that he was useless in this world - born under an unlucky star - that all things went badly under his management. But he did not become humble in consequence. He put his misfortunes down to the score of Fate - not to his own; and he imagined that Osborne saw his failures, and that his first-born grudged him his natural term of life. All these fancies would have been set to rights could he have talked them over with his wife; or even had he been accustomed to mingle much in the society of those whom he esteemed his equals; but, as has been stated, he was inferior in education to those who should have been his mates; and perhaps the jealousy and mauvaise honte that this inferiority had called out long ago, extended itself in some measure to the feelings he entertained towards his sons - less to Roger than to Osborne, though the former was turning out by far the most distinguished man. But Roger was practical; interested in all out-of-doors things, and he enjoyed the details, homely enough, which his father sometimes gave him of the every-day occurrences which the latter had noticed in the woods and the fields. Osborne, on the contrary, was what is commonly called 'fine;' delicate almost to effeminacy in dress and in manner; careful in small observances. All this his father had been rather proud of in the days when he had looked forward to a brilliant career at Cambridge for his son; he had at that time regarded Osborne's fastidiousness and elegance as another stepping-stone to the high and prosperous marriage which was to restore the ancient fortunes of the Hamley family. But now that Osborne had barely obtained his degree; that all the boastings of his father had proved vain; that the fastidiousness had led to unexpected expenses (to attribute the most innocent cause to Osborne's debts), the poor young man's ways and manners became a subject of irritation to his father. Osborne was still occupied with his books and his writings when he was at home; and this mode of passing the greater part of the day gave him but few subjects in common with his father when they did meet at meal-times, or in the evenings. Perhaps if Osborne had been able to have more out-of-door amusements it would have been better; but he was short-sighted, and cared little for the carefully-observant pursuits of his brother: he knew but few young men of his own standing in the county; his hunting even, of which he was passionately fond, had been curtailed this season, as his father had disposed of one of the two hunters he had been hitherto allowed. The whole stable establishment had been reduced; perhaps because it was the economy which told most on the enjoyment of both the squire and Osborne, and which, therefore, the former took a savage pleasure in enforcing. The old carriage - a heavy family coach bought in the days of comparative prosperity - was no longer needed after madam's death, and fell to pieces in the cobwebbed seclusion of the coach-house.' The best of the two carriage-horses was taken for a gig, which the squire now set up; saying many a time to all who might care to listen to him that it was the first time for generations that the Hamleys of Hamley had not been able to keep their own coach. The other carriage-horse was turned out to grass; being too old for regular work. Conqueror used to come whinnying up to the park palings whenever he saw the squire, who had always a piece of bread, or some sugar, or an apple for the old favourite - and made many a complaining speech to the dumb animal, telling him of the change of times since both were in their prime. It had never been the squire's custom to encourage his boys to invite their friends to the Hall. Perhaps this, too, was owing to his mauvaise honte, and also to an exaggerated consciousness of the deficiencies of his establishment as compared with what he imagined these lads were accustomed to at home. He explained this once or twice to Osborne and Roger when they were at Rugby.
'You see, all you public schoolboys have a kind of freemasonry of your own, and outsiders are looked on by you much as I look on rabbits and all that isn't game. Ay, you may laugh, but it is so; and your friends will throw their eyes askance at me, and never think on my pedigree, which would beat theirs all to shivers, I'll be bound. No: I'll have no one here at the Hall who will look down on a Hamley of Hamley, even if he only knows how to make a cross instead of write his name.'
Then, of course, they must not visit at houses to whose sons the squire could not or would not return a like hospitality. On all these points Mrs Hamley had used her utmost influence without avail; his prejudices were immovable. As regarded his position as head of the oldest family in three counties, his pride was invincible; as regarded himself personally - ill at ease in the society of his equals, deficient in manners, and in education - his morbid sensitiveness was too sore and too self-conscious to be called humility.
Take one instance from among many similar scenes of the state of feeling between the squire and his eldest son, which, if it could not be called active discord, showed at least passive estrangement.
It took place on an evening in the March succeeding Mrs Hamley's death. Roger was at Cambridge. Osborne had also been from home, and he had not volunteered any information as to his absence. The squire believed that Osborne had been either in Cambridge with his brother, or in London; he would have liked to hear where his son had been, what he had been doing, and whom he had seen, purely as pieces of news, and as some diversion from the domestic worries and cares which were pressing him hard; but he was too proud to ask any questions, and Osborne had not given him any details of his journey. This silence had aggravated the squire's internal dissatisfaction, and he came home to dinner weary and sore-hearted a day or two after Osborne's return. It was just six o'clock, and he went hastily into his own little business-room on the ground-floor, and, after washing his hands, came into the drawing-room feeling as if he were very late, but the room was empty. He glanced at the clock over the mantelpiece, as he tried to warm his hands at the fire. The fire had been neglected, and had gone out during the day; it was now piled with half-dried wood, which sputtered and smoked instead of doing its duty in blazing and warming the room, through which the keen wind was cutting its way in all directions. The clock had stopped, no one had remembered to wind it up, but by the squire's watch it was already past dinner-time. The old butler put his head into the room, but, seeing the squire alone, he was about to draw it back, and wait for Mr Osborne, before announcing dinner. He had hoped to do this unperceived, but the squire caught him in the act.
'Why isn't dinner ready?' he called out sharply. 'It's ten minutes past six. And, pray, why are you using this wood? It's impossible to get oneself warm by such a fire as this.'
'I believe, sir, that Thomas -- '
'Don't talk to me of Thomas. Send dinner in directly.'
About five minutes elapsed, spent by the hungry squire in all sorts of impatient ways - attacking Thomas, who came in to look after the fire; knocking the logs about, scattering out sparks, but considerably lessening the chances of warmth; touching up the candles, which appeared to him to give a light unusually insufficient for the large cold room. While he was doing this, Osborne came in dressed in full evening dress. He always moved slowly; and this, to begin with, irritated the squire. Then an uncomfortable consciousness of a rough black coat, drab trowsers, checked cotton cravat, and splashed boots, forced itself upon him as he saw Osborne's point-device costume. He chose to consider it affectation and finery in Osborne, and was on the point of bursting out with some remark, when the butler, who had watched Osborne downstairs before making the announcement, came in to say that dinner was ready.
'It surely isn't six o'clock?' said Osborne, pulling out his dainty little watch. He was scarcely more aware than it of the storm that was brewing.
'Six o'clock! It's more than a quarter past,' growled out his father,
'I fancy your watch must be wrong, sir. I set mine by the Horse Guards only two days ago.'
Now, impugning that old steady, turnip-shaped watch of the squire's was one of the insults which, as it could not reasonably be resented, was not to be forgiven. That watch had been given him by his father when watches were watches long ago. It had given the law to house-clocks, stable-clocks, kitchen-clocks - nay, even to Hamley Church clock in its day; and was it now, in its respectable old age, to be looked down upon by a little whipper-snapper of a French watch which could go into a man's waistcoat pocket, instead of having to be extricated, with due effort, like a respectable watch of size and position, from a fob in the waistband? No! Not if the whipper-snapper were backed by all the Horse Guards that ever were, with the Life Guards to boot. Poor Osborne might have known better than to cast this slur on his father's flesh and blood; for so dear did he hold his watch!
'My watch is like myself,' said the squire, 'girning,' as the Scotch say - 'plain, but steady-going. At any rate, it gives the law in my house. The King may go by the Horse Guards if he likes.'
'I beg your pardon, sir,' said Osborne, really anxious to keep the peace; 'I went by my watch, which is certainly right by London time; and I'd no idea you were waiting for me, otherwise I could have dressed much quicker.'
'I should think so,' said the squire, looking sarcastically at his son's attire. 'When I was a young man I should have been ashamed to have spent as much time at my looking-glass as if I'd been a girl. I could make myself as smart as any one when I was going to a dance, or to a party where I was likely to meet pretty girls; but I should have laughed myself to scorn if I'd stood fiddle-faddling at a glass, smirking at my own likeness, all for my own pleasure.'
Osborne reddened, and was on the point of letting fly some caustic remark on his father's dress at the present moment; but he contented himself with saying, in a low voice, -
'My mother always expected us all to dress for dinner. I got into the habit of doing it to please her, and I keep it up now.' Indeed, he had a certain kind of feeling of loyalty to her memory in keeping up all the little domestic habits and customs she had instituted or preferred. But the contrast which the squire thought was implied by Osborne's remark, put him beside himself.
'And I, too, try to attend to her wishes. I do: and in more important things. I did when she was alive; and I do so now.'
'I never said you did not,' said Osborne, astonished at his father's passionate words and manner.
'Yes, you did, sir. You meant it. I could see by your looks. I saw you look at my morning-coat. At any rate, I never neglected any wish of hers in her life-time. If she'd wished me to go to school again and learn my A, B, C, I would. By -- I would; and I wouldn't have gone playing me, and lounging away my time, for fear of vexing and disappointing her. Yet some folks older than schoolboys -- ' The squire choked here; but though the words would not come his passion did not diminish. 'I'll not have you casting up your mother's wishes to me, sir. You, who went near to break her heart at last!'
Osborne was strongly tempted to get up and leave the room. Perhaps it would have been better if he had; it might then have brought about an explanation, and a reconciliation between father and son. But he thought he did well in sitting still and appearing to take no notice. This indifference to what he was saying appeared to annoy the squire still more, and he kept on grumbling and talking to himself till Osborne, unable to bear it any longer, said, very quietly, but very bitterly, - 'I am only a cause of irritation to you, and home is no longer home to me, but a place in which I am to be controlled in trifles, and scolded about trifles as if I were a child. Put me in a way of making a living for myself - that much your oldest son has a right to ask of you - I will then leave this house, and you shall be no longer vexed by my dress, or my want of punctuality.'
'You make your request pretty much as another son did long ago: "Give me the portion that falleth to me." But I don't think what he did with his money is much encouragement for me to -- ' Then the thought of how little he could give his son his 'portion,' or any part of it, stopped the squire.
Osborne took up the speech.
'I'm as ready as any man to earn my living; only the preparation for any profession will cost money, and money I haven't got.'
'No more have I,' said the squire, shortly.
'What is to be done then?' said Osborne, only half believing his father's words.
'Why, you must learn to stop at home, and not take expensive journeys; and you must redeem your tailor's bills. I don't ask you to help me in the management of the land - you're far too fine a gentleman for that; but if you can't earn money, at least you needn't spend it.'
'I've told you I'm willing enough to earn money,' cried Osborne, passionately at last. 'But how am I to do it? You really are very unreasonable, sir.'
'Am I?' said the squire - cooling in manner, though not in temper, as Osborne grew warm. 'But I don't set up for being reasonable: men who have to pay away money that they haven't got for their extravagant sons, aren't likely to be reasonable. There's two things you've gone and done which put me beside myself, when I think of them: you've turned out next door to a dunce at college, when your poor mother thought so much of you - and when you might have pleased and gratified her so if you chose - and, well! I won't say what the other thing is.'
'Tell me, sir,' said Osborne, almost breathless with the idea that his father had discovered his secret marriage; but the father was thinking of the money-lenders, who were calculating how soon Osborne would come into the estate.
'No!' said the squire. 'I know what I know; and I'm not going to tell you how I know it. Only, I'll just say this - your friends no more know a piece of good timber when they see it than you or I know how you could earn five pounds if it was to keep you from starving. Now, there's Roger - we none of us made an ado about him; but he'll have his fellowship now I'll warrant him, and be a bishop, or a chancellor, or something, before we've found out he's clever - we've been so much taken up thinking about you. I don't know what's come over me to speak of "we" - "we" in this way,' said he, suddenly dropping his voice, - a change of tone as sad as sad could be. 'I ought to say "I;" it will be "I" for evermore in this world.'
He got up and left the room in quick haste, knocking over his chair, and not stopping to pick it up. Osborne, who was sitting and shading his eyes with his hand, as he had been doing for some time, looked up at the noise, and then rose as quickly and hurried after his father, only in time to hear the study-door locked on the inside the moment he reached it.
Osborne returned into the dining-room chagrined and sorrowful. But he was always sensitive to any omission of the usual observances, which might excite remark; and even with his heavy heart he was careful to pick up the fallen chair, and restore it to its place near the bottom of the table; and afterwards so to disturb the dishes as to make it appear that they had been touched, before ringing for Robinson. When the latter came in, followed by Thomas, Osborne thought it necessary to say to him that his father was not well, and had gone into the study; and that he himself wanted no dessert, but would have a cup of coffee in the drawing-room. The old butler sent Thomas out of the room, and came up confidentially to Osborne.
'I thought master wasn't justly himself, Mr Osborne, before dinner. And therefore I made excuses for him - I did. He spoke to Thomas about the fire, sir, which is a thing I could in nowise put up with, unless by reason of sickness, which I am always ready to make allowances for.'
'Why shouldn't my father speak to Thomas?' said Osborne. 'But, perhaps, he spoke angrily, I daresay; for I'm sure he's not well.'
'No, Mr Osborne, it wasn't that. I myself am given to anger; and I'm blessed with as good health as any man in my years. Besides, anger's a good thing for Thomas. He needs a deal of it. But it should come from the right quarter - and that is me myself, Mr Osborne. I know my place, and I know my rights and duties as well as any butler that lives. And it's my duty to scold Thomas, and not master's. Master ought to have said, "Robinson! you must speak to Thomas about letting out the fire," and I'd ha' given it him well, - as I shall do now, for that matter. But as I said before, I make excuses for master, as being in mental distress and bodily ill-health; so I've brought myself round not to give warning, as I should ha' done, for certain, under happier circumstances.'
'Really, Robinson, I think it's all great nonsense,' said Osborne, weary of the long story the butler had told him, and to which he had not half attended. 'What in the world does it signify whether my father speaks to you or to Thomas? Bring me coffee in the drawing-room, and don't trouble your head any more about scolding Thomas.'
Robinson went away offended at his grievance being called nonsense. He kept muttering to himself in the intervals of scolding Thomas, and saying, - 'Things is a deal changed since poor missis went. I don't wonder master feels it, for I'm sure I do. She was a lady who had always a becoming respect for a butler's position, and could have understood how he might be hurt in his mind. She'd never ha' called his delicacies of feelings nonsense - not she; no more would Mr Roger. He's a merry young gentleman, and over-fond of bringing dirty, slimy creatures into the house; but he's always a kind word for a man who is hurt in his mind. He'd cheer up the squire, and keep him from getting so cross and wilful. I wish Mr Roger was here, I do.'
The poor squire, shut up with his grief and his ill-temper as well, in the dingy, dreary study in which he daily spent more and more of his indoors life, turned over his cares and troubles till he was as bewildered with the process as a squirrel must be in going round in a cage. He had out day-books and ledgers, and was calculating up back-rents; and every time the sum-totals came to different amounts. He could have cried like a child over his sums; he was worn out and weary, angry and disappointed. He closed his books at last with a bang.
'I'm getting old,' he said, 'and my head's less clear than it used to be. I think sorrow for her has dazed me. I never was much to boast on; but she thought a deal of me - bless her! She'd never let me call myself stupid; but, for all that, I am stupid. Osborne ought to help me. He's had money enough spent on his learning; but instead, he comes down dressed like a popinjay, and never troubles his head to think how I'm to pay his debts. I wish I'd told him to earn his living as a dancing-master,' said the squire, with a sad smile at his own wit. 'He's dressed for all the world like one. And how he's spent the money no one knows! Perhaps Roger will turn up some day with a heap of creditors at his heels. No, he won't - not Roger; he may be slow, but he's steady, is old Roger. I wish he was here. He's not the eldest son, but he'd take an interest in the estate; and he'd do up these weary accounts for me. I wish Roger was here!'
Osborne had his solitary cup of coffee in the drawing-room. He was very unhappy too, after his fashion. He stood on the hearth-rug pondering over his situation. He was not exactly aware how hardly his father was pressed for ready-money; the squire had never spoken to him on the subject without being angry; and many of his loose contradictory statements - all of which, however contradictory they might appear, had their basis in truth - were set down by his son to the exaggeration of passion. But it was uncomfortable enough to a young man of Osborne's age to feel himself continually hampered for want of a five-pound note. The principal supplies for the liberal - almost luxurious table at the Hall, came off the estate; so that there was no appearance of poverty as far as the household went; and as long as Osborne was content at home, he had everything he could wish for; but he had a wife elsewhere - he wanted to see her continually - and that necessitated journeys. She, poor thing! had to be supported: where was the money for the journeys and for Aimée's modest wants to come from? That was the puzzle in Osborne's mind just now. While he had been at college his allowance - heir of the Hamleys - had been three hundred, while Roger had to be content with a hundred less. The payment of these annual sums had given the squire a good deal of trouble; but he thought of it as a merely temporary inconvenience, perhaps unreasonably thought so. Osborne was to do great things; take high honours, get a fellowship, marry a long-descended heiress, live in some of the many uninhabited rooms at the Hall, and help the squire in the management of the estate that would some time be his. Roger was to be a clergyman; steady, slow Roger was just fitted for that, and when he declined entering the Church, preferring a life of more activity and adventure, Roger was to be - anything; he was useful and practical, and fit for all the employments from which Osborne was shut out by his fastidiousness, and his (pseudo) genius; so it was well he was an eldest son, for he would never have done to struggle through the world; and as for his settling down to a profession, it would be like cutting blocks with a razor! And now here was Osborne, living at home, but longing to be elsewhere; his allowance stopped in reality; indeed the punctual payment of it during the last year or two had been owing to his mother's exertions; but nothing had been said about its present cessation by either father or son: money matters were too sore a subject between them. Every now and then the squire threw him a ten-pound note or so; but the sort of suppressed growl with which they were given, and the entire uncertainty as to when he might receive them, rendered any calculation based upon their receipt exceedingly vague and uncertain.
'What in the world can I do to secure an income?' thought Osborne, as he stood on the hearth-rug, his back to a blazing fire, his cup of coffee sent up in the rare old china that had belonged to the Hall for generations; his dress finished, as dress of Osborne's could hardly fail to be. One could hardly have thought that this elegant young man, standing there in the midst of comfort that verged on luxury, should have been turning over that one great problem in his mind; but so it was. 'What can I do to be sure of a present income? Things cannot go on as they are. I should need support for two or three years, even if I entered myself at the Temple, or Lincoln's Inn.' It would be impossible for live on my pay in the army; besides, I should hate that profession. In fact, there are evils attending all professions - I couldn't bring myself to become a member of any I've ever heard of. Perhaps I'm more fitted to take orders than anything else, but to be compelled to write weekly sermons whether one had anything to say or not, and, probably, doomed only to associate with people below one in refinement and education! Yet poor Aimée must have money. I can't bear to compare our dinners here, overloaded with joints and game and sweets, as Morgan will persist in sending them up, with Aimée's two little mutton-chops. Yet what would my father say if he knew I'd married a Frenchwoman? In his present mood he'd disinherit me, if that is possible; and he'd speak about her in a way I couldn't stand. A Roman Catholic, too! Well, I don't repent it. I'd do it again. Only if my mother had been in good health, if she could have heard my story, and known Aimée! As it is, I must keep it secret; but where to get money? Where to get money?'
Then he bethought him of his poems - would they sell, and bring him in money? In spite of Milton, he thought they might; and he went to fetch his MSS. out of his room. He sate down near the fire, trying to study them with a critical eye, to represent public opinion as far as he could. He had changed his style since the Mrs Hemans' days. He was essentially imitative in his poetic faculty; and of late he had followed the lead of a popular writer of sonnets.' He turned his poems over: they were almost equivalent to an autobiographical passage in his life. Arranging them in their order, they came as follows: -
When he came to this last sonnet he put down his bundle of papers and began to think. 'The wife.' Yes, and a French wife. and a Roman Catholic wife - and a wife who might be said to have been in service! And his father's hatred of the French, both collectively and individually - collectively, as tumultuous brutal ruffians, who murdered their king, and committed all kinds of bloody atrocities: individually, as represented by 'Boney,' and the various caricatures of 'Johnny Crapaud' that had been in full circulation about five-and-twenty years before this time - when the squire had been young and capable of receiving impressions. As for the form of religion in which Mrs Osborne Hamley had been brought up, it is enough to say that Catholic emancipation had begun to be talked about by some politicians, and that the sullen roar of the majority of Englishmen, at the bare idea of it, was surging in the distance with ominous threatenings; the very mention of such a measure before the squire was, as Osborne well knew, like shaking a red flag before a bull.
And then he considered that if Aimée had had the unspeakable, the incomparable blessing of being born of English parents, in the very heart of England - Warwickshire, for instance - and had never heard of priests, or mass, or confession, or the Pope, or Guy Fawkes, but had been born, baptized, and bred in the Church of England, without having ever seen the outside of a dissenting meeting-house, or a papist chapel - even with all these advantages, her having been a (what was the equivalent for 'bonne' in English? 'nursery governess' was a term hardly invented) nursery-maid, with wages paid down once a quarter, liable to be dismissed at a month's warning, and having her tea and sugar doled out to her, would be a shock to his father's old ancestral pride that he would hardly ever get over.
'If he saw her!' thought Osborne. 'If he could but see her!' But if the squire were to see Aimée, he would also hear her speak her pretty broken English - precious to her husband, as it was in it that she had confessed brokenly with her English tongue, that she loved him soundly with her French heart - and Squire Hamley piqued himself on being a good hater of the French. 'She would make such a loving, sweet, docile little daughter to my father - she would go as near as any one could towards filling up the blank void in this house, if he would but have her; but he won't; he never would; and he shan't have the opportunity of scouting her. Yet if I called her "Lucy" in these sonnets; and if they made a great effect - were praised in Blackwood and the Quarterly - and all the world was agog to find out the author; and I told him my secret - I could if I were successful - I think then he would ask who Lucy was, and I could tell him all then. If - how I hate "ifs." "If me no ifs." My life has been based on "whens;" and first they have turned to "ifs," and then they have vanished away. It was "when Osborne gets honours," and then "if Osborne," and then a failure altogether. I said to Aimée, "When my mother sees you," and now it is "If my father saw her," with a very faint prospect of its ever coming to pass.' So he let the evening hours flow on and disappear in reveries like these; winding up with a sudden determination to try the fate of his poems with a publisher, with the direct expectation of getting money for them, and an ulterior fancy that, if successful, they might work wonders with this father.
When Roger came home Osborne did not let a day pass before telling his brother of his plans. He never did conceal anything long from Roger; the feminine part of his character made him always desirous of a confidant, and as sweet sympathy as he could extract. But Roger's opinion had no effect on Osborne's actions; and Roger knew this full well. So when Osborne began with - 'I want your advice on a plan I have got in my head,' Roger replied: 'Some one told me that the Duke of Wellington's maxim was never to give advice unless he could enforce its being carried into effect. now I can't do that; and you know, old boy, you don't follow out my advice when you've got it.'
'Not always, I know. Not when it does not agree with my own opinion. You are thinking about this concealment of my marriage. but you're not up in all the circumstances. You know how fully I meant to have done it, if there had not been that row about my debts; and then my mother's illness and death. And now you've no conception how my father is changed - how irritable he has become! Wait till you've been at home a week! Robinson, Morgan - it's the same with them all; but worst of all with me!'
'Poor fellow!' said Roger; 'I thought he looked terribly changed; shrunken, and his ruddiness of complexion altered.'
'Why, he hardly takes half the exercise he used to do, so it's no wonder. He has turned away all the men off the new works, which used to be such an interest to him; and because the roan cob stumbled with him one day, and nearly threw him, he won't ride it; and yet he won't sell it and buy another, which would be the sensible plan; so there are two old horses eating their heads off, while he is constantly talking about money and expense. And that brings me to what I was going to say. I'm desperately hard up for money, and so I've been collecting my poems - weeding them well, you know - going over them quite critically, in fact; and I want to know if you think Deighton would publish them. You've a name in Cambridge, you know; and I daresay he would look at them if you offered them to him.'
'I can but try,' said Roger; 'but I'm afraid you won't get much by them.'
'I don't expect much. I'm a new man, and must make my name. I should be content with a hundred. If I'd a hundred pounds I'd set myself to do something. I might keep myself and Aimée by my writings while I studied for the bar; or, if the worst came to the worst, a hundred pounds would take us to Australia.'
'Australia! Why, Osborne, what could you do there? And leave my father! I hope you'll never get your hundred pounds, if that's the use you're to make of it! Why, you'd break the squire's heart.'
'It might have done once,' said Osborne, gloomily, 'but it would not now. He looks at me askance, and shies away from conversation with me. Let me alone for noticing and feeling this kind of thing. It's this very susceptibility to outward things that gives me what faculty I have; and it seems to me as if my bread, and my wife's too, were to depend upon it. You'll soon see for yourself the terms which I am on with my father!'
Roger did soon see. His father had slipped into a habit of silence at meal times - a habit which Osborne, who was troubled and anxious enough for his own part, had not striven to break. Father and son sate together, and exchanged all the necessary speeches connected with the occasion civilly enough; but it was a relief to them when their intercourse was over, and they separated - the father to brood over his sorrow and his disappointment, which were real and deep enough, and the injury he had received from his boy, which was exaggerated in his mind by his ignorance of the actual steps Osborne had taken to raise money. If the money-lenders had calculated the chances of his father's life or death in making their bargain, Osborne himself had thought only of how soon and how easily lie could get the money requisite for clearing him from all imperious claims at Cambridge, and for enabling him to follow Aimée to her home in Alsace, and for the subsequent marriage. As yet, Roger had never seen his brother's wife; indeed, he had only been taken into Osborne's full confidence after all was decided in which his advice could have been useful. And now, in the enforced separation, Osborne's whole thought, both the poetical and practical sides of his mind, ran upon the little wife who was passing her lonely days in farmhouse lodgings, wondering when her bridegroom husband would come to her next. With such an engrossing subject it was, perhaps, no wonder that he unconsciously neglected his father; but it was none the less sad at the time, and to be regretted in its consequences.
'I may come in and have a pipe with you, sir, mayn't I?' said Roger, that first evening, pushing gently against the study-door, which his father held only half open.
'You'll not like it,' said the squire, still holding the door against him, but speaking in a relenting tone. 'The tobacco I use isn't what young men like. Better go and have a cigar with Osborne.'
'No. I want to sit with you, and I can stand pretty strong tobacco.'
Roger pushed in, the resistance slowly giving way before him.
'It will make your clothes smell. You'll have to borrow Osborne's scents to sweeten yourself,' said the squire, grimly, at the same time pushing a short smart amber-mouthed pipe to his son.
'No; I'll have a churchwarden. Why, father, do you think I'm a baby to put up with a doll's head like this?' looking at the carving upon it.
The squire was pleased in his heart, though he did not choose to show it. He only said, 'Osborne brought it me when he came back from Germany. That's three years ago.' And then for some time they smoked in silence. But the voluntary companionship of his son was very soothing to the squire, though not a word might be said. The next speech he made showed the direction of his thoughts; indeed his words were always a transparent medium through which the current might be seen.
'A deal of a man's life comes and goes in three years - I've found that out.' And he puffed away at his pipe again. While Roger was turning over in his mind what answer to make to this truism, the squire again stopped his smoking and spoke.
'I remember when there was all that fuss about the Prince of Wales being made Regent, I read somewhere - I daresay it was in a newspaper - that kings and their heirs-apparent were always on bad terms. Osborne was quite a little chap then: he used to go out riding with me on White Surrey; you won't remember the pony we called White Surrey?'
'I remember it; but I thought it a tall horse in those days.'
'Ah! that was because you were such a small lad, you know. I had seven horses in the stable then - not counting the farm-horses. I don't recollect having a care then, except - she was always delicate, you know. But what a beautiful boy Osborne was! He was always dressed in black velvet - it was a foppery, but it wasn't my doing, and it was all right, I'm sure. He's a handsome fellow now, but the sunshine has gone out of his face.'
'He's a good deal troubled about this money, and the anxiety he has given you,' said Roger, rather taking his brother's feelings for granted.
'Not he,' said the squire, taking the pipe out of his mouth, and hitting the bowl so sharply against the hob that it broke in pieces. 'There! But never mind! I say, not he, Roger! He's none troubled about the money. It's easy getting money from Jews if you're the eldest son, and the heir. They just ask, "How old is your father, and has he had a stroke, or a fit?" and it's settled out of hand, and then they come prowling about a place, and running down the timber and land -- Don't let us speak of him; it's no good, Roger. He and I are out of tune, and it seems to me as if only God Almighty could put us to rights. It's thinking of how he grieved her at last that makes me so bitter with him. And yet there's a deal of good in him! and he's so quick and clever, if only he'd give his mind to things. Now, you were always slow, Roger - all your masters used to say so.'
Roger laughed a little, -
'Yes; I'd many a nickname at school for my slowness,' said he.
'Never mind!' said the squire, consolingly. 'I'm sure I don't. If you were a clever fellow like Osborne yonder, you'd be all for caring for books and writing, and you'd perhaps find it as dull as he does to keep company with a bumpkin-Squire Jones like me. Yet I daresay they think a deal of you at Cambridge,' said he, after a pause, 'since you've got this fine wranglership; I'd nearly forgotten that - the news came at such a miserable time.'
'Well, yes! They're always proud of the senior wrangler of the year up at Cambridge. Next year I must abdicate.'
The squire sate and gazed into the embers, still holding his useless pipe-stem. At last he said, in a low voice, as if scarcely aware he had got a listener, - 'I used to write to her when she was away in London, and tell her the home news. But no letter will reach her now! Nothing reaches her!'
Roger started up.
'Where's the tobacco-box, father? Let me fill you another pipe!' and when he had done so, he stooped over his father and stroked his cheek. The squire shook his head.
'You've only just come home, lad. You don't know me, as I am now-a-days! Ask Robinson - I won't have you asking Osborne, he ought to keep it to himself - but any of the servants will tell you I'm not like the same man for getting into passions with them. I used to be reckoned a good master, but that is past now! Osborne was once a little boy, and she was once alive - and I was once a good master - a good master - yes! It is all past now.'
He took up his pipe, and began to smoke afresh, and Roger, after a silence of some minutes, began a long story about some Cambridge man's misadventure on the hunting-field, telling it with such humour that the squire was beguiled into hearty laughing. When they rose to go to bed, his father said to Roger, -
'Well, we've had a pleasant evening - at least, I have. But perhaps you have not; for I'm but poor company now, know.'
'I don't know when I've passed a happier evening, father,' said Roger. And he spoke truly, though he did not trouble himself to find out the cause of his happiness.
All this had taken place before Roger's first meeting with Molly and Cynthia at Miss Brownings'; and the little dinner on the Friday at Mr Gibson's, which followed in due sequence.
Mrs Gibson intended the Hamleys to find this dinner pleasant; and they did. Mr Gibson was fond of these two young men, both for their parents' sake and their own, for he had known them since boyhood; and to those whom he liked Mr Gibson could be remarkably agreeable. Mrs Gibson really gave them a welcome - and cordiality in a hostess is a very becoming mantle for any other deficiencies there may be. Cynthia and Molly looked their best, which was all the duty Mrs Gibson absolutely required of them, as she was willing enough to take her full share in the conversation. Osborne fell to her lot, of course, and for some time he and she prattled on with all the case of manner and commonplaceness of meaning which go far to make the 'art of polite conversation.' Roger, who ought to have made himself agreeable to one or the other of the young ladies, was exceedingly interested in what Mr Gibson was telling him of a paper on comparative osteology in some foreign journal of science, which Lord Hollingford was in the habit of forwarding to his friend the country surgeon. Yet every now and then while he listened he caught his attention wandering to the face of Cynthia, who was placed between his brother and Mr Gibson. She was not particularly occupied with attending to anything that was going on; her eyelids were carelessly dropped, as she crumbled her bread on the tablecloth, and her beautiful long eyelashes were seen on the clear tint of her oval cheek. She was thinking of something else; Molly was trying to understand with all her might. Suddenly Cynthia looked up, and caught Roger's gaze of intent admiration too fully for her to be unaware that he was staring at her. She coloured a little, but after the first moment of rosy confusion at his evident admiration of her, she flew to the attack, diverting his confusion at thus being caught, to the defence of himself from her accusation.
'It is quite true!' she said to him. 'I was not attending: you see I don't know even the A B C of science. But, please, don't look so severely at me, even if I am a dunce!'
'I did not know - I did not mean to look severely, I am sure,' replied he, not knowing well what to say.
'Cynthia is not a dunce either,' said Mrs Gibson, afraid lest her daughter's opinion of herself might be taken seriously. 'But I have always observed that some people have a talent for one thing and some for another. Now Cynthia's talents are not for science and the severer studies. Do you remember, love, what trouble I had to teach you the use of the globes?'
'Yes; and I don't know longitude from latitude now; and I'm always puzzled as to which is perpendicular and which is horizontal.'
'Yet, I do assure you,' her mother continued, rather addressing herself to Osborne 'that her memory for poetry is prodigious. I have heard her repeat the "Prisoner of Chillon" from beginning to end.'
'It would be rather a bore to have to hear her, I think,' said Mr Gibson, smiling at Cynthia, who gave him back one of her bright looks of mutual understanding.
'Ah, Mr Gibson, I have found out before now that you have no soul for poetry; and Molly there is your own child. She reads such deep books - all about facts and figures: she'll be quite a blue-stocking by and by.'
'Mamma,' said Molly, reddening, 'you think it was a deep book because there were the shapes of the different cells of bees in it; but it was not at all deep. It was very interesting.'
'Never mind, Molly,' said Osborne. 'I stand up for blue-stockings!'
'And I object to the distinction implied in what you say,' said Roger. 'It was not deep, ergo, it was very interesting. Now, a book may be both deep and interesting.'
'Oh, if you are going to chop logic and use Latin words, I think it is time for us to leave the room,' said Mrs Gibson.
'Don't let us run away as if we were beaten, mamma,' said Cynthia. 'Though it may be logic, I, for one, can understand what Mr Roger Hamley said just now; and I read some of Molly's book; and whether it was deep or not I found it very interesting - more so than I should think the "Prisoner of Chillon" now-a-days. I've displaced the Prisoner to make room for Johnnie Gilpin as my favourite poem.'
'How could you talk such nonsense, Cynthia?' said Mrs Gibson, as the girls followed her upstairs. 'You know you are not a dunce. It is all very well not to be a blue-stocking, because gentle-people don't like that kind of woman; but running yourself down, and contradicting all I said about your liking for Byron, and poets and poetry - to Osborne Hamley of all men, too!'
Mrs Gibson spoke quite crossly for her.
'But, mamma,' Cynthia replica, 'I am either a dunce, or I am not. If I am, I did right to own it; if I am not, he's a dunce if he doesn't find out I was joking.'
'Well,' said Mrs Gibson, a little puzzled by this speech, and wanting some elucidatory addition.
'Only that if he's a dunce his opinion of me is worth nothing. So, any way, it doesn't signify.'
'You really bewilder me with your nonsense, child. Molly is worth twenty of you.'
'I quite agree with you, mamma,' said Cynthia, turning round to take Molly's hand.
'Yes; but she ought not to be,' said Mrs Gibson, still irritated. 'Think of the advantages you've had.'
'I'm afraid I had rather be a dunce than a blue-stocking,' said Molly; for the term had a little annoyed her, and the annoyance was rankling still.
'Hush; here they are coming: I hear the dining-room door! I never meant you were a blue-stocking, dear, so don't look vexed. - Cynthia, my love, where did you get those lovely flowers - anemones, are they? They suit your complexion so exactly.'
'Come, Molly, don't look so grave and thoughtful,' exclaimed Cynthia. 'Don't you perceive mamma wants us to be smiling and amiable?'
Mr Gibson had had to go out to his evening round; and the young men were all too glad to come up into the pretty drawing-room; the bright little wood fire; the comfortable easy chairs which, with so small a party, might be drawn round the hearth; the good-natured hostess; the pretty, agreeable girls. Roger sauntered up to the corner where Cynthia was standing, playing with a hand-screen.
'There is a charity ball in Hollingford soon, isn't there?' asked he.
'Yes; on Easter Tuesday,' she replied.
'Are you going? I suppose you are?'
'Yes; mamma is going to take Molly and me.'
'You will enjoy it very much - going together?'
For the first time during this little conversation she glanced up at him - real honest pleasure shining out of her eyes.
'Yes; going together will make the enjoyment of the thing. It would be dull without her.'
'You are great friends, then?' he asked.
'I never thought I should like any one so much, - any girl I mean.'
She put in the final reservation in all simplicity of heart; and in all simplicity did he understand it. He came ever so little nearer, and dropped his voice a little.
'I was so anxious to know. I am so glad. I have often wondered how you two were getting on.'
'Have you?' said she, looking up again. 'At Cambridge? You must be very fond of Molly!'
'Yes, I am. She was with us so long; and at such a time! I look upon her almost as a sister.'
'And she is very fond of all of you. I seem to know you all from hearing her talk about you so much. - All of you!' said she, laying an emphasis on 'all' to show that it included the dead as well as the living. Roger was silent for a minute or two.
'I didn't know you, even by hearsay. So you mustn't wonder that I was a little afraid. But as soon as I saw you, I knew how it must be; and it was such a relief!'
'Cynthia,' said Mrs Gibson, who thought that the younger son had had quite his share of low, confidential conversation, 'come here, and sing that little French ballad to Mr Osborne Hamley.'
'Which do you mean, mamma? "Tu t'en repentiras, Colin"?'
'Yes; such a pretty, playful little warning to young men,' said Mrs Gibson, smiling up at Osborne. 'The refrain is -
The advice may apply very well when there is a French wife in the case; but not, I am sure, to an Englishman who is thinking of an English wife.'
This choice of a song was exceedingly mal-àpropos, had Mrs Gibson but known it. Osborne and Roger knowing that the wife of the former was a Frenchwoman, and, conscious of each other's knowledge, felt doubly awkward. while Molly was as much confused as though she herself were secretly married. However, Cynthia carolled the saucy ditty out, and her mother smiled at it, in total ignorance of any application it might have. Osborne had instinctively gone to stand behind Cynthia, as she sate at the piano, so as to be ready to turn over the leaves of her music if she required it. He kept his hands in his pockets and his eyes fixed on her fingers; his countenance clouded with gravity at all the merry quips which she so playfully sang. Roger looked grave as well, but was much more at his case than his brother; indeed, he was half-amused by the awkwardness of the situation. He caught Molly's troubled eyes and heightened colour, and he saw that she was feeling this contretemps more seriously than she needed to do. He moved to a seat by her, and half whispered, 'Too late a warning, is it not?'
Molly looked up at him as he leant towards her, and replied in the same tone, - 'Oh, I am so sorry!'
'You need not be. He won't mind it long; and a man must take the consequences when he puts himself in a false position.'
Molly could not tell what to reply to this, so she hung her head and kept silence. Yet she could see that Roger did not change his attitude or remove his hand from the back of his chair, and, impelled by curiosity to find out the cause of his stillness, she looked up at him at length, and saw his gaze fixed on the two who were near the piano. Osborne was saying something eagerly to Cynthia, whose grave eyes were upturned to him with soft intentness of expression, and her pretty mouth half-open, with a sort of impatience for him to cease speaking, that she might reply.
'They are talking about France,' said Roger, in answer to Molly's unspoken question. 'Osborne knows it well, and Miss Kirkpatrick has been at school there, you know. It sounds very interesting; shall we go nearer and hear what they are saying?'
It was all very well to ask this civilly, but Molly thought it would have been better to wait for her answer. Instead of waiting, however, Roger went to the piano, and, leaning on it, appeared to join in the light merry talk, while he feasted his eyes as much as he dared by looking at Cynthia. Molly suddenly felt as if she could scarcely keep from crying - a minute ago he had been so near to her, and talking so pleasantly and confidentially; and now he almost seemed as if he had forgotten her existence. She thought that all this was wrong; and she exaggerated its wrongness to herself; 'mean,' and 'envious of Cynthia,' and 'ill-natured,' and 'selfish,' were the terms she kept applying to herself; but it did no good, she was just as naughty at the last as at the first.
Mrs Gibson broke into the state of things which Molly thought was to endure for ever. Her work had been intricate up to this time, and had required a great deal of counting; so she had had no time to attend to her duties, one of which she always took to be to show herself to the world as an impartial stepmother. Cynthia had played and sung, and now she must give Molly her turn of exhibition. Cynthia's singing and playing was light and graceful, but anything but correct; but she herself was so charming, that it was only fanatics for music who cared for false chords and omitted notes. Molly, on the contrary, had an excellent ear, if she had ever been well taught; and both from inclination and conscientious perseverance of disposition, she would go over an incorrect passage for twenty times. But she was very shy of playing in company; and when forced to do it, she went through her performance heavily, and hated her handiwork more than any one.
'Now, you must play a little, Molly,' said Mrs Gibson; 'play us that beautiful piece of Kalkbrenner's,' my dear.'
Molly looked up at her stepmother with beseeching eyes, but it only brought out another form of request, still more like a command.
'Go at once, my dear. You may not play it quite rightly; and I know you are very nervous; but you're quite amongst friends.'
So there was a disturbance made in the little group at the piano, and Molly sate down to her martyrdom.
'Please, go away!' said she to Osborne, who was standing behind her ready to turn over. 'I can quite well do it for myself. And oh! if you would but talk!'
Osborne remained where he was in spite of her appeal, and gave her what little approval she got; for Mrs Gibson, exhausted by her previous labour of counting her stitches, fell asleep in her comfortable sofa-corner near the fire; and Roger, who began at first to talk a little in compliance with Molly's request, found his tête-à-tête with Cynthia so agreeable, that Molly lost her place several times in trying to catch a sudden glimpse of Cynthia sitting at her work, and Roger by her, intent on catching her low replies to what he was saying.
'There, now I've done!' said Molly, standing up quickly as soon as she had finished the eighteen dreary pages; 'and I think I will never sit down to play again!'
Osborne laughed at her vehemence. Cynthia began to take some part in what was being said, and thus made the conversation general. Mrs Gibson wakened up gracefully, as was her way of doing all things, and slid into the subjects they were talking about so easily, that she almost succeeded in making them believe she had never been asleep at all.
All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.' And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under-clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. Miss Rose was generally very busy just before Easter in Hollingford. Then this year there was the charity ball. Ashcombe, Hollingford, and Coreham were three neighbouring towns, of about the same number of population, lying at the three equidistant corners of a triangle. In imitation of greater cities with their festivals, these three towns had agreed to have an annual ball for the benefit of the county hospital to be held in turn at each place; and Hollingford was to be the place this year.
It was a fine time for hospitality, and every house of any pretension was as full as it could hold, and flys were engaged long months before.
If Mrs Gibson could have asked Osborne, or in default, Roger Hamley to go to the ball with them and to sleep at their house, - or if, indeed, she could have picked up any stray scion of a 'county family' to whom such an offer would have been a convenience, she would have restored her own dressing-room to its former use as the spare-room, with pleasure. But she did not think it was worth her while to put herself out for any of the humdrum and ill-dressed women who had been her former acquaintance at Ashcombe. For Mr Preston it might have been worth while to give up her room, considering him in the light of a handsome and prosperous young man, and a good dancer besides. But there were more lights in which he was to be viewed. Mr Gibson, who really wanted to return the hospitality shown to him by Mr Preston at the time of his marriage, had yet an instinctive distaste to the man, which no wish of freeing himself from obligation, nor even the more worthy feeling of hospitality, could overcome. Mrs Gibson had some old grudges of her own against him, but she was not one to retain angry feelings, or be very active in her retaliation; she was afraid of Mr Preston, and admired him at the same time. It was awkward too - so she said - to go into a ball-room without any gentleman at all, and Mr Gibson was so uncertain! On the whole - partly for this last-given reason, and partly because conciliation was the best policy, Mrs Gibson herself was slightly in favour of inviting Mr Preston to be their guest. But as soon as Cynthia heard the question discussed - or rather, as soon as she heard it discussed in Mr Gibson's absence, she said that if Mr Preston came to be their visitor on the occasion, she for one would not go to the ball at all. She did not speak with vehemence or in anger; but with such quiet resolution that Molly looked up in surprise. She saw that Cynthia was keeping her eyes fixed on her work, and that she had no intention of meeting any one's gaze, or giving any further explanation. Mrs Gibson, too, looked perplexed, and once or twice seemed on the point of asking some question; but she was not angry as Molly had fully expected. She watched Cynthia furtively and in silence for a minute or two, and then said that after all she could not conveniently give up her dressing-room; and altogether, they had better say no more about it. So no stranger was invited to stay at Mr Gibson's at the time of the ball; but Mrs Gibson openly spoke of her regret at the unavoidable inhospitality, and hoped that they might be able to build an addition to their house before the triennial Hollingford ball.
Another cause of unusual bustle at Hollingford this Easter was the expected return of the family to the Towers, after their unusually long absence. Mr Sheepshanks might be seen trotting up and down on his stout old cob, speaking to attentive masons, plasterers, and glaziers about putting everything - on the outside at least - about the cottages belonging to 'my lord,' in perfect repair. Lord Cumnor owned the greater part of the town; and those who lived under other landlords, or in houses of their own, were stirred up by the dread of contrast to do up their dwellings. So the ladders of whitewashers and painters were sadly in the way of the ladies tripping daintily along to make their purchases, and holding their gowns up in a bunch behind, after a fashion quite gone out in these days.' The housekeeper and steward from the Towers might also be seen coming in to give orders at the various shops; and stopping here and there at those kept by favourites, to avail themselves of the eagerly-tendered refreshments.
Lady Harriet came to call on her old governess the day after the arrival of the family at the Towers. Molly and Cynthia were out walking when she came - doing some errands for Mrs Gibson, who had a secret idea that Lady Harriet would call at the particular time she did, and had a not uncommon wish to talk to her ladyship without the corrective presence of any member of her own family.
Mrs Gibson did not give Molly the message of remembrance that Lady Harriet had left for her; but she imparted various pieces of news relating to the Towers with great animation and interest. The Duchess of Menteith and her daughter, Lady Alice, were coming to the Towers; would be there the day of the ball; would come to the ball; and the Menteith diamonds were famous. That was piece of news the first. The second was that ever so many gentlemen were coming to the Towers - some English, some French. This piece of news would have come first in order of importance had there been much probability of their being dancing men, and, as such, possible partners at the coming ball. But Lady Harriet had spoken of them as Lord Hollingford's friends, useless scientific men in all probability. Then, finally, Mrs Gibson was to go to the Towers next day to lunch; Lady Cumnor had written a little note by Lady Harriet to beg her to come; if Mrs Gibson could manage to find her way to the Towers, one of the carriages in use should bring her back to her own home in the course of the afternoon.
'The dear countess!' said Mrs Gibson, with soft affection. It was a soliloquy, uttered after a minute's pause, at the end of all this information.
And all the rest of that day her conversation had an aristocratic perfume hanging about it. One of the few books she had brought with her into Mr Gibson's house was bound in pink, and in it she studied 'Menteith, Duke of, Adolphus George,' &c. &c., till she was fully up in all the duchess's connections, and probable interests. Mr Gibson made his mouth up into a droll whistle when he came home at night, and found himself in a Towers' atmosphere. Molly saw the shade of annoyance through the drollery; she was beginning to see it oftener than she liked, not that she reasoned upon it, or that she consciously traced the annoyance to its source; but she could not help feeling uneasy in herself when she knew her father was in the least put out.
Of course a fly was ordered for Mrs Gibson. In the early afternoon she came home. If she had been disappointed in her interview with the countess she never told her woe, nor revealed the fact that when she first arrived at the Towers she had to wait for an hour in Lady Cumnor's morning-room, uncheered by any companionship save that of her old friend Mrs Bradley, till suddenly, Lady Harriet coming in, she exclaimed, 'Why, Clare! you dear woman! are you here all alone? Does mamma know?' And, after a little more affectionate conversation, she rushed to find her ladyship, perfectly aware of the fact, but too deep in giving the duchess the benefit of her wisdom and experience in trousseaux to be at all aware of the length of time Mrs Gibson had been passing in patient solitude. At lunch Mrs Gibson was secretly hurt by my lord's supposing it to be her dinner, and calling out his urgent hospitality from the very bottom of the table, giving as a reason for it, that she must remember it was her dinner. In vain she piped out in her soft, high voice, 'Oh, my lord! I never eat meat in the middle of the day; I can hardly eat anything at lunch.' Her voice was lost, and the duchess might go away with the idea that the Hollingford doctor's wife dined early; that is to say, if her grace ever condescended to have any idea on the subject at all; which presupposes that she was cognizant of the facts of there being a doctor at Hollingford, and that he had a wife, and that his wife was the pretty, faded, elegant-looking woman sending away her plate of untasted food - food that she longed to eat, for she was really desperately hungry after her drive and her solitude.
And then, after lunch, there did come a tête-à-tête with Lady Cumnor, which was conducted after this wise: -
'Well, Clare! I am really glad to see you. I once thought I should never get back to the Towers, but here I am! There was such a clever man at Bath - a Doctor Snape - he cured me at last - quite set me up. I really think if ever I am ill again I shall send for him: it is such a thing to find a really clever medical man. Oh, by the way, I always forget you've married Mr Gibson - of course he is very clever, and all that. (The carriage to the door in ten minutes, Brown, and desire Bradley to bring my things down.) What was I asking you? Oh! how do you get on with the step-daughter. She seemed to me to be a young lady with a pretty stubborn will of her own. I put a letter for the post down somewhere, and I cannot think where; do help me to look for it, there's a good woman. Just run to my room, and see if Brown can find it, for it is of great consequence.'
Off went Mrs Gibson rather unwillingly; for there were several things she had wanted to speak about, and she had not heard half of what she had expected to learn of the family gossip. But all chance was gone; for when she came back from her fruitless errand, Lady Cumnor and the duchess were in full talk, Lady Cumnor with the missing letter in her hand, which she was using something like a baton to enforce her words.
'Every iota from Paris! Every i-o-ta!'
Lady Cumnor was too much of a lady not to apologize for useless trouble, but they were nearly the last words she spoke to Mrs Gibson, for she had to go out and drive with the duchess; and the brougham to take 'Clare' (as she persisted in calling Mrs Gibson) back to Hollingford, followed the carriage to the door. Lady Harriet came away from her entourage of young men and young ladies, all prepared for some walking expedition, to wish Mrs Gibson good-by.
'We shall see you at the ball,' she said. 'You'll be there with your two girls, of course, and I must have a little talk with you there; with all these visitors in the house, it has been impossible to see anything of you to-day, you know.'
Such were the facts, but rose-colour was the medium through which they were seen by Mrs Gibson's household listeners on her return.
'There are many visitors staying at the Towers - oh, yes! a great many: the duchess and Lady Alice, and Mr and Mrs Grey, and Lord Albert Monson and his sister, and my old friend Captain James of the Blues - many more, in fact. But of course I preferred going to Lady Cumnor's own room, where I could see her and Lady Harriet quietly, and where we were not disturbed by the bustle downstairs. Of course we were obliged to go down to lunch, and then I saw my old friends, and renewed pleasant acquaintances. But I really could hardly get any connected conversation with any one. Lord Cumnor seemed so delighted to see me there again: though there were six or seven between us, he was always interrupting with some civil or kind speech especially addressed to me. And after lunch Lady Cumnor asked me all sorts of questions about my new life with as much interest as if I had been her daughter. To be sure, when the duchess came in we had to leave off, and talk about the trousseau she is preparing for Lady Alice. Lady Harriet made such a point of our meeting at the ball; she is a good, affectionate creature, is Lady Harriet!'
This last was said in a tone of meditative appreciation.
The afternoon of the day on which the ball was to take place, a servant rode over from Hamley with two lovely nosegays, 'with the Mr Hamleys' compliments to Miss Gibson and Miss Kirkpatrick.' Cynthia was the first to receive them. She came dancing into the drawing-room, flourishing the flowers about in either hand, and danced up to Molly, who was trying to settle to her reading, by way of passing the time away till the evening came.
'Look, Molly, look! Here are bouquets for us! Long life to the givers!'
'Who are they from?' asked Molly, taking hold of one, and examining it with tender delight at its beauty.
'Who from? Why, the two paragons of Hamleys, to be sure! Is it not a pretty attention?'
'How kind of them!' said Molly.
'I'm sure it is Osborne who thought of it. He has been so much abroad, where it is such a common compliment to send bouquets to young ladies.'
'I don't see why you should think it is Osborne's thought!' said Molly, reddening a little. 'Mr Roger Hamley used to gather nosegays constantly for his mother, and sometimes for me.'
'Well, never mind whose thought it was, or who gathered them; we've got the flowers, and that's enough. Molly, I'm sure these red flowers will just match your coral necklace and bracelets,' said Cynthia, pulling out some camellias, then a rare kind of flower.
'Oh, please, don't!' exclaimed Molly. 'Don't you see how carefully the colours are arranged - they have taken such pains; please, don't.'
'Nonsense!' said Cynthia, continuing to pull them out; 'see, here are quite enough. I'll make you a little coronet of them - sewn on black velvet, which will never be seen - just as they do in France!'
'Oh, I am so sorry! It is quite spoilt,' said Molly.
'Never mind! I'll take this spoilt bouquet; I can make it up again just as prettily as ever; and you shall have this, which has never been touched.' Cynthia went on arranging the crimson buds and flowers to her taste. Molly said nothing, but kept on watching Cynthia's nimble fingers tying up the wreath.
'There,' said Cynthia, at last, 'when that is sewn on black velvet, to keep the flowers from dying, you'll see how pretty it will look. And there are enough red flowers in this untouched nosegay to carry out the idea!'
'Thank you' (very slowly). 'But shan't you mind having only the wrecks of the other?'
'Not I; red flowers would not go with my pink dress.'
'But - I daresay they arranged each nosegay so carefully!'
'Perhaps they did. But I never would allow sentiment to interfere with my choice of colours; and pink does tie one down. Now you, in white muslin, just tipped with crimson, like a daisy, may wear anything.'
Cynthia took the utmost pains in dressing Molly, leaving the clever housemaid to her mother's exclusive service. Mrs Gibson was more anxious about her attire than was either of the girls; it had given her occasion for deep thought and not a few sighs. Her deliberation had ended in her wearing her pearl-grey satin wedding-gown, with a profusion of lace, and white and coloured lilacs. Cynthia was the one who took the affair the most lightly. Molly looked upon the ceremony of dressing for a first ball as rather a serious ceremony; certainly as an anxious proceeding. Cynthia was almost as anxious as herself; only Molly wanted her appearance to be correct and unnoticed; and Cynthia was desirous of setting off Molly's rather peculiar charms - her cream-coloured skin, her profusion of curly black hair, her beautiful long-shaped eyes, with their shy, loving expression. Cynthia took up so much time in dressing Molly to her mind, that she herself had to perform her toilette in a hurry. Molly, ready dressed, sate on a low chair in Cynthia's room, watching the pretty creature's rapid movements, as she stood in her petticoat before the glass, doing up her hair, with quick certainty of effect. At length, Molly heaved a long sigh, and said, -
'I should like to be pretty!'
'Why, Molly,' said Cynthia, turning round with an exclamation on the tip of her tongue; but when she caught the innocent, wistful look on Molly's face, she instinctively checked what she was going to say, and, half-smiling to her own reflection in the glass, she said, - 'The French girls would tell you, to believe that you were pretty would make you so.'
Molly paused before replying, -
'I suppose they would mean that if you knew you were pretty, you would never think about your looks; you would be so certain of being liked, and that it is caring -- '
'Listen! that's eight o'clock striking. Don't trouble yourself with trying to interpret a French girl's meaning, but help me on with my frock, there's a dear one.'
The two girls were dressed, and were standing over the fire waiting for the carriage in Cynthia's room, when Maria (Betty's successor) came hurrying into the room. Maria had been officiating as maid to Mrs Gibson, but she had had intervals of leisure, in which she had rushed upstairs, and, under the pretence of offering her services, she had seen the young ladies' dresses, and the sight of so many fine clothes had sent her into a state of excitement which made her think nothing of rushing upstairs for the twentieth time, with a nosegay still more beautiful than the two previous ones.
'Here, Miss Kirkpatrick! No, it's not for you, miss!' as Molly, being nearer to the door, offered to take it and pass it to Cynthia. 'It's for Miss Kirkpatrick; and there's a note for her besides!'
Cynthia said nothing, but took the note and the flowers. She held the note so that Molly could read it at the same time she did.
'Who is it?' asked Molly.
Cynthia looked extremely irritated, indignant, perplexed - what was it turned her cheek so pale, and made her eyes so full of fire?
'It is Mr Preston,' said she, in answer to Molly. 'I shall not dance with him; and here go his flowers - '
Into the very middle of the embers, which she immediately stirred down upon the beautiful shrivelling petals as if she wished to annihilate them as soon as possible. Her voice had never been raised; it was as sweet as usual; nor, though her movements were prompt enough, were they hasty or violent.
'Oh!' said Molly, 'those beautiful flowers! We might have put them in water.'
'No,' said Cynthia; 'it's best to destroy them. We don't want them; and I can't bear to be reminded of that man.'
'It was an impertinent familiar note,' said Molly. 'What right had he to express himself in that way - no beginning, no end, and only initials. Did you know him well when you were at Ashcombe, Cynthia?'
'Oh, don't let us think any more about him,' replied Cynthia. 'It is quite enough to spoil any pleasure at the ball to think that he will be there. But I hope I shall get engaged before he comes, so that I can't dance with him - and don't you, either!'
'There! they are calling for us,' exclaimed Molly, and with quick step, yet careful of their draperies, they made their way downstairs to the place where Mr and Mrs Gibson awaited them. Yes: Mr Gibson was going; even if he had to leave them afterwards to attend to any professional call. And Molly suddenly began to admire her father as a handsome man, when she saw him now, in full evening attire. Mrs Gibson, too - how pretty she was! In short, it was true that no better-looking a party than these four people entered the Hollingford ball-room that evening.
At the present time there are few people at a public ball besides the dancers and their chaperones, or relations in some degree interested in them. But in the days when Molly and Cynthia were young - before railroads were, and before their consequences, the excursion-trains, which take every one up to London now-a-days, there to see their fill of gay crowds and fine dresses - to go to an annual charity-ball, even though all thought of dancing had passed by years ago, and without any of the responsibilities of a chaperone, was a very allowable and favourite piece of dissipation to all the kindly old maids who thronged the country towns of England. They aired their old lace and their best dresses; they saw the aristocratic magnates of the country side; they gossipped with their coevals, and speculated on the romances of the young around them in a curious yet friendly spirit. The Miss Brownings would have thought themselves sadly defrauded of the gayest event of the year, if anything had prevented their attending the charity-ball, and Miss Browning would have been indignant, Miss Phoebe aggrieved, had they not been asked to Ashcombe and Coreham, by friends at each place, who had, like them, gone through the dancing stage of life some five-and-twenty years before, but who liked still to haunt the scenes of their former enjoyment, and see a younger generation dance on 'regardless of their doom.' They had come in one of the two sedan-chairs that yet lingered in use at Hollingford; such a night as this brought a regular harvest of gains to the two old men who, in what was called the 'town's livery,' trotted backwards and forwards with their many loads of ladies and finery. There were some postchaises, and some 'flys,' but after mature deliberation Miss Browning had decided to keep to the more comfortable custom of the sedan-chair; 'which,' as she said to Miss Piper, one of her visitors, 'came into the parlour, and got full of the warm air, and nipped you up, and carried you tight and cosy into another warm room, where you could walk out without having to show your legs by going up steps, or down steps.' Of course only one could go at a time; but here again a little of Miss Browning's good management arranged everything so very nicely, as Miss Hornblower (their other visitor) remarked. She went first, and remained in the warm cloak-room until her hostess followed; and then the two ladies went arm-in-arm into the ball-room, finding out convenient seats whence they could watch the arrivals and speak to their passing friends, until Miss Phoebe and Miss Piper entered, and came to take possession of the seats reserved for them by Miss Browning's care. These two younger ladies came in, also arm-in-arm, but with a certain timid flurry in look and movement very different from the composed dignity of their seniors (by two or three years). When all four were once more assembled together, they took breath, and began to converse.
'Upon my word, I really do think this is a better room than our Ashcombe Court-house!'
'And how prettily it is decorated!' piped out Miss Piper. 'How well the roses are made! But you all have such taste at Hollingford.'
'There's Mrs Dempster,' cried Miss Hornblower; 'she said she and her two daughters were asked to stay at Mr Sheepshanks'. Mr Preston was to be there, too; but I suppose they could not all come at once. Look! and there is young Roscoe, our new doctor. I declare it seems as if all Ashcombe were here. Mr Roscoe! Mr Roscoe! come here and let me introduce you to the Miss Brownings, the friends we are staying with. We think very highly of our young doctor, I can assure you, Miss Browning.'
Mr Roscoe bowed, and simpered at hearing his own praises. But Miss Browning had no notion of having any doctor praised, who had come to settle even on the very verge of Mr Gibson's practice, so she said to Miss Hornblower, -
'You must be glad, I am sure, to have somebody you can call in, if you are in any sudden hurry, or for things that are too trifling to trouble Mr Gibson about; and I should think Mr Roscoe would feel it a great advantage to profit, as he will naturally have the opportunity of doing, by witnessing Mr Gibson's skill!'
Probably Mr Roscoe would have felt more aggrieved by this speech than he really was, if his attention had not been called off just then by the entrance of the very Mr Gibson who was being spoken of. Almost before Miss Browning had ended her severe and depreciatory remarks, he had asked his friend Miss Hornblower, -
'Who is that lovely girl in pink, just come in?'
'Why, that's Cynthia Kirkpatrick!' said Miss Hornblower, taking up a ponderous gold eyeglass to make sure of her fact. 'How she has grown! To be sure it is two or three years since she left Ashcombe - she was very pretty then - people did say Mr Preston admired her very much; but she was so young!'
'Can you introduce me?' asked the impatient young surgeon. 'I should like to ask her to dance.' When Miss Hornblower returned from her greeting to her former acquaintance, Mrs Gibson, and had accomplished the introduction which Mr Roscoe had requested, she began her little confidences to Miss Browning.
'Well, to be sure! How condescending we are! I remember the time when Mrs Kirkpatrick wore old black silks, and was thankful and civil as became her place as a schoolmistress, and as having to earn her bread. And now she is in a satin; and she speaks to me as if she just could recollect who I was, if she tried very hard! It isn't so long ago since Mrs Dempster came to consult me as to whether Mrs Kirkpatrick would be offended, if she sent her a new breadth for her lilac silk-gown, in place of one that had been spoilt by Mrs Dempster's servant spilling the coffee over it the night before; and she took it and was thankful, for all she's dressed in pearl-grey satin now! And she would have been glad enough to marry Mr Preston in those days.'
'I thought you said he admired her daughter,' put in Miss Browning to her irritated friend.
'Well! perhaps I did, and perhaps it was so; I am sure I can't tell; he was a great deal at the house. Miss Dixon keeps a school in the same house now, and I am sure she does it a great deal better.'
'The earl and the countess are very fond of Mrs Gibson,' said Miss Browning. 'I know, for Lady Harriet told us when she came to drink tea with us last autumn; and they desired Mr Preston to be very attentive to her when she lived at Ashcombe.'
'For goodness' sake don't go and repeat what I've been saying about Mr Preston and Mrs Kirkpatrick to her ladyship. One may be mistaken, and you know I only said "people talked about it."'
Miss Hornblower was evidently alarmed lest her gossip should be repeated to the Lady Harriet, who appeared to be on such an intimate footing with her Hollingford friends. Nor did Miss Browning dissipate the illusion. Lady Harriet had drunk tea with them, and might do it again; and, at any rate, the little fright she had put her friend into was not a bad return for that praise of Mr Roscoe, which had offended Miss Browning's loyalty to Mr Gibson.
Meanwhile Miss Piper and Miss Phoebe, who had not the character of esprit-forts to maintain, talked of the dresses of the people present, beginning by complimenting each other.
'What a lovely turban you have got on, Miss Piper, if I may be allowed to say so: so becoming to your complexion!'
'Do you think so?' said Miss Piper, with ill-concealed gratification; it was something to have a 'complexion' at forty-five. 'I got it at Brown's, at Somerton, for this very ball. I thought I must have something to set off my gown, which isn't quite so new as it once was; and I have no handsome jewellery like you' - looking with admiring eyes at a large miniature set round with pearls, which served as a shield to Miss Phoebe's breast.
'It is handsome,' that lady replied. 'It is a likeness of my dear mother; Sally has got my father on. The miniatures were both taken at the same time; and just about then my uncle died and left us each a legacy of fifty pounds, which we agreed to spend on the setting of our miniatures. But because they are so valuable Sally always keeps them locked up with the best silver, and hides the box somewhere; she never will tell me where, because she says I've such weak nerves, and that if a burglar, with a loaded pistol at my head, were to ask me where we kept our plate and jewels, I should be sure to tell him; and she says, for her part, she would never think of revealing under any circumstances. (I'm sure I hope she won't be tried.) But that's the reason I don't wear it often; it's only the second time I've had it on; and I can't even get at it, and look at it, which I should like to do. I shouldn't have had it on to-night, but that Sally gave it out to me, saying it was but a proper compliment to pay to the Duchess of Menteith, who is to be here in all her diamonds.'
'Dear-ah-me! Is she really! Do you know I never saw a duchess before.' And Miss Piper drew herself up and craned her neck, as if resolved to 'behave herself properly,' as she had been taught to do at boarding-school thirty years before, in the presence of 'her grace.' By-and-by she said to Miss Phoebe, with a sudden jerk out of position, - 'Look, look! that's our Mr Cholmley, the magistrate' (he was the great man of Coreham), 'and that's Mrs Cholmley in red satin, and Mr George and Mr Harry from Oxford, I do declare; and Miss Cholmley, and pretty Miss Sophy. I should like to go and speak to them, but then it's so formidable crossing. a room without a gentleman. And there is Coxe the butcher and his wife! Why, all Coreham seems to be here! And how Mrs Coxe can afford such a gown I can't make out for one, for I know Coxe had some difficulty in paying for the last sheep he bought of my brother.'
Just at this moment the band, consisting of two violins, a harp, and an occasional clarionet, having finished their tuning, and brought themselves as nearly into accord as was possible, struck up a brisk country-dance, and partners quickly took their places. Mrs Gibson was secretly a little annoyed at Cynthia's being one of those to stand up in this early dance, the performers in which were principally the punctual plebeians of Hollingford, who, when a ball was fixed to begin at eight, had no notion of being later, and so losing part of the amusement for which they had paid their money. She imparted some of her feelings to Molly, sitting by her, longing to dance, and beating time to the spirited music with one of her pretty little feet.
'Your dear papa is always so very punctual! To-night it seems almost a pity, for we really are here before there is any one come that we know.'
'Oh! I see so many people here that I know. There are Mr and Mrs Smeaton, and that nice good-tempered daughter.'
'Oh! booksellers and butchers if you will.'
'Papa has found a great many friends to talk to.'
'Patients, my dear - hardly friends. There are some nice-looking people here,' catching her eye on the Cholmleys; 'but I daresay they have driven over from the neighbourhood of Ashcombe or Coreham, and have hardly calculated how soon they would get here. I wonder when the Towers' party will come. Ah! there's Mr Ashton, and Mr Preston. Come, the room is beginning to fill.'
So it was, for this was to be a very good ball, people said; and a large party from the Towers was coming, and a duchess in diamonds among the number. Every great house in the district was expected to be full of guests on these occasions; but, at this early hour, the townspeople had the floor almost entirely to themselves; the county magnates came dropping in later; and chiefest among them all was the lord-lieutenant from the Towers. But to-night they were unusually late, and the aristocratic ozone being absent from the atmosphere, there was a flatness about the dancing of all those who considered themselves above the plebeian ranks of the tradespeople. They, however, enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and sprang and pounded till their eyes sparkled and their cheeks glowed with exercise and excitement. Some of the more prudent parents, mindful of the next day's duties, began to consider at what hour they ought to go home; but with all there was an expressed or unexpressed curiosity to see the duchess and her diamonds; for the Menteith diamonds were famous in higher circles than that now assembled; and their fame had trickled down to it through the medium of ladies'-maids and housekeepers. Mr Gibson had had to leave the ball-room for a time, as he had anticipated, but he was to return to his wife as soon as his duties were accomplished; and, in his absence, Mrs Gibson kept herself a little aloof from the Miss Brownings and those of her acquaintance who would willingly have entered into conversation with her, with the view of attaching herself to the skirts of the Towers' party, when they should make their appearance. If Cynthia would not be so very ready in engaging herself to every possible partner who asked her to dance, there were sure to be young men staying at the Towers who would be on the look-out for pretty girls: and who could tell to what a dance would lead? Molly, too, though a less good dancer than Cynthia, and, from her timidity, less graceful and easy, was becoming engaged pretty deeply; and, it must be confessed, she was longing to dance every dance, no matter with whom. Even she might not be available for the more aristocratic partners Mrs Gibson anticipated. She was feeling very much annoyed with the whole proceedings of the evening when she was aware of some one standing by her; and, turning a little to one side, she saw Mr Preston keeping guard, as it were, over the seats which Molly and Cynthia had just quitted. He was looking so black that, if their eyes had not met, Mrs Gibson would have preferred not speaking to him; as it was, she thought it unavoidable.
'The rooms are not well-lighted to-night, are they, Mr Preston?'
'No,' said he; 'but who could light such dingy old paint as this, loaded with evergreens, too, which always darken a room.'
'And the company, too! I always think that freshness and brilliancy of dress go as far as anything to brighten up a room. Look what a set of people are here: the greater part of the women are dressed in dark silks, really only fit for a morning. The place will be quite different, by-and-by, when the county families are in a little more force.'
Mr Preston made no reply. He had put his glass in his eye, apparently for the purpose of watching the dancers. If its exact direction could have been ascertained, it would have been found that he was looking intently and angrily at a flying figure in pink muslin: many a one was gazing at Cynthia with intentness besides himself, but no one in anger. Mrs Gibson was not so fine an observer as to read all this; but here was a gentlemanly and handsome young man, to whom she could prattle, instead of either joining herself on to objectionable people, or sitting all forlorn until the Towers' party came. So she went on with her small remarks.
'You are not dancing, Mr Preston!'
'No! The partner I had engaged has made some mistake. I am waiting to have an explanation with her.'
Mrs Gibson was silent. An uncomfortable tide of recollections appeared to come over her; she, like Mr Preston, watched Cynthia; the dance was ended, and she was walking round the room in easy unconcern as to what might await her. Presently her partner, Mr Harry Cholmley, brought her back to her seat. She took that vacant next to Mr Preston, leaving that by her mother for Molly's occupation. The latter returned a moment afterwards to her place. Cynthia seemed entirely unconscious of Mr Preston's neighbourhood. Mrs Gibson leaned forwards, and said to her daughter, -
'Your last partner was a gentleman, my dear. You are improving in your selection. I really was ashamed of you before, figuring away with that attorney's clerk. Molly, do you know whom you have been dancing with? I have found out he is the Coreham bookseller.'
'That accounts for his being so well up in all the books I have been wanting to hear about,' said Molly, eagerly, but with a spice of malice in her mind. 'He really was very pleasant, mamma,' she added; 'and he looks quite a gentleman, and dances beautifully!'
'Very well. But remember if you go on this way you will have to shake hands over the counter to-morrow morning with some of your partners of to-night,' said Mrs Gibson, coldly.
'But I really don't know how to refuse when people are introduced to me and ask me, and I am longing to dance. You know to-night it is a charity-ball, and papa said everybody danced with everybody,' said Molly, in a pleading tone of voice; for she could not quite and entirely enjoy herself if she was out of harmony with any one. What reply Mrs Gibson would have made to this speech cannot now be ascertained, for, before she could make reply, Mr Preston stepped a little forwards, and said, in a tone which he meant to be icily indifferent, but which trembled with anger, -
'If Miss Gibson finds any difficulty in refusing a partner, she has only to apply to Miss Kirkpatrick for instructions.'
Cynthia lifted up her beautiful eyes, and, fixing them on Mr Preston's face, said, very quietly, as if only stating a matter of fact, -
'You forget, I think, Mr Preston: Miss Gibson implied that she wished to dance with the person who asked her - that makes all the difference. I can't instruct her how to act in that difficulty.'
And to the rest of this little conversation, Cynthia appeared to lend no car; and she was almost directly claimed by her next partner. Mr Preston took the seat now left empty much to Molly's annoyance. At first she feared lest he should be going to ask her to dance; but, instead, he put out his hand for Cynthia's nosegay, which she had left on rising, entrusted to Molly. It had suffered considerably from the heat of the room, and was no longer full and fresh; not so much so as Molly's, which had not, in the first instance, been pulled to pieces in picking out the scarlet flowers which now adorned Molly's hair, and which had since been cherished with more care. Enough, however, remained of Cynthia's to show very distinctly that it was not the one Mr Preston had sent; and it was perhaps to convince himself of this, that he mutely asked to examine it. But Molly, faithful to what she imagined would be Cynthia's wish, refused to allow him to touch it; she only held it a little nearer.
'Miss Kirkpatrick has not done me the honour of wearing the bouquet I sent her, I see. She received it, I suppose, and my note?'
'Yes,' said Molly, rather intimidated by the tone in which this was said. 'But we had already accepted these two nosegays.'
Mrs Gibson was just the person to come to the rescue with her honeyed words on such an occasion as 'the present. She evidently was rather afraid of Mr Preston, and wished to keep at peace with him.
'Oh, yes, we were so sorry! Of course, I don't mean to say we could be sorry for any one's kindness; but two such lovely nosegays had been sent from Hamley Hall - you may see how beautiful from what Molly holds in her hand - and they had come before yours, Mr Preston.'
'I should have felt honoured if you had accepted of mine, since the young ladies were so well provided for. I was at some pains in selecting the flowers at Green's; I think I may say it was rather more recherché than that of Miss Kirkpatrick's, which Miss Gibson holds so tenderly and securely in her hand.'
'Oh, because Cynthia would take out the most effective flowers to put in my hair!' exclaimed Molly, eagerly.
'Did she?' said Mr Preston' with a certain accent of pleasure in his voice, as though he were glad she set so little store by the nosegay; and he walked off to stand behind Cynthia in the quadrille that was being danced; and Molly saw him making her reply to him - against her will, Molly was sure. But, somehow, his face and manner implied power over her. She looked grave, deaf, indifferent, indignant, defiant; but, after a half-whispered speech to Cynthia, at the conclusion of the dance, she evidently threw him an impatient consent to what he was asking, for he walked off with a disagreeable smile of satisfaction on his handsome face.
All this time the murmurs were spreading at the lateness of the party from the Towers, and person after person came up to Mrs Gibson as if she were the accredited authority as to the earl and countess's plans. In one sense this was flattering; but then the acknowledgment of common ignorance and wonder reduced her to the level of the inquirers. Mrs Goodenough felt herself particularly aggrieved; she had had her spectacles on for the last hour and a half, in order to be ready for the sight the very first minute any one from the Towers appeared at the door.
'I had a headache,' she complained, 'and I should have sent my money, and never stirred out o' doors to-night; for I've seen a many of these here balls, and my lord and my lady too, when they were better worth looking at nor they are now; but every one was talking of the duchess, and the duchess and her diamonds, and I thought I shouldn't like to be behindhand, and never ha' seen neither the duchess nor her diamonds; so I'm here, and coal and candlelight wasting away at home, for I told Sally to sit up for me; and, above everything, I cannot abide waste. I took it from my mother, who was such a one against waste as you never see now-a-days. She was a manager, if ever there was a one, and brought up nine children on less than any one else could do, I'll be bound. Why! She wouldn't let us be extravagant - not even in the matter of colds. Whenever any on us had got a pretty bad cold, she took the opportunity and cut our hair; for she said, said she, it was of no use having two colds when one would do - and cutting of our hair was sure to give us a cold. But, for all that, I wish the duchess would come.'
'Ah! but fancy what it is to me,' sighed out Mrs Gibson; 'so long as I have been without seeing the dear family - and seeing so little of them the other day when I was at the Towers (for the duchess would have my opinion on Lady Alice's trousseau, and kept asking me so many questions it took up all the time) - and Lady Harriet's last words were a happy anticipation of our meeting to-night. It's nearly twelve o'clock.'
Every one of any pretensions to gentility was painfully affected by the absence of the family from the Towers; the very fiddlers seemed unwilling to begin playing a dance that might be interrupted by the entrance of the great folks. Miss Phoebe Browning had apologized for them - Miss Browning had blamed them with calm dignity; it was only the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers who rather enjoyed the absence of restraint, and were happy and hilarious.
At last, there was a rumbling, and a rushing, and a whispering, and the music stopped, so the dancers were obliged to do so too, and in came Lord Cumnor in his state dress, with a fat, middle-aged woman on his arm; she was dressed almost like a girl - in a sprigged muslin, with natural flowers in her hair, but not a vestige of a jewel or a diamond. Yet it must be the duchess; but what was a duchess without diamonds? - and in a dress which farmer Hodson's daughter might have worn! Was it the duchess? Could it be the duchess? The little crowd of inquirers around Mrs Gibson thickened, to hear her confirm their disappointing surmise. After the duchess came Lady Cumnor, looking like Lady Macbeth in black velvet - a cloud upon her brow, made more conspicuous by the lines of age rapidly gathering on her handsome face; and Lady Harriet, and other ladies, amongst whom there was one dressed so like the duchess as to suggest the idea of a sister rather than a daughter, as far as dress went. There was Lord Hollingford, plain in face, awkward in person, gentlemanly in manner; and half-a-dozen younger men, Lord Albert Monson, Captain James, and others of their age and standing, who came in looking anything if not critical. This long-expected party swept up to the seats reserved for them at the head of the room, apparently regardless of the interruption they caused; for the dancers stood aside, and almost dispersed back to their seats, and when 'Money-musk" struck up again, not half the former set of people stood up to finish the dance.
Lady Harriet, who was rather different to Miss Piper, and no more minded crossing the room alone than if the lookers-on were so many cabbages, spied the Gibson party pretty quickly out, and came across to them.
'Here we are at last. How d'ye do, dear? Why, little one' (to Molly), 'how nice you're looking! Aren't we shamefully late?'
'Oh! it's only just past twelve,' said Mrs Gibson; 'and I daresay you dined very late.'
'It was not that; it was that ill-mannered woman, who went to her own room after we came out from dinner, and she and Lady Alice stayed there invisible, till we thought they were putting on some splendid attire - as they ought to have done - and at half-past ten when mamma sent up to them to say the carriages were at the door, the duchess sent down for some beef-tea, and at last appeared à l'enfant as you see her. Mamma is so angry with her, and some of the others are annoyed at not coming earlier, and one or two are giving themselves airs about coming at all. Papa is the only one who is not affected by it.' Then turning to Molly Lady Harriet asked, -
'Have you been dancing much, Miss Gibson?'
'Yes; not every dance, but nearly all.'
It was a simple question enough; but Lady Harriet's speaking at all to Molly had become to Mrs Gibson almost like shaking a red rag at a bull; it was the one thing sure to put her out of temper. But she would not have shown this to Lady Harriet for the world; only she contrived to baffle any endeavours at further conversation between the two, by placing herself between Lady Harriet and Molly, whom the former asked to sit down in the absent Cynthia's room.
'I won't go back to those people, I am so mad with them; and, besides, I hardly saw you the other day, and I must have some gossip with you.' So she sat down by Mrs Gibson, and as Mrs Goodenough afterwards expressed it, 'looked like anybody else.' Mrs Goodenough said this to excuse herself for a little misadventure she fell into. She had taken a deliberate survey of the grandees at the upper end of the room, spectacles on nose, and had inquired, in no very measured voice, who everybody was, from Mr Sheepshanks, my lord's agent, and her very good neighbour, who in vain tried to check her loud ardour for information by replying to her in whispers. But she was rather deaf as well as blind, so his low tones only brought upon him fresh inquiries. Now, satisfied as far as she could be, and on her way to departure, and the extinguishing of fire and candlelight, she stopped opposite to Mrs Gibson, and thus addressed her by way of renewal of their former subject of conversation, -
'Such a shabby thing for a duchess I never saw; not a bit of a diamond near her. They're none of them worth looking at except the countess, and she's always a personable woman, and not so lusty as she was. But they're not worth waiting up for till this time o' night.'
There was a moment's pause. Then Lady Harriet put her hand out, and said, -
'You don't remember me, but I know you from having seen you at the Towers. Lady Cumnor is a good deal thinner than she was, but we hope her health is better for it.'
'It's Lady Harriet,' said Mrs Gibson to Mrs Goodenough, in reproachful dismay.
'Deary me, your ladyship! I hope I've given no offence! But, you see - that is to say, your ladyship sees, that it's late hours for such folks as me, and I only stayed out of my bed to see the duchess, and I thought she'd come in diamonds and a coronet; and it puts one out at my age, to be disappointed in the only chance I'm like to have of so fine a sight.'
'I'm put out too,' said Lady Harriet. 'I wanted to have come early, and here we are as late as this. I'm so cross and ill-tempered, I should be glad to hide myself in bed as soon as you will do.'
She said this so sweetly that Mrs Goodenough relaxed into a smile, and her crabbedness into a compliment.
'I don't believe as ever your ladyship can be cross and ill-tempered with that pretty face. I'm an old woman, so you must let me say so.' Lady Harriet stood up, and made a low curtsey. Then holding out her hand, she said, -
'I won't keep you up any longer; but I'll promise one thing in return for your pretty speech: if ever I am a duchess, I'll come and show myself to you in all my robes and gewgaws. Good-night, madam!'
'There! I knew how it would be!' said she, not resuming her seat. 'And on the eve of a county election too.'
'Oh! you must not take old Mrs Goodenough as a specimen, dear Lady Harriet. She is always a grumbler! I am sure no one else would complain of your all being as late as you liked,' said Mrs Gibson.
'What do you say, Molly?' said Lady Harriet, suddenly turning her eyes on Molly's face. 'Don't you think we've lost some of our popularity, - which at this time means votes - by coming so late. Come, answer me! you used to be a famous little truth-teller.'
'I don't know about popularity or votes,' said Molly, rather unwillingly. 'But I think many people were sorry you did not come sooner; and isn't that rather a proof of popularity?' she added.
'That's a very neat and diplomatic answer,' said Lady Harriet, smiling, and tapping Molly's cheek with her fan.'
'Molly knows nothing about it,' said Mrs Gibson, a little off her guard. 'It would be very impertinent if she or any one else questioned Lady Cumnor's perfect right to come when she chose.'
'Well, all I know is, I must go back to mamma now, but I shall make another raid into these regions by-and-by, and you must keep a place for me. Ah! there are - the Miss Brownings; you see I don't forget my lesson, Miss Gibson.'
'Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,' said Mrs Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her step-daughter. 'You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don't be always putting yourself into our conversation.'
'But I must speak if she asks me questions,' pleaded Molly.
'Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I'm candid about that at any rate. But there's no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.'
'I don't know how to help it,' said Molly.
'She's such a whimsical person; look there, if she's not talking to Miss Phoebe; and Miss Phoebe is so weak she'll be easily led away into fancying she is hand and glove with Lady Harriet. If there is one thing I hate more than another, it is the trying to make out an intimacy with great people.'
Molly felt innocent enough, so she offered no justification of herself, and made no reply. Indeed she was more occupied in watching Cynthia. She could not understand the change that seemed to have come over the latter. She was dancing, it was true, with the same lightness and grace as before, but the smooth bounding motion as of a feather blown onwards by the wind was gone. She was conversing with her partner, but without the soft animation that usually shone out upon her countenance. And when she was brought back to her seat Molly noticed her changed colour, and her dreamily abstracted eyes.
'What is the matter, Cynthia?' asked she, in a very low voice.
'Nothing,' said Cynthia, suddenly looking up, and in an accent of what was in her, sharpness. 'Why should there be?'
'I don't know; but you look different to what you did - tired or something.'
'There is nothing the matter, or, if there is, don't talk about it. It is all your fancy.'
This was a rather contradictory speech, to be interpreted by intuition rather than by logic. Molly understood that Cynthia wished for quietness and silence. But what was her surprise, after the speeches that had passed before, and the implication of Cynthia's whole manner to Mr Preston, to see him come up, and, without a word, offer his arm to Cynthia and lead her off to dance. It appeared to strike Mrs Gibson as something remarkable, for, forgetting her late passage at arms with Molly, she asked, wanderingly, as if almost distrusting the evidence of her senses, -
'Is Cynthia going to dance with Mr Preston?'
Molly had scarcely time to answer before she herself was led off by her partner. She could hardly attend to him or to the figures of the quadrille for watching for Cynthia among the moving forms.
Once she caught a glimpse of her standing still - downcast - listening to Mr Preston's eager speech. Again she was walking languidly among the dancers, almost as if she took no notice of those around her. When she and Molly joined each other again, the shade on Cynthia's face had deepened to gloom. But, at the same time, if a physiognomist had studied her expression, he would have read in it defiance and anger, and perhaps also a little perplexity. While this quadrille had been going on, Lady Harriet had been speaking to her brother.
'Hollingford!' she said, laying her hand on his arm, and drawing him a little apart from the well-born crowd amid which he stood, silent and abstracted, 'you don't know how these good people here have been hurt and disappointed with our being so late, and with the duchess's ridiculous simplicity of dress.'
'Why should they mind it?' asked he, taking advantage of her being out of breath with eagerness.
'Oh, don't be so wise and stupid; don't you see, we're a show and a spectacle - it's like having a pantomime with harlequin and columbine in plain clothes."
'I don't understand how -- ' he began.
'Then take it upon trust. They really are a little disappointed, whether they are logical or not in being so, and we must try and make it up to them; for one thing, because I can't bear our vassals to look dissatisfied and disloyal, and then there's the election in June.'
'I really would as soon be out of the House as in it.'
'Nonsense; it would grieve papa beyond measure - but there is no time to talk about that now. You must go and dance with some of the townspeople, and I'll ask Sheepshanks to introduce me to a respectable young farmer. Can't you get Captain James to make himself useful? There he goes with Lady Alice! If I don't get him introduced to the ugliest tailor's daughter I can find for the next dance!' She put her arm in her brother's as she spoke, as if to lead him to some partner. He resisted, however - resisted piteously.
'Pray don't, Harriet. You know I can't dance. I hate it; I always did. I don't know how to get through a quadrille.'
'It's a country dance!' said she, resolutely.
'It's all the same. And what shall I say to my partner? I haven't a notion: I shall have no subject in common. Speak of being disappointed, they'll be ten times more disappointed when they find I can neither dance nor talk!'
'I'll be merciful; don't be so cowardly. In their eyes a lord may dance like a bear - as some lords not very far from me are - if he likes, and they'll take it for grace. And you shall begin with Molly Gibson, your friend the doctor's daughter. She's a good, simple, intelligent little girl, which you'll think a great deal more of, I suppose, than of the frivolous fact of her being very pretty, Clare! will you allow me to introduce my brother to Miss Gibson? he hopes to engage her for this dance. Lord Hollingford, Miss Gibson!'
Poor Lord Hollingford! there was nothing for it but for him to follow his sister's very explicit lead, and Molly and he walked off to their places, each heartily wishing their dance together well over. Lady Harriet flew off to Mr Sheepshanks to secure her respectable young farmer, and Mrs Gibson remained alone, wishing that Lady Cumnor would send one of her attendant gentlemen for her. It would be so much more agreeable to be sitting even at the fag-end of nobility than here on a bench with everybody; hoping that everybody would see Molly dancing away with a lord, yet vexed that the chance had so befallen that Molly instead of Cynthia was the young lady singled out; wondering if simplicity of dress was now become the highest fashion, and pondering on the possibility of cleverly inducing Lady Harriet to introduce Lord Albert Monson to her own beautiful daughter, Cynthia.
Molly found Lord Hollingford, the wise and learned Lord Hollingford, strangely stupid in understanding the mystery of 'Cross hands and back again, down the middle and up again.' He was constantly getting hold of the wrong hands, and as constantly stopping when he had returned to his place, quite unaware that the duties of society and the laws of the dance required that he should go on capering till he had arrived at the bottom of the room. He perceived that he had performed his part very badly, and apologized to Molly when once they had arrived at that haven of comparative peace, and he expressed his regret so simply and heartily that she felt at her ease with him at once, especially when he had confided to her his reluctance at having to dance at all, and his only doing it under his sister's compulsion. To Molly he was an elderly widower, almost as old as her father, and by-and-by they got into very pleasant conversation. She learnt from him that Roger Hamley had just been publishing a paper in some scientific periodical, which had excited considerable attention, as it was intended to confute some theory of a great French physiologist, and Roger's article proved the writer to be possessed of a most unusual amount of knowledge on the subject. This piece of news was of great interest to Molly, and, in her questions, she herself evinced so much intelligence, and a mind so well prepared for the reception of information, that Lord Hollingford at any rate would have felt his quest of popularity a very easy affair indeed, if he might have gone on talking quietly to Molly during the rest of the evening. When he took her back to her place, he found Mr Gibson there, and fell into talk with him, until Lady Harriet once more came to stir him up to his duties. Before very long, however, he returned to Mr Gibson's side, and began telling him of this paper of Roger Hamley's, of which Mr Gibson had not yet heard. In the midst of their conversation, as they stood close by Mrs Gibson, Lord Hollingford saw Molly in the distance, and interrupted himself to say, 'What a charming little lady that daughter of yours is! Most girls of her age are so difficult to talk to; but she is intelligent and full of interest in all sorts of sensible things; well read, too - she was up in Le Régne Animal - and very pretty!'
Mr Gibson bowed, much pleased at such a compliment from such a man, was he lord or not. It is very likely that if Molly had been a stupid listener, Lord Hollingford would not have discovered her beauty, or the converse might be asserted - if she had not been young and pretty he would not have exerted himself to talk on scientific subjects in a manner which she could understand. But in whatever manner Molly had won his approbation and admiration, there was no doubt that she had earned it somehow. And, when she next returned to her place, Mrs Gibson greeted her with soft words and a gracious smile; for it does not require much reasoning power to discover that if it is a very fine thing to be mother-in-law to a very magnificent three-tailed bashaw, it presupposes that the wife who makes the connection between the two parties is in harmony with her mother. And so far had Mrs Gibson's thoughts wandered into futurity. She only wished that the happy chance had fallen to Cynthia's instead of to Molly's lot. But Molly was a docile, sweet creature, very pretty, and remarkably intelligent, as my lord had said. It was a pity that Cynthia preferred making millinery to reading; but perhaps that could be rectified. And there was Lord Cumnor coming to speak to her, and Lady Cumnor nodding to her, and indicating a place by her side.
It was not an unsatisfactory ball upon the whole to Mrs Gibson, although she paid the usual penalty for sitting up beyond her usual hour in perpetual glare and movement. The next morning she awoke irritable and fatigued; and a little of the same feeling oppressed both Cynthia and Molly. The former was lounging in the window-seat, holding a three-days-old newspaper in her hand, which she was making a pretence of reading, when she was startled by her mother's saying, -
'Cynthia! can't you take up a book and improve yourself. I am sure your conversation will never be worth listening to, unless you read something better than newspapers. Why don't you keep up your French? There was some French book that Molly was reading - Le Régne Animal, I think.'
'No! I never read it!' said Molly, blushing. 'Mr Roger Hamley sometimes read pieces out of it when I was first at the Hall, and told me what it was about.'
'Oh! well. Then I suppose I was mistaken. But it comes to all the same thing. Cynthia, you really must learn to settle yourself to some improving reading every morning.'
Rather to Molly's surprise, Cynthia did not reply a word; but dutifully went and brought down from among her Boulogne school-books, Le Siècle de Louis XIV. But after a while Molly saw that this 'improving reading' was just as much a mere excuse for Cynthia's thinking her own thoughts as the newspaper had been.
Things were not going on any better at Hamley Hall. Nothing had occurred to change the state of dissatisfied feeling into which the squire and his eldest son had respectively fallen; and the long continuance merely of dissatisfaction is sure of itself to deepen the feeling, Roger did all in his power to bring the father and son together; but sometimes wondered if it would not have been better to leave them alone; for they were falling into the habit of respectively making him their confidant, and so defining emotions and opinions which would have had less distinctness if they had been unexpressed. There was little enough relief in the daily life at the Hall to help them all to shake off the gloom; and it even told on the health of both the squire and Osborne. The squire became thinner, his skin as well as his clothes began to hang loose about him, and the freshness of his colour turned to red streaks, till his cheeks looked like Eardiston pippins, instead of resembling 'a Katherine pear on the side that's next the sun.' Roger thought that his father sate indoors and smoked in his study more than was good for him, but it had become difficult to get him far afield; he was too much afraid of coming across some sign of the discontinued drainage works, or being irritated afresh by the sight of his depreciated timber. Osborne was wrapt up in the idea of arranging his poems for the press, and so working out his wish for independence. What with daily writing to his wife - taking his letters himself to a distant post-office, and receiving hers there - touching up his sonnets, &c., with fastidious care; and occasionally giving himself the pleasure of a visit to the Gibsons, and enjoying the society of the two pleasant girls there, he found little time for being with his father. Indeed Osborne was too self-indulgent or 'sensitive,' as he termed it, to bear well with the squire's gloomy fits, or too frequent querulousness. The consciousness of his secret, too, made Osborne uncomfortable in his father's presence. It was very well for all parties that Roger was not 'sensitive.' for, if he had been, there were times when it would have been hard to bear little spurts of domestic tyranny, by which his father strove to assert his power over both his sons. One of these occurred very soon after the night of the Hollingford charity-ball.
Roger had induced his father to come out with him; and the squire had, on his son's suggestion, taken with him his long unused spud. The two had wandered far afield; perhaps the elder man had found the unwonted length of exercise too much for him, for, as he approached the house, on his return, he became what nurses call in children 'fractious,' and ready to turn on his companion for every remark he made. Roger understood the case by instinct, as it were, and bore it all with his usual sweetness of temper. They entered the house by the front door; it lay straight on their line of march. On the old cracked yellow-marble slab, there lay a card with Lord Hollingford's name on it, which Robinson, evidently on the watch for their return, hastened out of his pantry to deliver to Roger.
'His lordship was very sorry not to see you, Mr Roger, and his lordship left a note for you. Mr Osborne took it, I think, when he passed through, I asked his lordship if he would like to see Mr Osborne, who was indoors, as I thought. But his lordship said he was pressed for time, and told me to make his excuses.'
'Didn't he ask for me?' growled the squire.
'No, sir; I can't say as his lordship did. He would never have thought of Mr Osborne, sir, if I hadn't named him. It was Mr Roger he seemed so keen after.'
'Very odd,' said the squire. Roger said nothing, although he naturally felt some curiosity. He went into the drawing-room, not quite aware that his father was following him. Osborne sate at a table near the fire, pen in hand, looking over one of his poems, and dotting the i's, crossing the t's, and now and then pausing over the alteration of a word.
'Oh, Roger!' he said, as his brother came in, 'here's been Lord Hollingford wanting to see you.'
'I know,' replied Roger.
'And he's left a note for you. Robinson tried to persuade him it was for my father, so he's added a "junior" (Roger Hamley, Esq., junior) in pencil.' The squire was in the room by this time, and what he had overheard rubbed him up still more the wrong way. Roger took his unopened note and read it.
'What does he say?' asked the squire.
Roger handed him the note. It contained an invitation to dinner to meet M. Geoffroi St H - ,' whose views on certain subjects Roger had been advocating in the article Lord Hollingford had spoken about to Molly, when he danced with her at the Hollingford ball. M. Geoffroi St H - was in England now, and was expected to pay a visit at the Towers in the course of the following week. He had expressed a wish to meet the author of the paper which had already attracted the attention of the French comparative anatomists; and Lord Hollingford added a few words as to his own desire to make the acquaintance of a neighbour whose tastes were so similar to his own; and then followed a civil message from Lord and Lady Cumnor.
Lord Hollingford's hand was cramped and rather illegible. The squire could not read it all at once, and was enough put out to decline any assistance in deciphering it. At last he made it out.
'So my lord lieutenant is taking some notice of the Hamleys at last. The election is coming on, is it? But I can tell him we're not to be got so easily. I suppose this trap is set for you, Osborne? What's this you've been writing that the French mounseer is so taken with?'
'It is not me, sir!' said Osborne. 'Both note and call are for Roger.'
'I don't understand it,' said the squire. 'These Whig fellows have never done their duty by me; not that I want it of them. The Duke of Debenham used to pay the Hamleys a respect due to 'em - the oldest landowners in the county - but since he died, and this shabby Whig lord has succeeded him, I've never dined at the lord lieutenant's once - no, not once.'
'But I think, sir, I've heard you say Lord Cumnor used to invite you, - only you did not choose to go,' said Roger.
'Yes. What d'ye mean by that? Do you suppose I was going to desert the principles of my family, and curry favour of the Whigs? No! leave that to them. They can ask the heir of the Hamleys fast enough when a county election is coming on.'
'I tell you, sir,' said Osborne, in the irritable tone he sometimes used when his father was particularly unreasonable, 'it is not me Lord Hollingford is inviting; it is Roger. Roger is making himself known for what he is, a first-rate fellow,' continued Osborne - a sting of self-reproach mingling with his generous pride in his brother - 'and he is getting himself a name; he's been writing about these new French theories and discoveries, and this foreign savant very naturally wants to make his acquaintance, and so Lord Hollingford asks him to dine. It's as clear as can be,' lowering his tone, and addressing himself to Roger, 'it has nothing to do with politics, if my father would but see it.'
Of course the squire heard this little aside with the unlucky uncertainty of hearing which is a characteristic of the beginning of deafness; and its effect on him was perceptible in the increased acrimony of his next speech.
'You young men think you know everything. I tell you it's a palpable Whig trick. And what business has Roger - if it is Roger the man wants - to go currying favour with the French? In my day we were content to hate 'em and to lick 'em. But it's just like your conceit, Osborne, setting yourself up to say it's your younger brother they're asking, and not you; I tell you it's you. They think the eldest son was sure to be called after his father, Roger - Roger Hamley, junior. It's as plain as a pike-staff. They know they can't catch me with chaff, but they've got up this French dodge. What business had you to go writing about the French, Roger? I should have thought you were too sensible to take any notice of their fancies and theories; but if it is you they've asked, I'll not have you going and meeting these foreigners at a Whig house. They ought to have asked Osborne. He's the representative of the Hamleys, if I'm not; and they can't get me, let them try ever so. Besides, Osborne has got a bit of the mounseer about him, which he caught with being so fond of going off to the Continent, instead of coming back to his good old English home.'
He went on, repeating much of what he had said before, till he left the room. Osborne had kept on replying to his unreasonable grumblings, which had only added to his anger; and as soon as the squire had fairly gone, Osborne turned to Roger, and said, -
'Of course you'll go, Roger? ten to one he'll be in another mind to-morrow.'
'No,' said Roger, bluntly enough - for he was extremely disappointed; 'I won't run the chance of vexing him. I shall refuse.'
'Don't be such a fool!' exclaimed Osborne. 'Really, my father is too unreasonable. You heard how he kept contradicting himself; and such a man as you to be kept under like a child by -- '
'Don't let us talk any more about it, Osborne,' said Roger, writing away fast. When the note was written, and sent off, he came and put his hand caressingly on Osborne's shoulder, as he sate pretending to read, but in reality vexed with both his father and his brother, though on very different grounds.
'How go the poems, old fellow? I hope they're nearly ready to bring out.'
'No, they're not; and if it were not for the money, I shouldn't care if they were never published. What's the use of fame, if one mayn't reap the fruits of it?'
'Come, now, we'll have no more of that; let's talk about the money. I shall be going up for my fellowship examination next week, and then we'll have a purse in common, for they'll never think of not giving me a fellowship now I'm senior wrangler. I'm short enough myself at present, and I don't like to bother my father; but when I'm Fellow, you shall take me down to Winchester, and introduce me to the little wife.'
'It will be a month next Monday since I left her,' said Osborne, laying down his papers and gazing into the fire, as if by so doing he could call up her image. 'In her letter this morning she bids me give you such a pretty message. It won't bear translating into English; you must read it for yourself,' continued he, pointing out a line or two in a letter he drew out of his pocket.
Roger suspected that one or two of the words were wrongly spelt; but their purport was so gentle and loving, and had such a touch of simple, respectful gratitude in them, that he could not help being drawn afresh to the little unseen sister-in-law, whose acquaintance Osborne had made by helping her to look for some missing article of the children's, whom she was taking for their daily walk in Hyde Park. For Mrs Osborne Hamley had been nothing more than a French bonne, very pretty, very graceful, and very much tyrannized over by the rough little boys and girls she had in charge. She was a little orphan-girl, who had charmed the heads of a travelling English family, as she had brought madame some articles of lingerie at an hotel; and she had been hastily engaged by them as bonne to their children, partly as a pet and plaything herself, partly because it would be so good for the children to learn French from a native (of Alsace!). By and by her mistress ceased to take any particular notice of Aimée in the bustle of London and London gaiety; but though feeling more and more forlorn in a strange land every day, the French girl strove hard to do her duty. One touch of kindness, however, was enough to set the fountain gushing; and she and Osborne naturally fell into an ideal state of love, to be rudely disturbed by the indignation of the mother, when accident discovered to her the attachment existing between her children's bonne and a young man of an entirely different class. Aimée answered truly to all her mistress's questions; but no worldly wisdom, nor any lesson to be learnt from another's experience, could in the least disturb her entire faith in her lover. Perhaps Mrs Townshend did no more than her duty in immediately sending Aimée back to Metz, where she had first met with her, and where such relations as remained to the girl might be supposed to be residing. But, altogether, she knew so little of the kind of people or life to which she was consigning her deposed protegee that Osborne, after listening with impatient indignation to the lecture which Mrs Townshend gave him when he insisted on seeing her in order to learn what had become of his love, that the young man set off straight for Metz in hot haste, and did not let the grass grow under his feet until he had made Aimée his wife. All this had occurred the previous autumn, and Roger did not know of the step his brother had taken until it was irrevocable. Then came the mother's death, which, besides the simplicity of its own overwhelming sorrow, brought with it the loss of the kind, tender mediatrix, who could always soften and turn his father's heart. It is doubtful, however, if even she could have succeeded in this, for the squire looked high, and over high, for the wife of his heir; he detested all foreigners, and moreover held all Roman Catholics in dread and abomination something akin to our ancestors' hatred of witchcraft. All these prejudices were strengthened by his grief. Argument would always have glanced harmless away off his shield of utter unreason; but a loving impulse, in a happy moment, might have softened his heart to what he most detested in the former days. But the happy moments came not now, and the loving impulses were trodden down by the bitterness of his frequent remorse, not less than by his growing irritability; so Aimée lived solitary in the little cottage near Winchester in which Osborne had installed her when she first came to England as his wife, and in the dainty furnishing of which he had run himself so deeply into debt. For Osborne consulted his own fastidious taste in his purchases rather than her simple childlike wishes and wants, and looked upon the little Frenchwoman rather as the future mistress of Hamley Hall than as the wife of a man who was wholly dependent on others at present. He had chosen a southern county as being far removed from those midland shires where the name of Hamley of Hamley was well and widely known; for he did not wish his wife to assume, if only for a time, a name which was not justly and legally her own. In all these arrangements he had willingly striven to do his full duty by her; and she repaid him with passionate devotion and admiring reverence. If his vanity had met with a check, or his worthy desires for college honours had been disappointed, he knew where to go for a comforter; one who poured out praise till her words were choked in her throat by the rapidity of her thoughts, and who poured out the small vials of her indignation on every one who did not acknowledge and bow down to her husband's merits. If she ever wished to go to the château - that was his home - and to be introduced to his family, Aimée never hinted a word of it to him. Only she did yearn, and she did plead, for a little more of her husband's company; and the good reasons which had convinced her of the necessity of his being so much away when he was present to urge them, failed in their efficacy when she tried to reproduce them to herself in his absence.
The afternoon of the day on which Lord Hollingford had called, Roger was going upstairs, three steps at a time, when, at a turn on the landing, he encountered his father. It was the first time he had seen him since their conversation about the Towers' invitation to dinner. The squire stopped his son by standing right in the middle of the passage.
'Thou'rt going to meet the mounseer, my lad?' said he, half as affirmation, half as question.
'No, sir; I sent off James almost immediately with a note declining it. I don't care about it - that's to say, not to signify.'
'Why did you take me up so sharp, Roger?' said his father pettishly. 'You all take me up so hastily now-a-days. I think it's hard when a man mustn't be allowed a bit of crossness when he's tired and heavy at heart - that I do.'
'But, father, I should never like to go to a house where they had slighted you.'
'Nay, nay, lad,' said the squire, brightening up a little; 'I think I slighted them. They asked me to dinner after my lord was made lieutenant time after time, but I never would go near 'em. I call that my slighting them.'
And no more was said at the time; but the next day the squire again stopped Roger.
'I've been making Jem try on his livery-coat that he hasn't worn this three or four years, - he's got too stout for it now.'
'Well, he needn't wear it, need he? and Morgan's lad will be glad enough of it, - he's sadly in want of clothes.'
'Ay, ay; but who's to go with you when you call at the Towers? It's but polite to call after Lord What's-his-name has taken the trouble to come here; and I shouldn't like you to go without a groom.'
'My dear father! I shouldn't know what to do with a man riding at my back. I can find my way to the stable-yard for myself, or there'll be some man about to take my horse. Don't trouble yourself about that.'
'Well, you're not Osborne, to be sure. Perhaps it won't strike 'em as strange for you. But you must look up, and hold your own, and remember you're one of the Hamleys, who've been on the same land for hundreds of years, while they're but trumpery Whig folk who only came into the county in Queen Anne's time.'
For some days after the ball Cynthia seemed languid, and was very silent. Molly, who had promised herself fully as much enjoyment in talking over the past gaiety with Cynthia as in the evening itself, was disappointed when she found that all conversation on the subject was rather evaded than encouraged. Mrs Gibson, it is true, was ready to go over the ground as many times as any one liked; but her words were always like ready-made clothes, and never fitted individual thoughts. Anybody might have used them, and, with a change of proper names, they might have served to describe any ball. She repeatedly used the same language in speaking about it, till Molly knew the sentences and their sequence even to irritation.
'Ah! Mr Osborne, you should have been there! I said to myself many a time how you really should have been there - you and, your brother of course.'
'I thought of you very often during the evening!'
'Did you? Now that I call very kind of you. Cynthia, darling! Do you hear what Mr Osborne Hamley was saying?' as Cynthia came into the room just then. 'He thought of us all on the evening of the ball.'
'He did better than merely remember us then,' said Cynthia, with her soft slow smile. 'We owe him thanks for those beautiful flowers, mamma.'
'Oh!' said Osborne, 'you must not thank me exclusively. I believe it was my thought, but Roger took all the trouble of it.'
'I consider the thought as everything,' said Mrs Gibson. 'Thought is spiritual, while action is merely material.'
This fine sentence took the speaker herself by surprise; and in such conversation as was then going on, it is not necessary to accurately define the meaning of everything that is said.
'I'm afraid the flowers were too late to be of much use though,' continued Osborne. 'I met Preston the next morning, and of course we talked about the ball. I was sorry to find he had been beforehand with us,'
'He only sent one nosegay, and that was for Cynthia,' said Molly, looking up from her work. 'And it did not come till after we had received the flowers from Hamley.' Molly caught a sight of Cynthia's face before she bent down again to her sewing. It was scarlet in colour, and there was a flash of anger in her eyes. Both she and her mother hastened to speak as soon as Molly had finished, but Cynthia's voice was choked with passion, and Mrs Gibson had the word.
'Mr Preston's bouquet was just one of those formal affairs any one can buy at a nursery-garden, which always strike me as having no sentiment in them. I would far rather have two or three lilies of the valley gathered for me by a person I like, than the most expensive bouquet that could be bought!'
'Mr Preston had no business to speak as if he had forestalled you,' said Cynthia. 'It came just as we were ready to go, and I put it into the fire directly.'
'Cynthia, my dear love!' said Mrs Gibson (who had never heard of the fate of the flowers until now), 'what an idea of yourself you will give to Mr Osborne Hamley; but to be sure, I can quite understand it. You inherit my feeling - my prejudice - sentimental I grant, against bought flowers.'
Cynthia was silent for a moment; then she said, 'I used some of your flowers, Mr Hamley, to dress Molly's hair. It was a great temptation, for the colour so exactly matched her coral ornaments; but I believe she thought it treacherous to disturb the arrangement, so I ought to take all the blame on myself.'
'The arrangement was my brother's, as I told you; but I am sure he would have preferred seeing them in Miss Gibson's hair rather than in the blazing fire. Mr Preston comes far the worst off.' Osborne was rather amused at the whole affair, and would have liked to probe Cynthia's motives a little farther. He did not hear Molly saying in as soft a voice as if she were talking to herself, 'I wore mine just as they were sent,' for Mrs Gibson came in with a total change of subject.
'Speaking of lilies of the valley, is it true that they grow wild in Hurst Wood? It is not the season for them to be in flower yet; but when it is, I think we must take a walk there - with our luncheon in a basket - a little picnic in fact. You'll join us, won't you?' turning to Osborne. 'I think it's a charming plan! You could ride to Hollingford and put up your horse here, and we would have a long day in the woods and all come home to dinner - dinner with a basket of lilies in the middle of the table!'
'I should like it very much,' said Osborne; 'but I may not be at home. Roger is more likely to be here, I believe, at that time - a month hence.' He was thinking of the visit to London to sell his poems, and the run down to Winchester which he anticipated afterwards - the end of May had been the period fixed for this pleasure for some time, not merely in his own mind, but in writing to his wife.
'Oh, but you must be with us! We must wait for Mr Osborne Hamley, must not we, Cynthia?'
'I'm afraid the lilies won't wait,' replied Cynthia.
'Well, then, we must put it off till dog-rose and honeysuckle time. You will be at home then, won't you? or does the London season present too many attractions?'
'I don't exactly know when dog-roses are in flower!'
'Not know, and you a poet? Don't you remember the lines -
'Yes; but that doesn't specify the time of year that is the time of roses; and I believe my movements are guided more by the lunar calendar than the floral. You had better take my brother for your companion; he is practical in his love of flowers, I am only theoretical.'
'Does that fine word "theoretical" imply that you are ignorant?' asked Cynthia.
'Of course we shall be happy to see your brother; but why can't we have you too? I confess to a little timidity in the presence of one so deep and learned as your brother is from all accounts. Give me a little charming ignorance, if we must call it by that hard word.'
Osborne bowed. It was very pleasant to him to be petted and flattered, even though he knew all the time that it was only flattery. It was an agreeable contrast to the home that was so dismal to him, to come to this house where the society of two agreeable girls, and the soothing syrup of their mother's speeches, awaited him whenever he liked to come. To say nothing of the difference that struck upon his senses, poetical though he might esteem himself, of a sitting-room full of flowers and tokens of women's presence, where all the chairs were easy, and all the tables well covered with pretty things, to the great drawing-room at home, where the draperies were threadbare, and the seats uncomfortable, and no sign of feminine presence ever now lent a grace to the stiff arrangement of the furniture. Then the meals, light and well cooked, suited his taste and delicate appetite so much better than the rich and heavy viands prepared by the servants at the Hall. Osborne was becoming a little afraid of falling into the habit of paying too frequent visits to the Gibsons (and that, not because he feared the consequences of his intercourse with the two young ladies; for he never thought of them excepting as friends; - the fact of his marriage was constantly present to his mind, and Aimée too securely enthroned in his heart, for him to remember that he might be looked upon by others in the light of a possible husband); but the reflection forced itself upon him occasionally, whether he was not trespassing too often on hospitality which he had at present no means of returning.
But Mrs Gibson, in her ignorance of the true state of affairs, was secretly exultant in the attraction which made him come so often and lounge away the hours in their house and garden. She had no doubt that it was Cynthia who drew him to the house; and if the latter had been a little more amenable to reason, her mother would have made more frequent allusions than she did to the crisis which she thought was approaching. But she was restrained by the intuitive conviction that if her daughter became conscious of what was impending, and was made aware of Mrs Gibson's cautious and quiet efforts to forward the catastrophe, the wilful girl would oppose herself to it with all her skill and power. As it was, Mrs Gibson trusted that Cynthia's affections would become engaged before she knew where she was, and that in that case she would not attempt to frustrate her mother's delicate scheming, even though she did perceive it. But Cynthia had come across too many varieties of flirtation, admiration, and even passionate love, to be for a moment at fault as to the quiet friendly nature of Osborne's attentions. She received him always as a sister might a brother. It was different when Roger returned from his election as Fellow of Trinity. The trembling diffidence, the hardly suppressed ardour of his manner, made Cynthia understand before long with what kind of love she had now to deal. She did not put it into so many words - no, not even in her secret heart - but she recognized the difference between Roger's relation to her and Osborne's, long before Mrs Gibson found it out. Molly was, however, the first to discover the nature of Roger's attraction. The first time they saw him after the ball, it came out to her observant eyes. Cynthia had not been looking well since that evening; she went slowly about the house, pale and heavy-eyed; and, fond as she usually was of exercise and the free fresh air, there was hardly any persuading her now to go out for a walk. Molly watched this fading with tender anxiety, but to all her questions as to whether she had felt over-fatigued with her dancing, whether anything had occurred to annoy her, and all such inquiries, she replied in languid negatives. Once Molly touched on Mr Preston's name, and found that this was a subject on which Cynthia was raw; now, Cynthia's face lighted up with spirit, and her whole body showed her ill-repressed agitation, but she only said a few sharp words, expressive of anything but kindly feeling towards the gentleman, and then bade Molly never name his name to her again. Still, the latter could not imagine that he was more than intensely distasteful to her friend, as well as to herself, he could not be the cause of Cynthia's present indisposition. But this indisposition lasted so many days without change or modification, that even Mrs Gibson noticed it, and Molly became positively uneasy. Mrs Gibson considered Cynthia's quietness and languor as the natural consequence of 'dancing with everybody who asked her' at the ball. Partners whose names were in the 'Red Book' would not have produced half the amount of fatigue, according to Mrs Gibson's judgment apparently, and if Cynthia had been quite well, very probably she would have hit the blot in her mother's speech with one of her touches of sarcasm. Then, again, when Cynthia did not rally, Mrs Gibson grew impatient, and accused her of being fanciful and lazy; at length, and partly at Molly's instance, there came an appeal to Mr Gibson, and a professional examination of the supposed invalid, which Cynthia hated more than anything, especially when the verdict was, that there was nothing very much the matter, only a general lowness of tone, and depression of health and spirits, which would soon be remedied by tonics, and, meanwhile, she was not to be urged to exertion.
'If there is one thing I dislike,' said Cynthia to Mr Gibson, after he had pronounced tonics to be the cure for her present state, 'it is the way doctors have of giving tablespoonfuls of nauseous mixtures as a certain remedy for sorrows and cares.' She laughed up in his face as she spoke; she had always a pretty word and smile for him, even in the midst of her loss of spirits.
'Come! you acknowledge you have "sorrows" by that speech; we'll make a bargain: if you'll tell me your sorrows and cares, I'll try and find some other remedy for them than giving you what you are pleased to term my nauseous mixtures.'
'No,' said Cynthia, colouring; 'I never said I had sorrows and cares; I spoke generally. What should I have a sorrow about - you and Molly are only too kind to me,' her eyes filling with tears.
'Well, well, we'll not talk of such gloomy things, and you shall have some sweet emulsion to disguise the taste of the bitters I shall be obliged to fall back upon.'
'Please, don't. If you but knew how I dislike emulsions and disguises! I do want bitters - and if I sometimes - if I'm obliged to - if I'm not truthful myself, I do like truth in others - at least, sometimes.' She ended her sentence with another smile, bus it was rather faint and watery.
Now the first person out of the house to notice Cynthia's change of look and manner was Roger Hamley - and yet he did not see her until, under the influence of the nauseous mixture, she was beginning to recover. But his eyes were scarcely off her during the first five minutes he was in the room. All the time he was trying to talk to Mrs Gibson in reply to her civil platitudes, he was studying Cynthia; and at the first convenient pause he came and stood before Molly, so as to interpose his person between her and the rest of the room; for some visitors had come in subsequent to his entrance.
'Molly, how ill your sister is looking! What is it? Has she had advice? You must forgive me, but so often those who live together in the same house don't observe the first approaches of illness.'
Now Molly's love for Cynthia was fast and unwavering, but if anything tried it, it was the habit Roger had fallen into of always calling Cynthia Molly's sister in speaking to the latter. From any one else it would have been a matter of indifference to her, and hardly to be noticed; it vexed both ear and heart when Roger used the expression; and there was a curtness of manner as well as of words in her reply.
'Oh! she was over-tired by the ball. Papa has seen her, and says she will be all right very soon.'
'I wonder if she wants change of air?' said Roger, meditatively. 'I wish - I do wish we could have her at the Hall; you and your mother too, of course. But I don't see how it would be possible - or else how charming it would be!'
Molly felt as if a visit to the Hall under such circumstances would be altogether so different an affair to all her former ones, that she could hardly tell if she should like it or not.
Roger went on, -
'You got our flowers in time, did you not? Ah! you don't know how often I thought of you that evening! And you enjoyed it too, didn't you? - you had plenty of agreeable partners, and all that makes a first ball delightful? I heard that your sister danced every dance.'
'It was very pleasant,' said Molly, quietly. 'But, after all, I'm not sure if I want to go to another just yet; there seems to be so much trouble connected with a ball.'
'Ah! you are thinking of your sister, and her not being well?'
'No, I was not,' said Molly, rather bluntly. 'I was thinking of the dress, and the dressing, and the weariness the next day.'
He might think her unfeeling if he liked; she felt as if she had only too much feeling just then, for it was bringing on her a strange contraction of heart. But he was too inherently good himself to put any harsh construction on her speech. Just before he went away, while he was ostensibly holding her hand and wishing her good-by, he said to her in a voice too low to be generally heard, -
'Is there anything I could do for your sister? We have plenty of books, as you know, if she cares for reading.' Then, receiving no affirmative look or word from Molly in reply to this suggestion, he went on, - 'Or flowers? she likes flowers. Oh! and our forced strawberries are just ready - I will bring some over to-morrow.'
'I am sure she will like them,' said Molly.
For some reason or other, unknown to the Gibsons, a longer interval than usual occurred between Osborne's visits, while Roger came almost every day, always with some fresh offering by which he openly sought to relieve Cynthia's indisposition as far as it lay in his power. Her manner to him was so gentle and gracious that Mrs Gibson became alarmed, lest, in spite of his 'uncouthness' (as she was pleased to term it), he might come to be preferred to Osborne, who was so strangely neglecting his own interests, in Mrs Gibson's opinion. In her quiet way, she contrived to pass many slights upon Roger; but the darts rebounded from his generous nature that could not have imagined her motives, and fastened themselves on Molly. She had often been called naughty and passionate when she was a child; and she thought now that she began to understand that she really had a violent temper. What seemed neither to hurt Roger nor annoy Cynthia made Molly's blood boil; and now she had once discovered Mrs Gibson's wish to make Roger's visits shorter and less frequent, she was always on the watch for indications of this desire. She read her stepmother's heart when the latter made allusions to the squire's loneliness, now that Osborne was absent from the Hall, and that Roger was so often away amongst his friends during the day, -
'Mr Gibson and I should be so delighted if you could have stopped to dinner; but, of course, we cannot be so selfish as to ask you to stay when we remember how your father would be left alone. We were saying yesterday we wondered how he bore his solitude, poor old gentleman!'
Or, as soon as Roger came with his bunch of early roses, it was desirable for Cynthia to go and rest in her own room, while Molly had to accompany Mrs Gibson on some improvised errand or call. Still Roger, whose object was to give pleasure to Cynthia, and who had, from his boyhood, been always certain of Mr Gibson's friendly regard, was slow to perceive that he was not wanted. If he did not see Cynthia, that was his loss; at any rate, he heard how she was, and left her some little thing which he believed she would like, and was willing to risk the chance of his own gratification by calling four or five times in the hope of seeing her once. At last there came a day when Mrs Gibson went beyond her usual negative snubbiness, and when, in some unwonted fit of crossness, for she was a very placid-tempered person in general, she was guilty of positive rudeness,
Cynthia was very much better. Tonics had ministered to a mind diseased, though she hated to acknowledge it; her pretty bloom and much of her light-heartedness had come back, and there was no cause remaining for anxiety. Mrs Gibson was sitting at her embroidery in the drawing-room, and the two girls were at the window, Cynthia laughing at Molly's earnest endeavours to imitate the French accent in which the former had been reading a page of Voltaire. For the duty, or the farce, of settling to 'improving reading' in the mornings was still kept up, although Lord Hollingford, the unconscious suggestor of the idea, had gone back to town without making any of the efforts to see Molly again that Mrs Gibson had anticipated on the night of the ball. That Alnaschar vision had fallen to the ground. It was as yet early morning; a delicious, fresh, lovely June day, the air redolent with the scents of flower-growth and bloom; and half the time the girls had been ostensibly employed in the French reading they had been leaning out of the open window trying to reach a cluster of climbing roses. They had secured them at last, and the bunch lay on Cynthia's lap, but many of the petals had fallen off, so, though the perfume lingered about the window-seat, the full beauty of the flowers had passed away. Mrs Gibson had once or twice reproved them for the merry noise they had been making, which hindered her in the business of counting the stitches in her pattern; and she had set herself a certain quantity to do that morning before going out, and was of that nature which attaches infinite importance to fulfilling small resolutions, made about indifferent trifles without any reason whatever.
'Mr Roger Hamley,' was announced. 'So tiresome!' said Mrs Gibson, almost in his hearing, as she pushed away her embroidery frame. She put out her cold, motionless hand to him, with a half-murmured word of welcome, still eyeing her lost embroidery. He took no apparent notice, and passed on to the window.
'How delicious!' said he. 'No need for any more Hamley roses now yours are out,'
'I agree with you,' said Mrs Gibson, replying to him before either Cynthia or Molly could speak, though he addressed his words to them. 'You have been very kind in bringing us flowers so long; but now our own are out we need not trouble you any more.'
He looked at her with a little surprise clouding his honest face; it was perhaps more at the tone than the words. Mrs Gibson, however, had been bold enough to strike the first blow, and she determined to go on as opportunity offered. Molly would perhaps have been more pained if she had not seen Cynthia's colour rise. She waited for her to speak, if need were; for she knew that Roger's defence, if defence were needed, might be safely entrusted to Cynthia's ready wit.
He put out his hand for the shattered cluster of roses that lay in Cynthia's lap.
'At any rate,' said he, 'my trouble - if Mrs Gibson considers it has been a trouble to me - will be over-paid, if I may have this.'
'Old lamps for new,' said Cynthia, smiling as she gave it to him. 'I wish one could always buy nosegays such as you have brought us, as cheaply.'
'You forget the waste of time that, I think, we must reckon as part of the payment,' said her mother. 'Really, Mr Hamley, we must learn to shut our doors on you if you come so often, and at such early hours! I settle myself to my own employment regularly after breakfast till lunch-time; and it is my wish to keep Cynthia and Molly to a course of improving reading and study - so desirable for young people of their age, if they are ever to become intelligent, companionable women; but with early visitors it is quite impossible to observe any regularity of habits.'
All this was said in that sweet, false tone which of late had gone through Molly like the scraping of a slate-pencil on a slate. Roger's face changed. His ruddy colour grew paler for a moment, and he looked grave and not pleased. In another moment the wonted frankness of expression returned. Why should not he, he asked himself, believe her? it was early to call; it did interrupt regular occupation. So he spoke, and said, -
'I believe I have been very thoughtless - I'll not come so early again; but I had some excuse to-day: my brother told me you had made a plan for going to see Hurst Wood when the roses were out, and they are earlier than usual this year - I've been round to see. He spoke of a long day there, going before lunch -- '
'The plan was made with Mr Osborne Hamley. I could not think of going without him!' said Mrs Gibson, coldly.
'I had a letter from him this morning, in which he named your wish, and he says he fears he cannot be at home till they are out of flower. I daresay they are not much to see in reality, but the day is so lovely I thought that the plan of going to Hurst Wood would be a charming excuse for being out of doors.'
'Thank you. How kind you are! and so good, too, in sacrificing your natural desire to be with your father as much as possible.'
'I am glad to say my father is so much better than he was in the winter that he spends much of his time out of doors in his fields. He has been accustomed to go about alone, and I - we think that as great a return to his former habits as he can be induced to make, is the best for him.'
'And when do you return to Cambridge?'
There was some hesitation in Roger's manner as he replied, -
'It is uncertain. You probably know that I am a Fellow of Trinity now. I hardly yet know what my future plans may be; I am thinking of going up to London soon.'
'Ah! London is the true place for a young man,' said Mrs Gibson, with decision, as if she had reflected a good deal on the question. 'If it were not that we really are so busy this morning, I should have been tempted to make an exception to our general rule; one more exception, for your early visits have made us make too many already. Perhaps, however, we may see you again before you go?'
'Certainly I shall come,' replied he, rising to take his leave, and still holding the demolished roses in his hand. Then, addressing himself more especially to Cynthia, he added, 'My stay in London will not exceed a fortnight or so - is there anything I can do for you - or you?' turning a little to Molly.
'No, thank you very much,' said Cynthia, very sweetly, and then, acting on a sudden impulse, she leant out of the window, and gathered him some half-opened roses. 'You deserve these; do throw that poor shabby bunch away.'
His eyes brightened, his cheeks glowed. He took the offered buds, but did not throw away the other bunch.
'At any rate, I may come after lunch is over, and the afternoons and the evenings will be the most delicious time of day a month hence.' He said this to both Molly and Cynthia, but in his heart he addressed it to the latter.
Mrs Gibson affected not to hear what he was saying, but held out her limp hand once more to him.
'I suppose we shall see you when you return; and pray tell your brother how we are longing to have a visit from him again.'
When he had left the room, Molly's heart was quite full. She had watched his face, and read something of his feelings: his disappointment at their non-acquiescence in his plan of a day's pleasure in Hurst Wood, the delayed conviction that his presence was not welcome to the wife of his old friend, which had come so slowly upon him - perhaps, after all, these things touched Molly more keenly than they did him. His bright look when Cynthia gave him the rosebuds indicated a gush of sudden delight more vivid than the pain he had shown by his previous increase of gravity.
'I can't think why he will come at such untimely hours,' said Mrs Gibson, as soon as she heard him fairly out of the house. 'It's different from Osborne; we are so much more intimate with him: he came and made friends with us all the time this stupid brother of his was muddling his brains with mathematics at Cambridge. Fellow of Trinity, indeed! I wish he would learn to stay there, and not come intruding here, and assuming that because I asked Osborne to join in a picnic it was all the same to me which brother came.'
'In short, mamma, one man may steal a horse, but another must not look over the hedge,' said Cynthia, pouting a little.
'And the two brothers have always been treated so exactly alike by their friends, and there has been such a strong friendship between them, that it is no wonder Roger thinks he may be welcome where Osborne is allowed to come at all hours,' continued Molly, in high dudgeon. 'Roger's "muddled brains," indeed! Roger, "stupid!"'
'Oh, very well, my dears! When I was young it wouldn't have been thought becoming for girls of your age to fly out because a little restraint was exercised as to the hours at which they should receive the young men's calls. And they would have supposed that there might be good reasons why their parents disapproved of the visits of certain gentlemen, even while they were proud and pleased to see some members of the same family.'
'But that was what I said, mamma,' said Cynthia, looking at her mother with an expression of innocent bewilderment on her face. 'One man may -- '
'Be quiet, child! All proverbs are vulgar, and I do believe that is the vulgarest of all. You are really catching Roger Hamley's coarseness, Cynthia!'
'Mamma,' said Cynthia, roused to anger, 'I don't mind your abusing me, but Mr Roger Hamley has been very kind to me while I've not been well: I can't bear to hear him disparaged. If he's coarse, I've no objection to be coarse as well, for it seems to me it must mean kindliness and pleasantness, and the bringing of pretty flowers and presents.'
Molly's tears were brimming over at these words; she could have kissed Cynthia for her warm partisanship, but, afraid of betraying emotion, and 'making a scene,' as Mrs Gibson called any signs of warm feeling, she laid down her book hastily, and ran upstairs to her room, and locked the door in order to breathe freely. There were traces of tears upon her face when she returned into the drawing-room half-an-hour afterwards, walking straight and demurely up to her former place, where Cynthia still sate and gazed idly out of the window, pouting and displeased; Mrs Gibson, meanwhile, counting her stitches aloud with great distinctness and vigour.
During all the months that had elapsed since Mrs Hamley's death, Molly had wondered many a time about the secret she had so unwittingly become possessed of that last day in the Hall library. It seemed so utterly strange and unheard-of a thing to her inexperienced mind, that a man should be married, and yet not live with his wife - that a son should have entered into the holy state of matrimony without his father's knowledge, and without being recognized as the husband of some one known or unknown by all those with whom he came in daily contact, that she felt occasionally as if that little ten minutes of revelation must have been a vision in a dream. Both Roger and Osborne had kept the most entire silence on the subject ever since. Not even a look, or a pause, betrayed any allusion to it; it even seemed to have passed out of their thoughts. There had been the great sad event of their mother's death to fill their minds on the next occasion of their meeting Molly; and since then long pauses of intercourse had taken place; so that she sometimes felt as if each of the brothers must have forgotten how she had come to know their important secret. She often found herself entirely forgetting it, but perhaps the consciousness of it was present to her unawares, and enabled her to comprehend the real nature of Osborne's feelings towards Cynthia. At any rate she never for a moment had supposed that his gentle kind manner towards Cynthia was anything but the courtesy of a friend; strange to say, in these latter days Molly had looked upon Osborne's relation to herself as pretty much the same as that in which at one time she had considered Roger's; and she thought of the former as of some one as nearly a brother both to Cynthia and herself, as any young man could well be, whom they had not known in childhood, and who was in nowise related to them. She thought that he was very much improved in manner, and probably in character, by his mother's death. He was no longer sarcastic, or fastidious, or vain, or self-confident. She did not know how often all these styles of talk or of behaviour were put on to conceal shyness or consciousness, and to veil the real self from strangers.
Osborne's conversation and ways might very possibly have been just the same as before, had he been thrown amongst new people; but Molly only saw him in their own circle in which he was on terms of decided intimacy. Still there was no doubt that he was really improved, though perhaps not to the extent for which Molly gave him credit; and this exaggeration on her part arose very naturally from the fact, that he, perceiving Roger's warm admiration for Cynthia, withdrew a little out of his brother's way; and used to go and talk to Molly in order not to intrude himself between Roger and Cynthia. Of the two, perhaps, Osborne preferred Molly; to her he needed not to talk if the mood was not on him - they were on those happy terms where silence is permissible, and where efforts to act against the prevailing mood of the mind are not required. Sometimes, indeed, when Osborne was in the humour to be critical and fastidious as of yore, he used to vex Roger by insisting upon it that Molly was prettier than Cynthia.
'You mark my words, Roger. Five years hence the beautiful Cynthia's red and white will have become just a little coarse, and her figure will have thickened, while Molly's will only have developed into more perfect grace. I don't believe the girl has done growing yet; I am sure she is taller than when I first saw her last summer.'
'Miss Kirkpatrick's eyes must always be perfection. I cannot fancy any could come up to them: soft, grave, appealing, tender; and such a heavenly colour - I often try to find something in nature to compare them to; they are not like violets - that blue in the eyes is too like physical weakness of sight; they are not like the sky - that colour has something of cruelty in it.'
'Come, don't go on trying to match her eyes as if you were a draper, and they a bit of ribbon; say at once "her eyes are loadstars," and have done with it! I set up Molly's grey eyes and curling black lashes, long odds above the other young woman's; but, of course, it's all a matter of taste.'
And now both Osborne and Roger had left the neighbourhood. In spite of all that Mrs Gibson had said about Roger's visits being ill-timed and intrusive, she began to feel as if they had been a very pleasant variety, now they had ceased altogether. He brought in a whiff of a new atmosphere from that of Hollingford. He and his brother had been always ready to do numberless little things which only a man can do for women; small services which Mr Gibson was always too busy to render. For the good doctor's business grew upon him. He thought that this increase was owing to his greater skill and experience, and he would probably have been mortified if he could have known how many of his patients were solely biassed in sending for him, by the fact that he was employed at the Towers. Something of this sort must have been contemplated in the low scale of payment adopted long ago by the Cumnor family. Of itself the money he received for going to the Towers would hardly have paid him for horse-flesh, but then as Lady Cumnor in her younger days had worded it, -
'It is such a thing for a man just setting up in practice for himself to be able to say he attends at this house!'
So the prestige was tacitly sold and paid for; but neither buyer nor seller defined the nature of the bargain. On the whole, it was as well that Mr Gibson spent so much of his time from home. He sometimes thought so himself when he heard his wife's plaintive fret or pretty babble over totally indifferent things, and perceived of how flimsy a nature were all her fine sentiments. Still, he did not allow himself to repine over the step he had taken; he wilfully shut his eyes and waxed up his ears to many small things that he knew would have irritated him if he had attended to them; and, in his solitary rides, he forced himself to dwell on the positive advantages that had accrued to him and his through his marriage. He had obtained an unexceptionable chaperone, if not a tender mother, for his little girl; a skilful manager of his formerly disorderly household; a woman who was graceful and pleasant to look at for the head of his table. Moreover, Cynthia reckoned for something in the favourable side of the balance. She was a capital companion for Molly; and the two were evidently very fond of each other. The feminine companionship of the mother and daughter was agreeable to him as well as to his child, - when Mrs Gibson was moderately sensible and not over-sentimental, he mentally added; and then he checked himself, for he would not allow himself to become more aware of her faults and foibles by defining them. At any rate, she was harmless, and wonderfully just to Molly for a stepmother. She piqued herself upon this indeed, and would often call attention to the fact of her being unlike other women in this respect. Just then sudden tears came into Mr Gibson's eyes, as he remembered how quiet and undemonstrative his little Molly had become in her general behaviour to him; but how once or twice, when they had met upon the stairs, or were otherwise unwitnessed, she had caught him and kissed him - hand or cheek - in a sad passionateness of affection. But in a moment he began to whistle an old Scotch air he had heard in his childhood, and which had never recurred to his memory since; and five minutes afterwards he was too busily treating a case of white swelling in the knee of a little boy, and thinking how to relieve the poor mother, who went out charring all day, and had to listen to the moans of her child all night, to have any thought for his own cares, which, if they really existed, were of so trifling a nature compared to the hard reality of this hopeless woe.
Osborne came home first. He returned, in fact, not long after Roger had gone away; but he was languid and unwell, and, though he did not complain, he felt unequal to any exertion. Thus a week or more elapsed before any of the Gibsons knew that he was at the Hall; and then it was only by chance that they became aware of it. Mr Gibson met him in one of the lanes near Hamley; the acute surgeon noticed the gait of the man as he came near, before he recognized who it was. When he overtook him he said, -
'Why, Osborne, is it you? I thought it was an old man of fifty loitering before me! I didn't know you had come back.'
'Yes,' said Osborne, 'I've been at home nearly ten days. I daresay I ought to have called on your people, for I made a half promise to Mrs Gibson to let her know as soon as I returned; but the fact is, I'm feeling very good-for-nothing, - this air oppresses me; I could hardly breathe in the house, and yet I'm already tired with this short walk.'
'You'd better get home at once; and I'll call and see you as I come back from Rowe's.'
'No, you mustn't, on any account!' said Osborne, hastily; my father is annoyed enough about my going from home, so often, he says, though it was six weeks. He puts down all my languor to my having been away, - he keeps the purse-strings, you know,' he added, with a faint smile, 'and I'm in the unlucky position of a penniless heir, and I've been brought up so - In fact, I must leave home from time to time, and, if my father gets confirmed in this notion of his that my health is worse for my absences, he will stop the supplies altogether.'
'May I ask where you do spend your time when you are not at Hamley Hall?' asked Mr Gibson, with some hesitation in his manner.
'No!' replied Osborne, reluctantly. 'I will tell you this: - I stay with friends in the country. I lead a life which ought to be conducive to health, because it is thoroughly simple, rational, and happy. And now I've told you more about it than my father himself knows. He never asks me where I have been; and I shouldn't tell him if he did - at least, I think not.'
Mr Gibson rode on by Osborne's side, not speaking for a moment or two.
'Osborne, whatever scrapes you may have got into, I should advise your telling your father boldly out. I know him; and I know he'll be angry enough at first, but he'll come round, take my word for it; and, somehow or another, he'll find money to pay your debts and set you free, if it's that kind of difficulty; and if it's any other kind of entanglement, why still he's your best friend. It's this estrangement from your father that's telling on your health, I'll be bound.'
'No,' said Osborne, 'I beg your pardon; but it's not that; I am really out of order. I daresay my unwillingness to encounter any displeasure from my father is the consequence of my indisposition; but I'll answer for it, it is not the cause of it. My instinct tells me there is something real the matter with me.'
'Come, don't be setting up your instinct against the profession,' said Mr Gibson, cheerily. He dismounted, and throwing the reins of his horse round his arm, he looked at Osborne's tongue and felt his pulse, asking him various questions. At the end he said, -
'We'll soon bring you about, though I should like a little more quiet talk with you, without this tugging brute for a third. If you'll manage to ride over and lunch with us to-morrow, Dr Nicholls will be with us; he's coming over to see old Rowe; and you shall have the benefit of the advice of two doctors instead of one. Go home now, you've had enough exercise for the middle of a day as hot as this is. And don't mope in the house, listening to the maunderings of your stupid instinct.'
'What else have I to do?' said Osborne. 'My father and I are not companions; one can't read and write for ever, especially when there is no end to be gained by it. I don't mind telling you - but in confidence, recollect - that I've been trying to get some of my poems published; but there's no one like a publisher for taking the conceit out of one. Not a man among them would take them as a gift.'
'0 ho! so that's it, is it, Master Osborne? I thought there was some mental cause for this depression of health. I wouldn't trouble my head about it, if I were you, though that's always very easily said, I know. Try your hand at prose, if you can't manage to please the publishers with poetry; but, at any rate, don't go on fretting over spilt milk. But I mustn't lose my time here. Come over to us to-morrow, as I said; and what with the wisdom of two doctors, and the wit and folly of three women, I think we shall cheer you up a bit.'
So saying, Mr Gibson remounted, and rode away at the long, slinging trot so well known to the country people as the doctor's pace.
'I don't like his looks,' thought Mr Gibson to himself at night, as over his daybooks he reviewed the events of the day. 'And then his pulse. But how often we're all mistaken; and, ten to one, my own hidden enemy lies closer to me than his does to him - even taking the worse view of the case.'
Osborne made his appearance a considerable time before luncheon the next morning; and no one objected to the earliness of his call. He was feeling better. There were few signs of the invalid about him; and what few there were disappeared under the bright pleasant influence of such a welcome as he received from all. Molly and Cynthia had much to tell him of the small proceedings since he went away, or to relate the conclusions of half-accomplished projects. Cynthia was often on the point of some gay, careless inquiry as to where he had been, and what he had been doing; but Molly, who conjectured the truth, as often interfered to spare him the pain of equivocation - a pain that her tender conscience would have felt for him, much more than he would have felt it for himself.
Mr. Gibson's talk was desultory, complimentary, and sentimental, after her usual fashion; but still, on the whole, though Osborne smiled to himself at much that she said, it was soothing and agreeable. Presently, Dr Nicholls and Mr Gibson came in; the former had had some conference with the latter on the subject of Osborne's health; and, from time to time, the skilful old physician's sharp and observant eyes gave a comprehensive look at Osborne.
Then there was lunch, when every one was merry and hungry, excepting the hostess, who was trying to train her midday appetite into the genteelest of all ways, and thought (falsely enough) that Dr Nicholls was a good person to practise the semblance of ill-health upon, and that he would give her the proper civil amount of commiseration for her ailments, which every guest ought to bestow upon a hostess who complains of her delicacy of health. The old doctor was too cunning a man to fall into this trap. He would keep recommending her to try the coarsest viands on the table; and, at last, he told her if she could not fancy the cold beef to try a little with pickled onions. There was a twinkle in his eye as he said this, that would have betrayed his humour to any observer; but Mr Gibson, Cynthia, and Molly were all attacking Osborne on the subject of some literary preference he had expressed, and Dr Nicholls had Mrs Gibson quite at his mercy. She was not sorry when luncheon was over to leave the room to the three gentlemen; and ever afterwards she spoke of Dr Nicholls as 'that bear.'
Presently, Osborne came upstairs, and, after his old fashion, began to take up new books, and to question the girls as to their music. Mrs Gibson had to go out and pay some calls, so she left the three together; and after a while they adjourned into the garden, Osborne lounging on a chair, while Molly employed herself busily in tying up carnations, and Cynthia gathered flowers in her careless, graceful way.
'I hope you notice the difference in our occupations, Mr Hamley. Molly, you see, devotes herself to the useful, and I to the ornamental. Please, under what head do you class what you are doing? I think you might help one of us, instead of looking on like the Grand Seigneur.'
'I don't know what I can do,' said he, rather plaintively. 'I should like to be useful, but I don't know how; and my day is past for purely ornamental work. You must let me be, I am afraid. Besides, I am really rather exhausted by being questioned and pulled about by those good doctors.'
'Why, you don't mean to say they have been attacking you since lunch!' exclaimed Molly.
'Yes; indeed, they have; and they might have gone on till now if Mrs Gibson had not come in opportunely.'
'I thought mamma had gone out some time ago!' said Cynthia, catching wafts of the conversation as she flitted hither and thither among the flowers.
'She came into the dining-room not five minutes ago. Do you want her, for I see her crossing the hall at this very moment?' and Osborne half rose.
'Oh, not at all!' said Cynthia. 'Only she seemed to be in such a hurry to go out, I fancied she had set off long ago. She had some errand to do for Lady Cumnor, and she thought she could manage to catch the housekeeper, who is always in the town on Thursday.'
'Are the family coming to the Towers this autumn?'
'I believe so. But I don't know, and I don't much care. They don't take kindly to me,' continued Cynthia, 'and so I suppose I am not generous enough to take kindly to them.'
'I should have thought that such a very unusual blot in their discrimination would have interested you in them as extraordinary people,' said Osborne, with a little air of conscious gallantry.
'Isn't that a compliment?' said Cynthia, after a pause of mock meditation. 'If any one pays me a compliment, please let it be short and clear. I'm very stupid at finding out hidden meanings.'
'Then such speeches as "you are very pretty," or "you have charming manners," are what you prefer. Now, I pique myself on wrapping up my sugar-plums delicately.'
'Then would you please to write them down, and at my leisure I'll parse them.'
'No! It would be too much trouble. I'll meet you half way, and study clearness next time.'
'What are you two talking about?' said Molly, resting on her light spade.
'It's only a discussion on the best way of administering compliments,' said Cynthia, taking up her flower-basket again, but not going out of the reach of the conversation.
'I don't like them at all in any way,' said Molly. 'But, perhaps, it's rather sour grapes with me,' she added.
'Nonsense!' said Osborne. 'Shall I tell you what I heard of you at the ball?'
'Or shall I provoke Mr Preston,' said Cynthia, 'to begin upon you? It is like turning a tap, such a stream of pretty speeches flow out at the moment.' Her lip curled with scorn.
'For you, perhaps,' said Molly; 'but not for me.'
'For any woman. It is his notion of making himself agreeable. If you dare me, Molly, I will try the experiment, and you'll see with what success.'
'No, don't, pray!' said Molly, in a hurry. 'I do so dislike him!'
'Why?' said Osborne, roused to a little curiosity by her vehemence.
'Oh! I don't know. He never seems to know what one is feeling.'
'He wouldn't care if he did know,' said Cynthia. 'And he might know he is not wanted,'
'If he chooses to stay, he cares little whether he is wanted or not.'
'Come, this is very interesting,' said Osborne. 'It is like the strophe and anti-strophe in a Greek chorus. Pray, go on.'
'Don't you know him?' asked Molly.
'Yes, by sight, and I think we were once introduced. But, you know, we are much farther from Ashcombe, at Hamley, than you are here, at Hollingford.'
'Oh! but he is coming to take Mr Sheepshanks' place, and then he will live here altogether,' said Molly.
'Molly! who told you that?' said Cynthia, in quite a different tone of voice to that in which she had been speaking hitherto.
'Papa, didn't you hear him? Oh, no! it was before you were down this morning. Papa met Mr Sheepshanks yesterday, and he told him it was all settled: you know we heard a rumour about it in the spring!'
Cynthia was very silent after this. Presently, she said that she had gathered all the flowers she wanted, and that the heat was so great she would go indoors. And then Osborne went away. But Molly had set herself a task to dig up such roots as had already flowered, and to put down some bedding-out plants in their stead. Tired and heated as she was she finished it, and then went upstairs to rest, and change her dress. According to her wont, she sought for Cynthia; there was no reply to her soft knock at the bedroom-door opposite to her own, and, thinking that Cynthia might have fallen asleep, and be lying uncovered in the draught of the open window, she went in softly. Cynthia was lying upon the bed as if she had thrown herself down on it without caring for the ease or comfort of her position. She was very still; and Molly took a shawl, and was going to place it over her, when she opened her eyes, and spoke, -
'Is that you, dear? Don't go. I like to know that you are there.'
She shut her eyes again, and remained quite quiet for a few minutes longer. Then she started up into a sitting posture, pushed her hair away from her forehead and burning eyes, and gazed intently at Molly.
'Do you know what I've been thinking, dear?' said she. 'I think I've been long enough here, and that I had better go out as a governess.'
'Cynthia, what do you mean?' asked Molly, aghast. 'You've been asleep - you've been dreaming. You're overtired,' continued she, sitting down on the bed, and taking Cynthia's passive hand, and stroking it softly - a mode of caressing that had come down to her from her mother - whether as an hereditary instinct, or as a lingering remembrance of the tender ways of the dead woman, Mr Gibson often wondered within himself when he observed it.
'Oh, how good you are, Molly. I wonder, if I had been brought up like you, if I should have been as good. But I've been tossed about so.'
'Then, don't go and be tossed about any more,' said Molly, softly.
'Oh, dear! I had better go. But, you see, no one ever loved me like you, and, I think, your father - doesn't he, Molly? And it's hard to be driven out.'
'Cynthia, I am sure you're not well, or else you're not half awake.'
Cynthia sate with her arms encircling her knees, and looking at vacancy.
'Well!' said she, at last, heaving a great sigh; but, then, smiling as she caught Molly's anxious face, 'I suppose there's no escaping one's doom; and anywhere else I should be much more forlorn and unprotected.'
'What do you mean by your doom?'
'Ah, that's telling, little one,' said Cynthia, who seemed now to have recovered her usual manner. 'I don't mean to have one, though. I think that, though I am an arrant coward at heart, I can show fight.'
'With whom?' asked Molly, really anxious to probe the mystery - if, indeed, there was one - to the bottom, in the hope of some remedy being found for the distress Cynthia was in when first Molly had entered,
Again Cynthia was lost in thought; then, catching the echo of Molly's last words in her mind, she said, -
'"With whom?" - oh! show fight with whom - with my doom, to be sure. Am not I a grand young lady to have a doom? Why, Molly, child, how pale and grave you look!' said she, kissing her all of a sudden. 'You ought not to care so much for me; I'm not good enough for you to worry yourself about me. I've given myself up a long time ago as a heartless baggage!'
'Nonsense! I wish you wouldn't talk so, Cynthia!'
'And I wish you wouldn't always take me "at the foot of the letter," as an English girl at school used to translate it. Oh, how hot it is! Is it never going to get cool again? My child! what dirty hands you've got, and face too; and I've been kissing you - I daresay I'm dirty with it, too. Now, isn't that like one of mamma's speeches? But, for all that, you look more like a delving Adam than a spinning Eve.'
This had the effect that Cynthia intended; the daintily clean Molly became conscious of her soiled condition, which she had forgotten while she had been attending to Cynthia, and she hastily withdrew to her own room. When she had gone, Cynthia noiselessly locked the door; and, taking her purse out of her desk, she began to count over her money. She counted it once - she counted it twice, as if desirous of finding out some mistake which should prove it to be more than it was; but the end of it all was a sigh.
'What a fool! - what a fool I was!' she said, at length. 'But even if I don't go out as a governess, I shall make it up in time.'
Some weeks after the time he had anticipated when he had spoken of his departure to the Gibsons, Roger returned back to the Hall. One morning when he called, Osborne told them that his brother had been at home for two or three days.
'And why has he not come here, then?' said Mrs Gibson. 'It is not kind of him not to come and see us as soon as he can. Tell him I say so - pray do.'
Osborne had gained one or two ideas as to her treatment of Roger the last time he had called. Roger had not complained of it, or even mentioned it, till that very morning; when Osborne was on the point of starting, and had urged Roger to accompany him, the latter had told him something of what Mrs Gibson had said. He spoke rather as if he was more amused than annoyed; but Osborne could read that he was chagrined at those restrictions placed upon calls which were the greatest pleasure of his life. Neither of them let out the suspicion which had entered both their minds - the well-grounded suspicion arising from the fact that Osborne's visits, be they paid early or late, had never yet been met with a repulse.
Osborne now reproached himself with having done Mrs Gibson injustice. She was evidently a weak, but probably a disinterested, woman; and it was only a little bit of ill-temper on her part which had caused her to speak to Roger as she had done.
'I daresay it was rather impertinent of me to call at such an untimely hour,' said Roger.
'Not at all; I call at all hours, and nothing is ever said about it. It was just because she was put out that morning. I'll answer for it she's sorry now, and I'm sure you may go there at any time you like in the future.'
Still, Roger did not choose to go again for two or three weeks, and the consequence was that the next time he called the ladies were out. Once again he had the same ill-luck, and then he received a little pretty three-cornered note from Mrs Gibson: -
MY DEAR SIR, - How is it that you are become so formal all on a sudden, leaving cards, instead of awaiting our return? Fie for shame! If you had seen the races of disappointment that I did when the horrid little bits of pasteboard were displayed to our view, you would not have borne malice against me so long; for it is really punishing others as well as my naughty self. If you will come to-morrow - as early as you like - and lunch with us, I'll own I was cross, and acknowledge myself a penitent. - Yours ever,
HYACINTH C. K. GIBSON.
There was no resisting this, even if there had not been strong inclination to back up the pretty words. Roger went, and Mrs Gibson caressed and petted him in her sweetest, silkiest manner. Cynthia looked lovelier than ever to him for the slight restriction that had been laid for a time on their intercourse. She might be gay and sparkling with Osborne; with Roger she was soft and grave. Instinctively she knew her men. She saw that Osborne was only interested in her because of her position in a family with whom he was intimate; that his friendship was without the least touch of sentiment; and that his admiration was only the warm criticism of an artist for unusual beauty. But she felt how different Roger's relation to her was. To him she was the one, alone, peerless. If his love was prohibited, it would be long years before he could sink down into tepid friendship; and to him her personal loveliness was only one of the many charms that made him tremble into passion. Cynthia was not capable of returning such feelings; she had had too little true love in her life, and perhaps too much admiration to do so; but she appreciated this honest ardour, this loyal worship that was new to her experience. Such appreciation, and such respect for his true and affectionate nature, gave a serious tenderness to her manner to Roger, which allured him with a fresh and separate grace. Molly sate by, and wondered how it would all end, or, rather, how soon it would all end, for she thought that no girl could resist such reverent passion; and on Roger's side there could be no doubt - alas! there could be no doubt. An older spectator might have looked far ahead, and thought of the question of pounds, shillings, and pence. Where was the necessary income for a marriage to come from? Roger had his fellowship now, it is true; but the income of that would be lost if he married; he had no profession, and the life interest of the two or three thousand pounds that he inherited from his mother, belonged to his father. This older spectator might have been a little surprised at the empressement of Mrs Gibson's manner to a younger son, always supposing this said spectator to have read to the depths of her worldly heart. Never had she tried to be more agreeable to Osborne; and though her attempt was a great failure when practised upon Roger, and he did not know what to say in reply to the delicate Batteries which he felt to be insincere, he saw that she intended him to consider himself henceforward free of the house; and he was too glad to avail himself of this privilege to examine over-closely into what might be her motives for her change of manner. He shut his eyes, and chose to believe that she was now desirous of making up for her little burst of temper on his previous visit.
The result of Osborne's conference with the two doctors had been certain prescriptions which appeared to have done him much good, and which would in all probability have done him yet more, could he have been free of the recollection of the little patient wife in her solitude near Winchester. He went to her whenever he could; and, thanks to Roger, money was far more plentiful with him now than it had been. But he still shrank, and perhaps even more and more, from telling his father of his marriage. Some bodily instinct made him dread all agitation inexpressibly. If he had not had this money from Roger, he might have been compelled to tell his father all, and to ask for the necessary funds to provide for the wife and the coming child. But with enough in hand, and a secret, though remorseful, conviction that as long as Roger had a penny his brother was sure to have half of it, made him more reluctant than ever to irritate his father by a revelation of his secret. 'Not just yet, not just at present,' he kept saying both to Roger and to himself. 'By and by, if we have a boy, I will call it Roger' - and then visions of poetical and romantic reconciliations brought about between father and son, through the medium of a child, the offspring of a forbidden marriage, became still more vividly possible to him, and at any rate it was a staving-off of an unpleasant thing. He atoned to himself for taking so much of Roger's fellowship money by reflecting that, if Roger married, he would lose this source of revenue; yet Osborne was throwing no impediment in the way of this event, rather forwarding it by promoting every possible means of his brother's seeing the lady of his love. Osborne ended his reflections by convincing himself of his own generosity.
Mr Preston was now installed in his new house at Hollingford; Mr Sheepshanks having entered into dignified idleness at the house of his married daughter, who lived in the county town. His successor had plunged with energy into all manner of improvements; and among others he fell to draining a piece of outlying waste and unreclaimed land of Lord Cumnor's, which was close to Squire Hamley's property; that very piece for which he had had the Government grant, but which now lay neglected, and only half-drained, with stacks of mossy tiles, and lines of up-turned furrows telling of abortive plans. It was not often that the squire rode in this direction now-a-days; but the cottage of a man who had been the squire's gamekeeper in those more prosperous days when the Hamleys could afford to preserve, was close to the rush-grown ground. This old servant and tenant was ill, and had sent a message up to the Hall, asking to see the squire; not to reveal any secret, or to say anything particular, but only from the feudal loyalty, which made it seem to the dying man as if it would be a comfort to shake the hand, and look once more into the eyes of the lord and master whom he had served, and whose ancestors his own forbears had served for so many generations. And the squire was as fully alive as old Silas to the claims of the tie that existed between them. Though he hated the thought, and, still more, should hate the sight of the piece of land, on the side of which Silas's cottage stood, the squire ordered his horse, and rode off within half-an-hour of receiving the message. As he drew near the spot he thought he heard the sound of tools, and the hum of many voices, just as he used to hear them a year or two before. He listened with surprise. Yes. Instead of the still solitude he had expected, there was the clink of iron, the heavy gradual thud of the fall of barrows-full of soil - the cry and shout of labourers. But not on his land - better worth expense and trouble by far than the reedy clay common on which the men were, in fact, employed. He knew it was Lord Cumnor's property; and he knew Lord Cumnor and his family had gone up in the world ('the Whig rascals!'), both in wealth and in station, as the Hamleys had gone down. But all the same - in spite of long known facts, and in spite of reason - the squire's ready anger rose high at the sight of his neighbour doing what he had been unable to do, and he a Whig; and his family only in the county since Queen Anne's time. He went so far as to wonder whether they might not - the labourers he meant - avail themselves of his tiles, lying so conveniently close to hand. All these thoughts, regrets, and wonders were in his mind as he rode up to the cottage he was bound to, and gave his horse in charge to a little lad, who had hitherto found his morning's business and amusement in playing at 'houses' with a still younger sister, with some of the squire's neglected tiles. But he was old Silas's grandson, and he might have battered the rude red earthenware to pieces - a whole stack - one by one, and the squire would have said little or nothing. It was only that he would not spare one to a labourer of Lord Cumnor's. No! not one.
Old Silas lay in a sort of closet, opening out of the family living-room. The small window that gave it light looked right on to the 'moor,' as it was called; and by clay the check curtain was drawn aside so that he might watch the progress of the labour. Everything about the old man was clean, if coarse; and, with Death, the leveller, so close at hand, it was the labourer who made the first advances, and put out his horny hand to the squire.
'I thought you'd come, squire. Your father came for to see my father as he lay a-dying.'
'Come, come, my man!' said the squire, easily affected, as he always was. 'Don't talk of dying, we shall soon have you out, never fear. They've sent you up some soup from the Hall, as I bade 'em, haven't they?'
'Ay, ay, I've had all as I could want for to eat and to drink. The young squire and Master Roger was here yesterday.'
'Yes, I know.'
'But I'm a deal nearer Heaven to-day, I am. I should like you to look after the covers in the West Spinney, squire; them gorse, you know, where th' old fox had her hole - her as give 'em so many a run. You'll mind it, squire, though you was but a lad. I could laugh to think on her tricks yet.' And, with a weak attempt at a laugh, he got himself into a violent fit of coughing, which alarmed the squire, who thought he would never get his breath again. His daughter-in-law came in at the sound, and told the squire that he had these coughing-bouts very frequently, and that she thought he would go off in one of them before long. This opinion of hers was spoken simply out before the old man, who now lay gasping and exhausted upon his pillow. Poor people acknowledge the inevitableness and the approach of death in a much more straightforward manner than is customary among more educated folk. The squire was shocked at the hard-heartedness, as he considered it; but the old man himself had received much tender kindness in action from his daughter-in-law; and what she had just said was no more news to him than the fact that the sun would rise to-morrow. He was more anxious to go on with his story.
'Them navvies - I call 'em navvies because some on 'em is strangers, though some on 'em is th' men as was turned off your own works, squire, when there came orders to stop 'em last fall - they're a-pulling up gorse and brush to light their fire for warming up their messes. It's a long way off to their homes, and they mostly dine here; and there'll be nothing of a cover left, if you don't see after 'em. I thought I should like to tell ye afore I died. Parson's been here; but I did na tell him. He's all for the earl's folk, and he'd not ha' heeded. It's the earl as put him into his church, I reckon, for he said what a fine thing it were for to see so much employment a-given to the poor, and he never said nought o' th' sort when your works were agait, squire.'
This long speech had been interrupted by many a cough and gasp for breath; and having delivered himself of what was on his mind, he turned his face to the wall, and appeared to be going to sleep. Presently he roused himself with a start.
'I know I flogged him well, I did. But he were after pheasants' eggs, and I didn't know he were an orphan. Lord, forgive me!'
'He's thinking on David Morton, the cripple, as used to go about trapping vermin,' whispered the woman.
'Why, he died long ago - twenty year, I should think,' replied the squire.
'Ay, but when grandfather goes off i' this way to sleep after a bout of talking he seems to be dreaming on old times. He'll not waken up yet, sir; you'd best sit down if you'd like to stay,' she continued, as she went into the house-place and dusted a chair with her apron. 'He was very particular in bidding me wake him if he were asleep, and you or Mr Roger was to call. Mr Roger said he'd be coming again this morning - but he'll likely sleep an hour or more, if he's let alone.'
'I wish I'd said good-by, I should like to have done that.'
'He drops off so sudden,' said the woman. 'But if you'd be better pleased to have said it, squire, I'll waken him up a bit.'
'No, no!' the squire called out as the woman was going to be as good as her word. 'I'll come again, perhaps to-morrow. And tell him I was sorry; for I am indeed. And be sure and send to the Hall for anything you want! Mr Roger is coming, is he? He'll bring me word how he is, later on. I should like to have bidden him good-by.'
So, giving sixpence to the child who had held his horse, the squire mounted. He sate still a moment, looking at the busy work going on before him, and then at his own half-completed drainage. It was a bitter pill. He had objected to borrowing from Government, in the first instance; and then his wife had persuaded him to the step; and after it was once taken, he was as proud as could be of the only concession to the spirit of progress he ever made in his life. He had read and studied the subject pretty thoroughly, if also very slowly, during the time his wife had been influencing him. He was tolerably well up in agriculture, if in nothing else; and at one time he had taken the lead among the neighbouring landowners, when he first began tile-drainage. In those days people used to speak of Squire Hamley's hobby; and at market ordinaries, or county dinners, they rather dreaded setting him off on long repetitions of arguments from the different pamphlets on the subject which he had read. And now the proprietors all around him were draining - draining; his interest to Government was running on all the same, though his works were stopped, and his tiles deteriorating in value. It was not a soothing consideration, and the squire was almost ready to quarrel with his shadow. He wanted a vent for his ill-humour; and suddenly remembering the devastation on his covers, which he had heard about not a quarter of an hour before, he rode up to the men busy at work on Lord Cumnor's land. Just before he got up to them he encountered Mr Preston, also on horseback, come to overlook his labourers. The squire did not know him personally, but from the agent's manner of speaking, and the deference that was evidently paid to him, Mr Hamley saw that he was a responsible person. So he addressed the agent, - 'I beg your pardon, I suppose you are the manager of these works?'
Mr Preston replied, - 'Certainly. I am that and many other things besides, at your service. I have succeeded Mr Sheepshanks in the management of my lord's property. Mr Hamley of Hamley, I believe?'
The squire bowed stiffly. He did not like his name to be asked or presumed upon in that manner. An equal might conjecture who he was, or recognize him, but, till he announced himself, an inferior had no right to do more than address him respectfully as 'sir.' That was the squire's code of etiquette.
'I am Mr Hamley of Hamley. I suppose you are as yet ignorant of the boundary of Lord Cumnor's land, and so I will inform you that my property begins at the pond yonder - just where you see the rise in the ground.'
'I am perfectly acquainted with that fact, Mr Hamley,' said Mr Preston, a little annoyed at the ignorance attributed to him. 'But may I inquire why my attention is called to it just now?'
The squire was beginning to boil over; but he tried to keep his temper in. The effort was very much to be respected, for it was a great one. There was something in the handsome and well-dressed agent's tone and manner inexpressibly irritating to the squire, and it was not lessened by an involuntary comparison of the capital roadster on which Mr Preston was mounted with his own ill-groomed and aged cob.
'I have been told that your men out yonder do not respect these boundaries, but are in the habit of plucking up gorse from my covers to light their fires.'
'It is possible they may!' said Mr Preston, lifting his eyebrows, his manner being more nonchalant than his words. 'I daresay they think no great harm of it. However, I'll inquire.'
'Do you doubt my word, sir?' said the squire, fretting his mare till she began to dance about. 'I tell you I've heard it only within this last half-hour.'
'I don't mean to doubt your word, Mr Hamley; it's the last thing I should think of doing. But you must excuse my saying that the argument which you have twice brought up for the authenticity of your statement, "that you have heard it within the last half-hour," is not quite so forcible as to preclude the possibility of a mistake.'
'I wish you'd only say in plain language that you doubt my word,' said the squire, clenching and slightly raising his horsewhip. 'I can't make out what you mean - you use so many words.'
'Pray don't lose your temper, sir. I said I should inquire. You have not seen the men pulling up gorse yourself, or you would have named it. I surely may doubt the correctness of your informant until I have made some inquiry; at any rate, that is the course I shall pursue, and if it gives you offence, I shall be sorry, but I shall do it just the same. When I am convinced that harm has been done to your property, I shall take steps to prevent it for the future, and of course, in my lord's name, I shall pay you compensation - it may probably amount to half-a-crown.' He added these last words in a lower tone, as if to himself, with a slight, contemptuous smile on his face.
'Quiet, mare, quiet,' said the squire, quite unaware that he was the cause of her impatient movements by the way he was perpetually tightening her reins; and also, perhaps, he unconsciously addressed the injunction to himself.
Neither of them saw Roger Hamley, who was just then approaching them with long, steady steps. He had seen his father from the door of old Silas's cottage, and, as the poor fellow was still asleep, he was coming to speak to his father, and was near enough now to hear the next words.
'I don't know who you are, but I've known land-agents who were gentlemen, and I've known some who were not. You belong to this last set, young man,' said the squire, 'that you do. I should like to try my horsewhip on you for your insolence.'
'Pray, Mr Hamley,' replied Mr Preston, coolly, 'curb your temper a little, and reflect. I really feel sorry to see a man of your age in such a passion' - moving a little farther off, however, but really more with a desire to save the irritated man from carrying his threat into execution, out of a dislike to the slander and excitement it would cause, than from any personal dread. Just at this moment Roger Hamley came close up. He was panting a little, and his eyes were very stern and dark; but he spoke quietly enough.
'Mr Preston, I can hardly understand what you mean by your last words. But, remember, my father is a gentleman of age and position, and not accustomed to receive advice as to the management of his temper from young men like you.'
'I desired to keep his men off my land,' said the squire to his son - his wish to stand well in Roger's opinion restraining his temper a little; but though his words might be a little calmer, there were all other signs of passion present - the discoloured complexion, the trembling hands, the fiery cloud in his eyes. 'He refused, and doubted my word.'
Mr Preston turned to Roger, as if appealing from Philip drunk to Philip sober, and spoke in a tone of cool explanation, which, though not insolent in words, was excessively irritating in manner.
'Your father has misunderstood me - perhaps it is no wonder,' trying to convey, by a look of intelligence at the son, his opinion that the father was in no state to hear reason. 'I never refused to do what was just and right. I only required further evidence as to the past wrong-doing; your father took offence at this' - and then he shrugged his shoulders, and lifted his eyebrows in a manner he had formerly learnt in France.
'At any rate, sir! I can scarcely reconcile the manner and words to my father, which I heard you use when I first came up, with the deference you ought to have shown to a man of his age and position. As to the fact of the trespass -- '
'They are pulling up all the gorse, Roger - there'll be no cover whatever for game soon,' put in the squire. Roger bowed to his father, but took up his speech at the point it was at before the interruption.
'I will inquire into it myself at a cooler moment; and if I find that such trespass or damage has been committed, of course I shall expect that you will see it put a stop to. Come, father! I am going to see old Silas - perhaps you don't know that he is very ill.' So he endeavoured to wile the squire away to prevent further words. He was not entirely successful.
Mr Preston was enraged by Roger's calm and dignified manner, and threw after them this parting shaft, in the shape of a loud soliloquy, -
'Position, indeed! What are we to think of the position of a man who begins works like these without counting the cost, and comes to a stand-still, and has to turn off his labourers just at the beginning of winter, leaving -- '
They were too far off to hear the rest. The squire was on the point of turning back before this, but Roger took hold of the reins of the old mare, and led her over some of the boggy ground, as if to guide her into sure footing, but, in reality, because he was determined to prevent the renewal of the quarrel. It was well that the cob knew him, and was, indeed, old enough to prefer quietness to dancing; for Mr Hamley plucked hard at the reins, and at last broke out with an oath, - 'Damn it, Roger! I'm not a child; I won't be treated as such. Leave go, I say!'
Roger let go; they were not on firm ground, and he did not wish any watchers to think that he was exercising any constraint over his father; and this quiet obedience to his impatient commands did more to soothe the squire than anything else could have effected just then.
'I know I turned them off - what could I do? I'd no more money for their weekly wages; it's a loss to me, as you know. He doesn't know, no one knows, but I think your mother would, how it cut me to turn 'em off just before winter set in. I lay awake many a night thinking of it, and I gave them what I had - I did, indeed. I hadn't got money to pay 'em, but I had three barren cows fattened, and gave every scrap of meat to the men, and I let 'em go into the woods and gather what was fallen, and I winked at their breaking off old branches, and now to have it cast up against me by that cur - that servant. But I'll go on with the works, by -- , I will, if only to spite him. I'll show him who I am. My position, indeed! A Hamley of Hamley takes a higher position than his master. I'll go on with the works, see if I don't! I'm paying between one and two hundred a year interest on Government money. I'll raise some more if I go to the Jews; Osborne has shown me the way, and Osborne shall pay for it - he shall. I'll not put up with insults. You shouldn't have stopped me, Roger! I wish to heaven I'd horsewhipped the fellow!
He was lashing himself again into an impotent rage, painful to a son to witness; but just then the little grandchild of old Silas, who had held the squire's horse during his visit to the sick man, came running up, breathless, -
'Please, sir, please, squire, mammy has 'sent me; grandfather has wakened up sudden, and mammy says he's dying, and would you please come; she says he'd take it as a kind compliment, she's sure.'
So they went to the cottage, the squire speaking never a word, but suddenly feeling as if lifted out of a whirlwind and set down in a still and awful place.