Mrs Gibson came back full of rose-coloured accounts of London. Lady Cumnor had been gracious and affectionate, 'so touched by my going up to see her, so soon after her return to England;' Lady Harriet charming and devoted to her old governess; Lord Cumnor 'just like his dear usual hearty self;' and as for the Kirkpatricks, no Lord Chancellor's house was ever grander than theirs, and the silk gown of the Q.C. had floated over housemaids and footmen. Cynthia, too, was so much admired; and as for her dress, Mrs Kirkpatrick had showered down ball-dresses and wreaths, and pretty bonnets and mantles, like a fairy godmother. Mr Gibson's poor present of ten pounds shrank into very small dimensions compared with all this munificence.
'And they're so fond of her, I don't know when we shall have her back,' was Mrs Gibson's winding-up sentence. 'And now, Molly, what have you and papa been doing? Very gay, you sounded in your letter. I had not time to read it in London; so I put it in my pocket, and read it in the coach coming home. But, my dear child, you do look so old-fashioned with your gown made all tight, and your hair all tumbling about in curls. Curls are quite gone out.' We must do your hair differently,' she continued, trying to smooth Molly's black waves into straightness.
'I sent Cynthia an African letter,' said Molly, timidly. 'Did you hear anything of what was in it?'
'Oh, yes, poor child! It made her very uneasy, I think; she said she did not feel inclined to go to Mr Rawson's ball, which was on that night, and for which Mrs Kirkpatrick had given her the ball-dress. But there really was nothing for her to fidget herself about. Roger only said he had had another touch of fever, but was better when he wrote. He says every European has to be acclimatized by fever in that part of Abyssinia where he is.'
'And did she go?' asked Molly.
'Yes, to be sure. It is not an engagement; and if it were, it is not acknowledged. Fancy her going and saying, "A young man that I know has been ill for a few days in Africa, two months ago, therefore I don't want to go to the ball to-night." It would have seemed like affectation of sentiment; and if there's one thing I hate it is that.'
'She would hardly enjoy herself,' said Molly.
'Oh, yes, but she did. Her dress was white gauze, trimmed with lilacs, and she really did look - a mother may be allowed a little natural partiality - most lovely. And she danced every dance, although she was quite a stranger. I am sure she enjoyed herself, from her manner of talking about it next morning.'
'I wonder if the squire knows.'
'Knows what? Oh, yes, to be sure! You mean about Roger. I dare say he doesn't, and there's no need to tell him, for I've no doubt it is all right now.' And she went out of the room to Finish her unpacking.
Molly let her work fall, and sighed. 'It will be a year the day after to-morrow since he came here to propose our going to Hurst Wood, and mamma was so vexed at his calling before lunch. I wonder if Cynthia remembers it as well as I do. And now, perhaps -- Oh! Roger, Roger! I wish - I pray that you were safe home again! How could we all bear it, if -- '
She covered her face with her hands, and tried to stop thinking. Suddenly she got up, as if stung by a venomous fancy,
'I don't believe she loves him as she ought, or she could not - could not have gone and danced. What shall I do if she does not? What shall I do? I can bear anything but that.'
But she found the long suspense as to his health hard enough to endure. They were not likely to hear from him for a month at least, and before that time had elapsed Cynthia would be at home again. Molly learnt to long for her return before a fortnight of her absence was over. She had had no idea that perpetual tête-à-têtes with Mrs Gibson could, by any possibility, be so tiresome as she found them. Perhaps Molly's state of delicate health, consequent upon her rapid growth during the last few months, made her irritable; but really often she had to get up and leave the room to calm herself down after listening to a long series of words, more frequently plaintive or discontented in tone than cheerful, and which at the end conveyed no distinct impression of either the speaker's thought or feeling. Whenever anything had gone wrong, whenever Mr Gibson had coolly persevered in anything to which she had objected; whenever the cook had made a mistake about the dinner, or the housemaid broken any little frangible article; whenever Molly's hair was not done to her liking, or her dress did not become her, or the smell of dinner pervaded the house, or the wrong callers came, or the right callers did not come - in fact, whenever anything went wrong, poor Mr Kirkpatrick was regretted and mourned over, nay, almost blamed, as if, had he only given himself the trouble of living, he could have helped it.
'When I look back to those happy days, it seems to me as if I had never valued them as I ought. To be sure - youth, love, - what did we care for poverty! I remember dear Mr Kirkpatrick walking five miles into Stratford to buy me a muffin because I had such a fancy for one after Cynthia was born. I don't mean to complain of dear papa - but I don't think - but, perhaps I ought not to say it to you. If Mr Kirkpatrick had but taken care of that cough of his; but he was so obstinate! Men always are, I think. And it really was selfish of him. Only I dare say he did not consider the forlorn state in which I should be left. It came harder upon me than upon most people, because I always was of such an affectionate sensitive nature. I remember a little poem of Mr Kirkpatrick's in which he compared my heart to a harp-string, vibrating to the slightest breeze.'
'I thought harp-strings required a pretty strong finger to make them sound,' said Molly.
'My dear child, you've no more poetry in you than your father. And as for your hair! it's worse than ever. Can't you drench it in water to take those untidy twists and twirls out of it?'
'It only makes it curl more and more when it gets dry,' said Molly, sudden tears coming into her eyes as a recollection came before her like a picture seen long ago and forgotten for years - a young mother washing and dressing her little girl; placing the half-naked darling on her knee, and twining the wet rings of dark hair fondly round her fingers, and then, in an ecstasy of fondness, kissing the little curly head.
The receipt of Cynthia's letters made very agreeable events. She did not write often, but her letters were tolerably long when they did come, and very sprightly in tone. There was constant mention made of many new names, which conveyed no idea to Molly, though Mrs Gibson would try and enlighten her by running commentaries like the following, -
'Mrs Green! ah, that's Mr Jones's pretty cousin, who lives in Russell Square with the fat husband. They keep their carriage; but I'm not sure if it is not Mr Green who is Mrs Jones's cousin. We can ask Cynthia when she comes home. Mr Henderson! to be sure - a young man with black whiskers, a pupil of Mr Kirkpatrick's formerly, - or was he a pupil of Mr Murray's? I know they said he had read law with somebody. Ah, yes! they are the people who called the day after Mr Rawson's ball, and who admired Cynthia so much, without knowing I was her mother. She was very handsomely dressed indeed, in black satin; and the son had a glass eye, but he was a young man of good property. Coleman! yes, that was the name.'
No more news of Roger until some time after Cynthia had returned from her London visit. She came back looking fresher and prettier than ever, beautifully dressed, thanks to her own good taste, and her cousins' generosity, full of amusing details of the gay life she had been enjoying, yet not at all out of spirits at having left it behind her. She brought home all sorts of pretty and dainty devices for Molly; a neck ribbon made up in the newest fashion, a pattern for a tippet, a delicate pair of light gloves embroidered as Molly had never seen gloves embroidered before, and many another little sign of remembrance during her absence. Yet somehow or other, Molly felt that Cynthia was changed in her relation to her. Molly was aware that she had never had Cynthia's full confidence, for with all her apparent frankness and naïveté of manner, Cynthia was extremely reserved and reticent. She knew this much of herself, and had often laughed about it to Molly, and the latter had found out the truth of her friend's assertion for herself. But Molly did not trouble herself much about this, She too knew that there were many thoughts and feelings that flitted through her mind that she should never think of telling to any one, except perhaps - if they were ever very much thrown together - to her father. She knew that Cynthia withheld from her more than thoughts and feelings - that she withheld facts. But then, as Molly reflected, these facts might involve details of struggle and suffering, might relate to her mother's neglect, and altogether be of so painful a character, that it would be well if Cynthia could forget her childhood altogether, instead of fixing it in her mind by the relation of her grievances and troubles. So it was not now by any want of confidence that Molly felt distanced as it were. It was because Cynthia rather avoided than sought her companionship; because her eyes shunned the straight, serious, loving look of Molly's; because there were certain subjects on which she evidently disliked speaking, not particularly interesting things as far as Molly could perceive, but it almost seemed as if they lay on the road to points to be avoided. Molly felt a sort of sighing pleasure in noticing Cynthia's changed manner of talking about Roger. She spoke of him tenderly now; 'poor Roger,' as she called him; and Molly thought that she must be referring to the illness which he had mentioned in his last letter. One morning in the first week after Cynthia's return home, just as he was going out, Mr Gibson ran up into the drawing-room, hat on, booted and spurred, and hastily laid an open pamphlet down before her; pointing out a particular passage with his finger, but not speaking a word before he rapidly quitted the room. His eyes were sparkling, and had an amused as well as pleased expression. All this Molly noticed, as well as Cynthia's flush of colour as she read what was thus pointed out to her. Then she pushed it a little on one side, not closing the book however, and went on with her work.
'What is it? may I see it?' asked Molly, stretching out her hand for the pamphlet, which lay within her reach. But she did not take it until Cynthia had said, -
'Certainly, I don't suppose there are any great secrets in a scientific journal, full of reports of meetings.' And she gave the book a little push towards Molly. .
'Oh, Cynthia!' said Molly, catching her breath as she read, Care you not proud?' For it was an account of an annual gathering of the Geographical Society, and Lord Hollingford had read a letter he had received from Roger Hamley, dated from Arracuoba, a district in Africa, hitherto unvisited by any intelligent European traveller; and about which, Mr Hamley sent many curious particulars. The reading of this letter had been received with the greatest interest, and several subsequent speakers had paid the writer very high compliments.
But Molly might have known Cynthia better than to expect an answer responsive to the feelings that prompted her question. Let Cynthia be ever so proud, ever so glad, or so grateful, or even indignant, remorseful, grieved or sorry, the very fact that she was expected by another to entertain any of these emotions, would have been enough to prevent her expressing them.
'I'm afraid I'm not as much struck by the wonder of the thing as you are, Molly. Besides, it is not news to me; at least, not entirely. I heard about the meeting before I left London; it was a good deal talked about in my uncle's set; to be sure I did not hear all the fine things they say of him there - but then, you know, that's a mere fashion of speaking, which means nothing; somebody is bound to pay compliments when a lord takes the trouble to read one of his letters aloud.'
'Nonsense,' said Molly. 'You know you don't believe what you are saying, Cynthia.'
Cynthia gave that pretty little jerk of her shoulders, which was her equivalent for a French shrug, but did not lift up her head from her sewing. Molly began to read the report over again.
'Why, Cynthia!' she said, 'you might have been there; ladies were there. It says "many ladies were present." Oh, could not you have managed to go? If your uncle's set cared about these things, would not some of them have taken you?'
'Perhaps, if I had asked them. But I think they would have
'You might have told your uncle how matters really stood, he would not have talked about it if you had wished him not, I am sure, and he could have helped you.'
'Once for all, Molly,' said Cynthia, now laying down her work, and speaking with quick authority, 'do learn to understand that it is, and always has been my wish, not to have the relation which Roger and I bear to each other, mentioned or talked about. When the right time comes, I will make it known to my uncle, and to everybody whom it may concern; but I am not going to make mischief, and get myself into trouble - even for the sake of hearing compliments paid to him - by letting it out before the time. If I'm pushed to it, I'd sooner break it off altogether at once, and have done with it. I can't be worse off than I am now.' Her angry tone had changed into a kind of desponding complaint before she had ended her sentence. Molly looked at her with dismay.
'I can't understand you, Cynthia,' she said at length.
'No; I dare say you can't,' said Cynthia, looking at her with tears in her eyes, and very tenderly, as if in atonement for her late vehemence. 'I am afraid - I hope you never will.'
In a moment, Molly's arms were round her. 'Oh, Cynthia,' she murmured, 'have I been plaguing you? Have I vexed you? Don't say you're afraid of my knowing you. Of course you've your faults, everybody has, but I think I love you the better for them.'
'I don't know that I'm so very bad,' said Cynthia, smiling a little through the tears that Molly's words and caresses had forced to overflow from her eyes. 'But I have got into scrapes. I am in a scrape now, I do sometimes believe I shall always be in scrapes, and if they ever come to light, I shall seem to be worse than I really am; and I know your father will throw me off, and I - no, I won't be afraid that you will, Molly.'
'I'm sure I won't. Are they - do you think - how would Roger take it?' asked Molly, very timidly.
'I don't know. I hope he will never hear of it. I don't see why he should, for in a little while I shall be quite clear again. It all came about without my ever thinking I was doing wrong. I've a great mind to tell you all about it, Molly.'
Molly did not like to urge it, though she longed to know, and to see if she could not offer help; but while Cynthia was hesitating, and perhaps, to say the truth, rather regretting that she had even made this slight advance towards bestowing her confidence, Mrs Gibson came in, full of some manner of altering a gown of hers, so as to make it into the fashion of the day, as she had seen it during her visit to London. Cynthia seemed to forget her tears and her troubles, and to throw her whole soul into millinery.
Cynthia's correspondence went on pretty briskly with her London cousins, according to the usual rate of correspondence in those days. Indeed Mrs Gibson was occasionally inclined to complain of the frequency of Helen Kirkpatrick's letters; for before the penny post came in, the recipient had to pay the postage of letters; and elevenpence-halfpenny three times a week came, according to Mrs Gibson's mode of reckoning when annoyed, to a sum 'between three and four shillings.' But these complaints were only for the family; they saw the wrong side of the tapestry. Hollingford in general, the Miss Brownings in particular, heard of 'dear Helen's enthusiastic friendship for Cynthia' and of 'the real pleasure it was to receive such constant news - relays of news indeed - from London. It was almost as good as living there!'
'A great deal better I should think,' said Miss Browning with some severity. For she had got many of her notions of the metropolis from the British Essayists, where town is so often represented as the centre of dissipation, corrupting country wives and squires' daughters, and unfitting them for all their duties by the constant whirl of its not always innocent pleasures. London was a sort of moral pitch, which few could touch and not be defiled. Miss Browning had been on the watch for the signs of deterioration in Cynthia's character ever since her return home. But, excepting in a greater number of pretty and becoming articles of dress, there was no great change for the worse to be perceived. Cynthia had been 'in the world,' had 'beheld the glare and glitter and dazzling display of London,' yet had come back to Hollingford as ready as ever to place a chair for Miss Browning, or to gather flowers for a nosegay for Miss Phoebe, or to mend her own clothes. But all this was set down to the merits of Cynthia, not to the credit of London-town.
'As far as I can judge of London,' said Miss Browning, sententiously continuing her tirade against the place, 'it's no better than a pickpocket and a robber dressed up in the spoils of honest folk. I should like to know where my Lord Hollingford was bred, and Mr Roger Hamley. Your good husband lent me that report of the meeting, Mrs Gibson, where so much was said about them both, and he was as proud of their praises as if he had been akin to them, and Phoebe read it aloud to me, for the print was too small for my eyes; she was a good deal perplexed with all the new names of places, but I said she had better skip them all, for we had never heard of them before and probably should never hear of them again, but she read out the fine things they said of my lord, and Mr Roger, and I put it to you, where were they born and bred? Why, within eight miles of Hollingford; it might have been Molly there or me; it's all a chance; and then they go and talk about the pleasures of intellectual society in London, and the distinguished people up there that it is such an advantage to know, and all the time I know it's only shops and the play that's the real attraction. But that's neither here nor there. We all put our best foot foremost, and if we have a reason to give that looks sensible we speak it out like men, and never say anything about the silliness we are hugging to our hearts. But I ask you again, where does this fine society come from, and these wise men, and these distinguished travellers? Why, out of country parishes like this! London picks 'em all up, and decks herself with them, and then calls out loud to the folks she's robbed, and says, "Come and see how fine I am." Fine, indeed! I've no patience with London: Cynthia is much better out of it; and I'm not sure, if I were you, Mrs Gibson, if I would not stop up those London letters: they'll only be unsettling her.'
'But perhaps she may live in London some of these days, Miss Browning,' simpered Mrs Gibson.
'Time enough then to be thinking of London. I wish her an honest country husband with enough to live upon, and a little to lay by, and a good character to boot. Mind that, Molly,' said she, firing round upon the startled Molly, 'I wish Cynthia a husband with a good character; but she's got a mother to look after her; you've none and when your mother was alive she was a dear friend of mine: so I'm not going to let you throw yourself away upon any one whose life is not clear and above-board, you may depend upon it.'
This last speech fell like a bomb into the quiet little drawing-room, it was delivered with such vehemence. Miss Browning, in her secret heart, meant it as a warning against the intimacy she believed that Molly had formed with Mr Preston; but as it happened that Molly had never dreamed of any such intimacy, the girl could not imagine why such severity of speech should be addressed to her. Mrs Gibson, who always took up the points of every word or action where they touched her own self (and called it sensitiveness), broke the silence that followed Miss Browning's speech by saying, plaintively, -
'I'm sure, Miss Browning, you are very much mistaken if you think that any mother could take more care of Molly than I do. I don't - I can't think there is any need for any one to interfere to protect her, and I have not an idea why you have been talking in this way, just as if we were all wrong, and you were all right. It hurts my feelings, indeed it does; for Molly can tell you there is not a thing or a favour that Cynthia has, that she has not. And as for not taking care of her, why, if she were to go up to London to-morrow, I should make a point of going with her to see after her; and I never did it for Cynthia when she was at school in France; and her bedroom is furnished just like Cynthia's; and I let her wear my red shawl whenever she likes, she might have it oftener if she would. I can't think what you mean, Miss Browning.'
'I did not mean to offend you, but I meant just to give Molly a hint. She understands what I mean.'
'I'm sure I do not,' said Molly, boldly. 'I have not a notion what you meant, if you were alluding to anything more than you said straight out; that you do not wish me to marry any one who has not a good character, and that, as you were a friend of mamma's, you would prevent my marrying a man with a bad character, by every means in your power. I'm not thinking of marrying; I don't want to marry anybody at all; but if I did, and he were not a good man, I should thank you for coming and warning me of it.'
'I shall not stand on warning you, Molly. I shall forbid the banns in church, if need be,' said Miss Browning, half convinced of the clear transparent truth of what Molly had said; blushing all over, it is true, but with her steady eyes fixed on Miss Browning's face while she spoke.
'Do!' said Molly.
'Well, well, I won't say any more. Perhaps I was mistaken, We won't say any more about it. But remember what I have said, Molly, there's no harm in that, at any rate. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, Mrs Gibson. As stepmothers go, I think you try and do your duty. Good morning. Good-by to you both, and God bless you.'
If Miss Browning thought that her final blessing would secure peace in the room she was leaving, she was very much mistaken; Mrs Gibson burst out with, -
'Try and do my duty, indeed! I should be much obliged to you, Molly, if you would take care not to behave in such a manner as to bring down upon me such impertinence as I have just been receiving from Miss Browning.'
'But I don't know what made her talk as she did, mamma,' said Molly.
'I'm sure I don't know, and I don't care either. But I know that I never was spoken to as if I was trying to do my duty before, - "trying" indeed! everybody always knew that I did it, without talking about it before my face in that rude manner. I've that deep feeling about duty that I think it ought only to be talked about in church, and in such sacred places as that; not to have a common caller startling one with it, even though she was an early friend of your mother's. And as if I did not look after you quite as much as I look after Cynthia! Why, it was only yesterday I went up into Cynthia's room and found her reading a letter that she put away in a hurry as soon as I came in, and I did not even ask her who it was from, and I am sure I should have made you tell me.'
Very likely. Mrs Gibson shrank from any conflicts with Cynthia, pretty sure that she would be worsted in the end; while Molly generally submitted, sooner than have any struggle for her own will.
Just then Cynthia came in.
'What's the matter?' said she quickly, seeing that something was wrong.
'Why, Molly has been doing something which has set that impertinent Miss Browning off into lecturing me on trying to do my duty! If your poor father had but lived, Cynthia, I should never have been spoken to as I have been. "A stepmother trying to do her duty", indeed. That was Miss Browning's expression.'
Any allusion to her father took from Cynthia all desire of irony. She came forwards, and again asked Molly what was the matter.
Molly, herself ruffled, made answer, -
'Miss Browning seemed to think I was likely to marry some one whose character was objectionable -- '
'You, Molly?' said Cynthia.
'Yes - she once before spoke to me, - I suspect she has got some notion about Mr Preston in her head -- '
Cynthia sate down quite suddenly. Molly went on, - 'and she spoke as if mamma did not look enough after me, - I think she was rather provoking -- '
'Not rather, but very - very impertinent,' said Mrs Gibson, a little soothed by Molly's recognition of her grievance.
'What could have put it into her head?' said Cynthia, very quietly, taking up her sewing as she spoke.
'I don't know,' said her mother, replying to the question after her own fashion. 'I'm sure I don't always approve of Mr Preston; but even if it was him she was thinking about, he's far more agreeable than she is; and I had much rather have him coming to call than an old maid like her any day.'
'I don't know that it was Mr Preston she was thinking about,' said Molly. 'It was only a guess. When you were both in London she spoke about him, - I thought she had heard something about you and him, Cynthia.' Unseen by her mother Cynthia looked up at Molly, her eyes full of prohibition, her cheeks full of angry colour. Molly stopped short suddenly. After that look she was surprised at the quietness with which Cynthia said, almost immediately, -
'Well, after all it is only your fancy that she was alluding to Mr Preston, so perhaps we had better not say any more about him; and as for her advice to mamma to look after you better, Miss Molly, I'll stand bail for your good behaviour; for both mamma and I know you're the last person to do any foolish things in that way. And now don't let us talk any more about it. I was coming to tell you that Hannah Brand's little boy has been badly burnt, and his sister is downstairs asking for old linen.'
Mrs Gibson was always kind to poor people, and she immediately got up and went to her stores to search for the article wanted.
Cynthia turned quietly round to Molly.
'Molly, pray don't ever allude to anything between me and Mr Preston, - not to mamma, nor to any one. Never do! I've a reason for it, - don't say anything more about it, ever.'
Mrs Gibson came back at this moment, and Molly had to stop short again on the brink of Cynthia's confidence; uncertain indeed this time, if she would have been told anything more, and only sure that she had annoyed Cynthia a good deal.
But the time was approaching when she would know all
THE STORM BURSTS
The autumn drifted away through all its seasons; the golden corn-harvest, the walks through the stubble fields, and rambles into hazel-copses in search of nuts; the stripping of the apple-orchards of their ruddy fruit, amid the joyous cries and shouts of watching children; and the gorgeous tulip-like colouring of the later time had now come on with the shortening days. There was comparative silence in the land, excepting for the distant shots and the whirr of the partridges as they rose up from the field.
Ever since Miss Browning's unlucky conversation things had been ajar in the Gibsons' house. Cynthia seemed to keep every one out at (mental) arm's-length; and particularly avoided any private talks with Molly. Mrs Gibson, still cherishing a grudge against Miss Browning for her implied accusation of not looking enough after Molly, chose to exercise a most wearying supervision over the poor girl. It was, 'Where have you been, child?' 'Who did you see?' 'Who was that letter from?' 'Why were you so long out when you had only to go to so-and-so?' just as if Molly had really been detected in carrying on some underhand intercourse. She answered every question asked of her with the simple truthfulness of perfect innocence; but the inquiries (although she read their motive, and knew that they arose from no especial suspicion of her conduct, but only that Mrs Gibson might be able to say that she looked well after her stepdaughter), chafed her inexpressibly. Very often she did not go out at all, sooner than have to give a plan of her intended proceedings, when perhaps she had no plan at all, only thought of wandering out at her own sweet will, and of taking pleasure in the bright solemn fading of the year. It was a very heavy time for Molly, - zest and life had fled; and left so many of the old delights mere shells of seeming. She thought it was that her youth had fled; at nineteen! Cynthia was no longer the same, somehow; and perhaps Cynthia's change would injure her in the distant Roger's opinion. Her stepmother seemed almost kind in comparison with Cynthia's withdrawal of her heart; Mrs Gibson worried her to be sure, with all these forms of watching over her; but in all her other ways, she, at any rate, was the same. Yet Cynthia herself, seemed anxious and care-worn, though she would not speak of her anxieties to Molly. And then the poor girl in her goodness would blame herself for feeling Cynthia's change of manner; for as Molly said to herself, 'If it is hard work for me to help always fretting after Roger, and wondering where he is, and how he is; what must it be for her?'
One day Mr Gibson came in, bright and swift.
'Molly,' said he, 'where's Cynthia?'
'Gone out to do some errands -- '
'Well, it's a pity - but never mind. Put on your bonnet and cloak as fast as you can. I've had to borrow old Simpson's dogcart, - there would have been room both for you and Cynthia; but as it is, you must walk back alone. I'll drive you as far on the Barford Road as I can, and then you must jump down. I can't take you on to Broadhurst's, I may be kept there for hours.'
Mrs Gibson was out of the room; out of the house it might be, for all Molly cared, now she had her father's leave and command. Her bonnet and cloak were on in two minutes, and she was sitting by her father's side, the back scat shut up, and the light weight going swiftly and merrily bumping over the stone-paved lanes.
'Oh, this is charming,' said Molly, after a toss-up on her seat from a tremendous bump.
'For youth, but not for crabbed age,' said Mr Gibson. 'My bones are getting rheumatic, and would rather go smoothly over macadamized streets.'
'That's treason to this lovely view and this fine pure air, papa. Only I don't believe you.'
'Thank you. As you are so complimentary, I think I shall put you down at the foot of this hill; we have passed the second milestone from Hollingford.'
'Oh, let me just go up to the top! I know we can see the blue range of the Malverns from it, and Dorrimer Hall among the woods; the horse will want a minute's rest, and then I will get down without a word.'
So she went up to the top of the hill; and there they sate still a minute or two, enjoying the view, without much speaking. The woods were golden, the old house of purple-red brick, with its twisted chimneys, rose up from among them facing on to green lawns, and a placid lake; beyond again were the Malvern Hills!
'Now jump down, lassie, and make the best of your way home before it gets dark. You'll find the cut over Croston Heath shorter than the road we've come by.'
To get to Croston Heath, Molly had to go down a narrow lane overshadowed by trees, with picturesque old cottages dotted here and there on the steep sandy banks; and then there came a small wood, and then there was a brook to be crossed on a plank-bridge, and up the steeper fields on the opposite side were cut steps in the turfy path, which ended, she was on Croston Heath, a wide-stretching common skirted by labourers' dwellings, past which a near road to Hollingford lay.
The loneliest part of the road was the first - the lane, the wood, the little bridge, and the clambering through the upland fields. But Molly cared little for loneliness. She went along the lane under the over-arching elm-branches, from which, here and there, a yellow leaf came floating down upon her very dress; past the last cottage where a little child had tumbled down the sloping bank, and was publishing the accident with frightened cries. Molly stooped to pick it up, and taking it in her arms in a manner which caused intense surprise to take the place of alarm in its little breast, she carried it up the rough flag steps towards the cottage which she supposed to be its home. The mother came running in from the garden behind the house, still holding the late damsons she had been gathering in her apron; but, on seeing her, the little creature held out its arms to go to her, and she dropped her damsons all about as she took it, and began to soothe it as it cried afresh, interspersing her lulling with thanks to Molly. She called her by her name; and on Molly asking the woman how she came to know it, she replied that she had been a servant of Mrs Goodenough before her marriage, and so was 'bound to know Dr Gibson's daughter by sight.' After the exchange of two or three more words, Molly ran down into the lane, and pursued her way, stopping here and there to gather a nosegay of such leaves as struck her for their brilliant colouring. She entered the wood. As she turned a corner in the lonely path, she heard a passionate voice of distress; and in an instant she recognized Cynthia's tones. She stood still and looked around. There were some holly bushes shining out dark green in the midst of the amber and scarlet foliage. If any one was there, it must be behind these thick bushes. So Molly left the path, and went straight, plunging through the brown tangled growth of ferns and underwood, and turned the holly bushes. There stood Mr Preston and Cynthia; he holding her hands tight, each looking as if just silenced in some vehement talk by the rustle of Molly's footsteps.
For an instant no one spoke. Then Cynthia said - ,
'Oh, Molly, Molly, come and judge between us!'
Mr Preston let go Cynthia's hands slowly, with a look that was more of a sneer than a, smile; and yet he, too, had been strongly agitated, whatever was the subject in dispute. Molly came forwards and took Cynthia's arm, her eyes steadily fixed on Mr Preston's face. It was fine to see the fearlessness of her perfect innocence. He could not bear her look, and said to Cynthia, -
'The subject of our conversation does not well admit of a third person's presence. As Miss Gibson seems to wish for your company now, I must beg you to fix some other time and place where we can finish our discussion.'
'I will go if Cynthia wishes me,' said Molly.
'No, no; stay - I want you to stay - I want you to hear it all - I wish I had told you sooner.'
'You mean that you regret that she has not been made aware of our engagement - that you promised long ago to be my wife. Pray remember that it was you who made me promise secrecy, not I you?'
'I don't believe him, Cynthia. Don't, don't cry if you can help it; I don't believe him.'
'Cynthia,' said he, suddenly changing his tone to fervid tenderness, 'pray, pray do not go on so; you can't think how it distresses me.' He stepped forwards to try and take her hand and soothe her; but she shrank away from him, and sobbed the more irrepressibly. She felt Molly's presence so much to be a protection that now she dared to let herself go, and to weaken herself by giving way to her emotion.
'Go away!' said Molly. 'Don't you see you make her worse?' But he did not stir; he was looking at Cynthia so intently that he did not seem even to hear her. 'Go,' said Molly, vehemently, 'if it really distresses you to see her cry. Don't you see, it's you who are the cause of it?'
'I will go if Cynthia tells me,' said he at length.
'Oh, Molly, I do not know what to do,' said Cynthia, taking down her hands from her tear-stained face, and appealing to Molly, and sobbing worse than ever; in fact, she became hysterical, and though she tried to speak coherently, no intelligible words would come.
'Run to that cottage in the trees, and fetch her a cup of water,' said Molly. He hesitated a little.
'Why don't you go?' said Molly, impatiently.
'I have not done speaking to her; you will not leave before I come back?'
'No. Don't you see she can't move in this state?'
He went quickly, if reluctantly.
Cynthia was some time before she could check her sobs enough to speak. At length, she said, -
'Molly, I do hate him!'
'But what did he mean by saying you were engaged to him? Don't cry, dear, but tell me; if I can help you I will, but I can't imagine what it all really is.'
'It is too long a story to tell now, and I'm not strong enough. Look! he is coming back. As soon as I can, let us get home.'
'With all my heart,' said Molly.
He brought the water, and Cynthia drank, and was restored to calmness.
'Now,' said Molly, 'we had better go home as fast as you can manage it; it is getting dark quickly.'
If she hoped to carry Cynthia off so easily, she was mistaken. Mr Preston was resolute on this point. He said, -
'I think since Miss Gibson has made herself acquainted with this much, we had better let her know the whole truth - that you are engaged to marry me as soon as you are twenty; otherwise your being here with me, and by appointment too, may appear strange, even equivocal to her.'
'As I know that Cynthia is engaged to - another man, you can hardly expect me to believe what you say, Mr Preston.'
'Oh, Molly,' said Cynthia, trembling all over, but trying to be calm, 'I am not engaged, neither to the person you mean, nor to Mr Preston.'
Mr Preston forced a. smile. 'I think I have some letters that would convince Miss Gibson of the truth of what I have said; and which will convince Mr Osborne Hamley, if necessary - I conclude it is to him she is alluding.'
'I am quite puzzled by you both,' said Molly. .'The only thing I do know is, that we ought not to be standing here at this time of evening, and that Cynthia and I shall go home directly. If you want to talk to Miss Kirkpatrick, Mr Preston, why don't you come to my father's house, and ask to see her openly, and like a gentleman.'
'I am perfectly willing,' said he; 'I shall only be too glad to explain to Mr Gibson on what terms I stand in relation to her. If I have not done it sooner, it is because I have yielded to her wishes.'
'Pray, pray don't. Molly - you don't know all - you don't know anything about it; you mean well and kindly, I know, but you are only making mischief. I am quite well enough to walk, do let us go; I will tell you all about it when we are at home.' She took Molly's arm and tried to hasten her away; but Mr Preston followed, talking as he walked by their side.
'I do not know what you will say at home; but can you deny that you are my promised wife? Can you deny that it has only been at your earnest request that I have kept the engagement secret so long?' He was unwise - Cynthia stopped, and turned at bay.
'Since you will have it out, since I must speak here, I own that what you say is literally true; that when I was a neglected girl of sixteen, you - whom I believed to be a friend, lent me money at my need, and made me give you a promise of marriage.'
'Made you!' said he, laying an emphasis on the first word.
Cynthia turned scarlet. '"Made" is not the right word, I confess. I liked you then - you were almost my only friend - and, if it had been a question of immediate marriage, I dare say I should never have objected. But I know you better now; and you have persecuted me so of late, that I tell you once for all (as I have told you before, till I am sick of the very words), that nothing shall ever make me marry you. Nothing. I see there's no chance of escaping exposure and, I dare say, losing my character, and I know losing all the few friends I have.'
'Never me,' said Molly, touched by the wailing tone of despair that Cynthia was falling into.
'It is hard,' said Mr Preston. 'You may believe all the bad things you like about me, Cynthia, but I don't think you can doubt my real, passionate disinterested love for you.'
'I do doubt it,' said Cynthia, breaking out with fresh energy. 'Ah! when I think of the self-denying affection I have seen - I have known - affection that thought of others before itself -- '
Mr Preston broke in at the pause she made. She was afraid of revealing too much to him.
'You do not call it love which has been willing to wait for years - to be silent while silence was desired - to suffer jealousy and to bear neglect, relying on the solemn promise of a girl of sixteen - for "solemn" say "flimsy," when that girl grows older. Cynthia, I have loved you, and I do love you, and I won't give you up. If you will but keep your word, and marry me, I'll swear I'll make you love me in return.'
'Oh, I wish - I wish I'd never borrowed that unlucky money, it was the beginning of it all. Oh, Molly, I have saved and scrimped to repay it, and he won't take it now; I thought if I could but repay it, it would set me free.'
'You seem to imply you sold yourself for twenty pounds,' he said. They were nearly on the common now, close to the protection of the cottages, in very hearing of their inmates; if neither of the other two thought of this Molly did, and resolved in her mind to call in at one of them, and ask for the labourer's protection home; at any rate his presence must put a stop to this miserable altercation.
'I did not sell myself; I liked you then. But oh, how I do hate you now!' cried Cynthia, unable to contain her words.
He bowed and turned back, vanishing rapidly down the field staircase.' At any rate that was a relief. Yet the two girls hastened on, as if he was still pursuing them. Once, when Molly said something to Cynthia, the latter replied, -
'Molly, if you pity me - if you love me - don't say anything more just now. We shall have to look as if nothing had happened when we get home. Come to my room when we go upstairs to bed, and I will tell you all. I know you will blame me terribly, but I will tell you all.'
So Molly did not say another word till they reached home; and then, comparatively at ease, inasmuch as no one perceived how late was their return to the house, each of the girls went up into their separate rooms, to rest and calm themselves before dressing for the necessary family gathering at dinner. Molly felt as if she were 'so miserably shaken that she could not have gone down at all, if her own interests only were at stake. She sate by her dressing-table, holding her head in her hands, her candles unlighted, and the room in soft darkness, trying to still her beating heart, and to recall all she had heard, and what would be its bearing on the lives of those whom she loved. Roger. Oh, Roger! - far away in mysterious darkness of distance - loving as he did (ah, that was love! That was the love to which Cynthia had referred, as worthy of the name!) and the object of his love claimed by another - false to one she must be! How could it be? What would he think and feel if ever he came to know it? It was of no use trying to imagine his pain - that could do no good. What lay before Molly was, to try and extricate Cynthia, if she could help her by thought, or advice, or action; not to weaken herself by letting her fancy run into pictures of possible, probable suffering.
When she went into the drawing-room before dinner, she found Cynthia and her mother tête-à-tête. There were candles in the room, but they were not lighted, for the wood-fire blazed merrily if fitfully, and they were awaiting Mr Gibson's return, which might be expected at any minute. Cynthia sate in the shade, so it was only by her sensitive ear that Molly could judge of her state of composure. Mrs Gibson was telling some of her day's adventures - whom she had found at home in the calls she had been making; who had been out; and the small pieces of news she had heard. To Molly's quick sympathy Cynthia's voice sounded languid and weary, but she made all the proper replies, and expressed the proper interest at the right places, and Molly came to the rescue, chiming in, with an effort, it is true; but Mrs Gibson was not one to notice slight shades or differences in manner. When Mr Gibson returned, the relative positions of the parties were altered. It was Cynthia now who raised herself into liveliness, partly from a consciousness that he would have noticed any depression, and partly because, from her cradle to her grave, Cynthia was one of those natural coquettes, who instinctively bring out all their prettiest airs and graces in order to stand well with any man, young or old, who may happen to be present. She listened to his remarks and stories with all the sweet intentness of happier days, till Molly, silent and wondering, could hardly believe that the Cynthia before her was the same girl as she who was sobbing and crying as if her heart would break not two hours before. It is true she looked pale and heavy-eyed, but that was the only sign she gave of her past trouble, which yet must be a present care, thought Molly. After dinner, Mr Gibson went out to his town patients; Mrs Gibson subsided into her arm-chair, holding a sheet of The Times before her, behind which she took a quiet and lady-like doze. Cynthia had a book in one hand, with the other she shaded her eyes from the light. Molly alone could neither read, nor sleep, nor work. She sate in the seat in the bow-window; the blind was not drawn down, for there was no danger of their being overlooked. She gazed into the soft outer darkness, and found herself striving to discern the outlines of objects - the cottage at the end of the garden - the great beech-tree with the seat round it - the wire arches, up which the summer roses had clambered; each came out faint and dim against the dusky velvet of the atmosphere. Presently tea came, and there was the usual nightly bustle. The table was cleared, Mrs Gibson roused herself, and made the same remark about dear papa that she had done at the same hour for weeks past. Cynthia too did not look different to usual. And yet what a hidden mystery did her calmness hide, thought Molly. At length came bed-time, and the accustomary little speeches. Both Molly and Cynthia went to their own rooms without exchanging a word. When Molly was in hers she had forgotten if she was to go to Cynthia, or Cynthia to come to her. She took off her gown and put on her dressing-gown, and stood and waited, and even sate down for a minute or two; but Cynthia did not come, so Molly went and knocked at the opposite door, which, to her surprise, she found shut. When she entered the room Cynthia sate by her dressing-table, just as she came up from the drawing-room. She had been leaning her head on her arms, and seemed almost to have forgotten the tryst she had made with Molly, for she looked up as if startled, and her face did seem full of worry and distress; in her solitude she made no more exertion, but gave way to thoughts of care.
'You said I might come,' said Molly, 'and that you would tell me all.'
'You know all, I think,' said Cynthia heavily. 'Perhaps you don't know what excuses I have, but at any rate you know what a scrape I am in.'
'I've been thinking a great deal,' said Molly timidly and doubtfully. 'And I can't help fancying if you told papa -- '
Before she could go on, Cynthia had stood up.
'No!' said she. 'That I won't. Unless I'm to leave here at once. And you know I have not another place to go to - without warning I mean. I dare say my uncle would take me in, he's a relation, and would be bound to stand by me in whatever disgrace I might be; or perhaps I might get a governess's situation; a pretty governess I should be!'
'Fray, please, Cynthia, don't go off into such wild talking. I don't believe you've done so very wrong. You say you have not, and I believe you. That horrid man has managed to get you involved in some way; but I'm sure papa could set it to rights, if you would only make a friend of him and tell him all -- '
'No, Molly,' said Cynthia, 'I can't, and there's an end of it. You may if you like, only let me leave the house first; give me that much time.'
'You know I would never tell anything you wished me not to tell, Cynthia,' said Molly, deeply hurt.
'Would you not, darling?' said Cynthia, taking her hand. 'Will you promise me that? quite a sacred promise? - for it would be such a comfort to me to tell you all, now you know so much.'
'Yes! I'll promise not to tell. You should not have doubted me,' said Molly, still a little sorrowfully.
'Very well. I trust to you. I know I may.'
'But do think of telling papa, and getting him to help you,' persevered Molly.
'Never,' said Cynthia resolutely, but more quietly than before. 'Do you think I forget what he said at the time of that wretched Mr Coxe; how severe he was, and how long I was in disgrace, if indeed I'm out of it now? I am one of those people, as mamma says sometimes - I cannot live with persons who don't think well of me. It may be a weakness, or a sin, I am sure I don't know and I don't care; but I really cannot be happy in the same house with any one who knows my faults, and thinks that they are greater than my merits. Now you know your father would do that. I have often told you that he (and you too, Molly,) had a higher standard than I had ever known. Oh, I could not bear it - if he were to know he would be so angry with me - he would never get over it, and I have so liked him! I do so like him.'
'Well, never mind, dear; he shall not know,' said Molly, for Cynthia was again becoming hysterical, - 'at least we'll say no more about it now.'
'And you'll never say any more - never - promise me,' said Cynthia, taking her hand eagerly.
'Never till you give me leave. Now do let me see if I cannot help you. Lie down on the bed, and I will sit by you, and let us talk it over.'
But Cypthia sate down again in the chair by the dressing-table.
'When did it all begin?' said Molly, after a long pause of silence.
'Long ago - four or five years. I was such a child to be left all to myself. It was the holidays, and mamma was away visiting, and the Donaldsons asked me to go with them to the Worcester Festival. You can't fancy how pleasant it all sounded, especially to me. I had been shut up in that great dreary house at Ashcombe, where mamma had her school; it belonged to Lord Cumnor, and Mr Preston as his agent had to see it all painted and papered; but besides that he was very intimate with us: I believe mamma thought - no, I'm not sure about that, and I have enough blame to lay at her door, to prevent my telling you anything that may be only fancy -- '
Then she paused, and sate still for a minute or two, recalling the past. Molly was struck by the aged and careworn expression which had taken temporary hold of the brilliant and beautiful face; she could see from that how much Cynthia must have suffered from this hidden trouble of hers.
'Well! at any, rate we were intimate with him, and he came a great deal about the house, and knew as much as any one of mamma's affairs, and all the ins and outs of her life. I'm telling you that in order that you may understand how natural it was for me to answer his questions when he came one day and found me, not crying, for you know I'm not much given to that, in spite of to-day's exposure of myself; but fretting and fuming because, though mamma had written word I might go with the Donaldsons, she had never said how I was to get any money for the journey, much less for anything of dress, and I had outgrown all my last year's frocks, and as for gloves and boots - in short, I really had hardly clothes decent enough for church -- '
'Why did not you write to her and tell her all this?' said Molly, half afraid of appearing to cast blame by her very natural question.
'I wish I had her letter to show you; you must have seen some of mamma's letters, though; don't you know how she always seems to leave out just the important point of every fact? In this case she descanted largely on the enjoyment she was having, and the kindness she was receiving, and her wish that I could have been with her, and her gladness that I too was going to have some pleasure, but the only thing that would have been of real use to me she left out, and that was where she was going to next. She mentioned that she was leaving the house she was stopping at the day after she wrote, and that she should be at home by a certain date; but I got the letter on a Saturday, and the festival began on the next Tuesday -- '
'Poor Cynthia!' said Molly. 'Still, if you had written, your letter might have been forwarded. I don't mean to be hard, only I do so dislike the thought of your ever having made a friend of that man.'
'Ah!' said Cynthia, sighing. 'How easy it is to judge rightly after one sees what evil comes from judging wrongly: I was only a young girl, hardly more than a child, and he was a friend to us then; excepting mamma, the only friend I knew; the Donaldsons were only kind and good-natured acquaintances.'
'I am sorry,' said Molly humbly, 'I have been so happy with papa. I hardly can understand how different it must have been with you.'
'Different! I should think so. The worry about money made me sick of my life. We might not say we were poor, it would have injured the school, but I would have stinted and starved if mamma and I had got on as happily together as we might have done - as you and Mr Gibson do. It was not the poverty; it was that she never seemed to care to have me with her. As soon as the holidays came round, she was off to some great house or another, and I dare say I was at a very awkward age to have me lounging about in her drawing-room when callers came. Girls at the age I was then are so terribly keen at scenting out motives, and putting in their awkward questions as to the little twistings and twirlings and vanishings of conversation; they've no distinct notion of what are the truths and falsehoods of polite life. At any rate I was very much in mamma's way, and I felt it. Mr Preston seemed to feel it too for me; and I was very grateful to him for kind words and sympathetic looks - crumbs of kindness which would have dropped under your table unnoticed. So this day, when he came to see how the workmen were getting on, he found me in the deserted schoolroom, looking at my faded summer bonnet and some old ribbons I had been sponging out, and half-worn-out gloves - a sort of rag-fair spread out on the deal table. I was in a regular passion with only looking at that shabbiness. He said he was so glad to hear I was going to this festival with the Donaldsons; old Betty, our servant, had told him the news, I believe. But I was so perplexed about money, and my vanity was so put out about my shabby dress, that I was in a pet, and said I should not go. He sate down on the table, and little by little he made me tell him all my troubles. I do sometimes think he was very nice in those days. Somehow I never felt as if it was wrong or foolish or anything to accept his offer of money at the time. He had twenty pounds in his pocket, he said, and really did not know what. to do with it, should not want it for months; I could repay it, or rather mamma could, when it suited her. She must have known I should want money, and most likely thought I should apply to him. Twenty pounds would not be too much, I must take it all, and so on. I knew, at least I thought I knew, that I should never spend twenty pounds; but I thought I could give him back what I did not want, and so - well, that was the beginning! It does not sound so very wrong, does it, Molly?'
'No,' said Molly, hesitatingly. She did not wish to make herself into a hard judge, and yet she did so dislike Mr Preston. Cynthia went on, -
'Well, what with boots and gloves, and a bonnet and a mantle, and a white muslin gown, which was made for me before I left on the Tuesday, and a silk gown that followed to the Donaldsons', and my journeys, and all, there was very little left of the twenty pounds, especially when I found I must get a ball-dress in Worcester, for we were all to go to the Ball. Mrs Donaldson gave me my ticket, but she rather looked grave at my idea of going to the Ball in my white muslin, which I had already worn two evenings at their house. Oh dear! how pleasant it must be to be rich! You know,' continued Cynthia, smiling a very little, 'I can't help being aware that I am pretty, and that people admire me very much. I found it out first at the Donaldsons'. I began to think I did look pretty in my fine new clothes, and I saw that other people thought so too. I was certainly the belle of the house, and it was very pleasant to feel my power. The last day or two of that gay week Mr Preston joined our party. The last time he had seen me was when I was dressed in shabby clothes too small for me, half-crying in my solitude, neglected and penniless. At the Donaldsons' I was a little queen; and as I said, fine feathers make fine birds, all the people were making much of me; and at that ball, which was the first night he came, I had more partners than I knew what to do with. I suppose he really did fall in love with me then. I don't think he had done so before. And then I began to feel how awkward it was to be in his debt. I could not give myself airs to him as I did to others. Oh! it was so awkward and uncomfortable! But I liked him, and felt him as a friend all the time. The last day I was walking in the garden along with the others, and I thought I would tell him how much I had enjoyed myself, and how happy I had been, all thanks to his twenty pounds (I was beginning to feel like Cinderella when the clock was striking twelve), and to tell him it should be repaid to him as soon as possible, though I turned sick at the thought of telling mamma, and knew enough of our affairs to understand how very difficult it would be to muster up the money. The end of our talk came very soon, for almost to my terror he began to talk violent love to me, and to beg me to promise to marry him. I was so frightened, that I ran away to the others. But that night I got a letter from him, apologizing for startling me, renewing his offer, his entreaties for a promise of marriage, to be fulfilled at any date I would please to name - in fact a most urgent love-letter, and in it a reference to my unlucky debt, which was to be a debt no longer, only an advance of the money to be hereafter mine if only -- You can fancy it all, Molly, better than I can remember it to tell it you.'
'And what did you say?' asked Molly, breathless.
'I did not answer it at all until another letter came, entreating for a reply. By that time mamma had come home, and the old daily pressure and plaint of poverty had come on. Mary Donaldson wrote to me often, singing the praises of Mr Preston as enthusiastically as if she had been bribed to do it. I had seen him a very popular man in their set, and I liked him well enough, and felt grateful to him. So I wrote and gave him my promise to marry him when I was twenty, but it was to be a secret till then. And I tried to forget I had ever borrowed money of him, but somehow as soon as I felt pledged to him I began to hate him. I could not endure his eagerness of greeting if ever he found me alone; and mamma began to suspect, I think. I cannot tell you all the ins and outs, in fact I did not understand them at the time, and I don't remember clearly how it all happened now. But I know that Lady Cuxhaven sent mamma some money to be applied to my education as she called it, and mamma seemed very much put out and in very low spirits, and she and I did not get on at all together. So of course I never ventured to name the hateful twenty pounds to her, but went on trying to think that if I was to marry Mr Preston, it need never be paid - very mean and wicked I dare say, but oh, Molly, I've been punished for it, for how I abhor that man.'
'But why? When did you begin to dislike him? You seem to have taken it very passively all this time.'
'I don't know. It was growing upon me before I went to that school at Boulogne. He made me feel as if I was in his power; and by too often reminding me of my engagement to him, he made me critical of his words and ways. There was an insolence in his manner to mamma, too. Ah! you're thinking that I'm not too respectful a daughter - and perhaps not; but I could not bear his covert sneers at her faults, and I hated his way of showing what he called his "love" for me. Then, after I had been a semestre at Madame Lefevre's, a new English girl came - a cousin of his, who knew but little of me. Now, Molly, you must forget as soon as I have told you what I am going to say - and she used to talk much and perpetually about her cousin Robert - he was the great man of the family, evidently - and how he was so handsome, and every lady of the land in love with him, - a lady of title into the bargain.'
'Lady Harriet! I dare say,' said Molly, indignantly.
'I don't know,' said Cynthia, wearily. 'I didn't care at the time, and I don't care now; for she went on to say there was a very pretty widow too, who made desperate love to him. He had often laughed with them at all her little advances, which she thought he did not see through, - and - oh, - and this was the man I had promised to marry, and gone into debt to, and written love-letters to. So now you understand it all, Molly.'
'No, I don't yet. What did you do on hearing how he had spoken about your mother?'
'There was but one thing to do. I wrote and told him I hated him, and would never, never marry him, and would pay him back his money and the interest of it as soon as ever I could.'
'And Madame Lefevre brought me back my letter, - unopened, I will say; and told me that she did not allow letters to gentlemen to be sent by the pupils of her establishment unless she had previously seen their contents. I told her he was a family friend, the agent who managed mamma's affairs - I really could not stick at the truth; but she would not let it go; and I bad to see her burn it, and to give her my promise I would not write again before she would consent not to tell mamma. So I had to calm down, and wait till I came home.'
'But you did not see him then; at least, not for some time.'
'No, but I could write; and I began to try and save up my money to pay him.'
'What did he say to your letter?'
'Oh, at first he pretended not to believe I could be in earnest; he thought it was only pique, or a temporary offence to be apologized for and covered over with passionate protestations.'
'He condescended to threats; and, what is worse, then I turned coward. I could not bear to have it all known and talked about, and my silly letters shown - oh, such letters - I cannot bear to think of them, beginning, "My dearest Robert," to that man -- '
'But, oh, Cynthia, how could you go and engage yourself to Roger?' asked Molly.
'Why not?' said Cynthia, sharply turning round upon her. 'I was free - I am free; it seemed a way of assuring myself that I was quite free; and I did like Roger - it was such a comfort to be brought into contact with people who could be relied upon; and I was not a stock or a stone that I could fail to be touched with his tender, unselfish love, so different to Mr Preston's. I know you don't think me good enough for him; and, of course, if all this comes out, he won't think me good enough either' (falling into a plaintive tone very touching to hear); 'and sometimes I think I will give him up, and go off to some fresh life amongst strangers; and once or twice I have thought I would marry Mr Preston out of pure revenge, and have him for ever in my power - only I think I should have the worst of it. for he is cruel in his very soul - tigerish, with his beautiful striped skin and relentless heart. I have so begged and begged him to let me go without exposure.'
'Never mind the exposure,' said Molly. 'It will recoil far more on him than harm you.'
Cynthia went a little paler. 'But I said things in those letters about mamma. I was quick-eyed enough to all her faults, and hardly understood the force of her temptations; and he says he will show those letters to your father, unless I consent to acknowledge our engagement.'
'He shall not!' said Molly, rising up in her indignation, and standing before Cynthia almost as resolutely fierce as if she were in the very presence of Mr Preston himself. 'I am not afraid of him. He dare not insult me, or if he does, I do not care. I will ask him for those letters, and see if he will dare to refuse me.'
'You don't know him,' said Cynthia, shaking her head. 'He has made many an appointment with me, just as if he would take back the money - which has been sealed up ready for him this four months; or as if he would give me back my letters. Poor, poor Roger! How little he thinks of all this. When I want to write words of love to him I pull myself up, for I have written words as affectionate to that other man. And if Mr Preston ever guessed that Roger and I were engaged he would manage to be revenged on both him and me by giving us as much pain as he could with those unlucky letters - written when I was not sixteen, Molly, - only seven of them! They are like a mine under my feet, which may blow up any day; and down will come father and mother and all.' She ended bitterly enough, though her words were so light.
'How can I get them?' said Molly, thinking, - 'for get them I will. With papa to back me, he dare not refuse.'
'Ah! But that's just the thing. He knows I'm afraid of your father's hearing of it all, more than of any one else.'
'And yet he thinks he loves you!'
'It is his way of loving. He says often enough he does not care what he does so that he gets me to be his wife; and that after that he is sure he can make me love him.' Cynthia began to cry, out of weariness of body and despair of mind. Molly's arms were round her in a minute, and she pressed the beautiful head to her bosom, and laid her own cheek upon it, and hushed her up with lulling words, just as if Cynthia were a little child.
'Oh, it is such a comfort to have told you all!' murmured she. And Molly made reply, - 'I am sure we have right on our side; and that makes me certain he must and shall give up the letters.'
'And take the money?' added Cynthia, lifting her head, and looking eagerly into Molly's face. 'He must take the money. Oh, Molly, you can never manage it all without its coming out to your father! And I would far rather go out to Russia as a governess. I almost think I would rather - no, not that,' said she, shuddering away from what she was going to say. 'But he must not know - please, Molly, he must not know. I could not bear it. I don't know what I might not do. You'll promise me never to tell him, or mamma?'
'I never will. You do not think I would for anything short of saving -- ' She was going to have said, 'saving you and Roger from pain.' But Cynthia broke in, -
'For nothing. No reason whatever must make you tell your father. If you fail, you fail, and I will love you for ever for trying; but I shall be no worse than before. Better, indeed; for I shall have the comfort of your sympathy. But promise me not to tell Mr Gibson.'
'I have promised once,' said Molly, 'but I promise again; so now do go to bed, and try and rest. You are looking as white as a sheet; you'll be ill if you don't get some rest; and it's past two o'clock, and you're shivering with cold.'
So they wished each other good-night. But when Molly got into her room all her spirit left her; and she threw herself down on her bed, dressed as she was, for she had no heart left for anything. If Roger ever heard of it all by any chance, she felt how it would disturb his love for Cynthia. And yet was it right to conceal it from him? She must try and persuade Cynthia to tell it all straight out to him as soon as he returned to England. A full confession on her part would wonderfully lessen any pain he might have on first hearing of it. She lost herself in thoughts of Roger - how he would feel, what he would say, how that meeting would come to pass, where he was at that very time, and so on, till she suddenly plucked herself up, and recollected what she herself had offered and promised to do. Now that the first fervour was over, she saw the difficulties clearly; and the foremost of all was how she was to manage to have a tête-à-tête with Mr Preston? How had Cynthia managed? and the letters that had passed between them too? Unwillingly, Molly was compelled to perceive that there must have been a great deal of underhand work going on beneath Cynthia's apparent I openness of behaviour; and still more unwillingly she began to be afraid that she herself would be led into the practice. But she would try and walk in a straight path; and if she did wander out of it, it should only be to save pain to those whom she loved.
MOLLY GIBSON TO THE RESCUE
It seemed curious enough, after the storms of the night, to meet in smooth tranquillity at breakfast. Cynthia was pale; but she talked as quietly as usual about all manner of indifferent things, while Molly sate silent, watching and wondering, and becoming convinced that Cynthia must have gone through a long experience of concealing her real thoughts and secret troubles before she could have been able to put on such a semblance of composure. Among the letters that came in that morning was one from the London Kirkpatricks; but not from Helen, Cynthia's own particular correspondent. Her sister wrote to apologize for Helen, who was not well, she said: had had the influenza, which had left her very weak and poorly.
'Let her come down here for change of air,' said Mr Gibson. 'The country at this time of the year is better than London, excepting when the place is surrounded by trees. Now our house is well drained, high up, gravel soil, and I'll undertake to doctor her for nothing.'
'It would be charming,' said Mrs Gibson, rapidly revolving in her mind the changes necessary in her household economy before receiving a young lady accustomed to such a household as Mr Kirkpatrick's, and calculating the consequent inconveniences in her own mind, weighing them against the probable advantages even while she spoke.
'Should not you like it, Cynthia? and Molly too. You too, dear, would become acquainted with one of the girls, and I have no doubt you would be asked back again, which would be so very nice!'
'And I should not let her go,' said Mr Gibson, who had acquired an unfortunate facility of reading his wife's thoughts.
'Dear Helen!' went on Mrs Gibson, 'I should so like to nurse her, we would make your consulting-room into her own private sitting-room, my dear.' - (It is hardly necessary to say that the scales had been weighed down by the inconveniences of having a person behind the scenes for several weeks). 'For with an invalid so much depends on tranquillity. In the drawing-room, for instance, she might constantly be disturbed by callers; and the dining-room is so - so what shall I call it? so dinnery, - the smell of meals never seems to leave it; it would have been different if dear papa had allowed me to throw out that window -- '
'Why can't she have the dressing-room for her bed-room, and the little room opening out of the drawing-room for her sitting-room?' asked Mr Gibson.
'The library,' for by this name Mrs Gibson chose to dignify what had formerly been called the book-closet, - 'why, it would hardly hold a sofa, besides the books and the writing-table, and there are draughts everywhere. No, my dear, we had better not ask her at all, her own home is comfortable at any rate!'
'Well, well!' said Mr Gibson, seeing that he was to be worsted, and not caring enough about the matter to show fight. 'Perhaps you are right. It's a case of luxury versus fresh air. Some people suffer more from the want of one than from want of the other. You know I shall be glad to see her if she likes to come, and take us as we are, but I can't give up the consulting-room. It's a necessity; our daily bread!'
'I'll write and tell them how kind Mr Gibson is,' said his wife in high contentment, as her husband left the room. 'They'll be just as much obliged to him as if she had come!'
Whether it was Helen's illness, or from some other cause, after breakfast Cynthia became very flat and absent, and this lasted all day long; Molly understood now why her moods had been so changeable for many months, and was tender and forbearing with her accordingly. Towards evening when the two girls were left alone, Cynthia came and stood over Molly, so that her face could not be seen.
'Molly,' said she, 'will you do it? Will you do what you said last night? I have been thinking of it all day, and sometimes I believe he would give you back the letters if you asked him; he might fancy - at any rate it's worth trying, if you don't very much dislike it.'
Now it so happened that with every thought she had given to it, Molly disliked the idea of the proposed interview with Mr !Preston more and more; but it was after all her own offer, and she neither could nor would draw back from it; it might do good; she did not see how it could possibly do harm. So she gave her consent, and tried to conceal her distaste, which grew upon her more and more as Cynthia hastily arranged the details.
'You shall meet him in the avenue leading from the park lodge up to the Towers. He can come in one way, from the Towers, where he has often business - he has pass-keys everywhere - you can go in as we have often done by the lodge - you need not go far.'
It did strike Molly that Cynthia must have had some experience in making all these arrangements; and she did venture to ask how he was to be informed of all this? Cynthia only reddened, and replied, 'Oh! never mind! He will only be too glad to come; you heard him say he wished to discuss the affair more; it is the first time the appointment has come from my side. If I can but once be free - oh, Molly, I will love you, and be grateful to you all my life!'
Molly thought of Roger, and that thought prompted her next speech.
'It must be horrible - I think I'm very brave - but I don't think I could have - could have accepted even Roger, with a half-cancelled engagement hanging over me.' She blushed as she spoke.
'You forget how I detest Mr Preston!' said Cynthia. 'It was that, more than any excess of love for Roger, that made me thankful to be at least as securely pledged to some one else. He did not want to call it an engagement, but I did; because it gave me the feeling of assurance that I was free from Mr Preston. And so I am! all but these letters. Oh! if you can but make him take back his abominable money, and get me my letters. Then we would bury it all in oblivion, and he could marry somebody else, and I would marry Roger, and no one would be the wiser. After all it was only what people call "youthful folly." And you may tell Mr Preston that as soon as he makes my letters public, shows them to your father or anything, I'll go away from Hollingford, and never come back -- '
Loaded with many such messages, which she felt that she should never deliver, not really knowing what she should say, hating the errand, not satisfied with Cynthia's manner of speaking about her relations to Roger, oppressed with shame and complicity in conduct which appeared to her deceitful, yet willing to bear all and brave all, if she could once set Cynthia in a straight path - in a clear space, and almost more pitiful to her friend's great distress and possible disgrace, than able to give her that love which involves perfect sympathy, Molly set out on her walk towards the appointed place. It was a cloudy blustering day, and the noise of the blowing wind among the nearly leafless branches of the great trees filled her ears, as she passed through the park-gates and entered the avenue. She walked quickly, instinctively wishing to get her blood up, and have no time for thought. But there was a bend in the avenue about a quarter of a mile from the lodge; after that bend it was a straight line up to the great house, now emptied of its inhabitants. Molly did not like going quite out of sight of the lodge, and she stood facing it, close by the trunk of one of the trees. Presently she heard a step coming over the grass. It was Mr Preston. He saw a woman's figure, half-behind the trunk of a tree, and made no doubt that it was Cynthia. But when he came nearer, almost close, the figure turned round, and, instead of the brilliantly coloured face of Cynthia, he met the pale resolved look of Molly. She did not speak to greet him, but though he felt sure from the general aspect of pallor and timidity that she was afraid of him, her steady grey eyes met his with courageous innocence.
'Is Cynthia unable to come?' asked he, perceiving that she expected him.
'I did not know you thought that you should meet her,' said Molly, a little surprised. In her simplicity she had believed that Cynthia had named that it was she, Molly Gibson, who would meet Mr Preston at a given time and place; but Cynthia had been too worldly-wise for that, and had decoyed him thither by a vaguely worded note, which, while avoiding actual falsehood, had led him to believe that she herself would give him the meeting.
'She said she should be here,' said Mr Preston, extremely annoyed at being entrapped as he now felt that he had been, into an interview with Miss Gibson. Molly hesitated a little before she spoke. He was determined not to break the silence; as she had intruded herself into the affair, she should find her situation as awkward as possible.
'At any rate she sent me here to meet you,' said Molly. 'She has told me exactly how matters stand between you and her.'
'Has she?' sneered he. 'She is not always the most open or reliable person in the world!'
Molly reddened. She perceived the impertinence of the tone; and her temper was none of the coolest. But she mastered herself and gained courage by so doing.
'You should not speak so of the person you profess to wish to have for your wife. But putting all that aside, you have some letters of hers that she wishes to have back again.'
'I dare say.'
'And that you have no right to keep.'
'No legal, or no moral right? which do you mean?'
'I do not know; simply you have no right at all, as a gentleman, to keep a girl's letters when she asks for them back again, much less to hold them over her as a threat.'
'I see you do know all, Miss Gibson,' said he, changing his manner to one of more respect. 'At least she has told you her story from her point of view, her side; now you must hear mine. She promised me as solemnly as ever woman -- '
'She was not a woman, she was only a girl, barely sixteen.'
'Old enough to know what she was doing; but I'll call her a girl if you like. She promised me solemnly to be my wife, making the one stipulation of secrecy, and a certain period of waiting; she wrote me letters repeating this promise, and confidential enough to prove that she considered herself bound to me by such an implied relation. I don't give in to humbug - I don't set myself up as a saint - and in most ways I can look after my own interests pretty keenly; you know enough of her position as a penniless girl, and at that time, with no influential connections to take the place of wealth, and help me on in the world, it was as sincere and unworldly a passion as ever man felt; she must say so herself. I might have married two or three girls with plenty of money; one of them was handsome enough, and not at all reluctant.'
Molly interrupted him; she was chafed at the conceit of his manner. 'I beg your pardon, but I do not want to hear accounts of young ladies whom you might have married; I come here simply on behalf of Cynthia, who does not like you, and who does not wish to marry you.'
'Well, then I must make her "like" me, as you call it. She did "like" me once, and made promises which she will find it requires the consent of two people to break. I don't despair of making her love me as much as ever she did, according to her letters, at least, when we are married.'
'She will never marry you,' said Molly, firmly.
'Then if she ever honours any one else with her preference, he shall be allowed the perusal of her letters to me.'
Molly almost could have laughed; she was so secure and certain that Roger would never read letters offered to him under these circumstances; but then she thought that he would feel such pain at the whole affair, and at the contact with Mr Preston, especially if he had not heard of it from Cynthia first, and if she, Molly, could save him pain she would. Before she could settle what to say, Mr Preston spoke again.
'You said the other day that Cynthia was engaged. May I ask whom to?'
'No,' said Molly, 'you may not. You heard her say it was not an engagement. It is not exactly; and if it were a full engagement, do you think, after what you last said, I should tell you to whom? But you may be sure of this, he would never read a line of your letters. He is too - No! I won't speak of him before you. You could never understand him.'
'It seems to me that this mysterious "he" is a very fortunate person to have such a warm defender in Miss Gibson, to whom he is not at all engaged,' said Mr Preston, with so disagreeable a look on his face that Molly suddenly found herself on the point of bursting into tears. But she rallied herself, and worked on - for Cynthia first, and for Roger as well.
'No honourable man or woman will read your letters, and if any people do read them, they will be so much ashamed of it that they won't dare to speak of them. What use can they be of to you?'
'They contain Cynthia's reiterated promises of marriage,' replied he.
'She says she would rather leave Hollingford for ever, and go out to earn her bread, than marry you.'
His face fell a little. He looked so bitterly mortified that Molly was almost sorry for him.
'Does she say that to you in cold blood? Do you know you are telling me very hard truths, Miss Gibson? - if they are truths, that is to say,' he continued, recovering himself a little. 'Young ladies are very fond of the words "hate" and "detest." I have known many who have applied them to men whom they were all the time hoping to marry.'
'I cannot tell about other people,' said Molly, 'I only know that Cynthia does - ' Here she hesitated for a moment; she fell for his pain, and so she hesitated; but then she brought it out, - 'does as nearly hate you as anybody like her ever does hate.'
'Like her?' said he, repeating the words almost unconsciously, seizing on anything to try and hide his mortification.
'I mean, I should hate worse,' said Molly in a low voice.
But he did not attend much to her answer. He was working the point of his stick into the turf, and his eyes were bent on it.
'So now would you mind sending her back the letters by me? I do assure you that you cannot make her marry you.'
'You are very simple, Miss Gibson,' said he, suddenly lifting up his head. 'I suppose that you don't know that there is any other feeling that can be gratified, excepting love. Have you never heard of revenge? Cynthia had cajoled me with promises, and little as you or she may believe me - well, it's of no use speaking of that. I don't mean to let her go unpunished. You may tell her that. I shall keep the letters, and make use of them as I see fit when the occasion arises.'
Molly was miserably angry with herself for her mismanagement of the affair. She had hoped to succeed: she had only made matters worse. What new argument could she use? Meanwhile he went on, lashing himself up as he thought how the two girls must have talked him over, bringing in wounded vanity to add to the rage of disappointed love.
'Mr Osborne Hamley may hear of their contents, though he may be too honourable to read them. Nay, even your father may hear whispers; and if I remember them rightly, Miss Cynthia Kirkpatrick does not always speak in the most respectful terms of the lady who is now Mrs Gibson. There are -- '
'Stop,' said Molly. 'I won't hear anything out of these letters, written, when she was almost without friends, to you whom she looked upon as a friend! But I have thought of what I will do next. I give you fair warning. If I had not been foolish I should have told my father, but Cynthia made me promise that I would not. So I will tell it all, from beginning to end, to Lady Harriet, and ask her to speak to her father. I feel sure that she will do it; and I don't think you will dare to refuse Lord Cumnor.'
He felt at once that he should not dare; that, clever land-agent as he was, and high up in the earl's favour on that account, yet that the conduct of which he had been guilty about these letters, and the threats which he had held out about them, were just what no gentleman, no honourable man, no manly man, could put up with in any one about him. He knew that much, and he wondered how she, the girl standing before him, had been clever enough to find it out. He forgot himself for an instant in admiration of her. There she stood, frightened, yet brave, not letting go her hold on what she meant to do, even when things seemed most against her; and besides, there was something that struck him most of all perhaps, and which shows the kind of man he was - he perceived that Molly was as unconscious that he was a young man, and she a young woman, as if she had been a pure angel of heaven. Though he felt that he would have to yield, and give up the letters, he was not going to do it at once; and while he was thinking what to say so as still to evade making any concession till he had had time to think over it, he, with his quick senses all about him, heard the trotting of a horse cranching quickly along over the gravel of the drive. A moment afterwards, Molly's perception overtook his. He could see the startled look overspread her face; and in an instant she would have run away, but before the first rush was made, Mr Preston laid his hand firmly on her arm.
'Keep quiet. You must be seen. You, at any rate, have done nothing to be ashamed of.'
As he spoke Mr Sheepshanks came round the bend of the road and was close upon them. Mr Preston saw, if Molly did not, the sudden look of intelligence that dawned upon the shrewd ruddy face of the old gentleman - saw, but did not much heed. He went forwards and spoke to Mr Sheepshanks, who made a halt right before them.
'Miss Gibson! your servant! Rather a blustering day for a young lady to be out, and cold, I should say, for standing still too long; eh, Preston?' poking his whip at the latter in a knowing manner.
'Yes,' said Mr Preston; 'and I'm afraid I have kept Miss Gibson too long standing.'
Molly did not know what to say or do; so she only bowed a silent farewell, and turned away to go home, feeling very heavy at heart at the non-success of her undertaking. For she did not know how she had conquered, in fact, although Mr Preston might not as yet acknowledge it even to himself. Before she was out of hearing, she heard Mr Sheepshanks say, -
'Sorry to have disturbed your tête-à-tête, Preston,' but though she heard the words, their implied sense did not sink into her mind; she was only feeling how she had gone out glorious and confident, and was coming back to Cynthia defeated.
Cynthia was on the watch for her return, and, rushing downstairs, dragged Molly into the dining-room.
'Well, Molly? Oh! I see you have not got them. After all, I never expected it.' She sate down, as if she could get over her disappointment better in that position, and Molly stood like a guilty person before her.
'I am so sorry; I did all I could; we were interrupted at last - Mr Sheepshanks rode up.'
'Provoking old man! Do you think you should have persuaded him to give up the letters if you had had more time?'
'I don't know. I wish Mr Sheepshanks had not come just then. I did not like his finding me standing talking to Mr Preston.'
'Oh! I daresay he would never think anything about it. What did he - Mr Preston - say?'
'He seemed to think you were fully engaged to him, and that these letters were the only proof he had. I think he loves you in his way.'
'His way, indeed!' said Cynthia, scornfully.
'The more I think of it, the more I see it would be better for papa to speak to him. I did say I would tell it all to Lady Harriet, and get Lord Cumnor to make him give up the letters. But it would be very awkward.'
'Very!' said Cynthia, gloomily. 'But he would see it was only a threat.'
'But I will do it in a moment, if you like. I meant what I said; only I feel that papa would manage it best of all, and more privately.'
'I'll tell you what, Molly; you're bound by a promise, you know, and cannot tell Mr Gibson without breaking your solemn word; but it's just this. I'll leave Hollingford and never come back again, if ever your father hears of this affair; there!' Cynthia stood up now, and began to fold up Molly's shawl, in her nervous excitement.
'Oh, Cynthia - Roger!' was all that Molly said.
'Yes, I know! you need not remind me of him. But I'm not going to live in the house with any one who may be always casting up in his mind the things he had heard against me - things - faults, perhaps - which sound so much worse than they really are. I was so happy when I first came here: you all liked me, and admired me, and thought well of me, and now -- Why, Molly, I can see the difference in you already. You carry your thoughts in your face - I have read them there these two days - you've been thinking, "How Cynthia must have deceived me; keeping up a correspondence all this time - having half-engagements to two men." You've been more full of that than of pity for me as a girl who has always been obliged to manage for herself, without any friend to help her and protect her.'
Molly was silent. There was a great deal of truth in what Cynthia was saying; and yet a great deal of falsehood. For, through all this long forty-eight hours, Molly had loved Cynthia dearly; and had been more weighed down by the position the latter was in than Cynthia herself. She also knew - but this was a second thought following on the other - that she had suffered much pain in trying to do her best in this interview with Mr Preston. She had been tried beyond her strength; and the great tears welled up into her eyes, and fell slowly down her cheeks.
'Oh! what a brute I am,' said Cynthia, kissing them away. 'I see - I know it is the truth, and I deserve it - but I need not reproach you.'
'You did not reproach me!' said Molly, trying to smile. 'I have thought some of what you said - but I do love you dearly - dearly, Cynthia - I should have done just the same as you did.'
'No, you would not. Your grain is different, somehow.'
All the rest of that day Molly was depressed and not well. Having anything to conceal was so unusual - almost so unprecedented a circumstance with her that it preyed upon her in every way.
It was a nightmare that she could not shake off; she did so wish to forget it all, and yet every little occurrence seemed to remind her of it. The next morning's post brought several letters; one from Roger for Cynthia, and Molly, letterless herself, looked at Cynthia as she read it, with wistful sadness; it appeared to Molly as though Cynthia should have no satisfaction in these letters, until she had told him what was her exact position with Mr Preston; yet Cynthia was colouring and dimpling up as she always did at any pretty words of praise, or admiration, or love. But Molly's thoughts and Cynthia's reading were both interrupted by a little triumphant sound from Mrs Gibson, as she pushed a letter she had just received to her husband, with a, -
'There! I must say I expected that!' Then, turning to Cynthia, she explained, - 'It is a letter from uncle Kirkpatrick, love. So kind, wishing you to go and stay with them, and help them to cheer up Helen; poor Helen! I am afraid she is very far from well. But we could not have had her here, without disturbing dear papa in his consulting-room; and, though I could have relinquished my dressing-room - he - well! so I said in my letter how you were grieved - you above all of us, because you are such a friend of Helen's, you know - and how you longed to be of use, - as I am sure you do - and so now they want you to go up directly, for Helen has quite set her heart upon it.'
Cynthia's eyes sparkled. 'I shall like going,' said she, - 'all but leaving you, Molly,' she added, in a lower tone, as if suddenly smitten with some compunction.
'Can you be ready to go up by the "Bang-up" to-night?' said Mr Gibson, 'for, curiously enough, after more than twenty years of quiet practice at Hollingford, I am summoned up to-day for the first time to a consultation in London, to-morrow. I am afraid Lady Cumnor is worse, my dear.'
'You don't say so? Poor dear lady! What a shock it is to me. I'm so glad I've had some breakfast. I could not have eaten anything.'
'Nay, I only say she is worse. With her complaint, being worse may be only a preliminary to being better. Don't take my words for more than their literal meaning.'
'Thank you. How kind and reassuring dear papa always is. About your gowns, Cynthia?'
'Oh, they are all right, mamma, thank you. I shall be quite ready by four o'clock. Molly, will you come with me and help me to pack? I wanted to speak to you, dear,' said she, as soon as they had gone upstairs. 'It is such a relief to get away from a place haunted by that man; but I'm afraid you thought I was glad to leave you; and indeed I am not.' There was a little flavour of 'protesting too much' about this; but Molly did not perceive it. She only said, 'Indeed I did not. I know from my own feelings how you must dislike meeting a man in public in a different manner from what you have done in private. I shall try not to see Mr Preston again for a long, long time, I'm sure. And Helen Kirkpatrick - But Cynthia, you have not told me one word out of Roger's letter. Please how is he? Has he quite got over his attack of fever?'
'Yes, quite. He writes in very good spirits. A great deal about birds and beasts, as usual, and habits of natives, and things of that kind. You may read from there' - indicating a place in the letter - 'to there, if you can; and I'll tell you what, I'll trust you with it, Molly, while I pack (and that shows my sense of your honour, not but what you might read it all, only you'd find the love-making dull); but make a little account of where he is, and what he is doing, date, and that sort of thing, and send it to his father.'
Molly took the letter down without a word, and began to copy it at the writing-table; often reading over what she was allowed to read; often pausing, her cheek on her hand, her eyes on the letter, and letting her imagination rove to the writer, and all the scenes in which she had either seen him herself, or in which her fancy had painted him. She was startled from her meditations by Cynthia's sudden entrance into the drawing-room, looking the picture of glowing delight. 'No one here! What a blessing! Ah, Miss Molly, you are more eloquent than you believe yourself. Look here!' holding up a large full envelope, and then quickly replacing it in her pocket, as if she was afraid of being seen. 'What's the matter, sweet one?' coming up and caressing Molly. 'Is it worrying itself over that letter? Why, don't you see these are my very own horrible letters, that I am going to burn directly, that Mr Preston has had the grace to send me, thanks to you, little Molly - cuishla ma chree, pulse of my heart, - the letters that have been hanging over my head like somebody's sword for these two years?'
'Oh, I am so glad!' said Molly, rousing up a little. 'I never thought he would have sent them. He is better than I believed him. And now it is all over. I am so glad. You quite think he means to give up all claim over you by this, don't you, Cynthia?'
'He may claim, but I won't be claimed; and he has no proofs now. It is the most charming relief; and I owe it all to you, you precious little lady! Now there is only one thing more to be done; and if you would but do it for me -- ?' (coaxing and caressing while she asked the question).
'Oh, Cynthia, don't ask me; I cannot do any more. You don't know how sick I go when I think of yesterday, and Mr Sheepshanks' look.'
'It is only a very little thing. I won't burden your conscience with telling you how I get my letters, but it is not through a person I can trust with money; and I must force him to take back his twenty-three pounds odd shillings. I have put it together at the rate of five per cent., and it's sealed up. Oh, Molly, I should go off with such a light heart if you would only try to get it safely to him. It's the last thing; there would be no immediate hurry, you know. You might meet him by chance in a shop, in the street, even at a party - and if you only had it with you in your pocket, there would be nothing so easy.'
Molly was silent. 'Papa would give it to him. There would be no harm in that. I would tell him he must ask no questions as to what it was.'
'Very well,' said Cynthia, 'have it your own way. I think my way is the best; for if any of this affair comes out -- But you've done a great deal for me already, and I won't blame you now for declining to do any more!'
'I do so dislike having these underhand dealings with him,' pleaded Molly.
'Underhand! just simply giving him a letter from me! If I left a note for Miss Browning, should you dislike giving it to her?'
'You know that's very different. I could do it openly.'
'And yet there might be writing in that; and there would not be a line with the money. It would only be the winding-up - the honourable, honest winding-up of an affair which has worried me for years! But do as you like!'
'Give it me!' said Molly. 'I will try.'
'There's a darling! You can but try; and if you can't give it to him in private, without getting yourself into a scrape, why, keep it till I come back again. He shall have it then, whether he will or no!'
Molly looked forward to her tête-à-tête two days with Mrs Gibson with very different anticipations to those with which she had welcomed the similar intercourse with her father. In the first place, there was no accompanying the travellers to the inn from which the coach started; leave-taking in the market-place was quite out of the bounds of Mrs Gibson's sense of propriety. Besides this, it was a gloomy, rainy evening, and candles had to be brought in at an unusually early hour. There would be no break for six hours - no music, no reading; but the two ladies would sit at their worsted work, pattering away at small-talk, with not even the usual break of dinner; for, to suit the requirements of those who were leaving, they had already dined early. But Mrs Gibson really meant to make Molly happy, and tried to be an agreeable companion, only Molly was not well, and uneasy about many apprehended cares and troubles - and at such hours of indisposition as she was then passing through, apprehensions take the shape of certainties, lying await in our paths. Molly would have given a good deal to have shaken off all these feelings, unusual enough to her; but the very house and furniture, and rain-blurred outer landscape, seemed steeped with unpleasant associations, most of them dating from the last few days.
'You and I must go on the next journey, I think, my dear,' said Mrs Gibson, almost chiming in with Molly's wish that she could get away from Hollingford into some new air and life, for a week or two. 'We have been stay-at-homes for a long time, and variety of scene is so desirable for the young! But I think the travellers will be wishing themselves at home by this nice bright fireside. "There's no place like home," as the poet says.' "Mid pleasures and palaces although I may roam," it begins, and it's both very pretty and very true. It's a great blessing to have such a dear little home as this, is not it, Molly?'
'Yes,' said Molly, rather drearily, having something of the 'Toujours perdrix' feeling at the moment. If she could but have gone away with her father, just for two days, how pleasant it would have been.
'To be sure, love, it would be very nice for you and me to go a little journey all by ourselves. You and I. No one else. If it were not such miserable weather we would have gone off on a little impromptu tour. I've been longing for something of the kind for some weeks; but we live such a restricted kind of life here! I declare sometimes I get quite sick of the very sight of the chairs and tables that I know so well. And one misses the others too! It seems so flat and deserted without them!'
'Yes! We are very forlorn to-night; but I think it's partly owing to the weather!'
'Nonsense, dear. I can't have you giving in to the silly fancy of being affected by weather. Poor dear Mr Kirkpatrick used to say, "a cheerful heart makes its own sunshine." He would say it to me, in his pretty way, whenever I was a little low - for I am a complete barometer - you may really judge of the state of the weather by my spirits, I have always been such a sensitive creature! It is well for Cynthia that she does not inherit it; I don't think her easily affected in any way, do you?'
Molly thought for a minute or two, and then replied, - 'No, she is certainly not easily affected - not deeply affected perhaps I should say.'
'Many girls, for instance, would have been touched by the admiration she excited - I may say the attentions she received when she was at her uncle's last summer.'
'At Mr Kirkpatrick's?'
'Yes. There was Mr Henderson, that young lawyer; that's to say he is studying law, but he has a good private fortune and is likely to have more, so he can' only be what I call playing at law. Mr Henderson was over head and ears in love with her. It is not my fancy, although I grant mothers are partial; both Mr and Mrs Kirkpatrick noticed it; and in one of Mrs Kirkpatrick's letters, she said that poor Mr Henderson was going into Switzerland for the long vacation,' doubtless to try and forget Cynthia; but she really believed he would find it only dragging at each remove a lengthening chain. I thought it such a refined quotation, and altogether worded so prettily. You must know aunt Kirkpatrick some day, Molly, my love: she is what I call a woman of a truly elegant mind.'
'I can't help thinking it was a pity that Cynthia did not tell them of her engagement.'
'It is not an engagement, my dear! How often must I tell you that?'
'But what am I to call it?'
'I don't see why you need to call it anything. Indeed I don't understand what you mean by "it." You should always try to express yourself intelligibly. It really is one of the first principles of the English language. In fact, philosophers might ask what is language given us for at all, if it is not that we may make our meaning understood?'
'But there is something between Cynthia and Roger; they are more to each other than I am to Osborne, for instance. What am I to call it?'
'You should not couple your name with that of any unmarried young man; it is so difficult to teach you delicacy, child. Perhaps one may say there is a peculiar relation between dear Cynthia and Roger, but it is very difficult to characterize it; I have no doubt that is the reason she shrinks from speaking about it. For, between ourselves, Molly, I really sometimes think it will come to nothing. He is so long away, and, privately speaking, Cynthia is not very very constant. I once knew her very much taken before - that little affair is quite gone by; and she was very civil to Mr Henderson, in her way; I fancy she inherits it, for when I was a girl I was beset by lovers, and could never find in my heart to shake them off. You have not heard dear papa say anything of the old squire, or dear Osborne, have you? It seems so long since we have heard or seen anything of Osborne. But he must be quite well, I think, or we should have heard of it.'
'I believe he is quite well. Some one said the other day that they had met him riding - it was Mrs Goodenough, now I remember - and that he was looking stronger than he had done for years.'
'Indeed! I am truly glad to hear it. I always was fond of Osborne; and, do you know, I never really took to Roger; I respected him and all that, of course. But to compare him with Mr Henderson! Mr Henderson is so handsome and well-bred, and gets all his gloves from Houbigant!'
It was true that they had not seen anything of Osborne Hamley for a long time; but, as it often happens, just after they had been speaking about him he appeared. It was on the day following on Mr Gibson's departure that Mrs Gibson had received one of the notes, not so common now as formerly, from the family in town asking her to go over to the Towers, and find a book, or a manuscript, or something or other that Lady Cumnor wanted with all an invalid's impatience. It was just the kind of employment she required for an amusement on a gloomy day, and it put her into a good. humour immediately. There was a certain confidential importance about it, and it was a variety, and it gave her the pleasant drive in a fly up the noble avenue, and the sense of being the temporary mistress of all the grand rooms once so familiar to her. She asked Molly to accompany her, out of an access of kindness, but was not at all sorry when Molly excused herself and preferred stopping at home. At eleven o'clock Mrs Gibson was off, all in her Sunday best (to use the servant's expression, which she herself would so have contemned), well-dressed in order to impose on the servants at the Towers, for there was no one else to be seen or to be seen by.
'I shall not be at home until the afternoon, my dear! But I hope you will not find it dull. I don't think you will, for you are something like me, my love - never less alone than when alone, as one of the great authors has justly expressed it.'
Molly enjoyed her house to herself to the full as much as Mrs Gibson would enjoy having the Towers to herself. She ventured on having her lunch brought upon a tray into the drawing-room, so that she might eat her sandwiches while she went on with her book. In the middle, Mr Osborne Hamley was announced. He came in, looking wretchedly ill in spite of purblind Mrs Goodenough's report of his healthy appearance.
'This call is not on you, Molly,' said he, after the first greetings were over. 'I was in hopes I might have found your father at home; I thought lunch-time was the best hour.' He had sate down, as if thoroughly glad of the rest, and fallen into a languid stooping position, as if it had become so natural to him that no sense of what were considered good manners sufficed to restrain him now.
'I hope you did not want to see him professionally?' said Molly, wondering if she was wise in alluding to his health, yet urged to it by her real anxiety.
'Yes, I did. I suppose I may help myself to a biscuit and a glass of wine? No, don't ring for more. I could not eat it if it was here. But I just want a mouthful; this is quite enough, thank you. When will your father be back?'
'He was summoned up to London. Lady Cumnor is worse. I fancy there is some operation going on; but I don't know. He will be back to-morrow night.'
'Very well. Then I must wait. Perhaps I shall be better by that time. I think it's half fancy; but I should like your father to tell me so. He will laugh at me, I daresay; but I don't think I shall mind that. He always is severe on fanciful patients, is not he, Molly?'
Molly thought that if he saw Osborne's looks just now he would hardly think him fanciful, or be inclined to be severe. But she only said, - 'Papa enjoys a joke at everything, you know. It is a relief after all the sorrow he sees.'
'Very true. There is a great deal of sorrow in the world. I don't think it's a very happy place after all. So Cynthia is gone to London,' he added, after a pause, 'I think I should like to have seen her again. Poor old Roger! He loves her very dearly, Molly,' he said. Molly hardly knew how to answer him in all this; she was so struck by the change in both voice and manner.
'Mamma has gone to the Towers,' she began, at length. 'Lady Cumnor wanted several things that mamma only can find. She will be sorry to miss you. We were speaking of you only yesterday, and she said how long it was since we had seen you.'
'I think I've grown careless; I have often felt so weary and ill that it was all I could do to keep up a brave face before my father.'
'Why did you not come and see papa?' said Molly; 'or write to him?'
'I cannot tell. I drifted on sometimes better, and sometimes worse, till to-day I mustered up pluck, and came to hear what your father has got to tell me: and all for no use it seems.'
'I am very sorry. But it is only for two days. He shall go and see you as soon as ever he returns.'
'He must not alarm my father, remember, Molly,' said Osborne, lifting himself by the arms of his chair into an upright position and speaking eagerly for the moment. 'I wish to God Roger was at home,' said he, falling back into the old posture.
'I can't help understanding you,' said Molly. 'You think yourself very ill; but is not it that you are tired just now?' She was not sure if she ought to have understood what was passing in his mind; but as she did, she could not help speaking a true reply.
'Well, sometimes I do think I'm very ill; and then, again, I think it's only the moping life sets me fancying and exaggerating.' He was silent for some time. Then, as if he had taken a sudden resolution, he spoke again. 'You see there are others depending upon me - upon my health. You have not forgotten what you heard that day in the library at home? No, I know you have not. I have seen the thought of it in your eyes often since then. I did not know you at that time. I think I do now.'
'Don't go on talking so fast,' said Molly. 'Rest. No one will interrupt us; I will go on with my sewing; when you want to say anything more I shall be listening.' For she had been alarmed at the strange pallor that had come over his face.
'Thank you.' After a time he roused himself, and began to speak very quietly, as if on an indifferent matter of fact.
'The name of my wife is Aimée. Aimée Hamley of course. She lives at Bishopsfield, a village near Winchester. Write it down, but keep it to yourself. She is a Frenchwoman, a Roman Catholic, and was a servant. She is a thoroughly good woman. I must not say how dear she is to me. I dare not. I meant once to have told Cynthia, but she did not seem quite to consider me as a brother. Perhaps she was shy of a new relation, but you'll give my love to her, all the same. It is a relief to think that some one else has my secret; and you are like one of us, Molly. I can trust you almost as I can trust Roger. I feel better already now I feel that some one else knows the whereabouts of my wife and child.'
'Child!' said Molly, surprised. But before he could reply, Maria had announced, -
'Miss Phoebe Browning.'
'Fold up that paper,' said he, quickly, putting something into her hands. 'It is only for yourself.'
'MY dear Molly, why didn't you come and dine with us? I said to sister I would come and scold you well. Oh, Mr Osborne Hamley, is that you?' and a look of mistaken intelligence at the tête-à-tête she had disturbed came so perceptibly over Miss Phoebe's face that Molly caught Osborne's sympathetic eye, and both smiled at the notion.
'I'm sure I - well! one must sometimes - I see our dinner would have been - ' Then she recovered herself into a connected sentence. 'We only just heard of Mrs Gibson's having a fly from the "George," because sister sent our Nancy to pay for a couple of rabbits Tom Ostler had snared (I hope we shan't be taken up for poachers, Mr Osborne - snaring doesn't require a licence, I believe?), and she heard he was gone off with the fly to the Towers with your dear mamma; for Coxe who drives the fly in general has sprained his ankle. We had just finished dinner, but when Nancy said Tom Ostler would not be back till night I said, "Why, there's that poor dear girl left all alone by herself, and her mother such a friend of ours," - when she was alive, I mean, But I'm sure I'm glad I'm mistaken.'
Osborne said, - 'I came to speak to Mr Gibson, not knowing he had gone to London, and Miss Gibson kindly gave me some of her lunch. I must go now.'
'Oh dear! I am so sorry,' fluttered out Miss Phoebe, 'I disturbed you; but it was with the best intentions. I always was mal-àpropos from a child.' But Osborne was gone before she had finished her apologies. Before he left, his eyes met Molly's with a strange look of yearning farewell that struck her at the time, and that she remembered strongly afterwards. 'Such a nice suitable thing, and I came in the midst, and spoilt it all. I am sure you're very kind, my dear, considering - '
'Considering what, my dear Miss Phoebe? If you are conjecturing a love affair between Mr Osborne Hamley and me, you never were more mistaken in your life. I think I told you so once before. Please do believe me.'
'Oh, yes! I remember. And somehow sister got it into her head it was Mr Preston, I recollect.'
'One guess is just as wrong as the other,' said Molly, smiling, and trying to look perfectly indifferent, but going extremely red from annoyance at the mention of Mr Preston's name. It was very difficult for her to keep up any conversation, for her heart was full of Osborne - his changed appearance, his melancholy words of foreboding, and his confidences about his wife - French, Catholic, servant. Molly could not help trying to piece these strange facts together by imaginations of her own, and found it very hard work to attend to kind Miss Phoebe's unceasing patter. She came up to the point, however, when the voice ceased; and could recall, in a mechanical manner, the echo of the last words, which from both Miss Phoebe's look, and the dying accent that lingered in Molly's ear, she perceived to be a question. Miss Phoebe was asking her if she would go out with her? She was going to Grinstead's, the bookseller of Hollingford; who, in addition to his regular business, was the agent for the Hollingford Book Society, received their subscriptions, kept their accounts, ordered their books from London, and, on payment of a small salary, allowed the Society to keep their volumes on shelves in his shop. It was the centre of news and gossip, the club, as it were, of the little town. Everybody who pretended to gentility in the place belonged to it, It was a test of gentility, indeed, rather than of education or a love of literature. No shopkeeper would have thought of offering himself as a member, however great his general intelligence and love of reading; while it boasted upon the list of subscribers most of the county families in the neighbourhood, some of whom subscribed to the Hollingford Book Society as a sort of duty belonging to their station, without often using their privilege of reading the books: while there were residents in the little town, such as Mrs Goodenough, who privately thought reading a great waste of time, that might be much better employed in sewing, and knitting, and pastry-making, but who nevertheless belonged to it as a mark of station, just as these good, motherly women would have thought it a terrible come-down in the world if they had not had a pretty young servant-maid to fetch them home from the tea-parties at night. At any rate, Grinstead's was a very convenient place for a lounge. In that view of the Book Society every one agreed. Molly went upstairs to get ready to accompany Miss Phoebe; and on opening one of her drawers she saw Cynthia's envelope, containing the notes she owed to Mr Preston, carefully sealed up like a letter. This was what Molly had so unwillingly promised to deliver - the last final stroke to the affair. Molly took it up, hating it. For a time she had forgotten it; and now it was here, facing her, and she must try and get rid of it. She put it into her pocket for the chances of the walk and the day, and fortune for once seemed to befriend her; for, on their entering Grinstead's shop, in which two or three people were now, as always, congregated, making play of examining the books, or business of writing down the titles of new works in the order-book, there was Mr Preston. He bowed as they came in. He could not help that; but, at the sight of Molly, he looked as ill-tempered and out of humour as a man well could do. She was connected in his mind with defeat and mortification; and besides, the sight of her called up what he desired now above all things to forget; namely, the deep conviction received through Molly's simple earnestness, of Cynthia's dislike to him, If Miss Phoebe had seen the scowl upon his handsome face, she might have undeceived her sister in her suppositions about him and Molly. But Miss Phoebe, who did not consider it quite maidenly to go and stand close to Mr Preston, and survey the shelves of books in such close proximity to a gentleman, found herself an errand at the other end of the shop, and occupied herself in buying writing-paper. Molly fingered her valuable letter, as it lay in her pocket; did she dare to cross over to Mr Preston, and give it to him, or not? While she was still undecided, shrinking always just at the moment when she thought she had got her courage up for action, Miss Phoebe, having finished her purchase, turned round, and after looking a little pathetically at Mr Preston's back, said to Molly in a whisper, - 'I think we'll go to Johnson's now, and come back for the books in a little while.' So across the street to Johnson's they went; but no sooner had they entered the draper's shop, than Molly's conscience smote her for her cowardice, and loss of a good opportunity. 'I'll be back directly,' said she, as soon as Miss Phoebe was engaged with her purchases; and Molly ran across to Grinstead's, without looking either to the right or the left; she had been watching the door, and she knew that no Mr Preston had issued forth. She ran in; he was at the counter now, talking to Grinstead himself, Molly put the letter into his hand, to his surprise, and almost against his will, and turned round to go back to Miss Phoebe. At the door of the shop stood Mrs Goodenough, arrested in the act of entering, staring, with her round eyes, made still rounder and more owl-like by spectacles, to see Molly Gibson giving Mr Preston a letter, which he, conscious of being watched, and favouring underhand practices habitually, put quickly into his pocket, unopened. Perhaps, if he had had time for reflection he would not have scrupled to put Molly to open shame, by rejecting what she so eagerly forced upon him.
There was another long evening to be got through with Mrs Gibson; but on this occasion there was the pleasant occupation of dinner, which took up at least an hour; for it was one of Mrs Gibson's fancies - one which Molly chafed against - to have every ceremonial gone through in the same stately manner for two as for twenty. So, although Molly knew full well, and her stepmother knew full well, and Maria knew full well, that neither Mrs Gibson nor Molly touched dessert, it was set on the table with as much form as if Cynthia had been at home, who delighted in almonds and raisins; or Mr Gibson been there, who never could resist dates, although he always protested against 'persons in their station of life having a formal dessert set out before them every day.'
And Mrs Gibson herself apologized as it were to Molly to-day, in the same words she had often used to Mr Gibson, - 'It's no extravagance, for we need not eat it - I never do. But it looks well, and makes Maria understand what is required in the daily life of every family of position.'
All through the evening Molly's thoughts wandered far and wide, though she managed to keep up a show of attention to what Mrs Gibson was saying. She was thinking of Osborne, and his abrupt, half-finished confidence, his ill-looks; she was wondering when Roger would come home, and longing for his return, as much (she said to herself) for Osborne's sake as for her own. And then she checked herself. What had she to do with Roger? Why should she long for his return? It was Cynthia who was doing this; only somehow he was such a true friend to Molly, that she could not help thinking of him as a staff and a stay in the troublous times which appeared to lie not far ahead this evening. Then Mr Preston and her little adventure with him came uppermost. How angry he looked! How could Cynthia have liked him even enough to get into this abominable scrape, which was, however, all over now! And so she ran on in her fancies and imaginations, little dreaming that that very night much talk was going on not half-a-mile from where she sate sewing, that would prove that the 'scrape' (as she called it, in her girlish phraseology) was not all over.
Scandal sleeps in the summer, comparatively speaking. Its nature is the reverse of that of the dormouse. Warm ambient air, loiterings abroad, gardenings, flowers to talk about, and preserves to make, soothed the wicked imp to slumber in the parish of Hollingford in summer-time. But when evenings grew short, and people gathered round the fires, and put their feet in a circle - not on the fenders, that was not allowed - then was the time for confidential conversation! Or in the pauses allowed for the tea-trays to circulate among the card-tables - when those who were peaceably inclined tried to stop the warm discussions about 'the odd trick,' and the rather wearisome feminine way of 'shouldering the crutch, and showing how fields were won' - small crumbs and scraps of daily news came up to the surface, such as 'Martindale has raised the price of his best joints a halfpenny in the pound;' or 'it's a shame of Sir Harry to order in another book on farriery into the Book Society; Phoebe and I tried to read it, but really there is no general interest in it;' or, 'I wonder what Mr Ashton will do, now Nancy is going to be married! Why, she has been with him these seventeen years! It's a very foolish thing for a woman of her age to be thinking of matrimony; and so I told her, when I met her in the market-place this morning!'
So said Miss Browning on the night in question; her hand of cards lying by her on the green baize-covered table, while she munched the rich pound-cake of a certain Mrs Dawes, lately come to inhabit Hollingford.
'Matrimony's not so bad as you think for, Miss Browning,' said Mrs Goodenough, standing up for the holy estate into which she had twice entered. 'If I had ha' seen Nancy, I should ha' given her my mind very different. It's a great thing to be able to settle what you'll have for dinner, without never a one interfering with you.'
'If that's all!' said Miss Browning, drawing herself up, 'I can do that; and, perhaps, better than a woman who has a husband to please.'
'No one can say as I didn't please my husbands - both on 'em, though Jeremy was tickler' in his tastes than poor Harry Beaver. But as I used to say to 'em, "Leave the victual to me; it's better for you than knowing what's to come beforehand. The stomach likes to be taken by surprise." And neither of 'em ever repented 'em of their confidence. You may take my word for it, beans and bacon will taste better (and Mr Ashton's Nancy in her own house) than all the sweetbreads and spring chickens she's been a-doing for him this seventeen years. But if I chose I could tell you of something as would interest you all a deal more than old Nancy's marriage to a widower with nine children - only as the young folks themselves is meeting in private, clandestine-like, it's perhaps not for me to tell their secrets.'
'I'm sure I don't want to hear of clandestine meetings between young men and young women,' said Miss Browning, throwing up her head. 'It's disgrace enough to the people themselves, I consider, if they enter on a love affair without the proper sanction of parents. I know 'public opinion has changed on the subject; but when poor Gratia was married to Mr Byerley, he wrote to my father without ever having so much as paid her a compliment, or said more than the most trivial and commonplace things to her; and my father and mother sent for her into my father's study, and she said she never was so much frightened in her life, - and they said it was a very good offer, and Mr Byerley was a very worthy man, and they hoped she would behave properly to him when he came to supper that night. And after that he was allowed to come twice a week till they were married. My mother and I sate at our work in the bow-window of the Rectory drawing-room, and Gratia and Mr Byerley at the other end; and my mother always called my attention to some flower or plant in the garden when it struck nine, for that was his time for going. Without offence to the present company, I am rather inclined to look upon matrimony as a weakness to which some very worthy people are prone; but if they must be married, let them make the best of it, and go through the affair with dignity and propriety; or if there are misdoings and clandestine meetings, and such things, at any rate, never let me hear about them! I think it's you to play, Mrs Dawes. You'll excuse my frankness on the subject of matrimony! Mrs Goodenough there can tell you I'm a very out-spoken person.'
'It's not the out-speaking, it's what you say that goes against me, Miss Browning,' said Mrs Goodenough, affronted, yet ready to play her card as soon as needed, And as for Mrs Dawes, she was too anxious to get into the genteelest of all (Hollingford) society to object to whatever Miss Browning (who, in right of being a deceased rector's daughter, rather represented the selectest circle of the little town) advocated, celibacy, marriage, bigamy, or polygamy.
So the remainder of the evening passed over without any farther reference to the secret Mrs Goodenough was burning to disclose, unless a remark made àpropos de rien by Miss Browning, during the silence of a deal, could be supposed to have connexion with the previous conversation. She said suddenly and abruptly, -
'I don't know what I have done that any man should make me his slave.' If she was referring to any prospect of matrimonial danger she saw opening before her fancy, she might have been comforted. But it was a remark of which no one took any notice, all being far too much engaged in the rubber. Only when Miss Browning took her early leave (for Miss Phoebe had a cold, and was an invalid at home), Mrs Goodenough burst out with, -
'Well! now I may speak out my mind, and say as how if there was a slave between us two, when Goodenough was alive, it wasn't me; and I don't think as it was pretty in Miss Browning to give herself such airs on her virginity when there was four widows in the room, - who've had six honest men among 'em for husbands. No offence, Miss Airy!' addressing an unfortunate little spinster, who found herself the sole representative of celibacy now that Miss Browning was gone. 'I could tell her of a girl as she's very fond on, who's on the high road to matrimony; and in as cunning a way as ever I heerd on. going out at dusk to meet her sweetheart, just as if she was my Sally, or your Jenny. And her name is Molly too, - which, as I have often thought, shows a low taste in them as first called her so;' she might as well be a scullery-maid at oncest. Not that she's picked up anybody common; she's looked about her for a handsome fellow, and a smart young man enough!'
Every one around the table looked curious and intent on the disclosures being made, except the hostess, Mrs Dawes, who smiled intelligence with her eyes, and knowingly pursed up her mouth until Mrs Goodenough had finished her tale. Then she said demurely, -
'I suppose you mean Mr Preston and Miss Gibson?'
'Why, who told you?' said Mrs Goodenough, turning round upon her in surprise. 'You can't say as I did. There's many a Molly in Hollingford, besides her, - though none, perhaps, in such a genteel station in life. I never named her, I'm sure.'
'No! But I know. I could tell my tale too,' continued Mrs Dawes.
'No! could you, really?' said Mrs Goodenough, very curious and a little jealous.
'Yes. My uncle Sheepshanks came upon them in the Park Avenue, - he startled 'em a good deal, he said; and when he taxed Mr Preston with being with his sweetheart, he didn't deny it.'
'Well! Now so much has come out, I'll tell you what I know. Only, ladies, I wouldn't wish to do the girl an unkind turn, - so you must keep what I've got to tell you a secret.' Of course they promised; that was easy.
'My Hannah, as married Tom Oakes, and lives in Pearson's Lane, was a-gathering of damsons only about a week ago, and Molly Gibson was a-walking fast down the lane, - quite in a hurry like to meet some one, - and Hannah's little Anna-Maria fell down, and Molly (who's a kind-hearted lass enough) picked her up; so if Hannah had had her doubts before, she had none then.'
'But there was no one with her, was there?' asked one of the ladies anxiously, as Mrs Goodenough stopped to finish her piece of cake, just at this crisis.
'No: I said she looked as if she was going to meet some one, - and by-and-by comes Mr Preston running out of the wood just beyond Hannah's, and says he, "A cup of water, please, good woman, for a lady has fainted, or is 'sterical or something." Now though he didn't know Hannah, Hannah knew him. "More folks know Tom Fool, than Tom Fool knows," asking Mr Preston's pardon; for he's no fool whatever he be. And I could tell you more, - and what I've seed with my own eyes. I seed her give him a letter in Grinstead's shop, only yesterday, and he looked as black as thunder at her, for he seed me if she didn't.'
'It's a very suitable kind of thing,' said Miss Airy; 'why do they make such a mystery of it?'
'Some folks like it,' said Mrs Dawes; 'it adds zest to it all, to do their courting underhand.'
'Ay, it's like salt to their victual,' put in Mrs Goodenough. But I didn't think Molly Gibson was one of that sort, I didn't.'
'The Gibsons hold themselves very high?' cried Mrs Dawes, more as an inquiry than an assertion. 'Mrs Gibson has called upon me.'
'Ay, you're like to be a patient of the doctor's,' put in Mrs Goodenough.
'She seemed to me very affable, though she is so intimate with the Countess and the family at the Towers; and is quite the lady herself; dines late, I've heard, and everything in style.'
'Style! very different style to what Bob Gibson, her husband, was used to when first he came here, - glad of a mutton-chop in his surgery, for I doubt if he'd a fire anywhere else; we called him Bob Gibson then, but none on us dare Bob him now; I'd as soon think o' calling him sweep!'
'I think it looks very bad for Miss Gibson!' said one lady, rather anxious to bring back the conversation to the more interesting present time. But as soon as Mrs Goodenough heard this natural comment on the disclosures she had made, she fired round on the speaker.
'Not at all bad, and I'll trouble you not to use such a word as that about Molly Gibson, as I've known all her life. It's odd, if you will. I was odd myself as a girl; I never could abide a plate of gathered gooseberries, but I must needs go and skulk behind a bush and gather 'em for myself. It's some folk's taste, though it mayn't be Miss Browning's, who'd have all the courting done under the nose of the family. All as ever I said was that I was surprised at it in Molly Gibson; and that I'd ha' thought it was liker that pretty minx of a Cynthia as they call her; indeed at one time I was ready to swear as it was her Mr Preston was after. And now, ladies, I'll wish you a very good night. I cannot abide waste; and I'll venture for it Sally's letting the candle in the lantern run all to grease, instead of putting it out, as I've told her to do, if ever she's got to wait for me.'
So with formal dipping curtseys the ladies separated, but not without thanking Mrs Dawes for the pleasant evening they had had; a piece of old-fashioned courtesy always gone through in those days.
SCANDAL AND ITS VICTIMS
When Mr Gibson returned to Hollingford, he found an accumulation of business waiting for him, and he was much inclined to complain of the consequences of the two days' comparative holiday, which had resulted in over-work for the week to come. He had hardly time to speak to his family, he had so immediately to rush off to pressing cases of illness. But Molly managed to arrest him in the hall, standing there with his great coat held out ready for him to put on, but whispering as she did so, -
'Papa! Mr Osborne Hamley was here to see you yesterday. He looks very ill, and he's evidently frightened about himself.'
Mr Gibson faced about, and looked at her for a moment; but all he said was, -
'I'll go and see him; don't tell your mother where I'm gone: you've not mentioned this to her, I hope?'
'No,' said Molly, for she had only told Mrs Gibson of Osborne's call, not of the occasion for it.
'Don't say anything about it: there's no need. Now I think of it, I can't possibly go to-day, - but I will go.'
Something in her father's manner disheartened Molly, who had persuaded herself that Osborne's evident illness was partly 'nervous,' by which she meant imaginary. She had dwelt upon his looks of enjoyment at Miss Phoebe's perplexity, and thought that no one really believing himself to be in danger could have given the merry glances which he had done; but after seeing the seriousness of her father's face, she recurred to the shock she had experienced on first seeing Osborne's changed appearance. All this time Mrs Gibson was busy reading a letter from Cynthia which Mr Gibson had brought from London; for every opportunity of private conveyance was seized upon when postage was so high; and Cynthia had forgotten so many things in her hurried packing, that she now sent a list of the clothes which she required. Molly almost wondered that it had not come to her; but she did not understand the sort of reserve that was springing up in Cynthia's mind towards her. Cynthia herself struggled with the feeling, and tried to fight against it by calling herself 'ungrateful,' but the truth was she believed that she no longer held her former high place in Molly's estimation and she could not help turning away from one who knew things to her discredit. She was fully aware of Molly's prompt decision and willing action, where action was especially disagreeable, on her behalf; she knew that Molly would never bring up the past errors and difficulties; but still the consciousness that the good, straightforward girl had learnt that Cynthia had been guilty of so much underhand work cooled her regard, and restrained her willingness of intercourse. Reproach herself with ingratitude as she would, she could not help feeling glad to be away from Molly; it was awkward to speak to her as if nothing had happened; it was awkward to write to her about forgotten ribbons and laces, when their last conversation had been on such different subjects, and had called out such vehement expressions of feeling. So Mrs Gibson held the list in her hand, and read out the small fragments of news that were intermixed with notices of Cynthia's requirements.
'Helen cannot be so very ill,' said Molly at length, 'or Cynthia would not want her pink muslin and daisy wreath.'
'I don't see that that follows, I'm sure,' replied Mrs Gibson rather sharply. 'Helen would never be so selfish as to tie Cynthia to her side, however ill she was. Indeed, I should not have felt that it was my duty to let Cynthia go to London at all, if I had thought she was to be perpetually exposed to the depressing atmosphere of a sick-room. Besides, it must be so good for Helen to have Cynthia coming in with bright pleasant accounts of the parties she has been to - even if Cynthia disliked gaiety I should desire her to sacrifice herself and go out as much as she could, for Helen's sake. My idea of nursing is that one should not be always thinking of one's own feelings and wishes, but doing those things which will most serve to beguile the weary hours of an invalid. But then so few people have had to consider the subject so deeply as I have done!' Mrs Gibson here thought fit to sigh before going on with Cynthia's letter. As far as Molly could make any sense out of this rather incoherent epistle, very incoherently read aloud to her, Cynthia was really pleased and glad to be of use and comfort to Helen, but at the same time very ready to be easily persuaded into the perpetual small gaieties which abounded in her uncle's house in London, even at this dead season of the year. Mrs Gibson came upon Mr Henderson's name once, and then went on with a running um-um-um to herself, which sounded very mysterious, but which might as well have been omitted, as all that Cynthia really said about him was, 'Mr Henderson's mother has advised my aunt to consult a certain Dr Donaldson, who is said to be very clever in such cases as Helen's, but my uncle is not sufficiently sure of the professional etiquette, &c.' Then there came a very affectionate, carefully worded message to Molly, - implying a good deal more than was said of loving gratitude for the trouble she had taken on Cynthia's behalf. And that was all; and Molly went away a little depressed; she knew not why.
The operation on Lady Cumnor had been successfully performed, and in a few days they hoped to bring her down to the Towers to recruit her strength in the fresh country air; the case was one which interested Mr Gibson extremely, and in which his opinion had been proved to be right, in opposition to that of one or two great names in London. The consequence was that he was frequently consulted and referred to during the progress of her recovery; and, as he had much to do in the immediate circle of his Hollingford practice, as well as to write thoughtful letters to his medical brethren in London, he found it difficult to spare the three or four hours necessary to go over to Hamley to see Osborne. He wrote to him, however, begging him to reply immediately and detail his symptoms; and from the answer he received he did not imagine that the case was immediately pressing. Osborne, too, deprecated his coming over to Hamley for the express purpose of seeing him. So the visit was deferred to that more convenient season which is so often too late.
All these days the buzzing gossip about Molly's meetings with Mr Preston, her clandestine correspondence, the tête-à-tête interviews in lonely places, had been gathering strength, and assuming the positive form of scandal. The simple innocent girl, who walked through the quiet streets without a thought of being the object of mysterious implications, became for a time the unconscious black sheep of the town. Servants heard part of what was said in their mistresses' drawing-rooms, and exaggerated the sayings amongst themselves with the coarse strengthening of expression common amongst uneducated people. Mr Preston himself became aware that her name was being coupled with his, though hardly to the extent to which the love of excitement and gossip had carried people's speeches; he chuckled over the mistake, but took no pains to correct it. 'It serves her right,' said he to himself, 'for meddling with other folk's business,' and he felt himself avenged for the discomfiture which her menace of appealing to Lady Harriet had caused him, and the mortification he had experienced in learning from her plain-speaking lips, how he had been talked over by Cynthia and herself, with personal dislike on the one side, and evident contempt on the other. Besides, if any denial of Mr Preston's stirred up an examination as to the real truth, more might come out of his baffled endeavours to compel Cynthia to keep to her engagement to him than he cared to have known. He was angry with himself for still loving Cynthia; loving her in his own fashion, be it understood. He told himself that many a woman of more position and wealth would be glad enough to have him; some of them pretty women too. And he asked himself why he was such a confounded fool as to go on hankering after a penniless girl, who was as fickle as the wind? The answer was silly enough, logically; but forcible in fact. Cynthia was Cynthia, and not Venus herself could have been her substitute. In this one thing Mr Preston was more really true than many worthy men; who, seeking to be married, turn with careless facility from the unattainable to the attainable, and keep their feelings and fancy tolerably loose till they find a woman who consents to be their wife. But no one would ever be to Mr Preston what Cynthia had been, and was; and yet he could have stabbed her in certain of his moods. So, Molly, who had come between him and the object of his desire, was not likely to find favour in his sight, or to obtain friendly actions from him.
There came a time - not very distant from the evening at Mrs Dawes' - when Molly felt that people looked askance at her. Mrs Goodenough openly pulled her grand-daughter away, when the young girl stopped to speak to Molly in the street, and an engagement which the two had made for a long walk together was cut very short by a very trumpery excuse. Mrs Goodenough explained her conduct in the following manner to some of her friends, -
'You see, I don't think the worse of a girl for meeting her sweetheart here and there and everywhere, till she gets talked about; but then when she does - and Molly Gibson's name is in everybody's mouth - I think it's only fair to Bessy, who has trusted me with Annabella, not to let her daughter be seen with a lass who has managed her matters so badly, as to set folk talking about her. My maxim is this, - and it's a very good working one, you may depend on't - women should mind what they're about, and never be talked of; and if a woman's talked of, the less her friends have to do with her till the talk has died away, the better. So Annabella is not to have anything to do with Molly Gibson, this visit at any rate.'
For a good while the Miss Brownings were kept in ignorance of the evil tongues that whispered hard words about Molly. Miss Browning was known to 'have a temper,' and by instinct every one who came in contact with her shrank from irritating that temper by uttering the slightest syllable against the smallest of those creatures over whom she spread the ægis of her love. She would and did reproach them herself; she used to boast that she never spared them: but no one else might touch them with the slightest slur of a passing word. But Miss Phoebe inspired no such terror; the great reason why she did not hear of the gossip against Molly as early as any one, was that, although she was not the rose, she lived near the rose. Besides, she was of so tender a nature that even thick-skinned Mrs Goodenough was unwilling to say what would give Miss Phoebe pain; and it was the new-comer Mrs Dawes, who in all ignorance alluded to the town's talk, as to something of which Miss Phoebe must be aware. Then Miss Phoebe poured down her questions, although she protested, even with tears, her total disbelief in all the answers she received. It was a small act of heroism on her part to keep all that she there learnt a secret from her sister Sally, as she did for four or five days; till Miss Browning attacked her one evening with the following speech, -
'Phoebe! either you've some reason for puffing yourself out with sighs, or you've not. If you have a reason, it's your duty to tell it me directly; and if you've no reason, you must break yourself of a bad habit that is growing upon you.'
'Oh, sister! do you think it is really my duty to tell you? it would be such a comfort; but then I thought I ought not; it will distress you so.'
'Nonsense. I am so well prepared for misfortune by the frequent contemplation of its possibility that I believe I can receive any ill news with apparent equanimity and real resignation. Besides, when you said yesterday at breakfast-time that you meant to give up the day to making your drawers tidy, I was aware that some misfortune was impending, though of course I could not judge of its magnitude. Is the Highchester Bank broken?'
'Oh no, sister!' said Miss Phoebe, moving to a seat close to her sister's on the sofa. 'Have you really been thinking that! I wish I had told you what I heard at the very first, if you've been fancying that!'
'Take warning, Phoebe, and learn to have no concealments from me. I did think we must be ruined, from your ways of going on; eating no meat at dinner, and sighing continually. And now what is it?'
'I hardly know how to tell you, Sally. I really don't.'
Miss Phoebe began to cry; Miss Browning took hold of her arm, and gave her a little sharp shake.
'Cry as much as you like when you've told me; but don't cry now, child, when you're keeping me on the tenterhooks.'
'Molly Gibson has lost her character, sister. That's it.'
'Molly Gibson has done no such thing!' said Miss Browning indignantly. 'How dare you repeat such stories about poor Mary's child! Never let me hear you say such things again!'
'I can't help it. Mrs Dawes told me; and she says it's all over the town. I told her I did not believe a word of it. And I kept it from you; and I think I should have been really ill if I'd kept it to myself any longer. Oh, sister! what are you going to do?'
For Miss Browning had risen without speaking a word, and was leaving the room in a stately and determined fashion.
'I am going to put on my bonnet and things, and then I shall call upon Mrs Dawes, and confront her with her lies.'
'Oh, don't call them "lies," sister; it's such a strong, ugly word. Please call them "tallydiddles," for I don't believe she meant any harm. Besides - besides - if they should turn out to be truth! Really, sister, that's the weight on my mind; so many things sounded as if they might be true.'
'What things?' said Miss Browning, still standing with judicial erectness of position in the middle of the floor.
'Why - one story was that Molly had given him a letter.'
'Who's him? How am I to understand a story told in that silly way?' Miss Browning sate down on the nearest chair, and made up her mind to be patient if she could.
'Him is Mr Preston. And that must be true; because I missed her from my side when I wanted to ask her if she thought blue would look green by candlelight, as the young man said it would, and she had run across the street, and Mrs Goodenough was just going into the shop, just as she said she was.'
Miss Browning's distress was overcoming her anger; so she only said, 'Phoebe, I think you'll drive me mad. Do tell me what you heard from Mrs Dawes in a sensible and coherent manner, for once in your life.'
'I'm sure I'm trying with all my might to tell you everything just as it happened.'
'What did you hear from Mrs Dawes?'
'Why, that Molly and Mr Preston were keeping company just as if she was a maid-servant and he was a gardener; meeting at all sorts of improper times and places, and fainting away in his arms, and out at night together, and writing to each other, and slipping their letters into each other's hands; and that was what I was talking about, sister, for I next door to saw that done once. I saw her with my own eyes run across the street to Grinstead's, where he was, for we had just left him there; with a letter in her hand, too, which was not there when she came back all fluttered and blushing. But I never thought anything of it at the time; but now all the town is talking about it, and crying shame, and saying they ought to be married.' Miss Phoebe sank, into sobbing again; but was suddenly roused by a good box on her car. Miss Browning was standing over her almost trembling with passion.
'Phoebe, if ever I hear you say such things again, I'll turn you out of the house that minute.'
'I only said what Mrs Dawes said, and you asked me what it was,' replied Miss Phoebe, humbly and meekly. 'Sally, you should not have done that.'
'Never mind whether I should or I shouldn't. That's not the matter in hand. What I've got to decide is how to put a stop to all these lies.'
'But, Sally, they are not all lies - if you will call them so; I'm afraid some things are true; though I stuck to their being false when Mrs Dawes told me of them.'
'If I go to Mrs Dawes, and she repeats them to me, I shall slap her face or box her ears I'm afraid, for I couldn't stand tales being told of poor Mary's daughter, as if they were just a, stirring piece of news like James Horrocks' pig with two heads,' said Miss Browning, meditating aloud. 'That would do harm instead of good. Phoebe, I'm really sorry I boxed your ears, only I should do it again if you said the same things.' Phoebe sate down by her sister, and took hold of one of her withered hands, and began caressing it, which was her way of accepting her sister's expression of regret. 'If I speak to Molly, the child will deny it, if she's half as good-for-nothing as they say; and if she's not, she'll only worry herself to death. No, that won't do. Mrs Goodenough - but she's a donkey; and if I convinced her, she could never convince any one else. No; Mrs Dawes, who told you, shall tell me, and I'll tie my hands together inside my muff, and bind myself over to keep the peace. And when I've heard what is to be heard, I'll put the matter into Mr Gibson's hands. That's what I'll do. So it's no use your saying anything against it, Phoebe, for I shan't attend to you.'
Miss Browning went to Mrs Dawes', and began civilly enough to make inquiries about the reports current in Hollingford about Molly and Mr Preston; and Mrs Dawes fell into the snare, and told all the real and fictitious circumstances of the story in circulation, quite unaware of the storm that was gathering and ready to fall upon her as soon as she stopped speaking. But she had not the long habit of reverence for Miss Browning which would have kept so many Hollingford ladies from justifying themselves if she found fault. Mrs Dawes stood up for herself and her own veracity, bringing out fresh scandal, which she said she did not believe, but that many did; and adducing so much evidence as to the truth of what she had said and did believe, that Miss Browning was almost quelled, and sate silent and miserable at the end of Mrs Dawes' justification of herself.
'Well!' she said at length, rising up from her chair as she spoke, 'I'm very sorry I've lived till this day; it's a blow to me just as if I had heard of such goings-on in my own flesh and blood. I suppose I ought to apologize to you, Mrs Dawes, for what I said; but I've no heart to do it to-day. I ought not to have spoken as I did; but that's nothing to this affair, you see.'
'I hope you do me the justice to perceive that I only repeated what I had heard on good authority, Miss Browning,' said Mrs Dawes in reply.
'My dear, don't repeat evil on any authority unless you can do some good by speaking about it,' said Miss Browning, laying her hand on Mrs Dawes' shoulder. 'I'm not a good woman, but I know what is good, and that advice is. And now I think I can tell you that I beg your pardon for flying out upon you so; but God knows what pain you were putting me to. You'll forgive me, won't you, my dear?' Mrs Dawes felt the hand trembling on her shoulder, and saw the real distress of Miss Browning's mind, so it was not difficult to her to grant the requested forgiveness. Then Miss Browning went home, and said but few words to Phoebe, who indeed saw well enough that her sister had heard the reports confirmed, and needed no further explanation of the cause of scarcely-tasted dinner, and short replies, and saddened looks. Presently Miss Browning sate down and wrote a short note. Then she rang the bell, and told the little maiden who answered it to take it to Mr Gibson, and if he was out to see that it was given to him as soon as ever he came home. And then she went and put on her Sunday cap; and Miss Phoebe knew that her sister had written to ask Mr Gibson to come and be told of the rumours affecting his daughter. Miss Browning was sadly disturbed at the information she had received, and the task that lay before her; she was miserably uncomfortable to herself and irritable to Miss Phoebe, and the netting-cotton she was using kept continually snapping and breaking from the jerks of her nervous hands. When the knock at the door was heard, - the well-known doctor's knock, - Miss Browning took off her spectacles, and dropped them on the carpet, breaking them as she did so; and then she bade Miss Phoebe leave the room, as if her presence had cast the evil-eye, and caused the misfortune. She wanted to look natural, and was distressed at forgetting whether she usually received him sitting or standing.
'Well!' said he, coming in cheerfully, and rubbing his cold hands as he went straight to the fire, 'and what is the matter with us? It's Phoebe, I suppose. I hope none of those old spasms? But, after all, a dose or two will set that to rights.'
'Oh! Mr Gibson, I wish it was Phoebe, or me either!' said Miss Browning, trembling more and more.
He sate down by her patiently, when he saw her agitation, and took her hand in a kind, friendly manner.
'Don't hurry yourself, - take your time. I daresay it's not so bad as you fancy; but we'll see about it. There's a great deal of help in the world, much as we abuse it.'
'Mr Gibson,' said she, 'it's your Molly I'm so grieved about. It's out now, and God help us both, and the poor child too, for I'm sure she's been led astray, and not gone wrong by her own free will!'
'Molly!' said he, fighting against her words. 'What's my little Molly been doing or saying?'
'Oh! Mr Gibson, I don't know how to tell you. I never would have named it, if I had not been convinced, sorely, sorely against my will.'
'At any rate, you can let me hear what you have heard,' said he, putting his elbow on the table, and screening his eyes with his hand. 'Not that I am a bit afraid of anything you can hear about my girl,' continued he. 'Only in this little nest of gossip it's as well to know what people are talking about.'
'They say - oh! how shall I tell you?'
'Go on, can't you?' said he, removing his hand from his blazing eyes. 'I'm not going to believe it, so don't be afraid!'
'But I fear you must believe it. I would not if I could help it. She's been carrying on a clandestine correspondence with Mr Preston! -- '
'Mr Preston!' exclaimed he.
'And meeting him at all sorts of unseemly places and hours out of doors, - in the dark, - fainting away in his - his arms, if I must speak out. All the town is talking of it.' Mr Gibson's hand was over his eyes again, and he made no sign; so Miss Browning went on, adding touch to touch. 'Mr Sheepshanks saw them together. They have exchanged notes in Grinstead's shop; she ran after him there.'
'Be quiet, can't you?' said Mr Gibson, taking his hand away, and showing his grim set face. 'I have heard enough. Don't go on. I said I shouldn't believe it, and I don't. I suppose I must thank you for telling me; but I can't yet.'
'I don't want your thanks,' said Miss Browning, almost crying. 'I thought you ought to know; for though you're married again, I can't forget you were dear Mary's husband once upon a time; and Molly's her child.'
'I'd rather not speak any more about it just at present,' said he, not at all replying to Miss Browning's last speech. 'I may not control myself as I ought. I only wish I could meet Preston, and horsewhip him within an inch of his life. I wish I'd the doctoring of these slanderous gossips. I'd make their tongues lie still for a while. My little girl! What harm has she done them all, that they should go and foul her fair name.'
'Indeed, Mr Gibson, I'm afraid it's all true. I would not have sent for you if I hadn't examined into it. Do ascertain the truth before you do anything violent, such as horsewhipping or poisoning.'
With all the inconséquence of a man in a passion, Mr Gibson laughed out, 'What have I said about horsewhipping or poisoning? Do you think I'd have Molly's name dragged about the streets in connection with any act of violence on my part. Let the report die away as it arose. Time will prove its falsehood.'
'But I don't think it will, and that's the pity of it,' said Miss Browning. 'You must do something, but I don't know what.'
'I shall go home and ask Molly herself what's the meaning of it all; that's all I shall do. It's too ridiculous - knowing Molly as I do, it's perfectly ridiculous.' He got up and walked about the room with hasty steps, laughing short unnatural laughs from time to time. 'Really what will they say next? "Satan finds some mischief still for idle tongues to do."'
'Don't talk of Satan, please, in this house. No one knows what may happen, if he's lightly spoken about,' pleaded Miss Browning.
He went on, without noticing her, talking to himself, - 'I've a great mind to leave the place; - and what food for scandal that piece of folly would give rise to!' Then he was silent for a time; his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ground, as he continued his quarter-deck march. Suddenly he stopped close to Miss Browning's chair. 'I'm thoroughly ungrateful to you, for as true a mark of friendship as you've ever shown to me. True or false, it was right I should know the wretched scandal that was being circulated; and it could not have been pleasant for you to tell it me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.'
'Indeed, Mr Gibson, if it was false I would never have named it, but let it die away.'
'It's not true though!' said he, doggedly, letting drop the hand he had taken in his effusion of gratitude.
She shook her head. 'I shall always love Molly for her mother's sake,' she said. And it was a great concession from the correct Miss Browning. But her father did not understand it as such.
'You ought to love her for her own. She has done nothing to disgrace herself. I shall go straight home, and probe into the truth.'
'As if the poor girl who has been led away into deceit already would scruple much at going on in falsehood,' was Miss Browning's remark on this last speech of Mr Gibson's; but she had discretion enough not to make it until he was well out of hearing.
AN INNOCENT CULPRIT
With his head bent down - as if he were facing some keen-blowing wind - and yet there was not a breath of air stirring - Mr Gibson went swiftly to his own home. He rang at the door-bell; an unusual proceeding on his part. Maria opened the door. 'Go and tell Miss Molly she is wanted in the dining-room. Don't say who it is that wants her.' There was something in Mr Gibson's manner that made Maria obey him to the letter, in spite of Molly's surprised question, -
'Wants me? Who is it, Maria?'
Mr Gibson went into the dining-room, and shut the door, for an instant's solitude. He went up to the chimney-piece, took hold of it, and laid his head on his hands, and tried to still the beating of his heart.
The door opened. He knew that Molly stood there before he heard her tone of astonishment.
'Hush!' said he, turning round sharply. 'Shut the door. Come here.'
She came to him, wondering what was amiss. Her thoughts went to the Hamleys immediately. 'Is it Osborne?' she asked, breathless. If Mr Gibson had not been too much agitated to judge calmly, he might have deduced comfort from these three words.
But instead of allowing himself to seek for comfort from collateral evidence, he said, - 'Molly, what is this I hear? That you have been keeping up a clandestine intercourse with Mr Preston - meeting him in out-of-the-way places; exchanging letters with him in a stealthy way.'
Though he had professed to disbelieve all this, and did disbelieve it at the bottom of his soul, his voice was hard and stern, his face was white and grim, and his eyes fixed Molly's with the terrible keenness of their research. Molly trembled all over; but she did not attempt to evade his penetration. If she was silent for a moment, it was because she was rapidly reviewing her relation with regard to Cynthia in this matter. It was but a moment's pause of silence; but it seemed long minutes to one who was craving for a burst of indignant denial. He had taken hold of her two arms just above her wrists, as she had first advanced towards him; he was unconscious of this action; but, as his impatience for her words grew upon him, he grasped her more and more tightly in his vice-like hands, till she made a little involuntary sound of pain. And then he let go; and she looked at her soft bruised flesh, with tears gathering fast to her eyes to think that he, her father, should have hurt her so. At the instant it appeared to her stranger that he should inflict bodily pain upon his child, than that he should have heard the truth - even in an exaggerated form. With a childish gesture she held out her arm to him; but if she expected pity, she received none.
'Pooh!' said he, as he just glanced at the mark, 'that is nothing - nothing. Answer my question. Have you - have you met that man in private?'
'Yes, papa, I have; but I don't think it was wrong.'
He sate down now. 'Wrong!' he echoed, bitterly. 'Not 'wrong? Well! I must bear it somehow. Your mother is dead. That's one comfort. It is true, then, is it? Why, I did not believe it - not I. I laughed in my sleeve at their credulity; and I was the dupe all the time!'
'Papa, I cannot tell you all. It is not my secret, or you should know it directly. Indeed, you will be sorry some time - I have never deceived you yet, have I?' trying to take one of his hands; but he kept them tightly in his pockets, his eyes fixed on the pattern of the carpet before him. 'Papa!' said she, pleading again, 'have I ever deceived you?'
'How can I tell? I hear of this from the town's talk. I don't know what next may come out!'
'The town's talk,' said Molly in dismay. 'What business is it of theirs?'
'Every one makes it their business to cast dirt on a girl's name who has disregarded the commonest rules of modesty and propriety.'
'Papa, you are very hard. "Disregarded modesty." I will tell you exactly what I have done. I met Mr Preston once, - that evening when you put me down to walk over Croston Heath, - and there was another person with him. I met him a second time - and that time by appointment - nobody but our two selves, - in the Towers' Park. That is all. Papa, you must trust me. I cannot explain more. You must trust me indeed.'
He could not help relenting at her words; there was such truth in the tone in which they were spoken. But he neither spoke nor stirred for a minute or two. Then he raised his eyes to hers for the first time since she had acknowledged the external truth of what he charged her with. Her face was very white, but it bore the impress of the final sincerity of death, when the true expression prevails without the poor disguises of time.
'The letters?' he said, - but almost as if he ere ashamed to question that countenance any further.
'I gave him one letter, - of which I did not write a word, - which, in fact, I believe to have been merely an envelope, without any writing whatever inside. The giving that letter, - the two interviews I have named, - make all the private intercourse I have had with Mr Preston. Oh! papa, what have they been saying that has grieved - shocked you so much?'
'Never mind. As the world goes, what you say you have done, Molly, is ground enough. You must tell me all. I must be able to refute these rumours point by point.'
'How are they to be refuted; when you say that the truth which I have acknowledged is ground enough for what people are saying?'
'You say you were not acting for yourself, but for another. If you tell me who the other was, - if you tell me everything out fully, I will do my utmost to screen her - for of course I guess it was Cynthia - while I am exonerating you.'
'No, papa!' said Molly, after some little consideration; 'I have told you all I can tell; all that concerns myself; and I have promised not to say one word more.'
'Then your character will be impugned. It must be, unless the fullest explanation of these secret meetings is given. I have a great mind to force the whole truth out of Preston himself!'
'Papa! once again I beg you to trust me. If you ask Mr Preston you will very likely hear the whole truth; but that is just what I have been trying so hard to conceal, for it will only make several people very unhappy if it is known, and the whole affair is over and done with now.'
'Not your share in it. Miss Browning sent for me this evening to tell me how people were talking about you. She implied that it was a complete loss of your good name. You do not know, Molly, how slight a thing may blacken a girl's reputation for life. I had hard work to stand all she said, even though I did not believe a word of it at the time. And now you have told me that much of it is true.'
'But I think you are a brave man, papa. And you believe me, don't you? We shall outlive these rumours, never fear.'
'You don't know the power of ill-natured tongues, child,' said he.
'Oh, now you've called me "child" again I don't care for anything. Dear, dear papa, I'm sure it is best and wisest to take no notice of these speeches. After all they may not mean them ill-naturedly. I am sure Miss Browning would not. By-and-by they'll quite forget how much they made out of so little, - and even if they don't, you would not have me break my solemn word, would you?'
'Perhaps not. But I cannot easily forgive the person who, by practising on your generosity, led you into this scrape. You are very young, and look upon these things as merely temporary evils. I have more experience.'
'Still, I don't see what I can do now, papa. Perhaps I've been foolish; but what I did, I did of my ownself. It was not suggested to me. And I'm sure it was not wrong in morals, whatever it might be in judgment. As I said, it is all over now; what I did ended the affair, I am thankful to say; and it was with that object I did it. If people choose to talk about me, I must submit; and so must you, dear papa.'
'Does your mother - does Mrs Gibson - know anything about it?' asked he with sudden anxiety.
'No; not a bit; not a word. Pray don't name it to her. That might lead to more mischief than anything else. I have really told you everything I am at liberty to tell.'
It was a great relief to Mr Gibson to find that his sudden fear that his wife might have been privy to it all was ill-founded; he had been seized by a sudden dread that she, whom he had chosen to marry in order to have a protectress and guide for his daughter, had been cognizant of this ill-advised adventure with Mr Preston; nay, more, that she might even have instigated it to save her own child; for that Cynthia was somehow or other at the bottom of it all he had no doubt whatever. But now, at any rate, Mrs Gibson had not been playing a treacherous part; that was all the comfort he could extract out of Molly's mysterious admission, that much mischief might result from Mrs Gibson's knowing anything about these meetings with Mr Preston.
'Then, what is to be done?' said he. 'These reports are abroad, - am I to do nothing to contradict them? Am I to go about smiling and content with all this talk about you, passing from one idle gossip to another?'
'I'm afraid so. I'm very sorry, for I never meant you to have known anything about it, and I can see now how it must distress you. But surely when nothing more happens, and nothing comes of what has happened, the wonder and the gossip must die away? I know you believe every word I have said, and that you trust me, papa. Please, for my sake, be patient with all this gossip and cackle.'
'It will try me hard, Molly,' said he.
'For my sake, papa!'
'I don't see what else I can do,' replied he moodily, 'unless I get hold of Preston.'
'That would be the worst of all. That would make a talk. And, after all, perhaps he was not so very much to blame. Yes! he was. But he behaved well to me as far as that goes,' said she, suddenly recollecting his speech when Mr Sheepshanks came up in the Towers' Park, - 'Don't stir, you have done nothing to be ashamed of.'
'That is true. A quarrel between men which drags a woman's name into notice is to be avoided at any cost. But sooner or later I must have it out with Preston. He shall find it not so pleasant to have placed my daughter in equivocal circumstances.'
'He did not place me. He did not know I was coming, did not expect to meet me either time; and would far rather not have taken the letter I gave him if he could have helped himself.'
'It is all a mystery. I hate to have you mixed up in mysteries.'
'I hate to be mixed up. But what can I do? I know of another mystery which I am pledged not to speak about. I cannot help myself.'
'Well, all I can say is, never be the heroine of a mystery. That you can avoid, if you can't help being an accessory. Then, I suppose, I must yield to your wishes and let this scandal wear itself out without any notice from me?'
'What else can you do under the circumstances?'
'Ay; what else indeed? How shall you bear it?'
For an instant the quick hot tears sprang into her eyes; to have everybody - all her world thinking evil of her, did seem hard to the girl who had never thought or said an unkind thing of them. But she smiled as she made answer, -
'It's like tooth-drawing, it will be over some time. It would be much worse if I had really been doing wrong.'
'Cynthia shall beware - ' he began; but Molly put her hand before his mouth.
'Papa, Cynthia must not be accused, or suspected; you will drive her out of your house if you do, she is so proud, and so unprotected, except by you. And Roger, - for Roger's sake, you will never do or say anything to send Cynthia away, when he has trusted us all to take care of her, and love her in his absence. Oh! I think if she were really wicked, and I did not love her at all, I should feel bound to watch over her, he loves her so dearly. And she is really good at heart, and I do love her dearly. You must not vex or hurt Cynthia, papa, - remember she is dependent upon you!'
'I think the world would get on tolerably well, if there were no women in it. They plague the life out of one. You've made me forget, amongst you - poor old Job Haughton that I ought to have gone to see an hour ago.'
Molly put up her mouth to be kissed. 'You're not angry with me now, papa, are you?'
'Get out of my way' (kissing her all the same). 'If I'm not angry with you, I ought to be; for you've caused a great deal of worry, which won't be over yet awhile, I can tell you.'
For all Molly's bravery at the time of this conversation, it was she that suffered more than her father. He kept out of the way of hearing gossip; but she was perpetually thrown into the small society of the place. Mrs Gibson herself had caught cold, and moreover was not tempted by the quiet old-fashioned visiting which was going on just about this time, provoked by the visit of two of Mrs Dawes' pretty unrefined nieces, who laughed, and chattered, and ate, and would fain have flirted with Mr Ashton, the vicar, could he have been brought by any possibility to understand his share in the business. Mr Preston did not accept the invitations to Hollingford tea-drinkings with the same eager gratitude as he had done a year before: or else the shadow which hung over Molly would have extended to him, her co-partner in the clandestine meetings which gave such umbrage to the feminine virtue of the town. Molly herself was invited, because it would not do to pass any apparent slight on either Mr or Mrs Gibson; but there was a tacit, and under-hand protest against her being received on the old terms. Every one was civil to her, but no one was cordial; there was a very perceptible film of difference in their behaviour to her from what it was formerly; nothing that had outlines and could be defined. But Molly, for all her clear conscience and her brave heart, felt acutely that she was only tolerated, not welcomed. She caught the buzzing whispers of the two Miss Oakeses', who, when they first met the heroine of the prevailing scandal, looked at her askance, and criticized her pretensions to good looks, with hardly an attempt at under-tones. Molly tried to be thankful that her father was not in the mood for visiting. She was even glad that her stepmother was too much of an invalid to come out, when she felt thus slighted, and as it were, degraded from her place. Miss Browning herself, that true old friend, spoke to her with chilling dignity, and much reserve, for she had never heard a word from Mr Gibson since the evening when she had put herself to so much pain to tell him of the disagreeable rumours affecting his daughter.
Only Miss Phoebe would seek out Molly with even more than her former tenderness; and this tried Molly's calmness more than all the slights put together. The soft hand, pressing hers under the table, - the continual appeals to her, so as to bring her back into the conversation, touched Molly almost to shedding tears. Sometimes the poor girl wondered to herself whether this change in the behaviour of her acquaintances was not a mere fancy of hers; whether, if she had never had that conversation with her father, in which she had borne herself so bravely at the time, she should have discovered the difference in their treatment of her. She never told her father how she felt these perpetual small slights; she had chosen to bear the burden of her own free will; nay, more, she had insisted on being allowed to do so; and it was not for her to grieve him now by showing that she shrank from the consequences of her own act. So she never even made an excuse for not going into the small gaieties, or mingling with the society of Hollingford. Only she suddenly let go the stretch of restraint she was living in, when one evening her father told her that he was really anxious about Mrs Gibson's cough, and should like Molly to give up a party at Mrs Goodenough's, to which they were all three invited, but to Which Molly alone was going. Molly's heart leaped up at the thoughts of stopping at home, even though the next moment she had to blame herself for rejoicing at a reprieve that was purchased by another's suffering. However, the remedies prescribed by her husband did Mrs Gibson good; and she was particularly grateful and caressing to Molly.
'Really, dear!' said she, stroking Molly's head, 'I think your hair is getting softer, and losing that disagreeable crisp curly feeling.'
Then Molly knew that her stepmother was in high good-humour; the smoothness or curliness of her hair was a sure test of the favour in which Mrs Gibson held her at the moment.
'I am so sorry to be the cause of detaining you from this little party, but dear papa is so over-anxious about me. I have always been a kind of pet with gentlemen, and poor Mr Kirkpatrick never knew how to make enough of me. But I think Mr Gibson is even more foolishly fond; his last words were, "Take care of yourself, Hyacinth;" and then he came back again to say, "If you don't attend to my directions I won't answer for the consequences." I shook my forefinger at him, and said, "Don't be so anxious, you silly man."'
'I hope we have done everything he told us to do,' said Molly.
'Oh yes! I feel so much better. Do you know, late as it is, I think you might go to Mrs Goodenough's yet? Maria could take you, and I should like to see you dressed; when one has been wearing dull warm gowns for a week or two one gets quite a craving for bright colours, and evening dress. So go and get ready, dear, and then perhaps you'll bring me back some news, for really shut up as I have been with only papa and you for the last fortnight, I've got quite moped and dismal, and I can't bear to keep young people from the gaieties suitable to their age.'
'Oh, pray, mamma! I had so much rather not go.'
'Very well! very well! Only I think it is rather selfish of you, when you see I am so willing to make the sacrifice for your sake.'
'But you say it is a sacrifice to you, and I don't want to go.'
'Very well; did I not say you might stop at home; only pray don't chop logic; nothing is so fatiguing to a sick person.'
Then they were silent for some time. Mrs Gibson broke the silence by saying, in a languid voice, -
'Can't you think of anything amusing to say, Molly?'
Molly pumped up from the depths of her mind a few little trivialities which she had nearly forgotten, but she felt that they were anything but amusing, and so Mrs Gibson seemed to feel them; for presently she said, -
'I wish Cynthia was at home.' And Molly felt it as a reproach to her own dulness.
'Shall I write to her and ask her to come back?'
'Well, I'm not sure; I wish I knew a great many things. You've not heard anything of poor dear Osborne Hamley lately, have you?'
Remembering her father's charge not speak of Osborne's health, Molly made no reply, nor was any needed, for Mrs Gibson went on thinking aloud, -
'You see, if Mr Henderson has been as attentive as he was in the spring - and the chances about Roger - I shall be really grieved if anything happens to that young man, uncouth as he is, but it must be owned that Africa is not merely an unhealthy - it is a savage - and even in some parts a cannibal country. I often think of all I've read of it in geography books, as I lie awake at night, and if Mr Henderson is really becoming attached! The future is hidden from us by infinite wisdom, Molly, or else I should like to know it; one would calculate one's behaviour at the present time so much better if one only knew what events were to come. But I think, on the whole, we had better not alarm Cynthia. If we had only known in time we might have planned for her to have come down with Lord Cumnor and my lady.'
'Are they coming? Is Lady Cumnor well enough to travel?'
'Yes, to be sure. Or else I should not have considered whether or no Cynthia could have come down with them; it would have sounded very well - more than respectable, and would have given her a position among that lawyer set in London.'
'Then Lady Cumnor is better?'
'To be sure. I should have thought papa would have mentioned it to you; but, to be sure, he is always so scrupulously careful not to speak about his patients. Quite right too - quite right and delicate. Why, he hardly ever tells me how they are going on. Yes! The Earl and the Countess, and Lady Harriet, and Lord and Lady Cuxhaven, and Lady Agnes; and I've ordered a new winter bonnet and a black satin cloak.'
MOLLY GIBSON FINDS A CHAMPION
Lady Cumnor had so far recovered from the violence of her attack, and from the consequent operation, as to be able to be removed to the Towers for change of air; and accordingly she was brought thither by her whole family with all the pomp and state becoming an invalid peeress. There was every probability that 'the family' would make a longer residence at the Towers than they had done for several years, during which time they had been wanderers hither and thither in search of health. Somehow, after all, it was very pleasant and restful to come to the old ancestral home, and every member of the family enjoyed it in his or her own way; Lord Cumnor most especially. His talent for gossip and his love of small details had scarcely fair play in the hurry of a London life, and were much nipped in the bud during his Continental sojournings, as he neither spoke French fluently, nor understood it easily when spoken. Besides, he was a great proprietor, and liked to know how his land was going on; how his tenants were faring in the world. He liked to hear of their births, marriages, and deaths, and had something of a royal memory for faces. In short, if ever a peer was an old woman, Lord Cumnor was that peer; but he was a very good-natured old woman, and rode about on his stout old cob with his pockets full of halfpence for the children, and little packets of snuff for the old people. Like an old woman, too, he enjoyed an afternoon cup of tea in his wife's sitting-room, and over his gossip's beverage he would repeat all that he had learnt in the day. Lady Cumnor was exactly in that state of convalescence when such talk as her lord's was extremely agreeable to her, but she had contemned the habit of listening to gossip so severely all her life, that she thought it due to consistency to listen first, and enter a supercilious protest afterwards. It had, however, come to be a family habit for all of them to gather together in Lady Cumnor's room on their return from their daily walks or drives or rides, and over the fire, sipping their tea at her early meal, to recount the morsels of local intelligence they had heard during the morning. When they had said all that they had to say (and not before), they had always to listen to a short homily from her ladyship on the well-worn texts, - the poorness of conversation about persons, - the probable falsehood of all they had heard, and the degradation of character implied by its repetition. On one of these November evenings they were all assembled in Lady Cumnor's room. She was lying, - all draped in white, and covered up with an Indian shawl, - on a sofa near the fire. Lady Harriet sate on the rug, close before the wood-fire, picking up fallen embers with a pair of dwarf tongs, and piling them on the red and odorous heap in the centre of the hearth. Lady Cuxhaven, notable' from girlhood, was using the blind man's holiday to net fruit-nets for the walls at Cuxhaven Park. Lady Cumnor's woman was trying to see to pour out tea by the light of one small wax-candle in the background (for Lady Cumnor could not bear much light to her weakened eyes); I and the great leafless branches of the trees outside the house kept sweeping against the windows, moved by the wind that was gathering.
It was always Lady Cumnor's habit to snub those she loved best. Her husband was perpetually snubbed by her, yet she missed him now that he was later than usual, and professed not to want her tea; but they all knew that it was only because he was not there to hand it to her, and be found fault with for his invariable stupidity in forgetting that she liked to put sugar in before she took any cream. At length he burst in.
'I beg your pardon, my lady, - I'm later than I should have been, I know. Why, haven't you had your tea yet?' he exclaimed, bustling about to get the cup for his wife.
'You know I never take cream before I've sweetened it,' said she, with even more emphasis on the 'never' than usual.
'To be sure! What a simpleton I am! I think I might have remembered it by this time. You see I met old Sheepshanks, and that's the reason of it.'
'Of your handing me the cream before the sugar?' asked his wife. It was one of her grim jokes.
'No, no! ha, ha! You're better this evening, I think, my dear. But, as I was saying, Sheepshanks is such an eternal talker, there's no getting away from him, and I had no idea it was so late!'
'Well, I think the least you can do is to tell us something of Mr Sheepshanks' conversation now you have torn yourself away from him.'
'Conversation! did I call it conversation? I don't think I said much. I listened. He really has always a great deal to say. More than Preston, for instance. And, by the way, he was telling me something about Preston; - old Sheepshanks thinks he'll be married before long, - he says there's a great deal of gossip going on about him and Gibson's daughter. They've been caught meeting in the park, and corresponding, and all that kind of thing that is likely to end in a marriage.'
'I shall be very sorry,' said Lady Harriet. 'I always liked that girl; and I can't bear papa's model land-agent.'
'I daresay it's not true,' said Lady Cumnor, in a very audible aside to Lady Harriet. 'Papa picks up stories one day to contradict them the next.'
'Ah, but this did sound like truth. Sheepshanks said all the old ladies in the town had got hold of it, and were making a great scandal out of it.'
'I don't think it does sound quite a nice story. I wonder what Clare could be doing to allow such goings on,' said Lady Cuxhaven.
'I think it is much more likely that Clare's own daughter - that pretty pawky Miss Kirkpatrick - is the real heroine of this story,' said Lady Harriet. 'She always looks like a heroine of genteel comedy, and those young ladies were capable of a good deal of innocent intriguing, if I remember rightly. Now little Molly Gibson has a certain gaucherie about her which would disqualify her at once from any clandestine proceedings. Besides, "clandestine!" why, the child is truth itself. Papa, are you sure Mr Sheepshanks said it was Miss Gibson that was exciting Hollingford scandal? Wasn't it Miss Kirkpatrick? The notion of her and Mr Preston making a match of it does not sound so incongruous; but, if it's my little friend Molly, I'll go to church and forbid the banns.'
'Really, Harriet, I can't think what always makes you take such an interest in all these petty Hollingford affairs.'
'Mamma, it's only tit for tat. They take the most lively interest in all our sayings and doings. If I were going to be married, they would want to know every possible particular, - where we first met, what we first said to each other, what I wore, and whether he offered by letter or in person. I'm sure those good Miss Brownings were wonderfully well-informed as to Mary's methods of managing her nursery, and educating her girls; so it's only a proper return of the compliment to want to know on our side how they are going on. I am quite of papa's faction. I like to hear all the local gossip.'
'Especially when it is flavoured with a spice of scandal and impropriety, as in this case,' said Lady Cumnor, with the momentary bitterness of a convalescent invalid. Lady Harriet coloured with annoyance. But then she rallied her courage, and said with more gravity than before, -
'I am really interested in this story about Molly Gibson, I own. I both like and respect her; and I do not like to hear her name coupled with that of Mr Preston. I can't help fancying papa has made some mistake.'
'No, my dear. I'm sure I'm repeating what I heard. I'm sorry I said anything about it, if it annoys you or my lady there. Sheepshanks did say Miss Gibson, though, and he went on to say it was a pity the girl had got herself so talked about; for it was the way they had carried on that gave rise to all the chatter. Preston himself was a very fair match for her, and nobody could have objected to it. But I'll try and find a more agreeable piece of news. Old Margery at the lodge is dead; and they don't know where to find some one to teach clear-starching at your school; and Robert Hall made forty pounds last year by his apples.' So they drifted away from Molly and her affairs; only Lady Harriet kept turning what she had heard over in her own mind with interest and wonder.
'I warned her against him the day of her father's wedding. And what a straightforward, out-spoken lassie it was then! I don't believe it; it's only one of old Sheepshanks' stories, half invention and half deafness.'
The next day Lady Harriet rode over to Hollingford, and for the settling of her curiosity she called on the Miss Brownings, and introduced the subject. She would not have spoken about the rumour she had heard to any who were not warm friends of Molly's. If Mr Sheepshanks had chosen to allude to it when she had been riding with her father, she would very soon have silenced him by one of the haughty looks she knew full well how to assume. But she felt as if she must know the truth, and accordingly she began thus abruptly to Miss Browning, -
'What is all this I hear about my little friend Molly Gibson and Mr Preston?'
'Oh, Lady Harriet! have you heard of it? We are so sorry!'
'Sorry for what?'
'I think, begging your ladyship's pardon, we had better not say any more till we know how much you know,' said Miss Browning.
'Nay,' replied Lady Harriet, laughing a little, 'I shan't tell what I know till I am sure you know more. Then we'll make an exchange if you like.'
'I'm afraid it's no laughing Matter for poor Molly,' said Miss Browning, shaking her head. 'People do say such things!'
'But I don't believe them; indeed I don't,' burst in Miss Phoebe, half crying.
'No more will I, then,' said Lady Harriet, taking the good lady's hand.
'It's all very fine, Phoebe, saying you don't believe them, but I should like to know who it was that convinced me, sadly against my will, I am sure.'
'I only told you the facts as Mrs Goodenough told them me, sister; but I'm sure if you had seen poor patient Molly as I have done, sitting up in a corner of a room, looking at the Beauties of England and Wales till she must have been sick of them, and no one speaking to her; and she as gentle and sweet as ever at the end of the evening, though maybe a bit pale - facts or no facts, I won't believe anything against her.'
So there sate Miss Phoebe, in tearful defiance of facts.
'And, as I said before, I'm quite of your opinion,' said Lady Harriet.
'But how does your ladyship explain away her meetings with Mr Preston in all sorts of unlikely and open-air places?' asked Miss Browning, who, to do her justice, would have been only too glad to join Molly's partisans, if she could have preserved her character for logical deduction at the same time. 'I went so far as to send for her father and tell him all about it. I thought at least he would have horsewhipped Mr Preston; but he seems to have taken no notice of it.'
'Then we may be quite sure he knows some way of explaining matters that we don't,' said Lady Harriet, decisively. 'After all, there may be a hundred and fifty perfectly natural and justifiable explanations.'
'Mr Gibson knew of none when I thought it my duty to speak to him,' said Miss Browning.
'Why, suppose that Mr Preston is engaged to Miss Kirkpatrick, and Molly is confidante and messenger.'
'I don't see that your ladyship's supposition much alters the blame. Why, if he is honourably engaged to Cynthia Kirkpatrick, does he not visit her openly at her home in Mr Gibson's house? Why does Molly lend herself to clandestine proceedings?'
'One can't account for everything,' said Lady Harriet, a little impatiently, for reason was going hard against her. 'But I choose to have faith in Molly Gibson. I'm sure she's not done anything very wrong. I've a great mind to go and call on her - Mrs Gibson is confined to her room with this horrid influenza - and take her with me on a round of calls through this little gossipping town, - on Mrs Goodenough, or Badenough, who seems to have been propagating all these stories. But I've not time to-day. I've to meet papa at three, and it's three now. Only remember, Miss Phoebe, it's you and I against the world, in defence of a distressed damsel.'
'Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!' said she to herself as she ran lightly down Miss Browning's old-fashioned staircase.
'Now, I don't think that's pretty of you, Phoebe,' said Miss Browning in some displeasure, as soon as she was alone with her sister. 'First, you convince me against my will, and make me very unhappy; and I have to do unpleasant things, all because you've made me believe that certain statements are true; and then you turn round and cry, and say you don't believe a word of it all, making me out a regular ogre and backbiter. No! it's of no use. I shan't listen to you.' So she left Miss Phoebe in tears, and locked herself up in her own room.
Lady Harriet, meanwhile, was riding homewards by her father's side, apparently listening to all he chose to say, but in reality turning over the probabilities and possibilities that might account for these strange interviews between Molly and Mr Preston. It was a case of parler de l'âne et l'on en voit les oreilles. At a turn in the road they saw Mr Preston a little way before them, coming towards them on his good horse, point device, in his riding attire.
The earl, in his thread-bare coat, and on his old brown cob, called out cheerfully, -
'Aha! here's Preston. Good-day to you. I was just wanting to ask you about that slip of pasture-land on the Home Farm. John Brickkill wants to plough it up and crop it. It's not two acres at the best.'
While they were talking over this bit of land, Lady Harriet came to her resolution. As soon as her father had finished, she said, -
'Mr Preston, perhaps you will allow me to ask you one or two questions to relieve my mind, for I am in some little perplexity at present.'
'Certainly; I shall only be too happy to give you any information in my power.' But the moment after he had made this polite speech, he recollected Molly's speech - that she would refer her case to Lady Harriet. But the letters had been returned, and the affair was now wound up. She had come off conqueror, he the vanquished. Surely she would never have been so ungenerous as to appeal after that?
'There are reports about Miss Gibson and you current among the gossips of Hollingford. Are we to congratulate you on your engagement to that young lady?'
'Ah! by the way, Preston, we ought to have done it before,' interrupted Lord Cumnor, in hasty goodwill. But his daughter said quietly, 'Mr Preston has not yet told us if the reports are well founded, papa.'
She looked at him with the air of a person expecting an answer, and expecting a truthful answer.
'I am not so fortunate,' replied he, trying to make his horse appear fidgety, without incurring observation.
'Then I may contradict that report?' asked Lady Harriet quietly. 'Or is there any reason for believing that in time it may come true? I ask because such reports, if unfounded, do harm to young ladies.'
'Keep other sweethearts off,' put in Lord Cumnor, looking a good deal pleased at his own discernment. Lady Harriet went on, -
'And I take a great interest in Miss Gibson.'
Mr Preston saw from her manner that he was 'in for it,' as he expressed it to himself. The question was, how much or how little did she know?
'I have no expectation or hope of ever having a nearer interest in Miss Gibson than I have at present. I shall be glad if this straightforward answer relieves your ladyship from your perplexity.'
He could not help the touch of insolence that accompanied these last words. It was not in the words themselves, nor in the tone in which they were spoken, nor in the look which accompanied them, it was in all; it implied a doubt of Lady Harriet's right to question him as she did; and there was something of defiance in it as well. But this touch of insolence put Lady Harriet's mettle up; and she was not one to check herself, in any course, for the opinion of an inferior.
'Then, sir! are you aware of the injury you may do to a young lady's reputation if you meet her, and detain her in long conversations, when she is walking by herself, unaccompanied by any one? You give rise - you have given rise to reports.'
'My dear Harriet, are not you going too far? You don't know - Mr Preston may have intentions - unacknowledged intentions.'
'No, my lord. I have no intentions with regard to Miss Gibson. She may be a very worthy young lady - I have no doubt she is. Lady Harriet seems determined to push me into such a position that I cannot but acknowledge myself to be - it is not enviable - not pleasant to own - but I am, in fact, a jilted man; jilted by Miss Kirkpatrick, after a tolerably long engagement. My interviews with Miss Gibson were not of the most agreeable kind - as you may conclude when I tell you she was, I believe, the instigator - certainly, she was the agent in this last step of Miss Kirkpatrick's. Is your ladyship's curiosity' (with an emphasis on this last word) 'satisfied with this rather mortifying confession of mine?'
'Harriet, my dear, you've gone too far - we had no right to pry into Mr Preston's private affairs.'
'No more I had,' said Lady Harriet, with a smile of winning frankness: the first smile she had accorded to Mr Preston for many a long day; ever since the time, years ago, when, presuming on his handsomeness, he had assumed a tone of gallant familiarity with Lady Harriet, and paid her personal compliments as he would have done to an equal.
'But he will excuse me, I hope,' continued she, still in that gracious manner which made him feel that he now held a much higher place in her esteem than he had had at the beginning of their interview, 'when he learns that the busy tongues of the Hollingford ladies have been speaking of my friend, Miss Gibson, in the most unwarrantable manner; drawing unjustifiable inferences from the facts of that intercourse with Mr Preston, the nature of which he has just conferred such a real obligation on me by explaining.'
'I think I need hardly request Lady Harriet to consider this explanation of mine as confidential,' said Mr Preston.
'Of course, of course!' said the earl; 'every one will understand that.' And he rode home, and told his wife and Lady Cuxhaven the whole conversation between Lady Harriet and Mr Preston; in the strictest confidence, of course. Lady Harriet had to stand a good many strictures on manners, and proper dignity for a few days after this. However, she consoled herself by calling on the Gibsons; and, finding that Mrs Gibson (who was still an invalid) was asleep at the time, she experienced no difficulty in carrying off the unconscious Molly for a walk, which Lady Harriet so contrived that they twice passed through all the length of the principal street of the town, loitered at Grinstead's for half an hour, and wound up by Lady Harriet's calling on the Miss Brownings, who, to her regret, were not at home.
'Perhaps, it is as well,' said she, after a minute's consideration. 'I'll leave my card, and put your name down underneath it, Molly.'
Molly was a little puzzled by the manner in which she had been taken possession of, like an inanimate chattel, for all the afternoon, and exclaimed, -
'Please, Lady Harriet - I never leave cards; I have not got any, and on the Miss Brownings, of all people; why, I run in and out whenever I like.'
'Never mind, little one. To-day you shall do everything properly, and according to full etiquette.
'And now tell Mrs Gibson to come out to the Towers for a long day; we will send the carriage for her whenever she will let us know that she is strong enough to come. Indeed, she had better come for a few days; at this time of the year it does not do for an invalid to be out in the evenings, even in a carriage.' So spoke Lady Harriet, standing on the white door-steps at Miss Brownings', and holding Molly's hand while she wished her good-by. 'You'll tell her, dear, that I came partly to see her - but that finding her asleep, I ran off with you, and don't forget about her coming to stay with us for change of air - mamma will like it, I'm sure - and the carriage, and all that. And now good-by, we've done a good day's work! And better than you're aware of,' continued she, still addressing Molly, though the latter was quite out of hearing. 'Hollingford is not the place I take it to be, if it doesn't veer round in Miss Gibson's favour after my to-day's trotting of that child about.'
CYNTHIA AT BAY
Mrs Gibson was slow in recovering her strength after the influenza, and before she was well enough to accept Lady Harriet's invitation to the Towers, Cynthia came home from London. If Molly had thought her manner of departure was scarcely as affectionate and considerate as it might have been, - if such a thought had crossed Molly's fancy for an instant, she was repentant for it as soon as ever Cynthia returned, and the girls met together face to face, with all the old familiar affection, going upstairs to the drawing-room, with their arms round each other's waists, and sitting there together hand in hand. Cynthia's whole manner was more quiet than it had been, when the weight of her unpleasant secret rested on her mind, and made her alternately despondent or flighty.
'After all,' said Cynthia, 'there's a look of home about these rooms which is very pleasant. But I wish I could see you looking stronger, mammal that's the only unpleasant thing. Molly, why didn't you send for me?'
'I wanted to do,' began Molly.
'But I wouldn't let her,' said Mrs Gibson. 'You were much better in London than here, for you could have done me no good; and your letters were very agreeable to read; and now Helen is better, and I'm nearly well, and you've come home just at the right time, for everybody is full of the Charity Ball.'
'But we are not going this year, mamma,' said Cynthia decidedly. 'It is on the 25th, isn't it? and I'm sure you'll never be well enough to take us.'
'You really seem determined to make me out worse than I am, child,' said Mrs Gibson, rather querulously, she being one of those who, when their malady is only trifling, exaggerate it, but when it is really of some consequence, are unwilling to sacrifice any pleasures by acknowledging it. It was well for her in this instance that her husband had wisdom and authority enough to forbid her going to this ball, on which she had set her heart; but the consequence of his prohibition was an increase of domestic plaintiveness and low spirits, which seemed to tell on Cynthia - the bright gay Cynthia herself - and it was often hard work for Molly to keep up the spirits of two other people as well as her own. Ill-health might account for Mrs Gibson's despondency, but why was Cynthia so silent, not to say so sighing? Molly was puzzled to account for it; and all the more perplexed because from time to time Cynthia kept calling upon her for praise for some unknown and mysterious virtue that she had practised; and Molly was young enough to believe that, after any exercise of virtue, the spirits rose, cheered up by an approving conscience. Such was not the case with Cynthia, however. She sometimes said such things as these, when she had been particularly inert and desponding, -
'Ah, Molly, you must let my goodness lie fallow for a while! It has borne such a wonderful crop this year. I have been so pretty-behaved - if you knew all!' Or, 'Really, Molly, my virtue must come down from the clouds! It was strained to the utmost in London - and I find it is like a kite - after soaring aloft for some time, it suddenly comes down, and gets tangled in all sorts of briars and brambles; which things are an allegory, unless you can bring yourself to believe in my extraordinary goodness while I was away - giving me a sort of right to fall foul of all mamma's briars and brambles now.'
But Molly had had some experience of Cynthia's whim of perpetually hinting at a mystery which she did not mean to reveal in the Mr Preston days, and, although she was occasionally piqued into curiosity, Cynthia's allusions at something more in the background fell in general on rather deaf ears. One day the mystery burst its shell, and came out in the shape of an offer made to Cynthia by Mr Henderson - and refused. Under all the circumstances, Molly could not appreciate the heroic goodness so often alluded to. The revelation of the secret at last took place in this way. Mrs Gibson breakfasted in bed: she had done so ever since she had had the influenza; and, consequently, her own private letters always went up on her breakfast-tray. One morning she came into the drawing-room earlier than usual, with an open letter in her hand.
'I've had a letter from aunt Kirkpatrick, Cynthia. She sends me my dividends, - your uncle is so busy. But what does she mean by this, Cynthia' (holding out the letter to her, with a certain paragraph indicated by her finger). Cynthia put her netting on one side, and looked at the writing. Suddenly her face turned scarlet, and then became of a deadly white. She looked at Molly, as if to gain courage from the strong serene countenance.
'It means - mamma, I may as well tell you at once - Mr Henderson offered to me while I was in London, and I refused him.'
'Refused him - and you never told me, but let me hear it by chance! Really, Cynthia, I think you're very unkind. And pray what made you refuse Mr Henderson? Such a fine young man, - and such a gentleman! Your uncle told me he had a very good private fortune besides.'
'Mamma, do you forget that I have promised to marry Roger Hamley?' said Cynthia quietly.
'No! of course I don't - how can I, with Molly always dinning the word "engagement" into my ears? But really, when one considers all the uncertainties, - and after all it was not a distinct promise, - he seemed almost as if he might have looked forward to something of this sort.'
'Of what sort, mamma?' said Cynthia sharply.
'Why, of a more eligible offer. He must have known you might change your mind, and meet with some one you liked better: so little as you had seen of the world.' Cynthia made an impatient movement, as if to stop her mother.
'I never said I liked him better, - how can you talk so, mamma? I'm going to marry Roger, and there's an end of it. I will not be spoken to about it again.' She got up and left the room.
'Going to marry Roger! That's all very fine. But who is to guarantee his coming back alive! And if he does, what have they to marry upon, I should like to know? I don't wish her to have accepted Mr Henderson, though I am sure she liked him; and true love ought to have its course, and not be thwarted; but she need not have quite finally refused him until - well, until we had seen how matters turn out. Such an invalid as I am too! It has given me quite a palpitation at the heart. I do call it quite unfeeling of Cynthia.'
'Certainly,' began Molly; but then she remembered that her stepmother was far from strong, and unable to bear a protest in favour of the right course without irritation. So she changed her speech into a suggestion of remedies for palpitation; and curbed her impatience to speak out her indignation at the contemplated falsehood to Roger. But when they were alone, and Cynthia began upon the subject, Molly was less merciful. Cynthia said, -
'Well, Molly, and now you know all! I've been longing to tell you - and yet somehow I could not.'
'I suppose it was a repetition of Mr Coxe,' said Molly gravely. 'You were agreeable, - and he took it for something more.'
'I don't know,' sighed Cynthia. 'I mean I don't know if I was agreeable or not. He was very kind - very pleasant - but I did not expect it all to end as it did. However, it is of no use thinking of it.'
'No!' said Molly, simply; for to her mind the pleasantest and kindest person in the world put in comparison with Roger was as nothing; he stood by himself. Cynthia's next words, - and they did not come very soon, - were on quite a different subject, and spoken in rather a pettish tone. Nor did she allude again in jesting sadness to her late efforts at virtue.
In a little while Mrs Gibson was able to accept the often-repeated invitation from the Towers to go and stay there for a day or two. Lady Harriet told her that it would be a kindness to Lady Cumnor to come and bear her company in the life of seclusion the latter was still compelled to lead; and Mrs Gibson was flattered and gratified with a dim unconscious sense of being really wanted, not merely deluding herself into a pleasing fiction. Lady Cumnor was in that state of convalescence common to many invalids. The spring of life had begun again to flow, and with the flow returned the old desires and projects and plans, which had all become mere matters of indifference during the worst part of her illness. But as yet her bodily strength was not sufficient to be an agent to her energetic mind, and the difficulty of driving the ill-matched pair of body and will - one weak and languid, the other strong and stern, - made her ladyship often very irritable. Mrs Gibson herself was not quite strong enough for a 'souffre-douleur;" and the visit to the Towers was not, on the whole, quite so happy a one as she had anticipated. Lady Cuxhaven and Lady Harriet, each aware of their mother's state of health and temper, but only alluding to it as slightly as was absolutely necessary in their conversations with each other, took care not to leave 'Clare' too long with Lady Cumnor; but several times when one or the other went to relieve guard they found Clare in tears, and Lady Cumnor holding forth on some point on which she had been meditating during the silent hours of her illness, and on which she seemed to consider herself born to set the world to rights. Mrs Gibson was always apt to consider these remarks as addressed with a personal direction at some error of her own, and defended the fault in question with a sense of property in it, whatever it might happen to be. The second and the last day of her stay at the Towers, Lady Harriet came in, and found her mother haranguing in an excited tone of voice, and Clare looking submissive and miserable and oppressed.
'What's the matter, dear mamma? Are not you tiring yourself with talking?'
'No, not at all! I was only speaking of the folly of people dressing above their station. I began by telling Clare of the fashions of my grandmother's days, when every class had a sort of costume of its own, - and servants did not ape tradespeople, nor tradespeople professional men, and so on, - and what must the foolish woman do but begin to justify her own dress, as if I had been accusing her, or even thinking about her at all. Such nonsense! Really, Clare, your husband has spoilt you sadly, if you can't listen to any one without thinking they are alluding to you! People may flatter themselves just as much by thinking that their faults are always present to other people's minds, as if they believe that the world is always contemplating their individual charms and virtues.'
'I was told, Lady Cumnor, that this silk was reduced in price. I bought it at Waterloo House' after the season was over,' said Mrs Gibson, touching the very handsome gown she wore in deprecation of Lady Cumnor's angry voice, and blundering on to the very source of irritation.
'Again, Clare! How often must I tell you I had no thought of you or your gowns, or whether they cost much or little; your husband has to pay for them, and it is his concern if you spend more on your dress than you ought to do.'
'It was only five guineas for the whole dress,' pleaded Mrs Gibson.
'And very pretty it is,' said Lady Harriet, stooping to examine it, and so hoping to soothe the poor aggrieved woman. But Lady Cumnor went on, -
'No! you ought to have known me better by this time. When I think a thing I say it out. I don't beat about the bush. I use straightforward language. I will tell you where I think you have been in fault, Clare, if you like to know.' Like it or not, the plain-speaking was coming now. 'You have spoilt that girl of yours till she does not know her own mind. She has behaved abominably to Mr Preston; and it is all in consequence of the faults in her education. You have much to answer for.'
'Mamma, mamma!' said Lady Harriet, 'Mr Preston did not wish it spoken about.' And at the same moment Mrs Gibson exclaimed, 'Cynthia - Mr Preston!' in such a tone of surprise, that if Lady Cumnor had been in the habit of observing the revelations made by other people's tones and voices, she would have found out that Mrs Gibson was ignorant of the affair to which she was alluding.
'As for Mr Preston's wishes, I do not suppose I am bound to regard them when I feel it my duty to reprove error,' said Lady Cumnor loftily to Lady Harriet. 'And, Clare, do you mean to say that you are not aware that your daughter has been . engaged to Mr Preston for some time - years, I believe, - and has at last chosen to break it off, - and has used the Gibson girl - I forget her name, - as a cat's-paw, and made both her and herself the town's talk - the butt for all the gossip of Hollingford? I remember when I was young there was a girl called Jilting Jessy. You'll have to watch over your young lady, or she will get some such name. I speak to you like a friend, Clare, when I tell you it's my opinion that girl of yours will get herself into some more mischief yet before she's safely married. Not that I care one straw for Mr Preston's feelings. I don't even know if he's got feelings or not; but I know what is becoming in a young woman, and jilting is not. And now you may both go away, and send Bradley to me, for I'm tired, and want to have a little sleep.'
'Indeed, Lady Cumnor - will you believe me? - I do not think Cynthia was ever engaged to Mr Preston. There was an old flirtation. I was afraid -- '
'Ring the bell for Bradley,' said Lady Cumnor, wearily: her eyes closed. Lady Harriet had too much experience of her mother's moods not to lead Mrs Gibson away almost by main force, she protesting all the while that she did not think there was any truth in the statement, though it was dear Lady Cumnor that said it.
Once in her own room, Lady Harriet said, 'Now, Clare, I'll tell you all about it; and I think you'll have to believe it, for it was Mr Preston himself who told me. I heard of a great commotion in Hollingford about Mr Preston; and I met him riding out, and asked him what it was all about; he did not want to speak about it, evidently. No man does, I suppose, when he's been jilted; and he made both papa and me promise not to tell; but papa did - and that's what mamma has for a foundation; you see, a really good one.'
'But Cynthia is engaged to another man - she really is. And another - a very good match indeed - has just been offering to her in London. Mr Preston is always at the root of mischief.'
'Nay! I do think in this case it must be that pretty Miss Cynthia of yours who has drawn on one man to be engaged to her, - not to say two, - and another to make her an offer. I can't endure Mr Preston, but I think it's rather hard to accuse him of having called up the rivals, who are, I suppose, the occasion of his being jilted.'
'I don't know; I always feel as if he owed me a grudge, and men have so many ways of being spiteful. You must acknowledge that if he had not met you I should not have had dear Lady Cumnor so angry with me.'
'She only wanted to warn you about Cynthia. Mamma has always been very particular about her own daughters. She has been very severe on the least approach to flirting, and Mary will be like her!'
'But Cynthia will flirt, and I can't help it. She is not noisy, or giggling; she is always a lady - that everybody must own. But she has a way of attracting men, she must have inherited from me, I think.' And here she smiled faintly, and would not have rejected a confirmatory compliment, but none came. 'However, I will speak to her; I will get to the bottom of the whole affair. Pray tell Lady Cumnor that it has so fluttered me the way she spoke, about my dress and all. And it only cost five guineas after all, reduced from eight!'
'Well, never mind now. You are looking very much flushed; quite feverish! I left you too long in mamma's hot room. But do you know she is so much pleased to have you here?' And so Lady Cumnor really was, in spite of the continual lectures which she gave 'Clare,' and which poor Mrs Gibson turned under as helplessly as the typical worm. Still it was something to have a countess to scold her; and that pleasure would endure when the worry was past. And then Lady Harriet petted her more than usual to make up for what she had to go through in the convalescent's room; and Lady Cuxhaven talked sense to her, with dashes of science and deep thought intermixed, which was very flattering, although generally unintelligible; and Lord Cumnor, good-natured, good-tempered, kind, and liberal, was full of gratitude to her for her kindness in coming to see Lady Cumnor, and his gratitude took the tangible shape of a haunch of venison, to say nothing of lesser game. When she looked back upon her visit as she drove home in the solitary grandeur of the Towers' carriage, there had been but one great enduring rub - Lady Cumnor's crossness - and she chose to consider Cynthia as the cause of that, instead of seeing the truth, which had been so often set before her by the members of her ladyship's family, that it took its origin in her state of health. Mrs Gibson did not exactly mean to visit this one discomfort upon Cynthia, nor did she quite mean to upbraid her daughter for conduct as yet unexplained, and which might have some justification; but, finding her quietly sitting in the drawing-room, she sate down despondingly in her own little easy chair, and in reply to Cynthia's quick, pleasant greeting of, -
'Well, mamma, how are you? We did not expect you so early! Let me take off your bonnet and shawl!' she replied dolefully, -
'It has not been such a happy visit that I should wish to prolong it.' Her eyes were fixed on the carpet, and her face was as irresponsive to the welcome offered as she could make it.
'What has been the matter?' asked Cynthia, in all good faith.
'You! Cynthia - you! I little thought when you were born how I should have to bear to hear you spoken about.'
Cynthia threw back her head, and angry light came into her eyes.
'What business have they with me? How came they to talk about me in any way?'
'Everybody is talking about you; it is no wonder they are. Lord Cumnor is sure to hear about everything always. You should take more care about what you do, Cynthia, if you don't like being talked about.'
'It rather depends upon what people say,' said Cynthia, affecting a lightness which she did not feel; for she had a provision of what was coming.
'Well! I don't like it, at any rate. It is not pleasant to me to hear first of my daughter's misdoings from Lady Cumnor, and then to be lectured about her, and her flirting, and her jilting, as if I had had anything to do with it. I can assure you it has quite spoilt my visit. No! don't touch my shawl. When I go to my room I can take it myself.'
Cynthia was brought to bay, and sate down; remaining with her mother, who kept sighing ostentatiously from time to time.
'Would you mind telling me what they said? If there are accusations abroad against me, it is as well I should know what they are. Here's Molly' (as the girl entered the room, fresh from a morning's walk). 'Molly, mamma has come back from the Towers, and my lord and my lady have been doing me the honour to talk over my crimes and misdemeanors, and I am asking mamma what they have said. I don't set up for more virtue than other people, but I can't make out what an earl and a countess have to do with poor little me.'
'It was not for your sake!' said Mrs Gibson. 'It was for mine. They felt for me, for it is not pleasant to have one's child's name in everybody's mouth.'
'As I said before, that depends upon how it is in everybody's mouth. If I were going to marry Lord Hollingford, I make no doubt every one would be talking about me, and neither you nor I should mind it in the least.'
'But this is no marriage with Lord Hollingford, so it is nonsense to talk as if it was. They say you've gone and engaged yourself to Mr Preston, and now refuse to marry him; and they call that jilting.'
'Do you wish me to marry him, mamma?' asked Cynthia, her face in a flame, her eyes cast down. Molly stood by, very hot, not fully understanding it; and only kept where she was by the hope of coming in as sweetener or peacemaker, or helper of some kind.
'No,' said Mrs Gibson, evidently discomfited by the question. 'Of course I don't; you have gone and entangled yourself with Roger Hamley, a very worthy young man; but nobody knows where he is, and if he's dead or alive; and he has not a penny if he is alive.'
'I beg your pardon. I know that he has some fortune from his mother; it may not be much, but he is not penniless; and he is sure to earn fame and great reputation, and with it money will come,' said Cynthia.
'You've entangled yourself with him, and you've done something of the sort with Mr Preston, and got yourself into such an imbroglio' (Mrs Gibson could not have said 'mess' for the world, although the word was present to her mind), 'that when a really eligible person comes forward - handsome, agreeable, and quite the gentleman - and a good private fortune into the bargain, you have to refuse him. You'll end as an old maid, Cynthia, and it will break my heart.'
'I daresay I shall,' said Cynthia, quietly. 'I sometimes think I am the kind of person of which old maids are made!' She spoke seriously, and a little sadly.
Mrs Gibson began again. 'I don't want to know your secrets as long as they are secrets; but when all the town is talking about you, I think I ought to be told.'
'But, mamma, I did not know I was such a subject of conversation; and even now I can't make out how it has come about.'
'No more can I. I only know that they say you've been engaged to Mr Preston, and ought to have married him, and that I can't help it, if you did not choose, any more than I could have helped your refusing Mr Henderson; and yet I am constantly blamed for your misconduct. I think it's very hard.' Mrs Gibson began to cry. Just then her husband came in.
'You here, my dear! Welcome back,' said he, coming up to her courteously, and kissing her cheek. 'Why, what's the matter? Tears?' and he heartily wished himself away again.
'Yes!' said she, raising herself up, and clutching after sympathy of any kind, at any price. 'I'm come home again, and I'm telling Cynthia how Lady Cumnor has been so cross to me, and all through her. Did you know she had gone and engaged herself to Mr Preston, and then broken it off? Everybody is talking about it, and they know it up at the Towers.'
For one moment his eyes met Molly's, and he comprehended it all. He made his lips up into a whistle, but no sound came. Cynthia had quite lost her defiant manner since her mother had spoken to Mr Gibson. Molly sate down by her.
'Cynthia,' said he, very seriously.
'Yes!' she answered, softly.
'Is this true? I had heard something of it before - not much; but there is scandal enough about to make it desirable that you should have some protector - some friend who knows the whole truth.'
No answer. At last she said, 'Molly knows it all.'
Mrs Gibson, too, had been awed into silence by her husband's grave manner, and she did not like to give vent to the jealous thought in her mind that Molly had known the secret of which she was ignorant. Mr Gibson replied to Cynthia with some sternness, -
'Yes! I know that Molly knows it all, and that she has had to bear slander and ill words for your sake, Cynthia. But she refused to tell me more.'
'She told you that much, did she?' said Cynthia, aggrieved.
'I could not help it,' said Molly.
'She did not name your name,' said Mr Gibson. 'At the time I believe she thought she had concealed it - but there was no mistaking who it was.'
'Why did she speak about it at all?' said Cynthia, with some bitterness. Her tone - her question stirred up Mr Gibson's passion.
'It was necessary for her to justify herself to me - I heard my daughter's reputation attacked for the private meetings she had given to Mr Preston - I came to her for an explanation. There is no need to be ungenerous, Cynthia, because you have been a flirt and a jilt even to the degree of dragging Molly's name down into the same mire.'
Cynthia lifted her bowed-down head, and looked at him.
'You say that of me, Mr Gibson. Not knowing what the circumstances are, you say that!'
He had spoken too strongly: he knew it. But he could not bring himself to own it just at that moment. The thought of his sweet innocent Molly, who had borne so much patiently, prevented any retractation of his words at the time.
'Yes!' he said, 'I do say it. You cannot tell what evil constructions are put upon actions ever so slightly beyond the bounds of maidenly propriety. I do say that Molly has had a great deal to bear, in consequence of this clandestine engagement of yours, Cynthia - there may be extenuating circumstances, I acknowledge - but you will need to remember them all to excuse your conduct to Roger Hamley, when he comes home. I asked you to tell me the full truth, in order that until he comes, and has a legal right to protect you, I may do so.' No answer. 'It certainly requires explanation,' continued he. 'Here are you, - engaged to two men at once to all appearances!' Still no answer. 'To be sure, the gossips of the town have not yet picked out the fact of Roger Hamley's being your accepted lover; but scandal has been resting on Molly, and ought to have rested on you, Cynthia - for a concealed engagement to Mr Preston - necessitating meetings in all sorts of places unknown to your friends.'
'Papa,' said Molly, 'if you knew all you would not speak so to Cynthia. I wish she would tell you herself all that she has told me.'
'I am ready to hear whatever she has to say,' said he. But Cynthia said, -
'No! you have prejudged me; you have spoken to me as you had no right to speak. I refuse to give you my confidence, or accept your help. People are very cruel to me' - her voice trembled for a moment, - 'I did not think you would have been. But I can bear it.'
And then, in spite of Molly, who would have detained her by force, she tore herself away, and hastily left the room.
'Oh, papa!' said Molly, crying, and clinging to him, 'do let me tell you all.' And then she suddenly recollected the awkwardness of telling some of the details of the story before Mrs Gibson, and stopped short.
'I think, Mr Gibson, you have been very very unkind to my poor fatherless child,' said Mrs Gibson, emerging from behind her pocket-handkerchief. 'I only wish her poor father had been alive, and all this would never have happened.'
'Very probably. Still I cannot see of what either she or you have to complain. Inasmuch as we could, I and mine have sheltered her; I have loved her; I do love her almost as if she were my own child - as well as Molly, I do not pretend to do.'
'That's it, Mr Gibson! you do not treat her like your own child.' But in the midst of this wrangle Molly stole out, and went in search of Cynthia. She thought she bore an olive-branch of healing in the sound of her father's just spoken words: 'I do love her almost as if she were my own child.' But Cynthia was locked into her room, and refused to open the' door.
'Open to me, please,' pleaded Molly. 'I have something to say to you - I want to see you - do open!'
'No!' said Cynthia. 'Not now. I am busy. Leave me alone. I don't want to hear what you have got to say. I do not want to see you. By-and-by we shall meet, and then -- ' Molly stood quite quietly, wondering what new words of more persuasion she could use. In a minute or two Cynthia called out, 'Are you there still, Molly?' and when Molly answered 'Yes,' and hoped for a relenting, the same hard metallic voice, telling of resolution and repression, spoke out, 'Go away. I cannot bear the feeling of your being there - waiting and listening. Go downstairs - out of the house - anywhere away. It is the most you can do for me, now.'
PART SIX (Chapters LI - LX)
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